NCAA Football News

Connor Cook Returning to Michigan State Makes Sparty a Strong 2015 Playoff Team

Connor Cook indicated Tuesday that he will forego the NFL draft and return to Michigan State for his senior season. If he does, the Spartans will have taken their first major step toward competing with Ohio State in the Big Ten East and contending for the 2015 College Football Playoff.

Cook is a 6'4" quarterback whose name has been floated as a potential first-round draft pick. But he said he wants to stay in school because he has "unfinished business" that he wants to accomplish, per Noah Trister of The Associated Press.

The news is not official but appears to be headed that direction. Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press spoke with Cook's father, who said his son's return, while likely, is not quite 100 percent certain:

Cook finished with 2,900 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions this regular season, improving his efficiency from 135.5 as a sophomore to 152.4. His completion percentage (58.2) stayed the same, but his yards per attempt (9.0) rose dramatically.

The Spartans are set to lose 1,300-yard running back Jeremy Langford and 1,100-yard receiver Tony Lippett this offseason and might have regressed to the dark ages—i.e., the Andrew Maxwell era—had Cook left for the NFL with them.

But now? They should remain a conference favorite.

Cook was improved but far from perfect in 2014, chasing NFL-caliber throws with occasional easy misses. Another offseason to work on his mechanics should improve his repetitive accuracy.

But the real reason Cook is so vital is because of leadership. The defense regressed when Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis left this past offseason. It's fair to guess that losing Langford, Lippett and (most importantly) Cook would have had the same effect on the opposite side of the ball.

Cook played two of the best games of his career in the 2013 Big Ten Championship and the 2014 Rose Bowl, the latter against a tough-as-nails Stanford defense. He also played well at Oregon this past season and showed the cajones of a leader against Michigan:

Cook's return ensures the Spartans will be good next season, but it doesn't ensure the Spartans will be great. And the difference between good and great comes down to something independent of Cook: the players who have yet to decide on their immediate NFL future.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun said he hasn't really thought about going pro, per Trister, and cornerback Trae Waynes and left tackle Jack Conklin are also candidates to make the leap.

All three of those players have a chance to be selected in the first round (Calhoun and Waynes more likely than Conklin). They would all make the preseason All-Big Ten team next season. Losing all three would turn making the playoff into a semi-unrealistic goal.

But as long as Cook returns, it's possible. He has a chance to be the top quarterback in college football next season, depending on who does and doesn't declare for the NFL draft. He won't post gaudy numbers—that is simply not Michigan State's style—but he makes throws few other college quarterbacks can make. And he's more mobile than he's often given credit for.

Marcus Mariota led the nation in passer rating and won the Heisman Trophy this season. J.T. Barrett (before getting injured) finished No. 3 in passer rating and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Blake Sims finished No. 7 in passer rating. And Jameis Winston, despite a lower passer rating, is a former Heisman winner himself.

All four of those quarterbacks made the playoff.

To wit, the correlation between great QB play and success is not overstated. Michigan State would have needed a magical defense such as 2013's to make the playoff without Cook under center. And next year's defense, which should be very good, will not be that magical.

But the offense has a chance to be just as good as this year's, which finished No. 15 in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings.

Lippett and Keith Mumphery will be gone, but slot receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. and tight end Josiah Price should return. And to replace Lippett and Mumphery, the Spartans have no shortage of high-upside options, chief among them former top-100 recruit Aaron Burbridge.

Burbridge won the Tommy Love Award as the most improved offensive player on the team, per Rexrode. He is 6'2" and toolsey but has maddened Spartans fans with his inconsistency. But would it really be so crazy for him to break out as Cook's No. 1 receiver during his senior year next season?

The talent is certainly there.

Michigan State has a difficult schedule that once again features Oregon (this time at home) and Ohio State (this time on the road) next season. It also features road trips to Michigan and Nebraska and nonconference games against three more teams—Western Michigan, Air Force and Central Michigan—that made a bowl game in 2014.

The road will be tough, but an 11-1 record against a quality schedule would be enough to get Sparty into the playoff conversation. And as daunting as a trip to Columbus sounds, it's not unwinnable.

The only Big Ten team Urban Meyer has lost to in his three years with the Buckeyes was Michigan State. The only quarterback he's lost to was Cook. And that was back when Cook was just a sophomore.

Imagine what he might do as a senior.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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Meet Jovon Robinson, Auburn's Next Offensive Star from the JUCO Ranks

AUBURN, Ala. — For Auburn, offensive success and junior college stars have gone hand-in-hand for the last few seasons.

The tradition started with Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton in 2010 and ramped up in 2013 and 2014 with quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and wide receiver D'haquille Williams.

So as Marshall and Artis-Payne—and possibly Williams—prepare for their last game with the program this week, it's only fitting that they're being joined by the next dynamic playmaker from the JUCO ranks.

Five-star running back Jovon Robinson, the nation's No. 1 junior college player, enrolled at Auburn over the weekend and joined the Tigers for the start of Outback Bowl preparations as an early enrollee Monday afternoon.

"He got some (reps)," Malzahn said Monday afternoon. "He just got here. We're just trying to get him slowly acclimated and everything that goes with it."

Robinson might be coming along slow, but he wasted no time in showing his new teammates what he can do with the ball in his hands.

Robinson's arrival is perfect timing for Auburn's backfield, which loses seniors Artis-Payne and Corey Grant after the Outback Bowl.

Freshman Roc Thomas and 4-star commitment Kerryon Johnson project as speed backs in Malzahn's system, leaving a hole at the every-down role that Tre Mason and Artis-Payne have held the last two seasons.

Mason and Artis-Payne took that responsibility and became the SEC's top running backs for their respective seasons, and Robinson has the talent to make it three in a row in 2015.

At 6'0" and 238 pounds, he has the ideal build for a power back, but 247Sports' Keith Niebuhr said he could be the all-around runner Auburn desires for the 2015 season:

Not only can he get around the edge and produce big-gainers, he can be that tough runner in between the tackles. ... He runs with power, and with a purpose. The bonus with Robinson is the fact he can catch the ball out of the backfield and make things happen downfield in space. Because of that versatility, he truly can be an every down back in the Gus Malzahn offense at Auburn.

We don’t say this often, but there really aren’t any holes in his game.

To make the situation even better for Auburn, he gets eight extra practices during bowl season on top of the additional work he would gain during camp next spring.

"It gets him acclimated and gets him around our guys more than anything," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "We know and think that he’s got a lot of upside."

Of course, Auburn has been familiar with Robinson's upside for several years now.

While the program's former JUCO stars were brand new to the Plains when they enrolled on campus, Robinson has a unique backstory.

