So much for Oregon, injury riddled much of the year, getting healthy for its Rose Bowl matchup with Florida State in the College Football Playoff. So much for the A-list matchup between Ducks All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday, and Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene.

So much for the Ducks hitting their earnest preparation for, potentially, the program's first college football national title with positive momentum.

Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, but we do and this is a bad one. Oregon, when it does at least acknowledge that a key player might be hurt, reverts to the mantra, "Next man in," and that will be the case here. But the Ducks next man in at cornerback won't be anyone close to Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-American. While Oregon will don all-green uniforms for the Rose Bowl, the guy who steps in for Ekpre-Olomu might as well show up in highlighter yellow -- an actual Ducks uniform option! -- based on how the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are going to view him.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
It's likely senior Dior Mathis will get the call. The fifth-year senior has seen a lot of action but he has been unable to break into the starting lineup. Or the Ducks could go with promising youngster Chris Seisay, a redshirt freshman who was listed behind Ekpre-Olomu on the depth chart in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. At 6-foot-1, Seisay, who started against Wyoming in place of Troy Hill, brings better size to field than the 5-foot-9 Mathis -- or the 5-10 Ekpre-Olomu for that matter -- but it's not encouraging when the laudatory remark next to his name on the depth chart is "has tackles in five straight games."

Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who has been a starter since midway through his freshman year, has 63 tackles and nine passes defended, including two interceptions, this season. While he's been notably beaten a few times, there were whispers that he was playing through some bumps and bruises that were slowing him down. He was one of many Ducks who were expected to greatly benefit from nearly a month off.

Suddenly losing a star like Ekpre-Olomu is about more than a starting lineup, though. It also takes an emotional toll on a team, both during preparation as well as the game. The Ducks secondary loses its best player -- a potential first-round NFL draft pick -- and a veteran leader, a guy everyone counted on. Think Mathis or Seisay will have some butterflies when they see Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards this season, coming his way? Think Oregon's safeties will be asked to play differently than they have all season with Ifo in street clothes?

The Ducks secondary will be less talented and less confident without Ekpre-Olomu.

Injuries? Oregon's had a few. It lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnston, a 26-game starter, and No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison before the season began. It saw emerging tight end Pharaoh Brown go down on Nov. 8 against Utah. It's been without All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu for three games. It's seen several other key players miss games, including offensive tackle Jake Fisher, running back Thomas Tyner and defensive end Arik Armstead.

Yet the general feeling was the Ducks had survived. And, in fact, thrived, scrapping their way to the No. 2 seed in the CFP. By scrapping we mean winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points since suffering their lone loss to Arizona.

That, in itself, will be something the Oregon locker room will look at and point to as it gets ready for FSU. This is an elite program, one that can overcome adversity, even an injury to perhaps the team's second-best player behind a certain guy who plays behind center.

But there is no changing the fact that Oregon is worse without Ekpre-Olomu, and against a team like FSU, the defending national champions and winners of 29 consecutive games, you don't want to be at anything but your best.
The last time we saw Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight in action during the holiday bowl season, he was making Alabama’s defense look like the Philadelphia 76ers.

This time around, Oklahoma is hoping Knight will provide a much-needed boost and balance to the Sooners' attack.

The sophomore quarterback was cleared to return to practice last Saturday and has been practicing with the team as the Sooners prepare to face Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 29. Knight missed Oklahoma's final three games after suffering a neck injury against Baylor on Nov. 8.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight, Oklahoma
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight became a breakout star in last season's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
“He’s doing everything right now as he always did,” coach Bob Stoops said. “The key part is after practice he’s feeling good, it isn’t taking a toll on him.”

Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas started during Knight’s absence but struggled to keep defenses honest with his passing. Thomas passed for 292 combined yards in those three games as the Sooners leaned on the excellence of freshman running back Samaje Perine, who rushed for at least 150 yards in each of those games. Oklahoma went 2-1 with Thomas starting, with victories over Texas Tech and Kansas before its Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State as the Sooners rushed for 1,198 yards during that three-game span.

Knight’s return should bring confidence to the passing game, even though the sophomore has had plenty of ups and downs of his own during his first season as the unquestioned starter in Norman. The San Antonio native has been brilliant at times, highlighted by his 376 total yards and six touchdowns in a 59-14 win over Iowa State on Nov. 1. When Knight returned to practice this week, he hasn’t looked like a guy who has been out of action for more than a month.

