NCAA Football News

Is Texas A&M Laying the Foundation for a 2015 SEC West Title Run?

Just one week ago, Texas A&M was viewed more like a pushover than a potential power. 

The Aggies were in the midst of a three-game SEC losing streak, had just narrowly escaped a test from ULM at home and were about to head to then-No. 3 Auburn as three-touchdown underdogs.

Then Kyle Allen and Myles Garrett happened, and everything changed.

Allen, the true freshman quarterback who was making his first career road start, lit up the Tigers to the tune of 277 passing yards, four touchdowns and only one interception in the 41-38 win. The performance earned him SEC Offensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors and gave the offense plenty of confidence heading into the home stretch that includes games against Missouri and LSU.

On the other side of the ball, the true freshman defensive end Garrett made four tackles and was busy lighting up Auburn tackle Shon Coleman, who had no choice but to hold the former 5-star prospect.

Could the Aggies be setting themselves up for an SEC West title run in 2015? Yep. Here's why:

 

Fixing the Major Issue

Is Texas A&M's defense a problem? Yes. It's been that way for the better part of Kevin Sumlin's three seasons as head coach. 

The Aggies finished ninth in the SEC in total defense in 2012 (390.2 YPG), last in 2013 (475.8 YPG) and are 13th this season (431.3 YPG). But as this season has progressed, Garrett has become more and more of a force up front. The Arlington, Texas, native leads the SEC with 11 sacks and has already eclipsed former South Carolina standout Jadeveon Clowney's SEC freshman sack record (eight).

Garrett isn't a one-trick pony. As B/R's Lead College Football Video Analyst Michael Felder points out, Garrett is more a complete and polished force as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper as a freshman than Clowney was, which earned him more playing time early in his career.

A disruptive force like Garrett is a great foundation for a young Aggie defense, which is loaded with youth.

Fellow young defensive linemen Daeshon Hall and Qualen Cunningham have played well at times this year, and the Aggies have a solid incoming class that, as of now, includes 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack. Toss in sophomore linebacker Shaan Washington—who has 44 tackles in seven games, injured sophomore linebacker A.J. Hilliard—who has been out since the opener—and freshman defensive back Armani Watts, and there are plenty of pieces for the Aggie coaching staff to build around.

All of those young players have been inconsistent this season, but having a guy like Garrett taking up real estate in the opposition's backfield will help everybody out—especially the youngsters.

 

A Young, Evolving Offense

The Aggie offense went through a little bit of a lull during the month of October when it averaged 384.3 yards per game and 4.89 yards per play. Things didn't improve in Allen's first start of his career, when they gained just 243 yards and 3.52 yards per play.

Against Auburn, it clicked. 

Allen led the Aggies to 453 total yards and 7.03 yards per play in the win. More importantly, the Aggies showed off a more run-based offense with 35 runs and only 29 passes. That's important, because as I wrote prior to the ULM game, the Aggies had become far too reliant on the passing game, running 110 more plays through the air than on the ground.

Against ULM and Auburn, that changed. The move to Allen ushered in a more balanced approach that saw the staff call 76 running plays and 56 passing plays. It was a big reason for their success on Saturday, as Felder notes:

On top of that, none of the Aggies' running backs are seniors so, unless some bolt early, Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Tra Carson will be back with current freshman James White again next year. 

That receiving corps? It's young, too. Five of the Aggies' top six receivers are underclassmen, including leading receiver Josh Reynolds (sophomore), home run hitter Speedy Noil (freshman) and matchup nightmare Ricky Seals-Jones (freshman).

That's a lot of youth, and those young players are evolving with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital right now. That bodes well for the future.

 

Questions Around the Conference

While the Aggies are young, 2015 will be another year of uncertainty around the SEC West. 

Twelve of Mississippi State's starters are seniors, including receivers Jameon Lewis and Robert Johnson, defensive lineman Preston Smith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney.

Alabama has to replace quarterback Blake Sims and could be without wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon, safety Landon Collins and several other stars who could jump to the NFL.

Auburn will replace quarterback Nick Marshall with Jeremy Johnson, be without running back Cameron Artis-Payne and replace several key pieces on that defensive line, including defensive tackle Gabe Wright.

LSU has major questions at quarterback, Ole Miss will be replacing Bo Wallace and still be in search of a running game and Arkansas is still in the building process.

The path to Atlanta isn't as rocky as it seems for the Aggies in 2015, and the experience young players gained this year will allow them to hit the ground running in Sumlin's fourth season in College Station.

 

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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Will Miami Ruin Florida State's Perfect Season?

The Florida State Seminoles and their perfect record travel to South Beach for a Week 11 showdown with their neighbors, the Miami Hurricanes. Duke Johnson and the 'Canes have every intention of playing spoiler and sending Florida State's season into a tailspin. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss whether Miami can pull off the upset. 

Can the Hurricanes end the Seminoles' chances for back-to-back championships?

Check out the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Can Texas A&M Derail Missouri's SEC Championship Run?

Texas A&M seemed to right the ship with a big win against a tough Auburn team in Week 11. The Aggies turn their attention to Missouri for an SEC showdown in Week 12.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer tell you why the Aggies could be getting back on the right track.

Is Missouri in trouble in the SEC East?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Will Winner of Alabama vs. Miss St. Represent the SEC in the CFP?

Alabama narrowly escaped LSU, but there is no rest for the weary as the Crimson Tide host the Mississippi State Bulldogs in a clash of two top SEC West teams. Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder discuss whether the winner of this game will make it to the College Football Playoff.

Which team has the better chance to win the national championship?