His time out on Auburn's practice field Monday afternoon was not the first time he put on the trademark white helmet as a member of the Tigers.

Robinson was a part of Auburn's recruiting class of 2012 as a 4-star back out of Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee. He signed, enrolled and began practice on Auburn's squad later that year, only to be declared ineligible a week into fall camp after an NCAA investigation revealed at least one of his grades in high school were changed.

Robinson landed at Georgia Military College in 2013 and jumped back onto the national radar by breaking the national junior college record for rushing yards in a season:

Despite a strong push from in-state rival Alabama, Robinson recommitted to Auburn in May and stayed solid to his pledge throughout his sophomore season at GMC.

“Everybody knows I’m committed to Auburn," Robinson told 247Sports (subscription required) in September. "I’m still being recruited by Alabama and all those other schools, but the coaches know where I want to go. I know where I want to go. You know where I want to go."

With a lot of changes coming to the Tigers' offensive depth chart this upcoming offseason, Robinson's decision is already paying off with a head start at becoming the No. 1 back for his new team.

"It’s huge," Lashlee said. "He gets a head start learning the terminology and learning the system and actually going and doing it before we get to March."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Oliver Luck Leaves West Virginia to Take Job with NCAA

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who also serves on the College Football Playoff selection committee, is reportedly set to leave his post to take on a prominent role with the NCAA. The organization announced the move Wednesday:

The NCAA has hired Oliver Luck as the executive vice president of regulatory affairs, a new position that will bring the national office regulatory functions – academic and membership affairs, the Eligibility Center and enforcement – under one umbrella. 

[...]

"I am very pleased to have Oliver joining our team in the national office,” said [NCAA President Mark] Emmert. “He brings to us wide ranging, hands-on experience from across athletic, academic, and business worlds. Most important, his commitment to the success and well-being of our student-athletes is unquestionable. He has demonstrated that commitment on the ground and throughout his life. I'm anxious for him to get started with us."

Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail  first reported the news:

He also provided further details about Luck's expected role as second in command:

Luck talked about the move, according to the official announcement:

This is a time of fundamental change in intercollegiate athletics that will set the foundation for the years ahead. The challenges both internal and external to the NCAA present a unique opportunity to help shape the landscape for hundreds of thousands of young men and women. It is an honor to join President Emmert, the NCAA staff, and our member institutions in this journey. I look forward to partnering with campus executives, administrators, coaches and student-athletes, to enhance the intercollegiate athletics experience.

In terms of Luck's role on the selection committee, Joe Schad of ESPN passed along comments from CFP executive director Bill Hancock:

Luck has served as the athletic director at West Virginia since 2010. He oversaw the program's move to the Big 12 Conference and made the decision to promote Dana Holgorsen to head football coach, among other notable changes.

He's the father of current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. NCAA headquarters is also located in Indianapolis.

Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated believes Luck will bring some ideas for progress to his new job, but doesn't sound convinced change will come easy:

The NCAA has been a major target of criticism in recent years for a wide range of reasons. Hiring Luck suggests the organization knows it at least needs to consider fresh ideas. The question is exactly how much power he'll possess in this newly created position and how much change he can enact.

A clearer outlook should emerge once Luck gets down to business in the position. The College Football Playoff will also need a new Big 12 representative if it's going to maintain its current structure.

 

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A New Beginning: The Ultimate College Football Playoff Hype Tape

The College Football Playoff is finally here. The Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes.  The Florida State Seminoles vs. the Oregon Ducks. Reigning national champions, Heisman Trophy winners and storied programs will battle it out for a spot in the record books. 

Take a look at the ultimate hype tape for the first-ever College Football Playoff. 

Who will comes out on top?

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Can Ohio State Shut Down Another Heisman Finalist in Amari Cooper?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In order to make it into the first ever College Football Playoff, Ohio State first had to stop a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Now to advance in it, the Buckeyes are going to need to shut down another.

Limiting Melvin Gordon to 76 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State effectively brought an end to the Wisconsin running back's Heisman chances while simultaneously clinching its spot in college football's final four.

Gordon would go on to finish second behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in Heisman voting, one spot ahead of the only other player invited to New York City as a finalist for college football's most prestigious award.

That would be Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, whose Crimson Tide will take on the Buckeyes in the playoff semifinal game that is the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

While he may have finished third in Heisman voting, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who's been more dominant than Cooper has been in 2014.

"He's one of the best receivers ever to play college football," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said.

The numbers back up that sentiment, as Cooper's 115 receptions and 1,656 yards currently rank 21st and 25th, respectively, on college football's all-time single-season lists.

Should he reach his averages of 8.8 catches and 127.4 yards per game in the Sugar Bowl, Cooper would slide into 15th and 10th place, respectively, in the record books, with a potential appearance in the National Championship Game looming.

In fact, if Cooper reaches those numbers, a trip to Arlington, Texas for Alabama would likely be more than just a possibility. It's not a coincidence that the Crimson Tide possess one of their most potent passing attacks in recent memory despite less than standout play from senior quarterback Blake Sims.

The Buckeyes know this, which is why when their attention turned toward Alabama, it simultaneously turned to Cooper.

The versatility of the 6'1", 210-pounder is what stands out to Meyer most, as Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has made use of his team's best player in both the short and deep passing games alike.

"They use him as a matchup guy in screens and quick screens," Meyer said of Cooper. "But they also—obviously he's the best downfield threat there is in the game right now."

This is obvious, as evidenced by Cooper's three 200-plus-yard receiving games and hauls of 75, 79 and 80 yards in separate games.

The 2014 Biletnikoff Award winner will head to New Orleans with no shortage of momentum either, having tallied 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and 12 catches for 83 yards in the SEC Championship Game versus Missouri.

If ever there was a test to see how far the Ohio State pass defense has come in the past year, this would be it, after the Buckeyes surrendered 16 receptions, 227 yards and two touchdowns to Clemson's Sammy Watkins in last season's loss to the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.

OSU has seen significant improvement in its secondary this season, moving from 112th (267 yards per game) to 17th (188.2 YPG) in pass defense, but the Buckeyes are yet to have faced a receiver as talented as Cooper.

"Amari is not worthy of anyone comparing him to anybody else," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after his team's win over Auburn on Nov. 29. "He is Amari Cooper. He has his own style. He's a very competitive guy who works really, really hard. Has really good speed getting in and out of breaks. Works hard in the game to get open. Does a good job of executing, has made a lot of really big plays for us this year."

Containing a player of Cooper's caliber will take a group effort from Ohio State, but if there's one Buckeyes defensive back to keep an eye on, it's cornerback Doran Grant.

