No. 2 Oregon crushes Cal Bears, 59-17

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No. 2 Oregon crushes Cal Bears, 59-17

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Marcus Mariota overcame a brief injury to throw for a career-high 377 yards and tie a school record with six touchdown passes as No. 2 Oregon made a case for the top ranking in the country by beating California 59-17 on Saturday night.The Ducks (10-0, 7-0 Pac-12) withstood injuries to its entire starting defensive line and brief absences by Mariota and star running back Kenjon Barner to extend the longest active winning streak in major college football to 13 games.The win over California (3-8, 2-6) could be enough to move Oregon up to No. 1 after top-ranked Alabama lost earlier in the day 29-23 to No. 15 Texas A&M. Even more importantly, the Crimson Tide loss cleared one potential rival for a spot in the BCS title game, leaving Notre Dame and Kansas State as the only other major undefeated teams eligible for a bowl. The Ducks are currently third in the BCS rankings.After struggling for more than a half against a Golden Bears team that was missing quarterback Zach Maynard and star receiver Keenan Allen, the Ducks will have to be more consistent the next few weeks if they want to remain unbeaten. They finish the regular season against No. 16 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon State and also could be in the Pac-12 title game.Oregon raced past the Bears with their passing game instead of the vaunted running attack that had rushed for at least 400 yards in the previous three games. Cal held Barner to 65 yards on 20 carries - 256 fewer yards than he had last week against USC - and even knocked him out briefly with a hard hit that sent him to the locker room in the first half.Mariota also left the game after a hard fall late in the second quarter but returned the following series. He then helped the Ducks break the game open in the second half with four TD passes, including two to Josh Huff.Mariota completed 27 of 34 passes and tied the school TD record last achieved by Darron Thomas last year against Nevada. Huff finished with five catches for 109 yards and three scores as the Ducks set a major college football record by scoring at least 40 points for a 13th straight game.The biggest moment came midway through the third quarter after the Bears cut Oregon's lead to 24-17 and got a stop on defense to fire up a crowd that has had little to cheer about this season.Isi Sofele, who rushed for 134 yards, had been gashing Oregon's defense in the second half and started this drive with a 14-yard run. But Allan Bridgford threw an incomplete pass, Brendan Bigelow was stopped for a 1-yard gain and then Bridgford was intercepted by Boseko Lokombo on a screen pass under heavy pressure from Arik Armstead.Mariota found Huff on a 35-yard touchdown pass on the next play to make it 31-17 and the Ducks rolled from there. Mariota and Huff teamed up on a 39-yard score on the next drive and the rout was on.That ended the Bears chances in the final home game of the season and perhaps final home game for coach Jeff Tedford at Cal. There have been questions raised about Tedford's status after missing a bowl for the second time in three years. The Bears have lost four straight for the first time ever under Tedford.Bridgford finished 9 for 21 for 113 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.Mariota left the game holding his left arm in the second quarter but returned after Vincenzo D'Amato missed a 48-yard field goal late in the half for Cal. Mariota drove the Ducks 69 yards, capped by a 10-yard pass to Huff that made it 24-10 at the half.

Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

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Jackson, Watson headline five 2016 Heisman finalists

NEW YORK -- Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy finalist for the second consecutive season, joining Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers and Oklahoma teammates Baker Mayfield and Dede Westbrook.

The finalists were announced Monday on ESPN and the award will be presented Saturday in New York.

Watson finished third in last year's voting, won by Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Just like last year, he heads to New York not as the favorite but as the contender coming on strong at the end. Mayfield finished fourth last season, but did not get an invite to Heisman presentation in New York.

Peppers is the first defensive player to be a Heisman finalists since Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo was a distant runner-up to Johnny Manziel in 2012.

Westbrook and Mayfield are the first teammates to be finalists since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart from Southern California finished first and third, respectively in 2005.

Finalists are determined by the margins between vote-getters. The ballots of more than 900 voters, which included former Heisman winners, were due Monday.

Watson entered as the preseason favorite in what looked like a strong field of contenders, but Jackson quickly swept past them all to be front-runner. He was brilliant for the first two months of the season and Louisville was looking like a College Football Playoff contender.

