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Texas Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Arkansas vs. Texas

Arkansas 24, Texas 7—3rd Quarter

The Hogs begin the second half with a big lead, riding Brandon Allen's two touchdowns and a freakish showing by Trey Flowers to a 17-point cushion.

You can catch tonight's game over on ESPN, and be sure to follow this page throughout the action for live commentary and highlights of what's sure to be a physical battle. You can also check out the updated box score at NCAA.com.

Stick around after the action for grades of the positional units for both the Razorbacks and Longhorns.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Only Depth Can Keep Trojans out of Playoff Contention

The USC Trojans beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl on Saturday night, outlasting the Cornhuskers 45-42 in one of the most highly contested games so far this bowl season. 

It capped off Steve Sarkisian’s tumultuous first season as the USC head coach.  The Trojans showed signs of brilliance, particularly on offense, but they had a hard time finishing games.  They lost a close game to Boston College for their first defeat of the season, and then they lost to Arizona State and Utah on last-second touchdowns.

In both of those games, the Trojans had the victory in their sights, but they found a way to lose.  A big reason for their inability to close out games is the fact that they are still suffering from the sanctions imposed from the Reggie Bush antics.  The biggest pain has come from the scholarship reductions.

USC has only been allowed 65 scholarships while other programs around the country have access to 85.  While this number might not seem too devastating, it is.  They do not have the depth necessary to rotate defensive lineman, which is vital to slow down the up-tempo offenses that are sprouting up around the nation (especially in the Pac-12).

The lack of scholarships even comes back to haunt the Trojans in practice, when the team doesn’t have enough backup players to give the starters a challenge during the week.  The first-string players can’t reach their full potential because they don’t get the kind of competition during practice that other programs around the country do.

However, the scholarship reductions end after this season.  The Trojans will bring a solid recruiting class to Southern California this year, as their class ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 and eighth in the nation, according to 247Sports.com.

The members of the 2015 class will infuse even more talent into a USC roster that is already filled with it—especially on offense. 

The trio of Cody Kessler, Javorius “Buck” Allen and Nelson Agholor gives the Trojans three of the best players in all of college football at their respective positions.  That is, if they all return to USC for their senior season.  All three are potential NFL prospects, and two of the players are still undecided about their future.

The Trojans will surely be without star defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who announced on Monday morning he would forego his senior season and declare for the NFL draft.

Kessler has already announced he will be back in 2015, but Allen and Agholor are still mulling over their options, according to Reign of Troy.

Yet even if Allen and Agholor are playing in the NFL once next season rolls around, the Trojans shouldn’t have any trouble scoring points. 

Kessler tied the USC and Pac-12 single-season record for touchdown passes with 39, and he could throw for even more next year.  He will have an abundance of weapons at his disposal.  Tre Madden will return to USC after he was shut down in October due to a turf toe injury.  Madden started the year ahead of Allen on the depth chart, but he never played in a game because of his injury.

Madden rushed for over 700 yards and better than five yards per carry in 2013, so he should be a competent option to replace Allen if he does decide to go pro.  And even if Allen stays, Sarkisian will find a way to get Madden the ball because he is a dynamic player.

The USC team is going to be stocked with explosive playmakers.  True freshmen JuJu Smith and Adoree’ Jackson are ultra-talented receivers who showcased their skills in the Holiday Bowl.  Each averaged better than 22 yards per reception, and Jackson scored two touchdowns (one on a kickoff return and one on a short swing pass that he turned into a 71-yard score).

Jackson played both ways this season—he was the starting cornerback as well as a receiver—and it will be interesting to see if he gets more touches on offense in 2015.

Tight end Bryce Dixon, also a freshman, played arguably his best game of the season against Nebraska, snagging four passes for 44 yards and a touchdown.  Starter Randall Telfer will graduate after this year, and Dixon should be able to take over as the starting tight end next year.

Running back Justin Davis also put together an impressive freshman campaign in 2014.  He was the Trojans’ second leading rusher with 595 yards and four touchdowns, and he also caught 13 passes out of the backfield with two receiving touchdowns.

And then there’s George Farmer, who might have the most ability of anyone on the team.  A former five-star recruit from Junipero Serra, the same high school attended by former Trojan All-American receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Farmer has had a rough college career so far.

In an insightful Sports Illustrated article by Joan Niesen, it was revealed that Farmer was more physically talented coming out of high school than both Woods and Lee.

“To put it simply, Farmer was the best of the three,” Niesen wrote.  “The 6’1” receiver had every physical advantage, from blazing speed to his 220-pound frame.  His gifts were varied, yet they worked in perfect sync.”

Unfortunately, Farmer has battled various injuries throughout his collegiate career.  He caught 25 passes for 314 yards in 2014, and if he is healthy in his senior season, he could easily replace Agholor as Kessler’s go-to receiver.  And if Agholor stays, the receiving corps will be scary.

Couple the wealth of talent with the innovative offensive mind of Steve Sarkisian, and USC could very easily overtake Oregon as the offensive juggernaut of the Pac-12.

Sarkisian hasn't been bashful about sharing his optimism, especially about Kessler's return.

