NCAA Football News

Tennessee Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

Appreciating the rebuilding process is difficult when it's not yielding wins. Tennessee coach Butch Jones knows that, but he also understands growing pains are inevitable in 2014.

"It's going to be a great challenge, only having 12 seniors," Jones said at a Big Orange Caravan stop in May, according to 247Sports' Chris Vannini. "It's like raising your kids. We're going to be exceptionally young, but it’s also invigorating. It's exciting. Our patience will be challenged, but they're very talented."

For Tennessee to have success, Jones is going to have to work a little magic. The Vols must first find the things they do well, utilize them, then mask the shortfalls.

Along the way, young players are going to have to make veteran plays.

It's an unenviable—but unavoidable—situation for a program forced to play up to 25 newcomers.

The feeling-out process for the coaching staff has to happen quickly. Utah State looms Aug. 31, and on-the-job training has consequences.

Can the young Vols find themselves quickly and get into a bowl game for the first time since 2010, or could they even surprise some folks and contend for a wide-open SEC East? All that depends on how quickly the team matures.

 

Strengths

There are few teams in the nation that have stockpiled as much pass-catching talent as Tennessee.

Though most of them are unproven, the top targets for whoever wins UT's quarterback battle are going to be difficult to defend.

Marquez North and Josh Malone were two of the most highly recruited prospects in their recruiting cycles. They've got the size, speed and skills to be among the league's best receivers.

Talented slot receivers Alton "Pig" Howard and Von Pearson, as well as jumbo receiver Jason Croom, also have the potential to break out.

Howard did not participate in spring drills at UT, but after meeting with his teammates and coaching staff, he is working toward rejoining the team, receivers coach Zach Azzanni told The Sports Animal.

[Howard] has a list of expectations he needs to meet in order to jog out through that Power T here in the fall. Whether it's academically, socially, football-wise…just some things between me, him and Coach Jones that he needs to prove to us, his teammates, himself that he can do on a daily basis consistently. So far, so good.

Don't overlook a talented freshman tight end duo of Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, either. There are question marks about their experience, but there is no doubting ability.

The Vols' linebackers also should be stout with the return of Curt Maggitt, who will put his hand down and play a rush end in nickel situations.

The redshirt junior sat out last year rehabbing a knee injury and will team with senior A.J. Johnson to form a formidable duo. ESPN's Chris Low rated Maggitt as the league's third-best linebacker with Johnson right behind him at fifth.

Between Maggitt and Johnson, the Vols return 410 total tackles, but the pair has got to improve on their impotent disruption plays. They've accounted for just 3.5 career sacks, 31.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and no interceptions.

If the addition of speedy youngsters like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates and Neiko Creamer upgrades the talent, the second level really could be a bright spot.

As B/R's Barrett Sallee notes, if Jones can keep his quarterbacks healthy, his offenses have consistently thrived. Of the seven years he has coached, five have featured offenses that produced at least 417 yards per game.

Even though there are plenty of youth and questions, the Vols can take comfort in knowing they've got an innovative offensive coach with history in his corner.

 

Weaknesses

The biggest roadblock facing Tennessee's climb from the dark ages can be found in the trenches.

Over the past few years, the Vols have been awful when it comes to generating a pass rush. According to ESPN, UT hasn't cracked the league's top five in sacks since 2007. The past three years, Tennessee has finished last, last and next-to-last.

Suddenly, replacing all four starters doesn't seem like a bad thing.

Several of Tennessee's nine freshmen could play on the defensive front. The talent is there, but it was a major team weakness this spring, and considering the experience is a crucial component to play on the defensive line, it's difficult to be optimistic.

UT also must replace all five offensive line starters, and while the old guard underachieved throughout their careers, it's ridiculous to underestimate their loss.

Tennessee's new crew up front hasn't played meaningful snaps together. It's going to be a growing process, and the SEC is tough on baby steps.

Shoring up the holes in the secondary is going to be vital for a team that watched 10-yard plays turn into long touchdowns throughout 2013 because of a lack of athleticism on the back end.

