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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

Pinstripe Bowl 2014: Boston College vs. Penn State TV Info, Spread, Time, More

Boston College and Penn State head to the Big Apple in hopes of ending their late-season struggles, facing off in Saturday's 2014 Pinstripe Bowl.

Expectations were sky-high at the start of head coach James Franklin's tenure with the Nittany Lions, as they won four straight and had their bowl ban lifted around the same time. Then, the team sputtered to a 6-6 season after losing six of its last eight games entering its first bowl appearance since the Joe Paterno era.

Like Penn State, Boston College's expectations were much higher back in September after an upset of USC. The Eagles fell to Louisville and Florida State late in the year to drop two of three down the stretch.

Despite tough finishes for both teams, don't expect a small crowd at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, as Jack McCluskey of ESPNBoston.com noted:

Here's a look at everything you need to know for the Pinstripe Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET

Where: Yankee Stadium, New York

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Boston College -2.5

 

Slowing a Runaway Train

Penn State's defense has answered the bell for most of this season, but it has rarely gone up against a dual-threat dynamo like Tyler Murphy.

The former Florida quarterback's transfer to Boston College for his final collegiate season turned out to be quite possibly the best decision of his life. He's come into his own with the Eagles, stepping up in their biggest games with his unique mixture of throwing ability and quick wheels.

Along with a heroic performance in a marquee win over USC, Murphy also broke the ACC single-season record for rushing yards for a quarterback—you know, the conference from which Michael Vick hailed.

Stifling strong offenses is nothing new to Penn State, which boasts a nationally dominant defense. It ranks atop the nation in stuffing the run, giving up just 84 yards per game.

But dealing with a dual-threat quarterback is a different deal, especially one with the breakaway speed of Murphy. Franklin seemed to admit as much to Ben Jones of StateCollege.com:

It will be easy for Penn State to target Murphy as the one to stop in the run game—after all, he leads the team in rushing by more than 300 yards. But if the Nittany Lions thwart the impact of bruising rusher Jon Hilliman in the middle, they'll have a much better chance of putting the onus on Murphy and getting more pressure on him.

Murphy has been strong on the ground, but he's thrown almost as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11). That should give Penn State the flexibility to send extra bodies in the backfield.

Of course, that will give Murphy mismatches with his favorite receivers. Will he be able to make the Nittany Lions pay?

 

Finding the Mojo

Saying Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg—and the entire offense, as a result—has lost his mojo down the stretch of 2014 could be viewed as an understatement.

The Nittany Lions' offensive leader has emerged as the best example in years of the sophomore slump. After an 18-touchdown freshman campaign, which he ended on a tear, he's been inescapably poor in 2014, with eight touchdowns to 15 interceptions. 

The struggles have only gotten worse as the season has concluded. Ever since some shaky moments late in Penn State's double-overtime loss to Ohio State on Oct. 25, Hackenberg has just two touchdowns and six interceptions.

It's no coincidence the Nittany Lions lost three of their final five amid that stretch.

Franklin hasn't been convinced all season, however, that Hackenberg is the cause of the problem, per PennLive.com's Greg Pickel: "He's been good. I've tried to say this all year long; I don't really feel like Christian has been our issue. I've been saying since the end of spring ball that it was the development of all the guys around Christian that were going to allow him to continue to grow."

The spirits might be down for Hackenberg (and a few other offensive players) after the end of the season, but simply being in this game should be enough to lift them.

Just getting to a bowl game is a feat in itself, and the tough reality of Penn State's recent bowl ban has kept these players at home over the holidays one too many times. Getting a chance to play in a bowl was never a guarantee—even for the young Hackenberg.

The offensive struggles don't end with Hackenberg, but they start there. If he can settle into his game and make intelligent plays early, the offense should take off.

 

Prediction

For all of Penn State's defensive success this season, the unit hasn't had much experience facing mobile quarterbacks—except J.T. Barrett, who ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns against them. Don't be surprised if Murphy follows suit.

