NCAA Football

Auburn Football 2014: Complete Preview of Tigers Offense

After falling just short of a national championship, the Auburn Tigers are back in their quest to finish what they started.

Auburn's offense will focus around quarterback Nick Marshall as he looks to take the leap that will keep the Tigers in contention.

Watch as B/R's experts discuss the Tigers offense heading into the 2014 season. 

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USC Football: Practice Philosophy Sets Tone for Sarkisian Era

USC opened its 2014 fall camp Monday with a new take on past Trojans traditions.

"It reminded me of back in the day, coming out here as a kid," linebacker Hayes Pullard told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times

No, these are not Lane Kiffin's Trojans. 

The coming days and weeks of practice, before the Steve Sarkisian era officially begins on Aug. 30, set the tone for the new head coach's tenure.

Fans were welcomed to the first camp session of the new season, and music played over the sound system. The players endorse it, if standout sophomore safety Su'a Cravens is any indication.

Cravens gave his seal of approval via Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com:     

With practices reopened after three-plus years of a closed-door policy, Sarkisian is instilling an atmosphere more reminiscent of the Pete Carroll era.

A looser practice atmosphere certainly didn't seem to hinder the Carroll-era USC teams, of which Sarkisian served as an assistant. Those teams put together a streak of seven consecutive conference championships from 2002 through 2008. 

And in his return as head coach, Sarkisian is guiding players who saw success with a similar practice philosophy just last year.  

In certain ways, the current philosophy is a continuation of the changes interim head coach Ed Orgeron adopted midway through last season. USC rallied from a 3-2 start to reach the 10-win mark after Kiffin's dismissal.

But practice in this new era of USC football isn't merely about allowing in spectators or playing music. At Pac-12 media days last month, Sarkisian promised to test his team's limits despite a thin roster.

"We won't ever change the intensity of practice," he said in reference to the Trojans' limited roster. USC opened camp with fewer than 70 scholarship players due to NCAA sanctions. "It's physical [and] mentally challenging.

"We're going to focus on the exact numbers of reps our starters are getting," Sarkisian added. "If our practices end in an hour and 45 minutes instead of 2 hours and 15 [minutes], so be it."

And therein lies the most significant change Sarkisian and his staff are introducing in 2014. Implementation of an uptempo offense requires a practice with high energy and higher snap counts.

Practice No. 1 worked toward that end, with the Trojans running more than 200 plays, per Fox Sports' Rahshaun Haylock.

The second practice pulled back a bit, per USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham and Chris Swanson, but remained at a high repetition count.

Such a torrid pace must be standard practice fare for USC throughout the season in order for the Trojans to successfully execute the new staff's vision.

A season ago at Washington, Sarkisian's Huskies ran 1,023 plays—99 more than USC ran despite the Trojans playing one more game.

USC has ground to make up in order to reach Washington's pace, and the repetition of practice is designed to address the physical side of that as well as the mental.

At Pac-12 media days, quarterback Cody Kessler described the outlook the Trojans are cultivating in workouts.

"One of our mottos as a team is 'next play.' Next play mentality," he said. "You can't focus on what happened...because as soon as one play ends, you're looking automatically to the sideline for what formation you're in; what play's next."

Come fall, the Trojans are going to have to enact that mindset before spectators and with background noise.

So, in their own way, even the fans and music at USC practices are playing a role in shaping Sarkisian's first season.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.

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USC Football: Practice Philosophy Sets Tone for Sarkisian Era

USC opened its 2014 fall camp Monday with a new take on past Trojans traditions. "It reminded me of back in the day, coming out here as a kid," linebacker Hayes Pullard told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times ...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Michigan Football: 5 Best QBs Wolverines Will Face in 2014

Michigan will spend a lot of time devising game plans for its quarterback Devin Gardner. 

Conversely, the Wolverines will also clock several hours developing strategies to combat opposing signal-callers. 

With a schedule that features road tests at Michigan State and Ohio State, Team 135 will not only face two of the Big Ten's best, but they'll square off against two of the country's best: The Buckeyes' Braxton Miller is considered one of the game's most athletic, while Connor Cook, the Spartans' Rose Bowl MVP, has been name-dropped in Heisman chatter (h/t Tom Dienhart of BTN.com). 

Of course, Connor and Miller aren't the only ones that Greg Mattison's defense must defend against. Notre Dame and Penn State also have talented signal-callers who could pose problems come game day. 

This slideshow will highlight, analyze and rank the five best arms that the Wolverines will battle in 2014. 

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Michigan Football: Team Hungry to Succeed After Offseason Changes

Michigan flamed out at the end of last season, dropping five out of its last six games to finish a mediocre 7-6. That isn’t what Michigan fans expected from Brady Hoke. The disappointing record drove Hoke to hire a new offensive coordinator and reshuffle his defensive staff.

The changes have transformed a team that was dispirited and broken after last season into a group eager to face a difficult road schedule that sends the Wolverines to play at Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.

“The temperament of the team is different,” said defensive back Blake Countess. “The team is hungry, this is the hungriest I’ve seen a team since I’ve been here.”

The defensive changes spurred intense competition during spring practice, and even Countess, an All-Big Ten first-team selection last season (six interceptions, 46 tackles, one interception return for a touchdown) felt pressure to earn his position every day in practice.

Countess specifically mentioned both Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling as players who’ve made tremendous strides this spring.

“Those guys came in as freshmen last year running around with their heads on fire. Both guys had tremendous talent but didn’t understand what they were being asked to do last season.”