A first-team All-Big Ten selection this season, Grant has grown into one of Ohio State's most reliable defensive players, tallying nine pass breakups and five interceptions on the year.

Although Cooper will be the best player that Grant has matched up with this season, the Akron, Ohio native has reason to remain confident heading into the Buckeyes' battle in the Bayou.

After all, Grant did a more than admirable job in his toughest test of the season to this point, limiting Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett to just five catches for 64 yards in OSU's Nov. 8 showdown with the Spartans.

That marked the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year's second-lowest output in a game in which he did not score a touchdown this season and played an essential role in the Buckeyes' season-defining victory.

"He was chirping off at the mouth from the beginning," Grant said of Lippett after OSU's 49-37 win in East Lansing. "But then as the game started going, he was like, 'Hold up.'"

Trash talk shouldn't be an issue with Cooper, who is perhaps known as much for his quiet nature as he is for his big-play ability. Throughout his historic junior campaign, the Miami native has let his play do the talking, although that alone has made plenty of noise.

“He is sort of a quiet guy when it comes to how he plays," Saban said in September. “He’s the complete package when it comes to a guy that is a pretty complete player.”

But as the Buckeyes showed with Gordon—and to a lesser degree, Lippett—they've had a knack for bottling up the elite players that they've faced thus far.

Should Ohio State do the same with Cooper, it will likely find itself playing for the national championship a week later, where waiting for the Buckeyes in Arlington will either be Mariota's second-ranked Ducks or last season's Heisman Trophy winner in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

In other words, to win a national title, Ohio State is going to have to pull off a Heisman finalist trifecta. Welcome to the playoff age of college football.

 

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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Georgia Football: Returning Stars Are Richt's Best Recruits and Sign of Progress

According to 247Sports, the Georgia Bulldogs' 2015 recruiting class is ranked third in the nation. While that's an impressive feat, it's not necessarily the best barometer of the program as a whole.

Further, Mark Richt's best recruits for the 2015 season aren't new enrollees. Instead, they're established stars with NFL potential, and their decisions to stay in Athens are signs of progress.

To be sure, Georgia's 2015 recruiting class is talented. But those potential stars are still very much unknown quantities.

To the contrary, Leonard Floyd, Malcolm Mitchell and John Theus—all of whom were announced as returning last weekend, according to Seth Emerson of The Telegraph—are well-established as strong components of Georgia's roster. So is Jordan Jenkins, who is likely returning.

The returns of Floyd and Jenkins ensure stability for a defense that has been defined primarily by turnover as of late.

More practically speaking, Floyd and Jenkins will once again lead a fierce Georgia pass rush in conjunction with emerging star Lorenzo Carter.

Floyd and Jenkins, who have combined for 27 career sacks and 47 tackles for loss, had NFL opportunities this season. Case in point: Floyd was regarded as one of the 20 best draft-eligible prospects, per ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required).

Their decisions to return were undoubtedly influenced by defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and the strides the defense took during his first year at the helm.

On the other side of the ball, John Theus's return at the tackle position, where he's started 34 games over the past three seasons, guarantees an offensive line that is largely intact.

Yes, senior leader David Andrews will be gone and the vacant center position will be a point of concern in his absence. However, Georgia returns four starters along the offensive line, and Theus—who started as a true freshman and has remained foundational to the unit—is the most talented of the bunch.

A strong offensive line bodes well for the Bulldog offense as a whole. Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and a presumably healthy Keith Marshall will benefit greatly from experience up front while keeping Georgia's ground attack in peak form.

Regardless of who claims the starting quarterback spot—Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta or Jacob Park—protection from Theus and the rest of the crew will prove vital.

Equally significant is the return of Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell, who missed almost all of 2013 and much of 2014 with a knee injury, came on strong over the closing weeks of the season. In Georgia's final four games, he notched three touchdown catches and hauled in at least four passes in half of his appearances this year.

With Mitchell, however, Georgia isn't hoping for a return to recent form.

Rather, the Bulldogs are hoping that his recent solid play is indicative of a return to his early-career production. As a true freshman, Mitchell caught 45 passes for 665 yards. As a sophomore, he added another 572 receiving yards despite splitting time at defensive back.

With Floyd, Jenkins, Theus and Mitchell, proven, game-changing talent is coming back for Georgia. That much is known.

Incoming freshmen may or may not come ready to play in 2015, but Theus did in 2012 and he's still ready. Trent Thompson looks likely to live up to the hype in collapsing pockets from his defensive tackle position, and he may contribute as a freshman in 2015.

But what Floyd and Jenkins can do is already known. A number of talented incoming recruits may help Georgia's passing attack in 2015, but none has demonstrated game-breaking ability like Mitchell.

Even more encouraging is the underlying motivation for the stars' returns.

Conventionally speaking, there are two common reasons for bypassing the NFL draft.

First, and perhaps most obviously, is the need to improve as player. Interestingly enough, even players like Theus (a three-year starter) and Floyd (a projected high-round pick) see value in self-improvement at Georgia. That's a testament to the coaching staff.

The second motivation is the desire to achieve more as a team. Put bluntly: These players aren't coming back to lose games.

Whether their desire to finish strong comes to fruition remains to be seen, but at the very least, it is a sign of good things to come that established team leaders think more can—and will—be accomplished.

 

Unless otherwise noted all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

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Which Up-and-Coming Coaches Will Be the Next to Land Big-Time Jobs?

College football programs are always on the hunt for up-and-coming coaching hires. From defensive and offensive coordinators to head coaches of smaller programs, the next big head coach is always waiting for that phone call.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee predict which coaches will be hired by major programs. 

Which coordinator or head coach will be college football's next prized possession? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Stay-or-Go Advice for Top Eligible NFL Draft QB Prospects

‘Tis the season.

Not for holiday shopping and traditions.

Or hanging out with family.

Nope. The beginning of college football’s postseason means that college football’s speculation season has also begun. If a prominent player is draft-eligible and hasn’t declared his intentions to leave for the NFL or stay for another season of college, chances are he’ll be hounded incessantly until he does.

That speculation will be intense for a number of college signal-callers who could make the jump to the next level. While some quarterbacks have already made their decisions (Michigan State’s Connor Cook announced Tuesday that he’ll return next fall), the fate of others is less defined.

Here’s a look at underclassman quarterbacks who are considering the leap. We’ll offer our advice on what their ultimate choice should be, as well.

Begin Slideshow

Michigan Football: What's Taking Wolverines so Long to Find New Coach?

