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For his entire career, the odds were inherently against him. But Rice running back Jayson Carter, who checks in at 4-foot-9 and 140 pounds, gave the Owls program four valuable seasons of work. The senior finished his college football journey in memorable fashion on Wednesday night, earning a fourth-quarter carry in Rice’s 30-6 victory over Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl.

Carter, who was born with a genetic disorder that slowed his growth, bounced to the outside on an inside zone carry late in the fourth quarter. He picked up two yards on the play, absorbing a big hit on the sideline. It was just his second career carry -- the first came in a game against UTEP last season -- and a fitting ending to a four-year career that saw Carter make many contributions to the Owls’ program, primarily on the scout team.

“My stature may not be the tallest,” Carter said. “But when it comes to lifting, I can do what everyone else does. I can bench 315 [pounds]; I can power clean 230. I’m on equal footing.”

Coaches have long raved about Carter’s ability to make teammates forget about his diminutive size during practice.

“If they ever come up with a device that measures heart and put it on top of my head,” he told The Houston Chronicle in 2011, “they’ll see I’m 6-9.”

That determination has made Carter a meaningful member of the program during what might be Rice’s most successful stretch ever. The Owls have now been to three straight bowl games for the first time in their history, and Wednesday’s resounding win matched the program’s biggest postseason margin of victory.

“We started in January when it was below 32 degrees out running sprints, and now we’re here,” Carter said. “We went all out.”

Carter might even have a leg up on the competition in the future: He’s graduating in May with a degree in computer science and already has a job lined up as a software engineer.
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The Hawai'i Bowl brought back memories of the old WAC, and Rice finally got its revenge against Fresno State. Entering this Christmas Eve contest, the Owls were 0-6 against the Bulldogs. They ended the hex with a 30-6 blowout. Here's the breakdown:

How the game was won: After surrendering 76 points in an embarrassing loss to Louisiana Tech in its most recent game, Rice regrouped to post a stout defensive performance. The Owls' secondary was particularly impressive. They pushed Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell into an absolutely miserable performance. He was 10-of-20 passing for 44 yards and 2 interceptions before being yanked for backup Zack Greenlee, who didn't fare much better (7-of-18, 49 yards). Given the fact that the Rice defense held the Bulldogs to 3.2 yards per play, the Owls didn't need much to win offensively. But they racked up 463 total yards on that side of the ball anyway, making this one a laugher.

Game ball goes to: Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson made it look easy. He finished 15-of-24 passing for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns while adding some 41 rushing yards. With his performance, Jackson became just the third player in Rice history to amass more than 3,000 yards of total offense in a single season.

It was over when: Jackson threw touchdown passes on consecutive Rice offensive plays late in the opening quarter. The first, a 14-yard toss to Jordan Taylor, capped a five-play, 78-yard drive that gave Rice a 9-3 lead. On Fresno State's very next play from scrimmage, J.T. Blasingame intercepted Burrell, so the Owls got the ball right back. Jackson immediately connected with Mario Hull on a 69-yard bomb, and Rice's 16-3 lead proved insurmountable given the way its defense was playing.

Stat of the game: 93 passing yards. That's all Fresno State was able to manage against Rice's defense, with its two quarterbacks attempting 38 passes. Needless to say, 2.4 yards per attempt isn't a winning mark.

Best play: The aforementioned 69-yard strike from Jackson to Hull was fun to watch. A Jackson pump fake and rainbow throw started the play, and an excellent adjustment back to the ball from Hull led to the catch. From that point on, it was a sprint to the end zone and an easy victory for Rice.

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Central Michigan came up 2 yards short of the most impressive comeback in bowl history. The Chippewas erased 34 points of Western Kentucky’s 35-point second-half lead, but came up short on a two-point conversion on the final play of the game to lose 49-48.

With one second remaining, Central Michigan took over possession on its own 25-yard line for a final chance to catch the Hilltoppers. Sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush heaved a pass to the opposite 30, where receiver Jesse Kroll was waiting to start a string of laterals that would eventually end with Titus Davis diving to reach the end zone pylon.

Davis scored four touchdowns on six receptions to help lead the improbable second-half comeback. Western Kentucky led by as much as 49-14 thanks to dominating the first two quarters. The Chippewas responded with five unanswered fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Rush.

Rush passed for 493 yards and seven touchdowns. His performance barely eclipsed that of his counterpart, Brandon Doughty. Western Kentucky’s senior quarterback threw for 486 yards and five touchdowns -- all of them in the first half -- to stake his team to a large lead.

