NCAA Football News

25 Best Heisman Trophy Winners of All Time

The Heisman Trophy has had a good offseason.

Cam Newton and Carson Palmer's battle in the NFC Championship Game drew headlines for featuring two former Heisman winners. Newton won't face another Heisman winner in the Super Bowl, but his opponent, Peyton Manning, is notable for not winning the controversial 1997 Heisman, and the person who beat him, defensive back Charles Woodson, enjoyed a fond farewell tour before retiring from the NFL.

How special was Woodson's season to prevent Manning from winning? Where does Cam's undefeated 2010 campaign rank among Heisman-winning quarterbacks?

Let's rank the best Heisman Trophy winners and find out.

But before you read on...a disclaimer. This is a really hard article to write. I've used quantitative data such as stats and records, but there's an obvious element of subjectivity. I also had to account for how "important" a player or season became. That's something you can't stick in a spreadsheet.

So on that note, my apologies for not including your favorite player. Especially with the older guys, whose numbers don't compare because of how the game has changed, I had to make a few tough snubs.

Sound off below and let me know where you disagree!

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Tom Brady, Derek Jeter Reportedly to Attend Michigan National Signing Day Party

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh will be calling on some heavy hitters to celebrate this year's national signing day.

According to Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter will be in attendance in Ann Arbor for the school's signing day party on Feb. 3. The Players' Tribune confirmed the report.

Alejandro Zuniga of SB Nation's Maize N Brew highlighted how star-studded the party is becoming:

Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel thought this stunt fit right in with Michigan's recent approach to appeal to recruits:

Brady is one of Michigan football's most famous alumni. He was a member of the Wolverines' national championship-winning team in 1997 and helped lead the team to an Orange Bowl win over Alabama in the 1999 season.

Since graduating from the school, Brady has become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, winning four Super Bowls and two MVP awards.

Jeter doesn't have the same kind of deep ties to the university, but he graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School and was offered a scholarship to Michigan before he ultimately entered the MLB draft out of high school.

The former New York Yankees shortstop also has a stake in the event, since the Players' Tribune, which he founded, is hosting a live stream of Michigan's NSD party.

Ever since Harbaugh became Michigan's head coach, he has thought outside the box on the recruiting trail.

He and his coaching staff traveled to seven states in eight days as part of his Summer Swarm tour during the summer of 2015. More recently, he planned a slumber party with one recruit, baked another a cake and even attended a high school class with another of Michigan's targets.

According to 247Sports' composite ranking, the Wolverines have the No. 5 recruiting class in 2016—a significant improvement from last year's 37th-ranked class. Harbaugh's recruiting methods may be unorthodox, but they're delivering big results for Michigan.

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Jake Lawler to UNC: Tar Heels Land 4-Star DE Prospect

Jake Lawler didn't wait until national signing day to make his decision. He's headed to North Carolina. The 4-star defensive end made his announcement Sunday in a Twitter post:

Lawler, who stars at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the No. 185 player in the Class of 2017, per 247Sports.  

He ranks ninth among weak-side defensive ends and is the third-best player in the state of North Carolina overall. The Tar Heels were considered the leader in the pack throughout the process, with 60 percent of 247Sports experts predicting he'd land in Chapel Hill. His commitment came a day after attending North Carolina's Junior Day. Duke and South Carolina also received consideration.

Lawler made 72 tackles and 13 sacks during his junior campaign. 

“Jake is a special kid—not just in the way he plays, but in the way he does everything," head coach Rocky White said, per Don Callahan of Scout. “He comes to the early morning workouts. He comes to 2:30 workouts. If we had midnight workouts, Jake would be there. He’s a true road warrior in the weight room… If you had 100 Jake Lawlers, you’d go undefeated. He has good size. He has a fast get-off and uses his hands well.”

He'll return as a senior looking to make more improvements to his size than anything. Listed at 6'3" and 225 pounds, Lawler doesn't have the strength to play defensive end at a major program yet. His speed off the snap is exceptional, but he'd get overpowered by ACC offensive linemen at this point. It's possible Lawler could move to outside linebacker if the additional bulk slows him down; we'll just have to wait to see how he develops over the next 12 months.

As it stands, North Carolina is off to a stellar start with its 2017 class. Lawler is the fourth recruit to give his verbal, with all four ranked as 4-star players. Offensive tackle Jonah Melton and wide receivers Tyler Smith and J.T. Cauthen are already signed up to play for Larry Fedora. Lawler's commitment should see North Carolina push its way close to top-10 status among 2017 classes, as it was already 19th

Comparatively, the Tar Heels arguably have a better class in place for 2017 than they do for 2016. Heading into signing day, they've landed only one 4-star recruit among 25 players and sit 34th in 247Sports' rankings. 

Fresh off an 11-win season and with the ink still drying on a fat new contract, Fedora seems to have his program on an upward swing. Lawler's commitment is just the latest piece of evidence. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter

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Baylor Investigating Handling of Past Sexual Assault Cases Amid Accusations

Baylor University may be under fire again after a report by Paula Lavigne for ESPN's Outside the Lines criticized the school's handling of alleged sexual assaults.

Patty Crawford, Baylor's Title IX coordinator, told Lavigne the school has hired an independent consultant to examine how it dealt with past sexual assault investigations.

Lavigne tells the story of a female student, Tanya, who was sexually assaulted by former Bears football player Tevin Elliott. Elliott was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Baylor's campus police declined to help Tanya since the assault happened off school grounds, while the university's health center suggested she seek counseling from an off-campus facility because the center was so busy.

According to Lavigne, Tanya's story isn't an isolated incident:

Yet an investigation by Outside the Lines found several examples in Tanya's case, and others at Baylor, in which school officials either failed to investigate, or adequately investigate, allegations of sexual violence. In many cases, officials did not provide support to those who reported assaults. Moreover, it took Baylor more than three years to comply with a federal directive: In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to all colleges and universities outlining their responsibilities under Title IX, including the need for each school to have a Title IX coordinator. Baylor didn't hire a full-time coordinator until fall 2014.

Serious questions arose after the school's handling of a case involving former football player Sam Ukwuachu. Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon wrote an in-depth report in August 2015 for Texas Monthly detailing the allegations against Ukwuachu and many of the school's missteps as it investigated the claims against him.

Baylor launched an internal probe following the report, with school President Ken Starr concluding last August that an outside source would need to conduct further analysis to properly account for the school's potential failings during the investigatory process.

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The Pizza Delivery Guy Who Made It Big: The College Recruitment of J.J. Watt

Try to imagine J.J. Watt as "the guy from Pizza Hut." It almost happened.

