NCAA Football

College Football Playoff to Consider Avoiding Future New Year's Eve Scheduling

A year after complaints and a nosedive in television ratings, the College Football Playoff is considering moving its semifinals away from New Year's Eve.  

“We will be exploring whether there is a better way for the semifinals,” executive director Bill Hancock said Wednesday, per George Schroeder of USA Today. “We will be thinking about whether New Year’s Eve is the right way to go.”

The semifinals, which were held on New Year's Day during the first playoff session, moved to Dec. 31 in 2015. The move led to a ratings drop of roughly 40 percent overall, 45 percent for the early game (Clemson-Oklahoma) and 34.4 percent for the late game (Alabama-Michigan State).

Hancock's comments Wednesday mark a shift from January, when he told reporters the ratings downturn was "not that much of a surprise.” He said at the time the CFP was committed to New Year's Eve games and that a number of factors—not just date—led to the sharp decline.

More to follow.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.

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Teams Most Likely to Produce 2016 Heisman Finalists

We're smack dab in the middle of “Watch List” season—that portion of college football's preseason when nearly all of the national awards organizers release early lists of players they're considering for their honor. The one trophy that noticeably abstains from this practice is the biggest of them all: the Heisman.

There's really no need for the Heisman folks to do so, though, since we in the media are so quick to come up with our own contender lists. This starts moments after the previous winner is announced and continues throughout the offseason and into the season, becoming a weekly practice right up until the finalists are announced in early December.

We're jumping ahead to that announcement, looking at the schools that are most likely to have players included among the finalists. There should be between three and six players invited to New York City for the Heisman ceremony, but our list of possible schools features 12. Some are based on the top players they have—and whether they're on early Heisman odds lists, such as the one released by Odds Shark—and others are mentioned for their history of producing finalists.

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Why Bret Bielema Has Replaced Steve Spurrier as the King of SEC Media Days

HOOVER, Ala. — Move over, Steve Spurrier. There's a new sheriff in town.

When the "Head Ball Coach" abruptly resigned from South Carolina in October of 2015, it left a void in the SEC "talkin' season" universe.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has filled that hole.

The fourth-year head coach of the Razorbacks stole the show on Thursday at SEC media days with his wit, candor, subtle shots and willingness to display his personality on the biggest offseason stage of the year, rather than hide it from the cameras.

Shots at other teams? Bielema's got that.

With Alabama head coach Nick Saban making the rounds at the same time on Wednesday and the status of tackle Cam Robinson and safety "Hootie" Jones in question, Bielema made it clear that he doesn't have those kinds of problems in his program.

"You don't have to worry whether or not—if I'm going to suspend anybody for the first game," Bielema said in the main ball room. "It doesn't come up in our program. Not to say it won't. At some time it may rear its ugly head. In four years I never had to make a decision about the opening game if I'm going to start somebody or not."

Bielema also isn't afraid to get a little raunchy. 

When asked to describe his team, Bielema veered more toward an R-rating.

"At Arkansas we're not built very sexy, we're just kind of a work in progress," he said. "We need a lot of time in the bathroom to get ready and come out and look great. But when we do, we'll stop time. And at some point we'll get to where we want to be. And when we get there, it just means a little bit more."

The sexy talk wasn't done, either.

Michigan recently renewed its rivalry with Notre Dame, which forced the Wolverines to cancel their planned series with the Hogs. When asked to address the cancellation, Bielema stuck up for his program in a way that only he can.

"I'm sorry, the Michigan-Notre Dame thing sounds sexy to everybody else, but I think Michigan and Arkansas sounds sexy," he said.

This isn't the first time that Bielema has steered the media days bus down this road.

Last year in the TV room, Bielema had a creative way to describe his feeling when his team took a knee to beat Texas in the 2014 Texas Bowl.

"It was a proud moment" he said. "Borderline erotic."

He described defensive lineman Deatrich Wise as "beautiful" in the main ball room. Two years ago, he went even farther when describing then-true freshman defensive lineman Bijhon Jackson.

Bielema is honest, forthcoming, self-deprecating and fun. He's everything Spurrier was when the Head Ball Coach was in the conference—minus only the visor.

Spurrier is missed, there's no doubt about that.

But with Bielema around, there's always a guarantee on the table that SEC media days is going to get weird.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee

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Trevor Lawrence Tweets Final 2: Where Will No. 1 2018 Recruit Land?

The nation’s top quarterback for the 2018 class has narrowed his long list of suitors to two lucky programs.

Five-star Trevor Lawrence, who is also the early pick as the top overall prospect in the 2018 cycle, will choose between ACC power Clemson and SEC power Georgia.

The 6’6”, 196-pounder from Cartersville High School in Georgia made the announcement via his Twitter account:

As Rusty Mansell of Dawgs247 detailed, a decision from Lawrence could come before the end of the month.

Which program holds the edge as things stand currently? 

As Mansell noted, the homestanding Bulldogs may hold the slimmest of edges.

However, both schools may get one last crack at hosting him before he makes his announcement, per Mansell.

”I am about where I was a couple of weeks ago after I took those visits to Clemson and Georgia,” Lawrence told Mansell. ”I plan on trying to go back to both of those schools closer towards the end of the month probably.” 

Depth charts are unlikely to play a role in his choice, as both schools are stocked with quality passers.

Clemson signed 4-star dual-threat quarterback Zerrick Cooper in February. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney also has commitments from a pair of Elite 11 finalists in 4-star Chase Brice and 5-star Hunter Johnson in the 2017 cycle.

Meanwhile, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart landed 5-star Jacob Eason in the 2016 cycle and 4-star Jake Fromm in the 2017 class.

Regardless of where Lawrence lands, he will have to compete against other elite passers to become the starter.

Perhaps the style of offense each squad employs could come into play.

The Tigers run a spread, uptempo attack that has traditionally found great success with dual-threat signal-callers such as Tajh Boyd and currently with Deshaun Watson. However, both Brice and Johnson are listed as pro-style passers—which could signal their efforts to focus on landing the best talent and adjusting the offense to the quarterback's strengths. 

Additionally, as his highlight film shows, Lawrence is comfortable operating out of the shotgun and spread sets.

Georgia has traditionally operated a pro-style offense, and that doesn’t figure to change under Smart and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Lawrence—who is listed as a pro-style quarterback—has thrown for 6,697 yards and 69 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

Another factor that could come into play for the Bulldogs is the momentum they’ve been able to build on the recruiting trail—specifically with in-state players who have been flocking to Athens since Smart has taken over the program, as detailed by Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue.

Regardless, Lawrence figures to be a player who could thrive in either system because of his raw physical talent, athleticism and mental makeup.

Still, with all other things being equal, staying closer to home and playing for his home-state school could prove to be the difference with Lawrence.

   

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Nick Saban, Paul Finebaum Discuss Cam Robinson's Status at Alabama

During Wednesday's SEC media day, ESPN's Paul Finebaum pressed Alabama head coach Nick Saban on his decision not to suspend offensive tackle Cam Robinson and defensive back Laurence Jones following their arrests in May. 

The SEC Network shared a replay of their exchange:

AL.com also uploaded video of Saban and Finebaum talking off the air at the end of the SEC Network interview:

AL.com's Michael Casagrande explained what was happening:

Within earshot of media, Saban launched into a four-letter tirade directed at Finebaum. In it, he used his fingers to note the small amount of marijuana found in the car and insinuated the arresting officers were disgruntled LSU fans. It ended with a few laughs from everyone on set as Saban exited.

During Saban's main press conference Wednesday, none of the reporters asked Saban about Robinson's status—a point that rankled Finebaum, per 247Sports' Connor Tapp.

