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Citrus Bowl 2015: Top Performers and Highlights from Missouri vs. Minnesota

The bowl games haven't been kind to the SEC lately, with Auburn losing to Wisconsin in overtime on New Year's Day and both Ole Miss and Mississippi State getting worked over by TCU and Georgia Tech, respectively, on Dec. 31. 

However, the Missouri Tigers were able to redeem the conference somewhat with a 33-17 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Thursday in the 2015 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

The game started off rather sloppily, with three turnovers before the 11-minute mark of the first quarter. Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk overcame a rough start to play calm, collected football and free up a potent rushing attack with his legs.

After falling behind 14-13 midway through the third quarter, the Tigers powered to a win behind rushing touchdowns from Mauk and running back Russell Hansbrough, along with a fourth-quarter touchdown reception from senior wideout Bud Sasser, his second score of the day. Mizzou finished with a staggering 337 rushing yards, not far off the pace from Minnesota's total offensive output (373).

This edition of the Citrus Bowl featured long stretches of field-position jockeying, punctuated by the occasional highlight-worthy play. Let's take a look at a few of the top performers from the contest, followed by a quick look at the game's replay-ready efforts.


Top Performers

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri

Mizzou defensive end Shane Ray might've gotten the tiger's share of attention this season, but it was his pass-rushing counterpart Markus Golden who went about wrecking the Minnesota offense on this day, as Ray appeared to still be nursing an ankle injury and was seen limping throughout the game.

Golden, a senior playing his final game as a Tiger, was seemingly everywhere on Friday, harassing quarterback Mitch Leidner, chasing down ball-carriers and pummeling the Golden Gophers offensive line. Golden made his mark on this game early, picking up a spectacular sack-forced fumble just under a minute into the contest, which teammate Harold Brantley did well to recover.

Mizzou Football provided a look at his unbelievable first-half stats:

The St. Louis native wasn't quite as prolific in the second half, a byproduct of his own team's improved performance on offense. He did take time out from punishing ball-carriers to remind Minnesota who exactly they were dealing with, per CSN Chicago's JJ Stankevitz:

Golden was named the Citrus Bowl MVP for his efforts, per the game's official Twitter account: 

It was a fine way to end a spectacular season. Golden's ridiculous motor should make him a highly coveted prospect in the 2015 NFL draft, and this performance is certainly going on his audition tape.

 

Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota

Something tells me Maxx Williams is going to get a call from Minnesota's track-and-field coach fairly soon. Williams racked up seven catches for 98 yards and one touchdown in the Citrus Bowl, but it was the scoring play that had him looking like an eventual 110-meter hurdles champion.

Early in the third quarter, Williams took a wobbly pass from Leidner down the left sideline and vaulted not one, but two Tigers defenders en route to a 54-yard score. ESPN CollegeFootball provided a look at Williams' best Liu Xiang impression:

CBS Sports' Dane Brugler felt that play encapsulated the redshirt sophomore's draftability: 

That play will definitely be one of the lasting images from the game. Williams didn't have too much else to do on the afternoon, as Minnesota struggled to keep up, but he proved to be a dependable outlet for Leidner, who had a solid performance himself, completing 21 of 31 passes for 258 yards and one touchdown.

 

Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri

The Tigers didn't need to feed Marcus Murphy the ball too often in this contest, but the speedy senior running back made every touch count in this one, racking up 157 yards on 12 carries and adding another 16 yards through the air on two receptions. 

Murphy touched the ball just eight times in the first half and just six more times in the second half. His best effort of the game was a 69-yard scamper that set up a seven-yard touchdown pass from Mauk to Sasser. 

Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thought the Minnesota defense was looking a bit bloated on that play:

Murphy was also very unlucky to have a long touchdown run erased by a Mizzou penalty. Still, the Kansas City Star's Tod Palmer noted Murphy's pro-caliber rushing ability after the play: 

Missouri had plenty of success running the ball against the Golden Gophers, and the constant threat of a big play from Murphy had much to do with that on Thursday afternoon.

 

Highlights

Briean Boddy-Calhoun's first-quarter interception off Mauk likely had some Tigers fans reaching for the remote early on, perhaps wary of another dour passing display from Mauk. ESPN College Football provided a look at the play:

Minnesota's Rodrick Williams Jr. had but one carry to give in this contest, but he certainly made it count. Williams sprang for a 20-yard rushing touchdown for the first score of the game, via ESPN College Football:

Mauk eventually smoothed things out in the passing game, although he was far from prolific through the air. He did, however, show off his toughness with an 18-yard scoring run that gave Mizzou a 19-14 lead it would never relinquish, via ESPN College Football:

Murphy wasn't the only Mizzou back to top the century mark in the Citrus Bowl. Hansbrough finished with 114 rushing yards of his own, 78 of which came on this epic run to daylight early in the fourth quarter that did much to shatter Minnesota's confidence in this contest. Via SEC Football: 

The game turned out to be an excellent send-off for many of Missouri's top stars, but the program could struggle to reload at key positions next season. Ray, Golden and possibly Murphy could all very well be playing on Sundays this time next year.

It's a disappointing end to the season for the Golden Gophers, who spent much of the year lurking in the back end of the various top-25 polls. They will have to find a greater spark on offense if they are to compete with Big Ten heavyweights such as Ohio State and Wisconsin in 2015.

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Outback Bowl 2015: Game Grades, Analysis for Auburn and Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Badgers were able to pull off the upset and defeat the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl. The final box score can be found here, thanks to NCAA.com.

It was a game that went back and forth all day long, but the Badgers were able to make one more play in overtime. Melvin Gordon was a man on a mission for Wisconsin as he ran for over 250 yards. But Cameron Artis-Payne was pretty good for the Tigers with 126 yards and two touchdowns.

Both teams played well on offense and struggled on defense, but one team was able to be more efficient on special teams. So this was one of the better matchups of the bowl season.

Here are game grades and analysis for Auburn and Wisconsin.

 

PASSING OFFENSE

The passing game for Auburn was consistent all game long. Nick Marshall only threw for 217 yards, but he was accurate and threw for two touchdowns. Despite the record, Marshall has improved his game when it comes to passing the ball. He has made better decisions, showed great poise and took the shots downfield when the opportunity presented itself.

 

RUNNING OFFENSE

The rushing attack started off slow for the Tigers, but they were able to get things going as the game rolled on. Artis-Payne rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns, while Corey Grant had 30 yards on five carries. The strength of the Tigers offense is the run game, and they were able to attack a very aggressive Badger defense because they never gave up on the run game.

 

PASSING DEFENSE

The Tigers did not play that well on defense, but the pass defense was on point. Jermaine Whitehead came up with two interceptions, and the Tigers only allowed 121 yards through the air.

Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave did complete some big throws at the end of the game, but the reason the Badgers weren’t able to pull away from the Tigers was that Stave could not figure out the pass coverage of Auburn, and all they did was keep everything in front of them.

 

RUNNING DEFENSE

This has been a weakness for the Tigers all season long, and it was put on full display at Raymond James Stadium. The Tigers allowed 400 rushing yards, and 251 of those yards came from Melvin Gordon. Auburn had issues bringing down Gordon, who has great size and even better speed. But Corey Clement also frustrated the Tigers, as he rushed for 105 yards. This was a game the Auburn defense would like to forget.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

If there was a reason the Tigers lost the game, it’s because of the play of the special teams. Daniel Carlson has been a reliable kicker for the Tigers all year, but he missed two field goals at the end of the game, and Wisconsin was able to take advantage of it.

