NCAA Football

How College Football Recruits Are Reacting to the Florida Gators' Struggles

The status of Will Muschamp's job and the climate of the Florida football program hasn't improved during the 2014 season, and the results are having an impact on the recruiting trail.

With the Gators falling to LSU last weekend, the hot-seat talk surrounding Muschamp is starting to cloud the future of the Gators program. 

The primary evidence of that is UF’s efforts on the recruiting trail. The Gators' 2015 recruiting class is ranked 12th, per 247Sports. Not in the country, but in the SEC. Contrast that with the fact the average class rank for Florida in the last decade is sixth nationally, and it begins to shed light on the Gators' struggles this year.

Florida is ranked behind programs such as Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and other SEC schools that Florida has made a habit of defeating on and off the field in recent years. The Gators currently have zero 5-star recruits committed. However, three of the nation's top 10 prospects overall are heavily considering Florida.

But why are recruits hesitant in casting their lot with a school that has been a recruiting juggernaut?

Byron Cowart, the nation’s top-ranked defensive end and the No. 4 player overall in the 2015 class, per 247Sports' Composite, has Florida in his lead group along with Florida State, Alabama and Oregon.

He was in attendance for the Gators loss to LSU last weekend, according to GatorBait.net’s Luke Stampini (subscription required). Despite the loss, Cowart is still encouraged by what he sees from the Gators on the field, and he believes they have the tools to finish the season strong. 

“Pretty much, I feel like they have it in the bag,” Cowart told Stampini. “I was talking to coach [Brad] Lawing and he said all their games are winnable. If they win the rest of their games and execute. His thing is don’t let LSU beat you twice, which means don’t go out here and have a bad week of practice. If they move on from this, this will be a lesson.”

Gators 4-star linebacker pledge Adonis Thomas is another player who is critical for Muschamp and his staff to keep. According to Jake Rowe of Dawgs247 (subscription required), Thomas is still considering schools such as Georgia and Alabama, despite his commitment.

“I’m trying to wait right now and see what happens with Florida and the season and the coaching staff,” he said. “That will have a big effect on my decision. I’m going to wait until the end, really.”

Another target who was in attendance at the Swamp for the LSU game was 4-star offensive lineman Jalen Merrick. Per Stampini (subscription required), Merrick stated that he and a few of the Gators' remaining top targets are taking a wait-and-see approach to what will transpire in Gainesville over the next couple of months. 

“I think everybody is taking that into consideration when you talk to Byron Cowart, CeCe [Jefferson] on why they are waiting so long, because they are kind of unsure of their status, if they will be here next year,” Merrick told Stampini.

After seeing Muschamp on the sidelines of his game on Thursday, 4-star linebacker target Jeffrey Holland told GatorBait (subscription required) that he’s been told he has nothing to worry about with regards to the future of the coach and his staff.

“They said everything is going to be alright, they’re going to stay here,” Holland said of Muschamp and his staff. “They are going to stay at Florida. They say everything is going to be alright. I’m waiting to see what happens.”

However, he admits that a potential change in Gainesville would have an impact on his feelings toward Florida.

“It would change a lot, because I don’t know who would come in,” Holland said. “I don’t know who they’re recruiting.”

Even with all of the turmoil surrounding the Gators, most recruits have grown up with memories of the Gators as one of the nation’s premier powerhouses.

Despite their current 3-2 record, the SEC East is still wide open and gives the Gators a chance to make a run toward their first division title since 2009.

A strong finish to the season would likely coincide with a banner finish to the 2015 class on the recruiting trail.

However, if the losses continue to pile up, it’s clear that a coaching change in Gainesville would come with a price of potentially losing out on some of the top players in the 2015 cycle.

 

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

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Grading Every SEC Football Team's Performance from First Half of 2014 Season

We’re only seven weeks through the college football season, and the SEC has already provided a season’s worth of close games, scintillating finishes and surprises.

Entering this weekend, two of the Top Three teams in the polls belong to the SEC, while five are included in the Top 10. Furthermore, the conference also boasts two of the top-five Heisman Trophy contenders—Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Georgia’s Todd Gurley.

In other words, the SEC is stealing the show once again.

But just how good has each team in the conference been?

In giving each team a grade, we looked at a number of factors. These ranged from strength of schedule, teams beat, teams lost to, performance in games completed and similar issues.

Join B/R as we take a closer look at all 14 SEC teams.

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Why Freshman RB Roc Thomas Is the Spark the Auburn Offense Needs Right Now

AUBURN, Ala. — In order for Auburn's running backs to get back to their old selves, they might need to turn to a new face.

The Tigers are still toward the top of the national charts in almost every rushing category at this point in the 2014 season, but they haven't been at the pace set last season in head coach Gus Malzahn's return to The Plains.

With six games of a brutal schedule left—six games that most likely need to be victories in order for Auburn to stay in the race for the SEC and national titles—Auburn's running game could use a spark.

Although the Tigers suffered a tough 38-23 loss last Saturday to new No. 1 team Mississippi State, Malzahn and Co. might not have left Starkville empty-handed thanks to a breakout performance from true freshman Roc Thomas.

The former 5-star running back took six carries for an impressive 42 yards against the tough Bulldogs front seven, including 36 yards on his first three touches.

In his first significant playing time of the season, Thomas showed an impressive burst and a slick spin move that reminded AuburnSports.com's Justin Hokanson of his high school highlight film:

"Roc did an outstanding job," Malzahn said Sunday night on his weekly Tiger Talk radio segment. "We made that determination that we're going to go ahead and turn him loose against Mississippi State. He did some very good things. He's a natural runner, and you see that."

Thomas came into the Mississippi State game with the Tigers down 21-0 and struggling to get any momentum going on offense. When the former Alabama Mr. Football winner stepped onto the field for his first action before the halftime break, Auburn's attack started moving toward the end zone for the first time.

While senior Cameron Artis-Payne continued to go between the tackles for tough yardage, Thomas was able to show his all-around speed and skill on both inside and outside runs for the Tigers.

"He's definitely a different kind of running back than me," Artis-Payne told AL.com's Brandon Marcello after the loss to Mississippi State. "It worked for us. He should get more carries soon."

Thomas finished the day with more yards and carries than senior Corey Grant, who had been the "change-of-pace" back for the Tigers until last Saturday's visit to Davis Wade Stadium.

Auburn's rushing attack is still trying to find the same momentum it had when it lead the nation last season, and Thomas proved he could be the difference-maker heading into the second half of the campaign.

Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee each said the staff had planned to give the true freshman more responsibility in the offense, and it speaks volumes that Thomas got his biggest chance to date at a time when Auburn's offense was having a tough time finding any forward progress.

"We just felt like it was about time," Malzahn said. "We felt confident. We felt Roc was comfortable. He did a very solid job for us. He'll have bigger roles moving forward."

The Tigers showed last season that they can share the ball between a primary running back and not one, but two secondary backs. As Tre Mason racked up the bulk of Auburn's rushing yards in 2013, both Artis-Payne and Grant got their fair share of opportunities.

Lashlee was quick to say Sunday evening that Thomas had not passed Grant on the depth chart—the offensive coordinator said he is still confident in all four of Auburn's running backs at this point—but more carries should be coming in the future for one of Auburn's biggest offensive recruits in recent years.

After all, Thomas was given a huge amount of responsibility during the Auburn offense's roughest hour of the season, and he averaged seven yards a carry.

And, in a game that featured four Tiger turnovers, the freshman who fumbled shortly after his first career touchdown in the San Jose State game held onto the ball.

With defenses keying on Artis-Payne's power runs and Grant's speed sweeps, Thomas adds a major weapon to Auburn's offensive strategy as the Tigers look to return to their explosive ways.

B/R recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue said he expects to see Thomas carry on his high-level performances from high school into the bulk of an SEC schedule:

Even though he is a brand new college football player, Thomas gained big yards on the inside and the outside against one of the nation's toughest defenses.

Most importantly, he's just now getting started.

"Overall, I think I made the right decisions," Thomas said, per Marcello. "After we watch film I'll pretty much evaluate how I can do better."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Ohio State Football: How the Buckeyes Will Look Different After Their 2nd Bye

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Uncomfortable, awkward and unfortunate. These are the words that Urban Meyer has used to describe Ohio State's second bye in the past four weeks.