Watch the video, and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Rankings 2014: Week 12 Standings and Top 25 Team Records

We're heading into Week 12 of the college football season, and the nation's hierarchy continues to be very fluid. While some teams continue to establish themselves as true College Football Playoff contenders, others are falling by the wayside after dreadful performances. Polls continue to drastically change as a result.

After an eventful Week 11, we learned that Notre Dame's defense and turnover issues couldn't keep the team near the top of the pecking order. We also learned that teams like Alabama, Oregon and TCU are very much for real after their respective solid showings against ranked opponents. But the question remains: Are they playoff worthy?

Once the dust settled, new polls emerged. Rest assured, they don't much resemble how they looked just one week ago. So, where does your team stand as we head into the final stretch of the season? Here's a look at the nation's Top 25 entering Week 12:

 

Week 12 Marquee Matchup

Mississippi State Bulldogs at Alabama Crimson Tide

The Bulldogs haven't seen a team as complete as Alabama yet this season. Mississippi State has beaten offensive-oriented teams like Auburn and defensive-minded teams like LSU, but it hasn't faced an opponent that can get it done on both sides of the ball like the Crimson Tide.

Blake Sims has emerged as a quality quarterback for Alabama. He's established rapport with wide receiver Amari Cooper, and the duo hooked up eight times for 83 yards and a score against LSU in Week 11. Despite some early struggles from Sims, he stepped up when it counted most, orchestrating decisive late-game drives.

ESPN Stats & Info tweeted his numbers during those defining moments:

Meanwhile, T.J. Yeldon provided nice balance on the ground, averaging 4.5 yards per carry against a stout Tigers defense.

On the other side of the ball, the Crimson Tide stifled Anthony Jennings and the LSU offense. Jennings completed just eight of his 26 pass attempts and the Tigers averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on the ground.

All of this was accomplished against a team that took down Ole Miss just one week prior. It's safe to say Alabama has hit its stride in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Mississippi State remains unbeaten, but the team hasn't been without hiccups. Quarterback Dak Prescott has been a phenomenal dual-threat player this season, but turnovers have recently become an issue. Prior to his Week 11 contest against UT-Martin, he had tossed five interceptions in his previous three contests.

His strength remains in his ability to move the chains with his legs. College GameDay tweeted a very impressive stat regarding the quarterback's ground attack:

Unfortunately, that aspect of Prescott's game may not be quite as effective in Week 12 against an Alabama run defense ranked first in the nation, allowing an average of just 76.36 yards per game on the ground, according to NCAA.com

The Bulldogs defense hasn't been the most consistent squad this season. It melted down at times this year, allowing 34 points to UAB, 29 to LSU, 31 to Texas A&M and 31 to Kentucky. Giving up anything close to 30 points against Alabama will almost assure Mississippi State of a loss—the Crimson Tide's defense hasn't allowed more than 23 points in a single contest this season.

Nick Saban's squad is rolling right now, and home-field advantage gives all the more reason to expect one less undefeated squad heading into Week 13.

Prediction: Alabama 30, Mississippi State 23

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College Football Playoff 2014: Final Predictions for Week 12 CFB System Rankings

Week 11 saw six games pitting ranked teams against each other, meaning that the current College Football Playoff picture was going to see a significant shake-up.  Sure enough, following Texas A&M's upset of Auburn and statement wins from TCU and Ohio State, pinning down a clear top four is as difficult as it has been the whole season.

With the Associated Press and Bleacher Report polls out, we should have a relative idea of the changes the playoff committee is most likely to make.  Before the committee releases its Week 12 updates on Tuesday, let's project the potential Top 25, while also taking a look at some of the most controversial teams.

 

Baylor Bears

Even though Trevor Knight's injury aided Baylor's win in Norman, a 48-14 road win over Oklahoma is an extremely impressive victory under any circumstances. While the Bears beat fellow Big 12 co-leader TCU earlier this season, virtually every projection currently places the Horned Frogs ahead of the Bears.

However, if both teams win out, that head-to-head victory could be Baylor's trump card.  As ESPN's Jake Trotter relays, the Big 12 committee may recommend the Bears over TCU on the strength of that memorable three-touchdown comeback on Oct. 11:

Two Big 12 officials explained to ESPN.com that should two teams tie atop the standings, the league would push for the playoff committee to take the head-to-head winner. 

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock reiterated to ESPN.com Sunday that the committee will review a number of factors, including head-to-head, but that "if a conference has co-champions, the committee will take that into consideration." Yet he also added that, "conferences will advise the committee who their champions are." 

Though Baylor continues to break scoreboards, leading the nation with 50.1 points per game, it's the Bears defense that has legitimized them as championship contenders.  Art Briles has rebuilt a long slipshod defense, to the point where the unit ranks 12th in Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) ratings.

It's unlikely that both TCU and Baylor could squeeze into the field, unless the SEC continues to knock out its contenders while either prohibitive favorites Florida State or Oregon falters.  Baylor does play a tricky season finale at home against Kansas State, but if the Bears sweep the table, the conference would appear likely to vouch for them over higher-ranked TCU.

 

Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes were largely written off after their dispiriting Week 2 loss against Virginia Tech, a defeat that looks increasingly embarrassing as the Hokies flounder at 4-5.  However, with a shockingly dominant 49-37 win at East Lansing, Ohio State has established itself as the Big Ten's only realistic playoff contender.

