NCAA Football News

Cardale Jones' Decision Is Everything That's Right with College Football

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With all due respect to the reporters in attendance, the most important question of Cardale Jones' Thursday press conference announcing his return to Ohio State for his junior season came when a teacher at Jones' alma mater, Ginn Academy, inquired about his academic goals.

"I'm really proud of you for following the path of education. Without an education, you can't be," the teacher told Jones during his nationally televised press conference. "What are your educational goals? What will you be studying?"

"After life after football, I want to be a financial planner," revealed Jones, who the Ohio State student directory currently lists as an African-American and African Studies major. "After I'm done with football, I still have my whole life to live. That's where I think my education will come in handy."

To most of the sports world, the moment was a footnote, a teacher planted in a sea of sportswriters to maintain the positive PR aspect of Jones' announcement. But it was the most relevant question asked on Thursday of the Buckeyes quarterback, who made the rare decision to put his education before the immediate reward of millions of dollars.

Because, truth be told, if Jones was purely making a football decision, he probably would have been best suited entering the draft. According to research performed by his current coach, Urban Meyer, and high school coach, Ted Ginn Sr., Jones would have likely been drafted in the second round had he entered this spring's draft, with the potential to move into the late-first round.

Even being selected with a high pick in the third round would have netted Jones close to a $1 million in guaranteed salary. As a kid from inner-city Cleveland who became the father of a newborn daughter in November, nobody would have blamed Jones for making a decision that would have stabilized his financial future.

"It's everybody's dream and goal when they play football or any collegiate sport to make it to the next level," Jones said. "But at my point in my career, I feel like it's best for me to go back to school, and one of the most important things for me to do is to graduate. When I make that decision to play in the NFL, I want to be done with school."

Jones is on track to graduate from Ohio State this winter, although that's not to say that he couldn't benefit from another season in Columbus on the field as well.

Given that he's only started three games in his college career, it's unlikely that Jones would have been capable of doing more than sneaking into the back end of the draft's first round. But with a big senior season, the 6'5", 250-pounder could become the first quarterback selected in what's shaping up to be a weak 2016 quarterback class, which would likely land him in the first five overall draft picks.

Of course there's potential risk in Jones' return, especially with third-team All-American J.T. Barrett returning from a fractured ankle and two-time Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller's status still up in the air.

Jones insists that Meyer hasn't guaranteed him—or any other quarterback—Ohio State's starting role, although as the only one of the three who will be healthy for spring football, Jones appears to have a leg up.

Nevertheless, by returning to school with at least one other established quarterback on the Buckeyes' roster, Jones risks losing his starting status, which could potentially lead to his draft stock plummeting. The Cleveland native's small sample size left questions but also fewer games to pick apart, and ultimately could have benefited him, had he entered this spring's draft.

"I thought it all through," Jones insisted. "The chances [of being a first-round draft pick] are slim. Football has always been a stepping stone for my education."

That Jones is even in a position to have his decision to return to school questioned is a victory in and of itself, considering where he stood just two months ago. Barrett's backup until the fourth quarter of Ohio State's regular season finale against Michigan, Jones was eyeing a likely transfer after the season, per SI.com.

But more than revealing himself to be an NFL-quality quarterback, Jones has matured as a man, as evidenced by Thursday's announcement.

That famous tweet he sent more than two years ago about not coming to Columbus to "play school?" That's old news, replaced by the image of a man turning down millions when it may have made the most sense, in order to obtain his college degree as quickly as possible.

In a sport where so much is wrong, Jones has always uniquely been himself, admitting that he "can't say" what he wishes he could to people doubting his decision. "Being a first-round draft pick means nothing to me without my education," he said.

And while that may only be a public relations line to some, Jones' actions prove that he must really mean it.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Way-Too-Early 2015 SEC Power Rankings

The 2014 season just wrapped up, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2015 season.

A rather lackluster 7-5 bowl record, the absence of a national title for the second straight season and the first national title game without SEC representation for the first time since Vince Young led Texas to a title over USC in January 2006 has created an interesting storyline in the SEC.

No longer is SEC dominance a certainty, and the benefit of the doubt on the national scale has been wiped away by two straight seasons in which the conference has not won a major bowl (BCS/Group of Six).

Will Alabama repeat? There hasn't been a repeat SEC champion since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998, and the Crimson Tide will have plenty of talented teams vying for the top prize in the SEC.

Now that NFL draft early entrants have declared whether they're going or staying, let's rank the SEC heading into the offseason based on returning power, momentum and coaching changes.

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CFB Recruiting 200: Top 13 Athletes

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report recruiting analysts Sanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports Composite Rankings and provided in-depth analysis. As national signing day draws near, Bleacher Report provides a position-by-position breakdown of the best college football recruits. Today, we present the Top Athletes. 

Oftentimes, the nation’s top prep players arrive in college as raw talents who have relied solely on their athleticism to emerge as top prospects.

Others have excelled while playing multiple positions—which led to certain prospects being labeled as athletes entering college. 

A number of standouts in the 2015 class have the ability to play at least two positions in college.

For example, 4-star athlete and current Ohio State commitment Torrance Gibson has the frame to be an elite receiver or defensive back, yet he committed to Urban Meyer’s club for the chance to operate as a dual-threat quarterback.

The latest batch of Bleacher Report’s CFB 200 series will focus on athletes and projecting them at the position we believe they will play on the college level and scoring them on their ability to develop when they focus on one spot full time.