While Meyer has expressed concern with his team maintaining its newfound momentum through its week off, he's also found multiple ways for the Buckeyes to benefit from it.

Health aside—every team could use an extra week of rest this time of year—a little self-scouting revealed tendencies and inefficiencies not previously noticed by the Ohio State staff.

Couple that with an additional two weeks of player development, and it could be a new-look Buckeyes that you see taking the field this Saturday in their return against Rutgers.

 

Red-Zone Revival

While the Ohio State offense has been humming so far this season, ranking 12th in the nation in yards per game (524) and fifth in points per game (44.6), Meyer has noticed a disturbing trend that could spell disaster for the Buckeyes in the long run.

Of Ohio State's 28 trips to the red zone this season, just 19 have resulted in touchdowns, a 67.9 percent conversion rate that Meyer clearly isn't satisfied with.

“It’s not very good at all,” Meyer said. “For what we expect, it’s not very good. There’s a couple styles that teams are starting to play us. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s our fault. Coaching errors—whether that be tempo—we have to do a better job.”

While four field goals up the Buckeyes' red-zone success rate to 82.1 percent, Meyer is fond of saying that he gets "paid to score touchdowns."

Plus, that number still falls well short of the 91.7 percent success rate that opponents have found against Ohio State this season, scoring on a combined 11 attempts (10 touchdowns, one field goal) in the red zone this season.

As Meyer mentioned, tempo could be viewed as an issue, as the Buckeyes have struggled to consistently find a sweet spot for offensive coordinator Tom Herman's hurry-up, no-huddle pace. It also hasn't helped that tight end Jeff Heuerman is yet to play at full strength, but Herman isn't trying to make any excuses for Ohio State's drop from last season's 95.2 percent red-zone success rate.

“We don’t care what those weaknesses are,” Herman said. “We just need [to do] a better job of exploiting [opponents'] weaknesses and not trying to beat our head against the wall into their strengths.”

Having a healthier Heuerman should help, as should an extra two weeks of film study heading into Saturday's showdown with the Scarlet Knights. The Buckeyes offense may already be clicking, but look for an even more refined version to take the field for the remainder of the season.

 

"A Million Reps"

If maintaining health is the first goal of a bye week, then player development is the second—and sometimes the two go hand in hand.

Take for example Ohio State's defensive line, where Meyer has admitted to taking it easy on starters Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett during the Buckeyes' second week off. But that doesn't mean that practice stops, as younger players take the places of their more experienced teammates.

“I’m getting [freshman defensive end] Jalyn Holmes a million reps right now," Meyer said last week. "And some of the other young players that we have to get ready to go."

Those players could include the likes of freshmen Damon Webb, Noah Brown, Erick Smith, Jamarco Jones and Dante Booker, each of whom have already burned their respective redshirts but are yet to see significant minutes in the 2014 campaign.

The additional early bye also meant for more time in the development of freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who has seen the majority of Ohio State's middle linebacker snaps in recent weeks.

“You see what Raekwon McMillan is doing with his confidence with playing," Meyer said heading into the bye week. “I’m going to continue to give them as many game reps just to continue to show that maturity.”

With Meyer opting to practice his first-team offense against his first-team defense throughout the Buckeyes' first bye, the second week off led to more of an opportunity for Ohio State's younger players to show what they're capable of.

Whether that translates into anything tangible in the remainder of the season won't be determined until later, but Saturday will certainly be a start.

 

Scouting Services

While the weekly Urban Meyer Call In Show on the Ohio State Radio Network rarely delivers much we didn't already know, the Buckeyes head coach dropped an interesting nugget during Thursday's edition.

Speaking about the self-scouting that his staff often performs during off weeks, Meyer mentioned that he'll also call head coaches of opponents that Ohio State has previously played in order to trade tendency tips.

Such was the case following the Buckeyes' battle with Cincinnati, when Meyer shared a chat with Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville. Over the course of the conversation, Tuberville revealed that while stacking its tight ends to a specific side, Ohio State always ran a play-action pass—a tell that the Buckeyes have corrected in the weeks since.

With an additional two weeks to self-scout and seek the advice of others, it will be interesting to see what other tendencies the Buckeyes discovered that they've developed through the first five games of the season.

It could also result in potential big gains for the OSU offense, as opponents could be expecting one play only to find themselves facing another.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Notre Dame's Incredible Rise from 2011 Champs Sports Bowl vs. FSU

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In a short but strong series between Notre Dame football and Florida State, the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl was something out of the ordinary.

The two marquee programs squared off in a decidedly non-marquee bowl game at the end of December in Orlando. Both teams were 8-4. In the six previous matchups between the two programs, there was usually something more at stake.

In 2003—the last meeting—Florida State was ranked fifth in the nation. In 2002, No. 6 Notre Dame downed the No. 11 Seminoles. In 1996, the teams met in the Orange Bowl. And, of course, the so-called Game of the Century in 1993 featured No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 1 Florida State.

Yet here were two historic programs middling in mediocrity in 2011. The Seminoles scored 18 unanswered points to top the Irish, 18-14. The next year, Notre Dame stormed its way to an undefeated regular season and a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. In 2013, Florida State won the national title.

“You could tell that both teams were definitely ascending, and then better things were definitely in front of us,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “It was definitely going to be what's next for these programs moving forward in a positive way.”

And move forward they have. On Saturday, No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 2 Florida State will meet at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. Since the start of the 2012 season, the Irish are 27-5. Florida State (32-2) is one of just six other teams with more wins than Notre Dame during that span. The difference between a five-loss Irish team and the No. 5 national ranking seems significant, but is it really that robust?

“There’s a very fine line between that year and the team this year,” said Irish senior linebacker Joe Schmidt, who didn’t play in 2011 as a freshman walk-on. “We’ve won a lot more hard games.”

Close wins have become more commonplace for the Irish over the last two-plus seasons. In 2012, Notre Dame won five one-score games, including victories over Michigan and Stanford. In 2013, the Irish won one more one-score games, headlined by triumphs against Michigan State and USC. Even the last two weekends of this season—when Notre Dame toppled Stanford and North Carolina by a combined 10 points—are evidence.

“The difference is they believe they're going to win, and that's something that you build into your program,” Kelly said.

Now in his fifth season heading the program in South Bend, Kelly has his pieces, procedures and policies fully in place. Schmidt said it’s tough to put his finger on exactly why one team consistently comes through and why another doesn’t. But the middle linebacker said there’s been a continual growth in the program, from Kelly implementing new practice methods to developing strong leadership and communication.

Schmidt said Notre Dame’s progress is a product of “the little things.”

For Irish senior defensive back Matthias Farley, it’s small-scale factors that differentiate between good and great teams—the slight distinction between playing a few days before or a few days after the advent of a new year.

“It’s a focus,” Farley said. “You have to take things as they come. You can’t look far ahead. You can’t get bogged down with things that happened in the past. You have to continue to hone in on your craft and getting better each and every week and not get up or down.”

Notre Dame dealt with the ups and downs in the 2011 loss to the Seminoles. The Irish grabbed a 14-0 lead in the third quarter, but Florida State stormed back and tallied 15 points in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame quarterbacks Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combined to throw three interceptions and were sacked four times.

Asked about his recollections of the game, Schmidt is blunt.

“Bad memories,” he said. “I remember losing that game late and I remember their song.”

Irish graduate student offensive lineman Christian Lombard referred to the defeat as a game the Irish “gave away.” The tough loss, though, proved beneficial in the long term.

“It just gave guys confidence,” Lombard said. “Hey, ‘We just played Florida State and almost beat them.’ It just gave us that confidence that we could hang with anyone.”

Since then, the Irish have.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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Florida State Knows Key to Beating Notre Dame Is Containing Everett Golson

Florida State defensive players have seen plenty of Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson on film. They've seen what he can do with his arm and his legs. But to the Seminoles, the key to beating the Fighting Irish is containing Golson, not allowing him to find running lanes and turning him into a pocket quarterback.

FSU frequently sees mobile quarterbacks. The Seminoles faced Auburn's Nick Marshall in the national title game in January and have already seen Oklahoma State's J.W. Walsh, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and North Carolina State's Jacoby Brissett in 2014.

