NCAA Football News

College Football's Most Important Offers of the Week

The coaching carousel has already had an effect on the recruiting trail, and one coach who is already starting fast in his new home is Nebraska head coach Mike Riley.

Riley and his staff have been busy trying to finish the 2015 class on a strong note.

The ‘Huskers offered a trio of 2015 prospects in 4-star running back Jordan Cronkrite, 3-star linebacker and Wisconsin commit Jordan Griffin and 4-star receiver Lavan Alston.

Cronkrite and Griffin are among the top prospects from the state of Florida, while Alston is an explosive talent out of California.

According to Evan Flood of Badgers247 (subscription required), Griffin is well aware of Nebraska’s storied tradition.

"It came out of nowhere," said Griffin. "I know coach Pelini (Bo Pelini) just got fired this year. They're bringing in a new staff. I know they're a pretty decent program and they play big time football."

Of the three players, Riley may have the best chance to land Alston—who was close to committing to Oregon State while Riley was in Corvallis, as noted by Mike Schaefer of HuskersIllustrated.

Their forays into two of the top talent-producing states could help lay the groundwork for the ‘Huskers in future classes.

 

2015 DE Earns Miami Offer After Decommit from SEC School

The interest is beginning to swell in 3-star defensive end Dylan Jackson after he decommitted from Tennessee earlier this month.

The 6’6”, 245-pounder picked up offers from Boise State and Miami last week.

LSU and Stanford appear to be the favorites for one of the top players in the state of Tennessee.

However, with signing day approaching, Jackson’s offer list may swell as teams looking for pass-rushers continue to inquire about him.

 

Kentucky Offers Pair of 2016 Florida Skill Players

Dating back to his days as an assistant at Miami and Florida State, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops is familiar with the landscape when it comes to recruiting top talent out of the Sunshine State.

He and his staff extended to a pair of standout juniors from Florida.

According to Josh Edwards of TheCatsPause247, the Wildcats tendered 4-star receiver Eli Stove.

Three-star running back Tony Jones Jr. also picked up an offer from Stoops.

While it’s still early in the process for the 2016 class, Kentucky is making sure its presence is felt in the Sunshine State.

 

Auburn after 2016 South Carolina Pledge

One of the top athletes in the 2016 class is 4-star Georgia product and current South Carolina commitment Kyle Davis

The 6’3”, 220-pounder—who could play receiver or safety at the next level—earned an offer from Auburn last week.

According to Keith Niebuhr of AuburnUndercover, Davis was excited about his newest offer.

"I like the environment there," Davis told Niebuhr. "I love the coaches. Everything is just nice down there. And it's like two hours away so it's close."

While he’s still committed to Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks, Auburn joins Georgia as fellow SEC powers hoping to get Davis to flip his original pledge.

 

Best of the Rest

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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College Football Championship 2015: Predictions for Top Playoff Matchups

Enjoy bowl season while it lasts, because it's about to be College Football Playoff season.

Sure, the bowl games continue all through New Year's Day, even with a couple of games after the duo of CFP semifinals. But as we near the end of 2014 and the start of 2015, the focus will be shifting almost entirely to the first-ever four-team playoff—as if the focus hasn't been there over the last few weeks as it is.

But now that only a few days separate us from college football history, it's officially time to study up on the games if you haven't already.

In order to do just that, take a look below.

 

 

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 28

 

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

Having an undefeated record might be the only thing Florida State can boast over Oregon as the two get ready for a shootout at the Rose Bowl.

Yes, the Ducks have a lone blemish on their record with a home loss to Arizona. But along with remedying that loss in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Oregon has absolutely bludgeoned every opponent it has faced.

The Ducks only have one win by single digits, back in September. Ever since the loss to the Wildcats, they've outscored every opponent by at least double-digits. Meanwhile, seven of Florida State's wins came by six points or fewer—most in ugly fashion.

Along with a different style of winning, FSU has a much less careful offense in the passing game. Although both quarterbacks have Heisman Trophies, Jameis Winston has struggled mightily in 2014 with 17 interceptions while Marcus Mariota has taken care of the ball much better, as ESPN SportsCenter shows:

The loss of star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has the Oregon secondary scrambling, but Troy Hill seems more than ready to fill in as the No. 1 corner and cover FSU's Rashad Greene. Hill isn't scared of filling Ekpre-Olomu's shoes.

"I always treat it like I'm the No. 1, he's the No. 1," Hill told The Oregonian's Tyson Alger. "I always feel like I play to his standard. He's the leader. He set the role and we all try to play up to his level so we all felt like we were No. 1 on that secondary." 

The loss of Ekpre-Olomu will hurt, but not enough to keep Oregon from forcing a couple of Winston turnovers. That alone will be enough to allow Mariota the possessions necessary to get out to an early lead, forcing the 'Noles to play from behind all game.

They're used to playing from behind, but Oregon is also used to putting away opponents when it has the opportunity. The Ducks won't waste that opportunity at the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: Oregon 41, FSU 30

 

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

Two high-octane, high-powered offenses will meet in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, but Alabama and Ohio State pose very different and unique problems on each end.

For the Buckeyes, their defense knows what is coming. 

The Crimson Tide offense has been hurling fire all season with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin putting Blake Sims in positions to be successful. That's not very hard to do when you have Amari Cooper on the outside and a burly running game with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

Ohio State doesn't have slouches on the defensive side, though, as Joey Bosa and Joshua Perry are ready to take them on. Bosa said as much to Jeff Svobada of Scout.com:

The Buckeyes can look to a year of film to know what to expect, but it's not that simple for Alabama. The Tide have to prepare for sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones, who played great against Wisconsin after being thrust into action following injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett.

There's nothing that would help him out more than a big day from Ezekiel Elliott, who scampered for more than 200 yards in Jones' first start. Jim Dunaway of JoxFM.com noted Ezekiel's pregame thoughts:

Although Elliott ran wild against a Wisconsin run defense that was among the nation's best before then, doing the same against Alabama will be impossible. The Crimson Tide boast the nation's best run defense, giving up just 88.7 yards per game on the ground.

Jones will have success against a susceptible Alabama secondary that was torched the last two times out, but it won't be enough to overcome the Tide offense. Sims and Co. will be slowed throughout some of the game, but will emerge on a couple of late touchdown drives to seal the deal.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Bleacher Report's Expert Picks for College Football Playoff

It's finally here. 

The playoff many college football fans so desperately called for kicks off on New Year's Day. 

Who will win? 

No. 2 Oregon or No. 3 Florida State will be the first to punch their ticket to the national championship. The Ducks and Seminoles will square off in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California at 5 p.m. ET. 

The previous two Heisman Trophy winners will try to lead their teams to victory in what should be a thrilling game. The matchup of Oregon QB Marcus Mariota vs. Florida State QB Jameis Winston has been debated ad nauseam. We'll soon find out which one will prevail as the better quarterback. 

Following that game, No. 1 Alabama will battle No. 4 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana at 8:30 p.m. ET. 

Nobody thought Cardale Jones would see playing time this year, but having led the Buckeyes to the Big Ten championship, the sophomore quarterback has proved he can shine in the big moments. 

Jones will face a tough challenge competing against a Nick Saban-coached defense though. With several weeks to prepare, there is no doubt the Crimson Tide will be ready to roll. 

The question is can Urban Meyer outduel Saban? 

Bleacher Report's experts have made picks against the spread all season long and now offer up their selections for the biggest games of the year.

Who will be right? 

Let us know your picks in the comments below. 

 

Odds via lines from Odds Shark.

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Can Ohio State Finally End the SEC's College Football Dominance?

On January 8, 2007, Ohio State triggered the SEC's college football dominance when it fell to Florida in a 41-14 rout in the BCS National Championship Game. 

