NCAA Football

Wisconsin Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

With opening day rapidly approaching in their marquee matchup against LSU, the Wisconsin football team is looking to build off last year's relatively disappointing 9-4 campaign.

Gone is Chris Borland, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a four year starter for the Badgers. Gone is James White, the steady hand in the passing game who also contributed 1,444 yards on the ground last season. Gone is Jared Abbrederis, seemingly the only threat in the passing game for the past two years other than the occasional Jeff Duckworth grab. Duckworth is also gone.

While it may seem as if the Badgers are totally decimated, they still have plenty of strengths and a piece or two that no one is talking about.  Without further ado, let's look at the Badgers' strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons.

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Michigan Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

In order for a freshman to start on a college football team, said athlete must be better than "good," he must be exemplary. 

But you knew that.

However, it takes a special breed to truly earn a No. 1 role in the Big Ten; and due to the strong recruiting efforts by coach Brady Hoke, Michigan may have more than one newcomer who could jump right into the rotation. 

This slideshow will certainly include that one guy, but it'll dig a little deeper and analyze a few of the other potential true-frosh starters at UM. For the sake of clarity, 247Sports' database of Michigan's 2014 class will serve as the go-to for players' rankings. However, MGoBlue will be the source of heights and weights

 

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Alabama Football: Can Tide Defense Generate Turnovers in 2014?

There are four players on the 2014 University of Alabama football team who recorded at least one interception last year. There are five overall if you include the previous season. 

Meanwhile, the only three players who had fumble returns in 2013 are all back, while an additional remaining player had a recovery.

There are essentially the same players in both turnover categories: safety Landon Collins, linebacker Trey DePriest, cornerback Eddie Jackson and linebacker Dillon Lee (he had the 2012 interception). Cornerback Cyrus Jones had two picks but never came up with a loose ball.

While the numbers appear to be a little surprising, they’re the kind of statistics that can be typical of a defense that needs to replace at least seven starters.

However, that kind of turnover isn’t unusual for the talent-rich Crimson Tide defense, which had safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Adrian Hubbard, defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, and safety Vinnie Sunseri leave early for the National Football League in addition to the seniors.

Which then leads to the question, how can Alabama be expected to generate turnovers this season?

It’s something the Crimson Tide struggled with last season, when they tied for 80th nationally out of 123 teams in turnovers gained.

We’ll start with fumbles, since they’re especially unpredictable. Since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama has only had three players force more than two fumbles in a single season: Courtney Upshaw with four in 2010 and Eryk Anders and Hubbard with three in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Considering that fumble recoveries are such a right-time, right-place thing, it’s not surprising that no Alabama player has recovered three in a season during that same time span, although Collins, DePreist and Jackson all had two in 2013.

 

Year: Fumbles, fumbles recovered

2007: 15-5
2008: 20-10
2009: 17-7
2010: 19-4
2011: 18-7
2012: 24-11
2013: 20-8
Averages: 19.0-7.4

As for interceptions, Alabama had its worst showing of the Saban era, which at least partially reflects the Crimson Tide’s problems at cornerback last season. At one spot, Deion Belue was trying to play through an injury, while the other resembled a game of musical chairs.

 

Interceptions by year

2007: 19
2008: 15
2009: 24
2010: 22
2011: 13
2012: 18
2013: 11
Average: 17.4

During the seven seasons before Saban’s arrival, Alabama averaged 12.4 interceptions, with a low of six in 2001 and high of 18 in 2002. Those were also pretty good defenses under the direction of coordinator Joe Kines, finishing second nationally in total defense in 2004 and in the top nine of every major statistical category in 2005.

Before Saban, the last time the Crimson Tide had at least 20 interceptions in a single season were the 22 recorded in 1992, the most recent national championship prior to 2009. The program record is 25 (1979).

In comparison, Saban’s Michigan State teams averaged 12.4 picks (with a high of 15 in 1995) and his LSU squads 15.2 (21 in 2003). So, despite last year the coach had enjoyed his most success in that statistical category at Alabama.

Arkansas and Ole Miss can especially attest to that, as they’ve been the opponents Alabama has notched the most interceptions against since 2007.

 

Teams Alabama plays every year

Team, Interceptions
Arkansas: 15
Ole Miss: 15
LSU: 11
Tennessee: 10
Mississippi State: 8
Auburn: 5
Texas A&M: 2*

*The Tide and Aggies have only played twice as division rivals

 

Non-division SEC opponents

Florida: 5
Georgia: 4
Kentucky: 4
Vanderbilt: 3
Missouri: 2
South Carolina: 2

Florida, of course, is on the schedule this season.

The guess here is that opponents will initially challenge Alabama’s young cornerbacks, but as they improve opponents will go after the new safety next to Collins. Something similar occurred both in 2010, when Robert Lester made eight interceptions—the most of any Saban-coached player in a single season—and in 2012 when Clinton-Dix had five. 

As for who might eventually make the most turnovers, it’s almost always a safety in Saban’s defense, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is back as the position coach after handling the interior linebackers for three seasons.

“He just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position and he knows what’s going on; it’s his defense,” Collins said about Smart this spring. “So basically, it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step by step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Consequently, the junior is the clear front-runner, especially since he led the Crimson Tide in turnovers gained last year despite not being a starter the first month.

“He's gotten stronger, faster and has more knowledge of the defense,” Saban said. “Landon's certainly a guy who is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it. I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader, set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“When he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him.”

 

Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics were compiled by the author from University of Alabama and other annual team statistics. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

Follow @CrimsonWalsh

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Auburn's Latest Run of Commits Is Nice, but Alabama Is Still King of Recruiting

It was "two for Tuesday" on the Plains.

While the local rock stations were cranking out back-to-back hits from the same artist, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was busy reeling in two big commitments over intrastate rival Alabama.

Tyler Carr, a 4-star prospect, got the morning started off right for the Tigers, committing at his high school in Gadsden, Alabama, over the Crimson Tide, according to Keith Niebuhr of Auburn Undercover.

“I've always kind of gone with my gut feeling. And my gut feeling kind of just led me to Auburn," Carr told Niebuhr. "They’re both great programs, and at the end of the day I had to follow my gut, and it was telling me to go to Auburn.”

Not to be outdone, Jalen Harris—a 3-star prospect from St. James School in Montgomery, Alabama—also chose the Tigers over the Crimson Tide, a program he grew up a fan of, according to Niebuhr. The 6'5" 244-pounder has a big frame and good hands, and he will be a tremendous weapon in Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

The big day brought Auburn up to 17 total pledges in the class of 2015 and all the way up to the No. 5 spot in 247Sports' latest team recruiting rankings. 

Four spots ahead of the Tigers, though, are the Alabama Crimson Tide. That won't change anytime soon.

Head coach Nick Saban has 19 total commits in next year's class and a commanding lead on Texas A&M and the rest of the college football world in the quest to claim a fifth straight recruiting national championship.

That won't change.

Former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said it best prior to his team's game with the Crimson Tide in 2012.

"They draft, we recruit," he said, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "And they get the first 25 picks of the draft."

