Stats & Info: NCF

Alabama looks to add to first-round legacy

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
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Alabama leads all schools in total players selected in the NFL draft since 2010 and its 13 1st-round picks over that span are seven more than any other school. The Crimson Tide, who host their Pro Day today, will likely add to that total this season.

What key players will look to show off their skills?

Quarterback, AJ McCarron
McCarron is Alabama’s all-time leader in career completions, passing yards, touchdown passes, and wins as a starting quarterback. His 36 wins trail only David Greene (42) and Peyton Manning (39) for the most in SEC history.

McCarron was 36-4 as a starter at Alabama with all four of his losses coming against opponents ranked in the top 15 of the BCS standings, including two opponents in the top four.

He posted an above-average Total QBR in 37 of 40 career starts, including all 17 of his starts against top-25 opponents.

McCarron will likely show off his nice touch on the deep ball.

Over the last two seasons, McCarron completed 55 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer, the highest completion percentage among quarterbacks from automatic-qualifying conferences. His 53 attempts resulted in 17 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Linebacker, C.J. Mosley
Mosley became the third Alabama player to win the Dick Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Each of the previous Tide players to win the award (Derrick Thomas and Rolando McClain) would become first-round NFL draft picks.

Mosley led Alabama in tackles each of the last two seasons. Since 2008, each of the three previous players to lead the Tide in tackles (McClain, Mark Barron and Dont'a Hightower) went on to become first-round NFL draft picks.

Mosley recorded at least 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons, leading the Crimson Tide in tackles in eight of 13 games.

Left Tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio
Kouandjio started all 27 games at left tackle for Alabama the last two seasons. He is the sixth offensive lineman under Nick Saban to be named at least a consensus All-American at Alabama. Each of the five previous players were drafted including first-round picks Andre Smith (Bengals in 2009) and Chance Warmack (Titans in 2013).

The Crimson averaged 6.8 yards per rush when running left last season, including 4.6 yards before contact (they averaged 3.4 yards before contact when running up the middle and 4.0 yards before contact when running right).

Free Safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clinton-Dix was a consensus All-American and first-team All-SEC for Alabama in 2013.

He looks to become the fifth Alabama defensive back selected in the first round under Nick Saban and the second safety, joining Barron who was taken seventh overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012.

According to Stats Ice, Alabama’s opponents completed 6-of-23 passes (26 percent) when targeting Clinton–Dix this season, the lowest completion percentage against any AQ player with at least 20 targets.

Did You Know?
Alabama has had 3 players selected in the first round in three straight drafts (only USC 1980-83 and Miami 2001-04 have done that).

All eyes on Watkins at Clemson Pro Day

March, 6, 2014
Mar 6
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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsSammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd keyed the Clemson Tigers' success this past season.
Plenty of scouts will put pencil to paper today as they check out Clemson’s Pro Day.

Teams looking for help at wide receiver need look no further than the Tigers’ Sammy Watkins – who was a big-time play-maker during his collegiate career. Of his 27 career receiving touchdowns, 21 came on plays of at least 25 yards.

The average pass thrown to Watkins this past season traveled just 4.7 yards downfield. As his career has gone forward, Watkins has been targeted closer and closer to the line of scrimmage.

In 2013, Clemson did whatever they could to get him the ball, targeting him behind the line of scrimmage 65 times last season, 14 more than any other AQ player.

At the NFL Combine, Watkins measured 6’1” and ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash. That combined with his production in college was enough for Scouts, Inc. to rank him as the fourth-highest player on the board. Todd McShay and Mel Kiper are in agreement that he is the best wide receiver available – with both projecting him to go at No. 5 to the Oakland Raiders.

Watkins’ quarterback Tajh Boyd was a consistent performer in college as well and finished his career as the ACC leader in 300-yard games, touchdown passes and touchdowns responsible for.

Boyd also showed improvement each season as his yards per attempt and completion percentage climbed in each successive year.

The deep ball was one of Boyd’s specialties as he completed 54.7 percent of passes of at least 20 yards. That ranked highest among all BCS-AQ quarterbacks – nearly five percentage points better than the next two closest: Blake Bortles of UCF and Marcus Mariota of Oregon.

Although he was productive in college, Boyd’s height is one reason why he is just the 11th-ranked quarterback according to Scouts Inc. 54 players threw at least 20 passes in the NFL last season, and just seven of them were 6'1" or shorter. Of course one of those was Russell Wilson – who recently won the Super Bowl.

Instant impact recruits for 2014

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
10:06
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National Signing Day has come and gone, and most ESPN 300 recruits have finalized their college decisions. Here are some notable recruits that could make an instant impact in their freshman seasons.

Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (No. 4 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Defensive End)

Texas A&M’s defense last year ranked last in the SEC in most categories including points per game, yards per game and yards per play. The Aggies did not win a game in which it scored fewer than 40 points. Garrett, the top player in the state of Texas, could have an immediate impact to help shore up that defense. He’s the highest-ranked player Texas A&M has signed since the ESPN began recruiting rankings in 2006.

Leonard Fournette, LSU (No. 1 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Running Back)

Fournette is considered the best player in the Class of 2014 after rushing for over 1,800 yards as a senior. On paper, the Louisiana product is a perfect fit as a downhill back in LSU’s system. He also fills a need. The Tigers lost 64 percent of its rushing output from last season with the departures of several running backs including Jeremy Hill. If Fournette lives up to his ranking, you can pencil him into the 2017 NFL Draft after his junior season. Over the last two seasons, 18 LSU players have declared early for the NFL Draft, most among all schools.

