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Alabama vs. Ohio State: TV Info, Live Stream and Predictions for Sugar Bowl 2015

The biggest question of the 2014 college football season will come two steps closer to an answer on New Year's Day 2015, as the long-awaited College Football Playoff semifinals will finally take place and leave two teams vying for the national championship by the time the holiday is over.

No. 2 Oregon will take on No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl before the nation's attention is then diverted to the 2015 Sugar Bowl, a top-shelf contest between No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC) and No. 4 Ohio State (12-1, 9-0 Big Ten) that features two of the best defenses in the nation. These might be the best possible teams to take part in the inaugural playoff.

ESPN's John Buccigross passed along info that perhaps sets up this four-team playoff as more of a generational conflict than anything else:

When we last saw Ohio State, it was busy attempting to erase the Wisconsin football program from existence via a 59-0 beatdown in the Big Ten Championship Game. Alabama punched its ticket to the inaugural playoff with a more-than-convincing 42-13 win over Missouri.

The presence of an SEC team should make for an extraordinary atmosphere down South in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, although legions of Buckeyes faithful could (and should) make the trek down to Louisiana as well.

Here is a look at the television info and schedule for this watershed event:


2015 Sugar Bowl Schedule, Viewing Info

Date: Jan. 1

Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Preview and Prediction

While Oregon-FSU has the marquee, Heisman vs. Heisman quarterback matchup between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, the Sugar Bowl will likely be defined by two quarterbacks who weren't even locks to start a single game for their teams back in August.

Crimson Tide pivot Blake Sims was locked in a battle with Jake Coker in training camp but eventually won a starting job he never relinquished. Cardale Jones was third on the depth chart behind Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes lost Miller to a chest injury prior to the start of the season, but Barrett was next in line and filled in brilliantly.

Sims grew into his role as the season progressed, while Jones didn't get his first opportunity to start until the Wisconsin game, as Barrett went down and out with an ankle injury in a gritty win over Michigan at the end of the regular season. Both players turned in fantastic performances in their respective conference championship games.

Alabama head coach and noted control freak Nick Saban expects Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to run the same no-huddle, uptempo system that has proven effective for three different quarterbacks, but he is aware that the team cannot foresee everything the Buckeyes will throw at them with Jones running the show.

"We feel philosophically, they are going to run their offense," Saban said, per ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff. "It's just what part of it they might feature a little different. That's the part we are not sure about."

If there is any area where Jones might prove more useful than Barrett, it could be an expansion of the read-option game, with Jones utilizing his tight end-sized frame on zone reads or even designed quarterback draws and bootlegs.

This should also open up the game for running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,402 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) and create play-action opportunities for wideout Devin Smith, Jones' favorite target in the rout of Wisconsin.

It will be up to Alabama linebacker Xzavier Dickson (eight sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss) to stay disciplined and knife through the line at the correct angle or with the correct read to make the play. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Da'Shawn Hand also figure to be critical in contain and creating pressure in this contest.

Ohio State doesn't really have much guesswork to do when it comes to game-planning for Sims, either. In a sport with a dizzying amount of variables, Alabama has perhaps the one true constant in wide receiver Amari Cooper, whom Sims will depend on like a crutch.

The Heisman Trophy finalist racked up 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. There was very little stopping him this season. Cooper finished with fewer than eight catches in just two games this season, against Arkansas and Western Carolina (both wins), the latter of which saw the Crimson Tide mostly on autopilot.

Buckeyes cornerback Doran Grant and whichever safety/defensive back is almost undoubtedly shadowing Cooper on any given play should have their hands full.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell joked Mother Nature might be the only thing capable of slowing down Cooper, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today: "The ideal way to defend him is a pouring rainstorm, winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, but I don't think that's going to happen in a dome."

The best way to limit Cooper might be ratcheting up the pressure on Sims. Even if that pans out and prevents Sims from hitting Cooper or DeAndrew White on complicated deep routes, it likely won't produce many big plays. The Alabama offensive line allowed just 13 sacks this season—eighth best in the nation.

Sims and his natural scrambling ability have much to do with this, but the O-line deserves at least some of the credit. It also does a fine job of blocking for the twin terrors out of the backfield, running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon.

It will be up to defensive end Joey Bosa and his 13.5 sacks to create pressure Thursday. Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel singled out Bosa and Co. against the Crimson Tide O-line as a key battle in this contest:

Bosa, a true sophomore, is arguably the country’s best defensive lineman and could end up as the caliber of player who draws No. 1 NFL draft pick buzz next year. Bosa is a unanimous first-team All-America, finishing the season with 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Right tackle Austin Shepherd’s ability to contain him will be the most important matchup of the game for Alabama. The offensive line is the Crimson Tide’s relative weakness, which means Bosa and star tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington will need to put constant pressure on quarterback Blake Sims.

However, due to Alabama's cohesiveness as an offensive unit and Sims' ability to cut down on major mistakes, containment will be the order of the day against such a talented offense fortunate to play under highly regarded offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Look for Alabama's proficiency in the red zone to be the difference maker here, along with a muffled passing performance from Jones, owing to his inexperience and the quality of Alabama's pass defense, which allowed opposing signal-callers a 115.84 efficiency rating this season, per NCAA.com.

The Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on 41 of 60 red-zone attempts this season, while Ohio State allowed opponents to score TDs on 26 of 37 opportunities, per NCAA.com.

On the flip side, Alabama allowed opponents just 15 touchdowns on 40 red-zone trips. Ohio State scored touchdowns at a similar rate to Alabama in the red zone (46-of-65), but the Buckeyes will falter at least once in this game, and it will cost them.

Both teams will get their fair share of big plays and land plenty of haymakers, but the Crimson Tide's ruthless efficiency will see them win out by a narrow margin.

Prediction: Alabama 28-24 Ohio State

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Which 2015 Recruits Will Have the Biggest Impact as Freshmen?

The Class of 2015 is loaded with top-notch talent ready to supplement the rosters of the elite college football programs.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer break down which freshmen will have the biggest impact in 2015. 

Which freshmen will burst onto the scene next year?

Check out the video, and let us know! 

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SEC Football Q&A: Can Texas A&M Make a College Football Playoff Run in 2015?

Bowl season is upon us, which means it's time for teams to generate offseason momentum based on bowl results, players returning to school and make impressions on coaches who may have new addressees in 2015.

Texas A&M generated some momentum on Monday, topping West Virginia 45-37 in the Liberty Bowl in a game that featured quarterback Kyle Allen growing up before the eyes of the world and a defense that, for the first time in a long time, made halftime adjustments.

Could the Aggies make a playoff run in 2015?

That question and more are answered in this week's SEC Q&A.

  

A playoff run? For Texas A&M?

It may seem crazy considering where the program is, but, as I wrote in mid-November, it's not the craziest idea in the world. Allen was a stud on Monday against West Virginia, and most of his skill-position players are coming back. If the play-calling from offensive coordinator Jake Spavital improves, it should avoid the prolonged lulls that plagued the offense in 2014.

Depending on whom head coach Kevin Sumlin hires as his new defensive coordinator, an immediate turnaround wouldn't be out of the question. Everybody knows about defensive end Myles Garrett, but other young stars on that side of the ball showed out against the Mountaineers, including linebacker Otaro Alaka—who had seven tackles.

Sumlin has done a great job laying the foundation for success with solid recruiting classes every year since getting the job prior to the 2012 season. The problem has been the inability to coach them up, but the dismissal of defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is a step in the right direction. 

It's premature to put the Aggies into the playoff discussion right now. Would it shock me if we could do that by October of 2015? Not at all. All Sumlin has to do is press the right buttons and A&M will take the next step. Unfortunately for A&M fans, though, by pressing the wrong buttons, the program could easily remain in SEC West anonymity. 

 

D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Auburn's leading receiver, won't play in the Outback Bowl due to a violation of team rules, but he will be back for his senior season on the Plains, according to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com.

His return means that Auburn's offense won't miss a beat, and likely will be even better than it has been in head coach Gus Malzahn's first two seasons at the helm. 

Williams caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns this season. More importantly, he was a machine on third down with 17 catches—15 of which moved the chains. He was quarterback Nick Marshall's go-to guy in the clutch, and likely will fill the same role next season when Jeremy Johnson takes over at quarterback.

On top of that, Auburn gets Ricardo Louis, Melvin Ray, Marcus Davis and several other key receivers back to join him, which should boost the Tigers passing game under Johnson—who's a much more polished passer than Marshall.

Couple that with an offensive system that has produced 12 1,000-yard rushers in Malzahn's nine seasons as a college head or assistant coach, and the Tigers will be much more balanced than they have been in previous seasons

Williams' return gives Johnson a reliable weapon that he can trust, which will keep Auburn in contention for the SEC West and potentially help Johnson make a run for the Heisman Trophy.

 

Yeah, for sure. Anytime Florida is below Florida Atlantic and South Florida in the 247Sports.com team recruiting rankings, that's a problem.

Is it worth freaking out over? Not yet. It was a season of turmoil in Gainesville, and prospects knew that a coaching change could be in the mix. Can you blame top prospects like offensive tackle Martez Ivey and defensive ends Byron Cowart and CeCe Jefferson for waiting to see how it plays out?