The Buckeyes will get a chance to end that eight-year streak of championship appearances on New Year's Day, when they face top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal hosted by the Sugar Bowl. 

Members of the Ohio State football team are eager for that opportunity.

“It is definitely a game where a statement will be made,” Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott said, according to Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors. “The Big Ten is looked at as one of the weaker conferences and the SEC is one of the most dominant ones, we have a lot to prove in this game.”

The Buckeyes, shaping up as a figurative David to Alabama's Goliath, will come into the game as 9.5-point underdogs. Despite coming off an historic 59-0 beatdown over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, the oddsmakers don't expect Ohio State to keep pace with the Crimson Tide.

Is that because Alabama simply plays at a higher level—both as a team and as the result of its conference affiliation?

Many seem to think so. In fact, RealTimeRPI.com ranks the SEC as college football's top conference, while the Big Ten is listed fifth among the Power Five leagues. 

But when you ask Joey Bosa—Ohio State's unanimous first-team All-American defensive end—he feels a little differently. 

“What is SEC-caliber, really? Big Ten-caliber? How about that?” Bosa asked, according to Todd Porter of The Canton Rep.

Really, though, how about that?

The Buckeyes got off to a slow start this season—struggling against a pesky Navy squad before falling to a bad Virginia Tech team at home. But Ohio State has been on fire since then, averaging 49.4 points in its last 11 games. 

And while the Big Ten doesn't have the greatest reputation, the conference produces some of the nation's strongest defenses. Ohio State played four teams that ranked in the top 10 in total defense this season (Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin) and averaged 45.3 points and 458.8 yards per game. 

The Buckeyes believe that they're one of the top teams in the country.

“It’s just two powerhouses … with a chance to duke it out,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Mike Bennett said, via Porter. “I think it’s very important to find out who has the better conference.”

How does Nick Saban view Ohio State and the conference it plays in?

Back in 2012, the unbeaten Buckeyes were banned from postseason play, which opened the door for the Tide to face off against Notre Dame in the national championship. The Tide rolled to a 42-14 victory over the Fighting Irish, winning their third national title in four years.

The following May, Saban was asked about his thoughts on Ohio State and how it would fare if the Buckeyes had to play in the SEC. His response was surprisingly candid.

Can the Buckeyes show Saban that they belong in the same conversation as the Tide? Can they prevent the SEC from winning a national title for the second consecutive year after the conference had won seven straight between 2006-12?

If you ask Buckeyes receiver Devin Smith, that's the plan.

"Meyer told us don’t worry about what other people have to say," Smith said, according to Tim Showmaker of Eleven Warriors. "He believes we’re not an underdog and he wants us to go show people we’re not an underdog."

 

All stats via NCAA.com and B/R research.

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

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B/R CFB 250: Top 25 Running Backs

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football. Brian Leigh and Kynon Codrington have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list down to a mere quarter-thousand and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top 25 Running Backs.

Other CFB 250 Positions

The NFL has devalued running backs, declaring that the position is fungible. No running back was selected in the first round of last year's draft, and contracts at the position have dwindled.

Here in college, however, running backs are just as strong as ever.

Maybe even stronger.

More than just strong, college running backs are well-stocked for the future. Five of the top 18 players on this list were true freshmen in 2014, and so was No. 22. As good as this year was for running backs, it only stands to get better in 2015 and 2016.

Before we start, please take note that these players were graded as college running backs, not on how they project as NFL running backs.

Targeted skills such as agility are important at both levels, but there is a difference between college agility and professional agility. If a running back can make people miss in the SEC or the Big 12, it doesn't matter that he can't make people miss in the NFC North. At least here, it doesn't.

This is all about college performance.

Note: If two players finished with the same grade, a subjective call was made based on whom we would rather have on our team right now.

Begin Slideshow

Cotton Bowl 2015: Examining Key Stats and Matchups for Baylor vs. Michigan State

There's a saying in the realm of combat sports that directly applies to the 2015 Cotton Bowl—styles make fights. 

In this case, the collision between Baylor and Michigan State's intrigue comes from extremely contrasting styles. 

In one corner, you have Baylor. The Big 12 human Lamborghini, reeling off 91.4 offensive plays per game, according to TeamRankings.com. With their flashy golden chrome helmets and high-flying offensive attack, the Bears are every Big 12 stereotype rolled into one explosive football team. 

In the other corner, you have Michigan State. The personification of every Big Ten stereotype. With a skilled offensive line, pro-style quarterback and a bell cow at running back, the Spartans prefer to bludgeon their opponents with a plodding pace that ranked 108th in plays per minute, per CFBMatrix.com.

Yet, despite the major differences in styles, both teams have been successful this season. Here's a look at the key statistics and matchups that will determine who comes out on top in this intriguing New Year's Day game. 

 

Pace of Play: Will Michigan State Be Able to Keep Up With Baylor's Pace?

Obviously, the pace of play jumps out as a predominant storyline for this bowl matchup. Looking at the per-minute and per-game statistics, Michigan State will face a challenge that even Oregon didn't fully emulate in its regular-season matchup:

The good news for the Spartans is that their defense can boast their own pace-of-play ranking. Michigan State ranks third in terms of fewest plays per game. That's because Pat Narduzzi's defense has been excellent at forcing three-and-outs this season. 

That being said, Narduzzi knows that the pace is something his defense needs to see in practice to be ready come Jan. 1, via Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News:

'We've got them snapping the ball anywhere between 10 and 17 seconds on normal downs,' Narduzzi said. 'Oregon was not that fast. Oregon was in the 22s. … This is the fastest team that we've seen. Probably compared to an Indiana two years ago when we played and got surprised in that first half. Like, we didn't practice this fast. We were practicing at warp speed right now, even in individual doing drills. So our kids will be conditioned for it. That's what I think makes it.'

Still, conditioning has to be a concern for Michigan State. Looking back all the way to its loss against Oregon, the Spartans were outscored 28-3 in the second half as the Ducks took over in a big way. Their second-half showing against Ohio State was much more encouraging, but they were still outscored, 21-16.

 

Jeremy Langford vs. Baylor Run Defense

It's no secret that Michigan State is going to look to get Jeremy Langford involved in the offense. The senior running back was 17th in the nation in rushing attempts this season with 249. Connor Cook is a catalyst for big plays, but Langford makes the offense tick. 

As Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network points out, Langford has had impressive consistency within the Big Ten conference:

However, Langford hasn't seen a run defense as effective as the Bears'. Baylor is allowing just 2.94 yards per carry, which means that Langford and the Spartans offensive line will need to fight for every yard they earn in the Cotton Bowl. 

The talented back will have unprecedented success if he hits the century mark on the day. Baylor hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. 

 

What the Overall Metrics and Odds Say

The beauty of bowl games is that oddsmakers and analysts have the largest sample size from which to make their predictions. Here's a look at how the two teams stack up comparatively in some of the more widely known metrics and the latest odds.

Metrics used include F/+ rankings via Football Outsiders, Predictive Ranking via TeamRankings.com, Ed Feng's Power Rank and ESPN's FPI. Odds via Odds Shark. 

Looking at what the metrics have to say, there's a common theme. Baylor is favored at least by a small margin no matter how you slice the game. However, Michigan State has been one of the few strong representatives for its conference in recent bowl seasons, as Paul Myerberg notes:

Ultimately, the difference could come down to which of these teams have proven an ability to win big games. That's Baylor. While Michigan State faded in both of its opportunities to win on a national stage (losses to Ohio State and Oregon), Baylor thrived in its biggest showcases. The Bears scored 24 straight points to beat TCU, throttled Oklahoma and beat Kansas State comfortably. 