How does the 2015 group of athletes measure up, and where will these standouts line up at the college level?

All analysis provided by B/R National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani

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SEC Recruits with Best NFL Skill Sets

There’s no denying the SEC has had tremendous success producing NFL talent.

A quick glance at the recruiting rankings—team and individual—indicates the league is showing no signs of letting up in terms of adding the nation’s top athletes.

A bevy of prospects who already possess NFL measurables are headed to SEC campuses over the next few months.

Which SEC recruits have the best NFL skill sets?

 

Players listed in alphabetical order.

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Notre Dame Football: Aliz'e Jones Commitment Gives Irish Big Win over UCLA

Notre Dame may have an annual rivalry with USC, but things are heating up between the Irish and UCLA. The flip of 4-star tight end Aliz'e Jones is the latest in a growing battle between Brian Kelly and Jim Mora. 

On Thursday, Jones stepped away from his commitment to UCLA and verbally committed to Notre Dame. The top tight end in the country from Las Vegas' Bishop Gorman High School had been committed to the Bruins for over a year, but he had visited Notre Dame multiple times, most recently for the awards banquet at end of 2014. 

Jones picking Notre Dame is the latest in a battle between the two programs for top talent, with each school winning their fair share. Before Jones, it was defensive lineman Matt Dickerson last year. A longtime Irish pledge who the Irish stuck with through a major injury during his senior season, Dickerson flipped his commitment just weeks before signing day after committing to the Irish in the summer. 

But Dickerson's flip was nothing compared to the saga surrounding Eddie Vanderdoes. After faxing his letter of intent to Notre Dame, the 5-star defensive tackle wanted out within weeks, with more than a few people pointing to his continued recruitment by UCLA defensive line coach Angus McClure.

Kelly allowed Vanderdoes to enroll at UCLA, but refused to release him from his letter of intent. After a lengthy appeal process, Vanderdoes won immediate eligibility, citing a pull to stay closer to his ill grandmother in California among a myriad of reasons. 

Notre Dame and UCLA fighting over players has hardly been limited to Mora and Kelly, though. Former Irish receiver Shaq Evans found success with the Bruins. So did tight end Joseph Fauria. Notre Dame also lost a key recruiting battle for Anthony Barr, who despite family ties to the Irish, chose to play in Westwood. 

Notre Dame's latest victory for Jones heals some of those wounds—assuming it holds. Thanks to a solid recruitment by Scott Booker, the Irish have a versatile athlete who could see the field immediately, a threat as a detached tight end who will be an instant mismatch. 

Nearly as important is the growing connection between Notre Dame and Bishop Gorman. Long one of the best talent producers on the West Coast, the Irish first landed left tackle Ronnie Stanley and have followed it up with Jones and his teammate Nicco Fertitta. 

With Ben Koyack graduating and no other tight ends in the Irish's 2015 recruiting class, Jones is a key cog in a group that should grow by a few more before all is said and done. He's also the latest Notre Dame victory in a recruiting rivalry that's growing with the Bruins. 

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College Football's Winners and Losers of 2015 NFL Draft Early Entry Decisions

The Jan. 15 deadline to declare for the NFL draft has passed. As far as we can tell, we have the unofficial list of underclassmen who will leave college early and turn pro.

Maybe as important, we have the list of underclassmen who won't. Like every year, certain players bypassed the draft to return for their junior or senior seasons, putting off a paycheck to remain at school, even though the NFL thought highly of them.

The biggest losers of this process aren't the teams that lost the most players necessarily. It has more to do with context than quantity. Oregon lost Marcus Mariota, but we've known he was going to leave since September. That doesn't count. What counts is losing a surprise player, someone whose future was on the fence.

Sound off with your own winners and losers below.

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Every Power-Conference Team's Best Returning Player for 2015 Season

The deadline has come and gone for the 2015 NFL draft, with stars like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston headlining a strong group of underclassmen who’ve made themselves eligible for May’s draft.

You might wonder: Who’s left? Who can I focus my attention on next fall? Never fear. There’s plenty of talent remaining in college football’s ranks. That’s the beauty of the game. Talented players always step forward to replace those who’ve graduated and moved on to the NFL, and 2015 is no exception.

Here’s a look at the most talented player on each Power Five roster. We examined the rosters and looked for significant impact, as well as the potential to do more this fall.

Stats were taken from each team’s individual web page.

 

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5 College Football Teams That Desperately Need a Transfer QB in 2015

National signing day is less than a month away. While every recruiting class is an opportunity to build for the future, some programs need help right away—specifically at quarterback.

That's where graduate transfers come in to save the day.

There's no such thing as a true "free agent" in college football—schools can still deny an athlete permission to contact other schools, for example—but grad transfers can play right away. That can put a Band-Aid over a glaring weakness until other recruits develop.

When the quarterback spot is a glaring weakness, it's evident. The quarterback touches the ball on every play—save for in the Wildcat formation—and is usually the cornerstone of the offense.

Which programs could use a grad transfer to improve their quarterback situation this offseason? The answers in the following slides include teams that either had multiple quarterbacks play in 2014 with below-average results or are replacing big names.

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2015 Recruits Auburn Needs to Land to Return to Top of SEC

Auburn had a disappointing 2014 season after reaching the national championship in the previous year. The Auburn Tigers look to rebound with a stellar recruiting class. 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson sits down with AL.com's Matt Scalici to review the must-get recruits for the Tigers. 

