NCAA Football News

Auburn vs. Florida State: Why Tigers Won't Be Able to Keep Pace with Seminoles

The final year of the BCS in college football has granted fans what's sure to be a thrilling finale, featuring the No. 1 Florida State Seminoles and the No. 2 Auburn Tigers in the national championship game. 

Auburn has had a tremendous run full of twists and turns, miraculous plays and the climactic dethroning of the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide—a team that had won 24 of its previous 25 games dating back to 2012—on a 107-yard missed-field-goal return by Chris Davis.

However, as they say, all good things must come to an end. And Auburn's run will end in the wake of the high-powered Florida State Seminoles.

The 'Noles have been machine-like, scoring 40 or more points in all but one contest en route to an undefeated season and their second consecutive ACC title. What's more, FSU is averaging an earth-shattering 41.5-point margin of victory and has won by 27 or more in all but one game.

Auburn's defense has yet to see an offense of this caliber. The 102nd-ranked passing defense has allowed 260.2 yards per game through the air—second to last in the SEC.

One player that the Tigers will have a very difficult time accounting for is wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin—particularly in the red zone. This year, inside the 20-yard line, Florida State has come away with points 97.1 percent of the time—the best red-zone percentage in the country.

Auburn's cornerbacks have been exposed this year. In fact, Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis have accounted for just one interception between them. The taller of the two, Davis, likely to get the assignment of the 6'4" Benjamin, stands at just 5'11".

Beyond Benjamin, the Tigers must also monitor receivers Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw—both of whom have caught over 50 balls for at least 900 yards.

Early passing success for the 'Noles should set up running back Devonta Freeman, who's poised to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards on the season.

While acknowledging the nation's top-rushing offense in Auburn, Florida State will also be one of the two best rushing defenses the Tigers will have seen in the 2013 season, along with Alabama.

The Crimson Tide didn't stop the Tigers offense, but they did slow them down. Unfortunately for Alabama, the offense wasn't available to back up the defense. The same won't be true for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense.

Neither team will have trouble putting up points, but in the end, Florida State will get a few key stops, and it'll prove to be more than enough.

Prediction: Florida State 42 Auburn 28

 

Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats gathered via NCAA.com

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Jameis Winston Will Lead Florida State to BCS Title vs. Auburn

Jameis Winston has had one of the most memorable freshman seasons of any quarterback in college football history.

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner gives the Florida State Seminoles an edge at the most important position, which will help guide the No. 1 team in the country to the BCS title over the second-ranked Auburn Tigers.

Nick Marshall is just getting acquainted with playing quarterback in his first year as a starter for Auburn, making the Tigers more of a one-dimensional attack. That hasn't really stopped them all season, but against the likes of FSU, it might be a bit of a different story.

As long as the Seminoles can at least somewhat contain Marshall and star running back Tre Mason, it will be up to the Auburn signal-caller to make some key throws from the pocket.

Not only is Winston facing a far more favorable defensive matchup than Marshall and Co. are, but he also has superior weaponry in the receiving corps and a deeper backfield to complement him.

Although Florida State is loaded across the board with arguably the most all-around talented roster in the country, having a quarterback to make everything run smoothly is vital. Winston has lived up to his massive hype and even exceeded it in becoming just the second freshman ever to win the Heisman.

In a season of incredible scrutiny under the spotlight, nothing has been too overwhelming for Winston to handle. That's a testament to his moxie and mental fortitude, characteristics that often separate the great quarterbacks from the good ones.

In that context, it comes as no surprise that Winston is full of confidence ahead of the Monday, Jan. 6 showdown in Pasadena, Calif. Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald reported what Winston had to say about the prospects of a blowout on Friday, Jan. 3:

The NCAA has all these rules, but it does not say you cannot blow out everybody you play. Before we played Clemson, before we played Florida, before we played Miami … I said "Guys, where in the rulebook does it say we can’t blow out everybody that we play?"

...Alabama blew out Notre Dame in the championship game last year. We can do anything we want to do.

ESPN insider Brett McMurphy recorded another bold statement from Winston, implying that his team's dominance—rather than strokes of fortune Auburn has benefited from—has gotten the Seminoles to the brink of a national championship:

No one has given up fewer rushing touchdowns than the Seminoles' five this season, per NCAA.com, which is sure to test Auburn's top-ranked ground game.

That should leave it up to Winston to make the most of a shaky Tigers secondary that ranks among the worst defenses in the country against the pass.

As if upperclassmen Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene won't create enough problems, 6'5" sophomore Kelvin Benjamin is bound to win his battles with Auburn defensive backs using his size and speed, too.

All Winston has to do is continue to be himself, stand and deliver in the pocket and make things happen when the play breaks down. Winston controls his own destiny and the fate of his team, which is why Florida State will be hoisting the Coaches' Trophy on Monday, Jan. 6.

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Auburn vs. FSU 2014: Examining Each Program's Journey to BCS Title Game

If you're looking for a reason to denounce preseason college football rankings an arbitrary, nonsensical process, look no further than Monday night's BCS National Championship Game. 

No. 1 Florida State, perhaps the most dominant regular-season team of the BCS era, was ranked No. 11 by the Associated Press and No. 12 by the coaches. Florida—yes, the team so talented and well-coached that its linemen once decided to block one another rather than an opponent—was ranked ahead of the Seminoles in both polls. The coaches thought Notre Dame was better.

Whoops.

The skepticism regarding No. 2 Auburn in the preseason was more understandable but no less amusing in retrospect. The Tigers, coming off a horrifying 3-9 season, did not receive a single preseason vote in either poll. I'm not going to list the teams that were included on some preseason Top 25 lists, but suffice it to say going here is an amusing exercise.

But despite the best efforts, the final year of the BCS should come to a proper end. Though they weren't included in the preseason national championship picture, the Seminoles and Tigers are unquestionably the best teams in the nation. Among major-conference teams, only Rose Bowl winner Michigan State has any true stake in the crown.

Nevertheless, with the national championship game mere hours from mercifully ending the 2013 college football season, it's important to look back on how these teams got here. With that in mind, let's check in with a retrospective on both programs. 

 

Auburn

You would have to parse college football history and individually study each situation, but Gus Malzahn's one-year rebuilding effort ranks among the best ever. At this time a year ago, Auburn was watching on as Alabama won a third national championship in four seasons and had ended its season with a demoralizing loss to the Crimson Tide. What once was a rivalry had regressed to a big brother-little brother relationship, with Nick Saban maniacally laughing at the thought of losing to the Tigers.