It seemed as if Jackson would be a runaway Heisman winner, but the 15th-ranked Cardinals lost their final two games of the season. He was sacked 11 times in a lopsided loss at Houston and he committed four turnovers in a last-second loss against Kentucky.

Watson, meanwhile, has surged since Clemson's only loss to Pitt in mid-November. He also had the benefit of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game last Saturday and took full advantage of the spotlight. Watson threw three touchdown passes and ran for two scores in a 42-35 victory against Virginia Tech to seal a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The raw numbers still favor Jackson, who is second in the nation in total yards per game (410.7) and has accounted for 51 touchdowns (21 rushing TDs and 30 TD passes) with 13 turnovers (nine INTs and four lost fumbles) in 12 games. Watson averages 341.8 yards per game and has 43 touchdowns (six rushing and 37 passing) with 15 turnovers (all interceptions) in 13 games.

When the two met on Oct. 1 at Clemson in what was one of the season's most entertaining games, Watson threw for 306 yards and five touchdowns, ran for 91 and was picked off three times. Jackson had 295 yards passing, 162 rushing and accounted for three touchdowns with one interception. Clemson won 42-36.

Mayfield and Westbrook have been a dynamic combination, and late in the season No. 7 Oklahoma started a dual campaign to promote both for the Heisman. Mayfield is on pace to break the NCAA record for passer efficiency rating in a season (197.75). Westbrook has 74 catches for 1,465 yards and 16 touchdowns and has more receptions covering at least 20 yards (26) than any receiver in the country.

Peppers played defense, offense and special teams for Michigan, lining up all over the field.

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

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USATSI

College football roundup: The case for an eight-team playoff

Would eight be better than four?

That was the obvious question after Sunday’s announcement of the final College Football Playoff rankings, which determined the four teams that will compete for the national championship.

The semi-finals will match No. 1 Alabama, the SEC champion, vs. No. 4 Washington, the Pac-12 champ, in the Peach Bowl, and No. 2 Clemson, the ACC champ, vs. No. 3 Ohio State, the Big Ten East Division runner-up, in the Fiesta Bowl.

On the outside looking in are the Big Ten champion, No. 5 Penn State, and the Big 12 champion, No. 7 Oklahoma, as well as No. 6 Michigan, which beat Penn State by 39 points and lost to Ohio State in double overtime, and No. 8 Wisconsin, the Big Ten West champ. 

As a bowl director, I originally was opposed to the playoff, fearing that it would diminish the bowls (which it did) and the regular season (which it didn’t). The playoff has proven to be a huge success, and a boon to the sport. 

But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. Four teams is better than the old two-team BCS model, but when you have five “power” conferences, one or more champions will be left out of the playoff every year—two were left out this year—and one or more deserving teams won’t get to compete for the title. If you go to an eight-team tourney, each year’s field would feature the five league champs plus the next three highest rated teams. More elite teams would have a chance to grab the brass ring, and there would be less quibbling over who was left out.

Imagine these quarter-final pairings in an eight-team playoff this season:

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Michigan
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 5 Penn State

We’re in the third year of a 12-year playoff agreement between the conferences and ESPN. However, the playoff could easily be expanded to include eight teams before the original contract expires. Why? Because the structure is already in place. At present, two semi-final games rotate through six different bowls (the “New Year’s Six"). These same six bowls could host an eight-team playoff—four for the quarter-finals and two for the semis, with the championship game awarded by bid, as it is now. Is it possible the commissioners had expansion in mind when they set up the original six-bowl format? 

Our feeling is that the eight-team playoff will become a reality in 2020, after the first six years of the 12-year deal are concluded. 

Blowout epidemic: Washington’s blowout win over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game is the latest example of a disturbing trend. Consider the scores of the Pac-12 title game since its inception:  2011–Oregon 49, UCLA 31; 2012–Stanford 27, UCLA 24; 2013–Stanford 38, Arizona State 14; 2014–Oregon 51, Arizona 13; 2015– Stanford 41, USC 22; 2016—Washington 41, Colorado 10. Only one close game in the bunch, and an average victory margin of 22 points. CBS’s Jon Solomon did an analysis that showed the Power Five championship games had an average margin of victory of 17.4 points, and that was before last weekend’s games, which averaged 20.75.