It's amazing to think Watt was a shattered dream away from possibly being remembered as one of the best pass-rushing pizza delivery guys in the state of Wisconsin, rather than as one of the NFL's most dominating defensive linemen.

Before Watt was the award-winning, pass-deflecting, quarterback-eating, touchdown-scoring sackmaster NFL fans have grown to respect and admire, he was a guy who nearly had his football dreams turn to dust. He worked at a local Pizza Hut in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, after leaving a scholarship at Central Michigan.

Watt took the job before enrolling at Wisconsin, where he chose to play football as a walk-on. Either he was going to make it as an FBS-scholarship defensive end after leaving Central Michigan as an unsatisfied tight end, or he was going to be a statistic, someone who had a shot elsewhere but threw the opportunity away.

It was definitely a gamble. Needless to say, Watt gambled and won. In fact, he won big.

"It's been a long journey," Watt told USA Today in 2012, "but it's been a lot of fun."

 

The recruiting woes

Most of the football world now knows Watt as the 6'5", 289-pound dynamo who makes his living as a defensive end but also moonlights as a tight end, H-back or whatever other position he's called to play. John and Connie Watt, however, know him as the relatively shy Justin James Watt.

A member of the 2007 recruiting class, Watt was a fan of all sports growing up but especially loved playing hockey. He competed on youth travel teams before putting the stick down to focus on football, despite the fact that he was a tall, lanky athlete who weighed 220 pounds his junior year.  

"He had an athletic body, but the muscle maturity wasn't quite there yet," said John Watt, J.J.'s father and a retired firefighter for 30 years who also served two years as a lieutenant paramedic. "After his junior year, you could see his body starting to catch up and get to a point where there certainly was some potential there."

But Watt didn't have the monster list of offers that some may assume. As it was, there wasn't a high demand for undersized defensive ends.

Clay Iverson knows. He coached at Pewaukee High School for seven years, including Watt's junior and senior years, and he saw Watt earn offers from schools such as Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming and Northern Illinois before ultimately signing a letter of intent to Central Michigan.

"I think if anyone said they saw this coming, they should do some pre-NFL scouting—or, they're lying," Iverson said of Watt's pro career. "No one could have predicted he'd be one of the best football players in the world, but everything he told me, I never doubted. Everything he said came with a lot of hard work."

After finishing his junior year earning all-conference honors, mononucleosis robbed Watt of the chance to showcase his skills during the offseason entering his senior year. The recovery forced him to miss all of the multiple school camps and combines that would have given him the opportunities that some of his peers received.

"The end of his junior year, that was supposed to be his big opportunity," John Watt said. "He was told to take it easy or risk doing damage. [He] was kind of a dark horse, because coaches didn't get to see him. It was hard for J.J. to see some of the guys he knew get interest that he knew he should have gotten."

Connie Watt, J.J.'s mother, said that span between his junior and senior year "drove him crazy," but it also motivated him. For her, she was grateful that mononucleosis wasn't something more serious, but she noticed her son growing more and more impatient with every passing day.

"We originally thought it was leukemia. It was scary," said Connie, who runs Watt's charity, the J.J. Watt Foundation, which reaches out to schools with insufficient funding for after-school athletic programs.

"Recruiting was incredibly stressful and challenging for all of us. There were times I'd get up in the middle of the night, and he wasn't sleeping because he was worried about it. We kept telling him to stay positive and that things were out of his control. That was something he had to learn to accept." 

 

Shining late in the process

Despite Watt's then-unremarkable dimensions, Iverson was struck by how his young lineman played bigger than his size.

"He was always very aggressive and always a very hard worker," Iverson said of Watt. "He had to fight through his growth spurt, but he was always aggressive. He had a knack for making the biggest plays in the biggest games. I don't know if you can coach that."

Watt, rated only a 2-star prospect in the 2007 class by both Rivals.com and Scout.com, was able to build his reputation by way of game film—and, in some cases, other teammates' game films. John Watt remembers a time when Iverson sent film out on another Pewaukee athlete, but the coaches "asked about that No. 9 kid." That kid was Watt.

Watt also shined in big games. He had a chance to line up against St. Frances High School and offensive tackle Josh Oglesby, the top-ranked player out of Wisconsin in the 2007 class and a 5-star prospect by Rivals.com. It ended up being one of Watt's best games—one that made a solid highlight tape.

Wyoming took notice and was the first school to make an offer. Though it came late in Watt's senior year, the offer helped to get a slow recruiting process going. Central Michigan was next to make an offer, followed by Minnesota, Northern Illinois and Colorado.

Watt committed to Central Michigan following an early December 2006 visit, as he was a fan of then-head coach Brian Kelly, who now is at Notre Dame. But days after Watt's pledge, Kelly took the head coaching job at Cincinnati.

Watt switched his commitment to Minnesota later in the month, as he had become a fan of head coach Glen Mason. On Dec. 31, however, Minnesota fired Mason, leaving Watt once again without the head coach he was expecting to see as a freshman. Watt ultimately recommitted to Central Michigan on Jan. 30, 2007, and played for then-new head coach Butch Jones, who is now at Tennessee.

Central Michigan, however, wasn't what Watt expected. For starters, he was playing out of position.

"They wanted to use him as a tight end, but they used a spread offense," John Watt recalled. "His freshman year only [saw him catch] eight passes. He said, 'This isn't what I signed up for.'"

Watt decided to leave Central Michigan, give up his scholarship and give things a shot at Wisconsin, a school he admired and cheered for as a young boy. It was a huge gamble, but it turned out to be one of the best moves he's ever made.

 

Perseverance trumps all

Watt decided to walk on at Wisconsin, but to do so, he had to ask his parents to pay for a year of tuition, and he also picked up a part-time job. 

Presenting J.J. Watt, pizza delivery guy.

"It definitely gave him a look at what would happen if he didn't go to college," Connie Watt said. "It gave him the idea of working hard and show[ed] that it wasn't something he wanted to do his whole life."

"Seeing how much faith my parents put in me, knowing what it took for me to leave a scholarship, leave a MAC championship team [Central Michigan] and take a gamble, I would look like a fool if I was wrong," Watt told the Houston Chronicle back in 2012. "And I don't like looking like a fool."

Watt, who changed positions with the change in schools, knew if he didn't make it at Wisconsin, his football career was done. But he went from being a walk-on to being named the Badgers' defensive scout team player of the year as a defensive end in 2008.

He became a scholarship player who earned all-conference and All-American honors. He then decided to forgo his senior season and enter the 2011 NFL draft, where the Texans selected him with the 11th overall pick.

The rest is history.

"I don't know if anyone could've predicted that this is how it could go," Watt told JerryBarca.com before the draft. "It's been an unbelievable ride. I feel like I should ask myself, 'When am I going to wake up?'"

