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  • Big Board: USC's Darnold remains at head of class
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    NFL scouts take Rivalry Week every bit as serious as the most ardent fan.

    • Sure, when it comes to projecting college players to the next level, talent is more important. But every scout in the league is looking for players who rise to the occasion when the lights are brightest.

      That is certainly the case this week with passionate rivalry games like Alabama vs. Auburn, Ohio State vs. Michigan and Florida vs. Florida State (among others) vying for attention. For scouts, the premier showdown may be between the No. 1 Crimson Tide and its vaunted defense led by future first round picks Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da'Ron Payne and Ronnie Harrison squaring off against Auburn's stellar rushing attack.

      With the regular season winding down, here is the latest Big Board, my personal ranking of the Top 32 NFL prospects in the country.

      1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC, 6-3, 225, 4.74, redshirt sophomore

      There is no denying that Darnold struggled early this season, throwing two interceptions in each of USC's first three games as the Trojans dealt with massive turnover on offense. In the eight games since the poor start, Darnold owns a very respectable 17-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, quieting his critics. To be clear, Darnold has his warts -- an elongated throwing motion is the biggest concern -- but he is accurate, athletic and tough. He also comes with a pro-caliber build, offense and media market, making the projection to the next level simpler than most of his competition. Simply put, he possesses the best mix of talent and intangibles in this year's potential quarterback class.

      2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA, 6-3, 220, 4.97, junior

      As he demonstrated against USC in the primetime showdown with Darnold, Rosen possesses many of the traits to project as a franchise quarterback, including intelligence, a lightning-quick release, accuracy to all levels of the field and plenty of velocity. After now missing action in multiple games for the second consecutive season, however, it is fair to question Rosen's durability, as well as whether he possesses the intangibles preferred as the face of the franchise.

      3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State, 5-11, 223, 4.49, junior

      Barkley is the elite player in college football and the easy favorite among non-quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy. He possesses the size and toughness to be effective running between the tackles but it is his elusiveness and breakaway speed as a perimeter runner, receiver and returner that has NFL scouts salivating. In terms of immediate impact ability, Barkley is comparable to recent Top 10 picks Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.

      4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS/CB, Alabama, 6-0, 201, 4.52, junior

      With today's pass-happy NFL offenses, versatile defensive backs are more important than ever and no one in this can match Fitzpatrick's combination of instincts, coverage skills and reliable open-field tackling. Fitzpatrick may lack the elite fluidity and change of direction of today's top cover corners but his route anticipation and physicality make up for it, allowing him to project as a top five prospect (and arguably the elite defender) in 2018. Fitzpatrick tweaked his hamstring and missed virtually all of the rivalry game against LSU but not before showing impressive makeup speed to break up a potential score.

      5. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson, 6-3, 310, 5.04, junior

      From his off-beat personality to his versatility along the defensive line, Wilkins is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He earned All-American honors at defensive tackle as a true freshman, recording an eye-popping 84 tackles before moving out to defensive end last season and boosting his big plays, registering 13 tackles for loss (among 56 total stops) and setting a school record among defensive linemen with 10 passes broken up. Wilkins' ability to disrupt the passer as well as the running game helps him stand out in a potentially very good class of defensive tackles.

      6. Da'Ron Payne, DT, Alabama, 6-2, 308, 5.38, junior

      Payne may lack the imposing size and burst of some of the other top defensive linemen but his pure strength (including a 545-pound bench press) and motor stand out, even among the NFL junior varsity team that is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Payne's value lies with his ability to be a two-gap run stuffer not a consistent pass rush threat, which could earn him a lower spot on draft boards given the focus on the pass in today's NFL. He and Alabama's stout defense will face its stiffest challenge with Auburn's running game.

      7. Bradley Chubb, DE, North Carolina State, 6-3, 275, 4.84, senior

      Simply put, over the first half of the season Chubb has been the most dominant defensive player in college football. His 62 tackles through 10 games include 23.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, numbers very much in line with the 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks he posted during last year's breakout campaign. A former linebacker whose commitment to maximizing his talent has earned him captain roles the past two years running, Chubb looks like one of this year's safest prospects -- winning not only with athleticism but hustle, physicality and refined technique, as well.

      8. Connor Williams, OT, Texas, 6-5, 320, 5.31, junior

      The Longhorns have not produced a single first-round pick on offense since Vince Young was selected No. 3 overall by Tennessee back in 2006, but Williams is a strong bet to end that dubious streak. Williams is a bit of a throwback, showing the power and aggression as a run blocker that scouts covet with the athleticism, balance and girth to stone pass rushers, as well. Further, Williams showed his toughness and talent by returning to the field Week 12 against West Virginia after suffering a knee injury (torn meniscus, ACL and MCL sprain) on Sept. 16 against USC.

      9. Vita Vea, DT, Washington, 6-4, 344, 5.34, redshirt junior

      In terms of raw ability, Vea competes with only Houston true sophomore Ed Oliver as the most exciting defensive line prospect in the country. As his size suggests, Vea can dominate as a run-stuffer. He is also incredibly athletic for a man of his size, surprising opponents with his initial burst and speed in pursuit. Vea is a prototypical nose guard with a blend of size, power and athleticism likely to earn comparisons to former freakish first rounders Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe as the draft approaches.

      10. Derwin James, SS, Florida State, 6-2, 211, 4.52, redshirt sophomore

      After an offseason in which he was labeled as "the next Sean Taylor," James struggled to shake off the rust from last year's knee surgery, notably missing open field tackles and failing to deliver big plays early in the year. Since, James has looked like more of his previous self, enjoying standout performances against Louisville (eight tackles), Boston College (13 tackles) and Syracuse (three tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and four passes broken up), including the partially-blocked field goal which secured the Seminoles' 27-24 win over the Orange. A modern safety who truly blends the traits of a linebacker and cornerback, James is a moveable chess piece on defense sure to intrigue NFL coaches.

      11. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M, 5-11, 200, 4.39, junior

      With three receivers earning top 10 picks a year ago, the NFL's thirst for playmakers has never been more obvious, and Kirk is this year's most dynamic pass-catcher. Like current Detroit Lions standout Golden Tate, Kirk possesses the squatty frame of a running back, using terrific lateral agility, balance and pure speed to be a threat to score any time he touches the ball as a receiver or returner.

      12. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama, 6-1, 190, 4.50, junior

      Expectations were huge for Ridley last season after breaking Julio Jones' school record for most receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman (89 for 1,045). A stacked roster and the development of young Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts resulted in less production (72 for 769 yards) for Ridley last season, but his polished routes, deceptive speed and strong hands remain just as impressive on tape and he has taken the next step this year, emerging as Alabama's clear top target and a difference-maker in the win over Mississippi State. A late enrollee at Alabama, Ridley is a bit older than most of the top prospects, turning 23 in December. Ridley's potential one-on-one matchup with Auburn's star cornerback Carlton Davis (No. 23 on this board) is must-see scouting.

      13. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame, 6-5, 325, 5.23, redshirt junior

      It isn't often that NFL teams are willing to invest a top 15 pick in an interior offensive lineman but, like his former Notre Dame teammate Zack Martin, Nelson's pro-ready game is obvious. In fact, he very well should have been named MVP for Notre Dame's 49-14 pasting of USC as it was behind he and fellow potential first round pick, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, that the Irish ran the ball for an astounding 377 yards on 47 carries (an 8.0 yard per rush clip!). The massive Nelson is a plug and play guard, showing off the initial quickness, vice-like grip and sheer mass scouts covet inside.

      14. Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson, 6-4, 265, 4.78, redshirt sophomore

      Players as young as Ferrell rarely make the Big Board this early in their respective collegiate careers, but the prototypically built edge rusher is a unique talent with an already impressive resume, including 50 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (along with a team-high 24 QB hurries a season ago). He is often overshadowed by the "other" talent along Clemson's defensive line but projects very well to the NFL due to his initial burst, length and closing speed.

      15. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming, 6-4, 233, 4.76, redshirt junior

      If someone were to draw up the physical prototype for an NFL quarterback, it would look a lot like the strapping, rifle-armed, and shockingly athletic Allen. Unfortunately for all of his raw traits, Allen remains very raw, failing to show the accuracy and poise in losses to Iowa and Oregon that are required in the NFL. Allen was not helped much by his teammates in these losses, however, and his head coach, Craig Bohl, proved with his last quarterback, Carson Wentz, that he knows how to develop talent at the position.

      16. Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State, 6-1, 198, 4.49, junior

      After recording an FBS-leading eight interceptions last season -- his first as a starter -- McFadden has a lot of work to do to duplicate his incredible debut. Do not mistake McFadden's lack of eye-popping statistics this season (26 tackles and five passes broken up over the first 10 games), however, as evidence of a poor year as most opponents are opting simply to ignore his side of the field. Though his focus as a tackler and in coverage can wane, at times, McFadden offers an exciting upside with the quick feet, instincts and soft hands scouts covet.

      17. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU, 5-11, 212, 4.52, junior

      Like the rest of his LSU teammates, Guice started the season slowly but appears to be hitting his stride, eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second consecutive year and improving as a receiver. Guice is not the freakish combination of size and speed of his predecessor Leonard Fournette. Frankly, he is built more like another star NFL rookie running back -- Kansas City's Kareem Hunt. Like Hunt, Guice possesses a squatty, powerful frame as well as excellent balance through contact and the burst to gain chunk yardage.

      18. Orlando Brown, OT, Oklahoma, 6-7, 358, 5.47, redshirt junior

      The prodigal son of the late Orlando "Zeus" Brown (a 13-year veteran who played with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens), the Sooners' behemoth blocker's sheer size and strength make referring to him as "junior" almost laughable. While lacking the nimble feet to likely remain at left tackle in the NFL (where he's started the past two years for the Sooners), Brown's rare arm length, powerful base and surprising balance make him a quality pass protector and not just the bulldozer in the running game that his bulk suggests.

      19. Arden Key, DE, LSU, 6-5, 240, 4.74, junior

      With his long arms, explosive get-off and rare flexibility to scrape the corner, Key is the most gifted edge threat likely to be available in the 2018 draft. It will not be lost on scouts that he enjoyed his most productive game of the season (eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss) in the big matchup with Alabama and that he boasts a terrific track record, setting the LSU single-season record with 12 sacks as a true sophomore. A late recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and a lack of strength at the point of attack in the running game, however, are among the concerns scouts will have to "unlock" with the gifted but inconsistent junior.

      20. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, 6-2, 200, 4.42, junior

      Jackson quite literally ran away from the competition for the Heisman Trophy a season ago, showing off the raw speed and playmaking ability that has earned him plenty of comparisons to 2001 No. 1 overall selection Michael Vick. A true dual threat, Jackson is a potential difference-maker in the NFL if a team is willing to commit its offense around his unique talent. Though Jackson is improved in terms of accuracy, he remains a work in progress as an NFL passer because he routinely stares down his primary target. Further, while Jackson is noticeably bigger this season, he remains undersized by NFL quarterback standards, a significant concern given his playing style.

      21. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State, 5-10, 191, 4.37, junior

      Ward was overshadowed a year ago by eventual first-round cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans) and Gareon Conley (Oakland) but he saw plenty of playing time at nickel, actually tying with Lattimore for the team lead in pass breakups in 2016 with nine over 13 games. This season, Ward has been even more productive in the PBU department (12 through 11 games), showing off the lightning-quick feet, hands and savvy to project as a "starting" nickel-back early in his NFL career and perhaps much, much more.

