NCAA Football

How the SEC Could Take a Playoff Hit in 2016's Very 1st Weekend

Who says the SEC doesn't play anybody in nonconference games?

The conference released its entire 2016 schedule on Thursday. Immediately, the Week 1 slate stands out. If you're of the belief that the College Football Playoff era should usher in tougher out-of-conference games, or if you're just a fan of great football, then it's impossible not to love what the SEC has in store during opening weekend.

You can check out the entire slate in the link above, but below are the key games:

You can't ask for a much better group of games than that. From the top of the SEC to the middle, there are intriguing matchups. Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer echoed just about everyone's words on this schedule:

But the give-and-take of a schedule like that is it can set the tone—at least perception-wise—for the rest of year, for better or worse.

If the SEC dominates that set of games, the perception of it being the strongest conference in college football will only grow. If it doesn't perform well, the conference could be in trouble. Not just in the minds of fans or critics, but in the playoff race as well.

Before going any further, it's important to clarify that a bad Week 1 wouldn't eliminate the SEC from the playoff. After all, the Big Ten flat-lined in Week 2 of the 2014 season, but that didn't stop Ohio State from going on a national title run.

To take it a step further, the Pac-12 didn't have the greatest opening weekend this year, going 2-2 against fellow Power Five teams with additional losses to Hawaii, Portland State and Boise State. Yet Stanford (6-1) and Utah (6-1) are still very much in the playoff discussion.

The Cardinal are even drawing comparisons to Ohio State from 2014 in terms of starting slow and finishing strong.

A bad opening week would, however, eliminate some room for error for the SEC moving through the rest of the year.

Let's think worst-case scenario first because it's the least likely to happen and the easiest to pass through. If Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Mizzou, Texas A&M and Ole Miss all lose, you're talking about several of the SEC's perceived top-half teams starting the year 0-1.

Since a majority of those teams would still have to play each other—Georgia, in fact, gets Ole Miss and Auburn out of the West Division—natural cannibalization will increase the chances of a two-loss division champion.

That doesn't mean an SEC team couldn't run the table in conference play, but it'd be especially difficult since conference foes know each other best.

For historical reference, no team has gone undefeated in SEC play since LSU did it in 2011. Coincidentally enough, the Tigers are the remaining unbeaten team in the SEC this year.

Would a two-loss SEC champion still be able to crack the playoff field? It would depend largely on how the rest of the college football landscape looked. As of yet, there's no precedent for a two-loss team getting in.

But if the SEC does have a bad Week 1 in 2016, the likelier event is the conference going under .500 against the aforementioned Power Five opponents.

The good thing about these games is some of them have a playoff feel months before the field of four is selected. USC, Clemson, UCLA and Florida State could all be playoff hopefuls next year. Thus, the possibility of losing early to them wouldn't be the worst thing ever.

However, that could come back and hurt the SEC later if head-to-head games are needed as tiebreakers.

Say USC and Alabama, each with a loss, are jockeying for a final playoff spot in early December. Based on Baylor finishing ahead of TCU in last year's final regular-season CFP standings, one would think the Trojans would have the edge in such a hypothetical situation.

Yes, the entire body of work counts. But if the head-to-head doesn't matter, what was the point of the game?

Of course, we're 10 months from knowing how the SEC will do in opening weekend and more than a year away from knowing if a bad showing would prove costly. Talking through possible scenarios long before they happen serves entertainment purposes, but that's about it.

Still, the SEC took on a big challenge by scheduling tough games early and all at once. For that, the conference deserves a ton of credit. But because everything the SEC does is magnified compared to other conferences, the other possibility—that of brutal losses—is going to be on the collective minds of college football fans.

And if the worst-case scenario does come to fruition, will the SEC choose to tackle something like this again?

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Kyler Murray Named Texas A&M Starting QB over Kyle Allen vs. South Carolina

After two consecutive losses saw the team drop out of the Top 25 rankings, Texas A&M benched quarterback Kyle Allen and named freshman Kyler Murray the starter Friday for its upcoming game against South Carolina, according to Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle. 

Allen, who started the first seven games for the 5-2 Aggies, threw one touchdown and four interceptions over the past two games, both double-digit losses to No. 7 Alabama and No. 19 Ole Miss. 

Head coach Kevin Sumlin has played Murray at times this season, with the freshman taking snaps in five of seven games. He's a combined 17-of-31 for 167 yards through the air to go with 92 rushing yards. 

For Sports Radio 1150's Gabe Bock, everything is falling into place for Murray:

A player who possesses plenty of speed to complement a solid arm, Murray will take on a South Carolina defense that has allowed 414 yards per game this season, which could make for a nice debut as a starter. 

It's been quite a whirlwind for Murray. Just three-and-a-half months ago, he was fresh off his Gatorade National High School Athlete of the Year award, having recently wrapped up his senior year at Allen High School in Texas, per Zwerneman. 

Now, he has an opportunity to turn Texas A&M's season around, as there is plenty more football to be played. The Aggies will need some help if they want to climb out of their fourth-place hole in the SEC West.

But if A&M runs the table with Murray under center, which would include a win over No. 4 LSU at the end of November, the Aggies will have found their starter for next year's pursuit of a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

 

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Blueprint to Win 2015 College Football Playoff

Lost in the never-ending conversation about going undefeated or winning a national championship in college football are all the things it takes to get there. 

It may sound like an obnoxiously simple statement, but going undefeated and/or winning a national title is hard—hard in the way developing a new mathematical proof is hard, because you're searching for an exact formula of universal truth. Programs like Florida State and Ohio State have made winning streaks so commonplace, you take for granted the countless hours of work that made them happen in the first place. 

Even then, there's no guarantee a team will make it to a national title game, let alone win. "Four teams isn't enough," Steve Broussard, a longtime assistant coach at several Pac-12 schools, said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "The playoff should be eight or 16 teams to allow a lower-level team to participate and give them a chance to compete with the big boys."

The common complaint with Broussard's wish is it would dilute the regular season. But when you think about college football teams as a structure made of building blocks, you realize there are several of them—certainly more than four—that have the same blueprint. 

What separates them?

Luck, for one, is the ultimate unpredictable metric. Be it a favorable officiating call or a fortuitous bounce of the football, luck is as necessary as turnover margin or offensive efficiency Yet it cannot be fully measured on a stat sheet. 

So if luck can't be measured, what can? What is the blueprint for winning the College Football Playoff? We compiled data from championship-winning teams over the last 10 years: Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama (x3), Auburn, Florida (x2), LSU and Texas. We examine common themes in the following categories:

  1. Recruiting rankings: What does it mean to recruit at a "championship level"?
  2. Preseason poll position: The USA Today Coaches poll was tied to the BCS system, so this looks at whether preseason rankings either foreshadowed the national championship game or influenced it. 
  3. Strength of schedule: Does it really matter?
  4. Margin of victory: How dominant are teams on a week-to-week basis?
  5. Yards per play (offense and defense): It's a more accurate measure than total yardage, which can be influenced by the number plays. 
  6. Explosive drives (offense and defense): How good is a team at picking up big yardage and preventing it?
  7. Turnover margin: How good are teams at holding on to the ball while taking it away?

Lastly, we'll look at the playoff contending teams in 2015 and see which ones fit the mold. 

 

Before the Downs Are Played

A championship isn't won in a day. Or week. Or a month. Or even a year. The work to even be in a position to compete for a title begins years in advance and works its way forward. 

 

Recruiting: What Championship-Level Classes Look Like

A common misconception fans tell themselves is recruiting rankings don't matter. Granted, it's true recruiting is an inexact science, but to say it "doesn't matter" also largely depends on the context. It may not matter when it comes to building a Super Bowl-caliber team, but it does matter when developing a championship-caliber team in college. To suggest anything else is a lie. 

The past 10 national championship winners prove as much. Using 247Sports' Composite* data, here are the national rankings for each title team from Year 1 (four seasons before the championship run) to Year 5 (the championship season). This allows for the possibility of redshirt seniors and true freshman to be contributors. Also, note that the percentage of blue-chip players—otherwise known as 4- and-5-star prospects—is noted in parentheses. 

(*You can read more on the 247Sports Composite algorithm HERE.)

There are natural errors within the timeline, of course. For instance: A player who signed five classes before a national championship may not have been on the team at the time it won it all. In fact, he may have left after three years and declared for the NFL.

Similarly, not every freshman who signed in the same season as a national championship started or even played. Some may not have ever made it on to campus. There's a natural attrition every year that needs to be anticipated. 

But the numbers do provide an idea of what it means to recruit at a "championship level." In short, your favorite team better sign top-10 (maybe top-15) classes regularly with at least 40 percent of the prospects being of the blue-chip variety. It's no surprise to see Alabama's 2012 numbers rank the highest in both categories. That year, the Tide won their third national title in four years. 

