Egg Bowl stakes never higher

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
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Sitting inside Mississippi State’s football facility is something Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze desperately wants. After he got his hands on the Golden Egg Trophy with a win over the Bulldogs in 2012, he watched the in-state rival reclaim it after his quarterback fumbled near the goal line in the final seconds.

“The bottom line is we lost the most prized possession of this university’s football program …" Freeze said. “That’s the facts of it, and it should be enough motivation.”

To get back that coveted prize, Freeze will have to topple a team with College Football Playoff aspirations. The Rebels are hurting, but they're dangerous and have nothing to lose, while Mississippi State has all the pressure on its side.

The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 SEC) have a chance to ruin everything the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 6-1) have worked so hard for. The Rebels understand that while their SEC and playoff hopes are gone, they can end Mississippi State’s same hopes Saturday afternoon.

“They’re trying to ruin our season," Mississippi State center Ben Beckwith said. "We’re the top dog in the state right now."

Ah, but one does not merely walk into the Egg Bowl and snatch the egg. Not with so much on the line for the guys in maroon, and the boys in blue looking for redemption. This game might not spark the rest of the country -- or even the Deep South -- like the Iron Bowl, but its hatred is palpable.

Families are divided. Friendships are damaged. Recruiting bitterness motivates guys, and bragging rights fuel that extra push. This is a yearlong rivalry that consumes a state that has no pro sports teams.

There’s a clock that ticks down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Egg Bowl inside Mississippi State’s locker room. Freeze has family and friends on both sides. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork even picks at Mississippi State fans on Twitter, and southern transplant Dan Mullen can count the number of times he has said the words “Ole Miss” on a couple of fingers.

“This is always the biggest game of the year for us,” said Mullen, who refers to Ole Miss only as "The School Up North."

“We’re going to get into a hostile environment," Mullen said. "I’ve heard that people in Oxford don’t like me very much. I don’t know, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of choice things to say to me. … This is a special week, this is what makes the game so much fun. I know for everyone in this state, this whole week is all about the Egg Bowl.”

Mississippi State fans think Ole Miss fans exude an annoying arrogance, while there’s a big-brother complex with Rebels fans. It’s blue collar vs. white collar.

Recruiting gets ugly, too. Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson had to deal with Mississippi State fans alleging wild NCAA violations surrounding his recruitment. Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones received with death threats -- from both sides -- before and after he signed with the Bulldogs.

After winning in 2010, Mullen proudly proclaimed, “We’re never losing to this team again.” In 2012, video of Mullen saying that was looped on the video board inside Vaught-Heminway Stadium late in the Rebels’ 41-24 win.

“I’m ready to go back to Oxford and take care of business,” said Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who was there in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesOle Miss is desperate to allow no such celebration for Dak Prescott this season.
Saturday will mark the 111th time these two, separated by roughly 95 miles of rural highways, have played, and it’ll be the first time since 1999 that both will meet as ranked opponents. This one could be the biggest yet. It’s a special game that is getting primetime treatment because of SEC and playoff implications. This is what rivalry games are made of, and while the Egg Bowl’s rich tradition hasn’t really resonated fully on the entire college football landscape, many eyes will be on the Grove this weekend.

"It's the most important game of the year, especially them being 10-1," Ole Miss receiver Vince Sanders told members of the media this week. "They're going to come in after our performance last week and feel like it's an easy win. But I think our guys understand the importance of this game. … All the work we go through in the summer and spring, we worked for this game.

“Everybody will understand it."

In all honesty, these sides plain don’t like each other. There’s some respect, but not much love.

Beckwith, who grew up about 50 miles north of Oxford in Benton, Mississippi, but was never recruited by the Rebels, has friends on Ole Miss’ team and his brother actually went there for school, so there’s nothing personal, but …

“I just don’t like them,” Beckwith said of the Rebels. “I’ll be honest with you.”

And if his brother tries to cheer for Ole Miss?

“It’s kinda, ‘Hey, you can either cheer for me or you can get out of here,’” Beckwith said.

For Freeze, who grew up in the backyard of the rivalry in Independence, Mississippi, he chooses the respect route. He isn’t into name-calling, is fine with one of his best friends attending Mississippi State and is cordial with Mullen.

“I know this one is pretty intense and sometimes in my opinion it crosses the line to what is good and all of that,” Freeze said. “I want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us, particularly two days out of the year -- this Saturday and then national signing day. Those are the two days I feel that way. I feel that way all the time, but I don’t let it control my emotions. I wish it wasn’t that way."

It’s a game that is gaining national steam this season for all the right reasons, and there will be no shortage of motivation in Oxford.

"It's State,” Ole Miss linebacker DT Shackleford said. “I feel like if you can't get up for that, you probably don't need to be playing. It's everything. It's the Egg Bowl. It's Senior Day. If I have to motivate some people for next week, they probably shouldn't be playing."

Chat: College Football Playoff Live

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
4:45
PM ET
The new CFP rankings will be released tonight, so join us from 6:45 to 7:30 ET as we discuss all things playoff with Adam Rittenberg and Mark Schlabach, and bring instant reaction from our writers and analysts all over the country. Submit your comments and questions and we'll post as many of them as possible.
Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Torre was named the Heisman Humanitarian Award winner on Tuesday afternoon. The award is in recognition of Torre’s efforts to end the cycle of domestic violence with his Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation.

