NCAA Football

Meet Michigan State's Hero, Jalen Watts-Jackson

When the Michigan State defense stripped Michigan punter Blake O'Neill and returned the ball 38 yards as time expired to give the Spartans a 27-23 win over the Wolverines on Saturday, it served as one of the most improbable game-winning plays in college football history.

But 40 miles north of Ann Arbor, one man found himself unsurprised with the Spartans' stunning victory.

At least that was the case when he saw who was carrying the ball into the end zone on Michigan State's momentous touchdown. After all, George Porritt had seen Jalen Watts-Jackson make plenty of game-altering plays before.

"That’s the kind of kid he was in high school. He made big plays when the opportunity was there," Porritt, who coached Watts-Jackson in both football and basketball at St. Mary's Preparatory in Orchard Lake, Michigan, told Bleacher Report. "He was a great defensive player for us in basketball. He had a knack for coming up with the ball."

None of those plays, however, were as big as the one Watts-Jackson made on Saturday, which not only resulted in a season-ending injury but forever placed the Dearborn, Michigan, native's name in Spartans lore.

Prior to Saturday, the soft-spoken redshirt freshman defensive back was a relative unknown—even to Spartans fans—a primary special teamer still getting his feet wet in his debut season in East Lansing.

But now, regardless of what he does for the remainder of his college career, Watts-Jackson is a name Michigan State fans will never forget.

"My teammates have been making jokes and stuff, saying, 'Bro, you're about to get a statue made of you,'" Watts-Jackson said during a Wednesday press conference. "You're going to get your name put up in the stadium."

So just who is Michigan State's latest overnight legend?

In many ways, he's a prototypical Spartan.

A 3-star prospect, Watts-Jackson was hardly highly touted coming out of high school. His list of scholarship offers indicated as much, with the 104th-ranked cornerback in the 2014 class initially receiving invites to play for just Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan following his junior season.

"He was an outstanding athlete, a football and basketball player," Porritt recalled of Watts-Jackson's high school career. "He had a tremendous vertical. In football, his senior year, he was a great punt returner and receiver for us, as well as a [defensive back]. He played both sides of the ball."

But with his size—in high school, he was listed at 6'0", 172 pounds—it was unlikely that Watts-Jackson would ever be viewed as an elite prospect. "Jalen wasn’t your 4- or 5-[star] guy. He was your next-level guy," Porritt said. "He was always hard-working."

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Watts-Jackson did receive his first big-name scholarship offer, it came by way of the summer camp circuit.

Having already visited East Lansing as a sophomore, Watts-Jackson attended one of the Spartans' camps in April 2013—and two more again in June—before receiving a scholarship offer to play for Michigan State.

Two days later, he committed to spend his college career in East Lansing.

With a track record that includes having developed former 3-star cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes into first-round picks, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio has a history when it comes to developing raw talent.

That's exactly what he saw in Watts-Jackson, as he recalled the same apparent athleticism that Porritt spoke of.

"Good ball skills, 37-inch vertical jump. Good long jump. Ran a very solid 40[-yard dash] for a defensive back in the 4.5[-second] range," Dantonio said of Watts-Jackson. "He was very quick-bodied and when we watched him play in person, we saw all the different things, all the potential come into play."

"Coach Dantonio liked him when we came up for seven-on-sevens there," Porritt said. "He made great plays."

But before Watts-Jackson could become the next Dennard or Waynes, he'd have to first earn his stripes, redshirting in 2014 before spending the first seven weeks of 2015 playing special teams and providing depth behind starter Demetrious Cox as a third-string safety.

In seven games, the 5'11", 192-pounder recorded five tackles, two of which came in a Week 2 win over then-No. 7 Oregon.

"A great tackler," Dantonio said. "He was just getting his feet on the ground basically as a defensive player, but he plays on all of our special teams."

Then came the play that would change Watts-Jackson's career forever, in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Watts-Jackson will now forever be a Michigan State "legend," as Dantonio put it, as evidenced by the outpouring support he's received from Spartans fans in the last week. It's been both a blessing and curse for the formerly unknown defensive back—at least as far as his phone battery is concerned.

"I had a few followers on Twitter and Instagram, but after [the play], it got to where my phone would freeze if I even tried to open the apps," Watts-Jackson said. "I've been trying to reach out to as many people with thank-yous and stuff like that as I could, but it's been honestly sometimes overwhelming to where I can't even use my phone to call or text people."

His historic moment, however, came at a cost, as the injury that Watts-Jackson's return resulted in—a fractured hip by way of an unsuccessful tackle by Michigan tight end Jake Butt—has brought a premature end to his freshman season.

Similar injuries have ended football careers before, most notably NFL running back Bo Jackson's.

But after undergoing surgery and spending two nights in the hospital, Watts-Jackson is expected to make a full recovery.

"He’s doing OK," Porritt said, noting that he spoke with his former player on Tuesday. "He’s got a long road to haul here."

Having to stay off his hip for three months—he's currently getting around with a wheelchair and walker—Watts-Jackson will likely miss next year's spring football session, as it will be at least six months before he's able to run again.

After that, he'll undoubtedly regain his starting spots on the Spartans' special teams units and continue to work toward fulfilling the potential that's been apparent to both his former head coach and his current one.

"We have big plans for Jalen," Dantonio said.

What the future holds for Watts-Jackson remains to be seen. But his past, as improbably as the play that put him there, has already been etched into Michigan State history.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Out of the Spotlight and Back Again: Meet Vad Lee, the Face of the FCS

This is not the college football story we typically write—not with our everlasting thirst for spotlight and fame. And besides that, there just really aren’t many chances to write it, anyway.

When a player rises from the unwatchable depths and is fairly or unfairly hyped as a superstar—the Vernon Adams Effect—he is worshipped and celebrated accordingly.

But what about the player who chooses to do the exact opposite? What about the young man who forgoes the limelight without an ounce of concern of public response in favor of the sheer comfort of his own soul?

These moments in the college football world are uncommon. Players rise and fall all the time, although rarely does this come by choice.

Welcome to the life and journey of James Madison quarterback Vad Lee—who suddenly, after relinquishing his robust stage at Georgia Tech for something more, has been unexpectedly tossed back onto it yet again at James Madison.

“My mind was never focused on the spotlight,” Lee told Bleacher Report. “It wasn’t focused on things like College GameDay. It was more about being at a place where they used my talents and we could work together toward something special.”

Harrisonburg, Virginia, a place unfamiliar to the national stage, will be college football’s epicenter this Saturday. Having spent the last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ESPN’s College GameDay will do its live three-hour broadcast from James Madison, an FCS program most casual fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

The undefeated Dukes take on 5-1 Richmond in Week 8. The Spiders’ lone loss came against Maryland in the opening weekend. It’s a momentous game for the Colonial Athletic Association conference and one of the most impactful FCS games all season.

For those whose football interests exist at this level, they don’t get much bigger than this.

Led by its do-everything quarterback, James Madison has developed into one of the nation’s most potent offenses. Through seven weeks, JMU is averaging 48.7 points per game, which is second in the FCS. This is in large part due to the work of Vad Lee, who has evolved into much more than an athlete in a diabolical offensive scheme.

Lee’s 1,896 passing yards are currently No. 4 in the FCS. His 690 rushing yards are No. 12 nationally and the most for a quarterback. With 19 passing touchdowns, Lee is No. 3 overall. And his 24 touchdowns are second in the nation, just one touchdown behind Grambling State QB Johnathan Williams.

