NCAA Football News

Pac-12 Football: Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Conference Games so Far in 2014

The Pac-12 conference no longer has to worry about east coast folks missing out on the late-night contests; they've simply been too competitive to ignore, even if it means an extra cup of dark roast the next morning.

In a year as wild as any in recent memory, the Pac-12 has been involved in a number of games that you have to see to believe. From multiple Hail Marys to an NCAA passing record and last-second (missed) field goals, the thrill factor is at an all-time high.

We're taking a look at the 10 most exciting conference games thus far, though with only 18 head-to-head matchups in the books, we're giving a special nod to a pair of out-of-conference tilts involving Pac-12 teams.

Remember, a close game is not necessarily an exciting one. To put it simply, which games would you pay to have erased from your memory so you could sit down and watch them again?

 

All stats via cfbstats.com.

Games that just missed the cut: USC-Stanford, Notre Dame-Stanford, Rutgers-Washington State, WSU-Utah.

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BYU Football: Are Injuries or Coaching to Blame for Recent Struggles?

In just a few short weeks, BYU's 2014 football season turned from a fairytale to a nightmare.

The Cougars started with a 4-0 record, including convincing wins over Texas and Virginia, and had a legitimate Heisman contender in Taysom Hill. Within days, the storylines flipped—the Cougars lost to Utah State (USU) and Central Florida, and more than a few key players, including Hill, were injured in the process.

All of a sudden, hopes of a perfect season, potential New Year's bowl game and another Heisman are gone. Naturally, with another seemingly disappointing season, BYU fans have let pointed fingers fly. But is there any single thing to blame for back-to-back losses and smashed hopes?

Of course, the common scapegoats have been thrust into the spotlight—anything from the referees, to bad coaching, to the injuries. All three are reasonable, but the former shouldn't make for a reasonable argument.

Sure, the officials in the past two games have missed calls here and there. The one that gets Cougar fans the most heated—a pass interference no-call against UCF—turned out to be a major factor in the final outcome. 

This was not called as PI. 4th and 3 with the game on the line. UCF DB was hugging the WR for BYU. pic.twitter.com/EJmIwrI3Eu

— Dustin Fox (@DustinFox37) October 10, 2014

Still, even if the Cougs got that call, they would still have to score. And, even if they would have scored, UCF would get the ball back and be in a position to win the game. So, no matter what, the referees did not—in any way—lose the game for BYU. The Cougars had a two-possession lead in the third quarter and blew it.

So, with referees out of the way, up comes the issue of injuries. In the past two weeks, injured starters or key players include:

  • Taysom Hill (QB)
  • Jamaal Williams (RB)
  • Alani Fua (OLB)
  • Dallin Leavitt (DB)
  • Craig Bills (DB)
  • Brayden Kearsley (OL)
  • Jordan Johnson (DB)
  • Adam Hine (RB)
  • Terenn Houk (WR)

On top of that, linebacker Bronson Kaufusi and receiver Jordan Leslie are currently rehabbing after recent injuries. In addition, JUCO transfer Nick Kurtz will seek a medical redshirt season after a lingering ailment.

Obviously, it is difficult to win games without almost half of your starters. The injury situation has taken its toll on BYU—and will keep nagging the team for the rest of the season—but at this point, it's just something you have to deal with and move on.

Although you can't really control injuries, one thing you can control is coaching. BYU's coaching—especially since Taysom Hill got hurt against Utah State—has been hideous. Of course, it had its issues before (see play-calling, delay-of-game vs. Virginia, etc.,) but it took a big plunge during the USU game.

From the first few minutes of the USU game, anyone could tell that Utah State was the better-prepared team. They came out more physical and more motivated. It only got worse when Hill went down—instead of Robert Anae calling running plays and short passes to get backup quarterback Christian Stewart comfortable, he stuck to deep routes which killed Stewart's confidence.

The next game, against UCF, Algernon Brown and Paul Lasike played their hearts out, combining for 151 rushing yards in regulation. That opened up the passing offense, making Stewart more relaxed and buying more time in the pocket.

But as soon as overtime hit, Anae went back to the Utah State game plan—to make Stewart attack the defense with his arm. Although the rushing offense had been shredding UCF all night, every play Anae called in overtime was a passing one.

That alone cost BYU the game. And that's not to mention defensive coordinator Nick Howell's in-game shenanigans, when he was forced to play backup safety Kai Nacua:

Howell on Nacua: "He knows I didn't trust him. I was forced to throw him in, and he proved me wrong. He played good...he's a good player."

— Greg Wrubell (@gregwrubell) October 14, 2014

It's one thing to doubt your backup safety in a big situation, and it's another to tell him that you have trust issues. Forget Nacua—if I were BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the people I wouldn't trust are Howell and Anae.

Blame the refs, blame the injuries, but the coaching against UCF and Utah State—not to mention in the previous four games—has been downright ugly. If the Cougars can't clean things up soon, they could have a rough finish to the season.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Boston College vs. Clemson

Leading up to this Saturday’s matchup between the Clemson Tigers and Boston College Eagles, there’s excitement but also a level of nervousness over Cole Stoudt’s second "debut." After beginning the season as the starter, this Saturday will be his first start since the Florida State game.

