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Sugar Bowl 2014: T.J. Yeldon Will Be Instrumental to a Crimson Tide Victory

The Alabama Crimson Tide have been one of the most dominant teams in the country for a number of years, and they will complete another quality season at the 2014 Sugar Bowl. 'Bama's explosive offense will be taking on the stingy defense of the Oklahoma Sooners, who are coming off a season-defining win over Oklahoma State. 

In the Sugar Bowl, sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon will be on display in one of the biggest games of his career.

The Sooners will be getting a full dose of Yeldon on Thursday night, an unenviable task by most standards. Although Oklahoma has a stellar defense, Yeldon will find some success after being named an all-conference player by The Associated Press.

As a sophomore, the running back has made statement after statement en route to a 1,163-yard, 13-touchdown season—all while splitting carries with Kenyan Drake. He has notched 133-plus yards in each of his last three starts and will carry that momentum into this game. 

The young runner from Daphne will become the face of Alabama football with the departure of A.J. McCarron, and this will be his coming-out party. Yeldon has received praise from many, including Oklahoma defender Chuka Ndulue, per AP:

For a guy to be that strong, you don't expect him to be able to move side-to-side. You need more than one guy to bring him down on most of the film we've watched and that's what jumps out to me.

Alabama has an efficient passing attack behind McCarron, but Yeldon will be the true star of the show on Thursday night in more ways than one. He does a whole lot more than run the ball, and that will be important for Alabama. He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make guys miss in space, and he is a good blocker in pass protection as well.

He plays a big a role in the passing game for 'Bama, but not just with catching the ball. Alabama has a reputation for an explosive offense, but it wouldn't have nearly as much success with the pass if Yeldon wasn't such a threat on the ground.

Believe it or not, he is also a part of the Tide's defense. He may not line up with the rest of the defense, but his ability to sustain long drives keeps the other team's offense off the field and the ball in Alabama's possession. 

Coming into this game, Yeldon is averaging 102 yards per game, third most in the SEC. He's progressed immensely from his freshman season, improving his numbers in every major stat category. When asked about how this season went, he modestly said it went "pretty well," according to Chris Kirkpatrick of the Decatur Daily.

Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report's SEC Lead Writer, believes that the 2014 Sugar Bowl could spark a Heisman campaign for the soon-to-be junior. Yeldon could start his case for the Heisman with a powerful performance in this game and ride that into his junior season.

While it is too early to have any firm candidate for the next trophy, one thing is for sure—Oklahoma will have its hands full with No. 4.

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Oklahoma Players Who Will Give Alabama Problems

If it weren't for Chris Davis' improbable 100-yard touchdown return on an Adam Griffith missed field goal, Alabama would be playing for its third consecutive national title game.

Instead, the one-loss Crimson Tide were relegated to tonight's Allstate Sugar Bowl where they'll matchup with an Oklahoma Sooners team thinking upset. How exactly does Oklahoma go about shocking No. 3-ranked Alabama? The Sooners will need a couple of players to step up big time in New Orleans.

Luckily, they have players that are more than capable of competing with the Crimson Tide's star-studded cast of characters.


Quarterback Trevor Knight

Sooners head coach Bob Stoops has yet to name a starting quarterback for the Sugar Bowlhowever, speculation believes that Trevor Knight could be the man getting the call. The 6'1" freshman signal-caller hasn't exactly shined from the pocket this season, throwing for just 471 yards on 47 completions in limited action this season. However, there's one facet of his game that makes him appealing in this game: His mobility.

In Alabama's lone loss of the season, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was able to beat the Crimson Tide defense with his legs and instincts. Marshall ran the ball 17 times for 99 yards and a score. He also used his mobility to set up the pass, especially on a late 39-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. Marshall ran left and caught the attention of the entire Alabama defense. Then at the last second, he whipped the ball to an open Coates who trotted down the field for the easy touchdown.

In an interview with Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman, Knight addressed the offensive game plan for the upcoming game.

We're gonna try to run the zone read and pick up the tempo a little bit on them just like those teams have done,” Knight told Kersey referring to the performances of Auburn and Texas A&M against Alabama. “We've got a great game plan coming in.”

If Stoops and Knight want to have any success against the stingy Crimson Tide defensive front, they'll have to emulate the successes of Marshall and Auburn.


Defensive Back Aaron Colvin

For Alabama, quarterback A.J. McCarron's best friend is big-play threat Amari Cooper. Taking away Cooper's big-play ability is crucial for a successful defensive showing by the Sooners. Senior corner Aaron Colvin should be the guy in charge of shutting down Cooper.

Colvin, a first-team All-Big 12 defensive back, has battled through injuries this season. However, after some much needed rest, Colvin looks primed and ready to make an impact against the Crimson Tide.

The 6'0" corner has the size to play with bigger receivers, but he also has the ability to step up in the run game and make plays. In 10 games this year, Colvin has had 49 tackles for Mike Stoops' defense.

Taking away McCarron's favorite target might be the first step in limiting a talented Crimson Tide attack.


Wide Receiver/ Returner Jalen Saunders

Often times, in order for an underdog to pull of an upset, it needs big plays that can change the scope of a game in a single snap. Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders can accomplish that in a multitude of ways.

Saunders, a speedy transfer From Fresno State, is pivotal to the Sooners attack on both offense and special teams. Against Oklahoma State in the final game of the season, he put all of his skills on display.

Saunders had a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown, had two carries for 49 yards and caught five passes for 39 yards, including the game-winning touchdown.

Saunders is without a doubt the "x-factor" in the Sugar Bowl. If he has a similar performance against Alabama like he had against Oklahoma State, the Crimson Tide could be in trouble.




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BCS National Championship 2014: Does Auburn or FSU Benefit More from Layoff?

Both teams could have done without the wait. In fact, Auburn and Florida State would have gladly suited up a week later, touched gloves and got right back to work. 

Each had momentum entering the long layoff before the national championship, one of the most valuable commodities in the sport. Over the course of a month—with banquets, the award show circuit and the holidays taking over—such momentum can be lost.

Yes, the long break before the BCS National Championship can take its toll, although this time can also serve as a positive. For Auburn and its most dynamic playmaker, quarterback Nick Marshall, this time could serve as a time for further growth.

For that reason, Auburn stands to benefit most from the long wait, although the process remains utterly unpredictable.

Full disclosure: I said the same thing about Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson at this time last year. Given his incredible skill set and development over the course of the season—a path not nearly as defined by Marshall—I thought Golson would take advantage of the extra time with Brian Kelly and deliver a monster performance against Alabama.

That… didn’t exactly happen. Basically the opposite happened.

Golson, of course, isn’t the first player to fall flat following the long break. He also won’t be the last. 

Potent offenses have come out sluggish, struggling with the unique scenario and unfamiliar routine. Perhaps it’s the unfamiliar gap in the action, allowing rust to settle in. Maybe it’s the bright lights and the enormity of the moment that creates predictable sloppy play. Or perhaps it’s simply an upgrade in competition—the simplest of excuses—resetting expectations because the team on the other side is better.

Regardless of why, the four-week break between games can be both a positive and a negative.

For Alabama, it made the most of this extra time in recent years, coming out firing in the past two BCS National Championships. For LSU and Notre Dame—the last two title game losers— it was a different story. 

Each team came out flat and overmatched, unable to do much of anything against Nick Saban’s squad. Blaming these lackluster performances solely on the layoff would be impossible and unfair. Saying either team was unable to capitalize off the extra time is simply stating facts. 

Auburn and Florida State will each try to avoid these types of slow starts, looking to play the role of the Crimson Tide. That’s easier said that done, of course, although there’s reason to believe each could get better with more time. 

The Seminoles have showcased machine-like production this year, a ceiling-less display of talent that could be developed further with more practice and prep. 

The defense will certainly benefit from the extra time to prepare for this dynamic running attack. It will attempt to do what Alabama struggled against, what Missouri really struggled against and what every team in the SEC struggled to figure out.

On offense, Jameis Winston—still just a redshirt freshman, which is easy to forget—could also benefit from more time, snaps and film study. As easy as he has made it look at times, he’s still learning the position.

Florida State could take full advantage of this break, and yet it’s Auburn that could benefit more from this time. The Tigers probably lost the most momentum during this time, putting the offensive boom, miraculous finishes and exponential development on ice. Still, they also have plenty of room to grow.

