NCAA Football News

Michigan Football: Early Look at Wolverines Roster for 2015 Season

Michigan is coachless and Devin Funchess-less.

But it’s not talentless.

As a matter of fact, the new regime—led by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh or LSU’s Les Miles or whomever—will have plenty to work with, manipulate and move to its liking in 2015.

That’s the outlook right now, anyway.

Despite having lost just about everyone from their upcoming recruiting class, the Wolverines have enough on the defensive and offensive side of the ball to win on Saturdays. Really, they had that in 2014—the only thing missing was a coaching staff capable of widely developing athletes at each position, not just a few at select spots.

Jake Butt, a tight end (maybe receiver?), and wideout Amara Darboh will be obvious keys to success when it comes to moving the ball through the air, while De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Ty Isaac will have to carry the load via ground game.

In light of Ray Taylor’s expired eligibility, Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess must return as the leaders of the defensive backfield. Forget Team 135’s 5-7 record for a moment and remember that Lewis’ stock rose in 2014. However, Countess took a few steps in the wrong direction, but that’s not to say that he can’t rebound as a senior.

Sure, the program seems to be in limbo at the moment. However, once talks lead to the hiring of a coach, Michigan can set its priorities on making sure the Wolverines won’t be the Big Ten’s doormat next season.

It’s time to take a look at some of the key positions and personnel, as they’ll determine the immediate fortunes of Michigan football. That said, a full breakdown will be in order after things settle. 

 

Who’s the Quarterback?

Speculation, feelings and the direction of the wind are the only guides at the moment as the Wolverines probably haven't tabbed a leader at this juncture. 

The next likely candidate is Shane Morris, who’ll be a junior returning with 389 passing yards and five picks. As a sophomore, he completed 14 of 40 attempts for 128 yards and three interceptions.

That said, he looked much better as a freshman reliever during Michigan’s 2014 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State than he did this past fall.

But for the sake of his development, Michigan’s next coach better hope that the kid still has confidence.

During the team’s 2014 media day, Morris said that he was “100 percent ready” to start. That mentality probably hasn’t changed. However, the new staff will certainly take hard looks at incoming 4-star freshman Alex Malzone and will-be-redshirt-frosh Wilton Speight before making any decisions on who gets the top nod.

At 6’1.5” and 200 pounds, Malzone has adequate size with an above average arm. At 6’6” and 234 pounds, Speight has ideal size and returns, arguably, the team’s top arm.

There isn’t a proven commodity, but Morris has wheels and can throw. Speight regularly threw 50-yard bombs during warm-ups. And then there’s the hometown kid (Malzone) who won Michigan’s Mr. Football honors out of Brother Rice.

Not proven, but far from slim pickings.

 

Defense has Upside

Losing linebacker Jake Ryan and defensive end Brennen Beyer hurts. They were both among Big Ten leaders in tackles for loss during most of 2014. Ryan finished with 14 (No. 6 overall) and Beyer finished with 7.5, one behind Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, who was No. 20 in the league.

Defensive linemen Matt Godin, Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone are among logical successors to those posts, as are Willie Henry and Ondre Pipkins.

As a redshirt sophomore in 2014, Godin whet his appetite as a key backup for Greg Mattison’s No. 10-ranked total defense. The 6’6”, 286-pounder out of Novi finished with an unimpressive nine tackles but certainly showed a high motor.

It’s not every day that D-linemen get picks—he snagged one during Michigan’s ugly 10-9 road victory over Northwestern. Players such as Godin will help carry on the teachings of Mattison, who constructed a respectable corps in Ann Arbor during the past four years.

At 6’6” and 275 pounds, Charlton can do damage. He finished his sophomore year with 19 tackles, 5.5 of which were for a loss. Mone’s a bull. The 6’4”, 312-pounder should be one step closer to league-wide domination during his sophomore season.

And that’s even if Michigan isn’t very good overall. Mone dazzled when he was given the opportunity to smash someone.

Joe Bolden is another guy who’ll carry Mattison’s torch this fall.

As a junior, he displayed heart and leadership each week. He missed some tackles and wasn’t always in position, but he always took accountability for his transgressions—and those of others—and vowed to improve.  If anything, 2014 was a shocking learning experience that’ll aid the 6’3”, 231-pound linebacker this upcoming fall.

Along with James Ross and Royce Jenkins-Stone, his fellow-seniors-to-be, Bolden will likely be tasked with pushing underclassmen Noah Furbush, Mike McCray, Jared Wangler and Michael Ferns.

They won’t have to worry about junior Ben Gedeon. He’s on the up-and-up and could be the team’s top linebacker next season. The 6'3", 240-pounder has great instincts and knows how to hit. 

And they won't have to worry about Desmond Morgan, who sat out 2014 with an arm injury. The 6'1", 232-pounder has 31 starts to his credit. 

 

Special Teams

Now that kicker Matt Wile and punter Will Hagerup are out of the picture, it’s on Kenny Allen and Andrew David to split uprights and pin teams into corners. At 6’3” and 220 pounds, Allen has a ton of leg. David was the No. 7 kicker of the 2015 class, per 247Sports.

 

Stay Breezy

Peppers spent his freshman year pumping iron, as evidenced by a photo tweeted by College Spun. Due to a lower-body and/or ankle injury, the former 5-star recruit saw action in just three games for Michigan in 2014.

He’s listed at 6’1” and 202 pounds. It’s safe to say he’s put on at least 15 pounds since arriving to Ann Arbor. What coach wouldn’t want to coach this kid? Peppers—despite not having the chance to show off the goods—remains Michigan’s most-hyped player in years.

