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Texas A&M Football: Ranking 10 Best Aggies from the 2014 Regular Season

The Texas A&M football team finished the 2014 regular season with a 7-5 record. Despite the disappointing record, the Aggies had a number of players who produced standout performances on the field. 

The Aggies were a very young team in 2014. There are 13 freshmen on the depth chart for the 2014 team. Many of those freshmen are among the best players on the team. 

That bodes well for the future of the Aggies. The 2014 season was somewhat of a transitional one with so much youth gaining experience. 

This is a ranking of the top players on the Texas A&M football team in 2014. 

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New York Post Creates Marcus Mariota 'Suck for the Duck' Campaign for Jets

The New York Jets are only two years removed from using a second-round pick on quarterback Geno Smith, but it's not working out as planned. 

After watching Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota tear up college football during his Heisman-winning 2014 season, it's natural that the 2-11 Jets look ahead to the 2015 NFL draft. 

On Sunday, the New York Post decided to run this headline, creating a "Suck for the Duck" campaign to bring Mariota to the Big Apple. 

[Bart Hubbuch, h/t For the Win]

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College Bowl Picks 2014-15: Recent Odds and Predictions Against the Spread

A vast majority of game odds during bowl season reflect games that could go either way, and yet many of those games end up being decisive victories for one team or another. So, what gives?

More often than not, teams go into bowl games with very different mentalities. A postseason appearance can bring an extra breath of fresh air to a locker room and spearhead an effort to win convincingly on national television. In other cases, a sour ending to the year can leave teams lethargic and unmotivated.

Simply put, teams with very similar talent levels can end up separating themselves when the bowl spotlight is on—for various reasons. But it's worth taking into account when assessing teams' chances of covering certain spreads, and this year is no different.

Let's take a look at predictions for every bowl game and a breakdown of some of the more prominent picks.

 

Note: Odds according to Odds Shark, last updated December 13

 

Cotton Bowl: No. 6 TCU (-3) vs. No. 9 Ole Miss 

Simply put, bowl season is tailor-made for matchups like Ole Miss and TCU in the Cotton Bowl.

You rarely get such a high-powered offense going up against the nation's most formidable defense, but that's exactly what will be on tap for the Cotton Bowl. As FanSided.com's Patrick Schmidt noted, TCU's offense versus the Ole Miss defense will be must-watch television:

The Horned Frogs have been wrecking every defense they go up against, with quarterback Trevone Boykin putting up numbers—3,714 passing yards, 38 total touchdowns—worthy of a Heisman Trophy-finalist campaign. The team has racked up more than 40 points on eight occasions this year.

But it will be easier said than done to keep such a ridiculous pace against the Rebels.

Boykin hasn't faced a secondary with ball-hawking defensive backs like Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson. The two Thorpe Award semifinalists have speed at the second level to help prevent big plays from Kolby Listenbee and Josh Doctson. 

Even with some big plays inevitable for TCU, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace doesn't have a shabby offense of his own. The Rebels have figured things out after the loss of Laquon Treadwell, showing in a win over Mississippi State that Jalen Walton can be a game-changer.

TCU will prove its worth, but the Rebels will show their superiority early and hold off a late surge from an elite Horned Frogs team.

Prediction: Ole Miss 34, TCU 30

 

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon (-9.5) vs. No. 3 Florida State

Now that the formality of the Heisman Trophy presentation is over, the matchup between Oregon and Florida State in the Rose Bowl will officially peg two Heisman winners against one another.

In one corner, it's Jameis Winston and the still-unbeaten Seminoles, who are looking to prove the continuous doubters wrong. In the other, it's Marcus Mariota, who is fresh off being named this year's Heisman winner and leads an Oregon team peaking at the right time.

The two quarterbacks' Heisman seasons were quite similar, as ESPN Stats and Information noted:

Although their 2013 and 2014 seasons were similar, Mariota has left no doubt of his superiority as far as this season goes. They did lose, but he helped the Ducks bounce back from it by hanging 42 or more against their next eight opponents—including a rematch win over Arizona.

While Mariota has thrown just two picks all year compared to 52 touchdowns, Winston has thrown 17 interceptions and goes up against a stingy Oregon secondary that features dominating cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. 

The Ducks will sit back and keep Winston in front of them, forcing mistakes and getting the Oregon offense into favorable spots. Mariota will take advantage, helping to keep the ball away from an opportunistic Florida State defense and racking up touchdown after touchdown.

The question then moves to whether the Ducks will cover the optimistic near-10-point spread, but with the Ducks' ability to score in bunches, they should hold off the 'Noles. Winston won't go quietly, but Oregon's prolific offense will keep them distanced down the stretch.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

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Army-Navy Game 2014: Breaking Down Top Performers from Saturday's Rivalry Game

The 115th encounter between Army and Navy was a continuance of the Midshipmen's dominance in the series. Navy defeated its longtime rival Saturday 17-10.

Make it 13 in a row for Ken Niumatalolo's team. In the process, he became the winningest coach in program history and took down the Black Knights for the seventh time.

The latest iteration of one of the sporting world's most important traditions played out as advertised. There were just 15 attempted passes on the day while a war of wills unfolded on the ground.

The top performers, including a few seniors playing in their final chapter, put on quite the memorable show.

 

Top Performers

Xavier Moss and Army Defense

The Army defense does not usually receive much praise.

After all, the team has four wins on the year, and one of the bigger issues is the fact the defensive unit ranks 104th in the nation in points allowed (32.9).

As the numbers show, though, the Black Knights defense stiffened in the face of a potent Navy offense. Xavier Moss is a major reason for that, and his play was why Army was able to stay in the game throughout the day.

Bill Wagner of Capital Gazette Communications paints the scene:

In a brutal encounter between two teams that want nothing more than to keep things on the ground, that sort of game-changing play can mean everything.

As a result, Army jumped out to an early lead it held until right before halftime. In fact, that single play was important since the Army offense never found the end zone.

 

Larry Dixon, Army

One of the greatest rushers in Army history put on a show Saturday even in defeat.

Larry Dixon entered the day with 1,028 yards and nine touchdowns and added 90 more yards on just 14 carries. In the process, he lived up to what first-year coach Jeff Monken said of him before the game.

“He knocks tacklers in the other direction to gain that extra yard,” said Monken, per Tom Pedulla ofThe New York Times. “He’s not gifted with great speed, but he’s powerful enough to get through there, and when he gets into the secondary, he’s been able to give us some pretty good runs.”

Indeed, Dixon terrorized Navy for most of the contest, as illustrated by Sal Interdonato of the Times Herald-Record:

The senior did not get the win he so desired, but it was yet another epic performance from a player who will not be soon forgotten in the lore of this historic rivalry.

 

Keenan Reynolds, Navy

Of course, Keenan Reynolds was the star of the show Saturday.

One of the most notable dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, he entered Saturday with 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns on 205 carries. The junior came up big through the air when asked, though, such as a two-touchdown performance back in November against Notre Dame.

Reynolds did it all Saturday.

He tied things up in the second quarter with a touchdown pass to Jamir Tillman on his way to a six-of-eight line for 77 yards and the score. Reynolds also extended his team's lead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown rush to go with his 100 yards on 26 carries.

Kevin McGuire of CollegeFootballTalk put it into perspective:

Reynolds is no stranger to the rivalry. His calm and cool demeanor Saturday while acting as the most important player on the field can attest to that.

The scary part, at least for Army, is that Reynolds only continues to develop in a positive manner by the year.

For now, though, he and the Midshipmen can celebrate yet another successful outcome over their rivals before getting ready for their bowl game.

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Cotton Bowl 2015: Bold Predictions for Michigan State vs. Baylor

The 2015 Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 features two teams that would love to get some redemption in the College Football Playoff after being left out of the mix by the selection committee.

Baylor was the first team left out of the Top Four, ranking No. 5 in the final poll of the season despite closing out the year with a decisive 38-27 victory over Kansas State. The Bears will be looking back to a tough loss to West Virginia as the cause for their woes. They'll be looking to prove they were worthy of a playoff spot.

