NCAA Football News

The Memphis Blueprint for Rebuilding a College Football Team

A team that won a total of 10 games over the course of four lifeless, talent-deprived seasons matched that number in less than four months in 2014. 

After a flood of offense, a gravity-defying 54-yard game-tying field goal in overtime, a game-winning interception in double overtime and a wild postgame fracas unlike any in recent history, Memphis did more than conquer BYU in the Miami Beach Bowl.

It emerged from program purgatory. 

Between 2010 and 2013, the Tigers were outscored by 305 points. They were the poster child of a dysfunctional program. They were hopeless and helpless. In 2014, thanks to one of the nation’s premier defenses followed by a flurry of touchdowns at the season’s conclusion, they flipped the script entirely. 

This was no fluke. By taking various steps—headlined by finding the ideal head coach (and staff) poised for the makeover—Memphis broke through. It was unexpected, but it was BY design.

As a result, it is now the blueprint for countless others to follow.

 

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Memphis Football

Dave Woloshin remembers rock bottom. He remembers narrating the week-to-week ineptitude of one of the worst programs in college football, a stretch in which Memphis won five games over the course of three seasons.

“I would sit through the first quarter and start using every note that I had for the broadcast,” Woloshin, the radio voice of the Tigers, said. “By the second quarter, it was already fill time.”

Since 1986, Woloshin has helped relay Memphis athletics to the masses. He has worked on television and radio, watching the football program undergo various makeovers.

As bad as it was, Woloshin recalls some program highs—like when his friend, former Memphis coach Tommy West, guided the Tigers to new heights and national respect with the helping hand of the magnificent DeAngelo Williams, one of the best collegiate running backs of our time.

After putting the program on the map in the early 2000s, however, West couldn’t sustain the expectations he helped create. In 2009, after a two-win season, West was relieved of his duties as head coach.

Before he exited, West delivered a memorable, uncensored press conference that highlighted the obstacles hindering the program. This was not rock-bottom, although it was close.

Larry Porter, the coach tabbed to follow West’s footsteps, left his station as running backs coach at LSU to lead a different set of Tigers. He lasted two seasons, winning just three games.

“It was sad,” Woloshin said. “Memphis had proven that the town could get turned on by football. We were getting 40,000 to games not long before this.”

Interest plummeted. Hope vanished. Fans who were on the fence about supporting the program—something West had touched on during his departure—removed themselves from the picture entirely.

“The Tigers announced a crowd of 14,992 on Saturday,” The Commercial Appeal’s Geoff Calkins wrote after a loss to Central Florida in late November of 2010. “If there were more than 4,000 in the place, I'm DeAngelo Willams.”

This was rock-bottom. This was the most unwatchable team in the nation now looking for another head coach after only two seasons.

After dabbling with the possibility of hiring Jim McElwain—Florida’s most recent hire—it settled on an unproven offensive coordinator in his mid-30s.

Justin Fuente was lured away from TCU and was named the Memphis head coach in 2012. Untested and unknown, Fuente was handed an impossible program with no expectations to speak of.

 And then, his team hit the field.

“The very first practice I ever went to, I knew we had something,” Woloshin said. “I saw that and said that this guy was different.”

He was.

On Monday, Fuente led Memphis past BYU 55-48. This was the Tigers’ first bowl win since 2005 and their first 10-win season since 1938. He did so with a new five-year contract that will pay him $1.4 million in the first year and escalate throughout, according to Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated.

From 3-9 to 10-3 in one calendar year—with two of the three losses against UCLA and Ole Miss, two Top 12 teams at the time—Fuente has brought the program back from the dead.

Along the way, he left a trail to follow.

 

Step One: Find Your Template

All rebuild efforts have to start somewhere. For Memphis, it began in Fort Worth.

Before Fuente could implement his program foundation, he first had to take the job and abandon his post as co-offensive coordinator at TCU. Given everything the Tigers’ program had been through in recent years, this was a decision that took some massaging.

“I thought long and hard about it,” Fuente told Bleacher Report. “I went into it with my eyes wide open, and I knew it hasn’t been a healthy situation. But I also knew it wasn’t that long ago that they had success.”

Ultimately, he decided to take the leap of faith. Fuente alerted TCU head coach Gary Patterson that he was leaving and received Patterson’s blessing as he packed up the U-Haul. He arrived at TCU still fresh, with some experience at Illinois State to draw from. He left with a wealth of knowledge on how to run a program.

Fuente didn’t dive into this endeavor by his lonesome. He leaned on the advice and direction of former Tulsa head coach Bill Blankenship—who just so happened to be his coach back at Union High School in Oklahoma, where Fuente was a star quarterback—and Patterson, who Fuente studied intently at TCU.

“I’m not sure either one had specific knowledge of this job as much as specific knowledge of how to go about building a program,” Fuente said. “We had a system that worked. To me, that was something you could hold on to. That was a constant for me.”

Fuente came from a place that went 55-10 in his time at the program—including 36-3 during his final three seasons.

Why wouldn’t he bring these proven philosophies with him?

“I had a great relationship with Gary Patterson when I worked for him, and I wanted to take everything we did program-wise from there and put it here,” Fuente said. “I’m not talking about the eight-man front or the way we ran the offense. I’m talking about the way we practiced and the way we ran our offseason.”