"This group has really, each game, improved,” Malzahn said to Joel A. Erickson of Al.com. "It is hard to improve each game, especially in college football, but our guys have done it, and that's a tribute to them." 

It may not matter in the end, with the depth and overall team talent propelling the favorited Seminoles to a win, but Nick Marshall’s progression serves as the wild card entering the matchup. 

His development throughout the season was one of the biggest storylines in all of football, and he can and will get better. Giving him extra snaps and film room sessions with Gus Malzahn is an enormous luxury at a time when his game is taking off.

He can run, this much we know. He can also throw the ball, but he hasn’t been tasked to do it much given the success of the ground game. Earlier in the year, however, it was Marshall's arm that kept his team undefeated against Mississippi State.

In the last six games, Marshall threw more than 20 passes only once. Against Florida State, he will be put in more 3rd-and-long situations, and that rare passing threshold for this offense will be tested.

How much did Marshall grow in a few extra weeks of work? Will his rapid path of development continue, or will it finally hit a wall? Will the incredible stage have an effect on how he plays?

These are the unanswerable questions that come with the national championship, and thankfully the long wait is almost over. 

"We're a quarterback-oriented offense," Malzahn said to ESPN.com. "If he plays well, we play well. If he doesn't, we don't.”

It’s that simple, really.

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Florida State vs. Auburn Betting: BCS National Championship Odds, Prediction

The SEC has won all seven BCS Championship games and covered the spread each time as well, but neither the oddsmakers nor the computers are picking that streak to continue.

The No. 2 Auburn Tigers will look to extend the SEC’s reign over the national title game against No. 1 Florida State Seminoles, the nation’s only unbeaten team. But they were 8.5-point underdogs to break the streak engineered by the freshman Heisman winner, quarterback Jameis Winston.

The computer is predicting a one-sided game that soars over the total, but Auburn has bucked long odds several times this season to earn this opportunity.


Auburn-Florida State point spread: Florida State opened as 6.5-point favorites, but the number was approaching nine points as of Jan. 2; the total was 67.5. (Line updates and matchup report)


Odds Shark BCS computer prediction: 49-35 Florida State


Why Florida State will cover the BCS title game spread

The Seminoles lay claim to the most complete and dominant team in all of college football. Florida State ranks sixth in total offense with the most efficient passer in the country in Winston and a potent rushing attack led by Devonta Freeman.

Their third-ranked defense makes the Seminoles the only team ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense. Florida State also ranks second in the nation in turnover margin, with an impressive plus-17 differential.

Auburn’s offense may stack up against the Seminoles, but on the defensive side of the ball, Florida State runs away with it.

And FSU historically dominates bowl spreads, going 9-0-1 ATS in its last 10 bowl games.


Why Auburn will cover the BCS title game spread

No matter how they did it, the Tigers (12-1) survived the SEC. There’s no denying the dominance of the conference, as the SEC has won seven straight national titles, covering the spread each time as well, according to the BCS title game betting history.

Auburn is 4-1 against the spread in its last five bowls and has thrived as an underdog. The last two times Auburn entered the game as an underdog of nine points or more, it won the games outright.

The Tigers lead the NCAA in rushing, with 335.7 yards per game, and elite defenses don’t slow them down, shown by their 296 yards on the ground against Alabama.


Smart Pick

It can be a scary bet to lay more than a touchdown against the No. 2 team in the nation, but don’t let that deter you from Florida State in this one. The Seminoles are 11-2 as a favorite of nine or more points and are 9-0-1 against the spread in their last 10 bowl games.

Florida State has proven that, not only can it beat the best teams in the country, but it can blow them out. In the four games against ranked opponents this year, the Seminoles won by a combined score of 200-35.

This year, the SEC’s reign comes to an end.


BCS Championship Game Trends:

Florida State is 9-0-1 ATS in its past 10 bowl games.

Florida State is 11-2 ATS as favorite of nine or more points.

Favorite is 4-1 ATS in the past five BCS title games.

SEC won and covered all seven BCS title games.

Auburn is 4-1 ATS in its past four bowl games.

Auburn has won outright in its past two times as an underdog of nine or more points.


Note: All spread and odds data powered by Odds Shark—follow on Twitter for injury updates and line move updates.

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B/R CFB 250: The Overall Top 250 Players in College Football

Editor's note: This is the final installment in Bleacher Report's CFB 250 for the 2013 season. National College Football Lead Writer Michael Felder ranks the top 250 college football players, based on his scouting evaluations and scoring for his rankings at each position.

In this overall ranking, Felder lists players across all positions. Where players have the same score, he breaks the ties based on which player he'd rather have playing for his team right now.

As with the entire series, the evaluations and rankings are based on players' performances as collegians in 2013. They are not based on players' pro potential.

However, B/R NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller does offer a draft projection for each player (including players who would not be in the 2014 draft).

You can read more about the series in this introductory article. See the CFB 250 page for all the positions.

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Auburn vs. FSU: Biggest Obstacle for Both Teams Heading into National Title Game

Don't look now, but the 2014 BCS National Championship Game is finally on the precipice of arrival. I mean, there's still four days between now and when the No. 2 Auburn Tigers and No. 1 Florida State Seminoles will meet. But...we're almost there!

If you've somehow gone into a winter hibernation filled with eggnog and champagne and forgotten who these teams are, well, it's tough to blame you.

By the time Florida State and Auburn take the field in Pasadena, Calif., it will have been exactly one day less than a month since they were both in action. The ridiculous prolonging of this bowl season at times turns this title game into a farce, a high-cost spectacle that rarely produces actual good football.

It took about six seconds last season before we all realized Alabama would turn Notre Dame into toothpaste. 

As we say goodbye to the BCS, it's hard not to look back and realize how little we've learned. Only twice in the past decade has the national championship game come down to one score, and of those contests, only USC-Texas in 2005 truly felt like something special. Whether it's due to the layoff or merely a sample bias, something clearly was awry with the system.

That said, it's still the one we have. For now. And looking at these rosters, you start to get a little fear. No one ever wants to go out with a dud.

With that in mind, then, let's check in on the biggest obstacle facing both these clubs. 


Auburn: So. Much. Talent.

The problem for Auburn in this game isn't necessarily to identify one player and curtail its game plan around stopping his effect. And that's not because the Seminoles are an offense run on socialistic principles where all get their equal share. There are stars on this roster—whom it would benefit the Tigers to stop.

Unfortunately, stopping one star merely means another equally talented player will be able to take advantage.

NFL talent adorns this Seminoles roster to the point you have to wonder how all these players got out of the SEC's grasp. There are six Florida State players in the top 100 of ESPN's 2014 NFL Draft prospect rankings (subscription required for full list), and 10 who would theoretically be drafted if those rankings represented the order of selection.

Keep in mind that zero of those players are named Jameis Winston, who will not be eligible to leave school until after next season. The Heisman winner was the most consistently excellent player in college football, a rare combination of otherworldly physical skills and charisma. Only Bryce Petty and Zach Mettenberger remotely approached Winston's uncanny 10.95 yards per pass attempt. He dipped below a 70 adjusted QBR in just one game all season long.

Keep in mind, again, that this is a freshman quarterback. You would have to dig through the all-time coffers to make a proper judgement, but Winston might be the most polished freshman quarterback in college football history.

Of course, it helps that he has the type of athletes at skill positions that would make NFL quarterbacks' mouths water. Running backs Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams each average at least 5.8 yards per rush; Williams averages more than eight. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is one of the most explosive wideouts in the nation, Rashad Green is one of the most steady and Kenny Shaw is a damned good third option.

I say this all for one reason: Auburn has to stop those guys. Together. On a football field. With people watching them and stuff.

This is important, for a second reason: Auburn's defense might not be equipped for such a task. The Tigers grade out fine, but unspectacularly on that end. They're 38th in points allowed, and Football Outsiders' defensive S&P has them 32nd. 

Missouri dropped 42 points in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn has given up at least 20 points eight times this season. Florida State has done so once. 

It's anecdotal information, and we won't know how these teams fare against one another until the opening kickoff. But for Auburn to have a chance in this game, it's going to need an absolutely out-of-this-world performance from its defense. I'm just not sure this team has it in them.  


Florida State: Can the Seminole Defense Slow Down Tre Mason? 