"I really think Cody will take off in this system.  We have a chance to be a very, very good offensive football team next year, and a big part of that is Cody coming back," Sarkisian said, per Michael Lev of The Orange County Register.

But before crowning them as 2015 champions, be cognizant of the fact that the Trojans faced an eerily similar situation before the 2012 season.  Matt Barkley decided to return for his senior year, and he was supposed to lead USC to a national title with Lee, Woods, Agholor and Silas Redd putting up big numbers.

That team went 7-6 and looked nothing like the championship-caliber team they were touted as at the beginning of the season.  They are the only program in NCAA history to start as the top-ranked team in the preseason poll and finish the season unranked.

However, Sarkisian is a much better head coach than Lane Kiffin was, and Sark should be able to manage the players much better than Kiffin did.

With that said, the Trojans have the talent to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff next season.  They have a very tough schedule, including Stanford, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA, but with the playmakers they have, they can win plenty of games—even against top competition.

Even with the scholarship reductions gone, it is going to take a couple of recruiting classes to replenish the depth necessary to compete for a playoff spot.  If this year’s haul is any indication, Sarkisian will have no problem bringing the top prep talent to Southern Cal. 

If the coaching staff can somehow find a way to put together a capable defense, the Trojans will definitely have the offensive firepower needed to win a national championship in 2015.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Only Depth Can Keep Trojans out of Playoff Contention

The USC Trojans beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl on Saturday night, outlasting the Cornhuskers 45-42 in one of the most highly contested games so far this bowl season...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

West Virginia QB Skyler Howard Could Be Dangerous Big 12 Threat in 2015

Much like a savvy investor can spot the treasure amid the trash in a discarded storage unit, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen knows he's got some valuable items in his possession in the form of quarterback Skyler Howard. The key is figuring out whether the reward is worth the risk.

Making his second career start—and only third real appearance—the sophomore followed up a first half full of hope with a final 30 minutes that showed how much he has to learn before he can be considered the best option for West Virginia's offense. Put it all together, and you can understand why Holgorsen doesn't have much hair on top.

Howard threw for 195 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-19 passing in the first half of Monday's 45-37 loss to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl. But after halftime, he was just 9-of-26 for 151 yards and a score, repeatedly overthrowing open receivers or slinging it far too hard when a softer throw would have done the trick.

In fact, when Howard went to the touch pass, getting some air under the ball, he was near-perfect. But when he tried to show off his arm strength, the Mountaineers' lack of nine-foot-tall receivers made it an unwise move.

Playing like a jacked-up youngster on a stage far bigger than anything he'd dealt with before, Howard showed a combination of swagger and stumbles that could make him either an intriguing breakout star or a potential bust in 2015. A lot will depend on how he—and Holgorsen—uses what happened against Texas A&M to factor into next season's plans.

When he was rolling early, Howard was showing off a level of swagger that hearkened back to another unheralded, Texas-bred quarterback who played with fire and flair. He even broke out the Johnny Manziel "money" sign after a touchdown pass, and he also jawed with Texas A&M players after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit on a rollout.

But when the passes kept sailing, and Howard's running ability failed to produce—the dual-threat quarterback had only 33 yards on 10 carries, with a long of 18 yards—the early success quickly turned into growing pains. Howard completed only two of his first 15 second-half passes, during which West Virginia went from trailing 28-27 to going down 45-30.

Holgorsen stuck with him though, and Howard kept heaving it. He completed four passes of 40-plus yards, including a 47-yard toss to Shelton Gibson in the fourth quarter, and ultimately finished with 346 yards on 20-of-45 passing with three TDs and no interceptions.

Howard took a winding path to get to West Virginia. An overlooked high school standout from Fort Worth, Texas, he spent a semester at FCS Stephen F. Austin before moving to Riverside City College in California.

He threw for 3,151 yards and 33 touchdowns and also ran for five scores, yet according to 247Sports his only offers after that performance (besides West Virginia) were from San Diego State, New Mexico State and FCS school Northern Colorado.

He wasn't expected to be part of West Virginia's immediate plans before the season began, not with senior Clint Trickett asserting himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the country. Yet Howard ended up being second on the depth chart ahead of senior Paul Millard and freshman William Crest—though he only got into one of the first 10 games.

"I'm on this team to play my role, whatever that is, whatever [the coaches] decide," Howard told Bob Hertzel of the Times West Virginian in November. "I'll be the best backup we have or I'll be the best starter we have."

Then Trickett suffered a concussion against Kansas State, and Howard was quickly thrust into the job. He threw for 198 yards and two TDs in relief, then followed that up with 285 yards and three TDs in a win at Iowa State in the regular-season finale.

Trickett seemed poised to take back his job for the bowl game, but then the surprise news that he was retiring from football as the result of five concussions in 14 months meant Howard was back in the spotlight. After how he fared Monday, though, he's in no way a sure bet to be West Virginia's starter next season.

Other Big 12 teams have put huge stock in what their quarterbacks have done in bowl games recently, only to see that all-eggs-in-one-basket approach blow up in their face.

Last season, following a huge performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma's Trevor Knight was anointed as an early Heisman candidate, but he never came close to looking like that this fall. Backup Blake Bell had been converted to a tight end by then, and after Knight got hurt the Sooners had to turn to ill-prepared freshman Cody Thomas.