One of the misses came in overtime as the Tigers were looking to tie the game once again to take it to a second overtime. But Carlson pushed it right, and the Badgers were able to hold on for the win.

 

COACHING

Gus Malzahn coached a pretty good game considering he came up short. He was able to attack the Badgers with deep throws, and he never gave up on the run game, which is why the Tigers were able to score over 30 points.

However, the preparation on defense could have been better.

Allowing a guy like Gordon to go over 250 yards is never acceptable no matter how good he is. The Tigers were not disciplined consistently, and they can’t wait for Will Muschamp to come in and clean things up.

 

 

PASSING OFFENSE

The Badgers struggled to get anything going in the passing game. Stave was only 14-of-27 for 121 yards, one touchdown and three picks. He was not on time with his throws, he never was comfortable in the pocket and he made some bad decisions. Toward the end of the game, he was able to make some big throws in key situations, but the passing game has to improve next season.

 

RUNNING OFFENSE

But the running offense was so strong that the passing game was somewhat of a non-issue. Gordon was on fire and was only a handful of yards away from breaking Barry Sanders' single-season record. But Corey Clement was also unstoppable, as he rushed for 105 yards on 15 carries.

This is nothing new for the Badgers because they have been running on teams all season long. But some may be surprised that they were able to do it against a SEC team. Gordon proved why he was the Doak Walker Award winner this year with his performance in the Outback Bowl.

 

PASSING DEFENSE

The Badgers struggled to stop Auburn’s passing attack as Marshall was able to throw for over 200 yards and two scores. Wisconsin did not get constant pressure on Marshall, and the secondary did not do a good job maintaining coverage.

The reason for that is the Tigers' speed overwhelmed the Badgers at times, but even though the Badgers have a great safety in Michael Caputo, there really isn’t a defensive back that could lock down Sammie Coates or Ricardo Louis.

 

RUNNING DEFENSE

Wisconsin only allowed 46 yards on the ground in the first half, but it could not make the adjustments in the second half, and the Tigers rushed for over 200 yards on New Year’s Day. Auburn is good at running the ball because it knows how to scheme. Wisconsin was able to attack the line of scrimmage, but the Tigers were able to spread them out, and Artis-Payne was able to find more holes in the second half.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The special teams for the Badgers were a key in the game because they came up with two big field goals in the fourth quarter and in overtime. Rafael Gaglianone nailed a field goal in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31, and he notched another field goal in overtime to take the lead.

Whenever there is a game where teams are going back and forth with scoring, special teams are key, and Wisconsin was able to make one more play on special teams, which led to the win.

 

COACHING

Credit also has to go to Barry Alvarez for calling a great game. He looked very comfortable on the sidelines, and the players really enjoyed having him as the coach for just this one game. He played to the team’s strengths, and that was run the ball as much as possible. He also had great clock management at the end of the fourth quarter, which was another reason why the Badgers pulled off the win.

Maybe Alvarez should come back and coach the Badgers. But Paul Chryst should have no issues being able to continue the winning tradition the Badgers have created.

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Michigan State vs. Baylor: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2015 Cotton Bowl

Baylor spent much of the latter half of 2014 trying to prove itself against doubters. Whether it was fans or the College Football Playoff committee, the Bears succeeded every time but were still left on the outside looking in.

On Thursday, Michigan State arguably affirmed those fears.   

Connor Cook hit Keith Mumphery from 10 yards out with 17 seconds remaining to give the Spartans a thrilling 42-41 Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Michigan State scored the game's final 21 points, all in the fourth quarter, to earn one of the largest comebacks of the 2014-15 college football season. 

Playing in their last collegiate games, Cook and running back Jeremy Langford spearheaded the attack. Cook hit Josiah Price from eight yards out to make the score 41-28 and Langford scored the last of his three touchdowns to bring the game within a score. 

While the momentum was clearly in Michigan State's favor, Baylor still had a chance to salt the game away. Bryce Petty, who threw for a career-best and Cotton Bowl-record 550 yards, pushed the Bears downfield to set up what would have been a game-sealing field goal. Chris Callahan, who missed a 46-yard field goal at the beginning of the fourth, had his attempt blocked.

Cook then led a seven-play drive, completing three passes to clinch Michigan State's fourth consecutive bowl win. Mark Dantonio is now 4-4 in bowl games as the Spartans head coach, as he lost the first four of his games.

Cook completed 24 of 42 passes for 324 yards, a vast majority of which came in the second half. His two touchdowns were offset by two second-half interceptions, one of which came following a surprise onside kick recovery, and were the only way Michigan State was stopped down the stretch. 

Early on, it looked as if the Bears would need a massive scoring performance just to have a chance. Jeremy Langford spearheaded touchdown drives on the Spartans' first two possessions, which included a 65-yard scamper that proved to be their biggest play of the game.

Langford rushed for 162 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns. He completes his career in East Lansing with 10 straight 100-yard games. The 6'1" bruiser also set a career-high with a 65-yard rush in the first quarter, part of a red-hot Spartans start that saw them score touchdowns on their first two drives. 

After those two possessions, though, Baylor built and extended a sizable lead. Petty hit on multiple big plays down the field, Art Briles pulled a Jay Lee wide receiver pass out of his bag of tricks for a touchdown and the Bears defense turned in brilliant second and third quarters. The Bears' 41-21 lead did not appear in any danger heading into the fourth. 

Also in his last game, Petty proved why he'll go down as one of the best players in Baylor history. The senior completed 36 of 51 passes to set multiple game records and was for most of the game the sole source of offense. The Bears threw the ball 52 times against 22 runs and weren't effective when they handed the ball off. 

"When I came in here, I said I was going to be (Baylor's) best quarterback," Petty told reporters this week. "So I think that, as long as I'm in that conversation, that I've achieved that goal."

KD Cannon was Petty's top target, making eight receptions for 197 yards and two touchdowns. The freshman broke Baylor's single-season receptions record for a freshman, set by Titans wide receiver Kendall Wright in 2008. 

Corey Coleman added 150 yards and Antwan Goodley had a team-high nine catches for 93 yards.

Baylor's aerial assault offered a poor going-out party for Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. The longtime assistant will take over as the head coach at Pittsburgh after an eight-year run, taking over for Paul Chryst.

“He’s a great guy who understands how to develop players,” safety Kurtis Drummond said, per Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That speaks volumes. He’s not just a guy who relies on the talent to perform, but he’s going to coach you up and bring the best out of you.”

Michigan State's secondary has been a source of concern all season—especially against uptempo offenses. Oregon and Ohio State, the best comps to Baylor on the Spartans' regular-season schedule, combined for 95 points in their two losses. In Michigan State's 10 victories, it allowed more than 22 points just once before the Cotton Bowl (Purdue).

For Baylor, this loss is its second straight in a high-profile bowl game. The Bears allowed UCF to score 52 points on them in last season's Fiesta Bowl and remain a team difficult to peg on defense. Art Briles' uptempo offense is consistently among the best in the nation, but Baylor isn't going to be a national title contender until it figures out the other side of the ball.