A mix of raw power and speed, the 6’1”, 225-pound senior has exploded since the day he arrived. At any level, there simply aren’t many quarterbacks this size capable of doing things like this.

It was plays like these that had college coaches drooling over Lee back when he quarterbacked Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina. Ranked the nation’s No. 11 dual-threat QB according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, demand was high.

Local programs such as Duke, NC State and North Carolina all wanted Lee. James Franklin wanted him at Vanderbilt. West Virginia made a strong push at the very end. Georgia Tech, with a system seemingly built for his running style, made its interest known.

“I didn’t know if they wanted me to be quarterback or a wide receiver,” Lee recalled about his recruiting. “I really didn’t know who to trust.”

Ultimately, Lee decided on the Yellow Jackets and Paul Johnson. He gave up life as a traditional pocket passer to become a system quarterback. And yes, he took quite nicely to it.

In 2012, despite not logging the majority of the snaps, Lee finished with 13 touchdowns. Given the keys to the Porsche the following season, the buzz on Tech’s next great option quarterback began to build.

In fact, back when the glorious game was still being built, I simulated the 2013 college football season using EA Sports’ NCAA Football 14. Lee, known in that game as “QB No. 2” finished third in the Heisman voting and led the Yellow Jackets to a 13-1 finish.

It was only a video game, of course. But the buzz and interest in Lee was real. You could feel it. He baked up the hype with a solid 19-touchdown, seven-win season. In his final regular-season game with the program, Lee scored four touchdowns in a double-overtime loss to Georgia.

His final touchdown pass at Tech in the team's bowl game was perfect.

Not long after this game ended, Lee announced he was leaving the program. No reasons were provided. It was a clean break; no ill will on either side. Having helped run one of the country’s most well-run machines, Lee said farewell to the system and the spotlight without thinking twice.

“I wanted more out of the quarterback position,” Lee said. “It just wasn’t much of a fit for me. I just wanted to learn. I figured that coming to a place like this would allow me to fully develop and be the quarterback that I can be.”

With the helping hand of his high school coach, Antonio King, Lee surveyed his options. He did his research—looking up offensive schemes more suited to his style and offensive lines that he could thrive behind.

He wasn’t the least bit concerned with brand power. Having come from a powerhouse school in Georgia, Lee wanted to settle down. He wanted to get comfortable.

On his first visit to James Madison, Lee and King surveyed the campus. As they weaved around the stadium, they just so happened to turn on Hillside Drive, a name deeply familiar and comforting to both.

The two glanced at each other, smiled and let out simultaneous laughter. In search of a something to signify home, Lee found it before he ever hopped out of the car.

Helping matters further was new James Madison head coach Everett Withers. Although Lee and Withers weren’t exceptionally close before teaming up, their relationship stretched back to high school, when Withers was the defensive coordinator and eventually the head coach at North Carolina.

He recruited Lee to play back then; he was thrilled at the opportunity to coach him again when he took over in 2014.

“When I found out that Coach Withers was coming, that really caught my eye,” Lee said. “I just felt like it was perfect for me schematically on offense.”

By transferring to the FCS, Lee was not required to sit out a season. As a result, he was plugged right in as the JMU centerpiece in 2014.

Playing in a new system that was more pass oriented, Lee responded by breaking the single-game passing record. Twice.

He finished the year with 39 touchdowns overall and finished fourth overall in voting for the Walter Payton Award.

This early success has carried over to 2015. Against SMU on September 26, Lee delivered a stat line typically reserved for high school or a video game. Although he threw three interceptions, Lee also accounted for five touchdowns, threw for 289 yards and ran for 276 yards. James Madison won by three.

“It was a fun game,” Lee said. “There was a lot of offense. My mindset was to keep plays alive, convert third downs and have some big plays. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a game like that. But even then, I just wanted to continue to get better.”

Since then, JMU has delivered convincing wins over its next three opponents. Lee, of course, has continued to become an end-zone regular. He’s still growing accustomed to life in the pocket—a transition that will last through his collegiate career—but he’s also completely at ease in his new digs.

After each touchdown at home, James Madison unleashes the purple and gold streamers—a tradition that Lee cherishes. Every time he crosses the goal line in front of the home crowd, he looks up to the stands and embraces the flying colors that are tossed to the sky.

It may not come with the same celebratory audio that it once did at Georgia Tech. And more than likely, Lee’s latest score won’t be on display to a national audience—not like it once was. But the streamers satisfy the quarterback’s current appetite. Things are mighty different now.

“There was something inside of me telling me that this was the place for me,” Lee said. “I’m a big believer in my faith. I am exactly where I belong. I’m very grateful to be at James Madison. I’m just happy here.”

The spotlight he once had will return on Saturday—even if it’s only lit for three magnificent hours. After that, ESPN will pack up its cameras, stages and talent, and it will take them all to the next campus—most likely a prodigious program familiar with this routine. Things will return to normal.

Lee will be able to settle back in to his quiet new life as the face of the FCS. He will continue to win football games with teammates, many of whom will be lifelong friends. He will continue to post enormous box scores and shred defenses without overpowering national fanfare.

The streamers will continue to fall from the sky, which is more than enough.

 

*Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Robert Nkemdiche Could Stay on Offense

If Ole Miss wants to get back on track this weekend against Texas A&M, having one of its best players available would certainly help.

Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche suffered a concussion last week in the loss to Memphis while playing running back on a 4th-and-1 play near the goal line in the first half. The 6'4", 296-pound junior's status for this week is still uncertain, according to head coach Hugh Freeze.

"He's going through his concussion protocol," Freeze said. "Ours began on Monday and usually, if things go well, they usually wind up on either Thursday or Friday. That's what we hope and anticipate."

If he does play, will he play more offense?

"The package is in," Freeze said. "It's just a matter of whether we use it or not. We will wait to see if he's cleared before we make that decision. It was definitely a freak deal, and a concussion can happen on any play, of course. We'll do what's best for him and the team."

The problem for Freeze and for Ole Miss is that what's best for the team is playing Nkemdiche on offense in specific situations.

The Rebels rank eighth in the SEC in rushing offense (167.14 YPG), are averaging just 2.92 yards per rush in conference games and managed just 40 rushing yards on 24 attempts last week against Memphis. It sounds crazy to put your best defensive player on offense and put him at a greater risk for injury, but there's really no other option.

Jalen Walton is more of an edge threat. Jordan Wilkins, Eugene Brazley and Akeem Judd are all talented, but clearly need help from an offensive line that's been less than stellar. Nkemdiche is big and fast enough to mask some of the Rebels' offensive line deficiencies, and he has to stay on offense in those key situations if the Ole Miss offense is going to give off the impression of balance.

 

Blame It On The Rain

The forecast for Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Saturday is calling for a 90 percent chance of rain when the Razorbacks host Auburn at 11 a.m. ET, according to Weather.com.

Advantage: Arkansas?

"One of the things we try to tell our kids is to control the 'control-ables,'" head coach Bret Bielema said. "We try to embrace whatever the situation is. We have played well in rain going back to last year against LSU and Ole Miss, both (games) had a little bit of that. This year, the Tennessee game was supposed to be a monsoon on game day and it did rain a little bit."

Bielema is right. 

