NCAA Football News

The Pac-12's Surprise Best Coach​, Oregon on the Rise

They arrived with fanfare and credentials: Jim Mora from the NFL, Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach intent on repeating their respective program-building from West Virginia and Texas Tech and Sonny Dykes bringing his uptempo offense from Louisiana Tech.

When Todd Graham arrived at Arizona State, it was under a cloud. He was a winner—at Rice, Tulsa and Pitt. But leaving Pitt as a one-and-done head coach created a ton of hard feelings. Thus Graham arrived in Tempe and was seen as a job-hopper.

Fast-forward three seasons, and the label that must stick to Graham is "winner." Arizona State should take the field in Tucson on November 28 needing a win to clinch a second consecutive Pac-12 South title. 

This is the division of Brett Hundley, USC, Utah's rugged defense and Rich Rod's pioneering spread offense. This was supposed to be UCLA's year, with Hundley making a Heisman run. Having lost nine starters on defense, the Sun Devils were expected to struggle against a quarterback-heavy conference.

The “first” new defense took a second-half pummeling from UCLA and Hundley. So Graham rebuilt on the fly, inserting experienced players who had not been starters. ASU’s defense has since shown marked improvement.

Graham’s defensive identity? Aggression. On Notre Dame’s first drive, ASU rushed five or more defenders on nine of 13 plays, even if the Irish ran the ball. By day’s end, that pressure wore down Notre Dame and created five takeaways. 

Arizona State has won with an overlooked quarterback. The publicity machine has missed Taylor Kelly. But when he regained his health following a September foot injury, Graham went to him without hesitation, knowing he needed Kelly’s experience for a tough November stretch. 

These Sun Devils have found a way to win games.

They have won with their backup QB (Mike Bercovici), they have won when the opponent didn’t defend a Hail Mary (the stunner to Jaelen Strong against USC), they have won when the opposing kicker fails in OT (Utah's standout Andy Phillips) and they have won when the opposing QB throws for over 400 yards (Notre Dame's Everett Golson.)

In their biggest wins, there was a fourth-quarter response. After a furious rally pulled Notre Dame within three points at 34-31, the Sun Devils had a reply: five plays, 75 yards and a touchdown. Kelly’s lone pass was a patient 40-yard throw to freshman running back Demario Richard on a wheel route.

That drive reflected Graham’s impact on Arizona State football.

He inherited a program with a well-earned reputation for underachievement. Dennis Erickson’s teams were loaded with players bound for the NFL, but none of those teams ended with a sum equal to their parts.

Now, Arizona State wins with fewer individual stars but with a collective will that shines. The Sun Devils will be heavy favorites in their next two games at Oregon State and home against Washington State. Win those, and the rivalry game with Arizona will have national implications. Win those, and in a conference filled with fine coaches, Todd Graham will be the best of 2014.

***

The best Pac-12 player of 2014, Marcus Mariota, has avoided the off-game that costs Heisman contenders. No disasters like Auburn's Nick Marshall's late fumbles against Texas A&M. When Utah made a fourth-quarter push to within three points of Oregon, Mariota needed little time to extinguish upset dreams.

Mariota led the Ducks on a 75-yard drive in stunningly quick fashion. There were successful runs and a dash of speed on a screen to wide receiver Devon Allen, but Mariota’s moment arrived after an injury to starting center Hroniss Grasu stopped the game late in the drive.

Mariota watched his friend be helped off the field and then prepared to receive shotgun snaps from Grasu’s replacement, Doug Brenner. From the Utah 34-yard line, Mariota fielded a snap off his ankles, straightened up and quickly flipped a pass straight up the field to Dwayne Stanford.

The hastily thrown ball was slightly behind Stanford, but the receiver twisted to catch the ball and finish a catch-and-run touchdown—a play that displayed the poise and presence of a premier college player.

***

The most disappointing individual moment of the weekend was when Utah's Kaelin Clay lost a sure touchdown in a poor attempt at subtle celebration. Clay’s drop of the ball at the Oregon 1-yard line cost the Utes a 14-0 lead in the early second quarter—no guarantee of victory, but a lost window to command the way in which the game would be played.

Credit must go to the Pac-12 officials who never took their eyes off the play. While the Utes celebrated and the ESPN director cut to crowd and sideline camera shots, the game officials never signaled a touchdown. They never blew a whistle.

