NCAA Football News

Oregon vs. Ohio State: TV Info, Preview for 2015 College Football Championship

God bless the College Football Playoff. Under the old BCS system, neither Oregon nor Ohio State would have been afforded the chance to compete for the national title.

Both the Ducks and the Buckeyes would have almost certainly been excluded from the top two, with Alabama and Florida State occupying first and second in whatever order.

How ironic it was then that Oregon defeated the Seminoles by 39 points on Thursday, followed by Ohio State's win over the Crimson Tide later in the night.

They were the perfect results for the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship.

 

When: Monday, Jan. 12, at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

You get the feeling that this is the nightmare matchup for both teams. Ohio State's speed will give the Oregon defense all kinds of headaches, especially with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's injury, while Marcus Mariota didn't look to be suffering from any sort of Heisman Trophy curse in the victory over the 'Noles.

Urban Meyer's sense of dread was palpable after he heard the final score from Oregon-FSU during the Buckeyes' post-game press conference:

From a neutral perspective, the college football gods couldn't have picked a better matchup for the national championship. Points and yards should come in abundance, with neither team owning a discernible advantage over the other.

Here's where OSU and Oregon ranked in a few of the major offensive categories before Thursday's games:

While the Ducks gave up an average of 85.8 more yards a game defensively, they allowed only an average of 1.3 more points a game, so the difference between the respective defenses isn't all that significant.

Much attention will be paid to the team's starting quarterbacks, Mariota and Cardale Jones. In this respect, Oregon has a decided edge. Mariota was one of the best players in the country this year, while Jones will be making his third career start. The sophomore wasn't exactly brilliant in the Sugar Bowl, either, going 18-of-35 for 243 yards with one touchdown and an interception.

Ohio State's equalizer will be Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards and two TDs. His 85-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter fave the Buckeyes a much-needed cushion and covered for what was a struggling offense at the time.

Elliott's performance over the last two games has helped to alleviate a ton of pressure on Jones, per Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:

The more Oregon keeps Elliott in check, the more Jones will have to win the game on his own. Buckeyes fans won't be confident with that prospect, no matter how much Jones has avoided making costly mistakes in his first two starts.

However, with the way the sophomore is running the ball, the Buckeyes might not have to worry at all. The kind of speed Elliott offers is what makes this team different from the ones that lost back-to-back national championships in 2007 and 2008.

On the other side, the most positive development for Oregon in the Rose Bowl might have been the fact that it had the full complement of its offensive line, per ESPN.com's Ted Miller:

Center Hroniss Grasu was the big one, since his status was a well-kept secret over the past month. Having him anchor the line will help keep a defense that averaged 3.08 sacks a game out of the backfield. Joey Bosa has the potential to wreck this game for Oregon.

The Ducks' worst performances of the season almost all started with the fact that the O-line couldn't protect Mariota. Mariota had so little time to throw. They walked away with only one loss because he almost single-handedly carried the team.

That's no longer the case, and Oregon's won its last six games by 32 points.

Few fans outside Ohio will be backing the Buckeyes, but the same could have been said about OSU heading into the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State's made that leap from good-but-not-great Big Ten power to serious title contender and will be giving Oregon one of its toughest tests of the season.

 

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

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Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl 2015: Top Recruits, Rosters for All-Star Game

The Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl is one of several annual showcases for the top high school football recruits in the country. What sets it apart is the fact that the process for choosing players is not based only on their on-field ability.

It's an event supported by the United States Marine Corps. The official site states those picked to participate "bring something more to the game" aside from being great football players. Things such as community service are weaved into the schedule in the days leading up to the game.

The contest itself is set for Sunday at 9 p.m. ET from the StubHub Center in Carson, California. Let's check out the complete rosters for the East and West squads followed by a closer look at a couple of intriguing prospects worth keeping an eye on.

 

East Roster

 

West Roster

 

Top Recruits to Watch

East: Carlton Davis (DB)

Davis is a prospect on the rise. He's been projected as both a safety and a cornerback, but his development at the latter is intriguing. At a time when teams at both the college and pro levels are looking for bigger, more physical corners, he fits the mold with a 6'2'' frame.

The Ohio State commit is only a 3-star prospect ranking just inside the top 450 nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. He's made major strides in a relatively short period of time, however, meaning the Buckeyes are likely far higher on him than that rating would suggest.

They should be. The more he's gotten a chance to go up against fellow marquee recruits, the more he's proved himself to be on the same level. Erik McKinney of ESPN has been impressed with him during the workouts leading up to the game:

It will be interesting to see if Davis works exclusively at corner or takes some snaps from the safety spots as well. While corner definitely looks like his best bet for the long haul, versatility is always nice when trying to crack the lineup.

Either way, the outlook continues to get brighter for Davis.

 

West: Sheriron Jones (QB)

Jones is once again a highly coveted commodity after decommitting from Florida in December. The 4-star dual-threat quarterback possesses good size and is always a threat to make a big play with his legs when things break down in the pocket.

The biggest concern, and it's a common one, is whether he sports the pure passing talent to excel at the collegiate level. He needs to continue to mature in terms of reading defenses, standing tall in the pocket to deliver strikes in the face of pressure.

Renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield spoke with Andrew Spivey of Gator Country after working with the Rancho Verde High School star. He said there was definitely some work to do but that the raw ability jumped out right away.

"We've only been around him about four days, but he is getting better every day," Whitfield said. "No flinch, there's no flinch to him. He is talented. He's actually one of the most physically talented down here. He can do all things, he just needs and is going to get more time to develop, I'm sure."

These type of games aren't always easy for quarterbacks to play in. The position relies heavily on timing and chemistry, which is tough to develop in a short period. But Jones should be able to stand out anyway as interested programs look on.

 

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Birmingham Bowl 2015: ECU vs. Florida TV Info, Spread, Time, Injury News, More

A Jan. 3 matchup against East Carolina at high noon in the Birmingham Bowl is not exactly how the season was supposed to unfold for the Florida Gators.

After all, this is an SEC program that has multiple crystal footballs in the trophy case. Birmingham Bowl trophies just don’t have the same allure as national championships, even in a down season. It would not be much of a jump to assume this game means more for East Carolina than it does for Florida, considering it is a chance for a team in the American Athletic Conference to beat the SEC.

Here is a look at the essential information for the game.

 

2015 Birmingham Bowl

Matchup: Florida vs. East Carolina

Date: Saturday, Jan. 3

Time: 12 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Spread: Florida -7 (via Odds Shark, as of Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET)

 

Injury Report (via USA Today, as of Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET)

 

Preview/Prediction

Any game that features East Carolina—even one against an SEC opponent—comes down to its high-octane offense.

The Pirates finished fifth in the country in yards per game (532.8), 15th in scoring offense (37.2 points per game) and third in passing yards per game (367.3). Think all of those numbers came because of a weak American Athletic Conference schedule?

Think again.

The Pirates squared off with three Power Five conference opponents in South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina and put up an average of 581.3 yards and 40.3 points in those three contests. The only game they lost in that stretch came against South Carolina, but they destroyed the Tar Heels to the tune of 70-41.

The main reason East Carolina was such a formidable offense was quarterback Shane Carden, who was second in the nation with 4,309 passing yards and 28 touchdown tosses. Wide receiver Justin Hardy was his main weapon, and he finished with 1,334 receiving yards and nine touchdowns and earned third-team All-American honors.

Tony Barnhart of The SEC Network noted that the individual matchup between Hardy and second-team All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III of Florida is the one to watch in this bowl:

East Carolina may feature a dominant offense, but Florida’s strength is on the defensive side of the ball. The Gators were a solid 22nd in the country in scoring defense and ninth in yards allowed per game.

Florida interim head coach and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin discussed the upcoming matchup, per STATS LLC, via ESPN.com:

Our guys know the challenge we have ahead of us. Everyone keeps mentioning all the stats and numbers, which are very impressive and eye opening. The most important thing to me, when you turn on the film, is that they have a group of guys who play the game the right way.

They play really hard and with great energy. They have great enthusiasm, and you can tell they take great pride in what is going on.

On the other side of the ball, Florida is not going to inspire much confidence with its offense. The Gators didn’t even reach 300 yards in five separate games and finished an abysmal 106th in the nation in passing yards. A large portion of Florida’s statistical output came in blowout victories over Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky.

