NCAA Football News

Tennessee Football: Burning Questions Ahead of the TaxSlayer Bowl

With the clock winding down to the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, there are a few questions that could dictate the outcome of the Tennessee Volunteers' matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes on Jan. 2.

The Vols managed to fight and claw their way to a bowl game, and while the 15 extra practices are invaluable, Tennessee absolutely needs the positive momentum gained by actually winning the postseason matchup.

Simply showing up and collecting participation rings won't cut it for a team that's projected by some analysts to challenge for the SEC East crown in 2015. 

While the matchup with the Hawkeyes is favorable for the Vols, it's by no means a sure win. Iowa is a senior-laden team that is familiar with postseason berths, and its head coach Kirk Ferentz has bowl wins over SEC teams like LSU and Florida.

The answers to the following five questions will go a long way toward not only determining whether the Vols have a chance against the Hawkeyes, but also whether they're worthy of the preseason hype heading into 2015. 

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The Coaching Cradle That Claims Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher and 15 National Titles

The mountain area in north central West Virginia, from Everettville to Fairview to Worthington to Glen Falls, is a sparse place inhabited by a staunch people.    

This place, which is in a three-county area, winding through 33 miles of tortuous roads, can be bleak and beautiful and inspiring, all at the same time. It is a place surrounded by mountains so steep that when you drive down into hollows or dry stream beds, the sun's shine is obliterated. It is a place of majestic views, and a place of solidarity and distress, courage and champions.

Yes, champions. It is this place that molded four men who have won 15 national championships in college football.

Michigan coach Fielding Yost (six titles), Southern Cal coach John McKay (four), Alabama's Nick Saban (four) and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher (one) all call this place home.

It is important you have a picture of this place in your mind's eye.

Stories like this will help: 

The grandfather of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin III had a job in the north central West Virginia coal mines. The job was to grind a hole and push in a stick of dynamite, light the fuse and run like hell, or lean on a plunger for the electric detonator. He had to make sure to scream "Fire in the hole" and especially had to make sure he didn't stumble. Joseph Mancina, who became Joe Manchin I, was nine years old when he started working in the mines.

And stories like this:

There was another boy, Jack McKay, whose family was figuratively blown up by the mines in 1935. Jack's dad, who was the superintendent of a mine, died of pneumonia when Jack was 13. The dad's five children were split up among relatives because there wasn't enough money under one roof to care for them all together.

And this story: 

The McKays originated in Everettville, a mining town that was literally blown up when 111 miners died in an underground explosion on April 30, 1927, of Federal Mine No. 3. The population has dwindled, and the community of Everettville lost its post office in 2002, which has become routine for these mining towns.

Out of these mountains comes Yost, who is from Fairview and won six titles at Michigan (1901-1904, 1918, 1923). Out of these mountains comes McKay, who was born in Everettville and started out as that boy, "Jack," and won four at Southern California (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974). Out of these mountains comes Saban, who was born near Worthington and won four titles (2003 at LSU, 2009, 2011, 2012 at Alabama). Out of these mountains comes Fisher, who was born near Clarksburg and won a title in 2013.

These men learned how to climb up hills, literally and figuratively. Saban's father died at 46. McKay's father died at 46. You could say Fisher's father, John James, was relatively young when he died at 62, but life expectancy in West Virginia is 49th among 50 states, so he had a good run. Life there is harder than most places, thus shorter than most places.

"It's truly called survival. Nothing was easy, nothing was given to them. It's not a prosperous area. It is just the hardest-working people you ever met," said Senator Manchin, 67, who is from Farmington and a close friend of the Sabans. "In the era we grew up in, there were no excuses. It was never somebody else's fault. People could shake your hand, look you in the eye and see your soul and see if you were real or not.

"There was no b------t. If you wanted to succeed you had to be extremely competitive. You had to go after it."

Saban went to high school in a place called Monongah, and his house was at the intersection of Routes 19 and 218 on the outskirts of Worthington, West Virginia, near Fairmont. His father, Nick, ran a filling station, which meant his son Nick, nicknamed "Brother" so the two were not confused, learned to pump the gas, check under the hood, clean the windshield and, for that matter, clean the whole car.

Fisher is from a place called Glen Falls. His father was a coal miner and a farmer, his mother still a teacher after 52 years.

"Maybe (growing up in West Virginia) it hardens you a little bit because it is so difficult on some people," Saban told The Decatur (Ala.) Daily in 2007. "I'd have no issue at all to go back and be what I once was because I don't see it as a bad thing."

Saban's school in Monongah was not far from the site of the worst mining disaster in U.S. history. On December 6, 1907, 361 miners were killed in an explosion. Disasters were routine, but men kept going into the mines. These are Saban's people, and Fisher's people. If the coaches come across as impatient or badasses, well, there's a reason.

"I don't think it is beneath me or anything else," Saban told The Decatur Daily of growing up in that region of West Virginia. "It was an experience that helps develop and mold you into what you are. There is nothing bad about it."

Dadgummit, he loved West Virginia.

It figures a West Virginia guy would succeed the legendary Bobby Bowden at Florida State. You hear Bowden talk about West Virginia with reverence, and he seems just delighted in Fisher's roots in the Clarksburg area. Bowden coached 10 years at West Virginia University (1966-1975), first as offensive coordinator, then as head coach, before leaving for FSU.

Four of Bowden's children attended WVU, including his sons, Terry and Tommy, who were Division I head coaches on the top shelf of the game (Auburn and Clemson). Three of the Bowden children married West Virginia natives.

"They're hard-working people in the first place. They're not spoiled. Nobody is spoiled up there. Nobody. You had to earn everything; that's how you get guys like Nick and Jimbo and McKay," Bowden said. "None of 'em had it easy. They had that background of toughness and fighting."

People made a living there. People died there, in bunches, and they died there already underground. Fisher's father nearly died in the mines after an explosion when Jimbo was two.

"You had a lot of people in coal mines, and they wanted to get out," Bowden said. "Football could carry you out."