Boston College won't get whatever it wants on offense, but Murphy's dual-threat ability will ensure the unit keeps moving the ball. The Nittany Lions will struggle yet again under Hackenberg and an offense that is losing momentum as the season wears on.

It will be a defensive showcase, but Murphy will find a way to win.

Prediction: Boston College 20, Penn State 10

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Exclusive Look Inside the Closed-Doors Meeting That Killed UAB Football

Birmingham native Cornelius Williams was the wide receivers coach at University of Alabama at Birmingham during the 2014 season.

Williams gave Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani a firsthand account of the closed-doors meeting in which UAB President Ray Watts informed the team that the Blazers football program was being terminated. Williams also provided exclusive details of the emotional aftermath. All words are his own.   

It wasn't a money game. It wasn't numbers. It wasn't any of that. That's a bunch of b------t at the end of the day.

There have been rumors about shutting down the UAB program for as long as I can remember. I don't know the exact reason it finally happened, but you can read everything about how this stuff goes back to [former UAB athletic director] Gene Bartow's feud with Bear Bryant.

Even before, when I was younger and living in Birmingham, back when Roddy [White] and D-Hack [Darrell Hackney] and all those guys were here and winning, you kind of heard rumors about UAB wanting to shut down the program. The attitude was kind of like, "whatever, it's all talk."

Except it wasn't this time. 

Ray Watts was obviously kind of placed here by the Board of Trustees, and you saw what happened next. 

There was no "I'm sorry."

Watts just started trying to give a bunch of numbers and a bunch of b------t to a group of guys who had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

We had never even met the guy before. That was my first time seeing him in person, and he's talking about numbers this and numbers that and money here and money there.

But there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are put into this university.

Not only that, but we got a guy in Justin Craft [former UAB player and president of the UAB Football Foundation] who has been fighting his ass off from day one for us with $10 million already raised. We also knew the mayor [William Bell] was committed to raising money.

In the meeting, Craft told him: "With all due respect, we have the money raised. I know the numbers. I've seen them myself."

Watts came back with: "You don't know the numbers. You don't know what you don't know."

What kind of man sits there and says all this stuff, and then next thing you know, he's saying we don't have a team anymore?

On top of that, you watch the thing on ESPN, and [Watts] is sitting there saying that he wishes he would've been more emotional.

I don't buy that.

Coaches were crying. Players were crying. I mean everybody who was in there was emotional. It felt like a funeral.

The bottom line is that he did not care. He still doesn't care.

In the aftermath, I tried to call all of my guys, receiver-wise, and check on them and see where they were mentally—just because, you know, you're messing with people's livelihoods. It's not just about football.

At the end of the day, it's an emotional roller coaster for a bunch of different guys—guys who probably won't be able to play Division I football ever again.

I'm still upset and crying about all the stuff that happened. It was hard as hell. It still is.

I remember Coach Clark saying "we met with the president for six or seven hours." [Clark] said the [president] was committed to this and committed to that and he's going to do it the right way—so [was] the AD.

You can see in the video, that's when Tristen [Henderson] went off and said: "You brought this man in and you lied to his face."

You feel for those guys who have put in so much time and effort into it, and then in a snap, it's all gone, swept right from up under them.

Coach [Bill Clark] always said this was a family. That's what we treated it like, and that's what it was.

That's why it was so, so, so emotional and why it still is. That's why you still want to see something happen for these guys for the best.

My family [and] I were pretty fortunate that [Neal] Brown at Troy called me and asked me if I wanted to come back to Troy and coach the receivers down there.

I'm blessed and fortunate to get that opportunity. But what about everyone else?

My heart goes out to my guys. It feels like your heart is in a million places.

You have a group of young men who have been beat down on the field over the past four years or so, who finally have it turned around academically, athletically and personally. We were able to help change and develop these guys into different people.

We were working so hard to make it happen for them, and our kids worked their butts off day in and day out to get to the point we were at.