The two exceptions were Auburn in 2010 and Alabama in 2009. One had Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton. The other had head coach Nick Saban.  

 

Do Preseason Polls Matter?

There are two polar opposite opinions on preseason polls. The first is they're irrelevant and the first top-25 poll shouldn't come out until, say, sometime in October. The other is preseason polls detrimentally influence perception throughout the season by forming false narratives and overrating (or underrating) certain teams.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but it was nevertheless a more relative discussion when in the BCS era. With the playoff selection committee formulating its own top 25, the coaches poll (and Associated Press poll) are of little use beyond entertainment purposes. 

Still, did the coaches poll correctly anticipate which teams had a shot at the national championship? Yes and no. You could track down every preseason top-10 team and where it finished the year, but the short answer is teams that went on to win a national title were typically given plenty of preseason love: 

Other than Florida State in 2013 and Auburn in 2010, no eventual national champion charted began the season ranked outside the coaches poll top 10. But the Seminoles and Tigers proved quickly they deserved more attention. Both landed in the top five of the same poll by Week 8. 

 

Winning by the Numbers

The recruiting classes have been signed and the offseason is over. Now it's time for the games to begin. What does a team have to do for 12 (or 13) weeks to make the final four?

 

Strength of Schedule: It Matters Just Enough  

Strength of schedule isn't a direct correlation for how good a team is; it only measures how hard a team has been pushed. Presumably, however, a team that has successfully navigated its way through a tough schedule is better than one that has successfully gone through an easier one. 

For much of the past 10 years in the BCS era, strength of schedule mattered. This was because Sagarin rankings were, like the coaches poll, hand-in-hand with the BCS. It was only natural, then, that teams with a higher strength of schedule generally ended up playing for the national championship. From 2005-12, the BCS national champion had a strength of schedule ranked in the top 20 of the Sagarin ratings. 

The exception in the BCS era was Florida State in 2013. The Seminoles' schedule was average in the national landscape and poor relative to past BCS champs. However, Florida State was so dominant week after week that it was impossible to ignore. 

How strength of schedule impacts playoff selections can't be fully determined yet since the format is only in its second year. For what it's worth, though, last year's playoff field was considerably lighter on the strength-of-schedule emphasis. Only Alabama had a top-five SOS (No. 2), per Sagarin. Oregon (No. 20), Florida State (No. 21) and Ohio State (No. 29) all ranked lower by a sizable margin. 

Baylor and TCU, the Big 12 teams left out of the field at No. 5 and No. 6 in the final regular-season playoff rankings, had Sagarin SOS ratings of 59th and 51st, respectively. (Recall, too, that TCU was No. 3 heading into the final week and dropped three spots after beating Iowa State.) 

How the committee votes this year will help determine whether the high SOS trend will continue in the new format, or whether results will be more sporadic. If we're demanding an early answer, then yes, strength of schedule seems to matter some. However, the requirement appears to have been loosened in the playoff era.  

"Strength of schedule will still have something to do with it," Broussard said. "And what about conference strength? Is there parity?" 

  

What Dominating Looks Like

As mentioned above, the 2013 Florida State Seminoles were so dominant that leaving them out of the BCS championship game would have been an egregious omission. So just how good was Florida State?

The Seminoles broke the single-season FBS scoring record with 723 points, surpassing the previous high of 716 set by Oklahoma in 2008. As for margin of victory, no BCS champion from 2005-13 won by more every week. On average, FSU beat its opponents by 39.5 points.

For context, Baylor, which has the highest-scoring offense this year at 61.1 points per game, is beating opponents by 36 points per game. And the Bears' Sagarin SOS rating (102) is far worse than Florida State's was in 2013. (Of course, Baylor has yet to play the toughest part of its schedule. That 102 rating will improve.) 

Strength of schedule aside, the teams we charted were beating opponents comfortably. The lowest margin of victory for a BCS champion was 16.2 by Florida in 2006. Still, that means opponents would need make up three scores to win. 

 

Elite Offenses vs. Elite Defenses: Excel in at Least One Area

The old saying goes "defense wins championships." But is that really true? 

It can be, but the importance of offense can't be overlooked either. Six of the last 10 national champions finished in the top 10 nationally in yards per play on offense. The ones that didn't—2011 Alabama, 2009 Alabama, 2007 LSU and 2006 Florida—finished in the top 10 nationally in yards per play allowed on defense. 

There were a few teams that were elite in both categories: 2005 Texas, 2008 Florida, 2012 Alabama and 2013 Florida State. Otherwise, it matters less which side of the ball is better; the important thing is for a team to truly excel in one area. 

The numbers were similar in explosive drives*, as determined by Footballoutsiders.com (however, note the data only goes back to 2007). Five of the eight teams were explosive on offense. Two more were effective at stopping opposing offenses from being explosive. The outlier was LSU, which was neither explosive on offense nor especially stingy against big plays on defense.

(*Football Outsiders defines explosive drives as "the percentage of each offensive drive that average at least 10 yards per play.")

Explosive plays and drives are most often associated with high-tempo offenses, but that doesn't have to be the case. The only thing that matters is finding matchups to exploit. On defense, making an opponent work for everything it gets goes a long way in potentially creating third-down situations or turnovers. 

"As a coach, you're always looking at matchups between the regular season and the postseason," Broussard said. "Now it's a one-game series. So where's this team's weakest link and how can you exploit it for explosive plays?" 

Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is excellent at finding those advantageous matchups and exploiting them. Twice last year he was seen signaling "touchdown" before the Tide even scored. 

 

Winning the Turnover Battle 

The term "forcing turnovers" can be misleading. There are turnovers that occur out of luck or being in the right place at the right time. Then there are turnovers that are actually forced by individual effort or good defense. 

Broussard, like every other coach that has ever existed, harped on the importance of turnovers. A huge part of winning is taking care of the football while taking away scoring opportunities for opposing teams. Ultimately, football is a game of opportunities. How many or few a team has goes a long way in determining how successful it will be. 

Turnover margin generally reflects this. All but one national champion (Florida, 2006) excelled in turnover margin. No team that had a positive turnover margin finished with anything less than a plus-five. Four were at least plus-14. 

Want to make a national championship run? Win the turnover battle and do it big. 

 

The Coach On the Sideline Matters (but so Can the Quarterback on the Field)

What's more important in winning? The coach or the players? The short answer is they're both critical in their own ways. "It goes hand in hand," Broussard said. "You have to have coaches capable of motivating players. But then players have to go out there and make plays."

However, consider that six of the past 10 national championships have been won by two coaches: Saban and Urban Meyer (at Florida and Ohio State). Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and LSU's Les Miles are the only other active head coaches to have won a title. 

The other two are Gene Chizik, the former Auburn coach who is currently the defensive coordinator for North Carolina, and former Texas coach Mack Brown

And Chizik and Brown had once-in-a-generation type of players at quarterback. 

In Texas' two national championship appearances, '05 and '09, Brown had the two best quarterbacks in program history: Vince Young and Colt McCoy, respectively. One accounted for 467 yards and three touchdowns in a national championship game. The other hurt his shoulder early in the game and did not return.

You already know what happened, but you could guess the outcomes of each game based on those sentences. 

As for Chizik, Auburn's '10 national championship was led by Newton, a rare quarterback—a specimen, really—if there ever was one. Newton would go on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. 

An experienced quarterback isn't needed to win a national championship. Newton and Florida State's Jameis Winston were first-year players when they led their teams to the top of college football. In fact, a prolific quarterback isn't necessary either. Alabama's Greg McElroy and LSU's Matt Flynn have national championships while Oregon's Marcus Mariota, last year's Heisman winner, does not. Life in college football is perplexing that way sometimes. 

But if a team doesn't have a top-tier quarterback, it better have a top-tier coach on the sideline. 

  

The Outliers

Sometimes, there are things you simply can't account for in a championship run, for better or worse. 

 

The LSU Factor

In 2007, college football didn't know what it was or what it wanted to be when it grew up, leaving the BCS, a series of computer formulas, to try to sift through the madness. What resulted was one big shoulder shrug when it came to determining the two best teams: LSU and Ohio State. 

When charting the numbers for this blueprint, LSU was often the anomaly. The Tigers were the only two-loss national champion. They didn't routinely blow opponents out, at least not to the level of other national champions. They weren't particularly lethal on offense and didn't have a game-changing quarterback.

But LSU thrived in a year that was anything but normal. Michigan's Week 1 loss to Appalachian State in the Big House was a statement that things were about to get batty. Sure enough, '07 was a year of upsets while teams like South Florida and Kansas took their turns being ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. 

LSU again played in the national championship in 2011, a year when the BCS was marred by more controversy than usual because the title game featured two SEC West teams. 

As Andy Hutchins of SB Nation points out, LSU has played for a national title on a four-year cycle. 2015 falls in line with that. And, like '07 and '11, this season might just be crazy enough to match Tigers coach Les Miles.  

