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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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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.

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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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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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Ole Miss Football Recruit Chad Kelly Arrested After Reported Fight with Bouncers

Ole Miss commit Chad Kelly faces charges of third-degree assault, second-degree harassment, second-degree menacing and resisting arrest, among others, after being arrested early Sunday, according to Joseph Popiolkowski and Keith McShea of The Buffalo News.

The charges stem from a reported fight between Kelly and bouncers at a bar in downtown Buffalo, per The Buffalo News report:

Kelly, 20, of Niagara Falls, refused to leave Encore at 492 Pearl St. about 3:15 a.m. and punched a bouncer in the face, Buffalo police said. Kelly's companion, Brandon Hickey, 21, of Clarence, had been thrown out of the bar earlier and tried to re-enter, police said.

Kelly continued to fight with two bouncers and stated "I'm going to go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place," according to a report.

The report goes on to state that Kelly would not calm down once the police arrived: 

Buffalo police officers responding to that alleged threat stopped a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup truck in which Kelly was a passenger at 458 Pearl.

Kelly was forcibly removed from the vehicle, officers said. Police said Kelly kicked and tried to swing at officers as they removed him from the vehicle. They said he resisted getting into a patrol vehicle and struggled with staff at central booking.

Kelly signed a letter of intent with the Rebels on Wednesday.

"We needed to create competition and depth at quarterback," head coach Hugh Freeze said, via the Ole Miss athletic site. "And we were able to do that with Chad Kelly."

USA TODAY's Dan Wolken also provided a quote Freeze gave The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi:

ESPN.com's Travis Haney said he believed Ole Miss should have done a better job in the recruiting process:

Kelly is the nephew of legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. According to 247Sports' composite rankings, he's the best dual-threat junior-college quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class. He was a 4-star QB coming out of high school in 2012 when he signed with Clemson.

Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney dismissed Kelly from the team in April after Kelly argued with the coaching staff during Clemson's spring game.

"He has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program," Swinney said at the time, per ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson. "I hope he will mature and grow from this and become the man and player I know he can be. I wish him nothing but the best in the future academically and athletically."

It's currently unknown how this news will affect Kelly's status with Ole Miss.

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Nebraska Football: Burning Questions for the Holiday Bowl

Nebraska football fans might have forgotten about the upcoming Holiday Bowl amid all of the drama, but there are a number of questions to be answered. After the firing of Bo Pelini, more questions than normal surround Nebraska as the Huskers prepare for their bowl game.

Here are three burning questions that will help define Nebraska’s performance in San Diego.

  

What Will Nebraska's Motivation Be?

Bowl games are always tricky to forecast because of the motivation question.

How hard will a group of college students, nearly one month removed from the regular season and with the holidays in between, really want to work? Will one team be more willing to pay the price in preparation and have more of a chance to be successful?

That’s for any bowl game. 

Add on top of that a popular head coach being fired. Add on top of that the fired coach having a 9-3 record. And add on top of that a farewell speech from the fired 9-3 coach that further stoked the "us-versus-them" mentality that was one of the defining traits of that coach’s career.

You could imagine almost anything in terms of how Nebraska will show up for the Holiday Bowl.

The players could be razor-sharp and play the game of their life in honor of Pelini. They could be flat and listless, feeling like their season was stolen. They could come out like wild horses, riding an emotional high but falling apart at the first sign of trouble.

Each of those scenarios are plausible. Indeed, over the course of Pelini’s career, we’ve seen each of those Nebraska teams take the field.

Finding out which team comes out of the locker room will be one of the biggest questions of the Holiday Bowl.

 

What Will the Game Plan Be?

While Pelini is getting comfortable in Youngstown, the rest of his staff will be preparing Nebraska for the Holiday Bowl. That means defensive coordinator John Papuchis will be in charge of the Blackshirts, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck will call the game however he wants.

Throw in a month to prepare—and coaches who will be looking to make a good impression for future employers—and Nebraska could look different than it has at any point this year.