Manchin, who was also the governor of the state (2005-2010), desperately wanted Fisher to come home to West Virginia and coach WVU after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan. The buyout WVU would have had to pay FSU to get Fisher out of his contract, Manchin said, was too steep. When Rodriguez was being rumored on the way to Michigan, Florida State did not dither in locking up Fisher to make sure Manchin did not get his way. Fisher was proclaimed the "coach in waiting" following the 2007 season and would succeed Bowden when the legendary coach was fired/retired after the 2009 season.

Fisher has rewarded FSU's foresight with a national title in 2013 and a shot at another national championship in two weeks. He recently signed an eight-year extension, which Warchant.com first reported was worth $5 million a year.

"Sports is very big there; we all grew up doing it our whole lives," Fisher said. "I think the big thing is probably work ethic. Being from the coal mining areas of West Virginia, being farmers and coal miners, it's extremely difficult life, putting in work and doing the things you've got to do and loving ball. Ball was a big part of our culture. So maybe there is something to that."

Manchin knew he never had a chance at Saban. Alabama's football program had too many resources; the bigger stadium, the lure of the SEC and the fertile recruiting area in the South. Saban was an assistant coach at West Virginia University in 1978 and 1979, and that was as close as he got to leading the program. His offensive line coach at Alabama, Joe Pendry, who is now retired, was Manchin's roommate at WVU.

Willy Criado, 87, was the postmaster in Farmington and a close friend of Nick Sr. He sees "Brother" and sees a mirror of his friend, Nick's father, who died while jogging home one day. The father of the Alabama coach was as much a competitor as his son. He played in an independent basketball league into his 40s, coached an American Legion Baseball team and excelled at football, basketball and baseball. The Alabama coach, Brother, did not just roll out of the mountains and start winning games. There was somebody with skill, an athlete, showing him how to do things.

"We started the Black Diamond team together and pushed those kids," Criado said of the youth football team that still exists in Marion County. "Nick Sr. was a good friend of mine, a good coach. Never cussed, didn't smoke, a good man. We lockered together in school and played sports. A really good man."

 

The Trailblazers

Before there was Saban or Fisher, there was John McKay, the man who popularized "student body left" and the I-formation toss sweep and played physical, run-first football on the West Coast at SC. His sister, Gertrude, said McKay and his father, who was also named John, would order the room cleared out on Saturday afternoons in the early '30s so they could tune the family's one radio to Notre Dame football.

When their father died in 1935, he left a widow who was 36 years old. The oldest boy had to quit high school and work. "Jack", or John, McKay, and another sister went to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt for two years.

"We kept afloat," Punky Kramer said. "We had good relatives who were close."

Jack came back to north central West Virginia and graduated from Shinnston High School, which is near Clarksburg and not far from the Fisher homestead. One brother, Richie, died in the Pacific Ocean in World War II while on a minesweeper. He is the namesake of Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay.

"I remember John walking into the house the day of Pearl Harbor and kicking the radio and breaking it, he was so mad," his sister said. John McKay enlisted and flew bomber missions in the Pacific theatre during WWII.

John McKay played football at Purdue and Oregon and later coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he is in the College Football Hall of Fame because of a 127-40-8 coaching record at Southern Cal. His 1972 team, which featured an array of All-Americans, was 12-0 and considered one of the greatest teams in the college game for outscoring opponents by almost 28 points a game.

McKay's quips to the media were legendary. After a 51-0 loss to Notre Dame in 1966 he famously said, "I told my team it doesn't matter. There are 750 million people in China who don't even know this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, 'What happened, Coach?'"

The man who started it all, Yost, went 165-29-10 in 25 seasons at Michigan while claiming 10 conference titles and six national championships. According to a biography distributed by the Big Ten, Yost was the first coach who had his quarterbacks throw "spirals" with the football when the forward pass was legalized in 1906. Everybody else was trying to pitch it forward with two hands.

Michigan was so prolific on offense in Yost's first five seasons it was dubbed "point a minute" because it crushed teams with a fast pace and actually averaged a point a minute. In 1901, Michigan outscored opponents 550-0 and put together a 56-game winning streak.

Door-to-door, it is 12 miles from where Yost grew up in Fairview to where Saban grew up on the outskirts of Worthington. That's 10 national titles birthed in one remote, rugged county of Marion, West Virginia.

 

 

Bobby Bowden is quick to remind you that plenty of other coaches made their way through the hardscrabble life of West Virginia, men that people don't remember, or even consider.

College Football Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse was from Point Pleasant, legendary Lou Holtz is from tiny Follansbee and Rich Rodriguez is from Grant Town.

"Football was very important to you, just something you grew up, and your coach was influential in your life and many times you wanted to be like him," Holtz said.

Joe Manchin said the WVU All-American and All-Pro linebacker Sam Huff did not grow up in a small town that had a name. Huff grew up in a place simply called No. 9. It was a mining camp. There was an explosion in No. 9 in 1968 that killed 78 miners, including Manchin's uncle.

Kids like Saban, and then Fisher, were touched through and through by those tragedies. They were haunted by those tragedies. They were driven by those tragedies.

"You ask how did these guys make it, how did they get where they are," Manchin said. "They didn't want to go in the damn coal mine.

"So think about recruiting and the parents and grandparents of these high school football players out there now. They know these coaches are real. These coaches from up home come from real life and toughness. All the coaches we're talking about from this part of the country, people know they care about their kids. That's how you wrap it up and answer what helps make them successful."

 

Ray Glier, a 1981 graduate of West Virginia University, covers college football for Bleacher Report. Unless noted, all information and quotes in this story were gathered firsthand, with background on the Everettville mines via Carol Thorn, the Miners Memorial Park Coordinator.

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10 Best NFL Draft Prospects Playing in College Football Playoff Games

Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon—college football's first Final Four—could not have made the playoff without a deep cast of draft-eligible talent.

All four teams have relied on underclassmen to get here too, and the contributions of Cam Robinson, Dalvin Cook, Joey Bosa and Royce Freeman should not go overlooked. But the heart of each team has been the third-, fourth- and sometimes fifth-year players.

So consider this list a primer for the NFL fans who haven't followed closely all season but plan on watching the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day. Which players from all four teams should they keep an eye on with regard to the 2015 draft?

Here is everything they need to know.

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Baylor's Spencer Drango Gets 'Kissbombed' by Teammate Shawn Oakman

An unexpected appearance by Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman during Bears offensive tackle Spencer Drango's pre-Cotton Bowl media session led to one of the best clips from this bowl season.

