Feed aggregator

Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Illinois vs Louisiana Tech

Heart of Dallas Bowl

Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Illinois (6-6) returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 and the first time under head coach Tim Beckman. Louisiana Tech (8-5) earns its berth as winners of Conference USA's West Division.

These two teams have met only once before, with Louisiana Tech beating Illinois 52-24 on September 22, 2012 in Champaign.

With a win, Louisiana Tech will secure just its third nine-win season since joining the FBS in 1989. A win for either team will move the victor's bowl record to .500 all time. Illinois is 8-9 in bowl games while Louisiana Tech is 2-3-1.

This game could hinge on Illinois' ability to protect quarterback Reilly O'Toole. To do that, the Illini will have to contend with a familiar face: defensive end Houston Bates. After graduating from Illinois, Bates returned to Louisiana to be close to home and play out his eligibility while attending graduate school at Louisiana Tech. Bates leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

SEC Football: 5 Reasons the Conference Will Dominate Bowl Season

After posting a combined 13-6 record in the previous two postseasons, the SEC is set to once again dominate in 2014-15.

In fact, coming up with a list of reasons as to why the league wouldn't dominate is a much tougher challenge, because it's hard to believe history isn't set to repeat itself.

There's no disputing the SEC has been the best college football league for nearly a decade despite having its championship streak broken last year when Auburn lost to Florida State on a last-minute touchdown. Florida began the streak, LSU chipped in, Auburn played a role and Alabama has reached a near-dynasty.

If or when the gap between the SEC and whatever conference you think is second—the Pac-12 or Big 12—disappears, we'll look back on the era and marvel at how many great coaches, players and games we saw helping to build the league's legacy.

But a legacy doesn't exist unless it proves itself when it matters most—and for the sport of college football, that's bowl season.

Click ahead to find out why the SEC is poised to come out on top.

 

All odds via oddshark.com. Recruiting info via 247sports.com.

Begin Slideshow

The Perfect Candidate for Vacant Texas A&M Defensive Coordinator Job

As "Harbaugh Watch" closes its fourth week in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Texas A&M is still without a defensive coordinator.

Those two things could be related.

According to Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman, Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin—who will serve as the Gators' interim head coach in the Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina—is waiting on Jim Harbaugh to make a decision regarding the vacant Michigan head coaching position before deciding his next step as a college coach.

Durkin was a defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator for Stanford from 2007-2009 when Harbaugh was the head coach of the Cardinal.

If he doesn't step foot into Ann Arbor, it appears that College Station could be an option. According to the report, Texas A&M wants Durkin and, considering it has been without a defensive coordinator since the day after Thanksgiving, seems comfortable playing the waiting game.

As it should.

If Texas A&M's patience pays off and Durkin becomes its new defensive coordinator, it wouldn't just be a home run hire, it'd be a tape measure shot.

Durkin worked wonders in his five seasons at Florida, the first three as the linebackers coach and final two as defensive coordinator. Florida never finished out of the top five in the SEC in yards per play or total defense during Durkin's time in Gainesville and gave up an average of 19.6 points per game over the last five years.

For comparison, Texas A&M has given up an average of 29.9 points per game over the last two seasons under former defensive coordinator Mark Snyder.

The foundation of Florida's defenses under Durkin was a defensive line that, even if it didn't force stops behind the line of scrimmage, was disruptive in the backfield and forced opposing quarterbacks to make quick decisions and running backs to cut in the backfield.

Whether it was Dante Fowler, Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd or Jonathan Bullard, the Gators didn't just pay rent in the backfield, they paid the mortgage.

The same blueprint can be replicated at Texas A&M. 

Freshman defensive end Myles Garrett exploded onto the scene in 2014, setting the SEC single-season record for sacks by a freshman with 11, posting 12.5 tackles for loss and notching 50 tackles for the Aggies. He's the biggest part of a defensive line that only has one senior on its entire two-deep.

Toss in freshman safety Armani Watts and sophomore linebackers Shaan Washington and A.J. Hilliard (who suffered a season-ending injury in the opener vs. South Carolina), and the foundation is there.

It just needs to be solidified, and Durkin is the guy to do it. 

He's been at the helm of a plug-n-play defense that routinely is dealt blows by early entry to the NFL draft. Despite that, Florida's defenses have been as consistent as the sunrise.

Durkin would kill it at Texas A&M, and if head coach Kevin Sumlin's patience pays off and Durkin winds up in College Station, the Aggies defense will go from punchline to power in a hurry.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

How Will Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Replace Mike Davis in 2015?

The days of South Carolina having a bell-cow running back could be coming to an end in earnest. That's because its latest every-down running back, Mike Davis, is headed to the NFL. 

“Yes, this will be my last game,” Davis said in an email statement from South Carolina on the upcoming Independence Bowl versus Miami (Saturday, Dec. 27). “You always want to go out with a bang. I just tell my teammates that I love them. I’ve enjoyed this long ride."

Davis has led the Gamecocks in rushing in each of the last two seasons, with 927 yards this season and 1,183 yards in 2013. He's accounted for 20 rushing touchdowns during that two-year span as well as 64 catches for 701 yards out of the backfield. 

The most telling stat, though, is the percentage of the running game that went through him. The next-closest running back in terms of production was junior Brandon Wilds, who had 85 fewer carries than Davis' 186 attempts.

That number is dwarfed by his number of carries last year, though. Davis carried the ball 203 times, while Shon Carson, the next-leading running back, had 61 carries. (Quarterback Connor Shaw was an important part of the ground attack with 154 carries.) 

Before Davis, Marcus Lattimore was the Gamecocks' go-to running back for three years. Not since 2009, with Kenny Miles and Brian Maddox, has South Carolina relied on multiple running backs to carry the load of the offense. 

That could be the case in 2015, however. Unless someone emerges as the No. 1 guy, head coach Steve Spurrier's offense could have a real running back-by-committee approach—at least at first. Wilds seems like the most likely candidate to be that No. 1 guy.

As Avery Wilks of GamecockCentral.com points out, Wilds briefly took on the role of an every-down back in 2011 because of injuries elsewhere: 

Wilds was ready as a true freshman, when injuries to Marcus Lattimore and Shon Carson left the Blythewood, South Carolina, native as the Gamecocks' best option at tailback.

Wilds accounted for nearly 81 percent of USC's tailback carries over the next four games, taking 87 carries for 387 yards and three touchdowns.

Wilds and redshirt freshman David Williams, the next-leading rushers behind Davis, have been extremely productive in the times they have seen the field. On average, the two have picked up 5.6 yards per rush on about seven carries per game. 

Beyond them, it could be a wild card. The Gamecocks still have Carson, and two more running backs—AJ Turner and Mon Denson—have verbally committed to South Carolina for the 2015 class, per 247Sports. There's also wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, who tends to do a little bit of everything. This past season, Cooper ran the ball 24 times and scored a pair of touchdowns. 

Turner is a smaller back, listed at 5'11" and 180 pounds on 247Sports. The overall identity at running back, however, is of the bulky, downhill-runner variety. All other running backs, including Cooper at wide receiver, are over 200 pounds. 

It appears next season will be a steady diet of multiple power backs for opposing defenses. With Spurrier breaking in a new starting quarterback, that should be a good thing. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nick Marshall Will Leave Auburn as 'One of the Best' in the Tigers' History

AUBURN, Ala. — The start of a new year might be the end of Nick Marshall's career as a quarterback.

On Jan. 1, when Auburn faces Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, the senior will lead his offense onto the field one last time.

Marshall's NFL prospects as a quarterback look slim. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects him to make a return to defensive back, a position where he started his wild collegiate career while at rival Georgia.

But no matter if Marshall takes another snap at quarterback in a competitive game after the Tigers' bowl game, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn knows one thing—his signal-caller will leave as a legend.