Who is a must-land 2015 recruit for the Auburn Tigers?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Notre Dame Football: What Aliz'e Jones Brings to Irish Offense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — While it’s still unclear exactly what shape Notre Dame football’s offense will take next season and who will be throwing the passes, the Irish landed a top offensive playmaker with the commitment of class of 2015 tight end Aliz’e Jones on Thursday.

The 4-star prospect from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas is the No. 1 tight end in the country, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, and the No. 56 overall player. Jones had been committed to UCLA since November 2013, but he flipped to Notre Dame on Thursday.

“It’s huge. You don’t get a commitment much bigger than this,” said Tom Loy of Irish247. “He’s an outstanding, extremely skilled offensive player.”

Loy described Jones as a hybrid tight end with the ability to split out wide or play as an inline tight end and compared the 6’4.5”, 218-pounder to former Irish great Tyler Eifert, now of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Eifert, by the way, won the 2012 John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, and boasts school records for career receptions (140) and career receiving yards (1,840) by an Irish tight end. Eifert, a first-round draft pick in 2013, is one of 12 Irish tight ends to be selected in the first or second round.

While that's a lofty comparison for Jones, it's worth considering that, despite Notre Dame's unending line of solid tight ends, the Irish haven't ever inked the nation's top tight end, per 247Sports, in recent years. Kyle Rudolph (class of 2008) and Ben Koyack (class of 2011) both ranked second in the country.

“[Jones has] got plus speed, outstanding hands and great size, and he has a very good understanding of route running,” Loy said. “He ran the entire route tree while he was in high school, so that will help him easily translate to the college game. He is very instinctive. There’s just so much to like about him.”

Notre Dame realized that early and stayed connected to Jones throughout the entire recruiting process, Loy said. Jones first visited South Bend the summer before his junior season. The tight end returned for the Oklahoma game in 2013 and took another unofficial visit this September for Notre Dame’s 31-0 shellacking of Michigan.

“He has a great relationship with [Irish tight ends coach] Scott Booker,” Loy said. “When he committed to UCLA a long, long time ago, pretty much the only school to stay on him the entire time was Notre Dame and Scott Booker. They pursued him like he was uncommitted and kept things warm with him, just let him know whenever he’s ready, they have a spot for him.”

Jones remained committed to UCLA, but did line up a final visit for Notre Dame’s banquet weekend in December.

“This final trip for the banquet weekend was what solidified it for him,” Loy said.

Jones will step into a young room of tight ends in South Bend. With the graduation of Ben Koyack, Notre Dame’s crop of tight ends in 2015 will include two redshirt sophomores (Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman), one sophomore (Tyler Luatua), one redshirt freshman (Nic Weishar) and Jones.

“He’s gonna have to work on his overall blocking and the physicality that comes with the college game,” Loy said. “He’s not asked to do a lot of blocking at the high school level. So that’ll take a little bit of time. But he will step in and play right away for Notre Dame.”

Loy praised Smythe’s size and speed and said the soon-to-be redshirt sophomore is probably Notre Dame’s most polished overall tight end at this point. Luatua, who checks in at 6’2.5”, 260 pounds, made his biggest contributions as a physical blocking presence in Notre Dame’s rushing attack in 2014.

“They all have different aspects where they can impact the game for Notre Dame,” Loy said.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports' composite rankings.

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

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Florida State Football: Seminoles' Top Remaining Recruiting Targets for NSD 2015

National signing day 2015 is right around the corner, and Florida State's coaches are on the road and hosting official visitors on campus in an effort to finish off an already strong recruiting class with a bang.

FSU is heavily in the mix with several 5- and 4-star uncommitted prospects with only a few more spots to fill. Let's take a look at five of the top remaining targets on the Seminoles' board.

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Nebraska Football: How Mike Riley Is Quickly Changing Huskers' Perception

Mike Riley is a much different coach than Bo Pelini. That's not to say one coaching style is better or worse than the other, but for Nebraska fans, Riley's approach seems to be working.

In his short time as the head coach of Nebraska football, Riley hasn't shied away from much. For example, when he stopped by the ESPN broadcast booth during the Holiday Bowl in December, he gladly stepped into the role of the color commentator as the game progressed.

Riley also joined other college coaches from across the country in the ESPN2 film room during the national championship game. As Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald wrote about Riley's appearance, "The new Nebraska coach wasn’t the most vocal guy in the room during the broadcast, but he often brought a different perspective when he spoke."

It's fascinating to listen to Riley. While in the ESPN2 film room, he competed with Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi for time to talk. Like Nyatawa said, he wasn't the most vocal. However, in my opinion, he was often the most poignant.

Riley knows what Nebraska fans are looking for. They're looking for a leader who doesn't scream and a coach who lets fans have a more regular look inside the life of Nebraska football. Winning is also important, but for the time being, it's about much more. That's where Riley is focused.

As a result, the Huskers' perception is changing. With national signing day around the corner, that's a good thing, too.

Speaking of recruiting, that's another area where Riley is doing things a little different. Pelini wasn't too active on social media when it came to recruiting, aside from the occasional "BOOM" tweet he and his staff would share after a recruit committed.

In Riley's case, it's all about keeping fans in the loop. That's why Riley shares where he's going when he heads out on the road.

