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2015 College Football Recruiting: 6 Prospects Likely to Start as Freshmen

A trend that has gained steam in college football in recent years is the emergence of true freshmen taking on bigger roles almost immediately upon arriving on campus.

A quick example of this can be found when taking a look at the running backs who will start in the national semifinal Rose Bowl matchup between No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State. 

Royce Freeman leads the Ducks in rushing with his counterpart Dalvin Cook pacing the Seminoles ground attack—despite the fact that both players were putting the finishing touches on their prep careers at this point a year ago. 

The 2015 cycle has a handful of talents who are capable of coming and making a similar impact to Freeman and Cook.

Which 2015 recruits have a chance to earn a starting role as true freshmen next fall?

 

All players listed in alphabetical order.

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Nick Saban's Defense of D.J. Pettway

Right Message, Wrong Idea

Alabama head coach Nick Saban went off on a passionate defense of defensive lineman D.J. Pettway's second chance at Alabama this week.

Pettway returned to Alabama from East Mississippi Junior College this season and registered 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, disrupting plays in the backfield early and often. More importantly, he graduated in three-and-a-half years.

His return was certainly controversial.

Pettway was dismissed from the program in February 2013 after a robbery on campus, which sent his career on the one-year detour to junior college. When asked about Pettway's 2014 season, Saban fired back at critics of his methods on Saturday, according to Drew Champlin of AL.com.

"Where do you want them to be? Guy makes a mistake," Saban said. "Where do you want them to be? You want him to be in the street or do you want them to be here graduating?"

Saban's message is on point. The goal for every college football coach is to win games and give players the chance to live their dreams and prepare them accordingly, even if there are some speed bumps along the way.

It's going to fall on deaf ears, though.

Being involved in an on-campus robbery, even if you're not the primary participant, is more than a speed bump though. People who already have their minds made up on how Saban handled the Pettway situation aren't going to be swayed by his justification for his methods, and all this does is bring the situation back to the forefront during a time when even more eyes are on Alabama than normal.

 

Right Man for the Job

One more coaching domino has fallen.

Missouri has named the replacement for departed defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who left the program in December to take the head coaching job at Missouri State. The school announced on Tuesday that Memphis defensive coordinator and former Missouri Tiger Barry Odom will take over as the leader of Missouri's defense.

"It goes without saying how excited I am to have this opportunity," said Odom in the release. "I have such a deep respect for the success that Coach Pinkel and his staff have had since I've been away. Transitioning to a new conference is very challenging, and all they've done is get better at everything."

It's a home run hire for head coach Gary Pinkel and Missouri, as USA Today's Dan Wolken notes.

Odom was at the forefront of Memphis' return to dominance. Under Odom's guidance, Memphis finished fourth in the American Athletic Conference in total defense (349.5 yards per game) and second in yards per play (4.74). His defense posted 30 sacks and a conference-best 87 tackles for loss.

That bodes well for Missouri, which has rose to prominence in the SEC East over the last two seasons with a stifling pass rush and the ability to consistently put opposing offenses behind the sticks. That trend will continue with Odom running the show, which will keep Missouri in the hunt even if key pieces of the roster turn over again this offseason.

 

Belk Bowl Dripping with Coaching Intrigue

If you're looking for a coaching matchup that's just dripping with intrigue, look no further than the Belk Bowl between Louisville and Georgia.

Former Georgia and current Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will take his Cardinals defense—which ranks sixth in the country (293.3 yards per game)—up against his former program, which wasn't exactly thrilled with his performance during his final two seasons in the Classic City.

On top of that, Georgia head coach Mark Richt could return to his roots and call plays for the Bulldogs for the first time since 2006 now that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has taken the head coaching job at Colorado State.

If he doesn't, it could serve as an opportunity for one of Richt's assistants to audition for the role full time or for Georgia to try out a system with two coaches working together, like Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee do on the Plains.

If that isn't enough, the idea of Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino teaming up with Grantham to beat the Bulldogs won't sit well with Georgia fans who double as Atlanta Falcons fans on Sundays.

 

Recruiting Bust

One of South Carolina's most promising players may be on the way out.

Wide receiver Shaq Roland—a former "Mr. Football" in the state of South Carolina in 2011—has left the team, according to John Whittle of 247Sports. Often in the doghouse, this appears to be a Roland's decision and not one dictated by the coaching staff, according to the report.

Roland caught 26 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns this season and has totaled 891 yards and 10 touchdowns in his three years in Columbia.

The former 4-star prospect and 40th-ranked player in the class of 2014 showed flashes of brilliance during his Gamecock career, but he never developed the consistency as a deep threat that the staff wanted to see when they signed him out of Lexington (South Carolina) High School.

 

Quick Outs

  • Marcus Lattimore will be an ambassador for South Carolina, according to David Cloninger of The State. This was reported ever since injuries forced Lattimore to retire from the NFL, but now his role is a little more defined. He'll work with South Carolina's administrators and coaches essentially as a special assistant. 
  • Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp thinks it's realistic that Auburn's defense could be top 10 nationally in 2015, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com. Those are lofty expectations, no doubt, and perhaps unattainable in Year 1. For Auburn to be successful, though, he doesn't really have to meet them. As long as there's at least marginal improvement, Auburn will be in the thick of the SEC West and playoff races.
  • It appears LSU head coach Les Miles is still playing coy regarding quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, based on his comments following practice on Monday. Jennings will likely be the No. 1 option vs. Notre Dame, but if Harris doesn't see significant time, you have to wonder how legitimate an offseason quarterback battle really is. 

 

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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Alabama Football: Is Ohio State a Clone of Mississippi State?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If Alabama is looking for a blueprint on how to beat Ohio State in the first round of the College Football Playoff, it doesn’t have to look very far.

It only has to travel about 80 miles west on Highway 82 to get to Starkville, Mississippi.

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen spent four years as an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida and four more years before that as his quarterbacks coach at Utah and Bowling Green.

The two have more or less kept their offenses the same and run variations of the same system at Mississippi State and Ohio State.

Alabama handled a very good Bulldogs team—No. 1 at the time—when they came to Tuscaloosa in November, a team that looks a lot like Ohio State. The Crimson Tide can use a lot of the same techniques they employed in that game when they square off with the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

“(Ohio State is) a great team,” Alabama safety Nick Perry said. “I see a lot of similarities between them and Mississippi State. They like to establish the run game and they have a lot of great receivers they like to get the ball out to in space and make big plays.”

Alabama held Mississippi State below its season average in just about every statistical category on Nov. 15:

The Crimson Tide did that by limiting the things that that offense does well.

That starts with the quarterback, who is a central part of the system. Dak Prescott was at his best on designed runs, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. That keeps defenses honest with the threat of the run.

He gained 82 yards on the ground, but those came on 22 carries, his second-highest total of the season at the time. His 3.73 yards per carry were his second-lowest average of the season in an SEC game.

That trickled over to the rest of the run game, which otherwise gained just 56 yards on the ground.

“Mostly the uptempo, kind of the run game,” Perry continued, when asked how Mississippi State and Ohio State were similar to each other. “They like to incorporate the quarterback into the run game more, similar to what they used to do with Tim Tebow back in the day. They are a physical team. They are going to be hard to stop. We have to game-plan and hopefully we can stop them.”

Perry later added that Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have been showing the team film of Tebow and their Florida offense, an offense that Alabama has had success against in the past.

That influence has been prevalent this year in Columbus. Prescott and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had very similar numbers this season, including a similar run/pass distribution.

But it won’t be so cut and dried for Alabama.

Barrett got hurt against Michigan and won’t play in the bowl game. So Ohio State will move on to its third quarterback this year, Cardale Jones, who played well for Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Alabama has limited film on Jones, but he more or less ran the same system against Wisconsin. That’s why Alabama has been digging back into the history books to study this offense. Even though the players have changed, the overall philosophy hasn’t.

“There are similarities,” Saban said. “They certainly have different kinds of players, very good skill players, very good running back. You know, we’re not sure about how much we’ve seen of the quarterback but their quarterback has done a really good job the past two years, whether it was Braxton Miller when he played or Barrett when he played because they were great runners and great athletes and that combination was very, very difficult on a lot of people and difficult for us when we played a team like that.”

Jones probably isn’t as quick a runner as Barrett was, but he is a bigger, more powerful runner more similar to Prescott.

And he’ll be able to run the basics of Meyer’s offense, a system that Saban is very familiar with, since he faces it every year.

“There is a lot of similarities,” Saban said. “Dan and Urban were together at Florida. But I think the way they do it—they have their own style of doing it, and I think they’ve progressed. This is a very, very good offensive team that has been very, very productive and they’ve got really good players and they do a great job with them and this is going to be a real big challenge for us in this game.”

 

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

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Josh Wariboko Sets Decision Date, Names Top 3: Who Is Best Fit for 4-Star OG?

Former Oklahoma commit Josh Wariboko could end up in Norman after all, though two other finalists threaten to lure the 4-star offensive lineman away from his home state. The Oklahoma City prospect announced a trio of finalists Monday night, consisting of the Sooners, UCLA and Ohio State:

Wariboko also noted that a decision announcement will occur Jan. 2, when he competes at the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

The 6'3.5", 315-pound Casady School senior initially pledged to Oklahoma in June 2013, shortly after his sophomore year. He backed off that verbal pact this spring.

