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Bowl Game Schedule 2014-15: Complete Predictions for Can't-Miss Matchups

Five college football bowl games have already been played this season, and while Bowling Green and South Alabama put on an especially good show in the Camellia Bowl—with the Falcons winning by a score of 33-28—those contests were merely appetizers for the big-time games to be played in locations all across the country, not to mention the Bahamas, throughout December and early January 2015.

There are still a whopping 34 bowl games left to be played, including the three contests that make up the inaugural College Football Playoff. With so much attention heaped on the Oregon-Florida State and Alabama-Ohio State matchups, the rest of the bowl games might seem like unnecessary sideshows.

Of course, if you take your football mayhem any way you can get it, then these corporate-sponsored affairs are the gifts that keep on giving all throughout the holidays.

It's also a fine opportunity for players set for the NFL or graduation to bid their fans and teammates a final farewell, or to have programs display some of the talent that should be generating highlights in the next season.

Here is a complete schedule and list of predictions for the 2014-15 NCAA football bowl games, followed by a closer look at what could be the most exciting non-playoff matchup of the bowl season.

 

VIZIO Fiesta Bowl: No. 20 Boise State vs. No. 10 Arizona 

Boise State, as per usual, is fighting for the relevancy and respectability of the non-Power Five conferences. It is, in fact, the only non-Power Five team to be playing on New Year's Eve.

Arizona is an intriguing team to watch as it should be in the thick of the Pac-12 race next season and is the only team to beat Oregon this year, although that came way back on Oct. 2.

The Broncos are forever linked with the Fiesta Bowl after their shenanigans in a classic overtime win over Oklahoma back in 2007. Bleacher Report's own Ben Kercheval knows what he wants to see out of Boise State in this contest:

While it would be understandable if football fans got a bit nostalgic and tuned in for some trick plays, it's more likely that they will see a fairly straightforward run-and-gun attack powerful enough to eschew fancy football plays.

Boise State averaged 40 points per game this season, many of them coming from star running back Jay Ajayi. He racked up 2,225 all-purpose yards and 29 total touchdowns on the season. Quarterback Grant Hedrick had a fine year passing for over 3,300 yards, but it's clear that this offense revolves around the heroics of Ajayi. 

Arizona will have to deal with what could be an especially amped-up version of Ajayi, as this bit of news from Sports Illustrated reveals the junior tailback will not be returning for his senior season:

Hedrick also does a fine job of scrambling for extra yardage and spreading the ball around to his receivers. Five players caught at least 28 passes this season, with Shane Williams-Rhodes pacing the squad with 68 receptions and seven touchdowns.

Of course, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez is no stranger to high-flying offenses, and he will counter Boise State's attack with quarterback Anu Solomon, a Marcus Mariota admirer who threw for 27 touchdowns against just seven interceptions as a wide-eyed redshirt freshman.

Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates likened him to a certain NFL quarterback who made a name for himself with death-defying scrambles.

"He's kind of like Johnny (Manziel) - he keeps a lot of plays alive with his legs," said Yates, via The Idaho Statesman's Chadd Cripe

Solomon doesn't have eye-popping rushing statistics, but he knows how to keep a play alive and maneuver through a collapsing pocket. He has been bothered by an ankle injury as of late, but according to the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk, Rodriguez said his star signal-caller should be fine for the Fiesta Bowl:

Of course, Arizona could run into trouble on third downs, as Solomon's 58.0 completion percentage doesn't bode well against a defense that ranked 22nd in the nation in third-down conversions allowed (35.1 percent), per NCAA.com.

However, if Solomon can keep things manageable on third down, running back Nick Wilson and his robust 5.9 yards per carry should have little trouble moving the chains.

Hopefully, for the neutral fan's sake, defenses are an afterthought in this potentially bonkers ballgame. However, there is one player who stands out among the rest and must be accounted for on every single play: 'Zona linebacker Scooby Wright III. 

The Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski award winner will be finishing off an absurd statistical season, and his strip-sack and fumble recovery—all in one motion—of Mariota to seal Arizona's win over the Ducks was one of the plays of the year

Still, Wright has little help around him, as the Wildcats ranked 71st in the nation in rushing defense. Ajayi is going to have his moments, but so will the opposition. And the fans should get to savor them all.

The excellent competition Arizona has played this season should have them well prepared for this contest. Look for them to get a boost from the likely pro-Wildcats crowd and edge the Broncos in a high-scoring affair.

Prediction: Arizona 42-38 Boise State

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College Football Bowl Picks 2014: Predictions for Most Underrated Games on Slate

The big-time bowl games will take center stage during the postseason, but some of the best bowls to watch end up being those that nobody's talking about.

Sure, events like the College Football Playoff and New Year's Six bowls deserve their chunk of the coverage. After all, they include the nation's best teams—and the most tangible awards at stake.

But with well over 30 bowl games on tap, many involving highly talented teams and everybody coming into this time of year with a different mentality, those lower-tier bowl games can end up being the most watchable.

Let's highlight a few of those games as we break down predictions for every single bowl game left in the 2014 season.

 

Note: Bowl schedule courtesy of ESPN.com.

 

Most Underrated Bowls

Belk Bowl: Louisville vs. Georgia

In one of just two non-New Year's Six bowl games to include two Top 25 foes, the Belk Bowl features No. 13 Georgia against No. 21 Louisville—pegging two impressive programs two days before 2015.

The Bulldogs suffered through yet another year with high expectations that turned sour late, but they still maintain the chance to notch another 10-win season. They'll have to remedy their recent ACC woes, going up against the Cardinals shortly after falling to Georgia Tech on Nov. 29.

Louisville looks to do the exact opposite, hoping to stay on top of the SEC after topping Kentucky in its season finale. 

One jolly fellow knows who is going to win, but he's not tipping his hand, per Belk Bowl:

Perhaps a game on a bigger stage with more on the line would favor Mark Richt's Georgia team, but it's just hard to see the Bulldogs fully invested. As for their opposition, they're looking to notch 10 wins for the third consecutive season—not to mention the adrenaline boost that comes from facing a mighty SEC foe.

On top of that, Louisville has an entire month to get DeVante Parker good to go, as the receiver has been unstoppable despite missing half the year with an injury. While he'll have an impact, the Cardinals rushing attack of Brandon Radcliff and Michael Dyer will gash a Georgia run defense that was trounced in each of its three losses.

Bobby Petrino's squad will pull off the upset, further adding to a disappointing ending to 2014 for Georgia.

Prediction: Louisville 31, Georgia 27

 

Boca Raton Bowl: Marshall vs. Northern Illinois

Every year, it seems two of the best schools from outside the Power Five conferences find a way to battle in an early bowl game. In 2014, it will be in Boca Raton, Florida.

Both Marshall and Northern Illinois had their sights set on making a New Year's Six bowl at one point, but the two took conference championship victories en route to a meeting in the Boca Raton Bowl.

The Thundering Herd's undefeated season was thwarted a few short weeks ago, but CBS Sports' J. Darin Darst still noted the prestige of the game:

The Huskies dropped early season games to Arkansas and Central Michigan, but they rolled through the MAC and toppled Bowling Green 51-13 in the championship game—a team that just won its bowl game Saturday. Jordan Lynch is no longer the Heisman hopeful at quarterback, but Drew Hare is filling in nicely and developing a dangerous combination with Da'Ron Brown.

It's safe to say both these teams had hopes of facing a Power Five team and proving something, but that can still be done against a team of similar fortitude. Considering Marshall spent most of the season beating opponents by an average of 30 or more, its chances should be liked.

Quarterback Rakeem Cato will have a huge game, leading Marshall to a big win.

Prediction: Marshall 38, Northern Illinois 21

 

Fiesta Bowl: Boise State vs. Arizona

I know what you're saying. It's a New Year's Six bowl, so how can it be underrated?

