@jeremycrabtree Ole Miss CeCe Jefferson to add to an already great defense. And DeMarcus Lodge to go along with our other talented WR.— Joe Turnage (@Joe_T25) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree Florida- Bryon Cowart, CeCe, Ivey, Holland, Jordan Scarlett— Trenton Stowell (@tstowell24) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree b cowart Cece and dpayne come to auburn to make impact on defense— Tad tisdale (@TadTisdale) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree Ryan Davis at Kstate— darren mueller (@milkman2993) December 21, 2014
@jeremycrabtree KSU - Kylan Johnson@shotime_kc— Wildcat_Jeff (@Snyder_cat) December 22, 2014
2. One of the biggest reasons for Mark Richt’s enduring success at Georgia apparently is leaving for Colorado State. Mike Bobo has been on Richt’s staff for all 14 of his seasons in Athens, the last eight as offensive coordinator. In the last three season, Georgia has averaged at least 36 points and 450 yards per game. Colorado State had good success the last time it hired an SEC offensive coordinator. But Jim McElwain came from Alabama with a western pedigree. Bobo, 40, played at Georgia and has worked there for all but one year of his coaching career. It’s a gamble, but Bobo has credentials worth gambling on.
3. No offense to my colleague Adam Schefter, who covers the NFL like white on rice. But a story that Stanford head coach David Shaw is not interested in coaching in the NFL is only news if you’re in the NFL. It’s like a story reporting that Bill Belichick is not interested in coaching at Michigan. Shaw has repeatedly made it clear that he is emotionally invested in Stanford. Getting out the message is a problem that’s not unique to Shaw -- ask Bob Stoops how many times he has dealt with questions about leaving Oklahoma. So Schefter’s story is one that may be written again next year.
Together, they traveled more than 3,500 miles to the warmer weather of South Florida.
But after Memphis won a double-overtime thriller against BYU, 55-48, the Miami Beach Bowl became the scene of a large brawl involving players from both programs.
The fight erupted in the immediate postgame celebration. It was unclear who threw the first punch.
"I don't know what happened, so I don't know how upset I am," Memphis coach Justin Fuente told ESPN. "That's not who we are."
How the game was won: No one is going to make the argument that Memphis’ defense played a great game. At least no one should. But despite surrendering 48 points and 425 yards, give some credit to the Tigers, which found a way to wrestle the ball away from BYU time and time again. In the end, four turnovers yielded 14 points for Memphis, including a game-deciding interception in overtime.
Game ball goes to: The running game was less than spectacular, but Paxton Lynch found a way. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore quarterback used his legs as well as his arm to will Memphis to a win. He finished with 344 yards (306 passing and 38 rushing) and seven total touchdowns, three of which came on the ground.
It was over when: Before this week, Jake Elliott was the best place-kicker no one had ever heard of. But the sophomore can’t live in anonymity any longer. After missing a 53-yard field goal attempt -- hitting the crossbar in the third quarter -- he came on in overtime with Memphis needing a miracle. From 55 yards out, he drilled a kick well through the uprights to send the game into a second overtime.
Stat of the game: For as porous as Memphis’ secondary was at times, its front seven was stifling, limiting BYU to 77 rushing yards on 42 carries (1.8 yards per rush).
Best play: Lynch wasn’t going to be denied. Neither was Keiwone Malone. On fourth-and-goal, with Memphis trailing by seven points with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Lynch hung in the pocket, scrambling for what felt like an eternity. Finally, after eight excruciating seconds, he pointed to his tight end and threw up a prayer. Instead of finding his intended target, Malone answered, hauling in the game-tying touchdown reception.
"It would be a lie to say this season hasn't been disappointing," he said. "But we can only get better and move forward from here."
That's the workmanlike tone coming from the Stanford quarterback leading up the Dec. 30 Foster Farms Bowl against Maryland, the Cardinal's last chance to add some more positivity onto the end of their topsy-turvy 7-5 campaign. The peaks and valleys of this 2014 ride have been pronounced, perhaps none more so than Stanford's last time out, a 31-10 whooping over No. 8 UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
"Kevin has the ability to play at the next level," coach David Shaw said. 'That UCLA game showed his ceiling."