After pulling within one on the final play, Central Michigan coach Dan Enos opted to go for the win rather than kick an extra point and go to overtime. Rush threw a fade pass to Kroll in the back corner of the end zone, but it was broken up by cornerback Wonderful Terry. On Christmas Eve, It’s a Wonderful finish.

Game ball goes to: Rush’s seven touchdown passes are tied for the most ever in a bowl game. He completed 28 of 45 passes and ran for 26 yards. He took a backseat to Doughty, the national leader in touchdown passes this season, for most of the game. But his fourth-quarter persistence set up one of the more memorable finishes in recent bowl history.

What it means: The inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl will be one that is not soon forgotten. The first bowl played outside of the United States and Canada since 1937 set a high bar for its future games.

Best play: The Hail Mary complete with three laterals and an outstretched dive at the pylon is as difficult to describe as it will be to top this bowl season. The ball found an unlikely path through Kroll to Deon Butler to Courtney Williams to Davis before reaching the end zone. It’s best just to let the pictures tell the story.

video What’s next: Western Kentucky gets an offseason to prepare for life without Doughty, who is out of eligibility. The Chippewas can take plenty of pride back to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, after closing the scoring gap in the second half. Both teams have bigger gaps to close if they hope to contend for their respective conference championships in 2015.
Bryan Underwood, Josh MedlinCourtesy of NC State sports informationBryan Underwood celebrated NC State's Senior Day with Josh Medlin, left, and Kerby Harrison, a high school coach of Underwood's.
Early in the fall, a young NC State fan got out his crayons, his pencils and a clean sheet of paper and started to draw.

Soon, a pretty good drawing of receiver Bryan Underwood started to take shape. Josh Medlin, 8, submitted his artwork to a social media campaign NC State started asking kids to draw their favorite player.

Underwood saw the picture on Twitter when he got out of practice one day in November. Intrigued, he came up with an idea and decided to give the ultimate gift before the holiday season began. Underwood wanted Josh to walk onto the field with him for Senior Day.

[+] EnlargeJosh Medlin
Courtesy of Josh MedlinBryan Underwood said Josh Medlin's artwork was "a pretty cool drawing for an 8-year-old to make."
Underwood needed company out there, after all. One of his high school coaches would be there with him, but his parents had a church event that weekend and were unable to attend. More than the company, though, Underwood wanted to show Josh how much his drawing meant to him.

“It was my last game here, and he doesn’t get another chance to meet me. So I figured why not meet him there?” Underwood recalled recently. “It was a pretty cool drawing for an 8-year-old to make. For anybody who takes pride in the program, I wanted to show our appreciation.”

Underwood called the Medlin home and spoke to Josh's parents. They were thrilled. He spoke to Josh, who was extremely shy and, truthfully, a little intimidated about having to walk onto a football field with 55,000 fans staring at him.

His parents assured him all would be fine. On Nov. 15, Josh Medlin and Bryan Underwood met at the 50 before kickoff against Wake Forest. Underwood handed him a pair of gloves. They posed for pictures. That would have been kind enough had Underwood stopped there.

But he decided he had to do more. Underwood walked Josh back to his seats in the north end zone, lifted him over the fence, jumped into the stands himself and climbed up to the seats.

In full uniform.

With minutes to go before kick.

The fans around him clapped. A few murmured, “Aww, how cute!”

“It just shows what a special individual Bryan is,” Josh’s father, Danny, said from his home in North Carolina. “There’s so many negative sports stories these days that when you see something like this, it makes you burst with pride.”

Underwood smiles when asked why he decided to escort Josh back to his parents.

“I figured why not?” Underwood said. “He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him, and I wanted to talk to him a little more. He was a great kid.”

Josh Medlin still wears his gloves regularly. How could he not, when they came from his favorite player? The Medlins have supported NC State for decades. Danny Medlin graduated from NC State. So did his wife and many other relatives. He has held season tickets since the 1990s, and the whole family tries to attend every home game. Josh has always admired Underwood, and he got his artistic inspiration from the cover of a publication from the Wolfpack Club.

Underwood has one game left in his NC State career -- Friday night against UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Whether he has zero receptions or 10 receptions will not matter much to Josh Medlin. He already has what matters most.
Much of the focus leading up to the Rose Bowl will be on the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. However, those two aren't ever going to be competing head-to-head on the field at the same time.

Both No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State made it this far because of the talent littered throughout the rosters. While Mariota and Winston have both shown they have the ability to win games on their own, the Rose Bowl could be decided by a player who has been flying a bit under the radar but is poised to make a big splash on Jan. 1.