Well, with the obsession of the first CFP, mouthwatering games all around it and a midday 4 p.m. ET kickoff, Boise State and Arizona might not get the attention they deserve at the Fiesta Bowl. After all, the Wildcats were drubbed 51-13 by Oregon the last time out, and the Broncos hail from the Mountain West.

But don't sleep on this one—even if you need that pre-New Year's Eve nap. 

Don't let the Pac-12 title game slip-up fool you; Arizona's defense is nasty. Led by bruising linebacker Scooby Wright III, the Wildcats have held the likes of Oregon, UCLA and Utah all under 25 points this season.

Arizona will be revitalized by its invite to the Fiesta Bowl, but it will face an even more hungry foe. Glendale, Arizona, has practically been the Broncos' national championship game over the last decade—a mentality the once-CFP-hopeful Wildcats can't hope to match.

And for all of Arizona's defensive dominance, the unit has been noticeably inept in its last two games—conceding more than 1,000 combined yards to Arizona State and Oregon in recent weeks. Boise State can have a similar impact, riding the workhorse Jay Ajayi and keeping the secondary off balance with play action from Grant Hedrick.

Arizona will come to play, largely in front of a home crowd. But Boise State will show up, too, and has a better feel for what it takes to win this one.

Prediction: Boise State 38, Arizona 34

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5 Top Performers of Opening Weekend of 2014 Bowl Season

How action-packed was Saturday's slate of bowl games? One way to look at it is that we're already about one-eighth of the way through bowl season. 

We're going to be at the College Football Playoff semifinals before you know it.

But before looking ahead to those games and more, it's time to look back at the weekend that was and which players stood out. The top performers from each of Saturday's five bowl games can be found in the following slides. 

While many of this weekend's top performers were named bowl MVPs, it's not a requirement here. 

Begin Slideshow

Georgia Football: Bulldogs Offense Faces Unique Challenges vs. Louisville

Let's get this out of the way: Georgia's offense isn't good, it's great. After posting 41.7 points per game through 12 contests, that much is not up for debate.

The Bulldogs lead the SEC in points per game and rank eighth in the nation by the same measure. Georgia played half the season without star running back Todd Gurley and still found a way to run for 255 yards per contest. Aaron Murray, the SEC's all-time leading passer, is now in the NFL, but the Dawgs rank ninth in the country in passing efficiency in the first year after his departure.

This offense is not good. This offense is great.

Prolific, efficient and impressive as it may be, though, the offense could be stifled by four unique challenges against Louisville in the Belk Bowl.

 

Unrest

Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is still a candidate for the head coaching job at Colorado State. That much is known. Whether or not he is offered the job or how seriously he is even being considered remains to be seen, but there is no cause to believe he's been eliminated.

Accordingly, there's reason to believe that Bobo may not even coach in the bowl. Head coach Mark Richt acknowledged this possibility over the weekend, according to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald.

After saying he didn't know of a timetable for a decision regarding Bobo's future, Richt added: "We'll have a plan for everything, I can say that."

It may be unlikely that Bobo is gone prior to the bowl, but the fact that such a scenario has necessitated planning could weigh on players and other coaching personnel. If he does in fact coach, Bobo's mind could very well be elsewhere.

That unrest could negate some of Georgia's offensive prowess.

 

Rest

Ironically, rest could do the same. After all, Georgia's worst offensive performance of the season came following a bye week.

Indeed, against Florida, the Bulldogs mustered just seven points in the game's first three quarters.

Georgia's other conference loss also came after a week off, and though the defense was largely to blame for that defeat to South Carolina, the offense struggled at times as well.

After scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, Bobo's offense failed to reach the end zone for the remaining 25 minutes of the first half and squandered multiple opportunities.

This offense has not been at its best after long periods of rest, and the month-long lag between the Georgia Tech game and the Belk Bowl certainly fits that bill.

 

Familiar Face

On the other sideline is of course Todd Grantham, Louisville's defensive coordinator and the former occupant of the same position at Georgia.

Bobo and the Bulldog offense have done a fantastic job of adjusting to opposing defenses, so the concern doesn't lie so much in what the Cardinals might throw at them.

With that being said, it is a bit disconcerting that Grantham is every bit as familiar with Georgia's personnel as the Bulldogs are with him.

Grantham saw quarterback Hutson Mason in practice for four years. He knows exactly what receivers like Chris Conley, Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett are capable of. He doesn't know Jeb Blazevich from experience, but he does have an understanding of how Georgia likes to rely on tight ends.

The passing game could be particularly challenged by Grantham's familiarity.

 

Unfamiliar Faces

Quite obviously, Georgia has no keen understanding of Louisville's defensive stars. This is the case for any bowl game, but several Louisville players could impact the game tremendously.

Safety Gerod Holliman, for instance, won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, and he was an AP first team All-American selection.

The Bulldogs will have film on Holliman, but if video footage properly prepared opposing offenses for his ball-hawking affinity, the sophomore star wouldn't have intercepted 14 passes this season.

On the front end, Sheldon Rankins has been a a force from his defensive end position, racking up 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season and registering seven sacks.

What sets Rankins apart is his play-making ability. He's forced one fumble, recovered a fumble and intercepted two passes. That's not too shabby for a 305-pound defensive lineman.

 

The Antidote

Nick Chubb has been the cure for a host of ailments this season. If he (and the Georgia running game as a whole) plays well against Louisville, these four factors can be negated, and there's reason to suspect he can be the antidote once more.

After all, when Gurley was suspended, many feared the offense would drop off. Chubb made sure it didn't. When Gurley came back briefly and was lost again (this time to injury), Chubb remained constant.

The freshman isn't a no-name filler for Todd Gurley any more. Nick Chubb is the man in Athens. However, he may be the man in Charlotte on this occasion and in doing so have his finest performance of the season.  

Nick Chubb is worried more about running through people than about where Mike Bobo might run to.  

Chubb famously was in the weight room the day after touching the ball 42 times against Missouri, so he's probably not too rested.

Further, Todd Grantham doesn't know a lot about Nick Chubb, and Chubb likely doesn't care too much about Holliman's accolades. He's racking up his own.

There are unique challenges for Georgia's offense in this contest, but there's also cause for optimism.  

In some ways, those sentiments are true about the unit as a whole moving forward.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football's Most Important Offers of the Week

At this point last week, Prince Tega Junior was an unknown on the recruiting circuit.

However, beginning last Monday, Junior’s offer list went from, as Drake would say, “zero to 100 real quick."

Well, not exactly 100, but he did land 14 offers in a two-day span—including at least one school from each of the Power Five conferences, according to Scout’s John Garcia Jr.

The offer spree for the 6’8”, 250-pound defensive end from Edgewood Academy in Elmore, Alabama began with an offer from Kentucky, as noted by Josh Edwards of CatsPause.

Fellow SEC members LSU, Vanderbilt and Tennessee followed suit.

Powers such as Texas, Oregon and Ohio State highlighted the powers who jumped into the race for the nation’s hottest recruit.

As Garcia notes, Junior is an exchange student from Nigeria who began playing football only four months ago.

“I actually came here in August, I didn’t know anything about football, but I’d see it,” Junior told Garcia. “The coaches saw me and I wanted to try it. I’m very glad, I’m very happy for that because when I first started playing football I didn’t expect so much.”

He's now rated as a 4-star prospect and the No. 6 strong-side defensive end in the country.

Given the wave of new interest in Junior, expect the rest of the nation’s powers to follow suit in offering the hulking pass-rushing prospect.

 

UGA, Georgia Tech After 2015 Vanderbilt Commit

It’s been a struggle for Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason since he arrived in Nashville.

However, in 4-star linebacker pledge Josh Smith, the Commodores have a player that ranks among the nation’s top 10 prospects at his position. 

