NCAA Football News

Sugar Bowl 2015: TV, Live Stream Info and Early Predictions

The Sugar Bowl is less than a month away, but college football fans are already looking ahead to the massive matchup. Multiple programs are still vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff semifinals, but only two will be chosen.

For now, the New Year's Day bowl game is one of the most unpredictable matchups of the year. Alabama appears to be destined for the No. 1 seed if it beats Missouri in the SEC Championship, but the final spot is up for grabs.

TCU, Florida State, Baylor, Ohio State and even Arizona are all in the hunt heading into their final games of the year. If I had to make a prediction right now, it would be Alabama and TCU competing in the Sugar Bowl for a chance to play for a national championship.

Prior to the announcement this weekend, here's a look at the full broadcast information and predictions for the Sugar Bowl.

 

Viewing Information

Where: Super Dome in New Orleans

When: Jan. 1, 2015

Start Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Sugar Bowl Prediction

Despite the huge jump by TCU this past week all the way to the No. 3 spot in the rankings, the Horned Frogs are far from a lock to make the playoff. As crazy as that sounds, it's not so insane after the recent decisions by the committee.

First and foremost, the committee cares not for the overall results on the year but rather how the team performs. For example, TCU actually lost to Baylor—yeah, that happened—and the poll has TCU ahead due to its recent results against top competition.

However, the Frogs face a lowly Iowa State this weekend, while Florida State has a shot at a conference title with a win over highly ranked Georgia Tech. A victory for both might be enough to propel the Seminoles back into the No. 3 spot, as Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports notes:

That actually presents a better situation for TCU by playing in New Orleans, while FSU would be flying across the country to take on Oregon. Regardless of the circumstances, TCU will likely move behind the Noles even with a massive win over Iowa State due to the difficulty of the victory.

Just the simple fact that TCU is even in the playoff picture over the myriad of contending teams is baffling to several analysts. Joe Giglio of The News & Observer and Mike Greenberg of ESPN passed along their thoughts:

Given the way this weekend will likely go down, it appears TCU will still be competing with Alabama for a shot at the title.

The Crimson Tide simply need to take down Mizzou, which seems like a sure thing after cruising to close the season. Coming off a smackdown late against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, Bama will continue to roll over another set of Tigers to make the Sugar Bowl.

Outside of the SEC Championship, Ohio State will have its hands full against Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers. If the Buckeyes and Bears lose or struggle against their opponents, TCU will be a lock to make the playoff.

Though some college football fans will be hoping for mayhem, there will be none for the Horned Frogs against an awful Iowa State team. That leaves both Alabama and TCU ringing in the New Year with a chance to compete for a national championship.

 

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College Football Rankings 2014: Final NCAA Overview of Week 15 Standings

Oregon enters the final Saturday of the 2014 season as the only Top Four team having taken care of business and seemingly wrapped up its spot in the College Football Playoff.

Alabama can inevitably wrap up their case for the playoff with a win, but the Crimson Tide's hopes of getting the SEC back in the national title game will ride on a SEC title game showdown against peaking Missouri. 

Everyone else in the hunt is at the mercy of the committee. The likes of TCU, Baylor and Ohio State enter the final weekend needing to make a statement in order to ensure their spot while some of them and others look for help to climb into the conversation.

With that said, let's take a final look at all of the Top 25 rankings as the final weekend approaches.

Full CFP rankings can be found here.

After No. 2 Oregon throttled No. 7 Arizona in Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game, the stage is set for a Saturday slate that will tell us just how real these CFP contenders' chances are.

But although it's championship weekend, the first matchup on tap doesn't figure to be much of a championship-like bout, as third-ranked TCU hosts 2-9 Iowa State to close out its Big 12 slate.

Unsurprisingly, quarterback Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs come in as massive 34.5-point favorites, according to Odds Shark. But does that mean that an unimpressive victory could knock them out of the Top Four altogether?

The Baylor Bears certainly hope so, and they've got a compelling case.

Art Briles' crew has one blemish on its record, a road loss at West Virginia, but have an all-important head-to-head win over TCU earlier in the season. However, that hasn't made much of a difference to the committee, which has kept TCU ahead of its conference counterpart.

But with Baylor having the chance to knock off No. 9 Kansas State on Saturday, 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong noted the questions will come in droves if the Bears fail to leapfrog the Frogs with a win:

It's easy to find folks on both sides of the argument when it comes to TCU and Baylor, but one thing seems to be a consensus—Florida State may be undefeated, but it can ill-afford a loss in the ACC Championship Game against No. 11 Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets' dangerous triple-option might give the Seminoles fits, and a defeat would certainly knock the undefeated squad from the CFP conversation. Doubt has crept up in the form of Florida State winning seven of its games by six or fewer points.

But as head coach Jimbo Fisher told ESPN.com's David Hale, there isn't much premise in leaving the 'Noles out should they stay unbeaten:

It's hard to imagine Florida State falling further should it beat an impressive Top 15 team. But Ohio State looks likely to miss out on the fun altogether—even if it tops Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game Saturday night. 

The Buckeyes will trot out Cardale Jones at quarterback after J.T. Barrett's season-ending injury against Michigan, but they still remain No. 6 in the CFP rankings. Without help in the form of at least two superior teams falling, Urban Meyer's squad will be on the outside looking in.

Even as the final day of the college football season gets underway, the Top Four is nowhere near set. If things get as chaotic on Saturday as we've seen through stretches of this season, a team not even mentioned here could make the leap.

In this wacky 2014 season, unpredictable results have practically been the norm. If that continues into Saturday, none of the teams atop the rankings are safe.

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Big Ten Championship 2014: Odds, Preview, Prediction for Wisconsin vs Ohio State

Ohio State has lost a single Big Ten game since 2012, and it just so happened to come in Indianapolis at the Big Ten Championship Game last year. Safe to say, the Buckeyes have some unfinished business to take care of in the nation's heartland.

Standing in their way is the daunting rushing attack of Melvin Gordon and Wisconsin. 

The Badgers are looking to solidify their position in an elite bowl game and prevent Ohio State from contending for a College Football Playoff spot in the process. Read on to see if they can do just that.

 

Wisconsin vs. Ohio State

Date: Saturday, Dec. 6 

Time: 8:17 p.m. ET

TV: Fox 

Odds: Wisconsin -4.5 (via Odds Shark, as of Friday night at 11:30 p.m. ET)

 

Preview, Keys to Game, Prediction

Melvin Gordon vs. Ohio State Front Seven

Gordon is the best running back in the country, embarrassed Nebraska for 408 yards and four touchdowns and has virtually locked up a spot in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. A monster game against the Buckeyes defense could propel him into the No. 1 spot with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. 

Gordon finished the season with 2,260 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns, and he broke the 100-yard barrier in every game but one.

Chris Trapasso of NFL.com believes Gordon is the Heisman favorite at this point:

Ohio State's rush defense is not exactly dominant, either. It gave up 228 rushing yards to Indiana's Tevin Coleman, 145 rushing yards to Minnesota's David Cobb and has struggled to swarm to the ball and attack the line of scrimmage.

The silver lining for this matchup from the Buckeyes' perspective is that they contained Gordon for 74 rushing yards in their 2013 matchup. That game was at home, but the overall team speed on the defensive end was impressive enough to slow down the superstar. 