The former Major League Baseball player and manager is the eighth winner of the award, which is given by the Heisman Trophy Trust. Torre will officially receive the award at the Heisman Memorial Trophy Gala on Dec. 15.

“While Joe’s accomplishments on the diamond are well known, his philanthropic endeavors off the field are at least equally impressive and laudable,” said William J. Dockery, the President of the Heisman Trophy Trust, in a release. “Joe has never forgotten where he came from and those less fortunate needing help.”

Torre, who was a nine-time All-Star as player and four-time World Series-winning manager, established the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation in 2002 along with his wife, Ali, as the result of the impact of domestic violence on Torre’s childhood.

“I am honored to be the recipient of the 2014 Heisman Humanitarian Award and to join such an esteemed group of past winners,” Torre said. “Most importantly, the Heisman Trust’s generous contribution will help the Safe at Home Foundation continue to provide hope and support for children from abusive homes.”

The foundation’s initial focus was to raise awareness of domestic violence during its first few years before opening a school-based program called Margaret’s Place, as tribute to Torre’s mom, at Hostos-Lincoln Academy in Bronx, New York, in 2005. Margaret’s Place is a program which provides students a safe room in school to meet with professional counselor trained in domestic violence intervention and prevention. The Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation currently has 10 Margaret’s Places in New York City, Los Angeles, Westchester County and New Jersey.

Former NFL and Florida State running back Warrick Dunn, former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and U.S. women’s soccer great Mia Hamm are among the previous winners of the Heisman Humanitarian Award.
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Florida carried Ron Zook off the field in his final game, an upset that remains so memorable, people continue to point to that win 10 years later.

Especially this week.

Because everybody wants to know: Can the Gators win one for Champ, the way they won one for the Zooker?

The similarities between Zook’s last triumph over Florida State and the 2014 Gators headed into the Florida State game on Saturday are too similar to ignore.

Both Florida teams 6-4. Both heavy underdogs. Both playing for an outgoing coach.

“We were in the same position those guys are in this year,” said former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a captain on the 2004 team. “Our coach got fired. We hadn’t beaten them in Tallahassee in a very long time, so it made us want to go out there and play for Coach Zook but also win at Doak. It happened to be on the same day they were naming the field for coach (Bobby) Bowden, so we wanted to go up there and upset every celebration they had.”

In the days leading up to the game, nobody gave down-and-out Florida much of a chance against the No. 10 Seminoles. Florida State had one of the best defenses in the country and had shut down just about every running back that came its way.

But Florida believed it had nothing to lose. To the Gators, all the pressure belonged to Florida State.

“Nobody expected us to win, and that just mentally makes you feel like, ‘We can go out here and cut it loose. Don’t worry about mistakes. We can go for it on fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-3 because we’ve got nothing to lose and Florida State has everything to lose,’" Fason said. "As a Gator, we know we’re trying to keep them from get a national championship, and it being a rival game with nothing to lose that works to our advantage.”

Fason also believes the way Florida played in 2004 caught Florida State off guard. He ended up with 100 yards rushing in the game and was a big reason why the Gators won, saying the Seminoles were not prepared for their smash-mouth style.

After Florida took a 10-3 lead into halftime, Fason told his teammates he wanted them to carry Zook off the field if they ended up winning. They assembled around him in the final minute, a 20-13 win theirs to celebrate.

“As soon as that final tick went off the clock, everybody picked up Coach Zook,” Fason said. “It was the best moment of my life.”

And it still remains one of the top moments not only in Gators football history, but in Zook's career. Mike Degory, the starting center on the 2004 team, later coached with Zook at Illinois. Even there, Zook talked about the way the Gators won his final game there.

“He always used to say how much it meant to him, and how much he felt the commitment from the players was there,” Degory recalled. “Everybody knows after this week, Coach Muschamp is going to be looking for another job, but the players feel a lot of commitment to that coach. We wanted to send Coach Zook out a winner. What we had 10 years ago was a connection with Coach Zook. Deep down in my heart, that is the guy that I wanted to play for and we wanted to echo that by giving him that victory.”

Muschamp was even asked about it during his press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.

“That isn't going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that,” he said. “So we'll prepare well and we'll go up there and play well. That's what we need to do.”

Florida has a history of doing that under Muschamp. It was two years ago Florida went into Doak Campbell Stadium and forced five turnovers in a 37-26 win. Florida was a much better team then -- ranked higher than Florida State, in fact. But it also happens to be the last time the Seminoles lost.

Since then, Florida has not come close to another 11-win season, while Jimbo Fisher has won two ACC championships, one national championship and 27 straight games. But this season, Florida State has played in so many close games, the expectation is this will be another close one.

Especially if the Gators play as emotionally as they did for Zook in 2004.

“Emotion always counts, but I think at the end of the day, execution wins,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we'll be emotional. To play Florida, our kids will be high. Our kids will be excited. I think you'll see two teams that are emotionally and physically ready to play, and then who can go out and execute and win the battles in the physical and mental execution will be the team that wins.”

ACC Upset Watch: Week 14

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
2:00
PM ET
It is the last regular-season weekend of the year. You know what that means: expect the unexpected.

With that in mind, plenty of teams are on Upset Watch in Week 14.