However, per Woody Wommack of Rivals, Georgia offered the 6’4”, 218-pounder on Dec. 17.

The Dawgs' in-state rivals, Georgia Tech, also pulled the trigger in tendering Smith, per Barton Simmons of 247Sports

The main way for Mason to build the Commodores back into a contender is to get it done on the recruiting trail, which makes holding onto talents such as Smith a must.

 

Alabama Offers 2016 DE

Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are well on their way toward capturing another recruiting national title, but he and his staff are already in hot pursuit of top juniors.

One player who netted an offer from Saban is 4-star defensive end Emmit Gooden:

The 6’3”, 269-pounder ranks as the nation’s No. 9 defensive end and the No. 117 player overall in the 2016 class.

The Tide join SEC powers such as LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Ole Miss who are actively pursuing one of the top players from the state of Tennessee.

 

Texas A&M after 2016 California DE

Another junior pass-rusher drawing interest from some of the nation’s top powers is 4-star California defensive end Oluwole Betiku.

According to Adam Gorney of Rivals, Texas A&M is the newest offer for the 6’3”, 245-pounder:

The Aggies join recruiting giants such as Florida State, Notre Dame and USC as schools who have offered Betiku since November.

Given that Kevin Sumlin and his staff are in strong position to pull their third consecutive top-10 class, offers like the one to Betiku show that the Aggies are beginning recruit on a national basis.

 

Best of the Rest 

  • 2016 4-star defensive end Janarius Robinson, who is committed to Florida State, picked up an offer from USC

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff 2014-15: Odds and Projections for All 4 Teams

Bowl game season is upon us, which can only mean one thing: totally ignoring the non-consequential bowls to talk about the ones happening a week from now on New Year's Day.

The advent of the College Football Playoff doesn't detract from the regular bowls on the surface. After all, these are the same fourth-place MAC schools we saw last year duking it out under the BCS system, right? Nothing about the bowls changed other than one extra game that was tacked on to the end.

Still, it feels different. Instead of the harmless opening act to the feature performer, the minor bowls have become the guy at the party who won't stop playing his guitar over the music. They're there and can be mildly entertaining when you have a few hours to kill, but the stakes are so minimal it's hard to get invested. It's almost like watching a Pistons-Sixers game in late March.

But thankfully for all of us, the appetizers should lead to a strong main course. Oregon and Alabama come in as significant favorites over Florida State and Ohio State, but there's reason to believe an upset could be had in both cases.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at what to expect come 2015. 

 

Sugar Bowl Preview

Alabama is going to win. Just going to throw that out there right away. Under no circumstances can I reasonably expect Ohio State's third-string quarterback to overcome Alabama's defense when Nick Saban has had one month to study Urban Meyer's offense. The Big Ten's recent history also suggests we may be in store for a mismatch.

That said, it's unfair to characterize Ohio State (as some have) as roadkill waiting to be devoured. The Buckeyes won their last 11 games despite upheaval under center and elsewhere on the roster, and they devoured Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game to earn their playoff spot.

Cardale Jones looked just fine under center, and Ezekiel Elliott was so good you could have thrown a lawn chair at quarterback and still won. Ohio State did not get to January entirely by picking its way through the dregs of an overrated conference; this program is much closer to the exception to the Big Ten's rule than another also-ran.

Much of the Buckeyes' chances, though, come down to Jones. The former third-stringer saw J.T. Barrett pass him in camp and ascend to the point where it's practically impossible for Jones to expect playing time going forward. Barrett will return next season as a sophomore Heisman candidate, and Braxton Miller's future is totally up in the air.

Jones is filler for the time being, and that might actually be dangerous. While Saban will have hours upon hours of film on Meyer's offense, he has next to none on Jones. He'll be the complete wild card, with only 36 career passes to his name come Jan. 1. For someone as meticulously prepared as Saban—for someone who thrives on taking away the one thing opposing offenses do well—this is a big hurdle.

As for Jones himself, it's impossible to tell whether he's good, bad or somewhere between. He attempted only 17 passes against Wisconsin and was by his own admission a little erratic with his ball placement. 

"Really, I think I played kind of OK," Jones told reporters. "A couple of the catches Devin (Smith) made and a couple of my throws were a little bit inaccurate. Devin made a couple of jump balls. It wasn't like the second touchdown where he just ran under it. He made all the plays. The guys around me made all the plays. My performance overall was OK, actually."

If Jones isn't a noticeable drop off from Barrett, Ohio State could pull an Oklahoma from last year and shock the world. If Jones has second-start jitters like Barrett, Ohio State will be embarrassed on a national stage.

For now, let's keep it right down the middle.

Score: Alabama 38, Ohio State 24

 

Rose Bowl Preview

Oregon should win. The oddsmakers have them on almost the exact same plane as Alabama. There is no difference in the moneyline for either side and only a half-point separation when it comes to the spread. And you don't even have to look that closely at the number to see that, on aggregate, Oregon is the better team.

That said, I'm picking Florida State for reasons that aren't entirely logical and yet at the same time totally are.

Florida State is the only undefeated team in FBS. Marshall, which plays in a clown-car conference, couldn't keep itself upright for 13 straight games. Neither could Oregon or Ohio State or Alabama, all of which had more difficult opponents but nonetheless fell to teams with a combined 12 losses. That number is a bit inflated because Virginia Tech isn't good at football, but there is something to be said about actually giving credit for getting it done time after time.

Florida State should have lost to Clemson when Winston was suspended. Shouldn't have been able to battle back from down 24-7 against NC State. From down 21-0 against Louisville. The Seminoles got a fortuitous offensive pass-interference penalty that's almost never called to earn a win over Notre Dame. Their last four games have been decided by five points or fewer.

Over at Grantland, Bill Barnwell consistently cites one-possession game success as highly variant. The rule as a whole applies a little less in college football, where talent discrepancies are greater, but it's nonetheless instructive.

Florida State, logically, is not some magic team that wins every game like it's scripted by Jason Katims because they're a great football team. Florida State is a team whose close games expose deep flaws on both sides of the ball that has gotten lucky to win nearly half of its games.

This all (logically) pushes the edge toward Oregon, which eviscerated Arizona, Utah and Michigan State this season. 

Nothing Florida State has done all season has been logical. It's a risk (OK, I'm really risking nothing but still), but I'm hitching my wagon to the Seminoles until they push me off.

Score: Florida State 42, Oregon 38

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Matchups and Schedule for All Games

The regular season and conference championships have made for one of the wildest years in recent memory, and fans of the sport are hoping the inaugural College Football Playoff and the 2015 national championship live up to the lofty expectations.

With the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide squaring off against the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes, and the No. 2 Oregon Ducks taking on the No. 3 Florida State Seminoles, four of the biggest programs in the sport are fighting to be the top team in college football.

Here is all the vital viewing information for the inaugural College Football Playoff schedule.

 

 

Team with the Best Chance to Win the National Championship

All four of the teams in the College Football Playoff deserve the honor of making the inaugural postseason bracket, but the No. 1 seed Alabama Crimson Tide have the talent and experience to win the national championship.

If you have to place a wager on which team will win the title in 2015, let your money ride on experienced head coach Nick Saban and the gifted Alabama roster.

On offense, the Crimson Tide were not what most fans expected. Alabama’s offense has been predicated on a dangerous rushing attack for years, but that hasn’t been the case this season. As good as the running game has been (averaging 209.5 yards per game), the team enters the playoff with the 22nd-ranked pass attack (averaging 281 yards per game.)

Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims spoke to Marc Torrence of Bleacher Report about the pressure Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could bring, saying, “We don’t change our scheme around nobody. We play the way we play. He’s an awesome guy. We know he’s going to make plays. All we’ve got to do is erase it and try to make the next play very explosive.”