LaDarrell McNeil is a former 4-star prospect who was a major weak link a season ago. He lacked good enough speed to ever be a weapon in coverage, and his poor angles led to multiple big plays.

Justin Coleman is a rising senior cornerback who never proved to be good enough to play outside. He'll be bumped to nickelback for his final season, and it's his last shot to make his mark.

UT signed tons of defensive backfield talent, so if McNeil and Coleman don't improve significantly, they won't be in the starting lineup.

 

Secret Weapons

One glimpse of Von Pearson's highlight video makes it a complete head-scratcher that Utah and Illinois were his best offers before Tennessee came calling.

At 6'3", 181 pounds, Pearson has the perfect blend of size and athleticism to be a star. 

When Howard was going through his hiatus, the Vols placed Pearson in the slot. All he did was turn heads and become a major spring story.

What's even more impressive is that he isn't too far removed from working fast-food counters and wondering if he'd ever get an opportunity. UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis:

Von brings a unique perspective and has been a good resource for the other 14 newcomers that are here this winter for the first time. His perspective is, he's seen the other side. He's seen what it's like to work at McDonald's, to do the same thing day in and day out, at an 8-5 job or a 9-5 job.

With his skill set, Pearson is going to make some serious plays immediately.

One of the biggest keys to Tennessee's defensive progression is finding a space-eating defensive tackle who can wreak havoc from the interior.

Rising junior Trevarris Saulsberry has that ability. He just has to stay healthy.

At 6'4", 297 pounds, the Gainesville, Florida, native has the size and strength to anchor a line. He missed eight games last year with a knee injury after standing out as UT's best defender against Oregon. He also was out this spring.

For a player who has just 10 total tackles in nine games to be relied upon so heavily is a scary proposition for UT, but Saulsberry has shown glimpses of his immense ability. If he can stay on the field, he'll be a force.

Maggitt and Johnson are going to get the preseason headlines at linebacker, but UT's most talented defender may be a youngster who has never taken a college snap.

Vol legacy Dillon Bates—son of UT legend Bill Bates—chose to spend his college days in Knoxville rather than go to Alabama or Florida.

At 6'3", 216 pounds, he has the versatility a team needs when it is going to play as much nickel as the Vols are this year. Bates has elite coverage skills and can still pack a punch in the box. Though it wouldn't hurt him to get a little bigger, Bates is going to have his opportunity early.

It wouldn't be surprising to see him secure the other starting linebacker spot as a true freshman, and his abilities can go a long way in helping UT shore up its defense.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite.

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

@Brad_Shepard

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

Twenty-three freshmen from Notre Dame football's 10th-ranked class of 2014 are set to don the blue and gold in the coming months.

We've already gone step-by-step through the entire class of incoming freshmen, so we'll focus this week on projecting which of those players are most likely to start for the Irish in 2014.

In 2013, six different true freshmen—linebacker Jaylon Smith (13 starts), offensive lineman Steve Elmer (four), wide receivers Will Fuller (three) and Corey Robinson (three), running back Tarean Folston (two) and safety Max Redfield (one)—logged a combined 26 starts for the Irish.

On national signing day, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked about the prospects of this year's crop of freshmen earning playing time.

"Physically, these guys are coming in so much more prepared," Kelly said. "It's developing them mentally to find out whether they're going to play. It's not physical."

Kelly added it's tough to determine who will be mentally ready without seeing how training camp takes its toll on the rookies, but we'll take a crack at outlining the possibilities.

In determining our choices, we'll consider the freshman's overall skill level, Kelly's scouting report on the player and the competition at the position.

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New College Football Coordinators with Toughest Tasks in 2014

Each winter, college football’s coaching carousel spins with furious abandon, seemingly faster with each passing year.

The dominoes fall from the highest level to college football’s lowest rung, affecting everyone from power-five programs to the sacrificial lambs who march into power-five stadiums for a huge paycheck on autumn Saturdays.