That big-game experience should come in handy against a Michigan State team who is just a little shy of being a part of the upper echelon of college football teams this season. 

Prediction: Baylor 38, Michigan State 28

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Schedule, Players to Watch in Boise State vs. Arizona

The 2014-15 college football bowl season has already treated fans to plenty of offensive fireworks, staving off the creeping feeling that the non-College Football Playoff postseason affairs would fade into irrelevancy with the new system in place.

For fans eager for what could be another explosive contest, look no further than Boise State vs. Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.

Both teams feature remarkably balanced offenses. Boise State averages 39.8 points per game, while Arizona scores 34.8 points per contest.

The defenses for both sides don't particularly stand out among the other top units in the vast college football landscape, which could make for an entertaining, high-scoring duel.

Arizona, by virtue of playing in the Pac-12, has faced much tougher competition this season, but the Broncos should come out ready to showcase their talent and remind everyone the Power Five conferences don't hold all the cards.

Spectacular individual performances should abound in this contest, but it's best to key in on a select few who will have a significant impact on this game.

Here is a look at the viewing schedule for the Fiesta Bowl, followed by a quick rundown of three players to watch on Wednesday.

 

 

Fiesta Bowl 2014 Schedule

Matchup: Boise State vs. Arizona

When: Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

  

Players to Watch

Jay Ajayi

Boise State features a number of talented players on offense, but the entire attack flows through running back Jay Ajayi, an elusive runner with ball-bearing joints and excellent power contained within his 6'0", 216-pound frame.

The junior's numbers stacked up with those of some of the best backs in the nation. Especially when it comes to getting involved in the passing game, where Ajayi blows away the other top rusher's numbers.

He's a true menace in the red zone and will be key to the Broncos' chances of staying in this competition early on as they establish a presence. Twenty-three of Ajayi's touchdowns came within 19 yards of the end zone, per ESPN.com.

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projects him to go in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft:

Considering this is Ajayi's last game at Boise State, fans who haven't yet had the pleasure of watching him tear up colleges defenses need to tune in. There's no telling what his pro career holds, and greatness can be fleeting.

Ajayi is one college player you don't want to miss.

 

Scooby Wright III

The Wildcats defense is hardly special, but it does feature one truly elite player in linebacker Scooby Wright III. The sophomore linebacker had a truly bonkers season from a statistical standpoint.

The highlight of his collegiate career thus far was undoubtedly his strip sack and fumble recovery of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in 'Zona's 31-24 win over the Pac-12 champs on Oct. 2.

Wright's hard-nosed, intense playing style stems from a desire to prove his doubters wrong, as he was just a 2-star recruit coming out of high school, via Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:

As a recruit two years ago, Wright was deemed a two-star prospect. Deep down he hated it, but in a way he loves it now. Wright uses it. The whole "TwoStarScoob" thing serves as a constant reminder of a time when no one expected him to be great or even wanted him on their football team. Thanks to a whole lot of grit, Wright’s proved all those naysayers wrong. 

"I definitely had a chip on my shoulder 'cause I always wanted to play with great pride," he said. "It definitely motivated me to extra work and prove all the doubters wrong."

At this point, Wright's name probably pops up at the top of every opponent's scouting report. The awards brigade has taken notice of his extraordinary season, as well. Wright won the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards this year and was named a unanimous All-American.

It won't be easy, but if Wright can pop up in key moments and perhaps force a turnover or two, he could very well be the player who saves the game for Arizona.

 

Grant Hedrick

Arizona's Anu Solomon had a superb season at quarterback, so don't expect him to have trouble putting together a solid game through the air. That makes Boise State's Grant Hedrick the signal-caller to watch.

Hedrick is a solid passer who completed 270 of 381 passes for 3,387 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He's also proven to be quite adept at running the ball, racking up 563 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

His composure in this contest will be key to the Broncos' ability to keep pace with the Wildcats' high-octane attack, the brainchild of head coach Rich Rodriguez.

Hedrick was mostly cool and composed this season but did have a couple of truly bad performances.

He threw four interceptions against both Ole Miss and Air Force, the only two teams to beat the Broncos this season. He has been mostly brilliant in the latter half of the season, however, posting efficiency ratings above 200 in three of the team's last six games.

Considering the Broncos are unlikely to stifle Arizona's attack, Hedrick will have to put his best foot forward in this contest to give Boise State a shot at winning.

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Rose Bowl 2015: Latest Odds, Final-Score Prediction for Oregon vs. FSU

When the No. 2 Oregon Ducks square off against the No. 3 Florida State Seminoles in the 2015 Rose Bowl, college football fans will be treated to one of the most anticipated and entertaining matchups of the entire season.

Oregon has been an offensive juggernaut all season, but Florida State has shown the tenacity needed to pull out victories in close matchups. Add in the history of the Rose Bowl, and the battle between the Ducks and the Seminoles is must-watch television.

Here are the latest odds and a final-score prediction for the 2015 Rose Bowl.

 

*Betting information via OddsShark.com.

 

Breaking Down Oregon vs. Florida State

The battle between Oregon and Florida State is one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire bowl season. Not only will the matchup take place in the famed Rose Bowl arena, but it will also be the first ever semifinal matchup in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Ducks come into the postseason with the third-ranked offensive unit, averaging an astounding 46.3 points per game. With the 11th-ranked pass attack and the 22nd-ranked rushing game (308.9 and 237.3 yards per game respectively), Oregon will be the most talented offensive unit the Seminoles have faced all season.

Dan Greenspan of The Associated Press shared Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum’s comments about the Seminoles:

Florida State linebacker Reggie Northrup spoke to Natalie Pierre of AL.com about the matchup against the Ducks, saying, “Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. Oregon, they're a great team. There's a lot of stuff we see that's pretty exciting. We're excited to play them, there's a lot of stuff that we see that we'll have an edge on.”

As good as the Ducks have been offensively, the program’s defensive unit will be pushed to its limit against Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense. While the running game has been inconsistent, the team enters the semifinals ranked 14th in the nation in passing yards with 299.8 per game.

The Seminoles will square off against Oregon’s 29th-ranked defense, allowing just 22.5 points per game, but Florida State’s 30th-ranked defense deserves as much credit. While Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota will give his team the slight edge, there is no doubt this will be a close battle.

College football fans can’t miss this Rose Bowl matchup.

Predicted Final Score: Oregon 33, Florida State 30

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Players to Watch in Alabama vs. Ohio State Matchup

Football is a team sport, and with 11 men battling one another on each side of the field, it's rare that one individual player can completely tip the scales in favor of his side.

Still, in every contest there are a few players who are a bit more important than others. Maybe they play a key position or are a star performer. Perhaps they are an inexperienced player thrust into the spotlight or a player that has the ability to capitalize on an opponent's weakness. 

Whatever the case may be, every game has a few players absolutely worth paying close attention to from the opening kick. Let's break down three of those players from this year's Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State.

 

Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State

Ohio State seemed doomed. For much of the season, its poor loss to Virginia Tech seemed like it would be the resume-killer that kept it out of the College Football Playoff. But it kept on winning big games, and it kept on looking better and better.

And then it happened. Heisman candidate and star quarterback J.T. Barrett—who, keep in mind, was supposed to be Braxton Miller's backup coming into this season—was injured in Ohio State's 42-28 victory over Michigan, a game before the Big Ten championship. 

The questions came flying in fast and furiously. Could Cardale Jones lead the Buckeyes past Wisconsin? Would the committee look less favorably on the Buckeyes with a backup quarterback in place for the rest of the season? Would Ohio State be the same team without Barrett. 

It turns out the team was just fine. Jones thew for 257 yards and three touchdowns, Ohio State cruised to a 59-0 win and the Buckeyes were headed to the playoff. 

