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Heisman Watch 2014: Updated Race Predictions Following Rivalry Week

Rivalry week proved to be rather fruitful for Heisman contenders, as front-runners put on brilliant performances to further their cases for the coveted trophy. Although, in the end, there can be only one, and with the regular season in the books, speculating on that matter is a lot easier.

Heisman voters select their top three candidates with three points going to first place, two going to second and one going to third. Since that's the official selection method, it's fitting that these predictions also acknowledge a Big Three, so to speak.

However, before we get into the rankings, let's first take a glance at one honorable mention. Ohio State freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett put on a show this season, breaking all kinds of records en route to 45 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, his season ended Saturday due to a broken ankle, according to Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

We should all expect to see Barrett return to Heisman discussions when he's healthy next season. Now, on to the top three.

 

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

After what Cooper did in the Iron Bowl, it would be foolish to leave him out of the top three. He torched the Auburn defense for 224 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions, setting a new school record in the process.

Saturday marked the third time this season Cooper has gone over the 200-yard mark and his second with three total touchdowns. Needless to say, his performance garnered plenty of hype on Twitter. St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long tweeted a notable question:

Of course, the answer to that question is no. However, his season totals of 1,573 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns are incredibly impressive in the highly competitive SEC. It may not be good enough to take the Heisman, but it certainly gets him on the list.

 

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

Gordon continued his impressive streak Saturday, racking up 151 yards and a score on 29 carries and adding a touchdown reception for good measure. He's now up to an impressive 2,260 rushing yards on the season, putting him fourth on the FBS all-time list, according to SportsCenter:

Adding to his impressive resume, Gordon now has a total of 29 touchdowns (26 rushing, three receiving) in just 12 games. Of course, the running back's crowning achievement this season was his record-breaking 408-yard effort against Nebraska. While that record was broken a week later by Samaje Perine, let's also keep in mind Gordon was pulled early from that contest against the Cornhuskers.

Gordon will continue chasing Barry Sanders' all-time record in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State. He needs another huge day to get there, but he's certainly more than capable. This talented ball-carrier is well-positioned to be the Heisman runner-up.

 

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

So, the Heisman race between Gordon and Mariota was rather close heading into rivalry week. Gordon put on a show, and Mariota needed to one-up the running back. He did—in a big way.

Mariota torched Oregon State in the Civil War, completing 19 of his 25 passing attempts for 367 yards and four touchdowns and adding 39 rushing yards and two more scores. That's the first time this season he has tallied six total touchdowns. Oh, he also did this, via Brian Davies of The Register-Guard:

Adding to Mariota's legacy with the Ducks, he broke Matt Barkley's Pac-12 record for touchdowns responsible for, via ESPN Stats and Info:

What makes that record even more impressive is the fact Mariota did it in three years—it took Barkley four.

Here we have a quarterback who is extremely efficient, rarely throws interceptions and accounts for just less than 50 touchdowns in one season—all while leading his team to an 11-1 record, a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a potential spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Yeah, that's Heisman-worthy.

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SEC Championship 2014: Key Storylines to Watch in Alabama vs. Missouri

The SEC Championship Game might manage to draw a few eyeballs on Dec. 6.

When Alabama and Missouri meet to decide who will be crowned the SEC champion, there will be some serious College Football Playoff implications on the line. 

The Crimson Tide are looking to punch their ticket to a playoff berth. Nick Saban's team appears to be championship material once again, but it has to be proven on the field. 

Fans of chaos will be wearing their black and yellow, though. A win for Missouri could potentially send the playoff committee into complete chaos, as no SEC team would have fewer than two losses and college football's vaunted conference could be left without a horse in the race. 

Here's a look at the key storylines for when these two teams take the field in Atlanta. 

 

Can Maty Mauk Put Together a Complete Game?

It's fairly simple for Missouri. Maty Mauk must have a great game for Missouri to have a shot at upsetting the Tide in Atlanta. 

The Kenton, Ohio product has had an up-and-down season for the Tigers. His 22 touchdowns are among the best in the SEC this season, but his 11 interceptions are tied for most in the conference. However, he has shown a penchant for stepping up in the clutch. 

His fourth-quarter performances against Tennessee and Arkansas to close out the season have shown that, per David Morrison of the Coumbia Daily Tribune:

Of course, those numbers don't tell the whole story. For instance, in the game against Tennessee, things weren't going all that well for Mauk, as the SEC Network pointed out:

There is hope for Mauk to get the job done, though. Ole Miss' Bo Wallace has been equally inconsistent, and the Rebels quarterback was able to find the end zone three times and throw for 251 yards in the Crimson Tide's lone loss of the season. 

Nick Marshall's 456 passing yards in the Iron Bowl isn't exactly a bad omen for Mauk either. 

 

Can Missouri Slow Down Amari Cooper?

It's no secret that a key component to Alabama's game plan against the stingy Missouri defense will be feeding Amari Cooper. The star wideout is coming off an Iron Bowl performance in which he racked up 224 yards on 13 catches with three touchdowns. 

However, Missouri just might be the team that can slow him down. The Tigers secondary has allowed just two 100-yard receivers this season and are eighth in passing yards allowed per attempt in the country, per TeamRankings.com.

Missouri has the defense to slow the Alabama running game. The unit is surrendering just 3.4 yards per carry on the season. That means that Cooper's ability to stretch the defense vertically will be even more important to Lane Kiffin and Co. 

The Tigers have done a great job of bottling up explosive receivers thus far, but Cooper has proved time and time again he's in a league of his own. 

 

Which Defense Will Embrace the Big Stage?

Its no secret that both of these teams pride themselves on playing stout defense. Alabama might not have shown it against an explosive Auburn offense, but the Tide are once again one of the best defenses in the country. 

Over in the SEC East, the Tigers have utilized one of the top defensive lines in the country to great numbers. Here's a look at how the two units stack up:

The difference in this one might just be the offenses. With two great defenses on the field, it's likely going to come down to the team with the offense built to control the game. 

That would be Alabama. Between Amari Cooper's ability to open up things in the passing game and the treacherous duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, the Tide simply have too many options for the Tigers to consistently account for all of them. 

With a berth in the first College Football Playoff on the line, it's tough to envision the Bama defense not bouncing back emphatically after giving up 44 points to Auburn. 

Prediction: Alabama 27, Missouri 14

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Big Ten Championship Game 2014: TV Info, Prediction for Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Ohio State and Wisconsin secured berths in the Big Ten Championship game after a couple of hard-earned victories on Saturday.

The Badgers rode running back Melvin Gordon to a victory over Minnesota, with the Heisman hopeful shining in yet another brilliant performance. Unfortunately, Ohio State's win came at a big cost.

Electrifying Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a devastating ankle fracture against Michigan and will miss the remainder of the season, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

The loss is devastating, but Ohio State has a very well-rounded team and went on to defeat the Wolverines 42-28. Expect a compelling Big Ten title game despite the quarterback's absence.

As we impatiently await the return of these teams to the gridiron, let's take a look at the game's essential viewing information, followed by a preview and prediction  for this monumental Big Ten clash.

 

Viewing Information

When: Saturday, December 6

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana

Time: 8:17 p.m. ET

Channel: Fox

Live Stream: Fox Sports Go

 

Preview and Prediction

The Buckeyes are known for their potent offense, which features a dual-threat quarterback capable of making plays with both his arm and his legs. Though Barrett won't be playing in this contest, Ohio State still has that element in Cardale Jones.

The sophomore shined when he received playing time against Illinois earlier this season. Taking full advantage of his opportunity, Jones completed five of his nine passing attempts for 82 yards and two touchdowns, adding seven carries for 47 yards.

According to Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod, head coach Urban Meyer sure seems to have faith in the quarterback:

Jones will be accompanied in the backfield by running back Ezekiel Elliott, who carried 17 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan. Elliott has been extremely efficient this season, eclipsing the 100-yard mark each time he received at least 20 carries. He'll need to have a phenomenal game against a Badgers defense that has been fantastic against the run all season long.

Wisconsin has a completely different philosophy to Ohio State. While the Buckeyes are more of a high-octane squad, the Badgers run a ground-and-pound scheme that features Gordon, one of the season's top Heisman candidates.

According to College Football 24/7, Gordon's 151 yards on Saturday propelled him to fourth on college football's all-time rushing list:

Gordon is well over 2,000 yards on the season heading into the Big Ten title game. He's recorded at least 120 rushing yards and a touchdown in all but one game this season. The highlight of his year was a 408-yard, four-touchdown performance against Nebraska, which set a new FBS single-game record—though that was broken by Samaje Perine one week later.

