NCAA Football

7 Senior Stars with the Best Shot at the Heisman Trophy

The Heisman Trophy has become a young man’s award. In recent years, college football has become a game that thrives on young stars who excel quickly and then depart early for the NFL. Its biggest award has reflected that trend. Star players who hang around for all four seasons of collegiate play are exceedingly rare. No senior has won the award since Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006.

However, there is a strong group of senior candidates who could change that trend this fall. These players are focal points of strong teams with standout offenses, and if they thrive, we could have a senior Heisman Trophy winner in 2015. Here are the seven senior stars with the best shot at winning the Heisman Trophy.

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Former Temple Football Player Matt Brown Arrested on Human Trafficking Charges

Former Temple running back Matt Brown was one of two men arrested Tuesday in Baltimore and charged with involvement in human trafficking.

According to WBALTV.com, Brown was arrested after police responded to a suspected prostitution ad. Three underage girls were also taken into custody, and Brown reportedly admitted to the human trafficking accusation.

WBALTV.com also provided a mugshot on Twitter of Brown and the other man taken into custody:

Temple football play-by-play announcer Zach Gelb confirmed the arrested Brown was a former Owl and commented on the arrest:

The 25-year-old Brown played at Temple from 2009 through 2012 with his best campaign coming as a junior, when he compiled 916 rushing yards and six touchdowns, while also scoring on a kick return.

After leaving Temple, Brown spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2013 offseason before signing with the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders, although he never appeared in a game.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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2017 4-Star LB Markail Benton Tweets Top 5

Phenix City, Alabama, linebacker Markail Benton, the No. 27 overall recruit in the 2017 class, tweeted a preemptive list of his top five schools Thursday evening.

Benton's list includes the two logical favorites to sign him—in-state powers Alabama and Auburn—along with Georgia, Florida State and Mississippi State.

Only a sophomore in high school, Benton already checks in at 6'2", 214 pounds. As he fills out his frame these next two seasons, he could turn into a bona fide monster—the type of linebacker prospect who steps in and plays as a freshman.

"He's not without his flaws—no high school sophomore is—but the combination of his size and raw talent makes it easy to see why so many schools are recruiting him," wrote John Talty of AL.com last season.

Benton is the No. 1 recruit from the state of Alabama, which historically makes the Crimson Tide and Tigers the favorites to land him. Here is a list of the past 10 No. 1 players from Alabama:

Seven of those 10 have committed to Alabama, but according to the experts on 247Sports' Crystal Ball, Auburn is the early favorite to land Benton. All seven current predictions are for the Tigers, albeit more than two years removed from signing day.

Can Auburn remain the favorite throughout the cycle? Will Alabama punch back, per usual? Can Georgia, Florida State or Mississippi State break the trend and sign the No. 1 player from Alabama?

Only time will tell. And again—because this can't be hammered home hard enough—there's a lot of time left to do the telling.

But for now, it's nice to know where Benton stands.

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

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Realistic Expectations for LSU Star RB Leonard Fournette

Coming into his freshman season as LSU, it was almost impossible for Tigers running back Leonard Fournette to live up to the hype.

He had the No. 1 overall recruiting ranking in the class of 2014 on his shoulders, head coach Les Miles had compared him to former NBA superstar Michael Jordan at SEC media days, his running back mate, Terrence Magee, had compared him to Adrian Peterson and Fournette himself said he planned on becoming the first true freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.

Well, he didn't turn into MJ or win the Heisman Trophy, but he did have a much better year than Peterson—one that slowed as the New Orleans native adjusted to life as a college football player.

That doesn't mean he won't win the Heisman Trophy in the future, though.

He's listed tied for third with TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin on the Heisman odds board at 15-2 according to Odds Shark, and he will undoubtedly be the focal point of an LSU offense that will be run-based by desire and necessity.

What should LSU fans realistically expect from their super-sophomore running back?

 

Only a Small Jump in Overall Production

Fournette looked the part of a superstar last year, rushing for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns while splitting carries with Magee and Kenny Hilliard. With his two partners in the backfield now gone, it should be "The Leonard Fournette Show" in Baton Rouge.

But who will be the supporting actors?

LSU is at its best when it has a stable of running backs to take pressure off one another and keep one another fresh. Fournette will be leading that corps this year and will have sophomore Darrel Williams joining him along with incoming freshmen Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette.

Is Fournette capable of putting up Melvin Gordon-type video game numbers and breaking the 2,000-yard mark on the ground? Absolutely.

If he does, though, it will likely be an indication that something went terribly wrong at LSU. It would suggest that either the rest of the running backs couldn't supply the support LSU needs at running back or worse—that the passing game has remained more of a myth despite the best efforts from Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to make it work.

Don't get me wrong; Fournette can and likely will be better. And as Emily Dixon of LSUSports.net notes, he's doing everything he can to improve during the offseason:

While 2,000 rushing yards would be nice, it's not what LSU needs. LSU needs around 1,500 from Fournette as the No. 1 running back. That would further solidify Fournette as a star and suggest LSU has fixed its problems, which would go a long way toward the Tigers returning to SEC West contention in 2015.

 

There's No 'I' in 'Team'

From the Heisman Trophy plans before the season to the Heisman pose following his first career touchdown versus Sam Houston State in September, Fournette got labeled—perhaps unfairly—as a me-first player during his freshman campaign on the Bayou.

That's not the most uncommon thing in the world. The de-recruitment process that takes place from the moment a top-tier prospect signs on the dotted line is perhaps a coach's toughest job, and nobody talks about it.

His priorities have seemingly changed this offseason, as Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com notes:

That's the right approach, and Fournette has to keep that mindset throughout the season—even if he does jump squarely in the Heisman mix this fall.

 

More than 400 Receiving Yards

While Fournette's accolades on the ground wowed college football fans, it was his ability in pass protection and as a receiving threat that earned him more snaps as the 2014 season progressed. 

Expect him to be more than just a threat as a receiver in 2015. He showed flashes of what he's capable of last season, catching seven passes for 127 yards and showing off soft hands—particularly in the win over Ole Miss, in which he caught two passes for 41 yards, including a 40-yarder up the seam in the first quarter.

Not only can Fournette act as a safety valve for the eventual winner of the quarterback competition, but he can also split out wide and create matchup problems for opposing defenses. This is something LSU tinkered with last year, as Ross Dellenger of The Advocate noted in November 2014:

Expect more of this. 

LSU desperately needs to find a way for its quarterbacks to get in a groove on short and intermediate routes, and using Fournette as a receiver not only in the flat but also over the middle and on bubble screens is a perfect way to do it.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Notre Dame Football: Biggest Storylines so Far This Offseason

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before we dive too far into Notre Dame football's spring practice, let’s take one final look back at the recent Irish offseason.

In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame's victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, the offseason questions seemed to start and end at quarterback. In analyzing the biggest offseason talking points, we highlighted the men under center, possible returnees and defensive growth.

How do things look now a few months later?

 

Roster Movement

A year ago, Notre Dame's offseason was highlighted by departures.

In addition to the outgoing coaches, the Irish lost out on many of its draft-eligible underclassmen. Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson left for the NFL.

This year, Notre Dame landed two massive re-recruiting coups by ensuring the returns of standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley and top defensive lineman Sheldon Day.

“This was a difficult decision," Stanley said in a press release. "My dream isn't just to play in the National Football League. I want to win a national championship. I've waited to this point so I could watch the actual game and see if I felt any emotion, and I felt a great deal. I am a competitor. I want to play on the top stage, so I've decided that I'm returning to Notre Dame for my senior year.

"We've got a chance to have a special season next year. Many of my teammates are returning, and I've made strong bonds with lots of them. If all of them weren't coming back this year, it would've made it an easier decision to leave. All this, the opportunity to graduate, and much more, led to my decision to stay."

Some projected Stanley to be a first-round draft choice. The left tackle will instead return to South Bend to anchor an offensive line that also brings back fifth-year center Nick Martin and junior-to-be guard Steve Elmer, as well as redshirt sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who earned his first career start in the bowl game.

Day, meanwhile, returns as one of Notre Dame's most productive defensive players, not just linemen.