For all of the excitement about Winston and the offense, it sometimes goes unnoticed that Florida State has the best defense in the country as well. The Seminoles possess a propensity for stifling opponents on the scoreboard, with 10.7 points allowed per game leading the nation. 

The power of the defense is built in Jeremy Pruitt's elite secondary. Led by likely first- or second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State has suffocated passing games this season. Opposing quarterbacks averaged an FBS-low 152 yards per game through the air, throwing just 12 touchdowns against 25 interceptions. They completed a mere 52 percent of their passes.

Remember Clemson's Tajh Boyd? He threw for just 156 yards, throwing two picks and completing only 17 of 37 passes. Miami's Stephen Morris? He fared a little better, if you're satisfied with 192 yards, two picks and two touchdowns. No matter the talent level, Florida State's secondary has destroyed opposing quarterbacks.

Just one little thing: All that is just fine with Auburn.

The Tigers may not vomit at the sight of a forward pass, but Gus Malzahn's offense gets pretty close to it. They rank in the bottom 20 of FBS in passing yards per game, with Nick Marshall's passing attempts meant only to keep defenses on their toes. Malzahn has built an offense that serves as a polar opposite to the high-flying passing attacks you see in major football today and created something arguably more exciting.

Spearheading that charge is Tre Mason, the spectacular junior running back whose SEC title game was one of the most impressive masterpieces of 2013. He rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns against Missouri, helping him finish sixth in the Heisman voting. It was the second-most rushing yards in Auburn history and concluded a red-hot run that helped push Auburn to the title game. 

And while Florida State is still a stellar run defense, it pales in comparison to its passing game. Instead of being the best by a country mile, Pruitt's unit is merely excellent. The Seminoles allowed 116.5 rushing yards per game, ranking 13th in the nation. Just ahead of them? Alabama, which allowed Mason to go for 164 yards in the Tigers' upset victory.

Oh, and Missouri? It was a top-15 run defense before Mason and Malzahn's rushing attack came barreling through Atlanta. Anyone who can thrash such elite front sevens in back-to-back games deserves all the adoration he can get.

One could say the month layoff will allow Auburn to figure out how to stop the read-option handoffs, but that seems nonsensical. Everyone knew what was coming. No one in the state of Alabama would even lie and pretend the Tigers have an interest in passing. What makes Auburn and Mason special is that they can scamper all over elite defenses by keeping things simple. The play calls are the same, the formations are just different.

Sometimes, when you're at a talent disparity, just keeping it simple is for the best.


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Sugar Bowl 2014: Key Players for Alabama and Oklahoma in Exciting Matchup

This year's Sugar Bowl is a battle of two traditional football powerhouses, Alabama and Oklahoma, but smaller battles across the field will determine this contest. 

While Alabama will be motivated after failing to reach the BCS National Championship, it has proved to be more vulnerable on defense than we've seen in years past. Of course, Oklahoma has played with two quarterbacks rotating throughout the season, so it brings its own questions into this game.

So, which players must step up for each team? Which players have the ability to make a difference? Let's find out.


Blake Bell and Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

The pair have shared quarterback duties for much of the season, with Blake Bell being the better passer (1,648 yards, 12 touchdowns, five interceptions) and Trevor Knight the more dangerous runner (438 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, two touchdowns).

With Nick Marshall and Auburn having so much success against Alabama utilizing the read-option, Oklahoma could mimic that game plan and utilize Knight in a similar fashion. While he isn't as dangerous as Marshall, Knight's ability to run the ball could give Alabama fits. 

If nothing else, Oklahoma's ability to run either the read-option with Knight or a spread attack with Bell should give Alabama trouble as it attempts to devise a defensive game plan. So long as each player produces in his role and protects the ball, Oklahoma should be able to find a way to attack this tough 'Bama defense.


T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

Oklahoma has been quite good against the pass this year, allowing just 198 passing yards per game (15th in the nation) and 15 touchdowns through the air while picking off 14 passes. So AJ McCarron and the passing game might find themselves stymied a bit in this game.

That means talented runner T.J. Yeldon will have to step up for the Crimson Tide. He's been excellent again this season, rushing for 1,163 yards and 13 touchdowns. If he and the 'Bama offensive line can control the line of scrimmage and wear down Oklahoma's front seven, it will be a very long 60 minutes for the Sooners.


Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma

Let's be honest—few teams can just line up across from Alabama and hit them in the mouth. Instead, to beat a powerhouse like the Crimson Tide, you need to win other battles: protect the ball and force turnovers, fool them with your offensive game plan, get a special teams touchdown, generate chunk plays.

The latter two are where Jalen Saunders comes into play. The diminutive wideout is a dangerous pass-catcher, sure, but he's also Oklahoma's big-play threat.  And Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix knows that the Crimson Tide will have to keep a keen eye on Saunders' every move, as reported by Trey Iles of NOLA.com:

“We have to keep an eye on him at all times,’’ said Clinton-Dix, whose team will face the Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday. “I think he’s the best weapon if you ask me. He’s a small guy but that guy is amazing. He’s fast. He can get open and runs great routes. So we have to keep our eyes on that guy.’’

Oklahoma State would agree.

Saunders scored two touchdowns in the Sooners’ 33-24 victory, including catching a 7-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left that gave Oklahoma a 27-24 lead.

He has 56 receptions this year for 654 yards and six touchdowns. But his pass catching ability is only half the story. Saunders is a dangerous punt returner. He averages 16.8 yards per attempt, sixth best in the nation, and has scored twice.

If Saunders can hit on a few big plays against Alabama, it will go a long way for an Oklahoma team that will find itself facing a more talented overall team, at least on paper. Saunders might also keep the Crimson Tide from playing too aggressively on defense, as they might fear he'll beat them on a big play. 

Oklahoma will need a few things to go their way if they are to beat Alabama. But a huge game from Saunders would certainly tip the scales closer to their favor.


C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama

For the second straight year, C. J. Mosley was named an Associated Press first-team All American. He also won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. It's no wonder, as he not only finished the year with 102 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five defensed passes, but he's also received comparisons to Ray Lewis.

Yes, Ray Lewis. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell compared the two, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com

He's similar in his ability to communicate, his sense, his football senses, the way he sees the field, gets everybody lined up. He's a really good football player and as good a linebacker as we've seen this year, and we've gotta do a great job of understanding where he's at and making sure we block him.

When we played Ray Lewis when I was in National Football League, I was just amazed where he always seemed to be in the right position all the time. That's the way Mosley is.

High praise, indeed, and praise Mosley will have to live up to, as Oklahoma will surely look to establish the running game early. If the Sooners turn to Knight to run the read-option, you can bet Mosley will be tested. 

How he answers that test will be a major factor in this game. Given that he generally wins his battles, however, don't expect Oklahoma to get the best of the nation's top linebacker.


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BCS Championship 2014: Most Important Matchups for Auburn vs. Florida State

Florida State or Auburn better hope to come out on the right end of the title game's most important matchups if it wants to win the national championship.

Football is a game of matchups. How can one team stop the opposing team's best players?

Much of Auburn's game plan will focus on stopping Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner threw for 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. Winston has been a sensation since Day 1, and there's little that makes you think he'll shrink from the spotlight in the national championship.

It isn't all about Winston, though. Plenty of star players look poised to have a major say in how the game unfolds.

The victor may well be determined by who wins these three matchups.


Tre Mason and Nick Marshall vs. Florida State Front Seven

Auburn ranks first in rushing offense, racking up 335.69 yards a game. Nick Marshall and Tre Mason have been marvelous on the ground.

Florida State gave up only 116.54 yards a game, but it's safe to say the Seminoles haven't faced an offense like this. Nobody has found a solution for the Tigers' simplistic yet effective running game.

The Missouri Tigers came into the SEC Championship with a respectable defense, yet they conceded 545 yards rushing.

The key will be stopping Marshall and Mason in the second level of the defense.

Mason isn't a speedy home-run back, so Florida State will have to ensure that he's wrapped up after four or five yards so those runs don't turn into 10- or 15-yard runs.

Marshall is a great athlete, though, with the speed and athleticism to elude the defense in the open field.

If Auburn finds success with both Marshall and Mason, the Noles won't have a chance.


Dee Ford vs. Florida State Offensive Line

Although Auburn ranks 54th in sacks per game, the Tigers have a sweltering pass rush. Gus Malzahn and Ellis Johnson are adept at finding new ways to get after the quarterback. If the QB doesn't get sacked, he's at least been pressured enough to disrupt his throw.