Ohio State needs a repeat performance again Saturday, otherwise Gordon will rack up more Heisman-like numbers.

 

Jalin Marshall Plan 

Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer provided some interesting updates and quotes on receiver Jalin Marshall and what his role will be Saturday, via Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch and Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors:

Marshall is a multidimensional threat who has found the end zone on the ground, through the air and by returning punts. He is also the primary quarterback in the Wildcat offense who can exploit the opposing defense through misdirection and speed.

The Buckeyes are going to need to add some wrinkles to the offense with Cardale Jones under center instead of J.T. Barrett, and Marshall may be the answer. He can throw off reverses or out of the Wildcat, take shovel passes to the house and make a play on special teams. 

The Buckeyes need Marshall's A-game if they are going to pull off the upset in Indianapolis.

 

Joel Stave vs. Cardale Jones

Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game is not exactly a showdown between two elite quarterbacks.

The Buckeyes' signal-caller situation is no secret—they are down to the third-string quarterback after devastating injuries to Braxton Miller and Barrett. This is their final chance to impress the selection committee, and that will be much easier said than done without a proven quarterback.

Wisconsin's situation is better, but it is not exactly lighting up the scoreboard with 147.8 passing yards per game behind Joel Stave.

Both teams will force the quarterbacks to win by stuffing the box because the rushing attacks will draw most of the defensive attention. The Badgers averaged 334.3 rushing yards per game while Ohio State was not that far behind at 257.4. Which quarterback comes through with single coverage all over the field will ultimately determine the winner. 

The Buckeyes have more weapons at the receiver spot with Marshall, Devin Smith and Michael Thomas, and that will be the key with so much focus on stopping the run. Look for Smith or Thomas to make a monumental play downfield in the fourth quarter to give the Buckeyes the lead for good.

Game Prediction: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 24

 

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Embarrassing Pac-12 Championship Game Loss Shows How Far Arizona Has to Go

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Following his No. 7-ranked University of Arizona team’s 51-13 loss to No. 2 University of Oregon in Friday’s Pac-12 Conference Championship Game, head coach Rich Rodriguez did not have much to say.

“Tonight wasn’t a good night,” an uncharacteristically reserved Rodriguez said flatly in his postgame press conference at Levi’s Stadium.

Rodriguez didn’t need to say much—the outcome spoke volumes about where his program is in its pursuit of reaching the top of the Pac-12.

Arizona’s made progress in just three years under Rodriguez, as he pointed out.

“To win the Pac-12 South is a great accomplishment by our guys and our seniors especially,” he said. “It might be the toughest division in college football.”

But Friday’s title tilt was a potential changing of the guard for the Pac-12: Arizona, the conference’s only pre-expansion member without a Rose Bowl appearance, was looking for its third straight win against the recent benchmark for Pac-12 success.

Instead, the Ducks claimed their fourth conference championship since 2009 and almost assuredly booked one of four spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

“The winner of our league each year is going to be a contender to be one of the best in the country,” Rodriguez said. “Oregon’s the best team in our league this year.”

Oregon proved it’s just in another class from Arizona, and Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota demonstrated himself to be peerless with five touchdowns.

A national championship and Heisman Trophy are the next goals for Oregon and Mariota. For Arizona, the postseason is about closing out 2014 in a positive step toward 2015.

The Wildcats didn’t land in Levi’s Stadium by accident. Arizona made its way to the Pac-12 South title and berth in the title game with its first 10-win season since 1998, blending the innovative offense for which Rodriguez is known with a vastly improved defense.

But Arizona’s divisional title wasn’t without its share of good fortune, either.

Bobby Bowden’s philosophy on building a program—as described in John Bacon’s book about Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan, Three and Out—is lose big in the first year, lose close in the second, win close in the third and win big in the fourth.

Rodriguez’s third Arizona team had the win close part down pat, but Friday was a regression to the first-year mantra.

The Wildcats didn’t just win six of their 10 games by single digits: They ended an 18-point, fourth-quarter rally against Cal with a Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired and got a final crack at Washington by forcing an improbable fumble in the final minute.

Arizona’s 10-win campaign was truly just a few plays from going in a much different direction.

Conversely, Oregon rolled to its 10th win while outscoring its opponent by at least 18 points.

Yet, despite the lopsided final score and Oregon’s 640 yards of offense, the performance of coordinator Jeff Casteel’s defense was admirable for much of the first half.

During that part of the game, it even looked championship-worthy, holding the Ducks to just six points despite four trips inside the Arizona 25-yard-line.

“They were battling and competing and played a lot of plays,” Rodriguez said. “We couldn’t get any first downs on offense, so the defense had to go back out there. … When you’re having to go out that many times—57 snaps or whatever it was in the first half—with that type of offense, [Oregon] is going to get [its points].”

That discrepancy in offensive production and defensive performance shone a glaring light on one of the challenges Arizona must overcome to become a legitimate title contender: delivering consistently across all phases.

The 2012 team boasted one of the most explosive offenses in the nation with an average of 38.2 points per game, but the defense surrendered 35.3, per CFBstats.com.

This year, Arizona encountered the opposite problem. The Wildcats scored a combined 20 points in two of their three losses, mustering just seven in a Nov. 1 defeat at UCLA and scoring just two touchdowns in seven red-zone opportunities against USC.

A young offense must find more consistency to complement the improved defense, and that starts with first-year quarterback Anu Solomon.

“If I’m not doing well, it all starts with me,” Solomon said. “And that’s what happened today.”

Solomon picked Oregon apart in Arizona’s 31-24 win at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2, but he was just 6-of-12 passing for 34 yards Friday.

A nagging ankle injury ended Solomon’s night at halftime.

Fellow freshman and running back Nick Wilson was also stymied, finishing with just 26 yards on 13 carries.

Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum called a masterful game, using frequent blitzes to disrupt and rattle the youthful Wildcats. Arizona never found an answer for that particular riddle.

The next one it must try to solve under Rodriguez is how it can bridge the gap between where the team is now and a championship.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of the Pac-12 Conference.

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Introducing Your 2014 Heisman Trophy Winner, Marcus Mariota

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Someone call the engraver. He has 13 letters to add to the Heisman Trophy.

Tonight wasn’t so much a Pac-12 title game as it was a coronation for Marcus Mariota. The 2014 Heisman Trophy is his.

The Heisman Trophy announcement won't come until Dec. 13, but they may as well mail the hardware to Eugene and save everyone a trip to New York. Mariota is a stone-cold lock to take home college football’s most prized award.

Mariota didn’t just guide the second-ranked Oregon Ducks to a Pac-12 title; he obliterated the Arizona Wildcats to the tune of 51-13, including a Pac-12 Championship record 627 yards of offense.

On the night, Mariota threw for 313 yards—a Pac-12 Championship record—ran for 33 more and scored five touchdowns—two through the air and three on the ground, tying a Pac-12 Championship record for rushing touchdowns. For his performance, Mariota was named the Pac-12 Championship game MVP.

When head coach Mark Helfrich was asked about Mariota’s Heisman candidacy, he said, “If [Mariota] isn’t what the Heisman Trophy is all about, I’m in the wrong profession.”

To further that point, Mariota humbly responded “Thanks, coach.”

If you’re not convinced that Mariota is going to win the Heisman, I’ve got a two-play highlight reel from the third quarter I’d like to show you.