“I believe we've got an opportunity to have a special season in 2015, and I wanted to be a part of that success,” Day said in a statement. “I was blessed to play in the national championship game as a freshman in 2012, and I want to do everything in my power to reach that stage again with my guys.”

Day's “guys” won’t include offensive lineman Matt Hegarty, who earned 11 starts in 2014. With a year of eligibility remaining, Hegarty will play football elsewhere in 2015, the guard/center announced earlier this month in a statement to ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna:

Unfortunately, I have already had to miss a precious amount of football battling back from my stroke, and I value every rep and opportunity going into my final year of college ball that much more. My goal is to contribute this season, continue to develop my skills and pursue my dream of playing in the NFL. Because of this goal, I have asked for a transfer to play at another school where I can contribute more on the field.

Asked to address the situation Tuesday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said there was a spot for Hegarty on the 2015 roster.

“We thought he would be competing for a starting position,” Kelly said. “He chose to take another option that is available to him because he's going to graduate.”

Later, Kelly was asked if the talented crop of offensive linemen played into Hegarty’s decision to depart.

“I couldn't really begin to get into what his decision is,” Kelly said. “He came out with a statement—I think you all saw his statement. I gave him the opportunity to be the starting left guard. He chose another path. That's all I can really say about it.”

On the other side of the ball, the signs still point to a return from cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who did not play in 2014 as a result of Notre Dame’s academic investigation. Kelly said he has spoken directly with Russell, who started all 26 games in his first two seasons.

“Academically, he’s making the progress necessary to be back here,” Kelly said. “I can confidently say standing in front of you today, he's making all the steps necessary to be back here, be part of our football team this summer.”

The situation isn't as clear for defensive end Ishaq Williams. Kelly said his communication with Williams has been through third parties, and he can’t guarantee Williams a spot on the 85-man roster.

“There are other factors involved,” Kelly said.

The head coach added Williams is working back home.

While we're on the topic of roster movement, Notre Dame officially announced its recruiting class of 2015 and also added graduate transfer Avery Sebastian from Cal.

 

New Coaches

Notre Dame lost both coordinators last offseason, as Bob Diaco at Connecticut and Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio) both exited to be head coaches. It seemed difficult to top that, but the Irish had even more turnover and rearrangement on their staff this offseason.

At least in the short run, it seems impossible for Notre Dame not to take a hit in recruiting with the losses of Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks.

But the Irish did add some intriguing new coaches, beginning with 32-year-old Mike Sanford, who assumes the role of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Former Notre Dame stars Autry Denson and Todd Lyght bring big-name buzz value back to their alma mater.

Just how quickly the revamped Irish coaching staff comes together remains to be seen. Asked how much Kelly has to coach his coaches in the spring, the boss said that’s a requirement, regardless of experience.

“It's always been about that for me,” Kelly said. “Some of it is more overt. In other words, you're out in front of it sometimes a little bit more when you have a veteran staff where you're reminding them, whereas when you have a staff that you've got some new coaches, you're doing more behind the scenes.”

 

QB Situation Stays Stagnant

All eyes will be on Notre Dame's quarterbacks throughout the offseason and into the fall. But so far—since the Irish rumbled past the LSU Tigers—not much has changed.

In early January, Kelly did shed some light on Everett Golson's situation and plan.

At Wednesday's first spring practice, Golson took the first snaps. That means little to nothing, of course, and Malik Zaire received plenty of reps, too.

Kelly said he wants Golson to continue to develop a disciplined approach to playing quarterback.

“Take the last drive in the LSU game, for example, some of the plays he made there,” Kelly said. “Poised in the pocket. Checking the football down. Staying within the realm of the offense. Much of that needs to continue.”

For Zaire, Kelly said he wants his redshirt sophomore signal-caller to continue to lead and to deliver in practice situations, just as he did in his breakout performance against the Tigers in the Music City Bowl.

“He's capable of doing it,” Kelly said. “He showed he has that in him. Now, it has to be on display both in practice and not just in games.”

Asked if he wants to see a clear-cut No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback breakdown this spring, Kelly was noncommittal.

“I really don't know. I really don't know,” Kelly said. “I think it's going to take us some time to get a feel for how this competition is going to go.

“It's one thing to go out there and compete without footballs. It's another thing to put the football in their hands, go run the offense, then we'll have a better sense.

“Based upon what we saw in our bowl preparations, based upon what we saw in the LSU game, I think they're both going to compete. I think they're both very much going to be part of our success in 2015.”

 

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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Tennessee Football: Biggest Storylines so Far This Offseason

This offseason has been anything but boring for the Tennessee football team, so with spring practice kicking off next week, head coach Butch Jones is probably ready to get back to real ball.

It's not that the months since the Vols' victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl have been bad; they haven't.

Just with all the pent-up excitement surrounding the program, and with some old faces gone and new blood being transfused into the roster and coaching staff, it's time to see the first glimpses of the 2015 product.

Sure, the Vols are dealing with some injuries this spring, but they've also got a lot of talent that will be on display when the pads go on.

The college football nation knows it, and nobody in Knoxville is denying it. But before we get cranked up with spring drills and real football beginning March 24, let's rewind on some headlines that have taken place since January.

 

Top-Five Recruiting Class

After taking a losing team and signing a top-10 recruiting class in the 2014 cycle, Tennessee fans were anxious to see what Jones and his coaching staff would do for an encore.

The returns were promising.

When the finishing touches were put on the class with the national signing day commitment of 4-star offensive tackle Drew Richmond, Tennessee secured the nation's fourth-ranked class, according to the 247Sports composite.

It was UT's highest class ranking since 2007.

Not only was the class on the high end of talent, it was extremely deep in vital places where teams absolutely must be strong in order to win championships.

The Vols loaded up in both trenches, signing six defensive linemen and five offensive linemen. They got two definite running backs in Alvin Kamara and John Kelly, as well as a couple of other athletes who could wind up there (Jocquez Bruce and Vincent Perry).

With a dearth of depth at quarterback, the Vols signed three—dual-threats Jauan Jennings and Sheriron Jones, as well as pro-style signal-caller Quinten Dormady. Jennings and Dormady are already in school and will go through spring drills.

UT signed three cornerbacks and three linebackers as well in a class that went 29 players deep. They got two definite immediate-impact JUCO players in Kamara and cornerback Justin Martin.

Despite having holes all over the field, there were seemingly not any reaches in a full and fruitful class. The Vols were able to meet myriad needs with elite players that, at least on paper, improved them all over the field.

Really, the only position where UT still desperately needs numbers is running back, and that's a hurdle the Vols will have to clear in 2015 but will be a primary focus in the '16 recruiting class.

No recruiting class is perfect, but Jones signed another marquee haul that should have UT competing with everybody it plays, perhaps as soon as this season.

 

The Arrival of Expectations

The last time there was any kind of palpable national attention on Tennessee, Derek Dooley's Vols fell on their face.

ESPN's College GameDay set up shop in Knoxville for UT's 2012 matchup against the Florida Gators, and fans flocked to Circle Park by the thousands to welcome the crew long before the evening game.

UT was ranked 23rd heading into that battle, and it was favored and actually led in the second half before Sal Sunseri's defense collapsed and the Vols lost 37-20. That started the downward spiral that led to Dooley's ouster.

This year, the buzz is back.

Several top-25 rankings across the Internet—ESPN.com, Fox Sports and NFL.com to name a few—have UT on their lists.

It's hype Jones doesn't shy away from, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, even if he believes he presides over an unfinished product:

I think it's a compliment to our players. I think it's a compliment to the way we finished. I think people around the country can see the transformation of Tennessee football in all aspects, from our style of play to winning off the field.

But we still have a long way to go. When you look at what this football team was able to accomplish with the inordinate amount of true freshmen playing, having to replace both sides of the line of scrimmage, most of our special teams being comprised of first- and second-year players -- they did a great job.

But can they build on it? Another season having to fight and claw to get to .500 won't be looked upon quite as fondly as 2014.

While Knoxville wasn't exactly as giddy as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's barb, Tennessee coaches, players and fans were thrilled to become bowl-eligible and win a season ago. Now, those expectations skyrocket.