Arkansas' massive offensive line—which averages 327.8 pounds—combined with the ability of stud running back Alex Collins to be both a bruiser and a home run hitter has Arkansas set up for success against the visiting Tigers. 

"He is a challenge," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn. "He can hit it downhill hard, he can make it bounce, he has speed and they do a good job with the way they get him the ball, like the little flip play they do to get him to the outside and other things. He’s a very good back and he’s getting used to getting the football with more carries. He’s impressive."

Will Muschamp's defense is giving up a whopping 197.67 yards per game and 5.07 yards per play on the ground—next-to-last in the SEC in both categories.

Buckle up, Tigers. Because Bielema is going old school this week.

 

Another Brick In The Wall

Tennessee opened things up by necessity in its last outing against Georgia after getting into a 21-point hole, but make no mistake, the identity of the 2015 Vols is decidedly run-first.

They rank second in the SEC with 222 yards per game on the ground, have a bruiser in Jalen Hurd, a dynamic dual-threat quarterback in Joshua Dobbs and a home run hitter in Alvin Kamara.

If Tennessee is going to have a chance against Alabama this week, though, the Vols are going to have to produce their best effort of the year. 

The Crimson Tide are giving up just 70.86 yards per game and 2.44 yards per play on the ground. Head coach Butch Jones knows just how stout Nick Saban's group is.

"The word that comes to mind is 'impressive,'" Jones said. "Impressive in all facets. They lead our conference in rush defense and total defense, and do a great job in pass efficiency defense. They are very, very deep and a very complete defensive football team. They challenge you in preparation, because it's hard to simulate for us in our scout teams, but also they have players with different skill sets which makes it hard to prepare for."

The front seven led by tackle A'Shawn Robinson, end Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reggie Ragland will have to play disciplined football against the Vols because the rushing attack is diverse and dangerous. If the Vols hit a big play or two early, it could transform this game into a shootout and get Alabama out of its comfort zone.

 

Let It Rip

Be honest, when you glance at the schedule, Western Kentucky at LSU doesn't exactly jump off the page, does it?

It should.

The Hilltoppers boast the third-best passing attack in the nation at 407.1 yards per game, are third in the nation with 25 touchdown passes and have the second-best team passing efficiency in the nation at 188.70. Quarterback Brandon Doughty has thrown for 2,709 yards, 24 touchdowns and only tossed two picks this year.

"The key piece to that is to watch film," LSU head coach Les Miles said. "The ball jumps out of his hand. You see that he's extremely accurate. There's five guys who have touched the ball 24 times. There's one (Taywan Taylor) who has 40-plus catches. We recognize that he's a very talented quarterback, and I don't think there's going to be any issues educating our guys when they watch the game film."

On the flip side, LSU's secondary has been surprisingly porous. The Tigers have given up 205 yards per game through the air, 11 passing plays of 30 or more yards (12th in the SEC) and have not lived up to the "DBU" billing.

On paper, this game doesn't do much in terms of interest. 

But it could serve as the final piece of the puzzle to solidify the LSU defense prior to the stretch run in November.

 

What's My Name Again?

Florida head coach Jim McElwain announced this week that kicker Jorge Powell is out for the season with a knee injury suffered on a kickoff last week. With Austin Hardin also dealing with a leg injury, the first-year head coach held open kicker tryouts this week in Gainesville that drew 216 hopeful Gators, with 77 actually kicking in Thursday's tryout.

"As long as he can flip it up there through the uprights, I'm good with it," he said.

That's not new for McElwain.

"We were successful with it at Colorado State, and ended up getting a heck of a kicker out of it," he said. "He was 'Kicker.' That's what I called him. That was 'Kicker.' He did a great job for us and won some big ball games and he was awesome."

"Kicker" really was Jared Roberts, who connected on 42 of 54 field goals over all three of McElwain's seasons in Fort Collins.

Florida is off this week prior to next week's meeting with Georgia in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Week 8: Top 25 Upset Alert

It's that time of the week when we present our Top 25 upset alert.

Is Michigan State up for another win this week against Indiana? Is LSU up for the challenge that is Brandon Doughty? Is Leonard Fournette going to be unstoppable this week?

Find out in the above video as Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer goes in-depth on this week's upset alert. 

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Ranking the Best ACC Matchups of Week 8

Can you believe we're already at Week 8 of ACC play?

With the season virtually flying by, we've certainly started to get a good grasp at which teams are poised to contend for their respective division titles. 

While there aren't a ton of outstanding matchups this week, it's about maintaining consistency for those teams looking to contend for postseason play. As for lesser squads, this week could signal the difference between a losing season and a bowl appearance. 

Without further ado, here's a look at the Week 8 slate of ACC games. 

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College Football Picks: Week 8 Predictions for Every Game

Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, it's best not to evaluate the Week 8 college football schedule by the quality of the matchups at the top of board, because they aren't pretty.

After numerous major clashes a week ago, this weekend we have only one game featuring ranked teams, and both happen to be coming off double-digit losses. Several ranked teams are playing on the road, but most are facing opponents with .500 records or worse, so there don't appear to be many great games to check out.

Then again, quite often the worst-looking weeks on paper end up bringing about some of the greatest craziness, so there's always hope. And we have predictions for each and every contest.

There are only 55 games on the docket this week, as many schools are on a bye, including four ranked teams. Check out our picks and give us your thoughts in the comments section.

 

Rankings are from the Associated Press Top 25.

 

Last week: 42-15 (.737)

Season: 355-108 (.767)

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Texas Football: Mid-Season Grades for Each Longhorn Positional Unit

Texas enters the second half of its season at 2-4, losing two embarrassing blowouts and close calls apiece.

That's one way of looking at it.

The other would be that the Longhorns played five AP Top 25 teams in their first six games, knocking off No. 10 Oklahoma in Week 6. They play one the rest of the way, and the combined record of their remaining opponents currently stands at 19-18.

That, the 24-17 win in the Red River Rivalry and the fact that this team is coming off a bye will set the Horns up for success in the second half of the season. They're a young team with a redshirt freshman quarterback and a brand-new offense. With all these growing pains behind them, these guys have a chance to do some good things over their final six games.

So while most of these mid-season grades are middling to low, there's improvement in sight.

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The Decline of the Alabama-Tennessee Rivalry

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Standing in the heart of the University of Alabama campus, you wouldn’t know that the “Third Saturday in October” is looming.

RVs are beginning to roll into town, and the Quad is being prepped for mass tailgating, but life goes on around Denny Chimes like it does during every other game week. There’s nothing to indicate that Tennessee will be visiting Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.

That’s because it isn’t one of college football’s biggest rivalries any more.

“In my lifetime, it’s at its lowest point,” said former Alabama fullback Baron Huber, who has a unique perspective on the Crimson Tide-Volunteers series.

He grew up in Tennessee and at an early age was fed football stories from his grandfather, from Kenny Stabler spiking the ball on fourth down to the murmur in the stands when Paul W. “Bear” Bryant would walk out and lean against the goalpost as his players warmed up.

Huber also participated in some of the games when things were arguably the most intense between fans roughly a decade ago, and it had little to do with what was happening on the field. There were allegations and threats, lawsuits and a criminal conviction of an Alabama booster.

It was football’s version of a modern blood feud.

Yet, it’s slid into the current state of being a big-time rivalry, in name only, despite the stormy history that dates back in Nov. 28, 1901. When the initial game was called due to darkness with the score tied 6-6, spectators rushed the Birmingham field in protest.

