In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will 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.

Shaquelle Evans, No. 40 in 2009 class

Evans picked Notre Dame in November of 2008 coming out of Inglewood (Calif.) taking only one official visit, to South Bend, despite offers from USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and a number of others. He was a member of a Fighting Irish 2008 class that included tight end Tyler Eifert, tackle Zack Martin, running back Theo Riddick, linebacker Manti Te'o and guard Chris Watt.

Evans saw action in six games for the Fighting Irish catching seven passes for 61 yards. He elected to transfer home after the 2009 season, and enrolled at UCLA.

Evans sat out the 2010 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but made his mark quickly in 2011. He played in 13 of 14 games for the Bruins including five starts. He finished the season with 19 catches and two touchdowns.

The 2012 season was when Evans began to show that he had a future in the NFL. In 14 starts, Evans caught a team leading 60 passes for 877 yards earning All-Pac 12 honorable mention by the league coaches.

Evans again led the Bruins in receptions as a senior catching 47 passes for 709 yards and nine touchdowns earning All-Pac 12 honors for a second straight season.

He capped his career catching a pass in his last 28 games, and made 32 career starts. In total he had 126 receptions for 1,895 yards for UCLA.

Evans was selected in the fourth round, No. 115 overall, in the 2014 NFL draft by the New York Jets.

Honorable mention: Byron Maxwell, No. 40 in 2006 and Travis Rudolph, No. 40 in 2014. Maxwell currently plays for the Seattle Seahawks after a standout career at Clemson. Rudolph has emerged as a key receiver for Florida State headed into the College Football playoff. He played like a player with an NFL future during the last half of the 2014 season.
While the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will bring an exciting and much-anticipated coaching matchup between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer, it also brings us an intriguing player vs. coaches matchup.

That would be Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones facing a pair of defensive gurus in Saban and his coordinating partner in crime, Kirby Smart. On paper, you have a redshirt sophomore, third-string-quarterback-turned-starter taking on two guys who eat, sleep and breathe defense and preparedness. What you have is Jones making his second start, following a fantastic showing in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, battling two brilliant football minds who got nearly a month to prepare for their relatively inexperienced opponent.

But you also have those two X's and O's brainiacs taking on a lumbering yet deceptively agile gunslinger who went from being defined by an infamous tweet to piling up 257 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 59-0 pounding of Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.

While Ohio State trying to perfect the ideal game plan for a new quarterback -- for the second time this season -- against a tag team that feasts off inexperience and relishes the notion of extra time to think and scheme sounds daunting, Alabama has to be ready for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback who coaches and players really don't know a ton about. The factor of the relative unknown complicates things a little for Alabama as well.

"This guy is very, very capable," Saban said of Jones. "He's a very good passer. Big strong, athletic guy who can do all the things the other guy (J.T. Barrett) could do in terms of the quarterback runs. It's just a little different style, that's all. We did see him play almost a game and a half. And he pretty must did what the other guy did. The one thing he did really well was pass the ball. He made some really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy did, too, so we have a tremendous amount of respect what this guy can do."

Saban and Smart have kind of been down this path before. They adjusted on the fly in-game to Garrett Gilbert in the BCS title win over Texas in 2009 and prepared for a completely different quarterback -- and scheme -- against Jordan Jefferson and LSU in their 2011 national championship win.

So for the moment, this battle is a little bit of a chess match. While Saban and Smart, who watched their defense rank third in the SEC (312.4 yards allowed per game) and have combined to win four of their last five bowl games together, pose the threat of unleashing some new and threatening exotic looks to confuse Ohio State's green QB, Jones and his coaches have limited film and a plethora of offensive knowledge working in their favor as well.

See, while Jones is one obstacle Alabama's defensive brain trust must overcome, there's also the issue of preparing for any potential wrinkles from Meyer and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who won this year's Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. The Buckeyes have been down this path before. After star quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Herman helped develop Barrett into one of the nation's elite players.

In his first season of work, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards (more than Miller has in a single season) and a school-record 34 touchdowns while rushing for another 938 yards and 11 more scores. This was all before a season-ending ankle injury in the season finale against Michigan gave way to Jones.

Whether it was Barrett for so long or Jones for so little, Ohio State hasn't had to change much to help its quarterbacks.

"Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar," Alabama safety Landon Collins said. "They run the same scheme offense. We’re just gonna have to watch film on what they do because, I mean, they’re not gonna change the whole offense for one player."

Ohio State isn't, and it doesn't have to. The Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans leading the Big Ten in total offense (507.6 yards per game) and scoring (45.2) and ranking third in passing (246.8 yards per game). That's all without Miller and mostly thanks to some masterful play calling by Herman to put Barrett in the right situations. Now, it's time for Herman to use a little bit of that magic on Jones to thwart Alabama's suffocating defense.

