NCAA Football News

College Football Rankings 2014: Full Top 25, Playoff Predictions and More

One more weekend of college football games, and the arguments, hypotheticals and conversations about game control and style points will be in the rearview mirror.

There are a number of high-stakes conference championship clashes on the schedule for Friday and Saturday, and the outcomes will undoubtedly shape the College Football Playoff field. Can Alabama hold serve in the SEC title game? Can Florida State hang on for dear life one more time? Can Ohio State win with its third-string quarterback?

Read on for a final look at the Top 25 polls before the games, some playoff projections and a brief preview for the conference championship games with playoff implications.

 

Top 25 Polls

 

Playoff Projections 

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

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State 

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Championship Weekend 

Oregon will square off with Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship to start everything off Friday night. That may not be the best news for the Ducks, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has performed like a football-playing robot this season and set a conference record with 48 total touchdowns. He has only lost as a starter at Oregon four times, but two of them just so happened to come against Arizona.

The Wildcats picked him off three times and forced three different fumbles in matchups the last three seasons. Still, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez was more than complimentary toward the Ducks and Mariota, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com:

If you look back at his stats, he got a lot of yards and big plays, but we got a couple turnovers. Some of it was great individual effort and some of it was a little bit of luck. If you go back to this game or even the game last season, he still got his yards, and he is still going to get his yards and make his plays.

Elsewhere, Florida State and Georgia Tech face off in the ACC Championship.

If things go according to script, the Seminoles will fall behind early and then make a dramatic comeback to win at the end. They have trailed in the first half in nine separate games and could have lost multiple games if a few plays went a different way. Even Jameis Winston has thrown 11 interceptions in his last six games heading into Saturday’s contest.

Falling behind early could be a problem against the Yellow Jackets and the nation’s No. 4 rushing attack. Justin Thomas, Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days keep the chains and clock moving with a ball-control offense predicated on picking up chunks of yards on the ground.

Georgia Tech has won five games in a row as a result and should at least challenge Florida State.

On paper, Alabama and Missouri is probably the least intriguing of the matchups. The Crimson Tide are an absolute machine heading into the SEC Championship with Amari Cooper running circles around opposing secondaries and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry powering their way through the line.

Alabama is also fifth in the country in scoring defense, although it struggled against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

Missouri lost to Indiana and was destroyed by Georgia. The Tigers also missed Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State on schedule and had about as weak of a slate as possible in the SEC.

The one thing going for Missouri is the fact that it had an SEC-best 40 sacks this season, but Alabama allowed an SEC-low 11 sacks. The Crimson Tide should be able to neutralize the Tigers’ greatest strength and eventually pull away in this one.

In terms of pure storylines, the most intriguing matchup is in the Big Ten Championship. Ohio State is forced to turn to its third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones for the game against the Wisconsin Badgers after J.T. Barrett was lost for the season to an ankle injury in the win over Michigan.

That is certainly not the ideal scenario with the conference crown and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff on the line, but it is far from the only problem the Buckeyes are facing. Melvin Gordon had 2,260 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns on the season and topped 100 rushing yards in 11 of 12 games.

He is the nation’s best player this side of Mariota and will be a real problem for Ohio State’s front seven.

If the Buckeyes are going to win, they will have to lean on Ezekiel Elliott and the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack and skill players like Jalin Marshall, Devin Smith and Michael Thomas.

In these projections, Ohio State does just that and makes a loud statement to the nation and the selection committee with a win over a Top 13 team without its quarterback. The other playmakers will step up, and the designation as the lone Big Ten champion will carry enough weight that the scarlet and gray will get in over the co-champs from the Big 12. 

How does a playoff with Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State sound?

 

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College Football Picks Week 14: Odds and Spread Predictions for Top 25 Teams

If a team wants to play in the College Football Playoff, it better prove it this weekend or be prepared to watch from the couch.

This is championship weekend, where most conferences have their title game to showcase which team is really the best. The Big 12 doesn't have one, so we are left with regular-season battles with both Baylor and TCU trying to earn style points with blowouts (if only they had a head-to-head matchup to prove which is better).

Still, just about every game taking place in Week 15 has some sort of bowl implication, making the level of play that much better. This is certain to create an unpredictable weekend, but here's some help with picks against the spread for the week's biggest games.

 

Top Games

Arizona (+15) over Oregon

Does Arizona have what it takes to beat Oregon? Yes, the Wildcats have proven this on the field with a win in Eugene earlier in the year as well as a victory last season. They not only know what it takes to win, they have shown they can do it.