Saturday

No. 18 Georgia Tech (9-2) at No. 10 Georgia (9-2), noon, SEC Network. Line: Georgia by 13. At first glance, this line appears to be rather large considering how well Georgia Tech is playing heading into the matchup. The Jackets have won four straight, beat No. 22 Clemson and had an entire off week to prepare. They nearly pulled the upset a year ago, and have a far better team this season. Then there is the matter of how Florida gashed Georgia on the ground. Georgia Tech has been so much more effective offensively with its triple option, if it hangs onto the ball and continues to eat chunks of time off the clock, the Jackets will have an excellent shot to win.

South Carolina (6-5) at No. 22 Clemson (8-3), noon, ESPN. Line: Clemson by 4.5. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has some weird voodoo going on over Clemson. Maybe he's just in their heads. How else to explain the turnover margin during the Gamecocks' five-game winning streak? South Carolina has turned it over three times; Clemson 15. That includes a whopping six Clemson turnovers a year ago. All those mistakes have ended in pretty miserable losses. Clemson has lost each game by double digits. Given the way South Carolina has played this season, all signs point to a Clemson breakthrough. But will the Tigers have Deshaun Watson available? If not, will Cole Stoudt do enough to break the losing streak?

NC State (6-5) at North Carolina (6-5), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Line: North Carolina by 6.5. The Tar Heels are riding high off an impressive 45-20 win against Duke, but now they face their second straight rivalry game against a Wolfpack team that had a week off to prepare. Though their run defense played much better, NC State will try to continue to exploit weaknesses in that group behind Matt Dayes and Shad Thornton. The bigger question is whether the NC State defense has enough to slow down the unstoppable Marquise Williams, who has put on quite the offensive show down the stretch. This one could end up being a shootout. If that happens, anyone can win.

Florida (6-4) at No. 3 Florida State (11-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPN. Line: FSU by 7.5. You are going to hear a lot about what Ron Zook and the Gators did to the Seminoles in 2004. A few similarities are hard to ignore -- Florida had nothing to lose in that game in Tallahassee, the final one under Zook. Florida was 6-4 going into the game; Florida State was a top-10 team. They are all points to keep in mind, especially given the way Florida State has squeaked by its opponents this season. Outgoing Florida coach Will Muschamp handed Florida State its last lost. Maybe he has something up his sleeve to give the Noles another on his way out. Plus, strange things happen in this game the last few years it has ended in a "4" -- 1994, Choke at Doak; 2004, Zookered!; 2014 ???

* Note: There is no line for the Pitt-Miami game with James Conner's status up in the air. Considering Miami (6-5, 3-4) is the home team, the Canes need to be on high alert for a Pitt team (5-6, 3-4) that will be desperate to become bowl eligible. Especially given their abysmal performance last week in a loss to Virginia.

** Note II: The line for Virginia-Virginia Tech is even, so tough to put anybody on upset watch in that game. The over/under, however, is set at 40.5. I would take the under on that.
Rodriguez/GrahamGetty ImagesIt hasn't taken long for Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham to build Pac-12 contenders.


TEMPE and TUCSON, Ariz. -- The Territorial Cup isn't college football's most famous rivalry trophy, but it is the oldest, dating to 1899. Thirteen years later, Arizona achieved statehood.

The silver-plated cup, over a britannia base metal, goes to the winner of the Arizona-Arizona State football game each year. The cup has been in the desert for more than a century, but it didn't originate there -- it was manufactured in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez aren't from around here, either. Neither man had strong ties to the state or its universities before taking over programs at Arizona State and Arizona, respectively.

They brought fresh approaches from foreign soil, and they have boosted two programs dripping with potential into winners. Arizona and Arizona State both enter Friday's Territorial Cup with at least nine victories for the first time since 1975, when both schools were in the WAC. Friday's showdown at Arizona Stadium marks the first Territorial Cup since 1986 where both teams are ranked in the AP Top 25. The winner would claim the Pac-12 South if UCLA stumbles against Stanford on Friday at the Rose Bowl.

So how have two outsiders marked their territory in just three seasons? Aggressive, proven schemes have helped. So have strong assistants and shrewd recruiting.

But more than anything, Graham, a Texan, and Rodriguez, a West Virginian, are demanding coaches who have brought structure and diligence to programs that previously lacked those qualities.

[+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinTodd Graham and Rich Rodriguez have brought discipline and desire to the desert, and the result is a Territorial Cup that features two Top 25 teams for the first time in nearly 30 years.
"It's kind of a laid-back culture here," Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "You've got these nice resorts. People have their retirement homes here, and the weather is great. People want to be outside riding their bikes and going for walks. But [Graham has] brought this blue-collar, tough work ethic to these kids.

"It's so different, it works."

Graham quickly points out that people retire in Florida, too, but he describes the program he inherited as "extremely undisciplined." ASU was the nation's most penalized team in 2011, the year before Graham arrived. The Sun Devils ranked 114th in penalties in 2010, last also in 2009 and 112th in 2008.

In Graham's first two seasons, ASU finished 10th and 24th nationally in fewest penalties per game. This season, the Sun Devils are 22nd and lead the Pac-12 in fewest flags by 13.

"No one on our team is going to get a personal foul," offensive lineman Christian Westerman said. "If a guy gets a personal foul in practice, he's pretty much going to sit out the rest of that practice. It's a stupid penalty, and that's how you lose football games.

