NCF Nation: Georgia Bulldogs

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The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.

On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.

Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban, Urban Meyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Nick Saban have faced off for SEC titles, but their current teams, Ohio State and Alabama, have played only three times in history.
1. Alabama vs. Ohio State: Alabama’s Nick Saban and OSU’s Urban Meyer dominated the SEC when Meyer was coaching at Florida, combining to win five BCS national championships from 2006 to 2012.

When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.

Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.

2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.

The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.

With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.

3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.

Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.

We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.

4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.

The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.

We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.

5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.

The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.

3-point stance: Letter of the law

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1. Only schools that have served NCAA time come around to the right way of thinking about the silliness of the rules. Oklahoma forcing three football players to cough up $3.83 apiece because they ate too much pasta at a team event is a great example. Look the other way? Nope. You adhere to the letter of the law, roll your eyes and move on. As Austin Woods, owner of one of the outlaw stomachs, tweeted, “That was some great pasta! We felt we ate more than $3.83 so we donated $5.” Perfect.

2. The coaches against the 10-second defensive substitution period screamed, and on Tuesday, Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, chair of the NCAA football rules committee, backpedaled like a corner. On the ESPNU College Football Podcast yesterday, Rogers Redding, the editor of the rulebook and the national coordinator of officiating, said the committee had plenty of support for the change before Alabama coach Nick Saban came in and made his presentation. Where are those voices?

3. Georgia’s Mark Richt combines love and discipline as well as any head coach I know. In the wake of the dismissal of Bulldog safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, here’s what Richt said to me last spring. “We try to really help these guys grow as human beings and as men and be very well-balanced human beings, you know? Mental, physical and spiritual. I mean it just all comes into play. I think if we don’t do that, we’re not doing the full job of what we should be doing as educators and people that care about these guys at a very critical stage of their life.”
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.
Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez, the shelved senior quarterbacks at Georgia and Nebraska, started 95 college games.

They won 67.4 percent.

Bet you thought that rate was higher.

Seems we’ve watched these two operate forever. In the past four years, Murray and Martinez meant something important to college football. They tormented defensive coordinators and served as the poster boys for a pair of proud programs, trying -- desperately close at times -- to break through.

It’s not going to happen in their time.

Despite 64 victories between them (35 for Murray, 29 for Martinez), neither won a conference title. At Georgia and Nebraska, a conference title, at minimum, is the standard of success.

Yet as Murray and Martinez depart the college game in sadly anticlimactic fashion as the Bulldogs (8-4) and Huskers (8-4) meet for a New Year’s Day rematch in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, they leave a record of greatness.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Josh Wolfe/Icon SMITaylor Martinez's final season didn't go as planned, but he'll be remembered in Lincoln.
Murray’s senior season was nearly doomed from the start. Injuries to running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, several top receivers and playmakers on defense contributed heavily to four Georgia losses.

The QB persevered until Nov. 23, when he suffered an ACL tear in a 59-17 victory over Kentucky. Murray played through the injury for one series but couldn't fight the pain any further.

In similar fashion, Martinez battled for two weeks through a foot injury, suffered in the Huskers’ season opener.

He led the Huskers to a 21-3 edge over UCLA in the second quarter on Sept 14, but any thoughts of a storybook ending to his career crashed to a halt in the second half. The Bruins scored 38 consecutive points. Martinez clearly wasn’t himself, unable use his usually dangerous feet to stem momentum.

A one-game comeback fell flat at Minnesota in October. Martinez was finished. He lost his final two starts and an opportunity to join Colin Kaepernick as the only players in FBS history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 3,000. He finished with 7,258 passing yards and 2,975 rushing yards.

He lost his chance to win a conference title, a hope so promising back in 2010, when Martinez led Nebraska to a 17-point lead over Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game as a freshman.

Martinez never broke through.

“It’s been hard,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “This whole season’s been hard on him. It’s not the way you want to see him go out.”

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the same thing about Murray. Richt visited a hospitalized Murray after he underwent surgery on the damaged knee. Richt said he wanted to feel sorry for his quarterback, but Murray wouldn’t let him.

His positivity is relentless. And that’s part of Murray’s legacy, alongside the 13,166 passing yards and 121 touchdown passes.

No Southeastern Conference quarterback before Murray threw for 3,000 yards in three seasons. Murray did it four times. He broke Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for touchdown passes and Tim Tebow’s record for total yardage.

But, like Martinez, his teams never broke through.