 

Staying Healthy and Overcoming Injuries

The irony of addressing injuries now is that it was literally the first thing Broussard mentioned. 

"How healthy you are and what kind of depth you have is crucial," Broussard said. "It's about finding other guys to step up and putting them in positions to make plays." 

When coaches talk about depth, it's not just in the number of players on the charts. It's about the experience and/or capabilities of the No. 2s and No. 3s. That's what made Ohio State's championship run so memorable. Cardale Jones was the third-string quarterback not five months before confetti rained down on him in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. In that span, the Buckeyes coaching staff essentially had to adjust the offense not once, but twice on the fly. 

If there's a team Ohio State can empathize with, it's Baylor. Bears quarterback Seth Russell is done for the year with a fracture in his neck, leaving true freshman Jarrett Stidham to run the offense. As it so happens, Baylor is about to embark on its toughest stretch of the season. In November, Baylor plays Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State and at TCU in consecutive weeks. 

Baylor isn't alone, though. 2015 has felt like the "year of the injury" in many ways. The list of injured stars is too long to count, but when players like Russell, Pitt running back James Conner, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph are out for the year, you know it's bad.

Perhaps no two teams understand this more than Notre Dame and TCU, both of which have been hit hard by injuries and attrition. The Frogs have been particularly banged up on defense while the Irish have felt the impact all over. Yet they are a combined 14-1 with the only loss—Notre Dame's—coming on the road by two points to Clemson. 

Injuries are awful because they show no prejudice. They can strike anywhere, any time to any player. If playoff hopes are going to be realized, though, teams have to be prepared to successfully play the next man up—and not just say so in theory. 

 

Who Fits the Mold?

For this exercise, 14 playoff-caliber teams were put under the exact same lens as the previous 10 national championship winners to see if any programs stood out. Those teams are: Ohio State, Baylor, TCU, LSU, Michigan State, Clemson, Alabama, Stanford, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Florida, Utah and Memphis.

These are teams ranked in the coaches poll top 15. However, Florida State and Oklahoma were substituted for Memphis since 1) the Tigers are a legitimate playoff crasher and 2) Florida State and Oklahoma lost to sub-.500 teams. 

Since the 2015 season has only recently crossed the halfway point, the comparisons are only a guide. For example: Baylor has one of the worst strength of schedules in major college football, but things get a lot more challenging over the next month. Conversely, Iowa's schedule gets easier. Offensive and defensive numbers can improve or dissolve. About the only thing that will stay the same are recruiting rankings because they've already been established. 

However, enough football has been played that trends should at least be forming. The requirements for aligning this year's teams with past champions under the same categories are as follows based on past numbers: 

  1. Recruiting: Must have averaged a top-15 class with at least 40 percent blue-chip recruits. 
  2. Preseason coaches poll rankings: Must be ranked in the top 15. 
  3. Sagarin SOS: Must be ranked in the top 30. 
  4. Margin of victory: Must be at least 16 points. 
  5. Offensive yards per play: Must be at least 6.00 YPP.  
  6. Defensive yards per play: Must be no greater than 5.00 YPP. 
  7. Explosive drives (offense vs. defense): Must rank in the top 15 of at least one category.
  8. Turnover margin: Must be at least plus-five.  

Seven teams align with at least two-thirds of the nine categories: Ohio State, Baylor, TCU, LSU, Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame. Stanford and Memphis weren't far behind with five categories. 

Some of the teams make sense. The Buckeyes haven't played their best football yet—though Week 8's win over Rutgers indicates they're getting close—but they've received the benefit of the doubt. Others are a surprise. Despite losing to Northwestern in Week 1, Stanford has quickly turned things around and is playing as well as anyone. A few more weeks and the Cardinal could be considered one of college football's top four teams. 

Memphis is the ultimate wild card. The Tigers aren't some low-level football team getting by without a signature win. If Ole Miss continues to win out, Memphis is going to look even better after beating the Rebels in Week 7. 

The great thing about college football's regular season is it still matters even though the postseason format has doubled. Baylor and TCU still have to play one another, as do Notre Dame and Stanford, and Alabama and LSU. Things will naturally figure themselves out, and the playoff field will continue to narrow. 

A lot can and will change between now and early December, but if you're looking for teams to follow that fit a certain mold, the Buckeyes, Bears, Frogs, Tide, Irish, Cardinal and Tigers (x3) should be the ones at the top of the list. 

Not that they weren't already, that is. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com (2008-15) and sports-reference.com (2005-07) unless specified otherwise. 

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Michigan Fan Dresses Up Baby as Head Coach Jim Harbaugh

In the land of All Hallows' Eve, there are two unspoken, well-known truths: The simplest and most recognizable of costumes is king, and all costumes look much cuter on babies.

Such is the case with this tiny future Wolverine, whose parents have bestowed upon first-year Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh the highest form of flattery by decking out their little one in a complete Harbaugh starter kit—polo, khakis and baseball cap.

The praise is well-earned. Harbaugh has elevated the Wolverines to a 5-2 record. Dressing their child in his image might be this family's play at ensuring that he'll stay.

Unlike the coach, it's doubtful his diminutive double will be jeered and taunted for this look, and the distinctly less intense look is a nice change.

In fact, it's probably a safe bet this baby's tantrums don't come close to the notoriously hot-tempered Harbaugh's.

Who's to say, though? Perhaps in a few years, he'll upgrade to something like this:

Your move, San Francisco 49ers. Want to give this kid a call?

[For the Win]

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Pat Haden Steps Down from College Football Playoff Committee

The College Football Playoff selection committee will have 12 members for the rest of the season, as USC athletic director Pat Haden vacated his post with the brain trust Friday.   

According to a press release from CollegeFootballPlayoff.com, Haden said his recent health problems are forcing him off of the selection committee: 

I am reluctant to step down, but my doctors advised me to reduce my traveling. With the weekly CFP meetings about to start and the travel commitment involved, I had to make this difficult decision. I feel it is in the best interest of the CFP and also of USC, with our current football coaching change and our upcoming Coliseum renovation.

Prior to USC's game against Notre Dame on Oct. 17, per Notre Dame on NBC, Haden collapsed on the field in South Bend, Indiana. 

Haden did provide an update on his health the day after USC lost to the Fighting Irish:

The 62-year-old was part of the inaugural CFP selection committee last season. The group will unveil its first rankings of the 2015 season Tuesday. 

Haden has been USC's athletic director since 2010. The football program has made bowl games in each of the last three seasons and won at least nine games three times in a five-year span. 

This marks the second consecutive year in which the selection committee will not have a full complement of 13 members, as Archie Manning stepped down for health reasons last year. 

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TE Zarrian Holcombe Decommits from Texas A&M; What's Next for 'Optimus Prime'?

Late Thursday night, Humble, Texas, tight end Zarrian Holcombe announced his decommitment from the Texas A&M Aggies. He called the move a mutual decision.

The next move for the 3-star, Summer Creek High School standout: Formulating a plan to experience and enjoy the recruiting process that he's yet to have.

Holcombe committed to Texas A&M in March after taking a few unofficial visits to the campus. With November approaching, Holcombe, originally recruited by Aggies special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff Banks, now will get the opportunity to take some official visits and make a decision after experiencing some other schools.

"Coach Banks and I are still close, and he's going to help me with my decision," Holcombe said. "I honestly don't know who's interested in me at this point. I'm hoping to find out soon."

Holcombe, who holds—and has earned—the nickname "Optimus Prime," has nine reported offers from schools in the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and American conferences. The Pac-12 is a conference to keep an eye on, as he has offers from Oregon, Cal, Washington and Colorado.

Holcombe's Texas offer also is one to watch. The Longhorns have a blocking tight end with pass-catching ability already committed in 3-star Peyton Aucoin. Adding a flex tight end who, at 6'5" and 215 pounds, also could line up at wide receiver would be a win for Texas and coach Charlie Strong.

For now, Holcombe is wide open, and there are no set plans on official visits at the moment.

"I honestly don't know; I plan on going to the U of H [Houston] game Saturday," he said. "I'm hoping I can get some attention within the next three days so I can start over."

Holcombe added that he's looking forward to experiencing the recruiting process like some other athletes he's spoken with. He's recently been in contact with a Summer Creek teammate, defensive end Isaiah Bean, about making trips.

"Hopefully, it's as fun as the other guys make it seem to be," Holcombe said. "I'm just hoping [the process] is not a slow restart."

Whichever school lands Holcombe will get a big, pass-catching option who has good speed, athleticism and power. He's explosive off the line and has been reliable when the ball is in his hands. He has nine catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns this season, per the Houston Chronicle. He had 14 catches for 261 yards and two scores as a junior.