Imagine what’ll happen when he’s a regular. That’s something to look forward to, despite the mayhem in Ann Arbor.

 

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

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer

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Xavier Lewis Suffers Stroke: Updates on Wyoming Safety's Recovery

Wyoming sophomore Xavier Lewis suffered a stroke late Wednesday night. Luckily, teammate Eric Nzeocha was there, recognized the symptoms and rushed the safety to the hospital for potentially life-saving treatment.

Mike Vorel of the Casper Star-Tribune reports Lewis was transported from the local hospital to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado. The player's father, Quentin Lewis, told the outlet he's now resting and making swift strides in his recovery:

He's back in Colorado right now, resting and recovering. It's a work in progress. We've got a lot of faith as a family. We've all bonded together, and Xavier's coming through it. He's progressing fast.

The elder Lewis also said his son has received plenty of support from the Cowboys. Numerous coaches and players have either made the trip to visit him in the hospital or have called to send along their well wishes already.

Wide receiver Tanner Simpson was among those to post message of support on social media:

Lewis' father also praised Nzeocha for knowing what to do in a difficult situation and getting to the hospital as soon as he knew something was wrong.

"Eric Nzeocha saved him," Quentin Lewis said. "You have to give him the most accolades ever. The kids that have now stood behind Xavier, to me as a parent, that’s the best thing in the world."

Obviously things could have been a lot worse if not for those quick actions. Now, it sounds like Lewis is already making his way down the road to recovery.

 

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The Freshmen Running Backs Who Lit the World on Fire in 2014

The story of the Rose Bowl will be obvious. The Granddaddy of Them All will pair this year's likely Heisman winner, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, against the reigning Heisman winner, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. However, the outcome of one of the College Football Playoff's semifinal games may not specifically come down to either. 

Forget the passing games for a minute; running backs Royce Freeman of Oregon and Dalvin Cook at Florida State could be as important as Mariota or Winston. As far as impact freshmen go, you'd be hard-pressed to find a pair more crucial to their team's success in the playoff. 

Cook and Freeman were blue-chip, sought-after prospects. Specifically, Cook was a 5-star recruit and considered the No. 1 player in the state of Florida, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Freeman was a 4-star recruit, listed as the No. 6 running back nationally and No. 4 player in California. 

That's where the similarities end. Their paths to this point have been different, not to mention that they bring different elements to their respective team's offense.

Freeman is the production guy: Only two other freshman running backs—Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and Western Michigan's Jarvion Franklin—have more yards than Freeman's 1,299. Listed at 6'0" and 229 pounds on his official profile, Freeman is the bruising back that the Ducks have missed for some time. As B/R's Adam Kramer explained in October, Freeman is more Stanford than he is Oregon. 

“You see a young freshman running back not looking like a freshman running back,” Stanford coach David Shaw told Kramer. “He’s coming into his own as a really, really good college football player.”

Cook, interestingly enough, is the opposite. The track star who once ran a 10.92 in a 100-meter race provides the spark Florida State's offense has needed when struggling. He does lead the Seminoles in rushing with 905 yards, but Cook really emerged in the second half of the season over Karlos Williams. 

That's not to say Freeman lacks speed or that Cook lacks power, but their crisscrossed styles have made each offense more complete in the most unlikely ways. 

So, what can each do in the Rose Bowl?

Freeman has the chance to feast. It's no secret that Florida State's defense is less efficient than last year's group, according to Football Outsiders' FEI rankings. Specifically, the Seminoles have given up at least four yards per rush in eight games this season. Most recently, Georgia Tech ran all up and down the Seminoles in the ACC championship. 

Of course, Georgia Tech's option offense is tough to prepare for in a week's time. Not to mention, it's a physically taxing offense to defend and shed blocks against. Furthermore, Florida State has gone up against some tough offenses

The question is whether the Ducks can continue to be physical against Florida State, as Oregon hasn't faced the toughest defensive strength of schedule this season. For what it's worth, though, the Ducks racked up 267 yards on 5.8 yards per carry against their toughest defensive opponent, Stanford. Freeman had 98 yards on 19 carries in that game. 

For Cook, it's about picking up where he left off. His breakout game came on Oct. 30 in a win over Louisville in which he had nine carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Four of his five games since have had double-digit carries. He surpassed the century mark in wins over Florida and Georgia Tech. Of Florida State's 32 rushes against the Yellow Jackets, Cook was responsible for 31. 

Florida State's offensive line has been better over the second half of the season, but Cook gives the Seminoles a speed element that Williams simply doesn't. 

The knock on Oregon, fair or not, is that it hasn't been able to match up well against physical teams like Stanford. That narrative was debunked, at least in part, in a convincing 45-16 win over the Cardinal in November. 

Oregon can debunk it for good against Florida State. However the Rose Bowl plays out, though, take a few minutes and look beyond the quarterback on each sideline. We know it could be Mariota and Winston's last college game. The future of each program could be lined up beside/behind them. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless noted elsewhere. 

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5-Star Iman Marshall Finally Gets Alabama Offer: What Took So Long?

Alabama has assembled the nation's No. 1 recruiting class by acquiring top prospects from across the country. Days after landing a commitment from coveted Georgia linebacker Adonis Thomas, Nick Saban has turned his attention to California defensive back Iman Marshall.

The 5-star Long Beach Poly High School senior shared the development Thursday evening on his Twitter account:

His offer comes as a bit of a surprise. Not because it isn't warranted—Marshall is the top-rated cornerback in 247Sports' composite rankings—but because of its timing.

The 6'1", 190-pound playmaker has collected dozens of scholarship offers during his high school career and is entering the final stretch of a frenzied recruitment. Strangely enough, Alabama waited to pull the trigger on a scholarship until eight weeks before national signing day.