Not at all.

New head coach Jim McElwain is still assembling his staff, and once the dead period ends, he and his staff will hit the ground running to try to reel in some of the 5-star talent that's on the board. Florida only has eight commits, which means it is set up to be the team that closes the strongest down the stretch.

Will Florida land in the top five in the final recruiting rankings? No, and that shouldn't be the goal.

McElwain needs to get what he can—including the three players mentioned above—fill specific needs and do enough to keep pace with the big boys this year. 

Transition years are never fun, but if Florida can become this year's "USC"—the team that wins national signing day itself—that should be considered a win for McElwain.

 

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

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

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Bowl Game Predictions 2015: Schedule and Picks for Remaining Postseason Clashes

Congratulations, you are almost there.

You’ve almost made it through all the terrible defenses, kicking miscues and inexplicable penalties of the early bowl games and reached the exciting ones. Fairly soon, you will be watching the New Year’s Six bowls and the initial College Football Playoff showdowns, and all will be right with the world.

Here is a look at the schedule and some predictions for the rest of the college football bowl clashes before digging into an under-the-radar showdown to watch in the midst of the playoff action.

 

Game to Watch: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

Auburn and Wisconsin will face off Thursday in the Outback Bowl in one of just two bowl games outside of the New Year’s Six matchups that pit two teams in the Top 20 against each other.

Both the Tigers and Badgers are fresh off disappointing finishes to the season, although only Wisconsin completely embarrassed itself in a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. Auburn actually impressed in a close 55-44 loss to arguably the nation’s best team in Alabama.

Whichever team can shake that disappointment off quicker could ultimately emerge victorious.

Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated broke down one of the more intriguing storylines in this one as Wisconsin’s offense goes for the record books:

The Big Ten title game loss was striking both for the Badgers’ 59 points surrendered to Ohio State and their zero points produced. Gordon’s 76 yards represented his second-worst output of the season, and a veteran offensive line seemed out of whack once veteran center Dan Voltz left the game four snaps in with an ankle injury. Gordon needs 293 yards to break Sanders’ all-time record of 2,628 yards in a season. The junior is unlikely to hit that mark, even with Auburn happy to get into a shootout. But a fifth 200-yard game is not out of the question, so will the Badgers line be healthy enough to get Gordon close?

Melvin Gordon turned in arguably the best season for a running back since Barry Sanders was making defenses miss at Oklahoma State. Gordon racked up 2,336 yards, 26 touchdowns and a 7.56-yards-per-carry average on the ground this season and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Wisconsin athletic director and interim coach for the bowl game Barry Alvarez discussed Gordon’s overall excellence, via Joey Johnston of The Tampa Tribune:

“He’s big and strong, he has sprinter’s speed, he can run around you, he can run through you. We’ve had a lot of great running backs at Wisconsin, but Melvin Gordon is the best one. He truly has everything you’d want.”

If Auburn is going to win, it will have to at least contain Gordon. The Tigers were actually 45th against the run, which isn’t stellar but is also better than some would expect considering they allowed more than 30 points in six SEC games and more than 40 twice.

Teams hurt Auburn with the pass more so than the run. Alabama in particular was able to exploit the papier-mache-soft secondary that Auburn brings to the table with Amari Cooper on a number of deep routes.

The Badgers aren’t exactly built to take advantage of teams through the air (118th in the country in passing yards per game), but Auburn will be forced to stack the box to stop Gordon and the fourth-best rushing attack in the nation. That will open things up for Joel Stave and the Wisconsin passing game against a terrible secondary.

On the other side, the Tigers will counter with a group of playmakers, including quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and wide receiver Sammie Coates.

Coates may be a walking highlight reel, but D’haquille Williams was Auburn’s best wide receiver this season with 730 receiving yards and five touchdown catches. The problem for Auburn is that Williams is suspended for the Outback Bowl.

His absence will be felt in this one, especially because Wisconsin will be able to devote more attention toward Coates. It cuts Auburn’s elite receiving options in half, which is a boost for a Wisconsin defense that is likely reeling in the confidence department.

On paper, Wisconsin finished 15th in the nation in scoring defense, fifth in passing defense and 16th in rushing defense, but the lasting impression the nation has of the Badgers is Ohio State’s 59-0 demolition of the secondary. Are the Badgers really that good on defense, or were their impressive numbers a result of a relatively weak schedule that featured only two top-50 scoring offenses?

You would be hard-pressed to find more dangerous attacks in the country than Auburn’s up-tempo, high-octane offense.

It finished 12th in the nation in rushing yards per game and 24th in scoring and was never more impressive this season than when it scored 44 points against Alabama’s stout defense. Stopping that is a tall order for the Badgers.

Still, Wisconsin’s defense will limit Auburn’s explosiveness simply because Williams will not be in the lineup. That will allow the Badgers the freedom to commit more defenders to the box to slow down the rushing combination of quarterback Marshall and running back Artis-Payne.

Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t have to pitch a shutout either. The Badgers will ride Gordon against Auburn’s vulnerable defensive group and then take advantage of open holes downfield in the second half.

The result will be a critical bowl victory for the Big Ten. 

Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Auburn 21

 

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College Football Playoffs Format: Rules, Predictions for January 1 Games

The inaugural College Football Playoff will kick off on New Year's Day with two exceptional matchups that ought to give the new postseason format a degree of recency bias to bolster its staying power.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota will lead Oregon against the reigning champion Florida State Seminoles in the Rose Bowl. Then an epic coaching matchup headlines the Sugar Bowl between Nick Saban's Alabama powerhouse and an Urban Meyer-led Ohio State program.

Whoever wins those two contests will meet in the national title game on January 12. Thus, the rules are rather self-explanatory, as two of the nation's top four teams have to notch supreme, quality victories to win the championship.

For a more detailed explanation of the College Football Playoff and the various motives behind it, check out the official website's overview of the fresh layout.

Read on for predictions regarding the two upcoming playoff games, which will have both immediate and long-term implications for all the schools involved.

 

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

Much more is at stake for Mariota and his counterpart Jameis Winston than a win at this marquee venue. Both are vying to be the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

This contrast of systems will be fascinating to witness, as the Ducks will try to keep FSU on its heels with its uptempo offensive attack. However, if the Seminoles can get early stops and bleed the clock with a more methodical approach controlled by Winston, Oregon could be playing catch-up.

Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com notes that Winston isn't afraid to go after the Ducks secondary, which is without its most talented cornerback in Ifo Ekpre-Olomu:

But Oregon does have another stud corner in Troy Hill to mark up senior Seminoles star Rashad Greene, who is Winston's clear go-to target. FSU is ranked 104th in the country in rushing offense, so it's mostly on Winston to rally his team if the Ducks can establish the run early.

If the perception that spread offenses are abecedarian in their concepts, former Oregon QB Nate Costa doesn't believe that takes away from Mariota's football IQ, per the Portland Tribune's Stephen Alexander:

[Mariota's] level of mastery of the offense is a ninth-degree black belt. I'm not sure how high the black belt goes, but he's a master of this offense. He understands the ins and outs not just of the passing game, but he really understands the run game, which is crucial for a running quarterback.

He understands what they're doing up front, he communicates well and he makes sure everyone knows what they're doing before the ball is snapped. His level of mastery is elite. And even beyond that is just his memory. His ability to retain information and process it quickly makes him a special player.

All defensive efforts for Florida State must be geared toward stopping Mariota and running back Royce Freeman. Putting Mariota in obvious passing situations is Florida State's best chance to pull off a victory.

The only problem is that Mariota is so fleet-footed that he can take it to the end zone from anywhere on the field. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman shares a notable story that accentuates Mariota's blazing speed:

Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. give the Seminoles teeth in the trenches to stymie Oregon's ground game. What those NFL-caliber stars can't account for is when Mariota takes off and runs.

Although Winston boasts considerable athleticism of his own, Mariota is a far more dynamic dual-threat playmaker.

The Seminoles have squeaked out close wins against run-heavy teams in Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech to close out their undefeated season. Mariota and Co. are far more formidable than those offenses, which should allow the Ducks to end FSU's remarkable run that got it to this point.

Prediction: Oregon 42, Florida State 38

 

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

The Buckeyes are similar to Oregon in that they deploy a spread offense that relies on a fast tempo and exploiting open-field mismatches to thrive.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart discussed how the Crimson Tide have adjusted in preparation for the Sugar Bowl, per FoxSports.com's Stewart Mandel:

We've exposed our guys more this year than ever to [tempo] ... We practice differently by going against our offense that now has a tempo package. We try to start every practice with tempo to do things to get better at it.

[...] You go talk to teams, that's the No. 1 thing they do that we didn't do as much. We were more of a pro mentality -- play the best 53. Now we've got to use more guys, especially in the defensive line, where they get more exhausted faster.

As poised as fifth-year senior Blake Sims has been in quarterbacking Alabama's offense in his long-awaited chance to do so, the buzzed-about QB in this contest will be Ohio State's Cardale Jones.

The former third-stringer more known for his comments about collegiate education than anything else, Jones was a spot start for the Big Ten Championship Game.

