NCAA Football News

Texas' Charlie Strong Proving He Can Recruit and Keep Elite Talent in State

Charlie Strong sent a message to rivals in the Lone Star State and beyond Friday morning, securing commitments from two of Texas' finest 2015 talents. The first-year Longhorns coach reeled in top-rated linebacker Malik Jefferson and 4-star teammate DeAndre McNeal during an announcement ceremony at Poteet High School, per ESPN's Damon Sayles:

Less than 48 hours after Texas A&M landed 5-star Arizona wide receiver Christian Kirk, the Aggies appeared on the verge of challenging Alabama for the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. However, coach Kevin Sumlin needed to seal the deal with the defensive duo, who were both projected to head to College Station in 247Sports' Crystal Ball forecast.

Instead, Strong pumped the brakes on Sumlin's expanding bandwagon and served notice that his squad still carries clout:

Texas has reached outside state borders for a few key pledges this year—namely New Mexico quarterback Zach Gentry and Florida linebacker Cecil Cherry—but the foundation for any program rebound in Austin will be built with recruiting efforts on home turf. The Longhorns took a significant stride in that regard Friday.

Jefferson, a 5-star defender with dozens of offers, focused on Texas, Texas A&M and UCLA for his final decision. He was recently given the high school Butkus Award, which is annually bestowed upon the nation’s top linebacker.

The 6'2.5", 215-pound playmaker clocked a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash this summer at The Opening, providing evidence of his freakish athleticism. Jefferson is capable of chasing down even the most mobile quarterbacks and contributes in downfield pass coverage.

He's further along as a downhill run-stuffer at this stage, but his versatility sets him apart from the pack in 2015 linebacker rankings. Jefferson should immediately vie for a role in Texas' defense as an early enrollee and gives Strong a stud who can eventually take on leadership duties at the heart of a reconstructed Longhorns attack. 

McNeal, a 6'2", 228-pound prospect, drew collegiate interest as a jack-of-all-trades. Given his size and quickness, potential roles at receiver, tight end and linebacker have been mentioned during the recruitment process.

He is likely to land on defense in Austin, reuniting with Jefferson. 

McNeal can develop into a disruptive edge defender and provides Texas with another game-changing option in the linebacker corps. Aside from Texas A&M, he considered Alabama and UCLA, among others.

Texas may have gained an edge due to the Aggies' lack of a defensive coordinator. Texas A&M dismissed Kevin Snyder in November and remains in search of a replacement.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns defense is led by Vance Bedford, who followed Strong from Louisville. Jefferson carries plenty of respect for the veteran defensive coordinator, he told Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman.

“He’s strict. He’s like that mean godfather you have in your life. Not a bad thing," Jefferson said. "He’s a good coach."

Bedford and Strong surely celebrated in some fashion Friday morning, exchanging a sign of the horns hand gesture at the very least. These pledges are arguably the biggest success so far for a new regime facing plenty of pressure to improve things in a hurry.

With Jefferson and McNeal now on board, Texas can turn its attention toward other in-state standouts. Expect Strong and company to press hard chasing the likes of cornerback Kendall Sheffield, receiver Ryan Newsome and running back Chris Warren as national signing day nears.

The class currently includes 22 commits, climbing to 14th overall in 247Sports' composite rankings.

Momentum has turned at Texas with a pair of pivotal pledges. If Strong can string together a few more recruiting victories in the coming weeks, it bodes well for his development as the Longhorns leader.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Jarrett Stidham to Baylor: Bears Land 5-Star QB Prospect

One of the prized quarterbacks in this year's recruiting class is no longer on the market, as Jarrett Stidham has reportedly decided to attend Baylor.

According to Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News Stidham made the decision following a short deliberation period after the Texas native re-opened his recruiting. 

On December 13, Stidham tweeted out that he'd decided to decommit from Texas Tech due to "for various reasons:"

Stidham, who is the 25th-ranked recruit overall by 247Sports.com, was going to be the future at Texas Tech. His decommitment caused the Red Raiders to drop 17 spots in the national recruiting rankings, from 29th to 46th. 

According to David Ubben, Stidham's decommitment is more surprising than usual because of how far into the enrollment process the quarterback got:

The dual-threat star has been described as a nightmare to stop, at least that's essentially what Big Spring high school football coach Phillip Ritchey said to Oscar LeRoy of The Midland Reporter-Telegram after Stidham torched his team for 443 total yards and seven touchdowns in a regional game:

"It’s a nightmare," Phillip Ritchey. "You can try everything in the book. You can pressure him and they get rid of it quick. He’s athletic enough that he can scramble and keep plays alive. Their receivers are good, their offensive line is good. I don’t know how somebody is going to stop them."

That nightmare will be taking himself to college looking to make an immediate impact. Stidham has room to grow into his 6'3", 190-pound frame, but the ability to throw and pass made him one of the most sought after players available in this class. 

Stidham, like so many recruits, may have committed too early to feel confident in his original decision. He went through the process again and now appears to have found the ideal spot for his unique talents. 

 

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

 

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Nebraska Football: How Mike Riley's Recruiting Approach Differs from Bo Pelini's

Mike Riley hit the recruiting trail running for Nebraska. With the Dec. 13 deadline for contacting a recruit in mind, the new head coach had no time to lose.

So far, so good for Riley. He made as many stops as he could, re-securing commitments from defensive tackles and twin brothers Khalil and Carlos Davis and defensive backs Eric Lee, Avery Anderson and Aaron Williams.

And as it all took place, Riley gave fans a front row seat thanks to social media. When able, Riley tweeted updates on recruits and his time out on the road. It's something that sets Nebraska's new head coach apart from its previous.

"The biggest noticeable difference has been the use of social media on the recruiting trail," Michael Bruntz of 247 Sports told Bleacher Report. "With the previous staff, there would be a flurry of 'Boom' tweets when a recruit pulled the trigger for Nebraska, but Riley did a nice job of building buzz on the recruiting trail as he was going to see committed prospects. That’s kind of taking a step forward in building buzz and showing the fan base the work that’s happening out on the recruiting trail."

It was clear to fans that Bo Pelini was not keen on social media. Looking solely at his Twitter account, the former head coach tweeted less than 50 times in 2014, with a handful of those coming as retweets from others. Compare that to Riley who tweeted the same amount between September and December alone. Social media just wasn't Pelini's thing.

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star looked at the negative impact social media could have had on Nebraska's staff in 2013.

"Make no mistake, fan/media negativity concerns Pelini and his staff, especially from a recruiting standpoint, but also because of the way it impacts current players," Sipple wrote.

That's likely what turned Pelini off from social media. As for Riley, he views social media differently, which has been seen quickly since he took the job at Nebraska. Bruntz acknowledged how important that acceptance and understanding is for a head coach.

"The head coach really needs to be the arrow of the spear so to speak on the recruiting trail. James Franklin at Penn State is a great example. That includes setting the tone in both evaluating prospects, the importance of recruiting and on social media," said Bruntz.

"I think you’re seeing that now. Riley and his staff’s approach really shouldn’t come as a big surprise. They did a great job of using social media at Oregon State, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the staff leverage the resources already in place in Nebraska’s digital communications department to take things up a notch." 

As Bruntz pointed out, Riley has a lot of resources at his disposal. It would appear that he's already started to use them, which has to get fans excited about what he'll be able to do with a little more time under his belt.

Riley isn't wasting any time, though. As a result, the 2015 recruiting class is quickly taking shape. Some of Pelini's recruits will remain, but Bruntz believes Riley has quite a few additional players that his staff will target.

"This was always going to be a smaller class anyways, so there won’t be too mad of a dash to the finish line to fill 2015 spots, but Riley and his staff already have a couple irons in the fire heading into the dead week," said Bruntz.