"We feel philosophically, they are going to run their offense," Saban said. "It's just what part of it they might feature a little different. That's the part we are not sure about."
David Cobb may be known around Minnesota's campus -- a student recently stopped him for a photo before his sports management final -- but he’s mostly a forgotten man outside of Minneapolis.

When it comes to standout games, he knows most Big Ten fans think of Melvin Gordon's 408-yard performance. When it comes to memorable plays, they might even envision Ameer Abdullah's game-winning 58-yard reception. And in the realm of dizzying stats, they’ll more likely think of Tevin Coleman's 2,036 rushing yards.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota running back David Cobb didn't get the attention of other Big Ten ball carriers but produced a record-breaking season all the same.
They usually won’t think of Cobb; he knows that. But he doesn’t mind. Actually, the Minnesota running back swears he prefers it this way.

“I’ve never been that type of person who needs that highlight or needs that spotlight on me,” Cobb said. “Having Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah in that same conference, I wouldn’t want it any different because it motivates me week in and week out. I wouldn’t change it for anything because this is what I’m used to.”

This isn’t feigned humility by a senior who privately stews about his lack of "SportsCenter" clips. This is someone who was raised by an Army lieutenant and has grown accustomed to being the “forgotten man” on the gridiron.

One month ago, he battled through a hamstring injury and set the Minnesota single-season record for rushing yards (1,545) against Wisconsin -- on the same afternoon Gordon broke the Big Ten rushing record. Two weeks prior, even the player whose school record Cobb broke -- Laurence Maroney -- told he hadn’t yet had a chance to watch Cobb. (“The way I hear people talk about him, he’s definitely a bigger back,” Maroney offered.) During Cobb’s first two seasons at Minnesota, he was buried on the depth chart and carried the pigskin just 11 times. And in high school, he received just five scholarship offers while playing for a team that won eight games in two seasons.

From high school to college, Cobb has been underestimated. But he’s also never failed to overachieve.

“I would tell you that, in my opinion, he’s better than even I thought he would be,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.

Added Cobb: “Coming in here, I had dreams, but I never thought I would be this successful. This was in the back of my head -- but it was far, far back. I’m just blessed.”

Cobb’s surprising future was laid in 2009 on the scorched grass of Ellison (Texas) High School, where the average summer high hovers around 96 degrees. He split carries with his older brother, Daniel, as a high school underclassman and became a workhorse of sorts as an upperclassman. In his senior season opener, he rushed 27 times in regulation before his coach called his number on six straight plays to win in overtime. The final stats for Cobb that day: 33 carries, 282 yards.

That was the norm for the Killeen, Texas, native. He could wear a defense down with a smile, but colleges still didn’t pay him much mind. Not when he clocked a laser-timed 40-yard dash of 4.75 seconds at a Nike camp.

“They were wanting something better than that,” then-Ellison coach Buddy McBryde said. “But I predicted all this success when David was a sophomore -- and my prediction’s based not as much on athletic ability but his heart. Nobody is going to work harder, and nobody was faster on the field in the fourth quarter.”

To Cobb, that lack of attention in high school just created a chip on his shoulder that never left. “It made me hungry," Cobb said. “Wherever I went, I wanted to prove I was better than that five-star (prospect).”

So when he traded in the scenery of Texas cypresses for Minnesota spruces, the Gophers running back didn’t mind proving himself. Sure, he faced times of frustration. His family dutifully hopped on a plane most weekends, flew to Minneapolis and watched him ride the bench his first two seasons. Cobb wanted to give them something to watch, something to be proud of.

So he eventually found himself faced with a decision: Give up and sit back or go harder than ever before.

He didn’t need to glance at his left shoulder to know that chip was still there. He needed to prove more; he needed to outgrow everyone else’s expectations. He stayed after every practice, maybe just 15-20 minutes, to work on his cuts, and he’d visit with coaches whenever he’d find free time. He’d force himself to spend extra time in the film room, staring at the defense and reading his linemen. And he’d grunt while lifting in the weight room, replacing fat with muscle and improving his speed and stamina.

“Not playing tests how much you want it,” Cobb said. “And I wanted it.”

The first time Kill leaned on him for more than backup work -- Sept. 14, 2013 against Western Illinois -- Cobb finished with 13 carries for 82 yards and two scores. The next game, he wound up with 25 carries, 125 yards and two touchdowns. He never looked back. From that point on, he'd surpass the 100-yard rushing mark in 13 of his next 22 games. He’d break Maroney’s nine-year-old single-season rushing record. He’d become team MVP as a senior. And he’d finish the 2014 regular season within the top 10 nationally in rushing.

He did it all quietly. Unlike the trio of Abdullah, Coleman and Gordon, Cobb never made the list of Doak Walker finalists. Heck, he was even snubbed as a semifinalist. He never made first-team All-Big Ten; he was pinned as a second-teamer.

