NCAA Football News

Auburn Football Recruiting: 11 Players to Watch in High School All-Star Games

Most Auburn football fans already have all of their attention turned to Jan. 6 and the Tigers' upcoming BCS National Championship Game against Florida State.

Before that game concludes the 2013-14 college football season, though, there two other games on the horizon that Auburn fans will find worth watching, as future Tigers shine in the nation's two premier high school football all-star games.

The country's best high school players—both committed and still up for grabs—will be showcased over the next few days in the Under Armour All-America Game and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

In the Under Armour All-America Game, most of the Auburn commitments and targets will be wearing red helmets and playing for Team Highlight. A few others will be donning "Hyper Green" helmets and playing for Team Nitro.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl will split its teams as East and West, with East wearing black and West wearing yellow.

 

All ratings via the 247Sports' Composite system. All recruiting information via 247Sports.com and AuburnUndercover.com unless otherwise noted.

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Updates on Jimbo Fisher and FSU Agreeing to Contract Extension

Fresh off leading Florida State to its first BCS National Championship Game since the 2000 season, Jimbo Fisher has agreed to a contract extension the Seminoles hope will lead to many more conference and national titles.

Seminoles.com Managing Editor Brandon Mellor confirmed the contract extension and provided a statement from Florida State Athletic Director Stan Wilcox:

Official: Jimbo Fisher has signed a contract extension to remain #Noles head coach until at least January 2019.

— Brandon Mellor (@BrandonMellor) December 31, 2013

Statement from #Noles Athletics Director Stan Wilcox on Jimbo Fisher’s new contract: pic.twitter.com/fLkyI4LoOv

— Brandon Mellor (@BrandonMellor) December 31, 2013

Ira Schoffel of the Tallahassee Democrat previously reported that Fisher, 48, inked the extension as the Seminoles were preparing to board their flight for the BCS national championship game matchup against Auburn. Others, including Gene Williams of Warchant.com, also confirmed the extension. 

Additional terms of the contract have not yet been officially disclosed. It was previously reported, per Schoffel, that the two sides had reached an agreement on Dec. 7. Under that rumored pact, Fisher was said to have signed a new five-year deal that would pay him upwards of $4 million per season. According to Schoffel's report, details of the agreement are expected to be announced at a press conference in California Tuesday evening when the team arrives.

Fisher's current contract calls for an annual salary of $2.75 million, ranking him 21st in the nation, per USA Today. Using 2013 salaries as a baseline, the new deal would place Fisher near Michigan's Brady Hoke and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. 

Based on Fisher's last two seasons, it's hard to argue against him getting a massive raise. A year after leading the Seminoles to their first BCS bowl victory in more than a decade—a decisive Orange Bowl victory over Northern Illinois—he topped that by turning in the school's first undefeated regular season of the new millennium.

Florida State (13-0) heads into its Jan. 6 matchup versus the Tigers as one of the most dominant teams in recent college football history.

Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, the Seminoles have defeated their opponents by an average of 42.3 points per game. No team has even come within single digits, with Florida State ranking second in points scored (53 per game) and first in points allowed (10.7 per game).

Fisher was actually disappointed to have the four-week layoff between the ACC Championship Game and National Championship Game, telling the Associated Press (via The Washington Post): 

I would have been tickled to death to play the very next week after we played Duke, we were playing so well. When you have those delays, the key is getting that timing and rhythm back. But the key is you can’t be ready to quick. You’ve got to time that thing up to hopefully hit it right in stride.

Fisher hasn't had much trouble getting his teams ready for bowl games. The Seminoles are undefeated in their three postseason opportunities under Fisher, who took over for the legendary Bobby Bowden in 2010. 

In four seasons, he has compiled a 44-10 record while winning two conference championships and three ACC Atlantic Division titles. Fisher was even rumored to be a possible target for the University of Texas opening. NFL Network's Gil Brandt notes that the Longhorns' ship has now sailed:

Jimbo Fisher's extension with #FSU bad news for #Texas, which was all set to make super strong push for its No. 1 candidate.

— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) December 31, 2013

It seems almost quaint to think that, with the program scuffling in the final years under Bowden, many wondered whether Fisher would have the chops to rebuild it to national prominence. This extension proves school brass was right all along.

 

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Jameis Winston Loses Arm-Wrestling Competition to a Man in a Fedora

Losing hurts, but losing to a man in a fedora chips away at the soul.

Jameis Winston suffered a unique brand of defeat this week after engaging in an impromptu arm-wrestling competition with an unknown man in a houndstooth hipster hat.

J. Camm of BroBible spotted the video, and while the footage doesn’t exactly provide a panorama of this challenger, he’s described on YouTube as a “5'11", 163 lb. Jewish Father.” Why his religious background matters in the context of an arm-wrestling competition is known only to the uploader.

The video is a grainy affair, showing Winston and Mr. Fedora (possibly Andre from The League) squaring off at a small table in an open lobby area. Onlookers watch as the two grasp hands and go about the burly business of attempting to pin the other man’s arm to the table.

Unfortunately for the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, he “loses” the match to this unknown quantity sporting a trendy, bucket-style hat. 

One can imagine it was a difficult loss to stomach for Winston, considering he's 6’4”, 227 lbs. and can throw footballs anywhere you need them on the field. 

Perhaps it was the challenger’s mind games that turned the tide against the Heisman winner.

“Oh, you’re the quarterback?” the man asked before taking him down.

That’s how you get into the head of a young superstar—don’t acknowledge the greatness. Also, it's likely that Winston’s challenger was arm-wrestling for pride.

Judging by the look of the video and its running off-camera commentary, it could be that Mr. Fedora’s son stood by filming the entire thing on a portable toaster. We might also presume he was wearing a smaller, more adorable fedora.

Either way, it was an admirable display, Jameis. Just don’t do anything to tire that arm out before Jan. 6. 

 

I know it was you, Andre.

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Florida State vs. Auburn Hype Tape: Get Ready for the 2014 BCS Championship

The last national championship of the BCS era is here with Auburn taking on undefeated Florida State. The Tigers surged in the last few weeks of the season, but the Seminoles dominated every team they played.

Heisman winner Jameis Winston looks to top off an incredible season with a national championship, but will Auburn pull out some more miraculous plays to take home the crystal football?

Watch the video and get fired up for what will be an epic showdown.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

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Big Ten Football: 3 Reasons Why the B1G Bowl Season Will Be a Colossal Dud

Some things are just given in sports. The Chicago Cubs not making the World Series, the Cleveland Browns missing the playoffs and the Big Ten laying an egg during bowl season. Already 0-2 after losses by Minnesota and Michigan, the nightmare scenario is unraveling for the conference once again.

Of course the apologists will say that the lower-tiered bowls are meaningless. This is nonsense.   The Wolverines and Golden Gophers are not good teams and neither are most of the other teams in the Big Ten. It is that simple.

Others will argue that fans in the Big Ten root for their teams, not the conference. Give it a break. Sure, nonconference and bowl losses by other teams are not shared, but the abundance of losses over the last three years has been embarrassing for everyone. Consequently, any significant achievement made in conference play is immediately ridiculed. 

New Year’s Day provides an opportunity to restore some pride. It could also deliver another round of humiliation.   Odds favor the latter, which will further cement the widespread opinion that the Big Ten is no longer relevant in the FBS.

