NCAA Football News

Sugar Bowl 2015: Breaking Down Biggest X-Factors in Alabama vs. Ohio State

Ohio State earned the final spot in the College Football Playoff, but the real challenge starts now with a Sugar Bowl matchup against Alabama.

Each of these teams are loaded with talented players on both sides of the ball, many of whom will be playing on Sundays in the future. However, it's not always the best players who make the difference in a competitive battle like this one.

While everyone will have to be at his best in order to advance to the national title game, these players will especially be important as X-factors for their team's success.

 

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

T.J. Yeldon had secured the position as the go-to option for Alabama out of the backfield, with Derrick Henry appearing to be relegated to backup duty. Even in the run-heavy offense, the sophomore only averaged nine carries per game in the month of November.

However, the running back reminded people what he can do in the SEC Championship Game with a career-high 141 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the win over Missouri.

College GameDay joked about the challenge of tackling the 6'3", 241-pound behemoth:

Meanwhile, the real usefulness of the running back comes when he is still relatively fresh at the end of games. Matt Brown of Sports on Earth noted this issue for opposing defenders:

Yeldon will still have a big role in this game, but Henry is the one who can really be a difference-maker for the Ohio State defense. If he plays well, it could make the Crimson Tide very difficult to stop.

 

Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama

With a quarterback making just his second start, Alabama will want to do whatever it takes to put him under as much pressure as possible. That role will fall on Xzavier Dickson. 

The senior heads into the bowl season with eight sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits, all of which lead the team.

Despite this, he doesn't get the credit he deserves, as noted by D.C. Reeves of TheTuscaloosa News during the win over Missouri:

He certainly cannot be overlooked in the Sugar Bowl, as his job will be extremely important. Although he only has one sack in the last four games, he needs to find a way to at least get pressure on Cardale Jones whenever possible.

If Alabama gives Ohio State time to develop plays, the Buckeyes have the skill to put up a lot of points.

 

Dontre Wilson, RB, Ohio State

Although Dontre Wilson has been out since breaking his foot against Michigan State, he appears on track to return for the Sugar Bowl, according to Eleven Warriors:

If the sophomore is able to return, it would give a huge boost toward Ohio State's scoring chances in this one.

While the running back had trouble getting carries behind Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel, Wilson was a big factor in the passing game before getting hurt. Even after missing the past four games, he finished fourth on the team in receiving yards and third with 14.3 yards per catch.

Additionally, Wilson is especially important in the return game after averaging 9.7 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kickoff return. Only Elliott finished with more all-purpose yards this season than Wilson's 1,064 despite playing just nine games.

The dynamic player can score whenever he touches the ball and can be a game-changer in this one.

 

Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

Usually a starting quarterback is not considered an X-factor, but most teams are usually not relying on such an inexperienced player in such an important game.

Jones made his first career start in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin and responded with three touchdowns, a 255.8 efficiency rating and a 59-0 win.

"Surprise, you're right, I don't use the word," head coach Urban Meyersaid after the game. "I guess I'll use it for the first time. I was a little surprised. ... He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around."

Of course, it's important to remember that Jones only needed to throw 17 passes in a blowout victory while his teammates were able to do most of the work. This will not necessarily be the case against the No. 1 team in the nation.

The sophomore will be under pressure all day long, and he will be forced to make more plays himself with Alabama likely to slow down the rushing attack. His ability to respond will be the deciding factor in this game.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Heisman Watch 2014: Updated Odds and Final Predictions for Tight Race

Jameis Winston not being named among the Heisman Trophy finalists was expected, but it also made official one reality—the trophy will have a new owner come Saturday night in New York City.

It's been a wide-open battle for the Heisman since the start of the season, and the play from some of the game's top stars reflected that. If anything, it's a surprise only three players were invited to the Big Apple, with standout quarterbacks like TCU's Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott staying at home.

But the final three—Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper—aren't too shabby, as CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd noted:

The competition might already feel like it's decided, depending on who you are—or how much you pay attention to college football. But with three deserving superstars being invited to the party, anything could happen. 

Let's break down the latest Heisman Trophy odds, with just a few days to go.

 

Note: Heisman Trophy odds are courtesy of OddsChecker.com, last updated December 10

 

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota: 1-80

Is anyone really surprised at this point that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota boasts some of the most lopsided Heisman odds in history?

It shouldn't when you take a look at his body of work throughout 2014. The Ducks quarterback has completed every prerequisite voters have ever asked of a Heisman winner.

With 3,783 passing yards and 52 total touchdowns, Mariota has spectacularly only thrown two interceptions all season. He ranks up there with Winston's 2013 Heisman campaign in almost every major category, per ESPN Stats and Information:

Must your Heisman winner be the leader of a contending team? Mariota has that box checked, as well.

Oregon's early season struggles were noticeably due to a banged-up offensive line, and the Ducks have been on a furious run to the College Football Playoff since becoming healthy again.

It didn't take long for Mariota to resurface as the Heisman leader after an early slip-up against Arizona, as ESPN College Football showcased:

Mariota had his hands full entering championship weekend with a definitive rematch test against Arizona, but he dominated in convincing fashion while contender Melvin Gordon struggled mightily against Ohio State.

That result sealed the already apparent belief that the Heisman is all Mariota's.

Predicted finish: Unanimous winner

 

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: 18-1

Gordon's trip to New York City will be overshadowed at home by Gary Andersen moving to Oregon State and in the Big Apple by Mariota's impending Heisman.

But considering the season he's posted, that's a crying shame.

The Wisconsin running back has had a historic junior season with the Badgers in many accounts. He has been a workhorse with 309 rushes, going for 2,336 yards, scoring 29 total touchdowns and accounting for 174 points by himself.

He's even close to breaking Barry Sanders' all-time record, which he can do with 293 yards against Auburn in the Outback Bowl—and don't put that past him because he's gone for over 250 three times this season.

Stats.com noted his place in the record books:

Gordon could have made some serious noise for late consideration as the winner, but he struggled against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game with 76 yards on 29 carries.

His overall body of work is incredible enough to warrant a definite second-place finish, though.

Predicted finish: Second place

 

Alabama WR Amari Cooper: 50-1

Just being named as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy is an incredible feat for a wide receiver, and it just goes to show the type of season Alabama's Amari Cooper has had.

The junior wideout has shattered the Crimson Tide record books with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns—proving impossible to contain even when defenses base their game plan around him. Whether he runs short screens, slants across the middle or deep down the field, Cooper is lethal.

He also has some respectable plans if he happens to bring home the Heisman, as ESPN College Football captured:

Cooper was on the radar to start 2014, but he burst onto the scene with four consecutive 130-yard performances to begin his season. He's surpassed the 200-yard mark three times and has four multi-touchdown games—two of those games with three scores.