And that's exactly where Stanford's quandary moving forward begins. After all, there were times this year when it looked like the Cardinal would be better suited moving on to another quarterback in 2015. Hogan's performances against Notre Dame (4.4 yards per attempt) and Utah (3.9 yards per attempt) were two glaring examples. Blame for Stanford's red zone woes (119th in the nation) often fell on offensive playcalling, but since that wasn't an issue when a guru like Luck was under center, Hogan took his share of heat for those shortcomings, too.
But then came the quarterback's recent torrid finish, one that saw Stanford's rushing attack finally regain at least a semblance of the consistency that Hogan had enjoyed throughout his first two years under center. And that success on the ground provided a backbone that helped No. 8 return to his comfort zone.
"Anytime you have success, you want to build on it," Hogan said. "We feel that we've gotten into a rhythm and groove with our schemes. We feel comfortable now."
And it's this comfort that's posing a triple Stanford question mark moving forward. The range of possibilities are as broad as Stanford's season was inconsistent. Will Hogan return to start under center in his fifth-year senior season? Or will the Cardinal, concerned by that earlier inconsistency, look to upgrade at quarterback in 2015? And according to Shaw, the third head of this confusing beast seems to be back on the table following Hogan's sizzling finale: Will Hogan test NFL waters following this season?
"I haven't made a decision," Hogan said. "But it's a process, and I'm going to make sure it's well thought-out for my best interest and the best interest of my family."
Amidst all the possibilities, Shaw says that he expects Hogan to be back at Stanford next year (though he "wouldn't be shocked" if he made a run at the next level), despite the NFL potential that he sees in his quarterback.
"The big thing is for him to play [the way he did against UCLA] the whole season," Shaw said. "Hopefully, he comes back and does that next year."
That thought indicates that Hogan is the current favorite to start under center for Stanford in 2015. Current back-up Evan Crower -- whose play Shaw has praised this December -- also has one year of eligibility remaining, while touted youngsters Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are both considered future options to man the ship.
And if that Hogan-Stanford partnership does last into its fourth season, Shaw has indicated that his team will work to accentuate the quarterback's strengths that shone so brightly in that sparkling UCLA performance. The first opportunity to do so will come against the Terrapins at Levi's Stadium.
"We're going to stick with what's working," Shaw said. "Kevin needs to play fast."
Hogan's calling card is his athleticism and nose for the football, and he said that an early integration of some physical play helps him lock into the type of rhythm that was on display at UCLA, when perfect early accuracy led him complete 12 straight passes out of the gate.
"It's just like anyone: A receiver would like to catch a hitch before a 50-yard go route," Hogan said. "You want to get into a rhythm with your bread and butter plays.... I'm the same way. If I can roll out or do a QB run, I'd like to get that first hit and first play out of the way. You feel like you're in the game. I appreciate those plays when they're called early, and I try to lobby for them."
So Hogan and Shaw both feel that they've discovered the ingredient to consistency, and they have one more chance to see if it can cook a delicious meal before having to deliver definitive answers regarding Stanford's offensive complexion moving forward. The grandeur of Pasadena on Jan. 1 won't be the stage this time, but it'll be an opportunity to clear up a confusing future nonetheless.
"It's disappointing not playing in a game like the Rose Bowl," Hogan said. "But it's still football nonetheless."
It's football indeed -- and an opportunity for Stanford to lay that first critical 2015 foundation.
When Florida State practice wrapped up Monday afternoon, coach Jimbo Fisher faced the inevitable questions about his star quarterback and the code of conduct hearing that is now in the past.
Fisher did not offer much insight into what Jameis Winston is thinking now that he has been cleared, other than, "It is a relief. ...He's focused on the team like he always is. ...There was a lot of scrutiny on it. But I'm glad it's over with and move on."
Even when Fisher delivered one little nugget, he quickly added a clarifier. Fisher was asked how Winston looked Monday during practice -- the last one the Seminoles will hold until Saturday in California, when they begin final preparations for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon.
"He was really good today," Fisher said. "He had a bounce in his step."
Extra bounce because Winston got the resolution he wanted from the hearing?
Here comes the qualifier.
"But I think they're excited about going home for Christmas," Fisher added. "But he had a really good one today."
