NCAA Football News
Only two teams opened as double-digit underdogs, as oddsmakers posted lines on all 38 bowl games this week.
Maryland opened as 13-point dogs against Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl, and Northern Illinois was getting 11 points against Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl.
All of the other spreads were tighter, as college football embraced a playoff system for the first time, resulting in a pair of major New Year's Day clashes, with Alabama vs. Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon vs. defending champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl.
The Tide and Ducks opened as solid favorites to advance to the national championship game.
The over/under values ranged from a low of 39 in the Pinstripe Bowl (Penn State vs. Boston College) to a high of 71 in the Rose Bowl. And there are intriguing trends associated with most of the bowls and with many of the teams, such as the 2-10 against-the-spread run by Notre Dame in bowl action.
Opening lines aggregated by Odds Shark:BowlTeamsOpenO/U New Orleans Nevada vs. Louisiana-Lafayette +1 61 New Mexico Texas El Paso vs. Utah State -11 50.5 Las Vegas Utah vs. Colorado State +4 58 Idaho Potato Western Michigan vs. Air Force +3 55.5 Camellia South Alabama vs. Bowling Green -1.5 55 Miami Beach BYU vs. Memphis -1 56.5 Boca Raton Northern Illinois vs. Marshall -11 61.5 Poinsettia Navy vs. San Diego State PK 56.5 Bahamas Central Michigan vs. W. Kentucky -1.5 65 Hawaii Fresno State vs. Rice +2 59 Heart of Dallas Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech -4 61 Quick Lane Rutgers vs. North Carolina -3 65.5 St. Petersburg North Carolina State vs. UCF -3 49 Military Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati -3.5 49 Sun Duke vs. Arizona State -9 59.5 Independence Miami vs. South Carolina PK 59.5 Pinstripe Penn State vs. Boston College -2.5 39 Holiday Nebraska vs. Southern Cal -4 62 Liberty West Virginia vs. Texas A&M +4 OFF Russell Athletic Clemson vs. Oklahoma OFF OFF Texas Texas vs. Arkansas -5 45.5 Music City Notre Dame vs. LSU -7.5 52 Belk Louisville vs. Georgia -7 58.5 Foster Farms Maryland vs. Stanford -13 49 Chick-Fil-A Mississippi vs. TCU -3 56 Fiesta Boise State vs. Arizona -4 69 Orange Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State -7 59.5 Outback Wisconsin vs. Auburn -6.5 61 Cotton Michigan State vs. Baylor -1.5 70 Citrus Minnesota vs. Missouri -6.5 OFF Rose Florida State vs. Oregon -8.5 71 Sugar Ohio State vs. Alabama -9 58 Armed Forces Pittsburgh vs. Houston +2 53 TaxSlayer Iowa vs. Tennessee -3 52.5 Alamo UCLA vs. Kansas State -2.5 59 Cactus Oklahoma State vs. Washington -5 55.5 Birmingham East Carolina vs. Florida -7 57.5 GoDaddy Toledo vs. Arkansas State +1 66
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Since arriving at Ohio State in late 2011, Urban Meyer has built a reputation based on his brutal honesty. If a Buckeyes player or position group has been slacking in practice, their head coach hasn't been shy to call them out. When media members ask ill-prepared questions, they soon know about it.
Meyer's bluntness apparently extends to himself as well.
Which is why when he looked at his roster on the eve of the 2014 season, Meyer was realistic with his expectations. Ohio State was ranked fifth in the preseason AP Top 25, but seemed like a long shot to land in the College Football Playoff after star quarterback Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the 2014 campaign.
"I wasn't sure this year," Meyer said, looking back on his preseason prognostications. "I thought it might be next year."
Meyer wasn't alone. And with an ugly early-season defeat and eventual loss of another Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, questions followed the Buckeyes all the way up until Sunday's announcement of college football's first-ever playoff field.
But when it was Ohio State that was revealed as the selection committee's fourth and final team, it marked the culmination of one of the most unlikely journeys to the chance to play for a national championship—one that's been more than a year in the making.
'I Want to Help This Team Win a Big Ten Championship'
Preseason polls aren't released until a few weeks before the start of the season, but the initial expectations for Ohio State's 2014 campaign were set inside of a small office in Miami's Sun Life Stadium in the early hours of Jan. 4.
It was there that Miller gave his pledge to Meyer that he'd return for his senior season, instantly making the Buckeyes national title contenders with the mere presence of one of the sport's most exciting and accomplished quarterbacks.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman followed suit, adding security to an Ohio State roster that would already be replacing four starting offensive linemen, the Big Ten's best running back in Carlos Hyde, its top receiver in Corey "Philly" Brown and a pair of future NFL first-round picks in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. At first glance, Ohio State's depth chart possessed plenty of question marks, but Miller made it clear that he wasn't coming back to be part of a rebuilding season.