Cobb never complained. He just smiled, put his head down and continued to power his team to its most successful season in more than a decade, earning a trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl to face Missouri on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on ABC. And, spotlight or not, Cobb said he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“I probably haven’t been the most highly recruited player out of high school or the most talked about in college, but my coaches and teammates appreciate me,” Cobb said. “And that’s all that matters.”

Under Armour Live: Registration day

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
Get a behind-the-scenes look and all the news at registration day for the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game from RecruitingNation's reporters beginning at 10 a.m. ET.

SAN DIEGO -- During the postgame news conference at Qualcomm Stadium following USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl, Nebraska interim head coach Barney Cotton was asked to comment on the play of USC true freshman Adoree' Jackson.

“What’s the number?” Cotton asked. “I’m not a name guy.”

After Saturday night, here’s guessing Cotton will remember the name.

Whether he was returning kicks, catching touchdowns or making plays in the secondary, Jackson was one of the most exciting and dynamic players on the field Saturday.

[+] EnlargeJackson
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesFreshman Adoree' Jackson was Mr. Excitement for USC, burning Nebraska for a 98-yard kickoff return TD and a 71-yard receiving TD in the Trojans' Holiday Bowl win.
Minutes after Cotton, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian took the podium -- along with Jackson, quarterback Cody Kessler and defensive end Leonard Williams -- and he offered this on Jackson:

“I keep battling [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want him on offense,” Sarkisian said. “He would have had four touchdowns if he was playing on offense.”

That drew a “yep” from Kessler and a playful head shake from Williams.

USC will likely lose two of its marquee offensive players to the 2015 NFL draft. No one will be shocked when running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor make their believed intentions official. If the Holiday Bowl was in fact their respective swan songs, then they exited nicely. Allen rushed for a game-high 152 yards and two touchdowns, while Agholor hauled in seven balls for 90 yards and a score.

But USC’s up-and-comers showed the offense is going to be just fine if -- or when -- those guys leave. Jackson opened the USC scoring with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter. He added three catches for 73 yards, including a jaw-dropping 71-yard touchdown from Kessler. Actually, it was a 1-yard pass from Kessler. Jackson did the other 70 on his own.

But it wasn’t just Jackson making plays. JuJu Smith had three catches for 66 yards. Bryce Dixon caught four balls for 44 yards and a touchdown. The Trojans used 11 true freshmen in significant roles this season, including eight who have combined for 58 starts. Consider that number, with the fact that USC suited up just 50 scholarship players for its bowl game, and it’s not unreasonable to think USC should contend for the Pac-12 South Division next season.

“Our future -- and I’ll say it again -- is ridiculously bright,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to continue to get better and continue to recruit. We’re going to recruit great players. We’re going to develop the players that we have in our program. We’re going to compete for championships. That’s why you come to USC. Get ready for 2015.”

As for the game itself, it was typical Holiday Bowl: High-scoring and high on drama. Even when the Trojans went up 45-27 near the end of the third quarter, there weren’t many who felt the issue was resolved.

Sure enough, Nebraska scored at the end of the third and midway through the fourth to cut the game to 45-42. It wasn’t until Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s Hail Mary with one second left on the clock was harmlessly batted away by Agholor that the Trojans could celebrate. Some might recall Arizona State's topping USC earlier this season on a last-second Hail Mary.

“We’ve been through it,” Sarkisian said, which drew a laugh from the room. “We got JuJu and Nelson on the field. Nelson made a heck of a play to go attack the football. At the end of the day, I mean, you can only get burned so many times, I guess. You know? So let’s just get the ball on the ground. That’s kind of what I was hoping for.”

The game was accented by one big play after another, as the teams combined for 1,040 yards of offense -- including a bowl-record 38 points in the third quarter. Armstrong threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in a contest that felt more like a Pac-12 conference game than a Pac-12/Big Ten bowl.

“I was proud of them and the way they responded offensively because we didn’t totally chuck our game plan [when trailing],” Cotton said. “I’m glad we stuck with doing what we had done to get there, and we just came up a little short at the end.”
By now everyone has seen the tweeted picture of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema flashing what appears to be the infamous "Horns down" sign with his left hand while shaking Texas coach Charlie Strong's hand with the other during a press conference for the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl.

Well, after that photo went viral, people started calling it awesome, and then fake. Posts about it being photoshopped littered the Internet, and then Arkansas radio host Bo Mattingly tweeted that he talked to Bielema after practice about the "Horns down" move. Bielema denied doing it.

OK, case closed ... right?


Here we have more evidence about the hand gesture through this Vine:

Right at the end you can clearly see Bielema move his fingers into the shape of the "Horns down" sign. Now, whether this was intentional or not, we don't know. Maybe, he had no clue what he was doing. Maybe, it was a brilliant troll move by a coach who isn't new to having fun or throwing a little shade toward his opponents.