Raekwon McMilllan, Ohio State (No. 13 in ESPN 300, No. 1 Inside Linebacker)

Ohio State’s defense struggled down the stretch in 2013 as the quality of opponent improved. The Buckeyes allowed at least 34 points in each of its final three games against Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson. With the departure of linebacker Ryan Shazier, who led the Buckeyes in tackles and tackles for loss by a wide margin, there is an opening at linebacker. Five-star recruit McMillan is physically ready to play at the next level at just under 250 pounds, and as an early enrollee, he has extra time to get ready for a prominent role next season.

Racean Thomas, Auburn (No. 28 in ESPN 300; No. 5 Running Back)

Auburn broke its school rushing record last season, racking up 328.3 rush yards per game. Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason left for the NFL Draft, so Gus Malzahn’s run-first offense has a void at running back. Enter Thomas, a well-rounded running back recruit from Oxford, Alabama. The only other top-50 running back Auburn has signed since 2006, Michael Dyer, helped lead Auburn to a national title as a true freshman.

Chad Thomas, Miami (FL) (No. 65 in ESPN 300; No. 6 DE)

Over the last two seasons, Miami has struggled to stop the run. In that time frame the Hurricanes are last in the ACC in rushing yards allowed (196.4 per game), yards per rush (4.7) and 10-yard rushes (151). Miami also lost several defensive linemen to graduation. Thomas is an athletic product of nearby Booker T. Washington High School and may be counted on to play an early role.

Andrew Brown, Virginia (No. 5 in ESPN 300; No. 1 Defensive Tackle) and Quin Blanding (No. 10 in ESPN 300, No. 1 Safety)

Virginia surprised many by signing two five-star defensive players despite having just one winning season in the last six years. Virginia’s biggest issue on defense last season was allowing too many big plays. No ACC team allowed more 20-yard plays than the Cavaliers (69). Brown and Blanding are the two highest-ranked Virginia signees since ESPN began rankings in 2006 and are considered ready to contribute right away.

Top stats to know: National signing day

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
2:25
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ESPN Stats & InformationAlabama has gotten the players it has wanted under Nick Saban.
ESPNU will cover national signing day wall to wall, with 11 hours of live coverage Wednesday from 8 a.m. ET to 7 p.m. ET and reporters at a dozen different campuses.

There will be 13 live TV announcements from top prospects in the ESPN 300 starting at 8:10 a.m. ET.

Here are some of the top storylines from a statistical perspective:

Alabama will be the best, again
Alabama is in line to sign the No. 1 class in the country for the third straight year. ESPN has given just 15 recruits in the country a five-star rating this year, and five of them are committed to Alabama.

Every draft-eligible top-15 recruit to pick Alabama under coach Nick Saban was eventually selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Alabama has nine recruits who are ranked in the top three at their position nationally, including both the No. 1 and No. 2 centers. The Crimson Tide have commitments from players ranked first or second in their state from nine different states, including the top two players from the state of Alabama.

Alabama has had the top class since Aug. 14 and has not relinquished that spot in ESPN’s evaluations.

Likewise, the SEC dominates
The SEC enters signing day with seven of the top 10 classes in the country and four of the top five. No conference has ever had four of the top five or seven of the top 10 classes since ESPN began rankings in 2006.

Vanderbilt is the only school in the conference without a top-40 class.

From 2006 to 2013, the SEC signed more than twice as many ESPN 300 recruits as any other conference (416 for SEC and 200 for ACC).

Entering signing day, nine of the 13 committed five-star recruits have committed to SEC schools.

Name to know: Leonard Fournette
The top player in the class of 2014 is running back Leonard Fournette from New Orleans, and he is already committed to LSU.

LSU lost 65 percent of its carries and 64 percent of its rushing yards from last season after several of its running backs, most notably Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill and J.C. Copeland, declared for the NFL draft.

Fournette is the first No. 1 offensive prospect since Matt Barkley was the top-ranked recruit in the 2009 class.

How important is a top recruiting class?
In the past eight seasons, the team with the top recruiting class averaged about 10 wins in its next season. These teams saw the biggest jump in win total three years after signing the class.

Two of the top classes during that span, Florida in 2006 and Florida State in 2011, won the BCS National Championship three years later.

Nine of Florida State's 11 defensive starters in the BCS National Championship were ESPN 300 recruits, including all three of its defensive line starters who were ranked in the top 20. Additionally, ESPN ranked 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston as the No. 1 QB in the class of 2012.

Each of the past six national champions had at least one top-five class in the three years before winning the title. Five of the past six national champions had at least two such classes.

The past six champs also had top-25 classes in all three years before winning the national championship.

What does it mean to be a top-300 recruit?
Sixty percent of ESPN 300 top 10 prospects from the 2006 to 2009 classes were taken in the NFL draft.

Notable top-10 recruits who were drafted include Percy Harvin, Matthew Stafford, Eric Berry, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick.

Of the ESPN 300 recruits ranked in the top 150 from the 2006 to 2009 classes, 27 percent were selected in the NFL draft. Defensive ends have had the most draft success, with 18 of 53 (34 percent) selected.