Brady Hoke was fired two weeks ago and his replacement remains a mystery. Since Hoke’s dismissal, Florida and Nebraska have swiftly replaced head coaches while Michigan’s search drags on.

Michigan football is at a crucial juncture. Previous searches have proven that coaches aren’t lined up waiting to come to Ann Arbor. As the days without a head coach accumulate, Michigan risks damaging its national stature.

It’s been 10 years since the Wolverines' last Big Ten title—another bad hire, and Michigan’s greatness may recede even further in the past.

The search is complicated by a number of internal and external factors that have prevented a quick resolution to finding a new head coach. These factors make it appear that Michigan hasn’t learned from previous searches.

The resignation of David Brandon has put the interim athletic director Jim Hackett in a difficult position. Nebraska had gone through a long, painful search before and was determined to not do so again.

Nebraska University chancellor Harvey Perlman explained it best to Mitch Sherman of ESPN: "We've experienced some searches that weren't handled very well. Now, a lot of that is fortuitous. Things have to break for you. The point is, every athletic director -- every good athletic director -- has a list of guys for every coaching position that he's been looking at for a long time."

Hackett’s previous experience is in the corporate sector—he has no athletics administrative experience or network to rely on and had no time to generate a thoughtful list.

To make up for this shortcoming, Hackett has enlisted a search firm to help him identify and vet candidates, a strategy from his corporate days. The decision has further slowed the process.

The search is also hampered by Michigan president Mark Schlissel who acknowledges his lack of expertise when it comes to “sports stuff.”

Schlissel had to apologize last month for the disparaging academic performance of the football program, contributing to the season’s chaos.

Hackett’s interim status also complicates the search. The relationship between the football coach and athletic director is crucial to each other’s success. The Brandon-Hoke axis showed how the relationship can be detrimental to a coach. Michigan’s next coach will be wary of a similar relationship with Hackett or his successor.

There may be another solid reason for the search to be dragging on—Michigan may be targeting a coach who simply isn’t available yet. Michigan reportedly covets both Jim Harbaugh and Les Miles, per ESPN's Colin Cowherd and Michigan Insider Sam Webb, who are still finishing their respective seasons.

If fan favorite Jim Harbaugh takes the job, the length of the search will soon be forgotten. There are other top-tier candidates (Jim Mora Jr. or Sean Payton) who will also satisfy most fans.

But if the search stretches on much longer and results in a less famous name succeeding Hoke, then the damage will be done. 

Michigan's stature has already been damaged by poor records and political infighting since Lloyd Carr's retirement.

A third botched coaching search might be the last strike for Michigan's national perception as an elite football program. 

 

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand

Follow @PCallihan

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Schedule, Under-the-Radar Players to Watch

Just imagine how much less exciting this season’s college football postseason would be if we were still stuck with the BCS instead of a playoff.

Oregon and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota would likely be forced to watch a national championship between undefeated Florida State and the SEC champion, Alabama. Ohio State wouldn’t get to play underdog with a third-string quarterback. Most importantly, fans wouldn’t get to watch two do-or-die games featuring some of the nation’s most prestigious programs.

While the star players are bound to play a major role in the outcome of these two playoff games, the under-the-radar players will also be asked to step up. After all, it is difficult to envision a victory for any of these squads without a balanced attack and team-wide effort.

With that in mind, here is a look at the schedule and some under-the-radar players to watch in the two College Football Playoff contests.

 

Rose Bowl 

Matchup: Oregon vs. Florida State

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1

Time: 5 p.m. ET

Place: Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California 

TV: ESPN

 

Sugar Bowl

Matchup: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

Place: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana  

Channel: ESPN

 

Under-the-Radar Players to Watch

RB Curtis Samuel, Ohio State

Ohio State boasted the nation’s fourth-highest scoring offense and 11th-best rushing attack largely because of running back Ezekiel Elliott and his 1,402 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. However, he is far from a one-man show in the backfield.

Freshman Curtis Samuel finished with 376 rushing yards and six touchdowns and brings a speed element to the game that Elliott doesn’t. The Buckeyes used Samuel a number of times throughout the season in the speed-option look, and he could be critical in the efforts to push the tempo against an Alabama defense that struggled against the no-huddle attack of Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman discussed Samuel’s impact, via Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com:

I was very surprised in the spring. I think (H-Back) was where we ultimately saw him transitioning just because of his body type and skillset, speed, quickness and ball skills.

But he's a legitimate tailback. He has great vision, great explosiveness through holes. He probably still needs to gain a little bit of weight as he continues to grow up, but we're very happy that revelation was made in spring ball. That gives us another quality tailback. 

Samuel scored two touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin and will be an important change-of-pace back against Alabama’s strong defense. He can also keep Elliott fresh for the fourth quarter against a physical defensive front.

 

WR DeAndrew White, Alabama

Ohio State is going to devote the lion’s share of the attention in the secondary to stopping Amari Cooper, and why shouldn’t it? Cooper finished with 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on the season and played his way to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes use bracket coverage on Cooper with cornerback Doran Grant and safety Vonn Bell, which would put the other receivers in single-coverage situations against the rest of the secondary. DeAndrew White took advantage of similar looks from Missouri in the SEC Championship Game to the tune of 101 receiving yards and a touchdown catch.

He was the second-leading receiver for the Crimson Tide on the season with 439 yards but appeared to turn the corner in that title game. That is good news for Alabama considering White dealt with injuries earlier in the season.

The Buckeyes are going to do everything they can to at least slow Cooper down, which means White may need to step up in the passing game.

 

K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State

Kicker Roberto Aguayo may not be under the radar among Florida State fans or even hardcore college football followers, but casual fans tuning in to the initial College Football Playoff probably won't be familiar with the kickers on the teams.

They will be after the Rose Bowl game if Aguayo has his way.

Florida State has made a living off surviving close games this season, and it would not be a surprise if the Rose Bowl came down to the final minutes as well. Kickers can often make the difference between a win and a loss (ask Oregon fans about some of Alejandro Maldonado’s misses from years past), and the Seminoles may just have the best in the business. 

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson was certainly surprised when Aguayo wasn’t completely recognized after the season:

Aguayo was a perfect 53-of-53 on extra points and finished 25-of-27 on field goals, including a 3-of-3 mark on kicks from more than 50 yards. If the Rose Bowl comes down to a final, long kick, Florida State will be in perfect position.

 

WR Darren Carrington, Oregon

Oregon has so many weapons around Mariota that it is sometimes hard to keep everyone straight, especially since so many players seem almost interchangeable in the fast-paced attack.

Royce Freeman led the team in rushing yards and touchdowns, Byron Marshall led the squad in receiving yards and Devon Allen mixed in a team-high seven critical touchdown catches. Don’t overlook receiver Darren Carrington, though, who should see single coverage throughout the Rose Bowl.