Marshall mentioned the Crimson Tide as a team of interest early in the process but, without an offer, he's focused his attentions elsewhere. Stanford, USC and UCLA are still in the picture as in-state options, but he's set to explore opportunities elsewhere now that his final high school season is finished.

Notre Dame welcomes him to campus this weekend, while Oklahoma, LSU and Florida State are also expected to receive official visits. Marshall previously pegged Michigan as one of his five official visits, but the struggling program no longer appears to be part of the equation.

Could Alabama swoop in and secure an on-campus sales pitch before his decision is made?

The Crimson Tide should be aided by Marshall's placement on Team White in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game. The event, set for January 2 in St. Petersburg, Florida, features nine Alabama commits on the same roster.

Blake Barnett, a 5-star California quarterback, is among them and has a solid relationship with Marshall.

"Receivers really have to fight to get open against him because he always seems to be on the attack," Barnett told me this summer. "He's pretty fearless. That definitely doesn't make it easy on us quarterbacks."

Top-rated wide receiver and Crimson Tide commit Calvin Ridley will also compete for Team White. He matched up against Marshall in July at The Opening, an invite-only prospect showcase at Nike's world headquarters in Oregon.

"Marshall is the No. 1 cornerback in this class," Ridley told me afterward. "I caught a big pass against him, but he was always right on me, fighting for the ball. He doesn't fall for any moves either, so he stays with you the whole time."

The Team White defensive backfield also includes Alabama pledges Shawn Burgess-Becker and Deionte Thompson.

Lauded for his physicality and smooth coverage skills, Marshall believes his off-field efforts ultimately separate him from the pack.

"Preparation is so important because it helps you react as quickly as possible, and that’s what playing defensive back is all about," he told me at the start of this season. "When you study something over and over again, nothing is a surprise anymore. You understand what’s coming—the formations, the schemes, everything."

Marshall is arguably the premier uncommitted player remaining in this cycle, putting plenty of pressure on programs to seal the deal as signing day approaches. Alabama may be late to the party, but it sure does provide some unexpected intrigue at a pivotal stage of the pursuit.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national college football recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue.

Ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Felder's Awards: Which College Football Wide Receivers Dominated in 2014?

The 2014 college football season featured a ton of great wide receivers who all possess certain skill sets that separate them from the field. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder dishes out his awards for the best wide receivers of the season.

Which wide receiver stood out the most in 2014? Check out the video and let us know!

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4-Star Recruit D'Andre Walker Announces Top 3 Schools Using 'Elf Yourself' Video

It may well be the stupidest declaration of a 4-star recruit's top three, but gosh darn it, it's probably the funniest.

D'Andre Walker, a 4-star defensive end recruit out of Fairburn, Georgia, is a prized player many schools in the SEC are recruiting.

He announced his final three options as Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee by using the "Elf Yourself" app, which allows one to place faces or pictures onto the heads of elves in a cookie-cutter-style video.

if You Want To Know What School Im Going To Here Yall Go https://t.co/XSfa8Hajou Check This Video Out

— D'Andre Walker (@LuxuryLife1K) December 11, 2014

[YouTube, 247Sports]

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Heisman Race 2014: Predictions for Award's Top Candidates

The best players in the nation have put their skills on display, and now it's up to the voters to decide who will lift the 2014 Heisman Trophy

Florida State's Jameis Winston posted an incredible season in 2013 to take home the honors, but the reigning champion isn't among the group of three finalists heading to New York. In fact, there's only one quarterback among the field to help make it five straight years that a QB has hoisted the Heisman—but his chances are awfully good.

Heisman Trophy released the finalists on Twitter:

It also marks a first for the history of the award, as Heisman.com's Chris Huston uncovered:

You never know just how it will all shake out until Saturday night's presentation. But with the individual players' season performances in consideration, it's becoming more and more clear what order the finalists will end up.

Let's predict the final order of finish for the three Heisman finalists.

 

Predicted Heisman Trophy Finish

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

Even set for a third-place Heisman Trophy finish, Amari Cooper's 2014 season should go down as one of the best from an SEC wideout in college football history.

The junior won Alabama's first ever Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top wideout, also marking just the second time an SEC receiver has ever won the prestigious award. With more than a year of eligibility left, Cooper ranks second in SEC career receiving yards.

As he's known to do, head coach Nick Saban saw Cooper's blue-chip potential a long time ago, per TideSports.com's D.C. Reeves:

The thing that was so impressive about Amari Cooper was when he came to our summer camp before his senior year, the guy was I think maybe—and we've had some good receivers that have been in our camps through the years—the most impressive, to me, in terms of his ability, his ability to change direction and get out of a break, the quickness, the acceleration of speed, good hands, hard worker. I walked away from that camp saying that this guy might be the best receiver we've ever had in our camps, and we've had some really good ones.

Cooper has been shredding the competition everywhere he's been, leaving Bleacher Report's Matt Miller to peg him as the fourth-best player in the 2015 NFL draft class. With his blend of breakaway speed, athleticism and size, few receivers in recent years have been as complete exiting college.

The best Alabama wideout ever won't end his career with a Heisman Trophy, but he has left his mark on college football in about every way possible. He'll continue to do so at the next level.

 

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

If it weren't for an unstoppable season from the man in front of him, Melvin Gordon would have done more than enough to become the first running back to win the Heisman in five years. 

The junior out of Wisconsin comfortably leads the FCS with 2,336 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns total, breaking a single-game rushing record that happened to be broken the week after. He would need almost 300 rushing yards to break Barry Sanders' single-season record in the Outback Bowl against Auburn.