Over the past 25 years, the No. 1 recruit according to SuperPrep magazine and ESPN 300 (from 2006 on) was drafted in the first round seven times. Three of the No. 1 recruits were not drafted.

Eight of the 25 players selected to the 2014 Associated Press All-American team were ESPN 300 recruits, including four players ranked in the top 20.

SEC still the best in college football

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
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Despite losing its first national title in eight seasons, the SEC finished atop ESPN Stats & Information’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin.

The SEC lost its two BCS bowl games but went 7-1 in its eight other bowl games. Its only non-BCS blemish came when Georgia, without quarterback Aaron Murray, lost by five points to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.

Overall, the SEC finished with seven teams ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, including four in the top seven. Only the Pac-12 had more than three teams ranked in the entire AP Top 25.

What sets the SEC apart is its depth. Mississippi State, which finished fifth in the SEC West, won its bowl game by 37 points. Similarly, Vanderbilt, which finished fourth in the SEC East, won by 17 points without its starting quarterback. In all, 10 of the SEC’s 14 teams finished with winning records, including seven teams with at least nine wins.

The Pac-12 also showcased its depth during bowl season. Despite losses by its top two teams, Stanford and Arizona State, the middle of the Pac-12 was dominant. All six of the Pac-12’s bowl wins came by at least 15 points, and Pac-12 teams' average margin of victory in those games was 22 points.

Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings.

The Big 12 finished third in the Conference Power Rankings for a second straight season. Oklahoma's win over Alabama was the highlight of bowl season for the Big 12, but losses by Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas all hurt the conference.

After sending nine of its 10 teams to bowls last season, the Big 12 had only six bowl-eligible teams in 2013. The lack of depth and having no “elite” team kept the Big 12 from emerging as a top conference this season.

The Big Ten had the worst bowl record (2-5) of any BCS automatic-qualifying conference, but the conference won its most important game, the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State rallied from a 10-0 first-quarter deficit to defeat Stanford and give the Big Ten its first Rose Bowl victory since Ohio State won in 2010. The Spartans finished ranked third in the final AP poll, their highest finish in the national polls since 1966, and fourth in ESPN’s Championship Drive Ratings.

However, the Big Ten had a losing bowl record for a fourth straight season. Since its last national championship in 2002, the Big Ten is 30-52 in bowls and has only once had a winning bowl season (2009).

The ACC won its first BCS championship since 1999 and broke the SEC’s streak of seven straight titles. Clemson also won its bowl game against Ohio State to give the ACC two BCS bowl victories.

Despite sending a record 11 teams to bowls, the ACC’s bowl season will be defined by its two wins in BCS bowls. The only reason that the ACC is not ranked higher in the conference rankings, however, is the conference is still lacking depth; the ACC went 3-6 in its non-BCS bowl games, with the six losses by a combined 103 points.

Non-AQ conferences had an up-and-down bowl season, with the Sun Belt winning both of its games and the MAC losing all five of its contests.

The Mountain West finished the season as the top non-AQ conference, but the gap between the Mountain West and the “Big 6” conferences is quite large heading into the 2014 playoff. Many questions remain heading into the playoff, but the fate of the non-AQ conferences seems dim with only one spot guaranteed in the six major bowls for teams in the American, C-USA, Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt conferences.

Next season, look for the Pac-12 to challenge to the SEC for the top conference in the nation. The Pac-12 should only get stronger with Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon State and Arizona State returning their starting quarterbacks.

Conversely, seven of the SEC’s top eight teams will have to replace their starting quarterbacks next season. Check back next year to see where your conference ends up.





Top stats to know: Manziel's NFL profile

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:45
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Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesJohnny Manziel is headed to the NFL.
What are the top stats to know with regard to how Johnny Manziel's stats rate in some key areas related to his NFL future?

Improved pocket passing
Manziel completed 73 percent of his passes from inside of the pocket this season, best among quarterbacks from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences (AQ conferences) and up four percentage points from last season.

He completed at least 65 percent of his passes from inside of the pocket in every game but one this season.

Downfield success
Manziel completed 48 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer this season, up nine percentage points from last season and in the top 10 among AQ quarterbacks.

Manziel had at least one such completion in every game he started this season.

In terms of comparisons to recent draft picks, among first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, only Robert Griffin III had a higher completion percentage on passes of 25 yards or longer than Manziel in his final year of college. Griffin’s was a hair better -- 52 percent.

Improvisation skills
Manziel had an AQ-high 589 rushing yards on scrambles this season, 95 more than any other AQ player.

Since the start of last season …

• Manziel has gained 1,393 yards and scored 15 touchdowns when scrambling, both of which rank best among AQ players.

• Manziel has scrambled for 30 first downs on third down, 14 more than any other AQ player.

• Manziel has completed 54 percent of his passes and is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt when forced to scramble out of the pocket.

The AQ averages are 36 percent and 5.2 yards per attempt during that time. Manziel has 23 completions of 20 yards or longer in such situations, 13 more than any other AQ player.

Making it count in tough situations
Manziel has also excelled at moving the chains with both his arm and his feet. Since the start of last season, he has the highest total QBR on third down, and only Jordan Lynch has rushed for more yards on third down than Manziel.

Manziel’s 97.0 Total QBR and 53 percent first-down conversion rate in third-down situations leads the nation.

Size
A big concern about Manziel is his size. He is listed as 6-foot-1, 210 pounds on Texas A&M’s roster.