He continued, "San Ramon (Calif.) tight end Matt Snyder is currently committed to Oregon State, but officially visited Nebraska on the weekend of Dec. 13. He’s a perfect fit for Riley’s offense and already has an established relationship with this coaching staff. Adrienne Talan, a linebacker from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., had been committed to Riley and his staff at Oregon State, but decommitted in early December. He visited the same weekend as Snyder and the 247Sports Crystal Ball points to him ending up at Nebraska. Not a flip per se, but an important position for Riley’s new staff."

As Riley targets these players, social media looks to be a focus. If nothing else, that will be the biggest difference in his approach at impressing recruits to Pelini's approach.

"Social media is certainly a big part of [recruiting], and this new staff seems to get it," Bruntz said. "Credit part of that to Director of Player Personnel Ryan Gunderson, who is the point man for a lot of that."

It's good that the new staff "gets it," too. Other coaches, like LSU's Les Miles have used Twitter to make news and gain the attention of potential recruits. While there are specific rules about when and how a recruit can be directly mentioned, there's nothing that says a coach cannot "subtweet" a player.

Miles' subtweet may not have sold running back Leonard Fournette on the Tigers alone, but it likely didn't hurt. After all, Fournette is now at LSU and making a name for himself. Riley has shown that he also doesn't mind vaguely mentioning players on Twitter in a similar fashion, either.

Beyond social media, there is one more area where Riley's approach could be different from Pelini's. That is the use of satellite camps.

"Something else to watch going forward is whether Riley and his staff at Nebraska take advantage of satellite camps in the same way they did at Oregon State," Bruntz noted.

"They worked camps in the Houston area that allowed them to get out and evaluate players in person that would have otherwise been difficult to see. That’s one way for northern teams to even things a bit with teams in the sun belt. If you can’t go out on a Friday night and see 25 prospects, do it in the summer and start building those relationships."

Relationships will be key for Riley. Whether it's through social media or through satellite camps, both approaches could bring a lot of talent to Nebraska.

Pelini may have been hesitant to really embrace social media for what it was. Riley is not. Fans have to be excited about this difference in approach.

Recruits have to be, too.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

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Inside Cardale Jones' New Life as Ohio State's Starting Quarterback

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the succession of injuries and obstacles that the Ohio State football team has had to overcome this year, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that this has been a storybook season for the Buckeyes thus far. And while it's become cliche to compare sports stories to movie scripts, OSU safety Tyvis Powell doesn't disagree with that notion.

"Twelve" in this case is Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones, who finds himself leading Ohio State into the first-ever College Football Playoff only after Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett each went down with season-ending injuries. The situation isn't all that different than Beamen's (played by Jamie Foxx) was in the 1999 cult classic, when the former third-stringer helped lead the fictional Miami Sharks to the fictional Pantheon Cup.

"Isn't it like that?" Powell responded when asked about his cinematic comparison. "We're down to our third-string quarterback and Cardale's going in and making plays like Willie Beamen."

In Any Given Sunday, Beamen is surrounded by newfound fame, not unlike what Jones is currently experiencing in football-crazed Columbus. This is a city where Ohio State's quarterback is the third-most powerful man in town, behind only the Buckeyes' head coach and the mayor—in that order.

Miller saw it firsthand in three seasons as Ohio State's starter and Barrett learned it in the three months that comprised his Heisman-caliber freshman campaign. Jones admitted to being noticed more often when out and about town following his MVP performance in the Big Ten Championship Game two weeks ago but downplayed his new status as a celebrity.

"I'm still the same guy," he insisted.

Powell, however, wasn't as subtle when it came to talking about how life has changed for Ohio State's new starting quarterback, who also happens to be his roommate.

"Absolutely," Powell answered when asked if Jones has been recognized around campus more in the past two weeks. "Cardale is the freaking man on campus. I'm just that guy now that stands with him. I just hope when he gets big time, he doesn't forget about me."

It might be a little late for that, as buildings around campus are already informally being renamed in Jones' honor, but that doesn't change the fact that the biggest game of his life is a mere two weeks away. Facing top-ranked Alabama, Jones certainly has his work cut out for him, curbing his enthusiasm for his unlikely recent rise.

"It's not like it's going to stop me from preparing for this next game," Jones said.

But the fact that he's even in the position that he's in is somewhat of a victory in and of itself, given where he was a mere two years ago. Best known for an ill-advised and infamous tweet, Jones was once described by head coach Urban Meyer as being on track for a "one-way ticket back to Cleveland."

According to Powell, that notorious tweet was just the result of the playful nature of Jones, the same guy who went through his first two years on campus refusing to clarify whether his name was actually "Cardale" or "Cordale." Back in his prep days at Cleveland Glenville, Jones was frequently confused with teammate Cordale Scott, so he took to adopting the future Illinois wide receiver's first name.

"He just kind of let it stick with him," Powell said. "Cardale's a weird guy, man. He does things where it's like, 'Really Cardale? For what?'

But with age has come maturity for Jones, according to Meyer, although he admitted that his transformation is not yet complete. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable turnaround story, given Meyer's doubts that Jones would ever start a game at Ohio State.

"Cardale is a great story. It's still in process now. He's not the grown man that he needs to be, but he's getting close," Meyer said. "The whole 180, I'm not sure I've experienced one like that."

And yet here Jones sits, Ohio State's final hope at capping what's been the unlikeliest of runs toward a national title. It almost seems like a tale that's too layered to make up—except of course, in the movies.

 

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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Sugar Bowl Prep Is the Perfect Time for Lane Kiffin to Create 'Blake Sims 2.0'

Alabama's magical run to its 24th SEC championship is complete, and the top-ranked Crimson Tide has begun preparing for fourth-ranked Ohio State in a semifinal showdown in the Sugar Bowl.

For quarterback Blake Sims, it also serves as a chance to take a breath.

The questions surrounding Sims' ability to run the offense only amplified when, during the spring game, Sims completed just 13-of-30 passes. That prompted a 10-year-old to ask head coach Nick Saban if there was a quarterback better than Sims on the roster, according to Charlie Potter of 247Sports.

The redshirt senior entered fall camp embroiled in a battle with Jake Coker—the graduate transfer from Florida State who arrived in the summer and supposedly pushed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013.

In the season-opener vs. West Virginia, Sims and Coker were supposed to split snaps. 

That didn't happen. 

With a very conservative game plan, Sims completed 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards in the 33-23 win over the Mountaineers.

At that point, Kiffin and Sims were off and running together. 

Sims proved in games vs. Florida (445 yards) and Auburn (312 yards), that he's more than a game manager. He's a gunslinger who can stretch the field through the air and also stress the defense with his ability to make plays on the ground.

Now he has something that should terrify Ohio State and, potentially, either Florida State or Oregon in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.

Time.

For the first time in his five-year Alabama career, Sims is getting camp-like snaps as the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback for the Crimson Tide. That gives Sims and Kiffin the chance to take a step back, work on specific areas that need to be improved like chemistry with other receivers if the Buckeyes take away Amari Cooper and unleash "Blake Sims 2.0" in the Sugar Bowl.

What exactly will that entail?

More looks for wide receiver DeAndrew White, more targets to stud tight end O.J. Howard and more designed runs could be in the works. Alabama, of course, will always be a run-first system as long as Saban is there, but the small break before game-prep allows Kiffin and Sims to expand the playbook and hit Ohio State with a few new wrinkles in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Would the small break halt the momentum of the Tide's offense? Not according to Sims.

"Offense got better, defense got better, we were on each other," Sims said according to Duane Rankin of Gannett. "Leaders were calling everybody out. I think Coach Saban liked (what) he saw in practice. Even if we did things (wrong), he liked the way the leaders were trying to get on everybody and try to let everybody know we were trying to keep the same rhythm we left off with."

