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Sugar Bowl 2014: Alabama's Defense Is Who We Thought They Were

Many are calling Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma a shocker, and rightfully so. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma's quarterback, played great football, hitting his spots down the field in a way that he has not shown in game action all season.

However, what should not have surprised people was that a quarterback capable of hitting his spots would decimate this season's Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide defense that showed up for the Sugar Bowl was the exact same unit that showed up all season.

In the battle of the numbers versus the game film, two wildly different pictures of the Alabama defense were revealed. The numbers showed an efficient, suffocating defense that, entering the Oklahoma game, had only one poor effort to its credit, against college football's biggest star: Johnny Manziel. For the numbers side of things, Manziel was merely an anomaly, something that no one would duplicate, and that said more about Johnny Football than Alabama's defense.

For the film folks, the Texas A&M game was simply the start of the revealing process, as the Crimson Tide cycled through players at the cornerback spot opposite Deion Belue. John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve all got a go at the spot, and no one truly stuck at the position.

It was a very real area of vulnerability for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. The coaches looked for an answer, and through 12 games, there was no clear resolution. That uncertainty showed itself again in game 13.

Although it is just one player, at one position, the entire defensive system of the Crimson Tide suffers from missing a part. Saban's approach is predicated on each piece playing its own role, and when pieces have to start compensating for a missing, or unreliable, spot, the system breaks down.

And that's what this entire season was about for the Alabama defense.

A lack of faith in the cornerback position led to safeties needing to help compensate. When Vinnie Sunseri went down with a knee injury, the brains of the secondary went down with him, and as Landon Collins physically filled his shoes, the traffic direction in the back end was lost. Sub-par corner play with youthful inexperience at safety working to cover that hole yielded a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, for Alabama, very few teams on the schedule were capable of cooking up that recipe to truly serve trouble up for the Crimson Tide. That, largely, was a function of the schedule. Bo Wallace at Ole Miss was not a good enough quarterback to make it happen. LSU's Zach Mettenberger hit some spots, but the LSU defense could not keep them in the game for 60 minutes. Auburn noticed the weakness, and as Alabama was forced to protect it's corners with safety help, the Tigers gashed the under-manned run defense.

The rest of the schedule was simply a non-threat through the air. Thus, the numbers looked good, but the reality is Alabama only played two quarterbacks capable of exploiting its glaring weakness. At least until the Sugar Bowl happened, where Knight picked apart the struggling Alabama pass defense and reminded the nation that the Crimson Tide was far from invincible.

For Nick Saban and Co., this offseason will be about finding some answers on defense. Jackson played well in spots but has to stay healthy, and stay on the field, to be the next quality Alabama corner. Saban has to find his Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie type players out of the group he has, and the kids he's looking to bring to campus for 2014.

Trevor Knight and Oklahoma deserve every manner of praise for executing at a level the Sooners had not reached for the entire 2013 regular season. They saw the weaknesses in Alabama that showed all season, and Bob Stoops' team took advantage of them. 

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Jameis Winston Wants to Go to Texas If Jimbo Fisher Is Named Head Coach

No vacant job in college football has been talked about more than the Texas Longhorns' head coaching job since Mack Brown stepped down on Dec. 15, and if Texas is somehow able to poach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State, it might net a Heisman Trophy winner in the deal as well.

According to ESPN's Brett McMurphy, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston pledged his allegiance to Fisher by claiming that he would follow him to Texas if that situation presented itself:

Fisher finalized a five-year extension with Florida State on Dec. 31, per ESPN.com, but rumors regarding a possible jump to Texas persist.

In addition to the comment about following Fisher to Texas, Winston admitted that he went to great lengths to get Brown and the Longhorns program to notice him while in high school, according to McMurphy:

Despite Winston's obvious interest, Chip Brown of OrangeBloods.com is reporting that Brown didn't believe that the Longhorns could secure him:

There is no question that Winston poses an interesting scenario, but it seems highly unlikely on many fronts. Contract extensions don't necessarily prevent collegiate head coaches from taking other jobs, but Fisher would look really bad if he left for Texas right after renewing his deal with Florida State.

Also, transferring wouldn't make sense for Winston since he will be eligible for the NFL draft after next season. Most view him as the prospective No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, but transferring would force him to sit out a year, and it would delay the entire process.

This situation probably makes Florida State fans a bit uneasy, especially with the BCS national championship against Auburn set to take place on Jan. 6. There is little doubt that the Heisman Trophy winner and his head coach are focused on the task at hand, though.

Perhaps Winston should have been a little more diplomatic in his response, but it is difficult to imagine any of this coming to fruition regardless.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Cold Hard Fact for Friday, January 3, 2014

Fact: After Thursday night's win, Bob Stoops is the only coach in the BCS era to win a Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowl.

Bleacher Report will be bringing sports fans the most interesting and engaging Cold Hard Fact of the day, presented by Coors Light.

Source: ESPN Stats and Info

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Speculation Over: Art Briles Speaks for Himself, Says He's Staying at Baylor

Unless Art Briles is lying to, well, everyone, the Baylor Bears will keep their head coach. 

Amid rumors that he was close to interviewing with Texas for its head coaching job, Briles took to Twitter Friday morning to debunk the conjecture. 

If that wasn't enough, Baylor and Briles released a statement a short time later pledging the coach's commitment to the program. 

"I have no desire to pursue other coaching positions," Briles said. "As I've said many times, I am both humbled and honored to be the head coach at Baylor University, and believe we have something special going here. I look forward to leading the Bears onto the field next fall at McLane Stadium and defending our Big 12 championship that our players and coaches worked so hard to win this season.

"There is tremendous excitement for our program's future, and I look forward to many more great seasons at Baylor. There is tremendous commitment from our University leadership, athletic administration, coaches and student-athletes - it truly is a great time to be a Baylor Bear."

The Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday that Briles could speak with new Texas athletic director Steve Patterson after the Bears' Fiesta Bowl appearance against Central Florida. According to the Statesman, Briles was interested enough in the Longhorns job to take it if offered. 

"Two sources, including one close to Briles, have told the Statesman that Briles would accept the Texas job if offered," Kirk Bohls and Brian Davis reported; though in fairness, Patterson never commented officially on his interest level with Briles. 

Still, Briles was one of a handful of coaches to be connected to the Texas job. Others included Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, Louisville's Charlie Strong, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, UCLA's Jim Mora and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio. 

However, Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times tweeted that Mora is not leaving UCLA. 

Though Briles agreed to a 10-year extension in November, according to the Dallas Morning News, he was still considered a top candidate to succeed Mack Brown, who coached his final game last week in a 30-7 loss to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl after 16 seasons with the 'Horns. 

Briles has also loosely been connected to the Washington Redskins vacancy, where his former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III plays. 

But it doesn't appear Briles is going anywhere for now, in college or the NFL. It's a good thing too. Briles is a top-tier coach whose turnaround in Waco ranks among the best in the modern day era of college football. In six seasons with the Bears, Briles has compiled a 78-60 record. Baylor finished the 2013-14 season with an 11-2 record and its first Big 12 title. 

With the construction of a brand-new football stadium, Baylor is making a commitment to football that should have Bears fans excited. As long as Briles is coaching there, Baylor will be a competitor at the conference and national level for years to come. 

 

Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval. 

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Auburn Beware! Alabama's Sugar Bowl Loss Shows SEC No Longer Invincible

Before the Sugar Bowl, the Auburn Tigers could look at their resume with pride. An SEC title, one early-season loss to a solid LSU team and, most importantly, a win over the perceived best team in college football.

