NCAA Football News

USA Today Preseason College Football Rankings 2015: Twitter Reacts to Amway Poll

The 2015 college football season will begin much like the last one ended, as Ohio State was named the No. 1 team in the country Thursday as part of the initial Amway Coaches Poll.

OSU, which won the inaugural College Football Playoff last season, was a near-unanimous selection at No. 1 with No. 2 TCU and No. 3 Alabama garnering one first-place vote apiece. Here is a look at the entire Top 25:

It comes as little surprise that the Buckeyes pace the field, as they return most of their key players from last year's championship squad. That includes running back Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for over 200 yards in each of the team's last three games on the way to the title.

The quarterback trio of Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller is also back in the fold, although Miller is set to move to wide receiver.

Having so many great signal-callers could create an issue for head coach Urban Meyer, but Mike Greenberg of ESPN's Mike & Mike isn't concerned about the depth of talent:

Perhaps the most significant part of the poll is TCU's ascension to No. 2. Despite losing just one game last season, the Horned Frogs were left out of the four-team playoff, and they took it out on Ole Miss with a 42-3 thrashing in the Peach Bowl.

While TCU has a lot to like, including returning quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin, Carlos A. Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is still taken aback by some of the perennial powers the Frogs are ahead of currently:

Big 12 rivals TCU and Baylor created a great deal of controversy with regard to the College Football Playoff last season, as they were both jumped by Ohio State in the last week of the season.

The lack of a Big 12 Championship Game and the fact that the Bears beat the Horned Frogs 61-58 certainly contributed to the situation. Andrew Perloff of Sports Illustrated couldn't help but crack a joke that likely opened up old wounds of both teams' fans:

Unlike TCU, Alabama is seemingly always in the mix, and the powerhouse program is once again expected to compete for a national title as the No. 3 team in the nation.

But that won't be easy this season. The Crimson Tide will have to overcome losing key players like quarterback Blake Sims, running back T.J. Yeldon, wide receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins to the pros.

Even more importantly, they have one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, according to Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News:

Baylor checks in at No. 4 without the services of quarterback Bryce Petty, while Oregon must undergo a change under center as well with Marcus Mariota now in the NFL.

Despite losing just one game over the past two seasons, Florida State checks in at No. 8, due largely to the fact that superstar quarterback Jameis Winston joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.

Even though those teams are undergoing huge changes, they are all still considered among the best teams in the nation by the coaches, which speaks to the parity within the sport, as Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out:

Storied programs like USC and Notre Dame are on the precipice of contention at No. 10 and No. 11, respectively, while Oklahoma is among the teams in unfamiliar territory, according to Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News:

Polls rarely tell the entire story of an upcoming football season since plenty of teams tend to surprise in both positive and negative ways. With that said, they are usually a strong indicator of who will be in the championship mix.

The 2015 campaign has all the makings of a wild one since so many different programs could potentially play their way into the College Football Playoff, but the coaches seemed to agree that Ohio State is the team to beat.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.  

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Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2015 Preseason Coaches Poll

The preseason favorites in the FBS for 2015 were officially declared on Thursday morning with the release of the Amway Coaches Poll. The list of Top 25 teams voted on included the 2014 national champion Ohio State Buckeyes with the top spot and a staggering 62 first-place votes, while some of last year's top teams landed pretty far down the list. 

Who are the preseason winners and losers of the first Amway Coaches Poll of the year?

Bleacher Report CFB analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee break down their poll winners and losers in the video above. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Right Where It Needs to Be in 2015 Preseason Amway Coaches Top 25 Poll

When it comes to preseason polls and season expectations, there's essentially only one thing Nick Saban hopes for, and that is for his team to control its own destiny.

Thursday morning, when the preseason Amway Coaches Poll was released, he got what he wanted: No. 3. Alabama is still easily within striking distance without having to carry the burden of being No. 1.

No one knows better what a heavy burden that can be. This is the first time since 2009 that Alabama is not first or second in the preseason coaches poll, snapping an incredible five-year run but extending its streak of top-five preseason rankings to seven years.  

But the last two times Alabama came out of the gate at No. 1, it failed to finish with that same designation. 

Overall, Alabama received one first-place vote and scored 1,452 points in the preseason poll, putting it a lot closer to No. 2 TCU (1,487) than No. 4 Baylor (1,365). It's listed first among eight ranked teams from the Southeastern Conference and five from the Western Division.

It's slated to face seven ranked opponents, including No. 7 Auburn and No. 9 Georgia on the road, along with the two teams receiving the most votes outside of the Top 25 during the regular season. 

For the most part, the No. 3 ranking was largely expected and on par with where most of the preseason publications and predictions had Alabama starting out, with all but Sporting News having the Crimson Tide in the Top Four.

That's the equivalent of being a playoff team.

In that respect, it's business as usual for the Crimson Tide in terms of being considered a serious contender for the national championship.

They have been nearly every year since Saban arrived, with three national championship and three league titles in tow.

"We're not allowed to have a bad season because the fans will let you know when you're playing badly," Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "We have to have the right mindset at all times because the players that came before us instilled something that we have to keep finishing and keep going on. We've had Dont'a Hightower, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas. Those guys paved the way for how we are in the weight room and the locker room."

Last year, Alabama was the top seed when the inaugural playoff pairings were announced but was upset by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, 42-35. Not surprisingly, the Buckeyes head into the fall ranked No. 1.

But Alabama does have its detractors.

For example, in the voting for the predicted order of finish at SEC media days, Auburn was selected to win the conference title, but Alabama was slated to win the SEC West (which would make it impossible for the Tigers to play in the championship game).

Alabama has just 12 returning starters, with seven on defense, two on offense and three on special teams. The coaches have yet to name a starting quarterback, and it arguably has the toughest schedule in college football, beginning with Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 5 (8 p.m. ET).

It obviously has a lot going for it as well, including a defense that could feature a monstrous front seven, a backfield with enormous potential and a seemingly never-ending stream of top-rated recruiting classes.

One almost can't spit in the locker room without hitting a player who used to be rated a 5-star recruit. According to 247Sports, there are 18 on the roster (16 if you go by its composite rankings).

Granted, whoever does win the quarterback competition will be a first-year starter, as Blake Sims was last season. He went from being a player without a position his initial two years—first getting a look at running back, wide receiver and in the secondary before focusing on quarterback—to helping Lane Kiffin rewrite the Crimson Tide record book.

Imagine what the offensive coordinator might come up with his second season.

Regardless, the expectations don't change.

