NCAA Football

Alabama's O.J. Howard Finally Meets Potential, Has NFL Draft Scouts Salivating

All eyes were on Alabama running back and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the College Football Playoff National Championship against Clemson on Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, and unfortunately for Henry, that included the eyes of the Clemson front seven.

Sure, he finished with 158 yards on 36 carries, but 50 of those yards came on a first-quarter touchdown run in Alabama's 45-40 win over the top-ranked Tigers.

In the second half, while the top two teams in the country were busy trading body blow after body blow like two heavyweight fighters going toe-to-toe for the belt, Henry found himself bottled up by the fast, physical and deep Clemson defense.

Somebody had to step up, and it was Tuscaloosa's version of a unicorn—tight end O.J. Howard.

The junior caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns for the Crimson Tide, etching his name in stone as one of the most surprising stars in title-game history after not realizing his potential for the majority of his career.

His 53-yard touchdown gave Alabama a 21-14 lead coming out of halftime, and his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown broke a tie in the fourth quarter after head coach Nick Saban stunned Clemson with an onside kick. It was the play that sent the Crimson Tide's momentum into overdrive when they needed it the most. 

As Ben Jones of TideSports.com noted on Twitter, Saban places the blame on himself for not getting him more involved in the game plan over his first three seasons with the program. 

Even in a critical spot on 2nd-and-long late in the fourth quarter with Alabama up one score, quarterback Jake Coker found Howard for a 63-yard catch-and-run down to the Clemson 14-yard line that set up Henry's third touchdown, which iced the game. 

The 6'6", 242-pound native of Prattville, Alabama, came to town as one of the 5-star studs of the 2013 recruiting class, but he never really materialized into the weapon he was touted to be.

"Everything I've heard is that he was kind of lazy," Bleacher Report NFL draft analyst Matt Miller said. "Some of it, too, was because of the way the scheme was designed, they're going to run the ball so much and that is going come in to play. A lot of the focus on the edge was with Ridley and those guys."

Now, things have changed quite a bit for Howard.

His performance, which earned him offensive MVP honors, has scouts at the next level drooling based on his potential, size, running ability, hands and ability to play his best against the best. 

"It moves him up, there's no way around it," Miller said. "I always tell people that you want 'big plus big,' and that's what tonight was. You're going against a Clemson secondary in which every one of those guys is going to play in the NFL, and some of those guys are going to be early draft picks."

It took him long enough.

Howard entered the title game with just two career touchdown catches—both during the 2013 season—394 receiving yards during the 2015 season and the "recruiting bust" label.

"Anybody who follows recruiting knows who O.J. Howard is and that he's a freak and an athlete, but he had never had those numbers until tonight," Miller said. "You got an idea of what he can do. I always say to scout traits over production. Tonight you got to see those two things come together."

Howard has a decision to make after his masterful performance. His career might have been slow to get started, but his junior year ended on the highest of high notes.

Will he strike while the iron is hot and make the jump to the next level?

He was more of a mystery than a monster in college, but that mystery was solved in the biggest game of the season. 

Better late than never.

 

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

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

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College Football Rankings 2015-16: B/R's Final Official Top 25

Now that was worth the wait.

More than four months ago, we started the journey of the 2015 college football season. The hope was we would be rewarded for the experience of navigating a regular season full of non-stop excitement and weekly thrills. We got what we thought would be a pair of great playoff games, only to be handed duds.

But Monday's national championship game in Glendale, Arizona, did not disappoint. Alabama and Clemson played their hearts out, but only one team could come out on top.

And only one can finish atop the final Bleacher Report Top 25.

Twenty-one members of our college football staff voted in this week's Top 25: writers Ben Axelrod, Greg Couch, Ed Feng, Justin Ferguson, Bryan Fischer, David Kenyon, Ben Kercheval, Adam Kramer, Brian Leigh, Mike Monaco, Brian Pedersen, David Regimbal, Barrett Sallee, Brad Shepard, Greg Wallace and Christopher Walsh; video experts Michael Felder and Sean McManus; and editors Eric Bowman, Hunter Mandel and Eric Yates.

First-place votes were worth 25 points, with each subsequent rank worth one fewer point, all the way down to one for 25th place. The 25 highest vote-getters made our list, with the rest falling into the "others receiving votes" category.

See where each team landed after the completion of the 2015 season and then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

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Alabama vs. Clemson: Score and Reaction for 2016 College Football Championship

Defense doesn't win championships. Special teams and big plays win championships.

The Alabama Crimson Tide shocked the Clemson Tigers with four touchdowns of 50 yards or more on the way to a 45-40 victory in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday night. It was Alabama's fourth national title since the 2009 season and cemented its recent run as one of the best ever, as ESPN Stats & Info highlighted:

It was also head coach Nick Saban's fifth career title, and Dan Wolken of USA Today considered Monday's performance one of the coach's best:

The championship was also a testament to Saban's recruiting ability, as John Garcia Jr. of Scout.com noted:

Saban made his impact with a critical decision to attempt an onside kick in the fourth quarter after Alabama had tied the game. It worked—and set up a go-ahead touchdown, which underscored one of the themes from Monday's contest.

Clemson's special teams consistently collapsed: missing a field-goal attempt at the end of the first half and allowing the onside kick and a backbreaking kickoff return for a touchdown by Kenyan Drake in the final quarter. Drake averaged 39.2 yards per return on five attempts.