“Trevor actually looks like himself; he looks great,” tackle Daryl Williams said. “It looked like he never left.”

Knight averaged 244.1 passing yards per game in nine starts this season and led the Big 12 with an Adjusted QBR of 80. He finished 162-of-279 for 2,197 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games. While Knight clearly has improved in his second season, his overall performance has been overshadowed by three critical interceptions that helped lead to losses to TCU, Kansas State and Baylor.

With Knight at quarterback, the Sooners passed for less than 200 yards twice in nine games and were unable to eclipse that mark in all three games with Thomas as quarterback. Knight’s sophomore campaign has showed he is still a young quarterback prone to game-changing mistakes, yet he remains the Sooners’ best hope for balance on offense against Clemson.

“Trevor has looked good,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “When we’ve gone against him [in practice], he’s looked the same. He’s ready, he’s back and he’s looking good, real good.”
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A flurry of commitments and decommitments has led to considerable movement in the latest class rankings update. Several top-10 programs added ESPN 300 prospects, including Tennessee, which picked up top-10 ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols already have a class that features a talented group of defensive linemen, and have now added a big, powerful inside linebacker that can develop into a tough downhill run-stopper. Butch Jones now has Tennessee in contention for a second-straight top-five finish.

Outside the top 10, USC landed a verbal from in-state tight end Tyler Petite, a tall, lengthy prospect with the size, speed and leaping ability to potentially create mismatches as a receiving target at the position. After landing the former Duke commit, USC's class features eight ESPN 300 prospects.

Ole Miss also saw a move up in the rankings with a pair of additions. The Rebels landed ESPN Junior College 50 QB Chad Kelly, a player who is physically gifted enough to be a strong candidate to replace QB Bo Wallace, a one-time junior college transfer himself. Ole Miss, who not sits at No. 17, also landed ESPN 300 OT Michael Howard. He is a lean OL prospect that needs to fill out, but is an athletic and tenacious player and with development could end up being a real strong pick-up out of Florida for the Rebels.

Inside the rankings

Coach Art Briles has had two very distinct luxuries when it comes to recruiting in today's complicated landscape -- recruiting in the shadows and recruiting without pressure. Both are actually in many ways, one in the same. As Briles has built this program, he's been able to do it his way without public pressure or booster interference because early on, nobody thought it could be done and nobody cared.

This staff was able to go after who they wanted, on their own timetable and without much scrutiny. In today's recruiting world, that's a huge luxury. Players like Levi Norwood, Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese, who was a late qualifier, were all bypassed by other Power 5 programs, but nobody even noticed Baylor signed them or griped, "who are these guys" on signing day.

As a result, prospects like these were brought along at a normal pace and developed properly by the coaching staff. Redshirting the bulk of the classes for the first few years has also been huge for the Bears. The challenge going forward will be dealing with increased program exposure and expectation level which almost always brings with it increased recruiting scrutiny from boosters and fans alike. But the Bears don??t need to change a thing.



To see the full class rankings, click here.
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The College Football Playoff will replace former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck on its selection committee, as Luck has taken a job with the NCAA. The Big 12 will nominate a replacement, and the playoff’s management committee will review the nomination and make the final decision by this spring.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, said he thinks the candidate will be another sitting athletic director, “But we won’t know for sure until the spring.”

Knowing the candidate will have Big 12 roots, will likely be a sitting athletic director, and possibly have a football background as either a coach or a player, here’s an educated guess as to who might be considered:

Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt: From Texas? Check. Played football? Check. Big 12 grad? Double check (K-State and Oklahoma). Hocutt has his bachelor’s degree from K-State, where he was a four-year letterman at linebacker and led the conference in tackles as a junior. He also received his master’s degree from Oklahoma. Hocutt is the Big 12’s representative on the NCAA Division I Leadership Council and is also the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Recruiting Subcommittee. The only knock on Hocutt is that he’s relatively young in comparison to some of the veterans currently on the committee. Still, he’s established throughout the Big 12. When Hocutt was previously hired as Miami’s athletic director, he got a glowing review from Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. Speaking of the ideal candidate ...

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione: He’s highly regarded nationally. There’s just one problem: Castiglione was recently reappointed to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee for a three-year term, ending after the 2015-16 season. It’s difficult enough serving on one selection committee, but the two biggest in college sports? Doubtful.