No matter for Gordon, though. He has plenty of other records to his name, via theScore:

Wisconsin is stout in all areas on the defensive side of the ball. Heading into Saturday, the Badgers were ranked fourth in the nation against the run, third against the pass, fourth in scoring defense and second in total defense. That's about as good as it gets.

Ohio State is certainly a very talented team. However, Jones' inexperience will hurt the Buckeyes against a ferocious opposing defense on such a big stage. Wisconsin has the ability to keep the quarterback out of rhythm by sustaining long drives and then applying pressure on defense.

Jones would need to replicate what Barrett has done all season to give Ohio State a chance against a tough Badgers team, and that's highly unlikely.

Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 23

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of November 29.

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ACC Championship Game 2014: Bold Predictions for Florida State vs. Georgia Tech

The stage is set for the 2014 ACC Championship Game featuring the Florida State Seminoles and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Seminoles finished the regular season undefeated after surviving a scare from Florida. The Yellow Jackets defeated Georgia in the latest edition of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, as an overtime interception preserved a 30-24 win.

With both teams riding big waves of momentum, we should be in for quite a title game.

Will Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston lead his team to a 29th consecutive victory, or will the resilient Yellow Jackets earn their third straight win over a ranked opponent? As we await the answer to that quandary, let's take a look at some bold predictions for each team in the ACC Championship Game.

 

Bold Predictions: Florida State

Dalvin Cook Totals 200 Yards from Scrimmage, Touchdown

Cook has been phenomenal this season in a complementary role to Karlos Williams out of the Seminoles backfield. Although, whenever the freshman was given a chance to step up this season, he's answered the call. That situation played out Saturday, as Williams left the game with a concussion, via Zach Abolverdi of The Gainesville Sun:

Once Cook took the lead role, he simply went off. He carried 24 times for 144 yards—both season highs—and added two receptions for 28 yards. His breakaway speed and burst through the line of scrimmage were well on display, as he averaged an impressive 6.0 yards per carry.

Georgia Tech hasn't been overly stout against the run this season. The Yellow Jackets came into Saturday allowing 165.5 rushing yards per game and gave up a total of 194 yards to Nick Chubb and Co. in the regular-season finale.

Even if Williams does play in the championship game, expect Cook to see a slightly increased workload based on what he showed against Florida. With Winston struggling in the passing game, the Seminoles will lean on the run, and Cook will benefit.

 

Seminoles Hold Georgia Tech to 200 Yards of Offense

This is most certainly a bold prediction; however, when considering how one-dimensional the Georgia Tech offense is, it's not completely out of the question.

Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas isn't much of a passer. He's what many analysts consider a game-manager. In fact, he's thrown for less than 100 yards in five different games this season and completed more than eight passes just twice.

Georgia Tech relies very heavily on the running game to move the ball, as Thomas excels as a dual-threat quarterback and Zach Laskey has been the team's bell cow. That may be a trait that spoils the Yellow Jackets' ACC championship hopes, as Florida State has been solid against the run this season.

The Seminoles were allowing an average of just 3.75 yards per carry prior to Saturday's contest and allowed just 3.4 yards per rush to the Gators. That defensive effort allowed Winston to notch this statistic, via ESPN Stats and Info:

If Florida State keeps up that trend, it would take more than 40 carries for Georgia Tech to reach 150 yards on the ground. As long as the Seminoles don't allow any big passing plays over the top of the secondary, holding Georgia Tech to less than 200 yards will be within reach.

 

Bold Predictions: Georgia Tech

Yellow Jackets Pick off Jameis Winston Four Times

If this bold prediction comes to fruition, we could then call it a trend. After all, Winston produced one of the worst performances of his career on Saturday, completing just 12 of his 24 passing attempts for 125 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Winston has struggled with ball security this season, throwing at least one interception in nine of his 11 games. Saturday marked the fifth time this season the quarterback has tossed multiple picks in a single game.

Georgia Tech has been solid against the pass this season. The Yellow Jackets were allowing an average of 223.3 passing yards per game and limiting opponents to 12 touchdowns through the air coming into Saturday. They fared nicely against Hutson Mason, limiting Georgia's signal-caller to just 194 yards and one touchdown and picking him off to end the game.

That interception marked Georgia Tech's 17th of the season. The team has been accumulating picks in all sorts of ways this season. Here's a look back at one of its gems from a game against North Carolina State, via Bleacher Report:

This is one of the nation's best ball-hawking squads, and if Winston isn't careful, he could have another disastrous outing.

 

Georgia Tech Gets the Win, Ends Seminoles' Streak

When Florida State defeated Florida on Saturday evening, social media erupted with updates of the team's ongoing winning streak. Here's an example, via ESPN:

Well, this bold prediction has that streak coming to an end. After all, just how many times can the Seminoles come from behind to notch nail-biting victories? The team received big scares from Notre Dame, Miami and Boston College, but Saturday's contest against Florida was different.

Instead of Winston dominating the second half of the game like he's done so many times in the past, he continued to look mediocre, relying on the team's defense and running game to squeeze out the win. That's not a good sign against Georgia Tech, and here's why.

The Yellow Jackets are a versatile running team that is capable of sustaining drives and killing the clock. They have the ability to keep Winston on the sidelines, preventing him from getting into any kind of rhythm. If that's the case, expect the quarterback to start forcing balls downfield against this ball-hawking secondary. One errant pass in that situation could lead to an enormous upset victory for Georgia Tech.

 

All team statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of November 29.

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Pac-12 Championship Game: TV Info, Preview and Prediction for Oregon vs. Arizona

Even though Oregon had already secured a spot in the Pac-12 championship, the Ducks took care of business Saturday, handily defeating Oregon State in the Civil War. One day prior, the Arizona Wildcats held off Arizona State in the Duel in the Desert, earning a berth in the title game as well.

The Pac-12 always delivers exciting action on the gridiron, and its championship game could turn out to be one of the year's most intriguing contests. While Oregon has looked virtually unbeatable for the last couple of seasons, Arizona continues to give the Ducks fits, winning the last two meetings.

The Wildcats handed Oregon its only loss this season, winning 31-24 in Eugene. Since then, the Ducks have won seven straight, but Arizona dropped games against USC and UCLA. Can Anu Solomon and Co. get it done again, or will Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota be too much to overcome for a third consecutive time?

This will be one game you don't want to miss, so take a good look at all of its pertinent viewing information before these teams return to the field.

 

Viewing Information

When: Friday, December 5

Where: Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California

Time: 9 p.m. ET

Channel: Fox

Live Stream: Fox Sports Go

 

Preview and Prediction

If there's one thing we should all be able to agree on before this game takes place, it's that we shouldn't expect too much defense from either side. Both of these teams have accumulated wins due to their prolific offenses winning shootouts, and that trend is likely to continue in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

So, what do these offenses have to offer?

Mariota has been one of the nation's most efficient and prolific quarterbacks over the last couple of years. He's a favorite in the Heisman race and is considered to be one of the top options at No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL draft. However, ESPN Stats & Info tweeted this statistic:

What makes Mariota so special is his efficiency. He simply doesn't throw interceptions. While that aforementioned statistic is accurate regarding Mariota's struggles against Arizona, none of those interceptions came when these teams faced off earlier this season.

With a bevy of weapons at Mariota's disposal, Oregon should be able to take significant advantage of a porous Arizona defense that is allowing an average of 159.5 rushing yards per game and 275.2 passing yards per game and has allowed a total of 306 points this season.

Combating Mariota and Co. will be Arizona's Solomon. The freshman was on fire earlier in the season; however, his recent production has tapered off, as he's thrown two touchdown passes and two interceptions over his last three games.

Although, Solomon has been dealing with an ankle injury lately, according to Pac-12 Networks:

Apparently, he wasn't bothered too much by the ailment, completing 15 of his 21 passing attempts for 208 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona State. Those may not be overly gaudy numbers, but they don't need to be with the talented Nick Wilson in the backfield.

This season, Wilson carried 204 times for 1,263 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per rush, and 15 touchdowns. He finished the regular season on a high note, rushing for 178 yards and three scores against the Sun Devils. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports tweeted his thoughts on the ball-carrier during the contest:

Wilson was also instrumental in Arizona's win over Oregon earlier in the season, rushing for 92 yards and two touchdowns, adding one 34-yard touchdown reception.