No conference takes more pride in sticking it to the Big Ten than the SEC. Few things get under the skin of Big Ten fans more than the SEC chant. Most will say they hate it because they feel SEC fans are taking credit for something not earned. The real reason is the chant represents something they don’t have: championships.

Granted, Ohio State won the BCS title in 2002 and Michigan captured the AP Championship in 1997. Bravo. The SEC has nine in the same time period and two more if you go back another six years.

Maybe a few of these titles were handed to the SEC on a silver platter, but most were earned. 11 titles in 20 seasons don't represent a fluke. The SEC’s best took care of business when it mattered most.

Over the last 10 years, the Big Ten is 10-13 against the SEC on January 1, which is hardly lopsided. Many Big Ten fans will point to this record as proof that the SEC is not as deep as proclaimed. The issue, though, is Ohio State’s two BCS Championship losses. These blowouts highlighted the SEC’s superiority over the Big Ten, and the conference has been in defense mode ever since.

The real dagger may not be the losses to the SEC but instead the 1-9 record in the Rose Bowl since 2001. It is no secret that the Big Ten measures itself by the outcome of this game. After dominating in the 1990s, the conference has had trouble winning the “Granddaddy of Them All,” over the last decade.

A win by Michigan State won’t immediately repair the Big Ten’s image, but it would be a step in the right direction. To really make a statement, the conference needs to go 2-1 against the SEC in the Outback Bowl, Gator Bowl and Capital One Bowl, and for Ohio State to win the Orange Bowl.

There is an important issue beyond the bowl games. A new era is beginning next season when the Football Bowl Subdivision will finally have a postseason playoff. The four teams will be selected by a 13-member committee. Humans will decide who will play in the College Football Playoff. Perception will be a factor in determining the teams. Right now, the Big Ten is vulnerable.  Finishing with a winning bowl record will help ease the negative opinion that surrounds the conference.   

Unfortunately, the conference will be lucky to win one game, let alone three or four. Here are three reasons why the Big Ten will struggle in its remaining bowl games.

 

Quarterback Play

Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, Nebraska quarterback Ron Kellogg III and Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock are all average quarterbacks that no respectable defense fears.

Quarterback Passing Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Joel Stave 2,414 20 12 Ron Kellogg III 919 6 3 Jake Rudock 2,281 18 12

*Statistics provided by NCAA.com

The glaring statistic is the excessive interceptions which are shocking considering the Badgers, Cornhuskers and Hawkeyes are all good at protecting the quarterback.

The game plan is simple. The Gamecocks, Bulldogs and Tigers will load the box to stop the running game and force Stave, Kellogg III and Rudock to win the games with their arms. When this happens, the games will be over because these quarterbacks are mistake-prone. 

 

Ohio State’s Defense

Concerns were already high on how the much-maligned secondary could handle Clemson’s passing offense that averages 329.3 yards per game. With star defensive end Noah Spence potentially out for a personal reason and cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Curtis Grant nursing injuries, the Buckeyes might be in deep trouble.

Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant form one of the nation's premier wide receiver combinations. On the season, Watkins has 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Bryant has 39 catches for 800 yards and five touchdowns. Their size and speed will test the Buckeyes defense all night. 

There is a glimmer of hope considering that Florida State and South Carolina had little trouble slowing down Clemson’s potent attack, but the Buckeyes secondary is not on the same level. Stopping Watkins may mean having to play press coverage or just double-teaming him. This will leave the defense vulnerable, but that is the risk it needs to take to win the game.

The best bet for Ohio State to win the game is to ride running back Carlos Hyde. Clemson’s rush defense allows 152.6 yards per game, so Hyde should have a field day if given the chance. The question is whether or not coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have the will to chuck the system and just hand the ball to Hyde.

 

Stanford’s Ground Game

Stanford and Michigan State are so similar it is scary. Both teams have outstanding defenses and strong rushing attacks. Neither team has a glaring weakness.

  Rushing Defense Passing Defense Scoring Defense Rushing Offense Passing Offense Scoring Offense Turnover Margin Stanford 91.2 247.8 18.6 210.9 202.2 33.2 -1 Michigan State 80.8 167.4 12.7 182.2 202.5 29.8 +14

*Statistics provided by NCAA.com

They share one common opponent in Notre Dame. The Cardinal beat the Fighting Irish 27-20, and the Spartans lost 17-13. Michigan State is a different team now than it was on September 21, so reading into that loss is a stretch.  

What might be important in predicting the outcome of this game is the overall strength of schedule for both teams. The Pac-12 is clearly better than the Big Ten this year. UCLA, Washington and Arizona State beat Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin respectively on September 14. The Cardinal beat UCLA, Washington and Arizona State this year. Coupled with the win over Notre Dame, the edge favors Stanford since its road to the Rose Bowl was more challenging.

Of course this is speculation, but there is cause for concern. Are Michigan State’s defensive statistics inflated because it played inferior opponents compared to Stanford? Probably.

Stanford is going to do what Ohio State failed to do against Michigan State. Feed running back Tyler Gaffney the ball in the fourth quarter. On the season, Gaffney has rushed for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns. The Cardinal will take advantage of the absence of standout linebacker Max Bullough by pounding the ball until the holes open late in the game. 

 

Analysis

Finding a win for Wisconsin, Nebraska or Iowa is difficult, but history suggests one of these teams will win. Ohio State has the offense to beat Clemson, but its defense is a huge liability. The loss of Bullough will hurt Michigan State.

Fans want to believe that the teams will do well, but only Ohio State and Wisconsin will win, leaving the Big Ten with a 2-5 bowl record. It is a shame that the revenue dominance of the conference has not led to strong performances on the field. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney has laughed all the way to bank, but the fans have been left defending the indefensible. The conference is terrible.

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ASU Player Tries to Return Muffed Punt the Wrong Way

Never take the path of least resistance. 

Arizona State’s Alden Darby made a heads-up play against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl Monday night, but he ended up running the wrong way with the ball.

The bizarre incident was spotted by Kiley Kmiec of Next Impulse Sports and began after two Texas Tech players muffed a punt near their own 40-yard line. The loose ball bounced in Darby’s direction, and the ASU safety grabbed it and began running.

The entertaining part—he was running in the wrong direction.

A GIF of the incident was crafted by @CJZero. It’s something you can see over and over and still not quite understand.

GIF via @CJZero

Darby pivoted in the direction of his own end zone and began searching for daylight. His teammates were all around him, waving frantically toward Tech’s end zone, to no avail. 

The ASU safety made several moves in the wrong direction before being brought down by Lloyd Carrington and a pair of Red Raiders. To be clear, Carrington is a defensive back for ASU. He helped bring down his own teammate. 

It was that kind of night for the Sun Devils, which went on to lose to 37-24 to the Texas Tech. Darby and the ASU secondary just couldn’t contain the Red Raiders passing game, surrendering 403 passing yards and four touchdowns to Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb. 

Something seems really wrong with Alden Darby tonight. Been out of position all night long, running backwards, etc.