Though how Stoudt plays is the biggest factor for Clemson, there are also a couple of other things the Tigers need to focus on before this weekend’s conference matchup.

Since we mentioned Stoudt, we will start with him.

 

How Cole Stoudt Plays

He didn’t play very well against Louisville, but we'll give him a pass considering the shoulder injury and missed practices. With that in mind, the Tigers can’t afford for Stoudt to play like that again. The run game isn’t strong enough at this point to play conservatively, so the senior quarterback will need to make plays through the air.

Clemson won its last game with superb defense and consistent special teams, but you can’t count on the defense to play that well every game. With a full week of practice and a mind-set as the starting quarterback, Stoudt will play better this week.

 

Tigers’ Ability to Stop the Run

If I told you after the Georgia game—when Clemson gave up 328 yards on the ground—that the Tigers would have arguably the best rushing defense in the nation by mid-October, would you believe me? Well believe it or not, they are right there in that discussion.

Per ESPN.com’s David Hale, the Tigers have allowed the fewest rushing yards since the season opener.

The defense will face a tough test this weekend against Boston College, though. The Eagles rank fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging 315.7 yards per game. Quarterback Tyler Murphy leads the attack with 711 yards and eight touchdowns.

Running the ball is what helped Boston College upset Southern California—it had 452 yards on the ground in that game—so it’s likely that the Eagles try to do the same thing in this upset bid.

If I’m Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, I am going to load the box and dare Murphy to throw the ball downfield. He hasn’t been particularly successful in that aspect, throwing six interceptions and only three touchdowns.

 

Special Teams

Like I mentioned earlier, special teams were crucial in the last game. The touchdown on Adam Humphries’ punt return and Ammon Lakip’s three field goals were ultimately the difference in winning and losing.

Lakip struggled in the two road games earlier this year—he missed three out of four kicks against Georgia and Florida State—so it will be interesting to see how he performs in this game. While it’s worth noting his struggles in those two games, he has been near perfect at home, only missing one kick.

This game feels like it could come down to the final quarter—it always seems that way with Boston College—so special teams are vital.

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UCLA Football: What Bruins Must Do to Win Pac-12 South

At 4-2 (1-2 in conference play), things are a bit tenuous for Jim Mora and the UCLA football team. 

As of now, UCLA ranks just above Colorado in the Pac-12 South Division standings. Another loss (or two) could potentially extinguish any hopes of playing in the conference championship game. 

This piece will look at how UCLA can indeed win the South Division. Four points in particular will be on the agenda. 

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Michigan Football: How Wolverines Offense Must Prepare for Michigan State

Coming off its first Big Ten win of the season, Michigan now has a long week to prepare for No. 8-ranked Michigan State, which it’ll face Oct. 25 in East Lansing.

Beating Penn State 18-13 this past Saturday at The Big House provided a subtle kick for the Wolverines (3-4, 1-1 B1G), who have fallen well short of expectations this fall. However, prior to the season, the thought of a one-loss team squaring off against the Spartans (6-1, 2-0) was realistic.

Today, avoiding a blowout seems like it’d be the best-case scenario for Brady Hoke, who is 1-2 versus Mark Dantonio. And other than in 2012’s 12-10 victory, Hoke’s Wolverines haven’t even been remotely close to their counterparts. His 29-6 loss in 2013 made that loud and clear.

Hoke’s regularly bowed to rivals, and his team is becoming a conference doormat and magnet for criticism. Topping the Spartans wouldn’t only be a another notch in the series win column (68-33-5, UM), but it’d be a giant step—with several miles to go—in the right direction for an ailing power looking to reclaim respect.

Hoke’s coaching alone can’t down Dantonio's 300; his players have to help do that.

And it all starts with the offense, which is a problem: Michigan has the Big Ten’s No. 13-ranked total offense. Michigan State touts the No. 4 defense.

Do the math. It doesn't look favorable for Team 135. 

 

Gardner Must Find Himself

In 2013 Devin Gardner scraped together 216 passing yards, which in some cases can be enough to sneak away with a win. However, he was sacked six times for minus-48 yards, dropping the total offense to just 168 yards. 

Pounded and pummeled, Gardner suffered the worst defeat of his collegiate career that day. Those memories must be distant (preferably forgotten) if he's to lead the Wolverines to an improbable outcome this time around. 

But there is a bright side: He's coming off a season-high 192 passing yards versus Penn State. Two weeks ago against Rutgers, he scored a pair of rushing touchdowns (19, 4), adding energy to the offense and giving reason to believe that the fifth-year senior can indeed get the job done. 

But he's still throwing picks.

There are only 10 quarterbacks who've tossed more than Gardner's eight. If he's not careful, he could be No. 1 after Oct. 25. He's given away at least one in five of seven games this year, which is an alarming statistic in itself. 

The Spartans have eight interceptions this season; Minnesota, Ohio State and Northwestern lead the B1G with nine. But again, in league-terms, a new No. 1 could be crowned Oct. 25. 

Gardner's also still getting sacked, and the Spartans, whose 22 are second-most in the league, are still sacking (No. 1 with 169 yards lost).