Now, after Alabama's 45-31 loss to Oklahoma at the Superdome, the Tigers will take to the Rose Bowl sporting nervous smiles and sweaty palms.

Auburn will represent the Southeastern Conference in the BCS National Championship against Florida State, looking to extend the league's incredible seven-year title streak. The Tigers will enter the game as hefty underdogs—FSU is currently an 8.5-point favorite per VegasInsider.com.

However, as vulnerable as Alabama looked in New Orleans, the Tigers should be heading to Pasadena with an even greater haunting feeling of uneasiness in their stomachs.

The Crimson Tide spent the entire season at No. 1 until they were stunned by Auburn 34-28 in the Iron Bowl—a result that will go down as one of the most shocking in college football history. However, many still perceived 'Bama to be the most talented team in the country.

Even after the Tide fell to OU, Sooners center Gabe Ikard still opined that Alabama was college football's best team, courtesy of SoonerSports.com:

Let’s be honest. They’ve been the best team in the country. They are the best team in the country. They lost one game by the craziest play we’ve all ever seen, and for us to come out here and beat them by two touchdowns when we’re a three-score underdog, it’s a big win for the program. It's a big win for recruiting, it's a big win for our coaches, it's a big win for every guy in this locker room.

A big win for OU also comes as a big loss for Auburn and the SEC.

The Tide weren't just expected to dominate the Sooners. It was a foregone conclusion that 'Bama would crush an Oklahoma team that had been one of the most inconsistent squads in the country all year long.

There was no way Alabama, a team that was predicted all season to win its third straight national title, would lose to the second-best team in a Big 12 conference that was amid a down season.

When the Tide effortlessly jaunted downfield to post a 7-0 lead on their first drive and then followed it up by intercepting Trevor Knight on OU's first drive, it looked like things would indeed grow ugly in New Orleans.

However, the previously superhuman 'Bama club was then brought back to Earth. AJ McCarron was intercepted on his next throw—one of five Alabama turnovers on the night.

As the Tide continued to look more and more human, the Sooners just kept taking advantage of their mistakes. In other words, Oklahoma did exactly what good, winning football teams do.

Meanwhile, the same old issues emerged for Alabama. The Tide faced problems at cornerback and on the offensive line early in the year and clearly failed to address those weaknesses throughout the season. In other words, Alabama failed to do what good, winning football teams do: improve throughout the season.

Now, all of a sudden, the previously impervious Alabama squad that was still the best team in college football was no longer. The corollary of 'Bama struggles: Auburn's previously shining resume lost its luster.

The Tigers made an apt national title contender because of their SEC title and because they beat the "best team in college football." Auburn still wears that SEC crown, but one of its diamonds—now revealed to be cubic zirconia—came unglued.

Now, well, good luck Tigers.

Auburn will take on the only undefeated team in college football, the real "best team in college football," which is guided by a Heisman Trophy winner and talent at almost every position.

Now that Auburn can't exactly hang its hat on the Iron Bowl win, it'll have to hope for this year's trend to keep up. Every BCS game has gone to the underdog thus far.

Now the SEC, which on the surface appeared as though it was deserving of more than the maximum two BCS berths, will depend on AU in the national title game to give it a BCS victory.

On one hand, this could all end up being moot. Auburn could continue its charmed season, take down Florida State and give its conference crystal football No. 8.

On the other, the Tigers could be annihilated by the Seminoles, giving the ACC a major victory and further proving that the SEC isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Regardless, after the failure by Alabama, it's all on Auburn to keep the SEC on top.

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Orange Bowl 2014: How Clemson Should Scheme to Stop Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Coming into the Orange Bowl, Ohio State may look like a M.A.S.H. unit on defense, but offensively the Buckeyes are working with a full complement of weapons for the Clemson Tigers to worry about.

The biggest task facing Clemson is something hardly anyone has done all season long—stop Carlos Hyde. 

You know—he of 1,408 yards, 7.7 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. 

After missing the first three games due to suspension, it took Hyde all of two games to get back in the swing of things for Ohio State. 

Following 41 yards on just five carries in his return against Florida A&M and 85 yards on 17 carries against Wisconsin, Hyde has been on fire on the ground. 

He's rushed for over 100 yards in eight straight games and has all 14 of his touchdowns in those eight games as well. 

Michigan State, widely considered the best defense in the country this year (Stanford's Tyler Gaffney vouches for that), couldn't even stop Hyde in the Big Ten championship game—allowing him 118 yards on 18 carries for a 6.6 yards-per-carry average. 

The only thing MSU was able to do was keep Hyde out of the end zone in the Big Ten championship game, and that's where Clemson needs to start in stopping Hyde from taking the game over. 

Clemson's rush defense comes into the Orange Bowl giving up 152.6 yards per game and has given up 19 touchdowns on the ground in 12 games. 

Those numbers aren't spectacular, ranking 50th nationally in rush defense, but Clemson can get it done from time to time against the run. 

Looking at Clemson's season, the most worrisome part of its defense against the run is that the Tigers have allowed the best teams they've faced to run all over them. 

Georgia opened the year by rushing for 222 yards, Georgia Tech ran for 248 yards, and South Carolina had 148 yards. 

The good news for the Tigers is that they've had nearly a month to study the Ohio State offense and Carlos Hyde specifically. 

So, how do the Tigers do what no team has done all season long? 

First of all is something that seems so simple but isn't—play gap-sure football. 

Carlos Hyde is a power runner with the ability to hit teams on the cutback. If Clemson wants to take care of Hyde's ability to get downhill fast, playing in the gaps will eliminate the ability for Hyde to look for the cutback when the original hole isn't there. 

The second issue for stopping Hyde is to win the line of scrimmage against the Ohio State offensive line. 

Of course, that's asking a lot since the Tigers are going up against The Big Ten's best offensive line.

However, Clemson's Vic Beasley vs. Ohio State's Taylor Decker provides a very intriguing matchup that the Tigers could win. 

Using Beasley's speed against Decker, and along the line of scrimmage as a whole, could be a way to negate the strength of the offensive line. If Beasley can play in the backfield on more than an occasional basis, it will stop the rush attack from getting going. 

Those are all things the defense can do to scheme against; however, there is one scheme that can really take Hyde out of the game—Clemson's offense scoring early and often. 

Clemson's offense could be the biggest help in controlling Carlos Hyde, especially looking at OSU's patchwork defense coming into this contest. 

If the Tigers offense can get out to the lead first and continue to play from out front, the Buckeyes will be forced to run less and pass more, and that's perhaps the best way to take Carlos Hyde out of the game. 

Clemson's hopes of winning this game rest on taking Hyde out of the game early on, and without that Ohio State's offense can pick apart the Tigers. 

Of course, all of that is easy to say, but saying it and doing it against Hyde and the Buckeyes has been easier said than done all season long.

 

*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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Red Cross Oklahoma Trolls Alabama on Twitter Following Sugar Bowl Loss

With Alabama fans still hurting from a devastating 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, Red Cross Oklahoma took to Twitter for some good old-fashioned trolling.

Mark Helm of AL.com passed along the tweet, which has since been deleted:

Ouch. 

The organization would later clarify that the joke was "all in good fun."

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Florida State vs. Auburn: Seminoles' Best Defense Is a Ball-Control Offense

A lot of the talk leading up to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game between No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Auburn has been how Florida State's defense—which ranks third nationally (268.5 YPG)—will slow down the Tigers' multi-dimensional rushing attack, which leads the nation at 335.69 yards per game.

However, this game may not even be decided when Florida State is on defense.

In fact, the Seminoles' best defense in this particular matchup is a ball-control offense, and they have the weapons to get it done.

