NCAA Football News

Rose Bowl 2014: Key Matchups for Michigan State vs. Stanford

It might be called the Rose Bowl, but don't expect anything flowery in this New Year's Day classic when No. 4 Michigan State (12-1) takes on No. 5 Stanford (11-2) in the 100th edition of the Grandaddy of Them All. Both teams are very similar with stout and physical defenses, workhorse running backs and solid quarterbacks.

In this new age of college football where teams love to spread it out and pass the ball, the Rose Bowl provides a vintage powerhouse matchup of the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions.

While MSU stunned the football world by beating Ohio State, 34-24, in the Big Ten championship game to keep the Buckeyes out of the BCS title game, Stanford muscled its way to a convincing 38-14 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game.

Here's a look at the key matchups for both teams entering this year's Rose Bowl classic on Wednesday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN), in what figures to be a close battle that will be decided in the fourth quarter.

 

Running Backs vs. Stout Front Sevens

In such a physical matchup, it's no secret that both teams will be trying to establish the run.

Both Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney and MSU running back Jeremy Langford will have to work hard to earn their yards against two of the toughest run defenses in the nation.

Gaffney established himself as a bell cow in his senior season, a year after stepping out of football to pursue his baseball career, as detailed by Lindsay Schnell of Grantland. The senior is one of five FBS players to have at least 300 carries this season, totaling 1,618 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns.

But Michigan State entered bowl season with the nation's top-ranked rush defense, allowing only an average of 80.8 yards per game. Right behind the Spartans on the national leaderboard is Stanford, which has allowed just 91.2 rushing yards per game.

The Cardinal will be tasked with containing Langford, who was quietly one of the most prolific backs in the Big Ten and the country in 2013. The junior racked up 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, and is keeping a workman-like approach, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

“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."

Both running backs need to enter the Rose Bowl with the same attitude if they want to lead their teams to victory.

 

Stanford LB Trent Murphy vs. MSU O-line

Trent Murphy's teammates call him the "Yeti" because he has a fiery mean streak in between the lines. Before bowl season started, he was the nation's leading sack artist, with his 14 quarterback takedowns tops in the FBS.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News recently profiled the hulking outside linebacker in Stanford's stout 3-4 defense:

Whether outside linebacker Trent Murphy is Stanford's best player and top NFL prospect is subject to debate, but this much is beyond dispute: On a team that relishes old-school football, that batters and bludgeons opponents, Murphy is the meanest, nastiest, orneriest player on the roster.

Just ask ... well, everyone.

"It's not even close," coach David Shaw said. "Shayne Skov is unbelievably intense. But Trent is in his own category. I'm just glad it's not directed at us."

The 6'6", 261-pound Murphy has also been key in setting the edge for Stanford's stout defense against the run, but he's made a name for himself this year by getting to the quarterback. On Wednesday, efficient MSU signal-caller Connor Cook (2,423 yards, 20 touchdowns, five INTs) will be in his sights.

The Spartans have been among the nation's best when it comes to protecting the quarterback, surrendering just 13 sacks in 13 contests this season. It will take another strong effort to slow down Murphy, who is sure to be fired up in the final game of his college career.

 

MSU Pass Defense vs. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan

Of all the players who step on the field Wednesday afternoon in Pasadena, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard figures to have the best NFL prospects in 2014. As Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated noted, Dennard has come a long way since being an unheralded recruit out of high school.

Now Dennard is pegged as a top-10 pick by CBS Sports' Rob Rang, being recognized as one of the elite cover corners in college football. The 5'11", 197-pound Dennard has also caught the eye of Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, according to 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."

That's high praise for Dennard, who will be tasked with slowing down Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who amassed 2.487 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013. But Dennard isn't the only explosive playmaker who excels for Michigan State against the pass.

Sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, junior safety Kurtis Drummond and senior safety Isaiah Lewis were also named to the Big Ten First Team, giving Hogan and Stanford's passing game a tall order in the Rose Bowl.

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Rose Bowl 2014: Players Who Will Dictate Outcome of Stanford vs. Michigan State

Fans of traditional football would be wise to not miss the 2014 edition of the Rose Bowl when the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (12-1) and the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (11-2) clash in a game sure to be a battle of wills.

Both the Spartans and Cardinal love to play gritty football on the ground flanked by strong defenses. Individual stars will be few and far between, but those talented enough to rise above will stick out to fans in attendance and watching from home.

Here are three names to watch in a game sure to be a low-scoring affair grounded in the traditional sense.

 

Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

There is no better NFL prospect on the field than Darqueze Dennard when these two sides meet.

Dennard has shut down any and all comers this year as he has slowly made his way up the ranks of draft-eligible corners. In fact, Dennard is now the No. 1 overall corner prospect according to CBS Sports.

Dennard is the piece that allows the Michigan State defense to be the No. 4-ranked unit in the land with an average of just 12.7 points allowed per game. Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren broke down how, 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."

No. 31 is far and away the biggest name to watch, especially when it comes to defense. Stanford is far from known for its passing attack, but Dennard must hold up well to ensure the Spartans can throw everything they have at stopping the next man on the list.

 

Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford

Dennard is the best player on the field, but Stanford's Tyler Gaffney may be the most feared.

The definition of a workhorse, Gaffney carried the ball 306 times in 2013—which translated to 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Gaffney is backed by a top-10 defense that allows an average of 18.6 points per game. But make no mistake, his ability to churn out yardage (5.3 yards per carry) and keep the ball in the hands of the Cardinal offense is a major factor in the overall success of the team.

Expect to see a heavy dose of Gaffney all day long as the Cardinal attempt to break down the elite Spartans defense through brute force. If one man is capable of accomplishing the feat, one would have to think it is Gaffney.

 

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Michigan State's counter to Gaffney is junior running back Jeremy Langford. He rushed for 1,338 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2013 on five yards per carry.

As David M. Lombardi of KNBR suggests, Langford may be the key to a Rose Bowl victory:

Langford is no stranger to showing up big when his team needs him most. Under the bright lights of the Big Ten Championship, Langford rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

At this point, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook is not the liability he once was, but Langford will still have to carry the load for the offense against a top defense. His ability to do so will determine the game.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

For both Missouri and Oklahoma State, the 2014 Cotton Bowl is a step down from what the schools had in mind. Both had a chance to win their conference championship in the final game and came up short.

As a result, the No. 9 Tigers and No. 13 Cowboys will face off in the Cotton Bowl on Friday, Jan. 3 in Arlington, Texas.

Although these programs did not face each other this season, they have a long history. These two schools have met 51 times from Missouri's time in the Big 12. 

Now, the Tigers have moved on to the SEC, and after struggling in their transition season last year, they are thriving. Missouri advanced to the SEC Championship Game before falling to No. 2 Auburn. This doesn't seem to have robbed the Tigers of their enthusiasm:

Losing the conference championship game had to be a bitter pill to swallow, but not as bitter as the one Oklahoma State was forced to choke down. 