Now, that's not entirely accurate, of course. Some prospects who are considering the Crimson Tide will sign elsewhere.

But the recruiting prowess of Saban and his staff coupled with the success Alabama has had in the NFL draft—41 picks over the last six years, according to Michael Casagrande of AL.com—will prevent Auburn or any team from knocking Alabama off its recruiting throne.

Besides, if any coach in America can close strong, it's Saban and the Crimson Tide.

The Tide famously flipped one-time Auburn commit T.J. Yeldon shortly before Christmas in 2011 and then followed that up the next year by signing one-time Auburn commit and Auburn High School linebacker Reuben Foster. This past recruiting season, the Crimson Tide again found success in enemy territory, signing 5-star linebacker Rashaan Evans out of Auburn High School.

Could that happen again? It has happened each of the last three years, so at least one high-profile flip should be expected.

Unless Saban, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and the rest of that staff forget how to recruit, Auburn isn't going to knock the Tide off its perch as the king of college football recruiting.

Nobody will.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

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Georgia vs. Notre Dame Home-and-Home Is Great News for College Football Fans

All of the talk about eight-game schedules, nine-game schedules and the impact of the College Football Playoff on top-tier out-of-conference games doesn't seem to faze Notre Dame or Georgia.

The rumored home-and-home series between the Fighting Irish and Bulldogs came to fruition on Wednesday, when the two schools announced meetings in South Bend on Sept. 9, 2017 and in Athens on Sept. 21, 2019.

"This series will generate an overwhelming level of excitement for our student-athletes and supporters," said Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity in a statement. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for Notre Dame and look forward to the start of this memorable experience."

Notre Dame begins its loose partnership in football with the ACC this year, and athletics director Jack Swarbrick is pleased to add an SEC foe to its future schedules.

"One exception was the Southeastern Conference, so we are pleased now to be able to check that box," he said in a statement. "These will be two contests that will have great national appeal, in part because our only previous matchup came in a bowl game."

That matchup came in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, where Georgia topped Notre Dame 17-10 to claim the 1980 national title.

The meeting is another sign that, while some schools may choose to soften up their out-of-conference schedules from time to time, the College Football Playoff will still provide plenty of intriguing matchups.

Bryan Fischer of NFL.com points out some of the notable games on the docket for 2017.

Some 2017 non-conference FB games: UGa-ND, USC-Texas, UCLA-Texas A&M, Oregon-Nebraska, UF-Michigan, Ohio St-Oklahoma

— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) June 25, 2014

For Georgia, that 2017 schedule will be a bear.

The intrastate rivalry with Georgia Tech will also be on the road, leaving Georgia only six possible home games in 2017 (the neutral-site Florida game counts as a road game in odd-numbered years). The Bulldogs will draw Auburn on the road in their permanent cross-division rivalry, and Ole Miss at home. If the Rebels keep recruiting at the level they currently are, look out.

Notre Dame has road games at Michigan State and Stanford highlighting its 2017 slate, and games at Texas, at Stanford and vs. USC highlighting its 2019 schedule.

Scheduling tough opponents didn't seem to matter for either program. In fact, judging from the plans they already had in place for the 2017 and 2019 seasons, they embraced the treacherous path.

Will that sit well with the playoff selection committee?

That remains to be seen. If strength of schedule becomes a priority over other factors like conference titles (which it should), absolutely. 

Georgia would love to run the table and win the SEC, which would all but assure the Bulldogs a spot in the College Football Playoff every year. But if that doesn't happen, beefing up that strength of schedule to leave no doubt of claiming any possible second spot for an SEC school is imperative.

Notre Dame doesn't have a conference title to fall back on, so a tough path will benefit the Irish more if it doesn't run the table.

What's great about this matchup, though, is that what it means to the playoff didn't matter. It's impossible to know what specific factors will be at play until the committee sits down and chooses the top four teams for real.

Notre Dame vs. Georgia will be must-see television between two traditional college football powers. That's what matters.

All of the other stuff, like how it will play with the selection committee, is secondary.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All future scheduling information is courtesy of FBSchedules.com.

 


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The 15 Best Defensive Coordinators in College Football

Offenses—along with any potential rule changes designed to slow them down—have been the talk of college football this offseason, but the old adage about the other side of the ball winning championships has never been more true.

Last year's national champion, Florida State, finished No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, passing defense and Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings. The two national champions before that—both times the Alabama Crimson Tide—finished No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (along with total defense) as well.

The offensive renaissance in college football has not been overblown, but it also hasn't made offense the most important unit on the field.

Au contraire, it has actually shined an even brighter light on the men running each program's defense. The only thing more important than having one of these new-fangled, high-scoring offenses is having someone capable of slowing them down.

In looking for the 15 best defensive coordinators in college football, a number of factors were considered. Historical, time-tested success was obviously preferred over a one- or two-year wonder, but because of the offensive innovation in college football, recent years were weighted more heavily than older ones.

Their results are more germane.

Also of note: First-year coordinators such as Charles Kelly at Florida State were not considered for the list. Regardless of how they fared as positional coaches, it would be unfair to project that onto a new role—and to list them over someone who is proven—with no resume.

Sound off below, and let me know who I missed.

 

Note: All defensive F/+ rankings—an opponent-adjusted metric that was featured heavily in this list—come courtesy of Football Outsiders.

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Notre Dame Football: Irish, Georgia Announce Home-and-Home Series

It has been almost a decade since Notre Dame last played an SEC opponent in the regular season. After the Irish's 41-21 victory over Tennessee in 2005, Notre Dame and the SEC have not crossed paths outside of two BCS bowl meetings.

That changed Wednesday, when Georgia confirmed heavy speculation that the Bulldogs and the Irish would meet in a home-and-home series, via Georgia's official athletic website. Georgia will travel to South Bend on Sept. 9, 2017, with Notre Dame making a return trip to Athens on Sept. 21, 2019.

"Playing Notre Dame will be an honor and a great challenge for us," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "I have a lot of respect for the job Coach Kelly is doing there and I'm sure college football fans across the country will enjoy watching our two teams compete."

The two teams have met just once, in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, when the Bulldogs defeated the Irish 17-10 to claim their second national championship. Despite playing nonconference road games against ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 teams in recent years, Georgia has not ventured into the Midwest since 1965, when it defeated Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In the past quarter-century, Notre Dame has faced Tennessee six times in the regular season and LSU and Vanderbilt twice, sporting a 7-3 record against the SEC in regular-season games. The Irish went 3-3 against the Volunteers and swept home-and-home series with the Tigers and the Commodores.

The Irish have dropped all three bowl meetings against the SEC in that time—the 1997 Independence Bowl to LSU, the 2007 Sugar Bowl to LSU and the 2013 BCS National Championship Game to Alabama.

While SEC teams were mandated earlier this year to begin playing at least one major opponent each season beginning in 2016, Georgia already plays Georgia Tech each season. Adding Notre Dame was seen as an additional opportunity for Georgia to increase its strength of schedule on top of its eight SEC games and rivalry with the Yellow Jackets.

