videoGreat news, college football fans! There are only 235 days before Labor Day weekend marks the full return of your favorite pastime.

A full Saturday slate may seem impossibly far away, but the sport's opening weekend is stuffed with matchups that should once again make it worth the wait. To help take the sting out of your first day of college football withdrawal, here's a look at a few of the Week 1 games in 2018 that are worth marking down on your brand-new calendars.

Alabama vs. Louisville (Orlando, Florida)

The champs are back, and they just might have a new frontman. What will next year bring for instant hero Tua Tagovailoa? What about the 25-2 talented starter he replaced, Jalen Hurts? There may not be a more interesting question in the college football offseason for a team that will likely be a preseason favorite to win another title. The first hints will come in Orlando against a Lousiville team that will be getting its first taste of life after Lamar Jackson.

Michigan at Notre Dame

This rivalry went on hiatus in 2014 on somewhat bitter terms thanks to the Chicken Dance and a blowout. The revival starts in South Bend on Sept. 1, when both Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh will get a chance to jump-start the season with a quality win. At the end of what is shaping up to be an angsty offseason for both fan bases, may God and Twitter have mercy on the man who coaches the losing team in this one.

Auburn vs. Washington (Atlanta)

The Tigers got some good news last week when 3,000-yard passer Jarrett Stidham announced that he'd be back for another year at Auburn. Washington is still waiting to hear if its offensive standout -- running back Myles Gaskin -- makes the same call or heads off to the NFL. Either way this game features an interesting clash of styles between the fast-paced offense that took down both championship contenders in 2017 and a Washington defense that should once again be stingy against the run.

LSU vs. Miami (Arlington, Texas)

Miami may have the turnover chain, but no one is flashing more bling on defense this year than LSU. The Tigers recently agreed to pay defensive coordinator Dave Aranda $2.5 million per year to keep him in Baton Rouge. Both groups will have to stop a healthy dose of speed and talent in their season-opening matchup at Jerry World next September.

Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma

The Sooners have to replace Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, but quarterbacking heir apparent Kyler Murray should get some significant help from wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. That pairing could post some big numbers against the Owls' secondary. Of course, the lead-up to this game may be as fun as the product on the field as the Lane Train starts rolling again for Lane Kiffin's second season at FAU.

Virginia Tech at Florida State (Monday, Sept. 3)

Willie Taggart makes his Seminoles coaching debut in a home conference game in prime time on Labor Day. The two ACC foes haven't played each other since 2012. Virginia Tech should be one of Clemson's biggest threats in the league in 2018 and will provide an interesting, immediate measuring stick for Taggart's new team. We'll see how many knots Taggart has left to untangle after Florida State's disappointing 2017.

Tennesee vs. West Virginia (Charlotte, North Carolina)

Next up in the coaching debut category is former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. His first test will be against a West Virginia team that returns veteran quarterback Will Grier and his favorite target, David Sills. Will the Volunteers find reason for optimism to start the year? Either way, they'll likely be happy when the offseason officially ends.

Cincinnati at UCLA

Chip Kelly turned the Pac-12 North on its head a decade ago. Can he do the same in the South Division now that he's back in the college game after a six-year hiatus? Drawing the curtains open on the Kelly era against Cincinnati might not provide for a huge opening statement, but you'll want to see what he has cooked up in the laboratory during the past year spent away from the sidelines.

James Madison at NC State

How about a little love for the little guys? James Madison has won 26 of its past 27 games playing at the FCS level. Even if that one loss was in this year's national championship game (against the North Dakota State dynasty), the Dukes have the best shot at providing an epic upset to ring in the new season. Any team that is willing to dial up a fake punt with three minutes left in a national championship game -- and pull it off successfully -- is worthy of some of your television screen real estate on what will be a crowded market when college football returns in eight long months.

Penn State has landed one of 2018's most physically gifted prospects in Under Armour All-American defensive end Jayson Oweh. See below for when Oweh could begin making noise in the Big Ten:
videoESPN 300 defensive lineman Tyreke Smith committed to play in-state for the Buckeyes prior to the kickoff of the Under Armour All-America Game. Read below to see why Smith is such a welcome addition to Ohio State's 2018 class:

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videoMichigan football coach Jim Harbaugh has a history of slipping into bunker mode from time to time at the start of a season. It might be wise for Wolverine fans to follow suit as the program embarks on what could be a long, uncomfortable offseason.