With Oregon leading 30-7, Mariota took a snap from Oregon’s 43-yard line. Arizona sent the house. There were no worries, as Mariota simply evaded multiple Wildcats, escaped the pocket as if he was Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, ran toward the Arizona sideline and launched a 46-yard strike off one leg to Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington. One play later, Mariota hit Carrington for his fourth touchdown of the night and gave the Ducks an insurmountable 37-7 lead.

Game over. Heisman race over.

Not only did the Ducks win the Pac-12 title, but they also slayed their “Arizona problem” along the way. Mariota said that the Ducks had “a lot of motivation going into this game.”

This is the second time this year that the Ducks have faced a team that had previously beaten them in consecutive games. This is the second time that Mariota has annihilated those opponents.

Mariota’s ability to bounce back against those opponents and perform when the Ducks need him the most is one of the reasons why he’s sure to be the Heisman Trophy winner come Dec. 13. His statistics won’t hurt his case either.

The numbers that Mariota has put up in 2014 aren’t just the best in school history; they’re some of the best in Pac-12 and NCAA history.

On the season, Mariota has thrown for 38 touchdowns (Oregon record and second best in Pac-12 history), rushed for 14 touchdowns and received one touchdown. His 53 combined touchdowns are a Pac-12 record and rank eighth in NCAA history. His 4,452 combined yards this season are an Oregon record as well.

Mariota has thrown a touchdown in each of his 39 starts, which is the longest streak to start a career in history and tied for the second-longest streak in NCAA history.

Oh, we should probably mention that Mariota has only thrown two interceptions this year and his 8.5 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the history of college football.

While Mariota’s statistics and Oregon’s victories are obviously strong enough to win the Heisman Trophy, it’s Mariota’s leadership and personality that really set him apart.

In late October, Bleacher Report’s Greg Couch explained how Mariota could save the Heisman Trophy.

Mariota is the anti-Jameis Winston, the anti-Johnny Manziel, the anti-Cam Newton. Three of the past four Heisman winners have been great players on the field but trouble off. And the debate is always whether off-field stuff should be considered at all in a vote for the most outstanding player.

Mariota exemplifies what a student-athlete should be. He excels on the field, off the field and in the classroom, and he sets an example for his teammates.

The Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award a college athlete can win. Shouldn’t it go to a player who leads his team to victory and does it with class and humility?

The Heisman Trophy is usually—and should be—awarded to the best player on the best team. Based on their performance against seventh-ranked Arizona, the Ducks are the best team in the country and have a chance to be ranked as such on Sunday by the College Football Playoff committee.

Mariota is the best player on the best team in the entire country. The Heisman is his. There’s no reason to vote for anyone else.

 

Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

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Oregon States an Emphatic Case for the No. 1 Ranking in College Football Playoff

At halftime of the Pac-12 Championship Game, Oregon had two fewer points than Arizona—the nation’s No. 7 team coming in—had total yards. If only Aidan Schneider, the Ducks’ kicker, hadn't pushed that second-quarter field goal just right of the upright.

Oh, what could have been. 

Playing in front of a less-than-capacity crowd in less-than-ideal conditions on a less-than-ideal playing surface, Oregon took on an entirely different identity Friday night, pulverizing Arizona 51-13 at Levi's Stadium. The score was familiar in many ways, but the path to arrive there was unique for this particular program.

This was done with defense, first and foremost, which should terrify the teams still hoping to take care of their own business. Forget about just making the Top Four—that part’s a given for the Ducks after an eye-popping, perception-alerting performance. Suddenly the No. 1 seed is very much up for debate. 

Alabama, you're up.

Oregon showed flashes of its former self eventually, as you knew it would. But before it resumed breaking scoreboards with its soon-to-be-Heisman quarterback, it revealed to the football world it was capable of thriving in an ugly football game, a side the Ducks haven’t shown much of in recent years. 

At one point early in the second half, when Oregon added a touchdown to its 23-0 first-half lead and all but sealed the win, the total yardage for each team looked like some sort of remarkable glitch.

Oregon 429, Arizona 44.

It was correct, although this was a different kind of dissection. For a while, the nation’s most impressive high-octane offense struggled to find its footing, both literally and figuratively.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota missed on more than a handful of throws in the first half, and the offense was unable to take advantage of quality field position throughout.

The penalties mounted, the play-calling was conservative and halftime couldn’t have come soon enough. Everything looked out of sync for the Ducks, and yet, the game felt completely out of reach for Arizona. 

The forgotten piece of this team—the defense—put forth its most dominant performance of the year. The pass rush was fierce, and the Ducks’ front seven didn’t budge as Arizona tried to do anything to establish a rhythm. By the end of the evening, Rich Rodriguez had used three quarterbacks.

The Arizona coach said plenty without saying much following the game. After all, what else can be said? 

RichRod: "That wasn't a good night. Next."

— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) December 6, 2014

The neon machine then became fully operational in the second half, and Mariota returned to his same, ridiculous self before being pulled with more than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. There was no need for him to take another snap; the damage had been done. 

Despite the slow start, Mariota finished with 313 yards passing, 33 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Royce Freeman, the team’s freshman running back, totaled 114 yards on 21 carries.

Oregon got its revenge over the only team to top it this season. By beating Arizona, the Ducks secured a Pac-12 Championship, a Heisman (it’s coming) and a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

Now with the obvious and necessary out of the way, Oregon will wait and see if its performance was enough to jump from No. 2—the place it has gotten comfy at in recent weeks—to No. 1.

Since losing to Arizona back in early October, the Ducks have outscored their opponents 384-176. Even more convincing than the array of statistics working in their favor, however, is the teams they came against.

#Oregon's faced 4 Top 20 teams this year. #Ducks won all four by an average victory margin of 23 ppg.

— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 6, 2014

Friday night reminded us of many things we already knew. The offense is spectacular, the quarterback is special and the system still works brilliantly. It also showcased that Oregon is much more than its star player, a narrative that has been tough to quiet. This, more than anything, could prove to be most valuable in the not-too-distant future.

Regardless of where the Ducks finish when the dust has settled and each team has concluded its schedule, the statement was made. The selection committee now has a new talking point to mull over beyond solving this pesky No. 4-seed conundrum. Hopefully the members of this group stayed up for the second half.

Whether its dominating, complete performance over Arizona is enough to put Oregon on the top of the playoff mountain, above Alabama, it pales in comparison to what matters most. This is not a team—regardless of seed—you want to play come New Year's.

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Pac-12 Championship 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Oregon and Arizona

In most impressive fashion, the University of Oregon Ducks won the Pac-12 Championship Game over the University of Arizona Wildcats by a resounding score of 51-13. 

Signal-caller Marcus Mariota was yet again sensational. The Honolulu native accrued five touchdowns and nearly 350 yards of total offense in three quarters of play. 

The Wildcats had a nightmarish effort on the night. Anu Solomon was pulled at halftime due to his lackluster play. The Wildcats also utilized quarterbacks Jerrard Randall and Jesse Scroggins in the losing effort. Arizona had only 25 yards of total offense in the first half. 

A full box score of the game can be found here, courtesy of NCAA.com. Analysis for both the Wildcats and Ducks can be found below, in addition to game grades for both the first half and the game in its entirety. 