"I know how to make a positive out of a negative play," Holcombe said. "I worked all summer to be a war-ready ball player."

The next couple of months will give Holcombe a new chance at showing off his skills to schools that have already recruited him, as well as new interests looking for a flex tight end. Holcombe is the nation's No. 26 tight end, but his mission is to make believers out of those who are still on the fence about him.

"I'm going to be bigger, stronger, quicker, more agile ... and more of a leader," Holcombe said in March. "At the same time, I want to see more guys just like me. Being a leader, I want to see as many guys on the same track as I am."

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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Isaiah Graham to TCU: Horned Frogs Land 4-Star WR Prospect

TCU received a boost to its 2016 recruiting class Friday as wide receiver Isaiah Graham committed to becoming a member of the Horned Frogs.

Trey Mongrue of KTVE passed along word of the decision from the Bastrop High School (La.) standout. The wideout posted a message on social media last night ahead of the announcement:

Graham is a 4-star recruit who rates as the No. 227 overall prospect and the No. 44 wide receiver in next year's incoming class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

Although he's modestly sized for a modern receiver—247Sports lists him at 6'1'', 180 pounds—he's emerged as a talented playmaker. He's capable of stretching the field with good straight-line speed, but he also isn't afraid to work over the middle of the field.

He'll need to add more power to fill out his frame. That will help him better handle a more physical brand of football at the collegiate level and keep him healthy in the face of consistent punishment.

The quicker he can do that, the better. There will be some openings among the Horned Frogs' receiving corps next season with Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee and Ja'Juan Story all in their senior year for the undefeated Big 12 squad.

Graham probably won't be ready for an extensive role right away. He still needs some development time to add a little more polish to his game, both in terms of route running and blocking. But his reliable hands and playmaking ability give him a chance to at least carve out a role in certain packages.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Winners, Losers from College Football Recruiting Trail for Month of October

College football featured significant on-field developments and a pair of high-profile coaching changes during October, adding new dynamics to a compelling recruiting landscape.

Storied programs Miami and USC are scrambling to keep things intact, while a new regime at Florida has swiftly found its groove. With those storylines and more in mind, here's a look back at recruiting winners and losers from the past month.

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Odds Multiple College Football Teams Finish the 2015 Season Undefeated

The 2015 college football season has been as competitive as any in recent memory. As we move into the final six weeks of the regular season, the College Football Playoff picture is wide-open.

Twelve FBS teams are unbeaten, and a number of one-loss teams, led by Alabama, still have a very realistic shot at one of the four coveted spots. In other words, we’re in for one heck of a ride between now and when the second CFP field is announced on Dec. 6.

How it will shake out remains unclear, but one interesting factor will be the number of unbeaten teams. A year ago, Florida State was the only unbeaten in the playoff field. But what happens if there are multiple unbeatens, or unbeaten teams from the Group of Five leagues like Houston, Memphis, Temple or Toledo?

Things could get very interesting. Let’s take a look at the odds that multiple teams will finish the regular season unbeaten.

 

History

First off, let’s examine recent history.

Over the last 10 seasons, the regular season has ended with multiple unbeaten teams five times, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. Since 2010, when the final regular-season poll featured three unbeaten teams (Auburn, Oregon and then-Mountain West member TCU), the final poll has featured exactly one undefeated team entering the postseason. In 2011, it was LSU. In 2012, it was Notre Dame, with Florida State holding the mantle the past two seasons.

In 2005, Southern California and Texas both finished the season unbeaten before engaging in an epic national title battle in the Rose Bowl. In 2006, there were two unbeatens (No. 1 Ohio State and No. 9 Boise State), but the Broncos didn’t factor in the national title picture. 2007 was one of the craziest seasons on record. How wild? The Buckeyes had one loss, and they were the only one-loss team in the top seven.

A year later, both Utah and Boise State finished the season unbeaten, but neither were among the nation’s top six teams. 2009 was a bit of an outlier—five teams (Alabama, Texas, TCU and Cincinnati, as well as No. 6 Boise State) finished the season unbeaten, but under the BCS format, the Crimson Tide and Longhorns faced off in the Rose Bowl for the national title.

In summation, multiple unbeatens are entirely possible, but there is a precedent for an unbeaten from a lesser league to be left out of the playoff and national title picture completely.

 

The Contenders

As we wind up October, 12 FBS teams are unbeaten, but there will be a maximum of eight unbeaten by season’s end due to matchups remaining on the schedule.

Unbeaten Houston and Memphis will face off on Nov. 14 at Houston. In addition, Memphis travels to current unbeaten Temple a week later. Temple also has a difficult matchup Saturday when No. 9 Notre Dame visits Philadelphia. And should the Owls survive the regular season without a loss, they’ll likely face either Houston or Memphis in the inaugural AAC title game.

In the Big Ten, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa are all undefeated. The Spartans and Buckeyes will clash Nov. 21 in Columbus, with one team’s record leaving with a blemish. And should Ohio State survive Michigan State, a trip to Ann Arbor for the annual rivalry showdown with Michigan one week later will be no easy test.

Of the Big Ten unbeatens, Iowa has the most obvious path to a 12-0 record. The 7-0 Hawkeyes don’t have Michigan State, Michigan or Ohio State on their schedule due to the league scheduling rotation, and their remaining schedule is easy.

Of the remaining five opponents, only Minnesota is currently above .500 at 4-3. The Gophers and Maryland will both be piloted by interim coaches, and Purdue is 1-6. That leaves road trips to 4-4 Indiana and 3-5 Nebraska as the toughest “tests” remaining.

Of course, Iowa would likely face off with either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, the Hawkeyes’ toughest test by far.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, of course, is taking nothing for granted, as he told Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette: “Every weekend there’s examples of how wrong the experts can be. But experts don’t have to play games. I’m not criticizing it or making fun of it, but for the guys that have to go out and compete, it’s a whole different deal.”

In the Big 12, Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU are all unbeaten, but the league’s nine-game round-robin format guarantees one unbeaten, at most, emerging from the fray. Oklahoma State faces TCU on Nov. 7 and Baylor on Nov. 21, and the Horned Frogs and Bears tangle in one of the season’s biggest games on Nov. 27.

And don’t forget the presence of one-loss Oklahoma, who will also face all three teams in its final three games. November will be a month to remember in the Big 12, and it is entirely possible that the league will wind up with two one-loss teams, as it did a year ago with Baylor and TCU.

In the SEC, LSU is the lone unbeaten, but the Tigers have an ultra-tough test next week at Alabama. The Tigers also must travel to Ole Miss and host Texas A&M and Arkansas (which shut them out 17-0 a year ago) in their final four games. That’s a very difficult gauntlet to run for an unbeaten season.

The MAC also features an unlikely unbeaten in 7-0 Toledo, which owns wins over Power Five foes Arkansas and Iowa State. But the Rockets still must travel to MAC West leader Bowling Green, and even if they finish the season unbeaten, their ceiling is the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six bowls, given the MAC’s comparative league-wide weakness.

Attrition caused by unbeaten matchups will take its toll, and so will the difficult matchups ahead for those not guaranteed to face another unbeaten (like Iowa and LSU).

While it is entirely possible that an AAC or MAC team could run the table, the odds of either crashing the College Football Playoff party is slim.

The odds of finishing the season with multiple unbeaten teams? Let’s put it at 10-1, but the odds of multiple Power Five teams finishing the season unbeaten is much slimmer. Let’s call that 30-1. And even if that happened, it wouldn’t disrupt the playoff picture.

One thing that’s guaranteed? The action between now and early December is going to be tremendous. Don’t lose your remote, folks.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Football: What Must Go Right for Wolverines to Run the Table

The Michigan Wolverines must run the table to have any shot at winning the Big Ten title, but a key factor in each of the team's remaining games must go right for the Wolverines.

Jim Harbaugh's squad will likely enter each of the next four games as the favorite. When Michigan is expected to win, it simply must continue to do what it does best.

However, when an opponent has the edge—and we all know which team that will be—the Wolverines must be clicking at every position.

Because, as Michigan learned against Michigan State, one play doesn't decide an entire game, but it sure can feel that way.

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5 Bold College Football Predictions for Week 9

Considering the prompt of this article—predicting unlikely things to happen—my bold picks went well two weeks ago.

I didn't call the botched punt at the end of the Michigan-Michigan State game, but I did have Utah State beating Boise State and Memphis beating Ole Miss. A third bold prediction, that USC would take Notre Dame to the wire, proved arguably true on top of that, as the Trojans and Irish were tied in the final 10 minutes.

After taking last week off from bold predictions, I've returned to defend my success. Considering my mild struggles against the spread, where my record sits below 50 percent, I could use another boost. Maybe I should get bolder with all of my predictions.

If nothing else, this makes things more fun!

