NCAA Football

Louisville Cardinals: Why Bobby Petrino Is the Best Choice for Cardinal Football

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has proven time and time again that he is one of the premier ADs in the country. Jurich has been the architect behind countless facility renovations for the University of Louisville, stadium expansions and coaching hires.

He is credited with bringing basketball coach Rick Pitino to the Cardinals as well as being the driving voice behind the Cardinals' move to the ACC.

Now Jurich is faced with the task of finding the football coach best-suited for continuing Louisville's momentum. The Cardinals have gone 23-3 over the last two seasons, including back-to-back bowl victories and consecutive seasons in the Top 15.

Louisville football cannot afford to take a step backwards. Charlie Strong packed his bags for Texas last week and the search for his successor began. Several names have been linked to the Louisville job in the past week.

None have inspired as much emotion as former Cardinals head coach and current Western Kentucky bench boss Bobby Petrino.

Louisville fans have taken to Twitter in full force to voice both support and disgust at the idea of a Petrino-Louisville reunion.

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports has reported that Petrino's return to Louisville is "imminent."

Athletic director Tom Jurich is expected to meet with Petrino's agent, David Dunn, Wednesday night to finalize contract details. The school plans to introduce Petrino Thursday. The Louisville Athletic Association's personnel committee has called a 10 a.m. ET meeting Thursday to discuss a personnel matter. The committee is expected to approve a contract for Petrino, and he will be formally introduced thereafter.

Petrino led the Cardinals from 2003-2006 and racked up an impressive 41-9 record at Louisville, including a victory in the 2006 Orange Bowl. He coached Western Kentucky to an 8-4 record this season and has a career record of 83-30.

Petrino's controversies are well-documented. He left Louisville in 2006 for the Atlanta Falcons and failed to finish a full season in Atlanta before taking over as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He built Arkansas into an SEC contender and had the Razorbacks poised for a potential title run prior to his now-infamous scandal.

Petrino took a year off from coaching before Western Kentucky gave him an opportunity to return to the sidelines. Petrino has appeared to be a man humbled by failure—at the professional level as well as in his personal life.

Petrino's teams have been consistently high-scoring and scoring points was a struggle at times for the Cardinals this season. Petrino took Louisville football to heights it had never before seen, and did it without Top 25 talent.

If given the reins to Louisville football, Petrino will have an abundance of talent returning to a team that just finished 12-1.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit discussed this situation earlier:

One thing is for certain: Despite all of Petrino's personal transgressions, the man is an incredible coach and one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. Louisville is taking a risk if it does indeed bring Petrino back, but there is no reward without risk.

Louisville has been called a "stepping-stone job" for many years. The irony of the situation is that a coach who used Louisville as a stepping stone could now return to build Louisville into a destination.

 

Stats and video courtesy of ESPN.com.

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Bo Davis' Departure from Texas Results in Several Decommits for Longhorns

The Charlie Strong Era at Texas hasn't produced an ideal beginning.

First the transplant from Louisville was ripped by a major Longhorns booster, Red McCombs. Now, UT is feeling the change elsewhere in its coaching staff and on the recruiting trail.

The Longhorns recently lost defensive line coach Bo Davis, who left Austin to join Steve Sarkisian's staff at USC. And with his departure came the decommitments of several defensive line commits—most recently, 247Sports composite 4-star defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson, as detailed by Damon Sales of ESPN.com.

Upon his decommitment, Henderson tweeted about the departure of Davis.

Why Did Bo Davis Leave Texas 😒

— Zay-Coven Henderson (@lobo5540) January 7, 2014

Henderson's exit came Tuesday night and was joined by decommitments from Trey Lealaimatafao and Courtney Garnett.

Lealaimatafao, a composite 3-star from San Antonio, also questioned Davis leaving before announcing that he is no longer a Longhorn. 

Did coach Davis really leave Texas? 😐

— Trey Lealaimatafao (@TreyL55) January 8, 2014

Davis leaving appears to have been the final straw for the Army All-American, as Oregon has been surging late in his recruiting process. The 247Sports crystal ball projects he'll now head to Eugene.

Garnett—a 3-star from New Orleans—completed the decommitment hat trick, announcing on Twitter that the 'Horns were out of the picture.

Texas is no longer a option 🙅🙅🙅

— Courtney Garnett (@ONLYFORAKING) January 8, 2014

Texas still boasts the No. 1 class in the Big 12 Conference and the No. 12 class nationally with 21 commitments remaining for 2014.

The 'Horns will have to replace one key defensive lineman, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, next season. Conveniently, their top commitment at the moment is 4-star defensive end Derick Roberson.

Additionally, they are still in the mix for the No. 2 defensive end in the nation, 5-star Solomon Thomas, who recently expressed excitement about Strong's hiring, per Matt Wixon of The Dallas Morning News.

While the 'Horns are likely hurting after three losses in one night, pulling in Thomas would more than ease the pain.

As Strong continues to settle in at UT, wins on the recruiting trail will help to smooth the waters that have been rough in his first few days.

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Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight Will Make Serious Push for 2014 Heisman Trophy

If you don’t know the name of Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight by now, it’s about time you got acquainted.

That’s because come next December, the San Antonio, Texas, native could be in New York City sitting front row for the 2014 Heisman Trophy presentation. And if Knight plays his cards right, the name enshrined on college football’s most prestigious award could very well be his.

No, that’s not a joke.

Knight made his introduction to the college football world on Jan. 2, leading Oklahoma to an improbable upset of the Alabama Crimson Tide, 45-31, in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. In the process, he threw for 348 yards, four touchdowns and one interception on 32-of-44 passing, including going 14-of-17 for 169 yards on first down.

In comparison, the redshirt freshman had thrown for just 471 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions on 52.2 percent passing in seven previous appearances.

But if his sudden prowess in the passing game wasn’t impressive enough, consider the opponent. Since head coach Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007, only a few quarterbacks have had any kind of success against Alabama.

In fact, Knight’s performance put him in some pretty good company.

*QB must have thrown at least 25 passes to qualify

The 32 completions are the most a Saban-coached Tide defense has conceded. Furthermore, Knight became just the second quarterback to throw four touchdowns against the unit and the third to top 70 percent passing.

But does one stellar showing erase the bouts of inconsistency and ineptitude Knight has displayed under center at times during the 2013 season?

If you recall, this is the same quarterback who completed less than 60 percent of his passes in three of his four starts prior to the Sugar Bowl. Not to mention, Knight’s previous career high in passing yards was just 171 yards.

Doesn’t really scream out Heisman Trophy, does it?

Then again, one can argue that an exceptional performance in a BCS bowl game—against the two-time defending BCS national champions no less—certainly trumps two or three lousy starts.

Or the fact that Knight’s last full game of the regular season for the Sooners was actually quite impressive.

Back on Nov. 23, he led the team to a much-needed road victory over Kansas State, 41-31. Knight shined during the game, throwing for 171 yards, a touchdown and an interception on 14-of-20 passing, while adding another 82 yards and a score on 14 carries.

But what stood out the most from that performance was how he relied on his legs in critical situations.