On the heels of a disappointing finish to an 8-5 season, patience is evaporating quickly in Ann Arbor. The “wait until next year” crowd is dwindling. Michigan, which collapsed in the fourth quarter of an Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina earlier this week, has slid back to the middle of the pack in a league with an upper tier full of teams that don’t look to be going away anytime soon. The operative word for the next seven or eight months is a scary one in college football circles: uncertainty.

It would be wrong to call 2018 a “do or die” year for Harbaugh and his football team. What would the “die” in that trope really mean here?

Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesWolverines fans might want to emulate Jim Harbaugh by retreating into a bunker during this offseason of many questions but few answers.

A new coaching regime? Absolutely not; Harbaugh remains as good of a cultural fit as his alma mater could hope for and has a football mind coveted at every level of the game. So does that mean it’s time for a reality check about Michigan’s ability to compete for championships? That doesn’t seem right, either. The school has the resources, interest and recruiting prowess to remain among the programs that cycle through national championship contention runs.

The uneasiness ahead of Michigan comes from trying to fill in the blank after that “or.” Do or ... what? Insert a giant Joey Bosa sack celebration shrug here. The Wolverines ought to remember what that looks like.

Some of the same issues that existed when the older Bosa helped beat Michigan in Harbaugh’s first season have yet to be solved. None is bigger than the team’s inability to finish.

In the past two years, Michigan has a losing record in games played after Halloween. The Wolverines are 4-6 in November and bowl season during that time, and in all six of those losses they held a second-half lead. The first season of those late-game losses (three of them by a total of five points) may have seemed like a reason to believe that Harbaugh and the Wolverines were ever so close to breaking through. A repeat this year had the opposite effect. So, what’s the problem?

“Yeah, one thing, it's being able to just kind of sustain the momentum,” Harbaugh told reporters immediately after Monday’s loss to South Carolina. “Keep the momentum and then get the knockout punch. That would be what my thought would be right now.”

The problem may be simple. The solution is not. Losing late -- in seasons and in games -- usually causes the arrow of blame to land on a team’s strength and conditioning. The Wolverines hired a new strength coach last month, but that’s much too simplistic to be heralded as a fix for their issues. Other changes may be on the way.

Michigan’s offense this season bumbled and fumbled away victories (outscored 37-0 in the fourth quarters of their five losses) for a myriad of reasons that could fall on a myriad of shoulders. Playcalling, quarterbacks, insufficient blocking, youth and more have taken their share of criticism. One new player -- like quarterback Shea Patterson, who provides his own layer of uncertainty while waiting for an NCAA wavier to play in 2018 -- or one new coach won't solve all those woes.

What’s that mean moving forward? More uncertainty, which may be the least favorite word for a sports fan. The good team with an optimistic future gives its fan a chance to beat his chest while waiting for a new season. The fan of a decidedly bad team at least gets to commiserate and complain about the need for wholesale change. Michigan this year appears to be stuck in an awkward in between.

Any bold proclamations about the future of Michigan football -- good or bad -- in the coming offseason are worthy of skepticism. And anyone claiming to know what 2018 means for the capital-B Big Picture for the Wolverines is selling a bill of goods.

Of course, that won’t stop the opinions from coming, which brings us back to that bunker, Michigan fans. It’s going to be an uncomfortable, uncertain offseason for you. Best to hunker down now.

Like most football teams, Michigan has a regular routine of walk-throughs and meetings on the night before a game. To get ready for Monday's Outback Bowl, some Wolverines added an extra item to the itinerary, a gathering that included two professional hairstylists and several boxes of orange dye.

Senior defensive end Chase Winovich and several of his teammates gathered in the hotel suite of defensive coordinator Don Brown on Sunday evening to make good on a promise Winovich made two weeks earlier. They will take the field against South Carolina on Monday afternoon with long hair, dreadlocks and bushy mustaches colored bright orange as part of a pledge to raise money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer research.

What started in mid-December with a hope to raise $15,000 (to match Winovich's No. 15 jersey) has led to nearly $400,000 in donations to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Initiative.

Winovich picked that cause in memory of Chad Carr, who died two years ago after battling a rare disease called DIPG and a resulting inoperable brain tumor. Carr was the grandson of former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr and son of former Wolverines quarterback Jason Carr.

"The holidays are a hard time, and it's been a real gift to us to be able to watch the fundraiser and have fun having people remember Chad," said Tammi Carr, Chad's mother and the founder of the ChadTough Foundation. "It's what we think he was meant to do on this Earth, change this disease. Seeing that orange hair is going to be heartwarming."

