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
Hale: Who knows what to make of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tar Heels? Their defense isn’t good, but neither is Rutgers’. The offense looked stagnant in its last outing, but Larry Fedora will have had a month of prep time to fix any flaws. UNC at least beat some quality opponents (Georgia Tech, Duke), while Rutgers was 2-5 against teams that finished .500 or better, allowing 457 yards and 36 points per game. North Carolina 38, Rutgers 28.
Fortuna: Fans of defense will have to close their eyes and look away in horror. Though Marquise Williams has been phenomenal for much of the season, the Rutgers' offense is riding high off its comeback win at Maryland. With the chance at an eight-win season in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. Leonte Carroo will be a handful for a UNC defense that has already seen its coordinator get fired. Rutgers 38, UNC 31
Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
Adelson: The Wolfpack ended the season on a high note after a total domination of in-state rival North Carolina. The defense has started to gain momentum and play a little more aggressively, while the run game has started to find some footing, too. Jacoby Brissett and Shadrach Thornton each had 100 yards rushing against the Tar Heels. Look for that combination to be the difference. NC State 28, UCF 27.
Shanker: UCF has their own Jacoby to combat NC State’s Brissett. The Knights' Jacoby Glenn was the AAC’s defensive player of the year. UCF will keep NC State offense in check and score just enough points. UCF 24, NC State 17
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman
Adelson: The Hokies have not been consistently reliable this season, but they did show signs of life offensively last time out against Virginia. J.C. Coleman ran hard -- and that run game will be a big key against a Cincinnati run D that ranks No. 80 in the nation. Here is betting Virginia Tech will get its run game going to make the difference. Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21.
Shanker: This should be an interesting battle of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Cincinnati’s offense and Virginia Tech’s defense are among the country’s best. Each team’s other unit is among the worst. The Bearcats will have more motivation in this game, though. Cincinnati 20, Virginia Tech 17
Duck Commander Independence Bowl
Shanker: It was an ugly finish for Miami, but South Carolina couldn’t beat a Clemson team that had a one-legged Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Miami 23, South Carolina 14
Adelson: In a game that presents such even matchups, this one might come down to coaching. That is where South Carolina has the edge. Miami has lost four straight bowl games; South Carolina has won three straight. The Hurricanes have shown no motivation to play; Spurrier will find one for the Gamecocks. South Carolina 27, Miami 24.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Fortuna: Points will be hard to come by at Yankee Stadium. Penn State might have the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, but it struggled the one time it faced a mobile quarterback in J.T. Barrett, as Ohio State rushed for 219 yards. Tyler Murphy is an even bigger threat with his legs, and he'll be able to make a few big plays that will ultimately prove to be the difference for an Eagles team that just keeps getting better. BC 17, Penn State 13
Hale: OK, Penn State’s offense isn’t much to rave about, but what has been lost in the Nittany Lions’ season is that the defense has been exceptional. Penn State allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground -- tops in the country -- which could negate BC’s top offensive threats. Expect a low-scoring game, with the Lions having a slight edge. Penn State 17, BC 14
Russell Athletic Bowl
Adelson: It is hard to forget how different Clemson looks offensively with Cole Stoudt behind center, so all the attention in this one will be squarely focused on the Tigers' No. 1-ranked defense. Oklahoma expects Samaje Perine to play, but he will not have much running room against Vic Beasley & Co. Clemson 20, Oklahoma 17
Hale: Since their respective regular-season finales, Oklahoma has gotten healthier and Clemson has learned it will be without star QB Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ D is terrific, and perhaps that will be enough to secure a win, but odds are the offense is going to have to muster at least a few sustained drives, and Cole Stoudt is averaging just 5.6 yards-per-attempt since Oct. 1 with four TDs and eight interceptions. Oklahoma 17, Clemson 13
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Adelson: Duke has improved defensively this season, but the Blue Devils have not faced many teams as explosive as Arizona State. Plus, they beat only one team with a winning record. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but Arizona State has a better body of work and offense, so expect a Sun Devils victory. Arizona State 35, Duke 28.