That kind of thing was pretty typical in one way or another until Jan. 4, 2007, the day Nick Saban was announced as Alabama’s head coach.

Since then, only one of the eight meetings was close, “Rocky Block” in 2009, when the Volunteers were coached by Lane Kiffin, who is now the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.

Not only is Alabama a perfect 8-0 in those games, but it has a scoring advantage of 283-95 in points, for an average outcome of 35.4-11.9.

Tennessee has had the lead at the end of a quarter just once, 7-3 after the first quarter in 2010. 

In the 480 minutes of game time, the Vols have been ahead for just 11 minutes and 46 seconds. That works out to 2.45 percent.

During one game, the Tennessee student section wasn’t full, and more often than not the stands have emptied early. The tradition of the winning team lighting up cigars still exists, but last year a security guard in Knoxville yelled at the Crimson Tide players coming out of the locker room about it being a smoke-free area.

Volunteers coach Butch Jones has spoken repeatedly about making the games relevant again, but even if the Volunteers pull off an upset on Saturday, one has to wonder if it would really register as a rivalry win.

The teams don’t play in the same division, don’t recruit against each other like they used to, and about the only thing they have in common is that the athletic directors have ties to the other school.

The only players from Tennessee on the Crimson Tide’s roster are sophomore linebacker Walker Jones (who hails from Memphis, which isn’t exactly Volunteers territory), senior defensive back Jabriel Washington and two walk-ons.

From Alabama, the Volunteers have junior offensive lineman Dontavius Blair and redshirt freshman Gavin Bryant, neither of whom might play on Saturday.

That leaves the two obvious storylines of Kiffin and Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara. Kiffin made his first return to Knoxville last season, and only the media seemed to care, while Kamara, even though he used to be on the Alabama roster, never played in a game for the Crimson Tide and originally hails from Georgia.

Nevertheless, Alabama is favored by more than two touchdowns.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Tennessee,” Alabama senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I’ve grown up watching those games, so yeah it means a whole lot.”

But Coker’s view is becoming more of the exception rather than the norm, especially with Alabama recruiting more on a national level.

Consider the comments by his teammates this week and what they said after towing the line and calling it a big rivalry game that’s important to the fanbase.

Running back Derrick Henry: “It's a SEC game. We're going to prepare for this game like we would any other team.”

Defensive end Jonathan Allen: “I didn’t even know there was a winning streak, to be honest with you. That’s the first time I’ve heard about it. I’d like to continue the streak, but that’s not what I’m focused on.”

Senor wide receiver Richard Mullaney, who transferred in from Oregon State, said no one even mentioned the rivalry to him until this week: “There was a story about something in the past. I'm not sure really about it, but I know it's a big game."

That story might have been about Bryant, who played on a broken leg and scored a touchdown against Tennessee as a player, or maybe the undefeated 1934 season when Tennessee coach Gen. Robert Neyland made his famous comment: “You never know what a football player is made of until he plays against Alabama.”

Perhaps it was the story of Bully Van de Graaff, Alabama’s first All-American, who made a lasting impression during the 1913 game. 

“His ear had a real nasty cut, and it was dangling from his head, bleeding badly,” Tennessee lineman Bull Bayer said. “He grabbed his own ear and tried to yank it from his head. His teammates stopped him and the managers bandaged him. Man, was that guy a tough one. He wanted to tear off his own ear so he could keep playing.”

For years, Alabama vs. Tennessee was arguably as intense of a rivalry as any because they were often the two best teams in the Southeastern Conference. To win the league, they had to go through each other, and the games were played with zeal and a sense of desperation.

Everything started to change when the SEC split into divisions, and the intensity carried over with Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer. Crimson Tide fans will never forgive him for feeding the NCAA and Southeastern Conference information and making numerous recruiting accusations against Alabama, which helped lead to NCAA sanctions—followed by the lawsuits, Logan Young trial, etc.

But Fulmer was dismissed Nov. 2, 2008 and resigned the next day. Since then, Tennessee’s on its fourth coach, it hasn’t finished a season ranked in the Top 25, nor been bowl-eligible in three of the last four seasons.

Even if the Volunteers win on Saturday and suddenly surge back as a national power, the rivalry still wouldn’t be the same. As Huber points out, the digital age brought a 24-hour news cycle and a stronger focus on the here and now. Trends come and go with the blink of an eye, and this year’s freshmen were born right around the time Tennessee last won a title.

Consequently, students increasingly view the “Third Saturday in October” as their parents’ rivalry. They can’t relate to Gene Stallings playing “Rocky Top” in the locker room all week long, the scout team wearing orange jerseys or the five-overtime game in 2003 when Alabama’s enrollment was barely 20,000. 

It’s now up to 37,100, with more than half of the students hailing from places where they grow up with other legends, heroes and rivalries.

“It’s 100 percent generational,” Huber said.

The younger the fans, the less it means to them, even though this is one of the matchups the SEC has tried to preserve with the permanent cross-division opponent in the schedule. It’s a concept that appears to be more outdated with each passing year.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, while the Bull Bayer and Neyland quotes are attributed to 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, written by the author of this story.

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

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The College Recruitment of Russell Wilson

Back in the summer of 2006, a handful of college coaches descended upon the campus of the Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, to ask head coach Charles McFall about Russell Wilson.

Wilson was the star quarterback for the Cougars, who were in the middle of a run that would lead to three consecutive state titles, but his dazzling prep resume didn't seem to matter much to the coaches at the next level.

McFall, who served as the head coach at Collegiate from 1986 to 2006, recalls most of them having a similar question for him—one that made him laugh and frustrated him at the same time.

"[College coaches] kept asking, 'Do you think he can play defensive back?'" McFall remembers. "I said, 'Yeah, but he's a quarterback.' Anybody who has ever coached and had somebody who had that type of talent knows what a quarterback is. I told them, 'I never coached in college, and I can't tell you what you need. What I can tell you is what kind of player he is, what kind of person he is. If you talk to any coach who has coached against him, they will tell you too.' [College coaches] were always hung up on the height. Never once questioned arm strength, speed or size. It was always height."

Of course, that same issue has dogged the current Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl passer throughout his career. However, his habit of proving his doubters wrong began during his career at Collegiate.

In fact, ask anyone familiar with him and his time there, and you're likely to get a story with a common theme: Wilson wasn't your average high school athlete—on or off the field.

One of McFall's favorite stories occurred when Wilson was a ball boy and his older brother played for the Cougars.

"Everybody was crowded around the sideline, and the ref wanted the ball quickly," McFall explains. "I heard the ref yell, 'Get the ball in!' Russell was in either sixth or seventh grade at the time. Next thing I know, that ball went flying across the field and everyone looked around and it was like, 'Wow!' At an early age, he had a really nice arm."

Will O'Brien, who is currently the Associate Athletic Director at Collegiate, was interviewing for the strength coach position back in 2005. Wilson was part of a student panel selected to participate in part of O'Brien's interview process.

"I remember, and none of the ADs told me who this kid is, but I distinctly remember this young man leaning over the table, and he had more questions than anyone else," O'Brien recalls. "It was like, 'Hey, how do I get faster? How do I get stronger? I'm a baseball player and a quarterback. What are the things that I need to do to get better?'"

Wilson made plenty of plays on the field, but his coaches were equally impressed with his leadership skills and work ethic.