While all of the attention seems to fall on Auburn's three-headed running game, the Seminoles' trio of Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. has been no slouch, either. The 'Noles finished third in the ACC in rushing offense with 207.38 yards per game, finished second in the conference with 41 rushing touchdowns and led the conference in yards per attempt at 5.69.

Freeman is the work horse of the group, rushing for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns on 162 carries this season. He's a prototypical every-down back, who can absolutely take over a game on the ground.

Luckily for Florida State, he doesn't have to.

Wilder and Williams have settled into roles as key contributors, and allowed head coach Jimbo Fisher to keep all of his running backs fresh for a full 60 minutes. That will pay off if the 'Noles get tested in the fourth quarter of the title game.

Williams knows that the best way to neutralize Auburn's offense is to keep it on the sideline, according to Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel:

Run game is going to be very key. To milk that clock, get that clock going down, because they score fast. …They key on our side of the ball, from watching them, is making sure we control the clock, making sure we control the line of scrimmage, and the run game is going to open up the passing game.

Unlike Auburn's rushing attack, which puts running backs in very specific roles that play to their strengths, all three of Florida State's key contributors on the ground excel in a variety of roles. That uncertainty makes them very dangerous in the title game.

So how does Florida's rushing attack match up with Auburn's defense?

The Tigers rank 10th in the SEC in rush defense, after giving up 164.15 yards per game this season. They're giving up an average of 182.10 yards on the ground per game against BCS AQ competition this season, and 202.8 per game since the start of November.

Auburn's defensive line rotates eight guys all game long, but linebackers Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost routinely take poor angles and struggle in the tackling department.

If the Seminoles can force Marshall and company into a spectator role, it will wear down Auburn's defense and open up those passing lanes off play action whenever they do decide to open things up.

With Winston taking snaps; Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene outside; and a porous Tiger pass defense, it's easy to say that the game will be won or lost through the air.

The path of least resistance for the 'Noles will be on the ground.

It's where they've excelled this season, and will keep Auburn's most dangerous weapon—that offense—on the sideline.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Biggest Takeaways from Oklahoma's Upset Win over Alabama

Most expected the Alabama Crimson Tide to roll past a seemingly overmatched Oklahoma Sooners squad during the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, but that simply wasn't the case.

Oklahoma took it to 'Bama in spectacular fashion and the entire landscape of college football could be changing because of it.

Some might argue that it was merely a blip on the radar for the Tide, but they will enter the 2014 season on a low note while the Sooners will have a ton of momentum behind them. If nothing else, the Sugar Bowl revealed a lot about both programs as well as their respective leadership structures.

As college football pundits still try to process what happened to Alabama, here are the three biggest takeaways from Oklahoma's shocking Sugar Bowl victory.

 

The Sooners Have Found Their QB

Perhaps the biggest thing that held Oklahoma back all season long was the inability to settle on a quarterback.

Trevor Knight started the year as the No. 1 guy, but his play was disjointed and he eventually got injured. Blake Bell stepped in and had his moments, but he didn't look anything like an elite signal-caller either.

There were plenty of questions surrounding who would start under center for Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but head coach Bob Stoops clearly made the right decision.

Stoops went with Knight and the freshman made sure that his coach didn't regret it. The young fireballer earned MVP honors by throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama's vaunted defense.

Nobody could have possibly predicted that Knight would play that well, especially since ESPN Stats & Info indicates that he had just five passing touchdowns overall heading into the game.

Strong quarterback play was the one thing missing from Oklahoma's game all season long, but that appears to have been solved. With that in mind, the Sooners will almost certainly enter next season among the top national title contenders. Alabama will be in the conversation as well, but with A.J. McCarron graduating, things could get tricky.

Knight's performance signaled big things for Oklahoma and potentially cloudy days ahead for the Tide.

 

Alabama Can't Get Up for Non-BCS Title Games

There is no denying what Nick Saban has accomplished since settling in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He is 74-15 as the Crimson Tide's head coach and 'Bama owns a 5-2 record in bowls. That includes three national titles.

At the same time, Saban seems to struggle when it comes to motivating his team to play in bowls other than the BCS National Championship Game. This is an issue that first manifested itself in the 2009 Sugar Bowl when Alabama was shocked by Utah.

That loss was slightly more surprising than Oklahoma's win this year, but the Tide were favored by 17 points over the Sooners, so it was a significant upset. Alabama expects to win the national title every year, so playing in the Sugar Bowl was understandably disappointing.

As Saban pointed out to Alex Apple of SportsDayDFW, there were simply a ton of deficiencies in Alabama's game against Oklahoma.

I don't think we played very well defensively in the first half, and never got any stops. We created a lot of the adversity that we faced with some of the things we did and didn't do…We didn't play very well on third down. We didn't get off the field on third and long three or four times in the game which were critical factors.

All of that points to a lack of preparation and motivation. It's difficult to get on Saban's case too much because of the success that he has had, but this was definitely a bad loss for the Alabama program.

It now creates a lot of questions regarding how the Tide will cope with life after McCarron and may erase Alabama as the favorite to win the national title next season.

Tide fans certainly hope that it was just a one-time slip-up that stemmed from the disappointment of not reaching the National Championship Game, though.

 

Bob Stoops Is the Best Head Coach in College Football

If the only measure of head coaching greatness is winning national championships, then Saban is the best in college football. With that said, there are other factors to take into account.

Saban had a stacked team that, by all accounts, should have run Oklahoma out of town in the Sugar Bowl. Stoops pushed all the right buttons on both sides of the ball, though, and there is absolutely no question that he outmaneuvered Saban in each and every way.

Stoops doesn't receive nearly as much credit as he deserves since the Sooners have won just one national championship under his watch, and that came way back in 2000. Oklahoma is in the mix every year, however, and Stoops has a lot to do with that.

By beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, SportsCenter noted that Stoops also became the first head coach in the BCS era to win every BCS bowl as well as a national title.

That is an immense accomplishment and most definitely shouldn't be ignored. Stoops had plenty of issues to overcome this season, but still managed to win 11 games, qualify for a BCS bowl and beat a team that many called the best in the nation.

Stoops did more than Saban with less talent in the Sugar Bowl and put his freshman quarterback in a position to thrive against arguably the best defense in college football.

Because of that, Stoops is the best head coach in the nation, and it's time for observers to recognize it.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Top Storylines Leading into 2014 National Signing Day

Bowl season is wrapping up, and that means national signing day is right around the corner. Let's take a look at some of the biggest stories to watch leading up to February 5. 

USC's new head coach Steve Sarkisian had a lot of success recruiting at Washington. Will he continue that success for USC by landing 5-Star recruits like John "Juju" Smith and Damien Mama?

Watch Barrett Sallee, Adam Kramer and Michael Felder break down what to watch going into national signing day. 

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital

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Virginia Tech Football: 3 Lessons the Hokies Learned from Sun Bowl Loss

The Virginia Tech football team suffered what might seem like a disheartening 42-12 loss in the Sun Bowl to the UCLA Bruins, but the game was still valuable for some of the lessons it can teach the team’s coaching staff headed into 2014.

The loss certainly looked ugly to the casual observer, and once quarterback Logan Thomas left the game after the crushing illegal hit he suffered, things were pretty much over for the Hokies.

But that doesn’t mean that the game was a complete disaster, or that it’s some sort of program altering result, as some fans and members of the media have suggested.

Instead, the game merely served to offer some important clues about what the coaches will need to fix in the offseason and what they should leave untouched.

 

Leal Has Plenty Left to Learn

Before Thomas left the game in the second quarter, the Hokies were very much in this game.