Fortuna: These types of games usually come down to who has more to play for, and in this case it is certainly Duke. The Blue Devils are aiming for their second straight 10-win season and for their first bowl win in 53 years after falling just short against Johnny Football last year. Expect a clean offensive performance and just enough stops on defense to escape victorious. Duke 34, ASU 27
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Hale: The Fighting Irish have lost five of six and didn’t beat a team with better than a 7-5 record this season. LSU’s offense might not be stellar, but the Tigers took Alabama to overtime, fell five points shy of beating Mississippi State and have wins over Wisconsin and Ole Miss. We’ll take the LSU defense, with just enough help from Leonard Fournette, to get the job done. LSU 24, Notre Dame 20.
Fortuna: Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his work cut out for him in trying to stop a Bulldogs offense that's No. 8 nationally in scoring (41.7 ppg), but his defensive unit has been among the nation's best as well. If quarterback Reggie Bonnafon is at full health, he and the Louisville run game should be able to open things up for DeVante Parker and the passing attack. Louisville 31, Georgia 24
Shanker: Louisville’s sixth-ranked defense is allowing 364 yards per game against teams with winning records. Behind Nick Chubb, Georgia will be able to score. Georgia 30, Louisville 24
Capital One Orange Bowl
Hale: The bottom line for the Yellow Jackets is that the D has to do a much better job against Dak Prescott than it did against Jameis Winston in the ACC Championship Game. If Prescott gets time to move in the pocket and make throws downfield, it will be hard to corral Mississippi State. If Tech’s D can limit his big plays and force a couple turnovers, the offense will do more than enough to get the win. We’re betting on the latter. Georgia Tech 41, Mississippi State 38
Fortuna: The Bulldogs' rush defense has been solid (No. 31 nationally), which should improve with nearly a month to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. MSU also has a really good quarterback in Dak Prescott, who was near the top of the Heisman discussion before losing at Alabama. The Yellow Jackets need to force several Prescott turnovers to give their offense a chance to have its desired effect, and that might be a tall order. Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 30
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
Adelson: The Seminoles are in a different position -- playing as the underdog. There is little doubt that will serve as motivation. But beyond the intangibles, Florida State will find a way to win behind Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook, who has emerged to make the Seminoles more balanced and effective. Florida State 35, Oregon 31
Shanker: It was tough to pull the trigger on Oregon after going with Florida State all season. The rash of injuries are continuing for Oregon, but I think they will be able to run the ball effectively against the Seminoles. The Ducks will blow an early lead but put together a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Oregon 35, Florida State 34
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Shanker: Both teams lost their coach, so it will be interesting to see how each team responds. The talent is clearly in the Panthers’ favor as they have James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense. Pitt 31, Houston 13
2. Oregon corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a serious knee injury this week that knocked him out of the playoffs and likely all workouts leading to the 2015 NFL Draft. In case he's wondering why he returned for this season instead of turning pro, let his own words remind him why he stayed at Oregon. Here's what he told me in April: “You always think about the what-ifs….Where I am now is the best place I can be at this moment in my life…I still wanted to be a college student and still experience this last year of college that you probably won't have a chance to ever do again.”
3. All 10 Big Ten bowl teams are underdogs, but before you mock the league, remember a couple of things. Only two league teams play a bowl in the Big Ten footprint, and I'm just not sure one of them, Rutgers, will have a home-field advantage in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Most of the others have road games: Maryland versus Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl, Nebraska versus USC in the Qualcomm Holiday Bowl; Michigan State versus Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic; and, of course, Ohio State versus Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Bowls are not tailor-made for Big Ten teams, but we love them all the same, right?
Though the Big 12 fell short in this season’s battle for the playoff, there will be another one to wage in 2015. The conference can take steps to ensure it doesn’t get left out again next season, notably by crafting a way to finally crown only One True Champion. But the Big 12 can also send a 2015 message to the playoff selection committee through a triumphant 2014 bowl season.
Though out of the playoff, the Big 12 is hardly devoid of high-profile matchups against name teams this bowl season. And a successful bowl record would cement national perception of the strength and depth of the Big 12 while setting the conference up for a run at the playoff next season.