It’s not like East Carolina is a defensive juggernaut, but it was a middle-of-the-road 54th in the country in scoring defense. It struggled against the Tar Heels (41 points allowed) and Cincinnati (54 points allowed), but the good news for the Pirates is they are impressive against the run.

In fact, they finished ninth in the country in rush defense, which is critical in this game because the Gators move the ball on offense on the ground (43rd in the country in rushing yards per game and 106th in passing).

The Gators may be a much stronger defense than East Carolina is accustomed to facing, but the Pirates should contain the middling Florida attack. That means the high-powered East Carolina offense won’t have to score as many points as it usually does to win.

Conference affiliation won’t matter in this one. Look for an East Carolina upset behind one of the most dynamic offenses in the country and a formidable run defense that will stop the Florida rushing attack.

Prediction: East Carolina 31, Florida 20

 

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Under Armour All-America Game 2015: Top Recruits to Watch During Showcase

College football's future will be on display Friday at Tropicana Field. 

The Under Armour All-America Game is meant to be an entertaining exhibition that rewards many of the country's best young prospects for standout senior seasons. But oftentimes it becomes a strong indicator of players who will be making an impact on college campuses in about nine short months. 

During last year's game, Leonard Fournette, Speedy Noil, Dalvin Cook and Travis Rudolph all stood out, and each of them has relayed that success into impressive true freshman campaigns.

Let's take a look at some candidates to follow a similar path in 2015.

 

Date: Friday, Jan. 2

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Location: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida 

TV: ESPN2

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Byron Cowart, DE, Undecided

This gives you a good idea of what Byron Cowart is capable of, via Rivals' Mike Farrell:

Goodness. That would be 4-star offensive tackle and top-100 recruit Keenan Walker getting pancaked like he was on roller skates. 

"I'm just trying to show people that I'm violent and dominant and aggressive and relentless," said Cowart, via Wesley Sinor of AL.com. "If I say I look up to guys like (Ndamukong) Suh and (Nick) Fairley, I have to play just like them."

The 5-star uncommitted defensive end from Florida is a tantalizing blend of size, speed and power. Defensive players don't always get a ton of recognition in exhibition games like this, but an edge-rusher with Cowart's kind of explosion could easily put on a show. 

Keep a very close eye on him. 

 

Damien Harris, RB, Undecided

This year's running back class isn't quite as strong as the previous year's, which featured Fournette as the No. 1 player in many circles. But that doesn't mean it's void of talent. 

Damien Harris, in particular, is an exciting prospect. He's a strong runner with terrific vision, game-breaking speed and the versatility to make plays as a pass-catcher, as ESPN's Tom VanHaaren shows:

247Sports' JC Shurburtt put it simply:

With quarterbacks and wide receivers not always possessing great chemistry after only a week of practice, these games often feature the running backs. Harris, who is extremely skilled and explosive, should see a lot of touches both in the running game and as a receiver. 

 

Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

A 5-star wide receiver committed to Alabama, Calvin Ridley was "virtually unstoppable" during practice against top cornerback Iman Marshall, according to 247Sports.com

That's not really a surprise. Although he doesn't possess immense size (6'0", 170 pounds), he is long, knows how to create separation and has the speed to either take the top off a defense or take the ball to the house if he gets any kind of lane.  

When it comes down to it, Ridley is a true playmaker, and one way or another, he's going to find a way to put on a show. While most of his action will likely come in the passing game, he could also have an impact on returns, per Rivals' Andrew Bone:

Either way, Alabama fans are going to get a glimpse of a player who could very easily prove key in replacing the production of Amari Cooper. 

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College Football Championship 2015: Early Preview for Oregon vs. Ohio State

The College Football Playoff kicked off in stupendous style on New Year's Day. Oregon blew out the defending champion Florida State Seminoles 59-20, while Ohio State staged a rousing comeback to top Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl.

That sets the stage for the Buckeyes and the Ducks to battle it out for the national championship on January 12 at AT&T Stadium.

SportsCenter notes that Oregon is considered the favorite to start, which makes sense in light of its dominant outing in Pasadena:

Recent history has seen the likes of Alabama and Florida State reach college football's mountaintop with a physical style of play, pro-style offensive principles and old-school grit. The new-age, flashy spread teams have often come up small on the big stage.

Such wasn't the case Thursday, and now the national title will be contested between two high-octane offenses that should have no trouble lighting up the scoreboard and providing a great show.

Prior to a more detailed early breakdown of the upcoming Oregon-Ohio State showdown, take a look at the viewing information for the epic finale of this new postseason format.

 

No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 4 Ohio State Preview

What's quite stunning about the Ducks' trouncing of Florida State is that Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota missed some easy throws in the first half that could have broken the game open sooner.

Although the Seminoles helped Oregon by giving the ball away five times, Mariota and his offense demoralized FSU into a meltdown after a tight start.

This note from ESPN Stats & Info shows how little margin of error Oregon's opponents have:

The Buckeyes put themselves in an early 21-6 hole and committed two critical turnovers versus Alabama. Starting slowly against the Ducks may doom OSU, as it must establish a ground game led by Ezekiel Elliott.

Considering Elliott gashed the Tide's top-ranked rush defense for 230 yards on just 20 carries, that task seems feasible.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports highlighted how brilliant Elliott has been in carrying the offensive load for Ohio State amid a turbulent quarterback situation:

Third-string QB Cardale Jones has led the Buckeyes to wins in the Big Ten title game and in the Sugar Bowl, proving he can handle the spotlight. His demeanor shouldn't change now, but he'd have to play his best yet to outgun Mariota for the national championship.

Jones and the OSU offense stalled Thursday in the fourth quarter before Elliott saved the day with an 85-yard touchdown run. Nevertheless, it's been a brilliant coaching job by Urban Meyer to push the Buckeyes to the brink of a championship.

The following comments from Meyer suggest that the College Football Playoff's cap-off clash will have to be close (via Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel):

Feldman reports that electric Ducks wideout Devon Allen is expected to miss the national championship contest, so that will help Ohio State's secondary and aid the efforts of its top-flight pass rush.

In a game that may well come down to the final possession, Mariota should give the Ducks the edge to pull off a victory. The absence of Allen didn't hurt Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and its uptempo rushing attack racked up 301 yards and five touchdowns.

A triumph in this one would cap off a dream season for Mariota. He won't be able to run as well against the Buckeyes' athletic front seven, which features defensive end Joey Bosa and rangy linebacker Darron Lee, but Mariota's improvisational skills to produce big passing plays will be the difference.

As much deserved attention and acclaim as Meyer will continue to attract regardless of the result moving forward, Ducks coach Mark Helfrich would acquit himself as a most worthy successor to Chip Kelly, if he hasn't already.

Helfrich has kept Oregon on course since Kelly's NFL departure, and the Ducks, like their offense, are showing few signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Prediction: Oregon 35, Ohio State 31

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Game Grades, Analysis for Alabama vs. Ohio State

Urban Meyer and No. 4 Ohio State overcame a 15-point first-half deficit against No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Thursday night, scoring 28 unanswered points in a 42-35 victory to advance to the national championship against Oregon. 

The Buckeyes, who spent a majority of the three weeks leading up to the game as nine-point underdogs, piled up 537 total yards on the vaunted Crimson Tide defense. That helped Ohio State overcome two costly first-half turnovers, setting a pace that Alabama just couldn't match.

The game capped an incredible day for the Big Ten Conference and was the final letdown in a miserable bowl showing from the SEC West. 

How did the Tide and the Buckeyes grade out from their highly entertaining Sugar Bowl matchup?

 

Alabama Crimson Tide Grade Analysis

Pass Offense 

Blake Sims had only thrown seven interceptions all year, but the senior quarterback threw three costly picks in the Sugar Bowl, all of which came in the second half.

The first was returned by the Ohio State defense for a touchdown. The second came with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when Alabama was gunning to retake the lead. The third came on the final play of the game on a desperate Hail Mary.

Sims had just 237 passing yards on 36 attempts, and Amari Cooper was bottled up for 71 receiving yards—although he did catch both of Sims' touchdown passes. 

 

Run Offense 

Derrick Henry ran all over Ohio State's defense, piling up 95 yards and and a touchdown on just 13 carries. He was the bright spot in a ground attack that should have been featured more, as he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. Sims and a hampered T.J. Yeldon weren't nearly as effective, though, adding just 76 yards on 20 carries.

