Our favorite plays of the year

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
It was another season of record-setting performances, unbelievable finishes and very large men scoring very big touchdowns. And, yes, the Fainting Goat.

Here are our favorite plays of the year:

Hail Marys

Bahamas Bowl miracle

Central Michigan trailed by 35 points entering the fourth quarter. It trailed by seven when it pulled off a 75-yard, three-lateral Hail Mary as the clock struck :00. The Chippewas failed on the two-point conversion, but their comeback and miracle finish was the craziest play of bowl season.

Central Florida wins a share of the AAC

After blowing a 26-9 fourth-quarter lead, it looked as if Central Florida was done. But East Carolina mismanaged the clock -- taking three knees and a sack -- before giving the ball back to the Knights with 10 seconds left. One 51-yard score later, George O'Leary's crew was celebrating a share of a conference championship.

Solomon stuns Cal

Arizona scored an absurd 36 points in the fourth quarter, capped by Anu Solomon hitting Austin Hill in the end zone on a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win.

Big-guy touchdowns

Come to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs

Who said Bret Bielema offenses were old school? Arkansas' coach loves his linemen, and here he lets 350-pound guard Sebastian Tretola throw for a score in a 45-17 win over UAB.

The biggest of big-guy touchdowns

Tretola's pass was nice, but how about seeing a 400-pounder go up the seam for an 18-yard score in a New Year's Six bowl game? That's what Art Briles and Baylor dreamed up, as Laquon McGowan scored to give Baylor a 20-point lead before Michigan State stormed back to win, 42-41.

Boise goes back to the future

Everyone remembers Boise State's introduction to a national college football audience, upsetting Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Well, the Broncos brought it back for this year's game, as Jay Ajayi scored from 16 yards out in a 38-30 Boise win.

Fainting Goat gets its own category

Arkansas State can lay claim to the best worst fake punt ever. In theory, one player falls down, draws the attention of the defense and the Red Wolves get a first down. In reality, he got clobbered and Arkansas State's pass was intercepted. But that only made us love it more.

So does this Nebraska false start

Poor Jake Cotton. The Nebraska lineman was just trying to hold his stance, but once all 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds of him starting going backwards, there was no turning back.

Year of the freshman RB

Leonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M

It was an up-and-down year for the heavily hyped Fournette, but he certainly showed signs of why such big things were expected out of him. Just ask Howard Matthews who got bowled over on Fournette's way to the end zone in LSU's 23-17 win.

Dalvin Cook runs past Miami

Florida State had fallen behind again. This time, it was 23-10 to rival Miami. But Cook saved the day, with 44- and 26-yard scores to guide the Seminoles to a 30-26 victory.

Royce Freeman can do it all

Freeman could be a game changer for the Ducks, the kind of every down, power back the team hasn't had in the past. And he can throw it too, as he proved with this touchdown toss to Marcus Mariota against Arizona.

Samaje Perine an Oklahoma bright spot

Oklahoma's year certainly ended poorly, but the Sooners have hope for the future following the emergence of Perine. He set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards (and five scores) in a win over Kansas. This 64-yard TD scamper jump-started a comeback win for Oklahoma.

Nick Chubb shatters records in Belk Bowl

No Todd Gurley? No problem for the Bulldogs, who saw Nick Chubb announce himself as perhaps the best of all the freshman runners with a dominant 266-yard performance against a tough Louisville run defense. It was the most rushing yards by a Georgia back in a bowl and also a Belk Bowl mark.

More top plays

Nebraska's behind-the-back catch

It was all the way back in August, but this held up as one of the best plays of the year. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp went behind the back to grab a pass during a 55-7 Cornhuskers win over Florida Atlantic.

Ohio State DE ends game like a Bosa

A running back on Joey Bosa? Yeah, that's not going to end well. As dominant as Ohio State was down the stretch, it wouldn't have happened had the Buckeyes not taken care of Penn State. Bosa made sure they finally did, with a 31-24 double-overtime win.

Mariota strikes a pose

Marcus MariotaBrian Davies/The Register-Guard Marcus Mariota looked the part of a Heisman Trophy winner in Oregon's win over Oregon State.