The Tigers also failed to stop tight end O.J. Howard—who finished with 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns after scoring twice in the last three seasons combined—and running back Derrick Henry—who proved his Heisman Trophy worth with 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson capped a brilliant season with 405 passing yards, 73 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He put up 40 points against the nation's No. 1 scoring defense and was unstoppable throughout the four quarters. He warned the college football world something like that would happen back in 2012:

With players such as Watson and Henry, the offenses wasted little time making game-changing plays in the first quarter on the way to 21 combined points. Although Clemson took a 14-7 lead into the second, Alabama struck first when Henry steamrolled his way through a hole for a 50-yard touchdown.

Robby Kalland of CBS Sports depicted the scene:

Ryan Krasnoo of Sports Illustrated said, "It should be illegal for someone 6'3" and 235 pounds to run that fast." And Bryan Fischer of Bleacher Report recognized the offensive line's efforts on the play:

The Tigers responded with two quick scores. Watson found Hunter Renfrow, who chose Clemson as a preferred walk-on, for two touchdowns in the opening quarter. One went for 31 yards and the other went for 11.

The Alabama defense was having trouble keeping up with the Tigers' early pace. College GameDay shared a look at the first connection:

Fischer weighed in on the development:

B/R Insights pointed out how rare the early defensive struggles were for the Crimson Tide:

Alabama turned the tide in the second quarter when Eddie Jackson picked off Watson, which set up another touchdown by Henry and knotted the game at 14. College GameDay illustrated how difficult it was for the Clemson defense to stop the Heisman winner from scoring from the 1-yard line:

Henry also made some program history in the first half, per ESPN Stats & Info:

The defenses settled down for the remainder of the half, and the teams entered the locker rooms tied at 14. Greg Huegel missed a 44-yard field goal that would have put the Tigers ahead before halftime. It came after time mismanagement by the officials, who failed to stop the clock after a first down and forced Clemson to take its last timeout and try a longer field goal than perhaps it would have otherwise.

Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch offered his support for Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney:

Clemson had reason to be concerned outside of the officials, because cornerback Mackensie Alexander—who was questionable coming into the game with a hamstring injury—left the contest after reaggravating the ailment. Alexander had "been moving at half speed most of the night," according to Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports. "You just knew that hammy would bite at some point."

Right on cue, the Crimson Tide exploited the limited Tigers secondary to start the second half. Jake Coker hit Howard for a 53-yard score after a blown coverage assignment left the tight end wide open down the sideline. SportsCenter captured how open Howard was even after the catch:

Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com acknowledged those kinds of plays have been an issue for Clemson:

The Tigers responded with a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-17 and got a stop when Kevin Dodd recorded an impressive sack on the ensuing possession. Nancy Armour of USA Today put the pressure by the Clemson front seven into perspective: 

Watson looked like a magician with the football as he kept alive a nine-play, 60-yard drive with a number of critical scrambles and perfectly placed throws. While Watson did most of the work, running back Wayne Gallman capped the series with a one-yard touchdown run.

The Tigers had a 24-21 lead, and Watson was drawing a number of comparisons, per Fornelli:

Henry, on the other hand, made more program history during the third, as Alabama Football pointed out:

Early in the fourth quarter, Coker came through with an incredible 38-yard completion to ArDarius Stewart as he was falling backward. That set up the game-tying field goal with 10:34 left. Alabama then stunned Clemson with its surprise onside kick, and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated discussed the gutsy call:

Coker helped the Tide take a 31-24 lead with a 51-yard pass to Howard, who was wide open for the second time. Wolken reacted to the poor defense:

Clemson kicked a field goal to make it 31-27, but Drake opened a two-score margin with a 95-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. It was another special teams disaster for the Tigers at the most inopportune time, and Fischer said it had been foreshadowed:

Clemson wasn't dead yet, as Watson directed an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. He connected with Artavis Scott from 15 yards out for a touchdown, but the Tigers could not convert the two-point attempt and found themselves trailing 38-33 with 4:40 left. B/R Insights noted Watson made history during the drive:

Just when it looked like the Tigers were going to get a stop, Howard busted loose on a tight end screen to put Alabama in field-goal range, and Coker scrambled for a first down with 2:10 left. Michael Wilbon of ESPN remarked on the speed of Howard from the tight end position:

Henry then put the game away from less than a yard out, though the officials delayed their touchdown call to the point that many in the crowd thought Clemson had registered a third-down stop. Mike Farrell of Rivals.com agreed with the ruling but wondered about the execution of the call:

Even with Alabama ahead 45-33 and only 1:07 left on the clock, Watson continued his fight, finding Jordan Leggett for a 24-yard score to trim the deficit to 45-40. It was too little, too late, however, and Alabama clinched the national title with a kneel-down after Clemson failed to recover its onside kick.

 

What's Next?

Unfortunately for college football fans, the offseason is next for every team. Fortunately for fans of both Clemson and Alabama, their squads are well-positioned to challenge for a spot in next season's College Football Playoff.

Steven Lassan of Athlon Sports ranked the Crimson Tide No. 1 and the Tigers No. 2 in his early Top 25 for 2016, largely because of the talent both teams will still have in place. Alabama will likely lose Henry, but running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough will take the reins in the backfield, and wide receiver Calvin Ridley will still be a dangerous threat in the passing game.

Plus, the Crimson Tide ranked in the top six nationally in scoring defense in each of the last seven seasons and will likely reload on that side of the ball once again.

For the Tigers, Watson's return is the primary reason they will be among the nation's best. He proved himself as a Heisman finalist throughout the season and will be on the shortlist of favorites to capture the award next year, especially after Monday's outing. Wide receiver Mike Williams will also return to give Watson another weapon he didn't have in 2015.

A championship rematch is a legitimate possibility next season. Few would likely complain after Monday's incredible, back-and-forth affair.