"It's cliche here, but it is the process," Alabama senior center Ryan Kelly said. "Everyone wants to talk about it, but it's the real thing. No matter who you bring in, we aren't going to change our standards for who you are. This is the 'Bama way. This is a special place. It's not for everybody to come to.

"I think that is one of the biggest things Coach Saban has drilled in is that if you come here, you are a part of something bigger than you. Every guy who has had success here has partaken in that. All the success, the way he recruits—you can't get around it, the hard work, the dedication, and he's taught me to be a good person as well."

So No. 3 will be just fine for Alabama; just don't bet against the Crimson Tide.

After all, this is still the same program that's been favored in 68 straight games, which is considered a modern record, and the last time it didn't start out No. 1 or 2, it won the national championship anyway.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer.

Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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Amway Preseason College Football Rankings 2015: Top 25 Coaches Poll Released

The reigning national champion Ohio State Buckeyes kept most of their team intact, so it comes as little surprise that coach Urban Meyer's team sits atop the preseason Amway football coaches poll released Thursday.

SEC powerhouse Alabama will be seeking to reassert its superiority after losing to the Buckeyes in last year's inaugural College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide check in at No. 3 in the initial rankings, leading their conference ahead of rival Auburn, which is ranked seventh.

One team that was arguably snubbed out of the playoffs thanks to OSU's sensational finish to the season was TCU. This year, the Horned Frogs are starting high up in the college football hierarchy in second:

Ohio State garnered 62 of 64 first-place votes but still isn't settled at the all-important quarterback position. That's what happens when a team has three Heisman-caliber options.

Braxton Miller has the most experience, yet he is moving to play H-back/wide receiver this year, leaving the QB competition between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Wide receivers coach Zach Smith believes Miller has huge upside as a pass-catcher.

"Braxton Miller can play wide receiver as long as he wants to play it," said Smith, per SI.com's Pete Thamel. "His speed, strength, talent, commitment and, really, lifestyle will allow him to be like Joey Galloway. It's going to be a matter of how quickly he grows into the position, but the sky is the limit for him."

Smart Football's Chris B. Brown believes Miller has the physical tools to make the transition:

Barrett was a Heisman candidate in 2014 before hurting his ankle in the Michigan game. Then the cannon-armed Jones came in to win the Big Ten title game and both postseason contests.

It will be fascinating to see who emerges, and OSU figures to be in good hands regardless. Sophomore back Ezekiel Elliott may be the best at his position in the country, taking pressure off whoever runs the show.

With a defense headlined by dynamic pass-rusher Joey Bosa and versatile linebacker Darron Lee, the Buckeyes are positioned for success on both sides of the ball.

The arrival of Will Muschamp as Auburn's defensive coordinator has the program setting its sights high ahead of the 2015 campaign. New QB Jeremy Johnson has flashed nicely and now has the chance to run the Tigers' run-heavy, uptempo offense.

ESPN Stats & Info showed how Johnson performed in 2014 in limited action:

All that may hold Alabama back is its quarterback play. Jake Coker seems to be the likely starter after losing out on head-to-head battles with Jameis Winston at Florida State and Blake Sims in Tuscaloosa as a transfer.

Speaking of players moving schools, Everett Golson bolted Notre Dame for the Seminoles and will now be the successor to the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in Winston. Those are big shoes for Golson to fill as he transitions to FSU's complex pro-style offense, but if he succeeds and beats out Sean Maguire, his prospects for a future in the pros go through the roof.

No. 4 Baylor and No. 5 Oregon, last year's runner-up, figure to be contenders with their explosive, high-octane offenses, but they have to replace two other NFL draftees in Bryce Petty and Marcus Mariota, respectively, at quarterback.

As can be discerned from this brief breakdown, the 2015 college football season figures to be highly competitive, and with so many uncertain QB situations, a lot of power shifts may occur. One certainty stands out, though: Ohio State is the team to beat.

The Buckeyes' schedule doesn't figure to be too tough until a home clash with Minnesota on November 7. Capping off the year is a showdown with No. 6 Michigan State in Ohio Stadium before a road trip to take on Michigan, now led by coach Jim Harbaugh.

Meyer versus Harbaugh will definitely add a new flavor to rivalry weekend. The game figures to feature immense stakes, and perhaps Harbaugh can upend the seemingly unstoppable Buckeyes in their quest for a national championship repeat.  

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4-Star OT Jean Delance Details How He Chose His Top 5 Schools

It's only fitting that a heavyweight recruit like Mesquite, Texas, offensive tackle Jean Delance have five traditional heavyweights in his final list of schools.

Early Wednesday evening, Delance announced via social media that Alabama, Michigan, reigning national champion Ohio State and in-state stalwarts Texas and Texas A&M comprised his top five. The 4-star offensive tackle chose those schools out of 25 reported offers.

The common denominator of the five schools? Delance said choosing wasn't as tough as some may assume.

"All the schools have showed me much love from day 1," Delance said. "These are some of the best schools, and I know they will fit me personally and my family. All the coaches are very down to earth. You can have real man-to-man talks with all of them."

Delance continued: "Honestly, it wasn't difficult. You know the coaches who have been with you and the coaches who are serious about having you. You break them down and see how they treat you as a man and a recruit. I just broke things down like that and got my five."

At 6'5", Delance has a 7-foot-plus wingspan and good footwork and technique, which makes him a candidate to see early game time in his college career. Add in the fact that he's bulked up to 291 pounds over the summer, and the future is bright for the North Mesquite High School prospect.

Missing from Delance's top five is the school he was once committed to. Delance gave a verbal commitment to Oklahoma on Nov. 25, 2014, but after seeing a video of a racist chant by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, he decided against going to school at Oklahoma in March.

"I was disgusted. That's not anything I want to be a part of," Delance told Bleacher Report in March. "I know it's just those few select people, and it's not everybody [at Oklahoma]. It's not like cancer where it's going to spread all over."

Since then, school president David Boren removed the fraternity from the campus, and head coach Bob Stoops, his staff and members of the football team held a silent protest the actions. And while Delance kept Oklahoma on his list in May, he has decided to move on.

Whether they're winning national championships or bouncing back from sub-par seasons, each of Delance's top five garners respect in the college football world. He's chosen five schools with polarizing-yet-respected head coaches, all of whom he feels he can learn a lot from on and off the field.

He had a chance to get some personal time in with Michigan's Jim Harbaugh when he and the coaching staff were in the Dallas area for a satellite camp earlier this summer. Delance added that Alabama's Nick Saban and his staff "are recruiting me really hard," and they talk about everything.