While he may have struggled through the air at times, Knight never had any difficulty getting it done on the ground. On the season, he accounted for 445 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 67 carries—the most by an Oklahoma quarterback since Jamelle Holieway rushed for 860 in 1987.

Knight has a good chance to surpass Holieway’s mark next season. In just five starts, he topped the century mark twice, while rushing for 82 and 47 yards respectively in two other games.

For the first time in his 15-year coaching career, Sooners head coach Bob Stoops has himself a quarterback that threatens to be just as formidable with his arm as he is with his legs.

But don’t count Stoops as one of the many surprised by Knight’s breakout performance.

“[Knight] took care of the football, made great throws and was competitive,” he said following the victory over Alabama, via Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg. “He showed everybody what we’ve been seeing for a couple of years. He has a chance to be really special.”

And if Knight can keep this up, “really special” will become an understatement.

A household name is more like it.

 

All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of CFBstats.com.

For complete coverage and everything college football, you can reach Sebastian on Facebook, on Twitter and via email at Sebastian.LenaBR@gmail.com.

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Candidates Charlie Strong Should Consider for Texas' Offensive Coordinator Job

Now that Charlie Strong is the head coach at Texas, it's time for him to begin assembling his coaching staff. 

Perhaps no hire will be more important than who he brings on as offensive coordinator. 

The Longhorns have been inconsistent on offense since 2009 when quarterback Colt McCoy was a senior. Former coach Mack Brown and his coaching staff have failed to develop offensive talent over the past few years. There has also been a lot of turnover at the OC spot, from Greg Davis, who resigned, to Bryan Harsin, who left to take the head job at Arkansas State. 

Chances are, current OC Major Applewhite is not going to be retained by Strong. 

With so many great offensive minds in the Big 12, it's crucial that Strong finds someone who can make Texas an exciting offensive team again. 

Here are five candidates he could consider. 

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5 Biggest Darkhorse National Title Contenders for 2014

The Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers weren't high on the list of national title contenders going into 2013—but they put together remarkable seasons and earned trips to Pasadena.

Looking forward to 2014, which squads are capable of earning their way into the first College Football Playoff?

We'll break down five serious possibilities—teams that didn't end 2013 where they hoped, but are poised for a turnaround next year.

 

Note: Teams that finished in the Top 10 this season or those that were in the national title conversation down the stretch in 2013 were not eligible for consideration.

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Bobby Petrino Reportedly Set to Accept Louisville Head-Coaching Job

Bobby Petrino, who compiled a 41-9 record while leading the Louisville football program from 2003 to 2006, is closing in on a return to the Cardinals sideline.   

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports the agent for the current Western Kentucky coach is set to meet with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich to iron out the remaining contract details before an official introduction is made:

Athletic director Tom Jurich is expected to meet with Petrino's agent, David Dunn, Wednesday night to finalize contract details. The school plans to introduce Petrino Thursday. The Louisville Athletic Association's personnel committee has called a 10 a.m. ET meeting Thursday to discuss a personnel matter. The committee is expected to approve a contract for Petrino, and he will be formally introduced thereafter.

If there are no setbacks during the final stages of negotiations, Petrino will replace Charlie Strong, who left the Cardinals to accept the same position at Texas. The former Louisville head man will return after a one-season stint with Western Kentucky where he went 8-4.

Aside from an ill-fated stay with the Atlanta Falcons at the NFL level, Petrino has enjoyed on-field success at every stop as a head coach. Between Louisville, Arkansas and Western Kentucky, he has racked up an 83-30 (.735) college record.

Petrino was fired by Arkansas in April of 2012 after a motorcycle accident with his mistress shed light on an ongoing affair he was having. Athletic director Jeff Long had this to say upon Petrino's firing (via ESPN):

In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff, both before and after the motorcycle accident.

The Montana native's final season during his first go-round with Louisville was his most successful. The Cardinals finished with a 12-1 record after winning the Orange Bowl before Petrino decided to pursue other opportunities.

He realizes now that was probably a mistake, at least according to his father. Bobby Petrino Sr. told Adam Himmelsbach of The Courier-Journal that his son was hoping for another chance at Louisville and called his exit his biggest coaching error:

He told me this weekend he would like the opportunity to coach at Louisville again. He said that he’s been everywhere, the NFL and everywhere else, and he said probably the biggest mistake he’d ever made as a coach was leaving Louisville.

While Petrino covets another opportunity with Louisville, not everybody is applauding the reported decision by the Cardinals' brass. Adam Klug of CBS Sports Radio says the hiring sends the message that winning is the only thing that matters:

While that may be the case, Forde's report states Louisville interviewed seven candidates to fill the coaching void. Apparently, it decided Petrino was the best option—again.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

With Sean Mannion Returning, Pac 12 Football's 2014 QB Class Is Best in Nation

Pity Pac-12 defenses: In 2014, they will face the best collection of quarterbacks in college football.

Sean Mannion joined in on the parade of Pac-12 quarterbacks passing on the NFL draft when the Oregon State junior declared his return to Corvallis, Ore., for one more year.

Mannion's return was not met with the same fanfare as UCLA redshirt sophomore Brett Hundley announcing his intention to spend another season in the Pac-12, which also came Monday.

A trying five-game stretch to close the regular season extinguished early Heisman Trophy talk and also explains the relative lack of national media attention Mannion's return received in comparison to his counterpart Hundley.

But it's also a testament to just how much talent the Pac-12 has returning at quarterback: Consider that Mannion is coming off a 2013 in which he set the conference's single season record with 4,662 passing yards, and his decision to captain the Beavers offense for one more season is quite significant.

Mannion rebounded from his late-season struggles with 314 passing yards and two touchdowns against rival Oregon, followed by a solid 24-of-33, 259-yard performance in the Beavers' Hawaii Bowl romp over Boise State.

His return is a big reason San Jose Mercury News columnist Jon Wilner ranks the Beavers No. 21 in his "ridiculously early" 2014 Top 25.

Oregon State is one of nine Pac-12 teams guaranteed to return its primary starting quarterback from the past season for 2014. If Utah's Travis Wilson is granted medical clearance to play, he makes 10. That leaves only Arizona and Washington introducing a new, full-time starter next season—and Washington reserve Cyler Miles made a start and finished the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl while senior Keith Price was nursing an injury.

No other conference among the Group of Five with College Football Playoff priority has as much quarterback star power to go with the Pac-12's depth. The SEC, for example, loses a number of standouts: A.J. McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw head that list.

The ACC returns with Heisman winner Jameis Winston, but loses such noteworthy starters as Tajh Boyd and Bryn Renner.

The Pac-12's group is top-heavy, replete with early Heisman favorites. Newsday includes Mannion in a list that also features Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, a frontrunner for the award through much of the past season before a late-season injury.

With Bryce Petty returning from a stellar campaign, Trevor Knight coming off a star turn in Oklahoma's Sugar Bowl defeat of Alabama and Davis Webb fresh from a thrashing of Arizona State, the Big 12 is perhaps closest to matching the Pac-12's upper echelon of quarterbacks in 2014. But matching the Pac-12's depth is another story.

