NCAA Football News

Quick Lane Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Rutgers vs. North Carolina

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the North Carolina Tar Heels will meet Friday afternoon in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.

Senior quarterback Gary Nova can finish his Rutgers (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) tenure on a high note, starting his 41st career outing while searching for bowl victory No. 1.

North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 ACC) is looking to win bowl games in consecutive years for the first time since the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

ESPN will broadcast the matchup at 4:30 p.m. ET. Bleacher Report will provide scoring updates and analysis. Please add your thoughts in the comments section.

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Kynon's Korner: The Latest on the Under Armour All-America Game Commitments

It's officially all-star season on the recruiting circuit as many of the nation's top prospects will turn their attention to the Under Armour All-America Game, U.S. Army All-American Bowl and Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. These games will feature plenty of star power for the class of 2015 while also providing a glimpse into the future stars of Saturday and beyond.

However, most recruitniks want to know: Where will the top uncommitted prospects announce their college verbal declarations? 

We've decided to take a closer look at the six players who have agreed to decide during the Under Armour All-America Game ESPN2 telecast on Friday, January 2 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Headlining the list is 5-star defensive back Kendall Sheffield.

I had the chance to catch up with Sheffield earlier this fall about his recruitment, and LSU and Texas A&M were the teams that were trending. Now, it appears that Alabama and Florida State have made a late push for the sticky cover corner out of Missouri City, Texas. 

I spoke to a source with knowledge of his recruitment that told me 'Bama is in good position with decision day less than a week away. Texas A&M still hasn't hired a defensive coordinator after firing Mark Snyder, and that could prove costly with the in-state star. It didn't help the Aggies (subscription required) when Mesquite (Texas) Poteet star linebacker Malik Jefferson chose the Longhorns over A&M and UCLA on December 19. 

The Crimson Tide have been here before with regard to a top-notch defensive back out of the Lone Star State. Last year, 'Bama snagged Tony Brown over LSU and Texas. You can't count out Nick Saban in this scenario.

You would like to see Texas A&M make a hire before the New Year, so players like Sheffield can do their research before announcing. If they don't figure out who they are going to hire in a hurry, it will be devastating on the defensive side of the ball in the Aggies' 2015 class for head coach Kevin Sumlin. Last week, they lost 5-star defensive tackle commitment Daylon Mack. Sumlin's reputation as an offensive guru and quarterback whisperer may not matter if he can't get the defense corrected in 2015. 

Can LSU Keep Odell Beckham-esque Wide Receiver Tyron Johnson Home?

Dynamic pass-catcher Tyron Johnson likes to keep things close to the vest when it comes to naming a leader in his recruitment. If you go to his Twitter page, you will see enjoys his official visits and fan interaction. Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are the teams in serious consideration to land his services. 

LSU has done a great job of producing NFL-caliber receivers over the last few years including one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs, Odell Beckham Jr. Johnson is the No. 2-rated wideout in the 247Sports Top247 rankings. The Tigers should be in the driver's set with Johnson based on tradition and location. However, head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have to show Johnson the team can rebound from the dismal passing attack in 2014 that ranked last in the SEC.

Johnson has taken official visits to Auburn and Texas Tech. He has been to LSU unofficially, so he is already familiar with the campus, which should bode well for the Tigers. The 6'1", 190-pounder is expected to take his official visit to Oklahoma State after the season, so it will be interesting to see if he honors that visit should he pledge for Auburn, LSU or Texas Tech on January 2. 

I caught up with a source that feels LSU is the team to beat. I agree based on talks with others in the industry. However, when you look on paper, Auburn may have the best quarterback situation of the teams on his list of favorites. Next fall on The Plains, head coach Gus Malzahn will likely trot out Jeremy Johnson, a Cam Newton-sized clone, or talented passer Sean White. LSU will have a quarterback battle with Brandon Harris looking to unseat incumbent Anthony Jennings.

I like LSU's chances, but it will be interesting to see if Johnson spurns Geaux Tigers for a chance to play for a program with a stable quarterback situation and proven passing attack. 

Virginia Native Tim Settle Keeping Everyone Guessing

Manassas (Va.) Stonewall Jackson defensive lineman Tim Settle recently announced his top five on December 14 via Twitter: 

Settle took an official visit to Louisville on December 13. The Cardinals have to feel good about getting the last chance to impress before his announcement.

The Trojans are searching for a franchise defensive tackle with the likely departure of Leonard Williams to the NFL draft. Settle provides the size and power from the interior to be a major force at the next level. USC already has Jacob Daniel committed, so if the Trojans miss on the Settle sweepstakes, they would still be a good spot.

Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Washington State remain in the hunt. I'm hearing the Hokies may be the front-runner, according to a source that covers the Mid-Atlantic region. 247Sports recruiting analyst Barton Simmons has predicted him to land in Blacksburg, Virginia. 

Keep an eye on Louisville. In my opinion, the Cards' depth chart favors early playing time and a chance for Settle to develop into a solid contributor. They have a chance to sneak in and steal him from Virginia Tech's backyard. If I had a 247Sports Crystal Bill pick, I would peg 'Ville to win this one. 

5-Star Defensive Tackle Daron Payne Set to Make a SEC Team Happy

Birmingham, Alabama, product Daron Payne is one of the top defensive tackles in the class of 2015. He has a low center of gravity combined with excellent lower-body power that allows him to drive his opponent backward and disrupt the offensive backfield on a consistent basis. 

On the recruiting front, he will decide between Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State. Earlier this fall he told me assistant coach Mario Cristobal treats me like a son, and that type of effort could pay off for the Tide. 

Mississippi State has given maximum effort with Payne, and that should be noted. His high school teammate Keith Mixon is committed to the Bulldogs, and they continue to put the full court press on. Payne told me he had the "best time" at Hail State summer camp. Auburn is in the picture, but it looks like the Tigers are on the outside looking in. 

Typically, Alabama doesn't lose head-to-head recruiting battles with Mississippi State. In my opinion, he is the Tide's to lose especially with ace recruiter Mario Cristobal leading the change combined with the fact defensive coordinator and Payne's primary recruiter Geoff Collins left State for Florida. 

Could Texas Running Back Ronald Jones II Head West?

Will it be Notre Dame or USC for Ronald Jones II out of McKinney, Texas? The one-time Oklahoma State pledge backed off his commitment to the Cowboys following official visits to South Bend, Indiana and Los Angeles. 

The Irish have 3-star running back commitment Josh Adams already in the fold, but they would like to get a feature back like Jones II in this class. Notre Dame could have a dangerous offensive backfield if Jones II decides to team up with big-time signal-caller Brandon Wimbush, who is the top recruit in the class for the Irish.

USC shouldn't be discounted from the race for Jones II. The Trojans have done a good job of recruiting the 4-star back to Troy. I was talking to a source that covers the Midlands, and he said USC is a dark horse to nab Jones II. 

Currently, his 247Sports Crystal Ball has a slight prediction trend leaning toward Notre Dame over USC. The Trojans may surprise come January 2 when he makes his decision public. It would be a big win on the recruiting trail if he picks the Trojans over Notre Dame. The Irish have done a great job of recruiting the state of Texas in recent years with players like Cam McDaniel and Corey Robinson making strong impacts on offense, along with future stars Torii Hunter and Durham Smythe waiting to step up.

Two-Team Race for Dallas Linebacker Anthony Wheeler

Dallas (Texas) Skyline outside linebacker Anthony Wheeler hails from a powerhouse program that has sent players to Arizona, Baylor, California, LSU, Kansas State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and USC, to name a few according to the Rivals.com database. 

It's no surprise that Wheeler has offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Baylor, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas, among several others. The 6'2", 225-pound 'backer is a hard hitter with pass-rush ability, so he has good scheme versatility. 