Here are a few players that haven't been discussed much that could have a big impact on the game.

Defensive players

Oregon: Chris Seisay. First and foremost, he's going to surpass expectations simply because so much more will be asked of him this game than has ever been asked of him. He'll be stepping into the spot vacated by Jim Thorpe Award finalist Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a career ending injury last week. Seisay, a redshirt freshman, has only accounted for 20 tackles this season due to the fact that he just really hasn't seen the field a ton. Because of this, Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense are certainly going to throw at him quite a bit more. The rest of the secondary is pretty solid -- Troy Hill, Erick Dargan, Reggie Daniels -- so why not take shots at the youngest, most inexperienced guy?

But that's where I think it'll get interesting. I feel like Seisay could have a huge game for the Ducks. Because he'll be targeted more, he'll have a chance to make some big plays (though, he'll also have chances to make some big mistakes), but I think he's going to pull through for the Ducks. Last week, Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said that the game plan wouldn't change for the Ducks. “We lost a great leader, great player, great spiritual leader and everyone has got to -- it's like a hit -- everyone's got to pick it up a little more,” Pellum said. I think Seisay picks up a lot more.

Florida State: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He likely won't receive a ton of snaps, but any contribution from the defensive tackle could prove major for the Seminoles. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher felt the senior lineman was poised for a big season before tearing a pectoral muscle against Clemson in September. He played through the injury during the game, but the tear was bad enough that Fisher said Lawrence-Stample would miss the remainder of the season. So it was a bit of a surprise when Fisher said last week that Lawrence-Stample was ready to practice and should play against the Ducks. Florida State has been thin at defensive tackle all season, and the loss of Lawrence-Stample was a tough blow. Fisher said Oregon's tempo wouldn't give Lawrence-Stample any trouble as he works back into game shape, but the 6-foot-1, 314-pound tackle is likely not going to be able to play a significant number of snaps. Still, even 20 snaps in a reserve role could be pivotal for a defensive line that will need fresh legs deep into the fourth quarter if the Seminoles plan to pull off the upset.

Offensive player

Oregon: Royce Freeman. Yes, I know he's already a player that so many people know. But I think he's going to exceed expectations by having his best game of the season. The Seminoles haven't faced a rushing attack quite like Oregon's. Not only do they have to worry about the rushing attack out of the tailback (Freeman), they have to worry about it out of the quarterback (Mariota) and a slot receiver (Byron Marshall, former running back). There's so much to focus on that I think Freeman might get lost in the shuffle just enough times to really crank off some huge runs.

Florida State has given up 3.9 yards per rush this season, but the Seminoles have also given up 69 rushes of 10 or more yards -- that's one in every seven or eight rushes. And they've shown out when they needed to. FSU held Miami's Duke Johnson to right around his season average in rushing yards per game, while keeping him to just one touchdown run and two rushes of 10 or more yards. But Johnson doesn't have the weapons around him like Freeman has. Freeman is playing his best football right now and has averaged 6.1 yards per rush over the past four games. With each game and practice he, along with Mariota and a constantly reshuffling offensive line, are finding better ways to collectively attack defensive fronts and I think with the extra two weeks of practice we're going to see a huge performance -- his biggest of the year -- out of Freeman. Put me down for it: 180 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns (and one receiving touchdown) at 6.0 yards per carry.

Florida State: Travis Rudolph. The freshman receiver has been brilliant at times this season, dazzling with his footwork and speed. He's also made a few rookie mistakes that have led to Florida State turnovers. Rudolph's talent is undeniable, and the Florida State offense has often looked its best when Rudolph is having a productive game. The Seminoles could use a secondary receiving threat on the outside to complement Rashad Greene, who defensive backs target before every play. Florida State's young receivers have been inconsistent providing help for the senior Greene, who is the most productive receiver in school history. With Greene on the outside and Nick O'Leary on the inside at tight end, there will not be any shortage of opportunities for Rudolph to make a play. Winston has shown he isn't afraid to throw the ball in Rudolph's direction and is not lacking confidence in the freshman. With Oregon's top cornerback out, Rudolph isn't going to have the same caliber of defender standing opposite him either. Even a few catches for 60 or so yards would be a strong contribution from Rudolph and enough to shift some attention from Greene and O'Leary.
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.

Martavis Bryant, No. 44 in 2010 class

Bryant came out T.L. Hanna High (S.C.) without much suspense in his recruitment. The 6-foot-4, then 185-pound wide receiver always wanted to go to Clemson, and committed to then head coach Tommy Bowden in February of 2008 over offers from Florida State and Florida. Following a year at Hargrave Military Academy prep school, Bryant stayed true to his heart and headed off to Clemson.