“I want to help this team win a Big Ten championship next year," Miller said in a statement officially announcing his decision to forego the NFL draft. "Plus, I want to improve as a quarterback in all aspects of my game."
Cornerstones of the Buckeyes' 2011 recruiting class—former head coach Jim Tressel's last—Miller and Heuerman had seen and accomplished plenty in their time in Columbus. But a conference championship was still missing from each of their resumes.
“As a senior, we just want to go out with a championship," Heuerman said. "That’s something my class doesn’t have to put next to our name.”
If Ohio State was going to do just that, both Miller and Heuerman figured to play key roles in the process. And while each missed spring practice—Miller with outpatient shoulder surgery and Heuerman with foot surgery—both were expected to be ready by the start of training camp in August.
At least that was the plan.
'A Bad Day'
On Aug. 20, Heuerman and the Buckeyes' other captains met with reporters, the mood around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center palpably somber. Heuerman looked particularly spent, his eyes glassed over and tone noticeably dejected.
Just three weeks earlier, the Ohio State tight end had compared Miller's importance to the Buckeyes to that of LeBron James' to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But two days prior, Heuerman learned that Ohio State would be without its LeBron, when Miller fell to the ground after attempting a pass in a non-contact throwing drill.
"I went berserk," Meyer said. "It was devastating. It was a bad day."
The prognosis was a torn labrum in Miller's throwing shoulder, which would require season-ending surgery. The Buckeyes' new starting quarterback would be redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who had been splitting reps with OSU's first-team offense throughout fall camp as Miller struggled to recover from his initial shoulder surgery.
Whether he believed them at the time, Heuerman said all the right things about how there was nobody better suited for the task at hand than Barrett. But even he understood why the the outside perception of Ohio State was suddenly shifting.
"We're not naive to the situation. We understand what happened and what we lost," Heuerman said. "But just like the Cavs, just because LeBron's out, you don't put them out, do you? They've got a lot of other playmakers, so that's kind of the situation we're in. We've got a lot of playmakers and we're going to have to rely on them to make plays.
"Obviously, it's not how you draw it up."
'We Just Gotta Get a Lot Better'
Trailing 7-6 at halftime, the Buckeyes struggled in their season opener against Navy, but ultimately prevailed with a 34-17 victory. But just a week later, Ohio State's worst nightmare was realized, as its inexperience showed up at the most inopportune time.
Hosting Virginia Tech in a prime-time matchup with several prominent recruits and the actual LeBron James standing on the sideline, the Buckeyes were both outplayed and outcoached in a 35-21 defeat at the hands of the Hokies. OSU's receivers failed to get open and the offensive line failed to protect Barrett, who turned in a 9-for-29, three-interception performance against Virginia Tech's dare-you-to-throw defense.
The Buckeyes' playoff hopes weren't dead—although some claimed they were—but they certainly took a significant hit against a Hokies team that would wind up with just a 6-6 record on the season. Perhaps more important than Ohio State's drop to No. 22 in the Top 25 was the vulnerability that it showed, leaving so much uncertain for the 10 games left on the Buckeyes' slate.
"We just gotta get a lot better," Meyer said after the game. "And that starts tomorrow."
'A Young Team Grew Up'
The Buckeyes bounced back with blowout wins over Kent State and Cincinnati, before opening up their Big Ten schedule with lopsided victories against newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. In the span of one month, Barrett went from question mark to potential Heisman Trophy candidate, posting numbers that put him on pace for the greatest statistical season in the history of Ohio State quarterbacks.
"I had a lot of confidence in J.T. I love J.T. He's fun to coach," Meyer said following Barrett's 409-yard, four-touchdown performance against Cincinnati. "He's a guy that has a great demeanor on the sideline. He's a student of the game. He has a great relationship with his coordinator and position coach. He's a product of those around him."
Playing on a sprained MCL, Barrett helped the Buckeyes eek out a double-overtime win at Penn State on Oct. 25, a week before adding another blowout to their resume with a victory over Illinois. Ohio State was suddenly riding a six-game winning streak, but it didn't seem to mean much to the College Football Playoff committee, who ranked the Buckeyes 16th and then 14th in its first two polls of the season.
"While I wouldn't get that excited about Ohio State's placement, we do think that based on the other teams that they've played to this point in the schedule, this is where they deserve to be ranked," playoff committee chair Jeff Long said when the first rankings were revealed on Oct. 28. "Ohio State has opportunities on their schedule to play up."
The first of those opportunities came on Nov. 8.
That date had long been circled on the Buckeyes' schedule anyways, as it marked their rematch with Michigan State from last season's Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans had snapped Ohio State's 24-game winning streak and prevented it from appearing in the national title game, and again appeared to stand in the way of the Buckeyes' postseason goals.
Only this time, it was Ohio State who would make a statement.
