Watch: Missouri's Gary Pinkel is all about that swag

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
11:18
AM ET
Missouri football has a fun little tradition called "NFL Day" in which players are allowed to wear what they want and celebrate how they want during the season's final practice on campus.

How do the players know this for sure?

Because their head coach leads the way.

That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.



Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.

For #Mizzou's #NFLDay, Head Coach Gary Pinkel breaks out new all gold @nike gear. ==M=/<

A video posted by Mizzou Football (@mizzoufootball) on

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Huskers look to end their season with a win over USC.
 The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting on Dec. 2 with the players.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few deep answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said, “these players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks may have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for each other.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized that Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans – most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007 – has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003, incidentally the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

And parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

Safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe like USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man – make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl, after four practices this week in California, will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”
The doorways in the Dudek household were never safe.

Every day while growing up, Mikey Dudek would try to jump up and touch the top of every door he passed through. It got to be so frequent that his dad, Rick, had to tell Mikey to cut it out because he was starting to rub the paint off the frames.

As a seventh-grader, Mikey became one of the first and the youngest to join J.R. Niklos' Acceleration training program in Naperville, Illinois. He would eventually spend six hours a week going through strenuous exercises that would lead to feats of physical prowess like he shows off in this video.

[+] EnlargeMike Dudek
AP Photo/Bradley LeebMikey Dudek has 69 catches for 965 yards and six touchdowns, and can become the eighth Illinois player to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Many of the signs were there all along that Dudek would be a precocious performer, even if most college recruiters needed more convincing -- the nonstop motor, the coordination that had him making acrobatic catches as early as six years old. Still, what he did as a true freshman wide receiver this year at Illinois stunned even his most strident believers.

Dudek caught 69 passes for 965 yards and six touchdowns, and became the Illini's go-to weapon down the stretch as they fought their way to six wins. With even a subpar performance against Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday, he will become just the eighth Illinois player to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

"I knew after spring practice that I was going to play this season, but they told me it would probably be like 30 plays," said Dudek, who enrolled in January. "So this season was definitely a shock to me."

The bigger surprise might be that so few other teams hotly pursued him out of high school. As the popular story goes, Dudek's only other scholarship offers were from Illinois State and North Dakota State. In truth, his father said, several other schools likely would have followed if Mikey hadn't committed to Illinois in April of his junior year.

But just about every other recruiter -- Big Ten schools like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana showed interest -- kept saying they wanted to see more from Dudek first. This despite the fact that he produced big numbers in high school and went to countless college camps, where he consistently ran a 4.4 or better in the 40-yard dash.

It's not hard to figure out why teams were skeptical. Dudek is listed, perhaps generously, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds.

"Everybody probably said the exact same thing: 'His size is going to hinder him, especially in the Big Ten,'" Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "But the more you spend time around him, the more you say, 'We've got to take a shot on the guy.' With Mikey, you've got to get over the negatives and look at the positives, and when you do that, it's a no-brainer."

Other than his small stature, Dudek's other measurables are off the charts.

In that video linked above, he runs 22 mph on a treadmill and completes a box jump of 64 inches. Niklos, a former NFL player who started his training center in 2008, has worked with thousands of athletes and has trained more than 700 Division I players in various sports. He said only about 5 percent of his athletes can reach 22 mph on the treadmill, and he can count on one hand how many have pulled off the 64-inch jump.

"He's pretty much jumping over his entire body," Niklos said. "It's like he levitates when he jumps. For some reason, he freezes at the top, and just kind of stays there before he drops."

Dudek's speed and body control have helped him make several highlight-reel catches already for the Illini, and he has quickly become a fan favorite (who doesn't love a guy named Mikey, which is what all his family and friends still call him?). What fans don't see is his dedication to his craft. Cubit said Dudek is always working, staying at the football complex many nights past 9 p.m. watching film.

"He's always asking questions, and he very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which is unusual for young players," Cubit said. "He's created this all himself."

Dudek still is motivated by the lack of respect he received in recruiting -- "especially playing all these teams that overlooked you," he says. "You have a little chip on your shoulder preparing for them, and you want to go out and beat them." Even if that edge eventually softens, he will maintain the drive to keep getting better. This is a guy who is humble enough, after all, to help team managers push a cart full of coolers up a ramp after he had 115 receiving yards in a win against Penn State. He was grounded enough to befriend a classmate with special needs in high school.

Dudek has a chance to break every Illinois receiving record there is and perhaps become the face of the program in the next few years. If a few doorways had to lose some paint back home in the process, that's a fair price to pay.
A year ago at this time Gary Nova did not want to talk about football.

The Rutgers quarterback and team captain, who had not played in the last two games of the 2013 regular season, had just learned he would be watching the team’s appearance at the Pinstripe Bowl from the sideline as well. The night he was officially benched, his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson, returned to their apartment to find Nova despondent.