And Texas Tech seemed to have no problem with a mass exodus of passers after Davis Webb tore up Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Then Webb went out and threw 13 interceptions in eight games and also got replaced by a freshman after being injured.

With that in mind, Howard's struggles Monday might be the best thing that could have happened for him—and for the Mountaineers. If he had put forth a full game of superior plays, he might have headed into 2015 with an offseason of hype that figures to get tempered by a hellacious Big 12 schedule.

West Virginia plays at Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State next season. That's the kind of gauntlet that's best handled with some pre-existing humility, rather than a head swollen with overconfidence.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M vs. West Virginia: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Liberty Bowl

In one of the most explosive bowl games thus far of the 2014 college football season, Texas A&M took down West Virginia, 45-37, to win the Liberty Bowl.   

Texas A&M Football's official account provides a look at the final result and reaction from Memphis, Tennessee:

The Aggies' win was their fourth straight bowl victory, as ESPN Stats & Info notes:

Kyle Allen paced the Aggies, going 22-of-35 with 294 passing yards, five total touchdowns and just one interception. The freshman bounced back from the early pick to lead A&M to a huge win in a crucial game.

His performance was good enough to tie a Liberty Bowl record, via ESPN Stats & Info:

Coming into the contest, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin talked about not putting pressure on the young signal-caller, via Kevin O'Connor of WTAW:

All I can do is talk about our team and I think that Kyle has been very, very solid since he’s started. I think that what we’re looking for tomorrow is more consistency, not just out of our team but out of the other ten people on the field offensively. There’s no secret that I keep putting the pressure not on our quarterback, but on our other guys.

From the start of the game, Allen came out ready to play as evidenced by an early touchdown. He found Josh Reynolds down the field for a 44-yard touchdown to open up the scoring in the first quarter. 

Just a year after Mike Evans broke the Texas A&M record with 12 touchdown receptions, Reynolds broke that mark with his 13th on Monday afternoon. SportsCenter passes along video of the huge touchdown and the significance for Reynolds:

The next scoring drive was a notable one as a targeting penalty on Howard Matthews moved West Virginia down the field. After a huge hit on a defenseless receiver, Matthews was ejected and the Mountaineers went on to chip away at the lead with a field goal.

CBS Sports breaks down the play and result for WVU:

The Mountaineers had two touchdowns on offense and another on an interception return before the half, but Allen led the Aggies to a 28-27 lead heading into the locker rooms.

However, the biggest story of the first half wasn't about anything in between the lines, but rather what happened on the sidelines. Texas A&M student assistant Mike Richardson was seen physically contacting WVU players on the sidelines, as Pat McAfee of the Indianapolis Colts shared on Instagram:

Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com provides video of a different play and noted Richardson would not return for the second half:

Mark Passwaters of Rivals.com offered his thoughts on the situation:

In the second half, the Aggies put any distractions from Richardson behind them and jumped out to a 15-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. That was thanks, in large part, to Allen leading the way again through the air while Trey Williams broke off some huge runs.

Williams finished with a receiving and rushing touchdown, but his 18-yard scamper in the third quarter was a thing of beauty. College GameDay gives a look at the highlight of the physical run:

Even with a two-score lead heading into the fourth, the Aggies were unable to completely put away the Mountaineers. Skyler Howard threw for his third touchdown to Elijah Wellman with just over two minutes remaining, but A&M was able to run down the clock on the final drive.

By virtue of the win, A&M comes away with eight wins and yet another solid season. There were certainly some struggles along the way and a huge change under center, but the Aggies look like a program on the rise again under Kevin Sumlin.

A loss puts a damper on the end of the year for West Virginia, but it still comes away with a winning season. With plenty of young talent still in the fold and even more on the way, the Mountaineers have a chance to return to another notable bowl next season.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Kyle Allen Proves He Is the Future for Texas A&M in Liberty Bowl Win

Freshman Kyle Allen was brought to Texas A&M to be the quarterback of the future for head coach Kevin Sumlin, after former superstar and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel moved on to the NFL.

The future is now, and Allen proved it in the 45-37 AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over West Virginia on Monday afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee.

Allen completed 22-of-35 passes for 294 yards, four touchdowns, one interception and made several key throws that kept the chains moving and the Aggies in the game in a high-scoring first half that featured 55 combined points.

On top of that, Allen added 33 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground while showing enough elusiveness to make him a threat.

Is he Manziel? No. Nobody is.

But he can turn the jets on when needed, which is an important attribute in Sumlin's offense, as B/R national lead writer Ben Kercheval notes:

Yes, it was against a West Virginia defense that isn't exactly a replica of the 1985 Chicago Bears. If it's comparable to anything, it's to the 2014 Atlanta Falcons.

But Allen sliced and diced the Mountaineers, which is a good sign of things to come for himself and the Aggies offense, as ESPN.com's San Khan, Jr. notes:

Make no mistake, offense was a problem in College Station coming into this matchup.

Allen looked sluggish in his first career start against Louisiana-Monroe before going on the road and ending Auburn's College Football Playoff dreams. Since then, though, it's been a rocky road for the Scottsdale, Arizona native. 

