Malik Jefferson's decision to commit to Texas was reached in just a few hours on Wednesday. Three crucial conversations that night convinced the state's most coveted recruit where he was going.
The first one: The Jeffersons' long-awaited family meeting. Going into that talk, Mesquite Poteet's ESPN 300 star insists he wasn't seriously leaning toward any of his three finalists. But he wanted to get this done. He needed clarity.
The talk was neither brief nor easy. The arguments were impassioned, the voices at times raised. Malik knew the family debate, while vitally important to his process, wasn't going to be pretty at times.
"Everything was kind of intense," father Michael Jefferson Sr. said. "Very intense."
He and wife Teresa insisted throughout that Malik needed to appreciate the big-picture pros of Texas. They were all-in on the disciplined culture Strong is cultivating, as well as the value of a degree from Texas for the rest of his post-football life.
"We butted heads a little bit," Malik said Friday following his commitment ceremony. "I just had to understand what my parents were telling me."
UCLA, the family agreed, was ultimately just too far away. Texas A&M, his father argued, offered too much uncertainty, starting with its still-unresolved defensive coordinator vacancy. Malik was still on the fence about those concerns.
The biggest factor tugging him to become an Aggie? His friendships with Kyler Murray, Christian Kirk, now-former pledges Daylon Mack and Damarkus Lodge, and several other leaders of the A&M recruiting class.
"I wanted to play with those guys so bad, my gosh," Malik said. "Those are my brothers. We talked every day."
Though he agreed with the case his parents and brother Mike made for Texas, Malik felt he had to give A&M one last shot. So once the tense family discussions wrapped up, he called Kevin Sumlin.
The linebacker wants to keep the contents of that conversation to himself, out of respect for a coach he's admired throughout this two-year process. Simply put, Malik says, the conversation did not go well. He needed to know who his coordinator and position coach would be. That question couldn't be answered.
"Malik is very emotionally invested in things," Mike Jefferson said. "When he feels betrayed in any type of way, you're setting yourself up for failure. I think A&M not contacting him about the defensive coordinator had a major influence."
He moved on. Texas seemed like his best and most logical option, but Malik still needed a little more convincing. So, late Wednesday night, he went over to DeAndre McNeal's house.
The four-star receiver had quietly made up his mind earlier in the week. In fact, he'd been leaning toward Texas ever since attending the Red River Showdown game in October.
But he played coy when Malik showed up, pretending to care more about the pepperoni pizza he was eating.
"What are we going to do?" Jefferson asked.
McNeal says he elected to answer that by singing: "The stars at night are big and bright/deep in the heart of Texas."
"When I said that, he jumped out of his chair and shouted, 'Is that what what you're thinking? Heck yeah!' We went berserk," McNeal said. "He actually broke the chair. My mom got on him about that."
"I didn't think he would say that," Jefferson confessed. "It was a great surprise."
Malik went home, prayed and slept on his choice. In the morning, his mother wanted to know if he'd made up his mind. So he decided to surprise her: he walked up to her and held up a Texas banner.
Later that day, McNeal called Strong to deliver the good news.
"He jumped out of his seat and threw a block party on the 40 Acres," McNeal joked.
Jefferson, at last, had found closure in a thrilling but exhausting recruitment. And Strong had his first gigantic recruiting victory as a Longhorn.
"The No. 1 player in Texas chooses a 6-6 school?" Michael Jefferson Sr. said. "Why did he choose a 6-6 school? It's because of the coach, because of the leadership."
But it was the family and the best friend that sealed the deal.
1. A bunch of firsts
For seven decades, there wasn't even a football program at South Alabama, so it's pretty darn impressive that the program has reached the postseason in only its second season as an FBS member. But don't expect the Jaguars to be caught up with the bright lights. They have a point to make. Last season they recorded six wins but weren't selected for a bowl game. Now that they've (A) again recorded a six-win season and (B) made a bowl game, they're going to make sure they make it a memorable one and prove they deserve to be here.
This is also the first bowl game for both coaches. Bowling Green coach Dino Baber has never coached in an FBS bowl game, though he did go to the FCS playoffs during his two seasons with Eastern Illinois. South Alabama coach Joey Jones has never coached in a bowl game. However, during his playing career at Alabama (1980-83) he made four trips to bowl games, winning three.
2. Finishing strong after bad slides
Both of these teams badly need a win to help alleviate the pains of the late season. Bowling Green lost its final three games by an average of 19 points, while South Alabama lost four of its last five by an average of 18 points. A win here would make the offseason a little less difficult, and whichever team is on the losing end, well, it's going to be a long, frustrating offseason.