How long will the camp-like setting last?

Not long. Ohio State prep will begin in earnest this weekend, according to Marq Burnett of the Ledger-Enquirerbut the extra time to prepare will give Sims plenty to think about during practices, time when the coaches aren't on the practice field and during the down time without classes getting in the way.

Sims was everything Alabama fans could have hoped for and more in 2014, and the month layoff will make him even better heading into the playoffs.

 

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

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

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Tennessee Football: Vols Need WRs to Step Up Against Iowa's Vaunted Pass Defense

When Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced redshirt sophomore Jason Croom would miss the TaxSlayer Bowl after suffering a knee injury in Sunday's practice that will require surgery, receivers coach Zach Azzanni had to be thinking, "Again?"

Wide receiver injuries have come at a rapid-fire pace for the Vols this year.

Way back when camp started, reserve Cody Blanc was lost for the season. Then, Von Pearson suffered a high ankle sprain in the second game of the year against Arkansas State and missed a swathe of the season.

Star sophomores Marquez North and Josh Smith have injuries that cut their seasons short. Now, Croom does, too, and his is reportedly going to be a lengthy recovery.

Considering the Vols are facing the nation's eighth-ranked pass defense in Iowa with seven healthy receivers (and without three of their top five playmakers), UT needs those available to step up.

"Well, we can kind of wallow in it, wallow in our misery having four season-ending surgeries or we can (say), 'Next man up' and coach 'em real hard," Azzanni told Volquest's contingent of writers (subscription required). "It's a good opportunity for some other guys to step up. That's how we've got to look at it."

The one constant who has elevated his game with all the wounded teammates surrounding him is Pig Howard. A study of official statistics on UTSports.com shows Howard averaged 3.75 catches and 36.5 yards per game during the season's first eight games.

In the final four, he caught 5.5 balls per game, and his yards-per-game average skyrocketed to 74.25.

Still, Howard is more of a glue guy than a home-run threat. He's only reached the end zone on one catch and two rushes all season.

The game-breakers who've not really blossomed yet for the Vols are Pearson and freshman Josh Malone.

Are the Vols asking too much of a couple of first-year players? Probably. But that's just where the program is right now. The bottom line is UT must get more production from the tandem.

Pearson is a potentially dangerous weapon in the open field. He doesn't run the best routes and hasn't proven to be a capable threat on the deep ball, but offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian must find ways for Joshua Dobbs to get the football to Pearson in space and let his athletic talent do the rest.

Malone, on the other hand, is a huge X-factor. He's long, lean and fluid with the football. Yet, while battling through injuries during the last half of the season, he's managed just three catches in the past five games. During three of those games, he was shut out in catches.

After his five-catch, 75-yard performance against Ole Miss, many thought Malone was about to turn a corner. Instead, he turned off production.

Malone told The Daily Times' Grant Ramey he injured his groin right before the game against Alabama, and it affected him throughout the stretch run of the season. After the time off, Jones has praised one of his prized freshmen:

"Coming out today, Josh Malone looked like the Josh Malone that we saw in training camp and the middle of the year," the coach said this week. "I think he’s really benefited from the extra time off. He's done a great job also in the training room."

Another pair of freshmen will now be counted on, too.

Iowa defensive coordinator and secondary coach Phil Parker is highly regarded, and his unit allowed just 175.8 yards per game and very few big plays. The Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart listed Parker as one of his top assistants in the conference.

The numbers for that group are extremely impressive, but a closer look suggests the Hawkeyes defense is far from elite. IsSportsWeb's Austin Kreber noted in his season review of Iowa's defense:

The defense isn’t bad, it isn’t good either. They dominate the horrible offenses in the Big Ten, and get dominated (well, scored on a lot) by the offenses that have at least some talent, like Nebraska, Maryland, Minnesota, and Indiana (yes, Iowa held them through the air but that was because they were playing an athlete at quarterback).

So in conclusion, this year’s defense wasn’t awful, it just wasn’t great. Iowa benefited by playing some weak offensive teams, as well as some teams with injuries at important positions like quarterback and running back.

Tennessee has gotten consistently strong play from running back Jalen Hurd, and its offense has been on an uptick since Dobbs took over at quarterback. But the Vols still have to generate some yardage downfield, something that has been nonexistent in the absence of North.

With Howard, Wharton and Jenkins being mostly slot players, the onus will fall on Pearson and Malone.

There's so much for UT to work on between now and the date with Iowa on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, but near the top of that list must be finding some playmakers downfield that can loosen up a defense and keep the Hawkeyes from stacking the box.

Iowa isn't good at stopping the run, but if it doesn't have to worry about Dobbs' arm or any of the weapons around him, the Hawkeyes can focus on making UT's offense one-dimensional.

The Vols can't let that happen, and the only way for that to occur is Malone and Pearson living up to their billing as top playmakers. They're never needed more than now.

 

All stats gathered from CFBStats.com or UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Malik Jefferson to Texas: Longhorns Land 5-Star LB Prospect

Malik Jefferson, who is the No. 1-ranked outside linebacker in the class of 2015 in 247Sports' composite rankings, bolstered the Texas Longhorns' crop of recruits by announcing his commitment to play in Austin.

ESPN's Damon Sayles reported the news when Jefferson decided on Friday:

The pride of Dr. Ralph Poteet High School (Mesquite, Texas) had offers from a myriad of big-time programs, but in the end the 5-star Jefferson wound up deciding on Texas. With that massive decision made, now he can focus on preparing himself for the collegiate level and the greatness that seems destined to follow.

Jefferson is listed at 6'2.5" and 215 pounds on his 247Sports profile, and his freakish athleticism allows him to make impact plays all over the field.

At the 2014 Nike Football Training Camp in Dallas, Jefferson won the linebacker MVP and was among the top athletes in SPARQ rating, which combines the 40-yard dash, agility testing, kneeling power ball toss and the vertical jump (h/t Nike.com).

Former professional scout Wescott Eberts provided context for those numbers:

Jefferson ran a 4.56-second 40, ran a 4.40-second 20-yard shuttle, had a 35.8-inch vertical leap and had a 38-foot power throw, per ESPN.com.

That all backed up a strong junior campaign that featured 105 tackles (24 for loss) and seven sacks, per EJ Holland of TexasFootball.com. In that report, the young prospect spoke about his excitement regarding his senior season in Mesquite:

We’re going to be good. Honestly, it’s all on us seniors. We all have to take leadership roles. We have a lot of young guys, so we kind of have to be there for them like dads. We’re young, but we’re going to have some experienced linebackers, so we won’t be too shabby.

It is positive for Jefferson's image to exude an air of leadership about him, but that has to be easier to do when he's dominating the competition to the extent that he is in such a strong high school football state. Now Jefferson will get a shot to perform on an even bigger stage, with all signs pointing to him succeeding.

Nothing Jefferson did as a senior diminished the immense hype he's deservedly garnered, and now it's up to Texas to get the most out of his incredible potential.

While he does leave something to be desired in terms of tackling properly, that often doesn't matter since Jefferson is always in such good position to make plays. That can be coached in college, and when he gets it corrected, it's exciting to project how great Jefferson could be.

What stands out most about Jefferson on tape is his acceleration and agility off the edge. That allows him to be both an effective bull-rusher and also play bigger than his frame.

Jefferson has excellent closing speed and does a good job of manipulating blockers, setting the edge to string out running plays to the perimeter. Rarely does he let a ball-carrier slip through his grasp.

The floor doesn't seem low at all for Jefferson, and his ceiling seems borderline limitless. He figures to put on 15 pounds or so at least when he starts to really focus on the weight room in college, so Jefferson should get bigger and stronger without sacrificing any of his sensational speed.