One Gene Chizik extraction and a controversial hiring later, and Auburn is back atop the college football landscape. It seems almost quaint now that Malzahn was seen as a controversial hire by the school. With Malzahn being Chizik's offensive coordinator until he took a one-year detour as the Arkansas State head coach, some wondered what could possibly change from the previous regime.

It turns out a ton. Rebuilding the program in his image, Malzahn stripped down the complexities, installed a world-beating running game and developed one of the most unstoppable offenses in the nation. Although there were some notable struggles early in the season—like, you know, nearly losing to Washington State and Mississippi State and actually losing to LSU—the Tigers got better as the campaign went along. 

Auburn is averaging 40.2 points per game, ninth-best in the nation, but that almost understates its recent excellence. Since another close call against Ole Miss on Oct. 5, that average has increased by more than a touchdown, with the Tigers never scoring fewer than 34 points. 

With each improvement came wins more improbable than the next. First, there was outdueling Johnny Manziel in College Station with a three-touchdown fourth quarter. Then, a 73-yard touchdown heave from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis answered the Prayer at Jordan–Hare against Georgia. Then, Chris Davis provided college football with the play of the year. And, finally, there was Tre Mason's record-setting rushing effort against Missouri.

The latter three efforts came in consecutive weeks. Each was seemingly more improbable than the next. Heading into the national championship game, the Tigers are at a distinct talent disadvantage on both sides of the ball—and yet it feels short-sighted to count them out. The seemingly impossible has brought out the best in Auburn all season long. We'll have to see if it can happen one more time.

 

Florida State

Speaking of rebuilding a program in a coach's image, suffice it to say Jimbo Fisher had an even more difficult time than Malzahn. Not necessarily because of any talent problems, of course; Florida State will never have trouble in that regard. But replacing a legend in Bobby Bowden is arguably the most difficult thing in all of sport—and Fisher has established his own reputation in a mere four years.

Grantland's Chris B. Brown did an excellent job of establishing how Fisher returned the Seminoles to national prominence. Taking an old-school SEC-type stance, Fisher recruited physical specimens, put athletes everywhere on the defensive side and held the belief that only the most elite should be held on the offensive side.

The strategy worked last season, with Florida State pulling off an Orange Bowl victory. Florida State's defense ranked among the best in the nation, but there was something keeping the team from true national title contention—a superstar at quarterback. Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel were first-round draft choices, but neither signal-caller spent their careers in Tallahassee blowing anyone out of the water.

Jameis Winston tossed a grenade on all expectations. A highly touted freshman with superstar potential, Winston was viewed as a possible cornerstone sometime down the line. No one expected him to finish with the second-best quarterback rating in college football history, become the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the nation's highest-scoring offense.

That, of course, is exactly what Winston did. The Seminoles come into the national title game averaging an FBS-high 53 points per game, and that strategy of saving only the undeniably talented for offense has paid off. Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. give Florida State and elite running back trio that each averages at least 5.8 yards per carry, while Winston's stable of wide receivers is filled with NFL talent.

Then, there's the defense. The still-awesome, world-beating defense. The Seminoles have given up more than 17 points only once all season—their 48-34 win over Boston College...in September. In the nine games since, opponents have scored single-digits five times and double-digits four. Their last five opponents scored 34 points total

You should be unsurprised that the Seminoles got to the national title game by pulverizing everyone. Stomping on throats. Kicking people while they were down. Backhanding opponents for even thinking they deserve to be in the same building. Florida State's 42.3-point average margin of victory is two touchdowns better than any other team.

Perhaps the only hole you can poke in Fisher's squad is its schedule strength. Clemson, Miami and Duke represented the high water marks on the slate—not exactly the toughest "big tests" other than the Tigers. Auburn represents a unique challenge unlike anything Jeremy Pruitt's defense has seen all season, and if there is any shortcoming on that unit, it's run defense.

But when capturing the Seminoles' journey to Monday night, there is only one word: dominant.

 

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Auburn vs. FSU Predictions: Projecting Quarter-by-Quarter Box Score

The No. 2 Auburn Tigers (12-1, 7-1 SEC) take on the No. 1 Florida State Seminoles (13-0, 8-0 ACC) Monday night in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, and the focus has shifted to the predictions for the matchup.

College football fans are desperate to see how each team will perform under the intense scrutiny of the main event stage and how the quarter-by-quarter box score will shake out.

Here is a look at the projected box score and how the programs will arrive at this conclusion.

 

 

First Quarter: Florida State 7, Auburn 7

There are many college football analysts who expect this to be a high-scoring game or a lopsided blowout, but neither Florida State nor Auburn has the kind of defensive unit that will fold under the bright lights of the national stage.

The first quarter should be a feeling-out process that features both defenses stiffening up when tested and forcing several early three-and-out drives. While the Seminoles and the Tigers have the offensive firepower to rack up big points, the most each program should hope for in the first quarter is a touchdown apiece.

 

Second Quarter: Florida State 17, Auburn 7

Once both teams find their comfort levels, it will be time for Florida State’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, to prove his worth as the best player in the nation.

Auburn will rack up a touchdown at some point in the second quarter due to the sheer amount of raw talent on the roster, but Winston will steal the show using the accuracy and power he showcased when he threw for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in his freshmen season.

Winston helped lead the Seminoles to incredible averages of 53 points and 529.4 yards of total offense per game, and the Seminoles should head into the locker room at halftime with a 24-14 lead.

 

Third Quarter: Auburn 7, Florida State 0

Auburn didn’t make it to the BCS National Championship Game on luck. The Tigers are one of the most resilient teams in the nation and will make the adjustments during halftime to keep themselves in the game.

Led by the elite rushing ability of running back Tre Mason and dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall—2,644 combined yards and 33 touchdowns—Auburn will be able to control the clock and limit Florida State’s opportunities offensively.

Add in the fact that the Tigers’ stout defense has only allowed an average of 24 points per game this season, and the unit will step up big, stifle the high-powered Seminoles in the third quarter and make it a one-score difference.

As well as Auburn should play Monday, Florida State knows how to close in the fourth quarter.

 

Fourth Quarter: Florida State 14, Auburn 3

Led by Winston, the Seminoles have finished too strong this season to fold in the fourth quarter on the biggest stage.