Countess’ work has paid off, earning him the right to wear the No. 2 jersey made famous by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson. The jersey does not currently carry a legends designation but that’s just a formality delayed by Woodson’s NFL career. It’s still an incredible honor for a player lining up in the Michigan defensive backfield.

“It’s been a goal of mine since I committed,” said Countess. “I look up to guys like Charles Woodson and Deion Sanders, and they both wore No. 2 in college.”

Top defensive recruit Jabrill Peppers, who has said he hopes to be better than Woodson, will have to wait for the number—Countess has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Michigan needs its defense to be stout—especially early in the season while its offense gets on track, adjusting to a new scheme and integrating new players on the offensive line and at wide receiver.

Could Michigan be poised for another surprise run like its 2011 campaign in which it won 11 games?

For that to happen, the team’s newfound hunger needs to translate into a lockdown defense, and Countess will need to earn the No. 2 jersey on every play.


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.

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

Follow @PSCallihan

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Georgia Football 2014: Preview and Prediction

The Georgia Bulldogs' 2013 season was derailed by injuries to several critical players. In 2014, Mark Richt's squad hopes to bounce back.

Do the Bulldogs have what it takes to contend in the SEC?

Watch to see what the Bleacher Report experts think about Georgia's team this season.

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10 Most NFL-Ready Players in the ACC

The 2014 college football season hasn't quite started yet, so it's only logical that we take a look at what will be coming at least one season from now.  That's right, the 2015 NFL draft is sooner than you'd think and farther away than you'd like.

The ACC is full of NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball as seen by Florida State's run to the national title last year, but there's elite talent outside of Tallahassee as well.  

The players listed here will be eligible for next year's draft and have polished their games enough to make immediate impacts at the next level as well as have the potential to further develop into game changers.  Look for these names to rise on mock draft boards as the season progresses.

From Miami to the Carolinas to newcomer Louisville, here are the 10 most NFL-ready players in the ACC.

 

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LSU Football: 5 Best QBs Tigers Will Face in 2014

The SEC in 2013 will be remembered as "The Year of the Quarterback." 

Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Missouri's James Franklin were all phenomenal last season. All five of those sharp gunslingers have now moved on to the NFL. 

But that does not mean the conference will be weak at the game's most important position in 2014. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis knows there is talent returning under center and will need to have his defense prepared. 

LSU's pass defense was not as dominant in 2013 as in years past. The Tigers accumulated 18 interceptions in 2011 and 2012, but only had 11 last season. They allowed over 229 yards per game against conference opponents, which is the worst mark in the Chavis era by nearly 10 yards.

The group should be improved as sophomore cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are projected to be stars. If they perform at a high level, expect the secondary to be dominant yet again.

Here are the top five quarterbacks LSU will have to defend next season. 

 

*Rankings and stats provided by cfbstats.com, sports-reference.com and 247Sports.com

  

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Ohio State Football: Will Back-to-Back Losses Help or Haunt Buckeyes in 2014?

When the Ohio State football team reported for fall camp on Monday, head coach Urban Meyer gathered his players at midfield and addressed the Buckeyes' disastrous finish to the 2013 season with two simple questions.

"The past?" Meyer asked, according to Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod. "Who gives a s--t?"

The memories of devastating back-to-back losses should be fresh in the mind of every Buckeyes player. Just nine short months ago, Ohio State was one victory away from punching its ticket to Pasadena, California, for a spot in the national title game. 

Michigan State dashed those hopes with a 34-24 upset win in the Big Ten Championship Game. A month later, the Buckeyes were pushed further down their road of despair with a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Those losses came on the heels of a historic win streak. With Meyer at the helm, Ohio State had won a school-record 24 consecutive games before running into the Spartans in Indianapolis. 

Will the Buckeyes bounce back this season?

 

Embracing A Fresh Start

Following Ohio State's loss to Clemson, Meyer spoke bluntly about the pain of coming up short.

"It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn't finish," Meyer said, according to Steven Wine of The New York Times. "It was right there."

Falling short of a national title can create aftershocks that effect the following season. Ohio State experienced that firsthand in 2007 after its devastating 41-14 loss to Florida in the title game.

Searching for ways to get past the crippling defeat and focus his team for the upcoming season, then-head coach Jim Tressel tried to morph disappointment into motivation. He changed the door code to Ohio State's workout facilities to "4114" to serve as a daily reminder for his Buckeyes squad.

That strategy seemed to be working. Despite a November hiccup against Illinois, the Buckeyes worked their way back to the national title game—this time against LSU.

The memories of their implosion against the Gators hadn't faded, though. Instead of fueling the Buckeyes, it rattled them. They fell to the Tigers in convincing fashion.

"We feel like we're a lot better than what we played tonight," safety Anderson Russell said, according to The Associated Press (via CSTV.com). "I'm not really sure what it was, if we were nervous or what."

"We should have learned from our mistakes," defensive end Vernon Gholston added. "Came back here, kind of almost had the same results, so the blame's on us."

Meyer is trying to steer his team away from a similar fate.

 

Finding the Fuel

Meyer's best teams were angry about something.

In January of 2007, it was Meyer coaching the angry Gators that bulldozed Ohio State in the national championship. He came to Columbus with the mission of installing that same attitude, and in year one, it worked.

The Buckeyes were coming off a 6-7 campaign when Meyer took over in 2012. On the first day of fall camp, he laid the ground work.

"You're the Ohio State Buckeyes," Meyer said in a speech to his team, televised by ESPN. "You're an angry football team, and you've got an angry staff. You've got a bunch of guys who are getting ready to start a journey. You're a hungry football team, and I'm proud to be your coach."