      22. Billy Price, OG, Ohio State, 6-3, 312, 5.19, redshirt senior

      A three-year starter and reigning All-American guard, Price is about as safe as it gets in early NFL draft prognostication. He could have made the NFL jump a year ago and been one of the first interior offensive linemen selected but is improving his stock this season by proving his versatility and making the switch to center, the position some scouts believe he is best suited to playing in the NFL. Built like a cinder block (and just as tough), Price's initial quickness and power play a key role in the Buckeyes' offensive attack.

      23. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn, 6-1, 203, 4.50, junior

      Lanky press cornerbacks are all the rage in today's NFL and Davis possesses the skill-set to take full advantage of an average senior crop to jump into the first-round conversation. A starter as a true freshman, Davis earned third-team All-SEC honors last season and looks well on his way toward bigger honors in 2017, ranking among the best in the power-conference in passes broken up. He possesses the stop-and-go quickness, loose hips and long arms scouts are looking for and could boost his stock further with more willingness in run support, as well as turning more breakups into interceptions.

      24. Harrison Phillips, DT, Stanford, 6-3, 290, 4.96, junior

      Following the same destructive path which helped former teammate Solomon Thomas vault up draft boards a year ago, Phillips has proven a one man wrecking crew in the Pac-12 this season, actually leading the team in tackles (80), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (five) from his defensive tackle position. Quick, physical and instinctive, Phillips is a classic penetrator projecting best as a 3-technique defensive tackle in a traditional 4-3 alignment.

      25. Roquan Smith, ILB, Georgia, 6-0, 225, 4.64, junior

      As the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions proved the past two years with the first-round selections of "undersized" linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarrad Davis, respectively, speed is valued above all else in today's game. While lacking ideal size, Smith's range, instincts and physicality show up against the run and pass, alike. He leads the Bulldogs in tackles by a wide margin, with nearly as many stops (91) through 11 games as Georgia's next two defenders combined (99).

      26. Ronnie Harrison, SS, Alabama, 6-2, 214, 4.57, junior

      A major question mark heading into last season (his first as a starter), Harrison rewarded the faith of the Alabama coaching staff by emerging as a legitimate star by year's end, finishing second only to Butkus Award winning linebacker Reuben Foster for the team lead in tackles (86) and proving to be a big-play magnet. When under control, Harrison can also be a weapon as a hitter, specializing in cleaning up the play with a stiff shoulder to stop a ball-carrier in his tracks. Highly regarded for his physicality as a tackler, Harrison showed off the instincts and ball-skills to suggest that he is not just a run-stuffer with an impressive interception against LSU in the Week 10 showdown.

      27. Maurice Hurst, DT, Michigan, 6-2, 282, 4.93, redshirt senior

      With today's focus on the quick passing game in the NFL, "undersized" defensive tackles who can collapse the pocket from the interior are much more valuable than in previous years. Hurst, the son of the former New England Patriots cornerback of the same name, combines the initial burst to split gaps with the toughness and strength that belie his frame.

      28. Mike McGlinchey, OT, Notre Dame, 6-7, 312, 5.27, redshirt senior

      With a full season of starts at both left tackle (2016) and right tackle (2015) already under his belt in Notre Dame's pro-style attack, McGlinchey entered his final year of college football as one of the more established blockers in the country and his stock has only improved in shutting down high profile opponents (like Boston College's Harold Landry and USC's Rasheem Green) since. McGlinchey is not in the same class of athlete as his former teammate and 2016 first-round pick, Ronnie Stanley (Baltimore Ravens), but NFL offensive line coaches will appreciate his experience, versatility and technique.

      29. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State, 6-0, 312, 5.17, senior

      As so-called "undersized" Pro Bowlers like Aaron Donald and Jurell Casey are proving, height may be overrated when it comes to projecting success at defensive tackle. Nnadi's bowling ball-like build, active hands and sheer power make him a nightmare to stop on the inside. Nnadi earned First Team All-ACC honors a year ago despite being overshadowed by others and is highly regarded by scouts for his relentless style of play.

      30. Courtland Sutton, WR, Southern Methodist, 6-3, 218, 4.58, redshirt junior

      The Mustangs have not churned out a top 50 NFL selection since 1986 but clubs on the lookout for a prototype split end will certainly be intrigued by Sutton, a physically imposing receiver with the height, strength and aggression to beat NFL defensive backs for contested passes. Sutton has averaged nearly 17 yards per reception since 2015 with 28 combined touchdowns grabs over that time, including nine thus far this season.

      31. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida, 6-4, 293, 4.96, redshirt junior

      The Gators have churned out at least one first-round defender in each of the past five drafts and if those close to the program are to be believed, Bryan may be just as gifted as any of them. He certainly lacks production to this point, registering just 34 tackles (including just five for loss) in the first 27 games of his career. He is still very much a work in progress, too often blowing through or past would-be blockers only to locate the ball too late to do anything about it. The NFL loves upside, however, and the Casper, Wyoming, native offers plenty of it.

      32. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia, 5-10, 228, 4.54, senior

      Powerful, agile and boasting underrated straight-line speed, Chubb gashed Kentucky for 151 yards in Week 12, giving him 1,045 yards on the year. In doing so Chubb joined Georgia legend Herschel Walker as the only Bulldogs to ever eclipse the 1,000 yard rushing mark three times in their careers. Scouts will have to weigh the fact that Chubb comes with plenty of carries under his belt (currently 701) but his career average of 6.37 yards gained against mostly SEC competition speaks volumes, as well.

      Just missed the cut:

      Martinas Rankin, OT, Mississippi State, 6-5, 315, 5.17, Sr

      Jamarco Jones, OT, Ohio State, 6-5, 310, 5.27, Sr

      Marcus Allen, FS, Penn State, 6-1, 207, 4.55, Sr

      Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson, 6-5, 305, 5.04, Jr

      Harold Landry, OLB, Boston College, 6-2, 250, 4.76, Sr

      Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, a collaboration between The Sports Xchange and The Pro Football Hall of Fame

  • Ex-college, NFL coach Kelly mulls Florida, UCLA jobs
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    Former college and NFL coach Chip Kelly reportedly is deciding this week between Florida and UCLA for one of the head-coaching openings.

    • Kelly met with UCLA officials regarding the school's vacant position in Los Angeles on Tuesday and is expected to decide between Florida and UCLA in the next few days, a source close to Kelly told ESPN's Mark Schlabach on Wednesday.

      At least Florida, Tennessee and UCLA have made overtures or offers to Kelly, a person with knowledge of the situation told USA Today Sports. The offers were in the range of $6 million per year, the person told the newspaper.

      Former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, a member of the school's search committee, is putting a "full-court press" on Kelly to accept the job with the Bruins, the source told ESPN.

      Besides UCLA and Florida, the 53-year-old Kelly isn't expected to consider any other college openings, according to ESPN.

      The Los Angeles Times reported Kelly met with a contingent of athletics officials from UCLA as the Bruins look to replace Jim Mora Jr., who was fired on Sunday.

      The meeting came two days after Florida officials flew to meet Kelly in his native New Hampshire, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Officials returned Sunday night without a deal in place to make him the Gators' next head coach to replace McElwain, who was fired on Oct. 29.

      Kelly, an analyst at ESPN, went 46-7 from 2009 to 2012 at Oregon, which averaged 44.7 points a game during that span. His final team in 2012 went 12-1 and averaged 49.6 points per game.

      Kelly was fired from two NFL jobs in the past two years. He was fired by the San Francisco 49ers in January after one season. He was 28-35 in four seasons as an NFL coach, including three with the Philadelphia Eagles.

  • Iron Bowl stakes enhance Alabama-Auburn showdown
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    For the first time since 2013, the Iron Bowl features a winner-take-all matchup for the SEC West Division.

    • No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) plays at No. 6 Auburn (9-2, 6-1) on Saturday. The winner earns the right to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2 in Atlanta.

      The winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the national championship game in seven of the past eight years. Alabama-Auburn was already one of the top rivalries in college football, but the recent history -- and these kind of national championship stakes -- has pushed it into another stratosphere.

      "The Iron Bowl is a tremendous rivalry game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

      "There's a lot of passion on both sides. Lots of people are interested in it. It's got lots of ramifications for this year. As a competitor, this is always a game that you look forward to having an opportunity to play in."

      Alabama holds a 45-35-1 advantage in the series and has won seven of the past nine matchups.

      "You've got the Iron Bowl, it's big," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

      "You add the Iron Bowl with the possibility of an SEC West championship, it feels like 2013. It feels exactly the same way. It's a big game and it means more."

      In 2013, Auburn used the infamous Kick Six game to defeat Alabama, thwarting the Crimson Tide's chance at three straight national championships.

      That season, the Tigers defeated Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, and then came a few seconds away from claiming the national championship in a tough loss to Florida State.

      Playing the top team in the country is nothing new for Auburn. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Tigers welcomed then-No. 1 Georgia into Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers blitzed the Bulldogs 40-17 in a game that wasn't that close.

      "We do have experience, playing the No. 1 team two weeks ago when we played our best game, and we're going to have to do that again," Malzahn said. "Our crowd was unbelievable the last time that we did this, and I expect it to be the same."

      Auburn comes in with an explosive offense.

      Running back Kerryon Johnson leads the SEC with 1,172 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns. Auburn, which ranks No. 4 in the SEC in rushing yards per game, almost always features a strong running game under Malzahn, who despite some of his spread principles, believes teams must be physical in the run game.

      This season, transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham has given the Tigers a downfield passing game they haven't enjoyed in a few years.

      Stidham, a sophomore, has thrown for 2,445 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, and he leads the SEC in completion percentage (67.8).

      "I think he's an outstanding player," Saban said.

      "I thought he was an outstanding player at the beginning of the season. Obviously being new in the system, he has, I think, improved and is very confident, very good decision-maker. ... He's playing as well as any quarterback we've played against. That's for sure."

      Auburn has been well over 200 yards rushing in seven of its last eight games, with the exception being a 189-yard effort in the loss to LSU. The Tigers have been over 300 yards four times, including last week with 317 against Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama has the No. 2 rush defense in the country, limiting foes to 87.4 yards per game.

      The Tide, of course, loves to run, too. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing yards (270.3 per game), yards per carry (6.03) and rushing touchdowns (35).

      Which team can run, stop the run and control the line of scrimmage?

      "The bigger the game, the more important that is," Malzahn said. "And obviously this is as big as it gets."

      Injuries could play a role.

      Alabama All-American safety Minkah Fitzpatrick sat out last week's game against Mercer because of a lingering hamstring issue. He was expected to practice through the week, Saban said Monday. Starting guard Ross Pierschbacher (ankle) hadn't been cleared as of Monday but was considered day-to-day.

      And Saban didn't totally rule out linebackers Terrell Lewis (elbow), Christian Miller (biceps) and Mack Wilson (foot).

      For Auburn, linebacker Tre' Williams suffered a shoulder injury last week and nickel-back Jeremiah Dinson was going through concussion protocol early in the week. Williams has dealt with shoulder issues since the second game of the season but still has 40 tackles in eight games, sixth-most on the team. Dinson has 42 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.

  • No. 16 Michigan State seeks to complete record reversal
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- In the words of head coach Mark Dantonio, No. 16 Michigan State has a chance to "flip it" when it meets Rutgers in the regular-season finale for both teams on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.

    • With a win, the Spartans (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) would mean a record reversal from last season, when Michigan State finished 3-9.

      "It's rewarding to flip it," Dantonio said.