The game in many ways mirrored the way Baylor came back against TCU in October. Since the College Football Playoff committee's selections were unveiled, many in the Waco community pointed to that victory as the reason they were more deserving than TCU. The Horned Frogs' 42-3 shellacking of Ole Miss combined with this collapse will put a dent in that argument. 

Or, at the very least, it'll prove the committee correct for leaving them on the outside looking in.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Citrus Bowl: Missouri vs. Minnesota Game Grades and Analysis for Tigers, Gophers

The Missouri Tigers defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 33-17 to win the 2014-15 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

Much of the talk before the game was about Minnesota's vaunted rushing attack led by David Cobb. However, the Tigers held Minnesota to just 106 yards rushing as a team. 

Meanwhile, the Tigers ran for 337 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Russell Hansbrough's 78-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter clinched it for Missouri. 

While Hansbrough finished with 114 yards rushing, it was Marcus Murphy who led Missouri's rushing attack with 157 yards on just 12 carries. 

Quarterback Maty Mauk struggled a bit throwing the ball for the Tigers, but his 18-yard touchdown run in the third quarter was a momentum-changer for Mizzou. 

The win gives Missouri an 11-3 record to end the season. The loss drops Minnesota to 8-5, but head coach Jerry Kill has the Gophers on the rise. 

Here are the grades and analysis for both Minnesota and Missouri. 

 

Minnesota Game Grades Analysis:

Pass Offense: Mitch Leidner played well. His performance as a passer was a pleasant surprise for the Gophers. Tight end Maxx Williams was unstoppable. 

Run Offense: Cobb ran for 81 yards, but it was mostly a quiet 81 yards. Cobb ran for more than 50 yards in the first half but was largely ineffective in the second half. 

Pass Defense: Minnesota's secondary was terrific. The Gophers did allow two touchdown passes, but the first one was on a tremendous throw. Overall, Minnesota held Missouri to less than 100 yards passing. 

Run Defense: Missouri's offensive line was just too much for Minnesota up front. Missouri's running backs had huge holes to run through in the final two quarters. 

Special Teams: Missouri executed two special-teams plays beautifully against the Gophers. Punter Peter Mortell struggled with his hang time all day. 

Coaching: Kill's decision not to try and drive for a score before the half ended was puzzling. He had one minute and three timeouts remaining. At that point, Minnesota was moving the football well. 

 

Missouri Game Grades Analysis:

Pass Offense: Mauk struggled much of the game except for his two touchdown passes. Both were very good throws to Bud Sasser. He was lucky he wasn't intercepted at least five times. He made terrible decisions all game.

Run Offense: The Tigers were dominant up front, especially in the middle. The running backs had canyon-sized holes to run through in the second half. 

Pass Defense: Minnesota had one of its best passing games of the year. Missouri's plan was to make Minnesota one-dimensional, and for the most part the Tigers accomplished that. 

Run Defense: The Tigers held the Gophers and their run-first offense to just 106 yards on the ground. That is primarily why Missouri won this game. 

Special Teams: Give Missouri credit, the Tigers faked a punt, a field goal and executed a beautiful onside kick to start the second half. Missouri's special teams had a great day.

Coaching: Sometimes you wonder why head coach Gary Pinkel sticks with Mauk. But to his credit, he does and it usually works out for Missouri in the end. Also, Pinkel showed great confidence in his special-teams' units and rightfully so. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M Recruiting: Top 5 Recruiting Targets Going Forward

The Texas A&M football team beat West Virginia, 45-37, in the Liberty Bowl to finish the 2014 season at 8-5. The Aggie coaches need to shift their focus now to finishing out the 2015 recruiting class with a number of elite recruits. 

The Aggies' biggest issue during the 2014 season was their inability to get timely stops on defense. All too often they gave up a big run or pass play on third down to extend drives and keep their offense on the sideline. 

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff have done a solid job of recruiting and developing depth on the defensive line since they arrived in Aggieland in 2012. Now they need to work on creating depth at linebacker and in the secondary. 

The Aggies have the defensive linemen in place to stand toe-to-toe with the top offensive lines in the SEC. They need linebackers capable of shedding blocks and making plays and defensive backs who can play man coverage and make plays on the ball.

This is a look at five recruits that the Aggie coaches need to focus on landing between now and signing day.  

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Melvin Gordon Cements College Football Legacy with One Last Heroic Performance

Was there ever a shred of doubt that Melvin Gordon—if nobody else—would deliver for the Wisconsin Badgers in the Outback Bowl? 

With 251 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 34-31 overtime win over Auburn, Gordon earned his cliched ride into the sunset after, yet again, epitomizing what it means to put a team on his back. 

And he'll leave Madison as one of the best running backs to ever do it on Saturdays. 

Gordon was the man with a cheat sheet's worth of answers at Wisconsin, which is earning the reputation as Running Back U with guys like Montee Ball, Anthony Davis, James White and Ron Dayne preceding him. It was more evident than ever against the Tigers. 

All three touchdowns from Gordon came in the second half. All three came with the Badgers trailing. And all three gave Wisconsin the lead. 

None was bigger than Gordon's 53-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 late in the third quarter, with the Badgers trailing 17-14:

As Gordon racked up the yards, he began to flirt with Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA rushing record of 2,628 yards. He finished with 2,587 yards, just 41 yards shy of the record and good enough for second on the list, ahead of the likes of Kevin Smith and Marcus Allen, as ESPN Stats & Info illustrated:

But as the Heisman finalist now enters the preparation stage of this spring's NFL draft—where CBS Sports projects him as the best running back available and a late first-round pick—he'll leave with the school record for most rushing yards in a season, second all-time in NCAA history for rushing yards in a game (408) and a Big Ten champion from his 2012 campaign, when he backed up Ball. 

One of the biggest knocks on Gordon has been that he's taken advantage of Big Ten defenses, perceived to be inferior to some of the other Power Five conferences as a whole. 

Barry Alvarez, the interim head coach for the bowl game on Thursday, said Gordon didn't take kindly to that line of thinking: 

Here's what made Gordon so great. 

In nearly every game this year, everybody knew he was going to run the ball, and run it a lot. 

Wisconsin knew it. Their opponents knew it. The fans in the nosebleeds knew it. Even the little kids watching at home that barely understand the game of football knew. 

Yet he still averaged nearly eight yards per carry and broke the century mark in all but two games this year—including six games with 200 or more yards. 

Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer summed up Gordon's year thusly:

Everybody will remember the Nebraska game, where he broke the FBS record for yards in a single game. Everybody will remember Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine breaking that record a week later. 

But those in Madison will remember Gordon as the guy who always had the answer, no matter how many times the house had it in for him. 

His performance on New Year's Day, a day that symbolizes the dawn of new beginnings, is the perfect send-off for the Heisman finalist as he goes into the NFL. 

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Baylor Kicker Gets Destroyed by Michigan State Defender After Blocked FG

This play late in the 2015 Cotton Bowl could not have gone any worse for Baylor kicker Chris Callahan.

Not only did Michigan State block his potential game-sealing 43-yard field goal, but a Spartans defender also obliterated him as he tried to chase down the ball-carrier.