But when you consider how close he's going to finish to a record that so many Heisman Trophy-winning running backs didn't touch, it just puts into further perspective his greatness. 

He could have made a serious push to win the award with a monster game against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game but struggled with 76 yards on 26 carries. A bigger performance in that game could have boosted him, as ESPN College Football noted:

But considering he got it done against everybody else when a team packed the box like Ohio State did, Gordon has undoubtedly done enough to make a serious case as the Heisman runner-up.

 

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

The Heisman Trophy presentation on ESPN could save the viewing public about an hour of time by just naming Mariota the winner the moment that the broadcast begins. But even though it will be announced at the last moment possible, there's no doubting the end result.

From start to finish, nobody can contend with the Oregon quarterback. He has every box checked off—the gaudy stats, the team-on-my-back leadership and a place as one of the national title contenders entering the postseason.

He also added the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the nation's top quarterback, which has been the writing on the wall for the Heisman winner of late, per ESPN Stats and Information:

Mariota's case started to suffer with an early loss to Arizona at home but has since bounced back in a massive way. The Ducks have bounced back from that defeat to score 40 points in every game, including a 51-13 drubbing of the Wildcats in a Pac-12 title-game rematch. 

Beating Arizona in Santa Clara, California, was the lone requirement on Mariota's Heisman checklist, and he did so in resounding fashion while Gordon struggled. 

It remains to be seen whether Mariota can get Oregon its first national championship, but he'll have no problem getting the Ducks their first Heisman Trophy come Saturday night.

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Is Ohio State 'SEC Enough' to Beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — If there's anybody north of the Bible Belt who's well-versed in the dominance of the Southeastern Conference, it's Urban Meyer.

After all, he's the one who started it.

It was eight years ago that Meyer jumpstarted the SEC's streak of seven consecutive national titles, claiming the first of his two crystal balls as the head coach of Florida.

From that day forward—after the Gators had shocked Ohio State with a 41-14 pummeling of the Buckeyes in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game—it was clear that something was a little different down South when it came to football.

"I'm not sure what 'SEC bias' is," Meyer said on Thursday. "You'd be hard-pressed to say that top to bottom, they're not the best league in the country."

Florida State snapped the SEC's national title reign a year ago with a win over Auburn, but as college football prepares for its first ever playoff, it's Alabama that finds itself as the nation's top team. The Crimson Tide have won three of the past five national championships, setting the standard for the rest of the sport to follow.

But as Alabama attempts to continue its dynasty, it's Meyer who will get the next shot at bringing it to an end.

Now the head coach at Ohio State, Meyer and his Buckeyes will square off with the Crimson Tide in Jan. 1's Sugar Bowl, which will double as a semifinal game for the national title.

Given the time—and success—that he found down South, Meyer knows that it will take a different brand than Big Ten football to knock off Nick Saban's Alabama squad.

"The defensive front seven is the overall difference-maker, but it's a little bit deeper than that," Meyer said of the differences between the Big Ten and SEC in 2012. "I think in overall athleticism, we're a little bit behind. But we're recruiting with that in mind."

That sentiment has been backed up in the recruiting rankings, where the Buckeyes have landed three top-five classes since Meyer came to town.

That's shown up in Ohio State's recent dominance of the Big Ten, which has included a 24-0 regular-season conference record since the start of the 2012 season.

Beating up on the likes of Purdue and Michigan is one thing, but going toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide? That's a totally different task. Does the Big Ten's best have what it takes to match up with the cream of the crop in college football?

Saban thinks so.

"Urban has always done a fantastic job at utilizing what his players do well," Saban said. "Their speed is one of the strengths of their team, in my opinion."

That's certainly been an area that Meyer has placed an emphasis on, expanding Ohio State's recruiting radius beyond the borders of the Buckeye State and to the likes of Texas, the northeast and, yes, the southeast.

Ohio State will always possess plenty of players from its own talent-rich state, but one glance at the Buckeyes' roster shows that this is far from your father's Ohio State squad.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a key player on this year's Buckeyes team who wasn't wooed by a school from the SEC, as Meyer hasn't been afraid to go head-to-head with his former conference on the recruiting trail.

Meyer has been able to wrestle defensive end Joey Bosa (Alabama, Florida), running back Ezekiel Elliott (Missouri), cornerback Eli Apple (Alabama), safety Vonn Bell (Alabama, Tennessee), H-back Dontre Wilson (Texas A&M), running back Curtis Samuel (Florida, Tennessee) and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Alabama, Georgia) away from the grasp of the SEC, while also keeping Ohioans Jalin Marshall (Tennessee) and Erick Smith (Alabama) away from the pull of America's best conference.

“We’re getting close,” Meyer said last national signing day. "We have to get our speed up with overall offensive skill, but where it was two years ago to where it is now is much different.”

But will that be enough?

After all, Saban has been recruiting for Alabama at an elite level since 2007, giving him a five-year head start on what Meyer is attempting to accomplish in Columbus.

While it's not like the OSU roster was devoid of talent before Meyer arrived, he is undeniably recruiting a different level of athlete for the Buckeyes—players who are more suited to take on an SEC opponent like the Crimson Tide.

After three years of proving themselves in the Big Ten, the Sugar Bowl will be the Buckeyes' first opportunity to measure themselves against the country's best. That's a challenge that Meyer is looking to take head-on.

"Alabama with what they've done the last five, six, seven years, they're the No. 1 program in America," Meyer said. "To take a shot and swing as hard as you possibly can...it's a very exciting time in Columbus, Ohio."

 

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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Tennessee Football: 5 Seniors Who Can End Their Careers on a High Note

The Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 senior class has seen more turmoil and disappointment than just about any in program history.