Fisher typically saves his most effusive commentary about his players and about his team when he is standing behind a podium, not in a brief post-practice interview. His answers were to be expected. Relief would be the best noun to use to describe Winston's situation.
So without a larger window into their reaction Sunday night, one can draw a few conclusions based on the answers Fisher gave.
The relief Winston is feeling could very well mean a newly focused, newly motivated quarterback once the Rose Bowl rolls around. Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, who cleared Winston of any student conduct code of violations, ruled the evidence was "insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof."
There may still be ramifications down the road, if the accuser chooses to appeal the ruling or file a civil lawsuit. But for now, there are no game ramifications. Winston does not have to worry about whether he will get to play Oregon on Jan. 1, or in the national championship game should the Seminoles win.
Fisher said Winston was focused on the team "like he always is" but one is left to wonder how much of that focus was on his legal matters during the course of a season in which he looked un-Winston-like in many moments.
All we can do is take what Fisher says, then wait to see whether an unburdened Jameis Winston takes the field in Pasadena.
"It's been really good," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Muschamp's presence. "He's just trying to get to know our players, evaluate our current guys and our players have responded extremely well."
The defensive players knew Muschamp's name well before he was hired, and when rumors started to spread he was coming to Auburn, they did their research. They watched videos of their new coach and saw the passion and intensity that has defined him over the years.
Now that Muschamp has arrived on campus, the first impression has been no different.
"Really high intensity guy," linebacker Kris Frost said. "It's been mostly sitting back and observing us right now. But seeing the videos and also just meeting him and talking to him, you can just tell he loves what he does. He's a perfectionist at it. It's about us doing all we can to please him, and we know that next year, it's going to be a really fun year for us."
The first week of practice was "nerve-wrecking" for Frost and a lot of the players who are basically auditioning for next season. They know Muschamp is watching, and the energy has been cranked up as a result. Players are flying to the ball, and the 55-44 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl seems like a distant memory.
The focus has turned to Wisconsin and more importantly, impressing their new coach.
"I've been through a coaching change before," cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "It's the same thing. You're starting fresh, so it's a good thing for everybody. Whereas some coaches might already have a certain opinion about you, you're able to change their perception. It's a great thing being able to start fresh."
Jones, who leads Auburn with six interceptions this season, is penciled in as the team's No. 1 cornerback heading into next season, but even he knows how important it is to make a good first impression on the new defensive coordinator.
Muschamp has declined interviews through the bowl game, so it's likely we won't know his thoughts on the defense until the spring. But based on the numbers and the second-half collapse, he'll have his hands full retooling this Auburn defense.
One thing he can look forward to is the return of defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in spring practice.
Lawson returned to practice last week for the first time since the injury.
"It's great to see him out there in pads and a helmet," Malzahn said. "I know he's got a big smile on his face. He's doing what he can do, but it's really good to have his presence out there and his leadership.
"Anytime you come off a knee injury, it takes a little bit to get used to it and how it feels. One day it may be a little sore. I think it's very valuable he's able to do that now. Once he gets to spring, we'll turn him loose and we expect him to be back to normal."
The return of Lawson coupled with the presence of Muschamp has the players believing this defense can be one of the better defenses in the SEC next season. But first, they have to figure out a way to stop Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon in the Outback Bowl.
The new defensive coordinator will be watching.
There’s no rush to fill the vacancy left by Geoff Collins, the sixth-year head coach explained.
“So we’re going to go do the same again.”
While former assistant Manny Diaz has been floated as a possibility, Mullen said he hadn’t “gone through all that stuff.” Jon Clark, his director of football operations “keeps a list for me and does research.”
Behind the scenes there is a lot going on at Mississippi State, from a new contract for Mullen to a new coordinator to the possibility of a few underclassmen turning pro. But, according to Mullen, the attention is precisely where it needs to be.
“It’s really the premier bowl game of the non-playoff games,” he said of the Orange Bowl. “I think our guys know that and are so into that. Their focus has been more that than anything else.”
Mullen’s focus, meanwhile, has shifted. With Collins gone to work with the new staff at Florida, Mullen has had to lend a bigger hand on defense. For the former offensive coordinator, it’s the most time he ever has spent on that side of the ball.
However, “it’s kind of my defense,” Mullen said, from the time he installed it at the end of his first season.
