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Rose Bowl 2015: Odds, Predictions and More for FSU vs. Oregon

The inaugural College Football Playoff opens with a marquee Rose Bowl battle between Florida State and Oregon, a star-studded matchup between two prolific offenses.

New Year's Day unveils college football's four-team playoff with two semifinal showdowns, the first of which involves this year's Heisman champion against the 2013 victor. That scheduling worked out well for the NCAA.

After a full year of the Seminoles escaping with narrow victories, they'll face their stiffest test against an explosive Oregon offense looking to finally seize the crown. Regardless of who advances to the championship, these two are sure to begin 2015 on a high note.

 

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Battle of Heisman Quarterbacks

Where else to start but under center, where the last two Heisman Trophy winners take the field with the world watching.

This year alone, it's not even close to being a contest between these two quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota scored 53 touchdowns to Jameis Winston's 27. The former surrendered two interceptions all year, while the latter suffered five multi-interception games. 

Mariota rightfully ran away with this year's vote, averaging 10.17 yards per pass attempt for a juggernaut offense that scored 46.3 points per game. Winston, on the other hand, continued to pull victories out of a hat despite his production trending south.

Grantland's Matt Hinton noted Winston's 2014 decline across the board, including a pass efficiency rating that dipped from 186.5 to 144.3

Again, it’s not just that most of the numbers are down; of course they are. It’s that all of the numbers are down, some of them significantly, and the most relevant number — pass efficiency — isn’t even in the same zip code. (By comparison, the other quarterbacks who led their teams to the playoff, Mariota, Alabama’s Blake Sims, and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, were three of the four most efficient passers in the major conferences, with all three posting a rating north of 160.) No other quarterback in the ACC threw more interceptions or cost his team as many points as a result. If Winston had delivered the exact same stat line as a first-year starter, rather than as a reigning Heisman winner with championship credentials, it’s not hard to imagine him being cast as a weak link.

Most of his struggles have occurred in the second half, where the sophomore has dished up 13 of his 17 picks with 7.82 yards per pass—which is drastically lower than the closing half's 9.17 clip. ESPN's David Hale noted a particularly damning period of opening jitters before Winston churned out a strong effort against Georgia Tech.

For the Seminoles to stand a chance, Winston must lessen that gap and play like 2013's iteration. ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell explains why the erratic passer can't afford any blunders against an opportunistic Oregon.

Turns out that when it comes to making teams pay for their mistakes, Oregon is pretty darn efficient. The Ducks led the Pac-12 in turnover margin, grabbing 14 fumbles and 11 interceptions. Having turned the ball over just eight times (six fumbles, two interceptions) they have a robust plus-17 margin. That's third best in the country behind only Michigan State (plus-20) and TCU (plus-18). 

And what do they do with those turnovers? The answer is 120 points. Nearly 20 percent of Oregon's 602 points this season have come after a turnover. When teams turned it over against the Ducks, Oregon taxed them on the scoreboard 72 percent of the time (18 of 25).

If the Seminoles are counting on their defense to stop Mariota, they're in for a long day. Winston will have to match Mariota point for point, and an injury on the other side helps his odds.

 

How Will Oregon's Secondary Fare without Ifo Ekpre-Olomu?

Oregon will play the semifinal clash without cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the leader of a defense that already allows 413 yards per game.

The star senior will miss the remainder of the season due to a knee injury suffered in practice last month. Fellow corner Troy Hill, who is now shouldering greater responsibility in Ekpre-Olomu's absence, explained his teammate's importance to the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone

“I always took it like I'm the No. 1 and he [was] the No. 1 and I feel like I always tried to play to his standard,” Hill said. “He’s the leader, he set the standard and we all tried to play up to him, he was the one who set the tone for that role.”

With or without Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon's small secondary is facing a daunting size disadvantage against FSU's lengthy targets. ESPN CollegeFootball brought out the measuring sticks.

The biggest challenge will be containing Rashad Greene, who lamented his opponent's injury to AL.com's Natalie Pierre.

During his senior year, the dynamic wide receiver exceeded 100 yards on eight occasions—including a 123-yard, two-touchdown outing in the ACC title bout. Hill, or someone else, will now be tasked with bottling up Winston's go-to option.

Although Greene would have relished the challenge of facing a worthy adversary, he now must exploit the weakness as Oregon hopes the old "next-man-up" mantra is more than empty coachspeak. 

 

Florida State Can't Walk a Tightrope

The Seminoles are the tournament's only undefeated team standing at 13-0, but their path to perfection has been far from pristine. Over the past seven games, they've averaged just a seven-point margin of victory with five wins of five points or fewer.

Over that stretch, FSU has exited only one first quarter with a lead. That's pretty alarming for a school vying for the championship, but head coach Jimbo Fisher didn't soundly overly concerned when discussing his squad's sluggish starts with the Tallahassee Democrat's Safid Deen.

Let teams develop their own identity and become who they are who they are. Some games you start fast, some we didn't. The thing is you got to play the game. It's a 60-minute game. It's like I asked somebody 'How many times has Usain Bolt been ahead at 40-, 50-meter mark in the 100 meters?' He never is. He's the fastest man that ever ran. He's never been ahead at that mark. There are always guys that start faster than him. It's how you finish and what you do.

Sure, the formula worked against Virginia and Florida, but Florida State better not test its luck against Oregon. Give the nation's third-highest scoring offense a chance to jump ahead early, and this one will be over before the second half rolls around.

As mentioned above, Winston can't afford the early barrage of turnovers that has plagued him all year. Fisher may be comfortable operating in constant rally mode, but it won't work against a superior team that has outscored opponents by 23.8 points per game (compared to FSU's 11.8).

Four full quarters of the Seminoles' best is the only way they will survive Thursday with a zero in their loss column. Otherwise, everyone who has spent the year insisting that a win is a win will finally witness that good fortune expire.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Boise State vs. Arizona: Fiesta Bowl 2014 Predictions and NFL Prospects to Watch

While most of the attention is focused on the College Football Playoff, the other New Year's Six bowl games offer intriguing appetizers. The Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Arizona, two previously anonymous programs that have clashed with more traditional powers in recent seasons, offers an exciting glimpse into a pair of squads that could again crash the party next season.

Boise State rebounded from the stunning end to the Chris Petersen era by going 11-2 and earning the major bowl bid for the Group of Five schools. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats had an outside opportunity at the playoff by reaching the Pac-12 Championship game, but they fell to Oregon and thus out of consideration.

For your last-minute preview on the players and matchups to watch in Tucson, read on below to see some of the major storylines surrounding the game for both college fans and draftniks alike.

 

Game Predictions

Jay Ajayi Eclipses 100 Rushing Yards

The Boise State junior is arguably the game's biggest star, as his 1,689 rushing yards ranked sixth in the FBS this season. Whereas the Broncos are undefeated in the nine games in which Ajayi eclipses 100 yards on the ground, they are also just 2-2 when he is held under the century mark.

Arizona can overcome a strong Ajayi performance, but they appear unlikely to suppress Boise State's best player. The Wildcats conceded 170.4 rushing yards per game and 4.05 yards per carry, which ranked 74th and 50th during the regular season, respectively.

Even in the Pac-12, Arizona has not really seen an individual tailback like Ajayi. The closest comp would probably be USC's Javorius Allen, who shredded the 'Cats for 205 yards and three touchdowns when the Trojans won in Tucson on Oct. 11.