They threw a beanbag alertly recognized by Ducks players as a sign the ball was live. They never flinched when Oregon fielded the ball. They properly allowed the play to continue after the first Duck, Erick Dargan, fumbled and a second, Joe Walker, picked up the ball and ran the length of the field.

They were right. That should be acknowledged in a season that has seen the resignation of supervisor Tony Corrente, also an NFL referee.

Corrente resigned because he felt the conference was going a bit overboard defending the complaints from coaches. And Corrente probably went a bit too far defending his officials.     

The crew in Utah functioned perfectly on a game-altering play.  

Mariota is the best player in the conference but must bow to a teammate for the title of Most Important Player. Royce Freeman is neither the best nor most valuable, but for Oregon’s national title hopes, no Duck is more vital.

Listen to an NFL coach who requested anonymity on the Pac-12 running games: "Watch running backs to see how many extra yards they gain. If a play is blocked for four yards, does the back get tackled at four? Or does he gain more?

Stanford's running game this year has gained exactly the yards that are blocked. Freeman is the other extreme, the "best back for Oregon since (Jonathan) Stewart." An NFL executive simply replied to me about Freeman, "He's for real."

On Oregon’s fourth-quarter drive referenced above, the first play was a right-side run by Freeman. Two Utah defenders contacted him three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Freeman drove through them and gained 12 additional yards. Two plays later, he stiff-armed Utah safety Brian Blechen to tack on five yards at the end of a run.

If Oregon doesn't stumble late (their rivalry game shouldn’t pose the usual challenge given Oregon State’s poor season), Freeman gets at least two games on the national stage, the Pac-12 Championship and a potential playoff spot—the chance to be the special ingredient that lifts the Ducks to a first national title.


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.  

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Ohio State Football: Urban Meyer's Plea to College Football Playoff Committee

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Election Day was last Tuesday. But for Urban Meyer, campaign season is just getting underway.

That's nothing new for the Ohio State head coach, who is a decade removed from having to fight to get his undefeated Utah squad into a coveted BCS bowl. Two years later, Meyer would again campaign—successfully—to land Florida in the national title game, and even last year he found himself arguing the Buckeyes' national championship game worthiness, before Michigan State made it a moot point.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that as we head down the homestretch and toward the first ever College Football Playoff, Meyer again finds himself at the center of controversy. With the selection of the playoff's field of four fewer than four weeks away, there may not be a team with a more interesting resume than Ohio State—especially after last weekend's big win over Michigan State.

Meyer knows that his team's most impressive win—maybe the most impressive of all of the teams remaining in the playoff field—will be weighed against Ohio State's albatross of a loss to Virginia Tech in the second week of the season. Which is why, when asked about the subject on Monday, the third-year Buckeyes coach was prepared.

"I don't want to act like it's rehearsed—but it's rehearsed because I tend to say stupid things sometimes," Meyer said, drawing on his previous campaign experiences. "That early in the season we were not a great team. We had a quarterback that was a quarterback for about two weeks and did not play very well. We had an offensive line that played horrible that game and a group of receivers that were not ready to play.

"This is the most improved team that I've been a part of."

The numbers back up Meyer's assessment.

Since suffering that early-season defeat at the hands of the Hokies—who have compiled just a 4-5 record on the season—the Buckeyes have reeled off seven consecutive wins, concluding with last weekend's road win over the Spartans. Ohio State has looked far from the team that completed just nine of 29 pass attempts against Virginia Tech, ranking 10th in total offense (512.1 yards per game) and fourth in points per game (46).

A big part of that has been the improved play of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, who saw his Heisman Trophy odds increase to 20-1, per Odds Shark, following his 386-yard, five-touchdown performance against Michigan State. But that's just been a part of the story of the Buckeyes' improvement, as Ohio State's wide receivers, offensive line and even defense have each played noticeably better in the past two months, as well.

That trajectory, to Meyer, is the sign of a championship-quality team, something that he knows a thing or two about.

"I've been fortunate to be around some championship-level teams," said Meyer, who captured national titles with the Gators in 2006 and 2008. "They have a common characteristic and they're grinders. And they get better each week. Those are championship-level teams."

The problem for Meyer and the Buckeyes, however, is that at this point in the season, they aren't the only one.