      "Right now, we've flipped 3-8 to 8-3. It's rewarding to see that, to see there's something that all your hard work comes to fruition and all the things you talk about and go through as a group, you see that sort of move forward. I think that's exciting for any program at any point in time.

      "The expectations are there. Our players believed that they can flip this back. It's been 10 weeks since our bye week, so we've been going at it for 10 straight weeks, sort of grinding. But I think our football team is ready to play its final game. We're looking forward to it."

      A win over the Scarlet Knights (4-7, 3-5) would secure at least a tie for second place in the Big Ten East division and enhance Michigan State's bowl profile.

      Junior running back L.J. Scott moved into 12th place on Michigan State's career rushing yards list last week after collecting 147 yards on a career-high 29 carries in the win over Maryland. Scott has 2,424 rushing yards. He is tied for 13th in school history in rushing touchdowns (24) and is 14th in carries (494).

      The Michigan State offense doesn't look like much statistically, but the team has played four of its games in nasty weather, including during last week's 17-7 win over the Terrapins. The Spartans' backbone is defense, allowing only 109.2 yards per game on ground.

      "Michigan State is a very good team. They have done a great job this year. They have got good players, good coaches, playing with a lot of confidence right now," said Rutgers coach Chris Ash.

      "They play good defense, play good special teams, they run the ball well on offense. It's a very good formula for success, and they have been able to do it this year and get back on track to the way Michigan State has been playing for quite some time."

      The Scarlet Knights have three Big Ten victories this season (Illinois, Purdue, Maryland) to match the team-high for a campaign since joining the conference for the 2014 season. Rutgers posted an 0-9 conference season in 2016.

      "It's going to be a huge challenge, huge test and another great opportunity for us to go out and finish," Ash said.

      "We're still trying to get another Big Ten win. If we were to win this game, it would be four Big Ten wins. It hasn't happened since Rutgers has been in the Big Ten. Looking to build positive momentum going into the offseason, which is huge, also."

      Rutgers has progressed statistically in the national rankings in numerous categories, including sacks allowed (an improvement of 79 spots), net punting (plus 78), passes interceptions (plus 66), rushing defense (plus 46), third down defense (plus 34) and turnover margin (plus 20).

      The team also has improved its point differential by nearly two touchdowns (13.5 points per game).

      The main issue has been at quarterback. The Scarlet Knights have used two starting quarterbacks, with senior Kyle Bolin making five starts in playing in seven games, passing for 711 yards with six interceptions and three touchdowns.

      Gio Rescigno has played in eight games with six starts and is 47 of 97 for 517 yards. Freshman Jonathan Lewis hasn't started but has played in six games, with 8-of-22 passing for 69 yards.

      Senior running back Gus Edwards leads the Rutgers rushing attack with 160 carries for 703 yards, with six touchdowns.

      "The quarterback situation is the same," Ash said. "The last couple weeks, we have had conversations about the quarterback position a lot. We'll go through the week and evaluate it, and we'll play the person that gives us the best chance to win.

      "And if that's Johnathan, great; if it's Gio, someone else, whatever, but we'll manage that through the week, evaluate that through the week, and make a decision later on who gives us the best chance to go out and play our best game."

      The Spartans lead the series, 5-3, including a 3-0 mark in Big Ten play.

  • No. 19 Oklahoma State looks for positive ending
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State and Kansas meet Saturday amid disappointment.

    • For the No. 19 Cowboys (8-3, 5-3 Big 12), there is lingering disappointment from last week's 45-40 loss to Kansas State that knocked them out of contention for the conference title game and a big bowl.

      For the Jayhawks (1-10, 0-8), the disappointment is ongoing, extending weekly with a losing streak that has stretched to 10 games. Making matters worse, Kansas coach David Beaty finds himself needing to apologize -- not for the mounting losses, but for his players' behavior after the team captains opted not to shake hands at the coin toss before last week's loss to Oklahoma.

      "First of all, that was totally unacceptable," Beaty said Monday. "I've had a conversation with (Oklahoma coach) Lincoln Riley, and I've apologized on behalf of myself and our team.

      "I want to apologize really to our stakeholders, our Jayhawk fans, Jayhawks currently and all of the ones before us, because it means more to be a Jayhawk. That was a situation where we needed to make a better decision."

      Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy isn't so much apologizing but lamenting his team's slow start in the loss to Kansas State -- a trend for the Cowboys in three home losses that left them unable to post a winning record at Boone Pickens Stadium for the first time since 2005.

      The Cowboys trailed the Wildcats 42-13 before rallying late, even getting the ball with a chance to win with more than two minutes to play.

      "For whatever reason, I can't figure out what I'm doing or not doing that keeps us from showing up in the first half of our home games," Gundy said. "We all need to look at ourselves and figure out what's going on."

      The start Saturday wouldn't project to be a problem for the Cowboys, who opened as a 40-point favorite over Kansas. It will be Senior Day, too, with a positive sendoff expected from fans getting one final chance to offer their appreciation to stars such as quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington.

      Oklahoma State has won seven straight in the series and 12 of the past 13. The numbers suggest a one-sided matchup this year, too:

      --The Cowboys rank No. 1 nationally in passing; the Jayhawks are No. 121 in passing yards allowed.

      --Oklahoma State is No. 2 in total offense; Kansas is No. 111 in total defense.

      --The Cowboys are No. 2 in scoring; the Jayhawks No. 127 in scoring defense.

      --The Kansas offense ranks No. 110 or worse in rushing, scoring and total offense. Oh, and the Jayhawks are No. 126 in turnover margin.

      "Yeah, they're good," Beaty said about Oklahoma State. "They're big, but they're fast and they're talented. Yeah, they've got a good football team, man. Really, really good football team.

      "I think a lot of it to me that sticks out is those guys, they've got a lot of experience."

      Beaty, in his third season as Kansas coach, yearns for experience as he continues a massive rebuild of the program. While the Jayhawks haven't won since the season opener, he finds positives in what they are doing.

      "Resiliency is the thing that sticks out to me, because they continue to come out each week and they practice as hard as any team I've ever had," Beaty said. "They continue to work towards developing, and they block out distractions, and they continue to see the vision, and they continue to march towards it."

      The Cowboys are seeking their own version of resiliency.

      Oklahoma State's major goals, a Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff, are unattainable. For a veteran team with a collection of playmakers, this season always will carry some level of disappointment.

      "Yes, this was a special group," Gundy said. "Does that part eat on me that they couldn't get to whatever their ultimate goal was? Yes, it does. But life is full of events that make us feel not so good about things, which is why we believe in systems and things that say, 'Let's keep rolling.'

      "Until you can't draw another breath, you have a chance."

      The Cowboys still have a chance at 10 wins and a good bowl destination. And the seniors get one more chance to play before the home crowd.

      "I'm really happy about the time I've had here at Oklahoma State," senior linebacker Chad Whitener said. "Finishing out the right way is how I want to go out."

  • No. 5 Wisconsin has Axe to grind with Minnesota
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    MINNEAPOLIS -- With one game left in the regular season, No. 5 Wisconsin has its eyes on competing in the college football playoffs.

    • The Badgers (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) were No. 5 in the latest rankings from the selection committee and have Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) left Saturday to finish the regular season before a Big Ten title game appearance against No. 9 Ohio State.

      With everything ahead of it, Wisconsin still has one focus this weekend in Minnesota: Holding on to Paul Bunyan's Axe.

      The Badgers have done a lot of chopping in recent years. They've won the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual Wisconsin-Gophers game for the past 13 years, the longest streak for either time in the long-time rivalry.

      "The Axe is, in my opinion, our true rivalry," Badgers senior tight end Troy Fumagalli told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's always fun. We always get Minnesota's best game. The last couple years we were down early. We know it's going to be a dogfight."

      Much is at stake for both teams, but the axe will be a big prize.

      Saturday will be the 127th meeting, the most-played rivalry in the FBS. The rivalry dates to 1890 with the axe introduced in 1948. While the overall series is tied 59-59-8, the Badgers hold a 42-24-3 edge since the teams started playing for the axe.

      Wisconsin has won 20 of the past 22 meetings.

      "It is kind of surreal that we haven't won in that long of a time," Gophers senior cornerback Adekunle Ayinde said Tuesday. "But just the opportunity to play, and play such a good team, and have the opportunity to possibly beat them and what it can do for Minnesota and what it can do for this team's culture is just big."

      A win could keep the Badgers -- 11-0 for the first time in school history -- on pace to possibly compete in the playoffs. Alabama, Miami, Clemson and Oklahoma are ahead of Wisconsin in the rankings, but Miami and Clemson will play each other in the ACC Championship Game, possibly opening a chance for the Badgers to jump to the top four and into a playoff spot.

      Still, Wisconsin wants to win for the sake of the rivalry. It could lead the series for the first time.

      "We know the history," junior linebacker T.J. Edwards told the Journal Sentinel. "It is going to be fun. I think guys came out with a huge edge and ready to just get up there and play. I wish it was Saturday already."

      The Badgers are familiar with Minnesota and first-year coach P.J. Fleck, who guided Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl last year before losing to Wisconsin 24-16.

      "I think you definitely see his effect and his input," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. "It looks like it's a group that's playing with energy, and they're well-coached with good, challenging schemes."

      The Gophers need more than the axe. A win would make them bowl eligible in Fleck's first season.

      There's an outside chance of Minnesota still qualifying for a bowl with five wins, but the prospects are looking gloomy as the season progressed. If there aren't enough six-win teams to fill the bowls, the NCAA will use the Academic Progress Rate of five-win teams to fill any spots.

      The Gophers are third in APR behind Air Force (4-7) and Duke (5-6).

      "You don't really have to talk too much to get (the rivalry), but there are a lot of other things that are on the line in terms of us and bowl eligibility still," Fleck said Tuesday.

      "But beating a team that's undefeated, and then also the battle for the axe ... I don't think I have to inform everybody on that. And then to have the ability to stop somebody's run to make it to the playoffs. So there is a lot."

      Minnesota could be short-handed against Wisconsin's stout defense. The Badgers lead the nation in run defense (allowing 79.4 yards per game) and are No. 2 in total defense (246.4) and scoring defense (13.1 points per game).

      The Gophers will be without leading receiver Tyler Johnson because of a broken hand, Fleck told KFXN-FM in Minnesota. Fleck also isn't sure about the availability of two starters on the offensive line in left guard Garrison Wright and center Conner Olson. Jared Weyler, who was the top enter to start the season, is already out.

      Fleck might have to turn to Quinn Oseland at guard and Bronson Dovich at center.

      "We're doing everything we can with Conner to get healthy, and Garrison," Fleck said. "We'll see what happens. If not, then, yes, those are the guys that will be playing."

  • CFP thoughts: Significant change in top 4
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    There was just one change in the top 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday, but it might be significant.

    • Miami (10-0) moved from No. 3 to No. 2, switching spots with Clemson and thereby strengthening the ACC's odds of getting two teams in the four-team playoff. The Hurricanes and Tigers will meet in the ACC title game.

      When Clemson (10-1) was No. 2, it would have been easier for the selection committee to drop Miami from third to out of the playoff picture. But now the committee is on record as valuing the Hurricanes' resume above all others except Alabama, making it a more difficult decision to omit a one-loss Miami team from the playoff ... assuming it at least plays a competitive game against the Tigers.

      If nothing else, Miami now has a larger margin of error, which could be problematic for a team trying to come from back in the pack -- such as No. 9 Ohio State.

      Selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said there was little separation among the top five teams.

