NCAA Football News

SEC Football Q&A: Fournette for Heisman, Auburn's Young D and Vandy's Bowl Hopes

You have SEC questions, and I have SEC answers. Thank you for your questions. If I didn't get to them this week, they will be saved and used in the future.

And we're off! 

@BarrettSallee@InTheBleachers think fournette has a legit chance to win Heisman as true freshman at LSU?

— λustin Michael (@IAmAustinMurphy) May 16, 2014

No, not at all.

That's not a knock against Leonard Fournette at all. The 5-star stud and No. 1 overall player in the class of 2014 has all the talent in the world and will absolutely be a star in Baton Rouge. But he won't be a star right off the bat.

Fournette will have two things working against him in the chase for the Heisman—a crowded backfield and the position he plays.

Are Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard superstars? Probably not. But they'll get more carries than Fournette to start the season, due in large part to the fact that they're upperclassmen and will have better grasps of the blocking schemes than Fournette will.

Only two running backs have won the Heisman since 2000, so in order for one to win it in this day and age, he's going to have to put up video-game numbers and hope it's a down year for quarterbacks around the country. The 2014 season isn't a down year for quarterbacks.

With Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and, oh yeah, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston taking snaps at Florida State, it'll be a tough fraternity for Fournette to crack in year one.

 

@BarrettSallee which incoming freshman on AU's defense has the most likely chance to be an immediate contributor?

— Micah Long (@micahlong) April 25, 2014

There are plenty of options, including 4-star cornerbacks Nick Ruffin, Stephen Roberts and Kalvaraz Bessent, who will provide depth to an Auburn secondary that could use some options, especially if the injury bug hits again.

Linebacker Tre' Williams is a future star, but unless starters Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy get hurt, he'll likely be a reserve or redshirt in 2014. 

Designated pass-rushers are an important part of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's scheme, and because of that, I'll go with 4-star defensive end Justin Thornton as the freshman defender who will have the biggest impact.

Johnson likes to mix up his front in passing situations. If Thornton can be a beast off the edge, it would allow defensive end Carl Lawson or Elijah Daniel to drop down to defensive tackle in speed packages and get after the quarterback. 

Will he be a superstar in year one? Probably not. But a big reason why Auburn has played for the national title in two of the last four seasons was a defensive line that rotated eight or nine players throughout nearly every game. 

Thornton will be part of that rotation this year, and could be counted on in specific packages to make a big difference in the backfield if he shows he can be a force off the edge.

 

.@BarrettSallee With the departure of Franklin to Penn St, what are Vandy's chances to make another bowl game?

— Darth Trojan (@SportsSexSneaks) May 16, 2014

I'm glad you asked about bowl eligibility, because back-to-back nine-win seasons have set the bar at Vanderbilt pretty high for first-year head coach Derek Mason.

But bowl eligibility isn't too much to ask from Mason in year one.

Vanderbilt's offense will be pretty solid thanks to a dynamic rushing attack with Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Whoever emerges as the quarterback—likely Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary or perhaps former LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers, according to CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler—will have a reliable running game to fall back on.

I like the pieces Vandy has at linebacker, particularly Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann, but can they be consistent even if the offense goes through lulls like it did late last year?

They can get to a bowl, but they'll have to spring an upset or two along the way. The 'Dores should win their four nonconference games vs. Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. So where will the two other wins come from? Tennessee and Mississippi State will likely be favored, but wins in those two games aren't out of the question.

I'd put the chances at 60/40 that Vanderbilt doesn't make a bowl. But the 'Dores have surprised me in each of the last three seasons, so another bowl trip could happen.

 

@BarrettSallee on the heels of conference teams playing non-conference games against each other, have we run out of stuff?

— Ben Swain (@TheBenSwain) May 16, 2014

Yes. Yes we have. But at least conference realignment isn't an offseason thing this year...yet.

 

Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports, and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.

 


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SEC Target 4-Star OG Javon Patterson Announces Top 5

Prized Mississippi prospect Javon Patterson appears set to stay in the Southeast for his collegiate career.

The 6'4", 290-pound Petal High School standout shared an SEC-heavy list of favorites during a recent conversation with 247Sports reporter Keith Niebuhr (subscription required).

“I have a top five, in no order, of Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss and [Mississippi] State,” he told Niebuhr.

Patterson left both in-state SEC options in the equation, while remaining open to playing for a pair of programs he visited last fall—Auburn and Alabama. Each of those four teams extended scholarship offers prior to the start of his junior season and have hosted him since.

Florida joined the pursuit this March and is still waiting for a campus visit from Patterson.

The U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection experienced a strong sample of SEC competition last November. He sat in the stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium as Auburn overcame Alabama in an Iron Bowl for the ages.

Patterson spent more time with the Tigers during an unofficial visit in late March.

He is rated No. 2 among offensive guards in 247Sports' composite rankings. Patterson lands on the nationwide list at No. 53 overall.

His skill set was on full display during the Birmingham Nike Football Training Camp in April. He exhibited excellent quickness for an interior lineman, completing the 40-yard dash in 5.12 seconds.

Not every SEC contender landed on Patterson's short list of top options. Tennessee and LSU were left out of the top five, along with North Carolina, Miami and Southern Miss.

In the coming months, his recruitment will once again prove that conference battles are often waged well beyond the field. Patterson plans to announce his commitment in November, according to Niebuhr. 

 

Recruit information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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2015 College Football Recruits with the Potential to Turn a Program Around

Technically speaking, every college football recruit in the 2015 class has the potential to turn a program around.

High school players are pure potential energy, as evidenced by overlooked recruits like Khalil Mack, who broke records at Buffalo and went No. 5 overall in the 2014 NFL draft.

But recruiting services get better and more accurate every year. The process is far from (and never will be) infallible, but for the most part the players with the greatest program-transforming potential are ranked at or near the top of the class.

Still, in putting together this list, I attempted not to go all chalk. It would be useless just to rank the top player at each position on the 247Sports Composite. You could do that yourself.

Instead I picked through the top 60 or so prospects, noting players with considerable upside. Some may not rank as high because of current polish, production or physique, but with the physical tools they possess, the right system could turn them into impact players.

For the most part, I also tried to vary the positions.

For example, the top quarterbacks will all be counted on to change their respective programs, but I highlighted the one with the highest ceiling (in my opinion).

Let's get started.

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Nebraska Football: Realistic Expectations for the Cornhuskers' 2014 Season

Nebraska football fans aren't exactly known for their realism. Visions of Nebraska’s glories in the nineties can cloud the most rational fan's judgment.

But Nebraska fans are also painfully aware of how the “Conference Championship” banner on the West Stadium has not been updated since 1999, making memories of those past glories grow dimmer by the day.

So perhaps a little realism isn’t a bad thing. Here are some realistic expectations of what Nebraska may achieve in 2014.

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Oregon Football: Realistic Expectations for the Ducks' 2014 Season

Throughout the spring practice season—Oregon's first time on field in preparation for the 2014—a recurring point of emphasis was improvement.

The expectation head coach Mark Helfrich set was getting better than the Ducks were a year ago in all phases, starting with how they practice.

"The intensity of practice has gone up and everyone is competing a lot harder,” safety Reggie Daniels told Steve Mims of The Register-Guard. “We’re making sure we’re focused all the time during drills. More people are trying to fill spots, so the competition has gone up."