Murray’s best chance fell 5 yards short last year against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He targeted Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone, a shot within reach to win an SEC title as the clock ticked away. Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass to Georgia receiver Chris Conley. Conley slid to the turf, surrounded by defenders. Time expired on Murray’s best opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia's Aaron Murray
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAaron Murray's place in Georgia and SEC football history is secure.
Instead of a shot to play for the national title, Georgia beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl as Murray threw for 427 yards and five touchdowns, both career-best marks.

It all felt anticlimactic for Murray, though nothing like this year.

“Obviously I had a vision of how I wanted to go out,” Murray said recently.

This wasn’t it.

“It’s almost like I didn't say goodbye,” he said, “which, I guess, is a good thing. I guess it's like, 'to be continued.' I'm not leaving. I'm always a Bulldog. I'll always be a Bulldog, and I guess if I would have been there to wave and really cherish the end of it, that would have been like, 'Book closed, it's over,' and I feel like it's not over for me.”

Murray is eloquent and charismatic. Martinez is quite the opposite.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the Nebraska quarterback hasn’t spoken to the media since the Minnesota game.

But Martinez appears to be at peace. He has remained at the side of teammates through conditioning drills and practices this month. Those close to him, though, say he’s devastated by the injury.

A generation from now, Murray and Martinez will be remembered not for this anticlimactic ending or their inability to break through and win a championship.

Time will heal their wounds. History will reflect well on their legacies. College football will remember them.

Chance to move forward excites Huskers

December, 12, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The last time we saw Jeremiah Sirles before Wednesday, the Nebraska senior emptied his heart in support of coach Bo Pelini, embroiled in controversy after the Huskers’ Nov. 29 loss to Iowa to end the regular season.

[+] EnlargeJeremiah Sirles
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJeremiah Sirles and his teammates are glad Nebraska's focus is back on football.
Sirles, a four-year starter at offensive tackle, and several teammates spoke passionately about Pelini and his staff, yet it appeared to many observers that the sixth-year coach may not survive the weekend at Nebraska.

Well, he did.

And the program lunged forward. The Huskers received a break from the game to rest and prepare for final exams. Pelini and his staff gained momentum on the recruiting trail. The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, in a move unexpected before the final hours on Sunday, paired Nebraska with Georgia for a New Year’s Day rematch of the Capital One Bowl from last season.

As the team readies to get back to practice this weekend, the air around Memorial Stadium appears free of the toxicity from two weeks ago.

Count Sirles among those relieved that Nebraska football has moved past a November dominated by questions about the job security of its coach.

“It’s hard to have all these unanswered questions around this place because it always seems like there [are] these unanswered questions," Sirles said Wednesday, as a group of Huskers met with the media for the first time since the regular-season finale. "Being able to have answers to all that and being able to have a stable base for going into the bowl game and even going to next year, I think, is huge.”

About 19 hours after Iowa cemented its 38-17 win in Lincoln, Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst issued a statement of support for Pelini.

Sirles said he was “proud” of the administration for its decision.

“Every word that I said was 100 percent from the heart and 100 percent true,” Sirles said. ‘I hope that people around the stadium could really tell that we really love and we care for our coaches, and that they love and care for us.”

Fellow senior lineman Brent Qvale said he understood the sentiment from some Nebraska fans that an 8-4 regular season fell short of expectations.

Still, the coaches don’t deserve blame, he said.

“It’s just a culture around Nebraska that championships are expected,” Qvale said. “And it should be. You play this game to win championships.”

Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa said he stayed away from listening to the media speculation and criticism of November.

“We know what’s going on inside the program,” Enunwa said. “We know that we have our coaches back. We believe that we’re a good team; there have just been a lot of setbacks for us this year.”

That said, the Huskers are excited about the opportunity to finish strong.

Several Nebraska players interviewed on Wednesday said they were excited to face Georgia again.

“It might be frustration if we just blew them out last year,” Enunwa said, “but we lost.”

Said defensive back Josh Mitchell: “I didn’t really have much of a reaction. It’s just another game to me. We just need to get another win.”

The Bulldogs beat Nebraska 45-31 to end last season in Orlando. Georgia scored the final 22 points behind a prolific performance from quarterback Aaron Murray, who’s out for the Gator Bowl with a knee injury.

“We felt like we had a good chance of beating these guys last year,” Sirles said. “We kind of let it slip through our fingers a little bit. It’s almost a good chance to get back and get a little redemption.”

Sirles and Enunwa were among a long list of Huskers slowed by injuries this fall. They said they’ll be healthy for the Gator Bowl.

The Huskers, in fact, should field a team in Jacksonville, Fla., that's healthier than at any point since early October. Of the key contributors who went down, only guard Spencer Long is ruled out.