How effective that will be, of course, is anyone’s guess.

 

How Healthy Will Nebraska Be?

Without the coaching change, this one might have been the biggest question to answer coming into the Holiday Bowl.

Ameer Abdullah’s status will be the biggest question, of course, as it was his injury during the Purdue game that really changed the course of Nebraska’s season. But Kenny Bell has also struggled with injuries all season—as have a number of other Huskers.

With a month to heal, Nebraska will be as healthy as it has been since the start of the season. That will make a significant difference, particularly given the talent level of a team like USC.

 

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

You can also use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

At Long Last, It's Time to Focus on Jameis Winston the Football Player

You don’t have to care for Jamies Winston. You don’t have to suddenly root for Florida State. You are entitled to your opinions about this player and person—two vastly different entities in a complex situation—but you also have to respect the process, or in this instance, processes that have taken place.

On Sunday, Winston was cleared of any Florida State University conduct code violations. Following sexual assault allegations stemming back to December 2012, Major Harding, a retired Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice, was tasked with this case. He oversaw the December 3 hearing and then provided the results less than three weeks later.

With Florida State’s semifinal matchup against Oregon less than two weeks away, Harding announced the findings.

"This was a complex case, and I worked hard to make sure both parties had a full and fair opportunity to present information,” Harding said in a letter obtained by USA Today. “In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charge violations of the Code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof."

Florida State University President John Thrasher also released a statement on Sunday that addressed the decision, via 247Sports:

The university selected Justice Major Harding, a highly qualified and respected jurist, to remove any doubt about the integrity of this process and the result. He conducted a thorough Student Conduct Code hearing and reviewed more than 1,000 pages of evidence generated by three other investigations, and we would like to thank him sincerely for his service. Moving forward, we remain committed to the principle of due process, and our highest priority will continue to be the safety and well-being of all our students.

The ruling can still be appealed by the accuser. The cutoff date for this decision is January 13, which just so happens to be the day following the College Football Playoff National Championship. This could also serve as the first day of Winston’s professional career, given the likelihood that he will declare for the NFL Draft shortly after that day, if not before.

If that’s the case, the dissection of Winston the football player—and the person, but in a drastically different arena—will be up to the NFL scouts. After undergoing legal and school-based investigations, they’re likely to get the next crack. The tone of these interviews and conversations will certainly be far different.

Winston will have questions to answer, but not to us. Not anymore. The questions regarding his struggles this year, along with the inevitable offseason inquiries, will be something he has to deal with moving forward, out of the public eye.

For that reason, his draft evaluation—whenever it begins—will be complicated. He’ll have to answer why his interceptions skyrocketed in 2014 and why his overall performance, at least in many weeks, was down.

On a more personal level, Winston will likely also be asked about what has transpired over the past few years—from the crab legs, to the BB guns, to the obvious, more impactful topics.

This should be no concern of ours. Unless you work in the front office of an NFL franchise that is near the top of the draft, it will not be on you to determine whether he’s worth a multi-million dollar investment.

As a result, it’s time to move on.

The perception of Winston, for many, likely will never change. Even with Harding’s announcement on Sunday, no ruling—be it legal or through a university—will convince some people. If anything, the frustration of a long, strange process might grow more robust. And there’s really only one direction to cast this negative response.

Given the way these investigations have concluded, however, anything more than an assessment of Winston as a quarterback is unfair at this point. As stated above, you don’t have like him. In fact, you don’t have to embrace the way this entire process has been conducted from a variety of different facets. It has, on multiple levels, been an absolute mess from start to finish.

But it has also, finally, reached a conclusion. And although we have no idea what took place in December 2012—and never will—the various processes in place have played out accordingly. Whether they played out to your liking is a much deeper, personal conversation.

The only thing we can do is go off of the results and what we know as fact.

We know we have questions about Winston entering the Rose Bowl. He has been hobbled all year with a bum ankle while playing behind an offensive line that was nowhere close to advertised. As a result, his performance has suffered.