That bodes poorly for Arizona's chances of containing Ajayi. Boise State will attempt to control this game on the ground, meaning Arizona likely needs to make a few big plays in the passing game to prevent the Broncos from taking a stranglehold on time of possession.

 

Scooby Wright Flusters Grant Hedrick

Fortunately for the Wildcats, they possess one of the nation's biggest defensive game-changers, who can punish Boise when it does need to turn to the air. Scooby Wright swept up the postseason hardware this year, collecting the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award as well as the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi Awards for individual defenders.

With 14 sacks and an eye-popping 27 tackles for loss, Wright figures to overwhelm a Broncos line that allowed 2.08 sacks per game, 67th in the country. In his press conference leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick compared Wright and the Wildcats' speedy defense to a similarly stifling Ole Miss team the Broncos faced in Week 1:

Hedrick completed 36 of 46 passes in that game against the Rebels, but threw four interceptions en route to a 35.9 raw QBR. The senior quarterback has largely been rock-steady since his worst game of the year, a four-interception performance against Air Force on Sep. 27. That was the Broncos' last loss, and since then, Hedrick has thrown 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions while also adding seven touchdowns on the ground.

His mobility will be necessary against Wright, and it will be interesting to see if Boise State calls any roll-outs or play-action bootlegs to keep Hedrick away from the unanimous All-American. But reducing the field would greatly aid an Arizona pass defense that has allowed 7.3 yards per attempt this year, 82nd in the FBS.

 

NFL Prospects to Watch

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

The aforementioned Ajayi is the top NFL prospect in this game, with both CBS Sports and Walter Football pegging him as their eighth-ranked running back. Considering the depth of this year's running back class, which may finally break the first-round barrier that has appeared over the last two years, that ranking has Ajayi as a likely Day 2 pick.

At 6'0" and 216 pounds, Ajayi is a sturdily built runner who happens to possess game-breaking speed. With 45 catches for 536 yards and four scores through the air, the junior tailback has earned favorable comparisons to one of the NFL's best all-around backs:

Ajayi's own teammates and coaches have echoed that sentiment as well, noting that his skill level makes him a strong bet at the second level:

At the moment, the Boise State back is currently in the second tier of running backs with the likes of Duke Johnson and Ameer Abdullah. His stock isn't higher because of prominent ball security issues, as Ajayi has had 11 career fumbles, including six this season. However, if he can shave some time off his 4.57 40-yard dash, perhaps that will be enough to propel him into the second round.

 

Austin Hill, WR, Arizona

The 6'2" senior Hill represents Arizona's best draft prospect.  Hill could have entered the 2014 draft despite missing the 2013 season with an ACL injury but decided to return to school for his senior season. Though he caught the memorable Hail Mary against Cal, Hill's decision has largely failed to pay dividends:

Nevertheless, Hill remains ESPN's 11th-ranked wide receiver (subscription required), with his scouting report highlighting his ball skills and impeccable intangibles. Hill is not as much of a big-play threat as someone with his size and route-running ability would suggest, as he has averaged a relatively modest 13.4 yards per catch this season, fourth among Wildcat receivers.

Still, the memory of his spectacular 2012 season lingers for teams that may want a high-character leader with rock-solid hands. Assuming Hill's medical information checks out, look for him to emerge as a borderline Day 2 pick, with his floor likely sitting in Round 4.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Josh Robinson Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Mississippi State running back Josh Robinson will want to go out with a bang in this year's Orange Bowl, as the contest will be his last game as a Bulldog.    

Robinson posted on his Instagram account that he would be turning pro after the game, per Michael Bonner of the Clarion-Ledger:

He spoke in more detail about the decision with Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:

I came through with my plan. I’m going to graduate; I had a great year; and I knew that was all going to happen. I just want to count my chips and give thanks to the Bulldog fans, [athletic director] Scott Stricklin, [school president] Dr. [Mark] Keenum and coach [Dan] Mullen for letting me lead the program, and do what I do. 

I talked to God and prayed on it a lot, and this is what it led me to.

Robinson has been excellent for Mississippi State this year, rushing for 1,128 yards, 11 touchdowns and averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per carry in his breakthrough season. He also caught 28 passes for 370 yards and a score.

Despite his strong season, however, at the moment Robinson projects to hit the NFL as a mid- to late-round pick. He told Aschoff the draft grade he received wasn't in the first two rounds. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wasn't expecting Robinson to make the jump to the NFL at all this year:

The Second-Team All-SEC performer has overcome plenty of adversity in his life, however, so betting against him in the NFL probably wouldn't be prudent.

He helped lift Mississippi State to new heights this season; the NFL team that drafts him will hope that he can pull off the same feat at the next level.   

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Versatile 4-Star Porter Gustin Is Biggest Wild Card of 2015 Class

Standing at 6'5", 240 pounds, it's easy to imagine Porter Gustin making plays as a key cog within just about any collegiate defensive attack. When you throw in his ball skills and a 40-yard dash time that hovers in the 4.6-second range, there's a lot to like about a young man who may be best referred to as simply a "football player."

It's difficult to lock down just one position for the talented Utah prospect, so it's no surprise college scouts have differing opinions on where he fits best. 

"It seems like every school sees me playing at a different spot," Gustin told Bleacher Report during U.S. Army All-American Bowl festivities. "It can make it tougher to get down to a decision."

The Salem Hills High School senior remains uncommitted five weeks shy of national signing day, setting the stage for a frenzied final stretch. Gustin says a decision could occur before then, but his search for the right spot will likely to go down to the wire.

Gustin's status as an undecided recruit without a set position presents an intriguing storyline to follow for the duration of this recruiting cycle. Several teams are still in the mix, including a marquee program he's yet to visit.

One of six finalists for U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year honors, Gustin commanded respect on both sides of the ball this season. He dominated opponents as both quarterback and linebacker. 

Gustin, who led his team to the state quarterfinals, was also named a finalist for Gatorade National Player of the Year, which was eventually awarded to Texas quarterback Kyler Murray

"It's been a lot of hard work on and off the field to get to this point," Gustin said. "It also helps having the right genetics from my parents."

His father was a starting quarterback at Wyoming, while his mother played Division I basketball after an All-American high school career.

Their athleticism has certainly seeped into the next generation. Gustin was one of 10 competitors who qualified to take part in the nationally televised SPARQ finals this summer at Nike's world headquarters, which put top prospects in a competitive combine setting.

His multifaceted skill set has several squads clamoring for a commitment.

USC and Arizona State are viewed as strong Pac-12 contenders, though the coaching staffs differ on how they'd prefer to implement Gustin. 

Arizona State views him as a "Devil backer," a position that challenges defenders to win with speed off the edge, chase down quarterbacks and occasionally drop back in coverage. 

"It's definitely a hybrid role," Gustin said. "Coach (Todd) Graham is defensive-minded and always blitzing. It's fun to play for a guy like that."

Meanwhile, the Trojans see him as an asset along the interior.

"USC mainly wants me at inside linebacker," Gustin said. "That coaching staff and team are headed upward, and it would be interesting to be a part of that."

Arizona State and USC each received unofficial visits from Gustin this fall. He intended to return to both campuses for official visits, but admits "time is starting to run out."

Ohio State is a university he absolutely plans to spend time at before signing day. Gustin hasn't been to Columbus yet but views the Buckeyes as an attractive option. 