As the sixth-ranked team in the nation, the Cowboys fell to in-state rival Oklahoma in their final game. The Cowboys are trying to put that championship-losing effort behind them. 

"It was an upsetting loss but we can't dwell on it. It's the past," Oklahoma State senior running back Kye Staley said via the Associated Press (h/t FoxNews.com). "We didn't even watch film, we just go on to the next team. We're very excited to play Missouri, an SEC team, in Dallas. ... You can't look behind you."

All of this sets up for what should be a well-played and entertaining game. The leaders of each school's state seem to think so:

Here are the vitals for this entertaining matchup:  

 

When: Friday, Jan. 3, at 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas 

Watch: Fox

Betting Line (via Bovada): Missouri -1.5

 

Team Injury Reports (via USA Today)

 

Key Storyline: Can Missouri End Its Skid Against Oklahoma State?

The Tigers have a 28-23 edge in the all-time history of this rivalry, but the Cowboys have won the last three meetings.

The Tigers have the talent to end that streak. 

Were it not for Auburn running away late in the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers, in all likelihood, would be playing for the national championship. Missouri has a strong defense and running game, and senior quarterback James Franklin gives them a steady leader in the pocket who has been battle-tested in the tough SEC.  

Still, it won't be easy for Missouri. The Cowboys are excellent on offense and defense. In fact, they are one of just two teams to be ranked in the top 15 in both scoring offense and defense. 

The Cowboys are more dangerous through the air, but they have solid balance on offense. Nationally, they rank 29th in passing and 64th in rushing. Conversely, Missouri's offense is 40th in passing and 16th in rushing 

 

Prediction: Missouri 42, Oklahoma State 34

This game will be a blast. I see both of the offenses taking over and a shootout ensuing. This will play into the hands of Missouri. The Tigers have a stronger rushing attack, which will allow them to control possession in the fourth quarter and wear the Cowboys down. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

The 2014 Orange Bowl features two of the nation's top college football programs, as the No. 12 Clemson Tigers (10-2) and No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1) will hit the gridiron on Friday, Jan. 3 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Fla. 

The players and coaches from both teams come into the BCS bowl game with the foul taste of losing on their tongues. 

Ohio State had a chance to go to the BCS National Championship Game heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, but the Michigan State Spartans buried that dream with a 34-24 win. 

Clemson lost to South Carolina in the final game of the regular season, 34-17, as quarterback Tajh Boyd had one of his worst games of the season.  

The Orange Bowl offers both teams a final chance at redemption, and Boyd expressed his excitement for the challenge, as noted by David Furones of the Miami Herald: "Big stage, big venue, beautiful city. We’re excited about a great team we’re going to play against. Both teams definitely have something to play for. I don’t think it’s one team that has more to play for than the other."

Judging by this picture of Ryan Shazier and C.J. Barnett, however, it appears Ohio State is equally motivated for the upcoming battle:

Here's what you need to know about the 2014 Orange Bowl, along with a final prediction:

 

When: Friday, Jan. 3, at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream: Watch ESPN

 

Betting Lines (via Covers) 

  • Over/Under: 69.5 points
  • Spread: Ohio State (-2.5)

 

Team Injury Reports (via USA Today)

 

Can Ohio State's Defense Slow Down Clemson's High-Powered Offense?

Braxton Miller did his part to help the Buckeyes beat Michigan State, scoring three touchdowns.

But Ohio State's defense failed to respond in kind, allowing sophomore quarterback Connor Cook to have the biggest game of his season and lead the Spartans to a 10-point win in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

But it wasn't really a shock that the team's defense proved vulnerable—it's something fans groaned about all season long and a point of weakness that nearly cost the Buckeyes against Michigan just one week before the championship game at the Big House. 

Team sack and tackles-for-loss leader Noah Spence didn't make the trip for the game, dealing with personal issues, as reported by Tim May and Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch. His absence will be challenging for Ohio State's front seven to overcome. 

Bleacher Report's Michael Felder highlights the challenge:

With or without Noah Spence, the Ohio State defense is going to have its work cut out for it against the Clemson Tigers' attack. Spence is growing into a phenomenal pass-rusher, but the key to the Buckeyes stopping Clemson is the pass coverage, not just the pass rush.

Making matters worse, All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby could potentially miss the game as he rehabs from a a knee injury, as noted by Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch

On paper, it appears Braxton Miller must have a career game in order to give Ohio State the victory because Clemson's high-scoring offense (40.2 points per game) should have a field day. 

Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins typically shred inferior secondaries, and the dynamic duo will put up huge totals against Ohio State's depleted and disjointed defense. 

 

Prediction

Clemson's defense will have its hands full keeping Ohio State's Carlos Hyde in check, and Miller is usually good for one or two game-changing plays per contest.

Nobody should expect a low-scoring offensive output by either team.

But Ohio State's defense is going to be overwhelmed by the time halftime rolls around.

This is Clemson's game to lose. 

All season long, there were Ohio State detractors in the national media.

Those who weren't sold on the Buckeyes pointed to the team's easy schedule. Wisconsin and Northwestern both gave this team a scare early, and lo and behold, once this team faced some stiff competition in the championship game, it failed to execute under pressure.

Clemson will pull out a big win, and Boyd will finish his career in style with a signature game.

 

Final Score 

Clemson wins, 38-31.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oregon Alamo Bowl Win Shows That the Ducks Program Has Grown Up in a Big Way

Once a college football program reaches a certain level, it can be hard for fans to consider the season a success if it doesn't end with a bid to a January bowl game.

No matter how much success a college football program has, a team and its season are defined by so much more than national championships and conference titles.

Once an elite program loses its chance for a championship, it isn't uncommon for the team to pack it in and play uninspired football for the rest of the season. 

That is exactly what happened to the Oregon Ducks in 2013. At least that was the case before they took the field in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas. While it wasn't the cleanest game they have played this year, the Ducks dominated the Longhorns in a somewhat unexpected fashion.

Beating a good team by 23 is nothing new for the No. 10 Ducks, but after the way they finished the season, it might have surprised some when the Ducks completely dominated the Longhorns.

After being unable to overcome quarterback Marcus Mariota's knee injury and the rugged Stanford defense in a highly publicized loss to the Cardinal in early November, the Ducks turned into a shell of their former selves over the final three games of the regular season.

Oregon did win two of its final three contests, but those wins were weren't exactly pretty, but a win is a win. However, the embarrassing 42-16 setback to Arizona raised some serious questions about the team's leadership and level of motivation.

A last-minute touchdown drive in the "Civil War" against Oregon State saved Oregon from one of the biggest collapses in college football history. The Ducks won the game, but they didn't appear to have the fire to allow them to play the way they were capable of.