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd are rising stars, the receiving corps and defense should be much improved and the roster holes are shrinking.

Those qualities have to equal wins. It may not be spring practice time yet, but it seems everybody in the college football world has the Vols on the tips of their tongues.

 

Rocky Top Runners

Part of building a championship program and changing a culture that had been lax for so long is cutting ties with players who don't have the same vision.

But the amount of attrition from UT's roster this offseason is uncommon.

While nobody seems particularly alarmed, due to Jones' ability to recruit at a high level and replace those players the way Alabama coach Nick Saban did early in his tenure, the number of goners is high.

Since season's end, receivers Drae Bowles and Vic Wharton left the program. Tight end Daniel Helm, defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix and Jaylen Miller, linebacker Justin King, defensive backs Riyahd Jones and D'Andre Payne, quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back Derrell Scott also left.

Defensive tackle Michael Sawyers was dismissed, and Ryan Jenkins' status is yet to be determined.

Wharton, Helm, Hendrix, Scott and Sawyers were definitely going to or had opportunities to be part of the depth chart moving forward.

"I think if you look around the country, unfortunately it's becoming the norm," Jones told The Associated Press' Steve Megargee, via The Tennessean. "Each individual has different circumstances for leaving. We thank them for being part of our family, and if we can help them moving forward, we'll help them."

There's no way to make everybody happy, but potentially 12 players leaving a roster isn't something you want to deal with every year. Now, a 2014 class that once had 32 players has now shrunk to 24.

While some of those players saw the writing on the wall when it came to potential playing time (or lack thereof), a few were going to be relied on.

That's sort of a byproduct of having to completely retool a roster that wasn't capable of winning in the SEC. When a coach recruits 61 players in two years, some won't stick.

That's why it's a positive thing that UT director of player personnel Bob Welton told VolQuest.com's Paul Fortenberry that UT can be a bit more selective moving forward in whom it recruits with the roster in much better shape.

Maybe this will be the last year that there's such a mass exodus.

 

New Offensive Sheriff

Finally, perhaps the biggest real news so far was the abrupt departure of offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to be Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach and Jones' subsequent hiring of Mike DeBord.

In Jones' eight years as a head coach, Bajakian was his only offensive coordinator, but with the assistant's aspirations to coach in the NFL, the move made sense.

When Jones pegged DeBord—a 59-year-old Michigan administrator who'd been out of coaching for a couple years—it was a decision that was initially viewed as puzzling. Considering DeBord hired Jones back during his tenure as Central Michigan's head coach, however, it shouldn't have been.

The two men have a comfort level, and DeBord shares an offensive philosophy that has led to what Jones told Bleacher Report last month was a seamless transition.

Already armed with a knowledge of the offense and with Dobbs, Hurd and other weapons returning, DeBord told the Knoxville News Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak he expects the Vols' offense to be "fast and furious."

This is the first real big hire Jones has been forced into making since becoming UT's head coach, so it will be widely scrutinized. But there are no hints of concern for Jones.

Entering a year where UT is expected to be strong offensively, the last thing Jones wanted was to hire a coordinator who had no knowledge of the offensive-minded coach's philosophy or to bring in a completely new playbook.

So, DeBord was the guy for the job. Time will tell whether it was indeed the correct decision.

 

All statistics gathered from UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted. Quotes and observations obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines Need Jabrill Peppers to Own Spring Practice

If all goes as planned, this fall could end up being "Breezy" for Michigan's defense. But before Jabrill Peppers makes that happen, the redshirt freshman and former 5-star recruit must make a splash during spring practices.

On April 4, the spring game has to be the Jabrill Show.

Peppers, a 6'0," 205-pounder out of New Jersey, was plagued with injury as a true freshman, allowing for just six punt returns during three appearances. His naysayers loved it. The most talked about kid didn't do a thing. Critics celebrated his misfortune.

But he's back.

He's healthy, and he needs to put his stamp on the team, right now. That goes without saying. According to secondary coach Greg Jackson, the process has gotten off to a comparison-worthy start.

“He reminds me of Rodney Harrison (San Diego Chargers/New England Patriots) when I played [in the NFL]—he reminds of me of Rodney,” said Jackson, who stopped for a moment to reflect on the comparison. “[He’s] enthusiastic, intense during practice…full speed to the ball all the time.

“He’s a kid that’s hungry, ready to prove himself and, you know, a guy like Peppers, you can’t teach hustle. I mean, he’s just got ‘it.’ He’s just got that knack of being a football player. We just keep him going in the right direction, coaching him—I mean, I think he’s going to be a really good player.”

During an interview with MGoBlue’s Steve Kornacki, special teams coordinator John Baxter commented on Peppers’ athleticism. His words echo those of many who have seen the Jersey Kid flex on the field.

"One, he's really intelligent," Baxter said. "Two, he's really explosive. Three, he's really passionate. And four, he might be in the top five most coachable guys we have. You ask him to do it, and he's doing it better than anybody else."

Jackson couldn't help but agree with his colleague's analysis.

“There's no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “The thing about it is, not only is he one of the most coachable guys, he takes everything to heart. He listens to everything you coach him. I mean, he's a guy that goes out and tries to do exactly what you to tell him to do.”

Jackson was cooler than cool Thursday. He was almost too calm while referencing Peppers. His tone would lead one to believe that he was talking about a guy he's coached for years.

“I expect him to see him communicate in the secondary, which he does with no problem,” Jackson explained. “I expect him to hustle to the football, which he does with no problem. I expect him to get his hands on balls, which he does with no problem. I expect him to play the deep middle of the field—he does that great. He tackles great. He does everything you ask him to do—and he does much more. You know, Pep is the type of player that's not going to get relaxed…because he's got fire within.”

Everything. He does everything well in practice. That’s a bold statement. But Peppers rode a tidal wave of hype into Michigan, so it makes perfect sense for coaches to say that. In 2014, Greg Mattison, who is now the D-line coach, raved about Peppers' athleticism, attitude and composure.

Teammates said the same. 

While injured, Peppers was often photographed amping up teammates on the sidelines—something like a coach would do. He was barely out of high school.

There really isn't much Peppers can't do. He's naturally gifted and will probably return kicks and punts and maybe even one day, try his hand as a slot receiver or running back. Who knows? There is no ceiling for Peppers, who was the No. 1- or No. 2-ranked athlete of 2014, depending on the scouting service.

Jackson realizes what he has in Peppers. On Thursday, that's not a corner or a returner, and certainly nothing that involves offense.

"Well, right now, he's a nickel and a safety for us,” Jackson said, without a blink. “That’s the need—where we need him right now. And I think with him playing a safety position and playing inside, I think that's a big plus for us because I think everybody will pay attention to where he is on the inside of the defense. We need him back there because he's a leader, you know.”

Jackson later added: “You always look at a player and think about where he best fits, and you know, we think Pep best fits at the safety position just because who he is and what he brings. You know, it's almost like if you put him at corner, he's out there—you don't really see him.”

As pointed out by Scout.com's Kyle Bogenschutz during the interview session, Peppers has the skill, which he referred to as “swagger,” to back up his talk on the field. That attitude will be important, and Jackson doesn't mind it one bit. 

In fact, he sounded like he almost encourages "Pep" to strut around every now and then.

“That's right; I'm fine with it," Jackson said, with zero hesitation. "As long as he doesn't get out control with it, I'm fine with it. I mean, because everybody has a different way of playing a football game. Some guys are quiet and are terrors on the football field. Some guys are loud and can back it up. Some guys are loud but can’t play. I mean, but he's the type of guy who backs everything up. He's a guy who talks a lot, you know, but he backs everything up.

“And the thing about it is, with Pep, he's not talking just to talk. He's talking to energize the team and himself, you know, to make guys play better. So, everything he does is positive.”

Peppers has played three games, yet he's been stuck in the national spotlight for more than a year. In fact, he's one of the most talked about players in the country to this day, not just one of the most hyped at Michigan. 

He wasn't present during Thursday's availability, but he somehow managed to rule the conversation.

Spring will be a cinch.