Not only was Oakman's kiss on the cheek totally unexpected, but Drango's reaction was fantastic. Each player gets a lot of points for their roles in the "kissbomb."

[KCEN]

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Insider Buzz: Jim Harbaugh Great Fit for Michigan but Still Dreams of Super Bowl

The new head coach of the Michigan Wolverines is Jim Harbaugh. The Michigan faithful are ecstatic to welcome Harbaugh back in Ann Arbor, but how long will he stay?

Bleacher Report's Jason Cole discusses what Jim Harbaugh will bring to Michigan and for how long.

How fast can Jim Harbaugh turn things around at Michigan?

Check out the video and let us know!

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Leonard Fournette Bursts Through Notre Dame Coverage for 100-Yard TD on Kickoff

LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette is something special.

After putting up solid numbers in the regular season, Fournette is shining against Notre Dame in the 2014 Music City Bowl on Tuesday. He scored a rushing touchdown near the end of the first quarter, but it was his score early in the second quarter that shows just how explosive he is.

Fournette responded to a Fighting Irish touchdown by taking the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a score of his own. He found a hole, got past a couple of defenders and was gone.

How long did it take him to go 100 yards? Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee has the answer:

Fournette would have reached the end zone even quicker had he not let up at the end.

[Instagram, Twitter]

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Mike Richardson Dismissed by Texas A&M After Sideline Incidents in Liberty Bowl

Former Texas A&M football player and student assistant coach Mike Richardson has been dismissed from the program following two separate incidents in which he was seen striking opposing players during the Aggies' 45-37 victory over West Virginia in the 2014 Liberty Bowl.     

According to Brent Zwerneman of The Houston Chronicle, Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has "permanently dismissed" Richardson from the team:

Zwerneman also posted the full statement from Sumlin regarding Richardson's dismissal on TwitLonger.com:

Upon returning to College Station last night, I had the opportunity to gather information and watch clips of one of our student assistant coaches initiating physical contact on two separate occasions with a West Virginia player. I am extremely disappointed and embarrassed, as his behavior reflected poorly on our program. 

On behalf of the Texas A&M football program, I want to apologize to Darryl Worley and to Andrew Buie as well as to Coach Holgorsen and the West Virginia family for the inexcusable actions of the student assistant. I removed him from the sideline at halftime of yesterday's game after being informed of the incidents and, after further review, have permanently dismissed him from our football program.

I also want to apologize to the Aggie faithful, as they deserve a program to be proud of, not only in our play, but in the integrity and respect we show on and off the field. This student assistant coach’s actions are not representative of our program.

West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley, who was one of the players struck by Richardson, tweeted out his comments on the situation and hoped it would allow the NCAA to increase rules for sideline etiquette:

Richardson offered an apology on Twitter to the opposing players, West Virginia and Texas A&M before his fate was decided:

Sumlin didn't allow Richardson back out for the second half of Monday's game after he was made aware of the incidents.

Richardson was not a paid member of the Texas A&M staff, but has been a student assistant with the program since his playing career ended in 2012 due to a spine injury. 

 

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Braxton Miller Transferring to Florida State Would Be Perfect Fit for Everyone

Like the Indianapolis Colts' transition from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck, Florida State could go from one top-tier quarterback to another. 

Without all the losing in between, that is. 

Some pieces have to fall in place first, but the thought of Ohio State's Braxton Miller finishing his college career at Florida State could be a great move for both parties. Nothing is close to official yet, but Tom D'Angelo of The Palm Beach Post tweets that FSU has been told that Miller is interested in playing for the Seminoles in 2015. 

Officially, there has been no comment from Miller, Ohio State or Florida State on the matter. Earlier this week, a report surfaced from Blue Devil Lair that Miller was interested in transferring to Duke

However, let's say for the sake of conversation that the Miller-FSU marriage comes to fruition. 

The first thing it would do is give Florida State an experienced, dynamic quarterback following the likely departure of Jameis Winston to the NFL. As a soon-to-be redshirt senior, Miller would be available to play right away as a grad student. 

Florida State's quarterback situation would definitely be a question mark. Sean Maguire has been Winston's backup this season, but hasn't thrown a pass in a game since Oct. 4 against Wake Forest. Meanwhile, Deondre Francois and De'Andre Johnson are two quarterback prospects verbally committed to Florida State for the class of 2015

There simply isn't a lot of experience behind Winston. If Miller were to come to Tallahassee, it could allow head coach Jimbo Fisher to redshirt his younger players while maintaining a high level of play. 

It would also get Ohio State out of an obvious bind, which is a tough thing to think about given Miller's production over the years. However, the elephant in and around Columbus this spring would revolve around how head coach Urban Meyer potentially handles three quarterbacks—Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones—who have all shown they can win games and put up big numbers. 

After the year Barrett had—2,834 passing yards, 45 touchdowns accounted for—there may not be any room for Miller to overtake him after missing the season with a shoulder injury. 

If Miller wants to have a shot as a quarterback at the next level, he needs to show what he can do in 2015. That chance may not happen with the Buckeyes, as noted by Matt Hayes of Sporting News:

As much as Miller loves playing for Ohio State, he has no other option but to leave for his final season if he wants to play in the NFL. He’s not helping his draft stock by sitting behind Barrett (because that’s where he’ll be), and he’s not getting critical repetitions against college football’s elite teams unless he transfers as a graduate student and plays somewhere else in 2015.

"You hate to see a kid leave his school," Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller told B/R's Ben Axelrod. "But for his career, I think the best thing would be going to somewhere that’s going to run a little bit more of a pro-style offense and where he would get on the field right away."

That's where Florida State enters. Fisher runs a more traditional offense, if you will, and has groomed his fair share of first-round quarterbacks over the years, from Christian Ponder to EJ Manuel. Winston, barring an unforeseen circumstance, should go in the first round of the upcoming draft as well. 

Fisher doesn't get nearly enough credit for developing quarterbacks at the college level. Miller has all the tools to be successful, he's just played in a different type of offense that depends more on quarterback runs. Combining Miller and Fisher would be a fascinating marriage of styles. It would challenge Miller as a quarterback and Fisher as a coach in how he calls plays. 