Alabama has reached the CFP in no small part because of Cooper, but his presence in New York City is based off his incredible individual play. He doesn't have the stats necessary to compete with Mariota and Gordon as a wideout, but he has already been rewarded with a trip to the Big Apple.

Predicted finish: Third place

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rose Bowl 2015: Breaking Down Biggest X-Factors in Oregon vs. Florida State

It's not always the most high-profile players who decide a team's fate in a big game.

While most college football fans can name Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, some key plays by lesser-known contributors could end up making the difference in the big game between Oregon and Florida State.

Regardless of what we have seen from these teams during the year, the Rose Bowl is going to be extremely competitive from start to finish. The winner will be the squad that gets big-time performances from these X-factors.

 

Charles Nelson, WR, Oregon

Oregon has plenty of playmakers on offense between Mariota, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall and others. Even with all these players, however, Charles Nelson is someone you cannot forget about if you're the opposing team.

The receiver is coming off a huge week where he put up stats in various categories in the Pac-12 Championship Game:

He only has a total of 17 catches on the year, but he turned five of those into touchdowns, as he is always a threat to score whenever he has the ball. Still, his biggest impact is on special teams, where he has scored two touchdowns on punt returns while averaging 15.5 yards per return.

“I’ve never seen a freshman make an impact on special teams—ever—in the way he has made," wide receivers coach Matt Lubick recently explained to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com.

Whether he is getting touches as a running back, receiver or returner, Nelson has a chance to score on any play, and he could really impact this game.

 

DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon

There might not be many more talented defensive linemen in the nation, but the problem with DeForest Buckner has been inconsistency. 

Bryan Fischer of NFL.com saw this problem during the win over Arizona:

The good news is he can still impact the game with his ability to get into the backfield. He only has four sacks on the year, but he leads the team with 12 tackles for a loss. Even when he doesn't make a stop, he can still disrupt the play with his penetration.

Of course, Buckner will be in for a tough challenge against a quality Florida State offensive line. The key will be for him to be aggressive on each play and force his way into the action.

The Seminoles can score points, but they will be limited offensively if the defensive lineman can put pressure on Winston as often as possible.

 

Nick O'Leary, TE, Florida State

Rashad Greene is Florida State's most talented receiver, but Winston's most consistent option is probably tight end Nick O'Leary.

The Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in the country is as safe as they come when you need someone to make a big play. Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel saw this in the ACC Championship Game:

On the downside, O'Leary has not been targeted as often as he should be, failing to reach five catches in a game since late October.

If Florida State is going to move the ball consistently against Oregon, the senior will have to have a bigger role everywhere on the field and not just near the end zone.

 

Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State

Although it's hard to call Jalen Ramsey an X-factor as one of the team's most talented players, the reality is this is the best description for a player who does it all for Florida State.

The defensive back fills up the stat sheet in just about every category, finishing the regular season with 75 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and 13 pass breakups. 

Matt Brown of Sports on Earth explained why the sophomore deserved consideration for the Heisman Trophy:

Ramsey is one of the most valuable players in college football because of his ability as a Swiss Army knife in the Florida State defense. The Seminoles have more holes than they had last year, with significant depth issues up front, but someone like Ramsey can do it all, moving all around the formation. He's physical against the run. He can line up as a stand-up edge rusher. He can roam the middle of the field as a safety. He can play cornerback.

He might not have a true position, but he is someone who is going to have a major impact if Florida State is going to win this game.

Although Ramsey cannot be expected to cover the entire field against Oregon, he will have to be all over the place in order to slow down the opposing offense.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Army vs. Navy 2014: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

The Army-Navy game is one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, as this historic rivalry bursts with patriotism and captivates the nation. This year marks the 115th meeting between the Black Knights and Midshipmen, with Navy holding the series lead at 58-49-7.

While this is one of the most traditional matchups in college football history—the first meeting between these teams took place in 1890—there will be a bit of a modern twist this year. Navy will be sporting some new Under Armour uniforms featuring a "Don't Tread on Me" motto with a First Navy Jack theme. Take a look, courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens' official Twitter account:

The Midshipmen finished the regular season with a 6-5 record, earning a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State. While the Black Knights missed out on a bowl opportunity with a 4-7 record, they ended the regular season by defeating Fordham 42-31. With no bowl game forthcoming, Army will be looking to end its year on a high note.

 

Ground and Pound

It's pretty safe to say neither of these teams are keen on taking to the air, as Navy's Keenan Reynolds attempted 96 passes this season, while Army's Angel Santiago threw a total of just 68. Both of these squads love to pound the rock, and we'll see plenty of ground-and-pound action on Saturday.

The Black Knights feature a dual-headed monster out of the backfield with Santiago and running back Larry Dixon. While Santiago has been good on the ground, Dixon has been the team's workhorse, carrying 176 times for 1,012 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per rush, and scoring nine touchdowns. He ended the season with a brilliant 158-yard, three-touchdown performance against Fordham.

This duo will get plenty of opportunities to gain chunks of yards at a time against a Navy run defense that is allowing an average of 199.8 yards per game, an average of 4.95 yards per carry and a total of 17 rushing touchdowns this season.

While the Midshipmen have a two-headed attack of their own, it's a little more lopsided, as their dual-threat quarterback handles most of the rushing duties. Reynolds has carried 205 times this season, gaining 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He's complemented nicely by the speedy Noah Copeland, who is averaging an impressive 8.2 yards per carry on the year.

Army may be ranked slightly better in the run defense category than Navy, coming in at 92nd in the nation and allowing an average of 191.9 yards per game; however, the Black Knights have allowed 5.54 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns on the season, giving Navy's speedy duo a very favorable matchup.

 

Scoring Opportunities

While both of these teams specialize in the running game, it does make their offenses rather one-dimensional. This can create a lower percentage of big plays due to opposing defenses honing in on the run. This makes taking advantage of scoring opportunities within the red zone extremely important.

Army is at a severe disadvantage in this category. While the Black Knights rank 84th in the nation in points scored, averaging 26.3 per game, they also rank 103rd in red-zone offense, scoring just 75.7 percent of the time they get within the 20-yard line.

In 37 red-zone attempts this season, Army has rushed for 24 touchdowns, passed for two and kicked two field goals, coming away empty-handed nine times. That percentage must drastically improve against a Navy team that ranks 47th in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing scores 80.9 percent of the time.

The Midshipmen have done nicely when finding themselves within the 20-yard line this season, ranking 43rd in the nation while scoring on 86 percent of their trips to the red zone. In 50 attempts this year, Navy has converted 43 times, rushing for 32 touchdowns, passing for five and kicking six field goals.

A good scoring rate from within the red zone will go a long way for Navy against an Army team that has struggled in that department this season, ranking 112th in the nation, allowing scores on 88.9 percent of opponents' trips inside the 20.