Delance said Texas' Charlie Strong has made him a priority, as Strong wants to add quality offensive linemen to the Longhorns' growing 2016 class. Delance said he hasn't had as much contact with Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin as the other coaches, but he likes how Sumlin and the staff have turned things up with their recruiting.

Arguably the wild card of the group is Ohio State's Urban Meyer. While the Buckeyes are showing strong interest, Delance said he wants to get to Columbus, Ohio, and visit with Meyer personally.

"They're all phenomenal head coaches," he said. "I think they can help me for the next three or four years. I know I can be that man they need on campus."

Delance added that while his top five is set, two schools are still on the outside looking in. He said LSU and USC are two schools that intrigue him.

For now, he's primarily focused on is his five schools. He said he will take three out-of-state official visits to Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama. The Michigan visit will take place the weekend of Nov. 27, when the Wolverines play Ohio State. Ohio State and Alabama visits have yet to be determined, but he added he wanted to get to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in November, possibly for the home game against LSU.

As for Texas and Texas A&M, Delance said he's looking into unofficial visits before the start of the season. Both schools are in the running for official visits, as well.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why Tennessee vs. Georgia Will Be the SEC East Game of the Year

When Tennessee was cooking at its highest level under former head coach Phillip Fulmer, the matchup versus Georgia used to mean the world. 

From the hobnail boot game in 2001 to Peyton Manning's game-winning drive in 1995 and the stunner in 2007 that helped Tennessee win the SEC East, these two teams have produced some of the SEC's most thrilling and notable games.

Even over the last two years, with the Vols operating with a heavily depleted roster, the game has been incredibly tight. Pig Howard fumbled going into the end zone in the first overtime of the 2013 game, allowing Georgia a chip-shot field goal to win it.

Last year, the Vols and Bulldogs squared off in 38-35 shootout that saw head coach Butch Jones' crew overcome a mid-game injury to quarterback Justin Worley and press Mark Richt and Co. for a full 60 minutes.

When the two meet on Oct. 10 in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, it will likely serve as the de facto SEC East title game and be the game of the year within the division.

For the first time in a long time, the Vols are on par with the Bulldogs in terms of overall talent on the roster. They return an experienced secondary, veteran linebackers Curt Maggitt and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a deep defensive line that helped them post the SEC's second-best third-down percentage last year, talented wide receivers, including Marquez North, a one-two punch at running back and a veteran playmaker at quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

What's more, they should get a boost from a depth perspective with the arrival of talented freshmen, including receiver Preston Williams, defensive ends Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie, and tackle Drew Richmond.

This game was a classic when the rosters were incredibly unbalanced, and head coach Butch Jones has changed that by luring top-tier talent to Rocky Top over the last three recruiting cycles.

"This year's a little bit different," Jones said at SEC media days. "Obviously, the expectations have changed a little bit, but as we're all aware, when you're at the University of Tennessee, you always have high expectations. But this year is different for each and every player in our football program. But really that's what you want. You want the expectations to be exceptionally high."

At Georgia, Richt is used to playing big games.

The program has either won the SEC East or been in the discussion in mid-November in each of the last four seasons, has turned into a recruiting machine after Richt's "Dream Team" of 2011 and boasts the nation's top running back in Nick Chubb, maulers up front on the offensive line and the best set of outside linebackers in the country.

Richt knows just how important division games are.

"We're going to play eight games in league play, and most of them within the Eastern Division," he said at SEC media days. "Those head-to-head matchups are crucially important."

The two traditional powers were picked one-two in the SEC East by the media in Hoover in July, which makes their midseason matchup one of the most anticipated games of the season.

What's more, both of these teams are coming off of big-time games vs. SEC West opponents that love to make it hurt the week before.

The Vols will host an Arkansas team that's very similar to the Bulldogs in the sense that they get after teams in the trenches and pound the rock. The Bulldogs will host the always-physical Alabama Crimson Tide the prior week. Over the last four years, SEC teams are 10-13 the week after facing Nick Saban's crew, with only seven of those wins coming over conference teams.

For both schools, it's a chance to make a major statement regardless of where they are in the standings. 

Georgia has SEC games with Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Alabama prior to the matchup, while Tennessee will have already played Florida and Arkansas. Whether it's a game for SEC East front-runner status or a desperation game to stay alive in the division, or both, it's an enormous game on Rocky Top.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247SportsBarrett 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 Sirius 93 XM 208.

Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

CFB Recruiting 200: Top 11 Running Backs in Class of 2016

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analysts Damon SaylesSanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports composite rankings and provided in-depth analysis on each young athlete. Bleacher Report will run a position-by-position breakdown series of the best college football recruits in the class of 2016. Here we present the Top Running Backs.

Other Positions

Are college football's pass-happy offenses phasing out the art of the running back? Most coaches will answer no, particularly with the caliber of running back talent in the 2016 class.

When it comes to playmakers out of the backfield, a running back's role is still as important as ever. In fact, running backs may have more of a role now that quarterbacks often look for the checkdown in passing situations.

Bleacher Report's CFB Recruiting 200 series breaks down the top running backs (all-purpose backs included) in the 2016 class and grades them on key factors such as ball security, power, vision, hands, speed and agility.

 

All analysis provided by B/R National Recruiting Analyst Damon Sayles. All player rankings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.

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Georgia Football: Biggest Storylines Heading into Fall Camp

The Georgia Bulldogs will start fall camp on Tuesday, which means the regular season will be only a month away.

After what some would say was a disappointing season for the Bulldogs last season (10-3, 6-2 in SEC play), they are looking to get back to where there were in 2011 and 2012, which is the SEC title game.

There are some talented players returning from last season, and they will be counted on to take the Bulldogs to the next level. However, there are some questions the Bulldogs need to answer before the season begins. Some of those questions have to do with key positions, and some have to do with the men in charge.

Here are the biggest storylines for the Bulldogs as they head into fall camp.

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Preseason College Football Rankings 2015: Date and Predictions for Amway Poll

Nothing says college football is right around the corner quite like the release of a major top-25 poll. Thursday will provide fans with the necessary excitement when the Amway Coaches Poll is revealed, though there's no mystery at the very top. 

Ohio State is the defending national champion. The Buckeyes return 14 starters from that team, including quarterbacks Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, star running back Ezekiel Elliott, and arguably the nation's best defensive end in Joey Bosa. 