Arizona's running game will be an enormous key to success in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Excessively running the ball against a Ducks team that struggles in that department will sustain long drives and keep Mariota on the sidelines.

History suggests we're in for a down-to-the-wire contest this time around. With both teams primed to score plenty of points, this one could certainly come down to who has the ball last. In this case, it's simply too difficult to pick against Mariota and a Ducks team on its way to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Prediction: Oregon 45, Arizona 42

 

All team statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of November 29.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pac-12 Championship Game: TV Info, Preview and Prediction for Oregon vs. Arizona

Even though Oregon had already secured a spot in the Pac -12 championship, the Ducks took care of business Saturday, handily defeating Oregon State in the Civil War...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Iron Bowl Win Reminds Us Revenge Is Nick Saban's Middle Name

Watching Nick Saban on the sideline, even the untrained eye doesn’t take long to pick up on the fact there’s an acidic harshness about the man, an overt willingness to climb down the throat of any slacker who’s only giving 99.99 percent.

And it never shows more than when Saban’s Alabama football team brings a bare-knuckle attitude to a revenge game, seeking to administer some payback justice.

Saban’s teams bring an extra roundhouse punch when facing an opponent who beat them the last time out, as was overwhelmingly apparent during the decisive minutes of Saturday’s 55-44 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

This was the fourth consecutive time that a Saban-coached Alabama team has won in the revenge role against an opponent that threatened to topple the Tide’s place atop the nation’s toughest football conference.

Even more impressive is that, since taking over in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Saban has a 9-1 overall record in SEC games where Alabama had the opportunity to avenge a loss and prevent an opponent from mounting a two-game winning streak against the Crimson Tide.

That march of dominance took firm hold in 2009, when Alabama and Florida met as the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the SEC championship game. The 31-13 victory left tears on Tim Tebow's face and signaled that the Gators no longer owned the conference as Alabama went on to win its  first national championship under Saban. 

The vengeance theme continued last season against Texas A&M. After a Johnny Manziel-led upset ended a 13-game Alabama win streak in 2012, the Tide bounced back with a 49-42 victory at College Station.

The only exception to Alabama’s history of retribution under Saban came when Louisiana State followed up its 24-12 victory in 2010 with a 9-6 survival in overtime in 2011. But Alabama still had the last word that season.

The two teams met again in the 2011 season’s BCS championship game, and Alabama reclaimed superiority with a 21-0 romp that gave Saban the second of his three national championships with the Tide.

But Saturday’s victory may have been even sweeter.

Nothing will ever totally erase the stunned agony of seeing Auburn win last year’s Iron Bowl on the famous “Kick Six,” when the Tigers’ Chris Davis ran back a missed field goal 109 yards for a game-winning touchdown. But Saturday’s victory will at least dull the memory of what may be Alabama’s most painful defeat.

The retaliation didn’t come easily, however.

Down 26-21 at the half, Saban was compelled to deliver a quick speech, telling his team that:

This is a gut-check as to what kind of heart you have, what kind of character you have and what kind of competitor you are in how you go out and play the second half of this game. I believe in you, I think we can win and I think we will win if everybody makes a commitment to doing their best in the second half.

In a game that was filled with explosive numbers, defensive-minded Saban ultimately beat Auburn coach Gus Malzahn at his own high-scoring game. Saban no doubt felt the sting of seeing his defense yield a school-record 630 yards, but he found the perfect salve when his offense rattled off a 28-0 scoring binge from late in the third quarter until the outcome was decided with 3:42 left.

What made this revenge game a little different for Alabama was that Saban’s demand for perfection found itself at a crossroads in the third quarter, after Blake Sims threw his third interception. The Alabama quarterback typically has done his best work in home games, but this didn’t start out as one of them, and his errant arm put his team in a 33-21 ditch.

Backup QB Jacob Coker began throwing on the sideline, and for a few moments it appeared Saban would abandon the signal-caller who had guided the Tide to the No. 1 position in the College Football Playoff rankings.

But then Saban proved he does possess at least a little patience, and his decision to stick with Sims was rewarded with five consecutive touchdown drives that restored Alabama’s national championship hopes.

“Blake just didn’t seem to be having his best stuff, and I talked to him about needing to respond and do a little better,” Saban told reporters afterward. “We really didn’t think about making a change, but if things kept going the way they were, we probably would’ve given Jake a chance.”

Saban no doubt will spend this week hammering his defense back into place, but give the man credit for adapting and realizing that he sometimes will look at the scoreboard and wonder if he’s playing in the Big 12.

“The way we’re headed in college football, there’s going to be games like this and we’re going to have to win games like this,” Saban readily conceded to reporters.

And there’s only one reason to doubt Alabama as it heads to Atlanta for Saturday’s SEC championship game against Missouri: The only other time ’Bama has faced Missouri during the Saban era the Tide won handily, by the count of 42-10 in 2012.

So no, this won’t be a revenge game.

 

Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.

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Bowl Projections 2014: Playoff Predictions, Odds Before Critical Week 15

Florida State once again survived by the skin of its teeth, this time against archrival Florida, but it was maybe the fourth-biggest story from Week 14 in the College Football Playoff race. 

That is certainly a testament to the unpredictable nature of this sport on a week-to-week basis, especially as the schedule winds down. After all, fans saw the No. 4 team in the rankings lose, Alabama put on an aerial show in a second-half comeback against Auburn and a disheartening injury to a Heisman Trophy candidate all within the course of a few hours Saturday.

With all that in mind, read on for some updated playoff projections and a brief look ahead to Week 15.

 

Scott Polacek's Playoff Projections

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

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State 

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Odds Shark National Championship Odds

*Odds to win national championship courtesy of Odds Shark, as of Sunday morning at 1:30 a.m. ET.

 

Week 15 Playoff Implications Preview

Oregon and Arizona will jump-start Week 15’s slate of conference championship tilts Friday night in the Pac-12 title game.

That matchup is certainly juicy enough on its own, but the Wildcats were the only team to beat the Ducks this entire season. Arizona pressured Marcus Mariota the entire game and picked up timely scores from its offense to shock the college football world. 

While the Wildcats have lost twice since then, Oregon has been a completely different team, as Dan Rubenstein of The Solid Verbal pointed out:

For a number of reasons, Saturday’s most intriguing matchup is the Big Ten Championship Game between Wisconsin and Ohio State.

For one, it will be a showdown between two potential Top 10 teams when the updated College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday. It will also give the nation and selection committee a chance to see what the Buckeyes look like without J.T. Barrett, who broke his ankle in devastating fashion in Saturday’s win over Michigan. 

Paul Myerberg of USA Today had a rather amusing take on the situation:

While much of the discussion surrounding this game will be about Barrett’s injury, Melvin Gordon gets to go up against a run defense that allowed 228 yards to Tevin Coleman and 145 yards to David Cobb. He could solidify his Heisman Trophy campaign with a big game and a victory.

Elsewhere Saturday, Alabama takes on Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.

Missouri lost to Indiana earlier in the season, and that is the only thing that is ever mentioned when discussing the Tigers. Still, they won seven out of eight SEC games, although that is largely because they avoided Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and LSU on the schedule. They were blown out by Georgia and simply don’t have the talent to deal with Alabama.

The Crimson Tide are a machine that have won seven in a row and will be playing for an assured playoff spot.

The other marquee conference title clash comes in the ACC between Florida State and Georgia Tech.

We know how this is going to end—Florida State will flirt with disaster all game and then find a way to win in the final minutes, just like it always does. One thing to watch out for, though, is Georgia Tech’s powerful running attack out of the triple-option formation. If the Yellow Jackets get a lead, they can bleed the clock by continuously moving the chains on the ground.

The Big 12 games between Kansas State and Baylor and Iowa State and TCU will be somewhat forgotten about with all the conference championships across the sport, but there are major playoff implications in those ones as well.

The Horned Frogs and Bears are battling with Ohio State for the No. 4 seed, but TCU coach Gary Patterson was more worried about what he can control, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com.

"You know, this team deserves to go home and win a championship," Patterson said. "We've got one more to do it, and I'm very proud of them. I'm finally going to go maybe smile once, but we've got to get ready to play Iowa State."

While it would make Patterson happy, TCU beating 2-9 Iowa State would do absolutely nothing for its playoff resume, but Baylor beating No. 12 Kansas State would shrink the perceived gap between the Bears and the Horned Frogs. 