From a structural standpoint, Fuente shocked the system by channeling enormous influence from one of the nation’s most successful head coaches. On a more individual level, he also brought with him the mentality his mentor displayed during the week-to-week grind.

“Gary’s drive fascinated me,” Fuente said. “His ability to put aside a victory and immediately turn his focus toward the next opponent was uncanny. He was completely dialed in on the opponent throughout the entire week, and that was fascinating on a personal level.”

This year, Fuente was named one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. Joining him in this honor were Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Mark Helfrich, Art Briles, Bryan Harsin and the eventual winner, Gary Patterson.

 

Step Two: Work Your $% Off

Woloshin’s rave review of the first Fuente-led Memphis practice he was in attendance for was not the sentiment felt within. In fact, the head coach tasked with reshaping the program didn’t exactly match his response.

“It was a nightmare. It was awful. We couldn’t even make it through it, first of all,” Fuente said. “We weren’t physically conditioned enough to do it. It was as an everyday battle, and it still is. It’s still not where I want it to be. I wouldn’t want Coach [Patterson] to see us.”

His thoughts years later mirrored his impressions following the team's first practice in pads.

While practices were a struggle early on, Fuente was not without talent to work with.

Recruiting is a critical part of any rebuild; it’s also vital in sustaining a certain level of success. While Fuente’s predecessor had been unable to deliver tangible results, Porter did attract marquee talent who eventually paid off.

Still, that talent had to develop. And while Fuente had more in place than many realize—something that ultimately led him toward the job—turning potential into something more is where most rebuild efforts do a nosedive.

That’s where practice comes in; it’s the heart and soul of every sports team at every level and an enormous part of Fuente’s success. Working alongside defensive coordinator Barry Odom—one of the brightest defensive minds in the country—the two zeroed in on improving and developing through repletion.

“It’s the most crucial part,” Fuente said on the importance of practice. “You have to get the most out of your time on the field, and it’s still not where I want it to be. If Coach Patterson were to come to our practice, I’m not sure he would say it’s where it needs to be. But that’s what we’re striving for.”

Fuente’s frustration early wasn’t about learning a set of plays or a given system; it was simply a matter of being able to take reps at the intended pace. Woloshin, having attended hundreds of practices in various places in his time covering the sport, recalls what he watched.

“It blew me away,” Woloshin said. “It was choreographed, it was on the move, and those guys never stopped. It was like watching a hockey line change.”

It’s one thing to take a proven plan and mimic the ingredients. It’s another to exhaust all resources to ensure that it is followed.

This, in a way, is the easy part. The path to success is defined by the work you apply. Doing it over the course of years—and ensuring that time and progress are on the same distinct upward path—is another battle entirely.

 

Step Three: Savor The Journey and Celebrate Small Victories

Not every step of the rebuilding process revolves around work, repetition and planning. Most do, but not all.

In fact, appreciating the growth and celebrating the results—as insignificant as they might appear to those outside of the building—is fuel to move forward.

Winning a national championship is always the goal. Of course it is. But when you start at the bottom, there’s something to be said about admiring the climb. In many ways, this is where the satisfaction lies.

“It’s hard to do this and you don’t have to tell anybody about it,” Fuente said. “But inwardly you have to take some satisfaction in small steps. If not, you drive yourself crazy.”

Although Fuente’s team only won three games in 2013, the progress was evident.  Even though it took a small step back in terms of overall wins—winning three games versus four in his debut season—Fuente saw the change in the works. 

Practices got better. Players developed. The performance, despite what the win column said, improved. This was the year that set the table for 2014, especially on the defensive side. It was no setback.

The Tigers made life difficult on former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, almost beating Louisville. Memphis also lost to UCF, an eventual BCS bowl winner, by only seven points.

“We were close to winning games last year,” Fuente said. “We played very good defense, we just didn’t score many points. We played some really close games against good people.”

Close losses will eventually get you fired. But given the way Memphis was trending prior to last season, this was a critical step forward. It didn’t come with wins—not yet, at least—but it set the foundation for things to come.

It is in our nature to be consumed by results and, in particular, wins. Pull back the box score, however, and you can find (and appreciate) small improvement.

For a head coach navigating this enormous operation, simply acknowledging these developments can be vital. It can tell you where you need to focus, but more importantly, it can justify the message and methods being taught.

Take note of Fuente’s barometer of success, fellow coaches.

“A win is the end goal and you have to do that to keep your job, but being able to see it moving forward has got to be able to fuel you and drive you.”

 

Step Four: Develop a Personal Covenant

The main ingredients are rather obvious, although the last part of the rebuild is where most efforts derail. You need to find that special something, that one missing element you can’t quite put your finger on. Along those lines, your message can’t be lost along the way.

You need to find your own Memphis Family Covenant.

“If we could adhere to the Covenant,” Fuente said on the 2014 season. “I thought we had a chance.”

The Memphis Family Covenant, according to Fuente, boils down to playing “selfless” football. It’s about “playing for each other,” he added.

It’s not something we could ever understand, even with his description laid out on the table. It’s something exclusive to the team and locker room, which is precisely why it’s so valuable. To know it, you must experience it.

As a result, playing for Memphis has become a luxury. And that was the case long before the Tigers won 10 games.

“We have a group of seniors here that have been through a lot,” Fuente said. “Seeing the health of the team, the kids enjoying playing football and having success, that’s where my satisfaction comes from.”