Improvement also applies to the defense, which at times was the star of Oregon's 2013 season. A second-half shutout en route to a 42-14 romp over UCLA is a prime example.

But defense was also the Ducks' downfall in conference championship-thwarting losses at Stanford and Arizona. Specifically, Oregon was unable to slow the run and get the ball back to the explosive offense.

"Defensively, we're building to where we need to be," Helfrich said on the May 1 Pac-12 teleconference call, via Pac-12.com.

Even quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's most productive playmaker each of the last two seasons, was in on the efforts to improve.  

"He's moving faster than I've ever seen him move, it seems like, making dime passes," offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone said to Gary Horowitz for USA Today. "He's doing all the things that Marcus Mariota always does. I'm real excited to see him this season."

Talk of specific milestones was not so much at the forefront, however—certainly not in the manner UCLA has embraced championship aspirations heading into the 2014 campaign.

Improvement for the Ducks comes with a certain implication. Oregon's room for improvement is so narrow from the heights the program has reached throughout the last half-decade.

A national championship has been tantalizingly close to Oregon football every year since 2010. However, a loss in the BCS Championship Game and various late-season defeats in Pac-12 play have kept the Ducks from hoisting college football's most coveted hardware.

This year might be the program's best shot to reach that highest of pinnacles, but first the Ducks must return to the apex of the Pac-12.

Oregon won three straight conference championships from 2009 through 2011. The first and last of those titles book-ended the greatest season in program history, when the Ducks went 12-0 through the regular season and came a field goal away from winning the BCS Championship.

Since that January 2011 meeting with Auburn, Oregon has lost just five games. Four of those losses came in November against Pac-12 opponents.

Certainly, finishing as strong as they start is a priority for the Ducks next season, but the season's first half is loaded with important dates.

Oregon hosts defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State in Week 2, travels to UCLA in Week 7 and returns to Autzen Stadium the next week to face Washington.

An undefeated season may not be an expectation. Last year's Florida State team was the first unbeaten national champion since Auburn knocked off Oregon in 2011. Navigating a season without a loss is an extraordinarily difficult task and happens sparingly.

In a conference with the top-to-bottom strength of the Pac-12, escaping unscathed is especially challenging. To wit, two of Oregon's three conference championships came with at least one defeat in league play.  

But even if Oregon does sustain a blemish on its record, a return to the top of the conference is a realistic expectation, should the Ducks achieve their own, internal expectation of improvement. And with a Pac-12 title comes the very realistic possibility of a spot in the College Football Playoff.

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LSU Football Recruiting: 5 Biggest Questions Tigers Face This Summer

With spring practice over and fall practice still weeks away, Les Miles and the LSU coaching staff have been hitting the recruiting trail. 

The Tigers currently have 11 players committed to the 2015 recruiting class. LSU will want to reel in more commitments before the season kicks into gear. Geaux247.com currently shows 179 possible LSU targets—with the list growing every day.

Here are a few questions the Tigers will face this summer. 

 

Will LSU continue dominance in Florida?

From past stars like Ricky Jean-Francois and Patrick Peterson to current recruits like Kevin Toliver II, LSU has recruited spectacularly in the Sunshine State. 

Toliver II is most heralded recruit of LSU's 11 current commits. The cover corner will play right away in Baton Rouge. But there are more Floridian prospects the Tigers want to reel to Louisiana.

Defensive backs coach Corey Raymond has made a huge splash in Florida since joining the staff two years ago, according to Shea Dixon of Geaux247. This upcoming season, Raymond will look to make more magic in his home away from home.

Elite prospects such as offensive tackle Martez Ivey, quarterback Torrance Gibson, wide receiver George Campbell, defensive back Tarvarus McFadden, defensive end CeCe Jefferson and linebacker Jeffery Holland are all LSU targets. If Miles can get just one of them to commit soon, he will jump for joy. 

 

Which Louisiana prospect will commit?

Florida has done wonders for Miles. Yet he knows controlling his own backyard is imperative not only his team but his reputation. 

LSU lost out on 5-star Louisiana prep stars Speedy Noil, Gerald Willis and Cam Robinson from last year's recruiting class. Miles does not want to miss many in-state prospects for 2015.  

Receiver Tyron Johnson, running back Derrius Guice and cornerback Xavier Lewis all have close ties to LSU and live within two hours of Baton Rouge. Proximity will be a huge selling point for the coaching staff as it tries to keep the 4-star trio close to home.  

 

Who will renounce their commitment?

Commitments are always broken in society by people of all ages. It should come as no surprise when they're broken by teenagers.

A commitment is never truly official until the player signs on the dotted line, which won't be happening anytime soon for the 2015 class. Until then, players can choose wherever they want to go. 

It is inevitable that players currently committed to LSU will decommit within the next year. It now comes down to which players and how many. 

 

Can LSU convince Jerry Tillery or Daylon Mack to flip to the Tigers?

LSU coaches have visited 5-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack and 4-star offensive tackle Jerry Tillery this week, according to Dixon. Mack and Tillery are currently committed to Texas A&M and Notre Dame, respectively. 

LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley is pursuing Mack hard. The 6'3'', 310-pound defensive tackle will be an explosive 3-technique at the college level. 

Tillery is a standout at the legendary Evangel Christian High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. Past Evangel players that went on to play at LSU include Jacob Hester and Jermauria Rasco. The Tigers have three offensive tackle commits for the 2015 class, but a school can never have enough linemen. 

 

Will LSU get any more commitments for the 2016 and beyond?

Recruiting has become ridiculous. Kids are being offered college scholarships as eighth-graders, with LSU leading the charge.  

For coaches, it is never too early to find the next great star. The Tigers already have one commitment for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 class.

LSU will be looking to add to the list this summer, especially for the 2016 class. 

 

*Stats and rankings provided by 247Sports.com. Follow Carter Bryant on Twitter @CarterthePower.

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Michigan Football: Which Wolverines Position Group Has Most to Prove in 2014?

If a team isn’t improving, it’s getting worse—that’s the conventional wisdom that surrounds football. And in all likelihood, that thought has crossed the mind of Michigan coach Brady Hoke at least once.

Heading into his fourth season with the Wolverines, he faces the challenge of replenishing an offensive line that was already spotty at best, and he’ll be without Fitz Toussaint, his most experienced running back.

Oh, and he has to find a way to plug in someone for Jibreel Black, a solid pass-rushing force now bound for Sundays.

The O-line certainly has the most to prove, that much is clear. However, there are other areas that could use a little remodeling before Team 135 takes the field. The line of "too much talent to fail" applies here. At this point, there isn't a valid reason behind Michigan's failures. 

Talent is there. But can the coaches reap the rewards of A1 recruiting? 

 

O-line

First thing's first: The offensive line isn't where it should be at this point of Hoke's tenure. Honestly, this unit should have at least two years of solid dominance on its résumé.

Why?

Well, it just had two tackles—Taylor Lewan (LT) and Michael Schofield (RT)—taken in the 2014 NFL draft. That counts for something, doesn't it? Bad lines with OK talent don't send two guys to the League, do they? Especially not within the first three rounds. 

Lewan was picked No. 11 overall (Tennessee), while Schofield went a bit earlier than expected at No. 95 overall (Denver). Plus, since Hoke's arrival, Michigan has stacked high-end O-linemen with relative ease. The difficult part has been getting them integrated into the scheme and set up for success. 