Watt's story, indeed, is one of perseverance.

"[He] always had lofty goals, but you never doubted him," Iverson said. "I've never seen a young man so committed and so quick to put all the foolishness around him on the back burner at such a young age.

"Whatever he has inside, it's what makes the special 'special.'"

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles.

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Erik Swenson to Oklahoma: Sooners Land 4-Star OT Prospect

On Saturday, Erik Swenson, the No. 29 offensive tackle in the 2016 class, announced he will play football next season for the Oklahoma Sooners.

The 6'7", 285-pound Downers Grove, Illinois, native is the fifth-best prospect in his state, per 247Sports. He originally committed to the Michigan Wolverines in 2013 but claimed the school pulled his scholarship offer in January without giving a reason, per Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com.

Based on a quote provided by Brandon Justice of MaizeNBrew.com, Swenson seems to be at ease with his decision to attend Oklahoma:

The Sooners moved into the top 25 of 247Sports' team rankings and now have eight 3- and 4-star commitments. Here are some highlights from Swenson's junior season, when he averaged 17.5 pancake blocks per game and yielded zero sacks, per Hudl.com:

Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh is looking forward to having Swenson on the roster:

Swenson should have an opportunity to fight for playing time early. The Sooners offensive line was a mess at the start of last year, using a different starting five in each of the first four games of the season, per Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World. After a loss to the Texas Longhorns, head coach Bob Stoops found a lineup that worked, which included two freshmen: Orlando Brown and Dru Samia.

The Sooners lost center Ty Darlington and guard Nila Kasitati to graduation, though, so there will be another shake-up next year.

Based on recent performance and high recruiting rankings this year, the Sooners and Wolverines should both be successful in the near future. If they happen to meet in a bowl game or the College Football Playoff over the next three or four years, Swenson will have a great opportunity to show Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh what he missed.

 

All rankings per 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Dak Prescott Named 2016 Senior Bowl MVP: Latest Comments and Reaction

Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott was named the MVP of the Senior Bowl after completing 7 of 10 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown in Saturday's game.

The official Senior Bowl account tweeted this after the game ended:

CBS Sports has the senior quarterback as the sixth best signal-caller in the upcoming draft class and has him projected to be taken between the third and fourth round. 

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Senior Bowl 2016: Score and Twitter Reaction for College All-Star Game

The South All-Stars came out on top, 27-16, over the North All-Stars on Saturday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and several players seemingly boosted their draft stock in the process.

Chief among them was Mississippi State and South quarterback Dak Prescott, who completed seven of 10 passes for 61 yards and one touchdown to go along with 13 rushing yards on three carries en route to being named Most Outstanding Player, according to the Senior Bowl on Twitter:

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz was among the most talked-about prospects in Mobile throughout the week, and he was the main focus of the first quarter as the North's starting signal-caller.

While Wentz didn't orchestrate any scoring drives, he completed six of his 10 attempts for 50 yards and rushed three times for two yards.

It wasn't a transcendent performance by any means, but according to NFL Network's Charles Davis, the fast-rising quarterback made quite a positive impression during his time at the Senior Bowl:

The South got on the board first with four minutes remaining in the opening quarter by virtue of a 25-yard touchdown run from TCU running back Aaron Green.

Green enjoyed a fantastic, under-the-radar season with 1,272 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns for the Horned Frogs, and Davis is among those who have taken notice:

The South All-Stars tacked three more points onto their score near the end of the first quarter when Duke's Ross Martin drilled a 48-yard field goal.

The North finally got on the board with under three minutes remaining in the half by virtue of a seven-minute drive orchestrated by Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan.

UCLA's Ka'imi Fairbairn converted a 36-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 10-3, but moving the ball down the field wasn't necessarily easy for the North due to Eastern Kentucky pass-rusher Noah Spence's dominance on the drive for the South.

Spence was a disruptive force who managed to sack Hogan on the drive in impressive fashion, per Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

According to Peter Schrager of Fox Sports, his performance didn't come as much of a surprise considering how good he looked throughout the week during practice:

Per Davis, Spence received some high praise as one of the main attractions at the Senior Bowl:

If Spence was the most impressive defensive player, Prescott may have opened up the most eyes on the offensive side of the ball.

He took the reins under center for the South in the second quarter, and he didn't disappoint, as he was the only quarterback in the game to throw a touchdown until the very last play of the day.

The 2014 All-SEC selection conducted a 10-play drive in just two minutes and 34 seconds, culminating in a five-yard touchdown pass to Southeast Missouri State wide receiver Paul McRoberts to put the South on top 17-3 with 22 seconds remaining in the half.

David Helman of DallasCowboys.com praised Prescott for his ability to move the football down the field quickly and efficiently under the pressure of the clock:

As for McRoberts, the small-school wideout came to Mobile amid little fanfare, but he performed well in the Senior Bowl with three grabs for 24 yards and caught the eye of Bleacher Report's Matt Miller:

Unlike McRoberts, Ohio State quarterback-turned-wide receiver Braxton Miller was one pass-catcher who drew a crowd all week along.

His stat line in the Senior Bowl was pedestrian, as he caught two passes for eight yards, rushed once for five yards, returned one kick for 31 yards and returned a punt for two yards, but he was so good in practice that Dane Brugler of CBS Sports could see him cracking the first round in April's draft:

The North entered the third quarter facing a two-touchdown deficit, which prompted it to turn to USC's Cody Kessler at quarterback.

With Wentz receiving much of the attention in terms of quarterbacks, Kessler seized the opportunity to make NFL talent evaluators notice him.

Although he completed just four of his 10 passing attempts for 45 yards, he put on a gutsy display with a one-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes left in the third quarter to pull the North within 10 points of the lead.

During the game, NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock compared Kessler to a Cincinnati Bengals signal-caller who started to establish himself as one of the best in the league in 2015:

Kessler's showing was somewhat of a surprise from the perspective of South Florida Sun-Sentinel writer Omar Kelly since he didn't light it up during the practices leading up to the Senior Bowl:

The South team's third-quarter passer managed to stand out as well despite not putting any points on the board. Arkansas' Brandon Allen moved the ball down the field effectively, connecting on seven of 10 passes for 106 yards.

In fact, Steve Sullivan of KATV felt as though Allen showed more than any other quarterback in the game on the heels of a 30-touchdown season:

One of Allen's favorite targets in the third quarter was Kansas State fullback and tight end Glenn Gronkowski, who is the younger brother of New England Patriots superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski. The aptly nicknamed "Baby Gronk" finished with three receptions for 47 yards and showed the potential to be an effective H-back at the next level.