 

Pass Defense 

Much was made of Ohio State's slim chances against Alabama because it was down to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones. That projection looked spot-on early, as Alabama flustered the redshirt sophomore into five straight incompletions to start the game. But Jones settled in, completing 17 of his next 24 passes as the Buckeyes rallied from 15 points down.

The Alabama secondary struggled with Devin Smith's speed, as he hauled in two passes that went for more than 40 yards. The Buckeyes had three receivers (Smith, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall) register more than 50 receiving yards.

 

Run Defense 

Alabama came into the game with the nation's top run defense, but Ohio State did whatever it wanted in the Sugar Bowl. Ezekiel Elliott hit the 100-yard mark before the first quarter was up, and his 85-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter iced the game.

The Buckeyes ran for 281 yards on just 42 carries, averaging 6.6 yards per carry against an Alabama defense that had only surrendered 88.7 rushing yards per game throughout the regular season. 

 

Special Teams 

If Alabama had rallied to win the game in the fourth quarter, the case could have been made for punter JK Scott to be the game's MVP. The freshman was absolutely sensational, averaging 55 yards on seven punts, four of which pinned Ohio State inside its own 10. He almost single-handedly got Alabama back into the game when it fell into a deep hole in the fourth quarter. 

Christion Jones had a rough night in the return game, and Adam Griffith wasn't called on for a field-goal attempt, but Scott was so good that the Tide's special teams earned a perfect grade.

 

Coaching 

Alabama squandered too many opportunities against the Buckeyes, and a lot of that blame falls on offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The Buckeyes were having no luck against Henry, especially when he got to the perimeter, but Kiffin only gave him 13 carries.

When the Buckeyes surged in the second and third quarters, Alabama could have slowed the pace and changed the momentum with the run game. Kiffin stubbornly challenged Ohio State's secondary, which ultimately cost Alabama a shot at Oregon and a national title.

 

Ohio State Buckeyes Grade Analysis

Pass Offense 

Alabama's secondary was susceptible to the big play all year, so it was a safe bet that Ohio State would attack that weakness with a few deep balls. Smith came up huge for the Buckeyes, hauling in two big passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. Marshall and Thomas were the Buckeyes' top pass-catchers, though, catching 12 passes for a combined 121 yards and a touchdown.

Jones completed just 51.4 percent of his passes, but he still managed to throw for 243 yards and a touchdown (against one interception). The Buckeyes also got creative in the waning moments of the second quarter, dialing up a double-reverse only to have Evan Spencer throw a miracle pass to Thomas for a 13-yard touchdown. 

 

Run Offense 

Alabama hadn't allowed a single 100-yard rusher all season long, but Elliott hit that mark before the first quarter expired. That was the start of an absolutely dominant performance from the true sophomore, who rushed for an incredible 230 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries.

Jones was effective running the ball as well, highlighted by scampers of 20 and 27 yards, as the Buckeyes torched Alabama with 281 total yards on the ground.

The only hiccup came when Elliott fumbled the ball at the end of a 17-yard run early in the first quarter. That was the lone setback in an otherwise outstanding performance for the Buckeyes' run offense.

 

Pass Defense 

Sims and the Alabama passing attack never found a rhythm against Ohio State's defense. The Buckeyes generated good pressure with linebacker Darron Lee and an inspired effort from the defensive line, notching three sacks. The secondary was also very disciplined against the Tide and their effective play-action sets.

Ohio State came up with three interceptions, one of which was returned by defensive end Steve Miller for a touchdown, while another from safety Tyvis Powell sealed the Buckeyes victory on the final play of the game. The secondary also did a sensational job against Cooper, limiting him to just 71 receiving yards—his third-worst output of the season.

 

Run Defense 

How can a defense stop a running back who looks more like a runaway train in the open field than a football player? That was the reality Ohio State faced on Thursday against Henry, who had trouble pounding his way to 95 yards and a touchdown. The Buckeyes should be thankful that Kiffin didn't decide to feature Henry, because they clearly had no answer for the 6'3", 241-pound sophomore. 

Outside of Henry, however, the Buckeyes did a good job of bottling up Alabama's run game. Non-Henry Alabama ball-carriers averaged a meager 3.5 yards per rush as Alabama totaled 170 yards on the ground.

 

Special Teams 

Ohio State was also fortunate to overcome some rough play from the special teams. Freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger was perfect on his two chip-shot field goals, and Cameron Johnston had a solid outing, averaging 46.5 yards on six punts. But a 21-yard punt early in the fourth quarter nearly cost Ohio State dearly, as it set Alabama up at the Buckeyes' 23-yard line.

Neither Marshall nor Curtis Samuel had a great day in the return game, but Spencer may have made the play of the game with his fingertip catch on Alabama's onside attempt late in the fourth quarter.

 

Coaching 

Ohio State's coaching staff put together a brilliant game plan on both sides of the ball, and it prepared the team to execute it very well. It would have been easy to give up on the run after falling into a 15-point hole, but the Buckeyes stuck to their guns and fought their way back into the game. Cardale Jones was efficient and was careful not to make a catastrophic mistake. 

The defense surrendered 35 points, but 40 percent of that scoring came after bad turnovers from the offense. That Cooper only managed to account for 71 receiving yards was huge for the Buckeyes, and that's a credit to co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

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College Football: New Year's Bowl Recap and Game Attended

Catch your breath everyone, both of the inaugural College Football Playoff matchups are in the books. Now we can relax until the night of Jan. 12, when either Oregon or Ohio State are crowned as the 2015 national champion in Arlington, Texas.

The Rose Bowl was anticipated to be one of the best games of the bowl season, with Heisman quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston squaring off, but the Ducks proved why they were deserving of their No. 2 ranking. They took a close 18-13 lead into the half, but they exploded in the second half by outscoring Florida State 41-7 in a 59-20 blowout to ruin its 29-game win streak.

Oregon set a Rose Bowl record with the most points scored and caused five Seminole turnovers in the second half. Marcus Mariota, who finished the game with 338 passing yards and three total touchdowns, helped a lethal Oregon offense rack up 639 total yards of offense and will lead his team to a second national championship game in five years.

Urban Meyer versus Nick Saban lived up to the hype with the game ending on an intercepted last-second Hail Mary pass by Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, which gave Ohio State a 42-35 upset victory to advance to its first national championship since 2008.

The Crimson Tide took a 21-6 lead in the second quarter, but the Buckeyes battled back to get two touchdowns in the remaining three minutes of the first half to trail only 21-20.

Ohio State third-string sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones would then connect with Devin Smith for a 47-yard touchdown early in the third quarter, and the Buckeyes took a solid 34-21 lead when Steven Miller returned a 41-yard interception for a touchdown. The Buckeyes scored 28 unanswered points, before Alabama answered on a Sims five-yard touchdown run with 1:01 left in the third quarter. 

The Crimson Tide tried to hang in the game, but the defense couldn’t catch explosive running back Ezekiel Elliott late in regulation, when he raced for an 85-yard touchdown run. Ezekiel finished the game with 230 yards and two touchdowns, breaking a Sugar Bowl rushing record.

While much of the focus was on the College Football Playoff, there were wild finishes in both the Outback and Cotton Bowl. Interim head coach and current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez earned another win over Auburn in a New Year’s bowl game, with his last being in the Capital One Bowl back in 2006. It took overtime for Wisconsin to come away with a 34-31 win, which was its first bowl win since 2009.

Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon had another impressive performance for the Badgers, as he recorded 34 carries for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Gordon broke an Outback Bowl record and also moved into second place for rushing yards in a single season with 2,587 yards.

In Arlington, fifth-ranked Baylor appeared to be on the verge of winning its biggest bowl game in recent memory. Then it failed to close out a tough eighth-ranked Michigan State squad that scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

A blocked Chris Callahan 43-yard field goal, which was returned by the Spartans for 36 yards to the Baylor 45-yard line, was the turning point late in the fourth quarter.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook would eventually lead an eight-play drive and complete a 10-yard touchdown pass to Keith Mumphery with 17 seconds remaining to give the Spartans the go-ahead score and a 42-41 Cotton Bowl victory.