3. Quarterback play
Both of these teams feature some pretty good quarterback talent, even though you probably haven't heard of these quarterbacks since they aren't in Power 5 conferences. Bowling Green's James Knapke is just a sophomore, but he threw for 2,805 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Part of what comes with that youth, though, are the mental mistakes, which he has had his fair share of, throwing 12 picks. But this extra practice time to build chemistry with his young receivers (three of his top four receivers are freshmen or sophomores) could be seen when Knapke takes the field Saturday.
South Alabama quarterback Brandon Bridge has completed only 52 percent of his passes this season, but he has been a bit more clean -- compared to Knapke -- when it comes to picks. Bridge has just six interceptions to his 14 touchdowns and 1,648 passing yards. Bridge is a senior, so he'll be looking to make a statement as he gets ready for what's beyond Jaguars football.
The Turnaround Bowl: There will be no unhappy customers in Boise this weekend. Both teams are happy to be bowling anywhere. No teams made a bigger leap in the right direction in 2014 than Air Force and Western Michigan. Both programs won seven more games than they did when finishing last in their respective conferences last year.
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, in his eighth year coaching the Falcons, rerouted his program by shifting his lineup to get more veteran leadership on the field. The Broncos' second-year coach, P.J. Fleck, took the opposite approach -- relying on fresh talent to spur better results. Fleck, 33, is the youngest coach in the FBS and has infused some of that youthful spirit and energy into his locker room. His "Row The Boat" mantra is catching on in Kalamazoo.
Meet RB Jarvion Franklin: Western Michigan's star freshman from Tinley Park, Illinois, has been a catalyst for the team's improvement. His 1,525 rushing yards this season put him among the top 10 backs in the country and second among rookies behind Oklahoma's Samaje Perine. Franklin provided 24 of Western's 29 rushing touchdowns. Only Melvin Gordon and Jay Ajayi reached the end zone more often this season. Franklin will have a chance to introduce himself to a larger audience Saturday evening against the Falcons.
Playing keep-away: Air Force's approach with the triple-option offense provides headaches for any defense not used to seeing it on a regular basis. The Falcons ran the ball more often than any other team in the country this season. Seven players on the roster had at least 30 carries, led by Jacobi Owens with 204. The deep and steady running game helps to limit opportunities for opponents. Meanwhile, Western Michigan plays defense with its offense at times. Fleck's team finished 10th nationally in time of possession (33:14) this season, which helped its defense give up fewer than 24 points per game.
1. How does Colorado State look after the departure of Jim McElwain?
Shortly after McElwain was named Mountain West Coach of the Year he left for the SEC and he's already making waves at Florida, picking up his first commitment from Daniel Imatorbhebe on Tuesday. But where does that leave the Rams? They still have a potent offense, averaging nearly 500 yards, but will the focus still be there for this bunch? Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, the man responsible for that high-powered offense and its output, will be leading Colorado State in the postseason. Can the Rams avoid distraction and keep on doing what they've been doing? We'll see.
2. Utah's pass rush against Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson
Grayson threw for 3,779 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, but he has not faced a pass rush quite like Utah's. First, there's Nate Orchard, who won the Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end in college football), after recording 17.5 sacks this season. But he's not the only guy quarterbacks need to worry about. Defensive end Hunter Dimick recorded 10 sacks this season, and Pita Taumoepenu, Lowe Lotulelei, Jason Fanaika and Jared Norris all recorded at least four sacks apiece.
3. Do the special teams of Utah continue to star?
It isn't very often that special teams get a lot of attention. But when your lead returners bring back every one in seven punts for a touchdown, when your punter wins the Ray Guy Award, and your kicker is a former U.S. ski team member (who's also a former Mormon missionary and a proud father), then your special teams unit gets a lot of attention. It made the difference in several games for the Utes this season, and with Colorado State's special teams (63rd nationally in kickoff return defense, 68th nationally in punt return defense) the same could be true on Saturday.
What's at stake: Utah State (9-4) is in a bowl for the fourth consecutive season and is looking for its third consecutive bowl victory. The four straight appearances is a school record for the Aggies and a win would secure a 10-win season for only the second time in school history. UTEP hopes to put a bow on a nice turnaround season in El Paso, Texas, as the Miners (7-5) are vastly improved after managing only two wins in 2013 and are enjoying their first winning season since 2005. The Miners' five-win improvement is fifth best in the FBS.
Players to watch: UTEP sophomore running back Aaron Jones has 1,233 rushing yards this season, averaging 112.1 per game (fourth in Conference USA and 23rd in the country). He has 14 total touchdowns and 1,517 all-purpose yards, which puts him ninth in school history. Utah State senior linebacker Zach Vigil leads the Mountain West in tackles for loss per game (1.5) and is ninth nationally in tackles per game (11.2). He needs just one half of a tackle for loss to match the school's career record for tackles for loss (43).
Strength versus strength: As is evident from Jones' numbers, UTEP runs the ball well. The Miners are 32nd in the country in rushing yards per game offensively, posting 212.7 yards per game. Utah State's rushing defense is strong, as the Aggies rank 26th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (129.3). Whichever unit wins this battle will be key to deciding the game's winner.