As Kyle Bonagura of ESPN pointed out, the referees could also play a factor in this game:

On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama has been lights-out all year. While the team had a few momentary lapses throughout the season, the Crimson Tide have allowed just 16.6 points per game, the fourth best average in the entire nation.

With eight consecutive wins since taking a tough loss to Ole Miss in early October, there are few programs in the nation with as much momentum on their side.

If Alabama can stick to the game plan on offense and play strong fundamental team defense, there is no doubt the Crimson Tide will be the 2015 national champions.

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Despite Rough Recruiting Week, Texas A&M's Defensive Class Is Legit

Last week wasn't the best for Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and his Aggies on the recruiting trail.

Sumlin missed out on the commitment of 5-star linebacker Malik Jefferson from Mesquite (Poteet) High School, who chose Texas over Texas A&M last week. According to David McNabb of Gannettit was the first loss ever for Sumlin's famed "Swagcopter," which famously brings Aggie coaches to the games and schools of top-tier prospects.

Not to be outdone, 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack decommitted from Texas A&M on Friday. He followed it up by naming LSU and TCU his finalists on Saturday, per his own Twitter account.

Two key defensive pieces won't be in College Station, a city that, not coincidentally, is also without a defensive coordinator at the moment.

Is Texas A&M struggling to land and keep its defensive studs in light of the ongoing defensive struggles?

Not really.

The class coming in is still built to help Sumlin's program get back to respectability from a defensive standpoint, even without Jefferson and Mack.

Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor—two 4-star safety commits from the Lone Star State—are both part of this class, and they can step in alongside rising sophomore Armani Watts to build a secondary that's comparable to the best in the conference.

Dunning is the perfect size to play the boundary safety spot, which is currently occupied by senior Howard Matthews. Pryor can join Watts at free safety and provide a solid option in five defensive back sets once he gets acquainted to college life.

Whoever gets the defensive coordinator job will have a solid secondary foundation that also includes 4-star cornerback Roney Elam.

As long as there aren't any more late-season flips, the secondary is still set.

Up front, rising sophomore Myles Garrett will be joined by 6'2", 251-pound defensive end James Lockhart from Ennis, Texas. The 4-star is quick off the edge, but he is also strong against the run, which will make him a perfect complement to Garrett on the Aggie defense.

If the Aggies lock down 5-star cornerback Kendall Sheffield—who's a heavy Aggie lean, according to the 247Sports crystal ball—the class will still be fine. Sure, losing Mack and missing out on Jackson hurts, but Garrett and Watts have already laid the foundation of a defensive renaissance in College Station.

One player doesn't make a class, and two players don't either.

Mack's departure hurts, but Texas A&M never had Jefferson. What it does have, though, is a coach in Sumlin who knows how to close, a good foundation and the prospect of a new coordinator—whoever that may be—breathing life into a defense that needs it after the three-year Mark Snyder debacle.

It may not seem like it right now, but Texas A&M's class on the defensive side of the ball is fine.

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: Holiday Wish List for the Volunteers

Well, it's that time of year again, and when Butch Jones heads to West Town Mall and climbs up in the lap of Ol' Saint Nick, do you wonder what Tennessee's head football coach will whisper in his ear?

What do you get a coach who has a couple of big wishes already granted? 

Already, the Volunteers have reached a bowl game in Jones' second season, earning a date to Jacksonville's TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 against the Iowa Hawkeyes. On top of that, he has received a contract extension through 2020 with a raise to $3.6 million per year.

Yes, it's already been a good season for the Vols, who are right on target for a program rebuild. But Jones still has some Christmas wishes, no doubt. UT still needs some things to happen to keep this upward trajectory and to keep the hungry fans around Rocky Top happy.

This bowl berth is just the tip of the expectations that will now grow exponentially greater. Jones knows that; it's part of the lure and the burden of coaching at a great program in the nation's top conference.

So, let's take a look at what's on UT's holiday wish list as the Vols head into the postseason for the first time in three seasons.

Begin Slideshow

B/R CFB 250: Top 20 Safeties

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Brian Leigh and Kynon Codrington have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top 20 Safeties.

Other CFB 250 Positions

Safeties are the last line of defense between an offense and the end zone, not unlike sweepers in soccer.

But their job extends past covering ground in the deep third and masking their teammates' mistakes. The best safeties also do their job near the line of scrimmage, fitting into the run game, rushing the quarterback or covering slot receivers in the short area.

There was no shortage of great safeties in 2014, despite the fact that nine of the 11 top players from last year's CFB 250 departed. Whether they were rising up that list or appearing on the scene from nowhere, a high number of safeties stepped up this season.

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

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

This is all about college performance. 

Note: If two players finished with the same grade, a subjective call was made based on whom we would rather have on our team right now.

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Rose Bowl 2015: Oregon vs. FSU X-Factors That Will Decide Game

Do you think the Rose Bowl is simply a duel between gunslingers Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston? Think again.

Sure, Florida State and Oregon don't have very good chances of advancement without one quarterback outplaying the other. But when two programs of such prestige and stature go at it with a national championship spot on the line, many other factors come into play.

Winston and Mariota can't catch or defend, and they won't exclusively be toting the rock for their respective teams. While each player's performance will loom large, it will only be a piece of the pie. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at two players not named Mariota or Winston who will be huge X-factors in this one.

 

Oregon X-Factors

Chris Seisay, CB

The worst-case scenario for Oregon's defense became a reality in preparation for the Rose Bowl.

Ducks star cornerback and defensive leader Ifo Ekpre-Olomu injured his knee in bowl practice and will be out for the entire CFP. Ekpre-Olomu is a shutdown corner and a likely first-round draft pick, and his absence could prove to be huge. Someone has to step up for him.

That someone is redshirt freshman Chris Seisay, who knows he's about to be picked on, per The Oregonian's Tyson Alger.

"They don't know me, they're going to pick on me because I'm the new corner," Seisay said. "I just have to show them what I can do." 

Ekpre-Olomu figured to line up against Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene, their leading receiver and one of the focal points of FSU's offense. Plugging in Seisay on him might be too much, but the freshman will be tested even if he's not lining up against Greene.

Winston will make it a focus to test Seisay. If Seisay can stay poised and force a couple of breakups, perhaps the focus will fall away from him.

 

Charles Nelson, WR

Just like in previous years, Oregon has virtually everything in the cupboard offensively to unleash on defenses. Their insane depth is showcased perfectly by receiver Charles Nelson.

At 5'9" and 170 pounds, the speedster has only 17 catches for 266 yards on the season—but almost half of his involvement this season came against Arizona, when he had seven grabs for 104 yards. 

And like one would imagine from a speedy wideout, he's a heck of a home run threat. He has five touchdowns for the year on 17 catches.

The Seminoles defense has the speed necessary to deal with some of Oregon's weapons, but they could easily lose track of Nelson—who ranks just seventh on the team in receiving yards but has developed nicely down the stretch. If he's ready to have another breakout game, he could help push the Ducks over the top.

 

Florida State X-Factors

Nick O'Leary, TE

You'd think Greene would be the biggest beneficiary of an injury to Oregon's best cornerback, but it could indirectly end up benefiting tight end Nick O'Leary the most.

The pass-catcher won the Mackey Award for the nation's top tight end this season, catching 47 passes for 614 yards and six touchdowns. He has remained Winston's most comfortable option under duress and in do-or-die moments—which FSU has had a lot of this year.

But with Oregon's secondary sure to shake things up to nullify the loss of Ekpre-Olomu, the last thing the Ducks can afford to do is take a body away from the middle. Ducks safety Tyree Robinson—who likes to line up at corner against big receivers—could end up covering O'Leary often, but that will leave openings deep down the field for Winston to expose.

Whether he's drawing enough attention to open up wideouts over the top or those wideouts are drawing enough attention to get O'Leary open, he'll prove to be among the biggest X-factors.