 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer via press conference, press release or other media availability. Stats and bio information comes via MGoBlue. Recruiting information comes via 247Sports.  

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Recruiting Odds on Where No. 1 ILB Lokeni Toailoa Lands

Monday is shaping up to be a huge day for California prospects. Five members of Ground Zero's 7-on-7 team are expected to announce their verbal commitments.

Headlining the bunch is 4-star linebacker Lokeni Toailoa from Wilmer Amina Carter High School in Rialto, California. Toailoa is the nation's top-ranked inside linebacker and, per 247Sports, has a list that includes UCLA, USC, Oregon, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Washington and Utah.

UCLA, USC, Oregon and Notre Dame are considered the frontrunners, and all four schools could use a player of Toailoa's caliber. As the No. 59 player overall in 247Sports' composite rankings, Toailoa is a physical athlete who loves playing downhill and loves making the big hit. He holds his own in pass coverage, but his bread and butter is the explosiveness he shows during a run play.

Of the four, UCLA is the heavy favorite, according to 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions. With the four schools primarily in the conversation, here are the odds Toailoa will commit to each school.

 

UCLA (2-1)

UCLA is in a great position entering Monday, as it could land Toailoa, 4-star running back Damian Alloway and 3-star running back Demetric Felton. The Bruins already had four-star inside linebacker Krys Barnes commit on March 14, and Barnes is another member of Ground Zero, so it wouldn't be far-fetched if the duo has discussed being college teammates.

Also, with Rialto being roughly an hour away from the campus, proximity could play a big role in this decision. Toailoa earlier this month told Bleacher Report at The Opening Los Angeles regional that he would love to play close to home where his family could watch all of his games.

 

USC (3-1)

Like UCLA, USC has a home-field advantage of sorts, being roughly an hour away. The Trojans are hoping Toailoa can complete a linebacker trifecta, as they already have 4-star outside linebackers committed in Mique Juarez and Daelin Hayes. Toailoa as a middle linebacker would give USC a solid class at the position.

Toailoa is being recruited to USC by Peter Sirmon, someone he said he is a big fan of. Toailoa is also attracted to the program's winning tradition.

 

OREGON (4-1)

Fresh off one of its best years ever, Oregon is expected to be a hot commodity in recruiting. Toailoa would fit well in the Ducks defense and could see early playing time, as many of the linebackers will either be preparing to graduate or gearing up for their senior seasons upon his arrival to campus.

Inside linebackers coach Don Pellum is Toailoa's primary recruiter, and Toailoa said he's been able to establish a good relationship with him. Oregon may not be able to win the proximity battle with UCLA or USC, but it can boast that it not only won the Pac-12 championship but also was a game away from winning the College Football Playoff last season.

 

NOTRE DAME (4-1)

Playing close to home wouldn't mean as much if Toailoa were to choose Notre Dame. Home games are still broadcast on NBC, which means he would get tons of exposure if inserted into the defensive lineup.

The Fighting Irish only have one commitment for its 2016 class, 5-star offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer, so Toailoa would be a keynote commitment if he were to choose Notre Dame. It should be noted, however, that they signed two inside linebackers in their 2015 class. Still, Toailoa is a huge fan of the school's prestige and the program's tradition.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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Best Fits for Top 10 Uncommitted 2016 RB Recruits

Effective collegiate rushing attacks require significant depth. The most reliable ground games in America utilize multiple running backs who can shoulder the load when called upon. 

The 2016 recruiting class promises to provide reinforcements for offensive backfields across the country. While several premier playmakers—most notably 5-star talents Tavien Feaster and Kareem Walker—have already announced commitments, many top talents remain undecided.

Here's a look at the current recruitment situation and potential landing spots for top uncommitted prospects at the position. 

 

Recruits listed in order of 247Sports' composite rankings.

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These 2015 Monster Recruits Are Living Up to the Hype

When it comes to college football recruiting the word "hype" gets thrown around quite often. Each player is built up by recruiting analysts and pundits across the country. But, there are certain recruits who have all the goods. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder was out at the Opening Regional in Dallas, evaluating the talent. Quarterback Seth Green and tight end Kaden Smith were two players who stood out the most in his eyes. 

What is the ceiling for Kaden Smith and Seth Green? Check out the video, and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

8 Best Indoor Facilities in College Football

Only three schools at the FBS level play their games in domed stadiums, but the number that have the ability to practice indoors is exponentially greater. In the neverending arms race of college football, having an indoor practice facility is no longer a luxury but rather a necessity, and not just for schools in cold-weather climates.

With the ability to work on plays and implement schemes in a closed (and private) environment, schools use these fields as a way to separate practices from the games themselves. Those who have one can do what they want, when they want and how they want, while those still stuck practicing outdoors are at the mercy of mother nature.

Which ones stand out above all others? We note some of the best indoor facilities in the country.

Begin Slideshow

Tommy Stevens Is the Future of Penn State Football

When Penn State takes the field for its first spring practice of 2015 on Friday, there won't be any question who the Nittany Lions' No. 1 quarterback will be.

The 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and one of the top prospects in the 2016 NFL draft, Christian Hackenberg has served as a Band-Aid over not only unprecedented NCAA sanctions but Penn State's transition from the Bill O'Brien era to James Franklin's regime. The former 5-star signal-caller endured a down year statistically in 2014 but is by far the Nittany Lions' best option and has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country with the right talent around him.

Make no mistake about it: There's no quarterback controversy brewing in Happy Valley. But this time next year, it could very well be a different story.

WalterFootball.com currently ranks the 6'4", 234-pound Hackenberg as the No. 3 draft-eligible quarterback for the 2016 draft, and with a strong junior season, it's not a stretch to say the Palmyra, Virginia, native could be the first signal-caller selected in the draft after the upcoming season. That would leave Franklin searching for a new starter for the first time since arriving in State College in early 2014, but the second-year Penn State head coach already likes what he sees in one potential replacement.

Tommy Stevens wasn't as highly recruited as Hackenberg, or even Brandon Wimbush, who was the first quarterback to commit to the Nittany Lions' 2015 class before opting to sign with Notre Dame. A 3-star prospect by way of Decatur Central in Indianapolis, Indiana, Stevens committed to Franklin last November, having also received offers from Michigan State, Cincinnati, North Carolina State and a number of mid-level Big Ten and Mid-American Conference programs.

But in just two months on campus as an early enrollee, Stevens has already managed to catch the eye of his head coach. The Circle City native won't be counted on in 2015 and will likely redshirt behind Hackenberg and redshirt freshman Trace McSorley, but he's already building a bond with Franklin, who is clearly excited for his future.

"Getting Tommy here at mid-semester as our quarterback, he's already went from 187 to 200 pounds. He's 6'3"," Franklin said on signing day. "I called his dad two nights ago just to say everybody's in love with your son, he's just one of these kids that doesn't take things for granted anymore, he's very appreciative.

"I got three text messages in the middle of the night from him saying how much he loves Penn State, how appreciative he is of the opportunity, and I want more of our guys to be like that. Just to be appreciative."

Stevens may be thankful to be a part of the Nittany Lions, but his relationship with Franklin could prove to be mutually beneficial.

As opposed to Hackenberg, who was recruited by the NFL-minded O'Brien, Stevens is more of a dual-threat quarterback and could prove to be a better fit in Franklin's more spread-oriented offensive system. The 21st-ranked quarterback in the 2015 class, Stevens threw for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior season, adding 842 yards and 10 scores on the ground.

Originally committed to Indiana, Stevens was set to stay home and be a Hoosier before receiving a scholarship offer from Penn State in the wake of Wimbush's decommittment. A visit to State College to witness the Nittany Lions' thrilling double-overtime loss to Ohio State sealed the deal for Stevens, who flipped his commitment to Penn State two weeks later.

"It was a hard process overall," Stevens said during the on-campus signing day celebration. "I only took one visit here, and that was enough to show me that this is the place for me."

And after just a couple of months on campus, it's clear he doesn't regret his decision.

"The thing I've noticed the most is probably the family-like feel that's been brought here," Stevens said. "I feel like I've been very welcomed from the very beginning. The guys in the locker room have gone out of their way and the coaching staff as well, they've really taken care of us.