A recent ESPN.com article estimated that 103 college football coaches were affected by Mack Brown’s resignation at Texas alone, from Louisville coach Charlie Strong on down.

We focus on the head coaches who shuffle, but the coordinators who change zip codes are equally important. Last winter, over 50 FBS coordinators changed jobs, whether they were following their boss to a new job, chasing a bigger paycheck or simply taking a job, period.

And some jobs are easier than others. Here are five coordinators who face potentially difficult transitions this fall.

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Power Ranking Virginia Tech's Positional Units for 2014

The Virginia Tech Hokies have the potential to be contenders for the ACC title in 2014 if a few position groups can just come together faster than expected, but the divide between the top positional units and the ones that need work couldn’t be clearer.

Even though Tech is losing two exceptional cornerbacks in Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller, the secondary remains one of the top groups in the country and should carry the defense.

But that group will have to make up for a linebacking corps that’s breaking in a pair of new starters and features one player who hasn't set foot on a football field in a year.

On offense, the skill positions are loaded with a combination of depth and experience, something that couldn’t be said a season ago. However, the team’s quarterback situation will likely remain unsettled right up until the season opener against William & Mary. 

Essentially, the Hokies are a team of extremes: The roster is loaded with both great talent and great uncertainty.

Read on to find out how the different positional units stack up, starting with the ones that need improvement and ending with the team’s biggest strengths.

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Power Ranking the Florida Gators Positional Units for 2014

This is going to be an interesting season for the Florida Gators. Not only is it Will Muschamp’s fourth season, but it’s also going to tell us a lot about where the program is heading after arguably its worst season in program history.

As we inch closer to fall camp and the regular season, now would be a good time to rank how each particular unit stacks up. We’ve heard all about how lousy Florida’s offense is, but what about the rest of the team? There is a chance that a certain position on offense could top a position on defense. Maybe that would prove that the sky isn’t falling after all.

There’s no question that Florida will go as far as its defense carries it. But let’s break this team down position-by-position and see where the Gators are the strongest.

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Power Ranking Miami's Positional Units for 2014

The Miami Hurricanes showcase individual talent in Duke Johnson, Stacy Coley and Denzel Perryman, but it takes a complete roster to win games.

So then, how do the Hurricanes' positional units compare in respect to one another? From skill positions to the team's bulk to specialists, Bleacher Report is taking a shot at power ranking everything Miami will put on the field in 2014.

Each position is broken down into top players and question marks, the latter of which includes current unknowns and past inconsistencies on the roster.

Remember, this is a subjective ranking, so please feel free to post your order in the comments section.

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SEC Football: Top 10 Coordinators for 2014 Season

SEC football has raised the bar with coordinator salaries for good reason—many of the best assistant coaches make their livings in Southeastern college towns.

Such fierce competition breeds top-notch head coaching prospects.

Before they became head coaches, Gus Malzahn, Will Muschamp and Dan Mullen created names as elite coordinators in the SEC.

The new wave features Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who seems capable of landing nearly any gig he fancies.

Today we explore the current top-10 coordinators as we near the open of fall camps.

To do so, we consider recent success of each of the assistant coaches against that of their peers.

Of course, trying to evaluate numerous coaches who come from different backgrounds doesn’t always prove easy.

The toughest call on the list to make was Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Yes, Kiffin served in the same role for some very good USC teams under Pete Carroll, but he also split duties with new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian. Carroll entrusted Sarkisian with play-calling duties.

Kiffin’s head coaching experience would seemingly give him a leg up in the power rankings.

Then again, one needs only watch the goal-line failures USC endured against Notre Dame in 2012 to see Kiffin freeze up on the sideline as a play-caller in a critical moment.

Alabama fans don’t have to think back very far to recall similar circumstances inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Former Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula showed similar indecision—and borderline incompetence—during the closing stages of the 2006 Auburn game.

The Tigers came away with a 22-15 victory and the contest served as the last of the Shula era.

Needless to say, Alabama fans would scoff at the notion of Shula making this list.

Enough about who didn’t make the list.