With the ground attack finding more holes as the defense slows down—running back Devonta Freeman’s bruising style will wear the Tigers out over the course of the game—the entire Florida State offense will be able to find a rhythm and control the pace of the matchup.

Auburn has played well throughout the 2013 season, but the program’s lack of a consistent pass attack will give the Seminoles the chance to rack up points early in the fourth quarter and give their defense the chance to shine.

After allowing just 10.7 points per game and 17 or fewer points in 12 of 13 matchups this season, Florida State’s defense should be able to stiffen up during the key moments and pull out the decisive win.

 

*All stats via CFBStats.com.

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FSU vs. Auburn: Under-the-Radar Players That Will Impact BCS Title Game

In a BCS National Championship Game full of stars—Jameis Winston, Kelvin Benjamin and Tre Mason, just to name a few—it will be the under-the-radar players that decide the outcome of the Florida State-Auburn clash.

Lesser-known players have the ability to make huge impacts on games. Opposing teams don't always prepare well for their exploits, as coordinators generally dedicate their focus to slowing down the game's top players. This is when under-the-radar guys step up and take over.

The following players are guys you can expect star-like numbers from in the BCS title game—even if they don't get the recognition the top stars do.

 

Nick O'Leary, TE, Florida State

Nick O'Leary, the grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, has every trait that NFL teams love to see from tight ends. Should he declare for the draft, he'll likely go off the board as the No. 4 or No. 5 tight end.

The junior can do it all. Wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey told Dan Greenspan of NFL.com that "[O'Leary] has probably some of the best hands on the team."

As a pass-catching option for Heisman-winner Jameis Winston, O'Leary is especially a threat in the red zone. He hauled in seven touchdowns on 33 receptions this season, and while all the attention is focused on Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, O'Leary could very well do damage against the Auburn defense.

He isn't just a one-trick pony in the passing game, though. Greenspan notes that FSU center Bryan Stork views O'Leary as a member of the offensive line because of his proficiency at run-blocking. At 6'3", 248 pounds, O'Leary has the size to match up against guys on the edge. When doing so, he almost always finds success.

NFL teams will likely be watching O'Leary closely Jan. 6 when these two teams meet. Auburn should also pay him close attention. Otherwise, the Tigers could get burned.

 

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn

Auburn loves to run the ball—a lot. That makes its top receiving threat, sophomore Sammie Coates, a major X-factor in the BCS title game. In passing situations, he needs to come up clutch.

He has been especially useful this season in the vertical passing game, as Brandon Marcello of AL.com points out:

Coates is also the Tigers' top receiver, and his proven to be one of the best deep-play threats in the country. He's averaging 22.1 yards per catch, which ranks second in the country behind Baylor's Tevin Reese.

When defenses stuff the box to try to slow down quarterback Nick Marshall and Heisman-finalist Mason, Auburn has shown the ability (at times) to torch them over the top. Passing isn't Marshall's strong suit, though, and it will be his effectiveness at hooking up with Coates over the top of the secondary that keeps Auburn in the game.

FSU knows this. When the Seminoles inevitably stuff the box to slow down the run game, expect them to keep a corner or safety deep that can keep up with Coates. The wideout has speed to burn, but a defensive back capable of contesting the ball in the air should give him problems.

Look for Coates to have an impact on the game—one way or another.

 

Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State

Running back Devonta Freeman has the chance to make a real impact on this game. He's a very special talent in terms of rushing the ball, but he also has a good head on his shoulders, and he does whatever his team needs to win.

Mike Szvetitz of Opelika-Auburn News recently chronicled how Freeman is willing to fall short of a 1,000-yard rushing season if it means helping his team win the BCS title game:

I think we could, but 1,000 yards for me is just an individual goal, and a championship for us is a team goal. I put that aside for the team goal. I just want to win. It's something that hasn't been done in a long time.

The last Seminole to reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground was Warrick Dunn in 1996. He also accomplished the feat in 1994 and 1995.

Freeman will be relied upon heavily when Winston isn't picking apart Auburn's secondary. The key to any good passing team is how effectively they can keep the chains moving with the running game. Freeman has shown the chops to push the pile and pick up extra yardage this season, and that will be a big key for FSU's attack.  

Even if he doesn't top 1,000 yards for the season (he only needs 57 more), expect him to make his presence felt.

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BCS Championship 2014: Players to Watch in Florida State vs. Auburn Clash

The No. 1 Florida State Seminoles and the No. 2 Auburn Tigers will do battle at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 6, at 8:30 p.m. ET to determine which team is crowned champion before the BCS takes a bow.

Big names such as Heisman winner Jameis Winston are obvious ones to watch. The Florida State quarterback, along with Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, is a player who will most impact the outcome of the game.

But there are a few other weapons to keep a close eye on in the contest, as they contain game-breaking ability. The bowl season has been anything but predictable, so one of the following names may take control in what should be a shootout.

 

Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State

Winston is backed by Devonta Freeman, whose production all year helped keep defenses honest.

The junior rushed for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013 but also caught 19 passes and turned it into 257 yards and another touchdown.

The NFL has its eyes on Freeman should he declare for the 2014 draft, as Rotoworld's Josh Norris explains:

Believe the hype. Freeman has been held back a bit this season, as he had five games with less than 10 carries. Eight saw him carry the rock less than 15 times.

Expect Freeman to see an uptick in opportunities as the Seminoles look to keep the Tigers offense off the field. Freeman is more than capable of having a big day in a coming-out party of sorts.

 

Tre Mason, RB, Auburn

Flip to the other side of the running back matchup, where Auburn's Tre Mason is a bit more nationally known than Freeman.

While Marshall was Auburn's second-leading rusher with 1,023 yards and 11 scores, much of his success depends on Mason's ability to find room. Mason did just that as a workhorse with 283 carries for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns.

That ability to keep defenses on their toes is what Mason says allows the Tigers offense to be so formidable, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press:

I feel like we're pretty good at what we do, and that's what got us here. That's our edge, running our plays at a fast pace, and a very high tempo. We feel like that's our edge, getting the ball snapped before they're even ready or realize. When we play that fast, I feel like it's hard for them to determine where the ball is at.

Mason leads the nation's No. 1 rushing attack, which averages 335.7 yards per game. His 46 carries for 304 yards and four scores in the SEC Championship Game against the Missouri Tigers put him on the map, but now Mason has a chance to steal the spotlight on the biggest stage of them all.