That team went on to record just the sixth undefeated season in school history, but because of a bowl ban, the Buckeyes were shut out of postseason play.

The 2013 Ohio State team picked up right where the 2012 squad left off, but it all fell apart once postseason play arrived. Since then, the coaching staff has been trying to find the right way to motivate their team.

According to Doug Lesmerises of The Plain DealerMeyer's last message to his team after the Orange Bowl was short and sweet.  

"Harness this feeling and use it to your advantage.”

At Big Ten media days last week, Meyer's message evolved.

"Every coach's dream is to coach a hungry, angry team," Meyer said, according to Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors

But how does a team use its past failures as motivation without having a crippling effect?

Meyer and the Buckeyes are searching for that balance now.

 

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. 
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412

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Alabama Football 2014: Complete Preview of Crimson Tide Offense

The Alabama Crimson Tide offense is in a state of transition after the departure of four-year starting quarterback AJ McCarron.

How will running back T.J. Yeldon and the Tide offense fare with a new signal-caller?

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts break down Alabama's chances this season.

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How Clemson's Dabo Swinney Can Quiet South Carolina's Steve Spurrier

Back and forth. Back and forth. It is seemingly unending, fueled only by ego and the value of a good one-liner.

Over the last five years, Dabo Swinney and Steve Spurrier have developed one of the best rivalries in college football, fueled by constantly wagging tongues on and off the field.

Sometimes Spurrier, South Carolina’s acid-tongued head coach, starts the barb volley.
Sometimes Swinney, Clemson’s confident head coach, just can’t help himself.

Last month, Swinney started the latest round by telling reporters at ACC media days of Spurrier, per USA Today Sports, that “He's from Pluto and I’m from Mars.”

Spurrier countered, per ESPN's Brett McMurphy: “Dabo still thinks there are nine planets out there.”

And so it goes, back and forth. Spurrier always seemingly has the last laugh, which is exactly how the rivalry has unfolded on the field over the last five seasons. After beating South Carolina in what would be his final game as Clemson’s interim head coach in 2008, Swinney has gone 0-5 against the Gamecocks, the longest streak of futility against USC in the teams’ 111-game rivalry.

Until the Tigers break through on the field, Swinney can’t do a thing about Spurrier’s mouth.

So how does Swinney quiet Spurrier? Just win, baby. To do so, the Tigers must improve in a number of areas across the board. Here’s a look at exactly what that entails.

There’s no questioning how important beating South Carolina is to Clemson.

Swinney’s staff has long had a countdown clock in Memorial Stadium’s WestZone that ticks down each week towards that particular week’s opponent—standard college football decor.

This winter, however, Clemson coaches installed a countdown clock that ticks towards the South Carolina game, set for Nov. 29 in Memorial Stadium. Swinney said at ACC media days that the clock was the coaching staff’s idea, per ASAP Sports.

[W]e have a countdown clock for always the next opponent, and the coaches wanted to put one in for that particular game, and it's really just based on the fact that when you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we've hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship.  So it's obviously something we've got to‑‑ it's a high priority.  We want to get it done.

How does that happen? First thing's first: Control the ball.

Over the last three years, Clemson has scored almost at will against most opponents while employing Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense. In the last two seasons, the Tigers are one of five FBS teams to average over 40 points and 500 yards of total offense per game.

But they haven’t solved South Carolina’s defense. In three meetings, Morris’ Clemson offenses are averaging 15.3 points per game and haven’t held the ball longer than 22 minutes and 43 seconds in any of the three games.

There’s hope this fall, as the Gamecocks are retooling a defense that yielded 20.3 points per game last fall, No. 12 nationally. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is in Houston as the No. 1 overall  NFL draft pick, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (9.5 sacks a year ago) is gone, too. South Carolina’s secondary has questions, with senior corner/safety Brison Williams the only returning starter.

That said, Clemson’s offense has questions, too. The Tigers are replacing the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and No. 2 all-time passer (quarterback Tajh Boyd), their all-time receptions and receiving yards leader (top-five NFL draft pick Sammy Watkins), a 1,000-yard rusher in Rod McDowell and another NFL draft pick in deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant.

Swinney and Co. have expressed confidence in upperclassmen Adam Humphries and Charone Peake and talented sophomore Mike Williams, as well as a trio of highly touted early enrollee freshmen in Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.

Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, Boyd’s backup the past three seasons, has the respect of his teammates, and Swinney told ASAP Sports: “[W]e couldn’t have a guy more prepared to be the starter in the first game (against Georgia) than Cole Stoudt.”

But he must prove it on the field and hold off talented freshman Deshaun Watson, who threw for more than 13,000 yards and passed for more than 4,000 in his Georgia prep career. And while three offensive linemen return from a year ago, a backfield by committee must find bigger holes behind them.

The Tigers must also take better care of the ball. Over the last three seasons, South Carolina owns a 9-1 turnover margin against Clemson, including last season, when the Tigers coughed the ball up six times in Columbia in a 31-17 defeat.

The game was tied at 17 entering the fourth quarter, but the Tigers’ final three drives ended in turnovers as the Gamecocks outscored them 14-0 to win the game.

This fall, Clemson’s offense might need some more slack, but its defense is ready to carry its share of the load.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables returns seven starters from a unit that held opponents to 22.2 points per game (No. 24 nationally) and ranked No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss per game, No. 5 in third-down conversion percentage and No. 13 in sacks per game.

The entire defensive line two-deep returns, led by senior All-America defensive end Vic Beasley. Senior middle linebacker Stephone Anthony is a nasty anchor for the linebacker corps, and the secondary should be just fine despite losing two starters, thanks to the likely emergence of redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a star in waiting.