Along the way, Fuente has been able to adjust his style and slowly drift away from what got him to this point. That might seem strange given the level of success he has worked toward, although the plan was to never simply hold serve, especially for a coach still in the infant stages of his career.

As Fuente has settled in—and as his players have bought in—he’s eased into his comfort zone. With a 10-win season and a bowl win on his resume, this part of his voice should only continue to evolve.

“I think I’m more myself than I was the first couple of years,” Fuente said. I can’t be Coach Blankenship or Coach Patterson; I’ve got to find a way to adjust my style to my personality so we get the results these coaches have gotten.” 

This is Fuente’s own personal covenant: the satisfaction of appreciating results and the endless search for more.

“Other people watch us and say we’re doing a good job,” Fuente said. “But we’re not there." 

What began with the methods of some of the sport’s brightest minds has morphed into something spectacular, something that’s far easier to outline than it is to execute.

To rebuild a program from the ground up, you need to follow the steps Fuente laid out. You need to find success through others and incorporate the wisdom of people who have done it before. You need to make the most out of your practice, exhausting each and every hour given in creative ways. You need to celebrate, build on and learn from success, even if these conversations don’t take place in plain sight. 

The one final item necessary for a true rebuild just so happens to be the most important. It's also the most difficult to achieve and ultimately the place so many teams will fail and have to reset once more, hoping to get it right the next time. 

It’s also not a point that Fuente touched on while articulating the necessary blueprint, nor would you expect him to.

You need to find a Fuente to begin. Good luck.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2015 College Football Recruits with Most Star Potential

Reinforcements are on the way.

The sadness that comes with the end of a college football season can be tempered by knowing there's a large pool of talent waiting to show up on campuses and contribute right away. The 2015 recruiting class is as strong as any in the past decade, and with freshmen making more of an impact than ever, many of these prospects will end up starting next fall.

And several have the chance to be stars right out of the gate.

The 2014 class featured the likes of LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and Florida State running back Dalvin Cook among the many true freshmen who have already become stars.

Who's in line to do that from the 2015 crop? Check out our list of some of the recruits that have the most star potential.

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Did Sports Illustrated Purposely Leave Jameis Winston's Name off Its Cover?

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston received the honor of being on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated this week, but there is a pretty glaring omission.

Sports Illustrated came up with four regional covers as part of its College Football Playoff preview. Take a look at all of the covers:

For some reason, Winston is the only cover athlete whose name is not in bold letters on the cover. Alabama's Blake Sims, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Cardale Jones each had their names featured on the cover. Winston did not.

The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner did receive a special little blurb in the corner of his cover that none of the other cover athletes got, but it focused on his off-field issues.

Of course, Seminoles fans would only notice that Winston received "special treatment" if they saw all four covers. 

It's not known if Winston's cover was different intentionally, but it does seem a bit odd that each cover did not follow the same template.

[FSU FootballSports Illustrated; h/t Twitter, The Big Lead]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Marcus Mariota Named 2014 Associated Press Player of the Year

The accolades keep coming for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Two weeks after being named the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner, the junior has been named The Associated Press Player of the Year.     

According to a tweet from SportsCenter, Mariota has become the first player from the school to win the AP honor:

Per Ralph Russo of The Associated Press, Mariota was a landslide winner in the balloting conducted by members of The AP Top 25 panel:

Mariota won the AP vote in the same landslide fashion he won the Heisman Trophy. He received 49 of the 54 votes submitted by the AP Top 25 media panel. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper drew three votes. Wisconsin running back (Melvin Gordon) and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had one vote each.

Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich commented on Mariota, via Russo.

"He's an absolute competitor, an incredible perfectionist," Helfrich said.

In addition to this AP honor and the Heisman, Mariota has also won the Maxwell Award (College Player of the Year), Walter Camp Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien Award (Nation's Best Quarterback) and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. 

Mariota is busy preparing his Oregon team to play Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 as part of the inaugural College Football Playoff. He's also poised to be one of the top players taken in the 2015 NFL draft if he decides to leave school early. 

He has already done plenty to distinguish himself as one of the top football players in the country, though a strong showing in the Rose Bowl would be a great way for him to finish an already terrific season.

There's little doubt that NFL teams at the top of the draft will be eager for a chance to land Mariota as a potential franchise player under center in the near future.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Davon Durant to Arizona State: Sun Devils Land 4-Star LB Prospect

The latest decision from coveted recruit Davon Durant is in. The talented inside linebacker chose Arizona State, providing a major boost to the Sun Devils' 2015 class.

Doug Haller of AZCentral.com confirmed the school choice:

Davon Durant, considered the top junior-college linebacker in the country, on Tuesday signed with Arizona State, a key boost to the Sun Devils' 2015 recruiting class.

Durant (6-2, 240 pounds) had committed to ASU in October, but recently considered Oregon and Mississippi. He brings impressive credentials.

It's been a whirlwind process for the junior college star. He originally committed to South Carolina before switching his allegiance to Arizona State. The recruitment continued, however, with Oregon and Ole Miss among the programs that jumped into the heated race.

He told Andrew Nemec of The Oregonian earlier in the month that his parents' input was going to play a major role in the final decision.

"I'm still deciding. I'm waiting to hear back from my parents and see what they think about stuff," Durant said. "Once the (Oregon) coaches get out to meet my parents, I'll know for sure. Right now, I'd have to say I'm leaning toward Arizona State. They've already met my parents."