"He was a big part of leading us to the national championship, and it would have been extremely hard to get there without him," Malzahn said. "He has been very good for us. He’s one of the best to ever come through here."

That's high praise, especially at a school that has put out several Heisman winners and dozens of All-Americans, but it's not unwarranted.

Marshall has been responsible for 55 touchdowns in his Auburn career. That mark places him third all-time in school history, behind Heisman winner Pat Sullivan and current Auburn wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig.

If Marshall records four touchdowns against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl—a feat he has accomplished four different times—he will pass Craig.

But while Sullivan and Craig both compiled their touchdowns across three seasons as starting quarterbacks, Marshall will have made his mark in just two seasons.

That is an impressive accomplishment for a former junior college transfer who didn't even win the starting job at Auburn until a few weeks before the 2013 season opener.

"He's a guy who came in here with three weeks to go and started at quarterback for us the last two years," senior center Reese Dismukes said. "He has done a great job and has done everything the coaches have ever asked him to do. He'll be remembered as one of Auburn's greats."

Marshall took over Auburn's starting quarterback position, one that had been in turmoil since the departure of Cam Newton at the end of the 2010 season, and helped turn a 3-9 team into a 12-2 team with an SEC title and a BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2013.

He has one of the top winning percentages for a quarterback in Auburn history, as the Tigers have gone 18-6 when his name has been in the starting lineup.

Despite his well-documented struggles with accuracy, Marshall is currently eighth all-time in passing yards with 4,291 in 25 games.

His 6,139 career yards of total offense is sixth in Auburn history, and he has a realistic chance at moving all the way into fourth with another standout performance in the Outback Bowl.

This chance to rise even higher in the Auburn record books comes after the finest performance of his career, the Iron Bowl against No. 1 Alabama.

Marshall shattered the school record for total offense in one game by putting up 505 yards against one of the country's best defenses. While his team fell short of the upset in Tuscaloosa, the 55-44 loss wasn't due to a lack of anything from Auburn's athletic quarterback.

"I'm proud of myself, my teammates and my coaches for putting us in the best situation to try and win the game," Marshall said after the Iron Bowl last month. "That's all I can ask for."

In that Iron Bowl, Marshall showcased his best quality as an Auburn quarterback—performing his best when the pressure is at its highest.

Fourth-quarter comebacks and last-minute drama were never too much for Marshall, who has a 9-2 record at Auburn in one-possession games.

Several of Marshall's game-changing plays in those contests will be remembered forever, including the "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" Hail Mary pass to knock off Georgia in 2013 and a game-tying pop pass to Sammie Coates in the 2013 Iron Bowl:

"I've been blessed to coach some pretty good guys…but Nick is a guy that the moment's never too big for him," Malzahn said. "He's had numerous moments, from a quarterback standpoint, I don't know if I've ever had a quarterback that had that many different pressure moments. He's responded like a champ in all of them."

Although the lofty goals Marshall and his teammates set heading into the 2014 season are unattainable at this point, he still has a chance to add on to his incredible Auburn legacy on New Year's Day.

Some players might underachieve in a bowl game when their team has expectations at competing for a national championship.

But don't expect that out of an all-time great like Nick Marshall.

"He has played in the biggest games to the lowest games, and I'm sure his confidence and the way he approaches games is just like any other game," senior wide receiver Quan Bray said earlier this season. "He doesn't show any ups and downs. He just goes out and he steps up his play.

"Once he does that, everybody else follows, and everything else takes care of itself."

 

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Bowl Picks 2014: Predictions for Remaining Postseason Games

College football fans could not have asked for much more out of the pre-Christmas bowl games.

After all, we were treated to a double-overtime thriller that ended in a brawl between Memphis and BYU, an incredible Hail Mary finish in the clash between Central Michigan and Western Kentucky and nail-biting fourth quarters in Navy’s win over San Diego State and Bowling Green’s win over South Alabama.

What is in store for the post-Christmas games? Here is a look at predictions for every game before digging into a preview for an under-the-radar matchup to watch.

 

Under-the-Radar Matchup to Watch: Rutgers vs. North Carolina

Rutgers from the Big Ten and North Carolina from the ACC will put on their own Big Ten-ACC Challenge at the Quick Lane Bowl Friday.

The Scarlet Knights may have been new in the Big Ten this season and struggled against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State, but they won all four nonconference games, including a tilt with Washington State from the Pac-12 and fellow bowl team Navy. They will try to win outside of the league yet again Friday.

Quarterback Gary Nova discussed the season as a whole, via ESPN.com: "Obviously we wanted to be undefeated, but 8-5 is a solid season, especially in this conference with the great teams, great players, so it would be a great way to end the season.” 

Nova should have a big day against the Tar Heels. He finished the season with 2,667 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes, which were both third in the Big Ten. He and wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who finished with 1,043 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches, will look to exploit a North Carolina defense that finished 108th against the pass and 117th against the run.

The Tar Heels allowed 38.9 points per game, which was an abysmal 119th in the country, and 495.7 yards per game. They gave up 70 points to East Carolina, 50 points to Clemson, 50 to Notre Dame, 47 to Miami, 43 to Georgia Tech and 35 to North Carolina State in the season finale.

Rutgers' leading rusher, Desmon Peoples, will miss the bowl game with an injury, but that shouldn’t even be a concern against this vulnerable North Carolina defense. What’s more, Robert Martin and Josh Hicks both filled in admirably in the final three games.

Sammy Batten of The Fayetteville Observer pointed out one potential reason why the Tar Heels have struggled:

UNC's defense suffered three significant losses in July before the start of training camp. Potential linebacker starter Darius Lipford made himself eligible for the NFL's supplemental draft, then defensive lineman Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb left the team for what was described as "personal reasons." …

The departures may have been a sign of the struggles to come on defense for UNC.

Over the next three months, the Tar Heels found themselves repeatedly out of position to make plays, missing tackles and blowing assignments in the secondary.

North Carolina will have to counter Rutgers on offense, and that is certainly a possibility with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, who finished with 2,870 passing yards, 737 rushing yards and 32 total touchdowns.

North Carolina is a dangerous passing team that finished 24th in the country in aerial yards per game with multiple receiving threats in Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins. The offense as a whole finished 33rd in the country in scoring and had to be effective to counterbalance the terrible defense enough to reach .500 and become bowl-eligible.

Rutgers' defense is certainly nothing to write home about, but it was a mediocre 67th in the country against the pass. The secondary will have to at least be solid Friday because the Tar Heels will throw it early and often.

As long as Rutgers doesn’t completely fall flat on defense, it should walk away with a victory. The Tar Heels can’t stop anyone, and that won’t change just because it is bowl season. 

Prediction: Rutgers 37, North Carolina 28

 

Follow me on Twitter:

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5 Coaches Who Need a Big 2015 Recruiting Class

The quickest way for a program to turn the corner and become a consistent winner is to win the battles on the recruiting trail. 

It’s fitting that the period from now until national signing day also merges with the beginning and the ending of the coaching carousel.

There are a few coaches who are either beginning to feel some heat or are in the rebuilding stages of their programs—each of whom could use a big close to the 2015 cycle.

Which coaches are most in need of a strong 2015 recruiting class?

 

All coaches listed in alphabetical order.

Begin Slideshow

Nebraska Football: Can Huskers Really Beat USC in Holiday Bowl?

Do you have faith that Nebraska can defeat USC? If so, you're in the minority.

Fox Sports' Ryan Fowler projected a 23-20 victory for the Trojans, per the Omaha World-Herald, while Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel both predicted USC victories by a large margin (41-21 and 35-17 respectively).

Even the spread isn't in Nebraska's favor, with Odds Shark putting the Huskers as a seven-point underdog.