Erik Magnuson is the perceived heir to Lewan's former post. As for Schofield, well, that's not so easy—and it won't be simple for the rest of the line, which consists of a handful of guys with a handful of combined starts from which to choose. 

No more All-American. No more all-conference-caliber right tackle—just underclassmen looking to make a name for themselves. David Dawson, Mason Cole, Ben Pliska and a host of others have their backs against the wall. It's either produce or get out of the way. 

 

Offensive Skill

Without Jeremy Gallon, the onus is on Freddy Canteen to provide energy and production at the slot position. As the situation stands now, Canteen, a true frosh and early enrollee, is up for the task. He impressed during the spring game and has the classic "I can do it" attitude. 

Devin Gardner remains in pursuit of perfection. It's been a long road for the senior, but he has luck on his side. With Devin Funchess at wideout, Gardner should benefit from having a 6'5," 235-pound NFL prospect catching passes. He should also have freshman Drake Harris (hamstring) complementing a roster full of 6'0"-plus targets. Jehu Chesson, a sophomore who stands in at 6'3" and 195 pounds, is one such option.

Quarterbacks seem to love those types.

However, if he's to stay at No. 1, Gardner must use his surroundings to his advantage. Should the need arise, Shane Morris, a sophomore, is patiently waiting to take over the starting position. 

Once Jake Butt returns healthy, add a dynamic, on-the-rise tight end to the mix. The sophomore is among the Big Ten's under-the-radar talents looking to emerge this fall and turned a few heads with a three-catch, 33-yard showing during a 31-14 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State. 

A pair of sophomores resides in the backfield, and Doug Nussmeier, the new offensive coordinator, finds himself looking for the right fit. In 2013, the Wolverines were dreadful on the ground, averaging a paltry-for-Michigan 125.7 yards per game.

Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith, both consensus 4-star recruits, represent the immediate future for the Maize and Blue's rushing attack. Neither one took the world by storm as a freshman, but they each showed improvement as the year progressed. 

 

D-line

Willie Henry and Ondre Pipkins are the ones. There's really not much else to say here. And without Black, the Wolverines need someone to clock in as a blue-collar pass- and run-stopping hero. Henry and Pipkins should apply enough pressure to the middle, but Brennen Beyer, who also plays outside linebacker, could be extremely valuable to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison this fall. 

Might as well toss Frank Clark into that discussion too. He'll be setting an example for youngsters such as Lawrence Marshall, who is another one of those "high-end" signees referenced earlier in this piece. 

 

Defensive Skill

The secondary is coming together. Maybe a little sooner than expected, which is always a positive for a defense in need of continuity across the board. Led by Jake Ryan, a senior, the linebackers are the obvious strength of Mattison's defense. 

However, once Jabrill Peppers makes his way to the backfield—joining Dymonte Thomas, Jourdan Lewis and Ray Taylor, among others—sit back and watch the magic unfurl. Peppers should give Michigan one of the better sets of DBs for the next three years. 

 

Special Teams

Who's going to kick those field goals now that Brendan Gibbons is gone? Kenny Allen? Matt Wile? Andrew David?

As always, feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section. Which group do you feel has the most to prove in 2014? 

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

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4-Star Sam Madden Opens Up on College Choices, Studying NFL Draft Trends for OL

Few offensive linemen in the 2015 recruiting class compare to Sam Madden when it comes to stature. The 6'7", 335-pound tackle from Barnegat High School (New Jersey) dominates opponents and paves the way for an attack that reached the state championship game in 2013.

Madden, rated a 4-star prospect by 247Sports, ranks among the most coveted bookends in America. His expansive offer sheet continues to grow, as Louisville, South Florida and Indiana each offered in May.

The stack of scholarships, which began piling at a rapid pace after his sophomore season, suddenly stands nearly as high as the imposing athlete.

Miami, Wisconsin, Nebraska, West Virginia, Rutgers, South Carolina and Syracuse are just a small sampling of teams on an offer sheet that features nearly two dozen universities.

Madden, who is in no rush to reach a decision and refuses to limit his options just yet, has also received interest from Florida State and Alabama.

He spoke with Bleacher Report recently, breaking down an analytical approach to the recruiting process, his physical progression and the pride that comes with being a beast up front. Madden also examined the possibility of continuing his football career with current teammates who've also received substantial collegiate interest.

 

Bleacher Report: You’re part of a relatively new program at Barnegat High School (eight years of existence). Last fall was the team's first trip to a state title game, and you seem to be gaining momentum as a top contender in Southern New Jersey. What has the experience been like?

Sam Madden: It’s just an incredible opportunity. The coaches are great, and it’s a lot of fun setting so many first-time records. We hope to go on and win a state championship this year, so that will be another first-time accomplishment hopefully.

 

B/R: Teammates Cinjun Erskine (3-star quarterback) and Manny Bowen (3-star athlete) are also compelling 2015 prospects. There are plenty of offers between the three of you. Does it help to go through the process with them? 

Madden: It’s obviously very humbling to hear from such incredible, prestigious programs like Wisconsin, Alabama, Florida State and all these teams. It’s a huge honor, and the fact that I have two brothers on the team that I can do it with is just really cool, you know? We have each other’s back and after (conversations and visits with college teams) we’re like “How’d you feel about it?” and “What would you like to ask more about next time?” That kind of stuff.

 

B/R: You share common offers with Erskine (Miami) and Bowen (Miami, Wisconsin, Rutgers, South Carolina, Virginia, among others). Have you spoke with one or both about continuing your careers together in the future?

Madden: Yeah, definitely. I remember a couple months ago, myself and Manny were walking through the hallway and saying it would be really cool to stay together and play together at the next level. To go from high school to college and play at the same time for the same team as my brothers, that would just be awesome.

 

B/R: I can tell you take a lot of pride in being an offensive lineman. What does it mean to you to be able to consistently handle your business up front?

Madden: It’s a huge deal being an O-lineman. We’re really like the unsung heroes of the team. In the trenches, that’s where games are won or lost. You miss a block, the quarterback gets sacked or the running back might lose the ball, then the other team scores. Without us, there are no lanes to run through, there’s no one protecting the quarterback. It's an honor to play this position.

 

B/R: With so many scholarship offers to choose from, how do you attempt to narrow down your options in order to find the right fit?

Madden: My dad and I for the past few years have made up a spreadsheet, and we list like the top 25 teams in the country from the last 10 years or five years. We’ll break it down. What coaching staff was there, what linemen were there, what round they were drafted in, how they did in the combines—it’s like a science. It’s a big process.

 

B/R: Has that method helped you come up with a list of favorites?

Madden: It’s still early and we’re only about halfway through the process, but right now I’m kind of narrowing it down a little bit. I don’t really have a top team yet, but some of the ones I’m really considering are South Carolina, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. It’s just such a huge honor to get offers from all these schools, and I’m taking every one into consideration.

 

B/R: Which campuses have you been able to visit?

Madden: I’ve been to Rutgers a couple times. That’s a great staff. I like them a lot. We were at Pitt last year. Ohio State and Penn State, with Coach (Bill) O’Brien’s staff. Everyone I’ve met, I like a lot. They’re really cool but to the point. It was all serious, all business.