Tammi Carr said she didn't know Winovich personally until he tapped on her car window outside the football team's workout facility after a bowl practice earlier this month. The All-Big Ten pass-rusher told Carr he had been growing out his hair all year in hopes of using it to help a charitable cause. He wanted to see if there was a way to use his beyond-shoulder-length locks to help the ChadTough Foundation.

"I was thinking, 'How could I help a charity? What unique talents do I have that could bring people together?'" Winovich wrote on the crowdfunding website they have used to collect donations. "The one thing I really had that a lot of people don't have is the long hair. It's very noticeable, it's very divisive -- people love it, and there's some people that don't like it."

Carr said she was worried that many people would have already decided to give to other charitable causes at the end of the year, and they might have missed their window to reach the $15,000 goal in the weeks before the Outback Bowl. It took about four hours to get there.

Soon after, Winovich talked a fellow standout defensive lineman into going orange with him if the contributions hit $73,000 (to match Maurice Hurst's No. 73). Other players, such as linebacker Devin Bush, offensive lineman Grant Newsome and wide receiver Grant Perry, also jumped on board. Eventually, they managed to talk Brown into dying his mustache -- which is such a defining facial feature that it garnered its own parody Twitter account -- if the donations hit $125,000. The drive passed that mark on Christmas Day.

"It's a tremendous cause. I'm not quite sure how I ended up in the middle of it, but it's all good," Brown told reporters in Florida a few days later. He told them he'd probably have to shave the day after the game. "That'll take about a week to grow it back, not to worry," he said.

Michigan regent Ron Weiser had previously agreed to match up to $1 million in donations to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Research Initiative, doubling the $199,050 (and counting) raised as of Monday morning.

The Carr family is hoping its foundation can help raise $30 million to name a research center after Chad on the medical campus in Ann Arbor. In roughly a year's time, they've made it more than two-thirds of the way toward that goal.

Alex Hornibrook dominates as Wisconsin upends Miami in Orange Bowl

December, 30, 2017

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The last pass Alex Hornibrook threw before Saturday's Capital One Orange Bowl found the hands of Ohio State's Damon Webb, ending Wisconsin's hopes of a Big Ten title and a playoff berth.

Twenty-seven days later, Hornibrook looked like a completely different player, and in a game in which Badgers star running back Jonathan Taylor set a freshman record for rushing, it was the beleaguered sophomore QB who stole the show.

Hornibrook completed 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns against Miami's stout defense, utterly unraveling the Hurricanes on third down, and carried the load for the Badgers' offense in a 34-24 Orange Bowl win over the Hurricanes. In the aftermath, he hoisted the Orange Bowl trophy, with a handful of oranges tumbling out. It was the only mistake he made all night.

"I thought he was really good," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said succinctly.

Hornibrook was a bit more verbose, but not much.

"They were playing a lot of man coverage, and those guys were winning their matchups, so it wasn't too hard for me," he said. "I guess we got lucky, and I didn't throw any picks."

Previously against Ohio State, Hornibrook looked lost at times, completing less than half his passes and throwing two interceptions. There were no signs of those struggles Saturday. He decimated the Canes' D, completing 7 of 10 passes on third down for 85 yards and a touchdown on third down en route to game MVP honors.

Taylor was hardly a sideshow. He racked up 143 total yards of offense and, in the process, rushed past Adrian Peterson to set the FBS rushing record for freshmen.

Miami certainly did its share to help Wisconsin's cause. Kicker Michael Badgley missed two field goal attempts. Quarterback Malik Rosier threw three picks, including one in the end zone and another on Miami's final drive. Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after he grabbed and shoved an official in a furor over a lack of holding calls against Wisconsin.

It was an ugly finish to a season of progress for Miami.

The turnover chain was slung around corner Dee Delaney's neck on the first drive of the game, but Delaney ended up watching as one of Hornibrook's passes sailed out of his reach and into the arms of Danny Davis for Wisconsin's first touchdown. By game’s end, it was the Badgers celebrating myriad takeaways from the struggling Miami offense, and Badgers corner Nick Nelson wore a homemade chain of his own around his neck, held together with athletic tape with a sparkling Wisconsin "W" painted in glitter.

"I just saw somebody had it on, and I said, 'Let me wear it,'" he said, beaming.

