NCAA Football News

Gator Bowl 2014: Nebraska's Defense Has Much to Prove vs. Georgia

It's not often that a team gets a do-over in college football, but after last year's 45-31 loss to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, Nebraska gets that rare chance as it's set to take on the Bulldogs in this year's TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. 

There may be no group more anxious for this rematch than the Huskers defense, a unit that gave up over 500 yards of total offense and over 400 passing yards to the Bulldogs in last year's contest.  

What will be different this year is the fact that Georgia will be looking to do more in the ground game, especially with star quarterback Aaron Murray out with a torn ACL. 

It means a rush defense that gives up an average of 161.2 yards a game (eighth in the Big Ten) will be challenged by one of the best running backs in the country, Todd Gurley. 

Gurley, who missed three games this season with an injury, averages 6.3 yards a carry and finished the regular season with 903 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games.

The sophomore was off to a huge start to the year before his injury, rushing for 450 yards and four touchdowns in the first four games of the season. 

In the finale against Georgia Tech, Gurley had the most attempts since a Week 2 matchup against South Carolina, rushing 20 times for 122 yards and three touchdowns in the overtime win. 

Nebraska's run defense has struggled with good rushing attacks all season long and ended the season giving up big games to some of the Big Ten's better running backs and running teams. 

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford went for 152 yards and three touchdowns, Penn State's Zach Zwinak went for 149 yards and Iowa racked up 156 yards as a team in the regular-season finale, with Mark Weisman scoring twice on the ground. 

Youth up front has been part of the problem against the run, but it appears as if some defenders have finally had the lightbulb go off and are ready to see more playing time moving forward. 

One player that could help make a big difference is freshman defensive tackle Maliek Collins. According to Brian Christopherson and Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star, Collins has been seeing time with the No. 1 defensive unit leading up to the Gator Bowl.

Adding Collins to the mix gives Bo Pelini more flexibility at the defensive tackle position and the coach sees that group as almost interchangeable at this point.

Between Maliek and (Aaron) Curry and Thad … and obviously Vincent (Valentine), I think those guys have gotten better, and they’re going to make each other better. They’ve done that and they continue to work hard. I like that group.

That group needs to step up and be stout against the run for the Huskers to have a chance against Georgia's run game, which is averaging 176.1 yards per game. 

Nebraska also can't sleep on the pass game, even with Murray out. His replacement, Hutson Mason, proved he's capable of winning games too. 

Mason threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Bulldogs to a 41-34 OT victory over rival Georgia Tech to end the regular season. 

The good news is the Huskers' pass defense has been a strength all season long, ranking fourth in the Big Ten (205.8 yards per game) and giving up just 16 touchdowns through the air. 

Adding more depth up front can only help the secondary that features two All-Big Ten performers in Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.  

It also appears that Nebraska will have a full complement of healthy players, another issue that has hurt both sides of the ball for the Huskers. 

Between health, young players stepping up and their memory of last season's bowl game loss to Georgia, there should be more than enough motivation for the Huskers defense. 

Now it's time for this group to put it all together. Without an improvement defensively, Nebraska's chances of revenge against Georgia are pretty slim. 

 

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

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Alamo Bowl: 3 Keys for Texas to Send Mack Brown Off a Winner

Texas coach Mack Brown doesn't view Monday night's Alamo Bowl against Oregon as a goodbye party, but that will undoubtedly be the overriding theme. 

Now that longtime Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has announced his retirement following the game, both teams will want to send their coach out a winner. 

“We love Coach Brown," said 'Horns safety Adrian Phillips to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We are just going to fight with Coach Brown every straw against Oregon and come out right."

The Ducks are still a heavy favorite to beat the Longhorns. VegasInsider.com has Oregon as a 14.5-point favorite. If Texas wants to make Brown's last game memorable for all the right reasons, here are three things it must do:

 

Contain a Finally Healthy Marcus Mariota

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was visibly limited in the second half of the season with a left knee injury. He should be ready to go against Texas, which means the Longhorns have to be prepared to defend both the pass and the run against him. 

There's no magic number Texas can hold Mariota under to slow down the Ducks offense; Oregon has won when Mariota is a non-factor running the ball and when he's thrown multiple interceptions. Rather, the key will be getting Oregon off the field on third and fourth downs and forcing multiple turnovers. Those were two common themes in the Ducks' losses to Stanford and Arizona. 

That sounds simple, but it's really not. Oregon ranks among the top teams in the country in fourth-down attempts (31), converting just under 50 percent. Texas' defense, meanwhile, has only lined up on fourth down 13 times this season. 

To contain Mariota and get Oregon off the field, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat will have to live up to his Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year billing. The Longhorns are fifth in the nation in sacks and tied for 22nd in tackles for loss. It's going to be hard to contain all of Oregon's weapons, but if Texas can contain Mariota, it's taking away nearly 60 percent of the Ducks offense. 

 

Malcolm Brown Must Have the Game of his Career

Texas' offense is at its best when the running game takes pressure off quarterback Case McCoy. Yet the 'Horns will be thin at running back.

Johnathan Gray has been out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, which he sustained in a 47-40 win over West Virginia in November. Also, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet are academically ineligible. 

That leaves Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron to carry the load. Brown has come on strong since the Oklahoma game, accounting for 711 of his 774 yards in his last seven games. Bergeron is a good short-yardage back, but he's had fumbling issues. That means Brown should see a bulk of the carries against the Ducks. 

Brown has battled health issues for most of his career, but he's shown over the past couple of months why he was such a heralded recruit coming out of Cibolo Steele high school—just outside San Antonio, of all places. 

In two losses to a pair of excellent rushing offenses, the Ducks have given up a combined 578 yards. Texas should look to exploit that again with Brown. 

“The 3‑4 [defense], we feel like we can do a great job of running the ball right at them,” Brown said of Oregon to the Dallas Morning News

 

Make Oregon Inefficient on Offense

When you can score as quickly as Oregon can, time of possession and playing from behind matter little. In fact, the Ducks have only led in TOP twice this season: against Colorado and Washington. 

But when combined with offensive inefficiency, suddenly TOP matters more. In two losses, the Ducks have run 176 plays—still roughly on par for their season average—while averaging just 18 points, a full 28 below their season average. 