 

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

While only Florida State's second-leading receiver behind Rashad Greene, sophomore Kelvin Benjamin is the piece that allows the Seminoles offense to churn consistently.

Standing at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin is a rare breed of physicality and speed that is nearly impossible to stop at the collegiate level.

Benjamin caught just 50 passes in 2013, but they translated to 957 yards and 14 touchdowns—with an average of 19.1 yards per catch. The definition of an elite weapon, Benjamin has recorded four games with multiple touchdowns—three of which have come in his last three games.

Against an Auburn defense that allows an average of 24 points per game, Benjamin is in for another massive performance and is a sure thing to garner national attention before he potentially takes his talents to the next level.

 

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Auburn vs. FSU: Predicting Final Score, Top Performers for 2014 BCS Championship

The two top college football teams in the nation close out what's been a wild bowl season when No. 2 Auburn (12-1) and No. 1 FSU (13-0) battle for the 2014 BCS National Championship on Monday, Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. 

Offensive fireworks should be commonplace when these two powerhouses clash.

Florida State, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, finished the regular season with the nation's top-ranked scoring offense, while Auburn, led by speedy signal-caller Nick Marshall, finished with the No. 9-ranked scoring offense. 

Both teams have been unstoppable for most of the season, winning their games by huge margins throughout the year. Auburn won by an average of 16.2 points per game, while FSU won by a staggering amount of 42.3 points per contest.

Here's a final prediction for the championship game, along with projections for the top performers. 

 

Game Prediction

As much as Auburn's season appears to be fated for glory—given the team's miraculous wins against Georgia and Alabama in consecutive weeks—this game is FSU's to lose.

On paper, the Seminoles appear to have a huge edge, featuring the nation's top scoring defense. Much like Alabama's championship defense in 2012, FSU's defense has no obvious weaknesses.

Auburn's offense has been a veritable juggernaut during the final stretch against Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, however, and should provide a unique challenge to the Seminoles in this upcoming game.

Alabama's defense had allowed just three yards per carry before Auburn shredded it for 296 yards in the 2013 Iron Bowl.

For this reason, FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is looking to that game's tape to find answers for his defense, as relayed by Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel: "Schematically, obviously us and Alabama are very similar. So how [Auburn coach Gus Malzahn] attacked Alabama, what he had success with, what he didn’t have success with."

The Seminoles will do a better job than Alabama of keeping Marshall from ripping off huge gains, thanks to the team's athletic defensive front.

On the other side, Auburn must do something no team's been able to do this season: The Tigers must somehow find a way to shut down FSU's top-ranked scoring offense.

Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee pointed out Auburn's biggest challenge: "If Auburn can't get pressure with four and is forced to blitz and open up passing lanes, quarterback Jameis Winston and these receivers are going to pick this defense apart."

Missouri's big receivers gave Auburn's secondary fits in the SEC Championship Game, and FSU's trio of Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin will do the same in this upcoming contest. 

Final Score: FSU wins, 49-35.

 

Projected Top Performers

Passing: Jameis Winston, FSU

Auburn's Marshall passed for over 300 yards just once in 2013, and his highest touchdown total the past year was two, which he achieved four times. 

Conversely, Winston topped 300 yards on seven occasions, and he threw three or more touchdowns eight times. 

The Heisman winner has three receivers at his disposal who caught at least 50 passes for at least 929 yards and six touchdowns. There's little doubt Winston will finish the game as the top passer unless he gets injured. 

Should Marshall outgun his opponent, then it will be one of the biggest shockers of the entire 2013-14 college football season. 

 

Running: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn

Thanks to FSU's athleticism up front on defense, nobody should expect Nick Marshall to break out with 200-plus yards on the ground like he did against Tennessee. He'll be lucky to crack 100 yards, as you can be sure the Seminoles will be working hard to keep him in the pocket. 

But Tre Mason could have another tremendous game between the tackles.

Consider these jaw-dropping stats: During Auburn's final five games, Mason carried the ball 30.8 times on average per game, gaining 868 total rushing yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. 

He's likely feeling spry heading into this game, too. After his incredible run to close out the season, Mason commented on the toll it took, via Auburn Gold Mine:

With a month to rest up, Mason will look to keep Auburn in the game with a huge game on the ground. 

 

Receiving: Kelvin Benjamin, FSU

It's likely another receiver will catch more passes than Benjamin, but the freakishly athletic sophomore will finish the game having made the biggest impact on the scoreboard.

At 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin is a tremendous red-zone threat. He's also pretty impressive to meet in person, as pointed out by Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports:

His 14 total receiving touchdowns tied for fifth in the nation, and he put on a remarkable three-game run to close out the season, catching 17 passes for 392 yards (23 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. 

He's become Winston's favorite target in big-game situations down the home stretch, and Benjamin should have a field day against Auburn's secondary.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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Michigan Football: Michigan State, Not Ohio State, Will Be Toughest Game of 2014

After Michigan running back Mike Hart famously referred to Michigan State as "little brother" in 2007, a stoic, unamused Mark Dantonio didn't hesitate to respond. 

"Just remember, pride comes before the fall," Dantonio said during a press conference, via YouTube. "I'm telling them: It's not over." 

Dantonio's words foreshadowed a dramatic shift in the rivalry. After the 2007 contest, Michigan had emerged victorious in six straight and eight out of 10 contests against the Spartans. 

Since then, Michigan State has taken five of the last six.  

What has traditionally been a relatively innocuous rivalry has suddenly grown fangs, and the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is now more contentious and personal than ever before. Constant trash talking is now the norm, and Michigan State in particular has played with new levels of ferocity and hunger in the series. 

The Spartans are fresh off of a spectacular 13-1 season that was capped by their first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years. They'll likely finish the season ranked third in the country, and on top of that they'll finish with the nation's top-ranked defense

While playing Ohio State in Columbus next year will be a daunting task, playing on the road at Michigan State will once again prove to be Michigan's toughest game. 

Due to a shakeup in the Big Ten next year with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Wolverines will be forced to play back-to-back road games in East Lansing. 

Michigan will have to return to the site of one of their ugliest losses in recent program history, when they rushed for an embarrassing minus-48 yards and generated just 168 yards of total offense in a 29-6 loss. 

Over the last two contests, Michigan has scored just 18 points against its in-state rival and has struggled mightily to move the football. The Wolverines have amassed just 494 yards combined in these two games, and they've looked completely outmatched against the physical Spartan defense. 