Richt, normally as affable as any coach, was livid throughout the game, angry at the lack of calls from officials, including what appeared to be a clear hold of Braxton Berrios on Rosier's second interception. When asked about the altercation with the officiating crew at halftime, Richt simply told ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath to "watch the tape." After Miami finished the regular season a perfect 7-0 at home, it blew a 14-3 lead in what was essentially another home game.

The Canes, who reached No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings after getting to 10-0, ended the season with three straight losses and questions about their future at quarterback. Rosier set the school record for touchdowns in the game but also showcased why so many Miami fans hope there's an alternative at the position for 2018.

Richt offered little insight about the QB situation for 2018 but paced the Miami locker room after the game, shaking hands and reminding players, "We'll get better."

"It's an obstacle, definitely, but I don't think it's a step back," defensive tackle RJ McIntosh said. "It's something we have to learn from. In order to have a bright future, we need to learn how to not have these stretches of losses."

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsAlex Hornibrook threw for four touchdowns without an interception, leading Wisconsin to a New Year's Six victory in South Florida.

For Wisconsin, there's no doubt about who will be at QB next season.

Hornibrook endured his share of growing pains this season, but the Orange Bowl felt like a turning point. The extra bowl practices clearly worked wonders, and a backfield tandem with Taylor next season would make Wisconsin a clear favorite to win the Big Ten West once again.

It was a fond sendoff for Derrick Tindal, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native who picked off that Rosier pass in the end zone.

It was a stellar finish for the Badgers, who upended Miami on its home turf, with the one quarter of the stadium clad in red remaining as the final seconds ticked off the clock of a 13-1 season.

At Miami, the turnover chain will be back next season. So, too, will a stout defense. But the talk of the Canes reviving their glory years was still premature.

At Wisconsin, the best season in program history was also among the least appreciated nationally.

"I don't think anyone's done it as quietly," Chryst said of the 13-win campaign.

But 2018 won't be quiet. Taylor will be a Heisman candidate from the outset. Davis, another freshman, had three of Hornibrook's touchdown throws Saturday. And the QB proved he belongs.

"He blew it up," senior defensive end Alec James said of Hornibrook. "He has grown a lot. Even throughout the season, he's grown. He's matured. It'll be fun to watch him next year. He's going to do some great things."

Recruit and return: Wisconsin Badgers 

December, 30, 2017
Paul ChrystBobby Ellis/Getty ImagesPaul Chryst should have Wisconsin back in the hunt for a Big Ten title.
Entering the 2017 season, many pointed to defensive experience and a favorable schedule in picking Wisconsin to make a run to the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers lived up to the lofty expectations and then some, winning their first 12 games before falling to Ohio State in the conference title game. Wisconsin is never going to be talked about among the nation’s top 10 recruiting classes come February, but the Badgers win consistently like a top-10 program. While the defensive losses will be tough to replace, Paul Chryst’s Badgers are expected to once again be a factor in the Big Ten title hunt. Quick references 2017 roster 2018 recruiting class, ranked No. 35 in the ESPN class rankings

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If Saturday afternoon was Saquon Barkley's goodbye to college football, the star running back and his Penn State offense put on an encore performance that lived up to the past few seasons of the Saquon Show.

Barkley ran for 137 yards and two touchdowns against No. 11 Washington, which entered bowl season with the top-ranked rush defense in the country. His backfield partner, quarterback Trace McSorley, added two more touchdowns through the air in a 35-28 victory for the No. 9 Nittany Lions in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

Penn State’s victory in the desert marks the fourth time a Big Ten has beaten a Pac-12 team this bowl season. The leagues have been at opposite ends of lopsided records so far in the postseason, with the Nittany Lions (11-2) stretching the B1G's record to 6-0 (with Wisconsin and Michigan still left to play). The Pac-12 won only one of its nine bowl games this season.

Washington won 10 games on the strength of its defense and allowed only 185.1 passing yards per game in the regular season. McSorley surpassed that mark just three minutes into the second quarter with a deep ball to receiver DeAndre Thompkins, which set up the Lions’ third score of the game. The quarterback finished with 32 completions and 342 yards through the air.

Saquon BarkleyRoss D. Franklin/AP PhotoSaquon Barkley rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns and added seven catches for 38 yards in Penn State's victory.

At that point in the contest, the Huskies (10-3) had less than 100 yards of total offense -- most of which had come on a trick play -- and negative rushing yards. Washington would rally in the second half, pulling within a touchdown with big plays in both the third and fourth quarters. But Penn State's backfield duo converted third downs at an eye-popping rate -- 13-of-17 in the game and three on their final, clock-sapping possession -- to melt away all but the faintest hopes of a comeback.

