NCAA Football News

Sugar Bowl 2015: Breaking Down Biggest X-Factors in Alabama vs. Ohio State

Ohio State earned the final spot in the College Football Playoff, but the real challenge starts now with a Sugar Bowl matchup against Alabama.

Each of these teams are loaded with talented players on both sides of the ball, many of whom will be playing on Sundays in the future. However, it's not always the best players who make the difference in a competitive battle like this one.

While everyone will have to be at his best in order to advance to the national title game, these players will especially be important as X-factors for their team's success.

 

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

T.J. Yeldon had secured the position as the go-to option for Alabama out of the backfield, with Derrick Henry appearing to be relegated to backup duty. Even in the run-heavy offense, the sophomore only averaged nine carries per game in the month of November.

However, the running back reminded people what he can do in the SEC Championship Game with a career-high 141 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the win over Missouri.

College GameDay joked about the challenge of tackling the 6'3", 241-pound behemoth:

Meanwhile, the real usefulness of the running back comes when he is still relatively fresh at the end of games. Matt Brown of Sports on Earth noted this issue for opposing defenders:

Yeldon will still have a big role in this game, but Henry is the one who can really be a difference-maker for the Ohio State defense. If he plays well, it could make the Crimson Tide very difficult to stop.

 

Xzavier Dickson, LB, Alabama

With a quarterback making just his second start, Alabama will want to do whatever it takes to put him under as much pressure as possible. That role will fall on Xzavier Dickson. 

The senior heads into the bowl season with eight sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits, all of which lead the team.

Despite this, he doesn't get the credit he deserves, as noted by D.C. Reeves of TheTuscaloosa News during the win over Missouri:

He certainly cannot be overlooked in the Sugar Bowl, as his job will be extremely important. Although he only has one sack in the last four games, he needs to find a way to at least get pressure on Cardale Jones whenever possible.

If Alabama gives Ohio State time to develop plays, the Buckeyes have the skill to put up a lot of points.

 

Dontre Wilson, RB, Ohio State

Although Dontre Wilson has been out since breaking his foot against Michigan State, he appears on track to return for the Sugar Bowl, according to Eleven Warriors:

If the sophomore is able to return, it would give a huge boost toward Ohio State's scoring chances in this one.

While the running back had trouble getting carries behind Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel, Wilson was a big factor in the passing game before getting hurt. Even after missing the past four games, he finished fourth on the team in receiving yards and third with 14.3 yards per catch.

Additionally, Wilson is especially important in the return game after averaging 9.7 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kickoff return. Only Elliott finished with more all-purpose yards this season than Wilson's 1,064 despite playing just nine games.

The dynamic player can score whenever he touches the ball and can be a game-changer in this one.

 

Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

Usually a starting quarterback is not considered an X-factor, but most teams are usually not relying on such an inexperienced player in such an important game.

Jones made his first career start in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin and responded with three touchdowns, a 255.8 efficiency rating and a 59-0 win.

"Surprise, you're right, I don't use the word," head coach Urban Meyersaid after the game. "I guess I'll use it for the first time. I was a little surprised. ... He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around."

Of course, it's important to remember that Jones only needed to throw 17 passes in a blowout victory while his teammates were able to do most of the work. This will not necessarily be the case against the No. 1 team in the nation.

The sophomore will be under pressure all day long, and he will be forced to make more plays himself with Alabama likely to slow down the rushing attack. His ability to respond will be the deciding factor in this game.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Heisman Watch 2014: Updated Odds and Final Predictions for Tight Race

Jameis Winston not being named among the Heisman Trophy finalists was expected, but it also made official one reality—the trophy will have a new owner come Saturday night in New York City.

It's been a wide-open battle for the Heisman since the start of the season, and the play from some of the game's top stars reflected that. If anything, it's a surprise only three players were invited to the Big Apple, with standout quarterbacks like TCU's Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott staying at home.

But the final three—Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper—aren't too shabby, as CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd noted:

The competition might already feel like it's decided, depending on who you are—or how much you pay attention to college football. But with three deserving superstars being invited to the party, anything could happen. 

Let's break down the latest Heisman Trophy odds, with just a few days to go.