Another team potentially worthy of a spot is Michigan State. The Spartans were impressive on both sides of the ball this season; however, they suffered losses to Oregon and Ohio State—two playoff teams. Ending the season with three wins wasn't good enough to climb back into contention, and they were awarded a trip to the Cotton Bowl instead.

This is certainly an intriguing matchup that pits the high-powered Baylor offense against the stout Michigan State defense. As we await this highly anticipated contest, let's take a look at a couple of bold predictions for each team in the Cotton Bowl.

 

Bold Predictions for Michigan State

The Spartans Hold Baylor's Offense to Four Touchdowns

Sure, holding an opposing offense to four touchdowns seems like a cakewalk for Michigan State's defense, but that won't be the case against Baylor's top-ranked offense that averages 48.8 points per game. In fact, Baylor has only been held under 30 points just twice this season, and the Bears scored three offensive touchdowns in each of those games.

However, Baylor has been on a tear since then, scoring at least 48 points in four of its last five contests. The Bears are on a major hot streak, and that's bad news for a Spartans team that allowed 46 points to Oregon and 49 to Ohio State.

If Michigan State is going to contain the Baylor offense, it must apply pressure to quarterback Bryce Petty. The Bears signal-caller has been their offensive catalyst, passing for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns this year.

The Spartans can counter with a solid pass rush. They have maintained good pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking 11th in the nation with 37 sacks in 12 games.

Petty has been sloppy at times in 2014—notably in the team's lone loss to West Virginia in which he completed 44.4 percent of his passes—and if Michigan State can keep him under pressure, the Bears offense will be out of sync and struggle to get points on the board.

 

Connor Cook Throws for 350 Yards, Three Touchdowns

Baylor has been good against the run this season, ranking ninth in the nation while allowing an average of 107.7 yards per game and just 2.94 yards per carry. If Michigan State is to generate any kind of offense, it must be by Cook's arm.

The junior signal-caller has been impressive this season, throwing for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He's had his up-and-down games but has performed admirably in difficult contests, throwing for 343 yards and two scores against Oregon and 358 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State. Those two performances proved he can perform under duress, and he'll demonstrate that again in the Cotton Bowl.

The Bears have had their fair share of trouble against the pass this season, ranking 101st in the nation and allowing an average of 260.0 yards per game through the air. With a pass defense far worse than that of Ohio State and Oregon, Baylor will allow Cook to engage in an aerial shootout.

With a big weapon in the talented Tony Lippett at his disposal, Cook shouldn't have much trouble hooking up regularly with his 6'3" wide receiver to burn Baylor's defense for his biggest performance of the season.

 

Bold Predictions for Baylor

Bryce Petty Throws for 350 Yards, Three Touchdowns

Yes, this is the exact same bold prediction that we set for Michigan State's quarterback; however, it is completely justified in its own right. While Cook has to rise to the challenge against a good team with a shaky secondary, Petty must navigate the nation's 25th-ranked pass defense that allows an average of just 196.0 yards per game.

There's a reason why Petty is being considered by many draft pundits as an elite prospect. The senior has consistently delivered big performances throughout the year. He's eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark three times this season and has thrown multiple touchdowns in eight of his 11 games. He'll be under heavy pressure to elevate that number to nine in the Cotton Bowl.

While Shock Linwood has been good out of the backfield this season, the Spartans are allowing just 97.5 yards per game on the ground, ranking sixth in the nation in that category. This will only provide a bigger challenge to Petty, as he'll have to orchestrate a one-dimensional offense.

The Spartans have given up big days to quarterbacks this season; Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the electric J.T. Barrett both eclipsed 300 yards and three touchdowns. However, Petty wasn't exactly in the Heisman discussion for his efforts, and he'll need his best performance of the season to surpass those two prolific quarterbacks.

 

Baylor Holds Jeremy Langford Under 100 Yards

Michigan State's senior running back has put on quite a show this season. He's carried 249 times for 1,360 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. Langford has been on an absolute roll of late, running for more than 100 yards in each of his nine contests. He's also scored at least two touchdowns in each of his last six.

Baylor has been excellent against the run this season, ranking ninth in the nation while holding opponents to an average of 107.7 yards per game on the ground. Even more impressive is the team's ability to limit ball-carriers to just 2.94 yards per carry—an average bested by only three teams.

However, here's where Baylor's trouble comes into play: Langford rushed 30 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns in his final game of the season. That game was against Penn State—one of the three teams to allow fewer yards per carry than the Bears. Still, there's light at the end of the tunnel.

For the Bears to find success where Penn State couldn't, they simply need to limit Langford's workload. That can be done by Petty and the offense, as gaining a big lead would force Michigan State to throw more often than it would like. That's exactly what happened against Oregon, as the running back carried 24 times for 86 yards—his third-lowest total of the season.

 

 All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Predictions and Odds for Complete CFP Schedule

It only took one season of the new College Football Playoff format to show the controversy doesn't end just because the BCS got the boot. Baylor and TCU both built strong cases for a spot in the final four, only to get left out by the selection committee.

The Horned Frogs have the most reason to complain. They were ranked third in the penultimate standings, beat Iowa State by 52 and proceeded to drop three spots. It obviously raises questions about the accuracy of the weekly releases before the one that actually counts.

Ultimately, the committee chose Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State. It's a strong group that should generate plenty of hype, but the debate rages on about the choices. In the meantime, let's check out all the key information for the playoff and make some predictions for how it will play out.

 

College Football Playoff Schedule

 

Championship Odds

 

Playoff Forecast

The Rose Bowl will feature an extraordinary quarterback battle between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. The two most recent Heisman Trophy winners should put on quite a show, and their performances could very well decide the game.

Ultimately, the creation of these types of matchups, which likely wouldn't have occurred under the old system, is a major plus of the playoff. Andrew Greif of The Oregonian passed along comments from Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher about the high-profile clash:

It's what college football is all about. That makes for great TV and great competition and what it's all about. Getting the best against the best. Oregon is a national brand-name team. They have earned that right, the team is recognized all the way across this country. ... Florida State is a national brand-name. When you put two quarterbacks like that, brand names like that as far as college football it's what the playoff was designed to do.

The problem for the Seminoles is trying to keep pace with the Ducks without putting too much pressure on Winston. He's thrown 17 interceptions this season, and giving the ball away to an explosive opponent like the one the Seminoles will face on New Year's Day would mark the end of their extended winning streak.

So expect to see a more moderate pace from FSU. That means plenty of work for Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams in an effort to control the clock and open more passing lanes for Winston.

The fact that Florida State hasn't been nearly as dominant, despite its undefeated record, is a concern, though. The Seminoles were able to avert disaster numerous times this season, but look for that to eventually catch up with them as the Ducks advance.

If the Rose Bowl is all about the quarterbacks, the focus of the Sugar Bowl is the coaches. The chess game between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer has surely already begun behind the scenes as the coaching staffs try to figure out how to catch their counterparts off guard.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, a season-ending ankle injury suffered by J.T. Barrett against Michigan makes the task much tougher. Cardale Jones proved himself as a capable replacement so far, but going up against the Crimson Tide is an entirely different task.

The key for the Buckeyes to offset that loss is the defensive line. When Alabama is clicking on all cylinders, as it has been for the better part of two months, it's dominant at the line of scrimmage. Joey Bosa and Co. must make their presence felt in the backfield early and often to have a chance.

That said, without Barrett, it just doesn't feel like Ohio State will have enough explosiveness on the offensive side to hang with the Tide for 60 minutes. The top seed should do enough to hold serve and advance to the title game.

If the top seeds do advance, it will create a titanic clash between Alabama and Oregon for the title. ESPN Stats and Info notes the Ducks enter the bracket as the favorite:

In reality, it would be a toss-up. Oregon probably has the highest upside of any team in the country, but Alabama is battled-tested after surviving the SEC grind. The Tide won five games over ranked opponents out of their last seven contests.

That type of experience pays huge dividends at the end of the season. That's why Saban's teams are so tough to beat at this stage of the campaign. It makes the Tide the pick to win the inaugural College Football Playoff in a thriller over Oregon.