There are 12 active NFL quarterbacks listed as 6-1 or shorter, and only four of them -- Russell Wilson, Kellen Moore, Drew Brees and Case Keenum -- are listed as weighting less than 210 pounds.

Manziel’s small stature has not adversely impacted his ability to see the field.

He has only had 12 of his 864 passes batted down at the line (1.4 percent). That is actually below the AQ average over the past two seasons (1.9 percent).

Stat of the day
Manziel led the nation in opponent-adjusted QBR in 2012 (he finished third in 2013), and rates third-best over the last two seasons combined. That stat would be indicative of a reasonable chance of being an NFL starter. The three quarterbacks who finished No. 1 from 2009 to 2011 are among the NFL's best-- Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.

Top stats to know: Best of bowl season

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
6:43
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Three lead changes in the final five minutes of Monday’s BCS Championship game punctuated the 2013-2014 college football bowl season. But even before Florida State rallied to defeat Auburn, there were other noteworthy accomplishments.

Using ESPN’s new college football metrics (see explanations here), ESPN Stats & Information takes a look back at the best performances and most noteworthy plays from the bowls.

Biggest Plays in Terms of Win Probability Added
Four of the 10 biggest plays of the bowl season, measured by the swing in win probability, came in the BCS Championship. But the play with the biggest change in win probability came in the first bowl game of the season.

Best opponent-adjusted QBR
Brett Hundley, UCLA, 97.7
Hundley ran for UCLA’s first two touchdowns and passed for two more in the Bruins’ 42-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. The Bruins’ sophomore QB scored on an 86-yard touchdown – the second-longest touchdown run by a quarterback this season – to stake UCLA to a 14-7 lead. His 97.7 QBR was his second-best opponent-adjusted mark of the season, behind his 98.4 in UCLA’s regular-season finale against L.A. rival USC.

Dak Prescott, Mississippi State, 97.6
Prescott passed for three touchdowns and scored two himself to power the Bulldogs past Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Prescott’s first scoring pass pulled Mississippi State into a 7-7 tie late in the first quarter, and he closed the first half with his third scoring pass, giving the Bulldogs a 27-7 halftime lead. Prescott’s adjusted QBR was a season high.

Blake Bortles, UCF, 97.2
Bortles passed for three touchdowns – each when it was a one-point or tie score – in orchestrating the Knights’ 52-42 victory over Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Bortles’ raw QBR (92.4) was the second-highest this season against Baylor (a top-10 team in defensive efficiency according to ESPN’s team ratings).

Davis Webb, Texas Tech, 96.6
Webb propelled the Red Raiders to a big lead with four touchdown passes in the first 20 minutes of what ended up a 37-23 victory over Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. His raw QBR (91.3) was the second-highest this season against Arizona State, which played FBS’s toughest schedule, according to ESPN’s strength of schedule rankings.

Cody Kessler, USC, 96.5
Kessler passed for four touchdowns, all in the first half, in the Trojans’ 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. His adjusted QBR in the bowl game, his third game in 2013 with a QBR greater than 90, was a season high.

Top Team Performances
Offense
Texas A&M added 28.2 expected points to its net scoring margin on offense in its 52-48 victory over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Aggies accumulated 30 first downs, averaged 8.0 yards a play and scored touchdowns on their final six possessions.

Defense
Vanderbilt added 26.6 expected points to its net scoring margin in its 41-24 win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl. In the first half, the Commodores forced eight punts, caused a fumble, gave up one first down and didn’t allow a possession of more than four plays.

Special teams
Miami added 12.2 expected points to its net scoring margin in its 36-9 loss to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Hurricanes put two punts inside the Cardinals’ 20-yard line, averaged 24.8 yards on kick returns (50 percent more than Louisville) and on average began drives almost seven yards closer to the goal line than the Cardinals. The special teams excellence wasn’t nearly enough to overcome an offense that contributed -18.6 expected points, however.

Top stats to know: FSU 34, Auburn 31

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
12:58
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Florida State overcame long odds to emerge on top in a roller-coaster finish.

The BCS Championship saved its best for last.

It took the biggest comeback in the history of the BCS Championship to end Auburn’s amazing season, as Florida State won the national title, 34-31.

The Seminoles overcame an 18-point deficit to win their third national championship, their first since 1999.

The three-point margin of victory tied for the smallest in BCS Championship history.

Only two past BCS champs rallied from double-digit deficits to win— Texas, which came back from 12 points down against USC to win the 2006 Rose Bowl, and LSU, which overcame a 10-point deficit against Ohio State in the 2008 BCS Championship Game.

The history
The Seminoles ended the streak of seven straight titles for the SEC and four straight titles for the state of Alabama.

The last time a team outside the SEC team won a national championship game against an SEC team was when Nebraska beat Florida in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 1995 season (’96 Fiesta Bowl).

Florida State joins LSU as the only other program to win a national championship with two different head coaches during the BCS era.

Jameis Winston became the the third QB since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season. The first two to do it were USC’s Matt Leinart in 2004 and Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010.

Winston is the first freshman starting quarterback to win a BCS national championship. In fact, Winston is the first quarterback to lead a team to a national championship within two years of finishing high school since Oklahoma true freshman Jamelle Holieway in the 1985 season.

Winston is only the fifth quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy for an undefeated title-winning team, along with Davey O’Brien (1938 TCU), John Lujack (1947 Notre Dame), Matt Leinart (2004 USC) and Cam Newton (2010 Auburn).