Here's a slow-motion look at the huge hit:

As you can see, Michigan State's Tony Lippett showed no mercy in trying to spring his team. Here's hoping Callahan escaped this play with no major injuries.

Michigan State took advantage of the good field position and scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing drive.

[Vine, YouTube]

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Missouri vs. Minnesota: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2015 Citrus Bowl

Missouri pulled away from Minnesota in the fourth quarter after a highly competitive game to score a 33-17 victory in the 2015 Citrus Bowl. It gained 337 yards on the ground to spark the bowl triumph.     

The Tigers came into the game carrying the flag of the SEC. The conference, which was considered the clear best during most of the regular season, has taken a hit with some losses during the bowl season. The Golden Gophers hoped to continue that trend.

They weren't able to pull it off, though, as Missouri overcame a slow start to get the win. Here's how the marquee matchup played out from Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando:

One of the difficult aspects of playing a bowl game in the tourist haven of Orlando is striking the right balance between work and play. 

Tom Loeffler of KRCG passed along comments from Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk, who said that's something the team tried to handle as best it could.

"We understand that we came down here to have fun," Mauk said. "We had fun and that stuff is over with. It's the lock-down period and we have to make sure we come out and play our best football. That's the reason we came down here, to win a football game."

A sloppy start by both teams suggested they were still completing the transition back into game mode.

There were three turnovers, two Mauk interceptions by the Tigers and a Mitch Leidner fumble by the Gophers, within the first five minutes of the game. There was a complete absence of rhythm at the outset on both sides.

Minnesota was finally able to settle things down with a long drive. A well-called combination of runs and passes allowed it to cover 80 yards in 11 plays while eating up nearly six minutes of clock. Most importantly, it got the underdogs on the scoreboard first.

Rodrick Williams Jr. burst through the middle for a 20-yard touchdown run. Brice Marich of Gopher Digest applauded the play-calling on the drive:

After sleepwalking through the first quarter, Missouri finally came alive in the second.

A perfect punt by Christian Brinser flipped the field position, and a quick defensive stop gave the Tigers the ball in opponent territory. They capitalized, driving inside the Gophers' 5-yard line before being forced to settle for a field goal.

David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune noted Missouri did all its damage via the rushing attack on its first scoring drive:

After another stop, the Tigers found the groove that was previously missing on offense as they went 67 yards in less than two minutes to grab the lead. Mauk found Bud Sasser from 25 yards out to make it 10-7.

Minnesota opted against trying to push the ball downfield at the end of the first half. Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out the teams went into the locker room deadlocked in total yards:

Part of the Gophers' decision to play it safe was the fact they were set to receive the ball to start the third quarter. Or so they thought. Gary Pinkel decided to go for the surprise onside kick, and it worked to perfection as Ian Simon scooped up the loose ball.

Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star Tribune noted the successful play brought the conservative play calls at the end of the first half into question:

The Minnesota defense was caught off guard by the quick return to the field as Marcus Murphy gashed it for 25 yards on the first play. The unit toughened up from there, however, holding Missouri to a field goal. It was a success with all things considered.

Then the Gophers were able to provide an immediate response. Following a 20-yard connection between Leidner and KJ Maye, the quarterback found Maxx Williams on a quick out route, and the tight end did the rest as he made a highlight-reel run down the sidelines for a 54-yard touchdown.

ESPN College Football provided video of the score:

Just when it looked like things might be turning in the Gophers' favor after a three-and-out by the Tigers, a special teams error flipped the script again. Marcus Jones fumbled as he tried to wrangle in the punt, and Missouri recovered it.

Three plays later, Mauk ran it in from 18 yards out. Pinkel decided to go for two to make it a seven-point game. It didn't work, as Dr. Saturday explained:

Minnesota cut the lead to two a few minutes later with a Ryan Santoso field goal. A stretch of stops by both defenses followed until Missouri created some breathing room early in the fourth quarter.

It actually looked like the Gophers could breathe a sigh of relief after Murphy had returned a punt all the way to the end zone before it was called back due to a penalty. The Tigers scored quickly anyway, however, as Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard run to make it 26-17.

Mihir Bhagat of KOMU expects an even bigger role for Hansbrough next season:

Missouri added to the lead a couple minutes later as Mauk and Sasser hooked up for the second time. This one came from seven yards out to stretch the lead to 16.

There was no late rally in the cards for the Gophers. Mizzou Football highlighted the result:

In the end, Minnesota had an opportunity to take control of the game early but failed to fully capitalize on the Missouri mistakes. The Golden Gophers are still trending in the right direction after an 8-5 campaign, but it ends on a frustrating note.

Missouri gets the victory to finish 11-3 and provide a bright light for the SEC after a stretch of lackluster results. It will have to replace a few key players, notably Murphy and Sasser, but the foundation is still strong as the Tigers begin looking toward 2015.

 

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Outback Bowl Loss Shows Gus Malzahn Has Work to Do to Become Elite Head Coach

Gus Malzahn came within 13 seconds of winning a national title in his first season as Auburn's head coach in 2013.

In the 2015 Outback Bowl, it looked like he was 13 years away from getting to another one.

Malzahn's Tigers fell 34-31 to Wisconsin in overtime on Thursday after kicker Daniel Carlson's field goal clanged off the right upright in the bottom half of the first extra frame.

Carlson shouldn't have been in that position.

The offense called a tunnel screen to wide receiver Sammie Coates on 2nd-and-12 despite Wisconsin's defense playing a disciplined brand of football the entire game.

On the next play, Malzahn called a wide receiver throwback where C.J. Uzomah—a former high school quarterback playing in his last game in the orange and blue—threw back to senior quarterback Nick Marshall.

Predictably, Wisconsin sniffed it out and dropped Marshall for a loss. Malzahn was forced to trot Carlson out.

If Malzahn wanted to get sentimental with Uzomah and Marshall—two players who were key pieces of Auburn's turnaround—he should have done it on first down in overtime, not 3rd-and-long from the Badgers' 27-yard line.

The curious play-calling in a clutch spot came after Malzahn—for the second straight game—displayed clock management skills that would even confuse LSU head coach Les Miles circa 2009.

Instead of calling one of his final two timeouts after linebacker Kris Frost sacked Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave at the Badger 46-yard line, Malzahn let Wisconsin drain the play clock with a simple off-tackle running play on 3rd-and-23 before calling his second timeout of the half with 17 seconds left.

He could have used both of his timeouts and given his offense a chance with no timeouts and around a minute to play. Instead, he took his final timeout into halftime despite the fact that timeouts aren't like cellphone minutes that roll over.

At the end of the first half of the Iron Bowl, a pass from Marshall to wide receiver Sammie Coates got the Tigers inside the opposing 5-yard line with 28 seconds to go.

Instead of using his final timeout immediately with 28 seconds left or telling Marshall to spike it, Malzahn substituted, let the clock tick all the way down to 10 seconds and called a running play with Cameron Artis-Payne.

It was stuffed, Malzahn finally used his timeout and Auburn settled for a field goal.

One of Auburn's biggest problems reared its ugly head again in the Outback Bowl, as the Tigers were penalized nine times for 75 yards. What's more, those penalties almost always come at the worst possible times—like Frost's late hit out of bounds that cost his team 15 yards on Wisconsin's game-tying drive.

As Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com notes, that's par for the course:

The same issue nearly cost Auburn the win at Ole Miss and is a big reason why, from a yardage standpoint, Auburn entered the game as the most undisciplined team in the SEC (68.4 penalty yards per game).

Has that issue been addressed?

Malzahn thinks new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp's presence will help, according to Bleacher Report Auburn lead writer Justin Ferguson:

You'd think, though, that Mushcamp's presence during bowl practice would at least wear off a little bit, even though he wasn't technically coaching in the Outback Bowl itself. After all, those players know they have to win their jobs back, and one way to make an early impression is to play smart football in front of their new coordinator.

Malzahn is a good coach. He wouldn't have been standing on the sidelines in the closing seconds of last season's BCS National Championship Game with a chance to win if he wasn't.

But questionable clock management and the inability to instill discipline are preventing him from joining the fraternity that currently includes Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer.

 

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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Auburn vs. Wisconsin: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2015 Outback Bowl

The SEC claims to be the best conference in college football, but you wouldn't know it watching the bowl games this year.

Auburn is the latest victim of the SEC postseason curse, losing the 2015 Outback Bowl in overtime to Wisconsin by a score of 34-31 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Actually, a more appropriate way to say it is Auburn lost to Melvin Gordon.

The 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up ended his college career in grand fashion with 251 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, including a 53-yard touchdown on 4th-and-1 at the end of the third quarter to give the Badgers a 21-17 lead: 

Coming off one of his worst games this year with 76 yards on 26 carries against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, Gordon had a lot to prove if he was going to end his Wisconsin tenure with a bang.

He lived up to the expectations with aplomb on Thursday.

Making Gordon's performance even more impressive was the lack of help he got from the passing game. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave has been bad all year, but he was particularly inept against Auburn with 121 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions on 14-of-27 passing.

Stave did make a key throw on Wisconsin's final drive in regulation, completing a seven-yard pass to Sam Arneson on fourth down that gave the offense an opportunity to tie the game with a field goal.

Wisconsin basketball star Frank Kaminsky took to Twitter to sum up Gordon's heroics on Thursday but could just as easily have been summing up the Badgers' 2014 season as a whole:

Gordon ran his way into history with this performance, as tweeted out by the team's official account:

The two other players on that list are Barry Sanders and Kevin Smith, so Gordon is certainly keeping good company. According to ESPN CollegeFootball, Gordon finished the year with 2,587 rushing yards:

Jeff Potrykus of the Journal Sentinel highlighted Gordon's historic career achievement:

The Associated Press indicates he fell just short of Sanders' mark of 2,628.

While Gordon will get all the headlines, Wisconsin's entire running game was dazzling all day long, as noted by Jon Solomon of CBS Sports:

Wisconsin's No. 2 running back, Corey Clement, had 105 yards on 15 carries, including a 43-yarder.

The Badgers' ability to run the ball as well as they did, racking up 400 yards on 7.4 yards per carry, was a sign that Auburn would have trouble winning, via Brandon Marcello of the Alabama Media Group:

Badgers interim head coach Barry Alvarez, who took over for this game following the departure of Gary Andersen, was rewarded for his efforts with what appeared to be a chilly Gatorade shower, via Stefanie Gordon of Sports Illustrated Now:

Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne caused a stir leading up to the game when he basically dismissed Gordon's accomplishments because of the Big Ten opponents he faced, via James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser:

I still would've (liked to play) Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, I mean it would've been great. We're not playing against that type of team. We're playing against a great Big Ten opponent. Wisconsin is solid the whole way around They got a great offense, they got a great defense and it's going to be a battle once we get out there.

Artis-Payne wasn't able to match Gordon's production Thursday, but he did make his own mark on this game with 126 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

His touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter gave Auburn a 31-28 lead but also forced the Tigers defense to make a stop that it didn't get. 

This game was a good news/bad news situation for Auburn. The bad news is the Tigers defense continued to struggle and had no answer for Wisconsin's running attack even though everyone in the stadium and watching on television knew what was coming.

Special teams also let the Tigers down, as kicker Daniel Carlson missed two field goals, including a 45-yard attempt in overtime that ended the game.

The good news is Auburn's season is over and Will Muschamp, who was hired as the team's new defensive coordinator on Dec. 15, can officially take over this unit. He will have his work cut out for him heading into 2015.

Nick Marshall has developed a reputation as a run-first quarterback, but he's turned into a solid passer for the Tigers. His two best games this season throwing the ball were in the last two games. The senior had 456 yards and three scores against Alabama and followed it up with 217 yards and two touchdowns against Wisconsin on Thursday.

Chris Low of ESPN.com was complimentary of the Auburn quarterback early in the game, before he dropped a dime to C.J. Uzomah for a 20-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter:

In fact, it was Marshall's arm that kept Auburn in the game because he only had 18 rushing yards on seven carries. It wasn't enough because of issues on defense and poor special teams execution, but the quarterback did everything he could to procure a bowl victory.

Auburn will have to move forward in 2015 without Marshall and Artis-Payne—both are seniors—but head coach Gus Malzahn has done a terrific job of recruiting and building this program into a consistent national power each year.

He will also have one of the best defensive voices in football in Muschamp.

For Wisconsin, this was a fitting end to a whirlwind 2014 season. Gordon earned the bowl victory he has been seeking before going to the NFL. New head coach Paul Chryst will take over the program and look to keep the high level of play established by Andersen going.

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Final Odds and Prediction for Alabama vs. Ohio State

Emotions and storylines run deep in Thurday's Sugar Bowl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes.

The conference angle is there. Big Ten versus SEC writes itself. So does an epic coaching rivalry as Urban Meyer and Nick Saban meet once again with so much on the line.

Storylines abound, too. Saban's team got with the times this year thanks to a prolific offense led by an unexpected starter. Speaking of unexpected starters, Meyer's third-string quarterback is the third to look like a potential Heisman Trophy contender, although it is early in his tenure.

Those in charge of the College Football Playoff deserve applause, although fans of the Big 12 may disagree. Now that the day is here, one final look at the showdown and how Las Vegas feels about the matter is in order.

 

Sugar Bowl Odds and Schedule

 

Preview and Prediction

Alabama touts the nation's 16th-ranked scoring offense.

The traditional ground-based approach by Saban is present. T.J. Yeldon is still around and ran for 932 yards and 10 scores this season. His complement, sophomore Derrick Henry, proved just as effective with 895 yards and 10 scores of his own.

Senior quarterback Blake Sims is the wrinkle in the tried-and-true machine that puts the Crimson Tide over the top.

Many did not give Sims a chance to win the starting gig. He responded by doing so and then throwing for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns to seven interceptions. One of the most dangerous dual-threat players in the country, he also amassed 321 yards and six scores on the ground.

That versatile presence is something that has Ohio State's attention, as Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com illustrates:

Ohio State's defense has yet to encounter anything like Sims but ranks 20th nationally in terms of points allowed (21.2) and has an elite pass rush led by Joey Bosa, who has 14 sacks on his own this season.

Offense is what gets the attention in Columbus, though.

Ezekiel Elliott's efforts with 1,402 rushing yards and 12 scores take a backseat thanks to drama under center. Gone are Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, the latter who orchestrated a Heisman-worthy campaign and ranked second on the team behind Elliott in rushing.