That has to feel discouraging for Nebraska fans. After firing head coach Bo Pelini and hiring Mike Riley in his place, the Huskers are in a state of transition. Interim head coach Barney Cotton will do his best to keep the Nebraska players focused, but it can't be easy.

Does that mean Nebraska can't win?

Not quite, and USC understands that.

After all, the Trojans were in the same boat as the Huskers just one year ago before defeating Fresno State 45-20 in their bowl game.

"It was tough," quarterback Cody Kessler told Bleacher Report's Kyle Kensing. "But it's about the players on the field."

It ultimately does come down to the players on the field. For the Huskers, it's all about uniting. That's something that could motivate Nebraska to a victory, as safety Nate Gerry said, per ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman:

The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us. We’ve kind of realized that Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other - not really worry about anything. Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.

As for what could happen on the field, it's hard to say. What's immediately clear is that Nebraska has not faced an offensive opponent like USC in 2014. As Sherman pointed out, "Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally."

Shutting down USC's passing game is going to be easier said than done for the Huskers, though. Against Notre Dame (USC's final regular-season opponent of the year), quarterback Kessler threw for 372 yards and six touchdowns.

From a season perspective, Kessler completed 292 passes for 3,505 yards and 36 touchdowns, per ESPN.com. That gives him a 70.7 completion percentage. He's only been intercepted four times.

The area where Nebraska could make an impact? It easily comes down to the defensive line. Kessler was sacked 30 times in 2014, which is an area the Huskers could exploit.

USC's offensive line is young, as the Omaha World-Herald noted. It includes three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Can Nebraska break through the Trojans' young line and put pressure on Kessler?

"Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory," Sherman said.

He's right, too. Gregory sat out against Iowa to end Nebraska's regular season, but he's back at practice. Will he be effective? Can he lead the defensive line? The answers to those questions could easily determine whether or not Nebraska can win.

“Hopefully our D-line will be able to put some pressure on the quarterback,” Cotton said, per the Lincoln Journal Star. “But I’m still sure that our guys want to really concentrate on stopping the run first.”

When it comes to the run game, USC is currently averaging 3.9 yards per carry. As the Lincoln Journal Star noted, that ranks the Trojans 91st nationally. USC is much stronger passing, but Nebraska won't be able to ignore one part of the Trojans' offense for the other if it wishes to win.

As for Nebraska's offense, I-back Ameer Abdullah will need a big day. Cotton believes the Huskers will get that.

“Ameer (Abdullah) looks a lot more like his old self,” Cotton said, per the Lincoln Journal Star. “He really was kind of down a few percentage points as we got to the second half of the season there. But he’s moving better than I’ve seen him look in a long time.”

That's good news for the Huskers, too. When the I-back performs well and rushes for over 100 yards, Nebraska tends to win. When he's limited, things do not go as easily for Nebraska. He'll also need help from his quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, and the offensive line. However, a lot of weight will rest on Abdullah's shoulders alone.

With all that said, the question remains: Can the Huskers really defeat USC?

The odds are stacked against the them. However, a strong showing for the Nebraska defense would give the Huskers the best shot. If things go south for the defense quick, it seems unlikely that Nebraska can walk away with a win.

Additionally, how Abdullah performs will also have a big say in the end result.

Yes, Nebraska can really defeat USC. It won't be easy, seeing as the odds are stacked against the Huskers. However, with a strong game plan and help from Gregory and Abdullah, it's not a complete long shot.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff 2014-15: Predictions for Rose and Sugar Bowl Semifinals

Neither of the College Football Playoff semifinal games will be close affairs. It would be great for college football if they were, but both the Florida State Seminoles and Alabama Crimson Tide will prove to be too talented for the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes, respectively.

This isn't a swipe at the committee for including Oregon or Ohio State, it's just that we will soon see that there's a major gap between the teams.

 

Alabama's Team Speed and Offensive Line Will Dominate in Sugar Bowl

If an opponent can't slow the Alabama Crimson Tide's run game down, then it's doomed to be bitten by the play-action pass deep to Heisman finalist Amari Cooper. Blake Sims is fallible at quarterback, but he has so many weapons out of the backfield with T.J. Yeldon and out wide with Cooper, that he has room for error.

Buckeyes defensive coordinator Chris Ash talked about his fear of Cooper exploding for a big game, per the Ohio State Buckeyes Twitter account:

As dynamic as Cooper, Yeldon and even Sims can be at times, it all starts with the Tide's offensive line. Alabama has run for 2,723 yards this season and averaged 5.11 per carry.

With a running game that consistent, the play-action pass is a built-in weapon almost at the outset of every game. Ohio State had great success limiting the nation's leading rusher Melvin Gordon to just 76 yards in the Big Ten title game.

However, the Wisconsin Badgers don't have as complete of an attack as Bama. Its offensive line isn't as versatile. Ohio State was able to focus on Gordon primarily. There's not one Bama weapon the Buckeyes can afford to devote that much attention to.

At some point, the talent and athleticism advantage at almost every position is going to prove to be too much. On the other side of the ball, the Bucks could be in even more trouble.

There are no defenses in the Big Ten on par with Alabama's. Statistically, four teams in the conference allow fewer yards per game than Bama, but the level of competition is the difference. Bama endured the rigors of the SEC West and won the conference title game. It still has the 11th best defense in the nation with a treacherous schedule.

This is truly one of the elite defenses in the nation. Even if Ohio State were at full strength, it would have a hard time moving the ball against the Tide.

As it is, there's no way Cardale Jones—a third-string quarterback—is going to lead the Bucks past Bama. The Tide will roll 44-10.

 

The Seminoles Defense and Athleticism Will Rule in Rose Bowl

Marcus Mariota deserved to win the Heisman Trophy, but he's in for a rude awakening when he faces the Seminoles defense.

Athletically, Florida State has future NFL-level talent at almost every defensive position. The primary trait that comes with that type of talent is speed. That quickness from almost every spot will make it very difficult for Mariota to make plays with his legs.

Without that as a major weapon, the Ducks will have to depend on consistently winning individual matchups at the line of scrimmage, and on the outside. Last year's Heisman winner Jameis Winston has a lot to prove after an inconsistent season, but you can bet his teammates will want to shut down the man who succeeded him as the nation's top player.

On offense, Winston should be especially sharp in what is likely to be the final college game of his career. He and Mariota figure to be battling not just for a spot in the national championship, but also placement in the upcoming NFL draft. With so much on the line, there's no wonder CollegeFootball 24/7 calls this the best individual matchup of the bowl season.

Quite honestly, Winston has more help up front and weapons out of the backfield. Freshman Dalvin Cook has emerged as the team's top running back. He rushed for 905 yards on just 155 carries, and he should play a big role against Oregon. 

Matters get even worse for Oregon's defense when it comes to defending the pass. News that its best cornerback Ifo Ekpre Olomu would miss the game with an injury, per the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports), seriously hurts the Ducks secondary.

If Winston protects the football and lets his running game set the table, this game could be ugly by the third quarter. The Noles have found a way to pull games out all season. In this one, the defending champs will finally deliver a performance the nation has been expecting.

Florida State will win 37-13.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Odds, Picks for Postseason Clashes

The initial College Football Playoff could not have been scripted any better.

It features a showdown between the past two Heisman winners and two of the most dynamic offenses in the country in the Rose Bowl. It features a showdown between arguably the game’s two best coaches and two of the biggest and most passionate fanbases in the Sugar Bowl.

It’s Buckeye Nation against Roll Tide and the defending champs against the no huddle, no mercy of Oregon.

It’s also everything fans could have asked for this season. Here is a look at the essential information for both playoff games.