For Notre Dame, this gives the Irish an additional opportunity to gain exposure in the South, where they have ramped up recruiting efforts under Brian Kelly. The Irish have signed TJ Jones, Stephon Tuitt and Isaac Rochell from Georgia in the Kelly era.

Ultimately, the biggest winners are college football fans. Intersectional matchups at campus sites have declined in an era in which most major programs demand seven home games or another cash cow, such as a neutral-site game in an NFL stadium. We now have a highly intriguing one to look forward to at the end of this decade. 

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Power Ranking Oregon's Positional Units for 2014

An offense of unmatched versatility characterizes the 2014 Oregon Ducks. Not surprisingly, the perennial Pac-12 contenders feature some of the best offensive units in the nation, including a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback and a stout offensive line paving his way. 

The defensive outlook is not as clear. There are plenty of changes in store for this year's squad, which loses half of its starters from the 2013 defense. 

Nevertheless, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is working with strengths on both sides of the ball. His staff faces questions, as well. 

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Power Ranking Oregon's Positional Units for 2014

An offense of unmatched versatility characterizes the 2014 Oregon Ducks. Not surprisingly, the perennial Pac-12 contenders feature some of the best offensive units in the nation, including ...

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Miami Hurricanes Hype Video Shows Players Working out with Strobe Lights and DJ

Listening to music during workouts helps players stay focused, so Miami Hurricanes coach Al Golden decided to try something a bit unusual for a weightlifting session. The coach put strobe lights in the weight room and brought in a DJ to spin some tunes while the players lifted.

Of course, putting a team in an environment like that will inevitably lead to a dance-off. Hopefully, all of the lifting had been completed by that point.

Golden has no regrets about turning the weight room into a club-like atmosphere:

The unusual workout led to a pretty cool hype video. Golden has to be hoping that his fun methods are enough to get the Hurricanes back to the top of the college football world.

 

[CanesAllAccess, Al Golden; h/t College Spun]

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Raise Puts Bob Stoops over $5 Million Mark, Why He Is Worth Every Penny

While athletes are fighting just to get a piece of the revenue pie, coaching salaries in college football are only getting higher. 

The latest coach to land a raise is Oklahoma's Bob Stoops. According to Ryan Aber and Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman, university regents approved Stoops' new salary on Wednesday as part of a bigger athletic announcement that included major facility upgrades. 

The exact terms of Stoops' new contract are still being published, but the important number is that Stoops will make $5 million a year. 

The news comes a day after Aber reported that a raise was coming Stoops' way: 

Last year, Stoops had his contract extended through the 2020 season but the financial terms of the deal remained the same.

With the raise, Stoops is likely to surpass $5 million annually, moving into an exclusive group amongst college football coaches.

The $5 million club, while still a major benchmark among college coaches, is becoming ever so diluted. Alabama coach Nick Saban recently inked his nearly $7 million deal and Texas head coach Charlie Strong is already making $5 million without having coached a down of actual football for the Longhorns. 

Nevertheless, $5 million is nothing to scoff at. Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M is the only other head coach making that kind of money. Still, only Saban is more accomplished than Stoops in the $5 million group.

Saban has won a combined four national titles at Alabama and LSU. Stoops has one with the Sooners, though his program has two more national championship appearances. 

But Stoops has also won eight Big 12 championships and produced 65 NFL draftees (13 first-rounders). Last season, he moved past Barry Switzer to become the winningest coach in Oklahoma history (160-39 career record). 

In all, Stoops has led the Sooners to double-digit wins in 12 of his 15 seasons in Norman. Even at a perennial power like Oklahoma, that's tough to do. Since last year's team was nowhere near Stoops' best, it's amazing he got 11 wins out of them. 

The "Big Game Bob" nickname is corny, but Stoops has done what few others actually have—and all at the same school, no less. Among coaches in the five major conferences, only Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer have been at the same place longer (via Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports). 

For Stoops to be hitting the $5 million mark now? Perhaps it's a bit surprising it took this long. In that sense, Stoops has quietly—if you can believe that—cemented himself as one of the all-time greats. 

Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, formerly of CBS Sports, even mentioned Stoops as an "underrated" coach in March: 

Stoops revitalized the OU program, won a national title, has spawned a bunch of head coaches and has still won over 80 percent of his games. People can take shots at the "Big Game Bob" moniker, but keep in mind he's beaten arch-rival Texas 64 percent of the time; he was 7-1 in the Big 12 title game; 11-2 against in-state rival OSU and he's 50-23 all-time against ranked opponents. That's pretty strong. Not bad for a program that had gone about a decade without a double-digit win season before Stoops showed up.

Calling Stoops underrated doesn't flow off the tongue well, but it actually makes sense. As odd as it sounds, it can be easy to forget all that Stoops has accomplished because he "only" has one national title on his head coaching resume. 

Whether he wins another one in his coaching lifetime remains to be seen. That will not, however, reflect how he's viewed in Oklahoma and college football history when he finally decides to blow his whistle for the final time.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report.

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How Maryland Is Shocking Everybody on the 2015 Recruiting Trail

Expectations were clear when Randy Edsall arrived in College Park in 2011. Fresh off an improbable BCS bowl run at Connecticut, he replaced reigning ACC Coach of the Year Ralph Friedgen as the program aimed to improve from "good to great," in the words of Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson.

The transition didn't go according to plan, as Edsall dropped 14 of his first 17 conference games, including a 63-0 loss at Florida State in the 2013 ACC opener. The Terrapins steadily gained stability last fall, capitalizing on crucial road victories at Virginia Tech and North Carolina State to reach a bowl game for the first time in three years. 

Maryland enters its fourth season of the Edsall era in uncharted territory, becoming a new kid on the block in Big Ten Conference circles. The move, and some key coaching changes, have restored a sense of excitement more than three months before Ohio State comes to town for the team's Big Ten home opener.

Cornerback Kareem Ali, who committed to Maryland earlier this month over the likes of Louisville, Pittsburgh and Florida, sums up the sentiment.

"They're on the come up," the New Jersey native said.

The only way to acquire respect in a new conference is to stockpile victories, but Maryland is already making new foes feel its presence on the recruiting trail.

Ali is one of 14 prospects who have pledged to the Terrapins since May 23. Edsall carries as much momentum in his 2015 class as any coach in America right now, evidenced by 12 commitments during a 17-day stretch in June.

"I think they all see the same thing I do in Maryland—that we can do something special," said Mbi Tanyi, a Texas defensive end who committed the same day as Ali. "It's great to take a look at all these new commits almost every day and see that they're really solid players."

The Terrapins secured just a single commitment in the 2015 class—4-star offensive guard E.J. Donahue—before late May. The group began to blossom during the final stretch of spring and continues to add talent as summer recruiting heats up.

Delaware cornerback Darnell Savage committed Monday. In-state offensive tackle Will McClain chose Maryland over West Virginia on Tuesday.

The class is rated 23rd nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings. It's listed at No. 5 in the 14-team Big Ten, and only Penn State currently claims more 2015 pledges among conference members.