"I'm glad to be here, and I can't wait for that next step forward."

That next step forward will start on Friday, when the long-haired Stevens—nicknamed "Sunshine" by his teammates—takes his first snaps in his new blue-and-white No. 4 jersey. Barring injury, he'll presumably participate in Penn State's Blue-White spring game on April 18 but will then likely be relegated to the scout team for the 2015 season.

But while he'll temporarily take a back seat, all eyes could be back on Stevens this time next year should Hackenberg opt to bring an early end to his college career. Franklin isn't prepared to talk about life without Hackenberg just yet, but it could very well be around the corner, only increasing the emphasis he's placing on having a replacement ready.

"Whenever you're trying to get your No. 2 quarterback, or the quarterback that's competing with your starter, however you want to look at it," Franklin said, "getting that guy ready to play is very, very important."

 

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

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Nebraska Football: Biggest Storylines so Far This Offseason

As Nebraska football’s spring practice winds on, a number of storylines have emerged. Given the hiring of new head coach Mike Riley and the installation of entirely new schemes on offense and defense, the flood of news certainly isn’t surprising. But there are a few storylines that really stand out as we work our way to the 2015 season.

Here are three of the biggest storylines that have emerged this offseason.

 

A Simpler Defense

Under Bo Pelini, Nebraska’s defense was famously difficult and challenging to learn. It appears that under new defensive coordinator Mark Banker, Nebraska’s defense will be far simpler. Junior safety Nate Gerry had this to say about the contrast in styles at a press conference before spring practice (transcript via Huskers.com):

My first impression is that I’m really excited for it. It’s a lot simpler than it was. … That’s the thing [new defensive coordinator Mark Banker] wants us all to do, to be able to get to the ball faster and to stay loose. Last year we had a lot of people overthinking. Mentally we weren’t as sharp as we were maybe supposed to be.

Simpler doesn’t always mean better, of course. Derek Johnson’s noted on HuskerMax that Nebraska’s defense could struggle by insisting on remaining in a three-linebacker set.

But a simpler defensive scheme will, at the very least, mean that talented players are less likely to be kept off the field based on a lack of scheme knowledge. And that change in defensive philosophy might be the biggest one in Lincoln we’ve seen this offseason.

 

A Pro-Style Offense

When Riley first arrived, questions lingered over whether he would be importing his pro-style offense. Certainly, given what happened the last time Nebraska brought in a coach to revamp the offense, things didn’t go well. So many Nebraska fans wanted to downplay the likelihood of offensive upheaval.

And there is some cause for that reassurance. Riley has talked about the need to adapt the game plan to the talent available, per Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star.

"We have what we've done as coaches and we have a new skill set at quarterback almost all the way around," Riley said. "We are trying to blend the two as best we can together so we can help them be comfortable.

"This is not about what we (as coaches) want to do; this is about giving them (the players) the best tools to play fast and win games. It's kind of interesting, and kind of fun for us, too."

With that said, there is no doubt that Nebraska will run a pro-style offense under Riley. In a pre-spring press conference (transcript from Huskers.com), wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp said that Nebraska will have a “pro-style type of offense.”

In addition, quarterback Tommy Armstrong told Eric Olsen of The Associated Press that he was told by offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf that he would “not be a running back” and that his job as a quarterback would be to “sit in the pocket, deliver the ball when I can and make smart decisions.”

How does incorporating a pro-style offense mesh with using the talent available on the roster for Riley? That’s the fascinating question we will see answered in part during spring practice, and in full this autumn.

 

The Starting Quarterback Job Is up for Grabs

Yes, Riley has said that Armstrong’s experience is a benefit as he determines who will start next year at quarterback, per Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star. But that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to win the job.

Gerry DiNardo of the Big Ten Network is in the midst of touring spring practices from around the conference. Check out what he said about the quarterback races he’s seen so far.

 

BTN Spring Practice Tour Stop 3 #Huskers 3rd stop in a row where QB decision isn't clear. NU UM Neb.

— Gerry DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) March 14, 2015

 

A savvy outside observer says Nebraska’s quarterback decision “isn’t clear.” Add in the report from 247Sports that back spasms have been hampering Armstrong's performance and caused him to sit out Wednesday’s practice, and the recipe is certainly there for someone other than Armstrong to win the job.

I previously pegged Armstrong’s chances to be the 2015 starter at 50 percent. Looks like recent developments from spring camp make that number just about right.

 

For a different look at Nebraska football, check out The Double Extra Point.

Or you can use the Twitter machine to follow @DblExtraPoint.

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How Much Did Each Power Conference Team Pay Its Head Coach Per Win in 2014?

The USA Today salary database tells us how much money each FBS head coach earned last season (with the exception of seven coaches, whose schools kept their contracts private).

What it doesn't tell us? Return on investment.

Fortunately, computing how much each head coach earned per win last year is simple: salary divided by number of victories. Using that approach, we found which coaches gave their schools the best and worst values per dollar in 2014.

Here are the findings from each power conference:

 

                       ACC  

Key Takeaways

1. See why Larry Fedora is on the hot seat? In a vacuum, he's a fair-enough bargain, but his two primary in-state rivals, David Cutcliffe and Dave Doeren, are the best values in the conference. This is not the first time Cutcliffe and Doeren have teamed up against Fedora.

2. Based on the available data, the ACC has the fewest bad-value contracts in the country. Of course, the lack of Dave Clawson's and Scott Shafer's contract info plays a role in that, as Wake Forest and Syracuse posted the fewest wins in the conference last season. Still, it's worth noting that the ACC, as far as our data can tell, mines great value from its head coaches.

 

                       Big 12  

*fired after starting the year 2-2

Key Takeaways

1. The Big 12 flaunts the most bad-value contracts in the country, although part of that results from giving out so many big contracts in general. Still, Charlie Weis, Paul Rhoads and Charlie Strong all finished in the bottom five among power-conference head coaches, earning more than $800,000 per win in 2014.

2. The top of the league fails to compensate for the lack of value at the bottom. Kansas State's Bill Snyder, who finished No. 2 in the Big 12 with $322,222 per win, would have finished No. 8 in the ACC, No. 6 in the Big Ten, No. 7 in the Pac-12 and No. 4 in the SEC.

 

                       Big Ten  

Key Takeaways

1. I see you, Kyle Flood. And apparently, so does Rutgers. Flood signed an extension last September that will bump him to $1.25 million next season, making him New Jersey's highest-paid state employee, per Keith Sargeant of NJ.com. Even then, however, Flood's eight wins would have made him the No. 2 value among power-five head coaches. As it stands, he was the runaway No. 1.

2. Former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was one of the best values, in addition to one of the best overall coaches, in high-major college football last season. New head coach Paul Chryst has big shoes to fill after Andersen left for Oregon State. The Badgers will pay Chryst an average of $2.5 million per season, according to Lance Allen of TMJ4 in Milwaukee. Andersen won 19 games in two seasons on a smaller contract, while Chryst went 13-12 at Pittsburgh.

 

                       Pac-12  

Key Takeaways

1. Eight Pac-12 head coaches earned more money last year than Mark Helfrich—and that's omitting Steve Sarkisian, whose salary USC did not disclose, but which one can assume exceeded $2 million. Despite that, Helfrich led Oregon to a Pac-12 title, a victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl and a trip to the national championship game. In February, the Ducks rewarded their head coach with a lucrative and well-earned contract extension, which will pay an average of $3.5 million over five seasons, starting with $3.15 million in 2015.

"The success of our student -athletes on the field and in the classroom will continue with Mark 's leadership," said Director of Athletics Rob Mullens, per the official news release, "and we are thrilled that he will stay at home in Oregon for a long time to come."

2. Not a good look for Mike Leach, whose $2.75 million salary exceeds that of Arizona State head coach Todd Graham. Leach earned his money two seasons ago, when he led Washington State to a surprising bowl game, but the Cougars regressed badly in 2014. Great as Leach can be, another down season might land him on the hot seat.