ESPN's Chris Fowler notes how the defense finds a way to disrupt Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota:

The Arizona defensive line does a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage, and Scooby Wright simply makes big plays no matter where he is on the field. Andrew Greif of The Oregonian quoted thoughts from the Ducks personnel on the elite defensive player:

With the way Nick Wilson has run the ball lately (396 rushing yards and six touchdowns in his last two games), the Wildcats will be able to move the chains and maintain possession for a good portion of the game. At the very least, this will keep the score within two touchdowns.

Oregon also doesn't have a need to play for style points with a spot in the playoffs virtually assured with a win. The Ducks can stay relatively conservative and just earn a win instead of going for a blowout, making sure Arizona covers this way-too-high spread.

 

Alabama (-14.5) over Missouri

Unlike Arizona, Missouri really hasn't shown the ability to beat elite teams when given the chance. Not only is the SEC East significantly weaker than the SEC West this season, but the Tigers had the easiest possible conference schedule while facing the two worst teams in the opposite division (Texas A&M and Arkansas).

The only team Missouri has even played in the current Top 25 is Georgia, and that led to a 34-0 loss. As Dan Wolken of USA Today noted, the team's profile wouldn't be enough to make the playoff even with an SEC Championship:

On the other hand, Alabama has battled and beaten many of the top teams in the nation. The Crimson Tide have shown the ability to win both high- and low-scoring games when needed, and they are still one of the most talented squads in college football.

With Blake Sims improving every game, Alabama should have an easy time in this matchup and secure a blowout win in the SEC title game.

 

Georgia Tech (+4.5) over Florida State

Florida State has managed to survive a number of tough scares throughout the season, but the team's luck could run out Saturday.

Georgia Tech is not only the best team the Seminoles have faced all year, it is perfectly suited to beat the defending national champs. ESPN takes a look at the efficiency on offense for the Yellow Jackets:

They run the ball and run some more, helping maintain possession and keep opposing offenses off the field. They also do a great job of avoiding turnovers and forcing them on defense.

Unlike other teams Florida State has faced, Georgia Tech is not going to give up a lead too easily.

Jameis Winston might have a Heisman Trophy on his mantle, but he hasn't played well lately and now has 17 interceptions on the season. Mistakes like this will finally cost his team as the Yellow Jackets pull off the massive upset and knock Florida State out of the playoff picture.

 

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ACC Championship 2014: FSU vs. Georgia Tech TV Info, Spread and Injury Updates

Florida State is taking on Georgia Tech in the 2014 ACC Championship Game, but it might as well be taking on Ohio State, TCU and Baylor as well.

With four spots up for grabs in the initial College Football Playoff, there are plenty of teams battling that would love to see a Seminoles loss. Considering that hasn’t happened since the 2012 season, though, it may be asking for too much.

Here is a look at the essential information for Saturday’s ACC clash.

 

Date: Saturday, Dec. 6

Time: 8 p.m. ET

TV: ABC

Live Stream: Watch ESPN

Spread: Florida State -3.5 (via Odds Shark, as of Friday morning at 9 a.m. ET) 

Injury Report (via USA Today, as of Friday morning at 9 a.m. ET)

 

Preview/Prediction

The ACC as a whole, including Florida State and Georgia Tech, has plenty of momentum coming into this game after going 4-0 against the mighty SEC in the final week of the regular season. Heather Dinich of ESPN passed along some of the info:

While that is a nice feather in the ACC’s cap, both Florida State and Georgia Tech are far more concerned with who wins Saturday’s game. 

The Seminoles have made a habit of falling behind early, trailing in the first half in nine separate games this season. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that the first quarter has been particularly problematic for Jameis Winston and Co.:

Perhaps no team in the country is better suited to protect a lead than Georgia Tech, which boasts the country’s fourth-best rushing attack at 333.8 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets have won five games in a row, including the impressive win over Georgia the last time out, and they will look to keep that momentum going with an early lead.

Interestingly, Florida State allowed 250 rushing yards to The Citadel earlier in the season, and the Bulldogs run a very similar version of Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack. Justin Thomas, Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days could find some running lanes Saturday if the Seminoles bring the same defensive effort they did against The Citadel.

Thomas also has 1,460 passing yards and 16 touchdowns through the air to only four interceptions.

Georgia Tech is simply an efficient offense that holds on to the ball and keeps the clock moving. It leads the nation in third downs converted as well, which is critical when holding on to a lead. Ideally for Georgia Tech, the offense would wear Florida State down over the course of the game and hit on a back-breaking play in the fourth quarter on some misdirection.

Florida State may be forced to throw the ball in a comeback effort if it falls behind again, which could be a concern for Winston, who has thrown 11 interceptions in his last six games. The Yellow Jackets have 17 interceptions of their own, which is ninth in the nation, so a game-turning pick isn’t out of the question.