Regardless, it's fun water-cooler talk before the Razorbacks take on the Longhorns in the Texas Bowl on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.

Instant Analysis: USC 45, Nebraska 42

December, 28, 2014
Dec 28
videoSAN DIEGO, Calif. -- As new Nebraska head coach Mike Riley watched from the stands Saturday night, the team he's taking over couldn't cap a comeback against a team from his former conference. The USC Trojans held on for a 45-42 victory over Nebraska in a wild shootout in the National University Holiday Bowl. Here's how it all went down at Qualcomm Stadium:

How the game was won: On big plays -- because it was the Holiday Bowl. Defenses need not apply. The Trojans were the faster, more athletic team (though not by much), and it showed in the form of explosive plays. Adoree' Jackson scored on a kickoff return and a long touchdown reception. Buck Allen turned 4-yard runs into long touchdowns. Four of USC's touchdowns were 20 yards or longer. That's not to say Nebraska didn't have some explosive moments of its own, as the teams combined for more than 1,000 yards offense.

Turning point: Trailing 45-42 with 2:31 remaining, Nebraska went for it on fourth-and 3 at the USC 31 but was turned away. The Trojans took over and were able to milk down enough clock to preserve the three-point win. A last-second Hail Mary effort from Nebraska fell short as time expired.

Game ball goes to: Jackson, a true freshman, was the most dynamic player on the field. His 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave the Trojans a 7-3 lead after Nebraska jumped ahead on a field goal. Then he took a Cody Kessler pass 71 yards that stretched USC's lead to 31-17 in the third quarter. Oh yeah, he also added six tackles on defense.

Key stat: The teams combined for 38 points in the third quarter, a Holiday Bowl record. Considering the Holiday Bowl's penchant for crazy, that's pretty impressive.

Play of the game: The Jackson kickoff return takes top honors in a game with a lot of big plays.

video What's next: Nebraska begins life anew with Riley running the show. Some Trojans -- namely, Leonard Williams, Nelson Agholor and Allen -- have some decisions to make about the NFL draft.

Penn State once again overcomes the odds

December, 27, 2014
Dec 27
There was a time when even the loyalist Penn State fan discounted Sam Ficken. There was a time when even the wisest sports pundit believed the Nittany Lions wouldn’t survive past 2014.

Not anymore.

In the midst of unprecedented sanctions, the Nittany Lions (7-6) clinched their third straight winning season with a 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. After a poor kicking start in 2012 -- so bad it led to death threats -- Ficken became all-conference and ended his career with a game-winning kick. The moral of the story? Don’t underestimate Penn State or its players.

[+] EnlargePenn State
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsSam Ficken was almost run off the Penn State campus two years ago. He ran off the Yankee Stadium field as a winner by kicking the game-winning extra point of the Pinstripe Bowl.
“I think we’ve been fractured,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “We’ve been fractured for the past three years. But experiences and games like this have restored the hope.”

This game was a microcosm of the past three seasons all rolled into one. Penn State wasn’t supposed to win; it trailed 21-7 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t supposed to rally; PSU didn’t score 20 points in regulation all season against a Power 5 team.

But just as fans might have wanted to turn away, just as the hope of something good clung to its last thread, this team bounced back. Christian Hackenberg -- the struggling player whom some PSU fans labeled a bust -- rallied the Lions offense with one of the best games of his career. He threw for 371 yards, four TDs and no interceptions. He marched PSU downfield with two minutes in regulation to tie the game. Then he led PSU to a touchdown in overtime.

This game seemed lost, but Penn State won. The program seemed on the verge of death two years ago, but Penn State survived.

“There’s a lot of similarities in this game, compared to our whole careers,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “It’s only fitting we get a win in Yankee Stadium in overtime after the roller-coaster career we had. It’s pretty crazy how that works. It just goes to show we’re never going to give up. That’s what this program is all about.”

On Sept. 8, 2012, Ficken missed 4-of-5 field goals and a PAT against Virginia in a 17-16 loss. On Saturday night, he knotted the game at 24 in the closing seconds with a 45-yard field goal -- then he nailed the game-winning extra point after the Boston College kicker missed his.

“It’s a storybook ending, really,” Ficken said. “I couldn’t have written a better way to go. This team has worked so hard and fought so hard. And to say we went to a bowl, first of all, and then won that bowl. It’s just really incredible.”

The Nittany Lions didn’t expect to have great moments during the past three seasons, not when the sanctions were initially handed down. Some of those players, such as Hull and Ficken, still remember the eerie silence in the players’ lounge while awaiting the sanctions announcement of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Hull nearly transferred to Pittsburgh -- he informed Bill O’Brien he was moving on before reconsidering -- and most believed Ficken never deserved a scholarship in the first place.

They endured five different head coaches -- two interim, three full-time -- during their careers. They never thought they’d see the postseason, as Penn State was set to miss four years worth of bowls before the ban was rescinded three months ago.