Leading up to the game against Texas, many were picking the Longhorns to keep the game close and possibly even beat the heavily favored Ducks. With its longtime head coach in his final game, Texas was expected to play with reckless abandon as the team tried to send its legendary coach out a winner. 

The Longhorns showed a lot of guts and did everything they could to help Mack Brown end his career the way he deserved to, but Oregon didn't allow it because they showed up the way championship teams do.

Pac-12 teams have a history of playing flat in bowl games that were considered a disappointment after a strong season. Look no further than the 2004 Holiday Bowl for proof of that.

In 2004, Cal was enjoyed a 10-1 season in which its only loss came to top-ranked USC. The BCS didn't seem to care, and after being behind Cal in every BCS release of the year, Texas jumped the Golden Bears in the final BCS standings of the season.

Excited to be in the Rose Bowl, the Longhorns went on to win a thriller over Michigan in Pasadena. Meanwhile, Cal instead went to the Holiday Bowl and played just like they felt after being screwed by the BCS, losing 45-31 to an unranked Texas Tech squad. 

The following season, Oregon found itself in the exact same position at 10-1, with its only loss coming to No. 1 USC. After being left out of the BCS, the Ducks played poorly and lost to a seven-win Oklahoma team, 17-14.

Arizona State suffered the same fate in this year's Holiday Bowl. The Sun Devils were blown out by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and missed out on a trip to the Rose Bowl. Instead, they headed to San Diego and were blown out by a 7-5 Texas Tech team which was coming off five consecutive losses.

Perhaps the Ducks learned their lesson from previous letdowns, or perhaps they wanted to win it for Nick Aliotti, their longtime defensive coordinator who was coaching his final game before retiring. 

Whatever it was, the Ducks made as big of a statement in the Alamo Bowl as they did in any of their BCS appearances from 2009-2012. The Ducks played with the heart, fire and determination of a championship team and should be applauded for their effort in all phases of the game.

The Ducks may have lost focus after the Stanford loss, but there was no quit in the Ducks this season.

No one would have blamed the Ducks for suffering a loss to a motivated Texas team, which had much more talent than its record indicates. The Longhorns were trying to win one final game for their well-liked coach in a game less than 100 miles from their campus. 

With nothing really left to play for and the emotional and geographical odds stacked against them, the team that many called the biggest disappointment of the season went out in a way that all of its fans should be proud of.

Being a champion isn't always about winning the final game of the college football season. By winning their final game of 2013, the Ducks showed everyone that they are still a championship program that has staying power.

Head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff rallied the troops during a time in which many thought they might be losing control of the team. The program's leadership had been called into question in previous weeks, but that won't be the case heading into the offseason.

A young roster loaded with talent is coming back in 2014, and a gutty performance to end the 2013 campaign should provide plenty of confidence for the program as it looks toward the future.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Chick-fil-A Bowl: A&M D Gives Johnny Football Surprise Assist, Glimpse to Future

It was a tale of two halves for Texas A&M on Tuesday night at the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and as usual, the team's inconsistent defense found itself at the center of the ordeal. And while a heavy majority of SportsCenter highlights will be of Johnny Manziel doing Johnny Football things, the Aggie defense's second-half recovery was the difference between a stunning victory and a crushing defeat. 

Not only did the squad bail itself out of trouble on New Year's Eve, but it also gave a slight glimpse into the future of the young—but highly talented—unit of defenders. 

"As a team we came out and each and every one of us was a man," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. "We just stepped up in the end and made plays when it counted, came out with a W."

The A&M defense kicked off the game by allowing Duke to score on all six of its first-half possessions, five of which were touchdowns, and entered halftime down 38-17 to a surging Blue Devils squad. 

Following halftime, though, the Aggie defense only allowed Duke 10 points on six drives, forcing two interceptions—including the game-winning pick six—a turnover on downs and a missed field goal. The result was the difference in the game, as it allowed Manziel the opportunity to mount a second-half rally which included five consecutive touchdowns and victory formation. 

On the game, A&M allowed 661 total offensive yards but played a critical role in the largest comeback in school history. 

And all with a starting unit littered with inexperienced and youthful talent.

The defense used approximately seven freshmen or sophomore defenders consistently throughout the game, not including suspended freshman starting linebacker Darian Claiborne, who led the team in tackles entering the matchup. Freshmen Jordan Mastrogiovanni, Jay Arnold, Isaiah Golden, Daeshon Hall, Noel Ellis and Shaan Washington, along with sophomore Alonzo Williams, played crucial roles in A&M's brilliant second-half resurgence. 

"Our young guys who played a lot of football this year, got on the stage like the one tonight, national television with everybody watching and responding, not quitting, that really sets the tone for things to come," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "A bunch of those freshmen that played a lot this year, they're going to have to draw on these experiences and get better and be leaders for us going into next year."

The youth and inexperience blatantly shined through during the Aggies' miserable first-half performance, but a strong outing following halftime adjustments proved the unit effective under pressure and able to compete at a high level despite a large deficit. 

And while Manziel's professional future in the NFL continues to hang in the balance, the defense's dense talent in its young athletes allows a positive spin for a unit that underperformed in the 52-48 bowl victory. 

And following a rough finish such as that, an encouraging spin is just what the doctor ordered for the A&M defense. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame Football Recruiting: Players to Watch in High School All-Star Games

With the college football season winding down, recruiting is heating up. Over the next few days, high school all-star games will showcase the stars of tomorrow, and feature a ton of talent that'll be playing in South Bend. 

Notre Dame sits at 22 official commitments with nine recruits participating in high school football's two biggest all-star games. The Irish are also in the mix for a handful of undecided players as well.

Let's get you up to speed on the Notre Dame prospects you should be keeping an eye on. 

 

Game: Under Armour All-America Game

Date: Thursday, January 2, 2014

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Place: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

Television: ESPN

 

Game: US Army All-American Bowl

Date: Saturday, January 4, 2014

Time: 1 p.m. ET

Place: Alamodome (San Antonio)

Television: NBC

 

All recruiting information comes from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Virginia Tech Football: 5 Best Moments of 2013

The Virginia Tech Hokies wrapped up the 2013 season on Tuesday with a humbling 42-12 loss to UCLA in the Sun Bowl. 

It was another disappointing campaign for the Hokies with a record of 8-5. That's 11 losses in two years if you're counting. 

While the results were less than stellar, there were good moments in what feels like another lost season to most fans. Whether it was the emergence of talented, young freshmen or complete defensive dominance, the 2013 Hokies had their fair share of good moments.

Here's a list of the top five moments of the 2013 season. 

Begin Slideshow

Chick-fil-A Bowl 2013: Johnny Manziel Moves Up College Football's Mount Olympus

At the likely end of a career filled with phenomenal plays, unimaginable triumphs and unforgettable moments that only he could provide, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel saved his best for last.