 

                       SEC  

*did not coach Florida's bowl game

1. Let's start with the obvious: No SEC coach earned less than $300,000 per win. Only four earned less than $420,000. However, while indicting at first glance, most of that concerns the size of SEC head coaching contracts in general. In this regard, one could argue SEC wins are worth more than other conference wins, since they come, by and large, against coaches with bigger salaries. It all depends on how you want to look at it. And that, of course, depends on how you feel about SEC football.

2. Alabama head coach Nick Saban will always rank toward the bottom of this list. His $7.16 million salary is the highest in college football, so even if Alabama went 15-0, his stipend per win, $477,346, would rank below the 50th percentile for power-conference coaches. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has a similar, albeit less extreme, predicament.

 

                       Full FBS Value Chart  

*fired midseason

Key Takeaway

On a win-per-dollar basis, the little guys will always beat the big guys. The No. 1 power-conference value, Flood, rank No. 30 on the full FBS table. The No. 3 power-conference value, Andersen, ranks No. 50.

Again, reading these numbers requires context. Power conference teams pay more per win because their wins, when accumulated near 10 or 11 per season, lead to major bowls on national stages.

And those are worth every penny.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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Alabama Football: How Defensive Injuries Will Impact Crimson Tide's Spring

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama will be a little short-handed on the defensive side of the ball this spring.

Cornerback Cyrus Jones and linebacker Denzel Devall—two regular defensive starters and rising seniors—will miss the spring with injuries suffered during the season, according to an announcement from Alabama coach Nick Saban after Friday’s first session of the spring. Devall had foot surgery while Jones had cartilage in his hip repaired.

These two injuries aren’t the end of the world by any means. In fact, long-term, they may end up being blessings in disguise.

Jones and Devall are two veterans who know the ins and outs of the defense and Saban’s system. They won’t fall behind or miss much by having to sit out the spring.

But this is a massive opportunity for young players at both positions. The Crimson Tide have stars in the making at both spots, a process that could get a little bit of a boost with these extra reps.

At cornerback, Alabama has an embarrassment of riches.

Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown all started games opposite Jones this season. That No. 2 starter was never really solidified, and those three were going to be the ones duking it out for the honor anyway. Now, that process will be accelerated with two spots for starting reps this spring instead of just one.

Behind them, former 5-star Marlon Humphrey should be in line for some sort of playing time after redshirting last season. He should be at least the No. 4 cornerback, getting second-team reps for much of the spring.

Fans are no doubt excited to watch Humphrey’s growth, and they’ll get a chance to do so, but the really intriguing matchup here is between Brown and Jackson, as it's where the No. 2 starter will probably come from.

Both played a lot last year, and both took their fair share of lumps and should be more seasoned and improved in 2015.

Where you’re likely to see a more tangible impact, though, is at outside linebacker.

Devall saw limited playing time last year between his injuries and the wealth of depth behind him. That wealth of talent should be set to shine next year. Senior inside linebacker Reggie Ragland pointed out two in particular.

"Like I tell Tim (Williams), Rashaan (Evans) all the time, 'Denzel's out, it's time for you to step up,’” Ragland said.

At 6’3”, 242 pounds, Williams is everything you look for in a 3-4 pass-rusher. He has shown flashes of that at times during his career, but hasn’t been able to put things together over a consistent stretch.

“I told Tim, ‘You're going on your third year and it's time for him to step up and be the man that you can be,’” Ragland said.

“Because if he puts his mind to it, he can be the best pass-rusher in the country. He can lead the country in sacks, that's how fast and physical he is. He's just got to keep getting in that playbook and keep learning it, because I know he's physical. He's got to come in, and if he does what he's got to do, he's going to be hard to stop."

That’s high praise coming from one of Alabama’s defensive veterans and leaders.

The other, Evans, had an impressive freshman season in a backup role. He could be in line for more playing time as well.

"The thing is he's got to keep learning that playbook and just keep growing and maturing as the weeks and days and years go by,” Ragland said. “If he keeps maturing, like Shawne Merriman says, he's a freak. He's a freak of nature for real. The things I've seen him do, some people don't get a chance to see that and play with a guy like that. If he does what he needs to do he can be very freakish."

Indeed, Merriman, an NFL veteran, had praise for Evans himself.

"I didn't even need to look at it. I just saw somebody out there playing at a different speed than everyone else," Merriman told AL.com’s Matt Zenitz on Monday.

Both Evans and Williams will get more chances to impress coaches and teammates (and maybe more NFL stars) with Devall out. Devall and Jones will likely spend their spring practices on the exercise bike with strength coach Scott Cochran.

Meanwhile, on the field, Alabama’s future stars will get a head start in their development.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and reporting were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Is Alabama or Auburn Set Up for Better 2015 College Football Season?

The winner of the Iron Bowl has played in either the BCS National Championship or the College Football Playoff in each of the last six seasons, and the 2015 edition of college football's biggest rivalry already looks like it could be one for the ages.

The two SEC West heavyweights from the Yellowhammer State enter 2015's spring practice dancing around the top 10 of many "way-too-early" top-25 rankings, and will undoubtedly be in the mix for the College Football Playoff once toe meets leather this fall.

There are problems to solve, though.

Alabama has to replace nine starters from last year's offense and must fix a secondary that's been struggling for two seasons, while Auburn has to replace its starting quarterback, top running back and fix a defense that hasn't finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense since 2007.

Which one is set up better, though?

It's Alabama, by a nose.

"I think by Alabama not changing philosophies on either side of the ball, obviously puts them a little ahead of the curve," said Cole Cubelic, host on WUMP 730 in Huntsville, Alabama, and analyst on the SEC Network. "Even though I think they're going to have some real issues in the secondary, they're still running the same systems and they've recruited well. To me, that'd give them a slight advantage."

Plus, it's already clear that Alabama can win at a high level despite its major problems. Auburn simply can't overcome its issues and play at the same nationally competitive level.

The Crimson Tide played in the Allstate Sugar Bowl national semifinal last year with a defensive backfield that, quite simply, got torched. Despite Cyrus Jones' improvement from Game 1 through Game 14—which was tremendous—head coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's defense gave up an SEC-worst 133 passing plays of 10 or more yards.

That cost them in New Orleans, as Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones lit up Alabama to the tune of 13.5 yards per completion.

At least the Tide got there, though. A big reason they were there to begin with was a fast and physical defensive line that included A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen and a host of others who helped mask Alabama's primary problem as much as possible.

All of those players return this season, which should allow history to repeat itself.

"They're going to have the best defensive line in the nation," said Cubelic, "as well as one of the best linebackers in the nation in (Reggie) Ragland."

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had a big role in it, as well.

In his first season in charge of the Crimson Tide's offense, Kiffin set the school record in total offense (484.5 yards per game) with quarterback Blake Sims, who played running back at one point in his Alabama career. 

Is it a little bit different this season with nine new starters? Sure. Kiffin won't have wide receiver Amari Cooper to rely on, but there are still plenty of playmakers on the offense to choose from, including running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, wide receivers ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims, Robert Foster and Chris Black, as well as tight end O.J. Howard.

Are you willing to doubt Kiffin after last year's success?

I'm not.

Kiffin has a medium-sized village of talented players to work with, and last year's success with Sims, when combined with success at other schools, should give Tide fans confidence that he will make it work with whoever steps forward in the five-man quarterback battle.

One player in that battle, senior Jake Coker, showed more comfort in the system last Friday at Alabama's first spring practice, according to Saban (via Michael Casagrande of AL.com).

"You know, today is the first day, he certainly seemed a lot more confident out there and comfortable," said Saban. "Obviously when he started last year it was a whole new offense to him, everyone was ahead of him and right now I feel like right now he's a lot more comfortable and confident with what we're doing."

Alabama's offense doesn't have to be a sequel to last year's smash hit in order for the team to stay competitive, though.

"If they decide to throttle back and go more towards a run-heavy offense, they've probably got the best left tackle in college football (Cam Robinson), have a pretty good center (Ryan Kelly) coming back and one of the best running backs in the league in Derrick Henry," said Cubelic.

"They're one of the few teams that can get around the lack of a big-time quarterback based on the style of football that they're capable of playing."

That's not to say that Auburn won't compete too.