“I’m ready to play a game where most of our offense is healthy,” Enunwa said.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez, who played in just one game after the Huskers’ Sept. 14 loss to UCLA, continues to rehabilitate a foot injury. His availability for the Gator Bowl looks unlikely.

Sirles said many Huskers have “lived in the treatment room” since the regular season concluded. With most of the coaches away, the players participated in a few conditioning drills last week.

The tempo increased this week. The full group was at work, without pads, inside the Hawks Championship Center, on Wednesday afternoon.

Pelini and Georgia coach Mark Richt are set to meet in Jacksonville on Thursday afternoon to officially accept the Gator Bowl invitations.

Then it’s back to work.

“We’re going to come back healthy,” Sirles said. “We’re anxious to get back on the practice field and start banging again.”
1. When many schools begin concluding their seasons next week, expect firings and hirings to be done quickly. The NCAA recently revamped its recruiting calendar, hearing the plea of coaches for whom recruiting has become a year-round affair. The calendar took away about two weeks out of the December-January contact period. That means new coaches have that much less time to try to assemble recruiting classes or keep the ones their predecessors assembled.

2. So who gets the four BCS at-large bids? Either No. 14 Northern Illinois or No. 16 Fresno State is in line for an invite. The SEC, with four teams in the top 10, will get one. If No. 6 Clemson beats No. 10 South Carolina, it will get one. That would leave one for the Big Ten or the Big 12. No. 11 Michigan State can solve that by beating No. 3 Ohio State. That would leave No. 9 Baylor on the outside looking in.

3. Sentiment got to me this week when I filled out my ESPN Heisman straw poll. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is on my ballot, a tribute to one of the best college careers in recent memory. Murray, who tore his ACL in the Bulldogs’ rout of Kentucky, will miss his final two games at Georgia after starting the first 52 (35-17). Murray not only leaves with every major SEC career record, but he will be honored next month in New York as a finalist for the Campbell Trophy -- the Academic Heisman. Murray represents the best of the sport.

Auburn gets improbable win vs. Georgia

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How unlikely was Auburn’s miraculous victory Saturday over Georgia?

Auburn had a 7.3 percent chance of winning before Nick Marshall threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis. The touchdown came on 4th-and-18 with 25 seconds remaining to give the No. 7 Tigers a 43-38 lead.

At the end of the play, Auburn had a 99.8 percent win probability, so that play increased Auburn’s win probability by 92.5 percentage points. Nebraska’s Hail Mary pass as time expired against Northwestern was the only play that had a greater increase in win probability this season.

Here are the top five plays in FBS this season in terms of win probability added:

• 97.2: On Nov. 2, Nebraska threw a 49-yard touchdown as time expired to win 27-24 against Northwestern.

• 92.5: On Saturday, Auburn threw a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining to take a 43-38 lead against Georgia.

• 90.3: On Sept. 21, Florida Atlantic threw a 21-yard touchdown pass with 3 seconds remaining to tie the game against Middle Tennessee.

• 89.8: On Nov. 2, Rutgers threw a 33-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left to take a 23-20 lead against Temple.

• 74.7: On Oct. 5, South Alabama threw a 65-yard touchdown with 48 seconds left to go ahead 33-27 against Troy.

Auburn has now won 86 consecutive games when scoring at least 20 points. Its last such loss came in 1996 against Georgia.

Florida State versus Duke in ACC championship?
Florida State dominated its competition once again. For the second straight game, the Seminoles won 59-3, this time against Syracuse. Florida State is the first FBS team to score at least 59 points and hold its opponent to three points or fewer in consecutive games since the Seminoles did it in 1988.

Meanwhile, Duke now controls its own destiny on the path to the ACC championship game. The Blue Devils defeated Miami (Fla.) 48-30, their first time winning consecutive games against ranked opponents since 1989. The Blue Devils have won eight games in a season for the first time since 1994.

New NCAA record
After Division III Western Connecticut’s Octavias McKoy broke the NCAA single-game rushing record earlier this season with 455 yards, we now have a new record-holder. Cartel Brooks of Division III Heidelberg set a new NCAA record Saturday with 465 rushing yards.

Will Auburn meet its match in Georgia's D?

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Gus Malzahn’s return to Auburn has reinvigorated the school’s rushing attack to heights never before seen at Auburn. One year after finishing ninth in the conference in rushing, the 2013 Tigers lead the SEC in rushing yards per game (320), yards per rush (6.5) and touchdowns (33). Auburn is on pace to break school records in each of those categories.