In is sophomore Cardale Jones, who looked as if he had been the starter all season when he suited up for the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.

In the 59-0 rout, he threw for 257 yards and three scores. The result was enough for the CFP committee to throw its hands up in the air and shoo the Buckeyes into the proceedings.

Alabama's third-ranked defense knows a thing or two about dual-threat quarterbacks, though.

The Crimson Tide did not survive a scary-good SEC West—five of the seven teams are still ranked, with Texas A&M and Arkansas dangerous in their own right—not to mention the SEC as a whole, without a knack for great preparation and elite defense.

Look at a win over then-No. 1 Mississippi State in early November, when the Crimson Tide derailed the Heisman hopes of quarterback Dak Prescott, picking him off three times and limiting him to 82 yards on the ground.

Later that month in an Iron Bowl victory, the Alabama defense allowed 456 passing yards and three scores to Nick Marshall, but limited him to 49 yards on the ground.

Now factor in Jones, who has one game of legitimate experience under his belt. This is not to suggest Ohio State has no shot, but Saban's defense is pristine in the face of top-tier offenses and players worthy of individual hardware.

None of this even mentions Heisman finalist Amari Cooper. The junior Crimson Tide wideout posted a whopping 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns this year, a resume that should strike fear into the hearts of Buckeyes faithful one year removed from a gashing at the hands of Sammy Watkins.

This contest is set to be closer than most would think.

Ohio State touts a strong defense and the ground game can chew clock with the best in the nation. The problem is the threat of the big play from Sims and Cooper, two players unlike anyone the Buckeyes have seen this season.

Expect things to be competitive into the fourth quarter, but experience and sheer explosiveness will allow the Crimson Tide to pull away and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship.

Prediction: Alabama 27, Ohio State 23

 

Betting information courtesy of Odds Shark. Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified

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390-Pound Baylor Guard LaQuan McGowan Scores 'Big Man' TD vs. Michigan State

Baylor is breaking out all of its tricks against Michigan State in the 2015 Cotton Bowl.

Late in the third quarter, the Bears unleashed a play that led to the always entertaining "big man" touchdown.

The Spartans let LaQuan McGowan, the Bears' 6'7", 390-pound offensive guard, go uncovered down the middle of the field. He was able to haul in the pass and rumble his way into the end zone for an 18-yard score.

That's a classic "big man" touchdown.

Speaking of "big man," check out McGowan's player profile:

McGowan's touchdown resulted in a 41-21 Baylor lead with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

[Vine, Sports Illustrated]

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Rose Bowl 2015: Live Score, Highlights for Oregon vs. Florida State

Keep it locked right here as we bring you live coverage of the 2015 Rose Bowl

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Coaches Whose Stock Is on the Rise After a Strong 2014 Season

Coaching college football is a tough gig. Just ask Bo Pelini, who never won fewer than nine games in his seven seasons at Nebraska but was still fired at the conclusion of the 2014 season.

As quickly as coaches can ride the shooting star to the corner office of a blue-blood program, that light can fade without immediate results. Like most professions, the best have to strike while the iron is still hot, and year after year we see a number of coaches start to show up on everyone's wish list due to strong seasons.

But big-time programs looking to take a chance on a fast-riser have to be careful. The so-called "mid-major" programs always have a few hot names at the end of the year, but sometimes the success was the result of a once-in-a-lifetime player who would have started at any major school.

Going after coaches already heading up a Power Five school can be tricky business as well. Some guys are always dreaming bigger, while others are content to stay put regardless of who comes calling.

Keep in mind that guys like Urban Meyer, Gary Patterson and Art Briles already have expensive stock. It can't get much higher even after another year of success.

Here are five head coaches in college football whose stock is very much on the rise after strong 2014 campaigns.

All stats via cfbstats.com. Just missed:Bret Bielema, Arkansas and Bryan Harsin, Boise St.

Begin Slideshow

Minnesota TE Maxx Williams Hurdles 2 Defenders on His Way to 54-Yard TD

After seeing this play, it's safe to say that the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Maxx Williams is one of the most athletic tight ends in the country.

In the third quarter of the 2015 Citrus Bowl against the Missouri Tigers, Williams caught a pass in the middle of the field and then had to find his way to get past a few defenders. That's when his hurdling skills came in handy.


That's as good of a play as you will see. He hurdled not one, but two defenders on his way into the end zone.

Williams' 54-yard touchdown gave the Golden Gophers a 14-13 lead early in the second half.

[Vine]

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Under Armour All-America Game 2015: Full Rosters and Recruits to Watch

As the globe takes in the College Football Playoff and the vastness of bowl season, the future converges on the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Friday's contest is a showcase for the stars of tomorrow on both the collegiate stage and beyond. Some of the recruits in action have homes that await their arrival, while others have yet to make a decision and draw the eye of many a school's fanbase in the process.

Regardless, major programs such as Alabama, Ohio State and LSU lead the pack, while countless others are in the hunt for the lengthy roster list for both teams.

Consider this one of the baby steps for a number of collegiate stars set to become household names as they continue on their path. The full rosters and some of the most important names to know can be found below.

 

When: Friday, Jan. 2

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Watch: ESPN2

 

Under Armour All-American Game Rosters

Roster courtesy of ESPN.

 

Recruits to Watch

Jacques Patrick, RB, Florida State

Freshman Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is the talk of the program right now thanks to his late-season surge that helped to keep the Seminoles in the hunt for the CFP.

Jacques Patrick is the future who will help keep the program in the hunt for years down the line.

A 4-star back and the No. 3 player at his position, the Orlando, Florida, native out of Timber Creek High School measures in at 6'1.5" and 230 pounds with a 4.51 40-yard dash time.

Patrick's rare blend of size and speed had some of the biggest programs in the nation hot on his trails right up until the end, as ESPN.com's Jeremy Crabtree details: 

Expect more than a few big plays from Patrick Friday. His low center of gravity and combination of size and speed—including the ability to turn on a second gear for the home run finish down the field—makes him one of the most college-ready players on the field.

Once at Florida State, the sky is the limit.

 

Iman Marshall, CB, Undecided

Of all undecided players on the field Friday, Iman Marshall will be the most watched.

The Long Beach Poly High School product and Long Beach, California, native is the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2015 class and the top corner to boot. What may be his final list of programs is quite prestigious, as ESPN's Tom VanHaaren captures:

Listed at 6'1", 190 pounds with a 4.5 40-yard dash time, Marshall's skills that do not show up on the stat sheet are what makes him such a hot commodity in the recruiting realm—although a massive frame that aligns with what the NFL looks for these days certainly does not hurt.

Look for Marshall to put on a show with chippy press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Against the best talent his class has to offer, Marshall will shine throughout the contest.

Unlike his final decision, which may have been put on hold to see what happens at Michigan, Marshall will be predictably great Friday.

 

Kyler Murray, QB, Texas A&M

A 5-star quarterback and the No. 2 dual-threat player at his position in the 2015 class, Kyler Murray continues to demand attention as the next big thing at the collegiate level.

The comparisons to Johnny Manziel are easy and justified, as Murray beats defenses with ease through the air or on the ground. As of now, the only knock on the Allen, Texas, native out of Allen High School is his size at 5'10" and 180 pounds.