 

Postgame Reaction

Howard was named Offensive Player of the Game in the aftermath, while Jackson, who tallied the interception, was named the Defensive Player of the Game.

Still, Saban recognized his entire team after the win, per SEC Sports: “It was a tough game. I am so proud of our players.”

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin discussed his coach and “said he was ‘stunned’ when Saban called the onside kick. Said he had to be careful not to make a face that would give it away,” per Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports.

Saban described his rationale for the move, per Mandel: “I called the onside kick because it was 21-21, we were tired on defense, needed to do something to change momentum or wasn't going to win.”

Kiffin also jokingly said, per Mandel, that Alabama had “been resting him for 14 games. He had fresh legs,” when discussing Howard’s breakthrough performance after a quiet career. Saban took responsibility, though, and said “bad coaching” by him is why Howard wasn’t used enough this year, per Josh Bean of AL.com.

On the other side, Swinney was already looking ahead, per Dr. Saturday of Yahoo Sports: “You can't let one game define you. This program doesn't take a backseat to anybody. We can beat anybody, and that's a fact.”

Swinney also said, per College GameDay, “It won't be another 34 years before we'll be back, I promise you that.”

With Watson returning next season, it’s hard to argue with that.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Virginia Tech Football: 5 Reasons Why the Hokies Should Be Optimistic About 2016

After 29 seasons of being in charge of Virginia Tech Football, head coach Frank Beamer retired this past December. The Hokies sent Beamer out a winner with an exciting 55-52 Independence Bowl victory over Tulsa.

While it's tough to say goodbye to a legend such as Beamer, Hokie fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2016 season.

The Independence Bowl victory, along with the arrival of former Memphis Tigers Football coach Justin Fuente, has Virginia Tech fans excited about 2016.

In Fuente's first move, he retained longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster—a popular move around Blacksburg, Virginia.

Can Fuente achieve success in his first season? There are certainly plenty of reasons to believe he can.

Here are five reasons why Virginia Tech should feel optimistic about a return to prominence in 2016.

 

 

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Derrick Henry Breaks Shaun Alexander's Alabama Career Rushing Record

Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry set the school's career rushing record Monday night with a two-yard run in the third quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

In just his third season with the Crimson Tide, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner broke Shaun Alexander's former record of 3,565 yards, which he piled up from 1996 to 1999.

It wasn't just yards that Henry contributed in the game. He opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run, per ESPN CollegeFootball:

It was the 20th straight game Henry scored a touchdown, and he has now broken nearly every Alabama rushing record.

Before his career mark, he already shattered Trent Richardson's single-season Alabama mark of 1,679, with an SEC-record 2,061 yards heading into the championship game.

His 25 touchdowns prior to the game were already a Crimson Tide single-season record, and his two in the first half put him just one shy of Mark Ingram's Alabama career record of 42.

His huge first-half performance was a reason the Crimson Tide were tied with the No. 1 Clemson Tigers at half, per ESPN CollegeFootball:

After the banner year Henry has had, it would seem like he would be a surefire first-round NFL pick, but instead he's a borderline first- or second-round prospect behind Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, according to CBSSports.com.

That might be just enough to put a chip on Henry's shoulder when he enters the NFL considering there wasn't much more he could do during one of the best seasons—and now careers—ever for an Alabama running back.

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Clock Error Costs Clemson Precious Seconds, Plays at End of Half vs. Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers played an entertaining first half in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, but it ended on a sour note as a clock blunder cost the Tigers.

On 2nd-and-8 from the Alabama 37-yard line in the final minute, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson connected with running back Zac Brooks for a gain of 11 yards. The Tigers, with the clock supposedly stopped after the first down, raced to the line to try to conserve their final timeout.

For whatever reason, however, the clock did not stop.

Precious seconds ticked away as Clemson tried to get to the line, and Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney called the team's final timeout. The officials put a few seconds back on the clock, but with no timeouts remaining, Clemson attempted a field goal with nine seconds left in the half.

Swinney was understandably upset with the situation, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy:

The Crimson Tide's D.J. Pettway tipped Greg Huegel's 44-yard field-goal attempt, and it came up short. Had the clock stopped when it was supposed to, the Tigers would have had a chance to move closer for a field-goal attempt or perhaps take a shot at the end zone. Instead, Alabama and Clemson went into halftime tied at 14.    

[Twitter]

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2016 NFL Draft: Ezekiel Elliott Offers Rare Skill Set and Top-10 Value

As the playoffs advance deeper, more teams and fans are looking to the 2016 NFL draft. It’s the time of year to build hope for next season. Which players might be on the board who can make an immediate impact on the win column is at the forefront of many debates.

Finding above-average to great players via the draft is critical for team success. Not only do homegrown players offer long-term control for the franchise, but they also offer a cheap alternative to the free-agency route. The risks of signing a free agent is high because many are damaged goods by the time they are free to test the open market.

One position that has been devalued in the draft and free-agency spending is running back. There is a misnomer that backs are easily replaceable based on instances where backups come in and play fairly well for short periods of time. But the reality is that star running backs still have immense value for a team.

As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Luke Easterling pointed out, the returns for highly drafted running backs since 2005 have been solid. Of course, there are busts like any position, but the numbers don’t lie. Fifty-two different running backs have finished in the rushing yards' top-10 list. Thirty-three of those players were drafted in the first two rounds.

The 2016 class does not look overly strong at this juncture. While early entrants are still trickling in, there is one running back who has everything necessary to be a superstar at the position. Just like Todd Gurley in 2015, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott has a rare skill set worth investing a top-10 pick into.