 

Oregon Ducks Game Analysis

Passing Offense

Mariota got off to a slow start early in the contest. His accuracy was not where it usually is. He finished with about a 50-percent completion mark after the first half. However, he found his stride—and a connection with Darren Carrington. 

The wide receiver out of San Diego had a career-high seven catches for 126 yards and a touchdown. Mariota was also helped by freshman Charles Nelson. The speedster out of Florida had a huge 73-yard catch in the first half. Mariota began to get into a rhythm and ended up with two touchdown throws and 313 yards passing in three quarters of play. 

 

Pass Defense

The secondary did a terrific job of blanketing perhaps the deepest and most talented group of receivers in the entire conference. On the night, the three Arizona quarterbacks were held to 9-of-26 for 113 yards and a touchdown. Sixty-nine of the 113 yards came on one play. 

Erick Dargan was his usual opportunistic self, as he read the play well and intercepted reserve quarterback Scroggins. Outside of the busted coverage on the 69-yard touchdown throw to Cayleb Jones, the unit played exceptionally well. 

 

Rushing Offense

True freshman Royce Freeman operated like a grown man Friday night. He led the Ducks with 114 yards on 21 carries. Much of his yardage came after contact. And, at times, he downright ran over Arizona defenders. 

As a team, Oregon rushed for 301 yards and four touchdowns on 54 carries. Mariota ran for three touchdowns on the ground, and the Ducks got good production from both Nelson and Byron Marshall. As the game progressed, it became readily apparent that Arizona's front seven was wearing out. Credit Oregon's offensive line for winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. 

 

Run Defense

For most of the night, the Oregon defensive front seven took it to Arizona. The Ducks were getting off blocks extremely well—making countless plays in the backfield. The unit did a terrific job of bottling up Nick Wilson and held him to only 26 yards on 13 carries. 

Much of Arizona's success on the ground came when the game was completely out of hand. Rich Rodriguez inserted Randall late in the game. The athletic quarterback picked up 81 yards on 10 carries. These numbers were deceiving, as they came against Oregon's reserves. 

On the night, Oregon held Arizona to only 111 yards on 35 carries. 

 

Special Teams

It was a mixed bag of sorts for the special teams unit. As Oregon's season progresses, it will have to clean up issues in this area. 

The Ducks were penalized multiple times on special teams. Kicker Aidan Schneider also missed a very makable field-goal attempt. However, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu did force a fumble on a kickoff in the first quarter, which was converted into three points. Johnathan Loyd again looked dangerous on punt returns. 

 

Coaching

The play-calling in the first half wasn't great, especially as the Ducks got into the red zone. However, Oregon became less tentative and more aggressive as the game went on. 

Defensively, it was by far the most dominant effort of the year. Oregon completely shut down an offense averaging 34.8 points a game. Arizona got nothing on the ground and wasn't able to get into any semblance of a rhythm—in large part to the overall relentlessness of the Oregon defense. 

Also credit the staff for getting the team ready to play—considering Oregon had one fewer day to prepare when compared to Arizona. It was a dominating performance and one which propels the Ducks forward with a viable shot at winning a national championship. 

 

Arizona Wildcats Game Analysis 

Passing Offense

It was a nightmare game for the passing attack. Solomon seemingly never could get his footing while throwing the football. He averaged fewer than six yards per completion before getting pulled at halftime. 

Scroggins did find Jones on the long touchdown throw, but that was the only bright spot throwing the football on the evening for Arizona. It seemingly couldn't get its playmakers any space. Samajie Grant and DaVonte' Neal combined for two catches for only seven yards. 

The three quarterbacks threw for only 113 yards on nine completions. Sixty-nine of the 113 yards came on a busted coverage in the Oregon secondary. 

 

Pass Defense

The unit truthfully didn't play poorly. Especially in the first half, it covered Oregon receivers quite well. The biggest issue was not making plays on the ball. There were multiple times in which Arizona defensive backs were draped all over Oregon receivers—and the receiver was the one making the play. 

Two blown assignments enabled big gains to Carrington (46 yards) and Nelson (73 yards). Although the secondary relinquished 326 passing yards, it played better than the numbers indicated. 

 

Rushing Offense

Here's a startling stat: Arizona had -9 rushing yards at halftime. On the season, the Wildcats average about 190 yards a game on the ground. Simply put, the offensive line wasn't able to get any sort of push up front. Oregon's long and active defensive ends crashed down and clogged lanes effectively. 

Wilson finished with only 26 yards on 13 carries. He seemingly never got into any rhythm while toting the rock. Arizona's best answer on the ground came in the form of Randall. The athletic signal-caller led the team with 81 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Almost all of the yardage came on quarterback-designed runs. 

 

Run Defense

The defensive line couldn't get much pressure on the star Oregon signal-caller. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel tried to get creative with some blitzes, but nothing seemed to work.

Oregon gashed the smallish defensive front for 301 yards on 54 carries. Tackling was also an issue, as Freeman broke multiple attempts en route to a 114-yard performance. The unit did a satisfactory job on Mariota, holding him to 33 yards on 10 carries. 

 

Special Teams

A first-quarter fumble on a kickoff by Tyrell Johnson not only gifted Oregon a field goal, but it also became an ominous sign of things to come in Friday night's game. 

Drew Riggleman unleashed nine punts in the contest. His 45.3 yard average is very good. Despite his solid numbers, Arizona, in a perfect world, would likely not want him punting that frequently. Kicker Casey Skowron had a quiet night, converting on one extra-point attempt. 

 

Coaching

Things snowballed out of control early for Rodriguez and his staff. Offensively, the group was completely inept. After Arizona's opening drive, the Wildcats went three-and-out on six straight possessions. On those six drives, Arizona accrued -2 yards. 

After the first half, Oregon had 382 yards of total offense. Arizona had only 25. This truly tells the story about how the game went. 

Using three quarterbacks in one game isn't ideal by any stretch. Unsurprisingly, none of the signal-callers were able to get comfortable. The most effective bit of offense came from Randall's quarterback draws and sprints. 

Defensively, the front seven got minimal pressure on Mariota. He was afforded the time to sit in the pocket and make plays down the field. 

To make matters worse, Arizona also had an extra day to prepare for the Ducks. It didn't appear as if the extra time did it any good.

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Anu Solomon Injury: Updates on Arizona Star's Leg and Return

Friday night couldn't have gone much worse for the Arizona Wildcats. First, they lose 51-13 to the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They might have also lost quarterback Anu Solomon in the process.

Not much is yet known about the extent of Solomon's injury, but Phillip Mathews of KPNX 12 News in Phoenix photographed the freshman wearing a boot on his right foot in the fourth quarter:

The Oregon defense stifled Solomon the entire game. He finished 6-of-12 for 34 yards.

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Arizona vs. Oregon: Score and Twitter Reaction from Pac-12 Championship 2014

Despite a somewhat sluggish first half, No. 2 Oregon coasted to a 51-13 victory over No. 7 Arizona on Friday night, clinching the Pac-12 title and strengthening its playoff credentials.

Nobody expects the Ducks to drop out of the Top Four now, and Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel made a strong case for them to be the overall No. 1 seed:

The victory also likely served as a Heisman Trophy coronation for Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is the heavy favorite to take home the honor.