Durant is a 4-star prospect who rates inside the top 10 among junior college prospects, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. He also checks in as the best inside linebacker coming out of the JUCO ranks for the 2015 class.

He played in five games for Butler Community College in Kansas this season. The sophomore racked up 46 total tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.

The experience he gained at that level should allow him to make a smooth transition. As a result, he figures to make a quick impact following the jump. He's definitely got the skill set necessary to become an impact defender.

Durant has good size (6'2'', 240 pounds) and has excelled in run defense. He attacks the line aggressively, shedding blockers with ease. And while he's not the best overall athlete in the class, he features enough short-area quickness to fill the key role in the middle of the defense.

The one area where he'll be tested is when he's called on in coverage. Athletic tight ends who can stretch the field vertically could give him problems. Aside from that, he's filled the numerous role of an inside linebacker very well.

Greg Powers of Scout notes he's also showed some promised coming off the edge:

Durant is a player who currently spends most of his time on the edge of the defense, shutting down his half of the field. He has a scary size/speed combination and will chase plays and run down ball carriers from one side of the field to the other. He is big and physical and makes sound tackles. Coming off the edge he asserts an abundance of pressure on the opposing offense. Instant impact LB.

It's a situation where the defensive coaching staff could move him around the defense to create matchup advantages. He'll likely spend most of his time on the inside. That's where he was able to set himself apart as a top recruit for 2015.

Durant should have little trouble making a swift impact next fall. His ranking and the widespread interest illustrate his talent. Now he just needs to prove it on the field.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Class of 2015 College WRs Deserves More Respect, Will Make Big Impact in NFL

The 2014 wide receiver draft class was billed by publications like USA Today, Sporting News and Scout.com as perhaps the best class ever. It featured five first-round selections, and the production from rookies thus far has matched the hype. 

Go down the list of names—Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans—and the talent is once-in-a-generation worthy. 

But what do you say about the group that comes after the best draft class? That's the perception battle the wide receiver class of 2015 is fighting. Amari Cooper (Alabama), DeVante Parker (Louisville), Kevin White (West Virginia) and Devin Funchess (Michigan) are just some of the names looking to show they're every bit as good as members of the '14 class. 

"It's not as deep as last year's class," said Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller. "Last year was unreal. Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans were rare talents.

"But it's that second tier—White, Strong, Funchess—that is as good as last year's."

How does this year's group stack up against the '14 class? The list is incomplete as more underclassmen could declare for the NFL draft. USC's Nelson Agholor, for example, hasn't officially declared for the draft but is considering his options, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times

Furthermore, combine/pro-day results can shuffle the order of things. However, here's how the upcoming '15 class looks on the surface.

 

Key Names

(*Underclassmen who have not officially declared for the draft.)

The first thing to know about this group is, at the top, it's full of big-bodied players. Then again, big guys are almost always going to get the first look. An exception, for example, would be a speedy receiver who offers another dimension, a la Tavon Austin. 

"Amari Cooper is not the biggest guy, but he is prototypical," Miller said. "Then you look at Parker, White and Strong—these are huge receivers, Demaryius Thomas types." 

The other thing to know is that the top of the class is largely raw in talent. Whether it's Strong or White coming in from the JUCO ranks, or Funchess transitioning from a tight end to a wide receiver, this group has a lot of learning to do. What franchises are banking on is that these players meet their upside. 

"Sammie Coates is a fantastic athlete, but he's raw," Miller continued. "Strong is still learning how to be a route-runner. Funchess is a hybrid guy. 

"Even Parker, a finished product, was hurt this year and had to pick things up again."  

 

Under-the-Radar Names

Like any other position, sometimes the mid-to-late-round wide receiver picks come through in ways no one thought possible. They may not have the best measurables but are extremely productive. 

No one seems to embody that type better than Kansas State's Tyler Lockett. The senior leaves as K-State's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, passing his father, Kevin Lockett, along the way. 

Lockett isn't the biggest receiver, but he is a polished route-runner and simply knows how to get open. How he'll translate to the NFL remains to be seen, but Miller thinks Lockett will find a spot somewhere. 

"You know guys like Tyler Lockett and Rashad Greene could be third-round picks, but you know they'll be super productive," Miller said. 

 

Who Will Shine?

Predicting which players will transition successfully to the NFL is, at its core, a guessing game. High-risk picks can come through, and sure things can fizzle quickly. 

However, early indications are that the '15 wide receiver draft class could have some touted prospects. 

Seven receivers made Miller's latest top 64. In other words, seven receivers are considered among the best 64 players available at this time. Again, that is likely to change over time, and "best available" doesn't always equal being selected. 

For reference, though, the 2014 draft saw 12 receivers go in the first 64 picks. 

But what matters most is not when receivers get selected, but where. That, Miller said, is the best indicator of production. 

"There's no guarantee [Giants receiver] Odell Beckham Jr. would be playing as well as he is without Eli Manning. There's no way to know how [Eagles receiver] Jordan Matthews would work in San Francisco," Miller said. "You have to wait and see."

The '15 wide receiver class likely won't carry the same buzz as the one before it. It may not be as great at the top or as deep, but don't mistake that for a total lack of star power. The wide receivers from this year have the raw talent to be future No. 2 and No. 1 guys in the NFL. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ronald Jones Sets Decision Date: Is USC or Notre Dame Best Bet for 4-Star RB?