"It won’t help us this year," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. "But it would help for next year."
That starts with conference co-champs Baylor and TCU, which play in the prestigious New Year’s Six bowls against opponents that were ranked in the top 10 for most of the season.
The Bears will face Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The defensive-minded Spartans went 10-2, with their only two losses coming against playoff teams Oregon and Ohio State. Michigan State won the Big Ten last season, and boasts the nation’s seventh-ranked defense.
"There's a statement to be made just for us nationwide," said Baylor safety Orion Stewart. "To show (the nation) that we really have one of the best programs in the country."
The same way the Bears’ loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl last season hurt Baylor’s standing, a win against Michigan State would solidify the Bears as a title contender again in 2015, even without quarterback Bryce Petty. Especially if the Bears can light up the scoreboard against Michigan State, which surrendered more than 31 points just twice all season (to the Ducks and Buckeyes).
"We're playing one of the greatest teams in America, Michigan State," said Baylor coach Art Briles. "There have been four football programs that have played in back-to-back BCS (level) games; you're talking to one of them (Baylor) and Michigan State is one of them, (along with) Florida State and Alabama. That's pretty good company in my book."
TCU will also be in good company in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The playoff committee had Ole Miss in the top four in its first two playoff rankings before the Rebels stumbled against LSU and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Still, Ole Miss bounced back to hammer fourth-ranked Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl to claim a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Like Michigan State, Ole Miss features one of the best defenses in the country, with a unit that leads the nation in scoring defense with an average allowance of just 13.8 points per game. The Rebels flashed how dynamic they can be when they downed Alabama early in the season.
"(Our team) wanted to play somebody that was a caliber of a top-five team," said TCU coach Patterson, "and we feel like Ole Miss is that team."
In 2015, TCU will bring back quarterback Trevone Boykin and nine other offensive starters, meaning the Horned Frogs could be primed for another run at the playoff next season. A victory against a quality SEC West opponent would position TCU well for the start of 2015. And a Big 12 sweep in the Cotton and Peach bowls against top-10 competition would reaffirm that the best of the Big 12 can play with anyone in the country.
"Ole Miss is a team that was as high as third in the nation, that played at a very high level, that could have been in the playoffs, lost a couple heartbreakers," Patterson said. "We feel like this is a playoff game."
The two New Year's Six bowls, however, aren’t the only opportunities for the Big 12 to deliver statements.
In the Valero Alamo Bowl, Kansas State meets UCLA, a team that was in playoff contention until late in the season. Oklahoma takes on ACC power Clemson and college football's No. 1-ranked total defense in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
In the Autozone Liberty Bowl and Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, West Virginia and Texas have a chance to land wins against SEC West opponents Texas A&M and Arkansas, respectively.
Even Oklahoma State takes on a talented Washington team in the TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Sure, there are no easy bowl games for the Big 12. But every win will count toward forging the league’s reputation for 2015.
"I was shocked (the Big 12 was left out of the playoff) based on the strength of this league from top to bottom," Gundy said. "We can’t have this many good football teams in this league and not get one in the top four. We can’t allow that to happen again."
The Big 12 can take steps off the field to ensure it doesn’t happen.
But in the meantime, the Big 12 can take some big steps on the field this bowl season, too.
That threat mostly comes in the form of TCU All-American quarterback Trevone Boykin, who electrified the nation this season with 4,411 total yards of offense and 39 total touchdowns. Boykin’s on-field talents have been dazzling to watch, just like a quarterback who just left the SEC in 2014.
“Boykin, they’ve got great players around him, but he’s a different animal,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told reporters this week.
“He reminds me of Johnny Manziel when we had to play and defend him. He’s very similar to that.”
“It’s always a red flag for a defense when you’ve got a quarterback is that caliber [of player],” Ole Miss All-American cornerback Senquez Golson said. “They have a lot of athletes; they make a lot of plays. It’s definitely one of the better offenses we’ll face this year.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think we could have had a better matchup. This is really going to put our defense to the test and see what we got.”