 

2015 Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, California

Start Time (ET): 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: WatchESPN  

Odds: Oregon -9, via Odds Shark, as of Thursday at 10 p.m. ET

 

Preview

The headlines in the aftermath of the clash between Oregon and Florida State will undoubtedly revolve around the quarterback battle.

Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and leads a Florida State offense that came through in the fourth quarter throughout the season. Marcus Mariota leads the high-octane Oregon attack and took home the award this season.

Mariota dazzled all year and finished with 3,783 passing yards, 38 touchdown throws, 669 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Perhaps most incredibly, he only threw two interceptions on the season in an offense that runs more plays than almost any other team.

It is not all about Mariota, though. Running back Royce Freeman ended up with 1,299 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and will be an issue for a Florida State defense that proved vulnerable against the run against Georgia Tech, Boston College and others.

Look for Oregon to push the tempo from the start in an effort to wear the Seminoles defense down. Georgia Tech gashed Florida State for 331 rushing yards using misdirection and speed, and Oregon will do the same (even if it is with the read-option instead of the triple-option).

In order for the Seminoles to win, they will have to control the clock and keep Mariota on the sidelines. Running back Dalvin Cook is their best chance at doing that, but Florida State will eventually mix in some throws against an Oregon defense that was 103rd against the pass.

That Ducks defense got even worse with the loss of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a torn ACL.

Guarding wide receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary is never an easy task to begin with, and Oregon will have to do it without its best defender. The Seminoles will score some points in this one.

It is also worth watching how each team performs in the fourth quarter if it comes down to the wire considering Florida State was tested in almost every game this season and Oregon blew out the majority of its opponents. Cliche or not, the Seminoles are the more battle-tested team, which could play a small factor in the Rose Bowl. 

Still, even that won’t be enough to counteract Florida State’s tendency to turn the ball over. America’s Pregame and David Hale of ESPN.com noted just how much of an advantage Oregon has in the turnover department:

Look for Florida State to cough it up in the critical moments of the fourth quarter against a vulnerable but opportunistic Oregon defense. Mariota will parlay that into the game-clinching touchdown. 

Prediction: Oregon 34, Florida State 24

 

2015 Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

When: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Start Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: Watch ESPN  

Odds: Alabama -9, via Odds Shark, as of Thursday at 10 p.m. ET

 

Preview

The Rose Bowl may be defined by the quarterback matchup, but the Sugar Bowl pits coaches Nick Saban and Urban Meyer against each other for the first time since Meyer was at Florida. The coaching may be the biggest storyline heading into the game, but whichever team plays better on the field will ultimately determine the winner.

Alabama brings superstar wide receiver Amari Cooper and his 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches to the table. Throw in physically bruising running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and the Buckeyes are going to have trouble slowing the Crimson Tide down.

Ohio State’s defense has been light years better than it was a season ago, but it is almost impossible to stop both the Alabama rushing attack and the passing game with Cooper. The Buckeyes’ best chance is through pressure from defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, who are both future NFL draft picks and have terrorized opposing offensive lines all season.

Bosa ended up with a Big Ten-best 13.5 sacks and first-team Associated Press All-American honors, while Bennett was named a third-team Associated Press All-American and will be asked to swallow up the inside blockers of Alabama.

Of course, Ohio State hasn’t faced an Alabama line that only allowed 13 sacks all season, although Big Ten Championship Game opponent Wisconsin only gave up 12.

Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash discussed Bosa’s impact, via Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

When I saw him last spring, I saw a very talented, inexperienced young player. We all talked as a staff that if Joey Bosa started to understand how to play the position, he was going to have a chance to be a dominant player. … The production has continued to improve over the course of the season. He's a great player, and if he continues to improve, he has room to continue to improve and can be an outstanding, dominant player at this level and at the next level.

Even with Bosa and Bennett, Ohio State’s offense is going to have to score in this game because stopping Cooper and the running attack will be a tall order for the defense.

That may not be a problem for the fourth-best scoring offense in the country, although Alabama’s defense was fourth in the nation in points allowed per game. It's as if the storylines are writing themselves in this matchup.

Ohio State’s offense is predicated on running the ball, but Alabama is much better against the run than the pass (second in the nation against the run, 60th against the pass). The Buckeyes will use the run with the underrated Ezekiel Elliott to keep the Crimson Tide honest, but they are going to need to make plays through the air to win.

That means Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas will have to get open for quarterback Cardale Jones, who will be making only his second career start. The fact that it comes against the mighty Crimson Tide almost seems unfair for the youngster.

This one will not be a blowout by any stretch, as Jones will find Smith and Thomas for a number of big plays against a vulnerable secondary that is susceptible to deep routes. The problem is, either Cooper or the Alabama running game will be too much for the Buckeyes defense to handle for four quarters. 

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 28

 

Follow me on Twitter:

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Key to Arkansas Becoming Real SEC Contenders in 2014

Arkansas closed strong during the final month of the season, shutting out LSU and Ole Miss in Fayetteville to earn second-year head coach Bret Bielema his first two conference wins and give the program confidence for the first time since Bobby Petrino roamed the sidelines in 2011.

That confidence is back, and from an offensive standpoint, it shouldn't go away now that one of its biggest pieces is coming back—running back Jonathan Williams.

The 6'0", 223-pound native of Allen, Texas announced on Wednesday that he will return to the program for his senior season after exploring a decision to jump early to the NFL.

"I am very excited to return to Arkansas for my senior season and help bring the Razorback football program back to where it belongs," Williams said in a release emailed by Arkansas. "Coach [Bret] Bielema and [running backs] coach [Joel] Thomas have been very supportive of me and my family throughout this process."

His return is huge for Arkansas' hopes of not only getting the program back to respectability, but into contention in the SEC West.

Sharing the workload with fellow running back Alex Collins, all Williams did was finish the season as one of five 1,000-yard rushers in the SEC, gaining 1,085 yards and 11 touchdowns and leading the Hogs in rushing. He's a true all-purpose back that has the size to be dangerous between the tackles and speed to be a threat in space.

His return signals something very important for the Arkansas offense—continuity.

Williams and Collins will return behind an offensive line—which was bigger than any college or NFL offensive line in 2014—that loses only senior right tackle Brey Cook. Quarterback Brandon Allen showed tremendous progress this year, tossing 18 touchdowns and only five picks this season. He will return for his senior season with leading receiver Keon Hatcher and tight end Hunter Henry.

Assuming there are no speed bumps like unexpected roster attrition or injuries before the season, the Hog offense should be able to hit the ground running—literally—when they host UTEP in the season opener in 2015.

Couple that with continuity in the passing game, and the offense should be scary.

 

The real question is on defense, which will look for replacements for star defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight. But defensive coordinator Robb Smith showed in his first season that he can get the job done in the SEC, and with defensive tackle Darius Philon returning and talented youngsters like Bijhon Jackson stepping into bigger roles.

That's a small hole to hop for a program that, since 2011, is used to clearing holes the size of the Grand Canyon since Petrino crashed his motorcycle in April 2012. 

Arkansas will be a dark horse pick to make some noise in the West in 2015, and Williams' return only solidifies that position in the division's pecking order. That's a stark change from where the program was a year ago, when contending for the West seemed more like something out of the fiction section at the library.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Holiday Bowl 2014: Nebraska vs. USC TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Time, More

Nebraska looks to kick off a new football era, and USC hopes to end the first season of a new system in style Saturday in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Despite the chance to get to 10 wins with a bowl victory, the Cornhuskers come into San Diego without their head coach. Bo Pelini's surprise firing was followed by the surprise hiring of Oregon State's Mike Riley, but Pelini's staff (minus the man himself, of course) will be coaching Nebraska one final time.