Offers from Ohio State and UCLA arrived within a month of his decommitment. The Buckeyes and Bruins remain in the mix more than seven months later, while schools like Arizona State, Oregon, Arkansas and Louisville failed to make a strong enough impression. 

Less than two weeks away from another commitment, Wariboko has plenty to think about while examining his top choices. Here's a look at the situation each program presents.

 

Ohio State

The Buckeyes hosted Wariboko in October for an official visit and have been a leading contender for his services since extending an offer in May.

"When I think of Ohio State, I think of the powerhouse of the north. They are a big offer for me," he told Charles Doss of LandGrantHolyLand.com. 

Urban Meyer has assembled a strong offensive line class, headlined by 4-star Virginia recruit Matthew Burrell. The group also includes Florida guard Miro Jurkovic and 6'9" New Jersey tackle Kevin Feder.

A class that already includes five offensive linemen would certainly become more crowded with Wariboko on board. He would form arguably this cycle's most promising interior duo with Burrell if he heads to Columbus, but you can't discount the presence of several other prospects who will contend for playing time.

Wariboko is a physical beast who wreaks havoc in downfield blocking schemes. However, he may not possess as much athleticism and lateral quickness as other members of this class, important characteristics in an up-tempo spread attack. 

 

Oklahoma

Bob Stoops secured and lost a key commitment from Wariboko early in the process, but managed to maintain positive momentum with the in-state target. Like Ohio State, the Sooners hold five commitments along the offensive line. 

Tackles Bobby Evans and Jamal Danley have already signed with Oklahoma, while Dominique Hearne and Cody Ford are capable of lining up at guard. The Sooners have undoubtedly left room for Wariboko, but that didn't prevent Stoops from searching elsewhere for options up front. 

No program has a more longstanding relationship with Wariboko than Oklahoma. He should have a keen sense of the expectations that would await him in Norman and an official visit earlier this month likely cleared up any lingering concerns. 

Wariboko would have plenty of competition on the depth chart within his own class, but his highest comfort level may be found at Oklahoma. 

 

UCLA

The Bruins have built the foundation for an impressive offensive attack for years to come, with top-rated quarterback Josh Rosen serving as the centerpiece. Jim Mora must be able to protect the heralded passer, so a strong offensive line is paramount. 

UCLA landed one of the nation's top interior linemen in July when Fred Ulu-Perry pledged to the Bruins. The 4-star Hawaiian displays immense promise at either center or guard, dependent on roster needs.

The addition of Wariboko would help solidify things inside with an elite collection of talent in place. Along with 4-star guard Tevita Halalilo, both Wariboko and Ulu-Perry are capable of becoming multi-year starters at UCLA.

Mora would be thrilled to land that level of line play on signing day and the influx could change the complexion of how UCLA operates. Andre James, a 4-star tackle from Utah, will eventually be counted on to anchor things along the edge. 

There's a lot to like about the Bruins' offensive direction and Wariboko would further bolster a solid situation. He spent an official visit in Los Angeles last month.

 

The Verdict

Ohio State should never be counted out because of an extraordinary coaching staff that hits the recruiting trail hard, but we view this as a two-team race between UCLA and Oklahoma.

Wariboko clearly has an established rapport with the Sooners, based on his early commitment and sustained interest. Oklahoma isn't desperate on the offensive line, but would love to land a premier player on its home turf.

We give the Bruins a slight nod because of how Mora has the offense trending in a positive direction. Spots need to be filled along the offensive front and, with Wariboko in the mix, this class of UCLA linemen could give Rosen tremendous protection for years to come.

That combination could add up to create title runs.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

 

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Michigan Turns Up Pursuit of Jim Harbaugh, Wishes Him a 'Happy Birthday'

The Michigan Wolverines are really going all out in their pursuit of San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

On Tuesday, Michigan sent out a special message on Twitter in honor of the coach's 51st birthday.

The Wolverines have a head coaching vacancy, and with Harbaugh's future with the 49ers up in the air, he appears to be one of the school's top targets. Harbaugh (1983-87) is, after all, a "Michigan man."

Perhaps this is just a coincidence. Maybe the Wolverines do this for all of their former players. Or maybe they are doing everything they can to try to sway Harbaugh to return to Ann Arbor.

[Michigan Football]

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Memphis vs. BYU Bowl Brawl Shows Passion Misplaced

The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl between BYU and Memphis had the perfect, quirky niche. 

It kicked off mid-afternoon on a Monday during Christmas week in a converted baseball park. It featured two teams from the non-power conference ranks. There were no playoff implications or bigger-picture themes. It was just another chance to catch some football for those not working this week.

The best-case scenario happened: It turned out to be a fun, weird game with momentum swings, lots of points, odd timeout choices, last-minute touchdowns and 54-yard overtime field goals. It was everything a bowl game could want to be and culminated in a 55-48 win for Memphis. 

Then, a brawl broke out and everything for which the bowl should have been remembered became a distant memory: 

Who started the brawl matters little at this point. It's a terrible look for all involved since it grew so gruesome so quickly. 

Normally, it's a wonder there aren't more fights. Football is violent and emotionally charged. As a result, fights break out—both in practice between teammates and on the field between two teams.

The other layer to fights is that teammates protect and look out for one another. These are guys who have gone through summer practices and suffered together. No one is going to leave a teammate to defend himself.

None of this excuses what happened, of course. This was so much more than just a fight. There was helmet swinging and cheap punches, for which there should be swift consequences. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe tweeted that he intends to further review the matter: 

It's a shame. Forget the entertainment value of the game for a minute. The brawl undermines how hard both of these teams played. Both sides should have been proud of their effort in victory or defeat. 

There will be big-picture takeaways from the brawl, one of which is how it affects the perception of BYU as a program that tries to balance religion and big-time football. Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune has more on that: 

Truth is, BYU is too caught up in the presentation of standard-keeping, always needing to put forth a certain image, you see. One of the Cougars' priorities that appears to have had a heavier presence under the rule of coach Bronco Mendenhall is exposure for the Mormon faith by way of its football team, missionary work in helmets and pads brought forth to a football-crazed nation.

Maybe the brawl eliminates any possibility, no matter how marginal, that BYU becomes a serious candidate for a Power Five conference. Maybe it makes Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall, or his counterpart, Memphis coach Justin Fuente, less attractive for other jobs. The long-term effects of the brawl have yet to be formed. 

The immediate conclusion is that the Miami Beach Bowl will be remembered for the passion that morphed into a riot. It's a memory that won't die easy. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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Katie Hnida's Historic Football Story Not a Fairy Tale

KENT, Ohio — Katie Hnida's story starts with football. Why? Because that's where she starts it. It's how she tells it, and this is about hearing what she has to say.

When Hnida (pronounced NYE-da) was 14, her dad jokingly suggested she play football, and it took just one time on the practice field, a session that stretched over hours and hours and into the evening and the night, to find out how much she loved kicking that football through the goalposts.

She felt like a bird when she kicked, spreading her arms as part of the motion.

"You just feel free."

It was comfort for her.

So she showed up at her high school team's tryouts outside of Denver, and someone asked, "Little lady, are you here for the girls' lacrosse team? Are you lost?"

Nope. Not lost. Football. Many of the guys giggled, including the guy who would eventually be her backup. And that shut him up.

Hnida made the team at the University of Colorado, too. After transferring to New Mexico, she would go on to be the first woman to score in a major college football game. That's why there is a Katie Hnida jersey in the College Football Hall of Fame.

It would be so nice if her story could end there. But it would not be real.

The story she tells students at Kent State University this day, and later elaborates on in an interview, is harsh and cold.

"I think every day from the very, very beginning, they were calling me every derogatory name," she said of her time at Colorado, starting in the fall of 1999. "Bitch, c--t, ho or slut. One of the backup quarterbacks was throwing a football at my head when I was warming up."

And then it got worse, she said, as a player got her alone in a room near the locker room.

"He said, 'How do your shoulder pads fit?'" she said. "He shoved me up against the wall and said, 'I just want to know how those shoulder pads fit on your tits.'"

And she said he went about trying to find out, reaching under her shoulder pads, until someone walked in. And before he left, he warned her, "Don't you dare tell anyone about this."

She didn't.

"I was basically in survival mode," she said. "Unfortunately, the worst of it didn't come until the end of my freshman year."

One of her teammates who had consoled her all year, who had told her that she was strong and that her tormentors on the team were idiots, invited her to come over to watch a basketball game on TV. When she got there, she said, he sat closer to her than usual.

"He said, 'Gosh, you're so pretty.'

"I'm like 'What?'

"'Oh come on.'

"And he leaned over and started to kiss my neck."

No. Stop.

"'Come on. You know you want this.'"

Hnida alleges he raped her. And when he was done, she said, he got up to take a phone call. She wasn't processing. "My body started freaking out. Then my instincts came crashing in. Get out of here. Go, go, go."

She says she left, got into her GMC Jimmy, backed into some pole and frantically drove home. Once there, she immediately locked the chain, then the deadbolt, then the handle lock.

She asked herself what had happened. She tried to process. She said she asked herself why she went over there, why she wore shorts. What had she done wrong?

She didn't talk about it.

