Illinois quarterback Reilly O'Toole couldn’t stomach the bowl season last year.

He didn’t want to watch. He didn’t want to follow it. Most times he flipped to a game, he’d just think how Illinois could compete against that particular opponent.

It’s a completely different feeling this postseason. Two days away from their first bowl game since 2011, regret has been replaced with excitement and anticipation has taken the place of disappointment. O’Toole might even tune into a few more games this year.

[+] EnlargeBill Cubit, Reilly O'Toole
AP Photo/Bradley LeebReilly O'Toole and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will take on Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday.
“Being two years out of a bowl and being able to get back, this means everything,” O’Toole told ESPN.com. “That’s why you work hard in the offseason – for this.”

The road to Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl wasn’t an easy one for Illinois. Most outsiders wrote Illinois off after a 3-4 start that featured not-so-convincing wins over Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. But coach Tim Beckman never stopped preaching bowl possibilities – and Illinois never stopped believing.

Illinois finished the season with surprise victories over Minnesota and Penn State, coupled with a victory over Northwestern. The Illini were an underdog in all three games.

"We've been through a lot of ups and downs this season, so right now we're just enjoying our time," linebacker Mason Monheim said. "We're definitely expecting to win, but we're also celebrating being here."

The bowl berth by Illinois could have very well have saved Beckman’s job, although he deflected any such notion. Instead, Beckman focused on the future. He told his team to think about this bowl as if it’s the first game of the 2015 season.

He wants his team to enjoy this -- hence the "Ugly Christmas Sweater" contest on the flight to Dallas (winner: O'Toole) -- but he also wants this bowl to set the tone for the program. He wants this bowl berth to become the norm for Illinois, to be the first of many.

"You look at this program and you look at this game, it's a move forward," Beckman said. "Next year, we’ll have over 350 starts stepping on the football field. And I think next year’s potential is unlimited because we have so many players back."

Friday's game against Louisiana Tech at the Cotton Bowl stadium might not be the most prestigious bowl game, but players couldn’t help but use words such as “excited,” “blessed” and “grateful” to describe their time in Dallas. This is a start for Illinois; it’s a step in the right direction for Illinois after two seasons’ worth of struggles.

The 15 extra bowl practices should help this young team grow. Beckman said a bowl should make them even hungrier, and winning tends to lure more recruits. O’Toole, a senior, said he wants to help Illinois build for the future by winning this game. And Monheim – who also tended to steer clear of televised bowl games last season – called this long overdue.

“I’ve been here three years, and I’ve always heard about these bowl games and now I get to experience it,” Monheim said. “This is huge for us. We’re cherishing every moment.”
The big guys battling up front mamight y be the ones with the most influence over the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but that’s certainly not the only matchup worth watching. And what happens when the ball is in the air could be every bit as crucial in determining which team moves on to play for a national title.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: The Buckeyes have enough weapons to keep even the best secondaries in the country busy, and this year the Crimson Tide aren’t quite living up to the high standard the program has established against the pass. Ohio State should have the edge.
With all due respect to the quarterbacks and other skill position players, the Allstate Sugar Bowl will ultimately come down to who wins the battle of the trenches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: Another close call with both units steadily improving throughout the year, but we’ll give the nod to Alabama’s depth and ability to roll in fresh linemen.
Alabama and Ohio State meet in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a spot in the College Football Playoff national championship game on the line. So how do the two teams match up? Let's go to the tale of the tape:

Class Rankings: Dec. 23 update

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
3:30
PM ET
video

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert joins ESPN’s Phil Murphy to break down updates to the ESPN class rankings for 2015 football recruiting. A wild Friday saw four of the nation’s top 150 players announce college decisions.

To read the full class rankings, click here.

No regrets for Penn State LB Mike Hull

December, 23, 2014
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Mike Hull finally made his decision. He was gone. Now all he needed was the courage to tell his head coach.

On what he called the toughest afternoon of his career -- Aug. 4, 2012, nearly two weeks after the announcement of unprecedented sanctions against Penn State – Hull spent an hour alone by his locker before gathering the resolve to knock on then-coach Bill O’Brien’s door. "Coach," Hull told him. "I’m not going to stay.”

[+] EnlargeMike Hull
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State linebacker Mike Hull led the Big Ten in tackles by a wide margin.
“I don’t know if I agree with your decision,” Hull remembered O’Brien saying, “but if you've got to go, you've got to go. This is a tough situation. Just sleep on it, and talk to the guys.”

Less than 24 hours later, a day before camp started, he reconsidered.