Stanford flat-out stuffed Oregon in its 26-20 win, holding the Ducks to just over three yards per play. Arizona gave up double the yards per play but forced Oregon off the field on third down and allowed just one fourth-down conversion on three attempts. 

If Texas can play keep-away—hence the importance of the running game—while knocking Oregon off balance, it will have a realistic chance of winning. The Ducks will still run plenty of plays, but the less they can get out of each play, the better it is for the Longhorns. 

That's going to require not only great push up front by the Texas D-line, but the secondary will have to lock down receivers and make throwing the ball a nightmare for Mariota. 

“If you control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, you can beat these guys,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of Oregon, via the Dallas Morning News

 

Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All stats courtesy of the NCAA. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval

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BCS Championship 2014: Auburn's Biggest Concern vs. FSU Is Its Own Secondary

The final game of the BCS era will take place on Jan. 6, and it's dripping with intrigue. 

The hottest team in America will face off with the best, when No. 2 Auburn takes on No. 1 Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif.

Auburn wasn't even ranked as late as the Oct. 13 USA Today Coaches Poll but came out of nowhere to win its final nine games—including the final two over Alabama and Missouri, both of which were ranked in the top five at the time.

The Tigers' success has been founded on a punishing and multi-dimensional running game that features Heisman finalist Tre Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall and speedster Corey Grant. Once Auburn got momentum going in that running game, the momentum snowballed and took some pressure off of its "bend but don't break" defense.

But was Auburn just hot down the stretch, or is it elite?

The answer to that question hinges on its secondary, which will have its hands full next Monday night with a talented and deep Seminole wide receiver corps that features Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene.

Defense doesn't win championships anymore, "just enough" defense does, and for Auburn to have enough, cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy, safeties Ryan Smith and Jermaine Whitehead and "star" defensive back Robenson Therezie better be on their game.

"It’s going to be a big challenge," Mincy said according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers. It’s a great opportunity that we can go out there to show that we can be a proven defense." 

Benjamin presents the biggest issues. At 6'5", 234 pounds, he is a clone of Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham—who caught six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn.

Nobody in Auburn's secondary—or any secondary, for that matter—can match up with Benjamin. He turns 50-50 balls into 75-25 balls with his size and is the ultimate insurance policy when quarterback Jameis Winston gets pressured.

But while Benjamin is the most imposing figure outside for head coach Jimbo Fisher, Winston spreads the ball around to he, Shaw and Greene very well. Each member of the trio has more than 900 receiving yards.

As my colleague Michael Felder pointed out, blitzing Winston won't do the trick, because Auburn's back end needs help capitalizing on mistakes generated by pressure. In fact, as ESPN's David Hale notes, Winston has been elite against the blitz this season.

Jameis Winston vs. blitz this season: 70.6% comp, 20 TD, 3 INT, 12 sacks.

— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) December 30, 2013

Auburn will have to get pressure with four.

The good news for Auburn is, despite a big statistical day by Green-Beckham in the SEC Championship Game, Davis and Mincy actually played well against the NBA power forwards Missouri trots out at wide receiver.

Sure, there were a few blown assignments that led to big plays, but Mincy was in good position to high-point the football more times than not, and Davis' leaping ability and ability to break on the football played a critical role in the outcome of the game—including a fourth-down stop with Auburn up 10 with 4:27 to play.

That doesn't mean that it has to shut down Winston and his trio of receivers. That's not Auburn's M.O.

The Tigers have given up an SEC-worst 27 passing plays of 30 or more yards and 14 of 40 or more yards. Conversely, Florida State led the ACC and is fourth in the nation in pass plays of 20 or more yards with 71.

Auburn bends but doesn't break, so when an opportunity presents itself, whether it's generated from pressure or not, the Tigers have to pounce—just as they've done all year.

This group will have to come to play if the Tigers are going to have any hope of hoisting the crystal football for the second time in four years.

If not, it could be a long night in Pasadena.

 

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Armed Forces Bowl 2013 Middle Tennessee vs. Navy: Live Score and Highlights

Navy - 10

Middle Tennessee - 3

Early-Second Quarter 

Bleacher Report will provide live, in-game analysis and scoring updates, so stay locked in here.

Want your voice to be heard? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Best Individual Performances from Week 1 of Bowl Games

College football rolls into its second week of the bowl season on Monday, and over half of the games on the bowl slate will have been played by the end of the night on Dec. 30.

But while many fans are looking forward to the bigger matchups that await on New Year’s Day and beyond, we’d like to take a step back and admire the performances of some of the talented players from the earlier bowl games.

Some of these players were the MVPs of their respective game; some weren’t. Some of the players were on the winning end; others had to walk off the field in defeat. But the one thing that all the players had in common is that they provided some great memories for those in attendance and watching on television.

In the following slides, we’ll take a look at the best individual performances from the first week of bowl action.

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Clemson Football Recruiting: Five Players to Watch in High School All-Star Games

Clemson, ranked No. 12, is in South Florida making final preparations for Jan. 3’s Orange Bowl showdown with No. 7 Ohio State, but that isn’t the only bowl game that Tiger fans should be paying attention to.

Elite recruits across the nation are taking part in high school all-star games, which serve as talent showcases and a final opportunity for players to show their skills in front of fans and college coaches recruiting them.

The best two games are the Under Armour All-America Game and the U.S. Army All-America Bowl. The Under Armour game is set for Jan. 2 and the Army game for Jan. 4. Players with Clemson recruiting ties are involved in both games. Here’s a look at the Clemson commitments and targets involved, and why you should pay attention.

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B/R CFB 250: Top 15 Pocket Quarterbacks in College Football

Editor's note: This is the 15th installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. This signature series runs through December, with National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranking the best players at every position. You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for more rankings.

Which quarterback was the best operating out of the pocket in 2013?

The classic dropback passer has given way to quarterbacks who operate largely out of the shotgun. Despite the process being different, the goal is still the same, getting the ball out to the receivers in order to make plays down the field. Each of the signal-callers ranked in this category—spread or pro style, under center or shotgun—fit that description.

To qualify as a pocket passer, the quarterback’s rushing production must account for less than 15 percent of his offensive production. Those with a number above the 15 percent line fall into the dual-threat category.

In order to sift through the myriad quarterbacks across the country for B/R’s CFB 250, we looked carefully at each player. Using the baseline criteria of accuracy, arm strength, decision-making and pocket presence, we carefully slotted each of the quarterbacks. If there were any ties, the edge went to the player we would rather have.