If Clemson’s defense can keep South Carolina’s offense off the field (something that didn’t happen much the past three seasons) and open up some opportunities for the Tigers offense, Swinney and Co. stand a good chance at quieting Spurrier.

Well, at least for a little while.

And you’d better believe that would mean plenty to the Tigers program.

“That's certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years,” Swinney said, per ASAP Sports. “From an in‑state standpoint but also nationally.”

 

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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Georgia Football: Meet Amarlo Herrera, the Dawgs' Most Underrated Star

For a guy who's done so much, Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Amarlo Herrera sure is forgettable.  At least that was the message this summer.

The rising senior's 30 career starts at linebacker, 219 tackles and a slew of other impressive statistics haven't merited much attention this preseason.  

At SEC media days last month, fellow Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson garnered first-team All-SEC honors; Herrera did not.  Jordan Jenkins, an outside linebacker for the Dawgs, came in with the second team; Herrera did not.  College football guru Phil Steele placed another Bulldog linebacker, Leonard Floyd, on the third team of his preseason All-American team.  Noticeably absent was Herrera.

While it's strange in and of itself for the senior leader of such a strong position group to be altogether shunned of recognition while the rest of the unit racks up accolades, the oddity is further confounded by Herrera's tenured history of production.  The statistics tell part of the story and the numbers don't lie, but the man has been a beast ever since he arrived in Athens in 2011.

As a true freshman and relatively unheralded member of Georgia's "Dream Team" recruiting class, Herrera immediately asserted himself into the Bulldogs lineup.  He didn't start in the 2011 season opener against Boise State, but he played and performed well enough to move into the starting lineup by the second week.  He went on to start eight games as a true freshman.

By 2012, he was a staple of one of the nation's most talented defenses.  He never became a full-time starter, but he played in all 14 contests and finished fifth on the team in total tackles.  The four players ahead of him—Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo—are now entering their second NFL season.  Even on a team laced with professional talent, Herrera earned his keep.

Last season, when the defense seemed to crumble around him, Herrera remained a rock.  While racking up 112 total tackles (second in the SEC only to teammate Wilson), Herrera proved invaluable in stopping the run and demonstrated a knack for big plays.  None was bigger than his forced fumble in the second half of the South Carolina game, which halted a Gamecock drive at the Georgia 34-yard line with the score tied.

With such an impressive three-year career, the lack of outside respect is bothersome—except to Herrera, who uses the non-mentions as motivation.  When addressing the subject to Radi Nabulsi of 11alive.com, Herrera made it clear that he takes note of media votes and distinctions but is much more focused on improving as a football player:

I didn't care but I felt disrespected. I felt disrespected about the way I played over all the years and just being left off the list. The list doesn't mean anything; it is just their opinion. And me being left off, I really felt disrespected. I'm going to do what I've done every year, get better and better. I'm playing better every year. Specifically I'm working on better footwork, better technique, just [being] a better football player this year.

Other stars on the Georgia defense are expecting the same old, ever-improving Herrera on the field. Jenkins confessed to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald that he didn't know why Herrera wasn't receiving preseason accolades, adding, "I feel like that's only going to make him so much better because he's going to play with a chip on his shoulder."

That chip combined with an extensive knowledge of Georgia's personnel and schemes, could render Herrera the best player on the defensive side of the ball by season's end.  But that might not be anything new.

Last year, it was Herrera who was named Defensive Player of the Year for the Bulldogs despite Wilson's first-team All-SEC validation.  Georgia head coach Mark Richt explained Herrera's merits thusly to Seth Emerson of Macon's Telegraph:

Ramik obviously had more tackles, and Ramik statistically had a better year. Not by a lot, but I think that’s part of the reason why Ramik was first team All-SEC. Amarlo is the signal caller, and he has a lot of responsibility to get guys lined up and communicate a lot of things. He led well, so that’s part of it, too. Because of Amarlo’s extra responsibilities and the way he played and the way he led in the summer, that was a big part of it, as well.

Those close to the Georgia program know Herrera's value, and that's as good of a testimony to his play as any.

For this Georgia defense to be successful, the front seven must be dominant.  The secondary is still very much a work in progress under the new defensive coordinator, but with the aforementioned host of talented linebackers and a collection of returning linemen, the strength for this defense will be up front.

Look for Herrera once again to serve as the proverbial point guard of the Bulldog defense.  He'll rack up tackles, break up passes and hopefully improve in pass coverage (a skill he emphasized specifically to Nabulsi).  But much of Herrera's most valuable work will be done before the ball is even snapped.  As Georgia rolls out varying defensive packages under Jeremy Pruitt, Herrera and his extensive knowledge and wealth of experience will come into play as he directs traffic from his middle linebacker spot.

Expect a huge season out of this underrated star—even if no one else notices.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

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Florida Football: What Gators Must Do to Reach 2014 SEC Championship

It’s become quite clear that the Florida Gators expect a major turnaround after last season’s 4-8 disaster. From their overwhelming confidence during SEC media days to the way some of the fans boast in the comment section, Florida clearly doesn’t have the mindset of a team coming off its worst season in decades.

Players are also tired of talking about the improvement that’s going to be made and are ready to let their actions speak for themselves, according to Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports.

"I really don't like to talk about what we're going to do," Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said, "I just want to get out there and show it."

Last season, the SEC witnessed the Auburn Tigers go from worst to first in one season, winning the conference championship and coming within seconds of being crowned national champions. With the way Florida is talking, that magical turnaround has certainly popped up once or twice throughout conversations with the team.