To hammer home the point, ASU brought in Pac-12 officials during the offseason for an extensive rules tutorial. From targeting to intentional grounding, rules change each season, but Sun Devils players are adapting.

"Until you put that kind of emphasis on it, I don't think kids really respect how important it is," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "Everybody in the country preaches 'Don't get a penalty,' but unless your kids really believe in that and buy in to that, you'll probably get what you've always had."

Arizona also reduced its penalties total, rising from 114th in 2011 to 81st in Rodriguez's first year and 12th in 2013. Like ASU, the Wildcats don't beat themselves, ranking in the top 15 nationally in fewest turnovers lost and turnover margin this season.

The program's "Hard Edge" motto goes beyond the must-see clips on YouTube. It symbolizes the way Arizona plays, the type of player Rodriguez wants to recruit and the way the staff has had to recruit.

"Most of our connections are from the East Coast and Florida," co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "When we came out here, we had to start from ground zero. You didn't know anybody. You had to go out and beat the pavement."

Arizona has made inroads both in the state and especially in California. The Wildcats' 2014 recruiting class ranked 23rd nationally, two spots below Arizona State's.

"We'd like to think we're appealing to anybody, but to think we're going to get 25 five-stars, it's not going to happen," Rodriguez said. "You've got to do a great job of evaluating and finding guys that fit what we want. We call them OKGs -- our kinda guys."

Wildcats sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III is the ultimate OKG, a small-potatoes recruit whom Arizona identified before anyone and who leads the nation in tackles for loss and ranks fifth in sacks. He's the latest undervalued prospect to blossom under Rodriguez, who helped guide Pat White, Steve Slaton, Denard Robinson and others to stardom.

"It's almost like 'Moneyball,'" said Matt Dudek, Arizona's director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel. "I've got one, and no one else has him. Five-stars are great, but that means you're better at convincing your kid to come to your place.

"With this one, you found a diamond in the rough."

Rodriguez

We'd like to think we're appealing to anybody, but to think we're going to get 25 five-stars, it's not going to happen. You've got to do a great job of evaluating and finding guys that fit what we want. We call them OKGs -- our kinda guys.

-- Rich Rodriguez
Coaches have long considered both Arizona schools diamonds in the desert. Growing up in Alabama, Sun Devils tight ends coach Chip Long wondered why ASU couldn't be a national power. Norvell remembers the first time he saw Sun Devil Stadium, from the window seat of a plane landing at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport.

He marveled at the venue, nestled between mountain buttes.

"You always say, 'God, that ASU job is just a gold mine," said Chris Ball, Arizona State co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. "Why can't they win?"

Arizona State has no shortage of built-in advantages, but also challenges.

"You need discipline here," Ball said. "It's the largest school in the country. People come from all over the United States. There's a lot of distractions."

Graham's hard-driving style has resonated with players, and the results -- 27-11 overall, 19-7 in the Pac-12 -- are unassailable. ASU ranks fifth nationally in average turnover margin (plus-1.09 per game) and seventh in fewest giveaways (11).

"I really liked his discipline factor, how well he kept the program," said Westerman, a Chandler, Arizona, native, who transferred to ASU after two years at Auburn. "Coach Graham doesn't let anything slide."

Rodriguez also is demanding, and his track record -- four Big East titles, a 2006 Sugar Bowl win -- raised the bar for an Arizona program still seeking its first Rose Bowl appearance. After consecutive eight-win seasons, Rodriguez has the Wildcats still alive in the competitive Pac-12 South race.

"That kind of success, we all adapted to their style," safety Will Parks said. "It's bringing that energy, that East Coast swag over to the West Coast swag. It makes one whole big swag."

Arizona ranks third in the league in points allowed (24.6 PPG).

The Wildcats have been especially gritty on the road, stunning Oregon in September and crushing Utah on Saturday.

Rodriguez battled many things in his turbulent three-year run at Michigan, including entitlement, which he acknowledged both during and after his Wolverines tenure. His challenge at Arizona, which hasn't had more than eight victories since 1998, is teaching players how to win.

"These guys have been open to what we're teaching and what they're learning about football," offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. "It's been fun that [entitlement] has not been here."

Friday's game will be fun. In-state rivalries always are, and this one, while often overlooked, elicits strong emotions.

Arizonans will be locked into every play.

Thanks to the two outsiders walking the sidelines, so will the rest of the country.
Wisconsin has beaten Minnesota every year for the past decade, but never in that time has the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe meant so much to both teams. The winner in the 124th game of this series, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Madison, Wisconsin, will represent the West Division in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State.

A look at how the Badgers and Golden Gophers stack up:

Video: Rivalry Week -- Notre Dame-USC

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
1:00
PM ET
video

Notre Dame and USC are looking to bounce back from losses in this year's rivalry game.
It's rivalry week in the SEC, but there's one game that deserves more respect than it's getting.

I'm talking about little ol' Arkansas vs. Missouri, a game with all brash and no flash. Playoff implications? Eh, maybe, but it really is a long shot if the Tigers win Friday and then top the West Division champion in Atlanta.

But right now, who cares about that? This is the game no one was talking about in August and hardly registered on anyone's radar as recently as Halloween.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBret Bielema kept Arkansas motivated through some tough losses, and now the Razorbacks are bowl eligible.
Now, the SEC East is on the line and Arkansas is playing with house money after becoming bowl eligible a year after winning just three games and after snapping a 17-game SEC losing streak by winning their last two conference contests. This game is so 2014 SEC it isn't funny.