 

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Peach Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Ole Miss vs. TCU

This year's Peach Bowl is comprised of two teams wondering what might have been. Both Ole Miss and TCU had championship aspirations, but both fell short and were left out of the Top Four by the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The Rebels were one of the nation's hottest teams after starting the season 7-0. Unfortunately, back-to-back losses to LSU and Auburn sealed their fate. However, the team was able to finish the regular season on a high note, defeating Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and knocking its in-state rival out of championship contention.

The Horned Frogs were a highly debated team around the College Football Playoff's final rankings. TCU was ranked third in the nation at the end of November and went on to torch Iowa State 55-3 to end the regular season. Although, despite a valiant effort, the team was left out in the cold, falling out of the Top Four to No. 6 overall.

While these teams took far different paths to the Peach Bowl, we're certainly lucky to see the stout defense of Ole Miss attempt to contain the high-octane offense of TCU. Before these teams take the amateur gridiron once more, let's take a look at some bold predictions for both teams in this ensuing contest.

 

Bold Predictions for Ole Miss

Evan Engram Tallies 200 Receiving Yards, Touchdown

Tight ends don't often eclipse the 200-yard mark, but if anyone at the position can get the job done, it's Engram. A big, friendly target for quarterback Bo Wallace at 6'3" and 217 pounds, Engram's large frame, reliable hands and deceptive speed make him a valuable target.

During the team's last four games of the season, Engram's role in the offense increased. In three of those contests, he recorded at least five receptions and surpassed the 100-yard mark twice. He broke out in the Egg Bowl with a 176-yard performance which included an 83-yard catch-and-run.

The tight end spoke of his quarterback's ability to get him the ball when he sees mismatches during an interview with Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger, "They left a (linebacker) on me sometimes and there were some holes I knew I could get into. (Quarterback) Bo (Wallace) had to put it there, and he did that. I just had to take advantage of the opportunities I had."

TCU has struggled against the pass at times this season, ranking 85th in the nation and allowing 242.4 yards per game through the air. Wallace has several nice weapons at his disposal, but watch for the quarterback to get the ball into his playmaking tight end's hands early and often.

 

Ole Miss Holds TCU Under 30 Points

Sure, that doesn't seem like a bold prediction at all. How difficult could it be to hold an offense to fewer than 30 points in a game—especially for the Rebels' top-ranked scoring defense that allows just 13.8 points per game? Well, no one has been able to accomplish the feat yet this season.

Through 12 games, the Horned Frogs have scored at least 30 points in each contest. Their ability to get points on the board in a hurry is what makes them so formidable heading into bowl season. TCU currently ranks second in the nation in points scored, averaging 46.8 per game. This team is so prolific, it even scored 58 points in its lone loss this year.

Ole Miss has the defense capable of containing the dangerous TCU attack. While the Rebels can get after the passer—they accumulated 25 sacks during the season—what makes them scary is their ability to completely shut down an offense by winning the battle in the trenches. Ole Miss totaled an impressive 90 tackles for a loss through just 12 games, an average of 7.5 per contest.

There's no doubt the potent TCU offense will get some points on the board, but if Ole Miss can be disruptive in the backfield, it will throw off the rhythm of the Horned Frogs offense, keeping them from sustaining long drives and holding them to a season-low point total.

 

Bold Predictions for TCU

Trevone Boykin Totals 350 Total Yards, Four Touchdowns

There haven't been many quarterbacks able to accumulate many yards through the air against the Rebels this season. Even in a higher-scoring loss to Auburn on November 1, the Rebels allowed only 254 passing yards to Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall.

Still, in that game, Marshall threw for two touchdowns while rushing for 50 yards and scoring twice more. There's no reason to think the dangerous Boykin won't be able to one-up Auburn's signal-caller. After all, he does lead the nation's seventh-ranked passing offense that averages 332.8 yards per game.

Don't expect Boykin to tally 350 yards and four scores through the air against Ole Miss. If he is to reach those totals, he'll need to get his legs moving as well. While he hasn't run as often this season as he did in 2013, he has displayed his ability to scramble at times, racking up 123 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries against Kansas State.

Considering Kansas State is ranked 23rd in the nation against the run, it's safe to say Boykin has the ability to duplicate that mark against an Ole Miss squad that ranks 29th in that category. Suddenly, 350 total yards and four touchdowns doesn't seem so far-fetched.

 

TCU Picks Off Wallace Three Times

Wallace doesn't exactly have the reputation of being an accurate quarterback. After all, his completion percentage dipped to 61.2 percent in 2014, which is the lowest of his three-year career at Ole Miss. He isn't a model of ball security, either, tossing 11 picks this season and 38 in three seasons.

Those numbers really don't favor the quarterback against a TCU team that ranks second in the nation in takeaways. Through 12 games, the Horned Frogs have a whopping 36 takeaways, totaling 13 fumble recoveries and 23 interceptions. Yes, they are averaging just short of two picks per game.

Wallace is no stranger to tossing multiple picks in a single contest. While he's only done that three times this season, one such time was during the season opener against Boise State. He threw three picks against a Broncos team that wound up ranking tied for seventh in the nation in takeaways with 29 in 13 games. That's quite an ominous statistic for Wallace.

One of the biggest reasons for TCU's success in this department is its ability to generate plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Horned Frogs have 35 sacks this season, and if that number goes up against Ole Miss, so will the team's interception total.

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Boise State vs. Arizona

This year's Fiesta Bowl features two evenly matched teams in the Arizona Wildcats and Boise State Broncos. However, when taking into consideration each squad's strength of schedule throughout the season, and their current momentum, it's difficult to ascertain which has the upper hand.

The Wildcats didn't have an easy path to the Fiesta Bowl. They faced four ranked opponents during the regular season, defeating Oregon, Utah and Arizona State and losing to UCLA. However, they lost all momentum—and plenty of confidence—following a 51-13 loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

On the other hand, the Broncos haven't had as difficult of a schedule this season, but they have been steamrolling opponents for most of the year. They lost in Week 1 to Ole Miss—the only ranked opponent they faced—but lit up scoreboards to win 11 of their next 12 games en route to the Mountain West Conference championship.

Many playmakers reside on both teams, and we should expect plenty of offense to take place in the Fiesta Bowl. So, as we await these high-octane squads to take the field, let's take a look at some bold predictions for this impending clash on New Year's Eve.

 

Boise State Bold Predictions

Grant Hedrick Tallies 400 Total Yards, Four Touchdowns

Hedrick has made his share of mistakes this season, tossing 13 interceptions, but he's been accurate for the most part, completing 70.9 percent of his passes to date. Along with his 22 touchdown passes, he's a threat to run, tallying 563 yards and eight rushing touchdowns on the year. This makes him a danger to Arizona.

The Wildcats have been terrible against the pass this season, ranking 118th in the nation, allowing an average of 279.1 yards per game and a total of 27 passing touchdowns. Dual-threat quarterbacks have taken advantage of this defense, and the latest example was Marcus Mariota's total of 346 yards and five touchdowns in the conference championship game.

While Hedrick struggles against tougher defenses—he had two four-interception games this year—he's been stellar against weaker units, passing for four touchdowns against BYU and New Mexico and another three against Wyoming.

Boise State's quarterback may not be the most prolific in the nation, but he's put up gaudy numbers at times this season, and Arizona is just bad enough in the secondary to allow him to do it again in the Fiesta Bowl.

 

Jay Ajayi Totals 200 Yards of Offense, Three Touchdowns

When fans of college football generally talk about the nation's best running backs, the likes of Melvin Gordon, Samaje Perine and Tevin Coleman are usually mentioned. Well, once the Fiesta Bowl is over, Ajayi will be entered into that conversation.

A dual-threat weapon out of the backfield, Ajayi rushed for 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns while tallying 45 receptions for 526 yards and four scores. We already discussed Arizona's inability to contain the pass, but the Wildcats' 72nd-ranked run defense will have just as difficult of a time against this dynamic ball-carrier.

Arizona is allowing an average of 170.4 yards per game on the ground and has given up a total of 16 rushing touchdowns this year. The team hasn't gotten any better as the season went along, coming off a game in which it allowed Oregon to rush for 301 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry as a team.

This season, Ajayi has carried at least 26 times in eight games. He's eclipsed the century mark and scored at least two rushing touchdowns in each of those contests. If Boise State feeds him early and often in the Fiesta Bowl, he'll do it again.