That was Wisconsin, however. This is Alabama. This is a ferocious SEC defense that has chewed up and spit out talented quarterbacks in the past. This is a Nick Saban-led team that is no stranger to huge games. This is the biggest game of this young man's career.

How Jones deals with all of that will likely dictate the outcome of this game. If he is cool, composed and manages the offense, the Buckeyes should be in this game. If Jones tries to do too much, however, or if he's rattled early on and never finds a rhythm, Alabama is good enough to crush Ohio State.

Ohio State is used to being doubted this season. So is Jones. Never has there been a better time to prove all of the doubters wrong once and for all.

 

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

There might not be a more valuable player to his team than Amari Cooper was to Alabama this season. With Lane Kiffin running the offense and adding more of a passing flair to Alabama, it was Cooper who absolutely thrived, catching 115 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Ohio State can't allow Cooper to take over the game. Just ask Auburn, which watched him catch 13 passes for 224 yards and three scores in his signature performance of the season. Or Florida, which saw him catch 10 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Texas A&M watched him catch eight passes for 140 yards and two scores. And against Tennessee, he caught nine passes for 224 yards and two scores.

Cooper has the ability to dominate any given game. If he does so against Ohio State, it's hard to see the Buckeyes winning this one.

 

Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

There haven't been many defensive players much more dominant down the stretch of the 2013 season than Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett. In his last five games, he has registered five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

It turns out he saved his best for last as in those five games, Ohio State beat Michigan State and Minnesota on the road and crushed Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

Bennett isn't entirely sure why he has heated up so much down the stretch, as he told Austin Ward of ESPN:

I don’t really know what caused the change. I think it was Michigan State week, that was probably when it was the biggest difference. I think I played good football up until Michigan State week, but I think once they moved me to just straight three-technique and said, 'Go do what we know you can do,' I think that made me a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident than playing a new position. 

I don’t know, I was able to feed off my teammates and we just started gelling and things started working out.

Indeed, consistently playing the same role at defensive tackle likely has contributed to his excellent form. Ward also suggested that Bennett became a more dedicated practice player and gave even more effort on game days. Perhaps the senior captain decided he simply wanted to go out with a bang this year and help lead Ohio State to a national championship.

Whatever the case may be, Bennett has become a disruptive, dominant force on the defensive line and is the one Ohio State defensive player that might be able to slow down Alabama's efficient, balanced offense. If he's as dominant as he was to finish the regular season, the Buckeyes are going to be tough to beat.

 

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Tennessee Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

Having Tennessee commitments in the high school All-America games over the holidays has become a staple during Butch Jones' two full recruiting cycles as the Volunteers' head football coach.

This season is no different.

The Vols have nine current commitments participating in the two established high school showcases—the Under Armour All-America Game and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Three more UT commits are in the two other all-star games.

Numerous other targets will be playing in those games as well, and at least three UT targets could announce their college of choice during the televised contests. 

Here's a list of the All-America games and the players to watch for all you Tennessee fans.

 

Under Armour All-America Game

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida; Friday, Jan. 2, 4 p.m. Eastern time 
TV: ESPN2

This is the big one to watch if you're a Tennessee fan. The only problem is you probably won't be watching it live.

It is scheduled to start just 40 minutes after the Vols kick off in the TaxSlayer Bowl against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Still, it may not be a bad idea to set your DVR, as six UT commits and other targets are playing.

 

Commits

Preston Williams 6'4", 191-pound WR Hampton, Georgia

Williams won't play due to a knee injury suffered during the regular season, which is a shame considering the 5-star talent and the nation's fifth-ranked receiver could have had another opportunity to showcase his skills against the nation's best on national television. 

 

Shy Tuttle 6'3", 320-pound DT Lexington, North Carolina

The Vols desperately needed to shore up the interior of the defensive line this season, and they did so with the additions of 5-star Kahlil McKenzie and Tuttle, a highly ranked 4-star player who has the potential to be a disruptive force on the inside. After performing well for the North Carolina squad in the Shrine Bowl, the quiet Tuttle will try to make some noise in St. Pete. After the game, he'll head to Knoxville as an early enrollee.

 

Andrew Butcher 6'2", 242-pound DE Alpharetta, Georgia

After an outstanding senior season that saw him win Defensive Player of the Year honors in one of the most dominant regions in the state of Georgia as well as first-team all-state, Butcher will be roaming the defensive front with Tuttle. He is also slated to be an early enrollee in Knoxville, and he has the potential to make an immediate impact for UT.

 

Micah Abernathy 6'1", 187-pound CB Norcross, Georgia

Abernathy is a rangy cornerback who chose the Vols over in-state Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama and others. He represents yet another massive win for Jones in the state, and he's the third Georgia boy who'll head to UT playing in this game. He is a dynamic athlete who is somewhat new to the cornerback position, so it'll be interesting to see where he plays in this game.

 

Jack Jones 6'5", 290-pound OT Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Jones is one of the offensive linemen who'll probably be counted on early in Knoxville out of necessity. With the Vols desperately needing offensive tackles to come in and at least provide depth in 2015, Jones will get an extended look once he arrives on campus. This will be a good opportunity to see whether he's athletic enough to battle those long, talented defensive ends.

 

Marques Ford 6'4", 220-pound DE Gibsonton, Florida

Though he didn't receive any offers from the "Big Three" in Florida or have the big sheet that a lot of talented Florida defenders boast during the recruiting process, UT believes it got a steal in Ford. He wasn't highly regarded when he chose the Vols over Rutgers, Arkansas, Boston College and others. But after a strong senior season, he got invited to a high-profile all-star game, and it'll be interesting to see how the defender stacks up. He is yet another UT defensive lineman who'll be on the field.

 

Targets

Vols fans also may want to watch a long-shot target in the game, though it's unlikely he will be playing in Knoxville.

Memphis University School offensive tackle Drew Richmond was one of Tennessee's top targets in the 2015 class for more than a year, but he spurned the Vols to commit to Ole Miss. He has seemed solid since that pledge, and there doesn't appear to be any movement between Richmond and UT.

But it'll be interesting to see how he performs on such a high level. Tennessee fans will be watching to see what they missed out on.

 

U.S. Army All-American Bowl

Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas; Saturday, Jan. 3, 1 p.m. Eastern time 
TV: NBC

 

Commits

Kahlil McKenzie 6'4", 319-pound DT Concord, California

The jewel of Tennessee's class and a future defensive cornerstone will be on display on the West squad in the form of defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie.

He's the nation's 10th-ranked overall player in the class, and though he didn't play his senior season due to transfer rules in California, he's expected to immediately help the Vols. It's going to be interesting to see how the layoff affected him.

 

Darrin Kirkland Jr. 6'2", 235-pound MLB Indianapolis, Indiana

One of the biggest coups for UT came after Michigan coach Brady Hoke was fired. That's when middle linebacker Kirkland re-opened his recruitment. He ultimately chose the Vols over Texas and Ole Miss, among many other offers, and he will have a golden opportunity to replace A.J. Johnson in the middle of UT's defense as a true freshman.

He has the sideline-to-sideline speed and the tackling ability to help right away, and he'll line up on the second level behind McKenzie for the West. Despite all the Jim Harbaugh talk swirling around his former destination, the midterm enrollee told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that he's solid to UT.

 

Tommy Townsend 6'1", 175-pound P Orlando, Florida

Another player who will have the opportunity to step in and start for the Vols is Townsend. UT loses senior punter Matt Darr to graduation, and it has no clear-cut leader to take over punting duties. Townsend—whose brother punts for the Florida Gators—has the skills to fill that role.