 

Game Attended: Fiesta Bowl, No. 10 Arizona 30 vs. No. 20 Boise State 38

It turned into one of the most exciting Big Six games of the bowl season, with an Arizona second-half comeback that fell just short on a final drive in Boise State’s red zone as time expired. The game didn’t start close though, as Boise State opened its first three drives with touchdowns to take a 21-0 lead.

Running back Jay Ajayi rushed for a 56-yard touchdown and also scored on 16-yard run on a well-executed Statue of Liberty play. Quarterback Grant Hedrick, who completed his first 14 passes and finished the first half 17-of-18 for 272 yards, also pitched in with a 57-yard touchdown pass to Chaz Anderson. 

The Wildcats would eventually score late in the first quarter on a one-yard run by Anu Solomon to cut the deficit to 21-7.

Ajayi was able to find the end zone for a third time on a one-yard run early in the second quarter, but Arizona would find its way back into the game with a Nick Wilson one-yard rushing touchdown and a Casey Skowron 42-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.

Boise State did answer on a four-play drive though, which consisted of big plays from Hedrick to wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck and resulted in a Dan Goodale 36-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in the second quarter. Boise State would go into the half with a 31-17 lead. 

The second half favored the Wildcats, as they outscored the Broncos 13-7. Arizona’s defense, headed by Scooby Wright and Tra’Mayne Bondurant, held a Boise State offense that had racked up 397 yards of offense in the first half to only two total yards in the third quarter.

Despite having success, Solomon managed to throw an interception into the hands of Boise State cornerback Donte Deayon for a 16-yard pick-six with 1:57 left in the third quarter. That turned out to be the difference-maker, as Arizona was unable to come down the field in the final minutes and tie the game to force overtime.

Boise State moved to 3-0 all time in the Fiesta Bowl and achieved its sixth 12-win season since 2006.

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Welcome to the Madness: Ohio State Validates Playoff with Upset of Alabama

Take a bow, selection committee. You too, Bill Hancock. And you too, ESPN, for dumping an ungodly amount of money into this “radical” idea for a college football postseason and sticking the landing.

Please take a few days off. Take these flowers. Here, enjoy these free drink tickets, all on us. You’ve earned them. It’s the least we can do for giving us the College Football Playoff, an experiment that has already proved to be invaluable after only eight spectacular hours and one magnificent, monumental upset.

Ohio State’s 42-35 Sugar Bowl win over mighty Alabama—an upset no one outside Columbus could have predicted with any true confidence—wasn’t just wildly entertaining. It wasn’t just extra college football being played with two quality teams.

It was validation that the College Football Playoff—despite the strange, contentious and (at times) frustrating path to arrive to January 1—was a colossal success in its first year. It might not be perfect just yet, and it probably never will be, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop hugging it for a while.

Go on, we understand.

In a different era—you have to go all the way back to last year—our national championship would’ve been served to us on a worn-out BCS-engraved platter by a computer formula. 

The teams, had the BCS still been fully operational for another year, would have been No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida State with no semifinal barrier to get through. We would have felt for the No. 3 team, Oregon, although we would have accepted the title game for what it was after a few hours of heated debate.

It was all we knew; we were so naive way back then. 

Ohio State would have been a really wonderful story and nothing more. Urban Meyer's team closed out the year with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones—wow, imagine that!—and we would have celebrated its trip to the Rose Bowl. This Rose Bowl wouldn’t have been a playoff semifinal, of course, but rather another exhibition, albeit one with brighter lights and bigger sponsor dollars.

The Buckeyes, left for dead before the season began after losing their star quarterback, Braxton Miller—and left for dead once more after losing their next star quarterback, J.T. Barrett—would have played one game and been done. The results of this contest wouldn’t have mattered, and it would have been on to next season. 

Remember these days? I hope you do because it wasn’t that long ago.

Under old guidelines, Thursday doesn’t happen. The national championship between Oregon and Ohio State on January 12 doesn’t happen. Urban Meyer’s reaction to news of an Oregon blowout doesn’t happen, which would have been a tremendous loss.

We broke free of the formula, and the end result is unexpected mayhem of the most welcomed kind. 

Think about it: The first-ever No. 4 seed in the first-ever College Football Playoff—a team that snuck in after delivering a timely blowout of the most unexpected kind—just conquered the sport’s tallest, widest and strongest giant with a quarterback that has yet to start in his first regular-season collegiate game. 

It did it behind Jones’ arm and his legs. The third-string quarterback—which is a label we should probably just drop at this point—finished with 243 yards passing, 43 yards rushing and a touchdown. It didn’t hurt to have Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, either. Elliott finished with 230 yards rushing and two scores, looking the part of the best player on the field.

If I told you that Jones and Elliott would account for more than 500 yards of offense in a semifinal win over Alabama back in late September, what would your response have been other than asking that I be committed? 

Even if you’re an Alabama fan feeling the effects of larynx-destroying “Run the dang ball, Kiffin!” cries, you can still (hopefully) appreciate what this Ohio State team was about to accomplish.

"We're gonna do the best we can to represent the Big 10 & the great state of Ohio" -Urban Meyer #SugarBowlpic.twitter.com/T1lEHXUZop

— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 2, 2015

And if you’re simply a fan of college football, Thursday night's developments should have you encouraged about the future of the sport’s postseason.

There will be tweaks along the way in the selection process—and the debates over the number of teams included will surface every now and then, just like always—but the foundation is promising.

The distraction and controversy over the selection committee took away from the true value of the College Football Playoff. Finally, for the first time in the sport’s history, results and moments are running the show.

As we saw on Thursday, this is more powerful than any committee, poll or ranking.

No matter what size the playoff eventually settles at, the teams involved will always be hotly debated. But those same teams that are granted access for that year will have the opportunity to prove their worth in games that we can only hope will be as good as this one.

Enjoy the time off, selection committee. And don’t worry, Bill Hancock, we'll forget about the fact that you fought this playoff for so long. In fact, here’s an extra drink ticket to show you there are no hard feelings. 

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Was 2014 Season a Failure for Alabama Crimson Tide?

Alabama finished the season 12-2 and earned a spot in the first ever College Football Playoffs, which would be good enough for most teams but not for the Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder debate whether this past season was a failure for Alabama.

Was this season a failure for the Crimson Tide?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Ohio State vs. Oregon: Instant Preview of the College Football Playoff Final

The first national championship game of the College Football Playoff era is set. Rose Bowl champion Oregon will play Sugar Bowl champion Ohio State for the national title on Monday, Jan. 12.

The Ducks advanced after a 59-20 demolition of the defending national champion, Florida State, in which they ended the longest winning streak in the country (29 games). The Buckeyes advanced after upsetting Alabama in New Orleans, 42-35.

In a funny coincidence, these teams actually have a common opponent: Michigan State, a team Oregon beat 46-27 on its home field and Ohio State beat 49-37 on the road.

But how will it all go down when they take the field at Jerry's World?

Let's take a look.

When: Monday, Jan. 12 — 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)

Watch: ESPN

Early Line: Oregon (-7), per David Purdum of ESPN

 

Biggest Storyline: The Heisman Winner vs. The Third Stringer

Marcus Mariota was a wire-to-wire Heisman Trophy favorite who won the award by one of the biggest margins ever.

Cardale Jones entered fall camp No. 3 on the depth chart and didn't make the first start of his career until the Big Ten title game.

Advantage: Oregon.

Or is it?

Jones led Ohio State to 59 points against Wisconsin and 42 points against Alabama, using every inch of his massive frame (6'5", 250 lbs) to rocket the ball downfield and plow through defenders on the ground.

He isn't actually better than Mariota—not even close—but he's good enough to play the Heisman winner to a draw for 60 minutes. And if he does, Ohio State is good enough to win it all.

"Thanks for telling me we're playing Oregon," Jones told Joe Schad of ESPN after the game. "I look forward to playing the Heisman winner."

And the world looks forward to watching him.

 

Best Matchup: Oregon's Offensive Line vs. Ohio State's Front Seven

Oregon won the line of scrimmage against Florida State, rushing for 301 yards on 45 carries. It entered the CFP ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted line yards—Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metric for run blocking—and lived up to its billing in Pasadena.

Ohio State has a front seven that can hang with them, highlighted by defensive end Joey Bosa, defensive tackle Michael Bennett and linebacker Darron Lee. But the Buckeyes are top-heavy along the defensive line, loaded with start power but lacking for depth.