But his defense has rarely seen the likes of Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets, guided by coach Paul Johnson’s brand of the triple-option, can test even the most stable and disciplined of defenses. This year, they rank 21st nationally in yards per game (468.8) and second in rushing offense.
“They’re just unorthodox,” Mullen said. “Everyone has their own unique style of offense, but often times there’s a lot of crossover. Today, people are going to run this play under center, from the shotgun, from four-wide, from three tight ends, but the schemes are similar. When you play Tech, it’s very, very unique in their schemes and how they do things -- all the chop-blocking they do and all that stuff is just something that’s very, very different that you don’t see on a weekly basis.”
Ironically, given the unfamiliarity with Tech’s scheme and its heavy use of misdirection, focus might be the chief priority for Mississippi State. With so many moving parts both on and off the field, paying attention to the little things is going to be vital.
The good news, it seems, is that the players aren’t hung up on the loss of their defensive coordinator.
“Everybody in this facility could see what a great coach Coach Collins was,” QB Dak Prescott said. “We’re all happy for him and wish him the best of luck. ... But the guys who make the plays on the field are still here. They haven’t left.”
Said Mullen: “They know they’re what the program is all about. I think they just said, ‘Let’s move on. We’ll go make the plays on the field. We’re the Psycho Defense out there. We’re the guys that have all that swagger and make it happen.’ They’re not missing a beat. They’re ready to go play.”
Konrad Reuland, No. 46 in 2006 class
Reuland was a nationally recruited tight end out of Mission Viejo High (Calif.). He picked Notre Dame over Colorado, Stanford and UCLA in November 2005, and was part of a Fighting Irish class that included Eric Olsen, Sam Young and a number of others.
Reuland saw action in seven games for Notre Dame as a true freshman followed by three games as a sophomore before transferring to Stanford.
The 2008 season was a transfer year for Reuland, but he would return to the field in 2009 as a fourth-year junior making three starts. He appeared in all 13 games for the Cardinal, catching six passes for 142 yards.
Reuland’s fifth and final season at the collegiate level would prove to be his best. He played in 13 games with six starts as a senior, catching 21 passes for 209 yards and one touchdown.
Reuland went undrafted in 2011, but signed a free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers. He’s currently in his fourth season in the NFL.
Honorable mention: Curtis Grant, No. 46 in 2011 class, and Chris Jones, No. 46 in 2013 class. Grant headed to Ohio State out of Virginia in 2011 and has been a solid starter at inside linebacker the past two seasons making 109 tackles, including nine for loss. Jones is a promising player for Mississippi State with high NFL draft potential after the 2015 or 2016 season.
How do the players know this for sure?
Because their head coach leads the way.
That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.
Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.
There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting on Dec. 2 with the players.
How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few deep answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.
“I’m focused on our staff,” he said, “these players and getting ready for USC.”
From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks may have galvanized the Huskers.
As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.
Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.
Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.
So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.
Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for each other.
“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized that Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.
“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”
If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.
Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans – most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007 – has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003, incidentally the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.
And parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.
The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.
Safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe like USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.
“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”
McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.
Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.
Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.
“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man – make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”
No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl, after four practices this week in California, will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?
“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”
Every day while growing up, Mikey Dudek would try to jump up and touch the top of every door he passed through. It got to be so frequent that his dad, Rick, had to tell Mikey to cut it out because he was starting to rub the paint off the frames.
As a seventh-grader, Mikey became one of the first and the youngest to join J.R. Niklos' Acceleration training program in Naperville, Illinois. He would eventually spend six hours a week going through strenuous exercises that would lead to feats of physical prowess like he shows off in this video.
Dudek caught 69 passes for 965 yards and six touchdowns, and became the Illini's go-to weapon down the stretch as they fought their way to six wins. With even a subpar performance against Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday, he will become just the eighth Illinois player to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
"I knew after spring practice that I was going to play this season, but they told me it would probably be like 30 plays," said Dudek, who enrolled in January. "So this season was definitely a shock to me."
The bigger surprise might be that so few other teams hotly pursued him out of high school. As the popular story goes, Dudek's only other scholarship offers were from Illinois State and North Dakota State. In truth, his father said, several other schools likely would have followed if Mikey hadn't committed to Illinois in April of his junior year.