With that said, Gardner must be patient and find receivers; but at the same time, he must recognize when he's in trouble and it's time to tuck and run. That was his problem in 2013 versus his in-state foes, and that indecision has again hindered performance across the board in 2014. 

If the Wolverines are to have a chance, Gardner must lead athletically and mentally. This is his last shot to knock off the Spartans. 

 

Michigan State's Run D Presents Challenges

On Saturday, the Wolverines rushed for 64 yards against Penn State, or, in other words, a couple of drives' worth for Michigan State's ground game.

Without Derrick Green for the remainder of the schedule, Team 135 doesn't have a lot of options at running back; Justice Hayes isn't a bruiser. But he's great in space. De'Veon Smith is a brusier. But he's struggled to find holes. 

See the problem? Neither one can get going. 

Green could do both and demonstrated so—better than he ever has at Michigan—with 12 carries for 74 yards versus Rutgers. Unfortunately, that was his last go-round, as he suffered a season-ending broken clavicle late in the contest. 

Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush, Darian Harris and Ed Davis, four of the Spartans' top defenders, aren't known for giving up much real estate. Michigan State surrenders just 81. 5 rushing yards per game, No. 2 in the Big Ten.

It'll take career days from Hayes and Smith to penetrate Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's armor. In essence, running the ball Oct. 25 could be a mere formality, something to create space between passing plays. There probably won't be much light at the end of that tunnel. 

On Wednesday, Hoke said that he's aware of his team's deficiencies and plans to adjust during practice this and next week, per Maize & Blue News' Matt Pargoff

“We didn’t run the ball very well obviously the other night [vs. PSU]," Hoke said. "So that’s something that we’ve got to continue to make improvements on. You’ve got to give the front of Penn State’s some credit. They were leading the league in rush defense and they’re one of the better fronts, but at the same time, some of the fundamental things we need to do a better job finishing, particularly on the perimeter of the line of scrimmage. That’s one area [among others]..."

 

Receivers

Devin Funchess is the No. 1 target and will continue to be for as long as he's at Michigan. This season hasn't been ideal for the projected 2015 NFL first-rounder, but he's made a spectacular catch or two to maintain status. 

His juggling 43-yard touchdown grab against Penn State was one for the highlight reels. The 6'5", 236-pounder is capable of giving defensive backs problems, but his offense has been too inconsistent to effectively utilize him. Translation: Gardner's had trouble throwing, and Funchess isn't benefiting. Neither are the rest of the receivers. 

To win, Funchess needs a handful of big gains and at least a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier must find a way to further incorporate tight end Jake Butt and wideout Amara Darboh into the plans too. Next to Funchess, they're the best options. 

 

Get Healthy

During his Monday presser, Hoke said that this week was a good time for a bye week. Needless to say, having extra time to chase away aches, mend wounds and ice shoulders should come in handy for Michigan, which could be as healthy as its been in some time prior to facing the Spartans, per Pargoff

"I hope so," Hoke said. "We do have the chance to get some guys back—hope to get some guys back. I can’t tell you if that’s going to happen all the way. Probably won’t tell you. I’m not sure, but I think it helps.”

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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Oregon Football: Grading Each Positional Unit at Halfway Point of the Season

The Oregon Ducks (5-1, 2-1) have had some ups and downs through the first half of the season; however, they’re still in position to win the Pac-12 North title and have a chance of advancing to the College Football Playoff. 

While a loss to Arizona at home was disappointing for the program, wins against preseason-ranked Top 10 opponents Michigan State and UCLA have proved that the Ducks, when healthy, are one of the best teams in the entire country. The Ducks, specifically the offensive line, have had to deal with numerous injuries so far this year and have yet to truly play up to their lofty potential.

That being said, the Ducks lead the Pac-12 North and are ranked No. 9 in the country by The Associated Press.

If the Ducks can win the Pac-12 conference title and escape without suffering another loss, they will likely find themselves playing for a spot in the national championship come Jan. 1.

In order to get a sense of where the Ducks stand after their first six games let’s take a look at how each position group has performed so far in 2014.

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Nebraska Defense Better Prepared to Handle the Northwestern Offense

Nebraska may have lost to Michigan State, but the defense had a lot to celebrate. The group proved it has what it takes to be titled the "Blackshirts." A bye week later, the Huskers defense is ready to handle Northwestern.

"[Trevor] Siemian isn’t as mobile as Kain Colter was so we have to worry more about his arm," cornerback Daniel Davie said, per Huskers.com. "We have to be prepared for the routes we are going to get. He is talented with his arm so that’s what we will have to prepare for the most.”

The loss of Colter is a major advantage for the Huskers. In 2014, Northwestern is 11th in total offense, averaging 361.7 yards per game. Siemian is doing a nice job settling in at quarterback for Northwestern, but as Davie pointed out, his strength is not on the ground.

That means Nebraska needs to be prepared to stop the pass. It wasn't the highlight of the Huskers defense earlier in the season, but it is improving. Against Michigan State, the Blackshirts forced three takeaways, which limited Spartans quarterback Connor Cook to only 11 of 29 passes.