Johnson knew this drill. He picked up food and rented a movie. They burrowed in, and he steered conversation toward more pleasant topics. Under no circumstance did he mention anything to do with football.

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsGary Nova holds the Rutgers record for TD passes (71) and needs 310 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program's all-time leading passer.
"He came home in tears," Johnson said. "We just tried to get his mind off of it. The next day we told him to refocus his energy on getting his spot back."

Nova didn’t play in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he did win back his spot during offseason workouts. He started all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights (7-5) this year during their first Big Ten season. He set the school’s career record for touchdown passes (currently 71) in late September and needs 310 yards against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program’s all-time leading passer. Nova has no problem talking football during this bowl season.

A year of ups and downs -- there were a few significant speed bumps even after he returned to the starting lineup -- is nothing new for Nova. He is one interception away from setting the Rutgers’ career mark in that category, too. His 40 starts swing like a pendulum between emotional highs and lows, fourth-quarter comebacks mixed with scathing reviews and the occasional social media threat. It’s a ride he says he would not have managed without the support of longtime teammates and his nearby family.

"It was tough when you had people booing, or you read stuff in the paper that’s about yourself," Nova said. "My teammates have been a great help. ... They just tried to give me that pat on the back and say, 'Hey don’t listen to that. You know what the people who really matter think.'"

Nova’s first taste of the zany twists and turns of college football came before he arrived on campus. The New Jersey native originally committed to be a part of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class. He visited Rutgers, 20 miles from his home in Elmwood Park, only out of respect for former coach Greg Schiano. But when the Panthers rolled through three head coaches in less than two months that winter, Nova opted for the more stable situation close to home.

Being close to his parents and his two brothers provided a much-needed place to vent during his career. Nova drove home just about every other weekend during his first year on campus. Johnson usually tagged along to spell his own homesickness and a fill up of Daisy Nova’s Dominican cooking. That duo escaped to Elmwood often enough during their time at Rutgers that the family put Johnson’s photo on the refrigerator as an honorary brother. Nova still asks pesky reporters to steer clear of his family members. They are his getaway, untainted by talk of football.

The frequency of those trips picked up last December as Nova stewed on the scout team during bowl prep.

"Not getting first-team reps and then watching the game from the sideline, I let all of that emotion boil up inside of me and used it to drive me through the tough days in the summer," he said.

Johnson said Nova turned into the team’s biggest leader during winter workouts. His doubled-down work ethic and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen gave Nova a fresh start.

In their first meeting, Friedgen told Nova he knew all about his reputation for inconsistency. He told the senior he didn’t care, that he wanted to give him a clean slate. They started with basics, learning about defensive coverages rather than Rutgers’ playbook. Friedgen preached about fundamental ways to read a defense that he assumed someone had already taught Nova. No one had, and Nova started to see the field more clearly.

When the senior threw five interceptions and was booed on his home field in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut, a 13-10 loss to Penn State, Friedgen was the first to give Nova a hug and tell him that he still believed in him. The ebbs and flows that have plagued his career continued to pop up occasionally this season, but Friedgen and Nova’s teammates remained firmly behind. Stay strong, they told him, all’s well that ends well. And with Nova, even when things start poorly, they have a history of ending well.

Nova refused to go to school some days as a high school freshman. His parents enrolled him at Don Bosco Prep, a private all-boys school 20 minutes from home. It was a different crowd and a different culture. His grades suffered. He was miserable. Eventually, football helped him assimilate.

It was there that he met Rutgers’ leading receiver Leonte Caroo, who has been his teammate for six of the past seven years and another steady crutch to lean on in bad times. They went 24-0 and won two state titles for one of the best high school teams in the nation during Nova’s two years as a starter. That is when his mother started to tell him he was a natural born "overcomer."

"I didn’t see the bigger picture at such a young age," Nova said. "But I’m glad I stuck with it."

The same pattern of tumult followed by triumph continues to play out for Nova in macro and micro ways. The crazy offseason at Pitt led him to stay at home where he found the support he needed. His benching last November motivated him to win a starting job.

On the field, he has engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks during his career, which ties him for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. His most recent addition to that list came in a 41-38 comeback against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to wrap up the regular season. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 25 points late in the second quarter before three touchdown passes from Nova opened the door for the biggest comeback in the program’s 145 years.

"Gary has done a lot in his career at Rutgers and he will go down as one of the all-time greats even before playing this game," head coach Kyle Flood told reporters after the victory. "Does this game add to his legacy? Of course it adds to it, but I don't think it defines Gary. I think it's a great example of what he is and what he has done for this program."