The lasting image from this game will belong to Barkley. The junior provided one last highlight in a season full of them when he jumped into the end zone at the end of a school-record-setting 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

With a two-score lead and a boatload of momentum, Barkley slipped through a hole near the 10-yard line, then outraced a Washington safety to the edge of the defense. Once he hit the sideline, no one in a purple uniform was going to catch him. Barkley had the space during the final 30 yards of his run to check over his shoulder multiple times and see what he was leaving behind him.

Barkley refused to look too far in front of him in the week leading up to Saturday’s game, batting away questions about a looming NFL decision like would-be Washington tacklers. He said he wanted to do his best to savor another moment in what has been a remarkable stretch for the Nittany Lions.

Coach James Franklin’s team has put together back-to-back 11-win seasons, including a Big Ten championship and now a major bowl victory. Barkley was the catalyst for a Nittany Lions offense that has led to that success; if the Fiesta Bowl was his final game in a Penn State uniform, as many expect it will be, that offense will be missing many familiar faces in 2018.

Leading receivers DaeSean Hamilton (110 yards, two touchdowns against Washington) and Mike Gesicki are both seniors. Joe Moorhead, the offensive coordinator who found innovative ways to make the most of that talent, moved south to take the head-coaching job at Mississippi State.

Ricky Rahne, a longtime Franklin assistant with an Ivy League résumé, will take Moorhead’s place as offensive coordinator. In junior McSorley, Rahne will get the luxury of a veteran returning starter at quarterback, one whom Rahne first recruited when the current staff was still at Vanderbilt. Since coming to Penn State, Franklin's staff has tapped into a steady flow of talent prospects on the recruiting trail.

Still, it will be hard to match the weapons Rahne got to use in his playcalling debut. There’s no telling exactly what the future will look like for an offense that has provided some of the best moments in each of the past two bowl seasons.

Like their star, Rahne & Co. weren’t interested in looking too far into the future this weekend. There was more than enough worth seeing on the field right in front of them.

Recruit and return: Penn State Nittany Lions 

December, 30, 2017
Penn State continues to rise under James Franklin. After a Big Ten title in 2016, the Nittany Lions posted another 10-win regular season in 2017 and the recruits are following with as much momentum on the trail as Penn State has enjoyed in many years. With the No. 4 recruiting class, more left to add to the haul and the depth continuing to be added by Franklin and his staff, the Nittany Lions are being built to last. Quick references 2017 roster 2018 recruiting class, ranked No. 4 in the ESPN class rankings

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Recruit and return: Ohio State Buckeyes 

December, 30, 2017
Head coach Urban Meyer led the Buckeyes to 11 or more wins for the sixth-straight season and also the Big Ten championship in 2017, narrowly missing a College Football Playoff berth. While Ohio State will lose record-setting quarterback and leader J.T. Barrett and some key players on the offensive and defensive lines, the program is stacked with talent across the board and is in position to continue to take home Big Ten titles and contend for the College Football Playoff. Quick references 2017-18 Roster 2018 recruiting class -- Ranked No. 2 in ESPN class rankings. Top remaining 2018 targets CB Patrick Surtain Jr. (Five-star, ESPN 300 No. 6) CB Tyson Campbell (Five-star, ESPN 300 No. 11) OT Nicholas Petit-Frere (ESPN 300 No. 16) OT William Barnes (ESPN 300 No. 54) DE Tyreke Smith (ESPN 300 No. 145) OT Rasheed Walker (ESPN 300 No. 156) DE Jayson Oweh (ESPN 300 No. 174)

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ohio State and its record-setting senior class can forever rest their argument that these Buckeyes deserved a crack at the College Football Playoff.

They offered a solid closing statement Friday night, stuffing USC in a 24-7 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic victory at AT&T Stadium.

The win smelled like a rose and looked like a rose. Ahead of this game in North Texas, though, the Buckeyes were reminded regularly that the matchup of Big Ten champion versus Pac-12 champion was displaced from Pasadena, California, by the playoff.

Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDamon Webb returned Sam Darnold's second-quarter interception for an Ohio State score.

It was a playoff Ohio State missed by one spot, penalized for a September loss to Oklahoma and a more costly, 31-point defeat at Iowa. After that Week 10 setback, Urban Meyer’s team won its next four -- punctuated by a Big Ten title-game win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin -- by an average margin of 25 points.