— Matthew Vincent (@Mister_MVP) December 31, 2013

Alden Darby recovered he ball and was clearly confused on which way to return the ball. Could've returned it to the house. #ASU #HolidayBowl

— Ben Haber (@HaberBen) December 31, 2013

While it may appear as though Darby cost his team an easy six points by running the wrong way, that would not be the case. NCAA and NFL rules state that a player on the kicking team cannot advance a muffed punt after recovery, so Darby's awkward return was more embarrassing than harmful.

Look on the bright side, Sun Devils fans. He could’ve went full “Wrong Way” Parker and returned it 60 yards the other way.

At least Darby was brought down quickly. That’s the silver lining in this playbook. Rimshot.

 

Join me on Twitter for more awful ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ puns.

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Rose Bowl 2014: Players to Watch in Stanford vs. Michigan State

Don't expect many hijinks when the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (12-1) and the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (11-2) square off in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl.

Wednesday's West Coast matinee (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) will feature two of the nation's most physical teams who like to pound the ball on the ground and hit hard on defense.

There will be several individual stars on display in Pasadena, including some with bright NFL futures.

Here's a look at four of the top players who will step between the lines on New Year's Day in what promises to be an entertaining Rose Bowl.

 

RB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford

Tyler Gaffney is the definition of a workhorse in college football.

Stanford has relied on the senior tailback all year, as his 306 carries make him one of five FBS players to have racked up at least 300 rushing attempts. He has totaled 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2013, wrapping things up with a 22-carry, 133-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 38-14 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game.

Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times recently noted Gaffney's unique path to his senior season after he sat out 2012 to pursue a baseball career:

Stanford Coach David Shaw had kept in touch with Gaffney during baseball season, sending him occasional texts to congratulate him on a game-winning hit or other milestones. Shaw would teasingly say, 'You've got one more year left,' privately believing Gaffney would give baseball at least two years before perhaps returning.

But one day Shaw checked his phone and saw a text from Gaffney.

"It said, 'Hey, Coach, can we talk?'" Shaw recalled. "I knew what it was. He has a love and passion for the game of football and he couldn't wait to come back and play."

He doesn't have breakaway speed, but Gaffney is a tough runner between the tackles. It will be interesting to monitor the battle in the trenches, as the powerful Stanford offensive line will face a talented Michigan State front seven.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is an efficient player under center, but expect the Cardinal to use Gaffney to try and wear down a rugged MSU defense that ranks second in rushing yards allowed per game (80.8) and fourth in points allowed per game (12.7) nationally.

 

CB Darqueze Dennard, MSU

The Michigan State defense suffered a big loss recently when leading middle linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for undisclosed team violations.

Still, the Spartans are littered with talent up and down their defense, and Darqueze Dennard figures to have the brightest NFL prospects of them all. In his most recent mock draft published on Dec. 30, Dane Brugler of CBS Sports pegged Dennard as the No. 10 overall pick in the draft while Rob Rang had him going No. 11.

Dennard has made quite a name for himself since high school, as noted by Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

Dennard will be MSU's biggest weapon against Hogan, who put up solid numbers (2,487 passing yards, 20 TDs, 9 INTs) for Stanford in 2013. The 5-foot-11, 197 cornerback could spend a lot of time matched up with speedy top Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery (58 catches, 937 yards, 10 TDs).

Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, who used to coach with the New York Jets, likened Dennard to NFL star Darrelle Revis, per Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle:

"He locks people down," Bloomgren said. Opposing receivers rarely make much yardage on him. "Not many people even catch the ball on him," he said.

Dennard and his opposite number, Trae Waynes, allow their teammates to often commit nine players to stopping the run, Bloomgren said. "Not many people in college football - or any level - can do that."

The former Jets assistant coach said Dennard "does for their defense what (All-Pro) Darrelle Revis did for ours in New York."

Dennard's talents have already been recognized, as he won this season's Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Now he gets a chance to prove himself in the Granddaddy of Them All.

 

LB Trent Murphy, Stanford

Before bowl season started, menacing linebacker Trent Murphy led the nation with 14 sacks en route to being named a second team All-American.

The 6'6", 261-pound edge-rusher in the 3-4 defense was one of four Cardinal defenders to make the Pac-12 First Team, along with linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds.

As Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News noted, Murphy has developed quite the reputation among his teammates.

"He's actually softened up since he got here,'' Skov said. "He was like a wolf that's brought into the pound and, surrounded by other dogs, becomes more like one of them.''

The dogs thought enough of the wolf to name him a captain for the 2013 season. Always one of the last players off the practice field, Murphy is polite to a fault, self-deprecating and introspective. He even has "a goofy side,'' according to Skov.

But when the fifth-year senior steps on the field and flips the switch, destruction is sure to follow. His nickname is Yeti, for the Abominable Snowman.

Murphy will be tasked with trying to break through a stout MSU offensive line that has enabled quarterback Connor Cook to put up efficient numbers (2,423 passing yards, 20 TDs, five INTs) this season. The Spartans have allowed just 13 sacks in 13 games, so Murphy's abilities will be tested on Wednesday.

 

RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State

Jeremy Langford is MSU's answer to Gaffney.

The Spartan was overshadowed by other Big Ten tailbacks like Ohio State's Carlos Hyde this year, but still is one of the nation's most prolific backs with 1,338 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. He enters the game with a streak of eight straight 100-yard games, as noted by David M. Lombardi of KNBR:

Langford capped off the year with a 24-carry, 128-yard, one-touchdown performance against OSU in the Big Ten championship game, leading MSU to a 34-24 victory to knock the Buckeyes out of the national championship picture.

Per another Los Angeles Times report from Klein, Langford sounds like he's taking a blue-collar approach to the Rose Bowl:

"Go get the four yards that we need,” Langford said. “I might not be biggest but I’m going to run with power and I play the whole game. Take no plays off blocking or running. I grind.”

That's the right kind of mindset for Michigan State heading into its formidable matchup with Stanford, which gives up 91.2 rushing yards per game to rank third-best in the nation. 

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Top Storylines That Will Decide UCF vs. Baylor

The No. 15 UCF Knights and No. 6 Baylor Bears will collide in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl after both finished the best seasons in their respective histories.

Not only that, the showdown in Glendale, Ariz., is the first BCS berth for both schools. While this seems like a recipe for a boring game, it will be anything but as two of the nation's top offenses and quarterbacks square off in a contest sure to be one of the bowl season's highest-scoring affairs. 

Like any prolific matchup, there are a few storylines in the Fiesta Bowl fans must be intricately familiar with to fully grasp how things may unfold.

 

Can the UCF Offensive Line Keep Blake Bortles Upright?

UCF junior quarterback Blake Bortles is one of college football's best signal-callers (more on that later), but he cannot be effective from his back.

The Knights offensive line has had a rough go of it as of late. Bortles was sacked a total of seven times in the team's first seven games but wound up on his back 14 times in the team's last five—11 came in a horrible three-game stretch.

That is a downward trend that must improve immediately if Bortles is to keep up with the nation's top-ranked offense that scores an average of 53.3 points per game. Senior Justin McCray says the issue certainly is not chemistry, as captured by Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:

I think we've grown a lot together. Just with techniques and just as a unit, getting in watching film together, we came together great as a unit. When [my time at] UCF ends, that's not going to be the end of this line, I'm going to be good with these guys for the rest of my life.

Whatever the issue, keep a close eye on the beef up front when UCF has the ball.

