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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.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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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Sugar Bowl 2014: 10 Things We Learned from Oklahoma vs. Alabama

In perhaps the biggest shock of the bowl season to date, Oklahoma blitzed two-time defending national champion Alabama en route to a 45-31 win in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Oklahoma unleashed freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who threw for a career-high 348 yards and four touchdowns.

Nick Saban’s club had three first-half turnovers that led directly to 21 points for the Sooners and effectively put the Tide in a hole they would be unable to climb out of.

What are the main takeaways for Tide and Sooners fans from the 2014 Sugar Bowl?

Begin Slideshow

Meet Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight, the Hero of the 2014 Sugar Bowl

Heading into the Sugar Bowl against mighty Alabama, a game Oklahoma was supposed to lose by more than two touchdowns, head coach Bob Stoops held his cards close to his chest.

All the way up until kickoff, he refused to reveal who would start at quarterback. He deflected reporters' questions with empty truisms like "that will be a game-time decision," per Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman.

Based on the final score—Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31—it appears as though Stoops made the right choice.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Trevor Knight completed 32-of-42 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, guiding the Sooners to the improbable upset over the heavily favored Crimson Tide. 

Even the most quixotic, delusional Sooners fan didn't see this coming. He or she might have given Oklahoma a shot at beating Alabama, but if it did, the defense would be the main reason why. Few could have expected to leave Thursday's game with an answer to the season-long questions at quarterback, a guy who looks likes like the bona fide future at the position.

And none could have guessed it would be Knight.

Blake Bell, after all, was the one who had gotten Oklahoma here. Knight's competition and co-starter led the heroic comeback at Oklahoma State after Knight left the game with a shoulder injury. Bell had played more snaps on the season; he had both the hotter and the healthier hand.

But Stoops trusted his guns and handed the ball to Knight, who won the job out of fall camp and always seemed to have the higher ceiling. At certain times this season, he had the offense functioning at a very high level, as it was at Kansas State in November.

At other times, like the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, the redshirt freshman could barely walk and chew gum against the dregs of the Sun Belt Conference:

But on Thursday in New Orleans, Knight was an entirely different player, someone even the Kansas State version of himself wouldn't recognize. He was a player you could rightfully compare to Teddy Bridgewater, who shredded a powerful SEC defense in this same game last season, and even Johnny Manziel, who's been kryptonite to Alabama on more than one occasion.

That second comparison is particularly intriguing, especially given the unwitting way their fates have crossed. Before getting blown out by Texas A&M in last year's Cotton Bowl, Knight was tasked with impersonating the Heisman Trophy winner during pregame practice.

According to CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman, he was "virtually untouchable" in the role:

After beating out Bell for the starting job, that's the player OU fans expected to see. Maybe not Manziel, but at least Manziel-lite. Someone who could do some of the same things, provide the same spark. Definitely not the guy who got benched after only two games.

On Thursday evening, however, OU fans were finally treated to the player they'd been promised. Leading by seven points, Knight threw what became the game-winning touchdown in classic Manziel fashion.

Extending a play to his right, Knight went against what quarterbacks are taught and heaved a pass across his body, from the sideline toward the middle of the end zone. Watching on TV, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking...until the ball fluttered into Sterling Shepard's waiting hands.

It was the signature play of a truly signature performance:

Alabama entered the Sugar Bowl allowing only 166.3 passing yards per game, trailing just Florida State and Michigan State among BCS-conference teams. Its secondary was considered a relative weak spot, but Alabama doesn’t have true weak spots. It only has spots that are less strong.

Knight carved up pretty tight coverage for most of the game, hitting vertical receivers in stride on plays where anything less wouldn’t have done. In roughly four hours of real time, Oklahoma went from not knowing its quarterback to looking at a potential Heisman contender.

Still, it's hard to say what the future might hold for the Sugar Bowl MVP. The ceiling of Knight's potential has undoubtedly been raised, though it remains to be see how long he can maintain such dazzling play. There's a chance he comes back next season and makes this standard the norm. There's also a chance that he doesn't.

None of that matters at the moment. Right now, Knight is officially the quarterback of the future, and he's the man who led one of the greatest wins in program history.