 

Targets

Everybody wants to know who Tennessee's biggest remaining target will pick, and currently, Nashville defensive end Kyle Phillips is slated to make his announcement during the game. Though UT has long been thought of as a favorite to land his services, most of the late movement in the 247Sports Crystal Ball points to LSU.

That would be a big blow to UT's strong class.

Another top target for the Vols is another defensive end: Fairburn, Georgia's D'Andre Walker. UT already has a strong haul on the defensive line, but landing either Phillips or Walker would make this arguably the best defensive line recruiting class in school history.

Walker told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that he also was going to announce during the all-star game between Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn. Signing him or Phillips would be a major score for UT.

 

Other All-America Games

The Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl will be televised by FoxSports1 on Jan. 4 at 9 p.m., and it will be worth watching for Tennessee fans.

Stud defensive end commitment Darrell Taylor will be playing in the game as well as offensive line targets Patrick Allen and Mike Horton as well as quarterback target Sheriron Jones.

Jones, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), "recently has emerged as a top priority for Tennessee and has referred to the Vols as his leader since parting ways with the Gators."

While Phillips may be the biggest name left on Tennessee's board, Allen is arguably more important. With offensive coordinator Mike Bobo leaving Georgia to be the head coach at Colorado State and taking O-line coach Will Friend to be his offensive coordinator, Allen is far from solid on his Georgia commitment.

He was originally scheduled to announce his final decision between UT and UGA during the game, but Callahan said it's unclear whether he'll follow through with that decision.

Midstate UT commits Kyle Oliver and Vincent Perry will play in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl along with Miami commit and UT offensive line target Tyree St. Louis, but that game is not televised.

 

All recruiting information gathered from the 247Sports composite rankings, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Music City Bowl 2014: Notre Dame vs. LSU TV Info, Spread, Time and Injury News

LSU and Notre Dame aren't supposed to be in Nashville on Dec. 30.

The Tigers and the Fighting Irish are two of the most recognizable and prestigious teams in the country, and the goal is almost always national title or bust entering a new season. Alas, both teams struggled to put away the elite opponents on their schedules and ended up with a disappointing nine losses between them.

That means college football fans are in for an early treat before the bigger bowls start. 

Here is a look at the essential information for this showdown.

 

2014 Music City Bowl

Matchup: LSU vs. Notre Dame

Date: Tuesday, Dec. 30

Time: 3 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Spread: LSU -7 (via Odds Shark, as of Sunday at 9 a.m. ET)

 

Injury Report (via USA Today)

 

Preview

There was a time during the regular season when both Notre Dame and LSU were ranked in the Top 10. However, heartbreaking losses to Florida State and Alabama, respectively, sent their seasons into tailspins down the stretch (Notre Dame lost five of six to end the year, and LSU lost two of its last three).

The winner of this bowl game will feel better about the 2015 campaign on the horizon.

When LSU has the ball, it is one of the more one-dimensional teams in the country, at least in terms of the Power Five conferences.

It finished an abysmal 116th in the nation in passing yards per game but an impressive 29th in rushing yards per game thanks largely to the running back rotation of Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns), Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards and three touchdowns) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards and six touchdowns).

The unbalanced attack resulted in a middle-of-the-road group that scored only seven points against Auburn, 10 points against Ole Miss, 13 points against Alabama and zero points against Arkansas.

A game against the porous Notre Dame defense may be exactly what the Tigers need.

The Fighting Irish allowed 291 points in their last seven games and finished 86th in the country in points allowed per game. They gave up 55 to Arizona State, 49 to USC, 43 to North Carolina and 43 to Northwestern.

Head coach Brian Kelly understands that his offense needs to keep the vulnerable defense off the field, according to Stats LLC, via ESPN.com: "We'll have to do a great job of keeping our defense off the field, and our offense has a lot to say about what goes on there. These are important practices and we're better at (the quarterback) position because of it."

If the Fighting Irish are going to do that, they will need a solid day from the quarterback duo of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Golson finished with an impressive 3,355 yards and 29 touchdowns, but he also threw 14 interceptions and coughed it up 22 times. Thanks to that turnover inclination, Notre Dame will split time between the two quarterbacks against LSU. 

That could be a problem against an opportunistic Tigers defense. LSU finished fourth in passing yards allowed, eighth in total yards allowed and third in scoring defense. It also won't be caught off guard by either quarterback, as JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago noted:

Notre Dame is also fairly one-dimensional. It is 16th in passing yards per game and 84th in rushing yards per game.

The Tigers will pin their ears back and attack the mistake-prone Golson or the inexperienced Zaire and make life difficult for either signal-caller. The Fighting Irish do not boast a formidable enough running game to take the pressure off the quarterbacks, which means the Tigers defense should put its offense in ideal positions to score.

Look for Fournette to respond accordingly against Notre Dame’s weak defense. He will rack up critical second-half scores on the way to a victory as the Fighting Irish struggle to keep up. 

Prediction: LSU 28, Notre Dame 17

 

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Foster Farms Bowl 2014: Maryland vs. Stanford TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Both Stanford and Maryland finished with 7-5 records in power conferences, but you would never know it by looking at the point spread.

Stanford from the Pac-12 is a heavy favorite over Maryland from the Big Ten, and it will attempt to unleash its dominant defense on an overmatched Terrapins squad. Whether a middle-of-the-road Maryland offense can respond remains to be seen.

Here is a look at the essential information for the showdown.

 

2014 Foster Farms Bowl

Matchup: Maryland vs. Stanford

Date: Tuesday, Dec. 30

Time: 10 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Spread: Stanford -14 (via Odds Shark, as of Sunday at 11 a.m. ET)

 

Injury Report (via USA Today)

 

Preview

While Stanford was able to reach a bowl game, it fell short of the Rose Bowl because of struggles against the impressive teams on its schedule. 

The Cardinal lost to USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah, and any criticism launched their way was justified. However, they at least partially responded to that criticism in a loud way in the regular-season finale at UCLA with a 31-10 win.

David Shaw discussed some of the ups and downs for his team, according to Stats LLC, via ESPN.com: "They're excited. They understand what this is. They understand this is something that we earned by how we played, positively and negatively. Now it's a chance to go back and play one more game in a great stadium. And hopefully in front of a loud home crowd."

As for Maryland, it lost to West Virginia and was blown out by Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. That same type of struggles-against-good-teams criticism would be fair regarding the Terrapins as well.

Maryland could struggle once again against quality competition in this bowl game because of Stanford’s elite defense.

The Cardinal finished the season second in points allowed, fifth in total defense, 11th against the run and seventh against the pass, and they had their way with the majority of offenses they faced this season.

The Terrapins will attempt to counter with quarterback C.J. Brown, who led his team in rushing attempts (148), rushing yards (569) and rushing touchdowns (seven). However, he struggled in the throwing department and was eighth in the Big Ten with 173.6 passing yards per game.

If Maryland is going to pull off the upset, superstar wide receiver Stefon Diggs has to step up. He has been out since Nov. 1 but should return as the Terrapins' top weapon with the speed to break a game open in one play.

Still, Maryland fans hoping to see Diggs returning kicks again may be in for a disappointment, according to Matt Zenitz of The Baltimore Sun:

With a limited Diggs for a portion of the year and a lack of an established running game outside of Brown, Maryland finished the season 73rd in passing, 105th in rushing and 67th in scoring. Those are not exactly the types of numbers the program needs to compete with the likes of Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

Maryland isn’t the only team in this bowl game with a middling offense, though.

The Cardinal were last in the Pac-12 with 386.5 yards per game, but they were better down the stretch. Stanford tallied 854 yards in the final two games thanks largely to a rushing attack that passed 200 yards on the ground in each one.

Running back Remound Wright scored six touchdowns in that two-game stretch, while quarterback Kevin Hogan added 92 yards of his own on the ground.