If that was the case, that head-to-head victory that Baylor boasts over TCU may finally come into play in the playoff race.

 

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College Football Bowl Projections 2014: Latest Playoff Predictions After Week 14

It was right about now in past college football seasons that commentators and fans were trying to understand the algorithms behind the BCS rankings and what it would take for certain teams to move up or down.

Now, the College Football Playoff contenders only have to worry about impressing a selection committee of humans with quality wins, style points and conference championships.

Week 15 represents an opportunity for a number of potential playoff teams to clinch their respective conferences. How much weight the selection committee will put on those league titles remains to be seen, but it is sure to make a difference.

Here is a look at my latest playoff projections, which operate under the idea that conference titles will be given plenty of credence, before looking at some matchups to watch in Week 15.

 

Scott Polacek's Playoff Projections

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

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Week 15 In-Game Matchups to Watch

Week 15 features a handful of conference championships and important battles that will shape the playoff race. However, there are individual matchups within those contests that will determine the winners.

In the Big Ten Championship, Ohio State's run defense will get its stiffest test of the year against Melvin Gordon Saturday night. How it performs takes on even more importance considering superstar quarterback J.T. Barrett is out for the remainder of the season with a broken ankle.

The Buckeyes let Minnesota’s David Cobb rumble for 145 yards and three touchdowns, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman run for 228 yards and three touchdowns and even Michigan’s Drake Johnson tally two rushing touchdowns.

Gordon is a different animal than all of them and has a ridiculous 2,260 rushing yards on the season, which is good for 188 yards a game. He also put up a head-turning 408 rushing yards against Nebraska in three quarters and is a one-man wrecking crew who could ruin the Buckeyes' playoff hopes with another monster game.

Gordon could also solidify himself as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate behind Oregon’s Marcus Mariota with a productive game.

Elsewhere, Florida State’s tendency to fall behind early in games will be tested against Georgia Tech’s ball-control offense that will keep the clock running and the chains moving.

The Seminoles struggled to pull away from Oklahoma State, Clemson, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami, Boston College and Florida this season but somehow won all of them in the final quarter. 

The Seminoles still deserve credit for winning all those games, as head coach Jimbo Fisher said, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com:

First time in school history we ever went back-to-back undefeated regular seasons. With all the great teams (that have been here), that shows how hard that is to do. ... That just doesn't happen. It's a true testament to our players and assistant coaches, what they've done.

But, that's not our ultimate accomplishment and we've got a lot more to play for.

First up before that ultimate accomplishment is a date with the Yellow Jackets, who are fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game and are built to protect leads.

If Florida State once again finds itself behind down the stretch, it may not even have the ball to attempt a comeback in the closing minutes if Georgia Tech is keeping it on the ground.

While the Buckeyes rush defense going up against Gordon and the Seminoles going up against their own tendency to fall behind early and the clock control of Georgia Tech are conceptual matchups, the individual showdown between Oregon’s Mariota and Arizona’s Scooby Wright will play a large role in determining who wins the Pac-12.

Mariota is a household name, but Wright is an under-the-radar leader on the defensive side. Joel Klatt of Fox Sports pointed out just how impressive Wright is, while Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports was seemingly disappointed by Wright’s lack of national recognition.

Wright sacked and stripped Mariota in Arizona’s regular-season win over Oregon in the Ducks’ final drive. The fact that Wright was the one who scooped the fumble up only felt appropriate.

His counterpart, Mariota, is the Heisman Trophy front-runner and has simply eviscerated defenses this season. Mariota will be fresh off an Oregon State win where he accounted for six touchdowns and more than 400 yards of total offense by himself. Most teams don’t get that type of production in a day.

However, he only finished with a single rushing yard and two touchdowns in his first matchup with Arizona. Wright's tenacious defense was a big part of that middle-of-the-road production. 

He will have to control the tempo from the defensive side again Friday if the Wildcats have any hope of upsetting the Ducks for the second time this year.

 

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Auburn vs. Alabama: Iron Bowl Win Shows Crimson Tide Should Be Playoff Favorite

The general college football public can debate who the fourth team in the College Football Playoff all it wants after a hectic rivalry week. Alabama proved that it should be the favorite to win the whole thing when the tournament actually transpires on Jan. 1. 

The Crimson Tide weren't perfect in the Iron Bowl. The naysayers will immediately point out that the usually dominant defense gave up 630 total yards, couldn't defend the deep ball very well and were let off the hook by some questionable red-zone execution by Auburn. 

Yet, the Crimson Tide still won by a comfortable margin when the clock hit zero at Bryant-Denny Stadium. 

Here are a few takeaways from the 55-44 victory that has the Crimson Tide looking like the team to beat in college football once again. 

 

History Repeats Itself

The Iron Bowl isn't just a massive in-state rivalry these days. Lately it's become an indicator of things to come on the national stage. As ESPN Stats & Info points out, the winner of the game has gone on to win the national championship in four of the last five seasons:

Yes, every year is played in a vacuum. But a pattern of five years is saying something. Auburn might not have been the most consistent team this season, but Alabama got the Tigers' best shot. 

Of all the top teams who failed to win in dominant fashion on Saturday, Alabama did so against the best opponent. The ability to win in an emotional atmosphere is crucial to postseason success, and the Tide showed they could do just that on Saturday. 

 

The Tide Can Win in Many Ways

This can't be overstated. There's value in a team that has multiple ways to win. The defensive effort from Alabama might be cause for concern to many, but it also showed that Alabama has the firepower to thrive in a shootout game. 

We already know Bama can win in ugly fashion. They've been known as a ground-and-pound team with excellent defense throughout the Nick Saban era. They've done it against the likes of Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State. 

What we didn't know was how they would respond against an offense that finds ways to score against their vaunted defense. Turns out, they can handle a shootout just fine. The Tide answered with 55 points and 539 total yards of their own. 

With Baylor, TCU, Oregon and Ohio State all in the top five in scoring offense, per CFBStats.com, and in contention to be an Alabama opponent in the playoff, the defense will give up some points. Now we know it's not the end of the road for Bama. 

 

They're Resilient

It's been said about Florida State all season. There's something to be said for a team that simply finds a way to win. 

Unlike the 'Noles, the Tide haven't been put in too many bad situations this season. They found themselves in one in the Iron Bowl. Auburn rode a great first half and hot start to the second to a 33-21 lead. 

Wide reciever Amari Cooper really summed it up best after the game, via Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, "We're relentless. We don't want to lose. I guess you can say we'll win by any means."

Florida State has been lauded for that quality all season. Alabama just proved that they can also come from behind when the situation calls for it.

 

Blake Sims Is Championship Material

Coming into this season, one question loomed large over Alabama's season: Can Blake Sims really replace A.J. McCarron? Through the first half, it really looked like the answer was a resounding no. The senior became the first Saban-coached quarterback to throw three interceptions in a game by the third quarter.

But just like his team, Sims didn't let a rough start bring him down. The senior displayed great leadership by staying the course and believing he could turn things around, via Solomon:

I wasn't frustrated... I try to keep my body language up, let the team know my spirit was still up because I felt like if my body language got down, the team was going to get down, and this wasn't the game for that.

Sims' relentless attitude paid off in a big way. The athletic quarterback made plenty of clutch plays down the stretch including the 11-yard scamper that put the Tide up for good in the fourth quarter. College GameDay tweeted the highlight:

The run was just part of an admirable turnaround. Marc Torrence of Bleacher Report provided the stats for Sims after pick No. 3:

Behind every dominant Alabama team in the Saban era has been a quarterback who has what it takes to make plays down the stretch and win championships. After watching Sims take ownership of a bad first half and lead a comeback victory, it looks like they have that once again. 

Sims might not have the cache with fans of stars like Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Trevone Boykin and Bryce Petty. He's playing in a much different system with a much different role. But he's more than able of outdueling them down the stretch of a big game. 

Add it all up and it looks like the new system for crowning a champion could lead to the coronation of a familiar face when it's all over. 

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SEC Championship Game 2014: Bold Predictions for Alabama vs. Missouri

Missouri came from behind to knock off the dangerous Arkansas 21-14 Friday in the Battle Line Rivalry, but the Tigers didn't know who they'd be facing in the SEC championship game until just about 24 hours later.