But just about every other recruiter -- Big Ten schools like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana showed interest -- kept saying they wanted to see more from Dudek first. This despite the fact that he produced big numbers in high school and went to countless college camps, where he consistently ran a 4.4 or better in the 40-yard dash.
It's not hard to figure out why teams were skeptical. Dudek is listed, perhaps generously, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds.
"Everybody probably said the exact same thing: 'His size is going to hinder him, especially in the Big Ten,'" Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "But the more you spend time around him, the more you say, 'We've got to take a shot on the guy.' With Mikey, you've got to get over the negatives and look at the positives, and when you do that, it's a no-brainer."
Other than his small stature, Dudek's other measurables are off the charts.
In that video linked above, he runs 22 mph on a treadmill and completes a box jump of 64 inches. Niklos, a former NFL player who started his training center in 2008, has worked with thousands of athletes and has trained more than 700 Division I players in various sports. He said only about 5 percent of his athletes can reach 22 mph on the treadmill, and he can count on one hand how many have pulled off the 64-inch jump.
"He's pretty much jumping over his entire body," Niklos said. "It's like he levitates when he jumps. For some reason, he freezes at the top, and just kind of stays there before he drops."
Dudek's speed and body control have helped him make several highlight-reel catches already for the Illini, and he has quickly become a fan favorite (who doesn't love a guy named Mikey, which is what all his family and friends still call him?). What fans don't see is his dedication to his craft. Cubit said Dudek is always working, staying at the football complex many nights past 9 p.m. watching film.
"He's always asking questions, and he very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which is unusual for young players," Cubit said. "He's created this all himself."
Dudek still is motivated by the lack of respect he received in recruiting -- "especially playing all these teams that overlooked you," he says. "You have a little chip on your shoulder preparing for them, and you want to go out and beat them." Even if that edge eventually softens, he will maintain the drive to keep getting better. This is a guy who is humble enough, after all, to help team managers push a cart full of coolers up a ramp after he had 115 receiving yards in a win against Penn State. He was grounded enough to befriend a classmate with special needs in high school.
Dudek has a chance to break every Illinois receiving record there is and perhaps become the face of the program in the next few years. If a few doorways had to lose some paint back home in the process, that's a fair price to pay.
The Rutgers quarterback and team captain, who had not played in the last two games of the 2013 regular season, had just learned he would be watching the team’s appearance at the Pinstripe Bowl from the sideline as well. The night he was officially benched, his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson, returned to their apartment to find Nova despondent.
Johnson knew this drill. He picked up food and rented a movie. They burrowed in, and he steered conversation toward more pleasant topics. Under no circumstance did he mention anything to do with football.
Nova didn’t play in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he did win back his spot during offseason workouts. He started all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights (7-5) this year during their first Big Ten season. He set the school’s career record for touchdown passes (currently 71) in late September and needs 310 yards against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program’s all-time leading passer. Nova has no problem talking football during this bowl season.
A year of ups and downs -- there were a few significant speed bumps even after he returned to the starting lineup -- is nothing new for Nova. He is one interception away from setting the Rutgers’ career mark in that category, too. His 40 starts swing like a pendulum between emotional highs and lows, fourth-quarter comebacks mixed with scathing reviews and the occasional social media threat. It’s a ride he says he would not have managed without the support of longtime teammates and his nearby family.
"It was tough when you had people booing, or you read stuff in the paper that’s about yourself," Nova said. "My teammates have been a great help. ... They just tried to give me that pat on the back and say, 'Hey don’t listen to that. You know what the people who really matter think.'"
Nova’s first taste of the zany twists and turns of college football came before he arrived on campus. The New Jersey native originally committed to be a part of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class. He visited Rutgers, 20 miles from his home in Elmwood Park, only out of respect for former coach Greg Schiano. But when the Panthers rolled through three head coaches in less than two months that winter, Nova opted for the more stable situation close to home.
Being close to his parents and his two brothers provided a much-needed place to vent during his career. Nova drove home just about every other weekend during his first year on campus. Johnson usually tagged along to spell his own homesickness and a fill up of Daisy Nova’s Dominican cooking. That duo escaped to Elmwood often enough during their time at Rutgers that the family put Johnson’s photo on the refrigerator as an honorary brother. Nova still asks pesky reporters to steer clear of his family members. They are his getaway, untainted by talk of football.