Despite heading to East Lansing as an underdog, the Buckeyes played their most complete game of the season, leaving Spartan Stadium with a 49-37 win over the eighth-ranked Spartans. Barrett accounted for 386 yards and five touchdowns, vaulting Ohio State back into the national title picture with its first signature win of the season.
“This is a different Buckeye team than it was early in the season,” Meyer said afterward. "A young team grew up tonight."
After again boosting its resume with a road win over No. 25 Minnesota, the Buckeyes struggled in wins over Indiana and Michigan, but still found themselves ranked fifth by the playoff committee at the conclusion of the regular season. On paper, Ohio State seemed primed to vault into the top four with a win over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, but one play against the Wolverines threw another wrench into the Buckeyes' postseason plans.
Keeping the ball on a read-option on the first play of the fourth quarter, Barrett was sandwiched between two Michigan defenders. When the play cleared, the Ohio State quarterback remained on the ground, as a hush fell over the Ohio Stadium crowd.
"I heard him yell and I ran over to help him up,'' Heuerman recalled. "When I went over I saw his ankle and it wasn't pretty. I just told him, 'Stay down, stay down.'
"It kind of hit me. 'Oh man.'''
After Barrett was carted off the field, it didn't take long for news to trickle in that he had suffered a broken ankle, thus bringing his stellar freshman season to a close. In 12 games, the redshirt freshman broke Ohio State's single-season total offense record (3,772 yards) and the Big Ten's total touchdowns record (45), en route to being named the Big Ten's quarterback and freshman of the year.
All of a sudden, it appeared as though Barrett's remarkable season would be held against the Buckeyes in their hunt for a playoff spot, as the committee would now judge them without their most prominent player in the picture. Anything less than a commanding performance in the conference championship—with its third option at quarterback—and Ohio State seemed likely to be left out of the final four.
"I think it's all going to be how we play next week," Meyer said of his team's playoff chances.
The next week would prove to be one of the most trying in program history, for reasons that extended beyond the football field.
On Nov. 30—one day after the Buckeyes' win over Michigan—OSU walk-on Kosta Karageorge was found dead in an off-campus dumpster. The first-year defensive lineman had died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound and had been missing for the better part of the previous week after sending a cryptic text message to his mother complaining about concussions.
As a result, Ohio State's weekly press conference felt like a mix between a funeral and investigation, as though in attendance tried to make sense of the tragedy.
"This is the best group of medical people I've ever been around, the way they handle their business and the attention to detail," Meyer said when pressed on his program's handling of concussions.
“I don’t think he’d want for anything like this to hold us back. He was a huge team guy, a huge team guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said while remembering Karageorge. "He wasn’t getting reps in the games and stuff like that but he still loved coming out every day. It wasn’t about that for him. He came out and he helped us and I don’t think he’d want anything like that to hold us back at all by any means."
Cardale, Controversy and Championships
In Indianapolis, reminders of Karageorge were everywhere at the Big Ten title game, from a moment of silence before kickoff to Michael Bennett wearing Karageorge's No. 53 and other players' own individual tributes.
Despite the somber tone around the OSU program for the previous week, the Buckeyes still had a game to play, and faced a tall task as four-point underdogs to the Badgers.
At least, that's how it seemed.
But from the moment the ball was kicked inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Ohio State took command, with quarterback Cardale Jones leading the Buckeyes on a six-play, 77-yard opening drive that culminated with a 39-yard touchdown toss to Devin Smith. Jones would find Smith in the end zone twice more throughout the game, showcasing his cannon-like arm in an MVP performance in what would be a 59-0 walloping of Wisconsin.
"I played with confidence because of the confidence my teammates had in me, the confidence my coaches had in me, my family, close friends, Buckeye Nation," Jones said. "It was very fun, going out there showing everybody what we can do when we all come together as one."
But would it be enough?
Ohio State was 11-1 and the outright Big Ten champion, but entered championship weekend ranked fifth by the playoff committee, sandwiched between Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor. Despite the Horned Frogs' status as the nation's third-place team, they figured to be in a fight with the Buckeyes and Bears for the fourth and final spot, as Alabama, Oregon and Florida State seemed to had already secured their places in the playoff field.
Ohio State's resume seemed to stack up favorably against TCU's and Baylor's, with one more win, an outright conference championship and a dominant performance over a ranked team still fresh on everybody's mind. Still, the playoff selection process was unprecedented, and Meyer admitted to Sports Illustrated that he was nervous on the morning of the announcement.
But when the playoff committee revealed its final four in order at 12:45 p.m. ET—first Alabama, then Oregon, then Florida State—it was Ohio State who laid claim to the fourth and final spot. Given where the Buckeyes stood just 11 months earlier, it was likely as much as it wasn't, after all that Ohio State had been through in 2014.
"It's a long journey," Meyer said after the Buckeyes had been announced for the playoff, a day after the Big Ten Championship Game. "I started seeing it, but I didn't believe it completely until the experience we had on Saturday night."
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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