You can't take away what those kids were able to accomplish. I don't think that should go unnoticed.

It's crazy how somebody can come in there and just not care.

This just sucks for the kids.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: Freshmen Who Outperformed Their Rankings in 2014

When your recruiting class is ranked seventh nationally as Tennessee's was during the 2014 recruiting cycle, you're bound to have your fair share of superlatives.

Collectively, that class of freshmen has the potential and ability to someday be looked upon as the group that put the Volunteers back on the college football map, depending on how the rest of their careers go. From that class, 24 first-year players played, and at least 11 started.

That's crazy production from a team that simply had to have it, given all the roster deficiencies in 2014. The Vols played more true freshmen than any other team in the country.

Without the group of youngsters, there's no way the Vols would be bowling. A closer look at the schedule still makes it difficult to believe.

But now that this team bridged the gap, there are no excuses moving forward. Head coach Butch Jones' program looks like it's well on its way to being rebuilt, and next year's team will be expected by many to break through another level.

Much of the reason for that is because of the large, impressive '14 class.

Some players such as Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. lived up to their rankings. Most of the others seem adequately ranked, as we look back on their final numbers from the 247Sports composite rankings.

But some freshmen outperformed the experts' rankings. Let's take a look at the players from the 2014 class who did better than most expected.

Begin Slideshow

Texas A&M Football: Burning Questions Ahead of the Liberty Bowl

The Texas A&M football team will play the West Virginia Mountaineers in Memphis, Tennessee, in the Liberty Bowl. There are many questions looming over the Aggies' head as they enter the bowl game. 

The Aggies have had three coaches leave the staff since the end of the regular season. No one knows how the team will perform with temporary coaches in those positions. 

The Aggies need to get a victory to reach eight wins on the season. After consecutive loses to end the regular season, a win would be a positive reminder of the potential that this young team possesses. 

This is a look at some of the questions the team is facing as it enters the Liberty Bowl. 

Begin Slideshow

4'9" Rice Running Back Jayson Carter Gets Special Carry in Hawaii Bowl

In the last game of his career at Rice, Jayson Carter was able to get one final carry.

The 4'9", 140-pound running back—Carter was born with a genetic disorder that stunted his growth—entered the Hawaii Bowl against Fresno State with two minutes remaining and ran the football one last time. He picked up two yards on the carry.

This was not the only carry of Carter's career, however. He had one last season against UTEP.

[YouTube]

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Full Schedule and Bold Predictions for Key Matchups

The buzz around college football is increasing with each passing day. Bowl season has taken on a completely different vibe thanks to the College Football Playoff, as this is the first time teams can settle the champion instead of arbitrary computer systems. 

However, the buzz is also picking up because the new year is approaching. Nothing in sports can top the feeling of watching college football from noon until midnight on New Year's Day, though this year provides bonus treats because the schedule is loaded from December 29 through January 2. 

There is so much discussion around the College Football Playoff, but it's important to remember the other games on the schedule. The Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl are still prestige games and have two very different and intriguing battles. 

Whichever game you are looking forward to, there's plenty to discuss about all of the matchups left. Here is a look at the remaining bowl schedule, as well as bold predictions for the games that aren't in the College Football Playoff. 

 

Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

It will be interesting to see the mindset of Mississippi State coming into the Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs should be thrilled about playing in one of the major bowl games but have to be upset after being the No. 1 team in the playoff standings for three weeks. 

The Bulldogs also have to be concerned about how they finished the season. They lost two of their last three games after a 9-0 start. Dak Prescott went from a great story early in the year to looking lost by season's end. 

In the two biggest games of the year, against Mississippi and Alabama, Prescott was all over the map. He had three interceptions against Alabama, and Ole Miss made him one-dimensional as a passer by taking away the run, which isn't his strength. 

What changed in Prescott's game?

ESPN's Jesse Palmer presented a theory to Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger about the Mississippi State quarterback.