When you suit up in Norman, Okla., that alone is one giant feat.

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Oklahoma Players Break ESPN's Stage After Sugar Bowl Victory

The Oklahoma Sooners knocked off the Alabama Crimson Tide on Thursday, Jan. 2, in a rather surprising 45-31 upset in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps most shocking was what occurred in the aftermath, when Oklahoma players celebrated so hard that they broke ESPN's stage, per The Big Lead's Ty Duffy:

Few could have prepared the college football world for the Sooners' stunning victory, or the breakout performance by freshman quarterback and game MVP Trevor Knight, who threw for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns.

But this was the definition of defeating a heavyweight program in powerful style.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Despite the Loss, Alabama QB AJ McCarron Is a Legend

Legacy.

It's a tricky word that has a moving target in college football.

For Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, it includes video-game statistics and a Heisman Trophy. For Georgia's Aaron Murray, it features SEC records in career passing touchdowns and passing yards.

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's legacy is a little more concise, and can be wrapped up in one word.

"Winner."

Just don't judge him based on Thursday night's Sugar Bowl, because it wasn't his finest moment.

The fifth-year senior quarterback of the Crimson Tide ended his career on a low note in a 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. The Mobile, Ala., native completed 19-of-30 passes for 387 yards and two touchdowns.

This game won't be remembered for McCarron's impressive numbers through the air, however. It will be remembered for his mistakes.

McCarron was picked off twice, one of which was returned 43 yards by Zack Sanchez all the way to the Alabama 13-yard line, setting up a Sooner touchdown. He was rattled early thanks to an offensive line that gave up seven sacks on the night.

As B/R's Matt Miller pointed out, it wasn't all McCarron's fault.

You can justify McCarron's bad play because his OL, but he's also not handled the pressure well. That's the major concern for me tonight.

— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 3, 2014

His last offensive snap—when he was sacked by Eric Striker and fumbled away Alabama's last chance—was fitting for the night, but not of his career.

In true McCarron fashion, he took responsibility for the loss, according to Fox Sports Live.

"I'll take the loss, and I'll definitely take the blame." - AJ McCarron #Alabama

— FOX Sports Live (@FOXSportsLive) January 3, 2014

His 36 wins as a starting quarterback is one more than Jay Barker, who held the school record coming into the season. Counting McCarron's redshirt season in 2009, he has one more loss as a starter—four—than he has BCS National Championship rings.

The final image of McCarron will be him laying on the turf as Geneo Grissom returned his fumble eight yards for the final score of the Sugar Bowl, but the lasting image of his career should be how he helped build and subsequently maintain a dynasty in the golden age of SEC football.

Was he a "game manger?" Sure. 

Good quarterbacks are supposed to manage the game. 

He did that at an elite level, while also taking control of several big games, including the 21-0 victory over LSU in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game following the 2011 season in which he was awarded offensive MVP.

If that isn't enough, then so be it. 

Leaving a legacy of being an elite "game manager" with five total BCS and SEC Championship rings isn't a bad legacy to leave behind, especially at a tradition-rich program like Alabama.

McCarron's Alabama career ended on a sour note, but it doesn't take away from what he left behind—a legacy loaded with wins.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2014: Derrick Henry Is the Next Great Alabama RB

Although the 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the BCS Sugar Bowl is going to replay in the heads of Alabama fans all offseason, the future at the running back position is looking brighter than the morning sun.

Derrick Henry saved the last game of the season for his best performance, giving the Crimson Tide something to drool over for the next seven months.

Needless to say, Henry, who stepped on campus last year as one of the top recruits of the 2013 class, had high expectations this season. It's what happens when you finish high school with more rushing yards than any other player in the history of the game.

However, his 28 carries for 282 yards and two touchdowns weren't what Alabama fans expected. He was banged up in a few games and often overshadowed by the consistent production of the flashier T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. This will no longer be the case heading into next season. The monster has awoken. 

Henry, who entered the game with five or more carries in only three games, finished the Sugar Bowl with eight touches for 100 yards and one touchdown. In just one game, he proved that he was well worth the hype heading into the season, and he now gives the Alabama coaching staff something to think about. Sorry Yeldon, but Henry has to be the new starting running back. 