It's a different approach than Pelini's, which is refreshing. Fans want to feel privy to important information, and Riley is allowing that.

Part of Riley's charm is his humility. When arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the first time, Riley was greeted by a state that already knew who he was.

"I always thought I was a relatively unrecognizable guy," Riley said, per Eric Olson of the Associated Press (via NCAA.com). "I have appreciated the genuine welcoming. We're still undefeated, so that's a good thing as you go forward. It has been a nice entry."

It's hard not to like the guy, isn't it? That's exactly what athletic director Shawn Eichorst wanted when he looked for Nebraska's next head coach. Winning is great, but in a state with "Visit Nebraska, visit nice" as its tourism slogan, there's more to it than that.

Riley can't change the whole perception of Nebraska overnight. However, the new head coach is working hard to just be himself and make the Huskers look good while doing it.

And that's exactly what Nebraska needs.

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Tennessee Football: Offseason Goals for Vols Defense

The Tennessee football team's defense took several major steps forward in 2014, but if the Vols are going to make a giant leap into SEC contention next year, the unit must get better.

There's little reason to think it won't be.

Only middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, nickelback Justin Coleman and defensive tackle Jordan Williams depart from the rotation. A third-ranked recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, will bring more hype and infuse more talent into a rapidly improving group as well.

One of the jewels of that class, 4-star defensive end Kyle Phillips, told reporters Wednesday that he is already meeting high expectations with anticipation: "It’s a lot of excitement. We just feel that we have great expectations next year. We feel like we can go far next year and maybe have a run at the playoffs, but we'll just see how it goes from there."

Those are lofty goals, but if the UT defense takes similar leaps in statistical categories as it did in the past year, the Vols could shock plenty of teams. They were already among the league's best in pass defense, tackles for a loss and third-down defense.

Still, finishing eighth in total defense and ninth in scoring defense, per CFBStats.com, proves there's a long way to go. Here are some things coordinator John Jancek's group needs to focus on this offseason.

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Ohio State Football: Buckeyes' Top Remaining Recruiting Targets for NSD 2015

Winning a national championship makes recruiting a lot easier.

That's something Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer made very clear after the Buckeyes defeated the Oregon Ducks in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship. With that title run fresh in the minds of the country's top prospects, interest will never be higher, and the recruiting pitch will never be easier.

The Buckeyes' 2015 recruiting class is almost at full capacity, though. Meyer has secured commitments from 24 players, four of which are already on campus after enrolling early. As of now, that class ranks No. 7 nationally, but the Buckeyes could vault into the top five if they close out strong with a few elite prospects.

With the limited spots available, who are Ohio State's top remaining targets?

 

Torrance Gibson/Joe Burrow, QB

Ohio State probably landed its most important commitment on Thursday when Cardale Jones announced that he's returning to Columbus rather than jumping early to the NFL.

In a similar vein, Meyer is hoping to keep the two quarterbacks currently committed to the Buckeyes. With the emergence of J.T. Barrett and Jones this year, Ohio State's quarterback depth chart could easily scare these recruits away.

Torrance Gibson, the lethal 4-star dual-threat signal-caller who committed to the Buckeyes in November, recently scheduled visits to Auburn and LSU, according to a self-written blog posted by USA Today

While he encouraged Buckeyes fans by writing they "shouldn’t worry at all," Gibson is one of the more impressionable recruits in the country. He was swayed heavily by Tennessee after visiting Knoxville this past summer, a trip that pushed Ohio State to the bottom of his list. But as soon as he visited Columbus a month later, the Buckeyes skyrocketed to the forefront.

If things fall through with Gibson, Ohio State will be scrambling to make sure Joe Burrow sticks with his verbal pledge. The Buckeyes have plenty of talent at quarterback now, but things could open up in a big way if Jones wins the top spot this spring, has a big year and decides to leave early for the draft after his junior season.

If that scenario unfolds, the Buckeyes will be left with Barrett and Stephen Collier. The Buckeyes don't have an immediate need for a quarterback, but they'll have a need for depth after the 2015 season.

 

Terry Beckner Jr., DT

With the 24 recruits already in the fold, there aren't too many needs for the Buckeyes to address before national signing day. The one exception to that, though, is at defensive tackle.

Ohio State will need to replace its interior star in senior Michael Bennett, who is projecting as a second-round NFL draft pick, and Chris Carter—a big, gap-stuffing defensive tackle. The Buckeyes do return Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, but defensive line coach Larry Johnson likes a heavy rotation to keep his unit fresh.

That's why Terry Beckner Jr. is so important. The 5-star interior lineman is leaning heavily toward Missouri, per his high school coach, but that could change this weekend. Beckner will be in town to visit as Ohio State celebrates its national title this weekend, according to Jeremy Birmingham of Eleven Warriors. That, along with a strong push from Meyer and the coaching staff, could swing Beckner Ohio State's way. 

If the Buckeyes fail to sway him, it would be the third big-time defensive tackle prospect they missed on recently. Christian Wilkins chose Clemson over offers from Ohio State and Penn State, and Neville Gallimore spurned the Buckeyes for Oklahoma.

 

Josh Wariboko, OG

Anyone who watched Ohio State's last three games saw how heavily Meyer and the coaching staff rely on a strong offensive line. 

The Buckeyes already have five linemen signed to this year's class, headlined by four-star tackle Matthew Burrell, but Josh Wariboko would be the cherry on top. The four-star guard from Oklahoma is considered a heavy lean to UCLA, but there are reasons for Ohio State to be optimistic.