Notable: Utah State has seen season-ending injuries occur to three of its quarterbacks: senior Chuckie Keeton (knee), senior Craig Harrison (knee) and sophomore Darell Garretson (wrist). The current starter, true freshman Kent Myers, is the fourth quarterback to start for Utah State, and the Aggies are 4-1 with him at the helm.
They'll look good: Utah State will have nice, clean-looking white jerseys with blue trim, while UTEP will go bold with the orange and blue combination (with orange helmets to boot). If nothing else, the teams will run up and down the field in some nice threads.
Uniforms for Utah State and UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. Miners' look = sharp. pic.twitter.com/diMJSK8MaD— Sean Walker (@DSeanKSL) December 10, 2014
Let’s take a look at three key factors between two teams with prolific offenses and underwhelming defenses preparing to kick off bowl season:
Quarterback battle: One of the most intriguing aspects of this game is the showdown between dual-threat quarterbacks Cody Fajardo of Nevada and Terrance Broadway of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Fajardo (2,374 passing yards, 18 TDs, 11 INTs) is a fine passer, but his running ability is what makes him most dangerous. His 997 rushing yards are second among FBS quarterbacks and he has run for 13 touchdowns this season.
Broadway’s numbers (2,074 passing yards, 12 TDs, nine INTs, plus 634 rushing yards and three scores) aren’t in that league, but he’s no slouch himself. Plus, he has a bit of a home-field advantage in this game. This is the fourth straight season that the Ragin' Cajuns will end the season in the New Orleans Bowl -- they won the previous three -- and Broadway was the game’s MVP in 2012, when he passed for 316 yards and ran for 108 in a 43-34 win against East Carolina.
Stopping the run: The defense that does a better job of slowing the opponent’s running game will likely have an edge.
Paced by Elijah McGuire (1,165 rushing yards, 14 TDs) and Alonzo Harris (737 yards, 12 TDs), ULL is averaging 228.4 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Fajardo and Don Jackson (932, seven TDs) helped the Wolf Pack average 215.2 YPG on the ground.
The Cajuns seem to have the advantage here, as they defended the run a bit better than a Nevada defense that ranks 103rd nationally in total defense at 450.1 yards allowed per game.
Boise breakdown: These teams actually have a common opponent. Both of them lost to Boise State early in the season, although the losses came in entirely different fashions.
Nevada lost a 51-46 shootout against the rival Broncos, with Fajardo tossing three touchdown passes and running for two scores, but the results were nowhere near as close when ULL played on Boise's famous blue turf. The Cajuns lost 34-9 and mustered a season-low 241 yards of total offense (67 on the ground) on Sept. 20.
Both teams lost to Boise, but the fact that Nevada played a much more competitive game against their lone common opponent might be a positive sign for the Wolf Pack in this matchup.
Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California (ESPN)
Key matchup: Oregon RB Royce Freeman vs. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Why it matters: The battle between the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners will generate the most headlines, but one of the defining factors of this game will be which freshman running back has a better afternoon. Both first-year players are hitting their stride at the perfect time; it’s imperative for teams to run the football well late in the season. Freeman has toppled the 100-yard mark in six of his last eight games, and he ran for 98 and 99 in those other two performances. Cook has ran for 321 yards over his last two games and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game for his 31-carry, 177-yard effort. Adding to the intrigue of this matchup is the difference in running styles. Freeman tips the scales at 229 pounds and sends would-be tacklers tumbling backward. Cook runs through tackles, too, but he also embarrasses defenders with his nifty footwork.
Who wins: The winner of this matchup could determine the winner of the game. It would not be a shock to see both teams light up the scoreboard in the first half, but eventually the running games will need to take control for Oregon or Florida State to win. Florida State (60th nationally) and Oregon (50th) are essentially equally average against the run, so it’s not as if one running back will have a significantly easier afternoon against a porous defense. What could help Freeman is the running threat of Marcus Mariota on option plays. The Ducks will look to put pressure on the Seminoles’ defensive line with the read option, forcing it to make a decision to take away either Marcus Mariota or Freeman. IF the unit makes the wrong decision it could lead to big gains for the Ducks. Freeman will have a productive day and cross the 100-yard threshold in a 35-34 Oregon win.
But even though they're occasionally ripe for lampooning, the small games really do mean a lot to ambitious programs, and the experience of playing on a national stage can be a once-in-a-lifetime memory for players.
It's your memory we're testing. How many of this season's bowl games can you name?
Amari Cooper, No. 49 in 2012 class
Cooper came out of Miami Northwestern as a relatively unheralded prospect until his senior season after being limited because of a junior-season injury. He committed to Alabama in September 2011 over Miami and Florida State in a decision that would prove to be a huge loss for the hometown Hurricanes. Cooper was part of the Crimson Tide’s No. 1-ranked class that included Landon Collins, T.J. Yeldon, Cyrus Jones, Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland and many others.