At 6'3", 238 pounds, Henry is bigger than Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson ever were. He's just as powerful as either one was during their collegiate days, and surprisingly, he has the breakaway speed to match. 

This unique, elite skill set makes him a nightmare for defenders. How do you tackle someone this big? How do you keep him from bouncing to the outside and breaking off the big run? In other words, how do you defend the unknown?

I may be getting a little too excited, but Henry might as well be considered the modern-day Bo Jackson. This complete package hasn't quite been seen before. A running back this massive, fast, athletic and explosive puts him a class of his own. There's nothing he can't do. Literally nothing. 

Alabama can also be known as Running Back University.

Before Richardson and Lacy made their mark at the next level, guys such as Shaun Alexander, Le'Ron McClain and Tony Nathan paved the way. Yes, it's going to take more than one game before Henry fills those shoes. But let it be known that this performance was no fluke. Henry is the real deal, and it wouldn't be surprising if he takes on the lead role next season.

Since Alabama fans will never forget this game, they might as well also take in the performance from the freshman running back. It's the start of something extremely special. 

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Derrick Henry Flashes Heisman Potential in Thrilling Sugar Bowl

The Sugar Bowl was certainly not Alabama's finest hour, but it was in the young college career of freshman running back Derrick Henry. 

The Crimson Tide and Oklahoma Sooners played a fast-paced and high-scoring Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma led for most of the game, but Alabama battled and had the ball with a minute to go and a chance to get a tying touchdown.

After Cyrus Kouandjio was beaten off the edge for a strip-sack by Eric Striker to seal the game for Oklahoma, and a terrible bowl showing by Kouandjio, the Crimson Tide limped out of this season with a humbling 45-31 defeat. 

It is not all doom and gloom coming out of this game for Nick Saban and his team. Henry's phenomenal showing should have all Crimson Tide fans excited for next year.

The freshman carried the ball just eight times, but he gained 100 yards and a touchdown on those carries.

He also added a catch that he took 61 yards to the house. 

This comes after a season where he gained just 282 yards on 28 carries. 

After watching the Sugar Bowl, I have to wonder why Saban didn't find a way to get this talented freshman more touches. I doubt his lack of touches will be a concern next year.

Henry has all the tools to be a star. He has freakish speed for his size, and he has ample size:

He looked like a man among boys in the Sugar Bowl as he blew through arm tackles and ran past would-be tacklers. He runs more straight up than you'd like to see, but he is all knees and elbows with a viscous running style. 

The way he attacks his runs actually conjures up visions of the great Adrian Peterson, who happened to be standing on the Oklahoma sideline for this game. 

His showing was certainly enough to get sports personality Jim Rome gushing: 

With this performance in a BCS bowl game, Henry put himself on the minds of college football fans for next season, and this is going to lead to Heisman hype. 

Alabama perennially has a good offensive line and strong running game. Henry is in the perfect spot to excel, and he has all the tools to do just that. 

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Ohio State Football: Buckeyes Looking for Validation with Victory over Clemson

A bowl ban kept Ohio State from playing on a pivotal postseason stage in 2012. Michigan State and its vaunted defense kept the Buckeyes from playing in the national championship this season.

Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have won 24 of their last 25 games, but none of those victories came against an opponent ranked in the Top 15. On Friday, in the Discover Orange Bowl, No. 7 Ohio State will have the opportunity to validate its historic run against the No. 12 Clemson Tigers.

The Buckeyes (12-1) are approaching the Orange Bowl as a chance to not only get back to their winning ways, but to also prove that they're the championship-caliber team that winning 24 consecutive games would suggest.

Ohio State senior center Corey Linsley wants the Buckeyes to show their true colors, according to Tony Gerdeman of The-Ozone.

Obviously by validating it in our eyes, it will validate in the eyes of others. The thing we're worried about is just showing our character, showing who we are as people by working hard and working towards a win.

That win will need to come against a team that's perfectly equipped to exploit Ohio State's biggest weakness.

Led by senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, the Tigers boast one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the country. Junior receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, who average 169 receiving yards per game, present matchup nightmares on the perimeter.