 

Arizona Bold Predictions

Nick Wilson Rushes for 200 Yards, Two Touchdowns

Wilson's had quite a roller-coaster season with Arizona. He began the year with three consecutive 100-yard performances, but he failed to reach that mark over his next four games due to a decrease in carries. Once his workload increased, he finished the regular season with four consecutive 100-yard games. However, he tallied just 26 rushing yards in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon.

On paper, the running back doesn't appear to have a favorable matchup in the Fiesta Bowl against a Boise State defense that ranks 36th against the run, allowing an average of 141.5 yards per game. However, the Broncos are giving up 4.0 yards per carry and have allowed 22 rushing touchdowns this season.

The team's numbers are solid, but a back like Wilson, who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry on the season, is likely to produce a big performance. The Broncos have been burned by strong opposing ground games this season, most notably against New Mexico. The Lobos accumulated 505 rushing yards and six touchdowns while averaging 10.8 yards per carry against the Broncos on November 8.

Expect Arizona to get Wilson going early due to Anu Solomon's poor showing against Oregon. The Wildcats will want to establish a ground game to give their quarterback better opportunities through the air. Everything is setting up for a huge game for Wilson.

 

Arizona's Defense Forces Five Turnovers

The Wildcats have been extremely good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks and forcing costly mistakes this season. They rank 21st in the league with 37 sacks through 13 games, an average of 2.85 sacks per contest. That's not good news for a Boise State team that's given up 27 sacks in 13 games.

If Arizona is able to sustain constant pressure on Hedrick, he'll be forced into making quicker decisions and that could lead to interceptions. After all, the Wildcats have been very good in that department this year, coming away with 12 picks in regular-season action.

Adding to Arizona's ball-hawking ability is its 12 fumble recoveries on the season. Many of these have come after the team knifed its way into an opposing backfield, accumulating one of its 92 tackles for a loss. With an average of 7.1 tackles for a loss per game, the Wildcats get plenty of opportunities to strip the ball from unsuspecting opponents.

Coming away with a positive turnover margin will be one of the keys to success for Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, and it all starts with applying pressure to Boise State's backfield.

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Orange Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

The Mississippi State Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets took very different paths to the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs were ranked among the nation's elite for most of the season, but they faltered down the stretch and missed out on the College Football Playoff. The Yellow Jackets went on a late-season surge to finish second in the ACC and lock up a berth in this prestigious bowl game.

While each team enters this contest under different circumstances, both are looking to end their seasons on a high note with a victory in the Orange Bowl. Mississippi State and Georgia Tech have been very good in certain departments on the football field this season, and those areas in which they flourish could be magnified on such a large stage with so much at stake.

That's where bold predictions come into play. As we await these teams to return to action, let's take a look at what could potentially happen for each squad if everything fell into place.

 

Bold Predictions for Mississippi State

Dak Prescott Rushes for 100 Yards, Three Touchdowns

We've all seen Prescott's ability to move the chains with both his arm and his legs this season; however, the quarterback hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since an October 11 contest against Auburn. While the signal-caller has eclipsed the century mark four times this season, he hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in any of those contests.

There's a good possibility he could change that if everything clicks in the Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech's biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball is against the run. They currently rank 69th in the nation, allowing an average of 168.8 yards per game on the ground and have given up 23 rushing touchdowns this season.

Prescott rushed for 939 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry along the way. Well, he can certainly outdo himself against a Yellow Jackets team that is allowing 5.1 yards per rush this year.

Expect Mississippi State to run the ball often in an effort to keep Georgia Tech's prolific offense on the sidelines. If the Yellow Jackets begin to focus too much on running back Josh Robinson, a few well-timed option runs by Prescott could lead to a huge day on the ground.

 

The Bulldogs Score 50 Points

Mississippi State eclipsed 50 points exactly once this season in a November 22 contest against Vanderbilt. In that game, Prescott was on fire, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for another, while the Bulldogs accumulated six offensive touchdowns. There's a possibility they'll do it again when they face Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets haven't given up 50 points this season, but they did give up 48 in a loss to North Carolina. The Tar Heels put on a Bulldogs-like performance in that game, as quarterback Marquise Williams passed for four touchdowns and rushed for another, as the team accumulated seven offensive touchdowns. Sounds pretty similar, doesn't it?

Mississippi State has more than enough talent on the offensive side of the ball to post gaudy numbers against Georgia Tech's 52nd-ranked scoring defense. Although, what may be even more important is the team's mindset entering this game. The Bulldogs were expecting to play for a national championship, and they will be entering the Orange Bowl with a big chip on their shoulder.

If this team can harness their frustration for how the season ended and turn it into on-field production, there's no telling what they could accomplish on New Year's Eve.

 

Bold Predictions for Georgia Tech

Justin Thomas Totals 300 Yards of Offense, Five Touchdowns

This is a feat that Thomas only accomplished once this season, and that was against Georgia Southern. While 300 yards of offense doesn't seem like much for a quarterback, it most certainly is in Georgia Tech's triple-option scheme when passing is limited.

So, why will Thomas put up these gaudy numbers against Mississippi State? Well, it's quite simple: The Bulldogs have a terrible pass defense, ranking 122nd in the nation and allowing an average of 285.2 yards per game through the air. But, why is that important if the Yellow Jackets don't throw the ball often?

Mississippi State could be walking into a trap here. Thomas doesn't take to the air much, and that will bring the Bulldogs defense up toward the line of scrimmage. If Georgia Tech picks its spots, it will be able to strike with big passing plays over the top of an unsuspecting defense that regularly struggles in coverage.

With only a handful of big plays through the air, Thomas could easily eclipse 200 passing yards. That leaves him with 100 more yards to gain on the ground, which is a likely scenario when running the triple option, even against the nations' 25th-ranked run defense.

 

The Yellow Jackets Pick Prescott Three Times

One thing that the Bulldogs quarterback struggles with on occasion is accuracy. He's completing 61.2 percent of his passes on the season, but he's struggled against better pass defenses and has thrown 10 interceptions on the season. Georgia Tech has an average pass defense, ranking 66th in the nation, but it also has plenty of ball hawks.

The Yellow Jackets have accumulated 17 interceptions in 13 games this season and rank tied for 16th in the nation in takeaways. Prescott has recently struggled against better secondaries, tossing two picks against Auburn, two against Arkansas and three against Alabama.

With eight interceptions in his last seven games, Prescott's ability to protect the ball has declined. Considering he's thrown multiple interceptions in three games this year, it doesn't appear as though he bounces back quickly from errors. This is something Georgia Tech will be able to exploit.

Of course, if this bold prediction is to come to fruition, the Yellow Jackets are really going to have to fire up their pass rush that has only accumulated 18 sacks this season against a Mississippi State offensive line that has given up just 21.

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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Heisman Trophy Winner 2014: Marcus Mariota Will Next Conquer Heisman Curse

The 2014 Heisman Trophy is but a beginning for Marcus Mariota.

The next narrative up to bat when it comes to Oregon's historic quarterback is a good old-fashioned curse.

It always has to be something, right?

A curse that pertains to the most prestigious individual accolade in collegiate sports takes multiple forms. One thought process is that the winner of the Heisman Trophy goes on to lose his bowl game. The other pertains to the pro prospects of the individual.

Mariota will handle both with the cool demeanor and efficiency that got him to the podium Saturday night.

To understand why, one only needs to construct a time line of Mariota's recent path to said podium. He put forth the best statistical season of his collegiate career this year all the while leading a one-loss team to the inaugural playoff.

His 68.3 completion percentage with 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns to two interceptions got him the hardware, as did the complementary 669 yards and 14 scores on the ground. Perhaps more impressive, though, was the wealth of hurdles leaped in emphatic fashion.

The expected hiccup that had marred his first two years under center never really formed this year. Mariota threw three scores in a rout of an elite Michigan State defense (which still ranks 12th). He blew away Stanford, still owners of the second-ranked defense, with four total touchdowns. The Civil War (a trap game), is yet again an afterthought thanks to six total touchdowns. Five total in the Pac-12 Championship helped the Ducks to avenge their only loss on the year.