The South All-Stars managed to put a bow on the game with just over six minutes left in the contest when Alabama's Kenyan Drake rushed for a one-yard touchdown to make the score 27-10.

Drake didn't make many of the explosive plays he became known for with the Crimson Tide, but as Alex Byington of the Decatur Daily pointed out, he contributed in multiple areas:

Although the game was out of reach at that point, the North didn't pack it in with Louisiana Tech quarterback Jeff Driskel under center. The former Florida signal-caller managed to turn in the best statistical day of any quarterback, with eight completions on nine attempts for 108 yards and one touchdown.

The score came on the final play of the game in the form of what was essentially a 29-yard Hail Mary to Michigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge.

According to NFL.com's Chase Goodbread, Driskel really showed off his arm on the play and ended the contest on a high note:

As is always the case, the Senior Bowl was an excellent showcase for experienced prospects who don't always receive the same level of hype that many of the underclassmen do.

A number of those who took part in Saturday's game made a strong case to be considered in the first round of the draft, with Wentz and Spence especially standing out in that regard. There is still a long and arduous draft process to come, including the combine, pro days and interviews with interested teams. Game action usually rules the day when it comes to evaluating players, though, and all 32 franchises were given plenty to look at and consider with regard to the Senior Bowl.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.  

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Tanner Lee to Nebraska: Latest Transfer Details, Comments and Reaction

Former Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee announced via his Twitter account Saturday that he has transfered to the University of Nebraska. 

Here is his announcement:

After two years at Tulane, the QB was granted his release by the school on Jan. 7. 

Lee does have some connections to Nebraska. Per Sam McKewon of Omaha.com, he worked with Nebraska's wide receivers coach Keith Williams, who coached at Tulane. 

Per 247Sports.com, Lee was the 75th-rated quarterback in the country coming out of the class of 2013. 

During his time at Tulane, Lee passed for 3,601 yards and had 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 19 career games. In both of those seasons, Tulane went 3-9, struggling in the American Athletic Conference. 

His decision to leave Tulane was likely impacted by the school hiring Willie Fritz as the team's new head coach after the firing of Curtis Johnson. Formerly at Georgia Southern University, Fritz ran an option-style offense that led the nation in rushing last season. 

Lee, who is more of a pro-style passer that likes to stay in the pocket, would have had a difficult time in that offense. 

He has a powerful arm, though, and is capable of throwing the deep ball over plenty of defenses in the NCAA, as Fear the Wave shows:

At Nebraska, Lee will have more of an opportunity to show off his arm under head coach Mike Riley. Last season, Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. attempted 402 passes and threw for over 3,000 yards. 

Returning for his senior season, Armstrong will finish up his collegiate career while Lee sits out 2016 due to transfer rules. 

He is bound to have some competition in order to win the starting job, of course. At the moment, according to Nebraska's roster from last year, A.J. Bush and Zack Darlington will be juniors by the time Lee's ready to play. 

Lee will have an opportunity to acclimate to life in Nebraska during his year off and learn the offense inside and out. If the transfer goes well and he picks things up without a hitch, he could be the main man slinging passes in Lincoln come the fall of 2017. 

 

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com

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Cal Acknowledges Liability in 2014 Death of Football Player Ted Agu

The University of California has acknowledged its negligence in the 2014 death of defensive end Ted Agu. 

According to Kimberly Veklerov of the San Francisco Chronicle, Cal made its admission following testimony in a lawsuit filed by Agu's parents:

The admission comes after testimony in a lawsuit brought by Agu’s parents raised questions about the actions of Cal football personnel in the events that preceded his death. The testimony, given in confidential depositions, also detailed allegations that campus officials did not provide the Alameda County coroner’s office with all police and medical records after Agu died, including some that indicated he had sickle cell trait — a blood abnormality that experts believe can lead to death under extreme exertion.

Agu died Feb. 7, 2014, after collapsing during a training run outside California Memorial Stadium where the Golden Bears play their home games. 

Cal team physician Dr. Casey Batten told Josh Dubow of the Associated Press there didn't appear to be anything wrong with Agu after he was placed on a cart into the stadium: "He was on the back of the cart, he was talking, he was hydrating, he did not exhibit any labored breathing or other signs until he got to the north tunnel."  

In April 2014, per Henry K. Lee of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Alameda County coroner's office announced Agu died from the heart condition known as "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or excessive thickening of the heart muscle."

Veklerov noted Cal's admission "does not necessarily signal a settlement," with one of Agu's parents' attorneys, Steve Yerrid, saying "there needs to be reform and meaningful change" as a result of his passing and the circumstances surrounding it. 

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Doug Nussmeier Reportedly Will Remain Florida's Offensive Coordinator

According to Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman on Saturday, University of Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be staying with the Gators next season. 

Per Feldman, he was the leading candidate for the head coaching vacancy at Southern Mississippi.   

Nussmeier doesn't have a history of staying in one place for long. Since his coaching career started in 2001, he's had nine stops around football, including stints in the Canadian Football League and the NFL as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. 

The 45-year-old has been an offensive coordinator since 2008, with stints at Fresno State, Washington, Alabama and Michigan before joining Florida in 2014. 

On a team that's built a reputation for its defense the past couple of years, Nussmeier's offense hasn't exactly seen overwhelming success at Florida.

His unit ranked 111th in the nation in total offense last season. Much of that had to do with the suspension of quarterback Will Grier for performance-enhancing drugs. But the year before, the Gators were ranked 96th, so the drop wasn't exactly dramatic. 

Even so, Southern Mississippi was still high on Nussmeier after the departure of head coach Todd Monken, who took a job as offensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. According to Football Scoop, Nussmeier met with Southern Mississippi on Wednesday, and the meeting went "very well." Sources told the website that he was a strong candidate for the job. 

His return to Florida could provide a weight off of head coach Jim McElwain's shoulders, however. The Gators already have to find a replacement for defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan, who McElwain announced would not be returning to the program on Jan. 15. 

Adding another coaching search to an already hectic time of year could have affected Florida's productivity. With national signing day just around the corner on Feb. 3, some offensive recruits might have thought twice about their decision to commit to Florida hadNussmeier left. 

Now, though, the Gators can rest easy knowing that their plans on the offensive side of the ball can continue as planned.

 

Stats courtesy of NCAA.com 

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Devery Hamilton Switches Commitment from Michigan to Stanford

Prized offensive tackle recruit Devery Hamilton shocked the University of Michigan on Saturday by switching his commitment to Stanford despite agreeing to play for the Wolverines in June.

According to Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports, Hamilton made the decision during an in-home visit from Cardinal head coach David Shaw on Friday.

Per 247Sports, Hamilton is a 4-star prospect who rates as the No. 22 offensive tackle recruit in the entire nation.   