"I think they're intimidated," Finebaum said of the reporters. "You've got a guy from Knoxville asking about O.J. Howard? OK. We all know about [Howard]. We saw him in the championship game. [Saban] owns the media. This was an embarrassment today for the media."

Saban said Wednesday Robinson and Jones may play in the Tide's season-opener on Sept. 3, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough and Mark Schlabach.

In June, Ouachita Parish district attorney Jerry Jones announced his office wouldn't pursue criminal charges against Robinson and Jones. Robinson was originally charged with a felony charge of illegal weapons possession in addition to a separate charge of possession of a handgun in the presence of a narcotic.

According to Scarborough and Schlabach, Robinson will have weekly drug tests and drug counseling and take a gun education class from the Tuscaloosa Police Department. Saban discussed why he isn't suspending Robinson and Jones:

You have to look at the whole picture. Based on the information we got and what they did, that's what we're going to do. That's my decision. I'm also basing this decision based on the type of people these guys have been in our program and what they've done to change their behavior relative to our program.

Saban said that as long as Jones and Robinson complete the internal punishments issued by the school, they'll be available to play against the USC Trojans, per FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Biletnikoff Award Watch List 2016: Full List and Bleacher Report Favorites

Pass-catchers have taken center stage during college football's “watch list” season with Wednesday's announcement of players up for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation's top wide receiver. As seen at NCAA.com, the Tallahassee Quarterback Club has released a list of 53 prospective winners, though more will join the list over the course of the 2016 season.

It's a veteran group with 31 seniors and 16 juniors, though the six sophomores included at this point feature some of the best young stars in the game.

The list will be pared down to 10 semifinalists in mid-November, with a trio of finalists announced a week later. The winner will be revealed during the Home Depot College Football Awards Show on ESPN on Dec. 8.

Here's the full list of players currently under consideration:

Award Trends

The Biletnikoff Award has been handed out since 1994, and though it's open to any pass-eligible player (including running backs and tight ends), wide receivers have exclusively earned it. Here are some notable trends we've seen from the award winners over the years:

Repeat winners: Two wideouts have claimed the Biletnikoff Award twice, but not since Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon won in 2010 and 2011. Before him was Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree, who won it in 2007 and 2008.

Short on seniors: Oregon State's Mike Hass, in 2005, was the last senior to win the award. Since then it's gone to a junior six times, a sophomore three times and once to a redshirt freshman when Crabtree won the first of his two trophies. All told, five seniors have been honored.

Biletnikoff/draft correlation: All 20 winners have gone on to be drafted into the NFL, with 12 of them going in the first round and another in the second round. Many of those first-rounders ended up being the first wide receiver taken, including 2015 winner Corey Coleman and 2014 recipient Amari Cooper.

     

The Favorites

KD Cannon, Baylor

No school has won the Biletnikoff in consecutive years (other than when the same player won twice in a row), but Baylor has a good shot if Cannon can perform the way Coleman did in 2015. Cannon figures to be the focal point of the Bears' pass-heavy offense and have a drastic increase in production off last season's 50 catches, 868 yards and six touchdowns.

Much will depend on how Cannon comes back from injury. The junior tweeted a picture Tuesday of his surgically repaired right knee, which recently underwent arthroscopic surgery.

     

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Kirk had a tremendous freshman season that saw him lead the Aggies in receiving (80 catches, 1,009 yards, seven touchdowns); he also was their top return man. He scored twice on punt returns and finished 2015 with 1,789 all-purpose yards, tops among freshmen in FBS.

The arrival of Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight at quarterback should aid Kirk's candidacy since he'll be working with a veteran passer. Last year Kirk thrived despite getting throws from three different quarterbacks.

    

Calvin Ridley, Alabama

Could an Alabama wideout win the award twice in three years? Compare what Ridley did as a freshman to 2014 winner Amari Cooper's first season of production and it's possible—if not this year, then in 2017.

Ridley led the Crimson Tide with 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns. Cooper's freshman numbers in 2012 saw him catch 58 passes for 999 yards and 11 scores.

    

Artavis Scott, Clemson

Clemson's receiving corps suffered a major blow in 2015 when Mike Williams went down with a season-ending neck injury early in the first game. But Scott stepped up and filled the void, catching 93 passes and scoring six touchdowns. No other Tigers player had more than 50 receptions.

Scott, who is also set to handle most of Clemson's punt and kickoff returns, needs 72 receptions to become the school's career receiving leader.

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC

USC is among the schools to have a past Biletnikoff winner, with Marqise Lee taking the award in 2012 after his monster sophomore season. Smith-Schuster has been building to such a performance through his first two years with the Trojans, including in 2015 when he had 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster had six 100-yard games and 11 contests with at least five receptions, hardly skipping a beat despite having surgery for a broken hand midway through the season.

   

The Dark Horses

Malachi Dupre, LSU: Put Dupre on almost any other team and his numbers would be through the roof, but at LSU the passing attack has been limited during his career. Last season, as a sophomore, he had 43 catches for 698 yards and six touchdowns.

Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech: Ford established school single-season records for receptions (75), yards (1,164) and touchdowns (11) in 2015, blowing away the previous marks. That was in a Scot Loeffler offense, and now he gets to play in the system that new head coach Justin Fuente has installed.

Gabe Marks, Washington State: The nation's top passing offense last year had three players with 50 or more catches but only one who topped the century mark. Marks caught 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns, ranking fourth nationally in receptions and TDs.

Mike Williams, Clemson: A scary neck injury cut short Williams' 2015 season, otherwise he might have been a finalist for the Biletnikoff a year ago. If he can return to the form he showed as a sophomore, when he averaged 18.1 yards per reception, he'll be in the mix for this year's award.

    

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Predicting Every ESPN College GameDay Stop for 2016 Season

Every Saturday morning in the fall, football fans wake up early to watch ESPN's College GameDay for in-depth previews of the upcoming action. For many, it's a ritual.

The television program travels all over the country throughout the season, and the 2016 campaign will feature several high-profile locations—and, as always, a few unexpected destinations.

We're giving it our best shot to project each stop for Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Rece Davis, the GameDay crew and Ol' Crimson throughout the pre-bowl portion of the year.

Note: "vs." denotes a neutral-site game with the "home" team listed second.

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Biggest Takeaways from Nick Saban's 2016 SEC Media Days Presser

In years past, Nick Saban has used the podium at SEC media days like a pulpit.

Pace of play and satellite camps have been some of his most recent sermon topics in Hoover, Alabama. His voice carries so much weight in the college football landscape that he always gets big-picture questions from the assembled media.

But on Wednesday morning, Saban looked more like a preacher who can put his congregation to sleep.

From his lengthy opening statement, the defending national champion coach made it clear he wanted to talk about his team—even if all of it had already been said before.

"I'm gonna sit up here and very seriously talk about our team," Saban said on the SEC Network broadcast. "And everything I'm gonna say about our team, you've already written a story about. Somebody in this room has already written a story about what I'm gonna talk about."

And that's exactly what Saban did for a little more than half an hour in the "big room" at media days.

Outside of a question about concussions and another about flood relief in his native West Virginia, Saban's appearance at the podium was kept to topics that will directly affect his team in 2016.

Then came the post-show fireworks. 

Here are the biggest takeaways.

      

Suspensions sound unlikely for Robinson, Jones

Saban's appearance at the main podium was so relatively uneventful that the most-important question for him heading into Wednesday didn't even come until he arrived later in the event's "internet room."

Saban was asked about the status of star left tackle Cam Robinson and defensive back Hootie Jones, who were arrested in May on drug and weapons charges but were not prosecuted.