Nothing was amiss for the Buckeyes, as they rolled to a 59-0 triumph over Wisconsin to sway the selection committee into giving them the final playoff spot. ESPN.com's Austin Ward alludes to the potential competitive edge OSU may have with Jones under center:

Saban is a reputable defensive genius, yet he and Smart may not know how to deal with Jones, whose strapping frame, strong arm and powerful running style may give Alabama fits.

The Tide have struggled to defend running QBs such as Johnny Manziel and Trevor Knight in recent years. They did a nice job shutting down Mississippi State's Dak Prescott earlier this season, but that game was in Tuscaloosa.

Thick ball-carrier Ezekiel Elliott gives the Buckeyes serious punch between the tackles to take on the Tide's top-ranked rush defense. Also, OSU's defensive front is as capable as any of doing battle in the trenches with Alabama's big men on the offensive line.

Joey Bosa is the catalyst for a Buckeyes pass rush that averages 3.08 sacks per contest (h/t NCAA.com) and can pester Sims. Bosa acknowledged how interesting of a battle he'll have against the SEC champions, via The SEC Network's Tony Barnhart:

As long as OSU can keep T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry in relative check, this has all the makings of a Buckeyes victory. It would be monumental for Meyer as he continues to build Ohio State to prominence after some turbulence following the Jim Tressel era.

While Alabama will continue to be a contender every year, the fact that the Buckeyes have been able to make it this far with a No. 3 QB is quite an eye-opener.

The Crimson Tide have relied on smart, cerebral signal-callers, but with the importance placed on that position and how elite the other three playoff teams are in that area, Saban would do well to bring in superior talent in the future to make Alabama even better.

Prediction: Ohio State 27, Alabama 21

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Watch Lane Kiffin Prematurely Celebrate Major World Events

Many college football pundits predicted the success the Alabama Crimson Tide have experienced this season. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has gone even further, predicting touchdowns before they even happen.

Check out Kiffin prematurely celebrate some of the best moments in sports and world events. 

What will Kiffin celebrate next? Check out the video and let us know! 

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College Football Playoff 2015: Updated Odds, Final Predictions for Semifinals

Within the next 48 hours, we'll officially be in a new year, and that means just one thing: The inaugural College Football Playoff is finally here.

The beginning of 2015 brings with it a CFP format many of us have been yearning for since the BCS came to fruition. While the playoff features just four teams—many enthusiasts would like to see it increased to six or eight—it's a big step in the right direction and will give us arguably the most deserving national champion ever.

We have two very compelling matchups taking place on January 1, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston go head-to-head in the Rose Bowl, and Nick Saban and Urban Meyer will surely turn the Sugar Bowl into a chess match between coaching masterminds.

As we count down the hours until these highly anticipated contests commence, let's take one final look at the updated odds and predict the winner for each semifinal clash.

 

Rose Bowl

Matchup: Florida State vs. Oregon

Odds (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 71.5
  • Spread: Oregon -9

 

Prediction

Can the Seminoles slow down Mariota and the Oregon offense? This question has been the cause of many debates since the CFP matchups were announced.

Mariota deservedly won the Heisman Trophy this season after tossing 38 touchdown passes, rushing for 14 scores and throwing just two interceptions. He led the third-ranked offense, which averaged 46.3 points per game. Factoring in talented freshman ball-carrier Royce Freeman, the Seminoles won't stop the Ducks; they can only hope to contain them.

Oregon scored at least 42 points in each of its final eight games during the season, which included a contest against Stanford's fourth-ranked total defense. With that in mind, we should be asking a new question: Can Winston and the Seminoles offense keep up with Mariota and the Ducks?

Winston finished his season on a high note, completing 70 percent of his passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns in the ACC title game against Georgia Tech. That's a great sign considering the Ducks rank 102nd in the nation against the pass and are without star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu for the Rose Bowl.

Still, Winston's interception total of 17 this season is a scary number heading into this contest. While he didn't throw a pick against Georgia Tech, he did toss at least one in each of his previous six contests, which included throwing four against Florida.

While freshman running back Dalvin Cook and senior wide receiver Rashad Greene will ensure the Seminoles put up some points on the Ducks, it's simply too difficult to trust the inconsistent Winston to produce a big enough performance to keep pace with the prolific Mariota.

Prediction: Oregon 45, Florida State 31

 

Sugar Bowl

Matchup: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Odds (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 58.5
  • Spread: Alabama -9

 

Prediction

When looking at a contest between Ohio State and Alabama, a shootout isn't exactly the first word that comes to mind; however, the Crimson Tide have scored at least 42 points in three consecutive games, and the Buckeyes have done the same. In fact, over the final three games of the season, Alabama tallied 145 points and Ohio State accumulated 143.

All right, so we probably won't see those kinds of gaudy numbers when Alabama's fourth-ranked scoring defense faces off against Ohio State's 21st-ranked scoring defense in the Sugar Bowl, but one thing is for certain: Based on the sheer potency of these two offenses of late, defense will prove to be the difference maker in this contest.

Both squads are coming off impressive defensive showings. Alabama held Missouri to 13 points in the SEC Championship Game, limiting the Tigers to 10 first downs and 313 yards of offense. Ohio State shut out Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, allowing just 258 yards to the Badgers offense and forcing four turnovers.

So, which team has the upper hand?

Well, that would be Alabama. While the Buckeyes were certainly impressive in the Big Ten title game, their defense gave up 24 points or more in their four previous games. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, only gave up more than 23 points in a game just once this season.

Quarterback Cardale Jones proved to be a very effective replacement for the injured J.T. Barrett, but his inexperience will rear its ugly head against a defense as stout as Alabama's. While running back Ezekiel Elliott has been a fantastic complement to Jones, he'll have a tough time finding room to run against the nation's top-ranked run defense that allows an average of just 88.7 yards per game, 2.81 yards per carry and three rushing scores all year.

Alabama's defense will make Ohio State's offense one-dimensional and come away with a win as a result.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 20

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 30 at 12:30 a.m. ET.

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Rose Bowl 2015: Stat Predictions for Key Playmakers in Oregon vs. FSU

Both the Oregon Ducks and Florida State Seminoles have advanced into the inaugural College Football Playoff on the heels of some very impressive team efforts. However, there are a few key players from each team who deserve a good chunk of the credit for getting to this Rose Bowl showdown.

Oregon enters the game ranked third in the nation in points scored, averaging 46.3 per game. That's due to a very well-balanced offensive attack that finished the season ranked 11th in passing yards and 22nd in rushing yards.

Florida State heads into the Rose Bowl ranked 29th in the nation, scoring an average of 34.8 points per game, and is coming off a 37-point showing against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. Much of that success comes from the team's 14th-ranked passing attack, but its running game has stepped up recently as well.

So, when these two offensive juggernauts meet in the College Football Playoff, how are each team's offensive playmakers likely to fare? Let's take a look.

 

Oregon Ducks

Marcus Mariota

It's only fitting that we start with Oregon's Heisman-winning quarterback. Mariota earned those honors this year by delivering consistently efficient performances that resulted in 3,783 yards, 38 touchdowns, 669 rushing yards, another 14 scores and a receiving touchdown. Despite all of that scoring, he only threw two interceptions. That's quite an impressive ratio.

That ratio is also one reason why many analysts, such as Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, see Mariota going No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL draft:

Mariota ended his season with a flourish in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona. He threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 33 yards and another three scores. He's on a tremendous hot streak and has a favorable matchup against the Seminoles.

Florida State ranks 48th in the nation against the pass, allowing an average of 218.2 yards per game. The Seminoles have also given up 20 passing touchdowns this season. This team has been torched for more than 300 yards by both Everett Golson and Will Gardner this season, so it's easy to speculate Mariota will do the same.

Prediction: 322 passing yards, three touchdowns, 46 rushing yards, two touchdowns

 

Royce Freeman

This freshman running back has been a revelation out of Oregon's backfield this season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry while rushing for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns. Freeman has been on a roll over the back half of the season, averaging at least 5.1 yards per carry in each of his last eight games.

The Seminoles have shown a weakness against the run this year, ranking 56th in the nation, allowing an average of 160.1 yards per game on the ground as well as 16 rushing touchdowns. Although, they are only giving up an average of 3.94 yards per carry.

Taking Freeman's recent usage into consideration—he's received 22 and 21 carries over his last two games, respectively—he's in line to put up his fourth consecutive 100-yard performance.

Prediction: 114 rushing yards, one touchdown

 

Byron Marshall

Marshall has been Oregon's hybrid weapon this season. He's an enormous threat in the open field and has seen time at both running back and wide receiver. Expect the Ducks to get him involved early in an effort to keep the Seminoles on their heels.

While Marshall has seen consistent targets throughout the year, his production has been inconsistent. He's averaged at least 12.0 yards per reception in six games this season, but he's also averaged less than 10.0 yards per reception in another six contests.

Florida State's linebackers should be able to hold Marshall to fairly respectable numbers in the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: 46 receiving yards, 29 rushing yards

 

Florida State

Jameis Winston

Winston won the Heisman following his 2013 campaign in which he tossed 40 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. To say his production dropped off in 2014 would be a severe understatement. In 12 games this season, the Florida State quarterback has produced 24 touchdown passes and thrown 17 interceptions—not quite Heisman-worthy numbers.