Keep in mind, these pocket quarterbacks are being rated on their performance in college, not NFL potential. But to see where these players may go in the NFL draft (whether they are eligible in 2014 or later), check out Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's projections at the end of each player slide.

 

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2014 NFL Draft Prospects: Top Studs to Watch During Bowl Season

The bowl season is typically loaded with top prospects who are set to make some considerable noise in the NFL, and 2014 is no different. Plenty of stud performers who will soon be playing on Sundays are worth the watch in late December and early January.

While their teams may or may not cruise to victory in their final appearances of the season, these few stars will shine on the big stage and further prove how valuable they are heading into the 2014 draft.

It's impossible to note each of the hundreds of future NFL draft picks in action, but here's a look at three guys you must catch during the bowl season.

 

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

Johnny Manziel didn't have the best 2013 season of any player in college football. But he's far and away the most entertaining player at this level, and he's not done dominating, as his game translates well to Sundays. 

The Texas A&M star is a lethal dual-threat quarterback and one of the quickest players on the gridiron at any moment. His speed eludes linebackers and pass-rushers, and he can often make plays beyond the line of scrimmage to turn decent gains into huge plays. 

His rushing ability may be somewhat stymied in the NFL. But a new wave of quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson (who also isn't very tall) has proved that as long as you can throw against great defense, you'll generate rushing success. Johnny Football can do that.

Manziel's ability to throw the deep ball with accuracy and his progression reads make him look much more like a Wilson than a Tim Tebow. He also has the escapability that is a sought-after commodity for great NFL quarterbacks.

In the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke, expect nothing short of fireworks on New Year's Eve for Johnny Football in what might be his last game in college. 

 

Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA

This UCLA linebacker is the top pass-rusher in the class by a landslide, and he has All-Pro written all over him at the next level. 

Barr has 20 tackles for loss on the season in 2013—seventh in the NCAA—along with a whopping 10 sacks and six forced fumbles, which is second in college football. He's lethal on the edge in containing the run, getting to the quarterback or even dropping back into coverage.

At 6'4" and 248 pounds, Barr will be able to translate immediately into life on Sundays and will make a quick impact wherever he goes. B/R NFL draft expert Matt Miller has him going fourth overall to the Falcons in his latest mock. 

The Bruins finished with a 9-3 record and a trip to the Sun Bowl, where they'll face a formidable Virginia Tech squad from the ACC. Barr will have his hands full trying to contain Logan Thomas, a dual-threat quarterback who loves to scramble the pocket and is a NFL draft prospect in his own right.

If Barr can corral Thomas and keep him from making plays with his legs, it will further boost his already substantial draft stock. 

 

Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt

He isn't the most talked-about receiver in the draft, by any means, but Vandy receiver Jordan Matthews may end up being the best wideout of the class when it's all said and done. 

Matthews' stellar career with the Commodores concluded with him breaking the SEC record for career receiving yards and receptions. Hundreds of great receivers have come through the conference, and Matthews has gone for more yards and catches than all of them.

He hasn't done too shabby in his senior season, averaging over 111 yards receiving per game. His touchdowns are down (five), but he's fourth in the NCAA in receptions and makes big plays every game despite constantly facing double coverage.

Matthews boasts a 6'3", 206-pound frame and is undoubtedly ready to face NFL cornerbacks. B/R's Miller has him going 26th in his latest mock, so a first-round selection may be in his future. 

The Commodores finished a respectable 8-4 in the SEC but only drew the BBVA Compass Bowl, where they'll face Houston on Jan. 4. This game is in a later time slot, when most of the best bowl games will be through, so viewers will get a treat by seeing a wideout who will soon be making plays at the next level. 

 

Note: All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

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

The 2013 season didn't go the way either the Nebraska Cornhuskers or Georgia Bulldogs envisioned, but both sides will get an opportunity to end it all on a positive note at the 2014 Gator Bowl.

For Georgia, the Gator Bowl appearance represents the absolute worst-case scenario. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 in the country, even receiving a first-place vote from one Associated Press member. Instead of a national title, however, Georgia's season was one mired in disappointment from the opening kickoff.

In Jacksonville, the Bulldogs will attempt to avoid being Mark Richt's first five-loss team since the nightmare 2010 season. With quarterback Aaron Murray out, and a bevy of other injuries adorning the roster all year long, we'll have to see how this team responds to a relatively shrug-worthy bowl invitation.

A year removed from a chance of playing for the Rose Bowl, Nebraska also didn't expect to only reach the Gator Bowl. However, with questionable losses and shaky wins from their schedule, the Cornhuskers should probably be grateful for a January bowl game. 

Bo Pelini's squad has lost each of its past three postseason contests, a streak the current Vegas oddsmakers expect to extend to four.

Whether that happens or not will be decided Wednesday. Here's a look at the 2014 Gator Bowl, complete with a prediction for the outcome. 

 

Game Information

When: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 12 p.m. ET

Where: Everbank Field in Jacksonville

Watch: ESPN2

Stream: WatchESPN

Spread: Georgia -9 (Vegas Insider)

 

Top Storyline

Can Either Team Trust QB Play?

It's amazing how quickly injuries can change a game from a battle of two elite college quarterbacks to one of uncertainty. Neither Taylor Martinez nor Aaron Murray, both Heisman dark horses in the preseason, will suit up in what would have been their final collegiate games.

Martinez is missing his ninth game of the season, as he deals with a lingering foot injury. His being ruled out was not much of a surprise, though there were a few glimmers of hope that he would be able to play. 

The same could not be said for Murray, whose torn ACL cut his season short and may irreparably damage his pro prospects. Murray was already considered a mid-round prospect due to his lack of arm strength. Having a busted-up knee to go along with the noodle on his right shoulder won't engender him much to teams.

Without Murray and Martinez, the quarterback situation goes up in the air for both teams.

Hutson Mason will start in place of Murray. The junior signal-caller received his first start on Nov. 30, a 41-34 double-overtime victory over Kentucky. While the offense seemed to be running smoothly in the wake of Murray's injury, and Mason has been stellar every time he's gotten a chance, he has never entered a game of this magnitude.