The victory Friday night capped a spectacular closing stretch that left the fifth-ranked Buckeyes at 12-2, with 12 wins or more for the fifth time in six years under Meyer.

And they secured the program a first victory over USC in eight tries dating to 1975.

Despite its lapses, this team earned a spot among Meyer’s best in Columbus, powered by a group of seniors who finished 49-6 -- the most wins by any four-year class in Ohio State history.

But he was in no mood to lobby for Ohio State as a playoff-worthy team.

“We’ve been on the outside looking in twice, and we’ve been in there twice, so I’m going to enjoy this win,” Meyer said.

Senior J.T. Barrett piloted the journey and contributed a pair of touchdown runs against No. 8 USC, playing for the first time as a college quarterback in his home state.

It meant so much to Barrett, who was sidelined by injury for the playoff championship won here by Ohio State three years ago.

It meant a lot, too, to USC QB Sam Darnold, who faces a decision ahead of the Jan. 15 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft. The 6-foot-4 sophomore struggled against Ohio State’s ferocious defensive front.

Before an intensely interested audience that included Denver Broncos general manager John Elway, Darnold rarely looked comfortable. He committed three turnovers, notably a second-quarter pick-six returned 23 yards by safety Damon Webb. Darnold also lost a fumble before halftime that led to a two-play, 59-yard Ohio State TD drive.

The first USC turnover, on the third play from scrimmage as cornerback Kendall Sheffield stripped receiver Deontay Burnett, allowed the Buckeyes to take a seven-point lead less than three minutes after the opening kickoff.

Darnold finished 26-of-45 passing for 356 yards. He was sacked eight times as the Trojans finished 11-3. Barrett, meanwhile, threw for 114 yards and rushed for 66 while breaking Drew Brees' Big Ten career record for total offensive yardage.

The Big Ten improved to 5-0 in bowl season, while the Pac-12 dropped to 1-6 with another matchup set for Saturday in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl as No. 9 Penn State faces No. 11 Washington (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Aside from the quarterbacks and league bragging rights, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward made headlines by announcing his intention minutes before kickoff to declare for the draft and skip Friday's game. Ward is rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay as the top draft-eligible player at his position.

videoOhio State knows this weekend’s venue well. The Buckeyes' last trip to AT&T Stadium three years ago ended with confetti covering the field and a national championship trophy in their locker room.

Each of this year’s players can picture the scene. Even those who weren’t on the roster in 2014 see it every day. The halls of the team’s practice facility in Columbus are plastered with images of past championship teams and reminders of major accomplishments in Buckeyes history.

There’s a wall not far from the locker room dedicated to the 2014 team with mural-sized photos of their trip to AT&T Stadium and the hardware they picked up there. And while this year’s fifth-ranked Buckeyes are on the outside looking in at the four-team playoff, the feeling leading up to this Texas trip hasn’t been as different as they might have imagined or feared.

Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireCenter Billy Price and the Buckeyes believe the Cotton Bowl still has a big-game feel.

“There will be a wall for this team,” coach Urban Meyer said the day he learned that his team would be facing No. 8 USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic instead of playing in its third semifinal game in the past four years. “This is a special group.”

Meyer has won three national titles during his coaching career and has constructed a juggernaut at Ohio State that is capable of competing for his next one every year. Nonetheless, neither Meyer nor his team have said they feel particularly cheated (by their own efforts or the selection committee’s decision) for not getting to play for a championship this time around. The Trojans, who hit a few bumps on the path between trendy preseason playoff pick and Pac-12 championships, say the feeling is mutual.

If you’re looking to make an argument that a four-team playoff is a sweet spot for the sport, this week in Dallas would be a pretty good place to start.

College football is arguably better than any of our country’s major sports at producing games that create intrigue based on something other than what’s coming next, which is to say that victories in most sports are usually viewed most important or valuable when they move the winner one step closer to a championship. College football has long tried to operate outside that model. This Friday's Cotton Bowl is a prime example of why.

USC was involved in another such game a year ago. The Trojans' 52-49 win over No. 5 Penn State in the Rose Bowl was at least one of the best two postseason games of the year. USC players knew from experience that they were in for a game that would match the intensity and level of play of the playoff bowls when they heard they’d be pitted against another traditional power in Dallas.

“It was almost a little more excitement than the playoff,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Because what other teams do you want to see play each other? I hope they come out in their traditional uniforms. What a great look for that on the same field. It's going to be a blast.”