      "We talked about a Miami team that has shown progress, really strengthened their resume in the last three weeks," Hocutt said. "The selection committee, as we talk about what we see on the field, we see characteristics of a championship-caliber team. ...

      "They have the ever-slight margin ahead of No. 3 Clemson."

      The committee did get that right.

      Three other thoughts about the fourth weekly release of the CFP rankings:

      1. Ohio State still has a path to the playoff.

      Here's one scenario. Alabama, Miami and Oklahoma win out. In that scenario, No. 3 Clemson, No. 6 Auburn and No. 7 Georgia will each have an additional loss. See ya.

      The Buckeyes can take care of No. 5 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. That only leaves one more team for Ohio State to jump: No. 8 Notre Dame. The 9-2 Irish finish Saturday at No. 21 Stanford, which would be a nice topper, but an Ohio State team that wins this week at Michigan and finishes with a Big Ten title will have no problem making that particular leapfrog over the Irish.

      But, of course, Ohio State needs so many other dominoes to fall into place.

      2. Alabama wins Saturday and is in.

      If the top-ranked Crimson Tide takes down Auburn in the Iron Bowl, it will absolutely be in the playoff, no matter what else happens, assuming Alabama doesn't have a nuclear meltdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.

      And when is the last time a Nick Saban-coached team had a nuclear meltdown? Exactly.

      3. Everybody is rooting for Alabama.

      If the above thought is true -- and we just don't see the selection committee having the brass to bring down the axe on a one-loss Crimson Tide -- then it's more chaos.

      Consider this scenario: Georgia, Clemson and Oklahoma win out and are one-loss league champs. If Alabama fills that fourth spot, then Miami and even a potentially undefeated Wisconsin are left out. Ugh.

      No conference has yet to place two teams into the CFP final four, but the ACC and the SEC are inching to that happening.

  • No. 18 Tigers roar into clash with Texas A&M
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    BATON ROUGE, La. -- After LSU lost to Troy on Sept. 30 to fall to 3-2 on the season, Tigers fans pretty much abandoned any hope they could salvage a decent season.

    • Seven weeks later, the No. 18 Tigers are sitting at 8-3 and need a victory Saturday over Texas A&M at Tiger Stadium to put squarely into play an attractive bowl bid and a 10-win season, which would be an amazing resume-builder for coach Ed Orgeron.

      But first, LSU must not look past the Aggies (7-4, 4-3 SEC), who despite back-to-back wins must deal with speculation that coach Kevin Sumlin, after six seasons at College Station, is in the crosshairs of the program's big-time boosters.

      Reports are swirling that Sumlin may be fired after the LSU game.

      Asked Tuesday if he felt he would return as the Texas A&M coach next season, Sumlin replied: "Why wouldn't I?"

      Texas A&M went 11-2 in Sumlin's first season (2012), but the Aggies dipped to 9-4 in 2013 and then posted three consecutive 8-5 seasons. A loss to LSU would guarantee a fourth straight five-loss season.

      "I came here to Texas A&M to win football games," Sumlin said. "What we do and how we've done it has been the right way. It will continue to be the right way."

      When Sumlin was told about rumors he would be fired as coach after Saturday's game, he replied: "I haven't heard that."

      Making it tougher for Sumlin is LSU's recent track record against the Aggies. LSU has beaten Texas A&M six straight times, including the last five when the Aggies were a member of the SEC.

      Texas A&M has a $9.8 billion endowment and aggressively put $500 million into upgrades of Kyle Field to compete with the powers of the SEC, so there is little doubt it is a serious player in the college football arms race. The Aggies are believed to be looking seriously at Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher if Sumlin is fired.

      LSU coach Ed Orgeron, meanwhile, has at least temporarily put the hounds at bay by winning five of his last six games, a streak that has coincided with the return to form of tailback Derrius Guice and pass-rush specialist Arden Key.

      Key is questionable to play against the Aggies because of a sore knee, but Guice has been healthy for the last month, and his play has reflected that. Orgeron said he expects Guice and Key -- both juniors -- to enter the NFL draft next year because they are certain first-round picks.

      "They haven't talked about it," Orgeron said. "I'm going to assume they're going to go out just like everybody else."

      Key missed LSU's entire spring practice for undisclosed reasons and then had surgery on his shoulder, which caused him to miss the first two games of the season. Key was overweight when he returned and did not regain his form until the Auburn game Oct. 14. He has since lost 20 pounds and is playing at 250 pounds.

      Key has recorded 33 tackles and four sacks in his eight starts. Orgeron has never identified Key's offseason challenges except to say they were "personal problems."

      "We gave him some help, got it fixed, and I was proud of him," Orgeron said. "And now, he's playing his best football."

      Key is still listed as questionable against the Aggies.

      Orgeron revealed that Guice, who got off to a slow start, suffered a knee injury in a preseason scrimmage on a play in which he tried to leap a defender. He said Guice did not get back to 100 percent until an Oct. 21 game against Ole Miss in which he shredded the Rebels' defense for 276 rushing yards.

      "He's been playing fantastic ball ever since," Orgeron said.

      Guice's career rushing average of 6.75 surpasses Bo Jackson (6.62) for the highest in SEC history.

      "Derrius is always around my office," Orgeron said. "He's a member of our family. He's an energetic guy, and he just wants to be loved just like everybody else. He's a different guy off the field than on the field."

      Under former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Aggies are the best pass-rushing team in the SEC, with a league-high 36 sacks.

      "They are extremely talented up front and get after the quarterback and get pressure with their down four guys," LSU quarterback Danny Etling said. "Those are things you have to challenge yourself to be ready for. They've got a talented defense and a good coach."

  • College football notebook: Not much change in CFP rankings
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    The College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday had only subtle changes from the previous week, but it is like the calm before the storm with a number of pivotal games coming up that can alter the picture considerably.

    • The top four this week were the same as the top four last week, with Miami and Clemson merely swapping spots. Alabama (11-0) is again No. 1, but the Hurricanes (10-0) moved up from No. 3 to No. 2, displacing Clemson (10-1), which dropped to No. 3.

      Holding the fourth spot again is Oklahoma (10-1), just ahead of No. 5 Wisconsin (11-0) and No. 6 Auburn (7-2).

      The only change among the top 12 teams from last week was the swapping of positions by Miami and Clemson.

      Georgia (10-1) is No. 7, Notre Dame (9-2) is No. 8, Ohio State (9-2) is No. 9, and Penn State rounds out the top 10.

      These rankings don't matter until the final CFP rankings are released Dec. 3. At that time, the four teams that will be involved in the national championship playoff as well as the semifinal matchups will be announced.

      --Former Tennessee State defensive end Latrelle Lee has been charged with a felony after punching an assistant coach during a game against Southeast Missouri State.

      Lee was charged with one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury for the Nov. 11 incident, according to Davidson County (Tenn.) court records. The 22-year-old Lee was arrested on Monday and released after posting a $7,500 bond.

      Lee was kicked off the team and expelled from the university after twice punching Tennessee State strength and conditioning coach T.J. Greenstone in the head.

      --Duke safety Jeremy McDuffie will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

      McDuffie is scheduled to have surgery on Monday to repair ligament damage in his right knee sustained during the Blue Devils' 43-20 victory over Georgia Tech last week.

  • Victory in Apple Cup critical for Washington State
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    It has been assumed all season long that the Apple Cup was going to carry heavy meaning this year.

    • In fact it does. Just not for the program that was part of last season's College Football Playoff.

      A spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game is on the line for No. 13 Washington State when it visits No. 17 Washington in Seattle on Saturday.

      A victory over the Huskies will allow the Cougars (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) to win the Pac-12 North Division for the first time. If Washington prevails, Stanford will be the North division's representative against South winner USC.

      Washington State coach Mike Leach is well aware of the ramifications but downplayed the fact that any extra motivation is at work.

      "You do your best all the time, so there really hasn't been any holding back, effort, focus with regard to our team," Leach said at a press conference. "So it's not like there's some extra private reserve in the cellar of the bank that we are able to draw from because all the sudden, this is a game that gets a lot of attention around here."

      The Huskies (9-2, 6-2) were the team that was supposed to be the big player in the North. Losses to Arizona State and Stanford took care of their title aspirations -- both in the Pac-12 and in terms of returning to the CFP.

      That has led to the Huskies' season to be viewed as mildly disappointing and that doesn't sit well with Washington coach Chris Petersen.

      "People don't know how difficult 9-2 is. They don't know. It is hard," Petersen said at a press conference. "I don't know if it's the College Football Playoffs, but it's just expectations. That's one of the hard things in this whole thing is just managing expectations.

      "I say it a million times: Nobody has higher expectations for us than us."

      The Huskies have controlled the Apple Cup of late with seven victories in the past eight meetings.

      And spoiling Washington State's title-game hopes and being able to record a second straight 10-win season sounds good to Washington junior quarterback Jake Browning.

      "Rivalry games are huge and we always want to beat WSU," Browning said. "Having a 10-win season is pretty cool. I don't care what game we're playing for, I want to win regardless."

      Browning became Washington's career leader with 77 touchdown passes when he tossed two in last Saturday's 33-30 win over Utah, but his numbers -- 2,451 yards, 18 touchdowns, five interceptions -- pale in comparison to those of counterpart Luke Falk.

      The Washington State gunslinger has passed for 3,224 yards and 29 touchdowns against 10 interceptions this season and holds school and Pac-12 records for career passing yardage (14,117) and passing touchdowns (118).

      Falk, a senior, also has 29 300-yard passing performances -- including topping 400 on 11 occasions -- and 23 games of three or more touchdowns passes.

      "Of course Luke Falk has been in that system forever," Petersen said. "I mean, is he ever going to graduate? He's been there forever. He knows that system inside and out.

      "I think he looks better. He looks more comfortable. He has a great feel for when the rush is coming, he'll get it out and when it's not, he'll hang onto the ball and let his guys work. There's a reason that they are where they are right now and what they're playing for."

      Junior receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (65 receptions for 759 yards and nine touchdowns), sophomore running back James Williams (59 for 383 with three scores) and sophomore wideout Isaiah Johnson-Mack (57 for 530, five TDs) all have caught more than 50 passes for an attack averaging 33 points per game.

      Reaching their average could be challenging for the Cougars as the Huskies have been sturdy on the defensive side all season.

      Washington ranks fourth nationally in total defense (271.3 yards per game), fifth in scoring defense (14.5) and eighth in passing defense (168.4). The Huskies' secondary was bolstered by the return of redshirt freshman cornerback Brandon Murphy for the Utah game after he missed the previous seven contests with a broken foot.

      The Cougars can also play a little defense as they rank 11th nationally by giving up 303.8 yards per game. Washington State ranks second in the country with 94 tackles for losses.

      Standout defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa has racked up 21.5 of those stops behind the line, third-best in the country. The junior has 41 tackles and 9.5 sacks as the headliner of the unit.

      The Huskies also have an elite player to boast about in senior Dante Pettis, who has returned four punts for touchdowns this season and holds the NCAA career mark of nine.

      "He's a real quick guy," Leach said. "The other thing about him is he's always fired up to get the ball, fired up to take off with it and that type of thing."

      The first Apple Cup was played in 1900 -- and finished in a 5-5 tie.

  • No. 10 Penn State tries to add to Maryland's woes
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Penn State and Maryland don't share much other than a border and a coach that could have been the head man at one school, but wound up at the other.