It will be interesting to see how he fares against a stellar Nebraska secondary. The Cornhuskers didn't quite remind anyone of the vaunted Blackshirts in 2013, but they hung around the top 20 all season in terms of passing yards allowed per game.

They allowed only 16 touchdowns passes against 13 interceptions. Nebraska's noted struggles stopping the run have contributed to teams being predisposed to a more ground-oriented attack, but considering opposing quarterbacks aren't even completing 55 percent of their passes against the Huskers, let's just say Mason will be taking a step up from Georgia Tech.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. won't have the same troubles against Georgia, but his question marks are no less glaring. I'm not quite sure when it's a good time for a freshman quarterback not named Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston to start his first bowl game, but I'm pretty sure it's not when said freshman is coming off a bothersome ankle injury.

Armstrong is expected to play after getting more than a month off to rest the ailing ankle, but he's still listed on the injury report. That means there's at least a slight chance that he's not yet 100 percent, which could be just a bit of a problem.

Armstrong, when healthy, threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (seven) and had real trouble consistently hitting targets. He's far more an athlete than a quarterback at this point in his career. 

Georgia's secondary isn't great shakes. It rarely makes big plays and picked off only six passes, one of the lowest rates among bowl-eligible teams. But even the Bulldogs should be able to pull off a turnover or two against a hobbled, struggling passer in his freshman season. 

 

Prediction

Because faith in both quarterbacks is so up in the air, this matchup could really go either way. Armstrong may torch Georgia through the ground and air en route to proving incorrect everything we just noted. Mason may wind up proving a worthy successor to Murray in 2014, and this could be his coming-out party. 

But we're working in probabilities here. The odds of Armstrong excelling on this stage seem minimal. He's just not ready for this stage, nor are the Huskers' pass-catchers great enough to bail him out on questionable throws.

Ameer Abdullah and Todd Gurley are excellent, but just good enough to cancel one another out. The two running backs should both approach 100 yards, and it's probably important that they do. Otherwise, we'd be looking at an awfully unwatchable football game.

Instead, look for a semi-close, semi-sloppy affair that swings in Georgia's direction because of a key turnover.  

Score: Georgia 31, Nebraska 20

 

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

Two of the nation's most well-rounded teams square off in the 2014 Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, as Wisconsin (9-3) and South Carolina (10-2) will battle in what figures to be one of the more exciting games of the bowl season.

Unexpected losses for each team hurt their chances of playing in a BCS bowl game. South Carolina's 23-21 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 19 represented a low point for the Gamecocks this season while Wisconsin's 31-24 loss to Penn State on Nov. 30 was equally as shocking for the Badgers.

The Gamecocks enter having won five straight, including a double-overtime win over then-No. 5 Missouri and a 31-17 win over Clemson.

The Badgers have won six of their last seven games, although losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and Penn State would suggest that they have had trouble against better teams. That will be put to the test in the Capital One Bowl.

You're not going to want to miss this one, so here is the information that is crucial to your viewing experience, including betting lines and keys to the game that will help to keep you as informed as possible leading up to the action.

 

When: Wednesday, Jan. 1, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida

Watch: ABC

Live Stream: Watch ABC

Betting Lines: (via Covers)

  • Over/Under: 51 points
  • Spread: South Carolina (+1.5)

 

Team Injury Reports (via USA Today)

 

 

Can South Carolina Stop Wisconsin's Running Game?

Wisconsin boasts the eighth-best running game in the nation, checking in at 283 yards per contest. South Carolina's No. 13-ranked defense will need to play tough and prevent the Badgers from gaining yards after first contact when they run the ball.

The Wisconsin attack has been led by Melvin Gordon and James White. Gordon has gained 1,466 yards with 12 touchdowns while White has rushed for 1,337 yards and 13 touchdowns. Collectively, they have five more touchdowns than quarterback Joel Stave has passed for this season.

If that doesn't give you an indication of how the Badgers run their offense, then I don't know what does.

Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated notes that the Gamecocks might have a defensive line talented enough to make things difficult for the Badgers:

The Gamecocks' defensive line boasts two future NFL draft picks in (Jadeveon) Clowney and tackle Kelcy Quarles (9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss), who should make things difficult for Wisconsin tailbacks Melvin Gordon (1,466 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) and James White (1,337 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns).

Regardless, the Badgers running game still might be too much to handle. While the Gamecocks defense is solid overall, Gordon and White should be able to run for big yardage if they can get past the defensive line. South Carolina's linebacking corps and secondary are not nearly as polished—nor NFL-ready—as its defensive line.

Stopping the ground game will be the biggest key for South Carolina.

 

Prediction

The NFL draft hasn't distracted South Carolina's biggest star, and it's crucial that Clowney's head remains in the game at all times. On Dec. 17, Clowney told the AP that, "Right now, my mind's on the team, trying to finish the season off strong and win this game against Wisconsin."

Without Clowney firing on all cylinders and focused throughout the game, the Gamecocks' chances for a win will suffer. Clowney is a dynamic playmaker on the defensive line, which is why he is a coveted NFL draft prospect.

Even so, a dynamic Clowney won't be enough to silence the Badgers. With the Wisconsin ground game working to move the chains, look for Stave to surprise the South Carolina defense with long plays over the top on play-action passes. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will be a key factor in the vertical passing attack.

Wisconsin will pick up an easy win, even if the score doesn't necessarily suggest such it.

Final score: Wisconsin 30, South Carolina 21

 

 

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Florida State Football's 13 Most Memorable Moments of 2013

Florida State has been on an incredible run this season, as evidenced by a 13-0 record, a No. 1 ranking and a matchup with Auburn for all the marbles Jan. 6 in the BCS National Championship.

On the offensive side of the football, freshman quarterback Jameis Winston—the school's third Heisman Trophy winner—directs an attack that is currently second in the country in points per game (53.0) and fifth in total yards (529.4), plus FSU's 90 touchdowns lead the nation. Defensively, senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and Co. are the stingiest unit on the scoreboard (10.7 points allowed) and against the pass (152.0 yards allowed) on a per-game basis, with their 17 TDs allowed tying Alabama for the fewest in FBS.

The Seminoles, by the way, have played one more game than the Crimson Tide.