When Ole Miss defeated Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, Alabama earned a berth in the title game; however, that didn't stop the Crimson Tide from showing up in a big way Saturday evening. Auburn came to play in the Iron Bowl, but in the end, Alabama emerged victorious 55-44, remaining in the hunt for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Both of these teams are riding high following some impressive performances during college football's rivalry week. We're in for an enticing showdown of SEC juggernauts, and before these teams take the gridiron once again, let's have a little fun with some bold predictions for the championship game.

 

Bold Predictions: Alabama

Amari Cooper Tallies 250 Receiving Yards, Three Touchdowns

Cooper has been one of the nation's most prolific wide receivers this season, and he reaffirmed that fact Saturday in the Iron Bowl, tying his own school record of 224 yards receiving, adding three touchdowns for good measure. That marks the third time this season, he's eclipsed 200 yards, so why not go for 250?

It's clear Cooper is good enough to beat whatever coverage is being rolled in his direction. He caught a team-high 13 passes against Auburn. The next closest receiver to that number was DeAndrew White with three.

Grantland's Rembert Browne came away very impressed:

Let's take nothing away from Missouri. The Tigers have a very solid secondary. In fact, they allowed an average of just 204.1 passing yards per game this season. But, seriously, is there really anyone capable of stopping Cooper right now? Probably not.

 

Alabama Holds Missouri Under 100 Rushing Yards

Heading into the Iron Bowl, the Crimson Tide were allowing an average of just 2.76 yards per carry and only gave up two rushing touchdowns all season long. Then, Alabama met a dangerous Auburn attack, and while the Tigers racked up 174 rushing yards and a score, they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.

Alabama is about to face yet another dangerous rushing offense. This time, it will be Missouri's attack led by running back Russell Hansbrough. Although, in typical Crimson Tide fashion, the defense will continue to penetrate and stifle Tigers ball-carriers.

On Friday, Arkansas held Missouri to 3.9 yards per carry, and while the Razorbacks have been playing well of late, they don't have as stifling a defense as Alabama. The status of Hansbrough is up in the air following a late ankle injury suffered against Arkansas, but according to Joe Walljasper of the Columbia Daily Tribune, indications are the ball-carrier is fine:

Regardless, having a lead running back who isn't 100 percent against Alabama isn't a good situation for Missouri. The team has a capable ball-carrier in Marcus Murphy, but the way things look heading into this contest, the Crimson Tide has the upper hand in this department.

 

Bold Predictions: Missouri

Maty Mauk Passes for 350 Yards, Three Touchdowns

Mauk began the 2014 season with a frenzy of touchdowns, throwing 12 in his first three games. However, he only passed for 10 more throughout the remainder of the regular season. Well, expect to see a bounce-back showing from the quarterback against one of the nation's stingiest defenses.

Alabama ranked 26th in the nation against the pass entering Saturday, allowing just 198.2 passing yards per game. Then, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall lit up the Crimson Tide like a Christmas tree, accumulating 456 passing yards and three touchdowns. Mauk has the tools to nearly duplicate that feat.

Bud Sasser has been the team's most reliable wide receiver, and he came through against Arkansas, racking up nine receptions for 127 yards. Senior Jimmy Hunt has also come around lately, scoring in each of the team's last two contests and displaying his big-play ability.

Here's a look at Hunt's 73-yard grab from Friday's contest, via ESPN College Football:

If Hansbrough is hampered in any way, that will only increase Missouri's reliance on the pass. Having a pass-catching running back like Murphy on the field more often will only help Mauk's production. The sophomore quarterback may not have put up a 300-yard game since September, but that's about to change.

 

Missouri Scores Two Defensive Touchdowns

If defense wins championships, the Tigers have a fair shot at taking one from the Crimson Tide in the title game. Plenty of ball hawks reside on Missouri's defense, and they've accumulated a total of 22 takeaways in 12 games this season.

Alabama quarterback Blake Sims showed a great deal of efficiency throughout the season, but he suffered a major setback Saturday against Auburn, throwing three interceptions early in the game. That marked the first time this season Sims threw multiple picks.

Bleacher Report's Dan Hope tweeted his thoughts on the quarterback's struggles:

While Sims was able to right the ship later in the game, we can speculate his confidence will be a little shaken going forward. How do you rattle a shaken quarterback? With a good pass rush.

Missouri's pass rush has caused plenty of problems for opposing quarterbacks this season. According to CFBStats.com, the Tigers have accumulated 38 sacks through 12 games, tallying three or more in seven contests this year. Shane Ray has been a monster in this category, totaling 13.5 sacks in 2014, via ESPN.com. He's the kind of player who can be a difference-maker in this situation.

By pressuring Sims, Missouri has a good chance of creating some takeaways and use their speed to take a couple to the house.


All team statistics and rankings via NCAA.com unless otherwise noted and current as of November 30 at 1:30 a.m. ET.

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Alabama vs. Missouri: Assessing Matchups to Watch in SEC Championship 2014

Both the Missouri Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide proved worthy of a spot in the SEC Championship Game after a couple of impressive showings during rivalry week.

Missouri showed a great deal of resilience in a 21-14 victory over Arkansas, and Alabama overcame early mistakes to defeat Auburn 55-44.

The Tigers and the Crimson Tide share plenty of similarities. They both run balanced offenses featuring bruising running backs and game-altering wide receivers, along with stout defenses that are capable of controlling field position and the pace of the game.

Needless to say, there are several key matchups to keep an eye on in this impending clash.

Before these teams take the field on December 6 to crown this year's SEC champion, let's take a look at the matchups that will prove to be deciding factors in the game's outcome.

 

Missouri Secondary vs. Amari Cooper

By now, the nation knows exactly how dangerous Cooper can be on any given week. However, no one knows better than the Auburn Tigers.

The prolific wide receiver tore up the Iron Bowl, racking up 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns. Cooper was so dangerous, he set a new game record through just three quarters, via ESPN Stats & Info:

That game marked the third time this season Cooper went over the 200-yard mark and his fourth outing with multiple touchdowns. Missouri really needs to focus its attention on the junior wideout.

Luckily for the Tigers, they have the talent to contain Cooper as well as anyone. Through 12 games this season, Missouri is allowing an average of just 204.1 passing yards per game.

They've been burned at times, though. Josh Reynolds of Texas A&M caught five receptions for 125 yards and two scores in a November 15 clash.

The key for Missouri is to get pressure on quarterback Blake Sims. The Tigers have maintained one of the nation's best pass rushes this season, tallying 40 sacks. Conversely, Alabama has been one of the best teams against the rush, allowing just 10 entering Saturday's game.

 

Alabama Run Defense vs. Missouri Backfield

Missouri has been riding its talented running backs to wins for the majority of the season, as Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy have combined to form a dangerous two-headed monster.

The duo was instrumental in defeating Arkansas on Friday, combining to carry 31 times for 149 yards and a touchdown.

Hansbrough has been the team's featured back this season; however, his status remains up in the air for the title game following an ankle injury late in the contest against the Razorbacks.

Fortunately, Pete Scantlebury of Rivals.com relayed a favorable message from Murphy about his counterpart:

Alabama continues to have one of the stingiest run defenses year after year, and 2014 was no exception. Heading into Saturday's clash against Auburn, the Crimson Tide were allowing an average of just 2.76 yards per carry and 85.3 yards per game, ranking second in the nation.

Auburn's attack did get to Alabama a bit, as the Tigers accumulated 174 rushing yards, but they were limited to just 3.7 yards per carry.

If the Crimson Tide can do the same against Missouri, it will be difficult for quarterback Maty Mauk to successfully orchestrate a one-dimensional defense.

 

Quarterbacks vs. Themselves

This may seem like a rather unusual category—and it is, but it will be one of the most decisive factors in the SEC Championship Game.

Sims has been extremely efficient for the Crimson Tide this season, throwing just four interceptions through the team's first 11 games. That took a big turn for the worse Saturday, as the quarterback tossed three early picks against Auburn.

In fact, head coach Nick Saban appeared to contemplate putting backup Jacob Coker in the game, via Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com:

The senior signal-caller was finally able to get it going later in the game thanks to the efforts of Cooper, but his confidence may be a bit down going forward. We'll see if he can rise above those mistakes against Missouri.

Mauk hasn't been the most consistent quarterback this season. He's completing just 53.5 percent of his passes and has thrown 11 interceptions to 22 touchdown passes.

He had one terrible showing earlier in the season against Georgia, throwing four picks and completing just nine of his 21 passing attempts in that contest.