This team lingered on the field after the game, and it seemed as if most fans clad in blue and white didn’t budge from their seats. Franklin took the microphone, thanked the seniors and boomed that this was Penn State culture. Fans’ screams drowned out the Frank Sinatra tune played through the PA system.

This wasn’t just a bowl win for Penn State. It rang in the end of the worst of the sanctions. PSU was the second-youngest team in the FBS this season and had just 64 recruited scholarship players on the roster. It had seven seniors compared to 31 freshmen.

Safety Malik Golden tweeted from the locker room, “Right back like we never left #NewEra.” Running back Akeel Lynch told reporters, “The sanction era is definitely over.”

Penn State was never supposed to make it to this point. It was never supposed to win this game, and it was never supposed to boast three winning seasons and a bowl victory this early. But Penn State has made it a habit these past three years of proving the prognosticators wrong. Saturday night was just them getting the last word.

“You can’t take us away,” Lynch said. “They tried to. They tried to talk about culture. But this is Penn State, man. This is what we do."
NEW YORK -- Christian Hackenberg wasn't losing this game.

The sophomore quarterback rallied Penn State from a two-touchdown, second-half deficit Saturday to narrowly defeat Boston College 31-30 in overtime in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Hackenberg drove his team downfield with a little over two minutes left in regulation to set up a 45-yard field goal that tied the score. He then found Kyle Carter for a 10-yard touchdown in the end zone in the first overtime, which won the game.

Boston College shanked a PAT on its first overtime possession, so Penn State's Sam Ficken simply needed to make his to end the game.

Penn State ends the season at 7-6, while Boston College falls to 7-6.

Game ball goes to: Hackenberg. Just when it looked as if this team were once again set up to lose -- trailing 21-7 late in the third -- Hackenberg turned it up and played his best when the most was on the line. He finished 34-of-50 for 371 yards and four TDs, and he came away with a critical 16-yard scoring pass on second-and-goal to tie the score at 21. Then he drove PSU downfield to tie the score at 24 in the closing seconds of regulation. Then he had the game-winning TD. PSU wouldn't have won without him.

It was over when: Ficken nailed the extra point in overtime to hand PSU the 31-30 victory. Boston College's kicker shanked the PAT on the Eagles' previous overtime possession. BC led 30-24 after the first possession, but Hackenberg's TD to Carter -- and Ficken's PAT -- ended the game.

Stat of the game: 239. That was Boston College's rushing yardage at the end of the third quarter against the nation's top-ranked rush defense. It was the most PSU allowed to a team all season. Ohio State previously recorded a season-high 219 rushing yards against PSU -- but that took four quarters and two overtimes. Boston College was averaging 7.7 yards per rush.

Best play: The most impressive touchdown might have been the Nittany Lions' first. On third-and-12, following a false start, Hackenberg dropped back and threw a long pass to true freshman Chris Godwin -- who caught the ball in stride, shook off a tackle and sprinted another 35 yards or so to complete the 72-yard touchdown.

It was the second-longest TD pass of Hackenberg's career and the longest career reception of Godwin's.

South Carolina jumped out to a first-half lead and held off Miami 24-21 in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl on Saturday in Shreveport, Louisiana.

How the game was won: After Miami settled for field goals on its first two drives, the game swung when South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson hit Pharoh Cooper with a 78-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter. Starting there, the Gamecocks outgained Miami 192 yards to 36 through halftime and scored 17 unanswered points. Miami twice closed within three points, but got no closer.

Game ball goes to: Thompson. Cooper (170 receiving yards) is a tempting option, but let’s go with Thompson, a fifth-year senior. He showed why he was the SEC’s leading passer in picking apart a Miami secondary that came in ranked 10th nationally in pass defense. Thompson finished 22-for-34 for 284 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for the clinching score.

What it means: After blowing several late leads during SEC play, the Gamecocks finally managed to carry a narrow lead into the final quarter and win the game. South Carolina (7-6) avoided its first losing record under Steve Spurrier and forced Miami (6-7) to finish the season with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2007 and only the third time since 1979.

Best play: South Carolina’s Cooper scores the game’s first touchdown on a 78-yard pass in the second quarter:
In a game fitting of its Wild West setting, Arizona State survived Duke's pesky upset attempt. The Sun Devils proved better than the Blue Devils in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, securing a 36-31 victory in El Paso. ASU has now posted consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, and Todd Graham has won more games in his first three years as coach than anyone else in program history. Meanwhile, Duke's long drought continues: The Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since 1961.

How the game was won: When ASU jumped out to a 20-3 lead midway through the second quarter, it looked as if they were going to run the other Devils out of the building. But Duke battled back using an array of screen passes to burn ASU's aggressive pressure defense, and two quick touchdowns cut the deficit to 20-17 by halftime. This flurry was indicative of how the second half would go: The Sun Devils seemed to have an overwhelming stockpile of explosive weapons on offense, but Duke simply would not die.