"Thinking back on it, in all the film I watched, I didn't get the feeling that Dak Prescott regressed in the second half of the year," Palmer said. "I think the competition was a little bit different in the second half of the year."

The good news is Prescott will be up against a Georgia Tech defense that struggled all year in every category, via StatMilk:

The Yellow Jackets are a unique offensive team, running the triple-option attack to perfection. They average 333.6 yards per game on the ground and 37 points per game. 

Few teams have been able to stop Georgia Tech's running game. Not even Florida State could do it in the ACC Championship Game, allowing 331 yards. The Seminoles were just able to outscore them 37-35 to keep their perfect season in tact. 

The question is, which offensive scheme do you trust more? Even when Mississippi State was winning, Prescott was all over the map. He had a three-game streak against Auburn, Kentucky and Auburn in which he threw five interceptions, yet the Bulldogs went 3-0. 

Georgia Tech has the offense to create problems for Mississippi State, as the Yellow Jackets can control the clock and score a lot of points. In this battle of ACC vs. SEC, look for the former to come out ahead. 

Georgia Tech 37, Mississippi State 31

 

Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor

Of the non-playoff games, the bowl game that offers the most excitement is Michigan State against Baylor. These are two top-10 teams that play fun styles to keep your eyes glued to the television. 

The Spartans have been battle tested this season, losing to Oregon and Ohio State. However, Mark Dantonio's vaunted defense has shown holes against those teams with 95 points and 1,059 total yards. 

There's been a stigma around Michigan State, that it was all defense and no offense, though that has changed this year. The Spartans are averaging 43.1 points per game, seventh in the nation, and control the tempo of their games, as noted by Mike Griffith of MLive.com: "From an Xs and Os standpoint, Dantonio's teams are efficient on offense and aggressive on defense, thus explaining how the Spartans lead the nation in turnover margin and time of possession."

That's going to be a key point against a Baylor team that led the nation in scoring at 48.8 points per game. The Bears aren't prone to making mistakes, as quarterback Bryce Petty had just six interceptions in 377 attempts. 

Another aspect of Art Briles' team that doesn't get talked about because of how many points it scores is the defense, though Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News pointed it out, via Griffith at MLive.com:

People hear the system (spread) and the conference (Big 12) and immediately get the mental picture of a finesse team. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baylor has consistently sent offensive linemen to the NFL under Briles and is physical and nasty up front led by All-American Spencer Drango. The defense has a future NFL rush end in Shawn Oakman (6-9, 290) and one of the strongest defensive tackles in the country in Andrew Billings, who broke Olympian Mark Henry's high school power-lifting record.

Baylor can get physical with a team like Michigan State, which has had problems keeping up with faster teams throughout the year. The Spartans aren't lacking for firepower, but the offense is more cerebral than the one on the other side of the field. 

The Bears do have to pump themselves up for a lesser bowl game after getting left out of the College Football Playoff, which could be a problem. The good news is they are playing virtually in their own backyard as the Cotton Bowl is at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

There won't be a letdown for Baylor. In fact, look for Briles' team to make an emphatic statement. 

Baylor 34, Michigan State 24

 

Peach Bowl: Mississippi vs. TCU

The battle between Mississippi and TCU is fascinating because it will help provide an answer to what happens when a dominant SEC defense goes up against a potent Big 12 offense. 

In the past, this has been a recipe for disaster on the Big 12 side. The conference has had to fight for respectability, though it seemed to get it back this year thanks to the performances of Baylor, TCU and Kansas State. 

For the Horned Frogs, they face a similar situation as Baylor in trying to get up for a lesser game after spending the final five days of the regular season ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff Top 25 poll. They also have to go against a more formidable opponent, as Ole Miss is among the most physical teams in the country. 

Look at the matchup of TCU's offense against Mississippi's defense, via StatMilk:

It's the closest thing fans will get to an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object this bowl season, unless Oregon's offense goes up against Alabama's defense for the national championship. 