The score was tied at seven, and although the defense had given up some big plays and committed some costly penalties, the team seemed fired up.

Then Thomas went out, forcing redshirt junior Mark Leal into the spotlight, and things quickly went awry.

Even though Leal had likely gotten more reps in practice in the month leading up to the bowl game, there was still no way he could possibly be entirely prepared to take on UCLA’s formidable defense after attempting four passes all year.

Despite completing just 12 of his 25 passes, Leal still showed some good things.

He did get sacked three times, but he showed good awareness in the pocket, and although he didn’t necessarily seem like a threat to run, he still moved nimbly behind the line of scrimmage.

His accuracy wasn’t phenomenal, but he did have some nice throws, including this throw to the back of the end zone that should have been a touchdown had D.J. Coles not dropped it.

However, for spending four years with the program, he still made some mistakes that should be a little concerning. 

His interceptions were particularly ugly. The first was truly egregious, as he managed to heave the ball into a mass of defenders as he was about to be sacked, leading to a defensive score.

You’d hope that a veteran quarterback would recognize just how disastrous making a move like that can be, even if they’ve only been watching from the bench. After all, he’s had plenty of chances to watch Thomas do the same with similarly terrible results.

But for all of his issues, it seems like Leal has a complete vote of confidence from the staff headed into the season.

“Mark’s the next guy in line here,” Frank Beamer told The Washington Post. “He had a couple tough throws. He’ll learn from that. . . . That’s not a great situation for your backup guy to step into. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in Mark. I’ve seen him in practice too many times.”

However, that complete confidence doesn’t entirely seem earned when you consider the depth the team has at quarterback headed into 2014.

Between redshirt freshman Brenden Motley and incoming recruits Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, the Hokies won’t lack options to compete for the starting job. 

So while Leal probably deserves to be the one getting starter’s reps headed into spring practice, it doesn’t seem wise to unilaterally declare him the team’s quarterback of the future.

Ford will be enrolling in January, and it would really behoove Beamer and company to make this a full competition to truly see what the team has here.

Leal’s performance wasn’t bad enough to eliminate him from contention, especially given the circumstances, but he also didn’t perform so well that he should be beyond reproach. 

Instead, the Hokies need to take a good long look at the position and take their time to decide who will be the next starter at quarterback.

 

Stopping the QB Run

Prior to the game, it was abundantly clear the Hokies needed to find a way to contain UCLA’s Brett Hundley when he tucked the ball and ran, and they just couldn’t do it.

Hundley gashed the Hokies for 161 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries, with no run more backbreaking than this 86-yard score that came immediately on the heels of Thomas’ injury.

Tech’s front seven actually got a really good push on the play; in fact, four different defenders were in the backfield, collapsing the pocket around Hundley.

But, as has happened so often this season, the defensive line got too aggressive and overpursued, leaving the secondary vulnerable with their man coverage assignments. 

It’s a weakness in Bud Foster’s scheme that teams like the Marshall Thundering Herd and Maryland Terrapins have exploited to great success this season, and now that there’s tape on this deficiency, there’s little doubt other opponents will try to do the same.

Foster last made major adjustments to his scheme when the defense got scorched by Aaron Rodgers and California’s dynamic passing attack, and it sure seems like things are ripe for another change.

Mobile quarterbacks are the wave of the future in college football, and with teams that like to run spread offenses like the East Carolina Pirates and Ohio State Buckeyes on the schedule in 2014, Foster will need to make some kind of adjustment this offseason. 

The wily defensive coordinator even seemed to figure out how to keep Hundley in the pocket in the second half; he carried the ball just twice for four yards in the second half. But by then, the damage had been done, and poor tackling on the perimeter undermined his efforts. 

Foster will be losing seven starters from this excellent unit in 2014, and it’s abundantly clear that he’ll have to tweak his scheme if he wants to keep it competitive going forward.

 

No Staff Changes Necessary

Any big loss will prompt negative reactions, and perhaps rightly so.

But there’s been a lot of chatter in the media about this bowl loss somehow represented the loss of Tech’s identity as a physical team or that the days should be numbered for Frank Beamer. 

While the lopsided loss is embarrassing, attaching too much meaning to it is a generalization and a sign that people haven’t carefully examined the way the team’s performed the last few years.

Two years ago, this team was in the ACC Championship Game and lost the Sugar Bowl on an incredibly questionable call. These are exactly the types of goals that Beamer has always set for the program and held his players to.

Should the staff be aiming higher? Maybe. But making these last two years out to be a fall from grace is disingenuous.

Beamer has plenty left in the tank, and it would be stunning to see him go anywhere until at least the end of his contract in 2016.

And the final score doesn’t truly reflect what an excellent game the staff coached. 

Not only were Foster’s halftime adjustments to contain Hundley brilliant, but offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler impressed with his game plan as well.

Without starting running back Trey Edmunds, Loeffler had to get creative to generate any sort of running game, and in the first half, that’s exactly what he did.

By both using fullback Jerome Wright on option plays and running wide receiver Carlis Parker on jet sweeps like this one, the offense ran for 113 yards in the first half alone.

It was a creative solution to a complicated problem, and although the team had to largely abandon the running game as UCLA’s lead grew larger, it still represents ingenuity on Loeffler’s part. 

Combined with the staff’s recruiting staff, it seems more and more like Beamer made the right decision when he hired the new batch of offensive coaches last offseason and far from needing a change at the top, the program seems to be in good hands.

With a new president and, soon, a new athletic director at the university, it’s a tumultuous time for Virginia Tech athletics.

But one constant is Beamer’s excellence, and while the team may need some changes to ascend to the very top of the college football world, the Hokies are doing just fine for now.

There are some big questions heading into 2014, but this bowl game served to perfectly illuminate them and make the way forward very clear.

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Auburn vs. Florida State: Don't Sleep on RB Corey Grant Exploding in Title Game

Running back Tre Mason is the Heisman Trophy finalist and quarterback Nick Marshall is the trigger man that makes the offense click, but the third man in the multidimensional Auburn rushing attack who makes the whole thing tick is running back Corey Grant.

The native of nearby Opelika, Ala., and former member of the Alabama Crimson Tide, is the man who typically provides the third option in the running game on the edge. He has 650 rushing yards on 65 carries—a mind-boggling 10 yards per carry—and six touchdowns on the season.

At 5'11", 205 pounds, Grant has incredible straight-line speed. When he comes on the jet sweep, all he needs is one block to make a defense pay, move those chains and perhaps hit a home run that could drastically change the game.

With all of the attention on Mason and Marshall in the running game, don't sleep on Grant having a big day in the title game with some long runs at key times for Auburn.

"Those guys are going to come out and they're going to play and play and play until you break," Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith said in quotes released by the BCS National Championship Game. "We've just got to go out and make sure we don't break."

Watch Grant in the clip below from the opener against Washington State.

The read-option look keeps the linebackers inside, wide receiver Sammie Coates (No. 18) gets blown up by safety Deone Bucannon (No. 20) but still does his job by simply getting in the way, and Grant beats cornerback Anthony Carpenter (No. 4) to the edge and breaks a long touchdown run.

He serves his role as a threat on the edge well, and plays the role that Onterio McCalebb used to play in Malzahn's offense.

But the two are different backs. Grant is about 30 pounds heavier than McCalebb, and he packs a mean punch the rare times he decides to lower his shoulder.

In this touchdown below from the Georgia game, Grant gets loose in space and lowers his shoulder on safety Corey Moore (No. 39) shortly before crossing the goal line.

His success can be traced to scheme and speed, but it's accentuated by a power-blocking scheme.