Memories of last year’s bowl season still linger for Nova in the wake of that comeback win. He has one more pendulum to swing in the right direction before he leaves.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban, left, and Urban Meyer will meet Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
When Urban Meyer took his mini-sabbatical from coaching after the 2010 season, there were a couple of givens.

One, he wasn’t going to stay away for long.

Two, his and Nick Saban’s paths were sure to cross again on a big stage.

It’s taken four years, but here we are, and it’s only fitting that they would meet up again in such a historic setting -- the first-ever College Football Playoff.

In this era of college coaching, Meyer vs. Saban might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Borg vs. McEnroe, Bird vs. Magic. They are the two preeminent coaches in the college football ranks and have combined to win six of the past 11 national championships.

As the Jan. 1 Alabama-Ohio State showdown in New Orleans has approached, they have both done their best to downplay what their roles will be in the game. Granted, as a rule, we probably all make too much of individual coaching matchups.

But in this case, who didn’t want to see Meyer and Saban match wits one more time?

Meyer has a keen understanding of what coaching in the SEC pressure cooker is all about. He was right in the middle of it at Florida and led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008.

But it also got the best of him. Realizing that he had to make changes to his lifestyle, Meyer walked away from Florida for good at the end of the 2010 season. He tried to do it after the 2009 season but changed his mind and hung around for another year.

What Meyer has accomplished at Ohio State is staggering. The Buckeyes have won 36 of 39 games on his watch and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game since he’s been in Columbus. As a recruiter, few are better than Meyer, and he has brought the SEC’s no-holds-barred style of recruiting to Ohio State.

As good a recruiter as Meyer is, he’s even better at assembling a staff. He has an eye for talent, period, both coaches and players.

Anybody who doesn’t appreciate the mark Meyer has made on college football has had his head in the sand for the past decade or so.

But it’s also true that Meyer’s last two meetings with Saban have ended badly. Alabama thrashed Florida 31-6 in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, one of the first signs that season that things might be getting away from Meyer in Gainesville.

Less than a year earlier, he ended up in the emergency room after losing to Saban and the Tide 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game, the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the teams in as many years. The morning after that loss, Meyer experienced chest pains.

Like so many coaches, he had placed football before his health and it caught up with him. He resigned a few weeks later to address his health problems and spend more time with his family, but he couldn’t stay away and came back for one final ill-fated season at Florida before resigning for good and spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth.

Not lost on anybody (Meyer included) is the perception that the rigors of the SEC, and more specifically Saban getting the best of him those last two meetings, was what ultimately drove him to the Big Ten.

How true that really is probably depends on whether you look at things through SEC glasses or Big Ten glasses. Either way, it’s not like coaching at Ohio State is akin to coaching the Sunday school youth league in kickball.

In fact, in a lot of ways, Ohio State is a Midwestern version of Florida. And Meyer has held up just fine.

But to genuinely erase that stigma that the SEC and Saban sent him packing for easier football pastures, Meyer could do himself some serious favors by beating Saban on this stage. He’s done it before when Florida beat Alabama 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game, but that was in Saban’s second season at Alabama and before he had won the first of three national titles in Tide Town.

The fact that Ohio State is even here is a testament to the job Meyer did this season. He lost his star quarterback, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, in the preseason to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and was shaky early, but he ended the season as one of the most dynamic players in the country.

The only problem was that Barrett went down with a season-ending injury just before the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes didn’t blink. They slid Cardale Jones in at quarterback and blasted Wisconsin 59-0 to secure their spot in the playoff.

Much like Meyer, Saban has also done some of his best work this season.

Alabama got here with a quarterback, Blake Sims, who nobody gave a chance to even be the starter, much less set an Alabama record for passing yards in a season. Beyond the uncertainty at quarterback, there were some serious questions about the Crimson Tide this year, particularly on the offensive line and at cornerback.

So as we embark on this unprecedented playoff era in college football, something says this won’t be the last time we see Meyer and Saban going up against each other in a playoff game.

The real question: How many times over the next few years will we see a playoff that either Meyer or Saban won’t be on the sideline?

It’s the coaching matchup we all want to see.

Duke has one objective: Bowl win

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
10:00
AM ET
Over the past three seasons, the Duke football program has gone on a record-breaking tear, racking up wins, top-25 rankings and bowl appearances along the way.

That, in turn, has started to change expectations.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsJamison Crowder is aiming to lead Duke to its first bowl win in 54 seasons.
Three seasons ago, Duke was just happy to make a bowl game. Now, making a bowl game is no longer good enough. Duke wants to make a bowl game AND win a bowl game, a feat that last happened in 1960.

The Blue Devils (9-3) get their chance Saturday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3), the second straight season they have faced a ranked opponent in a bowl game.