It was a decision that led to one of the more unique careers in Penn State history, one that spanned a total of five head coaches (two interim, three full time) and one where expectations ranged from a program “as good as dead” in 2012 to a possible Big Ten championship in 2014.

It was a decision that gave PSU a boost for the last three seasons and was responsible -- in part -- for Penn State’s top-ranked rushing defense this season. It’d be difficult to envision that ranking without Hull’s 134 tackles, a full 70 stops more than PSU’s next-leading tackler, a performance that earned Hull the title of Big Ten Linebacker of the Year.

“He’s the undisputed leader and the heart and soul, not just of this defensive unit but the entire team,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “If there’s one guy on defense we couldn’t lose this year, it was him. … If we would’ve lost Mike, it would’ve been a disaster.”

Said former Penn State linebacker and teammate Michael Mauti: “I’m sure he would deflect that sort of praise, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say they would have made a bowl without him. There are maybe five guys who hung around, defensively, that really kept them in games.”

The Nittany Lions’ defensive MVP was nearly a coin-flip from choosing a different path, an easier road paved with more playing time at Pitt. But he still knew, upon reaffirming his commitment, this wasn’t the Penn State he signed up for.

As a high-schooler, when he plastered PSU posters over his bedroom – with mantras like “All In!” and “Fight On!” – he didn’t dream about playing with fewer scholarships. His mind used to wander between learning from Joe Paterno and playing under longtime assistant Tom Bradley; he never thought he’d play through four defensive coordinators. He expected stability, not the most topsy-turvy time in the Nittany Lions’ 128-year history.

Truthfully, Hull said, if someone told him in high school all that awaited in Happy Valley -- the postseason ban, the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, the number of different schemes and playbooks -- he likely would’ve played elsewhere. Maybe as a linebacker at Pitt or a running back at Stanford. But he stifled a laugh when asked if he ever regretted his decision to remain at Penn State.

“No, no, not at all,” he said, leaning back on a couch in the players’ lounge. “No one would ever want to walk into that situation, but you’re in it. You want to make the best of it. And it’s been as good of a time and a career as I could’ve hoped for -- despite the circumstances.”

shoop

If there's one guy on defense we couldn't lose this year, it was him. ... If we would've lost Mike, it would've been a disaster.

-- PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
Hull wasn’t always so sure, though. No one was. When fans and reporters called to him during a morning pep rally in July 2012, asking aloud if Hull planned to transfer, the linebacker in shorts and a T-shirt simply shot back: “I’m here now.”

He and his father, Tom, who also played under JoePa, didn’t know his next move. They had driven 35 minutes from their hometown of Canonsburg - past suburban parks and the high-rises of Pittsburgh -- to speak with then-Panthers coach Paul Chryst and assistant Bobby Engram. Hull’s mind raced even more after the visit: Pitt’s move to the ACC is good, but the stadium is off-campus and isn’t filled. More playing time is a positive, but I’ll also have to rebuild my reputation. I don’t know really know anyone here and I don’t know the campus, but the facility is OK.

Playing time was the primary selling point, so when Hull met with O’Brien the head man asked Ted Roof, the defensive coordinator at the time, to explain how he planned to use Hull. He wouldn’t start, of course, but he would play. He would be a spark plug of sorts; he would be the No. 4 ‘backer.

After the meeting, Mauti remembered pleading with Hull not to leave: “I was like, ‘Mike, I know it doesn’t seem like it right now. But you’re going to play. We’re going to need you.’ I knew he was going to have his opportunity, and I knew he was going to knock it out of the park.”

Hull didn't need to hear much else. The rest is Penn State history. Thanks in part to Hull – and the decision he made 28 months ago – Penn State has survived, and the program is as stable as it has been since he arrived. The scholarships are back, the postseason ban is over, and the Nittany Lions are trending upward. It might not be the Penn State that Hull expected, but it’s still the one he calls home. It's still the one he's glad he never left.

“In the end I realized that staying isn’t just about me. It’s not about just one player, it’s about a whole program,” Hull said. “It’s about the place I love and always wanted to play for growing up. We stuck together; we brought the best out in each other.

“We helped keep this program alive, and that means a lot to us.”
Michigan hasn't been subtle in its pursuit of Jim Harbaugh for its vacant head-coaching position. The school wants Harbaugh back in Ann Arbor ... real bad.

The campaign continued Tuesday as Michigan football's official Twitter account wished Harbaugh happy birthday (Harbaugh turns 51 today). Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan from 1983-86.