"I think the only guy I can compare him to is Nick Marshall," FSU defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. said. "He can run, he is fast and he can throw. We definitely need to be assignment sound and stay in our gaps. Don’t give him lanes to run out of."

Golson has thrown for 1,683 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions along with 209 rushing yards and four rushing TDs for the No. 5 Fighting Irish (6-0). His completion percentage is 62.5—nearly four points higher than his breakout 2012 season—going into Saturday night's game against No. 2 FSU (6-0).

The challenge with Golson is to try and keep him contained to the pocket. Stanford's defense, one of the nation's best, was able to do that on Oct. 4 as Golson was held to seven carries for 34 yards (but Golson did break free for a 33-yard run). The Cardinal also held Golson to just 20-of-43 passing (46.5 percent) for 241 yards.

But last Saturday, Golson shredded North Carolina, one of the nation's worst defenses, for 300 passing yards, three passing TDs and 71 rushing yards on 12 carries.

"It is always tough when you have a quarterback that can run and pass because you never know, even if everyone is locked down in the backfield, he can still pull the ball down and run," linebacker Terrance Smith said.

One knock on Golson is that he has been turnover-prone. After not throwing an interception in 96 pass attempts against Rice, Michigan and Purdue, Golson has tossed four interceptions the last three games.

Golson had three turnovers in the win over UNC, including two fumbles and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Those three turnovers led to three touchdowns, but Notre Dame escaped with a 50-43 win.

"I definitely have to do a better job with that," Golson told 247Sports' Lou Somogyi. "… It's a point where you get to—just kind of fed up. I think that's where I am, and I'm definitely not going to turn it over."

It will be key for Florida State to force a turnover or two. The Seminoles have just 11 forced turnovers through their first six games, but that average increased with three interceptions against Syracuse this past weekend.

The interceptions in part can be attributed to Golson's ability to read downfield while running, something FSU cornerback P.J. Williams says is rare with college quarterbacks.

"It takes a real good quarterback to be able to, after you're running the ball, still look downfield," Williams said. "That's really what stands out to me because I've seen that in Jameis [Winston] and I haven't really seen that in many other quarterbacks."

The Seminoles have fared well at times against those quarterbacks, but each was able to use his feet to extend or make plays, too.

Walsh was limited to mostly short runs, but he did have two touchdowns, including a 24-yard run on 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter. Watson had 12 carries for 30 yards, including a pair of eight-yard runs and a two-yard touchdown. Brissett had just 38 yards on 13 carries, but he showed his escapability and delivered a first-quarter touchdown pass after breaking a few sack attempts.

"Running quarterbacks are always a problem," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

The trouble with mobile quarterbacks is that a defense can bottle them up for a few plays, but they tend to find a hole in the defense and break loose. For FSU's defensive players, they realize they must focus on their individual assignments and trust their teammates to do the same. There's no need to go off the script and freelance—or Golson will make the Seminoles pay.

"If you have him contained, contain," Edwards Jr. said. "No matter what, just do our job is basically what we have been coached [to do] this week. Don't try to do too much. Don't try to jump inside and do this and that. Just do your job and I think we will be successful."

 

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report; all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter. All stats are courtesy of Seminoles.com and UND.com.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Updated Playoff Projections Heading into Week 8

We projected Florida State, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Alabama as the four playoff teams heading into Week 7’s slate of games, and we are not going to change that now.

Yes, the Crimson Tide struggled mightily against an Arkansas team that hasn’t won a conference game since 2012, and the Spartans let Purdue hang around far too long, but the bottom line is both teams came away with victories.

Elsewhere, the Seminoles handled Syracuse, and the Sooners narrowly escaped a matchup with their archrival, Texas. The game against the Longhorns may have been too close for comfort from Oklahoma’s perspective, but some rivalry games really do follow the “throw the records out” cliche.

Week 8 does not get much easier for Florida State, Oklahoma or Alabama, but the good news is all three teams are at home. The thought here is that the Seminoles outlast Notre Dame, the Sooners knock off Kansas State and the Crimson Tide handle a Texas A&M team that is likely overrated to begin with given its recent performances against the Mississippi schools and Arkansas.

Michigan State should handle Indiana based on the talent gap alone, even if the Hoosiers did expose Missouri earlier in the season.

That means the playoff projections stay intact for another week. However, they are far from set in stone with potential trap games looming. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few dark-horse teams that won’t actually make the playoffs but could realistically disrupt the path for those with postseason hopes.

 

Playoff Projections

Sugar Bowl: Florida State vs. Oklahoma

Rose Bowl: Michigan State vs. Alabama 

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (Semifinal winners)

 

Dark-horse Teams That Could Derail Playoff Hopes

Louisville

Weird things happen on Thursday nights in the college football world, and Florida State will walk into Louisville on Thursday, Oct. 30 with its playoff hopes on the line.

This also happens to be the next game for the Seminoles after their prime-time showdown with Notre Dame, and they also have rivalry clashes with Miami and Florida down the road. There is the possibility that they could overlook Louisville.

As Patrick Stevens of D1scourse.com noted, that may not be the best idea:

That Louisville defense Stevens mentioned is third in the nation in points allowed per game at 14.1 and held Florida International to three points, Wake Forest to 10, Syracuse to six and Clemson to 23 in its last four games.

On the other hand, Florida State is averaging 39 points a game, so something will have to give. Considering Notre Dame’s recent turnover problems and defensive struggles, and the fact that the game against the Fighting Irish is in Tallahassee, the trip to Louisville could actually be more difficult for the Seminoles in their quest to repeat as national champions.

 

Maryland

Michigan State likely has one game circled on its remaining calendar: a Nov. 8 showdown with Ohio State that could very well decide the Big Ten championship and even a spot in the College Football Playoff.

However, if the Spartans do come away with a victory against the Buckeyes, it is not that difficult to envision something of an emotional letdown in the next game. That contest is at Maryland, and the Terrapins will likely be fired up to make a statement to the rest of the Big Ten that they have arrived, especially after missing a similar chance in a loss to Ohio State.

This one will also be under the lights and in front of what should be a raucous crowd.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer actually provided some words of warning to anyone who overlooked Maryland, via Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors, "They’re the most athletic defense we’ll face so far this year."

On the other side of the ball for Maryland, wide receiver Stefon Diggs is one of fastest and most electrifying players in all of college football. The vaunted Michigan State defense gave up 46 points to Oregon and an inexplicable 31 to Purdue, which means there could be some holes in the secondary for Diggs to exploit. 

If he gets Maryland on the board early and lets the Terrapins' athletic defense do some work, this one could get interesting for Michigan State’s playoff hopes.

 

LSU

It has come to this for LSU in 2014; it is considered a dark horse that could play spoiler to a contender’s season instead of actually being a contender itself.

Alabama visits LSU on Nov. 8 in a game that will in all likelihood be under the lights. The Tigers were crushed by Auburn, lost 34-29 to Mississippi State and needed a miraculous final couple of minutes to beat Florida 30-27 in the Swamp. Safe to say, they have fallen off the national radar a bit this season.

LSU has no chance at the playoffs or a realistic opportunity to win the SEC West with two head-to-head losses against Mississippi State and Auburn, which means it can redefine the 2014 season with a win against archrival Alabama.

By Nov. 8, the inexperience on the LSU roster won’t be quite as much of an issue, and the combination of Leonard Fournette and the LSU offensive line could pose a problem for the Crimson Tide. If Alabama stacks the box, the Tigers could also hit Travin Dural over the top. 

Ultimately, the talent on the Alabama side may win out, but don’t overlook the Tigers as a serious threat to the Crimson Tide’s playoff hopes.

 

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Texas Tech Football: Be Patient with Kingsbury, the Future Is Bright

2014 has not been kind to Texas Tech and Kliff Kingsbury.  The Red Raiders have not lived up to the hype that followed them after their dominating performance in last year’s Holiday Bowl, when they beat Arizona State, 38-21, despite being 22-point underdogs.

The Red Raiders struggled immediately out of the gate, barely escaping games against Central Arkansas, an FCS team, and UTEP with victories.  But then they got shredded 49-28 against Arkansas and lost their first three Big 12 games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia.