That dynamic trio lifted Clemson all year as the Tigers rank 11th in the country with 329.3 passing yards per game.

Ohio State, of course, has struggled tremendously defending the pass. The Buckeyes have given up an average of 260 passing yards this season, good for 103rd nationally. Over its last two games against Michigan and Michigan State, Ohio State surrendered more than 750 yards and seven touchdowns through the air.

On top of that, the Buckeyes will be without two of their impact defenders. Sophomore defensive end Noah Spence, who leads the team with eight sacks, was suspended for three games for violating an unspecified "Big Ten Conference rule." Junior cornerback Bradley Roby, Ohio State's best pass defender, is expected to miss the game because of a bruised knee he suffered against Michigan State.

That's a fitting parallel for the Buckeyes as they get ready for Clemson. Can Ohio State shake off the bruises left by Michigan State and earn the validation it's looking for. According to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors, Buckeyes running back Carlos Hyde is confident.

“This is a BCS bowl. This is still a huge game,” Hyde said. “You don’t really need too much motivation. This is still a huge game, just got to get past that last game. I’m sure we are past that."

 

All stats via NCAA.com

David Regimbal is the Ohio State Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Leonard Fournette's Commitment Is Major Step Forward for LSU Tigers

Leonard Fournette is the hero that Baton Rouge both needs and deserves.

The No. 1 recruit in 247Sports' composite rankings announced his commitment to the LSU Tigers during the Under Armour All-America Game.

Fournette said that the idea of playing close to home was trumped everything, via Jerit Roser of The Times-Picayune:

The coaches, and overall, Louisiana, they kept pushing me to stay home...It wasn't too much pressure, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere that I was getting from the whole state, so I decided to stay home.

The process was still Alabama and LSU, so overall, I had to put in the odds and evens of which school I would go to was best, and I just think LSU is the best place for me.

Needless to say, it's a decision that's sent shock waves through the college football landscape.

Fournette is already being described as the next Adrian Peterson, which may be premature, but is a strong indicator of how highly he's regarded by recruiting experts.

For LSU, this commitment helped to boost what had previously been a lackluster recruiting class. Les Miles had watched as many of his targets signed elsewhere, which left the Tigers in the lurch and looking up at their biggest rivals.

It got to the point where you were wondering if Miles might have to answer for whatever problems he was having on the recruiting trail. Then Fournette came along and made everything better.

Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com put it best:

This will no doubt buy Miles a little more time and rebuild some of the faith he may have lost among Tigers fans who have been upset at the school's inability to match Alabama's success.

LSU laid down a major marker with Fournette. No longer will it be the bridesmaid of the SEC. It has national title aspirations and won't stop until it reaches the summit again. In addition, the Tigers showed that they can still lure the best prospects in the country.

The rest of the SEC is on notice.

From an on-field aspect, Fournette is the running threat LSU will need next year.

Getting a steady presence on the ground will be a huge boost to LSU's offense. There's no telling how the passing game will perform in Zach Mettenberger's absence, so it will be nice to have a running back take some of the pressure off the signal-caller next year.

Jeremy Hill looks like he's headed for the pros, and his departure would mean Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard were the best threats to take the starting job in 2014.

That was before Fournette announced his decision.

He should be able to come right into the team and start from Day 1. There's no doubt about his talent, and at 6'1" and 226 pounds, he's got the body to handle the rigors of college football.

Maybe Miles could bed him into the role in the first few nonconference games, but by the time the SEC games roll around, the soon-to-be freshman should get the lion's share of snaps in the backfield.

Fournette has everything you look for in a blue-chip running back. He's got enough speed to get out on the edge and break out for big runs, yet he's capable of going in between the tackles for positive yardage. There's very little not to like about his game.

It's a bridge too far to call LSU title contenders immediately off the basis of the Tigers signing one player. After all, the Oklahoma Sooners couldn't win a BCS bowl during Adrian Peterson's three seasons in Norman.

But Leonard Fournette is the kind of player the LSU Tigers will need if they want to climb back into national championship contention.