 

Note: Heisman Trophy odds are courtesy of OddsChecker.com, last updated December 10

 

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota: 1-80

Is anyone really surprised at this point that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota boasts some of the most lopsided Heisman odds in history?

It shouldn't when you take a look at his body of work throughout 2014. The Ducks quarterback has completed every prerequisite voters have ever asked of a Heisman winner.

With 3,783 passing yards and 52 total touchdowns, Mariota has spectacularly only thrown two interceptions all season. He ranks up there with Winston's 2013 Heisman campaign in almost every major category, per ESPN Stats and Information:

Must your Heisman winner be the leader of a contending team? Mariota has that box checked, as well.

Oregon's early season struggles were noticeably due to a banged-up offensive line, and the Ducks have been on a furious run to the College Football Playoff since becoming healthy again.

It didn't take long for Mariota to resurface as the Heisman leader after an early slip-up against Arizona, as ESPN College Football showcased:

Mariota had his hands full entering championship weekend with a definitive rematch test against Arizona, but he dominated in convincing fashion while contender Melvin Gordon struggled mightily against Ohio State.

That result sealed the already apparent belief that the Heisman is all Mariota's.

Predicted finish: Unanimous winner

 

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: 18-1

Gordon's trip to New York City will be overshadowed at home by Gary Andersen moving to Oregon State and in the Big Apple by Mariota's impending Heisman.

But considering the season he's posted, that's a crying shame.

The Wisconsin running back has had a historic junior season with the Badgers in many accounts. He has been a workhorse with 309 rushes, going for 2,336 yards, scoring 29 total touchdowns and accounting for 174 points by himself.

He's even close to breaking Barry Sanders' all-time record, which he can do with 293 yards against Auburn in the Outback Bowl—and don't put that past him because he's gone for over 250 three times this season.

Stats.com noted his place in the record books:

Gordon could have made some serious noise for late consideration as the winner, but he struggled against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game with 76 yards on 29 carries.

His overall body of work is incredible enough to warrant a definite second-place finish, though.

Predicted finish: Second place

 

Alabama WR Amari Cooper: 50-1

Just being named as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy is an incredible feat for a wide receiver, and it just goes to show the type of season Alabama's Amari Cooper has had.

The junior wideout has shattered the Crimson Tide record books with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns—proving impossible to contain even when defenses base their game plan around him. Whether he runs short screens, slants across the middle or deep down the field, Cooper is lethal.

He also has some respectable plans if he happens to bring home the Heisman, as ESPN College Football captured:

Cooper was on the radar to start 2014, but he burst onto the scene with four consecutive 130-yard performances to begin his season. He's surpassed the 200-yard mark three times and has four multi-touchdown games—two of those games with three scores.

Alabama has reached the CFP in no small part because of Cooper, but his presence in New York City is based off his incredible individual play. He doesn't have the stats necessary to compete with Mariota and Gordon as a wideout, but he has already been rewarded with a trip to the Big Apple.

Predicted finish: Third place

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rose Bowl 2015: Breaking Down Biggest X-Factors in Oregon vs. Florida State

It's not always the most high-profile players who decide a team's fate in a big game.

While most college football fans can name Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, some key plays by lesser-known contributors could end up making the difference in the big game between Oregon and Florida State.

Regardless of what we have seen from these teams during the year, the Rose Bowl is going to be extremely competitive from start to finish. The winner will be the squad that gets big-time performances from these X-factors.

 

Charles Nelson, WR, Oregon

Oregon has plenty of playmakers on offense between Mariota, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall and others. Even with all these players, however, Charles Nelson is someone you cannot forget about if you're the opposing team.

The receiver is coming off a huge week where he put up stats in various categories in the Pac-12 Championship Game:

He only has a total of 17 catches on the year, but he turned five of those into touchdowns, as he is always a threat to score whenever he has the ball. Still, his biggest impact is on special teams, where he has scored two touchdowns on punt returns while averaging 15.5 yards per return.

“I’ve never seen a freshman make an impact on special teams—ever—in the way he has made," wide receivers coach Matt Lubick recently explained to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com.

Whether he is getting touches as a running back, receiver or returner, Nelson has a chance to score on any play, and he could really impact this game.