The Wolverines have moved the ball much more effectively against Ohio State in their last two meetings, racking up 882 yards of total offense and scoring 62 combined points. While Michigan State's offense has continued to develop and will return the majority of its starters next year, it's Ohio State that will prove to be a tougher test for the Michigan defense. 

Although 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde is set to graduate, the Big Ten's two-time Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, Braxton Miller, has said he'll return for his senior season. Miller has been a nightmare for the Michigan defense, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns and passing for 133 more in their most recent meeting. 

But the Michigan offense simply hasn't proven that it can score points on Michigan State, and I see little reason to believe that this trend will end next year. 

Armed with a shiny new contract extension, Dantonio is in a position to lead the Spartans to even greater heights in 2014. They've surpassed Michigan in terms of national relevance, and they'll be the favorite to emerge as Big Ten champions yet again.

While "The Game" will continue to weigh heavier on the minds of Michigan fans, it's the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy that'll prove to be the toughest test for the Wolverines in 2014. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @TomLogan_BR

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Boise State Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Boise State football finished the 2013 season with an 8-5 overall record. To put that into some perspective, it is the worst record the Broncos have had since going 6-5 overall as members of the Big West in 1998.

However, to give you a greater idea of just how unusual losing that many games in a single season is to the tradition-rich program, it takes a bit more history.

Since the Broncos began playing football in 1933 as a junior college, and even after the school became a four-year institution in the 1960s, from the Big Sky to the Big West to the WAC and now the Mountain West Conference, the Broncos have only lost five or more games in a season 12 other times.

Those are pretty impressive totals, and it should be a reminder to anyone writing off the Broncos now that Chris Petersen is gone. After all, this program has been around for 80 years, and in that time, it has continued a level of excellence beyond any single player, coach, administrator or generation of fans.

As the programs now moves forward into 2014, the goals, purpose, expectations and standards have not changed.

In fact, if anything, the bar just keeps getting higher.

With Bryan Harsin now leading the charge as head coach, the new year brings renewed hope and optimism. He and his new staff have a challenging journey ahead, but they seem very capable of climbing the mountain set before them. 

Let's look at some of the most immediate concerns this new staff must tackle and what they mean for the state of the program.

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BCS: The Most Intriguing Stories Heading into Florida State's Clash with Auburn

With the BCS National Championship game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers set to take place on Monday evening, there are a few storylines that you will need to keep close attention to during the game.

The Seminoles have been dominant throughout the entire season. The Tigers have been the beneficiary of Lady Luck's love.

Which team will prevail?

The following subplots will likely decide the winner. Each subplot was ranked by how they would each impact the outcome of the game.

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Penn State Football: 3 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

There hasn't been much for Penn State football fans to cheer about so far in 2014. 

In the past few days, new concerns have emerged that affect both the immediacy and longevity of Nittany Lion football. Recent events have sent shockwaves through the program, some even signaling a new era.  

While the magnitudes vary, all are key issues that Penn State needs to address before its 2014 football season gets underway. 

Here are the three biggest concerns for the Nittany Lions this offseason. 

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Alabama Football: Reasons to Be Optimistic About Tide After Disappointing 2013

It’s hard to look at an 11-2 season as anything except a success, but for Alabama, it almost seems like the end of the world.

Nick Saban has built Alabama into such a high-caliber program that fans expect national championships year in and year out, and rightfully so. This year, the team was certainly primed to win it all again, but it just didn’t happen.

While fans may be upset at the current state of things—AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley leaving, the defense seemingly baffled by the hurry-up offense, a lack of dominance on the offensive line—there is still much to be optimistic about.

All is not lost in Tuscaloosa. In fact, things look pretty darn good. Here are five reasons fans should feel good about the Tide heading into the offseason.

 

Derrick Henry

The freshman running back saw his first significant action of the season and more than lived up to the hype he brought in—if that was even possible.

Henry touched the ball nine times for 161 total yards, including a touchdown run of 43 yards and a 61-yard screen pass TD.

The Yulee, Fla., native who broke multiple high school rushing records is primed to see significant carries in 2014 and could even take over as the No. 1 back.

By the second half of the Oklahoma game, he was drawing comparisons to another great SEC back who opened eyes as a freshman.

 

Freakish Defensive Line

Nick Saban doesn’t like to talk about sacks, but rather the need to "affect the quarterback.” Still, he can’t deny what freshman A’Shawn Robinson did this season.

Robinson led the team with 5.5 sacks and added five quarterback hurries on the season. He and fellow freshman Jonathan Allen found themselves in the regular defensive line rotation, which can go six and seven deep, and were a disruptive force up front all year.

Add to that a 2014 class that includes 5-star pass rushers Da’Shawn Hand and Christian Miller, 4-star defensive tackle Josh Frazier and the possibility of adding 5-star Matt Elam, and the Tide looks set for a few years up front.

While the pass rush has been a concern this year across the board, it doesn’t look like it will be in the future.

 

Amari Cooper Leads Stud Receivers

Amari Cooper didn’t quite live up to the hype he brought after his freshman season, putting up “only” 736 yards and four touchdowns. But after foot injuries hampered him during the year, he finished strong with 299 yards in his final two games and looks primed for a huge junior year.

And he’ll be surrounded by a star-studded supporting cast.

Only Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell leave a group that will include the returning DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and rising redshirt sophomore Chris Black. Three 2013 signees—five-star Robert Foster, four-star ArDarius Stewart and four-star Raheem Falkins—all redshirted this year and will look to contribute this year.

The Tide will also add four-star Cameron Sims and four-star Derek Kief to an extremely talented group. Whoever the new quarterback is won’t lack for targets.

 

Saban’s Record with New Quarterback

Speaking of a new quarterback, Saban has done pretty well with rookie signal-callers.

Granted, he’s only had to break in two (Greg McElroy in 2009 and AJ McCarron in 2011), but he has set them up for success by leaning on a talented running game and lockdown defense.

He’ll have the running game with Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake all returning, and the defense will have the potential to succeed.

The options he has to pick from are a talented bunch, with rising senior Blake Sims, rising sophomore Alec Morris and a trio of talented freshmen who all redshirted. He’ll also have freshman David Cornwell coming in and could look to potential transfers for more help.

Replacing McCarron will be very difficult, but Saban has a pretty good track record of breaking in new quarterbacks.