From very early on in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Aggies seemed utterly defeated by a Duke team that was simply playing better football than its counterpart from the mighty Southeastern Conference.

Despite being a massive favorite, Texas A&M found itself trailing its ACC foe by three touchdowns at halftime. The Aggies defense was inept as it had ever been, and with Duke receiving the ball to start the second half of play, it looked as though nothing would stand in the way of the Blue Devils executing a stunning upset.

A report by NFL.com's Gil Brandt surfaced earlier this week that this would be Manziel's final game at the collegiate level, and thus, it seemed inevitable that the Heisman Trophy winner would host one last hurrah before heading to the pros.

But at the Georgia Dome, that happy ending was nowhere to be found.

Surely, Johnny Football's career couldn't end like this. It couldn't end with Manziel ripping into his favorite receiver Mike Evans on the sideline. It couldn't end with a loss to a team that, prior to last year, hadn't been to a bowl since 1995.

Manziel knew the last page of his lore couldn't be written this way—so he made sure it wasn't.

And of course, Manziel's collegiate finale couldn't come to its conclusion without a circus act by the impossibly talented quarterback.

After a quick defensive stop to start the second half, Manziel pulled out one last magic trick. After being bottled up in a collapsing pocket, No. 2 hurdled a defender, running straight into one of his offensive linemen in the process. He somehow evaded two Duke defenders, spun back out of the pocket to his left and then threw across his body to receiver Travis Labhart for a 19-yard touchdown.

As Labhart—a former practice player for the Texas A&M women's basketball squad—reached the ball across the goal line, the energy of the game shifted toward the Aggies sideline, where Manziel was going wild with his teammates and coaches.

He needed some help from his maligned defense, including two late interceptions, to complete the 52-48 comeback victory, but it all wouldn't have been possible if Manziel hadn't turned in a flawless performance.

The redshirt sophomore finished 30-of-38 passing for 382 yards and four touchdowns, while running 11 times for 73 yards and a score.

This was Manziel's masterpiece.

Throughout the game, ESPN counted down the top five moments of Manziel's career.

The native of Kerrville, Texas, turned Texas A&M into a contender its first year in the SEC. He was the first freshman to ever win the Heisman and became a national celebrity seemingly overnight. Much of that was thanks to the No. 1 moment in ESPN's countdown, which came in a shocking upset of Alabama in 2012 that won him the Heisman.

The highlight that has been played thousands of times since its inception, the near-fumble turned touchdown, played one last time on the air before Manziel's career likely ended.

But by the time he settled into the victory formation to cap the comeback victory on New Year's Eve, he had a new No. 1 moment.

The previous one sealed his Heisman victory, but there's no telling where the new one will take him. It could make him the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

Even if it doesn't slide him up in the eyes of professional scouts and general managers, it cements his place as one of the greatest to ever play college football.

It also exposes this year's Heisman results, which tabbed him as just the fifth-best player in the nation, as a total farce. With all due respect to Jameis Winston, AJ McCarron, Jordan Lynch and Andre Williams, there isn't a player that is as "outstanding" as Manziel.

Even when the Aggies were down, with an embarrassing defeat—and potentially a blowout one at that—staring them in the face, there was still hope.

More than hope, there was a lingering inevitability that somehow, some way, Johnny Football would make something happen and bring A&M back.

And he did it.

College football's Mount Olympus is a crowded one with countless legendary players, recent and historic, vying for the top spot.

But after tossing lightning bolts on defenses across the nation for the last two years, Manziel made his case as college football's Zeus.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Chick-fil-A Bowl 2013: Of Course Johnny Manziel Gets His Storybook Ending

You didn't think Johnny Manziel would let a New Year's Eve stage go by without putting on a show, did you?

The redshirt sophomore quarterback for the Aggies closed the curtain on 2013 with a spectacular performance in a 52-48 win over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Ga. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and 2013 finalist completed 30-of-38 passes for 382 yards, four touchdowns, rushed 11 times for 73 yards and another touchdown on the ground. 

Not a bad night's work—but one that was necessary for the Aggies to take down Duke.

The Aggies' defense let Manziel down time and time again in the first half, but Manziel kept fighting, giving his team a puncher's chance. The defense finally came through in the end, when safety Toney Hurd Jr. picked off a pass from Blue Devil quarterback Anthony Boone and took it 55 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

Now three years removed from high school, Manziel's next item on the agenda is to decide whether to make the jump to the NFL. He was noncommittal after the game.

"I can't think of anything other than this game right now," Manziel said. "This is unreal. I can't even begin to tell you how proud I am of these guys. I love Texas A&M. I love my teammates. Unreal."

What was even more unreal was the play of Manziel, who sliced and diced the Duke defense to lead his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit, throwing only one incompletion in the second half.

Included in his heroics was a touchdown pass for the ages, as Manziel took off up the middle, jumped into his own offensive lineman, popped out and hit Travis Labhart for a 19-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter.

"When I left my feet originally, I thought I was in a little bit of trouble, because I looked down and somebody from Duke was staring right up at me laying on the ground," he said. "From there, I don't really know what happened. I just shot backwards and bounced off of somebody and got out of there and saw Lab [Travis Labhart] sitting wide open."

He didn't know what he was doing, but his head coach did.

"That...that's coaching," Kevin Sumlin said.

The play resembled the one that put him on the map: the fumble, scramble touchdown to Ryan Swope in last season's upset win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

If this was it for Manziel, what a way to bookend a career—polishing off Duke with a signature play to the one that put him on the map in the first place.

So is this the end?

He may not have been thinking about anything other than the game in the minutes following the comeback victory, but that may be because he has already made up his mind.

"I feel like I showed them that I can beat one-on-one coverage," he said. "I know if a jump happens or whenever the decision comes that they like to play some man in the NFL, no doubt. We did a great job in the second half, receivers ran great routes, continued to get open, and I tried to put it on them as much as I could."

It looked bleak at times, but Manziel put on a show on New Year's Eve under the big top at the Georgia Dome. If the book on his college career closes in the coming days, he got his storybook ending.

 

*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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Chick-Fil-a Bowl 2013: Despite Bitter Loss, Duke's 2013 Season Still a Success

Johnny Manziel, with a little help from his defense, took home the win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, beating the Duke Blue Devils 52-48. However, David Cutcliffe's Duke team certainly walks away from the 2013 season deserving of praise.

After a slow start, including Duke jumping out to a 38-17 halftime lead, Texas A&M got things on track and ultimately would keep the Blue Devils from getting the win. After a game where points and yardage were surrendered at will, two late Aggies interceptions would seal Duke's fate.

Yet, despite suffering the heartbreaking loss, when the dust settles on the 2013 campaign, Cutcliffe and his players turned in an outstanding season. A year that saw the Blue Devils not only win the Coastal for a trip to the ACC Championship Game but also cross the 10-win plateau.