In order to do so, it will have to notch its first win over a ranked team all season. The 24th-ranked Trojans come in with a worse record (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12), but they are flying high after a season-ending stomping of Notre Dame.

You'd have to search far and wide to find a bowl game between more prestigious programs. USC and Nebraska have combined for 16 national championships and 10 Heisman Trophy winners.

Here's a breakdown of all the information and top storylines for the Holiday Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California 

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): USC -7

 

This One's for Coach

Maybe Nebraska did what it had to do in firing Pelini. But that didn't make it any easier for the players—a group that should be intent on making a statement at the end of a bizarre era.

It was bizarre because despite seven seasons from Pelini, which ended with a strong 62-27 record, the coach never made the jump to becoming a perennial Big Ten and national title contender. And it was even more bizarre because many players' sentiments seemed to reflect that the decision to fire Pelini may not have been warranted.

With the new coach already moving his boxes into Pelini's old office, soon-to-be former defensive coordinator John Papuchis summed it up perfectly.

“One way or another, that’s coming to an end Saturday night," Papuchis told ESPN.com's Mitch Sherman. "So if it’s going to come down to an ending, it might as well end on a good note.” 

Beating a team of USC's prestige and ability would represent the type of wins Pelini couldn't find often enough in his seven years with Nebraska. Dating back to 2012, the Cornhuskers have lost their last six games to ranked foes.

They have a chance to end that streak along with the Pelini tenure in Nebraska on Saturday, and it could be the springboard these players need heading into a new system and a new coaching staff.

 

Caution: Contents are Hot

If it weren't for a few close losses and a guy named Marcus Mariota, we would've been talking about Cody Kessler as the nation's elite quarterback entering the postseason.

The junior quarterback has been absolutely scorching all season long. He has thrown for 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions, a ratio only Mariota can top for the season. 

Kessler has also completed a ridiculous 70.7 percent of his passes on the season, generating talk about a potential NFL draft announcement instead of a return for 2015. It's weighing on his mind, but he's relaxed about it.

"No matter what I end up doing…it's a good decision to have," Kessler told Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "It's kind of cool."

We won't know until afterward whether Saturday's game will be Kessler's last in Trojan red, but it's safe to say the Nebraska defense would prefer if he had already left—him and dominant receiver Nelson Agholor, who has 97 catches for 1,223 yards on the year.

The coaching turnover is an obvious wild card that could impact the game in many ways, but there's no question about the impact of Kessler and running back Javorius "Buck" Allen, per ESPN's David Lombardi:

"Uneven" doesn't do the Nebraska defense justice. It allowed 34 points to Iowa and 59 to Wisconsin in two November losses that were the final straws in Pelini's coaching tenure.

Nebraska showed up defensively against Michigan State but allowed 27 points in an eventual defeat. The Spartans don't touch what USC can do offensively, which means even the best of performances from the Cornhuskers may not be enough.

 

Team Injury Reports

Team injury reports available courtesy of The Sports Network, viaUSA Today.

 

Prediction

The Cornhuskers are too talented to be moving on from a head coach, and they'll demonstrate that by showing up to play in a big way. But it will take a stroke of magic to slow down Kessler and Co. enough to win this one.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. and the Nebraska offense score 37.4 points per game and put up enough points to keep this one close, but Allen will run his way to some big gains and open up things even more for Kessler.

Prediction: USC 34, Nebraska 27

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Sun Bowl 2014: Arizona State vs. Duke TV Info, Spread, Injury News, Time, More

The winner of the 2014 Sun Bowl between Arizona State and Duke will reach the coveted 10-win plateau, although each program thought it would get there a while ago.

The Sun Devils fell from the College Football Playoff conversation to a 9-3 record, losing two of three to close out the regular season—dooming a season that saw them beat four ranked teams in five games during an earlier stretch.

Like Arizona State, Duke also dropped two of its three season-ending games to give up its inside track to a return to the ACC Championship Game. Still, David Cutcliffe's crew showed it's ready to contend in the conference once again.

It will be a battle of the devils, with the Sun Devils and Blue Devils going at it. Let's take a look at everything you need to know for the Sun Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas

TV: CBS

Live Stream: CBSSports.com

Spread (via Odds Shark): Arizona State -7.5

 

So Close, Yet So Far

With absolutely no disrespect to the lovely city of El Paso, Texas, both Arizona State and Duke envisioned much different endings to 2014 than this.

Even with a chance to get to 10 wins for the second time in Duke history (the first was last year), the Blue Devils are wondering what could have been. They dropped two straight conference games when wins down the stretch were needed, giving up their shot at the ACC title.

And with how flimsy Florida State's wins have been all season long, who knows if the Blue Devils would have shaken up the CFP entirely?

Duke always had dreams of a conference title, but national championship aspirations were tangible for Arizona State through the middle of November. But right as the Sun Devils began climbing into the conversation, they fell to Oregon State followed by a loss to Arizona that took them out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Yeah, suddenly a trip to the Sun Bowl isn't as illustrious as what could have been.

For players and coaches who are used to moving on from one game to the next, getting motivated and realizing the stakes of this bowl game shouldn't be hard. With that said, re-discovering that fire after the chief goal has been lost can be tough for 18-to 22-year-olds.

Todd Graham and Cutcliffe both have instilled strong cultures at each program, and the chance to make a lasting statement on national TV—along with the chance to end the season on a high note—should be enough to bring out the best in both teams. But if you witness an emotional hangover, it's no secret as to what the cause will be.

 

Who Can Do it Bigger?

When these offenses are clicking, it usually comes in big splashes.

Duke has weapons all over its offense. Dual-threat quarterback Anthony Boone leads the way with 22 total touchdowns, but senior wideout partners Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakeney have combined for almost 1,500 yards and 12 total touchdowns among them.

After losing leading rusher Juwan Thompson to the NFL last offseason, Duke has used a committee approach to fill the void—led by freshman Shaun Wilson, who absolutely exploded for 245 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries against Kansas earlier this year.

The Sun Devils' attack isn't spread out, but rather dominated by receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster. 

Foster has more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage this season, but it's Strong's eye-popping play on the perimeter that takes ASU to another level. He has 10 touchdowns on the year—most off highlight-reel plays—and figures to be a top wideout in the draft after forgoing his senior year.

Unlike Duke, though, Arizona State has the conundrum of not knowing who should be running said offense. Taylor Kelly has had his ups and downs (mostly through injury) but is certainly trending downward after being pulled for Mike Bercovici amid struggles against Arizona.

Considering the way Graham spoke of Kelly, though, you'd have to imagine he's getting the ball, per Sun Devil football:

Each defense will have a very different mentality, with Arizona State focusing on spreading out to contain Duke's stable of weapons while the Blue Devils hope to hone in on a pair of star players. 

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports available per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

When two high-potential offenses are involved in a bowl game, the safe bet is to go with the players who do it most consistently. There's little doubt that's Arizona State.

While both teams struggled to finish the season, only Duke's was due to offensive ineffectiveness. The Blue Devils only surpassed 30 points in one of their final four games, while Arizona State has put up an average of 42.25 points per game in its final four.

Duke has enough weapons on offense and enough ability on defense to keep it closer than the spread, but that's about it.

Prediction: Arizona State 31, Duke 24

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Military Bowl 2014: Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech TV Info, Spread, Time and More

The Cincinnati Bearcats have finished their season on a tear, and look to go through Virginia Tech in Saturday's Military Bowl to put a bow on a gift-wrapped 2014 season.

Tommy Tuberville led his Bearcats to a share of the AAC title in his second season at the helm, and he could get them to 10-3 with a win in Annapolis, Maryland. It'll have to come through a Hokies team that sputtered to 6-6, needing a close win over Virginia in the season finale to even become bowl eligible.