There are roster holes to fill, sure. But head coach Gus Malzahn was the first coordinator in FBS history to produce a 5,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season, when he was with Tulsa in 2007. Plus, he has produced 12 1,000-yard rushers in nine seasons as a college head or assistant coach.

His system works, regardless of pieces.

Those pieces this year—including pro-style passer Jeremy Johnson, superstar wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams and junior college transfer running back Jovon Robinson—are still supremely talented and will put up video game statistics on the Plains.

"We've seen a little bit of Jeremy Johnson, but there still needs to be somebody to step up opposite of Williams," said Cubelic. "If they don't, teams will be able to roll coverage, bracket him and minimize what he's able to do."

The big question is on defense, where Will Muschamp was brought in to fix a unit that has been a sore spot ever since the end of the Tommy Tuberville era.

He's got players, but Auburn has gone through Paul Rhoads, Ted Roof and Ellis Johnson as its defensive coordinators since it last finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense (not coincidentally, with Muschamp). Is he the solution to the lingering problem?

As Bill Connelly of SB Nation notes, the stats suggest he could be.

He has a solid foundation to work with up front, with defensive end Carl Lawson returning from a torn ACL and joining Montravius Adams along the defensive line, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost at linebacker and Jonathan Jones—one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the SEC—anchoring the back end.

But the climb is steeper for Auburn than for Alabama, as Saban has the program to a point where its "down years" are still 10-win seasons. 

It looks like the Iron Bowl could decide the SEC West title for the second time in three seasons, and while both teams look like national title contenders, Alabama has a slight edge heading into spring practice.

"Alabama is the safest bet," says Cubelic, "but Auburn has the potential to be a better team."

The battle that ensues between now and then should add more spice to a rivalry that's already the college football equivalent of habanero sauce.

 

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Which College Football Conference Has the Most Playoff Contenders?

Say this for the long offseason: Pretty much everyone is a playoff contender. 

The records are all the same, as no one has lost a game yet. There's as much optimism as a renewable energy source to power the United States for a century. 

But which teams are really legitimate playoff contenders? Which ones are just dark horses? It's not evenly spread from conference to conference, either. With a little less than six months until the start of the 2015 college football season, let's put some of those teams into perspective. 

Below is each Power Five conference, ranked by the number of potential playoff teams it has based on which players and coaches are returning.

 

 

FOUR: SEC, Pac-12

SEC

Legitimate: Alabama, Auburn

Dark Horse: Texas A&M, Tennessee 

How It Will Shape Up: The strength of the SEC should once again be in the West Division. Alabama and Auburn figure to be the preseason favorites, though both teams have to replace significant losses on offense. The Iron Bowl, once again, could have national implications. 

Two teams that could become intriguing playoff dark horses are Texas A&M and Tennessee. Former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, now holding the same job with A&M, could be that missing piece that the Aggies need to take the next step in their program's trajectory. 

While Tennessee has been building its program for what seems like an eternity, the Vols are the sexy SEC East favorites. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're legitimate playoff contenders, but what the heck, it's March. Let's go ahead and toss them into the conversation. 

Dream Scenario: The fantasy of having an all-SEC College Football Playoff comes to fruition. I mean, seriously, is this conference not the best or what? It's where real men go to play football. Roll Tide. 

Nightmare Scenario: The SEC cannibalizes on itself and no team finishes with fewer than two losses. Though conference supporters claim that shows the SEC's overall strength, it's not enough to convince the selection committee. Zero teams get in, and adding salt to the wound, Alabama drops from No. 4 to No. 5 in the final rankings. 

 

Pac-12

Legitimate: Oregon, USC

Dark Horse: Arizona State, UCLA 

How It Will Shape Up: The post-Marcus Mariota era at Oregon might not be as depressing as expected if Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams can make an immediate splash at quarterback. The Ducks have a key early nonconference game at Michigan State, which should be a litmus test for both teams. Then, a possible Pac-12 championship preview takes place on Nov. 21 with USC and Oregon. 

The Trojans are the trendy playoff contenders in head coach Steve Sarkisian's second year. However, there are some notable losses, especially on defense with lineman Leonard Williams. On top of that, the Trojans had a tough time finishing close games last season, losing on the road at Boston College and on a Hail Mary against Arizona State. 

Are Oregon and USC legitimate playoff contenders? Sure, but there are some serious questions that will need to be answered. 

Dream Scenario: Oregon and USC meet in two Pac-12 classics, with both teams getting into the playoff. Oregon shows it can succeed without a once-in-a-generation player, getting back to the playoff. This time, the Ducks finish the job by winning it all. The toughness narrative? Gone. Chip Kelly's shadow looming over head coach Mark Helfrich? Also gone. 

Nightmare Scenario: Adams doesn't pan out and, in rich irony, the Ducks lose a stunner to Eastern Washington in Week 1. USC chokes away a couple of games again, pushing the narrative that the Trojans still...aren't...quite...back. 

 

 

THREE: ACC, Big 12

ACC 

Legitimate: Clemson

Dark Horse: Georgia Tech, Florida State 

How It Will Shape Up: In the past, listing Clemson as a legitimate playoff/title contender may as well have been agreeing to a death sentence. However, if there's any ACC team that can make a playoff run, it's the Tigers. 2015 sort of has an "if not now, then when?" vibe to it. Florida State is rebuilding and could experience a down year, relatively speaking. Plus, Clemson gets the Seminoles at home. 

The defense must (must) reload and find new leaders given the departures of guys like defensive end Vic Beasley. If that side of the ball can even be passable, quarterback Deshaun Watson and Co. have enough firepower to win shootouts. 

Dream Scenario: Head coach Dabo Swinney has done a spectacular job, winning at least 10 games in each of the last four years. As Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote, Swinney recruits at a championship level, too. 

Yet, it never feels like he gets enough credit or like he's considered one of the best in college football. That skepticism, whether or not it's merited, gets put to bed for good as Swinney takes the Tigers to the national championship game. 

Nightmare Scenario: "Clemson-ing" is a thing of the past...or is it? The Tigers finish the regular season 11-1 but then lose in the ACC championship game—badly—to a 7-5 North Carolina team. The playoff dream is crushed on live television for everyone to see. 

 

Big 12

Legitimate: Baylor, TCU

Dark Horse: Oklahoma

How It Will Shape Up: Barring a major injury or other development, Baylor and TCU appear bound for a playoff collision course. The Frogs should be a preseason Top-Five team after finishing 12-1 with a Peach Bowl victory over Ole Miss. Baylor shouldn't be too far behind, though the offense must replace quarterback Bryce Petty. 

And as much as expectations for Oklahoma have tempered following a disappointing 8-5 season, the Sooners remain an interesting option. The talent is there. If the quarterback situation can improve, there might be something to this team. Head coach Bob Stoops has made his most critical staff changes to date—will they work out?

Dream Scenario: Imagine the opposite of last season, when Baylor and TCU were left out of the Final Four. In 2015, the Nov. 27 game between the Bears and Frogs is another classic with fans demanding more. 

Nightmare Scenario: The CFP selection committee sits in a dark room. Arkansas athletic director and committee chair Jeff Long takes a long cigarette drag. He thinks for a moment and then says, "I just don't know how we're going to decide between TCU and Baylor, so let's leave them both out. Again."

"But sir--" replies another member.

"Again!"  

In a desperate attempt to please the committee, the Big 12 expands back to 12 teams, adding Connecticut and North Dakota State. It does not work. 

 

TWO: Big Ten

Big Ten

Legitimate: Ohio State

Dark Horse: Michigan State

How It Will Shape Up: Saturday, Nov. 21 could be a big day for the Big Ten. That's when Michigan State travels to Columbus to take on the defending national champs, Ohio State. The Buckeyes should be favorites, if not massive favorites, in every game. Their toughest conference games are at home, too. 

Michigan State won't get the same level of national hype as Ohio State, but it does get a key nonconference game (Oregon) at home early in the season. That could establish the tone for this year. Are the Spartans really playoff contenders, or will they be unable to get over the hump?