“That’s a goal and a milestone for this program,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “The first bowl we had against Cincinnati -- that was an accomplishment in itself making it to a bowl. We came up short in that game and last year we came up short.

“Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do to win the bowl. We feel if we are able to win, that definitely helps out the program, and that just adds another accomplishment to what we have achieved.”

Go back to 2012, when Duke finished the regular season 6-6 and made it to the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, its first bowl appearance since 1994. There was cause for celebration because the program had been down for so long. As proof, coach David Cutcliffe was selected ACC Coach of the Year despite failing to post a winning record.

Most folks seemed to view Duke as a one-hit wonder, giving the Blue Devils a little pat on the head for a job well done. But Duke had no plans to go anywhere. Last season, Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors again after Duke won the Coastal Division and made it to the ACC championship game. It faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

Not many gave Duke a chance in either game. Yet the Blue Devils nearly won them both, losing in heartbreaking fashion in the fourth quarter both times. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final 44 seconds to win the Belk Bowl; Texas A&M scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win in perhaps the most entertaining bowl game of last season.

“We put a big emphasis on finishing,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We come out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lose the game. [We need] to come out strong and finish strong.”

Though Duke ended up losing to Texas A&M, the Blue Devils believe they gained respect in a roundabout way. They proved they could hang with the former Heisman Trophy winner despite being a heavy underdog. Duke led 38-17 at halftime but only scored 10 points in the second half of the 52-48 loss.

Crowder called the Chick-Fil-A Bowl “one of the best experiences of my college career.”

“We felt like we could go in there and compete,” Crowder said. “I think people saw that. A lot of people didn’t think we could compete with a team like Texas A&M last year but just going out there and playing, even when we lost in the last moments of the game, I think a lot of people see the Duke program -- now we have athletes that can play and compete with the best of them.”

Competing is one thing. Winning is another. Having said that, some perspective is still in order.

As much as Duke wants to win a bowl, it only has made five postseason appearances since beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, 7-6, in 1960. Three have come since 2012.

“It’s a very interesting chance for our team to go out there and do something that our team last year didn’t do or the year before that or teams a long time in the past,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “It’s not going to be easy, playing the No. 15 team in the country. They do a lot of good things, and they come from a great conference, so this is more a program game for us more than proving a point or having a chip on our shoulders. Just a chance for our program to be matched up against another great program and seeing where we are.”
In the 1985 high school wrestling movie "Vision Quest," Louden Swain is possessed by the idea of taking on fearsome undefeated state champion Brian Shute. In fact, he shows up during one of Shute's personal workouts -- he's carrying a huge log up and down stadium steps -- to tell him about his bright idea.
Shute (through mean stare): Do you think you'll make weight?

Swain: I hope so.

Shute: I hope so, too.

So, you ask, how the heck does this have anything to do with Utah? Well, the Utes announced with their dominant, 45-10 victory over Colorado State on Saturday in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, as well as a strong 9-4 season, that they are going to make Pac-12 weight.

Colorado State was a 10-win team. It won at Boston College, which you might recall USC most certainly didn't. The Rams are good. And the Utes mashed them, outgaining them 548 yards to 278. Utah rushed for 359 yards and the Rams had just 12.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wilson
AP Photo/John LocherQuarterback Travis Wilson led Utah to a 9-4 finish. But will he return as the starting quarterback in 2015 for a team that is poised to be nationally ranked?
"We got beat by a better football team," Colorado State interim coach Doug Baldwin said.. "They're more physical than us. I think they were faster than us."

Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Just like a Power 5 conference team should be against a Group of 5 team, particularly one looking to move up in the national polls.

That's why Baldwin's words are more meaningful than they seem at first glance. See, Colorado State is a good team that hails from the Mountain West Conference. Utah used to be a good team that hailed from the Mountain West. Then, in 2011, Utah joined the Pac-12 and it became a middling team, supporting the long-held assumption by most pundits that the nontraditional powers outside the major conferences wouldn't be able to handle the grind of a Power 5 conference schedule.

Yet here's Utah, crushing the MWC's second-best team after its first winning season in Pac-12 play, one that included road wins at UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford, as well as a victory over USC. Yes, the Utes were the champs of California, though they didn't play the Bears. They lost to Washington State and Arizona State by a combined four points.

“I can tell you we made a whole lot of progress this year, a lot of steps forward as a Pac-12 conference member,” coach Kyle Willingham said. “This was the best football team we’ve had so far as a member of the Pac-12. We’re still a work in progress, but we feel like we’ve closed the gap.”

In other words, after back-to-back seasons with losing records -- in-conference and overall -- Utah arrived this year. A 9-4 finish will earn it a final national ranking and the Utes should start the 2015 season with a national ranking. With 17 starters set to return -- though there could be one or two extra early NFL defections, most notably RB Devontae Booker -- they should be in the thick of the rugged South Division race. Again.