 

B/R: Learning proper technique and maintaining coordination can be difficult when you’re dealing with a large physical frame at a young age. How have you improved since you first reached the high school level?

Madden: After my eighth-grade season, going into the next year, I was quite huge, and not in a good way. I was fat. I met up with a few trainers who I’m still working with today. I dropped 60 pounds and put on a lot of muscle. I’ve made so many improvements in the offseasons because there’s always room to improve. Definitely my foot speed, just how I move, my hips, everything. Everything is constantly improving.

 

B/R: From an individual standpoint, what’s the main mission for your senior season?

Madden: Goals to me are a huge thing. I want to drop another 10-20 pounds. Right now I’m at about 335, so I’d like to get down to about 315. I’ll constantly work to improve on speed—hand speed, foot speed, everything. I want to earn some more offers and win a state championship. I want to put Barnegat on the map as an O-linemen factory. I just want our brand to be smashmouth, in-your-face, run-it-down-your-throat football.

 

B/R: Is the possibility of playing in the NFL on your mind?

Madden: Obviously it’s still so far out there, but that’s the ultimate goal. Make it to the NFL, start, dominate there and ultimately make the Hall of Fame. I know from high school, that’s way far off, but that’s a huge goal in my life. Reach the NFL, take care of my family and get things done.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

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War Ram Eagle: How Auburn Is Becoming the St. Louis Rams' Developmental Team

The call was worth the wait for Tre Mason.

After watching four running backs come off the board on the second night of the NFL draft, Auburn's latest Heisman Trophy finalist stood by, waiting to be selected in a draft that had the latest first running back choice in NFL history.

Then, midway through the third round, he got a call from a voice familiar to the Auburn football program—St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.

Mason was selected with the No. 75 overall pick by the Rams, an NFL franchise with a growing connection to the Tigers.

The Rams took highly touted Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. By choosing Mason the next day with their third-round pick, the Rams reunited an important pairing in Auburn's top-ranked rushing attack from its SEC championship season.

"We came in our freshman year talking about that we wanted to be three and out, and it's like a dream come true if we played together at the next level," Mason said as he was introduced in St. Louis on Tuesday. "God blessed us with the opportunity." 

After Mason ended his call with Fisher, he immediately called his former Auburn and new St. Louis teammate.

“When I first called him, he couldn’t believe it," Mason said. "He told me, ‘Stop lying.’ But I told him, just wait a couple minutes and you’ll see that I’m not playing."

As the Rams' selection of Mason was being announced in New York City, an emotional Robinson took to Twitter to show his excitement about the reunion in St. Louis:

The early selections of Robinson and Mason gave Auburn fans a connection to the Rams, but the relationship between the NFC West franchise and the SEC West school has grown over the last several seasons.

The Auburn-St. Louis connection started several years ago at the top of the organization with Les Snead, St. Louis' general manager.

Snead grew up in Eufaula, a small Alabama town 60 miles south of Auburn. After two years of playing for former Auburn assistant coach Larry Blakeney at Troy State, Snead chose to walk on at Auburn as a blocking tight end for the 1992 and 1993 seasons. 

Later, as a graduate assistant for the Tigers, Snead was exposed to the world of pro football scouting.

Snead spent more than a dozen years as a scout for both the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Atlanta Falcons. He would later become the director of player personnel for the Falcons, which led to him getting his current job in St. Louis.

The former Auburn tight end helped orchestrate the trade with Washington in the 2012 NFL draft that earned St. Louis the No. 2 pick this year. The Rams carefully scouted and researched all the available options for the highly valued draft position, and they decided to go with a player from Snead's alma mater.

"[Robinson is] who’s going to be there, he fits a big-time need, we really like this player," Snead said on The Doug Gottlieb Show. "We didn’t think that any trade that was going to come was going to outweigh Greg—no pun intended there.”

Snead and the Rams' second pick in the draft, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, even had an Auburn flavor to it.

Current Tiger and cancer survivor Shon Coleman announced the newest pro teammate for Robinson—whom Coleman is looking to replace on the Auburn depth chart in 2014—in New York City:

Throughout the weekend's draft, Snead stood in the St. Louis war room with head coach Jeff Fisher, who also has a personal connection to the Plains.

Trent Fisher, the son of the former Tennessee Titans' head coach, was a former walk-on safety at Auburn who earned a scholarship at the beginning of the 2012 season. Fisher recorded one of the few highlights from the Tigers' dreadful 2012 when he returned an interception 60 yards against Alabama A&M.

Jeff Fisher came down to Auburn several times to watch his son play from 2011 to 2013, and he became familiar with the pro prospects on the Tigers' roster.

"Trent and I always talked about one day I'd maybe play for the Rams," Mason said Tuesday. "He'd always joke around like that. Come today, I'm sitting here a St. Louis Ram."

But even with Auburn's personal connection to the Rams' general manager and head coach, the move to pick Mason in the third round of the draft came as a surprise to the talented running back.

Mason neither visited with the Rams nor had a personal workout with the team, but St. Louis' front office was still comfortable with selecting a player it had become familiar with over the last season.

"We did our homework," Fisher said in a post-draft press conference last week. "We felt like we knew everything we needed to know about the kid. We just couldn't pass him up."

The Rams' familiarity with the Auburn roster was evident at this time last year. Although St. Louis did not select any former Tigers in the 2013 draft, they gave three former Auburn players—linebacker Daren Bates, wide receiver Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen—undrafted free-agent deals.

Bates and Blake are still on St. Louis' roster, and former teammate Barrett Trotter now works as a scout for the Rams:

With Tiger connections in the front office, the coach's office and across the playing field, the Auburn Family will have a growing branch in St. Louis for seasons to come.

And Mason is glad to see those family bonds strengthen as the Rams continue to be a popular landing spot for Auburn players after their collegiate careers.

"Greg is my brother," Mason said. "We know each other’s tendencies and techniques and how we play, so it will be great to continue on with Greg."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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Brian Kelly's Wish to Continue Series vs. Michigan, Michigan State Has Obstacles

You don't have to be a traditionalist to realize conference realignment has altered college football in a way that nothing else has. 

The obvious example is that rivalries have been crumpled up, thrown out the window and onto the highway like a used piece of trash.

Notre Dame's future is still in football independence, but an agreement with the ACC has the Irish heading east a few times every year. Combine five ACC games for Notre Dame and the Big Ten's nine-game schedule beginning in 2016, and there simply isn't a lot of room on the schedule for games against Michigan and Michigan State to continue every year. 

Still, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would like to see future games against the Wolverines and the Spartans. Here's what Kelly said earlier this week, via ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Matt Fortuna

When [athletic director Jack Swarbrick] and I sit down and we start discussing 'what do you want to do?' we don't start or end that without having Michigan or Michigan State part of that conversation, and there's an SEC school involved in that conversation, as well. I can assure you that Michigan, Michigan State and an SEC school is involved in those conversations. How that pans out, I'm telling you, it's a very complicated deal.

For what it's worth, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told ESPN in the same article that he has had no conversations with Notre Dame about continuing the series. (Notre Dame's agreement with the ACC resulted in the school's decision to suspend the series.) 

According to FBSchedules.com, Notre Dame and Michigan will play for the final time in the foreseeable future this year (Sept. 6); Michigan State is sprinkled sporadically throughout the Irish's future schedules. 