 

When: Thursday, December 13

Where: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland

Time: 3 p.m. ET

Channel: CBS

Live Stream: CBSSports.com

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 57.5
  • Spread: Navy -15

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

In a game that will feature plenty of clock-killing runs, getting out to an early lead is crucial. Time will wind down rather quickly in this contest, giving the trailing team few opportunities to make up ground. In this instance, that team would have to begin relying on the pass, which isn't a strong suit for either competitor.

While both Army and Navy are sound running teams, the Midshipmen have been able to take far better advantage of red-zone situations. This has propelled the team to average 34.5 points per game this season, while Army has averaged 26.3. Expect that to be a huge difference-maker when these teams face off.

We're guaranteed a fantastic showdown featuring plenty of players who deserve a great deal of respect both on and off the field. Although, there can be only one victor, and Navy appears to be the more well-rounded squad.

Prediction: Navy 35, Army 28

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 10.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Dates, Odds and Matchup Predictions

In less than a month, the inaugural College Football Playoff will decide a true champion. With four teams now competing for the crown, each are deserving after winning conference titles in the final weekend.

The final four includes four of the most illustrious programs in college football history. Florida State and Oregon will face off in the Rose Bowl prior to Ohio State and Alabama taking the field in the Sugar Bowl for the right to make the national championship game.

Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota will give way for Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer. However, each of these programs has playmakers all over the field and some of the most impressive systems in the country.

With the bracket set, here's a look at the dates, odds and predictions for the College Football Playoff.

Odds via OddsShark.com on Dec. 11 at 7 a.m. ET.

 

Rose Bowl

In terms of talent alone, the Rose Bowl is the matchup college football fans have been waiting for.

Both quarterbacks appear to have bright futures, but it's clear that this season has belonged to Mariota. Despite a slip-up against Arizona earlier this year, Mariota has led the Ducks back into the national title bracket and has them looking like a strong contender.

In fact, Mariota has been reminiscent of his opponent on New Year's Day, via ESPN Stats & Info:

Mariota against Winston will be the storyline, of course, but it's not quite that simple. Both signal-callers are equipped with impressive receivers like Byron Marshall and Rashad Greene, but their backfield partners will be difference-makers.

Royce Freeman has set the Pac-12 on fire as a freshman, collecting over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns. Along with Freeman, Dalvin Cook has been another one of the most impressive frosh players this season.

Though Cook hasn't been the lead back all season like Freeman, David Hale of ESPN.com notes how productive he's been late in the year:

Winston and Cook will prove to be a difficult task for Oregon, but ultimately, the Ducks offense is more prolific. Having a dual-threat option like Mariota to go along with a power back like Freeman, Oregon will roll to the national championship game.

 

Sugar Bowl

Oh man, this one is going to be fun. Every time Saban and Meyer have hooked up, it's always a hyped-up game. However, the last two matchups have been blowouts for Alabama when Meyer was coaching Florida.

This season, both coaches have found success in completely different ways.

For Saban, the Crimson Tide decided to completely overhaul the offense coming into the season by bringing in Lane Kiffin. The former Tennessee and USC head coach has been successful thanks in large part to trust from the man who handed the reins to him.

Leading up to the SEC Championship, Saban spoke about the job Kiffin has done, via Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:

He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do. I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people. 

But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected.

Criticism of decision-making is part of college football, but it didn't stop with bringing in Kiffin. Another huge part of the reason why Alabama comes in at No. 1 is quarterback Blake Sims, who was overshadowed by Jacob Coker in the offseason.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports notes how impressive Sims has been this season:

Sure, he has the likes of Amari Cooper to throw the ball to, but Sims has made all the right throws this year. He's also been a consistent force for the Tide, which is more than Ohio State can say about their signal-callers.

After losing both Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett this season, Meyer was forced to resort to Cardale Jones. The sophomore responded in the Big Ten Championship Game with three passing touchdowns.

One of the biggest roots of that success was the impressive offensive line, as Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report points out:

Regardless of who is under center, he will have protection and time to find the likes of Devin Smith in the passing game. Unfortunately, even Jones, Smith and Ezekiel Elliott won't be enough to take down Alabama and its stout defense.

Sims will continue to carry his team into a showdown with Oregon. Having an offense led by Kiffin, taking down a Pac-12 opponent on the biggest stage would also be sweet, sweet revenge for the former Trojans coach.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: 5 Bulldogs Who Can Raise NFL Draft Status in the Belk Bowl

The Belk Bowl means the 2014 season is coming to an end for the Georgia Bulldogs, and most of the seniors will never put on a set of shoulder pads ever again after the game on December 30.

For a few seniors, juniors and third-year sophomores, though, this is only the beginning.

The NFL will be the next step for some of the Bulldogs on the roster right now, and this game will be one of the final opportunities for them to impress NFL scouts in attendance.

The Bulldogs will not only be trying to earn their 10th win of the year, some will be looking to improve their draft status with a strong showing in the Belk Bowl.

Here are five players that can do just that. 

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Texas Football: 5 Longhorns Who Can Raise NFL Draft Status with Strong Bowl Game

Beating Arkansas in the Texas Bowl and finishing the season with a winning record would mean a lot to this entire Longhorn team. It could mean a whole lot more for the guys looking to make a strong impression on some NFL teams.

Defensive tackle Malcom Brown leads the crop of Longhorns with hopes of being an NFL draft pick this spring. Even as an underclassman, another impressive line from the junior would mean a likely first-round selection.

The rest of Texas' candidates have less certain futures. Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, John Harris and Cedric Reed all have their flaws, but they have a golden opportunity to show off their talents against a quality SEC team.

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Scooby Wright Wins 2014 Lombardi Award: Latest Details, Comments and Reaction

Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright was named the 2014 Lombardi Award winner Wednesday, which is given annually to college football's best offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker.

Wright was one of four finalists, coming out ahead of Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa, Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha and Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley.

The sophomore linebacker emerged as perhaps the best defensive player in college football in 2014, making 89 tackles and 14 sacks while leading Arizona to a surprise 10-3 regular season. Wright was one of a few shining lights on a defense that at times struggled to maintain consistent production.

The Pac-12 already honored him with its Defensive Player of the Year Award, and this week, Wright was named Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the nation's top defensive player

"Coming out of high school I didn't really have too many colleges knocking on my door—actually nobody really wanted me except Arizona," Wright, a lightly touted recruit, told reporters. "So I always have that little chip on my shoulder. You always remember those people who didn't think you were good enough. It still motivates me to this day."

Wright is the first player in Arizona history to win the Lombardi Award and second to take home the Nagurski. The last 10 Nagurski winners have gone on to be selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. The last Lombardi winner to not be selected in the first two rounds was Virginia Tech's Corey Moore, who won the award before the turn of the century.