It's a great time for Urban Meyer and everyone associated with the Buckeyes, but the drama opens up starting with the No. 2 spot in the polls. 

 

Amway Coaches Poll Top 25 Information

Release Date: Thursday, July 30

Time: 12 p.m. ET

Find: Various sports websites, USA Today

It's amazing how quickly Meyer has turned Ohio State into the nation's most powerful program. His first season in 2012 was met with cynicism because of the schedule despite the team's 12-0 record.

Two years ago, the Buckeyes lost the last two games of the season, including the Orange Bowl, which left lingering questions about their ability to handle the big stage against top-tier programs. Those doubts were squashed last season with wins over Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff. 

Now, everyone is expecting Ohio State to steamroll its way to another undefeated season. According to Todd Fuhrman of FoxSports.com, oddsmakers project the Buckeyes to be double-digit favorites in each of their 12 regular-season games. 

"The closest game for Ohio State in the eyes of oddsmakers is the November 21 home date against Michigan State, where OSU is currently listed as a 13.5-point favorite," Fuhrman wrote.

Fuhrman does note Ohio State's 2015 schedule, which includes only one game against a team predicted to be in the Top 25 (Michigan State), so it's not like the Buckeyes are facing a murderers' row of talent. 

Michigan State is the one team in the Big Ten that's had any success against Ohio State in the Meyer era. The Spartans handed the Buckeyes their only conference loss since 2012 in the conference title game two years ago.

Last year's matchup seemed like an opportunity for history to repeat itself, but Ohio State racked up 568 yards against Michigan State's defense en route to a 49-37 win. Now, it's on every other team to prove it can compete with the Buckeyes.

Beyond Ohio State, there's a lot of high-quality depth in college football this season. TCU gets a slight edge as the No. 2 team in these predictions because it's returning 10 offensive starters from a team that averaged 46.5 points per game in 2014.

Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com does try to keep some of the Horned Frogs' expectations in perspective, noting a lot of the buzz is likely to come because of a 42-3 win over Mississippi in the Peach Bowl:

Let's define a "surprisingly emphatic" victory as one in which (a) either an underdog won by 14 points or covered the spread by 21, or (b) a favorite of a field goal or less covered the spread by 21.

Over the past five seasons, seven teams have claimed a bowl win matching those criteria and gone on to be ranked in the following season's AP preseason top 25; those teams have gone 0-for-7 in matching or exceeding that preseason ranking in the final AP poll.

While it is often foolish to expect a team will be successful because of the result of a game six months ago, the Horned Frogs have so much talent coming back that it would be a surprise if they weren't in the playoff mix once again. 

The three teams predicted to round out the Top Five—Auburn, Alabama and Baylor—all have the talent to be in the Top Two at some point in 2015, but immediate questions at the quarterback position keep them behind TCU. 

Despite losing Bryce Petty, Baylor seems like it's in the best position to succeed because Art Briles' system is so quarterback-friendly. The Bears averaged 44.5 points per game in 2012, the season after Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy and went to the NFL, for example. 

Auburn and Alabama are facing situations not unlike what LSU seems to go through every year. Jeremy Johnson is a 23-year-old junior playing for Auburn, but he's got 78 career attempts over the past two seasons. 

Nick Saban got a great performance from Blake Sims throughout most of 2014, but whoever the new starting quarterback is won't have the luxury of throwing to Amari Cooper.

Both the Tigers and the Crimson Tide are so good at recruiting talent and depth that they can win 10 games with a mediocre starting quarterback, but there's a difference between winning double-digit games and being a true title contender. 

Preseason polls rarely paint an accurate picture of what's going to happen in college football. South Carolina started 2014 ninth in the rankings, so there will be a lot of turnover. The only thing that seems like a given in 2015 is Ohio State will be fantastic. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Clemson Tigers Are Dark Horse Contenders to Make the College Football Playoff

The Clemson Tigers seem to be floating around the national championship race every season but are always left on the outside looking in. Still, Clemson has been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the past few years and should be a team to look out for in the 2015 College Football Playoff race. 

The Tigers have won 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons. Those 10-win seasons have ultimately amounted to an Orange Bowl victory in 2012 and an ACC Championship in 2011. But this season, Clemson should have its sights set on college football's biggest prize. 

Clemson is loaded with talent this season, especially on offense, and any talk of that talent starts with sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. 

Watson took over for Cole Stoudt as the starter midway through the 2014 season. When he was on the field, Watson was spectacular. In eight games last season, he threw for 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Watson also rushed for another five scores. 

The problem was he had a tough time staying on the field. 

Watson dealt with a couple of nagging injuries last season. Most notably, a torn ACL kept him out of Clemson's win over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl. But to the delight of Clemson fans, Watson plans to be back and healthy for the season opener against Wofford, per SI.com's Zac Ellis.

Head coach Dabo Swinney is extremely confident in the ability of his young quarterback, per 247 Sports.

"My confidence level comes from the young man’s ability, his aptitude, his work ethic, his commitment to being great. He’s above and beyond in all those areas – if the scale is 1 to 10, he’s a 12 in everything."

If he can stay healthy in 2015, Watson is a potential Heisman candidate, and he'll have plenty of weapons around him. The Tigers return top receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott for the upcoming season. Williams and Scott combined for just under 2,000 receiving yards last season. 

True freshman Deon Cain was the top receiver in the country out of high school and should also have some influence in the passing game for Clemson. Leading rusher Wayne Gallman will also be back for his sophomore season. 

The only real question on offense comes at the line of scrimmage where the Tigers will have to replace three starters from last season. 

The biggest hurdle for Clemson in 2015 will be replacing so many key players from a defensive unit that led the nation in total defense last season. 

Top tacklers Stephone Anthony and Robert Smith are out of eligibility, and premier pass-rusher Vic Beasley is now with the Atlanta Falcons. All-ACC performers Grady Jarrett and Garry Peters are also gone.

Junior linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive lineman Shaq Lawson will be asked to step up to fill some of the voids left on the defensive front. Christian Wilkins, a 5-star recruit, should also contribute right away to make up for some of the lost production. 

However, the secondary has less rebuilding to do as it returns starters at cornerback and safety from last season in Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse. Clemson ranked second in the country in pass defense last season, and that should once again be a strength. 

Swinney recognizes there might be a drop-off on defense from 2014, but he still believes in the potential of the 2015 group.

"I don’t know that we can lead the nation in 11 categories, but I don’t think we have to,” Swinney told Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier. “But I do think we can be one of the best defenses in the country.”