Realistically, would both teams rather be playing with a ticket to a national championship game on the line? Of course, and in an expanded playoff, this pair of conference champions would almost certainly have had that chance. It’s not a stretch either to imagine Ohio State and USC both competing with, if not beating, some of the four teams that nabbed playoff spots ahead of them.

An eight-team playoff format would have opened the door for both of them to play for a national title. What we can learn, though, from the excitement around this game and the potential for a worthwhile matchup is that missing out on a title shot might not be the travesty some want to believe it to be.

“If you look at a win or success or failure of a season based on a national championship, then you're in the wrong business,” Ohio State center Billy Price said earlier this week. “Because, again, if you're that uptight about having to win a national championship every single year or you're defined as a failure [if you don’t, it’s] not a good situation.”

USC’s Rose Bowl win against Penn State and its meeting with Ohio State would not have happened with an expanded playoff. Sure, they would have been replaced for each program by quarterfinal games with higher stakes that included the potential for a championship.

That’s not a bad trade for those teams, but the sacrifice to get there would mean pushing the rest of bowl season closer to becoming football’s version of the NIT. In a sport that does as well as any at creating games that are worthy of excitement for their own sake, it would be a shame to lose games like this year’s Cotton Bowl. It’s great to have games that -- even if a win doesn’t open the door for something bigger -- are worth commemorating by hanging a picture on the wall.

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Taylor ran for 1,847 yards this season, just 78 shy of Adrian Peterson's freshman record.

The longest run of Jonathan Taylor's still-young college career came right around the time he started to notice defenses paying more attention to him.

Wisconsin’s star freshman running back was in the middle of an eye-popping, 249-yard rushing performance against Nebraska in early October when he took a handoff late in the second quarter. He shuffled his feet in the backfield just long enough to allow a blocker in front of him to slip off a double-team and seal a linebacker downfield. Taylor shot through the newly creased hole, shook off an arm tackle and sprinted the rest of the way to a 75-yard touchdown. It was one of many examples Taylor put on tape this season of the rare combination of patience, power and speed that almost instantly made him one of college football’s most productive weapons.

Taylor rushed for 1,847 yards this fall, the fourth-highest total of any FBS back in 2017. If he picks up another 79 (about half of his average) against Miami on Dec. 30 in the Capital One Orange Bowl, he’ll break Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman rushing record. It didn’t take long for defenses to take note on the largely unheralded prospect from a small town in New Jersey.

“It clicked in midway through the season,” Taylor said. “We started running little packages with me going in motion, and you could see some guys following me. You could see there was some extra attention. I thought that was a great thing.”

Taylor went from fourth on Wisconsin’s depth chart to sixth in Heisman voting and being mentioned in the same breath as Peterson and Badgers Heisman winner Ron Dayne. Those first Dayne comparisons came from Dayne himself, who is back in Madison working on his degree and made sure to send his fellow New Jersey native a pregame text with words of wisdom each week this season.

The inquisitive freshman seeks advice whenever and from whomever he can when it comes to figuring out how to keep that type of vaunted company as he moves forward in his career. He has learned that staying on that path during the offseason will require the same skills that helped him excel on the field this year.

Taylor said learning to be patient was the best lesson running backs coach John Settle taught him in their first season together with the sixth-ranked Badgers (12-1).

On the field, that meant letting blocks develop and taking the 1- and 2-yard gains while waiting for a seam to break a big one. This winter, Taylor says, that will translate to chipping away at new skills he hopes will provide more opportunities for those impact plays.

The rookie has become well acquainted with Wisconsin’s passing machine in the past few weeks as he tries to become more of a threat as a receiver. Badgers coaches started to search for new ways to get Taylor the ball as defenses focused in on him later in the season.

“I definitely want to continue to work on that so I can be as effective as possible in the passing game,” he said. “I always want to be on the field to help my teammates, so I have to make sure I’m ready for all phases of the game.”

Taylor said it was mostly swing passes when he caught the ball in high school, but he’d like to become a competent route-runner out of the backfield and the slot this offseason. While Taylor might have the reputation of a big, physical back -- partly because that’s how Wisconsin backs are typecast and partly because he did put a few defenders on the turf this season -- he has the speed to hurt teams in space, too. Taylor won back-to-back state titles in the 100-meter dash in high school, clocking in at 10.49 seconds at his fastest.

Jonathan Taylor
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAfter making a splash in Wisconsin's ground game, freshman Jonathan Taylor aims to work on his receiving chops.

