Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

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Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

Defensive back Johnthan Banks is considered one of the schools all-time greats at Mississippi State.The Bulldogs All-American is just one of several challenges Northwestern must ponder as it prepares for their Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.They have enough wrinkles to make you turn grey, and they've got great SEC speed, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Were going to have our best couple of weeks of preparation to be ready. But our guys are hungry for it.Last week Banks captured the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded to the nations top defensive back. Hes the fourth straight Southeastern Conference player to win the award, and the first from Mississippi State.Banks is tied for sixth nationally with six career interceptions returned for touchdowns and is No. 1 in all-time career interception yards (320). The Walter Camp All-American also collected 59 tackles this season.Mississippi State also presents an imposing defensive line, a particular concern for Wildcat running back Venric Mark.They have guys on the inside who are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 340 pounds and realistically, (if) we run option sideline-to-sideline theyre going to get tired, Mark said. When you play a team like that, with that type of caliber of players, its all about scheme...You have to know what your strengths and your weaknesses are.Theres a lot for Fitzgerald to consider as he locks down a game plan for the Wildcats fifth bowl game in five seasons.(Bulldog coach) Dan (Mullen) does a terrific job schematically, Fitzgerald said. Theyve got great balance. When you look at them offensively, theres not a lot of things that are going to tip what theyre doing and how theyre doing it.(Assistant coach) Chris Wilson does a great job with their defense, theyre big up front -- on both sides of the ball. Theyre very athletic and theyve got the Thorpe Award winner, the best DB in the country in the secondary.Northwestern has already seen some of the what Mississippi State may offer.Theyve got a lot of similarities to Iowa and Michigan State from the standpoint of the downhill run and play-action pass, Fitzgerald said. Theyre very physical and very well- coached and play with terrific effort.Its going to be a fun challenge.Banks was the Bulldogs only first team all-SEC player, but freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney also snared league honors as an all-SEC freshman. He played in all 12 games and finished 7th in the SEC with 97 tackles.Northwestern had three representatives on ESPN.coms Big Ten All-Freshman Team, including cornerback Nick VanHoose and defensive end Dean Lowry. True freshman Dan Vitale landed on the offensive team.Last week, the College Sports Information Directors of America awarded Capital One Academic All-American honors to Wildcat offensive lineman Patrick Ward (first team) and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt (second team). Northwestern now has 34 Academic All-Americans in program history.But with two exceptions, top conference football awards eluded the Wildcats.Fitzgerald said he considered running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,315 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Big Tens best. But Mark could only garner second team conference recognition.I did miss a game -- Michigan State -- which is probably the best defense in the Big Ten, Mark said. I was a little bit down, a little upset, but at the end of the day (if Fitzgerald) thinks Im the best runner thats all that really matters to me.The only other Wildcat honoree was kicker Jeff Budzein, who shared first-team selection with Nebraskas Brett Maher.
Northwestern will pick up the practice pace later this week. The month of preparation is invaluable, not only to get veterans back up to speed but also allowing younger players additional practice time.The rich get richer, Fitzgerald said. Its one of those situations where youve got a huge opportunity to get those guys a lot of work, (teach) fundamental technique on what you do and how you do it and then figure out what theyve got to do better in the winter.Missing from bowl preparations this year is the stuffed monkey that accompanied the Wildcats to the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston.Northwestern lost to Texas A&M, 33-22, and that symbol of getting a long bowl losing streak off their backs probably wont make the Gator Bowl trip.Besides, the Wildcats dont need any outside influences.I think a year ago that was fun, Fitzgerald said. At the end of the day, were a totally different team ... Our seniors are highly motivated and they want to find a way to win a (bowl) game.Thats a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by quarterback Kain Colter.Guys are fueled to make some new goals that we havent achieved here at Northwestern, he said. We want to be the team thats remembered as getting that first bowl win in a long time.