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Georgia Football: Ranking the Bulldogs' 3 Most Impactful Injuries in 2015

Injuries are a part of college football. Players are going to get hurt and miss time because that’s the nature of the game. Great teams know how to prepare for injuries, as reserves have the ability to step in and contribute with no issues. 

The Georgia Bulldogs haven’t had many injuries to deal with in 2015. However, the team did lose one big piece on offense that has had an effect on the entire team, and will continue to affect them for the remainder of the season. 

Here’s a ranking of the Bulldogs’ most impactful injuries this season.

 

1. Nick Chubb Tears PCL

On the Bulldogs’ first play of the Tennessee game, running back Nick Chubb went down with torn ligaments in his PCL. He had surgery on his knee last week, according to the Sports Xchange, and he will be out for the rest of the season.

If there was one player Georgia could not afford to lose this season, it was Chubb. He led the Bulldogs with 742 yards on 92 carries and seven touchdowns last season. Those numbers were good enough to put him in the running for the Heisman Trophy, and he was a huge part of what the Bulldogs did on offense.

Nick Chubb’s prognosis is ‘optimistic’ after surgery https://t.co/3uefIsQycKpic.twitter.com/LPjh8heNYh

— WSB-TV (@wsbtv) October 24, 2015

Because of the Chubb injury, Sony Michel is now the feature back, followed by Keith Marshall and Brendan Douglas. Michel is more than capable of being the No. 1 running back, as he has 508 rushing yards on the season, including 145 yards on 22 carries in the loss to Tennessee. However, not having Chubb running along with Michel makes the Bulldogs less of a threat in the run game.

 

2. Isaiah McKenzie’s Hamstring Injury

Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie is a dynamic playmaker on special teams—he returned a punt for a touchdown against Vanderbilt earlier in the season. However, McKenzie was not available for the last two games because of a hamstring injury.

#Dawgs Isaiah McKenzie gave the Dawgs the jump start they needed! #HumanJoystick#GoDawgspic.twitter.com/HGfUfOU3Lv

— GATA Dawgs (@BassinDawg) September 14, 2015

McKenzie is also a contributor on offense with five catches for 89 yards this season, but he’s been one of the best return specialists in the country with four total return touchdowns since 2014.

There’s a chance McKenzie could be back for this weekend's matchup with Florida, as he’s listed as questionable, according to Jason Butt of the Macon Telegraph. With the SEC East on the line for both teams Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to be strong on special teams. Having McKenzie back would make a big difference.

 

3. Jordan Jenkins’ Hip Injury

Georgia did not have linebacker Jordan Jenkins for the Missouri game due to a hip flexor injury. Jenkins has 29 tackles, three sacks and leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss in 2015.

Despite not having Jenkins for the Missouri game, the defense only allowed nine points and 164 total yards of offense. However, Jenkins’ leadership will be needed when the Bulldogs play the Gators on Saturday.

In Monday's news and notes: Jordan Jenkins back at practice and much more ($) https://t.co/RbhZ9IlTFfpic.twitter.com/8tBkYxl0jf

— Anthony Dasher (@AnthonyDasher1) October 27, 2015

The question is will Jenkins be ready to go Saturday?

According to Fox Sports, Jenkins has been practicing this week and should be ready for Florida. Having him back in the lineup will give the Bulldogs a much-needed boost after what has happened this month.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Daily Fantasy College Football Week 9: Top Sleepers and DraftKings Projections

In Week 9 of the daily fantasy college football slate, it's not easy to locate the sleepers everyone needs for a DraftKings lineup.

The good players are established and generally consistent, while the poor producers simply don't have enough big games to warrant consideration. Combing through the crowd is easier than it's ever been.

DFS is a difficult game, but the thrill of nailing a sleeper pick is why we keep coming back.

Based on trends, matchup and recent performances, the following five players have the potential to put together a low-priced, high-scoring day.

 

Kyler Murray, Texas A&M ($5,100)

If head coach Kevin Sumlin names Kyler Murray the starter, as anticipated, per Justin Hopkins of 247Sports, it's impossible to ignore Murray because of his price.

Although the dual-threat quarterback hasn't played much this season, his first outing of the year would be against a South Carolina defense that has allowed 5.3 yards per carry—the ninth-worst clip in the nation.

The Gamecocks have also surrendered at least one passing touchdown in each outing, so while Murray likely won't throw much, he'll add a few points through the air.

Since Sumlin announced there would be an official decision, Murray isn't necessarily an under-the-radar play. But at $5,100, he's easily a sleeper.

Projection: 160 pass YDS, 1 TD; 102 rush YDS, 1 TD

 

Markell Jones, RB, Purdue ($4,400)

The dream of a competent Boilermakers offense begins and ends with the effectiveness of Markell Jones. Fortunately for him, the workload is unquestionably his in Week 9.

D.J. Knox is out for Saturday's matchup against Nebraska, which certainly can be stingy against the run but has been gashed on a couple of occasions. The Cornhuskers have three 100-yard rushers as well as a 98-yard day.

Now, Jones needs volume to excel. But the last time Knox didn't play much, Jones handled 23 touches and scored twice.

The speedy true freshman will have plenty of opportunities to break off a big run that defines his day, and he's the best scoring option Purdue has.

Projection: 104 rush YDS, 2 TD; 2 REC, 18 YDS

 

Xavier Jones, RB, SMU ($4,100)

The popular plays in a game that Odds Shark lists with a 75.5-point over/under will be the quarterbacks and a standout receiver, but don't sleep on Xavier Jones.

Jones has scored a touchdown in four of his seven appearances, and the matchup against a porous Tulsa run defense screams for the freshman back to cross the plane twice.

Only eight teams in the nation have surrendered more rushing touchdowns than Tulsa. Memphis poured in five scores on the ground last week.

The Mustangs have given Jones at least 12 touches in each contest, and the freshman is poised for his second 20-plus-point DFS showing of the season.

Projection: 73 rush YDS, 2 TD; 2 REC, 16 YDS

 

Geronimo Allison ($5,100)

Though the secret is out on Geronimo Allison for opponents, the Illinois receiver's DFS ownership remains low.

Allison has piled up 100 targets this season, while No. 2 receiver Marchie Murdock has just 38. Penn State won't surrender much to Illinois on the ground, so quarterback Wes Lunt will be looking for Allison all day long.

The senior wideout has snagged at least eight passes in five of the last six contests, topping at least 90 yards during each eight-plus reception day. Allison has scored three touchdowns.

As long as Illinois doesn't find a running game it's not expected to locate, Allison is in for another high-target, big-production performance.

Projection: 10 REC, 113 YDS, 1 TD

 

Durron Neal, WR, Oklahoma ($4,300)

Although Oklahoma pounded away at Texas Tech on the ground with tremendous success, the Sooners should revert to their pass-heavy attack against Kansas.

Durron Neal's involvement in the offense has steadily progressed, climbing to seven targets last week despite the run-focused day. He finished with five receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown.

The senior wideout is a big-play threat against a weak Kansas defense that can be gashed anywhere. Just four teams have allowed more 30-plus-yard passes than the Jayhawks.

His ownership will be much lower than that of teammates Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook, but Neal has the same potential to explode.

Projection: 5 REC, 107 YDS, 1 TD

Head over to DraftKings and sign up for daily fantasy college football today. Assemble your lineup to participate in contests with big cash prizes.

Follow Bleacher Report CFB and DFS writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Jerry Kill's Courageous Fight Inspired Far Beyond the Football Field

Jerry Kill's fight has been tougher than football and bigger than his personal battle with epilepsy, a fight we learned so much more about on Wednesday. His story has been about overcoming prejudice and ignorance, teaching about empathy. Maybe nothing is more important.      

His success as the football coach at the University of Minnesota was a symbol to people with epilepsy and also an example to the rest of us who—admit it—really don't know much about it. Two years ago, people were calling for him to resign because of their fear of the unknown and the image of Kill on the ground during a game, head and arms jerking around during one of his seizures.

He brought it into our living rooms, and then stood tall for the fight, proving that he could. But on Wednesday, Kill resigned, saying his health issues were not under the control anymore that he thought they were.

"This is not the way I wanted to go out," Kill said at a press conference. "But you all know about the struggles, and I did my best to change. But some of those struggles have returned, and I don't want to cheat the game…I went through a bad situation two years ago, and I'm headed right back there."

In the end, the epilepsy won. This isn't a Disney story where Kill overcomes health issues and prejudice about them and then leads Minnesota to a national championship, teaching the world. It's cold reality. And if Kill was a symbol in his success, then what is he now?

"The news struck me right away with the same question," said Brett Boyum, a marketing executive who volunteers as president of the board of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota and works closely with Kill. Boyum and his son Travis, who turned 18 Wednesday, both have epilepsy. "How are people going to sense this?