Elliott’s production in his two-plus years under Urban Meyer was simply incredible. The 6’0”, 225-pound back is graceful as he is fast and powerful as he is calculated. His well-rounded game and football character is what makes him far and away the best running back prospect this season and as good as any running back prospect from the 2015, 2016 and even the potentially legendary 2017 class. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah described Elliott as a "pretty complete" back:

Zeke Elliott is pretty complete as a back. He can do everything.

— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 1, 2016

His 149 yards against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl were a dazzling end to a fantastic collegiate career. It was the 22nd time Elliott ran for over 100 yards in 35 contests, and five of those contests featured a 200-yard performance. This is a player who has sustained excellence despite being the focal point of an offense.

Numbers aren’t necessarily the best predictor of NFL success, though. Traits and talent are. Elliott wins with his unique blend of nuance, God-given talent and mental toughness. He’s put in the work to dominate in areas young running backs rarely have experience in.

When toting the rock, Elliott is a fierce and explosive player. He owns the line of scrimmage with his subtle foot movement, allowing him to draw linebackers closer and create an impossible angle for the defender to make the tackle. This level of nuance is rare to find in a back, especially to see it on a consistent basis.

What was alarming with backs like Trent Richardson and Melvin Gordon, two backs who have not enjoyed the type of success in the NFL as they had in college, is how inefficient they were with their feet behind the line of scrimmage. They didn’t trust their blocking, which can be difficult to see in college because of the talent difference in the trenches.

While Elliott likes to bounce outside at times, he is far from dependent on leaving his assigned gap. There’s also a certain level of creativity that is acceptable for backs, and Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson is a great example of this. Peterson doesn’t hesitate to get outside if he sees the advantageous angle on the edge instead of plowing into a pile for a marginal gain.

Elliott’s creativity is very similar to Peterson’s, even if he isn’t quite the freakish athlete that “All Day” is. In fairness to that statement, very few backs at his size have that level of fluidity, let alone his acceleration and body control. Nevertheless, Elliott compares favorably, even if that is not the comparison I’d go with.

Dancing in the backfield was a huge red flag for Gordon at Wisconsin, and his rookie season was plagued with stone feet when there wasn’t a clear running lane. That may improve for Gordon, but it’s not an issue for Elliott. He only shuffles his feet when necessary to allow his blocking to develop and rarely ends up flat-footed near defenders.

The way Elliott understands leverage and spacing can be the difference between the loss of yards and even a modest gain. Offenses can stomach neutral plays so long as there’s the threat of a bigger chunk at some point. Elliott excels at squeezing extra lemon juice from a previously used lemon.

Many different factors play into the creation of yards after contact. Balance and the ability to withstand hits are incredibly important. Core strength helps runners continue their stride after being hit. But so is the foresight to set up the defender so the hits aren’t straight on.

A great example of this is seen above. Elliott has a clear cut lane off the right guard, and he makes the cut about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. His patience to wait until the guard completes his pulling action exaggerates the strong-side sell, whereas an instantaneous cut as soon as he received the handoff would have tipped off the linebackers and sold his decision too quickly.

Once Elliott shakes off the initial contact at the line of scrimmage, which was more of an arm-tackle than anything else, he’s on track to run directly into or through the linebacker. Elliott expertly dips his inside shoulder to get the lower pad level, and it allows him to easily shed the tackle. His great acceleration is then on display as he changes direction toward the sideline. In what was nearly a wasted play, Elliott gains 15 yards and two broken tackles.

Between the tackles, Elliott has everything needed to be a tremendous back in the NFL. He’s smart and instinctive in reading his keys, can take contact and continue churning his lower body and sets up the next defender while still dealing with his nearest would-be tackler. He forced 63 missed tackles in 265 carries just in 2015, per CFBFilmRoom.com, so he’s clearly not pigeonholed as a speed or power back.

While Ohio State had tremendous success using Elliott’s talent with inside-zone play calls that get him rolling downfield quickly, Elliott also starred when he was asked to read outside-zone runs. On outside-zone plays, the back is asked to read the defense and correctly bounce, bang or bend. See below for an illustration of what those terms mean.

His ability to work in a one-cut scheme is directly due to his excellent vision and great acceleration off his plant foot. Since outside-zone plays get the defense going one direction, it’s key for a back to have the speed to bounce the run off the tight end or tackle or be able to cut upfield or inside, depending on where the lane is. Elliott consistently reads this correctly, as in this example below.

When projecting Elliott into a scheme, he’s been exposed to both inside-zone, power-gap runs and outside zone at Ohio State. His speed, power, quickness, vision and patience make him a fit for whatever an offense wants to run. While a mixed scheme that runs both power gap and outside zone would be perfect for Elliott, only a few teams have the personnel to run a versatile run scheme.

Part of Elliott’s immense value is that he isn’t limited to one specific style of play. Especially true when compared to his draft peers such as Derrick Henry or Kenneth Dixon, Elliott’s ability to challenge defenses as a north/south runner as well as horizontal is why his value is unlike a vast majority of running back prospects. PFF College (via Tod Palmer of the Kansas City Star) provided an eye-opening stat for Elliott that demonstrates his exceptional ability to protect the quarterback:

Random: According to @PFF_College, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott didn’t allow a sack, hit or even a hurry on 103 pass blocking snaps.

— Tod Palmer (@todpalmer) January 11, 2016

The most surprising talent Elliott developed at Ohio State is his ability to pass block. While almost every rookie back has limited experience as a heads-up blocker, Elliott absolutely excels as an extra blocker. He uses leverage and his hands as well as any prospect I’ve evaluated in five years. His ability to read blockers and mirror their movement is second to none in college football.