The 6'3", 315-pound mauler has whittled his list down to three schools—UCLA, Oklahoma and Ohio State—and he was expected to announce his decision January 6, but he recently pushed his announcement date back to signing day. That will give Meyer and the Buckeyes time to cover some ground.

That extra time also allowed Wariboko to take in the national title game, as the Buckeyes blasted Oregon with 296 rushing yards in a convincing 42-20 win. He was impressed:

If the Buckeyes are able to steal Wariboko away from the Bruins and the home-state Sooners, they'll get another big guy in the trenches hungry to pave the way for Ohio State's running game.

 

All recruiting information via 247 Sports.

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

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Georgia Football: Strong Recruiting Close Essential for Bulldog Momentum

If the Georgia Bulldogs can close out the 2015 recruiting class with a strong finish, momentum will be squarely on their side heading into the offseason. That challenge remains daunting, but success could represent a complete 180-degree turn from the direction the program seemed to be heading as recently as last month.

On Friday, Nov. 28, the Missouri Tigers overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to beat Arkansas. In doing so, the Tigers claimed the SEC East's spot in the SEC Championship Game over Georgia, a team that beat a home-standing Missouri squad by 34 points.

Twenty-four hours later, Georgia fumbled and pooch kicked its way to an improbable overtime loss to in-state rival Georgia Tech. It was the Bulldogs' first lost to Georgia Tech since 2008, and just the second since 2000.

A few weeks later, Mike Bobo, the wizard behind the most prolific offenses in Georgia history, accepted a head coaching position at Colorado State. He took offensive line coach Will Friend with him.

As the year came to a close, "momentum" did not seem like a word that would describe the state of Georgia football this offseason—at least not positive momentum. But somehow, athletic director Greg McGarity and head coach Mark Richt have positioned Georgia to succeed and advance the program heading into the 2015 season, thanks to a few short weeks of feverish action.  

The reversal of fortunes began in earnest, with a convincing 37-14 Belk Bowl victory over the Louisville Cardinals and former Bulldog defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. That win, Georgia's 10th of the year, propelled the Dawgs to a ninth-place finish in both the AP poll and the Coaches Poll (and Bleacher Report's own college football poll).

Then, Georgia managed to hold onto, promote and pass out raises to a handful of highly coveted assistant coaches, like defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and running backs coach Bryan McClendon.

And of course, Georgia was able to lure away an NFL coach who was expected to spend 2015 as his 10th consecutive year as an offensive coordinator at football's highest level. Instead, Brian Schottenheimer opted to pursue the opportunity in Athens. After Schottenheimer arrived, Rob Sale was hired as an offensive line coach to replace Friend.

All of a sudden, Georgia seems committed, at least monetarily, to avoiding painful regular-season endings like 2014's. According to Seth Emerson of The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia's assistant coaches will make $4.45 million in 2015. In 2014, that figure was $3.22 million.

But as we all know, recruits can't be bought. At least not within the confines of the NCAA's imposed infrastructure. Accordingly, if Richt and his staff want to earn the 38-percent raise that was distributed to assistant coaches, they must do so over the next two-and-a-half weeks on the recruiting trail.  

To be sure, this recruiting class will be a good one for Georgia. According to 247Sports, the Bulldogs currently have the nation's fourth-best class lined up.

But maintaining alone is a lofty calling, and an SEC rival, Tennessee, has already surpassed Georgia in overall class rankings since the new year began.

If Georgia really wants to make a splash heading into the spring, a bowl victory, coaching hires and staff raises won't be enough. Georgia must sign big-name prospects. 

Roquan Smith, a 4-star outside linebacker and one of the nation's 50 best prospects, per 247Sports, must become a Bulldog. Donte Jackson, who could start immediately in Pruitt's secondary, must sign with Georgia. Four-star offensive linemen Chidi Valentine-Okeke and Patrick Allen must pledge to Richt.

If recent recruiting news is any indication, Georgia really might close out strongly. According to Jake Rowe of 247Sports, Michael Chigbu, a 4-star wide receiver out of New Orleans has shut down his recruitment and will stay loyal to his longstanding commitment to Georgia. Chigbu was previously slated to visit Arizona State and California over the coming weeks.

Georgia locked down a big win over Louisville and locked down a host of high-profile assistant coaches over the past three weeks. Locking down a few more elite prospects will make the next three weeks even more exciting.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com. 

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What Auburn's Defense Must Do to Become Elite

Auburn's defense hasn't finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense since 2007.

Think about that for a second—a program that was once synonymous with stout defenses hasn't even produced an adequate defense since Tommy Tuberville's penultimate season as head coach.

Since then, Auburn has played for two national championships, won one of them and let go of two head coaches. The man who coordinated that defense—Will Muschamp—has gone from hotshot assistant to sure-fire head coaching star to punchline and back to where it all began.

Muschamp returned to the Plains as Auburn's defensive coordinator in December after a failed four-year stint as Florida's head coach and will look to revitalize a defense that is high on upside but short on proven success.

What constitutes being an elite defense varies from school to school, and considering the power of Auburn's offense, the defense doesn't have to be one of the best in the country from a statistical standpoint.

Since time of possession isn't a focal point, the defense is going to be on the field more, which skews the total defense standpoint quite a bit. Yards per play is a much better indicator of defensive success in this day and age of uptempo offenses.