Even if he is brought along slowly, there is reason to believe Jefferson will see the field as a true freshman. His quickness and knack for delivering a big hit can fire up his teammates, and he can be a dynamic player in special teams coverage at the very least. More likely, he will work his way into the linebacker rotation and perhaps even as a situational blitzer or pass-rusher off the edge.

But with how well Jefferson plays versus the run, the Longhorns will be hard-pressed to keep him off the gridiron. Jefferson is just that good, and should eventually prove that at Texas since there are few flaws in his game and he has the natural instincts to continue shining as a linebacker for years to come.

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5-Star LB Malik Jefferson Commits to Texas: Immediate Impact for Longhorns

Malik Jefferson has committed to Texas. A 5-star linebacker, per the 247Sports composite rankings, he is the top-rated player at his position in the class of 2015. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down what kind of player he can be with the Longhorns.

What kind of impact can Malik Jefferson have on Texas?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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DeAndre McNeal to Texas: Longhorns Land 4-Star Athlete Prospect

A steady rise up the rankings made DeAndre McNeal one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2015 class. Now the athlete, who's excelled at both linebacker and wide receiver, has committed to play college football at Texas.

247 Sports confirmed the decision:

The hype surrounding McNeal didn't begin as early as it usually does for most top recruits. The Poteet High School (Texas) product was more of a late-rising commodity, but the offers from elite programs started pouring in as he continued to showcase his potential.

He's now listed as a 4-star prospect, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. The outlet rates him higher than the national consensus and also notes he received interest from more than two dozen schools before making the final choice.

McNeal even personally pointed out how much things changed during the process:

Now the question is where he'll have the best chance to succeed over the long haul.

Right now, he's a player with plenty of upside thanks to an impressive combination of athleticism and playmaking ability. Those two traits are often enough to stand out at the high school level, but technique and understanding schemes becomes more important in college.

He's a raw talent and it's likely going to take some time for him to fully complete the transition. In turn, early expectations should be kept within reason.

McNeal does have the tools to eventually make an impact at either position, though. Greg Powers of Scout watched him back in October and came away dually impressed:

In an era where getting after the quarterback is crucial, outside linebacker seems like the position from which he could make the biggest impression. He'll need to add more power to his frame and moves to his repertoire, but his speed off the edge can cause major problems for opponents.

Defense would probably allow him to crack the lineup quicker, as well. He could be used as part of the linebacker rotation for passing downs before earning more responsibility as he gains experience.

Should they decide on the wide receiver route he figures to project as an outside speed threat. He's displayed good hands and has the size to develop into a reliable red-zone option. But again, there's work to do in terms of route running and learning the other fine points of the position.

Ultimately, it could take a couple years and maybe even a position change before fans see the best of McNeal. It's not a question of talent, but rather figuring out how best to utilize his skill set, which takes time and coaching.

The high ratings and widespread interest illustrate what type of player he's expected to become, though. One that's going to make a lot of key plays and prove his rise over the past year was no fluke.

 

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Date and Predictions for Title Match

The 2014 college football season began with every team, realistically or not, dreaming of a national championship. As we enter bowl season, that dream is alive for only four teams, and the initial College Football Playoff could not have scripted a more enticing group. 

The defending national champion Florida State Seminoles are in the field. The Heisman Trophy winner and the rest of the Oregon Ducks are in the field. The mighty Alabama Crimson Tide are in the field. Finally, the Ohio State Buckeyes, playing the unusual role of underdog with a third-string quarterback, are in the field.

The two semifinal showdowns and eventual national championship game are sure to thrill fans across the nation. Here is a look at the schedule and some predictions for the College Football Playoff.

 

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

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, California

Start Time (ET): 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

 

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

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Start Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: Watch ESPN 

 

2015 National Championship

When: Jan. 12, 2015

Where: AT&T Stadium, Dallas

Start Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: Watch ESPN 

 

Predicted Title Game Participants

The Rose Bowl is traditionally a clash between the Big Ten and the Pac-12, but it had to settle for the Pac-12 and the ACC instead.

Matching the last two Heisman Trophy winners in Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is surely an impressive consolation prize.

The Ducks are seen as the favorites because the Seminoles sneaked past so many overmatched opponents, such as North Carolina State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami and Florida, this season. Still, Florida State has not lost in the past two seasons and has championship experience that Oregon does not yet have.

Florida State will have to find a way to slow down Oregon’s high-octane offensive attack, which was led by Mariota’s 3,783 passing yards, 38 touchdown throws, 669 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns this season. Royce Freeman added 1,299 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns as the physical presence alongside Mariota.

That rushing game could be a problem for a Florida State squad that gave up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

Florida State should counter with plenty of points of its own. Winston is the marquee name, but freshman running back Dalvin Cook gave the Seminoles an extra dimension down the stretch with 392 rushing yards in his last two games.

Oregon’s defense was also a dismal 103rd in the nation against the pass, and that was with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is now done for the season with a torn ACL. That means wide receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary could have their way against an overmatched Ducks secondary.

With two powerful offenses and a vulnerable Oregon defense (statistically), there will be some firepower in this game. However, the Ducks’ ability to force turnovers will be a major storyline. They were eighth in the country in points off turnovers, while Florida State was an abysmal 116th in the country with 27 turnovers.

A late Florida State turnover will be the ultimate difference in a back-and-forth game. Mariota will take advantage of the short field in the fourth quarter and clinch a spot in the title game. 

Prediction: Oregon 34, Florida State 24

As for the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State’s offense, which was fourth in the nation in points per game, will present a challenge to Alabama’s stiff defense, which was fourth in the nation in points allowed per game.

If the Buckeyes are going to pull off the upset, they will need to attack through the air against Alabama’s 60th-ranked pass defense with receivers Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas. 

A few big plays in the passing game could open up some running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott and the Ohio State rushing attack. Elliott torched Wisconsin for 220 rushing yards in the 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game and drew some praise from Dom Tiberi of 10TV in Columbus:

Still, the Crimson Tide were second in the nation against the run, which means third-string quarterback Cardale Jones may need to make some plays with his arm. That is exactly what he did against Wisconsin, but going up against the Crimson Tide is an entirely different task.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide coaching staff have plenty of time to draw up a game plan for a quarterback making his second career start, which is a worrisome proposition for Ohio State fans regardless of how many weapons Jones has at his disposal.

It’s not as scary as facing Heisman Trophy finalist wide receiver Amari Cooper and his 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches, though. That is what Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant will be asked to do, although he will likely get some help from his safeties. 

Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash discussed the prospects of facing Cooper, via Ohio State’s official Twitter account:

A few big plays downfield to Cooper will open up the rushing attack for T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry against a Buckeyes defense that allowed more than 200 yards on the ground to Indiana and Minnesota. Yes, Ohio State shut down Melvin Gordon, but that was partially because Wisconsin found itself behind by so much in the first half and had to go away from the running game.

The Buckeyes will have to pick their poison on defense against a number of future NFL players. That will ultimately prove to be too much in an otherwise close game, especially since Jones has not faced any real adversity yet in his young quarterbacking career and won’t be able to counter in the final minutes. 

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 28

 

Predicted Championship Game Matchup: Oregon vs. Alabama

 

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B/R CFB 250: Top 12 Offensive Tackles

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football. Brian Leigh and Kynon Codrington have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top 12 Offensive Tackles.

Other CFB 250 Positions

Offensive tackles almost never become superstars.

Unlike their skill-player teammates, they are often at their best when they are talked about the least. The more a tackle gets mentioned on a broadcast, the more likely it is he messed up.

But don't let their anonymity fool you. Any fan worth his salt knows that having a great tackle is just as important as having a great quarterback. Without the former, the latter cannot exist.