We also know that he has never lost a game in his collegiate career, which is something that is often overlooked given everything that has gone on. Along those lines, Winston is coming off his best performance of the season, a laser-sharp, 309-yard, three-touchdown performance against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game with a playoff spot on the line.

With Oregon on deck and Winston and the Seminoles playing the role of underdog for the first time in two seasons, this is the information that should be processed. Anything more is a trek you can take by your lonesome.

Sunday’s ruling may not have altered your opinion of the person, but the player—and only the player—should be what we’re concerned with as Winston's collegiate career likely inches closer toward its own conclusion.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Jameis Winston Cleared In FSU Code of Conduct Hearing

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has been cleared of any potential violations following his code of conduct hearing.  

David Cornwell, Winston's attorney, tweeted the news on Sunday:

Sean Rossman of the Tallahassee Democrat received confirmation from Cornwell:

Sports Illustrated's Michael McMann weighed in on the university's ruling:

Winston has been the subject of a sexual assault accusation stemming from an alleged incident in December 2012. After an investigation, the state attorney decided not to charge him in December 2013, but he was still subject to discipline from the university.

Avoiding punishment from the code of conduct hearing, which ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach noted could have included expulsion, will make Winston certain to play in the forthcoming Rose Bowl versus Oregon.

Retired Florida Supreme Court justice Major Harding oversaw the Title IX code of conduct case and delivered the decision 18 days after the Dec. 3 hearing. 

USA TODAY provided an excerpt of Harding's ruling:

"This was a complex case, and I worked hard to make sure both parties had a full and fair opportunity to present information. In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for any of the charge violations of the Code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.

"As summarized in the preceding paragraphs, the evidence regarding the events that unfolded between you and (the woman) once in your room is irreconcilable," Harding wrote. "In light of all the circumstances, I do not find the credibility of one story substantially stronger than that of the other. Both have their own strengths and weaknesses. I cannot find with any confidence that the events as set forth by you, (the woman), or a particular combination thereof is more probable than not as required to find you responsible for a violation of the Code."

According to FSU policy, the alleged victim has five class days to appeal the decision. Given that FSU is currently on holiday break, that deadline would be Jan. 13. 

Florida State remains under investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. In April the department began investigating FSU's handling of alleged sexual violence and compliance with Title IX.

Sunday's ruling should help at least a little with regard to the redshirt sophomore Winston's 2015 NFL draft stock. Even with a checkered past, the Heisman Trophy and national title accolades, along with an understanding of a pro-style offense, make Winston a top prospect.

The off-field issues have persisted as a part of Winston's image, though. Winston shoplifted crab legs in the spring and shouted an unsavory phrase in the student union that earned him a one-game suspension this year.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M Football: Holiday Wish List for the Aggies

The Texas A&M Football team had a transitional year in 2014. The Aggies struggled to a 7-5 regular-season record and could use a few gifts under their Christmas tree before they enter 2015.

Texas A&M struggled on defense again in 2014. In 2013, the Aggies ended the season ranked No. 109 in total defense. In 2014, the Aggies ended the regular season ranked No. 102 in the nation in total defense.

They need to improve dramatically on the defensive side of the ball in 2015 in order to compete for a conference title. They also need to add more talent across the board in order to remain competitive in the SEC.

This is a look at a few gifts the Aggies would wish for during this holiday season.

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Texas Football: Jefferson, McNeal Pledges Brighten Horns' Future

There is a perception across the state of Texas that Texas A&M has overtaken the University of Texas as the premier program in the Lone Star State.

While the Aggies have indeed been more successful over the past few years, December 19, 2014 may be looked back on as the day that signaled a monumental change.

Charlie Strong pulled off stunning moves on Friday, receiving commitments from two coveted recruits from the Dallas area who were supposedly favoring the Aggies. 

Malik Jefferson, the best recruit in Texas and best linebacker in the nation, according to 247Sports, announced his commitment to the Longhorns along with teammate DeAndre McNeal at a ceremony at their high school.