Bryant appeared in 14 games with two starts as a true freshman catching nine passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He posted two receptions in the Orange Bowl.

As a sophomore, he posted 10 receptions for 305 yards and four scores in ten games. Eight of his receptions went for more than 20 yards. He added 210 return yards to total 515 all-purpose yards in 10 games.

Bryant’s junior campaign would be his best at Clemson. He was tabbed as an All-ACC honorable mention following the 2012 season after hauling in 42 receptions for 828 yards and seven scores in 11 starts.

Bryant chose to forgo his final season at Clemson and was selected in the fourth round, No. 118 overall, by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2014 NFL draft.

Honorable mention: Andre Ellington, No. 44 in 2008 class, and Joshua Garnett, No 44 in 2012 class. Ellington starred at Clemson before being drafted in the sixth round (No. 187-overall) by the Phoenix Cardinals. He is the older brother of former South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Garnett is a full time starter at left guard for Stanford, and is expected be drafted following the 2015 season.
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.

Andre Ellington, No. 44 in 2008 class

Ellington came out of Moncks Corner (S.C.) as a speedy playmaking running back with 10.7 100-meter speed. He was offered by both in-state programs Clemson and South Carolina before deciding on the Tigers, committing to then head coach Tommy Bowden in May 2007.

After redshirting in 2008, Ellington became a key part of Clemson's offense, playing behind future first-round pick C.J. Spiller. He rushed for 491 yards and four touchdowns on 68 carries that season.

Ellington began to show his NFL potential in 2010, rushing for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns on 118 carries, along with catching 109 yards in passes. He also scored All-ACC second team honors.

Ellington's first season of 1,000 or more yards came in 2011 with 1,178 yards and 11 scores earning numerous All-ACC second team honors.

Ellington's fifth and final season in Clemson would be his best. Not only did he rush for 1,081 yards and eight touchdowns, but he also caught 232 yards and recorded 178 return yards to finish his All-ACC first team season with 1,491 all-purpose yards.

Ellington was selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals.

Honorable mention: Joshua Garnett, No. 44 in 2012 class. Garnett is the starting left guard for the Stanford Cardinal and is expected to be drafted following the 2015 season.
The big guys battling up front mamight y be the ones with the most influence over the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but that’s certainly not the only matchup worth watching. And what happens when the ball is in the air could be every bit as crucial in determining which team moves on to play for a national title.

Obviously Amari Cooper is going to have something to say about who is advancing in the College Football Playoff. And the Big Ten’s most opportunistic secondary is going to have a chance to prove it’s really capable of delivering on the game’s biggest stage.

When the roles are reversed, can Ohio State’s athletic targets get the better of a secondary that has had some issues at times but traditionally ranks as one of the better units in the nation for Nick Saban’s program?

So, who has the edge in the passing game? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough take a look at those matchups as the Allstate Sugar Bowl creeps ever closer.

Alabama targets: The Crimson Tide have the best receiver in college football. Cooper, for those who have been asleep at the wheel all season, is the real deal. Whether you play off coverage or press him at the line of scrimmage, he finds a way to get open. But the bigger story for Alabama might be everyone else. Outside of finding No. 9, quarterback Blake Sims has struggled to incorporate the rest of his passing targets. Wide receivers Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have gotten the ball more in recent weeks, but overall their production has been lacking. The same goes for tight end O.J. Howard, who is a freakish athlete but can’t seem to generate any consistency as a playmaker. -- Scarborough

Ohio State secondary: A new co-defensive coordinator, a more aggressive scheme and the maturation of a pair of talented young safeties have combined to turn Ohio State’s defensive backs into one of the most improved units in the nation. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell have combined for eight interceptions as they’ve grown more comfortable and confident at safety, and with Doran Grant locking down receivers at cornerback and chipping in five picks of his own, it’s becoming a dangerous proposition to throw on the Buckeyes. Only three defenses in the nation nabbed more passes than Ohio State did this season under Chris Ash, and he’ll be expecting more of the same against the Crimson Tide. -- Ward

Advantage: Starting with one of the best players in the entire country regardless of position is a good way to gain an edge, and Cooper should push Alabama slightly ahead in this matchup. But it’s closer than might be expected considering how much talent the Buckeyes have in the secondary and how well coached they’ve been under Ash and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.