And it was not until four years later that Hnida broke her silence and made her rape allegation public in an article in Sports Illustrated. That came after three women had stepped forward at the University of Colorado, saying they had been raped on the night of a party for CU football players and recruits.

She saw what was happening publicly to the other women who had come forward first, so she knew, roughly, the scrutiny and ridicule she would face. But she did it anyway, although she never named her alleged attacker.

Hnida said she was aware that people wondered why she had never gone to the police. She said she did go, but that the district attorney told her it was unlikely her alleged attacker would ever receive more than an ankle bracelet and house arrest.

Hnida decided not to push forward. At Colorado, she said there were people who thought she had made it up.

Hnida would not identify her attacker to Bleacher Report either. She said the one person she had identified him to was Mary Keegan, the district attorney in Boulder, Colorado, at the time. Reached by phone in early December to ask about her conversations with Hnida, that district attorney, now Mary Lacy of the law firm Lacy & Maguire, refused to comment, saying, "I don't talk to journalists."

Asked to comment on Hnida's allegations, a spokesperson for the University of Colorado athletic department released this statement: "Many of us thought the world of Katie and admired her for pursuing her dream of playing college football. She did have many supportive teammates, but unfortunately there were some who didn't want a woman on the team. And that should have never been tolerated. We only learned of the rape allegation after she had left the program. We've never had enough specific evidence to turn over to any authorities for investigation."

Hnida's allegation made big headlines more than 10 years ago. Today, she is still coping.

***

"It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they'll respect you. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it." — then-Colorado coach Gary Barnett to reporters in February 2004, after Hnida went public with her rape allegation

Hnida said that's who does the talking in such incidents: the coaches, the university administrators.

"People believe the coaches because they are able to speak up. They have the microphones and the platform, and because they are in a position of authority," Hnida said.

The sport of football has been overwhelmed this season with stories about violence against women, and it took an elevator video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee for the masses of football fans to believe.

Hnida identifies with the alleged victims. She hurts for them.

She said she spoke with the woman who alleged that Kobe Bryant had assaulted her. She said she tried, unsuccessfully, to talk with the woman who alleged that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had raped her, an accusation that Winston denies.

CNN reported in September 2004 that the sexual assault charge against Bryant was dismissed "after prosecutors filed a motion for dismissal," and USA Today reported in March 2005 that a civil lawsuit was settled out of court. Bryant has maintained that the sex was consensual.

When Hnida hears these cases, does she...

"Feel the parallel?" she said, jumping in. "Completely. ... The allegation comes against a big-time athlete at a school, and there tends to be a protocol at the school, and you tend to watch the fans act the same way.

"Blind loyalty. And then you get re-traumatized."

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) led a congressional study earlier this year of 440 U.S. colleges and universities. The report, called "Sexual Violence on Campus," cited the Journal of American College Health, which found that approximately one in five women is a victim of attempted or completed sexual violence during college.

Yet McCaskill's study found that more than 40 percent of schools in the sampling have not conducted a single investigation of sexual assault in the past five years. In examining policies and procedures that might encourage or discourage the reporting of sexual violence, the study found 22 percent of institutions give athletic departments oversight in cases involving athletes.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote the book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. The book is about the importance of women making their voices heard. She appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on September 9 to talk about the difficulty victims have in coming forward publicly.

"You see this in the military context; you see it in college campuses, this constant protection of the star of the favorite son of whatever the issue is," Gillibrand said on the show. "And the disbelief of the women. And then the victim-blaming. ... There's this devaluation."

Hnida said that in the outcry after she stepped forward, "My life felt disregarded."

She said she is particularly upset over how Winston's alleged victim has been treated publicly. While she said that no one knows for sure what happened between the woman and Winston, she believes the public response has been dismissive of, even hostile to, the woman.

"It's kind of a plausible blindness," Hnida said. "At Florida State, they don't want to know. They want plausible deniability. [Florida State coach] Jimbo Fisher says there is no victim because there is no crime. You better really know what you're talking about when you say that, the details. Nobody knows what happened there." Winston maintains that the sex was consensual.

In a written statement he released after the state attorney's decision not to charge Winston with sexual assault, Fisher wrote:

As you might imagine, I was pleased to hear that the State Attorney's Office exonerated Jameis in the matter. I'm not going to answer any questions about the situation, but I would like to point that our community and our university are blessed to have really good people in place to review matters like this.

Hnida said that in these cases, in general, the public picks apart the behavior of the rape victim, pointing out their irrational behavior as evidence they're making it up. Yet, Hnida says that after her own alleged rape, it took a few minutes for her senses to kick in and that she doesn't even remember driving home, other than backing into a pole.

"The way I was treated after I came forward..." Hnida said, thinking back. "I don't want to say it was as bad as the rape itself, but it almost was."

***

Before coming forward, though, Hnida had to go through her torment privately. She ended up returning to Colorado for her second year, but she said because of injuries and illnesses she wasn't on the team. She stopped going to classes regularly. She cut her trademark long, blond hair.

She was quiet and hadn't told anyone yet. She was going it alone.

She fell apart. She knew she couldn't stay, so she left for Santa Barbara City College in the fall of 2001. She showed up at the first day of practice, and punters and kickers took the field first. This would be her comfort zone, her safe haven.

But no, that was taken from her, too.

"The second I stepped back on the field is when the flashbacks started," she said. "It was like a movie reel."

She turned and ran, and she never came back to practice there again.

"I now know I was having a panic attack," she said. "I was so depressed. I wasn't eating. Anxiety, panic attacks."

She started going to therapy at New Mexico, which she described as similar to surgery: You go inside, and it's painful and leaves scars.

The following year, she transferred to New Mexico, sold on then-coach Rocky Long's no-nonsense style. She had never told him about the rape either, but she started to ask him if everyone would be OK having a female on the team. She said he cut her off with one word: "Yeah." But, there won't be problems, there won't be... "There will be no problem. Is there anything else?" he said. "OK. I hope to see you at New Mexico."

And he hung up.

There never was a problem at New Mexico. Her first day of class, she said a player started walking with her. She was suspicious. He squatted down and told her to climb aboard. She did. He gave her a piggyback ride all the way to her psych class, then put her down and said, "We take care of our kickers."

***

"How aggressive should I be re; Katie...sexual conquests by her?" That was an email, discovered later during an investigation, that Gary Barnett had sent to his boss.

"Hate mail. Death threats," Hnida said, describing how she was treated by CU fans. "I felt bad for the other 114 guys on the team who had not raped me. But a lot of them never stood up. You have to stand up. I think that's fair enough to say. When something is wrong, you stand up. When you can help, you stand up."

She said she had someone come over to her apartment in Albuquerque and drive her truck away so the media would follow and she could sneak out without being bothered. It didn't work.

She said a reporter called her and asked if the story was true that she had performed topless lap dances on players in a hot tub at a road game.

"It was a rumor that swirled around," she said, "as if I had done something to deserve to be raped."

Earlier this month, Barnett responded to an email request from Bleacher Report asking if he believed Hnida's rape allegation was legitimate, and also asking what he meant by the "sexual conquests" email. This, via email, is how he responded:

"Katie was one of my players. I stand behind her as I would any and all my players. I will support her and help her if she ever wants to pursue further action in regards to any allegations. I hope she is well."

Shortly after Hnida took her story public, more women came forward alleging that Colorado football players had raped them.

According to a 2007 article in The Denver Post, no charges were ever filed for any of the assault claims, though one woman, Lisa Simpson, received $2.5 million when Colorado settled her Title IX claim in 2007. And another woman, who remains anonymous, received $350,000. Barnett, athletic director Richard Tharp and CU president Betsy Hoffman all left the university within 20 months of when Hnida came forward. Barnett has not coached again.

Meanwhile, at New Mexico, Hnida's kicking style had changed. She wasn't as good as she was in high school. Video showed her not spreading her arms like a bird, in freedom, when she kicked anymore but instead curling up, "like I was protecting my body."

***

It has been 14 years now, and Hnida is still suffering. She is heard, though. She gives speeches at colleges, such as the one at Kent State. A crowd of about 75 was there—smaller than her usual—featuring at least a third of the Kent State football team, including female kicker April Goss.

Players were not required to go but were told about it.

Afterward, cornerback Kerrick Rhone said treatment like that of Goss "for our team would be a shock. We think of April as another teammate."

Hnida talked about the culture of respect and said that of all the teams she has been on, including high school, Arena Football and semipro, Colorado was the only place where she had a problem.

The truth is, it's exhausting for Hnida to give these speeches. Not only is there travel, but she has to describe the details of her alleged rape. Twice during the speech, and a couple of times afterward while grabbing a sandwich and a beer and holding a conversation, she got choked up.

She said she continues to go to counseling. She also notes she's still made to feel uncomfortable when she's in Colorado, where her parents live. Occasionally, people still recognize her there.

At Colorado, the team has not had the same level of success since the sexual assault scandals. Colorado went to 16 bowl games in the 20 years ending with the 2005 season. In the nine years since then, it has been to one bowl game (a 30-24 loss to Alabama) and has had a losing record every year.

Hnida said that after a recent CU loss she saw someone post on the Internet somewhere that it was the "Curse of Katie Hnida."

She keeps close tabs on how the speeches are making her feel. She won't give too many of them, as it's just too tiring, but she feels it's important for people to hear her story.