Added linebacker Serderius Bryant: “You think about it as you get to play Johnny again.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound firecracker helped push the sixth-ranked Horned Frogs (11-1) to the tip of the College Football Playoff behind the nation’s No. 4 offense (542.2 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (46.8 points per game). TCU has scored 40-plus points eight times and hit 82 against Texas Tech, a game in which Boykin threw seven touchdowns.
Boykin and that spread offense are scary, but the Rebels present an equally as imposing defense for the Frogs to handle in this year's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. Ole Miss owns the nation’s best scoring defense (13.8 points per game and 18 touchdowns allowed) and the No. 13 defense overall, allowing 321.2 yards per game.
The best defense TCU has faced this year? That would be Texas’ 26th-ranked defense (348.3) That isn’t bad at all, but the Horned Frogs piled on 34 points and gained a season-low 368 yards.
So how does Ole Miss’ defense, which spent the entire season near the top of the SEC, plan to stop Boykin and that fantastic offense? Bryant says the key is containing Boykin and combating speed with, well, speed – something Bryant says is the best he’s seen on Ole Miss’ defense during his four-year career.
The Rebels struggled with containing the middle of the field against Manziel when he took off under duress. Ole Miss collapsed the pocket well and took away his receivers at times, but they left themselves vulnerable up the middle, where Manziel absolutely gashed the Rebels, rushing for a combined 253 yards in those two games.
This season, Bryant said with increased speed at linebacker, the Rebels have been better equipped against running quarterbacks. The best rushing performances by QBs against Ole Miss this season were from Louisiana-Lafayette’s Terrance Broadway (59 yards) and Auburn’s Nick Marshall (50 yards and two touchdowns).
Boykin rushed for 642 yards and averaged 54.7 yards per game, but he likes to make a lot of plays outside the pocket, whether it’s running or throwing. That means the Rebels will have have to spy on him and collapse the pocket while being disciplined across the line of scrimmage and filling run gaps in order to take away potential big plays from Boykin’s arm and legs.
“As soon as he takes that step forward and tries to run, the defense is going to collapse on him,” Bryant said. “… If everyone knows that, it’s going to happen.”
Boykin is a special player, but the TCU offense can hurt teams in so many ways. Running back Aaron Green is averaging 7.7 yards per carry (854 rushing yards), and five players grabbed at least 29 receptions, including wide receiver Josh Doctson, who led the team in catches (59), yards (959) and touchdowns (nine).
There’s motion, space and quickness to frustrate a defense, and the Rebels know they’ll be on high alert.
“That’s how they put up big points,” Bryant said. “They put up points in all senses with throwing a lot of different things that confuse defensive coordinators. We have to get ready for that.”
But TCU also has to be ready for the Rebels, who held top SEC offenses at Alabama and Mississippi State to less than 20 points this year. The Rebels' defense has been impressive in its own right, and to Golson, he hasn’t seen a better defense face TCU.
“I’m really excited to find out, but I don’t think so,” he said. “… It might be even more exciting for us because we get to face this type of offense. It’s always exciting to play a team out of conference, so I’m just glad we’re playing a team like TCU.”
Alabama CB Tony Brown: Nick Saban and his coaching staff seem to find a way to make the most out of the extended bowl practices. Take last year, for example, when they brought along a true freshman by the name of Derrick Henry, who went on to obliterate Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. This time, don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie cornerback, Brown. He has seen the field his fair share this season, but been kept on a short leash because of his inexperience. Well, now the five-star talent has 13 games under his belt, and he could be the answer to Alabama’s struggles at cornerback.
Ohio State: LB Darron Lee: Considering that he’s only two years removed from playing quarterback and safety in high school, it’s pretty remarkable that the redshirt freshman was able to crack the starting rotation at linebacker so quickly for the Buckeyes. But Lee has done far more than just earn playing time this season, he’s rapidly developed into one of the team’s best playmakers and looks like a perfect fit in the mold left behind by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He may not be a finished product yet, but with the ability to cover the entire field thanks to his elite athleticism, Lee stuffed the stats sheet with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns during his first campaign as a starter. The Buckeyes may have bigger stars on the defense heading into the Sugar Bowl, but they’ll need Lee at his best to leave with a victory.