Wheeler has visited Oklahoma unofficially, but he has yet to take an official visit. It makes his decision to commit without taking an official visit a curious one, although it favors the Sooners' chances, since they had him on campus and recently visited him at Skyline before the dead period. 

Texas is in the mix, but after landing the aforementioned Jefferson, the Longhorns could be done at linebacker. Wheeler's 247Sports Crystal Ball has him leaning 67 percent to Oklahoma at this time. I don't see that changing before next Friday. I also confirmed with a source that shared he would be surprised if Wheeler doesn't end up singing Boomer Sooner. 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Alabama Football: Ranking 10 Best Tide Players from 2014 Regular Season

Alabama finished the season in the top spot of the college football playoff rankings, thanks to a tried-and-true formula that has resulted in three national championships in the past five years.

Only this time the formula was altered slightly with the addition of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and a dual-threat quarterback in Blake Sims. It may be surprising for some to learn that the move actually resulted in one less point per game than the Crimson Tide averaged over the previous two seasons, but no one would argue the offense was less dynamic.

In fact, behind a strong running game and explosive receiving corps, Alabama was as much of a threat to hit the big play as it was to bully its way down the field, and that's something we're not entirely used to seeing.

Every player contributes in some form or fashion throughout the season, some obviously more than others. How would you rank the 10 best? Do you go with the slightly altered definition of most valuable? Is it perhaps the most productive? Both of those matter, but the simplest way to look at it is by considering who had the biggest impact.

The top few spots on the list are non-negotiable. After that, however, a number of players played pivotal roles in Alabama, earning the top seed in the inaugural playoff. Here's how we see the top 10 and feel free to let us know who's missing or if the rankings should be in a different order.

 

All stats via cfbstats.com. Just missed the cut: DL Jonathan Allen, CB Cyrus Jones

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Ohio State's Urban Meyer Will Play Underdog Card vs. Alabama

COLUMBUS, Ohio — He hasn't had to play it often—at least not in the past eight years—but when he has, Urban Meyer has thrived in the role of underdog.

It's an interesting paradox, with one of the most successful coaches in college football history's best work having come when he's been able to instill a "Nobody Believes in Us" mentality in his teams. And as No. 4 Ohio State enters the first College Football Playoff as a nine-point underdog (per Odds Shark) to No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it's exactly the type of approach that Meyer will hope to make the most of as his team prepares to face the Crimson Tide on New Year's Day.

"Big," Meyer said with a smile to match when it was mentioned to him that the Buckeyes aren't favored against Alabama.

"We're not there yet, we'll see what kind of team we've got," he continued, before adding another, "big, big" for good measure.

If history is any indication, Meyer will do his best to convince his team that its collective back is against the wall. After all, that was the approach that first established him as one of college football's top coaches, and helped him capture the first of his two national championships.

That was eight years ago, and rather than coaching the Buckeyes, Meyer was preparing for to take on Ohio State as the head coach of Florida. Entering the 2007 BCS National Championship with one loss compared to the undefeated Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the Gators were a one-touchdown underdog, seemingly lucky to just be taking part in the title game.

That was just fine with Meyer, who on multiple occasions has described his 2006 Florida squad as the "angriest" team that he's ever coached. Only adding to the Gators' rage was 10 feet worth of literal bulletin board material that was prominently placed in the Florida team hotel—or as Meyer later admitted, "10 feet of nonsense."

"Half of it was real and half of it was made up. And the half that was made up, I signed 'Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN,'" Meyer said in the 2009 book, Urban's Way. "I wanted it where they were so disgusted with the team they were playing."

Meyer's message apparently struck a cord with the Gators, who went on to blow out the Buckeyes in a shocking 41-14 routing. Afterward, Meyer didn't downplay the importance of his team's mindset heading into the game.

"That made angry, extremely angry," he recalled in 2012. "You tell a prideful group of men that have worked real hard that they don’t belong somewhere. Any time you’re dealing with people and say, ‘By the way, you’re not good enough to be here,’ especially if they’ve got a little pride, which that team had a lot of pride—yeah, we used that quite a bit.”

Capturing his second national championship in three seasons with Florida in 2008, Meyer has typically received the benefit of the doubt from oddsmakers ever since, limiting his number of opportunities to play the underdog card. But when he has, he certainly hasn't shied away from it, especially since taking over Ohio State in 2012.

Just five times in the past three seasons have the Buckeyes not been favored in a game, the first three of which came in 2012 as uncertainty still surrounded Meyer's first season in Columbus. Ohio State would go on to beat Michigan State as a three-point underdog and Wisconsin as a one-point underdog, while also defeating Penn State on the road in a pick 'em game, en route to a perfect 12-0 season.

In 2013, the Buckeyes were favored in each of their 14 games, losing their last two, with Meyer admitting that the program's 24-game winning streak caught up to them.

"I probably wouldn't have admitted it, but I felt it," Meyer said last summer. "I love hungry teams. Complacent is a bad word. Satisfied is a bad word. Angry is a great word. Chip on your shoulder is what I want to see. Do we have that? I don't know yet."

As it turned out, the 2014 Buckeyes did find that chip, with a season-ending injury to star quarterback Braxton Miller and an early-season loss to Virginia Tech turning Ohio State into a two-point underdog at Michigan State. The Buckeyes, however, would walk away from East Lansing with a 49-37 win, but headed to Indianapolis with Wisconsin listed as a three-point favorite in the Big Ten title game.

It was there that Meyer pulled off perhaps his most masterful work since his trip to Glendale eight years ago, as Ohio State performed the biggest point-spread cover of the season with a 59-0 beatdown of the Badgers. That helped the Buckeyes clinch their spot in the College Football Playoff, where they'll be listed as the biggest underdog that they've ever been in three seasons under Meyer.

And while he wouldn't fully admit it yet, Meyer already appears to be planting that seed in his team's head.

“The big thing is not what they’re saying about us being underdogs but the fact we are underdogs that he will use to motivate us," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "We don’t know a ton of what everybody is saying, we just know they are saying it. He uses that just to get guys excited. Nobody wants to be an underdog and get their butt kicked. You want to be an underdog and prove people wrong."

"We're going in there with a full head of steam with a chip on our shoulder," tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "When we do that, man, it's a scary thing."

Meyer's history as an underdog doesn't disagree.

 

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

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Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Illinois vs Louisiana Tech

Heart of Dallas Bowl

Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Illinois (6-6) returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 and the first time under head coach Tim Beckman. Louisiana Tech (8-5) earns its berth as winners of Conference USA's West Division.

These two teams have met only once before, with Louisiana Tech beating Illinois 52-24 on September 22, 2012 in Champaign.

With a win, Louisiana Tech will secure just its third nine-win season since joining the FBS in 1989. A win for either team will move the victor's bowl record to .500 all time. Illinois is 8-9 in bowl games while Louisiana Tech is 2-3-1.

This game could hinge on Illinois' ability to protect quarterback Reilly O'Toole. To do that, the Illini will have to contend with a familiar face: defensive end Houston Bates. After graduating from Illinois, Bates returned to Louisiana to be close to home and play out his eligibility while attending graduate school at Louisiana Tech. Bates leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. 

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SEC Football: 5 Reasons the Conference Will Dominate Bowl Season

After posting a combined 13-6 record in the previous two postseasons, the SEC is set to once again dominate in 2014-15.

In fact, coming up with a list of reasons as to why the league wouldn't dominate is a much tougher challenge, because it's hard to believe history isn't set to repeat itself.

There's no disputing the SEC has been the best college football league for nearly a decade despite having its championship streak broken last year when Auburn lost to Florida State on a last-minute touchdown. Florida began the streak, LSU chipped in, Auburn played a role and Alabama has reached a near-dynasty.