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It's hardly uncommon for teams to give birthday shoutouts on Twitter to current players, coaches, support staff and even former players and coaches. But I can't recall Michigan doing this too often, and with the Harbaugh-to-Michigan rumors heating up in the past 10 days, today's tweet was no coincidence.

Harbaugh does have another job, at least until Sunday, when the San Francisco 49ers finish their season against Arizona. The coach is expected to part ways with the 49ers -- his brother, John, the Baltimore Ravens coach, said as much Tuesday on CSN Baltimore -- and though other NFL teams are expected to pursue Jim Harbaugh, there is an increased likelihood he will return to his alma mater.

Credit Michigan for being so strong in its pursuit of Harbaugh. He is the game-changer that a stale program needs. Will it be a huge letdown if he doesn't return? Sure. But Michigan had to put forth its best possible pitch.

What might Michigan get Harbaugh for the big day? I asked my Twitter followers.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The words were zipping around the world before Cardale Jones could even leave the classroom where he tapped them into Twitter.

It only took a few seconds to fire off a 140-characters-or-less message that still has legs and follows him around more than two years later.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesQuarterback Cardale Jones has overcome plenty of big challenges already in his young career at Ohio State -- both on and off the field.
"Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL," Jones wrote. "We ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS."

The post itself would quickly be erased, followed by the entire account, but the damage was already done. The message had been passed on countless times already, embedded in stories and eventually immortalized in a textbook as a perfect example of why young college students need to think before hitting send.

It's been over 24 months since that 24-word lapse in judgment, and Jones still deals with the insults on social media, and in the locker room, the No. 4 Buckeyes still use it as an easy punch line good for a quick laugh.

But perhaps if Jones had simply followed up with some context, maybe some of the sting would have been removed from a misstep that might always be his most famous moment, even after winning MVP honors in the Big Ten championship game. Would the message have been viewed any differently if his venting would have been accompanied by an explanation of what prompted one of the most memorable tweets a redshirting freshman player who had never taken a college snap would ever blast to the social media audience?

"I remember I was in class, and I think I got, like, a B on a [sociology] exam," Jones said. "It was just something so stupid; of course I didn't feel that way about academics, and I don't. Nobody in this program feels that way, we actually take that stuff very serious around here.

"It was just a dumbass thing to do. I definitely didn't think that would happen. It was just a stupid thing to do at that time. It was something where I just got pissed because I studied my ass off."

Grinding in the classroom certainly didn't match the public perception Jones had instantly created for himself, and it formed an overnight reputation that would follow him on the field as well as he became an easy target for not living up to his potential or taking his work seriously.

And while there would still be growing pains while sitting and waiting behind a string of quarterbacks, starting with Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton and then getting jumped by J.T. Barrett during training camp in August, his ill-fated tweet and the subsequent lesson learned at least planted the seeds of maturation for Jones. And he made it quite clear in a 59-0 blowout against Wisconsin that led to the Buckeyes' earning a spot in the College Football Playoff that he must have been using that time well.

"He didn't just mature last week," his Cleveland Glenville High School coach Ted Ginn Sr. said. "It didn't just pop in his head last week. It was bred in him. That's what gets old. We can just mature in a week? We know what we need to know in a week? No. We talk about maturity, I know who he is, I know where he comes from, I know what his whole life is about.

"I don't even want to talk about that [tweet]. I think when it happened, he was misread. You know what I'm saying? Nobody ever asked that question. Everybody was talking about the tweet, nobody knew why. He was a child, and he didn't even know. That's the reason I don't ever talk about it, because we're not in position to try to get in his shoes."

Maybe the motivation doesn't make any difference anyway.

The jokes at his expense aren't going to stop, though Jones appears to have become skilled at either ignoring them or laughing along with his teammates. Deleting the message and his original account didn't erase it from his past, and regardless of what he does against No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in just the second start of his career, he will surely continue to be better known for his biggest mistake than a résumé that already has one shiny accomplishment for the Buckeyes on it.

And when measured against the test of patience in waiting behind three quarterbacks or the challenges of learning Urban Meyer's playbook or maybe even just passing sociology, dealing with social media fallout undoubtedly pales in comparison -- and, of course, those are just football issues. But trivial or not, the tweet and what came with it are part of the overall package, and like just about everything else, Jones has grown from the experience and is doing everything he can to keep it from defining him.

"He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around," Meyer said. "The correlation between handling your business off the field and on the field, he does a good job in the classroom now. It wasn't pleasant his first year here ... but he's changed.

"Cardale is a great story, and it's still in process now."