Former Texas coach Mack Brown: If the playoff is looking for a household name from the Big 12, Brown is one of the biggest names out there right now, and he’d fit in well with current committee members and former coaches Tom Osborne, Barry Alvarez and Tyrone Willingham. After 16 seasons at Texas, where he led the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS National Championship, an appearance in the 2009 BCS National Championship and two other BCS bowl wins, Brown joined ESPN as a college football analyst. He’s probably paying more attention now to the national picture than he ever did before.

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger: After playing football at Fort Hays State and MidAmerica Nazarene University, Zenger finished his undergraduate degree at Kansas State. His first college football coaching job came at Drake University right after graduation. He’s a coach at heart, and K-State coach Bill Snyder can vouch for it. In 1989, at age 23, Zenger joined Snyder's staff as one of the nation's youngest full-time football staff members. He was an assistant recruiting coordinator and director of football operations.

TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte: He might win the people’s choice award for his sense of humor and candor, but he was also blunt about his disappointment in TCU dropping from No. 3 to No. 6 in the CFP committee’s final ranking. ESPN’s Travis Haney wrote last week that Del Conte vented to Hancock about it because he felt the program had been given false hope. Del Conte has put his stamp on TCU's program by ushering it into the Big 12, but like his program, Del Conte’s ties to the Big 12 are still in their infancy. He has spent some significant time in Texas, though, as Del Conte was also athletic director at Rice for 3 ½ years.
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

EJ Manuel, No. 51 in 2008 class

Manuel was a highly coveted quarterback coming out of Bayside high in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In what wasn't a close recruitment, Manuel chose Florida State over LSU and others in June 2007 due in large part to his relationship with Jimbo Fisher, and the positive vibe he got around Florida State players and commitments. Manuel was part of a 2008 class that included Nigel Bradham and Nigel Carr, among many others.

After redshirting in 2008, Manuel served as the backup in 2009 to future NFL first-round selection Christian Ponder before an injury to Ponder forced Manuel into the starting lineup. Manuel responded going 3-1 to end the season and keeping Bobby Bowden from leaving his final season in Tallahassee with a losing record. Manuel earned Gator Bowl MVP honors after leading the Seminoles to a win against West Virginia.

Manuel was again the backup in 2010 for the most part, making two starts against Clemson and Virginia Tech after an injury to Ponder. He came in for the injured Ponder in the second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and led the Noles to a 26-17 win against South Carolina. He threw for 861 yards and four touchdowns in 2010.

Manuel became a full-time starter in 2011, passing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns, which included a third straight bowl win, this time a victory over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl in which Manuel threw for 249 yards and two scores.

As a fifth-year senior, Manuel led Florida State to a 12-2 record and a BCS Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois, the Seminoles' first BCS Bowl win since 2000. On the season, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel passed for 3,392 yards and 23 touchdowns earning All-ACC honors.

Manuel was the 16th overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills.

Honorable mention: Damore'ea Stringfellow, No. 51 in 2013 class. Stringfellow chose Washington over USC and others. After a 20-reception, 259 yards freshman season at Washington, Stringfellow was dismissed from the program. Now at Ole Miss, the former Under Armour All-America Game selection will be eligible in 2015 and is expected to become a starter with high-ceiling potential.
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota will try to use his accuracy to hand Jameis Winston his first career defeat.
The College Football Playoff already has epic storylines leading into its inaugural season.

Headlining the No. 2 Oregon-No. 3 Florida State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual is the quarterback pairing of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, creating what has the potential to be one of the best showings of quarterbacks that college football has seen in recent memory.

The strengths of these two quarterbacks are evident in the statistics (which we’ll get to in a bit), but the main thread that runs through both is that they know how to win. Criticize Florida State’s play (specifically in the first half) all you want, but one thing is for sure -- late in a game Winston has been a QB worth having and he has proven that time and time again.

The same can be said for Mariota. Though the Ducks haven’t had as many tight games as the Seminoles -- and they do have a loss, which FSU doesn’t -- Mariota has shown the guts needed in crucial situations to make something out of nothing.

And the numbers back that up. Of active FBS quarterbacks (with at least 15 starts under their belts), Mariota and Winston have the highest career winning percentages -- Winston is 26-0; Mariota is 35-4.

But what is it about these two guys that makes them such winners?

We analyze …

MARIOTA’S STRENGTH: He’s clean.