Later, she confides that she still loves kicking but says she hasn't gotten back to the level she reached in high school. Her trip to Kent was short, but usually on these trips she takes a tee and a ball with her and looks for an open field. When she's kicking, "It's like everything else just fades away."

The flashbacks don't start.

She's in the Hall of Fame, for one thing, but she realizes she's known for something else entirely. She starts her speech with, "My story, inevitably, starts with football."

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Odds, Schedule and Projections for Semifinals

The first-ever College Football Playoff cannot come soon enough.

Now that the bowl season is in full swing and postseason matchups are beginning to grace national television, it's only upped the anticipation for the inaugural FBS four-team playoff. College football enthusiasts are taking solace in the pre-Christmas Day bowls now, but the more prestigious games near New Year's Day may turn into afterthoughts with a pair of thrilling semifinals on tap for the first day of 2015.

Students, fans and football obsessors alike are counting down the minutes until the action begins, but it's safe to say the coaches and players are using every day of preparation to their advantage.

Here's a look at all the information for both College Football Playoff semifinals, fit with predictions for each.

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 22

 

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

The Florida State Seminoles put their 29-game winning streak on the line with a return trip to the Rose Bowl, facing Oregon in a battle between Heisman Trophy winners.

Jameis Winston dazzled college football with his Heisman run in 2013, but it's Marcus Mariota who has risen far above the rest this season. His 38 touchdowns to just two interceptions trumps Winston's numbers (24 TDs, 17 INTs). 

Along with a scintillating quarterback battle, there's also a battle of contrasting winning styles between two national powerhouses. Florida State won each of its final four games by five points or less, while Oregon's last eight wins have come by double digits.

The Ducks might have some defensive issues without star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is out for the season after a practice injury. But as head coach Mark Helfrich stated, his team expects to rebound from it:

Winston will be able to use weapons Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary to success, but it will turn into a shootout with Mariota and the Ducks' spread attack lighting up FSU's defense. The game will come down to a couple of late defensive stops, and the Ducks' team speed on that end will trump a Seminoles defense that will find it impossible to generate turnovers against Mariota.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

 

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

No strangers to meeting in games with these very same implications, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer will meet again in the Sugar Bowl as Alabama and Ohio State go at it.

Back in Meyer's days with Florida, his Gators met Alabama on numerous occasions in SEC title games that inevitably served as national championship semifinals. What a coincidence—the winner on New Year's night will secure a spot in the final.

Two high-octane, multifaceted offenses will be on display, with Blake Sims toting his usual supporting cast and new quarterback Cardale Jones stepping into a potent Buckeye offense. But while Ohio State has an entire season's worth of film to dissect, the Tide will be at a disadvantage with Jones' debut coming against Wisconsin, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg:

With two offenses that can attack just as well between the tackles, on the perimeter or deep down the field, the game is bound to come down to which defense can sustain stops late into the game. And as Alabama's offense has shown, it often peaks as the game goes on.

Jones will have some success against Alabama's secondary, but he won't get the help he needs from Ezekiel Elliott and the run game against the Tide's stout run defense. Amari Cooper's threat will keep the Buckeyes honest on the outside, leaving huge holes open for T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

It will be closer than advertised, but expect the Tide to roll.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Mike Bobo Leaving for Colorado State Is a Win for Georgia Football

As news broke on Tuesday (reported first by Terry Frei of The Denver Post) that Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo would become the next head football coach at Colorado State, gloom and doom set in for Bulldogs fans.

But make no mistake about it, Bobo's departure is a win for the Georgia football program—and not for the arbitrary and consistently broken logic of a vocal minority of Bulldogs faithful.

No, Bobo's departure is not a home run because it means better coaching, stronger recruiting or more adept play-calling.  Truth be told, Bobo's tenure in Athens was defined equally by fantastic development of quarterbacks (David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray), a consistent ability to woo incoming talent (Bobo currently ranks as the nation's 23rd-best recruiter, per 247Sports) and prolific offenses (this year's unit topped the SEC in points per game).

But his departure is a win for the Georgia football program nonetheless.

For Colorado State, the hiring of Bobo fit a recent pattern.  In December 2011, the Rams brought in a proven offensive coordinator from an SEC power to be its head coach.  Jim McElwain left national prominence as an assistant at Alabama for the top job in Fort Collins.

Now, Colorado State has done the same thing, and the implications are not to be ignored.  Bobo's tenure at the helm of Georgia's offense merited head coaching consideration and a commitment from a program on the rise.  

And while this doesn't concretely mean Georgia is the next Alabama or even on the same echelon, it certainly bodes well for how far this Bulldogs program has come.  After all, when McElwain was ushered in at Colorado State, Georgia was fewer than 12 months removed from a losing 2010 campaign.

Further, the last time Georgia lost an assistant coach to a head coaching vacancy was following the 2006 campaign when Neil Callaway departed for UAB.  Callaway coordinated Georgia's offense during one of the most successful periods of the program's history (from 2001-2006) before his departure.  In a way, Bobo's move to Colorado State is indicative of similar success—at least as perceived from the outside looking in.

And while Bobo can't claim the accolades Callahan did, including an SEC Championship as offensive coordinator in 2005, his exit from Athens is a far cry from the circumstances that have led to more recent moves.  

Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was fired after the 2009 campaign and his successor, Todd Grantham, left for the same post at Louisville following the 2013 campaign.

Now, Georgia's athletic department must find a way to capitalize on this counterintuitive momentum.  It is a credit to the football program that Bobo was afforded such an opportunity, but if Mark Richt doesn't make a strong hire backed with a large checkbook, then Bobo's departure could soon read more like an indictment.

Georgia returns a plethora of talent at the running back position, four starters on the offensive line, a number of capable wide receivers and a deep recruiting pipeline extending all the way into the class of 2016.  Undoubtedly a bevy of candidates will be interested.  But this hire shouldn't be about vetting potential employees so much as it should be about claiming the best man for the job.

Georgia did just that in January of this year when Grantham was quickly replaced with Jeremy Pruitt, who was fresh off a national championship win at Florida State.  If the Bulldogs can stage a coup of that magnitude the program's future could suddenly be even brighter.

While Pruitt's first year in Athens was a convoluted mix of personnel changes, transfers, dismissals, improvements against the pass and regressions against the run, he energized the players under him and the fans in the stands.  

It won't be easy for the next offensive coordinator to mirror that transition.  For better or worse, Pruitt followed a coach who was disliked by many, and benefited—at least in fan sentiment—from Grantham's lateral, cash-grabbing move.  

Whoever succeeds Bobo will be replacing the man behind the best offenses (statistically) in Georgia history.  That's a high calling, and the challenge is all the more difficult since Bobo, who also played quarterback at Georgia, didn't burn bridges on his way out of town.

But such a hire isn't impossible.  After all, if Bobo's move to Colorado State says anything about Georgia's program, it's that being the Bulldogs offensive coordinator can yield some very attractive opportunities.

Further, the next man up will have some coaches at his disposal as well.  As Seth Emerson of The (Macon) Telegraph is reporting, offensive line coach Will Friend and director of player personnel Ronnie Letson are being considered for Bobo's staff at Colorado State.  That means several other offensive assistants—most notably running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Bryan McClendon—should be back in Athens.

If a talented roster of players and assistants with a history of strong performance in the nation's toughest conference sounds like the recipe for future head coaching consideration, it's because Bobo maximized those ingredients.  He leaves Georgia with a chance to replicate the process.  That's a great gig in its own right.

 

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

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Predicting Where the Top 5 Uncommitted 2015 Recruits Will Land

National signing day is quickly approaching, but several of the top recruits remain uncommitted. Where will they land? Which head coaches will make the final pitch?

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder predicts where he thinks the top five uncommitted recruits will land in the video above. 

Where will these players commit to? Check out the video, and let us know! 

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Top Candidates to Replace Mike Bobo as Georgia Offensive Coordinator

Georgia received some bad news on Monday night when Colorado State nabbed offensive coordinator Mike Bobo from Athens to become the new head coach of the Rams.

Under Bobo's direction, the Bulldogs finished in the top four in the SEC in yards per play four times over the last five seasons and led the conference in 2014 (6.82).

So where do the Bulldogs go from here?

Our top five candidates to replace Bobo as Georgia's offensive coordinator are in this slideshow.

Begin Slideshow

SEC Football Year in Review with Barrett Sallee

You wanted it, you demanded it, well here it is.

As has become a tradition, every holiday season it is customary to go back and check out what was said in the preseason and give the readers something that is often demanded but rarely delivered.

Accountability.

Did you take exception to that crazy preseason prediction? Who was right, and who was wrong?

If you did, this column is for you.

Let's wrap up 2014 with some "end of the season accountability."

 

The Good: South Carolina's Struggles

Remember this summer when South Carolina was all the rage?

Head coach Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were picked to win the SEC East by the assembled members of the media in Hoover, Alabama, at SEC media days. 

"Defensively we lose some good players," Spurrier said in July. "Of course, Jadeveon [Clowney], Chaz Sutton, the two ends, Kelcy Quarles inside, Victor [Hampton] and Jimmy Legree, our two corners. But we got all of our linebackers back, a bunch of guys. So we should have a good defense, hopefully a real good one."

He didn't.