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Oklahoma vs. Alabama: Score, Grades and Analysis from 2014 Sugar Bowl

The BCS No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners lit up the venerated defense of the third-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and won the 2014 Sugar Bowl, 45-31, on Thursday, Jan. 2 at New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight experienced one of the most interesting breakout performances in recent memory en route to being named the game's MVP.

Knight began the season as the starter but was benched until the middle of the year and proved to be a more effective runner than a passer. That changed against the two-time reigning national champions, as the freshman threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns, displaying decisiveness and accuracy previously unseen.

The number of points given up by the Tide defense was also unprecedented for head coach Nick Saban:

ESPN's Trent Dilfer liked what he saw from Knight, who looks to have a bright future after this showing:

This was also a milestone of sorts for Sooners head coach Bob Stoops, who was vindicated for his faith in Knight and made significant history from an individual standpoint, per ESPN Stats & Info:

The play of the evening came when Knight, who helped his team overcome a 1st-and-30 earlier in the drive, improvised and found Sterling Shepard for a key nine-yard touchdown that gave the underdogs some insurance:

Yes, that play was being compared to the Joe Montana-Dwight Clark "The Catch" connection, and given the collegiate equivalent of the stakes, it was rather appropriate.

What made Knight's eruption more impressive was not only the quality of the Tide's No. 2 scoring defense but also that he upstaged Alabama senior signal-caller AJ McCarron, who threw two interceptions in the first half that led to 14 Oklahoma points.

In fact, the typically disciplined Tide gave the ball away three times in the opening half, leading to three Sooner touchdowns.

The costliest one wasn't McCarron's fault, though. Running back T.J. Yeldon was the culprit, as he fumbled the ball away when the Tide were in position for a critical score. Not long after that, Knight dropped it in the bucket to Jalen Saunders for a beautiful 43-yard touchdown bomb:

Just about everything imaginable went the Sooners' way before the intermission. That continued when a Christion Jones' 70-yard punt return that would have cut the deficit to seven in the third quarter was called back.

Bleacher Report expert Matt Miller observed how the Sooners defensive front was devastating Alabama up front early on, as it consistently got pressure on McCarron—something he isn't used to:

That didn't necessarily apply to the running game, which Miller noted the Tide are geared for.

Much to the surprise of many, it wasn't Yeldon who kept Alabama in this game, but another Tide running back, Derrick Henry.

The 6'3", 238-pound freshman had carried the ball 28 times all season entering this contest. In adding substantially to that total, Henry proved in his increased opportunities that he has an eye-popping combination of size and speed.

Following the punt-return TD taken away due to a block in the back, the Tide forced a three-and-out and handed the rock to Henry, who bowled his way through the Oklahoma defense en route to the end zone with 8:49 left in the third quarter:

Knight responded later on with his outstanding touchdown march, which then set up Henry for further heroics on a swing pass:

Unfortunately for the Tide, another protection breakdown caused McCarron to fumble after he was hit on his blindside by Eric Striker. Geneo Grissom then picked up the loose ball and went nine yards to sco the game-clinching touchdown.

Some may argue the Tide had an inevitable letdown after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but ESPN's Desmond Howard didn't want to hear any of that:

The truth is, the Sooners came to play and Alabama was not as prepared and sharp as usual, costing the Tide another landmark victory for their powerhouse program.

Stoops has critiqued the celebrated SEC in the past. After the game, he professed his respect for Alabama—but still spun it in a positive way and drove home the point that his Sooners were among the nation's best, per the USA Today's George Schroeder:

Below is a letter-grade evaluation of some of the key performers who defined this offensive shootout.

 

Grades

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: A

Few could have expected anything resembling the display Knight put on for all college football fans to enjoy.

Stoops took heat for playing Knight early on over Blake Bell, and nothing suggested the strategy was sound until Thursday, when the freshman took flight.

NBC Sports' Josh Norris felt like he was watching a different player:

It might as well have been, because Knight capitalized on his promise after a season of struggles. The payoff was a big win in a big game—something Knight and Stoops both needed.

 

AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: B

This wasn't McCarron's best game by any stretch. Still, he battled back from two early mistakes and was still making plays in that stretch, keeping his team in the game while the defense didn't help him.