According to Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, Saban said the facts surrounding Robinson and Jones' situation were "different than advertised," and made it sound like the players would continue to be punished internally without suspension:

Robinson's availability for Week 1 will be especially important for Alabama, which will face USC at AT&T Stadium with a brand-new starting backfield. Jones, a junior, is projected to be a key reserve in the defensive backfield this fall.

The Alabama duo still have to go through the rest of the internal punishment Saban and the program have laid out for them. However, it looks almost certain that the Crimson Tide will face the Trojans in Texas with the cornerstone of their offensive line.

       

Saban vs. Finebaum

Toward the end of his time in Hoover, Saban appeared on set with several SEC Network analysts, including Paul Finebaum.

The radio host directly asked Saban about not suspending Robinson or Jones. Saban then got into a heated exchange with Finebaum that was broadcast on the network:

"Do we condone the behavior? No, alright? But you're innocent until proven guilty in this country, regardless of whether you get convicted in the media or not, which is what you're doing to these players," Saban said. "[Finebaum] said I was going to get criticized by you and the public and the media because I'm not going to suspend them. And I don't really care about that. That's the end of the conversation."

The situation continued to boil over after the network went to commercial. While the audio isn't clear, a video posted by AL.com showed Saban continuing to go after Finebaum during the commercial break before he left the set:

Finebaum said Saban's anger wasn't directed at him as much as it was at the situation involving Robinson or Jones. The longtime radio host also said it was the angriest he had ever seen Saban in his career.

              

"Somebody's got to win" quarterback job in fall camp

Before the questions about Robinson and Jones, Saban took the podium in Hoover for a third straight year in which he did not have a returning starter at quarterback on his team.

The Crimson Tide are in the midst of a four-man race between Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurt for the starting quarterback job. None of the options particularly separated themselves when they were in the public eye at the annual A-Day Game, so the battle continues to rage.

"Somebody's got to win that job," Saban said. "Somebody's got to win the team. You know, that has not necessarily happened yet."

Bateman has the most experience of any quarterback in the competition, as he was the primary backup last year and started in place of Jake Coker in Alabama's regular-season loss to Ole Miss.

However, Saban and the staff continue to keep all their options open, and the head coach refuses to say if anyone has taken the lead as the Tide get closer to fall practices.

"I'm not going to sit up here and sort of try to...give you some statistics on who's winning the race and how the race is going and who's ahead, are they on the back stretch or in the final turn," Saban said. "That's something that's going to happen probably in fall camp. I hope [it happens] in fall camp."

In classic Saban fashion, don't expect the head coach to divulge much movement on the quarterback front this far ahead of the season opener against USC.

         

The Kiffin Effect

One of the most memorable moments that will come out of what was an otherwise low-key Saban appearance at SEC media days was this exchange between a media member and the head coach on offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin:

Although Saban responded with a standard "we all try to improve each other" answer once the media member repeated her question, Kiffin came up again in the session.

Since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has introduced more uptempo and no-huddle strategies into the Alabama offense—something that Saban used to be adamantly against. But Saban said Alabama has welcomed the changes thanks to Kiffin's offensive know-how and the rules in place on that side of the ball.

"Lane wasn't really a no-huddle guy," Saban said. "That was something that we did philosophically because of the issues that it created for us defensively. And it was the rule. ... So for us to not use those plays is a disadvantage for us."

Saban compared the no-huddle elements of Kiffin's offense to the run-pass option plays that take advantage of college football's rules on eligible men downfield. Since the rules aren't changing, he is adapting them to how he plays, even if it doesn't necessarily mesh with his core philosophy.

The presence of Kiffin, Saban said, has helped make those changes possible for the back-to-back defending SEC champions.

"It's been a work in progress for us to learn how to do that, because we do not have an offensive coach on our staff that came from that background, came from that hurry-up, no-huddle offense," Saban said. "I think our coaching staff, including Lane, has done a fantastic job sort of developing a system that has been very effective for us in terms of what we've been able to do."

           

Downplaying depth on defensive front for 2016

Alabama's defensive front has the potential to be one of the best in recent college football history with the return of playmakers such as defensive end Jonathan Allen, outside linebacker Tim Williams and inside linebacker Reuben Foster.

Saban said Alabama's ability to go deep on the defensive front last season was one of its biggest strengths on the way to the national championship. This year, though, could be quite different.

"It's going to be a challenge for us to be able to replace some of the depth that we had in terms of the specialty players that we had last year," Saban said. "A guy like Tim Williams, for example, had, I think, 10.5 sacks and only played on third down. ... Jonathan Allen, who was one of our best defensive lineman, did not have to play all of the time and was a really, really effective rusher."

One of Alabama's biggest transitions this offseason will be adjusting ultra-efficient role players such as Williams, Ryan Anderson and Rashaan Evans into "full-time" responsibilities on defense.

"That was unique that we had that kind of depth on last year's team," Saban said. "I don't think we'll have it on this year's team, even though we have some really good players. It will be more challenging for us to create some different roles for some other guys, who can sort of have a role so that these guys don't have to play all of the downs in the game."

Thanks to its run of No. 1 recruiting classes, the Crimson Tide definitely have the talented bodies across the defensive front to come close to that depth in 2016. But in Saban's eyes, there's a lot of work to be done between now and then.

"The diversity in players that we had on last year's team was almost perfect for what you need in this day and age of football with the spread, with no huddle," Saban said. "We kind of had all of those parts. I'm not sure we have all those parts this year, but certainly we're working to try to develop them."

                  

All quotes obtained from SEC Network's broadcast unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a national college football analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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All-Big 12 Preseason Team 2016: Full Offense, Defense Rosters Announced

The All-Big 12 Preseason Teams were announced on Wednesday, highlighted by Heisman Trophy hopeful and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. 

Here's how the offense looks:

And here's the defense:

Mayfield was one of the best players in college football a year ago, finishing fourth in the Heisman voting after throwing for 3,700 yards, 36 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Not surprisingly, he was also named the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Oklahoma led all Big 12 schools with nine players named to the all-conference preseason team, highlighted by Mayfield and running back Samaje Perine (1,349 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season).

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State's James Washington is one of the better returning wide receivers in the country after hauling in 53 passes for 1,087 yards and 10 scores a year ago. And Baylor's KD Cannon is another excellent receiver on the preseason team. He caught 50 passes for 868 yards and six touchdowns despite being second on the team's pecking order at the position behind Corey Coleman, who is now in the NFL.

Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson leads the defensive unit. The Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year and last year's top defensive freshman is looking to build on an epic 2015 that saw him accumulate 61 tackles and seven tackles for loss.

   

You can follow Timothy Rapp on Twitter.

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Tennessee Football: Best Quotes and Key Takeaways from SEC Media Days

Tennessee fourth-year football coach Butch Jones doesn't need to think too far back to when his Volunteers were so irrelevant that it was evident in the empty seats at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama.

That was only 2013, when the downtrodden Vols and their unknown coach were afterthoughts. Now, after some heavy lifting on the recruiting trail and gradual-but-continual improvement on the field, UT is the favorite to win the SEC East.

The new commanded attention was evident in the packed house of media members who listened to Jones speak on Tuesday.

Expectations in Knoxville are high, but they don't make Tennessee shy. Amid his routine array of cliches, Jones never blinked at questions about predicted success from reporters on SEC Network's broadcast of SEC media days:

To me, I love it. That's what you work for. You want high expectations. You want high standards. I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago, and the room was half-filled and nobody was talking about Tennessee football. ... That's why you play, is to be in a program like the University of Tennessee where everybody is talking about you. That's what you work for. Now it's what you do with that opportunity.