Edsall's commitments come from nine different states, displaying a broad reach beyond state borders.

"They're from all over the country, which really excites me," Ohio offensive lineman Mason Zimmerman said. "I'm looking forward to getting together with these guys from different areas and trying to do big things at Maryland."

Zimmerman, rated 15th nationally among centers in 247Sports' composite rankings, received interest from other Big Ten programs like Illinois and Northwestern. He cited new offensive line coach Greg Studrawa as a key factor in his decision.

"Coach Strud has a great personality," Zimmerman said. "He's super funny and really knows how to work with players. He's been successful for a long time, and I think I can learn a lot from him."

Studrawa spent the past seven seasons at LSU, including two as offensive coordinator. Another addition to Edsall's coaching staff is also drawing rave reviews from recruits.

Former NFL standout Keenan McCardell, a two-time Super Bowl champion who caught 883 passes for more than 11,000 yards during his career, took over as wide receivers coach this year. He built a football resume that commands respect, and at 44 years old, McCardell is young enough for current prospects to recognize.

"Coach Keenan played in the NFL for a lot of years," Maryland target Irvin Charles said. "He knows, from a receiver's perspective, what it takes to get to the next level. I'm going to college to get coached up, not to stay the same. I feel like being coached by him for the next three or four years would be a great thing to do to prepare for the draft."

Charles, who lists the Terrapins in his top seven, is a 4-star receiver from New Jersey. Maryland is competing with South Carolina, Florida, Penn State, Michigan State, Louisville and Miami for his commitment.

Edsall has a little help from an unofficial recruiter.

"Me and Irv are friends," said Ali, who plans to return to College Park for a visit with Charles soon.

Charles isn't the only top-tier offensive playmaker intrigued by Maryland.

Prolific Florida running back Ray-Ray McCloud will make his second trip to Maryland later this month. Clemson, Florida, USC, UCLA and several other squads are after the 4-star prospect, who appreciates the program's leap to the Big Ten.

"I think it gives the team a better chance to compete for a national championship," McCloud said. "Now they're looking to bring in players who can help the team get there. It's a good atmosphere."

Maryland hopes key in-state pickups like 2014 5-star signee Damian Prince and a regionally diverse haul like the one in this cycle can start the ball rolling in that direction.

Tanyi, who has added eight offers since Maryland extended his first scholarship, thinks the team is ready to take on the challenge.

"The Big Ten move is a huge deal," he said. "I'm the kind of person who wants to play a tough schedule and prove myself against the best. Maryland moving into the Big Ten gives me a chance to do that. If our class continues to get better with guys who feel the same way, we can make a big impact in the conference."

Increased recruiting success is a positive sign, but Maryland still has a long way to go until national signing day. How the program performs during its inaugural Big Ten campaign could determine whether this class continues to improve or eventually implodes.

Many fans remain unsure of whether the Terrapins' leader can take this team from good to great, but don't count Ali among them.

"I trust Coach Edsall," he said. "The coaching staff is excellent. They want to bring that 'Maryland Pride' back, and I want to be a part of it."

Clearly, Ali isn't alone.

 

Recruit information and rating courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

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Notre Dame's Sophomore Stars Carry 2014 Season on Their Shoulders

Notre Dame will move forward in 2014 with a drastically different football team than we've seen in previous years. Gone are coordinators Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco. Also departed is the veteran core of the team, as eight players were selected in the 2014 NFL draft, making a total of 14 over the past two seasons. 

Notre Dame's five players selected in the first three rounds (seven over the past two drafts) gives you an idea of the talent drain that's hit Brian Kelly's roster. But it's also far from dire straits in South Bend. With a roster as loaded from top to bottom as we've seen since the Lou Holtz era, the Irish may be inexperienced—they rank 100th in the country in returning starters—but they are talented.

No group represents that more than the sophomore class. After being ranked the sixth-best recruiting class in the 2013 cycle by 247Sports.com, these true sophomores will be counted on to play an important role for Kelly's squad next season. 

Let's focus on five rising stars who will carry the fate of the 2014 season on their shoulders. 

 

Jaylon Smith

There's no more vital player on the Irish defense than Smith. After filling the stat sheet and making 67 tackles from the "Dog" linebacker position, Smith's move inside in Brian VanGorder's system is just one reason why people are expecting a monster season from him. 

Blessed with elite speed and athleticism, Notre Dame hasn't had a defensive player as physically gifted as Smith in a very long time. He showed that when he stepped in front of USC star Nelson Agholor to make a game-changing interception. He proved it wreaking havoc in the backfield against Arizona State. Given an opportunity to lead, Smith's summer is crucial both on and off the field.

Notre Dame's depth behind Smith at linebacker is filled with inexperience and question marks. But the Irish have an All-American candidate in Smith who has an opportunity to be one of the greats to put on an Irish uniform.

 

Steve Elmer

After enrolling early as a freshman, Elmer was thrust into action after Christian Lombard went down with a back injury at right guard. Elmer played in 10 games for the Irish, starting four in Lombard's place. Credit the young offensive lineman for having the mental fortitude to learn a new position and the physical prowess to hold his own in the trenches.

Elmer will learn another in 2014, shifting into Chris Watt's left guard spot. Even though he was a highly recruited left tackle prospect (he won the Anthony Munoz Award for the top lineman at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl), Elmer is once again changing positions to help the Irish get the team's best five linemen on the field. 

Not many college guards are 6'5.5", 317 pounds. But Elmer's move to left guard, a key position in the Irish's offensive scheme, shows his versatility and will allow Mike McGlinchey to play his natural right tackle position. 

 

Corey Robinson

Many wondered if Robinson was even a legitimate Division I wide receiver when Notre Dame offered the below-the-radar San Antonio prospect best known for his NBA Hall of Fame father. But after seeing Robinson dazzle during spring practice and put together a solid freshman season, he looks poised to be one of the breakout performers in Kelly's spread offense. 

Robinson played in all 13 games last season, starting three. While his nine catches for 157 yards is a relatively meager total, he gave fans glimpses of the player he's set to become. No game showed that more than against Michigan State. Against one of the nation's stingiest defenses, Robinson brought down three key catches, leading the Irish with 57 yards in a game where the 15-yard pass interference flag was the team's best mode of transportation. 

The Irish haven't had a receiving weapon like Robinson since Kelly arrived in South Bend. After Everett Golson showed a reliance on All-American Tyler Eifert in one-on-one matchups, Robinson could be used the same way, with defenses unable to double him with DaVaris Daniels and Will Fuller on the field at the same time.

 

Max Redfield

Kelly kick-started the Redfield era at safety in the Pinstripe Bowl, pushing the little-used freshman into the starting lineup after coaching him hard during the month of bowl preparation. While he only made two tackles against Rutgers, it was a visible signal that Kelly believed that Redfield was the future at the position. 