Whittingham started the season on what might have been termed a warm seat -- it wouldn't cook an egg, but it would eventually melt butter -- and now his name keeps coming up in various coaching searches, including Michigan, which, oh by the way, was another team the Utes also beat this year on the road.

Whittingham has been pretty honest from the beginning about the Utes' issues in the Pac-12. They weren't as deep and they weren't as fast as other conference teams, Whittingham admitted. He said that Pac-12 membership immediately boosted recruiting, but he also noted it would take a few years for that to show up on the field.

He was right. It took a few years (and a few offensive coordinators), but now it has shown up on the field. Funny thing is, Utah didn't make its move up in a stereotypical Pac-12 way. It didn't spread the field and throw the ball all over the place. It's remained a run-first team that relies on a stout defense. That's only partly by design. Utah's single biggest issue since joining the Pac-12 has been consistent quarterback play. One suspects that if Whittingham had a great passer, he would be eager to use him.

That, again, will be the Utes biggest question heading into 2015. Perhaps their only significant question. Will Travis Wilson progress as a passer and hold on to the starting job for a fourth year? Or will Kendal Thompson, a better runner who supplanted Wilson as the starter before suffering a season-ending injury, get healthy and emerge? And then would Wilson stick around?

There will be plenty of QB intrigue heading into and probably out of spring practices.

“That’s going to be interesting," Whittingham said. "There’s obviously a lot of guys there and we’ll have to see if all of them are going to come back. My guess is we may have some attrition at that spot.”

Yet Utah as a program took a significant step forward in 2014. It moved into the top half of the Pac-12. Perhaps as important, with a strong cast coming back, it looks like its relocation won't be temporary.
Marcus MariotaCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsFor Marcus Mariota, throwing an interception has been a rare occurrence the past two seasons.
EUGENE, Ore. -- In the past two seasons, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has been intercepted six times. He has attempted 758 passes.

That statistic alone is absolutely insane. Imagine that: For the number of times Mariota has targeted a young receiver or a guy in double coverage, thrown a bomb or a risky fade, only six of those times has a player who wasn’t supposed to get the ball, in fact, gotten the ball. The odds of football say he should’ve thrown far more picks during his time in an Oregon uniform. But as more fans have looked west this season to watch the Heisman winner, they’ve learned Mariota doesn’t exactly live or die by the rules of odds (or gravity, for that matter).

It’s impressive not just because of how clean he has been, but also because of how many shots he has taken at the end zone without being picked off. Other than holding the nation’s best interception-to-pass attempt ratio over the past two seasons, Mariota also holds the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in FBS. For every pick, he throws 11.5 touchdowns.

It’s a feat to intercept any quarterback, and most defensive players can remember their interceptions pretty well. But when you intercept Mariota, it sticks a little more, which we discovered when speaking with those in the elite group.

However, there was a common trend among the players when they spoke about the interception. A lot of guys said they were lucky or in the right spot, Mariota was unlucky, or he had to be baited into the interception. Nothing was a gimme.

The six players who made #SuperMariota look -- at least a little bit -- human over the past two seasons reflected on their interceptions. Quickly, it was discovered that picking off Mariota isn’t just a vague memory. Most players remember the very minute details of the play, the moment and the pick.

These are their memories:

Nov. 1, 2014 | Stanford cornerback Alex Carter

“I remember the receiver took an inside release, so I knew he was going to run an inside route. It was against Devon Allen. It was their fastest guy, so I knew he was going to run deep or a post. And then, as I was chasing after Devon, I kind of peeked -- I saw my safety over top, so I was a little bit behind -- but I looked back to see if Marcus had thrown the ball. He had thrown it, and it kind of got lost in the lights for three seconds, and then on its way down, it just kind of popped into my hands. I was pretty fortunate that he threw a bad pass.”

It was a bad pass?

“Yeah. He saw his receiver open, but he saw the safety in the middle, and I was coming from behind, so it was kind of like we had him on both sides. [Marcus] kind of underthrew his receiver a little bit. I’m just lucky I was in the right spot.”

Oct. 24, 2014 | Cal safety Stefan McClure

[+] EnlargeStefan McClure
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsCal's Stefan McClure said he could see the ire of Oregon players after he intercepted Marcus Mariota.
“I remember the defense being backed up in the red zone, and then they were just driving the ball on us. They tried to run, basically, a little switch route -- a slant and a post, the outside guy ran a slant, the inside guy ran a post -- the ball was tipped by the linebacker. It looked like it was going right to our corner, and our corner had an easy interception. He jumped for it, and he tipped it, and it went straight to me. It kind of just fell in my hands right in the end zone. So it was tipped twice and went right to me, but the corner had the clearer shot at the interception, but he didn’t catch it.”