How they won
Winston won Game MVP honors on the strength of his fourth quarter. He was 11 for 24 passing in the first three quarters, but was 9 for 11 for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Seminoles receivers aided Winston by racking up 89 yards after the catch in the game's final 15 minutes.

Winston did not have any experience with close games in the fourth quarter, as the Seminoles plowed through the 2013 regular season with ease. He had thrown 25 fourth-quarter passes all season before Monday, a total that ranked 171st in FBS. In fact, 47 teams had two quarterbacks with more fourth-quarter pass attempts than Winston.

Kelvin Benjamin caught Winston's last pass of the game in the end zone with 21 seconds left. Benjamin finished the season with at least one touchdown reception in each of his last six games.

Benjamin did not catch a pass in the first half, the first time all season he went without a reception in the first two quarters. He had four catches on six targets in the second half.
Winston also had success throwing to Rashad Greene, who finished with nine receptions for 147 yards. Winston was 9 for 14 throwing to Greene and 11 for 21 throwing to everyone else.

Auburn oh-so-close
Auburn came closer than any other team to ending Florida State's unbeaten run.

The Tigers played seven games this season that were decided by one score and won six of them.

Auburn went from 3-9 to 12-2. The eight-game improvement is tied for the second-biggest in NCAA Major-College history, trailing only an 8.5 game improvement by Hawaii in 1999.

Stat of the Night
Florida State finished the season with 723 points, setting the FBS record for most points in a season (Oklahoma had the previous record with 716 points in 2008).

Defensive keys: Auburn vs. FSU

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
9:40
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The 2014 BCS National Championship Game between the Auburn Tigers and Florida State Seminoles features two of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Florida State leads the nation in points per game, points per drive and yards per play.

Conversely, Auburn, led by its efficient rushing attack, is averaging more than 40 points per game and leads the nation in rushing yards per game and rushes of 15 yards or longer.

What are the keys to slowing these offenses? Below are three areas of focus for each defense heading into Monday’s showdown:

For Auburn’s defense

1. Limit big plays -- Florida State gains at least 20 yards on one play once every 8.6 snaps, the best rate for any FBS team in the last seven seasons. On drives when the Seminoles break a 20-yard play, they score a touchdown 78 percent of the time and average an FBS-high six points per drive. In comparison, on drives when they do not have a 20-yard play, the Seminoles score a touchdown 20 percent of the time and average 1.6 points per drive.

2. Get pressure with front four -- When opponents send five or more pass rushers, Winston leads all players from automatic-qualifier (AQ) conferences in completion percentage (70.1 percent), touchdowns (20) and yards per attempt (12.4). Against standard pressure, Winston is completing 66 percent of his passes and has thrown seven of his 10 interceptions.

Auburn, led by defensive end Dee Ford, must generate pressure with its front four pass rushers so that more players can drop into coverage and protect against Winston’s deep ball (he ranks third among AQ quarterbacks in completion percentage and touchdowns on passes thrown 15 yards or longer).

3. Slow Florida State on first down -- Florida State is attempting the fewest third-down plays per game (11.2) in the FBS, largely because of its success on first down. The Seminoles are averaging an FBS-high 7.8 yards per play on first down, including 5.7 yards per rush. Led by a trio of backs who have each run for at least 500 yards and eight touchdowns, Florida State runs on 55 percent of its first-down plays and gains at least five yards on 43 percent of those rushes.

For Florida State’s defense

1. Force Auburn inside -- Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. The Tigers are averaging an AQ-high 222.1 rushing yards per game and 8.5 yards per rush on such carries. Florida State does not have many defensive weaknesses, but the Seminoles have struggled against runs outside the tackles. They have allowed 5.1 yards per outside rush compared with 3.1 yards per rush to the inside. Defensive ends Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman must set the edge and force Auburn inside in order to slow the Tigers’ dynamic zone-read rushing attack.

2. Get Auburn into third-and-long situations -- On third-and-three-or-fewer to go, Auburn has converted 76 percent of plays for a first down, fourth best in the FBS. When the distance to go is more than three yards, Auburn’s conversion percentage falls to 86th in the FBS. The main reason is Auburn’s ability to run to pick up the short yardage. On third-and-three, Auburn runs on 79 percent of its plays; when the distance needed for a first down jumps to four yards, its rushing percentage falls to 37 percent. Florida State must make Nick Marshall throw the ball, so slowing Auburn’s run game on first and second down is imperative.

3. Maintain gap discipline -- Entering bowl season, Auburn had 190 designed rushes on which the ball carrier was not touched until at least five yards past the line of scrimmage, 19 more rushes than any other AQ team. Many analysts have pointed to opposing defenses getting fooled by “eye candy,” which results in the defenders running out of their gaps before the blockers even get there. Florida State must maintain both eye and gap discipline in order to limit Auburn from breaking big plays with its zone-read rushes.

Top stats to know: BCS Championship

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
2:54
PM ET
What are the top stats to know heading into Monday’s BCS National Championship Game?

Auburn looking to continue a streak
Auburn can secure the SEC’s eighth consecutive national title and give the conference 10 of the 16 BCS championships. It can also win the fifth straight national title for the state of Alabama.


Having beaten No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri in its previous two games, Auburn has a chance to become the first team in college football history to win three consecutive games against top-5 teams.