Quarterback Nick Marshall has been a catalyst for the running game. His 734 rushing yards leads all SEC quarterbacks and ranks fourth among FBS quarterbacks.

His numbers so far this season compare favorably to former Auburn star Cam Newton. During Newton’s Heisman Trophy-winning 2010 season, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and posted a Total QBR of 78.6 on runs. Marshall averages 7.1 yards per rush with a Total QBR of 80.2 on runs.

Auburn’s running game will face its toughest test of the season this Saturday against a Georgia run defense that allows 3.4 yards per rush, 20th-best in the FBS.

Auburn’s Success On Zone Reads
Much of Auburn’s success on the ground this season has come on zone-read runs. Auburn averages 151 yards per game with 17 touchdowns on such runs, leading the SEC in both. Last year, Auburn tallied 138 yards on zone-read runs all season.

Marshall leads all BCS-AQ (automatic-qualifying) quarterbacks with 588 yards on zone-read runs, averaging 9.5 yards per carry. Last week Marshall torched Tennessee for 221 yards on just 13 carries on zone-reads.

The key to Auburn’s zone-read running game is its ability to stretch the defense, with 978 of its 1,505 yards on zone-read runs coming outside the tackles. Overall, Auburn has run for an AQ-high 2,186 yards outside the tackle box, 521 more yards than any other AQ team.

How Georgia Matches Up Defensively
Though Auburn’s running game has been dominant this season, it has not faced a team that ranked in the top 50 in rushing yards allowed per carry. The two best defenses it has faced (Mississippi State and LSU) held Auburn to its lowest rushing totals of the season (120 and 213 yards respectively). Against other opponents, Auburn is averaging 358 rushing yards per game, including 444 against Tennessee last week.

Georgia is the best run defense Auburn will have faced all year, allowing 126 rushing yards per game, 21st-best in the FBS.

Recent history is also on Georgia’s side. Its defense has shut down Auburn each of the last two seasons, allowing a total of seven points and 108 rushing yards in those two meetings.

Still, Georgia has shown vulnerability in many areas Auburn excels. Its only three opponents that ran the zone read more than four times in a game against the Bulldogs (South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida) averaged 101 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry on zone-read runs.

Georgia has been especially inefficient against zone-read rushes outside the tackle box, allowing 9.3 yards per rush.

Whichever team can run the ball better will likely win the game. In each of the last 10 meetings, the team with more rushing yards won.
1. The last unbeaten team in the SEC East is Missouri, and who saw that coming? As much as I have made of head coach Gary Pinkel revamping his team’s practice and training methods, I missed another big reason for the Tigers’ success. In its 41-26 victory at No. 7 Georgia, Missouri started 11 seniors, eight of them fifth-years. That’s how Auburn won the BCS in 2010. It’s a simple plan for success. The hard part is signing the right guys, developing them, keeping them healthy and contributing, and not losing them to the NFL.

2. Think about the most recent round of realignment. In most cases, conferences took teams that, based on history, would struggle to compete against their new opponents. Utah and Colorado in the Pac-12? Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC? But look at what has happened. Utah just beat No. 5 Stanford. Missouri and Texas A&M have played better in the SEC than they did in the Big 12. No, it’s not because the Big 12 is tougher. Those programs, infused with new income and a new incentive to compete, have stepped up their games. Sue me -- even Colorado is better.

3. We pointed out last week that as well as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has played, he hasn’t played with a game on the line, because the No. 2 Ducks have been too dominant. Through five games, Mariota hadn’t even thrown a pass in the fourth quarter. At No. 16 Washington on Saturday, Oregon began the fourth quarter with a 31-24 lead. From that point on, Mariota went 5-for-6 for 75 yards and a touchdown, and rushed five times for 33 yards and a score. Oregon won, 45-24. He has been the best player in college football over the first half of the season.

Week 6: Close calls and contenders

October, 8, 2013
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Aaron Murray, J.J. GreenJim Brown/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia may have celebrated the win, but the Vols were in it until the last minute.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.


COACHES HATE a “statement loss.” So do fans, players and anyone else whose lives are built around a team’s record. (Well, OK, that’s everyone.) As former Clemson coach Danny Ford once said, “Moral victories only feel good if you don’t know how good an actual victory feels.”