He also joked that he'd heard in all the years of the media picking the champion, it's only been right five times, so he didn't know if that was a good thing.

That was a moment of levity in a newsy press conference during which Jones discussed the settled Title IX lawsuit, injuries, new assistant coaches and shuffling of some coaching titles. All of that was headline-worthy, but the biggest thing for the Vols throughout this offseason is the hype.

Are the Vols worthy of the praise or will they wilt on the big stage, much the way they did with late-game flubs against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama a season ago?

As expected, Tennessee didn't participate in much off-field trash talk (more on that later) in Hoover with classy representatives Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. But that doesn't mean they're robotically going through the motions.

Even Dobbs—the quarterback who is always so careful with his words—admitted to GoVols247's Wes Rucker that it's difficult to contain emotions when thinking about the possibilities:

Some Tennessee fans joked on message boards about playing drinking games when it came to Jones cliches, and he said his share. But there was a lot of sincerity sprinkled in.

There seemed to be a quiet confidence among the orange contingent in the Birmingham suburb. Unlike the blustery Gators trash-talking a day earlier, the Vols talked about how far they've come, but they also acknowledged that where you start means little versus where you finish.

That doesn't change the mentality of the team, according to Reeves-Maybin (via Rucker):

         

No taking the Gator bait

Last year, Jones stole the SEC spotlight when the normally reserved coach returned fire to former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's comment that the Vols and Arkansas were doing "cartwheels and high-fives" following 7-6 seasons in 2014.

There were no such verbal fireworks this year.

A day after Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis delivered the latest low blow in the Vols' direction following a few months during which defensive back Jalen Tabor tweeted several bulletin-board volleys toward UT, Tennessee players weren't biting.

First, here are Davis' comments regarding 11 consecutive wins over the Vols, via ESPN's Brett McMurphy:

Reeves-Maybin just shrugged it off. "Some guys talk," JRM said. "I just play."

"I don't really got time for that," added Sutton, via the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson.

That doesn't mean that once Tennessee gets between the white lines, it's a group of altar boys. Sutton doesn't like to run his mouth, but that doesn't stop his teammates from running it for him. They're 18-22-year-old kids, for the most part, so the chatter remains heavy on the field.

Reeves-Maybin joked with Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee that he'll pick up Sutton's slack if he keeps his trap closed following a big play:

         

Working titles

Not only did Jones expound on new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and tight ends coach Larry Scott on Tuesday, he also announced that some assistants would be adding some clout to their titles.

Jones announced that Scott—whom the Vols plucked from Miami—would also become UT's special teams coordinator, holding both titles former UT assistant and current Eastern Kentucky head coach Mark Elder held in Knoxville.

Also, running backs coach Robert Gillespie will be assistant head coach for offense, and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen will serve as defensive run-game coordinator.

Jones was very complimentary of the impact Shoop and Scott have made thus far in his press conference on the SEC Network telecast:

In terms of the coaching staff, we have two new additions. We have a new defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop. Bob has done a great job of coming in. We've really reaped the benefits since he joined our staff. He's done a great job of building the relationships that it takes to be extremely successful with not only our defensive players but everyone in our football family and our football program. And then Larry Scott, who coaches our tight ends and also be our special teams coordinator, has done a great job, just like Bob, of really establishing relationships. It's new energy. It's new ideas.

Though continuity has been a vital cog in Jones' first few years as a head coach, he's injecting some new blood this year. He hopes it pays big dividends.

         

Title IX still on Jones' mind

An ugly chapter reached a conclusion last week when UT agreed to settle a Title IX civil lawsuit with multiple Jane Does for $2.5 million.

It was a certainty that Jones would be asked about the lawsuit at SEC media days on Tuesday, and he didn't shy away from responding, according to the Tennessean's Adam Sparks.

"I don't view it as a relief," Jones said. "I don't view it as put behind us. I think that's a serious matter, a serious issue that every college, every university, every college campus faces. It's also in society as well. We'll continue to have that as a learning experience for our football program."

Jones noted that he'd continue to educate his players on the issues and continue to bring in guest speakers to address the real-world issues that face everybody—not just on college campuses.

Other newsy items that were discussed on Tuesday:

  • Tennessee rising sophomore star Shy Tuttle saw his 2015 season cut short with a year-ending leg injury suffered against Georgia. Jones said the defensive tackle will resume running next week and would be "50 to 75 percent" when fall camp starts. That's a little less optimistic than what Vols fans were expecting, but UT needs him healthy for the bulk of the conference schedule.
  • Reeves-Maybin was named Tuesday to the Butkus Award watch list. The award honors the nation's top linebacker.
  • Think Dobbs can't do it all? Well, he may need to improve his air assault on the field this year, but he's pretty good already in the air. The quarterback literally helped fly Jones, Reeves-Maybin and Sutton back to Knoxville following Tuesday's festivities.

         

All information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Ohio State Football: QB Tate Martell Will Help Ohio State Sign No. 1 Class

On June 12, Urban Meyer and Ohio State earned a verbal pledge from Tate Martell—a 4-star prospect and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the country. He was the 13th pledge in the Buckeyes' recruiting class, and he further tightened Ohio State's grasp on the No. 1 spot for the 2017 cycle.

And with Martell in the fold, Ohio State's grip on that top spot shouldn't loosen. 

Martell himself is a special talent who would instantly boost any recruiting class in the country. He's the No. 33 overall prospect nationally, and his impressive offer list indicates that he could play anywhere he wanted. 

He had collegiate offers before his first day of high school, which resulted in an early commitment to Washington. He later decommitted and pledged to Texas A&M before a coaching change made him reconsider.

"I made a decision in seventh grade," Martell said, according to Ryan Connors of SB Nation. "I can’t really give you a reason for that besides that I was 13 years old and immature. [Texas A&M], I thought, was the place for me, but with the coaching change and stuff like that I know it wasn’t the best fit for me."

That's the road that led him to Ohio State, and now that he's committed, he's taken it upon himself to make the Buckeyes the king of the recruiting world.

That process started the day he jumped on board with Ohio State. 

Martell has always been a vocal football player, a trait that has come naturally as the quarterback at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. He's carrying that role over to the recruiting field and helping Ohio State recruit its top remaining targets.

The first domino to fall was Wyatt Davis, a 5-star offensive guard and the No. 15 overall player in the country. 

Davis' commitment gave Ohio State a nation-leading three 5-star commitments, but looking at Martell's board, that's just the tip of the 5-star iceberg. 

Two of the Buckeyes' top targets are on the perimeter in 5-star wideouts Tyjon Lindsey and Trevon Grimes. Martell gave the pair a glimpse into a potential future at Ohio State last week at The Opening Finals, where the three were paired together on Team Alpha Pro for the seven-on-seven tournament.

Both Lindsey and Grimes are overwhelming favorites to commit to Ohio State, according to 247Sports' Crystal Ball Predictions.

It doesn't stop there, of course. The Buckeyes are also favored to land 5-stars Jeffrey Okudah (safety), Cam Akers (running back) and Chase Young (defensive end), and they're in the running for Donovan Peoples-Jones (wide receiver) and Baron Browning (linebacker).

Ever-present in Ohio State's pursuit for the nation's top-flight talent is Martell, who's using the Buckeyes' recent success to sell a bright future.

"It kind of speaks for itself at Ohio State," Martell said of his pitch to other recruits, according to Tom VanHaaren of ESPN.com. "All the guys that got drafted and every kid’s dream is to make it to the NFL. If that’s your goal then [Ohio State]’s the place to be for that."