Those were the two traits that led McFall to emphatically back his star player and his merits as a quarterback during his recruiting process.

While colleges doubted Wilson's prowess at the game's most important position because of his height, there were other reasons that schools—particularly those in the ACC footprint—hesitated to recruit Wilson.

Since Wilson wasn't a household name in recruiting circles, McFall helped him come up with a plan to attack his recruitment, beginning in the summer of 2006.

"After his junior year, which he had a great year that year, what we decided he needed to do was to pick the schools he was interested in and go to their one-day camps in the summer so they could see him up close," McFall said. "We told him not to waste his money and his time going to schools to visit. He definitely wanted to go somewhere close [to Richmond], so his parents could come and see him. His dad was in poor health at the time."

He had already visited in-state programs Virginia and Virginia Tech. Both schools were interested in Wilson, but only as an athlete who could play another position—preferably defensive back.

That's because both schools also had their eyes on other touted in-state passers.

Virginia had targeted 4-star Peter Lalich, who possessed NFL measurables at 6'5" and 235 pounds and was rated the No. 11 pro-style passer in the 2007 class. Lalich ended up signing with the Cavaliers.

In Blacksburg, Hokies head coach Frank Beamer had his sights set on 5-star Tyrod Taylor, who was billed as the nation's top dual-threat passer.

"[Virginia Tech coaches] were honest and said that they wanted to focus on Tyrod and winning the recruiting wars in the Hampton Roads area," McFall said. "They get a lot of players down there, and they told me they would recruit Russell as an athlete only."

With the lukewarm attention from in-state schools, Wilson identified four other ACC programs—Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest—as schools he wanted to camp at.

Curt Cignetti, who is currently the head coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was the recruiting coordinator for the Wolfpack at the time.

While Wilson visited North Carolina first, Cignetti actually was tipped off about his exploits in Chapel Hill prior to his arrival on NC State's campus.

"The first guy that actually brought his name to my attention was my brother, Frank. He's with the Rams now, but he was the [offensive] coordinator at North Carolina at the time, and I was at NC State," Cignetti told Bleacher Report. "[UNC] had him in camp in the summer, and [Frank] loved [Russell]. But they had already taken an early commitment from another kid. He couldn't convince [UNC head coach] John Bunting to take another quarterback. [Frank] told me about him."

McFall remembers hearing about Wilson's performance that day from then-Tar Heels running backs coach Andre Powell, whom he had known for a long time.

As McFall recalls, Powell told him how he and a couple of fellow Tar Heels offensive assistants went into Bunting's office to plead their case as to why Wilson deserved an offer.

But Bunting relented because he already secured a commitment from 4-star quarterback Mike Paulus, a 6'5", 220-pound New York native rated as the nation's No. 7 pro-style passer in 2007. Bunting was leery of adding a second quarterback who could potentially give Paulus second thoughts.

"Russell really gave them a show, but they were a little afraid to offer Russell if Russell didn't sign with them and they lost the other guy," McFall explained.

With the Tar Heels out of the equation, the next stop was at Duke, where Wilson also impressed the coaching staff for the Blue Devils. Unlike the situation in Chapel Hill, there was no hesitation on the part of then-Duke head coach Ted Roof and his staff.

"They offered him on the spot," McFall said.

NC State was the third stop on Wilson's tour of the triangle area in the Tar Heel State.

Armed with the knowledge his brother had given him, Cignetti watched as Wilson dazzled during drills. He saw similar traits that led him to recruit another overlooked passer to Raleigh just a few years earlier.

"[Russell] could really spin the ball. He had what Philip Rivers had," Cignetti said. "He was just a quick decision-maker and a winner. He could beat you with his arm or his legs. Marc Trestman was coaching our quarterbacks then, and Marc loved him. There was no hesitation because of that."

Wilson earned an offer from Wolfpack head coach Chuck Amato and finished his tour at Wake Forest. While he also performed well at the Demon Deacons camp, their staff lost contact with Wilson's camp shortly afterward.

With both NC State and Duke pulling the trigger on offering him, his list quickly condensed to the two Tobacco Road stalwarts.

He returned to Raleigh with his parents shortly afterward. That visit helped seal the deal for both Wilson and the Wolfpack, as he committed shortly before his senior season.

"We knew he was special. He came from a great family," Cignetti said. "His grandfather had been the president, I think, at Norfolk State. His dad was very successful, and so was his mom. He was just extremely alert, intelligent and aware of everything on the field. He was just a natural. He was a great baseball player too."

While other schools were unsure of Wilson's abilities, Cignetti never wavered and took advantage of being one of the few schools to show faith in his potential.

"He was looking for a good place to go, because I'm sure he had been told 'no' by some other people," Cignetti explained. "He was looking for an opportunity."

Cignetti notes that there was still work to be done after Amato got fired after the 2006 season and the school hired Boston College head coach Tom O'Brien to replace him.

"Tom O'Brien came in, and I was retained. Other people started to recruit [Russell], and I kept him committed for us," Cignetti said. "Tom was a little leery because of his height, so I kind of had to sell Tom on how special he was."

Ironically, in part because of O'Brien's stance on not wanting Wilson to play baseball in the spring, Wilson ended up going through the recruiting process a second time as a graduate transfer in the summer of 2011.

McFall recounts getting a phone call from then-Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is currently the head coach for the Badgers.

The Badgers were interested in Wilson, but as McFall notes, Chryst made the trek to Richmond to do his due diligence because he "couldn't afford to make a mistake on a one-year guy."

McFall gave Chryst a laundry list of reasons why Wilson could be successful at Wisconsin, highlighted by his maturity, leadership and competitiveness.

Wilson ended up choosing Wisconsin over Auburn, and after three weeks on campus in Madison, McFall remembers getting a text from a giddy Chryst.

"Better than advertised, coach."

Of course, Wilson used a banner senior season with the Badgers as a launching pad for his pro career—where he's continued to defy the odds by becoming one of the elite passers in the NFL and leading the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in 2013.

However, his journey may have never taken off if not for the belief of his high school head coach, who insisted Wilson could play quarterback at the highest level.

"I think it's a great story as far as recruiting, because it is not an exact science," McFall said. "Russell was one a lot of schools missed the boat on. He's such a competitor, and he's got such a good head on his shoulders. He made a lot of them wish they would have given him a better look."

 

Editor's note: Throughout the 2015 football season, Bleacher Report will continue a series on the college recruitment of today's biggest sports stars. For previous installments, see below:

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

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Notre Dame Football: Mid-Season Grades for Each Irish Positional Unit

Finally, after seven weeks and seven season-ending injuries, Notre Dame football gets a reprieve.

The Irish have a bye week and a chance to return home while the university splits for a week-long fall break.

Notre Dame is 6-1, ranked 11th in the country and gearing up for the home stretch with its final five regular-season games.

Before we move ahead, let’s take stock of Notre Dame’s different position groups and assess their performances through these first seven weeks. We’ll judge production in the context of all circumstances, including unexpected injuries. An average performance will be graded a ‘C.’

Let’s get to it.

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Thaddeus Snodgrass to Transfer from Kentucky: Latest Details and Reaction

According to Jennifer Smith of the Herald-Leader (via KentuckySports.com), University of Kentucky wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass left the program on Wednesday. 

A redshirt freshman, Snodgrass didn't record a single catch during his time with the Wildcats after he was merely listed as a participant for the last three games.