He lost two straight (to Missouri and LSU), looked confused on Thanksgiving night and far from the gunslinger he was brought to College Station to be.

It was understandable. 

After Kenny Hill's struggles, Allen was tossed into the fire as Texas A&M's starting quarterback with very few first-team practice reps under his belt. He got those during bowl practice, and it showed.

Allen had poise in the pocket, spread passes around to nine different receivers and had full command of the offense for the first time since his masterpiece on the Plains.

For A&M, that's a huge sign moving forward.

The defense is a problem, and that will be addressed when Sumlin hires a new defensive coordinator. The offense—his bread and butter—needed confidence, and it now has it.

The pieces are already in place for A&M's offense to thrive. Allen will be a sophomore next year; only one player who caught 10 or more passes this season is a senior (Malcome Kennedy) and none of Texas A&M's running backs are seniors.

The only missing piece of the puzzle is consistency, and Sumlin knows that's the next step this offseason for Allen and the Aggies (via: TexAgs.com's Twitter account):

Allen is set up to be a superstar and has the coaching and supporting cast to make him one next year.

His Liberty Bowl performance was just the appetizer.

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Under Armour, Army All-American Bowl 2015: Tracking Top Practice Performers

This week presents the final audition for college football's future stars. Premier members of the 2015 recruiting class have an opportunity to cap off outstanding high school careers during nationally televised matchups in the Under Armour All-America Game and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

Action kicks off Friday in St. Petersburg, Florida, home of an Under Armour showdown that once starred Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jadeveon Clowney. The focus will then shift to San Antonio on Saturday for the All-American Bowl, which features an alumni list that includes Reggie Bush, Teddy Bridgewater and Odell Beckham. 

Practice sessions are now underway at both events. Here's our updated look at prospects who've shined.

 

Monday, Dec. 29

4-star wide receiver Trent Irwin (Newhall, California) - U.S. Army All-American Bowl

The Hart High School standout set career records in California for receptions and receiving yards. Irwin finished his prep run with 285 catches for 5,268 yards and 57 touchdowns, per MaxPreps.

Despite taking on the country's top defensive backs in San Antonio, he's still putting on a clinic:

He's repeatedly won battles in one-on-one settings Monday, including a matchup with 4-star Texas cornerback Kris Boyd, according to Rivals.com reporter Jason Howell:

Irwin is still considering offers from Arizona State and Stanford, with a decision looming after the All-American festivities. Brady White, his high school quarterback, is committed to the Sun Devils. 

 

5-star cornerback Iman Marshall (Long Beach, California) - Under Armour All-America Game

Marshall, rated the nation's No. 1 defensive back in 247Sports' composite rankings, aims to maintain that distinction on a game roster that features fellow 5-star coverage man Kevin Toliver II, an LSU pledge. The Long Beach Poly High School product didn't seem to let anyone down Monday.

JC Shurburtt of 247Sports caught up with an Under Armour coach following early action.

“(Marshall) has that tenacity like (Michigan freshman) Jabrill Peppers, but he moves around like (Florida All-American) Vernon Hargreaves III,” he told Shurburtt.

Marshall will look to continue proving his value while lining up across from top receivers, such as 5-star Florida State commit George Campbell:

 

4-star defensive end Canton Kaumatule (Honolulu, Hawaii) - Under Armour All-America Game

Island prospects may not always receive all the respect they deserve, but Kaumatule is doing his best to earn it. The mammoth 6'7", 290-pound defender dominated initial drills, showing off an expansive skill set for an athlete of his stature:

Rated fourth nationally among strong-side defensive ends in 247Sports' composite rankings, he appears ready to wreak havoc throughout his stay in Florida. The Oregon commit has quickly tuned the heads of onlooking analysts:

This event features an impressive list of elite offensive tackles, so keep an eye on trench confrontations as the week progresses. The bull's-eye on Kaumatule became larger Monday.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Blake Sims vs. Cardale Jones Is the Semifinal Battle No One Saw Coming

NEW ORLEANS—The two starting quarterbacks here for the Sugar Bowl could not be more different, and they could not be more the same.     

Ohio State's Cardale Jones is 6'5" and needs just a short step and short stroke of the arm to fling the ball 60 yards. Alabama's Blake Sims is 6" tall and his best passes are flash throws to the wings to receiver Amari Cooper.

On the other hand, both Jones and Sims were expected to be glued to the bench this season, not saviors of their program's national championship hopes. Jones was recruited by the previous coaching regime at Ohio State and was knocked back to second team last August behind J.T. Barrett. Sims was miserable in the 2014 Alabama spring game (13-for-30 with two interceptions). FSU transfer Jacob Coker, even coming off knee surgery, was expected to roll in and rescue 'Bama, post A.J. McCarron.

Now, here they are. They will not be just bit players in Thursday night's national semifinal, but vital contributors. Alabama's run defense will likely force Ohio State to become a passing team with Jones. Sims, meanwhile, will have to get the ball in the hands of the Tide's best playmaker, Cooper, against a game plan Ohio State has spent three weeks scheming.

Jones is on the marquee not only because Barrett broke his ankle in the last regular season game against Michigan, but also because he played well in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Sims is on the marquee not only because Coker was not ready for the starting role, but also because Sims set Alabama's single-season total offense record (3,571 yards).