South Carolina finished 13th in total defense (433.6 yards per game), last in yards per play (6.26), 13th in rush defense (214.42 YPG) and ninth in pass defense (219.2 YPG).

The defensive line and the defensive backfield were two major problems for the 2014 Gamecocks, just as I said in July when I wrote that the Gamecocks were getting way too much preseason hype.

It was a rebuilding year in South Carolina, and those are allowed. This is a program that has reached unprecedented heights under Spurrier, winning 11 games in a season for the first time in school history in 2011 and then repeating the feat in each of the next two seasons. 

But it isn't Alabama, and rebuilding years will be more pronounced than those at, say, Alabama or LSU. 

 

The Bad: Georgia's Playoff Run

This summer, everybody had an "Auburn." You know, that team that wasn't the safe pick to make the inaugural College Football Playoff but, with a few bounces here and there, could evolve into a national championship contender overnight?

Georgia was that team for me.

I picked the Bulldogs to go 12-0, no 13-0, no 14-0 and lose to Oklahoma in the national championship game.

Apparently overlooked in that process was the annual inexplicable Georgia loss—which this year produced a sequel—as it lost to 6-6 South Carolina and got run by 6-5 Florida, which fired its coach just a couple of weeks later.

Toss in the second loss to Georgia Tech since the Y2K bug had just been dodged, and it was a disappointing, yet totally normal Georgia season.

Georgia's going to have to earn my trust, moving forward.

 

The Good: Dak Prescott's Heisman Push

It may have seemed crazy this fall when Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott jumped from seemingly out of nowhere to become not only a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, but, at one point, a favorite.

It shouldn't have seemed crazy.

Way back in January, I called Prescott a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

The reasons were simple. We knew Prescott would put up filthy numbers that are pleasing to Heisman Trophy pollsters thanks to his ability to put pressure on defenses with his legs and work within head coach Dan Mullen's offense that is predicated on passing efficiency.

Prescott's biggest Heisman hurdle was getting his Bulldogs into the national discussion by winning big games, and they did just that, beating LSU on the road and Auburn at home to earn the first No. 1 ranking in program history.

Prescott finished eighth in Heisman voting, which is the highest finish in program history and also a far cry from where he was in late October and early November. That should tell you just how good his season really was.

 

The Bad: Auburn's Secondary Renaissance

Auburn's defense was more punch line than power during its run to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game following the 2013 season, and its pass defense was the biggest reason why.

The Tigers finished that year giving up 257.7 yards per game through the air but had a solid supporting cast returning that could help them get to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"The Tigers will be in the mix for a College Football Playoff berth regardless, and if the secondary takes just a small step forward, it will go a long way toward securing one of those four coveted spots," I wrote in July.

It took a small step forward (239.2 yards per game), but Auburn took a big step back in the process. 

Auburn lost four regular-season games, including a rather inexplicable loss to Texas A&M at home, and will be spending the holidays at the Outback Bowl instead of the Sugar or Rose Bowls.

Sometimes "baby steps" aren't the answer.

 

The Good: Leonard Fournette's Debut

LSU running back Leonard Fournette came into his freshman season at LSU with a ton of hype. 

Big things were expected from the former No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2014, not only from himself (telling WAFB's Jacques Doucet in August that he expected to win the Heisman), but from his head coach Les Miles, who compared him to NBA legend Michael Jordan at SEC media days in July.

My predictions were a bit more conservative.

Way back in April, I predicted that Fournette would rush for 850 yards and six touchdowns during his freshman year in Baton Rouge. He finished the 2014 regular season with 891 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Perfect? No. Close? Yes.

Consider it a "gimmie."

 

The Bad: Alabama's Path to the Playoff

In July, I wrote that Alabama's playoff hopes rest in the arms of the secondary, not the quarterback decision—which, at the time, was a battle between Blake Sims and Jake Coker.

I was wrong. It has everything to do with the quarterback.

Without Sims, there's no way Alabama would be spending the holidays on Bourbon Street and playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl national semifinal. Sims set the single-season school record with 3,250 yards, tossed 26 touchdowns and only seven picks, leading top-ranked Alabama into the showdown with Ohio State.

What's more, Sims helped new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin get into a play-calling groove and helped head coach Nick Saban usher in an era of a more flexible offense in Tuscaloosa that thrives on tempo and uses the attributes of mobile quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, the secondary struggled in a similar fashion as last year's group. 

The Crimson Tide gave up 223.7 yards per game in 2014—11th in the SEC. The've shown the susceptibility to be burned deep often, particularly in the last two games to Missouri and Auburn. 

Sims' ability to lead the offense as a game manager and a difference-maker makes up for those deficiencies, whether games are slugfests or shootouts.

 

The Ugly: Florida, Jeff Driskel for Heisman and Hope

I was all aboard the Florida rebound train this offseason, saying that the Gators could not only contend for the SEC East (and that the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party would decide the division), but that quarterback Jeff Driskel was a dark-horse contender for the Heisman Trophy.

Needless to say, none of that worked out the way I had planned.

Driskel was benched for good on Oct. 18 after throwing 10 picks in six games, Florida was eliminated from SEC East contention with a loss to South Carolina on Nov. 15 and head coach Will Muschamp was informed the next day that he won't be back to coach the 2015 Gators.

I went all in on the Gators, and I rolled snake eyes.

You don't hit home runs unless you swing for the fences.

 

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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Orange Bowl 2014: Top Storylines and More for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

While much of the attention surrounding college football centers on the inaugural four-team playoff, there are still four New Year's Six bowl games that do not have playoff implications this season.  The 2014 Orange Bowl is arguably the most exciting of those bowls, pitting two of the biggest surprises this season in Mississippi State and Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets have followed eerily similar paths as non-traditional powers that rose into the Top 10 before ultimately falling short against conference Goliaths.  However, these 2014 bridesmaids could turn into trendy 2015 playoff picks, as both feature young rosters primed to build upon their breakthroughs this fall.

Let's take a look at both the present and future surrounding the two squads in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 (8 p.m. in Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida), highlighting the game's top storylines as well as the best NFL prospects on each team.

 

Top Storylines

Will MSU Stop the Option Again?

Arguably the pinnacle of the Bulldogs' season was their 38-23 romp over the high-powered Auburn Tigers, a win that sent MSU to the No. 1 ranking.  The Tigers led the SEC with 258.5 rushing yards per game this season, but while Auburn experienced first-half rushing success at Oxford, it ultimately compiled just 10 points and 172 total yards after halftime, in large part because of MSU's ability to hold down Nick Marshall and Co. on the ground.

However, Georgia Tech presents an even more daunting monster, with Paul Johnson's famed triple-option attack powering the Yellow Jackets to a whopping 333.6 rushing yards per game and 41 touchdowns—marks that ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the FBS.  As the ACC championship illustrated, even an uber-athletic defense like Florida State's cannot utilize its physical advantage without the supreme gap and containment discipline that defending the option requires.

Apart from Auburn, the Bulldogs have not really faced an offense like Tech's.  MSU was largely excellent defending the run this year, allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt, the 31st-best mark in the nation.  With a front seven that includes four senior starters, the veteran defense has held its own against some premier SEC running backs.

For what it's worth, defending the option largely comes down to prep time.  Paul Johnson-coached teams are just 1-5 in bowl games, in part because the long layoff has allowed teams to stymie his offenses to 14.8 points per game in those contests.  Like most Georgia Tech opponents, Mississippi State holds the physical edge and will need to play with nearly flawless discipline to contain one of the nation's most unique offenses.

 

Who Wins in the Red Zone?

An underrated storyline will unfold when the two offenses enter the red zone.  While Georgia Tech is stingy, ranking 26th in opponent touchdown percentage, the Bulldogs lead the nation in red-zone defense, having allowed offenses to score touchdowns on a meager 37.5 percent of their opportunities.

This is a matchup the Yellow Jackets probably need to win to hang with favored Mississippi State.  Georgia Tech has had issues with its pass rush, as its 4.47 percent sack percentage ranks 101st in the FBS, per TeamRankings.com.  Tech has won all six games in which it has accrued two or more sacks. But as Jameis Winston illustrated, Tech's defense is particularly vulnerable when opposing quarterbacks are given plenty of time in the pocket.

Dak Prescott is always dangerous with his feet, but the Mississippi St. quarterback will need to revert to his early-season form, when he carved up defenses through the air as well.  Based on raw QBR, Prescott's two worst games this season were easily the final two losses against Alabama and Ole Miss, in which he combined to complete 57.6 percent of his passes. 

Georgia Tech's low-variance rushing attack defies statistical comparison to the other offenses MSU has faced this season, as it's not as concerned with the smaller red-zone passing windows as most offenses.  That's a large X-factor that could swing this game, but assuming the Bulldogs' top-ranked red-zone defense doesn't regress too much, Tech will need to fluster Prescott to keep Mississippi State's offensive output down.

 

Top NFL Prospects

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State

The junior McKinney led the Bulldogs with 61 tackles en route to a second-team All-SEC selection.  As the leader of a veteran defense, the underclassman is expected to turn pro after the season, according to head coach Dan Mullen:

A prototypical "Mike" linebacker at 6'5" and 245 pounds, McKinney's floor is probably a two-down run-stuffing linebacker.  However, as NFL.com's Chase Goodbread relays, some scouts see a rare size-speed combination that has drawn comparisons to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain:

But here's what one NFL personnel executive will see: "Rolando McClain or a poor man's Brian Urlacher."