And depth is the key against Oregon.

Can Ohio State keep up with Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost's offensive pace? Or will the Ducks wear down the Buckeyes in the trenches?

The answer might determine the national champion.

 

Key to the Game: Finishing Drives

Ohio State will not be stopped between the 20s. At this point, that seems like a given. It gained 537 yards on 78 plays against Alabama, 558 yards on 56 plays against Wisconsin and 568 yards on 67 plays at Michigan State.

Altogether, it averaged 8.27 yards per play in those games.

But the Buckeyes trailed the Crimson Tide 21-6 at one point Saturday because they couldn't finish drives with touchdowns. They suffered a similar fate against the Spartans, albeit because of turnovers, trailing 21-14 before scoring 28 of the next 31 points.

Oregon, meanwhile, got pasted between the 20s by Florida State but managed to bend without breaking. It stopped Winston at the goal line on a critical 4th-and-goal and forced three field-goal attempts.

Considering the way each unit—Ohio State's offense and Oregon's defense—is rolling right now, it's hard to imagine the Ducks forcing many punts or three-and-outs. But if they can minimize the damage of each trip down to the red zone, it might not matter.

 

Prediction

Let's look to that common opponent.

Oregon beat Michigan State by 19 points. Ohio State beat Michigan State by 12 points. But the score was not indicative of those games.

Sparty hung close with the Ducks before fading in the second half, and they did it in Autzen Stadium on a 100-degree day when their depth couldn't handle the pace of Oregon's offense. Ohio State handed Sparty a thorough beatdown on their home field and "only" won by 12 after some garbage-time scoring.

The absence of J.T. Barrett, who started for the Buckeyes when they played in East Lansing, is an obvious variable to consider. But two games into the Jones experiment, the drop-off has looked negligible.

Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes playing inspired, creative football, which could also be said of Helfrich and the Ducks, but not to the same extent. Alabama was the No. 1 team in the country. Florida State was (an overrated) No. 3. And even though the final score looked lopsided, the 'Noles left a lot of points on the board in the first half.

Ohio State is too hot right now. Meyer's big-game experience gives the Buckeyes the ultimate edge.

Final Score: Ohio State 38, Oregon 35

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Ezekiel Elliott Shows He Is Key to Ohio State's National Championship Hopes

At a pair of Sugar Bowl media day appearances earlier this week, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott saw his name misspelled not once but twice, on name tags used to indicate his podium.

After his performance in the game, it's safe to say that's not a problem he'll have to worry about for the foreseeable future.

The second part of the first-ever College Football Playoff certainly lived up to the hype, with Ohio State and Alabama slugging it out in a Sugar Bowl that Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer described as a "sledgehammer game."  But in a matchup between two college football powers with no shortage of stars on either sideline, it was Elliott who shined the brightest, totaling 230 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's 42-35 win over the Crimson Tide.

"We had momentum as an offense," Elliott said in the Buckeyes' postgame celebration. "I really had faith in my boys and I knew that they were going to pave for me."

The OSU offense did that—and then some—with Elliott taking advantage of every opportunity that was given to him against Alabama's top-ranked rushing defense. With that, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes advanced to the National Championship Game in Arlington, Texas, where No. 2 Oregon awaits.

"There's a perception out there that we're not [good enough]," Meyer said. "We are good enough."

The play of Elliott has given Meyer plenty of reason to believe that, as the sophomore running back has now rushed for 1,632 yards on the season—the fourth most in Ohio State history. Elliott has been particularly impressive in the Buckeyes' past two games, rushing for 220 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, which proved just to be a prelude for his record-setting performance in New Orleans.

And while 200-yard rushing performances are beneficial regardless of any team's circumstances, Elliott's emergence couldn't have come at a better time for Ohio State. Down to their third quarterback of the season in Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes have needed all of the help that they could get, which Elliott has provided plenty of.

"A quarterback is the product of those around him," Meyer said when asked about Jones after the Sugar Bowl. "He's got some good players around him."

As Ohio State's improbable postseason run continues, the Buckeyes will need Elliott to continue at the remarkable clip that he played at against Wisconsin and Alabama. The Ducks' rushing defense also leaves something to be desired, surrendering an average of 152.8 yards per game, good for 46th in the nation.

If the 6'0", 225-pounder's latest outing was any indication, the Buckeyes should be in good shape. Against a defense that hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, Elliott rushed for 100 yards in the first quarter alone, and seemed to seal the Crimson Tide's fate with an 85-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.

"He's probably the most underrated back in the country," Meyer said. "Against that defense—I'm not sure what he ran for, but it was a lot of yards."

It was 230 to be exact, the most ever in the Sugar Bowl's storied history. While Ohio State's quarterback situation and stars like defensive end Joey Bosa have dominated the conversation when it's come to the Buckeyes this season, Elliott has quietly emerged as their most reliable—and most important—player.

And with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota headlining the national title game, and the future of the Buckeyes' quarterback position growing increasingly unclear, Elliott could again find himself as a forgotten man on college football's grandest stage. But if the Buckeyes are going to capture their eighth national championship in program history, count on a big game from their Show Me State native in the backfield.

"We're really thankful for the playoff system," Elliott said. "They gave us a chance to go out there and show that we're one of the better teams in the country and that we deserve to be in the national championship. I think the playoff system definitely helped."

For Ohio State, it certainly did. As did its new star running back.

 

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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How Lane Kiffin's Play-Calling Cost Alabama Shot at National Championship

To be sure, he has been an integral part of Alabama’s success in the 2014 season and one of several key cogs that have come together to make the Crimson Tide’s run this season possible.

The hiring of Lane Kiffin, which was initially met with widespread skepticism and outrage, turned out to be one of the most genius moves of the last coaching-change cycle.

But his play-calling in Alabama’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff semifinal cost Alabama a shot at the national championship.

There were several questionable calls at key times. And while it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback (or Friday, in this case) to second guess play calls, there were also some overall trends on Thursday that drew more than just head scratches.

In a lot of ways, Alabama’s offensive performance had a lot in common with its outing exactly a year ago in the same New Orleans Superdome, the game that ultimately opened the door for Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator for Nick Saban.

In that game, a freshman running back had eight carries for 100 yards and a touchdown in addition to a 61-yard screen pass touchdown in a 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. But that’s the thing—he had just eight carries. Then-offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was content to let AJ McCarron throw the ball 30 times and drop back even more.

Fast forward 365 days.

That now-sophomore running back—of course, the hulking Derrick Henry—carried the ball seven times for 56 yards in the first quarter. Starter T.J. Yeldon appeared limited because of an injury, so Henry was going to be the workhorse back.

The problem, though, was that Henry didn’t get his next carry until late in the third quarter, a 21-yard gain. On Alabama’s next drive, he took a short pass 52 yards.

It’s hard to say definitively that a more patient approach to the run game could have changed the game’s complexity, especially since part of what has made Kiffin so successful is the attacking nature of his play calls, a welcome change for Alabama fans from the conservative nature of previous teams.

But it wasn’t hard to see that Alabama had a good thing going, and with Sims struggling, Alabama fans filled Twitter with the familiar refrains of “run the dang ball.” Kiffin didn’t exactly oblige. Blake Sims ended up finishing the game with 36 pass attempts, his second-highest total of the season.

And then there was the late-game management.

The Crimson Tide fought back like they had all season. They got the ball back with 1:33 left and a chance to tie the game with no timeouts.

On the first play, Sims hit O.J. Howard for a six-yard gain. But Howard couldn’t get out of bounds. Instead of having a second play ready to go—standard practice for a two-minute drill like this—Alabama got back to the line and had to waste precious seconds getting another play in from Kiffin and the sideline.

There were several moments on that final drive like this where the offense appeared to lack some urgency, as Paul Myerberg of USA Today pointed out:

After the game, Saban and the coaches took the blame for the loss, per Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News:

That’s not to take some of the blame off of Alabama’s defense. It gave up 35 points and 537 yards of offense, including 281 on the ground. Deficiencies in the secondary caught up to Alabama, too, as a third-string quarterback entering the season threw for 243 yards, including a touchdown of 47.

Injuries to starters Reggie Ragland and Landon Collins hurt a lot of what had made that unit so good, especially against the run.