McNeal is a 4-star athlete who possesses the unique ability to play wide receiver, tight end and linebacker effectively. He is likely to end up on defense once he gets to Austin and should be a very versatile defensive presence for Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford to utilize.

This has to come as a relief for the Longhorns coaching staff. The pressure has mounted since Strong kicked nine players off the team before the calendar changed to October, and the Longhorns struggled for the majority of 2014.

The pledges from Jefferson and McNeal pushed the Horns’ recruiting haul from good to great, catapulting the ’15 class to the best in the Big 12 and the 14th-ranked class in the country, per 247Sports.com.

Those two Mesquite Poteet products have incredible potential and will undoubtedly contribute to the Longhorns down the road, but most of the problems for Texas came on the offensive side of the ball.

Tyrone Swoopes was unimpressive in his first season as a collegiate starting quarterback, and he will have plenty of competition come next season.

Redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard and Zach Gentry, a highly touted pro-style quarterback from New Mexico, should both challenge Swoopes for next year’s starting gig. Both of them have tons of talent, and it will be interesting to see which direction Charlie Strong decides to go.

Johnathan Gray will return next year for his senior season, and he should be able to shoulder the majority of the carries after sharing time with Malcolm Brown the past three seasons. 

The receiving corps will be arguably the biggest question heading into next year. Jaxon Shipley and John Harris, who accounted for more than half of the team’s catches last season, will both play the final games of their respective careers in the Texas Bowl against Arkansas.

Defense is Strong’s forte, and with the addition of superior talent like Jefferson, the Horns D-line should be stifling in 2015.

So while Texas A&M will almost assuredly rake in a more prominent recruiting class on the February 4 Signing Day, the Longhorns are slowly but surely closing the gap. The U.T. program fell to unprecedented lows toward the end of the Mack Brown era, and Strong has been trying to change the culture since he took the job.

Luring Jefferson and McNeal out of the Aggies’ grasp is a terrific start, and if the administration stays patient with Strong and his plan, the Longhorns will not only be able to regain their place as a perennial powerhouse, they will be able to sustain their success for the long haul.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Games Schedule 2014-15: Complete Listings for Every Game

The first day of the holiday bowl season resurfaced a theme seen time and time again during the college football postseason—motivation is everything entering these games.

A team's mindset can be so much more important than sheer X's and O's come bowl season, and that was shown once again Saturday. Utah drubbed Colorado State—shaken by the departure of head coach Jim McElwain to Florida—45-10, as the Rams couldn't overcome a coaching change and play inspired football.

Whether it's schools that won't bring the same fight to the field knowing their once-realistic national title hopes are over, or a program with young talent furiously looking to build momentum for 2015, motivation is often the deciding factor come bowl season. Of course, then there are teams like Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon and Florida State, which have everything to play for.

Take a look below to figure out when every game will be played and where you can catch it on the tube. We'll then dissect two games in which motivation will loom larger than most.

 

 

Note: Bowl schedule courtesy of ESPN.com.

 

Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

Some rough late-season results and—in Wisconsin's case—a coaching change have the Outback Bowl as one of the more intriguing battles on tap for bowl season.

The Tigers didn't make it through the SEC gauntlet with enough wins to threaten the College Football Playoff, and it's a fair question to wonder whether they will be completely up for it after much higher hopes. 

As for Wisconsin, the abrupt departure of head coach Gary Andersen has a Badgers team that was recently drubbed by Ohio State 59-0 reeling even more. Even Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon is coming off his worst performance of the season.

The problem for the Badgers, though, will be that defense recently gashed by the Buckeyes. While Auburn's defense doesn't help much, its offense is among the best in the nation with Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne running Gus Malzahn's system to perfection.

If Malzahn's team comes in wanting to prove something on New Year's Day and plays like it, the Badgers will have to show the resolve they didn't against Ohio State—or face a similar result.

You have a team spoiled by success in one end, and a team undergoing a coaching change playing for a staff that they know won't be back next season. But if there's one group of people who should be all-in for this game, it's the entire nation, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello:

Maybe all Auburn's players need to find the motivation for this one is to read that above tweet.