 

What Impact Will Tevin Reese Have?

Senior Tevin Reese is only the second-leading receiver for Baylor with his 33 receptions for 824 yards and eight scores.

But Reese missed the last four games of the season due to injury. His jaw-dropping 25 yards-per-reception average helped propel the Baylor offense, while his absence was apparent in the final four games.

Reese is back on track and ready to recapture the minds of Baylor fans, as he told the media per Nick Canizales of KCEN:

The return of Reese adds another dimension to the nation's best offense—his elite speed can stretch the UCF defense deep and create opportunities for others. 

The Bears will need him to be effective from the opening gun considering the Knights rank in the top 12 with an average of 19.6 points allowed per game.

 

Which Elite Quarterback Can Score the Most?

At the end of the day, the focus will be on the quarterbacks, as many consider the Sugar Bowl to be the best quarterback matchup of the bowl season.

The aforementioned Bortles is coming on strong as an NFL prospect after an impressive year in which he threw for 3,280 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Baylor's Bryce Petty, formerly a Heisman contender, has already declared his intention to return to school next season. He threw for 3,844 yards, 30 touchdowns and just two interceptions in 2013.

Petty understands that this is a major opportunity for both quarterbacks, as he told Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel:

Definitely, that’s just a chance for me to prove who I am. As far as being in Waco we might not get all the national attention, neither does UCF. I think it’s a great match for both of us to kind of put our skills up there and let everybody see who Bryce Petty is and who Blake Bortles is.

Fans will not want to miss this. Petty and Bortles both have plenty to prove, and a marquee win over one another, not to mention in one of the season's biggest bowls, is the ultimate goal. Both will surely be on top of their game, which is nothing but a good thing for fans.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Key Players Who Will Decide Oklahoma vs. Alabama

Two traditional powerhouses are set to collide when the No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners and No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide meet in the 2013-14 Sugar Bowl.

While not the sexiest of matchups because both sides enjoy keeping the ball on the ground and playing sound defense, it is difficult to find a bowl game between two more dominant schools. The contest marks the Crimson Tide's third straight BCS berth, while it is No. 9 for the Sooners—which is the second most all time:

Despite such prestige, fans may find it difficult to identify the key players because these teams do not tout typical collegiate air-raid attacks with multiple high-profile superstars.

No, this game will be much more grounded, where only a few players will truly dictate the outcome.

 

Trevor Knight and Blake Bell, Quarterbacks, Oklahoma

Perhaps no player better understands the importance of this game than Oklahoma freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, as he told the media, per the team's Twitter account:

Knight better also understand he is part of a quarterback rotation that is meant to keep the Crimson Tide guessing during its preparation for the game. Co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel outlined the approach, per the team's website:

Well, we mixed and matched. Some of it was planned and some of it wasn’t. You’ve got a couple of different injuries that happened the last two or three weeks of the season and you try to put those guys in the position to look successful. We’ll have a mixture of a little bit of everything at the Sugar Bowl to give ourselves a chance to win the ball game.

The Sooners have used Knight in tandem with Blake Bell in recent weeks. They took a three-quarterback approach by adding Kendal Thompson to the mix during a 33-24 victory over Oklahoma State to close the season.

Bell has been the primary man under center in 2013 as noted by his 1,648 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. Knight has seen more time near season's end and has 471 passing yards and five scores but also serves a dual-threat role with his 438 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The Alabama defense has had to prepare for both quarterbacks over the course of the last month, not knowing who will see the majority of the playing time. That advantage makes Bell and Knight two of the most important players on the field in New Orleans.

 

AJ McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama

This year's Heisman runner-up has much to prove in his final collegiate game. AJ McCarron is headed for the 2014 NFL draft, but before doing so, he must avoid an upset at the hands of the Sooners.

At the same time, McCarron must prove to all onlookers that he is not simply propped up by the extreme talent around him.

It is simple to slap the "game manager" label on McCarron. He threw for 2,676 yards and 26 scores to five interceptions as a senior but has plenty to prove in his final act.

The Oklahoma defense, which ranks in the top 25 with an average of 21.3 points allowed per game, will surely key on McCarron as the focal point of its plan. Not only does McCarron have to rise above for his own personal reasons, he must do it for his team to win.

 

Brennan Clay, Running back, Oklahoma

Oklahoma senior running back Brennan Clay is the wild card not receiving much publicity.

Clay had an underwhelming 913 yards and six touchdowns this year, but it is important to understand one thing—when Clay is on, he is on. Check out his three best games this season:

Those are scary numbers and any Alabama fan viewing them would be wise to remember Auburn's Tre Mason torching the Crimson Tide defense for 164 yards and a touchdown in the SEC Championship.

Sure, Alabama ranks No. 2 overall with just 11.3 points allowed per game, but Mason showed the unit can be vulnerable on the ground.

Not only must the Crimson Tide prepare for multiple quarterbacks, the unit also must prep for a back in Clay who can break a game open with apparent ease.

 

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USC Football: Steve Sarkisian's Staff Is Finally Taking Shape

With the news that USC Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian has secured the services of tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, per USCTrojans.com, there only remain a few spots open on his inaugural 2014 staff.

Among those assistant gigs that need filling are offensive line and strength and conditioning coaches, and it appears that Sark has zeroed in on who will fill those spots.

It is being reported that Ivan Lewis, the strength and conditioning coach at Washington will assume that position at USC:

#USC officially announced the hiring of Ivan Lewis as strength and conditioning coach.

— USC Football News (@USCFootballNews) December 31, 2013

Lewis is known as a well-respected coach and strong motivator who gets things done, and with a depleted roster facing Sark in 2014, knowing that his athletes are in prime shape will be greatly appreciated.

However, while strength and conditioning is an integral part of a solid football program, as units go, the offensive line is absolutely crucial to a team's overall success.

And it is at this unit that Sark appears to have pulled off an absolute coup when it comes to the coaching of the "big uglies."

USC Trojans.com is reporting that San Francisco 49ers offensive line Coach Tim Drevno will take over as O-line coach for the Trojans in 2014.

USC's official website also tweeted the following:

Sarkisian has also brought in Marques Tuiasosopo (from UW) to coach tight ends and Tim Drevno (from the 49ers) as the offensive line coach.

— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 31, 2013

With this hire, Sark will have secured the services of one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the game today.

Drevno shared offensive line coaching duties with Mike Solari while at San Francisco but has over 20 years of collegiate experience including stints at Stanford, UNLV and San Jose State.

Sark has now taken care of an important assistant position, and this hire is even more crucial with the Trojans expected to sign up to six offensive line recruits in this year's class.

The new head coach can turn his attention now to the last available spots on his staff, and perhaps one of those will be defensive line where Trojan fans are holding their breath that Ed Orgeron will have a change of heart and come back to USC.

But even if this doesn't work out, Sark is assembling a fine group of assistants, and USC fans should feel very good about how their football team will be coached in 2014 and beyond.

Follow me on twitter: @RickMcMahan 

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Sugar Bowl 2014: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

After Auburn returned a field goal and ended Alabama's hopes of a national title, the Crimson Tide were relegated to the Sugar Bowl and a date against Oklahoma. 

This isn't particularly good news for either school. 