If or when the gap between the SEC and whatever conference you think is second—the Pac-12 or Big 12—disappears, we'll look back on the era and marvel at how many great coaches, players and games we saw helping to build the league's legacy.

But a legacy doesn't exist unless it proves itself when it matters most—and for the sport of college football, that's bowl season.

Click ahead to find out why the SEC is poised to come out on top.

 

All odds via oddshark.com. Recruiting info via 247sports.com.

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The Perfect Candidate for Vacant Texas A&M Defensive Coordinator Job

As "Harbaugh Watch" closes its fourth week in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Texas A&M is still without a defensive coordinator.

Those two things could be related.

According to Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman, Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin—who will serve as the Gators' interim head coach in the Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina—is waiting on Jim Harbaugh to make a decision regarding the vacant Michigan head coaching position before deciding his next step as a college coach.

Durkin was a defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator for Stanford from 2007-2009 when Harbaugh was the head coach of the Cardinal.

If he doesn't step foot into Ann Arbor, it appears that College Station could be an option. According to the report, Texas A&M wants Durkin and, considering it has been without a defensive coordinator since the day after Thanksgiving, seems comfortable playing the waiting game.

As it should.

If Texas A&M's patience pays off and Durkin becomes its new defensive coordinator, it wouldn't just be a home run hire, it'd be a tape measure shot.

Durkin worked wonders in his five seasons at Florida, the first three as the linebackers coach and final two as defensive coordinator. Florida never finished out of the top five in the SEC in yards per play or total defense during Durkin's time in Gainesville and gave up an average of 19.6 points per game over the last five years.

For comparison, Texas A&M has given up an average of 29.9 points per game over the last two seasons under former defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

The foundation of Florida's defenses under Durkin was a defensive line that, even if it didn't force stops behind the line of scrimmage, was disruptive in the backfield and forced opposing quarterbacks to make quick decisions and running backs to cut in the backfield.

Whether it was Dante Fowler, Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd or Jonathan Bullard, the Gators didn't just pay rent in the backfield, they paid the mortgage.

The same blueprint can be replicated at Texas A&M. 

Freshman defensive end Myles Garrett exploded onto the scene in 2014, setting the SEC single-season record for sacks by a freshman with 11, posting 12.5 tackles for loss and notching 50 tackles for the Aggies. He's the biggest part of a defensive line that only has one senior on its entire two-deep.

Toss in freshman safety Armani Watts and sophomore linebackers Shaan Washington and A.J. Hilliard (who suffered a season-ending injury in the opener vs. South Carolina), and the foundation is there.

It just needs to be solidified, and Durkin is the guy to do it. 

He's been at the helm of a plug-n-play defense that routinely is dealt blows by early entry to the NFL draft. Despite that, Florida's defenses have been as consistent as the sunrise.

Durkin would kill it at Texas A&M, and if head coach Kevin Sumlin's patience pays off and Durkin winds up in College Station, the Aggies defense will go from punchline to power in a hurry.

 

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

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

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How Will Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Replace Mike Davis in 2015?

The days of South Carolina having a bell-cow running back could be coming to an end in earnest. That's because its latest every-down running back, Mike Davis, is headed to the NFL. 

“Yes, this will be my last game,” Davis said in an email statement from South Carolina on the upcoming Independence Bowl versus Miami (Saturday, Dec. 27). “You always want to go out with a bang. I just tell my teammates that I love them. I’ve enjoyed this long ride."

Davis has led the Gamecocks in rushing in each of the last two seasons, with 927 yards this season and 1,183 yards in 2013. He's accounted for 20 rushing touchdowns during that two-year span as well as 64 catches for 701 yards out of the backfield. 

The most telling stat, though, is the percentage of the running game that went through him. The next-closest running back in terms of production was junior Brandon Wilds, who had 85 fewer carries than Davis' 186 attempts.

That number is dwarfed by his number of carries last year, though. Davis carried the ball 203 times, while Shon Carson, the next-leading running back, had 61 carries. (Quarterback Connor Shaw was an important part of the ground attack with 154 carries.) 

Before Davis, Marcus Lattimore was the Gamecocks' go-to running back for three years. Not since 2009, with Kenny Miles and Brian Maddox, has South Carolina relied on multiple running backs to carry the load of the offense. 

That could be the case in 2015, however. Unless someone emerges as the No. 1 guy, head coach Steve Spurrier's offense could have a real running back-by-committee approach—at least at first. Wilds seems like the most likely candidate to be that No. 1 guy.

As Avery Wilks of GamecockCentral.com points out, Wilds briefly took on the role of an every-down back in 2011 because of injuries elsewhere: 

Wilds was ready as a true freshman, when injuries to Marcus Lattimore and Shon Carson left the Blythewood, South Carolina, native as the Gamecocks' best option at tailback.

Wilds accounted for nearly 81 percent of USC's tailback carries over the next four games, taking 87 carries for 387 yards and three touchdowns.

Wilds and redshirt freshman David Williams, the next-leading rushers behind Davis, have been extremely productive in the times they have seen the field. On average, the two have picked up 5.6 yards per rush on about seven carries per game. 

Beyond them, it could be a wild card. The Gamecocks still have Carson, and two more running backs—AJ Turner and Mon Denson—have verbally committed to South Carolina for the 2015 class, per 247Sports. There's also wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, who tends to do a little bit of everything. This past season, Cooper ran the ball 24 times and scored a pair of touchdowns. 

Turner is a smaller back, listed at 5'11" and 180 pounds on 247Sports. The overall identity at running back, however, is of the bulky, downhill-runner variety. All other running backs, including Cooper at wide receiver, are over 200 pounds. 

It appears next season will be a steady diet of multiple power backs for opposing defenses. With Spurrier breaking in a new starting quarterback, that should be a good thing. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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Nick Marshall Will Leave Auburn as 'One of the Best' in the Tigers' History

AUBURN, Ala. — The start of a new year might be the end of Nick Marshall's career as a quarterback.

On Jan. 1, when Auburn faces Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, the senior will lead his offense onto the field one last time.

Marshall's NFL prospects as a quarterback look slim. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects him to make a return to defensive back, a position where he started his wild collegiate career while at rival Georgia.

But no matter if Marshall takes another snap at quarterback in a competitive game after the Tigers' bowl game, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn knows one thing—his signal-caller will leave as a legend.

"He was a big part of leading us to the national championship, and it would have been extremely hard to get there without him," Malzahn said. "He has been very good for us. He’s one of the best to ever come through here."

That's high praise, especially at a school that has put out several Heisman winners and dozens of All-Americans, but it's not unwarranted.

Marshall has been responsible for 55 touchdowns in his Auburn career. That mark places him third all-time in school history, behind Heisman winner Pat Sullivan and current Auburn wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig.

If Marshall records four touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl—a feat he has accomplished four different times—he will pass Craig.

But while Sullivan and Craig both compiled their touchdowns across three seasons as starting quarterbacks, Marshall will have made his mark in just two seasons.

That is an impressive accomplishment for a former junior college transfer who didn't even win the starting job at Auburn until a few weeks before the 2013 season opener.

"He's a guy who came in here with three weeks to go and started at quarterback for us the last two years," senior center Reese Dismukes said. "He has done a great job and has done everything the coaches have ever asked him to do. He'll be remembered as one of Auburn's greats."

Marshall took over Auburn's starting quarterback position, one that had been in turmoil since the departure of Cam Newton at the end of the 2010 season, and helped turn a 3-9 team into a 12-2 team with an SEC title and a BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2013.

He has one of the top winning percentages for a quarterback in Auburn history, as the Tigers have gone 18-6 when his name has been in the starting lineup.

Despite his well-documented struggles with accuracy, Marshall is currently eighth all-time in passing yards with 4,291 in 25 games.

His 6,139 career yards of total offense is sixth in Auburn history, and he has a realistic chance at moving all the way into fourth with another standout performance in the Outback Bowl.