What would the Gators have to do in order to shock the college football world and reach the SEC Championship Game?

The turnaround is quite simple and doesn’t require any magic to pull off. Get the offense to at least a respectable level. Sounds easy enough, right?

Brian Leigh of Bleacher Report brought this up in a recent article where he gave Florida a shot to compete for the conference title:

If Roper and Driskel can fix last year's offense, why shouldn't Florida contend for an SEC championship? It doesn't need to be great on that side of the ball; something in the national top 40 would do. With all the talent that returns on defense—a group highlighted by linebacker Dante Fowler and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III—and Muschamp and D.J. Durkin on the sideline, you know the Gators will make it hard for opponents to score. Plus, the SEC East is always up for grabs.

However, a top-40 offense is even asking too much for Florida to compete at the highest level.

Last season, Michigan State finished 13-1 with the second-best defense in the country and an offense that ranked 81st. Some thought the Spartans were good enough to play for a national championship. They had a defense that played at an elite level and an offense that wasn’t always pretty but scored when it needed to most.

As for the Gators, they had the eighth-ranked defense in the country, but their offense sat near the bottom at 115th. It was all-time bad, and there were points in the season when you had to question if Florida was capable of moving the ball against a high school team.

Florida doesn't need to become the next Oregon, just a team that doesn't rank 110th in passing yards and averages less than 20 points. The Gators had a top-10 defense last season, and that likely isn't going to change with seven starters returning. We've seen just how far a defense can carry a team in the SEC; it just needs a little bit of help to balance things out.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is working his tail off to make dreams a reality, and a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback doesn't hurt. 

The Gators have a lot more talent than a 4-8 team and already have one side of the ball looking like a championship contender. If the offense can make any positive strides this season, the Gators have a shot to be the second consecutive improbable SEC champion.

Florida would have then gotten its point across on the field. 

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1 Freshman to Watch for on Every Big 12 Football Team in 2014

As the world of college football recruiting continues to develop, the significance of impact freshmen continues to rise as well.

Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were both freshmen when they won the Heisman Trophy, and there are plenty of other examples of players who tore it up on the gridiron their first season on campus.

In the Big 12, guys like Trey Millard and Shaun Lewis had their impacts immediately felt on their respective squads.

With that, let's check out one freshman to pay special attention to this season for each Big 12 team.

 

*All recruiting information from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Clemson Football: 5 Best QBs Tigers Will Face in 2014

With the reigning Heisman winner on Clemson's 2014 schedule, it should be pretty obvious who tops this list. Other than Jameis Winston, however, there are several solid quarterbacks the Tigers defense will face this season.

Two of the major games on the schedule this season, Georgia and South Carolina, both feature new starters at the position.

Which quarterbacks make up the other four spots on our list?

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Clemson Football: 4 Games That Could Ruin Tigers' 2014 Season

Now that fall practice has begun, the official countdown is on for the Clemson Tigers' trip to Georgia on August 30. 

Can the Tigers repeat last season's success, when they defeated the Bulldogs 38-35 in one of the nation's most exciting games of opening weekend?

Clemson has three straight 10-win seasons, but it will be difficult to reach that mark in 2014. Not only is the schedule tougher, but the Tigers are also replacing a big portion of their offense. Senior Cole Stoudt should successfully replace Tajh Boyd at quarterback, but will it be too late?

Fortunately for Clemson, only three teams on the schedule return last year's starting quarterback. That plays into what should be one of the team's strengths this fall: a ferocious pass rush.

Who are the toughest opponents on Clemson's 2014 schedule? Here are four teams that could get in the way of Clemson reaching another 10-win season or challenge for the ACC title.

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Jahvoni Simmons to Virginia: Cavaliers Land 4-Star LB Prospect

Virginia added one of the best defensive stalwarts in the class of 2015 following the commitment of Jahvoni Simmons.

Simmons confirmed the news via his Twitter account:  

The product of Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is rated as a 4-star prospect and is ranked as the 143rd-best prospect overall and the second-best inside linebacker in the country, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

His arrival in Charlottesville isn't all that surprising. After lagging behind Virginia Tech for some time, the Cavaliers became the odds-on favorites to land the coveted linebacker in 2014, according to 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictions.

Although Simmons didn't know which school he would choose until recently, he has known for the past four years that a college career was all but assured. In an interview with Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue, he spoke about how good of a feeling it was for him to receive his first scholarship offer as a freshman:

Having an offer freshman year is definitely a major accomplishment. I think most eighth-graders and freshman would want to get their first offer early. It’s big knowing your parents won’t have to go into their pocket and pay for college.

At the Nike Football Training Camp in March, Simmons revealed what his plan would be for determining his college choice, per ESPN.com's Gerry Hamilton (subscription required).

"I’ll probably narrow it down to 10 before the season," he said. "Then five from there and commit after that. I may commit in mid-season, or after the season.”

One of the first things that stands out about Simmons' game is his tackling ability. Like so many top high school defenders, he's more than capable of laying out the ball-carrier with a huge hit. What Simmons does so well is understand when the situation calls for a little more caution and simply wrapping up the ball-carrier.

Many coaches will look to their inside linebacker to act as the quarterback of the defense, and Simmons is the archetype of that. He reads the game very well, and 247Sports gives him an eight out of 10 in the category for instincts.

At 6'1" and 225 pounds, Simmons may be a bit limited in terms of how much bigger he can get, but he should be able to add more bulk in time. If he can add a little more size and strength, he'd be an even bigger force on the inside.