While Wright will have to wait to play on Sundays—as a true sophomore, he's ineligible to enter the draft—he's unquestionably come a long way from a kid who had one FBS offer. Arizona fans will be eager to see what he can do for an encore next season.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oregon Football: Are Ducks the Real Underdogs Despite the Spread?

Based on statistics alone, the second-ranked Oregon Ducks should be favored over Florida State in the Rose Bowl, and they are. However, based on history, tradition and experience, the Ducks should be considered as underdogs in the College Football Playoff. 

It’s a role that the Ducks should relish, not shun.

The Ducks and Seminoles will face off in the 2014 Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in a game that features the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, and the likely 2014 Heisman recipient, Marcus Mariota.

On paper, Oregon is the better team. Not only have the Ducks been destroying opponents over their last eight games by an average margin of victory of over 26 points, but also they’ve been doing it against some of the better teams in the country.

Moreover, the Ducks are statistically better than the Seminoles nearly across the board. Oregon leads the Seminoles in points per game, passing yards, rushing yards, total yards, yards per play, sacks, strength of schedule, turnover margin and a host of other categories.

Perhaps the one that stands out the most is the difference in points scored off turnovers. The Ducks have scored 428 points off of turnovers this year, while the Seminoles have only scored 83.

Not only do the statistics favor Oregon, Vegas and analytics do as well.

According to Odds Shark, the Ducks are currently favored by 9.5 points over the Seminoles. Ed Feng’s analytics website, The Power Rank, predicts that the Ducks will beat the Seminoles by 10.8 points at a neutral site and that Florida State has a 22 percent chance at victory.

Feng’s analytics also reveal that the Ducks should be ranked No. 1, as they are expected to have the largest margin of victory against an average team (27.91) in the nation.

To further this point, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) also ranks the Ducks as the No. 1 team in the country, slightly ahead of Alabama. According to the FPI, Oregon’s 35.1 percent chance to win the national title is the best among the final four teams.

So then why are the Ducks the underdogs in the College Football Playoff?

Well, the reasoning mostly comes from the fact that the other three programs in the CFP—Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State—have been to the pinnacle before and have coaches who’ve won national championships. In fact, those programs have each won a national championship within the past 12 years.

Furthermore, the other three head coaches in the CFP—Jimbo Fisher, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer—have combined to win six of the past eight national titles.

Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State are three of the best football programs in the history of college football and have combined to win a grand total of 25 national championships.

While the Ducks have come a long way over the past decade, in part due to the influence and money of Nike and founder Phil Knight, they’re still on the outside looking in, and they’re doing it with a coach, Mark Helfrich, who is only in his second year at the helm.

We’re talking about an Oregon program that didn’t make it to a Rose Bowl from 1958 until 1994 and didn’t win a Rose Bowl from 1916 until the 2011 season. We’re talking about a team whose all-time winning percentage of 56.9 percent is ranked No. 46 in college football history.

Until 2007, Oregon’s overall record was 559-447-46, good for a winning percentage of 55.5. Since 2007, former head coach Chip Kelly’s first season (as offensive coordinator), the Ducks are 88-17, which is a 83.8 winning percentage.

The tide has turned quickly for the Ducks, and the program is now considered one of the finest in the nation. However, they’ve still yet to win a national championship, something that they’re reminded of every time they come close.

Oregon had an opportunity to win a national title in 2010 when it faced Auburn in the BCS National Championship. They lost on a last-second field goal, 22-19. It had a chance in 2012, only to have that opportunity evade them due a late-season loss to Stanford in Eugene.

The Ducks are creeping toward another shot at the title here in 2014 and with two more wins, will finally secure a spot as a true college football powerhouse. However, in order to get there, they’re going to have to take down the powers that be.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that in order for the Ducks to finally win a title that they’re going to have to do it by knocking off members of the college football hierarchy.

They’ll move one step closer to their goal of becoming a national power on Dec. 13 when quarterback Marcus Mariota likely raises the first Heisman Trophy in school history.

However, for now, without a national title under their belts, Oregon is still an outsider.

The Ducks are the underdogs. It’s a role they should cherish.

 

Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nebraska Football: What Huskers Must Do to Prepare for USC Trojans

Practice has begun again for the Nebraska football team. This time, the Huskers are preparing for the Holiday Bowl, where the team will face the USC Trojans on December 27 at 8 p.m. on ESPN.

It's hard to predict how Nebraska's players will respond on the field to former head coach Bo Pelini being dismissed. Under the direction of interim head coach Barney Cotton, the Huskers will have a lot to prove in San Diego. So, what exactly must the Huskers do to prepare for the Trojans?

First and foremost, the Huskers offensive line needs to prepare for USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams. ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura summed up Williams best:

Despite being possibly the best pro prospect in the country -- ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. has him No. 2 on his latest Big Board -- Williams has managed to fly somewhat under the radar. While other players in the Pac-12 put up massive sack numbers, the shared opinion among coaches and scouts is that Williams is the best defensive lineman.

Nebraska is going to need to run the ball in order to win. That means both I-back Ameer Abdullah and quarterback Tommy Armstrong will need a strong performance from the offensive line to make that happen.

After all, in 12 games only three opponents rushed for more than four yards per carry against USC, per Michael Castillo of FanSided. Williams will be out to limit Abdullah especially, so this is an immediate area that the Huskers should focus on in the next couple of weeks.

As for Armstrong specifically, he has the next couple of weeks to continue improving. There are no guarantees that he will be the starting quarterback next season, so a strong performance in the bowl game would be beneficial.

He primarily needs to work on having confidence and becoming more sound in his passing abilities, especially if USC forces him to win with his arm.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Nebraska secondary will have to prepare for USC's offensive game plan. Per NBC Nebraska, the Trojans are averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game. That means players like sophomore defensive back Nate Gerry will have to be able to make the necessary plays.

Gerry, for instance, has five interceptions on the season. To beat USC, the secondary will have to support Gerry and make those big plays. Failure to do so could result in a big night for USC quarterback Cody Kessler and his wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

Nebraska also must quickly adjust to the new leadership. The benefit is that the Huskers are familiar with and used to Cotton. That will help make things a littler easier.

However, it's unclear what fans can expect from Nebraska just yet. ESPN.com's Garry Paskwietz compared the Huskers' current situation to the one USC was in just one year ago:

From the outside looking in, it's hard to know if the response to the firing of Bo Pelini at Nebraska was as emotional as it was for the USC players when Ed Orgeron was let go, but it sure sounds like both teams took the news in similar fashion.

In USC's case in 2013, the Trojans easily handled Fresno State 45-20, proving the team could overcome all that had happened.

The Huskers must do the same. Failing to move beyond all that has happened could guarantee a loss for Nebraska.