Supposed to be backups, Jones was the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game, Sims was the MVP of the SEC Championship Game.

What's spectacular about this matchup is this is the day and age where quarterbacks flee one program for another at the first hint they are not going to be The Man. Sims and Jones did not put wheels on their careers and instead stuffed their egos inside their pockets.

"Far," Jones said when asked this week how close he was to transferring from Ohio State because Barrett was the starter and another injured star quarterback, Braxton Miller, had eligibility remaining.

Jones has talked this week about the pride of playing for his state school. He gave no hint he would bolt the program next spring if Barrett comes back from his broken ankle and wins the job.

Lane Kiffin, the Alabama offensive coordinator, said he asked Sims in the summer if he was worried about all the speculation about the 6'5" Coker taking the job. Sims told Kiffin, "Coach, I'm not worried about that." The fifth-year senior behaves as if he is directly descended from a Crimson Tide bloodline and not from north Georgia.

Sims obviously did not languish on the bench at Alabama. He made an attempt to grow while he watched McCarron quarterback the Tide to two national championships.

"I just pretty much tried to learn from what A.J. taught me and what A.J. did, and what I saw from A.J. The way he studied the plays; the way he was humble; the way he kept his composure at all times; the way he was a game manager," Sims said. "He did a great job of that, and I tried to bring that into this year."

Jones is 22 years old. Sims is 22. They are first-year starting quarterbacks, but among the oldest players on their teams.

What is key about Thursday night's game is seeing which quarterback handles 3rd-and-8 the best. On paper, this is not the pet down-and-distance for these two quarterbacks. Alabama led the SEC in third-down conversion (54.1 percent), but part of that was a function of Sims keeping his team in manageable 3rd-and-short. Jones, meanwhile, is a downfield passer, like way downfield. Can he make the medium toss in the middle of the field? Alabama does not allow swing passes on third down to get 8 yards.

These are two quarterbacks to cheer for Thursday night because of their patience. Jones had a challenging upbringing in Cleveland, agreed to be tucked away at a military prep school, and then red-shirted by Meyer. Sims hung around the Alabama program for four years looking for a position to call home and never complained.

Six months ago, it would have been unimaginable they would share the stage in one of the biggest games of the 2014 college football season. Yet, here they are.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Redeemed Lane Kiffin Is College Football's Hottest Coach, Again

NEW ORLEANS—Lane Kiffin is no longer a circus act. He is a football coach.

Nicknamed the Boy Blunder at Tennessee for misdeeds and misspeaking, rudely fired by Southern Cal on the tarmac of an airport, Kiffin has been laundered at Alabama by the stony Nick Saban. He has been rinsed and he is in the spin cycle.    

"I should pay him for this opportunity," Kiffin said Saban, who hired his offensive coordinator last January when Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan.

Now look at him.

Kiffin has taken a 6-foot tall quarterback, a very good college wide receiver and a pretty good offensive line and showed just how tactical and skilled he is as a football coach.

Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior, was a castaway on the depth chart, moving from running back to wide receiver and forever tagged for the scout team. Playing for Kiffin, the coach he has wanted to play for since he was recruiting him at Tennessee, Sims threw for a school-record 3,250 yards in 2014 and has Alabama in the national semifinals.

Amari Cooper, a wide receiver, has caught 115 passes and become an All-American in a program that typically produces All-American running backs (Julio Jones notwithstanding). Kiffin's play design moved Cooper around and prevented opponents from getting their hands on him or doubling him. Kiffin's scheme, in most games, was too sophisticated for other college coaches.

More than anything, Kiffin opened a window for Saban into the modern era of the game and speedball football. Saban frowned on the hurry-up offense before this season, but he and Kiffin discovered that Sims thrived in it, and they turned it into a weapon.

Saban wanted to be more explosive on offense, to keep up with Auburn and Texas A&M, and Kiffin made it happen.

These days, Kiffin is being labeled Boy Wonder, not Boy Blunder. He has status again, thanks to Saban and the genius for offense that never went away.

"It's humbling," said Kiffin who expects to be back at Alabama next season, probably with a raise over the $680,000 he reportedly makes this season.

On Monday, in a required interview session for the media before the Sugar Bowl, Kiffin was briefly a circus act again, but for just 40 minutes in two sessions. Media crowded around him three deep at one table. In another session, cameras and lights were in full motion and glare. Reporters stood four deep to get a measure of him.

There were some brief moments when the wise-guy 'Kif' showed up with some quips, but mostly he responded to questions in the manner of his tie. Pulled up tight and straight.

Kiffin always had it in him. When he got to Tennessee as head coach in 2009, he took the Vols offense from 268 yards a game to 383 yards a game. But all that good work was obscured by hijinks in recruiting, a feud with Florida coach Urban Meyer and his dastardly departure from UT in the middle of the recruiting season for Southern Cal.

After Kiffin got fired by USC, he was radioactive.

"I got fired. I was an unemployed coach. The phone wasn't ringing," Kiffin said. "(Saban) called and took a chance. It wasn't going to be a popular choice with the media."