That's how an AFC college scouting director described McKinney to NFL Media's Albert Breer. McKinney (6-5, 250 pounds) is roughly the same size as McClain, the former Alabama star who has revitalized his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys.

It's too early in the draft process to suggest where McKinney will end up, though optimistic projections have seen him as a potential late first- or early second-round pick.  Given that Tech's option attack will test his range, reaction, discipline and tackle form, McKinney will receive an invaluable opportunity to shine against an offense tailor-made to highlight his strengths.

 

Darren Waller, WR, Georgia Tech

It's probably surprising to hear that Georgia Tech's top 2015 draft prospect is a wide receiver, but the 6'5" Waller has plenty of potential as a perimeter split end threat, as these fade routes illustrate:

Of course, straight 9-routes are essentially the entirety of what Waller has run in the unsophisticated Tech passing offense, making him a raw late-round prospect.  However, that tantalizing upside makes him a nice low-risk, high-reward investment for Day 3, as his ESPN scouting report suggests a player who should make some big plays vertically (subscription required):

Prototypical vertical threat with rare size-speed combination. Doesn't have elite second gear but smooth strider that can climb over top of coverage and stretch field when gets clean release. Can produce after the catch despite average burst. Flashes ability to make first defender miss and strong enough to slip out of would-be arm tackles. Faster than quick and a threat to rip off chunk of yards if allowed to build steam.

For his career, Waller has averaged 18.6 yards per catch on 41 receptions.  Among receivers with at least that many catches in that three-year stretch, Waller ranks tied for 21st in yards per catch, per Sports-Reference.com.  Considering that Georgia Tech has produced other physically freakishwide receivers, Waller should not be so quickly dismissed simply because of the Jackets' primitive passing game.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Underrated Stars to Watch and Picks in Boise State vs. Arizona

The Fiesta Bowl is undoubtedly one of the best postseason games on the schedule, but the players on both teams are often overlooked.

Arizona was the only team to beat Oregon this season and kept the strong play up all year to win the Pac-12 South division. However, the only well-known competitor on the roster is All-American linebacker Scooby Wright.

Running back Jay Ajayi put up huge numbers this season, but plenty of talent on both sides of the ball helped Boise State earn a prestigious bowl bid.

The game itself will be a good one, with Arizona using its explosive offense and physicality to try to earn a win. Boise State averages 39.8 points per game, but the lack of top competition throughout the year could lead to problems.

However, one of the bigger storylines is whether a few underrated stars can burst into the spotlight.

 

Fiesta Bowl Info

When: Wednesday, Dec. 31, at 4 p.m. ET

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

TV: ESPN

Predicted Score: Arizona 31, Boise State 27

 

Players to Watch

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona

Although he is well known among Arizona fans, the college football world is still sleeping on running back Nick Wilson.

The freshman was limited for a good portion of the season, but he was a main reason the squad was so successful down the stretch. In consecutive wins over Utah and Arizona State, Wilson totaled 396 rushing yards and six touchdowns to help get the team into the Pac-12 title game.

Most of the time watching Wilson play, the reaction is similar to that of Roberto Payne of Wildcat Sports:

Meanwhile, he and quarterback Anu Solomon have created quite a tandem this year, noted by Blair Willis of ArizonaWildcats.com:

This means a lot more success could be on the way for this team in the future. At the very least, Wilson will showcase his ability to people who have yet to see what he can do.

 

Mickey Baucus, OT, Arizona

Arizona's offensive line was massively underrated this season. The unit cleared space for the rushing attack and kept quarterback Anu Solomon on his feet to help the offense be one of the best in the nation all year.

All of this starts with senior tackle Mickey Baucus, who has made 51 starts in a row for the Wildcats. Despite his success, he didn't even receive an honorable mention on the All-Pac-12 team.

Still, this doesn't seem to bother him. Baucus recently explained that he would prefer to remain anonymous, via ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell:

We're happy those guys are having success, because that means we're having success as a team. We just want to go out there and do our business. If an offensive lineman's name is getting called, it's usually because he gave up a sack or committed a penalty. We just like to do our stuff in the background and win football games.

Baucus will stand out due to his size at 6'8", but his play against Boise State will also cause people to turn heads.

 

Kamalei Correa, DE, Boise State

If Boise State is going to slow down Arizona's No. 28-ranked passing offense, it will need to put pressure on Solomon. That is where Kamalei Correa will have to come in.

The sophomore defensive lineman has turned himself into one of the best pass-rushers in the nation, finishing the year with 10 sacks to go with 17 tackles for a loss. With a blocked kick also on his resume, it's clear he will do whatever it takes to help the team win.

Amazingly, Correa has only gotten better as the year has progressed, totaling 4.5 sacks in the final three games of the year.

While the true sophomore is not eligible for the NFL draft, it probably won't be long until scouts start taking a hard look at the talented player. He has the size and technique to make a real impact in each game, and the Wildcats are going to feel this right away.

 

Darian Thompson, S, Boise State

Not only did Darian Thompson finish second on the team with 61 tackles, but he made a major impact in the passing game by finishing with seven interceptions. Louisville's Gerod Holliman and Senquez Golson of Ole Miss were the only players in the nation with more.

Thompson has a knack for always being around the ball, and he can change any game with his turnovers.

While many players often luck into interceptions, the junior has earned all of his production this year. Mike Wittmann of Rivals.com notes the player has done a lot of work off the field to help himself:

With an extra few weeks to prepare for the matchup against Arizona, the safety could be even more dangerous on the field.

If the Wildcats don't know who he is by now, they will certainly be aware of No. 4 after the game.

 

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

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule and Predictions for Biggest Playoff Snubs

The inaugural College Football Playoff certainly increased the drama throughout the regular season, but it was also the cause for an excessive amount of debates regarding which teams were actually the most deserving to end the season within the Top Four.

Since Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State were handpicked by the selection committee as the nation's representatives in the two semifinal contests, other teams such as Baylor, TCU and, to a lesser extent, Michigan State were considered snubs by many fans and some analysts.

So, which bowls were those squads awarded? Well, they all made out fairly well. Baylor and Michigan State will actually be facing off in the Cotton Bowl, and TCU will take on Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. Those aren't bad consolation prizes.

As bowl season continues, let's take an updated look at the remaining schedule and predict how those playoff snubs will fare in their respective postseason contests.

All game odds courtesy of Odds Shark and current as of December 22.

 

Peach Bowl

Ole Miss vs. TCU

We're about to find out what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. While that narrative has been played out more times than Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart," it certainly holds true to this impending contest.

Ole Miss doesn't feature the most prolific offense. In fact, it can be downright difficult to watch at times depending on the play of erratic quarterback Bo Wallace. However, the team does boast the nation's best scoring defense that allows an average of just 13.8 points per game.

The Rebels began the season with a bang, winning their first seven contests, but they quickly came back down to Earth, losing three of their next four and missing out on the College Football Playoff. Still, Ole Miss did finish the season with a flourish, defeating Mississippi State 31-17 and spoiling the Bulldogs' hopes of a playoff spot.

Ole Miss' stout defense was well on display during the Egg Bowl. It did allow 445 yards to the Bulldogs, but it took Mississippi State 84 offensive plays to rack up that number. That's an average of just 5.29 yards per play for one of the nation's most prolific offenses.

On the flip side, we have a TCU team that has been lighting up scoreboards all season long. Quarterback Trevone Boykin has been electrifying this season, passing for 3,714 yards and 30 touchdowns while rushing for another 642 yards and eight scores. He's been the catalyst of an offense that ranks second in the nation, scoring an average of 46.8 points per game.

But, can this offense flourish against that sturdy Ole Miss defense? The Horned Frogs probably won't hit their season average, but they're far too dynamic to be denied completely. Perhaps the more important question is: Can the Rebels offense generate points against the TCU defense?

After all, TCU isn't a slouch on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 17th in the nation and allowing an average of just 20.3 points per game. Ole Miss has struggled against better defenses, putting up a goose egg against Arkansas and scoring just seven points on LSU.

It's difficult to trust Wallace and Co. to get enough points on the board to outscore Boykin and TCU's dynamic offense, so the nod goes to the Horned Frogs here.

Prediction: TCU 27, Ole Miss 20

 

Cotton Bowl

Michigan State vs. Baylor

Here we have another example of that aforementioned narrative. The Spartans feature one of the nation's strongest defenses, ranking 13th and allowing just 19.9 points per game, while the Bears own the nation's most potent offense, averaging an impressive 48.8 points per contest.

Baylor's offense has been the only team capable of outscoring the Horned Frogs this season, defeating TCU by a score of 61-58 in a very entertaining shootout. Quarterback Bryce Petty continues to be one of the most prolific at his position in the nation, passing for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns while limiting his mistakes, tossing just six picks on the season.

He's surrounded by a bevy of playmakers, including two young wide receivers in Corey Coleman and KD Cannon, as well as reliable running back Shock Linwood, who has 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns on the year, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

This well-balanced offense has led to the Bears ranking fifth in the nation in passing yards and 23rd in rushing yards. Their versatility and ability to strike quickly gives opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.