The Holiday Bowl isn't going to be an easy victory for the Huskers. However, there are things Nebraska can do to get prepared. That preparation starts now.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff: Are 8 Teams Really the Answer?

During this first playoff season in college football history, many people (including me) have maintained and complained that the four-team format must be doubled to eight.

But now that the dust has settled (except at Baylor and TCU) does an eight-team playoff still have the same allure?

When one looks at the final College Football Playoff rankings it’s easy to say yes.

First, having eight teams would have averted all the Baylor and TCU arguments. They both would have been in at Nos. 5 and 6, and the Big 12 would have been spared its embarrassing decision to not name a conference champion.

Also, No. 7 Mississippi State and No. 8 Michigan State are 10-2 teams from Power Five conferences, and everyone below them was clearly distanced by having a third defeat or being from a lightly regarded league.

But wait a sec.

What was the key to Mississippi State and Michigan State ending the regular season with only two losses? The fact that neither won its division and didn’t have to suit up during championship week. Yes, sitting on the sidelines is what would have allowed both back into an eight-team playoff.

Don’t get me wrong. Both of those MSU schools fielded excellent squads. Michigan State led Oregon late in the third quarter in their September meeting, and Mississippi State’s early play merited the No. 1 ranking it held for four weeks.

But Arizona, Georgia Tech, Missouri and Wisconsin also were 10-2 teams whose division titles sent them to conference championship games. There, they lost to the final four playoff teams and were punished in the final rankings, while other schools benefited from having a figurative bye.

Maybe Michigan State wouldn’t have been beaten 59-0 by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game the way Wisconsin was. And maybe Mississippi State could have made it close against Alabama again.

But the college football championship shouldn’t be about mulligans and second chances.

It also shouldn't be about diminishing big regular-season confrontations. That's what would have happened if Alabama had been beaten by Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide still would have had a top-eight spot, rendering the outcome of one of the nation's biggest rivalry games meaningless.

We probably also need to think twice before we ask college teams to adopt an NFL-like postseason. And as for the crowd that cries for fairness, this is the one and only time I'll quote Stephen A. Smith: "Fair is a place where they judge pigs."

So, what would an eight-team playoff have looked like back in 2013?

Pretty hazy, quite frankly.

Based on that season’s BCS rankings, Missouri would have been last in, grabbing the eighth spot with an 11-2 record. Four teams with 10-2 marks would have been left out: South Carolina, Oregon, Oklahoma and Clemson.

2012 would have had a similar problem, with No. 8 LSU getting in at 11-2. But there would have been several other schools from Power Five conferences that also had only two defeats.

Perhaps the most eye-catching eight-team playoff would have come in 2011 when Boise State would have squeaked in at No. 7 with an 11-1 record. But again, several twice-beaten Power Five teams like Wisconsin, South Carolina and Michigan no doubt would have protested heatedly.

Having eight teams would solve some arguments but also would just create new ones elsewhere.

The other problem is logistics. Finding four neutral sites for first-round games wouldn’t be hard, but how often can you ask college fans to pack up and travel?

Only 45,618 fans from Oregon and Arizona showed up at 68,500-capacity Levi’s Stadium for the Pac-12’s conference championship on a neutral field in Santa Clara, California. 

And it wouldn’t be surprising if many fans skipped first-round playoff games and saved their cash for the possibility of spending it on a title-game ticket.

The No. 2 Oregon-No. 7 Mississippi State game would have matched schools that are about 2,500 miles apart. Having the top-seeded teams host first-round games could solve that issue, but there likely would be resistance to giving away that big advantage in the postseason.

There's also the question of how to schedule an additional week of playoff games.

If they're put on the back end, further lengthening the season, the college game will finish in late January, and the current setup already means seasons are ending later than ever. And if they're put earlier, toward the end of December, the playoff games will be messing with Christmas, another factor that could ruin the attendance and, with it, the game-day atmosphere.

So instead of adding a third round of playoffs, maybe we need to realize there already is a third round, the conference championship week. That proved to be a knockout round for the losing schools, didn't it?

 

Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.

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UCLA Football: 5 Bold Predictions for Bruins' Bowl Game

The UCLA football team will play in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2 against the Kansas State Wildcats. 

Led by famed coach Bill Snyder, the Wildcats are a tough, fundamentally sound and hard-nosed football team. Playing a quality team from the Big 12 Conference provides head coach Jim Mora and his squad with a huge opportunity. 

This piece will make five bold predictions in relation to the contest. Four of the five proclamations will directly deal with the game itself, while a fifth deals within the realm of recruiting. 

Surely, UCLA will look to begin its 2015 season on a positive note. 

 

*UCLA vs. Kansas State will begin at 3:45 p.m. ET on Jan. 2. The game can be seen on ESPN. 

 

Begin Slideshow

Is 4-Star RB Mike Weber's Flip to Ohio State Rock Bottom for Michigan Recruiting

It’s been a rough go for the University of Michigan on the recruiting trail in recent weeks, but the recent flip of former running back pledge Michael Weber to Ohio State may be a new low for fans of the Maize and Blue.

Weber—who committed to the Wolverines back in August before dropping his pledge in November due to the impending doom of the Brady Hoke era—will now head south to play for the Wolverines’ most hated rival.

“The main part is I like winning and didn’t think Michigan could get the job done,” Weber told Dan Kilbridge of SpartanTailgate following his decommitment.

While Weber’s statement is telling, his recruitment is simply the latest—and hopefully final—casualty of Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor.

He’s the latest high-profile defection from the Wolverines' 2015 class—which has seemingly lost enough commitments from top-flight recruits to field an all-star team.

To make matters worse, Michigan has yet to name a new head coach since Brady Hoke was fired earlier this month. Plus, the Wolverines' class has only six commitments remaining less than two months away from national signing day. 

In Weber’s case, losing a top-caliber in-state prospect to a bitter rival definitely stings.

However, once a new coach is hired the healing process will begin for one of college football’s most storied programs.

The key for the Wolverines is to bring in the right coach and preferably one who can energize the fanbase and help to build a buzz on the recruiting trail.

According to Clint Brewster of Wolverine247 (subscription required), the early list of candidates includes coaches with ties to the program and those who have had success at various levels.

For a glimpse into what new blood can do for a program, all Wolverines fans have to do is take the example of Florida, who is another powerhouse going through a similar transition in changing coaches.

The Gators have rallied around new head coach Jim McElwain, and he’s been able to create enough positive vibes in his first few days on the job to give Gators fans hope that their recruiting class can finish on a strong note.

Even Hoke—who went 11-2 in his first year after succeeding Rich Rodriguez—was able to change the fortunes of the program upon arriving at Michigan in 2011.

Given the history and tradition of the Wolverines program and the fact that Michigan was able to pull so many talented prospects before this season’s collapse, there’s reason to believe that things can turn around fairly quickly.