Although Clemson has won 32 games in the past three seasons, the ACC Atlantic has been owned by Florida State since Clemson's conference title in 2011. Clemson has the chance to buck that trend this upcoming year. 

Florida State is bringing back 11 starters and lost most of its top playmakers on offense. Jameis Winston and Rashad Greene are both in the NFL, while running back Dalvin Cook is suspended indefinitely, per Yahoo Sports' Sam Cooper

The Seminoles have enough talent on the roster to reload, but for the first time in a while they don't seem to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the conference. That bodes well for Clemson's hopes to take back the ACC crown. 

The 2015 schedule also falls in Clemson's favor. Heading into the season, the biggest matchups for the Tigers appear to be against the Seminoles, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Clemson has the luxury of having all three of those game in Death Valley.

The closest thing that Clemson has to a daunting road test is probably their Week 3 game against the Louisville Cardinals. 

Obviously an undefeated team would be in the playoff, but a one-loss ACC champion would also have an excellent chance of being included. 

The Clemson Tigers have all the right ingredients of a championship-caliber team in 2015. They have a Heisman candidate quarterback surrounded by dynamic playmakers, a talented defense led by coordinator Brent Venables and a more than navigable schedule. 

This could be the season when the Tigers finally put it all together. If they do, you'll see them playing in a semifinal on New Year's Day. 

Recruiting info via 247Sports.com

Stats via cfbstats.com

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Chadarius Townsend to Alabama: Crimson Tide Land 4-Star ATH Prospect

According to 247Sports' Hank South, 2017 4-star athlete Chadarius Townsend has committed to the University of Alabama. 

"He had a verbal commitment on June 3, but he wanted to have the opportunity to visit other colleges to see what they had to offer as well," Townsend's father said, according to South.

While Townsend's recruiting classification leaves his position a bit ambiguous, he's functioned as a dual-threat quarterback for Tanner High School throughout the early stages of his career. 

According to AL.com's Daniel Boyette, Townsend piled up 1,571 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground as a sophomore while toting the rock 153 times. He added 857 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air. 

Boyette added that Townsend rang up a 4.3 40-yard dash time to add to his growing resume. 

According to 247Sports, he also had offers from Auburn University and the University of Kentucky, but Alabama always remained the most likely destination for the Tanner, Alabama, native. 

The rising junior is the 20th-ranked athlete in the class of 2017, per 247Sports, and he should provide head coach Nick Saban with plenty of versatility on the offensive side of the ball in a couple years thanks to his elite speed.

With brief experience returning kicks, per Boyette, the nimble 6'0", 180-pound stud should have multiple avenues to acquiring playing time once he suits up for the Crimson Tide. 

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Mike Leach Makes Proposal for 64-Team College Football Playoff, Again

Washington State head coach Mike Leach is known for going against the grain. 

For example, Leach's Air Raid attack with the Cougars averaged a gaudy 64 pass attempts per game last season, which was the first in the College Football Playoff era.

And that's the exact number of teams Leach wants to see in future editions of the playoff—64. 

According to Heather Dinich of ESPN.com, Leach said Wednesday in a playoff-specific interview with the network that he wants to see the four-team field expand exponentially.

"I don’t know why you don’t have 64 teams," Leach said. "The notion of pinpointing and selecting four perfectly, well that’s not going to happen. That can’t happen effectively."

This isn't the first time Leach has proposed the mega-playoff. He first made headlines with his idea back in 2012, when the plus-one system was picking up steam.

Leach's idea for a 64-team playoff, per Dinich, starts with all FBS teams playing a 10-game schedule. By the end of the playoff, the last team standing would have only played 16 games, which is just one more than 2014 champion Ohio State played last season.

The Washington State head coach told ESPN that narrowing the field of teams down to just four by the end of the season creates too much controversy.

"It would be indisputable that it was settled on the field and somebody that wins playoff games accordingly deserves to be champion and there’s no debate," Leach said. "It would be great fun to watch—just like it is at all the other levels."

Unfortunately for Leach, no other level of NCAA football has a playoff quite as large as the one Leach proposes.

FCS and Division II football currently have 24-team playoffs, with the top eight teams earning byes to the second round. Division III football has a standard 32-team playoff.

The 64-team concept has been a fun "what if?" scenario to talk about in the last few offseasons. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer made the latest of his annual March Madness-style brackets in April.

Don't expect Leach's idea to get much traction, even with all the talk of playoff expansion just one year after the first four-team edition. The CFP is currently contracted to be the four-team format for the next 11 seasons

But like many things Leach has said in his coaching career, it's definitely going to grab attention—again.

 

Justin Ferguson is an on-call college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 

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Offensive Coordinators Every Blue-Chip Recruit Should Want to Play For

Though high school football recruits should be choosing their colleges based on the school itself and what it has to offer them from an academic standpoint, we know this isn't always the case. It's the football program, and specifically the coaches they'll be working with, that often carries the most weight.

And for top offensive prospects, the coach calling the plays should be the most important one in the group.

The offensive coordinator is the one whose scheme and play selection help set the stage for his players' success. Without a good play-caller, even the most talented and athletic blue-chip recruits will have their development stunted. 

There's a group of OCs in the college game today who should be on the short list of every notable prospect, since their systems are such that they put the players in a position to shine on every snap.

Begin Slideshow

Power 5 College Football Teams Still in Search of 2016 QB Recruit

The recruiting process in general has accelerated, with early offers and commitments becoming the norm in recent years.

Perhaps no position illustrates that fact more so than the quarterback position. As noted by Bleacher Report’s Tyler Donohue, 66 of the nation’s top 80 quarterbacks in the 2016 class have already committed.

After his commitment to Arizona State earlier this week, 4-star Texas standout Dillon Sterling-Cole can be added to that list.

With his pledge and Florida earning a commitment from 2-star passer Kyle Trask, 54 of the nation’s 64 programs that makeup the Power Five conferences have at least one quarterback committed for the 2016 class. 

Which 10 schools are left out, and what reasons explain why their classes are devoid of a quality signal-caller?

Let’s break down the teams in each league still in search of a 2016 quarterback recruit.

Begin Slideshow

Jordan Smith Commits to South Carolina: Gamecocks Beat Georgia for 4-Star DE

The state of Georgia has an abundance of 5- and 4-star talent in the class of 2015, and the in-state Bulldogs are in the hunt for many of them. But one of the state's top 25 prospects is headed to an SEC East rival—South Carolina.