In the clip above, fullback Jay Prosch and tight end Brandon Fulse got great blocks off the edge to spring Grant. This is something that's new for Prosch, who started his career in a more traditional system at Illinois.

"It changed when I got here this year because it's more there is some blocking like that, but most of it's like more, I guess, kind of finesse blocking at times," Prosch said according to quotes released by the BCS National Championship Game. "Just like running like coming around the edge and sealing linebackers, working up to DBs and having to be really careful with how hard you try to go at them, be able to have your weight on your heels and still be able to block them."

When Auburn runs speed sweeps with Grant, it typically does to the strong side. That will likely pit Prosch against "SAM" linebacker Christian Jones, who also drops down to defensive end at times for the Seminoles.

Watch that matchup, because when Auburn lulls the defense to sleep with the zone read up the middle, Grant will make his impact.

He has evolved into more of a changeup back, but one or two big runs in key spots could sting the Seminoles and put the Tigers in position to make a dent in the scoreboard.

 

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BCS Championship 2014: Top Challenges Facing FSU and Auburn

Auburn and Florida State reached the 2014 BCS National Championship Game because both teams present matchup nightmares for opponents.

Based on averages, the Seminoles and Tigers put up over 93 points per week in 2013. 

FSU was the top-ranked scoring team in the nation (53 points per game), while Auburn finished as the No. 10-ranked team (40.2). 

Given the fact that both teams have had a month to prepare for this championship matchup, you can be sure the coaching staffs have developed what they believe to be competent game plans for shutting down these high-powered attacks.

Here's a look at what both teams are up against. 

 

Biggest Challenge for Auburn: Shutting Down FSU's Receiving Corps

Jameis Winston is brilliant, as his Heisman Trophy suggests, but he had some help this season.

He had three receivers catch at least 50 passes for at least 929 yards and six touchdowns. 

Even before the ACC Championship Game, this receiving corps had proved to be uniquely talented, as pointed out by CollegeFootball 24/7:

Of the three, sophomore phenom Kelvin Benjamin presents a particularly daunting challenge for Auburn's defense in the upcoming BCS title game. 

Measuring in at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin leaps like a gazelle and has made some brilliant catches in traffic this season. He's the team's most dangerous red-zone threat, and his 14 total touchdowns was tied for fifth-most in the nation in 2013. 

Auburn's secondary will have its hands full, as noted by cornerback Jonathon Mincy via Charles Goldberg of Auburn Tigers.com

It’s going to be a big challenge. That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers. It’s a great opportunity that we can go out there to show that we can be a proven defense.

Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee offers a winning formula:

The Tigers have given up an SEC-worst 27 passing plays of 30 or more yards and 14 of 40 or more yards. Conversely, Florida State led the ACC and is fourth in the nation in pass plays of 20 or more yards with 71.

Auburn bends but doesn't break, so when an opportunity presents itself, whether it's generated from pressure or not, the Tigers have to pounce—just as they've done all year.

The battles between Auburn's defensive backs and FSU's receivers will be fun to watch, and they'll likely determine the outcome of the game. 

If Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Rashad Greene find ways to get open, then Winston will find them more often than not. And if Winston starts getting into a rhythm early, then the Seminoles could romp. 

 

Biggest Challenge for FSU: Stifle Auburn's Running Game

The juggernaut that is Auburn's offense has been nearly unstoppable all year long, and it was literally unstoppable down the home stretch. 

The two main players in Gus Malzahn's offensive attack are quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason—both of whom performed at their best in the team's biggest games. 

During the final four games, going up against Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri (all SEC opponents), the dynamic duo combined to average a staggering 427.5 total yards per game, totaling 20 touchdowns.

Yikes.

This freight train of an offense is screaming down the track, and it'll take nothing less than another juggernaut to stop it in its tracks. 

Enter FSU's defense, which finished the regular season with the nation's top-ranked scoring defense (10.7 points allowed per game) and No. 13-ranked rushing defense (116.5 rushing yards allowed per game).

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher highlighted defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan as a player who has contributed in a big way to those numbers, via ESPN.com:

"When you have those guys on defense, especially that can control that middle, it makes everyone around you so much better," Fisher said of Jernigan. "He makes two other guys great because he takes the double-team and the stuff you have to do to block him and account for him."

It's worth noting, however, that Alabama featured the nation's No. 4-ranked run defense before the 2013 Iron Bowl, allowing just three yards per carry before that game. 

The Crimson Tide gave up 296 rushing yards to Mason, Marshall and the Tigers that night. 

Hopefully Fisher's defense learned something from Alabama's failures because Auburn's offense is capable of making you pay for little mistakes. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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Cotton Bowl 2014: X-Factors in Huge Matchup Between Former Rivals

Both Missouri and Oklahoma State had expectations of making a BCS bowl at some point this season. Unfortunately, the two teams faltered and landed just outside of the BCS picture.

Luckily for college football fans, they ended up taking on one another in what is sure to be a great Cotton Bowl between two old rivals on Friday night (7:30 ET, Fox).

The two schools met 51 times when Missouri was still a member of the Big 12. Needless to say, they have a history that will be rekindled on Friday night.

With playmakers on both sides of the ball for the two teams, here are the X-factors that will be the difference in the Cotton Bowl.

 

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri

One of the most physically imposing defensive linemen in the country, Michael Sam has been a catalyst for the Missouri defense all season. With 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss on the season, Sam is a player to watch any time he touches the field.

The one thing that Sam is well aware of is the success that his defense, as a whole, has enjoyed this season. He actually gave Oklahoma State a bit of a warning ahead of their showdown on Friday, according to a tweet by David Morrison of the Columbia Daily Tribune:

The senior linebacker is enjoying his best season of his college tenure, with more sacks and tackles for loss in 2013 than he had in his prior three seasons combined with the Tigers. 

But going against an offense that spreads the ball around in the passing game—Oklahoma State ranks 29th in the nation in average passing yards to go with 24 passing touchdowns—the importance of rushing the passer will be of the utmost importance for Missouri.

One promise Sam did make before the game is that he will leave it all on the line for his final game as a Tiger, according to Morrison:

 

Tracy Moore, WR, Oklahoma State

Quarterback Clint Chelf has gotten a lot of credit for the success that Oklahoma State has enjoyed this season, and deservedly so. But Tracy Moore deserves at least a mention when talking about the Cowboys 10-win season.

The senior wide receiver has stepped up this season with 638 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Although he only had one touchdown through the first seven games of the season, he's proven to be one of Chelf's favorite targets with five touchdowns in his last five games and 75 yards or more in two of those games.

Much of Chelf's success this season has been due to the consistency of Moore. With the senior playing his last game in a Cowboys uniform, there is certainly reason to believe that Moore can have another breakout game against a weak Missouri pass defense.

Facing a defense that ranks 99th in the nation in passing yards allowed this season, Moore should have a huge game. With the Tigers also allowing over 10 yards per completion, expect Moore to be able to swing the momentum if the Cowboys are able to pull out the win.

 

Henry Josey, RB, Missouri

With a lot of attention being put on Dorial Green-Beckham and his breakout ability, Henry Josey has been able to flourish this season. The junior running back has shredded defenses this season with 1,074 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

Josey's success has led to him to being one of the top running back prospects in the 2014 NFL draft. An Instagram photo that he posted earlier this week had Mizzou fans worried that he would be leaving early, as he wrote "Last time getting to do this thang with my boys!! Lets make it a good 1."

Here is the photo:

But Josey made it clear that he will not forgo his senior season, according to Morrison:

Where am I going? I ain’t dying or anything. Of course I’ll be back. I’m not done yet.