Even Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota did not look right when his blind-side blocker—whom we'll get to in a bit—was injured in 2014.

Before we start, please take note that these players were graded as college tackles, not on how they project as NFL tackles.

Targeted skills such as power are important at both levels, but there is a difference between college power and professional power. If a tackle can drive defenders backward in the SEC or the Big 12, it doesn't matter that he can't drive defenders backward in the NFC North. At least not here, it doesn't.

This is all about college performance.

Note: If two players finished with the same grade, a subjective call was made based on whom we would rather have on our team right now.

Begin Slideshow

Rose Bowl 2015: Top Storylines to Watch in Oregon vs. FSU Semifinal

The 2015 Rose Bowl between the Oregon Ducks and the Florida State Seminoles is not the title game, but it sure feels like it.

Of course, this is what the College Football Playoff committee wants. Two juggernauts from different conferences with electric offenses and unpredictable defenses make for a good time.

So does Jameis Winston, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, versus Marcus Mariota, this year's Heisman Trophy winner.

The complexities of the matchup—which could have just as easily been the final game of the season had the dominoes fallen differently—are bountiful. To help stem the tide and build anticipation, let's take a look at a few of the top storylines to watch this January. 

 

Storylines to Watch

The Injury Bug 

A defense that is going to stop Mariota, who has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns to two interceptions, needs to be 100 percent healthy.

Florida State is not.

Starting safety Tyler Hunter and tackle Eddie Goldman are battling injuries that have held them out of practice as of late. The latter would be a major loss for the Seminoles. Goldman is a potential first-round pick whenever he declares for the NFL thanks to his gap control and his ability to generate consistent pressure up the middle.

Still, coach Jimbo Fisher does not sound all that concerned about what ails two of his starters.

“We held them out, but they’ll be fine,” Fisher said, per Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel. “If we had to play a game next Saturday, they would be able to play. But I’m making sure they are healed fully before we get them on the field so that it isn’t a nagging thing.”

As bad as that sounds, the situation is even worse for the defense that must keep Winston in check.

Oregon lost top corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a season-ending knee injury, per Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com. The loss of a potential NFL first-round pick right before the biggest game of the season is a huge focal point of the contest.

Whichever team can overcome a battery of health issues puts itself at a major advantage.

 

Defense Matters

Injuries or not, the defensive matchup set to unfold at the Rose Bowl is strange.

Oregon ranks 29th in terms of scoring defense and often is labeled as too small to compete against a team such as Florida State. Yet the Ducks hail from the Pac-12, a conference infamous for spread-it-out attacks.

The Ducks have had encounters against teams just as big as and even more potent than Florida State. Look at the showdown against Michigan State back in September. Mariota and the offense did their thing with 46 points. The defense held the Spartans to 27 points, and quarterback Connor Cook threw a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.

Michigan State ranks seventh nationally in scoring, 22 spots higher than Florida State. Things change without Ekpre-Olomu, but the point stands.

The Florida State defense has had an uglier go of it this season. Narrow escapes against Oklahoma State (37-31), Notre Dame (31-27), Miami (30-26), Boston College (20-17), Florida (24-19) and Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game (37-35) can attest to that.

Quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet crush the Seminoles. Look at the showdown against Boston College, in which Eagles signal-caller Tyler Murphy threw for 73 yards and a score and ran for another 48 and a score while allowing his team to hold the ball for more than 33 minutes of play.

Keep in mind that Mariota might be at his best when on the move, as 669 yards and 14 scores showcase.

So while the spotlight is on both offenses, perhaps you should pay closer attention to how defenses unfamiliar with the opposition pan out this January.

 

Jameis Winston's Turnovers

Observers know the story by now. 

Winston is down in a big way in a statistical sense compared to last year. His 3,559 yards and 24 touchdowns are great, but he has thrown 17 interceptions and has put up some downright woeful performances in the first half of games. 

In fact, only four of Winston's 17 picks this year have come in the second half of games. Whether he just needs to settle down or it is some other factor, a slow start will not cut it against an offense as potent as the one Oregon brings to the Rose Bowl.

Fisher and his staff have made changes in an effort to help the run game and take pressure off Winston, though. Left tackle Cam Erving now plays center, which ESPN.com's Jared Shanker says helped spark a turnaround for all involved as of late:

With this new starting five, Florida State might as well be Wisconsin South. Both Florida State and Wisconsin, whose offensive line’s girth is annually celebrated, have a starting five that averages 6-foot-5 along the line. The Seminoles’ combined weight across the group is actually greater than Wisconsin’s, and Florida State still has athleticism along the unit, too.

Winston catches a break due to Oregon’s health issues in the secondary. Whether he comes out and takes care of the football may decide the contest. 

If Winston throws the ball to his opponents, it really does not matter who the defenders are. If a few turnovers lead to a full-blown shootout, he may make even more mistakes on the way to a Seminoles loss.

 

Stats and information via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified. 

 

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Schedule, TV Info and More for Ohio State vs. Alabama

Fireworks may go off around the world at midnight on New Year’s Eve to ring in 2015, but college football’s version of an explosive firework show won't happen until 8:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 1.

That is when Ohio State and Alabama will square off in a battle of college football titans. It is Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, the Big Ten vs. the SEC, and two of the most consistent and dominant programs in the history of the sport. 

With that in mind, here is a look at the schedule and more for the titanic clash.

 

2015 Sugar Bowl

Matchup: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

Place: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana  

Channel: ESPN

 

Matchup to Watch: Ohio State Offense vs. Alabama Defense

Showdowns between prolific offenses and dominant defenses can be found throughout the college bowl season, but none is more high-profile than this College Football Playoff semifinal. Ohio State was No. 4 in the nation in scoring offense, while Alabama was No. 4 in scoring defense.

ESPN Stats & Info noted that something will have to give in New Orleans:

Ohio State will not be intimidated by Alabama's defense if receiver Devin Smith’s comments are any indication, via Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors.

"We’re just going to go out there and give them our best shot," Smith said. "I don't get all into who's the better conference or who's the better team. I feel confident in my team, and I’m sure players on their team feel the same way. We’re just going to go out there Jan. 1 and try to put on a good show."

One potential X-factor in the matchup between Ohio State’s offense and Alabama’s defense is the health of Dontre Wilson. Wilson broke his foot during the Buckeyes’ win at Michigan State but was one of the most dynamic players on the roster before that.

He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and had 300 receiving yards as a multipurpose threat before the injury and was Ohio State’s primary kick returner. Wilson’s speed, especially when Ohio State picks up the tempo against Alabama, will pose a serious problem for the Crimson Tide if he plays.

Adding a healthy Wilson to the passing game would be critical, as the best way to beat Alabama is through the air. The Crimson Tide were 60th in the nation against the pass this season and will have to deal with Wilson, Smith, Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall.

Smith and Thomas are the deep threats, while Marshall and Wilson are the speedsters who can line up all over the field, be it in the slot, in the backfield or on the outside.

Of course, even with all these weapons, the key for Ohio State is the performance of third-string quarterback Cardale Jones. Jones dominated Wisconsin on the way to a 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game, but dealing with Alabama on this big of a stage in his second career start is a completely different situation.

The Crimson Tide struggled to defend the deep ball in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and Jones connected with Smith for three long touchdown passes in the Big Ten title game. Don’t be surprised when the Buckeyes throw it deep early and often in the Sugar Bowl.

That may be the best way to soften the defense up the middle against Alabama, as the Crimson Tide were second in the nation against the run. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was arguably the best player on the field for Ohio State against Wisconsin, with 220 rushing yards, but he will have difficulty finding running room against Alabama’s front seven.