The slow starts and turnovers have left many people unimpressed with Florida State, but Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson recognized that winning is the most important thing, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com:

I see a really good football team that knows how to win. Winning is hard. They've won 28 consecutive games. That's really hard to believe in this day and age.

They've got a bunch of guys that are good athletes, they are very well-coached and they know how to win. They haven't blown as many people out as maybe a year ago, but they've still got a really fine football team. Make no mistake about that.

You can throw all the statistics out there that you want to suggest Florida State could be in trouble in this game. Yes, falling behind early against a team that thrives by keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for disaster. Yes, having a quarterback who is prone to throwing interceptions against an opportunistic defense could make life difficult for the Florida State offense. Yes, the Yellow Jackets have plenty of momentum coming into this game.

As cliche as it may sound, though, the Seminoles simply find ways to win.

Whether it is Florida and Boston College missing critical late field goals, Notre Dame committing an offensive pass interference penalty to nullify the game-winning touchdown or Louisville’s defense forgetting how to defend in the second half, Florida State always emerges with the victory.

It certainly deserves plenty of credit for that. The Seminoles feature a balanced offensive attack with Winston hitting weapons Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary for critical first downs and touchdowns in fourth quarters of games or Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams picking up important yards on the ground.

The defense is also 27th in the country in points allowed and always steps up when the team needs it most.

There is no reason to expect anything different Saturday. Sure, the Seminoles may fall behind early, but they will eventually grab the lead behind their offensive attack, like they always do. That will put Georgia Tech in the uncomfortable position of having to throw the ball (122nd in the country in passing yards per game), and the talented Florida State secondary that thwarted final efforts from Florida, Boston College and Miami will rise to the occasion yet again.

Ohio State and Baylor better hope one of the other top four teams loses. 

Prediction: Florida State 31, Georgia Tech 24

 

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Pac-12 Championship 2014: Last-Minute Odds and Prediction for Arizona vs. Oregon

Duck hunting season is coming to an end in many parts of the country, but the Arizona Wildcats could drastically alter the College Football Playoff picture in a single shot.  Though the Oregon Ducks are essentially assured of a berth in the inaugural playoff with a victory in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats could also sneak into the top four with a conference title in hand.

As the only team to beat Oregon this season, notching two wins over the Ducks would give Arizona arguably the most impressive signature victories of any team in the country.  It's unclear if the committee would accept a two-loss team, even one that took a conference title, but it would certainly make for a polarizing debate if teams like Baylor and Ohio State finish with just one loss.

Thus, the implications of this game are massive in relation to the postseason. Taking a final look at the odds and need-to-know information, here are the keys to a game tighter than many may perceive.

 

Date: Friday, Dec. 5

Time: 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET

Place: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California 

TV: FOX

Line: Oregon (-14.5), according to Odds Shark

 

Game Prediction

The game may match up the No. 2 and No. 7 teams in the country, but you wouldn't know that looking at the pregame spread.  Especially with the game at a neutral site, it is surprising to see Oregon favored by over two touchdowns.  Yes, the Ducks have been dominant since their Oct. 2 loss to Arizona, winning by an average of 24.3 points per game in the seven games since.  

However, that loss was not a one-off fluke, as the Wildcats have now won two consecutive games against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks.  Mariota has been transcendent en route to a potential Heisman Trophy this season, with a QBR over 80 in 11 of 12 games this season.

The one exception?  The Arizona loss, when his raw QBR was a meager 53.1.  Indeed, the typically uber-efficient Mariota has been turnover-prone against Arizona his entire career:

Whereas Oregon's kryptonite was once Stanford's throwback power scheme, Arizona has taken the mantle from the Cardinal of being the Ducks' Pac-12 nemesis.  Ironically, the problem is totally different, as the Wildcats are closer to being a mirror image of the Ducks rather than their opposite.  

As SI.com's Lindsay Schnell relays, Rodriguez believes the Wildcats' uptempo philosophy allows their defense to adequately prepare for Oregon's typically intimidating offense:

It helps that Arizona is not intimidated or caught off guard by Oregon’s offensive plan or tempo because Rodriquez is the one who developed the zone read concept almost 25 years ago.

“We talk about it in practice all the time: We’re comfortable being uncomfortable,” Rodriguez said. “For us, particularly our staff, isn’t not something new or different. Our first spring here we said we’re going to play faster than everybody in the country.”