After the Blue Devils took a 31-30 lead on the fuel of two trick plays late in the fourth quarter, ASU freshman Kalen Ballage immediately responded with a 96-yard kickoff return. The Sun Devils regained the lead when fellow youngster Demario Richard scored on the next play, and their defense sealed the victory after that. This was a classic see-saw battle down the stretch, and ASU ultimately had more ammunition than Duke.

Game ball goes to: Veteran Jaelen Strong grabbed seven passes for 103 yards in his final ASU game before heading to the NFL, so he deserves acknowledgement here. But the game ball itself must go to the future of the Sun Devil program. Less than a month after turning 18 years old, Richard scored four touchdowns -- including the game winner. He was the dependable force that the Sun Devils turned to whenever they were in scoring range, and he ended up playing a perfect complement to Strong and DJ Foster (121 all-purpose yards)

It was over when: ASU defensive back Kweishi Brown intercepted Duke quarterback Anthony Boone in the corner of the end zone with 45 seconds remaining. The Blue Devils were driving at the time, and they were hungry to deliver a go-ahead score that would give the Sun Devils little time to rebut. But Brown's excellent defense on Boone's lofty fade pass finally stifled Duke's hopes. Prior to that play, the Blue Devils simply wouldn't go away; they had been a combined 14-for-23 on third- and fourth-down conversions.

Stat of the game: Plus-2. That was the turnover margin, and ASU fell on the positive side of it. It's ultimately the reason the Sun Devils prevailed in this football game, because Duke ended up outgaining ASU (400-392) and outperforming them on third and fourth down. Brown's interception, though, was the big play that stopped the bleeding elsewhere and secured a hard-fought win for Graham's club.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer wasn’t on the sideline Saturday afternoon, but BeamerBall was in full effect during the Hokies' 33-17 win over Cincinnati in the Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman.

Beamer, who had throat surgery earlier this month, watched from the press box as his special teams and defense helped Virginia Tech (7-6) pull away from the Bearcats (9-4) starting late in the second quarter. A long kick return gave the Hokies a short field with 28 seconds remaining in the half. The offense moved it close enough for Joey Slye to hit a 49-yard field goal, giving the Hokies a 13-10 lead heading into the locker room.

Cincinnati doubled Virginia Tech’s total yardage in the first half, but trailed because of a few missed opportunities. The Bearcats missed a field goal on their opening drive and threw an interception in the end zone on their second drive.

After Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer's 1-yard pass to Ryan Malleck made it a 10-point game, a Hokies fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter put it out of reach at 27-10 and knocked Cincinnatti quarterback Gunner Kiel out of the game with a head injury. The American Conference leader in touchdown passes during the regular season finished with 244 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Brewer completed 14 of 24 passes for 94 yards. He also caught a pass on a trick play that set up the Hokies’ first touchdown.

Virginia Tech running back J.C. Coleman added a career-high 157 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

Game ball goes to: Virginia Tech freshman Greg Stroman contributed to the Hokies' win in all three phases of the game. He scored a touchdown on defense, caught a pass and ran the ball twice on offense, and broke off two punt returns that went longer than 30 yards on special teams. He ended his day by breaking up a fourth-down pass attempt on Cincinnati's final possession of the game.

What it means: Virginia Tech managed to continue its streak of 22 seasons with a winning record despite a disappointing 6-6 regular season. The ACC got its bowl season off to a good start with the victory. Duke, Miami and Boston College all play Saturday as well.

Best play: The Hokies opened up a 27-10 lead thanks to a fumble return for a touchdown. Linebacker Deon Clarke started the play with a sack that pried the ball loose from Kiel. Defensive tackle Nigel Williams scooped up the loose ball near the 40-yard line and rumbled to the end zone’s doorstep before coughing it up. Stroman picked it up from there and plowed his way in for the score.

video What’s next: Cincinnati, which won a share of the American title this season, returns a good portion of its roster next season, including Kiel. The Hokies head into the offseason with positive momentum as they look to make a better run at the ACC Coastal Division.

Brick by brick, Gary Patterson knows how to build a football program.

Not just figuratively, either.

Long before taking TCU to the cusp of the inaugural College Football Playoff this season, Patterson forged a coaching career working his way up through a series of small schools.

That included a lot of coaching. And a little construction work.

At Tennessee Tech, it was painting the walls of the football offices. At Sonoma State, it was hammering nails into the stadium's renovated press box. And at Utah State -- Patterson's first Division I job that came a full decade after he began coaching -- it was laying carpet for a new locker room.

Patterson put the tools down once he arrived at TCU 16 years ago. But every remote stop along the way equipped him with what he needed to raise TCU into a national power.

"It's one of those things -- not everybody has to pay his dues or work from the ground up," said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, Patterson's closest friend in the profession. "But Gary had to work for everything he got, and his players reflect that. That's why his teams are so tough."