To think that Mariota will now succumb to the pressure in the CFP against Florida State after a major individual accomplishment is absurd.

This is especially the case considering the Ducks have shown no signs of slowing. Jameis Winston leads the opponent. A notable 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions on the season were enough for the Seminoles signal-caller to miss Saturday’s ceremony. A 30th-ranked defense that cannot get off the field complements last year’s Heisman winner.

Anything short of a national title will prove a disappointment, but that portion of the curse is more archaic in thinking as of late. Gone are the days when Reggie Bush, Tim Tebow and other winners went on to lose bowl games. In are the days Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and others take care of business, although winners are still 4-7 in bowl games and 2-6 in title games since 2000.

The pro portion of the curse is a different story.

Some of the guys mentioned above are too early on in their careers for it to be written that they have not lived up to the billing of the Heisman. With a great individual award comes great expectations.

NFL Network's Rich Eisen sums up quite well what is in store for Mariota:

The fact is, many will point out Oregon's schemes are conducive to lofty stats.

Regardless, domination such as this, per ESPN Stats & Info, will create droves of hype:

The conversation about No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL draft is underway. Just ask CBS Sports' Dane Brugler:

As crazy as it sounds, No. 1 overall is not out of the question.

Think about it. Character is a massive focus at quarterback now. Mariota has loads of it, is quiet off the field and a great leader on it. The biggest red flag? A speeding ticket.

"His big negative," Nike co-founder Phil Knight said, per ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel, "is that he got a speeding ticket for going 80 in a 55 at 12:30 at night. What they didn't tell is that he was coming back from a speech he gave to the Boys and Girls Club. He hung out with the kids too long."

On the field, scouts and others in the know have already stated that his pro stock is through the roof when one puts all the moving pieces into one total package.

Details provided by Chase Goodbread of NFL.com put this on display well:

But that's exactly how one NFL college scouting director sees it -- and he doesn't think it's close. The director told NFL Media's Albert Breer that he expects to assign a significantly higher draft grade to Mariota than the one he gave Griffin in 2012.

Speculation will run rampant about his pro prospects in the coming months. Mariota has the character and sheer talent (remember, this is a guy who did not start until his senior year of high school) to adapt to any situation and scheme.

For Mariota, the award is about more than just himself, as captured by Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

The brevity to enjoy the accomplishment will not last long, though. Florida State and beyond awaits.

Given Mariota's performance as of late, which culminated in the top prize available to collegiate players, he will overcome what rests ahead on his journey.

What got Mariota to this point is a foundation for something special. Whether it is a national title or a successful pro career that matches the hype, Mariota is not the average Heisman winner.

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Heisman Trophy Winner 2014: Marcus Mariota Will Next Conquer Heisman Curse

The 2014 Heisman Trophy is but a beginning for Marcus Mariota . The next narrative up to bat when it comes to Oregon's historic quarterback is a good old-fashioned curse...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Sugar Bowl 2015: Bold Predictions for Alabama vs. Ohio State Showdown

In a game like the 2015 Sugar Bowl, in which every position on the field will be analyzed ad nauseam up until kickoff, the unexpected is pretty much guaranteed to happen at some point.

When two teams with the prestige and coaching staff of Alabama and Ohio State get together for an elimination game, the near month of preparation turns out to be crucial. Known football geniuses like Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer will undoubtedly have different things up their sleeve, and the game's momentum will hinge on that.

Predicting something like a dominating running performance from Alabama's stable of backs would be moot. Meanwhile, other positions and aspects of the game brushed under the rug will emerge to the forefront and play a much larger role than expected.

Let's take a look at what those will be, breaking down some bold predictions for the Sugar Bowl.

 

Cardale Jones Will Pass for 300-Plus Yards

Having one quarterback simply step in for the other will be easier said than done against the vaunted Alabama defense. But despite the tough matchup, Cardale Jones won't blink at the chance to take on a downtrodden Tide secondary.

Alabama as a unit has been on fire to finish the season, but its passing defense has been anything but. The Tide allowed 272 yards passing from Maty Mauk in the SEC title game, 456 from Nick Marshall in the Iron Bowl and even 221 through the air by lowly Western Carolina.

Jones didn't have to do much through the air against Wisconsin, only throwing 17 times. But the Crimson Tide defense will make it a priority to shut down running back Ezekiel Elliott and put the onus on Jones to make the plays downfield.

Although Saban knows the lack of film on Jones will open things up for Ohio State, there won't be much they can do to stop him through the air, per ESPN's Adam Rittenberg:

Priority No. 1 for the Tide will be keeping Elliott in front of them, which will create some favorable matchups on the outside for Jalin Marshall and Devin Smith. Jones isn't a polished passer, but he'll make some big-time throws to make for a strong offensive outing.

 

DeAndrew White—Not Amari Cooper—Will Grab Two TDs

All the focus around Alabama football has been on Amari Cooper since the season ended, as he ringed in the Biletnikoff Award and a Heisman finalist spot. The focus for Ohio State will fittingly be on Cooper as well in the Sugar Bowl, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will take advantage.

Cooper has been wrecking foes who game-plan for him all season long, but the Tide will be ready for aggressive packages scheming for him against Ohio State. And they'll have no problem using that extra attention to generate some big plays for their senior wideout DeAndrew White.

White is no stranger to making big plays for the Tide despite Cooper's presence, grabbing four touchdowns on the year—including one each against Missouri and Auburn. In White's long touchdown play against Missouri, it was the threat of Cooper that helped White to get open—spurring some early celebration from Kiffin.

Smart Football's Chris B. Brown is one of few who have noticed White's threat despite Cooper's obvious stardom:

Cooper is simply unstoppable with a single defender, which means the Buckeyes will be mixing things up to complicate routes for the Tide receivers. Even if they have some success in doing so, it will open things up even more for White to make huge plays.

White—at 6'0"—won't be jumping over any defenders to score touchdowns in the Superdome, but he won't have to with Cooper and Kiffin working to get him wide-open looks.

 

Alabama Will Win a Close One

Ohio State beat the odds to make it into the College Football Playoff, but that's about as far as many think the Buckeyes will go. In fact, Odds Shark had the Crimson Tide as massive 9.5-point favorites as of December 13.

Alabama will prove its No. 1 ranking true with a victory, but it won't be nearly as easy as the oddsmakers predict.

The Crimson Tide are undoubtedly battle-tested after topping some of the nation's best teams down the stretch, but they rarely have gone up against such a formidable offense. And when they have, struggles have inevitably followed—just look at Auburn's offensive success in the Iron Bowl.

Jones will find the seams down the field early in the game, putting the pressure on Alabama's offense to keep pace. That sort of pressure has stalemated the Tide's offense at times, although they've shown all it takes is one drive to kick the unit back into gear. 

With the Buckeyes featuring stout run-stuffers Joey Bosa and Joshua Perry, Alabama won't be able to run the ball to its liking. The Buckeyes' passing game won't come up big in the fourth quarter but will at least have them in position late.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Rose Bowl 2015: Key Questions in Massive Oregon vs. Florida State Matchup

Some may still hold a grudge against the selection committee for ranking Ohio State fourth, but everybody can agree that the Rose Bowl is a fantastic matchup on paper.

It's hard to create any sort of good vs. evil angle in college football, but Oregon vs. Florida State comes pretty close.

On one side, you've got the Seminoles, led by perhaps the most vilified player in the country, Jameis Winston, and the subject of muchdiscussion for its handling of players' off-field issues. Bleacher Report's Tom Weir wrote that head coach Jimbo Fisher has been a lightning rod for many fans who loathe the 'Noles:

And this isn’t the Florida State that a lot of fans got cozy with when Bobby Bowden ran the program. Bowden was the wise-cracking grandfather-type everyone loves, but Jimbo Fisher often comes off as the arrogant neighbor who wants you to know his new car has more horsepower than yours. For many, Bowden was a wizened-but-wise Yoda, and Fisher is just Darth Vader with a southern accent.

On the other side stand the Ducks, who play an exciting brand of football and score points for fun. Oregon's also led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, whom NFL.com's Albert Breer described as a "choir boy" in September:

This is one of those games where even fans without a dog in the fight are choosing sides. The committee couldn't have picked a better way to kick off the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Heading into "The Granddaddy of Them All," these three questions continue to linger.