Recently, he's fared better, throwing just two interceptions over his last five games. Mihir Bhagat of KOMU-TV tweeted the quarterback's progression prior to the team's contest against Arkansas:

He's certainly been looking more precise of late, but can he keep it up against an Alabama defense that recorded its 10th interception of the season on Saturday? The sophomore signal-caller will be heavily tested.

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of November 30 at 2:45 a.m. ET.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Updated Playoff Projections After Week 14 Results

There was heartbreak, hatred, overwhelming joy and incredibly tense moments throughout Week 14 of the college football season, and the playoff picture looks just a bit different as a result.

Alabama found a way to give up 44 points and still look impressive, Mississippi State saw its playoff hopes go up in smoke, Baylor escaped a fourth-quarter charge from a significant underdog, Oregon rolled once again, and Ohio State won on the field but suffered a devastating loss on the injury report the same day.

To nobody’s surprise, Florida State also managed to find yet another way to snatch victory from the (Gator) jaws of defeat Saturday in the final minutes.

Here’s a look at what the latest playoff projections look like after an action-packed day of college football.

 

Scott Polacek's Playoff Projections

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

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State 

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Odds Shark National Championship Odds

*Odds to win national championship courtesy of Odds Shark, as of Sunday morning at 12:30 a.m. ET.

 

Week 14 Playoff Race Results

The most entertaining game of the day came in the Iron Bowl when an aerial show from the Big 12 broke out in the disguise of an SEC game.

Alabama survived three Blake Sims interceptions and 206 receiving yards from Auburn’s Sammie Coates to win 55-44. Amari Cooper looked like a robot specifically designed in Tuscaloosa to dominate the Tigers secondary and finished with a ridiculous 224 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

Sims' early struggles were very uncharacteristic of a Nick Saban quarterback, as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, but he eventually figured out that if you throw the ball anywhere within Cooper’s vicinity, he is going to catch it:

Elsewhere in the SEC, Mississippi State lost the Egg Bowl to Ole Miss 31-17 and essentially dropped out of the playoff picture.

Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 296 yards on a hurt ankle and commented on the performance after the game via ESPN.com: "I knew this game would define my legacy. I had to win this game to be remembered like I want. ... I hope they'll remember as a guy who gave his all ever single game and won a lot of games."

Ohio State, Baylor and TCU fans were certainly glad Wallace defined his legacy with a victory over the No. 4 team.

It should come as no surprise that the team right ahead of Mississippi State in the College Football Rankings, Florida State, struggled throughout its game against Florida before eventually winning at the end, 24-19. 

SportsCenter passed along a stat that virtually summarizes the Seminoles’ entire charmed year:

Regardless of whether it was impressive or not, Florida State won the game and was part of the ACC’s brutal treatment of the SEC on Saturday.

The ACC went 4-0 against the powerful, invincible SEC (Florida State over Florida, Clemson over South Carolina, Georgia Tech over Georgia and Louisville over Kentucky), which garnered this statistic from Aaron Schoonmaker of WRALSportsFan.com:

Along the same escape lines as Florida State, Baylor managed to survive a 19-3 charge in the final quarter from Texas Tech and win 48-46. The Red Raiders had a chance to tie the game but missed a two-point conversion in the final minutes.

Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty had to leave the contest with concussion symptoms, but it was not the type of performance the Bears were looking for with the No. 4 spot in the playoffs up for grabs.

It is difficult to imagine the Bears leapfrogging Ohio State or TCU in the new rankings released Tuesday after narrowly edging a 4-8 Texas Tech squad.

The Buckeyes pulled away from Michigan, and the Horned Frogs destroyed Texas on Thanksgiving. Baylor does have that head-to-head win over TCU that will eventually come into play when its resume is more parallel with that of the Horned Frogs, but it won’t be a factor this week.

The most disheartening moment of the entire day came in Columbus when J.T. Barrett broke his ankle in Ohio State’s victory over its archrival Michigan.

Regardless of whether you cheer for the Buckeyes or not, it left a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach to see Barrett go down, especially since Braxton Miller is already out for the year. Barrett is a redshirt freshman who was blossoming into one of the sport’s brightest stars. 

The disappointment from that development had a silver lining, though, in the form of incredible sportsmanship from Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, as the Detroit Free Press noted:

While the rest of the country started its day with Ohio State beating Michigan, switched to Florida State’s nailbiter with Florida and Ole Miss’ win over Mississippi State in the afternoon and then finished with the Iron Bowl, Oregon quietly dominated Oregon State in the Civil War.

The Ducks got another vintage performance from Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota, as he tallied 406 total yards and six touchdowns in the easy victory. 

SportsCenter passed along this perfectly timed picture from Brian Davies of The Register-Guard:

It won’t be long before Mariota is making the same pose with a trophy in his hands instead of the football.

 

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Predictions for Week 15

With the regular season in the books, the College Football Playoff committee is facing a decision that will set the selection-making precedent for years to come.

Though the Top Three are relatively uncontroversial, the CFP committee must now decide between one-loss teams for the fourth and final playoff berth.  Does an Ohio State squad without J.T. Barrett deserve consideration over TCU, especially if it takes the Big 10 title game next week?  What about Baylor, which beat the Horned Frogs and could very well be the best of the entire trio?

This is the type of no-win controversy straight out of the BCS handbook, one that will elicit plenty of discussion and furor regardless of the verdict.  Taking a look at the odds for Week 14, let's try to forecast how the committee's outlook may change based on Saturday's results.

 

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

After Alabama's come-from-behind 55-44 barnburner over Auburn, there's little doubt that Nick Saban's crew has become the nation's best team once again.  The Crimson Tide have finally provided consensus stability at the top after months of turmoil, a familiar position after two losses to end the 2013 campaign left the program shellshocked.

The Iron Bowl illustrated what has been a prevailing theme, namely the transformation of Bama from an old-school smashmouth team into one capable of keeping up with the proliferation of spread offenses throughout the FBS.  With the SEC West title in hand, the Tide also have some auspicious recent history in their favor:

In the SEC title game, Alabama will face Missouri, who won the SEC East for the second consecutive season.  The Tigers have not played Alabama over the past two seasons, so Missouri's balanced offense led by Maty Mauk and Russell Hansbrough could allow them to keep pace against a Bama offense that has been uncharacteristically explosive this year, ranking fourth in the SEC in yards per play.

Missouri can bring the pressure, having accrued an 8.83 percent sack percentage that ranks 11th in the nation, per TeamRankings.com.  It's doubtful that a two-loss Alabama team without an SEC title would reach the playoff, so Saban's crew has no margin for error against an underrated Tigers squad.

 

2. Oregon Ducks

After a breezy win over rival Oregon State, the Ducks will now cruise into the Pac-12 title game against the team that handed Oregon its only defeat of the season.  The Arizona Wildcats sprung one of the season's biggest upsets at Eugene, pulling out a 31-24 stunner on a quiet Thursday night.

However, repeating the feat at Levi's Stadium next weekend will be more difficult, especially when considering how the Ducks have gotten healthier since that defeat.  The Ducks have won by an average of 22 points per game since that Wildcats loss, including blowouts over Pac-12 South contenders UCLA and Utah.

Marcus Mariota is also healthier, as the Arizona game came on a short week of rest after he had been sacked seven times against Washington State.  Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost admitted that the Heisman candidate was not fully healthy for that game, one in which Mariota posted by far his lowest QBR of the entire season.

Because of Oregon's dominance since the loss, advanced metrics like Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index have consistently ranked the Ducks as the best or second-best team in the country most of the season.  Oregon figures to remain second this week, and it would be surprising if they budged from the postseason picture at all.

 

3. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles may be the shakiest team here based on their regular-season resume.  Nevertheless, it is impossible to leave out the undefeated defending champions, and although Florida State has not always fulfilled the potential of its high-end talent, it is clear that they will reach the playoff with an ACC title.

Headed into Saturday's action, Florida State's plus-12.1 average margin of victory ranked just 12th in the nation, per TeamRankings.com, nearly four touchdowns worse than their dominant FBS-leading plus-38.8 margin of victory last season.  Indeed, metrics derived from Vegas betting lines suggest that the Seminoles have not been a top-four squad this season:

In the conference title game, Florida State will face a Georgia Tech team that it has not faced in the Jameis Winston era.  At 10-2, the Yellow Jackets are one of the nation's underrated teams, having bounced back from a pair of midseason losses to notch their most regular-season wins since 2009.  