That could be a problem for a Maryland defense that allowed more than 200 rushing yards a game and struggled to contain the offenses of Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Maryland’s defense struggled for much of the season against quality competition and finished 84th in the country in points allowed per game. The Cardinal are just hitting their stride on the offensive side and should be able to put up enough points for their stellar defense against a vulnerable Maryland group.

The return of Diggs will help the Terrapins keep this one closer than the point spread indicates, but Stanford, with its defense and red-hot offense, is simply a mismatch in this one. Chalk one up for the Pac-12. 

Prediction: Stanford 28, Maryland 17

 

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Belk Bowl 2014: Georgia vs. Louisville TV Info, Spread, Time, Injury News, More

There were times during the 2014 season that Georgia looked like a national championship contender. There was also the time when it allowed 38 points to the decidedly mediocre Florida offense.

The result is a mid-tier Dec. 30 bowl game in Charlotte against Louisville instead of the New Year’s Day or Eve contest Bulldogs fans were hoping for this season. While it may not be the game Georgia wanted, it gets a chance to make a statement against a fellow nationally ranked squad.

Here is a look at the essential information for the matchup between the Bulldogs and Cardinals.

 

2014 Belk Bowl

Matchup: Georgia vs. Louisville

Date: Tuesday, Dec. 30

Time: 6:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Spread: Georgia -6.5, via Odds Shark, as of Sunday at 10 a.m. ET

 

Injury Report (via USA Today)

 

Preview

The Belk Bowl is one of only four contests outside of the major bowls that pits two ranked teams against each other. It also represents a chance for both programs to reach double-digit victories.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino discussed the opportunity in front of his team, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN.com: "Yeah, we want to get to 10 wins. That's certainly something our seniors would be very proud of so they can look back at their career and see the double-digit winning seasons they've had." 

His Cardinals will have to deal with a powerful Georgia offense that finished 12th in the nation in rushing and eighth in scoring. While Todd Gurley won’t be lacing it up in this game, freshman running back Nick Chubb is a star in his own right with 1,281 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns.

Chris Low of ESPN noted just how effective the physically bruising Chubb has been this season:

The matchup between Georgia’s rushing attack and Louisville’s front seven, which was second in the country against the run, is the key showdown to watch in this contest.

If the Cardinals load up the box to stop the run, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason may have to make some plays with his arm. He only hit the 200-yard mark in three games, but he did manage 20 touchdown passes to only four interceptions.

Ball control will be critical for Mason against a Louisville defense that led the nation with 25 interceptions, thanks largely to safety Gerod Holliman, who racked up 14 picks on the way to the Jim Thorpe Award as the country’s best defensive back.

Louisville’s defense will need to come through because the Cardinals will be without running back Michael Dyer on the offensive side. The good news for Louisville is that four different players ran for at least 350 yards, so his absence won’t be crippling to the game plan.

Quarterback could be a bigger concern considering Will Gardner tore his ACL and Reggie Bonnafon hurt his knee in the final regular-season game. That means a less than 100 percent Bonnafon may split time with third-stringer Kyle Bolin.

Georgia’s offense gets most of the credit, but its defense was second in the nation against the pass and was 23rd in the country in scoring defense. The uncertainty for Louisville at the quarterback spot to go along with the absence of Dyer (which isn't devastating but does weaken the running back rotation) will be difficult to overcome against a solid Georgia defense.

This one will be close because of Louisville’s ability to stop the run and force turnovers on defense, but the Cardinals won’t have enough firepower to win at the end. Look for an SEC victory in this one. 

Prediction: Georgia 21, Louisville 13

 

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Georgia Football: Burning Questions Ahead of the Bulldogs' Bowl

We are only a few days away from the Georgia Bulldogs taking on the Louisville Cardinals in the Belk Bowl, and it has the makings to be one of the more compelling bowl games not being played on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

There has been a lot of news with both teams, but the Bulldogs have been in the spotlight more because of the coaching changes they have made recently. Also, the Bulldogs will be without a key defensive player that was expected to rush Louisville’s quarterback—whoever that may be.

It’s not the bowl game the Bulldogs wanted to play in, but they have a chance to finish the season strong and go into the 2015 season with some good momentum.

So here’s a look at five burning questions ahead of the Bulldogs' bowl game.

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College Football Playoffs 2015: Latest Odds and Predictions for Semifinals 2015

For the first time in history, college football's highest level will have a semifinal. The Rose and Sugar Bowls will take on even greater significance as they become the final proving grounds for the two teams who will play for the national championship. 

The playoff committee couldn't have asked for a more intriguing field of contenders, either.

Kicking off the tournament festivities will be the Rose Bowl matchup of Florida State vs. Oregon. In a rare occurrence, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks will face off as Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston try to lead their teams to the title game.  

Rounding out New Year's Day will be a matchup of two traditional college football powers. Ohio State and Alabama have a long history of being top powers in college football. Their Sugar Bowl matchup will add another chapter to both schools' storied traditions. 

Below is a look at the key (non-quarterback) player for each team along with the latest odds and a prediction as to who will wind up playing for the national championship. 

 

Oregon vs. Florida State

When: Jan. 1, 2015 at 5 p.m. ET

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Line: Oregon -9, per Odds Shark

 

Key Player for Florida State: Dalvin Cook, RB, Fr.

Yes, Winston will be key for the Seminoles. If the 2013 version of their star quarterback can show up, this is a different ballgame. But the key factor for Florida State could be freshman running back Dalvin Cook. 

The 200-pound back has become a serious staple of the offense and should play a big role in the Noles game plan against the Ducks. Oregon's run defense is nothing special. The 4.12 yards per carry it allows is good for just 57th in nation, according to CFBStats.com

That means that Florida State can help itself out by utilizing a steady dosage of Cook. Head coach Jimbo Fisher and Co. turned to the freshman 31 times in the run game against Georgia Tech en route to an ACC championship. He rewarded them with 177 yards and a touchdown. 

He also had five receptions for 43 yards for good measure. 

In an offense returning playmakers from a national champion, it could be the newcomer who makes the biggest impact for Florida State.

 

Key Player for Oregon: Chris Seisay, CB, Fr. 

The Oregon offense can score. That's a given since the offense has posted 45 points per game this season. The question for the Ducks is whether they can stop the Seminoles from keeping up. 

In order to do that, Oregon will need a big performance from an unfamiliar name in Chris Seisay. The redshirt freshman cornerback will be called upon to do that now that All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has been sidelined for the playoff with a knee injury

Seisay isn't completely inexperienced, though. He has been involved in the defensive rotation throughout the season and was heavily involved in the second half of the Michigan State game. His 6'1", 187-pound frame gave the Ducks a bigger option to work with in the secondary to go against the Spartans' tall receiving corps. 

Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal talked about his confidence level in Seisay even then, via Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

You know what happens sometimes is you're with guys for long periods of times and they get to play and you know in the back of your mind, 'If I put that guy in...'

I had (safety) John Boyett a long time ago and when TJ (Ward) got hurt, I put John Boyett in and I didn't blink an eye. I knew he'd do well and I feel the same way about Chris. He'll play more and more, he's a good player.

Fast-forward all the way to January, and Seisay will now be called upon to do even more. The Noles aren't nearly as deep at the receiver position as they were last season. After Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary, Florida State doesn't have any one receiver who stands out above the rest. 

However, it's likely that Winston will be looking to find the new starter and test him early and often. Whether Seisay is ready or not could be a huge factor in the early going. 

 

Prediction

It's easy to see why Oregon is a somewhat heavy favorite here—perception. 

Florida State has done itself no favors in the eye test this season. The Noles have had a bad habit of playing down to competition, with close games against the likes of North Carolina State and Florida serving as prime examples. 