There are concerns about Mississippi's offense that could hold the Rebels back in this game. They are 57th in the country with 30.4 points per game and were held to seven points total in losses against LSU and Arkansas. 

Quarterback Bo Wallace has completed 29 of his last 61 passes with three interceptions but got credited with a win against Mississippi State because that's something attached to the position. Here's another stat to keep in mind for the Ole Miss senior, via Ryan Gerbosi of The Dallas Morning News:

The last time Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace played in Atlanta, it was a mixed bag for the senior. He completed 25-of-36 for 287 yards with four touchdowns, but three interceptions marred his performance. That was kind of how Wallace’s whole season went. He was up in some weeks, he was down in others.

Mississippi's defense has to be on point because no one knows which Wallace will show up. TCU scored at least 30 points in every game this season, though it hasn't faced a defense like the one it will face in Atlanta on December 31. 

Something has to give. Gary Patterson has been in this spot before, while Hugh Freeze is new to the spotlight. TCU has fewer question marks at the most important position on the field, as well as more offensive depth to overcome what the Rebels will use. 

TCU 28, Ole Miss 24

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It's Now or Never for Jim Harbaugh to Coach Michigan

Michigan fans are giddy with anticipation that Jim Harbaugh will soon be their next head coach.

National sentiment held that Harbaugh would never leave the NFL, but the buzz in Ann Arbor has been consistent, and the combination of a lucrative financial package and loyalty to the program would be difficult for him to resist.

Almost everyone in Ann Arbor expects Jim Harbaugh to be Michigan’s next head coach.

If he decides to coach elsewhere, he will jilt his most ardent supporters, who believe it’s his destiny to lead the Wolverines. During previous searches, Harbaugh’s supporters placed the blame on Michigan for not closing the deal, but this time it’s completely up to him.

Even his waffling in 2011, as reported by Jason La Canfora via CBSSports.com, makes perfect sense in the wake of David Brandon’s troubled tenure.

Fans aren’t angered by the revelation. It makes Harbaugh look like a genius. He foresaw how Brandon would meddle in the program and wanted no part of it.

After the failures of both Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke and the resignation of Brandon, Harbaugh is now dealing with an interim athletic director who has reportedly put together a package to make him the highest paid coach in college football, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

Michigan has placed itself in a difficult position. Harbaugh is clearly its top choice. As a result, he can dictate the terms of his return.

It’s hard to imagine circumstances in Ann Arbor ever being this favorable for him again.

The roster is stocked with highly ranked if undeveloped talent from previous recruiting classes. A quick turnaround is completely possible if Harbaugh can assemble the right mix of position coaches.

Many may question why Harbaugh would leave the NFL, but Bill Bender of Sporting News nails Michigan’s allure.

Understand the obsession. Michigan is one of those programs still clinging to ideals more suitable for the Knights of the Round Table. Mystique. Tradition. Winged helmets. “The team, the team, the team.”

Those are principles that don’t carry as much weight in the near-sighted social media age, especially for a school that has become a GIF-o-matic laughing stock since Appalachian State blocked that field goal in 2007.

Harbaugh is the missing link to the legend of Bo Schembechler. He ends the laughter. He restores the faith. He is everything that ties past, present and future. He revives the winningest program in the history of the FBS.

Michigan fans who consider Harbaugh’s return a fait accompli will be crushed if it doesn't happen. All barriers seem to have been cleared for him to make a triumphant return. 

He has refused to discuss his future until after San Francisco’s final regular-season game on Sunday. His players have reportedly tired of his coaching style and his relationship has deteriorated with the front office. For the first time in his NFL head coaching career, his team will not make the playoffs and is expected to sever ties with him shortly thereafter, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports.

Until then, speculation will continue.

Fans in Ann Arbor are planning a massive homecoming celebration, but it remains to be seen if the guest of honor has decided to attend. 