Cooper burst onto the college football scene as a freshman in 2012, catching 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns, including six catches for 105 yards and two scores in the Crimson Tide’s BCS National Championship game blowout victory over Notre Dame. Cooper was selected to several Freshman All-American teams and the SEC All-Freshman team by the league's coaches.
As a sophomore, Cooper’s numbers took a dip because of nagging injuries and constant bracketed coverage. He managed to finish the season with 45 receptions for 736 yards in 12 games.
Cooper has been arguably the best player in college football in 2014. Headed into the inaugural College Football Playoff, Cooper has 115 receptions for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdown under first-year Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. He won the Biletnikoff Award, was a Heisman Trophy finalist and a unanimous All-American. With a year of eligibility remaining, he's already the school's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns and holds several other school records.
Cooper is expected to forgo his final season of eligibility and would almost certainly be a top-10 selection in the NFL draft this spring.
Honorable mention: Gerod Holliman, No. 49 in 2011 class; and Aaron Hernandez, No. 49 in 2007 class. Holliman picked Louisville over Ole Miss coming out of Miami Southridge, but was forced to go to prep school before enrolling at Louisville. He won the Jim Thorpe Award and was a unanimous All-American this season after picking off an NCAA FBS-record tying 14 passes.
The popular Twitter parody account of former Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini will remain active in the wake of Pelini’s hiring this week at FCS-level Youngstown State, the man behind Faux Pelini said Friday.
“It seems there’s still some life left to this thing,” said the Chicago attorney and Nebraska fan who operates the account. “Faux can live on as the Youngstown State coach and still will remain very interested in events back in Lincoln.
“He’ll have some things to say about that.”
Faux Pelini has grown in fame since 2010, gaining 175,000 followers on Twitter, for his comedic musings about football and other topics, including world events, Pelini’s brother Carl and ex-Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh.
The man behind Faux Pelini, who has requested anonymity, said he leaned toward shuttering the account after Pelini was fired by Nebraska on Nov. 30.
But the shift to Youngstown, Pelini’s hometown, helped affirm the decision to preserve Faux Pelini.
If Pelini had moved to a more high-profile job as a head coach or stayed at a Power 5 school as a coordinator, Faux Pelini likely would have ceased to exist. The challenge of commenting on Nebraska as Pelini’s new team attracted attention would have proven too confusing, said the account operator.
The coach this week went out with a fury in Lincoln as the audio from Dec. 2 of his final meeting with the Nebraska players was released by the Omaha World-Herald. In the meeting, Pelini insulted Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst in a vulgar manner and spoke to the players about the stresses of his job as their coach.
In fact, it played right into the persona of Faux Pelini.
“For Faux, it’s great,” the man behind the account said. “It’s great material. It’s more of the same. As a fan, it struck me that [Pelini] may have finally found a way to unite the fan base -- maybe by accident. The opinions on Bo seem to be closer now to the same across the board.”
On Twitter, Faux will take great interest in Nebraska’s Dec. 27 meeting with USC in the National University Holiday Bowl. He’ll comment on the normal offseason nonsense and likely learn about Youngstown State, though he won’t follow the Penguins with the same fervor as Nebraska.
“We could have some fun it,” said the Faux mastermind. “But I hope this doesn’t shock anyone to hear that I will not be watching their games and tweeting along.”
He emphasized that Faux will not resort to bashing Nebraska or Eichorst, even after the release of Pelini’s angry words.
“I’m a Husker fan,” he said, “so the purpose of this account is never going to be make Nebraska look bad. But it just became obvious over the past couple days that there’s still more to do.”
Thompson doesn’t quite agree, insisting that the program speaks for itself.
It doesn’t really matter how it happened, Sooners fans are happy that it did.
Five years later Williams and Thompson formed the Big 12’s best offensive tackle duo, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors while anchoring the Big 12’s top offensive line in 2014.
“It’s always exciting to accolades, especially with my brother,” said Thompson, who has seen his relationship with Williams develop to the point he asked him to become the godfather of his two kids.
Add Adam Shead, who was named second-team All-Big 12, and the foundation of the offensive line that paved the way for a record-setting year for freshman running back Samaje Perine can be found in the group of offensive linemen that signed with Oklahoma in February 2010. The trio has started 107 combined games for the Sooners (Shead 37, Thompson 36, Williams 36).
Oklahoma's season has been a disappointment but its offensive line has not. Williams in particular emerged as a leader before his senior season, even sitting down his offensive line mates to set goals before the season began.
“We talked about it a lot,” Williams said. “We wrote our personal goals as an O-Line and we made most of them.”