His accomplishments, though, are difficult to ignore, as Mr. Texas Football illustrates:

Given the quarterback carousel at Texas A&M this season between Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, Murray cannot arrive soon enough in College Station.

First, though, he will put on a show to remember at the all-star game. Murray is too explosive not to turn heads, even on a field littered with future collegiate and pro talent.

Right now, Murray blazes his own path. Friday, fans around the globe will see similarities to past collegiate greats, too.

 

Player rankings based on 247Sports' composite ranking system. All recruit measurements and stats courtesy of 247Sports.

 

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Rose Bowl 2015: Biggest X-Factors to Watch in Oregon vs. FSU Clash

There is no doubt that the likes of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will have a massive impact on the Rose Bowl New Year's Day, but some of the less heralded players for Oregon and Florida State will have a say as well.

This year's Rose Bowl will be the first-ever College Football Playoff semifinal, so the stakes can't get much higher. Both the Ducks and Seminoles are stacked with talent from top to bottom, and they will need contributions from everyone to advance to the national championship game.

Here is a rundown of a few players who aren't being talked about much during the lead-up to the Rose Bowl but who also have a chance to spur their teams to victory.

 

Roberto Aguayo

The Seminoles will certainly have to score plenty of touchdowns in order to keep up with Oregon's explosive offense, but there is a good chance that both teams will have to make some plays in the kicking game in key situations.

If that comes to fruition, then the clear upper hand goes to Florida State. The Noles happen to have the best placekicker in all of college football in the form of sophomore Roberto Aguayo. He won the Lou Groza Award last season and has missed just three field goals on 49 career attempts while never misfiring on an extra point.

Aguayo is as automatic as they come at his position, and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher knows it, according to Chris Kirschner of Cox Media Group:

The accuracy of Aguayo is a huge asset at any point in the game, but his ability to make kicks in pressure situations sets him apart from everyone else.

Per Stephen Alexander of the Portland Tribune, the two-time All-ACC selection loves to have the game hanging on his foot.

I'm really confident. I trust my craft, I trust my swing. I trust my holder and my snapper. When the time comes, I'll feel comfortable and just hit the ball and let it go through the uprights. In big games, that's what I was meant to do. I was meant to be in big situations like that. I feel more comfortable the bigger the stage is. I kick every kick to make it.

The Seminoles have won many close games this year due in large part to Aguayo's kicking. If Oregon is unable to separate itself and pull away, then it risks feeling the wrath of Aguayo as well.

 

Chris Seisay

Much of the focus entering this game is on offense since both the Ducks and Seminoles can light up the scoreboard, but either team can gain an advantage if it is able to make stops and slow down the opposition defensively.

Oregon may be able to do that against an FSU offense that has had some ups and downs this season, but it will have to soldier on without the services of star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

According to AP Top 25 on Twitter, the senior All-American is out of the Rose Bowl due to injury:

With Ekpre-Olomu out of the fold, that means redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Seisay will be elevated into a starting role. Seisay has received quite a bit of playing time this season, but starting in a CFP semifinal is a totally different animal.

Even so, Oregon wide receiver Devon Allen believes he is up to the task, per Dan Greenspan of The Associated Press.

"He has definitely grown as a DB, gotten a lot better, and it's impressive. Going against him is definitely one of the harder parts of practice for me, so I think he is ready to go," Allen said.

While senior Troy Hill will probably be tasked with covering Seminoles No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene for most of the night, Seisay may find himself across from Winston's favorite target here and there.

Even when he doesn't, he'll have to keep up with a bevy of talented Florida State pass-catchers. If Seisay plays like a freshman, then that will work in the Noles' favor. If the situation isn't too big for him, though, the Ducks will be in great shape.

 

Karlos Williams

Most expected senior running back Karlos Williams to have a huge season for the Seminoles in 2014 as the lead rusher. He hasn't been as effective as hoped, though, and has essentially been bypassed by freshman Dalvin Cook.

According to Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel, Williams and Cook are essentially listed as co-starters entering the Rose Bowl:

With that said, Cook figures to handle the bulk of the workload due to his great play late in the season. It isn't as though Williams has been awful this year, though, so he will still figure into the Seminoles attack.

He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and has rushed for 10 touchdowns, which means the Ducks will have to account for him in short-yardage and red-zone situations.

At 6'1" and 225 pounds, Williams is a hard runner who is difficult to bring down. If Florida State wants to control the clock and keep Oregon's offense off the field, then a bruiser like Williams will be key to making that happen.

Cook is getting most of the attention right now in terms of FSU running backs, but the Ducks can't afford to ignore Williams.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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College Football Playoffs 2015: CFP Schedule and Predictions for Semifinals

New Year's Day marks the start of a new era for the top division of college football. The College Football Playoff era has arrived. The selection process proved the long-awaited playoff wouldn't eliminate all of the controversy, but it should help crown a true champion.

Both of the semifinals are set to take place on the first day of 2015. The marquee quarterback matchup of Marcus Mariota from Oregon against Jameis Winston from Florida State kicks things off before top-seeded Alabama clashes with Ohio State.

If each game lives up to the hype, the semifinals should get the College Football Playoff era off to a memorable start. Let's check out the complete schedule for the event, followed by previews and predictions for Thursday's action.

 

2015 College Football Playoff Schedule

 

Semifinal Predictions

Rose Bowl: Oregon vs. Florida State

The Rose Bowl presents an interesting contrast. On one side, an Oregon squad that's posted some gaudy numbers in recent years but failed to reach its ultimate goal of a national title. On the other, a Florida State group that's been forced to win ugly but has emerged victorious 29 straight times.

Of course, the main focus is the aforementioned quarterback battle between Mariota and Winston. The two most recent Heisman Trophy winners bring a unique spotlight to the game, and the one who performs at a higher level could very well end up deciding the game.

If that's the case, FSU would need Winston to showcase 2013 form. His decision-making ability was significantly worse for most of this season. The result was seven more interceptions and 16 fewer passing touchdowns.

Most of those struggles came in the first half. His quarterback rating was more than 20 points worse before the break, highlighted by 13 interceptions as compared to just four in the second half. Another slow start and Oregon could be up 14 before the Seminoles blink.

For the Ducks, the biggest key is continuing the defensive improvement seen in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They held Arizona to just 13 points. In their three other games with ranked opponents, they gave up an average of 28 points.

It's also an important game in the bigger picture. Questions remain about Oregon's playing style and how it translates in big games against teams like Florida State or those from the SEC. A win here would be a step toward earning more respect.

Ted Miller of ESPN passed along comments from linebacker Tony Washington, who isn't convinced the outlook would completely change, though:

Who knows? I feel like with media and people and outside voices these days, you never know. We could get there and people would still talk about how "Oregon is not this. Oregon is not that."

Ultimately, the two defenses are pretty evenly matched. So this game will come down to which offense is more efficient. Based on the performance of Mariota this season (38 TD, two INT), it's hard to pick against him under that scenario.

Prediction: Oregon 37, Florida State 31

 

Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Ohio State looked like it might miss out on the Top Four in the weeks leading up to selection day. Then the Buckeyes put together an awe-inspiring performance to crush Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten title game to convince the committee to put them in the final four.