"I like the way their coaches work with the team and obviously Ohio State has had a lot of success under coach (Urban) Meyer," Gustin said.

Naturally, the Buckeyes' projection of Gustin's potential varies from his West Coast favorites.

"They think I could grow into a defensive end role with time," Gustin said. "Otherwise, I would probably end up at outside linebacker."

Notre Dame is another team that believes he could flourish while firing out of a three-point stance. The Fighting Irish are targeting him as a defensive end and hosted Gustin for an official visit in September.

"The tradition there is unbelievable," he said. "I enjoyed my time at Notre Dame. It's a great place."

Gustin has been careful not to reveal a single favorite at this stage of his recruitment, though expert recruiting analysts project him to sign with USC in 100 percent of predictions.

Still, the situation remains a compelling unknown, just like his ultimate destination on the football field. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

TCU QB Trevone Boykin Fools Ole Miss Defender with Hard Fake, Picks Up 1st Down

No quarterback can run the option any better than TCU's Trevone Boykin did against Ole Miss in the second quarter of the 2014 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

With a Rebels defender in the backfield ready to bust up the play, Boykin made something out of nothing by fooling the defender with a hard fake.

Boykin kept the drive alive by picking up eight yards on the run. The Horned Frogs wound up scoring a touchdown on the drive to take a 21-0 lead.

[Gfycat]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

7 Colleges Best Represented at Army All-American, Under Armour All-America Game

A handful of colleges around the nation will have multiple committed prospects on display at this weekend’s Army All-American Game and the Under Armour All-America Game.

Three of the schools that will battle it out in the first College Football Playoff—Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State—will be heavily represented in both games.

However, a few other programs who hope to replicate the on-field success of those programs are nipping at their heels on the recruiting trail.

Which schools will have the most talent on hand in San Antonio and Orlando?

*All schools listed in alphabetical order.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Preview and Prediction for Boise State vs. Arizona

It didn't take long for Bryan Harsin to return Boise State to the Fiesta Bowl. 

In his first season after taking over for Chris Petersen, who rose the Broncos to national status and won two Fiesta Bowls during his impressive reign, the 38-year-old rising star led his team to an 11-2 record, a Mountain West title and the "Group of Five" bid. 

Now comes the real question. Can he replicate Petersen's postseason magic? 

It won't be easy. The Broncos are in Glendale up against No. 10 Arizona, who were a win against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game away from seriously entering the conversation for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Wildcats couldn't beat Oregon for a second time, but they are undoubtedly a dangerous squad on both sides of the ball.  

 

Date: Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Odds: Arizona (-4), via Odds Shark

 

Key Matchup: Jay Ajayi vs. Scooby Wright III

While quarterback Grant Hedrick is plenty capable of moving the ball through the air, Boise State would much rather establish the ground game. The Broncos, per Team Rankings, run the ball on 56.57 percent of their plays, which is the 37th-most in the country. 

It's no wonder why, either. Running back Jay Ajayi is a stud. Leading the nation in carries (325), the versatile junior workhorse has compiled 1,689 rushing yards (5.2 YPC), 536 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns from scrimmage. 

Ajayi, who will be playing in his last collegiate game before entering the NFL draft a year early, talked about the physical way he approaches the game, via the Idaho Statesman's Brian Murphy.

"I've never wanted to be tackled," Ajayi said. "When it came to college, I just started to build a physical mindset where, 'Hey, let's dish out some punishment, too.' Being able to do that, it's really just been a huge part of my game. I definitely enjoy bringing contact on the field."

On the other side of the ball, the Wildcats allow 4.1 yards per carry, an unspectacular number that ranks them 52nd in the country. However, they have a playmaker who tends to render those kind of numbers meaningless. 

Sophomore Scooby Wright is a machine. Finishing ninth in Heisman Trophy voting (higher than any other defensive player), he led the nation in total tackles (153) while tallying 14.0 sacks, 27.0 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.

He plays with a relentless, magnet-to-the-ball nature, and it's going to be entertaining to watch him ram horns with Ajayi.

 

Prediction

Arizona was embarrassed by Oregon during its last game, so it will be out to make a major statement in one of the biggest bowls of the year. 

Quarterback Anu Solomon was painfully inefficient down the stretch, completing just 48.6 percent of his throws in the team's final six games. However, many of those contests came against the Pac-12's premier defenses while Boise State has allowed opponents to complete a healthy 57.5 percent of their passes.

With nearly a month to prepare, Solomon will be able to do just enough while Wright will slow down the Broncos running game and force Hedrick (eight interceptions in Boise State's two losses) into a couple of costly turnovers. 

Prediction: Arizona 34, Boise State 31

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Boise State vs. Arizona NFL Draft Prospects to Watch for

From a future professional perspective, the 2014 Fiesta Bowl is by far the least interesting high-profile game on this year's bowl slate. There won't be any first-round picks to come out of Wednesday night's contest and perhaps not even any second-rounders.

That tends to be an issue when a BCS game (or whatever we're calling it now) pits a mid-major giant against a still-building Power Five team. Despite its elongated run of excellence, Boise State doesn't have a huge history of producing NFL stars. On the other sideline, Rich Rodriguez almost prides himself by succeeding with groups of undersized, under-appreciated future non-pros who fit his system.

Scouts will still litter the stands and keep the All-22 tape available hoping to find a diamond in the rough. But truth be told, this is a game that will be somewhere beneath a repeat episode of Scrubs on the DVR watch list.

Whenever the scouts do get around to flicking through the channels, though, there should be a few guys worthy of mid-round grades to keep an eye on. Let's quickly look at the Fiesta Bowl participants who should be taking their talents to Sundays come next September.

 

Austin Hill, WR, Arizona

Hill should be the highest-drafted player participating Wednesday. He's the No. 64 player on ESPN Scouts Inc.'s big board (subscription required), putting him right on the edge of the second round. The senior wideout has turned in a somewhat disappointing 2014 given his breakout junior season, moving to tight end out of team need.

That move makes Hill's tape and number difficult to assess. He'll play receiver at the next level, and teams will be more than two years removed from seeing him excel at that position when draft day comes. (Hill missed the entire 2013 season with an injured knee.)

In 2012, Hill established himself as one of the Pac-12's best red-zone targets and a big-play threat down the field. He had 81 receptions for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns, displaying excellent ball skill and route-running intelligence. Moving to tight end did little to quell concerns about his top-end speed, but it's nonetheless made him one of the more polished blocking wideouts in the nation. 

"It has helped me show that I'm a little tougher than I look, and I took it upon myself to really get better blocking this year and becoming a more physical receiver," Hill told Anthony Gimino of Tucson News Now. "I'm trying to make it as much fun as possible."

Hill will have to wait to prove his worth to scouts. He'll still be filling the interior role for Rodriguez against Boise State, which will make his individual workouts hold a ton of weight. If he shows he can still run in the 4.5 range despite the knee injury and wear and tear this season, Hill may move up to the early second-round range.

Any slippage in agility or speed, though, could cause a free-fall.

 

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

It's not very often a Boise State player performs well enough to give up on the collegiate life with a year of eligibility remaining. Not many Boise State players are Jay Ajayi. The junior back rushed for 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns during the regular season, flashing his versatility by adding 45 receptions for an additional 536 yards.

While it's unclear where Ajayi will go draft night—he might wind up into the late second-round range or fall to the third day—his process for declaring is strong. If Ajayi hasn't proved his on-field worth, he never will. Over the last two seasons he's rushed for 43 touchdowns and added little wrinkles to his game that should make him a better all-around NFL running back.