Texas running back Ronald Jones is ready to decide where he'll play college football. The McKinney North High School standout will select either USC or Notre Dame when he announces his commitment Jan. 2 at the Under Armour All-America Game, per Ryan Bartow of 247Sports.

Jones, a 6'0", 185-pound playmaker, previously pledged to Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lost grips on that commitment earlier this month after an eight-month verbal pact. 

He already spent official visits at both of his finalists, fueling speculation that a decommitment was imminent. Jones, rated ninth nationally among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings, rushed for 4,400 yards and 67 scores during the past two seasons. 

Now that this pursuit is down to a two-team race, let's examine his top options to find an ideal fit.

 

Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish added a verbal pledge from 3-star Pennsylvania running back Josh Adams in June, but the search for a second option has never slowed. Brian Kelly is also targeting fellow Texas product Soso Jamabo and recently offered prolific Tennessee rusher Ke'Shawn Vaughn

Notre Dame should be content to land one of the three uncommitted backs on its radar. 

Leading rushers Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are both expected to return in 2015 though no player erupted for a dominant campaign on the ground in South Bend this year. Quarterback Everett Golson led the team with eight touchdown runs during the regular season. 

Folston certainly solidified himself as a viable option with four 100-yard rushing games, but he was limited to less than 80 yards in seven of the other eight contests. 

The door is open for a true freshman to command significant carries next fall at Notre Dame. A strong training camp could put Jones in position to carve out a role on opening day and expand it as the season progresses. 

 

USC

Steve Sarkisian must address the running back position, as the Trojans are suffering from a lack of options looking ahead. Past scholarship restrictions decimated depth across the roster, and the offensive backfield is no exception.

"It's one of the positions the sanctions probably hit the hardest," Sarkisian told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

The Trojans risk losing leading rusher Javorius Allen, a candidate to declare early for the NFL draft. Sophomore Justin Davis has displayed a quality skill set this season though it remains to be seen whether he has workhorse potential. 

USC is seeking a solution by bringing in multiple backs with plug-and-play potential. The Trojans already carry a commitment from 3-star rushers Dominic Davis and Aca'Cedric Ware, another Texas prospect. 

Jones would add to the mix and carries more clout in national recruiting rankings than either current Trojans pledge. 

"I always remember Pete [Carroll] saying, 'You can never have enough tailbacks because you just don't know...,'" Sarkisian told Klein.

 

The Verdict

USC and Notre Dame have serious needs in the backfield, so both present intriguing options for Jones, who stands to compete for immediate reps with a strong start on campus. Each team has built quality offensive foundations during this cycle, with 4-star quarterbacks Ricky Town and Brandon Wimbush serving as catalysts.

The Fighting Irish provide an strong path to playing time given the program's current depth chart and recruiting class. USC should have a stronger aerial attack than Notre Dame next season, especially if quarterback Cody Kessler returns to school, so there's more pressure on Kelly to enter 2015 with a stable group of rushers. 

The Irish have other options like Vaughn and Jamabo, but Jones has a chance to seize that open slot and hit the ground running in South Bend next summer.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2015 College Football Recruiting: 6 Prospects Likely to Start as Freshmen

A trend that has gained steam in college football in recent years is the emergence of true freshmen taking on bigger roles almost immediately upon arriving on campus.

A quick example of this can be found when taking a look at the running backs who will start in the national semifinal Rose Bowl matchup between No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State. 

Royce Freeman leads the Ducks in rushing with his counterpart Dalvin Cook pacing the Seminoles ground attack—despite the fact that both players were putting the finishing touches on their prep careers at this point a year ago. 

The 2015 cycle has a handful of talents who are capable of coming and making a similar impact to Freeman and Cook.

Which 2015 recruits have a chance to earn a starting role as true freshmen next fall?

 

All players listed in alphabetical order.

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Nick Saban's Defense of D.J. Pettway

Right Message, Wrong Idea

Alabama head coach Nick Saban went off on a passionate defense of defensive lineman D.J. Pettway's second chance at Alabama this week.

Pettway returned to Alabama from East Mississippi Junior College this season and registered 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, disrupting plays in the backfield early and often. More importantly, he graduated in three-and-a-half years.

His return was certainly controversial.

Pettway was dismissed from the program in February 2013 after a robbery on campus, which sent his career on the one-year detour to junior college. When asked about Pettway's 2014 season, Saban fired back at critics of his methods on Saturday, according to Drew Champlin of AL.com.

"Where do you want them to be? Guy makes a mistake," Saban said. "Where do you want them to be? You want him to be in the street or do you want them to be here graduating?"

Saban's message is on point. The goal for every college football coach is to win games and give players the chance to live their dreams and prepare them accordingly, even if there are some speed bumps along the way.

It's going to fall on deaf ears, though.

Being involved in an on-campus robbery, even if you're not the primary participant, is more than a speed bump though. People who already have their minds made up on how Saban handled the Pettway situation aren't going to be swayed by his justification for his methods, and all this does is bring the situation back to the forefront during a time when even more eyes are on Alabama than normal.

 

Right Man for the Job

One more coaching domino has fallen.

Missouri has named the replacement for departed defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who left the program in December to take the head coaching job at Missouri State. The school announced on Tuesday that Memphis defensive coordinator and former Missouri Tiger Barry Odom will take over as the leader of Missouri's defense.