Along with wanting to dispel the troubles of this season and last year's 42-12 bowl loss to UCLA, Virginia Tech can also avenge a 2012 defeat to Cincinnati should it win.

Let's get down to business and break down everything you need to know for the 2014 Military Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Md.

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Cincinnati -2.5

 

Battle of Strengths

If Cincinnati is going to keep its longest winning streak in five seasons intact through the start of 2015, it will come through the air.

Former prized recruit Gunner Kiel has finally found his niche in Cincinnati, as the sophomore quarterback has exploded for 30 touchdowns on 3,010 passing yards amid multiple injuries. He leads an offense that puts up 35.4 points per game.

To show you how much superior the Bearcats offense is to Virginia Tech's, take this into consideration—Cincinnati hung 34 on Miami, while the Hokies put up a grand total of six points on that same team.

But defensively, though, Frank Beamer's crew can get it done. 

The Hokies rank 18th in points against per game, which is all the more impressive considering they lost half their games. They also track down the quarterback superbly, sacking signal-callers 46 times in 2014.

Cincinnati has the big arm in Kiel to take the top off Virginia Tech's defense, but it's the weapons on the outside that put the Bearcats over the top. Five different receivers have four or more touchdowns and 430 or more yards on the season.

The sophomore passer gave all the credit to his teammates, per Cincinnati Enquirer's Tom Groeschen:

"I've got good guys behind me," Kiel said. I've got great wide receivers that are going to catch the ball, and the offensive line has done an incredible job just giving me all the time in the world to throw the ball. We've got a heck of a run game with Mike Boone and Rod Moore."

Kiel has weapons in droves, but a stout Hokie secondary with ball-hawking defensive backs like Kendall Fuller and Kyshoen Jarrett is used to closings things down on the outside. They have combined for four interceptions this season, helping to make up for the loss of star corner Brandon Facyson.

The Bearcats will come into this one expecting to toss the ball around the yard. The Hokies come in expecting to shut it down, and pin their ears back rushing the passer. 

It's likely only one of the two will happen.

 

With or Without You

When it comes to Virginia Tech and bowl games, practically all the school knows is going there with Beamer.

The long-time Hokies coach has headed the sidelines for 22 straight bowl games, which is all but five of the program's bowl appearances in its history. That made the preparation for this year's Military Bowl all the more weird.

It's weird because after more than two dozen years, Beamer hasn't been with the team during much of bowl practice after throat surgery. He's expected to join the team Friday—the day before the game—and coach from the press box, per The Roanoke Times' Andy Bitter.

Him coaching from the press box shouldn't have a huge impact—rest assured, Virginia Tech will have some very vocal coaches down there to speak for him. But it's fair to question if the team won't be as prepared as they should due to it.

Of course, it could have the opposite impact. Beamer has been the head coach for most of the Hokies' 10-17 all-time bowl record, so it's entirely possible the team could be preparing with a chip on its shoulder and galvanize around his return.

 

Prediction

This game is going to come down to Virginia Tech's ability—or lack thereof—to show some containment in stopping Kiel and Cincinnati's offense. And even if the Hokies' talented secondary stifles the Bearcats' passing, the duo of backs Mike Boone and Rodriguez Moore—who have combined for more than 1,200 yards—will take it to Virginia Tech.

It's just hard to see the Hokies' struggling offense showing enough danger to match Cincinnati on the scoreboard, and even harder to see a downtrodden Virginia Tech team get up for this one.

Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 13

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Top Storylines Going into Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech and Illinois kick off a packed Friday of college football bowl action with the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Neither the Bulldogs nor the Fighting Illini are the most attractive team in the country, and many fans will likely fail to give this matchup any sort of chance. However, it's often the more obscure bowls that are the most fun. The most recent example is the finish to the Bahamas Bowl, which had one of the unlikeliest Hail Marys you're ever going to see.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl probably won't have such a crazy conclusion, but it could be a sleeper pick for one of the more entertaining matchups this week.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:WatchESPN

 

Storylines

How Will Illinois Represent the Big Ten?

It's no secret that the Big Ten is suffering from a perception problem. Most fans and writers rank the conference behind the SEC, Pac-12 and maybe the Big 12 as well. A Big Ten team losing to a Conference USA team won't do the conference any favors, either.

With Illinois representing the B1G, things aren't looking too promising. BTN.com's Tom Dienhart listed his confidence picks for each bowl game featuring a team from the conference, and the Heart of Dallas Bowl ranked at the very bottom. He said the best strategy for predicting a winner was flipping a coin.

Nothing about the Fighting Illini stands out. They rank 102nd in total offense (360.3 YPG) and 112th in total defense (464.3 YPG). Although they own wins over Penn State and Minnesota, they were also beaten by Washington, Nebraska and Ohio State by a combined 97 points.

Head coach Tim Beckman announced earlier in the week that Reilly O'Toole will start the game at quarterback, per Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune:

O'Toole has completed 58.7 percent of his passes and has nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. In short, he doesn't exactly elicit a wealth of confidence among Illini fans. Wide receiver Mike Dudek has emerged in a big way this year with 69 receptions, 965 yards and six touchdowns, but he's only as good as the quarterback throwing him the ball.

Beating Louisiana Tech won't exactly bolster the Big Ten's reputation, but you can bet an Illini loss will be used as a stick to beat the conference.

 

Do the Fighting Illini Have Any Answer for Kenneth Dixon and Cody Sokol?

Illinois' top objective will be slowing down Kenneth Dixon. The Louisiana Tech running back has run for 1,236 yards and 21 touchdowns this year and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Illinois gave up an average of 249.6 yards a game on the ground, so Dixon could have a field day.

As Sports Illustrated's Bill Carey wrote, the junior enters the game on a rich vein of form and has history on his mind:

Dixon enters the bowl game on a hot streak. He has 10 touchdowns in his last four outings, including three against Marshall in the Conference USA championship on Dec. 6. Those scores gave him the school record of 59 touchdowns. Next up: Dixon is just five yards away from Daniel Porter’s program record of 3,352 career rushing yards, a mark that he could snap on his first play from scrimmage.

Dixon's also caught 26 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns. He's a multifaceted weapon in the Louisiana Tech offense and can beat the Illini in a variety of ways.

If Illinois can neutralize Dixon, then it will heap more pressure on quarterback Cody Sokol. Although the senior threw for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns, he also threw 13 interceptions and completed 58.6 percent of his passes. He's prone to making mistakes, and early issues could grow into major problems as the game unfolds.

As a team, Illinois intercepted just seven passes during the season, so Sokol should be able to avoid turnovers. The Illini can at least get some pressure on him to prevent him from getting into any sort of groove.

Sokol's clearly the weaker link in the Louisiana Tech offense, so Illinois will want to make him win the game. By putting the game in his hands, the Illini should be able to get the better of the Bulldogs.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

St. Petersburg Bowl 2014: TV Info, Live Stream, Preview for NC State vs. UCF

With all of the family Christmas obligations out of the way, college football fans can go back to their routines of plopping down on the couch and watching games for hours on end.

The day after Christmas alone features three different bowl games, one of which is the St. Petersburg Bowl between North Carolina State and Central Florida. The Wolfpack got bowl-eligible after big wins over Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the season, while the Knights enter having won nine of their last 10 games.

Aesthetically, this game won't be the most beautiful to watch, but football is football.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

NC State will go about as far as quarterback Jacoby Brissett can take it. He has 2,344 passing yards with 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He also added 498 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

In the game against Florida State, which the Wolfpack could have arguably won, Brissett threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns. That defeat was evidence of how good NC State can be when the QB is on his game.

Conversely, Brissett showed the following week how much one of his bad performances can drag the team down. He went 4-of-18 for 35 yards in a 41-0 loss to Clemson.

Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh wrote that Brissett shows flashes of being a potential NFL quarterback and would stand to gain a lot by returning to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015:

He doesn't get mentioned as a first-round prospect, though, because he didn't play with consistency and barely snuck his team into a bowl game. A 6'4" quarterback with a rocket arm and Ben Roethlisberger's leg strength should not be a middle-round pick.

Brissett, then, would stand to gain a lot by returning. He is one of the few quarterbacks who could start the year off the radar and legitimately rise into the first round. His top seven receivers are all set to return, and Brissett has the arm to take advantage.

A bowl game could be a great springboard for the junior going into next year.

Unfortunately for Brissett, UCF boasts a defense that ranks eighth in points allowed (17.9 PPG), 12th in passing yards allowed (185.4 YPG) and 10th in interceptions (18).

Jacoby Glenn and Terrance Plummer are among the biggest reasons for the Knights' strength on that side of the ball. Glenn, a sophomore defensive back, leads the team in interceptions (7) and defended passes (18). Plummer, a senior linebacker, leads the team in tackles (92) and tackles for loss (12.5).

Glenn's being mentioned as a strong NFL draft prospect, which is no surprise to Plummer, per Shannon Owens-Green of the Orlando Sentinel:

I think he's always been this good. I think he's just starting to get the recognition. His maturation process has actually been him taking coaching better, him going out there and taking practice more serious and making sure he does his job. I think that’s where he really improved.

We're trying not to be that guy who is always on him saying 'you're so good, you're so good.' We're trying to push him because when people know they're that good, it's not good. When somebody's on your back all the time, you keep striving for greatness and I think that's what he's doing and we're all so proud of him.

Even if, like Brissett, Glenn stays in college for another year, it's never too early to begin building that draft resume. Shutting down the Wolfpack QB would be a nice feather in Glenn's cap and a great way to close out 2014.

Of course, Brissett has a lot to gain as well should he consistently challenge and beat Glenn with pinpoint passes.

The individual battle between quarterback and defensive back alone should be worth the price of admission.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Quick Lane Bowl 2014: Rutgers vs. North Carolina Viewing Info and Stars to Watch

College football fans are getting a belated Christmas present in the form of the Quick Lane Bowl between Rutgers and North Carolina.

Neither team is particularly good, with the Scarlet Knights finishing 7-5 and the Tar Heels coming in at 6-6. However, this game should feature plenty of scoring. Rutgers and UNC combined to allow 69.8 points per game during the season.

At the very least, the Quick Lane Bowl should be entertaining.

The three players below are among the biggest reasons to foresee an offensive explosion.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 4:30 p.m. ET

Where: Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan

TV Info: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

Stars to Watch

Leonte Carroo, Rutgers, WR

Leonte Carroo's 2014 stats should come with some sort of asterisk indicating Gary Nova was his quarterback. Who knows what the junior wideout could've done with a more consistent quarterback?

Carroo caught 53 passes for 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns. His numbers dwarfed everybody else on the team. Each stat was more than double the output of the next closest player. It came as no surprise when he was named the Scarlet Knights' offensive MVP:

The Big Ten media also named Carroo to the All-Big Ten team, per Dan Duggan of NJ.com:

North Carolina safety Tim Scott knows that stopping the stellar wide receiver will be among the Tar Heels' top tasks.

"He's a big-play guy," Scott said, per Duggan. "When it comes to the passing game, he'll be the guy that's most likely going to have the ball in his hands so we have to do a great job of containing him and making sure he doesn't get those big plays on us like he has in the past."

Carroo hasn't yet put his name in the 2015 draft hat, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him do so. A big bowl game won't make him a first-round pick overnight. It could, however, raise some eyebrows and get him on the radar of some teams.

 

Marquise Williams, North Carolina, QB

If you're curious as to how a team ranked 116th in total defense could win six games, look no further than Marquise Williams. The junior quarterback threw for 2,870 yards and 20 touchdowns and also rushed for 982 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Tar Heels don't have any hope of winning this game if Williams struggles. The defense almost certainly won't shut down the Rutgers offense, which means that Williams playing well is paramount to his team's success.

It's not a coincidence that he's thrown 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in North Carolina losses, compared to 20 and five, respectively, in UNC wins. His completion percentage is also four points lower in defeats.

Rutgers ranks 105th in rushing defense, so the Scarlet Knights are ripe for the picking on the ground. Williams should find running lanes when he scrambles out of the pocket. The more success he has running the ball, the more the secondary will open up.

 

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina, WR

Williams' favorite target by far is Ryan Switzer. Switzer leads the team in receptions (55) and yards (703), throwing in four touchdowns as well. He's not the most dynamic big-play threat in the Heels' passing game, but you can count on Switzer getting plenty of touches Friday.

Switzer also regularly returns punts for the Tar Heels. While he's averaging just 4.9 yards a return, you never know when he could spring free for a touchdown. He took five punts to the house last year.

In case you really need a reason to root for Switzer, Dijana Kunovac of Inside Carolina provided this anecdote:

How can you not like this guy?

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Independence Bowl 2014: Miami vs. South Carolina TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Amid the lull that is between Christmas and New Year's Day, Miami and South Carolina will grace college football with an appearance in the 2014 Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

Let's not sugarcoat it—the hopes were considerably higher for both teams than finishing the season in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Gamecocks have gone from an SEC contender to a lowly 6-6, while the Hurricanes boast the same record with more than a few games they'd like to have back.

Such a disappointing season can have a team already checked out and ready for the offseason, but the prospect of finishing out with a win should bring out the fight in two proud programs.

Here's a complete breakdown of the Independence Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana

TV: ABC

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Miami (-3.5)

 

Tough Sell

South Carolina is in the midst of the program's golden age, with legendary head coach Steve Spurrier having completed his rebuilding process and boasting a team capable of contending in college football's toughest conference. Miami is undoubtedly down, but its fanbase's sky-high expectations haven't wavered.

Add them both together, and getting fans of these two schools to make the trek to Shreveport could be tougher than advertised—much less get the team's spirits up for the game, as Spurrier told Miami Herald's Susan Miller Degnan:

It’s tough for both schools. We’ve been 11-2 the last three years. I don’t know if you knew that or not. But this year, we’re 6-6. Miami used to play for national championships. They’re 6-6. This is where life is. Fans, once you’ve been up there and your team is having sort of an average year, it’s hard to sell tickets.

David Caraviello of The Post and Courier summed up the end of the season from Miami's perspective:

Spurrier's prophecy seems to be right on the money. According to Degnan, South Carolina has sold only 1,100 tickets while Miami hasn't even released its information. 

Still, Degnan reported that bowl officials claimed around 37,000 tickets had been sold for the game. But envisioning that many butts in seats come Saturday afternoon is awfully hard.

The offensive firepower is there for both teams, and it should result in an exciting game to watch if Miami and South Carolina bring it. How many people will be in the stands to watch it in person, however, remains to be seen.

 

Running Wild

The workhorses for both Miami and South Carolina should be quite busy come Saturday afternoon.

The Hurricanes expect to run the ball with ferocity, boasting arguably the best running back in school history—and that's saying something. Duke Johnson is only a junior, but he has dazzled with 1,520 yards and 13 total touchdowns on the year.

Johnson has slowed down somewhat to finish the 2014 season—if you call performances of 88 and 89 yards slowing down. Before that, he rushed for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in six straight games.

His magnificent year has led many to believe it's his last in the college ranks, as Yahoo Sports' Rand Getlin noted:

While that much is still up in the air, there's no doubt that Saturday will be Mike Davis' final game in a South Carolina uniform. 

The senior Gamecocks running back hasn't put up Johnson-like numbers with just 927 yards and 10 total touchdowns, but his importance has been unquestionable in South Carolina's offense. Dylan Thompson and the passing game has been inconsistent, but Davis' impact shines through in almost every game.