Elliott is also well-known for his run blocking. Ohio State often used Elliott as the fullback on quarterback draws, which seems odd until seeing him in action. A 225-pound running back shouldn’t be able to move a 300-pound lineman consistently, but he can.

This ability will help him be an immediate NFL starter. Coaches won’t worry about Elliott’s ability as a three-down back with his reliability on passing downs. Compared even to Gurley, Elliott is in a class of his own as far as a complete running back prospect. It even stems into Elliott’s pass-catching ability.

In three years, Elliott notched 58 receptions, 449 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but he was a reliable player who averaged 7.7 yards per catch. Most importantly, Elliott had just one drop in 2015 in 27 total targets, per CFBFilmRoom.com. 

Having three-down talent is what makes solid backs into great ones. His reliability as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker is one thing, but he is explosive and selfless. The cherry on top is his ball-carrying ability. Elliott had just three lost fumbles in 40 career games.

Elliott can carry an NFL offense to respectable levels with even decent blocking. If he’s paired with a quality quarterback, then expect a high-powered unit to form. While it’s possible to find a quality back later in the draft, Elliott is a rare running back prospect who will instantly boost an offense.

The lack of depth in the 2016 class in general, not just at running back, also is a reason Elliott should be a high draft pick. Even if he falls into the teens, he will be a steal. In four years, it is very likely Elliott will be a top-10 player in terms of talent and production.

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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Derrick Henry 1st Player to Run for 100 First-Half Yards in Title Game Since '08

Derrick Henry continues to dominate in the world of college football.

On Monday night, Alabama's Heisman Trophy winner became the first running back since Chris "Beanie" Wells to rush for over 100 yards in the first half of the national championship game, per SportsCenter.

Hopefully for Henry, the result in this national title game is different than Wells' game. His Ohio State Buckeyes lost the national title game to the LSU Tigers in 2008, and Wells ran for 146 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

Henry almost eclipsed Wells' numbers in the first half, rushing for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. One of those carries resulted in a 50-yard touchdown for the game's first score.

SportsCenter provided a clip of the first touchdown of the national championship game:

It's been this kind of season for Henry, who has broken nearly every rushing record in the book for the Crimson Tide.

What's more impressive is that Henry is having this much success against a Clemson run defense that has held opponents to less than 4.0 yards per carry this year. Henry's first-half output was more than the entire Oklahoma Sooners rushing attack could muster in the Orange Bowl, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

Alabama running backs haven't been good pro prospects in recent years, but there's something different about Henry. Maybe Rich Eisen of NFL Network can challenge him to a 40-yard dash later this year:

It's only fitting that this is the last time Henry carries the load for Alabama. He's the main reason why the Tide are in the national title game, and he's ending the season the way he started it: running through, over and between tacklers and giving defenses nightmares.

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Hunter Renfrow vs. Alabama: Stats, Highlights and Twitter Reaction

Clemson Tigers wide receiver Hunter Renfrow came into Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game with three receiving touchdowns on the season.

He was already close to matching that total after one quarter of play Monday.

The redshirt freshman caught both of Deshaun Watson's first-quarter touchdown passes, propelling the ACC champs to a 14-7 lead over the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Watson has received most of the praise as the star quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist of the only undefeated team left in college football, but through the first quarter of play, as Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal noted, Renfrow was the hero:

His first touchdown grab came on a beautifully thrown ball by Watson as Renfrow got behind the secondary and helped Clemson tie the game at 7-7. College GameDay provided a Vine of Watson's throw:

As the first quarter expired, Watson found Renfrow in the back of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown and a one-score lead over the favored Crimson Tide. SportsCenter shared this screenshot, which showed how much Renfrow had to concentrate to make the catch while going to the ground:

The national championship game is a time for stars to step up and shine, but the unknowns such as Renfrow were making a difference early Monday. Renfrow was not a lead character in many of the storylines across America leading up to the contest, but he's becoming a household name, per Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde:

CBS Sports' Jon Solomon thought Renfrow was having the time of his life:

Renfrow was in the right spots at the right time early in Monday's contest, and it benefited Clemson throughout the first half.

Other players will need to step up and make plays if Clemson wants to pull off the upset, but at least Watson has an extra weapon.

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Clemson QB Deshaun Watson Throws Perfect TD Pass, Celebrates with Archery

Passes don't get much better than the one that Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw to get his Tigers on the board in the first quarter of Monday night's College Football Playoff Championship Game.

And throws that perfect deserve celebrating—especially by the quarterback.

With just over five minutes to play in the opening quarter, Watson answered an Alabama Crimson Tide score by connecting with Hunter Renfrow for a 31-yard touchdown. It was a beautiful throw, as it went over the top of the defense and hit the receiver right in the hands.

To celebrate, Watson went with the classic bow-and-arrow:

Perfect pass, perfect celebration.

Watson's touchdown tied the game at seven. 

[Vine]

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Samaje Perine Injury: Updates on Oklahoma RB's Recovery from Ankle Surgery

Oklahoma Sooners running back Samaje Perine will not be on the field until fall practice because of an ankle injury.

Continue for updates.

Perine Underwent Ankle Surgery Monday, Jan. 11

The Sooners' leading rusher in 2015, with 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns, will miss spring practice after having surgery to repair a ligament in his ankle, which he hurt in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, per ESPN's Matt Fortuna.

Clemson held Perine to 58 yards on only 15 carries in Oklahoma's 37-17 loss to the Tigers.

The good news for Perine is that he's handling the situation now and could be ready when the Sooners report to practice again after the summer. Perine was one of the biggest reasons why Oklahoma finished the season strong and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.