Jordan Smith, a 4-star defensive end from Lithonia, Georgia, committed to South Carolina on Wednesday afternoon. He is the Gamecocks' 13th commitment for their class of 2016, which is now ranked No. 30 nationally.

Smith had an impressive list of 24 scholarship offers, including ones from Georgia, Tennessee, Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

The 6'6" defensive end told reporters he liked several aspects of South Carolina, and they weren't limited to the football field.

"First, Coach (Jon) Hoke and the new defensive scheme he is putting in," Smith said, according to Tony Morrell of 247Sports. "Also, I just love South Carolina. I love the facilities, the place, Columbia, everything. ... Once I started looking at academics, scheme, everything, then I knew South Carolina was the choice."

South Carolina currently has two other defensive ends from Lithonia High School, where Smith plays, on its roster—senior Cedrick Cooper and sophomore David Johnson.

The Gamecocks made up plenty of ground in a short amount of time to snag a commitment from Smith. The talented defensive end released his list of top 10 schools in June, and South Carolina was fourth behind Clemson, Georgia and Alabama.

Smith made an unofficial visit to South Carolina later in June and named the school his new leader July 20.

"It’s South Carolina, then Georgia, Clemson, Florida and Tennessee in that order," Smith told JC Shurburtt of 247Sports. "(The Gamecocks) have taken the lead because I see that I can make an early impact there and be an early contributor."

Nine days later, he made it official with the Gamecocks.

According to Rusty Mansell of 247Sports, Smith has plenty of potential, but he needs to add some pounds to his tall frame. He currently weighs around 220 pounds—a small number for a future SEC defensive end.

"He has a 1 percent body to me," Mansell wrote in April. "I use that term, because he is a very small percentage of guys that can rush the passer in a 6'6" body. He is long and ridiculous reach in his wingspan. He is however around 215-220 pounds right now, and needs to get a lot stronger."

 

Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is an on-call college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ranking the Top 5 Players in the SEC Heading into 2015 Season

The 2015 college football season is just around the corner. Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Barrett Sallee sat down with Stephen Nelson to list his top SEC players heading into the season.

Who do you think should be No. 1? Watch the video, and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Top Takeaways from 247Sports' First Rankings for Class of 2018

College football's future standouts are currently tearing up the competition at high schools across the country. Attention typically surrounds senior athletes, but plenty of underclassmen warrant a closer look following stellar freshman seasons. 

The 2018 recruiting class, a star-studded assemblage of football's most promising sophomore players, stepped into the spotlight Wednesday when 247Sports unveiled top-100 rankings of the group.

It's an early glimpse at prospects who could someday develop into household names. Upon review of these rankings, here are a few takeaways worth highlighting as we acclimate ourselves with a new crop of coveted talents.

 

QB Trevor Lawrence Claims Top Spot

The 6'5", 191-pound Peach State passer finds himself sitting at No. 1 with a target on his back and three years remaining in high school. No relationship in recruiting commands more investment and trust than the bond between quarterbacks and college coaches, so it's no surprise Lawrence already holds nearly 20 scholarship offers.

His college options include Tennessee, Clemson, Ole Miss and in-state Georgia.

Lawrence led Cartersville High School to the state semifinals last fall, throwing for 3,042 yards and 26 touchdowns as a freshman, according to Barton Simmons of 247Sports. 

"I've had all these college coaches ask me, 'tell me about your quarterback'," Cartersville head coach Joey King told Simmons. "My response is that he's legit in whatever category you want to come up with. We clocked him at a 4.7 40. He's tall, strong. He cleans 230 pounds as a freshman. He's a solid student, he loves the game, he studies it and he's a humble kid."

Lawrence is one of 12 quarterbacks featured in the initial 2018 rankings, joined by Matt Corral (California; No. 16), Joey Gatewood (Florida; No. 23), Allan Walters (New Jersey, No. 44), Chris Scott (Mississippi; No. 47), Casey Thompson (Oklahoma; No. 50), Emory Jones (Georgia; No. 56), Tyler Desue (Virginia; No. 62), Dorian Thompson-Robinson (Nevada; No. 66), Jack West (Alabama; No. 72), Jaelyn Nolan (Texas; No. 74) and Alontae Taylor (Tennessee; No. 89).

 

RB Zamir White Snatches Second 5-Star

Only two 5-star labels were handed out in these rankings. The first went to Lawrence. North Carolina running back Zamir White takes top honors as well, following a freshman campaign that featured 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. 

"We don't like to make a lot of running backs 5-stars but because White has unique size, he already flashes game burst and he's a physical dude at 15 years old, he's got the kind of rare traits that we don't often see at the position. Todd Gurley is his ceiling," Simmons wrote.

White stands 6'1", 202 pounds and carries offers from Clemson, Georgia, Florida State and Ohio State, among other powerhouse programs.

 

More Dominant Defensive Ends on the Come Up

The 2016 recruiting class includes an expansive collection of elite defensive linemen. It appears this 2018 group could take similar shape.

Among the top seven recruits in these rankings, four players are projected to play defensive end. The list is led by Pennsylvania pass-rusher Micah Parsons.

The 6'3", 225-pound Central Dauphin High School sophomore already holds Big Ten offers from Penn State, Rutgers and Michigan. 

Southeast standouts Xavier Thomas (South Carolina) and Justin Mascoll (Georgia) claim several SEC opportunities, while 6'4", 235-pound Max Wright is the top-rated Lone Star State product.

 

Miami Mighty Strong Early in 2018 Cycle

The Hurricanes hold a nation-best three pledges from players who made this list. Cornerback Al Blades Jr. (No. 39), defensive end Billy Joseph (No. 81) and athlete Jalen Patterson are each 4-star prospects who made early commitments to Miami.

Alabama, LSU and Tennessee are the only other teams to carry top-100 commitments in the 2018 class. Each program landed one member of the list.

The Hurricanes' 2018 recruiting efforts have resulted in an NCAA-high five committed athletes.

 

Sunshine State Features the Most Stars

Florida annually produces an abundance of college football prospects who ultimately reach stardom in college and the NFL. This latest wave of athletes is apparently no different, as it features 15 players in top-100 rankings.

That total easily outpaces other states, as Texas and California follow behind with 10 apiece. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee each produced at least five top-ranked 2018 recruits, providing further evidence of how the SEC stays strong.

 

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2017 QB Sam Ehlinger Gives Texas Another Dual-Threat Playmaker for the Future

As someone whose popularity is on a steady rise, 2017 quarterback Sam Ehlinger considers Texas his "dream school."