Boise State's usage of its star is also a concern. Ajayi touched the ball 370 times during the regular season on either a carry or a reception. If there is anything we've learned about the running back position, it's how dangerous it can be for high-usage players.

Ajayi is more likely to get injured and irreparably alter his draft stock if he were to come back next season. He's also wasting valuable carries he could getting paid to take. Running back is arguably the most fungible position in football that doesn't involve kicking a football up in the air or through some uprights.

There are some worthy questions to be asked about Ajayi's pro stock, most of which are competition-related. Ajayi is a big-play threat with soft hands and an impressive college portfolio. He may not wind up being the best running back in football, but he's smart to be taking advantage of his draft stock now.

 

Others to Watch: RB Terris Jones-Grigsby (Arizona), OT Mickey Baucus (Arizona), WR Matt Miller* (Boise State)

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

(*Miller is injured and will not play.)

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoffs 2015: Power Ranking Best Defenses in Semifinals

The defensive stars might not be as popular on college campuses as the quarterbacks, but they are the ones who bring home championships.

Well, all football players are popular on college campuses, but they are much more noteworthy while playing as a unit on a successful team.

While all four teams still in contention for a national championship rank in the top 30 in FBS in points allowed per game, there is a big difference between each squad. Some get by with defense while others dominate with it. 

Although success on this side of the ball won't necessarily guarantee a win, here is a breakdown of the top defenses competing in the College Football Playoff.

 

4. Oregon

The Pac-12 is known for its passing and high-scoring offenses, but that doesn't excuse Oregon's struggles through the air.

Despite keeping teams out of the end zone for the most part, the Ducks still allowed 259.5 passing yards per game this season. That ranks outside of the top 100 in FBS.

To make matters worse, Oregon will have to compete in the Rose Bowl without All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who sustained a knee injury in practice. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum discussed impact this injury had on the team, via Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

Anytime someone gets injured it's hard. It's hard. It's like your brother or your sister or your mom or your dad or one of your very close relatives got hurt. It's hard. You've got to deal with that, got to look at it, got to internalize it and then the next day you've got to go out and go fight for him. You've got to put him on your back, you gotta carry him and fight for him. That's what we've got to do, go fight for Ifo and all the guys who got hurt this year.

Oregon still has veteran contributors in the secondary like Troy Hill and Erick Dargan, each of whom can step up to replace Ekpre-Olomu. However, taking an elite player off a unit that was already struggling is recipe for disaster.

Compared to the rest of the teams competing in the playoffs, the Ducks are clearly a step behind.

 

3. Florida State

Florida State exemplifies the idea of the "bend but don't break" defense. The squad allowed 378.3 yards per game this season and had some bad games on the scoreboard. However, it always seemed to come through when it mattered.

This team forces a lot of turnovers (24 on the season) and steps up when opponents get close to the end zone.

The Seminoles allowed teams into the red zone 48 times but only gave up touchdowns in 25 of those possessions. Adding in 10 field goals, they rank 11th in the nation with scores allowed on just 72.9 percent of red zone appearances.

Most importantly, the squad is simply loaded with talent. Defensive linemen Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards are certain to be playing on Sundays, and so are cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Still, the most impactful player on defense is safety Jalen Ramsey. 

Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel discussed the sophomore's role on the team:

Ramsey can line up deep in the secondary or just off the line, racking up interceptions, sacks and everything in between. His play on the team is a major reason the squad is still undefeated, and he will be very important against Oregon.

 

2. Ohio State

The first thing you notice when you watch Ohio State is the dominant defensive line.

Joey Bosa earned first-team All-American honors after totaling 20 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks for this defense, but he wasn't alone. Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, plus linebacker Darron Lee, help create one of the best pass-rushing teams around.

This pressure toward the quarterback helps the unit rank 15th in the country with just 188.2 passing yards allowed per game. Opposing passers have only managed an efficiency rating of 103.7, which is fifth best in college football.

Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is certainly expecting a challenge in the Sugar Bowl:

With impact players at each level like linebacker Joshua Perry and cornerback Doran Grant, this unit can hang with just about any defense in the nation. Of course, containing Alabama's offense will be a challenge on its own.

 

1. Alabama

There is a reason Alabama ranks among the best in the nation while allowing just 16.6 points per game.

Opponents can't even considering running against this unit. The Crimson Tide are averaging just 88.7 yards allowed per game at 2.81 yards per carry with three total touchdowns on the ground. All of these marks are the best in the nation.

While the program is used to having future NFL stars along the defensive line, staying in there every play to shut down the opposition, this season has been different. Head coach Nick Saban has decided to use more of a rotation, and now the deep roster is wearing down offensive lines.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knows this will be a tough task for his players in the next game:

Of course, this squad is not completely unbeatable. Auburn scored 44 points against Alabama in the Iron Bowl behind a great passing day by Nick Marshall. If the Alabama secondary is not prepared, Ohio State can do the same.

However, All-American safety Landon Collins has learned from this experience and should be ready to patrol the defensive going forward. Cornerback Cyrus Jones will also make an impact as the Tide try to ride the elite defense to another national championship.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of NCAA.com.

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

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Wisconsin vs. Auburn: Outback Bowl 2015 Preview for Big Ten vs. SEC Clash

Neither Wisconsin nor Auburn was satisfied with the way 2014 came to a close. The Badgers were routed 59-0 by Cardale Jones and the Ohio State Buckeyes, while the Tigers were gave up 55 points in a loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Both of these squads have a chance at redemption on New Year's Day, but only one will achieve it.

Wisconsin boasts the top running back in the nation and a very stingy defense, but Auburn's versatile offense features a dual-threat quarterback who is surrounded by a bevy of weapons. So, which of these styles has the upper hand in the 2015 Outback Bowl?

Before these teams return to the gridiron, let's take a look a the game's schedule, updated odds and predict the winner of this impending showdown between the Big Ten and SEC.

 

Game Information

When: Thursday, January 1, 2015

Where: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida

Time: 12 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN2

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 63.5
  • Spread: Auburn -7

 

Preview and Prediction

The player everyone will be keeping a keen eye on in the Outback Bowl will be Badgers running back Melvin Gordon. He may not have won the Heisman this year, but he was certainly a worthy candidate, rushing for 2,336 yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 7.6 yards per carry.

Gordon's phenomenal year included breaking the Big Ten rushing record, the single-game rushing record and becoming the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a season. Yeah, that's pretty darn good.

Obviously, Auburn's 45th-ranked run defense that allows an average of 149.5 yards per game on the ground will have its hands full.

Although, it's not as though the Tigers don't have plenty of tape on the running back. In the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State successfully contained Gordon, allowing just 76 yards on 26 carries to the prolific running back. With no passing game to speak of, Wisconsin was shut out easily as a result.

Interestingly enough, Justin Hokanson of 247Sports.com tweeted that Auburn was in a similar situation back in 2003:

Of course, this is a completely different team in a completely different decade, but the point is, it's been done before.

Wisconsin's defense was very strong throughout most of the season; however, it began to taper off toward the end of the year, allowing at least 24 points in each of its last four contests, capping the year off with that dreadful showing against Ohio State.

That's not a good sign considering Auburn runs a very well-rounded offense that ranks 24th in the nation with an average of 35.8 points per game. However, like the Badgers, the Tigers inconsistently closed out the season, scoring at least 31 points in five of their last six games but only managing seven against a Georgia team that had given up 31 to Kentucky the week before.