Florida State will have to devote extra defenders to stopping the run and possibly put a spy on Mariota, which will open up Carrington for underneath routes. If he gets the ball in his hands, he can make defenders miss and turn a seven-yard route into a game-breaking touchdown. 

There are so many weapons for the Ducks that the Seminoles are going to have to pick their poison at times. Chances are, they won’t pay as much attention to Carrington as Freeman or Marshall, which could open up the receiver for some big plays down the stretch.

 

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Semifinal Preview: Is Alabama's Dominant Offense Too Much for Ohio State?

The 2015 Sugar Bowl. The Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes. A national title berth on the line. It is the explosive Tide offense squaring off against the ferocious Buckeyes defense.

Something has to give. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee break down the the intriguing matchup in the video above.

Will the Alabama offense be too much for Ohio State's defense?

Check out the video and let us know! 

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B/R CFB 250: Top 21 Cornerbacks

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Brian Leigh and Kynon Codrington have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed to a list of the top 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top 21 Cornerbacks.

We knew coming into the season that some fresh faces would have to emerge at cornerback.

Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard was no longer with us. Neither were fellow finalists Justin Gilbert and LaMarcus Joyner. In total, eight of the nine best cornerbacks from last year's CFB 250 left school this offseason, more than any other position on this list. 

Fortunately, the cupboard was well-stocked with underclassmen, highlighted by an impressive sophomore class. Five defensive backs were shoehorned onto last year's FWAA Freshman All-America team, and four of those defensive backs play cornerback.

All four ended up on this list.

The future is in good hands.

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

Targeted skills such as run defense are important at both levels, but there is a difference between college run defense and professional run defense. If a cornerback can set the edge and make plays in the SEC or the Big 12, it doesn't matter if he can't set the edge and make plays in the NFC North. At least not 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.

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Rose Bowl 2015: Underrated Players to Watch in Oregon vs. FSU Showdown

Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are far from the only players who will take the field when the Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles collide in the Rose Bowl this January.

The College Football Playoff semifinal in Pasadena, California, not only touts a number of top-tier NFL draft prospects but a wealth of the best players the collegiate landscape offers.

Most will only hear about the men under center in the weeks leading up to the encounter. Rightfully so, too. Winston is last year's Heisman Trophy winner and the reason the Seminoles are still undefeated. Mariota is one of the most dominant Heisman winners in history.

The two will need strong contributions from a few key players, though. To that end, let's shift the focus away from the quarterbacks for a moment and highlight a few unheralded names who will make themselves known soon.

 

Underrated Rose Bowl X-Factors

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

When it comes to the nation's third-ranked offense, people seem most know Mariota's name and few others.

That will change in a hurry once Royce Freeman gets to go against the Seminoles defense.

The definition of a workhorse back, Freeman is a freshman who has outpaced everyone on the roster this year:

A dive into those numbers is quite impressive. Freeman owns six 100-yard performances this season, with his current streak set at three. He also has six games with a minimum of two touchdowns, highlighted by a four-touchdown performance against Washington.

Freeman is quite difficult to stop once he gets going. If the Seminoles cannot slow him down early and often, the game will become unglued due to yet another prolific piece of the Oregon offense a shaky defense must account for on every snap.

 

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Florida State has a freshman of its own in the backfield who can shred defenses on every snap.

Dalvin Cook did not receive more than 13 carries until the sixth game of the season, but since then, it has been full-sail ahead. He now leads the Seminoles in rushing with 155 attempts for 905 yards and eight touchdowns.

Cook was especially impressive in the ACC Championship Game win over Georgia Tech with his 177 yards and a score on 31 carries. In fact, the number is the most coach Jimbo Fisher has asked of a back since 2005.

Fisher discussed Cook's performance in that game, per Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel.

He was hot, he was going. [Mario] Pender was ready, but he was playing so well. In that game, every offensive possession was so critical. You couldn't afford a mistake. Not that you thought the other guy would, but you've got a hot hand, you've got to stay with it.

Cook's importance cannot be understated. If he gets going early and often, it means that the Seminoles can control the pace of the game and keep Mariota off the field. It also means less pressure on Winston, who has struggled with ball security this season (24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions).

 

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon

At first glance, box scores do not suggest Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is an elite collegiate defensive back.

The owner of just two interceptions and 63 total tackles this year, Ekpre-Olomu is valuable in more ways than on the stat sheet—such as forcing opposing offenses into one-dimensional attacks.

Offenses want no part of the senior corner, which pushes aerial attacks in a predictable direction most of the time. When quarterbacks do challenge Ekpre-Olomu's side of the field, it usually results in a bad time for the offense.

Prolific passing attacks are common in the Pac-12, so Ekpre-Olomu is ready for whatever Winston and the Seminoles offense throws his way. His main assignment will likely be to follow wideout Rashad Greene (93 catches, 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns). This in theory will funnel the ball to predictable locations, such as tight end Nick O'Leary.

Ekpre-Olomu may once again not come up big on the stat sheet, but his presence in the Rose Bowl will be impossible to deny.

 

Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

Florida State also happens to have a defensive presence who isn't known for stuffing the stat sheet yet changes games on his own.

The NFL will also call up defensive tackle Eddie Goldman soon, but not before he attempts to stop Freeman and put heat on Mariota each time the ball is snapped.

Goldman has just four sacks to his name his year, but a more athletic tackle at 6'4" and 314 pounds is difficult to find. As a player who can generate the unorthodox pressure up the middle, it will be his responsibility to flush Mariota from the pocket in the hopes he makes mistakes.

Mariota is great on the run, but that is more preferable than allowing him to sit in the pocket and pick apart the secondary like a surgeon. An added bonus of Goldman's presence is that he can help the line to generate pressure with four players, meaning more bodies in coverage to counteract the Oregon passing attack.

Goldman and Co. are near the end of an up-and-down season (26th-ranked defense), but Goldman gives the Seminoles a serious chance to do the unthinkable and ground the Ducks.

 

Stats and information via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified. 

 

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Key Matchups to Watch in Ohio State vs. Alabama Clash

When Ohio State and Alabama take the field on Jan. 1 at the Sugar Bowl, all eyes will be focused upon head coaches Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

After all, they are two of the rock stars in the sport who have crystal footballs to back it up. It will be a renewal of the coaching rivalry fans saw in SEC Championship Games when Meyer was at Florida, only this time, he will be leading the scarlet and gray from the Big Ten.