Fourth-year coach Jimbo Fisher has now emerged from the considerable shadow cast by his predecessor, two-time national champion Bobby Bowden, as the 'Noles finally played like a program loaded with 4- and 5-star signees—there were no head-scratching losses to an undermanned Wake Forest team or an outclassed Virginia squad. Say what you will about a relatively weak schedule, but aside from a spirited effort Sept. 28 by Boston College in Chestnut Hill, no opponent managed to stay within 27 points once the final gun had been fired.

With a week to go before the Garnet and Gold suit up opposite the SEC-champion Tigers in Pasadena, here are 13 particularly memorable moments we witnessed in 2013, one from each of Florida State's baker's dozen of victories.

 

Florida State 41, Pittsburgh 13 (Sept. 2)

The Panthers started strong and drove all the way down the field on their opening possession to take an early 7-0 lead, but Winston responded in the opening quarter with the first of his 38 touchdown passes on the season: a 24-yard beauty to junior tight end Nick O'Leary. Showing the savvy of a fifth-year senior, the 19-year-old felt pressure from the right and slid to his left, saw the free safety vacate the middle of the field and launched a perfect throw down the hash mark before O'Leary had even made his break to daylight.

Not only did Winston have the prototypical size and arm talent necessary to be a difference-maker at the game's most important position, but he also quickly proved to possess the schematic understanding and mental awareness usually set aside for the all-time greats.

 

Florida State 62, Nevada 7 (Sept. 14)

A disappointment for two years considering the raw physical ability he brings to the table, junior Karlos Williams was switched from safety to running back and given third-string duties behind junior ball-carriers Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. The 6'1", 223-pounder responded with a 65-yard touchdown blastoff in the third quarter—on his first career carry, no less—to push the advantage to 31-7.

Williams seemingly became a bigger part of the game plan week after week, to the point where he's expected to be first relief for Freeman off the bench in the title game ahead of Wilder.

 

Florida State 54, Bethune-Cookman 6 (Sept. 21)

With the overmatched Wildcats putting together an impressive drive to start the game, senior linebacker Telvin Smith put an end to any Appalachian State-like thoughts by intercepting a pass and returning it 68 yards for the initial points. BCU didn't dent the scoreboard until the midway point of the third quarter, when it was already 40-0 and the Seminoles had fielded second- and third-teamers.

A linebacker in a safety's body, Smith went on to be a first-team All-ACC pick and presently projects as a second- or third-round selection in the NFL draft.

 

Florida State 48, Boston College 34 (Sept. 28)

With the game all knotted up at 17 and FSU in the middle of a dogfight it didn't anticipate, Winston closed the first-half festivities by connecting with senior receiver Kenny Shaw on a 55-yard touchdown strike to give his team an unexpected lead heading into the locker room. Winston evaded two pass-rushers and got popped in the mouth by a third just before letting go of the football, as it landed safely in the arms of Shaw behind one-on-one coverage.

The 'Noles went on to outscore the Eagles 14-10 in the third quarter and then 10-7 in the fourth to escape an upset bid at Alumni Stadium.

 

Florida State 63, Maryland 0 (Oct. 5)

With the Terrapins undefeated and ranked 25th in the country, due in large part to dual-threat senior quarterback C.J. Brown leading the ACC in total offense at the time, an FSU defense that looked vulnerable seven days prior at BC would be put to the test. But Brown ended up taking more punches at Doak Campbell Stadium than he threw, as he was sidelined in the second quarter with a concussion—senior defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel hit him high, while senior linebacker Dan Hicks hit him low.

The Terps were held to 234 total yards and never sniffed the AP poll for the rest of the season.

 

Florida State 51, Clemson 14 (Oct. 19)

Arguably the biggest showdown in conference history couldn't have started better for the Seminoles, as a 22-yard touchdown pass from Winston to sophomore receiver Kelvin Benjamin and a 28-yard field goal from freshman kicker Roberto Aguayo resulted in a quick 10-0 lead. If Memorial Stadium was relatively quiet then, it was downright silent following a 37-yard fumble return to paydirt by sophomore defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. on the ensuing Tigers possession.

A would-be brawl turned into a ho-hum beatdown, with Winston performing like a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd struggling like a wide-eyed freshman.

 

Florida State 49, North Carolina State 17 (Oct. 26)

A letdown would have been forgivable considering the mental energy expended the week before in Death Valley, but instead the 'Noles sprinted out to a ridiculous 35-0 advantage in the first quarter against the overwhelmed Wolfpack. Winston fired TD tosses to Benjamin, O'Leary and junior receiver Rashad Greene, while both Williams and Freeman found the end zone on the ground.

FSU extended the lead to 42-0 in the second frame and put it on cruise control the rest of the way, with myriad backups and reserves again seeing considerable action after intermission.

 

Florida State 41, Miami 14 (Nov. 2)

Freeman, a Miami native determined to harass his hometown Hurricanes every chance he got, scored the last of his three touchdowns on a 12-yard scamper with 3:41 remaining in the third quarter. While UM hung with the Seminoles for the better part of two-and-a-half periods, Freeman's hat trick pushed FSU's edge to 35-14 to essentially put away the bitter state rival for good.

The 5'9", 203-pounder only averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the ground but continually moved the chains and added a team-leading 98 yards on six grabs out of the backfield.

 

Florida State 59, Wake Forest 3 (Nov. 9)

FSU's offense put on a fireworks display in the first quarter, producing touchdown runs by Wilder and Freeman and a TD catch by Benjamin, but it was the Seminole D that stole the show in the second frame. Freshman cornerback Nate Andrews returned an interception 56 yards for a score, and then freshman safety Jalen Ramsey visited the painted area courtesy of a 23-yard fumble return to make it 35-0—the two plays happened on back-to-back offensive snaps by the Demon Deacons.

The 'Noles were starting to feel every bit as scary on defense as they'd been all season long on offense, limiting Wake to eight first downs, 166 total yards and an anemic 2.6 yards per play.

 

Florida State 59, Syracuse 3 (Nov. 16)

As if the three-headed monster of Freeman, Wilder and Williams wasn't enough for opponents on the ground, freshman receiver Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield took a toss sweep from Winston in the first quarter and weaved his way on a crazy 74-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 less than five minutes into the contest. The rout was on, as the 'Noles led 28-0 after one, 38-0 after two and 59-0 after three—the 'Cuse booted a 32-yard field goal in the final stanza to avoid being blanked.