 

TaxSlayer Bowl: Iowa vs. Tennessee

There might not be a bowl game this postseason featuring teams with more different mentalities heading in than the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.

Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes entered 2014 with an outside opportunity to compete for a championship in the wide-open Big Ten or at least make some steps toward national prominence. Yet here they are, at 7-5 and at the end of a disappointing season.

They'll look across EverBank Field and see a Tennessee Volunteers team full of young talent and reinvigorated by getting the program's first bowl bid since 2010. If the youth continues to gel and head coach Butch Jones works some more magic, the Vols could be gunning for an SEC Championship Game appearance in 2015.

The excitement of both teams can only be described by the ticket allotments. The Des Moines Register's Chad Leistikow reported Iowa is expecting to sell half of its allotment, while Tennessee sold out days after the announcement.

Iowa has a burly offensive line and the physicality to compete with SEC opposition, but it's hard to see the Hawkeyes fully getting up for this one. Meanwhile, Tennessee is playing in a game that most players on the roster have eyed for years. 

Motivation only factors in so much, but when two evenly-matched teams that are such polar opposites in that department go at it, you'd have to imagine it will factor in considerably.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Schedule and Bracket Predictions

It's finally (almost) here—the inaugural College Football Playoff.

We talked about it before the season, anticipating who would be in before games were even played. We talked about it all during the season, critiquing every weekly rankings put out by the CFP committee.

But now that the teams are announced and the bowl season is just about in full swing, it's time to put all the talking aside and get ready for two semifinal games that promise to live up to the billing.

Let's jump right in and look at everything you need to know for the first-ever CFP.

 

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 20

 

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

Looking back, the first year of the four-team CFP format could not have come at a better time for Florida State.

If we still had the BCS format for this year, the unbeaten Seminoles would have been the first team out. And considering they're in the midst of a 29-game win streak, the madness in reaction would have been ear-piercing.

Alas, Florida State has made it into the group of four and will be intent on proving its plethora of ugly wins this season are an aberration. Doing so against the No. 2 Oregon Ducks—who have enough to prove on their own—won't be a walk in the park.

Jameis Winston seems to make the winning plays whenever he feels it's needed, but he'll face a fast Duck defense giving up just 17 points per contest in their last five. Oregon will, however, be without star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu after his practice injury.

That won't be the side of the ball that leads to Florida State's demise, though. Instead, this experience of Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III—who helped the Wildcats beat Oregon earlier in 2014—explains the trouble ahead for the Seminoles, per Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk:

Well, Wright doesn't know anymore—nor does anyone. His Wildcats were drubbed 51-13 in a Pac-12 title game rematch, with Marcus Mariota dominating via the air and ground.

With 38 passing touchdowns to just two picks, Mariota will take care of the ball and make the big plays to get Oregon the early lead. He'll get some good play from the Ducks' speedsters and bowling-ball running back Royce Freeman, but the Seminoles' stout defensive line means Mariota will be taking it upon himself to make the plays.

There won't be a lot of space for him to air it out, but that's not really Oregon's style, anyway. They exhaust defenses with a run-heavy attack and short passing prowess, and Florida State's defense has been exhausted more than a few times this season.

Oregon's defense won't shut Winston and the Florida State offense down by any means, but it will do enough to stay alive and get to Arlington, Texas.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

 

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

In the middle of the season, this destination seemed improbable at best for Ohio State and even Alabama. But here they are, two of college football's powerhouses gearing up for a date in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.

The Crimson Tide's season doesn't nearly match up to Ohio State's in that regard, though. The Buckeyes lost two star quarterbacks throughout the season, fell 35-21 at home to Virginia Tech and still found a way to rattle off 11 straight wins—including a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin that got them over the hump.

His team's resolve hasn't been lost on Urban Meyer, who gave a striking superlative to his team, per ESPN College Football:

Don't forget how impossible the Crimson Tide's championship hopes looked at times, too. They had to battle back all season after a loss at Ole Miss, and their hopes looked all but dead at times against LSU and Auburn.