Nevertheless, even if the Seminoles do not win in dominant fashion, leaving out an undefeated defending champion would be an improbable precedent for the committee to set.  If only by sheer force of pedigree, an uber-talented Florida State squad may force its way into the playoff field and adopt the unfamiliar role of underdog.

 

4. TCU Horned Frogs 

This selection is sure to provoke widespread protests and discourse no matter who is selected, but TCU is the cleanest choice.  Picking Ohio State would have made more sense before the Barrett injury, but even if the Buckeyes prevail over Wisconsin next week, it's hard to justify them as one of the four best teams in the nation.

In truth, despite their earlier loss to Baylor, the Horned Frogs look like the Big 12's best team.  The aforementioned FEI rankings placed TCU fifth in the country, five spots ahead of 10th-ranked Baylor.  That gap only figures to grow after the Horned Frogs thrashed Texas but the Bears struggled with Texas Tech.

If the Buckeyes do beat Wisconsin, however, they would have reason to have significant beef with this outcome.  Because we do not have a meaningful sample from which to evaluate, there would be plenty of guesswork as to whether or not a Cardale Jones-led squad is capable of winning the national title.

TCU also has the advantage of not needing to play a conference championship game, as a breezy home win over Iowa State next weekend would put a wrap on an already impressive resume.  Unless someone like Arizona or Missouri springs a conference championship upset, it doesn't look like there is much room for debate.

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NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Predicting the Top 25 After Week 14

Last Saturday—Week 13 on the college football calendar—left us starving. Not so for Week 14. 

It's only fitting that on a weekend when we celebrate family, food and football, our appetites were more than satisfied with the rivalry action on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 

Florida State overcame Jameis Winston's worst-ever performance to stave off an upset from Florida. Ole Miss proved to be too much for Mississippi State in one of the most highly anticipated editions of the Egg Bowl ever.

And in the week's—and maybe even the entire season's—best game, Alabama scored 24 of the final 27 points to beat Auburn in the highest-scoring Iron Bowl of all time. 

The shake-up in the polls will be inevitable. Let's predict how the AP poll will look come Sunday.

Note: Rankings reflect a prediction of the Week 14 AP poll—not how the author would rank the teams himself.  

 

Biggest Risers

Arizona

The Wildcats held court against their in-state rival Arizona State, winning a high-scoring game 42-35. The win gives them the Pac-12 South crown and a date with No. 3-ranked Oregon next week in the Pac-12 title game.

Quarterback Anu Solomon and Co. are hoping they can get a repeat performance of the brisk Thursday night in October, when they shocked the Ducks in Eugene. 

Head coach Rich Rodriguez always has a solid game plan in place when the Wildcats take on Oregon, and next week should be no different.

Another upset win would catapult the 'Cats into the discussion as a dark-horse playoff candidate, though they'd need a bit of help to sway the committee. 

 

Georgia Tech

Hats off to coach Paul Johnson and his Yellow Jackets, who have very quietly put together an excellent season, with back-to-back wins against ranked teams in Clemson and in-state rival Georgia.

If not for an inexplicable two-week stumble down Tobacco Road, in which Georgia Tech dropped consecutive games to Duke and North Carolina, respectively, we could be talking about next week's ACC Championship Game versus Florida State as one of the games of the year. 

Still, the Yellow Jackets have a chance to further inject themselves into the college football narrative by knocking off Florida State on Saturday and taking out the last of the nation's unbeatens.

 

Biggest Fallers

UCLA

We never should have trusted you, UCLA. The Bruins had a golden opportunity to keep their slim hopes of a playoff berth alive, simply by beating the up-and-down Stanford Cardinal on Friday and setting up a rematch with Oregon for the Pac-12 title.

Instead, Jim Mora's crew had one of its worst performances of the year, dropping the game 31-10, at home nonetheless. Now, the Bruins must wait to find out where they'll be headed for their bowl game.

A 9-3 finish with two inexplicable losses to Utah and Stanford is a far cry from what many people thought would be a dark-horse national title contender before the season began. 

 

Georgia

You can't blame the Bulldogs for losing focus on Saturday. After Missouri's win on Friday wrapped up the SEC East title for the Tigers—giving Georgia no shot at an SEC Championship Game showdown with Alabama—it's understandable that the motivation might not have been there.

Still, Mark Richt can't be happy with how his team performed against a surging, albeit inferior Georgia Tech team. The Dawgs gave up almost 400 yards on the ground to the Yellow Jackets and turned the ball over three times.

Oh, and what could have been if not for the Todd Gurley suspension/injury. Nick Chubb performed very well in his absence, but Gurley's ability to change the game with a single touch was sorely missed.

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Oregon Is Playing Like National Champions Heading into December

If the 2014 Civil War were a boxing match, the referees would have called it off after the first quarter...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Red-Zone Issues Doom Auburn in Epic Iron Bowl

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Forty-four points and 630 yards of offense are usually more than enough to beat any team.

They weren't enough for Auburn on Saturday night as the Tigers allowed 55 points to a surging No. 1 Alabama team in an Iron Bowl shootout.

But instead of pointing the blame toward his defense, which allowed more than 400 yards for the fifth time in its last six games, Auburn's head coach Gus Malzahn absorbed the blame with his offense.

"I think the name of the game really was we got in the red zone, and we had to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns," Malzahn said. "We had enough yards to score a whole bunch of points."

Auburn scored on seven of its eight red-zone trips Saturday night, against the nation's No. 5 total defense, but five of them were short field goals by freshman kicker Daniel Carlson.

By settling for field goals, 35 points from touchdowns went down to 15 on those drives, and Malzahn said that was the difference in the 11-point result.

"I think it kind of goes back to this—regardless of what happened, we didn't get enough touchdowns in the red zone," Malzahn said. "We should've scored a whole bunch of points. We didn't get it done."

Quan Bray's five-yard touchdown grab from quarterback Nick Marshall early in the third quarter—one that gave Auburn a 12-point lead—and a garbage-time touchdown run from Corey Grant were the only red-zone trips that resulted in six points.

While the Tigers had an 88 percent scoring rate, the 25 percent touchdown rate was the lowest for Auburn in a game that featured more than one red-zone trip since Malzahn took over last season.

Not scoring touchdowns on red-zone trips had been a problem for Auburn in losses under Malzahn.

"It's frustrating because we were one of the top red-zone teams in the country," Marshall said. "We just have to put points on the board when we get down there."

Four of Carlson's field goals came from inside the Alabama 10-yard line as Auburn's offense continued to stall right outside the end zone.

Several of those drives came down to poor third-down conversions. The Tigers were 9-of-19 on third down against the Crimson Tide, including 5-of-10 on 3rd-and-short situations.

Grant, who started his collegiate career in Tuscaloosa with the Crimson Tide, gave some credit to the play of his former team.

"It does get tougher for you down there," Grant said. "Your options are limited. There are only certain plays you can run down there against a team that has a great defense."

On the earlier visits inside the Alabama 10-yard line, going for a fourth-down conversion seemed like a strong possibility for Malzahn's offense.

The Auburn head coach opted for the field goals, and his team defended the decisions after the game.

"I'm behind my coach," said Sammie Coates, who had 206 receiving yards and two touchdowns on five catches. "If he wanted to kick field goals, we were going to be behind him on that."

But one drive in which the Tigers settled for three points didn't come down to third or fourth down at all.

With less than a minute before halftime, following an interception from Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and a 40-yard pass from Marshall to Coates, Auburn had the ball on the Alabama 1-yard line with one timeout.

But Auburn ran down the clock before its next snap, and a negative rush for star running back Cameron Artis-Payne forced Auburn to send out Carlson.

Instead of taking a two-score lead into the locker room, Auburn made it a 26-21 game thanks to what AL.com's Brandon Marcello correctly identified as poor clock management:

After the game, Malzahn explained the odd end to the quarter and wished for another crack at it.

"Looking back, we probably should have called a timeout," Malzahn said. "We tried to get a formation in there and pace it. We felt really good about it. We were ID'ing certain things. Looking back, that was obviously a big factor. I'm not saying we would've scored [a touchdown], but I'd like to have at least a better chance at that."

While criticism continued to swirl around Auburn's defense and its leadership, the players on the offensive side of the ball said Saturday night they must improve heading into the postseason.

For Bray, that improvement could be the difference in ending what has been a disappointing senior season with either more heartache or a high note.

"We really left a lot of points on the board," Bray said. "The whole world saw that. It would've been a different outcome, I'm sure, if we would've scored touchdowns every time we got down in there. But that's football. We have to finish next time."