"If you didn't have to play him, you’d love watching him," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said before the game, per Steve Kroner of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rodriguez couldn't have loved watching Mariota account for five touchdowns—two through the air and three on the ground. They were a record for most TDs in a Pac-12 championship, per ESPN College Football:

Although he exited early in the fourth quarter, the junior quarterback finished 25-of-38 for 313 yards.

In the past, the Wildcats have had Mariota's number, per ESPN Stats and Info:

Revenge was on the mind of Oregon's players and coaching staff after the earlier loss to Arizona, and that was evident in the team's performance at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The Ducks defense held the Wildcats to 224 total yards, nearly 250 below their season average.

Anu Solomon emerged this year as a dynamic quarterback in Tuscon, but he was completely ineffective the entire game. Phillip Mathews of KPNX 12 News in Phoenix snapped a photo of Solomon in a walking boot on the sidelines in the second half, which may go some way to explaining his subpar performance:

Oregon looks to be peaking at the right time. Friday night was arguably the Ducks' most complete game of the season. ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach feels sorry for whomever will play them in the playoff:

The first half couldn't have been a bigger disaster for Arizona. The Wildcats nearly had fewer total yards (25) than the Ducks had points (23). Arizona was 0-of-7 on third downs and had minus-nine yards rushing.

Solomon struggled mightily, completing six of his 12 pass attempts for 34 yards. Nick Wilson didn't fare any better, rushing for 14 yards on seven carries.

This was coming from a team that averaged 481.3 yards and 36.7 points a game. ESPN's Trevor Matich praised the Oregon defense for stifling such a high-powered attack:

The Ducks, meanwhile, had 382 yards of offense despite Mariota not exactly looking like himself. The Ducks quarterback went 14-of-27 in the first half for 190 yards. Fox Sports' Clay Travis pondered how big Oregon's halftime lead would've been had Mariota performed better:

Mariota did have two rushing touchdowns, which helped open up a healthy gap after the Oregon offense stalled twice in the red zone in the first quarter.

The Ducks put points on the board on the first two drives of the game, with both of the scores coming from the right foot of kicker Aidan Schneider.

The first time around, Oregon had a 1st-and-10 at the Arizona 21-yard line before eventually settling for the field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Wildcats return man Tyrell Johnson fumbled, with the Ducks recovering at the Arizona 37. Oregon moved the ball inside the 10 for a 1st-and-goal, but once again, the Wildcats defense held strong, limiting its opponents to three points.

While the Arizona defense kept the score close, the offense couldn't capitalize, getting stymied on every drive. Oregon was doing its best to let the Wildcats hang around, but they couldn't take advantage:

Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald made a parallel to the 2009 Holiday Bowl. The Wildcats had 109 total yards in a 33-0 defeat to Nebraska:

Mariota created some breathing room for Oregon in the second quarter, putting the Ducks ahead by two scores, 13-0, after a seven-yard touchdown run with 7:27 left until halftime. His second rushing TD came almost six minutes later, with Oregon taking a 20-0 lead 94 seconds from the half.

The Ducks added another Schneider field goal as time expired to take a 23-0 lead into the locker room.

On the first drive of the second half, Arizona did itself no favors, turning the ball over on downs after Wilson was stopped at the line of scrimmage on a 4th-and-1. CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli wasn't impressed with what he saw from the Wildcats offensive line:

Working with a short field, Oregon made it a 30-0 game after a four-yard touchdown pass to Devon Allen. Mariota notched the 100th TD pass of his career, passing Matt Leinart for second in Pac-12 history in the process, per Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

Arizona responded swiftly, with Cayleb Jones burning the Ducks secondary for a 69-yard touchdown catch, cutting the deficit to 23 points, 30-7. Fornelli was one of those ready to count out the Wildcats but then remembered how many late-night Pac-12 games unfolded this year:

The Ducks put an end to any comeback discussion with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Darren Carrington, which made it 37-7 in Oregon's favor. The score came a mere 95 seconds after the Wildcats finally got on the board.

Mariota capped off a 21-point third quarter with a one-yard touchdown run. That brought his season TD total to 53. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman couldn't believe Mariota's gaudy TD haul when compared to his paltry interception numbers:

Both teams exchanged touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with Arizona running back Jerrard Randall scoring on the game's final play. 

Oregon all but assured itself a playoff spot with the win. The only question left is where the Ducks will be seeded. Getting first or fourth would mean a trip to the Sugar Bowl, while Nos. 2 or 3 mean a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Losing so handily is a poor finish to what was an otherwise good regular season for Arizona. The Wildcats made nice strides in 2014, and while they aren't ready for prime time just yet, Rodriguez undoubtedly has the program headed in the right direction.

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Arizona Center Vomits on Ball, Then Snaps It vs. Oregon in Pac-12 Title Game

Even if your team is getting smashed, the show must go on. That was especially true for Arizona Wildcats center Carter Wood on Friday night as his team took on Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Right before Wood snapped the ball, he puked all over it. Merely an inconvenience apparently—he proceeded to snap the freshly marinated ball and thus start the play.

[Vine]

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Stands for Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi's Stadium Surprisingly Empty

The No. 2 Oregon Ducks and No. 7 Arizona Wildcats came to do battle at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, for the Pac-12 Championship on Friday, but just moments before the start of the game, thousands of seats were empty. CSNNW.com's Aaron J. Fentress noted the emptiness: 

Look at all the empty seats at Levi's Stadium. pic.twitter.com/zQ72vRs72q

— Aaron J. Fentress (@AaronJFentress) December 6, 2014

This matchup has it all: a Heisman favorite in Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, a defensive beast in Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III and a rivalry feel, as Arizona gave the Ducks their lone loss on October 2. 

Maybe the stands will fill in later in the night, but it's not a great showing at the start—that's for sure.

[Twitter]

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SEC Championship 2014: Biggest Questions Surrounding Missouri vs. Alabama

Missouri can't possibly beat Alabama, can it?

That's perhaps the biggest question surrounding the 2014 SEC Championship Game, but it's far from the only one.

Few are surprised to see the Crimson Tide in this position, but the Tigers' second consecutive SEC East crown came as a bit of a shock. Despite both teams winning their respective divisions in a tough conference, you can see in the College Football Playoff rankings how their perceptions are vastly different.

Most expect Alabama to coast to the SEC title. With the way this season has unfolded, though, it's clear that no team is untouchable. The Crimson Tide have lost once, nearly lost to Arkansas and weren't exactly convincing against Auburn.

The Tigers are facing an uphill battle, but this isn't exactly a David vs. Goliath situation.

As the fans prepare for Saturday's clash in the Georgia Dome, the three topics below are among the most heavily discussed.

 

Does Missouri Slow Down the Alabama Passing Game?

It's almost impossible for any NCAA secondary to stop Amari Cooper for an entire game. The Alabama wideout is arguably the best offensive player in the country, and he's set a slew of Alabama records this year:

Grantland's Matt Hinton summed it up perfectly following Cooper's exploits:

Missouri can't afford to let the junior go crazy like he did against Auburn, Florida and West Virginia.

Of course, stopping Cooper is much easier said than done.

Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated believes that the best way the Tigers can at least mitigate Cooper is attack the source.

"Stopping, or at least limiting, Cooper starts up front with Missouri's pass rush," Ellis wrote. "Alabama's star receiver can’t exploit the Tigers defense if [Blake] Sims can't throw the ball comfortably. But if Sims has too much time in the pocket, Cooper can take advantage."