He ran for 166, 188 and 131 yards, respectively, in Oklahoma's last three regular-season games, carrying the Sooners to the Big 12 championship.

Oklahoma tweeted an update on Perine's injury, followed by a short statement from head coach Bob Stoops:

Perine's absence will provide opportunities for others to break out in the backfield. Freshman tailback Joe Mixon ran for 753 yards as Perine's backup, with his best performance coming against Oklahoma State, when he had 14 carries for 136 yards and two touchdowns.

While Mixon showed he's going to be great, having Perine in the backfield alongside quarterback Baker Mayfield is the preferred option for the Sooners.

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6'3", 242-Pound Derrick Henry Makes 5'9", 215-Pound Mark Ingram Look Like a Fan

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (5'9", 215 lbs) would look like a big dude compared to a common fan.

Next to Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (6'3", 242 lbs), Ingram finds himself looking like just an ordinary fan. That's just what Henry can to do people.

Ingram—the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner—was an honorary captain for Monday night's College Football Playoff Championship Game. When he stood next to this year's Heisman Trophy winner during the coin toss, nobody could have guessed that the Saints running back played in the NFL.

Now, we have the greatest shot since Baylor's Shawn Oakman became an Internet sensation because of his massive frame at the 2015 Cotton Bowl.

[Twitter]

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Ohio State, Texas, Michigan Top Most Valuable College Football Team Rankings

Ohio State may have fallen short of repeating as national champion, but the Buckeyes will retain a claim among college football’s elite as the nation’s most valuable program.  

The Buckeyes are worth close to an astounding $1 billion, according to a study by financial professor Ryan Brewer at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (h/t Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal).

Last year the Buckeyes surpassed Texas, which this year placed a distant second at $855.05 million to Ohio State’s $946.61 million. Michigan ranked third at $811.3 million.    

Here is a look at the 10 most valuable programs:   

The survey was created to gauge what each program would be worth if it could be bought as a professional franchise. Valuations are determined by revenues and expenses, with cash-flow adjustments, risk assessments and growth projections, per Beaton.

As high a ceiling as these figures may seem, the overall value of the FBS has dropped an average of 1.8 percent, which Beaton elaborated on:

The reasons for the drop were concerns about concussions and football’s safety, declining youth football participation, lack of resolution over pay-for-play concerns, and the scheduling of the College Football Playoff, which saw ratings for the semifinals fall by nearly 40% when played on New Year’s Eve this year, as opposed to New Year’s Day. 

Alabama finished with the second-highest revenue at $120 million with a total value of $694.9 million, the highest in the SEC. That figure is almost three times higher than its national title game counterpart, Clemson, which is worth a reported $237.5 million, 30th in the FBS.

These mind-boggling figures for amateur athletics encompass just how strong the following has become for FBS football. 

To create context, Ohio State is worth more than half of the NBA’s 30 franchises, per Forbes.

This is in an era when most Olympic hopefuls—fellow amateurs—are so strapped for cash that Team USA launched a registry last year to help fundraising efforts to ensure qualified athletes can actually reach the Games in Rio de Janeiro this August.

But the buck clearly doesn’t stop here. Even in a decline, college football is still as prevalent as ever, and these values don’t appear like they'll dwindle any time soon. 

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Alabama vs. Clemson: Live Score, Highlights for CFP National Championship Game

Alabama 7, Clemson 0—Mid 1st Quarter

The No. 1 Clemson Tigers are battling the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide for the national championship.

ESPN is televising the matchup. Bleacher Report is providing scoring updates, highlights, analysis and reaction.

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Kevin Wilson, Indiana Agree on New Contract: Latest Details, Comments, Reaction

The Indiana Hoosiers and head football coach Kevin Wilson agreed to a new six-year contract worth $15.3 million on Monday.

Indiana's official athletics website confirmed the fresh deal through a news release, indicating Wilson would earn $2.55 million in annual salary.   

Wilson has posted a 20-41 record in five seasons but got the Hoosiers to a bowl game this year. He has made the program more competitive since starting 1-11 during his maiden season in 2011.

Director of athletics Fred Glass spoke about the decision to keep Wilson for the long haul, per the news release:

This contract reflects our commitment to Kevin, to continuity, and to Indiana University Football. Kevin has done a great job building our program into one that is competitive with the great teams of the Big Ten and the nation. We are confident that he will continue to lead us to sustained success on the field and in the classroom.

Wilson also commented on the situation and applauded the united administrative front that has allowed him to continue building the program:

Coupled with an already solid foundation, this ensures stability as we continue to build a winning program in the Big Ten East, one of the great divisions in college football. The administration has shown a total commitment to our program development, continuity, staffing, recruiting and facilities, and has invested heavily in the development of and experience for our students. We are excited for the opportunity and embrace the challenge ahead. My family and I love Indiana and we are all proud Hoosiers. Go IU!

Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com alluded to the difficulties Hoosier football has endured of late in Bloomington while assessing Wilson's extension:   

The Big Ten is a difficult conference with established powers such as Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan to contend with in the East Division alone. Thanks to an offense that ranked in the top 25 in scoring this year, though, Indiana put up a fight against some of the Big Ten's best.

Ohio State only managed to defeat the Hoosiers by a score of 34-27, which was Indiana's first loss of the season after a 4-0 start. Wilson's feisty bunch also lost by only eight points to Rose Bowl participant Iowa and by seven to the Wolverines.