    • That coach would be James Franklin, who has guided No. 10 Penn State (9-2, 6-2) to another great season after winning the Big Ten in 2016. But back in 2010, he was in his second stint as a Maryland assistant and was named the "coach in waiting" behind Ralph Friedgen.

      Then the Maryland athletic leadership changed, Friedgen was fired and Franklin wasn't hired, moving on to a head coaching job at Vanderbilt. And now he's back for the first time at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium, looking to put the nail in the Terrapin's 2017 season.

      Penn State is headed in the other direction, ascending to a bowl game for the fourth straight season under Franklin and drawing admiration from all over.

      "I think everyone in the country knows, (they're an) extremely talented team," said Maryland coach DJ Durkin.

      "Offensively speaking, I think they have probably the best player in the country in the backfield, as well as their quarterback does a phenomenal job for them of getting the ball down the field, a lot of big plays and keeping plays alive, scrambling. He can beat you running and throwing."

      Meanwhile, a 17-7 loss at No. 17 Michigan State last Saturday dropped Maryland to 4-7 overall, 2-6 in the Big Ten, eliminating the Terrapins from bowl consideration. Penn State will be the third straight nationally-ranked opponent for Maryland, which has already lost three in a row and six of the last seven games.

      "We've gone through some extraordinary circumstances this year and I think it's important our guys know this and realize as a program, that we're here to win, and win the conference," said Durkin.

      "I really think that we're putting the right pieces together to be able to do that moving forward. We've had our share of adversity this year, I think in some ways we've handled it well, in some ways we haven't. All of that is something we can learn from and grow from moving forward."

      That adversity includes losing starting quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome in the season-opening upset at No. 23 Texas, and then losing backup Kasim Hill two weeks later. The Terrapins had one touchdown and 204 total yards at Michigan State last week with sophomore Max Bortenschlager making his eighth start. He began the year fourth on the depth chart.

      Penn State rolled up 609 yards in beating Nebraska 56-44 last Saturday. Quarterback Trace McSorley, the Big Ten leader in total offense, had 325 yards and three touchdowns passing. Saquon Barkley, a Doak Walker Award semifinalist and probably the most versatile running back in the nation, had 224 yards from scrimmage and rushed for three scores.

      "We rushed for 263 yards, zero turnovers, which I'm really proud of as a coach," Franklin said. "The weather conditions weren't great. Not putting the ball on the ground at all, not making any poor decisions with the ball, I was really proud of that."

      There's a lot to be proud of at Penn State, including an amazing 37-2-1 all-time record against Maryland in a series that was stopped after the Nittany Lions' 70-7 road victory in 1993. The programs wouldn't meet again until 2014, when Maryland claimed its second win ever in the series, 20-19, in the first Big Ten game between the schools.

      Since then, it has been 31-30 Penn State in a game in Baltimore, and last year's 38-14 home win for the Nittany Lions. Maryland desperately wants this to become a big rivalry, but historically, the Terrapins haven't held up their end.

      Now, with no postseason this year after going to the Quick Lane Bowl in Durkin's first season, this is the Terrapins' last chance to make a statement in 2017.

      "You want to win every game," said senior linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr., about this contest's meaning. "You don't want to just point out one game. We're going to go out here and play. It's not going to be different than any other week. We're going out and expect to win."

  • Memphis playing for something vs. East Carolina
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    Memphis, ranked No. 20 in the latest CFP rankings, has already locked up a berth in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, but the Tigers still have something to play for when they host East Carolina on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

    • With a loss by Central Florida to South Florida, Memphis would host the conference championship game next week. Otherwise, the Tigers would head to Orlando, Fla., for a second crack at the undefeated Knights.

      "We've talked a lot about the focus that it takes to get to this point, to not get caught up by any distraction, by any outside influence, to control what we can control," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. "And our guys have done a great job of that."

      East Carolina (3-8) arrives in Memphis riding the momentum of its best win of year. Quarterback Gardner Minshew threw for a career-high 444 yards and four touchdowns, and Trevor Brown had a school-record 270 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the Pirates' 48-20 win over Cincinnati last week.

      "I can see our level of play catching up and getting to the level of some of our other conference opponents, but this is one of the highest levels and it's good that we have this test at the end of the year," ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said.

      "Our guys are fired up for it. We've got a quarterback playing well, some of our young receivers playing really well, our offensive line is starting to play a little bit better and our running back game is changing and getting better."

      Minshew, a junior, moved into the starting role to start November and has passed for more than 400 yards in two of his three starts. Brown has been his primary target. Brown is averaging nine receptions and 161 yards in his last three games with Minshew as the starter.

      "We have another explosive opponent that's going to come into the Liberty Bowl on Senior Day, and it provides our football team with an opportunity to attempt to get our 10th win," Norvell said of ECU.

      "That's a big milestone for our program. We also have the opportunity to go undefeated at the Liberty Bowl this year, which is something that's big. But it's also a day to celebrate the seniors. This is the winningest senior class in Memphis Tigers history, and they love playing at home, they love being able to represent this great community, and they're looking forward to the one more guaranteed opportunity that we have here in front of us.

      "Just like every week," Norvell added, "our message has not changed, we've got to continue to progress. We know that we've earned one more game, one more opportunity, but for us to accomplish all of the things that we need to do, we have to get better today. We've got to continue to progress and prepare at the highest level here this week, and we've got to come out and play our best game Saturday."

      The Pirates' offense will need to have another big game to keep up with a Memphis attack averaging 42.0 points per game. Quarterback Riley Ferguson has completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 3,201 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

      In rainy, windy conditions, Ferguson passed for 320 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Darrell Henderson rushed for 147 yards two scores to help Memphis pull away from SMU last week. The win clinched the American West Division for the Tigers, who racked up 664 total yards against the Mustangs.

      "Memphis is a very, very talented football team that's also coached well," Montgomery said. "We've been against speed before and this team is a fast team as well. This is probably the most skilled football team."

      Saturday's game will be the first meeting between Memphis and East Carolina since 2012. The Pirates have won the last seven games against the Tigers but will be heavy underdogs on Saturday.

      "This is a football team that has played well, played with skill and will continue to get better," Montgomery said of the Tigers. "This is a team that you look at and from a skill standpoint, you have to get to this level to be able to compete for championships in this league and they've done a really, really good job at it."

  • No. 3 Clemson must be wary of rival South Carolina
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    When Clemson's Dabo Swinney won his first game as Clemson's interim head coach against Boston College midway through the 2008 season, he was thinking only of earning win No. 2.

    • But less than 10 years later, Swinney has a chance to earn his 100th career victory when his No. 3 Tigers (10-1) face No. 24 South Carolina on Saturday night in the regular-season finale for both teams in Columbia.

      "It's a credit to the staff and players that we've had come through here," Swinney said. "We've had a lot of success, obviously."

      A victory against the Gamecocks (8-3) would make Swinney only the fourth coach to win 100 games in his first 10 years, joining a select group that includes Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Chris Peterson.

      Despite the success, Swinney is 4-5 against South Carolina.

      "We haven't done as good of a job with that goal," Swinney said. "But I just want to win the game (Saturday). I don't care if it's the 104th win or the fourth win. We want to keep moving forward."

      Winning the Palmetto Bowl ranks high on Swinney's list of priorities, and the significance of the state championship game isn't lost on the Tigers' coach.

      "We've got the season," Swinney said. "And then we've got South Carolina."

      Swinney, an Alabama native and former player for the Crimson Tide, is well aware of the intensity of rivalry week.

      "I lived in Alabama for 33 years and there's zero difference in this state -- year-round, that's all people talk about, it's just different logos," Swinney said. "It's the same type of intensity and emotion.

      "It didn't take me long to figure out that this rivalry was just as intense. In March of 2003, when I went on the road recruiting for the first time (for Clemson), I quickly figured it out. Everywhere I went people were either happy to see me or they looked at me like I had a big wart on my nose."

      South Carolina lost last year's game at Clemson, 56-7, but the Gamecocks were a 6-6 team under first-year coach Will Muschamp. This year, South Carolina has reversed its fortune, building an 8-3 record by winning five of its last six games.

      "We're a deeper football team," Muschamp said. "We have more depth. We're an older football team. This football team competes. That's one thing when you turn the tape on, you will see great effort."

      Swinney has seen as much.

      "He's done a great job," Swinney said. "They weren't very good when he got there and the first year he took them to a bowl game and this year they're 8-3. They've got bigger goals and he's made good progress."

      The Gamecocks rely on a solid run defense to keep games close, then hope that sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley can make plays.

      "He's a very good player, a great competitor," Swinney said. "He's got some craftiness to him. Time and again on tape you think he's sacked and somehow he breaks free. And when he scrambles, he finds guys. He's got a nice arm."

      Swinney also cited the Gamecocks' improved offensive line play -- "that's why they're 8-3," Swinney said -- and emphasized that his team must keep close tabs on tight end Hayden Hurst.

      "He can play at the next level," Swinney said "He's a multi-dimensional player."

      Protecting Bentley will be job No. 1 for the Gamecocks.

      Clemson boasts a deep and talented defense that ranks second nationally in sacks, third in scoring defense, sixth in tackles for loss and seventh in total defense.

      "Those guys are very disruptive in the run and pass game," Muschamp said. "We have to negate the front and block those guys; that's the bottom line. That's going to be the key to the game for us offensively.

      "You don't want to get into a one-dimensional game with this group. They do a really good job of pressuring the quarterback, and if they know you're going to be in a throw situation the entire game, it's going to be a long day. You've got to stay balanced."

      South Carolina must contend with a diverse Clemson offense that once again ranks among the best in the nation despite losing quarterback Deshaun Watson and several other offensive stars off last season's national championship team.

      Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant makes the Tigers go, and he's blessed with a multitude of weapons, including receivers Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud, and big-play running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster.

      "Kelly Bryant has been outstanding," Muschamp said. "He has 154 carries, not all designed quarterback runs. He creates a lot of issues for you in off-rhythm plays. He's had 300 attempts and he's completed 66 percent of his passes. He really plays good football."

      Both teams are playing good football, which has heightened anticipation for this showdown. Clemson, which already has punched its ticket to face Miami in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 2, is on the cusp of its third consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff.

      South Carolina is playing for an attractive bowl bid and would love nothing more than to play spoiler to Clemson's national title hopes.

      "There's a lot of emotion tied to the game, but at the end of the day emotion's not going to win the game -- it's players making plays," Swinney said. "There's a little more juice in this game, there always is. But at the end of the day, the same thing that wins every other game will win this game."

  • No. 22 Northwestern faces overmatched Illinois
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    For Northwestern, it's a chance to wrap up the regular season with a seven-game winning streak and position itself for a nice bowl bid.

    • For Illinois, it is a chance to avoid a 10-loss season and go into the offseason with something positive.

      The in-state Big Ten Conference rivals meet Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., and the direction each is headed couldn't be more opposite.

      While the No. 22 Wildcats (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) are certainly playing their best football, the Fighting Illini (2-9, 0-8) have been wiped out by a perfect storm of injuries, inexperience and ineptitude. It all came together in the worst possible way last week at Ohio State, which won 52-14.

      At one point in the third quarter, the Illini had one first down to the Buckeyes' 24. A late surge offensively enabled Illinois to finish the rainy day with 105 total yards.

      "You want to see your team keep fighting," second-year Illini coach Lovie Smith said. "You want to see big steps, but we've taken small steps throughout. It all comes out to this game. There's one more, no tomorrow."

      Illinois hasn't scored more than 24 points in a game this year, largely because Smith has gone all-in and then some on a youth movement. The Illini have started 16 freshmen, including four at times on the offensive line, which many coaches believe is the toughest play for a frosh to step in and play right away.