In fact, it's only been after Ohio State's signature victory over the Spartans that it's catapulted back into the playoff discussion, the Buckeyes' odds shifting from 14-1 to 8-1, per Bovada. In the first two weeks of the College Football Playoff rankings, Ohio State measured in at No. 16 and No. 14, respectively, with the committee explaining that the Buckeyes lacked victories impressive enough to justify otherwise.

"We're still early in this process and while I wouldn't get that excited about Ohio State's placement, we do think that based on the other teams that they've played to this point in the schedule, this is where they deserve to be ranked," committee chair and Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said after the first batch of rankings were released. "Ohio State has opportunities on their schedule to play up, as many of these teams do."

It remains to be seen how far the Buckeyes played themselves up this past weekend—we'll find that out Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET—but if the latest AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches' Polls are any indication, Ohio State should land at No. 7 or No. 8. That would put the Buckeyes on the outside looking in at the playoff field, behind the likes of Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Baylor and potentially Arizona State.

Of course, there's a lot of football left to be played between now and the playoff committee's final selection show, and at least one of those teams will pick up an additional loss with Mississippi State and Alabama squaring off this weekend.

A likely trip to the Big Ten Championship Game will provide the opportunity for the Buckeyes to add another potential quality win to their resume, but even then, that pesky Virginia Tech loss still looms.

And while Ohio State still has one more month and four more games to prove that it's a different team now than it was back then, that scarlet letter of a defeat is still going to need some explaining. But in the Buckeyes' first game of the season, Meyer may have just that, as Ohio State was tasked with spending a large portion of its summer preparing for Navy's unique triple-option attack.

That might be more than just an excuse for Meyer to use, as well. Navy's opponents have gone a combined 1-7 in the weeks following their matchups with the Midshipmen, proving that preparing for an offense as unique as Navy's can throw a wrench into any team's extended plans.

"I could see that," Meyer responded when presented with that stat on Monday.

Factor in that the Hokies opened the season with I-AA opponent William & Mary and thus essentially had all summer to prepare for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes' lone blemish doesn't appear as big as it might seem. Still, Ohio State is going to need to continue to showcase its growth in the next four weeks if Meyer is going to have any chance at again making good on his campaign-trail promises.

"This could all be gone if we don't go out and continue to do what we do," Meyer said. "But I do know a championship-level team. A team continues to grow like they are, like this, there's no question this is one of them."

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Sony Michel Injury: Updates on Georgia Star's Ankle and Return

Just when it seemed like the University of Georgia's running back depth was fully restored, another Bulldogs rusher is potentially back on the shelf.   

According to Seth Emerson of The Macon Telegraph, freshman Sony Michel is questionable for Saturday's clash with Auburn after suffering an ankle injury:

After missing four contests with a broken shoulder blade, Michel returned to action last week against Kentucky. He rushed for 84 yards and a score on 16 totes, and he seemingly added another dimension to Georgia's offense.

As skilled as he is, though, the Bulldogs should be fine if he can't play this weekend. Not only is fellow freshman Nick Chubb just 105 yards short of 1,000 on the ground, but superstar Todd Gurley is also set to return from suspension, per George Schroeder of USA Today:

Many consider Gurley to be the best back in college football, while Chubb has also looked the part in his absence. Having Michel on the field as well can't hurt, but Georgia might be wise to play it safe due to Gurley's imminent return.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Texas vs. Oklahoma State Complete Game Preview

The Texas Longhorns will hit the road to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to face 5-4 Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys started the season off strong but have lost the previous three straight games, which is basically the opposite scenario for the Longhorns.

Both teams will be fighting for bowl eligibility in sub-freezing temperatures Saturday.

Will the Longhorns continue the momentum and become bowl eligible over the struggling Cowboys? Let's take a look.

 

When: Saturday, Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: Boone Pickens Stadium, Stillwater, Okla.

TV: Fox

Austin radio: KVET 98.1/1300

SiriusXM satellite radio: XM 202; Sirius 117; Internet 969; Spanish 550

Opening spread: Oklahoma State (-1), per OddsShark.com

Begin Slideshow

How Nebraska Became the College Football Playoff's Ultimate Dark Horse

In hindsight, "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds was probably about Nebraska football—even if it was recorded was almost 20 years ago.