Here are the preseason top 10 coordinators in the SEC.

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13 College Football Players Who Could Set Stat Records This Season

The 2014 college football season is shaping up to be one for the record books.

School, conference and even FBS benchmarks are likely to be established this fall in a slew of statistical categories. Most of these will be of the career variety, as this season's senior class includes several players who have been key contributors since their freshman year.

Based on how these players have fared in previous seasons, their projected 2014 numbers put them in line to get their names etched atop certain single-season and all-time lists. Some records on this list have stood for quite a while, and others are ones that seem to get re-set every few years thanks to college football's continued uptick in offensive production.

Here's our look at 13 players who you should be able to call record-setters by the end of the season.

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Scouting Report, Highlights and Predictions for 4-Star LB Roquan Smith

Roquan Smith is a dynamic 4-star linebacker who knows how to attack from the second level. In a national class full of defensive standouts, Smith is among the top defenders in the country.

The Georgia native has a number of schools after him, as he has a chance to be a cornerstone player in college. Although he has a great skill set now, Smith will only get better in college.

He warrants a more in-depth look as a prospect.

All recruiting ratings and rankings are from 247Sports' Composite Rankings.Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports.

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Georgia Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

There is always a level of excitement around this time of year for college football fans. Preseason practice for all teams is right around the corner, and this means the 2014 signees will have a chance to show what they got and why the coaches wanted them on their teams.

The Georgia Bulldogs have a talented set of incoming freshmen on campus as we speak and have been working hard to get ready for preseason practice, which will begin in August. Some of the incoming freshmen will not see any playing time this season and will just practice with the team and get ready for the 2015 season. But there are a few that will not only see playing time in 2014, but will have a chance to be part of the starting lineup.

And here are the incoming freshmen that will have a chance to start this season.

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1 Nightmare Recruiting Scenario for Every Top-25 Recruiting Class

When it comes to recruiting, every coach in the country has fears and nightmares. Seeing a stud recruit decommit, an archrival landing a coveted target or even striking out on multiple uncommitted prospects are all things coaches are scared of.

For the schools in the top 25 of the 247Sports Recruiting Rankings, those nightmares are only heightened. While many of them never come true, some actually do unfold in real life.

Georgia would hate to see its top target sign with Auburn, while losing a stud 4-star running back would be a crushing blow to Miami. Plus, even Alabama has a nightmare recruiting scenario.

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Power Ranking Nebraska's Positional Units for 2014

As the calendar moves to July, Nebraska football fans are starting to get more excited about the upcoming season. Once baseball’s All-Star Game is past, it’s a downhill slide to fall camp and the start of another Nebraska football odyssey.

So, to keep themselves entertained, fans will be looking at their team and thinking about strengths and weaknesses. Rather than focus on individual players, a different way to look at the team is by unit. So here is a power ranking, from worst to first, of Nebraska’s strongest units. This particular ranking reflects proven performance more so than potential, so it may be that the ranking at the end of the season looks dramatically different than it does in late June.

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Power Ranking Clemson Football's Positional Units for 2014

Everyone knows how good Clemson’s defensive line is supposed to be this year, but not everyone is on board with the other position groups, like running back, just yet.

This list ranks the Tigers’ positional units for 2014, showing which areas are strong and which ones may need a little help this fall.

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The Opening 2014: Predicting Landing Spots for the Top 10 Uncommitted Recruits

A staggeringly star-studded collection of college recruits will swarm to Beaverton, Oregon, this July for The Opening, Nike's annual showcase of elite competitors. The group features future foes and eventual teammates, though the collegiate statuses of several remain uncertain.

Many players will keep their options open as national signing day approaches, using official visit experiences and the 2014 season to determine decisions. We highlight 10 premier uncommitted prospects who are invited to The Opening, peeking ahead to predict where they'll wind up in 2015.

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Insider Buzz: Where Do Penn State's Top Targets Stand After Recruiting Weekend?

Penn State had an eventful past weekend with many big-time recruits stopping by for a visit from all over the country. Numerous athletes at all different positions showed up in State College, Pennsylvania.

