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What we learned from New Year's Day bowl games

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Associated Press
Oregon's Mark Helfich and Ohio State's Urban Meyer will square off for the national championship.

One of the most storied programs in the nation will play the best program without a national title when Ohio State meets Oregon in the Jan. 12 national championship. Not a bad matchup for the first College Football Playoff, eh?

Oregon blasted Florida State 59-20 and Ohio State fended off Alabama 42-35 Thursday in the playoff semifinal games.


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Ohio State was the most controversial selection in the four-team field, and conventional wisdom seemed to be that Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones -- who was making just his second career start, and on a huge stage at that -- would be overmatched by Alabama's defense. That wasn't the case, as Jones and the Buckeyes rolled up 537 total yards in stunning the Tide.

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Jones received ample help from sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for a career-high 230 yards and two touchdowns; he rushed for 220 in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. No team had rushed for more than 183 yards against the Tide this season, and they had allowed just three rushing TDs before Thursday night.

Meanwhile, the Ducks ended FSU's 29-game winning streak in devastating fashion. Oregon's defense got pushed around, allowing 528 yards and 28 first downs, but the Ducks also forced five turnovers -- and scored TDs off all five.

Ohio State and Oregon last met in the Rose Bowl following the 2009 season, with the Buckeyes winning 26-17.


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Here are nine more things you need to know from the bowls on New Year's Day:

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2. You have to play defense, too, Baylor. Baylor senior QB Bryce Petty had an epic day in the Cotton Bowl, throwing for 550 yards and three touchdowns. But it came in a losing performance against Michigan State, and until Baylor learns to care about defense, it cannot be taken seriously as a national title contender. Bears coach Art Briles is an offensive mastermind and deserves all sorts of credit for making Baylor nationally relevant -- relevant enough, in fact, that there was national grumbling when the Bears were left out of the playoffs. Briles was vocal in his displeasure about being left out; in retrospect, perhaps his time would've been better spent looking at tape of high school defenders the Bears can sign in February. When you roll up 583 yards yourself and take a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter, you shouldn't lose.

Actually, Baylor blew two 20-point leads -- the Bears led 34-14 early in the third quarter, then 41-21 entering the fourth quarter. But the defense couldn't hold on. Michigan State rolled up 552 yards, its second-highest total of the season. The only team that surrendered more to the Spartans? FCS program Jacksonville State in the opener. It's the second season in a row Baylor's defense was dissected in a bowl game, as the Bears surrendered 556 yards and 52 points in losing to UCF in last season's Fiesta Bowl. Good news for Briles is that with the apparent decision by defensive end Shawn Oakman on Dec. 29 to remain for his senior season, the Bears are set to return nine defensive starters in 2015. Perhaps that means the defense finally will be a unit that the Bears' offense can be proud of.

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3. Uhh, about the SEC ... Just as conventional wisdom was that Alabama would beat Ohio State, conventional wisdom all season had been that the SEC was the best league, with the Pac-12 second and the Big 12 third. Hmmm. The SEC currently stands at 5-5 in bowl games, with two games left (Tennessee vs. Iowa on Friday and Florida vs. East Carolina on Saturday), and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day were disastrous for the SEC, with a combined 1-4 record. The one win was Missouri over the Big Ten's Minnesota, but Alabama and Auburn fell to Big Ten teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin, respectively) on Thursday, and Mississippi fell to the Big 12's TCU and Mississippi State fell to the ACC's Georgia Tech on Wednesday. The once-mighty SEC West finished 2-5 in the postseason, with the wins, coincidentally enough, coming from the teams that finished sixth and seventh in the division (Texas A&M and Arkansas). And the five division teams that lost -- LSU was the other -- gave pitiful defensive performances.