What must Muschamp do to make this defense elite?

 

Fixing The Secondary Starts Up Front

The secondary wasn't Auburn's biggest problem on defense last year. It was the absence of any semblance of a consistent pass rush.

In each of Auburn's two most recent runs to the title game, it finished third in the SEC in sacks. In 2013, it was Dee Ford (10.5 sacks) doing most of the damage off the edge. In 2010, it was Nick Fairley (11.5 sacks) wreaking havoc inside to help get the Tigers to the promised land.

That was supposed to be Carl Lawson's job last season, but an offseason ACL tear sidelined the sophomore before the season began.

Auburn couldn't find an answer. Despite trying everything—including moving linebacker/safety Brandon King down to rush end in passing situations in the middle of the season—nothing worked. The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC with just 21 sacks, as opposing quarterbacks routinely had time in the pocket to pick the secondary apart.

If I gave you 13 guesses to pick which team tied Ole Miss for the conference lead in interceptions, how many would you need to land on Auburn?

All of them?

That's exactly what the Tigers did. They picked off 22 passes in 2014 despite finishing as the third-worst defense in the SEC (230.1 yards per game), which acted as the constant thorn in the side of head coach Gus Malzahn.

Many of the players from that defense, including cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Johnathan Ford, will be back this season.

With Lawson back, Montravius Adams in the middle, three of its four starters returning and Muschamp—who's consistently produced monsters up front like Dante Fowler and Dominique Easley—now in the fold, Auburn's front seven is ready-made for an immediate turnaround.

"I think the front seven is very strong," Muschamp said in his introductory press conference in December. "Just looking at some of the guys up front, I recruited a bunch of them. I'm looking forward to coaching some of them that turned me down."

If he can coach them up in a hurry this offseason, his defense will be able to hit the ground running when toe meets leather in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game vs. Louisville on Sept. 5.

 

Tackling Is Fundamental

Watching Auburn's defense try to tackle players in open space last year was like watching a cat trying to swat a fly.

They'd be successful every now and then, but more times than not, they'd whiff, end up flat on their faces and everybody not wearing orange and blue would wind up rolling on the floor laughing at the remarkable absence of fundamentals.

Former Bleacher Report Auburn lead writer Justin Ferguson, who's now with Sporting News, asked linebacker Kris Frost about those missed tackles in mid-November

"Really, I think tackling in our case is just playing with each other and knowing where your leverage is coming from," Frost told Ferguson. "You don't have to be the one to make the play all the time. You're playing with 10 other guys on the field. Basically, that's what we have to get back to—getting back to the basics, driving our feet and wrapping up."

That has to change, and Muschamp made that a point during bowl practice when he began observing the Tigers as they prepped for the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin.

"You can see it each and every day that we go out there in how much intensity he puts in each and every single drill and how much focus he puts into the little things," Frost told reporters. "He's made sure that we do the little things right all the time. That's really the most important thing that he's showing us lately."

That better continue in the offseason because Frost, along with a stout front four, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and many other contributors, will be back in 2015. If they aren't better in space, big plays against will again haunt the Tigers.

Auburn finished last in the SEC in plays allowed of 20-plus yards (68).

With a little more work on the fundamentals this offseason, that number will be cut down tremendously and take some pressure off Auburn's offense, which couldn't afford to take a quarter off last season without watching the game slip away.

 

Win National Signing Day

To say that this is a big weekend in Auburn is quite an understatement.

It's huge.

It's the biggest weekend in Auburn recruiting in years.

According to Wesley Sinor of AL.com, three of the top five uncommitted defensive prospects in the 2015 class—5-star defensive end Byron Cowart (No. 3 overall), 5-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson (No. 7 overall) and 5-star defensive tackle Terry Beckner, Jr. (No. 16 overall)—will be in Auburn this weekend on official visits.

Those are just the headliners. 

Uncommitted 4-star linebacker Jeffery Holland (No. 94 overall) and 4-star athlete/cornerback Tim Irvin (No. 277 overall)—who's currently committed to Texas—will also be on the Plains.

Several blue-chip offensive prospects will be there as well.

Many of those top players are from Florida—including Cowart, Jefferson and Holland. They are familiar with Muschamp and new defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson from their time with the Gators, which has created an interesting recruiting rivalry down the stretch.

Florida sits way down in the 247Sports team rankings at No. 81 behind South Florida and Florida Atlantic, and if it doesn't make a big jump between now and national signing day, it will likely be Auburn's gain.

Muschamp is putting the full-court press on the top uncommitted defensive prospects in the country and created a nice little Florida vs. Auburn recruiting rivalry in the process.

If Auburn can land some of those top-tier defensive prospects, they'll have the chance to contribute right away to a defense that will have a clean slate under the new defensive staff.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

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

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East-West Shrine Game 2015: Most Intriguing Draft Prospects in College Showcase

There might not be first-round talent across the board, but there will be no shortage of interesting NFL draft prospects taking the field for Saturday's East-West Shrine Game.

With Mike Singletary coaching the East and Jim Zorn leading the West, some of college football's best players will have a chance to play on another big stage and boost their draft stocks. While there aren't many players on the rosters who will be coming off the board in Round 1, NFL scouts have plenty to take in.