Leonard Williams, No. 50 in 2012 class
Williams was not a nationally talked about prospect through his junior season, but that all changed in the late spring of 2011 through his senior season. The Under Armour All-America Game alumni ended up signing with the USC, with the Trojans pulling the major upset over Florida, Florida State and Auburn for the Dayton Beach (Fla.) Mainland product. Williams was part of a Top 10 USC class that included Nelson Agholor, and offensive linemen Zach Banner, Max Tuerk, and Jordan Simmons.
Williams burst onto the scene as a freshman in Los Angeles. He not only appeared in all 13 games, but also started nine at defensive tackle. He had 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Following the season, he was named to various All-Pac 12 and Freshman All-American teams.
Williams moved to defensive end as a sophomore, and his dominance remained the same. In 13 starts, the 2013 All-Pac-12 first team selection recorded 74 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks.
In 2014, Williams' junior and likely final season at USC, he started 12 games making 71 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and six sacks, again earning All-Pac-12 postseason honors. He was named AP All-American second team this week.
Should Williams forgo his final season of eligibility as expected, he is a near lock to be selected in the Top 10 picks of the 2015 NFL draft.
Honorable mention: LeSean McCoy, No. 50 in 2006 class. McCoy was originally headed to Miami (FL) out of high school, but the firing of Larry Coker led the explosive back to Pittsburgh to play for then head coach Dave Wannstedt after a year at prep school. He played only two years for the Panthers before heading to the NFL due to being three years removed from high school. After 3,365 all-purpose yards and 36 touchdowns in two seasons at Pittsburgh, McCoy was selected in the second round (No. 53 overall) by the Philadelphia Eagles. He has been selected to Pro Bowl’s following the 2011 and 2013 seasons. Two prospects ranked No. 50 that played at Florida -- Xavier Nixon (2009 class) and Jaylen Watkins (2010 class) -- currently play in the NFL. Ohio State sophomore safety Vonn Bell, No. 50 in 2013, is expected to be a high NFL draft choice in the next couple of years.
Four games ago, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher made a bold switch along the offensive line in the midst of an undefeated season. Before the Nov. 15 game against Miami, just as starting center Austin Barron was cleared to play after fracturing his forearm back in early October, Fisher moved all-conference performer Cam Erving from left tackle to center. That meant true freshman Roderick Johnson was being inserted at left tackle, the position responsible for Jameis Winston’s blind side.
Fisher’s roll of the dice worked. The Seminoles are averaging 146 yards rushing over their past four games -- not a sizable difference -- but they are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. They averaged less than four yards per rush in September. And in the ACC title game, FSU averaged 5.42 yards per rush, a stat that helped carry them to the No. 3 playoff seed and a date against No. 2 Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
"We got great size," said Josue Matias, who is the link between Johnson and Erving at left guard. "We got intimidation off the bus. It just has a different attitude."
As early as this spring, Erving was being groomed as a potential center. Fisher originally said it was strictly for emergencies that Erving would play center, but as the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Johnson continued to hold his own in fall practice against a talented FSU defensive line, Fisher felt at some point during the season he would be able to move Erving to center.
At 308 pounds, Erving is the smallest player on the line, but he’s also maybe the most athletic. As the offensive line anchor, Erving has been effective firing off as a run blocker, but also when he’s pulling.
"Athletically you can see our difference, and in height and weight and you don’t really drop off with Rod at left tackle," right tackle Bobby Hart said.
Erving, one of the team leaders, praised the effort of Barron and fellow center Ryan Hoefeld, but he said the chemistry of this starting five just seems to be better.
"It’s all about chemistry on the offensive line," Erving said. "You got to know what each other is thinking and how you’re going to do each block. The chemistry is coming together better."
Through the first nine games, despite Florida State winning them all, there were legitimate questions as to whether the Seminoles could win a second straight national title without an effective running game. And the offensive line had struggled to protect Winston at times. The new structure of the offensive line potentially returns Florida State to its perch among football’s most talented groups as it hits its stride.