"The way I would explain it is that this is the realism of epilepsy coming through and the frustration we all have. We can all say we're going to fight, that we're not going to let it get in the way of our dreams. In certain cases, epilepsy is not able to be controlled by medication and it does force you to alter [things]."

Will people view Kill's retirement as defeat, or see it as evidence of what some people can't do? Because that's not what this is. Not every victory has to have a happy ending. Kill overcame the prejudice two years ago, when he was having seizures during games and people wanted him out. There are such unknowns about epilepsy, other than the seizures, and people push away from unknowns.

Kill went on in 2014 to be the Big Ten Coach of the Year, after his team reached the Citrus Bowl.

On Wednesday, he sat in front of cameras and microphones and gave a deeper look into the fight. It was not about feeling sorry for him or even asking for understanding about why it was time to deal solely with his health.

It was just about teaching, giving an understanding. Kill, who's 54, said he has sensed his health deteriorating as the season has worn on. The medications he took affected his ability to focus long-term, but the team needed his full attention. He had two seizures on Tuesday, he said, but he went back to practice that afternoon anyway. When he left the field, he said, he knew it was time.

He was out of energy. He said he felt "like a part of me died."

"I knew our team needed some help," he said. "I tried some stuff I had to do. I took my own self off [medication] because I couldn't think the way I wanted to think. As my doctor says, 'You're crazy for not taking stuff before a game.' I said, 'I love this game, and I don't want to let our university down.'

"Two nights ago, my wife (Rebecca) was up with me all night, and I slept one hour and came back to work. The most sleep I've gotten over the last three weeks is probably three hours or less. She stays there and sits in a chair and watches me. That's what she did last night. Hell, that ain't no way to live."

In 2013, Kill suffered a seizure during a game for the fourth time in two years. He was rushed to the hospital at halftime while his assistants took over. The team won. From there, there was talk about whether Kill should retire. He told ESPN's Rick Reilly that he'd suffered 20 seizures in the past two years. There were columns in local papers and national websites calling for Kill to leave.

But it was clear that a reasonable accommodation was all that was necessary: Kill's team was fully aware that he might have seizures, and everyone was prepared for it and knew exactly what to do when it happened.

At the time, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague announced that he supported Kill, but first he waited a day to gauge public opinion.

By then, it seemed like an attack on Kill. And the local epilepsy foundation, in a matter of three days, organized a Jerry Kill Day at the next Minnesota game, which Kill coached. About 2,000 people showed up before the game, many wearing shirts that said "JERRYSOTA," and walked onto the field. The university provided tickets.

Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, said Kill's fight drew more attention to epilepsy than anything else in her years with the organization. His retirement, she said, doesn't conflict with the message his success sent. It shows that someone with epilepsy can succeed at the highest level—but always will have a very real fight.

Nearly 3 million Americans suffer from epilepsy, she said. Doctors don't fully know the cause for the seizures and aren't fully able to control them. Kopplin and Boyum said there is even debate over whether it's technically a disease.

Kill is very much hands-on with the organization, going to camps for kids, getting them tickets to Minnesota games, introducing them to his team. Those were teaching moments for the players, too. When the Minnesota Twins asked Kill to throw out an opening pitch, he agreed, then had Boyum's son do it while he stood nearby.

"It's amazing his ability to connect with people and understand each individual situation," Boyum said. "He never put himself on a pedestal. It was always about, 'We're all in this together.' "

It didn't end the way Kill wanted, but no one made him go. He chose when it was time. It's not happily ever after, but he sent the message. He proved the point.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: Will the Volunteers Win Every Remaining Game?

Tennessee needs to run the table the rest of the way to have a successful football season, even though that table isn't exactly spread with cupcakes and cream puffs.

Still, by SEC standards, coach Butch Jones' Vols have a pretty easy slate to close the season.

After an early gauntlet that included games against an upstart Bowling Green as well as Florida, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama, things lighten up considerably.

UT finishes against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt. That group has a combined 14-22 record, and the Wildcats, Gamecocks, Tigers and Commodores are just 7-14 in the SEC.

Though Mizzou may be a better team than it's shown with the return of junior quarterback Maty Mauk from suspension, the toughest of the Vols' remaining games may just be this weekend in Lexington against Mark Stoops' rebuilding 'Cats.

It's a game that opened with UT as a 7.5-point favorite, according to Odds Shark, and it has swollen to 8.5 or 9 in some places. 

In other words, the Vols should win out, and they aren't going to look back too painfully at the massive "what-might-have-beens" if they do.

Those include four narrow losses by 17 total points, three blown double-digit leads and a setback to Alabama after holding a lead with less than three minutes remaining.

They proved that against an Alabama team that may wind up being the best in the league. Tennessee hung tight the whole way, even going ahead of the Tide with 5:56 left. It did so banged up and without the benefit of any trick plays or real luck.

Tennessee went head-to-head with the tough, but tired, Tide and lost an ulcer-inducer. It really stung to get beat, but it can't hurt for long.

"There is still a lot to look forward to," senior safety Brian Randolph said, according to Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs. "We have five games left, and we're not going to let Alabama beat us twice."

Indeed, there's plenty left for the Vols. Though it can't be the exceptional season it could have been, it can still be a positive step forward.

Winning all five games on the schedule would mean an 8-4 record, a strong mid-tier bowl eager to accommodate well-traveling UT fans thrilled to be back in the national picture as well as the chance for the first nine-win season since 2007.

Lose just one, and 2015 is a disappointment. Anything other than 5-0 to close the season is unacceptable.

Maybe it isn't fair, but given the way Tennessee lost, the disappointment of botching a golden opportunity to end the streak against the Gators and a frustrating defeat that won't age well to a mediocre Arkansas team, UT can't afford a hiccup to an inferior opponent.

And the Vols are frankly deeper, more talented and more explosive than any team left on their schedule.

As Hubbs said: "The Vols aren't David playing a bunch of Goliaths the rest of the way. The Vols aren't the underdogs and the mentality is not that they should only hope to be able to make it a four-quarter game. The storyline is no longer, 'Are the Vols ready to get over the hump with the big boys?'"

It all starts this Saturday night with a Halloween date against Kentucky. Coming off a knife-twisting loss to Bama, the game against the Wildcats comes at a tenuous time. So, it's certainly a road trip UT can't overlook.

But given how a worse Tennessee team hung 50 on the Wildcats in Neyland Stadium a season ago with Joshua Dobbs at the helm and how atrocious UK looked last week trying to defend dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott in a lopsided loss to Mississippi State, the Vols should handle business.

Dobbs is a less advanced clone of Prescott, and Tennessee has more offensive weapons and a better offensive line surrounding him than the Bulldogs. But Prescott was a one-man wrecking crew in a Heisman Trophy-worthy performance where he finished with 465 total yards and six touchdowns.

Stoops told A Sea of Blue's Warren Taylor that a week preparing to face Prescott could help against Dobbs: "I think it does. I think it does to some extent. Certainly it put a lot of pressure on us all week. We need to do a lot better job."

After that, Tennessee returns home to face a South Carolina team that's been discombobulated offensively, a mess at times on defense and is now trying to regroup under interim coach Shawn Elliott after Steve Spurrier abruptly resigned.

The Vols beat Carolina the past two years when they weren't expected to, and this season should be no different.

After the game against the Gamecocks, UT plays North Texas, which may be the worst team in all of FBS. The Mean Green lost all seven of their games by an average score of 47-16. Portland State beat them 66-7, if you can believe that.

They're atrocious.

After that contest, Tennessee has to travel to Columbia, Missouri, to face a Tigers team that is nasty defensively but historically awful on offense. The Tigers are converting just 22.4 percent of third-down conversions and were 0-of-14 in a 10-3 loss against Vanderbilt.

The season ends against the Commodores, who are surprisingly playing pretty well in the second year under coach Derek Mason. Though they're just 3-4, they've been in every game, and they always play Tennessee tough.

Still, there's simply no excuse for UT losing either of those last two games, or any game remaining, for that matter.

The margin for error is minuscule the rest of the way. While the frustrating losses at the beginning of the year can be forgiven, the only way for that to happen is an eight-win campaign. It's an obvious step forward to do that, beat one of the big three rivals (Georgia) and play every game ultra-competitively.

Even the staunchest critics would admit that's a strong step forward, even if it isn't quite the one a hype-filled offseason promised.

The recruiting wins Jones enjoyed the past two years should really begin to cash in now that the schedule is loosening up some. A season-long shaky defense now has the catalyst game to build off of after a solid performance against the Crimson Tide, and Dobbs is the X-factor the rest of the way.

There won't be a player with more star potential on the field other than UT's junior signal-caller the rest of the way. He has the ability to take over every single game Tennessee will play this year, and he must do so. 

Dobbs played much better against Georgia and Alabama than he had all season, and it's no surprise the Vols were better because of it.