In the first half and up until early in the third quarter against Auburn, Sims really struggled. He was making silly mistakes, and things got to the point that Jacob Coker warmed up on the sidelines.

Sims eventually recovered and finished with 312 yards and four touchdowns. He also scored the go-ahead touchdown on an 11-yard scramble.

The Tigers' pass rush was largely nonexistent, which played a role in Sims finding his groove in the second half. With a stronger front seven, Auburn might've been able to keep Sims on his toes.

On paper, that shouldn't be an issue for Missouri. The team ranks fifth in the country in sacks per game (3.33) and also sits eighth in tackles for loss (7.6).

In Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the Tigers have two players who excel at getting after the quarterback. Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted their impressive stat lines:

By continuing to get consistent pressure on Sims, Missouri would force the senior quarterback out of his comfort zone. That could lead to turnovers, and at the very least would in part negate Cooper's presence.

 

Can Alabama Put the Onus on Maty Mauk to Win the Game?

Missouri isn't exactly a run-first team, but it's averaging 176 yards a game on the ground compared to 189.9 yards through the air. The success of the running game by and large decides whether the Tigers win or lose.

That often rings true because it determines how much the outcome rests on Maty Mauk's shoulders. While the sophomore quarterback has improved in recent weeks, it's still hard to look past his 9-of-21 passing for 97 yards and four interceptions against Georgia back on Oct. 11. Mizzou lost 34-0 at home.

Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel did his best before the game to boost Mauk's confidence, per David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune:

In an interview with AL.com's Mike Herndon, CBS announcer Gary Danielson stated his belief that Missouri can't afford for Mauk to simply be good; he must be exceptional:

Maty Mauk has to step up his game. You're not going to beat Alabama with average quarterback play. They have feasted on average quarterbacks under Nick Saban's era at Alabama. Ask Michigan what it's like to play them with inferior quarterbacking. Ask Florida this year what it's like to play them with an inferior quarterback. He has to have the game of his life, Maty Mauk.

Maybe Mauk can silence his critics on Sunday by throwing for 200-plus yards and rushing for another 50-75. If that is to happen, though, the Tigers must get a strong combined effort from Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough.

 

What Happens if Alabama Loses?

Alabama is considered the heavy favorite for this one. According to Odds Shark, the line opened up at -3 in favor of the Tide, and it's since jumped to -14.5.

Most fans outside of Missouri expect the SEC Championship Game to be little more than a coronation ceremony for Alabama as it heads into the CFP.

Everybody assumes that the Crimson Tide would be one of the top two seeds in the event if it beats the Tigers.

But what would the selection committee do if Missouri won?

Alabama would be out of the playoff discussion altogether, barring some crazy upsets this weekend. Even with so few teams climbing into that "great" category this year, there's no way the committee sends in a two-loss team that didn't even win its conference.

The tougher conundrum is whether Missouri would warrant Top Four consideration after winning the SEC. As you can see at the top of the article, the Tigers head into the weekend 16th in the playoff rankings. They'd have to jump ahead of a dozen teams just to crack the playoff.

ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff isn't optimistic about the Tigers' chances:

Mizzou hasn't been elite since the Georgia loss, but it's been winning better than anyone in the SEC other than Alabama. Six straight wins, three coming on the road, isn't easy in this league -- no matter which side you're on -- but the wins haven't been pretty and the playoff selection committee just isn't impressed. Say what you will about how great the defense has been in conference play -- the committee is likely stuck on the fact that the offense has been inconsistent this season.

As far as a playoff run goes, the Tigers just haven't passed the eye test. Mizzou proved it wasn't a one-hit wonder this year, but when it comes to a playoff spot, the early season is haunting it.

While winning the SEC title this year is unlikely to significantly improve Mizzou's playoff chances, it could pay major dividends in the future in terms of perception. The Tigers would be viewed as a major player in the SEC going forward. That would in turn help Mizzou pass the proverbial eye test in subsequent seasons.

 

Note: Stats are courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

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Pac-12 Championship 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Arizona vs Oregon

Keep it locked in here to follow Oregon vs. Arizona for the Pac-12 championship!

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Bowl Projections 2014: Updated Playoff Rankings and Ideal Matchups for Top Games

Sports fans are prone to hyperbole, but it's safe to say this is the biggest weekend of college football in years. There are six games that will have a direct impact on the College Football Playoff rankings, which will be released on Sunday. 

Starting with the Pac-12 Championship Game between Arizona and Oregon on Friday, the first round of college football's new postseason format figures to become a jumbled mess by the time the last game ends on Saturday night. 

While the selection committee has generated its share of controversy, no one can say that what's happened has provided any less drama. If anything, what the committee has done only makes Championship Weekend more impactful, as teams are looking to make one final impression. 

Until that fateful moment arrives on Sunday, here's how the current playoff rankings look and the best possible matchups for the semifinal playoff games. 

 

Ideal Playoff Matchups

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Florida State

It's only fitting to start with a matchup that would take place if things stand pat this weekend. The selection committee came under fire for dropping Florida State, which is the defending national champion and is undefeated heading into the ACC Championship Game, down a spot. 

As George Schroeder of USA Today wrote, it seems the committee has gotten lost in all of the outside metrics and forgot the most basic principle of sports is winning:

The selection committee will determine 'best' teams using several criteria — you know, like 'game control' (which Florida State hasn't exactly exhibited) — but winning has to remain the most important factor. An undefeated Power Five conference champion isn't getting left out of the field unless there are at least five undefeated teams from Power Five conferences. Beat Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship — even in another tight squeeze — and the Seminoles should be in the field.

If you look at the actual performance, there's a case to be made that Florida State might not even deserve to be ranked ahead of teams like Baylor or Ohio State. But the Seminoles have won all their games, and if that continues, there's no way they will be left out of the playoff. 

Despite the uproar around Florida State's drop, the committee might have done the Seminoles a favor in a conspiracy theory from Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com:

When Jeff Long talks about Florida State, it is almost like he is playing Lingo Bingo. Maybe all those fancy catchphrases like 'game control' and 'eye test' count against Florida State because the committee is trying to set up more appealing AND geographical semifinal matchups. 

Dropping Florida State to No. 4 means a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against No. 1 Alabama. That is the dream matchup everybody wanted to end last season, a delicious pairing between mentor Nick Saban and mentee Jimbo Fisher. 

While the committee certainly wouldn't admit to doing that, who cares if that's the reason? It provides fans with a matchup between college football's most high-profile quarterback (Jameis Winston) and its most high-profile school (Alabama). 

By the way, the Seminoles (2013) and Crimson Tide (2011-12) have combined to win the last three national championships. 

Given Florida State's erratic play this year, it seems unlikely the Seminoles would advance past the semifinals. Of course, their ability to walk that tightrope means it would be foolish to discount them. 

There's also the question of how Alabama quarterback Blake Sims will fare on the big stage. He finished the game against Auburn nicely, but the first-year starter looked awful early with three interceptions. 

Nick Saban said after Alabama's win over Auburn that Sims has a tendency to try doing too much when the spotlight is the brightest, via Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com:

"Sometimes, it's a big game, and he starts putting a lot pressure on himself, and he gets a little anxious," Saban said. "I don't think he really processes and makes as good of decisions when he gets like that." 