 

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

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Is Michigan or Wisconsin the More Attractive Big Ten Head Coaching Job?

Just when you think you've seen it all this coaching silly season, something else comes along. And we're not even one week removed from the end of the regular season.

In a stunning move, Oregon State announced on Wednesday afternoon that Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen had left Madison to take over the same job with the Beavers. The move comes less than a week after former Oregon State coach Mike Riley, in his own surprising move, left to take the same job at Nebraska. 

A statement from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez reads as follows: 

I began working to find a new head coach as soon as I spoke with Gary this morning. My first concern is taking care of the players on our current team, especially the senior class, and ensuring that their bowl experience is a memorable one. I will find a head coach to uphold the great tradition at Wisconsin, someone who is committed to excellence both on an off the field.

In a press conference, Alvarez said "I had no idea this was in the works." (H/t Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports.) 

Barring another dramatic and unexpected turn of events, Wisconsin and Michigan are the only two Big Ten programs in need of a coach. As Scott Roussel of Footballscoop.com tweets, expect Wisconsin to fill its vacancy first: 

According to Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit NewsMichigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett is using a search firm to assist in finding a new coach to succeed former coach Brady Hoke

Does that mean Wisconsin is the better job? Not necessarily. It's no secret that the gap between a traditional blue-blood program like Michigan and everyone else has closed. Furthermore, Michigan is recovering from the administrative blunders made by former athletic director Dave Brandon. 

There's a lot of change that's coming to Ann Arbor that doesn't solely revolve around the head coaching position. It wouldn't be a surprise if coaches aren't interested in taking a job when they don't even know who their new boss will be. 

Conversely, anyone who takes the Wisconsin job knows what he's getting in to—and that might be the issue. 

It's not that Wisconsin isn't a good a job. It is, and it's a place where a coach can win nine or 10 games a season like Andersen did and be in good standing. However, as Dan Wolken of USA Today notes, two coaches—Bret Bielema and now Andersen—have left Madison in the past two years. And not for the Alabamas or USCs of the world either. 

Bielema left for Arkansas at least in part because he didn't feel his assistant coaches were properly compensated. That's an argument Alvarez disputed in an interview with Wolken in 2013: 

I think there's a misperception there. Any time somebody interviewed, Bret thought if you just throw a pile of money at them, they stay. I can't do that. We have to work on a budget. You don't just keep throwing money, because then everybody has leverage on you. All you have to do is say somebody's interested and you double their salary. You can't operate that way.

Why Andersen left for Oregon State hasn't been said on the record yet, and that might never happen. Here's what we do know: Alvarez is a legend at Wisconsin, transforming a downtrodden program into a consistent winner as a former head coach from 1990-2005. As Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times notes, Alvarez is a hands-on guy: 

Wisconsin is also a difficult place to recruit. Madison is a gorgeous town and a fine selling point, but the Badgers don't pull in top-25 recruiting classes regularly—or even sometimes

Even as Hoke slowly drove Michigan football to lowly depths, the man could recruit blue-chip kids to Michigan. With the exception of his first signing class in 2011, Michigan has had a top-25 recruiting class in each of the years Hoke has been the head coach, per 247Sports.com composite rankings. In 2012 and '13, Michigan finished with top-10 recruiting classes. 

Only this year, in the midst of the conjecture surrounding Hoke's ultimate termination, have the Wolverines suffered on the recruiting trail. 

Michigan made a bad hire with Hoke and probably wishes it hadn't let go of Rich Rodriguez, now at Arizona, so soon. There shouldn't be any argument that the last few years have been a low point for Michigan football. But the school still has a passionate fanbase, a national brand and tremendous resources to win. 

The gap may have closed, and Michigan may not have its man yet, but that doesn't mean it has fallen off of the college football map. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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Wisconsin's Best Move Is to Hire Bo Pelini as Badgers New Head Coach

It might seem crazy, but Bo Pelini would look pretty good in Wisconsin red and white. He's already got plenty of that color pallet in his closet, not to mention the kind of coaching traits the Badgers should be looking for in their next coach.

The college football coaching carousel reached peak "silly season" with Wednesday's news that Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen had accepted the job at Oregon State.

Andersen's departure comes six days after Oregon State had a sudden opening, with Mike Riley leaving after 14 seasons to take the Nebraska job. That gig was open because the Cornhuskers decided Pelini, who had won at least nine games in each of his seven seasons, wasn't the answer.

One team's trash could be another team's treasure, especially with Wisconsin finding itself in need of a coach for the second time in three years.

While the scenario itself may never come to fruition, it's hard to imagine Wisconsin could find a better coach than Pelini, who went 67-27 at Nebraska and helped make the program's transition from the Big 12 to the Big Ten a seamless one. That move took the Cornhuskers farther from the Texas recruiting landscape they had cultivated for decades to one that relied more on finding diamonds in the rough and developing stars rather than landing them.

Two examples: senior running back Ameer Abdullah was a 3-star prospect from Alabama that picked Nebraska because Pelini wanted him as a running back while most other schools had him pegged as a cornerback, and junior defensive end Randy Gregory ended up with the Cornhuskers after washing out at Purdue and then spending time in junior college.

Wisconsin has ranked at a similar level as Nebraska on the recruiting trail, listed by 247Sports as having the No. 33 class in 2014 compared to Nebraska's No. 36 class, so Pelini would be a guy able to work with the same kind of talent.

Pelini also always had a standout rusher at Nebraska, with Abdullah the latest following the likes of Rex Burkhead and Roy Helu. Wisconsin is also a running back factory, so Pelini's offensive style would fit in Madison.

More than anything, what makes Pelini a great fit with Wisconsin comes in the reputation category. After seeing Andersen jump ship just two years after Bret Bielema abruptly left, it might be better off bringing in someone looking for redemption rather than a resume boost.

Andersen was at Wisconsin for less than two seasons, going 19-7 and showing little drop-off from the success that Bielema had from 2006-2012. Bielema shockingly left in December 2012 to take the job at Arkansas, and athletic director Barry Alvarez tabbed Utah State's Andersen as the successor.

Bielema was the heir apparent to Alvarez, chosen by him after Alvarez retired from coaching in 2005.

Pelini reportedly was offered the job at FCS Youngstown State, but Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated tweeted late Tuesday that Pelini had denied such rumors.

Wisconsin crushed Nebraska 59-24 on Nov. 15, a game in which Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon ran for a then-FBS-record 408 yards. Pelini was fired two weeks later, despite a 9-3 record, while Andersen's Badgers won the Big Ten's West Division but then were dominated 59-0 by Ohio State in the conference title game on Saturday.

Alvarez has yet to name an interim coach to run the team for its game Jan. 1 against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, though Wednesday he did say "My goal is to have somebody in place before the bowl game," according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.