Last year, around this time, is when Jones' program began turning the fields and planting the seeds of a turnaround. This season, the Vols may have squandered several opportunities to surge to the top of the SEC, but they can cement themselves near the top of the second tier by winning out.

Tennessee has plenty left to play for, and churning out a 5-0 finish may be the start of something special.

 

All stats gathered from UTSports.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Picks Week 9: Predicting Top 25 Matchups Based on Vegas Odds

There aren't many other adjectives to assign the 2015 college football season than "fun."

With upsets seemingly coming every week with some shocking finishes, the AP Top 25 poll has been in constant shuffle mode all season. 

Which, of course, means that Week 9 should be no different with a full slate of games. But before we get into the schedule, here are the current rankings:

Ohio State and Baylor are the two teams that remain in the Top Four from the preseason. Ohio State has not left its perch at No. 1, while Baylor, who started the year in fourth, now sits in second. 

They're joined by Clemson and LSU, who used convincing victories over lesser opponents to assert their dominance among college football. 

Clemson is the only Top Four team in action this week as seven of the Top 25 get to rest up during Week 9. 

Let's take a look at the upcoming schedule, the current odds and who I think you should pick based on those spreads. All odds are courtesy of OddsShark.com:

Game of the Week

No. 9 Notre Dame at No. 21 Temple

Two programs with very different histories will face off at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia as Notre Dame, the national powerhouse, takes on the Temple Owls, who are enjoying their first rankings in the Top 25 since 1979. 

For Notre Dame, who prepares for its eighth game of the season, it is just its third road game of the season. And it hasn't necessarily fared well away from South Bend.

Their second game of the season saw the Irish narrowly escape Virginia with a late touchdown, and they later lost at Clemson. 

Temple, who is undefeated this season, has no problem playing as the underdog. According to ESPN, the Owls are 3-0 in games they aren't favored to win, which includes victories against Penn State, Cincinnati and East Carolina. 

Head coach Matt Rhule spoke with ESPN.com about the upcoming game:

Obviously we're excited about this week, as I know everybody is. A tremendous opportunity to play a great team in Notre Dame, a team we had a chance to play two years ago. They're probably still a national title contender even though they lost one game by a point or two points. They're loaded, they're absolutely fantastic.

ESPN has Temple's chances to win at just 19.5 percent. 

It's not hard to see why it's given such a little chance to win. C.J. Prosise has rushed for 922 yards to lead a trio of dangerous Notre Dame runners, and quarterback DeShone Kizer has one of the nation's top receivers in Will Fuller to throw to all day. 

Only once this season, which was their loss to Clemson, has the Irish been held to under 30 points in a game. 

But Week 9 will bring one of the best defenses they've played against this season in Temple. The Owls allow an average of 14.6 points per game, ranked eighth in the country, to go with 307.0 yards per game, ranked 14th. 

ESPN Stats & Info delved deeper into their defense before last week's win over East Carolina:

Temple will need to get the most of its offensive threats in quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas—who have combined for 21 touchdowns this season—if it has any hopes of keeping up with the Irish. But if its defense is on point, then we could possibly see an upset brewing. 

And I love upsets. This one is going to be awfully close, and I'm not anticipating a shootout, either. 

Prediction: Temple wins 24-21

Stats courtesy of NCAA.com

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ESPN College GameDay 2015: TV Schedule and Predictions for Week 9 Location

Philadelphia will be the center of the college football universe Saturday. 

Yes, you read that right. Temple, and not a marquee program in the SEC, Big Ten or Pac-12, will host Week 9’s biggest showdown. The undefeated Owls welcome traditional powerhouse Notre Dame in a showdown with College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowl implications.

As if that wasn’t enough for arguably the biggest game in Temple’s program history, ESPN’s traveling pregame show, College GameDay, will be there to set the stage. The show shared its decision to host from Philadelphia:

The clash between the No. 9 Fighting Irish and the No. 21 Owls is the only game featuring two ranked teams in Week 9. Here is a prediction for the marquee contest as well as everything you need to know about College GameDay’s schedule.

 

ESPN College GameDay: Week 9 Info

Date: Saturday, Oct. 31

Time (ET): 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Watch: ESPN 

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Preview and Prediction

Temple has come full circle under coach Matt Rhule. His first game with the program was a 28-6 loss to Notre Dame in 2013 that highlighted just how far behind the nation’s elite his team was that year. Now, the Owls have the opportunity to prove their worth against that same Fighting Irish program.

There is more than just a marquee win at stake for Temple. The highest-ranked team outside of the Power Five conferences earns an automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, and the Owls are in a tight battle with two fellow American Athletic Conference members and a MAC squad.

Houston and Memphis are both undefeated in the AAC, and the Owls don’t play the Cougars in the regular season. What’s more, the Tigers already have a marquee win over Ole Miss from the SEC boosting their resume. Temple did beat Penn State, but that doesn’t carry as much weight as the victory over the Rebels. A win over a Top 10 Notre Dame would.

The Owls still play Memphis and could meet Houston in a conference title clash, so they control their own destiny in the AAC race. However, Toledo is undefeated and ranked No. 20 and has an easier path to a perfect season in the MAC. Toledo also beat Arkansas and Iowa State earlier this year, but a Temple win over Notre Dame would likely propel it over the Rockets.

As for the Fighting Irish, they are battling for a potential spot in the College Football Playoff, and a win over Temple would provide a quality victory over a ranked team in a game many thought would be a pushover before the season started.

The key matchup pits the Notre Dame offense against the stingy Temple defense.

The Fighting Irish’s list of playmakers begins with wide receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise. Fuller is averaging 100.3 receiving yards a game and has eight touchdown catches. What’s more, he posts 21.9 yards per catch (seventh-best in the nation), which is a testament to his big-play ability.

As for Prosise, he’s tallied 922 rushing yards and 11 scores this season and already has five games with more than 100 yards on the ground under his belt.

The Temple defense does rank 14th in the country in yards allowed per game (308) and eighth in points allowed per game (14.6), but these are likely the best playmakers it will face all season.

Star linebacker and team leader Tyler Matakevich will be up for the challenge given the description from Bill Evans of Scout.com’s Owls Daily:

They were really good last year and brought everybody back. So I thought they should be good again. It starts in the middle with linebacker Tyler Matakevich. He might be as good as it gets nationally at the position and this is a very good run defense overall (No. 6 nationally, 91.9 yards per game).  Matakevich can go sideline-to-sideline, maybe he gets a little lost against the pass, but he’s made four interceptions this year and they’ve been big ones. If that’s his weakness, he’s still pretty good there.

Despite Matakevich’s diverse talents, the Owls are vulnerable in the secondary (57th in the country in passing yards allowed per game), which means Fuller should have a big day.

The other matchup pits a struggling Notre Dame defense (85th in the country against the run and 35th against the pass) against an unimpressive Temple offense (109th in the country with 346 yards per game).

However, the Notre Dame front seven that features Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt will provide a physical challenge for the Temple ground attack that relies so heavily on running back Jahad Thomas.

Thomas has 822 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and controlled games against Penn State (135 yards and two touchdowns), Cincinnati (193 yards and a score) and Central Florida (199 yards and three touchdowns). If Notre Dame plans on walking out of Philadelphia with a victory, it has to win the line of scrimmage and prevent Thomas from hitting so many holes.

That will, in turn, force the Owls to air it out, which is not their usual recipe for success.

Outside of the actual on-field matchup, every game Notre Dame plays is an event. It is one of the historically marquee programs in the sport, and opponents circle the Fighting Irish on their calendar every time they come to town. The extra attention with College GameDay and a sold-out crowd will not be anything new for Notre Dame, but it will be for Temple.

Look for the Fighting Irish to jump out to an early lead while the Owls are still adjusting to the bright lights.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly even alluded to the fact Temple may need some time to settle in, per the Associated Press (via FoxSports.com): “They will have to settle into the game and they will. They have played in some big venues. They understand that there's going to be some excitement about it. And I'm sure they will be excited, but they are going to have to settle into the game.”

An early lead for the Fighting Irish will mean Temple must turn away from Thomas in comeback mode during the second half. That, combined with Notre Dame’s offensive weapons, will be too much for the upstart Owls to handle in their first loss of the season. 

Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Temple 17

 

*Stats and national rankings as of Wednesday.

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Oregon vs. Arizona State: Score, Highlights and Twitter Reaction

The Oregon Ducks claimed their ninth-straight victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils Thursday night with a thrilling 61-55 triple-overtime victory at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

Neither team has a chance at the College Football Playoff, but Oregon's win keeps their Pac-12 Championship hopes alive, and moves them to 5-3 on the season.

It was ironic the game came down to a defensive play after the teams combined for 1,242 total yards. 