Dee Ford has been the standout performer.

The senior defensive end leads the team in both tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (8.5). He's so quick off the edge and more than capable of being a nuisance in the pocket.

Malzahn praised Ford last week, via James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser:

“There’s no doubt he is an impact player,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Ford. “He has the ability to make a play when the game is on the line. He’s showed that this year. He plays his best games in the biggest moments, and we are going to need him to do that again.”

If Ford can hassle Winston in the pocket, the problems in Auburn's secondary won't play a big role in the national championship. After all, the best way to stop an opposing team's aerial attack is preventing it from getting off the ground.

The Tigers rank 103rd against the pass, surrendering 259.3 points a game. Should the 2013 Heisman winner get time in the pocket, he'll find open receivers.

Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw all had at least 900 yards receiving this season, and they're all more than capable of getting loose for big plays.


Florida State vs. Fate

As dumb and simplistic as it sounds, some teams lead charmed lives.

Growing up in Ohio, I watched as the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes combined talent with a little bit of magic en route to a national title. Time and again, the stars aligned for the Bucks, whether it was Craig Krenzel's touchdown to Michael Jenkins against Purdue, Chris Gamble's pick-six against Penn State or the entire national championship against Miami.

You get the same feeling with Auburn. Everything has fallen into place for the Tigers. They've had the "Kick Six" and "Prayer at Jordan Hare," not to mention how Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Michigan State and Baylor all faltered, allowing a one-loss team into the title game.

At this point, who's going to doubt Auburn? Florida State may have lost before it even takes the field.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: UCF Knights Knock Off Baylor Bears in Shootout

GLENDALE, Ariz.—It was the biggest win in UCF history, as the Knights outscored an offense-heavy Baylor Bears team, 52-42, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Wednesday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.  

Junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who is a potential top NFL draft pick if he decides to leave school early, led the offense with 301 passing yards, 93 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. 

While Bortles continued to give the Baylor defense problems, dangerous running back Storm Johnson and wide receiver Rannell Hall were in on the action as well. Johnson rushed for an impressive 124 yards and three touchdowns, while Hall recorded 113 receiving yards and two touchdowns. 

Baylor junior quarterback Bryce Petty tried to rally his team back into the game near the end of the second quarter with an incredible touchdown run, but the Bears were never able to take a lead in the game. Even though Baylor knotted things up at 28 with 10 minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the defense was unable to contain the UCF defense. 

A critical part in the game occurred on a pass interference call against Baylor defensive back Sam Holl near the end of the third quarter on a UCF 3rd-and-5. Bortles eventually scored on a 15-yard touchdown run and put the Knights up 42-28 with 13:37 remaining in the fourth quarter. 

Penalties appeared to be Baylor’s problem for the entire game, as the Bears had 17 penalties for 135 yards, while UCF had just four for 40 yards. 

In UCF’s first season as a member of a BCS-qualifying conference, it won an American Athletic Conference title and a Fiesta Bowl. It also won 12 games for the first time in school history. 

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: UCF QB Blake Bortles' Rags to Riches Road to BCS Glory

Some players are under-recruited. Then there's Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles.

It wasn't just that Bortles flew under the radar coming out of Oviedo High School in 2010, getting overlooked as a quarterback prospect by the big three Florida Programs (Florida, Florida State, Miami); he didn't even intially have the attention of his own head coach, George O'Leary. 

Midway through Wednesday night's Fiesta Bowl between Baylor and UCF, Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports tweeted a fascinating recruiting nugget about the redshirt junior: he wasn't UCF's first choice to sign at quarterback. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. 

A couple of hours after Feldman published that tweet, the Knights sealed a 52-42 victory over the Bears. Bortles finished with 301 yards passing, another 93 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. He also outplayed his counterpart, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, and was named the bowl's Offensive Player of the Game

Bortles' Fiesta Bowl performance confirmed the rising hype surrounding him over the past month or two. Depending on whether he leaves for the NFL now or in a year, Bortles could be a first round draft pick. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller graded Bortles as the 10th-best prospect on his Dec. 11 Big Board. Miller compares Bortles to Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans, though with more accuracy.

Sports Illustrated NFL insider Peter King also went on the record last month during NBC's Sunday Night Football and said at least one NFL organization thinks Bortles is the best quarterback in the upcoming draft class—should he decide to declare.  

"I've spoken to a team that's likely to have a top-10 pick, and they like him better than any quarterback in this draft," King said (courtesy of NFL.com.

The dilemma for Bortles, as Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage tweets, is figuring out which voices he should listen to. 

Either way, Bortles has come a long way from an unheralded 3-star recruit, according to 247Sports. 

In fact, there was a time when Bortles sat behind Jeff Godfrey, the former starting quarterback who is now a wide receiver for the Knights. Bortles didn't really begin seeing meaningful playing time until the middle of the 2011 season. 

Against Baylor, Bortles connected with Godfrey five times for 60 yards. 

And what of the other quarterbacks who reportedly piqued O'Leary's interest first? Rees wrapped up his final game with Notre Dame in a 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers. He finishes his career—which has had its share of ups and downs—third in school history in passing yards (7,670) and second in touchdown passes (61). 

Strauss redshirted at Virginia in 2010 before transferring to Richmond, where he was named Third-Team All-CAA in 2013. Siemian is a redshirt junior who threw for 2,143 yards for Northwestern this season. Brosius previously played at North Carolina State before leaving the program in 2012 to pursue a baseball career. 

None of them have come close to generating the buzz that Bortles has. 

It's a classic underdog story, one that UCF was familiar with as a 17-point underdog and one that college football embraces.

There are still three BCS bowl games remaining—the Sugar, Orange and BCS National Championship—so there's plenty of time for more postseason drama. But Bortles and UCF hold the title of the underrated team that defied the odds. 

No matter what Bortles' future holds, the Knights will always have that. 


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

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Winners and Losers of 2014 New Year's Day College Football Bowl Games

For many, New Year's Day is all about recharging for the coming year—but for others it's all about college football.

For the latter group, the day was a smashing hit with a little something for everyone.

Michigan State and Stanford put on a gripping defensive battle in the Rose Bowl, while UCF and Baylor provided some contrast immediately after in a high-scoring Fiesta Bowl.

The Big Ten and the SEC squared off throughout the day, as Iowa took on LSU and Nebraska had a rematch with Georgia.

Click on for a full recap of the thrilling Jan. 1 bowl slate.

Begin Slideshow

Who Thought George O'Leary & UCF Would Have More BCS Wins Than Notre Dame?

As the final seconds ticked off UCF's 52-42 victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, head coach George O'Leary, his team and Knights' fans celebrated. Who would have thought, following O'Leary's dismissal from the Notre Dame job for lying on his resume, that the disgraced coach would grab a BCS Bowl victory while the same success would elude the Fighting Irish?

The answer is no one, as the Pac-12 Network's JB Long points out:

Especially not after O'Leary decided to take the Central Florida job, a school with which the bulk of America was largely unfamiliar. UCF was a school in the MAC, dripping in obscurity without its own stadium, little support and the land of the BCS seemingly worlds away.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame replaced O'Leary with Ty Willingham, the man who had worked wonders at Stanford. Willingham did not work out, yet he left the cupboard full for the next hire, Charlie Weis. Weis would reach two BCS bowls, but neither would go the way of the Fighting Irish. 

After Weis, Brian Kelly was hired, and it must be noted that Kelly reached the penultimate of success where the BCS era is concerned. His team played for the crystal football, but, like Weis' teams, Kelly's would fall short of the win. 

Over the course of the last 13 seasons since O'Leary was hired and dismissed in 2001, Notre Dame's had three coaches, been to three BCS bowls, including a BCS National Championship Game, gone to six other bowl games and posted wins in three postseason contests.

Following two seasons in the NFL, O'Leary returned to the college game in 2004, giving the Irish a three-year head start on success. However, during his time at UCF the Knights have been to and won one BCS bowl game, participated in five other bowl games and also won three bowl games.

O'Leary's team lost the first three bowl games he led them to, but since then, his teams have won their trips to bowl football. His teams have also participated in four conference championship games, posting two league titles in four trips. O'Leary has helped put the Knights on the map.