Auburn has more than likely watched that play on film several times and dedicated some practice reps to help defend it if Whitfield happens to line up behind Winston at Rose Bowl Stadium.

 

Florida State 80, Idaho 14 (Nov. 23)

Freshman linebacker E.J. Levenberry, a potential star in Tallahassee relegated to mop-up duty most of 2013, intercepted a Vandals pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown with 4:19 remaining in the fourth quarter. Once Aguayo split the uprights on the extra point, the Seminoles had cracked the 80-point barrier for the first time ever.

With the likes of Levenberry and fellow freshmen Ukeme Eligwe and Matthew Thomas on the roster, the 'Noles appear to be loaded at the linebacker position for the foreseeable future.

 

Florida State 37, Florida 7 (Nov. 30)

The Seminoles woke up from an early 3-0 deficit in the second quarter when Winston connected with Shaw on a skinny post for 27 improbable yards on 3rd-and-26, but it was four snaps later when the hated Gators began to realize they were in a heap of trouble. Winston found Benjamin over the middle and watched in amazement as the 6'5", 234-pounder bounced off a handful of UF defenders on his way to the end zone and a 7-3 lead.

It was the first of three TDs for Benjamin, as he wrapped up his afternoon with nine catches for an eye-popping 212 yards—and he should have had even more since he dropped one or two easy ones.

 

Florida State 45, Duke 7 (Dec. 7)

With 2:38 remaining in the third quarter and FSU already comfortably ahead 31-0, Winston put one last highlight on tape for Heisman Trophy voters when he hurdled into the end zone on a 17-yard scoring scramble. While the pride of Hueytown High School in Bessemer, Ala., was picked off twice by the Blue Devils, he threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns to bring his season totals to 3,820 and 38, respectively—a week later he was awarded the game's most coveted individual honor by a healthy margin.

The Seminoles wrapped up a spot in the national championship game as the lone unbeaten in the land, with an unprecedented 14-0 record and third crystal football on the line next Monday in prime time.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Penn State Football: 5 Best Moments of 2013

In Bill O'Brien's second season as head coach, the Penn State Nittany Lions certainly had their fair share of ups and downs in 2013. 

There were the memorable games like Michigan and Wisconsin; moments that seemed to put Penn State back on the map. Then there were the frustrating times—like Indiana and Minnesota—that fans longed to forget.

A 7-5 record to finish the season was a slight step back from the 8-4 campaign of 2012. But considering what the program has been through the last two years, it's still something to be proud of. 

After every year, it's nice to look back on some of the top plays that were made. Without further ado, here are the five best moments from Penn State's 2013 season. 

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Notre Dame Football: Will Irish Defense Be Lost Without Bob Diaco?

With the Irish having trudged through their 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers, Brian Kelly can get onto the task of replacing both of his coordinators. In his postgame press conference, the Irish head coach said he's still thinking about what to do with his offense after Chuck Martin left for the Miami (Ohio) head coaching job. But he revealed that the hiring of a defensive coordinator from outside the program is imminent. 

Multiple reports have that hire being New York Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder. The 54-year-old coach has spent 24 years in college or professional football, working with Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1989 to '91. VanGorder served as Kelly's first defensive coordinator before leaving for the head coaching job at Wayne State, his alma mater.

That move was the first of many for VanGorder and his family, with the potential move to South Bend his 11th since leaving Grand Valley. But for Irish fans desperately wondering if VanGorder can keep the Irish defense moving forward, two successful stints at both the college and NFL level should have Domers breathing easy. 

VanGorder became one of the SEC's premiere coordinators while orchestrating Mark Richt's Georgia defense. Over four seasons, he helped the Bulldogs finish three years in the AP top ten, while putting together three units that ranked in the top ten in scoring defense. For his work in Athens, VanGorder won the Broyles Award in 2003, the same award given to Diaco in 2012. 

VanGorder left Georgia to test himself in the NFL, joining Jack Del Rio's Jacksonville staff. After a short stint as the Georgia Southern head coach, he landed with the Atlanta Falcons, eventually coordinating Mike Smith's defense between 2008-11. The Falcons posted four consecutive winning seasons with VanGorder calling the defense (the first time in franchise history), winning 43 regular season games over that period.

But when Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs matched Kirby Smart's contract and made VanGorder the highest paid assistant in college football, he returned to the SEC, working the 2012 season at Auburn before Gene Chizik and his staff were fired. 

Notre Dame has yet to confirm what multiple credible media outlets call a done deal. But Kelly's comments after the game make it seem like the only thing left is red tape. Let's take a look at the direction VanGorder could take the Irish. 

 

Base Defense

One of the biggest differences between VanGorder and Diaco is their base defense. As VanGorder confirmed in his introductory press conference at Auburn, his preference is to play a four man front, the opposite of Diaco's base set.

All that being said, both coaches believe in being multiple up front, with the Irish running splitting their looks almost 50/50 the past two seasons. 

"I'm a 4-3 guy," VanGorder said in January, 2012. "Having said that, we consider ourselves basing off the 4-3, but multiple in its makeup. That's today's football. I think you have to be able to do that, but we'll base out of the 4-3."

VanGorder spent this season coaching under Rex Ryan, one of the foremost innovators in the 3-4 defense. That experience will likely come in handy as VanGorder gets set to work under another head coach that prefers basing out of a 3-4 set.

 

Defensive Philosophy

If there's one change that Irish fans will welcome most it's VanGorder's preference to attack. With the Falcons, VanGorder ran more zone blitzes than any other team in the league. While Diaco put much of his focus on point prevention and staying away from the big play, VanGorder's hallmarks seem to be blitzing, attacking and creating confusion. 

As the Irish defense showed early this season, when they gambled in man coverage or with exotic blitzes, they often got hurt by big plays. It happened in Ann Arbor, when Michigan's offense continued to win one-on-one battles, and continued against Oklahoma, when a slant route broke for a long touchdown. 

VanGorder might also give the Irish an edge schematically. Known as an innovator throughout his time at both the college and professional level, a defense that was sometimes tagged as vanilla could take advantage of a few new schemes after four seasons of a focus on the fundamentals under Diaco. 

Where both VanGorder and Diaco are aligned is their energy level and their commitment to excellence. While interim defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks seems to exude calm and cool, VanGorder will bring the same frenetic energy that Diaco showed on the practice field. 