Ohio State reverse touchdown pass

Of all the plays on this list, this is the most important. Trailing Alabama 21-13 in the final seconds of the first half, Evan Spencer took a handoff on a reverse and somehow found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The lesson? Even Ohio State's receivers are great quarterbacks.

Gordon leaps into record books (briefly)

video Melvin Gordon's stay atop the record book for single-game rushing yards may have only lasted a week, but that does nothing to diminish his magical performance against Nebraska, when he ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Cornhuskers.

Air Maxx

Minnesota may have lost its bowl game, but the Golden Gophers still had the highlight of the game, as tight end Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders en route to a 54-yard touchdown. So it's probably no surprise that Williams declared for the NFL draft after this game.

Shaq brings it baq

You can't do much more than a 99-yard touchdown return, and that's exactly what Shaq Thompson did for Washington to kick off the scoring in a 31-7 win over Cal.

Malzahn leads list of best playcallers 

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
This week, I asked a few coaches what constituted a good playcaller. Balance was one consistent element, both in terms of run and pass calls as well as taking shots downfield. Creating and leveraging mismatches, finding space for playmakers, was another.

Another characteristic -- confidence -- was a bit more abstract. Coaches said a proper playcaller has to take control of a game rather than allowing a defensive coordinator to get the upper hand.

It’s a chess game in the gladiator arena, and one coach said “bravado” is required.

“Always be on the attack,” he said, “regardless of down, distance, score or time of the game.”

Here are 10 playcallers -- coordinators and head coaches -- who most embody those elements.

1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach
Even though the Auburn offense is built on the same few basic run plays, Malzahn continues to frustrate defensive coordinators.

Pac-12 morning links

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
So, Peter, you've become a pirate.

Leading off:

Super Bowl media day has come and gone. With it there were a few notable appearances and quotes by some former Pac-12 players (there are 18 former conference players and five former conference coaches between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots). Notes/team updates/recruiting nuggets:
Just for fun:

On Tuesday, Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici and safety Jordan Simone attended Super Bowl media day to add to some of azcentral.com's coverage of the event. We'll have a story later on today with Bercovici's thoughts on the day and his advice to other reporters (now that he has such a deep understanding of the profession), but as a preview to some of the in-depth and exclusive content you'll get from the Bercovici-Simone media team, check out this tweet:

We're sure it was enlightening. Someone get this man a Pulitzer.
Official visits, unofficial visits, in home visits and everything else one can possibly think of is happening with one week until national signing day, Feb. 4. As expected, Twitter is abuzz right now with information flowing constantly all day and night.

Here is a look at some highlights from Tuesday.

@HamiltonESPN: ESPN300 five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson headed to Florida on Tuesday afternoon for an unofficial following a trip to Ole Miss and Alabama over the weekend. In a recruitment that could go a number of different directions, the Rebels and Gators are the best bets to be standing on national signing day unless Auburn can pull the upset. Jefferson is scheduled to visit LSU this weekend, followed by a national signing day announcement live on ESPN.

@HamiltonESPN: Nick Saban was in South Florida on Tuesday, and one of his stops was Coconut Creek High. The reason is simple -- Coconut Creek is home to a trio of ESPN Junior 300 prospects, including top cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who has an Alabama offer.

In Mark Schlabach’s Way Too Early Top 25 for the 2015-16 season, he had Oregon listed as the No. 5 team.

Six Pac-12 teams were listed in the Top 25 which got our writers talking. Was it too high? Too low? Just right? Turns out Ted Miller thought it was just right and Chantel Jennings thought it was too high.

So, let the Goldilocks debate begin…

Miller: Before we look at what Oregon has coming back in 2015, let’s look at who the Ducks are in the big picture: Oregon has become one of THOSE programs.

Oregon has won at least 10 games and finished ranked in the top-11 for seven consecutive years. It has finished ranked in the top five in four of the past five years. When we write that Oregon is one of THOSE programs, we mean that you put the Ducks in the preseason top 10 without much in-depth analysis just because the odds overwhelmingly favor you ending up being correct. And we all want to end up being correct.

Unless I am picking Oregon football games, but that is another matter entirely.