The success is there, including four 10-win seasons during his time at Central Florida. The wins are tremendous, and beating Baylor on the big stage was icing on the cake, but the impact for UCF has been bigger than simply winning football games.

Under O'Leary's watch the Knights have moved from the MAC to Conference USA. The team won a pair of conference titles and then, during recent rounds of conference expansion, elevated its stock enough to transition into the AAC. UCF has also upgraded facilities, including building an on-campus stadium, and seen its fan support swell in and around the Orlando area.

Things have not been perfect along the way, as Nubyjas Wilborn of Cleveland.com points out quickly. There have been NCAA issues, the Ereck Plancher situation continues and the marriage between O'Leary and UCF was made possible by a school willing to hire a coach who admitted to fudging his credentials.

Notre Dame avoided having the O'Leary era, but O'Leary ended up getting his career back on track. The coach has built success in Orlando in a way not many people expected. Jay Philips of 107.5 The Game in Columbia, S.C. spoke to that very point, as the head coach has reached new heights with this program:

While many will look back at the Fighting Irish without any BCS bowl wins, UCF and O'Leary will be looking forward. The AAC is without a true auto-bid starting next year, and that means the Knights will have to be the "best of the rest" to gain access to the host bowls under the new system.

With a young Central Florida team, O'Leary seems poised to continue to build big success at a stop that seemed totally out of the question back in 2001 when he accepted the Notre Dame job.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Will Baylor's Loss to UCF Scare Texas off Art Briles?

Art Briles is considered one of the leading candidates for the now-vacant Texas job. But Baylor's 52-42 upset loss to the UCF Knights in the Fiesta Bowl may have administrators in Austin weary of going after Briles.

One of Mack Brown's biggest issues in his last few years has been Texas' ability to win the "bright lights" games. In 2013 alone, the Longhorns had a chance to win the Big 12 title with a win over Baylor in their regular-season finale. 

They lost 30-10. 

Then there was Brown's finale at Texas, the Alamo Bowl against Oregon. While the Longhorns went into the game as huge underdogs to the Ducks and their high-octane offense, the fact that the game was in San Antonio and that Brown would likely not hold anything back in his last game had fans hopeful for a storybook ending. 

The final score? 30-7 Oregon. 

Back to Briles. It's hard to argue against the man responsible for one of the greatest turnarounds of any collegiate sports program in recent memory. 

However, the Longhorns' athletic department wants to find the absolute best man for the job. With all the money, facilities and reputation that the university has at its disposal, you've got to think they'll get exactly who they want. 

Obviously Baylor had a great season. They lost just two games—both to ranked teams—and were in the national title conversation late into the season. 

But Texas wants a coach who can win the biggest games on the grandest stages. However, Baylor struggled against Oklahoma State and UCF, its two toughest opponents this season

On Nov. 23, the Bears went into Stillwater, Okla. with a perfect 9-0 mark and just three wins from what could've been a berth into the BCS National Championship Game. They had won every game by double digits, but Baylor was also facing its first ranked team of the year. 

Instead of continuing its normal dominance, Baylor dropped an egg in Stillwater and got trounced 49-17. That loss effectively knocked Baylor from the national title hunt. Had Oklahoma State not lost to Oklahoma two weeks later, the Bears would've also not won the Big 12 title because of that loss. 

Then in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears went into the game as huge favorites over UCF, a team from a conference that many feel shouldn't have the automatic bid to the BCS. 

Once again, the Bears faltered against tough competition and fell to the Knights. 

Regents at Texas are going to be very particular about whom they select to be the next leader of their football team. They want a coach who has a proven track record of success in winning, recruiting and everything else that comes with the job. 

Right or wrong, they don't want someone who loses to UCF, a traditional middle-of-the-road team. 

Brown's struggles to beat top competition in the last few years played a huge role in his ousting; the last thing the regents want is a coach who doesn't shine in the spotlight.

For that reason, Briles' problems in big games could very well take his name out of consideration for the Texas job.


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Michigan Football: Brady Hoke Bets the Farm on Current Staff

Brady Hoke is a man of his word. In the wake of a disappointing regular season followed by a 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, there have been no announced changes to his coaching staff.

Last month, Hoke told reporters that he didn’t expect any staff changes headed into next season.

Hoke seems determined to bet next season—and possibly his future as Michigan head coach—on his current staff that won 11 games in his first season (11-2) but only 15 in the two seasons since (15-11). Worse still, Michigan finished this campaign losing six out of its last eight games.

The team’s skid began with a confounding four-overtime loss to Penn State and hit bottom during a 29-6 loss to in-state rival Michigan State. Michigan competed well during the losing streak until falling in a listless performance in its bowl game versus Kansas State when starting quarterback Devin Gardner was unavailable because of a foot injury.

Michigan’s coaching staff has taken criticism for the team’s lack of progress in key areas.


Offensive Coordinator Al Borges

Borges has taken the brunt of the criticism for his play-calling and management of quarterback Devin Gardner.

Borges is both offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach while calling plays from the press box. It seems that Gardner would benefit from having a separate quarterbacks coach—someone to provide input to Borges’ play-calling and counsel on the field between offensive drives.

Borges’ play-calling has run the gamut from brilliant (Ohio State, Notre Dame) to the incomprehensible (Penn State, Northwestern, Kansas State).

He answers critics by blaming player execution, which sounds to many like refusing to take responsibility.

Even Borges has admitted that he can’t remember a four-game stretch during his career when his offense “has sputtered so bad[ly].”

Michigan offense can pile up points and yards—against weaker opponents. The surge against Ohio State is more exasperating than comforting. The Al Borges show is getting old.

Grade: D

Evaluation: Hire a quarterbacks coach ASAP.


Offensive Line Coach Darrell Funk

Michigan rotated nine players though the five offensive line positions this season. Injuries and poor performance caused the offensive line to be shuffled for practically every game.

Funk has been criticized for the lack of development, but more than any other group, the offensive line needs time to jell as a group. Poor performance and injures prevented that from happening all season long. Coupled with the wear and tear of a long season, this was a problem with no solution—only experience and more offseason weight training can fix this.

With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduating, Michigan loses its two most consistent linemen from this season.

Grade: D

Evaluation: Hope that offseason weight training for the returning offensive linemen coupled with experience gained this year will bear fruit next season—if not, watch out.


Running Backs Coach Fred Jackson

The offensive play-calling was atrocious and the blocking from the offensive line nonexistent, but was Fitzgerald Toussaint the best choice at running back? The late-season surges of Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith make people wonder.

Grade: C

Evaluation: Michigan should have a stable of running backs next season. No excuses for not running the ball.


Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison

Maybe the most troubling aspect of Michigan’s collapse was the inability of the defense to stop teams at critical stages during the season.

Mattison, who worked magic his first season, seemingly lost his touch this year. Indiana, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State shredded the Michigan defense. The defensive line wasn’t able to bring pressure on opposing passers, and opponents could run the ball throughout the heart of Michigan defense.

Grade: D

Evaluation: Mattison needs to focus on improving the defensive line play—on this everything depends.



Hoke is staying loyal to his coaches. If Michigan bounces back next season to compete for the Big Ten championship, his decisions will be hailed.

But, if Michigan has another epic collapse, Hoke will bear the blame for not making changes. They might all be looking for new jobs.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.

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UCF vs. Baylor: Score, Grades and Analysis from 2014 Fiesta Bowl

Heading into the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, there were many who questioned whether Central Florida even deserved a BCS bowl berth. The representative of the American Athletic Conference—easily the weakest conference represented in this year's games—the Knights' high-powered offense was bound to be exposed against a "real" team.  

Quarterback Blake Bortles and Co. worked from the opening snap to smash all those assumptions.

Bortles accounted for four total touchdowns, running back Storm Johnson rushed for three more and the UCF defense held Baylor's vaunted offense just enough times to pull off a 52-42 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year's Day.

The win is unquestionably the biggest in program history. An FCS school as recently as 1995, the program George O'Leary took over in 2004 was in shambles. The Knights went 0-11 in his first season. A decade and two conference switches later, O'Leary has built UCF into a possible sleeping giant. 

Not that anyone believed in this team coming into the Fiesta Bowl. Facing a Baylor team that led the nation at 53.3 points per game, the expectation was the Bears would wipe the floor with the upstart but overmatched program.