Alabama secondary: Outside of Landon Collins, there wasn’t much expected of Alabama’s secondary entering the season. Neither cornerback spot was settled and the second safety position opposite Collins was up in the air, too. But thanks to the steady play of Nick Perry and the emergence of Cyrus Jones, the unit has held its own. That doesn’t mean it’s without faults, mind you. Against Auburn, every flaw was exposed as Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards. The most concerning issue was the way the Tigers picked on cornerback Eddie Jackson, who was helpless against Duke Williams. The next week against Missouri, it wasn’t much better as Jimmie Hunt racked up 169 yards on six catches. Whether it’s Jackson, Bradley Sylve or freshman Tony Brown, Alabama needs someone to step up and round out the secondary at cornerback. -- Scarborough

Ohio State targets: Urban Meyer needed a couple seasons to acquire the kind of talent he needed to balance his spread offense with a consistent passing attack, but he certainly has all the tools in place now. Michael Thomas bounced back from a surprising redshirt season as a sophomore to become Ohio State’s most complete receiver, leading the team with 43 receptions and becoming a reliable option to move the chains with his sharp routes and strong hands. Devin Smith had already proven more than capable of burning secondaries deep as the home-run threat for the Buckeyes, but he has taken his game to a higher level as a senior and is averaging nearly 27 yards per catch. Throw in a wildcard such as Jalin Marshall as a hybrid weapon and a future NFL tight end in Jeff Heuerman, and Ohio State makes it impossible now to focus too much on stopping its powerful ground game. -- Ward

Advantage: The Buckeyes have enough weapons to keep even the best secondaries in the country busy, and this year the Crimson Tide aren’t quite living up to the high standard the program has established against the pass. Ohio State should have the edge.
The victories have been dismissed. The opponents, too.

But going on a long winning streak is just not easy to do.

Whatever you believe about Florida State and how the Seminoles have arrived at 29 straight wins, stop for a moment for a little perspective. Because these players are a part of college football history, tied with Miami (1990-92) and Michigan (1901-03) for No. 13 on the all-time longest streaks list.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston
Rob Tringali for ESPNDuring their 29-game win streak, coach Jimbo Fisher and Florida State have knocked off 19 bowl teams.
Of the 15 teams that have won 29 or more straight games, only eight played after World War II; only six after 1960; only three since 2000.

“It’s impressive, obviously,” said North Texas assistant Kevin Patrick, who was on the Miami teams that won 29 straight. “It’s something the more years that go by, the more impressed I even become with it. It’s such a high mark, especially back in the state of Florida. ... You go to school with so many people that are so familiar with the schools, it gives you a lot of bragging rights.”

The Florida State and Miami winning streaks bear similarities, beyond sharing the same home state. Miami won a national championship in the middle of its streak, the way Florida State did a season ago. Miami played eight games decided by a touchdown or less; Florida State has played nine (albeit seven have happened in 2014); Miami played 10 teams that were ranked at the time they played; Florida State nine.

Where there is slight separation is the opposition they played. Miami faced 12 bowl teams; Florida State 19. FSU played eight teams with losing records; Miami 12.

Still, wins are exceedingly hard to string together when you become a marked team.

“We were a lot of people’s bowl games,” Patrick said. “We were bigger than going to a bowl game to play so-and-so. They came into the Orange Bowl, we got the best out of everybody. I can remember even those smaller teams coming in, and they would give us everything they got. Great teams are capable of winning those games even at close margins. You win or you lose. That’s it.”

The only two other teams to reel off long winning streaks over the past 15 years were Miami (2000-02) and USC (2003-05). Both won 34 straight. Both have fielded teams regarded as among the best in college football history.

USC was viewed as playing in the better conference. There is an interesting comparison to be made with those USC teams and Florida State. During its 34-game winning streak, USC played 10 ranked opponents -- just one more than Florida State has played during its winning streak.

While the Trojans had only four games decided by a touchdown or less, they actually played weaker overall competition. USC faced 17 teams with losing records during its win streak. Yes, the USC streak was longer, but by only five games. If the FSU streak continues, the Noles have at least their next two games against winning opponents.

Miami also played its share of losing teams in the Big East. Clint Hurtt, who was on the 2001 national championship team, said motivation was a bigger factor than any pressure to keep the winning streak going.

“The pressure was never the issue. It was actually keeping interest,” Hurtt said. “What Florida State is going through right now is they have to present the challenge to themselves. The thing we did on those teams -- each position set goals that we had within the game that we had to try and accomplish. We played a game within the game just to get us going. That’s the truth.”