When asked about his lack of playing time, head coach Mark Stoops told Smith that "there’s some other guys playing and he’s been having his struggles, but we’ll see where that goes."

Snodgrass was a 4-star recruit out of Springfield, Ohio. Of the class of 2014, he was the 15th overall prospect in the state and the 43rd-ranked wide receiver in the country, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. 

He impressed Stoops in the spring, as the coach told Smith: "We really feel like he’s got a bright future. He’s strong and he’s got a lot of upside. He’s a guy we feel like can help us outside, got some deep balls, just needs to be a little bit more consistent."   

Snodgrass is one of a number of Kentucky players who left the program in 2015, per Smith. Cornerback Jaleel Hytchye, linebacker Dorian Hendrix, wide receiver Rashad Cunningham and offensive linemen Josh Krok and Nick Richardson left the Wildcats this season.

According to 247Sports, Snodgrass received offers from 15 other schools, including Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame. It remains to be seen where he will transfer to, but one would have to believe that one of those 15 teams will be in the mix.

 

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com.

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Mike Hughes, M.J. Stewart's Suspensions to Be Lifted by North Carolina

North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora reinstated freshman cornerback Mike Hughes on Wednesday and plans to do the same for sophomore cornerback M.J. Stewart on Sunday, per Aaron Beard of the Associated Press (via the San Diego Union-Tribune).

"Based on everything that I know at this time, it’s the appropriate action," Fedora said when asked why he made his decision, per Greg Barnes of Inside Carolina.

Less than a week ago, he suspended the two players indefinitely following their arrests on Oct. 4. According to WRAL.com, they were involved in a fight at a fraternity house on the University of North Carolina campus. ESPN.com's Jared Shanker reported Stewart was charged with misdemeanor assault/affray and battery, while Hughes was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.    

Neither player has resolved his legal issues, and Fedora admitted he could ultimately discipline the players further depending on the result of their cases, per Barnes.

Stewart has played in five games for the Tar Heels this year, making 20 total tackles, and his three interceptions lead the team. Hughes, meanwhile, has made three total tackles in his five appearances this year.

Hughes will be available to play against the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday, while Stewart's return will come against the No. 25 Pittsburgh Panthers on Oct. 25.

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Otaro Alaka Injury: Updates on Texas A&M LB's Shoulder and Recovery

The Texas A&M Aggies defense suffered a big blow Tuesday, as head coach Kevin Sumlin confirmed sophomore linebacker Otaro Alaka will miss the rest of the season after suffering elbow and labrum injuries, according to Suzanne Halliburton of the Statesman.

Continue for updates.   

Alaka Will Be Ready for Next Season After Surgery Wednesday, Oct. 21

After an impressive freshman season in 2014 that culminated with Alaka being named Liberty Bowl Defensive MVP, 2015 could have been a breakout campaign for the young linebacker. Instead, his season is over after 12 total tackles in three games. Sumlin talked on Tuesday about the woes his players have gone through this season, per Halliburton.

It’s been a tough time for him. He dislocated an elbow in fall camp, had a serious illness in the family, came back and…had a torn labrum, about three quarters of it. The decision was made to just have him have surgery and he’ll fall under the time frame that we’ll apply for a medical redshirt. I think he’ll get this year back and it’s a time for him to get better mentally and physically. With the surgery being this early, we’ll have the opportunity to get him back for spring ball and we’ll need him.

Sumlin seems positive for now, and it's not like the Aggies have a huge hole to fill considering Alaka had only played sparingly.

However, it's still bad news for a defense that may have been holding out hope for his return. The Aggies defense is only allowing about 19 points per game in SEC play—if you don't count the 21 points scored by the Alabama Crimson Tide defense against Texas A&M last week—and will certainly find a way to move on without its linebacker.

It remains to be seen if Alaka will be awarded the medical redshirt, but it certainly would be a huge lift for the team if he entered next season with three years of eligibility. 

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Ohio State Football: Midseason Grades for Each Buckeyes Positional Unit

Ohio State entered the year as college football's first unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll, and it was expected to dominate an easy schedule en route to a second appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Seven weeks in, the Buckeyes are undefeated and still No. 1, but they haven't looked as strong as many had anticipated heading into the season.

After opening the season with an impressive-looking 42-24 victory over Virginia Tech on the road, Ohio State looked sluggish and uninspired in victories over Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Indiana. But the Buckeyes have impressed over the last two weeks in blowout victories over Maryland and Penn State, showing flashes of the dominance that most expected in the preseason.

With things starting to click for Urban Meyer's squad, here's a look at how each unit has performed through the first seven games of the 2015 campaign.

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USC Football: Why the Trojans Are Surprise Favorites vs. Undefeated Utah

It should go without saying—the folks out in Las Vegas usually know what they're doing when it comes to college football.

But the oddsmakers' track records didn't stop one particular Week 8 spread from receiving a massive amount of scrutiny:

No. 3 Utah, boasting a perfect record and the second-most first-place votes of any team in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll, opened as a three-point underdog on Odds Shark to a USC team that has a 3-3 record and an interim head coach.

While lines are set to encourage betting, the Utah side isn't swimming in money after people saw what they thought was such an outrageous point spread.

Quite the opposite, actually.

According to Odds Shark, USC is now a 3.5-point favorite over Utah, and some places even have the Trojans favored by four points. Utah may be a favorite in the eyes of the public, but that doesn't bother Vegas.

And it's not just the oddsmakers who favor USC.

Advanced stat systems, including Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings and ESPN's Football Power Index, both have the Trojans ranked higher than the Utes, despite the large gap in records and perception. They, too, ignore what the polls say and rely on their own data.

But believing that struggling USC is the favorite over a Utah team that has its sights set on a playoff run might be too hard to believe, even for the most optimistic of Trojan diehards.

Here are four reasons why USC is not an underdog this weekend and why it can pull off the non-upset of Utah.

 

Home-field advantage

The last time USC was in the Coliseum, it wasn't pretty. A low-scoring Thursday night loss to Washington turned out to be the last game in charge for head coach Steve Sarkisian.

But the home of the Trojans is still the biggest road venue undefeated Utah has faced all season. The Utes have only traveled to bad Mountain West foe Fresno State and Pac-12 North power Oregon, which only holds 54,000 fans inside Autzen Stadium.

The Coliseum, on the other hand, has almost 40,000 more seats than the rowdy Autzen Zoo, which was quieted quickly in Utah's 62-20 beatdown of Oregon last month.

As Paul Bessire of Prediction Machine (h/t Chip Patterson of CBS Sports) noted this summer, home-field advantage is worth about three points in college football. John Avello of Wynn Las Vegas told Sporting News the location of this game is the main reason why USC is favored.

"They are home," Avello said. "That’s the No. 1 reason why they’re the favorite. ... You’re going to a place that’s just a difficult place to play. This team (USC) should be sky-high for this contest."

If USC's fans can throw their full support behind interim head coach Clay Helton and his team in turmoil, then they can give Utah something it hasn't had to deal with all year: a large and loud crowd making its presence felt for four quarters.

 

Margin of victory

But the standard three-point swing from home-field advantage doesn't fully explain USC's status as the favorite in this game. Take away the Trojans' bonus from being the host, and this looks like a fairly even matchup on a hypothetical neutral field.

How? Well, Utah may have twice as many wins as USC this season, but one important stat that both the oddsmakers and the computers favor—margin of victory—has the two teams looking even.