The question is whether they can replicate that outing in the semifinal. In order to do that and make the game competitive, they must get the ground game going early. It won't be easy against a Crimson Tide defense that ranks second in the nation against the run.

If OSU isn't able to get that aspect of the attack rolling, it's going to put a lot of pressure on Cardale Jones, and quite frankly, it's impossible to know how he would handle it. He's filled in admirably for J.T. Barrett, but the game changes when the Tide rush is making its presence felt.

The most impressive thing about Alabama has been its ability to adapt. Not only did it beat four ranked teams over its final five games, but it did so with both great defense (20-13 over LSU) and great offense (55-44 over Auburn).

Since the Tide are so deep and so talented in virtually every area, there isn't a scenario where they will be completely out of their element.

That's why it's a surprise that Alabama checks in as only the second choice in the playoff, according to ESPN Stats and Info:

It comes down to this: In order to advance to the final, Ohio State will need to play its second straight perfect game. That's an incredibly difficult task, particularly when you consider the Buckeyes are going up against a battle-tested 'Bama side.

The Crimson Tide should be able to control the pace of the game throughout, even if the score remains relatively close.

Prediction: Alabama 34, Ohio State 27

 

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Newborn Babies at Ohio State Hospital Wrapped in 'Beat Alabama' Blankets

In Columbus, Ohio, they take their Buckeyes football seriously. With Ohio State gearing up for one of the biggest games in program history, a College Football Playoff showdown with the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center wrapped newborn babies in "Beat Alabama" blankets.

[Associated Press]

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Examining Key Stats and Matchups in Alabama vs. Ohio State

Alabama and Ohio State have established themselves as arguably the two most successful programs of the 21st century.  The two schools have combined for 290 wins since the turn of the century, with Nick Saban and Urban Meyer spearheading top recruiting classes year after year.

Thus, it's only fitting that the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes meet as part of the inaugural College Football Playoff.  'Bama rolls into the Sugar Bowl as a 10-point favorite over Ohio State, which is down to its third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones.  However, as their 59-0 whitewashing over Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game illustrated, Ohio State has as much top-end talent as any program in the country, and it still has the horses to run with the Tide.

In determining how the semifinal might play out, let's take a look at some telling numbers and key matchups.  The team that can exploit the majority of these factors will hold a significant upper hand toward advancing to the national championship in Arlington.

 

Key Stats

Ohio State: 17.1 Yards per Attempt

That number represents Cardale Jones' yards per attempt in the Big 10 Championship Game, as the Buckeyes' third-stringer showed no appreciable drop-off from J.T. Barrett.  Though the callow sophomore has still thrown just 34 passes this season, Jones demonstrated eye-opening confidence in his physical abilities:

Indeed, while his individual talent and experience is a drop-off from that of Barrett and Braxton Miller, Jones receives the benefit of playing with one of the nation's premier offenses.  

Based on Football Outsiders' FEI plus rating, Ohio State's offense ranked fourth during the regular season.  Moreover, at 6'5" and and 250 pounds, Jones possesses a linebacker's frame and will be load to bring down for a Crimson Tide defense that just struggled against dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall in the Iron Bowl.

Ohio State's ability to generate a respectable running game is of the utmost importance, as Alabama allowed the fewest rushing yards (88.7) and yards per attempt (2.8) in the country this season.  Jones passed just 17 times against Wisconsin because of the huge lead the Buckeyes established, so there's no evidence that he could handle a heavy load as a dropback passer.

Still, Jones did toss three scores of 39 or more yards in that game, so the threat of the big play exists.  It's difficult for any offense to move deliberately against 'Bama, so hitting those quick chunks again will be critical for the Buckeyes.

 

Alabama: 88.3 QBR

Blake Sims' adjusted QBR ranked second in the country this year, per ESPN.com, behind only Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.  The fifth-year senior wasn't even the projected starter in the preseason, as Florida State transfer Jacob Coker was a much more ballyhooed option.  

However, in transforming Alabama's historic offensive identity, Sims has emerged as one of the season's biggest surprises and won over scouts who doubted his viability:

With star tailback T.J. Yeldon hampered by ankle and hamstring injuries down the stretch, it's unclear how much impact the Tide's running game will have against an Ohio State defense that allowed just 3.8 yards per carry this season. Thus, Sims will likely have quite a bit on his plate.

However, that hasn't proved problematic for Sims this season.  In the SEC Championship Game against Missouri, when Yeldon had just 14 carries for 47 yards, the senior was uberefficient in completing 23 of 27 passes for 262 yards and a pair of scores.

Derrick Henry will be around, so it's not as if Alabama's running game will be invisible.  Still, Sims has not attempted fewer than 25 passes in a game since Oct. 11, indicating the Tide's willingness to open the game plan for him.  It's no given that Ohio State's offense can remain multidimensional, since Jones is still an unknown, but Sims has stabilized the 'Bama quarterback position better than anyone could have imagined this season.

 

Top Matchups

Ohio State D-Line vs. Alabama O-Line

If the underdogs are to pull the upset, this is a matchup the Buckeyes must win.  While Alabama does not have any glaring weaknesses on offense, this is Ohio State's biggest strength, and winning in the trenches will allow them to create unfavorable down-and-distance situations to dictate the action to Sims. 

Sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa is the star of this unit, and his matchup against 'Bama right tackle Austin Shepherd is arguably the game's most critical.  A unanimous first-team All-American, Bosa compiled a whopping 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, establishing himself as arguably the best defensive lineman in a season where the position is deeper than usual.  

However, Bosa himself acknowledges that Alabama is a different challenge from the Big 10 lines he has devoured this year:

If Bosa can win against Shepherd and force consistent double-teams, that could open up interior-pressure opportunities for Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington.  The defensive tackle duo combined for 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, and they will thrive if given consistent one-on-one matchups on passing downs.

Though 'Bama has been able to keep Sims clean this year, Ole Miss did have six tackles for loss when the Rebels upset the Tide in the regular season.  There is a precedent for flustering Sims, as rare is it may be, and the Buckeyes are as well-equipped as any team to repeat that feat.

 

Amari Cooper vs. Doran Grant

The best matchup on the perimeter will see Heisman finalist Amari Cooper go up against Ohio State's best corner.  The senior Grant has largely been excellent this year, with his best performance coming when he shadowed Michigan State star receiver Tony Lippett and limited him to five catches for 64 yards.  Current indications are that Cooper will receive similar shadowing treatment:

Grant and the Ohio State secondary have been excellent this season, allowing just 188.2 passing yards per game, 11th best in the country.  But they have yet to see a player of Cooper's caliber, as the junior All-American has scored 14 touchdowns and recorded fewer than 80 receiving yards just twice all season.

Cooper's versatility is his biggest trait, as the Tide will line him up at all three receiver positions (split end, slot and flanker) while also giving him carries on jet sweeps and draws.  Grant can cover him on conventional passing plays, but it's truly a team effort to spy and bracket Cooper.

It's difficult to imagine what kind of coverage the Buckeyes might use.  Playing single-high means that Grant will not receive consistent safety help on Cooper, but two-high coverages could leave them light in the box and vulnerable to Yeldon and Henry.  Regardless of what they choose, this matchup will largely determine Alabama's ability to keep possessions alive and cash in when it reaches the red zone.

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