Only time will tell if James Franklin can land an impressive recruiting class in his first year as head coach. Which top recruits would you love to see join the Nittany Lions?

Watch Adam Lefkoe and Audrey Snyder talk about Penn State recruiting.


Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

Rankings from the 247Sports Composite.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Dana Holgorsen Makes Right Call Naming Clint Trickett Starting WVU QB

Other than "Will Dana Holgorsen still be the coach in 2015?," the biggest question in Morgantown, West Virginia, the past few months has been "Who will start at quarterback?"

Holgorsen put an end to the latter (in a way he hopes will influence the former) Tuesday afternoon when he announced that Clint Trickett, the presumed favorite and a one-time Florida State Seminole, would get the nod under center in 2014.

"Clint is 100 percent healthy and is ready to play," said Holgorsen of Trickett, per Mike Montoro of WVUSports.com. "He worked hard last season and showed a lot of ability and leadership and deserves the chance to lead the team as a senior. He will be our starter."

Trickett missed all of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason, which is ostensibly why Holgorsen addressed the health issue. In his stead, fellow senior Paul Millard, who played in seven games to Trickett's eight last season, and junior college transfer Skyler Howard battled primarily to "take" Trickett's spot.

But neither of those names inspires much confidence, and neither has the upside of Trickett, who, at one point, was competing with Jameis Winston and Jacob Coker for the starting job at FSU. After Winston's breakout spring game in 2013, he transferred to WVU, but did not develop the accuracy or consistency that many hoped to see.

However, it is not like his year was without highlights:

Trickett didn't set the world on fire in the Mountaineers (inexplicable) upset win over Oklahoma State, but he was the starting quarterback, and he did complete 24 of 50 passes in that game.

The WVU defense was the dominant unit that afternoon, but the experience of playing (and beating) one of the best defenses in America—per the defensive F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, only five defenses were better last season—is precisely the sort of background one needs before lining up in Week 1 against Alabama (of all opponents).

And even when the outcome did not come out as rosy as it did against OSU, Trickett was not always at fault for West Virginia's struggles. Take, for example, his 9-of-28 passing performance in a 73-42 loss at Baylor. Trickett didn't play perfect football, but he stood in behind an atrocious offensive line and showed a surplus of toughness.

David Ubben of ESPN.com agreed with this sentiment:

Additionally, Trickett posted his highest quarterback rating of 2013 in the season-finale against Iowa State, throwing 356 yards and a couple of touchdowns in the heartbreaking overtime loss. Less than a month later, he went under the knife to repair his torn labrum—an injury he had been playing with since the Oklahoma State game.

Which is to say: Trickett ended last season on a high note despite playing through the ostensible nadir of his shoulder injury. Beyond that, he has now had a full year to learn Dan Holgorsen's offense instead of the protracted four months between his transfer and the start of last season. With improved health and better command of the playbook, how could he not be better in 2014?

The timing of this move makes sense, as well.

Holgorsen gave Millard and Howard their chance to impress in the spring, and, once it became clear that neither was ready to seize—to actively seize—this job from Trickett, there was no need to drag the debate out all summer. So thinks Jonathan Martin of Scout.com:

A lot of things will need to go right for West Virginia to beat (or even hang with) Alabama. But even if it does not look pretty in the season opener, this offense is closer to being competitive than people realize.

Especially at running back, where Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood (among others) combine with Pittsburgh transfer (and former 5-star recruit) Rushel Shell to form one of the deepest units in America, the Mountaineers should be adequately well-equipped to support their quarterback in 2014.

Trickett did not get much in the way of support last season, and, although he should not escape his share of culpability, he is in many ways set up for success next year. This team is more set up to help.

Trickett is, after all, still the guy who stepped in as a freshman against Clemson in 2011 and nearly led Florida State to an upset victory, throwing for 336 yards and three touchdowns in the process. We have seen how he can perform with the right weapons around him.