But Kiffin was brought in to win these types of shootout games. Those are the new norm in college football. He succeeded in a wild 55-44 win over Auburn. He didn’t get that done tonight.

Kiffin’s first year in Tuscaloosa was filled with brilliant moments and eye-opening performances. But it ended with a dud and kept Alabama from going farther.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Tale of the Tape Preview for Oregon vs. Ohio State National Championship

The first-ever College Football Playoff has yielded a major matchup for the championship game, pitting the Oregon Ducks vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer break down the big game, tale-of-the-tape style. 

Who will win the national championship: Ohio State or Oregon? Check out the video and let us know! 

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An Outsider No Longer, Oregon Wins a Big One and Will Win the Next Big One, Too

PASADENA, Calif. — Oregon football isn't a gimmick anymore. Until now, the Ducks were some far-out team from a far-out part of the country doing crazy things in uniforms that were, well, far out there. There was still no final proof, really, that this could work against the nation's blue bloods or against real football at the highest level.

Well that's gone now. Oregon clobbered defending national champ Florida State 59-20 Thursday in the Rose Bowl to advance to the national championship game against Ohio State. And afterward, several Ducks players and some Oregon celebs were saying that they still aren't sure people will believe.

But forget that. Oregon is going to win the national championship. This beatdown was just too meaningful, too reshaping.

"We still have to win the big game next week to prove that we can be part of the big club, anyway," Ty Burrell of Modern Family told Bleacher Report as he walked off.

I disagree. Proof of admittance into the club is that they will be the favorites in the championship game against a longtime member of the national elite.

Ohio State is meat and potatoes. It is a typical, tough Big Ten team, only with more speed, thanks to Urban Meyer's national recruiting. Meyer showed again Thursday that he's a football genius, finding a way to beat Nick Saban and Alabama with a third-string quarterback, 42-35.

And Ohio State would be the favorite over Oregon if not for the way the Ducks changed things Thursday. The knock on the Ducks had been that in the end, smashmouth football could slow them down. They were seen as soft. Stanford, last year anyway, had been the proof.

This year, Oregon beat Stanford and, maybe more importantly, beat Michigan State. The only team it lost to was Arizona, led by the inventor of the modern offense, Rich Rodriguez. Florida State plays defense, but that didn't matter.

No, Thursday's win was a statement game for Oregon, though the players had clearly been coached to not agree with that.

"That's up to you guys," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "All we wanted to do is come in and win and get ready for hopefully playing in the national championship."

Or as coach Mark Helfrich, who just moved into the country's coaching elite, said, "I don't know. ... You guys are the geniuses in the media. We believe a ton in our deal, and we believe a ton in who we are."

It's just that when college football's world changed, Oregon's did, too. Until now, the hurry-up, no-huddle spread offenses have clearly been the trend. But in the end, they hadn't been able to win in the biggest moments.

Now, the established dominant conference, the SEC, has lost all its big bowl games. When Georgia Tech hung 49 points on Mississippi State in a 15-point win, coach Paul Johnson said on ESPN, "For at least a week or two, we don't have to hear about the SEC."

The ground shifted. But Oregon has been used to life as an outsider. It has been outside the big-boys club for so long that it's going to feel a little uncomfortable, now that its lot in life just changed. Eugene, Oregon, is a hippie town where a track legend—Steve Prefontaine—is the biggest sports hero.

Burrell described Oregon as believing in "This idea that we celebrate the fact we don't have tradition, in a way. We're constantly reinventing ourselves. It's kind of cool."

Thursday's game was close through halftime and was setting up perfectly for the way Florida State had won all year: stay close enough early, then pull it out in the end with Jameis Winston's heroics.

This was also supposed to be the start of the next great American quarterback rivalry, between Winston and Mariota. And the truth is, while Mariota is the big winner, he wasn't that much better than Winston. In some ways, Winston looked like the better NFL prospect, doing his best work in the pocket, where you have to be good in the NFL, and hitting those timing windows better than Mariota did.

But Winston had his comeuppance in the third quarter when he scrambled around, started falling down and then fumbled backward. Oregon ran it back for a touchdown. It was slapstick comedy, which means you'll see it on highlights for a while.

"I was just trying to make a play," Winston said. "I should have gotten the ball in my hands earlier. It was just an unfortunate play, man. I never thought that I would slip, throw the ball backwards."

Oregon just kept coming at Florida State. And if the image of Oregon is a super-speedy team that runs around everyone, that was only half true. It also kept running off-tackle, drawing defenses inside. Then it would go outside. The Ducks were too fast and just as strong.

Ahmad Rashad, NBC Sports guy and former Minnesota Vikings receiver, played for the Ducks. He stood on the sideline after the game, in bright yellow Ducks pants, telling me that even he needed to see this to believe that Oregon was truly for real.

Despite going to four BCS bowl games in the previous five years, Oregon hadn't beaten one of the nation's traditional powers in any of those games. With the chance, they lost to Ohio State and also, in the title game, to Auburn.

"Yes, I needed to see that. Yes, I did," Rashad said. "When we played Auburn a few years ago, I think there was a little difference there. I think it was a little like big brother, like (Auburn) bullied them up a little bit. That didn't happen today."

It won't happen against Ohio State in the championship game, either.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Alabama No Longer the Team to Beat in College Football

If you weren't a believer that the Alabama dynasty ended when Chris Davis took a missed field goal back 109 yards to end last season's Iron Bowl or Oklahoma wrecked shop in the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl, you should be now.

The Alabama dynasty is dead, and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer nailed the coffin shut.

The Buckeyes topped the Crimson Tide 42-35 in the 2015 Allstate Sugar Bowl national semifinal on Thursday night, ending head coach Nick Saban's quest to win his fourth national title since 2009 and furthering the woeful performance by the SEC in bowl games this season (5-5).

Meyer's Buckeyes hit all of Alabama's defensive weak spots in the game.

As was the case against Missouri, Auburn and pretty much every other game over the past two seasons, the Crimson Tide pass defense was lit up like a Christmas tree in obvious passing situations.

Third-string quarterback Cardale Jones completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception, with three of those completions coming in situations of third down and more than seven yards. According to ESPN's postgame show, 153 of those yards came on third downs of any distance.

As SiriusXM's Tim Brando notes, it wasn't new, it was par for the course:

A running quarterback?  

Yep, Jones checked that box too.

Meyer's Buckeyes converted 10 of 18 third downs, with four of those coming via Jones' ability to make plays on the ground. The sophomore from Cleveland rushed 17 times for 43 yards with a long of 27, and he was nearly unstoppable once he got to the second level.

Tempo? 

It's not like Ohio State was doing an Oregon impression out there, but it did run 50 plays in the first half, which contributed to its 14-point second-quarter charge.

Susceptibility to the deep pass, mobile quarterbacks and an emphasis wearing the defense down? Those have been the concerns for Alabama for two years, and until they're consistently fixed, Alabama won't get back to a level it enjoyed during the early days of the Crimson dynasty.

Football isn't going to regress.

Those three factors have become very apparent for the past couple of years, and it's not like offenses are going to slow down and quarterbacks are going to stop running and not test Bama deep now that its problems have been exposed on big stages in each of the past two seasons.

The four-year run from 2009-2012 that saw the Tide hoist three crystal footballs was impressive, but Saban knew he had to change. That's why offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was brought in last offseason, but the changes on defense have been a slower progression

As Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated noted before the game, it was defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who knew Alabama's primary issues weren't fixed:

A dynasty is considered a powerful group of people who maintain their position for a considerable period of time. That's not Alabama. At least, not anymore.

Instead of being proactive, Alabama has turned into a reactive program. It is spinning its wheels. It has been forced to change its identity and hasn't developed a new one yet.

Until that identity is fully developed, games like Thursday night's Sugar Bowl loss are going to continue happening. There's blood in the water, and the college football sharks are circling.

 

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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The Big Ten Is Back

A perception-crushing week way back in early September put the Big Ten on life support, without much chance of surviving.

But instead of pulling the plug and making funeral arrangements, the league hung on and gradually regained strength—if not reputation.

Now, after Ohio State bested Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to cap a trio of significant bowl wins for the conference, the Big Ten is quite alive. In fact, it just stomped all over what's left of the smoldering corpse that is the SEC's dominance.

OSU will be playing for a national championship, something it—and its conference—hasn't had a chance to do in seven years. Meanwhile, the long run of SEC dominance is officially over, rendered limbless over the course of bowl season and then decapitated on the first day of 2015.