On paper, it's easy to say Auburn must attack Wisconsin's 17th-ranked run defense since the Badgers are ranked fifth in the nation against the pass. Well, look closer. Yes, Wisconsin is ranked highly in that category, allowing an average of just 164.3 passing yards per game, but it is also allowing an average of 13.87 yards per completion; that's the fourth most of all teams ranked in the top 50.

The reason Wisconsin is ranked highly against the pass is due to the lack of aerial attacks in the Big Ten. This is where Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall really has an advantage. SEC Football noted the availability of big-play opportunities in the Outback Bowl:

A decent passer, Marshall, completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,315 yards and 18 touchdowns against seven interceptions in 2014. However, he finished the year with a bang, racking up 456 yards and three touchdowns against a stingy Alabama defense.

Much of his success in that game came from a resurgent Sammie Coates. The junior had his biggest game of the season, catching five passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns. It will be absolutely crucial for Auburn to get him involved right out of the gate.

Based on how these teams match up, Auburn has the advantage. Both defenses have their strengths and weaknesses, but the difference is on the offensive side of the ball, as the Tigers run a versatile scheme, while the Badgers are more one-dimensional.

Prediction: Auburn 30, Wisconsin 24

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 31.

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Kevin Sumlin Reportedly Will Remain at Texas A&M: Latest Details and Reaction

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is enjoying the college life and is reportedly not looking to make a leap into the NFL. 

According to sources speaking with ESPN.com, Sumlin intends to stay with Texas A&M despite receiving interest from around the professional circles.      

"Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has informed several NFL teams that have expressed interest in him that he will stay with the Aggies, according to team and league sources," per the report.    

Included in ESPN's report is a note about Sumlin's contract that states if he "leaves Texas A&M before the end of the 2016 season, he'll have to pay $5 million to get out of the deal." 

Rumors involving Sumlin and the NFL are nothing new. At this time last year, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported the Texas A&M coach intended to honor his contract with the school.

"Sumlin not only walked away from a chance to be USC's coach, but he is also declining all requests to interview for NFL coaching jobs as he'll honor the six-year, $30 million contract he signed with the Aggies on Nov. 30, according to several sources," Mortensen wrote.

However, Mortensen's report also cites an NFL source as noting "Sumlin is open to coaching a select professional team or two."

Considering Mortensen's point, it would appear the spot Sumlin might consider going to in the NFL didn't become available this year. 

Sumlin took over as head coach at Texas A&M in 2012 after guiding the the University of Houston to a 35-17 record in four years, including a 12-1 mark in 2011. He's won at least eight games in each of his three years with the Aggies, including three consecutive bowl wins.

Even though the Aggies had a disappointing 8-5 season in 2014, they were also breaking in a new quarterback after Johnny Manziel went to the NFL. Sumlin has work to do fixing the defense and getting more consistent play out of the quarterback position to make Texas A&M a force in the SEC, but he's made the transition from the Big 12 easier than anyone could have predicted three years ago. 

With reported interest already coming from NFL teams, Sumlin is poised to continue his success at Texas A&M and further boost his stock should he ever consider going to the pros in the future.

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College Football Playoff Semifinal Projections from Analytics Guru Ed Feng

You want to know which teams will win the semifinal games for the first College Football Playoff. Can Ohio State stay hot and beat Alabama? Will Florida State shake off a season of close calls and beat Oregon?

I have run the numbers through my algorithm (based heavily on the yards-per-play metric) to evaluate the offense and defense of every College Football Playoff team and predict the winners. Here's the rub... 

 

Ohio State vs. Alabama

Ohio State answered many questions, especially on defense, with their 59-0 blowout win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.  Quite simply, the Buckeyes played their best game of the season. 

The Buckeyes defense entered the game ranked 30th in my numbers. They showed a particular weakness against the run with a rank of 51st in yards per carry adjusted for schedule.

However, Ohio State held Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon to 2.9 yards per carry (76 yards on 26 carries), effectively ending his hopes for the Heisman trophy. As a result, the Buckeyes' rush defense rose from 51st to 32nd after the game and the overall defense overall rocketed up from 30th to 14th.

Ohio State faces an Alabama offense that is surprisingly better at throwing than running the ball. On the ground, Alabama ran for 5.38 yards per carry not much better than the 4.97 college football average. After adjustments for schedule, Alabama ranks 20th in rush offense.

However, the Tide has the third-best passing offense in the nation.  QB Blake Sims has completed 65 percent of his passes and WR Amari Cooper totaled an amazing 115 receptions and 14 touchdowns. Sims and Lane Kiffin should have their way with Ohio State's DBs.

Unsurprisingly, Ohio Stat's biggest question mark is third-string QB Cardale Jones.  Jones was able to keep the machine moving in the Big Ten Championship Game, as he threw for 248 yards on 13.8 yards per attempt and kept Ohio State's offense ranked second in the nation. 

However, one should question whether Ohio State's offense will be this good when Jones makes the second start of his career against Alabama. We have just 35 pass attempts for Jones this season, far too few to be certain that he can maintain the success that J.T. Barrett had with the offense.

Because of this uncertainty over the quarterback, I adjusted Ohio State's rating by three points in predicting the College Football Playoff. This drops Ohio State from a five- to eight-point underdog against Alabama, very close to the betting line of nine points.

As a result, Alabama has a 71.7 percent chance to advance to the championship game.

 

Florida State vs. Oregon

Despite their undefeated record, Florida State struggled through their ACC schedule this season. They went 7-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less. However, win percentage in close games is a poor predictor of how a team will perform in future close games.

Does Florida State have a chance against Oregon? They do, and it's because of Oregon's defense.

Oregon's defense ranks 29th based on my yards per play adjusted for schedule. This is a significant drop-off from their ranking of fifth last year. Additionally, Oregon won't have injured Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, an excellent cover cornerback who would have matched up against Florida State's top receiver Rashad Greene.

Simply put, Florida State and QB Jameis Winston should be able to score points against Oregon's defense. And they must, because Florida State's defense has struggled all season.

On the other side of the ball, Florida State's defense has had a similar fate to Oregon's this season. After spending the last two seasons in the top five, the Seminoles defense has dropped to 35th this season. They are weak against the pass (50th), mostly because the pass rush has sacked the opposing QB on 4.1 percent of pass attempts, far below the 6.0 percent average. They face QB Marcus Mariota and a Oregon pass offense ranked first in the nation.

Florida State has fared better against the run and ranks 22nd in rush defense. However, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman has an ankle injury. He'll probably play against Oregon, but the entire defense will struggle against an elite offense in Oregon.

Oregon has a 78.9 percent chance to advance to the championship game.

 

Championship Game 

Based on numbers available right now, Oregon has the highest probability to win the college football playoff at 47.1 percent. Alabama has the second-highest chance at 37.7 percent.  If this were to happen, my analytics favor Oregon by 1.3 points, although this could change with more data from the semifinal games.

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Orange Bowl 2014: Mississippi State vs Georgia Tech Odds, Over/Under, Pick, More

Both Mississippi State and Georgia Tech saw their seasons end in tragic fashion.

The Bulldogs appeared poised to be one of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff before falling to Ole Miss 31-17 in the Egg Bowl. The Yellow Jackets shocked Georgia, winning 30-24 in overtime in the 2014 edition of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, but were just edged by Florida State 37-25 in the ACC Championship Game.