Even if Jones isn't yet a finished product, he mistakenly gave the world a glimpse of where he was in the process two years ago.

"I don't really care about the reaction as far as I got, you know, people saying all type of stupid stuff [on social media]," Jones said. "You know, I can take the heat from people from the outside looking in. But I was more worried about the fact that I embarrassed the university, the football program and definitely my family. That's what I cared about.

"Just growing up, I'd say that was one of the steppingstones."

So just like school, maybe the tweet itself wasn't pointless either.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis was 29-years-old when he received his first full-time coaching job in 2007, following Bo Pelini here from LSU.

Three years ago, Papuchis earned a promotion to defensive coordinator.

 The coach and his wife, Billie, are parents to four children, all born during their time in Lincoln, the youngest three days before the Huskers’ season-opener in August.

"My family, all they know is Nebraska,” said Papuchis, who will coach his last game at Nebraska on Saturday against USC in the National University Holiday Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). “One way or another, that’s coming to an end Saturday night. So if it’s going to come down to an ending, it might as well end on a good note.”

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley, introduced Dec. 5, has announced plans to retain secondary coach Charlton Warren. The remaining holdovers from the staff assembled by Pelini, who was fired on Nov. 30, are likely left to coach this week and leave.

Pelini is now the head coach at FCS-level Youngstown State.

The NCAA granted Nebraska a waiver that allows the old staff – under contract through January 2016 -- to run practices this month. Meanwhile, Riley’s hires, headquartered one floor above the football offices at Memorial Stadium, went to work on recruiting.

Difficult circumstances, for sure, said interim coach Barney Cotton, who worked with Pelini at Nebraska for the past seven seasons and in 2003 as the duo served under former coach Frank Solich as coordinators.

“I wish I could make it all go away,” Cotton said of the often-painful transition.

Cotton has accepted a position as offensive coordinator for new UNLV coach Tony Sanchez. Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison is also headed to Las Vegas.

Papuchis is still looking, along with offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The remainder of the staff includes Rick Kaczenski (defensive line), Ross Els (linebackers), Ron Brown (running backs) and Rich Fisher (receivers).

“It’s been unique to say the least,” Beck said last week. “But I’m alive, and I get a chance to get out here and coach. I just coach. I enjoy it. I enjoy the kids. It’s what I do, and it’s all I know.”

In addition to Warren, Riley hired four assistants from his former school, Oregon State – defensive coordinator Mark Banker, linebackers coach Trent Bray, special teams coach Bruce Read and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.

The new head coach watched the Huskers practice in Lincoln, and he said he’ll be an interested observer during the Holiday Bowl.

Meanwhile, the old staff is tasked to keep the Huskers focused for this game.

“The thing that I’ve tried to emphasize with the players,” Papuchis said, “in their career, they’ll only get four opportunities at the most to play in a bowl game. And every one of those opportunities, you’ve got to maximize and cherish.

“Despite all the things that are surrounding the program and however they felt about the transition, this is about them. The kids sometimes get lost in all the discussion.”

Papuchis, now 36, has tried to focus entirely this month on preparing Nebraska to face the 24th-ranked Trojans.

“I don’t ever want to cheat our players and cheat this program,” he said.

“At the same time, obviously, I’ve got four little ones and a family to take care of, so I’m trying to do the best I can as far as balancing what’s going to come after [Saturday] and what is taking place.”

Beck said he’s leaving Nebraska with no regrets.

“I think we did it with class,” the offensive coordinator said, “and I think we did it with humility, integrity. We are who we were from the beginning to the end. We’ve never changed. We’ve believed in each other and worked hard doing it.”

At Nebraska, Beck, the school’s highest-paid assistant at $700,000, and Papuchis worked in a spotlight that shone more brightly than on the position coaches. More of the same is likely on tap for Saturday, the first game for both without Pelini since 2007.

Papuchis said he’s “confident” about his future. And in this final game at Nebraska, he said, “there’s no real reason to be conservative.”

“I don’t mind saying this at all,” Papuchis said. “I look at this as an opportunity -- another chance to build on a résumé, to play a great team. And hopefully we have a good defensive showing, and that will help going forward.”

Watch: One-on-one with Ameer Abdullah

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
10:06
AM ET
video

Adam Rittenberg sits down with Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah to discuss his success this season and his thoughts on Nebraska facing USC in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Four QBs driving for title

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
9:22
AM ET
INDEX: NCF Playoff Preview ESPN.com Illustration


Two Heisman-winning quarterbacks and two surprise QBs made the first College Football Playoff. Click here for a deep look at all four leaders.
Urban MeyerJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe trip to the Sugar Bowl culminates Ohio State's return from the sanctions and probation that have clouded the program since 2011.
As the clock ticked down into the final minute of the Big Ten championship game earlier this month, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sought out head coach Urban Meyer on the sideline.