The lack of an effective run game and inconsistent offensive line play put the offense, and specifically Winston, in a weekly bind. Winston was forced to shoulder too much of the offense. Winston averaged 38.5 passing attempts per game in October. That number has dropped to 32 over the past four games.
"We’ve taken on a new identity," Erving said.
With the playoffs only two weeks away, the shift has come at the perfect time.
Alabama: WR Christion Jones: Chances are that Alabama will need a receiver not named Amari Cooper to make plays. With several weeks to prepare, it stands to reason that the Ohio State staff will find a way to bracket Alabama’s Heisman Trophy finalist and force quarterback Blake Sims to look elsewhere. So pay attention to Jones. The senior has the moves to make people miss in the open field and the speed to get behind the defense. At 13.9 yards per catch, he can make Ohio State pay for focusing too much on Cooper. And for good measure, don't miss Jones on kickoffs and punt returns. Though he hasn't struck paydirt with a touchdown on special teams yet this season, someone with his athleticism is due to break free at some point.
Ohio State: WR Devin Smith: A pretty straightforward formula has emerged during the senior wideout’s career, and it hasn’t failed yet. When Smith catches a touchdown, the Buckeyes win. They are 20-0 when Smith has a TD reception. Is that any good? But this season Smith has taken it even further -- when he’s at his best, Ohio State’s already high-powered offense becomes downright unstoppable. In the two biggest matchups of the season, on the road against Michigan State and in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Smith was a nightmare as a deep threat, unleashing his speed, incredible leaping ability and knack for making tough grabs all at once to kick the Buckeyes into their highest gear. He combined for 10 catches for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns in those wins, and Alabama’s secondary will have to account for him in New Orleans.
Wire service photosAmari Cooper, left, and Marcus Mariota helped their teams meet preseason FPI projections.
Below is a breakdown of how FPI performed throughout the year. Which preseason projections were correct? How accurate was FPI at predicting games? This is designed to be unfiltered and informative, so if you have questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below and we will do our best to answer.
As a quick reminder, ESPN’s Football Power Index is a forward-looking system designed to order each FBS team by which is most likely to beat an average team on a neutral field. FPI is intended to measure team strength, not evaluate a team’s résumé for the playoff, to best predict future performance. Once team strength is captured, FPI can be used to go through each team’s remaining schedule to produce game and season projections (expected W-L, chance to win conference, chance to win out, etc.).
FPI was improved this season to allow for preseason projections. Factored into the preseason ratings were prior years’ efficiencies (offensive, defensive and special teams), recruiting data, coaching tenure and information on returning starters.
Where FPI was correct in the preseason
• Preseason top 3: The top three teams in preseason FPI -- Florida State, Oregon and Alabama -- performed as expected. Ohio State was ranked sixth until days before the season when Braxton Miller injured his shoulder and returning starter information was adjusted. The Buckeyes dropped to 12th.
• Preseason W-L projections: Team strength must be weighed with the difficulty of a team’s schedule to accurately predict win totals. The teams ranked fourth through sixth in preseason FPI -- UCLA, Auburn and Stanford -- had some of the toughest schedules in the nation. Therefore, FPI predicted that they would lose more than three games on average (and they did). The five teams that FPI projected for the highest win totals were the only five teams in the nation with 12 or more wins. Similarly, the top five teams from Power 5 conferences in projected win total finished the season as the top five teams in the final CFP rankings.
Along those same lines, FPI projected that Florida State had a 38 percent chance to enter bowls undefeated and no other FBS team had more than a 10 percent chance to win out. The Seminoles are the only undefeated FBS team. The second-most likely team to go unbeaten in the preseason -- Marshall -- had a great chance to accomplish that feat through 11 games.
• Conference projections: Seven of the 10 preseason FPI favorites to win a conference went on to do so, including four of the six that were given the highest chances. The three FPI favorites that didn’t win were in the Big 12 (Oklahoma), Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette) and American (Houston). In the case of the Big 12, Oklahoma (35 percent) and Baylor (33 percent) were very close in the preseason. The Big Ten is an interesting case. FPI favored Ohio State to win the conference without Miller, despite most of the public picking Michigan State.