What makes the matchup between Nebraska's defense and Northwestern's offense the most interesting is that the Huskers have a chance to make the Wildcats one-dimensional, as Examiner.com's William Harrison pointed out. With pressure up front, the Huskers can make it difficult for Justin Jackson or any of the Northwestern running backs to gain any ground, which forces Siemian to throw.

The trick is that throwing isn't a negative for Siemian. He has done a nice job of targeting multiple wide receivers, which Nebraska will need to be prepared for. By eliminating the running game, stopping the pass can become the focus, though.

Have the Blackshirts prepared properly for Northwestern? Senior safety Corey Cooper believes so.

"I think guys came to practice and practiced hard, but the test is this Saturday," Cooper said, per the Lincoln Journal Star's Brian Christopherson. "So we will find out."

The Nebraska defense proved against Michigan State that it knows how to win. While it may be giving up 21.5 points per game, it's by no lack of effort. Plus, Nebraska knows what it's up against.

“They don’t have a mobile quarterback in Kain Colter anymore so they pretty much have a guy that will sit back in the pocket and throw the ball," Cooper said, per Huskers.com. "But they still have the same principle as an offense but they just don’t have a dual-threat quarterback anymore.”

If the Blackshirts can take that knowledge and put it into action on the field, Northwestern's offense is the perfect challenge. It's a matchup that has the potential to be a close one like years past. It'll all come down to how the team plays as a whole on both sides of the ball.

As of now, it looks like Nebraska's defense has the tools to hold up its end of the deal to win.

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The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh

The Virginia Tech Hokies return to the field on Thursday in a primetime matchup with the Pittsburgh Panthers. It's an all-important collision between two ACC Coastal Division rivals that are both currently 1-1 in conference play.

Virginia Tech leads the all-time series, 8-5, but the Panthers have won four of the previous five meetings. Tech won last season in Blacksburg. 

After a 3-0 start to the season, the Panthers have lost three straight. The Hokies began the season at 2-0, including an upset win at Ohio State, before losing their next two games. VT is now 4-2 on the season after a win at North Carolina on October 4. 

Winning in the Steel City won't be easy for the Hokies. In three previous trips to Heinz Field, Tech is 0-3.

Here are three X-factors for the Hokies in their matchup with the Panthers.

 

Injuries

The Hokies enter Thursday's contest with a depleted corps of running backs. In the last two games, injuries have taken down Tech's top three tailbacks.

Shai McKenzie was lost for the season with a torn ACL vs. Western Michigan, while Trey Edmunds broke his clavicle at UNC, and Marshawn Williams sprained his ankle in the same game. 

While McKenzie and Edmunds are lost for the season, there was hope Williams would be able to return at Pitt. That won't be the case as the true freshman was ruled out this week, per Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times

Junior J.C. Coleman, the former starter, will share carries with sophomore Joel Caleb and fullback Sam Rogers. For the season, the trio has combined to run the ball 42 times for 177 yards. Of the three, Caleb is the most intriguing option. 

Star defensive tackle Luther Maddy will also miss the Pitt game. The senior, who had arthroscopic knee surgery back in September, was looking to return Thursday night but appears to be at least a week away. 

Nigel Williams, who stepped in to start for Maddy over the last month, will combine with Ricky Walker and Woody Baron to replace Maddy. 

Cornerback Brandon Facyson will also miss Thursday's game. With each passing week, it looks more and more like a medical redshirt season for the sophomore. 

How the Hokies overcome some of these injuries will determine if they win on Thursday.

 

Stopping James Conner

The sophomore running back is No. 5 in college football with 874 rushing yards on the season. Conner went over 100 yards in each of the first four games—three of those were Pitt wins—but was held under 100 yards in each of the Panthers' last two games—both losses.

The 6'2", 250-pound wrecking ball is the key to Pitt's offense. If Conner is racking up yards, then sophomore quarterback Chad Voytik has more opportunities to look for Tyler Boyd down the field. Boyd is Pittsburgh's next star receiver. 

On the season, VT is No. 16 against the run, allowing just under 109 yards per game. Stopping the run is always Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's top priority. 

Conner is not the type of back to rip off big runs. He can, but his specialty is grinding four, five and six yards at a time. If that happens against the Hokies, they are in for a long night. To Conner's credit, however, his longest run of the season is 60 yards. 

Foster is aware of the challenge that Conner presents, per Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch

"We’re going to have to gang tackle," Foster said. “We’re going to have to run through him. We’re going to have to do a lot of things to him. We’ve got to beat him up. We were able to do that last year."

It's important to note that Conner did leave last year's game—a 19-9 Virginia Tech win—after just two carries due to a shoulder injury. 

Losing Conner to an injury is likely why we won't see him play any snaps at defensive end, despite reports saying he would. 

This is probably the top matchup to watch. 

 

Michael Brewer Taking Care of the Ball

It's the same story every week for Brewer. He needs to stop turning the ball over, but he can't seem to do it. 

For the season, the junior quarterback has 11 interceptions. He has at least one interception in every start and four games with multiple picks. 

That must end, or it will doom the Hokies season.

It's no coincidence that in Tech's two losses, Brewer has five interceptions. 

Pittsburgh is historically a tough place to play for the Hokies, but Brewer can't make it any harder due to him being careless with the football. He has a tendency to force things when he doesn't necessarily need to. 