After arriving in Knoxville as freshmen in 2010 and 2011, these players almost certainly expected to give their all for a program where bowl games were a foregone conclusion and SEC East titles were a possibility almost every year. 

Instead, their commitment was rewarded with three straight losing seasons and three straight Decembers spent sitting at home while many of their high school teammates played in prestigious bowl games around the country.

But now, during their final seasons as Vols, they will finally get a taste of postseason play in a destination bowl, no less.

The TaxSlayer Bowl matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes in Jacksonville, Florida, on Jan. 2 won't draw much national attention, but it's the biggest accomplishment to date for Tennessee's senior class and gives the seniors an opportunity to right so many things that went wrong during the past four seasons. 

Here are five seniors who can end their careers on a high note at EverBank Field three weeks from today. 

Begin Slideshow

Adjustments Texas A&M Must Make to Have Successful 2015 Season

Texas A&M struggled down the stretch in 2014, but the Aggies have much to look forward to next season. Quarterback Kyle Allen showed promise but will need help to compete in the difficult SEC West. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee explain what Texas A&M has to do to get back on the winning track.

Will the Aggies rebound in 2015?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Remembering Heisman Finalists as College Football Recruits

Before the nation knew their names through bowl games, big performances, award shows and NFL mock drafts, the 2015 Heisman Trophy finalists were just three of the countless high school football players looking for an opportunity at the collegiate level.

Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper each carved out reputations as young players, earning scholarship offers and embarking on careers that ultimately led them to the hallowed ceremony in Manhattan. This trio of playmakers have made their mark on the college landscape just a few years after sorting through uniquely different recruiting processes.

Obviously, things have worked out well since their respective signing days. With one of these young standouts destined for college football immortality, we take a look back at the recruitments that eventually lead them to national stardom.

 

3-star quarterback Marcus Mariota, St. Louis High School (Honolulu, Hawaii)

The three-year Ducks starter didn't land on the radar for many top-level FBS programs despite a brilliant career at St. Louis. He led the Crusaders to 11 wins and a state title in 2010, completing 65 percent of his passes for nearly 2,600 yards and 32 touchdowns, per his Oregon bio.

Mariota added 455 rushing yards and seven scores as a senior, earning distinction as the Honolulu Offensive Player of the Year. He attended a camp at Oregon prior to the 2010 season, showcasing his skills for the Ducks' coaching staff.

Oregon was the only Pac-12 program to offer Mariota, who also considered Memphis. He became a necessity for the team after eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel flipped his commitment to Texas A&M.

College coaches are on a tight schedule when it comes to recruiting, so a journey to Hawaii may not make sense from a logistical standpoint.

“You never wanted to lose a day, so you always had to do the red-eye going home,” former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel told Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal. “That was a nightmare.”

The journey of Mariota, who was rated just 35th nationally among all 2011 quarterback prospects in 247Sports' composite rankings, provides some extra incentive for a long flight.

“Every coach is going to turn over every rock to find a hidden gem like Oregon did with Marcus,” former St. Louis head coach Darnell Arceneaux told Cohen.

Despite arriving on campus rated 518th among incoming college football freshmen, he quickly forged a strong reputation in Eugene.

“He’s everything you want,” former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly told Jeff McLane of Philly.com. “He can throw the ball, he can run. He’s the most talented kid I coached in college. … When he was a freshman I remarked, ‘This kid’s going to win the Heisman.’”

Mariota, who has 53 total touchdowns and just two interceptions this season, is the front-runner to end up at the winner's podium Saturday.

 

4-star running back Melvin Gordon, Bradford High School (Kenosha, Wisconsin)

The nation's leading rusher is less than 300 yards shy of breaking Barry Sanders' all-time single-season college record (2,628). Gordon established a new single-game record this fall—though it lasted just a week—with 408 yards against Nebraska.

He also ran wild in high school, gaining over 2,000 yards and 38 scores on the ground as a senior en route to all-state honors, according to his Wisconsin bio. Gordon was a four-year impact player who tallied 15 touchdowns as a freshman.

Rated 18th nationally among running backs in 247Sports' 2011 composite rankings, Gordon received heavy interest in Big Ten territory. Offers arrived from Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

However, his recruitment never seemed to materialize much beyond the region. Tennessee was the only SEC team to extend an offer.

“I just think a lot of times they look at it like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to go to Wisconsin to get a running back because we got six or seven kids down here,’” Bradford coach Jed Kennedy told Josh Moyer of ESPN.com. “They come up here for linemen, but they don’t look at the skill kids. I don’t know why.”

Gordon, ranked 258th overall in the class, elected to stay in-state with the Badgers. He's thrived with more than 4,500 rushing yards in three full seasons, and he is expected to help carry the load in an NFL backfield next season.

 

4-star wide receiver Amari Cooper, Northwestern High School (Miami, Florida)

The Crimson Tide star carved his name into record books this season, becoming the all-time leading receiver at Alabama and the single-season receptions king of SEC football. He arrived on campus as a key piece of Nick Saban's top-ranked 2012 recruiting class that also featured defensive back Landon Collins and running back T.J. Yeldon.

Cooper, rated sixth nationally among receivers in 247Sports' composite rankings, caught 33 passes for 722 yards as a senior in Northwestern's run-heavy offensive attack, per his Alabama bio. He showcased his skills in the Under Armour All-America Game, catching a 75-yard score and returning a punt 93 yards for another touchdown.

He made an official visit to Miami two months before signing day but ultimately ended up at Alabama. His offer sheet also featured Florida State, West Virginia and Ohio State.