USC's three losses this season have all been close, and the majority of Utah's wins have been tight. Add the margins of victory together and compare strength of schedule, and there's hardly any difference.

"Scoring margin is generally a better predictor of future performance than a team's win-loss record itself," Sharon Katz of ESPN.com wrote. "USC obviously does not have as impressive a resume as Utah's, but this weekend, the FPI and Vegas expect them to be stronger at home."

Another interesting fact to consider when comparing USC and Utah is its only common opponent so far this season. While USC destroyed Arizona State in Tempe one week after its loss to now-No. 10 Stanford, Utah needed a fourth-quarter rally to put the Sun Devils away at home last Saturday.

While wins and losses are ultimately what matters most, the final score lines seem to indicate USC isn't quite as bad as its 3-3 record suggests, and Utah isn't a dominant No. 3 team.

 

The talent gap

In almost every conceivable metric—recruiting class rankings, number of pro prospects, All-Pac-12 candidates, etc.—USC is a more talented team than the one Utah will bring to Los Angeles on Saturday. It's why USC was a preseason title contender and why Utah was unranked.

But more talent doesn't always lead to wins. Upsets happen all the time, and highly regarded teams just don't live up to expectations. USC fans are already well aware of this notion, considering the number of disappointing seasons in the post-Pete Carroll years.

That's not to say Utah isn't a talented team by any means. Devontae Booker is one of the hardest-running backs in the country, Travis Wilson has developed into a reliable passer and head coach Kyle Whittingham has assembled a rock-solid defense to go along with the nation's best special teams unit.

However, Whittingham knows who will be the more talented team when things kick off Saturday in Los Angeles.

"The biggest concern is the sheer number of players they have that are just incredibly talented," Whittingham said, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I don't think there's a coach in the Pac-12 that will argue that USC doesn't have the best talent in the conference. That's just how it is year in and year out."

If USC can play up to its potential, something the Trojans have already showed in the Arizona State win that followed the Stanford upset loss, then it is more than capable of ending Utah's undefeated run. It's a matter of execution.

 

The "post-Notre Dame" factor

USC could've easily folded last weekend at Notre Dame. The Trojans were a few days removed from a crazy saga in which their head coach took a leave of absence and then was fired amid a media firestorm.

But they didn't. Under Helton, USC played tough and hung with a playoff-contending Notre Dame team on the road for most of the night. As Bleacher Report's Bryan Fischer noted, USC looked like the preseason Top 10 team it was supposed to be this season.

While USC couldn't get the win, the Notre Dame game was still a step in the right direction for a program on shaky ground following Sarkisian's firing. It pressed through the weirdness of having a new interim head coach and looked like a totally different team from the one that lost to Washington.

Garry Paskwietz of WeAreSC.com wrote on ESPN.com regarding Helton:

Helton did a good job to keep a high level of focus to the preparation last week amid all the drama of a coaching switch, and it resulted in the Trojans being in the game in the fourth quarter. ... If Helton can get the team in the right frame of mind, there’s no question the talent on the USC roster is there to come away with the win.

Now things will start to feel more normal for the Trojans as they return to their home stadium this weekend. 

In 2013, USC rallied around interim head coach Ed Orgeron after a close loss on the road to Notre Dame. The Trojans went on to beat No. 5 Stanford in the Coliseum a few weeks later.

The turnaround will have to be shorter for USC this time if it's going to knock off a national title contender. But Helton's squad has home-field advantage, experience in tight games, talent and some momentum from a better-than-expected performance at Notre Dame.

If nothing else, at least the experts in Las Vegas still believe in the Trojans.

 

Unless otherwise noted, other statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting class rankings per 247Sports.

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

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USC Football: Why the Trojans Are Surprise Favorites vs. Undefeated Utah

It should go without saying—the folks out in Las Vegas usually know what they're doing when it comes to college football...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Brady Hoke Says He Wouldn't Have Punted on Final Play vs. Michigan State

Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke questioned Jim Harbaugh's decision to punt at the end of the game against Michigan State that ultimately led to a fumble and the Spartans' game-winning touchdown return as time expired. 

"Personally, if we have the No. 1 defense in the nation I'm going to test those guys," Hoke told his SiriusXM College Sports co-host, Mark Packer, during the pair's show on Tuesday, per Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News. "You've got to play to the strength of your football team, and the strength of the Michigan football team all year long has been their defense."

Hoke said he would have run the ball with De'Veon Smith in that situation or thrown a play-action pass, adding that he felt there were too many possible breakdowns that could occur on a punt. He also critiqued the punt formation.

"No. 1, I think the one gunner to the field should have been in a little bit more and if you're going to punt it there's ways to protect it a little better," he said.

Michigan faced a 4th-and-2 at the Michigan State 47-yard line with 10 seconds remaining as it lined up to punt. Going for it in that situation might have netted the first down, but it also could have given the ball back to Michigan State with good enough field position to attempt a Hail Mary into the end zone if the fourth-down conversion failed. 

And much like the fumbled snap on the punt, a snap or handoff exchange could have been botched as well had the team gone for it. A successful punt, meanwhile, would have buried Michigan State with poor field position, since the Spartans had all 11 men at the line of scrimmage. So an argument could be made that Harbaugh's decision was the more strategically sound one, though Hoke obviously disagrees.

Hoke spent four seasons as the head coach at Michigan, going 31-20 overall and 1-2 in bowl games. He led the 11-2 Wolverines to a victory in the 2011 Sugar Bowl during his best season in Ann Arbor. After the team limped to a 5-7 record last season, Hoke was fired and replaced by Harbaugh.

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Will Any Team Flip 4-Star RB Kareem Walker from Ohio State?

Running back Kareem Walker will move forward with multiple official visits while maintaining his commitment to Ohio State, he announced Wednesday morning (h/t ESPN's Tom VanHaaren).

The 4-star New Jersey prospect plans to spend time at Alabama, Arizona State and Ole Miss before returning to Columbus for a final campus trip. This development comes less than two weeks after he traveled to Michigan for his first official visit.

"I'm committed to Ohio State. ... These visits are to confirm I'm making the right choice for my future," Walker explained, via VanHaaren. 

Rated No. 1 overall among 2016 rushers in composite rankings, the DePaul Catholic High School (Wayne, New Jersey) standout declared his Buckeyes pledge during halftime of the team's national championship game victory:

Things remained relatively quiet regarding Walker's recruitment for quite a while afterward.

That changed in May, when he journeyed to Alabama and Auburn. Arizona State welcomed him to campus for an unofficial visit this summer, setting the stage for a return flight to Tempe.

Ole Miss emerges as another viable option the SEC, which matches the Big Ten Conference with two programs in play here. He joins tight end Isaac Nauta and offensive tackle Greg Little as top-ranked athletes at their respective positions expected to visit Oxford before settling on schools.

The Rebels already claim a commitment from 5-star quarterback and Elite 11 MVP Shea Patterson, so there is significant potential in place for head coach Hugh Freeze's 2016 offensive haul. 

Walker previously notified the Ohio State staff of his intentions. Never lacking for confidence on the recruiting trail, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer didn't distress.

"Coach Meyer and coach [Tony] Alford, the running backs coach, knew from the start I was taking all of my visits. Coach Meyer doesn’t have an issue with it. He’s confident these trips will confirm my wanting to attend Ohio State," Walker said, via Todderick Hunt of NJ.com.