The four consecutive losses are demoralizing, especially for a team with aspirations to be a dark horse in the Big 12 title race, and the 0-3 conference start is the first time that has happened since 1990. 

There are some positives in Lubbock, though.  Texas Tech has played pretty well in two of those conference losses.  They scored 35 points against Oklahoma State, a team that played Florida State very close in their first game of the year.  In that game, the Red Raider offense churned out 512 yards of total offense, and the defense played better than one would expect against such a high-octane offense.

And the Red Raiders played by far their best game of the season last Saturday against West Virginia.  In that game, the Red Raiders recorded more than 300 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, an impeccable display of balance that hasn’t been seen in Lubbock in years.  The defense played very well also, limiting Clint Trickett to only 301 passing yards, his lowest output of the season.

The two things that have plagued the Red Raiders the most in the Kingsbury era have been turnovers and penalties.  They tied the Mountaineers 1-1 in the turnover battle, the first time of the season that the Red Raiders have not had more turnovers than their opponent.

However, the impact of each of those turnovers could have been much different.  The Red Raiders’ lone turnover was a Davis Webb interception that killed a promising drive at the end of the first half, while they could only manage a field goal on West Virginia’s turnover despite recovering a Trickett fumble deep in scoring territory.

Because Kingsbury’s squad has been behind in the turnover margin by so much, it needs to capitalize on the ones it does force.

Unfortunately, the penalties are another story.  Against West Virginia, the Red Raiders did not limit the damage in that regard, piling on a dozen more flags to add to their nation-leading total.  For the season, they are averaging more than 11 penalties and 104 penalty yards per game.  That is an obscenely high total, making it even harder for Tech to win games.

These two particular aspects of the game have to drive Kingsbury crazy.  He told TheDallas Morning News that he has tried everything to stop the penalties, but nothing has worked. 

That’s what the Texas Tech fans and athletic department need to understand.  Kingsbury is only 35 years old and has only been a coach of any kind for six years.  He spent two seasons as an offensive quality control assistant at the University of Houston, then two as the co-offensive coordinator at the same school.  Next, Kingsbury followed Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M.  And after one year of overseeing one of the most prolific offenses in the country in 2012, Kingsbury reached the pinnacle of coaching.  He got offered his dream job, head coach at his alma mater, and is now the head man at the same place he played quarterback in the early 2000s.

Kingsbury has proven that he is one of the best offensive play-callers in the country, but not head coach.  When he was solely an offensive coach, he had Sumlin there to handle discipline as well as defense, while Kingsbury was able to devote all of his time to offensive schemes.

Now it’s a different story.  Kingsbury has to focus on all the aspects of the game as well as learn how to win games as a head coach.  No longer can he be the nice guy on the staff, the players’ best friend.  He can still be cool, but the players also have to know that they must be disciplined and that there will be consequences for mistakes.

Tech had to know that there were going to be some growing pains with Kingsbury at the helm due to his young age and overall inexperience, and the program showed it is willing to be patient when it signed Kingsbury to an extension that will keep him in Lubbock through the 2020 season.

The current Texas Tech roster is loaded with talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball, which makes it even more mind-boggling that the offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders.  But it’s easy to forget that the team is very, very young across the board.  Its starting lineup is filled with underclassmen on both sides of the ball.

The Red Raiders have only two seniors on offense and four on defense.  They are also playing with a brand new defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, who took over the position after Matt Wallerstedt resigned unexpectedly.

Tech is rife with youth, and despite the rough start to this season, the future is still bright in Lubbock.  The incoming recruiting class is impressive, headlined by Jarrett Stidham, the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation

Kingsbury is going to be a terrific coach, but he is not there yet.  His good looks will only get him so far as a head coach, and he has the necessary work ethic to catapult himself toward the top coaches in the Big 12.

He even said so himself in his postgame press conference.  He said to reporters after the game that his team still doesn’t know “how to finish.”  That goes for the players as well as the coaching staff. 

There is no reason for panic in Lubbock.  The Red Raiders may not win many games this year, but things usually have to get worse before they get better.  Their four losses have been to good teams: Kansas State and Oklahoma State are both ranked in the Top 15, while Arkansas and West Virginia each lost to Alabama by a combined 11 points.

If anybody can bring championship-caliber success to the High Plains, it is Kingsbury.  Give him a few years for him as well as his players to hone their respective crafts, and the Red Raiders will be competing for Big 12 championships on a yearly basis.     

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Herschel Walker Comments on Jameis Winston, Todd Gurley and Heisman Trophy

The college football landscape is currently being dominated by autograph scandals involving star players Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley. While many have sided with the athletes, one former Heisman Trophy winner feels differently.

According to comments from an appearance on ESPN's Paul Finebaum Show (via Kipp Adams of 247Sports), former University of Georgia star Herschel Walker is of the belief that both Winston and Gurley deserve to be punished for their roles in the controversy.

Gurley, who is arguably the best Georgia running back since Walker, was recently suspended indefinitely as the NCAA investigates whether he accepted money in exchange for autographs.

Walker feels as though Gurley's suspension is justified, but he is also mystified by Florida State's handling of Winston:

It is a sad situation. But I think (Georgia head coach) Mark Richt is doing the right thing. I think Todd realized what he did is wrong. Coach Richt has sat him down, which I think is the correct thing to do because you don't want to jeopardize all the other players. If the NCAA comes in and finds something that they did was inappropriate, then the whole team, and everything they have done, is punishable. I think that is what is happening at Florida State, so that is why I am sort of shocked at that situation.

The Seminoles' star quarterback is being investigated as well, but Florida State has opted against suspending the reigning Heisman Trophy winner thus far. Winston is no stranger to scandals, which is a big reason why Walker is unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt:

You want to talk about the rape case, I do not know about the rape case, but I do know the young lady never recanted her statement. You want to talk about the crab leg situation. What I do know is the video tape showed him walking out of the store without paying for it. You want to talk about him getting on the table, students were there videotaping it. But now this comes up again and they are 'oh he didn't do it.' He may not have done it, but you have to look at it and see what his word is worth.

Winston is currently under review by Florida State for the sexual assault case mentioned by Walker. He has yet to be punished for his alleged involvement, although he was suspended for one game earlier in the season for inappropriate actions in the university's student union.

Even so, many, such as Greg Gabriel of 670 The Score, feel as though Winston has been protected far too much by FSU:

Walker has a Heisman vote due to his status as a past winner, but it is unlikely that he will cast one in favor of either Winston or Gurley this year. Walker didn't vote for Winston last season, and according to Adams, he feels the same way this time around:

I did not vote for (Winston) because of anything he did on the field. When I won the Heisman, I hope it stood for more than me just playing football. I hope it stood for me being a person, how I did in school and for me being an athlete. Being an athlete is more than just playing the game. Being an athlete is about doing more. I did not vote for Jameis because of that. The Heisman Trophy is supposed to be about integrity. Until his act is cleaned up, I cannot give him my vote. And it is the same time with Todd Gurley. Right at this moment, I cannot give Gurley my vote. If he comes back and I see a change then, that vote can be there. But at this time today, I cannot give them my vote.

While Gurley's Heisman chances have been damaged perhaps beyond repair by the suspension he is currently serving, Winston is still very much in the mix. If Walker has his way, though, he will not become the first back-to-back Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State running back Archie Griffin.

It remains to be seen if the other voters hold the same opinion, but the fact that Walker is against both Winston and a star player from his alma mater speaks volumes.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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College Football's Influence on the NFL

Imagine that football is actually a startup company and a head coach is its self-appointed CEO. This coach has an idea—you'll just love it—ready to become the next big product on the market. There's a marketing plan in place to sell it and some mock sales projections mapped out for your convenience. Everything is packaged and ready to be patented.

Except, the idea isn't original. In fact, this "next big thing" has already existed in some other form for decades. 

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, the father of the zone read, put it best. "There is no patent on schemes."

Football is a game where just about everything is borrowed. Even the birth of college football between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 was a concept borrowed from rugby. As the sport has evolved, so have the X's and O's. And it's common, if not expected, for coaches to take an idea here or a theory there as though they're at a football buffet. 