      Mix in a revolving door at quarterback -- three different starters, four different players have taken snaps this year -- and injuries that have taken the team's top rushing and receiving threats out of the lineup, and what you have is an offense that does well to get first downs.

      The season's worth of evidence aside, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees growth in Illinois.

      "You see a lot of young talent, and you see a lot of seniors and older guys playing hard," Fitzgerald said. "There's just a lot of new faces out there every game. I thought they've have an opportunity to win games, they've just fallen on the short end."

      Smith is hopeful that he could get freshman Cam Thomas (ankle/head) and sophomore Jeff George, Jr. (hand) back at quarterback for the season finale. Chayce Crouch, who started the first four games before moving to tight end when it became apparent he couldn't throw the ball well enough to handle the position, had to move back under center last week at Ohio State.

      While the Illini are just trying to piece things together play-by-play to finish out a dreadful year, the Wildcats have found their identity. Offensively, they use the tough running of Justin Jackson to set up Clayton Thorsen's passing, and their defense revolves around stopping the run.

      In last week's 39-0 rout of Minnesota, Jackson pounded out 166 yards on 31 carries, enabling him to join Wisconsin's Ron Dayne as the only players in Big Ten history with four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Thorsen didn't throw much because of snowy conditions and the one-sided score, but was efficient, throwing for 86 yards and three touchdowns.

      Not to be outdone, the defense forced five turnovers and bagged six sacks while allowing the Golden Gophers a measly seven first downs and 182 total yards.

      "I think we dominated both sides of the line of scrimmages as well as we have maybe in any game in a long time," Fitzgerald said. "I thought that guys prepared the right way and then obviously started the game the way we needed to."

      Thorsen has completed 60.5 percent of his passes this year for 2,669 yards, spreading the wealth. Five players have caught between 32 and 42 balls for Northwestern, while three others have hauled in at least 10 passes.

      The Wildcats are yielding just over 112 yards per game on the ground. Illinois is barely gaining more than 100 per game, and that's only gone downhill as the team has lost confidence and manpower. The season-ending injury in early October to freshman Mike Epstein has affected the Illini's ability to sustain drives.

      But with just one game left and nothing to save, expect Illinois to save nothing. That could be an interesting X factor, especially if it can give itself the proverbial puncher's chance.

      "After last week's effort, we can't wait to get back on the football field," Smith said. "Northwestern week is here and we can't wait to play."

  • Just subtle changes in latest CFP rankings
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    The College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday had only subtle changes from the previous week, but it is like the calm before the storm with a number of pivotal games coming up that can alter the picture considerably.

    • The top four this week were the same as the top four last week, with Miami and Clemson merely swapping spots. Alabama (11-0) is again No. 1, but the Hurricanes (10-0) moved up from No. 3 to No. 2, displacing Clemson (10-1), which dropped to No. 3.

      Holding the fourth spot again is Oklahoma (10-1), just ahead of No. 5 Wisconsin (11-0) and No. 6 Auburn (7-2).

      The only change among the top 12 teams from last week was the swapping of positions by Miami and Clemson.

      Georgia (10-1) is No. 7, Notre Dame (9-2) is No. 8, Ohio State (9-2) is No. 9, and Penn State rounds out the top 10.

      These rankings don't matter until the final CFP rankings are released Dec. 3. At that time, the four teams that will be involved in the national championship playoff as well as the semifinal matchups will be announced.

      A lot can happen between now and then because of the contests to be played the next two weeks.

      No. 1 Alabama plays a rivalry game on the road against No. 6 Auburn on Saturday, and the winner of that game will face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC title game on Dec. 2. Georgia, which plays Georgia Tech this Saturday, has already assured itself a berth in conference championship contest.

      Clemson faces South Carolina on Saturday, then plays Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference game the following Saturday. The Hurricanes have a game at Pittsburgh on Friday before facing Clemson.

      Oklahoma plays a dangerous West Virginia team on Saturday, then will play in the Big 12 title game the next Saturday, probably against No. 12 TCU, a team the Sooners beat 38-20 two weeks ago.

      No. 5 Wisconsin faces Minnesota this Saturday, then will play No. 9 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game the following Saturday.

      The only major conference that seems to be out of the playoff picture is the Pac-12. USC, at No. 11, is the top ranked Pac-12 team, and the Trojans will play either No. 13 Washington State or No. 21 Stanford in the Dec. 1 Pac-12 title game.

  • Backup QBs at forefront of Oklahoma-West Virginia matchup
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    NORMAN, Okla. -- At one point not long ago, the game between No. 4 Oklahoma and West Virginia would have featured one of the best quarterback matchups in college football.

    • But the matchup won't be between Baker Mayfield and Will Grier.

      Instead, Oklahoma (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) will start Kyler Murray at quarterback after Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy favorite, was stripped of his captaincy for the game and benched for the start of the contest following last week's crotch-grabbing, profanity-laced tirade directed toward the Kansas sideline.

      The Mountaineers (7-4, 5-3) will start Chris Chugunov at quarterback after Grier suffered a finger and hand injury diving for the pylon in last week's game against Texas.

      But while Mayfield will play -- Sooners coach Lincoln Riley wouldn't say how long Mayfield would sit -- Grier will not only miss the game but is unlikely to return for the Mountaineers' bowl game.

      Grier finishes the regular season having completed 250 of 388 passes for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.

      Chugunov hadn't seen game action since mid-September before coming on in relief of Grier against the Longhorns. He threw for 189 yards and a touchdown after Grier's first-quarter injury.

      West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said he wasn't worried about how Chugunov would perform in such a big spot.

      "He knows what to do," Holgorsen said. "He's been here for three years. He's smart. He's a 4.0 student. He's got a lot of reps through spring and camp. ... He's ready to go.

      "I was happy with the way he competed last week. It's just timing and reps."

      West Virginia will want to run the ball behind Justin Crawford, who averages 87.5 yards per game, third in the Big 12. Oklahoma's run defense has steadily improved in recent weeks, allowing an average of 140.0 yards per game. A big key to that has been the development of linemen Du'Vonta Lampkin and Amani Bledsoe as well as the continued improvement of middle linebacker Kenneth Murray.

      On the other side at quarterback, Murray has been in this kind of situation before.

      As a true freshman at Texas A&M in 2015, Murray started three games before the five-star recruit decided to transfer to Oklahoma.

      "It's not gonna be too much different," Murray said. "Just a different jersey."

      Murray said he wasn't sure how long he'd play, but that he wanted to make the most of his time before Mayfield retakes the reins of the offense.

      For his part, Mayfield said he'll do what he can to help Murray early in the game.

      "It's going to be tough for me because I always want to be that guy playing," Mayfield said. "But when it comes down to it, I want to win. That's the No. 1 thing for me.

      "I'm still going to be practicing. I'm still going to be out there with those guys. Whenever I go in or whatever situation it is, I need to be ready as well."

      Holgorsen said he didn't anticipate much difference in Oklahoma's offense under Murray. The Sooners lead the nation with 588.7 yards per game and are fifth in scoring with an average of 44.0 points. They have three receivers with 649 or more receiving yards.

      Oklahoma running back Rodney Anderson has rushed for 77 or more yards in each of Oklahoma's last five games after playing sparingly early in the season. Three more yards rushing by Trey Sermon would give the Sooners two running backs with 600 or more rushing yards.

      "Offensively, it's the most efficient team that I've seen in a long time," Holgorsen said. "The guy behind him (Mayfield) is every bit as good, if you can believe that. They won't change much regardless of who's in there."

      For Oklahoma, a berth in the College Football Playoff is on the line both this week and next week in the Big 12 title game.

      For West Virginia, there isn't quite as much riding on the game but the Mountaineers want positive momentum heading into bowl preparation.

      "This season changes drastically if we can go win this one," Holgorsen said. "No one expects us to win.

      "You get an opportunity to be able to play football this week against that team, you should be pretty jacked up about it. ...

      "What have we got to lose? Let's go play ball; let's have fun. Let's rally around Chugs. Let's play our tails off."

  • Georgia Tech stands in way of Georgia's playoff push
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    ATLANTA -- There's one big obstacle between Georgia and its opportunity to play in the College Football Playoffs -- rival Georgia Tech.

    • The No. 7 Bulldogs (10-1) must stay focused and beat Georgia Tech (5-5), which needs a victory to become bowl eligible. Kickoff for the 112th version of "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" will be at noon ET at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

      "Our focus and concentration is on playing the best football game," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "Our job is to go over there and get ready to play at noon, get after it and have the best possible plan we can put together to allow our players to be successful."

      A win by Georgia would be its 11th of the season, something that has happened only twice in the program's history. The last time came in 2012, when the Bulldogs won the SEC East and lost to Alabama in the conference championship game. They will play the Crimson Tide in this season's SEC title game.

      Georgia Tech won last year's rivalry game 28-27 in Athens. The Yellow Jackets have won the last two meetings in Athens, but haven't beaten the Bulldogs at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 1999. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is 3-6 against Georgia, but all three wins have come in Athens.

      "I think our kids are at home (in Atlanta), a lot of kids are from that area," Smart said. "Usually has something to do with the Xs and Ox and the players involved in the game."

      Georgia's offense is led by running backs Nick Chubb (1,045 yards) and Sony Michel (818 yards), two of the top three senior running backs in the country, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Michel ran for 170 yards and Chubb ran for 88 against the Yellow Jackets last year.

      "(Chubb) is physical and a big back," Johnson said. "They have several good running backs. I think Sony Michel is one of the best players in the country. He's kind of a jack-of-all-trades guy. But both those guys are good and they've got good receivers and tight ends. They've got a good football team."

      Georgia has thrived behind its big offensive line, one of seven semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given to the country's most outstanding line unit. Georgia's running game got back on the right track after the loss to Auburn, rushing for almost 400 yards last week against Kentucky, which pushed the Bulldogs' per-game average back up to 267.4 yards per game.

      True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has thrown for 1,766 yards and 17 touchdowns.

      Georgia Tech has two players who have topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark -- quarterback TaQuon Marshall (1,074 yards, 17 touchdowns) and B-back KirVonte Benson (1,009 yards, six touchdowns). The Yellow Jackets, known for their run-oriented offense, are even more one-sided than in the past. They have thrown for only 889 yards this season.

      Georgia ranks second in the SEC allowing 105.6 rushing yards per game, but this triple-option attack is something different. The Bulldogs' defense is led by linebacker Roquan Smith, a finalist for the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as the nation's best defender.

      He's not only one of the fastest linebackers in the SEC, but he gives Georgia physical presence at the position that it has lacked in the past two or three years.

      Georgia defensive tackle John Atkins said last season's loss to the Yellow Jackets still stings.

      "That's what a lot of guys came back for, losing to Tech last year. You don't want to lose to Tech our last year here," Atkins said. "We're not thinking about the SEC game. Tech's the next game."

      In the nine years that Johnson has been at Georgia Tech, only two games have been decided by more than eight points. Last year's game was decided in the final minutes and the games in 2013 and 2014 went into overtime.

      "Other than one year here, when they were really good, the games have been pretty close," Johnson said. "That's kind of indicative of a rivalry game. Both teams want to play and it's a big deal."

      Georgia Tech has an overall eight-game home winning streak heading into the game. A win would make the Jackets bowl eligible for the 20th time in the past 21 seasons.

