College football roundup: Time for the real bowl games to start

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USATSI

College football roundup: Time for the real bowl games to start

Bowl season is in full swing, with the usual assemblage of blowouts, thrillers, and last-second heroics. Of the first 17 games, 10 have been decided in the last minute.

Now it’s time for the games that really matter, locally and nationally.

Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 28, Levi’s Stadium—Indiana vs. Utah

Both teams have something to prove. Indiana’s new coach, Tom Allen, wants to establish himself as the head man and unify his team after the abrupt departure of Kevin Wilson under a cloud of player mistreatment rumors. Based on early impressions, Allen seems to have the command and big-picture ability to succeed. Utah, which finished on a downer (three losses in its last four games), wants to end the year on an up-note and springboard into 2017. Utah is a seven-point favorite, but we think the Hoosiers may surprise.

Sun Bowl, Dec. 30, El Paso—Stanford vs. North Carolina

The big story, as articulated here last week, was Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey’s decision to skip the game and prepare for the NFL Draft. Translation: “Let’s not risk an injury in a non-playoff bowl.” But McCaffrey’s absence provides a great opportunity for sophomore Bryce Love to establish himself as The Man. Love gained 664 yards this year as a backup and averaged 7.4 yards per carry. He’s the real deal, and North Carolina’s porous defense will afford him plenty of space to maneuver. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, a top pro prospect, will keep the Tar Heels in the game for awhile, but the Cardinal should win this one easily.

College Football Playoffs—the Coaches

Though we would have preferred an eight-team field including Michigan, Oklahoma, Penn State and USC, four teams is still better than the old BCS two-team arrangement. One distinction this year is the quality of the four head coaches. If you were to rank the best coaches in college football, certainly Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer would be at the very top of the list. All Saban has done is win four national championships in the last seven years at Alabama; he previously won one at LSU. Meyer has also captured national titles at two different schools—Florida and Ohio State.

In our book, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Washington’s Chris Peterson would also rank among the top dozen coaches nationally along with Saban, Meyer, Stanford’s David Shaw, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, San Diego State’s Rocky Long, Nebraska’s Mike Riley and Miami’s Mark Richt. Swinney took over a program that had a reputation for choking in big games and built a powerhouse. In the last five years, his Tigers have posted a 58-9 record, won three ACC titles, and lost a heart-breaker to Alabama in last year’s national championship game. Peterson produced miracles at Boise State, including the famous Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007, and has the Huskies in the playoffs in only his third year in Seattle. He and Shaw will have some great battles going forward.

Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, Atlanta—No. 4 Washington vs. No. 1 Alabama

The Crimson Tide are heavy favorites to trounce the Huskies in the first semi-final game in Atlanta, and deservedly so. They dispatched 13 straight opponents this year, often without breaking a sweat. Their defense and special teams outscored many of the offenses in college football. Washington has an excellent, under-appreciated quarterback in Jake Browning, a great receiver in John Ross Jr., and a solid running game with All Pac-12 back Myles Gaskin. On defense, their secondary is among the nation’s best. But this game will be won and lost in the trenches, where Alabama is as talented as some NFL teams. Look for ‘Bama to wear down the Huskies in a closer-than-anticipated win for Saban’s crew.

Fiesta Bowl, Dec. 31, Glendale, AZ—No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson

The second semi-final features two very evenly matched teams. Ohio State is favored largely on the basis of Meyer’s pedigree. He’s more experienced in these types of games than Swinney, and that gives the Buckeyes a slight edge. Both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks —Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. Watson is more accurate than Barrett and has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder after finishing third in the Heisman balloting a year ago and second this season. If Watson can avoid a costly turnover, the Tigers will win this one.

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.

Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

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Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Josh Jackson declared for the NBA draft on Monday after one of the best freshman seasons in Kansas history, one marked by plenty of highlights on the floor and a few distractions off it.

The 6-foot-8 swingman, who is considered a certain lottery pick, was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and its 13th straight regular season Big 12 title before losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Jackson signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

"After thoroughly consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball," Jackson said in a statement Monday.

"I am very thankful for all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas," he said, "and I look forward to starting my career in the NBA."

Jackson was the nation's No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation's top backcourts.

With natural athleticism and ability to slash to the basket - not to mention defensive chops that are rare among freshmen - Jackson quickly established himself as one of the nation's top draft prospects.

His importance was never more evident than in the Big 12 Tournament, when he was suspended by coach Bill Self following a series of off-the-court issues. The top-seeded Jayhawks stumbled in a quarterfinal loss to TCU, ending their run at the conference tournament before it really began.

He returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well in wins over UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, but was hamstrung by foul trouble and managed just 10 points in a season-ending loss to the Ducks.

Jackson's suspension came following an incident outside a Lawrence bar in December, when a member of the Kansas women's basketball team got into an altercation with Jackson's teammate, Lagerald Vick.

Jackson followed the woman to the parking lot and the woman said he kicked her car and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. He pleaded not guilty last week in Douglas County District Court to one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property and a trial is scheduled for May 24.

His attorney, Hatem Chahine, said he was planning to file for diversion.

Jackson also was ticketed in February after he struck a parked car and fled the scene, and that drew Self's ire when he didn't tell his coach about the incident until several weeks later.

His decision to declare for the draft came a week after teammate Svi Mykhailiuk announced he would skip his senior season. But unlike Jackson, the 6-8 sharpshooter has not hired an agent and could withdraw his name by May 24 and return to the Jayhawks.