The coaching fraternity is tight, and its members at all levels constantly share information with one another. Coaches can't stay complacent, lest they fall behind quickly if they do. College football is in a unique spot along the freeway of ideas. Rodriguez is one of multiple coaches who, in an interview with Bleacher Report, said there is a "trickle-up effect" from college to the pros. 

How has college football influenced the NFL? It's a large question with multiple answers. But three areas in which the college game's fingerprint have been seen in the pros are offense, defense and tempo. 

  

Offense

You can see, just for a moment, that West Virginia quarterback Pat White even had the ESPN cameraman fooled. 

Eleven seconds into a game against Mississippi State on Oct. 20, 2007, White appeared to hand the football off to running back Steve Slaton, a consensus All-American and Doak Walker finalist from the year before. The defensive end, undoubtedly knowing Slaton's credentials, crashed in. The linebackers crashed in. The cameraman crashed in. 

So White pulled the ball out and ran. He made one cut to his right, freezing a safety and then turned on the afterburners. White was in the open field now. The Bulldogs defense was caught buying a lie to which there was no refund. 

One play, 64 yards, 21 seconds, 7-0 Mountaineers. 

White wasn't the first quarterback to run Rodriguez's zone read, but he's among the most recognizable. But to say Rodriguez invented the zone read isn't entirely accurate. He was really more of a witness of its inception. 

Pete Thamel, then of The New York Times, chronicled "The Evolution of a Broken Play" in '07. During Rodriguez's early coaching days at Glenville State, a small Division II program in the heart of West Virginia, his quarterback, Jed Drenning, opted to keep the ball on a mishandle.

“Why did you do that?” Rodriguez asked Drenning.

“The end squeezed in, so I kept it,” Drenning said.

“Oh, right,” Rodriguez said, pretending not to be surprised. “Oh, we’re putting that in next week.”

Today, the zone read is run at every level of football. 

"No one philosophically built an offense on misdirection," Drenning said. "It’s an underdog offense that is no longer run by underdogs."

 

***

The zone read is one of several packaged plays designed to give ball-carriers the option to make a play based on what certain defenders do. Many of those packages pay homage to old-school concepts with a new spin and name. 

The Wildcat, which took the ball out of the quarterback's hands and put it in the control of the team's most explosive playmaker, is a callback to single-wing football. The Wildcat was made famous by running back Darren McFadden of Arkansas, but it eventually found its way into the NFL through the Miami Dolphins and running back Ronnie Brown. 

Another package, the inverted veer, is oftentimes mistaken as a zone read, even though it's really more of a quarterback power with a sweep, as Bleacher Report's Michael Felder explains:

First thing you notice in this play is that everyone is going in the same direction. Unlike the zone and mid-line reads where the running back goes play-side and quarterback goes backside, the inverted veer has both parties going in one direction.

The end result is the same, however: Take important defenders out of the game, even if it's only for a few plays. NFL defenses have put an emphasis on elite pass-rushers, such as Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (Green Bay) and Mario Williams (Buffalo), as the league has geared toward passing (more on that later).

By using zone-read and option concepts, especially if mixed in with the pass, offenses are taking those key players out of the play. 

"Part of the reason you do things like the zone read is because it gives you an opportunity for someone other than a lineman to block that 5-tech defensive end," Drenning continued. "If [San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick hands it off on a zone read, by that very function, he’s blocking someone."

It's also, according to Drenning, "the poster child for something that is a lot broader." 

It's the spread offense. 

Sometimes, borrowing concepts from college offenses is obvious. Seattle's "pop" pass seen in its season opener against Green Bay can be traced back to Auburn last year, per an Auburn Tigers tweet: 

Other times, it's more discrete—and not always related to the spread. "I think a lot of NFL teams are looking at Stanford," said Scott Roussel of FootballScoop.com. "They want to know why they've been so successful in developing players." 

The Cardinal have had 20 players drafted into the NFL since former coach Jim Harbaugh, now of the San Francisco 49ers, took over in 2007. 

No matter the playbook specifics, an offense's goal is to create space. The spread offense, and all of the styles and formations that have spawned from it, simply found other ways to do it. From Hal Mumme's Air Raid to Chris Ault's Pistol formation—they've all found their way into NFL playbooks. 

Currently, Ault is a consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. 

"There’s a lot of interaction," said Roussel. "Chris Ault has spoken with a lot of NFL teams. He has a big assistant tree."

 

*** 

What defines a pro-style offense anyway? A quarterback under center? A fullback in the I-formation? The lines between traditional and spread offenses have become blurred. 

"I find it amusing that pro-style offense is equated to three-step drop under center," added Rodriguez. "I think shotgun is a new pro style."

Rodriguez is on to something. According to Pro Football Focus, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had the most dropbacks from the shotgun (586) of any signal-caller during the 2013 NFL season.

That accounted for roughly 87 percent of his total dropbacks. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was a close second with 581 dropbacks from the shotgun, which accounted for roughly 86 percent of his total dropbacks. 

Flacco, Manning, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers—some of the best in the game—run their offenses primarily out of the shotgun.  

With quarterbacks such as Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III (Washington) Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Johnny Manziel (Cleveland Browns) coming into the league, offensive coordinators have to find different ways to put them in positions to be successful. 

Athletic quarterbacks aren't new to the NFL. Steve Young (whose NFL career started in 1985) and Michael Vick (started in 2001) are just two of many. Even quarterbacks such as Rodgers and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis are so-called "pro-style" quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet. 

But Kaepernick did help usher in a new wave of dual-threat signal-callers to the league with his record-setting game against Green Bay in January 2013 (181 rushing yards and two touchdowns). 

The Packers actually did a good job of preparing for Kaepernick's designed/option runs, but there was ultimately no accounting for his scrambling ability. 

There rarely is. 

 

***

The narrative that dual-threat quarterbacks are just athletes who have been given the keys to an offense is being proved wrong year after year. 

With the rise of events such as the Elite 11 and 7-on-7 tournaments, high school quarterbacks are refining their passing skills to complement their running skills year-round. 

"The athletic quarterback has played a bigger role," said Drenning. "Quarterbacks used to be either a passer or a runner. Now, they’re more polished; they’re ahead of the curve." 

Of the 18 quarterbacks who attended the 2014 Elite 11 Finals over the summer, roughly half are either 4- or 5-star dual-threats on 247Sports' composite rankings. Many have verbally committed to schools whose offenses are based out of the spread. 

As quarterbacks like the aforementioned ones move up from high school to college, and from college to the NFL, they'll continue to change the dynamic of what makes up a pro-style quarterback. And coaches will look to expand their play calls to accommodate those players' strengths. 

"Who doesn’t want to find a guy who can throw the ball all over the place, but who can run?" asked North Texas coach Dan McCarney. "It’s an extra running back."

That extra running back means defenses have to assign someone to him. It's no longer a game of 11 defenders vs. 10 offensive players, then. By technically leveling the playing field, the offense has found another way to tip the scales in its favor. 

 

Defense

If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then the offensive trickle-up effect in football has spawned a defensive trickle-up. 

Defense is, after all, reactionary. As such, the job description for defenses in the spread era is fairly simple: run. Everyone on defense has to be able to run. 

"The game is so fast now. You have to deploy your defensive guys to play in space," said McCarney, who cut his coaching teeth at Big Ten programs Iowa and Wisconsin. "We used to have these linebackers who were these big, tough guys. And God bless ‘em, I wouldn’t trade them for anything, but it’s a different game now.

"It’s not played in a phone booth anymore."

It's an ironic statement from McCarney, whose Mean Green program was recently dubbed the "Stanford of Conference USA" by The Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin.  

But that doesn't make McCarney's statement any less true. At the very least, defenses, especially in the middle, have to be adaptable. For example, no longer are interior linebackers simply there to stop the run. Rather, they need to be versatile defenders, capable of dropping into coverage and pursuing the quarterback. 

Former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier was drafted 15th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers largely because he was one of the most athletic linebackers in college football. 

Coaches seek that kind of athleticism and versatility. Every season, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will face Texas A&M's Air Raid, Auburn's spread and LSU's smashmouth running attack. Just trying to stop a different offense every week is a challenge that never gets nearly the attention it deserves. Athleticism, especially in the middle of the defense, is at a premium. 