The two men hugged. Meyer then walked several feet in each direction, pumping both fists in the air toward the elated Buckeyes cheering sections. There was joy, but also a release.

The 59-0 blowout win over Wisconsin on Dec. 6 clinched a title for Ohio State and also culminated a climb back from a dark place for the program. It's a journey that became even more poetic when the Buckeyes found out hours after that victory that they'd be returning to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal.

The program's last championship of note (not counting division titles) came on Jan. 4, 2011, when it beat Arkansas at the Sugar Bowl. But at least officially, that win never happened. Ohio State vacated its Sugar Bowl crown -- and all other 2010 victories -- as part of its self-imposed NCAA penalties in July 2011. In the team's media guide and around its facility where other bowl games are celebrated and acknowledged, it's like the game didn't exist.

The school thought vacating that season would be enough to placate the NCAA in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, even after five players implicated in scheme -- Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas -- were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl while accepting five-game penalties to start the 2011 season.

Of course, little went as Ohio State planned in that ordeal. Then-coach Jim Tressel was discovered to have known more about the scandal than he had told his superiors, and he was forced to resign on Memorial Day 2011. The Buckeyes would go 6-7 in the 2011 season, their least successful campaign since 1999. The NCAA decided in December, after more infractions leaked out, to ban Ohio State from a bowl in the 2012 season while taking away nine total scholarships over a three-year period.

The stench of an NCAA scandal -- especially one that includes a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a forced coaching change -- can set a program back for years. Yet the Buckeyes went 12-0 in their year of postseason purgatory in 2012 and are 36-3 in the three seasons since 2011, including a perfect 24-0 in regular-season Big Ten play.

"There are probably very few programs that have the level of support that allows them to come back from a challenge like that," Smith said. "Things aligned for us, and we were able to come out of that challenging time pretty well."

The No. 1 reason why the Buckeyes bounced back so quickly is obvious. They replaced one legendary coach -- Tressel -- with another one in Meyer (though Luke Fickell deserves credit for keeping things together as the interim during a trying season). Smith said the timing was fortunate for Ohio State that Meyer had taken a year off coaching in 2011, allowing Smith to put together a deal with Meyer without having to worry about luring him out of another job.

Meyer's track record all but ensured success. But it happened even more quickly than Smith imagined.

"Everybody expected him to do extremely well," Smith said. "No one expected him to do so well so fast, to have an undefeated regular-season [Big Ten record]. No one could have predicted that. He's exceeded our expectations in so many different ways."

Smith noted that even with the probation and the scholarship cuts, Meyer hardly arrived to a bare cupboard in Columbus. Ohio State, as always, had talent. But Meyer had to build depth, reshape the team for his system and add the speed that he wanted.

"Coach Tressel did a marvelous job of recruiting nationally," Smith said, "but Urban took it to another level."

In some ways, the tattoo scandal seems like a long time ago. Maybe it's how several other off-the-field controversies -- the Sandusky case at Penn State, the North Carolina academic fraud, just to name a couple -- made Ohio State's missteps seem minor by comparison. The issue of player compensation has also become a hot topic in ensuing years. At a time when players have sued to retain their image and likeness rights, when power schools are changing the very structure of the NCAA in order to give their athletes more money and benefits and when we're arguing whether a star like Georgia's Todd Gurley should be able to profit off his autograph, is anyone really offended by the notion of trading team-issued merchandise for some body ink?

Yet in reality, that dark time for the Buckeyes wasn't long ago at all. Ohio State only officially came off NCAA probation on Friday. The seniors on this year's team played during that difficult 2011 season. Starting offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin is a fifth-year senior, meaning he was around for Tressel's last season in 2010.

Smith said Meyer got emotional during a team meeting the day the playoff pairings were announced as he thanked the seniors for their perseverance.

"He knows they were the class that went through the significant trials and tribulations and got this program where it is now," Smith said. "He was so happy to get them a championship."

Now, they're taking the Buckeyes back to New Orleans, where in many ways this journey began.
It will be another full week before the NFL wraps up its regular season, which means at least as long before Michigan will name its next head coach.