Redfield was a 5-star recruit but struggled to make an immediate impact for the Irish in 2013. That was likely a product of the team's defensive system putting a ton of responsibility on the safety position and Redfield unable to earn the trust needed to be the last line of defense. But after a strong spring practice, those duties are ready to be hoisted onto the sophomore's shoulders, as the Irish desperately need an athlete like Redfield monitoring the back line. 

VanGorder's defensive system will feature a lot of man coverage in the secondary. An athlete like Redfield should be able to thrive in that situation, either in coverage or providing an umbrella over the top. 

We saw very little of Redfield in the annual Blue-Gold game. That's likely the ultimate compliment from Kelly, not wanting to get Redfield nicked up...or let opponents get a good look at him. 

 

Tarean Folston

Greg Bryant may have stolen most of the spring headlines, but Folston is poised to be the best running back the Irish have had since Kelly took over in South Bend. The 207-pound sophomore averaged 5.3 yards per carry during his freshman season, leading the team in rushing over the last six games. 

Capable of breaking the big play and showing impressive vision for a true freshman, Folston worked through a few minor injuries before hitting his stride with a big game against Navy. With the depth chart whittled down to just Folston, Bryant and senior Cam McDaniel, it means more opportunities for Folston to get in rhythm, something we saw against the Midshipmen and Rutgers.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Folston's game has only been seen in the spring game, when he caught five passes in the first half of action. That matched his season total from his freshman season and would help break open a much-needed screen pass game.

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Justin Hilliard Odds: Where Will Monster 5-Star LB Land?

Justin Hilliard is a 5-star linebacker who has the potential to make an impact immediately at the collegiate level. He has the size and athleticism that every program is looking for at the LB position.

With only a few schools left on his radar, it may surprise you where he is leaning towards. Which program do you think has the best chance at landing this monster?

Watch Adam Kramer make his predictions on Hilliard's commitment.

 

Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital

Rankings from 247Sports Composite

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LSU Football: Power Ranking Tigers' Positional Units for 2014

LSU is annually one of the most complete teams in college football. Les Miles has had, more often than not, supreme talent at every position during his tenure in Baton Rouge. 

But some position groups are stronger than others. 

LSU's most reputable positions in years past have been defensive line, defensive back and running back. But in 2013, the Tigers were a Jeremy Hill dismissal away from being average in all three units. 

Will they make a resurgence in 2014? Find out here in this preview of LSU's strongest positions. 

 

*Recruiting rankings, stats and additional information provided by 247Sports.comcfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information

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Michigan Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

Last season’s disappointing 7-6 record forced Brady Hoke to make big offseason changes to get Michigan back on track. Gone is offensive coordinator Al Borges, replaced with great fanfare by Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama. He also shuffled the responsibilities of his defensive coaches in hopes of solidifying a defense that surrendered late leads to Penn State and Iowa besides giving up over a hundred combined points to Indiana (63) and Ohio State (42).

Here’s a look at Michigan’s strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons heading into the 2014 season.

 

Strengths

Defensive Playmakers

Michigan has legitimate all-conference talent at all three levels of its defense.

Talented linebacker Jake Ryan is fully recovered from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the early part of last season. Ryan is moving to the inside linebacker position to get him involved in more plays. Hoke believes that teams purposely ran plays away from him when he was lined up at outside linebacker last season.

Defensive end Frank Clark was All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) last season with 43 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles. Opposing teams will need to account for Clark on every play or pay the price.

Defensive back Blake Countess was also All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) with 46 tackles, 2.0 TFLs and one interception returned for a touchdown last season. Expectations are high for Countess, and he has been awarded the hallowed No. 2 jersey made famous by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.

Add to the mix top recruit Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan defense is prepared to carry this team while the offense develops.

 

Running Back Depth

Last season, Michigan’s best running play was quarterback Devin Gardner scrambling for his life. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint was technically the top running back, but the running attack didn’t really find balance until Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith joined the fray late in the season.

This year, both Green and Smith are poised to battle for carries at the top of the depth chart, with Justice Hayes positioned to be the third-down back. All three backs have shown the potential to run the ball with power and speed with Hayes being the surprise of the spring scrimmage.

There’s no word yet on whether transfer Ty Isaac will be eligible this season. If he is, the battle at running back could be a four-player race.

 

Leadership

Michigan has strong leaders on both offense and defense who can inspire their teammates to battle back from last season’s collapse.

Quarterback Devin Gardner played most of the second half versus Ohio State with a leg injury that ended his season and put him on crutches for nearly two months. He also was mercilessly pounded behind an offensive line that could be best be described as porous. Gardner may struggle with the new offense, but he is the unquestioned leader of this team.

Linebacker Jake Ryan’s recovery last season from a spring ACL injury was practically miraculous. He’s a great player but his hard work to overcome an injury that would have caused most players to miss the entire season was an inspiration for his teammates. 

 

Weaknesses

The Schedule

The schedule-makers did Michigan no favors this season sending the Wolverines on the road to face all three of its major rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State). Michigan has struggled on the road under Hoke and will face an uphill struggle to change that trend this season.

 

New Offense

Rolling out a new offense is always a challenge, but offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has several hurdles to clear this season.

While quarterback Devin Gardner is the unquestioned leader of the team, he needs to show that he’s fully recovered from a leg injury that caused him to miss the bowl game. Gardner looked a little rusty during Michigan’s spring scrimmage, and he needs to prove that he's the best quarterback for the new offense.

The team also needs to completely restock at the wide receiver position with Devin Funchess being the sole returning healthy player with significant receptions from last year. Tight end Jake Butt’s loss to injury will be felt both as a receiver and a blocker until his expected return by the start of the Big Ten schedule.

And these are just minor problems compared to…

 

Offensive Line

But the biggest weakness of this team is the offensive line. The position group struggled last season and now needs to replace its two best players, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who have gone on to the NFL.

The offseason has not been kind, with expected starter Graham Glasgow’s arrest causing him to be suspended for the season opener and the loss of Chris Bryant to career ending injuries.

Brady Hoke needs to find some combination of Erik Magnuson, Glasgow, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis, Mason Cole and Ben Braden that can run block and protect quarterback Devin Gardner as he acclimates to the new offense.

 

Secret Weapons

Running Back Justice Hayes

Hayes isn’t mentioned much, with most of the attention going to fellow backs Green, Smith and the newly transferred Ty Isaac, but his blocking ability could make him a significant factor as Michigan attempts to reestablish the run game. With expected problems on the offensive line, blocking might be the deciding factor that determines reps at running back.

 

Wide Receiver Freddy Canteen

Canteen dominated spring practice and looks poised to seize reps at wide receiver. The true freshman made a strong impression on coaches and fellow players alike. Until tight end Jake Butt returns from injury and with Devin Funchess expected to draw the bulk of defensive attention, Canteen should have the opportunity to gash opposing defenses.

 

Recruit Jabrill Peppers

It’s hard to call one of the most highly touted recruits in the country a secret weapon, but the question may be where he makes the biggest impact. Peppers is expected to play safety and see time on special teams and offense. With a strong defensive secondary already in place and a lack of returning receivers on offense, Peppers may find himself getting reps at slot receiver sooner rather later.

 

All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.