 

***

No matter the base defense, putting more speed on the field has been a priority for coaches. Since the NFL is considered a passing league, a greater emphasis has been placed on the pass rush.

Former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 overall player taken in the 2014 NFL draft to the Houston Texans—despite the fact that the Texans don't run a 4-3 defense like the one Clowney ran in college. 

But Clowney was considered an elite pass-rusher and a rare pro prospect. He was the best player available, so the Texans took him. 

There's also an emphasis on pass coverage, and pro clubs are willing to pay for elite defensive backs. 

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman announced on his website in May that he had inked a four-year deal worth $57.4 million, $40 million of which was guaranteed. Two months later, Arizona Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson signed a five-year contract extension worth $70 million with $48 million guaranteed, which made him the highest-paid corner in the league. 

"Almost every defense plays base with five defensive backs with a linebacker/safety," said Roussel." That’s [LSU defensive coordinator] John Chavis’ base defense. Look at Rob Ryan and the Saints. They load up on safety types."

Putting more speed behind the defensive line has led to coaches using variations of the 3-4, 4-2-5 or 3-3-5. Jeff Casteel, Rodriguez's defensive coordinator at Arizona, has been running a 3-3-5 stack for years, and like the zone read, it got a lot of attention at West Virginia. 

"We started doing 3-3-5 years ago because it was different, but adaptable," Rodriguez said. "You don’t have to sub in the base personnel."

The evolution of a college football defense is designed to stop more wide-open attacks. As elements of the spread make their way into the NFL, coaches need defenders capable of stopping them.

At the same time, defensive coaches are finding players who can fight fire with fire. Former Nebraska and current Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is a freak along the interior of the D-line who can still get to the quarterback. 

Traditional roles for defensive players are being chucked out the window in favor of players who can do multiple things. Coaches can design schemes based around that personnel. 

"One of these days, we’ll have a Heisman winner who plays defense," McCarney said. "I hope it happens in my lifetime."

 

Tempo

Tempo is a tool as old as football itself. Tempo can be slow to wind down the clock just as it can be fast to prevent defenses from adjusting or substituting. 

Winning the time of possession isn't always important. Dictating the tempo of a game is. 

Tempo has often been associated with hurry-up, no-huddle teams that run a version of the spread—even though they don't necessarily have to go hand in hand.

"Tempo isn’t tethered to the spread, but it puts the defense in a bad situation," said Drenning. 

That philosophy transcends every level of football. Uptempo teams have existed in the pros before, but former Oregon coach Chip Kelly really got things kicked into high gear, so to speak, when he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

As ESPN The Magazine documented, Kelly brought an entirely new philosophy to the league: 

He arrived in Philadelphia with an offense recognized as much for its unorthodoxy as for its speed. It didn't rely on audibles. It didn't concede that the best way to score is by throwing. And it didn't require a 700-page playbook.

As Kelly once said: "Instead of trying to outscheme your opponent, put your players in an environment where they can be successful because they understand exactly what they have to do." 

The results were instantly noticeable. The Eagles went 10-6 in Kelly's first year, winning seven of their final eight games to make the playoffs. Per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Kelly attributes the tempo learning curve to what players experienced at lower levels of football: 

“I think it’s probably a trickle‑up effect,” Kelly said. “It’s kind of started at a lower level and moved up.”

Kelly said that when he was introducing some of his fast-paced concepts with the Eagles last year, he found that many players had experience with it in college or in high school, even if they hadn’t seen it in the NFL.

The level of talent disparity grows the lower you go down the football chain. In high school, coaches aren't able to recruit players. They can only coach what they have. In many ways, those coaches have to be the most creative with tools like tempo. 

"Necessity is the mother of all invention," Rodriguez said. 

 

***

In 2014, the tempo debate at the college level was about player safety. In February, the Football Rules Committee drafted legislation that would "allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, starting with the 2014 season."

“This rules change is being made to enhance student-athlete safety by guaranteeing a small window for both teams to substitute,” said Troy Calhoun, head coach at the Air Force Academy and chair of the committee.

“As the average number of plays per game has increased, this issue has been discussed with greater frequency by the committee in recent years, and we felt like it was time to act in the interests of protecting our student-athletes.”

The so-called 10-second rule was immediately met with backlash from coaches such as Rodriguez, Washington State's Mike Leach and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze. Ultimately, the proposal was disregarded. 

More plays don't always equal a faster tempo, either. In fact, Georgia and Iowa ran just as many plays per game (72) as Auburn in 2013. Furthermore, Michigan State ran more plays (83) than Oregon (68) in the Spartans' Week 2 loss. 

The idea that Michigan State, considered a more "traditional" team, couldn't "keep up" with the Ducks is easily debunked. 

A glance over the 2013 numbers show some usual suspects among the most plays per game, but teams such as Auburn and Oregon—poster children for the hurry-up, no-huddle—are nowhere to be found. In fact, the Ducks ran 12 fewer plays per game last year than Texas Tech and Cal. 

Yes, the game has gotten faster. In 2008, only five teams—Oklahoma, Tulsa, Houston, TCU and Nevada—ran more than 1,000 plays in a season. And none ran more than 80 plays per game. But more plays hasn't equated to more injuries. 

College Football Matrix released a non-scientific study in 2013 that indicated slower-paced teams actually ran a higher risk of injuries than fast-paced teams. In any case, there's been little to nothing that suggests uptempo teams are more at risk for injuries. 

And uptempo offenses live to play another year. 

The tempo debate reached its peak when Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a defensive guy through and through, famously, and rhetorically, asked, "Is this what we want football to be?

Saban is brilliant enough to know the answer to that. Whether he likes it or not, this is football. In a 14-13 win over Arkansas in Week 7 of the '14 college football season, Saban conceded as much against, of all people, another pace-of-play advocate: Bret Bielema. Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News commented on the situation:

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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How Alabama's Offense Can Get Back on Track vs. Texas A&M

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A major reason for Alabama’s overall woes the last two games, one in a late loss to Ole Miss and the other in a tight win over Arkansas, has been the sudden ineffectiveness of the offense.

The Crimson Tide put up 396 yards of offense against Ole Miss and just 227 against Arkansas. That two-game total of 623 is lower than Alabama's offensive output against Florida alone and just three more yards than it put up in a game against Southern Miss.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with the offense. That’s probably because it’s not just one or two things specifically that have gone wrong.

This will be a good week to get back on track, facing a Texas A&M defense that is giving up almost 400 yards per game.

Here are a couple of ways Alabama can do just that.

 

Control the line of scrimmage

This is the Crimson Tide’s biggest key to winning on Saturday. And it’s something Alabama hasn’t done much of lately, especially in the run game. It rushed for just 66 yards against Arkansas.

Alabama’s offensive line just hasn’t been able to get the push it’s been accustomed to over the last few years, and it is severely affecting its ability to run the ball, especially between the tackles.

The Crimson Tide will likely be without center Ryan Kelly once again. And it looks like Leon Brown will be back at right guard.

“Maybe with healthier players and more continuity we’ll continue to make progress,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “And I also think that we have to do a better job of executing all the way around. I don’t think we’ve blocked people on the perimeter like we could have, or should have, or have. And I think it’s important that at the quarterback position we execute and do the things, and take what the defense gives us.”

Teams have been putting more focus on stopping Amari Cooper and giving Alabama more room to run the ball. The Crimson Tide just haven’t capitalized. That needs to change this week.

“I think people in the first three or four games of the year, we had a lot of easy, fast, quick throws,” Saban said. “Some of them turned into very big plays. People now take those things away regardless with who is there. They are basically challenging you to run the ball, which is something we have to do better.”

 

Get Blake Sims into a rhythm

Alabama’s first-year quarterback hasn’t been his cool, calm self that we saw over the first four games of this season.

He’s had his two lowest completion percentages of the year against Ole Miss and Arkansas. And there were two plays in both games where he hit defenders right in the hands only to have it dropped.

Those games were also his first two road starts. Saban thinks Sims needs to get “re-centered” this week, and having that home-field advantage back might help him, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com.