“He’s fast and he’s also a fast learner,” Taylor's high school coach, Montrey Wright, said earlier this year. “He’s learned a lot of technique this year he’s already incorporated into his game. He always wants to learn and he’s just that kind of guy. That’s the advantage he has.”

That plan to expand the way Taylor can affect a game is not far in philosophy from what Penn State did this season to make the most of Saquon Barkley, although it would certainly look a bit different within Wisconsin’s offense. Barkley was one of the two Power 5 backs -- along with Stanford’s Bryce Love -- to finish ahead of Taylor in the Heisman voting. Naturally, he asked both for advice as well.

Taylor was able to spend a couple days with Love and Barkley while in Atlanta earlier this month for an awards show. He said the red-carpet treatment was nice, but he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brains of his older counterparts.

“Both of them told me you better make sure you never get complacent,” he said. “Because as soon as you get complacent you’ll start to see a decline.”

Taylor said to him that means attacking the offseason at the same speed with which he hits an opening on Saturdays in the fall.

Part of maintaining the level of production in future seasons will be staying healthy through long and busy seasons. Taylor said he became an avid stretcher after workouts and practice and at least twice on rest days this fall. He credits his stretching routine with helping him stay fresh while carrying the ball 273 times in his first college season. And though luck plays a big role in avoiding injuries, Taylor is hoping to fortify himself a bit further in the weight room during the next eight months.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst’s steady advice to his team during its 12-0 start was to allow it to soak in and enjoy each moment rather than worrying about where the Badgers would stand at the end of the season. Taylor, of course, heeded those pearls of wisdom, too.

So yes, he can appreciate the record at stake against the No. 10 Hurricanes (10-2) and the company he has already joined. It’d be a “heckuva” way to end his first college season, he said. But for now, the moment that Taylor is soaking up also includes preparing for the future to make sure he and his team stay a step ahead of what’s coming next.

“I can’t stay at a stalemate,” he said. “I have to try to get better. They’re trying to get better as well.”

LINCOLN, Neb. -- A signing day without coaches?

The scene at Nebraska was unorthodox on Wednesday as the early signing period opened. With new coach Scott Frost and his staff on the practice field in Orlando with UCF to prepare for the Jan. 1 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, a small group convened in the offices at Nebraska to collect letters of intent.

Director of recruiting Sean Dillon ran point in Lincoln. And forget the fax machine. As recruits texted Dillon photos of their signed letters, he stayed in touch with Frost’s chief of staff, Gerrod Lambrecht, on the ground in Florida.

Nati Harnik/AP

Frost, hired Dec. 2, worked to keep and collect 13 pledges -- headlined by three members of the ESPN 300 and three in the ESPN Junior College 50 -- the majority of which signed on Wednesday. In a teleconference from Orlando, Florida, with reporters, Frost said he is pleased with the Cornhuskers’ position and looks forward to the recruiting work left before the traditional signing period begins Feb. 7.

“One thing we weren’t going to do is just sign kids to fill spots,” said Frost, named the Associated Press Coach of the Year among several national awards. “We want kids that we know can come be good people and become good football players.”

Alongside Dillon, staffers Ryan Callaghan and Kenny Wilhite convened on leather couches in the lobby of the football office to enjoy doughnuts and later pizza. Associate AD Matt Davison worked nearby -- and all of them, in Davison’s office, watched the announcement of juco running back Greg Bell, erupting in celebration when he picked the Huskers over Tennessee.

Frost called Dillon to check on progress during a break in the UCF practice.

The first letter of intent arrived shortly after 6 a.m. from receiver Justin McGriff of Tampa, Florida, though it was lacking a parent’s signature. Three hours later, his signing was official.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez, a four-star prospect out of Fresno, California, whom Nebraska flipped from Tennessee and was targeted by Frost’s staff as a top priority immediately after Frost accepted the job, sent his paperwork at 9:20 a.m.
Its arrival captured the attention of all in the area of Dillon.

Frost said he believes Nebraska had good talent in Lincoln -- better than its 4-8 record under coach Mike Riley this season indicated.

“Whether they’re seniors or freshmen, I don’t care, we’re going to play the best kids,” Frost said. “But every one of them is going to have to earn it. And everyone is going to have to come in and outperform the people on campus.”

video Penn State now has a second five-star following the announcement of Micah Parsons. Read below to see how he can make an impact for the Nittany Lions:

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