This chance to rise even higher in the Auburn record books comes after the finest performance of his career, the Iron Bowl against No. 1 Alabama.

Marshall shattered the school record for total offense in one game by putting up 505 yards against one of the country's best defenses. While his team fell short of the upset in Tuscaloosa, the 55-44 loss wasn't due to a lack of anything from Auburn's athletic quarterback.

"I'm proud of myself, my teammates and my coaches for putting us in the best situation to try and win the game," Marshall said after the Iron Bowl last month. "That's all I can ask for."

In that Iron Bowl, Marshall showcased his best quality as an Auburn quarterback—performing his best when the pressure is at its highest.

Fourth-quarter comebacks and last-minute drama were never too much for Marshall, who has a 9-2 record at Auburn in one-possession games.

Several of Marshall's game-changing plays in those contests will be remembered forever, including the "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" Hail Mary pass to knock off Georgia in 2013 and a game-tying pop pass to Sammie Coates in the 2013 Iron Bowl:

"I've been blessed to coach some pretty good guys…but Nick is a guy that the moment's never too big for him," Malzahn said. "He's had numerous moments, from a quarterback standpoint, I don't know if I've ever had a quarterback that had that many different pressure moments. He's responded like a champ in all of them."

Although the lofty goals Marshall and his teammates set heading into the 2014 season are unattainable at this point, he still has a chance to add on to his incredible Auburn legacy on New Year's Day.

Some players might underachieve in a bowl game when their team has expectations at competing for a national championship.

But don't expect that out of an all-time great like Nick Marshall.

"He has played in the biggest games to the lowest games, and I'm sure his confidence and the way he approaches games is just like any other game," senior wide receiver Quan Bray said earlier this season. "He doesn't show any ups and downs. He just goes out and he steps up his play.

"Once he does that, everybody else follows, and everything else takes care of itself."

 

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

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

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College Football Bowl Picks 2014: Predictions for Remaining Postseason Games

College football fans could not have asked for much more out of the pre-Christmas bowl games.

After all, we were treated to a double-overtime thriller that ended in a brawl between Memphis and BYU, an incredible Hail Mary finish in the clash between Central Michigan and Western Kentucky and nail-biting fourth quarters in Navy’s win over San Diego State and Bowling Green’s win over South Alabama.

What is in store for the post-Christmas games? Here is a look at predictions for every game before digging into a preview for an under-the-radar matchup to watch.

 

Under-the-Radar Matchup to Watch: Rutgers vs. North Carolina

Rutgers from the Big Ten and North Carolina from the ACC will put on their own Big Ten-ACC Challenge at the Quick Lane Bowl Friday.

The Scarlet Knights may have been new in the Big Ten this season and struggled against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State, but they won all four nonconference games, including a tilt with Washington State from the Pac-12 and fellow bowl team Navy. They will try to win outside of the league yet again Friday.

Quarterback Gary Nova discussed the season as a whole, via ESPN.com: "Obviously we wanted to be undefeated, but 8-5 is a solid season, especially in this conference with the great teams, great players, so it would be a great way to end the season.” 

Nova should have a big day against the Tar Heels. He finished the season with 2,667 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes, which were both third in the Big Ten. He and wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who finished with 1,043 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches, will look to exploit a North Carolina defense that finished 108th against the pass and 117th against the run.

The Tar Heels allowed 38.9 points per game, which was an abysmal 119th in the country, and 495.7 yards per game. They gave up 70 points to East Carolina, 50 points to Clemson, 50 to Notre Dame, 47 to Miami, 43 to Georgia Tech and 35 to North Carolina State in the season finale.

Rutgers' leading rusher, Desmon Peoples, will miss the bowl game with an injury, but that shouldn’t even be a concern against this vulnerable North Carolina defense. What’s more, Robert Martin and Josh Hicks both filled in admirably in the final three games.

Sammy Batten of The Fayetteville Observer pointed out one potential reason why the Tar Heels have struggled:

UNC's defense suffered three significant losses in July before the start of training camp. Potential linebacker starter Darius Lipford made himself eligible for the NFL's supplemental draft, then defensive lineman Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb left the team for what was described as "personal reasons." …

The departures may have been a sign of the struggles to come on defense for UNC.

Over the next three months, the Tar Heels found themselves repeatedly out of position to make plays, missing tackles and blowing assignments in the secondary.

North Carolina will have to counter Rutgers on offense, and that is certainly a possibility with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, who finished with 2,870 passing yards, 737 rushing yards and 32 total touchdowns.

North Carolina is a dangerous passing team that finished 24th in the country in aerial yards per game with multiple receiving threats in Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins. The offense as a whole finished 33rd in the country in scoring and had to be effective to counterbalance the terrible defense enough to reach .500 and become bowl-eligible.

Rutgers' defense is certainly nothing to write home about, but it was a mediocre 67th in the country against the pass. The secondary will have to at least be solid Friday because the Tar Heels will throw it early and often.

As long as Rutgers doesn’t completely fall flat on defense, it should walk away with a victory. The Tar Heels can’t stop anyone, and that won’t change just because it is bowl season. 

Prediction: Rutgers 37, North Carolina 28

 

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5 Coaches Who Need a Big 2015 Recruiting Class

The quickest way for a program to turn the corner and become a consistent winner is to win the battles on the recruiting trail. 

It’s fitting that the period from now until national signing day also merges with the beginning and the ending of the coaching carousel.

There are a few coaches who are either beginning to feel some heat or are in the rebuilding stages of their programs—each of whom could use a big close to the 2015 cycle.

Which coaches are most in need of a strong 2015 recruiting class?

 

All coaches listed in alphabetical order.

Begin Slideshow

Nebraska Football: Can Huskers Really Beat USC in Holiday Bowl?

Do you have faith that Nebraska can defeat USC? If so, you're in the minority.

Fox Sports' Ryan Fowler projected a 23-20 victory for the Trojans, per the Omaha World-Herald, while Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel both predicted USC victories by a large margin (41-21 and 35-17 respectively).

Even the spread isn't in Nebraska's favor, with Odds Shark putting the Huskers as a seven-point underdog.

That has to feel discouraging for Nebraska fans. After firing head coach Bo Pelini and hiring Mike Riley in his place, the Huskers are in a state of transition. Interim head coach Barney Cotton will do his best to keep the Nebraska players focused, but it can't be easy.

Does that mean Nebraska can't win?

Not quite, and USC understands that.

After all, the Trojans were in the same boat as the Huskers just one year ago before defeating Fresno State 45-20 in their bowl game.

"It was tough," quarterback Cody Kessler told Bleacher Report's Kyle Kensing. "But it's about the players on the field."

It ultimately does come down to the players on the field. For the Huskers, it's all about uniting. That's something that could motivate Nebraska to a victory, as safety Nate Gerry said, per ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman:

The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us. We’ve kind of realized that Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other - not really worry about anything. Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.

As for what could happen on the field, it's hard to say. What's immediately clear is that Nebraska has not faced an offensive opponent like USC in 2014. As Sherman pointed out, "Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally."

Shutting down USC's passing game is going to be easier said than done for the Huskers, though. Against Notre Dame (USC's final regular-season opponent of the year), quarterback Kessler threw for 372 yards and six touchdowns.

From a season perspective, Kessler completed 292 passes for 3,505 yards and 36 touchdowns, per ESPN.com. That gives him a 70.7 completion percentage. He's only been intercepted four times.

The area where Nebraska could make an impact? It easily comes down to the defensive line. Kessler was sacked 30 times in 2014, which is an area the Huskers could exploit.

USC's offensive line is young, as the Omaha World-Herald noted. It includes three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Can Nebraska break through the Trojans' young line and put pressure on Kessler?

"Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory," Sherman said.