However, the actual matchups on the field will go a longer way toward determining the outcome of this game than the coaching showdown. With that in mind, here is a look at the schedule for the Sugar Bowl and some key matchups to watch in the College Football Playoff semifinal clash.

 

2015 Sugar Bowl

Matchup: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

Place: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana  

Channel: ESPN

 

Key Matchups

Doran Grant vs. Amari Cooper

Ohio State’s defense cost it a chance at a national title last season with multiple collapses against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, but it bounced back admirably this year. Never was that more apparent than during the 59-0 beatdown the Buckeyes handed Wisconsin in this season’s conference title game.

One reason for the improvement was the country’s 17th-ranked passing defense, which also finished fourth in the nation with 21 interceptions.

Doran Grant is the best cornerback in a talented secondary and will be tasked with the nearly impossible job of at least slowing down Alabama’s all-world wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Grant stepped up on the big stage with two picks against Wisconsin and a formidable game against Michigan State (Tony Lippett only had 64 receiving yards), but Cooper is an NFL star in the making.

Grant is certainly going to need some help from the rest of the secondary if he wants to contain Cooper, who finished the season with 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches. 

Ian Rapoport of NFL.com discussed how talented Cooper is and the potential Cooper has for the next level:

Interestingly, Alabama’s second-leading receiver this year was DeAndrew White, who only tallied 439 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes apply bracket coverage with a safety over the top on Cooper in an effort to force the other receivers to win the game.

 

Alabama’s Offensive Line vs. Ohio State’s Defensive Line

One thing that would really help Ohio State’s secondary against Cooper is if Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and the rest of the defensive line can get a consistent pass rush on Blake Sims.

Something will have to give in the matchup between the Buckeyes defensive line and Alabama’s offensive line. Ohio State was seventh in the nation with 40 sacks, and Alabama was 11th in the nation with only 13 sacks allowed.

Bosa, who led the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks and was named a first-team Associated Press All-American, and Bennett, who was named a third-team Associated Press All-American, will be key in this battle. 

Even if Bosa and Bennett fail to rack up significant sack numbers, they can force Sims to throw the ball earlier than he wants, which will give the secondary a better chance against Cooper. Bosa and Bennett also need to get penetration against the run in order to allow the linebackers to come up and make plays in the backfield.

 

Ohio State’s Receivers vs. Alabama’s Secondary

Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors passed along some statistics for the Ohio State wide receiver corps and a quote from Meyer about that group:

The group has caught 225 passes for 3209 yards and 39 touchdowns through 13 games. And unlike years past, Meyer can rely on a rotation of players instead of one or two to make plays on a semi-weekly basis. 

'We have five guys I have no problem throwing the ball to,' Meyer said.   

Those five guys are presumably Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson (who is expected to return for the playoffs after missing the majority of the final month with a broken foot).

Smith consistently beats defenders on deep routes, Thomas is Ohio State’s go-to guy on slant routes who is capable of making one defender miss and racing the rest of the way for a touchdown, Spencer is an excellent blocker who can also make plays underneath, and Marshall and Wilson are the speedsters from the slot who can take shovel passes or reverses and break them for long touchdowns.

Marshall can also play some Wildcat quarterback and may even be the second-stringer during the playoff game behind Cardale Jones.

The Sugar Bowl is a battle between the country’s No. 4 scoring offense in Ohio State and No. 4 scoring defense in Alabama. On paper, that is a strength vs. strength matchup; however, Alabama was a decidedly mediocre 60th in the country against the pass. 

The Crimson Tide have been the kings of college football for years, but they have proven vulnerable in the secondary down the stretch, as JBook of Bucknuts.com noted:

Jones proved in the Big Ten Championship Game with three deep touchdown passes to Smith that he is not afraid to throw it downfield. He will have to do just that against a beatable Alabama secondary if the Buckeyes are going to shock the college football world in the Sugar Bowl.

 

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule, Predictions for Entire College Football Postseason

It’s college bowl season, which means sponsors like Royal Purple, Famous Idaho Potato and even Bitcoin take center stage for football fans looking to enjoy some postseason action.

Regardless of the sometimes amusing bowl names, there are plenty of intriguing matchups on tap during the 2014-15 college football postseason. With that in mind, here is a look at the entire schedule and predictions for each bowl showdown.

 

Under-the-Radar Game to Watch: Utah vs. Colorado State

Colorado State has an opportunity against a Pac-12 opponent to make a statement in its bowl game, but it has more on its plate than just the upcoming contest.

Florida hired head coach Jim McElwain away from the Rams, so they will be playing without their usual leader. McElwain orchestrated one of the best offenses in the country, and there may be some fear that there will be a drop in production in the near future. 

That won’t be an issue if Colorado State brings in someone associated with Oregon’s high-octane attack, which Jeremy Fowler of ESPN pointed out is a possibility:

In terms of the matchup on the field, Utah in a bowl game is as close to a sure thing as you can find in college football and is an incredible 10-1 in the postseason since 1999.

Colorado State finished 10-2 on the season, but it didn’t play a ranked opponent all year. Utah has wins over UCLA, USC and Stanford on its resume but struggled down the stretch with three losses in its final five games, including a 42-10 beatdown from Arizona.

Playing in a difficult conference means plenty of close games, and seven of Utah’s 12 contests were decided by one score. Coach Kyle Whittingham discussed the sheer number of close games, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN.com.

"Seems like every week has come down to the last possession or even the last play at times," Whittingham noted. "We're finding ways to win most of them and that's very encouraging, because the last couple years we were just the opposite of that. We were not finishing and finding ways to win those close games."

One of the key matchups in this bowl game will happen when Utah has the ball. Running back Devontae Booker finished the season with 1,350 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and should have some running room against Colorado State’s defense. The Rams allowed at least 100 rushing yards in every game they played and were 89th in the country against the run.

Utah was only 91st in the country in passing offense, so it will need to rely on Booker and that rushing attack.

On the other side, there are weapons everywhere you look when Colorado State has the ball, and it finished eighth in the country in passing yards per game. Quarterback Garrett Grayson spearheaded the attack all year and won the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. He finished with 32 touchdown passes and was second in the country in passer rating (171.3) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

Receiver Rashard Higgins, who finished with 17 touchdowns and a nation-best 149.1 receiving yards per game, is Grayson’s primary target. Throw in running back Dee Hart, who tallied 564 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final four games, and this is a complete offense.

Utah will counter with a defense that led the nation with 52 sacks but finished a disappointing 92nd against the pass and 56th against the run. Part of that can be attributed to playing in the offense-happy Pac-12, though, considering the Utes were third in the conference in passing yards allowed per game.

Ultimately, Colorado State has too many weapons on the field for Utah with its balanced offensive attack.