"I saw a coach who I think can make that transition being a defensive coordinator at the college level from where he was in the NFL, because he’s got energy, he’s enthusiastic," Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer told the South Bend Tribune. "He’s the guy when the pack is running from one station to another in training camp, he’s the first one there. He’s not walking there. He’s running. He’s leading by example." 

 

Organizational Voice

One of the big reasons that the media hasn't had access to assistant coaches much these past few seasons is Kelly's preference to have the staff speak as one voice. While it's taken away our access to characters like Diaco and Martin, it's something that Harry Hiestand appreciated when arriving in South Bend. 

VanGorder understands that part of the business. Having spent stints in the NFL and the SEC, he knows football at the highest level. But VanGorder also seems comfortable with the role he has on a coaching staff, understanding what it is the coordinator does for the head coach. 

While they may see defenses differently, both VanGorder and Diaco understand exactly how Brian Kelly wants to operate his football program. 

Want proof? Here's an interesting snippet from VanGorder's introduction at Auburn, where he details his job, and the work he'll do to make sure the head message is understood completely. 

"I think philosophically as Gene [Chizik] sets the table with that, and then I carry that message to the guys," VanGorder said. "It has to be very clear that as a football team, this is the mission and the things that have to follow in making that mission work. That is the commitment part of it that is so crucial."

Match those comments up with those from Diaco to Irish Illustrated last week:  

"I fit with the boss. Whether it was articulated to me game-to-game or season-to-season, I just did it," Diaco told Irish Illustrated. "We did it as a defensive staff. We knew that to win games, we were going to have to do our business a particular way."

Heading into the fifth year of Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame, the head coach is looking for ways to push the program forward. On paper, the hiring of VanGorder looks to do it. 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes gathered firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold. 

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

LSU vs. Iowa: Five Burning Questions for the 2013 Outback Bowl

LSU fans predicted before the season began that the Tigers would play Iowa in the Outback Bowl, right?

Most fans figured the Tigers would lose some games due to an arduous schedule and their high roster turnover, so playing in a New Year's Day Bowl is not the worst consolation prize. 

The Tigers will look to give Les Miles his seventh 10-win season in Baton Rouge with a win over the Hawkeyes while Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz will attempt to defeat an SEC opponent in the Outback Bowl for a second time after beating South Carolina in 2009.

Expect old-school smash-mouth football when the Tigers and Hawkeyes meet. Miles and Ferentz would not have it any other way.

LSU and Iowa have only faced each other once before, when the Hawkeyes snuck by the Tigers in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, thanks to the late heroics of quarterback Drew Tate.  

Here are a few helpful details for this season's Outback Bowl:

 

Time: 1 ET

Place: Raymond James Stadium

TV: ESPN

Radio: LSU Sports Radio Network, Iowa Sports Radio Network 

Spread: LSU by 7, via Scores and Odds 

 

 

 

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Boise State Football: 5 Best Moments of 2013

The 2013-14 football season was disappointing in many ways for Bronco Nation.

The Broncos finished the year 8-5 overall, which was their worst record since 1998 when they finished 6-5 as members of the Big West.

They also had to endure season-ending injuries to several key players, including excellent backup running back Aaron Baltazar, offensive spark plug Shane Williams-Rhodes and starting quarterback Joe Southwick.

The season seemed to go from bad to worse as Boise State lost crucial games, including one to San Diego State. It was not only the first time in a long time the Broncos lost to a conference opponent two seasons in a row, but the 34-31 heartbreaking overtime loss also hindered them from earning a spot in the first-ever Mountain West title game.

The biggest loss for Boise State, however, was in early December when the team would lose its head coach Chris Petersen after he decided to leave Boise to become the new head man for the Washington Huskies.

Not long after that, promising freshman running back Aaron Baltazar decided to leave the team for undisclosed reasons.

But, the difficulties didn't stop there.

As a seemingly fitting end to a troubling season, Boise State finished 2013 with a week of controversy and a disappointing performance in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

It was, without much doubt, the worst season in over a decade for the team that has made winning look so easy.

However, adversity has never kept Boise State football down for long. Helen Keller once said:

Be of good cheer. Do not think of today's failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.

Even if this season brought difficulty and hardship for the Broncos and their fans, the truth is that all of the blood, sweat, tears and hard work will not be wasted. This is a program that has never rolled over and played dead.

And, if history is any indication, this team will rise from the ashes of this season and continue its ascension in the college football universe.

Of course, the 2013-14 season was not without some high points for the Broncos either.

There were some very impressive and excellent moments along the way. Let's look at five such moments in a celebration of the things that did go right for Boise State in 2013 and what it might mean for this program going forward.

 

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Previewing the Rose Bowl and Every New Year's Day Bowl Game

You've had the appetizers, maybe even a nice salad or some soup. But when it comes to bowl games, the main course doesn't begin until Jan. 1.

The New Year's Day bowl schedule is a six-course meal with options for everyone's taste, ranging from the exotic fare (upstarts North Texas and UNLV facing off in the Heart of Dallas Bowl) to trusty menu staples like the traditional Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup in the Rose Bowl, the game so prestigious it's "presented by" Vizio rather than having its sponsor slapped onto the front of the title.

Whatever your flavor, there's something for you on the New Year's bowl schedule.

Check out our expanded previews of each game, as well as picks on which teams will take home the varied trophies and bragging rights from the first bowls of 2014.

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Arkansas Football: Razorbacks' New Year's Resolutions

A lot has happened in 2013. Some things were good and some were bad, but the end of each year marks the beginning of a new one. 

With the new year comes an opportunity for a fresh start, a time to make resolutions and set new goals. Resolutions can be for individuals, offices, classrooms, families and, in this case, the Arkansas Razorbacks.

The 2013 season was not very nice to the Hogs, but it's now in the past. With 2014 come hopes and dreams of turning around what was a very rocky debut for head coach Bret Bielema, to say the least.

The Razorbacks didn't win a conference game for the first time since joining the SEC in 1992 and endured their first nine-game losing streak in program history. But, as stated, 2014 is a whole new year, so there's no need to pout, moan or drown in self-sorrow.

Bielema has a lot of young talent to build on, and putting in the work in the offseason should make for a much better season in his second year. 

With that said, here are the Razorbacks' top-four New Year's resolutions that should make for a better ending.