Saban could care less what the media thinks, so Kiffin was in good hands. One of the rules working with Saban is that there is "one voice" for the program; assistant coaches do not give interviews.

It was perfect for Kiffin. He would coach, and only coach. He could put away the standup act.

"I just always took the approach—and it haunted me at times, especially when you lose when everything gets magnified—is I was just going to say whatever's on my mind," Kiffin said. "It wasn't going to be coach-speak, and I wasn't going to go up there and say what every other coach gets up and says, because that's not what you guys want to hear. So I'd answer questions exactly what I was thinking, as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you."

There is a perception that Saban has drained some of the fun from the job, but Kiffin still has a needle and can be a quipster.

Kiffin remembers his trip back to Knoxville in October and the shower of boos. They were walking together. "(Saban) made a joke one time on how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that."

He was asked this question: How would you characterize your relationship with Saban? Is it like father/son, like older brother/younger brother or crazy uncle/immature nephew?

"You're really trying to get me to make SportsCenter today," Kiffin said. "That's the third question you've set me up with."

He was reminded that he is viewed as a "divisive" guy in the college football industry, and Kiffin said, "God, this (interview) was going so well."

Kiffin has proved some people wrong about his tactics and worthiness as a college football coach. That's on the field. Off the field, well, we'll see how much he has grown when he is hired as a head coach in 2016. He will not go back to the NFL—he almost said as much here Monday—but Kiffin will be hired because 1) he can coach 2) he will have been redeemed 3) the trend is to hire an offensive guy and have him bring a wing man.

If I had to guess, I would lay odds on Miami. Al Golden has another year to get things right there and it is going to be uphill. Can Miami, with all its history of rule-bending, afford to hire Kiffin? People wondered if it was the right move for Alabama. It was.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Duke Williams out for Outback Bowl Hurts Auburn, but His Return in 2015 Is Huge

Gus Malzahn delivered some good news and bad news Monday morning in Tampa.

In expected fashion, the bad news came first.

"Duke Williams will not play," Malzahn said at an Outback Bowl joint press conference with Wisconsin bowl coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black. "He has been suspended for breaking team rules."

The junior wide receiver's status had been up in the air after he did not practice during the Tigers' bowl preparations in Auburn and arrived late to Tampa over the weekend.

But, in his next sentence, Malzahn delivered good news on Williams' status past the Outback Bowl.

"He is planning on coming back next year," Malzahn said, per Black. "That's the reason he's here."

As Auburn's leading receiver and one of the SEC's best wideouts in the 2014 season, Williams had flirted with declaring for the NFL draft after just one year on the Plains.

On Monday afternoon, Williams made it clear where he will be in 2015:

Williams' suspension, which Malzahn refused to comment further on Monday, will be a solid blow to Auburn's offense against Wisconsin.

The Tigers are coming off their best offensive performance of the season against No. 1 Alabama, thanks in part to Williams' play. 

Quarterback Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards and three touchdowns against the Crimson Tide, and while Williams didn't score in Tuscaloosa, his presence opened up one-on-one opportunities for vertical threat Sammie Coates.

For the majority of the 2014 season, the former junior college star was the intermediate-route threat Marshall was missing in 2013, and Williams pulled off spectacular catch after spectacular catch for his new team.

When Williams missed the Georgia and Samford games with a leg injury, the Tigers offense was held to fewer than 200 passing yards and only had one touchdown through the air.

In the Outback Bowl, Auburn will face one of the nation's stiffest past defenses in Wisconsin without the talents of its No. 1 target:

However, Malzahn said he was confident the Tigers would be able to move the ball against the Badgers without Williams.

"We've got some veteran guys that we can move around," Malzahn said, per Black. "Ricardo Louis, C.J [Uzomah], Melvin [Ray], they all three will have a role in taking his place... We have guys we feel very good about that are veteran guys that have made plays for us the last two years. We have a plan and we feel good about it."

While he will be held out of the game due to the suspension, Williams still traveled down to Tampa and returned to practice Sunday—so he could help Auburn's defense prepare for Wisconsin's passing game.

"I thought it was important that he's on the scout team," Malzahn said. "He's acting as Wisconsin's top receiver. So I felt like that was the right thing to do."

After the New Year's Day bowl, Williams will turn his attention to directly helping Auburn win games and contend for championships in 2015.

While the NFL-bound Coates and senior Quan Bray are playing in their final collegiate games against Wisconsin, Auburn's receiving corps will not lose all three of its starters for next season thanks to Williams' return.

Instead of rebuilding its entire passing game with a new starting quarterback and three new starting receivers, Williams will be a preseason All-SEC candidate who could make sure the Tigers' passing game keeps improving under Malzahn.

"Duke opens it more for everybody, because he tends to make big plays when big plays are needed," Bray said earlier this season.

Not only was Williams the Tigers' top receiver in 2014, he could make the claim as the Tigers' best receiver over the last few seasons.

Williams was the first Auburn receiver to average more than 70 yards per game since Darvin Adams in 2009, and his 45 catches are the most in a single season for an Auburn receiver since Emory Blake in 2011.

His season of experience and top-level talent through the air gives Auburn's offense an extra layer of security in what will be an offseason of transition.