"It goes without saying how excited I am to have this opportunity," said Odom in the release. "I have such a deep respect for the success that Coach Pinkel and his staff have had since I've been away. Transitioning to a new conference is very challenging, and all they've done is get better at everything."

It's a home run hire for head coach Gary Pinkel and Missouri, as USA Today's Dan Wolken notes.

Odom was at the forefront of Memphis' return to dominance. Under Odom's guidance, Memphis finished fourth in the American Athletic Conference in total defense (349.5 yards per game) and second in yards per play (4.74). His defense posted 30 sacks and a conference-best 87 tackles for loss.

That bodes well for Missouri, which has rose to prominence in the SEC East over the last two seasons with a stifling pass rush and the ability to consistently put opposing offenses behind the sticks. That trend will continue with Odom running the show, which will keep Missouri in the hunt even if key pieces of the roster turn over again this offseason.

 

Belk Bowl Dripping with Coaching Intrigue

If you're looking for a coaching matchup that's just dripping with intrigue, look no further than the Belk Bowl between Louisville and Georgia.

Former Georgia and current Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will take his Cardinals defense—which ranks sixth in the country (293.3 yards per game)—up against his former program, which wasn't exactly thrilled with his performance during his final two seasons in the Classic City.

On top of that, Georgia head coach Mark Richt could return to his roots and call plays for the Bulldogs for the first time since 2006 now that offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has taken the head coaching job at Colorado State.

If he doesn't, it could serve as an opportunity for one of Richt's assistants to audition for the role full time or for Georgia to try out a system with two coaches working together, like Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee do on the Plains.

If that isn't enough, the idea of Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino teaming up with Grantham to beat the Bulldogs won't sit well with Georgia fans who double as Atlanta Falcons fans on Sundays.

 

Recruiting Bust

One of South Carolina's most promising players may be on the way out.

Wide receiver Shaq Roland—a former "Mr. Football" in the state of South Carolina in 2011—has left the team, according to John Whittle of 247Sports. Often in the doghouse, this appears to be a Roland's decision and not one dictated by the coaching staff, according to the report.

Roland caught 26 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns this season and has totaled 891 yards and 10 touchdowns in his three years in Columbia.

The former 4-star prospect and 40th-ranked player in the class of 2014 showed flashes of brilliance during his Gamecock career, but he never developed the consistency as a deep threat that the staff wanted to see when they signed him out of Lexington (South Carolina) High School.

 

Quick Outs

  • Marcus Lattimore will be an ambassador for South Carolina, according to David Cloninger of The State. This was reported ever since injuries forced Lattimore to retire from the NFL, but now his role is a little more defined. He'll work with South Carolina's administrators and coaches essentially as a special assistant. 
  • Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp thinks it's realistic that Auburn's defense could be top 10 nationally in 2015, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com. Those are lofty expectations, no doubt, and perhaps unattainable in Year 1. For Auburn to be successful, though, he doesn't really have to meet them. As long as there's at least marginal improvement, Auburn will be in the thick of the SEC West and playoff races.
  • It appears LSU head coach Les Miles is still playing coy regarding quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, based on his comments following practice on Monday. Jennings will likely be the No. 1 option vs. Notre Dame, but if Harris doesn't see significant time, you have to wonder how legitimate an offseason quarterback battle really is. 

 

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

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

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Alabama Football: Is Ohio State a Clone of Mississippi State?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — If Alabama is looking for a blueprint on how to beat Ohio State in the first round of the College Football Playoff, it doesn’t have to look very far.

It only has to travel about 80 miles west on Highway 82 to get to Starkville, Mississippi.

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen spent four years as an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida and four more years before that as his quarterbacks coach at Utah and Bowling Green.

The two have more or less kept their offenses the same and run variations of the same system at Mississippi State and Ohio State.

Alabama handled a very good Bulldogs team—No. 1 at the time—when they came to Tuscaloosa in November, a team that looks a lot like Ohio State. The Crimson Tide can use a lot of the same techniques they employed in that game when they square off with the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

“(Ohio State is) a great team,” Alabama safety Nick Perry said. “I see a lot of similarities between them and Mississippi State. They like to establish the run game and they have a lot of great receivers they like to get the ball out to in space and make big plays.”

Alabama held Mississippi State below its season average in just about every statistical category on Nov. 15:

The Crimson Tide did that by limiting the things that that offense does well.

That starts with the quarterback, who is a central part of the system. Dak Prescott was at his best on designed runs, especially in short-yardage and goal-line situations. That keeps defenses honest with the threat of the run.

He gained 82 yards on the ground, but those came on 22 carries, his second-highest total of the season at the time. His 3.73 yards per carry were his second-lowest average of the season in an SEC game.

That trickled over to the rest of the run game, which otherwise gained just 56 yards on the ground.

“Mostly the uptempo, kind of the run game,” Perry continued, when asked how Mississippi State and Ohio State were similar to each other. “They like to incorporate the quarterback into the run game more, similar to what they used to do with Tim Tebow back in the day. They are a physical team. They are going to be hard to stop. We have to game-plan and hopefully we can stop them.”

Perry later added that Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have been showing the team film of Tebow and their Florida offense, an offense that Alabama has had success against in the past.

That influence has been prevalent this year in Columbus. Prescott and Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had very similar numbers this season, including a similar run/pass distribution.