 

All recruiting rankings and information via 247Sports.

David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Why It's All or Nothing for Texas A&M and Kevin Sumlin in 2016

HOOVER, Ala. — Although he didn’t go into details, Kevin Sumlin disclosed on Tuesday afternoon that he’s exchanged some text messages with his troubled former quarterback, Johnny Manziel, during the past few weeks.

“He's always going to be an Aggie,” the Texas A&M head coach explained to reporters at SEC media days, but that’s about as far as he wanted to go down that road, both in terms of disclosure and his team’s approach to the upcoming season.

If Texas A&M’s had a theme song during the head coach’s four-year tenure, it might be “Living on the Edge,” as the Aggies have been all over the place in terms of expectations and subsequent success and failure.

Granted, each Sumlin-led team finished with a winning record, but while all were at some point ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press Poll, only one finished there, with another in the Top 25. The other two drama-filled seasons sort of fell apart, contributing to the growing perception that the Aggies were a regressing program despite their promising potential. 

Not too long ago, back-to-back 8-5 seasons would have been considered pretty good for Texas A&M, but the bar has been raised. Now the coach is trying to get away from all that. In fact, he knows he has to for the 2016 team to come close to its potential.

Fortunately for Sumlin, the last few months have been quiet in College Station while he’s moved the pieces into place for his team to again be a real force in the SEC West.

“I like where we are,” Sumlin said. “I like the chemistry of this football team. I like where the locker room is. I like where their mind is.”

That’s a far cry from the way Sumlin felt after the 27-21 loss to Louisville in the 2015 Music City Bowl, after which he had to do some soul-searching about himself and the direction of the program.

One consequence was shaking up his coaching staff, with three moves, including Noel Mazzone replacing Jake Spavital as offensive coordinator. It’s the second straight year in which Sumlin’s hired a coordinator, which, combined with the departure of two high-profile quarterbacks, would normally indicate a coach reaching desperation, only Sumlin wasn’t done yet.

He added graduate transfer Trevor Knight, who had failed to hold on to the starting job at Oklahoma but gave the roster a veteran presence that had been sorely missing with the Aggies.

“Timing is everything,” Sumlin said. “You don't get a new quarterback and an offensive coordinator in seven, eight days if you don't have a plan.”

Knight called his initial move a “leap of faith” but feels like he’s now a “perfect” fit for the Aggies. The team has, in turn, rallied around him.

“When Trevor came in, he showed confidence,” junior wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones said. “He really shows that strength, determination and passion to go out. ‘I’m going to beat you until you beat me.’ That was his mindset in the spring, and he’s continued that through the summer.”

That approach didn’t work so well in Normal, Oklahoma, though.

Although Knight helped lead a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, that performance remains the biggest highlight of his career. Inconsistent play turned him into a reserve with the Sooners, and last season, he only attempted 40 passes—fewer than against the Crimson Tide.

“I think what has helped Trevor is some of that gunslinger has won games and some of that gunslinger cost him his job and has put him in the situation that he's in,” Sumlin said. “So, when you're dealing with a mature guy, a guy that understands and starts to understand his strengths and weaknesses maybe at the age of 23 that you didn't understand at 18 and you look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, look, I got beat out and let's not just think about, you know, was the guy better than me?’ ‘What could I have done better?’ and he understands that.

“The growth during your career can happen quicker if you understand where your shortcomings are, and there was no greater teacher than losing this opportunity at Oklahoma.”

Ironically, the coach who had his best season with a gunslinger at quarterback now needs one not to be in order for his team to succeed.

Granted, Texas A&M has to be able to run the ball better, must improve at stopping the run and still has some major questions at linebacker, but having a veteran command the offense and the locker room might have made a big difference in how the 2015 season played out.

On a squad that now features an outstanding defensive line, standout safeties and a receiving corps with a ridiculous amount of talent, the Aggies could be a very tough team if Knight continues to click with his new teammates as well as Sumlin hopes.

For that, he needs the anti-Manziel, a player who learned from his on-field mistakes and matured. Otherwise, 2016 could be another roller-coaster season for the Aggies.

“It was pretty simple,” Sumlin said about the decision to name Knight his starter at the end of spring. “He earned it.”

             

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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SEC Media Days 2016: Highlights, Comments and Twitter Reaction from Tuesday

Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M had their SEC media days on Tuesday, and few coaches were under the microscope quite like Georgia's first-year head coach, Kirby Smart.  

Smart, who is replacing longtime Georgia head coach Mark Richt, also has deep SEC ties. 

And he certainly learned a lot during his time as defensive coordinator at Alabama under head coach Nick Saban, which was reflected in his comments during his press conference, per Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com:

The biggest thing for me is recognizing the difference... between a team and a program. A team is a group of young men playing together. The program is the entirety of that, what goes into that, how do we support these student-athletes off the field, what things can we give them from a nutrition standpoint, strength and development, their wellness, psychological development, everything we can do for the team and for the entire program is the stamp that I'd like to put on it.

The trademark for us is going to be big, physical, fast football team. We're not there yet, but we're certainly moving that direction. That's the stamp I would like to put on it.

College football pundit Paul Finebaum was impressed by the newly minted Georgia coach, according to the SEC Network:

The media also asked Smart about perhaps the most pressing pair of injuries in the SEC this summer, those suffered by running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The outlook for both remained up in the air, though things sound much better for Chubb, per Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times:

"That's a tough situation," Smart said. "Who would have thought at this point in time both guys would be on the sideline rehabbing?"

Smart said Chubb has been doing all workouts with the team in the offseason, but that could change when full practices begin. The biggest thing, Smart said, is for Chubb to regain confidence in his surgically repaired left knee. Michel had surgery to repair a broken forearm, but Smart didn't sound optimistic about his recovery.

"I don't know the expectation for Sony, whether he'll be back or not," Smart said.

Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com passed along more details on Michel:

And Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated didn't glean much optimism from Smart for either player's availability to start the season:

That would be a huge blow for Georgia. For a team with an unsettled quarterback situation and a new coach and system to adjust to, the absence of the team's top two offensive weapons is a rough way to start the season.

As for the quarterback situation—presumably an ongoing competition between Jacob Eason, Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey—Smart maintained that he hadn't decided on a starter yet.

"If I knew, I promise you I would tell you...but I don't know that," he said, per Baker.

Few decisions will be more important to Georgia in Smart's first year, and few will impact the SEC in general as much as Georgia's quarterback battle. In other words, there's little reason for Smart to rush to a hasty choice. 

Of course, quarterback seems to be a question for most of the SEC teams, as Brett McMurphy of ESPN pointed out:

Meanwhile, the media grilled head coach Dan Mullen during Mississippi State's media day for the school's decision to allow Jeffery Simmons to enroll. The talented defensive end was videotaped punching a woman multiple times while she lay on the ground. 

Simmons will be suspended for a game and will undergo counseling while he's at the school.

The reporters present pressed Mullen extensively on the decision to enroll Simmons. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports passed along some of the exchange between reporters and the coach:

Q: If it's your wife or your daughter [who Simmons hit], would you feel the same way about him?

Mullen: "I think he's a young man who deserves the opportunity. I have the opportunity to help mold him."

Q: If it was your family member [being assaulted], would you feel the same way?

Mullen: "I don't think it would be my family... In the video, I don't know if my family would be in that situation."

Q: Why not? Anybody can be on the ground and be assaulted.

Mullen: "Honestly, I'm very strongly against any violence... I think the video does not really define who that young man is.

"I would hate for anybody, for their life to be defined not only by 10 seconds of video ... that that is now all you get to do in life. You don't get an opportunity to get an education. You don't get an opportunity to be mentored by father figures when you don't have a father."

Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report didn't think Mullen handled all of those questions particularly gracefully:

Mullen did distance himself, somewhat, from the decision to bring Simmons aboard, however, per Dan Wolken of USA Today:

I wasn't involved as much. It was a university decision, but I was just thrilled that we're having Jeffery as part of our family coming in. As I said, I take a lot of pride as a coach on developing young men to be champions, not just on the field, off the field, and every part of their life to be successful in whatever it is they do, and that's not an easy process.

But he also acknowledged the responsibility he and the university would bear if Simmons had another incident of violence, per Staples:

Coach Butch Jones and Tennessee, meanwhile, were focused on finally breaking through to the nation's elite after the program's lackluster 21-17 mark in his first three seasons.

And Jones and Company have high expectations for 2016, as he said on Tuesday, per Drew Champlin of AL.com: 

The expectations will never be greater than what we place on ourselves internally. You know, when we took over this football program, I think everyone understands what was in place. And so, you know, it's a tribute to them, it's a tribute to our staff. It's a tribute to our players. So I said we're going to sit back and we're going to work hard. We're going to work to be a better football program.

Jones also had a bit of fun, however, interrupting a session between Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin and a small group of media members to tease Sumlin for arriving at the media days on a bus with air conditioning, via Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News

As for Sumlin, the media inevitably asked him about his former quarterback Johnny Manziel, who is out of football this season after a bevy of off-field issues in his short NFL career.

The Aggies head coach said that he's exchanged texts with his former quarterback, per Kyle Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Bottom line, he’s an Aggie," he said, per McMurphy. "He’ll always be an Aggie. At Texas A&M, we take care of each other"

He also dodged a few questions about Manziel, per Wolken, and perhaps justifiably so:

Not surprisingly, he also used the day to praise his current quarterback, Trevor Knight, per Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports:

It's hard not to draw the obvious comparison and contrast between Knight and Manziel on a day when the coach was asked about both.

The team's star defensive end, Myles Garrett, also praised Knight, per Sallee:

Garrett also set enormous goals for himself on the year, telling reporters he wanted to record 20 sacks in 2016 and be the top overall pick in next year's NFL draft, according to Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com.

"I have to live up to my expectations, which is to break all the records that I can, dominate by a wide margin," he said. "Let it be unanimous. Don't let anyone be close to how good you are, no matter what the division is—one, two or three. It doesn't matter, everyone plays football. It doesn't matter who the competition is."

His teammates weren't doubting him.

"That's his personal goal," Knight said. "I personally think he can get it. Absolutely. I saw the way that, this spring, when I was in the middle of my drop, he was already on me. It was incredible. So if he puts his mind to it, I think he can do anything he wants."

Wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones agreed.

"Twenty sacks?" he asked. "I think Myles can do whatever he pushes his mind to. He's just a freak of nature. If Myles says he can get 20, he can get 20."

The rest of the SEC will be hoping he doesn't achieve that goal. After Garrett accumulated 12.5 sacks a year ago, however, few teams will be delusional enough to believe that he doesn't have the ability to dominate a game from his defensive end position. 

And after a Tuesday at SEC media days with a large focus on off-field concerns, former players and position battles, seeing some on-field action in two months will be nice. Big things are expected for Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M every season these days in the competitive SEC. 

All four programs have plenty of question marks to answer before the start of the season. Some were answered on Tuesday. Most won't be, however, until the games begin in September.

 

You can follow Timothy Rapp on Twitter.

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Power Ranking Top 25 2017 Recruits After The Opening

Midway through their final summer break of high school, top football prospects across America are preparing for final seasons at the prep level. This process includes individual and team offseason training, along with camp showcases.

The Opening, an elite invite-only event held July 5-10 at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, provided our latest glimpse of more than 150 athletes in the 2017 recruiting class. A busy week included combine testing, hours of installing systems, one-on-one drills and a seven-on-seven tournament.

While only linemen wore shoulder pads during action, intense competition tends to separate alpha dogs from the pack. Based on efforts at the country's premier prospect event and the overall impression players have made throughout their high school careers, here's how we rank the class' top 25 recruits nearly seven months shy of national signing day.

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Why the SEC's Lack of Star QBs Doesn't Even Matter

HOOVER, Ala. — If you're looking for quarterback star power around at SEC media days, you'll probably be wandering around the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel for a while.

There's not much of it. 

Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and Texas A&M's Trevor Knight made the rounds on Tuesday, and Ole Miss' Chad Kelly will on Thursday.

Other than them...crickets. Now compare that to Big 12 media days, where eight of the 10 teams will bring quarterbacks.

The SEC quarterback 'crisis' (and we use that word loosely) began after the 2013 season when stars like Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray left, and has left a hole in the college football universe that seems to be getting bigger, not smaller.

I struggled when selecting my third-team All-SEC quarterback behind Kelly and Dobbs. A case could be made for Knight despite the fact that all of his snaps came with Oklahoma. The only other option is LSU's Brandon Harris, who received my vote despite a rather lackluster season in which he completed just 53.6 percent of his passes in 2015.

But if you think that lack of quality play from the QB position means that the SEC is bereft of contenders for the national title in 2016, think again.

Having a solidified star QB hasn't been a pre-requisite to BCS and Playoff success recently. 

Alabama is immersed in a quarterback battle that includes Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts. It's par for the course for the Crimson Tide, which has won back-to-back SEC titles with first-year starting quarterbacks thanks to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's ability to adjust to his signal-callers on the fly.

What's more, six of the last seven national titles were won by first-year starting quarterbacks and 11 of the last 14 starting quarterbacks in the national championship game were first-year guys, if you count Deshaun Watson as a first-year starter on a full-time basis as a sophomore in 2015 for Clemson. 

"It has more to do, rather than the quarterback position, the positions around the quarterback that give [the quarterback] an opportunity to get a little bit better," Florida head coach Jim McElwain said. "Then, in turn, that quarterback has to elevate his play."

For some coaches, first-year starting quarterbacks have been the norm.

Auburn's Gus Malzahn broke in a new quarterback to his system every year from 2006-2013 during stops as either a coordinator or head coach at  Arkansas, Tulsa, Auburn and Arkansas State. It wasn't until Nick Marshall returned in 2014 after winning the SEC title that Malzahn got to build on a full season with one starter.

"We've been here and done this before," Malzahn said. "In 2013, we were in a similar situation when we were wide open at the quarterback position, and of course Nick Marshall won it with about two weeks to go in fall camp."

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen is charged this year with replacing one of the best players in program history, quarterback Dak Prescott. While recognizing that veteran signal callers understand that a deep shot called doesn't always mean to take the shot deep and check downs can be a quarterback's best friend, he also confirmed that proper coaching can go a long way toward overcoming inexperience.

"You have to be flexible to build around the strengths of your quarterback," Mullen said. "I think when you have that dual threat, it makes the defense have to account for all 11 players on offense on every single snap. And so we've been able to get more of those guys into the program that keep defenses on edge."

The space between the ears and ensuring that inexperienced players are prepared for hostile atmospheres is far more important to determining a successful quarterback than live game reps.

"The biggest challenge, I've found, is the young man coming on the field and being in that stadium for the first time," Mullen said. "Even a guy who hasn't taken a lot of reps and didn't start or play, they've been in a [road] stadium, seen the crowd and been there live and in-person."

While many of the quarterbacks are unproven entering 2016, the threat quarterbacks who can stress defenses with their arms and legs, while also providing the element of the unknown, is something that can trip up even veteran defenders.