 

Eddie Goldman, DT

For a Florida State defense that churns out first-round NFL draft picks at defensive line year after year, some recent woes have been nothing short of uncharacteristic.

In the Seminoles' three games leading up to this one, they allowed more than 600 combined rushing yards. Not lost in that is the tempered production of tackle Eddie Goldman, who has been banged up.

Goldman's availability has been in question ever since he left the Georgia Tech game with an injury, but head coach Jimbo Fisher explained to V89 Sports' Ariya Massoudi that he should be a full go:

If Goldman is up to 100 percent and making his usual impact, Oregon's running offense could end up being stalemated considerably. He has the size and strength to plug up the middle and force things to the outside.

Of course, few teams in the nation are better on the outside than the Ducks. Even if he makes said impact, it will be far from everything—but it will be a decent start.

With the weapons Oregon has on offense, plugging up the middle of the field could have a chain reaction and force struggles elsewhere. That's especially true if Goldman can get to Mariota for a couple of sacks.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Sugar Bowl 2015: Alabama vs. Ohio State Schedule and Players to Watch

The moment the entire country has been waiting for is nearly here. On New Year's Day, the first two semifinals of the College Football Playoff will finally take place, with four of the most illustrious programs looking to make the national championship game.

In the nightcap, Alabama and Ohio State will do battle in the Superdome. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are looking to add to their impressive collection of national titles, with just two wins standing in their way.

On the field, a collection of some of the most talented players will be the deciding factor for the two coaches. Amari Cooper leads the way for the Crimson Tide. Ezekiel Elliott will likely be the workhorse for the Buckeyes.

Prior to the two historic programs facing off, here's a look at the full schedule and players to watch during the massive showdown.

 

Sugar Bowl Information

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

When: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Players to Watch

Amari Cooper

Coming into the College Football Playoff, Cooper has already accomplished everything at the college level. Despite not winning a Heisman Trophy, the star receiver has already won a national title, two SEC titles and owns several school records for the Tide.

ESPN Stats & Info points out how historically great this season was for Bama's leading wideout:

Now Cooper has a chance to bring a second title back to Tuscaloosa during his tenure. Already a Biletnikoff Award winner and unanimous All-American, Cooper has another chance to shine on the big stage down in New Orleans.

If he does, Buckeyes defensive coordinator Chris Ash is worried they will have issues, via Ohio State's official account:

The only problem with that is every time Cooper touches the field, he's a defense's worst nightmare. When Cooper is shut down even the slightest bit, the Tide still have offensive weapons like Blake Sims and T.J. Yeldon to get the job done.

 

Ezekiel Elliott

The one facet of Ohio State's offense that has been successful all season has been the rushing attack. Regardless of who's under center, the Buckeyes have carved up yards on the ground to the tune of 260.8 per game—good for 11th in the country.

Leading that rushing attack all year has been a sophomore tailback. Elliott burst onto the scene for the Buckeyes following their lone loss to Virginia Tech with more than 100 yards from scrimmage in nine of the final 11 games.

Despite his success this season, Elliott believes he could have done more, per Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com.

I think there will be a lot of things that will improve, just like breaking tackles and things. I've left a lot of yards on the field this year just because of my wrist, I can't really carry the ball in my left hand, and can't really use my stiff-arm. I can't really use my hand to post on the ground. I have left a lot of yards on the field, something we are going to improve on next year.

Over his last three games, Elliott has averaged 164.7 total yards per game with five total touchdowns. If he is, in fact, leaving yards on the field, that has to be terrifying for any defense.

Alabama's defense comes in allowing just 16.6 points per game, but Elliott has been a brute force for OSU. Similar to Cooper, the sophomore will be the biggest weapon and potential deciding factor.

 

Landon Collins

Now it's time to give the defense some love. For the Alabama defense, look no further than Landon Collins for pure star power.

The Tide's top defensive back has been special all season, following a long line of safeties to explode in Tuscaloosa. Collins leads Bama in tackles (91) and interceptions (three) along with 3.5 tackles for loss this season.

Facing an inexperienced quarterback like Jones, Collins should thrive for the Tide. The junior will lead a Bama defense that allows the fourth-least amount of points (16.6) per game against a potent rushing attack. If he can limit long runs down the field, Collins might be a defensive difference-maker.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Boca Raton Bowl 2014: Marshall vs. Northern Illinois TV Info, Spread, Time, More

The Marshall Thundering Herd and Northern Illinois Huskies bring a combined 23 wins to the 2014 iteration of the Boca Raton Bowl.

The only other bowl games this year to feature that many wins? The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

One of the year's most prolific bowls comes at fans Tuesday as two explosive quarterbacks look to cap off impressive campaigns. Rakeem Cato led the Herd to a Conference USA title, while Drew Hare took over for the Huskies and led the program to a MAC title.

The marquee affair promises plenty of scoring and an unpredictable finish.

 

Showdown Under Center

Quarterbacks will decide Tuesday’s game.

Cato holds all of Marshall's career passing records, highlighted by 13,798 yards and 128 touchdowns. This year alone he has 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns to 13 interceptions with another 457 yards and six scores on the ground.

"That kid has meant so much to this program," coach Doc Holliday said, per STATS LLC, via ESPN.com. "He's the quarterback who got it back to where it belonged, where it needs to be."

Cato's seven touchdown passes were not enough to prevent a 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky recently, but other than that, his 2014 campaign is something to admire. Thanks to his efforts, the Thundering Herd rank fifth in scoring and seventh in rushing.

Now all he has to do is overcome a quarterback who has been arguably as impressive.

Hare is not a well-known name just yet, but the job he has done in replacing Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch is admirable. The sophomore threw for 2,097 yards and 17 scores to two interceptions. Also a potent runner, Hare accounted for 850 yards and eight scores on the ground.

Hare captains an offense that averages better than 32 points per game and ranks 14th nationally in rushing. His ability to assume the mantle and run away with things while only improving sets up a showdown with Cato that will be one of the best quarterback duels of the bowl season.

 

Complementary Pieces

Believe it or not, Cato and Hare have not done it all on their own.

Backing Cato is a defense that ranks 22nd in the nation with an average of just 20.8 points allowed per game. More impressive, though, is his stable of talented receivers who contribute on a regular basis:

To top it all off, Devon Johnson is one of the best backs in the nation. The junior has rushed 191 times and gained 1,636 yards and 16 scores in the process. The Thundering Herd operate as a well-oiled machine around Cato, meaning a shaky Northern Illinois defense has its work cut out for it.

That defense ranks 36th in the nation, although its job will be easier if Hare and Co. can control the pace of the game via the ground attack.

Hare has a standout receiver in senior Da'Ron Brown, who has 64 grabs for 1,002 yards and six scores on the season. The Huskies win on the ground, though, as five players have carried the ball a minimum of 44 times this season.

Lead back Cameron Stingily leads the charge with 895 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is the key to a Northern Illinois victory, as the team leads the FBS with 3,288 yards.

This is not a usual showdown in which the quarterbacks must do it all on their own. It also means the scorekeepers will stay busy Tuesday and that no lead will be safe.

The most cohesive and efficient unit will pull in the victory.

 

When: Tuesday, December 23, 6 p.m. ET

Where: FAU Football Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 67
  • Spread: Marshall (-11)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

Experience seems to rule these sorts of encounters. 

In that case, Las Vegas is right to think Cato and the Herd have a major advantage.

There is no denying Cato in his final collegiate game, especially not against a defense that struggles to keep opposing offenses in check. This encounter is about pace, and Northern Illinois' grind-it-out approach on the ground produces points but backfires in what figures to be a sprint against the Herd.

Look for Cato and his offense to pull away in the second half and never look back.