Meanwhile, all Oregon has done is thrash opponents. Even the one team that defeated it didn't stand a chance in a rematch. The Ducks destroyed Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game, 51-13. 

However, the one number that doesn't align with Oregon being a heavy favorite in the game: zero. That's how many losses Florida State has this season—and last season for that matter. No matter how ugly, the Seminoles have always found a way to win. 

That's why it's difficult to envision them getting completely blown out of the water by Oregon. 

Oregon 38, Florida State 34

 

Ohio State vs. Alabama

When: Jan. 1, 2015 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Line: Alabama -9, via Odds Shark

 

Key Player for Ohio State: Devin Smith, WR, Sr. 

The 2014 Alabama defense isn't as ironclad as previous incarnations. If there's one unit that has proved it can be tested, it's the secondary. The Tide have allowed numerous wide receivers to have big days if those teams had the offensive lines to buy the quarterbacks enough time to throw it deep. 

The perfect receiver to disrupt the Alabama defense? Ohio State's Devin Smith. The senior wideout is among the best deep threats in the country. As Kevin Weidl of ESPN points out, he's a great combination of athleticism and ball skills:

Smith is coming off an all-time performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. With Cardale Jones making his first start at quarterback, the receiver pulled in four passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. 

With Alabama's defense already prone to giving up big plays in the passing game, it wouldn't be a shock to see Smith in the end zone at least once on New Year's Day. 

 

Key Player for Alabama: Austin Shepherd, OT, Sr. 

Alabama might be known for its wealth of talent along the defensive line, but it's the recruit that got away who could cause their own offense trouble in the Sugar Bowl. Joey Bosa has been a man among boys at defensive end for Ohio State.

The sophomore has been a one-man wrecking crew this season. He's anchored the defensive front with 20 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Now, he'll face one of the top offensive lines in the country.

As the right tackle, senior offensive lineman Austin Shepherd will be the one primarily responsible for slowing Bosa down. It's a task he's diligently preparing for. 

"I don't really think about who I'm playing against," Shepherd said, via Charlie Potter of 247Sports. "I kind of approach everybody the same way, so I'm not really thinking about the accolades. I'm just trying to look at how I can beat him every play."

Shepherd's mindset may sound a bit arrogant, but it's an approach that's worked for him and his fellow offensive linemen. The Tide's O-line has seen quite a few talented pass-rushers in the SEC this season with strong results. 

Shutting down Bosa will be another challenge altogether, but Shepherd is a proven commodity with the ability to test Bosa in a way that few have this season. 

Keeping Bosa away from quarterback Blake Sims and the Alabama stable of running backs will be vital for Bama to beat the Buckeyes. It'll be up to Shepherd to lead the way. 

 

Prediction

This is another game in which the line appears to have been impacted by perception. The Buckeyes might be a nationally recognized brand, but it can also claim just one bowl victory in the last seven years and three in the last decade. 

That's an established trend. However, there's reason to believe it could be bucked this year—or at the very least, they could come much closer than the wide spread would have you believe. 

The Buckeyes sit at No. 2 in Football Outsiders' F-Plus rankings and No. 3 in ESPN's Football Power Index metric. Of course, Alabama sits at No. 1 and No. 2 in those metrics, respectively, but the fact remains that there is objective data that points to these two teams being equal. 

That's enough to show that Ohio State has what it takes to make this game interesting. Paired with Devin Smith's ability to get behind the Alabama secondary, the Buckeyes have an opportunity to strike with big plays and even take an early lead. 

Still, this Alabama team has shown that it doesn't mind playing from behind. The Tide have won defensive battles along with shootouts. Expect them to come out on top in a game that is closer than expected. 

Alabama 28, Ohio State 23

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Former Third-String QB Cardale Jones Is Ohio State's Best Hope Against Alabama

NEW ORLEANS—Cardale Jones will be maimed. Cardale Jones' head will spin. Cardale Jones isn't scrappy enough, and he hasn't seen pressure. Cardale Jones isn't a precise thrower. Cardale Jones won't process the changing looks of a defense and get his team in the right play.

The Apocalypse is coming for Cardale Jones. This Thursday. Put it on your calendar.    

That's the blather before the battle, at least. But the fact is the Ohio State quarterback, who has started just one game in his college career, is the reason Ohio State has a chance against Alabama.

Two things gave Alabama's defense trouble this season: the deep ball and the read option. The Ohio State quarterback, a third-string guy not long ago, can throw the deep ball and can high-step through a defense, if it gives him the option.

Ohio State averages 260 yards rushing per game, but it will run the ball against Alabama's front six only if Jones completes some deep balls or barrels into the secondary on the read-option. The Crimson Tide are not going to let Ohio State throw those swing passes to spread them out so running back Ezekiel Elliott can run inside.

The Alabama defensive line is too good, which is the hallmark of the SEC and why the D-linemen in the SEC are called the Baddest Men on the Planet. The Buckeyes almost seem in awe of the size of the front they're about to see.

"You don't really get much movement off the line of scrimmage," Elliott said Sunday.

"Big, strong guys that can move," said left tackle Taylor Decker. "They aren't just space fillers. That is going to be a challenge as far as the offensive line is concerned, because it is the best we have faced so far."

So it will be up to Jones. Big on big. He's 6'5", 250 pounds., and Bama's behemoths are going to have to wrestle him to the ground.

Jones has to run for 85 yards and throw for 200 yards…or Ohio State is going to lose by two scores, or more.

 

 

Jones is the guy who tweeted two years ago, "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS" and now carries a 3.0 grade point average. He is a long way past being that knucklehead.

"It's been huge growing pain, my mature level was not where it needed to be coming into college, which is one of the reasons I went to military school," Jones said. "It's good to look back on it and see where I am now."

He wouldn't give in to the speculation of what a win Thursday night would mean for his career, given that Ohio State has two other quarterbacks with eligibility, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller, who have been dazzling in their careers. Jones said he doesn't see anything "drastic" happening, where one of the three would leave Ohio State because of the bottleneck.

Jones is 22 years old, which means he is older than Marcus Mariota, and he will be eligible for the NFL draft in January. He's been out of high school four years, so Ohio State is not sending some peach-fuzzed kid against Alabama. He's started one game, but he has something of a clue with all his practice reps, not to mention a seasoned quarterbacks coach in Tom Herman to guide him.

Maybe Jones is right when he says about the changing looks of Alabama's defense, "I don't think the different looks will be a problem for me, actually." 

If there is a film Ohio State can study, it is not just the Auburn game where the Tide were burned over and over by deep balls in the first half. It is the Tennessee game where the Vols' quarterback Joshua Dobbs ran 19 times for 75 yards, mostly on zone read plays. Alabama prefers to play two-deep and a nickel defense, and it takes a linebacker out of the middle of the field, which means there is no one there to account for the quarterback. Dobbs broke some big runs in Alabama's 34-20 victory by reading the Tide's defense and taking off.

"I think a lot of people got their eyes out of the wrong place, focusing on the pass, and a lot of times when spread out you don't have too many guys in the box like that," said Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones. "It leaves you vulnerable for those types of runs."

Kirby Smart, the Alabama defensive coordinator, said the Crimson Tide were not ready for Tennessee, which had just switched quarterbacks to the faster Dobbs. Is 'Bama ready for the long strides of Jones?

"He's a mystery. Really don't know exactly what all he can do or what kind of offense they're gonna have come game time, so we're just preparing for everything and anything," said Alabama safety Nick Perry. "You know they're gonna come out there with something different on game day and we just have to be able to adjust and go out there and execute."