Where FPI was incorrect in the preseason
• Teams FPI underestimated: Georgia Southern, TCU and Georgia Tech
Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern was transitioning to the FBS, and FPI underestimated the explosiveness of its offense, which finished 23rd in offensive efficiency. FPI projected that the Eagles would finish about 4-8, but they ended the year with a 9-3 record.
After finishing 4-8 last year, TCU’s improvement in 2014 was a surprise to many. FPI had the Horned Frogs 36th in its preseason rankings, which was higher than most but still significantly below their current fifth-place ranking. FPI was high on TCU’s defense (seventh in the preseason) but did not envision its offensive improvement after it ranked 99th in offensive efficiency in 2013. Overall, FPI projected that the Horned Frogs would enter bowls with around seven wins, and they have won 11 games.
Georgia Tech lost 11 starters, including its quarterback, from last year's seven-win team. In the preseason, FPI projected that the Yellow Jackets would win about six games and had a 5 percent chance to win the ACC Coastal Division. Instead, Georgia Tech reached 10 wins for the first time since 2009, and the Yellow Jackets seek their first Orange Bowl win since 1951.
Michigan was returning 15 starters, including quarterback Devin Gardner, to a team that had four of its six losses come by a combined 11 points last season. The Wolverines were ranked 18th in preseason FPI and were projected to have the 16th-best defense in the country. FPI projected that the Wolverines would have about four more wins than they actually did, marking its biggest miss this year.
Texas Tech was supposed to have a top-10 offense this year, but injuries and turnovers stymied the Red Raiders' air attack. And no Power 5 team finished the regular season with a lower defensive efficiency than Texas Tech. It’s safe to say that preseason FPI whiffed on four-win Texas Tech.
South Carolina was ninth in the preseason Associated Press poll, so FPI was not alone in its overestimation of the Gamecocks. Since South Carolina had a favorable divisional schedule, FPI projected that it had the best chance to win the SEC East and the second-best chance to win the SEC. The Gamecocks finished with three conference wins, four fewer than SEC East champion Missouri.
While the preseason ratings served as the basis for FPI, an important part of the system is that it learns from each game during the season and adjusts appropriately as teams play better or worse than expected. This mechanism allows FPI to be fluid as the season goes on, which improves prediction accuracy from week to week.
The team FPI favored won 77 percent of FBS-only games this season, which is better than the win percentage of the Vegas closing-line favorite. There were 50 games in which FPI and the Vegas line differed on the favorite; FPI went 28-22 (56 percent) in those games, including 17-10 in the final eight weeks.
Interestingly, FPI exceeded expectations in games involving teams that finished the season ranked in the CFP Top 25. Most systems would be expected to correctly predict about 66 percent of such games, but the FPI favorite was 34-12 (74 percent), including 18-2 in the final five weeks.
There were certain teams that FPI had a grasp on and others that baffled the system. There were 10 teams, including Michigan State, Clemson, Washington, Florida State and Texas Tech, for which FPI correctly predicted all of their FBS versus FBS games. Add in another 28 teams for which FPI correctly predicted all but one game and the system had a very good understanding of about a third of the FBS.
Texas Tech is a great example of how FPI adjusts as the season progresses. As noted above, FPI was high on the Red Raiders in the preseason but quickly learned of their flaws and adjusted its in-season projections accordingly. FPI correctly identified the favorite in all 11 of Texas Tech’s FBS games.
On the other end, there were five teams -- Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Akron, Utah and Air Force -- where the FPI favorite lost in more than half of the games. Missouri and Texas A&M also were tough to predict with their fluctuating performances.
We have been able to retroactively apply FPI to the past 10 seasons. Since 2005, FPI has correctly predicted 75 percent of FBS games. It is on pace to have its second-best pick percentage in a season but will finish the year far from its 79.5 correct-pick percentage in 2013.
For those looking for a little bowl advice, FPI projects that Marshall (79 percent), Stanford (79 percent) and Georgia (77 percent) are the most likely teams to win their bowl games, and Navy (60 percent) is the Vegas underdog most likely to win.