Although, Winston has mounted several comebacks this season, and he delivered this statement on the matter, via College Football 24/7:

Toward the back half of the season, Winston's interception total began to accumulate at a rapid pace. He threw at least one pick in six consecutive games, which included throwing three against Louisville and four against Florida, tallying 12 during that stretch.

Luckily, he finished the season with his best game of the year, completing 70 percent of his passes for 309 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions against Georgia Tech's 64th-ranked pass defense. Well, Winston has a very favorable matchup in the Rose Bowl against Oregon's 102nd-ranked secondary that doesn't have the services of top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is out for the season with a knee injury.

Winston is poised to put up some gaudy numbers against the Ducks, but he must watch his accuracy against a ball-hawking defense that has tallied 25 takeaways this season.

Prediction: 313 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception

 

Dalvin Cook

This freshman ball-carrier has been incredibly dynamic for the Seminoles this season. He has consistently produced at a high level whenever he was given the chance, and that rang true over the final two weeks of the season, as he received the lion's share of the workload out of the backfield and rushed for 144 and 177 yards, respectively, in those contests.

Oregon does have a decent run defense, ranking 49th in the nation and allowing an average of 154.2 yards per game; however, the team is also giving up a rather high average of 4.12 yards per carry. Cook should have several opportunities to break a long run during the Rose Bowl.

Karlos Williams missed the ACC title game, but he should receive some carries against Oregon, slightly limiting Cook's workload. However, if the freshman still receives roughly 20 carries, he should be in for a big day.

Prediction: 122 rushing yards, one touchdown, 42 receiving yards

 

Rashad Greene

Greene has been one of the nation's most prolific wide receivers this season, accumulating 93 receptions for 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns. He has extremely reliable hands and is a polished route-runner, making him the hands-down favorite target of Winston.

The senior receiver is coming off a great game against Georgia Tech in which he hauled in seven receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly, getting Greene involved early and often proved to be a major factor for his quarterback's success in that contest.

If that trend continues in the Rose Bowl—and it should—against Oregon's porous secondary that's missing its best cornerback, Greene could very well come away with one of his biggest games of the season.

Prediction: 156 receiving yards, two touchdowns

 

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

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Under Armour All-America Game 2015: Top Players to Watch in Showcase

While the current college stars prepare to show what they can do in various bowl games, the next generation of talent will be on display at the Under Armour All-America Game.

There is rarely a consensus for football prospects at the high school level, with various people seeing potential in different places. Some players are extremely advanced for their age while others have the athleticism and upside but will need some time to develop.

No matter what you think about the current class, though, it's hard to deny the fact that this game features most of the best players set to enter college in 2015.

Here is a complete look at the rosters, with a breakdown of some of the more intriguing competitors to keep an eye on Friday.

 

When: Friday, Jan. 2

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Watch: ESPN2

 

Top Players to Watch

Kyler Murray, QB, Texas A&M

The all-star game features an excellent class of quarterbacks even without highly touted passer Josh Rosen. However, Kyler Murray might be the most exciting player of the group to watch.

Despite being just 5'10", the Texas native has shown the passing ability necessary to stay at quarterback instead of being moved to a different position. He showed off his strength and accuracy at practices during the week:

Of course, his best asset is his legs, as Murray will try to be the next Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. He is very elusive in the pocket and can always create a big run if the defense isn't careful. This dual-threat ability, along with his leadership, helped him finish with an undefeated record in his high school career.

Murray discussed his lofty goals for each level of the game with Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News:

If he gets a chance to shine, he certainly has the ability to be a star in college.

 

Byron Cowart, DE, Undecided

You can't put too much stock in what players do in practice, but Byron Cowart showed off his strength this week against one of the better offensive linemen in the nation. 

In a class full of plenty of elite defensive players, Cowart is among the best around thanks to some outstanding quickness for his size. At 6'4", 250 pounds, he can still explode off the line and get to the quarterback in a hurry.

Depending on where he commits, Cowart has the talent to play right away and make an impact as a true freshman. If he continues to improve, a spot on the All-American team is not out of the question.

Until then, fans should appreciate what he can do at such a young age as he pairs athleticism and technique to be a true force defensively.

 

Kevin Toliver II, CB, LSU

Another defensive player to keep an eye on is LSU commit Kevin Toliver II. The 6'2" player is bigger than most cornerbacks even at the NFL level. This comes with a great physicality that represents the direction most squads are going toward at the position.

Meanwhile, Toliver also has the speed and quickness to handle even the best receivers competing at this All-American game. Adam Friedman of Rivals.com was impressed by the play during the week of practice:

The great thing is he shines even brighter in game situations, and he is certain to make some big plays once the spotlight is on him. He has great ball skills and knows how to go up and get the ball to create turnovers.

It seems like Toliver will simply be the next in line in a great run of defensive backs to come out of LSU.

 

Cordell Broadus, WR, Undecided

While Cordell Broadus is the son of rapper Snoop Dogg (or Lion, or whatever he wants to be called), the receiver is more than just part of a famous family. He has plenty of skill to make a name for himself in the future.

Broadus is a quarterback's best friend with his 6'2" frame and knack for getting open with great routes. Once the ball is in his hands, he knows how to break big gains with great elusiveness in the open field.

Although many expected him to be deciding between Los Angeles schools USC and UCLA, he apparently is considering a new option based on recent events, according to Tom VanHaaren of ESPN:

No matter where he lands, Broadus is a player who will see the field early in his career and is certain to make an impact before too long.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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College Football Championship 2015: Preview, Predictions for Rose, Sugar Bowls

The seemingly never-ending buildup to the inaugural College Football Playoff is nearly over. We're just over 48 hours away from the opening whistle in Pasadena, where Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will battle Hunger Games style to leave the best lasting impression on NFL scouts.

If the month-long wait between conference championship week and the playoffs seems anticlimactic, well, that's because basically nothing happened. No major scandals broke. No one lost a leg in practice. Hell, no one's even said anything particularly dumb in press conferences.

The relative calm before the storm proves a few things. One being that college kids are more mature than we'd ever think. Given multiple opportunities to toss my foot in my mouth as a 20-year-old kid, I'd have probably done it each and every time. (Same goes for me at 24.)

But instead, a business-like approach has washed over proceedings. These kids are on business trips, not vacations. Sure, most business trips end at the bottom of hotel mini-bar bottles for us and not with #SwagBags, but the result is the same. Get in, get done with business and prepare for the next step.

With that in mind, let's check in on the sideline for both contests and break down how things should play out.

 

No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 2 Oregon

The narratives are too many to count. Marcus Mariota versus Jameis Winston. Jameis Winston in general. Florida State's record-setting 29-game winning streak. The last remnants of the Chip Kelly era trying to win the program's first national championship. Crazy Seminoles fans. Crazy Ducks donors. 

Oh, and then there's the whole football game thing. It might be fun too.

Florida State enters Pasadena as one of the most unique undefeated teams in college football history. That the Seminoles remain unbeaten is a testament to their fortitude—and a whole heaping pile of luck. Seven of their 13 victories have come by a touchdown or less, including each of their last four. 

“A lot has been made of them (the Seminoles) being a second-half team and all this stuff and not winning decisively,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich told reporters. “Winning is really hard, and again winning once is hard, and you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

Niceties aside, teams don't just go 7-0 in one-possession games without some mean regression. One-possession games by their nature are inherently fluky, built on a series of high-variance occurrences that can flip in an instant. Seminoles fans would like to think their team has overcome the odds because they're more clutch than others—and perhaps that's true—but the amount of close games does expose weakness.

Florida State is 20th this season in defensive FEI plus, a Football Outsiders metric that normalizes a team's performance to its opponent and other factors. The Seminoles were by far the nation's top team in that metric a year ago, one of the best units in recent memory.

By contrast, Oregon, long maligned for its defensive deficiencies, is measured as the nation's 13th-best defensive team. Eleven of Oregon's 12 victories have come by double figures, and the Ducks played only two games within a touchdown. Florida State supporters would be quick to note Oregon lost one of those contests, which is a fair enough point.

But those same people would have to acknowledge Florida State's only subjective category where it's superior is in the win column. Cliches about how winning is all that matters aside, Oregon is objectively a better football team than Florida State has been at any point in 2014. Mariota has been better than Winston, Royce Freeman more explosive than Dalvin Cook, the Ducks defense better on an opponent-adjusted scale and Oregon's return prowess makes its special teams better as a whole. (Roberto Aguayo remains da gawd, though.)

Most smart people will bet on Oregon. I'm apparently not smart. For whatever reason, since the beginning of this process I've had a gut feeling the nation at large has been underrating Florida State. The Seminoles aren't the big swinging bully they were a year ago. They are, however, a wildly talented offensive team that has a knack for never getting too down on itself.

Call it a gut feeling that when Florida State says it wants Alabama, it'll do what it takes to make that happen.

Score: Florida State 42, Oregon 38

 

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 1 Alabama

If Cardale Jones is ever going to be prepared for a game, it'll be Thursday. The Ohio State quarterback, who will make his second career start for the injured J.T. Barrett, has had nearly a month to prepare for what Nick Saban has in store. He's been coached up by one of the three or four best offensive minds in college football.