There wasn’t much more the Sooners offensive line could have done in 2014. There is plenty of blame to go around after a 8-4 season from a team with preseason aspirations of title contention but none of that blame lands on the offensive front. The Sooners led the Big 12 with 3,223 rushing yards, 268.58 rushing yards per game and 6.13 yards per carry and will go down in history as the unit that created the holes for Perine’s FBS-record 427 rushing yards against Kansas.
“We definitely thought about that, talked about that and it was something we wanted to do,” Shead said of leading the conference in rushing. “We knew we had the potential to be the best offensive line and that’s how we characterized that.”
After meeting during the recruiting process, Thompson and Williams stepped on campus as a pair of signees that could become the bookend tackles of the team's offensive line before eventually becoming roommates and friends.
“You really get to know someone really well when you live with them,” Thompson said. “He’s like my brother.”
As the only other redshirting offensive lineman in the class, Shead saw the duo’s growth, on-and-off the field, first hand.
“It's like night and day, literally,” Shead said. “They were always hard workers who wanted to do the right thing and great guys to be around. You add the maturity, strength and ability to do the things they wanted to do, you can’t say enough about them.”
The bond that has been formed during the trio's five-year span as teammates is impossible to mimic. They’ve been roommates, teammates, competitors and friends who have seen the ups and downs of a program that has gone 51-14 during their time on campus.
“There’s like a bond I’ve created with these guys that was awesome,” Shead said.
Said Thompson: “There are things we went through here that nobody else really knows. These are my brothers.”
Now the trio face arguably the best defense they will see all season when they take on Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 29 with Williams and Thompson facing the tall task of dealing with Tigers standout defensive end Vic Beasley. No matter the final outcome, the trio will leave a solid legacy in Norman.
“I guess we left a good legacy here,” Williams said. “I wanted the team to do better than we did. [But] I think we played well here for five years.”
Their senior season is their first without double digits wins but the trio does take some solace in earning All-Big 12 honors, leading the Big 12 in rushing, paving the way for Perine’s record and accomplishing most of its preseason goals as an offensive line.
“It’s an awesome feeling to know that we actually got to do something, we accomplished something at least,” Shead said. “We’re all proud of what we did here.”
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward
Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett
Quick Lane Bowl
Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy
Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer
National University Holiday Bowl
Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman
Foster Farms Bowl
Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett
Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer
Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy
Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward
Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett
Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward
Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)
Why West Virginia will win: Quarterback Clint Trickett has been cleared for the bowl. Trickett struggled a bit late in the season but was a still a major factor in the Mountaineers' midseason run. He and Kevin White should have their way against an Aggies defense that got lit multiple times this season. West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 29 -- Trotter
Why Texas A&M will win: The Aggies will get their house in order after shaking up their coaching staff and give West Virginia all it can handle. Clint Trickett's status can swing this game, of course, but doesn't a showdown between Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen have to be decided by who scores last? Texas A&M 35, West Virginia 28 — Olson
Russell Athletic Bowl
Why Oklahoma will win: While Clemson will be without dynamic freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson for the game, OU welcomes Trevor Knight back under center. Combined with Samaje Perine in the backfield, that should be enough for OU to eke out a win. Oklahoma 28, Clemson 21 -- Chatmon
Why Clemson will win: The Oklahoma passing game was a mess the last month of the season. Trevor Knight returning will help, but even when Knight was healthy, the passing attack was uneven. Former Sooners coordinator Brent Venables directs Clemson's pass defense, which is No. 3 nationally. That means the pressure will be on Samaje Perine (coming off an ankle injury) to shoulder the offensive load. Clemson is not great offensively, but I'm not confident the Sooners will be able to score enough in this one. Clemson 21, Oklahoma 17 -- Trotter
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
Why Texas will win: The Longhorns' defensive line is full of talent and will be ready and well-equipped to handle the physical nature of the Razorbacks' offense. Texas 27, Arkansas 17 -- Chatmon
Why Arkansas will win: Strength on strength will be on display in this matchup, with the big boys on the Arkansas offensive line squaring off against Malcom Brown and Texas' menacing front. But I have a little more confidence in the Hogs to score points than the Longhorns, who were wildly inconsistent at times with young Tyrone Swoopes at QB. Arkansas 20, Texas 14 -- Trotter
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Why TCU will win: You don't get the sense there will be a letdown factor with this team after it missed the College Football Playoff. Gary Patterson has worked too hard on building TCU's mentality to allow a slipup now. The Horned Frogs swing this with a fourth-quarter turnover from Bo Wallace. TCU 35, Ole Miss 31 -- Olson
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Why Baylor will win: The Bears are bummed they didn't make the playoff, but they also realize this is an opportunity to atone for last season's Fiesta Bowl fiasco. Michigan State has a great defense with a good quarterback. But the Spartans couldn't hang against all of Oregon's offensive firepower early in the season and will succumb to Bryce Petty & Co., too. Baylor 42, Michigan State 34 -- Trotter
Valero Alamo Bowl
Why Kansas State will win: This is a sneaky great matchup, though I still can't figure out why Stanford made it look so easy against the Bruins in the regular-season finale. The last hurrah for Jake Waters, and Tyler Lockett will be as deadly efficient and effective as usual. Kansas State 31, UCLA 27 -- Olson
Why UCLA will win: Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley entered the season as a Heisman candidate but stumbled in UCLA’s final game. He should rebound and cause all kinds of problems for K-State’s defense with his feet and his arm. UCLA 31, Kansas State 27 -- Chatmon
TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Why Oklahoma State will win: There was no reason to believe the Cowboys could win Bedlam, yet they did and became bowl eligible. Mason Rudolph looks like the real deal, and this young Cowboys team has plenty of momentum. Oklahoma State 31, Washington 30 — Chatmon
Why Washington will win: The Huskies lost to every ranked team they faced in Pac-12 play. Until Bedlam, the same was true of OSU in the Big 12. I'm a Mason Rudolph believer, but I like the UW defense a bit more. Washington 28, Oklahoma State 17 -- Olson
Season records: Trotter 67-8, Chatmon 66-9, Olson 64-11.