One area that Brewer has mastered, though, is third-down conversions. The Hokies were terrible on third down in 2013, but thanks to Brewer they are 10th in the country on third-down conversions this season, converting at a rate of 49 percent.

The Panthers enter Thursday's game with nine turnovers on the season. Eight of those turnovers are interceptions.

If Brewer takes care of the football and continues to be efficient on third down, Tech will be tough to beat.  

 

Stats courtesy of NCAA.com.

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Texas Football: Longhorns Must Fix 3rd-Quarter Woes

It happens in every college football game: The second-quarter clock hits zero, and both teams head to the locker room.

As every college football fan knows, this is referred to as halftime.

What happens inside the locker room could make or break the outcome of the game.

But for the Texas Longhorns, halftime has not been a friend. In fact, it has been the exact opposite.

The Longhorns have reached the midway point of the season with a 2-4 record. A lot of the losses have begun in the third quarter.

Against BYU, the Texas defense shut out the Cougars offense. The team entered halftime down 6-0.

Then the third quarter happened.

BYU put up 28 unanswered points and handed the Longhorns their worse home loss since 1997.

Fast forward to Week 3 of the season. Texas faced then-No. 12 UCLA in Dallas. The Longhorns entered halftime leading 10-3 over the Bruins.

The offense could not find the end zone in the third quarter, and the defense allowed the Bruins to come back and beat Texas 17-13.

This trend has continued.

The blame cannot be placed on the Texas defense. In fact, if it wasn't for the defense, the Longhorns could be in a much worse situation before halftime.

Since Week 2 of the season, the team has been outscored 49-7 in the third quarter alone, which brings up the following question: What is happening during halftime?

Head coach Charlie Strong said his message to the team at half against Oklahoma was there is still 30 minutes left on the clock, so the team has to finish.

But the first-year coach has not been able to put a finger on what is happening in the third quarter.

"I wish I could. I don't know what it is," Strong said. "We have to do a little something because, the third quarter is sitting there and we're not getting anything out of it.

"Even on defense, they have moved the ball some on us. It's not so much that we're relaxing. It's just we have to come back and play the game. There is 30 minutes of football left, and we have to continue to play."

The coaches put a lot of pressure on the defense, but the offense is partly to blame for the third-quarter slump. The offense has not scored a third-quarter touchdown since Week 2 against BYU.

"It's a matter of coming out and getting in a rhythm. Those are all things we have to address as a staff," quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said. "I know now how to create rhythm now for Ty (Tyrone Swoopes); I think he is our rhythm. When we get Ty going, that creates our rhythm as an offense. I better know, better understand what gets him going and what he needs."

Since Swoopes took over, the Texas offense has struggled to get in the end zone in the third quarter, which has put the defense in a vulnerable position and hurt the team's chances at winning games.

This has to stop if the Longhorns want to make it to the postseason.

Texas has six games left on the schedule, and it is not an easy road ahead.

The Longhorns have three ranked opponents remaining on the schedule; two of those are on the road with Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

If Texas hopes to turn around the season and make it to a bowl game, it has to pick it up in the third quarter.

"We have a senior class here right now that doesn't want to be known as the senior class at The University of Texas that didn't get it done," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. "It's not where we want it to be, it's not what they want it to be, but again, we're trying to go one game at a time. You're going to see our best shot."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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

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Midterm Grades for Every College Football Playoff Contender

The final grade is what matters most, but midterms serve their purpose too.  

As we hit the halfway point of the 2014 college football season, it's a good time to evaluate how the game's highest-ranked teams have performed so far. The overall body of work will be looked at by the selection committee to determine who makes the first College Football Playoff, and with the first rankings set to be released on Oct. 28, this is a chance to grade what the top contenders have done well and what still needs improvement.

For the most part, everyone is doing pretty well. But there's always room for improvement, as you'll see in the grades we've given for the 12 most likely playoff contenders at this point in the season. These teams were chosen based on their current ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, their placement in the mock CFP standings compiled by Bleacher Report's Samuel Chi and their current record in conference play.

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Oklahoma Football Commit PJ Mbanasor Gets Sent Wheaties with Face on Box

Class of 2015 cornerback PJ Mbanasor has already committed to play with the Oklahoma Sooners after high school, so the recruiting team decided to send him something to show its appreciation.

The Sooners sent Mbanasor this customized Wheaties box featuring himself, calling him their No. 1 prospect. Mbanasor committed back in June, but it's still a pretty cool way to let a recruit know the team appreciates his decision.

[Twitter, h/t College Spun]

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Top Recruits Who Will Be Impacted by Result of Alabama-Texas A&M

Alabama and Texas A&M renew their burgeoning SEC rivalry this Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide play host in a matchup that provided plenty of fireworks in recent seasons. 

Past showdowns between Alabama and the Aggies featured two of the biggest names in college football—AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel—and drew massive national television audiences. Onlookers included top-tier recruits, and their image of each program was at least partially defined by these games.

This latest showdown again warrants an expansive stage. Both programs aim to strengthen their postseason hopes and provide a showcase for interested prospects. While both teams tune up for the contest, we put the focus on high school players who should have significant interest in the outcome. 