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Auburn Football: Defensive Line Depth Could Be Tigers' X-Factor in 2014

When you break records, you are going to get attention.

Auburn's offensive stars such as Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Greg Robinson received most of the spotlight last season in the 2013 turnaround from SEC cellar dwellers to conference champions.

Many of the season's most notable moments—Marshall to Coates in the Iron Bowl, "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" against Georgia and C.J. Uzomah's leaping touchdown grab to beat Mississippi State—were offensive plays that will go down in Auburn history.

While Auburn's offensive coaches and players deserve a lot of credit, the Tigers defense often gets overlooked for its role in the jump from 3-9 to 12-2 after just one season.

The Tigers not only saw significant boosts in wins and offensive production in 2013, they also showed remarkable improvement in several defensive areas:

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 system was installed to combat the increasingly popular spread offenses that had ravaged Auburn defenses in previous seasons. The defense inserts an extra defensive back while keeping a four-man front for pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.

And for Auburn, that traditional four-man line was instrumental in its defensive renaissance.

"For us defensively, it all starts up front," defensive end Nosa Eguae said prior to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. "Our main concern is stopping the run. When it's time to get after the quarterback, we get after the quarterback and affect him as well."

The Tigers constantly rotated defensive linemen onto the field and all across the line last season. An end in Johnson's defense is taught to play on both sides of the line, and tackles are not divided into traditional and three-technique positions.

"Our philosophy, we want to play left and right," Johnson said shortly after he was hired at Auburn. "We slide the front to get in our different looks as opposed to flip-flopping."

This heavy movement on the front four led to 11 different defensive linemen appearing in at least 12 games for the Tigers last season.

Four of those—first-round NFL draft pick Dee Ford, Eguae, Craig Sanders and Kenneth Carter—are no longer on the Plains.

But the Tigers have senior returning starters LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright in addition to sophomore standouts Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

Auburn also welcomes back senior defensive tackles Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley and longtime veteran Jeff Whitaker, who missed all of 2013 with an injury.

While injuries were not a problem for Auburn's defensive line last season, they definitely affected spring practices. 

Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner tried to combat the rash of injuries across the defense by installing what Wright nicknamed "the Rhino package," a front four made up of defensive tackles.

"As a defensive unit, we are so athletic," Lawson said. "Everyone on d-end and d-tackle can go back and forth between two positions."

Lawson is currently sidelined from summer workouts after undergoing a knee surgery earlier this month. Auburn coaches have not released any details about the injury and recovery time for Lawson, who missed the annual A-Day Game this spring with a knee bruise.

"Carl's the kind of young man that he's going to work his tail off to get back as quick as he can, [but] it's an opportunity for somebody else to step up," Garner told the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. "That's the way you have to approach it. We've got to get guys ready to play."

Enter the class of 2014.

Auburn signed four defensive linemen in 2013—Bradley plus the high school trio of Adams, Daniel and Lawson. Despite only losing four after the 2013 season, Auburn signed six defensive linemen this February.

With the enrollment of in-state defensive end Justin Thornton on Wednesday, all six are currently on the Plains.

A new NCAA rule that allows eight hours of coach supervision is giving Garner an early look at his new talent for 2014, and he told AL.com's Joel Erickson he is impressed with what he has seen so far:

I think all the guys, they're all sitting there watching, and I think they can tell, athletically, they're good. Now, what are they going to do once we put on the pads, once you start the install and putting all of that stuff together, you know, it's going to be played out differently. But from an athletic standpoint, they all have good athleticism. That's a great start.

In a recovering positional unit that constantly rotated between veteran talent and highly rated newcomers last season, the opportunity to impress the coaching staff in the summer will be important for these six fresh faces.

Auburn's two transfers from Georgia Military College, DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, will both look to become the next Nick Fairley or Ben Bradley.

Lambert's versatility at both end and tackle has made an impression on Garner, but the defensive line coach likes several off-the-field qualities of the nation's No. 1 JUCO defensive lineman. 

"He has demeanor and character that reminds me of Jeff Whitaker," Garner told Auburn Undercover's Phillip Marshall. "I'm excited about his leadership and what he's going to bring to the room."

Lawrence, on the other hand, brings a much-needed boost of agility and speed to the Tigers' interior line.

"He has a lot of ability," Garner told Marshall. "I think he can definitely help us in the rotation, especially with the athleticism he brings to the position. I think we got more athletic inside than what we were. I'm excited about his development."

Garner also said he feels good about the four true freshmen, who "all have good skill sets."

Like Adams, Daniel and Lawson—who combined for 49 tackles with 12 of them for loss last season—they will get their opportunities for early playing time.

The trio of the 6'5" Justin Thornton, the 6'4" Andrew Williams and the 6'6" Raashed Kennion bring a valuable injection of size to the Tigers' defensive end unit. They will be joined by 300-pound defensive tackle Dontavius Russell, who flipped from Georgia to Auburn last December.

These bigger newcomers will be looking to make similar-sized impressions this fall for head coach Gus Malzahn and the rest of the coaching staff.

"Each year, you look at the seniors you're losing, and you try to project depth and your needs," Malzahn said. "This is the first year where our guys really got a whole year to go after the body type and the type of athleticism that goes with each position. That's what's exciting for our coaches."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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Florida State Football: Winston Still Has a Way to Go to Be Top 2-Sport Star

This is the era of specialization. The offseason is almost nonexistent, so there is little time to play multiple sports. 

There are seven-on-seven football camps. AAU basketball tournaments. And travel baseball teams.

Most high school athletes now focus on a single sport year-round. That translates to fewer college athletes who participate in two sports.

Florida State has had a few two-sport standouts through the years, notably players like Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward and, now, Jameis Winston. Sanders also ran track, making him one of the rare three-sport stars in school history. And Sanders went on to be the first to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series.

Sanders' accomplishments in three sports leads our list of the top two-sport athletes in FSU history. The fact that he excelled in that many sports edged out Ward, who won a national title and the Heisman Trophy in 1993 and was a star point guard for the Seminoles.

Winston, with just one football season and two baseball seasons under his belt, is third on the list. His father, Antonor, told AL.com's Jeff Sentell last week that Jameis will graduate from FSU. (But he could also opt to enter the NFL draft early, a decision that he could make in January.) If he stays, that would mean two football seasons (2014, 2015) and a baseball season (2015) to add to his two-sport resume.

Here's a look at our top five two-sport athletes in FSU history:

 

1. Deion Sanders

In football: Sanders was a two-time consensus All-American (1987, '88). He had 14 career interceptions, including five in 1988. Sanders led the nation with a punt return average of 15.2 as a senior, and he also won the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top defensive back) that season.

He had 53 career interceptions in 14 NFL seasons, won a pair of Super Bowls in the 1990s (with San Francisco and Dallas) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

In baseball: Sanders hit .281 in 76 career games from 1986-87. But while he started 56 games, he had 62 runs scored. Sanders hit .263 in nine major league seasons from 1989-2001 (he played in just the NFL in a few of those years) and led the National League in triples with 14 in 1992.