Yes, Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State could just agree to continue home-and-home games, but scheduling is rarely, if ever, that simple. Other nonconference games are already in place, and there's always the pressure to have seven home games. 

Michigan and Michigan State will be in the Big Ten's new East Division and host five home conference games on even-numbered years. That means two nonconference games would have to be home games in those years. During odd-numbered years, the goal would be to have all three nonconference games played at home. 

"We have situations where we can't play them, they have situations where they can't play us," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told Joe Rexrode of USA Today, "and it's just kind of the roadkill of conference expansion that's (forced) these close rivalries to…we both want to play each other, we just can't."

The other thing to consider is that teams don't want to schedule themselves out of a College Football Playoff spot. With the ACC and the SEC remaining at eight conference games, conferences are showing they are unwilling to change their format unless they absolutely have to.

Strength of schedule is becoming a facade. The "requirement" of scheduling one Power 5 opponent a year as a strength-of-schedule argument is a fallacy, as that opponent could be Indiana or Kansas (sorry, Indiana and Kansas). 

Whether there's active communication or not, there are simply too many factors in the scheduling puzzle for Notre Dame to play Michigan and Michigan State on a continuous basis. 

Kelly's wish is noble and something fans of both sides would probably like to see happen. They just shouldn't count on it. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

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Notre Dame Football Recruiting: 4 Biggest Position Needs for Class of 2015

We’re quickly nearing the summer, and recruiting is picking up around the nation. Notre Dame’s class of 2015 consists of eight commitments.

The Fighting Irish have already landed a quarterback (Blake Barnett), two wide receivers (Jalen Guyton and C.J. Sanders), three offensive linemen (Tristen Hoge, Trevor Ruhland and Jerry Tillery) and two safeties (Nicco Fertitta and Prentice McKinney).

Notre Dame has addressed needs thus far, especially at wide receiver and safety. But what other positions do the Irish need to target when rounding out the class of 2015?

In determining these position needs, we’ll consider the current depth on the roster, remaining eligibility and recent recruiting classes.

Let’s get to it.

Begin Slideshow

Rice Lands QB Recruit by Writing Letter to His Cat

Some schools are forced to win over mothers and fathers in order to land a football recruit. In the case of 3-star quarterback J.T. Granato, it was his cat that needed convincing.

The Rice Owls were very serious about landing the Kinkaid (Texas) quarterback, so co-offensive coordinator Billy Lynch penned a letter to his cat. 

According to Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle, coach Lynch wrote: 

As you know we’re trying to convince J.T. Rice is the place for him. I know you’d like to keep him close so he can feed you and change the litter box. Please help us to get him to choose us. Paw me if you have any questions.

Well, it worked, as J.T. committed to the Owls.

Nice work by the Rice coaches. It's the cat's world—J.T. is just living in it. 

[Twitter, h/t Houston Chronicle]

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Your Best 11 Mailbag: Freshman QBs, Randy Gregory, Wes Lunt and News

Folks, I am back in North Carolina following a week in New York City for the draft in which I learned, work or play, my nearly 30-year-old body can still see four in the morning. We've got a gang of questions to answer today, but first, there's a bit of housekeeping to handle on my end.

At the end of business today, Michael Felder will no longer be a writer here at Bleacher Report. I love the team that I've worked with and truly believe that the college football writers here are going to keep crushing it going forward. Obviously, I've enjoyed delivering dope content here for all of you to read, especially the mailbag that has been, as best as I can describe, super fun.

Do not weep for me. In fact, you will not even miss me. While I will no longer be a writer at B/R, I am still a part of the college football team, moving from a Lead National College Football Writer into my new role as a National CFB Analyst. Basically, a fancy way of saying that instead of writing, I'm going to become a full-time video contributor here at B/R.

We're going to be delivering a lot more content on recruiting, pushing to give deeper dives into X's and O's and working to bring everyone great news, insight and opinion. Also, you will get to see my sweet, sweet face a lot more. I am excited, I hope you all are as well, and I am already trying to find a way to turn the mailbag into a video spot, somehow!

OK now, here are the questions.

 

Do not fret Patti, one of my favorite question-askers, I'll still be on the Twitter and videos. 

As for my ultimate team-building move, I think it is tough to top cooking class. Obviously, there are more meaningful things that can be done like donating time and energy to grounds beautification, visiting the hospital and adopting a needy family. All of those are things that every team around the nation does in some capacity and are all well worth the time and effort because they help improve the community as a whole.

Other team-building activities, like basketball teams or tournaments, ultimate frisbee, tubing, rafting, bowling and the like are fun to do, and everyone gets a chance to compete in some regard. However, all of those mean some manner of sweating to me, even bowling, and sweating just seems like more work that I have to do.

Although, like any good home chef, I do sweat in the kitchen, that is, from the heat of the oven and the nerves of making sure I get it right, not because I am lifting heavy things or exerting physical energy. You do enough of that with football; give me the knives, a mandolin, a Microplane plus some high-quality mise en place and the ability to instantly go from a middling football player at best to the tops on the team in something, and I'll take it.

 

I have a confession: In the age of Spotify and iTunes and all that jazz, I am not a big playlist guy. In fact, the only time I consistently use a playlist is when I brunch on Saturday or Sunday mornings and I have a nice little "Saturday Chill" mix that I play. Otherwise, I am a whole-album guy.

Lately, for my working out, I've gone one of two ways: Iggy Azalea or Kanye West. When I'm in the mood to, in the words of Bubba Sparxxx, "get it right, get it tight," from a body standpoint, I go Azalea's newest album and just get after it. For those times that I am dreading sweating it out, I go with Yeezus and just let his words fuel me.

 

Michigan State is absolutely for real. They will have one of the nation's best offenses this year with so much balance it will be tough for defenses to play them on a down-to-down basis. Obviously, Jeremy Langford on the ground is a problem, but Connor Cook grew up into a high-quality QB last season, and they have receivers just waiting to catch the ball. I'm excited to see what DeAnthony Arnett, the transfer from Tennessee, brings to the table.

As for the Big 12, I am penciling Oklahoma in at the top. Trevor Knight has to play as he did in the Sugar Bowl for that to happen, but at least we saw, against a good opponent, that playing like a madman was within his scope of possibility. Baylor is the other team that should be right there at the top. Shock Linwood should come out balling, Bryce Petty stabilizes the passing game and Shawn Oakman can be a man on defense.

There are so many question marks around the league that those two teams are the ones that stand out the most as contenders for the Big 12 title.

 

This is a tough question because there are a few different layers. At Texas A&M, a true freshman likely is the starter out of the gate, so he doesn't actually count as taking reps from anyone. Miami's Kevin Olsen is poised to start the year, but that is due in part to Ryan Williams going down with a knee injury during spring ball.

I know a lot of people are pointing at Jeff Driskel as a possibility, because he has struggled at times and freshman Will Grier was an early enrollee. That is a spot with a legitimate shot of it happening, but for me the answer has to be North Carolina. 

Marquise Williams finished the 2013 season as the starter and looked strong running Larry Fedora's offense. This spring he found himself locked into a furious battle with Mitch Trubisky for the lead job. That battle will carry over into fall, and both guys are targeting the position. Williams, the redshirt junior, showed how versatile he could be and has game experience.