If and when Miller does declare a transfer, he would be the hottest college "free agent" on the market—though limitations can still be applied by Ohio State. At the very least, it would be as big as the Russell Wilson-to-Wisconsin acquisition in 2011, if not bigger. 

Certainly, it could be one of the most-followed stories of next season. 

 

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

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Texas A&M Coach Kevin Sumlin 'Fires' Pool Boy over Tweet

Anyone who works for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin better think twice before they tweet. Otherwise, they could soon be without a job.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sumlin's pool cleaner, Rustin McFarland, sent out a tweet about what he saw while at the coach's house. It appears the tweet was a breach of confidentiality.

It's not clear if Sumlin was serious or just joking. For what it's worth, McFarland deleted his tweet a few minutes after Sumlin responded but followed it up with this:

[Twitter]

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The Biggest X-Factors of the College Football Playoff

Want star power? The College Football Playoff certainly isn't lacking any.

The Rose Bowl (No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State) and Sugar Bowl (No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State) feature an eclectic mix of top-tier coaches, contrasting philosophies and future NFL players—all on the biggest stages.

Compelling television, it should be.

Which players will be X-factors in their respective January 1 games? It's tough to compile a short list from so many big names, but the following players were selected due to key matchups and important positions. Put another way, these are players whose teams wouldn't quite be the same without them.

The following list features two players—one for defense and one for offense—from each of the four teams.

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Michigan Recruits React to Jim Harbaugh Hiring

Jim Harbaugh spent Sunday afternoon scheming his way to victory against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. He stood at a podium in Ann Arbor less than 48 hours later, providing a resounding message for fans of Michigan and college football at large.

The Wolverines' new leader, fresh off three conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl berth in four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, is ready to bring top-tier talent to a program that's near and dear to his heart:

Harbaugh, who previously resurrected a downtrodden Stanford program, doesn't face as tough a task at Michigan, but there's certainly work to be done.

The Wolverines have finished with a losing record three times since 2008. Prior to the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras, Michigan hadn't suffered a losing season since 1967.

The university clearly understands its storied program is in peril. Administrators acted swiftly and aggressively to secure a long-term commitment form the most coveted head coach at any level of football.

"Coach Harbaugh coming to Michigan is the best choice for many reasons," 4-star Wolverines quarterback Alex Malzone told Bleacher Report. "He's going to bring attitude back to the team. He's going to bring in the right guys that want to play for Michigan."

For Malzone and future Michigan targets at his position, the opportunity to learn from a former star Wolverines passer is immeasurable.

"As a quarterback, I couldn't be more excited," Malzone added. 

He could have more offensive weapons at his disposal within a few weeks. Cordell Broadus, a 4-star uncommitted receiver from Nevada who is the son of hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg, expressed interest in a Harbaugh-led squad earlier this week:

Former Michigan commit Chris Clark, a 4-star tight end from Connecticut, is another candidate to end up in Ann Arbor. He told MLive.com the Wolverines "would instantly move toward the top of his list again" with Harbaugh on board.

Osa Masina is one top Michigan target who won't be swayed by the development. The 4-star Utah linebacker has narrowed his focus to USC, UCLA and Arizona State. 

"If Harbaugh had been hired earlier, it may have changed my mind," he said. "But it's just too late right now and I'm comfortable with my three finalists. It's an awesome move for Michigan, though. I'm sure it will pay off."

The presence of an accomplished NFL coach breathes new life into a despondent program. The 2015 Michigan recruiting class currently consists of just six commitments and ranks 90th in 247Sports' composite rankings behind Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and FBS newcomer Old Dominion's. 

"I see a situation like this having the ability to fuel a much-anticipated turnaround," said 4-star 2016 prospect Josh Imatorbhebhe, who holds a Michigan offer. "Truly nothing short of revolutionary."

The coveted Georgia wide receiver believes the university found an ideal fit.

"This hire is a match made in heaven," Imatorbhebhe said. "You have a successful NFL head coach step down to be a head coach at his alma mater, whom he led to the Rose Bowl."

Fellow 2016 Wolverines target Ahmir Mitchell agreed Harbaugh's arrival represents a new chapter Michigan desperately needed.

"That's huge for Michigan to have a coach of that caliber," the 4-star New Jersey athlete said. "He could bring huge things and players to Michigan and have a fresh start."

Heralded 2016 Illinois running back Kentrail Moran also chimed in, providing another positive glimpse of early feedback for long-frustrated Wolverines fans:

Even a top-tier Ohio State commit had to tip his cap at the move. 

Detroit running back Michael Weber, a Buckeyes pledge who decommitted from Michigan in November, believes the Harbaugh hiring is a step in the right direction for his soon-to-be rival.

"Jim Harbaugh is a great coach," Weber said. "I think he’s going to change things around there a bit with how the team gets ready for big games. He’ll get some guys in there who actually want to win. He has some work to do, so we’ll see.”

Harbaugh has plenty of slots to fill in hist first Wolverines recruiting class with just six weeks remaining until national signing day. Based on first impressions, that won't present problems for a man and a program who've stolen the national spotlight leading up to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise mentioned.

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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College Football Playoffs 2015: Most Important Players in National Semifinals

You can argue as much as you want about the College Football Playoff, but it is impossible to deny the committee gave fans two great games with elite talent on all four squads.

Between All-Conference players, All-Americans and Heisman winners, there are a number of big-time stars who could impact each game in the national semifinals. The question is, which competitors will have the biggest roles in deciding the outcome?

A mistake or great performance by anyone could help affect which squads will play for a national championship, but these players are likely to have the biggest impact on the upcoming games.

 

10. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

After losing Braxton Miller and then J.T. Barrett to injury, many teams would've given up. However, Ohio State kept going, as Cardale Jones carried the torch for the offense in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

While the Sugar Bowl represents just his second career start, this could actually be beneficial against Alabama. As Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban explained to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, the lack of film on Jones makes him difficult to game-plan against:

Still, Jones wasn't asked to do too much against Wisconsin. Against Alabama, the sophomore will have more pressure on him with the fate of the Buckeyes in his hands.

 

9. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon

The Oregon defense took a major hit when All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was sidelined for the postseason after injuring his knee in practice. As a result, the rest of the secondary will have to seriously step up against Florida State.