In track and field: Sanders was one of the fastest athletes on campus. He ran the 100 meters in 10.26 seconds in 1988. But perhaps his biggest track moment came at South Carolina between games of a baseball doubleheader in May 1987.

The Metro Conference held its baseball tournament and track championships in Columbia. According to FSU assistant director of athletics Rob Wilson, Sanders sprinted from the baseball field in his uniform to the track (which was nearby), changed into his track uniform and ran a leg of the 4x100 relay. FSU won the relay event, which helped the Seminoles take the track title. And Sanders played in both games of the doubleheader for FSU, which also won the conference baseball title.

 

2. Charlie Ward

In football: Ward threw for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior in 1993, winning the Heisman Trophy and helping FSU take the national title with a win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. What likely sealed up the Heisman was a 446-yard, four-touchdown day in FSU's win at Florida. He was a unanimous All-American that year and also won the Davey O'Brien, Johnny Unitas and Maxwell Awards.

In basketball: Ward played 91 career games, but his playing time was limited to January, February and March for his junior and senior seasons after he had won the starting quarterback job. Still, Ward averaged 8.1 points and had 396 assists for his career. FSU also made the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 1992 and the Elite Eight in '93. In 10 NBA seasons from 1994-2005, he scored 3,947 points and had 2,539 assists.

 

3. Jameis Winston

In football: Winston completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards and a school-record 40 touchdowns. A consensus All-American, he won the Heisman Trophy, Davey O'Brien and Walter Camp and helped FSU win the 2013 national title.

In baseball: Winston earned the role of closer in 2014 and had a team-low 1.08 ERA with seven saves. He had 31 strikeouts in 33.3 innings, and batters hit just .154 off of him. Winston was 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 2013.

 

4. Rohn Stark

In football: Stark was a first-team All-American in 1980 and '81. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt as a junior in 1980 and then 46 yards per punt the following season. He played in the NFL from 1982-97 and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

In track: Stark was an All-American in 1981, becoming the first male two-sport All-American in school history. He held FSU's decathlon record (7,612 points) for 21 years.

 

5. Brenda Cliette

In women's basketball: She averaged 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds as a freshman before focusing on track. She returned to basketball in 1986-87, averaging a double-double (14.9 points, 10.0 rebounds).

In track: Cliette was a four-time All-American in the sprints and helped FSU win an NCAA outdoor national title. She was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Cliette went on to win gold medals at the World University Games and Pan Am Games.

 

We can't stop with just five. So here are six more two-sport stars that we considered:

Sammie Smith—He ran for 2,539 yards and 19 touchdowns from 1985-88. He also won Metro Conference 100- and 200-meter titles and also ran on the Metro Championship 400 relay team. Smith played four NFL seasons.

Warrick Dunn—FSU's all-time leading rusher (3,959 yards), Dunn also holds the school record for most yards in a season (1,242 in 1995) and is second with 37 career rushing touchdowns from 1993-96. He was an All-American in track in 1996 as part of FSU's 4x100 relay team.

Phillip Riley—He was a national champion in the 55 meters, a four-time All-American and was the Atlantic Coast Conference MVP in 1994 in track. Riley had 38 career catches for 433 yards and five touchdowns from 1993-95.

Lee Corso—Known more as a college football analyst for ESPN, Corso was quite the versatile athlete in the 1950s. Corso had 1,267 rushing yards and 409 receiving yards from 1953-56. He also hit .297 with 49 runs and 53 RBI in 54 games for the baseball team, posting an on-base percentage of .418.

Bobby Butler—He had 101 tackles and 11 interceptions from 1977-80. Butler was also an All-American in 1980 as part of FSU's 4x100 relay team.

Ken Lanier—The offensive lineman was an All-American as a senior in 1980. He was also a standout in the shot put, and his mark of 60 feet, 4 inches is the fifth best throw in school history.

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted. All statistics and bio information are courtesy of FSU media guides, nolefan.org, pro-football-reference.com, baseballreference.com and basketball-reference.com. Follow Bob on Twitter.

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The Case for and Against Alabama Making College Football Playoff

For nearly three months last year, everything was right in Alabama head coach Nick Saban's world. His team had successfully battled against complacency—the toughest opponent for any coach in the midst of a dynasty—and had reeled off 11 straight wins heading into the Iron Bowl at Auburn, which served as the de facto SEC West title game for the first time in its history.

Then Chris Davis happened. Then the Sugar Bowl happened. Then a—gasp—two-game losing streak happened.

The Crimson Tide were down, but not out. The offseason allows teams to hit the reset button, and when the preseason polls come out this August, Saban's crew will likely land in the top five and be set up to make a run to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

But it won't be without detractors. 

The perceived weak schedule and the higher standard to which Alabama is held may come into play for the selection committee. 

Here's the case both for and against Alabama making the College Football Playoff.

 

The Case For

Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt. If it finds itself on the bubble with another team, that likely means it has at least one loss. Even if the other options have conference titles under their belts and Alabama doesn't, the Crimson Tide should get the nod.

Selection committee chairman Jeff Long said in April that it isn't all about the resume, it's about overall worth.

Jeff Long says it's not most DESERVING teams, but the focus is the BEST four teams that shall get into the bracket

— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 30, 2014

Even with losses, Alabama's proven track record on the game's biggest stage should make it hard to keep the Tide out, even if it doesn't have a conference title on its resume.

But just how good will Alabama be this year?

Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake could be the No. 1 running back on the majority of rosters around the country, and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has more options at wide receiver than Johnny Manziel has clubs to choose from in Las Vegas.

Assuming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the starter, all he has to be is a care-taker for the offense to click. If he's a difference-maker, that's a bonus.

Defensively, there are some questions in the secondary. But that front seven is frightening.

Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest should be able to hold down the fort in the middle of the linebacking corps, and the defensive line should be more athletic with ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen taking on bigger roles. Instead of the defensive line occupying blocks and letting linebackers clean up, Allen and Robinson are more capable of getting off blocks and tracking down mobile quarterbacks or running backs off the edge.

If we are talking about the "best" team in college football, it's hard to make the case that the most talent resides somewhere other than Tuscaloosa. Saban has reeled in the nation's top recruiting class in each of the last four recruiting cycles, distancing himself from the field.

Do stellar recruiting classes make a team great?

That depends on your opinion, and certainly keeping those stars on campus helps. But whether you think it's more the "X's and O's" than the "Jimmy's and the Joe's," talent pool plays a part.

According to Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections over at Football Study Hall, which ranks teams based on two-year recruiting data, returning starting data and attrition, Alabama's starting in the SEC catbird seat and No. 2 overall behind defending national champion Florida State.

Does this mean Alabama is a shoo-in for the playoff? Of course not.

It indicates that Alabama has a head start, though.

 

The Case Against

Let's get this out of the way right now: If Alabama wins the SEC Championship Game with an undefeated record or one loss, it's going to get in. 

But what if it has more than one loss or it doesn't have the SEC Championship Game trophy in its trophy case?

Tuscaloosa, we have a problem.