He deserves at least this one, final shot.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Oklahoma Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

Expectations around Norman, Oklahoma, are as high as they’ve ever been as the Sooners prepare for the 2014 college football season.

The boys in crimson and cream capped off a stellar 11-2 campaign last season by topping the sport's perennial giant, the Alabama Crimson Tide, in the Sugar Bowl, 45-31. Now, the talk around town is that this could be the year when the Sooners bring home national title No. 8.

Before we jump to any far-reaching conclusions, let’s put this 2014 Oklahoma squad under the microscope.

 

Strength: Defense

Backed by nine returning starters—including the entire front seven—the Sooners boast a defense you don’t want to mess with.

Following an up-and-down showing in 2012, the unit really turned things around last season:

As scary a thought as it may be to future opponents, this defense only appears poised to get better.

Among the key returners, Oklahoma welcomes back Charles Tapper, Eric Striker, Frank Shannon and Geneo Grissom. The quartet helped the defense record 16 of the team’s season total of 33 sacks over the final four games—including a whopping seven against Alabama.

Sure, the team will miss the veteran experience and leadership of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin in the secondary. However, Quentin Hayes and Zack Sanchez have shown potential to fill those shoes.

Throw in a variety of new recruits from a 2014 class that ranked No. 10 in 247Sports.com’s football recruiting team rankings, and opposing offenses will be shaking in their cleats.

 

Weakness: Tight End

Jermaine Gresham dominated the nation from the tight end spot in 2008, hauling in 66 catches for 950 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Sooners.

Consider this: Over the last two seasons, Oklahoma has only had three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown from the tight end position—that includes nothing at all from a year ago.

This season, the Sooners will hope quarterback-turned-tight end Blake Bell can offer up some production at the position. At 6’6” and 252 pounds, the senior certainly has the size to contribute.

With the ball in his hand, Bell is a dangerous threat—he has pounded his way for 24 rushing touchdowns over his career. However, it will come down to how well the Wichita, Kansas, native can block.


Secret Weapon: Rushing Attack

Oklahoma is known for producing top-notch running backs year in and year out. Just look at Adrian Peterson and DeMarco Murray, who are both making names for themselves on the gridiron in the NFL.

For 2014, the Sooners will have to turn to a fresh face to lead the pack. The team loses each of its top three running backs from a year ago. Keith Ford, who played sparingly, is the top returning rusher (23 CAR, 134 YDS, 1 TD in 2013).

Still, Ford—a 5-star recruit of Oklahoma’s class of 2013—has tremendous potential. 

With that said, one of the most exciting prospects to watch next season has to be 2014 5-star running back Joe Mixon:

The Oakley, California, native has wowed scouts with his versatility. He has the quick feet and speed to explode past defenders while having soft hands and great vision to contribute heavily in the passing attack.

Ford may start out as the No. 1 back, but there’s a good chance Mixon might have something to say about that by season’s end.

Alex Ross is another name to keep an eye out for. According to CBSSports.com’s Chip Patterson, this could be the soon-to-be sophomore’s chance to shine.

With little game film available on each of these guys, look for opposing defenses to have trouble slowing them down.

 

All stats, recruiting information and rankings used in this article are courtesy of CFBstats.com and 247Sports.

For complete coverage and everything Oklahoma football, you can reach Sebastian on Twitter and via email at Sebastian.LenaBR@gmail.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame-Florida State Game in 2014 Dubbed 'Catholics vs. Criminoles' by Shirt

An unfortunate incident involving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has allowed Notre Dame fans to come up with a nickname for this year's game between the Irish and Seminoles.

Sportscrack.com is selling shirts that dub the game "Catholics vs. Criminoles":

Of course, the shirt references the citation that Winston received for allegedly stealing crab legs from a Florida supermarket. Ever since that incident, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner has had to deal with plenty of crab jokes.

The shirt also plays on the "Catholics vs. Convicts" nickname that the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami game had.

Florida State and Notre Dame will face off in Tallahassee in October.