Mariota’s biggest strength is his accuracy. He has attempted 372 passes this season and only two of those have ended up in the hands of opponents. His 0.5 percent interception rate is the lowest among qualified FBS quarterbacks and his TD-interception ratio of 19-1 is more than double that of the nation’s second best (Cody Kessler, 9-1) and 13 times better than Winston (1.41-1).

Mariota is highly accurate when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers. He has gone more than 300 pass attempts against this kind of pressure without throwing a pick, and guess what … Florida State sends four or fewer pass-rushers on 67 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks.

Additionally, 27 of Mariota’s 38 passing touchdowns this season have come when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers.

WINSTON’S STRENGTH: He’s clutch.

Yes, his statistics aren’t as impressive as they were last year. But, as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pointed out on Tuesday, that can’t always be a very accurate portrayal of how effective any given quarterback is during a game.

“We don’t have the luxury of knowing, ‘OK, Clemson played them this way last year and this way the year before and now it’s that much different or leading up to that game how they defended people,'” Helfrich said of Winston.

Winston’s total QBR has dropped from 89.4 last season to 67.1 this season and his touchdown-to-interception total has plummeted (40-10 in 2013, 24-17 so far in 2014), but he is clutch. And not just in late-game scenarios.

Of all quarterbacks who have started at least one year, Winston leads the nation in third-down QBR (91.6) and has converted 51 percent of his third-down pass plays, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.

In a strange way, considering these two teams have never faced off, this sort of feels like a rivalry game in the fact that tendencies and statistics will probably be thrown out the window as we see some really incredible football unfold.

But would anything less be expected when a field plays host to two Heisman winners? After all, this has only happened three times before. And all three times proved to be very exciting games.

Most recently, it was Tim Tebow’s No. 2 Florida Gators facing off against Sam Bradford’s top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in January 2009. Tebow had won the Heisman the year before, but the Gators took this game 24-14 and went on to win the national title.

Four seasons earlier, it was 2004 Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and his top-ranked USC Trojans who took down the 2003 winner -- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Leinart led the Trojans with five touchdown passes as they cruised to a season-high 55 points.

And the only other time it happened was during the 1949 championship season when 1949 Heisman winner Leon Hart and Notre Dame took on Doak Walker and SMU (though to be fair, Walker didn’t play that game as he was sidelined due to an injury).

In each of these instances, whichever quarterback won the Heisman versus Heisman matchup also went on to win the national title. That could certainly be the case when Florida State and Oregon face off on Jan. 1.

If past be present, both of these quarterbacks are going to bring their best play and the qualities that won each of them the Heisman are going to be on full display. For everyone watching in Pasadena, California, or at home, that means this is going to be a really, really fun matchup. Not only between Florida State and Oregon, but also between Winston and Mariota.

Players provide College Football Playoff picks

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
1:32
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Some of the top college football players in the country provide their picks on who will win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban and Urban Meyer agree that players' families should get assistance to offset the cost of attending playoff games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the surface, there may not be all that much in common between the two rivals on top of the coaching game.

Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.

The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.

“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.

“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”

That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.

“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”

Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.

Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.

“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.

“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”

The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.
When LSU and Notre Dame were ranked in the top 10 at points earlier in the season, nobody would have predicted that they would eventually meet in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. And yet here we are.

LSU (8-4) and Notre Dame (7-5) stumbled down the stretch to land in Nashville, Tennessee, and set up their 11th all-time meeting -- the most between Notre Dame and any SEC program.

A bowl win will put a positive spin on a disappointing season for the Tigers or Fighting Irish. Here, LSU writer David Ching and Notre Dame writer Matt Fortuna discuss what a win would mean, as well as best- and worst-case scenarios for the two teams.

What a win would mean for LSU: From a bragging-rights perspective, a win on Dec. 30 would give LSU a winning record (the programs are currently 5-5 head-to-head) against the Fighting Irish. Obviously that would make for a nice historical footnote. As for its modern-day impact, the Tigers are hoping to repeat what happened the last time they met Notre Dame in a bowl. LSU’s 2006 team blasted Notre Dame to end that season and went on to win a BCS title the following year. LSU has some questions to answer this offseason -- particularly at quarterback -- but after enduring some growing pains with a young roster, the Tigers believe they can be playoff contenders next season. A win in Nashville would be a good way to kickstart the offseason.