Although the Sugar Bowl is nothing to sneeze at, it isn't going to leave a lasting impression on Nick Saban's resume. Not that anyone should expect Saban to demand anything other than his players' best.

The lack of a shot at a national title doesn't appear to have hurt fan interest for the Tide: 

Saban is 5-1 in bowl games at Alabama, and this Crimson Tide squad is just as talented as the last two, which went on to win national championships. This year's squad was just not quite as lucky. 

That is why Alabama's inclusion in this game is bad news for Oklahoma. The Sooners will not bring the same talent level to the Superdome. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops did his part to put a positive spin on the matchup, though:

The Sooners battled through inconsistent quarterback and defensive performances. They did, however, end the season in good form. They posted a three-game winning streak that included a season-ending 33-24 triumph over Oklahoma State. 

If the Sooners have used the momentum from their late stretch of success to fuel a good month of practices while Alabama has spent more time lamenting missed opportunities, perhaps an upset will be in store. 


When: Thursday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La. 

Watch: ESPN 

Betting Line: Alabama -15.5, according to Bovada on Dec. 30 

Injury Report (via USA Today)

 

Key Storyline: Who Will Step Up Under Center for the Sooners?

On the season, the Sooners are 90th in the nation in yards per pass attempt, and it's not like they have been playing the nation's fiercest defenses. The Big 12 has seen improved defense over the past few seasons, but it's still a friendly place for quarterbacks. 

As a result of those struggles, the quarterback position has been a bit of a revolving door, and three quarterbacks threw more than a pass against Oklahoma State in Oklahoma's last game. 

Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson combined for just 5-of-16 passing with no touchdowns and an interception. Luckily for the Sooners, Blake Bell came in and went 10-of-16 for 140 yards, and he threw the game-winning touchdown.

We will see if Bell or any of the other quarterbacks will keep a hot hand rolling against Alabama. This is not Nick Saban's most intimidating defense, but it is very good. Alabama is 21st in the nation in yards allowed per pass, and its 10 interceptions are one more than the nine touchdown passes it allowed. 

Prediction: Alabama 38, Oklahoma 20

Oklahoma will keep this game close early with some inspired play. The Sooners will begin to wilt, however, as Alabama continues to grind out yards and points and the Sooners are forced to try and keep up. This will lead to a second half dominated by Alabama. 

 

All stats via CFBStats.com.

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Oregon's Nick Aliotti Leads an Impressive Defensive Stand at the Alamo Bowl

They say you are only as good as your last game. If that is true, Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is finally due for the respect that is usually reserved for the Ducks' high-flying offense.

A week ago, Aliotti wasn't even on the media's radar as they began coverage in anticipation of Monday's Valero Alamo Bowl. The looming departure of Texas head coach Mack Brown was the dominant story in the weeks leading up to the game.

As he has done during the majority of his coaching career at Oregon, Aliotti took a backseat to a more media-friendly narrative leading up to the game. 

With all the hoopla surrounding Brown and the Texas coaching search, Aliotti quietly prepared his oft-overlooked defense. Once the game started, it was the outgoing Oregon coach who had the bigger impact on the field.

On a night when the Oregon offense was mostly out of rhythm, it was Aliotti and the Oregon defense which kept the Ducks' lead at a comfortable margin all night.

Aliotti announced last week that the matchup with Texas would be his final game before retirement. After a dominant effort from his defense on Monday night, the Ducks made sure their undervalued and sometimes maligned coordinator went out on a high note.

Usually it is Oregon's high-flying offense which keeps Aliotti and his defense out of the spotlight. In front of the second-largest crowd in Alamo Bowl history, the Ducks made sure their defense and its longtime coordinator took a backseat to no one. 

For the first time since a 7-6 loss to Harvard in the 1920 Rose Bowl, Oregon held a bowl opponent to seven points or less. Other than a one-yard quarterback sneak from Texas quarterback Case McCoy late in the first quarter and the ensuing point after, the Ducks didn't allow another point.

Against the Ducks, the Longhorns had as many punts as they did points. Texas punter Anthony Fera totaled 295 yards on seven attempts, outgaining his own team's offense by 59 yards.

Other than running back Malcolm Brown, who ran for 130 yards on 26 carries, the banged-up Longhorns were lifeless on offense. The Ducks shut down the weapons that Texas was able to put on the field, and when they didn't, the Longhorns shot themselves in the foot by dropping a handful of passes.

Texas is far from the offensive juggernaut that it was during most of the Mack Brown era, but it is still a talented group capable of putting points on the board. That being said, the Ducks never allowed the Longhorns to utilize that talent and smothered them from the opening kickoff.

It started on the game's third play when safety Avery Patterson snared a tipped pass from Texas quarterback Case McCoy and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. It continued when linebacker Derrick Malone intercepted a McCoy pass and returned it 38 yards for a score with nine minutes remaining in the game.

Unfortunately for Texas, the Oregon defense didn't let up until after it stopped Texas on a fourth down in the red zone with 3:23 remaining in the game. Between the opening kickoff and the fourth-down stop, the Ducks allowed just 236 yards of offense. 

The Ducks weren't able to turn their own 469 yards of offense into touchdowns as the Texas defense was up to the challenge of facing the Ducks and their high-powered offense. It didn't matter. On just two plays, the Oregon defense doubled the scoring output of the entire Texas team.

On the night when the Ducks set a school record for total yards in a season, the defense nearly outscored its much more famous teammates. The Ducks were held to one offensive touchdown and four field-goal attempts in five trips inside the Texas 25-yard line.

Aliotti has coached football for 38 years, including 24 with the Ducks. Fans and boosters have had a love-hate relationship with the outspoken coach during his tenure in Eugene. He never flinched when his job was thought to be in jeopardy, and he always stuck to his plan.

In recent years, the Ducks have acquired the type of athletes which have allowed Aliotti's aggressive style to thrive. On Monday night, one of the most talented groups in his 17 years as Oregon's defensive coordinator put on a clinic against one of college football's most storied programs.

Texas played hard and wanted to win the game for its legendary coach, but the Longhorns ran into a better team. Oregon also had a much-loved coach taking part in his last game, and it made sure the swan song for both coaches was controlled by a bunch of Ducks.

Oregon played as well as it ever has on defense under Aliotti against a team the caliber of Texas. Two interceptions, two sacks and two defensive touchdowns all led to a second bowl win against the Longhorns since the 2000 season.

Entering the game, the Ducks were facing many questions regarding their motivation as they prepared for their first non-BCS bowl game since 2008. As the emotional leader of the coaching staff for many years, Aliotti wasn't going to allow the Ducks to come out flat.

Maybe he had no intention of lighting a fire under his team, or perhaps the savvy veteran had this ace up his sleeve all along. Regardless of when the announcement came or why he decided that it was finally time to retire, Aliotti had one last game to coach.

Simply put, he and his players painted a masterpiece for the Ducks in San Antonio. Going out with a big win on the strength of his defense against a program like Texas is surely something he will recall fondly when looking back on his career.

He always wanted to do it his way and did just that. His style of play-calling was sometimes infuriating for fans and sometimes brilliant. Regardless of how it was classified, Aliotti never allowed an opposing quarterback or offensive coordinator to be comfortable when facing the Ducks.