However, Trubisky is thought to be the quarterback of the future, and as they get closer to running neck-and-neck Fedora may pull the trigger on youth. I think that's the best answer to this question.

 

Sort of? Kind of?

Here's the thing, I thought Gregory was a phenomenal player a season ago, but I also thought Noah Spence and Shilique Calhoun were on his level, and I am surprised neither is being mentioned nearly as much. Gregory does bring a bit more physical maturity than Spence and more versatility than Calhoun, but he also does not stand up nearly as often as the Ohio State hybrid player.

For Gregory to make good on the projections, I think it will be a blend of getting help from some other Nebraska defenders and his defensive staff getting creative with his athleticism. More standing up, more rushing from the outside to the inside, stronger push from the linebackers in run defense to force the bounce to Gregory, and his doing a more solid job of holding the edge.

The kid has a ton of skills and a wealth of talent. Right now, to go from a nobody in 2013 to a projected top-five pick in 2015 is a big jump, and he has to grind to keep his name as hot as it is right now.

 

Oh, this is a no-brainer. Give me guys who do their jobs. Pass-rushing defensive tackles are nice and can be a tremendous benefit, especially on third downs, but if the interior of the defensive line is weak in assignment, ability and consistency against the run, why would a team ever throw the ball?

Shove that ball down those suckers' throats and then line up and do it again. Trap-block them because all they want to do is get up the field. Run zone and push them totally out of the play since they don't want to anchor down the line.

It is easier to generate a pass rush than it is to get consistent interior defensive-line play. I'll take the stout bodies who do their jobs any day. I can blitz, run stunts and bring in package players to generate a pass rush on passing downs. There is nothing I can do if my defensive tackles are pass-rushers who are weak against the run.

Now, in a year, after those DTs get their behinds whipped against the run and I have time to teach them technique? Give me the athletically explosive youth who have it figured out.

 

There is no shot we see an under-three-hour game on the SEC Network. That is an area that the Big Ten Network has on lockdown, and I love every second of those short games. Football is a 60-minute game; whether that 60 minutes takes three hours or four hours is entirely up to the networks and the teams involved.

 

Man, this is a tough one to wrap up on this week. Wes Lunt, for those who do not know, is the former big-time quarterback who enrolled at Oklahoma State, was named the starter in 2012 and then lost the job, leading to a transfer to his home-state team of Illinois. Todd Monken, now the head coach at Southern Miss, was the offensive coordinator for Lunt's year with the Poke; Bill Cubit fills that same position at Illinois.

Honestly, I do not think it is Lunt's skill set that is going to be the measure of his success. Monken and Cubit, although different in philosophy, have both employed shorter passing games to set up longer tosses and have shifted to an individual quarterback's abilities and strengths.

The reason I am excited for Lunt and think he can be successful is the circumstance. Cubit is getting a kid who has already been about as low as a highly touted quarterback can get. Lunt got the starting job, then not only got hurt and lost the job but dropped to third-string. Then, when he elected to transfer, Mike Gundy attempted to block him from 40 schools, making the process absolutely miserable.

Lunt's had a year to get healthy, sit and wait in the shadows and spend time with Cubit working on the offense and showing skills that have his new staff excited. Lunt is back in his home state, which is a point of comfort, and instead of playing for a team coming off a BCS Bowl win hoping to stay at the top, he's playing for a squad that's dreaming of getting to six wins. 

Less pressure in a more forgiving environment is what I think will help translate to success for Lunt at Illinois. 

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Ohio State Football: Realistic Expectations for the Buckeyes' 2014 Season

Every time the Ohio State football team gathers for practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the Buckeyes' mantra is featured prominently on an enormous sign overhead.

"The Chase..."

It represents Ohio State's pursuit of a national title—a journey that started in 2012, when Urban Meyer took over the team and rattled off a school record 24 consecutive victories.

The Chase got derailed by Michigan State in last year's Big Ten title game. Another loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl knocked the Buckeyes even further off course.

But after signing the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, reevaluating the leadership structure and finishing up a productive spring camp, Ohio State is back on track. 

Meyer feels that Ohio State has unfinished business.

“We’re teaching people to be unit leaders," Meyer said, according to Chris Vannini of 247 Sports. "We’ve got a systematic approach to how we’re going to fix this thing. It’s not broke. We didn’t finish The Chase.”

Should Ohio State fans expect another title run this season?

Last year, Ohio State marched its way to Indianapolis unscathed—fueled by a weak schedule, a veteran offensive line and the bullish abilities of Carlos Hyde.

None of those advantages will be available in 2014.

The Buckeyes' did catch a few breaks on their schedule. The Big Ten's realigned divisions take effect this season, and Ohio State won't have to play Wisconsin, Nebraska or Iowa—three of the top teams from the West.

That could change if the Buckeyes were to meet one of those squads in the Big Ten title game. To do that, they'll have to navigate  a conference slate that includes road games against Penn State and Michigan State. Then, of course, there's the season finale against Michigan in Columbus.

Ohio State will also have to overcome a much stronger nonconference schedule. The Buckeyes open the season in Baltimore against Navy before coming home to host Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati in consecutive weeks. Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh ranks Ohio State's nonconference slate the fourth toughest in the country. 

The Buckeyes will attack that schedule without the heart and soul of last year's team. 

Meyer is still scraping the pieces together to replace four senior starters along the offensive line. The Buckeyes have a deep stable of running backs—Ezekiel Elliott is primed for a breakout season—but they'll miss the steady production of Hyde, who put up historic numbers despite starting the year with a three-game suspension.

But Ohio State could be strong where it was weak last year.

Meyer brought in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash to overhaul the Buckeyes' much-maligned secondary. Ohio State gave up an average of 268 passing yards per game, ranking 110th in the country, which ultimately cost the Buckeyes a chance to play Florida State in the national title.

Early returns from the spring game showed that the Buckeyes have resolved those issues.

It also doesn't hurt to have Braxton Miller—one of the most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks in college football—back to run the offense.

So what should Ohio State fans expect for the upcoming season? Will the Buckeyes make a run at the first ever college football playoff?

Just like last year—the Buckeyes will be legitimate contenders in the national title race. Barring significant injuries, Ohio State should overcome its tough nonconference schedule without a blemish. 

The November 8 matchup against Michigan State looms large, though. With the game in East Lansing, the Spartans have an advantage that will be very tough to overcome. 

With a young defense and an even younger offensive line, it wouldn't be surprising if Ohio State was upset at some point in the year—perhaps by Penn State or Michigan.

A 10-2 regular-season campaign is a safe, realistic expectation for the Buckeyes' upcoming season. 

Meyer, however, has overachieved in Columbus before. In 2012, most experts felt a nine-win season was a feasible forecast. The Buckeyes went on to beat everyone on their schedule.

It's safe to assume that Ohio State isn't worried about expectations. They're too preoccupied with The Chase.

 

All recruiting information via 247 Sports. Stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. 
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Michigan Football Recruiting: The Biggest Difference Between Nussmeier & Borges

This week Michigan received its first quarterback commitment since offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier replaced Al Borges. Quarterback Alex Malzone announced that he had committed to Michigan during a recent visit.

The commitment is the first sign that Nussmeier's experience as a former collegiate quarterback and recent success at Alabama is paying dividends on the recruiting trail for Michigan.