All it will take for Alabama to bring a safety a little closer to the line is Jones long-striding out of the backfield after reading the defense and going for 20 yards. You know what happens next? Alabama commits a safety and Jones will show that powerful arm and throw it down the middle of the field to the acrobatic flyer, wide receiver Devin Smith.

The other thing Ohio State can do with Jones against the changing looks of the Alabama defense is to sprint him out and limit how much of the field he has to process. He is not as experienced as Barrett or Miller, but his arm is stronger and while they keep plays alive with their feet, he can keep plays alive with his brawn.

The inexperience worries Tom Herman, the Ohio State offensive coordinator, because the new guy always feels he has to do more. Trying to fire a ball into a receiver in the middle of the Alabama defense on third down can mean doom.

"I worried about that in the Big Ten championship game," Herman said. "Yeah, this week as well."

Herman should embrace an ambitious quarterback. He might have a real superstar on his hands for one game.

 

 

Just be careful before you go all-in against the Buckeyes.

A year ago, right here in the Sugar Bowl, with Alabama as the opponent, a quarterback made a name for himself. The stakes were much different, but Oklahoma's Trevor Knight had himself a night in the Superdome and no one expected that to happen with the kind of regular season he had been through.

In 2006, no one expected Urban Meyer's Florida team to beat Ohio State in the national championship game. The Gators thrashed the Buckeyes with a quarterback, Chris Leak, who had many insisted was ill-fitted for Meyer's offense.

The SEC defensive line that night mauled the Ohio State quarterback, Troy Smith, and the Buckeyes had no back-up plan. Cardale Jones, the Plan C quarterback, better be the remedy Thursday night when the SEC marauders come calling once again.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Braxton Miller Reportedly Interested in Transferring to Duke

Duke's season ended Saturday night with a 36-31 loss against Arizona State in the Sun Bowl, but potential interest from a 2015 Heisman candidate should help quell that disappointment.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is showing interest in the Blue Devils' rising program, according to sources cited by 247Sports' Adam Rowe:

Miller hasn't made official his intent to transfer away from the Buckeyes, but most believe it is inevitable.

After Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in August, J.T. Barrett filled in more than admirably—proving to be a legitimate Heisman contender himself. 

There simply isn't room for two of the best quarterbacks in the country, and many believe Miller will transfer, as he would be eligible to play right away. 

Sporting News' Matt Hayes put it simply:

As much as Miller loves playing for Ohio State, he has no other option but to leave for his final season if he wants to play in the NFL. He’s not helping his draft stock by sitting behind Barrett (because that’s where he’ll be), and he’s not getting critical repetitions against college football’s elite teams unless he transfers as a graduate student and plays somewhere else in 2015.

If Miller leaves, he would be one of the college football's biggest "free agents" ever. As such, it would be a massive get for David Cutcliffe and his staff.

Duke's football program has steadily been rising, but replacing Anthony Boone with Miller—a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who has run for 3,054 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career—would vault the Blue Devils into the nation's elite.

Should he choose to transfer, though, Miller will have his choice of some of the top teams in the nation, so it's probably best for Duke fans to pump the brakes a bit.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing possibility and potential game-changer for an up-and-coming program.

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Auburn Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

The eyes of Auburn fans everywhere will be locked onto Tampa this week as the Tigers wrap up their 2014 season on New Year's Day at the Outback Bowl.

But, after Gus Malzahn's team takes on Wisconsin, the attention will shift to nearby St. Petersburg and then San Antonio.

In St. Petersburg, one day after the Outback Bowl, the Under Armour All-America Game will kick off at Tropicana Field. The majority of Auburn's biggest remaining targets and current commitments will be playing in that game, from a pair of 5-star defensive ends to in-state star Kerryon Johnson.

However, in San Antonio's Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 3, the nation's No. 1 recruit will take the field. Auburn is a top school for his services, as well as another top offensive tackle and two more highly rated defensive ends.

With the two major games set to kick off this weekend, here is a look at Auburn's top targets and commitments who will be going up against some of the nation's best prospects.

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Ty Montgomery Injury: Updates on Stanford Star's Shoulder and Return

Ty Montgomery has played his last game at Stanford. 

There was speculation that the senior wide receiver would be able to recover from his shoulder injury in time to play Tuesday against Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl, but according to the Mercury News' Jon Wilner, that won't happen:

Montgomery injured his shoulder Nov. 22 against Cal and missed the season finale vs. UCLA. 

An all-purpose stud, he leads the Cardinal in receptions (61) and receiving yards (604) and also serves as an electric threat in the return game. 

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Jameis Winston's Complicated College Football Legacy

LOS ANGELES—If Jameis Winston makes it through an entire college career without losing a game, winning a Heisman Trophy and two national championships along the way, then he has to go down as one of the greatest college football players ever.    

That's not how people look at him now, of course. Now, people look at him as the person who in one year turned Florida State from a feel-good story to a national villain. It was based on a monstrous allegation against him, though our system of justice didn't find enough evidence to pursue it. What we know for sure is that he did a bunch of immature things.

But the point is this: Jameis Winston is probably in the final few days of his college career, and his college football legacy is highly complicated. They say that winning cures everything, but with Winston, it isn't that simple. How will people see him?

"What people think about me is none of my business, really," he said Sunday at a media conference leading up to the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon at the Rose Bowl. "It's not like I just look up what people say about me all the time. I really don't know what the word around the street is."

Sure he does. He complained that he can't go outside and go "walking down the street backwards" without people tweeting about it and taking pictures. True enough, but social media didn't catch him walking backward. It captured him jumping on a table in public and chanting an obscenity about a female body part at the same time that he was a part of the national discussion about athletes mistreating women.

We all saw coach Jimbo Fisher coaching him after a game, telling him to win people back with the right attitude: "Humble pie," Fisher said.

Winston listened. He knows. He feels it.

He also hasn't played nearly as well this year as he did last year, though he keeps winning in the end.

But that's not what people focus on. The moment word came out about Winston and a rape allegation, his name was forever connected to the word rape—even though, at that point, no one knew anything.

If we're just talking about image and legacy, it's hard to look at Winston the same way now as we did, say, early last year.

That is partly the fault of the school, the Tallahassee police and even some of the most fervant FSU fans. The university and the police tried so hard to protect Winston, instead of the alleged victim, that there are doubts even now that justice ever got a fair shake. That doesn't mean justice wasn't served.

But it factors into Winston's legacy. Stealing crablegs and shooting BB's didn't help, either.

Winston clearly sees himself as the victim, and it's possible that he is. He told reporters Saturday at a brief media gathering at Disneyland that football was his "sanctuary." And on Sunday, he equated overcoming adversity on the field this year with dealing with it in life.

"When you get to the next level (the NFL), or even in life when things are not going your way, you just can't hide up under a bridge or hide up under a rock," he said. "You've got to keep going."

With athletes, winning almost always does fix things. People cheer—and get emotionally attached to star athletes as if they represent the beliefs of a town and a community. That is, when they win.

If Winston leads Florida State to another national championship in the next few weeks, then more and more people will add that up with the fact that even a Florida Supreme Court justice didn't find enough evidence to prove wrongdoing, saying only that the stories of Winston and the alleged victim both had holes, but that neither was more believable than the other.

The truth is Winston's college legacy won't be set until a few years after his pro career starts. This season as a villain will never fully be wiped from his legacy. But if he plays well and starts to behave well as a grown man out on his own, it will be pushed back.

On Thursday, he'll face another Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota, whose college legacy is set as the ultimate humble good-guy. It's another chance for Winston to just keep going, as he put it.

His spot in history is guaranteed. What that spot is, exactly, isn't quite set yet. But it will have nothing to do with walking down the street backward.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. He also writes for The New York Times and was formerly a scribe for FoxSports.com and The Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.

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