Alvarez coached the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl after Bielema left, losing 20-14 to Stanford.

Pelini would also bring some much-appreciated defensive grit. The Badgers ranked fourth in the country in yards allowed this season, even after getting run over by Ohio State, and Pelini's background has been on that side of the ball.

Nebraska struggled at times on defense this year, but from 2009-2013 his teams ranked in the top 40 in yards allowed every season.

Prior to running Nebraska, he spent five seasons as a defensive coordinator, including three years as Les Miles' DC at LSU from 2005-07.

That experience could bode well for the Badgers, who open the 2015 season in Arlington, Texas, against Alabama.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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How Lane Kiffin Became the Most Influential Assistant Coach in College Football

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If Nick Saban was trying to hire someone who was the complete opposite of himself, he wildly succeeded.

When Alabama’s search for an offensive coordinator started, Saban went right for the guy who had been left fired at a bus stop, a coach known for his brash interviews and bold statements that stirred up plenty of controversy. But he also went for the guy he had brought in as a consultant during bowl practice and had interacted with several times during his coaching career, a guy whose coaching acumen he greatly respected.

And in doing so, he wildly succeeded in bringing in the perfect guy to make his offense one suitable for the modern reality of college football.

The Lane Kiffin experiment has been a smashing success in Tuscaloosa. Not only has Kiffin engineered a record-setting offense—its 6,376 yards is the highest total in program history with at least one more game left to play—he’s done it while altering the style of play so that it is almost unrecognizable from what Alabama had done in the past.

And in turn, he became the most influential assistant coach in college football, working for a coach who is traditionally hard-and-fast set in his ways.

While Kiffin has changed almost everything about how the Alabama offense looks on the outside, the philosophy in terms of run/pass still remains relatively the same.

Consider these numbers from this season with 2013, Doug Nussmeier’s last year in Tuscaloosa and a season in which Alabama had passed more than any other year in the Saban era with quarterback AJ McCarron a redshirt senior and Eddie Lacy gone to the NFL.

The run-pass ratio has hardly changed. In fact, Kiffin and Alabama are running it at a slightly higher rate than last year.

So what’s been the difference? What’s made Kiffin’s offense so different and effective?

A good starting point has been the tempo.

The Crimson Tide haven’t gone all out and looked like Auburn or Oregon on offense. But a few times during a game, Alabama will hit the gas pedal, keeping a defense on its heels and helping its offense get in a rhythm.

You can see the difference in plays run increased dramatically over a 13-game season.

“It basically started out this season because of the personnel that we have,” Saban said before the SEC Championship Game. “The quarterback functioned better that way. He's functioned better that way all year. Because of that, our whole personality on offense has gotten to where we function better as a group when we play with some tempo and some pace. That doesn't mean that we're always going to do that, but it certainly has been something that has been beneficial to us.

“Our fastball plays that we do run have been effective. I think it's been a benefit to us and something that we'll continue to do.”

That’s a far cry from this offseason, when he was touting player safety and limiting exposure for players with fewer offensive plays.

Schematically, though, Kiffin has made subtle changes that changed the look of Alabama’s offense, no matter how fast it was running.

For one, he’s been maximizing his personnel. Wide receivers are doing more than traditional “wide receivers” and on down the line to the running backs, tight ends and even occasionally offensive linemen.

The best and most cited example of this came in the fourth game of the season against Florida, when Kiffin split speedster Kenyan Drake out wide and he caught an 87-yard touchdown to open the game.

When Drake got hurt against Ole Miss, Kiffin lost one of his favorite toys. Bleacher Report’s Ray Glier wrote that Kiffin had similar plays lined up for Drake the rest of the season.

Here's Kiffin talking about working in Drake during an interview with 103.7 The Buzz in Arkansas before the Broyles Award ceremony:

The amazing thing is, the most unique of all of them, Kenyan Drake, was injured in that Ole Miss game and was out for the year. He was kind of the Reggie Bush factor - the first play of the Florida game we threw to him as a wide receiver and stuff. The other guys are phenomenal running backs but really don't do the other stuff that Kenyan did, so it will be exciting to get him back next year. And I always, I shouldn't do it, but I think sometimes, imagine if we still had him. Just because he’s such a mismatch issue.

There are countless other examples of players getting used in nontraditional roles like that this year.

Fullback Jalston Fowler has been split out wide, too, to provide blocking on screen passes or go on passing routes himself.

Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper has been used in just about every way possible, including coming out of the backfield, on reverses, screens, swings, anything to get Alabama’s best weapon the ball.

In overtime against LSU, he split left tackle Cam Robinson out wide and sent converted tackle/tight end Brandon Greene on a seam route that got Alabama to the 1-yard line. SB Nation’s Rodger Sherman had a great piece breaking down the depth of that play and all of the deception that went into it.

It’s all made for a fascinating conversion, watching a fairly predictable offense loaded with skill talent be transformed into a juggernaut that is one of the most effective in the country.

His influence has been very apparent and the most of any assistant coach in the country.

 

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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Texas Football: What Longhorns Must Do to Prepare for Arkansas

Year one of Charlie Strong's career in Austin has not been an easy road traveled.

The head coach removed nine players from the program for violating his rules, faced a tough non-conference schedule—which ultimately led to Texas starting off the season with a losing record—and lost his starting quarterback, center and defensive tackle before the beginning of conference play.

But Texas fought through it all to become bowl-eligible and have the chance to end the season with a winning record.

However, the Longhorns received another blow when the AdvoCare Texas Bowl announced their opponent for the Dec. 29 game.

The Arkansas Razorbacks have a lot of talent throughout the two-deep, and their 6-6 record does not do the team justice.

Yes, the Razorbacks only won half of their games, and yes, the team only beat two conference opponents this season. But the Razorbacks significantly improved since their season-opening loss to Auburn, and it will take a tremendous effort from the Longhorns to leave Houston with a win.

 

Texas Defense: Prepare to Stop the Run, Weather the Storm

Arkansas' run game is the envy of most college football teams. The Razorbacks have two 1,000-yard rushers in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The duo helped carry much of the offensive load this season and put up 23 combined touchdowns in 12 games.

But the success of the ground game is not only due to the talent of the running backs. In fact, a big reason for the run game's success is because of the offensive line.

The Razorbacks O-line is one of the largest in college football, and the unit's 6'6", 321-pound average size is largely to credit for Collins and Williams' success.

Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford will be brutally tasked with coming up with a game plan to stop the Razorbacks ground game. Texas needs to be prepared to shut down the run and force quarterback Brandon Allen to throw the ball.

What Texas has working to its advantage is the fact that the Razorbacks have struggled to put up points late in the game. Arkansas has averaged 7.5 points in the second half against conference opponents. 