Cooper commanded Saban's attention during his junior year, when he attended a camp in Tuscaloosa. Saban told Charlie Potter of BamaOnLine:

I walked away from that camp saying that this guy might be the best receiver we’ve ever had in our camps, and we’ve had some really good ones. … He may have been the most impressive, to me, in terms of his ability, his ability to change direction and get out of a break, the quickness, the acceleration of speed, good hands, hard worker.

That performance was a sign of things to come for Cooper, who enters the playoffs with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns.

He will likely be the first receiver selected in next year's NFL draft. A strong postseason would strengthen his case as one of the greatest players in Alabama's storied history.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Will Mississippi State Build on Banner Season in 2015?

The Mississippi State Bulldogs experienced one of the most successful seasons in school history in 2014, winning 10 games and earning an Orange Bowl appearance.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss what the future holds for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs. 

Will Mississippi State have another banner season in 2015?

Check out the video and let us know!

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1 Fun Fact About Each 2014 Heisman Trophy Finalist

The Heisman Trophy will be awarded to either Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon or Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota at the Best Buy Theater in New York City on Saturday, Dec. 13.

By now you know the basics about each candidate.

You know Cooper leads the country with 115 receptions and 1,656 yards. You know Gordon is within striking distance of Barry Sanders' single-season FBS rushing record. You know Mariota has scored 53 total touchdowns to just two interceptions this season.

But you may not know the random facts about each player, the fun details that will likely get mentioned on Saturday's broadcast.

Here's a primer to get you up to speed.

 

Amari Cooper, Alabama

Fun Fact: His high school quarterback was Teddy Bridgewater.

 

Teddy Bridgewater is one year older than Cooper, but the two played together at Northwestern High School in Miami, Florida.

Cooper combined with Eli Rogers, who followed Bridgewater to Louisville and himself had a nice college career, to give Northwestern a dangerous receiving duo, although he missed much of his junior season with an injury, per Corey Long of ESPN.com.

Here is a very short video from the 2011 season:

*Note: Cooper catches the first pass; Rogers catches the second. 

Bridgewater declared early for the 2014 NFL draft and was selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. He has had a positive first season in the pros, guiding his team to more wins than the rest of the rookie quarterback class combined. But he hasn't been too busy to keep an eye on an old friend.

"I was just telling everyone who was around me during the game that, hey, that's my guy," Bridgewater said after watching Cooper torch Florida (10 catches, 201 yards, 3 touchdowns) in September, per Duane Rankin of the Montgomery Advertiser.

"That's what I expect of him. I knew that when those fade balls were thrown, he was going to come down with the catch because that's what he does."

Cooper has also found time to watch his former teammate and had flattering words to say on Thursday's Dan Patrick Show.

"He was great. He had all the qualities you would want in a quarterback," Cooper said of Bridgewater, per Dean Berhow-Goll of 247Sports. "But I think the biggest thing about him was he was really tough and he was really calm and poised no matter what the situation was."

Sounds about right.

 

Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

Fun Fact: He spent last summer interning at Merrill Lynch.

 

Gordon announced this week that he will declare for the 2015 NFL draft. Injuries notwithstanding, there is no reason he won't have a long, successful, profitable career in football.

If something goes wrong, however, Gordon will be more prepared for the real world than most recent college graduates—[author nervously averts eyes]—thanks to an internship he served at Merrill Lynch.

According to Jeremy Fowler, then with CBSSports.com, Gordon has also enamored himself with architecture and sports broadcasting but started thinking about a career in entrepreneurship after the Merrill Lynch experience got his head into a financial headspace.

"I don't want it where they say he can't do this or can't do that," Gordon told Fowler. "That goes for anything, really.

"Football and life."

Gordon made the Academic All-Big Ten team in 2012 and 2013.

 

Marcus Mariota, Oregon

Fun Fact: He didn't start a game until his senior year of high school.

 

Mariota did not start a varsity game until his senior year at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, but he made his final season count.

"Have you ever seen ‘The Matrix’?" former coach Darnell Arceneaux asked Tim Rohan of The New York Times this summer. "Remember the first time Neo gets in that chair, and they upload him with the kung fu, and he says, ‘More’? That’s the way Marcus was with our offense.

"Once we installed the base package, it was like he looked at us and said, ‘More.’ So every day, we kept giving him more."

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, then the offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly, came to a St. Louis practice before Mariota's senior season and convinced Kelly to offer Mariota a scholarship. This despite the fact that Mariota had still yet to start a varsity game.

"When (Kelly) was on the phone, I was like, ‘Coach, are you sure?’" Mariota recalled in 2012, per Don Chapman of Midweek. "I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m respectful they gave me the opportunity, and I’m glad they did."

Oregon is pretty glad, too.

After cleaning up the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards, Mariota is the heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and still has the Ducks competing for a national title.

His only college offers came from Oregon and Memphis.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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Oregon OC Scott Frost Tells Story About Marcus Mariota and 'Fat Women'

Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost received a nomination for the 2014 Frank Broyles Award—an honor given out to the top assistant coach in college football every year.

While he lost out to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, Frost stole the show at the award ceremony Tuesday with a seemingly off-the-cuff story about Oregon's Heisman Trophy-nominated quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Frost told his audience a (probably fabricated) tale about Mariota deftly handling a large and angry female customer while working at a grocery store his freshman year. LostLettermen.com spotted video of the speech. I'll let Frost take it from here (Mariota story starts at the 4:16 mark):

People don't know this, but [Mariota's] freshman year he worked at a grocery store in town to pay the extra bills. He was at the register one day and this great big woman comes in. And she said, 'I'd like to buy a half a head of lettuce.' He kinda looked at her funny and said, 'We don't sell half heads…only whole heads.' And she got all mad. So he walked back to ask the manager what he should do.