The frequency of those trips picked up last December as Nova stewed on the scout team during bowl prep.
"Not getting first-team reps and then watching the game from the sideline, I let all of that emotion boil up inside of me and used it to drive me through the tough days in the summer," he said.
Johnson said Nova turned into the team’s biggest leader during winter workouts. His doubled-down work ethic and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen gave Nova a fresh start.
In their first meeting, Friedgen told Nova he knew all about his reputation for inconsistency. He told the senior he didn’t care, that he wanted to give him a clean slate. They started with basics, learning about defensive coverages rather than Rutgers’ playbook. Friedgen preached about fundamental ways to read a defense that he assumed someone had already taught Nova. No one had, and Nova started to see the field more clearly.
When the senior threw five interceptions and was booed on his home field in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut, a 13-10 loss to Penn State, Friedgen was the first to give Nova a hug and tell him that he still believed in him. The ebbs and flows that have plagued his career continued to pop up occasionally this season, but Friedgen and Nova’s teammates remained firmly behind. Stay strong, they told him, all’s well that ends well. And with Nova, even when things start poorly, they have a history of ending well.
Nova refused to go to school some days as a high school freshman. His parents enrolled him at Don Bosco Prep, a private all-boys school 20 minutes from home. It was a different crowd and a different culture. His grades suffered. He was miserable. Eventually, football helped him assimilate.
It was there that he met Rutgers’ leading receiver Leonte Caroo, who has been his teammate for six of the past seven years and another steady crutch to lean on in bad times. They went 24-0 and won two state titles for one of the best high school teams in the nation during Nova’s two years as a starter. That is when his mother started to tell him he was a natural born "overcomer."
"I didn’t see the bigger picture at such a young age," Nova said. "But I’m glad I stuck with it."
The same pattern of tumult followed by triumph continues to play out for Nova in macro and micro ways. The crazy offseason at Pitt led him to stay at home where he found the support he needed. His benching last November motivated him to win a starting job.
On the field, he has engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks during his career, which ties him for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. His most recent addition to that list came in a 41-38 comeback against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to wrap up the regular season. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 25 points late in the second quarter before three touchdown passes from Nova opened the door for the biggest comeback in the program’s 145 years.
"Gary has done a lot in his career at Rutgers and he will go down as one of the all-time greats even before playing this game," head coach Kyle Flood told reporters after the victory. "Does this game add to his legacy? Of course it adds to it, but I don't think it defines Gary. I think it's a great example of what he is and what he has done for this program."
Memories of last year’s bowl season still linger for Nova in the wake of that comeback win. He has one more pendulum to swing in the right direction before he leaves.
One, he wasn’t going to stay away for long.
Two, his and Nick Saban’s paths were sure to cross again on a big stage.
It’s taken four years, but here we are, and it’s only fitting that they would meet up again in such a historic setting -- the first-ever College Football Playoff.
In this era of college coaching, Meyer vs. Saban might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Borg vs. McEnroe, Bird vs. Magic. They are the two preeminent coaches in the college football ranks and have combined to win six of the past 11 national championships.
As the Jan. 1 Alabama-Ohio State showdown in New Orleans has approached, they have both done their best to downplay what their roles will be in the game. Granted, as a rule, we probably all make too much of individual coaching matchups.
But in this case, who didn’t want to see Meyer and Saban match wits one more time?
Meyer has a keen understanding of what coaching in the SEC pressure cooker is all about. He was right in the middle of it at Florida and led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008.
But it also got the best of him. Realizing that he had to make changes to his lifestyle, Meyer walked away from Florida for good at the end of the 2010 season. He tried to do it after the 2009 season but changed his mind and hung around for another year.
What Meyer has accomplished at Ohio State is staggering. The Buckeyes have won 36 of 39 games on his watch and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game since he’s been in Columbus. As a recruiter, few are better than Meyer, and he has brought the SEC’s no-holds-barred style of recruiting to Ohio State.
As good a recruiter as Meyer is, he’s even better at assembling a staff. He has an eye for talent, period, both coaches and players.
Anybody who doesn’t appreciate the mark Meyer has made on college football has had his head in the sand for the past decade or so.