Even with the loss, finishing 10-4 (6-2 in ACC play) gives Duke plenty to celebrate. More importantly, these young Duke football players got a taste of success and will enter next season with an appetite for more. This is not a team set to simply fade out of the ACC Coastal's picture; Duke is hoping to build on 2013.

Cutcliffe's team will enter spring with all of its rushing, passing and the bulk of its receiving production intact. These same players who carved up Texas A&M on New Year's Eve will be back to do it again in 2014. That includes Jamison Crowder, who jumped off the page for B/R's Alabama lead writer, Sanjay Kirpalani.

Certainly the loss hurts. Anthony Boone was out-dueling Manziel with under four minutes to go in the ballgame before the interception bug bit him in unfortunate fashion. Crowder's tremendous effort, 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown, was nice but not enough to get the Blue Devils over the hump.

Duke outgained A&M 661 to 541 and seemed poised to run away from the Aggies for the first 30 minutes. When the dogfight ensued in the second half, Manziel became the Johnny Football the nation was hoping to see, and Duke's defense simply had no answers, as evidenced by the latest unreal highlight added to Manziel's tape.

The Blue Devils played their collective behinds off, not just against Texas A&M but in the 2013 season. The loss in Atlanta should not change that fact. Cutcliffe's work to change the culture, create an environment that produces wins and upgrade the talent was on display for the nation in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Cutcliffe's team will be fighting to get better in 2014, and the squad returns enough pieces to be a problem for ACC foes. Although this team fell just short of the 11th win it wanted, the season was certainly worthy of big praise on the collegiate landscape.

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Bill O'Brien Said Right Things, Did Another to Penn State

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior." 

Those words, spoken by author Stephen M.R. Covey, seem rather appropriate with the reports of Bill O'Brien's departure from Penn State for the Houston Texans of the NFL, per Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN.

Penn State should say thank you to Bill O'Brien for his on-field results after leading the program to a 15-9 record in his two-year stint in Happy Valley under harsh NCAA sanctions.

Off the field, though, the Nittany Lions have every right to feel slighted by their now ex-head coach—because what Bill O'Brien said and did at Penn State were two very different things, despite what were probably the best of intentions.

No words in O'Brien's departure echo more than ones spoken in September ahead of Penn State's matchup with UCF, when he told Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel:

The players who are here now and the guys who were here last year could've gone anywhere. They didn't have to stay at Penn State, but they committed to each other, they committed to Penn State, and they committed to our coaching staff. I felt it was important that they understood that I was committed to them. What are you if you're not a man of your word?

O'Brien was adept at saying exactly the right things at exactly the right times, no matter the audience and right up to the last days in State College.

It started at the very beginning for O'Brien, who set a tone of rising above the fray and focusing the attention on the players in the program.

To say fans were initially split on his hire would be an understatement. The Penn State "family" was even more upset about O'Brien being hired over someone from within the ranks of said "family," typified by former Penn State linebacker Brandon Short's comments: "Penn State is a family and it is real and if they choose to get rid of (defensive coordinator Tom) Bradley and not hire a Penn State coach, then they've turned their backs on our entire family."

Who can forget the epic post-hire rant by another former linebacker, LaVar Arrington?

By these people making the decisions the way that they are making them, basically coinciding with everything that's being written about our university, if they get rid of Tom Bradley, that means they in essence have accepted the fact that we are all guilty. You might as well call it all the same thing. What we stood for and what we represented for so long, what we have been taught, what we have been trained to know and the values that I raise my own children with, you're basically telling me it's good, only as long as times are good.

At his introductory press conference, O'Brien said all the right things and walked the tightrope needed in becoming the man to replace the legend, Joe Paterno.

"Replacing a legend, I've heard it a lot in the past few days. I'm not here to be Joe Paterno. There's only one Joe Paterno," O'Brien said. "What I'm going to try to do is be Bill O'Brien and we're going to do the best we can to continue the success that he's had here for many, many years."

During the Penn State scandal and impending sanctions, O'Brien once again was there to be the rock for the program, publicly and privately saying all the right things.

He continuously reaffirmed his commitment to the players and the program, emphasizing how much this team needed to become a family and rally around each other during the tough years ahead.

That same pitch worked in recruiting, where O'Brien reeled in prized quarterback Christian Hackenberg as part of the Big Ten's fourth-best class in 2013 (according to 247Sports) and had the third-best Big Ten class going for 2014.

The big name for 2014 is Thomas Holley, and as recently as a week ago O'Brien was still committing his future to Penn State despite the rumors of an NFL return.

“I just off the phone with him," Holley told 247Sports' Luke Stampini. "He said he isn’t going. It’s not true."

Maybe it should've been a case of "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," because O'Brien's actions said he wasn't long for Penn State's future.

First it was reworking his contract for a bigger payday following an unexpected 8-4 season in 2012—one in which he also got a massive bonus as of 12:01 on January 1, 2014.

That should've been the clue players and recruits needed to show them just how "committed" O'Brien was to them and the Penn State program.

However, the biggest one emerged just before Christmas, when word got out that O'Brien asked for his NFL buyout clause to be reduced, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

If that didn't put up red flags that something was about to happen, not much will.

For recruits and their families, a coach's word is all they have to go on sometimes. After all, you are about to entrust your child to a coach and school for the next four years or so. If you can't trust that coach, you have nothing.

Bill O'Brien has every right to do what he thinks is in his and his family's best interest, and if that's going to the Houston Texans, he's making the right choice for that situation.

How O'Brien went about his apparent exit from Penn State also gives clues as to why Penn Staters have every right to be upset.

O'Brien's words and actions over the last two years don't add up to a man that was ever truly committed to Penn State for the long term, like he claimed from day one to the bitter end.

For the players who stuck around and the recruits who committed to the program despite its uncertain future, O'Brien's departure serves as a harsh reminder that words and actions need to be aligned for trust to really occur.

 

Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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Duke vs. Texas A&M: Score, Grades and Analysis from 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl

No. 24 Duke and No. 21 Texas A&M refused to wait until midnight to start the fireworks.

The two teams combined for 1,202 total yards of total offense and 100 points during Tuesday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl, but it was a fourth-quarter pick-six by Toney Hurd Jr. that capped a 21-point A&M comeback and propelled the Aggies to a scintillating 52-48 win in a (really, really) late contender for the best game of 2013.

Of the 22 total drives in this one, 12 went for touchdowns (13 if you count the pick-six), and 15 featured points. There was a whopping one punt all game, which came in the first quarter.

In what many believe was his collegiate swan song, Johnny Manziel put on a next-level show. He completed 30 of 38 throws for 382 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 73 yards and a score, leading the Aggies back from a 21-point halftime deficit. 