But it won’t be so cut and dried for Alabama.

Barrett got hurt against Michigan and won’t play in the bowl game. So Ohio State will move on to its third quarterback this year, Cardale Jones, who played well for Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.

Alabama has limited film on Jones, but he more or less ran the same system against Wisconsin. That’s why Alabama has been digging back into the history books to study this offense. Even though the players have changed, the overall philosophy hasn’t.

“There are similarities,” Saban said. “They certainly have different kinds of players, very good skill players, very good running back. You know, we’re not sure about how much we’ve seen of the quarterback but their quarterback has done a really good job the past two years, whether it was Braxton Miller when he played or Barrett when he played because they were great runners and great athletes and that combination was very, very difficult on a lot of people and difficult for us when we played a team like that.”

Jones probably isn’t as quick a runner as Barrett was, but he is a bigger, more powerful runner more similar to Prescott.

And he’ll be able to run the basics of Meyer’s offense, a system that Saban is very familiar with, since he faces it every year.

“There is a lot of similarities,” Saban said. “Dan and Urban were together at Florida. But I think the way they do it—they have their own style of doing it, and I think they’ve progressed. This is a very, very good offensive team that has been very, very productive and they’ve got really good players and they do a great job with them and this is going to be a real big challenge for us in this game.”

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Josh Wariboko Sets Decision Date, Names Top 3: Who Is Best Fit for 4-Star OG?

Former Oklahoma commit Josh Wariboko could end up in Norman after all, though two other finalists threaten to lure the 4-star offensive lineman away from his home state. The Oklahoma City prospect announced a trio of finalists Monday night, consisting of the Sooners, UCLA and Ohio State:

Wariboko also noted that a decision announcement will occur Jan. 2, when he competes at the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

The 6'3.5", 315-pound Casady School senior initially pledged to Oklahoma in June 2013, shortly after his sophomore year. He backed off that verbal pact this spring.

Offers from Ohio State and UCLA arrived within a month of his decommitment. The Buckeyes and Bruins remain in the mix more than seven months later, while schools like Arizona State, Oregon, Arkansas and Louisville failed to make a strong enough impression. 

Less than two weeks away from another commitment, Wariboko has plenty to think about while examining his top choices. Here's a look at the situation each program presents.

 

Ohio State

The Buckeyes hosted Wariboko in October for an official visit and have been a leading contender for his services since extending an offer in May.

"When I think of Ohio State, I think of the powerhouse of the north. They are a big offer for me," he told Charles Doss of LandGrantHolyLand.com. 

Urban Meyer has assembled a strong offensive line class, headlined by 4-star Virginia recruit Matthew Burrell. The group also includes Florida guard Miro Jurkovic and 6'9" New Jersey tackle Kevin Feder.

A class that already includes five offensive linemen would certainly become more crowded with Wariboko on board. He would form arguably this cycle's most promising interior duo with Burrell if he heads to Columbus, but you can't discount the presence of several other prospects who will contend for playing time.

Wariboko is a physical beast who wreaks havoc in downfield blocking schemes. However, he may not possess as much athleticism and lateral quickness as other members of this class, important characteristics in an up-tempo spread attack. 

 

Oklahoma

Bob Stoops secured and lost a key commitment from Wariboko early in the process, but managed to maintain positive momentum with the in-state target. Like Ohio State, the Sooners hold five commitments along the offensive line. 

Tackles Bobby Evans and Jamal Danley have already signed with Oklahoma, while Dominique Hearne and Cody Ford are capable of lining up at guard. The Sooners have undoubtedly left room for Wariboko, but that didn't prevent Stoops from searching elsewhere for options up front. 

No program has a more longstanding relationship with Wariboko than Oklahoma. He should have a keen sense of the expectations that would await him in Norman and an official visit earlier this month likely cleared up any lingering concerns. 

Wariboko would have plenty of competition on the depth chart within his own class, but his highest comfort level may be found at Oklahoma. 

 

UCLA

The Bruins have built the foundation for an impressive offensive attack for years to come, with top-rated quarterback Josh Rosen serving as the centerpiece. Jim Mora must be able to protect the heralded passer, so a strong offensive line is paramount. 

UCLA landed one of the nation's top interior linemen in July when Fred Ulu-Perry pledged to the Bruins. The 4-star Hawaiian displays immense promise at either center or guard, dependent on roster needs.

The addition of Wariboko would help solidify things inside with an elite collection of talent in place. Along with 4-star guard Tevita Halalilo, both Wariboko and Ulu-Perry are capable of becoming multi-year starters at UCLA.

Mora would be thrilled to land that level of line play on signing day and the influx could change the complexion of how UCLA operates. Andre James, a 4-star tackle from Utah, will eventually be counted on to anchor things along the edge. 

There's a lot to like about the Bruins' offensive direction and Wariboko would further bolster a solid situation. He spent an official visit in Los Angeles last month.

 

The Verdict

Ohio State should never be counted out because of an extraordinary coaching staff that hits the recruiting trail hard, but we view this as a two-team race between UCLA and Oklahoma.

Wariboko clearly has an established rapport with the Sooners, based on his early commitment and sustained interest. Oklahoma isn't desperate on the offensive line, but would love to land a premier player on its home turf.

We give the Bruins a slight nod because of how Mora has the offense trending in a positive direction. Spots need to be filled along the offensive front and, with Wariboko in the mix, this class of UCLA linemen could give Rosen tremendous protection for years to come.