 

DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon

There might not be many more talented defensive linemen in the nation, but the problem with DeForest Buckner has been inconsistency. 

Bryan Fischer of NFL.com saw this problem during the win over Arizona:

The good news is he can still impact the game with his ability to get into the backfield. He only has four sacks on the year, but he leads the team with 12 tackles for a loss. Even when he doesn't make a stop, he can still disrupt the play with his penetration.

Of course, Buckner will be in for a tough challenge against a quality Florida State offensive line. The key will be for him to be aggressive on each play and force his way into the action.

The Seminoles can score points, but they will be limited offensively if the defensive lineman can put pressure on Winston as often as possible.

 

Nick O'Leary, TE, Florida State

Rashad Greene is Florida State's most talented receiver, but Winston's most consistent option is probably tight end Nick O'Leary.

The Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in the country is as safe as they come when you need someone to make a big play. Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel saw this in the ACC Championship Game:

On the downside, O'Leary has not been targeted as often as he should be, failing to reach five catches in a game since late October.

If Florida State is going to move the ball consistently against Oregon, the senior will have to have a bigger role everywhere on the field and not just near the end zone.

 

Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State

Although it's hard to call Jalen Ramsey an X-factor as one of the team's most talented players, the reality is this is the best description for a player who does it all for Florida State.

The defensive back fills up the stat sheet in just about every category, finishing the regular season with 75 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and 13 pass breakups. 

Matt Brown of Sports on Earth explained why the sophomore deserved consideration for the Heisman Trophy:

Ramsey is one of the most valuable players in college football because of his ability as a Swiss Army knife in the Florida State defense. The Seminoles have more holes than they had last year, with significant depth issues up front, but someone like Ramsey can do it all, moving all around the formation. He's physical against the run. He can line up as a stand-up edge rusher. He can roam the middle of the field as a safety. He can play cornerback.

He might not have a true position, but he is someone who is going to have a major impact if Florida State is going to win this game.

Although Ramsey cannot be expected to cover the entire field against Oregon, he will have to be all over the place in order to slow down the opposing offense.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Army vs. Navy 2014: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

The Army-Navy game is one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, as this historic rivalry bursts with patriotism and captivates the nation. This year marks the 115th meeting between the Black Knights and Midshipmen, with Navy holding the series lead at 58-49-7.

While this is one of the most traditional matchups in college football history—the first meeting between these teams took place in 1890—there will be a bit of a modern twist this year. Navy will be sporting some new Under Armour uniforms featuring a "Don't Tread on Me" motto with a First Navy Jack theme. Take a look, courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens' official Twitter account:

The Midshipmen finished the regular season with a 6-5 record, earning a berth in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State. While the Black Knights missed out on a bowl opportunity with a 4-7 record, they ended the regular season by defeating Fordham 42-31. With no bowl game forthcoming, Army will be looking to end its year on a high note.

 

Ground and Pound

It's pretty safe to say neither of these teams are keen on taking to the air, as Navy's Keenan Reynolds attempted 96 passes this season, while Army's Angel Santiago threw a total of just 68. Both of these squads love to pound the rock, and we'll see plenty of ground-and-pound action on Saturday.

The Black Knights feature a dual-headed monster out of the backfield with Santiago and running back Larry Dixon. While Santiago has been good on the ground, Dixon has been the team's workhorse, carrying 176 times for 1,012 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per rush, and scoring nine touchdowns. He ended the season with a brilliant 158-yard, three-touchdown performance against Fordham.

This duo will get plenty of opportunities to gain chunks of yards at a time against a Navy run defense that is allowing an average of 199.8 yards per game, an average of 4.95 yards per carry and a total of 17 rushing touchdowns this season.

While the Midshipmen have a two-headed attack of their own, it's a little more lopsided, as their dual-threat quarterback handles most of the rushing duties. Reynolds has carried 205 times this season, gaining 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He's complemented nicely by the speedy Noah Copeland, who is averaging an impressive 8.2 yards per carry on the year.

Army may be ranked slightly better in the run defense category than Navy, coming in at 92nd in the nation and allowing an average of 191.9 yards per game; however, the Black Knights have allowed 5.54 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns on the season, giving Navy's speedy duo a very favorable matchup.