On New Year's Eve, TCU will meet Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a consolation prize for an 11-1 season that came oh-so close to a playoff berth. The Horned Frogs couldn't hold on to a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter at Baylor, which ultimately proved to be the difference in missing the playoff.

Still, the season was one more brick in the building of a program whose next rung could be a national championship.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsGary Patterson paid his dues before arriving at TCU 16 years ago. And then paid his dues again remaking the Horned Frogs.

"We're not there yet," said Patterson, who this week was voted The Associated Press' college football coach of the year, joining Alabama's Nick Saban as the only two-time winner.

"But we're closer than we were."

In many ways, the Horned Frogs' gradual ascension since the turn of the millennium has emulated the path of their coach.

Patterson grew up in Rozel, Kansas, which claimed a population of 156 in the latest census. Patterson learned the value of hard work in Rozel, spending long days helping his father level lands for the local farmers.

"Back there, everyone knows how to work hard," Patterson said. "You work Sundays in coaching, and you worked Sundays there."

That value would serve Patterson -- and ultimately TCU -- well later in life.

After high school and junior college, Patterson walked on at Kansas State. But his calling would be coaching, not playing. He got his first gig at Tennessee Tech making just a few hundred dollars a month. Then he went to UC Davis, which couldn't afford to send him a paycheck until after the season. Patterson also grinded out a living coaching at Cal Lutheran, Pittsburgh State and Sonoma State.

But he wasn't just a defensive assistant at those stops. He was a strength coach. An academic adviser. A financial aid consultant. And when the time called for it, he picked up a hammer or a saw and helped build whatever those programs needed.

"You have to wear a lot of hats at those places," Patterson said. "You always were learning something different."

That paid off when TCU looked to replace Dennis Franchione, who bolted for Alabama after the 2000 season. As Franchione's defensive coordinator, Patterson had whipped the Horned Frogs into the nation's top defense. But that alone wasn't what landed Patterson the head-coaching job.

William Koehler, the school's provost, had begun working out in the football weight room. There, he noticed how Patterson took charge of football academics. He saw Patterson head the strength and conditioning program. He witnessed Patterson be the disciplinarian. As other power brokers sought a splashy hire, Koehler and prominent booster Dick Lowe pushed for Patterson.

"Gary did everything except call the offense and talk to the media," Lowe said. "And he had this work ethic that was off the scale."

As head coach, Patterson's work ethic has remained firm, from the big items to the small.

He tirelessly spearheaded the fundraising effort that led to a series of state-of-the-art facility upgrades, including a $164 million renovation of Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2012. From 2008-11, TCU also won 47 games, which prompted the Big 12 to invite the Horned Frogs after a second round of realignment struck the conference.

"Gary has meant everything to TCU," said Victor J. Boschini Jr., the school's chancellor. "He is the school, and the school is him."

The tiny details, however, have stuck with Memphis head coach Justin Fuente, previously the Horned Frogs' offensive coordinator. That includes watching Patterson pick up trash anytime he spotted it in the halls.

"I watched Gary do that 400 times when I was there," said Fuente, who this season led the Tigers to their first conference title in more than 40 years. "I find myself now doing the same thing. But a lot of what we're trying to do [at Memphis] is modeled after him."

[+] EnlargeMoore/Hughes
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesPlayers like Jerry Hughes were identified and developed by Gary Patterson along TCU's rise back to prominence.

That includes finding recruits who might not have five recruiting stars but who share Patterson's inherent work ethic. In 2007, Jerry Hughes arrived at TCU with little fanfare as a running back. Patterson immediately turned Hughes into a defensive end. And before he left, Hughes worked his way into a unanimous All-American and first-round draft pick.

"Coach P has this keen eye for finding certain players that might be under the radar and getting the most out of them," said Hughes, now with the Buffalo Bills.

This TCU team is stocked with similar players.

All-American linebacker Paul Dawson was a lightly recruited wide receiver out of Dallas Skyline High School. All-Big 12 safety Sam Carter was a high school quarterback.

And Trevone Boykin, a two-star recruit who finished last season at receiver, turned himself into one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

"The whole football program embodies Gary," Fuente said. "He surrounds himself with those type of kids, who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and go to work."

While his work ethic has stayed as strong as ever, Patterson has found balance. Thanks to a similar affection for animals, he met his wife, Kelsey, who worked at the Fort Worth Zoo, in 2002. More than once, the Patterson family has gone scuba diving and taken African safaris. "Places where the phones don't work," Kelsey said, laughing.

Patterson also plays guitar and is a regular performer at local charity events. "He's the only guy I ever saw sing at his own wedding," said Kill, Patterson's best man.

Patterson has found satisfaction in the ride. But that doesn't mean he's finished building.

At just 54, relatively young in coaching years, Patterson is now the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the FBS. Other schools have knocked on his door. But Patterson has stuck with TCU.