Behind freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes have improved more than nearly any other team in the nation.  ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. believes that Ohio State's progression should play a role in determining their playoff fate, even with a mediocre resume (subscription required):

So while the model reflects the résumé, I think each week you're going to get an improved version of this team. Case in point was on Saturday. I think the September version of Ohio State gets beaten by 20 in Spartan Stadium. But this is a different team, and I think the Buckeyes are well ahead of anybody left on their schedule -- including any of the teams from the West Division. If OSU wins out, the committee will be able to see that they haven't lost a game since Sept. 6, and like the bracket selection committee for college hoops, I think they'll have to consider what this team is now, not just the overall profile.

Ohio State may represent the committee's first great challenge of how much weight should be placed on the entire season versus a team's recent form.  Football Perspective's Chase Stuart, one of the smartest statheads around, still believes that the overall meager resume weighs down whatever improvements the Buckeyes have made:

Apart from this Saturday's contest at Minnesota, the Buckeyes do not really have an opportunity to score any remotely impressive wins.  If Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland are the most impressive wins, does that stack up against a one-loss Big 12 champ or even a two-loss SEC squad?

 

Arizona State Sun Devils

In pummeling Everett Golson and Notre Dame to the tune of four interceptions and seven sacks, Arizona State established itself as legitimate playoff contenders.  The Sun Devils will likely be in the second tier behind the established top four, but if they win out, it is hard to imagine the committee leaving out the would-be 12-1 Pac-12 champs, as NFL.com's Bryan Fischer opines:

ASU would own wins over seven teams who were ranked at the time they played, at least five of whom will probably finish in the top 20 at the end of the regular season. Blowing out Notre Dame helps tremendously from a star-power standpoint, and a win against 11-1 Oregon in the Pac-12 title game would be the most impressive win on the slate. Mix in the fact that their one loss came on a Thursday night when their backup quarterback was making his first start -- and to a good team in UCLA that might finish in the top 10 -- and Arizona State has a good argument they should be in with a few more wins.

A potential two-game finale at Arizona and Oregon would represent one of the toughest finishes any team will face this season, including the SEC contenders.  However, behind a defense that has steadily improved as the season has progressed, the Sun Devils are achieving the balance crucial for any playoff hopeful:

The extremely difficult closing stretch still makes Arizona State a long shot to reach the top four.  But they are one of the few teams in the nation who could win out and almost surely receive a playoff berth, an enviable position that makes the Sun Devils a team to track closely.

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Would You Rather: Week 12 Edition

With Week 12 upon us, there are many questions to be answered about the college football season. Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee, Michael Felder and Adam Kramer answer some of college football's hottest questions. 

Would you rather have the BCS or the playoff committee?

Watch the video and let us know!

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The Most Important Stat for Every College Football Playoff Contender

How in the world did No. 8 Michigan State—a team averaging 45 points per game and limiting opponents to 23—lose 49-37 at home to No. 14 Ohio State?

Consider this: Over the last seven games, the Buckeyes have been almost 10 percent more successful than the Spartans on third-down attempts.

It’s one of the underlying difference-makers in Ohio State’s statement-making win, and it illustrates that there is more to statistics than what’s listed on the top line.

Here’s a look at 10 contenders and 10 dig-deeper stats, all which underscore how each squad has gotten to one loss or better.

If these teams can keep burning it up in these sometimes underappreciated categories, they may wind up playing for the big, cheesy enchilada on Jan. 12, 2015.

 

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Bowl Projections 2014: College Football Playoff Predictions Heading into Week 12

Another flurry of landscape-altering results shook up the College Football Playoff picture in Week 11. But heading into Week 12, it doesn't feel like the field has narrowed at all. 

That's because while hopefuls such as Notre Dame, Auburn and Kansas State fell out of the picture, teams such as TCU, Arizona State and Ohio State made their cases a lot stronger with wins. So as Week 12's intriguing slate gets going, the eyes of the college football world will shift to which teams fall out of the running this week. 

Despite all of the action left to take place, here's a complete projected field for the tournament based upon remaining schedule, current playing level and poll placement:

 

The Projected Field

All four contenders in this projected field have one thing in common: If they win out, they will be conference champions. 

Florida State remains the most obvious choice to earn a berth in the playoff. It has already navigated the most difficult roadblocks on the schedule. With wins over Louisville on the road and Clemson already in hand, it's hard to argue there's a more sure bet to be included in the field of four. 

Alabama sits one game behind the No. 1-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs heading into this weekend. But that will all change if the Tide come through on their favored status. According to Odds Shark, Nick Saban's team is a seven-point favorite to spoil the Bulldogs' undefeated record. 

A win over the No. 1 ranked team in the country might not completely make up for Bama's loss to Ole Miss, but a win in the SEC Championship Game over the East representative certainly would. 

As College GameDay pointed out on Twitter, the Oregon Ducks bear a strong resemblance to the Tide when it comes to their resumes:

Behind Marcus Mariota's leadership, the Ducks have more than atoned for their strange loss to Arizona. Mark Helfrich's offense has helped them win five straight games by 12 points or more. 

Rounding out the field will be an interesting choice for the committee if everything plays out as one would expect. TCU and Baylor teams with 11-1 records would provide an interesting dilemma.

On one hand, TCU's out-of-conference strength of schedule was better than Baylor's. The Frogs' 30-7 win over Minnesota was big for them in that regard. However, as Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports pointed out, that advantage might mean less and less as the committee focuses on head-to-head matchups toward the end of the season:

 

Outside Looking In

Unfortunately, the College Football Playoff is being rolled out in a year that features a lot of parity. That means some good football teams with resumes similar to the those of their playoff-bound counterparts will be left out in the cold. 

In that scenario, the headliners would be Mississippi State and TCU.