Former Wolverine and current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh remains the No. 1 target in Ann Arbor, but multiple reports point toward other coaches with an NFL background being on the Michigan wish list. Jason La Canfora from CBS Sports reported Sunday that Michigan has kept other NFL coaches on its radar, including Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, Buffalo’s Doug Marrone and Sean Payton from New Orleans.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPete Carroll has raised the Lombardi Trophy and the BCS national championship trophy.
Most current coaches who have left the NFL for a college program have found more success in school than on the pro level. If Harbaugh decides to join those ranks, he would be rare in that he would be leaving the NFL with a track record of success. Harbaugh is 43-19-1 as an NFL coach and led the 49ers to the NFC championship game in each of his first three seasons. Among the nine prominent coaches listed below who have been head coaches at both levels, only one left a professional league job for college on good terms. Here’s a look at how some other programs have fared after hiring men with NFL experience.

Jim Mora (UCLA): Mora spent his entire career in the NFL before he was hired to coach the Bruins three years ago. He had head-coaching jobs with Atlanta (2004-06) and Seattle (2009) and compiled a 32-34 record in that time. The Seahawks fired Mora after he went 5-11. He worked in broadcasting until 2012, when he went to UCLA. He has a 28-10 record so far in college and will face Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl on Jan . 2. He also has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Michigan opening.

Pete Carroll (USC): Carroll replaced Mora in Seattle in 2010 after almost a decade of coaching a dominant USC program. Carroll was 33-31 as a head coach in the NFL. His was fired after three seasons in New England where he had big shoes to fill as the replacement for Bill Parcells. Carroll was seen as an NFL bust who went on to win the 2005 BCS Championship. He returned to the NFL and salvaged his pro-level reputation by winning a Super Bowl, which is a career path Harbaugh probably wouldn’t mind following.

Bill O’Brien (Penn State): O’Brien is the only man on this list who left a successful NFL team for college. The caveat is that he was an offensive coordinator, not a head coach, during his time with the Patriots. O’Brien spent much of his early career as a college assistant. His first head-coaching job came at Penn State when he won national coach of the year honors in 2012. He left after the 2013 season to take over the Houston Texans, where he has again found success.

Nick Saban (Alabama): Forty of the 42 seasons that Saban has coached have been in college football. He left LSU after winning a national title to coach the Miami Dolphins. Saban’s team had a disappointing 15-17 record before he returned to the SEC as Alabama’s coach in 2007. Rumors that Alabama – a blueblood program down on its luck – wanted Saban started during the regular season, and he had to dodge questions many times before saying outright that he wouldn’t go to Alabama. Harbaugh has thus far avoided the same potential trap this season. Saban did, of course, wind up in Tuscaloosa, where he has won three national titles and is in position to make a run at a fourth in the coming weeks.

Bobby Petrino (Louisville): Petrino had two stints in the NFL during his three decades of coaching. He was called an offensive genius by Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin during his three years there as an assistant. Reviews after less than a year as Atlanta’s head coach were not as kind. Petrino left Louisville with the promise of coaching Michael Vick and the Falcons in 2007. Vick was arrested before the season started and Petrino’s team stumbled to a 3-10 start. He bailed in December, accepting a job at Arkansas, and informed his players by leaving a note in their lockers. He won double-digit games in his last two seasons with the Razorbacks before he was fired for off-the-field shenanigans.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsSteve Spurrier again got the best of Georgia and showed that South Carolina will make noise in the SEC Eastern Division.
Steve Spurrier (South Carolina): Spurrier has been the Head Ball Coach somewhere since 1987 and has only three losing season during that time. Two of them came during his brief cameo in the NFL. He resigned in 2003 after two disappointing seasons with the Washington Redskins and planned to retire. The former Gators legend returned to the SEC a year later. While he never has reproduced the success he had at Florida, he is 83-45 as South Carolina’s coach since then.

Lane Kiffin (Alabama): Kiffin became the youngest coach in Oakland Raider history in 2007, but his tenure there was short-lived. He was fired a month into his second season during an ugly spat with owner Al Davis. Kiffin finished his Oakland career with a 5-15 record. Kiffin has since burned bridges at Tennessee and been fired at USC, but has a 35-21 record on the college level. He also helped Alabama with a major offensive reconstruction this season.

Mike Riley (Nebraska): One of the Big Ten’s newest additions has coached in a wide variety of leagues since 1975. His three years as a head coach in the NFL have been among his least successful. Riley went 14-34 as the San Diego Chargers’ coach. He was fired after a 1-15 record in 2001, when one of the team’s three quarterbacks was veteran Jim Harbaugh. Riley has since found relative success in his hometown at Oregon State. The Beavers were 93-80 during 12 years under Riley.