Let's take a look at the players to keep a close eye on when kickoff comes on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

 

Devin Gardner, ATH, Michigan

The inevitable position switch has come for Devin Gardner, and now comes the impossibly tough task of convincing NFL teams he's ready to play at the highest level.

Mike Huguenin of NFL.com reported that Gardner has made his switch from college quarterback to NFL hopeful wide receiver official and that he's been working vigorously on the position since Michigan's season came to an end on Nov. 29. 

We can expect growing pains as Gardner gets accustomed to a new position against players who are gearing up for the NFL. Draft Insider's Tony Pauline noticed Gardner's struggles in this week's practice:

Huguenin also foresees a tough transition, but he sees plenty of potential in the former QB: "Ultimately, Gardner is a high-level athlete trying to learn a new position on the fly. His size, body type, elusiveness and speed (he likely will clock in the mid-4.5 range in the 40 when he is tested) make him an interesting developmental prospect on the third day of the draft."

NFL types will be intrigued with Gardner because of what former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has become as a running back. Gardner possesses a similar athletic skill set that will allow him to make an impact in the league, but thriving in a new position isn't easy, and Gardner is finding that out firsthand. 

 

Deiontrez Mount, LB, Louisville

Deiontrez Mount may not be a high-level NFL draft prospect at the moment, but he left Louisville a year early for a reason.

At 6'5" and 245 pounds, Mount is an absolute mammoth of an outside linebacker, but he is able to play the position well. He maintains great awareness while playing with impeccable strength and uses a tough-minded approach to stay in front of the ball.

But players who are seemingly tweeners, as Mount is, can have a tough time finding their way early on.

Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey was on hand for practice and had some critiques:

Schottey's criticism was quickly followed by a striking compliment, though:

Such analysis perfectly sums up the indecisiveness surrounding Mount as he begins the treacherous process of entering the NFL draft.

Mount doesn't quite have the burst to be able to play with his hand in the ground, but he could also struggle in space if he wants to become a NFL linebacker. There's only so much a player can do to improve his athleticism, but Mount will have to make strides in order to carve out a place in the NFL.

 

Terrence Magee, RB, LSU

It's a forgivable offense for even the biggest of college football fans to not know who Terrence Magee is.

After all, LSU's backfield has been loaded with stud playmakers over the last two seasons. Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill both left the Tigers last offseason and quickly emerged on NFL rosters, while soon-to-be sophomore Leonard Fournette has taken over the position over Magee and fellow East-West invitee Kenny Hilliard.

But Magee and Hilliard are having no problem standing out this week, per Cecil Lammey of ESPNDenver.com:

Hilliard has the size and strength to move the pile in the NFL, but Magee's skill set makes for an even more intriguing pick.

Magee stays low to the ground at 5'9", allowing him to sneak through tight spaces most backs in this year's class cannot. But he can also lay the lumber, sporting a 215-pound frame that can lower the shoulder into contact and push for extra yardage.

Few had heard of Magee prior to this season, when he amassed over 500 yards in the LSU backfield. But now that he's standing out in front of NFL scouts, he should have no problem finding a home in the league.

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NFLPA Collegiate Bowl 2015: Rosters, Top Prospects for College All-Star Game

The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl gives some of the less-touted prospects of the upcoming draft to showcase their skills against the best, and the 2015 edition is set to be the best yet.

The college all-star event has only been up and running since 2012, but it has produced some of the best postseason play and valuable glimpses at future draftees for NFL personnel.

Not only do the players get to work with some of the best coaches in football—Mike Holmgren and Mike Martz will man each sideline Saturday—but if they impress, they can shoot up draft boards as well.

Standing out from the pack isn't easy when every player is on his way to the NFL, but only those who turn heads in the predraft season hear their name called in April and May.

Let's break down what you need to know about the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

 

2015 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

When: Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where: StubHub Center, Carson, California

Start Time (ET): 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

 

Team Rosters

Note: Game rosters are courtesy of the NFLPA official site.

 

Top Prospects

Marcus Rush, DE, Michigan State

Michigan State's pass-rushers are pretty much an afterthought in the 2015 draft after potential first-rounder Shilique Calhoun decided to stay put, but defensive end Marcus Rush may be able to resurrect the movement.

Rush is best known as the school's all-time starts leader, but he has established himself as much more than your average starter throughout four years. The emergence of Calhoun allowed Rush to fly under the radar in NFL draft circles, but he showcased his gritty play with a pair of key plays in Michigan State's Cotton Bowl win over Baylor.

First, Rush blocked a would-be game-sealing field goal of Baylor's with just over a minute left. Once the Spartans retook the lead with seconds to go, he sacked Bears quarterback Bryce Petty to seal the deal.

What's more, Rush is turning heads already at practice for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, per Cody Tewmey of NFLDraftLab.com:

The big conundrum facing Rush is one that many pro hopefuls are dealing with. At 6'3" and 250 pounds, his size is far from ideal in terms of coming off the edge.

If he can showcase his motor and strength on Saturday and dominate a handful of plays, however, scouts will have no choice but to look his way.

 

Chris Conley, WR, Georgia

Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley missed most of 2013 with a season-ending injury and spent some of his senior season getting back to full health, but he's back and better than ever entering the predraft season.

Amassing 1,938 yards and 20 touchdowns for his career with the Bulldogs, Conley has proven to be the most reliable target for quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason when healthy. His best asset from a NFL perspective is his size, as his 6'3", 205-pound frame translates ideally to the next level.