Plenty has been said and written of the conference's top-tier quarterbacks, but it's the less discussed of the bunch that make the 2014 class the nation's best and add intrigue to the league's competition. 

Take Cal's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau. Their teams finished last in their respective divisions, but both showed promise starting as true freshmen.

"I watched him a lot through his [prep] career," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said of Liufau in October. "He's a darn good football player."

He lived up to Mora's praise by going 25-of-36 for 247 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions in Colorado's Nov. 2 loss at UCLA.

Depth isn't the only notable attribute that makes this quarterback crop so intriguing, either. The variety from one to another is immense.

There are dynamic dual-threats like Hundley, Mariota and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, as well as gunslinging passers Mannion and Washington State's Connor Halliday. Stanford's Kevin Hogan is a capable two-way talent operating the Cardinal's power-based offense, and USC's Cody Kessler only began to scratch the surface of his abilities while leading the Trojans to a 7-2 finish. 

Deep, diverse, talented or promising: No matter how one chooses to describes this class of quarterbacks, it's the best the nation has to offer for 2014. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

With Sean Mannion Returning, Pac 12 Football's 2014 QB Class Is Best in Nation

Pity Pac -12 defenses: In 2014, they will face the best collection of quarterbacks in college football. Sean Mannion joined in on the parade of Pac -12 quarterbacks passing ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

BCS Championship 2014: How Auburn's Defense Was Able to Rattle Jameis Winston

The Auburn Tigers lost the BCS National Championship Game, 34-31, to the Florida State Seminoles, but the Tigers defense put together one of its best defensive outings of the season. More importantly, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's unit played Florida State better than anyone had all season, including shaking the confidence of quarterback and Heisman winner, Jameis Winston.

Prior to the game, the talk was about Auburn stopping the highly touted Florida State attack. The Seminoles entered the game averaging 529.4 total yards per contest, pushing 207.4 on the ground and another 322 in the air to go with a 53 points-per-game total. Even on the road, Winston and Florida State were abusing opponents to the tune of 484.7 total yards per game and 46.8 points away from Doak Campbell Stadium.

Auburn's defense had its issues in 2013, and as Winston became the next big challenge, the quarterback who excelled against the blitz would have to be stopped by Johnson's group. The key, as was discussed here prior to the game, would be getting early pressure with the front four.

And the Tigers answered the bell.

Over the course of the game, Johnson used blitzes and worked multiple coverages, but the foundation was laid with the four down linemen who pushed to make Winston uncomfortable. Auburn did not use a ton of gimmicks; there were not a bevy of slants and twists to get the linemen off against Florida State. Rather, Johnson asked his linemen to win one-on-one battles, and they responded.

Here, you see Kris Frost mugged up at the line, forcing the center, Bryan Stork, to identify the possible blitzer, giving all four defensive linemen a chance to play solo football. On the snap, Frost takes a hard step before getting into coverage. Dee Ford and Carl Lawson run the edge extremely well, beating both tackles to the top of Winston's drop and forcing the quarterback to step up into the pocket.

Nosa Eguae is the beneficiary of this move; after a great push off the ball, he works back down to his initial rush lane to close off the interior opening to Winston. His slap of Josue Matias' hands gives him the separation he needs to not just be a deterrent to Winston, but also allow him to use his athleticism to close on and, ultimately, sack Winston.

It was not just the sacks that did it for the Tigers. On the play prior to Eguae's sack, Gabe Wright flashed to force Winston to throw the ball before he was settled and his receivers came open. Wright comes fast out of his stance as the left defensive tackle, takes an inside route on the right guard, Tre' Jackson, and gains control to get to the quarterback and force the ball to come out quick.

Again, just four guys in the mix for the Tigers. Four guys in the rush means seven guys playing coverage. Although Auburn used man-free and even some two-man in the ball game, the extra defenders were also able to help take away some of the interior routes.

After establishing the front four and using linebackers showing blitz then dropping back into coverage, Johnson decided to push the envelope by bringing pressure. On Winston's second-quarter fumble, the defensive coordinator adds another rusher to the mix in addition to working his defensive ends, No. 13 Craig Sanders and No. 10 LaDarius Owen, out of two-point stances.

Anthony Swain is the added rushing linebacker, while Jake Holland remains close to the line in a green-dog situation. Swain forces the back to step up, dives over the cut and drives Winston up into the pocket. The tackles, No. 50 Ben Bradley and No. 98 Angelo Blackson, disengage and collapse on the pressed Winston, resulting in a fumble.

Notice that none of the players involved in the first pressure or sack were involved in the big play of the second quarter for the Tigers. Depth along the defensive line allowed Johnson to demand max effort out of his linemen and then rotate them in and out to maximize their impact on the game.

Auburn made Winston uncomfortable, and it started with the front four. Dee Ford consistently beat his man around the edge, and the rest of the unit stepped up to the challenge of winning one-on-one battles. Mixing in timely blitzes, like this well-timed pressure from Cassanova McKinzy, after the Seminoles already struggled to handle the front four, and Auburn had a solid plan.

Unfortunately, when Fisher switched to a more quick-pass game and run game, the Tigers were put in a tough position, but they responded well. This unit only surrendered 27 points to the Seminoles, enough to get them a BCS Championship win if it was not for the special-teams explosion of Kermit Whitfield.

For Auburn, the future is bright despite the loss of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae. This defensive unit should build on this performance and transition from a liability in 2013 to a team strength in 2014.

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Johnny Manziel Will Enter 2014 NFL Draft

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has decided to forgo his final two years of collegiate eligibility and will enter the 2014 NFL draft.  

Gil Brandt of NFL.com was first to report the news:

ESPN's SportsCenter later confirmed Brandt's report:

Manziel later confirmed the news in an interview with Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports:

"After long discussions with my family, friends, teammates, and coaches, I have decided to make myself available for the 2014 NFL Draft," Manziel said. "The decision was such a tough one for me because of how much I wanted to go back be with all those guys that I love playing with, and to work with Coach (Kevin) Sumlin and Coach (Jake Spavital) Spav and be part of a program that's continuing to grow. But I felt like this is what's best for me now.

"I feel very relieved. It's a weight off my shoulders. I'm ready to become a professional and dedicate myself to making my dream a reality of becoming the best quarterback I can be."

Manziel also gave a special message to Texas A&M fans, via TexAgs.com.

The unsurprising choice comes after the dual-threat quarterback's second straight successful season with the Aggies. He recorded over 40 total touchdowns both years and made strides as a passer in his sophomore campaign (4,114 yards, 69.9 completion percentage), which was exactly what NFL scouts were watching for.  

Quite simply, there was nothing left for him to prove in college. He won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a finalist again in his second year, carving up opposing defenses with relative ease every step of the way.

Manziel joins fellow teammate Mike Evans in declaring for the NFL draft, and as Brandt points out, it will make Kevin Sumlin's job at Texas A&M next season that much harder:

Now that Manziel is NFL bound, the debate about whether he's going to develop into a highly successful professional quarterback is set to heat up. 