 

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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Amari Cooper's Iron Bowl Performance Shows That He Should Be Heisman Favorite

Amari Cooper is the hero the Heisman Trophy deserves.

Marcus Mariota remains the presumptive favorite to take home the Heisman. He threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns against Oregon State on Saturday. The Oregon Ducks quarterback in all likelihood will lift the award in New York City next month.

Heisman voters love quarterbacks, and Mariota's leading one of the best teams in the country. In truth, he wouldn't be an undeserving candidate.

But that doesn't change the fact that Cooper's the best offensive player in the country.

The Alabama star torched the Auburn secondary in the Crimson Tide's Iron Bowl win. His 224 receiving yards were an Iron Bowl record, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough gave his proverbial game ball to Cooper, writing:

He couldn't be stopped. Though his quarterback, Blake Sims, struggled, Cooper played like a man on a mission. Three times he scored a touchdown, two of which came on plays on which he simply outran and outmaneuvered the coverage to get himself open. By the time it was all said and done, Cooper made his best case for the Heisman Trophy with 13 receptions for 224 yards and three scores.

Every time the Tide needed a big play, they turned to Cooper. Chase Goodbread of NFL.com thought that Cooper booked a seat to New York after Saturday:

Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee went even further, arguing that the junior should be in line for the Heisman.

When asked after the game about whether the Iron Bowl will get him on the list of Heisman finalists, Cooper responded, "Hopefully," per John Zenor of The Associated Press, via ABCNews.com.

It's easy to argue that Cooper can't be all that valuable when Alabama's loaded with blue-chip recruits and led by the best coach in college football. And to a certain extent, that's a valid criticism.

But that hasn't stopped countless other players from loaded juggernauts from winning. Every star has outside factors that inflate his ability.

For Mariota, it's a relatively weak defensive conference and an up-tempo, high-powered offense. For Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin has no choice but to hand him the ball; Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave can't exactly be trusted. The offensive line opens up holes almost any running back could navigate.

Cooper isn't really afforded distinct advantages his fellow Heisman contenders lack.

Even with the talent around him, his importance to the Alabama offense can't be understated.

Alabama is using a first-year offensive coordinator (Lane Kiffin), in addition to a first-year starting quarterback (Blake Sims). It's kind of tough to have a prolific offense when two of your biggest pieces are just getting used to the job.

There's no doubt that the mere presence of Cooper is enough to make both Sims' and Kiffin's jobs easier.

The field opens up more for Sims as secondaries shade to Cooper's side. He also has one heck of a security blanket when no one else is open. Against Auburn, Sims looked Cooper's way 16 times, five more than his other targets combined, per ESPN College Football:

For Kiffin, having a wideout so prodigiously talented opens up the playbook a little more, particularly with the play-action pass. When opposing defenses load up the box to stop T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, Kiffin can look over the top to Cooper.

Kiffin and Sims obviously deserve plenty of credit for their own successes, but there's also no questioning how much help they've received.

In historical terms, the deck is stacked against Cooper. Tim Brown and Desmond Howard are the only two wide receivers to win the Heisman Trophy, and both played a role in the return game, thus meaning more opportunities to make game-breaking plays.

Brown and Howard also benefited from a lack of serious competition. Don McPherson and Casey Weldon were the runners-up in 1987 and 1991, respectively.

These days, the Heisman is almost a QB-exclusive award.

If Larry Fitzgerald can lose out on the 2003 Heisman Trophy to Jason White, then there's little hope of Cooper taking home the honor, or any receiver ever, for that matter.

Like with Fitzgerald, Cooper's otherworldly talent has become almost ordinary considering the frequency with which he performs at a high level:

However, Mariota's shadow looms large, like White's did in '03. Some voters may also value Gordon more. In the event Cooper's invited to New York, he'll remain a long shot.

In the grand scheme of things, the Heisman Trophy winner is largely arbitrary. It doesn't affect a player's draft stock or his Hall of Fame credentials, like MVP awards in professional sports.

Still, you want to see the best players in college football saluted appropriately. Cooper's the best offensive player in college football, and the voters should give him his just due.

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College Football Rankings Week 15: B/R's Official Top 25

With nearly every team playing its final game of the regular season, this weekend was supposed to be the one to give us as definitive an answer yet as to which were the best teams in the country in college football.

But did we get clarity, or just more confusion, based on the Week 14 results? You'll have to check out our rankings to see.

The Bleacher Report Top 25 is voted on by 19 members of B/R's college football team: writers Keith Arnold, Ben Axelrod, Phil Callihan, Justin Ferguson, Andrew Hall, Kyle Kensing, David Kenyon, Ben Kercheval, Adam Kramer, Brian Leigh, Brian Pedersen, Barrett Sallee, Brad Shepard, Erin Sorensen, Marc Torrence and Greg Wallace, as well as editors Eric Bowman, Hunter Mandel and Max Rausch.

Each voter submits their ballots based on observations made during the just-completed week's games. Teams receive 25 points for a first-place vote, all the way down to one point for being ranked 25th, and then the top 25 vote-getters are ranked in order of their point totals.

Check out B/R's Week 15 poll, then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

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Alabama Is the Best Team in College Football, Hands Down

Alabama proved, once again, that it's the best team in the country with a 55-44 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

It doesn't matter that Auburn led 26-21 at halftime. It doesn't matter that Auburn led 33-21 soon after. It doesn't matter that Auburn outgained Alabama 422 yards to 181 yards after 34 minutes.

None of that matters in the slightest.

It mattered at the time, sure, but everything Alabama did in the final 26 minutes made it moot. The Crimson Tide scored 24 of the next 27 points, taking a 55-36 lead with less than four minutes to play. For the first time in program history, they allowed 44 points and won.

"The way we’re headed in college football, there are going to be games like this," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in history, per Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com.

And he's right.

When one plays opponents like Auburn—a team that entered with the No. 3 offense in the country, per Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings—there are bound to be games in which the defense gets gashed. There is no such thing as an immovable object in college football. Not anymore, there isn't. At this point, the best thing a defense can be is "difficult to move."

Allowing 44 points is no recipe for success; but neither is folding when one's defense allows 44 points. The best teams in the country are the ones that can win in the most conceivable ways.

Oregon beat Cal 49-41. Florida State beat NC State 56-41. Baylor and TCU are vying for a playoff spot after the former beat the latter 61-58.

It happens.

What separates the Crimson Tide from the four teams mentioned above, however, is the rarity with which it happens. Entering Week 14, they had the No. 4 offense and No. 2 defense in the country, per the F/+ ratings. Even after Saturday's showing, neither of those units will fall below the top five when next week's numbers come out.

No other team in the country has two units inside the top 10.

Alabama went 11-1 in the SEC West with its sole loss coming on the road at Ole Miss. The Rebels crashed and burned with a 30-0 loss at Arkansas last week but validated how good they can be—especially in Oxford—with a 31-17 win over Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.

Florida State, meanwhile, spent Week 14 struggling to beat in-state rival Florida. The Seminoles won the national title last season and sport the only undefeated record in the country, but they only beat the Gators by five points and out-gained them by just 24 yards.

When the Gators came to Tuscaloosa in September, Alabama beat them by 21 points and out-gained them by 427 (!!!) yards.

A common thread for Alabama between the Florida game and the Auburn game—and, well, every other match this season—was the dominance of Amari Cooper. Florida State's argument for being the best team in the country includes Jameis Winston being the best player in the country. Ditto that with Oregon and Marcus Mariota.

Both of those guys are amazing.

Cooper might be better than them both.

The speedy wide receiver caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn, coming up big when his team most needed him.

His second touchdown was a 39-yarder on a pretty double-move (seen below) that pulled the Tide within six points. After an Auburn field goal made the score 36-27, he caught his third touchdown of the game on a 75-yard streak on Alabama's next offensive play.

Two catches, 114 yards and two touchdowns.

All he needed was two snaps.

Like his quarterback, Blake Sims, Cooper plays his best in the biggest moments. So too does Jameis, but Florida State doesn't have 'Bama's defense. Neither does Oregon. Neither does Baylor. Neither does Ohio State or TCU (although those latter two are closer).

No team can win 55-44 one week and 14-13 another week with as much ease as Alabama. In the College Football Playoff era, the best team is the one that can beat you in the most conceivable ways.

Even before this week, I thought that team was Alabama.

After this week?

I am one step closer to knowing it.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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