  • Stanford (mostly) has mind on Notre Dame matchup
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    No. 21 Stanford will try to focus exclusively on No. 8 Notre Dame when the teams play at Stanford on Saturday. However, undivided attention might be impossible, because a game more important to the Cardinal's Pac-12 championship hopes will be taking place 800-plus miles away.

    • Yes, Stanford (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) will be facing Notre Dame (9-2) in a network-televised game between two ranked foes with Cardinal running back Bryce Love perhaps making his final statement for the Heisman Trophy -- if he plays.

      All that typically is enough to create tunnel vision, especially since it is the final regular-season game for both teams, with Stanford trying to finish the season unbeaten at home.

      But the Cardinal's conference title hopes rest with Saturday's game in Seattle between No. 13 Washington State and No. 17 Washington.

      If Washington wins, Stanford will advance to the Dec. 1 Pac-12 championship to face Pac-12 South champion USC in nearby Santa Clara, Calif. If Washington State beats the Huskies, the Cougars will represent to the Pac-12 North in the title game.

      Stanford's game and the Washington-Washington State game both start at 5 p.m. local time.

      "I'm sure we'll be scoreboard watching to a certain degree," Stanford coach David Shaw said after Saturday's 17-14 victory over California. "We can't worry about what happens on somebody else's field. Either we go to the Pac-12 championship game or we don't."

      The game at Stanford means more to the Irish. Although a spot in the College Football Playoff seems out of reach for Notre Dame, a victory Saturday would almost guarantee the Irish a berth in a New Year's Six Bowl.

      Even with Stanford's attention diverted, recent history suggests the Irish will have a tough time. They have lost six of the past eight games against the Cardinal and have not won at Stanford since 2007.

      Notre Dame is coming off its two worst performances of the season -- a 41-8 loss to Miami that took the Irish out of the CFP picture and a 24-17 home victory over Navy, which held a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter.

      In both games, quarterback Brandon Wimbush started slowly. He was 2 of 10 with two interceptions in the early going against Miami, and he completed just one of his first five passes against Navy. He became more accurate as the game wore on.

      "The ball is coming out of his hand better," Irish coach Brian Kelly said, "but he's got to start that way where he's tuned in immediately. So he's going through some mechanical adjustments that are getting better and better, and they showed themselves later in the game. But we've got to see those things happen right away."

      Wimbush will get running-game support from Josh Adams, who ranks 14th nationally in rushing yards per game at 121.5. But Wimbush might be without receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who is questionable for the game as he goes through concussion protocol.

      The more important injury issue belongs to Love. He has been bothered by ankle injuries for much of the second half of the season. He was at less than full strength against Cal, and had to be replaced in the fourth quarter.

      He will probably suit up against Notre Dame, but how much he plays and how effective he will be if he plays remain to be seen.

      Love still leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 172.3 while averaging 8.8 yards per carry.

      "He's extremely explosive," Kelly said. "Big-time player in the sense that he'll turn a 3-yard run into a 60-yard run; just explosiveness at that position, like probably no one else in the country."

      Love rushed for 101 yards against Cal and had his 11th run of 50 yards or more this season, the most in FBS history.

      "He was in a lot of pain, but once he gets up to 80 or 90 percent, whatever it was, nobody is going to catch him," Shaw said. "So much pride, so much determination."

      If Love can't play or Stanford's running game is neutralized, more pressure falls on redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello, who is expected to make his fourth straight start.

      Kelly was pleased with his team's run defense against Navy, even though the Midshipmen had the ball for 42:42 compared with just 17:18 for the Irish.

      Navy entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally in rushing (369.8 yards per game) and ninth in yards per carry (5.9), but Notre Dame limited the Midshipmen to 277 rushing yards and 3.8 yards per carry.

      "We've got to settle in better," Kelly said. "We finished very well, but getting off to a better start when you know you're limited with possessions. I think those are good takeaways for us moving into Stanford."

  • Ohio State faces Michigan hoping for playoff berth
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    As is usually the case, Ohio State-Michigan week will generate plenty of buzz around those who support and follow the Buckeyes and Wolverines the most.

    • However, this year's version of what many Ohio State and Michigan supporters call "The Game" certainly won't have the same buzz nationally.

      A year after the Buckeyes and Wolverines met as two of the nation's top three teams, playing for a spot in the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff, the stakes won't be as high when they clash at noon ET Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich.

      No. 9 Ohio State (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) still has plenty to play for since the Buckeyes have an outside shot at a playoff berth despite having two losses, a case that would be made stronger with a win at Michigan and a win next week over No. 5 Wisconsin in the already determined Big Ten Championship Game matchup in Indianapolis.

      The scenario is a lot different for Michigan.

      The Wolverines (8-3, 5-3) are out of any championship hunt, so finally beating a team with a winning record this season and the opportunity to ruin any playoff hopes for Ohio State will be the main motivating factors.

      Michigan also wants to restore some respectability to the rivalry, given that Ohio State has won five straight and 12 out of the last 13 meetings, none more painful than the 30-27 double-overtime loss in Columbus last year that robbed the Wolverines of playing for really big prizes.

      "It's our team's opportunity to put that exclamation point on the season," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.

      Even some of the most diehard Michigan fans know that is going to be a tall order.

      Ohio State has annihilated Michigan State and Illinois in the past two weeks, with a red-hot running game and senior quarterback J.T. Barrett leading the way.

      "That's the foundation of any good offense, the offensive line," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "We were blessed for 3-4 years of having the best in the Big Ten, and then we didn't. It was hard. It's hard to create plays when that group is not the strength of our team. Right now they are the strength of our team."

      The Buckeyes are fully motivated to impress the playoff selection committee, so they likely will have their foot on the gas pedal the entire game, even though their spot in the league title game is secured.

      And, of course, losing to Michigan in itself never sits well with folks in Columbus.

      "This rivalry is not a one-week deal," said Meyer, adding he and his staff prepare for Michigan week all the way back in spring practice. "It's in your blood and in your DNA."

      Quarterback play has been the eyesore for Michigan all season, and that position has plenty of uncertainty once again going into the game.

      Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, who led the team to wins over Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland, left last week's 24-10 loss at Wisconsin after reportedly being knocked unconscious in the third quarter. Peters was carted off the field, but tests ultimately came back negative and he flew home with the team.

      His status isn't clear for the game, and neither is the status of junior Wilton Speight, this season's original starter who hasn't played since suffering three fractured vertebrae against Purdue on Sept. 23.

      Speight was cleared to practice last week but wasn't cleared for contact, and as of Monday, Harbaugh wasn't sure Speight would be cleared for contact this week.

      If neither can play, Michigan will turn to senior John O'Korn, who relieved Speight against Purdue and started three games before being benched in favor of Peters in the first half against Rutgers on Oct. 28.

      Michigan does still have one of the nation's top defenses, and that unit will need to be at its best against Ohio State's high-powered offense.

      Running backs J.K. Dobbins (1,089 yards rushing) and now-healthy Mike Weber (100-yard outings in the past two games) have given Barrett plenty of help the past two weeks, and wide receiver Parris Campbell could be a difference-maker against Michigan with his big-play ability.

      Despite a disappointing season by Michigan's standards, Harbaugh insists there has been growth.

      "I really like seeing the progress being made," Harbaugh said. "I feel like our team has improved each week and it's already showing they can play to the level of anybody in the country."

  • No. 23 Boise State, Fresno State clash in first of two
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Back-to-back meetings occur routinely in Major League Baseball, sometimes in the NBA, but are quite rare in college football.

    • The Mountain West Conference game between No. 23 Boise State and Fresno State on Saturday at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif., is one such exception.

      Both the Broncos (9-2, 7-0) and Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1) clinched their respective divisions of the Mountain West with wins last Saturday. The two meet Dec. 2 for the conference championship as a result. This is the first such matchup of consecutive contests within the same season since UCLA and Stanford played on back-to-back weeks in 2012.

      "The matter of fact is we're going to play two games, and we'd like to win both games," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said in his press conference. "If we think like that, if we're iffy on, 'Hey, if we win one of the two, let's win the second,' we've completely derailed what we're trying to do with the season."

      One key difference then and in Saturday's Boise State-Fresno State encounter is that Stanford had already secured home-field advantage for the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game when it visited the Rose Bowl on the final week of the regular season. Hosting the Mountain West Championship Game could be at stake Saturday.

      The Mountain West determines home-field advantage via College Football Playoff committee and a computer composite, rather than straight head-to-head. A Fresno State victory would not ensure back-to-back games at home against Boise State, but the win could bolster the Bulldogs' standing in the rankings.

      Any temptation either Harsin or his counterpart, Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, might have to limit the use of their playbooks is mitigated. Past results bear the significance of home-field advantage: Prior to San Diego State's win at Wyoming last season, home teams went 3-0 since the inauguration of the Mountain West Championship in 2013.

      The first two champions were Fresno State and Boise State, both making their first appearances in the title game since 2014. Each program took a different path back to championship contend in the years since.

      Boise State was the media's preseason pick to win the Mountain division in both 2015 and 2016, but the Broncos stumbled in critical, late-season games each season. For Fresno State, a divisional title marks the culmination of a surprising, quick turnaround under first-year coach Tedford following a slide to the basement of the conference.

      Fresno State finished the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons with losing records, bottoming out a year ago at 1-11 with no wins against FBS competition.

      "I can't be prouder of this team, and I can't be happier for them," Tedford said in his post-game press conference, following the Bulldogs' 13-7 win Nov. 18 at Wyoming. "The turnaround that they've made, the belief and confidence, the hard work they've put in, the coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. It's a great feeling when all the hard work pays off."

      Along with the arrival of Tedford and a new staff, Fresno State gained a boost from quarterback Marcus McMaryion, a transfer from Oregon State. A product of nearby Dinuba, Calif., McMaryion passed for 11 touchdowns in two seasons at Oregon State, but was on a carousel with the starting quarterback job routinely changing.

      McMaryion settled in as leader of Fresno State's offense by the start of conference play on Sept. 30 against Nevada, replacing Chason Virgil. McMaryion threw 10 of his 12 touchdown passes since.

      "These are the moments I came home for," McMaryion said following the Wyoming win. "It's a blessing to be here and to share moments like this with these guys."

      The local quarterback leads Fresno State's effort to retain the Milk Can Trophy, awarded to winner of this rivalry series not played since 2014 due to divisional scheduling. The Bulldogs last claimed the Milk Can in 2013 when another local product, current Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, led a comeback in a 41-40 Fresno State win.

      The 2013 encounter was a classic in the vein of the 2001 meeting, which solidified the fledgling series as a rivalry. When both programs were members of the now football-defunct Big West Conference, Boise State stunned a Fresno State team with BCS championship aspirations, 35-30. The upset helped launch the national profile of Boise State football, replacing Fresno State as the region's preeminent non-power conference program.

      Saturday's meeting could have the makings of another classic, with Fresno State this time seeking to play the role of spoiler.

      "Fresno (State) has always been a very good football team historically," Harsin said. "They're playing well very, they're playing very confident, they have a defense that's No. 1 in the (Mountain West)."

      That defense, ranked No. 12 in the nation by allowing just 17.3 points per game, clashes with a Boise State offense putting up 34.8 points per game behind the dynamic pass-catch combination of quarterback Brett Rypien and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Rypien has 14 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. Wilson has made six scoring grabs and caught 58 passes total for 1,008 yards.

      The contrast should make for a competitive matchup -- whether in first edition or repeat.

  • Ex-Tenn. St. DE Lee charged for punching coach
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Former Tennessee State defensive end Latrelle Lee has been charged with a felony after punching an assistant coach during a game against Southeast Missouri State.