Dennis Erickson (Utah): Erickson is winding down a long coaching career as Utah’s running backs coach. He has twice jumped from the NFL back to college after being fired. He took a crack at the pros in Seattle in 1995 after winning two national championships. His Seahawks’ teams went 8-8 three times in four years, but he was fired. His second attempt, San Francisco in 2003 and 2004, was less successful. The 49ers fired him after a 2-14 year and he returned to the college ranks.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- There are two distinctly different ways to look at the mindset of Nebraska’s players as they get ready for the National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday against USC.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Huskers look to end their season with a win over USC.
 The Huskers, who leave Tuesday for San Diego, have endured a tumultuous month -- from the firing of coach Bo Pelini on Nov. 30, two days after their overtime win at Iowa, to the deconstruction of his old staff as new coach Mike Riley hired his own assistants.

There was also the public reveal last week, presumably initiated by someone among them, of a volatile audiotape from Pelini’s final meeting on Dec. 2 with the players.

How, after all of that, can the Huskers be ready to play a football game? It’s a question for which they offer few deep answers. The past is behind them, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said.

“I’m focused on our staff,” he said, “these players and getting ready for USC.”

From the alternate perspective, the events of the past three weeks may have galvanized the Huskers.

As Armstrong suggests, they are driven to play well for interim coach Barney Cotton and the other eight assistant coaches, seven of whom likely will not remain at Nebraska after this week.

Riley plans to keep only secondary coach Charlton Warren.

Essentially, this is the last chance for the Huskers to work with the coaches who recruited them. It’s a motivating factor.

So is the desire to show well in front of Riley. The former Oregon State coach has watched from afar as Nebraska practiced this month and figures to use the Holiday Bowl as another chance to start evaluating his 2015 roster.

Mainly, though, they want to end this season well for each other.

“The things we’ve faced over the month, we’ve put them behind us,” safety Nate Gerry said. “We’ve kind of realized that Saturday is the last time we’ve got together, and we’re just going to use our energy to go out there and play well for each other -- not really worry about anything.

“Play for the guys who brought you to Nebraska. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give it all I’ve got, like I know they’re going to do for me.”

If you get past the forest of subplots, an interesting matchup awaits.

Nebraska, 9-3 and winless in four games against the Trojans – most recently a 49-31 home loss in 2007 – has a chance to finish with its best record since 2003, incidentally the season after which coach Frank Solich and his first-year defensive coordinator, Pelini, were fired.

And parts of this game, to be telecast at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, look especially appetizing.

The Huskers the lead the nation in opponent completion rate at 47.5 percent; USC is No. 1 in completion percentage at 70.1. Nebraska ranks 10th in yards per opponent pass play and ninth in third-down conversion rate allowed; the Trojans rank 18th and fourth in the respective offensive categories.

Safe to say, though, Nebraska has not faced a foe like USC. Michigan State, the most productive passing offense among the Huskers’ 12 opponents, ranks 38th nationally.

“It will be interesting to see what happens,” defensive end Greg McMullen told reporters last week. “That could probably benefit us by them throwing a whole lot.”

McMullen said he thinks the Nebraska defensive line can pressure USC quarterback Cody Kessler.

Likely, it depends somewhat on the effectiveness of fellow end Randy Gregory. The junior, an elite NFL prospect, missed the season finale. He battled injuries most of the season and returned to practice Friday in Lincoln.

Nebraska also faces injuries on the offensive line. At center, Mark Pelini and top backup Ryne Reeves are out, as is Zach Sterup at right tackle.

“We’ve got to make sure we win our one-on-ones,” Armstrong said. “They play a lot of man – make you beat them on the outside. And they’ve got a great, physical defensive line.”

No matter the individual battles, for Nebraska, the Holiday Bowl, after four practices this week in California, will boil down to a question: Can the Huskers find the right mindset?

“It’s not about how I want to end,” said senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, allowed extra time to heal from a knee injury that slowed him in November. “It’s about how we should end things.”
A year ago at this time Gary Nova did not want to talk about football.

The Rutgers quarterback and team captain, who had not played in the last two games of the 2013 regular season, had just learned he would be watching the team’s appearance at the Pinstripe Bowl from the sideline as well. The night he was officially benched, his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson, returned to their apartment to find Nova despondent.

Johnson knew this drill. He picked up food and rented a movie. They burrowed in, and he steered conversation toward more pleasant topics. Under no circumstance did he mention anything to do with football.