He's right, too. Gregory sat out against Iowa to end Nebraska's regular season, but he's back at practice. Will he be effective? Can he lead the defensive line? The answers to those questions could easily determine whether or not Nebraska can win.

“Hopefully our D-line will be able to put some pressure on the quarterback,” Cotton said, per the Lincoln Journal Star. “But I’m still sure that our guys want to really concentrate on stopping the run first.”

When it comes to the run game, USC is currently averaging 3.9 yards per carry. As the Lincoln Journal Star noted, that ranks the Trojans 91st nationally. USC is much stronger passing, but Nebraska won't be able to ignore one part of the Trojans' offense for the other if it wishes to win.

As for Nebraska's offense, I-back Ameer Abdullah will need a big day. Cotton believes the Huskers will get that.

“Ameer (Abdullah) looks a lot more like his old self,” Cotton said, per the Lincoln Journal Star. “He really was kind of down a few percentage points as we got to the second half of the season there. But he’s moving better than I’ve seen him look in a long time.”

That's good news for the Huskers, too. When the I-back performs well and rushes for over 100 yards, Nebraska tends to win. When he's limited, things do not go as easily for Nebraska. He'll also need help from his quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, and the offensive line. However, a lot of weight will rest on Abdullah's shoulders alone.

With all that said, the question remains: Can the Huskers really defeat USC?

The odds are stacked against the them. However, a strong showing for the Nebraska defense would give the Huskers the best shot. If things go south for the defense quick, it seems unlikely that Nebraska can walk away with a win.

Additionally, how Abdullah performs will also have a big say in the end result.

Yes, Nebraska can really defeat USC. It won't be easy, seeing as the odds are stacked against the Huskers. However, with a strong game plan and help from Gregory and Abdullah, it's not a complete long shot.

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Predictions for Rose and Sugar Bowl Semifinals

Neither of the College Football Playoff semifinal games will be close affairs. It would be great for college football if they were, but both the Florida State Seminoles and Alabama Crimson Tide will prove to be too talented for the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes, respectively.

This isn't a swipe at the committee for including Oregon or Ohio State, it's just that we will soon see that there's a major gap between the teams.

 

Alabama's Team Speed and Offensive Line Will Dominate in Sugar Bowl

If an opponent can't slow the Alabama Crimson Tide's run game down, then it's doomed to be bitten by the play-action pass deep to Heisman finalist Amari Cooper. Blake Sims is fallible at quarterback, but he has so many weapons out of the backfield with T.J. Yeldon and out wide with Cooper, that he has room for error.

Buckeyes defensive coordinator Chris Ash talked about his fear of Cooper exploding for a big game, per the Ohio State Buckeyes Twitter account:

As dynamic as Cooper, Yeldon and even Sims can be at times, it all starts with the Tide's offensive line. Alabama has run for 2,723 yards this season and averaged 5.11 per carry.

With a running game that consistent, the play-action pass is a built-in weapon almost at the outset of every game. Ohio State had great success limiting the nation's leading rusher Melvin Gordon to just 76 yards in the Big Ten title game.

However, the Wisconsin Badgers don't have as complete of an attack as Bama. Its offensive line isn't as versatile. Ohio State was able to focus on Gordon primarily. There's not one Bama weapon the Buckeyes can afford to devote that much attention to.

At some point, the talent and athleticism advantage at almost every position is going to prove to be too much. On the other side of the ball, the Bucks could be in even more trouble.

There are no defenses in the Big Ten on par with Alabama's. Statistically, four teams in the conference allow fewer yards per game than Bama, but the level of competition is the difference. Bama endured the rigors of the SEC West and won the conference title game. It still has the 11th best defense in the nation with a treacherous schedule.

This is truly one of the elite defenses in the nation. Even if Ohio State were at full strength, it would have a hard time moving the ball against the Tide.

As it is, there's no way Cardale Jones—a third-string quarterback—is going to lead the Bucks past Bama. The Tide will roll 44-10.

 

The Seminoles Defense and Athleticism Will Rule in Rose Bowl

Marcus Mariota deserved to win the Heisman Trophy, but he's in for a rude awakening when he faces the Seminoles defense.

Athletically, Florida State has future NFL-level talent at almost every defensive position. The primary trait that comes with that type of talent is speed. That quickness from almost every spot will make it very difficult for Mariota to make plays with his legs.

Without that as a major weapon, the Ducks will have to depend on consistently winning individual matchups at the line of scrimmage, and on the outside. Last year's Heisman winner Jameis Winston has a lot to prove after an inconsistent season, but you can bet his teammates will want to shut down the man who succeeded him as the nation's top player.

On offense, Winston should be especially sharp in what is likely to be the final college game of his career. He and Mariota figure to be battling not just for a spot in the national championship, but also placement in the upcoming NFL draft. With so much on the line, there's no wonder CollegeFootball 24/7 calls this the best individual matchup of the bowl season.

Quite honestly, Winston has more help up front and weapons out of the backfield. Freshman Dalvin Cook has emerged as the team's top running back. He rushed for 905 yards on just 155 carries, and he should play a big role against Oregon. 

Matters get even worse for Oregon's defense when it comes to defending the pass. News that its best cornerback Ifo Ekpre Olomu would miss the game with an injury, per the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports), seriously hurts the Ducks secondary.

If Winston protects the football and lets his running game set the table, this game could be ugly by the third quarter. The Noles have found a way to pull games out all season. In this one, the defending champs will finally deliver a performance the nation has been expecting.

Florida State will win 37-13.

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Odds, Picks for Postseason Clashes

The initial College Football Playoff could not have been scripted any better.

It features a showdown between the past two Heisman winners and two of the most dynamic offenses in the country in the Rose Bowl. It features a showdown between arguably the game’s two best coaches and two of the biggest and most passionate fanbases in the Sugar Bowl.

It’s Buckeye Nation against Roll Tide and the defending champs against the no huddle, no mercy of Oregon.

It’s also everything fans could have asked for this season. Here is a look at the essential information for both playoff games.

 

2015 Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, California

Start Time (ET): 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: WatchESPN  

Odds: Oregon -9, via Odds Shark, as of Thursday at 10 p.m. ET

 

Preview

The headlines in the aftermath of the clash between Oregon and Florida State will undoubtedly revolve around the quarterback battle.

Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and leads a Florida State offense that came through in the fourth quarter throughout the season. Marcus Mariota leads the high-octane Oregon attack and took home the award this season.

Mariota dazzled all year and finished with 3,783 passing yards, 38 touchdown throws, 669 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Perhaps most incredibly, he only threw two interceptions on the season in an offense that runs more plays than almost any other team.

It is not all about Mariota, though. Running back Royce Freeman ended up with 1,299 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and will be an issue for a Florida State defense that proved vulnerable against the run against Georgia Tech, Boston College and others.

Look for Oregon to push the tempo from the start in an effort to wear the Seminoles defense down. Georgia Tech gashed Florida State for 331 rushing yards using misdirection and speed, and Oregon will do the same (even if it is with the read-option instead of the triple-option).

In order for the Seminoles to win, they will have to control the clock and keep Mariota on the sidelines. Running back Dalvin Cook is their best chance at doing that, but Florida State will eventually mix in some throws against an Oregon defense that was 103rd against the pass.

That Ducks defense got even worse with the loss of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a torn ACL.

Guarding wide receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary is never an easy task to begin with, and Oregon will have to do it without its best defender. The Seminoles will score some points in this one.

It is also worth watching how each team performs in the fourth quarter if it comes down to the wire considering Florida State was tested in almost every game this season and Oregon blew out the majority of its opponents. Cliche or not, the Seminoles are the more battle-tested team, which could play a small factor in the Rose Bowl. 