"That position, starting with guys like Cam Newton who could do it all, are very athletic," said senior Mississippi State linebacker Richie Brown. "They're not just pocket passers, but they can be pocket passers. It's a huge threat when you have these guys who can run 4.4s or 4.5s who are athletic and big. It really stresses you as a defense."

The roster turnover in college football, nomadic nature of the coaching profession and influx of ultra-athletic quarterbacks have rendered quarterback experience to a secondary role in predicting a team's eventual success.

Don't write off teams like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and others in the SEC who lack star power at the quarterback position in July.

The cast around Alabama has proven that it can help lead a quarterback to success, regardless of the style of that particular player. Texas A&M lured Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight to College Station, after having thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his two starts against SEC competition while with the Sooners (vs. Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and vs. Tennessee during the 2014 regular season).

Auburn has found success with mobile junior college transfer quarterbacks in the past (Newton in 2010 and Marshall in 2013). Georgia's Jacob Eason, a true freshman from Lake Stevens, Washington, has as much upside as any incoming freshman in the country.

The floor for Harris' Tigers is incredibly high thanks to a stout defense and the ability of running back Leonard Fournette to control the game. Even a small step forward from his 2015 production (Harris ranked 10th in passing yards, 11th in completion percentage and 8th in QBR last year in the SEC) could go a long way toward impacting the ceiling. 

And though some of the players who will line up under center in Week 1 aren't household names, a lot can change throughout the course of the season, as players improve and break out. 

"It's kind of fun to see [quarterbacks] grow up," McElwain said. "It's kinda cool."

College football has a funny way of creating star power during the season, and the SEC's track record suggests history will repeat itself by the time we get to the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship Game in December. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Predicting Every College Football Conference's Surprise Team for 2016

College football is a wonderfully unpredictable sport. The yearly exit and entry of talented stars and incoming recruits makes the exercise of picking a preseason Top 25 poll an extremely difficult exercise. Last year, the final postseason poll featured 10 teams that didn’t crack the initial preseason poll in August, including a pair (Iowa and Houston) that finished in the Top 10.

There’s little doubt that 2016 will unfold in similar fashion. Even elite 2015 programs like Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma have questions to answer, and it would be no surprise if a team no one is talking about makes a name for itself this fall.

Here’s a shot at picking a surprise team from each FBS conference. Each team was picked on the basis of its returning talent, its schedule and its overall potential. Will all of these picks hit? Maybe, maybe not. But make no mistake: There will be surprises, and we hope to identify at least some of them here.

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Georgia's Kirby Smart Handled 1st SEC Media Days Like a Seasoned Veteran

Kirby Smart rarely talked to the media as Alabama's defensive coordinator. Under Nick Saban, he didn't have the weekly press conference obligations of many top assistants in college football.

When Smart walked up to the podium Tuesday morning in Hoover, Alabama, for his first appearance at SEC media days as Georgia's head coach, a lot of intrigue surrounded him. Would he be tight-lipped or overwhelmed by the bright lights and the big stage?

Twenty-six minutes later, the answer was a resounding no. Smart looked like he had been doing this his entire career.

"He may be a rookie head coach, but he sounded like a veteran," radio host Paul Finebaum said on the SEC Network broadcast of media days. "I've been coming to these things for a long time, and I've never heard a rookie head coach like that. He was brilliant."

Smart looked like a seasoned veteran of the SEC media circuit from the start of his opening statement, which stretched more than 10 minutes and covered everything from thanking his sports information director to breaking down the percentage of reps taken by his three competing quarterbacks in the spring.

It was an opening statement that rivaled those of experienced head coaches such as LSU's Les Miles and South Carolina's Will Muschamp in terms of length:

But the meat of his time at the podium came in the Q&A portion, and Smart also handled that like a pro.

One of the biggest topics of discussion heading into the day was the health of Smart's two star running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who are recovering from very different injuries.

Smart continued to be cautiously optimistic in his view of Chubb's recovery from the season-ending knee injury he suffered against Tennessee.

"Nick's progressed really well," Smart said. "Nick's working hard. I repeat that every time I talk. ... He's doing everything with the rest of the team as far as summer workouts. He may not do everything right away as far as tackling and scrimmaging, but ultimately he's got to gain confidence in that knee back. He's taking steps in the right direction."

It's a wise move from Smart, as he doesn't want any definitive statement to backfire on him by the time the Bulldogs play North Carolina in their season opener.

Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated saw the response as Smart possibly preparing himself for the worst:

Smart also skillfully sidestepped a recruiting question from a reporter who asked about the importance of Georgia commitments Richard LeCounte III and William Poole III "pitching the UGA program" to other targets during the dead periods.

"Well, first of all, I can't comment on those guys at all," Smart quickly replied before downplaying the hype surrounding Georgia's current standing in recruiting rankings.

Smart didn't back down from questions about the number of arrests of Georgia players since he took over as head coach.

Eight Bulldogs have been arrested this offseason, including defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter, who Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com reported would face a suspension in 2016.

"I hate that for them," Smart said. "Our team has moved on. It's very important that we don't make the same mistakes twice. That's a big part of improvement. We'll do everything we can with plenty of support from our athletic department to put things in place to help our players not make the same mistakes again."

A consistent theme throughout Smart's time at the podium Tuesday morning was the importance of building an overall championship-contending program at Georgia—something he took from his time under Saban at Alabama.

Smart said that goes beyond just the 11 players on the field.

"The biggest thing for me has been learning the difference between a team and a program," Smart said. "That's where I want to put my stamp at the University of Georgia. ... A team is a group of young men playing together. A program is the entirety of that."

Smart showcased another aspect of program-building Tuesday in Hoover. As the head coach of a powerhouse school like Georgia, Smart is the face of the program. 

Being able to handle his increasing amounts of time in front of the media with the same amount of poise and clarity will be beneficial to Smart in his efforts to turn Georgia into a perennial contender.

Smart looked like a focused veteran at the podium during his first visit to SEC media days. If that's a possible sign of how prepared he'll look on the field this fall, Georgia is in a great spot for the future.

 

All quotes obtained from SEC Network's broadcast unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a national college football analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ranking College Football's Best Weeknight Games of 2016 Season

College football isn't just about all-day Saturday binges. A real diehard fan has to be prepared to take in the action on almost a nightly basis thanks to the proliferation of weeknight games.

The 2016 regular-season schedule will feature college games on every night of the week, starting with the opening slate that runs from Thursday through Monday and into October and November when Tuesday and Wednesday games help us bridge the gap between one Saturday and another.

Many of these weeknight games were pulled from the weekend to put a bigger spotlight on them, giving them the attention they deserve. We're going one step further by ranking the 20 best of this lot, chosen and ranked based on the matchup, the timing and the importance to each participant's overall season.

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Why J.T. Barrett Is the Best Preseason Bet to Win the 2016 Heisman Trophy

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For all the talent Ohio State finds itself losing from last year's team—the 16 starters, the 12 draft picks and the five first-rounders—the Buckeyes have managed to remain mainstays on each email blast announcing another awards watch list this offseason.

The Maxwell Award, the Bednarik, the Rimington, the Ray Guy, the Butkus, the Outland and Nagurski Trophies—their watch lists all included Buckeyes, with more likely to be added as watch lists for the Lombardi and Wuerffel Trophies and Walter Camp Award are revealed in the coming days.

And while the sport's most prestigious individual award, the Heisman Trophy, doesn't participate in preseason watch lists, if it did, it's a safe bet Ohio State would be present on that one, too.

In fact, there may not be a better bet at this point in the almost-over offseason to win the 2016 Heisman Trophy than Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett.