According to Wiltfong, Hamilton's assistant coach at Gilman High School in Baltimore, Henry Russell, said schooling played a big role in the offensive lineman's decision to flip.

"I think just the academics that Stanford has to offer and his parents having a family friend out there who can help make the distance more doable," Russell said.

Brandon Justice of Go Blue Radio touched on how significant the loss of Hamilton is from Michigan's perspective:

Also, Nick Baumgardner of MLive pointed out that losing commits has turned into a disturbing trend for the Wolverines:

Hamilton is a big, athletic tackle at 6'6" and 290 pounds, according to 247sports, and stealing him away from Michigan is a major coup for a Stanford team that relies heavily on its running game, spearheaded by Christian McCaffrey.

The switch is a somewhat interesting one considering Hamilton opted to go from head coach Jim Harbaugh's current team to the program he led prior to his stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Shaw convinced Hamilton to make a move completely across the country, which speaks to how respected the Stanford football program has become in recent years.

Harbaugh undoubtedly started that transformation, so in some ways, he played a role in his own demise with regard to Hamilton.

Michigan is still very much a program on the rise, even with Hamilton no longer in the fold, but replacing a player of his caliber this late in the recruiting process will be an extremely tall task for Harbaugh.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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Ranking Top New College Football Coordinators for 2016

This winter’s college football coaching carousel is nearly complete, after rolling to a stop and then lurching forward again when Southern Miss coach Todd Monken left to become a wide receivers coach with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Regardless, when the Golden Eagles hire a leader, they'll almost certainly finish hiring for the 2015-16 offseason. Head coaching hires are crucial to a program’s success, but almost as important are the assistants those coaches pick to make their program hum.

Think about it: Where would Clemson be without defensive coordinator Brent Venables or Oklahoma without offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley? Coordinators matter, and becoming one is often the final step before moving on to a head coaching role. Of the 27 FBS jobs filled thus far this offseason, only eight were claimed by coaches with prior head coaching experience. Getting the right hires as your offensive and defensive coordinators is highly important. Here’s a look at the best coordinator hires of this offseason.

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National Signing Day 2016: Top Uncommitted Recruits to Watch

Optimism among college football fans will be at a feverish high on Wednesday, Feb. 3, for national signing day. The top high school players in the nation will put ink to paper confirming the programs they will join as potential stars or saviors.

Several of the best prep prospects will reveal their chosen school on Wednesday, and many of them will be the gems of the lucky university's latest class of talent. 

Here's a look at the top uncommitted prospects to watch on national signing day. Player ratings are based on the 247Sports composite rankings. ESPNMediaZone.com has a list of its signing announcement coverage.

 

Rashan Gary, DT, Paramus Catholic (Paramus, New Jersey)

Rashan Gary isn't just the best uncommitted player heading into Saturday's signing flurry. He's the best prospect in the nation, period. A rare consensus No. 1, Gary is 293 pounds and clocks in at an absurd 4.74 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He's racked up 27.5 sacks over the past two seasons.

Gary will announce his decision at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPN2, per ESPN.com's Tom VanHaaren. Though most experts see him bolstering an already terrifying Michigan defense—79 percent of 247Sports' Crystal Ball experts see him becoming a Wolverine—there is a chance another school could steal him away.

Gary is making a weekend visit to Clemson, per TigerNet.com's Tony Crumpton. The Tigers have some enticing selling points, per Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue:

The Tigers coaching staff, specifically defensive coordinator Brent Venables, have an opportunity to showcase a program that has quickly ascended college football's hierarchy. Clemson is 56-12 since 2011 and returns Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson at quarterback for at least one more season. 

Unlike other schools under his consideration, Clemson's coaches boast cohesiveness that's tough to locate elsewhere. Auburn, USC and Michigan each hired a new defensive coordinator this winter, forcing Gary and his mother to re-acclimate with a fresh presence.

The defensive line in particular has been crucial to Clemson's recent success. Though he plays on the interior, Gary might be keen to join a program that has developed studs like Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, both of whom project as early picks in this year's NFL draft.

Other schools are of course still keeping tabs on him. 247Sports' Keith Niebuhr reported Gary had a chat with a notable Auburn freshman on Thursday:

Alabama, Ole Miss and Southern California are also still in the mix and have predictions from 247Sports' experts. Wherever Gary decides to go, he will certainly be the prize of that school's draft class and will spark a national conversation about its prospects' future prospects.

 

Derrick Brown, DT, Lanier (Buford, Georgia)

While Gary is the prize defensive tackle of the 2016 class, Lanier's Derrick Brown isn't very far behind in terms of talent or potential. He's the No. 4 prospect at the position and No. 9 overall. According to a report from Niebuhr, a source said Brown has winnowed his choices down to Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn However, Brown's mother refuted that claim, saying Mississippi State and Georgia are still potential landing spots, per AL.com's Drew Champlin.

"That's not true," Martha Brown said, per Champlin. "I don't know where that comes from, but that's not true. We will start calling universities that he's not interested in and let them know so they can offer a scholarship to someone else."

According to Niebuhr, Brown is set to reveal his decision at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPN.

It would be quite the coup if Tennessee could land Brown, beating out the allure of playing for a perennial contender in Alabama or the home-state advantage enjoyed by the Bulldogs. The Volunteers have been a mediocre outfit for the better part of the last decade, though they've steadily improved under current coach Butch Jones and finished 9-4 in 2015, their best record since going 10-4 in 2007.

Fox Sports' Michael Wayne Bratton noted that Brown is one of three talented players making a quick final visit to Tennessee on the weekend.

"Three uncommitted 5-star prospects expected to be in Knoxville this weekend include: U.S Army All-Americans defensive tackle Derrick Brown and defensive back Nigel Warrior as well as Under Armour All-American offensive lineman Landon Dickerson," Bratton wrote.

Having other talented players around during the trip might sway Brown, convincing him the Vols are a team indeed trending in the right direction. However, the other schools mentioned have all enjoyed greater success as of late.

The majority of experts (53 percent) are picking Brown to stay close to home and join Georgia, while Alabama certainly could have openings in the middle of the defensive line, with Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson projecting as top NFL prospects for this year's draft.

 

Ben Davis, ILB, Gordo (Gordo, Alabama)

Alabama is always a hotbed of football talent, and Ben Davis is the best of this year's bunch from the state. He's the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2016 class and the No. 10 prospect overall.

Naturally, the Crimson Tide are the favorites to land his signature, with 100 percent of 247Sports' Crystal Ball experts expecting him to join coach Nick Saban's dynastic program. Not only are they the home-state powerhouse, but Davis' father, Wayne Davis, played football for Alabama, and it's no secret he's been encouraging his son to play there.