"He needs to do to take what the defense gives, read his reads, make the throws," Saban said on his radio show Thursday, per Gribble. "Don't worry about making too many big plays and have a little more patience as a player, and I think he'll be right back to where he was."

Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can set him up for success with short, low-risk throws to build Sims’ confidence. Then he can start opening it up more and hit the big plays we were accustomed to seeing during the beginning of the season.

 

Get receivers not named Amari Cooper involved

Cooper currently leads Alabama in catches with 54. The next receiver on that list is DeAndrew White, who’s missed two games to injury, with 16, then Christion Jones with 11.

The passing game has largely been Cooper, Cooper and more Cooper.

Arkansas sold out on him, and he only had two catches. That led to Alabama’s worst passing output and overall offensive output of the season.

White can be a weapon in the passing game. His speed gives him some big-play ability. Jones has had a down year all around, from returning kicks to receiving, but he was a favorite target of AJ McCarron in the past.

“We also have to throw the ball more effective in other ways. And utilize as many people as we need to,” Saban said. “Because we have confidence in all of our receivers and our tight ends and our backs that they can be effective in the passing game.

"I just think it's more important for us to go back to the basics of what we need to do to execute and make better judgments, choices and decisions of how we distribute the ball, and we'll be just fine.”

Receiver is Alabama’s deepest position group right now. There is no shortage of weapons. Behind those starting three is Chris Black, a former 4-star. And then there’s O.J. Howard, the uber-talented tight end, who’s sitting at just six catches for 150 yards so far this year.

So the Crimson Tide have the tools and pieces needed to really open up the offense. It could be just what Alabama needs to get it back on track as well.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from CFBStats.com.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Nebraska Football: De'Mornay Pierson-El Poised to Be Playmaker for Huskers

Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell sees the potential. “He’s going to be a great player here. There’s no question in my mind,” Bell said, per the Omaha World-Herald. “He’s got the work ethic. He’s more than intelligent enough. He works his tail off. He blocks, he catches, he does all the right stuff.”

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald agrees. "He’s a young guy, but he looked a lot like Jeremy Maclin to me," Fitzgerald said, per 247Sports.com. "I’ve got nightmares of that guy.”

Who are they talking about? It's none other than freshman wide receiver and punt returner De'Mornay Pierson-El.

Solely looking at the numbers, Pierson-El's time at wide receiver doesn't look that impressive. He's only had a total of three receptions. One of those catches was a touchdown though, which came against Florida Atlantic. It's not a lot yet, but the potential is there.

However, Pierson-El is showing off his skills elsewhere. As a punt returner, he has 334 punt return yards and two touchdowns so far in 2014, which makes him the nation's best. He was even named the Big Ten's Special Teams Player of the Week earlier in the season after the Fresno State matchup. His success at punt returning is only the beginning of the playmaker he can become for Nebraska.

The key is going to be getting Pierson-El the ball more. Bell acknowledged that Nebraska plans to do just that.

“We’re trying to get him touches now,” Bell said, per the Omaha World-Herald. “Look for No. 15 to start making more plays for us.”

Fitzgerald also expects the Huskers to use Pierson-El more against Northwestern than they previously have. "Pierson-El is a difference-maker with the ball in his hand," he said, per 247Sports.com. "With the bye week, we expect to see him touch the ball more."

So, will Pierson-El see more action against Northwestern? Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini believes so.

"We think he's a really good football player, somebody who we want to keep getting more experience and expand his role as the season goes on but not overload him either," Pelini said, per CSNChicago.com. "But he has to be ready for that. We're continuing to bring him along and teach him and get him more comfortable and more confident as the season goes along."

With all that said, look for Pierson-El to become a playmaker for the Huskers as the season wears on. With every game that passes, the 5'9" and 175lb. player shows he has something special.

As a punt returner, he is averaging 17.6 yards on 19 carries, which ranks him eight nationally, per the Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple. His explosiveness has not only earned him the respect of current coaches and players, but also players of the past.

"What he's doing is reminiscent of what we did back in the day," Former Husker DeJuan Groce said, per Sipple.

Against Northwestern, Pierson-El has the opportunity to improve. The Wildcats are punting 6.5 times per game, while only averaging 37.74 yards per punt. This is a prime matchup for Pierson-El to really make a bigger statement, which is why Fitzgerald is so complimentary of him.

The key going forward will be to evolve Pierson-El beyond being just a punt returner, but to harness that talent at wide receiver. As quarterback Tommy Armstrong continues to grow, Pierson-El will with him. It's all about getting Armstrong comfortable with Pierson-El, which practice and time can help.

Ultimately, as Pierson-El grows this season, Husker fans should feel confident in his ability to take over the role Bell will leave behind when he graduates. With Jordan Westerkamp also improving, Pierson-El is helping create a very bright future for the Nebraska receiver corp.

No team can, or should take Pierson-El lightly. Whether he's returning punts or getting more catches at wide receiver, he's becoming more impressive with every game. That can't be ignored.

 

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LSU Football: Grading Each Positional Unit at Halfway Point of the Season

LSU head coach Les Miles has reached double-digit wins in each of the last four seasons. Unfortunately for Miles, that streak is now in danger considering the Tigers' troublesome 5-2 start in 2014. 

LSU's win against Florida on Saturday was impressive, but the Tigers were handled in their other two SEC games against Auburn and Mississippi State. Miles' only other win against a meaningful opponent was the comeback victory against Wisconsin in the season opener. 

Coaches can only do so much, as talent is the most important component for a team to be successful. Miles has seen some of his position groups have success while others struggle. He will need the entire team to hit its stride for the team to finish 5-1, which would add another 10-win season to his legacy.  

Here is a review of how each position group has fared so far. 

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Best-, Worst-Case Scenarios for Every Playoff Contender's Second Half of 2014

This weekend marks the tipping point in the 2014 college football season. We’re through seven weeks of the “regular season,” and depending on which league you’re in, seven or eight weeks remain. For leagues with a title game, it’s seven weeks, and for those without it’s eight, since some leagues finish their regular seasons on the championship weekend of Dec. 5-6.

This marks the first year of the new College Football Playoff, and intrigue surrounding college football’s expanded postseason is high. When the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first rankings on Oct. 28, we’ll have a better idea of which teams are serious playoff contenders, but the first half of the season has already done plenty to separate the haves from the have-nots in the playoff picture. Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde has an excellent look at which teams are true contenders.

Here, we’re taking a look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for every College Football Playoff contender. To determine these contenders, we used the top 13 teams in the latest Associated Press Top 25 rankings. That isn’t to say that a team can’t make a run and make the playoff, but these teams have shown they’re legit contenders, based on key wins or their upcoming schedule and opportunities for big wins.

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Is Ohio State DE Joey Bosa the Next J.J. Watt?

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Joey Bosa is only a sophomore, but he is already drawing comparisons to Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.

Bosa is racking up Watt-like stats this season for the Buckeyes, but is the comparison accurate?

Watch Michael Felder and Matt Miller break down Joey Bosa's NFL comparison. 

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Building the Ultimate 2015 Quarterback Recruit

The 2015 class has a handful of quarterbacks who are bound for greatness at the next level.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder builds his ultimate 2015 QB recruit based on various attributes.

Which QB do you think deserves to be mentioned?

Watch the video and let us know!

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ESPN College GameDay 2014: Week 8 Schedule, Location, Predictions and More

No. 2-ranked Florida State University may have dropped a spot in The Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls this week, but it is still going to be the center of the college football universe with a marquee opponent on the slate for Week 8.

Kirk Herbstreit and the rest of the ESPN College GameDay crew will head to the city of Tallahassee on the Florida panhandle for the Seminoles' clash against No. 5 Notre Dame.

This is the second time this season that College GameDay has set up shop at Florida State, with the previous visit taking place September 20 when the Seminoles hosted—and defeated—their ACC rivals, the Clemson Tigers.

Both of these illustrious programs are 6-0 on the year and harbor ambitions of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff. Florida State is coming off a 38-20 road victory over Syracuse, while the Fighting Irish were last seen trading blows with a middling North Carolina program in a 50-43 shootout win in South Bend.