    • Lee was charged with one count of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury for the Nov. 11 incident, according to Davidson County (Tenn.) court records. The 22-year-old Lee was arrested on Monday and released after posting a $7,500 bond.

      Lee was kicked off the team and expelled from the university after twice punching Tennessee State strength and conditioning coach T.J. Greenstone in the head.

      "Once struck about the face by the defendant, the victim fell to the ground and was dazed and somewhat unconscious from the punches," according to an arrest affidavit obtained by The Tennessean. "The victim has subsequently been having medical difficulties as a result from the altercation."

  • Duke S McDuffie out for season with knee injury
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Duke safety Jeremy McDuffie will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury, the team announced Tuesday.

    • McDuffie is scheduled to have surgery on Monday to repair ligament damage in his right knee sustained during the Blue Devils' 43-20 victory over Georgia Tech last week.

      The surgery will be performed jointly by Dr. Annunziato Amendola and Dr. Claude T. Moorman of the Duke Sports Science Institute.

      The junior started all 11 games and recorded 58 tackles and three interceptions for Duke (5-6, 2-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), which finishes the regular season Saturday at Wake Forest.

  • UCF, USF play for AAC title-game berth
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Central Florida and South Florida have played eight times in what is billed as the "War on I-4" -- a reference to the interstate highway that links the schools' campuses in Orlando and Tampa, respectively -- but none had the impact or buildup that goes with this week's matchup.

    • The undefeated Knights (10-0, 7-0 American Athletic Conference) and once-beaten Bulls (9-1, 6-1 AAC) will play Friday afternoon in Orlando for a certain spot in the conference championship game against Memphis and a possible berth in a New Year's Six bowl game as the representative from the Group of Five conferences.

      The Knights were No. 15 in last week's College Football Playoff rankings ahead of Memphis at No. 21 and No. 25 Boise State of the Mountain West.

      USF did not make the Top 25 of the CFP rankings but was No. 22 in the media poll and No. 19 in the coaches' poll to UCF's 13/12, respectively. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the CFP rankings are the ones that matter, and a 28-24 loss to Houston on Oct. 28 knocked them out of that.

      Oh, yeah. These two teams do not exactly like each other. USF resisted even agreeing to the series that would have matched up the two young programs in the 1990s.

      The Bulls have dominated the series since it was initiated in 2005, winning the first four matchups and six of eight, with last year's victory adding to the rivalry's fire. The Bulls pushed across a late touchdown to expand a 10-point cushion to a 48-31 final after the Knights turned the ball over on downs in the final two minutes.

      UCF coach Scott Frost, who got the Knights into a bowl game last year after inheriting a winless team, clearly remembers that, but he said revenge won't be a factor this week.

      He seemed more upset by a scheduling quirk that has his team coming off a Saturday trip to Temple and going into a Friday afternoon game while the Bulls last played on Thursday night.

      "It's unfortunate the conference gave us a short week and gave them a couple extra days," Frost said. "I don't agree with that at all, especially with a game of this magnitude. I hope that doesn't happen to a team again.

      "That being said, we're going to do all the work we need to get ready, and I'm sure our kids will have no problem getting motivated."

      Though both teams are the leaders in the conference in two key areas -- USF is No. 1 in both scoring defense (19.9 points per game) and total defense (323.5 yards) and UCF is No. 2 in both categories (20.5 points 373.6 yards), the game sets up for an offensive show led by two top quarterbacks.

      UCF's McKenzie Milton is the AAC's total offense leader, running and passing for 330.1 yards a game, 292.8 through the air.

      "He's having an unbelievable year," first-year USF coach Charlie Strong said. "His numbers are astounding. You look at him and he does a great job of directing the offense. He places the ball in the right place.

      "The thing about him is when you try to rush him, he gets the ball out, and if you don't rush him, you better get ready because he can find the open receivers.

      "Our hands are going to be full. We know the type of player he is and the type of year he is having. We're going to have to play our best."

      USF's Quinton Flowers ranks in sixth in the AAC in both rushing (87.0 yards per game) and passing (209.7).

      "He's a special player," Frost said. "He has been since he came on the scene a couple years ago. He's the type of guy that makes big plays all over the place. You can feel like you're controlling and stopping him and he can make a big play at any time. He's dynamic.

      "We really have to attack him. We have to make sure we are closing the distance on him and not let him making any long runs. And we've got to be sound in coverage so he doesn't hit a big pass.

      "It's going to be a challenge, and our guys are fired up about it."

      It is, quite simply, Strong said, "the game that everyone has been waiting for."

  • Egg Bowl always an emotional affair
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Tensions are always high when Mississippi and Mississippi State collide on the gridiron, but this week's meeting seems even more intense than normal.

    • In fact, the athletic directors from both schools sent out a request to fans, hoping to prevent emotions from boiling over on Thursday for the Egg Bowl in Starkville, Miss.

      "In the spirit of sportsmanship, we ask that fans from both schools honor this storied rivalry with civility and respect for each other," Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork and Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen wrote in a joint statement.

      The Rebels are ineligible for a bowl game due to an NCAA investigation that led to the offseason departure of former coach Hugh Freeze. Coach Matt Luke took over and has overseen an up-and-down campaign for Ole Miss (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference).

      "It's always been a big game for as long as I can remember," Luke said. "To the people of the state of Mississippi, this is bragging rights. It's a huge game, and it is every year, no matter the situation.

      "This game is emotional for a lot of different reasons. But my job is to focus on these players and give them the best chance to win this game. I've said this before, I've been a part of teams that have had a better record, but I am really proud of what this team has been able to accomplish with all they've been through. We have one more opportunity to go play together. We're going to enjoy these four days together and we're going to enjoy Thursday night."

      The 16th-ranked Bulldogs (8-3, 4-3 SEC) are looking for their third nine-win season in the past four years under coach Dan Mullen. They are coming off a 28-21 comeback win over Arkansas and are now looking for their second straight win over Ole Miss.

      "I don't want to belittle it ... it's still the biggest game of the year, but we've also elevated our program," Mullen said. "It's not a regular game. Everyone in our program embraces it, not just the coaches and players. It makes it fun."

      Versatile junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads the Bulldogs' offense. Fitzgerald threw two touchdowns and ran for another to help Mississippi State overcome an early 14-0 deficit against the Razorbacks.

      On the season, Fitzgerald has completed 56.2 percent of his passes for 1,770 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 968 yards and 14 touchdowns.

      Ole Miss is coming off a loss to Texas A&M. The Rebels couldn't hold onto a 24-21 halftime lead against the Aggies and fell to 31-24, snapping a two-game win streak.

      Junior quarterback Jordan Ta'amu moved into the starting role in mid-October after Shea Patterson was lost to a season-ending injury. Ta'amu completed 19 of 34 passes for 189 yards with two touchdowns and an interception against the Aggies.

      Mullen is wary of Ta'amu's athleticism.

      "He throws the ball well, understands their offense, makes the reads but is also very dangerous and can beat you with not just quarterback runs," Mullen said. "The ones that are more dangerous are extending of plays and scrambling."

      Not only are both teams dealing with a short week, but they also are trying to block out the swirling coaching rumors. Ole Miss has been rumored to be in the mix for Oregon coach Willie Taggart, Memphis coach Mike Norvell and South Florida coach Charlie Strong.

      Mullen is considered a candidate for the opening at Florida, where he spent four seasons as the Gators' offensive coordinator.

      Ole Miss also is dealing with several injuries. Right guard Alex Givens is out with a concussion, and backup running back D'Vaughn Pennamon is out with a dislocated knee. Receiver Van Jefferson is considered questionable with a dislocated elbow, and cornerback Jalen Julius remains in the concussion protocol.

      Mississippi State beat Ole Miss 55-20 last season but has lost two of the last three meetings with the Rebels.

      "Usually, I'm always making sure we have a great, exciting environment, and making sure and encouraging our fans to show up and create that home-field advantage for us," Mullen said. "I don't think I have to do that this week. I think they'll be pretty excited about this game. They usually are."

  • Miami puts 15-game streak on line at Pitt
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, November 20, 2017

    Every time Miami ventures north of the Georgia-Florida line in November, it seems mandatory that the Hurricanes be forced to address the issue of weather and how they are going to cope with the "cold."

    • With a temperature expected to be in the 40s, however, that doesn't appear to be much of a problem when the Hurricanes (10-0, 7-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) play at Pittsburgh (4-7, 2-5) this time.

      What is more on Miami coach Mark Richt's mind is dealing with the short work week and getting his players ready for Friday's noon kickoff at Heinz Field.

      "We don't have a lot of time," Richt said. "Pitt doesn't either. These guys know. They know they have to get their rest, take care of their bodies."

      Because of the juggling of the schedule created when Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in September with one game (Arkansas State on Sept. 9) canceled and another postponed (Florida State to Oct. 12 from Sept. 16), the Hurricanes lost an early open date and thus will be playing a 10th consecutive weekend with an 11th coming up Dec. 2 in the ACC Championship Game.

      Richt said coaches must take that into consideration.

      "We, as coaches, have to be wise and not do things to wear them out but still do enough to be prepared," he said. "They have to take care of themselves."

      After posting their 15th consecutive win dating to last season with their come-from-behind 44-28 win over Virginia last week, the Hurricanes will be facing a Pitt team that saw its chance of keeping alive hopes of reaching bowl eligibility lost. The Panthers could not punch it in from a yard out in four tries in the closing seconds in a 20-14 loss to Virginia Tech.

      But coach Pat Narduzzi expects his Panthers to be ready for the Hurricanes, who were No. 3 in last week's College Football Playoff rankings and are No. 2 in media and coaches' polls this week.

      Narduzzi expects an emotional atmosphere at Heinz Field with 14 players being recognized on Senior Day, plus "playing a tremendous football team with a ton of speed, ton of confidence, and obviously playing at a high level right now," he said. "It will be a great challenge.

      "We'll use Miami as a measuring stick as to how far we've grown through the entire year."

      The failure to get the ball into the end zone on its final series against Virginia Tech is kind of emblematic of the season the Panthers have gone through. Though averaging a not-terrible 148 yards a game rushing, the Panthers had only 55 against the Hokies just one week after amassing 267 against North Carolina and 336 against Duke two weeks earlier.

      The game against the Hokies marked the fourth time they have failed to get to the 100 mark on the ground.

      Narduzzi noted that his Panthers will be going up a veteran Miami defense that is fast and talented. And yes, he is aware of the gold turnover chain that is draped around the neck of a Miami defensive player who comes up with interception or fumble recovery.

      The Hurricanes have had 19 takeaways over the last five games and 27 for the season, tied for third nationally.

      "They've got confidence they're going to get turnovers every time they walk out onto the field, so that's certainly going to be a key to victory -- don't get them started -- pass that chain around and have 10 or 12 guys have that chain around their neck," Narduzzi said. "We've got to make sure that things stays wherever they keep it when they walk out onto the field. Keep it in that box."

      Narduzzi isn't sure who will start at quarterback for Pitt. Freshman Kenny Pickett, who finished against Virginia Tech, and sophomore Ben DiNucci are separated by "or" on the depth chart.

      "We've got to get a run game going," he said.

      It will be interesting to see how Miami rebounds after last week's close call at home to Virginia. The Hurricanes twice trailed by 14-point margins before pulling out the victory.

      "They beat the team we just played, 31-14, I believe,'' Richt said of the Panthers. "That's about all you need to know."