"I've never found a place that was better," said Patterson, who follows almost 11,000 TCU fans and students on Twitter so he can interact with them through direct message. "I haven't found somewhere fit me better than TCU."

Together, over the years, TCU and Patterson have worked their way up. With the very top now in sight.

In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will 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.

Joe Adams, No. 41 in 2008 class

Adams was long considered a smart pick to sign with home state Arkansas coming out of Central Arkansas Christian in Little Rock, but the USC Trojans made quite the push before the playmaker announced for the Razorbacks on signing day in 2008 due to the offense of then head coach Bobby Petrino and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Adams was part of an Arkansas class that included quarterback Tyler Wilson and Greg Childs.

Adams was the third leading receiver for the Razorbacks in 2008 as a true freshman hauling in 31 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Adam was again the team's third leading receiver, but made the most of his opportunities catching 29 passes for 568 yards and seven scores.

Adams' junior campaign would be his best at Arkansas in terms of receiving yards recording a team-leading 813 yards and six touchdowns with 50 catches.

Adams flirted with the NFL following the season, but chose to return for his senior season. He delivered on the field in 2011 to the tune of 54 receptions for 652 yards and three scores. It was his all-around play that impressed the most. Adams totaled 1,112 all-purpose yards including four punt return touchdowns earning All-American and All-SEC first-team honors.

Adams finished his career at Arkansas with 3,352 all-purpose yards, 2,410 receiving, and 24 touchdowns.

Adams was selected in the fourth round, No. 104-overall, by the Carolina Panthers in the 2012 NFL draft but has struggled to stick in the league.

Honorable mention: Terrence Austin, No. 41 in 2006, and John Martinez, No. 41 in 2009 class. Austin was a multi-year starter for UCLA and was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL draft. Martinez was a three-year starter at guard for the USC Trojans and is currently playing in the Arena League.
The reunion storyline has dominated the talk headed into the Russell Athletic Bowl between Oklahoma and Clemson.

But if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had his way, he would have done anything he could to avoid facing his former team.

The relationships he developed in 13 seasons with Bob Stoops and the Sooners remain remarkably strong. There is no bitterness, no anger, just mutual admiration on both sides -- from players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeVenables
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will face off against former employer Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Take Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard. Though he never played one down for Venables, the two spent countless hours together at Oklahoma while Shepard was growing up. As has been well-documented, Stoops invited Shepard to be a part of the football program with open arms following the death of his father, Derrick, a former Sooners great.

Shepard did not just hang out with Stoops, though. He grew close with all the coaches on staff, including Venables.

“As a young kid I just remember talking to him a lot,” Shepard said in a recent interview. “I had a pretty close relationship with all the coaches at that time, so throughout the years of me just being there and being around the facility we saw each other a lot of the time so we’d talk. ...

“I always loved how passionate he was for the game. You could tell his nose was in the book at all times. He knew the ins and outs of the defense. He’d be fired up every game day. That’s what I liked most about him.”

Shepard also grew into a high school standout, playing defensive back and receiver. Oklahoma initially recruited him to play defensive back, where he attended camps and got first-hand coaching from Venables. And that coaching was intense.

“If you didn’t do a drill right, you were going to go back and do it again until you got it right,” Shepard said. “His voice would be gone for sure ... his head beet-red sometimes from screaming so much but he definitely got the guys fired up. No doubt about it.”

But Shepard really wanted to play receiver, something that was fine with the Oklahoma staff. He signed in 2012, Venables’ first season at Clemson.

Despite a groin injury that kept him out or limited him in the final four games of the regular season, Shepard still leads the Sooners with 957 yards and five touchdowns. Shepard is expected to play Monday.

Venables will be ready and waiting.

“He grew up in the middle of our team breakdowns and practice and fall camp and football camps and sidelines on game days,” Venables said. “He’s a great ambassador for that program. I know his dad’s awfully proud as well as the rest of his family. He’s a terrific ball player. I feel terrible that he’s been banged up this year but knowing him and the fortitude that he has, he’ll find a way to get back out there on the field to finish the year off. Real proud of Sterling and how he’s grown up.”

Venables also built a close relationship with Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker during the recruiting process. Striker, who played high school football in Florida, chose Oklahoma in large part because of Venables.

But before he had a chance to sign in 2012, Venables was gone. Striker has not gone into much length or depth about having to face the man who recruited him to Oklahoma, telling local reporters earlier in December, “He's not here no more.”

Shepard said, “I know some of the guys he did recruit are fired up. Coaching changes happen all the time, we just know that he knows a lot about this program, and just guys are fired up to play him because he recruited them here.”

For his part, Venables has tried to put Oklahoma out of his mind. As he says, "You have to separate what your job is and what your past was. I'll be just fine. At the end of the day, it's all about those guys with the paw on their helmet."