A touchdown that almost wasn't gave the Ducks the victory. Vernon Adams found Bralon Addison in the back of the end zone from 20 yards out to take the 61-55 lead. It appeared Addison's left foot may have been out of bounds, but the touchdown call stood after the replay. 

The Ducks missed a two-point conversion attempt from the Wildcat formation, but it didn't matter.

Despite the loss, the Sun Devils fought hard in this one. It might have been the greatest tribute they could have had for one of their most cherished former players. Pat Tillman, a former Sun Devil, Arizona Cardinal and Army Ranger, was killed in 2004 while serving his country in Afghanistan. The team honored him with one of the most unique tributes to anyone in all of sports Thursday, as seen in this tweet by ESPN:

The most impressive "Tillman" Thursday was quarterback Mike Bercovici who finished 32-of-53 with 398 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. On the other side, Adams threw for 315 yards and four scores, including this crazy one with 12 seconds left in the game to force overtime:

Earlier, Oregon jumped out to a 17-7 lead, and Bercovici closed the gap with 2:36 left before the half when he connected with Gary Chambers for a 39-yard touchdown pass.

The Sun Devils took their first lead on a Demario Richard 22-yard run with 9:27 left in the third quarter, set up by a great defensive play as shown by ESPN:

Arizona State looked like it might pull away five minutes later when Bercovici connected with Richard from one-yard out to give ASU a 31-20 lead.

Then Oregon made the game exciting with a 100-yard kickoff return to get right back in the game, per Pac-12 Networks' Twitter:

The Ducks continued right where they left off two minutes later after stopping the Sun Devils on offense, this time with a 62-yard touchdown run by Kani Benoit.

ASU bounced back with a Zane Gonzalez 33-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. After forcing an Oregon punt, the Sun Devils wasted no time, finding paydirt once again with Bercovici's fourth passing score of the night to give them a 41-34 lead.

It looked like it was time to celebrate:

Yet, a lead of a touchdown or less is never safe against Oregon, and Adams showed just why when he found Dwayne Stanford on the crazy, game-tying play.

Before the contest went to overtime, Arizona State had more yards in one game than any since 2012, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Although, things took an odd twist once they surpassed the 2005 total and reached 666 yards, per Josh Webb of Athlon Sports:

Whether that means anything to you or not, at the very least, both teams were entertaining everyone who stayed up to watch, including ESPN's Holly Rowe:

Fox 11 Los Angeles anchor Christine Devine had some fun with the game that began on Thursday as it headed into double overtime, and Friday, in the Midwest and on the East Coast:

Once the game finally ended it featured three 100-yard rushers, a 100-yard receiver and two 300-yard passers. The Sun Devils tied a record they probably don't care much about, according to ESPN Stats & Info:

Oregon moves to 3-2 in the Pac-12 and is still mathematically alive for a chance to play for the conference championship. At 2-3, with a loss to Pac-12 South leader Utah, the Sun Devils are all but out when it comes to the conference title.

 

Postgame Reaction

Oregon seemed rather lucky to escape with the victory. Not only because of a close call in the end zone, but because the Sun Devils put up an offensive effort that usually would result in a victory.

It wasn't all luck. Adams contributed mightily to the victory, with impressive numbers and multiple big plays that only happened because he kept them alive with his feet.

From the yards given up on defense, dropped passes, close calls and amazing plays, it's a win Oregon fans will take, but Oregonian columnist John Canzano summed it up pretty well with this tweet:

These aren't Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks that lost just seven games in four years during his tenure, but Thursday they found a way to win, and flashed some of that high-scoring offense they are known for.

It's not going to be an easy road for the Ducks if they want a chance at the conference title, as they have Cal, Stanford and USC on the slate the next three weeks. However, their offense, that has now scored 60-plus points three times this season, will always give them a chance to win.

 

Follow @MikeNorrisBR on Twitter.

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West Virginia vs. TCU: Game Grades, Analysis for Mountaineers and Horned Frogs

The No. 5 TCU Horned Frogs improved to 8-0 (5-0) on the season Thursday with a 40-10 win over Big 12 rival West Virginia Mountaineers (3-4, 0-4). 

Quarterback Trevone Boykin passed for 388 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 84 yards and another score. Wide receiver Josh Doctson chipped in with 11 receptions for 183 yards and two scores.

 

Pass Offense: Skyler Howard didn't have a lot of help from his receivers. Way too many drops. He did throw too many balls blindly into coverage—Howard completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Overall, not very good. 

Run Offense: Wendell Smallwood ran for 113 yards, and overall the Mountaineers rushed for 167 yards. Don't believe what you see. Most of those yards came with the game out of hand.

Pass Defense: Four pass-interference penalties sums up WVU's night. No one could cover Doctson. The Mountaineers also dropped an easy interception in the first half. 

Run Defense: WVU allowed over 200 yards rushing. The defense couldn't keep Boykin in the pocket and missed tackles once he escaped. Too many yards after contact were allowed by West Virginia's defense. 

Special Teams: Josh Lambert hit a 51-yard field goal to make it 17-10 in the second quarter. Nick O'Toole averaged 46 yards per punt. 

Coaching: It's tough to knock the coaches for some of the things that happened on defense. Boykin is a special talent, while the Mountaineers are extremely banged up in the secondary. Head coach Dana Holgorsen should've ran the ball more in the first half.

 

Pass Offense: Boykin did whatever he wanted all night. Many of his passing yards came after he escaped pressure and kept his eyes downfield. An outstanding performance that will keep him in the Heisman Trophy race. 

Run Offense: Boykin had several highlight-reel runs in the Horned Frogs' showing of over 200 yards rushing. TCU used the passing game to set up the run. 

Pass Defense: TCU picked off one pass and harassed Howard all night. Some WVU receivers were open, but fortunately for TCU, its receivers couldn't catch the football. 

Run Defense: While the Frogs allowed 167 yards rushing, it is deceiving. Over 100 yards came when the game was decided. TCU did a good job of stuffing the run game in the first half, forcing West Virginia out of its game plan. 

Special Teams: Kicker Jaden Oberkrom connected on all four field goal attempts, including a career-high 57-yarder. TCU did not allow anything in the return game. 

Coaching: TCU is a well-coached football team. Head coach Gary Patterson trusts his coaches, and the offensive staff did a wonderful job of attacking West Virginia's secondary down the field. Give credit to Patterson, too, for trusting his kicker could hit from 57 yards out.

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Motivated J.T. Barrett Exactly What Ohio State Needs for Final Playoff Push

Quarterback J.T. Barrett carried the Ohio State Buckeyes for most of their improbable championship run in 2014, but an ankle injury against the Michigan Wolverines prevented him from carrying the Buckeyes across the finish line. 

That injury opened the door for Cardale Jones, who used his cannon arm and the otherworldly speed of Devin Smith to slice through the Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon secondaries on Ohio State's way to a national title. 

Barrett watched on the sideline as his backup orchestrated that postseason tear, and over the ensuing nine months, he silently listened to people criticize his arm strength in comparison to Jones. 

On Thursday after practice, he couldn't keep quiet any longer. Barrett was asked about his ability to throw the deep ball, which prompted an unexpected rant, according to Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors

I was just like that's crazy to me because if you go back and watch film, I threw a lot of deep balls. Were some underthrown? Absolutely. That was earlier in the year. I got better as the year went on, but I was like, 'Man, do I have a weenie arm?' In the offseason it was in my head all the time lifting weights, because I feel like I can throw the ball deep. I felt like y'all were talking bad about me.

His message was loud and clear, but his play last Saturday against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights may have been the bigger statement. 

In his first start of the season, Barrett completed 14 of 18 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He didn't make a lot of throws as the coaching staff eased him back into full swing, but he was accurate when he worked the ball down the field. He had a pair of nice deep passes to Braxton Miller (45 yards) and Curtis Samuel (30), the latter of whom went for a touchdown. And one of his four incompletions was a perfectly placed pass over two defenders that would have been a 42-yard touchdown, if not for a drop from Michael Thomas.

It served as a reminder of how good Barrett was last year. As a redshirt freshman last year, eight of his 34 touchdown passes went for 40 yards or more, and while all of those weren't deep passes, it's still a credit to his big-play ability.

But Barrett's comments Thursday suggested he grew tired of the negativity thrown his way this offseason, and now as the leader of an offense loaded with firepower, he's motivated to prove his doubters wrong.

And that's exactly what Ohio State needs as it enters the homestretch of the season.

The Buckeyes' schedule was back-loaded this season. They'll come out of the bye week to face a solid Minnesota team before traveling to face the surprisingly improved Illinois Fighting Illini. But of course, that's just the warm-up before Ohio State faces its stiffest competition of the season with season-ending games against Michigan State and Michigan. 

And when the Buckeyes are in crunch time, they'll lean on their leader. 

If Barrett stays healthy and continues to prove his doubters wrong, he won't have to watch from the sidelines during another playoff run.

 

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

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