 

Will Florida State Have to Recover from Another Slow Start?

Perhaps not since Ohio State in 2002 has an unbeaten team had so many brushes with mortality. Florida State's modus operandi is starting games slowly, generally until halftime. Then Fisher makes the necessary adjustments, and the Seminoles transform into a different team in the second half.

So far, the strategy hasn't proven fatal. Miami, Louisville and Notre Dame all held first-half leads against FSU, only to fall. The Hurricanes held a 23-7 edge at one point in the second quarter, while the Cardinals had a 21-point lead in the first.

The problem with taking the first 20-25 minutes to get going against Oregon is twofold.

First, the Ducks can score a ton of points in a short amount of time. On average, they're putting up a point for every 78 seconds of game action.

Ask Utah how quickly Oregon can turn the tide of a game.

The Utes were within a yard of taking a 14-0 lead over the Ducks back in November. Then Kaelin Clay fatefully dropped the ball in celebration before he had actually reached the end zone. Joe Walker recovered and ran the length of the field for the Oregon touchdown. That score sparked a 24-point outburst in the second quarter, and the game invariably swung toward the Ducks.

The other potential problem for Florida State is that Oregon generally doesn't stop scoring in the second half. It's not like the Ducks start out hot and then fizzle as the game unfolds. According to TeamRankings.com, they're third in the country in second-half scoring (20.8 points).

 

Can Oregon Defense Stifle Jameis Winston?

Giving up a high volume of yards isn't necessarily an indictment of a team's defense. Oregon helps drive that point home.

The Ducks rank 80th in total defense (413.8 YPG); however, according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ rating, they're the 12th-best defensive team in the country.

It's only natural that a defense will give up yards in punches when the offense uses such a quick-strike strategy.

Still, those wins against Washington State, California and UCLA, and the loss to Arizona offer some possible warning signs for Oregon. Those four teams combined to average 526.7 yards when playing the Ducks.

After the Arizona defeat, some fans were calling for defensive coordinator Don Pellum's head.

Jake Zivin of KEZI 9 News in Eugene felt those fans were a little to quick to cast judgment on Pellum:

In general, the Ducks have prevented opposing quarterbacks from playing well above expectations, as Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel pointed out:

The Ducks are experienced going against high-octane passing attacks, but FSU’s pro-style look with this many weapons will present different challenges. Still, Oregon has fared well against QBs with similar passer ratings (UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, and Cal’s Jared Goff) as Winston’s of 146.96, keeping Hundley to a rating of 131.74, Cook to a rating of 128.53 and Goff to a rating of 132.38. In all instances, these quarterbacks were held to at least one yard below their yard-per-attempt average. [...]

Because Oregon is so aggressive with its blitz packages, quarterbacks are forced to get rid of the ball earlier. This strong secondary closes quickly and tackles well in space, limiting big plays against a lot of these spread offenses.

It's no secret that Florida State goes about as far as Winston takes them. When he's off, the entire team's off. When Winston's on, he can compensate for whatever issues are affecting the Seminoles on the field.

Throwing Winston out of his comfort zone will be Oregon's No. 1 objective.

 

Will Oregon Have Problems Protecting Marcus Mariota?

There couldn't have been a more fitting end for Oregon's only loss in 2014. As the Ducks were driving for the potential game-tying score late in the fourth, Mariota was forced out of the pocket and ran right into the reach of Scooby Wright III, who forced a turnover and sealed the win for Arizona.

Oregon's offensive line wasn't dreadful early in the season, but it was clearly an issue. As a result, the Ducks were far too reliant on their Heisman-winning QB doing something incredible. It was the old Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl strategy.

"The worst thing you want is to have your name in the paper, really, as an offensive lineman or an offensive line coach," said Steve Greatwood, Oregon's offensive line coach, per USA Today's Paul Myerberg. "When we were going through that rough stretch I'd never been interviewed more in my life. That's not really what you want."

Myerberg explained how Greatwood took a more simplistic approach to practices, which allowed the players to focus more on their areas of concern and helped rebuild the confidence of the entire O-line.

"It's something that as a coach you're always kind of trying to decide where to spend your time," Greatwood said. "But if you can't execute fundamentally, then all the Xs and the Os aren't going to help you."

The Arizona game was the nadir for the Oregon offensive line this year, and the entire unit steadily improved as the season unfolded. Just look at the difference between Mariota against the Wildcats in that October loss and then the Pac-12 Championship Game.

As a team, Florida State sacked the opposing quarterback just 17 times, good for 107th in the nation. In Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman, though, the 'Noles have two players who can wreak havoc on Mariota if Oregon's offensive line regresses to its early-season form.

Goldman was injured in the ACC Championship Game, but Fisher brushed aside any concerns that he'd be out for the Rose Bowl, per Tim Linafelt of Seminoles.com:

Oregon will have back Rimington Trophy finalist Hroniss Grasu to help bolster the interior of the line, which will help allay any concerns Ducks fans have about how the team will handle the FSU front seven.

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Auburn Freshman Tight End Jakell Mitchell Shot and Killed Near University Campus

Auburn tight end and redshirt freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed at an apartment complex near the university early Sunday morning.  

Brandon Marcello of AL.com has more:

Police responded to the Tiger Lodge apartment complex at 12:25 a.m., where Mitchell suffered a fatal injury, Auburn police Capt. Will Matthews told AL.com.

Mitchell was rushed to East Alabama Medical Center by ambulance with multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Lee County Coroner's Office. He died shortly after arriving at the emergency room. The death is being treated as a homicide. An autopsy will be performed in Montgomery.

No arrests have been made, and the police are still searching for suspects.

The shooting took place in the same apartment complex where former Auburn players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips were murdered by Desmonte Leonard at a summer party in 2012. Per Marcello, "[Leonard] was convicted of capital murder, attempted murder and assault in October and will be sentenced Jan. 7."

Mitchell spent the 2014 season as a redshirt but was expected to compete for a starting spot in 2015 with seniors Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah graduating this season.

The tragedy comes on the heels of Auburn bringing back Will Muschamp to serve as the team's defensive coordinator, per ESPN.com. The mood has turned from one of excitement to sadness and mourning at Auburn.

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Odds and Predictions for Semifinals

Fear not, college football fans, for New Year's Day will be here before you know it.

The weeks between the conference championships and the start of the playoff will feel like an eternity, especially for those fans with a rooting interest in one of the two semifinal games.

The final product should be more than worth the wait, as either of the two playoff games could easily serve as a national championship by itself.

 

Sugar Bowl

No. 1 Alabama (-9.5) vs. No. 4 Ohio State

Over the last few years, Ohio State's built a reputation for being a very good football team but one not quite ready for prime time, especially when playing the cream of the crop from the SEC. The Buckeyes might have a 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas, but that did little to counter the back-to-back national championship losses to Florida and LSU in 2006 and 2007 by a combined 41 points.

Hiring Urban Meyer was supposed to bridge that perceived gap between Ohio State and the likes of Alabama, LSU, Florida, Auburn, etc.

Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote an article titled "Is Ohio State 'SEC Enough' to Beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff?" and argued that Meyer's work on the recruiting trail has helped put the Buckeyes on level pegging:

Ohio State will always possess plenty of players from its own talent-rich state, but one glance at the Buckeyes' roster shows that this is far from your father's Ohio State squad.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a key player on this year's Buckeyes team who wasn't wooed by a school from the SEC, as Meyer hasn't been afraid to go head-to-head with his former conference on the recruiting trail.

Meyer has been able to wrestle defensive end Joey Bosa (Alabama, Florida), running back Ezekiel Elliott (Missouri), cornerback Eli Apple (Alabama), safety Vonn Bell (Alabama, Tennessee), H-back Dontre Wilson (Texas A&M), running back Curtis Samuel (Florida, Tennessee) and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Alabama, Georgia) away from the grasp of the SEC, while also keeping Ohioans Jalin Marshall (Tennessee) and Erick Smith (Alabama) away from the pull of America's best conference.

Meyer has done extremely well to build Ohio State into a national powerhouse again, but the Buckeyes might not be No. 1 just yet.