The Bulldogs would be especially disappointed to be shut out of the tournament now. Their 9-0 record is an incredible turnaround after being 4-5 at this point last season. However, they may be victims of unfortunate timing. 

Losing this late in the season to Alabama would be detrimental to the team's hopes of staying atop the polls. With no shot at a conference championship game in that scenario, Dak Prescott and the Dogs would have little opportunity to prove they belong outside of convincingly beating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. 

Coming out on the losing end of the Big 12 debate in that scenario would be TCU. As Gary Patterson told Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Frogs took a big step forward in their quest toward the tournament:

However the head-to-head loss could still be their undoing. With a tricky game at Texas representing their only opportunity to wow voters until the field is announced, the Frogs may also be victims of timing. 

Of course, all is not lost for the Frogs quite yet. While both Baylor and TCU were impressive this week, the Bears still have to beat the Wildcats themselves. They close out the season by hosting Kansas State on Dec. 6. A loss for Baylor would all but guarantee a spot for an 11-1 TCU team in the playoff. 

But that assumes TCU will finish the season without slipping up. With several weeks left on the schedule and a round of conference championship games on the horizon, the only safe assumption is that no team has punched its ticket quite yet. 

There's still plenty of time for things to get weird. 

 

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Cal vs. USC: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

Two of the nation's most prolific offenses collide Thursday in a Pac-12 showdown between the California Golden Bears and the USC Trojans.

A trying season for the 6-3 Trojans begins an explosive finishing stretch with a home stand against a surprisingly game Golden Bears team thirsty for an upset to highlight a great season.

Sonny Dykes' team rests at 5-4 and a is single victory away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. There is certainly no time like the present to grab their first win over the Trojans since 2003 in a rivalry that has seen the two programs clash 101 times before Thursday night.

Sit back and prepare for an entertaining ride as two explosive offenses aim to outgun one another beneath the national spotlight.

 

Old West Shootout

A quote from USC coach Steve Sarkisian says it all when it comes to Thursday's showdown.

“We are going to play a team that if we don’t score 35, you are not in the game,” Sarkisian said, per Lindsey Thiry of The Los Angeles Times. “So we better be ready to play.”

That is not an exaggeration by any means, either. The Golden Bears score the ninth-most points in the nation on average at 41.9 behind the arm of sophomore quarterback Jared Goff. The second-year starter has completed 62.6 percent of his passes this year and has 3,119 yards and 27 touchdowns to just four interceptions.

Those numbers are video game-esque, and so too are the 458 yards and seven touchdowns he tossed in a single game earlier this season against Colorado.

Complementing Goff is junior back Daniel Lasco, who has 796 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 5.4 per-carry average, which helps to round out one of the nation's most potent attacks.

USC is no slouch offensively, though.

The Trojans average 34.9 points per game and are led by junior quarterback Cody Kessler, who has thrown four or more touchdowns in four games this season. He also has a seven-touchdown performance—which also came against that poor Colorado team.

More impressive, though, has been the talented backfield behind the signal-caller:

Considering the Golden Bears come in at No. 122 in the nation with an average of 39.9 points allowed per game, Kessler and his stable of talented runners should have few issues keeping pace in an offensive-minded showdown.

Whether it is enough to take the win outright is certainly a question worth asking.

 

Killer Instinct

The Trojans seem to beat themselves at times, plain and simple. Like any coach would, Sarkisian blames himself, as captured by Michael Lev of the Orange County Register:

I still in my heart of hearts believe we should have won those games. But we didn’t. I think it’s about developing a mindset. It’s about developing a culture of a killer instinct, of competing for 60 minutes with relentless effort and execution. And I haven’t done a good enough job of developing that yet.

We obviously found a way to not win those two games. That falls solely on me in getting our team prepared for those moments. I have to do a better job.

Sarkisian's frustration makes sense. In a Pac-12 loss to Arizona State earlier this year, the Trojans gave up a lead in the final frame to lose by four to a team starting a backup quarterback. Two games ago, a Utah touchdown with eight seconds left handed the Trojans a three-point loss.

Simply put, the Trojans are not closers this season against quality opposition, a scary factor as the young roster may also overlook the Golden Bears with games against rivals UCLA and Notre Dame to close the season.

California is quite aware of the situation. Should the Golden Bears keep the pedal down for all four quarters, an upset is not that far outside of the realm of possibility.

 

When: Thursday, November 13, 9 p.m. ET

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: N/A
  • Spread: USC (-12)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

As great as California has been this season in the surprise department, the defense is a serious issue that cannot be simply glossed over when it comes to this matchup.

This is a program that needed two overtime periods to beat Colorado while scoring 59 points, then needed 60 points a week later to upend 3-7 Washington State by just a single point (the same team USC just picked apart, 44-17).

Kessler rarely turns the ball over and pads his stats in dramatic fashion whenever he encounters a miserable pass defense. The Golden Bears certainly qualify, so expect a big game from the quarterback as the Trojans jump out to an early lead and never look back.

Prediction: USC 45, California 34

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Auburn vs. Georgia

This is the game that has been marked on the calendar since last season. The Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers will do battle between the hedges on Saturday night and it’s a crucial game for both teams in order to have a chance to win the SEC.

Auburn is coming off a tough home loss to Texas A&M while the Bulldogs are coming off a dominating road win against Kentucky.

According to Oddsshark.com, the Bulldogs come into the game as a 2.5-point favorite. But that really doesn’t mean anything because both teams are very similar to one another, so it might come down to who has the ball last, just like last year.

Here are the three biggest x-factors for this very important SEC contest.