Malzone cited Nussmeier’s track record and his plans for the Michigan offense to Nick Baumgardner on MLIVE.COM:

He just wants to help bring Michigan back to the great football its used to. He's had great success at Alabama and at Washington and also at Michigan State. I know he'll have the same at Michigan.

I went to a spring practice and got to see him coach, he's upbeat, he never stops and he tries to get the most he can out of every single one of his players. ... I feel great about it, and coach Nussmeier thinks I'm a great fit as well. He's bringing Alabama's offense with a few tweaks, he wants a quarterback who can make all the throws. I feel like I'm that guy.

Besides a stellar collegiate playing career, Nussmeier carries with him the luster of Alabama’s recent national success. He helped Alabama set offensive records during the 2012 season for touchdowns (68), total points (542), total offense (6,237) and passing touchdowns (31) when the team went 13-1 and won the national championship. His most recent quarterback protege AJ McCarron was taken during the fifth round of last week’s NFL draft.

Contrast Nussmeier with Borges’ recent track record of declining offensive consistency at Michigan, his transformation of quarterback Denard Robinson from Heisman candidate to mediocre drop-back passer and that his greatest team success (Auburn, 2004) was when the current class of recruits was in grade school.

Nussmeier is a prime example of how an assistant coach can leverage recent accomplishments to impress recruits—something that Borges lacked.

Michigan players have been guarded in their comments about Borges but the enthusiasm for the new offense is palpable. Current players such as quarterback Devin Gardner, pass-catcher Devin Funchess and running back De’Veon Smith have all endorsed the new offense and Nussmeier’s drive for offensive precision.

“He demands perfection,” said Gardner. “Even when you have a big play he finds something that can be improved.”

There hasn’t been much perfection in Ann Arbor during the last two seasons but many forget that Borges was hailed as a genius after Hoke’s 11-2 first season.

For now, Nussmeier represents the best hope for Michigan fans that Brady Hoke will lead Michigan back to the top of the Big Ten.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.

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Underdogs No More, Auburn Now a Popular Selection in Vegas and Beyond

Value is a preferred term within Vegas walls, the Holy Grail for Sin City voyagers looking for a score.  As is usually the case, however, you never truly appreciate value until it’s gone. At that point, it's no longer value.

At 1000-1 to win the BCS National Championship last year, the Auburn Tigers had more value than just about any other team in the history of the sport. There weren’t many 1000-1 tickets printed, but they were out there. Unfortunately, now they’re just a good story rather than a down payment on a home.

While some had to settle for 500-1, it didn't make their eventual demise and less easier to digest. What a run it was, though.

So long little buddy. It was a fun ride. pic.twitter.com/AI2udwzZvy

— Mark Skiba (@markjskiba) January 7, 2014

Such betting promise carried over game-to-game along the way, too. Gus Malzahn’s team covered the point spread in 12 of 14 games overall, including the final 11. The victories weren't always anticipated, some of which came down to one time-warping play. If you backed the Tigers all year, however, you’re probably still paying for meals with loose change.

That magical run has completely altered the perception of the program. Expectations have seemingly flipped in only six months, and they’re not expected to change course anytime soon. The 0-8-conference mark from 2012 is a distant memory, a forgotten time under forgotten leadership.

The days of 1000-1 are gone. The extra zeroes are a thing of the past.

Despite a daunting SEC slate and a handful of key roster losses, the Tigers opened up with 20-1 odds to win the national championship at the LVH Sportsbook. Galaxies away from 1000-1, even this new and improved assessment didn’t last long.

After ample offseason betting, the Tigers are now behind just a handful of power programs at 12-1.

“Fifty percent more money had been bet on the Tigers than the No. 2 team at the LHV Sportsbook,” said David Purdum, who has covered the sports betting industry for five years at multiple outlets. “What’s interesting is that Auburn is No. 1 in money wagered—by a considerable amount—but not even in the top five in number of bets taken at the LVH.”

What does this mean? For starters, the larger wagers—which could be viewed as “important” wagers, depending on who you ask—are in the Tigers’ favor. That’s telling. It’s these kinds of wagers that move odds quicker than Joe Football Fan taking a $10 flier on “that team that runs a lot of plays.”

Big bets aren’t always smart bets, but they often gain attention.

At the Golden Nugget, another Las Vegas sportsbook with college football future wagers available, the action on Auburn isn’t quite as fierce as it has been at LHV. Still, the national championship bets have been pouring in on the runners-up from earlier in the year. And it is expected to carry over into the regular season.

“UCLA, Oklahoma, Oregon have all taken more money, but Auburn has taken a decent amount of action,” Golden Nugget oddsmaker Aaron Kessler said on the Tigers' national championship wagers. “I anticipate Auburn to be public this year.”

“Public” is a term that implies interest in the Vegas world, a way to qualify what kind of money is coming in on a particular team. Regardless of the quality of opponent for a particular week, people will bet Auburn because, well, it’s Auburn. This mentality will be fairly prevalent this season, which is no surprise after a spectacular year.

Such movement and mindset has been seen in the online realm as well. The sportsbook Bovada.lv offered Auburn at 20-1 to win the championship at one point, but like the Hilton, those odds have been bet down to 12-1 since January.

Bettors aren’t just backing the Tigers at Bovada, either. The team’s quarterback has also garnered a significant amount of betting interest when it comes to Heisman wagering.

“Auburn has taken the third-most money behind Florida State and Alabama to win the College Football Playoff,” said Bovada.lv Sportsbook Manager, Kevin Bradley. “Interestingly enough, Nick Marshall has taken two times more money than anyone else for the Heisman. He’s now 20-1 after initially being as high as 40-1.”

Todd Fuhrman has seen such movement from both sides. A former Caesars bookmaker, Fuhrman now assesses the action for Donbest.com as a market analyst. When it comes to Auburn, he's seeing the movement although he's not ready to join the masses just yet.

 “They won't sneak up on anyone—especially oddsmakers—and I really believe there will be a weekly premium attached to them based off how good they were against the spread last season,” Fuhrman said. “They've definitely been a popular future pick from the people I've spoken to and will be an interesting team to watch. But 12-1 seems a little extreme.”

Get used to the extreme. Auburn has been deemed a 22-point favorite over Arkansas by the online sportsbook 5Dimes, a line that is robust and somehow right where it needs to be. 

All signs from Vegas—and those who have taken full advantage of these numbers—point to Auburn taking yet another enormous leap forward. Whether this confidence translates to a national championship, or a Heisman or another marksman-like performance against the spread will be realized in time.

It may not be 1000-1, but perhaps 12-1 won’t be too shabby come January.

 

Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.

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Georgia's Mark Richt: Gurley Is "a Very Strong Candidate" for the Heisman Trophy

The Heisman Trophy has evolved into a quarterback-driven award in modern day college football, relegating players at other positions to the backseat in the quest for college football's top individual prize. Only two running backs have won the Heisman Trophy since 2000; and one of those winners, USC's Reggie Bush in 2005, was forced to give his back following his NCAA troubles.

If a running back is going to break out the Heisman pose in 2014, Georgia's Todd Gurley is a strong candidate.

The junior for the Bulldogs has rushed for 2,374 yards and 27 touchdowns during his two years at Georgia, despite missing three games in the middle of last season with an ankle injury and playing hurt for the final six games of the year.