At 15-1, Covers.com lists Barrett as the player in college football with the sixth-best odds of winning the upcoming season's "Stiff Arm" Trophy, but even that seems to be selling short all the Ohio State signal-caller has working in his favor in the upcoming year.

While Barrett has already been present on the watch list for the Maxwell Award and is a shoe-in for the Davey O'Brien Trophy and Walter Camp Award watch lists as well, names of Buckeyes skill players elsewhere have been absent, which is indicative of the load the Wichita Falls, Texas, native will need to carry in Columbus in the coming year.

In theory, less help should hinder, not increase Barrett's Heisman chances. But whether it be with his arm or his legs, this is a player who's already proved capable of doing it all, as evidenced by his fifth-place Heisman voting finish as a redshirt freshman in 2014.

"If you play quarterback at Ohio State in this offense, you have to be a Heisman candidate," Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said following Ohio State's spring game in April. "Or we're going to suffer."

Meyer's message may have been aimed at the younger quarterbacks on the Buckeyes roster, Joe Burrow and Stephen Collier, but he didn't have to search far for an example.

Starting the 2014 season on short notice due to a preseason injury to Braxton Miller, Barrett proved to be a perfect fit in Meyer's spread offense, setting a school single-season record for total offense (3,772 yards) and the Big Ten record for total touchdowns (45).

Embroiled in a season-long quarterback competition with Cardale Jones throughout 2015, Barrett endured somewhat of a sophomore slump, which was low-lighted by an arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated right after he had seemed to solidify himself as the Buckeyes' starter.

But Barrett bounced back to close 2015 strong, regaining his 2014 form by tallying 559 combined yards and five touchdowns in wins over Michigan and Notre Dame at season's end. Furthermore, Meyer has insisted that he'd prefer to continue to open up the OSU offense as the Buckeyes did in the Fiesta Bowl, where Barrett threw for 211 yards on 31 attempts.

"I want to make some adjustments. I want more of a balance, like we were in 2014," Meyer said after his team's win over the Fighting Irish. "We need to throw the ball. J.T. threw it 31 times. That's more what I'm looking for."

With Ezekiel Elliott and his 1,821 yards headed to the NFL, the Buckeyes may not have any other choice. Experienced playmakers around Ohio State's 6'2", 225-pound quarterback are few, which could force Barrett to increase his workload on the ground, where he's proved to be a more-than-capable runner with 1,620 career rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

With the numbers presumably there, the rest of the necessary criteria provided by HeismanPundit.com could follow. He already plays a premier position at quarterback and possesses name recognition at a big-name school, which should give him plenty of opportunities in prime-time games on national television to state his case.

If that leads to the Buckeyes remaining in contention for a College Football Playoff spot throughout the season, it's a safe bet Barrett will find himself doing the same for the Heisman Trophy.

It may not take watch lists to figure that out, but thus far, they sure have helped show just how important Barrett will be to Ohio State—and by extension, college football—in 2016.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. 

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Michigan Football: Why RB Position Presents the Greatest Unknown in 2016

A basic look at Michigan's football roster shows an experienced roster riddled with returning starters and other team leaders. Running back is no exception, but there are two vastly different ways to frame the position.

You could say the Wolverines boast a two-time leading rusher and unquestioned starter. He's the No. 1 ahead of last season's backup as well as a previous highly touted prospect and an incoming 4-star recruit. Michigan is stacked with talent.

On the other hand, you could choose a pessimistic route.

De'Veon Smith's season-high mark is an unspectacular 753 yards. Drake Johnson managed just 271 yards last year, while Ty Isaac fell off the travel squad and still hasn't sniffed his 4-star potential. Kareem Walker enrolled early, but high expectations for true freshmen often go unmet.

Deciding which outlook is more correct doesn't matter. What's clear, however, is that the Wolverines can improve immensely at running back, yet there's no guarantee it happens in 2016.

Michigan's offense will not change from being a run-focused attack. That's a staple of head coach Jim Harbaugh's philosophy.

But last season, the offense mustered just 4.2 yards per first-down carry, which ranked 96th of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Smith was even less effective. He gained just 397 yards on 105 attempts, averaging a meager 3.8 yards on the initial down. Plus, according to B/R research, 139 of Smith's 180 season carries—77.2 percent—gained five yards or fewer.

Nevertheless, Harbaugh said during spring practice the senior is currently the starter.

Perhaps Smith has taken significant strides in his development. After watching Harbaugh take what most analysts considered a 7-5 team to a 10-3 record, that possibility cannot be discarded so easily.

Then again, blind hope isn't smart, either. Situational usage certainly had a small effect on Smith, but he tallied a mere 28 total first downs in 2015.

Comparatively, Johnson moved the chains nearly half as many times (13) in less than three times the carries (54). He also recorded 10 gains of 10-plus yards compared to 15 for Smith.

So does that make the other senior a better option? Maybe. But after working back from his second torn left ACL, Johnson was run over by a forklift. Harbaugh said the accident "would have killed a lesser man," per Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.

Lumping a freak incident with recurring knee issues to call Johnson injury-prone is unfair. Still, the redshirt senior must recover from a scary mishap and hasn't held a significant role for an entire season while at full strength.

That's a stark contrast to Isaac, who was available for all of 2015 but slipped out of the rotation anyway. To his credit, instead of grumbling, Isaac went to work.

"I had to calm down, relax, understand there were things I needed to work on," Isaac said, according to ESPN.com's Dan Murphy. "It's not like it was going to be the end of the world for me. I still have opportunities."

Isaac looked like a new and improved back during the spring game, twice displaying a previously unseen burst of speed on gains of 30 and 29 yards while running for a scrimmage-best 78 yards.

But putting stock in a spring game performance is equally as dangerous as expecting greatness immediately.

Walker—the No. 4 running back of the 2016 class—arrived on campus in January. He registered three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and a pair of 1,500-yard outputs in high school. Walker hopes that success will continue right away.

"I came here to be great," he said on signing day, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. "I didn't come here to sit the bench."

Although the opportunity is apparent, Walker will probably serve as an occasional rotational piece this season—especially considering the way Harbaugh views Smith.

The biggest wild card of this situation, though, could be the offensive line. Four starters return, and projected left tackle Grant Newsome impressed the coaches enough as a true freshman to not only avoid a redshirt but earn meaningful reps.

After inserting Newsome against Michigan State, Harbaugh lauded the tackle. According to Josh Henschke of Scout, the coach said:

He's physically mature than most, mentally very sharp moreso than most. He's a battler, he's tough. He doesn't take a backseat since he's been here. He gives no quarter, takes no quarter. I like that about him, all those things. I know he's going to be really good and he's ready now, you get better at football by playing football.

Plus, the unit as a whole improved considerably between the 2015 regular-season finale and 2016 Citrus Bowl. Prior to this season's opener against Hawaii, position coach Tim Drevno will have completed two more monthlong sessions that further develop his players.

Maybe Michigan's O-line dominated the offseason and this is the year Harbaugh's philosophy becomes apparent. Besides, the running backs should avoid a collective negative label. Behind a decent blocking unit, the Wolverines would put together a couple of excellent games.

As excitement builds, however, expectations rise—sometimes to unfair or unattainable levels. Last year, the offensive line was a mediocre run-blocking group. The Wolverines aren't simply looking to improve on a borderline-great campaign; no, their proverbial bar needs to hit "acceptable" and "solid" before flirting with "great."

Anticipating much better than average results from Michigan on the ground in 2016 is likely based more on hope than actual previous performance.

Yet Harbaugh and Co. shattered expectations last year. Perhaps the backfield is another major, unexpected success story. Heading into the season, there's no definitive conclusion either way.

    

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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