There is one more thing the two Miami teams and the 2003-05 USC teams have in common: Their winning streaks ended in the national championship game. Miami lost to Alabama in the 1992 Sugar Bowl; Miami lost to Ohio State in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl; USC lost to Texas in the 2005 Rose Bowl.

All three were favored to win, making their losses all the more stunning.

“It was one of the strangest games I’ve ever been in,” Patrick said of the loss to Alabama. “I remember sitting in there at halftime looking over at one of the other guys thinking, ‘What is going on out there?’ Some days the ball just doesn’t roll your way. Was there pressure? Absolutely not. I don’t think we went in there and one person thought about a streak. It was just the next one, and we’re going to take care of business.”

Florida State has taken care of business for so long, it is hard to believe the Seminoles are actually an underdog to Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1 in the College Football Playoff semifinals, the first time they haven't been favored to win since 2011.

While that might be a surprising place for the Seminoles to be in, they want to avoid what would be the biggest surprise of all: losing.
With all due respect to the quarterbacks and other skill position players, the Allstate Sugar Bowl will ultimately come down to who wins the battle of the trenches.

If Ohio State can’t protect Cardale Jones, his youth will show.

If Alabama can’t give Blake Sims a clean pocket, he could struggle, too.

So which team has the edge in the battle of offensive line versus defensive line? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough preview the matchup.

 Alabama OL: This isn’t the Alabama offensive line of two years ago, the one that consistently moved the line of scrimmage four and five yards ahead with each snap. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker have long since left the building. But while this season’s group hasn’t met that lofty standard, it has exceeded the nationally average. Just look at the past four games when the line surrendered only four sacks. And that was with a less-than-100-percent Cam Robinson at left tackle, who should be healthy again after a few weeks of rest. Robinson is still a true freshman, though, and starting right guard Leon Brown has been inconsistent, drawing penalties at some inopportune moments. -- Scarborough

Ohio State DL: The Buckeyes might not have lived up to the preseason hype as the best unit in the nation after losing star defensive end Noah Spence for the entire season (second failed drug test), but they’re pretty close. With three more surefire, high-round draft picks in the starting lineup, including perhaps the most disruptive pass-rusher in the country in sophomore Joey Bosa, there’s still no shortage of talent up front. Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington make life miserable on the inside, and Bosa has shown signs of becoming a more complete, even more frightening defensive end late in his second year with the program. -- Ward

Advantage: It’s awfully close, but give the slight edge to Ohio State, which might have the best lineman on the field in Bosa.

 Ohio State OL: There was plenty of growing up to do for an offensive line that was replacing four starters while also moving the only veteran with first-team experience to a new position. But the Buckeyes zipped through the learning curve. The unit is virtually unrecognizable at this point when compared to the one that struggled mightily in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. Left tackle Taylor Decker emerged as a cornerstone for Ohio State. He has both on-field ability and is a respected leader who helped usher those new starters through a rough patch and into players capable of keeping the highest-scoring attack in the Big Ten rolling. -- Ward

Alabama DL: Everyone who watched this team closely and followed its recruiting exploits over the past few years knew that this promised to be one of the most deep and talented D-lines in Nick Saban’s time at Alabama. Saban, of course, scoffed at the idea, and for the first few weeks of the season he looked to be right as the unit largely underperformed. But somewhere along the way things kicked it into gear. A'Shawn Robinson returned to his freshman All-American form, anchoring the interior of the line, and Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and others pitched in at defensive end. Throw in hybrid end/linebackers Ryan Anderson and Xavier Dickson, and Alabama has a wealth of options to rush the passer. -- Scarborough

Advantage: Another close call with both units steadily improving throughout the year, but we’ll give the nod to Alabama’s depth and ability to roll in fresh linemen.
Brent Venables, Mike StoopsUSA TODAY SportsBrent Venables, left, has turned Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country while Oklahoma has shown little improvement under Mike Stoops.
Three seasons ago, Oklahoma seemed to be in need of a defensive change.

Baylor had racked up 620 yards against the Sooners, the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered. Shorty after, rival Oklahoma State destroyed the Sooners by almost five touchdowns, sending Oklahoma tumbling all the way to the Insight Bowl.

Yet during that Tempe bowl, a supposed Sooner defense savior stood off the sideline.

Mike Stoops' return to Norman seemed imminent. And days later, Bob Stoops turned that supposition into reality.

The hire didn’t exactly force longtime assistant Brent Venables out. The Stoops brothers, in fact, wanted Venables to stay. After all, Mike Stoops and Venables together co-coordinated Oklahoma’s national championship defense in 2000. But with Mike Stoops coming back to take the lead, Venables realized his tenure in Norman was no longer tenable, and he bolted for Clemson.