Week 6 of the season was packed with moral victories, from TCU’s 20-17 near-miss in Norman to Northwestern’s closer-than-the-score, 40-30 loss to Ohio State. None of those games felt good for the losers, but they may have all signified something larger over the horizon. Sure, there’s the far-flung notion of program-building, but Saturday’s efforts might also have a much-larger-than-expected impact on the not-so-distant future, ultimately altering the BCS title march. That could either happen by way of an actual win over the next would-be BCS bowler, or simply damaging the image of the team that won on the scoreboard but could now be vulnerable for its next top-shelf opponent.

“We won and we’ll take it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt admitted after defeating Tennessee 34-31 in overtime, the Bulldogs’ second consecutive three-point, nail-biting W. “But this is the kind of win that you are likely to feel some effect from for a while down the road. The LSU game had some effect this week. Now you hope this doesn’t add on to that.”

Those words sounded a little like what was coming out of the mouths of Tennessee faithful after the heartbreaking defeat: We didn’t win, but we made them earn it! That’s the message that was being rained down upon the Vols as they left the field on Saturday night. They were still reeling from the emotional about-face of thinking receiver Pig Howard’s corner dive toward the pylon had been perhaps the game-winning score to learning that, via the replay booth, it was actually a fingertip fumble and touchback. Moments later, they lost.

As Neyland Stadium emptied, a group of orange-clad fans crowded their way into the first rows that overlook the entrance to the north end zone tunnel, where their gray-clad team was beginning to file through en route to the locker room. They shouted encouragement to the players, but were waiting on the coach.

Butch Jones doesn’t typically walk off the field. He runs. He jogs. He at the very least speed-walks. But as the Vols first-year coach turned toward the tunnel at Neyland Stadium, he was walking. Exhausted, covered in sweat, and with only a wisp of his perpetually hoarse voice remaining. The famously exuberant coach had been fearless during the game, going for it on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter, twice in his own territory and converting all three with perfect play-calling. But he looked beaten down. Moments earlier, his undermanned Vols had Georgia on the ropes. Now as he strode toward the tunnel, the scoreboard on the giant video screen behind him read “34-31 F OT.”

“They knew we were here, coach!” the fans shouted down, drawing a halfhearted thumbs up. “Brick by brick! Brick by brick!”

On paper, it will look like just another big-game loss for Tennessee, which still hasn’t defeated a top-10 team since 2006 and extended its winless streak against ranked opponents to 19. The Vols will face at least two more ranked teams (Alabama, South Carolina) and possibly a third (Missouri) this season. But the reality is that the Vols were in the game until -- actually during -- the last minute. They also hit hard, inflicting injuries to four key Georgia players and adding the likes of Keith Marshall, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley to an already too-long list of wounded stars.

That might make this week’s game in Athens against undefeated largely unknown Missouri much more of a contest than previously expected.

“I’m not really in the celebrating mood so much,” Richt said. His finger was bleeding, having just been cut on his postgame news conference chair. During the game he’d been knocked to the turf when a play ran over the sideline. “I’m just thankful to escape here with a victory, considering what happened.”




Nearly 2,500 miles west of Neyland Stadium’s tunnel, Stanford Stadium’s walkways were also filled with dejection.

“There’s no awards for losing.”

Those were the words of Steve Sarkisian, coach of the then-No. 15 Washington Huskies, whose chances of knocking off the fifth-ranked Cardinal came down to one final fourth-down play. That’s when electrifying quarterback Keith Price scrambled ... and then scrambled again ... to fire an on-the-run pass that was so close to being a first down catch that it was ruled a catch by the on-field officials, but was overturned by the instant replay booth, which ruled that it was an incomplete pass, having squirted out and touched the turf. Washington turned the ball over on downs and lost 31-28.

“It's unfortunate the game had to come down to a judgment call like that,” Sarkisian said. “That part was unfortunate, because it was two good football teams battling and competing with one another, and I wish the game would have gotten won on the field and not in the booth upstairs with some guy that didn't get to feel the emotion and the hard-fought football game that that game was.”

Stanford coach David Shaw (who admitted he also believed it was a catch until his press box coaches convinced him otherwise) was asked to address the same concerns expressed by Richt earlier in the evening. What would be the mental and physical cost of a win like Saturday night's, especially with the Cardinal’s brutal upcoming Pac-12 schedule, starting with a trip to Utah? But instead of worrying about damage, he turned the conversation back toward toughness.

“This is what we’re built for. All we talk about is the fourth quarter. About being finishers. Every day we have a finisher at the end of the day. Every week we have a finisher at the end of the week. We train ourselves to be at our best in the fourth quarter.”




Coach Sark’s rant about the replay booth, a job that he also compared to playing a video game, is threatening to become a shared chorus. Most of the weekend’s biggest games, including Washington-Stanford and Georgia-Tennessee, hinged on replay rulings.