Arizona's defense was able to dictate to Oregon in their regular-season upset, generating three sacks and forcing two turnovers.  In Walter Camp finalist Scooby Wright III, the Wildcats possess a rare playmaker with the type of game-changing ability to effectively combat Mariota—a rare ingredient the Ducks are wary of:

So why is Oregon such an overwhelming favorite despite Arizona's proven track record of stopping them?  The Ducks are rightfully favored because of two factors: improved health, which includes the return of senior left tackle Jake Fisher (who missed the first meeting), and questions about the Wildcats defense if they are unable to force big plays.

Using Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index as a guide, the Wildcats defense ranks 35th in terms of drive success rate, the lowest ranking of any team in semirealistic playoff contention.  By more conventional statistics, Arizona concedes a whopping 434.7 yards per game, ninth in the Pac-12.  

That latter number is skewed a bit by the Wildcats' fast offensive pace, which is always going to leave the defense on the field longer than if Arizona ran a conventional offense.  But the FEI metrics largely support the conventional wisdom that, apart from Wright, the Wildcats should not have the talent or speed to shut down Oregon as well as they have over the last two years.

Two consecutive victories is not a fluke, so Arizona's chances cannot be dismissed; however, given Oregon's improving health and quietly excellent defensive progress, the Ducks clearly appear as though they are one of the best teams in the nation.  Consequently, expect Oregon to punch its ticket to the playoff and snap their brief skid to the Wildcats.

Prediction: Oregon 37, Arizona 27 

 

Stats via ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

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Interceptions Raising Doubts About Jameis Winston's NFL Potential

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is often characterized as an elite prospect with character concerns, a player whose on-field ability could make him one of the top picks in the 2015 NFL draft but whose off-field history could push him down draft boards.

That description, however, might no longer be accurate. As Winston has thrown 17 interceptions in just 11 games this season, it’s possible that concerns about his play might end up hurting the draft prospect more than his checkered past.

There will always be ambiguity in how seriously concerned teams should be about Winston’s non-football issues.

Although Winston has been involved in numerous well-publicized incidents over the past few years, it’s still unknown whether there’s any validity to the most serious allegation against him: an accused sexual assault, stemming from a December 2012 interaction with a woman that Winston said, in a statement provided during a Florida State code of conduct hearing Tuesday that was later acquired by USA Today, was consensual.

From the outside looking in, it’s impossible to judge Winston’s character while being fair and without leaping to assumptions about the validity or non-validity of allegations against him.

What can be clearly evaluated is that Winston is going to have to play much better than he has on the field this year if he is going to achieve success as an NFL quarterback.

 

Breaking Down Winston’s Rising Interception Total

As a redshirt freshman last season, Winston was the clear-cut best player in college football, and he earned the 2013 Heisman Trophy as a result. This year, despite the facts that Florida State is 12-0 and remains undefeated since Winston has become its starting quarterback, No. 5 hasn’t played well to even deserve an invitation to the Heisman ceremony.

Winston’s completion percentage (65.1 from 66.9), yards per passing attempt (8.3 from 10.6) and passer rating (143.7 from 184.85) are significantly down from last year. Most significantly, Winston has been picked off 17 times in 392 passing attempts, a stark increase from the 10 interceptions he threw in 384 passing attempts last year.

There are factors beyond the quarterback himself that might be contributing to Winston’s decline from a statistical standpoint. The Seminoles have not been able to seamlessly replace some of the players they lost from their 2013 offense, including wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, center Bryan Stork and running back Devonta Freeman.

That said, Winston still has as much NFL talent around him as just about any other quarterback in college football, yet his performance has evidently regressed.

Despite being tied for 31st in passes attempted this year, Winston is one of only six quarterbacks who has thrown 17 or more interceptions. None of the other five—Tulsa’s Dane Evans, New Mexico State’s Tyler Rogers, Georgia State’s Nick Arbuckle, UNLV’s Blake Decker and Idaho’s Matt Linehan—are currently viewed as NFL prospects.

Only two quarterbacks since 2000—Matt Ryan in 2008 and Rex Grossman in 2002—have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft after throwing 17 or more interceptions in their final college football seasons.

Why are such a significantly high percentage of Winston’s passes being picked off by opposing defenses?

In charting all 17 of Winston’s interceptions this year, there are a number of evident patterns. Thirteen of his picks have been thrown in the first half, 13 of them have been made between the numbers and nine of them have occurred within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.

The first phenomenon is an unusual one that cannot simply be explained by identifying a specific flaw in his game. The second two, however, point to areas in which Winston must become a better decision-maker and coverage-reader to avoid costly turnovers.

Four of Winston’s interceptions this year—including two by Florida’s Brian Poole this past Saturday, and also the two shown below by Oklahoma State linebacker Seth Jacobs and North Carolina State linebacker Jerod Fernandez—have come on throws where Winston stared down a downfield target but never recognized an underneath coverage, allowing that player to read the quarterback’s eyes, step into the passing lane and pick off his throw without any receiver in front of him.