Do you remember anything about the demeanor of Oregon players after that interception?

“They were a little surprised. They weren’t happy about it. After I caught it, one of them jumped and tried to grab the ball from me, so they were still trying to fight for it. I just remember Mariota looked disappointed and just unbuckled his chinstrap pretty mad-like. That was the main thing. The ball was tipped twice, so it wasn’t like he just threw it terribly, it was tipped twice and batted around. Those are the worst interceptions to have as a quarterback.”

Nov. 29, 2013 | Oregon State cornerback Rashaad Reynolds

“We were in a Cover 3. It was, I believe, the third or fourth quarter of the game. I think they came out, and they ran two streaks with just a fade on the outside and a seam on the inside. I was playing in the middle of both of the guys. He had one guy up the sideline, and I was kind of leaning more toward the guy in the middle of the field, but I saw the guy going up the sideline, so I kind of got a jump on it once he threw the ball.”

Do you think Mariota could’ve avoided the pick in any way?

“He probably could’ve thrown it a little further, but the way it looked -- because I kind of baited it -- I made it seem like the guy up the sideline was kind of open. I did that on purpose to bait him. But he was looking off, so he wasn’t looking at that particular guy. So once he looked that way, I just broke on the ball and got the interception.”

Nov. 29, 2013 | Oregon State cornerback Steven Nelson

“We were in a Cover 3, and I was running nub side tight end. They did a 10-yard in route, and it looked like Mariota kind of underthrew [the receiver] a little bit. I just jumped in front of it.”

Do you remember anything that happened after you made the interception?

“It was kind of a hard catch. If you watch the play, I had to reach back for the ball, and I landed on my left leg, and I tried to keep balance. And I really didn’t have time to see where I could run, so I think the nearest receiver just tackled me.”

Nov. 23, 2013 | Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright

“It was the first play of the game, and I think [they] turned out a hitch to the sideline, and the receiver kind of bobbled the ball and had fallen out of bounds. Shaquille Richardson kind of made a great play on the ball and threw it back inbounds to me, and I was by the sideline and, just, I caught it and stayed in bounds.”

Do you remember anything that happened after you made the interception?

“I should’ve scored a touchdown, but I tripped.”

Nov. 23, 2013 | Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson

“My interception was toward the end of the game. … From film study and how the game had been going, I knew what play they were running, which was a double post around the 20-yard line, which is a common route combination. So I only played that route, and my front seven had a lot of pressure on the play and forced Mariota to scramble. I was [guessing] because you knew he would just run if I covered my man, so I waited a split-second and baited him to throw it, and when he did, I already [knew] what would happen so I finished the route for the receiver. I think his name was Lowe. If it was not for Mariota’s athletic ability and speed, he wouldn't have cut me off on my way to the end zone.”

Viewer's Guide: Miami Beach Bowl

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
9:00
AM ET
BYU, meet Memphis.

Memphis, meet BYU.

OK, now that those formal introductions are out of the way, it’s time for the first matchup between the two programs in Monday’s Miami Beach Bowl (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Here’s what you need to know:

1. Justin Fuente can coach: Memphis had been a mess. Under Larry Porter, the program went 3-21. So when Fuente signed on in 2012, expectations weren’t exactly through the roof. Rebuilding, the 38-year-old former TCU offensive coordinator led the Tigers to a 3-9 record in 2013. With that in mind, a .500 record this season would have been a nice show of improvement. Well, Fuente instead worked his magic to get Memphis to 9-3, including wins over Cincinnati and South Florida. With a share of the American Athletic Conference title, Fuente was awarded a contract extension. With a win over BYU, he would give the school its first 10-win season at the FBS level.

2. BYU’s offense can fly: Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall is a defensive guy. So when he decided to give in and go hurry-up, no-huddle, he went all-in. It’s paid off as BYU has developed one of the most prolific offenses in college football the past two seasons. Despite losing starting QB Taysom Hill early in the year, the offense ranks 25th in the country with 463.4 yards per game. With Christian Stewart (2,273 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions) at the helm, BYU likes to go fast. At an average of 20.9 seconds per play, only North Carolina, Bowling Green, Baylor, Arizona and Texas Tech can claim a lower time per play in the FBS.

3. A shaky secondary: As good as BYU’s offense can be, its defense is equally bad, ranking 55th in the country at 384.2 yards per game. But the spot where it’s worst is in the secondary. The Cougars rank 109th in passing yards per game allowed (266.7) and 90th in passing touchdowns (21).
Sugar BowlUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and Nick Saban squared off only three times when in the SEC.

Although we were privileged to three bouts of Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer during Meyer’s short stint at Florida, the SEC missed out on something that should have been special.