Cardale Jones looked great against Wisconsin, but he's still a third-string quarterback who's made one career college start. In his second start, he'll play the best team in the country in a national semifinal. That's a ton of pressure on an inexperienced quarterback.

Of course, Ohio State could benefit from the element of surprise. Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he has to plan for any number of looks from the Buckeyes offense, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg:

There's also the question as to whether Ezekiel Elliott can continue his strong run of form against an Alabama defense that ranks second in the country in rushing yards allowed (88.7 YPG). According to ESPN.com's Jungkyu Lee, the Tide are the only FBS team that hasn't allowed an opposing running back to run for more than 90 yards, while they've given up just 34 runs of 10 yards or more, first in the country.

As if that's not enough for Meyer to worry about, there's also quite possibly the most balanced offense in the country on the other side of the field, one that's improved since Lane Kiffin's arrival.

Alabama's the top seed in the country for a reason. The Crimson Tide are the best team from top to bottom on both sides of the ball, and it's never a good idea to bet against Saban in a big game.

An Ohio State upset wouldn't be all that surprising, but Alabama should edge out a close win.

Prediction: Alabama 30, Ohio State 24

 

Rose Bowl

No. 2 Oregon (-9.5) vs. No. 3 Florida State

Sooner or later, starting games slowly is bound to bite a team in the rear end. Florida State generally takes at least 15-20 minutes to really get going, but after a poor first quarter, Oregon could have already built an unassailable lead.

With that said, the Seminoles didn't win 29 games in a row by accident. Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich isn't going to downplay a winning streak like that, per Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat:

It's crazy to think that the only unbeaten FBS team in the country would be an underdog in the playoff, but that's exactly the case for the 'Noles. As a result, you can count on FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher using that slight as the proverbial "bulletin-board material":

In a way, many of the criticisms toward Florida State were said about Ohio State in 2002. How may discounted the Buckeyes for their close victories and penchant for winning games ugly?

But if the 'Noles start the Rose Bowl like they did against Florida, Miami and Louisville, they'll be dead in the water. Oregon's averaging 46.3 points a game, and the Ducks don't slow down in the second half. According to TeamRankings.com, they're third in second-half scoring.

Florida State will also be in a lot of trouble if it can't get pressure on Marcus Mariota. When the Ducks went through their rough patch around the end of September through early October, much of the problems stemmed from an inability to protect Mariota.

The more time he has in the pocket, the more comfortable he becomes. Mariota can pick apart an opposing defense when he's not under fire on every down. The more successful Mariota is, the more Royce Freeman and the Oregon running game can attack the FSU defense.

The Ducks will get a boost in the form of center Hroniss Grasu, who missed the last couple of months. In what is a sign of his immense talent, Grasu was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy despite his injury:

With Grasu on the line, Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman won't be able to manhandle the Ducks offensive line.

Another red flag for the Seminoles is their inability to constantly harass the quarterback. Sacks aren't the perfect indicator for a team's pass rush, but ranking 107th in the nation in QB sacks is a worry when trying to stop somebody like Mariota.

If FSU isn't getting constant pressure on him, then Oregon can dictate the pace and turn the game in its favor.

The Ducks will likely run out to a big lead in the first or second quarter. Fisher will make his halftime adjustments, but it will be too little too late for the Seminoles.

Prediction: Oregon 38, Florida State 34

 

Note: Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl opening lines are courtesy of OddsShark.com.

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule and Winning Predictions for College Football Slate

College football bowl season is among the most exciting stretches in sports, and the 2014-15 schedule features 39 intriguing matchups that should have fans interested for weeks.

Much of the focus is on the inaugural College Football Playoff for good reason, but there are other potentially thrilling games worth watching as well. They won't all be classics, but each and every contest will be of interest for one reason or another.

Here is a full rundown of where and when you can catch every bowl game, along with winning predictions and a closer look at some of the marquee bowls that will impact the college football landscape.

 

Breaking Down Top Matchups

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

In what is unquestionably one of the most highly anticipated college football matchups this season, the No. 2 Oregon Ducks and No. 3 Florida State Seminoles will meet in the Rose Bowl as part of the College Football Playoff semifinals.

On paper, there is more to love about this game than perhaps any other on the schedule. FSU is undefeated as well as the defending national champion, while Oregon is a perennial contender that is hoping to finally have a shot at playing for the title.

Despite being in the midst of a 29-game winning streak, the Seminoles are heavy underdogs. That breaks a long string of games in which Florida State has been favored, according to Evan Abrams of ESPN Stats & Info:

Truth be told, the Noles have gotten very little respect this season. Many of their victories have come by the skin of their teeth, but they have a certain intangible factor that other teams don't. Not to mention, they have the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston.

With so many people doubting Florida State's ability to repeat as the national champion, former Heisman winner Desmond Howard believes it will be extra motivated, per ESPN College Football:

That may be the case, but the Seminoles will still have to deal with Oregon and its No. 3-ranked scoring offense. The Ducks have a Heisman winner in their own right in the form of signal-caller Marcus Mariota, which could make this one of the greatest quarterback matchups in college football history.

This game undoubtedly has the potential to be an all-time great, and the fact that there is so much riding on it will make it that much better.

 

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

It may not quite measure up to Oregon vs. Florida State, but the other CFP semifinal isn't too shabby in its own right. No. 1 Alabama will face No. 4 Ohio State in a Sugar Bowl clash between two of the most storied programs in college football.

The Crimson Tide have been viewed as the best team in the nation for much of the season, so it comes as no surprise that most expect them to win. The Buckeyes have only one loss just like Bama, but they barely squeaked in as the last CFP team just ahead of Baylor and TCU.

Also, history isn't in Ohio State's favor. According to SportsCenter, the Buckeyes have never managed to beat Alabama:

If that weren't enough, the Buckeyes have some question marks at the most vital position. Sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones stepped in and played remarkably well for OSU in a Big Ten Championship Game thrashing of Wisconsin, but he is a relative unknown compared to J.T. Barrett, who went down for the season.

Even so, it wouldn't be wise to totally discount Ohio State's chances. The Buckeyes are playing with house money to some degree, and the pressure is clearly on Alabama's shoulders. Because of that, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer plans to be aggressive, per Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch:

That won't be easy against the Crimson Tide's No. 4 scoring defense. Also, Alabama has a dynamic offense in its own right with quarterback Blake Sims, running back T.J. Yeldon and Heisman Trophy candidate wide receiver Amari Cooper.

It isn't often that two programs with the pedigrees of Alabama and Ohio State meet up, so there is every reason for college football fans to be giddy.

 

Cotton Bowl: No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 8 Michigan State

Baylor and its fans may feel slighted after being left out of the College Football Playoff, but the consolation prize is a good one as the Bears will battle the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl.

This is arguably the top matchup outside the CFP, and there is no question that both teams want to make a statement. In addition to that, this game will feature a clash of styles that has Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports among those who are excited about it:

Some may believe that Baylor will enter the game flat and without motivation after missing out on its ultimate goal. Perhaps that will ultimately be the case, but head coach Art Briles has been nothing but positive about his team's situation, according to the Cotton Bowl Classic on Twitter:

In many ways, the Bears have something to prove. If they lose to the Spartans, then everyone will assume that the CFP selection committee made the right decision. If Baylor wins, though, it will help build credibility that will help when it comes to reaching the CFP in future seasons.

The Bears boast the best offense in college football with quarterback Bryce Petty and running back Shock Linwood leading the way. Although the Spartans don't receive as much hype as Baylor in that regard, they are seventh in scoring thanks to the play of quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.

Michigan State is also 12th in scoring defense, which is why this will be such a big challenge for Baylor. If it can overcome the Spartans, though, this could be a landmark win for the program.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Heisman Trophy Winner 2014: Marcus Mariota Is Deserving of Sport's Top Award

In many ways, the University of Oregon Ducks' Marcus Mariota was like a preseason No. 1 team in the old BCS system. He began the year as one of—if not the— favorites to win the Heisman Trophy award.

Like a preseason No. 1 that goes undefeated and never relinquishes the top ranking, Mariota coasted to the Heisman Trophy without ever faltering through the 2014 campaign. On Saturday, it became official. The star junior quarterback from Oregon became the school's first Heisman Trophy winner.