Three years later, that moment will come full circle Monday, when Oklahoma will meet Venables and the Tigers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

But while Venables has whipped Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country, Oklahoma seems no closer to fielding a championship-caliber defense than it did three seasons ago.

Just like 2011, the Sooners come limping into a mid-level bowl after finishing fourth in the Big 12 standings. Like 2011, they couldn’t stop Baylor. Like 2011, they fell to the rival Cowboys.

And a reunion with Venables only accentuates how far the Sooners have come since 2011. Or, in actuality, how far they haven’t.

Oklahoma has won only one Big 12 title since Venables’ departure – a 2012 co-championship with Kansas State that was sullied by a head-to-head home defeat to the Wildcats.

Since Venables, the Sooners haven’t claimed a first-team defensive All-American, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year or a national award finalist.

And this season, with Mike Stoops recruits finally littering the secondary, the Sooners ranked only ahead of Iowa State among Big 12 teams in defending the pass.

Following a catastrophic 2012 defensive season loaded with highlights of Tavon Austin and Johnny Manziel carving up the Sooners, Oklahoma finally seemed to be turning that elusive corner defensively under Mike Stoops last year. After getting blown out by Texas and Baylor, the Sooners surged late. Then, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma swarmed Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. The Sooners sacked him seven times and forced him into three turnovers in a stunning 45-31 win.

With nine starters returning, Oklahoma defense looked as if it was on its way back. But as it turned out, the Alabama performance was merely an aberration.

Even with the entire front returning, the Sooners struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks and finished just fifth in the league in sacks. As a result, with no standouts at safety and little depth at cornerback, the defensive backfield Mike Stoops cobbled together was exposed.

With the ultimate capitulation coming on Nov. 8 against Baylor.

Completely overmatched, the Sooners opened the first drive of the second half playing their cornerbacks 10 yards off the ball. With little resistance, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty completed all nine of his pass attempts, as the Bears zipped right down the field to take a 31-14 lead on their way to handing Oklahoma its worst home loss since the John Blake days.

Even after that, Bob Stoops avoided publicly criticizing his brother’s defense. But he didn’t have to. His actions later spoke loudest.

In the final minute of the season finale against Oklahoma State, Bob Stoops elected to punt to Tyreek Hill a second time after a running-into-the-kicker penalty. The decision was questionable. But the reasoning was understandable. Bob Stoops wasn’t confident his defense could stop Oklahoma State true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph from driving the Cowboys 90 yards to tie the game. And Bob Stoops wanted to milk every second from the clock he could. But Hill took his second chance at a return to the house, and Oklahoma State dominated the overtime to win, 38-35, while dimming the Sooners’ season even more.

It wasn’t long ago hope bubbled over for the defense. Now, regardless of what happens Monday, the Sooners will head into 2015 overflowing with questions. Yes, the Sooners will boast probable preseason All-American running back Samaje Perine offensively. But with a strained secondary and subdued pass rush, the Oklahoma defense has never looked more discombobulated.

Three years have passed now since Venables left.

And yet under Mike Stoops, the feeling in Norman remains the same.
Alabama and Ohio State meet in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a spot in the College Football Playoff national championship game on the line. So how do the two teams match up? Let's go to the tale of the tape:

Viewer's Guide: Hawaii Bowl

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
9:00
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It'll be dark across mainland America on Christmas Eve, but football fans will get to watch a football game played in daylight -- live. That's the magic of the Hawaii Bowl, which features Fresno State and Rice at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. Here are three facets of this game to keep an eye out for:

1. Will a defense please show up?

Fresno State began the season leaking serious oil on the defensive end, allowing at least 52 points in each of its first three games. The Bulldogs have since performed better defensively, but it certainly has not been a banner year on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, Rice's defense is fresh off an absolutely embarrassing performance. The Owls gave up 76 points, 677 yards and 9.5 yards per play to Louisiana Tech in their season finale. The team that actually plays competent defense will win this game. If neither does, we'll see a ton of points.

2. A chance to wash away bad bowl tastes

Neither of these teams had much postseason fun last year. Fresno State, at one point 11-0 and eyeing a BCS bowl berth, had to settle for the Las Vegas Bowl, where it was walloped 45-20 by USC. Meanwhile, Rice was bludgeoned 44-7 by Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. So this game is a real chance for atonement for both teams, especially considering the fact that the Bulldogs are making a return to the Hawaii Bowl two years after they were spanked 43-10 by SMU. The Owls are also 0-6 all-time against their former WAC foe, so we'll see which run of losing is broken tonight.