When these two first met in 2008, we saw a game for the ages in the SEC championship game, before Alabama took complete control in the next two matchups. Still, when you look at the talent and smarts these two have as coaches, Meyer’s year-long leave of absence from coaching ended a great rivalry between two elite coaches and programs.

So when No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) faces No. 4 Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of what we missed.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.”

These two were the best at what they did in the SEC, and they had a mutual respect and friendship that probably fueled their competition and success.

“We always used to sit next to each other in the SEC meetings,” Meyer said of Saban.

The brief return of such a competitive chess match is a delight for college football enthusiasts. You have the offensive-minded, psychological master that is Meyer facing the defensive-minded, meticulous planner that is Saban. You have 151 combined wins at Florida and Alabama and six total national championships (including Saban’s one at LSU).

We love Saban versus Les Miles, Hugh Freeze-Dan Mullen has been fun, and the back-and-forth between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema has been tantalizing, but for two years, the SEC lived and breathed Meyer versus Saban.

But we still have our memories.

It all started with No. 1 Alabama facing No. 2 Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game. The winner headed to the BCS title game. Undefeated Alabama rolled in with power and a suffocating defense, while the Gators carried transcendent quarterback Tim Tebow and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

In his second year at Alabama, Saban was trying to imitate Meyer by winning a national championship in Year 2 with the Tide. But Alabama’s 20-17 lead entering the fourth quarter was erased by a gutsy two-sided performance by the Gators. Tebow’s powerful runs and clutch throws guided the offense to 14 points, and that hard-nosed, dominant defense pitched a shutout.

A 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with 2:50 left was Florida’s final dagger in a 31-20 win, which sent the Gators to a BCS title game they eventually won. Heading into the game, Alabama had allowed 28 total points in its previous four games.

“The 2008 game was just one of the great games in college football history, in my opinion, where evenly matched teams were going back and forth, back and forth,” Meyer said. “And obviously we ... scored right at the end to take a twoscore lead.”

Then came 2009 and a second straight No. 1 versus No. 2 game that had a completely different outcome. Even with two teams that looked similar to the ones from 2008, No. 2 Alabama ruined the Gators’ title hopes with a commanding 32-13 win. A year after getting run down, the Tide ran over Florida, thanks to 251 rushing yards (the most allowed by an Meyer-coached Florida team) and a stifling defense that held Florida’s running game to fewer than 100 yards for the first and only time all season.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram clinched the Heisman Trophy with 183 total yards and three touchdowns. There was a beautiful tip-toeing first-down run by quarterback Greg McElroy, and there was no hint of a national title contender on the other sideline.

“I think maybe the two best teams might have been playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2009,” Saban said. “We played a phenomenal game. So it was a playoff game in a sense, and they won one [in 2008], and we won one.”

The 2010 game was utter domination by the Tide and another thorn in Meyer’s side, but those first two matchups were special on the national landscape. Yes, the second one was a blowout, but the amount of talent on both sides was something special and something those two incredibly gifted coaches constructed.

“I have a hard time remembering our address or phone number, but I could tell you every play in those games,” Meyer said. “It was classic -- 2008 was a classic game.

“But what was it, 2009 Alabama team, arguably the best team I can remember going against or getting ready to prepare, very well balanced, very well coached. ... When you face a team like any of these four teams, you're going to see all three phases. You have to be on point. When you get to this level of competition, whether it's a punt team, whether it's a punt block or obviously offense and defense, you'd better be on it.”

We don’t know what would have happened had Meyer stayed after 2010, but the Sugar Bowl could present a good glimpse of what the SEC might have missed the past four years.
1. Ohio State concluded its pre-Christmas playoff workouts Sunday. While the rest of the Buckeyes enjoy holiday time, offensive coordinator Tom Herman will spend Monday and Tuesday at Houston watching the team he will coach next year prepare for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl against Pittsburgh on Jan. 2. While interim coach David Gibbs and the lame-duck staff gets the Cougars ready, Herman will watch practices without hovering, as he described it to me Saturday. He also said he expects it will be awkward. How could it be anything but?

2. Let’s go ahead and declare 2014 the best college football season in the history of the Mountain time zone. Utah State and Air Force won their 10th games Saturday. Utah finished 9-4 by defeating a 10-win Colorado State team in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, and CSU-Pueblo won the NCAA Division II championship on Saturday. All of this makes the continued struggles of Colorado stand out even more. The Buffs are 4-32 in four seasons of Pac-12 play. I still think Mike MacIntyre can turn around Colorado’s fortunes. The Buffs have some catching up to do.