In a season that has been so much fun to watch -- even through some of the bad play -- and so nail-biting, this game shows you just how little we really knew about this conference during fall camp and how competitive the SEC has been from top to bottom.

With the schedule Arkansas had, it was hard seeing the Razorbacks make a bowl game. Sure, this team was better mentally and physically, but no way Arkansas was making it through the SEC West gauntlet with a bowl berth. There were just too many questions across the board, and those running backs couldn't do it all.

And while we could see the pieces slowly falling into place for the Hogs, the wins just weren't coming. Somehow, Bret Bielema kept his guys going. It would have been so easy for the Hogs to get down on themselves and just embrace that snake-bitten mentality, the goal-line stands and the turnovers in the end zone.

Instead, this team has become the SEC's most dangerous squad heading into the final week of the regular season. Arkansas turned things around and became bowl eligible with a 17-0 win over LSU and then a 30-0 beatdown of Ole Miss. Both teams were ranked, and both left Fayetteville absolutely stunned. It's not like those were bad teams. Were they at 100 percent? No. But they weren't overrated or undeserving of their place in the polls.

They were beaten by a team getting better and better, a team that now has a chance to send another squad into a disappointing funk. The Hogs have nothing to lose Friday in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of making a bowl game has been accomplished, so there's no pressure. This team should be loose, carefree and ready to roll.

But the team lining up on the other side has been quietly rolling to its own methodical tune the last five games. After getting thrashed 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight by grinding games out thanks to a fantastic coaching job by Gary Pinkel. He has rallied a team that lost to Indiana, for crying out loud!

Last season, we admired the Tigers' explosive offense and dominating defense. This year, we're just wondering how the cardiac cats continue to win. The offense isn't exciting, but that defense has been spectacular in conference play. Missouri's games can weigh heavy on your eyelids, but winning ugly is still winning, folks.

Missouri is 9-2 in its third season in the SEC. Last year, the new kids on the block tortured SEC traditionalists with their trip to Atlanta. Now, they've broken them with the potential of back-to-back trips. The majority of SEC followers looked down on Mizzou when it first arrived. Well, now the Tigers are looking down on the rest of the league and smirking with an emphatic Hi, hater!

Someone's magic will die out Friday, but to see these two teams actually be in this position is fascinating. Relatively little star power has propelled both squads into what's turned into a huge game for the SEC.

This game doesn't have the vitriol or popularity of the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, but this season it deserves the respect.

Territorial Cup has hate and relevance

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
12:00
PM ET
video
What makes a great college football rivalry? Two things: 1. Passionate and legitimate ill will; 2. National relevance.

Arizona and Arizona State have long had the former, with the bad feelings advancing beyond the typical state rivalry because of a handful of historical issues, including the University of Arizona fighting against "Tempe Normal School" becoming an accredited university in the late 1950s. That one still grates on Sun Devils elders, while snarky Wildcats fans will call ASU "Tempe Normal" just to be annoying.

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRich Rodriguez and the Wildcats get a shot at rival Arizona State on Friday.
Those bad feelings ticked another notch forward when Arizona hired Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State hired Todd Graham. They don't like each other.

They were once friends, with Rodriguez hiring Graham away from a high school job in Texas to coach at West Virginia in 2002, but that clearly is no longer the case. Neither says much about the other on the record, but during a visit to ESPN's offices by Pac-12 coaches shortly after they were hired, they stood in stony silence for several minutes just a few feet from each other without making eye contact, despite a certain charming reporter offering up some wonderful repartee that typically would inspire conviviality from even a pair of gargoyles.

That dislike extends through the coaching staffs. Arizona assistants Calvin Magee and Tony Dews, who worked for Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan, spent a single season coaching with Graham at Pittsburgh after Rodriguez was fired at Michigan. When they rejoined Rodriguez at Arizona, Graham called them "mercenaries," according to a tweet from Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Yet history and personal feelings go only so far in the national college football conversation when your team is simply battling for bowl eligibility. Or one team is good and the other shows up only as a spoiler. That has been the case more often than not in the Territorial Cup, which was first contested in 1899, 13 years before Arizona became an official state in the union.

That is where Graham and Rodriguez have most enriched this rivalry: Both teams are now good. This will be the first time they meet as ranked teams since 1986. Both are 9-2. The last time they met as teams with at least nine wins? 1975. Arizona State has posted nine wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1996-97. Arizona owns its best record since 1998.

Both are 6-2 in Pac-12 play. If UCLA should lose to Stanford in a game played simultaneously with the Territorial Cup at 3:30 p.m. ET, then the champion of Arizona also becomes the Pac-12 South Division champ and would play Oregon for the conference title on Dec. 5. Further, the winner also might set itself up to be selected as practically a home team for the Fiesta Bowl. That is, unless the winner somehow beats Oregon in the Pac-12 title game and slips into the College Football Playoff, a not outrageous scenario, by the way.

“This game is the single most important game every year for us and for our fans," Graham said. "Obviously it has a lot more meaning with both teams going for 10th win and Pac-12 South championship on the line. So, yeah, there’s a little extra to it.”