McCarron may catch a lot of flack for being a game manager, yet he made some big throws and set the stage for Henry's emergence. The last sack—and most of them on the evening—also can't go on the seasoned QB.

 

Jalen Saunders, WR, Oklahoma: A

The scrappy senior may be diminutive, but he makes up for it with quickness and route-running precision. That was evident on his hitch-and-go route on the 43-yard touchdown in the first half.

Saunders also made an excellent catch on his first TD grab—an eight-yard reception that saw him barely get in the front corner of the pylon. His awareness characterized the focus the Sooners displayed and the experience he had to close his collegiate career in style.

 

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: A

Why should we not be surprised? Another Alabama running back tearing it up, seemingly out of nowhere. Saban can sure recruit depth to that backfield, which begs the question: How would some who opt to take their talents to Tuscaloosa fare elsewhere?

Henry's patience paid off, because he was the driving force that kept the Tide afloat.

The early turnovers turned out to be too much to overcome, ending Alabama's season on a rare two-game losing streak under Saban.

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Oklahoma Wins Sugar Bowl on a Sack, Katherine Webb and Adrian Peterson React

The Oklahoma Sooners stunned the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, 45-31, and this strip-sack and score by Oklahoma's Geneo Grissom sealed it. 

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's girlfriend Katherine Webb and mom Dee Dee Bonner were shocked.

Minnesota Vikings running back and Sooners alum Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, was fired up. 

 

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Bill O'Brien's Departure Completes Penn State's Descent into Bleak Anonymity

It took Joe Paterno decades to build Penn State football into a national powerhouse. It took a terrible scandal a couple of years to deconstruct what Paterno had built.

Nobody thought Bill O'Brien would spend decades coaching the Nittany Lions. That said, even the most jaded and world-weary observers probably thought he'd stay long enough to see the rising sophomores he inherited graduate.

He didn't. And the circumstances surrounding O'Brien's departure are almost certainly more troubling to Penn State's legion of followers than the fact that he is actually gone.

For starters, look where O'Brien is going, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.

Yes, O'Brien got a National Football League job. Just about.

The Houston Texans just finished a 2-14 season following two straight AFC South titles. Sure, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft is a real asset.

But most 2-14 teams are not one player or even one healthy draft away from playoff contention. Plus, Matt Schaub's implosion means Houston probably has to take a quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater?) at No. 1.

Those are the circumstances O'Brien looked at and affirmatively preferred to staying in Happy Valley for even one more season. Based on recent reporting from David Jones of the Patriot-News, it is pretty hard to blame O'Brien.

Jones published the following quote from O'Brien only after the coach revealed that he was leaving Penn State, out of respect to O'Brien and because, well, it would have triggered shock waves in State College and beyond:

You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a ---- what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.

Yeah, that does not sound like a happy employee. O'Brien went on: "I’m trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near-death penalty ----ing sanctions. Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it’s skewed as an excuse. And I’m not an excuse-maker."

So, to recap: O'Brien came to Penn State at the school's lowest point—not the football program's nadir, mind you, the lowest point in the history of the university—and did whatever the NCAA would permit him to do (after they took scholarships and bowl bids away) to keep Penn State competitive.

In gratitude, at least some portion of Penn State's football backers did not think O'Brien was doing enough, or doing it the right way.

That was Jones' own read of it in his column: "As perfect as Bill O’Brien was to lead Penn State’s football program at the time of his arrival, it’s now clear to me that it’s time for him to move on."

Cilches are a pox, but in this case there really is no other way to get this point across: Hey, Penn State, be careful what you wish for.

Because O'Brien's departure is the last shovel of dirt on the coffin that holds the Grand Experiment.

Bill O'Brien left Penn State for a nondescript NFL job. O'Brien is now likely to be replaced by some relatively anonymous guy, and then in a few years that guy will leave and some other guy will come, and so on until college football ceases to be.

Which makes Penn State football no more or less notable than, say, Arkansas football. Bret Bielema's hiring was a big story. Then it wasn't.

As long as O'Brien was head coach at Penn State, there was still a story to be told—the story of the man painstakingly rebuilding Penn State's football program brick by stubborn brick.