Rest assured, these teams are entering the Orange Bowl with big chips on their shoulders, and we're going to get an exciting contest when two strong but diverse teams take the gridiron.

Before things get underway from Miami, here's one last look at the game's viewing information, odds, preview and prediction.

 

Game Information

When: Wednesday, December 31

Where: Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida

Time: 8 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 61.5
  • Spread: Mississippi State -7

 

Preview and Prediction

The most intriguing matchup in this contest has to be the Yellow Jackets' triple option against the Bulldogs' 25th-ranked run defense, which allows an average of just 126.5 rushing yards per game and 3.70 yards per carry.

Georgia Tech is the nation's third-ranked rushing offense, averaging a whopping 333.6 yards per game on the ground. Much of that success is due to dual-threat quarterback Justin Thomas. This season, the sophomore has thrown for 1,594 yards and 17 touchdowns while rushing for 965 yards and another five scores.

Thomas' strength is reading an opposing defense and making quick decisions with the football in hand. That was on display during the ACC Championship Game. Thomas racked up 104 rush yards, and the Yellow Jackets accumulated 331 yards and four scores on the ground as a team.

Unfortunately, Thomas isn't a prolific passer, completing just 50.9 percent of his attempts this season, and he's unlikely to take full advantage of Mississippi State's true weakness—its 121st-ranked pass defense, which allows an average of 285.2 yards per game.

The offense has been prolific this season, and while Mississippi State's defense has defended against the option in 2014, it has yet to see a triple-option attack. The Bulldogs are talented on the defensive side of the ball, though, ranking 10th in the nation in points allowed. The extra time to prepare for this contest gives them an advantage.

On the offensive side of the ball, all eyes will be on Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. Thought to be a Heisman Trophy candidate earlier in the season, Prescott put up some gaudy numbers with both his arm and his legs. However, his production wavered later in the year with disappointing showings against Alabama and Ole Miss.

Luckily for Prescott, Georgia Tech's defense isn't as stout as the defenses of those two SEC squads. The Yellow Jackets are about average against the pass, ranking 64th in the nation and allowing an average of 227.6 yards per game through the air, and they rank 69th against the run, allowing 168.8 yards per game and 5.10 yards per carry.

Prescott hasn't eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground since October, but the Bulldogs have emerged as the nation's 20th-ranked rushing team. Running back Josh Robinson's usage has varied throughout the year, but he's averaging a healthy 6.4 yards per carry and has the ability to tear apart a defense allowing more than five yards per rush.

Once Mississippi State gets its running game going, Prescott will be able to take the top off the Georgia Tech defense with his strong arm. Usually on the receiving end of such big plays is 6'5" wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson, who is averaging 15.1 yards per catch this season.

Georgia Tech's triple option is likely to cause some issues for Mississippi State's defense. However, the Yellow Jackets will have a difficult time keeping up with a Bulldogs offense that is likely to get points on the board rather quickly.

Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 28

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Ole Miss vs. TCU: Live Score, Highlights and Analysis of Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Keep it locked right here as we bring you live Ole Miss vs. TCU coverage!

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Michigan Football: How Jim Harbaugh Can Save Wolverines' QBs

Jim Harbaugh was hailed as a conquering hero in Ann Arbor after spurning the NFL to be Michigan’s next head football coach. However, his enthusiasm may be tempered after reviewing his roster and finding a crucial lack of experience at the quarterback position.

“I want to win on the practice field, the classroom and the community. We want to win on fall Saturday afternoons, and we have great expectations for that,” said Harbaugh at an introductory press conference. “We’ll have great expectations for the first team meeting and the first week of winter conditioning. I can’t wait.”

The hard work now begins for Harbaugh. Brady Hoke didn’t fail for a lack of effort. His teams struggled because of an inability to develop and protect its quarterbacks.

Harbaugh will need to prove he can do better or risk failing to meet the expectations of Michigan fans who expect a quick turnaround.

In the NFL, Harbaugh had the luxury of having an experienced starting quarterback when he came in at San Francisco. It gave him time to draft Colin Kaepernick and mold him to fill the starting role.

At Michigan, Shane Morris (43-of-87 for 389 with five interceptions) has the most experience, but he is yet to throw a touchdown during his career.

Morris has started two games, a bowl contest his freshman year and the Big Ten opener this season versus Minnesota. His concussion injury versus Minnesota resulted in a national controversy. Morris will get a fresh start under Harbaugh.

Harbaugh will need to evaluate the quarterbacks currently on the roster (Morris, Wilton Speight and Russell Bellomy) along with incoming freshman Alex Malzone to find the best fit.

During his career, the former Stanford coach has shown a preference for a mixed offensive attack, but a lack of offensive consistency made it open season on Michigan quarterbacks under Hoke.

Details of his hiring revealed that his contract, while lucrative, is less than earlier reported. Harbaugh wanted to make sure that he had a healthy budget for his assistant coaches. 

Harbaugh’s experience will help cultivate his quarterbacks, but he’ll need to find a top assistant to develop the offensive line. Brady Hoke was soundly criticized for his loyalty to offensive line coach Darrell Funk as quarterback Devin Gardner scrambled for this life. Gardner took a beating during his final two seasons that greatly hampered his development.

Michigan does have two key building blocks returning next season in center Jack Miller and offensive tackle Mason Cole. Both helped the Michigan running attack make strides toward the end of the season and should adapt to whatever system Harbaugh installs.

The running back position is the next layer of defense for the quarterback position. Michigan is expected to have great depth next season, with De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green, Ty Isaac, Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes all expected to return.

The ability to pass protect may be the determining factor when it comes to which player starts next season.

Harbaugh must also decide whether to retain running back coach Fred Jackson, a stalwart on the coaching staff who has survived the retirement of Lloyd Carr and the dismissal of Rich Rodriguez.

Michigan once had a reputation for developing NFL quarterbacks. That needs to be true again to make Harbaugh's homecoming successful.

 

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

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@PCallihan

All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

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Nebraska Football: Quarterback Position Should Be Up for Grabs in 2015

The 2014 football season was a wild one for Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong. He encountered many highs but also many lows.

Toward the start of the season, Armstrong had a goal. He wanted to complete 60 percent or more of his passes, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln-Journal Star. Did he reach that? Unfortunately, he fell just a bit short.

The sophomore finished the season with a 53.3 completion percentage. He also threw for 22 touchdowns, with three coming against USC in the Holiday Bowl alone. On the other hand, he had 12 interceptions on the season, with one against the Trojans.

While Armstrong's numbers were not always strong—his completion percentage was only 33.3 against Wisconsin—the current starter showed grit and a strong will from the start to the end of the season.

Does that guarantee he will be the starting quarterback in 2015? It doesn't and shouldn't.

While Armstrong will likely be a decent favorite heading into 2015, he'll have competition from redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton and sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe. That's a good thing, too.

There's no reason the quarterback position shouldn't be up for grabs at Nebraska. With a new head coach, it's the perfect time to reevaluate the players and put them all to the test. That includes Armstrong.

During 2014, Armstrong had shining moments. Against Iowa and USC, for instance, Armstrong was able to turn around terrible first-half performances, as Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star noted.

"He clearly picked up confidence in the last two games," Sipple wrote. "During the fourth quarter and overtime at Iowa, he was 5-for-7 passing for 102 yards and two touchdowns (after a brutal first half)."