The 42-35 outcome wasn't a fluke victory for the Buckeyes. Nor was it a matter of running into a disinterested opponent that may or may not have had some issues that prevented it from playing at peak performance. Nope, this was the flagship program of a much-maligned conference standing up for the rest the league—which, by the way, combined to win three huge games on Thursday—and planting a B1G right in the heart of SEC country.

OSU now gets a chance to bring home its first championship since January 2003. But even if the Buckeyes can't beat Oregon in the first playoff-fueled title game in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12, that should in no way diminish what they and the entire Big Ten has accomplished this season.

In fact, because Ohio State is the one that officially ended the SEC's massively impressive streak of playing for a title in eight straight seasons automatically guarantees it and the Big Ten won't be forgotten when it comes to remembering the dawn of the playoff era.

"The Big Ten has fixed its perception problem," wrote Nicole Auerbach of USA Today. "Thanks to that one fell swoop, the nation regained respect for the league and also its players. No longer were they too slow or too small to compete with the big boys, particularly those in the SEC."

To think, by the time the second week of the 2014 season had completed, many were performing last rites on one of the country's most tradition-rich leagues.

Yes, Sept. 6 wasn't a good day in Big Ten country: Ohio State was shocked at home by Virginia Tech, a team that would end up going 6-6; Michigan was shut out at Notre Dame, the beginning of the end for coach Brady Hoke; and Michigan State came up short in the conference's best out-of-league audition, giving up a nine-point lead at Oregon before getting run over by the eventual national finalist Ducks.

With only four spots divvied up among five power conferences, at least one was going to get left out. It was fair to assume the Big Ten would be that one with the early struggles of its teams, but then the exact thing the Big Ten needed to happen happened: Ohio State kept winning. And winning. And winning some more, in increasingly impressive fashion.

Think about it. The Buckeyes went to Michigan State, arguably the league's second-best team and won by 12. That might not seem like a big deal, though Baylor (which blew a 20-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Spartans in Thursday's Cotton Bowl) might beg to differ.

MSU then destroyed Wisconsin in the conference final, shutting down the most prolific running back we've seen in college football for years. You know, the same guy who ran for 251 yards and three touchdowns in an overtime win over Auburn in Thursday's Outback Bowl? Yeah, that Melvin Gordon.

Those results—combined with plenty of narrative about head-to-head matchups and the importance of conference title games—enabled the Buckeyes to slip into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed, which was a spot that didn't exist in the previous BCS system. That format very likely would have pitted Alabama and Florida State for the title, a matchup that, based on Thursday's results, would have been to determine the third-best team in FBS.

Given another opportunity to prove itself and define where it comes from, OSU slayed the ultimate of dragons on the way to promised land. The Buckeyes fell behind early to Alabama, turning it over and looking shaky in the red zone, but it fought back and ran off 28 points to turn an 15-point hole into a pair of two-score edges in the second half.

The Big Ten sits 5-4 in bowl games, with one team (Iowa) left to play, compared to the SEC going 5-5 (with Florida and Tennessee yet to play). Those are pretty commensurate numbers until you break it down to the top- and bottom-tier participants.

Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the Big Ten's three 10-win teams, all won (and beat a pair of SEC teams along the way). The SEC's 10-win teams went 2-2, with Georgia needing that bowl victory to get to double digits, and the conference lost four of its five New Year's Eve and New Year's Day games.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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College Football Playoffs 2015: Early Questions Going into National Championship

Just as everyone predicted, Florida State lost to Oregon by almost 40 points, and Ohio State beat Alabama. Wait, what?

This college football season has been a roller-coaster ride from the very beginning, so it's appropriate that the final few stages are just as crazy.

The Buckeyes and Ducks will meet on January 12 for the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship. In terms of aesthetics, neutral fans couldn't have asked for a better matchup.

The national championship is still another 10 days away, so there's plenty of time to weigh the positives and negatives of both teams before making an opinion one way or the other.

Although it's very early, these are two of the bigger questions stemming from Thursday's semifinals.

 

Did Florida State's Second-Half Collapse Mask Potential Issues for Oregon?

Even though Florida State entered the playoff unbeaten, the Seminoles had plenty of critics. They made it a habit of falling behind in the first half before storming back in the second. FSU could get away with that against Miami, North Carolina State, Clemson and Louisville but not against a team the quality of Oregon.

The final score flatters the Ducks somewhat, but there's no question Florida State was exposed as a team not worthy of Top Four status. Almost all of the doubts about it proved warranted.

Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald didn't fault the committee for putting the 'Noles in but admitted that the difference between the two teams was a damning indictment of the defending national champs:

ESPN Stats & Info provided the graph depicting each team's win probability throughout the game. Notice the uptick in Oregon's favor in the second half:

It's hard to find much with which to knock Oregon. The Pac-12 champion played a nearly flawless game.

With that said, what will likely get lost is that the Ducks allowed 528 total yards, including 348 through the air from Winston. Winston also completed 64.4 percent of his passes, only one percentage point below his average this year. All things considered, the sophomore quarterback really wasn't all that bad.

The Ducks benefited greatly from one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country, too. The Seminoles gave the ball back to their opponents 27 times entering the game, placing them 109th in the country. They turned it over five times Thursday, which all came in a six-drive span.

"We beat ourselves," Winston said after the game, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "We were never stopped at all."

That's stretching the truth a bit, but before FSU's second-half meltdown, it had one drive end at the 1-yard line. Another drive ended via a missed 54-yard field goal by Roberto Aguayo, who was a perfect four-of-four from 50-plus yards in his career entering the game and had a career long of 53 yards. Two of Florida State's second-half fumbles came in Oregon territory, and a third was at the 50-yard line.

In a way, you can see what Winston's trying to say. That's a lot of points left on the board. Seemingly all of the Seminoles' good fortune dried up, and everything went horribly wrong for them.

Oregon was obviously the deserving team and made the most of every turnover.

The Ducks aren't going to get this lucky again, though. They've got to be much better defensively and not rely so heavily on Ohio State making mistakes.

 

Which Ohio State Shows Up?

Offensively, the Buckeyes stalled after Devin Smith's 47-yard touchdown to start the second half. Their next four drives all ended in punts, with Ohio State gaining a combined 25 yards. Before Ezekiel Elliott's 85-yard TD run with three minutes and 24 seconds left in the game, the Bucks had minus-two yards for the fourth quarter, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Ohio State left the door open for Alabama to come back and potentially win. The Crimson Tide merely needed to capitalize. The reasons they didn't were manifold. Some were of Ohio State's doing, and others were the Tide simply shooting themselves in the foot.

One of the most quizzical aspects of the game was Alabama's aversion to handing the ball off to Derrick Henry. The sophomore running back was having a ton of success against the Buckeyes and finished averaging 7.3 yards a carry.

Henry's one of those running backs whose punishing style is especially effective late in the game, when the opposing defense grows more and more tired. According to D.C. Reeves of the The Tuscaloosa News, he'd averaged nearly eight yards a carry in the final quarter against SEC teams throughout his career:

Instead, for whatever reason, the Tide kept throwing the football. Who knows what Lane Kiffin's endgame was?

And Alabama still had a chance to tie the game in a position not dissimilar to the one in which the Tide tied the game against LSU before winning in overtime:

While the Buckeyes offense struggled for much of the third and fourth quarters, the defense didn't, intercepting Blake Sims three times. The first INT went for a touchdown, and another came when Alabama had a 1st-and-10 on the OSU 23-yard line.

Give credit where credit is due: Ohio State was one of the few teams to really make Sims look like a first-year starter.

Between those impactful turnovers and Alabama's questionable play-calling, Ohio State didn't find itself in a ton of trouble late in the game.

Much like with Oregon, you have to wonder if the Buckeyes' mistakes/issues will become more acute when the national championship rolls around. The Ducks won't fall into the same trap of not giving the ball to one of their best players, and they've turned the ball over eight times all year. Marcus Mariota is not going to make the same errors that Sims did.

Ohio State is also playing with a third-string quarterback. Cardale Jones didn't play poorly, but he didn't play great either, going 18-of-35 passing for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also had a few of those moments where he tried to do too much and ended up hurting the team, like so many inexperienced QBs before.