The past two teams to play three games in a row against top-5 opponents, Oklahoma in 1984 and Colorado in 2001, both won two straight to end the regular season and then lost a January bowl game.

Auburn can also become the first team since BYU in 1984 to win the AP national title after being unranked in the preseason poll. The Tigers appeared on no preseason ballots in either the AP or the coaches' poll.

Auburn is the first BCS title game participant to have had a losing record the previous season.

The Tigers were 3-9 a year ago, and if they win this game, they will complete the greatest improvement from one season to the next in NCAA major-college history. Hawaii holds the record at 8.5 games, improving from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999 (the calculation is the same as determining games back in the standings for MLB or NBA). Auburn’s improvement from last season is currently 8.5 games (3-9 to 12-1).

Auburn has won this season with a dominant ground game, as the image below shows.

Illustration by Trevor Ebaugh

Running the table in dominant fashion
Florida State can become only the third team since 1950 to win all of its games by at least 14 points. The last to do it was Utah in 2004. The other was national champion Nebraska in 1995.

Not only has Florida State not had an opponent get within single digits in the final 20 minutes of a game all season, but the Seminoles also haven’t trailed at any point in a game since September. The last FSU deficit came more than three months ago: Sept. 28 at Boston College.

The Seminoles trailed that game up until 1:49 left in the second quarter, when Chad Abram caught a 10-yard TD pass to tie the game. Since then, Florida State has played 571:49 of football and has been tied or had a lead the entire time.

Illustration by Trevor Ebaugh

Winston and the historic combo
Florida State’s Jameis Winston can become just the third quarterback since 1950 to go undefeated with a national championship and a Heisman Trophy all in the same season.

The two to do it were USC’s Matt Leinart in 2004 and Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010.

Only one sophomore or freshman starting quarterback has ever won the BCS National Championship Game, and that was AJ McCarron as a sophomore for Alabama in the 2011 season.

Winston can become the first freshman to win it.

Auburn likes to keep it close
If the game is close in the fourth quarter, that would not only be uncharted territory for Florida State this season, but it also would be right in Auburn’s comfort zone. The Tigers are 6-0 this season in one-possession games (decided by 8 or fewer points) and are 17-3 in those games over the past four seasons. Both of those marks are best in the FBS.

Auburn’s weakness
By yards allowed per play, the Tigers (5.96) have the worst defense of the 144 teams that have ever participated in a BCS game (next worst was the 1999 Stanford team that entered the Rose Bowl allowing 5.81 yards per play).

FSU’s question
If there’s one question about Florida State, it’s whether the Seminoles’ lofty numbers are the product of a weak schedule. FSU’s regular-season schedule strength ranking is the worst for any team in the BCS title game in the past 10 seasons.

Defense key in SEC wins
Defense has been the one constant throughout the SEC’s success in national championship games, especially defense in the first half. The 10 SEC teams that have played in the BCS National Championship Game have allowed a total of seven first-half touchdowns (one came on a kickoff return, and another on a 2-yard drive after a blocked punt) and given up an average of 7.3 points over the first two quarters.

The coaches
This is only the third BCS National Championship Game with both coaches seeking their first national title. It also happened to end the 2001 season with Larry Coker (Miami) against Frank Solich (Nebraska) and to end the 2010 season with Gene Chizik (Auburn) against Chip Kelly (Oregon).

The winner of this game will join LSU as the only other program to win a national championship with two different head coaches during the BCS era.

If Auburn wins, it will be just the second team in the poll era (since 1936) to win national titles in a four-year span with different head coaches. Miami did it in 1987 (Jimmy Johnson) and ’89 (Dennis Erickson).

Tigers coach Gus Malzahn could become just the fourth coach in the poll era (since 1936) to win a national championship in his first season at a school. The last was Coker in 2001.

More reading
For our coverage of Auburn's unstoppable running game, click here.

For our breakdown of Florida State's dominant season, check out last week's article here.

Did You Know: No. 2 often turns out to be No. 1
The No. 2 team in the final BCS standings has won eight of the past 11 national championship games.

What hiring Strong would mean for Texas

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
3:41
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AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyCharlie Strong has led Louisville to bowl games in each of his four seasons as head coach


According to ESPN and media reports, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong is close to becoming the next head coach at the University of Texas.

Strong’s deal would reportedly be for five years and $25 million, according to SI.com. That would be a significant raise from the $3.7 million he made at Louisville this past season, making him one of a handful of coaches to earn at least $5 million annually.

The defense never rests
A highly regarded defensive coach, Strong turned Louisville into one of the top defensive teams in the country. During his four seasons, the Cardinals were in the top 10 in the FBS in points per game, yards per game, yards per play and sack percentage. In the three years before Strong’s arrival, Louisville ranked 75th or worse in each of those categories.

This season Louisville’s opponents converted an FBS-low 26.7 percent of third downs. Strong’s teams also featured sure tackling. The Cardinals defense allowed just 14 broken tackles, which led all schools from automatic-qualifying conferences this season. Louisville allowed just one touchdown of 20 or more yards this season, fewest in the FBS (Florida State ranks second with three).

Strong's defensive acumen should help the Longhorns on that side of the ball. The last two seasons Texas has allowed 186 rush yards per game; the previous eight seasons they allowed just 97 rush yards per contest.