He's healthy again, and his head coach thinks he's ready to make a run at the Heisman.

"If he's in great condition and he stays healthy, I think he can't help but to have a tremendous amount of production and be a very strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy," head coach Mark Richt said.

Gurley can make a strong case for being the top running back in the SEC and the country. According to VegasInsider.com, he's fourth on odds boards to win the Heisman at 9-1, and is tops on the board among running backs.

During his first two seasons, he had record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray handing off to him. This year, more of the offense will fall on him as first-year starter Hutson Mason, a redshirt senior, takes his one and only shot at SEC glory. 

If Mason keep defenses honest—and with a talented receiving corps, that's a reasonable assumption—that will open up those holes for Gurley, who will take advantage for a big year. 

The 6'1", 232-pounder has the size to run through defenders, is light on his feet, can make defenders miss and when he gets in space, he's taking it to the house.

Is he the best running back Richt has had at Georgia?

Musa Smith, Thomas Brown, Knowshon Moreno, Washaun Ealey and Isaiah Crowell are just a few of the talented running backs who have toted the rock between the hedges under Richt.

"You know, there's been some good ones," Richt said. "I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but this guy [Gurley], I'll just say, he is a very special talent." 

A special talent, indeed. According to his bio on Georgia's website, Gurley was an accomplished track star in high school and competed in Europe as a member of Team USA in the spring and summer of 2011.

Despite being a special talent, Georgia won't be running a Heisman campaign for Gurley in 2014, according to Seth Emerson of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer. That's par for the course for Georgia, which chose to let the numbers do the talking last summer with then-senior quarterback Aaron Murray, according to Emerson.

If he stays healthy, Gurley's numbers will likely speak loudly in 2014. 

He'll be fighting an uphill battle with star quarterbacks, but if they speak loudly enough, they could earn him a trip to New York City in early December as a Heisman finalist.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. The full Q&A with Georgia head coach Mark Richt will be published next week.

 


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Eric Swinney to Ole Miss: Rebels Land 4-Star RB Prospect

Ole Miss has added another impact player to its 2015 class in the form of 4-star running back Eric Swinney. 

Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger provided news of the prospect's decision:

His coach, Chip Walker, provided posted an image to Twitter of the announcement:

The Georgia native is one of the best running backs in his class thanks to his physicality. He might not have elite speed, but he hits the holes hard and punishes defenders who try to tackle him.

Walker explained it best to Todd Holcomb of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Swinney is a downhill, hit-it-hard guy that’s going. Both can run around you and make you miss, and both can catch the ball really good, but Swinney is very physical when he runs the football. You can see times on tape last year in big games late where it looks like they don’t want to tackle him anymore.

The young player also has impressive vision that allows him to find the opening anywhere on the field. He follows his blockers well, which enables him to pick up more yards on plays than most other running backs would in similar situations.

Finally, Swinney has great hands that and is a useful receiver out of the backfield. Jeremy Crabtree of ESPN.com noticed this ability first hand:

In 2013, Swinney totaled 1,149 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing. He added 325 yards and four scores receiving as he continued to develop his game.

These skills have helped the 5'10", 188-pound prospect become the No. 12 running back in the country and the No. 12 overall player in the state of Georgia, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

Swinney received scholarship offers from virtually every school in the Southeast and eventually narrowed his choice down to Florida State, Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee in March. After much thought, he decided that he was going to play for the Rebels.

The running back has the talent to step in immediately for his new team, but he might be redshirted in his first year to put on a bit more weight and strength. With his style of play, getting some extra time in the weight room is vital.

Still, Swinney has the skill to break into the starting lineup before too long and become one of the best running backs in the conference. If he can continue to improve and he gets productive blocking in front of him, he will be a star at the next level.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Penn State Football: Versatility Will Be Key for Linebackers This Season

For the first time in several years, Penn State will return just one seasoned vet among its linebacker unit and this time it will be without longtime respected position coach, Ron Vanderlinden.

What the Nittany Lions do have is a group of fast, athletic, versatile backers who are preparing for multiple roles in a new defense.

Mike Hull will be playing for his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons and he has been moved to the middle linebacker spot, a role usually reserved for big, run-stopping 'backers. At 6', 232 pounds, Hull doesn't seem to fit the mold.

Don't expect it to be a big hurdle for the team's most tenured linebacker.

According to Hull, the new staff doesn't approach the position much differently than his previous coaches. "This coaching staff emphasizes more blitzing techniques, getting downhill, making tackles for losses and big plays," Hull says, adding "It's still about getting proper leverage and staying inside out on the ball carrier."

Flanking Hull will be a diverse group of players that challenge the coaches to find their best roles. 

Veteran Ben Kline (6'2", 238 lbs.) is ready for whatever comes, saying "At the end of the day, football is football. We're all playing the same game."

Last season, Kline saw time on the outside but after missing time this spring he isn't sure where he'll be in 2014. "That's something we'll look at, have some meetings and talk about where I best fit in and see where it heads."

Nyeem Wartman has seen snaps inside and out the last two seasons and is a favorite to start at one of the outside spots in 2014. He agrees with Hull about the new staff's approach:

"I wouldn't say there's a different approach. I'd say they expect the same thing out of a Penn State linebacker. They expect a relentless pursuit to the ball and they expect us to pretty much be the heart of the defense It's really about the linebacker brand that we have here."

As for where he'll end up this season, Wartman just wants to play, saying "I'm really willing to play anywhere the need me. Right now they have me at the Will (weak outside linebacker) spot but I'm willing to play anywhere that they put me. Wherever I can get the most snaps or give my team the best opportunity to win."

True sophomore Brandon Bell made waves late last season and will likely be in the mix on the outside, as well.

The linebackers will be a favorite story for Penn State fans as the staff becomes more comfortable with the individual players. 

 

Great meeting Coach Pry today the new LB coach at #PennState . #LinebackerU will be in good hands

— Troy Reeder (@troyreeder9) January 18, 2014

 

Don't be surprised to see each linebacker play multiple positions during a game with Hull sliding outside on passing downs and Wartman or Kline manning the middle.

Incoming freshman Troy Reeder and sleepers Gary Wooten, Matthew  Baney and Von Walker could also be in the mix and they fit the bill when it comes to versatility.

Reeder was a star lacrosse player who was All-State at both linebacker and running back while Wooten is a former defensive end and Walker was moved from offense to defense this spring. 

There will probably be some growing pains this September as the players grow comfortable in their new roles but whatever mistakes are made will be made fast and aggressively. 

It's a new era at Linebacker U but this group has the tools to carry on the brand...regardless of where they line up on Saturdays. 


All quotes obtained firsthand.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Florida Football: Realistic Expectations for the Gators' 2014 Season

It’s difficult to draw a pulse for realistic expectations for the Florida Gators this season. Yes, this is an extremely talented team with overwhelming upside and could end up legitimately competing for an SEC East crown. But following those thoughts, last year’s 4-8 record and no bowl appearance smacks you in the face.

Do the Gators really make an Auburn-like jump and go from worst to first in one season? Do things stay the same as last year and Florida fans take to the streets? Maybe somewhere in between?

Finding a happy medium isn’t always easy and can be even tougher for a Florida fanbase that usually has high expectations for its team.

With that said, here are five realistic expectations that should keep Florida fans happy if they are met.

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