None of this is ideal. Ohio State would rather be heading into the playoffs with Barrett, a legitimate Heisman candidate before his injury, or Braxton Miller, a preseason Heisman favorite, under center. But it appears Urban Meyer knows the only way to win is by treating Jones like he's one of the two stars.

"There's no limitation on offense when I'm in as far as 'We can't do this, we can't run this,'" Jones told reporters when asked if the offense would be changed for him. "It's the same as Braxton had with freedom."

Saban's defensive system by its nature is designed to test the freedoms of its opposing quarterbacks. Alabama thrives on making opponents switch their primary goal; audibles are nearly as good as stops. That will be especially the case against an Ohio State offense that likes to push tempo and limit defensive substitutions.

"I know against us, he's going to have to do a lot of processing and a lot of thinking," Alabama safety Landon Collins told reporters. "We're definitely going to confuse him as much as possible."

How Jones handles the confusion will determine how this game goes. There exists a very real possibility that Alabama destroys Ohio State. The Big Ten's recent record in big, nationally televised games isn't promising, and the Buckeyes are facing the champion of the nation's most powerful conference. One or two first-quarter turnovers, and we could be headed for a 42-14 drubbing.

If Jones can keep the offense humming, though, Ohio State is a much better football team than it's given credit. The Buckeyes are one of two teams (Alabama being the other) that ranks among the nation's 10 best on offense and defense, per FEI plus rankings. Marshall and Oregon State were the only two teams to move the ball better on a per-possession basis during the regular season.

Alabama has been more inconsistent offensively, but its highs have been awfully stratospheric of late. Blake Sims has developed into a reliable passer who gives the Tide a dual-threat dynamic that's been absent throughout the Saban era. Sims' 321 rushing yards are by far the most an Alabama passer has had in Saban's eight seasons.

Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon have complemented one another well on the ground, keeping them fresh heading into the bowl season. Henry has scored at least one touchdown in five of his last six games. Alabama as a team turned in its two most impressive offensive performances of 2014 in wins over Missouri and Auburn to make the playoffs.

Saban told reporters of polarizing offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin:

He's always been a very bright guy as an offensive coach and has done a fantastic job with our players. If you continue to have success and do a good job at what you're doing, it's going to create opportunities for you in the future. I certainly think that would be the case with Lane.

When assessing the two teams, it becomes quickly apparent you're not choosing a winner. You're choosing how many points Alabama will win by. That's probably not fair, and I wouldn't put it past Jones to put a scare into the Tide.

There's just no way on earth to justify selecting a green quarterback against college football's greatest tactician.

Score: Alabama 41, Ohio State 23

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Cotton Bowl 2015: Dissecting Top Storylines for Michigan State vs. Baylor

Michigan State and Baylor each have a chance to put a bow on a memorable season with a Cotton Bowl victory. But they come into Arlington, Texas, sporting different mindsets.

It's easy to say the Bears feel shunned after they narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff despite winning the Big 12 via tiebreaker and climbing to No. 5 in the rankings' final week. The chip on Baylor's shoulder will be massive coming into AT&T Stadium, but it can't afford to let the dispirited feeling of missing out on the CFP turn into a hangover.

As for Michigan State, it is set on proving it belongs in the CFP. The Spartans' only two losses all season were to teams in the Final Four—Ohio State and Oregon. It would be hard to deny Michigan State's place among the nation's elite should it knock off Baylor.

With that said, let's take a look at the top storylines to follow entering the Cotton Bowl.

 

This Can Go One of Two Ways

Whether or not you agree with Baylor's snubbing, there's no denying the Bears are feeling left out as they prepare for the Cotton Bowl.

Baylor had one blemish on the season: losing to West Virginia on the road. But its win over TCU didn't loom as large as the Bears had hoped, and although they jumped the TCU Horned Frogs in the final rankings, Ohio State jumped them both.

Bryce Petty and Co. made no bones about it, per Fox Sports Southwest's David Ubben:

I guess the TCU game didn't matter to most people and it was evident right off the bat. Then the other thing, when you've got two Big 12 teams that are No. 3 and No. 6 and none of them get in, that's motivation when you feel that our conference we played week in and week out isn't good enough to get in the top four.

It pisses us off. 

The feeling of being left out will linger for quite some time around Waco, Texas, but nothing would validate Baylor's season more than a win over a high-caliber foe in a prestigious game. That's exactly the chance the Bears have on New Year's Day.

However, they can take one of two approaches: They can play their best football or fail to prepare accordingly after seeing their championship hopes fade.

Time and time again, teams that have been central to the national title conversation end up coming out flat in their bowl games. Sometimes, the fire just isn't there.

But Baylor can't afford to have that mindset. Whether or not it's where the Bears wanted to be, they have a golden opportunity ahead of them, but they will have to be ready to go to battle.

 

Picking Up Where We Left Off

When your assistants get lured away for major head coaching positions, you know your program is headed in the right direction. But that doesn't make bowl preparations any easier.

That's the problem facing Michigan State, which saw defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi bolt to take the head job at Pittsburgh. Now, for the first time in head coach Mark Dantonio's coaching career, he'll trot out a defense without Narduzzi leading it. 

A look across the field raises a similar question for Baylor, which is replacing longtime offensive coordinator Phil Montgomery with Kendal Briles, Art Briles' son.

Of course, those coaches got promotions for a reason. Baylor's offense ranks atop the nation with 581.4 yards per game, while the Spartans defense ranks seventh in the nation in yards against per game.

It's hard to see either unit skipping much of a beat without its usual signal-caller in the fold, as both operate at a high level. But Baylor's offense is such a strength that Michigan State would receive a massive boost just by slowing it down.

 

Spurning the Draft

Two of the most enticing draft prospects in the Cotton Bowl won't be making their farewell performances after all.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has decided to return for his senior season instead of putting his name in the 2015 draft hat. While that might have been expected, it was nothing short of a surprise to hear that Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman will be returning to the Bears in 2015. 

But don't think either player will be bringing it any less. A war of words entering the game has proved that will not be the case. Oakman had some choice words about hitting Cook, and the Spartans quarterback had to answer, per the Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode:

"Nah, but when he do, it hurts," the Baylor junior defensive end said of Cook. "He feels it. He feels it. And you can see that in his face and his emotion during the game. Anybody could be rattled. You get hit a few times in your back, you're gonna be rattled. And our defensive line is not no Teddy bears. We're coming. We're coming."

Cook, of course, was told of Oakman's comments.

"I've got two words: Jack Conklin," Cook said of the MSU sophomore left tackle who will be blocking Oakman in Thursday's Cotton Bowl. "That's what I've got."

Like I said, these players are not dumbing down this matchup just because their draft plans are on hold.

Michigan State's physical offensive line and running-game prowess have kept Cook from getting rattled too much, but pressure got to him in both of the Spartans' losses. Oakman has been making his name by rattling quarterbacks, as the 280-pound defensive end has 10 sacks on the season.

If Baylor can stuff the run on early downs and force Cook into passing situations, look for Oakman to make his impact.

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Orange Bowl 2014: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech TV Info, Spread, Time, More

The triple-option offense of Georgia Tech takes on the hard-nosed defense of Mississippi State in this year's Orange Bowl, and it's anybody's guess as to which team will come out on top.

One would tend to side with the Bulldogs defense given its consistency this season. That said, the Yellow Jackets offense is unlike anything Mississippi State has seen this year. It's one thing to be able to stop the run when it's coming at you from just one person.

The entire Yellow Jackets offense can run, and the team will use a ton of mismatches and clever offensive sets to get the desired results.

Still, that doesn't necessarily guarantee success.

This game has all the makings of a fun one, so be sure to tune in Wednesday evening. Below is all the information you'll need to watch the game and know about what's going on.

 

When: Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET

Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

Matchup (Spread): Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State (-7)

Odds: Georgia Tech +105, Mississippi State -115

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Dec. 29 at 4 p.m. ET.

 

Team Injury Updates

Team injury reports are courtesy of The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Analysis

Mississippi State knows exactly what's coming to it. Only Air Force rushes the ball more times per game than Georgia Tech's 56. It's really just a matter of figuring out which player is the ball-carrier and what direction he's headed.

That's easier said than done, however. As you can see in the accompanying graphic, the Yellow Jackets produce 333.6 yards of offense per game on the ground. Cumulatively, that's 4,337 yards.

Fourteen players have recorded a carry for the team this season. Twelve of them have at least 100 yards. Nine of them have at least 15 carries. Ten of them have scored touchdowns. The threat comes from everywhere.

When asked about facing this potent attack, Bulldogs linebacker Beniquez Brown spoke about the complexities involved, via Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger: "It's pretty complicated because it's so compact. You really can't see what's coming. You try to spot the small things, which should take you to the ball."

One of the small things this defense needs to spot is the fullback. Identifying the fullback and following him with your eyes should indicate which direction the offense is leaning toward running. It's no guarantee that quarterback Justin Thomas will follow through with that direction, but it's a good start.

Speaking of Thomas, he's not just the team's leading rusher (176 carries, 965 yards). He can also capitalize through the air if the defense forgets he doesn't have to run with it every time he touches it.