"No matter who it is—Florida, LSU, Georgia—I'm pushing Ben to my alma mater," Wayne said in October, per Champlin. "I've been open with them about that."

Davis is such a special talent that other schools of course haven't given up on winning him over, even late into the process. NBC Sports' Keith Arnold noted Notre Dame made quite the pitch to Davis recently, and a strong recruiting presence was a key part of that:

Credit first-year assistant Autry Denson for making the in-roads with Davis. The blue-chip linebacker told Irish 247's Tom Loy that he views Denson as a brother and that they'll "maintain a friendship for life." That's the type of recruiter Notre Dame needed when they replaced Tony Alford, and Denson did a heckuva job with his young position group, too.

Kelly's sales pitch to Davis is probably more true than even Irish fans want to acknowledge. While Nyles Morgan is the heir apparent to Joe Schmidt in the middle of the Irish defense, to think there isn’t room for a prospect like Davis in a linebacking corps that returns only James Onwualu (10th on the defense in total snaps) to the starting lineup would be under-appreciating Davis' talent.

While Davis is still likely to join Alabama, Crimson Tide fans can't count him among their crop of talent just yet. There is still time for this young man to make a shock decision.

 

All player stats, measurables and rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Keith Gavin to Florida State: Seminoles Land 4-Star WR Prospect

Class of 2016 4-star wide receiver prospect Keith Gavin announced he has committed to the Florida State Seminoles on Friday night.

Gavin posted to Twitter a statement along with a photo of himself with members of the Seminoles coaching staff:

Coming out of Wakulla High School in Crawfordville, Florida, Gavin is the 19th-ranked prospect in the state and the 17th-ranked wide receiver in the nation, according to 247Sports' composite ranking

Gavin provides a menacing presence from the wide receiver position. At 6'3", 211 pounds, Gavin is a strong pass-catcher who will impose his will on defenders all around the ACC. 

Even with that kind of size, Gavin exhibits above-average athleticism due to his quick feet. He's able to create space with that kind of agility as well as get by potential tacklers. 

He's received comparisons to professional receivers like the Pittsburgh Steelers' Martavis Bryant, according to Elite Scouting Services.

One drawback that he does have is his speed. He isn't the fastest receiver, and as Scout.com describes it, Gavin "does not have a second gear." 

Still, if he is able to get even stronger and simply outmuscle defenders, speed won't be the most important thing. As long as he continues to provide a strong set of hands and be a big, reliable target, Gavin is going to see plenty of success at the next level with FSU. 

Florida State's passing attack will get a boost in Gavin, who will be looking to help the Seminoles improve on the aerial game's ranking of 38th last season. 

The Seminoles will be returning leading receiver Travis Rudolph, who recorded almost 300 more yards than second-leading receiver Jesus Wilson despite Rudolph having just one more reception.

Adding Gavin could give Florida State a chance to continue to open its passing attack. It will only help its offense, which was anchored by the stellar play of running back Dalvin Cook last season. 

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Jim Harbaugh Comments on Michigan's Recruiting Philosophy

University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh broke his silence on the recent happenings of his recruiting class on Friday. 

Harbaugh and his coaching staff have fallen under siege after some recruits found out "that their offers were no longer guaranteed," according to Dan Murphy of ESPN.com. 

Per Murphy, Harbaugh is keeping a close eye on those who verbally committed to Michigan, making sure that their grades, play on the field and character outside of school remain unmarked. 

"We're very much out there," Harbaugh told Murphy. "We don't hide how we operate and what we do. It's a meritocracy with everything we do in our program. It's going to continue to be that."

Basically, if a recruit continues to get good grades in class, play football well and give back to the community, his offer will stay on the table. If grades, performances and/or character drop, then the offer might not be kept.

According to Murphy, two high school seniors over the last two weeks were notified by the Michigan coaching staff that their offers weren't set in stone. 

One recruit, defensive end Rashad Weaver, delved into his experience with Harbaugh and Michigan on his Twitter:

While this might be new to some, Rivals.com's Josh Helmholdt has seen this before from Harbaugh when he was head coach at Stanford from 2007-10, as he told James Hawkins of the Detroit News:

My assumption is this was their plan from the beginning. Take guys early and then figure it all out at the end. Our beat writer who covers Stanford when Harbaugh was hired a year ago had mentioned that this was kind of his M.O. at Stanford. You look at guys and if they're good enough, offer them and we'll figure it out in the end.

In a way, Harbaugh is toying with these young men who are aspiring to play college football. Pulling out their offers at the last minute could be disastrous for their future plans. 

On the other hand, he isn't simply handing out free passes to Michigan. If the recruit doesn't live up to the rules or values set by Harbaugh and his coaching staff, they have a right to take the offer away. 

It was imperative for Harbaugh, though, to make sure these prospects knew this was the way things are run at Michigan. 

He will not be able to comment on particular recruits due to NCAA rules, but according to Murphy, when he was asked whether or not he had communicated these ideals to his recruits, Harbaugh simply said "yes." 

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Kyle Whittingham, Utah Agree to New Contract: Latest Details and Reaction

Utah Utes head football coach Kyle Whittingham has signed a two-year extension at $3.3 million per season to remain with the team through 2020, per Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report.

Whittingham has led Utah since 2005, compiling a 94-46 record with a 9-1 record in bowl games, which include the 2005 Fiesta Bowl as co-head coach with his predecessor Urban Meyer. Under Whittingham's leadership, the Utes claimed the 2009 Sugar Bowl after upsetting the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide, 31-17.

Kyle Goon of the the Salt Lake Tribune put the terms of Whittingham's contract into a financial perspective:

Utah released a statement (via Mark Green of Fox 13 Now) with comments from Whittingham:

“I am grateful for the support and commitment shown by [Utah Director of Athletics] Chris Hill and President Pershing with this contract extension,” he stated. “It gives further stability to our football program and what we are trying to accomplish. We are excited about the future here at Utah and the recruiting class we will sign next Wednesday.”

The head coach has been successful at Utah, but he it's not like he took over a downtrodden team. In the previous two years Meyer wen 22-2. However, Whittingham deserves credit for keeping the program afloat. His nine bowl appearances in 11 years are unprecedented for a school that had played in only 11 bowls prior to his arrival, despite forming a team in 1892.

After a 6-0 start in 2015, Utah was ranked No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll and had 16 first-place votes. However, three losses in five games dropped it out of the elite-team discussion, but the season ended well with a 10-2 record and 35-28 victory over rival BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Questions about next season lie ahead for Whittingham and the Utes. They return six of their eight defensive linemen from last year, which had what was considered one of the best defensive lines in the nation, per Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune. However, they lose 79 percent of their rushing yards, 62 percent of their receiving yards and all of their passing yards for 2015.