Simmons should figure into Virginia's defensive plans within a few years and possibly right when he steps onto the field. He possesses everything you look for in a blue-chip inside linebacker.

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How Clemson Commit Ray Ray McCloud's Bond with Derrick Brooks Helped Him Thrive

From the moment he first stepped onto a football field, Ray Ray McCloud III has been blessed with an uncanny ability to see things before they happen.

His father—Ray Ray McCloud Jr. or Big Ray, as he's known to friends and family—said his son's prowess on the football field was evident when he first began playing organized football at four years old. 

“I put him in flag football leagues with kids who were a year or two years older than him, and he was just doing things that make you say, ‘wow,’ and making it look easy, and then it became like a habit,” the elder McCloud said.

It’s that type of vision and foresight that led him to make a critical decision last summer at a time when his recruiting process was in its infancy.

Instead of competing at a Nike camp in Orlando for a chance to earn a coveted invite to The Opening, Ray Ray skipped the event in favor of attending a church retreat.

“It was about me basically looking myself in the mirror and trying to figure out what God has in store for me,” Ray Ray said. “I already had faith in God, but this kind of helped me realize just how important my faith is to me.”

Big Ray said his son never hesitated with his choice—one that his father predicted would reap rewards later on. 

It's decisions such as that one that let former Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks know that his words were getting through to young Ray Ray. Brooks, who met Ray Ray through his work with Tampa's youth football leagues, immediately gravitated to him and became a mentor to the budding star.  

Ray Ray has spent the last 12 months bursting onto the scene as one of the most explosive playmakers in the 2015 class.

After earning offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Florida, McCloud committed to Clemson last week. While the Tigers celebrated landing a potential future offensive cornerstone and one of the most dynamic players from the Sunshine State, the newly minted member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame beamed with pride.

Brooks vividly recalls the first time he saw Ray Ray in action. Brooks—in the middle of his decorated career with Tampa Bay—was watching his son, Decalon, play in Tampa’s youth leagues when a 10-year-old McCloud caught his eye.

“I was out there just watching the kids run around, and I noticed little Ray Ray instantly,” Brooks said. “His football instinct—or knowledge—he had that at a young age. You could see it then. He was just always a step ahead of all of the other kids out there.”

Brooks had known Big Ray since he moved to Tampa, and their relationship grew stronger after their kids wound up playing on the same youth team a few years later.

The elder McCloud would coach the offense while Brooks served as an assistant coach on defense. It was at that point when the bond between Brooks and Ray Ray—who still to this day refers to the former Florida State star as “Coach Brooks”—would blossom. 

A few years later when it came to McCloud’s recruiting process, Brooks shared clues with Ray Ray that he should look for when dealing with coaches from different schools. After all, Brooks—who was recruited by several schools as a safety when he preferred linebacker—can empathize with what McCloud is going through.

The young Ray Ray prefers playing on the offensive side of the ball in college, while some schools have mentioned liking him as a defensive back.

As their relationship has grown, Ray Ray’s questions have shifted from advice about the recruiting process more to guidance not related to football. 

“I’ve always respected Ray Ray’s football IQ and the questions he’s asked over the years about how to be a better player,” Brooks said. “But our last couple of years, our conversations have shifted more so about being a better person and a better human being.”

As the accolades have come, the messages from Brooks have helped Ray Ray remain humble and focused on the goals he's set for himself and his team. 

“He told me that my talent won’t be enough on its own to succeed,” Ray Ray said. “Coming from him and knowing where he’s been and the things he’s accomplished in football, it really opened my eyes as to what it takes to be great in this game.”

During Ray Ray’s years in middle school, Big Ray would often let his son attend and compete in workouts led by college-bound standouts such as Javier Arenas and O.J. Murdock. The younger McCloud, who would often watch film of his youth games with his father in his free time, dazzled his older counterparts and quickly earned the respect of his peers.

Right before he entered high school, McCloud also joined Unsigned Preps—which is a non-profit organization that works with student-athletes in the Tampa area. Big Ray credits his son’s work with Unsigned Preps as helping him develop his game during the offseason periods.

Over the last two seasons at Sickles High School, McCloud—primarily operating at running back—rushed for 3,635 yards and 36 touchdowns while averaging nearly eight yards per carry.

However, his profile has grown immensely after numerous standout performances on the camp circuit this offseason.

At the Orlando Nike camp in March, the 5’10”, 184-pounder dominated at wide receiver and even took some reps at corner and shined in doing so. One year after winning the skills MVP at the Rivals Camp Series, McCloud took home MVP honors at wide receiver at the same event this year.

His seven-on-seven exploits culminated with a standout performance at The Opening last month. As noted by Luke Stampini of 247Sports, McCloud earned a spot on the event's offensive All-Tournament Team. 

“It was great,” Ray Ray said. “I wanted to prove to people that I can be an all-purpose back or a receiver and do it at a high level. I can play corner if my team needs me. I just wanted to showcase my talent and have fun. It was on national TV, so I wanted to enjoy that and show what I can do.”

In addition to his exploits on the field, Ray Ray—who mentioned pharmacy as a potential major in college—is getting it done in the classroom with a 3.7 GPA.

While he’s been spectacular on the field, one area where Brooks has encouraged his young pupil to improve is providing leadership to his teammates.

As his stature has risen individually, the soft-spoken McCloud has gone through an adjustment period with the attention brought on from his recruiting process. 

“He’s still trying to get comfortable in the spotlight,” Brooks said. “He’s starting to understand it and get more comfortable with it and be able to still go out and perform. He’s a kid who when he gets on that field, he turns the switch on.”