With more than two decades of service as a member of the Ducks' coaching staff and as a part of the Oregon community, Nick Aliotti should be remembered as one of the key pieces in the development of the Ducks-heavy sports culture in Eugene

It wasn't always pretty on the defensive side of the ball, but Aliotti stuck with his vision, and it eventually worked out. Throughout the majority of his tenure with the Ducks, it has been the Oregon offense receiving all of the attention, but the defense has been as much a part of Oregon's monumental rise.

Maybe it was meant to be, or maybe it is a coincidence. Either way, the longtime architect of Oregon's defense saved his best for last, and it came at the Alamo.

With a defensive effort for the ages, the Oregon players shown how much they respect and love Aliotti as a coach and a mentor.

He has always been held in high regard within the program, but after the Alamo Bowl, Aliotti should finally receive the respect from Oregon fans which he has always earned but never truly received. 

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Holiday Bowl 2013: 10 Things We Learned from Arizona State vs. Texas Tech

The Holiday Bowl might not have the same prestige of a New Year's Day bowl game, or of one of the games involved in the soon-to-be-dead BCS or the soon-to-be-born College Football Playoff.

But the late-December game in San Diego somehow proves to be one of the most entertaining of each bowl season, and this year was no different thanks to Texas Tech's surprising 37-23 upset of Arizona State.

The game had many great things happen for Tech (8-5), as well as some not so good occurrences for the losing Sun Devils (10-4).

Check out what we think were some of the most important things we learned from the 2013 Holiday Bowl.

Begin Slideshow

Jace Amaro Officially Announces He Will Enter 2014 NFL Draft

Sorry, NFL defensive backs and linebackers. Jace Amaro is coming to the NFL. 

Shortly after Texas Tech's win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl on Monday night, the freakishly gifted tight end announced he would forego his senior season and enter the 2014 draft in May. 

Mike Graham of The Dallas Morning News has the news:

Amaro talked about his decision via Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:

Operating primarily as the slot option in the Red Raiders' Air Raid spread offense, Amaro put up some silly production in 2013. In 12 regular season contests, he pulled in 98 passes for 1,240 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

After tallying over 100 yards in the first half against the Sun Devils, he set the record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end, per Texas Tech Associate Director of Communications Scott Lacefield:

James Casey's lack of consistent NFL success proves that collegiate production doesn't necessarily translate, but Amaro is a special prospect. 

FOX Sports Southwest's David Ubben notes the high praise that Amaro receives from coaches throughout the Big 12, calling him the "real deal":

Standing at 6'5" and weighing 260 pounds, Amaro shouldn't be as talented of a receiver as he is. Nevertheless, despite his frame, he is a polished route runner and has tremendous hands.

He still needs improvement in the run-blocking game. But a player his size with the versatility to line up all over the field along with the agility and speed to make plays consistently like a wide receiver is rare—and increasingly valued in the NFL.

In fact, according to Bleacher Report's Michael Felder, it's even comical watching players attempt to defend him:

CBS Sports, ESPN Scout Inc and Rotoworld's Josh Norris all rank North Carolina's Eric Ebron as the top tight end ahead of Amaro, but at this point, it's nothing more than splitting hairs when it comes down to separating the two. 

Both players look like future stars, and we know now both players will be a part of the 2014 draft. 

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Reliving Texas Longhorns Football Coach Mack Brown's Final Night

Mack Brown's career didn't start at the University of Texas, but by the looks of it you would have never guessed he coached anywhere else. On December 30, 2013, Brown put on and took off the headset one last time.

He started his coaching career at Florida State University working with wide receivers. He got his first head coaching job with Appalachian State. He even was the offensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. After multiple 10-win seasons at the University of North Carolina, Brown was hired by Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds to coach the Horns football team.

And the rest is history.

So here's Brown's final night. The Longhorns played the University of Oregon Ducks in the 2013 Valero Alamo Bowl.

Bevo started the evening off with a slight modification to his wardrobe. The longhorn changed the lettering on his halter from "BEVO" to "MACK" via @darrenrovell.

Brown entered the football stadium one last time as the Texas head coach. He waved at fans captured by @MaxOlson.

The Longhorns took the field and Brown got one last pregame interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe. The game was underway, and it wasn't going in favor of the Longhorns. Here's Brown leaving the huddle after coaching up the offense; photo embedded below.

Then halftime came with the Longhorns down 20-7. The Texas band spelled out "Mack" via @thesean.

The second half got underway and the Longhorns couldn't get it together. Then in the fourth quarter, Case McCoy threw his second pick which was returned for a second touchdown. Here was Brown's reaction via gifsection.com.

Anti-Texas fans were slowly getting sad that Brown's career at Texas was coming to an end. @soonrtillidie reacted to Brown's last 15 minutes with:

Then the game ended. Texas lost 30-7.

ESPN made sure to cut to the fan-made signs. Here's a "Thanks for the memories Mack!" sign captured by @FakeWillie.

Lots of memories from Brown throughout his career. And here's more fans thanking Brown in the embedded photo below.

Brown went to sing the "Eyes of Texas" one last time. He got one final hook'em with his wife Sally via @YahooDrSaturday.

He then got a chance to address his team. The man, who famously addressed the Longhorns championship team after the 2006 Rose Bowl, got one last postgame meeting with the 2013 team captured by @MBTexasFootball.

And then Brown got to do what he was so good at for years. Addressing the media. Photo via @JeffBlogwell.

And as a bonus, Bevo didn't want to leave the Alamo Dome. Via @LonghornNetwork.

Thanks for the memories, Mack. You built Texas back up from the ground since taking over in 1997, and you created the "Texas standard." You've made an impact on so many young student-athletes' lives. And for that, you will always be remembered as a Texas Longhorn legend.

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Arizona State vs. Texas Tech: Score, Grades and Analysis from 2013 Holiday Bowl

The Texas Tech Red Raiders jumped out to an early lead over the No. 14 Arizona State Sun Devils in the 2013 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., and never looked back en route to a 37-23 victory.

The Red Raiders were able to amass 484 yards of total offense to the Sun Devils' 412. Perhaps most impressive was the strong defensive showing by Texas Tech, which limited Arizona State to a 6-of-19 mark on third down—a jarring stat considering the Sun Devils entered the game with a top-10 offense.

Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde summed up the lopsided and unexpected outcome nicely:

The star of the show for the Red Raiders was quarterback Davis Webb. His 403 yards and four touchdowns led the way, while his favorite target and potentially NFL-bound tight end Jace Amaro caught eight passes for 112 yards.

Arizona State's junior quarterback Taylor Kelly was ineffective through the air, throwing for just 125 yards and a pick. But Kelly made up for his lack of production through the air on the ground as the team's leading rusher with 25 carries for 135 yards and a score.

Kelly and the offense started the game at a deficit and were simply unable to catch up.

Kliff Kingsbury's high-octane offense scored on its first four drives of the game—all via touchdown passes by Webb. He found Rodney Hall for a one-yard score on the opening drive of the game and hooked up with Jakeem Grant from 18 yards out to make it 13-0 shortly after.

After two Arizona State field goals from Zane Gonzalez, Webb once again took control of the game with his pretty display of passing that led to his third touchdown pass, this time to Bradley Marquez with 14:30 left in the second quarter. He then found Grant for their second touchdown connection to make it 27-6 with 10:08 to go in the second quarter.