Although, if any team can handle Baylor's attack, it's Michigan State.

The Spartans have held eight of their 12 opponents to 17 points or fewer this season and rank 13th in scoring defense. Michigan State is extremely strong against the run, ranking sixth in the nation while allowing an average of just 97.5 yards per game. This team has the ability to shut down an opponent's ground game, forcing offenses to become one-dimensional.

Still strong against the pass, Michigan State ranks 26th in that department and has been impressive in denying passing touchdowns, giving up just 13 this year. The Spartans' ability to force teams into passing situations has resulted in ranking tied for third overall in takeaways with a total of 33 on the season—17 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries.

The team's offense has capitalized on many of those turnovers, as quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett have formed a dynamic trio has propelled this team to rank seventh in points scored with 43.1 per game.

But, here's the trouble for the Spartans: They've struggled against better offenses this season. The only two losses this team has endured in 2014 was to Oregon and Ohio State. The Ducks put up 46 points on Michigan State and the Buckeyes accumulated 49. Considering that Baylor has outscored both of those units this season, that's not a good omen for the Spartans.

Baylor has given up points to capable offenses this season, so expect Michigan State to keep this game close. However, due to the Spartans' defensive struggles against superior offenses, the Bears get the nod here and will come away with a close win.

Prediction: Baylor 34, Michigan State 31

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 22.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bahamas Bowl 2014: Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky TV Info, Spread, Time

The Central Michigan Chippewas and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers won the postseason lottery of a trip to the Bahamas, but their vacations are over. Now, it's time for Wednesday's inaugural Bahamas Bowl.

The Chippewas fell to a fourth-place finish in the MAC West but have a chance to secure an eight-win season with a victory on Christmas Eve. Some important recent history is also on their side: The last time Central Michigan faced Western Kentucky, it was in a 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win.

But they will face a much different Western Kentucky team. Despite early struggles that saw the Hilltoppers sputter to a 4-4 Conference USA record, they became the only team to defeat Marshall all season en route to a 4-0 finish.

Don't expect too rowdy of an environment—Thomas Robinson Stadium's capacity is 15,000, per the bowl's official site. But factoring in the pleasant beach setting and the history between these two teams, the Bahamas Bowl won't be one to miss.

 

When: Wednesday, December 24 at 12 p.m. ET

Where: Thomas Robinson Stadium, Nassau, Bahamas

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Western Kentucky -4

 

Battle of Strengths

Lining up on defense isn't an area of comfort for many teams, but it has been for Central Michigan. However, that might not be the case Wednesday afternoon.

That's because the Chippewas will be going up against a high-octane Western Kentucky offense that puts up points among the nation's best, averaging almost 45 points per game this season. And it does so in a number of ways.

The unquestioned leader is senior quarterback Brandon Doughty, who is playing in his sixth year of eligibility after two seasons were cut short by injury. The C-USA MVP has had the hot hand all season, throwing for 44 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Oh, and he's passed the 490-yard passing mark in three different games this year.

There wasn't much doubt in CMU head coach Dan Enos' mind that Doughty would be the best they've faced all year, per Mt. Pleasant Morning Sun's Nate Schneider:

What has taken the Hilltoppers offense from good to great, though, is Leon Allen in the run game. 

The big junior rusher (6'1", 235 pounds) averages almost six yards per carry, with 1,490 rushing yards and 12 scores on the season. There are few scarier passing-and-running duos in the nation, with Doughty able to stretch out defenses and Allen there to hammer them. 

While Central Michigan may not be used to Western Kentucky's potent offense, the same could be said of the Hilltoppers facing a stout Chippewa defense. The MAC school ranks an impressive 15th in the FBS in total defense.

The Chippewas were able to hold Western Kentucky to just 21 points in their 2012 bowl meeting, but they're facing a more multifaceted offensive unit in 2014. 

 

Replacing the Workhorse

The Chippewas will have their work cut out for them if Doughty has his way through the air. But if Western Kentucky's beleaguered defense is any indication, Central Michigan just might be able to win a shootout.

The Hilltoppers have scored fewer than 30 points this season just once, but that statistic sounds less impressive when you consider they're 7-5. In those five losses, they have allowed almost 48 points per game on average.

Central Michigan fans wouldn't need to fear about their offense with dominant senior running back Thomas Rawls in the fold, as he has 1,103 yards and 10 scores on the season. But as CM Life reported Monday, Rawls will not play:

Saying the Chippewas lean on Rawls on the offensive end would be a striking understatement. They have two backs with 65 or more carries in Devon Spalding and Saylor Lavallii, but neither has more than 360 rushing yards on the year.

Spalding has turned heads in a few recent contests and should be called upon to replace Rawls. In back-to-back November wins over Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio), Spalding amassed over 300 yards on the ground and four touchdowns—good for most of his season total.

Against a Western Kentucky defense that has been gashed all season long, Spalding will need to post a similar performance for the Chippewas to have a chance.

 

Prediction

With the way Western Kentucky's offense is clicking, not even an extravagant vacation and a trip to the beach can cool it off. 

Doughty won't have an eight-touchdown game against a veteran Chippewa defense, but the threat of it will open up lanes for Allen all game long. CMU will be ready for the shootout in the first half but will find points harder and harder to come by as Western Kentucky begins to generate stops.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 44, Central Michigan 31

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Poinsettia Bowl 2014: Predictions and Key Battles Sure to Decide Navy vs. SDSU

Two contrasting yet effective styles of football duel in one of the most exciting pre-Christmas bowl games when the Navy Midshipmen battle the San Diego State Aztecs in the Poinsettia Bowl.

It's not technically a home game for the Aztecs, but it should feel like one. They'll be playing on the same Qualcomm Field on which they went a perfect 6-0 this season, albeit with some different field paint and slightly non-unanimous crowd support.

Winning three of four to close out the season has San Diego State full of confidence, but it will have to go through a Navy team with a daunting triple option, and the Midshipmen are out for revenge after a 35-14 defeat in this same bowl in 2010.

Here's a quick table for what you need to know for the Poinsettia Bowl, followed by a breakdown of the game.

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 22

 

Navy's Keenan Reynolds vs. San Diego State's Front Six

You know it's coming, but there's simply no way of stopping it. You can only contain it.

It's the triple option, and few players in the nation run it more smoothly than Navy's Keenan Reynolds.

The quarterback has rushed more than twice as many times as he's thrown this season, and he's had striking success. He has 1,182 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, and he already has more career touchdowns (62) than any quarterback in NCAA history.

Along with two fullbacks who get high usage in the offense, the Midshipmen's triple option is in full effect heading into San Diego. 

The Aztecs will have to hope their unconventional 3-3-5 defensive scheme is able to hold up. They allow 145.6 yards per game rushing this season—nearly 200 fewer yards than Navy averages.

As San Diego State coach Rocky Long said of the matchup between Navy's offense and SDSU's defense, it will be memorable, per Ruben Meza of Rivals.com:

For Reynolds, facing such a defense could either open things up for bigger plays or complicate things. SDSU will be sure to send a few of its defensive backs in pursuit, meaning the quarterback will have mismatches down the field to exploit.

Reynolds isn't one to do so, with just over 800 passing yards on the season, but he'll largely be able to catch the Aztecs off guard by making the right decisions off the snap in the triple option. Either way, he'll need to be crisp against a defense sending multiple looks at him.

 

SDSU's Donnel Pumphrey vs. Navy LBs

With a quarterback who has fewer touchdown passes than games started on the season, the Aztecs offense mimics Navy's in that both rely heavily upon the run. 

But for the Midshipmen to halt San Diego State's rushing attack, they can simply aim to slow down Donnel Pumphrey.

There may not be a more underrated player in the nation, as the running back ranks third nationally with 1,755 rushing yards on the season (a 6.9 average) and 19 touchdowns on a workhorse-like 255 carries. When he gets going, backup Chase Price (130 carries, 605 yards) keeps the offense rolling, and quarterback Quinn Kaehler can make teams pay with play action.

What makes the play of the Navy linebackers—seniors such as Jordan Drake, Chris Johnson and Obi Uzoma—so important is that they can limit Pumphrey at the point of attack. Running lanes will open, and the Midshipmen have the personnel at the second level to fill them. 

But they must fill them in a heartbeat against one of the best rushers in the country.

If they're able to do so early, it could set a tone and help take Pumphrey out of the game. It's hard to see Navy's offense not taking advantage if that turns out to be the case through a quarter or two.

 

Prediction

The Aztecs may be too reliant on Pumphrey, but you can afford to do that with a durable talent who is surrounded by a balanced offense. That's exactly what SDSU has, and it will prove to be the difference.

Navy's triple option will dazzle at times, but it won't stand up for four quarters against a physical and underrated San Diego State defense allowing just 20 points per contest. The Midshipmen won't get worn down despite a physical Aztec running game and will fight to the end, but it won't be enough to get revenge for 2010.

Prediction: San Diego State 31, Navy 27

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Hawai'i Bowl 2014: Fresno State vs. Rice TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Time

The Hawai'i Bowl features two teams looking to end their 2014 campaigns on a high note after disappointing finishes to the regular season.