Instant impact
Strong made the most of four seasons on the Louisville Cardinals sidelines. He took over a team that was six games under .500 in the three seasons preceding his hire in 2010. Strong led Louisville to a record of 37-15, including 12-1 this season. The 12 wins tied a school record.

With Strong, Louisville went 3-1 in bowl games and won two conference titles.

If hired by Texas, Strong would become the first black head coach in a major men’s sport at the university, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Clemson slices Buckeyes with short passes

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
2:03
AM ET

Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State didn't have an answer for Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins Friday
In a game that featured six turnovers and four lead changes, the Clemson Tigers had the last score and also the last takeaway to earn their first BCS bowl victory. The Tigers have now won consecutive bowls for the first time since winning the 2003 Peach Bowl and 2005 Champs Sports Bowl (Clemson did not go to a bowl in 2004).

Record-setting night
Tajh Boyd to Sammy Watkins was a combination the Tigers went to time after time to beat the Ohio State Buckeyes. Boyd finished with 378 yards passing and 127 rushing yards, which tied an Orange Bowl record. He became the first player in Orange Bowl history to throw for 300 yards and run for 100 more. In addition, Boyd tied a career-high with five touchdown passes.

Watkins set Orange bowl records for both receptions (16) and receiving yards (227). His 16 catches are the most ever for any BCS game, while his receiving yardage is the second most in a BCS game behind only a 239-yard game from Josh Reed in the 2002 Sugar Bowl for LSU.

Watkins also caught two touchdown passes giving him 27 for his career – tying the Clemson school record set by DeAndre Hopkins.

Short, but sweet
Boyd and Watkins connected on 16 of 17 targets due in large part to short passes. Boyd’s average pass traveled 2.9 yards downfield against Ohio State, 4.7 yards shorter than his average pass distance this season. Only five of his passes traveled more than 10 yards downfield, his fewest such attempts in the last three seasons.

Watkins 227 receiving yards, included 202 yards after the catch. His previous career high of 137 yards after catch came against Auburn in 2011.

Running wild
While he kept his passes short, Tajh Boyd ran for a career-high 127 yards, highlighted by a 48-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He gained 116 yards on designed runs, 43 more such yards than any other game in his career.

Jungkyu Lee, Micah Adams and Jason Starrett contributed to this post

Inside Auburn's unstoppable running game

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
9:31
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Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesTre Mason has been a workhorse in Gus Malzahn's run-heavy offense.
If Auburn is going to knock off Florida State in the BCS National Championship, the Tigers will have to lean on their dominant running game.

Auburn rushed for 545 yards in the SEC championship, the most ever in a game between two SEC teams and the most overall by an SEC team since Auburn had 565 against Southwestern Louisiana in 1985.

Bo Jackson led the way for that Auburn team with 290 yards and four touchdowns. In the SEC championship on Dec. 7, it was Tre Mason, who had 304 yards and four touchdowns.

The week before the SEC title game, Auburn rushed for 296 yards in the Iron Bowl, the most Alabama had allowed in an SEC game since Nick Saban’s first season (2007), when the Tide allowed 301 to an Arkansas team led by Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.

Origins of the running game
Auburn’s success can be traced to its hiring of Gus Malzahn. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11. He left to become the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012, when he led the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference championship.

As a coordinator and coach, Malzahn is known for his run-first offense, which has led its conference in rushing in three of the past four seasons.

With Malzahn as its head coach, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. Entering the bowl games, the Tigers led the nation in rushing yards per game, rushing touchdowns and runs of 25 yards or more. They were one of five schools that had two players with at least 1,000 rushing yards each.

Heisman finalist Mason has been one of the main beneficiaries of Malzahn’s offense. His 283 carries were the fifth-most in FBS entering the bowls and 112 more than he had last season. As a result, he led the SEC in almost every major rushing category, and his seven 100-yard rushing games against SEC defenses are the most in a season for any player in the past 10.

Running quarterback is key
During the two seasons that Auburn has made the BCS National Championship, Malzahn has had the luxury of calling plays for a dynamic running quarterback. In 2010, it was Cam Newton. This season, it is Nick Marshall.

In both seasons, the Tigers ranked in the top five of the FBS in rushing yards per game, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. In the two seasons between Newton and Marshall, Auburn had a combined 59 rushing yards by its quarterbacks and an 11-14 record.

Marshall has rushed for 1,023 yards, fifth-most by an FBS quarterback entering the bowl games. He has been outstanding making decisions in Auburn’s zone-read scheme. Zone reads have accounted for 46 percent of the Tigers’ carries.

On such plays, they average 7.3 yards per rush, including 9.0 when Marshall keeps the ball. Marshall’s 882 yards on zone reads ranks second among players from BCS automatic-qualifying (AQ) conferences entering the bowls behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (1,278).

Running outside tackles
Auburn is one of three AQ teams to run outside the tackles on at least 50 percent of its carries. On such runs, the Tigers lead all AQ schools in rushing yards (2,887) and rank second in yards per carry (8.5) behind Wisconsin.

In fact, they had more rushing yards outside the tackles than 106 FBS teams had total rushing yards entering the bowl games.

The Tigers do an excellent job of sealing the edge. They average an AQ-high 6.3 yards before contact on runs outside the tackles and have 77 such runs in which first contact was not made until at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, 27 more than any other AQ school.

Can Florida State stop them?
Auburn will try to keep its ground game going against the nation’s leader in scoring defense, Florida State. The Seminoles have allowed five rushing touchdowns all season, tied with Iowa for the fewest in the FBS before bowls began.