[h/t No Coast Bias and SI's Extra Mustard]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

No. 1 Recruit, Trent Thompson's Visit to USC Makes More Sense Than We Think

The frenzied pursuit of defensive tackle Trent Thompson now truly warrants the phrase "coast-to-coast". A process that long centered on ACC and SEC suitors was effectively shaken up Tuesday when the nation's top-ranked recruit hopped on a plane headed to Los Angeles.

Thompson, a 5-star playmaker from Georgia, is journeying to spend time at USC, reports Kipp Adams of 247Sports. The Trojans are reportedly set to host him until his Thursday departure.

On the surface, it's a seemingly shocking development for a prospect whose top options appeared restricted to the southeast. Thompson's list of favorites hasn't undergone many alterations, topped by his home state's flagship squad.

Earlier this month, Thompson confirmed Georgia remained the favorite during a conversation with Jake Rowe of 247Sports. He listed Auburn, Alabama, Florida State and Clemson, in order, as other teams under serious consideration.

USC is clearly the outlier when placed among that collection. The Trojans play more than 2,000 miles away from his hometown and were never previously viewed as a program on Thompson's radar.

This trip deviates from a path that's featured recent visits to Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. With USC thrown in the mix, it's never been more difficult to get a read on where Thompson will do damage at the next level.

However, there's more to his rapport with the Trojans than the allure of a trip to Hollywood. First-year defensive line coach Chris Wilson and Thompson have plenty of history.

The veteran assistant served in the same capacity at Georgia until January, when he accepted a position on Steve Sarkisian's staff. He was part of a tremendous recruiting charge at Thompson during his time with the Bulldogs.

Wilson has already proven his ability to reach back into the Peach State for top-tier talent. He helped USC land 5-star offensive tackle Chuma Edoga (Powder Springs, Georgia) in April.

247Sports currently ranks Wilson as the No. 1 recruiter among Pac-12 assistant coaches. He probably deserves bonus points for playing a pivotal role in bringing Thompson to town.

Rated the No. 1 prospect in 247Sports' 2015 composite rankings, Thompson tallied 148 tackles and 17 sacks during the past two seasons. He projects as an immediate impact player in college and could challenge for a starting role in 2015 wherever he winds up.

Wilson, now given an opportunity to provide Thompson with yet another sales pitch, is busy reshaping the Trojans defensive front.

He secured a commitment from 4-star tackle Jacob Daniel (Clovis, California) in May. Daniel is rated ninth nationally at the position in 247Sports' composite rankings.

With Thompson on campus, USC has a golden opportunity to continue its journey back to national prominence. The team's 2015 class already includes several standouts aside from Edoga and Daniel, including 5-star quarterback and former Alabama pledge Ricky Town.

USC's ability to coordinate an unexpected visit with the country's top player is a strong sign of where the program is headed under Sarkisian. Meanwhile, expectations in Athens are unlikely to change.

Georgia offered Thompson as a sophomore and hasn't yielded in its pursuit since. Despite being tantalizingly close to a commitment at times, the Bulldogs can only watch as he explores another option.

“Last summer I asked Coach Richt 'how can I commit?',” Thompson told Kipp Adams in March (subscription required). “He said all I have to do is tell him I want to be a Dawg.”

That call hasn't arrived yet for Richt. Despite being the current front-runner, Georgia can't feel great about one of its former coaches recruiting its top target on the other side of the country.

Thompson signing with USC still seems slightly far-fetched, but suddenly, it's a possibility. The top player in America is establishing new relationships in Los Angeles, still more than seven months shy of signing day.

 

Recruit information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Power Ranking USC's Positional Units for 2014

What USC lacks in numbers from three years of NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, the Trojans make up for in talent. 

First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian embarks on his debut campaign with a high-potential roster, reminiscent of some of the USC teams of its era of dominance in the 2000s. The offense is built on a multifaceted running game, and all phases of the defense have game-changing playmakers. 

The Trojans also face some uncertainty, the result of their lack of depth. The full burden of NCAA sanctions takes its toll in 2014, which forces some newcomers and reserves to step up into contributing roles immediately. 

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