The contentious tone surrounding game-deciding calls, on the field and in the booth, has built throughout the season, from the bizarre finish of Wisconsin-Arizona State to the in-or-out sideline ruling at Clemson-NC State. But the decidedly testier feelings on replay that were shown throughout Week 6 were put into motion by Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who after Thursday night’s 31-30 loss to Texas unleashed one of the coolest postgame coaching rants of all time. It ranked alongside Tommy West’s 2009 post-firing directive on how to rebuild the Memphis football program. (“Give the next guy a fighting chance.”)

Texas running back Johnathan Gray had the football ripped away just short of the goal line, and it appeared Iowa State had possession before the whistle blew. Game over. But the officials ruled Gray down by contact. The booth upheld the call.



Keep in mind, Rhoads’ speech is not a CTRL+C of Sarkisian’s comments, which came 48 hours later: “What you saw tonight were a couple of teams playing their hearts out. You could argue both deserve to win the football game.” Then, his voice rising: “And to make a play ... on the 1-yard line ... with their backs against the wall ... clear to everybody ... and have it taken away from them! That’s hard to express. You don’t just put your arm around a guy and tell him that’s OK ... if that’s just happened to him!”

It’ll be even harder to do that if one of those calls ends up determining who does or doesn’t get to play for the BCS championship in January.

That’s nearly happened already, at least three times -- and it’s not even the second weekend of October.

ESPN The Magazine

Story of the Season, Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
11:00
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Vernon AdamsJaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsEastern Washington QB Vernon Adams celebrates after defeating the Oregon State Beavers 49-46.
For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the BCS championship game, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue on Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week's biggest moments and tell you why they'll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.

IT'S SUCH A cliché to say that football is a game of inches. But tell me how many clichés ain’t the truth?

Just a few days before the start of the 2013 season, HBO aired an episode of "The Newsroom" during which a preachy-yet-usually-correct anchorman (played by Jeff Daniels) opines about near-misses. How the direction of American history has been written as much by wobbly chairs and weird weather as it has by well-intentioned men and women. “So sometimes,” Daniels explained, leaned over a table, “it’s just the one thing.”

On Saturday night, Mark Richt was also leaning over a table. He had just emerged from the visitors’ locker room at Memorial Stadium, having addressed his Georgia Bulldogs after a crushing 38-35 season-opening loss to the Clemson Tigers. Richt didn’t steal any lines from Daniels’ monologue, but what he said would have fit snugly into the script.

“It’d been interesting to know what would have happened if we’d have made that short-range field goal.”

With 1:05 remaining in the third quarter, the entire Georgia sideline joined Richt to watch a 20-yard field goal that would pull the Bulldogs even at 31-31. The coach was a little more anxious than normal about the chip shot because the kicker was Patrick Beless. The walk-on redshirt sophomore’s only other live-action field goal wasn’t even a live-action field goal. It was a 23-yarder in the team’s G-Day spring scrimmage.

But Beless had been pressed into service because starting kicker Marshall Morgan was suspended by Richt after his boating under the influence arrest in late July. Throughout the rest of summer practice, Richt directly forbade all players involved with the kicking game to talk to the media, from punters to placekickers to holders to likable long-snapper Nathan Theus. Leading up to the weekend, Richt joked that everyone would know what the plan was “by halftime of the Clemson game.”

The initial speculation was that another walk-on, junior Adam Erickson, would replace Morgan. But in the end, Richt decided that keeping Erickson, the backup punter, as the regular holder of Theus' snaps would provide stability.

The Bulldogs’ opening drive ended in a punt, but their next four offensive series finished in the end zone. On all four PATs, Theus snapped it cleanly to Erickson, who placed it onto the turf perfectly for Beless, who flawlessly booted the ball through the uprights. Their first and only field goal attempt was little more than another extra point, with the line of scrimmage at the 2 and Erickson on his knees at the 10.

Before the snap, Theus, a 6-foot-3, 241-pound redshirt sophomore, sensed a space open off his right shoulder, but off his left shoulder, he felt crowded. It was 6-1, 285-pound DeShawn Williams, aka Big Nuke 99, who had his head stuck in as close to being offside without actually being called offside as is humanly possible. Big Nuke’s left shoulder was essentially resting on Theus’ left shoulder.

In the fraction of a second before the ball was snapped, all 20 men who were crammed along the line of scrimmage held completely still … except for Williams, who stomped his feet: left foot once, right foot twice.