Assuming he and good friend and fellow Tampa stud recruit Deon Cain maintain their pledges to Clemson, the two Florida products have a chance to follow in the path of former Sunshine State stud recruits and former Tigers Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller.

But before he heads to the next level, McCloud has some unfinished business he hopes to take care of during his senior season at Sickles.

After the Gryphons went 11-2 last season and fell in the Class 7A quarterfinals, McCloud’s main focus is to try to lead his team to its first state title in school history.

One thing that is certain is that there will be plenty of eyes focused on him from this point forward, including the pair belonging to his accomplished mentor.

“I’m just proud of him,” Brooks said. “I’m proud of what he’s done thus far and I’m looking forward to what the future may hold for him, not necessarily as an athlete, but as a citizen and a human being. I’m expecting him to have a positive impact on the world.”

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

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Clemson Football: First Impressions from 2014 Fall Camp

The Clemson Tigers opened fall camp on Friday, and the countdown to the season opener at Georgia is officially on. The Tigers had it easy through the first few days of practice, with the temperatures unseasonably cool and practicing in just helmets and shorts, but expect head coach Dabo Swinney to ramp things up this week.

Swinney, speaking to reporters, said he's never seen weather like this during his time as a college coach, per Clemson's official website:

It has been Cupcake Camp so far, this is my 25th season of college football and I have never been around weather this cool for the first two days. It has been good in that it has added to the energy and the attention to detail by the players. At the same time, we need some hot days from a conditioning standpoint. We know they are coming. When we put the pads on in the heat it will separate some of the positions.

While Swinney and the coaches may want to the see weather warm up a bit, the players likely have no problem with it. Swinney will have the Tigers in full pads for the first time on Wednesday. 

Although Clemson has been on the practice field for just a few days, there has been enough time to make impressions. What are the biggest impressions made from Clemson's first set of practices?

 

Weight Gains

Generally, when you speak of a player gaining weight it's viewed as a bad thing. It's often the wrong kind of weight. Coaches often fear players will not use the time between the end of spring practice and the beginning of fall camp wisely. 

That's not the case anymore, as it's easier than ever for coaches to keep tabs on players and monitor their time in the weight room.

Before the Tigers had their first practice on Friday, the annual fall weigh-in occurred on Thursday evening and, surprisingly, quarterback Cole Stoudt had put on 21 pounds since the spring and weighed in at 231 pounds. At 6'4", Stoudt now has the size to withstand the additional hits he will incur as the starting quarterback.

Isaiah Battle, Clemson's projected starter at left tackle, weighed in at 288 pounds. At 6'7", Battle has struggled to keep weight on in the past and would like to begin the season at 297. For most linemen, though, it's tough to keep the weight on throughout a long season. Battle seems determined, though, per Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier:

"After I leave here, you'll see me with three plates (of food). At least three plates. Nothing less, whatever they have for dinner. Lot of carbs, protein, a lot of meat. I eat three peanut butter and jellies a night, just try to stay consistently eating and adding on my diet."

Redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman showed up at 209 pounds. Gallman is the most diverse back on the roster and is seen as a dark horse to start for the Tigers. The increased weight is good for Gallman as long as it doesn't slow him down. 

 

Charone Peake's Knee

Junior receiver Charone Peake arrived at Clemson with Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in the much-heralded class of 2011. While Watkins and Bryant are now in the NFL, Peake is trying to take over as Clemson's No. 1 receiver.

That quest took a bit of a hit last week when Swinney announced that Peake had minor knee surgery. Remember, Peake suffered a torn ACL last September that forced him to miss the majority of 2013. 

Swinney said Peake's ACL was structurally sound and in good shape. However, is any surgery minor? It has to be a bit concerning that on the eve of fall practice Peake had to undergo another knee surgery.

Peake is expected to only miss about a week of practice. Injuries like this often linger, so expect Clemson's coaches to take it easy on Peake so he isn't re-injured. 

While it may be a setback for Peake, it opened the door a bit for some of the younger receivers on the roster like Trevion Thompson. Thompson looks like Bryant and appears to be in good enough shape to push for playing time this fall. 

 

Battle at Weak-Side Linebacker

Yes, the starting spot at weak-side linebacker belongs to senior Tony Steward. A former top recruit, Steward has battled injuries throughout his Clemson career.

Enter sophomore Ben Boulware.

Coaches have continually praised Boulware, and he will be in the mix for playing time this fall, even if Steward holds down the starting gig. 

To Steward's credit, he has looked good thus far in limited practice time. For the first time in awhile, he doesn't appear to have anything holding him back—and it couldn't have come at a better time. Steward is poised for a big senior season.

What has impressed coaches so much about Boulware is his knowledge of the defense. As a freshman last season, Boulware played in 11 games for a total of 73 snaps. In that limited duty, Boulware made an impact-registering 25 tackles and one interception. 

Throughout the spring, Boulware pushed Steward, and while Steward was listed atop the first post-spring depth chart, it remains fluid.  

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Ranking College Football's Best New Uniforms of 2014

Throughout the offseason, college football programs across the nation released new uniforms that will be worn during the upcoming 2014 campaign. And man, some of them were sweet.

Soon enough, the fresh looks will be on display in a stadium near you, adding to the initial entertainment value of the greatest sport on the planet.

A couple of the following eight sets are meant for a single game, but others are official redesigns for a given program's foreseeable future.

Let's find out which teams will be rocking the best updated uniforms this year.

 

8. Arkansas Razorbacks

Although the Arkansas Razorbacks debuted a secondary logo that has been compared to Pumbaa from The Lion King, their jerseys are less fatty.