And with more of a pass-first quarterback destined to take control of the offense in 2015, Williams just might make the Tigers a national title contender once again.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Is Alabama or Auburn Best Fit for 4-Star OT Chidi Valentine-Okeke?

One of the most intriguing prospects in the 2015 class is 4-star offensive lineman Chidi Valentine-Okeke.

According to Ryan Bartow of 247Sports (subscription required), Alabama and Auburn are now tied at the top for his services.

“Both recruiting me so hard,” Valentine-Okeke told Bartow. “Both really want me. It’s 50-50.”

The 6’6”, 305-pounder—who was originally a member of the 2016 class until he was reclassified earlier this year—was previously thought be to favoring Georgia.

The door opened for the Tide and the Tigers when former Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left for the head coaching job at Colorado State and took offensive line coach Will Friend with him.

Which of the heated in-state rivals presents the best fit for the nation’s No. 12-ranked offensive tackle prospect?

 

Alabama

The resume of Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has gotten Valentine-Okeke's attention.

“He’s a nice coach,” he told Bartow. “I learned a lot from him at summer camp. He does a great job of putting guys in the first round.”

As noted by Tim Watts of BamaOnline (subscription required), from a measurable standpoint, Valentine-Okeke is a physical freak who would fit in well at a place such as Alabama.

A critical part of Nick Saban’s top-rated recruiting class is the group of five offensive linemen he and his staff have been able to land commitments from.

However, the only one who is listed as a tackle is recent 3-star pledge Matt Womack.

Adding another athletic tackle with a tremendous upside would round out the Tide’s offensive line class.

The Tide are also losing three seniors off this year’s line unit, including right tackle Austin Shepherd.

While they have recruited the offensive line position well, Valentine-Okeke could work his way into the rotation early in his career if he makes a smooth transition to the next level.

 

Auburn

Gus Malzahn will have to replace a pair of starters along the interior of his offensive line in 2015.

However, left tackle Shon Coleman and right tackle Avery Young will be entering their junior year next fall. Malzahn and his staff will still need to look ahead to finding the eventual replacements at those spots moving forward.

Similarly to Alabama, three of the Tigers' four offensive linemen who are committed in the 2015 class are slated to play either guard or center during their college careers.

Adding a talent such as Valentine-Okeke would give them a chance to groom him and prepare him to take over one of the tackle spots as early as 2016.

His impressive frame and athleticism would be a great fit for an offensive line unit that puts a premium on being one of the most well-conditioned outfits in the country.

 

Best Fit

In terms of physical talent, Valentine-Okeke is a player who would fit in at nearly every school in the country.

Both Alabama and Auburn have produced their share of standout offensive linemen in recent years, so each school presents him with a chance to reach his full potential.

However, it’s the Tigers that get the slight nod because of the their scheme and a chance to see the field a bit quicker on the Plains.

 

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

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Russell Athletic Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Oklahoma vs. Clemson

Clemson 34, Oklahoma 0—Mid-3rd Quarter

The Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners have kicked off the Russell Athletic Bowl Bowl in Orlando, and both will look to end the season on a good note. The Sooners will get Trevor Knight back at quarterback, and he leads one of the best offenses in the country.

The Tigers will be without Deshaun Watson on offense, but their defense gives up only 17.6 points per game. Led by senior defensive end Vic Beasley, the Clemson defense will face one of its toughest challenges of the season.

The game can be seen on ESPN, but stay right here for live updates and analysis.

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Army All-American Bowl 2015: 5 Players to Watch

The U.S. Army All-American Bowl takes center stage Saturday afternoon in San Antonio, presenting a national platform for college football's premier prospects. This star-studded event has featured plenty of eventual NFL standouts, including Andrew Luck, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles.

The latest edition of a highly anticipated annual matchup supplies a heavy dose of talent from across the country. Here's a look at five players who provide some extra incentive to tune in Saturday.

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Texas A&M Staff Member Whacks West Virginia Player in the Helmet During Game

The 2014 AutoZone Liberty Bowl has been so chippy that even staff members are getting in on the act.

Late in the first half, a Texas A&M staff member gave West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley a shot to the helmet that didn't appear to be accidental. 

In other words, this Aggie had a Woody Hayes moment.

The Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman threw out the offender's name:

Oddly enough, the Texas A&M sideline was involved in another incident earlier in the game.


It looks like the Mountaineers won't have to worry about Richardson in the second half:

[Twitter]

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Notre Dame Football: Starting Malik Zaire vs. LSU Is Wise Move by Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly announced in mid-December that Notre Dame would rotate two quarterbacks—Everett Golson and Malik Zaire—in the Music City Bowl against LSU.

On Monday, however, he elaborated to say Zaire would make the first start of his career, displacing Golson after an up-and-down season in which he turned the ball over 22 times. 

Starting Zaire is a necessary risk for the Irish, who have to learn as much about their redshirt freshman as possible before next season.

No matter which QB started this game, there was going to be a position battle in spring and fall camp. If Golson returns, it will be between him and Zaire. If Golson declares for the NFL draft, it will be between Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush.

But Kelly and his staff already know what they need to know about Golson. He makes difficult throws look easy and easy throws look difficult. He has tremendous arm talent and played like a Heisman candidate in September and October. But he also has reckless tendencies and played like a third-stringer in November.