If the Rams can get an early lead in this one behind Grayson, Hart and Higgins, they will force Utah to play from behind and outside of its comfort zone. It is much harder to consistently run the ball when you are trailing because it keeps the clock running, and the Utes will have to turn to an aerial attack that is suspect at best in the second half.

The result will be Colorado State’s 11th win of the season. 

Prediction: Colorado State 34, Utah 24

 

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Texas Football: Final 2014 Positional Grades for the Longhorns

When we look at their middling offense and embarrassing special teams, the Texas Longhorns were lucky to finish the season at a bowl-eligible 6-6.

That should tell you something about how Charlie Strong's defense was in 2014.

While not a single offensive unit cracked a B in our final positional grades, every group on the defense easily reached that mark, with even the lowest-rated group turning in a solid season.

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Colorado State Head Coach Search: Latest News and Rumors on Position

In the wake of losing Jim McElwain to Florida, Colorado State has begun its search for the program's next head coach. Some of the early names are intriguing ones, including Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost and Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.

Pat Forde of Yahoo reported a slew of early names under consideration:

Frost's name has been mentioned in several head coaching searches, including the one for the Tulsa job earlier this month. Philip Montgomery of Baylor ultimately took that role, but Frost remains a strong candidate after helping lead Oregon to the College Football Playoff.

On the heels of grooming Marcus Mariota into a Heisman winner, he might get that opportunity with the Rams. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports offers more on the situation:

Along with his recent success, Vic Lombardi of CBS4 notes Frost has a connection to Colorado State:

Meanwhile, Bedford has built quite a resume for himself at Louisville and Texas. His turnaround of both programs on the defensive side makes him a solid candidate for any school, especially a CSU team that finished 34th in points allowed (23.4) this past season.

Jason Suchomel of Rivals.com (subscription required) notes more on Bedford:

Regardless of who takes over the position, he will inherit a program that has enjoyed success under McElwain. The former Alabama offensive coordinator led the Rams to a 10-2 record in 2014 and used it to propel himself back to the SEC.

Given the wealth of talent to choose from, the Rams have a good shot at coming away with another great head coach. Whether or not that coach will be able to repeat the same success as McElwain, however, remains to be seen.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Ohio State Football: 3 Home Run Candidates to Replace Tom Herman

With offensive coordinator Tom Herman leaving his post at Ohio State to take over at Houston, head coach Urban Meyer needs to find a home run candidate to fill a big void in the Buckeyes' coaching staff. 

Herman, who came to Columbus after successful stints as the offensive coordinator at Rice and Iowa State, helped Ohio State rewrite its record book with offenses that varied from bruising, pound-the-ground attacks to high-flying, aerial assaults. One of his greatest strengths is his flexibility; he finds what his team is good at, and then, he features it with a breathtaking efficiency.

With Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde in the backfield, Ohio State boasted one of the nation's most powerful rushing attacks from 2012-13. With J.T. Barrett and a bevy of playmakers on the perimeter this season, Herman shifted his game plan to be more pass-heavy, which produced the No. 4 scoring offense in the country.

But it wasn't just his ability to manage an offense that made him a perfect fit at Ohio State. Herman's recruiting reach—specifically in the state of Texas—was invaluable as the Buckeyes landed Lone Star State prospects, such as Barrett and Dontre Wilson. 

Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote how important it will be for Meyer to find an all-star candidate to replace Herman. Whether they provide the right fit offensively or possess the Texas connection Herman had, one of these three coordinators would be a fantastic hire for Meyer and the Buckeyes. 

 

Scott Frost, Oregon Offensive Coordinator

Alongside head coach Mark Helfrich, Scott Frost helped Oregon's offense maintain the same effectiveness it had when Chip Kelly was at the helm.

His football knowledge stems from his playing days, when he learned from coaching legends such as Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne during his collegiate career before spending time under Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden in the NFL. 

Frost was brought on at Oregon in 2009 to coach the receivers—a role he filled until last season, when Helfrich promoted him to hold offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach duties. The Ducks have soared during that stretch, averaging 555.6 total yards and 45.9 points per game since the start of 2013. 

Oregon runs a wide-open attack that has similar principles to the offense Ohio State runs. Frost would not only maintain what the Buckeyes have built with Herman, he'd also be a great mentor to Ohio State's deep stable of quarterbacks. The Ducks produced a Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller in Marcus Mariota this season. Frost's role as the quarterbacks coach was key to Mariota's success.

 

Lincoln Riley, East Carolina Assistant Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator

Lincoln Riley doesn't come from a big-time program like Frost, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be a huge coup for Meyer and the Buckeyes.

An up-and-comer who learned the air-raid offense at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, Riley was brought in as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at ECU in 2010. Since then, he has orchestrated some of the most prolific units in school history, according to his official bio:

Riley's impact can simply be seen by looking at the Pirate record books as his units rank No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 on ECU's single-season passing list. In addition, three of his four squads are listed first, second and third on the school's yearly total offense ledgers, including a recent record-breaking 6,086-yard compilation in 2013.

His impact also helped rewrite the NCAA record book as senior wideout Justin Hardy broke the FBS career receiving record this season.

Riley would be able to do some damage with the talent Ohio State has on the perimeter.

 

Doug Meacham, TCU Co-Offensive Coordinator

Want ties to the talent-rich state of Texas? Why not go after TCU co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham. 

The veteran coach has coached in or around Texas for years. Prior to taking over the Horned Frogs this season, Meacham was the tight ends/inside receivers coach at Oklahoma State (2005-12) and the offensive coordinator at Houston (2013).

His best work came this year at TCU, though, as he improved an offense that averaged just 25.1 points per game a season ago to a unit that scorched opposing defenses for 46.8 in 2014. After triggering the Horned Frogs' incredible turnaround, Meacham was named a Broyles Award finalist—an award given to the nation's top assistant coach. He came up short, though, as Herman was announced the winner after Ohio State thumped Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

 

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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Descent into the Great Unknown: How Alabama Can Best Prepare for Cardale Jones

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s preparations for Ohio State in the film room will be a little different than they usually are for opponents, especially before a big game like this.

Where Nick Saban is especially meticulous, not letting any detail about the opposition slip through the cracks, he’ll have a difficult time doing so when scouting the Buckeyes offense and preparing the perfect defensive plan.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones made his first start of his career in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, leading a 59-0 rout of the Badgers. Jones looked poised and confident, completing 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Jones replaced the injured JT Barrett, Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy candidate before he was hurt at Michigan. Barrett was only playing because Braxton Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, sustained an injury in practice on the eve of the season.