There will probably be a lot of debate in front offices around the league between now and draft day about whether Manziel will succeed. Great results in college, even at a Heisman Trophy level, don't guarantee success in the NFL.

The one thing working to Manziel's advantage is that he's a more refined passer than Tim Tebow, who had no trouble conquering the college game but never quite established himself in the NFL.

Being able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver strikes to wide receivers is essential in the NFL. Although Manziel still has work to do in terms of reading defenses and going through his progressions, he doesn't need to totally rebuild his mechanics as was the case with Tebow.

Even though there has been a revolution of quarterbacks who can make key plays with their legs, led by Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck, the position is still based on making plays through the air first and foremost.

 

Exactly how efficient a team thinks Manziel can be in that area will determine how early his name gets called on draft day. Of course, all it takes is one team to fall in love with his wide-ranging skills to select him inside the top five.

 

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Big 12 Football: What We Learned from Bowl Season

Just like that, another college football season is over. It's been a fun one, and some of the best bowl games involved Big 12 teams. 

Nothing will top Oklahoma's 45-31 over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the most improbable upset of the bowl season. However, the 41 fourth-quarter points in the Cotton Bowl between Missouri and Oklahoma State comes in a close second. 

Texas Tech also had a solid win over Arizona State, who won the Pac-12 South Division, in the Holiday Bowl.

Texas, meanwhile, sent head coach Mack Brown out after 16 years with a 30-7 loss to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl. 

There were plenty of highlights and lowlights for the conference, which finished 3-3 in the postseason. Here's what we learned about the Big 12 in bowl season looking forward to 2014. 

 

Start the Oklahoma Hype Machine

While announcing that the Sooners are "back" is both a kiss of death and unfair to the 11-win season they just finished, expectations will nevertheless be higher in Norman next season.

That's what happens when you knock off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl as a 17-point underdog. 

The most impressive part was the development of quarterback Trevor Knight.

The redshirt freshman was the definition of a run-first quarterback when he began the season. After getting benched midway through the Week 2 game against West Virginia because of a knee injury and general ineffectiveness, many questioned why head coach Bob Stoops named Knight the starter over Blake Bell in the first place.

If Knight can continue to develop as a passer and remain healthy, he will be a dangerous offensive weapon.

He'll have an excellent supporting cast on offense too. Running back Keith Ford, who played well in limited action, will be a sophomore. Sterling Shepard returns as well to lead a relatively new wide receiver group. Losing center Gabe Ikard will hurt, but the Sooners' offensive line remains mostly intact. 

On defense, most of Oklahoma's front seven should return, though replacing cornerback Aaron Colvin and safety Gabe Lynn in the secondary will be tough. 

It would be surprising not to see Oklahoma named the Big 12 preseason favorite for next season. 

 

Baylor Becomes a Team to Watch in 2014

Baylor's first Big 12 championship and BCS bowl appearance was made possible by the tremendous building job of head coach Art Briles.

He'll return as the Bears' coach next season after being linked to the Texas job. However, a lot of the players that made 2013 so special won't be. 

Running back Lache Seastrunk declared for the draft and Glasco Martin is a senior. There are three seniors along the offensive line, including Cyril Richardson, who are departing. Senior receiver Tevin Reese is gone too. Quarterback Bryce Petty returns, however. 

Seven seniors on defense will leave, including safety Ahmad Dixon, and linebacker Bryce Hager could easily declare for the NFL as a junior.

This was a group that has grown together over the past couple of years to become one of the best defenses in the conference. However, they got exposed by UCF in a 52-42 loss in the Fiesta Bowl. 

So what will Baylor look like in 2014?

Depth wasn't an issue for the Bears, so thanks to a number of blowouts, there was plenty of playing time to go around. Next year's Baylor team won't be brand spankin' new, never having seen the field before. Still, there was so much star power on this year's team. It will be fascinating to follow how well Baylor plays, especially on defense. 

 

Oklahoma State's Defense was a Special Group

It's not often Oklahoma State and great defense are mentioned together, but the 2013 group under first-year defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer was something special. 

That defense, featuring cornerback Justin Gilbert and linebacker Caleb Lavey, ranked No. 4 nationally in turnover margin and swarmed to the ball every play. It was a well-coached group with some tremendous athletes. 

Through three quarters of the Cotton Bowl, which the Pokes ultimately lost 41-31, Oklahoma State held Missouri to 17 points despite continuously losing the field position battle. Things got out of hand in the fourth quarter when the Tigers scored 17 offensive points as part of an exciting back-and-forth, but the Cowboys defense gave the team a chance to win. 

After all the offensive success Oklahoma State has had over the years, it was fun to watch such a sound defensive team. 

 

Texas' Quarterback Situation is Dicey

The most important hire for new Texas head coach Charlie Strong will be the offensive coordinator because Texas' offense was awful in the final stretch of the season. 

Quarterback David Ash returns after suffering a season-ending concussion. He will definitely have the edge over freshman Tyrone Swoopes heading into spring practice. 

Ash has been inconsistent in his career, but he has all the physical tools to be successful: size ( 6'3", 223 pounds), mobility and a strong arm. Now he just needs to continue to develop. But what happens if he gets hurt again? Swoopes is also physically gifted, but he didn't look ready to play in limited action. 

The Longhorns' Alamo Bowl loss to Oregon showed how dire the quarterback situation is. If Ash doesn't improve and/or stay healthy, Strong's first season in Austin could be tough. 

 

Other Happenings From Around the Big 12 in Bowl Season

 

Best Offensive Performance: Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight. He was dropping dimes and slinging the pigskin for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama. What else do you need?

 

Best Defensive Performance: Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker. As a heat-seeking missile, Striker had seven tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble that basically ended the game. He was a monster. 

 

Most Ridiculous First Half: Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett. He caught three touchdowns to put K-State up 21-6 at the half and finished with 10 catches for 116 yards. Michigan employed the always-bold strategy of defending Lockett with one-on-one coverage, which as everyone knows usually results in PAIN.  

 

Best Kick Return: Texas Tech wide receiver Reginald Davis. He took it 90 yards to the house just as Arizona State was creeping back into the game. The Red Raiders shocked the Sun Devils, 37-23. 

 

Best Flip for a Touchdown: Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. If this whole football thing doesn't work out, he has a chance to be a really good gymnast. Needs to work on sticking his landing, though. 

 

Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. You can follow him on Twitter @BenKercheval

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Blake Whiteley Commits to Texas: Charlie Strong Lands Massive JUCO TE

The Charlie Strong era is underway in the Texas Longhorns recruiting office. Just two days after his official introduction as head coach, the former Louisville Cardinals leader secured a commitment from coveted junior college tight end Blake Whiteley, according to 247Sports reporter Jeff Howe.

Texas rose to the top of his list, ultimately edging out Arkansas. Whiteley also holds offers from Virginia, Purdue, TCU and West Virginia.

The 6'5", 240-pound pass target competed at Arizona Western College in 2013. He played high school football in West Vancouver, Canada.

Whiteley received an offer from Texas in early December when Mack Brown remained at the helm of a tenuous situation in Austin. He quickly reacted to the hiring of Strong, expressing interest in the offensive attack that would be implemented under a new regime.