Duck Commander Independence Bowl
December 27, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Why Miami wins: My question is: How motivated will this South Carolina team be? The same can be said for Miami, but the Hurricanes have Duke Johnson, arguably the best player on the field. Miami is 6-1 when it rushes for more than 125 yards. Don’t be surprised if Johnson reaches that number on his own. Miami 34, South Carolina 24 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why South Carolina wins: So the Gamecocks have one of the SEC’s worst defenses and let Clemson walk over them to end the season? Steve Spurrier and his crew are getting a few weeks to regroup and forget such a bad regular season. Plus, Miami lost five of its six games by 10 or more points, so just do the math. South Carolina 27, Miami 24 -- Edward Aschoff
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
December 29, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why West Virginia wins: Call me crazy, but I don't see bowl practice yielding a dramatic turnaround for Texas A&M. While I expect Kyle Allen and the offense to be fine, I don't know how that defense gets any better -- especially without a coordinator in place. In the end, Dana Holgorsen and Clint Trickett light up the Aggies' secondary and win. West Virginia 45, Texas A&M 35 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Texas A&M wins: Texas A&M was hard to figure this season. The Aggies were all over the place, pretty good one game and pretty bad the next. West Virginia likes to play hurry-up offense the way Texas A&M does, so get ready for a shootout. The Aggies still haven't proved that they're ready for prime time defensively, but will score enough points in this one that it won't matter. Texas A&M 45, West Virginia 38 -- Chris Low
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
December 29, 9 p.m., ESPN
Why Arkansas wins big: Which team led the SEC in points allowed per game for the month of November? Alabama? Ole Miss? Missouri? None of the above. It was the Razorbacks, who allowed an FBS-best 9.5 points per game. I just can’t see Tyrone Swoopes and the Longhorns bucking that trend in this one. Arkansas 28, Texas 10 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Texas keeps it close: This is a matchup of two teams that played better down the stretch. Texas won four of its last six games to reach bowl eligibility and played some decent defense along the way. I’m still going with Arkansas because of the way the Hogs finished the season, but I think Texas will make it interesting. Arkansas 21, Texas 14 -- David Ching
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
December 30, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why LSU wins big: Notre Dame has quarterback issues and LSU has a secondary that is one of the best nationally at defending the pass. If Leonard Fournette & Co. can run the ball the way they did on Thanksgiving against Texas A&M against Notre Dame's banged-up D, the Tigers should be able to cruise to a win. LSU 27, Notre Dame 17 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Notre Dame keeps it close: With the exception of Kentucky, LSU hasn’t blown out a Power 5 team all season. This team simply is not built for that. As bad as Notre Dame’s defense has played down the stretch -- and they have been bad -- the Fighting Irish will hang around. If only LSU had a quarterback. LSU 24, Notre Dame 21 -- Greg Ostendorf
December 30, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Louisville wins: Oh, the fun we’ll have with Todd Grantham facing his old team. Both Grantham and Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo want a shot at each other, which means this one will be back-and-forth and plenty fun. Something tells me Bobby Petrino’s offense proves to be too much in the fourth, and a late Georgia turnover seals it. Louisville 27, Georgia 23 -- Edward Aschoff
Why Georgia wins: Sure, Todd Grantham knows this team well, but Mark Richt knows Grantham well, too. And if Georgia blocks up front as well as it has and Nick Chubb runs like he has been running, that's not easy to defend. The Bulldogs average 41 points per game for a reason; I suspect they're headed that way again. Georgia 41, Louisville 31 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