So Jones is essentially the Buckeyes’ third string quarterback, thrust into a starting role in the College Football Playoff.

But because of Ohio State’s bad luck under center this year, Alabama has very limited film on the guy it will face in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

Jones had appeared in seven games this year before taking the reins against Wisconsin, largely in backup duty. He threw two passes in three games in 2013.

So drawing up a scouting report on the redshirt sophomore will be a tricky task for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

“We did see him play in almost a game and a half,” Saban said on Tuesday night. “And he pretty much did a lot of things that the other guy did. But the one thing that he did really well was pass the ball. Made some really really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy [Barrett] did too.

"So we have a tremendous amount of respect for what this guy [Jones] can do, and we feel like, philosophically, they’re going to run that offense. It’s just what part of it they might feature a little different, that’s the part we’re not sure about.”

Saban should be pretty familiar with Urban Meyer’s offense at this point in both of their careers.

They met in a pair of highly publicized SEC Championship Games in 2008 and 2009 when Meyer was at Florida that they split. Saban got the better of Meyer one more time in 2010, Meyer’s last year at Florida and a year without Tim Tebow.

His offense at Ohio State has largely been the same type of concepts.

It’s a more traditional “spread”-type offense, with a lot of quarterback runs and three- and four-wide receiver sets. Miller had a lot of success running the system and then Barrett when he got hurt. Jones thrived in the offense in his one game against Wisconsin.

So Alabama isn’t expecting a much different look in terms of philosophy.

“Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said. “They run the same scheme on offense. We’re just going to have to watch film on what they do. Because they’re not going to change the whole offense just for one player, and at such late a time. So I guess we’ll just do that.”

It would be naive, though, to expect the exact same look from Ohio State that it has shown all season before Barrett’s injury.

Jones made a couple of plays with his feet, but at 6’5”, 250 pounds, he isn’t quite the nimble quarterback that Barrett or Miller is.

He did, though, show off his arm strength and passing ability that Saban mentioned. Particularly, on 39-, 44- and 42-yard touchdown passes against Wisconsin, Jones displayed the combination of touch, arm strength and accuracy that is critical in an effective quarterback.

And he showed the challenge that Alabama will have in preparing for a relative unknown.

“I think that the style of the quarterback is the same as the other guy [Barrett],” Saban said. “Like, the guy that played all season [Barrett] is a lot like Braxton Miller, so there wasn’t a lot of difference. I think this guy [Jones] is very very capable, very good passer, big, strong, athletic guy that can really do all the things that the other guy [Barrett] can do in terms of quarterback runs. Just a little different style. That’s all.”

 

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

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Michigan Football: Breaking Down Wolverines RB Position

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were supposed to be the answers to Michigan’s woeful running game.

However, instead of combining forces to dominate the Big Ten in 2014, the pair of 5’11”, 220-pound sophomores frequently—and somewhat surprisingly—struggled to find steady footing on Saturdays.

To be fair, Green appeared capable of turning the corner prior to suffering his season-ending injury Oct. 4 versus Rutgers. Before breaking his clavicle, Green had 12 carries for 74 yards during what ended up being a 26-24 road loss to the Scarlet Knights.

Before that, he rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown versus Appalachian State and gashed Miami (Ohio) for 137 yards and two scores. Unfortunately, those outbursts were tainted by a six-yard effort against Minnesota and a 25-yard flop versus Notre Dame.

Conversely, one of his best friends endured a similar up-and-down haul—minus the season-ending injury, of course.

At times, Smith looked like a tank. He had a few highlight runs, complete with stiff-arms, gallops and the rest of the trimmings. Back in Week 1’s 52-14 demolition-style victory, he teamed up with Green to bulldoze the Mountaineers for 385 yards and three touchdowns.

It was only Appalachian State, but Smith’s 115 yards and two touchdown runs looked great next to Green’s line. The future of the backfield—if even for just one weekend—looked pretty bright.

Life was good.

Then things fell apart.

 

What the Wolverines had in 2014

Wheels spun, but they didn’t make much progress. Nonetheless, Green and Smith were the best available—or at least that was what Wolverines fans were led to believe this past season.

However, not until the emergence of Drake Johnson did Michigan begin to fully show what it had to offer on the ground. A wave of support from fans followed the 6’0”, 211-pound redshirt sophomore.

The Ann Arbor Pioneer high school hero carried the ball 55 times for 320 yards during the final four games, highlighted by a 122-yard, two-touchdown homecoming romping of Indiana and a 74-yard, two-score effort versus Ohio State.

He didn’t pack Green- and Smith-like power, but his shifty speed injected life into a position group that rushed 425 times for 1,954 yards and 17 touchdowns—numbers good enough for a lukewarm finish of No. 7 in the Big Ten (162.8 YPG).

But, in true bad-luck fashion, he retore his left ACL during the 42-28 loss to the playoff-bound Buckeyes—leaving fans to wonder, yet again, what he’ll bring to the mix next year.

Stats: 110 rushing first downs, No. 9 in the Big Ten. Each of Michigan’s 17 rushing touchdowns were scored in the red zone, good for No. 3 overall in the league.

 

What they’ll have in 2015

Well, let’s start with what Michigan won’t have in 2015: Mike Weber, a 4-star running back who, following Team 135’s stumble to 5-7, flipped from maize and blue to the scarlet and gray of Ohio State.

The 5’10”, 205-pound Cass Tech senior represented another phase in the Wolverines’ return to rushing prominence. But he now belongs to Urban Meyer.

Losing Weber hurt, but Brian Cole, another star prep from the Great Lakes State, appears to be on the way. The 6’2”, 190-pound 4-star athlete out of Saginaw Heritage runs a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and is expected to settle into the backfield this fall.

He could also be a viable pass-catching option, as he has hands to match his quick legs. 

Ty Isaac is a 6’3”, 225-pound combination of speed, power and finesse that Michigan wanted the first time around. However, the 2012 all-purpose back instead chose USC. 

The former Trojans depth-back should find a home in the rotations come spring—he already has a year at Michigan, so he knows the lay of the land. Before transferring from sunny Southern California, the sophomore ran the ball 40 times for 236 yards and two touchdowns, averaging an outstanding 5.9 yards per touch.

Late this past year, former coach Brady Hoke mentioned that Isaac had ran well during bye-week practices and should be ready sooner than later. 

Isaac and Johnson could be the new tandem in town, or they could be an impressive support system for Green and Smith, who seem to be the logical picks for No. 1 and 2 at the moment.

At this point, who's doing what and when hinges on the philosophy of the next coaching regime. 

But there are pieces in place, so the new guys won't have to start from scratch. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer

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