Neither team has been particularly alluring this season despite the unblemished records. Florida State seems to toggle in and out of cruise control against lesser opponents (aka everyone), while Notre Dame has faced just one top-tier opponent in Stanford, which turned out to be a fairly drab affair that the Irish won by a score of 17-14.

Here is the schedule and the coverage info for the show and the game.

 

ESPN College GameDay Info

When: Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014

Time (ET): 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. (preview show)

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Notre Dame Will Win Turnover Battle, Defeat Florida State

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson has turned in some remarkable performances this season, including a five-touchdown effort against the Rice Owls in Week 1 and 25 consecutive completed passes in a 31-15 win over Syracuse.

While still putting up big numbers every week, Golson has struggled with turnovers as of late, something that the Seminoles defense will be quick to take advantage of and turn into extra opportunities for a robust offense led by their Heisman-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston (as if the introduction was really necessary at this point).

As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out during Notre Dame's Week 7 game against North Carolina, Golson's performances have grown increasingly sloppy as the season has progressed:

Golson fumbled twice in that game and threw a costly pick-six.

Forcing Golson into making mistakes is important, but the defense knows it cannot take too many chances against a dual-threat quarterback.

"It's always tough when you have a quarterback that can run and pass because you never know," FSU linebacker Terrance Smith said, via Brendan Sonnone of The Orlando Sentinel. "Even if everybody's locked down in the backfield, he can still pull the ball down and run. So your D-linemen have to have their rush lanes; they have to keep contain on him and keep him bottled up."

The ability to stay disciplined and keep containment on Golson will be a key test for the likes of Smith and defensive ends Mario Edwards Jr. and Lorenzo Featherston.

Golson will almost surely make a few mistakes throwing the ball, but he has played some error-free games this season and can count on sure-handed running back Tarean Folston to safely grind out tough yards. Not only that, but the Seminoles defense, while still one of the toughest in the nation, hasn't done enough to win the turnover battle in most contests.

Florida State has forced 11 turnovers this season, but it has committed 12 of its own. Winston has tossed five interceptions in five starts and will be going up against an opportunistic Fighting Irish defense that has picked off opposing signal-callers 10 times in six games.

Florida State's subdued running game, ranked just 98th in the nation, will struggle against Notre Dame's staunch rush defense, led by linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Day. The Fighting Irish have given up just 3.23 yards per carry this season, via NCAA.com.

This will force Winston to pass more often than he should have to with an underwhelming running back like Karlos Williams in the fold. This isn't necessarily a bad thing with targets like Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary, but if things get one-dimensional for the 'Noles, Notre Dame should be able to take advantage.

There is an incredible amount of pressure on Winston and his 'Noles teammates to perform, but the Fighting Irish could be spurred on to greater heights knowing that they have a schedule full of trap games coming up. ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna explains: 

Notre Dame travels Nov. 8 to an Arizona State team that currently stands at 4-1. The Irish host the same Louisville team on Nov. 22 that should be FSU's toughest remaining test on Oct. 30, one whose defense currently rivals that of anyone in the country. They also close at rival USC, which is admittedly an enigma right now but has no shortage of talent. 

After a marshmallow-soft start to the season, Notre Dame must walk a decidedly tough road from here on out. Should it lose to Florida State, it will have to hope the SEC schools take turns beating each other to have a chance at the playoffs. Look for Golson and the Notre Dame defense to take the extra motivation and turn it into a narrow road victory.

Notre Dame wins 34-30.

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College Football Picks Week 8: Odds and Spread Predictions for Top 25 Teams

After a few surprising weeks of college football, fans should be ready for anything in Week 8.

Mississippi State has climbed to the No. 1 spot in the polls, but the Bulldogs will get a well-deserved week off after beating three Top 10 teams in a row. The good news is most of the Top 25 will be in action in a number of highly anticipated battles.

Saturday will feature five games between ranked teams, including Florida State and Notre Dame. Both are looking to remain undefeated. 

This is certain to create some difficult decisions for those looking to bet on the games, but here is a breakdown of picks against the spread with a deeper look at some of the tougher calls.

 

Best Games

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State

It is truly unfortunate that the big story heading into this game is the status of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. Between Winston facing the school's judicial board and allegedly being paid for autographs, there are questions about whether the reigning Heisman Trophy winner will even play this weekend.

Looking at the game itself, though, the battle appears to be a good one when both teams are at full strength. Chris Fowler of ESPN noted how successful the quarterbacks have been throughout their careers:

Everett Golson led the Irish to the national title game two years ago but was little more than a game manager at that point. This year, however, he is making big-time plays with both his arm and his legs and is a big reason the squad is 6-0.

The only question is whether he can hold on to the ball, as both interceptions and fumbles have been an issue lately. Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com notes that the team is working to solve this issue:

If Golson can avoid turnovers, Notre Dame has a chance to put up points against a Florida State defense that has been inconsistent this year. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish rank eighth in the country in points allowed, even after giving up 43 points to North Carolina last week.

Florida State should be able to win this game at home, but it will be close throughout, and Notre Dame should be able to do enough to cover the large spread.

 

No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 7 Alabama

There was a lot of criticism following Alabama's one-point win over Arkansas, but the Crimson Tide found a way to win when they needed it. Most importantly, it once again showcased the team's strong defense, which has held opponents to 23 or fewer points in every game.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M's offense, which seemed unstoppable a few weeks ago, was held to just 20 points against Ole Miss. Kenny Hill is still one of the most dynamic players in the nation, but he made mistakes, and the rest of the team did not pick up the slack, losing for the second week in a row.

With Alabama's talent in the front seven, the squad has a chance to once again keep the Aggies offense from running up the score. Head coach Nick Saban has another plan as well:

Controlling the clock should be easy against a Texas A&M defense that has struggled lately. The squad ranks 71st in the country in total defense and holds possession for an average of just over 27 minutes, which ranks 114th in FBS.

Alabama will utilize a lot of Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon on the ground to move the ball before going deep to Amari Cooper when the defense falls asleep. The Tide should be able to control the game, keep the opposing offense off the field and secure a relatively easy win.

 

No. 14 Kansas State at No. 11 Oklahoma

While Oklahoma is 5-1 on the season, there are serious questions surrounding the offense—specifically, Trevor Knight.

The sophomore quarterback was playing well through the first four games but has struggled mightily in the last two. College Football Talk jokes that it might have something to do with a certain pop star:

Regardless of the reason, the Sooners will not have too much success as long as the quarterback continues to make bad decisions with the football. His efficiency rating of 128.7 ranks 75th in the country among 125 qualified players. That does not sound like the person who was considered a Heisman candidate earlier in the year, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

On the other hand, Jake Waters has carried Kansas State with his ability to make plays with his arm and his legs. If he can avoid turnovers, he can help the Wildcats put up a lot of points this weekend.

Over the last three weeks, Oklahoma has allowed West Virginia's Clint Trickett, TCU's Trevone Boykin and Tyrone Swoopes of Texas to each throw for over 300 yards with two touchdowns. Waters has the arm to continue this stretch and help his team pull off the upset on the road against the Sooners.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Big 12 Football: Ranking the 10 Most Exciting Conference Games so Far in 2014

Last week delivered one of the greatest Big 12 games of all time—a thrilling comeback victory from the Baylor Bears over the TCU Horned Frogs, then one of college football's hottest teams after upending Oklahoma. 

But that's not the only exciting game this season has delivered us. 

From TCU's upset of Oklahoma to Kansas State's come-from-behind win over Iowa State, the Big 12 has already delivered plenty of drama. 

With that, let's check out the top 10 Big 12 games so far in 2014-15. 

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Michigan Football: Grading Each Positional Unit at Halfway Point of the Season

The storm clouds are swirling in Ann Arbor as Brady Hoke tries to salvage Michigan’s season and save his job. The gridiron turmoil has been dwarfed by off-the-field drama as Hoke and athletic director David Brandon are under fire for mishandling Shane Morris’ head injury.

Both Michigan’s season and Hoke’s tenure hang in the balance as Michigan (3-4, 1-2 Big Ten) prepares to face in-state rival Michigan State.

After last season’s 7-6 finish, Hoke hired Doug Nussmeier to replace offensive coordinator Al Borges and shuffled his defensive staff. Now it’s time to see how each position group has fared midway through the season.

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