 

Back to Square 1

While it seems crazy to say, the reality check that the end of 2013 provided could turn out to be a good thing going forward.

Like in 2010, when the Tide lost three games with a very talented squad, Alabama will come away hungry and will have something to point to what happens when things go wrong.

Only a handful of seniors on this year’s team were around for that season while the rest only knew seasons that ended in national championships. That won’t be the case anymore.

After finishing a season like they did this year, the players will only be motivated to not let it happen again.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting info comes courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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Arkansas State vs. Ball State: Score, Grades and Analysis from GoDaddy Bowl 2014

Fredi Knighten and Arkansas State denied Ball State its first ever bowl victory on Sunday night. 

The calm before the national championship storm was anything but that, as the sophomore quarterback led a late comeback drive to propel the Red Wolves to a thrilling 23-20 win over the Cardinals in the GoDaddy Bowl.

Filling in for Adam Kennedy, who left the game with an injury in the second quarter, Knighten threw for just 115 yards through the air. But many of those came when it mattered most, as he orchestrated a five-play, 59-yard touchdown drive and threw the game-winning score with just 32 seconds remaining.

It appeared, however, even that wouldn't be enough. 

Ball State drove right back down the field, but after a late hit put the Cardinals in position for a 38-yard field goal, the Red Wolves blocked it to secure to amazing, roller-coaster win. 

It was the Cardinals who got the scoring started late in the first quarter. Thanks to a heavy dose of Jahwan Edwards on the ground, they went 89 yards over 14 plays and more than six minutes, eventually scoring on a Keith Wenning-to-Willie Snead nine-yard TD connection.

Edwards finished with 146 yards and a score.

After the teams exchanged field goals, Arkansas State tied things up before halftime with a late touchdown drive that was fueled by a little Gus Malzahn-inspired trickeration:

The Red Wolves took the 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, but things got crazy in the final 10 minutes. 

Wenning threw an interception that seemingly sealed it for Arkansas State, but Knighten responded with a pick of his own—this one in the end zone. Ball State drove 80 yards and an Edwards touchdown looked to give the Cardinals the win with 1:33 remaining. 

But then came Knighten's magical touchdown drive, followed by the game-winning blocked field goal, giving Bryan Harsin an 8-5 season and bowl victory in his first campaign filling Malzahn's shoes. 

 

Player Grades

Fredi Knighten, Arkansas State: A-

Taking over for Kennedy, Knighten stepped up in a big way. 

Although he didn't do a ton of damage through the air, tallying just 5.8 yards per throw, he managed the game (75 percent completion percentage, just one turnover) and made his impact on the ground. Running Arkansas State's tricky offense, he carried the ball 19 times for 97 yards.

As the A-State Game Day Twitter feed pointed out, it was a career night for the youngster:

Throw in the game-winning drive, and it's clear Arkansas State is in very good hands for the future. 

 

Keith Wenning, Ball State: B-

In the windy conditions, Wenning had a tough night throwing the ball. He completed just 23 of 44 throws for 215 yards (4.9 yards per attempt), a touchdown and a late interception.

But as Ball State announcer Pat Boylan noted, he found other ways to make a positive impact:

Overall, it was hardly the ideal ending for Wenning, who enjoyed such a prolific collegiate career. But he had solid pocket presence and made some nice throws that showed why he has potential as a late-round NFL draft pick.

After a late drive that set the team up for the game-tying field goal, has nothing to be ashamed of. 

 

Qushaun Lee, Arkansas State: A

Playing on a Sunday night, Qushuan Lee looked a little bit like Sean Lee in the middle of Arkansas State's defense. 

The junior middle linebacker was all over the place, as he recorded double-digit tackles and then came up with a huge interception late in the game. 

It's difficult for one player to make more of an impact on the defensive side of the ball. 

 

Jahwan Edwards, Ball State: A

Where would the Cardinals' offense have been without Edwards? As Wenning struggled to find a rhythm and move the ball with consistency, Edwards was a true threat in the running game. 

The junior running back not only showed some impressive elusiveness and cutting ability, but he ran hard, often dragging tacklers for some extra yardage. This run was a good example of that:

In the end, he finished with 146 yards on 28 carries and one crucial fumble recovery late in the game, stealing the show from Ball State's high-powered pass offense. 

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Texas Football: 4 Recruits That Charlie Strong Will Immediately Lure to Texas

Chief among reasons that Charlie Strong has been hired to be Texas' next head coach is his ability to recruit. The program could use an early return on its decision.

The Longhorns' class is currently ranked No. 12 according to Rivals, sporting major holes at key positions of need, the main ones being at defensive back and defensive end.

Those holes provide Strong with a perfect opportunity to make a quick statement on the job. Signing day is less than a month away, so many of the nation's big-name recruits have already chosen where they will play their college ball.

Still, there is plenty of talent that is still waiting to be snatched up. Given his reputation as a defensive guru, as well as his ability to mine talent from the state of Florida, Strong should have no problem adding these recruits to his first Longhorn class.

 

DE Solomon Thomas

The Longhorns have been pursuing 4-star defensive end Solomon Thomas for quite some time, and the Strong hire should finally put them over the hump.

With Jackson Jeffcoat graduating and Cedric Reed potentially bolting for the NFL, Texas needs an impact end like Thomas. At 6'3" and 265 pounds, he has the size to immediately make an impact on the strong side.

The Coppell product has paid visits to Stanford, Ohio State, UCLA and Arkansas, but has kept Texas in his top five. After producing his second All-American defensive end, Strong should make a compelling case for Thomas' commitment.

 

S Edwin Freeman

After missing out on Jamal Adams, the Longhorns remain starved for a blue chip safety recruit for its 2014 secondary. For now, Edwin Freeman might be their last hope.

Currently projected to play on the back end, Freeman also has the ability to play outside linebacker. His 6'1" frame has room for added bulk, but has the requisite speed to play at safety. It all depends on what his coaches determine.

But based on Texas' need at safety, it's hard to imagine him not getting a look there. Adrian Phillips is graduating, leaving them with unproven and inconsistent options at both spots. Luckily for them, Quandre Diggs has decided to stay for his senior season and could slide over if needed.

Reeling in Freeman is among the program's highest priorities. However, Strong would be wise to check on Adams, as well as former Texas A&M commit Dylan Sumner-Gardner. All three have the ability to play meaningful snaps early on.