 

Nick Marshall

This will be a very emotional game for Nick Marshall. The senior quarterback played for the Bulldogs in 2011 as a cornerback, but he was kicked off the team before the 2012 season.

Marshall played one year of junior college ball as a quarterback before transferring to Auburn, and the rest is history.

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing because of Marshall’s ability to run. Along with him and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, the Tigers average 286 rushing yards per game and both have scored a combined 20 touchdowns on the ground.

But Marshall can throw from the pocket also. He has thrown for 14 touchdowns and completed 61 percent of his passes.

He is going up against a Bulldogs team that is fifth in the conference in pass defense and leads the conference in turnover margin. So in order for the Tigers to score on offense, Marshall will have to make good decisions in the pocket and be able to make plays with his legs.

 

Hutson Mason

Hutson Mason has waited a long time for a game like this.

As a starter, Mason has an 8-3 record, but he does not have that signature win.

Mason has taken a lot of heat for his play this season, but he has thrown for 15 touchdowns, five interceptions and has a completion percentage of 69. Also, he’s coming off his best performance of the season where he threw four touchdowns and no interceptions against Kentucky.

The Tigers are ranked near the bottom of the SEC in pass defense, giving up 256 yards per game. So Mason has a great opportunity to make some plays through the air and lead the Bulldogs to a much-needed SEC win.

 

Todd Gurley

But as important a player as Mason is to the Bulldogs, the best player on the entire field will make his return after missing the last four games due to a suspension by the NCAA.

Todd Gurley is back and he will be more than ready to pick up where he left off a month ago. Before he was suspended, Gurley was leading the SEC in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, rushing yards per game and yards per carry.

Richt on when Gurley will play: "First offensive play, you'll see Gurley. I can promise you that. ...Todd Gurley is the starting tailback."

— Marc Weiszer (@marcweiszer) November 11, 2014

There is no telling how much he will play because Nick Chubb has exceeded expectations. But there is no question Gurley will be on the field in key situations.

The Bulldogs went 3-1 without Gurley in the lineup, so they proved they can win without him. However, this game is on another level compared to the rest of the games this season. If big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, then Gurley needs to be a part of it. He has played well in games like this so many times during his career.

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Pac-12 Football: Ranking the Most Dynamic Defensive Players so Far This Year

It should come as no surprise that Pac-12 offenses are soaring once again in 2014 behind dynamic quarterbacks, breakthrough running backs and a host of other points-scoring weapons.

But the league also boasts the strongest collection of defensive talent in recent years, something that may be going relatively unnoticed in today's how-fast-can-you-light-up-the-scoreboard game.

The top three sack leaders in the country hail from the Pac-12. There are at least four or five linebackers who will be starting in the NFL someday. When you consider these offenses having to go up against the Oregon's and Arizona State's of the college football world, the production becomes all the more impressive.

We're taking a look now at the most dynamic defensive players so far this year. Tons of names were considered and only five were chosen. NFL potential and physical attributes have no weight; this is all about how players have performed this season and what kind of impact they've made on the field in 2014.

Click ahead to check out the five most dynamic defensive players in the Pac-12 thus far, and let us know who's missing or who could jump on to the list by the end of the season!

 

All stats via cfbstats.com. Just missed: DE Leonard Williams, LB Su'a Cravens, DT Danny Shelton, S Erick Dargan

 

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Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Wisconsin Badgers Complete Game Preview

Since the beginning of the season, Wisconsin football fans have circled the Nov. 15 Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Wisconsin Badgers game as the de facto Big Ten West championship game (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).  With three Big Ten games left for both teams, they both sit at 4-1, tied for the lead of the division.  

If this isn't exactly what fans expected, then I don't know what is.

While both teams are tied for the lead of the Big Ten, both have taken rather circuitous paths to this spot.  The Badgers lost on opening day to LSU and inexplicably lost at Northwestern in one of the sloppiest games on record.

The Cornhuskers didn't exactly roll through their fairly weak nonconference slate, needing some late-game heroics from star tailback Ameer Abdullah to put away FCS McNeese State.  The Cornhuskers' only loss came to Michigan State in East Lansing, a game where they looked terrible for 50 or so minutes before cutting the deficit at the end.

Both teams have some real strengths, particularly in their ability to get to the quarterback and running the ball; however, both teams have seen wild inconsistency in the passing game.

With these teams playing for the first Freedom Trophy because the Big Ten needs another trophy game, let's take a look at the keys to success and players to watch for each team.  We'll also take a look at what the coaches and players are saying for each team and make a prediction.

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ASU's Todd Graham: The Smartest Bad Hire in College Football History

Everybody knows that when it comes to college football, even the gods choose sides. There are Winners and Losers, by divine right.

Nobody considers Todd Graham to be a holy figure. But he was brought in to change the gods' minds about Arizona State football, a team whose place has been to get to the Big Game and then to blow it, to get its fingertips to the mountaintop before someone stomps on them.

When Arizona State hired him three years ago, it was a perfect match of a bumbling athletic department and carpetbagging coach. They would both get what they deserved. Somehow, that turned out to be a perfect fit. The gods? Well, this year Arizona State beat USC on, yes, a Hail Mary. It beat Utah when a top kicker missed a short field goal in overtime. And now, it crushed God's team, Notre Dame, 55-31 on Saturday.

It was like Lucy trying to pull back on the football and Charlie Brown drilling a 50-yard field goal anyway. It was the Chicago Cubs beating the New York Yankees in a big moment, if you can imagine it. (As a Chicagoan, I can't).

ASU figures to be ranked seventh or eighth in the College Football Playoff poll Tuesday and is suddenly in the national championship conversation. Is this a great moment for an I-told-you-so from Graham?