It’s not as though Winston is unable to go through his progression and make multiple reads over the course of a play—he does so regularly—but he must get better at recognizing when there is a defender in the line between his throw point and the intended target.

Most of Winston’s other interceptions have come as a result of making poor decisions under pressure and trying to force passes to receivers against coverage over the middle of the field.

In another example from FSU’s September game against North Carolina State, Winston tried to find Nick O’Leary about 17 yards downfield between the hashes, between a window of three defenders, all the while throwing off his back foot under heavy pressure. Predictably, he paid the price, as his pass was inaccurate and picked off by Fernandez.

The worst interception of all thrown by Winston this year was his pass picked off by Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt in October. Under duress from three Notre Dame pass-rushers inside his own five-yard line, Winston should have just thrown the ball out of bounds but instead threw a desperate heave over the right middle of the field, which allowed Schmidt to play the ball for a takeaway.

Overall, Winston’s interception issues have little to do with passing accuracy and velocity; to the contrary, Winston has gotten away with forced throws on many occasions because of his ability to rifle a throw downfield and hit his target precisely.

That said, Winston won’t get away with forced passes nearly as often at the next level as he goes up against tighter coverage windows and defenders who can make plays on the ball at all levels.

Winston needs to become more consistent with his decision-making and learn when he needs to just check down or throw the ball away rather than attempt a pass downfield against the rush. If he does not do that, his interception totals are likely to only increase in the NFL.

 

How Much is Winston’s Draft Stock Falling?

According to TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline, NFL scouts and decision-makers are finding “Winston’s penchant for turning the ball over”—the quarterback also has four fumbles this year, although he has only lost one to the other team—”very disconcerting.”

“Off the field transgressions aside, his play on Saturday’s has been exciting but not the caliber of an early first round pick,” Pauline wrote earlier this week.

NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks believes that Winston’s “season-long struggles with turnovers and mechanics” have shown that the quarterback “is a talented but flawed prospect who will need time to develop at the next level.”

“Although he remains the top quarterback prospect in college football with valuable experience running a pro-style system, he is not a plug-and-play prospect who can step in and lead a team from Day 1,” Brooks wrote. “In time, I believe Winston will be a franchise player, but his 2014 struggles suggest a patient approach might be best for the team that selects him if he comes out following his sophomore season.”

A team looking for an immediate upgrade at the quarterback position might have to reconsider whether it should invest a high draft choice in Winston. Yet it remains unclear whether Winston's draft stock has actually fallen significantly in the eyes of NFL teams.

In his Scouting Notebook for this week, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller wrote that he recently spoke to three NFL general managers who said, “their view of Winston has not changed.”

Scouts always want to see progression over the course of a player's collegiate career, not regression, so evaluators should be concerned by the negative turn in his play. But even so, Winston's upside could be tough to pass up for a quarterback-needy team in a draft that appears to have no other first-round-caliber passing prospects besides Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

 

Why a Team Will Still Take a Chance on Winston Early in the Draft

Although Winston's errors this season have made it clear that his game still needs significant work, there are a number of areas in which he is better than Mariota and any other quarterback eligible for the 2015 draft.

A 6’4”, 230-pound player with a big arm and good mobility, Winston has all the physical tools to potentially be a great pro quarterback.

He clearly needs to be smarter about what passes he attempts, but his ability to connect with targets between tight windows and when he is pressured remains far better than the vast majority of quarterbacks when they come out of college.

While Winston’s mistakes have been a big reason why Florida State has had to come back from second-half deficits in three of its last six games, and has won by only five points or less in four of its last six games, the quarterback has also been integral in the Seminoles' not only winning every game they have played this year, but also all of last year.

For all of his faults, Winston has stepped up time and time again to make clutch plays for his team with the game on the line. He has the so-called “it factor,” an intangible knack for playing up to the situation and being at his best when needed most.

That doesn’t mean his faults should be excused, nor does it mean Winston will be able to commit turnovers against NFL defenses and still be able to bring his team back to win games. Unlike at Florida State, where his team almost always has clearly superior talent to its opponent, the competition will be much steeper and the margin of error will be much slimmer for Winston as a professional.

It does show, however, that Winston is a natural on-field leader who never gives up on a game and keeps his composure when he has to bounce back from turnovers he has made.

Those qualities, along with the physical tools and playmaking ability that keep Winston’s prospect ceiling very high, make it possible that a team looking for a franchise signal-caller—such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans or New York Jets—could use one of the top overall picks in the draft to select him.