 

DT Travonte Valentine

Fresh off of his decommitment from Miami, Florida native Travonte Valentine is well within Strong's wheelhouse and would fill a need for the 'Horns.

Sure, Texas already has three defensive tackles committed for 2014. But Trey Lealaimatafao has taken three visits in the past month, while Courtney Garnett seems destined for a redshirt season. Zaycoven Henderson, a 4-star prospect, will also need time to develop his raw talent.

Valentine is a similar raw talent, but would easily be the leader of Texas' new crop of tackles. He has great size at 6'3" and 305 pounds, possessing the burst to create havoc in the backfield.

Alex Norman and Paul Boyette Jr. have not panned out for the Longhorns, who need depth behind upperclassmen Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson. Valentine gives them a player that will be ready to take over once they depart. 

 

RB D'Ernest Johnson

Like Valentine, D'Ernest Johnson is a Florida native that should be on Strong's radar. Texas could use him to add some depth at running back.

Johnathan Gray could be out until August with an Achilles injury. Commit Kevin Shorter is dealing with a potentially career-threatening spine injury. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are both rising seniors.

Does Texas need any other reason to add another running back to its 2014 haul?

Johnson, who has an offer from Louisville, would give Texas a shifty back that can catch passes out of the backfield. And if he doesn't work out there, he projects well as a defensive back.

Another name to watch at tailback is former Texas pledge and current Louisville commit Daniel Gresham. He is as likely as any to follow Strong to Austin and would project to be the team's power back once Bergeron graduates.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Steve Sarkisian Needs to Hire a Defensive Line Coach ASAP

Ever since Ed Orgeron angrily stormed out of Troy after being passed over for the head-coaching job, there's been a large void to fill at USC. Spirits are relatively high around the Trojans, as a Las Vegas Bowl win and success on the recruiting trail are starting off a much more favorable offseason compared to 2012.

New head coach Steve Sarkisian has been hard at work assembling a new staff around him, but fittingly enough, the one role he hasn't yet filled is that of the defensive line coach.

It's been over a month, and the position remains hauntingly vacant.

And it hasn't just been vacant; no really viable candidates have been tossed around to take the job, which is troubling, as the defense line was so pivotal to USC's success in 2013.

At first, it looked as if fabled recruiter and Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi would be following Sark to Southern California. In late December, however, USC and Washington began investigating Lupoi for NCAA violations. Lupoi was accused of paying for online classes and private tutoring for a recruit.

That brought the Lupoi train to a screeching halt and has left the Trojans without options. It has also caused some heat to come down on athletic director Pat Haden because of USC's existing sanctions. 

Sarkisian told the media that he would contact Orgeron about coming back to USC, but whether it's because of pride or other opportunities, the fan-favorite coach has yet to return to Troy. 

According to LA Daily News' Scott Wolf, that best-case scenario for Trojan fans absolutely isn't happening.

So if Orgeron isn't coming back, who is Sarkisian going to hire?

That is the million-dollar question at USC right now.

Sarkisian has assembled a top-notch staff, though it is arguable that popular coaches like Tommie Robinson and Clancy Pendergast proved enough in 2013 and should have been able to keep their jobs. Nevertheless, the position that has been the hardest to fill has been that of the D-line coach. 

It's important that Sarkisian finds a top-notch replacement soon; games are won in the trenches, and we saw in 2013 that the Trojans had one of the best fronts in the Pac-12. While much of that can be attributed to the players' talents, we know that the Orgeron effect was a major part of it.

Sarkisian should be looking for a coach who is not only a good teacher, but also a great motivator. In short, he's looking for someone Orgeron-esque, and that's what makes this particular vacancy that much more arduous to fill.

USC resumes classes on Jan. 13, and offseason workouts will begin shortly thereafter. There's no doubt the position will be filled well in advance of spring ball, but the sooner the new D-line coach can get in, make his mark and start getting to know the players, the better Sarkisian's chance of succeeding next fall.

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Ohio State Defense Must Improve Dramatically for 2014 Title Run

With quarterback Braxton Miller running Urban Meyer's spread system, Ohio State's offense operated at a record-breaking efficiency in 2013. The high-flying Buckeyes scored points at a historic rate on their way to a second consecutive undefeated regular season.

A beleaguered defense, however, cost Ohio State a chance to play for a national title. The Buckeyes were one victory away from punching their ticket to Pasadena, Calif., but Michigan State ran through the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game. Clemson did the same thing four weeks later in the Discover Orange Bowl, handing Ohio State its second loss in as many games.

If the Buckeyes hope to make a run at major college football's first playoff, they'll need dramatic improvement on that side of the ball.

Despite this year's poor results, Meyer has lofty expectations for his defense.

"Is it what we expect? No, we expect a top 10 defense at Ohio State," Meyer said, according to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors.

The Buckeyes were far from that this season. Ohio State ranked 46th in total defense, giving up an average of 377 yards per game. The Buckeyes were particularly bad against the pass, ranking 110th out of 123 teams after allowing an average of 268 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks.

It was late in the season, as if the defense were deteriorating, when things fell apart for Ohio State.

Looking ahead to next season, the Buckeyes will return six of seven starters in the front seven, but they'll be losing two of their best defenders in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. In total, the secondary will need three new starters.

Fortunately for Ohio State, there are a number of young players who appear to be primed for stardom.

Soon-to-be sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa was sensational in his first year, beating out sophomore standout Adolphus Washington for a starting position. Freshman Safety Vonn Bell, making his first start in the Orange Bowl, showcased impressive athleticism. 

Those two freshmen made the biggest defensive plays of the game.

In the first quarter with Clemson backed up at its own 1-yard line, Bosa blew through the offensive line and forced an intentional grounding call on quarterback Tajh Boyd, resulting in a safety. In the second quarter, the Tigers were threatening inside Ohio State's 10-yard line before Bell made a leaping interception on a flip pass from Boyd.

According to Rowland's article, these are the kind of players defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is expecting to step up and turn things around for the Buckeyes:

Those guys fought for every single one of those seniors. They had a great week of practice and were excited to play. I think we found some guys that we know are going to be really good players in the future.

If playmakers don't step up defensively, the 2014 season will look a lot like 2013.

 

All stats via NCAA.com

David Regimbal is the Ohio State Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

10 SEC Teams Who Will Finish in the Top 25 Recruiting Class Rankings

The SEC is generally viewed as the best conference in college football. It's extremely competitive not only on the field, but also on the recruiting trail. The final top 25 recruiting rankings are always dominated by SEC schools, and this year will be no different.

Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M have their eyes on the No. 1 spot. Auburn's magical season has helped it surge up the rankings, plus Florida and Georgia are up to their old recruiting ways.

Also, underdogs like Ole Miss and Kentucky are constructing impressive recruiting classes.

Note: All ranking information, star ratings and commitment totals are based on 247Sports' recruiting rankings

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Michigan Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Losing 31-14 to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl was just the tip of the iceberg for the Michigan Wolverines, who have several adjustments to make and concerns to address before even thinking of contending for a 2014 Big Ten title. 

This past year's 7-6 skid dashed preseason expectations that included winning a division championship, downing Ohio State and rattling off two in a row versus Michigan State. 

Not one of those three goals came to fruition, despite a somewhat encouraging offensive display during a 42-41 season-ending loss to the Buckeyes at The Big House. 

Now, it is back to the drawing board. Team 134 fell short.

If Team 135 wants to avoid a similar outcome in Ann Arbor, coach Brady Hoke must correct lingering issues prior to spring practice. 

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Virginia Tech Football: 4 Recruits Hokies Must Land on NSD 2014

National signing day (NSD) is just 30 days away, and most teams have a put a bow on the 2013 season. All teams, however, are focused on securing the signatures of mercurial and impressionable 17-year-old high school kids from across the nation as NSD rapidly approaches.  

The heavy lifting was completed months ago, as coaches traveled across their assigned geographic footprint and sold these kids on why their school was the place to be. 

The Virginia Tech Hokies currently have 27 verbal commitments. The key, though, is getting each of those commitments to sign an official letter of intent and still be able to add another player or two to what is shaping up to be one of Tech's biggest and most talented recruiting classes ever. 

Can the Hokies close with a couple of big-time recruits left on their list? Or will another team swoop in late and create more recruiting heartbreak in Blacksburg?

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What a Difference a Year Makes: Key Stats That Changed Notre Dame's Fate

A year ago, Notre Dame was in the BCS National Championship. After completing an undefeated regular season against one of the toughest schedules in football, the Irish made it to Miami thanks to a stingy defense, a strong running game and a mistake-free football team that dominated the turnover battle. 

The Irish will be home watching Auburn and Florida State play for this season's title. After winning 12 games, the Irish slid back to nine wins, with losses to Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt and Stanford revealing some of the fatal flaws of Brian Kelly's fourth Notre Dame squad. 

A large part of the slide was due to the loss of some key personnel. In addition to having to replace quarterback Everett Golson after his spring suspension, the Irish sorely missed All-Americans Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o, their top two running backs, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, and key graduating defensive starters Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta. 

But personnel changes were hardly the only problem. In addition to injuries decimating the starting lineup, a look at some of the key statistics on both offense and defense illustrate the difference between 12-1 and 9-4.  

 

Offense

There are a few striking differences between the Irish offense of 2013 and the team from 2012. The biggest is the quarterback. In Golson, Brian Kelly had a quarterback who was physically capable of executing a spread attack. In Tommy Rees, the Irish did not. 

With Golson, the Irish relied more heavily on a ground game, both to utilize his running ability and to take the mental game out of his hands. The Irish ran for 25 percent fewer yards this season (1,963) than last year (2,462), and it's hard not to notice the gaping hole Golson left as the team's leading scorer on the ground, with no running back matching his touchdown total. 

While the team's scoring average actually went up five percent, the teams rushing touchdowns were almost cut in half from 23 to 12. With essentially all new running backs, the team's rushing average fell from 4.9 yards per carry to 4.5. Without a steady ground game to rely on, the team's third-down conversion rate fell as well. 

The Irish were far more prolific scoring touchdowns via the pass, throwing for 27 in 2013 while passing for just 14 in 2012. They did that in spite of completing just 52.6 percent of passes, down from 58.2 in 2012.

While Tommy Rees was hardly known for his downfield passing, he threw for 254.8 yards per game, up over 30 yards from the 2012 average of 222.8. Rees also tossed 13 interceptions this season, an almost 40 percent increase on last year's total of eight. But factoring in fumbles lost, the Irish offense only turned the ball over twice more than last season.

 

Defense

The Irish went from an elite team to just an above-average one mostly because the defense slipped almost across the board.

The team did lose Maxwell Award winner Manti Te'o as well as fellow starters Danny Spond, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. Notre Dame also suffered significant injuries to half of its two-deep, including All-American-caliber talents in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, and those injuries showed. The unit suffered significant regressions in just about every statistical category.  

First and foremost, the Irish were easier to score on. After giving up just 12.8 points a game last year, that number jumped to 22.4, nearly a 10-point swing. The Irish gave up over 20 percent more first downs than last year, almost 40 percent more rushing yards, and after allowing a relatively stingy 3.5 yards per carry, that number jumped to 4.2 in 2013.

One of the historically tough Notre Dame rush defenses in 2012, it took until the Oklahoma game for the Irish to give up their first rushing touchdown before giving up just four on the season. This year they gave up 13, a big reason why the defense's red-zone touchdown percentage jumped from just 34 percent to 52. 

Bob Diaco's defenses in South Bend haven't been known for their takeaways or sacks, but the 2012 unit put up healthy numbers. But after tallying 34 sacks in 2012, that number dropped to just 21. And after taking the football away 23 times, that number fell to 17. 

 

Overall

After building the 2012 team's identity around a suffocating defense and a strong ground game, the offense's modest improvements weren't enough to make up for the step backward on defense. With a running attack that couldn't hold up its side of the bargain and a passing game that wasn't accurate enough to be as explosive as it needed to be, the unit's efficiency was hampered by the lack of a running quarterback. 

Yet blaming the season on Tommy Rees hardly paints an accurate picture. A year after Manti Te'o led an opportunistic, ball-hawking, no-mistakes group, the 2013 defense gave up more rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, third-down conversions and red-zone scores, all contributing to a much smaller margin for error. 

That razor-thin edge was seen all too frequently in the Irish's four losses, when defensive struggles against Michigan put the Irish in a shootout they couldn't win. Against Oklahoma, early turnovers and two broken plays on defense doomed Notre Dame. Against Pitt, critical fourth-quarter interceptions and a disappearing ground game gave the Irish one of their ugliest losses in years. And a decimated defense was no match for Stanford's power running game. 

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