"How the search went here, the expectations of who they were going to hire … (fans thought) 'Who did we hire?' " Graham said last week on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference. "They really didn't know who I was. Didn't know much about me. It just wasn't a lot of positives."

Arizona State thought it was going to get June Jones, or possibly Kevin Sumlin. Somehow, those deals fell through. Even more amazing is that school officials, being publicly ridiculed during the search, landed on Graham.

Just five years earlier, Graham quit his job at Rice after just one season. He was named Conference USA Coach of the Year, signed a contract extension and then…left for Tulsa. Rice was so angry that its band put together a performance called Todd Graham's Inferno the next year when Tulsa, and Graham, came to town. Yes, that was a reference to Dante's Inferno, and Dante's trip to the pit of hell.

He later left Tulsa for Pitt, where he stayed—again—one year before going to Arizona State. He literally slipped out of Pittsburgh in the middle of the night, only telling his players he was gone with a text that said (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), "The timing of the circumstances have prohibited me from telling you directly…"

Graham is not a study in disloyalty or anti-commitment as people have labeled. Sure, he has done some sneaky things, treated his players poorly. But coaches shouldn't be expected to stick around in any job longer than they want, longer than it seems like the right place to be.

He isn't even a symbol of the greed of college football, as people have also portrayed Graham. He is just a guy who has left a job as soon as a better one came along. Be honest: You would do the same thing. You know, too, that loyalty from your employer lasts until roughly .05 seconds after an investor starts getting nervous. And one-sided loyalty just makes you a sucker.

Understandably, Arizona State has been an I'll-believe-it-when-you-prove it football fan base. That's fair. Why shouldn't it be? The point is: It is safe to buy in now. A piano is not about to drop out of the sky.

ASU was 5-40 against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll in the 14 years before Graham arrived. Under Graham, it is 7-6, including 7-3 the past two years.

It's not easy to just start believing. Earlier this season, quarterback Taylor Kelly injured his foot. And in the first game without him, ASU was humiliated at home by UCLA. The gods! Nope, that was ASU's only loss. Now, Kelly is back. And the defense was harassing Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson all night.

So it's time to loosen up, Arizona State fans. College football is built on passion. The ABCs of the sport are Argument, Bias and Chaos. And those things are exactly the reason people were wrong in thinking that the school had made the wrong hire in Graham.

The guy wins everywhere he goes. He just happens to go as soon as he wins. That's OK. Loyalty and longevity are not required to make for a highly successful coach, or program, anymore.

According to The Seattle Times' Bud Withers, his paper ran a poll a few years ago asking readers which Pac-12 school had made the best coaching hire: Washington State (Mike Leach), UCLA (Jim Mora), Arizona (Rich Rodriguez) or Arizona State. Graham pulled in 2.39 percent of the vote.

Graham said he left Pittsburgh because his family never fit in well there. That tells Arizona State fans they are his family now, which suggests long-term loyalty. The problem with that point is back to the ABCs of college football. In a sport built on passion, players and fans think of the program and its coach as part of a family (until he loses). So a winning coach cannot leave to help his family, as if his family is some other entity.

When recruiting, coaches tell parents that the team will be a second family. The coach is the second father. People buy into that. It's mostly just a sales pitch, but coaches believe it when they say it. Then something better comes along. Another family.

So it's time now for the college football world to admit it was wrong about Graham and Arizona State, whether their fit was genius or merely a happy accident. And it's time, too, for ASU fans to see that Graham was the right guy.

That means they'll buy into the ABCs. The irony is that Graham can't hurt you until you buy in. But that's OK. Have fun today and worry about that tomorrow. The long term doesn't apply anymore.

For now, Graham is a loyal member of the family. He is a Sun, well, Devil.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. He also writes for The New York Times and was formerly a scribe for FoxSports.com and the Chicago Sun-Times.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Virginia Tech vs. Duke Complete Game Preview

The Virginia Tech Hokies return to the field on Saturday as they head to Durham, North Carolina, to face No. 19 Duke.

The Hokies (4-5, 1-4 in conference play) are coming off three straight losses and are in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since the 1992 season. 

The Blue Devils (8-1, 4-1 in conference play), the defending Coastal Division champions, appear poised to repeat last year's success.

Duke won last year's meeting, 13-10, thanks to several Virginia Tech turnovers. The Hokies won the previous 12 meetings and lead the all-time series, 13-8. 

  • When: Saturday, November 15, 2014
  • Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, North Carolina
  • Time: Noon ET
  • TV: ESPNU
  • Radio: Virginia Tech IMG Sports Network. Here is a complete list of stations by area.
  • Spread: The Blue Devils are presently six-point favorites, via Odds Shark.

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Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Wisconsin Badgers Complete Game Preview

It's been three years since Nebraska visited Madison, Wisconsin. During that trip, the Huskers fell to the Badgers 48-17. In 2012, Nebraska was able to redeem that loss with a 30-27 win over the Badgers at home, only to receive another big loss at the hands of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

Having only met eight times total, the series is currently tied at four wins apiece. Wisconsin is 7-2 overall this season, while Nebraska is 8-1.

A lot is on the line for this particular matchup. What makes this one different than before is that the two are now in the same division of the Big Ten conference. Whoever wins will likely head to Indianapolis in December for the championship game.

To mark the beginning of what's hoped to be a big rivalry, the two programs will now play for the Freedom Trophy. “Trophy games are part of the tradition of college football, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to be introducing one into our rivalry with Nebraska,” Wisconsin Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez said, per Huskers.com.