For more information on the Arkansas Razorbacks football team, follow Bryan Heater on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.

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Ohio State Football: Noah Spence Not with Team, Dealing with 'Personal Issues'

The No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes have arrived in Florida ahead of their Orange Bowl matchup with No. 12 Clemson, but one of their top players hasn't made the trip.

According to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors, Urban Meyer told reporters that defensive end Noah Spence is at home dealing with "personal issues."

“Noah didn’t fly down with us,” Meyer said, via Rowland's article. “He’s working through some personal issues at home. I hope [he will be here].”

With kickoff set for 8:30 p.m. ET on Friday, January 3, time is ticking on Spence's return, and he's certainly missing out on pivotal bowl practices.

If Spence doesn't rejoin the team, Ohio State will be losing one of its most disruptive defenders.

The sophomore standout from Harrisburg, Pa. had a fantastic season, recording 52 total tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and a team-high eight sacks, according to Ohio State's official website. Spence lines up as the Buckeyes' primary pass-rusher in a position the coaches dubbed the "Viper," and his speed off the edge is one of Ohio State's biggest advantages.

Replacing Spence won't be easy, but if the Buckeyes need to, they'll turn to another sophomore in Jamal Marcus.

Marcus is Spence's primary backup, and with Ohio State's heavy rotation along the defensive line, he received a good amount of playing this year. Marcus played in 12 games and registered 15 total tackles, including two sacks, according to the team's official website.

Facing Clemson's high-powered offense, Spence's potential absence would be a huge blow.

The Tigers, led by senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, boast one of the country's most explosive offenses. Clemson is No. 11 in total offense, averaging 502 yards, while ranking ninth with more than 40 points per game. Much of that damage is done through the air as the Tigers average 329 passing yards per outing.

Ohio State has given up big yards to opposing quarterbacks, ranking 103rd in the country after surrendering an average of 260 yards per game. The Buckeyes need dramatic defensive improvement to slow down the Tigers, and now the playing status of one of their key players is up in the air.

The Buckeyes, of course, are looking to bounce back from their first loss under Urban Meyer after falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. 

If Spence can't make the trip, bouncing back will be much more difficult.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NCAA.com

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oregon vs. Texas: Whose 2014 Recruiting Class Is Better Right Now?

In what will be the final game for a pair of admired coaches, Oregon and Texas will dual in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Monday.

Mack Brown will coach his last game for Texas, while this will also be the last ride for Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. The Longhorns and Ducks did not have the seasons they both wanted, but they're each going to want to end this year with a victory.

What also makes this such an intriguing contest is that both programs are enjoying solid recruiting years. Which program should be the happiest with recruiting right now? 

 

Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports

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Notre Dame Football: 2013 Grades for Brian Kelly

Notre Dame's 2013 season is officially in the books, and the numerous performance reviews are arriving in droves.

For head coach Brian Kelly, any meeting with athletic director Jack Swarbrick regarding the Irish's 2013 season should be a pleasant one, as Kelly guided the program to what should be considered a successful campaign, despite a 9-4 record not living up to the fanbase's mountainous expectations.

While a slew of factors contributed to the Irish's underwhelming follow-up of their appearance in last season's BCS National Championship Game, providing a detailed performance review for Kelly will inject clarity in the postmortem of the 2013 season.

 

Offense: B

As has been discussed ad nauseam since former starting quarterback Everett Golson was expelled from the university in May, Kelly was essentially forced to scale back his playbook and alter the Irish's plan of attack with Tommy Rees at quarterback.

As Kelly would typically prefer, he wasn't able to run the zone read with Rees at the helm but was able to combat that impossibility by implementing elements of the pistol offense, as well as a no-back set on obvious passing downs.

However, Notre Dame's running game significantly regressed from its 2012 form, as the Irish finished the 2013 season ranked 80th nationally in rushing offense, averaging just 151.3 yards per game on the ground. To the average fan, Kelly would be the man to blame but not in this case.

Fair or unfair to state, opposing defenses stacked the line of scrimmage during appropriate down-and-distance situations, making it virtually impossible for the Irish to effectively run the football.

Despite that deficiency, Notre Dame averaged approximately two points per game more than it did last season. Given that impressive feat under the circumstances, Kelly deserves the "B" for the Irish's offensive performance in 2013.

What prevented Kelly from being bumped up a letter grade was his continued difficulty within the red zone. As has been a common theme during his tenure at Notre Dame, Kelly's offense continually sputtered inside the 20s. Simply put, a red-zone offense percentage of 78 won't get the job done.

 

Defense: C

The best defenses in any league play as a cohesive 11-man unit, with the loss of a single player not having drastically negative effects, but such was the case with the Irish's defense in 2013.

With former linebacker Manti Te'o beginning his professional career with the San Diego Chargers, the spine of the Irish defense withered.

Notre Dame ranked 69th nationally in rushing defense, yielding an average of 168 yards per game on the ground. Keep in mind that Notre Dame returned eight of its 11 starters from last season's dominant unit that carried the program to its first national title appearance in 24 seasons.

Even prior to nose guard Louis Nix's season-ending meniscus tear, his presence along with Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo and Dan Fox simply couldn't build on what the unit accomplished a year ago.

Their collective regression combined with a wholly unsatisfactory 17 takeaways resulted in what should certainly be considered a porous defense.

 

Special Teams: D

A grade of "F" could be considered for the Irish's special teams performance during the 2013 season, but placekicker and punter Kyle Brindza brings the grade to "D."

Dating back to Kelly's initial season on the job, Notre Dame has shown time after time that special teams haven't been a priority. 2013 was an especially horrific season for the Irish's kick-coverage unit, as it finished in the cellar of the FBS, ranking 121st nationally (25.68 yards per kickoff return allowed).

Clearly, opposing offenses were allowed excellent field position on a consistent basis due to Notre Dame's failure to execute on that front.

Aside from kick coverage, Kelly and Co. continued to display a failure to piece together even a semblance of an effective punt-return unit. Despite senior receiver TJ Jones' decision to add punt returner to his list of duties, his team saw no tangible improvement, as the Irish averaged an abysmal 7.07 yards per punt return.

The lone bright spot for Notre Dame's special teams was Brindza, who converted 20 of 26 field-goal attempts while also adding on the responsibility of punting with former punter Ben Turk having graduated in May. 

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