The long-snapper’s goal is to keep his actions smooth amid chaos, applying even pressure from both hands and moving both arms back in a perfectly parallel throwing motion, then seamlessly raising upright into a crouched blocking position. But Theus gave it a little too much gas with the left arm, the arm that had been all but resting against Williams’ shoulder. The good news was that he got a quick launch into Williams, driving the now-standing tackle out of the likely path of the football. The bad news was that the ball wasn’t coming.

For Richt, who has long stuck to the practice of not having a special-teams coach, the most frustrating aspect of watching the play on Sunday morning was that the snap still looked pretty good. Erickson still nearly pulled it down. He managed to keep his knees bent and get his hands on the football. Had it been two knuckles lower, or had the 5-foot-10 holder been able to extend his arms perhaps one more inch, he might have pulled it down and gotten it set for Beless … and who knows?

Instead, the ball fell to the turf and Erickson dived to smother it. Then he was smothered by Big Nuke. When Williams jumped up to celebrate, he crashed into a Georgia player, who promptly gave him a “get the hell off me” forearm shot. It was Theus, who didn’t know that at that exact moment he was being identified by Brent Musberger on national television. That never happens for a guy like Theus, unless the situation has gone horribly wrong.

So did Georgia lose the game on that field goal try? No. As Richt explained during his postgame news conference, there were plenty of other chances to put Clemson away. The Bulldogs could have scored on the three plays leading up to the field goal attempt, all of them starting inside the Tigers' 6-yard line.

But on Saturday night, there was only one play with which Richt played “what if?” And with Georgia's and Clemson’s schedules, it’s a what-if that could have repercussions far beyond Aug. 31 and well beyond Death Valley. Georgia rolls into another top-10 matchup, hosting South Carolina. The Tigers will see the Gamecocks at regular season’s end. If the Bulldogs win, they're still in the SEC East hunt. If Clemson loses, will we point to the Georgia win as proof the Tigers shouldn't be knocked out of the BCS title game?

In other words, we could still be talking about Theus' snap when we get to Pasadena in January.

“It’s very disappointing, but that’s football,” UGA receiver Justin Scott-Wesley explained before the team boarded the bus back to Athens. “It’s a game of inches.

Told you.




" Elsewhere in the cosmic tumblers department, it’s not misguided to think that the weekend’s slew of Davids slaying Goliaths could have far-reaching effects for other Goliaths as the season rolls along. When the Oregon State Beavers lose to Eastern Washington, it should send chills down the spine of the Stanford Cardinal, who narrowly escaped the Beavers one year ago and will travel to Corvallis on Oct. 26. Even a close game would hurt Stanford’s national rep, not to mention those of the USC Trojans (Nov. 1) and Oregon Ducks (Nov. 29). Same scenario applies for the schools of the Big 12 if they get “upset” by the Kansas State Wildcats, who were beaten by two-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State ...

" But the biggest shock waves will likely be coming from Storrs, Conn., where the Huskies have started jackhammering the already thin ice beneath the Louisville Cardinals’ national title hopes. The American Athletic Conference was a mess entering the season, but when Towson toppled UConn, the whole league went down another notch. The Huskies host Teddy Bridgewater on Nov. 8, a game they won at Louisville in OT last season.

" During NFL training camp, I had a conversation with former Appalachian State QB (current Carolina Panthers receiver) Armanti Edwards about being the little guys who beat the big guy and still have a chance to beat some other big guys. “I remember after we beat Michigan [in ’07] how everyone talked about them the rest of the year. I’ve talked to guys who played them later that year and they all say they were so scared to lose to Michigan because it’d be like they lost to us, too.” He mentioned Penn State and Florida, a pair of top-10 teams that fell to the Wolverines that year, as well as Notre Dame. Then he laughed. “We ended up wrecking a lot of people’s seasons, didn’t we?”




This year’s version of Edwards is Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams. Against then-No. 25 Oregon State, he was 23-of-30 for 411 yards and four TDs through the air and ran for 107 yards and two TDs on the ground. Anyone who follows FCS football already knew he had explosive capabilities, but this year he looks more in control of his talents. A big reason for that is time spent over the summer with another Washington-based QB (and current ESPN The Mag cover model), Russell Wilson.

Adams says they talked plenty about mechanics and football skills, but also about being the little guy. “We’re the same height, and people have always tried to say he’s too short. But he’s had a lot of success. Perhaps I can, too.”

So far, so good.