With so much on the line, can Nebraska escape Madison with a win and keep the dream of a conference title alive?

 

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin

When: Saturday, November 15, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Watch: ABC

Listen: Husker Sports Network or Sirius Channel 91, XM 91

Betting Line via Odds Shark: Nebraska (+6)

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Oregon Football: What Ducks Must Accomplish During 2nd Bye Week

A bye week is exactly what the doctor ordered for the third-ranked Oregon Ducks, who are coming off of a brutal conference road victory over the Utah Utes.

While the Ducks (9-1, 6-1) came away with a 24-point win against the former No. 17-ranked team in the country, they paid a high price for the victory.

Oregon lost tight end Pharaoh Brown to a season-ending knee injury, All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu to a knee injury and All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a toe injury.

The Ducks have two weeks to prepare for a lowly Colorado team that is 2-8 on the season and 4-30 against Pac-12 opponents since it joined the conference in 2011.

Oregon shouldn’t completely overlook the Buffaloes. However, the Ducks will essentially have a bye week and a preseason game to get the injury replacements up to speed and ready for Oregon State and the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5.

Oregon left the field at Rice-Eccles stadium battered, bruised and in need of a break in the schedule. Thankfully, the schedule broke in its favor this season. The program needs to take full advantage of its second hiatus of the season and get all its ducks in a row, so to speak.

Here’s what the Ducks need to accomplish during their second bye week of the season.

 

Brenner-to-Mariota Connection 

It stands to reason that center Doug Brenner will be starting for the Ducks come Nov. 22 against Colorado.

While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Grasu could return, it seems unlikely considering the opponent and the condition Grasu left the field in on Nov. 8—though the program does not release injury updates.

Though Brenner struggled a bit with low snaps against Utah, he generally played well in relief of Grasu. Head coach Mark Helfrich told Andrew Greif of The Oregonian that he and the team have a ton of confidence in Brenner:

Doug played really well. He had a couple low snaps. That one snap that got away from Marcus, Marcus just kind of -- that's one of the hardest things about our offense. You're thinking about seven different things and oh by the way you have to see the ball into my hands just like a receiver and it just went right through his hands. He was trying to get the ball out quickly and just missed it. Again, a ton of confidence in Doug. He played really well with the exception of the low snaps against a very, very good front.

Any time a program loses a center, it can be devastating to an offensive line. When that center is a fifth-year senior who had started 50 consecutive games dating back to 2011, it’s a whole different beast. 

However, the Ducks have survived a ton of injuries along the offensive line and the reserves have done an admirable job so far—even though they’ve allowed quarter Marcus Mariota to be sacked a career-high 23 times so far this season.

The only center Mariota has ever known is Grasu, so bringing in Brenner on a full-time basis—even if it’s only for one or two games—will be an adjustment and it’s likely there will be growing pains.

Fortunately for the Ducks, their remaining opponents on the regular-season schedule aren’t exactly the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Colorado and Oregon State are ranked No. 74 and No. 50, respectively, in the country in sacks this season. Moreover, the Buffaloes are ranked No. 120 in the country in scoring defense, while the Beavers are ranked No. 87 in the same category.

The Ducks should be able to score at will on both Colorado and Oregon State. The hope is that Oregon will have Grasu back by the time it plays in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium.

If that doesn’t happen, at least Brenner will have two games under his belt at center and a minimum of four weeks of practice time with Mariota before that championship game.

While the Grasu injury is troublesome, there is speculation within the program that starting tackle Andre Yruretagoyena is making progress and may be able to play at some point before the end of the regular season.

Yruretagoyena is practicing with the team and recently told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard, “I'm doing really well, just a little bit of this, a little bit of that in practice."

 

The Replacements 

The most important thing the Oregon coaches and players can do during the next two weeks is get reserve players up to speed and ready to start against Colorado.

Let’s start with the cornerback position. While senior corner Ekpre-Olomu says he will “definitely” be ready to go against Colorado, according to The Oregonian's Greif, Ducks coaches should be preparing redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Seisay just in case.

According to Ekpre-Olumu, he injured his big toe on his left foot but says he’s not too concerned about it.

"I'm not really too concerned, especially having an extra week off, but I think I'll be all right," said Ekpre-Olomu. "I've been dealing with a lot of different foot injuries on this same foot but I'm all right. I just tweaked my toe, my big toe.”

The Ducks are going to need Ekpre-Olomu’s presence—if healthy—because Colorado features one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the entire country in Nelson Spruce.

Spruce, a junior, is averaging 109.1 yards per game this season and has caught 11 touchdowns, which ranks second in the country. Spruce also leads the nation in catches with 99 through 10 games this season.

If Oregon is without the services of its leading cornerback, it'll have to depend on a combination of Dior Mathis, Troy Hill and Seisay. All three have played a significant amount this season, but it’s clear that Seisay will be the one who will have to step up if Ekpre-Olomu is not ready to go.

On the season, Seisay has played in eight games and has 16 tackles and two passes defended. He has also forced a fumble.

Going from a reserve role to facing one of the best wide receivers in college football is a daunting task, but it’s one the 6’1”, 187-pound corner should be ready for by Nov. 22.

Even without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks' secondary should play well against Colorado and Oregon State.

The position the Oregon coaches quickly need to find a fix for is tight end.

Greif reported that Brown is out for the season. Here is part of Helfrich's statement regarding Brown’s injury:

Due to the nature and significance of his situation definitely going to comment on that. Pharoah didn't travel with the team, he wasn't allowed to travel just due to the nature of the injury. He's in Salt Lake City still, we don't know exactly how long that's gonna take. He needs to go through a couple of procedures here in the next, again in it's a generalized three-to-seven days approximately to get as best a foundation as can be had going forward for his long-term prognosis which we don't know at this point at all. He's out for the season.