"I do think coach Strong is a great coach. However, for me as both a blocking and a pass catching tight end, I still need to hear what kind of offensive philosophy and coordinator he is going to choose," Whiteley had told OrangeBloods.com writer Jason Suchomel on Sunday.

Apparently he approves of the outlook at Texas under the direction of Strong. The Longhorns remain in search of an offensive coordinator as the program pieces together a revamped coaching staff, but they managed to add a valuable piece for whoever accepts the position.

Whiteley is rated a 4-star recruit and the country's No. 1 JUCO tight end by 247Sports. He joins a 2014 Texas class that now features 21 players.

Among current Longhorns commits, Whiteley is the first prospect to pledge to Texas since Houston safety John Bonney gave his verbal in September. Expect strong to hit the recruiting trail at a torrid pace prior to national signing day in an effort to elevate a recruiting class that currently ranks 12th nationally, according to 247Sports.

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20 College Football Underclassmen to Watch out for in 2014

With the 2013 college football season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to what’s in store for 2014.

More specifically, which underclassmen will make the biggest impact for their respective teams?

Some on this list have enjoyed tremendous success during their freshman season. Meanwhile, some are prepping to begin their first collegiate season.

All in all, these players will look to have an immediate impact and make opposing defenses pay.

Join B/R as we take a closer look at 20 such players.

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Ohio State Football: 3 Reasons Recent Adversity Will Lead to Fortune in 2014

Not even the arctic chill sweeping through the Midwest could cool the rising anger erupting in Central Ohio right now. The joys of the Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak have quickly evaporated in the midst of their two-game losing skid. The late-season collapse has exposed the worst in fans.

Their venom-laced tirades are squarely focused on the secondary, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell’s head and coach Urban Meyer for refusing to play quarterback Kenny Guiton in the last series against Clemson.

Buckeye fans are as passionate as they come, but they need to relax and take a deep breath. If you trust Meyer, then you must trust that he will fix the problems. No one is more critical of the program than he is, and he’ll get the issues resolved.

The notion that he does not understand or care about defense is nonsense. Keep in mind that Meyer may be known for his offense, but he has been around some of the leading defensive strategists his entire career. Meyer played defensive back in college and coached under Jim Heacock, Sonny Lubick, Lou Holtz and Bob Davie. His key assistants along the way have included Charlie Strong, Greg Mattison, Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen. The wisdom gained from serving with these coaches for 28 years will help forge the turnaround.

The pill is bitter, but adversity will be good for this program. Here are three reasons why the pains of 2013 should bring joys in 2014.

 

Coaching

No one likes to eat humble pie, but a little taste of it should get Meyer’s competitive juices flowing like a river.

The losses have probably rattled the confidence of his players and their beliefs in his system. That is okay. As the team recovers from the agony of losing, Meyer has the opportunity to do his best coaching.

Last spring, website Eleven Warriors revealed that the program hired Focus 3 to help instill leadership skills. The organization’s trademark formula is E (event) + R (response) = O (outcome). The players attended weekly classes to learn and understand how the formula works. Now Meyer can test the formula.

He can push the players to work harder in the spring and summer to improve. He can challenge his assistants to correct the problems and be better coaches. He can open up every position to competition to break entitlement and find leaders. He can build the team the right way for the upcoming season. 

The Buckeyes’ success in 2014 will depend on how well the team responds to Meyer’s pressure. If the players channel the pain of losing into daily actions that foster improvement, the team will reach the goals it failed to accomplish this season.

 

Defensive Identity

For decades, the defense has been nicknamed the Silver Bullets. Under the leadership of players like Mike Vrabel, Antoine Winfield, Will Smith, A.J. Hawk, Cameron Heyward and John Simon, the Buckeyes defense was a perennial top-20 unit. The downward spiral over the last two seasons damaged the reputation of this proud unit, but a major resurgence is imminent.

Every defense needs one player to be the field general that instills confidence and gets everyone on the same page to play cohesively at an extremely high level. This player sets the tone and keeps his teammates focused on doing their job on each play. This type of leadership was inconsistent this year. Next season will be different.  

The one player who will demand the commitment to excellence and define the unit’s identity moving forward is 6’6”, 275-pound defensive end Joey Bosa. His motor and the playmaking ability are incredible. He’ll be the glue that binds the defense.

Bosa finished the 2013 season with 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks and was named to the FWAA Freshman All-America team. Meyer gave his star high praise in an interview with Dieter Kurtenbach of the Chicago Tribune saying "He's better than anyone envisioned as a freshman defensive lineman.”

Expectations are high considering the highly ranked players who Meyer has recruited over the last two years. Fans are optimistic that these players are laying the foundation for greatness on this side of the ball. In an interview with reporters in May 2012, Meyer expressed his concern about talent without leadership though.

Talent will get you about seven or eight wins.  Discipline will start pushing that to nine. Then when you get leadership that’s when magic starts happening. It's when you start getting rings and some really cool things are happening to your team.

Bosa made an impact in 2013 with his talent, intensity and work ethic. He’ll lead the defense in 2014 with his ability to inspire the players and unify them into upholding the standards of being a Silver Bullet. When this happens, Meyer will get the magic he is seeking.

 

Balance

Michigan State did the Big Ten Conference a huge favor when it beat Ohio State. Outside of a couple of seasons, the Buckeyes have dominated the league for 10 years. Ohio State’s reputation has declined a little over this time period too because the Big Ten has been considered weak. With their win, the Spartans restored some competitive balance and injected hope that the conference is on the rise heading into the playoff era.

The devastation felt after Michigan’s epic upset over No. 1 Ohio State in 1969 enraged Woody Hayes and ignited the "Ten Year War." The loss to the Spartans has a similar feel. The Buckeyes are no longer king, and Meyer can use the anguish as fuel to motivate his team. Ohio State needed a new enemy and now it has one.

 

Analysis

The mood is sour in Columbus right now. No one wants to admit that this Buckeye team was flawed, but it was. The luster on Meyer’s capabilities may look a little dim, but there’s no reason to panic. The misfortunes this season will be distant memories in 2014. The program’s foundation is strong, and the stage is set for huge rebound.

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Georgia Football: Damian Swann Is X-Factor to Defensive Development

Returning 10 starters may or may not be a good thing for Georgia football in 2014.  In theory, the experience that comes with a veteran-laden squad should make the Bulldogs one of the most competitive teams in the SEC.  In actuality, however, concerns abound as the incumbents were part of one of the worst defenses in recent Georgia history.

Only significant improvement by the unit as a whole will elevate this defense to its optimal level, but Damian Swann is the x-factor for the team's defensive development.  His ability to transform into a true cover cornerback and emerge as a leader on defense will be vital to the Dawgs' future success.

 

Where He's Been

For a guy who's started 27 games in a row, Swann largely flies under the radar.  While lining up in a defensive backfield that featured three NFL draft picks (cornerback Sanders Commings and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams), Swann thrived in 2012.  He led the team with four interceptions while also registering 53 total tackles.