Statistically, the Buckeyes would be much better off attacking Alabama through the air than on the ground, although the pace Ohio State uses will be interesting. The Crimson Tide struggled to slow down Auburn’s up-tempo attack and could have similar problems against the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl. 

Bill Landis of Cleveland.com suggested that the Buckeyes could exploit Alabama’s defense with speed:

Ultimately, Alabama’s best chance of slowing down Ohio State’s litany of receivers and up-tempo attack is through a solid pass rush. Jonathan Allen, Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson, A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Co. racked up 28 sacks on the season, but it won't take sacks to slow the Buckeyes down.

Even discernible pressure could impact the relatively untested Jones and give Alabama’s secondary a better chance by forcing him to get rid of the ball earlier than he would like. 

Ohio State put up most of its offensive statistics with J.T. Barrett instead of Jones at quarterback, while Alabama was able to keep most of its opponents from scoring a lot of points despite a suspect secondary. Which unit thrives during the Sugar Bowl will likely determine the outcome of the game.

 

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New Orleans Bowl 2014: Nevada vs. LA-Lafayette TV Info, Spread, Time and More

The 2014-15 college football bowl season kicks off with what should be an entertaining matchup between Nevada and Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.

For folks who eat, sleep and breath college football, this game can't come soon enough. 

While this opening game doesn't feature too many household names, it will make up for that with non-stop action in what will likely be a high-scoring battle, which is exactly what the organizers were hoping for when they set up this matchup:

Both sides will want to end their respective strong years with a win, but either way, it should be a fun game for the fans. Here is everything you need to know and how to catch all of the action.

 

What: R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

When: Saturday, Dec. 20

Time: 11 a.m. ET

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA

TV: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): NEV -1

Over/Under (via Odds Shark): 61

 

Unstoppable Quarterback

Only six quarterbacks in FBS history have ever passed for over 9,000 yards and rushed for over 2,000 in their careers. You might know that Marcus Mariota accomplished the feat this season en route to the Heisman Trophy, but he wasn't the only person to reach this mark in 2014.

Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo also entered the club this season, which now includes three Heisman winners and fellow Wolf Pack star Colin Kaepernick.

Whether he is using his arm or his legs, Fajardo simply makes things happen. He can lead his team to victory by throwing for over 300 yards or throwing under 50 (he has done both this season), and this dynamic play means teams are always off guard.

Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth knows stopping the senior will be a tough task:

Although he might not be a superstar at the college level, he is certainly capable of putting the team on his back and winning a game on his own.

However, one way to slow him down is to force turnovers. Fajardo has at least one interception in seven of his last eight games, including a four-pick effort against Boise State. If ULL is able to create pressure and cause mistakes, it could lead to a victory.

 

New Orleans Bowl Dynasty 

A team that wins three championships in a row is usually referred to as a dynasty. Well, ULL isn't wining titles, but it is putting together an impressive run in the New Orleans Bowl. 

The Ragin' Cajuns will be playing in this bowl game for the fourth year in a row and have defeated Tulane, East Carolina and San Diego State over the past three seasons. They are now ready to make Nevada the next victim.

This has felt less like a bowl game with a committee and more like Louisiana-Lafayette running the court and calling next.

Nevada might be the toughest opponent it has faced over this stretch, but the squad has the familiarity, fan support and near-home-field advantage to give it a boost in this matchup.

For the Wolf Pack to win this game, they will have to overcome a lot more than just the players on the field opposite them.

 

Prediction

Both of these teams can score points, and they certainly will against defenses ranked in the 70s in points allowed per game.

The difference will be the style in which the team move the ball. Both sides like to run the ball, with Louisiana-Lafayette relying heavily on Sun Belt Player of the Year Elijah McGuire. The team's Twitter account noted how well the running back has played this season:

He and Alonzo Harris create quite a formidable tandem in the backfield.

However, Nevada has a more difficult offense to defend against, with Fajardo capable of throwing the ball, running it or handing it off to Don Jackson. By the end of the game, Fajardo and Jackson could each be over 1,000 rushing yards for the season.

Additionally, the Wolf Pack have proven themselves against tougher competition throughout the season, staying within a touchdown against both of this season's Fiesta Bowl opponents, Arizona and Boise State. 

Nevada might be 7-5, but it had a difficult schedule to overcome and still came through with a solid year. This good season will continue with a win in the New Orleans Bowl.

Prediction: Nevada 38, Louisiana-Lafayette 35

 

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Bowl Games 2014-15: College Football Schedule, Predictions and Games to Watch

Let’s be honest. If you’re clicking on a college football story, you probably don’t have to be told how great the two initial College Football Playoff matchups are this season. 

Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State bring national championships, Heisman Trophies, marquee coaches and plenty of future NFL talent to the table, and will thrill audiences on New Year’s Day.

However, there are 36 other bowl games that promise to entertain, starting on Saturday. With that in mind, here is a look at the schedule and some predictions for every postseason contest before a closer look at some of the best games to watch outside of the playoffs.

 

Games to Watch Outside of Playoffs

Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor

Baylor is likely still disappointed after it missed out on the College Football Playoff, but it has a Top 10 opponent to worry about now in Michigan State.

The matchup to watch in this one pits the Spartans’ No. 12-ranked scoring defense against Baylor’s offense, which led the nation in points per game at 48.8. It is important to point out, though, that Michigan State could not slow down Oregon or Ohio State in the two games it played against similar offenses to Baylor, which could be an issue.

Quarterback Bryce Petty and the Bears will look to push the tempo and exploit the Spartans secondary just like quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Marcus Mariota did. 

Don’t overlook Michigan State’s offense when picking this game either. The Spartans were seventh in the country in points per game and should find the end zone a number of times as well.

 

Peach Bowl: Ole Miss vs. TCU

Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com ranked the Peach Bowl as the best bowl game outside of the playoff showdowns and the Cotton Bowl:

The Horned Frogs were the other Big 12 team left out of the playoffs, and they'll have to get over their disappointment if they're going to beat the Rebels. Ole Miss salvaged what was becoming a disappointing finish by upsetting rival Mississippi State 31-17 in the Egg Bowl. TCU's spread offense will be a major test for the Rebels' stout defense.

Just like Baylor, TCU will have to get itself motivated after missing out on the playoffs.

The Peach Bowl is the vintage offense vs. defense matchup that makes so many of these bowl games intriguing. The Horned Frogs were No. 2 in the country in scoring offense this season, but Ole Miss was No. 1 in scoring defense. Something has to give in this one. 

TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 3,714 yards and 30 touchdown passes and ran for 642 yards and eight more scores. How he handles the physical and quick SEC defense that the Rebels bring to the table will ultimately determine the outcome of the Peach Bowl.

 

Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

Any time Georgia Tech takes the field, the key showdown is between its triple-option offense and the opponent’s defense.

The Yellow Jackets averaged a ridiculous 333.6 rushing yards per game this season, which was third in the country, and scored 41 touchdowns on the ground. The combination of speed and misdirection will be difficult for even the Bulldogs defense that only allowed 11 rushing touchdowns and 3.7 yards per carry this season.

If the Bulldogs are going to win, they will need some points from their own offensive weapon in quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott was a Heisman Trophy candidate for much of the season and finished with 24 passing touchdowns, 13 rushing touchdowns and 327.9 yards of total offense per game.

The dual-threat Prescott will have an NFL future to think about one day soon, but he is more focused on immediate concerns, via Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger: "I'm not sure. I'll think about that later. I'm not really thinking about that right now. I'm just worried about graduating right now. I'll decide that later.” 

His first concern on the football field will be matching the points that come from the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option.

 

Fiesta Bowl: Arizona vs. Boise State

The individual matchup in the Fiesta Bowl between Boise State’s running back, Jay Ajayi, and Arizona’s linebacker, Scooby Wright, is enough to make this one of the best postseason games on the schedule.