For Armstrong, opening the quarterback position back up will allow him to work on becoming a better player. What he showed in the second half against USC proved that he has what it takes, but now he needs to put that together for a full four quarters.

A lot of that can be corrected with an offensive identity. Nebraska struggled to find one under former head coach Bo Pelini and former offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The Huskers' new head coach, Mike Riley, understands that, as reported by Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald:

We certainly have to establish an identity. And an identity has to be a blend of the system with what the players are comfortable with and good at. I think that's coaching. You take your talent and you make sure it's the right fit for the system — and you adapt the system as best you can to the team.

A clear offensive identity will do nothing but benefit Armstrong, as Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald wrote after the Holiday Bowl:

It’s hard to have one foot in “don’t make mistakes!” and in another “all right, we’re way down, run around, throw it deep and do your thing!” Against USC, Iowa and Michigan State — all feverish comebacks — Armstrong was better at the latter (he tended to make truer reads, even) but is in need of a coach who can settle him down, give a clear, consistent vision, and let him get good at a few things instead of dabbling in many.

One thing Nebraska lacked during Pelini's tenure was a true quarterbacks coach. According to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano, Riley has hired Danny Langsdorf, former Oregon State offensive coordinator and New York Giants quarterback coach, to take over the Huskers offense.

Lansgorf, alongside Riley, has experience with developing quarterbacks.

For Armstrong, it's all about polishing up his game now. He needs to spend the winter and spring working on the mechanics. He stills struggles, but a clear offensive identity and a coach who can help him grow will be extremely beneficial.

That doesn't mean the job is his just yet. Stanton and Fyfe should rightfully give Armstrong a run for his money. If nothing else, that will only further improve Armstrong as a quarterback.

With a true quarterback competition, Armstrong could come out victorious at the end. He also may not. However, the only way the Huskers will find the true leader of this team is to push and develop Armstrong, Stanton and Fyfe together.

That won't happen by simply handing the job to the current starter with no competition.

Armstrong is the likely favorite heading into the 2015 season. That doesn't mean he is a lock to start for Nebraska. That's a good thing, too.

As of right now, the quarterback position is anyone's to earn in Riley's new offense.

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Why Cardale Jones Will Be Ohio State's Secret Weapon Against Alabama

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones will enter Thursday's Sugar Bowl matchup against Alabama with one career start under his belt.

At first glance, that appears to be a big advantage for the Crimson Tide. But with four weeks to prepare, Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes coaching staff have had the time to turn Jones into their secret weapon. 

The 6'5", 250-pound redshirt sophomore fell to No. 3 on the Buckeyes' depth chart during fall camp, but season-ending injuries to Braxton Miller (preseason) and J.T. Barrett (vs. Michigan) thrust Jones into the spotlight. With six days of preparation, Jones was able to take over the starting duties and execute Ohio State's game plan to perfection in a 59-0 demolition of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. 

That's the only usable film Alabama has on a quarterback it needs to stop in order to reach the national title game. With the meticulous way Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart prepare, that lack of film is an issue.

 

The Dangerous Unknown

Jones was brilliant in his first career start, completing 70.6 percent of his passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions. While his stats were gaudy, Jones truly wasn't asked to do much, attempting just 17 passes as the Buckeyes ran on 69.6 percent of their plays from scrimmage.

Despite Jones' easy workload, the Buckeyes still managed to carve up the nation's second-ranked defense, averaging 9.9 yards per play on their way to 558 total yards of offense. Ohio State was devastatingly effective, yet it still provided Alabama very little to work with in the scouting department. 

"He's a mystery," Alabama safety Nick Perry said of Jones, according to Trey Iles of The Times-Picayune (New Orleans). "Really don't know exactly what all he can do or what kind of offense they're going to have come game time so we're just preparing for everything and anything." 

That's not ideal for any team, let alone one coached by Saban. Alabama is a defensive juggernaut in part because of the way it prepares for the team it's facing. With Jones at the helm, the Tide will have to make adjustments and react to what the Buckeyes show them throughout the game rather than their preferred method of knowing what's coming.

Smart talked about the difficulties that presents, according to Austin Ward of ESPN.com

Well, not knowing how [Jones] reacts to different things would be the toughest thing. You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations. You haven't seen enough tape to know.  

That's probably the hardest thing for us to get prepared for is we're watching one quarterback (J.T. Barrett) in a lot of games, yet we're going to face a different quarterback. So knowing what they want to do with that guy makes it harder, tougher to get ready for. 

Still, this is an Alabama team that ranks 10th nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense. The Tide plan to put pressure on Jones and see if he has what it takes to stand in the pocket and deliver. 

"I know against us, he's going to have to do a lot of processing and a lot of thinking," Alabama safety Landon Collins said, according to Drew Champlin of AL.com. "We're definitely going to confuse him as much as possible." 

On the other side, Jones has watched plenty of film on Alabama's defense. He knows that the Tide don't need to get fancy because they execute so well. 

"There's been countless [hours], dating back to last year's Sugar Bowl, just trying to be prepared for any and everything," Jones said, via Ward. "It's not so much exotic, but I would say they're a schematic defense. They prepare for the team they play that week, and they change their looks to defeat that team's offense." 

Will Jones be ready for Alabama on New Year's Day? If you ask Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, there's no doubt at all. 

"I don't think there will be a moment in this game, or any future games, that he's not prepared for," Herman said, according to Nancy Armour of USA Today

If that's the case, Jones will be a nightmare for Alabama's defense. 

 

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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Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon Could Have a Big Day Versus Auburn in the Outback Bowl

When the 10-3 Wisconsin Badgers take on the 8-4 Auburn Tigers on New Year's Day at the Outback Bowl, expect to see a high-scoring game. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

Also expect to see a very productive day from running back Melvin Gordon of the Badgers. Why? Because of No. 25's performance for the bulk of the 2014 season and the fact that the Auburn defense has many shortcomings.

For the season, Gordon has rushed for 2,339 yards on 309 carries, which leads the country. That equates to a 7.6 yards-per-carry average. Gordon has also rushed for 26 touchdowns.

No. 25 can hurt you in the passing game, too, as he has 17 receptions for 151 yards and three more scores.

Auburn comes into its matchup against Wisconsin ranked just 57th in the nation in total defense. The Tigers give up an average of 388.7 yards a game. Auburn is also ranked 58th in scoring defense, as it gives up an average of 26.1 points per game.

Against the run, the Tigers are ranked 44th and have given up an average of 149.5 yards per game.

Gordon should be able to exploit that weakness.

But he will be helped if quarterback Joel Stave can have a solid day. Why? The biggest weakness on the defense of the Tigers is their secondary.

Auburn is ranked 80th in pass defense and has given up an average of 239.2 yards per game through the air.

Stave could have a nice afternoon. But No. 2 hasn't exactly had a stellar year throwing the football. Yes, the passing game got better for the Badgers once Stave was installed as the primary quarterback over Tanner McEvoy, but it still needs to improve.

For the 2014 season, Stave has thrown eight touchdown passes versus seven picks for 1,229 yards. His completion percentage is just 53.6 percent.

Stave needs to take advantage of the Auburn secondary. That will help Gordon since Auburn won't be able to stack the box like Ohio State did in the Big Ten Championship Game.

That means the receivers of the Badgers need to come through versus Auburn. Stave looks mostly to wide receiver Alex Erickson when he's passing. Erickson has 51 catches for 734 yards and three touchdowns.