Stephen Nelson of Bleacher Report had the official voting results.

Per ESPN College GameDay, here's how Mariota's dominance in the voting compares to other runaway winners.

The Ducks lost to the Arizona Wildcats on Oct. 2. But even in that game, Mariota made a solid account of himself. Against the Wildcats, Mariota completed 20 of 32 passes for 276 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the rematch in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Mariota was even better. He threw for 313 yards and two more scores in Oregon's 51-13 romp.

All year long, Mariota was the picture of consistency and excellence. He threw just two interceptions during the season, while throwing for 3,783 yards and a whopping 38 touchdown passes.

As impressive as his individual numbers and the Ducks' 12-1 record are, what seems to make Mariota all the more worthy of the Heisman are his intangibles.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone with a negative word to say about his leadership qualities. In fact, here's a glimpse of the way Twitter reacted after Mariota was named the winner.

The Ducks' star is always humble, and he gave his teammates and coaches much of the credit for his success. 

Both the Wisconsin Badgers' Melvin Gordon and Alabama Crimson Tide's Amari Cooper have similar qualities, but Mariota's responsibilities as a quarterback likely gave him the nod over the other two finalists.

Whether the Ducks lose to the Florida State Seminoles or go on to win the national championship, Mariota's next individual distinction could be as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

As it stands, the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are all just 2-11. The Titans, Bucs and Jets would likely take Mariota in a heartbeat if they land the top pick. The Raiders and Jags just drafted quarterbacks last season, so they may be more apt to trade down to a team that covets the Heisman winner.

In any case, 2014 has been great for the 21-year-old from Honolulu, but 2015 could be even better.

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Oregon's Marcus Mariota Gives Heartfelt Acceptance Speech After Winning Heisman

In a move that surprised very few people, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota capped off his fantastic season by winning the 2014 Heisman Trophy with 95 percent of the votes.

Another highlight of Mariota's season came in his tearful acceptance speech, in which he thanked his teammates, coaches, teachers, the Polynesian community, his family and more. 

[YouTube]

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2015 5-Star QB Jarrett Stidham Decommits from Texas Tech

The Texas Tech Red Raiders have lost the crown jewel of their 2015 recruiting class.

Five-star quarterback Jarrett Stidham announced on Twitter that he has decommitted from the school:

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Stidham is the third-best dual-threat quarterback and 26th-best player overall in the country. By securing Stidham's commitment, Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury sent a message to the rest of the Big 12 that Tech was a team in the ascendancy.

Now, Kingsbury and the rest of his staff are thrown for a loop.

Aaron Dickens of RedRaiderSports.com notes the timing of the decision couldn't be much worse, with Kingsbury soon unable to meet with Stidham to try and lure him back to Lubbock, Texas:

All signs pointed to Stidham becoming a Red Raider in 2015, especially after signing a financial-aid agreement with the school in August, per Max Olson of ESPN.com:

David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest believes this is an almost unprecedented situation:

Daniel Paulling of 247Sports reported that Stidham could be concerned about playing time upon his potential arrival at Texas Tech:

A source close to the situation says Stidham's decommitment revolves around whether he'd redshirt his freshman year or play immediately. ... Red Raiders head coach Kliff Kingsbury said the quarterback competition in spring workouts would be “wide open” between Stidham, who was set to enroll at Tech in January, Patrick Mahomes, Davis Webb, walk-on Vincent Testaverde and Nic Shimonek.

Kingsbury and offensive coordinator Eric Morris made an in-home visit with Stidham on Sunday.

Freshman Mahomes threw for 598 yards and six touchdowns in a 48-46 loss to Baylor on Nov. 29. According to ESPN.com's Jake Trotter, Stidham was at the game:

Trotter then added credence to the notion that Baylor could now be in play for Stidham:

With a recruiting dead period rapidly approaching, time is running out for coaches to make their case in front of the prep star until the calendar turns over to 2015.

Once the window opens again, though, you can bet that the race to secure Stidham's commitment will be furious.

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Heisman Trophy 2014: Winner, Voting Results and Highlights from Award Ceremony

To the surprise of almost no one, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota won the 2014 Heisman Trophy, becoming the first Ducks player to win the award.

Oregon celebrated Mariota's triumph on Twitter:

Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman provided the top 10 vote-getters. Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper, the other two Heisman finalists, finished second and third, respectively:

The voting wasn't even close. Many wondered if this would be the biggest landslide in Heisman history. According to Feldman, Mariota collected the second-highest percentage of possible points ever:

In addition, voters listed Mariota on a little over 95 percent of the Heisman ballots, which is the highest total ever, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:

Fox Sports' Joel Klatt was more surprised that any voters left Mariota off their ballot:

Many expected Saturday's presentation to be a coronation for Mariota, with Cooper and Gordon being present to at least present some form of drama. The voting bears out just how far ahead Mariota was from the rest of the competition.

Former Heisman winner Tim Tebow praised Mariota's composure, per ESPN College Football:

USA Today's Paul Myerberg noted that Mariota not only beat out Cooper and Gordon but also overcame the perceived East Coast bias:

Jim Plunkett at Stanford in 1970 was the last winner from a West Coast school that wasn't Southern Cal.

Mariota is also the first Hawaiian-born player to win the Heisman, and it's a designation he isn't taking lightly. During the press conference before the presentation on Saturday, Mariota said that his triumph could serve as motivation for other Hawaiians down the line, per Feldman:

It's been quite a road for Mariota to get here. As ESPN's Darren Rovell pointed out, Mariota wasn't exactly a sure thing coming out of high school:

Now, the Ducks star will be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history.

Gordon and Cooper will undoubtedly be remembered for their excellence as well, but they had little chance of lifting the Heisman on Saturday night.

Only two wide receivers have ever won the Heisman Trophy—Tim Brown and Desmond Howard—both of whom also impressed voters as kick and/or punt returners. Despite his gaudy numbers, Cooper didn't figure too heavily on the final outcome.

Gordon was in a similarly tough position. Only two running backs have won the Heisman since 2000. Gordon lacked the dynamism of Reggie Bush and the on-field success of Mark Ingram. Had Wisconsin finished unbeaten or at least made the College Football Playoff, voters might have been swayed by Gordon's credentials.

Instead, the Badgers rusher, despite running for the fourth-most yards in a season since 1956, was on the outside looking in.

Mariota had both the numbers and team success to vault ahead of the field. He enters the CFP having thrown for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The junior added 669 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, his TD-to-turnover ratio was the best in the last decade:

Mariota can't take sole credit for Oregon's earning the No. 2 seed in the playoff, but he's the biggest on-field reason for the Ducks' 12-1 regular season.

Grantland's Matt Hinton argued that Mariota covered all the bases for a typical Heisman winner:

One reason the outcome seems so inevitable is that Heisman winners tend to be cut from the same cloth, and that template happens to fit Mariota about as snugly as it’s fit anyone in the past decade. One, he’s a quarterback, and 12 of the 14 winners since the turn of the century have been quarterbacks. Two, he’s a known quantity, having logged 39 career starts for a team that’s spent exactly three weeks outside of the top 10 in his three years at the helm. Three, his team will play for a shot at the national championship in January. Four, he has a Boy Scout’s reputation off the field. Everyone who gets an invite to New York as a Heisman finalist can check at least a couple of those boxes; the last guy who could check every one of them was Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford back in 2008.

While the field was a bit weak this year, few will contest the final result.

Not only is this a landmark moment in Mariota's playing career, but it's a landmark moment in the history of Oregon football.

Former Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington finished fourth in the 2001 Heisman voting. Earlier in the week, he spoke about what a Mariota win would mean for Oregon.

"For the University of Oregon, it's just another feather in their hat, if you will," said Harrington, per CSNNW.com's Aaron Fentress. "It's hard to put into words. It means so much for recruiting, it means so much for donors, and just the pure pride that there's a Heisman Trophy winner from your school."

The 2014 season could be a banner year for Oregon, between Mariota's Heisman and a potential national championship. The Ducks take on the Florida State Seminoles on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl. The winner will advance to the national title game.

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