From Manziel's unbelievable throws to his motivation of his teammates on the sideline to his game-changing plays, Hollywood honchos couldn't write a better ending for the game's MVP.

It wasn't easy, though.

Anthony Boone threw for 427 yards and tallied four total touchdowns for Duke. In the first half, he carved up an A&M defense that resembled a colander—which may be an insult to colanders—but he came up just short of giving the Blue Devils their first bowl win since the 1960 season.

The Blue Devils scored on all six of their possessions in the first half, with the first five going for touchdowns and the sixth—following a surprise onside kick—only going for a field goal because they ran out of time.

David Cutcliffe's squad entered the locker room with a 38-17 lead.

But the Aggies didn't quit. The defense began to string together some stops in the second half, and it opened up an opportunity for Manziel to work some of his magic.

After a slow start, he led the Aggies on six straight touchdown drives, including four consecutive in the second half to cut the deficit to 48-45 with 5:44 remaining.

Five plays later, Texas A&M's defense finally delivered, as Hurd picked off the previously red-hot Boone and went 55 yards down the sideline for the game-winning score:

It's a disappointing defeat for Duke, but Cutcliffe has done an unbelievable job, and his boys should hold their heads high:

As for the Aggies, this marks a third straight bowl win. All eyes now turn to (or stay on) Manziel, whose decision regarding the NFL draft will help determine whether or not they can make it four in 2014.

 

Player Grades

Anthony Boone, Duke: B+

It's probably important to note that Texas A&M's secondary made this seem like a walk-through for Boone and the Blue Devils, but that shouldn't take away from his performance. He simply made a bad defense look even worse with some absolutely stellar play.

While the junior QB may have been dealing with soft coverage, he was getting the ball out quickly, hitting receivers in stride and delivering some absolute dimes on long balls. Exhibit A:

Also, he was on another planet on third downs:

Two late interceptions, one of which went for a pick-six on a poor decision, are likely what most will remember, which is unfortunate. For almost every other play of the game, Boone was terrific.

 

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M: A+

Johnny Football did everything that could be imagined.

Duke brought lots of pressure on later downs in an attempt to keep Manziel in the pocket (of course, he still managed to rack up 73 rushing yards on the night), but he took it in stride and looked terrific throwing the ball.

He slightly missed on a couple of deep balls early in the game, but Manziel made the right reads, worked through his progressions and connected on countless big-time throws, including this silly-good toss late in the fourth quarter:

Manziel reinforced the claim that he is much more than a running quarterback: He's a throwing quarterback who can make enthralling, transcendent, elusive plays with his legs, such as this one, which will be replayed for a long time:

College football will miss Johnny Football.

 

Josh Snead, Duke: A

You want versatility? Josh Snead ran for 104 yards and this electric touchdown:

He also caught three passes for 21 yards and another touchdown—and he blocked a punt late in the first quarter. It's tough to make more of a wide-ranging impact than that. 

 

Mike Evans, Texas A&M: C+

It was a roller-coaster game for Evans.

On the one hand, he made some terrific grabs, pulling down three throws that went for 15 yards or more. He finished with four catches and 72 yards.

On the other, though, he had two early unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, and on those two drives, the Aggies finished with a missed field goal and a punt. Those were the only two drives of the game on which Texas A&M didn't come away with points. 

Looking to improve his draft stock, this likely wasn't the kind of night Evans anticipated. 

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Penn State Football: Loss of Bill O'Brien Leaves Nittany Lions Plenty of Options

In a move that surely smacks of betrayal to the Nittany Lions faithful, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien has elected to take his talents back to the NFL—this time as head coach of the Houston Texans.

Yet, the Nittany Lions are just fine without O'Brien.

ESPN's Adam Schefter helped to break the expected news on New Year's Eve:

But this move has been in the pipeline for weeks. While O'Brien was seemingly torn on the decision (or attempting to incite a bidding war), Penn State was ensuring its future success as hinted by NFL Network's Ian Rapoport:

That is the same Greg Schiano who lost his gig with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers around the same time:

While a crushing blow to fans and student athletes who remained faithful to O'Brien in a tough rebuilding period after the scandal that rocked the collegiate football world, the framework of O'Brien's work remains intact for the next man up to assume.

O'Brien kept the program afloat the last two seasons after taking over for Joe Paterno. Despite being hit with a postseason ban and a loss of scholarships, the Nittany Lions went 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 in 2013.

Even more, O'Brien performed much better than anticipated in recruiting in the wake of the scandal, remaining in the top 50 in Rivals' recruiting rankings in 2013 and inside the top 25 in the 2014 cycle.

This framework will now go to a man like Schiano, who clearly has no intention of returning to the NFL anytime soon. In fact, the NFL likely will not want him after a tenure in Tampa Bay lined with chaos.

But Schiano is an excellent collegiate coach and is made for a school like Penn State. He spent six years with the Nittany Lions as an assistant from 1990-95. He then turned around the Rutgers program, going 68-67 in 11 years, with the high point being his final seven in which he ran up a record of 56-33.

He also appeared in six of the school's nine total bowl games, not to mention the fact the school is now set to join the Big Ten.

Not a bad deal. O'Brien jumps ship and the Nittany Lions scoop up Schiano, a man well-versed in rebuilding programs.

Or the Nittany Lions can go after Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, the other name that has been tossed around by folks such as CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman:

Franklin is a local man from Langhorne and has taken the Commodores of the SEC, normally only known for their academic prowess, and gone 23-15 in three seasons. He has also taken them bowling each year—Vanderbilt has only been to six bowls all-time.

So no, O'Brien's departure is not the end of the world. In fact, it is just the beginning. O'Brien was the man for the job to guide the ship through tough waters.

Could he have taken the team all the way in a few years? Sure, but there are plenty of other willing and capable candidates who can assume the mantle and make the transition a seamless one as Penn State football continues on its upward trajectory.

 

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Johnny Manziel Throws Incredible Touchdown to Travis Labhart in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Many view Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel as the most exciting player in college football, and he reminded fans why during the Aggies' Chick-fil-A Bowl clash with Duke on New Year's Eve.

With his team trailing the Blue Devils by 21 points early in the third quarter, Manziel did what only Johnny Football can by avoiding the Duke rush in spectacular fashion and finding Travis Labhart for a 19-yard touchdown, as seen in this GIF courtesy of CJ Zero:

A play that incredible deserves multiple angles, so here is another look provided by CJ Zero:

The Chick-fil-A Bowl will reportedly be the final game of Manziel's fantastic collegiate career, per Gil Brandt of NFL.com, and he gave fans one more dynamic play to remember him by.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Penn State Football: Top 5 Coaching Candidates to Replace Bill O'Brien

At 10:34 p.m. ET on New Year's Eve, ESPN tweeted that the Bill O'Brien is leaving Penn State for the vacant Houston Texans job. Luckily for Nittany Nation, O'Brien left Penn State in much better condition than it was when he arrived. 