But it’s also true that Meyer’s last two meetings with Saban have ended badly. Alabama thrashed Florida 31-6 in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, one of the first signs that season that things might be getting away from Meyer in Gainesville.
Less than a year earlier, he ended up in the emergency room after losing to Saban and the Tide 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game, the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the teams in as many years. The morning after that loss, Meyer experienced chest pains.
Like so many coaches, he had placed football before his health and it caught up with him. He resigned a few weeks later to address his health problems and spend more time with his family, but he couldn’t stay away and came back for one final ill-fated season at Florida before resigning for good and spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth.
Not lost on anybody (Meyer included) is the perception that the rigors of the SEC, and more specifically Saban getting the best of him those last two meetings, was what ultimately drove him to the Big Ten.
How true that really is probably depends on whether you look at things through SEC glasses or Big Ten glasses. Either way, it’s not like coaching at Ohio State is akin to coaching the Sunday school youth league in kickball.
In fact, in a lot of ways, Ohio State is a Midwestern version of Florida. And Meyer has held up just fine.
But to genuinely erase that stigma that the SEC and Saban sent him packing for easier football pastures, Meyer could do himself some serious favors by beating Saban on this stage. He’s done it before when Florida beat Alabama 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game, but that was in Saban’s second season at Alabama and before he had won the first of three national titles in Tide Town.
The fact that Ohio State is even here is a testament to the job Meyer did this season. He lost his star quarterback, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, in the preseason to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and was shaky early, but he ended the season as one of the most dynamic players in the country.
The only problem was that Barrett went down with a season-ending injury just before the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes didn’t blink. They slid Cardale Jones in at quarterback and blasted Wisconsin 59-0 to secure their spot in the playoff.
Much like Meyer, Saban has also done some of his best work this season.
Alabama got here with a quarterback, Blake Sims, who nobody gave a chance to even be the starter, much less set an Alabama record for passing yards in a season. Beyond the uncertainty at quarterback, there were some serious questions about the Crimson Tide this year, particularly on the offensive line and at cornerback.
So as we embark on this unprecedented playoff era in college football, something says this won’t be the last time we see Meyer and Saban going up against each other in a playoff game.
The real question: How many times over the next few years will we see a playoff that either Meyer or Saban won’t be on the sideline?
It’s the coaching matchup we all want to see.
That, in turn, has started to change expectations.
The Blue Devils (9-3) get their chance Saturday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3), the second straight season they have faced a ranked opponent in a bowl game.
“That’s a goal and a milestone for this program,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “The first bowl we had against Cincinnati -- that was an accomplishment in itself making it to a bowl. We came up short in that game and last year we came up short.
“Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do to win the bowl. We feel if we are able to win, that definitely helps out the program, and that just adds another accomplishment to what we have achieved.”
Go back to 2012, when Duke finished the regular season 6-6 and made it to the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, its first bowl appearance since 1994. There was cause for celebration because the program had been down for so long. As proof, coach David Cutcliffe was selected ACC Coach of the Year despite failing to post a winning record.
Most folks seemed to view Duke as a one-hit wonder, giving the Blue Devils a little pat on the head for a job well done. But Duke had no plans to go anywhere. Last season, Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors again after Duke won the Coastal Division and made it to the ACC championship game. It faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Not many gave Duke a chance in either game. Yet the Blue Devils nearly won them both, losing in heartbreaking fashion in the fourth quarter both times. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final 44 seconds to win the Belk Bowl; Texas A&M scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win in perhaps the most entertaining bowl game of last season.
“We put a big emphasis on finishing,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We come out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lose the game. [We need] to come out strong and finish strong.”
Though Duke ended up losing to Texas A&M, the Blue Devils believe they gained respect in a roundabout way. They proved they could hang with the former Heisman Trophy winner despite being a heavy underdog. Duke led 38-17 at halftime but only scored 10 points in the second half of the 52-48 loss.
Crowder called the Chick-Fil-A Bowl “one of the best experiences of my college career.”
“We felt like we could go in there and compete,” Crowder said. “I think people saw that. A lot of people didn’t think we could compete with a team like Texas A&M last year but just going out there and playing, even when we lost in the last moments of the game, I think a lot of people see the Duke program -- now we have athletes that can play and compete with the best of them.”