3. Watch the quarterbacks run

Both signal-callers in this game have the ability to make plays with their legs, and that'll be something to watch if the defenses do indeed struggle. Fresno State's Brian Burrell has racked up 560 yards on the ground this season, while Rice's Driphus Jackson has run for 360. He needs just 116 yards to become only the third player in program history to amass 3,000 yards of total offense in a single season. As usual, much will rest on the play of the two men under center.
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Before the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, San Diego State coach Rocky Long had a bold prediction.

"If you're a football purist, this will be the best game you've ever seen," he proclaimed.

Unless purists love supremely sloppy play, Long's words didn't come to fruition.

Navy beat San Diego State 17-16 in a game that featured seven turnovers, a highly questionable fourth-down decision, poor clock management, and a throw that hit a referee in the head. To say the least, it wasn't pretty. Here's the rundown:

How the game was won: Four combined turnovers marred the fourth quarter. In fact, Navy fumbled the ball four times over the course of the game, but they still found a way to win. That's because San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey coughed up a football of his own with 5:54 remaining to set Navy up for a 10-play, 47-yard drive that ended with the game-winning Austin Grebe 24-yard field goal. After rushing for only 75 yards in the first half, the Midshipmen's triple-option ripped off 179 yards on the ground in the second half. That proved to be enough to overcome their sloppy play, especially since San Diego State played an ugly game, too.

Game ball goes to: Navy fullback Chris Swain was a bruiser to be reckoned with. He rushed only eight times, but racked up 72 yards on those carries for an average of 9.0 yards per touch. Swain rumbled for 13 yards on one of the biggest plays of the game, a fourth-down conversion from the Aztecs' 44-yard line on the Midshipmen's game-winning drive. "Tank" may be an Army term, but it aptly describes the 6-foot-1, 245-pound load that is Swain.

It was over when: San Diego State kicker Donny Hageman missed the potential go-ahead field goal from 34 yards out with only 20 seconds left. This followed an icing timeout -- the strategy worked this time! -- from the Navy sideline. The Aztecs' eight-play, 63-yard drive went to waste, though it must be noted that their clock management before the field goal wasn't superb: Two runs out of bounds and an incomplete pass actually left unnecessary time on the clock. But that ended up being irrelevant.

Stat of the game: Seven turnovers. The game was played in perfect, dry San Diego weather, but the Midshipmen couldn't seem to hold onto the football, and the Aztecs didn't fare much better. Navy overcame a four-fumble performance thanks in large part to the fact that they intercepted San Diego State quarterback Quinn Kaehler twice. They also forced and recovered the aforementioned Pumphrey fumble at just the right time.

Best play: San Diego State slowed the triple-option in the first half, but Navy found room to roam down the stretch. Ryan Williams-Jenkins ripped off this clutch 28-yard run to put the Midshipmen in perfect position for the game-winning field goal.
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Pat Narduzzi looking to take a big step

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
10:00
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1. Another top FBS coordinator appears to be leaving a long-time job to strike out on his own. On Monday, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo went to Colorado State; on Tuesday, Michigan State defensive guru Pat Narduzzi emerged as the top candidate at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi, the 2013 Broyles Award winner, has been Mark Dantonio's defensive coordinator for 11 seasons, the last eight in East Lansing. The Spartans are one of only two FBS teams to rank in the top 10 in total defense in each of the last four years. That may not be a great omen for Narduzzi: the other is Florida.

2. One of the more interesting college football experiments of 2015 will take place at UNLV, which hired local high school coach Tony Sanchez to take over the beleaguered Rebels. Sanchez won six state titles at Bishop Gorman High in Vegas. But the staff he unveiled Monday makes it clear Sanchez isn't walking onto campus acting as if he has all the answers. Coordinators Barney Cotton (offense) and Kent Baer (defense) have a combined 62 seasons as college coaches. Gorman has a good staff. Let's see if UNLV follows through on its pledge to bring an outdated program into modern times.

3. Bowl games are all about perspective. Twice in recent years we've seen Alabama go into the Sugar Bowl flat because of a devastating loss that preceded it. Yet we see Penn State overjoyed to play in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl after the NCAA halved the Nittany Lions' four-year bowl ban. Penn State players that thought they would never have the opportunity to play a postseason game will be in Yankee Stadium on Saturday to play Boston College. "A lot of the guys on the team have been looking forward to a bowl game for a long time," defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said.

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