Once the game began, though, it was clear just how much everyone had underestimated the Knights. Within the first seven-plus minutes of the first quarter, Johnson had scored two touchdowns to give UCF a 14-0 lead that set the tone of the entire contest. Although Baylor would work its way back into the game, getting within a single point in the first half and tying the game at 28 in the third quarter, the Bears were constantly scrambling just to stay in the game.

The defense that had allowed more than 20 points just four times all season became a sieve and the offense that topped 70 four times had to scramble late just to get half of that.

Quarterback Bryce Petty finished with 356 yards and two touchdowns, but he rarely resembled the Heisman Trophy contender from the regular season. The junior signal-caller struggled locating the ball and couldn't create any positive headway as UCF was pulling away late. 

But more than anything, Art Briles' team just looked totally unprepared following the lengthy layoff. Five of the Bears' first six drives ended in a punt or turnover on downs, the offense becoming a series of mistimed throws, botched snaps and sloppy play. The Bears committed 17 penalties, giving away 135 yards that helped offset the 550 yards worth of success their offense did have.

Baylor's sloppiness not only helped UCF get comfortable on the big stage, it also helped atone for mistakes that could have crippled the Knights. 

After running out to the 14-0 lead, UCF allowed Baylor back into the game with three costly turnovers on consecutive possessions. Bortles threw two straight interceptions and Johnson fumbled once, as Baylor turned that two-touchdown deficit into being down just 14-13 following a Petty touchdown pass to Levi Norwood with 8:01 left in the second quarter.

With more hype surrounding his name than ever before, though, Bortles was able to block out the mistakes and get back to work. The junior quarterback finished with 301 yards and three touchdowns with the two picks, highlighted by a 10-yard strike to Breshad Perriman that gave the Knights a 35-28 lead in the third quarter they would not relinquish.

Bortles also used the national stage as a showcase for his athleticism. After rushing for only 179 yards in the first 12 games of the season, Bortles scampered for 93 alone on Wednesday night. His 15-yard touchdown run with 13:37 remaining in the fourth put his team up two touchdowns, giving them the necessary cushion to start draining time. 

That responsibility went to Johnson, who finished with 124 yards on 20 carries. Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk nearly matched him every step of the way with 117 yards, but UCF did a solid job of swallowing up the running game otherwise.

Baylor came in expected to dominate with its two-way attack. As the Fiesta Bowl proved, though, perception is not always reality. 


Player Grades

Bryce Petty (QB, Baylor): B

Like just about everyone in this contest, Petty didn't have a perfect game. He threw an interception for just the third time all season, looked noticeably flustered early on and suffered multiple timing mistakes with receivers.

Whether a receiver runs the wrong route or the quarterback throws to the incorrect place is always the subject to debate—almost always depending on whether the quarterback or wide receiver is speaking. But it was jarring to see Baylor, arguably the most efficient and well-oiled offense in the nation, look merely mortal.

The Bears and Petty righted the ship in some spots like we knew they would, but Baylor can thank some major UCF mistakes for even keeping them in the game in the first half. But we're grading individuals here, not teams or perceptions.

The reality is that Petty still scored five touchdowns. That's not a bad night of football. And one of those touchdowns was this:

So, yes, "B" sounds right.


Lache Seastrunk (RB, Baylor): B

Seastrunk hasn't made an official decision on whether he'll return to Waco for his senior season, but this was a pretty darn good way to go out if he's declaring for the draft. The Baylor back picked up his seventh 100-yard game of the season on Wednesday, all of which came on fewer than 20 carries. 

More importantly, this was an excellent reminder of just how good Seastrunk can be when he's healthy. While he was in the lineup for the last two games of the season, Seastrunk was obviously still working his way back from the groin injury that cost him the better part of three contests. 

He didn't break off any 80-yard scampers or anything, but the performance was impressive because nearly every run produced a positive result for Baylor. Petty's ability to find space on his designed runs came as a result of the UCF defense being afraid to crash and give Seastrunk room to roam.

Based on the short shelf-life of running backs, I'm leaving if I'm Seastrunk. He'd arguably be the best player at his position, a borderline first-round or second-round choice. Either way, it's been fun watching Seastrunk excel in Waco. 


Blake Bortles (QB, UCF): B

If you were looking to tune in to the Fiesta Bowl and decide whether Bortles' top-five hype was legit or ridiculous, well, sorry about that. Bortles gave everyone a bit of everything.

For those on the Bortles bandwagon, there was plenty to like. He came out and flashed his athleticism, keeping the ball on designed runs and buying himself extra time in the pocket on blitzes. The arm strength was also there, as Bortles threw strikes on out routes and flung the ball impressively down the field a few times. All of the physical tools in the book, this kid has them.

For those on the Bortles bust bandwagon, though, you don't have to look hard for nits to pick. The criticism about Bortles isn't that he lacks physical tools—it's that he lacks experience against elite competition and has a propensity for making poor decisions. Both of those traits were on display Wednesday. He started the game wildly inaccurate, threw two interceptions and made a couple "raw talent" mistakes.

Overall, though, this was a solid enough national introduction for the Bortles experience. Now to see whether he'll be taking his talent to Sundays. 


Storm Johnson (RB, UCF): A-

On top of making me jealous my parents didn't name me Storm, Johnson had quite the coming out party himself. The powerful back scored the game's first two touchdowns and was sensational in short yardage when the Knights were trying keep their lead. 

Bortles gets most of the attention for this offense, and rightfully so. But Johnson deserves more credit for the integral role he plays making the high-powered unit hum. 

Unfortunately, his quarterback was again good enough to make him a supporting player. Assuming Bortles takes advantage of his soaring draft stock, though, Johnson could be a force to be reckoned with as a featured player in 2014.


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Charlie Strong or Art Briles: Who Is the Better Fit for the Texas Longhorns?

Aside from Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn and the rest of their like, the Texas Longhorns could be looking at offering head coaching contracts to either Art Briles of Baylor or Charlie Strong of Louisville.

According to Kirk Bohls and Brian Davis of The Austin American-Statesman, Briles would accept the Texas head coaching job:

The Baylor source said that Briles has no plans to remain in Arizona and is scheduled to return to Waco on Wednesday with the rest of the Baylor team. Two sources, including one close to Briles, has told the Statesman that Briles would accept the Texas job if offered.

Briles never denied interest in Texas when questioned recently in his answers that were tweeted by Craig Smoak of ESPN Central Texas which can be found via Storify. As for Strong, his interview with Texas athletic director Steve Patterson went "very well", per Bohls, who also tweeted that Strong could be prepping to accept the job.

Perhaps Strong has a good feeling about taking over the program in Austin, or he could be wary of the spotlight. What does he bring to the table if he's offered—and accepts—the Texas head coaching job?


Charlie Strong

Strong has had coaching experience on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football. Since first working as a graduate assistant at the University of Florida in 1983, Strong has been a wide receivers coach, outside linebackers coach, defensive ends coach, defensive tackles coach, a defensive coordinator and now a head coach.

In 2013, Louisville's defense ranked third in the nation in points allowed at 12.2 per game. In his tenure at Louisville, Strong went 37-15 with a 3-1 bowl record, including a BCS Sugar Bowl victory over Florida in 2013. He also developed former Rivals.com 4-star dual-threat quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in becoming a projected first overall pick for the 2014 NFL draft, per B/R's Matt Miller.

The question surrounding Strong is whether or not he can recruit the state of Texas. He had no Texas players on his 2013 Louisville roster. Make no mistake about it, Strong is a good recruiter, especially in the state of Florida, when it comes to Rivals.com's 3- and 4-star recruits. Despite not landing any 5-star recruits while at Louisville, he's been able to coach lesser-rated prospects to success.

Obviously, 5-star recruits don't just waltz into Louisville. Let's look at one player, not named Bridgewater, who Strong has coached to become a success—Louisville senior defensive end Marcus Smith. 

In 2010, Rivals.com gave Smith a 3-star ranking. His only other offer was from Florida, but that was when Strong was still the defensive coordinator with the Gators. Coming out of high school, Smith was a 6'3", 210-pound athlete. Through four years under Strong, Smith added over 40 pounds and led the nation with 14.5 sacks in 2013. Smith is now an early-round draft projection by NFLdraftscout.com.

The main takeaway from Strong is that he's a great coach and good recruiter. He's made a living by going into Miami and leaving with recruits that fit his program.