One important aspect is that #PennState job once again very good one, not toxic like when OB was hired. Means candidate pool would be great.

— Cory Giger (@CoryGiger) December 28, 2013

Gone now is the uncertainty and stigma from the Sandusky situation. Penn State has survived as a university and as a football program and the head coaching job is exponentially more desirable than it was two years ago.

Much of that is due to Bill O'Brien.

But this isn't a time for reflection on O'Brien and the job he did in Happy Valley. It's time to look ahead at potential candidates to replace him inside the Lasch building and on the sideline of Beaver Stadium. 

Unlike 2011, there will be a long list of coaches interested in inheriting Christian Hackenberg and the potential Big Ten juggernaut that is the Penn State football program.

 

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Outback Bowl 2014: Major Storylines to Watch in Iowa vs. LSU Battle

The Iowa Hawkeyes and the No. 16 LSU Tigers are set to clash in the 2014 edition of the Outback Bowl in a contest littered with intriguing storylines sure to grab the attention of fans as they recover from holiday festivities.

Outside of the classic Big Ten vs. SEC implications, these two will provide plenty of reasons to watch. At 8-4, the Hawkeyes are left wondering what could have been with an easier schedule, while the 9-3 Tigers are wondering the same thing had they not blown it in big games.

When the two sides meet at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 1, something will have to give. Fans should enter the contest well-versed to get the so-called full experience.

 

The Freshman Under Center

The final game of a season is not the best time to debut a freshman signal-caller, but Les Miles' team will have to do just that thanks to a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Now LSU must turn to freshman Anthony Jennings, who has attempted all of 10 passes in his collegiate career. He completed six for 99 yards.

While fans will point out the fact he led a 99-yard drive to steal a victory against Arkansas, leading a comeback over the three-win Razorbacks should not act as a major bragging point.

Still, Miles is expecting big things from Jennings, as he told Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune:

The greatest characteristic of Anthony Jennings is poise...He's always been a guy who came in and sought extra coaching and knowledge of the game when he was second team. The confidence of the team when he went under center didn't change a lick. He knew what to expect. We expect him to play well.

Jennings does bring another dimension to the game the Hawkeyes will have to prepare for, as he is effective on the ground—as shown by his 14 carries for 49 yards and a score in 2013.

But Iowa is well-versed in shutting down anything thrown its way. The Hawkeyes rank just outside the top 10 with an average of 18.8 points allowed per game. In a battle of wills, can a freshman prevail?

 

Which Running Back Can Take Over?

Both LSU and Iowa have stellar running backs capable of controlling a game on their own.

For the Hawkeyes, the job falls on junior Mark Weisman, who rushed for 938 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. While his production dipped as the season wore on, Weisman will be heavily leaned on to keep the LSU offense off the field.

Yes, the Tigers have a freshman at quarterback, but Iowa is going to want to keep the ball out of the hands of sophomore running back Jeremy Hill. He ran for 1,185 yards and 14 scores on an impressive 6.8 yards-per-carry average in 2013.

When asked to take on big-name backs, the Iowa defense has faltered this season. A 28-9 loss to Wisconsin saw James White rush for 132 yards and two touchdowns. It was a similar story in a 34-24 loss to Ohio State as Carlos Hyde ran for 149 yards and two scores.

Both Hill and Weisman will be asked to take over. Whoever answers the call will put their team at a major advantage.

 

Which Team Exorcises Its Demons?

This game is one final shot at redemption for both schools.

Iowa, while a quality team, was gifted with one of the nation's most brutal schedules. The Hawkeyes' four losses came against Northern Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin—teams with a combined 45-6 record.

Two of those teams (Ohio State and Michigan State) played in the Big Ten Championship and play in BCS Bowls this year. One played in the MAC Championship (Northern Illinois) and had a Heisman contender at quarterback (Jordan Lynch).

The story for LSU is a bit different. Obviously, the schedule was tough with the team residing in the SEC. But this is a Tigers team that defeated the Auburn Tigers this year—but lost to Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss.

The Outback Bowl is one last chance for both teams to turn things around after seasons littered with disappointment. Expect both teams to be at their best in the pursuit of ending the season on a high note.

 

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Gator Bowl: Why Ameer Abdullah Needs a Career Day for Huskers to Have a Chance

Most experts expect Georgia to beat Nebraska comfortably in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day, with Odds Shark having the Cornhuskers as nine-point underdogs.

In last year's Capital One Bowl, Georgia pulled away to beat Nebraska, 45-31. Both teams ended this season at 8-4, but Georgia played in a much more difficult conference. Teamrankings.com had the SEC ranked No. 1 and the Big Ten ranked No. 5 in its overall power rankings for 2013.

Georgia’s losses came to then-No. 8 Clemson, then-No. 25 Missouri and then-No. 7 Auburn, as well as to unranked Vanderbilt. Nebraska’s losses, on the other hand, were to then-No. 16 UCLA and then-No. 16 Michigan State, as well as to unranked Minnesota and Iowa.

It is understandable why Georgia is such a heavy favorite to win this year's Gator Bowl (noon ET, ESPN) in Jacksonville, Fla. While there are a number of variables which could affect the outcome, Nebraska’s best chance to win is if junior I-back Ameer Abdullah has a career day against the Bulldogs.

In 2013, Nebraska had 5,035 yards in total offense. Abdullah accounted for 1,800 of those yards, meaning that he contributed 35.7 percent of Nebraska’s total offense. Abdullah led the B1G in rushing this season, even with a number of nagging injuries that hampered his performance as the season wore on.

Nebraska’s 2013 season, at least on offense, was defined by the early injury to senior quarterback Taylor Martinez. Nebraska tried to limp along—both literally and figuratively—with a hobbled Martinez early in the season, as Abdullah took on the role of Nebraska’s primary weapon.

Once Martinez was no longer able, Nebraska alternated between redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg III at quarterback. In addition to the lack of experience of both Armstrong and Kellogg, they were asked to run an offense that was designed for Martinez’s unique skill set. As a result, the offense was a little out of joint.

The one constant in Nebraska’s attack all season has been Abdullah. As a runner and as a receiver coming out of the backfield, Abdullah allowed the rest of Nebraska’s offense to fire. Abdullah brought the experience, explosiveness and the consistency that Nebraska needed for the rest of its offense to find its collective feet after Martinez’s injury.

Nebraska faces a formidable opponent in Georgia’s offense, particularly with the return of a healthy Todd Gurley at tailback. Had Gurley remained healthy, he likely would have been a Heisman Trophy candidate, and will easily be the best tailback Nebraska will face this season.

Nebraska has struggled with big backs like Gurley all season, surrendering 144 yards to Minnesota’s David Cobb, 149 yards to Penn State’s Zach Zwinak and 72 yards to Iowa’s Mark Weisman. Gurley is better than all of those backs, so it is not unreasonable to expect him to gouge Nebraska for big yardage in the Gator Bowl.