Admittedly, his sophomore campaign was aided by surrounding talent.  As Jarvis Jones and Cornelius Washington pressured quarterbacks and Alec Ogletree roamed the middle of the field, the other veteran defensive backs executed at a high level in their respective roles.  Commings, a true cover corner, took away opposing teams' top targets, while Rambo and Williams read passers.  This left an opportunistic Swann to make plays when throws were forced.  He did so masterfully.

Unfortunately, the ball-hawking skills he displayed as a sophomore did not translate as Swann settled into his new spot as Georgia's primary cornerback in 2013.  As young players filled a roster that established veterans once called home, Swann's deficiencies were magnified—perhaps unfairly so.

The season was a disappointment, both individually and corporately, for Swann, who told Seth Emerson of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer recently, "The way I look at it is we struggled as a whole.  I struggled, I had my own struggles, and we struggled as a whole."

 

Where He Needs to Be

For the entirety of the 2013 season, opponents picked apart Georgia's pass defense.  While the front seven did a respectable job of pressuring quarterbacks, cornerbacks (including Swann) mishandled coverages repeatedly, while safeties continually seemed lost in space.  The deficiencies of the defensive backs fed off of each other and exacerbated the group's woes.

For the unit to take a step in the right direction, Swann must improve from a technical standpoint.  His athleticism and instincts are more than sufficient, and he's certainly physical enough to play with some of the league's best receivers.  Far too often, however, he relies on those inherent gifts and innate skill sets.  Far too often, opposing receivers blow by him.

His development in one-on-one coverage will take pressure off the safeties and the opposite cornerback. 

Equally beneficial, if Swann can establish himself as a lockdown defensive back during spring practice and the offseason, he will also emerge as the leader of the Georgia defense.  In 2013, the unit lacked direction.  Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's squad was home to only one senior starter, and continued lackluster efforts by the collective whole kept even the standouts (linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and defensive end Ray Drew) from properly captaining the squad.

As a senior, Swann's leadership will be needed.  As the best defensive back on the team, it will be validated.

 

Swann's Potential Impact

Many felt Swann's junior campaign could be his last in Athens.  This time last year, an early jump to the NFL seemed plausible.  While a disappointing season may keep him at Georgia for another year, Swann's talent and potential remains sky high.

Swann told David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free Press he didn't think too hard about leaving after this season.  He added, "I want to be one of those first two-round guys, and to that that you've got to put it on tape."

By all accounts, the talented cornerback is striving for that status.  If he reaches that pinnacle, a 2014 Georgia defense will look completely different, even with a whole lot of familiar faces.  And that is a very good thing.

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If Ohio State's Noah Spence Sues the Big Ten, How Will That Impact B1G's Image?

When news first broke of Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Noah Spence's suspension, something just didn't add up. Now we know why. 

Noah Spence didn't get a three-game suspension for a dietary supplement, like was first reported.

Rather, he was suspended for testing positive for "a small amount of ecstasy" in a random drug test prior to the Big Ten Championship game, according to an interview with Spence's father by WHTM-ABC27 in Harrisburg, Pa. 

That's only half the story, though, as the report also indicates that Spence's family is also considering suing the Big Ten over how it classifies ecstasy. 

Whether or not the lawsuit happens or has a chance to work is for another time. Today, the question is: Will the Big Ten stick to its guns on how it classifies the drug going forward?

It may seem like a matter of semantics, but it is an important question because the answer may affect what seems to matter most in this day and age, its image.

See, the Big Ten classifies it as a performance-enhancing drug, while the NCAA classifies it as a street drug. 

The latter carries with it a far less harsh penalty, while the violation of the Big Ten's performance-enhancing drug policy carries an automatic one-year suspension. 

Spence's family, backed by Ohio State, already won an appeal of the original one-year suspension, according to WHTM's report. 

An apparent second appeal went nowhere fast, hence the consideration of a lawsuit to get the rest of Spence's suspension lifted. 

The difference in how one group classifies the drug is quite dramatic, and it brings the Big Ten's image into question. 

Let's face facts—the Big Ten is seen in a lot of circles as the snobby, old-school, stuck-up conference. After all, who wants to hear about being about "academics and athletics" at every turn? 

Especially when the conference pioneered its own moneymaking machine in the Big Ten Network and is currently the most lucrative conference in the country, with the potential to stay that way in the coming years thanks to its expansion into big television markets. 

That aside, it is important to figure out how the Big Ten looks at how it classifies the drug. 

Let's remember that the Big Ten is classifying ecstasy under performance-enhancing drugs because its affects are seen as similar to that of amphetamines and other stimulants that would help a player's performance on the field.

Whether that actually would happen or not is another question and better left for the professionals, but the conference has a reason for classifying the drug like it does.  

But, by acquiescing in its stance on the drug in this one case and giving Spence a three-game suspension, the Big Ten is opening itself up for some serious issues down the line.

What about the player who unknowingly takes a dietary supplement that contained a trace amount of a banned stimulant?

Shouldn't he/she be treated the same way as Spence? After all, they were just given a supplement and didn't have a way of knowing what was in it. 

See, that's the issue with the "he unknowingly ingested ecstasy in a drink he was handed at a party," argument Spence's family is floating and apparently someone else bought. 

It opens up Pandora's door, and once you do that you can't close the door ever again. 

Whatever happens down the road, the Big Ten needs to be careful in the precedent it sets with this case. Its credibility and image really can't afford to take a hit with television contracts to be renegotiated soon.

What the Big Ten needs to do is work with the NCAA to clarify its classification for drugs and make sure they are uniform in punishment. 

It gives players, families and coaches a clear picture of the consequences of taking a certain drug, and it avoids the issue of the Big Ten looking like the old fuddy-duddy who won't let its players just have a little fun like the rest of people in college. 

 

*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.

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Who Will Be the Auburn of 2014 College Football Season?

The Auburn Tigers, as you've no doubt heard, won the SEC championship and played in the national title game this past season, just one year removed from finishing 3-9 overall and 0-8 in conference play.

Gus Malzahn's team was the story of 2013, even if it came up just short against Florida State in the BCS championship, losing 34-31 on a touchdown in the final seconds. The Tigers were projected to finish fifth in the SEC West by conference media, but they ended up finishing second in the country in the final AP Poll.

Likewise, Michigan State won the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl and finished No. 3 in the final AP Poll, even though it needed to win its final game of the season to become bowl-eligible in 2012. The Spartans were expected to finish third our fourth in their division, the Big Ten Legends, but they ended up winning every conference game by 10 or more points, including the championship against then-undefeated Ohio State.

Now that the 2013 season is over, and media outlets have started publishing their "way too early" predictions for 2014, it bears noting that this is the natural cycle of college football. Teams come up out of nowhere—perhaps not to the extent of an Auburn or Michigan State—and enjoy great success each season; lather, rinse, repeat.

The trick is finding out how to spot them. There's no foolproof method—that is, don't go running to Vegas and buying futures tickets—but potential breakout teams tend to leave some indicators the season before. You just need to know where to look.

Let's give it a try.