It’s always a dream as a kid. You want to be able to get to the next level and further your career as a football player. I’ve probably thought about it a whole lotBut I can’t just sit here and say, ‘Yes, I’m leaving’ or ‘I’m staying.’ I haven’t made a decision about any of that. My main focus is on playing and having fun with my teammates.

Yes, I want to come back and yes, I want to graduate. That’s something I’ve made a promise to my grandma and a couple other people in my life. It’s a big decision. But I’m just staying in the moment right now and focusing on the football game.

With that out of the way, the Tigers will need a big game out of Josey. In his last four games, he has put together four straight performances of 95 yards rushing or more and totaled five touchdowns along the way.

However, the junior workhorse faces a stout rushing defense in Oklahoma State, which ranks 23rd in the nation against the run. The Cowboys allow just 132.9 rushing yards per game and are tied for third in the country with only eight rushing touchdowns allowed this season.

The matchup might not be in Josey's favor, but in order for Mizzou to open up the passing game, Josey's success in the running game will be crucial if the Tigers plan to pull off a huge win in the Cotton Bowl.

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Clemson vs. Ohio State: Top Matchups to Watch in 2014 Orange Bowl

The 2014 Orange Bowl, featuring the No. 12 Clemson Tigers and No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes, promises to be full of offensive fireworks, as both teams present matchup nightmares on paper. 

The two programs finished the season with just three losses between them, and they both rank in the top 10 nationally in points scored. 

Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins lead an explosive passing attack for Clemson, while Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde lead a potent running game for Ohio State. 

Here's a look at the biggest matchups in the upcoming BCS bowl game. 

 

Sammy Watkins vs. Ohio State's Secondary 

Ohio State's top pass-rusher, Noah Spence, won't be playing in this game after being suspended for three games, as reported by Erick Smith of USA Today:

Even with Spence in the game, Ohio State was going to have a tough time corralling Clemson's passing attack, according to Bleacher Report's Michael Felder: "With or without Noah Spence, the Ohio State defense is going to have its work cut out for it against the Clemson Tigers' attack. Spence is growing into a phenomenal pass-rusher, but the key to the Buckeyes stopping Clemson is the pass coverage, not just the pass rush."

Adding to the challenge, cornerback Bradley Roby isn't expected to play as he's dealing with a knee injury, as noted by ESPN Big Ten:

Ohio State struggled to defend the pass throughout most of the second half of the season, finishing with the nation's No. 103-ranked passing defense (259.5 passing yards allowed per game) while allowing 26 passing touchdowns.

With Roby.

Without Roby, going up against Sammy Watkins, who has wowed Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, Ohio State's defensive secondary could be doomed:

The talented junior receiver finished the year with 85 catches for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's a force to be reckoned with. Given Ohio State's weakened defense, he's going to go off at the 2014 Orange Bowl—likely his last game in college before he heads to the pros. 

 

Ohio State Running Game vs. Clemson's Defensive Front Seven

The Auburn Tigers have a shot at winning a national championship thanks to their top-ranked rushing offense. Ohio State has been nearly as impressive this season, however, coming into the Orange Bowl with the No. 3-ranked rushing attack, averaging 317.5 rushing yards per game.

Clemson features the nation's 50th-ranked rushing defense, allowing 152.6 yards per game, which is just above average, and the Tigers allowed 19 rushing touchdowns.

Carlos Hyde and Miller combined to rush for 2,441 yards this year—both players eclipsing 1,000 yards—and 24 touchdowns.

Hyde feels confident coming into the game, noting that he watched Todd Gurley run for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson earlier in the year, as reported by Kyle Rowland of ElevenWarriors.com:

It's worth noting that South Carolina's running game was stymied in part during the final game of the season—a loss for Clemson. Mike Davis was held to just 22 yards on 15 carries, while Connor Shaw did the bulk of the work on the ground for the Gamecocks, totaling 94 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries.

That doesn't necessarily bode well for the Tigers in this upcoming game because Miller is much more dangerous than Shaw in the open field. 

Needless to say, Clemson's front seven must play with discipline, leverage and fire in order to keep Ohio State's potent offense in check. In particular, defensive end Vic Beasley, who's known for his pass-rushing abilities, must be razor-sharp against the run in this one. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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Leonard Fournette Choosing LSU Will Be Key to Tigers' Rise in SEC

Regardless of whether he's No. 1 overall or just the No. 1 running back, Leonard Fournette is at the top of every prospect list in the country. When a player draws comparisons to Adrian Peterson, like he did from Albert Breer of NFL.com, it means they're pretty good:

Jeff Duncan, a columnist for NOLA.com, made it simple when talking about how significant the commitment is for LSU:

What Fournette does well is, well, just about everything. But his skills that will translate well to the SEC are his physicality and the fact that he's much more a downhill runner than even the likes of Jeremy Hill from this season. Fournette appears to be a guy who enjoys contact, but he has the elusiveness and the speed to get away from would-be tacklers in open space.

One intangible similar to Peterson that he also possesses is his nose for the end zone. The senior from St. Augustine High School finished his career with 88 touchdowns, and as ESPN Stats & Info reported, he put together a ridiculous all-purpose year in his final season:

As for comparisons to former SEC running backs that carried their teams, Eddie Lacy might be the most similar recent back. Though Fournette actually has an extra two inches in height to Lacy coming in as a freshman, he is only six pounds heavier than Lacy was during his junior campaign.

Aside from his physical talents on the field, St. Augustine head coach Cyril Crutchfield believes the reason Fournette has risen to the No. 1 ranking is because of his time he spends working off the field. 

"No doubt Leonard took his game to a new level," Crutchfield told Mike Strom of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association. "You look at his work ethic away from the game. He already was a hard worker, but his elevation of his work ethic elevated the team's work ethic."

The man that does just about everything well has pretty lofty expectations for himself. When he spoke to reporters at the Under Armour All-American Game, Fournette spoke about wanting not only individual success but also team success with the Tigers.

"I plan on winning a Heisman and a national championship with my fellow teammates," Fournette said, according to Jeremy Crabtree of ESPN. "I can handle the pressure. I can handle it."

Since 2004, eight of the 10 Heisman Trophy winners just so happened to go on to play in the BCS National Championship Game, including Jameis Winston this season.

If Fournette plans on winning the Heisman, his team will likely need to be contending for a spot in the four-team playoff during his tenure with the Tigers. That's what LSU fans want to hear with the best running back prospect since Peterson entering their backfield.

Whether it's his ability to carry a team with over 3,500 all-purpose yards in a season or 88 rushing touchdowns over four of them, shed tacklers or elude them, or meticulously work on the field or off it, Fournette is a special player that will dominate the SEC.

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Auburn vs. FSU: Ranking Top Playmakers in BCS National Championship Game

The 2014 BCS National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State could quite possibly be the first game in history that features too much offense. 

Of course that's not possible, just like one can never have too much bacon. 

All kidding aside, these two teams could easily surpass the 100-point threshold on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl, as both programs come into the contest with supercharged offensive attacks. 

Auburn's triple-option offense, led by speed-freak quarterback Nick Marshall, finished the season with the nation's top-ranked rushing attack, averaging an astonishing 335.7 rushing yards per game. 

Florida State, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, put up more points per game than any other team in the nation, averaging 53 points per game. 

With so much offensive firepower on one field, it seemed crazy not to rank the top playmakers. Here's how they stack up. 

 

1. Jameis Winston, QB, FSU

This one's easy. 

Winston blew away his competition in the recent Heisman race, earning the most points since Cam Newton back in 2010, as Warchant.com pointed out:

Nobody came close to taking him down in that contest of greatness, and similarly, the playmaker is the clear choice for No. 1 on this list. 