Fortunately, the Ducks have someone ready to be the No. 1 option at cornerback in senior Troy Hill. Opposing quarterbacks have looked in his direction for much of the season to avoid Ekpre-Olomu, but Hill came through with a team-leading 17 passes defended.

He and safety Erick Dargan will make sure the Oregon defense will remain as solid as it has been lately.

 

8. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama

It didn't seem like Blake Sims would win the starting quarterback job coming into the season, but it's a good thing he did because his play is a major reason Alabama is currently the No. 1 team in the nation.

The senior put up big numbers this year, but more importantly, he changed the offense with his ability to make accurate passes as well as extend plays with his legs. He has given opponents yet another dimension to defend on a field with a lot of skill players.

As long as he can keep up his recent level of play and avoid mistakes, Alabama should be just fine.

 

7. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State

It's hard to find a more versatile defender than Jalen Ramsey. The safety can line up just off the defensive line or deep into coverage and have success from any spot.

Even Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota is impressed with what he has seen from the sophomore on film:

Ramsey has filled up the stat sheet this year with 9.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and 13 passes defended. He always seems to be around the ball, and his speed and instincts will be a major part of the Seminoles' ability to slow down Oregon's red-hot offense. 

 

6. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

The Heisman Trophy finalist was outstanding this season, leading all FBS players with 115 catches to go with 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. He can burn a defender and get open down the field or simply take a screen pass and break a few tackles to go the distance.

On the downside, the Tide have become incredibly reliant on Cooper. The receiver has about 43 percent of the team's receptions this season, including three times more than DeAndrew White, who's second on the team.

He has turned himself into an excellent player, but he better match his recent play or else Alabama will be in trouble. 

 

5. Joey Bosa, DL, Ohio State

One of the most effective defensive players in the nation, Joey Bosa has NFL teams disappointed that he is only a sophomore. It will take at least another year until he can make an impact at the next level.

Until then, Bosa will have to satisfy as one of the top defensive linemen in the nation. He finished the regular season with 50 tackles, including 20 for loss, and 13.5 sacks. He does an excellent job of getting into the backfield and blowing up both passes and run plays.

As good as Alabama has become offensively, Bosa has a chance to single-handedly slow down the Tide if he plays to his ability. 

 

4. Landon Collins, S, Alabama

Most teams don't want to see the safety finish the year with too many tackles. This usually means the stops are coming down the field and the defensive is struggling.

That is not the case with Alabama and Landon Collins, a hard-hitting safety who is excellent against the run and always finds a way to make tackles right at the line. He currently has 91 tackles and has also done a great job in coverage.

Ohio State usually finds ways to get a few long plays every game, but Collins will be the person trying to prevent this from happening. 

 

3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

Although Cardale Jones will be important, Ohio State's offense goes through Ezekiel Elliott. In his first year as a featured back, the sophomore has amassed 1,402 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns to help the team move the football regardless of who is under center.

The Big Ten championship was by far Elliott's best game of the year, as he totaled 220 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.

With plenty of questions in the passing game, the Buckeyes will lean heavily on the running back and hope he can once again carry the squad to victory.

 

2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

Jameis Winston was considered by far the best player in the nation a year ago, but the quarterback has struggled for much of the 2014 season. His incredible efficiency that he showed en route to winning the Heisman Trophy was gone this year, and he ended up throwing a putrid 17 interceptions 

The good news, though, is he is coming off one of the best performances of the season against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. ESPN's Andrea Adelson and Mike Greenberg agreed on this fact in the most recent win:

After throwing four interceptions in a win the week before, Winston kept his mistakes to a minimum. If he can do this again, the Seminoles will have a serious chance to upset Oregon and advance to the title game.

 

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

The Heisman Trophy winner is not only the best player in the nation—he is the most important person on any team contending for a national championship.

Oregon dealt with injuries to the offensive line and shifts in roles for playmakers, but Marcus Mariota heads into the Rose Bowl with 38 passing touchdowns, 14 rushing touchdowns and just two interceptions.

While you can call him a system quarterback, no one else would be as productive in this offense. More importantly, it's hard to imagine the Ducks having any success if Mariota wasn't at his best. This means he better show up for the squad to advance to the national title game.

 

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

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Music City Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Notre Dame vs. LSU

Notre Dame 21, LSU 21—Early 3rd Quarter

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and LSU Tigers are meeting in the 2014 Music City Bowl at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee.

ESPN is broadcasting the game. Bleacher Report is providing scoring updates and analysis. Please add your thoughts in the comments section.

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Inside Urban Meyer's Forgotten Rivalry with Lane Kiffin

How much star power does a matchup between Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Alabama's Nick Saban possess?

So much that Alabama's big-name offensive coordinator once publicly accused Meyer of cheating—and nobody seems to be talking about it.

But that's exactly what happened five years ago when Lane Kiffin took over as the head coach at Tennessee. Celebrating his first signing day with the Volunteers, Kiffin looked to make a splash, taking aim at Meyer, then the head coach at Florida.

"I'm going to turn Florida in right here in front of you," Kiffin said as he addressed a crowd of donors about the recruitment of new Tennessee wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson.

"As Nu'Keese was here on campus, his phone keeps ringing. And so one of our coaches is sitting in a meeting with him and he says, 'Who's that?' and he looks at the phone and it says 'Urban Meyer.' Just so you know, when a recruit's on another campus, you can't call a recruit on another campus.

"I love the fact that Urban Meyer had to cheat and still didn't get him."

As it turned out, Meyer wasn't cheating—there was and is no rule that prohibits a coach from calling an unsigned recruit on another campus. It wasn't the first time that Meyer found himself in the crosshairs of Kiffin, who guaranteed a victory over the reigning national champion Gators in his introductory press conference at Tennessee.

"I'm really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions at the University of Tennessee," Kiffin said. "Singing 'Rocky Top' all night long after we beat Florida next year. It's going to be a blast, OK? So get ready."

Kiffin never got to that, as the Gators beat the Volunteers by a score of 23-13 nine months later. It proved to be to last SEC battle between Meyer and Kiffin, as the latter left for Southern California after just one season in Knoxville, with cameras allegedly capturing Meyer happily receiving the news.