Conley has the prototypical size, skill set and experience, yet he has never truly taken off as a prospect—mostly due to injury. But a tidbit from a story by Ron Clements of Perform Media via Sporting News during Georgia's Belk Bowl performance gives Conley some props:

Georgia receiver Chris Conley got behind (Louisville safety Gerod) Holliman and the Louisville secondary early for a 44-yard strike from Georgia senior quarterback Hutson Mason. Conley is a 6-3, 206-pound senior and one scout said that because of Conley’s combination of size and speed, he has an NFL future. Brooks agreed and said Conley is the type of player teams look for 'at the bottom of the draft' because of their ability to contribute on special teams.

All too often, serious injury can ruin a player's ability to get to the next level and perform at his best there. Fortunately for Conley, it appears he's playing better than ever as he ends his collegiate career.

 

Prince-Tyson Gulley, RB, Syracuse

There may not be a more intriguing prospect with a hopeful NFL future in Saturday's Collegiate Bowl than Syracuse's Prince-Tyson Gulley.

The running back has been a big part of Syracuse's offense over the last three years, amassing 369 total carries in that span and averaging well over five yards per carry. But it's his skill set that makes him all the more interesting.

Gulley is a morph between a tough-nosed bruiser and a speedy scatback. He's only 5'9" and can dominate defenses by slipping through the line unnoticed, but he is also 195 pounds and can run you straight over.

It's no surprise that he's been impressing so far in practice, per ESPN's Kevin Weidl:

Aspects like a heavy workload in college can turn NFL teams off when it comes to drafting running backs, but Gulley has shown no signs of tread on his tires. With plenty of experience returning kicks as well, Gulley will be a central focus for NFL scouts this weekend.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines' Top Remaining Recruiting Targets for NSD 2015

Jim Harbaugh has just a few short weeks to salvage his first Michigan recruiting class after leaving the NFL to lead the Wolverines. This year’s class was always going to be small, but Michigan’s late-season collapse and the dismissal of Brady Hoke took a toll on what had been shaping up to be a quality group.

Harbaugh has retained the team’s top two remaining commitments, 4-star recruits Alex Malzone and Brian Cole, who both enrolled early. He can now focus on filling out the rest of his inaugural class that currently has six solid commitments. Michigan will look to gather about a dozen more before signing day.

Michigan's offense collapsed last season and took Hoke along with it—Harbaugh needs to focus on developing a squad that struggled with consistency under its two previous offensive coordinators.

He greeted the first day of recruiting with his typical optimism and set off a firestorm of speculation by following a number of top recruits on Twitter.

With the graduation of quarterback Devin Gardner, Harbaugh's top priority is finding a new signal-caller. Despite Malzone being safely in the fold, Harbaugh has continued to pursue other players for the position.

Angelique Chengelis of The Detroit News reports that Harbaugh will meet with McLane Carter later this week:

Carter, an accurate left-hander who has flown under the recruiting services radar and, so far, is unranked, but has drawn the attention of new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who plans to visit the listed 6-foot-3, 190-pound 2015 quarterback recruit this week.

Speculation that quarterback Kevin Hogan, who as a graduate student would have been immediately available, would jump to Michigan proved unfounded as he decided to remain at Stanford.

Harbaugh has a history of developing talent, which bodes well for the current players on the roster, but don’t be surprised if he brings in more to compete on signing day. His extensive playing and coaching experience give him special insight into identifying players who can succeed at the quarterback position.

Another top target is tight end Chris Clark, who decommitted late during the season. Clark could help energize the offense and support the offensive line as an extra blocker. According to The Detroit News, Michigan is back in the mix:

Tight end Chris Clark, a five-star prospect on Scout, was once committed to the Wolverines, then decommitted, but since then has put Michigan in his final two along with UCLA. A large part of the Connecticut native's renewed interest is Harbaugh's history of success with the tight end position.

Wooing Clark back from UCLA would be a major coup for Harbaugh and his staff. With Michigan being thin at the receiver position, there’s a big opportunity for tight ends to play a major role in the offense next season.

Tight end Tyrone Wheatley Jr., a 4-star recruit, is also being targeted by Michigan. Besides being a top recruit, his recruitment is symbolic not only because he’s a legacy but also because his father is a member of Harbaugh’s staff. Harbaugh’s return should resonate with Wheatley, who grew up hearing about his father’s storied Wolverine career.

Michigan is also expected to approach 4-star running back Mike Weber, who decommitted during the Maryland game and later defected to Ohio State.

If Harbaugh can convince these players to join his rebuilding effort, Michigan will be well on its way to contending again.

 

Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.

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Michigan Football: Grading Hires of Wolverines 2015 Coaching Staff

Jim Harbaugh’s coaching staff at Michigan is nearly complete. Once finished, it’ll rival the best that college football has to offer—that much is written in stone and isn't up for debate.

Along with athletic director Jim Hackett, Harbaugh, coach No. 20 in Wolverines history, has secured an elite band of assistants who have earned their stripes in the NFL and/or with major FBS programs. The goal is clear: Turn around the program.

That said, experience and resumes won’t ever be an issue—these guys have logged enough years to ease any sort of uncertainty during the transition. They’re proven winners and know what they’re doing.

This slideshow will analyze and grade each official hire—“official” meaning that it appears on MGoBlue, the university’s official site—because taking a look at the potential newcomers is a task for another time.

Begin Slideshow

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