Ajayi was third in the country with 2,225 all-purpose yards and tallied 25 rushing touchdowns on the season. He was the main reason the Broncos finished ninth in the nation in scoring offense and will be a problem for the Wildcats defense the entire game.

Wright, who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player, will be tasked with slowing Ajayi down. Wright finished with 28 tackles for loss, including 14 sacks, and brings explosiveness and strength to the table that is almost impossible for offensive linemen to counter. 

If Wright can contain Ajayi and get the ball back in his offense’s hands, Arizona will add Boise State to the list of impressive wins it already has this season that includes victories over Oregon, Utah and Arizona State.

 

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Idaho Potato Bowl 2014: Western Michigan vs. Air Force TV Info, Spread and Time

Neither the Western Michigan Broncos nor the Air Force Falcons will leave the 2014 Idaho Potato Bowl disappointed.

Call Saturday's spectacle in Boise a turnaround bowl. Western Michigan and Air Force won a combined three games in 2013 before each improved in the win column by a seven-game margin.

These teams didn't rely on padded schedules to become bowl eligible. Notable victories helped them achieve program-best turnarounds. Western Michigan knocked off MAC East champion Bowling Green, while Air Force took down Mountain West contenders Boise State and Colorado State.

Contrasting styles collide Saturday in what is sure to be a memorable offensive display by both sides. Enthusiasts of the traditional ground game and the Air Raid offense both will want to catch this one.

 

Air Force's Grounded Ways

Troy Calhoun's team cares little for the pass, which is why senior quarterback Kale Pearson has all of 162 attempts on the season (14 of which went for scores).

Pearson comes in second place on quite a lengthy list of potent rushers Air Force deploys in any number of ways in a given contest:

This allows the Falcons to rank eighth in the nation in rushing with an average of 272.2 yards per game on the ground. Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck understands the unique challenge Air Force presents on each down, as captured by Brent Briggeman of The Colorado Springs Gazette:

If you can stop the run you've got a chance in any game. They've got a heck of a quarterback and their skill players can really run. It's not necessarily like playing Navy where it's 90 percent of their offense, with Air Force it's about 70 percent triple option and they can throw it as well. So we've got our work cut out for us.

Western Michigan figures to have problems with the approach. The nation's 39th-ranked defense lost notable encounters with potent rushing attacks this season.

Northern Illinois had its way on the ground with the Broncos, running for 196 yards and three scores on a 5.8 per-carry average in a 31-21 win. Toledo upended Western Michigan 20-19 by way of 234 yards and a score on a 6.5 per-carry average.

The key to success for Air Force is obvious, not that the Falcons would change their approach either way.

 

Quarterback Turnaround

The saving grace for Western Michigan in Saturday's game, other than plenty of time to prepare for the triple-option attack, is the improved play of sophomore quarterback Zach Terrell.

Terrell completed just 53.0 percent of his passes last year with eight touchdowns and interceptions. He personifies the turnaround bowl, as his completion percentage has jumped to 70.0 along with 3,146 yards and 23 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.

Over the course of this impressive turnaround, Terrell posted seven multi-touchdown games and his completion percentage dipped below 62.5 in just two contests.

Of course, Terrell has help. Freshman tailback Jarvion Franklin rushed for 1,525 yards and 24 touchdowns on the year. Corey Davis caught 70 passes for 1,232 yards and 12 scores, while fellow wideout Daniel Braverman caught 79 for 912 and six.

This sort of air efficiency can do much to counteract Air Force's ball control, although the Falcons have a reputation for their run defense.

To upend the Falcons and cap off an outstanding year, Terrell will need one more electric performance.

 

When: Saturday, December 20, 5:45p.m. ET

Where: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 57.5
  • Spread: Air Force (-1)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

The Broncos have never won a bowl game, a streak that seems set to continue for at least one more season.

Air Force has won five of its last six and is 9-0 when rushing for at least 198 yards. Thanks to the efforts of Pearson and others, that number seems like an obtainable benchmark based on how the Western Michigan defense has performed against elite rushing attacks this year.

Saturday's showdown will by no means be a blowout, but Terrell cannot seize the first bowl win in program history from the sidelines.

Look for Air Force to grind it out on the ground late.

Prediction: Air Force 24, Western Michigan 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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New Mexico Bowl 2014: Utah State vs. UTEP TV Info, Spread, Time and Injury News

The Utah State Aggies can identify in many ways with their 2014 New Mexico Bowl opponent, the UTEP Miners.

Utah State coach Matt Wells knows all about rebuilding a program and looks to use Saturday's bowl encounter as a way to turn things around. His Aggies were on the wrong side of a 50-19 blowout at the hands of Boise State their last time out.

The Miners have new life under coach Sean Kugler, as a 7-5 campaign gives the team a chance to win its first bowl game since 1967.

The teams tout opposite strengths, so a war of wills is in the cards for observers who want to see two programs put everything on the line in order to continue an upward climb.

 

Strength vs. Strength

Forget the ugly loss to Boise State for a moment.

The Aggies are a superb defensive team. They tore through the West division of the Mountain West Conference thanks to a defense that ranks 21st nationally with an average of just 20.8 points allowed per game.

Much of the credit goes to linebackers Zach Vigil and Nick Vigil, brothers who combined for 261 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. Waters continues to do much in the motivation department in an attempt to get the brothers and the rest of the team ready for the Miners, as captured by Stats LLC, via ESPN.com:

I can promise you, we're very, very hungry. The comment that I always make to the team is you're only as good as your last game. Your body of work, your resume, is the last video that you put out there. For Utah State and everybody in this program, (the last game) wasn't very good. It wasn't up to our standards. We have a great desire to go and end this thing right.

To ensure the last game of the season is a good one, the Aggies defense will need to overcome a Miners rushing attack that ranks 34th nationally with an average of 212.7 yards per game.

The Aggies wear down opposing defenses with a number of names, chief among them sophomore back Aaron Jones. That said, quarterback Jameill Showers is not far behind on the list:

A potent and diverse offense means the Miners stand a good chance of breaking a five-bowl losing streak. All the attack needs to do is move past one of the nation's top defenses, easily the best unit the Miners have encountered all season.

 

Foundation for the Future

The implications of Saturday's contest for the UTEP program are obvious.

An eight-win campaign and a historic, rare bowl victory are quite the motivating factors. These things are not lost on Kugler.

"It's been a long time since UTEP has won a bowl game, so the theme going into the year was 'make history,'" Kugler said, per Stats LLC. "We have an opportunity to do that if we win our last game."

Do not underestimate the importance of a Utah State victory, though. This program posted a two-win season as recently as 2007 and is on the upswing since Wells took over and the team joined the MWC in 2013.

The next rung on the ladder? Better recruiting pipelines and consistent contention against Boise State and top teams from other conferences.

"I think it's important to understand that your net may be broader and it may be a little wider that you can cast because of your national visibility," Wells said, per Rick Wright of the Albuquerque Journal. "(But) the bottom line is that our recruiting philosophy isn't going to change."

A loss Saturday is not the end of the world for either program, but a win would signal a continued upswing most around the nation would envy.

 

When: Saturday, December 20, 2:20 p.m. ET

Where: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 46
  • Spread: Utah State (-10.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

Look for Utah State to get back to its defensive ways Saturday. 

The run-first approach by UTEP is a product of both strength and necessity, as Showers has completed just 55.7 percent of his passes on the season. Forced into a one-dimensional approach, the Miners will experience issues moving the ball up and down the field against a great unit.

Given current trajectories, UTEP will be in Utah State's shoes in a few seasons. Right now, though, the Aggies are deeper at most spots and can neutralize the Miners' biggest strength. 