A showdown against the defending national champions in the Sugar Bowl isn't exactly an under-the-radar stage where you can hide flaws. Sims can't afford another bad game like the one he had against Auburn if Alabama wants to win a championship. 

The ideal first step in that process would be a matchup with Florida State in Atlanta on January 1. 

 

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Baylor

Since no one wants to see chalk hold this weekend, it's only fair that we get a shakeup in the top four. Depending on your perspective, which really means anyone who isn't a TCU fan, Baylor already has a claim to be one of the top four teams. 

After all, the Bears defeated the Horned Frogs earlier this season. There might be an argument that TCU's overall body of work is better, but to ignore what Baylor did when the two teams met is illogical, which pretty much sums up committee chairman Jeff Long's rationale, via Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com

We look at their losses. Baylor's loss is against a West Virginia team that's outside the top 25, and TCU's is against Baylor, who is No. 6 ... We look at many, many different things. Overall, the evaluation -- the human evaluation -- of this is what this committee is designed to do. And I think they've done that in this case with TCU and Baylor.

Hope isn't lost for Baylor, though. Based on the current playoff rankings, Baylor has the second-hardest matchup of the top playoff contenders, going up against No. 9 Kansas State. Only Oregon, which takes on No. 7 Arizona, has a more difficult task. 

With a win against another Top 10 team, as well as the head-to-head win over TCU, Baylor will have fulfilled its duty to get in the College Football Playoff. This also assumes that Ohio State loses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

For the record, TCU also plays this weekend, though, it's got the easiest task of all the contenders against 2-9 Iowa State. Barring a miracle, the Horned Frogs will end the year 11-1 in a tie with Baylor for the Big 12 championship. 

It then becomes an examination over the body of work. Don't be surprised if the selection committee listens to the feedback about the Baylor-TCU controversy and changes it if both teams get to 11-1. 

This leaves us with Oregon as Baylor's opponent. The Ducks have proven themselves to be one of the two best teams in the country, getting better as the season has gone on. The final test for Mark Helfrich's team will be against an Arizona team that's defeated it in each of the last two years. 

A win against the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship Game secures Oregon's spot in the playoff, though, it will wait to see if Alabama loses before knowing if it's as the No. 1 or 2 team. 

In addition to being the right matchup if everything plays out correctly this weekend, an Oregon vs. Baylor matchup would be one of the most exciting games imaginable. 

Everyone knows about the Ducks' high-powered offense, ranking fourth in the country with 45.9 points per game, but Baylor actually leads the nation in scoring (49.8). This is a game that could legitimately draw an over/under of 100 and exceed it. 

 

If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter. 


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Tennessee Football: Ranking the 5 Best Moments for the Volunteers in 2014

While the postseason-bound Tennessee Volunteers are waiting to hear where they'll play their bowl game, it's time to take a look back at some of the top moments for the team in 2014.

The Vols entered the season with a huge range of expectations. Final records ranging from 4-8 to 8-4 all seemed reasonable based on how well the freshman would play and the overall difficulty of the SEC.

For example, few could have expected the Ole Miss Rebels would be as strong as they were when Tennessee played them, but that loss was offset by playing a South Carolina team with one of its worst defenses in recent history.

Missouri also proved that its success in 2013 was no fluke, as it repeated as SEC East champions for the second year in a row.

Overall, Tennessee's season was a roller coaster for the coaches, players and fans. Just when it seemed the Vols were a lock to become bowl eligible, the team would get blown out in SEC play while an upcoming opponent would play extremely well. 

Despite the constant setbacks and porous offensive play, the Vols managed to make the best out of a difficult schedule and hit the .500 mark for the first time since 2010.

Here are five of the best moments from a statistically average but ultimately program-changing season for the Vols. 

Begin Slideshow

Texas Football: Longhorns Most Impactful Players of 2014

Charlie Strong's first season in Austin did not end with the record Texas fans would have liked to see. But many of the Longhorns showed significant progress in 2014, especially the defense.

The Texas defense was the laughingstock of the Longhorns in 2012 and 2013. But the unit as a whole is part of the reason the Longhorns saw success in Strong's first year as head coach.

The statistical rankings show how much the defense has improved.

  InterceptionsPassing Yards AllowedRushing DefenseRed Zone DefenseScoring DefenseTotal Defense2012 No. 26 | 15 INT No. 36 | 212 YPG No. 88 | 192 YPG No. 115 | 91 PCT No. 73 | 29 PPG No. 67 | 404 YPG 2013 No. 82 | 10 INT No. 53 | 224 YPG No. 83 | 183 YPP No. 92 | 87 PCT No. 57 | 26 PPG No. 68 | 407 YPG 2014 No. 16 | 15 INT No. 13 | 186 YPG No. 65 | 162 YPG No. 29 | 77 PCT No. 32 | 23 PPG No. 26 | 348 YPG

The offense did not experience the same improvements as the defense in year one of the Strong regime, but anyone who expected to see increased numbers from the group was setting themselves up for failure.

It's very rare for an offense to be successful when the offensive line features first-year starters at every position, there is no depth or rotation on the line and a first-time starting quarterback—who admitted he never expected to start a game for his team—is under center.

But that's the hand that was dealt to the Texas offensive coaches.

With the regular season in the past, it's time to take a look at some of the most impactful players for the Longhorns in 2014, counting down from an honorable mention to the best overall player on the roster.

Begin Slideshow

Buckeyes Playing with House Money in the Big Ten Championship Game

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Despite all that Urban Meyer's been through in the past two weeks—really, the past three months—there the Ohio State head coach sat in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, mere inches from where he was famously photographed embodying defeat a year ago. But as he fulfilled his media obligations on the eve of the Big Ten Championship Game, Meyer hardly appeared shaken, carrying the quiet confidence that took him to the top of the college football mountain.

"For me to say I didn't think about that when I walked in here—I did," Meyer said on Friday. "But then I moved on quickly."

The pressure of a 24-game winning streak became too much for the Buckeyes to overcome in the conference championship game a year ago, Ohio State falling 34-24 to Michigan State. But the Buckeyes' circumstances were certainly different back then, although in a way, they were the same.

The Buckeyes aren't favored this weekend as they were during their last trip to the Circle City, the season-ending broken ankle suffered by quarterback J.T. Barrett helping make Wisconsin a four-point favorite, per Odds Shark. For just the fourth time in the Meyer era, Ohio State finds itself as an underdog, despite spending the 2014 regular season as the class of the Big Ten.

"I didn't know that," Meyer insisted earlier this week of his team's underdog status.

But while the Buckeyes are expected to lose in the conference championship game—just as they did a season ago—they still have just as much on the line. A win over the Spartans last season would have clinched Ohio State the chance to play for the national championship, and a victory in Indy this year could very well land the Buckeyes in the first-ever College Football Playoff.

That, however, will be easier said than done, with Ohio State facing the Badgers' second-ranked defense with a quarterback who at one point was listed as third on the Buckeyes' depth chart in Cardale Jones. When star quarterback Braxton Miller went down two weeks prior to the start of the season with a torn labrum, the reins of the OSU offense were handed to Barrett, a redshirt freshman who hadn't played in an actual game in nearly two calendar years.