Now I know Oregon must replace the greatest player in program history, quarterback Marcus Mariota, at the most important position. That won’t be easy. But the Ducks played for a national title in 2010 without Mariota and won 44 games over the four seasons before Mariota lined up behind center. The Ducks became one of THOSE programs before Mariota. They will remain that way when he jumps to the NFL.

Yet the Ducks even merit a top-10 ranking if you don’t grant them special privileges as one of THOSE programs. The offense welcomes back the nation’s best set of skill players at running back, receiver and tight end. The offensive line loses three starters, but it welcomes back seven guys with starting experience. The defense takes hits at all three levels, but there is young talent that might actually give the Ducks an upgrade athletically, particularly in the secondary.

When I look at the likely 2015 depth charts of potential top-10 teams, I see Ohio State and TCU looking pretty darn salty. After that, most teams have at least a couple of big questions, just like Oregon.

But the Ducks merit a high preseason ranking based on what is coming back as well as for their earned status as being one of THOSE programs.

We all want to end up correct, right?

Jennings: I’ll agree with you on one thing, Ted: After Ohio State and TCU the other eight teams are kind of a toss up. But even with that, I’m not sure Oregon should really be in the top 10.

I like how you glossed over the whole “No Marcus Mariota” issue in a quaint 24 words but I think it merits more than that. No matter what way you toss -- redshirt freshman, redshirt junior, transfer player -- the Ducks’ signal caller next year is going to be inexperienced in Oregon’s system. I haven’t been sold on Jeff Lockie yet. Yes, the third-string QB thing worked for Ohio State last season but that’s the exception, not the rule. I don’t think Oregon has a QB on its roster that is as talented as the Buckeyes’ third-string guy (whomever that might be now).

Just look at last year’s Way Too Early Top 25. Of those 10 teams, six finished in the final AP poll of the 2014 season, meaning four did not. When looking at a QB comparison of those two groups, it’s pretty stark.

The average adjusted QBR of teams that didn’t finish in the top 10 was 68.4 while the average adjusted QBR of teams that did finish in the top 10 was 81.3. So yes, Oregon loses its best player ever at the most important position and it’s a position that has proven to be one that keeps teams in or drops them out of the top 10. Show me a QB on Oregon’s roster that can keep it in a game or the top 10 and maybe I’ll take back this point. But I haven’t seen it yet.

Past that, I’m not sold on the other offensive playmakers either. Yes, the Ducks are stocked at running back but at wide receiver? Not as much. I was impressed with Charles Nelson during the latter part of the season but we’ll see how he does once opponents really start to game plan against him. Can he be as effective?

And we’ll see if or how much Devon Allen's injury hampers him. Darren Carrington is a question mark. Bralon Addison missed an entire season which is either going to make him really hungry or really rusty.

Then defensively, Oregon loses its two best players in the secondary, a huge part of its linebacker group and its most athletic pass-rusher. This is not a plug-and-play defense and it’ll be another mismatched group of veterans and youth next year. We saw what that provided this season -- lots of miscommunications with lots of big plays given up.

This year, the Ducks had Mariota to make up for that. Next year, they won’t.
Oregon has firmly entrenched itself in the upper echelon of college football. It is no longer just a team out West that competes with the Alabamas and the Florida States of the world. Other teams compete with the Oregons of the world.

And though a national title still eludes the Ducks, they’ve secured themselves a spot with the elite of the elite heading into the 2015 season. It's a place that carries with it the expectation that a program does not simply rebuild after each season it reloads with talented players waiting in the wings and highly ranked recruiting classes.

Oregon has proven it can sustain its talent level from season to season, but there's an added pressure facing the Ducks this offseason as they begin life without Marcus Mariota.

[+] EnlargeJeff Lockie
AP Photo/Eric GayJeff Lockie is one possible replacement for Marcus Mariota, though a transfer could come in to compete for the job.
Is there any way to classify the challenge this offseason as anything other than a rebuilding effort after losing a player like that?

It's glaringly evident what Oregon is losing and what it needs to replace.

On the offensive side of the ball, Oregon loses five starters from its national title lineup, most significant of which is Mariota, who, to be fair, probably counts as anywhere from four to six starters.