It would be a surprise, at this point, if Winston was selected ahead of Mariota. While Winston has more experience playing under pressure and completing throws with high degrees of difficulty, Mariota has asserted himself as the top draft-eligible quarterback with a stellar season that could also make him this year’s Heisman Trophy winner.

But unless every team agrees that Winston's on-field flaws and off-field red flags make him too risky to draft in early Round 1, it's likely he will come off the board quickly—assuming he declares for the 2015 draft, which CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora has reported he will—after Mariota is selected.

 

All GIFs were made using Gfycatwith videos from DraftBreakdown.com.All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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With Jim McElwain in Gainesville, Get Ready for Renewed Florida-Alabama Rivalry

TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—Alabama should consider itself lucky.

After putting up a 42-21 beatdown of Florida early in the 2014 season, it doesn’t have to see the Gators again until 2021 because of new SEC scheduling protocols with an eight-game conference schedule.

With the Florida of recent history, that would seem to be a team you would like to face regularly. Not anymore.

Per Chris Low of ESPN.com, the Gators announced the hiring of Jim McElwain, a former Nick Saban offensive coordinator, as their newest head coach. If McElwain’s past is any indication, he should have Florida back up to speed in short time, competing for SEC and national championships year in and year out.

It will be a case of master vs. student in the toughest league in college football.

And while Alabama and Florida won’t meet in the regular season for another seven years, it looks like a safe bet to say that they’ll see each other before that in the SEC Championship Game.

That could just be what the Alabama-Florida rivalry needs to rise to the level at which it once stood.

McElwain created almost an “Alabama lite” at Colorado State, where he coached for three years after leaving the Crimson Tide with two national championship rings.

The Rams ran a similar offense as Alabama did—a one-back, power run base that works out to play action and short throws from there. He even brought former Alabama running back Dee Hart with him, who revitalized his career, rushing for 1,254 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.

Colorado State went from winning four games in his first year there to 10 this year, with the possibility of one more coming in a bowl game. It was a remarkable turnaround for the coach who studied under the best.

“I did watch one game. I think it was the Colorado game early in the year, and Dee Hart played fabulous in the game,” Saban said earlier this season. “Mac's a great coach, did a great job for us and he's obviously done a great job for them. I don't get to watch their games much because of our games and all that type stuff. But I always check the scores of all the guys. (Sports Information Director) Jeff (Purinton) gives me the scores of all the guys after our games that have worked for us before and how they did that particular day. We're really, really excited that Colorado State is having a great year and Dee Hart's doing well for them, and Jim McElwain is doing a fantastic job there.”

Now, Saban’s protege of sorts is in his own league.

With the success McElwain has had in his career, there’s no reason to think he won’t raise Florida to the level it has seen in the past under Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier. The Florida of powerful offenses. The Florida of stifling defenses.

And the Florida that has played some classic games against Alabama.

It started in 1992, with the inaugural SEC Championship. Antonio Langham returned an interception for a touchdown late in the game, a play ESPN would later dub “The Play That Changed College Football.”

The Crimson Tide and Gators met five times in the SEC Championship Game in the 1990s, with Alabama winning two and Florida taking three.

Things really ramped up late in the 2000s, again in Atlanta.

The pair met back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, with Florida winning the first and Alabama getting revenge the second year. Both teams went on to win national titles in those respective years.

It makes sense that they would meet so often in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama and Florida are both the powerhouses of their divisions. It made for an entertaining inter-divisional rivalry between two teams that don’t necessarily play every year.

The Crimson Tide will have been back to Atlanta twice since those two meetings after Saturday. The Gators have yet to make a return trip.

But with McElwain in place, that should change quickly. And if Alabama keeps up its streak, the two are bound to meet again. And restore a great college football rivalry back to its glory.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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What Would It Take for Michigan to Lure Les Miles from LSU?

The Michigan Wolverines coaching position is vacant, which means the Les Miles-to-Michigan rumors are in full swing. 

Host of Double Coverage T-Bob Hebert was joined by Stephen Nelson to discuss whether Les Miles will be hired by Michigan. 

Should Michigan do whatever it takes to bring in Miles?

Check out the video and let us know! 

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UCLA Football: Ranking the 4 Best Moments for the Bruins in 2014

There were some prominent moments within the 2014 season for Jim Mora and the UCLA football team. In fact, four specific moments in particular stand out. 

This piece will rank the four best moments this year for the Bruins. Criteria for each slot in the rankings is determined in two ways.

For one, the sheer excellence of the moment from an athletic standpoint will hold clout. The context in which the moment was manifested will also count in ranking the moments. 

Here are the four best moments for the UCLA football team in 2014.