Both Jordan Howard and Devine Redding ran for over 1,000 yards in 2015 for Indiana, while quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw for 3,573 yards and 27 touchdowns. In the Pinstripe Bowl, the Hoosiers scored plenty but couldn't get enough stops in a controversial 44-41 loss to Duke, dropping their record to 6-7.

The spread offense Wilson brought with him from Oklahoma has evidently started paying huge dividends. It proved effective this year even with the loss of star running back Tevin Coleman to the NFL.

If Wilson can recruit a bit more talent on the defensive side of the ball and continue helping the Hoosiers light up the scoreboard, a big step forward may be on the horizon.

So while the decision to extend Wilson's tenure may not seem logical based on his bottom-line results to date, there is considerable merit to keeping him in the fold.

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Clemson Fan Takes Shot at Alabama RB Derrick Henry with Sign Ahead of Title Game

It's the last day of the 2015-16 college football season, and with everything on the line on Monday night, you better believe there were some GameDay signs in Glendale, Arizona.

One Clemson Tigers fan didn't hold back as he took a shot at Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry. Emphasis on running back.

Seeing a golden opportunity, the Clemson fan used the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner's position and hairline as the punchline for a sign.

That Tigers fan was hardly the only one taking shots at the Crimson Tide:

Clemson fans aren't messing around with their signs.

The Tigers and the Crimson Tide will square off for the national title at 8:30 p.m. ET.

[College GameDay]

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Keenan Reynolds to Attend President Obama's State of the Union Address

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds will cap off his football career by attending President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday, according to Navy Athletics.

The senior signal-caller will be a guest of Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper:

Reynolds led the Midshipmen to a program-best 11 wins last season and set NCAA records for total points scored (530), career rushing touchdowns (88) and career rushing yards by a quarterback (4,559). 

Reynolds, a four-year starter, led the Navy senior class to 36 wins, tying the program record set by the 1909 class but exceeding the incumbents with three bowl wins.

He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season, which was the highest among Service Academy players since Roger Staubach claimed the sport’s most prestigious award at Navy in 1963.

Here is an impressive list of the players Reynolds finished ahead of in the Heisman race:

This won’t be Reynolds’ first encounter with Obama, as he and the Midshipmen have met with the President twice after winning the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

These prominent meet-and-greets are merely the norm for the star quarterback these days.

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2016 Early-Enrollee Recruits Who Will Make Biggest Impact

College football coaches and fans put plenty of focus on national signing day success. However, concrete evidence of a quality recruiting class isn't truly uncovered until years down the road when young athletes have been allotted time to mature on and off the field.

That's why it's pivotal for every program to land at least a few prospects capable of contributing immediately as true freshmen. This initial climb up the depth chart is aided immensely when high school seniors are able to graduate early and enroll on campus in January.

Players across America are making that leap this week, beginning work in the classroom, living alongside new teammates and preparing for spring practice. It's a significant transition that tests the mental and physical fortitude of talented teens.

We took a look across the national landscape, pinpointing eight early enrollees who will be counted on to contribute. Not every top-rated recruit will encounter opportunities to compete early, so our focus here is on those who appear to have a particularly clear path to instant playing time.   

Begin Slideshow

Clemson vs. Alabama: Latest Predictions Ahead of National Title Game

The undefeated Clemson Tigers are the next team in line to enter the lion's den against the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night in the 2016 College Football Playoff title game.

The Tigers—like their head coach, Dabo Swinney—fear nothing.

They've ran the gauntlet all season long in the ACC against teams such as the Florida State Seminoles, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and a North Carolina Tar Heels team that had won 11 straight games prior to its meeting with the Tigers.

They held the hottest team in the country at the time—the Oklahoma Sooners—scoreless in the second half of the Orange Bowl on New Year's Eve without All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson.

Despite the knee sprain in the first quarter of the Orange Bowl, Lawson is expected to play on Monday night, per the Associated Press (via USA Today).

College football's top-ranked team has "brought [its] own guts" all season, and it's ready for the challenge of facing the sport's gold standard and its architect.

“If you guys remembered, on signing day, I said we're going to win a national championship,” Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander said, per Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com. “I really believed it. ... I said we would be here and we would win it all. We're here and it's time to win it all.”

Alexander was one of the stern voices during media day in Glendale, Arizona, and he took on Swinney's confident and energetic personality when the media asked about Alabama being the favorite in Monday's game.

“You guys really don't believe that,” Alexander said. “You guys are looking at the brand and the big A and what they've done in the past. It's not about that. It's about right now. You guys are looking at the brand too much. That's all. You guys know we've got a better team.”

To a degree, Alexander has a point and a legitimate one at that.

There's an issue, though.

Alexander could be in a limited role at best on Monday night, per CollegeFootball 24/7.

There's also another issue for the Tigers. 

They're playing college football's version of the Roman Empire.

For the fourth time in the last seven seasons, Alabama is playing for a national championship. The previous three trips to the title game were all convincing victories.

It's the same story in a different year for the Crimson Tide.

The more the contenders change, the more dominant Alabama has become.

Under head coach Nick Saban, Alabama has lost just 18 games since 2007.

In the three previous title games that Alabama has played in under Saban, the Crimson Tide defense has only given up 35 total points, including in a shutout in the 2012 title game against LSU.

Yeah, that's the game in which LSU's offense didn't cross midfield until there were eight minutes left in the contest.

However, to Alexander's credit (and confidence), his point has some validity. Plus, have the Tide played a team as talented as this year's Clemson bunch? Outside of Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl last season, not many (if any) can match Clemson's speed and overall talent.

Of course, we've asked this question many times before, and it usually ends with a Saban defense leaving the opponent's offense looking like the fallen in the movie 300.

Alabama gave up 258 yards per game this season, the second-best average in the country.