Boston College is the only team to score more than 17 points against Florida State this season. Led by Heisman finalist Andre Williams, the Eagles rushed for 200 yards and scored 34 points.

Boston College had success running outside the tackles, gaining 160 yards on 26 carries.

The Seminoles struggled against such runs all season, allowing 107 more yards outside the tackles than inside, despite 84 fewer rushes. The three runs of 30 yards or more that they allowed this season were all outside the tackles.

After the SEC championship, Malzahn said, "Right now, we can run the football on anybody. So why change?” The question is whether or not Florida State can make Auburn change come Monday.

Power runs make Buckeyes go

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
9:02
AM ET
Two of the top offenses in the country collide in the Discover Orange Bowl tonight (8:30 ET on ESPN), as Ohio State and Clemson look to cap off their seasons with a BCS bowl win.

Yesterday we detailed how Clemson’s dynamic passing attack could dominate a struggling Ohio State pass defense.

Ohio State counters with a similarly prolific offense, built instead around a bruising ground game. How have the Buckeyes been so successful running the ball and can Clemson stop them?

Ground and Pound
The Buckeyes run on over 60 percent of their plays, ranking among the top 15 teams in FBS.

No team has been more efficient on the ground than Ohio State, averaging an FBS-best 7.0 yards per game.

The key to Ohio State’s rushing attack is its ability to gain yards up the middle. The Buckeyes have rushed for 2,432 yards inside the tackles this year, nearly 500 yards more than any other school from a BCS automatic qualifying (AQ) conference entering bowl season.

The offensive line has also been dominant in opening up holes for the Buckeyes, who average 4.5 yards per rush before contact, the highest rate among AQ teams.

Carlos Hyde leads the OSU rushing game, averaging a Big Ten-high 141 yards per game. He has been one of the nation’s most consistent backs, gaining at least five yards on an FBS-best 61 percent of his carries.

Following the Buckeyes’ tendency to pound the ball up the middle, Hyde has done most of his damage inside the tackles. Hyde is averaging 7.4 yards per rush to that location, and has gone for over 100 yards inside the tackles in three of his last four games.

Quarterback Option
Hyde is not the only Buckeye who dominates on the ground. Braxton Miller has proven to be among the best dual-threat quarterbacks this season, as one of four FBS players with at least 1,500 pass yards and 1,000 rush yards this season.

Relying on Miller’s rushing skills and decision-making, the Buckeyes have been one of the most effective teams this season using the read option.

Only three schools have gained more rushing yards on zone-reads than Ohio State, and its average of 7.7 yards per rush is the highest among BCS-AQ schools with at least 100 zone-read rushes this season entering bowl season.

Miller seemed to find his legs during an off week before Ohio State faced Illinois on Nov. 16th. Miller has topped 100 rushing yards in all four games since then, including an average of 75 yards on zone-reads, while averaging more than nine yards per rush.

Clemson's Challenge
Clemson will be challenged to stop Ohio State’s punishing rushing attack, despite the fact that it has generally been effective stopping the run, allowing 3.7 yards per rush (fourth-best in ACC).

The Tigers struggled to contain two of the league’s best rushing teams, giving up a combined 571 yards against Syracuse and Georgia Tech. Clemson showed its vulnerability up the middle against those squads, with 304 of those 571 yards coming inside the tackles.

Clemson also was no match for one of the nation’s most read-option-heavy teams in Syracuse. The Orange torched them for 205 yards on 21 zone-read rushes, an average of 9.8 yards per rush.

Sooners score big upset in Sugar Bowl

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
2:02
AM ET

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma freshman quarterback Trevor Knight threw a career-high 4 Pass TD Thursday
Oklahoma pulled off a big upset in the Allstate Sugar Bowl as Bob Stoops became the first coach in the BCS era to win the Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl.

Alabama entered the game as the largest favorite this bowl season (-17). Their loss means the three biggest bowl favorites have all lost. Baylor lost as a 16.5-point favorite to UCF and Arizona State lost outright to Texas Tech despite being a 16-point favorite.

The win marked the 28th bowl victory in Oklahoma history trailing just Alabama (34) and USC (32) all-time.

Sooners go boom
After turning the ball over on their first possession, the Sooners gained momentum in the first half when they scored on five straight possessions (four touchdowns, one field goal). The last time a team scored on five straight possessions in regulation against the Crimson Tide was in 2003 when Georgia did it.

Freshman quarterback Trevor Knight had a breakout game with four touchdown passes. He entered the game with five career touchdowns. Knight joins Johnny Manziel as the only quarterbacks to throw at least four touchdowns against Alabama in the last 10 seasons (Manziel threw five earlier this season).

Tide rolled
The 45 points Alabama allowed were the most since Nick Saban took over the team. In their last two games, Alabama allowed 79 points after allowing a total of 102 points in the team’s first 11 games.

The Crimson Tide lost two straight games for the first time since the 2008 season when in similar fashion to this season they lost the SEC Championship Game and followed that with a Sugar Bowl loss. That season Alabama lost to Florida in the SEC title game and then to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

Random fact of the day:
Oklahoma’s 45 points are the most Alabama has allowed in a regulation game since a 45-30 loss to Florida in the 1996 SEC Championship Game.

That Gators’ defense was coached by Bob Stoops.

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