Fittingly enough, Fresno State earned bowl eligibility with a victory over Hawaii, but the Bulldogs went on to lose their regular-season finale 28-14 to Boise State. Rice had a tough start to the season, dropping its first three games, but the Owls rebounded nicely, winning seven more games before ending the season with a devastating 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech.

These teams are very evenly matched heading into the Hawai'i Bowl, as Fresno State averages 28.1 points for and 32.6 points against per game, while Rice averages 28.7 points for and 30.3 points against per contest. So, which team has the upper hand in this postseason showdown? Let's break it down.

 

Big-Play Receivers

Both Rice and Fresno State will need to get their top playmakers involved early and often in an effort to gain the upper hand in this contest. It just so happens that the biggest offensive threat for both of these teams happens to be a wide receiver.

Senior Josh Harper has been fantastic for the Bulldogs this season, racking up 86 receptions for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns. He's coming off a stellar showing against Boise State in which he reeled in 10 catches for 131 yards, averaging 13.1 yards per reception. Expect quarterback Brian Burrell to look Harper's way often against a Rice defense that ranks 89th in the nation against the pass.

Senior Jordan Taylor has been Rice's go-to guy on the offensive side of the ball this year. He missed the team's first three games and recorded just one reception in its fourth contest, but he's been on fire since. Over the Owls' final eight contests this season, he accumulated 48 receptions for 780 yards and six touchdowns with a long of 88 yards.

Like Harper, Taylor is coming off a huge performance, hauling in 10 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown against Louisiana Tech. Fresno State hasn't been overly stout against the pass this season, ranking 93rd in the nation and allowing 29 touchdowns through the air, so we should see quarterback Driphus Jackson find his favorite target on a regular basis.

The receiver who has the biggest impact on the game will likely reside on the winning team.

 

Limiting Turnovers

There's one big reason for both of these teams' losses to end the regular season—they both committed an excessive amount of turnovers. In Rice's loss to Louisiana Tech, the Owls turned the ball over four times, which included three Jackson interceptions. In Fresno State's loss to Boise State, the Bulldogs racked up three giveaways—all Burrell interceptions.

Both of these quarterbacks must find a way to protect the football and keep from throwing ill-advised passes in the Hawai'i Bowl. This has been an unfortunate trend for both signal-callers this season, and keeping that trend alive could prove to be the undoing for one of these squads.

Jackson may have thrown for 337 yards and four touchdowns against Louisiana Tech, but his three interceptions are a cause for concern. He's only thrown a total of eight picks this year, but five of those have come within the team's last four games. Louisiana Tech does rank first in the nation in takeaways, giving Jackson a bit of leeway here, but if his confidence was shaken, he could continue to struggle.

Burrell has thrown at least one interception in all but one game this season. He's thrown five over his last two contests, including three in the season finale against Boise State. The Broncos have been a ball-hawking team this year, ranking ninth in the nation in takeaways, but ending the season with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2-to-5 isn't comforting.

Neither of these teams have been takeaway artists this season, as Fresno State has accumulated 20 takeaways and Rice has 18, but one small mistake by one of these signal-callers could have dire consequences.

 

When: Wednesday, December 24

Where: Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii

Time: 8 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 59.5
  • Spread: Rice -2.5

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports via DonBest.

 

Prediction

The 2014 Hawai'i Bowl just may come down to which offense can maintain a higher level of efficiency. Neither defense has exactly been stout this year, so there will be plenty of yards and points up for grabs. The team that comes away with fewer unforced errors and sustains methodical drives will emerge victorious.

Judging by the consistency of both squads throughout the regular season, Rice gets the upper hand here. Fresno State is tied for 100th in the nation in giveaways, accumulating 25 turnovers this season with 19 of those being interceptions. The Owls have been extremely efficient in this department, tied for fifth in the nation with just 12 turnovers on the year.

Both of these teams match up very well across the board on both sides of the ball, but mistakes often lead to losses in high-stakes games, and that's why Rice will come away with the win.

Prediction: Rice 38, Fresno State 31

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 22.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Boca Raton Bowl: TV Schedule, Picks and Players to Watch for Marshall vs. NIU

Do you love offense? Then the 2014 Boca Raton Bowl is for you.

This year's spectacle should be a shootout between offensive heavyweights Marshall and Northern Illinois. The Thundering Herd rank fifth in the nation, averaging 45.1 points per game, and the Huskies' versatile running game has led to an average of 32.2 points per contest, including a 51-point showing against Bowling Green to close out the season.

With Marshall emerging as Conference USA champs and Northern Illinois taking the MAC title, this is the only non-New Year's bowl game to feature two conference champions. Needless to say, you won't want to miss this very underrated contest.

As we await these teams to return to the gridiron, here's a look at the game's complete schedule, key players to watch from each team and a prediction for the 2014 Boca Raton Bowl's ultimate outcome.

 

Viewing Information

When: Tuesday, December 23

Where: FAU Football Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida

Time: 6 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 67
  • Spread: Marshall -10

 

Players to Watch

Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall

Marshall's offense runs through this prolific senior signal-caller. He's been lighting up scoreboards all season long, completing 58.5 percent of his passes for 3,622 yards, 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while adding 457 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.

One number that will be different on Tuesday will be on his jersey, as he will be honoring an injured teammate, according to Dr. Saturday of Yahoo Sports:

While Cato has been a big-play threat this year, he's been prone to throw costly picks at times, tossing four interceptions in the team's lone loss to Western Kentucky. He will have room to maneuver against a Northern Illinois defense ranked 63rd in the nation against the pass, but he must be careful, as the Huskies are tied for 27th in the nation in takeaways and have recorded 14 picks in 13 games this season.

Cato will need to rely heavily on his most trusted target, senior wide receiver Tommy Shuler. While Shuler's receptions are down this year—he's accumulated 74 after two years of 100-plus catches—he is averaging a career-high 12.9 yards per reception.

 

Devon Johnson, RB, Marshall

This running back will need to be at full speed against NIU, as he's been dealing with a rash of injuries recently, limiting him to a total of just seven carries in his last two games combined. However, there is good news for the Thundering Herd, as Derek Redd the Charleston Daily Mail reports he's expected to play.

On the season, Johnson is averaging an impressive 8.6 yards per carry while rushing for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns. His presence gives Marshall much-needed balance on the offensive side of the ball, and the team has struggled recently without being able to fully utilize him.

Northern Illinois ranks 56th against the run, allowing an average of 158.5 yards per game, and has given up a total of 21 rushing touchdowns this season. If Johnson is healthy enough to shoulder a full workload, he could be poised for a very big day.

 

Drew Hare, QB, Northern Illinois

Hare is a major dual-threat quarterback who could give Marshall's shaky defense fits. So far this season, he's passed for 2,097 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for another 850 yards and eight scores. Careful with the football, the quarterback has only thrown a total of two interceptions this season.

While this sophomore signal-caller isn't overly experienced, he resides in an offense that perfectly complements his skill set. He isn't asked to do much through the air, passing more than 30 times in a game just twice this season while having the freedom to utilize his ability to gain yards with his legs often.

With a solid backfield and prolific wide receiver Da'Ron Brown at his disposal, Hare has plenty of options to circumvent a Marshall defense that has found some success this season, ranking 29th in the nation, allowing an average of 351.8 total yards per game.

 

Cameron Stingily, RB, Northern Illinois

At 6'1" and 235 pounds, Stingily is a formidable threat out of the backfield for the Huskies. The offense transitioned into more of a committee approach this season, limiting Stingily's carries slightly, but he's still managed 895 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

The senior ball-carrier is looking for a big win on Tuesday to help the program's future, according to NIU Huskie Athletics:

An integral part of keeping defenses honest and opening up running and passing lanes for Hare, Stingily needs to get going early for NIU to get off to a fast start against Marshall. The Thundering Herd's defense has been a bit weak up front this season, ranking 52nd in the nation against the run and allowing an average of 157.2 yards per game on the ground along with a total of 14 rushing touchdowns.

If Stingily can get a good amount of carries early in the game, he'll help the Huskies offense wear down Marshall's defense quickly, leading to more big-play opportunities and points on the board.

 

Prediction

With two high-powered offenses set to go at it on Tuesday, we should be in for some excitement on the amateur gridiron. Certainly, both teams have the kind of potent offense necessary to get points on the board and come away with a win, so other factors will have to play a part in the game's ultimate outcome.

Marshall has been able to hold up better on the defensive side of the ball throughout the season, allowing 34 total touchdowns and 351.8 yards per game against Northern Illinois' average of 382.9 yards per game and 38 total touchdowns. A slight advantage goes to the Thundering Herd in this department.

Another difference-maker in this contest will be experience. While Northern Illinois does have some upperclassmen in its ranks, it does boast a sophomore quarterback. Marshall, on the other hand, has seniors at quarterback and wide receiver, along with two junior lead tailbacks. That's enough to give the Thundering Herd the slight overall edge.

Prediction: Marshall 42, Northern Illinois 38

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 22.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Clemson Football: Holiday Wish List for the Tigers

As Christmas approaches this week, we all have a certain wish list of things we want. That wish list is no different for sports, and there are a few things Clemson Tigers fans should want for the team this holiday season.

Winning the Russell Athletic Bowl versus Oklahoma next Monday is obviously on everyone’s list, but here are a few other things the Tigers should be worrying about at this time.

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