December 31, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why TCU wins big: TCU hasn’t seen anything like Ole Miss’ defense, which leads the nation by allowing 13.8 points per game. But I don’t think the Rebels will be able to shut down (or keep up with) Trevone Boykin and an explosive TCU offense that averages 46.8 ppg. Not without injured receiver Laquon Treadwell. TCU 40, Ole Miss 24 -- David Ching
Why Ole Miss keeps it close: The popular storyline for the Peach Bowl is TCU's high-powered offense versus Ole Miss' talented Landshark defense. But let's not forget about Bo Wallace and the Rebels' offense. Even without Laquon Treadwell, I expect Ole Miss to put up enough points to make it a ballgame. TCU 42, Ole Miss 38 -- Alex Scarborough
Capital One Orange Bowl
December 31, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Georgia Tech wins: Georgia Tech's option offense is never a lot of fun to prepare for. The Bulldogs have had some extra time to get ready during the bowl practices, but will be without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left to take the Florida defensive coordinator job. The Yellow Jackets were an offensive machine the last month of the season, and that won't change in Miami. Georgia Tech 31, Mississippi State 30 -- Chris Low
Why Mississippi State wins: Generally when opponents have time to practice for Georgia Tech’s option offense, they fare well. Paul Johnson is 1-5 in bowl games since arriving at Tech in 2008. Although they’ll have to function without defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, the Bulldogs will still get the job done. Mississippi State 28, Georgia Tech 21 -- David Ching
January 1, Noon ET, ESPN2
Why Auburn wins big: Wisconsin's strength is running the ball. While Auburn's defense leaves much to be desired, that's one area where they're decent, ranking 46th nationally in rushing yardage allowed. And though Barry Alvarez is a Hall of Fame coach, I'll take Gus Malzahn over someone coaching his second game in eight years. Auburn 45, Wisconsin 28 -- Sam Khan Jr.
Why Wisconsin keeps it close: Something tells me Melvin Gordon is going to go out with a bang. And, frankly, nothing I've seen from Auburn makes me believe it will be able to stop him. While the Tigers ultimately should win, Gordon and the Badgers will have enough success running the football to keep things close. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 30 -- Alex Scarborough
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
January 1, 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Why Missouri wins big: Forget the SEC championship game; there's still something about Missouri. Like last season, the Tigers continued to find ways to win. And when they lost in Atlanta in 2013, they went out and beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. I expect more of the same this time around. Missouri 24, Minnesota 14 -- Alex Scarborough
Why Minnesota keeps it close: Weird things always happen during bowl season, and while Minnesota doesn’t exactly wow me, I think this game will be much closer than it should be. The Tigers still have an offense that can drag, while the Gophers are trying to win their first bowl game since 2004, which incidentally came against another SEC team (Alabama). I have a feeling this one will hurt our eyes at times. Missouri 23, Minnesota 21 -- Edward Aschoff
Allstate Sugar Bowl
College Football Playoff semifinal
January 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Alabama wins big: The last thing we remember is Ohio State blowing out Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, and Cardale Jones doing his best Troy Smith impersonation. I’m not sold. I think the young quarterback struggles against this stout Alabama defense. And good luck shutting out the Crimson Tide. That’s not happening with Lane Kiffin calling plays. Alabama has too many playmakers. Alabama 31, Ohio State 7 -- Greg Ostendorf
Why Ohio State keeps it close: The Buckeyes didn't get here by being an average team. This is a really good team. Urban Meyer knows what to expect from a Saban-coached team thanks to his days in the SEC. Cardale Jones showed he can throw the ball well, and that's one thing Alabama had trouble defending in the Iron Bowl. Alabama 31, Ohio State 24 -- Sam Khan Jr.