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College Football Picks Week 8: B/R's Expert Predictions for Top 5 Games

Week 8 of the 2014 college football season features several great matchups, one of which has the potential to be the best game of the year.

Florida State will host Notre Dame on Saturday night, looking to prove it is still the No. 1 team in the country after dropping a spot to Mississippi State last week.

Will the Seminoles contain Everett Golson, or will the Fighting Irish shock the oddsmakers and upset the reigning national champions?

The second-biggest showdown of the week pits Texas A&M against Alabama. Both teams have struggled as of late, but the last few times these teams have met, it has been an epic clash.

What will the 2014 edition bring?

In the Big 12, TCU hopes to get back on track after a devastating loss to Baylor last week, and Kansas State has an opportunity to show it is a legit contender for the conference crown when it takes on Oklahoma.  

Last but not least: The final game of the night is out West, where Stanford faces a tough task of trying to shut down a talented Arizona State offense.

Ben Kercheval continues to hold the top spot among our experts. Can anyone catch up to him this week?

Let us know your picks in the comments below!

 

Reminder: Our experts are picking the top five Saturday games against the spread.

Odds via opening lines at Odds Shark.

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Notre Dame vs. Florida State Is Legacy Game for Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly has already solidified his reputation as a program builder. On Saturday night, he has a chance to start building a new reputation: Big-Game Hunter. 

That Kelly quickly turned around Central Michigan, pushed Cincinnati into the BCS spotlight and returned Notre Dame to the national conversation is one thing. But to head to Tallahassee with his young football team and beat the defending national champs? That's a legacy-defining win. 

That the Irish are a double-digit underdog (with the gigantic caveat being Jameis Winston's availability) shows a healthy amount of skepticism for Notre Dame's 6-0 start. Part of that is the less-than-impressive football the Irish have played these last three weeks. Another part is Notre Dame's schedule, which was supposed to be daunting. So far, it's been nothing but paper tigers. 

But history isn't on the Irish's side, either. Since 1998, Notre Dame is just 1-16 against Associated Press Top Five teams, with the Irish losing by an average of more than three touchdowns. (The lone victory? Charlie Weis' 2005 upset over No. 3 Michigan, a Wolverines team that fell apart and went 7-5.)

Add to that the 42-14 thumping Notre Dame took in the BCS title game against Alabama two seasons ago, and you can't blame some for pre-writing their game story.

Lumping Kelly into that legacy of futility isn't necessarily fair. But that doesn't mean it isn't fair game. 

"That's how you're measured as a program when you're talking top five teams," Kelly said Tuesday. "Those are the games that you want to win, certainly.

"But I think before I got here, I don't know that we had a top-25 win. So we're moving up the ladder and certainly want to get to that point where we're talking about beating top five teams."

Nothing happens quietly at Notre Dame. But without many people noticing it, Kelly has turned this football program into one that's an awful lot like a national power. 

Dominance at home? When Kelly took over the program, Notre Dame Stadium was a visitor's delight. Charlie Weis lost his final two games at Notre Dame Stadium to Navy and UConn, and only won one November home game in his final three seasons. 

Kelly didn't start fast at Notre Dame Stadium, either. He lost to Michigan, Stanford and Tulsa in his first season. And in 2011, even with music pumping into the stadium and the first night game in 21 years, the Irish laid an egg against USC, losing 31-17 in front of dozens of high-profile recruits. 

But since then, the Irish have gotten things rolling. They've won 17 of their last 18 games at home, their lone loss to Bob Stoops' 2013 Oklahoma team that beat Alabama by two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. That dominance has likely led to Kelly getting something he wanted, FieldTurf to match the practice fields—and team speed—of his upgraded roster. 

Defending their home turf is one thing. Playing big in road games is another. Since Everett Golson took over, the Irish have done just that. While prepping for a bowl game that included an almost seven-week layoff is one thing, Kelly and Golson have thrived away from home under more normal circumstances. Before a Top Five victory was the elusive goal, Notre Dame went to East Lansing in 2012 and knocked off No. 10 Michigan State, their first victory over a Top 10 opponent in seven years.

Then Kelly and the Irish did the same in late October. As double-digit underdogs (sound familiar?), Golson and Notre Dame put together a complete performance, handing No. 8 Oklahoma a 30-13 defeat in Norman and giving Bob Stoops just his fifth home loss in 83 games. It's a victory that Kelly will lean on as his team goes through final preparations this week. 

"I think that's a similar environment that we'll go into and we're preparing in that vein," Kelly said Tuesday.

All respect to Landry Jones and the Sooners, but he's not Jameis Winston and they weren't the Seminoles. And while the solutions to Notre Dame's problems lay inward—mostly, not turning the football over—Kelly feels confident that his young team won't feel Saturday's stage is too big.  

"This group does not strike me as one where they're going to go down to Florida State and be affected by the crowd," Kelly said. "So I'm more concerned about our self‑inflicted wounds than I am what may happen because of the environment. They're a pretty focused group on what they need to do. We just need to make sure that we don't make the mistakes we've made over the last few weeks."

While it makes for a great sound bite, Notre Dame's past struggles against Top Five teams certainly won't dictate future performance. After all, as B/R's Mike Monaco points out, the Irish haven't been in a Top Five matchup since 1996, when most of this team was still in diapers. 