4. Ezekiel Elliott won't be overshadowed anymore. Elliott, a sophomore, was fifth in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,402 yards. But given the incredibly strong group of tailbacks in the Big Ten -- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Michigan's State's Jeremy Langford -- Elliott never received any attention. That will change for two reasons. The first is that the aforementioned quintet will all be in the NFL next season. The second is that Elliott is really, really good and should be incredibly productive next season. He ran over, through and around Alabama on Thursday on his way to his career-high 230 yards, which came on just 20 carries. Elliott was a high school sprinter of some renown in St. Louis and showed off his speed on an 85-yard TD run that proved to be the difference in the Sugar Bowl. But Elliott (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) also is a tough between-the-tackles runner who isn't afraid to stick his head in there and grind out a few yards.

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5. It's the turnovers, folks. Oregon is not a dominant defensive team. The Ducks were 83rd nationally in total defense heading into Thursday's Rose Bowl against Florida State but were 29th in scoring defense. That's because the Ducks' defense forces turnovers. Oregon is plus-20 in turnover margin this season after enjoying a plus-3 advantage against Florida State. Oregon forced five FSU turnovers and converted them into 34 points, which turned what had been a close game -- it was 18-13 at halftime and 25-20 midway through the third quarter -- into a laugher. FSU finished with 528 total yards (its third-highest total of the season) and 28 first downs and averaged 6.1 yards per play, but finished with just 20 points because of the turnovers.

6. Oregon has a lot of weapons -- and they're young. Yes, Oregon QB Marcus Mariota might turn pro, but even if he does, the Ducks won't lack for offensive weapons next season. Consider this: Of the top five wide receivers, four are set to return next season; of the top three tight ends, all should be back; and of the top three tailbacks, all are expected to return. Oregon's leading receiver Thursday night was redshirt freshman Darren Carrington, and their leading receiver for the season was junior Byron Marshall. The leading rusher Thursday night was sophomore Thomas Tyner, and the leading rusher this season was true freshman Royce Freeman. Three starting offensive linemen are seniors, but injuries led to a bunch of youngsters playing this fall, so the Ducks should be fine there. Quarterback, then, will be the question.

7. Melvin Gordon had a pretty good season. He ran for 251 yards and three TDs as the Badgers downed Auburn, 34-31, in overtime in the Outback Bowl. Gordon seems likely to be a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, but before we look that far ahead, let's remember what he did this season. His numbers are staggering, as he put together one of the best seasons in NCAA history for a running back: 2,587 yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, 7.54 yards per carry, six 200-yard games, 12 100-yard games, 10 games with at least two rushing touchdowns, 10 runs of at least 50 yards. Gordon finished his career averaging 7.79 yards per carry. That bests the previous FBS career mark (minimum 415 carries) of 7.32 by USC's Reggie Bush (2003-05).

8. The nation's best tight end might be "Mighty Maxx." Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, a third-year sophomore who is expected to declare for the draft, showed why he is a big-time prospect with his performance in a Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a spectacular touchdown reception; the receptions total and yardage totals were career highs. He has just 61 career catches, but remember that he plays in an offense heavily geared toward the run. While he is a polished if underutilized receiver, he also is a sturdy blocker -- not surprising when you consider his dad, Brian, played 12 seasons as a center for the New York Giants. The tight end class for the 2015 draft isn't considered that strong, so Williams' decision definitely will impact draft boards.

9. Missouri picked a good day for its best rushing performance. The Tigers struggled to run the ball consistently all season, but they overpowered Citrus Bowl opponent Minnesota at the line of scrimmage and ran for a season-high 337 yards in a 33-17 win. Senior Marcus Murphy ran for 159 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career, and Russell Hansbrough added 114 yards. It was Minnesota's worst effort against the run since October 2012, when Wisconsin also ran for 337. Missouri (11-3) won 11 games for the fourth time in school history.


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10. The Pac-12 leads the way. Headed into the final stretch of bowl games, the Pac-12 leads the Power Five leagues with a 5-1 bowl record (four of the five wins are over other Power Five schools, while the loss is to a non-Power Five school). The Big Ten is second at 5-4 (all the wins over other Power Five schools but also a loss to a non-Power Five school), followed by the SEC at 5-5 (all five wins over Power Five schools), the ACC at 4-6 (two wins over non-Power Five schools) and the Big 12 at 1-4 (the win was over another Power Five school). And lest we forget, it's the Big Ten vs. the Pac-12 in the title game.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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