The Buckeyes aren't lacking for backfield depth in this cycle, despite a recent decommitment from in-state playmaker George Hill. Ohio State holds pledges from Demario McCall, a dynamic athlete likely to land in an H-back role, and former Wisconsin commit Antonio Williams, who joined the class last weekend.

Williams and McCall combined to rush for 4,500 yards and 62 touchdowns in 2014. Despite their presence in the class, Ohio State is ardent about landing multiple backs who can handle the brunt of a heavy workload.

Walker made it a point to dispel any swirling notion he's attempting to dodge the crowd.

"All of this talk about another [running back] committing and me not wanting any competition is false," he stated in Wednesday's announcement. "I love competition ... every school has [running backs] and will sign one or more every year. ... That will only push to make me better."

Ohio State will likely lose superstar Ezekiel Elliott to the NFL draft after his junior season. He's accounted for 58 percent of the Buckeyes' total rushing yards through seven games this fall, so various players could be counted on to initially fill the void following his departure.

Alabama certainly wouldn't be an ideal choice if Walker was looking for a clearer path to playing time. The Crimson Tide signed top-ranked 2015 running back Damien Harris and hold commitments from three rushers rated 4-star or better in the 2016 and 2017 cycles. 

If you're searching for a coaching staff most capable of altering Walker's outlook, attention seemingly shifts to Ann Arbor. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh hosted him in the Big House earlier this month and is aided by current members of his latest recruiting class. 

Walker's trip was highlighted by a victory over Northwestern and the presence of multiple fellow New Jersey natives. Ron JohnsonBrad Hawkins and Ahmir Mitchell—all Wolverines commits from the Garden State—joined him.

"I think Kareem really liked the entire day," Johnson said. "The fans knew who he was. The players knew who he was. Everyone was showing him love."

Walker confirmed that he appreciated the environment in Ann Arbor, heating up recruiting tensions between the Buckeyes and Wolverines.

"I had a good trip to Michigan. It's the second time I've been there, but the first time with this staff," Walker said in a statement, via VanHaaren. "The game atmosphere was tremendous; fans really love the team. I enjoyed speaking with the coaches and meeting everyone."

Expect his peers to continue piling pressure on him to team up in college.

"He's a rare player. I need him with us at Michigan," Johnson said.

Mitchell in particular has peppered him with sales pitches lately on social media:

Ohio State is still the pacesetter 15 weeks shy of signing day. Regardless how Walker's upcoming official visits turn out, he maintains that Columbus is his final destination before putting pen to paper. 

Whether Walker calls the Buckeyes' facilities home for years to come remains a mystery. If he does eventually reverse course, expect his future experiences at Ohio State to occur in a maize-and-blue uniform.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

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Every Undefeated College Football Team's Top Commit and Biggest Recruiting Need

In both the AP Top 25 and the Coaches Poll, 14 of the 25 ranked teams are still undefeated as the season creeps closer to the month of November.

While it may pose a potential problem later in choosing the final four for the College Football Playoff, the goose egg on the end of the records of these teams can be silent recruiting tools for future targets. You can bet that many athletes are looking at today's records and predicting equal success—if not more success—when it's their turn to put on a college uniform.

All 14 undefeated teams currently have decent recruiting classes for 2016. Here's a look at which undefeated team is doing what. The teams are listed in order of their AP Top 25 ranking.

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Showdown vs. Kansas State Is a Statement Game for Charlie Strong, Texas

Texas' Week 8 game against Kansas State won't decide the Big 12 Championship or playoff positioning. In fact, it won't have any national relevance at all. Most people outside the respective fanbases will do little more than check the score at the bottom of their television screen or on their phone.

However, the K-State game could be the biggest statement Charlie Strong's team makes this season. For what it's worth, the Longhorns have beaten the Wildcats once in the last seven meetings (2013).

This isn't meant to diminish the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Rivalry games are always important metrics by which head coaches are judged, and if Texas did one thing right in 2015, it was beat the Sooners 24-17.

And it was a necessary win at that. With Texas at 1-4 and coming off a 50-7 loss to TCU, severaloutlets were wondering whether Strong was actually the guy to turn things around for the Longhorns. There were off-field distractions and a report of a divided locker room.

Beating Oklahoma was derived from a team coming together to overcome all of those obstacles and concentrating on a single goal.

But if the Oklahoma game was really a turning point for Strong and the Longhorns program, it can't be the only time Texas plays to the best of its ability. That's why Saturday's game against the Wildcats is crucial.

First and foremost, Texas will be the healthiest it's been in a few weeks, and it has to take advantage of that.

Among the players returning will be offensive lineman Kent Perkins, per Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman. Perkins had been dealing with a knee issue since the Oklahoma State game, and the Horns offense suffered against the Cowboys as a result.

Secondly, against Oklahoma, Texas showed it can limit mistakes and play smart, fast and physical football. The Horns committed no turnovers, had just five penalties and went 9-of-16 on third down while allowing just three of 12 third-down conversions.

It was the best Texas has played in a single game from start to finish since Strong took over the program. Now, can it do it again?

Self-inflicted wounds have been one of Texas' myriad issues under Strong. In the two losses where Texas did have a chance to win (Cal and Oklahoma State), the Horns combined for three turnovers and 26 penalties—though officiating in the Oklahoma State game was noticeably horrible.

Special teams blunders also played a huge role. Nick Rose missed the would-be tying extra point against the Golden Bears, and a mishandled punt gave Oklahoma State the opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal.

By comparison, Kansas State ranks No. 1 in the Big 12 in fewest penalty yards per game, though the Wildcats haven't done as well at holding on to the ball in the past two games against TCU and Oklahoma.

However, Strong doesn't expect to see that same undisciplined K-State team this Saturday, per CBS Austin's Bob Ballou:

There are also areas Texas has to show continued improvement in that don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet.

Missed tackles led to poor third-down defensive numbers up to the Oklahoma game, but Texas' defense made tremendous strides on that front against the Sooners. Quarterback Jerrod Heard also showed moments of greater awareness and decision-making.

In short, Texas has to replicate the same edge, intensity and focus everyone saw in the Oklahoma game. That's the only way to know whether the Longhorns have actually turned a corner or they just got amped for a rivalry game.

It'll be the same story in the following games against Iowa State, Kansas, West Virginia and so on.

As defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told reporters on Wednesday, it's about finding the confidence to keep playing well:

If 2015 is going to go any differently than Strong's first season in 2014, Texas needs to build off its momentum.

The only time Texas won more than one game at a time last year was in November, when it beat Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks. However, Texas followed that up by losing to TCU 48-10 and Arkansas in the Texas Bowl 30-7.

The bottom line for Strong is he needs to get Texas to a bowl game. When you have a young team and you're building for the future, those extra bowl practices can go a long way in propelling things forward.

To accomplish that, the Longhorns need to win four of their next six games. With all due respect to Iowa State and Kansas—though Ames, Iowa is a known stumbling ground for Big 12 opponents—Texas should be able to grab a pair of victories there.

Provided it takes care of business, Texas would have four more games in which it needs to find two more wins.

But like the Cal and Oklahoma State games before, Texas will probably end up on the wrong side of the win-loss column if it can't get out of its own way again. The K-State game will go a long way in determining whether the Longhorns really have started the turnaround under Strong or this is just the same old Texas.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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