If Whittingham can win 10 games again, there is no doubt he will have earned his new contract.

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Which Power 5 Conference Will Be the Most Difficult to Win in 2016?

Winning a conference title is the gateway to the college football playoffs, though it's not a guarantee since only four spots are available for five power leagues. It takes more than just being a conference champion, it requires overcoming tough competition that makes for a great resume.

But not too tough, or else a conference champion might have too many blemishes to earn a playoff bid. Just ask Stanford, which went 8-1 in the ultra-deep Pac-12 Conference, but because that gave it two losses, it was the odd team out of the hunt for a national championship.

As we start looking toward the 2016 season, it's important to remember that performance in league play will ultimately trump what teams do in nonconference games. The big early matchups that highlight the first few weeks of September should make for great action, but the winners or losers won't have sealed their fate yet because the more-important conference slate is still to come.

And that's where the overall difficulty of the conference comes into play.

USA Today's Jeff Sagarin rated every FBS conference or division at the end of the 2015 season, and it was no surprise the power leagues held the top nine spots. A look at the order they finished, though, also shows which ones were stronger than the rest.

How will these conferences stack up in 2016? There are several factors that will helps us determine which league will be the toughest to win next season.

 

Schedule Makeup

The Big Ten makes the move to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, which will mean every team plays three crossover games instead of two. Because of this, many of the matchups between top teams from the East and West divisions that didn't happen last year will be on the docket.

For instance, in order for Iowa to defend its West title, it will not only have to outlast Northwestern and Wisconsin (both of which come to Iowa City), it must also outlast Penn State and Michigan from the East. Last season the Hawkeyes' crossover games were against Indiana and Rutgers. Consequently, East contenders Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State each play at least two of the West's 10-win teams.

"This is the template that everybody thinks is best going forward from a variety of perspectives," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney said last summer (h/t Paul Myerberg of USA Today).

This doesn't put the Big Ten on par with the Pac-12 in terms of schedule difficulty, but it gets it closer. The Pac-12, because it has only 12 schools, plays four crossover games as part of the nine-game league slate, and thus the number of quality teams from either side that winds up dodging each other is minimal.

Additionally, an agreement made when the league expanded in 2011 ensures all four California schools face off each season, locking up two of their crossover matchups every year.

The ACC and SEC remain entrenched with an eight-game league schedule, allowing for only two crossover games per season, and each also has pre-determined crossover series between “traditional rivals” such as Auburn and Georgia in the SEC and Florida State and Miami (Florida) in the ACC.

And then there's the Big 12, which with its 10-team lineup is able to play a true round robin. That would change if the conference opts to expand, though the approval to have a league title game without having 12 teams (or two divisions) is likely to quell interest in that route.

The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12's use of nine-game schedules does provide a minor advantage for half its teams, though, with some getting to play an extra home game, while others end up with five road games in conference play.

 

League Balance

The SEC's West Division retained its crown as college football's most difficult division, sending all seven teams to bowl games for the second year in a row and seeing six of them win. That included victories in the Cotton and Sugar Bowls, as well as Alabama's national championship.

After running through the gauntlet during the regular season, those bowl games probably felt like exhibitions for the West's teams. The same went for Alabama in the SEC title game, as the East Division was woefully weak in comparison to the West.

That could be the case again in 2016, especially with three schools (Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina) hiring first-time head coaches and all of whom come in with defensive backgrounds. Tennessee was the only East team to finish in the SEC's top half in total offense last season, making for a considerably lopsided league that led to a mismatch between Florida and Alabama for the title.

Unless the Vols or someone else dominates the East and holds its own in crossover games, it will have little shot to win the conference championship game.

The three other power leagues that are split into divisions were far more even in 2015, though the Pac-12 North and ACC Coastal tipped the scales a bit last year after previously being the second-class sides. The Coastal's rise should continue in 2016, thanks to the addition of well-regarded coaches Mark Richt (Miami), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Justine Fuente (Virginia Tech) to an already-strong list.

The Big Ten might be the most balanced league overall, though, with an equal number of contending teams, bottom feeders and those hoping to be the former instead of the latter.

The Big 12 is removed from this argument because of its one-division format, as well as its lack of a conference title game.

 

Returning Talent

What's coming back and what needs to be replaced is a much bigger factor for individual teams and their chance to win their leagues than for the conference as a whole. Every star player could end up needing to be replaced and that wouldn't make a league easier or harder to win, though the amount of starters and standouts that one team brings back over another might lessen the number or legitimate contenders.

For argument's sake, though, let's look at the number of top-tier players that each power conference is in line to have back for 2016. In terms of players who made at least one of the most notable All-American teams, the SEC has the most returning star talent with seven 2015 All-Americans. The Big Ten is second, with five, while the ACC and Big 12 return three apiece. In December, USA Today's Dan Wolken asked which conference was the best based on coaches:

Bringing up the rear is the Pac-12, which has just two All-Americans set to return in 2016. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey ended up making different teams as either a running back or all-purpose player, so you could technically credit the Pac-12 with three.

Ultimately, the overall strength of a league and its difficulty is going to be determined more by the new stars and starters and how their respective teams maximize their talents.

 

Conclusion

The more conference games a team has to play, the harder it's going to be to win that league. Along with the quality of the opponents it'll face, these are the two key factors in determining overall conference strength and difficulty.

And those are the two reasons the Big 12 will be the hardest to come out on top of in 2016.

It has taken eight wins to claim the Big 12 title each year since the league dropped down to 10 teams in 2011, when it also increased from eight to nine conference games. No team has gone unbeaten since the switch, and twice an 8-1 record was only good enough for a share of first place.

The Pac-12 has had an 8-1 division champ every season since expanding, but it has also had one with at least two or three losses each time as well. The Big Ten has had several unbeaten division champs since reaching 12 teams, and again at 14, but the increase to nine games will make it harder to emerge unscathed.

It's not enough to make the Big Ten tougher than the Big 12, though, because without a true round robin, there are still chances to dodge tough opponents.

The size of  the ACC and SEC should make them among the tougher to win, but only playing eight games holds more weight than anything else.

The Big 12 may eventually join the rest of the power conferences and add schools, host a title game or both. If and when that happens, it might make the league less daunting to get through, but for the time being, its uniqueness helps make it the most difficult conference to win for the 2016 season.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Re-Ranking Top College Football Recruiting Classes from 2012

As we head into the final hectic weekend before national signing day, all of the nation's top programs are competing for the chance to sign one of the best classes of the entire 2016 cycle.