While the Ducks have a plethora of skill players returning, it will be a rebuilding effort to find the next Oregon quarterback. And whoever steps into that spot -- whether it’s a transfer or Mariota’s 2014 backup Jeff Lockie -- is going to be under a magnifying glass. There’s no way that anyone will fill Mariota’s shoes but the difference between Oregon thriving, surviving or hemorrhaging in 2015 rests largely on whomever is going to be Mariota’s “replacement.”

The saving grace for the Ducks is that there will be playmakers around him -- though, exactly how many and when they will all be available to practice is unclear.

If wide receiver Darren Carrington’s suspension for the national title game was in fact drug-related, he could face further suspension. It's unclear when wide receiver Devon Allen will be able to return from a leg injury suffered in the Ducks' win over Florida State. Wide receiver Chance Allen has chosen to transfer, though at best he would’ve been a backup to Charles Nelson next year.

Offensive coordinator Scott Frost has proven playmakers such as Nelson, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Dwayne Stanford at his disposal, but who will be getting the ball in their hands remains the biggest question mark.

Plus, all five of those guys would need to stay healthy, which the Ducks couldn’t manage to do this year.

If there is a silver lining to be found in Oregon’s injury woes it is the experience several young players along the offensive line received in 2014, when they were called upon as part of Oregon's “next man up” mantra.

The Ducks’ O-line personnel shuffles were almost unbelievable. What was the team's most experience unit heading into the season was decimated by injuries, though the Ducks managed to spread that experience around by featuring a different starting lineup in nearly every single game. Only one player started every single game this season. It was Hamani Stevens and, to be fair, it was at two different positions.

As a result of the constant reshuffling in 2014, Oregon’s projected spring depth chart in 2015 features five players who started games. That means something.

“The guys who have played quite a bit should have a level of understanding, a level of confidence,” Helfrich said of the offensive line. “At the same time, they better compete, because there's some guys both on campus and some guys that will be in the mix that will compete their tails off for that playing time.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon loses five starters. Three of the four starting linebackers return, which helps defensive coordinator Don Pellum -- who also coaches the linebackers -- in helping the defense progress faster.

But the Ducks lose one of their best pass rushers in Arik Armstead, who despite only tallying 5.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks in 2014, has been pegged as a potential first-round pick on athleticism alone. Though there was frustration from the fans with Oregon’s “rush three, drop eight” system at times, it proved to be effective enough as the Ducks gave up 6.8 yards per pass attempt.

Tony Washington, the one linebacker Pellum will need to replace, was second on the team in tackles for loss, but that’ll likely be more of a reshuffling and reloading effort.

However the secondary will be a true test. Three of the four starters this season were seniors: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargan and Troy Hill. Between them, Oregon loses 229 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 10 interceptions, 33 pass breakups and 43 passes defended.

That is no small task for secondary coach John Neal and it’s going to require a total overhaul in personnel, leaving freshmen and sophomores to fill in quickly. Oregon gave up 49 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season (there were only 14 teams in the country that gave up more) and if that trend continues, it’ll be disastrous as the Ducks won’t have an offense that can make up for it like they did in 2014.

The offseason is crucial for Oregon and how its program is judged. How much of Oregon's success was due to a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime player? Being part of the nation's elite means being able to withstand such losses.

Oregon is in that group, but the only thing harder than getting there is staying there. We're about to find out whether the Ducks can protect against a drop-off.
Oregon returned to the top of the Pac-12 after a two-year hiatus and qualified for the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014. The Ducks humiliated Florida State in the Rose Bowl but eventually dropped the national championship to Ohio State, setting up an intriguing reloading challenge entering 2015.

Position to improve: There's a plethora of possibilities here -- receiver drops hurt Oregon badly against the Buckeyes, and the Ducks' defense wasn't a juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination -- but a massive departure means that focus zeros in on the marquee position: quarterback.

Why it was a problem: Well, it wasn't a visible problem in 2014 -- Marcus Mariota delivered the best season in program history and won the Heisman Trophy while he was at it. But the depth behind No. 8 was a huge question mark, one waiting to strike whenever Mariota would no longer be available. It's rearing its head now that life after Marcus has begun.