The result is a comfortable triumph in front of a national audience.

Prediction: Aggies 27, Miners 17

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Las Vegas Bowl 2014: Utah vs. Colorado State TV Info, Spread, Time, Injury News

The Utah Utes and Colorado State Rams have come full circle to collide in the 2014 Las Vegas Bowl.

The showdown promises to be one of the best pre-Christmas bowls on the slate.

Hard times are outdated for the Utes, a team that bounced back from a 5-7 2013 campaign to win eight games this year. The Rams put on an even more impressive feat with 10 wins this season despite a three-win performance in 2013.

The Rams will be without now-former coach Jim McElwain as he takes over at the helm of the Florida Gators, but one of the nation's best offenses still has the talent to post points on a feared Utah defense.

If there is one game to catch before Christmas Day, this is it.

 

Tailbacks on the Loose

Part of the reason the Rams rank 22nd nationally in scoring offense has to do with the efforts of senior back Dee Hart.

The former Alabama Crimson Tide backup ran wild in his first real opportunity as starter this year and gained 1,254 yards and 16 touchdowns on a 6.7 per-carry average. Those numbers include seven 100-yard performances and touchdowns in as many games.

Utah's junior back Devontae Booker rounds out what may be one of the best backfield showdowns of the year.

Booker resembles something of a bowling ball out on the field at 5'11" and 203 yards. He proved an effective workhorse for the Utes this year, gaining 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns on a 5.1 per-carry average.

What is most impressive about Booker is his blatant refusal to go down. ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell provided the gaudy numbers:

Booker comes up big when his team needs it the most and actually uses him. He gained 156 yards and a score against UCLA, 229 yards and three scores against Oregon State and 201 yards and a score against USC.

Both Hart and Booker will be in top form Saturday, so the globe is in for a treat.

 

War of Wills

Formerly known as a defensive power, Utah lost that title after a 51-27 drubbing at the hands of Oregon in early November.

Things are not so great from a total stat standpoint anymore, but there are a few key areas in which the Utes excel. 

Led by surefire NFL first-round pick Nate Orchard, the Utes lead the nation in sacks at 4.3 per game and average 8.3 tackles for loss per game. The defense is a large part of the program-wide turnaround coach Kyle Whittingham spoke of recently, per STATS LLC, via ESPN.com:

Seems like every week has come down to the last possession or even the last play at times. We're finding ways to win most of them and that's very encouraging, because the last couple years we were just the opposite of that. We were not finishing and finding ways to win those close games.

Colorado State is no Oregon, but Hart combines with others to form one of the most potent offenses the Utes have seen all season.

Senior quarterback Garrett Grayson has 3,779 yards and 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions so far. His favorite target, sophomore wideout Rashard Higgins, has 89 receptions for 1,640 yards and 17 touchdowns. The next closest player on the list has caught 32 passes.

Higgins missed out on the Biletnikoff Award thanks to Alabama's Amari Cooper, but he has the talent on his lonesome to throw the Utah secondary for a loop.

A fine balance and lethal potency creates a serious issue for the Utes, a defense that has much to prove after recently surrendering 34 points to a 2-10 Colorado team.

 

When: Saturday, December 20, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV

Television: ABC

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 57
  • Spread: Utah (-3.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

The problem with Colorado State, other than inflated stats thanks to its slot in the Mountain West Conference, is the loss of its head coach. 

It is unknown how Hart and others will respond with offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin running the show, especially against one of the nation's most feared defenses.

Look for Booker to have a gigantic day against the Rams while junior quarterback Travis Wilson (17 touchdowns, four interceptions) continues to take great care of the football. The Utes can use a methodical approach to keep the Colorado State offense off the field, while the opportunistic defense creates even more opportunities to control the game.

Prediction: Utah 28, Colorado State 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Camellia Bowl 2014: South Alabama vs. Bowling Green TV Info, Spread, Time, More

Saturday is a day of firsts at the inaugural Camellia Bowl, which sees the South Alabama Jaguars make their first-ever bowl appearance in their sixth year of existence.

While perhaps not as impressive, South Alabama's opponent, Bowling Green, wound up in first place in the MAC East with a 7-6 record.

The scoreboard should be active when these two get together Saturday night. Both prefer different approaches but fill the stat sheet in impressive manners all the same.

For one team, the Camellia Bowl is a way to make a serious proclamation and build for the future in one swoop.

 

Different Preferences, Same Results 

Joey Jones' Jaguars love to run the football on the majority of their plays. The philosophy works, as the team ranks 48th in the nation with an average of 182.6 yards per game on the ground.

Senior back Kendall Houston leads the team in rushing this year with 652 yards and a score on a 4.9 per-carry average. Xavier Johnson is not far behind with 417 yards and a score, while even senior quarterback Brandon Bridge gets in on the action on a regular basis and has 254 yards and three scores.

Bridge can take care of business through the air, too, as his 1,648 yards and 14 touchdowns to six interceptions shows.

Counteracting the methodical Bridge-led offense is one of the nation's fastest attacks. Bowling Green averages 29.8 points and 427.8 yards per game. Collegiate fans in general will recall when the Falcons ran a season-high 113 plays in a 45-42 upset of Indiana.

James Knapke leads coach Dino Babers' offense, but his 2,805 yards and 13 touchdowns to 12 interceptions were enough to get him replaced late in the season.

The spread-it-out attack tends to favor the ground game out of necessity, which is fine, considering Travis Greene has 908 yards and 10 scores, Fred Coppet has 694 and six and Andre Givens has 474 and eight.

The obvious dynamic to watch, then, is whether South Alabama can keep Bowling Green off the field.

 

Righting the Ship

There is a lot to like about what both of these teams have accomplished this season—minus their ability to finish.

The Jaguars lost four of their last five to close the season and almost missed out on bowl eligibility in the process. Jones' team will need to overcome this factor, not to mention the hurdle that is playing in a first-ever bowl game.

For his part, though, Babers does not buy into talk that suggests Saturday's opponent will be just happy to go bowling, per AL.com's Tommy Hicks: "I don't know about that. I would imagine they'll try to put some stars in other people's eyes. They'll be really excited, they'll be in front of their family and their home fans. I think that there's no doubt they're going to be ready to go.''

Bowling Green is certainly the more experienced of the two teams, but the season-ending stretch was downright embarrassing. The Falcons lost their last three contests, including a MAC Championship blowout at the hands of Northern Illinois, 51-17.

The team that can put woeful recent performances behind them figures to end the season on a happy note.

 

When: Saturday, December 20, 9:15 p.m. ET

Where: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, AL

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 53.5
  • Spread: South Alabama (-3)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

Quarterback play is quite a concern for Bowling Green, especially against a South Alabama defense that only allows an average of 25.8 points per game. 

For comparison's sake, the Falcons rank 109th in the nation due to an average of nearly 34 points per game allowed.

The notion that the Jaguars will be ill prepared for such a prolific contest is incorrect considering major showdowns against Mississippi State and South Carolina this season. The offense's grind-it-out mentality with a relentless amount of effective rushers will eventually wear down the Falcons and produce a win for the first-timers.

Prediction: South Alabama 24, Bowling Green 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: Final 2014 Positional Grades for the Bulldogs

The Georgia Bulldogs finished the 2014 regular season with a 9-3 record and second place in the SEC East. It was not the finish they wanted, as they will play Louisville in the Belk Bowl, but there was more good than bad when looking back at the season.

There were players who stepped up on both sides of the ball. And the good thing about it is the Bulldogs won’t lose too many players for next season. So the players who contributed this season along with the newcomers for next year will make them a favorite to win the SEC East.

Here are the final positional grades for the Bulldogs.

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