Got all that? CBS Sports summed up the shocking development best:

But then Arizona State found life as Texas Tech receiver Jordan Davis fumbled a punt:

This allowed the Sun Devils to score their first touchdown of the game after a D.J. Foster 20-yard touchdown rush with 7:52 left in the second quarter:

With the score 27-13 at the half, things appeared to be suddenly swinging in Arizona State's favor. Kelly came out to start the second half and led the Sun Devils down the field six plays before he took it in himself from 44 yards out to make it 27-20.

Just 11 seconds later, the Sun Devils were once again in a 14-point hole after Reginald Davis took the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to the house. The teams then traded field goals the rest of the way to end the late-night affair, 37-23.

 

Key Player Grades

Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech: A

What more can be said about Webb? The freshman was electric all night long against a weak Arizona State defense.

Webb was laser-sharp and utilized the quick attack to great efficiency. He saw the entire field all night and had no issues picking apart an exhausted Sun Devils defense.

 

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State: C

For one reason or another, the Sun Devils stayed away from the passing game most of the night, but credit Kelly for coming through on the ground.

Kelly was playing from behind all night but did a quality job of taking what the defense gave him. As far as offensive bright spots go for the Sun Devils, the junior signal-caller was about it.

 

Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech: A

Amaro put an emphatic exclamation point on what was likely his final game at the collegiate level with his gaudy statistics.

While the Sun Devils defense makes a habit of making offensive players look great, Amaro rose above and beyond while leading the team in receptions and yards.

Not only that, Amaro broke the NCAA record for receiving yards by a tight end, as the bowl's Twitter account captured:

To summarize, Amaro finished a winner and record-breaker. Not a bad way to potentially go out.

 

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How George Whitfield Became Johnny Manziel's Mr. Miyagi

On a night where champagne bottles pop and young and old celebrate another year in the books, it's only appropriate that Johnny Manziel, college football's ultimate showman, gets the New Year's Eve stage to himself one last time. 

In all likelihood, Manziel is playing his final college football game before entering the NFL draft. While the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and 2012 recipient didn't lead Texas A&M to a BCS Bowl, he put together another season filled with eye-popping highlights that only a quarterback with freakish athleticism, sandlot skills and the guts of a cat burglar can pull off.

Yet those trademark Johnny Football plays, the ones that go viral on YouTube or get featured on SportsCenter, do a disservice to the quarterback Manziel has become. And while he's still college football's best known rock star, after the craziest offseason in college football history, Manziel got down to business and just played football. 

No Twitter. No controversies. Just football. 

A year after he spun and juked his way into the hearts of college football fans as the first freshman to win a Heisman, Manziel needed to conquer an opponent that even he couldn't sidestep: himself. 

But after an offseason filled with controversy, we saw a more refined version of Johnny Football in 2013. 

And George Whitfield is a big reason for that. 

***

Whitfield is one of the few coaches who can understand Manziel's meteoric rise. Not just because he worked with the young quarterback before he was known by his nickname, but because just a few years ago, Whitfield was training Pop Warner and Junior High quarterbacks. Like Johnny's friend Drake would say, they both came from the bottom.

"A fourth grader literally asked his mom if she would give me a chance," Whitfield said. "And then it kind of snowballed a bit. As I was working with him, I’d get calls from other Pop Warner and Junior High families and coaches about working with other kids."

After retiring from an arena football career, Whitfield spent six months working his way through San Diego youth leagues before his father challenged him to go all-in on his passion. 

"True be told, once arena ball was done I wanted to go to law school," Whitfield said. 

But instead of the LSAT, Whitfield went to school on the evolution of quarterbacking, packing his life into a suitcase as he took a crash course on the ever-changing position. 

"I traveled the country. I went to about eight universities and worked their summer football camps," Whitfield said. "Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tressell, Mack Brown, Nebraska, Pitt, Coach Tressel at Ohio State, Coach Neuheisel at UCLA, just traveling all summer. I didn’t even go home for about five or six weeks.

"I needed to hear what college coaches were stressing and coaching and teaching and I tried to take it all and bring it back home."

Whitfield worked double time at those camps. He'd work his drill while watching out of the corner of his eye as a coach ran another. Each day he'd fill pages of a notebook he carried in his back pocket, jotting thoughts or drills or coaching tips he found interesting.

As offensive systems were exploding, Whitfield was in perfect position to grasp everything. He picked the brains of the coaching community while cataloging different teaching techniques. He became a curator, taking an academic approach with his findings, spending weeks determining how he'd teach different aspects of the position. 

"That kinda got the wheels going and thinking more along the lines of curriculum," Whitfield said. "Different ways to chart progress. I’m from a family of teachers and my dad’s a principal. So in a sense I went through it to teach it."

Perhaps the biggest break Whitfield got on his way up the coaching ladder was an unpaid internship with the San Diego Chargers. Then offensive coordinator Cam Cameron gave Whitfield the opportunity to see behind the curtain of an NFL program, an experience Whitfield compared to letting a science teacher roam NASA. Whitfield watched the Chargers draft and groom quarterback Philip Rivers. 

"He’s a rookie and I’m a rookie. And we both got a chance to go through that together," Whitfield said. 

The knowledge learned during that season in San Diego gave Whitfield the confidence to open Whitfield Quarterback Academy. Two years later, Whitfield was preparing undrafted quarterback Hunter Cantwell for the NFL.

A year later, Cantwell's agent had another client in need of some private training: Suspended Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Six months later, Cam Newton came calling. Then Andrew Luck. Then Manziel. 

"Up until Ben, I had only worked with elementary, junior high, high school and young college quarterbacks. I had never worked with anyone as big as him," Whitfield said. "And then it goes, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Every guy after can look at you and point to a guy that he automatically verifies and you don’t even have to say anything because they trust you." 

All of a sudden, Whitfield was one of the premiere names in the world of quarterbacking. And that got the attention of the Manziel family, whose son was spending his freshman season at Texas A&M redshirting for then coach Mike Sherman.  

"Coach Whitfield's name just kept popping up," Manziel said. "Cam Newton kept popping up. Ben Roethlisberger, big names just kept popping up. It was more what I was looking for in a quarterback coach."

To here Whitfield tell it, his relationship with his star pupil came by chance. And mostly because Manziel's mother Michelle wouldn't take no for an answer.

"We weren't going to take any more guys, but she kept calling," Whitfield told TexAgs.com.  

***

That Manziel and Whitfield met when they did was incredibly lucky. A decade earlier, Johnny Manziel might not be a household name. He might not even be a quarterback. But as athletes like Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt wreak havoc on opposing offenses, coaches have opened up to the idea of putting an elite athlete at the quarterback position.

"It’s not just that the best athletes want to play quarterback, it’s the revelation that the best athletes are being allowed to," Whitfield said. "Now we’re saying, just give us the best weapon that we can possibly have."

Manziel's athleticism had been on display since he was dazzling fans at Kerrville Tivy High. But tightening up the fundamentals of quarterbacking was the biggest challenge for Whitfield, who needed to harness the athleticism that Manziel had used so freely, forcing the young quarterback to retain the demands of his position when chaos breaks loose.