That was also the case while he was at Florida, when he was able to get Rivals.com 5-star defensive players. He finds fast players who he can coach. In 2003, Strong helped the Gators get Rivals.com 5-star recruit Jarvis Moss from Denton, Texas. Who knows? Maybe Strong can go into Houston and find the next Vince Young.

All of that leads to his weakness. Can Strong go into the unknown areas of Texas and find talent? Where's the next Colt McCoy? Can he go into Port Arthur, Texas, and find the next Jamaal Charles? Is there an Earl Thomas from Orange, Texas, waiting to be found by Strong in 2014?

With so much abundant talent in Texas, what will Strong be able to come away with? Those are all good questions for the Texas athletic director and advisory committee to ponder when deciding if Strong's unknown Texas recruiting ability overrides his coaching ability to not be worth the gamble.


Art Briles

Briles is a Texas success story. He began his coaching career under the Friday night lights of Texas high school football. His first NCAA head coaching job came in 2003, when he took over at the University of Houston after coaching running backs at Texas Tech.

While at Houston, Briles went 34-28 and was winless in four bowl games. In 2008, he came to Baylor and turned the program around, eventually going 11-2 in 2013 and giving the Bears their first-ever BCS berth. In just six years, Briles has turned the Bears into an offensive juggernaut. In 2013, the Bears led the nation in total offense with 53.3 points per game.

Briles' strengths come from his ability to develop players. Specifically, Briles excels at developing quarterbacks. Briles took Rivals.com 3-star quarterback Kevin Kolb and made him into a star. In his third year as the senior starter for the Houston Cougars, Kolb threw for 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions and was taken in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft.

In 2008, Briles got Robert Griffin III to commit to Baylor. Griffin was considering going to Houston, but when Briles moved to Waco, Texas, Griffin enrolled at Baylor. Griffin started four years there and won the Heisman Trophy in 2011. Just like Kolb, Griffin developed in his three-plus years under center.

Briles made Nick Florence a star in 2012 when the quarterback threw for over 4,000 yards with 33 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Florence was once a Rivals.com 3-star quarterback. In 2013, Briles had former Rivals.com 3-star quarterback Bryce Petty throw for 32 touchdowns and four interceptions.

What does this have to do with Texas?

The Longhorns get the talent, but struggle to develop their players. Could Briles have developed top-rated Garrett Gilbert into the greatest Texas quarterback ever? That's a good, but drastic, question.

The Longhorns have also had several top players transfer, including Rivals.com's third-best quarterback from 2010, Connor Wood, and heavily recruited quarterback Connor Brewer, from the class of 2011. Either player could have made an impact for the 'Horns in 2013 when quarterback David Ash went out with an injury.

Briles and Baylor are on the rise. Even though his defense's have been historically mediocre, the Bears ranked 21st in the nation in points allowed this season. However, giving up 52 points to Central Florida in the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl wasn't something to write home about.

Finally, what discipline would Briles install if at Texas? Baylor doesn't have much, Bears running back Glasco Martin alluded to in a tweet minutes after after he didn't touch the ball much in the Fiesta Bowl:

That's not something a football coach should want a player to tweet after a game. It questioned Briles' accountability and discipline. Texas should want a guy who players respect and fear, as any big-time program should want.

If Briles comes to Texas, he would have to hire a prolific defensive coordinator. Is Gene Chizik someone who's willing to come back to Austin? Maybe Briles would keep Greg Robinson on board. Surely, prominent defensive backs coach Duane Akina would keep his spot on coaching staff.

Hiring Briles is less of a gamble for Patterson, but will Briles leave Baylor after recently signing a contract extension through 2023, per college football insider Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports?



Strong will bring back the Texas defense. With the right offensive coordinator in place, the offense could prosper. They key is whether or not Strong can recruit in Texas.

Briles will bring back the Texas offense. With the right defensive coordinator in place, there's no telling how complete the Longhorns could be for many years to come. The question is what Briles will do on the defensive side of the ball.


What do you think? Briles or Strong? Feel free to leave a comment in the section below.

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Michigan Football: 3 Ways Shane Morris Can Develop into Star QB for Wolverines

Shane Morris needs more seasoning before he evolves into the quarterback he’s meant to be.

Development takes time, but the soon-to-be Michigan sophomore certainly has a few things working for him—size, talent and a pro-style system.

As a first-time starter, Morris held his own while his Wolverines were shelled 31-14 by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. His 63 percent completion rate and composure in the pocket were enough to assume that 2014 could be his year.

With a bright future ahead in Ann Arbor, Morris has plenty of time to shine—as long as he continues to adjust, that is.


Take Notes

Morris doesn’t have to look far to see what hopping a few hurdles can do for confidence. On New Year’s Day, Connor Cook led Michigan State to a 24-20 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.

He wasn’t perfect by any means. In fact, he probably should have thrown at least three picks; he was lucky on two would-be interceptions but not-so lucky on the other, a pick-six in the first half.

Cook is twice the player he was in camp. A case for the nation’s most-improved quarterback could be made for the sophomore who won the No. 1 job over senior Andrew Maxwell, a former Rivals 4-star.

Next fall, Morris will start his second season with the Wolverines—he too will compete with a senior, Devin Gardner, for top dibs.

If Cook can dethrone a vet, Morris, a former Rivals 4-star, certainly can.

That’s not to say that Morris will lead Team 135 to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl Championship. But stranger things have happened.

It takes a special kind of focus to shake off the negative and embrace the positive. For Morris, the “negative” was a 7-6 finish in 2013 and what equates to garbage time on the field. The "positive" is his potential. 

Denying his upside would be foolish. 

He wasn’t allowed to bloom in 2013 because the Wolverines needed every minute possible from Gardner. Another spring and summer will only equip Morris for the better.

At 6’3” and hovering in the neighborhood of 215 pounds, he’s more than physically ready for his upcoming role.

The next phases are upstairs and in the film room. Watching Cook's game tapes wouldn't hurt. It's safe to say that Morris has his eye on the competition. 


Stay True to Self

As a program, Michigan tortures itself by attempting to live up to age-old standards set by legendary coaches and players from eras passed. That approach, obviously, isn’t working.

Today’s players and coaches suffer while a passionate fanbase yearns for progress. Morris, a hometown kid out of Warren De La Salle, has to be himself—a young gun with promise. He grew up watching Wolverines football.

He knows that his time is coming—with “his” being the keyword.

There’s no harm in paying homage to greats—there would be something wrong if he didn’t. He wears No. 7, but Morris doesn’t have to be Rick Leach or Chad Henne.

In 2013, Morris was the No. 4-ranked prep QB in the land, per Rivals. He doesn't have to completely forget that, but he shouldn't rely upon it. All of the elite camps and pre-college hype needs to take a backseat.

Focusing on the now is of top priority.

No longer a freshman, it’s time for Morris to grow up and seize control. Judging by what he did in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, he looks to be on the right path.


Encourage the Run Game

So maybe the whole “forget the past” thing was a little too much. Morris—and Michigan, for that matter—should absolutely refrain from a rearview approach.

But let’s be honest here. There is one thing that will always be a part of Wolverines football: running backs.

Although it wasn’t quite evident this past fall, Michigan has running backs—and good ones, too. Derrick Green will be a sophomore. As classmates, Green and Morris will likely be measured against one another.

A great Michigan quarterback needs a program-worthy runner. That’s one thing Henne, Leach and John Navarre had, as did others throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.

Team 134 had the No. 11-ranked rush offense in the Big Ten—very un-Michigan like, right? Ground woes were emphasized as Michigan crawled to just 10 yards during the first half of its loss to K-State.

Championship teams can run the ball. Old Michigan teams ran the ball. Future successful teams will have to do the same. There’s no way around that.

Disappointing results have been common over the past few years. The Wolverines grossly underachieved with Gardner at the helm.

Morris isn't the be-all just yet, but he's most certainly part of the solution. 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

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Reliving the 1979 Sugar Bowl: Alabama's Iconic Goal-Line Stand Stops Penn State

The Sugar Bowl turns 80 Thursday night when Alabama takes on Oklahoma in the Superdome in New Orleans.

Perhaps no moment—and no game—has meant more to the history of the Sugar Bowl than Alabama’s goal-line stand that decided the 1979 victory over Penn State.