That story is over now. With the end of that story comes the new world order in State College where Penn State football is just another veneer-less program trying to win enough games to sneak into a bowl game.

So they are still Penn State. But they are not special.

Not anymore.

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Notre Dame Football: Why Irish's 2013 Season Was a Success

You would have questioned my sanity had I told you Notre Dame finishing 9-4 would be the mark of a successful 2013 campaign for the Irish one year ago at this time.

It never ceases to amaze how rapidly and significantly things change in the course of a calendar year, though.

Once fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly and his team capped a 29-16 victory against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 28, the final page was turned on what was an incredibly bumpy, tumultuous ride for the Irish that began with a 42-14 drubbing in last season's BCS National Championship at the hands of Alabama.

Despite that ugly result, Notre Dame's sole aspiration never wavered in the immediate aftermath.

"National title or bust" was the rallying cry of the program, and rightfully so, as quarterback Everett Golson and eight starters from a legendary defense were slated to return for the 2013 season.

While Kelly's brief flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and Manti Te'o's catfishing debacle created what felt like a endless vortex of negative sentiments, spirits remained high but were shredded and mashed like fruit in a blender when Golson was expelled from the university in May for what was later revealed to be cheating.

Without a mobile athlete at the quarterback position, it's tough sledding against quality competition, of which there is a tremendous amount year in and year out on Notre Dame schedules.

It's not a knock on former quarterback Tommy Rees; he did everything asked of him throughout his career, and the Irish would have found themselves in dire straits without his services this season (see the second half of this season's USC game).

Adding in the tempered expectations for the season following Golson's expulsion—national championship dreams transformed to last ditch efforts to simply qualify for a BCS bowl game—it's no secret that the quarterback position is the most influential of all organized sports.

Despite the overwhelming amount of criticism launched in Rees' general direction, the Lake Forest, Ill., native guided a Notre Dame offense that averaged approximately two more points per game than it did during last season's national championship run.

Sure, the offense wasn't as dynamic due to the inability to implement the zone read, but it was as productive as it possibly could have been given the circumstances.

But for all the talk regarding Rees' effect on the offense and 2013 season as a whole, he was far from the lone factor.

Even with those aforementioned returning starters from a defense that was one of the best in the country last season, the unit experienced a rather surprising regression, particularly against the run.

After resembling a steel curtain a year ago, the Irish defense was anything but during 2013, finishing 70th nationally in rushing defense while allowing 168 yards per game on the ground. Though it likely won't ever be verified, the losses of Te'o, safety Zeke Motta and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, three outstandingly influential leaders, seemed to have a negative effect on the 2013 defense.

When also considering the injuries the defense suffered this season, the Irish's 9-4 final record is even more impressive.

From a macro-perspective, that final result takes on an added significance.

Notre Dame played three BCS bowl teams: Stanford (Rose Bowl), Michigan State (Rose Bowl) and Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl). The Irish were 1-2 against that trio, with the lone victory arriving against the Spartans, who won the Big Ten Conference Championship Game, as well as Big Ten Conference's first Rose Bowl since the 2009 season.

Also worth noting are the Irish's victories against Arizona State and USC, two teams that finished ranked 14th and 25th, respectively, in the final BCS standings.

Fans and anyone else associated with the program can wonder "what if" as much as they'd like, but it won't change how the 2013 season played out. Either way you view it, the season was a success, even if 9-4 isn't your cup of tea.

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What Does Gator Bowl Victory Mean for Nebraska's Bo Pelini?

On New Year’s Day, Nebraska won the Gator Bowl, beating Georgia 24-19. In doing so, Nebraska ended a bowl drought that stretched back to the 2009 Holiday Bowl and gave this year’s senior class its first and only bowl victory. The win was an upset, as Nebraska was a nine-point underdog to Georgia.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s head coach, came into the Gator Bowl after surviving what many thought could have been his last game against Iowa. After a turbulent year that included Deadspin’s release of a profanity-laced audio tape where Pelini called Nebraska fans “fair-weather,” a series of ugly and mostly self-inflicted losses and a bizarre postgame press conference after the Iowa loss, few would have been surprised if athletic director Shawn Eichorst had taken Pelini up on his offer of “if they want to fire me, go ahead” (as reported by USA Today).