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Nebraska Football: Many Husker Fans' Complaints About Mike Riley Hire Misguided

Nebraska football fans were floored by the announcement that athletic director Shawn Eichorst had hired Oregon State’s Mike Riley to be NU’s new head coach.

Riley, who had coached the Beavers for 12 of the last 14 years (with an unsuccessful stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the interim) was a surprise to everyone, and that surprise did not sit well with some Nebraska fans (as recounted by Hail Varsity).

Of course, fans are emotional, and some of those fans reacted without putting a lot of thought into their criticism. Here's why some of the most common complaints were off-base.

 

We shoulda hired Scott Frost!

Of all the negative reactions to Riley’s hiring, this was probably the most common. And sure, the story is compelling.

A championship-winning Nebraska quarterback, coming home to take the program back to its glory days. He’s one of us! He gets what it means at Nebraska!

Stop. I mean really, just stop. Frost, in his second year as offensive coordinator at Oregon, is a promising young coach with what looks to be a bright future ahead of him.

Does that sound at all familiar? Nebraska hires a young coach—a talented coordinator with no head coaching experience—to take over one of the most storied programs in college football.

Haven’t we seen this movie and know how it ends?

That’s not to say Frost isn’t a good coach and won’t perhaps someday be a great head coach. But Nebraska just went through seven years of giving an untested rookie on-the-job training on the sidelines in Lincoln.

Plus, how many other programs were looking to hire Frost as a head coach this season? If your answer was “none,” then you win the prize.

It’s understandable for Nebraska fans worried about an uncertain future to reach out for something familiar. But with all the risk involved with making a coaching change, allowing sentiment to drive the decision would be a dreadful mistake.

 

His record is worse than Pelini’s!

In Bo Pelini’s seven years at Nebraska, his teams went 66-27. Under Riley during the same time period, his teams went 46-42. Overall, Riley is 96-80 as a collegiate head coach.

See! Pelini’s way better than Riley! Pelini’s never won fewer than nine games, something Riley’s only done once since 2009. Why did we fire Pelini to get this guy?

Yes, Pelini has never won fewer than nine games (or lost fewer than four games) in his career—at Nebraska. And Riley has done what he’s done at Oregon State.

Put simply, Oregon State isn’t Nebraska. Before Riley arrived in Corvallis, the Beavers had won nine games in a season twice—once in 1939 and again in 1962. Oregon State hadn’t had a winning record since 1970 and had only won a total of 14 games in the seven years before Riley took the job.

Oregon State is a tiny college town in northern Oregon, dwarfed in stature and resources by the school in Eugene that is funded to the hilt by Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. And yet Riley has consistently won there at a level far exceeding what the school’s size, prestige and resource level would dictate.

Want an analogy that is a little more familiar, Husker fans? Oregon State is a lot like Iowa State—if Iowa had a blank check with a swoosh on it to build facilities. If a coach was able to do in Ames what Riley did in Corvallis, wouldn’t you be intrigued by the prospect of what he could do in Lincoln?

It’s time to get over the "nine-win" thing, Husker fans.

 

He’s never won anything!

OK, fine, you say. Winning nine games isn’t a big deal if it doesn’t come with a championship at the end. And as a I previously observed, Eichorst made a bold statement that playing for championships is the standard for NU, nothing less.

I thought Eichorst said championships were the standard! How can we hire a coach that hasn’t won anything more than Pelini has?

Riley has never won a conference title at Oregon State. He’s been close, and Dennis Erickson took Riley’s players (including Chad later-to-be-Ochocinco Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh—you may have heard of them) to an 11-1 season and a Fiesta Bowl win in 2000.

So yes, Riley hasn’t won a championship at Oregon State. We’ve discussed already how winning titles at Oregon State is a much harder task than winning them at Nebraska.

But Eichorst also talked about the importance of Nebraska competing in the "games that matter," which Nebraska was notoriously bad at under Pelini. How do Pelini and Riley compare in that category?

Well, let’s take a look at games against top-15 opponents, which is a fair estimation of Eichorst’s "championship-caliber" teams.

In the last seven years, Pelini has notched wins over No. 7 Missouri (2010) and No. 9 Michigan State (2011). In that same time period, Riley has wins over No. 1 USC (2008), No. 2 Cal (2007), No. 9 Arizona (2010), No. 13 Wisconsin (2012, the same year the Badgers beat Nebraska 70-31) and No. 6 Arizona State (2014).

None of Pelini’s wins come close to Riley’s teams knocking off the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Heck, a pretty good argument could be made that none of Pelini’s wins are better than Riley’s squad this year taking No. 6 Arizona State out of playoff contention.