The Razorbacks have not been able to continue their first-half offensive performances throughout the season. The Texas defense needs to weather the storm and be prepared to stuff Arkansas' offense after halftime.

If the Longhorns are successful in these areas, the team has a chance to finish the season with seven wins.

 

Texas Offense: Prepare to Score Quickly and Target Arkansas' Pass Defense

The Razorbacks rank No. 22 in the nation against the run and have only allowed 10 rushing touchdowns all season. It wouldn't be fair to say Arkansas struggles against throwing quarterbacks, but its pass defense is likely to give up more scores than the run defense.

Where Arkansas tends to struggle is in games where its offense is forced to score quickly.

Texas needs to use this to its advantage.

The Longhorns have to get off to a fast start and force the Razorbacks to come from behind.

Some Longhorns fans may cringe at the thought of placing the offense's success in the hands of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes following his performance against TCU, but the quarterback needs to be on point on Dec. 29.

Swoopes has received a lot of criticism and blame this season. Some of it was probably warranted, and some may not have been, but that's what happens when you are the starting quarterback in Division I college football.

Swoopes has to protect the football and prove his worth in the Longhorns' bowl game. He doesn't have to put the whole team on his back and carry the load for Texas, but he does have to play well, which is something he did not do in the final game of the regular season.

Strong said Swoopes gets way too down on himself when he plays poorly. That cannot happen against this Arkansas team.

The Razorbacks defense will likely be salivating over Swoopes' performance against TCU, so the quarterback has to maintain his composure and not make mental errors.

Swoopes has shown talent and the ability to sling it this season. He needs to take what he did in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma and bring that mentality throughout his preparation for the AdvoCare Texas Bowl.

***

The Longhorns opened as five-point underdogs to the Razorbacks, according to Odds Shark. Texas will have the national spotlight on it when it faces Arkansas on Monday night and a chance to make up for its embarrassing regular-season finale with a win over a SEC team.

The Longhorns have been through a lot of turmoil in Strong's first season, but the head coach senses the program is beginning to make a turnaround, and a win against Arkansas could be just what the team needs to get the program back on track.

"You would like to go win more games and make sure that the program is headed in the right direction. A lot of times we judge that by the number of wins. I see that happening with this program. I see it turning," Strong said.

"We had a stretch there where we won games and then the last game, we didn’t play so well. We should have played a lot better than what we did. It’s coming, and we just know this. We just have to continue to work hard, and good things are going to happen."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

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Wisconsin Football Head Coach Search: Latest News and Speculation on Position

For the second time in three seasons, the University of Wisconsin has been left reeling as their head football coach departs for a less successful program. Gary Andersen officially tendered his resignation Wednesday and was immediately announced as the next head coach at Oregon State.

Andersen, 50, will take over for Mike Riley, who departed for Nebraska earlier this month after more than a decade in Corvallis.

The move was a shock to many given the disparity in success between the two programs. Oregon State has reached double-digit wins only twice in its football program history, which dates back to 1893. Wisconsin has hit the double-digit mark three times since 2009 and is a perennial contender in the Big Ten. Andersen's departure comes two seasons after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas under a similarly eye-opening situation.

"I began working to find a new coach as soon as I spoke with Gary this morning," Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez said in a statement. "My first concern is taking care of the players on the current team, especially the senior class, and ensuring that their bowl experience is a memorable one. I will find a head coach to uphold the great tradition at Wisconsin, someone who is committed to excellence both on and off the field."

Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network added more from Alvarez:

Bleacher Report's Michael Felder discussed his take on who should take over for Andersen:

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated threw out a multitude of names as potential replacements, highlighted by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano:

Schiano, 48, was out of football in 2014 after being fired by the Buccaneers following a frustrating two-season run. He's had much more success at the collegiate level, where he went 68-67 in 11 seasons at Rutgers. A complete nonentity when Schiano took over the job, he left having built Rutgers into a program respectable enough to earn a Big Ten Conference invite.

Paul Chryst is a the current head coach at Pittsburgh and served as a longtime assistant at Wisconsin, most notably as an offensive coordinator from 2005-11. Dave Clawson has no ties to the university and struggled in his first season at Wake Forest, but as Thamel notes, finished second behind Andersen in the school's most recent coaching search.

Pro Football Talk's threw out Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who is expected to draw NFL head coaching interest, as a potential candidate:

Bevell is, of course, one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Wisconsin history. His arrival in Madison was one of the defining moments in Alvarez turning around the Badgers program, as Bevell led them to their first Rose Bowl victory in 1994. Not only is Bevell's name hot in coaching circles, but his close relationship with Alvarez undoubtedly makes him an interesting target.

That said, there is a reason this seemingly great job has been vacated twice in the past 24 months. Adam Rittenberg of ESPN noted that Wisconsin's academic policies left Andersen "frustrated":

It's unlikely we'll see an entire university bend its academic standards more to appease the football program. But it'll nonetheless be interesting to see whether those factors play into Alvarez's coaching search.

After being dumped twice in such succession, Wisconsin needs to find someone who will stick around.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Gary Andersen Out, Who Should Be the Next Head Coach for the Wisconsin Badgers?

According to the Wisconsin athletic department, Gary Andersen is leaving the program and accepting the Oregon State head coaching position.

Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses where Wisconsin should go from here.

Who do you think the Badgers should snag as their new head coach?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Bleacher Report Expert Picks for 2014 Heisman Trophy

The 2014 Heisman Trophy will be presented to one deserving college football player on Saturday night in New York. 

But just who will that player be? 

The three best players at their respective positions are all vying for a chance at history. 

Marcus Mariota, quarterback of the Oregon Ducks, is the favorite to win the prestigious award, according to Odds Shark. However, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper each have a compelling case. 

Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 2,336 yards. He averaged just under 180 yards a game and 7.6 yards per carry. The junior back scored 26 touchdowns on the year, including five in one game. Oh, and who could forget his record-breaking performance of 408 rushing yards in just three quarters? 

Cooper leads the nation in receiving yards and receptions, totaling 1,656 yards and 115 catches this season. The junior wideout scored 14 touchdowns on the year, including three in not one but two separate games. One of those games was the 2014 Iron Bowl against Auburn, which really set Cooper's campaign on fire, as he hauled in 13 receptions for 224 yards. 

Mariota leads the nation with a passer rating of 186.33.  The junior signal-caller threw for 3,783 yards and rushed for just under 700. However, what's most impressive—aside from leading his team to the Pac-12 title—is the 53 total touchdowns he compiled this season (38 through the air, 14 on the ground). 

Bleacher Report college football experts Adam Kramer, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Ben Kercheval have made their picks on how the order of the voting for the 2014 Heisman Trophy will play out. What say you, college football fans? 

Let us know your picks in the comments below! 

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