Prediction: Marshall 38, Northern Illinois 30

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule and Predictions for Games with Closest Spreads

Bowl season officially kicked off with five games taking place on Saturday, and we've already experienced a wide array of conclusions, from Utah's 45-10 drubbing of Colorado State to a stunning 33-28 last-minute victory by Bowling Green over South Alabama.

Those games were only a taste of what's to come. A bevy of enticing matchups have yet to take place, as bowl season resumes Monday with a clash between BYU and Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl. The minimal two-point spread in that game is just one of many close lines bettors must be wary of throughout the remainder of the year.

In an effort to provide some clarity for potential wagers on those tough spreads, let's take a look at some in-depth analysis for a few that are likely to be more one-sided than Las Vegas thinks. However, before we delve into those predictions, here's a breakdown of the updated odds and schedule for all remaining bowl games.

All game odds courtesy of Odds Shark and current as of December 21.

 

Valero Alamo Bowl

Kansas State vs. UCLA (-1.5)

Kansas State opened up as a 2.5-point favorite in the Alamo Bowl but have since shifted to slight underdogs. It's easy to see why UCLA opened as underdogs; it finished the regular season with a disastrous 31-10 loss to Stanford. However, it's also easy to see why the team is now favored.

Despite that terrible outing prior to the bowl season, UCLA was playing some very solid football, winning five consecutive games, which included wins over No. 12 Arizona and No. 19 USC. A big reason for that streak was the improved play of quarterback Brett Hundley, who accounted for 14 total touchdowns and just two interceptions during that stretch.

Kansas State has struggled at times against the pass this season, ranking 78th in the nation and allowing an average of 236.8 passing yards per game along with a total of 19 touchdowns through the air. However, Hundley will need a big game to keep up with a well-rounded Kansas State team.

The Wildcats play a balanced brand of football, ranking 22nd in points scored and 27th in points allowed. Kansas State features a versatile quarterback of its own in Jake Waters. The senior signal-caller has been playing some very efficient football all season long, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 3,163 yards, 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions—he's also rushed for 471 yards and eight scores.

Considering the Bruins rank 76th in the nation by allowing 27.5 points per game and 69th in total defense, giving up 401.0 yards per game, the Wildcats have a much better opportunity to move the ball and get points on the board. Vegas had this spread correct out of the gate.

Prediction: Kansas State 27, UCLA 24

 

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Boston College (-2.5) vs. Penn State

Don't expect to see too much offense in the Pinstripe Bowl, as both Boston College and Penn State boast two of the nation's best defenses. The Nittany Lions rank eighth, allowing just 17.7 points per game, and the Eagles rank 17th, allowing 20.5 points per game.

While Penn State does boast the nation's top run defense, allowing an average of just 2.56 yards per carry and 84.8 yards per game, it will have a difficult time containing Boston College dual-threat quarterback Tyler Murphy. On the season, Murphy has accumulated 11 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns. However, he's also thrown 10 interceptions.

Murphy's turnovers are a cause for concern against a Nittany Lions team that has 16 interceptions on the season, but the quarterback has been more efficient of late, throwing zero picks in seven of his last eight games. This is due to a run-heavy scheme featuring the duo of Murphy and running back Jon Hilliman.

Penn State may have a prolific defense, but it lacks firepower on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has thrown eight touchdowns against 15 interceptions on the season. Without a reliable passing game, it will be difficult for Penn State to open up running lanes for its backs against Boston College's fourth-ranked run defense.

Neither of these teams will give up many yards or points, but the Eagles have an offense that gives them the better chance of emerging victorious.

Prediction: Boston College 20, Penn State 13

 

Cotton Bowl

Michigan State vs. Baylor (-2.5)

The Cotton Bowl features a very intriguing contest between a stingy Michigan State defense and Baylor's top-ranked offense. The Bears are averaging 48.8 points per game this season, scoring at least 38 points in all but just two games. The Spartans are allowing just 19.9 points per game, giving up 17 points or fewer in eight of 12 contests this season.

While the Spartans have a solid defense, they are no slouches on offense, either. Quarterback Connor Cook, wide receiver Tony Lippett and running back Jeremy Langford are a formidable trio that have propelled the team's offense to score an average of 43.1 points per game this year, ranking seventh in the nation.

Baylor's defense hasn't been as consistent as its offense, but it has allowed 28 points or fewer in nine of its 12 games and allows an average of 24.2 points per contest for the year. Aside from a rough stretch against TCU and West Virginia in which the Bears gave up 58 and 41 points, respectively, it has performed well against better teams, holding Oklahoma to 14 points and Kansas State to 27.

The issue with the Spartans defense has been its tendency to collapse when playing one of the nation's top offenses. The team allowed 46 points to Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks on September 6 and followed it up by allowing 49 points to Ohio State on November 8. That's not a good omen for this impending contest against quarterback Bryce Petty and a Baylor offense that outscored both of those units this season.

When it comes down to it, Baylor's offense has showed up on a more consistent basis than Michigan State's defense in big games this season. That trend gives the Bears the advantage here.

Prediction: Baylor 31, Michigan State 27

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 21.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

BYU vs. Memphis: 2014 Miami Beach Bowl Schedule and Players to Watch

Both the BYU Cougars and Memphis Tigers are riding waves of momentum entering the Miami Beach Bowl. Memphis finished off its regular season with a 41-10 drubbing of Connecticut to claim the AAC title, and BYU emerged victorious over California by a score of 42-35, denying the Golden Bears bowl eligibility.

While each of these teams has found success this year, they've been winning games in entirely different fashions. The Tigers boast a stellar defense, ranking fifth in the nation and allowing just 17.1 points per game. This unit hasn't allowed more than 20 points to an opponent in its last six contests. Although, it will be tested by quarterback Christian Stewart and the Cougars' 20th-ranked scoring offense.

Stewart and Co. have scored at least 42 points in each of their last three games. Will that trend continue against a Memphis defense that has only allowed a total of 37 points over its last three contests? To ensure you get to watch that question answered with your own eyes, here's a look at the full schedule for the Miami Beach Bowl, followed by key players to watch for both teams.

 

Viewing Information

When: Monday, December 22

Where: Marlins Park in Miami, Florida

Time: 2 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 56.5
  • Spread: Memphis -2

 

Players to Watch

Paxton Lynch, QB, Memphis

This sophomore signal-caller hasn't exactly been lighting up scoreboards this season, but he's been efficient for the Tigers, completing 64.0 percent of his passes for 2,725 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. His confidence should be high coming off a career-high four-touchdown performance against a good Connecticut secondary that ranks 38th in the nation against the pass.

Greg Wrubell of BYUCougars.com tweeted Lynch's impressive ongoing streak:

Lynch will get a chance to produce another big showing in the Miami Beach Bowl against a BYU pass defense ranked 110th in the nation, allowing an average of 266.7 passing yards per game and giving up a total of 21 touchdowns through the air this season.

A sneaky dual-threat quarterback, Lynch isn't afraid to scramble when necessary—especially in the red zone. He's carried 100 times for 283 yards and 10 touchdowns—a team high—through 12 games. Failing to contain this signal-caller could lead to a long day for BYU's defense.

 

Tank Jakes, LB, Memphis

Jakes is one of the biggest reasons for Memphis' prowess on the defensive side of the ball. The linebacker leads the team with 85 total tackles this season, a full 39 more than Memphis' next leading tackler. Although, that's not his only team-leading statistic. He's also first in tackles for a loss with 15.5 and sacks with six, according to CFBStats.com.

So, what is the end result of Jakes' dominance? Memphis ranks 24th in the nation against the run, 49th against the pass, 22nd in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, 45th in total sacks and 16th in takeaways. It's easy to see why this team only allowed 24 points or more just three times this season.

Wrubell tweeted his thoughts on the electrifying linebacker:

No stranger to disrupting an opposing offense's backfield, expect to see Jakes knifing his way through a BYU offensive line that ranks 104th in the nation, allowing 34 sacks on the year. With 19 total tackles over his last two games, Jakes continues to play well, and we'll be hearing his name called often on Monday.