Fans will be focused on their schools getting into the recruiting rankings' coveted top spots, where consensus blue-chip prospects make up a bulk of the signing day hauls.

But highly rated classes don't always turn out to be highly successful ones on the field. So now with four seasons of action under their belts and the vast majority of the players either now at the next level or on their way to the draft, let's take a look back at the 2012 recruiting cycle and re-rank the Top 10 classes.

These re-rankings are based on the on-field success of a class—overall win-loss record in four seasons, conference championships, national title contention, individual awards and accomplishments and impact on the NFL draft. It's a similar system to the one Bleacher Report colleague Ben Kercheval used in his Top 10 classes of the past decade from earlier this week.

In hindsight, who do you think had the best 2012 class? Let us know in the comments below.

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Early Predictions for SEC Football's 2016 Stat Leaders

A linebacker will not lead the Southeastern Conference in tackles, a cornerback won’t top the league in pickoffs and the newly established single-season rushing record might not last long.

There are still more than 200 days until the start of the 2016 college football season, and a lot of players will need time to adjust to the numerous new coaches and coordinators, but the SEC already has some clear front-runners when it comes to who will eventually lead the league in its individual statistical categories.

Granted, a few of them will be obvious, but if nothing these are the established players everyone else will try to top.

 

Rushing 

Running back is one of those positions where an incoming player can make an immediate impact, but the SEC is already solid at that position.

The SEC’s leading returning rusher from 2014 was Georgia’s Nick Chubb, who was one of only two running backs to average more than 100 yards per game.

Of the SEC’s top 15 rushers in 2014, quarterbacks included, nine returned the following season. Only five were in the top 15 again, with Chubb and Jonathan Williams of Arkansas both suffering season-ending injuries. 

Alabama ball-carrier Derrick Henry was the league’s first 2,000-yard rusher, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette almost certainly would have joined him had the Tigers’ season opener not been cancelled due to inclement weather.

Even though he’ll have two new offensive tackles blocking for him in 2016, look for LSU to do whatever is necessary to make sure that Fournette tops Henry’s 2,061 yards next season.

“Just in the back of my mind, just knowing what we have, no doubt we—to me we have the most athletes of any college, and just come out next year firing,” Fournette said during his postgame press conference at the Texas Bowl, where had had 212 rushing yards and five total touchdowns against Texas Tech. 

  

Passing

The NCAA uses efficiency rating to determine its passing champion, and the top SEC quarterback over the last two years will surprise a lot of fans: Alabama’s Blake Sims in 2014 and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen this past season.

Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly will be the top returning player, and second on that list is Georgia's Greyson Lambert, who had much better numbers in nonconference play but will be in a quarterback competition under new head coach Kirby Smart.

The player who may improve the most is Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs, but that’s easier said than done. Although Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott clearly improved as a passer this past season, his rating was essentially the same (151.7 in 2014, 151.0 in 2015).

The SEC’s reputation for not having top quarterbacks will likely continue for at least another year as some of the new quarterbacks develop. Kelly is the player to beat, though, and he’ll have to lead an offense that has to replace nearly every other starter.

 

Receiving

No one came close to matching Amari Cooper’s numbers from 2014 (8.86 catches per game, 123.4 yards), but Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk and Alabama’s Calvin Ridley both posted very strong numbers during their respective first seasons. Florida’s Antonio Callaway also lead the league in yards per catch (19.4).

Mississippi State’s Fred Ross will return as the SEC’s reigning receptions-per-game king, yet won’t have Prescott or receiving partner De’Runnya Wilson, who stretched the field. He’ll also go from being one of the smallest receivers on the Bulldogs roster to the biggest, which will likely mean different assignments.

The only returning player to be listed in the top 15 in receptions in both 2014 and 2015 was Texas A&M’s Josh Reynolds, even through he had eight fewer touchdowns this past season. He and Kirk will likely be the league’s top tandem again in 2016, with the former the favorite to lead the SEC statistically.

 

Tackles

There are two names in particular to keep an eye on in 2016. Both are already established among the SEC’s league leaders, yet neither will play linebacker.

Texas A&M safety Armani Watts was second with 9.7 tackles per game and will have a whole year under his belt in coordinator John Chavis’ scheme.

Meanwhile, right behind him in 2015 was South Carolina’s Skai Moore with 9.3. He’s been the Gamecocks' leading tackler the last three seasons while playing linebacker, but new head coach Will Muschamp will increase his responsibilities and use him some at safety.

“When we’re in our regular package, he may be able to play some safety and be able to increase his role as far as playing in space,” Muschamp told the State's Josh Kendall. “He’s got a pretty wide skill set.” 

With South Carolina’s offense expected to be poor, Moore could end up making a lot of tackles next season.

 

Sacks

This is the easiest prediction to make, as Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett was first in the SEC this past season (12.5) after finishing second the year before (11.5).

His biggest competition figures to come from Alabama, which led the nation in sacks in 2015. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen notched 12, but he won’t have Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson drawing double-teams any more. The real player to watch is Tim Williams, who had 10.5 sacks as a specialist and hopes to land a full-time role as an outside linebacker.

Ole Miss defensive end Marquis Haynes tallied 17.5 sacks during his first two seasons while playing alongside Robert Nkemdiche. Like everyone else, though, he’ll be hard-pressed to top Garrett, an elite athlete who could head to the NFL as a top pick in the 2017 draft with another strong season.

Interceptions

Pickoffs are extremely difficult to forecast because offenses will not challenge top defensive backs, especially once they know a player is adept at creating turnovers.

A perfect example is Auburn’s Jonathan Jones. In 2014, he had six interceptions and tied for the league lead with 18 passes broken up. This past season, though, he made just one interception and broke up 13 passes.

Nevertheless, the player to watch is Alabama strong safety Eddie Jackson, who this past year made the move from cornerback. He made six interceptions in 2015, which tied Georgia’s Dominick Sanders for the league lead, and returned two for touchdowns.

Opponents won’t be able to shy away from Jackson, though, because the rest of the Crimson Tide secondary should be a strength next season; Alabama used three freshmen at times in 2015—Marlon Humphrey (redshirt), Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison—and they are only going to get better.

Clemson went after them during the national championship game, but Harrison knocked away a pass in the end zone and Humphrey received the key onside kick. The defensive MVP, though, was Jackson. 

"I just wanted to come out there and help my team win a national championship," Jackson said. "That was the only thing on my mind. Like MVP wasn't on my mind at all to be honest. Just like Coach Saban says, dominate your box and do your job, so that's what I came out focused on."

Alabama led the league with 19 interceptions, four more than any other team (Ole Miss, 15), and is a solid bet to so again in 2016.

  

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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