Although it was brief, the Meyer-Kiffin rivalry was certainly memorable, a brash up-and-coming head coach unapologetically needling the then-king of college football. Meyer, for his part, never seemed to take the bait, although it's no secret that Kiffin's words were used as motivation inside the Florida locker room.

"I don't like anybody talking [negatively] about Coach Meyer," star quarterback Tim Tebow said, per The Commercial Appeal.

It wasn't just Kiffin whose time in the SEC wouldn't last much longer, as Meyer would retire from Florida in 2011 before taking over the Ohio State program in 2012. Kiffin, meanwhile, wore out his welcome in Los Angeles and was fired by USC in the middle of the 2013 season.

Kiffin has since revitalized his career this past season as Alabama's offensive coordinator, installing hurry-up elements into Saban's formerly traditional offense. His time in Tuscaloosa has also indirectly put him back on a collision course with Meyer, whose No. 4 Buckeyes will face the top-ranked Crimson Tide in Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal Sugar Bowl.

So why isn't anybody talking about the revival of one of college football's greatest lost rivalries?

Mostly because the matchup between Meyer and Saban leaves few headlines left for anybody else. But also because, just as Meyer claimed five years ago, the ill-will between the two appears to be water under the bridge.

"Coach Meyer and myself communicated a few times over texts and a phone call," Kiffin said at his Sugar Bowl press conference on Monday.

"It was really just kind of, 'Hey, this kind of crap from before, let's move on.' Obviously I have a great respect for what he's done everywhere he's been and how fast he's gotten this program up to being a top-four team in the country.

"That was just one of my many mistakes."

 

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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Michigan Fan Creates 'Coming Home' Video for Jim Harbaugh's Return to Ann Arbor

With Jim Harbaugh coming home to Ann Arbor to coach his alma mater, one Michigan fan has decided to create a fitting tribute video in his honor.

A young Harbaugh helps set the tone, and then, as with any homecoming video these days, Skylar Grey's "Coming Home" takes over. 

Although football season is more than nine months away, this video will help get Wolverines fans excited for a new era of Michigan football.

[YouTube, h/t College Spun]

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Cold Hard Fact for Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fact: The $5 million per year Jim Harbaugh is making to coach Michigan matches his biggest money-making year as a player. 

Bleacher Report will be bringing sports fans the most interesting and engaging Cold Hard Fact of the day, presented by Coors Light.

Source: Darren Rovell

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USC's Rising Star Adoree' Jackson Will Contend for 2015 Heisman

Do-everything USC freshman Adoree' Jackson just dove headfirst into the 2015 Heisman Trophy conversation—literally. 

Early in the first quarter of the Trojans' 45-42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska on Saturday, Jackson took a kickoff from his own two-yard line. Finding a seam in the Cornhuskers' coverage, he burst through and hit the gear that made him a 10.68-second 100-meter sprinter in high school.

Not only was Jackson's return longer than any in the bowl's 36-year history, it was also the first to end with a well-executed front flip into the end zone.

"My dad called me before the game and he told me do something for him...because he wasn't able to make the game," Jackson said. 

The officials played Soviet judge to Jackson's impromptu gymnastics exhibition, flagging him for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"Do I condone it? No," head coach Steve Sarkisian said of the celebration, which cost USC 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.

However, Sarkisian added: "We only get to do this 13, 14 times a year so when we get our chances we better have fun doing it."

Jackson may not demonstrate his exuberance through an aerial display again, but it won't be the last time we see the rising star reach the end zone, either. 

In 2015, a more appropriate celebration might be an homage to Desmond Howard's Heisman pose when the Michigan star won the trophy in 1991. 

The kickoff return was the first of two proverbial Heisman moments for Jackson on Saturday, albeit a year early. 

The 71-yard touchdown reception was Jackson's third of the season, fourth-most among all Trojans. Not bad for a full-time cornerback moonlighting on offense. 

This particular grab was arguably his most impressive yet, as Jackson lined up in the backfield and took a short screen from quarterback Cody Kessler, then exploded past the Nebraska defense to reach paydirt. 

"It was reminiscent of another guy I've seen wearing our uniform before," Sarkisian said of Jackson's Holiday Bowl performance, without naming names. 

Not that he needs to: Comparisons to 2005 Heisman winner Reggie Bush surfaced before Jackson ever played a down in cardinal and gold, insofar as Jackson was even rumored to seek out Bush's No. 5 before the season, as the Los Angeles Daily News' Scott Wolf wrote in February. 

Jackson's freshman campaign validated the comparisons. His explosiveness as both a returner and offensive weapon bore similarities to Bush, right down to the end-zone flip. 

And building off the finish to his freshman season, Jackson could emulate Bush in another way as a sophomore. 

Bush was the last of USC's seven alumni to win college football's most prestigious individual honor, asterisk notwithstanding. He's also the last Heisman recipient to have contributed extensively in a phase other than offense, excelling in special teams as much as he did at running back. 

As easy as it is to draw comparisons between Bush and Jackson, however, there's a more fitting Heisman case study, as Sarkisian alluded to on his conference call Sunday night. 

"Charles Woodson, what he was able to do for Michigan, was tremendous," Sarkisian said. 

Woodson is the only defensive player ever to win the award, though that distinction is somewhat misleading. His highlight-reel moments on special teams and offense attracted the necessary voter attention to spotlight his play at cornerback. 

Likewise, Jackson won't contend for the Heisman with his work on defense alone, outstanding as it may be.

And it was outstanding. Jackson became USC's lockdown cornerback almost immediately in 2014, proving himself too invaluable to transition to wide receiver full-time. 

Making the most of his opportunities in special teams and on offense, as he did in the Holiday Bowl, is how Jackson can be the next Woodson. 

A side-by-side comparison of Jackson's statistical output in 2014 to Woodson's Heisman-winning campaign shows that the USC freshman doesn't have far to go.

One key metric in which Woodson had a distinct advantage over Jackson's 2014, however, is team wins. Michigan went undefeated in 1997 en route to a share of the national championship. 

Talk of USC pursuing the 2015 title began in earnest Saturday night.

"We're going to compete for championships. That's why you come to USC," Sarkisian said. "Get ready for 2015." 