 

Christian Stewart, QB, BYU

The Cougars' senior signal-caller has been solid since taking over for Taysom Hill following his season-ending leg injury. Stewart has a 4-4 record, but he's completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,273 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in those eight games. Three of those picks were thrown his rocky first appearance against Utah State, and he rebounded nicely, throwing just three over his next seven games.

That kind of efficiency will go a long way against a Memphis defense that has accumulated 27 takeaways—14 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries—in 12 games. Stewart is coming off his best game of the season, throwing for 433 yards and five touchdowns against California; however, the Golden Bears are ranked 125th in the nation against the pass.

The quarterback is certainly confident going forward, according to an interview with Jarom Jordan of BYU Sports Nation:

Stewart can't expect Memphis' 49th-ranked unit to be so lenient, but he does have some talented wide receivers at his disposal. Both Mitch Mathews and Jordan Leslie have been stellar this season, combining for 118 receptions for 1,596 yards and 13 touchdowns. Their big-play ability will be exactly what this team needs against Memphis' second-ranked red-zone defense.

 

Paul Lasike, RB, BYU

Stewart won't be able to move the ball on Memphis without establishing the run. Maintaining a well-balanced offense will be a key to the Cougars' success in the Miami Beach Bowl, and that will start by getting Lasike involved early and often.

With starter Jamaal Williams out for the season with a knee injury, the Cougars need Lasike to step up in a big way during this pivotal game. He played well against California, rushing 12 times for 63 yards and a score, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. His usage has been inconsistent this season, but he's produced 4.3 yards per carry or better when given the ball at least time or more in four of five games.

The ball-carrier spoke of his mentality entering the impending game during an interview with Jordan:

Adding to Lasike's effectiveness out of the backfield is his ability to act as a receiver, accumulating 24 receptions for 248 yards and two touchdowns this year. BYU may not see many big-play opportunities against Memphis, so grinding away with Lasike in an effort to wear the Tigers down will be essential.

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com unless noted otherwise and current as of December 21.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Poinsettia Bowl 2014: Navy vs. SDSU TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Time, More

The Navy Midshipmen and San Diego State Aztecs meet yet again in the Poinsettia Bowl.

These programs collided back in 2010 when one Ronnie Hillman ran for 228 yards in a 35-14 Aztecs' win, but a potent triple-option attack that has the Midshipmen on a roll suggests revenge is in the cards Tuesday.

The 7-5 Midshipmen have won five of six to close the season, with the lone loss being a contest in which quarterback Keenan Reynolds and Co. gave Notre Dame a serious scare. Winners of three of their last four, the Aztecs are at home for this encounter at Qualcomm Stadium, where they went 6-0 on the year.

A pair of unique attacks and strong defenses await observers who set aside the time for this late affair. As always seems to be the case with these two, the contest will be one to remember.

 

Star Power Defined

Donnel Pumphrey is not yet a household name, but he deserves the status.

San Diego State's sophomore back ranks third nationally with 1,755 yards (behind just Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman) and 19 touchdowns on an average of 6.9 yards per carry.

Pumphrey has the ability to do it all on his own. He scored two or more touchdowns in six games this year and ran for 100 or more yards nine times. The Las Vegas native capped off his season with 261 yards and a trio of scores in a 38-7 thrashing of San Jose State.

Reynolds is the man tasked with turning things in Navy's favor.

The owner of 826 yards and six scores to three interceptions through the air, the junior does his real damage on the ground. A gaudy 1,182 yards and 21 touchdowns reinforces that notion. Whispers about the fact he continues to flirt with the all-time FBS rushing touchdown record of 77 seems to be a non-factor to him at this point.

"I'm aware of it," Reynolds said, per The Associated Press (via FoxSports.com). "It's strictly an off-the-field deal. Off-the-field, I know what I need to get. On the field, in practice, my goal is just to execute. Because at the end of the day, if we execute, good things are going to happen."

With his focus on the bowl game ahead, now would be a good time to mention just how great the Aztecs can be on the defensive side of the football.

 

Halting the Triple-Option

Rocky Long's Aztecs rank 15th in the nation with an average of just 20.1 points allowed per game.

The only problem is that the stat can be deceptive, especially going into this matchup. Run defense is an issue, as the unit has allowed more than 150 yards five times and 20 scores on the ground overall.

Things get more hairy now that the unit needs to dissect a triple-option attack led by Reynolds that gives even top programs issues.

Navy's aforementioned streak of great form is the product of a potent attack. The only loss over the course of the six-game stretch came at the hands of Notre Dame. Reynolds threw for 118 yards and two scores while the unique attack piled on 336 rushing yards and three scores on an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

San Diego State will find itself in trouble if Navy can control the clock for more than 33 minutes of play as it did against Notre Dame. Look at a recent loss to Boise State, when the Aztecs defense let the Broncos get loose for 212 yards and four scores on the ground.

If the Aztecs cannot use the extra prep time to shut down the Midshipmen, Tuesday may turn into a lopsided affair.

 

When: Tuesday, December 23, 9:30 p.m. ET

Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, California

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 54
  • Spread: San Diego State (-3)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

What sets apart a pair of relatively even teams in a matchup such as this—when even home-field advantage really goes out the window in a sense—is a player such as Pumphrey.

As the numbers show, the Midshipmen struggle to contain the rush this season and will again in the face of one of the nation's top backs.

Navy can and will move the ball, but there is a difference between controlling the clock while moving the chains and putting points on the board. San Diego State will pull ahead and never really look back since the Midshipmen are not constructed to play from behind.

Prediction: San Diego State 27, Navy 23

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Football: Burning Questions Ahead of the Longhorns Bowl

Hoping to end their season with a winning record, Charlie Strong and his Texas Longhorns take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in the AdvoCare V1000 Texas Bowl on December 29.

To come away with that win, they'll have to answer burning questions about how their front lines will handle this tough opponent and which version of Tyrone Swoopes will show up to play.

The Hogs are physical on both sides of the ball, doing most of their damage with the ground game while showing a knack for preventing their opponent from doing the same. There should be no doubt that they'll test the Longhorns up front from start to finish.

This means that Swoopes must deliver one of his better games of the season, no matter how well his linemen play.

Begin Slideshow

Ohio State Is Fast Enough to Keep Pace with Alabama, SEC Speed

In the 2007 and 2008 BCS National Championship Games, Ohio State was run off the field by faster and more agile SEC teams. The Buckeyes were outscored by an average of 20.5 points in their losses to Florida and LSU—falling to teams that had more speed on the perimeter and in the trenches.

That won't be the case when Urban Meyer takes his fourth-ranked Buckeyes to New Orleans for a matchup against No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. 

The question was posed to members of the Ohio State football team last weekend: Can the Buckeyes match the incredible pace of their southern challengers on New Year's Day? 

Their answers revealed an unmistakable irritation and, unsurprisingly, a desire to put that question to bed.

“What exactly is SEC speed?” Ezekiel Elliott said, according to Todd Porter of The Canton Repository. “I think we have great speed on our team.” 

The Buckeyes certainly have some blazers. Elliott himself was running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash as a high school senior two years ago. So were wideouts such as Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson—the two players tasked with playing the "Percy Harvin position" in this year's offense.

And then there's senior Devin Smith, who has clocked 4.3-second 40-yard dashes routinely throughout his collegiate career. He's the Buckeyes' big-play threat, and he's coming off of one of the best performances of his career.

Against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, Smith got behind the Badgers' secondary three times, hauling in a trio of touchdown passes that went for an average of 41.7 yards. The senior has made a habit of coming up with the big play—he's averaging 39.1 receiving yards on his 29 career touchdown receptions.