 

Recent Success: How to Narrow the Field

One linking factor between Auburn and Michigan State is recent success—prior to the one bad season in 2012. The thinking here is that a bad year can be proven a fluke, whether it be schedule-, injury- or bad luck-related.

This is further validated by Football Outsiders, which studies the sport of college football using sabermetrics and has come to the following conclusion:

It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.

Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.

In layman's terms: A team's performance over a five-year sample is the best way to predict its performance the following year. Other factors—things like personnel losses and coaching upturn—serve to distract us, and sometimes that's justified. But for the most part, good teams are expected to stay good.

We don't have access to Football Outsiders' up-to-date Program F/+ numbers, so it's hard to calculate success over a five-year sample accurately, but even looking at a rough three-year sample might have predicted Auburn and Michigan State to rebound in 2013:

Both teams combined to win 22 games in 2010 and 2011, though Auburn's number is slightly skewed by the national title season, where it played 14 games. Still, both teams took marked steps back in 2012 and then marked steps forward in 2013. 

So why not start there? What are some traditionally proud programs that struggled to win games in 2013? Assuming the next Auburn will be like Auburn—a recently successful team that needs to snap out of a funk—that is the list we should begin with, then whittle it down from there.

Though Michigan State technically made a bowl game in 2012, let's limit this to power-conference teams, like Auburn, that didn't make the postseason in 2013 after finishing with a winning record the previous two years:

Arkansas doesn't satisfy the immediate request of the list, having missed the past two postseasons. We'll include it, however, because the magnitude of its success in the two seasons before that—a record of 21-5—is too large to ignore. As long as the sample doesn't exceed five years, it should still be relevant.

Besides, at this early stage of the process, we can afford to make an exception. Especially for a team whose 2013 season so closely resembles that of Auburn in 2012, there is no reason to get picky so soon. We'll see how well the Razorbacks qualify.

 

Turnover Margin

Turnover margin is, quite obviously, something that can affect a team's record. It's also something that tends to normalize from year to year, making it closer to random than most people care to admit.

That's not to say that good coaching can't improve it. Well-coached teams are less likely to turn the ball over than poorly coached teams, for sure. But things like fumble quantity and recovery rate are difficult to account for, and thus they're essentially chalked up to luck. A good study on the matter can be found here.

When looking for bounce-back candidates, checking for fluky turnover margins is always a good place to start. These are teams that we can rightfully call "unlucky" the past season, and we can project—or at least hope—for them to find better luck down the line.

Let's see how Michigan State and Auburn fared in turnover margin the past two seasons:

Both teams improved by more than 10 turnovers this season, which is a significant number. No doubt about it, turnovers help explain each team's respective turnaround.

Auburn's horrific margin in 2012 also helps explain why its record, 3-9, was so much worse than Michigan State's at 7-6. The Tigers didn't start forcing turnovers at a momentous clip this season, but the improvement from awful to average was a big one. So was Michigan State's improvement from average to very good.

Now let's look at out candidates for improvement, with an emphasis on turnovers:

Arkansas jumps off the page, comparing closely with 2012 Auburn once again. Not only did the Razorbacks finish 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC, but they were plagued with the same awful turnover-margin problems, ranking 113th in the nation.

The others could all stand to improve as well, the same way Michigan State did. It's hard to project how and when a team will improve—again, we're operating under the premise that turnovers are more or less random—but one thing to look at is fumbles.

West Virginia, for example, fumbled the ball 30 times this season and recovered 14 of them. That's a shade under 50 percent, which is the normal recovery rate, but dropping the ball 30 times is what's problematic, and also what's likely to decline.

Despite the decent recovery rate, West Virginia finished 122nd in the country in fumbles lost this season, most among teams that played less than 13 games. That makes it an ideal candidate to improve.

TCU lost 13 fumbles and threw 17 interceptions, both of which were tied for 109th in the country. The first number stands to improve with better luck in 2014, while the second number stands to improve with the improved health of quarterback Casey Pachall, who broke his arm in 2013 and never looked the same upon returning.

Florida resembles 2012 Michigan State.

 

Expected Wins

Here is where Auburn and Michigan State deviate, and where we'll begin to see a schism within our potential improvers.

The Tigers were truly awful in 2012. According to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, they were the No. 105 team in America, behind even 1-11 Kansas and 2-10 UNLV. For a team with their resources, that is truly, truly pitiful.

The Spartans, meanwhile, weren't nearly as bad as their 6-6 regular-season record suggested. They finished 15th in the F/+ ratings, one spot behind 12-0 Ohio State and ahead of teams like Utah State, Nebraska, Boise State, Clemson, Cincinnati, Louisville, Northwestern and Northern Illinois—all of which won 10 or more games.

According to the Football Outsiders Almanac (purchase necessary), F/+ scores are "a composite assessment of the possession-by-possession performance of a team over the course of a game." It accounts for a team's raw efficiency independent of record, allowing good teams with poor records to score ahead of poor teams with good ones.

This is a good way to tell which teams were better than their record indicated the previous season. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State combined to go 23-17 last season, but F/+ ranked all three of them among the top 16 teams in America.

It's no coincidence that all were much better in 2013.

Which brings us to an important point: Until now, we've been treating Auburn and Michigan State the same since both improved so dramatically this season. But in truth, there is more than one way to "bounce back." You don't have to follow one specific formula.

You can either be an Auburn, turning a truly awful team into a good one, which is the traditional approach. Or you can be a Michigan State, turning a good team that loses into a good team that wins, shoring up the lucky things like turnovers and close-game success.

Here are the 2013 F/+ numbers of our four candidates:

The quartet breaks into two distinct camps, both less-extreme versions of Auburn and Michigan State in 2012.

TCU and Florida weren't nearly as good as Sparty was two seasons ago, but they were both far better than a 4-8 record might indicate. Like 2012 MSU, they rode a top-20 defense as far as they could, in spite of an anemic offense. Because of it, the Gators and Horned Frogs placed ahead of "good" teams like Fresno State, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Northern Illinois.

Likewise, Arkansas and West Virginia weren't quite as bad as Auburn was two seasons ago, but they were pretty stinkin' bad. The Mountaineers finished behind low-conference non-bowl teams like South Alabama and Florida Atlantic, while Arkansas finished behind both 3-9 Memphis and 1-11 Hawaii.

They'll have a much harder road to improvement than Florida and TCU, which are a few lucky breaks and offensive tweaks away from being next year's Michigan State.

But neither, by definition, can be next year's Auburn.

 

In Conclusion

And then there were two.

West Virginia and Arkansas are the two best bets to be next year's Auburn. Both had a track record of success before one—or in Arkansas' case, two—bad season(s), both had bad luck with turnovers in 2013, and neither was deceptively better than its record indicates. They were crummy football teams.

The comparisons with 2013 Auburn don't stop there, either.

The Tigers ran through the SEC this season on the strength of a dual-back ground game, something Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is famous for tailoring. He isn't a first-year head coach like Malzahn, but he's still getting his feet wet in the conference. If anyone is capable of bullying the SEC like Auburn did, it's a team coached by Big Bret.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is led by head coach Dana Holgorsen, who has a similar offensive reputation as Malzahn. It may have failed a bit in 2013, but Holgorsen is still a progressive, forward-thinking game-planner with a chance to surprise and outsmart his opponent on any given day.