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsGary Nova holds the Rutgers record for TD passes (71) and needs 310 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program's all-time leading passer.
"He came home in tears," Johnson said. "We just tried to get his mind off of it. The next day we told him to refocus his energy on getting his spot back."

Nova didn’t play in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he did win back his spot during offseason workouts. He started all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights (7-5) this year during their first Big Ten season. He set the school’s career record for touchdown passes (currently 71) in late September and needs 310 yards against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program’s all-time leading passer. Nova has no problem talking football during this bowl season.

A year of ups and downs -- there were a few significant speed bumps even after he returned to the starting lineup -- is nothing new for Nova. He is one interception away from setting the Rutgers’ career mark in that category, too. His 40 starts swing like a pendulum between emotional highs and lows, fourth-quarter comebacks mixed with scathing reviews and the occasional social media threat. It’s a ride he says he would not have managed without the support of longtime teammates and his nearby family.

"It was tough when you had people booing, or you read stuff in the paper that’s about yourself," Nova said. "My teammates have been a great help. ... They just tried to give me that pat on the back and say, 'Hey don’t listen to that. You know what the people who really matter think.'"

Nova’s first taste of the zany twists and turns of college football came before he arrived on campus. The New Jersey native originally committed to be a part of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class. He visited Rutgers, 20 miles from his home in Elmwood Park, only out of respect for former coach Greg Schiano. But when the Panthers rolled through three head coaches in less than two months that winter, Nova opted for the more stable situation close to home.

Being close to his parents and his two brothers provided a much-needed place to vent during his career. Nova drove home just about every other weekend during his first year on campus. Johnson usually tagged along to spell his own homesickness and a fill up of Daisy Nova’s Dominican cooking. That duo escaped to Elmwood often enough during their time at Rutgers that the family put Johnson’s photo on the refrigerator as an honorary brother. Nova still asks pesky reporters to steer clear of his family members. They are his getaway, untainted by talk of football.

The frequency of those trips picked up last December as Nova stewed on the scout team during bowl prep.

"Not getting first-team reps and then watching the game from the sideline, I let all of that emotion boil up inside of me and used it to drive me through the tough days in the summer," he said.

Johnson said Nova turned into the team’s biggest leader during winter workouts. His doubled-down work ethic and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen gave Nova a fresh start.

In their first meeting, Friedgen told Nova he knew all about his reputation for inconsistency. He told the senior he didn’t care, that he wanted to give him a clean slate. They started with basics, learning about defensive coverages rather than Rutgers’ playbook. Friedgen preached about fundamental ways to read a defense that he assumed someone had already taught Nova. No one had, and Nova started to see the field more clearly.

When the senior threw five interceptions and was booed on his home field in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut, a 13-10 loss to Penn State, Friedgen was the first to give Nova a hug and tell him that he still believed in him. The ebbs and flows that have plagued his career continued to pop up occasionally this season, but Friedgen and Nova’s teammates remained firmly behind. Stay strong, they told him, all’s well that ends well. And with Nova, even when things start poorly, they have a history of ending well.

Nova refused to go to school some days as a high school freshman. His parents enrolled him at Don Bosco Prep, a private all-boys school 20 minutes from home. It was a different crowd and a different culture. His grades suffered. He was miserable. Eventually, football helped him assimilate.

It was there that he met Rutgers’ leading receiver Leonte Caroo, who has been his teammate for six of the past seven years and another steady crutch to lean on in bad times. They went 24-0 and won two state titles for one of the best high school teams in the nation during Nova’s two years as a starter. That is when his mother started to tell him he was a natural born "overcomer."

"I didn’t see the bigger picture at such a young age," Nova said. "But I’m glad I stuck with it."

The same pattern of tumult followed by triumph continues to play out for Nova in macro and micro ways. The crazy offseason at Pitt led him to stay at home where he found the support he needed. His benching last November motivated him to win a starting job.

On the field, he has engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks during his career, which ties him for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. His most recent addition to that list came in a 41-38 comeback against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to wrap up the regular season. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 25 points late in the second quarter before three touchdown passes from Nova opened the door for the biggest comeback in the program’s 145 years.

"Gary has done a lot in his career at Rutgers and he will go down as one of the all-time greats even before playing this game," head coach Kyle Flood told reporters after the victory. "Does this game add to his legacy? Of course it adds to it, but I don't think it defines Gary. I think it's a great example of what he is and what he has done for this program."

Memories of last year’s bowl season still linger for Nova in the wake of that comeback win. He has one more pendulum to swing in the right direction before he leaves.

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