The sophomore tallied 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 175 attempts. If the numbers are consistent, he'll probably have as many carries as he will pass attempts in this one. The Bulldogs just have to recognize what's happening on each play.

Mississippi State runs a mature, intelligent defense, though, so the Bulldogs should fare better against the Yellow Jackets than most.

Having allowed only 126.5 rush yards per game this season, the Bulldogs know how to attack from the box and make tackles. They've developed a reputation of sorts as a defense over the past two seasons, writes Andre C. Fernandez of the Miami Herald:

Under [former defensive coordinator Geoff] Collins this season, Mississippi State ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 19.4 points per game, and was the stingiest red zone defense in the country (No.1 red zone in scoring and touchdown percentage).

Last season, the Bulldogs ranked in the top five in the Southeastern Conference in total defense, rushing defense, third-down defense, pass defense and interceptions.

Collins, of course, left roughly two weeks ago to take the same job at Florida.

Regardless of who is calling the plays, this defense is tough. It knows how to get after the guy with the ball, whether that's the quarterback, the running back or the wide receiver.

Given the uncertainty surrounding an offense most college programs don't run anymore, expect the Bulldogs to struggle identifying the option for the first half. The familiarity with the system will aid them by the third quarter, however.

All Dak Prescott and the offense has to do is keep up with Thomas in the first half before pulling away in the second. He needs to allow his defense the requisite time to adjust and learn.

In the end, Mississippi State will earn a hard-fought victory, even if it means allowing over 200 yards rushing along the way.

Prediction: Mississippi State 33, Georgia Tech 24

 

Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @kennydejohn

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Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl 2014: Ole Miss vs. TCU TV Info, Spread, Time and More

A pair of former serious College Football Playoff contenders meet in Atlanta Wednesday for the 2014 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as the Ole Miss Rebels take on the TCU Horned Frogs.

The Rebels and senior quarterback Bo Wallace are on the hunt to prove that three losses in five games to end the season is not how the globe should remember the roster.

All quarterback Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs want to do is send a message that the CFP committee got it wrong by punishing them for the Big 12's lack of a conference title game.

Those in charge of the bowls know what they are doing, though. Two teams with proverbial chips on their shoulders also happen to present opposing strengths, which births a war of wills observers will not want to miss Wednesday.

 

Something to Prove

TCU has every right to be upset.

The Horned Frogs took down Iowa State 55-3 to end the season, meaning the lone loss on the year was a 61-58 road affair against Baylor.

They still dropped from third to sixth in the rankings and missed the CFP.

Despite the slight, nothing short of positivity comes from the program.

"We feel like this is a playoff game," coach Gary Patterson said, per STATS LLC (via ESPN.com). "Ole Miss was as high as third in the nation, they play at a very high level."

It sure feels that way when one looks at how the TCU offense compares to the Ole Miss defense:

The Ole Miss defense experienced hiccups in losses to Auburn and Arkansas, but overall, the unit was downright dominant. The team took down Alabama 23-17 as Tide quarterback Blake Sims threw for 228 yards and a pick. It also took down Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and held quarterback Dak Prescott to just 282 yards and a score.

On the flip side, TCU scored 30 or more points in all 12 games this year. Boykin and Co. scored 37 points on Oklahoma, 48 on Texas and 41 on Kansas State, to name a few.

There is much more at stake for the Horned Frogs than meets the eye, though. A win over an SEC opponent is great, as is arguable proof that the team should have been in the CFP. Grantland's Matt Hinton breaks it down:

And if that number happens to come attached to a bowl win over a top-ranked, blue-chip SEC defense, then the Frogs will be very much in the running to open the season at no. 1, and Boykin will come in at or near the top of every Heisman short list. All we need to see first is just how high that ceiling goes outside of the shootout-friendly confines of the Big 12.

Both sides will need to leave comfort zones to spoil the other's plans.

 

Uncharted Territory 

For Ole Miss, one man comes to mind when thinking about the challenge Boykin presents. 

Johnny Manziel. 

Defensive end C.J. Johnson explains the similarities, per Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger: "Johnny will sit in the pocket more than Trevone Boykin; he likes to get out of the pocket a little bit. They do a lot more with him in the run game than A&M did with Johnny. A lot of empty personnel. The way they run the football is kinda the same, but the way they do it in the offense is different."

It is not an understatement to suggest that Boykin is the biggest test Ole Miss will have faced all year. The junior completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 3,714 yards and 30 touchdowns, but he also ran for 642 yards and eight scores.

The respect is mutual, though.

As Austin Miller of OleMissSports.com captures, Boykin sounds as if he has yet to encounter a defense quite like the Rebels:

With plenty of prep time, which side wins the battle of strengths is quite difficult to discern.

Boykin can hurt teams in a number of ways, but Ole Miss already has strong performances against players, such as Prescott, on the resume.

It is almost as if those in charge wanted to create the best matchup possible.

 

When: Wednesday, December 31, 12:30 p.m. ET

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 56.5
  • Spread: TCU (-3.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

In a tight contest such as this, it is only right to defer to the men under center. 

Boykin is one of the nation's most electric players. Wallace, while good, has thrown 11 picks on the year and showed in a 30-0 loss to Arkansas with his two interceptions that he can drag the team down with poor play.

After all, it is not like TCU struggles on the defensive side of things. An 18th ranking nationally after a schedule in the Big 12 is quite the accomplishment, so look for the more complete team with a better player under center to pull out the victory.

Prediction: TCU 28, Ole Miss 24

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Fiesta Bowl 2014: Boise State vs. Arizona TV Info, Spread, Time and Injury News

Arizona's luxury of getting to play in a New Year's Six bowl so close to home is compromised by Boise State's Fiesta Bowl lore, and only one of those trends will have a happy ending Wednesday night in Glendale, Arizona.

Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats weren't able to make it 2-for-2 against Oregon and win the Pac-12, but the Ducks' inclusion in the College Football Playoff opened up Arizona's Fiesta Bowl bid.

For a team that played in the New Mexico and AdvoCare bowls in the last two years, the chance to play in its first Fiesta Bowl since 1993 should re-invigorate the Wildcats.

As for Boise State, this marks the program's third appearance in the last seven years. Along with the chance to go a perfect 3-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, the Broncos can add another memorable chapter to the storybook by knocking off yet another top-caliber foe.

It's easy to get lost in the New Year's Eve bowl mania, so take a look below to make sure you're ready for the always-dramatic Fiesta Bowl.

 

2014 VIZIO Fiesta Bowl

When: Wednesday, Dec. 31, at 4 p.m. ET

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona

Spread: Arizona -3

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated Dec. 29

 

Fab Freshmen

A pair of freshmen offensive dynamos have paved the way for one of Arizona's most successful seasons in program history.

The Wildcats offense has been potent all season, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon—who is playing the part of a veteran in this offense. He's thrown for 3,458 yards and 27 touchdowns, only tossing seven interceptions among them.

Those are superior numbers than many effective pocket passers, but he still maintains a dual-threat ability as Arizona's third-leading rusher. Escaping outside of the pocket proved tough down the stretch of the season, though, as he nursed an ankle sprain.

"It was really difficult," Solomon said of the pain down the stretch, per Fox Sports Arizona's Steve Rivera. "But for me to just keep telling myself that I can keep going on (and) don't give up on your team (was important). It was about being mentally strong. It was difficult because I (couldn't) do my part, making the defense play true. I (couldn't) be that dual threat kind of guy. I had to tough it out."

If he doesn't want to have much responsibility on the ground, he can lean on fellow freshman Nick Wilson.

Wilson has been an absolute workhorse this season, with an average of 5.9 yards per carry and 16 total touchdowns. Before a poor performance in the Oregon rematch, Wilson had a span of four games when he rushed for 163 yards per game and scored six total TDs.

While Wilson's spot toting the rock next season is pretty secure, quarterback is a cutthroat business—and Solomon will be intent on setting a tone for next season as Daniel Berk of Arizona Daily Star noted:

Oregon stymied both freshman in early December, but Rodriguez has had weeks to prepare, and Boise State—although strong against the run, at 35th nationally—isn't as formidable up front. But the morale is down in the Wildcats offense after that performance, and the Broncos are immensely confident after finishing the season on a tear.

Arizona's freshmen haven't been playing like freshmen for most of this season, but they're far from unstoppable. If the Broncos can force a couple of early stops, they could set the tone for the game.

 

Battle of the Back(er)s

Two sure-fire future NFL players will be lurking near the line of scrimmage, waiting to battle each other when Boise State is on offense—and a number of high-contact meetings are expected.

Broncos' bruising running back Jay Ajayi has been galloping through holes with ferocity all season, amassing 1,689 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Although he has a gaudy 325 rushes this year (most in the nation), he still has a strong 5.2 yards-per-carry average.

All of his escaping past defensive linemen, though, will prove inconsequential if he can't get away from Scooby Wright III.

Even though he's just a sophomore, the Arizona linebacker raked in a plethora of national awards—including the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards (given to the top defensive player in college football). The 20-year-old uses his 245-pound frame to hit like a defensive end, while spanning the field like a ball-hawking safety.