 

Scoring Opportunities

While both of these teams specialize in the running game, it does make their offenses rather one-dimensional. This can create a lower percentage of big plays due to opposing defenses honing in on the run. This makes taking advantage of scoring opportunities within the red zone extremely important.

Army is at a severe disadvantage in this category. While the Black Knights rank 84th in the nation in points scored, averaging 26.3 per game, they also rank 103rd in red-zone offense, scoring just 75.7 percent of the time they get within the 20-yard line.

In 37 red-zone attempts this season, Army has rushed for 24 touchdowns, passed for two and kicked two field goals, coming away empty-handed nine times. That percentage must drastically improve against a Navy team that ranks 47th in the nation in red-zone defense, allowing scores 80.9 percent of the time.

The Midshipmen have done nicely when finding themselves within the 20-yard line this season, ranking 43rd in the nation while scoring on 86 percent of their trips to the red zone. In 50 attempts this year, Navy has converted 43 times, rushing for 32 touchdowns, passing for five and kicking six field goals.

A good scoring rate from within the red zone will go a long way for Navy against an Army team that has struggled in that department this season, ranking 112th in the nation, allowing scores on 88.9 percent of opponents' trips inside the 20.

 

When: Thursday, December 13

Where: M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland

Time: 3 p.m. ET

Channel: CBS

Live Stream: CBSSports.com

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 57.5
  • Spread: Navy -15

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

In a game that will feature plenty of clock-killing runs, getting out to an early lead is crucial. Time will wind down rather quickly in this contest, giving the trailing team few opportunities to make up ground. In this instance, that team would have to begin relying on the pass, which isn't a strong suit for either competitor.

While both Army and Navy are sound running teams, the Midshipmen have been able to take far better advantage of red-zone situations. This has propelled the team to average 34.5 points per game this season, while Army has averaged 26.3. Expect that to be a huge difference-maker when these teams face off.

We're guaranteed a fantastic showdown featuring plenty of players who deserve a great deal of respect both on and off the field. Although, there can be only one victor, and Navy appears to be the more well-rounded squad.

Prediction: Navy 35, Army 28

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 10.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Dates, Odds and Matchup Predictions

In less than a month, the inaugural College Football Playoff will decide a true champion. With four teams now competing for the crown, each are deserving after winning conference titles in the final weekend.

The final four includes four of the most illustrious programs in college football history. Florida State and Oregon will face off in the Rose Bowl prior to Ohio State and Alabama taking the field in the Sugar Bowl for the right to make the national championship game.

Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota will give way for Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer. However, each of these programs has playmakers all over the field and some of the most impressive systems in the country.

With the bracket set, here's a look at the dates, odds and predictions for the College Football Playoff.

Odds via OddsShark.com on Dec. 11 at 7 a.m. ET.

 

Rose Bowl

In terms of talent alone, the Rose Bowl is the matchup college football fans have been waiting for.

Both quarterbacks appear to have bright futures, but it's clear that this season has belonged to Mariota. Despite a slip-up against Arizona earlier this year, Mariota has led the Ducks back into the national title bracket and has them looking like a strong contender.

In fact, Mariota has been reminiscent of his opponent on New Year's Day, via ESPN Stats & Info:

Mariota against Winston will be the storyline, of course, but it's not quite that simple. Both signal-callers are equipped with impressive receivers like Byron Marshall and Rashad Greene, but their backfield partners will be difference-makers.

Royce Freeman has set the Pac-12 on fire as a freshman, collecting over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns. Along with Freeman, Dalvin Cook has been another one of the most impressive frosh players this season.

Though Cook hasn't been the lead back all season like Freeman, David Hale of ESPN.com notes how productive he's been late in the year:

Winston and Cook will prove to be a difficult task for Oregon, but ultimately, the Ducks offense is more prolific. Having a dual-threat option like Mariota to go along with a power back like Freeman, Oregon will roll to the national championship game.

 

Sugar Bowl

Oh man, this one is going to be fun. Every time Saban and Meyer have hooked up, it's always a hyped-up game. However, the last two matchups have been blowouts for Alabama when Meyer was coaching Florida.

This season, both coaches have found success in completely different ways.