The two running backs are actually buddies off the field, but it should be all business Saturday, as Matt Harris of KSLA noted:

There's nothing like a healthy rivalry between two dominant offensive players, and Davis and Johnson should certainly have that as they play each other in what could be the final collegiate game for both. There's nothing each would like more than a bit of bragging rights on the other as they begin the next step in their careers.

 

Prediction

Not only is Johnson the superior running back, but he has a more dangerous offense around him with Brad Kaaya playing well under center. 

The mentality of both South Carolina and Miami will loom large, but neither proud program should expected to disappear in a high-profile bowl game. Coming off three losses in which they allowed 30 points or more, though, the Hurricanes will be intent on setting a defensive tone.

The Gamecocks won't be able to match it with their own defense, leading to a big Miami win.

Prediction: Miami 31, South Carolina 20

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rose Bowl 2015: Viewing Information and Predictions for Oregon vs. Florida State

After all of the presents have been opened, the ball drops in New York and the first meal of the New Year has been eaten, the first game of the College Football Playoff will kick off.

The Rose Bowl, known as the oldest bowl since starting in 1902, will set the stage for the inaugural playoff. Of course, the two teams playing in the epic game make the first semifinal even more enticing.

Oregon comes into the matchup with one of the most high-powered offenses in the country led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Florida State has a Heisman winner, too, with Jameis Winston looking to keep the Seminoles' unblemished record intact.

Before the first semifinal kicks off, here's a look at the full viewing information and predictions for the Rose Bowl.

 

2015 Rose Bowl Information

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

When: Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Rose Bowl Predictions

The hype machine is a funny thing. Sometimes players are built up and crumble under expectations. During the Rose Bowl, fans will get to watch two quarterbacks who have thrived under that pressure.

Sure, Winston hasn't been perfect all season, but he has still led his team to a perfect record with late comebacks nearly every week. The 2013 Heisman winner led the Seminoles on a final drive for the ages against Auburn last season to win the national title.

Albert Breer of NFL.com passed along his thoughts on those who question the Noles' dominance this season:

On the other side stands Mariota, who overtook Winston this season. His dual-threat ability saw him pass for 52 total touchdowns and just two interceptions. Compared to Winston's turnovers this year, Mariota looks the part of the more proven quarterback in the matchup.

Mariota's success has also led to him achieving success that has never been matched at Oregon. SportsCenter notes yet another award that Mariota pulled out earlier this week:

Holding down the offense this season, Mariota has made his presence known for the Ducks. Meanwhile, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had done the same for Oregon's defense prior to his season-ending knee injury.

The dynamic cornerback had just two interceptions and 63 tackles on the season, but his impact on the team was much more than just his play. Mariota spoke about the effect of not having Ekpre-Olomu on the field, via Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

He's been awesome ever since being injured but he's really kept everyone's spirits up and to have that type of leader even when he's not on the field is so pivotal. He understands that he still has a lot of influence even if he's not on the field. Guys will rally around him.

Paul Finebaum of ESPN also noted that the injury greatly benefits the FSU passing game:

Having a playmaker like Rashad Greene down the field for Winston, with Dalvin Cook in the backfield, the Noles can exploit the Ducks defense. The trio has been successful down the stretch, and Oregon's defense has been shredded several times this season.

However, that likely won't prove to be enough against the potent Oregon offense. With Mariota at the wheel, the Ducks will drive straight into the national championship game with a showdown against the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

 

Predicted final: Oregon 37, Florida State 31

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Games 2014-15: Full Schedule and Predictions for College Football Playoff

With the holidays here, college football fans are immersed in the gifts of bowl games and top matchups between marquee programs. As much as everyone invests in bowl season, it's hard not to admit that the games after Christmas are more appealing than what's already happened. 

That's not to say there haven't been electrifying games, but the Potato Bowl doesn't draw in a huge sense of wonder. With only one full week of bowl season left, not including the College Football Playoff National Championship, things are starting to pick up in a big way. 

Fortunately, that means the discussion around these games has started to increase dramatically. Let's add to that with a look at the remaining games, as well as predictions for the key games still left on the schedule. 

 

College Football Playoff

The four teams vying for the national championship have built impressive resumes up to this point, though there seems to be a clear divide between the top two schools and the other two. 

Alabama and Oregon are the overwhelming favorites to meet at AT&T Stadium on January 12. According to Odds Shark, the Crimson Tide and Ducks are each favored by nine points in their respective games against Ohio State and Florida State. 

For perspective, only the Sun Bowl and Foster Farms Bowl have spreads of at least nine points. It's hard to argue with the rationale, as Alabama and Oregon have separated themselves from the pack in college football. If the BCS still existed, no one outside Tallahassee would have qualms about those teams in the top two spots. 

Starting with the Alabama-Ohio State game, the Buckeyes have been a great story all year. They are on their third-string quarterback, yet they had no problems thrashing a solid Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

However, the Badgers defense isn't in the same class as 'Bama's. Nick Saban has to be salivating at the prospect of going against a quarterback making his second career start.

If the Buckeyes are going to win this game, it will be on the legs of running back Ezekiel Elliott. Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South offered these great stats on Ohio State's dynamic runner:

The sophomore first exploded onto the nation's radar in Ohio State's 50-spot rout of Cincinnati on Sept. 27, amassing 233 total yards and one TD against the Bearcats. But the regional microscope reveals something that's similarly stellar:

Of the Buckeyes' 13 outings, Elliott (1,610 total yards, 12 TDs) accounted for 100 total yards and/or one touchdown 12 times.

The numbers look even stronger for OSU's tent-pole victories over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin: The St. Louis, Mo. native averaged 146 total yards/1.4 TDs.

Unfortunately, teams haven't been able to run against Alabama, as this graphic from StatMilk indicates:

The numbers are even more impressive the deeper you dig. Alabama led the nation with only three rushing touchdowns allowed, tied for second in yards allowed per carry (2.8) and fourth in total rush yards allowed (1,153), per Yahoo Sports

On the other side, Alabama has been able to move the ball through the air and on the ground. The Crimson Tide rank 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring offense. Amari Cooper has been as uncoverable as any receiver in the country. 

Blake Sims has evolved into a dynamic player over the year, saving his best performances for the stretch run. After struggling early against Auburn, the senior quarterback has accounted for six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) in the last six quarters. 

The odds have been stacked against Ohio State all year, but Urban Meyer's crew is going against a beast the likes of which it hasn't seen in Alabama. 

Moving to the Rose Bowl, even though the talent gap may not seem as stark between Oregon and Florida State, the Ducks can't lose here. 

Florida State has pulled off a trick that would make Criss Angel jealous. No team should be able to win as many games by a touchdown or less as the Seminoles have (seven) without stubbing its toe at least once, yet here they are as the country's only undefeated team. 

Looking at the tale of the tape, via StatMilk, Oregon wipes the floor with Florida State in virtually every major category:

The only area Florida State looks markedly better is on defense, but even that can be explained by Oregon playing so many blowouts that it gave up cheap yardage to opponents. 

If the Seminoles are going to pull off the upset, it's on Jameis Winston's arm. He has been erratic all year with 17 interceptions, but he stepped up in the biggest moments to secure wins all year. His best performance was against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game with 309 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

That is the kind of stat line Florida State will need to win, but how do you trust Winston given how he's been so Jekyll and Hyde in 2014? That kind of act can work against Notre Dame or Oklahoma State, but not the No. 2 team in the country. 

When you flirt with disaster, eventually the tightrope breaks. This is Florida State's last stand, and it won't be pretty. 

Predictions: Alabama def. Ohio State, 41-14

Oregon def. Florida State, 34-20

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pages