He said, 'Hey, I've got this great big fat woman out here who wants to buy a half a head of lettuce. What should I do?'

[Mariota] didn't know it, but the woman had followed him back there. He looks over his shoulder and he sees her standing there. And he said, 'And this lady wants to buy the other half.'

So, that's how quick-witted he is...and the manager told him afterwards…the manager said, 'That's impressive. I can't believe you can think that quickly on your feet. And [Mariota] goes, 'That's nothing. I'm used to dealing with stuff like that. I'm from Honolulu. If there's two things we have in Honolulu, it's great football and fat women.' And the manager said, 'My wife's from Honolulu.' And [Mariota] said, 'What position did she play?'

Frost ended his story with "That's not true." Whether he meant that about the wife part of the story or the entire yarn is unclear. In all likelihood, the "anecdote" was a shopworn bar joke with Mariota inserted as the witty protagonist.

Regardless of its veracity, Frost delivered the lines in convincing fashion. This probably isn't the best way of explaining Mariota's ability to think quickly, but it got the point across.

 

Follow Dan on Twitter for more sports and pop culture filigree.

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Where Georgia Turns After Missing on Versatile 4-Star Albert Huggins?

The Georgia Bulldogs finished as the runners-up to Clemson for versatile 4-star defensive tackle Albert Huggins, who committed to the Tigers on Friday morning.

According to Cory Fravel of Clemson247, Huggins cited academics and the culture at Clemson as his biggest influences for staying in state.

"Clemson's education and family atmosphere were a deciding factor for me," Huggins told Fravel. "This is an honor for me and my family. It's a relief to get my commitment out of the way."

With defensive line being one of the biggest needs for Mark Richt and his staff this cycle, losing out on Huggins is a tough blow.

Where do the 'Dawgs turn after losing out on Huggins?

Considering Georgia already has 25 commitments—including six from defensive linemen—the main focus for Richt and Co. will be holding on to the pledges who are slated to line up for defensive line coach Tracy Rocker.

The good news for the Bulldogs is that they already have a pair of commitments at defensive tackle in 5-star Trent Thompson and 3-star Justin Young.

Thompson is the nation’s top prospect at defensive tackle and is a candidate to step in and be a factor immediately upon his arrival in Athens.

Additionally, 4-star defensive end pledge Jonathan Ledbetter can play at end or in the middle.

The Bulldogs haven't been afraid to hit the JUCO ranks to find immediate contributors. However, that route doesn't seem to be in the plans for two reasons.

For starters, the signing period for midterm JUCO enrollees begins next week, so there’s little time to evaluate and get in the race for a JUCO prospect. 

Additionally, the top remaining uncommitted JUCO defensive tackle is Jonathan Taylor—who was kicked off the Georgia team in the summer due to off-field issues, per Chip Towers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s also worth noting that the 2016 class of defensive tackles appears to be deep—especially in the state of Georgia.

Four standout juniors from the Peach State—Julian Rochester, Derrick Brown, Antwuan Jackson and Michail Carter—are 4-star prospects who rank among the nation’s top 150 players overall in the 2016 class.

Brown, Jackson and Carter made trips to Athens during the season.

In the early stages of their recruitments, the Bulldogs appear to be a factor for all four in-state junior defensive tackles.

Assuming none of their 2015 defensive line commits jumps ship, the Bulldogs can afford to narrow their focus on landing defensive targets, such as 4-star linebacker Roquan Smith, 4-star athlete Donte Jackson, 4-star defensive end D’Andre Walker and 4-star defensive end and current South Carolina pledge Arden Key.

While landing Huggins would have been a boost to an already loaded defensive line class, the Bulldogs—who currently have the nation’s No. 3 class—are in solid shape moving forward.

 

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

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Urban Meyer's Wife's Hair Catches on Fire While She Blows out Birthday Candles

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is focused on Alabama and the Sugar Bowl. However, there are probably a few things that can take his attention away from football.

Like, for example, his wife's hair catching on fire.

During a celebratory birthday dinner Thursday night, Shelley Meyer got a bit too close to the candles on her cake.

Luckily, she wasn't harmed in the ordeal and was able to tweet out these amazing photos.

[Shelley Meyer, h/t Larry Brown Sports]

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Albert Huggins to Clemson: Tigers Land 4-Star DT Prospect

Clemson has landed coveted defensive line prospect Albert Huggins following a recruiting battle that featured plenty of competition and few initial hints as to which way the talented recruit was leaning.

Ryan Bartow of 247Sports passed along the news:

Huggins is rated as a 4-star prospect by 247Sports' composite ratings. The rankings list him as the No. 78 overall recruit nationally for the class of 2015, the 12th-best defensive tackle available and the No. 1 player coming out of the state of South Carolina.

The outlet notes more than 20 programs from around the nation showed interest in Huggins during his recruitment. Several of them were strong contenders throughout the process, as the potential impact defender remained open about multiple possibilities.

That didn't come as a surprise. When interest in him really began to pick up last summer, he spoke with Dwayne McLemore of GoGamecocks.com about keeping an open mind as every program made its pitch.

"I try to keep an open mind about all the recruiting process and let everybody try to win me over so I can give everybody a chance," he said.

He stuck to that plan as more interested coaching staffs came forward before finally making his decision about where to continue his football career.

Although listed as a defensive tackle, Huggins has also shown the versatility necessary to shift outside to end. He's actually built more like a new-age edge-rusher (6'3'', 279 lbs) right now but possesses the strength and quickness necessary to succeed on the interior, too.

It will probably take a couple years of development at the collegiate level before it's determined where he'll stick for the long haul.