It’s a huge blow to the program and devastating news for a young man who was really coming along as a student-athlete. Injuries happen in sports and the Ducks know they must move on and try to find a suitable replacement for a player who ranked second in the nation in touchdowns by a tight end.

The obvious candidate to replace Brown is sophomore tight end Johnny Mundt. As a true freshman in 2013, Mundt burst onto the scene against Tennessee with five catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns.

However, Brown has clearly overshadowed him since then and Mundt has only caught two passes for 29 yards so far this season.

Oregon has two other options at tight end with Evan Baylis and Koa Ka’ai. Baylis, a redshit sophomore, has caught one pass this season for eight yards. Ka’ai, a redshirt junior, has yet to make a reception.

When asked about the options at tight end, Helfrich told Greif he will evaluate who should be the guy going forward over the next two weeks:

Whoever is next will be ready to roll and obviously over the next two weeks we'll kind of evaluate what the best deal is going forward, whether it's one or two tight ends, one or two receivers here and there. But we have a ton of confidence in those guys. They've played, between those two and Koa Ka'ai, they've played a lot and we'll be ready to rock come Colorado.

Whoever it is at tight end—whether it be Mundt, Baylis or Ka’ai—is going to be very involved in the offense going forward and will be expected to pick up right where Brown left off.

While the Ducks will certainly expect their new tight end to be a downfield threat, their most important duties will be as a blocker for running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, as well as Mariota when he decides to scramble.

If the new tight end can come in and be a competent blocker, the Ducks will feel much better about their chances at succeeding offensively without the presence of Brown.

It’s imperative that the Ducks are ready to go against Colorado on Nov. 22. If the Ducks' season were a Broadway play, they would be entering the third act. The first act ended in a loss, the second act ended with injuries. The Ducks are hoping the third act ends in a celebration on the field at Levi’s Stadium.

The Oregon program is three wins shy of a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. It must be rested, healthy and focused in order to get there.

This precious bye week affords the team the opportunity to do all three. The Ducks must take advantage of it.

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nebraska Football: The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Nebraska vs. Wisconsin

Nebraska football fans well remember the Huskers’ last trip to Madison, which resulted in a 48-17 shellacking at the hands of the Badgers.

So as they prepare for the return trip (with echoes of Wisconsin’s 70-31 humiliation of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game still ringing in their ears), Nebraska fans will be looking to see how their team can win on Saturday and stay on track for a return trip to Indianapolis.

Here are three X-factors fans should be looking for to key a Nebraska victory on Saturday.

 

Ameer Abdullah

According to Steven Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said he “anticipates” I-back Ameer Abdullah to play against Wisconsin, although he also said Abdullah did not practice with the team during the week. That’s far less definitive than Pelini was earlier, when he said he anticipated Abdullah to be close to 100 percent for the Wisconsin game.

So what does that mean? The likelihood is that Abdullah is going to be limited by the knee injury that kept him out of the game against Purdue two weeks ago. How limited? That’s the big question. If he is significantly limited, then we saw a glimpse of what Nebraska’s offense looks like sans Abdullah.

If he is able to provide something close to full fitness, though (or if Pelini is playing games with Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen), then Abdullah has the chance to be the difference in the game on Saturday.

 

Cethan Carter

Pelini has been optimistic that tight end Cethan Carter would be back for the Wisconsin game, according to Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal-Star. Even though his contributions offensively have been sparse (two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown), Carter’s presence provides Nebraska with a downfield threat that no other tight end on the roster can give.

Carter’s absence (along with the injury to Kenny Bell early in the first quarter) may have been a big part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles against Michigan State. If Carter is back, Nebraska may have an unexpected weapon added to its arsenal as it travels to Madison.

 

Tim Beck

Against Purdue, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said he made the same mistake he made against Michigan State by overloading and over-complicating the offensive game plan. Nebraska’s offense has demonstrated the ability to be very effective against elite-level athletes, putting up 41 points and 456 yards against Miami.

Wisconsin’s defense is No. 5 nationally in rush defense and No. 3 nationally in pass defense. If Nebraska is going to beat the Badgers in Madison, Beck’s game plan and preparation will have to be top notch to get UN over the hump and stay on top of the Big Ten West.

 

Stats gathered from CFBStats.com.

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Rankings 2014: Power Ranking All 128 Teams for Week 12

Now that the College Football Playoff selection committee has begun releasing its weekly rankings, it's become the most important Top 25 in the country. This isn't up for debate.

But when it comes to the most comprehensive ranking of all 128 FBS programs, look no further than Bleacher Report's weekly power rankings.

The rankings are comprised of an average of five ratings: The Associated Press media and Amway Coaches polls, Bleacher Report's Top 25, ratings guru Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings and my personal ranking.

Take a look at how the 128 FBS teams are ranked heading into Week 12 and then give us your take in the comments section.

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Clemson Tigers vs. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Complete Game Preview

The Clemson Tigers are in position to get out of their offensive slump this week, as they get back starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Georgia Tech—who has defeated Clemson four straight times in Atlanta—will look to move to 9-2 and keep itself in contention for the ACC Coastal title.

Clemson has won all three starts since Cole Stoudt took over at quarterback, but none of the three wins have been pretty. The Tigers defeated an overmatched Wake Forest team 34-20 last Thursday, but they will have to play much better against Georgia Tech this weekend.

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