Understandably, with the advent of the playoff, championship games have lost much of their luster. Many fans see these games as a stepping-stone to the playoff and stay home rather than having to travel to two—or possibly three—postseason games to follow their team. The blowouts don’t help. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently suggested that if the playoff expands, conference championship games might be one of the casualties.

Neutral sites: Friday night’s Washington-Colorado game also marked the end of the Pac-12’s three-year agreement to play the championship game at neutral-site Levi’s Stadium. Our feeling is that these games should be played on campus, on the home field of the highest ranked team. The first three Pac-12 games followed that format. The 2011 game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene was a sellout (59,376) and the 2013 game at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe fell just short (69,535). (The 2012 game at Stanford didn’t do well because it was held in a driving rain and the two participants had played each other the week before).

By contrast, the three games at Levi’s have drawn crowds of 45,618, 58,476 and 47,118 in a venue that seats 68,500. The conference likes the certainty of knowing in advance where the game will be played, and that reasoning may work in the football-crazy SEC, but not on the West Coast. Instead of 47,118 in Santa Clara, imagine last Friday’s game being played in an on-campus environment before 70,000 in Seattle. 

Blame Game: Michigan might well be one of the best four teams in the country, and Jim Harbaugh is a great coach, but Harbaugh’s attempt to blame the officiating for his team’s double overtime loss to Ohio State deserved a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. The officials didn’t throw a pick-six or mishandle a snap from center on the one-yard line—the two plays that cost Michigan the game. Yet after Harbaugh’s rant, the officials received numerous death threats from rabid Michigan fans. There’s no excuse for that type of behavior, or for Harbaugh’s sideline antics and post-game diatribe. 

Dr. Pepper: What’s happened to the “Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway” at the various conference championship games? Contestants used to throw the football toward the target like a quarterback attempting a forward pass. Now they all use a chest pass, as in basketball. While this technique might be more accurate from short distances, it makes a mockery of a competition at a football game.

Foster Farms Bowl: The Bay Area’s bowl, now in its 15th year, will be played at Levi’s Stadium on Dec. 28 and match Utah from the Pac-12 against Indiana from the Big Ten. This will be the Hoosiers first appearance in the game. The Utes played in the bowl in 2005 at AT&T Park, when it was known as the Emerald Bowl, and upset Georgia Tech 38-10. 

Stanford to the Sun: Despite the presence of one of the most exciting players in college football, Christian McCaffrey, a higher ranking and a superior record (9-3), No. 18 Stanford was bypassed by both the Holiday Bowl (which selected unranked, 8-4 Washington State) and the hometown Foster Farms Bowl (which took No. 19, 8-4 Utah), and fell to the Sun Bowl in El Paso. The Holiday apparently felt that WSU would bring more fans to San Diego. The folks in Santa Clara went with Utah because Stanford has played in Levi’s Stadium in each of the past two seasons, beating Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl in ’14 and USC for the Pac-12 championship last year. That’s understandable for the bowls, but disappointing for Stanford and its fans, who might choose the family room couch over a vacation in beautiful El Paso.

Rose Bowl criteria: There was some confusion as to why USC was picked over Colorado to be the Pac-12’s representative. If the league champ (in this case Washington) goes to the playoff, then the Rose Bowl takes "the next best team" in the conference. That could be interpreted to mean the next best team in the standings, which would be Colorado, winner of the South Division with one regular-season loss in league play. Or it could mean the highest rated team by the CFP Selection Committee. The Rose Bowl used the later criteria and took USC, rated 9th to Colorado’s 10th. 

Heisman Watch: Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the favorite for most of the season, stumbled a bit in his last two games. But Jackson still had the best season of any player in college football, passing for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,538 yards and another 21 scores. No other player came close. Washington quarterback Jake Browning had an outside chance to overtake Jackson with a stellar performance in the Pac-12 championship, but Browning had a subpar outing in a game dominated by the Huskies’ running backs and secondary. In all likelihood, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had a brilliant game in the ACC championship, but was plagued by turnovers early in the season, will be the runner up.