Still, even that won’t be enough to counteract Florida State’s tendency to turn the ball over. America’s Pregame and David Hale of ESPN.com noted just how much of an advantage Oregon has in the turnover department:

Look for Florida State to cough it up in the critical moments of the fourth quarter against a vulnerable but opportunistic Oregon defense. Mariota will parlay that into the game-clinching touchdown. 

Prediction: Oregon 34, Florida State 24

 

2015 Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Start Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: Watch ESPN  

Odds: Alabama -9, via Odds Shark, as of Thursday at 10 p.m. ET

 

Preview

The Rose Bowl may be defined by the quarterback matchup, but the Sugar Bowl pits coaches Nick Saban and Urban Meyer against each other for the first time since Meyer was at Florida. The coaching may be the biggest storyline heading into the game, but whichever team plays better on the field will ultimately determine the winner.

Alabama brings superstar wide receiver Amari Cooper and his 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches to the table. Throw in physically bruising running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and the Buckeyes are going to have trouble slowing the Crimson Tide down.

Ohio State’s defense has been light years better than it was a season ago, but it is almost impossible to stop both the Alabama rushing attack and the passing game with Cooper. The Buckeyes’ best chance is through pressure from defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, who are both future NFL draft picks and have terrorized opposing offensive lines all season.

Bosa ended up with a Big Ten-best 13.5 sacks and first-team Associated Press All-American honors, while Bennett was named a third-team Associated Press All-American and will be asked to swallow up the inside blockers of Alabama.

Of course, Ohio State hasn’t faced an Alabama line that only allowed 13 sacks all season, although Big Ten Championship Game opponent Wisconsin only gave up 12.

Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash discussed Bosa’s impact, via Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

When I saw him last spring, I saw a very talented, inexperienced young player. We all talked as a staff that if Joey Bosa started to understand how to play the position, he was going to have a chance to be a dominant player. … The production has continued to improve over the course of the season. He's a great player, and if he continues to improve, he has room to continue to improve and can be an outstanding, dominant player at this level and at the next level.

Even with Bosa and Bennett, Ohio State’s offense is going to have to score in this game because stopping Cooper and the running attack will be a tall order for the defense.

That may not be a problem for the fourth-best scoring offense in the country, although Alabama’s defense was fourth in the nation in points allowed per game. It's as if the storylines are writing themselves in this matchup.

Ohio State’s offense is predicated on running the ball, but Alabama is much better against the run than the pass (second in the nation against the run, 60th against the pass). The Buckeyes will use the run with the underrated Ezekiel Elliott to keep the Crimson Tide honest, but they are going to need to make plays through the air to win.

That means Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas will have to get open for quarterback Cardale Jones, who will be making only his second career start. The fact that it comes against the mighty Crimson Tide almost seems unfair for the youngster.

This one will not be a blowout by any stretch, as Jones will find Smith and Thomas for a number of big plays against a vulnerable secondary that is susceptible to deep routes. The problem is, either Cooper or the Alabama running game will be too much for the Buckeyes defense to handle for four quarters. 

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 28

 

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The Key to Arkansas Becoming Real SEC Contenders in 2014

Arkansas closed strong during the final month of the season, shutting out LSU and Ole Miss in Fayetteville to earn second-year head coach Bret Bielema his first two conference wins and give the program confidence for the first time since Bobby Petrino roamed the sidelines in 2011.

That confidence is back, and from an offensive standpoint, it shouldn't go away now that one of its biggest pieces is coming back—running back Jonathan Williams.

The 6'0", 223-pound native of Allen, Texas announced on Wednesday that he will return to the program for his senior season after exploring a decision to jump early to the NFL.

"I am very excited to return to Arkansas for my senior season and help bring the Razorback football program back to where it belongs," Williams said in a release emailed by Arkansas. "Coach [Bret] Bielema and [running backs] coach [Joel] Thomas have been very supportive of me and my family throughout this process."

His return is huge for Arkansas' hopes of not only getting the program back to respectability, but into contention in the SEC West.

Sharing the workload with fellow running back Alex Collins, all Williams did was finish the season as one of five 1,000-yard rushers in the SEC, gaining 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns and leading the Hogs in rushing. He's a true all-purpose back that has the size to be dangerous between the tackles and speed to be a threat in space.

His return signals something very important for the Arkansas offense—continuity.

Williams and Collins will return behind an offensive line—which was bigger than any college or NFL offensive line in 2014—that loses only senior right tackle Brey Cook. Quarterback Brandon Allen showed tremendous progress this year, tossing 18 touchdowns and only five picks this season. He will return for his senior season with leading receiver Keon Hatcher and tight end Hunter Henry.

Assuming there are no speed bumps like unexpected roster attrition or injuries before the season, the Hog offense should be able to hit the ground running—literally—when they host UTEP in the season opener in 2015.

Couple that with continuity in the passing game, and the offense should be scary.

 

The real question is on defense, which will look for replacements for star defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight. But defensive coordinator Robb Smith showed in his first season that he can get the job done in the SEC, and with defensive tackle Darius Philon returning and talented youngsters like Bijhon Jackson stepping into bigger roles.

That's a small hole to hop for a program that, since 2011, is used to clearing holes the size of the Grand Canyon since Petrino crashed his motorcycle in April 2012. 

Arkansas will be a dark horse pick to make some noise in the West in 2015, and Williams' return only solidifies that position in the division's pecking order. That's a stark change from where the program was a year ago, when contending for the West seemed more like something out of the fiction section at the library.

 

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

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

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Holiday Bowl 2014: Nebraska vs. USC TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Time, More

Nebraska looks to kick off a new football era, and USC hopes to end the first season of a new system in style Saturday in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Despite the chance to get to 10 wins with a bowl victory, the Cornhuskers come into San Diego without their head coach. Bo Pelini's surprise firing was followed by the surprise hiring of Oregon State's Mike Riley, but Pelini's staff (minus the man himself, of course) will be coaching Nebraska one final time.

In order to do so, it will have to notch its first win over a ranked team all season. The 24th-ranked Trojans come in with a worse record (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12), but they are flying high after a season-ending stomping of Notre Dame.

You'd have to search far and wide to find a bowl game between more prestigious programs. USC and Nebraska have combined for 16 national championships and 10 Heisman Trophy winners.

Here's a breakdown of all the information and top storylines for the Holiday Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California 

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): USC -7

 

This One's for Coach

Maybe Nebraska did what it had to do in firing Pelini. But that didn't make it any easier for the players—a group that should be intent on making a statement at the end of a bizarre era.

It was bizarre because despite seven seasons from Pelini, which ended with a strong 62-27 record, the coach never made the jump to becoming a perennial Big Ten and national title contender. And it was even more bizarre because many players' sentiments seemed to reflect that the decision to fire Pelini may not have been warranted.

With the new coach already moving his boxes into Pelini's old office, soon-to-be former defensive coordinator John Papuchis summed it up perfectly.

“One way or another, that’s coming to an end Saturday night," Papuchis told ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman. "So if it’s going to come down to an ending, it might as well end on a good note.” 

Beating a team of USC's prestige and ability would represent the type of wins Pelini couldn't find often enough in his seven years with Nebraska. Dating back to 2012, the Cornhuskers have lost their last six games to ranked foes.

They have a chance to end that streak along with the Pelini tenure in Nebraska on Saturday, and it could be the springboard these players need heading into a new system and a new coaching staff.

 

Caution: Contents are Hot

If it weren't for a few close losses and a guy named Marcus Mariota, we would've been talking about Cody Kessler as the nation's elite quarterback entering the postseason.

The junior quarterback has been absolutely scorching all season long. He has thrown for 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions, a ratio only Mariota can top for the season. 

Kessler has also completed a ridiculous 70.7 percent of his passes on the season, generating talk about a potential NFL draft announcement instead of a return for 2015. It's weighing on his mind, but he's relaxed about it.