How it can be fixed: Speculation that Ohio State's Braxton Miller or Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams Jr. could transfer to Eugene has darted through Twitter, but nothing substantive has backed up that gossip as of right now. Assuming an incoming transfer doesn't answer Oregon's quarterback question mark in one swift blow, an interesting competition awaits.

Jeff Lockie, Mariota's backup this past season, is just one of the names involved. Morgan Mahalak and Ty Griffin are two other current roster possibilities, while touted dual threat commit Travis Waller will be joining the program soon. Oregon hasn't struggled to attract talent to its sparkling facilities. Addressing the gaping quarterback question mark and avoiding the dreaded post-Mariota vacuum is about properly identifying and successfully grooming the great one's successor.

Early 2015 outlook: When evaluating and predicting Oregon's quarterback situation, remember just how much supporting talent the Ducks return offensively: Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner, Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford, and Evan Baylis are all expected to contribute in 2015. The cupboard most definitely is not bare; coach Mark Helfrich just needs an effective point guard to distribute the ball to all of that explosive talent.

It must be noted that the Ducks' offense has been the strong point of this program for a long time now. Though Mariota was unquestionably excellent, Oregon was explosive before his tenure, too. Perhaps its ability to reload at left tackle (the departing Jake Fisher proved extremely valuable there this season, but Tyler Johnstone will be back to man that spot in 2015) and cornerback (starters Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill are both gone from a unit that surrendered some damage) also should generate some concern.

Weekend recruiting wrap: Pac-12 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
It was a busy weekend in the conference, as 14 prospects made commitments between Friday and Monday night and several others backed out of Pac-12 recruiting classes. It looks as though this could be a sign of things to come, as the conference recruiting race is heating up with little more than a week until signing day.

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Pac-12 morning links

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Booked a ticket for tomorrow in Tempe
3 a.m., doing cartwheels down the hallway

Leading off:

Jack Follman over at Pacific Takes broke down the rosters of this weekend's Super Bowl teams to find out where the Seahawks and Patriots are finding their talent. His findings are very College Football Playoff-y. Here's the breakdown, by Power Five conference: 1. Big Ten, 26; 2. Pac-12, 25; 3. SEC, 22; 4. ACC, 13; 5. Big 12, 9. In all, 11 Pac-12 teams were represented, with Washington State being the lone exception. The full list of players, broken down by team, can be found at the link.

Here are a few other Super Bowl-related items as they relate to the Pac-12: News/notes/team reports:
Just for fun:

Two groups of alums from USC's School of Cinematic Arts are finalists in Doritos’ “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which has been pared down to 10 finalists. The winner, chosen by an Internet vote, will have their 30-second commercial shown during the Super Bowl and earn a $1 million prize. You can vote here.

Here are the commercials from USC's two groups:

Middle Seat

Lemonade Stand


It's tough to imagine a more exhausting and stressful conclusion to a recruiting process than the one Iman Marshall orchestrated. Over the past 10 days, Marshall has taken official visits to Florida State, LSU and Michigan, as well as hosted several coaches at his home and school. But just like on the football field, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect doesn't appear to be fazed at all by what's being thrown at him.

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CFP Firm On Dates

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26


Brett McMurphy discusses the resistance from College Football Playoff officials to alter the dates of future matchups.

Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26

Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.


Commitments: 28

ESPN 300 commitments: 1

Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.

Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.

To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here Insider.

More breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
On Friday, we rolled out the top 10 breakout players to watch in 2015. But we have 15 more, including two more Big 12 quarterbacks (for a total of four), the next great defender at Michigan State and, like our No. 1 breakout choice, USC’s Adoree Jackson, a return game ace.

Check out the first 10 players, then read about the next 15:

11. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
Trevor Knight was a buzzy Heisman candidate last spring, yet rival coaches were talking about whether Mayfield, if he were eligible in 2014, would overtake him. It was made moot because the Texas Tech transfer didn’t get his waiver to play, but Knight’s up-and-down season has certainly opened the door for competition.

With an Air Raid-based offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley coming in, Mayfield is perfectly suited to take over -- and flourish -- as QB1 in Norman.

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Pac-12 Weekend Wrap: Jan. 27
Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney discusses top recruiting news from the Pac-12.