Linebacker Joshua Perry feels that Ohio State's speed should be obvious. 

What will that film reveal?

For starters, it will show an offense with weapons all over the field. Receiver Michael Thomas, who ranks second on the team with 680 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, joins Smith, Wilson and Marshall on the perimeter. There's Elliott in the backfield, with speedy freshman Curtis Samuel as his primary backup. 

That speed has fueled an explosive Buckeyes offense. Ohio State is averaging an incredible 6.9 yards per play this season, which is tied for second nationally, according to TeamRankings.com.

There's also plenty of speed on the other side of the ball.

It starts up front with the defensive line, which is bolstered by unanimous first-team All-American Joey Bosa. The sophomore defensive end has been an absolute terror coming off the edge this year, ranking fifth nationally in sacks and seventh in tackles for loss.

He's the best playmaker in a defense that can run sideline to sideline and cover a lot of ground. The unit is coming off of its best performance of the season after holding Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon to just 76 yards on 26 carries in a 59-0 shutout over Wisconsin.

“What is SEC-caliber, really? Big Ten-caliber? How about that?” Bosa said, via Porter. “I think coach Meyer was looking for that speed, and big, athletic, fast guys. That’s what we’ve got on the D-line and all around.”

Ohio State will need that speed in its semifinal matchup against Alabama. The Buckeyes are coming into the game as 9.5-point underdogs, according to OddsShark.com, and will be playing the Crimson Tide in the heart of SEC country. Meyer's squad is looking to make its case and prove that it belongs among the nation's elite.

“It is definitely a game where a statement will be made,” Elliott said, according to Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors. “The Big Ten is looked at as one of the weaker conferences and the SEC is one of the most dominant ones, we have a lot to prove in this game.”

If the Buckeyes come up short against Alabama, though, it won't be because they're not fast enough.

 

All recruiting information via 247 Sports. Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NCAA.com and B/R research.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412

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Michigan Football: What Could Have Been for Wolverines in 2014

A lot of things were supposed to happen in 2014 for Michigan—but very few, if any, came to fruition for Brady Hoke’s once-again-lowly Wolverines.

Instead of capitalizing on a weak schedule and winning eight or nine games, Team 135 plummeted to 5-7 after getting drilled by Michigan State and Ohio State, stunned by Rutgers and embarrassed at home by Utah and Maryland.

Instead of “competing for championships,” a phrase that fell on deaf ears week after frustrating week, the Wolverines were essentially out of the running for anything meaningful by October. Instead of rising above 8-5 and 7-6, Hoke’s program sunk to the murky depths of painful mediocrity.  

Hoke was then fired—and that about covers it.

With that said, it’s time to hit the reset button—just like was done in 2013—and ponder the could-have-beens for what was supposed to be the team that got Hoke over the hump.

 

Recruiting Renaissance

A year ago, some recruits began to reconsider their pledge to Michigan—and then, like dominoes, they fell one by one.

In December, 5-star receiver George Campbell, a longtime target, was the first to bid farewell to the struggling Wolverines, who were on pace to finish with Hoke’s best class yet. The 6’3”, 184-pound wideout would have added 4.36-second 40-yard speed, great hands and deep-ball capabilities.

He wouldn’t have been a bad replacement for Devin Funchess, a junior who recently declared for the 2015 NFL draft. Funchess was supposed to usher in another familiar era of big-bodied receivers, but he didn’t live up to the sky-high expectations. Conversely, Campbell, who ended up pledging to Florida State, was supposed to be among those newcomers who’d carry the torch lit by Funchess.

Not long after Campbell severed ties, 5-star running back Damien Harris changed his mind. The 5’11”, 205-pounder probably would have fit well in Michigan’s backfield. According to scouting reports, he’s posted 4.40-second times in the 40-yard dash. One look at his highlight tape, and it’s plain to see—the Bluegrass State’s thoroughbred knows how to trot through holes, pick lanes and gallop to the end zone.

As of now, he’s looking at Kentucky and Ohio State.

And speaking of Ohio State, it was the recipient of the other high-profile running back to wave goodbye to Ann Arbor—Detroit Cass Tech’s Michael Weber committed to the Buckeyes immediately following Hoke’s dismissal.

The 4-star prospect’s incredible compact strength and speed would have likely done wonders for Michigan next fall. But like Harris, he won’t be there as originally forecasted; he was viewed as Harris’ replacement, too, adding insult to injury.

In all, the Wolverines lost eight pledges from players ranked in 247Sports’ top 150 of 2015. From star corners and tight ends to linebackers and safeties, Michigan’s 2015 class was stripped of crazy amounts of talent and firepower due to another free fall under Hoke.

The next coach is probably going to have some trouble filling enough spots in time for national signing day. Even the best recruiters in the land would be hard-pressed to gain 10 or so Michigan-caliber athletes in just a handful of weeks.

 

Stat-Stuffing Stars

Well, you’ve heard this one before: Devin Gardner and Funchess should have been the tandem of Michigan fans’ dreams.

They weren’t anywhere close to that. Banged up (again), Gardner hobbled his way through 2014, never looking like the quarterback most envisioned. No 3,000-yarder here—the fifth-year senior threw for a paltry 1,896 yards, a career-low 10 touchdowns and career-high 15 picks.

Funchess could have been a 1,000-yard receiver—or, at the very least, a consistent threat for six points. Rather than doing that, he finished with not enough catches for not enough yards and not enough touchdowns.

The running backs also underachieved, as sophomores Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were going to combine for 1,800 yards and oh, roughly 20 touchdowns—just a conservative estimate. Green suffered a season-ending injury Oct. 4 but not before rushing 82 times for 471 yards and three touchdowns. Smith went 108 times for 519 and six.

Freddy Canteen was the name of the spring; the sleek freshman hauled in catches during the scrimmage that made it difficult to wait for the arrival of Team 135—it was really happening, Hoke’s vision was finally coming true.

The 6’1”, 176-pounder finished with five catches for 22 yards and a touchdown—or what could have been about three quarters' worth of work on a decent Saturday. 

Jabrill Peppers, oh, Jabrill Peppers. We're not even going to mention what he could have done. Use your imagination. The 6'1", 202-pound athlete could have thrown touchdowns to himself after returning punts for six. That was the general feeling, anyway. He was going to be a special freshman. 

But he was shelved after three games due to a lower-body injury. 

The list is long, and really, it’s unnecessary to scale down the roster, critiquing each guy who didn’t do what he could have done this past season. You get the point. Thanks to injuries and unforeseen barriers, the guys who were supposed to shine brightly in 2014 barely held a faint glow.

 

Impact on Program

Had 2014 not happened the way it happened, Michigan may not be in the market for a new coach.

Had Hoke’s team achieved its goals, we could be talking about a defining 2015 for the Wolverines, who were on the brink of turning the corner in the very near future, according to Hoke’s coaching staff—the same staff that repeated the same line of “we have to execute better” each and every week.

A nine-win season would have probably prevented the mass exodus of 2015 recruits. It would have probably provided a respectable curtain call for Gardner, and it would have probably set up Smith and Green to evolve into an excellent duo in the Big Ten.

Michigan football used to be about reaching realistic expectations and then exceeding them. Today, it’s about crying over spilled milk and wondering how the table got wet. 

 

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

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer. All recruiting information via 247Sports. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Football: Holiday Wish List for the Tigers

AUBURN, Ala. — The holidays are a perfect time to reflect on the year that was and prepare for what's ahead on the new calendar.

And, of course, they are a perfect time for gifts.

Auburn's players are off for a few days this Christmas week, taking a break between the start of bowl practice on the Plains and next week's trip to the Outback Bowl. 

With the holidays in mind, here is what Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn might put on his team's wish list as his Tigers look to move on from the 2014 regular season and get ready for what they hope will be a better year in 2015. 

(You know, besides more sweater vests and visors.)

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