What a win would mean for Notre Dame: A win over No. 23 LSU would easily be Notre Dame's best victory of the season. More importantly, it would stop the bleeding that comes with a season-ending four-game losing streak. The Irish need positive momentum going into next season, especially with so many familiar faces expected to return in 2015. A lot of that could go out the door if this same cast of characters enters riding a five-game slide and wondering how it all went south so fast following a 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking.

LSU’s best case for bowl: Minus the narrow margin of victory, a game like LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M would be ideal. The Tigers’ defense held a potent offense to just 228 total yards and their offensive scheme was perhaps the most ambitious it has been all year. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was outstanding on quarterback runs (he rushed for 119 yards) and completed passes to seven different teammates, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette was outstanding, and speedy receiver Travin Dural did some damage on jet sweeps. If LSU is to move back toward contender status in 2015, the offense has to be much more effective than it was this fall. Finishing the season with a productive outing against an underwhelming Notre Dame defense would do wonders for the young Tigers’ confidence.

Notre Dame’s best case for bowl: In a weird way, the best-case scenario for Notre Dame would be that Malik Zaire emerges as a star, carves up a really, really good LSU defense, runs the offense to a T and looks like the Irish's quarterback of the future. That is not to say that the Irish cannot win with Everett Golson, or that it would necessarily be good to see him struggle in any way, shape or form. But the fact of the matter is that the Irish have seen all that Golson can and cannot do throughout the course of this season, with his 22 turnovers -- all over the final nine games -- contributing largely to this losing skid. Zaire has yet to start or see meaningful action in a close game, and if he looks great against a great defense, the Irish may just know where to start when it comes to finding the right guy to lead their offense in 2015. The defense needs to play better, sure, but much of that unit's demise can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a litany of injuries. There are no excuses for the offense being as inconsistent as it has as of late, which means success from a fresh face could simplify things for this program moving forward.

LSU’s worst case for bowl: As with Notre Dame, another ugly outing on offense would be the wrong way to enter the offseason. Both teams have good reason to believe their defenses will be strong in 2015, but they need to figure out where they’re going at quarterback (in LSU’s case, is it going to be Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris?) and develop a dependable offensive identity. The power running game will continue to be LSU’s bread and butter, but another game where its quarterback struggles to make drive-extending completions won’t create much confidence that next season will be different for the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame’s worst case for bowl: If the Irish look listless on offense, and if neither quarterback can get things going against the Tigers' defense -- or worse, turns the ball over frequently -- it will be back to the drawing board for Brian Kelly and his offense, which would be entering Year 6 with still no answer at quarterback. Golson cannot afford another outing like his last month of work, and Zaire cannot botch his first major opportunity to make a public statement and to show he is capable of answering the bell with the spotlight on him.
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It started with a rumor and a casual conversation. There were search firms and lists, but there were also back channels, innuendo and a lot of "this guy talked to that guy who heard this..." going on.

That's how the process of expediting Gary Andersen from Wisconsin to Oregon State began.

"A lot of it, we figured, was probably rumors," said Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis. "But you talk to people and you hear things. Maybe things aren't as rosy as they should be. A lot of it was probably rumors, but you follow up on it to make sure if there is some truth to it."

But in a matter of days, rumors became facts, facts became introductions and introductions led to Andersen being named Oregon State's new head coach less than a week after Mike Riley's jolting departure to Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Susan Ragan/USA TODAY SportsAthletic director Bob De Carolis (at left) said the hiring process to get coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State all happened very quickly.
The running joke is that every athletic director has a list in his back pocket of football coaches they'd hire should the rainy day come. And on Dec. 4, when news broke that Riley was leaving Oregon State, De Carolis went into what he called "attack mode."

"It wasn't in my back pocket, that was for sure," De Carolis said with a chuckle. "That's a bit of urban myth. I think what you do at our level, you watch people over time and you keep people in the back of your mind. You never know. We didn't think with Coach Riley's situation that anything was imminent. We weren't thinking that way. But once we got an inkling that something was happening, we went into attack mode."

Within two days, De Carolis had what he called a "robust" list of candidates -- names that were acquired through various channels. Some contacted De Carolis through their agents. Others called on their own. Some OSU reached out to. He looked at Power 5 coaches, Group of 5 coaches, FCS coaches and out-of-work coaches working in assorted media.

"You'd be surprised to hear the people that might be willing to have a conversation," De Carolis said.

But the name he kept hearing through those casual conversations was Andersen's.