And get ready for Jackson to chase both a championship and a Heisman—with or without acrobatics. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com

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Alabama vs. Ohio State: Unheralded Players Who Will Impact 2015 Sugar Bowl

The stars might get the headlines, but they are not always the ones who make the biggest impact in a football game. In many cases, it's the little-known players who help decide the outcome.

When Alabama takes on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, college football fans will be able to name many of the key players on both sides. Quarterbacks Blake Sims and Cardale Jones will obviously take center stage, while notable competitors like Amari Cooper, Landon Collins, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa have become household names.

Obviously, each of these competitors will have a major role in helping decide the national semifinal. However, here is a look at a few other players to watch out for in this matchup.

 

Doran Grant, CB, Ohio State

Cooper has been without question the best receiver in college football this season. The Alabama star leads the nation with 115 receptions to go with 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns.

On a team that is usually run-heavy and lacking downfield threats, Cooper has completely changed the dynamic of the Crimson Tide offense. Even Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knows what he is getting into in this game, via Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

If the Buckeyes want to slow down this passing attack, a lot of pressure will be on the shoulders of Doran Grant. The senior cornerback has had a great season, finishing the regular season with 14 passes defended to go with five interceptions. Two of those picks came against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

Of course, stopping Cooper is a completely different challenge. Grant has the quickness to stay with smaller receivers, but the real test will be bringing the Alabama receiver down after the catch, which is where he usually excels.

Grant doesn't have an easy job, but he will be one of the most important players on the field for the Buckeyes.

 

Jeff Heuerman, TE, Ohio State

If you're going to beat Alabama, you need to take advantage of your best weapons. For Ohio State, that includes tight end Jeff Heuerman.

The 6'5" senior has the size and athleticism to be a serious mismatch at this level. Unfortunately, he hasn't been used as much as he should, heading as he is into the bowl game with just 17 catches for 207 yards and two scores.

He recently joked about his limited role in the passing game:

While his blocking ability is valuable, Meyer needs to let his tight end run loose against the Crimson Tide. He has NFL-level talent, but he hasn't been used to his full ability.

With an inexperienced quarterback under center, Ohio State will need players who can make things happen in the passing game. Heuerman can make a major impact, he just needs to be given a chance.

 

Arie Kouandjio, OG, Alabama

Alabama is certainly battle-tested from playing in the SEC West, competing against some of the best defenses in the nation. However, the Tide haven't faced anyone with a better defensive line than Ohio State.

Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe was impressed by this unit during the 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the conference title game:

Between Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and others, there are a lot of guys who will eventually be playing on Sundays. In the meantime, they do a great job of shutting down the opposing run game while consistently getting pressure on the quarterback.

While the entire Alabama offensive line will have to step up, senior Arie Kouandjio is the one who can make the biggest impact. The talented guard is a leader on this unit and generally does a great job of clearing space for T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry in the middle of the line.

Things will clearly be tougher for Kouandjio no matter who lines up against him, but he needs to give the same consistent approach to limit the impact of the opposing players. If he can do his job, the Crimson Tide might be able to cruise to victory.

 

Christion Jones, WR/KR, Alabama

While he wasn't asked to do much on the offensive end throughout the season, Christion Jones stepped up in the SEC Championship Game with three catches for 40 yards and his only touchdown of the season.

Cooper is clearly the go-to option in the passing game, but Jones can take some of the pressure off by getting open and giving Sims another target.

Still, Jones' biggest impact will come on special teams. The senior was among the best in the SEC with an average of 25 yards per kickoff return while also coming through with 8.4 yards per punt return.

Although he hasn't gotten himself into the end zone on a return this season, he got into the end zone three times on special teams plays a year ago and is always a threat to take it to the house.

Ohio State ranked 15th in the nation with just 17.9 yards allowed per kickoff return, but Jones can make a big impact in the field-position battle with some big returns. If he can break one for a score, it will be a bonus that could help decide the Sugar Bowl.

 

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

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TCU vs. Ole Miss: Individual Matchups to Watch in 2014 Peach Bowl

Do your job and your team will be successful.

That's the mentality for football players who know that winning a one-on-one battle against your opponent is all you have to worry about. In many cases, these individual matchups separate wins from losses.

This is exactly the case in the 2014 Peach Bowl between TCU and Ole Miss. The highly anticipated game pits one of the best offenses in college football against one of the best defenses. While everyone has their own role, a few key spots will help decide the outcome.

These are the most important battles to watch for in one of the best bowl games of the season.

 

Josh Doctson vs. Senquez Golson

Although Ole Miss had a good year and the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation, only one player was named first team All-American by the Associated Press. This honor went to Senquez Golson, the senior cornerback who has been outstanding all season long.

Bleacher Report's college football staff selected the 5'9" player as the No. 1 player at the position this season, explaining:

No cornerback in America plays the ball better than Golson, who led the SEC with nine total interceptions and picked off six passes in five games during the heart of conference play. He is a former outfielder for the Ole Miss baseball team (and draft pick of the Boston Red Sox) with innate tracking instincts and the timing and athleticism needed to compensate for being 5’9”.

This will make things difficult for quarterback Trevone Boykin, especially when he is trying to target his No. 1 receiver, Josh Doctson.

While TCU did a great job of spreading the ball around this season, Doctson was the top option in the passing game. He finished the year with 59 catches, 959 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, all of which led the team.

The junior is also red hot going into the bowl game, with 266 yards on 16 catches and two touchdowns in the past two games.

Most importantly, he has a seven-inch height advantage over Golson. Boykin likely doesn't want to target the elite cornerback directly, but Doctson has a chance to change the game by winning this battle.

 

Bo Wallace vs. Chris Hackett

TCU safety Chris Hackett is simply a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. The junior not only led the team with six interceptions on the year, but he averaged 21.8 yards per return to put the team in good field position on the other end.

If you want to be successful against this defense, you need to be aware of where Hackett is on the field at all times.

This will be the primary task for Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace, who has plenty of talent but has taken on the role of game manager this season to help win with a great defense behind him. His job is simply to avoid mistakes, something he has struggled with at times this year.