Ajayi won't be the normal swift-footed type of back Wright is used to dealing with in the Pac-12, though, which the Wildcats star has already noticed, per KTVB's Jay Tust:

Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick has led the offense magnificently, but it would be nowhere without Ajayi's consistent production and drive-sustaining rushes.

The same could be said of Wright's impact on the Arizona defense—he helps to hold up a unit that ranks 104th in total defense.

Ajayi has stood out to Wright, but Ajayi admitted the feeling has been mutual and he's excited to settle it on the field, per Dave Cooney of KOLD:

It might not be the last time these star players meet on the gridiron, but Wednesday will leave a lasting legacy for the collegiate careers of both—especially Ajayi, who is headed to the draft in April.

 

Team Injury News

Note: Injury updates provided by The Sports Network, via USA Today.

  

Prediction

In a battle between two offenses that can get it done in a number of ways, whoever shows the most life on the defensive side will likely pull out the victory.

There's no doubt that is Boise State.

Arizona might play in a tougher conference, but that has only beaten up a Wildcats defense that Ajayi and Hedrick will be intent on gashing. Rodriguez and Co. have the weapons on offense to stay in the game, but struggles from the Oregon contest will resurface along with a Boise State defensive resurgence.

It won't take a miracle this time for Boise State to win the Fiesta Bowl.

Prediction: Boise State 34, Arizona 28

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Latest Odds and Predictions for Alabama vs. Ohio State

More than three weeks of Sugar Bowl preparation has been followed by days of media hordes, so it's safe to say Alabama and Ohio State are ready to put the talking to rest on the field.

Obviously, every minute between championship weekend and New Year's Day is coveted for the coaches and the players as they prepare for the national semifinal. But with only a couple of days before the game, all parties involved—especially the fans—are champing at the bit to see what will unfold.

Alas, time travel hasn't yet been figured out, so we'll have to wait until 8:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 1 to see what's in store. But until then, take a look below as we break down the odds and give some predictions for the Sugar Bowl.

 

When: Thursday, January 1, 2015

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

Start Time (ET): 8:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 29

 

Sugar Bowl Predictions

Ohio State QB Cardale Jones: 27-40, 275 YDS, 3 Total TD

Cardale Jones has all of the chips stacked against him—he's a sophomore with little game experience going up against Alabama in a game with championship implications. But take a closer look, and it's actually set up nicely for him.

Although the Crimson Tide are their usual selves when it comes to stopping the run, they have been average at best in stopping aerial attacks. In its last three games of the season, Alabama allowed an average of well over 300 yards per game—and those games were against teams not known for passing it around.

Jones doesn't have much experience, but his offense's season numbers speak for themselves. Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall and Michael Thomas have been dominant in the passing game, combining for 25 touchdowns caught.

What makes matters tougher for Alabama and Nick Saban in preparing for Jones is the fact that there isn't much to watch, as ESPN's Adam Rittenberg noted:

What Jones lacks in experience he more than makes up for with a prototypical arm and size. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, he's athletic enough to evade pressure while taking one step and chucking it 50 yards downfield.

Ohio State will struggle to keep Alabama's defense off guard, but when the Buckeyes do succeed, it will be Jones' doing.

 

Alabama WR Amari Cooper: 9 Catches, 140 YDS, TD

When defending Amari Cooper, the question isn't how to stop him but rather how to minimize his inevitable impact.

The runaway Biletnikoff Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist has been circled on opposing scouting reports all season and has still posted one of the best years in SEC receiving history. Cooper grabbed 115 passes in 13 games, going for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns.

As his own secondary knows better than anyone, it's impossible to stop him, as Anniston Star's Marquavius Burnett noted:

Few times, though, has Cooper been limited to his impact in the SEC Championship Game—but he still made a big impact. He had only 83 yards receiving but did it on 12 catches, as he constantly moved the chains on scoring drives.

Ohio State will do whatever it can to minimize Cooper's impact in this one, but the Buckeyes can only do so much when Alabama can turn around and run it down their throats. He'll find a way to slip open for those drive-sustaining catches and also get free for one home run play.

 

Alabama Wins, 31-24

Even with Jones playing the game of his life and Ohio State matching every Alabama blow, the Tide simply have too much on offense to be stopped for four quarters.

Cooper can single-handedly change a game, whether it's by catching passes himself or by drawing attention to open up fellow receivers. Such attention on the outside will leave Ohio State at a disadvantage in the trenches, where T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will trade off with big gainers. 

Ohio State's defense should step up to the task, and it has potent pass-rushers in Joey Bosa and Joshua Perry, but it doesn't have the talent across the board to stifle Alabama's offense. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide defense has Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman worried, as Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel reported:

The Buckeyes offense is at its best with Ezekiel Elliott running wild, which won't be happening against Alabama's top-ranked run defense. The onus will be on Jones to have a heroic performance, but he'll need to score virtually every time he touches the ball in the second half to keep pace.

Turning around to beat Oregon 11 days later could be a different story, but Saban and the Tide will be more than ready for this one.

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Belk Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Georgia vs. Louisville

The Georgia Bulldogs and the Louisville Cardinals are getting ready to do battle in the Belk Bowl, which is being played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. ET, and it will air on ESPN.

Georgia comes into the game with a 9-3 record and was just one game shy of reaching the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs will look to finish the season strong with a strong running game led by Nick Chubb and a defense anchored by Amarlo Herrera that was fifth in the SEC in total yards per game.

Louisville also has a 9-3 record and was only a few plays away from being 10-1. The Cardinals come into the game with a very strong defense (second in the ACC) led by Gerod Holliman and Lorenzo Mauldin.  

Be sure to come back to this blog as soon as the game kicks off for the latest scoring updates, highlights and analysis.

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Texas Football: Fixing Inept Offense Must Be Longhorns' Top Offseason Priority

HOUSTON, Texas—The Longhorns had the chance to end Charlie Strong's first year as the Texas head coach on a high note but fell short in a 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Advocare Texas Bowl.

Texas somewhat had home field advantage with an in-state bowl game but played as if the team was in a different country with everyone rooting against them.

"It’s been a season that’s been up and down. You go out here tonight and you play against a good Arkansas team. You would have thought that we would have come out and just been better prepared," Strong said following the loss. "It falls on the head coach and the coaches, but at some point too, we’ve got to develop and we’ve got to get the pride back in this program."

The blame of this loss can be spread out to various positions, but the majority of it is on the offense.

Texas was held to 25 total offensive yards until the final offensive drive in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Longhorns had given up 29 penalty yards leading into the last drive. And that is not a typo.

"We didn’t execute on offense," said Strong. "What happens if you’re watching so much, when we have one bad play it leads to another bad play. It’s like we can’t retain our focus. We can’t get back on track. Nobody’s making a play. We’re not blocking anybody. We’re not running the ball. We’re not protecting the quarterback. There are no playmakers.”

Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is going to receive a lot of the blame for the loss and rightfully so. The sophomore looked like a fish out of water most of the game and struggled to lead his offense.

The unit's performance is without doubt the reason Texas has ended its season with a losing record.

There are a number of instances that led to the offensive struggles in year one of Strong's career in Austin. Texas suffered injuries to its starting quarterback and center in Week 1 of the season and had an offensive line with limited experience, which led to the Longhorns run game being non-existent in various games this season.

The most important thing for the coaches to do is find a way to formulate an effective offense if the Longhorns are planning on winning games in 2015.

But putting together an effective offense may require having a new quarterback under center.

This may come off as harsh but there's no reason for anyone to believe Swoopes should be the automatic starter in 2015.

Can he change that statement during the offseason? Absolutely, but he will need to make significant progress in order to prove the starting role should be his.

Nobody expected Texas to be good in year one of the Strong era. And if any Texas fans expected the Longhorns to be in contention for the College Football Playoff then they had their expectations set way too high.

It will take time for a coach to turn around a program and it will take special players to help make it happen. Strong and his staff need to get their guys at Texas, most importantly, offensive players who can put up more than 59 total yards against a 6-6 opponent.

Can it be done? Sure, but the jobs of the offensive assistant coaches could be on the line if significant steps are not made in 2015.

"Texas has got to mean something," Strong said. "Right now, it doesn’t mean much. We have to play with passion. We got to play with energy. You have to have an edge to you. We don’t have that right now."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

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Texas Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Arkansas vs. Texas

Arkansas pounded, punished and flat-out ran over the Texas Longhorns en route to a dominant 31-7 victory in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.

Aside from a couple mental lapses, one could argue that Bret Bielema's team played a perfect game against the Horns. Quarterback Brandon Allen was sharp, the running backs did their thing, and the defense smothered the opposition at every level of the field.

As for Charlie Strong's team, well, the hope is that better days are coming.

 

Game Grades for the Razorbacks

Passing Offense

Allen completed only one of his last seven passes, and it didn't matter. The junior hit 11 of his first 16 for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Most of all, he made Texas think twice about completely selling out for the run, putting points up while the backs wore down the Longhorns front.

 

Rushing Offense

Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins took their sweet time in slowly dismantling Texas' front seven then took over in the second half. In all, these two finished with 181 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries. Even if it was a little less than what we're used to, they were as good as advertised.