In the short term, that versatility should bode well for his chances of breaking the defensive line rotation sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, the high amount of interest from around the country—including many of the marquee programs—shows coaching staffs believe Huggins has a bright future. It just comes down to finding the perfect role for him to excel in.

He certainly has the skill set necessary to make a pretty quick impact. Once he gains some experience against tougher competition and improves his technique, he should develop into a key piece of the defensive line by the time he's an upperclassman.

That's a long way into the future, though. For now, Huggins just needs to focus on making a positive first impression.

 

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What Impact Will 4-Star Clemson Commit Albert Huggins Have in 2015?

According to 247Sports, Albert Huggins, a 4-Star defensive end, has committed to Clemson.  

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses what impact Huggins could have on the Tigers next season.

How will Huggins fare in his first year at Clemson?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Auburn Football: Can a Great Defense Coexist with Gus Malzahn's Offense?

AUBURN, Ala. — There's no doubt what Auburn's strength will be as long as Gus Malzahn roams its sidelines.

The sweater-vested, bubble gum-chewing, glasses-wearing Arkansas native rose from high school assistant to SEC-winning head coach in a little over two decades because of his offensive brand of football.

Malzahn literally wrote the book on how to win with a no-huddle offense.

But throughout Malzahn's second season as Auburn's head coach, the other side of the ball has gotten all the attention on the Plains—and not in a good way.

Although the Tigers made several improvements in major defensive categories from a season that ended with an SEC title and a close loss in the national championship game, there will be a new defensive coordinator on the Plains after an 8-4 regular season:

With Malzahn firing Ellis Johnson after a year that the Tigers actually put up better defensive stats, it is apparent the Auburn head coach wants to see a big change from the other side of his roster.

But how much can Malzahn and fans of his team expect defensively out of a team that wants to score quickly and run as many plays as possible? Does elite balance between these two seemingly opposing agendas exist for other teams?

 

Ole Miss

Well, a quick glance at a school one state over doesn't look so encouraging for those hopes.

The Ole Miss Rebels were early-season contenders for the SEC West crown after defeating Alabama and finished the regular season with the country's top scoring defense and 13th-best total defense.

However, after leading the SEC in plays per game in 2012 and 2013, the Rebels went from averaging 78 plays per game to just 70 in 2014.

It was all by design, as Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze looked to lean on his swarming "Land Sharks" defense to get Ole Miss into national-title contention.

Freeze told The Clarion Ledger's Hugh Kellenberger in October: 

You're more concerned now with not putting yourself in the hole because of negative plays, whether they be turnovers or negative-two (yards) or negative-threes. When you go fast the possibilities increase as defenses catch up to it. … Last year we had quite a few negative plays in the tempo world that we're bad schematically against a call.

But while slower offense and better defense was the way in Oxford this season, another SEC West school—one that averaged around the same number of plays per game as Auburn did—got the best of both worlds while cranking up its offensive tempo. 

 

Alabama

Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Alabama experimented with the no-huddle look at times and finished the 2014 regular season with another SEC Championship and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.

According to average plays per game and Football Outsiders' Adjusted Pace—an advanced metric that "compares a team's plays per game to its expected plays per game (based on run-pass rates)"—Auburn and Alabama had similar offensive speed in 2014:

Kiffin's new twist on the Alabama offense came at no detriment to Saban and Kirby Smart's defense, though, as the Crimson Tide actually improved in yards allowed per play from 4.83 in 2013 to 4.68 in 2014.

Saban might have been a vocal opponent of no-huddle offenses in the past, but his new offensive coordinator's use of it has gotten the defensive-minded coach's stamp of approval.

Saban said after the SEC Championship Game, per USA Today's Dan Wolken:

We toyed with it early this season and it was a little bit of a work in progress getting to it, but because [quarterback Blake Sims] executes it so well and makes really good reads it’s been really beneficial to us. It’s what he does best and the rest of our players kind of fit in that too, and if we didn’t do it I don’t think we’d be here where we are right now.

Though Auburn's biggest rival ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offense and defense with a newer pace, Alabama is still far from a hurry-up, no-huddle program.

 

Clemson

For the best case of defensive success with a wide-open, spread-it-out offense, look at the top of the FBS's total defense leaderboard.

The Clemson Tigers led the nation in yards allowed per play and per game in 2014 while running an offense coached by Chad Morris, a Malzahn protege and the new head coach at SMU. 

Although the Tigers ranked No. 62 in total offense due to a few key injuries throughout the season, Morris' unit still averaged three more plays per game than Malzahn's offense and ranked 13 spots ahead of Auburn in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Pace ranking.

A commitment to playing fast-paced offense didn't stop Clemson from becoming the nation's top defense this season.

Judging by the success up in Death Valley this season, Malzahn's fast-paced offensive philosophy shouldn't be a hindrance toward future success for Auburn's defensive coordinator.

No matter who is tasked with rejuvenating a dormant Auburn defense, one thing is for certain—the hurry-up, no-huddle style on the other side isn't going anywhere.

"When we get our tempo going at the rhythm, we really feel good about playing fast," Malzahn said in October. "That's who we are. Each coach does evaluations of each team in the offseason and all that, and we like to put the hammer down."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Hits and Misses of Top 2014 College Football Award Winners

The playoff field is set, and college football's individual awards have been handed out. Only the prestigious Heisman Trophy remains. 

And that's Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's award to lose. There's been zero buzz about it this season, too. 

Mariota, along with Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III, swept up on awards night. From the Walter Camp Award to the Bednarik Award, the Pac-12 was well-represented. 

What were some of the highlights from the awards ceremony? The answers are in the following slides. 

Begin Slideshow

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