Harbaugh is currently a fan favorite in Ann Arbor, but if he passes on this opportunity, his supporters will be just as disillusioned as the San Francisco 49ers.

 

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

Follow @PCallihan

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NFL Draft 2015: Prospects with Most to Gain During Bowl Season

There are a lot of things that go into evaluating a draft pick, but it certainly helps to shine on a big stage.

Not only do bowl games give players a chance to show what they can do on national television, but they are also an opportunity for players to prove themselves against quality competition. While beating up on FCS opponents during the year might lead to big stats, these results are much more telling.

All seniors and draft-eligible juniors and sophomores will want to end their careers on a high note, but these top prospects have the most at stake in the coming weeks.

 

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

After saying before the season this would be his last year at UCLA, Brett Hundley appears to be true to his word as he prepares to enter the 2015 NFL draft. 

This will make the Alamo Bowl matchup against Kansas State his last collegiate game. The good news is Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder is expecting a strong performance, via Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times:

In the passing game, he can bring the ball out. He has gained 700-plus [rushing] yards. He lost some yardage; those came on sacks. He is somebody who can really run the ball and an awful lot of that comes on scrambles.

We have seen an awful lot of zone-read-type plays and quick attachments, where people raise up throw ball outside. Hundley does that a lot and quite well.

The problem for Hundley is that the majority of his production has come against inferior pass defenses in the Pac-12. The best defense he faced all year was Stanford in the final week of the regular season, and the quarterback responded with his worst game of the season as the Bruins managed just 10 points in a loss.

Kansas State has the skill to make things difficult on a lot of quarterbacks, but Hundley has to show he can handle an above-average defense. If he does, he might live up to his current standing as one of the top quarterbacks in the draft.

 

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

Boise State might have earned a spot in the Fiesta Bowl as the top non-power conference team in the country. However, that doesn't mean a lot of people have actually watched the Broncos play this year.

That's a shame, too, because Jay Ajayi has been extremely impressive all year, totaling 25 rushing touchdowns to trail only Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon. The running back also managed to rush for 1,689 yards to carry his team to an 11-2 record.

Unfortunately, he is still behind a number of other top players at his position in this class, as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller noted:

This could change with a strong performance against Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. For many scouts, this will be the first chance to get a real look at the running back against legitimate competition. Based on what he has done in the past, there is no reason to believe he will do anything besides have a huge day.

 

Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. already lists Benardrick McKinney as the top inside linebacker in the class (subscription required). Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star agrees and thinks he could even be moved around if needed:

However, there is a stigma about middle linebackers that leads to very few being drafted early. C.J. Mosley was almost a can't-miss prospect who reached the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Baltimore Ravens, and even he wasn't selected until No. 17.

McKinney has an opportunity to move safely in the first round and possibly even higher with a strong performance against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

The challenge for Mississippi State in this game will be to slow down the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack. McKinney will play a big role thanks to his lateral quickness and ability to finish tackles when he gets an opportunity.

Against a team that rarely throws the ball, the linebacker could finish with double-digit tackles as part of a huge day to showcase his potential.

 

P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State

Another player who is likely already in the first round, P.J. Williams can secure his spot with a strong performance in the national semifinals against Oregon.

The 6'1" junior has the size and physicality to be an above-average player at the next level, but he has struggled to really stand out this season. Part of that was his inconsistent play in coverage, while the other factor was the lack of legitimate competition in the ACC.

However, he was able to show what he can do against the run when his team faced Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

Rob Rang of CBS Sports broke down the cornerback's strong play: "While Georgia Tech's offensive line was able to consistently create holes between the hashes, their receivers struggled to sustain their blocks against Florida State's physical defensive backs. Williams was particularly impressive in fighting through blocks and delivering forceful hits."

Things will be much tougher against Oregon, which has some of the fastest players in the nation to move the ball on the ground and through the air.

If Williams can help slow down Marcus Mariota and company, it will be hard to find on-field criticisms for the Florida State player once the draft rolls around.

 

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

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