 

Passing Defense

Texas' offensive line just had no chance. Trey Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight lived in the backfield, getting into quarterback Tyrone Swoopes' head early. You can't complain about 57 passing yards.

 

Rushing Defense

The Razorbacks gave up two rushing yards. That's all you need to know.

 

Special Teams

This unit was the only reason Texas even stayed somewhat in the game, giving up a big return to set up Texas' only score of the night. Kicker Adam McFain was shaky in everything he was asked to do while punter Sam Irwin-Hill consistently pinned Texas in its own territory.

 

Coaching

Bielema and his staff pitched a perfect game, unleashing their vicious defense and trusting Allen to take the Longhorns defense off-balance. Bielema was even classy enough not to punch in one last touchdown with three minutes to play.

 

Game Grades for the Longhorns

Passing Offense

Swoopes has started his last game as Texas' quarterback. He had to play well after coughing it up five times against TCU. He instead mustered only 57 passing yards and committed two more turnovers.

You feel for Swoopes because his blockers worked more like a runway for the Arkansas front seven. But one or two big plays were there, and he missed them badly. Between the body language and lack of overall improvement, it just doesn't seem like it's going to happen anymore.

 

Rushing Offense

Two rushing yards. That's all Texas could muster, mostly because Swoopes lost 32 yards trying to avoid sacks. Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray weren't much better, but few ball-carriers can make up for bad blocking against a stacked box.

 

Passing Defense

Allen completed 11 passes in the first half, and they were all too easy. The pass rush made him work early then wore down as the offense regressed in the second half. 

Specifically, cornerback Duke Thomas played a mostly awful game. He was burned on Allen's 36-yard touchdown and repeatedly lost his man in coverage. Without a stud recruit currently in the 2015 class, he might be Texas' top corner next season.

 

Rushing Defense

You have to feel sorry for Malcom Brown and Hassan Ridgeway, who battled the whole game and got pounded because of it. There was just nothing these guys could do, as the offense literally moved backwards in the second half.

 

Special Teams

For once, it was the special teams keeping the Horns in a game. Jacorey Warrick's 30-yard kick return took Arkansas completely by surprise, setting up the Horns' only score of the game. Michael Davidson averaged over 40 yards per punt despite punting from under his own goal post for most of the night.

 

Coaching

There's not much you can do when your offensive line can't block and your quarterback can't hit open receivers. The defense will inevitably get tired, taking your team to a point where it will do nothing particularly well.

Still, you can't afford to play this poorly after a month of free practice. This is a team lacking depth and pure talent, but Strong and his staff have to figure out how to prevent performances like this from ever taking place again under their watch.

They have an excuse now. It'll have run its course in nine months, though.

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Bowl Win Caps Turnaround Season, but Arkansas Still Can't Hang with SEC's Elite

Enjoy this one, Arkansas fans. In fact, treat the dominant Texas Bowl victory for what it is, the crowning achievement of a season that shows Bret Bielema was the right choice to turn around the Razorbacks program.

But despite what you hear during the offseason, remember this: There's still a long way to go before Arkansas is a legitimate contender in the SEC West.

By winning, 31-7, on Monday against Texas, Arkansas finished with a winning record for the first time since 2011. It helps provide momentum on the recruiting trail and gives the many integral players returning in 2015 a huge confidence boost in facing what lies ahead. NFL.com's Bryan Fischer thinks watching the game film from this win will also be a boost for the Arkansas coaches:

Just don't be fooled into thinking that the Hogs will be competing for a division title or anything so glamorous—at least not yet.

That defense that the Hogs unleashed on a helpless Texas team has been rising up since mid-October, when a blocked extra point (and not enough offensive punch) kept the team from upsetting Alabama. Since then, it has enabled the Razorbacks to end a long SEC losing streak by thoroughly dominating LSU and Ole Miss with back-to-back shutouts, earning the necessary conference wins to get into a bowl game.

It's a foundation that Arkansas can build on, but defense alone isn't going to get it done against the talent that resides in the SEC. The Razorbacks will need to become as good—if not better—on offense than what they've shown they can do defensively, and that's going to mean not being one-dimensional.

There's been a noticeable push in that direction as the season wore on, with quarterback Brandon Allen becoming a more integral part of the game plan, while dual 1,000-yard rushers Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams saw their touches remain relatively constant. Nearly every relevant offensive player should be back in 2015, so the expectation of further improvement isn't outlandish.

Yet Arkansas still seems at least a year away, especially when you look at the schedule it faces next season, particularly the conference portion.

Road games against Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee will make for tough sledding at every stop, not to mention another matchup with Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Having two-time East Division champ Missouri as its permanent crossover rival doesn't help, either.

The Razorbacks can actually look to those ahead of them in the West standings for examples of what can potentially happen in the near future, depending on how they progress. Mississippi State and Ole Miss both finished below .500 in division play last season, with the former needing to beat the latter just to make a bowl. Each won its bowl game and headed into this fall with momentum and increased hope.

Both got off to great starts, yet each eventually ran into a wall when its main deficiency was exposed.

Mississippi State had an exciting quarterback in Dak Prescott, a Heisman contender for much of the year, but when he began to struggle, the lack of a consistent defense became the Bulldogs' downfall; Ole Miss had the defense, which allowed an FBS-low 13.8 points per game, according to cfbstats.com, but without a matching offense that could be relied on to do its part every week, that defense couldn't carry the team.

Those teams now know what it will take to keep on improving and make the next step. Arkansas needs to be strong and balanced on both sides of the ball, not just one. It can be that team, but it's a process.

Instead, the Razorbacks figure to get better gradually, which will have to do. Bielema had to know this was going to be the case when he chose to leave the good thing he had going at Wisconsin—where he could annually compete for at least a Rose Bowl spot—for this major challenge.

He saw that gradual improvement this year, not just in the seven wins but also by virtue of four losses by seven points or less (after losing by an average of 21 points in SEC play the season before). The turnaround actually began late in 2013, when Arkansas' final three losses were by 10, seven and four points.

That might mean next year—when opening SEC play against A&M—instead of a narrow loss, it will result in a hard-fought victory.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Arkansas vs. Texas: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 AdvoCare Texas Bowl

For the first time in over a decade, Arkansas owns the bragging rights in one of college football's oldest rivalries. 

The Razorbacks throttled former Southwest Conference foe Texas on Monday night, rolling to a dominant 31-7 win in the Texas Bowl and earning their first win in the rivalry since 2003. 

Texas coach Charlie Strong didn't sugarcoat anything after the game, via ESPN's Max Olson:

ESPN Stats & Info provided the one stat that summed up the game:

It was a matchup that figured to be a defensive struggle, a revival of the old-school battles between the two longtime adversaries. But Arkansas' offense didn't cooperate with the narrative. Brandon Allen threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins combined for 181 yards on the ground, and the Razorbacks finished with 351 total yards and their highest point total since an October win over UAB. 

Allen was named MVP:

Of course, the defense still wasn't to be outdone. 

Texas' offensive line struggled immensely to contain Trey Flowers and a relentless Arkansas pass rush, and the roller-coaster season of Tyrone Swoopes hit a new low. The sophomore QB was sacked three times, completing 13 of 25 throws for 57 yards and an interception. 

The running game also had zero success, and the Longhorns finished with 59 yards on 43 offensive plays. USA Today's Paul Myerberg put the historically woeful offensive performance into humorous perspective:

After a field goal from Razorbacks kicker Adam McFain served as the only points of the first quarter, Arkansas began the second by finding the end zone in spectacular fashion, courtesy of Demetrius Wilson:

Things quickly piled on for Texas. Midway through the second quarter, the Hogs downed a punt at the 4-yard line, and on the next play, Swoopes botched a handoff to Johnathan Gray, resulting in a fumble recovery for Taiwan Johnson in the end zone. 

As Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman noted, it was a recurring theme for the Longhorns:

Texas responded right away with a quick scoring drive, as Swoopes scrambled for a nine-yard touchdown to make it 17-7 and seemingly give the Longhorns some hope heading into the locker room.

That hope was instantly crushed, though. Collins returned the ensuing kick 39 yards, and Allen orchestrated a nine-play, 61-yard drive culminating in a five-yard toss to Keon Hatcher to push the lead back to 17 points just 24 seconds before halftime. 

One Texas fan's body language summed up the game thus far, via CJ Fogler:

Things didn't get any better after the break. Texas had five possessions in the second half. The first four of those all went for negative yardage and ended in three-and-outs. Their first first down didn't come until there were less than six minutes left in the game. 

Swoopes completed a few more passes on that drive (a noteworthy accomplishment on a forgettable night for the Longhorns) but was eventually picked off by Henre' Toliver in an appropriate ending to a game the Razorbacks controlled from start to finish. 

CBS Sports' Jon Solomon put it simply:

Texas and Arkansas will now turn their focus toward the offseason and the final month of the 2015 recruiting period. Each program features a top-25 class, per 247Sports' composite rankings, and despite how this game played out, both teams are certainly on the rise under their relatively new head coaches. 

That doesn't make them equal in the rebuilding process, though.

Strong has shown encouraging glimpses but must quickly fix this offense, while Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks appear to be much further along in their ascent back to the nation's elite.

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