He always has.

On Tuesday, Ehlinger committed to the school he's been a fan of since he was a small child, per EJ Holland of 247Sports. There wasn't a need to take any out-of-state—or out-of-city—visits to help finalize his college plans.

His future college home literally is minutes away from his current Austin, Texas, residence. Ehlinger, a 3-star prospect and the nation's No. 11 dual-threat quarterback, committed to the Longhorns over early offers from Houston, SMU and McNeese State. He joins 4-star wide receiver Damion Miller in Texas' 2017 class.

Ehlinger's pledge says a lot about the Longhorns. They've yet to play a down in the 2015 season, and they already have quarterback plans for the next three seasons.

"I've always loved Texas," Ehlinger told Holland. "It's always been my dream school. My family loves Texas, too. We grew up watching them, so I always knew that I wanted to play at Texas. We're all really excited about it."

Ehlinger's commitment gives Westlake High School another quarterback to be on the lookout for. Westlake has a nice lineage of quarterbacks, including Super Bowl champion Drew Brees and Pro Bowler Nick Foles.

Additionally, Westlake is coached by Todd Dodge, who played quarterback for the Longhorns in the 1980s. Ehlinger's parents also attended Texas.

"I know of a lot of kids wait really long to see how many offers they can pick up," Ehlinger told Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman. "To me, it was about waiting to get the offer from Texas. I didn't see any point in waiting any longer.

"I grew up going to DKR [Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium] and watching football games. It was my childhood school and childhood dream."

Texas is getting an athlete who is riding a streak of confidence. Ehlinger led Westlake to a 7-on-7 state championship earlier this month, and he shined during the Longhorns' Under the Lights Camp. The camp was on July 18, and when he went back to the campus the following day, he received the offer.

At 6'1" and 207 pounds, Ehlinger isn't the biggest quarterback, but he's a game manager who makes minimal turnovers. As a sophomore, Ehlinger threw for 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns with only six interceptions. He completed 179 of 272 passes (65.8 percent)—and he still has two years of varsity play to improve.

Additionally, Ehlinger rushed for 722 yards and nine scores, which says a lot about his footwork, versatility and overall ability to evade defenders. Having Ehlinger on campus with 2016 commit and Elite 11 quarterback Shane Buechele gives Longhorns fans much to cheer about for the future at the position.

"I think the offense is a perfect fit for me," Ehlinger told Holland. "What they're planning to do this year is really similar to what we're doing at Westlake. I think it really fits what I can do."

Quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson will have his stable of athletic quarterbacks to choose from when Ehlinger is a freshman. Jerrod Heard will be a redshirt junior, Kai Locksley will have been on campus three years and Buechele will have been there two years.

And when his name is called, expect Ehlinger to be a competitor for the school he's rooted for all his life.

 

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

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Auburn Football: Biggest Storylines Heading into Fall Camp

This summer on the Plains, the only things hotter than the sky-high temperatures have been the takes on where Auburn's football team will finish in 2015.

Some experts pencil Auburn as a potential national title contender. Others have the Tigers finishing with another middle-of-the-road season.

But the time for talking is about to be over, because fall camp is right around the corner.

Auburn will open fall camp August 4 with eyes on September's season opener against Louisville in the Georgia Dome.

This 2015 Auburn team has plenty of talent and potential, but it will also have its fair share of question marks when it returns to the practice field next week.

Here are three major storylines to watch as Gus Malzahn's Tigers head into fall camp.

 

Wanted: More than one go-to receiver

Auburn's offense might be inexperienced, but Malzahn and his staff have a lot to work with this fall. Jeremy Johnson is getting legitimate Heisman buzz at quarterback. The running back room will be led by two former 5-star recruits, Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber, and the offensive line has three players with starting experience.

That leaves the wide receivers—a position where the Tigers have their most established offensive star—and not much else in terms of consistency.

D'haquille "Duke" Williams had 24 more catches last season than the second-best returning receiver, former Georgia game hero Ricardo Louis. The reception counts drop down to 13 with Marcus Davis and then bottom out into single digits.

Auburn has plenty of players behind Williams, and they will need for them to step up this fall.

Sammie Coates was a deep-ball specialist, shaky hands and all, with speed to stretch defenses past their breaking points. Louis has the potential to be his replacement, along with Tony Stevens.

"I've been progressing as a receiver, getting better and learning," Louis said in January, according to Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "I've been learning from Duke as well. Next year, we're going to be 'them guys.' We're going to be those guys the quarterback looks to."

Davis' steady hands make him a top contender for a starting job, while Melvin Ray and Stanton Truitt have shown flashes of big-play potential in the past. Myron Burton Jr., Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis haven't had much of a chance to prove themselves.

Now that Auburn has a stronger presence in the pocket with Johnson, the team needs to see improvement from its receiving corps outside of Williams.

Fall camp will be a great chance for a receiver or two to step up and earn some major playing time.

 

How will the freshmen fit in?

Auburn had several top recruits from the class of 2015 enroll early, most notably the JUCO trio of Jovon Robinson, Jason Smith and Maurice Swain.

But fall camp will be the first chance for the rest of Auburn's newcomers to hit the practice field.

The 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart headlines this list, and there's a real chance he could carve out a major role in a defense that struggled in the trenches for most of the 2014 season.

"At worst, Cowart will start the season as a situational pass-rusher. At best, he wins a starting job immediately," James Crepea of AL.com wrote. "The only thing slowing Cowart from seeing the field instantly would be a subpar fall camp or if easing him into the action is part of Will Muschamp's grand plan for managing the hype that surrounds the heralded defensive end."

Another top freshman to watch is 4-star running back Kerryon Johnson. The electrifying former Mr. Football winner could break into the backfield like Thomas did last season or find a way to contribute as a return man.

"I really feel like he will factor," Malzahn told Phillip Marshall of AuburnUndercover. "He’s a guy we expect to play. He has a unique skill set and can do a lot of different things. He can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands."

Other names to watch during fall camp will be defensive pickups Jeff Holland, Darrell Williams and Jordan Colbert. The young players will get their first major opportunities to impress Muschamp and the rest of the staff as Auburn rebuilds its defense in 2015.

 

Cornerback depth

A special group of newcomers will have even bigger pressure to perform in 2015—the cornerbacks.

Auburn signed the trio of Carlton Davis, Javarius Davis and Jeremiah Dinson in February. While they lack the name recognition of a Cowart or Holland, these freshmen will play big roles in a thin position group.