In his fifth season in South Bend, Kelly's team may be young, but his program is ready for this moment. And while Saturday will answer questions about this young Irish squad, it offers a great opportunity for Kelly to start legacy building. 

"What a challenge it's going to be to go down there and take on the defending national champs," Kelly said Wednesday on his ACC conference call. "That's why you play these games. You want to be part of them."

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.  

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13 College Football Players on Pace to Break FBS Records in 2014

With the college football season at its halfway point, it is not too early to extrapolate players' numbers and see what kind of records they are on pace for.

Nonconference play is over—which ostensibly means the best players will face harder competition in the second half of the year—but that doesn't always translate directly to the box score. For some players, production stays the same throughout the season.

This list only includes players who are on pace for FBS records and omits those who may break conference- and program-specific marks. This was done for the sake of brevity, since at this point, too many players are on track to break lesser records.

This list also doesn't claim to be absolute. A thorough attempt was made to track down as many players as possible who are on pace to break FBS records, but there's a chance some were missed.

If you spot an omission, feel free to post it in the comments. Valid omissions will be added.

Enjoy!

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10 Biggest Questions Facing Top 25 Teams Heading into Week 8

The halfway point of the college football season is here. The weather is cooling down, but the playoff race is heating up. Contenders and pretenders in every conference are starting to form.

For yet another week, there are some critical SEC games. But don't forget about the Big 12, which features two games between Top 25 teams plus a potential trap game for Baylor.

Then there's the game of the week: Notre Dame at Florida State in a Top 10 showdown. 

Which storylines are the most important heading into Week 8? The answers are in the following slides. 

The only criterion here is that one of the teams involved has to rank in either the Associated Press poll or the Amway coaches poll.

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Predicting College Football's Biggest Headlines for Week 8

Week 8 of the college football season is upon us, which means a whole slew of new storylines await. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee, Adam Kramer and Michael Felder pick their biggest headlines for Week 8 in the video above. 

What will stand out most after Week 8? Watch and let us know!

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Updated Heisman Odds: Is It Dak Prescott's Trophy to Lose?

The Heisman picture continues to get clearer as the season draws on, but we could have some spoilers who may very well play their way to New York City for the Heisman Ceremony. Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer gives us his updated Heisman odds.

Who will win the Heisman this year?

Watch the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Emergence of Power Run Game Is Alabama's Key to Victory over Texas A&M

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Austin Shepherd didn’t mince words when asked about the Alabama offensive line’s performance in Saturday’s 14-13 win over Arkansas.

“Personally, I thought I played terrible,” the senior right tackle said. “I kind of take responsibility for it. I don’t think any of us had a good game. Probably the worst game we’ve played as a unit just to be straight up. I mean, I thought we were prepared. We just kind of didn’t execute like we wanted to.

“I went back and watched it and it was kind of just one person here and there. I mean, one play I give up a sack, the next play Cam (Robinson) gives up a pressure, the next play right guard gives up pressure—just a lot of inconsistency. We just got to be more consistent.”

That’s been a common theme so far in 2014. Alabama’s trademark on offense during Nick Saban’s time in Tuscaloosa has been an ability to pound opponents into submission in the running game.

It’s been largely missing in 2014.

But that power run game and the ability to put it all together will be key to an Alabama victory this week over Texas A&M.

The Crimson Tide’s running game was a big reason why they survived a shootout last season in College Station. It allowed Alabama to better control the the tempo of the game and keep Johnny Manziel off the field.

In that game, Alabama rushed for 234 yards. In Alabama’s last two games this year, however, the Crimson Tide have rushed for 234 yards combined.

Alabama is averaging 4.91 yards per rush this season, which puts it at just No. 37 in the country. That average is its lowest total since 2008.

So what’s the problem?

It has to begin and end up front with the offensive line. Where Alabama has had physical maulers who could impose their will on front sevens in the past, this year’s group hasn’t been so intimidating.

Center Ryan Kelly’s absence has hurt. Bradley Bozeman has had to play in the last two games. Right guard is still a mix of Leon Brown and Alphonse Taylor, neither of whom has yet to take control of the starting position.

Saban says it’s a matter of technique.

“It wasn’t that we weren’t blocking the right guys, it’s more that we weren’t finishing the blocks,” he said. “We would get on the guy, the guy would slip us, come off and make the tackle. That’s the big thing that we need to do up front. Same thing in pass protection. We overset them, we get beat inside, just basic fundamental execution needs to be better and we need to finish better.”

Shepherd agreed.

“I mean, just technique really,” Shepherd said. “For instance on my play, just the wrong set. I watched some guys' wrong technique. We’re in an outside zone, and they just overreached the linebacker, and the running back cuts back and the guy’s in the hole. I mean, just little stuff. If we had done little things right, we would’ve been fine, but it just didn’t happen, and we’ve got to fix all that.”

The Crimson Tide have also been without one of their top playmaking running backs. Kenyan Drake broke his leg against Ole Miss and will miss the rest of the season. He was averaging 5.09 yards per carry, which is the highest among regular running backs right now.