"You want to rep and work with these guys at such a frequency so the training is in the veins," Whitfield said, talking about the offseason work he put in with Manziel. "So it’s just instincts now, so they’re not counting steps like they’re dancing or something like that."

Whitfield's training techniques are unorthodox. They're a product of his environment and the freedom that comes with coaching without needing to kowtow to conventional wisdom. He'll use tennis racquets to simulate a defensive lineman's arms or throw bean bags at quarterbacks to improve their pocket presence. He spends hours with his quarterbacks up to their knees in the Pacific, using the push and pull of the water to better prepare his students for games. 

"It provides instability. It forces you to deal with all those unknown factors," Whitfield said.

Manziel's 2013 season serves as validation for Whitfield's teaching methods. Manziel stayed athletic in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, a focal point not just for Whitfield, but for NFL scouts wondering if Manziel could do more than just run. His improved footwork helped show enough arm strength to bolster the belief that he could make the throws needed to succeed on Sundays. And his knowledge base grew exponentially as defenses spent months preparing game plans to stop Johnny Football. 

Manziel upped his completion percentage and quarterback rate. He threw more touchdown passes and cut back on his rushing attempts. He spent the season doing everything skeptics wondered possible, making the third-year quarterback confident that he's ready for the next challenge. 

"You take everything into account. But more than anything, ‘Are you ready for the next level?’ That’s the big thing. In my mind, I think I am," Manziel told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"In my mind, I feel like I’m playing, for the most part, at a really high level of football. I’m putting the ball where I want it to be, and I’m throwing it with a lot of velocity. In my mind, I think I am."

 ***

Manziel and Whitfield's work is only just beginning. Once the quarterback makes his move to the NFL official, he'll likely start a full-time regimen with Whitfield in San Diego. Together, they'll prepare Manziel for an even more intense microscope, as NFL teams try to decide whether or not to invest millions of dollars in an unorthodox franchise quarterback. 

There's no better time in the game's history for a quarterback like Manziel to succeed. 

"He has a style about him that I call the Russell Wilson effect," Elite 11 coach Yogi Roth said. "It’s changed every level of football. His success with the Seahawks, it’s let people say, 'Wow, Johnny’s not 6’3”, 230, he can play!'"

Roth's worked with both Manziel and Whitfield in a career that also included coaching quarterbacks for Pete Carroll at USC. In between doing announcer work for the Pac-12 Network, traveling the globe and writing best-selling books, Roth has kept a close eye on the changing face of offenses, and sees Manziel as the evolutionary next step. 

"It’s no longer just, we’re going to make you a pocket passer. We’ll develop that part of your game, but still don’t lose the stinger that you have when you can make plays. And that balance and that communication is really where George has become an expert."

Before Manziel sets off for the unknown, he'll have another opportunity to shine at a level where he's become one of the sports' all-time greats.

Thanks to an era perfectly suited for his talents, and a coach who has perfected how to maximize them, Manziel's curtain call in the Chick-fil-A Bowl should be appointment viewing for college football fans everywhere. 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter. 

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Arizona State's Uninspired Holiday Bowl Performance a Black Eye for Pac-12

In losing 37-23 to Texas Tech, the Arizona State Sun Devils gave the Pac-12 its second loss of the bowl season. For a team that finished the season as Pac-12 South champions, boasting a 10-3 record and a No. 14 BCS ranking, the loss in the Holiday Bowl certainly was a major blemish to a conference that entered the game riding high.

For the Sun Devils and the Pac-12, it is more than just the loss that is the problem. Rather, it is the manner by which Todd Graham's team went about losing the game that creates the black eye for the league.

On the defensive side of the ball, Arizona State found a myriad of ways to help Texas Tech put points on the board. The Sun Devils gave up extended, methodical drives to the Red Raiders. Graham's team also gave up explosive plays for big scores.

Offensively, the Sun Devils could not get out of their own way. A team that was without Marion Grice, Arizona State showed sparks of success but was unable to sustain the positives and put together a legitimate threat.

Even with quarterback Taylor Kelly and running back D.J. Foster both going over 100 yards on the ground, building continuous success escaped Sparky.

Failure to consistently convert third downs was a big killer for Graham's team as the Sun Devils failed to pick up first downs in two-thirds of those situations, going 6-for-19.

For all of the bad that Arizona State exhibited in the ballgame, things were compounded by just how outstanding one of the Pac-12's top three teams made the middling Big 12 opponent look. A Texas Tech team with a first-year head coach, one of its big contributors at quarterback transferring and riding a five-game losing streak looked to be world beaters in San Diego.

Quarterback Davis Webb through for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. Tight end Jace Amaro did what he's done all season—prove to be a matchup nightmare for the opposition. Kliff Kingsbury's team handled the blitz well, hit its spots in the passing game and carved up the Sun Devils defense.

In the Pac-12, this is nothing new, as B/R Pac-12 lead writer Kyle Kensing pointed out, this has become a sort of tradition for the conference in San Diego. Thus, after a season where it seemed the Pac-12 truly improved and was pushing toward the top of the sport, Arizona State's loss leads to folks, such as Brian Ethridge of Bear Truth, pointing out that perhaps the league is overrated.

This was the Big 12's last hurrah in the Holiday Bowl. Next season, the game will host a Big Ten and Pac-12 matchup, as the Big 12 went out with a bang. Another 7-5, middling team takes down a ranked Pac-12 opponent as a parting gift.

On the Pac-12 side of things, this loss takes some wind out of the league's swelling sails. Heading into the playoff cycle, where conference perception will continue to play a critical role, bad losses are black eyes the league can ill afford.

With Arizona, UCLA and Stanford still set to play, the Pac-12 can end on a strong note, but a divisional champion being trounced by a less than stellar Texas Tech is not a good thing.

With the losses of players like Grice, Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, Arizona State will have some big shoes to fill in 2014. For the Pac-12, the rebuilding will have to come with getting wins to end the bowl season, something Arizona State failed to do in a big way.

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Alamo Bowl 2013 Oregon vs. Texas: 10 Things We Learned in Longhorns' Loss

Led by Marcus Mariota, the No. 10 Oregon Ducks were impressive in blowing past Texas by a 30-7 margin in Monday's Alamo Bowl.

The same cannot be said for Case McCoy's Longhorns.

In Mack Brown's final game as their head coach, the 'Horns were unable to compete with the Ducks for 60 minutes. Mariota supplied 386 of their 469 offensive yards, nearly doubling the 236 that Texas mustered.

The loss was Texas' fifth of the season, all by 20 points or more, and somewhat validates the decision to move on from Brown.

Like the rest of the season, this was a disappointing finish for the Longhorns.

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Breaking Down USC's New Coaching Staff

Steve Sarkisian has almost finished assembling a new coaching staff at USC, aside from the defensive line coach and special teams coach positions. Save for wide receivers coach Tee Martin and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton, Sarkisian has essentially cleaned house at USC.

On Monday night, the university announced three new hires, per the team's official Twitter account, in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo and offensive line coach Tim Drevno. Wilcox and Tuiasosopo coached under Sarkisian at Washington, and Drevno comes to the college ranks from the NFL, leaving the San Francisco 49ers. 

As they begin their first season at USC, let's take a look at the new hires and what they bring to the table.

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