The redshirt freshman accumulated over 4,000 total yards, completing 67.9 percent of his passes while scoring 42 total touchdowns. He also led the nation with a passer efficiency rating of 190.1.

A capable pocket passer, Winston's athleticism comes in handy when he's flushed out of the pocket. He can either make a play with his legs or buy time for one of his capable receivers to get open. Once he sees an open passing lane, he has the arm strength to drop dimes.

 

2. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn

What do you get when a former cornerback takes over Gus Malzahn's triple-option offense? A nearly unstoppable monstrosity of a rushing attack that can score from anywhere on the field. 

Nick Marshall possesses raw speed that compares favorably to that of Robert Griffin III before his knee injury. He was excited about running Malzahn's offense before the season began, as Justin Hokanson of Rivals relayed:

13 games later, everyone knows about Marshall's "ability."

He totaled 2,782 yards in 2013, scoring 23 touchdowns while throwing just five interceptions.

In particular, Marshall's final three games against Georgia, Alabama and Missouri (741 total yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions), highlighted his unique speed and open-field skills.

Marshall is lightning in a bottle. Now meet the thunder.

 

3. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn

Only three players in the FBS scored more rushing touchdowns than Mason, who took the ball into the end zone 22 times in 2013. 

A patient runner who possesses excellent vision and a quick burst through the hole, Mason routinely wore down defensive fronts over the course of the year, finishing with 1,621 rushing yards on 283 carries (5.7 yards per carry). 

More impressive than his overall body of work is Mason's second-half surge. 

During Auburn's final five games, the junior toted the rock 30.8 times on average per game, gaining 868 total rushing yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. 

After such a brutal final stretch, the oft-utilized jackhammer of a running back needed time off to recuperate, as pointed out by Auburn Gold Mine:

Now that he's had a chance to recharge the batteries, so to speak, Mason will be as tough to stop against FSU as a locomotive picking up steam on a steep downhill grade.

 

4. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, FSU

When asked about which FSU playmaker would be the biggest threat in this upcoming game, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit picked receiver Kelvin Benjamin, noting his particular effectiveness in the red zone:

NFL draft analysts are drooling at the pro potential of the FSU playmaker. 

Coming in at 6'5" and 234 pounds, the sophomore looks the part of a No. 1 receiver at the next level, and he's been playing like it of late, too.

In his last three games, Benjamin has hauled in 17 passes for 392 yards (23 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. Those are ridiculous numbers, in case you didn't know.

He finished the season with 14 touchdown catches, which tied for the fifth most of any receiver in the nation. With his tremendous size and equally impressive leaping abilities, Benjamin has become Winston's most trusted target in clutch situations.  

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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Penn State Football: With Bill O'Brien in the NFL, Who Will Replace Him?

With Bill O'Brien's recent departure to fill the Houston Texans' head coaching vacancy, Penn State is back in the mix for a new leader.

The opportunity that O'Brien took seemed like one that nobody wanted back then. Just weeks after Joe Paterno's firing in November of 2011, a search committee was formed to find Penn State's next head coach. It took nearly two months for O'Brien to be named Paterno's successor.

This time around, it shouldn't take longer than a week.

The Penn State job is much more attractive now than it was two years ago. O'Brien is the main reason why, and it's hard to argue against that—even if you don't support his decision to chase a dream that he never shied away from acknowledging. 

Joyner is now tasked with finding the 16th head coach in program history. Public opinion suggests that Penn State need an individual with ties to the university. When asked during a press conference on Thursday what characteristics would warrant an individual for consideration, Joyner hinted that a Nittany Lion pedigree isn't a requirement:

At Penn State, I like to say that intercollegiate athletics, which is ICA, equals integrity, academics and championships, IAC. So first and foremost is integrity. Second is the ability to continue and build upon our great tradition of academics and the integration of our student athletes within the university. And then the third, in that order, but nonetheless tremendously important, somebody that has the ability to win championships -- to win Big Ten Championships and National Championships.

The program ultimately needs someone who will be around for the long haul. Here are a few coaches who could end up on Penn State's sideline next fall. 

 

James Franklin

The head coach at Vanderbilt, Franklin has made quite the impact since taking over in Nashville just three years ago.

Franklin got his start back in 1995 as a wide receivers coach with Division II Kutztown. He quickly ascended the coaching ranks, and within 10 years was on staff with the Green Bay Packers. After stints as the offensive coordinator at both Kansas State and Maryland, he accepted the head job at Vanderbilt. 

In three full seasons, Franklin has compiled a 23-15 record while appearing in a bowl game each year. Prior to 2013, Vanderbilt had never been to three straight bowl games. They've also never had two consecutive seasons with at least eight wins.

Franklin has been in terrific from a recruiting perspective, too. Vanderbilt has signed a top-30 recruiting class each of the last two seasons, according to Rivals.com. The Commodores are on pace for a third come February.

All of this was unheard of before he came along. It's safe to say Franklin has revolutionized Vanderbilt football. 

While he doesn't have any direct ties with Penn State, Franklin was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He played quarterback at Division II East Stroudsburg in Pennsylvania, and coming back to coach the most storied college football program in his home state could appeal to him. 

And as Bruce Feldman of CBS tweeted the other day, the thought of Franklin in Happy Valley is enough to make some coaches worry:

Franklin's name is the most popular amongst Penn State circles right now. We'll see if the university has the resources to lure him back home. 

 

Al Golden

If having Penn State ties is something the search committee will strongly consider, Miami's Al Golden should be the first coach they call.

A tight end in Happy Valley from 1987-1991, Golden began his coaching career shortly after that. He started off as a graduate assistant with Virginia, eventually finding himself as Penn State's linebackers coach during the 2000 season. 

Golden finally caught his break as a head coach when he was hired by Temple in December 2005. Inheriting a team that finished the previous season 0-11, he turned the Owls' program around. In just his fifth year, Temple had nine wins and played in its first bowl game since 1979. 

He eventually left for Miami, and just finished up his third season with the program. Golden led the Hurricanes to a 9-4 record this year, and is poised for a bright future in Coral Gables. So far in 2014, Miami has assembled the seventh-best recruiting class in the nation. 

Hiring Golden would make sense because of his Penn State roots and ability to revamp a program. With the foundation that O'Brien has laid, bringing in someone with a track record like Golden's is pivotal to keeping the momentum rolling in Happy Valley. 

Miami's impressive 2014 recruiting class could be a factor that weighs heavy on Golden's decision, if he were offered the job. But the allure of coaching his alma mater might be too much to pass up—according to reports, there is mutual interest right now between Golden and Penn State.  

 

Greg Roman

San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman isn't a name that's popping up a lot—but it's one that has before. 

A guy who has spent the majority of his career in the NFL, Roman did have a brief stint in the college game. He was Stanford's offensive coordinator from 2009-2010, prior to being brought to San Francisco when Jim Harbaugh took that head coaching gig. 

His lack of college experience could be viewed as a red flag—but not in terms of qualifications. Some may be wary of Penn State hiring another "NFL guy," for fear of that individual heading back to the pros like O'Brien did.

Before O'Brien was hired, Roman interviewed with Penn State for the position. As Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea wrote a year ago, Roman at the time viewed Penn State as a destination job:

Roman, a native of Ventnor, N.J., said the Penn State job is the kind of position that would be a job in which he could retire.

“[A] a job like Penn State is a lifetime job. That’s a job if I were to become the head coach there, I’d wouldn’t leave there,” Roman said Tuesday according to CSNBayArea.com.

“That’s a very unique opportunity at Penn State, so that’s something I’d definitely consider strongly.”