"No matter what I end up doing…it's a good decision to have," Kessler told Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "It's kind of cool."

We won't know until afterward whether Saturday's game will be Kessler's last in Trojan red, but it's safe to say the Nebraska defense would prefer if he had already left—him and dominant receiver Nelson Agholor, who has 97 catches for 1,223 yards on the year.

The coaching turnover is an obvious wild card that could impact the game in many ways, but there's no question about the impact of Kessler and running back Javorius "Buck" Allen, per ESPN's David Lombardi:

"Uneven" doesn't do the Nebraska defense justice. It allowed 34 points to Iowa and 59 to Wisconsin in two November losses that were the final straws in Pelini's coaching tenure.

Nebraska showed up defensively against Michigan State but allowed 27 points in an eventual defeat. The Spartans don't touch what USC can do offensively, which means even the best of performances from the Cornhuskers may not be enough.

 

Team Injury Reports

Team injury reports available courtesy of The Sports Network, viaUSA Today.

 

Prediction

The Cornhuskers are too talented to be moving on from a head coach, and they'll demonstrate that by showing up to play in a big way. But it will take a stroke of magic to slow down Kessler and Co. enough to win this one.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the Nebraska offense score 37.4 points per game and put up enough points to keep this one close, but Allen will run his way to some big gains and open up things even more for Kessler.

Prediction: USC 34, Nebraska 27

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Sun Bowl 2014: Arizona State vs. Duke TV Info, Spread, Injury News, Time, More

The winner of the 2014 Sun Bowl between Arizona State and Duke will reach the coveted 10-win plateau, although each program thought it would get there a while ago.

The Sun Devils fell from the College Football Playoff conversation to a 9-3 record, losing two of three to close out the regular season—dooming a season that saw them beat four ranked teams in five games during an earlier stretch.

Like Arizona State, Duke also dropped two of its three season-ending games to give up its inside track to a return to the ACC Championship Game. Still, David Cutcliffe's crew showed it's ready to contend in the conference once again.

It will be a battle of the devils, with the Sun Devils and Blue Devils going at it. Let's take a look at everything you need to know for the Sun Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas

TV: CBS

Live Stream: CBSSports.com

Spread (via Odds Shark): Arizona State -7.5

 

So Close, Yet So Far

With absolutely no disrespect to the lovely city of El Paso, Texas, both Arizona State and Duke envisioned much different endings to 2014 than this.

Even with a chance to get to 10 wins for the second time in Duke history (the first was last year), the Blue Devils are wondering what could have been. They dropped two straight conference games when wins down the stretch were needed, giving up their shot at the ACC title.

And with how flimsy Florida State's wins have been all season long, who knows if the Blue Devils would have shaken up the CFP entirely?

Duke always had dreams of a conference title, but national championship aspirations were tangible for Arizona State through the middle of November. But right as the Sun Devils began climbing into the conversation, they fell to Oregon State followed by a loss to Arizona that took them out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Yeah, suddenly a trip to the Sun Bowl isn't as illustrious as what could have been.

For players and coaches who are used to moving on from one game to the next, getting motivated and realizing the stakes of this bowl game shouldn't be hard. With that said, re-discovering that fire after the chief goal has been lost can be tough for 18-to 22-year-olds.

Todd Graham and Cutcliffe both have instilled strong cultures at each program, and the chance to make a lasting statement on national TV—along with the chance to end the season on a high note—should be enough to bring out the best in both teams. But if you witness an emotional hangover, it's no secret as to what the cause will be.

 

Who Can Do it Bigger?

When these offenses are clicking, it usually comes in big splashes.

Duke has weapons all over its offense. Dual-threat quarterback Anthony Boone leads the way with 22 total touchdowns, but senior wideout partners Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney have combined for almost 1,500 yards and 12 total touchdowns among them.

After losing leading rusher Juwan Thompson to the NFL last offseason, Duke has used a committee approach to fill the void—led by freshman Shaun Wilson, who absolutely exploded for 245 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries against Kansas earlier this year.

The Sun Devils' attack isn't spread out, but rather dominated by receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster. 

Foster has more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage this season, but it's Strong's eye-popping play on the perimeter that takes ASU to another level. He has 10 touchdowns on the year—most off highlight-reel plays—and figures to be a top wideout in the draft after forgoing his senior year.

Unlike Duke, though, Arizona State has the conundrum of not knowing who should be running said offense. Taylor Kelly has had his ups and downs (mostly through injury) but is certainly trending downward after being pulled for Mike Bercovici amid struggles against Arizona.

Considering the way Graham spoke of Kelly, though, you'd have to imagine he's getting the ball, per Sun Devil football:

Each defense will have a very different mentality, with Arizona State focusing on spreading out to contain Duke's stable of weapons while the Blue Devils hope to hone in on a pair of star players. 

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports available per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

When two high-potential offenses are involved in a bowl game, the safe bet is to go with the players who do it most consistently. There's little doubt that's Arizona State.

While both teams struggled to finish the season, only Duke's was due to offensive ineffectiveness. The Blue Devils only surpassed 30 points in one of their final four games, while Arizona State has put up an average of 42.25 points per game in its final four.

Duke has enough weapons on offense and enough ability on defense to keep it closer than the spread, but that's about it.

Prediction: Arizona State 31, Duke 24

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Military Bowl 2014: Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech TV Info, Spread, Time and More

The Cincinnati Bearcats have finished their season on a tear, and look to go through Virginia Tech in Saturday's Military Bowl to put a bow on a gift-wrapped 2014 season.

Tommy Tuberville led his Bearcats to a share of the AAC title in his second season at the helm, and he could get them to 10-3 with a win in Annapolis, Maryland. It'll have to come through a Hokies team that sputtered to 6-6, needing a close win over Virginia in the season finale to even become bowl eligible.

Along with wanting to dispel the troubles of this season and last year's 42-12 bowl loss to UCLA, Virginia Tech can also avenge a 2012 defeat to Cincinnati should it win.

Let's get down to business and break down everything you need to know for the 2014 Military Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Md.

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Cincinnati -2.5

 

Battle of Strengths

If Cincinnati is going to keep its longest winning streak in five seasons intact through the start of 2015, it will come through the air.

Former prized recruit Gunner Kiel has finally found his niche in Cincinnati, as the sophomore quarterback has exploded for 30 touchdowns on 3,010 passing yards amid multiple injuries. He leads an offense that puts up 35.4 points per game.

To show you how much superior the Bearcats offense is to Virginia Tech's, take this into consideration—Cincinnati hung 34 on Miami, while the Hokies put up a grand total of six points on that same team.

But defensively, though, Frank Beamer's crew can get it done. 

The Hokies rank 18th in points against per game, which is all the more impressive considering they lost half their games. They also track down the quarterback superbly, sacking signal-callers 46 times in 2014.

Cincinnati has the big arm in Kiel to take the top off Virginia Tech's defense, but it's the weapons on the outside that put the Bearcats over the top. Five different receivers have four or more touchdowns and 430 or more yards on the season.

The sophomore passer gave all the credit to his teammates, per Cincinnati Enquirer's Tom Groeschen:

"I've got good guys behind me," Kiel said. I've got great wide receivers that are going to catch the ball, and the offensive line has done an incredible job just giving me all the time in the world to throw the ball. We've got a heck of a run game with Mike Boone and Rod Moore."

Kiel has weapons in droves, but a stout Hokie secondary with ball-hawking defensive backs like Kendall Fuller and Kyshoen Jarrett is used to closings things down on the outside. They have combined for four interceptions this season, helping to make up for the loss of star corner Brandon Facyson.

The Bearcats will come into this one expecting to toss the ball around the yard. The Hokies come in expecting to shut it down, and pin their ears back rushing the passer. 