"On that Saturday, his name popped up and our interest popped up when we heard that might be a possibility," De Carolis said. "We got connected with his representatives to make sure it was accurate and we scheduled a face-to-face for Tuesday [Dec. 9]."

De Carolis said a total of five candidates were interviewed for the job, and overtures toward Andersen were made following the Big Ten championship game. By Sunday, the parties had connected and by the following Tuesday, De Carolis and Andersen agreed to a deal in principle. The next day, Andersen was introduced as OSU's 28th head coach.

"It was all such a whirlwind," Andersen says. "You know how these things go. They reached out, agents talked and that whole process. Things rolled very, very quickly."

Just as Riley's departure was a college football bombshell, Andersen's hire was also met with dropped jaws.

"I get it. I understand it," Andersen said. "We won nine games and 10 games and got to two Jan. 1st bowl games. We had tremendous success on the field and I was lucky to be part of it. I get the fact that 'why would you do that?' But what I don't understand is the perception of why you'd leave Wisconsin and the Big Ten for Oregon State and the Pac-12. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both conferences and both programs. Oregon State and Wisconsin matchup and are very comparable. That's my opinion."

Now Andersen takes over a program that is home for the holidays in a league that is surging. Their rivals are in the Rose Bowl, one game away from going to the national championship and the balance of power in the league is in a state of flux. Priority No. 1, he said, will be focusing on the roster that's in place.

"You break everything down with your team first," Andersen said. "I don't think you can worry about what you're fighting. You have to put yourself in a position to get your roster put together. ...You want to run your style. The style we want to move into. Look at us at Wisconsin, we were only able to do that to a certain point because where we were. We had the best running back in the country [Melvin Gordon] so we just put the ball in his hands. We're not the smartest coaches in the world, but we're not the dumbest either."

With facility upgrades coming, De Carolis said he believes Andersen is walking into a pretty good situation.

"There's this misnomer that we don't have resources," De Carolis said. "We've got resources ... the good news going forward is Coach Andersen is taking a situation that's not exactly broken. A lot of things we're going to do here will hopefully help him take it to the next level."
WACO, Texas -- Bryce Petty feels selfish for even thinking it, and worse for saying it. Winning, after all, should be enough. He won another Big 12 championship.

But Petty wanted so much more. He craved perfection.

“Obviously I’d want it different,” Petty told ESPN.com this month. “Shoot, I’d love to be No. 1 on the Heisman list. I’d love to be the No. 1 pick coming out. I’d love to have 40 touchdowns, no picks.”

What the Baylor quarterback endured in 2014, instead, was a senior season he can only describe as being “such a roller coaster.” As Petty reflects on the ride, he can’t help but think he wasted too much time overthinking it all.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBryce Petty says his perfectionist mentality began to change after he threw a pick-six to fall behind TCU by 21 points.
Petty, now prepping for his college finale and Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic meeting with No. 8 Michigan State on Jan. 1, vows he’s done indulging disappointment. Ever since the season opener, though, he’d known there would be no easy route to another title.

A back injury suffered against SMU sidelined Petty for a game and a half. He can admit now the effects of the injury -- two cracked transverse processes -- lingered until the middle of October.

Along the way, he kept taking hits. The preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year was hunted all season long.

“People don’t hit me like they did last year,” he said. “As soon as I get hit, they’re driving me to the ground and talking the whole time.”

He played through pain throughout, but nothing hurt like the heartbreak on the eve of Baylor’s Big 12 opener at Iowa State.

Ethan Hallmark, a boy he’d befriended from his hometown of Midlothian, Texas, passed away on Sept. 26 after a courageous battle with stage 4 neuroblastoma. Petty stood by his side during Ethan’s bout with the rare form of childhood cancer. He visited the boy on Christmas, once drove him to a treatment session in Dallas, and even attended his last birthday party.

“I knew it was coming,” Petty said, “but I didn’t know it was coming that fast.”

While he grieved, he struggled. Petty didn’t like how he played against ISU. He hated his performance against Texas, easily the worst statistical showing of 24 career starts. And he almost blew it against TCU, throwing a pick-six to put BU behind by 21 in the fourth quarter.

And then something finally snapped.

“That’s kind of when things changed mentally for me,” Petty said. “I didn’t care about being perfect anymore. I’ve already thrown a pick and a pick-six. Perfect is out the window. I’ve got to go win this game.”

He guided the best comeback in Baylor history against the best opponent he faced all season. The Heisman buzz was suddenly back.