"We’re going to depend on some freshmen. We’re going to need a few guys to step up and play the way we need them," senior cornerback Jonathan Jones told Ryan Black of AuburnUndercover. "I think the older guys are going to get them ready and once we get to fall camp and we get the chance to be out there with the coaches, the younger guys who are going to need to help us are going to be ready to work."

The Tigers lost cornerbacks Kamryn Melton, Joe Turner and Kalvaraz Bessent to transfers this offseason. Spring injuries to backups such as T.J. Davis forced the staff to start walk-ons at cornerback for the A-Day Game.

With Josh Holsey transitioning to nickel back in Muschamp's system, Auburn needs bodies at cornerback behind Jones and Michigan transfer Blake Countess.

"That was part of the deal in the recruiting process," defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson told Black. "Right now we just lack numbers. ... We're going to need some guys that can finish down the field."

Auburn's pass defense has ranked 12th or worse in the SEC in four of the last five seasons. Last year, the Tigers ranked 91st nationally in allowing pass plays of 20 yards or more.

As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee has said multiple times this offseason, Auburn doesn't need great defense in order to compete for championships.

Malzahn's offense makes it so that the Tigers need "just enough" defense, and they'll have to rely on some brand-new players in order to cross that threshold this season.

 

Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is an on-call college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Biggest Obstacles to Ohio State Buckeyes Repeating as National Champions

Ohio State enters the 2015 season as the favorite to win the national championship once more and for good reason. 

The Buckeyes return 15 starters from a team that was dominant down the stretch despite being forced to use its third-string quarterback in the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff. 

Head coach Urban Meyer sports a ridiculous 38-3 in three seasons in Columbus, and this year’s team is looking like his best yet. Quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones and Heisman Trophy front-runner Ezekiel Elliott return on offense, while possible future No.1 overall NFL draft pick Joey Bosa is back to lead the defense. 

Ohio State is not perfect, and there will be some challenges to repeat as the team replaces some key players while getting by some tough opponents. 

Here is a look at three concerning hurdles the Buckeyes must overcome to remain atop the college football universe.

 

Defensive Line Depth Issues 

Ohio State’s defense impressed last season, especially in the final three games. 

The unit was strong and disruptive up front while displaying plenty of speed and playmaking ability throughout the linebacker and defensive back groups. 

The defense finished 29th nationally in total yards in 2014, but the strength of the unit was pass defense. Ohio State racked up 45 sacks, seventh in the nation, and 25 interceptions, second most in the country. 

The run defense was a slightly different story. The team ended up 45th nationally, which is decent. However, strong competition was able to gash the Buckeyes on the ground. Navy gained 370 rushing yards, Indiana totaled 281 and Alabama had 170. 

Those numbers could end up even worse this season, as the team had to replace three big contributors on the defensive line in Michael Bennett, Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier. Other than Bosa, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington, there is very little experience up front. 

Players like Tyquan Lewis and Donovan Munger will need to prove themselves as capable rotation pieces, or Ohio State could be in trouble. Michigan State is a strong team in the trenches, and if the Buckeyes make it back to the playoffs, power-running teams like Alabama, Auburn and Georgia could fare well if matched up with Meyer’s squad. 

Ohio State has enough talent on defense to make up for any deficiencies against the run, and the team will still be able to dominate most of its schedule. If the unit can finish around where it did last year, the Buckeyes will be in good shape. If they fail to find any answers to the depth problem up front, it could lead to some close calls and possibly the wearing out of Bosa and Washington.

 

Replacing Devin Smith 

Ohio State possesses a plethora of playmakers on offense this season with Elliott, Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel, yet none can duplicate what receiver Devin Smith brought to the unit. 

With his blazing speed and tremendous leaping ability, Smith was arguably the nation’s best deep threat for much of his career. Last season was his best yet, as he finished with 933 yards, 12 touchdowns and an absurd average of 28 yards per catch. 

Take a look at his highlight reel, which displays the wide array of skills Smith brought to Ohio State that resulted in game-changing plays: 

Not only are plays like these exciting for fans, but they also change the momentum of games and can change the defense’s entire game plan. Smith was able to stretch the field and make defenses play with help over the top nearly every play. This created more space for Elliott in the run game as well as giving his fellow receivers more cushion. According to SB Nation’s analytics, Smith was the second-most explosive receiver in college football last season. 

The Buckeyes still have a lot of talent at receiver. Michael Thomas led the team in receptions in 2014, Corey Smith was effective out of the slot and tight end Nick Vannett is a reliable security blanket. Also, sophomore Noah Brown may be ready for a breakout season after a strong spring, per Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com: 

Smith’s 30 career touchdowns will not be easy to replace. Ohio State does not seem to have a big-play receiver, which could hurt in must-pass situations. However, the depth at the position should provide enough relief for the Buckeyes to still excel through the air.

 

Michigan State 

Looking at Ohio State’s schedule, it is a safe bet to think the team will roll through its opponents. One game does stick out, though. 

Michigan State is responsible for Urban Meyer’s only Big Ten loss, as the two teams have been the class of the conference the past few seasons. This year is no different, and in order to get back to the College Football Playoff, Ohio State will need to knock off Sparty on Nov. 21. 

Head coach Mark Dantonio’s team returns 13 starters from last season, which ended with an 11-2 record. The biggest name is quarterback Connor Cook, who turned down a possible first-round draft destination to return for his senior year. 

The team will also likely have the conference’s best offensive line, which will be anchored by senior Jack Allen, who earned All-American honors in 2014. This could give the Buckeyes trouble, especially if they do not find some depth on the defensive line.

The Spartans do have to replace some big-time contributors from last season, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett and defensive backs Kurtis Drummond and Trae Waynes. Also, Pat Narduzzi, who coordinated a defense that finished in the top nationally the past four seasons, has left to lead Pittsburgh’s program. 

So how do these teams match up? The Buckeyes offense will have its hands full with returning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun, but it has enough talent to gain the slight edge here. 

On defense, Bosa will need to consistently pressure Cook or else he could pick apart the secondary. Michigan State returns enough quality receivers to give Ohio State trouble, but the running back position is still not settled. Whoever ends up carrying the rock for the Spartans will be the difference in this game, as the Buckeyes’ only slight weakness is defending the run. 

In the end, Ohio State should prevail, as Michigan State may not be able to produce enough on the ground to win. The game will also be in Columbus, which greatly helps the Buckeyes. Look for Ohio State to be undefeated once more heading into the Big Ten championship game.

All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.

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