Said Rodriguez: "I don’t believe that ‘if you only win one game but you beat ASU, it’s a good year,’ but it is the most important game on our schedule because it is the rivalry game. The rivalry game is always the most important when you see it with no records. Now that we both have had pretty good years and have even more at stake, this makes it of added importance."

Of added importance to both coaches, though perhaps more for Rodriguez: Graham is 2-0 against Rich Rod since they arrived in the desert. No Arizona State coach opened his career in Tempe at 3-0 versus the Wildcats. While folks in Tucson appreciate the undeniably good job Rodriguez has done rebuilding the program, they also would really, really not like to spend a third year listening to Sun Devils fans squawking at them.

In the Sun Devils' last visit to Tucson, they overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 41-34. Last year, the Sun Devils rolled the Wildcats 58-21, a blowout win that earned them home-field advantage in the Pac-12 title game against Stanford.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
AP Photo/Troy WayrynenTaylor Kelly and the Sun Devils are looking to finish the season strong.
The intrigue this year is at quarterback. Arizona's starter, impressive redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, couldn't play the second half of the Wildcats' win last weekend over Utah because of an ankle injury that has been hounding him for some time. He's decidedly questionable, and senior Jesse Scroggins will make his first career start if Solomon can't play.

For Arizona State, there's senior Taylor Kelly. The three-year starter wants to finish his career 3-0 against the Wildcats. He has been inconsistent since returning from a foot injury, but he seemed to find his rhythm in the second half last week against Washington State. His life also will be easier with the expected return of receiver Jaelen Strong from a concussion.

Arizona's home-field advantage might not be much of an advantage. The Sun Devils have won five of the past seven in Tucson, and this rivalry has surprisingly not favored the home team of late. The visitor owns an 8-6 edge in the past 14 matchups, and the Sun Devils' win in Tempe last year ended a four-game winning streak for the road team.

Good news for those who like thrillers: Seven of the past 10 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The four games before last year's blowout were decided by a total of 15 points, with a fourth-quarter comeback, two blocked extra points, a late field goal and a red zone stand being the difference.

Graham said the game is about the players, not the coaches. Rodriguez, though he probably doesn't want to be seen as agreeing with Graham, said about the same.

"There is a lot of stake," he said. "It is our 19 seniors' last home game, so I would be shocked if preparation wasn’t at an ultimate high.”
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 count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Chris Whaley, No. 72 in 2009 class

Whaley came out of Madisonville, Texas as a 6-foot-3, 245-pound athlete that had hopes of playing running back and his recruitment followed that path. Whaley picked Texas over Nebraska, Texas A&M, Florida State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State with the Longhorns being the long-time favorite of Whaley, and the Texas staff selling running back only to the 3A star. Whaley was part of a Texas 2009 class that included quarterback Garrett Gilbert, Alex Okafor and NFL draft first-round selection Kenny Vaccaro.

After a redshirt year in 2009, Whaley played in 12 games in 2010, including four at running back.

Whaley made the move to the defensive line following the 2010 season playing in 13 games in 2011 with one start, against Baylor. He totaled five tackles during his developmental season.

Whaley began to realize his potential as a redshirt junior in 2012 playing in 13 games, including nine starts totaling 22 tackles and four tackles for loss.

Whaley was a full-time starter in 2013 as a senior making nine starts before missing the final four games due to injury, but still was named All-Big 12 Honorable mention by the coaches after totaling 25 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks.

Whaley went undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft, but signed a free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys. He is currently on the roster as a reserve/non-football injury.
In Georgia, they call the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate” because of the mutual dislike between the two schools.

The dislike remains as strong as ever, but the rivalry has lost some of its luster since Mark Richt became Georgia’s coach in 2001. The Bulldogs (9-2) are 12-1 against the Yellow Jackets (9-2) under Richt, and it will be an upset if they lose this week. Richt’s tenure is full of close games, however, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see another hotly contested matchup between the two rivals.

ESPN football writers Matt Fortuna and David Ching break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry below:

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Daniel Shirey/Getty ImagesWhile Justin Thomas has shown an ability to throw the ball, Georgia Tech's offensive gameplan still involves pounding its opposition on the ground.
Key to victory for Georgia Tech:There is nothing fancy on the agenda of the Yellow Jackets entering Athens: They must win the turnover battle. Georgia Tech is tied for No. 9 nationally in turnover margin (plus-10); Georgia is No. 2 (plus-16). The difference between the two teams is that the Bulldogs have a pretty good defense, one that is ranked No. 13 nationally. The same cannot exactly be said for the Jackets (61st nationally), who have made up for that by regularly taking the ball away. The triple-option offense, of course, is only painful for the opposition to defend when it's efficient, as Georgia Tech can shorten the game and limit the other offense's scoring opportunities.

Key to victory for Georgia: Sure, Tech is more versatile on offense this season, but the No. 1 task in beating the Jackets is slowing down its option rushing game. Tech ranks third nationally with 327.9 rushing yards per game. Tech is better at passing -- Georgia learned that lesson the hard way last season -- but the Jackets won’t bother putting the ball in the air if their running game is moving the chains and eating clock. Georgia has to keep Justin Thomas, Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey on the sidelines as long as possible.

X-factor for Georgia Tech:Georgia Tech's offense is typically capable of beating you with its arm when you least expect it, but this year's outfit can do some serious damage in the passing game. Thomas has surprised everyone under center, and a big key to that has been his favorite target: DeAndre Smelter, a 6-foot-3, 222-pounder who is second in the ACC in yards per catch (21.0).