Clemson gave up 296 yards this season, the seventh-least amount.

Only 16 teams gave up fewer than Alabama's 184.2 passing yards per game this season.

Just four teams gave up fewer passing yards per contest than Clemson's 166.9 passing yards this season.

In Matt Miller's current Top 300 NFL draft board on Bleacher Report, Alabama has four prospects inside his top 50 players, while Clemson has three.

 

Breakdown

When Clemson has the ball

If Clemson is going to keep the Tide from their fourth title in the last seven years, it has to be able to crack the code of the Alabama run defense.

Alabama gave up 962 total rushing yards this season. That's 74 rushing yards allowed a game.

Also, this is the same defense that held LSU running back Leonard Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries.

It's quite good.

Here's what LSU didn't have: Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson.

Watson will be the best quarterback the Tide have faced all season long, and with his dual-threat playmaking ability in and out of the pocket, the Tigers can make life much harder for the Tide defense than some teams have.

On top of Watson's dynamic play under center, Wayne Gallman was the most underrated running back in the entire country this season with 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Throughout the Tigers' undefeated run to Glendale, Watson has been the coolest head in the stadium. For Clemson to have a chance, Watson has to keep that cool demeanor on the biggest stage of the season.

The one thing that's been able to crack Alabama's armor in recent years is a quarterback who can move the sticks and light up the scoreboard with his arm and his legs.

Film study with Saban probably wasn't fun after Alabama's meetings with Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Trevor Knight in the last few years.

Watson might be the best of the bunch, and he'll have to be for the Tigers.

 

When Alabama has the ball

Clemson's defense—led by Alexander and Lawson—is one of the best units in the country.

Deshaun Watson was outstanding all season long, but the Tigers wouldn't be in this position without their defense. (Watch the very end of the Notre Dame game once more.)

But, the Clemson defense has yet to face a weapon like Alabama possesses.

Running back Derrick Henry is college football's version of the Blue Marvel.

Henry was this year's Heisman Trophy winner and became the only player in SEC history to rush for 2,000-plus yards in a season.

He's a tank in terms of his workload and his pure power and strength at 6'3" and 242 pounds.

Clemson ranks inside the top 25 teams in terms of rushing defense, but it's yet to face a bruiser and a force like Henry.

If Lawson and the talented front of Clemson can't get off the line of scrimmage on Monday, Henry might cap off the best season in SEC history for a running back with one more dominant performance.

 

Prediction

Clemson is one of the few teams in the country that can keep up with Alabama's talent and overall excellence.

It's an exclusive list, but the Tigers can beat the Tide.

Will they?

According to the 11 college football experts at Sports Illustrated, 10 of them don't think the Tigers can get the job done:

In the quintet of NFL.com experts who picked the outcome of Monday's title game, all five had Alabama coming out on top:

There's a slim chance Clemson can beat Alabama, and most predictions have the Tide rolling through the Tigers.

But embracing the underdog role has been something Clemson has done all season long.

The Tigers will upset the Tide in a thriller, and it will be thanks to the play of Deshaun Watson.

If Watson plays like the 2010 version of Cam Newton, the Tigers won't have a Heisman Trophy, but they'll have a national championship trophy on their flight back home to South Carolina.

Clemson upsets Alabama, 30-27

 

Michael Whitlow is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can read the rest of Michael's work here or you can follow him on Twitter: @MAWhitlow.

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Chad Kelly to Return to Ole Miss for Senior Season: Latest Comments, Reaction

The Ole Miss Rebels will have at least one of their star NFL draft-eligible players return, as junior quarterback Chad Kelly announced he'll be back in 2016, according to the Buffalo News

Kelly, the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, returned on the belief the Rebels can contend in the SEC next season:

After serious discussion with my family and Coach [Hugh] Freeze, I wanted my friends and fans to know that I’ll be staying at Ole Miss for my senior year. I look forward to completing my degree and graduating from Ole Miss. We’ve lost a lot of starters, but we’re still deep in talent, and I’m excited to get back to work with Coach Freeze, Coach Werner and the rest of the team.

Kelly led Ole Miss to its first 10-win season since 2003, which included its first Sugar Bowl victory in 46 years and a Week 3 win over No. 2 Alabama.

Kelly led the SEC with 4,042 passing yards and 31 touchdowns in just his first season in the nation’s toughest conference. 

Behind his offensive leadership, the Rebels nearly reached the SEC title game before a miraculous 4th-and-25 conversion cost them in a 53-52 overtime defeat to Arkansas that handed them their second conference loss and conceded the division to Alabama.

The drive to build up his heroics and usurp the conference heavyweights under the guidance of Freeze played a major factor in his return:

As a Kelly, I’ve been fortunate to grow up with a tight knit family. Coach Freeze and everyone here at Ole Miss have become a part of my family. We have the best students, the best staff, and just as importantly, the best fans in the country. Our goal this year is to win the SEC West and to compete for a National Championship.

However, Kelly and Co. must do so without three projected first-round picks, as Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell have all declared.

While those aspirations seem lofty, the Rebels do have the nation’s No. 7 incoming recruiting class, per 247Sports, which should provide immediate depth—albeit depth that's young and inexperienced.

Kelly initially enrolled at Clemson in 2012 and was thought to be the heir to Tajh Boyd. But he was dismissed for "conduct detrimental to the program" after two seasons. He signed with East Mississippi Community College in 2014, then enrolled at Ole Miss last year.

His off-the-field antics didn’t spill over in Oxford, though, and he appears more focused on football. If Kelly can find other reliable weapons on offense, the Rebels could be in store for another great year.

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