"We look forward to making 2016 that national championship," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said upon announcing that he is returning for his senior season, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com

Dream Scenario: Normally, predicting an undefeated season is silly, no matter how good a team is. It's just difficult to think that a group of 18-to-23-year-olds won't do what they're great at, which is screw up. However, head coach Urban Meyer has already led Ohio State to two straight undefeated regular seasons in 2012 and 2013. In this scenario, he does it again, and the Buckeyes become back-to-back champions. 

And, for kicks, we'll say Sparty gets into the playoff as well. That'll really stick it to anti-Big Ten folks. 

Nightmare Scenario: The quarterback trio that makes for the most interesting offseason competition falls to pieces. Braxton Miller transfers, J.T. Barrett gives up football for a life at sea and Cardale Jones sustains an unfortunate season-ending injury.

Ohio State and Michigan State both fail to meet expectations, and the Big Ten becomes college football's favorite target again. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Which SEC Team Has Best Odds to Land 5-Star DT Derrick Brown?

Late last month, 5-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown released his top eight schools in order, with Georgia and Auburn holding down the top spots in his recruitment.

According to Keith Niebuhr of AuburnUndercover, the Bulldogs are still on top, but the 6’4”, 305-pounder is planning to visit Auburn over spring break.

The Bulldogs and the Tigers battled it out for the nation’s top defensive tackle in the 2015 class in Trent Thompson—who ended up staying home and signing with Mark Richt’s club. 

However, can the Tigers turn the tables and lure Brown away from the Peach State? 

Considering the momentum that the Tigers have with new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, it’s a possibility.

Brown told Niebuhr that while he hasn’t built a strong bond with Muschamp yet, he has been communicating frequently with Tigers defensive line coach Rodney Garner. 

“I just like talking to Coach Garner and being able to come down there, watch games and hang out,” Brown said. “It’s a great atmosphere down there. That’s what I like. It’s a small town and it’s a football town.”

Even though he’s still in the process of getting to know Muschamp, Brown admits that the former Florida head coach’s reputation is something that has his attention. 

“I’ve never talked to [Muschamp] on the phone, but my parents have,” Brown said. “My mom and dad like him. Will Muschamp is defense and that’s what I play.”

Even with those positives in Auburn’s favor, at this stage, it’s the Bulldogs that seem to have a commanding lead for the nation’s No. 5 player overall in the 2016 cycle.

Brown took an unofficial visit to Athens earlier this month, and according to Jake Rowe of Dawgs247, he was impressed with what the Bulldogs can offer him on the academic side.

Brown told Rowe:

The academic part where I got to meet with the three people from the business school. My mom liked it a lot. She liked how at the Terry Business school the people came over and spent time with us and got to talk to us about stuff other than football. My dad liked that part, too.

Rowe also noted that Brown, who plans to decide on national signing day, has plans to visit a handful of other schools in addition to Auburn during his spring break next month.

The Peach State's top prospect in the 2016 class mentioned Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee as other possible destinations during that period. 

While those schools are also in his top eight, they are all chasing the home-standing Bulldogs.

Given that Richt, along with defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, have made Brown a top priority, it’s hard to see another team supplanting Georgia from the top of his list on signing day.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Is There Cause for Concern for Michigan's Slow 2016 Recruiting Start?

Michigan fans clamoring for a program resurgence have plenty to be excited about with a new regime led by former star Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

The 51-year-old head coach is coming off a four-year stretch with the San Francisco 49ers that featured three conference championship games and a Super Bowl appearance. He quickly became one of the most recognizable figures in the NFL by turning around a proud franchise that had lost its luster before his arrival.

Harbaugh's San Francisco revival occurred immediately after his program-changing tenure at Stanford, which included the emergence of Andrew Luck.

For a fanbase that saw Michigan finish 6-10 against Big Ten opponents during the past two seasons, Harbaugh became an ideal candidate to clean things up in Ann Arbor. Now on the job for nearly three full months, he's well underway with spring practice and close to securing a possible starting quarterback in Iowa transfer Jake Rudock.

Progress on the field is imperative at Michigan, but may be even more paramount on the recruiting trail as Harbaugh attempts to build a new culture at his alma mater.

Those efforts have come with mixed results. 

He salvaged what he could from a 2015 class that was decimated during the final year of Brady Hoke's reign. The recruiting losses that preceded his arrival were catastrophic, highlighted by 5-star prospects Damien Harris and George Campbell.

Harbaugh inherited six commitments from Hoke and added eight more players during the six-week span he had to work with before national signing day. The haul was headlined by former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry and former Iowa running back pledge Karan Higdon, but signing day also featured a slew of stinging misses (notably Mike Weber, Iman Marshall and Van Jefferson).

The class finished 38th overall in 247Sports' composite rankings, though Harbaugh could only be held accountable for a small portion of the 2015 cycle in the wake of a widely publicized program collapse last season.

We acknowledged in the aftermath of this past singing day that Harbaugh would ultimately be judged more harshly or favorably based on how he fared on the 2016 recruiting trail.

To this point, there isn't much to report. Harbaugh has been stonewalled so far.

That's right—you've landed as many 2016 prospect commitments as Michigan's new leader managed during his first 10 weeks with the Wolverines. Unless, of course, you happen to be Nick Saban or Urban Meyer (in which case, thanks for reading, coaches).

Michigan claims two 2016 pledges—each from the Hoke era—in a class that currently rates 40th nationally. Harbaugh has retained holdover commitments from 4-star Illinois offensive lineman Erik Swenson and 3-star Maryland linebacker Dele Harding

Despite a lack of resounding recruiting success, there's reason to believe Michigan may be on the verge of making strides. 

The Wolverines are in good standing with several premier high school juniors, including 4-star North Carolina running back Robert Washington. The coveted rusher named Michigan a finalist this week and is expected to announce a commitment in April:

Ahmir Mitchell, a 4-star New Jersey wide receiver and defensive back, confirmed with Bleacher Report he intends to spend time in Ann Arbor this weekend.

He is expected to be joined at Michigan by fellow 4-star Garden State standouts Ron Johnson (defensive end) and Brad Hawkins (wide receiver), per Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.

Mitchell echoed sentiments we've heard from recruits since Harbaugh's hiring.

"It's big-time," he said. "The opportunity to be coached by one of the best doesn't come around often."

Top-ranked California quarterback K.J. Costello also heaped praise on Harbaugh during a discussion with B/R's Damon Sayles. The promising passer is expected to decide between Michigan, USC and Stanford sometime soon.

"He's a coach I have a ton of respect for," Costello said. "I watched him in the NFL. He's an intense guy, and I like his style. I think he can turn the program around in two years."

Still, there's a difference between being starstruck and being convinced to commit.

Top-rated 2015 tight end Chris Clark called Harbaugh "the LeBron James of coaching" before choosing UCLA over Michigan on signing day.

Concerns ultimately stem from a lack of concrete results, though Harbaugh and his staff are clearly making strides with key targets.

When your head coach spent last season watching film on NFL opponents instead of potential high school prospects, it's going to set things back a bit for formulating a cohesive recruiting strategy. However, momentum could swing at any time.

Rival Ohio State suffered a near-four-month commitment drought while assembling its 2015 class and ultimately ended up among the top 10 nationally in terms of signed talent.

There's still a long way to go toward February 2016 and this process is far more like a marathon than a mad dash. Improved on-field results would undoubtedly help Harbaugh's case, but we expect him to begin gaining steam this spring as more prospects spend time on campus, perhaps setting the stage for a scintillating summer.

The total lack of a 2016 pledges credited to Harbaugh is glaring right now, but he will ultimately be judged on what this class looks like 11 months from now.

In the meantime, Michigan fans are best off keeping the faith that their lauded new leader is on the verge of finding his recruiting groove.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

25 College Football Players Set to Shock the College Football World in 2015

Spring is a time of renewal and opportunity in college football. With starting roles left open across the land due to graduation and NFL draft departures, this is a time for young players and reserves to make their impression on coaches and fight for a more prominent role.

As spring practice ramps up, that’s exactly what players will be thinking about: How can I make my mark, now that I have the chance? This fall, new stars will emerge on college football’s landscape. You might not know them, but you will soon. Here are 25 players who’ll shock college football fans this fall.

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