If that’s the case, Abdullah needs to answer with a big game for Nebraska. The obvious reason is that Nebraska will need to keep up with what is likely to be a significant scoring output by Georgia, and Abdullah is NU’s best hope to keep pace.

Success for Abdullah will help Nebraska in other ways as well. The more yards that Abdullah can pick up, the more that Nebraska’s offense will stay on the field, keeping Gurley and the Georgia offense on the sidelines. That will also allow Nebraska’s defense to rest, preserving its stamina to hold up against Georgia’s attack.

If Abdullah gets going, Georgia’s defense will have to put more focus on stopping him, opening running lanes for Armstrong in the option game and giving Nebraska more opportunities down the field in its passing game. With a healthy Jamal Turner returning to join Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and the rest of Nebraska’s receiver corps, they could benefit greatly from Abdullah drawing the bulk of the attention of the Georgia defense.

Conversely, if Abdullah struggles, it is difficult to see how Nebraska can beat Georgia. Nebraska would be asking a redshirt freshman quarterback to carry the offense against an SEC defense—an awfully big ask. It would also be asking the Blackshirts to contain Gurley and Georgia's offense, giving them extra possessions and opportunities.

It is not inconceivable that Nebraska could pull off the upset and beat Georgia, giving head coach Bo Pelini his first bowl victory since 2009 and the program a much-needed boost of confidence heading into the offseason. However, it is hard to envision a scenario in which Nebraska wins without Abdullah having a big performance.

 

Stats courtesy of CFBstats.com.

If you'd like to contact Patrick, send an email to Patrickrunge@gmail.com or you can always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge

 

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Cotton Bowl 2014: Keys to Victory for Missouri vs. Oklahoma State

As far as non-BCS bowl games go, none have the clout of this year's AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, which will feature the No. 8 Missouri Tigers (11-2) and No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX) in Dallas.

The Jerry Dome, home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, serves as a fitting venue for this big-time battle between familiar foes.

Mizzou holds a 28-23 lead in the all-time series that dates back to 1915, well before Oklahoma State even joined the Big Eight Conference.

Ninety-nine years later, these two programs will reprise their rivalry with a contest that figures to feature some late drama between evenly matched teams.

Here's a look at the keys for both teams entering Friday's Cotton Bowl.

 

Rebound from Big Disappointments

Missouri jumped ship from the Big 12 to the SEC before the 2012 season, but stumbled to a 5-7 record in its first year in the new conference.

Coach Gary Pinkel has done a masterful job of turning around the program in 2013. The team only has two losses this season, a 27-24 double-overtime defeat to South Carolina and a 59-42 loss to the Auburn Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. 

Missouri rolled into the SEC title game riding a four-game win streak, but Auburn looks like a team of destiny at this point, as Heisman finalist Tre Mason led his team into the BCS National Championship Game.

Mizzou's defense might have been exposed by a potent Auburn attack, but the team had given up just 51 points combined in its previous four victories.

OSU, meanwhile, entered the Bedlam rivalry game against Oklahoma with a chance to win and become Big 12 champion, but surrendered two late touchdowns to lose 33-24. Still, coach Mike Gundy has a well-balanced offensive attack and stout front seven to counter a powerful Missouri squad.

For both teams, it's a bit of a letdown to be held out of a BCS Bowl game, but this game stacks up with the best of this year's college football showcases.

 

Oklahoma State: Protect Clint Chelf

Ever since taking over full-time quarterback duties after J.W. Walsh went down with a season-ending knee injury, OSU's Clint Chelf has kept the offense humming.

In five games without Walsh, Chelf has thrown for 248.6 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions while adding 196 rushing yards and five more scores on the ground.

Oklahoma State has a balanced offense within which five players have scored at least five touchdowns. Desmond Roland (745 rushing yards, 12 TDs) and Tracy Moore (44 catches, 638 yards, six TDs) are the team's leading rusher and receiver, respectively, but wideout Josh Stewart is a tough cover as well.

Gina Mizell of The Oklahoman recently spoke to Stewart, who sounds like he is considering declaring early for the 2014 NFL draft:

“It is what it is,” Stewart said at Monday’s Cotton Bowl media day. “Whatever happens, I’ll make the best decision for me and what my future plans are and just pray about it and see what God has planned for me.”

Stewart, a 5-10, 185-pound slot receiver, currently leads the Cowboys with 52 catches for 623 yards and two touchdowns, following a breakout sophomore campaign where he tallied 101 catches for 1,210 yards and seven scores.

No matter who's been under center for the Cowboys, the offensive line has done a great job of keeping them upright, giving up just 11 sacks in 12 contests so far this year. But OSU's big fellas will have their hands full trying to slow down Missouri's menacing pass rush.

Defensive ends Michael Sam (10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss) and Kony Ealy (7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) give Mizzou one of the nation's best bookend tandems on the D-line. Don't forget about third pass-rusher Markus Golden (13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks).

 

Missouri: Expose OSU Secondary

Missouri quarterback James Franklin has a solid sidekick in running back Henry Josey, who missed the entire 2012 season due to a serious knee injury only to come back with 1,074 yards and 13 touchdowns.

However, Oklahoma State's run defense (23rd, 132.9 YPG) is much tougher than its pass defense (84th, 245.6 YPG), so Franklin might be better-served trying to pick apart the Cowboys through the air.

Despite missing four games due to injury, Franklin was an efficient quarterback in 2013 (2,255 yards, 19 touchdowns, 5 INTs), while also adding 474 rushing yards and four scores on the ground.

Franklin has plenty of weapons on the perimeter if he wants to air it out.

Dorial Green-Beckham (55 catches, 830 yards, 12 TDs), L'Damian Washington (47 catches, 853 yards, 10 TDs) and Marcus Lucas (55 catches, 646 yards, two TDs) create one of the nation's most electric wide receiver trios.

The 6'6" Green-Beckham is only a sophomore, but appears to have a bright NFL future. As such, look for top OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert to shadow the big wideout in a matchup of two top NFL prospects.

Gilbert has six interceptions and two defensive touchdowns this year, but his skills alone haven't been enough to shore up a porous OSU secondary. Look for Franklin to try and take advantage of his talented receiver trio when these two teams meet in Dallas.

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Johnny Manziel Yells at Mike Evans on Sidelines, They Watch a Punt Get Blocked

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel could be playing in his final game in an Aggies uniform as they take on the Duke Blue Devils in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and things were not going well in the first half. 

Manziel is upset with his star wide receiver Mike Evans and slams his helmet down on the sidelines before he gives him a piece of his mind. Just when they think it can't get worse, during Manziel's speech, Duke blocks a punt, startling both of them.

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