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

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USA TODAY

Expansion of the College Football Playoff field continues to seem inevitable

There were six teams deserving of reaching the College Football Playoff this season. But there were only four spots.

But what if there were more spots?

An expansion of the Playoff field to eight teams has seemed inevitable from the day the four-team system was announced. Four more Playoff games means oodles more TV viewers, which means oodles more dollars.

And then we wouldn't be having all these arguments, either — but that's nonsense because of course we would, trying to figure out who got snubbed from the expanded bracket.

But this season's emphasis on the conference-champion debate might kick the efforts to expand the Playoff into high gear. Just take it from NCAA president Mark Emmert.

Now, technically speaking, there are 10 FBS conferences, each of which crowns a champion at the end of every football season. Emmert is obviously referring to the Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC. He might want to pick his words a bit more carefully, considering he represents the other five conferences — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — too, but his point remains understood.

This season has sparked a ton of controversy as the Playoff selection committee opted for the first time to include a team that did not win its conference, Ohio State, and it picked the Buckeyes over the Big Ten champs, Penn State. Plus, Big 12 champion Oklahoma was passed over in favor of non-champion Ohio State, too, actually falling behind another non-champion from the Big Ten, Michigan, in the final Playoff rankings.

With that decision brought the reasonable question of how much a conference championship should matter in getting a team into the final four and competing for a national championship.

The Playoff committee's mission is to pick the country's four best teams, and there aren't many people out there that will argue that Ohio State isn't one of the country's four best teams. But there's something to be said for winning a conference championship because if the Buckeyes can waltz into the Playoff without even playing in the Big Ten title game, why even have a conference championship game — besides, obviously, earning one more night of big-time TV money.

And so the call for an expanded Playoff bracket has reached perhaps its greatest volume in the short time the Playoff has existed. The obvious solution to Power Five conference champions continually being boxed out is to lock in five spots on the bracket for the five conference champions. Then, guarantee a spot for the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five conferences, and you're left with two "at-large" spots that this season would've gone to Ohio State and Michigan, two of the highest-profile programs in the country sure to drive TV viewership in battles against conference-champion Alabama, Clemson, Washington, Penn State and Oklahoma teams. And P.J. Fleck's undefeated Western Michigan squad takes the final slot.

That's quite the field. But if you think it would've solved all this year's problems, you're wrong. Still there would've been outcry that red-hot USC didn't make the field. The Trojans are playing so well that they could very well win the whole thing, despite their three early season losses. That debate over snubs will exist forever, no matter the size of the field, something we see play out each and every season in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Also, what a damper an expanded bracket would put on the final few weeks of the regular season. Ohio State's game against Michigan, the highest-rated game of the college football season with more than 16 million people watching, would've been effectively meaningless. No matter who won or lost, both teams would've made that eight-team field, right?

Additionally, another round of Playoff football would expand the season to 16 games for some teams. That means more physical demands on student-athletes and a season cutting deep into January, which would impact their educational and time demands.

But again, an expansion of the Playoff bracket has always seemed inevitable. There's too much money to be made, and at the same time fans seem to be all about that idea. People love the postseason for good reason, and the win-or-go-home nature of the NFL playoffs make those games the most-watched sporting events of the year.

Now the NCAA president is chiming in with hopes of an expanded field. So really isn't it just a matter of time?

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

Road Ahead: Blackhawks dealing with rash of injuries

CSN's Chris Boden and Tracey Myers have the latest on the Blackhawks in the Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Honda Dealers.

From an injury standpoint, it's been a tough few weeks for the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks are down two key players in captain Jonathan Toews and goaltender Corey Crawford, and now may be without defenseman Brent Seabrook who sustained an upper-body injury in Tuesday's victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the Blackhawks haven't had much luck on the injury front, their upcoming two opponents are in the same boat.

"You look at the New York Rangers, a very talented team, but this is what every team goes through every season. Your depth gets tested," Myers said.

Check out what else Boden and Myers had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Ahead