After seeing the offenses he led at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State—not to mention with Geno Smith in Morgantown—are you really willing to bet against his improvement?

The real trick will be defense. Auburn never quite got that side of the ball figured out in 2013, but it was talented and good enough to get by. If either Arkansas or West Virginia can figure out that side of the ball, why can't they be next year's Auburn?

I think that both have a realistic chance, but gun to my head, Arkansas would have to be the choice. With only slight improvement, the Alex Collins-Jonathan Williams backfield tandem could be roughly as good as Auburn's this past season, and the overall talent is better than that of West Virginia's.

Should you bet on it? No. Part of being next year's Auburn is being someone you'd have to be crazy to wager on (sorry @markjskiba). If you'd read this article about Auburn before the 2013 season, you likely would have dismissed it and left a comment calling the writer an idiot—and no one could have blamed you.

But stranger things happen each year. Woo Pig Sooie! 

 

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Clemson Football: How Will NFL Draft Departures Affect Tigers?

CLEMSON, S.C. – When it comes to early NFL draft entries, Dabo Swinney and Clemson’s staff have been more than fortunate over the last five years.

Since Swinney took over full-time in 2008, only four Clemson players have left early for the NFL: defensive end DaQuan Bowers and tailback Jamie Harper in 2010, tight end Dwayne Allen in 2011 and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in 2012.

That run of luck ended following Clemson’s 11-2 2013 season, which wrapped up with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.

Monday, junior wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant declared themselves eligible for the draft, as did junior cornerback Bashaud Breeland. If junior defensive end Vic Beasley (currently mulling his future) joins them, Swinney would double his early NFL departures in one draft cycle.

Mid-January will be very different around Clemson’s football offices as Swinney and Co. plan to fill the holes the early departures leave behind while also putting the finishing touches on the Class of 2014.

How will Clemson account for the NFL draft losses? Let’s take a look.

It is nearly impossible to underestimate how much Clemson will miss Watkins.

He followed a disappointing sophomore season with one of the best seasons by a receiver in Clemson history, catching 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns, setting program single-season marks for receptions and receiving yardage.

His 16-catch, 227-yard, two-touchdown Orange Bowl effort set Clemson single-game records for receptions and receiving yardage and tied an ACC single-game record for receptions.

In just three seasons, he set Clemson career records for receptions, receiving yardage, touchdown receptions and 100- and 150-yard receiving games.

You just don’t replace talent, production, speed and athleticism like Watkins has. He is expected to be a top-15 pick, at the earliest, in the NFL draft.

Bryant’s departure only compounds the problem.

Like Watkins, Bryant entered as a highly touted recruit, but inconsistency limited him in his first two seasons. The 6’5” talent enjoyed a breakthrough this season, catching 42 passes for 846 yards and seven touchdowns. He had two athletic touchdown grabs in the Orange Bowl alongside Watkins.

How does Clemson replace them? Volume. Steady rising senior Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, two touchdowns in 2013) will be back, as will junior Charone Peake, who had emerged as a starter this fall before suffering a season-ending torn ACL.

Rising sophomore Mike Williams made some impressive grabs and raised eyebrows as a true freshman, catching 20 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. And while inconsistent, rising sophomore Germone Hopper (23 receptions, 149 yards, two touchdowns) had his moments as well.

But the real guys to keep an eye on just arrived on campus this week as early enrollees.

Four-star signees Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott will all go through spring practice with their new teammates, and all three have a chance to break into the receiver rotation early.

Kitt is rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 10 wide receiver prospect, and Scott is rated No. 26 by the same site. Kitt is from Sandy Creek (Ga.) High School, Calvin Johnson’s alma mater, and is a polished product with good route-running and over-the-middle ability. He can turn bubble screens into touchdowns, possesses solid speed and leaping ability and can also block downfield.

At 5’10”, Scott is smaller than the 6’2” Kitt but has game-breaking speed and big-play ability as an outside or slot receiver.  Along with Priester, who spent the fall at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy after failing to qualify academically last summer, Clemson’s newest receivers are poised for early impact.

Like Watkins, Breeland bounced back from a disappointing, injury-riddled sophomore year for his best collegiate season. He was a second-team All-ACC selection, making a team-high four interceptions and 13 pass breakups while adding 74 tackles (fifth on Clemson’s defense). He was a hard-nosed hitter and brought serious toughness to a secondary that allowed the 16th-fewest passing yards in the FBS.

Combined with senior Darius Robinson’s graduation, Clemson will be without its top two corners next season.

Rising seniors Martin Jenkins (26 tackles, three PBU, one interception) and Garry Peters (28 tackles, four PBU) will get first crack at the starting roles, but there could be a youth movement afoot.

Four-star 2013 signee Mackensie Alexander redshirted after suffering a preseason groin injury, but if he is healthy, Alexander should make a major push for playing time.

Redshirted freshmen Adrian Baker, Marcus Edmond and Ryan Carter should also contribute: Baker and Edmond nearly played this fall but were held back because of the depth at corner. That won’t be an issue in 2014.

Alexander will lead the way, but youth will be served in the secondary next fall.

How successful will that youth be on either side of the ball? Clemson’s string of three consecutive 10-win seasons could depend on how quickly the youth movement finds its legs and confidence.

 

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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USC TE Xavier Grimble Declares for 2014 NFL Draft

USC lost another underclassman on Tuesday night when tight end Xavier Grimble announced that he would forego his final year of eligibility and declare for the 2014 NFL draft.

"I’ve been at 'SC for four years and have had a pretty productive career," Grimble said, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I’m healthy and just want to move on and give it a shot.... I feel like it was kind of my time."

Grimble has an NFL body (6'5'', 250 lbs) and has shown flashes of NFL talent during his tenure at USC. He wasn't always consistent in 2013, finishing with 25 catches for 270 yards and two touchdowns, but some of that can be ascribed to the up-and-down passing game as a whole.

Despite the average receiving numbers, though, Grimble still has the upside that NFL teams covet, according to former scout and NFL.com writer Daniel Jeremiah:

Grimble becomes the fifth Trojans underclassman to declare for the draft, joining receiver Marqise Lee, center Marcus Martin, safety Dion Bailey and defensive tackle George Uko. That is a lot of talent to lose from a team that struggled at times in 2013, but USC has recruited well enough to realistically weather the storm.

At tight end, senior Randall Telfer and junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick will be back in 2014, and both saw a healthy amount of playing time behind Grimble this past season. Four-star prospect Bryce Dixon, the No. 2 tight end in the class, also committed to USC over UCLA at the Army All-American Game, and he might be an option to see early playing time.

The 6'4'' rising freshman has a lot of similarities to Grimble.

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USC TE Xavier Grimble Declares for 2014 NFL Draft

USC lost another underclassman on Tuesday night when tight end Xavier Grimble announced that he would forego his final year of eligibility and declare for the 2014 NFL draft...

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