Video: Week 1 games to watch

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
11:00
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Mike Bellotti and Matt Stinchcomb offer up the Week 1 matchups they are most excited to watch: Georgia vs. Clemson and LSU vs. TCU.
1. Nick Montana, the son of NFL legendary quarterback Joe Montana, appears to have found a home at Tulane. Nick started out at Washington and, not content with sitting behind Keith Price, transferred to Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College last season. In two Green Wave scrimmages last week, Montana completed 11 of 15 passes for 132 yards. The three other players competing with Montana for the Tulane starting job -- a redshirt freshman, a true freshman and a walk-on -- have never played college football.

2. In the days before air-conditioning, cooling off in the Deep South usually included an ice cold watermelon. It has been a tradition at Georgia, dating probably to the ‘70s, to mark the end of two-a-days with a watermelon cutting party. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has added another annual marking of the close of the toughest part of August. He takes the team to the Gabrielsen Natatorium, where the freshmen are expected to jump off the 10-meter board. College football without tradition wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

3. Big things have been expected of Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston ever since the Seminoles beat out Alabama, Stanford, Ohio State and LSU to sign him. It’s not just because of his athletic talent -- he pitched out of the bullpen and played outfield for Florida State last season -- but because of the good head on his shoulders. Coaches says he is a natural leader and his ego is clearly in check. I can’t wait to see him play at Pittsburgh on Labor Day night.
1. Through the filter of their personalities, commissioners Mike Slive of the SEC and Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12 have delivered the same message of NCAA change. The big five conferences want to live by rules better suited to their budgets. And they should. But here’s one problem. The BCS, by drawing a line between the haves (AQs) and have-nots (non-AQs) set in motion the realignment that rocked intercollegiate athletics. If the haves separate themselves into a Division IV, will they dare set membership requirements high enough to keep the have-nots at bay? Promise them a slice of the pie to stay out?

2. It’s no surprise that the ACC media picked Clemson to win the conference championship. The Tigers have an explosive offense and, with non-ACC games against SEC powers Georgia and South Carolina, the schedule to carry them into BCS championship contention. But here’s the surprise: Clemson has not been the preseason pick to win the ACC since 1991. As the only original member of the ACC to take football more seriously than basketball, Clemson underachieved for a long time.

3. Georgia coach Mark Richt, a former quarterback, underwent hip replacement surgery after last season. He think the problem dates to his playing days. Just not playing football. “People had asked that question,” Richt said, laughing, “and I really have tried to remember what happened to me along the way. I guess it’s OK to mention it. I've mentioned it before. It was a swing-set accident.” What’s worse, he was a grown man. I cannot do it justice. You better listen.
2013 may be the season of the quarterback in college football, because a lot of good ones are coming back.

In the SEC, there's Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Louisville has Teddy Bridgewater, and Clemson offers Tajh Boyd. In the Pac-12, there's UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelley.

But the best one coming back is Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

How so? Well, for one, that was the assignment: Make a case for the best quarterback in your conference being the best in the nation.

But it's not too difficult to make Mariota's case.

As a redshirt freshman, he ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency. He completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.

He threw a touchdown pass in every game and one interception in his final seven games. He was named MVP in the Fiesta Bowl after leading a blowout win over Big 12 champion Kansas State, which capped a 12-1 season and a final No. 2 ranking for the Ducks.

He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after leading an offense that ranked second in the nation in scoring (49.6 PPG) and fifth in total offense (537.4 YPG). The Ducks scored 11 points per game more than any other Pac-12 team.

The 6-foot-4, 196-pound Honolulu native is an extremely accurate passer who might be the fastest quarterback in the nation -- see his 86- and 77-yard runs last season. Against USC on the road, he completed 87 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He tied a school record with six touchdown passes against California. He rushed for 135 yards at Arizona State.

Of course, his 2012 numbers aren't mind-blowing. A lot of that isn't his fault. Oregon blew out so many opponents -- average halftime score of 31-9 -- that it didn't require many plays from behind center after the break. For the season, Mariota threw just 24 passes and rushed eight times in the fourth quarter, compared to 227 passes and 71 rushes in the first half.

Manziel, for the sake of comparison, threw 62 passes and rushed 33 times in the fourth quarter. Bridgewater threw 86 passes and rushed 13 times in the fourth.

The good news is folks are probably going to see a lot more of Mariota this season. With running back Kenjon Barner off to the NFL, the Ducks might skew more toward the passing game after being run-centric under Chip Kelly. New coach Mark Helfrich, who was the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last year, is expected to throw the ball around more because he has an experienced quarterback and a strong, experienced crew of receivers.

That means more numbers for Mariota as he leads a team in the national title hunt. The potential combination of stats and wins might be enough to get Mariota to New York in December for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

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