X-Factor for Georgia: It’s not only on the defensive front to slow down Tech’s running game and keep the Jackets’ offense on the sidelines. If the Bulldogs’ offensive line gives freshman sensation Nick Chubb (161 carries, 1,152 yards, 11 TDs) room to run and quarterback Hutson Mason can put together some long scoring drives, that would be another way to neutralize what Tech does best.

Fortuna’s favorite moment from the rivalry:It's not every day you lose the passing game battle by a 407-19 margin and still win, but that's exactly what happened to Georgia Tech in its 2008 trip to Sanford Stadium. The Jackets beat Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the following spring's NFL Draft, 45-42 behind 409 yards on the ground. It was coach Paul Johnson's first game in the rivalry, and his team came back from 16 down at the half to pull off the upset and break a seven-game losing streak in the series. It is Georgia Tech's only win in the rivalry in the last 13 years.

Ching’s favorite moment from the rivalry: I covered this game nine times and there were plenty of memorable moments on the field: Tony Taylor, Paul Oliver and Mohamed Massaquoi’s heroics in Georgia’s 2006 comeback win; the “We Run This State” game where Georgia backs Caleb King and Washaun Ealey combined for 349 rushing yards in 2009; a wild 2010 contest that Georgia eventually won 42-34; last year’s double-overtime classic where Tech broke out to a 20-0 lead and the Bulldogs rallied back to win 41-34. But the moment I remember most probably also came in the 2008 game. It was when beloved radio announcer Larry Munson -- who had retired earlier that season -- made his final appearance at Sanford Stadium and Georgia’s fans chanted the 86-year-old legend’s name during an in-game ceremony honoring his four decades as the Bulldogs’ play-by-play man. It was cool to see the fans show their appreciation to a man who had enriched their lives for so many years.
Two clear front-runners have emerged in the 2014 Heisman Trophy race: Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. Which player should win the award? Pac-12 reporter Kevin Gemmell and Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett debate it.

Brian Bennett: Kevin, to prove there is no anti-West Coast bias, I'll let you go first. State your case in 150 words or fewer why Mariota deserves the Heisman.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesOregon QB Marcus Mariota's 42 total touchdowns -- with still a game to go in the regular season -- is a spectacular feat.
Kevin Gemmell: Awww, that's really generous of you B-squared. But I don't need 150. I need only seven: "He's the best player in college football." This could be an exercise where we go back and forth listing the merits of both players. Of which there are many. And I like the fact that a non-quarterback is getting deserved Heisman hype. Unfortunately, this is the wrong year for it. So rather than listing all of the reasons why Gordon should win the Heisman (we can do that later, if you really want), I want to know why you think Mariota shouldn't.

BB: You're right that Mariota might well be the best player in college football. But if the Heisman simply went to the best player, we'd just give it to the NFL's No. 1 draft pick every year. It's supposed to go to the player with the best season. And Gordon is putting up one for the ages.

He rushed for 2,000 yards faster than anyone in history. His current 8.3 yards-per-carry average would be the highest ever. He will soon become one of just three running backs ever to record 2,000 yards and 30 total touchdowns (he needs only three more TDs). And he might just eclipse Barry Sanders' hallowed single-season rushing record.

At the very least, Gordon will likely finish with the second-best season by a running back of all time. How do you not give the Heisman to someone who does all that? And has Mariota created any "Heisman moments" like Gordon's 408-yard day vs. Nebraska?

KG: I'm glad you brought up single-season performance. Because with four more touchdowns last week, Mariota has accounted for 42 total this season -- the most of any player in Pac-12 history. You want to talk about a season for the ages? Think of all the offensive talent that has strolled through the Pac-12 over the years. Annually it's the most prolific offensive conference in the country -- and this guy (with one more regular-season game left) has already put up the most prolific offensive season in league history.

I'd call his 318 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State Heisman-esque ... or have you B1G guys forgotten about that one? But we both know the Heisman isn't about a "moment." You said yourself it's about the best season. And 32 passing touchdowns with just two interceptions -- while playing against some of the most pressure-heavy defenses in the country, is how you build a Heisman season. Not a moment.

And since you're tapping into some history, let's go back a decade and look at how Mariota's current season stacks up. Our QBR metrics -- which measure how well a quarterback has performed against his competition -- go back only 10 years. But Mariota already has a better season than Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton (all Heisman winners, by the way), Colin Kaepernick, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Pat White and on and on. I bet if we had the historical data, it would show Mariota is having one of the best quarterback seasons in the history of college football.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 408 against Nebraska, is averaging a phenomenal 8.3 yards per carry.
And if we can agree that quarterback is the most important position in the game (and I think we can agree on that much), how then can you not give the Heisman to the guy having one of the best historical seasons ever at the most important position?

BB: Mariota is a spectacular player. No argument here on that. (Though I might point out that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett also has 42 touchdowns in a much less offense-friendly league. Hmm.) But it bugs me that the Heisman has become the sole province of quarterbacks. Defenses stack as many men as possible in the box against Wisconsin, which doesn't throw the ball well, yet Gordon is still averaging 9.95 yards per carry in his past seven games against ranked teams -- basically a first down every carry! It's much harder to tailor a defense around stopping a dual-threat quarterback.