 

So are you saying Nebraska’s a lock for the playoff next year?

Of course not. Riley is far from a guaranteed success in Lincoln. With Nebraska opening against BYU, its toughest lid-lifter in a decade, it’s possible Riley could start his scarlet-and-cream career at 0-1.

Next season, Pelini’s defenders and those inclined to snark will be quick to pounce if Nebraska wins fewer than nine games. Is that expectation fair? Probably not, but it’s what Riley will have to deal with as he starts his career in Lincoln.

But the ultimate question is this: Does Nebraska have a better chance at winning a conference title in the near future by making a change and hiring Riley or by keeping Pelini and maintaining the status quo?

Eichorst made it crystal clear on which side of that question he came down.

And while there will be many doubts raised about the move in the coming months, as the inevitable challenges hit Riley and his new staff in Lincoln, hopefully calmer and more rational minds can set aside those challenges that are less well thought-out.

 

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

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Without J.T. Barrett, Ohio State's Championship Hopes Rest with the Defense

After J.T. Barrett suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Michigan, Ohio State's national championship hopes were ripped from the steady hands of the its budding quarterback and placed squarely on a defense that has slumped in recent weeks.

With No. 13 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing attack looming, the fifth-ranked Buckeyes will need that unit to step up in a big way to earn their first Big Ten title since 2009.

That development would have been hard to fathom at the beginning of the season.

When Ohio State lost its first option at quarterback after Braxton Miller re-injured his shoulder in fall camp, head coach Urban Meyer expected his defense to rally—fueled by what USA Today (h/t 247Sports) thought was the best defensive line in the country.

In fact, Meyer went as far as comparing this Buckeyes defensive front to one of the all-time greats—his former outfit at Florida that guided the Gators to a national title in 2006.

"2006 was our best defensive line at Florida. This line, if they all stay healthy and perform, could be on that level," Meyer told reporters. "We have some game-changers up front."

The Buckeyes certainly have game-changers.

Defensive end Joey Bosa has grown into one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the country, leading the Big Ten and ranking fourth nationally with 13.5 sacks. The true sophomore was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Lombardi and Bednarik Awards.

Ohio State has also gotten solid play out of defensive tackles Michael Bennett, who was named to the All-Big Ten Football second team, and Adolphus Washington, who earned an honorable mention from the media.

But the Buckeyes have greatly missed Noah Spence—their star junior defensive end who was supposed to balance the line opposite Bosa. Spence didn't play a snap all season thanks to a second failed drug test that resulted in a permanent ban from the Big Ten.

That, combined with a surprising lack of depth, has Ohio State's defensive line falling incredibly short of its preseason potential.

Over the last four weeks, opposing running backs have taken advantage.

It started on the road against Michigan State, when Jeremy Langford ripped Ohio State for 137 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries.

That triggered a bad trend for the Buckeyes, who have given up a combined 584 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground to the last four running backs they've faced.

On Saturday in Indianapolis, with a Big Ten title hanging in the balance, Ohio State will have to stop the nation's most dangerous running back. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who leads the country in both rushing yards (2,260) and rushing touchdowns (26), has a blend of speed and toughness that could hurt the Buckeyes where they're the weakest.

Ohio State is hoping its recent run against elite ball-carriers can serve as preparation for what lies ahead.

“I mean we’ve seen a lot of good backs this year,” Buckeyes linebacker Joshua Perry told Austin Ward of ESPN.com. “Obviously [Gordon] is a Heisman front-runner, so he’s on a level of his own. But you can’t say that we haven’t been tested already with some of the running backs, some of the offensive lines we’ve seen this year."

The Buckeyes' improved secondary won't be tested much—the Badgers average just 147.8 passing yards per game, which ranks 117th out of 125 teams in the country.

But with Gordon in the opposing backfield, Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch reports Meyer is wary of the potential opportunities for play action:

Will the Buckeyes be able to stop Gordon and Wisconsin's ground attack?

Without its star quarterback as a safety net, Ohio State's Big Ten title hopes—and by extension, its playoff aspirations—will depend on it.

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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UCF Beats East Carolina on Game-Winning Hail Mary

The UCF Knights were down, 30-26, against the East Carolina Pirates with one final play remaining, so Justin Holman threw up a prayer.

Despite a number of Pirates players around the goal line, Holman's pass somehow floated over them, landing in Breshad Perriman's hands for the game-winning 51-yard touchdown.

Here's another angle of the touchdown:

The Knights got the miracle 32-30 win to finish the regular season at 9-3, so they'll now have to wait and see which bowl game they'll be invited to. The win also helped them clinch a share of the AAC 

[Vine]

 

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