That year, long before the BCS matched up the nation’s top two teams at season’s end, the Sugar Bowl scored a major coup by matching up the top-ranked Nittany Lions with No. 2 Alabama.

Toward the end of the fourth quarter, Alabama linebacker Barry Strauss turned in a season-defining play when he met Penn State running back Mike Guman shy of the goal line.

Strauss’ fourth-down stop meant the Crimson Tide thwarted the biggest fourth-quarter threat of a high-powered Penn State offense that struggled to move the ball on the biggest stage. ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel later ranked the play No. 6 of “The 100: The Plays, Performances and Moments That Define College Football.”

The goal-line stand essentially sealed the victory as well as Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s fifth national championship.

Bryant broke through for another national championship, while heartache again befell Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

Ironically, Paterno and Penn State handpicked the Crimson Tide for the bowl game. Marty Mule’s book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” detailed Paterno’s decision to spurn the Orange Bowl, wanting to secure a national championship with a win.

The move made sense for Paterno and Penn State.

Paterno, who led PSU to No. 1 for the first time in program history during the 1978 season, wanted to leave nothing to chance toward the end of another undefeated regular season.

At the time, Paterno had never won a national championship despite having finished with unbeaten, untied campaigns in 1968, 1969 and 1973. The Nittany Lions finished no better than No. 2 during those three seasons.

When Penn State chose to take on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it set up the ideal matchup of the nation’s top two teams.

Even better, the game lived up to the hype, making it arguably the best Sugar Bowl, historically.

Alabama’s goal-line stand effectively won the national championship for the Crimson Tide.

Penn State’s vaunted offense, led by quarterback Chuck Fusina and the passing game, struggled to move the ball against the Alabama defense for the majority of the game.

The Nittany Lions appeared to get their big break midway through the fourth quarter. Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge pitched to unsuspecting running back Major Ogilvie. The ball bounced off Ogilvie and fell to the ground where Penn State recovered it at the Alabama 19-yard line.

Two plays later, Fusina completed an out pattern to tight end Scott Fitzkee. It appeared Fitzkee had a chance to score, but Alabama cornerback Don McNeal, who was covering a receiver deeper in the end zone, came off his assignment to blast Fitzkee out of bounds at the 1.

Considering the Nittany Lions’ offensive struggles, this certainly seemed to be their best—and potentially last—opportunity to tie the game.

Penn State running back Matt Suhey tried to jump over the top on third down, but Alabama defenders Curtis McGriff and Rich Wingo met him approximately one foot shy of the goal line.

Confident from a day of dominance, Crimson Tide defensive lineman Marty Lyons delivered possibly the greatest trash-talk line in Sugar Bowl history. “You better pass,” Lyons warned Fusina.

The words proved prophetic on the following play. Penn State again tested the middle of the Alabama defense on fourth down. Running back Mike Guman seemed to have a path to the end zone before Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krauss shot through the middle to deliver a punishing hit just shy of the end zone.

The collision left the Nittany Lions empty-handed—both on the drive and in the national championship department.

Meanwhile, Alabama, behind coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won back-to-back national championships for the 1978 and ’79 regular seasons. The 1979 Sugar Bowl gave Bryant his penultimate title.

Bryant’s defense, which he described as “a bunch of average players,” held Penn State to just 182 total yards of offense and one third-quarter touchdown.

Bryant’s team did just enough on offense to win the game against a fantastic Penn State defense that allowed 8.8 points per game during the regular season.  

Rutledge broke a scoreless tie shortly before halftime. With time winding down, Alabama called a play-action pass from the Penn State 28-yard line.

The Alabama quarterback lofted a pass into the middle of the field to receiver Bruce Bolton, who made a diving catch in the front of the end zone with eight seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Bryant said at halftime that the Crimson Tide would have tried one more pass before settling for a long field-goal attempt—a strategy that might have backfired considering the lack of time remaining.

Penn State tied the score during the third quarter when Fitzkee hauled in Fusina’s 17-yard pass for a sensational diving touchdown in the back of the end zone.

A spectacular punt return by Lou Ikner set up Alabama for the go-ahead score later in the third. Ikner brought back a Penn State punt 62 yards to the PSU 11.

Three plays later, Ogilvie scored when he turned the corner on a third-down option pitch.

Alabama stymied another Penn State scoring threat late in the third quarter when McNeal intercepted a Fusina pass into the end zone.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s team staged just one more threat, resulting in Alabama’s season-defining goal-line stand.

Since the 1979 Sugar Bowl, the annual contest has featured the nation’s top two teams four more times.

One such meeting saw Penn State coach Joe Paterno finally break through for his first national championship, beating No. 2 Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.

No Sugar Bowl featured a more dramatic, defining play with so much at stake than Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss’ hit on Penn State running back Mike Guman.

It might be another 80 years before anything can match it.

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Michigan State: Spartans Prove They Are an Elite Team with Rose Bowl Victory

There have been so many questions this season about how good the Big Ten Conference really is. Those questions mainly surrounded the Ohio State Buckeyes because there weren't really any other strong teams in the conference this season.

At least that is what we all thought. Michigan State showed us why we were wrong with its Rose Bowl victory on Wednesday evening.

The Spartans flew under the radar all year. Everyone seemed willing to acknowledge that the Spartans were a solid football team that was worthy of a Top 25 spot, but their name was nowhere to be found when the talk of elite college teams came up.

The reason they were not considered elite had to do in large part with an early-season loss to Notre Dame. The Spartans came up short on the road in a tough game against their rivals and it made people seriously doubt how good the team really was.

Just look at the first BCS standings of the season. The Spartans were not even in the Top 25.

Sparty managed to creep into the Top 25 the next week, though, and as the team's wins began to pile up on the year, it slowly climbed higher.

Eventually, the Spartans climbed all the way to the No. 10 spot in the BCS before their Big Ten Championship Game showdown with the Buckeyes. The Spartans were certainly given a chance in the game and many people thought they would pull the upset off because of their talented defense. 

The win in the title game over Ohio State propelled the Spartans to the No. 4 ranking in the BCS standings and sent them into the Rose Bowl for a battle with No. 5 Stanford.

Coming into the game, however, the Spartans still did not seem to be getting a whole lot of respect. Vegas Insider indicates that the game was being picked about 50/50 between college experts and fans, but the Spartans were underdogs by a touchdown to a Stanford team that was considered to have a far superior offense to that of the Spartans.

Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook stole the show in Pasadena and helped propel the Spartans to a 24-20 win over the Cardinal. The young quarterback completed 22 of his 36 attempts for 332 yards and two touchdowns.

One of the more impressive things he did in the game, though, was respond so well to a pick-six that he threw in the first half. Cook could have gotten flustered and the Spartan offense could have been derailed by the error, but he stayed poised and continued to lead his team as though the mistake had never happened.

The Spartan defense was outstanding in the game as well.

After an opening-drive touchdown by Stanford, which made people quickly question whether or not Michigan State could hang with the Cardinal, the Spartan defense responded and did not allow another touchdown from the Cardinal offense for the rest of the game.

The win was in no way a dominating performance by Michigan State, but it was a great performance against the defending Rose Bowl champions. The Spartans showed their toughness on defense, but also proved that they could put up the numbers offensively.

It truly was an elite performance. Is Michigan State an elite team, though?

There is no doubt that the Big Ten Conference is very weak. The level of competition week in and week out does not even compare to the talent levels that teams in the SEC and Pac-12 face each week. However, this should not take anything away from the Spartans.

They went on a neutral field and proved against one of the top teams in the sport that, not only could they compete, they could compete and win.

They certainly proved that they were an elite team this season and deserve to be a Top 10 or possibly even a Top Five team going into next season.

When next season comes around, the Spartans will certainly get their chance to prove once again that they are an elite team. Michigan State makes a trip to Autzen Stadium for its second game of the season to face off against the Oregon Ducks.

If the Spartans win that game and can go undefeated in the Big Ten once again, it would certainly be enough to propel them to a national championship.

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Michigan State Celebrates Rose Bowl Win by Dancing in Locker Room

The Michigan State Spartans held on for a 24-20 victory over Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl on Wednesday, and the players let loose in the locker room.

After a big win, MSU had every reason to celebrate.

The Spartans danced to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It," via the Big Ten Network's Sean Merriman:

And yes, Rich Homie Quan made an appearance, via Lawrence Thomas on Instagram:

Hat tip to College Spun's Matt Lombardi for the find.

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