For Saban, the Crimson Tide decided to completely overhaul the offense coming into the season by bringing in Lane Kiffin. The former Tennessee and USC head coach has been successful thanks in large part to trust from the man who handed the reins to him.

Leading up to the SEC Championship, Saban spoke about the job Kiffin has done, via Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:

He is exactly what I thought he was, does what I expected him to do. I got exactly what I expected. I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people. 

But I got what I expected. You all didn't get what you expected.

Criticism of decision-making is part of college football, but it didn't stop with bringing in Kiffin. Another huge part of the reason why Alabama comes in at No. 1 is quarterback Blake Sims, who was overshadowed by Jacob Coker in the offseason.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports notes how impressive Sims has been this season:

Sure, he has the likes of Amari Cooper to throw the ball to, but Sims has made all the right throws this year. He's also been a consistent force for the Tide, which is more than Ohio State can say about their signal-callers.

After losing both Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett this season, Meyer was forced to resort to Cardale Jones. The sophomore responded in the Big Ten Championship Game with three passing touchdowns.

One of the biggest roots of that success was the impressive offensive line, as Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report points out:

Regardless of who is under center, he will have protection and time to find the likes of Devin Smith in the passing game. Unfortunately, even Jones, Smith and Ezekiel Elliott won't be enough to take down Alabama and its stout defense.

Sims will continue to carry his team into a showdown with Oregon. Having an offense led by Kiffin, taking down a Pac-12 opponent on the biggest stage would also be sweet, sweet revenge for the former Trojans coach.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia Football: 5 Bulldogs Who Can Raise NFL Draft Status in the Belk Bowl

The Belk Bowl means the 2014 season is coming to an end for the Georgia Bulldogs, and most of the seniors will never put on a set of shoulder pads ever again after the game on December 30.

For a few seniors, juniors and third-year sophomores, though, this is only the beginning.

The NFL will be the next step for some of the Bulldogs on the roster right now, and this game will be one of the final opportunities for them to impress NFL scouts in attendance.

The Bulldogs will not only be trying to earn their 10th win of the year, some will be looking to improve their draft status with a strong showing in the Belk Bowl.

Here are five players that can do just that. 

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Texas Football: 5 Longhorns Who Can Raise NFL Draft Status with Strong Bowl Game

Beating Arkansas in the Texas Bowl and finishing the season with a winning record would mean a lot to this entire Longhorn team. It could mean a whole lot more for the guys looking to make a strong impression on some NFL teams.

Defensive tackle Malcom Brown leads the crop of Longhorns with hopes of being an NFL draft pick this spring. Even as an underclassman, another impressive line from the junior would mean a likely first-round selection.

The rest of Texas' candidates have less certain futures. Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks, John Harris and Cedric Reed all have their flaws, but they have a golden opportunity to show off their talents against a quality SEC team.

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Scooby Wright Wins 2014 Lombardi Award: Latest Details, Comments and Reaction

Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright was named the 2014 Lombardi Award winner Wednesday, which is given annually to college football's best offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker.

Wright was one of four finalists, coming out ahead of Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa, Washington linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha and Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley.

The sophomore linebacker emerged as perhaps the best defensive player in college football in 2014, making 89 tackles and 14 sacks while leading Arizona to a surprise 10-3 regular season. Wright was one of a few shining lights on a defense that at times struggled to maintain consistent production.

The Pac-12 already honored him with its Defensive Player of the Year Award, and this week, Wright was named Bronko Nagurski Award winner as the nation's top defensive player

"Coming out of high school I didn't really have too many colleges knocking on my door—actually nobody really wanted me except Arizona," Wright, a lightly touted recruit, told reporters. "So I always have that little chip on my shoulder. You always remember those people who didn't think you were good enough. It still motivates me to this day."

Wright is the first player in Arizona history to win the Lombardi Award and second to take home the Nagurski. The last 10 Nagurski winners have gone on to be selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. The last Lombardi winner to not be selected in the first two rounds was Virginia Tech's Corey Moore, who won the award before the turn of the century.

While Wright will have to wait to play on Sundays—as a true sophomore, he's ineligible to enter the draft—he's unquestionably come a long way from a kid who had one FBS offer. Arizona fans will be eager to see what he can do for an encore next season.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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