Stave also likes to utilize tight end Sam Arneson, who has 27 catches for 354 yards and four touchdowns.

The key for both Stave and Gordon will be the play of the offensive line for the Badgers. It appears that starting center Dan Voltz will be able to play based on a report by Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

That will be key, because Voltz missed most of the Ohio State game due to an ankle sprain he suffered against Minnesota. With Voltz starting at center, the offensive line of the Badgers is more in sync and plays much more effectively.

The Badgers are ranked 22nd in total offense in the country. The running game is ranked third in the nation, while the passing game is ranked a paltry 116th.

The passing game has to improve against the vulnerable Auburn secondary. Otherwise, the Badgers could be in big trouble.

Why? The Tigers have one of the most explosive offenses in the country. They are ranked 16th in total offense and average 35.8 points per game.

Auburn can hurt you in the running game; the Tigers are ranked 12th in that area. The Tigers are ranked just 64th in passing offense, but they do have 21 passing touchdowns.

The offense is led by quarterback Nick Marshall, who can beat you with his arm and his legs. Marshall has thrown 18 touchdown passes versus seven picks for 2,315 yards.

He has also rushed for 780 yards and 11 touchdowns. The player who totes the rock the most for Auburn is Cameron Artis-Payne, who has rushed for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Marshall will be missing his top receiver for the Outback Bowl, as D'haquille Williams will not play because he broke team rules, according to head coach Gus Malzahn. Williams finished with 45 receptions for 730 yards and five touchdowns.

Without Williams, expect to see receivers like Sammie Coates (30 catches for 717 yards and four touchdowns) and Quan Bray (34 catches for 408 yards and four touchdowns) have larger roles in the Auburn offense against the Badgers.

The Wisconsin defense—which played very well most of the season, only to be exposed in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State—faces a big test versus Auburn.

Going into the game, the Badgers are ranked fourth in the country in total defense, even after the 59-0 beating they took against the Buckeyes.

Wisconsin is ranked 17th versus the run and fourth against the pass. You wouldn't have known that based on the way the defense performed against Ohio State.

But knowing now that then head coach Gary Andersen was about to leave for the same position at Oregon State just a few days later, one has to wonder about the team's preparation prior to that game.

Because of Andersen's departure, athletic director Barry Alvarez will be the interim coach for this game, even with the hiring of Paul Chryst as the new head coach.

The last time Auburn and Wisconsin played in a bowl game was nine years ago in the Capital One Bowl. That was also supposed to be the last game Alvarez would ever coach, as the Badgers dominated the Tigers 24-10.

But Alvarez has now had to coach on an interim basis twice in bowl games. Once for the 2013 Rose Bowl after head coach Bret Bielema left to take the same job at Arkansas and now for the Outback Bowl due to Andersen taking the Oregon State job.

The game between Wisconsin and Auburn could come down to special teams on New Year's Day.

Bray is a dangerous punt returner for the Tigers. He has averaged 18.1 yards per return, which is second in the nation. He has two touchdown returns.

Kenzel Doe of the Badgers is 16th in the country in punt returns, as he averages 11 yards a return.

Both teams have solid kickers. Rafael Gaglianone of the Badgers is ranked 11th in the country in field-goal percentage, having converted 17 of 20 field goals. Daniel Carlson of the Tigers has made 12 of 17 kicks, which has him tied for 27th in the rankings.

Bottom line, the Outback Bowl should be a fun game to watch, as I expect to see plenty of scoring from the Badgers and Tigers. The team that has the fewest turnovers will most likely win this game.

I anticipate to see a lot of firepower in the game and wouldn't be surprised if Gordon, the Doak Walker Award winner, provides a lot of it.

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Michigan Fan to Pay Up on Bet, Get Jim Harbaugh 'Saved by the Bell' Tattoo

As happy as most Michigan fans are that Jim Harbaugh is back in Ann Arbor, one fan now has to reluctantly pay up on a wager he made on Twitter a few months ago.

Back in October, one fan apparently didn't believe that there was a real chance that Harbaugh would become the next coach of the Wolverines. Thus, he sent out this tweet:

That was a big—and painful—mistake.

True to his word, the Michigan fan fully intends to get the tattoo. He has even set up a GoFundMe page to try to raise $200 to cover the cost of the tattoo.

He may not be looking forward to getting the tattoo, but he has to be excited that Harbaugh will be leading a new era of Michigan football.

For reference, Harbaugh appeared on a 1994 episode of Saved by the Bell as Screech's football-playing cousin. 

[h/t SB Nation]

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Oregon vs. Florida State: Top NFL Prospects to Watch for in Rose Bowl 2015

The Rose Bowl features some of the top talent from around the country, including the best quarterback prospects for the 2015 NFL draft. But even with the two signal-callers facing off, expect some defensive players to steal the show.

On one side, Marcus Mariota will look to prove he's the No. 1 pick as he leads Oregon in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Jameis Winston hopes to overtake Mariota en route to a second straight national championship game appearance.

Eddie Goldman and P.J. Williams will wreak havoc on the defensive side of the ball for Florida State. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is out for the Ducks with a knee injury, which leaves the two Seminoles prospects plenty of spotlight to shine.

Here's a look at each player and a breakdown of their potential heading into the Rose Bowl.

 

Marcus Mariota

What's not to like about Mariota? The junior quarterback has been nearly flawless all season with 52 total touchdowns and just two interceptions.

His play was also good enough to earn him the Heisman Trophy a year after Winston took the award. A potential No. 1 selection when the draft eventually rolls around, Mariota has shown flashes of brilliance in both the passing and running game.

Along with his physical traits, Mariota continues to impress with his ongoing growth as a quarterback. Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost spoke about his offensive leader, via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

Going against an athletic defense that has several NFL prospects of its own, Mariota has a chance to show off his potential yet again. Currently a virtual lock as a top-10 pick going in, expect Mariota to come away with even more buzz following the Rose Bowl.

 

Jameis Winston

The Heisman has been a gift and a curse recently for quarterbacks. Playing under the pressure it brings has clearly taken its toll on Winston this season, but he continues to find ways to win in Tallahassee.

One reason for his success with FSU is his resilience and confidence in his own ability. That was no more evident than when he spoke about throwing the ball against Richard Sherman leading up to the Rose Bowl, via Aaron J. Fentress of Comcast SportsNet:

Even with his draft stock still high, Winston needs a huge game against Oregon to show he's a serious contender to be the top quarterback taken. His 17 interceptions this year have raised some questions about his decision-making, but Winston remains one of the best prospects in the country.

Stepping up yet again on the big stage? That would solidify his status near the top heading into the 2015 draft.

 

FSU Defensive Stars

Pairing these two together seems fitting after both helped contribute to the Florida State defense. While the Seminoles weren't quite as effective as their 2013 campaign, both Goldman and Williams are worthy of being first-round picks.

Williams has 10 passes defended and one interception this season as a junior. He was also named the Defensive MVP during last year's national championship game, so he knows all about stepping up on the big stage.

Along with Williams, Goldman's impact has been felt up front with four sacks and great play against the run. The huge defensive tackle also appears to be healthy heading into New Year's Day, via Safid Deen of the Tallahassee Democrat:

Having both players on defense, the Noles have a chance to test Mariota throughout the afternoon. During the process, both Williams and Goldman can show off their potential in front of a national audience in one of the biggest games of the year.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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