We may never see a season quite like Gordon's 2014 again, and his numbers speak for themselves. I think one thing we can both agree on is Mariota and Gordon are both otherworldly players. Any way we could split the Heisman in half this year?

KG: I'm with you 100 percent. I too get peeved that the past few years the Heisman has devolved into the dual-threat quarterback of the year award. And a lot of that has to do with the advancement of the spread offense. These quarterbacks are putting up numbers that seemed unreachable even 10 years ago.

I hear you loud and clear on Gordon. And I can come up with 2,109 reasons why he's the runaway Doak Walker winner. Not even close. He's spectacular. And most years, I'd probably be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you because I do believe the award has become too quarterback-driven.

This year, however, the voters should and will get it right by handing it to a dual-threat quarterback. From statistical measurables, legacy numbers and team success, Mariota is without equal.
Nick Saban, Gus MalzahnAP Photo/Brynn AndersonAlabama's Nick Saban and Auburn's Gus Malzahn have more in common than you might think.
It would be easy to portray Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban as two completely different coaches. Different philosophies. Different dispositions. Different sides of one of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.

But while you could cast them as opposites and be done with it, that might not be telling the whole truth. Because they aren't as different as you might think. Whether it's an obsessive drive to win, or a fierce attention to detail, the two coaches share much in common.

One is a defensive mastermind, the other an offensive magician. Whether it's exotic blitzes or misleading pre-snap motions, both attack their respective sides of the ball from unique angles. They try to confuse you. They try to outthink you. And they're both among the best in the game at doing so.

From a certain perspective, you might say Malzahn and Saban are different sides of the same coin.

They share an ingrained work ethic, having grown up in small towns -- Saban in Fairmont, West Virginia, and Malzahn in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Though they're 14 years apart in age, their birthdays fall during the same week of October.

Saban was defensive coordinator at Michigan State, left, and then got his big break when he returned to become the Spartans' head coach.

Malzahn was offensive coordinator at Auburn, left, and then got his big break when he came back to take over as the Tigers' head coach.

Sensing a pattern?

Though Saban dwarfs Malzahn in total wins, their winning percentages aren't that far off, with Saban at 84 percent and Malzahn at 80.

Saban played defensive back in college. Malzahn played receiver. Even today their actions mirror one another, as Saban tries to slow down the tempo of the game while Malzahn does everything he can to pick up the pace.

Personality-wise, they present similar images to the media: guarded, singularly focused, sometimes combative. But behind the scenes, there's more to them. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we've seen both coaches dance, Saban doing his best "Electric Slide" and Malzahn strutting his stuff to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."

Anything for recruiting, you might say.

Alabama presents itself as an NFL factory and Auburn as a place of family, but they both produce results. The Crimson Tide have finished No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings Insider each of the past three years. Auburn, meanwhile, is currently ranked ninth Insider and closed its most recent class at No. 8 overall.

But the biggest similarity between Saban and Malzahn is their attention to detail.

Alabama athletic director Bill Battle was amazed when he first caught a glimpse of the way Saban ran his program. Everything was so efficient, so focused on the task at hand. Watching practice from outside his office, Battle saw there wasn't a wasted moment.

Jay Jacobs, Auburn's AD, noticed the same thing about Malzahn.

"He's not thinking about other things," Jacobs said. "He's not self-serving at all. He's relentless in details, and he's absolutely great to work with because all he's thinking about is how to make Auburn football better."

Tying those two accounts together is Hoover (Ala.) High coach Josh Niblett, who has sent numerous players to both state schools. Whether it's on the recruiting trail or during coaching clinics, Niblett has had the chance to get to know both Saban and Malzahn well.

"They're both very professional," he said. "Both of them are competitors and both of them are driven, and then both of them have attention to detail. You don't have to be around them long to understand that attention to detail is one of the big factors for their success."

What's stood out to Niblett is their businesslike approach and their hands-on style of coaching.

"One of the neatest things about them is they're both good teachers," he said. "It's one of the best common values they have, they're very hands-on. You have a lot of coaches that are the CEO-type that are involved, but they're involved from the outside in. These two guys are involved from the inside out. It means so much to them that they put their stamp on it, that they want to make sure that they continue to do it."

On Saturday, we'll see their systems come to a head.

Auburn, well out of the playoff race with three losses, is out to spoil No. 1-ranked Alabama's season.

The way Malzahn's emphasis on speed matches up with Saban's emphasis on size is so perfectly incongruent. It's like looking in a mirror.

No, they're not exactly alike. But like the reflection in a mirror, everything is reversed. The receiver is the defensive back. Offense is defense.

They're different, but so much of them is the same. It's what makes it so fun to watch.

Campaign trail: Florida State Seminoles

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
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Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Ultimately, the selection committee will decide. Until then, there will be a lot of campaigning. Each week, we'll unveil what we think one team's campaign message should be. Take a look at past posters here.

After watching his team drop in the polls despite extending its winning streak, Jimbo Fisher came out swinging in Week 13. "Let me ask you this: How about the way everybody else hasn't finished?" Fisher said to ESPN's Heather Dinich. With tough games against in-state rival Florida and Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game looming, Florida State will continue to be tested. And the selection committee will likely continue to test Fisher's patience.

Florida State bannerIllustration by Sam Ho

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