In games where Wallace has at least a 110 passer efficiency rating (which would rank 111th in the nation over the course of the season), Ole Miss is 9-1. Of course, the other two games were road losses to LSU and Arkansas where the offense scored a total of seven points.

Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger summed it up during the Arkansas loss:

If the senior doesn't take care of the ball, Hackett will be all over him with some game-changing turnovers. This will quickly slide the momentum in TCU's favor, and possibly lead to a Big 12 victory.

 

Joey Hunt vs. Robert Nkemdiche

Slowing down Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche will have to be a team effort. The highly touted sophomore was the top recruit in his high school class and has lived up to expectations in his two years with the Rebels.

"I always have a motor on me and try to make things happen to free up other guys or do it for me," the second-team All-American explained to Kellenberger. "I just want to disrupt the game, and that's what I'm going to do by being in the backfield as much as I can."

No matter what you are trying to do offensively, Nkemdiche has the ability to blow up the game plan by penetrating the line and getting to the ball-carrier.

If TCU wants to run its offense like it has in the past, the first task will be containing the tackle. This will start with the play of center Joey Hunt.

The junior was a second-team All-Conference selection this season as someone who can lead his teammates on both passing and running plays. No matter what side of the field Nkemdiche lines up on, Hunt will likely be asked to help out on a double-team and keep the opposing player as far away from the play as possible.

If he can limit the defender's impact just a little bit, the Horned Frogs will have much more success in this game.

 

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

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Boise State vs. Arizona: Key Matchups That Will Decide Fiesta Bowl 2014

It seems fitting that Boise State's first trip to one of the big New Year's Six bowl games in eight years is the Fiesta Bowl. This is the spot where the Broncos made their name against Oklahoma following the 2006 season. They get another chance in 2014, this time against an Arizona team that defeated three Top-25 teams. 

The Wildcats have taken huge steps forward in three years under Rich Rodriguez. The former Michigan head coach took over a 4-8 program in 2012 and has led the school three consecutive bowl appearances, including victories the past two years. Arizona won 10 games this year, the first time since 1998. 

Boise State is no longer the national powerhouse it was from 2006-11 under Chris Petersen, but first-year head coach Bryan Harsin did a masterful job of getting the program back on track. The Broncos enter the Fiesta Bowl with an 11-2 record and eight straight wins, though they only played one ranked team, losing to Mississippi in the first game. 

Before Boise State and Arizona meet in Tempe to decide the Fiesta Bowl champion, here are the matchups to watch that will decide the outcome. 

 

Grant Hedrick vs. Arizona's Secondary

Singling out the quarterback matchup is an easy matchup, but Boise State goes as Grant Hedrick goes. In the Broncos' two losses, Hedrick has thrown one touchdown and eight interceptions. The low point of his season came against Air Force, when he threw four interceptions and was benched in a 28-14 loss. 

Hedrick was asked about that game and how it shaped the rest of his season, during which Boise State has won eight straight games and he's 17 of his 22 touchdowns, during media day for the Fiesta Bowl, via Tyler Killian of The Arizona Republic:

"It was like, 'What the heck's going on?'" Hedrick said."Everything you do, you can't do it right. You think you're making the right reads and you're not. It was just one of those days — nothing's going right and you have no explanation."

Even though Boise State doesn't have much of a resume against schools in the Power Five conferences, Arizona's defense could provide the elixir that Hedrick needs to succeed on the big stage. 

The Wildcats allowed 51 points to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. While Boise State isn't at Oregon's level offensively, the Broncos average 496 yards and 39.8 points per game. Arizona's defense has been a problem all year, allowing 27.5 points per game. 

If there was a bowl matchup designed for Hedrick to put those earlier struggles against Ole Miss and Air Force behind him, it's this one. 

 

Jay Ajayi vs. Scooby Wright

If there's a better matchup between a running back and linebacker this bowl season than Boise State's Jay Ajayi and Arizona's Scooby Wright, good luck finding it. 

Ajayi is the best running back who doesn't get much national attention. He finished sixth in the nation with 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns in the regular season. After the junior declared for the NFL draft, his offensive coordinator offered this assessment, via Jay Tust of KTVB:

During Boise State's winning streak, Ajayi had seven straight 100-yard rushing games before Fresno State held him to 70 yards. 

Ajayi will have the unenviable task of going up against the nation's best linebacker. The sophomore star, per Shane Dale of ArizonaSports.com, led the nation with 27 tackles for loss and tied for the FBS lead with six forced fumbles. 

Adding a little more drama to this entire matchup, Wright told the media, via Chadd Cripe of The Idaho Statesman, that Boise State was interested in him coming out of high school:

“(The Broncos) said they were going to keep evaluating me,” Wright said. “We always kept in contact, but nothing too serious.”

Wright has used his lack of scholarship offers as a motivating tool, according to a profile from Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com:

As a recruit two years ago, Wright was deemed a two-star prospect. Deep down he hated it, but in a way he loves it now. Wright uses it. The whole "TwoStarScoob" thing serves as a constant reminder of a time when no one expected him to be great or even wanted him on their football team. Thanks to a whole lot of grit, Wright’s proved all those naysayers wrong. 

Wright will be making plays all over the field, but if he's going to give Arizona a chance to win, his most important task will be spying Ajayi and preventing big plays in the running game. 

 

Samajie Grant vs. Boise State's Secondary

Samajie Grant was having a breakout season for Arizona before having everything fall apart after being cited for suspicion of a DUI after the Wildcats defeated Arizona State. He didn't start in the Pac-12 Championship Game and had just one reception in the 51-13 loss. 

Rodriguez talked about Grant leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, praising the star wide receiver's work ethic, via Daniel Berk of The Arizona Daily Star:

Now that Grant has been able to properly prepare for this game, Boise State will have its hands full trying to contain him. The sophomore star leads the Wildcats with 15.8 yards per reception and is second with five touchdown catches. 

In a game that's expected to feature a lot of big plays, Grant is Arizona's home-run hitter in the passing game, while the Broncos finished 63rd in pass defense despite allowing 17 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. 

Grant isn't a big receiver who will overpower defenders at 5'9", 177 pounds, but his speed and hands on the outside have been key components in Arizona's growth this season. The Broncos are opportunistic on defense, which has produced good results but can get them in trouble. 

 

If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter. 

 

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