That's what the Huskers are saying: Don't you, the College Football Playoff selection committee, forget about them.

The playoff picture is slightly clearer after Week 11, with Auburn, Kansas State, Michigan State and Notre Dame all but officially leaving the conversation. That picture will continue to get clearer as a pivotal month of November rolls on.

But with the committee set to release its latest Top 25 on Tuesday evening, where do the Huskers fit in? Nebraska was on a bye last Saturday yet sits at No. 11 in the latest Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls.

In both instances, the Huskers are one spot ahead of Michigan State, a team they lost to in October.

Not that those polls matter in the playoff conversation, but it gives you an idea that voters around the country think Nebraska is at least on the perimeter of the postseason chatter.

The fact is that Florida State and Mississippi State interchangeably occupy the top two spots as long as they keep winning. It's spots Nos. 3 and 4 that are up for grabs. Oregon, TCU and Alabama are likely the three teams jockeying for those slots. Big wins by Arizona State, Baylor and Ohio State should put those three teams in the discussion as well.

Again, though, what about Nebraska? It seems unconventional for a playoff dark horse to come from a power-five school—you would think that label would belong to a mid-major—but that would be the best way to describe Nebraska at the moment.

The Huskers (8-1) have one loss—a "good" one, if you will—on the road at Michigan State. They also have a solid nonconference win over Miami. That's more than Mississippi State and Ohio State can say.

As Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com told Tom Dienhart of BTN.com, Nebraska could actually be the Big Ten's best chance at a playoff spot:

"I would say their resume would be slightly better than Ohio State’s,” Palm told me this morning. “Because their loss is to Michigan State. They played Miami (Fla.) outside the league. That’s a decent team. If Nebraska has no chance (at the playoffs), then Ohio State has less than no chance. I think 12-1 Nebraska is a better candidate than 12-1 Ohio State—but only slightly."

What has hurt Nebraska, in both perception and reality, is Big Ten conference play. Bo Pelini's team hasn't proved much outside of the Miami win. Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers are a combined 15-22, and the Scarlet Knights are the only one of those four with a winning record.

Then there's the reputation of the Big Ten and Big Ten West, both of which have taken considerable hits this year.

Following a disastrous Week 2 for the Big Ten, Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com declared that the Big Ten West was the worst power-five division in college football. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer suggested that the Big Ten felt dead on arrival following that week.

Both were accurate assessments at the time. The Big Ten went 8-5 that week but did not beat another team from a power-five conference.

Many of the wins against lesser opponents were closer than they should have been, including Nebraska's escape over McNeese State.

So Nebraska, like the rest of the Big Ten, fell off the map. After all, rankings should be based on what you've done so far, and Nebraska has what amounts to one quality win. 

However, this season has shown that few things are truly off of the table in September or even October. Nebraska can close out the season as strongly as any team in college football.

The Huskers, currently atop the Big Ten West, play at No. 22 Wisconsin this Saturday. Whether do-it-all running back Ameer Abdullah is ready to play after suffering an MCL sprain against Purdue remains to be seen, according to ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman.

The game will feature the top two rushing offenses in the Big Ten, per cfbstats.com. However, Nebraska's offense was sluggish without Abdullah against the Boilermakers, recording a season-low 297 total yards. His return is crucial, to put it lightly.

The Huskers then get Minnesota before closing out the season at Iowa and would presumably meet Ohio State—or possibly Michigan State—in the Big Ten title game. Winning out wouldn't guarantee Nebraska a playoff spot per se, but it would absolutely put the Huskers in the conversation.

At the very least, it feels like a necessity.

It will be interesting to see where the committee puts Nebraska in the latest Top 25. As Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel points out, rankings aren't solely supposed to reflect the win-loss column. It's possible a two-loss Ole Miss, for example, could still be ahead of Nebraska:

That would add more ammo to the dark-horse label for Nebraska. The Huskers aren't the center of the playoff conversation or even in the next group of it.

As Ohio State showed throughout the course of the season, though, staying on the down low isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the outlook can change at a moment's notice.

That moment for Nebraska, the team everyone forgot about, could come with a win over the Badgers.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All rankings reflect the latest Associated Press standings unless noted otherwise. 

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NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Full List of Week 12 College Standings and Polls

Calamity swept through the NCAA football Week 12 rankings and polls.