And even after the Buckeyes suffered a loss to Virginia Tech in the second week of the season, Barrett managed to lead Ohio State on an unlikely charge back into the national title picture. The Buckeyes' victory over Michigan last weekend moved their record to 11-1 on the season, their spot in the Big Ten title game clinched a week earlier.

But Barrett's season-ending injury has loomed over the Ohio State program, as has the tragic disappearance and death of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge. Add defensive end Noah Spence's failed appeal for reinstatement, thus ending his college career, and it's been a whirlwind two weeks in Columbus, a microcosm of a Buckeyes season that hasn't been short on storylines.

"It's been a tough week," Meyer admitted. "I told our players, you add in the fact you lost your Heisman preseason candidate the beginning of the season, we didn't have our offensive captains play the first four or five games of the year. I said you shouldn't be in this situation.

"You have to really reflect upon how that happened. There is not good fortune, the ball didn't bounce your way. We don't believe in that. We believe in an extremely close team, an extremely close team that leans on each other in tough times."

And maybe Meyer's telling the truth, that he doesn't believe in bad luck and that he's just going to roll with the hand he was dealt. But that won't stop him from using it as a motivating factor, as the Buckeyes prepare for their biggest game of the season.

"Every red flag is up, every excuse is out there to not play well, to not win a game, to lose a game," Meyer said on Monday. "You have some really good built-in excuses. To overcome the incredible tragedy that happened last night, this is a real challenge. We're going to watch it very closely. I can tell you this: extremely close team that does a lot of things together and cares about each other."

On its third option at quarterback and with all Ohio State's been though this season, one gets the sense that the Buckeyes are playing with house money, and Meyer knows it. Ohio State has every reason to lose, but still so much is on the line, and despite all of the obstacles it's faced, Meyer likes where his team stands.

"There's been a high energy. There's a lot of energy with our team right now. Very positive," Meyer said. "This team's been through a lot. And they keep grinding. And they keep winning."

 

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

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Big Ten Championship 2014: How Wisconsin Can Beat Ohio State

Talk surrounding the Big Ten Championship has started and ended with the starting quarterback for Ohio State, but for Wisconsin, the objective remains very much the same: finding a way to beat the Buckeyes and secure a Big Ten Championship.

How can the Badgers accomplish that feat? Well, the task looked a lot more difficult with Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett healthy, upright and on his way to a historic season with 34 touchdowns through the air and another 11 on the ground.

But to take a page straight out of the John Madden playbook, you win by scoring more points than the other team, and by that line of thinking, what the Badgers must do on offense hasn't changed.

The star player for Wisconsin is running back Melvin Gordon, a name that Big Ten country will be happy to soon see paired with an NFL team after what he's done to nearly every opponent over the past few seasons.

Gordon is averaging just a hair under eight yards per carry in 2014, and his worst game against a Big Ten opponent was rushing for 122 yards and three scores on Maryland. He has five games this season with over 200 yards on the ground, including three out of the last four games. Oh, and there's a 408-yard, four-score outing against Nebraska.

Needless to say, the Badgers can not only win by rushing the ball, it's the only way to secure a victory. Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy have combined to throw for just 1,774 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

The impressive aspect of Wisconsin's offense is that even without balance, the Badgers have maintained an identity en route to a 10-2 record. Smashmouth football isn't just being physical and running the football, it's trampling all over teams even when they know what's coming.

Checking in with the Ohio State defense, you'll see a unit that ranks 40th against the run, allowing a modest 145 yards per game. However, the Buckeyes allowed over 200 yards on the ground to both Minnesota and Indiana. The Golden Gopher's David Cobb had 145 yards and three scores against Ohio State, and Tevin Coleman piled up 228 yards and three touchdowns.

Even in a win over Michigan State, the Buckeyes allowed Jeremy Langford to rush for 137 yards and three touchdowns. While Urban Meyer would love to see balance from his defense, he knows where the focus should be against the Badgers, via Austin Ward of ESPN.com:

When you do devote so much time to pass defense and actually think from the back end first, at times you’ll give up some rush yards. What we want to do is be flexible enough to do both. But this is as good of a rushing team as there is in the country, so we have to devote some more personnel to stopping the run.

It doesn't take a genius to work out the equation of what could happen when Ohio State faces the best running back in college football, so as we've become accustomed to seeing, the Badgers will run the ball early and often and see where it gets them on the scoreboard.

Moving to the other side of the ball is where things can get tricky. Barrett was a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback for the Buckeyes, and what we know of new starter Cardale Jones comes from high school game tape and stats (mostly) accumulated in garbage time.

On the season, Jones is 10-of-17 for 118 yards and a pair of scores, but he's also rushed for 206 yards on just 26 carries. He's 6'5", 250 pounds, so a way-too-early comparison to Cam Newton might be appropriate.

But as is the case with any new player under the spotlight for the first time, you've got to make him uncomfortable and keep him from doing what normally comes easiest, which is running ball.

Regardless of a player's passing ability at the high school level, college football is completely different in every way imaginable, so while Jones has been able to get his feet wet, he hasn't faced a defense that will get a week to game-plan for his strengths and weaknesses.

In short, Wisconsin needs to test his arm and force him to throw the ball down the field. Ohio State isn't likely to come out and throw the entire playbook out there, and the safe idea is to attempt to establish the run between Jones and Ezekiel Elliott with short passes mixed in.

If you ever wonder why coaches appear to be conservative earlier in games, it's because they're looking for the easiest possible route to victory. If running the football is working and you can score points without risking throwing the ball behind a new signal-caller, why would you try anything else?

The danger for the Badgers is that if the Buckeyes are indeed able to run the ball early on, it could spell major trouble. Barrett had some advice for Jones on how to approach the biggest game of his young career, via Austin Ward of ESPN.com:

Don't try to do it all yourself. We've got a great offensive line; they've gotten better since Week 2. The offense as a whole, we've just gotten better offensively from Week 2. He doesn't have to do it all by himself. We've got a great group of receivers ... and we can hand it off to the running backs, so you don't have to win the game.

The best-case scenario is stopping Jones and Elliott early, forcing Urban Meyer to look farther down on his call sheet and take some chances.

Taking chances is something you'd hope to avoid with a player who hasn't earned trust, and that's when the Badgers should have opportunities to force turnovers and create game-changing plays on defense.

Anyone pretending to have an elegant solution for how the Badgers can score on offense is lying: The answer has been and will continue to be Melvin Gordon running the football. He's the very best at what he does, and the style works well behind a dominant offensive line.

Coaches don't ask for advantages, but facing Jones at quarterback should be one of them if Wisconsin can crowd the line of scrimmage, make him uncomfortable and keep him confused about why guys aren't wide open like they were in high school.

The Buckeyes will have a similar game plan on defense, but the Badgers have proven they can beat opponents even when they gear up to stop the run. Ohio State hasn't had to face a defense without a tested signal-caller to keep it in check, and therein lies the key to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday night.

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Nebraska Chancellor Defends Hiring Mike Riley over Bret Bielema with YOLO Tweet

When Nebraska hired Mike Riley as head coach, many Cornhuskers fans questioned why Arkansas' Bret Bielema wasn't lured to Lincoln.

Well, Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman put those thoughts to bed with this amazing YOLO tweet:

Chancellor Perlman nailed it—you don't want a coach who might bolt at the next opportunity.

We already know though, Chancellor Perlman knows that's the motto. YOLO.

[Twitter]

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