Penn State is in a better situation than they were in two years ago. With scholarship numbers slowly being restored, the possibility of the bowl ban being lifted and young talent all around, what's to say Roman doesn't hold the job in high regard—if not higher—as he did back then?

Judging by his comments, you'd think the search committee would give Roman another look. It's very unusual for a coach to openly talk about another opportunity the way in which Roman did. That alone speaks volumes about the passion he would have in heading up the program.

Whichever route Penn State decides to take, it'll need to do their due diligence on a variety of people to make sure the right hire is made.  

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Up-Tempo Offense Continues to Confound Nick Saban

NEW ORLEANS—Remember the times when Nick Saban’s Alabama defenses were impossible to do anything against?

When they allowed 8.2 points per game in 2011. When they brought teams to their knees in 2012.

It looks like, for now, those days are over. That is, if you know what you’re doing.

Alabama was torched for 429 yards in a shocking 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, leaving the Alabama faithful streaming out of the Superdome in shock of what had just taken place.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight had just lit up the Tide to the tune of 348 yards and four touchdowns, picking apart a suspect secondary and supplementing those throws with quick runs that kept Alabama’s defense off-balance.

And they did it all with a theme all too common to torching Alabama’s defense: a hurry-up tempo.

There were questions of who would even start at quarterback for the Sooners, but head coach Bob Stoops elected to go with the more mobile Knight over redshirt junior Blake Bell. The gamble clearly paid off.

In what wasn’t too much of a diversion from what the Sooners had done this year, Oklahoma came out flying, using many looks that Alabama saw in the Iron Bowl in its last game against Auburn.

“They were running side to side before we got our play,” Alabama freshman defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson said. “Getting us with those little gashes wore us down, got a little tired, but we started to fight back and control it.”

But it wasn't anything Alabama wasn’t prepared for.

“They played a pretty good game tonight and they did what they needed to do. Everything they did we expected them to do,” sophomore safety Landon Collins said. “The fast pace, the bubbles, the trick plays, they did everything we expected them to do. We just didn’t play to our standard.”

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, then, for Alabama. Many of the players simply blamed execution.

“We practiced all the plays they ran,” redshirt junior linebacker Adrian Hubbard said. “None of the plays were a surprise to us. Just execution. We were ready for what they had, we just didn’t execute the right way.”

It’s hard to tell if the gaudy statistics put up by teams that can execute the hurry-up offense against Alabama means the downfall of Saban and his dominant defenses. Certainly, adjustments will be made this offseason, and if it is simply a matter of execution, that is easily correctable with the right mindset.

But 2013 left the Alabama defense with more questions than answers in regard to the up-tempo style.

Auburn and Oklahoma (and Texas A&M to some extent) gave teams a blueprint on how to move the ball on Alabama. Saban’s challenge this offseason will be to find a way to slow down these offenses and show that he is still one of the great defensive minds in the game.

If not, the up-tempo style will only continue to haunt Alabama.

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Don't Look Now, Big-Game Bob Stoops Is Back with a Vengeance

"Big Game Bob" had turned into a nickname regarded as more farcical than complimentary. 

Bob Stoops, in his 15th season as Oklahoma's head coach, has won at least a share of eight Big 12 titles and a BCS National Championship in 2000-01. He's taken the Sooners to nine BCS bowl games, and earlier this season he passed Barry Switzer on the program's all-time wins list (158). 

But the reputation Stoops had built for winning games on the biggest stages had been knocked down a few pegs in recent years. The shine began coming off of the moniker when Oklahoma lost five BCS bowls in a row from 2004-09, including three national title appearances in 2004, '05 and '09. There was also the unforgettable Fiesta Bowl against Boise State in '07. 

Stoops was also 1-4 against the SEC in bowls, including a 21-14 loss to a Nick Saban-coached LSU team in '04. So when Stoops referred to the SEC's dominance in college football as "propaganda" during this past offseason, it raised more than a few eyebrows. It also caused more than a few people to point to the record books.  

Yet, as time winded down in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans for the 2014 Sugar Bowl, it was unmistakable that Oklahoma's 45-31 win over Alabama was the biggest for the Sooners since the '01 Orange Bowl victory over Florida State

The upset was magnificent based on the points spread alone. Oddsmaker Danny Sheridan had Oklahoma listed as a 16-point underdog heading into the game, the biggest in Big 12 history for the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners had already been double-digit dogs twice this season, against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Oklahoma got clocked by Baylor 41-12 in November and stunned the Cowboys in the Bedlam Game 33-24 last month. 

The win over the Cowboys pushed Stoops' team to 10 wins. That piqued the interest of the Sugar Bowl enough to extend an invite, much to the chagrin of anyone wanting Oregon to fill the at-large berth. Despite having athletes on both sides of the ball who can match up with any team, Oklahoma was given almost no chance to win. 

It was an understandable sentiment. Though Alabama had lost 34-28 to Auburn on the now-famous "Kick-Six" in an Iron Bowl for the ages, the Tide were still considered an elite team that lost on a special teams play that almost never pans out. 

Oklahoma, meanwhile, had been housed twice in the regular season (the other loss was to Texas, 36-20).

A major source of disgruntlement behind those losses centered around co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who incidentally enough was the starting quarterback when Oklahoma won its 2001 BCS National Championship. 

Replacing former quarterback Landry Jones with a combination of Trevor Knight and Blake Bell meant growing pains in 2013 for the Sooners offense, which had been one of the best in college football over the past several seasons. Oklahoma struggled to score consistently and oftentimes lacked an identity.

It wasn't until Knight returned from a knee injury in November that Oklahoma's offense began to find itself. Against Alabama, Knight played possessed and nothing like the one-dimensional quarterback that began the season. The redshirt freshman threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns, dropping dimes to receivers down the field and throwing darts in the intermediate passing game. 

“He showed everybody what we've been seeing for a couple of years,” said Stoops of Knight via The Oklahoman. “He has a chance to be really special.”

Knight should go into the offseason as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job for next season. 

For as much criticism as Heupel has received, and much of it was deserved, he also merits praise for developing Knight as a passer and putting together a brilliant game plan against the Tide. Oklahoma called timely screen passes, conducted drives with tempo and attacked the perimeter of the field, all with success. 

So much is made of Saban having a month to prepare for an opponent and the success he has as a result. Well, how about Stoops?

In that vein, this should go down as one of Stoops' best coaching jobs at Oklahoma. Between inconsistent, revolving quarterback play and injuries to key defensive players like linebacker Corey Nelson, getting 11 wins for the ninth time is impressive. 

What's more is that, as ESPN's Ivan Maisel noted last month, Stoops joins former Penn State coach Joe Paterno as the only coach to win every major bowl (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, Sugar—and even the Cotton.) 

With great fanfare 19 years ago, Joe Paterno of Penn State became the first coach to win every major bowl (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and, for you oldsters, the Cotton). With a lot less fanfare, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma has a chance to match Paterno if the No. 11 Sooners can figure out a way to knock off No. 3 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Stoops is 0-1 in the Sugar; Oklahoma lost to LSU a decade ago in the BCS Championship Game.

Mark that down as one of the quietest accomplishments of the past year, along with Stoops' 3-0 record against Alabama. As Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News notes, Stoops' first two wins against the Tide featured a pair of fake punts that earned Stoops his "Big Game Bob" nickname. 

It's only appropriate, then, that Stoops' third victory reminds us all that he can still win the big game. "Big Game Bob" is, at least for one night, a joke no longer.

 

Ben Kercheval is the Bleacher Report Lead Writer for Big 12 football. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval

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