“It's been tough,” junior running back T.J. Yeldon said. “We really could use him. He was our speed guy, we could use him out wide. But things happen and we just have to move on.”

If there was a game for Alabama to put it all together and run the ball at will, this would be it. Texas A&M’s offense operates quickly and efficiently, and there’s no better way to counter that than by keeping it off the field as much as possible.

Alabama is capable of doing that. It just hasn’t shown that yet this season.

 

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

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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LSU Quarterback Dilemma: Who Should Les Miles Start Under Center?

Would you trade short-term success for potential long-term riches? LSU head coach Les Miles must answer this question when choosing his starting quarterback for each game this season.

Miles' current starter, Anthony Jennings, is average. His numbers against Florida were a mediocre 10-of-21 for 110 yards and a touchdown. His numbers on the season are not that much better.

The other option under center is true freshman Brandon Harris, who has better tools than Jennings in every aspect of quarterbacking. Harris got his opportunity to be the guy in LSU's previous game against Auburn but struggled mightily.

Miles said he wanted to get Harris on the field against the Gators, but the opportunity did not present itself.

"We wanted to play Brandon Harris, I did, certainly coach (offensive coordinator Cam) Cameron did, just what happens you get in those tight games, the win and the necessary momentum doesn't present itself and so what you say is, let's go with Anthony," said Miles, per LSU Sports Information.

Miles probably sees a lot of himself in Jennings. They both are not flashy, but when the game is on the line, they will more than likely come through with victory.

No coach in the SEC has been better at coming from behind than Miles. ESPN Stats & Info has the stat to prove it:

Jennings' best attribute is also Miles', which is finding a way to win the fourth quarter. He has thrown clutch touchdowns against Arkansas, Wisconsin and Florida.

However, Jennings' timely play has not been enough to solidify himself as the starter.

 

Who Has More Potential? 

Miles must look at the big picture when looking at the quarterback position.

Jennings has a similar, but slightly better, career trajectory than Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen. They are serviceable starters who struggle to complete half of their passes and have limited skill sets.

On the other hand, Harris could be a better version of Auburn's Nick Marshall. Harris has an elite arm and amazing escapability with his legs. Cameron would certainly have more playbook flexibility with the true freshman.

Harris can, and probably will, be a better quarterback than Jennings if given equal opportunity.

 

How Should Miles Distribute the Snaps?

Miles must weigh his short- and long-term goals. He and his staff can hopefully see this year's team will not win championships, so he must make a tough choice.

Jennings' triumph in The Swamp has made the situation more complicated. He led the team to its only SEC victory, so giving Harris meaningful snaps could send the wrong message.

Miles also knows he has reached a national championship with average, yet steady, quarterbacking in the past, but he must understand that is unlikely to happen again.

Miles can shorten the game with Jennings by pounding the rock with Leonard Fournette and keeping the score close. When Miles needs a clutch pass to win the game, he can trust Jennings to come through—basically the same blueprint against Florida.

Or Miles can give Harris another chance against SEC opposition. He is the likelier quarterback to lead a team to a championship. The true freshman has a fourth-quarter comeback of his own against Mississippi State, though it did not result in victory.

A two-quarterback system is not out of the question either.

Miles has used Jordan Jefferson and Ryan Perrilloux in the past with certain packages to get them on the field. That could easily happen with Harris in the next couple of games.

 

Conclusion

There is no clear way Miles should handle this complex situation.

The development of quarterbacks has never been Miles' coaching expertise. And the Valley Shook!'s Paul Crewe agrees, stating that the average season of a QB who was recruited and developed by Miles has been abysmal.

How Miles brings along Jennings and Harris will determine if LSU can challenge for SEC Championships again.

Miles could play Jennings for the rest of the season and allow Harris—with a season of Cameron's offense under his belt—a chance to win the job in the offseason. But if Harris succeeds in doing so, then valuable game experience that could have gone to the true freshman would be wasted.

Miles could also follow what Mississippi State's Dan Mullen did with Dak Prescott.

Prescott played sparingly in his freshman year, shared snaps and starts with a less talented Tyler Russell as a sophomore and then became the unquestioned leader of a No. 1 team destined for a spot in the College Football Playoff as a junior.

Harris' eventual development into a Prescott-level player is not as far-fetched as one might think, especially considering that some of his fellow freshmen will have likely matured into NFL-level playmakers by the time they are juniors. 

Miles will be under immense pressure to make a College Football Playoff appearance with his 2014 class, which features Harris and Fournette, at some point.

Miles' 100 wins in Baton Rouge, the loaded SEC West and the Tigers' 18 early entries into the NFL draft over the past two seasons have bought him a "down year." As long as he reaches a bowl game in 2014, which only requires one more victory, this season will not be a disaster.

Legendary coaches are not remembered for eight and- nine-win seasons but for championships.

If Miles feels playing Harris—even if it means benching the better quarterback to win now in Jennings—is better for the success of the program in the long term, he should do it.

Barring a miracle transfer or recruit, LSU's starting quarterback in 2015 and 2016 will either be Harris or Jennings. How Miles manages their snaps this season could determine how things play out in the future.

 

Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information. Recruiting information provided by 247Sports.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow me on Twitter @CarterthePower.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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