Everything after the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Florida State Seminoles is an absolute disaster as things hit the fast lane toward the inaugural College Football Playoff.

After the pair of undefeated powerhouses at the top, eight one-loss teams from the power conferences continue to jockey for position in a number of different polls and in the minds of the CFP committee. Speaking of conferences, how some do business and the overall quality top to bottom is playing a major role in the CFP, too.

In a season that has been anything but predictable or calm, it is only fitting that the polls are a mess. Enjoy the chaos, because this was the ultimate goal of the four-team CFP in the first place.

 

Developments to Watch Moving Forward

Big Ten Eliminated From CFP?

The Ohio State Buckeyes had to go and ruin everything.

In a contest against the dominant then-No. 8 Michigan State Spartans, a team that had only lost to Oregon and seemed bound to make the playoff, the Buckeyes pulled a 49-37 win out of their hat to throw the committee for a loop.

That contest saw upstart Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett throw for 300 yards and a trio of scores while adding another 86 yards and two scores on the ground. As ESPN Stats & Info points out, the Buckeyes offense has slowly morphed into one of the nation's best attacks under the guidance of the freshman:

But keep in mind that if a one-loss Ohio State team stays that way, how in the world is the CFP committee supposed to take on a team that lost to unranked Virginia Tech? Those Hokies are 4-5 and in seventh place in the ACC Coastal division.

Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch describes the convoluted mess:

With winnable contests against Indiana and Michigan on deck, the CFP better hope that a team such as Wisconsin comes along and upends the Buckeyes.

If not, well, that would fit in with the wild season to date quite well.

 

Big 12 Causing Problems

Thanks to the lack of a proper conference title game, the Big 12 may be the biggest wild card of all when it comes to the CFP.

At this very moment, Baylor and TCU are tied at 8-1 atop the conference.

The programs got there in impressive fashion, too. Baylor absolutely blew away Oklahoma in Norman last week, 48-14, while TCU solved the riddle that was Kansas State's elite defense with a 41-20 thumping of the Wildcats later that night.

As Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com points out, nobody has a clue what will happen with the CFP if the Bears and Horned Frogs both reach 11-1:

Mandel goes on to explain that the CFP committee is in no way bogged down by the rules that govern the Big 12:

The Big 12 uses head-to-head results as its tiebreaker in determining the league’s automatic berth in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, but the committee is not obligated to follow that protocol when producing the order of its final rankings. Head-to-head is one of the factors it’s supposed to consider -- but so are conference championships and overall body of work.

TCU has a cupcake walk to 11-1, too. Kansas, Texas and Iowa State all have fewer than five wins. Minus a hookup with Kansas State, the Bears have a relatively easy walk toward 11 wins as well.

Should both get to the doomsday point, a precedent for all future editions of the CFP may be set. Don't blink when it comes to the Big 12 the rest of the season.

 

SEC's Doomsday Scenario

A few weeks back, there were rumblings concerning just how many teams the SEC could sneak into the postseason. 

Any general fan could have poked holes in the question, though—the SEC is so great and beats itself up so much that there is an outside chance only one team sneaks into the fray.

Or none at all.

Look at it this way. The SEC East is pretty much a non-factor with only one-loss Missouri at the top of the standings. The SEC West is an absolute mess with Ole Miss and Auburn at two losses apiece.

Next weekend, Alabama is in serious danger of picking up its second loss in a clash with Mississippi State. But the Bulldogs could go down at a very bad time of year, too. Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal puts it best:

Then again, Adam Beasley of The Miami Herald believes that the Bulldogs are still a surefire CFP team even if they do lose to Alabama:

"Absolutely," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "Bigtime game this week. This is what you play for. That’s what we want our program to be like, competing in these big games late in the season."

But keep in mind that the major showdown is not the end of the season. Quite the contrary—the Bulldogs, losers or not, will need to play Ole Miss to close the season. The Crimson Tide, potentially with just one loss, will need to overcome Auburn.

If the dominoes fall in the right manner, no SEC team will make the CFP.

Now that is an upset.

 

Stats and information via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified. AP Poll can be viewed at CollegeFootball.AP.org. Amway Poll can be viewed at USAToday.com. B/R Poll can be viewed at BleacherReport.com.

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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!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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.

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