Zaire is the unknown alternative. He outplayed Golson in the 2014 spring game but couldn't win the job in fall camp. Golson earned the right to start by leading Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012—even though he missed the following season with an academic suspension—but Zaire is the better runner and has made great use of his time the past two seasons. He just needs to prove he can do it in a game.

"I want to challenge [Zaire] and put him in this kind of environment," Kelly told reporters, per Andrew Owens of 247Sports. He also said Zaire has "a greater understanding of what the team is doing offensively" after watching Golson play from the sidelines.

Zaire earned the first extended action of his career in the regular-season finale against USC, relieving Golson after Notre Dame fell behind 35-0. He promptly led a touchdown drive but finished the game just 9-of-20 passing with a QB rating of 116.4.

There's a difference, though, between starting a game and coming off the bench. The quarterback prepares differently. The defense prepares differently. Both entire teams prepare differently. This is his first genuine audition to win the starting job in 2015.

Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer thinks it was a long time coming:

Zaire will neither win nor lose the job against LSU. Golson has too high of a ceiling to get benched eight months before the season. If he returns, this QB battle will again last into August.

But in starting Zaire—and in doing so against one of the best pass defenses in college football—Kelly will give himself an important data point heading into the spring. How Zaire handles the spotlight will no longer be a hypothetical. The proof will play out on the field.

Notre Dame's offense can be great next season if it doesn't shoot itself in the foot.

Greg Bryant will be one year older and stronger at running back. Will Fuller will be one year older and stronger (unthinkable as that may be) at receiver. The offensive line should be solid once again.

The only thing it needs is a quarterback. Fortunately, there's a chance it has two. But a regular-season platoon would be sub-optimal. Kelly needs to pick one horse and back it unswervingly; but he can't make that pick until Zaire starts a real, live game.

That is why Zaire is starting Tuesday's real, live game.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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UCLA Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

Before he was the first-ever recipient of both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack was a high school participant in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

His West teammate in the 2013 prep All-America contest, Eddie Vanderdoes, is now his teammate at UCLA.

Both came to college with fanfare and became immediate, key contributors for the Bruins.

The next wave of impact newcomers for UCLA, like Jack and Vanderdoes, will be in action this weekend. The 2015 installment of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is set for Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, with the Under Armour All-America Game kicking off Friday at 4 p.m. ET.

UCLA has commits as well as prospects participating in both, any one of which could become the Bruins' next superstar.

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UCLA Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

Before he was the first-ever recipient of both the Pac -12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack was a high school participant in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl...

Begin Slideshow

Malik Zaire Named Starting QB for Notre Dame vs. LSU

After a disappointing end to the 2014 regular season, Notre Dame will look to sophomore Malik Zaire to lead the Fighting Irish in the Music City Bowl against LSU.    

Andrew Owens of Blue & Gold Illustrated passed along the news of the decision to start Zaire over Everett Golson:

Irish coach Brian Kelly offered more on the change under center, via Brian Hartnett of The Observer:

Zaire has not played much during his tenure with Notre Dame. He finished 9-of-20 with 170 passing yards, 18 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground against USC. That performance came after Golson had no touchdowns, one interception and negative-14 rushing yards in the finale.

Josh Norris of NBC Sports provided his take on what the move might mean for Golson:

Going against a tough LSU defense that ranks third in the country in points allowed per game (16.4), Zaire will be tested early in the Music City Bowl. Golson's experience might eventually help the Irish if he is given playing time, as Kelly announced he would.

Losing four out of the last five games after a strong start, it was clear change might be necessary. With Zaire now given his chance to lead the Irish, how he performs now might reveal what direction the program heads in the future.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Leonard Williams Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Arguably the best pure talent in the 2015 class, versatile USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams has declared for the NFL draft.   

According to the program: Williams announced that he will forego his senior season with the Trojans to being his pro career:

Time will tell if Williams ends up being the first player taken, but scouts have been raving about his potential for months.

In November, one NFL talent evaluator told Sam Farmer of The Los Angeles Times that Williams exceeded his expectations:

Before I went in there, I thought this guy had a lot of hype. When I saw him, I thought he is the real deal. He's got a great body, quick off the ball. He did have that shoulder surgery, so he's a little bit behind strength-wise, but he still has plenty of strength. He's got tremendous upside, and he's definitely a consideration for that top pick...

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports was asked on Twitter how Williams compared to Ndamukong Suh, who was taken second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2010:

Williams may not be in the same tier as Suh yet, the fact that the comparison to where they stood as pro prospects isn't outrageous tells you how talented the USC star is and how high the ceiling can climb. 

This era of the NFL, where quarterbacks and the passing game have taken over, finding a defensive lineman capable of getting after the passer is essential. The market has exploded in recent years with huge contracts for those kinds of players, like Suh presumably will this offseason and J.J. Watt did with Houston. 

While Williams has a long way to go before getting into the category of those players, his raw potential and performance at USC suggest that kind of impact is buried in there waiting to come out with time and experience. 

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Leonard Williams Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Arguably the best pure talent in the 2015 class, versatile USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams has declared for the NFL draft...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

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