“Then the West Virginia game came and, again, I was just thinking so much. I was trying not to get hurt. I was pressing,” Petty said. “The little thing that has really immobilized me athletically is when I think too much. All that stuff kind of came in and it’s just been ... not tough, not difficult. Just not what I expected.”

Perfect was now officially out the window. But the 41-27 loss in Morgantown was another setback that failed to stop Petty. Baylor regrouped, stomped Kansas and Oklahoma and got back on track.

Three steps forward, a small step back. After a 49-28 win over Oklahoma State, Petty recognized just how discouraged he’d become. His time, with just three games left, was running out. Baylor was 9-1. Why wasn’t he happy with that?

Yes, he was frustrated that his individual goals weren’t being met. But he also felt guilty for caring too much about those ambitions. Prayer and heart-to-heart talks with buddies, parents and coaches helped Petty recognize the folly in his perfectionism.

He says that P-word gets him more than anything. Art Briles brings up a different one.

“I’m very proud of what he’s done. And the thing I’m most proud of is his determination inside of him,” Briles said. “He’s got a lot to prove. He’s got a lot of doubters.”

Surely he shed a few in his regular-season finale. A week after sustaining the first concussion of his college career against Texas Tech, Petty was masterful against a top-10 Kansas State team to clinch a Big 12 trophy: 412 yards on 85 percent passing.

“He was just being Bryce out there,” receiver Levi Norwood said. “That’s exactly what we expect from him.”

The Bears’ latest blow -- exclusion from the inaugural College Football Playoff -- will sting for a while. Their quarterback can take it. In a season stuffed full of unexpected twists and tests, what’s one more?

Petty is done dwelling on wanting more. He'll take the most he can get and be grateful he got this far.

“The whole roller-coaster deal, I think it’s good that it’s all happened the way it has,” he said. “I’m telling you, this game makes you stronger.”

Early Offer: Hokies score super sleeper 

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Once again, Frank Beamer has landed an under-recruited prospect with “unlimited potential.” Plus, how much progress has been made by the committee looking into whether or not there should be an early-signing period?

1. The hiring of Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman by Houston reminds us that Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer has a solid record as a coachmaker, too. Herman is the 12th Meyer assistant to get his own gig. The list includes Dan Mullen of Mississippi State and Doc Holliday of Marshall, who will coach on Jan. 1., and Gary Andersen, who led Wisconsin to a Jan. 1 bowl before leaving for Oregon State. Not all 12 coaches went directly from Meyer's staff to a head coaching position. But the list proves Meyer can spot coaching talent as well as he does playing talent.

2. Making a Freshman All-America team has a lot to do with talent and a little to do with luck. Is there a hole that a freshman can fill? There are more holes on struggling teams, but those are the teams avoided by freshmen talented enough to become All-Americans. Four of ESPN's top-10 recruits from the Class of 2014 became freshmen A-As, and 16 of the 22 came from the ESPN Top 300. The lowest-rated recruit to become a Freshman All-American? BYU center Tejan Koroma, a Texan who added 25 pounds when he got to Provo and, at 6-1, 280, started every game. Bet he gets bigger -- and better.

3. We've got a CSU Saturday coming up. The Colorado State Rams play No. 22 Utah in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at 3:30 p.m. ET. A half-hour later, the CSU-Pueblo Thunderwolves play Minnesota State for the NCAA Division II title. Hey, even nostalgic Colorado fans may root for CSU-Pueblo. Several former members of Gary Barnett's Buff staff coach the Thunderwolves, including John Wristen, the head coach since the program restarted in 2008. Barnett keeps a hand in as advisor and booster. When the team stayed in a hotel the night before one playoff game, Barnett footed the bill.

Possible candidates to become Pitt coach 

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Now that Paul Chryst's return to Wisconsin is official, Pitt will soon be looking for a new football coach. Again.

Sadly for Pitt, the school Chryst is leaving, his 19-19 record in three seasons actually marks progress in terms of stability. Including the interim who will fill in for Chryst in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Pitt has had seven head coaches since 2010.

Clearly, athletic director Steve Pederson’s goal is finding someone who will stay for a while. Winning in the wide-open ACC Coastal would be nice, too.

That likely eliminates some up-and-comer types. Then again, Chryst seemed like a longer-term fit. Coaching hires sure would be a lot easier with an accurate crystal ball.

So, where will Pitt look this time?


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