January 2, 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Why Tennessee wins: On one sideline, you have Tennessee, which won three of its last four games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in years. On the other side, Iowa lost three of its last four. Iowa is better than its record, but I’m putting some faith in Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs. Tennessee 23, Iowa 21 -- David Ching
Why Iowa wins: Butch Jones really appears to have Tennessee moving in the right direction. The Vols probably could -- and should -- have won a couple more games in 2014, but that's why Jones is building. And while there’s absolutely nothing flashy about anything that Iowa does on offense, I think the grinding nature of the Hawkeyes will eventually wear Tennessee’s line down. Expect a couple of costly turnovers from the Vols as well. Iowa 21, Tennessee 17 -- Edward Aschoff
January 3, Noon ET, ESPN
Why Florida wins: East Carolina is great at throwing the ball -- the Pirates are second nationally with 367.3 passing yards per game -- but Florida is equipped to defend that style of offense pretty effectively. It’s hard to know what to expect from a team playing with an interim coach, but I’ll give the Gators a slight edge. Florida 17, East Carolina 14 -- David Ching
Why East Carolina wins: The big question in this one: How genuinely excited is Florida to be in this game? East Carolina, on the other hand, would love to take home an SEC pelt and has the kind of high-scoring offense that could give the Gators' smothering defense trouble. Better days are ahead for Florida's program, but this won't be one of them. East Carolina 27, Florida 21 -- Chris Low
Greg Ostendorf: 89-23
Edward Aschoff: 87-25
David Ching: 86-26
Chris Low: 86-26
Sam Khan Jr.: 84-28
Alex Scarborough: 83-29
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
Why Utah wins: This has tended to be a letdown game for Pac-12 teams in recent years -- the league has lost four of the past five games in the Las Vegas Bowl. But Utah won't be lacking for motivation after returning to the postseason after a two-year absence and Colorado State, despite its strong season, will be a little deflated following Jim McElwain's departure for Florida. -- Chantel Jennings
Why Colorado State wins: Yes, the Rams lost their coach to Florida, but they’re still running on the energy of a 10-2 season and a prolific offense. Receiver Rashard Higgins leads the nation with 17 touchdown catches and Utah is not playing its best ball of the season. I think that’s the difference-maker here. -- David Lombardi
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Why Arizona State wins: Good quarterback. Good running back. Outstanding wide receiver and a defense that gets after it on the blitz more than any team in the country. The “attacking-hybrid” defense will leave the other Devils feeling blue. -- Kevin Gemmell
National University Holiday Bowl
Why Nebraska wins: It would be a fitting start to Mike Riley's tenure at Nebraska, wouldn't it? Although the former Oregon State coach won't be guiding his new team from the sideline, expect the Cornhuskers to make an impression with a victory over a Pac-12 foe. -- Chantel Jennings
Why USC wins: USC is a more talented, athletic team than Nebraska and would win this game without extenuating circumstances, but the acrimonious departure of Bo Pelini figures to leave some Cornhuskers indifferently motivated. Further, the Trojans, whose biggest issue is depth, almost certainly benefited more from a few weeks of off-time to heal various bumps and bruises. -- Ted Miller
Foster Farms Bowl
Why Stanford wins: Defense didn’t win a championship for the Cardinal. But it can win a bowl game against a Maryland team that averages fewer than 30 points per game and only averages 130.4 yards per game on the ground. -- Kevin Gemmell
VIZIO Fiesta Bowl
Why Boise State wins: It’s the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos don’t lose these games. In all seriousness, though, Boise State has ripped off eight straight wins. They’re peaking right now, and Arizona had some wind taken of their sails against Oregon. -- David Lombardi
Why Arizona wins: It's a statement game for Arizona -- and the Pac-12 -- so don't expect the Wildcats to take their opponent lightly. It's been too fine a season for Arizona to end with a blowout loss to Oregon and a defeat at the hands of Boise State. Expect to see some fireworks from the Wildcats' young playmakers on offense as well as trophy-laden linebacker Scooby Wright. -- Chantel Jennings
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
Why Oregon wins: Forget the Heisman versus Heisman storyline. The Ducks take care of the football, plain and simple. Florida State has danced with defeat several times, but other teams have let them off the hook. If they Ducks can force turnovers, they are one of the best teams in the country at making opponents pay. -- Kevin Gemmell
Why Florida State wins: Florida State is getting healthy during the break before this game, while Oregon lost All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a knee injury. That’s a big problem when a team is preparing for Seminoles wide receiver Rashad Greene and quarterback Jameis Winston. Yet it’s Oregon’s greatest strength and Florida State's seeming weakness that will be the difference. The Ducks pretty much dominated every game they won this year. Florida State pretty much didn’t dominate anyone, playing down to foes for three-plus quarters and making their fans squirm in the waning moments. That mental toughness in the fourth quarter will pay off in this one because Oregon won’t dominate the Seminoles, and a tight final frame is when Florida State thrives. -- Ted Miller
Valero Alamo Bowl
Why Kansas State wins: This one starts with motivation, and we’re betting Kansas State has more. UCLA started out in the preseason top 10 and envisioned itself winning the Pac-12 and playing in the College Football Playoff. It’s not unreasonable to suspect the surprising and dispiriting blowout loss to Stanford during the final weekend of the season, which gave Arizona the Pac-12’s South Division crown, will come with an extended hangover. While both offenses have good quarterbacks and explosive playmakers, the Wildcats have been more consistent on defense this year. That will be the difference. -- Ted Miller
Why UCLA wins: I'm taking the opposite side of the argument when it comes to motivation. Bowl games are all about motivation, yes, and the Bruins, with a chip on their shoulder, have a chance to end the season on a high note. Brett Hundley’s finger is healthy and when he’s at his best, there aren’t many teams in the country that can stop him. Plus the Bruins are underdogs. That’s a role they haven’t played much this year, but seem to relish. -- Kevin Gemmell
TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Why Washington wins: The Huskies began to develop a semblance of offensive consistency toward the end of the season, and that makes them a capable all-around team. That certainly should be enough to beat a 6-6 Oklahoma State team that is nothing spectacular this season. -- David Lombardi