If Alabama is on the bubble without a title or with multiple losses, that schedule could come in to play. I wrote back in May that your perception of Alabama's schedule should be fluid, and to adjust accordingly during the season. If all goes according to plan around the country, though, its 2014 schedule could be used against it in the court of public opinion if it gets into a playoff debate.

Now it's not Alabama's fault if West Virginia continues to struggle, and it only played a minimal role in Tennessee going in the tank for the last several years. But unless one or more of Alabama's opponents pull off an Auburn-like turnaround, the Crimson Tide don't exactly have the most daunting path to Atlanta.

If Alabama gets into a conversation with, say, a one-loss Big Ten champ or a one-loss Big 12 champ, that schedule will be a big factor with the selection committee. If it's coupled with the absence of a conference title in Tuscaloosa, that might knock the Tide out of the playoff.

Is that fair?

Of course not. Winning a conference title doesn't make a team elite, and the goal of the playoff should be to reward elite teams. After all, Wisconsin was 8-5 in 2012 and won the Big Ten (two teams within its division were ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game). 

But the presence of a selection committee adds more subjectivity to the equation, and arbitrary conference titles will matter whether it's appropriate or not.

On the field, there are some issues for the Tide to work out as well. Saban's defense-first, conservative approach has worked in the past. But the defense has struggled with mobile quarterbacks at times, and the secondary was far from settled last year.

Has that really changed?

Up front, they should be fine. As mentioned above, the presence of super-athletic defensive ends in that 3-4 scheme should help against mobile quarterbacks, who could be taking snaps in up to seven of Alabama's eight conference games. 

In the secondary, though, there are some issues. 

Eddie Jackson, a likely starter, tore his ACL in spring. While Saban didn't rule out his return this season when the injury happened, it's safe to assume that it will take him some time to get back to full speed.

Could Alabama start true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey at corner? It's a reasonable possibility.

If it doesn't get consistent play from its corners, Alabama won't contend for the playoff. Even though there are quarterback issues around the SEC, the conference is now loaded with offensive minds both as head coaches and coordinators who know how to get production from their quarterbacks through the air. 

When all is said and done, Alabama is probably going to have to win the SEC to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. Since this is the first year, participation from around the country from various conferences will play a role even though it won't be specifically stated. Because of that, the margin for error for every team is razor-thin.

Yes, even for Alabama.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com and all scheduling information is courtesy of FBSchedules.com.

 


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3 Things Standing Between Oklahoma and a Trip to College Football Playoff

The Sugar high for Oklahoma hasn't worn off yet. 

Nearly six months after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the vibe around the Sooners is still College Football Playoff or bust. With quarterback Trevor Knight returning, along with most of the defense, Oklahoma has its sights on returning to the national championship conversation. 

What needs to happen to make sure Oklahoma's hopes don't come crashing down? Here are three keys to the 2014 season. 

 

Trevor Knight's Health

The offseason is a time when bold, piping hot predictions are not only acceptable, but encouraged. If for no other reason, here's why: No one, not even with all the research and film study available, knows how things are going to play out during the season. Might as well take a shot, then. 

Here's the bold prediction for Knight: He'll be the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. 

The obvious reply to that #hotsportstake is he had just one good game last season: the Sugar Bowl. But anyone who followed the Sooners more closely should agree that Knight began to turn the corner as a passer several weeks before against Iowa State and Kansas State. 

But Knight was unable to show what looked like a major progression because of injury problems (He missed most of the regular season-ending game against Oklahoma State.). Therein lies Knight's biggest obstacle for 2014: staying healthy. 

All of the questions about Knight's consistency are moot if he can't stay on the field for two or three consecutive weeks. The Sooners have a pair of freshmen behind Knight, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, but neither have collegiate game experience.

More importantly, neither bring what Knight brings to the game. Thomas, a dual-sport player for Oklahoma, is athletic, but if he was truly better than Knight, well, he'd be starting. 

With Knight, Thomas and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, head coach Bob Stoops has shown a willingness to add more dual-threat quarterbacks. In college, few things are more dangerous than a legit dual threat. Stoops saw what Knight could be when he named the then-redshirt freshman the starter last season. 

Knight may not live up to expectations this season. Oklahoma may not, for that matter. But the probability of that happening increases dramatically if Knight can't stay healthy. 

 

The Interior of the Defense Fails to Improve

So much is made of Knight and his role in Oklahoma's CFP-or-bust mentality. But another reason why the Sooners should be the preseason Big 12 favorites, and why Phil Steele has them as a preseason top-five team, is the defense. 

The defensive line and linebackers return intact. That's a group that includes names like Charles Tapper, Jordan Phillips, Geneo Grissom, Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander.

According to ESPN's Brandon Chatmon, the Sooners "should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line" and the linebackers are why the defense should be one of the "most athletic and versatile in the conference." 

That defensive front six will determine the tone for Oklahoma's postseason run, especially with questions about Knight, youth on offense and the secondary. 

But that group also struggled against the run at times last season, especially up the middle, even though statistically it finished second in the Big 12 behind TCU (per cfbstats.com).

Signs of this weakness began surfacing during a late September win against Notre Dame when Irish running back George Atkinson III scooted for an 80-yard touchdown. In losses to Baylor and Texas, the Sooners gave up exactly 255 yards on the ground per game, allowing 4.5 yards per rush on average. 

Oklahoma gave up another 144 yards on 21 carries to Oklahoma State running back Desmond Roland in the Bedlam game. Even in the win over Alabama, the Sooners allowed 100 yards on just eight carries to Tide running back Derrick Henry. 

Offenses that had had solid running games, oftentimes with bruising running backs, had success against Oklahoma. Of course, the back injury that cost Phillips most of last season didn't help. At 324 pounds, Phillips is a mammoth who can occupy double-teams to create openings for linebackers in run support. 

With Phillips ready to go, run defense should improve. As odd as it sounds, the Big 12 wasn't a quarterback conference last year. Outside of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Texas Tech's Davis Webb and perhaps Kansas State's Jake Waters, not much may change this season. 

So Oklahoma better be ready to stop the run. 

 

Developing the Wide Receivers

For being only a second-year starter, Knight is going to be the leader of the offense, an offense that should be more run-heavy. 

Junior Sterling Shepard moves into the No. 1 spot after a breakout 2013. Who fills in the spots alongside Shepard remains a battle to watch in preseason camp. Durron Neal and Derrick Woods are young, talented guys who have to step up in a way similar to how Shepard did last season. 

Developing the wide receivers beyond Shepard gives Oklahoma's offense balance. The Sooners don't have to be the Air Raid team they once were, but they do need to have a passing threat. For as talented as Knight is, he can't face eight or nine-man boxes week after week. 

Wide receivers coach Jay Norvell has done an excellent job with his group since arriving in 2008. This year will be one of his biggest challenges yet with the Sooners. 

Winning a Big 12 title isn't impossible with a one-sided offense, but it doesn't make things any easier. Even the threat of the passing game would be enough to let Knight and Oklahoma's running backs run wild. 

 

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

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