Arkansas will don a simplistic design, featuring crisp edges that draw attention to the shoulders, numbers and team name across the middle.

Slight tweaks to the facial region of the Razorback on the helmet actually resulted in a mean-looking animal—though that's definitely the intent of illustrating a feral pig.

On another note, we've been relegated to critiquing the face of an inanimate object. We need football and soon.

 

7. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Adidas typically lags behind Nike in the fashion department, but the Mississippi State Bulldogs have a winner, which they intend to emulate.

Per Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger, "The football uniforms are a tribute to the teams of the 1990s, specifically 1998 when the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference's west division."

Highlighted by the school's "Hail State" slogan, the one-game edition is clean. The maroon and white is not accented by any unnecessary patterns, and it ties the helmet and pants together well.

Mississippi State will wear these for the season-opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Scott Field.

 

6. BYU Cougars

One season after a debut debacle, the BYU Cougars released a superb trio of alternates meant for one game each. Like the stripes on the shoulder, the refined appearances are not flashy, but they are modern.

Dylan Cannon of KSL shared his thoughts, saying the white will help unify the crowd and team by wearing the same color. He continued: "I prefer the two-color scheme, but any time the Cougars go back to the royal I will take it. ...The black-on-black looks sharp and tough: I really like this jersey combination."

BYU will not be lauded for creating a breakthrough, visionary style, but they won't turn heads the opposite direction, either.

Each uniform will be worn at home, with the white on Sept. 20 against Virginia, royal on Oct. 3 versus Utah State and black on Nov. 15 when UNLV comes to Provo.

 

5. Syracuse Orange

The Syracuse Orange received a major upgrade over block-number, basic-outline jerseys of past seasons, which pleased senior linebacker Dyshawn Davis.

For the last couple years, we've been wearing the same uniforms, same orange helmets with the orange pants and the blue. ...We felt like our uniforms [were not] up to date with college. Every time you turn around, it's different colleges in different uniforms. We play against them. We just wanted to feel something new and be part of something new.

Per a release, Syracuse is also honoring tradition: "On the neck, the number 44 is proudly displayed in a military-inspired graphic patch that references the quad and its crossing walkways, the legend of 44, and the team’s annual trip to Fort Drum, N.Y., each year to train with the military."

Ar first glance, the elongated numbers look a little strange. However, Nike's intent was "mimicking the height of New York City’s skyline" even though the cities are nearly 200 miles apart.

Overall, after adding a gray set to its classic combinations, Syracuse finally has some sharp uniforms.

 

4. Washington Huskies

The Washington Huskies are an under-the-radar threat in 2014, but U-Dub's attire demands attention.

Nike did an excellent job blending the purple and gold into each jersey, connecting the black, white and purples with multicolored fading in the numbers.

Washington's black-on-black is one of the toughest sets in the nation, especially when you envision rising star Shaq Thompson barreling down on a ball-carrier.

Two weeks before these uniforms were unveiled, first-year head coach Chris Petersen pulled an April Fools' joke on his squad, debuting a fake pair that were truly horrific. But it's safe to say the Dawgs liked the real ones better.

 

3. Miami Hurricanes

Excluding a pair of Pro Combat specials in 2009 and 2010, the Miami Hurricanes have worn some relatively tame styles over the last decade. Nike's redesign, however, returned a sleek, versatile ensemble to South Florida.

All four jerseys feature an ibis on the shoulders, a tribute to the team's mascot and secondary logo of the early 2000s. The 'Canes have labeled their digs Stormtrooper, Juice, Surge and Smoke, and they are essentially a mix-and-match to be complemented by a white, orange or green helmet.

How did the current Miami players feel about the uniforms? Let's check in with superstar running back Duke Johnson.

Well that answers that.

 

2. Florida State Seminoles

After unveiling a new logo that their fans basically hated, the Florida State Seminoles released a bolder update for their Saturday best.

Florida State branded their set "Ignition Tradition," which head coach Jimbo Fisher emphasized along with how the school sought approval from the Seminole tribe. According to Rivals, Fisher said:

I really believe that the traditions of Florida State are as deeply rooted and important as any in college football and perhaps even more because of our relationship with the Seminole Tribe, and I wouldn't have approved anything that I felt detracted from that. The elements that went into the design changes are all based on our unique history and that's an important part of the story. In fact, we went to the Tribe right away and got their opinion and permission before we took the first step.

The 'Noles kept their classic gold helmet, but a garnet and black option is now available. Additionally, FSU can pair black, white or garnet jerseys with black, white or gold pants.

Most importantly, the reigning national champions will be defending their title in style.

 

1. Oregon Ducks

Death, taxes, and the Oregon Ducks wearing amazing uniforms.

No matter what your fun-hating buddy says, the wings on Oregon's shoulder never get old. Honestly, he's probably just mad his favorite program doesn't have a staple like the Ducks.

Additionally, Oregon must be one of few programs who can sport an unlimited amount of color shades, since this snazzy green is yet another hue. The team busted out the white uniform for the 2013 Alamo Bowl, but they will be used in 2014, too.

Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer discussed how Oregon and Nike created college football's perfect brand.

Our tradition is that we’re willing to push the envelope when it comes to uniforms and branding," Kenny Farr, the school's football equipment administrator, told Kramer. "There are a lot of schools that are based on tradition, and I understand and respect that. But Oregon embraces not having tradition.

Nike constantly outdoes itself for owner Phil Knight's alma mater, and there's no apparent end for us reveling in the program's uniform superiority. Nor do we want there to be.

 

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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