Competing is one thing. Winning is another. Having said that, some perspective is still in order.
As much as Duke wants to win a bowl, it only has made five postseason appearances since beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, 7-6, in 1960. Three have come since 2012.
“It’s a very interesting chance for our team to go out there and do something that our team last year didn’t do or the year before that or teams a long time in the past,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “It’s not going to be easy, playing the No. 15 team in the country. They do a lot of good things, and they come from a great conference, so this is more a program game for us more than proving a point or having a chip on our shoulders. Just a chance for our program to be matched up against another great program and seeing where we are.”
Shute (through mean stare): Do you think you'll make weight?
Swain: I hope so.
Shute: I hope so, too.
So, you ask, how the heck does this have anything to do with Utah? Well, the Utes announced with their dominant, 45-10 victory over Colorado State on Saturday in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, as well as a strong 9-4 season, that they are going to make Pac-12 weight.
Colorado State was a 10-win team. It won at Boston College, which you might recall USC most certainly didn't. The Rams are good. And the Utes mashed them, outgaining them 548 yards to 278. Utah rushed for 359 yards and the Rams had just 12.
Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Just like a Power 5 conference team should be against a Group of 5 team, particularly one looking to move up in the national polls.
That's why Baldwin's words are more meaningful than they seem at first glance. See, Colorado State is a good team that hails from the Mountain West Conference. Utah used to be a good team that hailed from the Mountain West. Then, in 2011, Utah joined the Pac-12 and it became a middling team, supporting the long-held assumption by most pundits that the nontraditional powers outside the major conferences wouldn't be able to handle the grind of a Power 5 conference schedule.
Yet here's Utah, crushing the MWC's second-best team after its first winning season in Pac-12 play, one that included road wins at UCLA, Oregon State and Stanford, as well as a victory over USC. Yes, the Utes were the champs of California, though they didn't play the Bears. They lost to Washington State and Arizona State by a combined four points.
“I can tell you we made a whole lot of progress this year, a lot of steps forward as a Pac-12 conference member,” coach Kyle Willingham said. “This was the best football team we’ve had so far as a member of the Pac-12. We’re still a work in progress, but we feel like we’ve closed the gap.”
In other words, after back-to-back seasons with losing records -- in-conference and overall -- Utah arrived this year. A 9-4 finish will earn it a final national ranking and the Utes should start the 2015 season with a national ranking. With 17 starters set to return -- though there could be one or two extra early NFL defections, most notably RB Devontae Booker -- they should be in the thick of the rugged South Division race. Again.
Whittingham started the season on what might have been termed a warm seat -- it wouldn't cook an egg, but it would eventually melt butter -- and now his name keeps coming up in various coaching searches, including Michigan, which, oh by the way, was another team the Utes also beat this year on the road.
Whittingham has been pretty honest from the beginning about the Utes' issues in the Pac-12. They weren't as deep and they weren't as fast as other conference teams, Whittingham admitted. He said that Pac-12 membership immediately boosted recruiting, but he also noted it would take a few years for that to show up on the field.
He was right. It took a few years (and a few offensive coordinators), but now it has shown up on the field. Funny thing is, Utah didn't make its move up in a stereotypical Pac-12 way. It didn't spread the field and throw the ball all over the place. It's remained a run-first team that relies on a stout defense. That's only partly by design. Utah's single biggest issue since joining the Pac-12 has been consistent quarterback play. One suspects that if Whittingham had a great passer, he would be eager to use him.
That, again, will be the Utes biggest question heading into 2015. Perhaps their only significant question. Will Travis Wilson progress as a passer and hold on to the starting job for a fourth year? Or will Kendal Thompson, a better runner who supplanted Wilson as the starter before suffering a season-ending injury, get healthy and emerge? And then would Wilson stick around?
There will be plenty of QB intrigue heading into and probably out of spring practices.
“That’s going to be interesting," Whittingham said. "There’s obviously a lot of guys there and we’ll have to see if all of them are going to come back. My guess is we may have some attrition at that spot.”
Yet Utah as a program took a significant step forward in 2014. It moved into the top half of the Pac-12. Perhaps as important, with a strong cast coming back, it looks like its relocation won't be temporary.