With the way that the Oregon offense torched Florida State, the Buckeyes can't afford to stumble for long stretches of the game. But if they play like they did in the first half, the Ducks could be in some serious trouble.

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Jim Harbaugh's History vs. Ohio State Doesn't Matter, for Now

Jim Harbaugh was still hoarse from being doused after his final game with San Francisco as he talked about Michigan’s excellence, building houses and homecoming during his introductory press conference.

When pressed about Michigan’s main rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State, he refused to provide any bulletin board material.

“They’re outstanding programs. No, I make no guarantees. I made a guarantee a long time ago. And I’ve learned from that. I’ve grown. I understand that you don’t make guarantees.”

Harbaugh’s measured responses are somewhat surprising for a man who infuriated coach Bo Schembechler by guaranteeing a victory over Ohio State as a player.

He passed up another golden opportunity to take a shot at Ohio State when he was introduced at halftime of the Michigan basketball game after the press conference. The scene was reminiscent of Jim Tressel’s introduction, but Harbaugh again spoke of Michigan uniting while ignoring its rivals.

“I’m not agreeing that it’s a turnaround, this is Michigan, and there are no turnarounds [at] Michigan,” said Harbaugh. “This is greatness, and there’s a long tradition of it.”

He also wouldn't make any guarantees about when Michigan would start winning Big Ten championships or competing for national championships.

“We have great expectations for the first week, really great expectations for the first day of practice, the first team meeting,” said Harbaugh. “And I don’t have any guarantee for you if that’s what you’re looking for.”

His decision to return is about fulfilling a lifelong dream to coach at Michigan. He chose his words not for the media or future opponents, but for Michigan fans who long for a return to gridiron glory.

Harbaugh stood before the largest assembled group of media and supporters since the retirement of Bo Schembechler. They came to hear why he would leave the glory and glitz of professional football for Ann Arbor. Over 600 people packed the event, with fans lining the outside windows for a glimpse of him. Attendees included many former and current players, former coaches Lloyd Carr and Gary Moeller and members of Harbaugh’s family.

He has a long history of antagonizing friends and foes alike. While coaching at Stanford, he traded barbs with rival Pete Carroll, while criticizing Michigan’s academic standards for its athletes.

The barbs will return soon enough, but for now he understands his first job is to rally Michigan fans and start building his team.

Only when his team is ready to play championship football will he challenge them to back up his tough talk, and history shows that should happen pretty quickly.


Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand

Follow @PCallihan

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10 Unheralded College Football Players Who Could Become Stars in 2015

As the 2014-15 season winds down with just a few bowl games left, the new wave of stars of next season are getting set to take the stage. 

There's plenty of guys waiting for their time under the lights, including guys like Corey Clement and Jeff Lockie, who will replace Melvin Gordon and Marcus Mariota, respectively. 

Let's check out 10 guys who could rise from the ashes of this season and become stars next year. 

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Alabama vs. Ohio State: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2015 Sugar Bowl

In what could have been a second blowout to start the College Football Playoff, the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes roared back from an early deficit and held on to beat the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, 42-35, in Thursday's Sugar Bowl.

The win was a long-awaited breakthrough for the Buckeyes against the SEC champions, per ESPN Stats & Info:

When the teams were scrapping for the win in the final quarter, it was running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Buckeyes' punishing rushing attack that imposed their will. Elliott exploded for 85 yards on the Tide's No. 1 rush defense for the game-securing score.

And as ESPN Stats & Info astutely observed, the sealing spark was something the Buckeyes needed in a big way:

The electric Elliott run was a record-breaker, too:

Alabama signal-caller Blake Sims did his best to stage a furious late rally, with go-to wideout Amari Cooper hauling in a six-yard touchdown pass to make it a one-score game. A last-second heave to the end zone resulted in Sims' third interception, which was made by Tyvis Powell.

When it appeared as though Ohio State's Cardale Jones, the former third-string quarterback, would wilt under the immense pressure in New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he instead elevated his game.

NFL Network's Bucky Brooks was among many to be surprised by the Buckeyes' gritty effort to position themselves for a victory:

On a key drive late in the second quarter, Jones converted multiple third downs using his arm and handed it to Elliott for a three-yard scamper to paydirt, cutting the deficit to 21-13 with two minutes and 55 seconds left in the half.

Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports laughed off those who felt Jones wasn't cut out to handle the circumstances when the Buckeyes had fallen behind by 15 points:

As a runner, the 250-pound Jones proved effective by rumbling for 27 yards to set up the game-turning play. Funny enough, it came on a pass that he didn't throw.

Wide receiver Evan Spencer—who also recovered an onside kick late—took a trick-play pitch, rolled left and delivered an absolute strike to Michael Thomas just 12 seconds before the halftime intermission.

SportsNation captured Thomas' tap-dancing act:

ESPN's Skip Bayless provided fitting commentary:

That 13-yard connection made it 21-20 Alabama through two quarters—and Ohio State would get the ball to start the third.

Jones's deep-ball prowess was evident on a launch to Smith that went 47 yards and put the Buckeyes back on top 27-21:

Then it was Ohio State's turn to make plays on defense, as lineman Steve Miller slipped back into coverage to pick off Sims and return it for 41 yards to the house.

These stats from ESPN should have given Buckeyes fans solace that their epic comeback was complete even before the final seconds ticked off the clock:

When Derrick Henry's big gain on a screen set up Sims for a five-yard TD run with 1:01 remaining in the third, the sense was that the Tide had turned the game back in their favor.

Unfortunately for the Tuscaloosa faithful, Sims made a critical blunder in the fourth on a strange sequence of plays that had Alabama zeroing in on at least some points while down 34-28, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports lauded the interception made by precocious Ohio State defensive back Vonn Bell:

Justin Hokanson of 247Sports was critical of Sims' wasted opportunity, which was quite the opposite of how the game started between the two teams:

Missed, golden chances to score six points but settling for three defined OSU's start. An opening field-goal drive was punctuated by Ezekiel Elliott's 54-yard run, and another march to three points featured Jones' first completion—a long 40-yard strike to Smith.

Meanwhile, the Tide capitalized two plays after an Elliott fumble when Bama's ball-carrier, Henry, went untouched down the left sideline for a 25-yard touchdown run.

Sims then orchestrated an eight-play, 79-yard drive the next time his side got the ball, capping it by tossing a TD of 15 yards on a right-side rollout to Cooper.

Alabama was opportunistic again when Cyrus Jones intercepted a Cardale Jones pass on a miscommunication involving Smith. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee praised Cyrus Jones' momentous play:

That led to a two-yard scoring plunge by T.J. Yeldon to give the No. 1 team in the country a 21-6 lead.

John Middlekauff of Comcast SportsNet praised Alabama coach Nick Saban's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 a play earlier, which Yeldon converted on a tough run:

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal lamented how the Buckeyes were allowing Alabama to blow the game open despite strong offense otherwise:

The Buckeyes weren't being stopped save for the turnovers, but Jones had to take advantage of a shaky Tide secondary for OSU to have a chance.

And in the biggest moments, he delivered.

In light of what Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said leading up to the game, perhaps Jones' rise to stardom of late shouldn't be too big of a shock to those outside of Columbus, per ESPN.com's Austin Ward:

He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around. The correlation between handling your business off the field and on the field, he does a good job in the classroom now. It wasn't pleasant his first year here ... but he's changed. Cardale is a great story, and it's still in process now.

This is yet another exceptional season for Saban's Alabama program. However, he has to wonder whether finding superior quarterbacks shouldn't be a bigger priority. Jones has shown the value of depth at the most important position and certainly seems capable of starting.

While it will be fascinating to see what Ohio State does under center next season, it still has a national championship to play for against Oregon on Jan. 12.

Fox Sports' Coy Wire has an interesting anecdote in looking forward:

Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota led Oregon to 59-20 triumph over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. These numbers from The Associated Press' Ralph D. Russo accentuate how much of a tough test the Ducks pose for the Buckeyes:

Considering how prolific Oregon's offense has been, the national title showdown should be a compelling battle of explosive spread offenses with tons of speed at the skill positions and playmakers at quarterback.

Mariota presumably gives Oregon the edge. On the other hand, the power of belief Jones has to have in himself and the endorsement of his teammates after leading two amazing wins has to help the hard-charging Buckeyes in their quest for championship glory.

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