But Eichorst stuck with Pelini, a decision for which Pelini was clearly grateful in his postgame comments. And as Pelini stood in the Jacksonville rain, holding a trophy aloft and looking forward to “championships to come,” the question on the minds of many Nebraska fans was what exactly the bowl win meant for Pelini and for the Nebraska program as a whole.

What didn’t happen in the game stood out as much as what did. Against Michigan State and Iowa, Nebraska lost in large part because it turned the ball over. Against Georgia, Nebraska only had one turnover to the Bulldogs’ two. As a result—much like what Nebraska saw in reverse against the Spartans and the Hawkeyes—Nebraska was able to win the game despite being outgained by Georgia, 416-307.

But it was more than just turnovers. Despite the sloppy conditions, Nebraska had a relatively penalty-free game (six penalties for 50 yards). More importantly, Nebraska’s tackling was as good as it has been in recent memory. Because of this, the Blackshirts were able to contain Georgia tailback Todd Gurley to 86 yards on 21 carries. In comparison to Nebraska’s defense of other backs at the end of the season, the performance against Gurley—easily the most talented back Nebraska faced all year—is even more impressive:

 

Carries

Yards

Yards/Carry

Cobb (Minn.)

31

138

4.45

Langford (Mich. St.)

32

151

4.71

Zwinak (Penn St.)

35

149

4.26

Weisman (Iowa)

24

72

3.00

Gurley (UGA)

21

86

4.10

It’s one game, to be certain. But it does prove a point that a certain smart and particularly handsome analyst has made before: Nebraska is ready to win if Nebraska gets out of Nebraska’s way.

Winning the turnover battle. Winning (or, in this case, not losing) the special teams battle. Limiting penalties. Tackling well. The fundamentals of football that, at least for one soggy morning in Florida, Nebraska executed. As a result, the Big Ten notched a win over the vaunted SEC, and Nebraska won a game in which it was a nine-point underdog.

Is that what we will see in 2014? Has one good performance in a second-tier bowl righted the problems that have lingered in Lincoln for the last six years?

Obviously, such a sea change from one game would be far-fetched. But it is not unreasonable to think that the Gator Bowl performance could at least provide a model for Nebraska as it heads into the offseason.

Nebraska’s front seven on defense look imposing for next year. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong cushioned his lead for the upcoming quarterback battle with Johnny Stanton this spring. If I-back Ameer Abdullah decides to return for his senior season (which may be less of a sure thing after his Gator Bowl performance), he should be the backbone of an offense that possesses a number of exciting weapons.

There will be work to do in the offseason, of course. Nebraska will be replacing most of its offensive line, as well as key pieces of its secondary. While Nebraska’s return game didn’t hurt NU against Georgia, it certainly wasn’t a source of strength.

But the bigger question will be, mentally, how the coach and team handle adversity next season. The pressure of Pelini’s job status clearly wore on everybody, and it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that said pressure affected performance on the field. Particularly against Iowa, between the hat swipe 15-yard penalty on Pelini and the mind-boggling fake punt call that helped turn the game, actions taken under pressure by Pelini and company helped dig a hole from which Nebraska could not emerge.

Those difficulties and challenges will arise again in 2014. If Pelini reverts to form and some version of “Coach Chickenbleep” makes an appearance, then a repeat of previous seasons—four losses, struggling to win a division and no conference title—is a reasonable expectation.

But the Gator Bowl performance provides a model for something different. And if Pelini, now in year seven at the helm in Lincoln, is able to build off that performance and capture some of that long-awaited consistency and stability, 2014 may very well be something special for Nebraska fans.

If you'd like to contact Patrick, send an email to patrickrunge@gmail.com.

Or, you could always use the Twitter machine to follow @patrickrunge

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AJ McCarron's Interception Results in a Katherine Webb Struggle Face

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron tied a career high by throwing his second interception in the first half of the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, and his girlfriend Katherine Webb did not look pleased.

She wasn't the only person who was stunned by Alabama's performance. These girls look pretty upset. 

No one looks happy here. 

He's just hanging his head in disgust. 

 

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