3. January enrollees have been around long enough that they are no longer a novelty – except at Clemson, where head coach Dabo Swinney has made them the rule instead of the exception. The Tigers expect 14 freshmen to enroll next month and be available for spring practice. The advantages are significant for the team. For the enrollees? I don’t know. Signees who stick to the traditional calendar can begin in June and ease into the routines of college life at the half-speed of summer. January enrollees hit the ground running and join a freshman class in which bonds began to form four months earlier.
Malik Jefferson's commitment could alter recruiting landscape in Texas, says one Big 12 coach. Plus, where do the Power 5 conferences stack up when it comes to ESPN 300 commitments.

Jameis Winston ruled to have not violated Florida State code

December, 21, 2014
Dec 21
9:12
PM ET
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was cleared Sunday of the accusations he faced at a student code of conduct hearing involving an alleged sexual assault two years ago.

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding wrote in a letter to Winston that the evidence was "insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof." Prosecutor Willie Meggs made a similar decision a year ago when he decided not to criminally charge Winston, citing a lack of evidence.

Read more from this story.
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and counting down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

C.J. Spiller, No. 47 in 2006 class

Spiller created a true recruiting battle in the Southeast between Florida, Clemson and Florida State with the Tigers winning out over Florida in a stunner that drew national attention with nearly everyone believing the two-sport star would stay in state.

Spiller hit the field running, literally, in 2006 rushing for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns on 129 carries. He added 210 yards receiving and 267 return yards for a total of 1,415 all-purpose yards.

As a sophomore, the running back with 10.3 100-meter speed rushed for 768 yards, but added nearly 1,000 yards receiving and in returns for a total of 1,723 all-purpose yards, including two kick off returns for touchdowns.

Spiller would again prove to be one of the top all-around backs in college football in 2008, adding 1,770 all-purpose yards to his quickly growing career total. He was named All-ACC first team following the 2008 season.

Spiller’s best season at Clemson would be his last. He was named unanimous All-American and ACC Player of the Year following his 2,680 all-purpose yard performance. He finished his career with 7,588 all-purpose yards and 52 touchdowns, including leaving the college ranks with the most kick off return touchdowns in FBS history.

Spiller was selected No. 9 overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 2010 NFL draft. He was named to the 2012 Pro Bowl.

Honorable mention: Nelson Agholor, No. 47 in 2012 class. Agholor picked USC over Florida and Florida State coming out of Tampa Berkely Prep. In three seasons for the Trojans, the receiver and return man has 172 receptions for 2,481 yards and 19 touchdowns, along with 977 return yards and four scores. Agholor is expected to be a highly drafted player in 2015 or 2016.
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It went down to the wire Saturday in the first Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, but Bowling Green picked up a 33-28 win over South Alabama, which was making its first bowl appearance.

Here’s a closer look at how the Falcons did it:

How the game was won: At the wire. The second half was a back-and-forth affair. South Alabama took its first lead of the game with 1:20 remaining, and it looked like all the Jaguars needed to do was not have any major defensive breakdowns. Then it had a major defensive breakdown as Bowling Green receiver Roger Lewis got past safeties Terrell Brigham and Roman Buchanan for a 78-yard score.

Then, Bowling Green needed exactly what South Alabama needed a play before -- hold and don’t have any major defensive breakdowns. Unlike the Jaguars, the Falcons did just that. On the next snap, Jude Adjei-Barimah intercepted South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge.

Game ball goes to: Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke. The sophomore threw for 368 yards and two touchdowns. He came up with clutch play after clutch play and was able to keep the offense together after losing one of his best receivers -- Ronnie Moore -- to a targeting ejection in the third quarter.

Tough break ... literally: There's a pretty good chance South Alabama coach Joey Jones broke his nose during the fourth quarter, when one of his players flew out of bounds. The player slid on his back, but his feet flung up, and Jones -- who looked to be in a position to help slow the player down -- ended up taking a cleat to the face.

Rethinking that: Midway through the fourth quarter, with Bowling Green up by six and on fourth-and-goal at the South Alabama 1-yard line, the Falcons decided to try a field goal instead of going for a touchdown. It was Tyler Tate’s first attempt at a field goal of 19 or fewer yards this season, and he pulled it wide left. As a result, South Alabama received the ball on the 20-yard line. Looking back, it really was a tough call to make: If the Falcons had gone for it and made it, great; if they had gone for it and missed it, at least that would’ve been an extra 20 yards the Jaguars would’ve needed to travel. Considering Tate was 21-of-26 heading into that kick and he had made two field goals prior, it wasn’t a bad call, but it’s one of those plays on which if the Falcons had lost, it would’ve been looked back on as one in which Bowling Green should’ve taken a smarter risk.

Best play: Talk about clutch. With Bridge’s impressive second half and the Jaguars looking like they could go on a run, Adjei-Barimah came up with his first interception of the season -- the one that sealed the win for the Falcons.

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