It's likely only one of the two will happen.

 

With or Without You

When it comes to Virginia Tech and bowl games, practically all the school knows is going there with Beamer.

The long-time Hokies coach has headed the sidelines for 22 straight bowl games, which is all but five of the program's bowl appearances in its history. That made the preparation for this year's Military Bowl all the more weird.

It's weird because after more than two dozen years, Beamer hasn't been with the team during much of bowl practice after throat surgery. He's expected to join the team Friday—the day before the game—and coach from the press box, per The Roanoke Times' Andy Bitter.

Him coaching from the press box shouldn't have a huge impact—rest assured, Virginia Tech will have some very vocal coaches down there to speak for him. But it's fair to question if the team won't be as prepared as they should due to it.

Of course, it could have the opposite impact. Beamer has been the head coach for most of the Hokies' 10-17 all-time bowl record, so it's entirely possible the team could be preparing with a chip on its shoulder and galvanize around his return.

 

Prediction

This game is going to come down to Virginia Tech's ability—or lack thereof—to show some containment in stopping Kiel and Cincinnati's offense. And even if the Hokies' talented secondary stifles the Bearcats' passing, the duo of backs Mike Boone and Rodriguez Moore—who have combined for more than 1,200 yards—will take it to Virginia Tech.

It's just hard to see the Hokies' struggling offense showing enough danger to match Cincinnati on the scoreboard, and even harder to see a downtrodden Virginia Tech team get up for this one.

Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 13

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Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Top Storylines Going into Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech and Illinois kick off a packed Friday of college football bowl action with the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Neither the Bulldogs nor the Fighting Illini are the most attractive team in the country, and many fans will likely fail to give this matchup any sort of chance. However, it's often the more obscure bowls that are the most fun. The most recent example is the finish to the Bahamas Bowl, which had one of the unlikeliest Hail Marys you're ever going to see.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl probably won't have such a crazy conclusion, but it could be a sleeper pick for one of the more entertaining matchups this week.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:WatchESPN

 

Storylines

How Will Illinois Represent the Big Ten?

It's no secret that the Big Ten is suffering from a perception problem. Most fans and writers rank the conference behind the SEC, Pac-12 and maybe the Big 12 as well. A Big Ten team losing to a Conference USA team won't do the conference any favors, either.

With Illinois representing the B1G, things aren't looking too promising. BTN.com's Tom Dienhart listed his confidence picks for each bowl game featuring a team from the conference, and the Heart of Dallas Bowl ranked at the very bottom. He said the best strategy for predicting a winner was flipping a coin.

Nothing about the Fighting Illini stands out. They rank 102nd in total offense (360.3 YPG) and 112th in total defense (464.3 YPG). Although they own wins over Penn State and Minnesota, they were also beaten by Washington, Nebraska and Ohio State by a combined 97 points.

Head coach Tim Beckman announced earlier in the week that Reilly O'Toole will start the game at quarterback, per Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune:

O'Toole has completed 58.7 percent of his passes and has nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. In short, he doesn't exactly elicit a wealth of confidence among Illini fans. Wide receiver Mike Dudek has emerged in a big way this year with 69 receptions, 965 yards and six touchdowns, but he's only as good as the quarterback throwing him the ball.

Beating Louisiana Tech won't exactly bolster the Big Ten's reputation, but you can bet an Illini loss will be used as a stick to beat the conference.

 

Do the Fighting Illini Have Any Answer for Kenneth Dixon and Cody Sokol?

Illinois' top objective will be slowing down Kenneth Dixon. The Louisiana Tech running back has run for 1,236 yards and 21 touchdowns this year and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Illinois gave up an average of 249.6 yards a game on the ground, so Dixon could have a field day.

As Sports Illustrated's Bill Carey wrote, the junior enters the game on a rich vein of form and has history on his mind:

Dixon enters the bowl game on a hot streak. He has 10 touchdowns in his last four outings, including three against Marshall in the Conference USA championship on Dec. 6. Those scores gave him the school record of 59 touchdowns. Next up: Dixon is just five yards away from Daniel Porter’s program record of 3,352 career rushing yards, a mark that he could snap on his first play from scrimmage.

Dixon's also caught 26 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns. He's a multifaceted weapon in the Louisiana Tech offense and can beat the Illini in a variety of ways.

If Illinois can neutralize Dixon, then it will heap more pressure on quarterback Cody Sokol. Although the senior threw for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns, he also threw 13 interceptions and completed 58.6 percent of his passes. He's prone to making mistakes, and early issues could grow into major problems as the game unfolds.

As a team, Illinois intercepted just seven passes during the season, so Sokol should be able to avoid turnovers. The Illini can at least get some pressure on him to prevent him from getting into any sort of groove.

Sokol's clearly the weaker link in the Louisiana Tech offense, so Illinois will want to make him win the game. By putting the game in his hands, the Illini should be able to get the better of the Bulldogs.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

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St. Petersburg Bowl 2014: TV Info, Live Stream, Preview for NC State vs. UCF

With all of the family Christmas obligations out of the way, college football fans can go back to their routines of plopping down on the couch and watching games for hours on end.

The day after Christmas alone features three different bowl games, one of which is the St. Petersburg Bowl between North Carolina State and Central Florida. The Wolfpack got bowl-eligible after big wins over Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the season, while the Knights enter having won nine of their last 10 games.

Aesthetically, this game won't be the most beautiful to watch, but football is football.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

NC State will go about as far as quarterback Jacoby Brissett can take it. He has 2,344 passing yards with 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He also added 498 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

In the game against Florida State, which the Wolfpack could have arguably won, Brissett threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns. That defeat was evidence of how good NC State can be when the QB is on his game.

Conversely, Brissett showed the following week how much one of his bad performances can drag the team down. He went 4-of-18 for 35 yards in a 41-0 loss to Clemson.

Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh wrote that Brissett shows flashes of being a potential NFL quarterback and would stand to gain a lot by returning to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015:

He doesn't get mentioned as a first-round prospect, though, because he didn't play with consistency and barely snuck his team into a bowl game. A 6'4" quarterback with a rocket arm and Ben Roethlisberger's leg strength should not be a middle-round pick.

Brissett, then, would stand to gain a lot by returning. He is one of the few quarterbacks who could start the year off the radar and legitimately rise into the first round. His top seven receivers are all set to return, and Brissett has the arm to take advantage.

A bowl game could be a great springboard for the junior going into next year.

Unfortunately for Brissett, UCF boasts a defense that ranks eighth in points allowed (17.9 PPG), 12th in passing yards allowed (185.4 YPG) and 10th in interceptions (18).

Jacoby Glenn and Terrance Plummer are among the biggest reasons for the Knights' strength on that side of the ball. Glenn, a sophomore defensive back, leads the team in interceptions (7) and defended passes (18). Plummer, a senior linebacker, leads the team in tackles (92) and tackles for loss (12.5).

Glenn's being mentioned as a strong NFL draft prospect, which is no surprise to Plummer, per Shannon Owens-Green of the Orlando Sentinel:

I think he's always been this good. I think he's just starting to get the recognition. His maturation process has actually been him taking coaching better, him going out there and taking practice more serious and making sure he does his job. I think that’s where he really improved.

We're trying not to be that guy who is always on him saying 'you're so good, you're so good.' We're trying to push him because when people know they're that good, it's not good. When somebody's on your back all the time, you keep striving for greatness and I think that's what he's doing and we're all so proud of him.

Even if, like Brissett, Glenn stays in college for another year, it's never too early to begin building that draft resume. Shutting down the Wolfpack QB would be a nice feather in Glenn's cap and a great way to close out 2014.

Of course, Brissett has a lot to gain as well should he consistently challenge and beat Glenn with pinpoint passes.

The individual battle between quarterback and defensive back alone should be worth the price of admission.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

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