Alabama's offensive resurgence has been perhaps the biggest reason that they're still around, and it will prove huge again versus a stout Ohio State defense featuring Joey Bosa and Joshua Perry. 

Offensive success should be expected from Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and Co., but the big X-factor is Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones. He was magnificent in his first start against Wisconsin, but Alabama's strong run defense means he won't be able to lean on Ezekiel Elliott quite the same.

Elliott's impact will be stalemated by Alabama up front, putting the onus on Jones to lead Ohio State to a win. He has the ability to, but it will prove an impossible task against a Crimson Tide defense smelling a trip to the national championship.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Odds and Predictions for Every Game

The first College Football Playoff is getting nearer and nearer, but dealing with the anticipation is only getting tougher by the minute.

Thankfully, the bowl season has officially begun, giving viewers some significant appetizers before New Year's Day brings the debut of the national semifinal system.

It's not really the fact of the matter that has excitement at a fever pitch, though.

Instead, it's the matchups. Top-ranked Alabama goes up against Ohio State in a battle of college football blue bloods, while the last two Heisman Trophy winners do battle in Oregon vs. Florida State in the Rose Bowl.

CFB Playoff is ready, as they tweeted out the uniforms each team will be wearing on New Year's Day:

The holidays and other bowl games will help take some of the attention away from the CFP over the coming days, but three early-January battles will soon decide this year's national champion. 

Let's take a look at predictions and odds for both of the semifinals and a championship pick.

 

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 20 

 

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

Ohio State won the furious race for the final CFP spot, and the Buckeyes were awarded the prize of facing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Maybe that's not much of a Christmas present, but Urban Meyer's squad figures to be up for the challenge. After bouncing back from an early-season gaffe against Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes have won 11 straight games—including a 59-0 beating of Wisconsin as underdogs in the Big Ten title game.

Ohio State's defense is among the most underrated units in football, but what will Meyer get from Cardale Jones? The once third-stringer now starts at quarterback, and the jury is still out despite his great performance against the Badgers.

He knows the test he's facing on New Year's Day will be as tough as can be, per Ohio State athletics:

Jones got some serious help from Ezekiel Elliott in that Wisconsin game, as he rushed for over 200 yards. Don't expect a repeat performance against an Alabama run defense that blows over offensive lines en route to rushers.

The Crimson Tide are all but expected to find some answers offensively, with Blake Sims making quick passes and downhill run plays to thwart the Buckeyes' strength in rushing the passer. Ohio State will struggle at first but find a way to string together stops and give Jones the ball in favorable spots.

He'll play admirably in leading the Buckeyes close, but he will have to play the game of his life to overcome Alabama—and even that might not be enough. The Tide secondary will be susceptible to some big plays but will keep Jones in check during crunch time to advance.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

 

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

The two best quarterbacks in college football—and perhaps best players overall—will go at it in the Rose Bowl, as Marcus Mariota leads Oregon into a semifinal against Jameis Winston's Florida State Seminoles.

It's a battle of the last two Heisman Trophy winners, as well, after Mariota took this year's trophy following Winston's historic 2013 season. But if Mariota wants to add a championship to it like Winston, he'll have to go through that very same person.

Both quarterbacks have showcased their leadership abilities and clutch gene throughout the year, but there is one striking difference: Mariota has thrown two interceptions this year to Winston's 17, as ESPN College Football expanded upon:

The game will inevitably come down to which team is more complete, and that's undoubtedly Oregon.

The Ducks have been blowing out every opponent they have faced since an early-season loss at home to Arizona, utilizing a fast defense and that same high-octane offense to big success. Unlike in previous seasons, when late blunders would cost them everything, Oregon peaked to close out 2014.

Florida State's ability isn't lost despite a handful of ugly victories this season, but it's hard to imagine the Seminoles making those winning plays against a team like Oregon. The Ducks will take advantage of every opportunity the Noles give them early, and it will be too late before Winston can rally them back.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

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