That combination could add up to create title runs.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

 

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Michigan Turns Up Pursuit of Jim Harbaugh, Wishes Him a 'Happy Birthday'

The Michigan Wolverines are really going all out in their pursuit of San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

On Tuesday, Michigan sent out a special message on Twitter in honor of the coach's 51st birthday.

The Wolverines have a head coaching vacancy, and with Harbaugh's future with the 49ers up in the air, he appears to be one of the school's top targets. Harbaugh (1983-87) is, after all, a "Michigan man."

Perhaps this is just a coincidence. Maybe the Wolverines do this for all of their former players. Or maybe they are doing everything they can to try to sway Harbaugh to return to Ann Arbor.

[Michigan Football]

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Memphis vs. BYU Bowl Brawl Shows Passion Misplaced

The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl between BYU and Memphis had the perfect, quirky niche. 

It kicked off mid-afternoon on a Monday during Christmas week in a converted baseball park. It featured two teams from the non-power conference ranks. There were no playoff implications or bigger-picture themes. It was just another chance to catch some football for those not working this week.

The best-case scenario happened: It turned out to be a fun, weird game with momentum swings, lots of points, odd timeout choices, last-minute touchdowns and 54-yard overtime field goals. It was everything a bowl game could want to be and culminated in a 55-48 win for Memphis. 

Then, a brawl broke out and everything for which the bowl should have been remembered became a distant memory: 

Who started the brawl matters little at this point. It's a terrible look for all involved since it grew so gruesome so quickly. 

Normally, it's a wonder there aren't more fights. Football is violent and emotionally charged. As a result, fights break out—both in practice between teammates and on the field between two teams.

The other layer to fights is that teammates protect and look out for one another. These are guys who have gone through summer practices and suffered together. No one is going to leave a teammate to defend himself.

None of this excuses what happened, of course. This was so much more than just a fight. There was helmet swinging and cheap punches, for which there should be swift consequences. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe tweeted that he intends to further review the matter: 

It's a shame. Forget the entertainment value of the game for a minute. The brawl undermines how hard both of these teams played. Both sides should have been proud of their effort in victory or defeat. 

There will be big-picture takeaways from the brawl, one of which is how it affects the perception of BYU as a program that tries to balance religion and big-time football. Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune has more on that: 

Truth is, BYU is too caught up in the presentation of standard-keeping, always needing to put forth a certain image, you see. One of the Cougars' priorities that appears to have had a heavier presence under the rule of coach Bronco Mendenhall is exposure for the Mormon faith by way of its football team, missionary work in helmets and pads brought forth to a football-crazed nation.

Maybe the brawl eliminates any possibility, no matter how marginal, that BYU becomes a serious candidate for a Power Five conference. Maybe it makes Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall, or his counterpart, Memphis coach Justin Fuente, less attractive for other jobs. The long-term effects of the brawl have yet to be formed. 

The immediate conclusion is that the Miami Beach Bowl will be remembered for the passion that morphed into a riot. It's a memory that won't die easy. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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Katie Hnida's Historic Football Story Not a Fairy Tale

KENT, Ohio — Katie Hnida's story starts with football. Why? Because that's where she starts it. It's how she tells it, and this is about hearing what she has to say.

When Hnida (pronounced NYE-da) was 14, her dad jokingly suggested she play football, and it took just one time on the practice field, a session that stretched over hours and hours and into the evening and the night, to find out how much she loved kicking that football through the goalposts.

She felt like a bird when she kicked, spreading her arms as part of the motion.

"You just feel free."

It was comfort for her.

So she showed up at her high school team's tryouts outside of Denver, and someone asked, "Little lady, are you here for the girls' lacrosse team? Are you lost?"

Nope. Not lost. Football. Many of the guys giggled, including the guy who would eventually be her backup. And that shut him up.

Hnida made the team at the University of Colorado, too. After transferring to New Mexico, she would go on to be the first woman to score in a major college football game. That's why there is a Katie Hnida jersey in the College Football Hall of Fame.

It would be so nice if her story could end there. But it would not be real.

The story she tells students at Kent State University this day, and later elaborates on in an interview, is harsh and cold.

"I think every day from the very, very beginning, they were calling me every derogatory name," she said of her time at Colorado, starting in the fall of 1999. "Bitch, c--t, ho or slut. One of the backup quarterbacks was throwing a football at my head when I was warming up."

And then it got worse, she said, as a player got her alone in a room near the locker room.

"He said, 'How do your shoulder pads fit?'" she said. "He shoved me up against the wall and said, 'I just want to know how those shoulder pads fit on your tits.'"

And she said he went about trying to find out, reaching under her shoulder pads, until someone walked in. And before he left, he warned her, "Don't you dare tell anyone about this."

She didn't.

"I was basically in survival mode," she said. "Unfortunately, the worst of it didn't come until the end of my freshman year."

One of her teammates who had consoled her all year, who had told her that she was strong and that her tormentors on the team were idiots, invited her to come over to watch a basketball game on TV. When she got there, she said, he sat closer to her than usual.

"He said, 'Gosh, you're so pretty.'

"I'm like 'What?'

"'Oh come on.'

"And he leaned over and started to kiss my neck."

No. Stop.

"'Come on. You know you want this.'"

Hnida alleges he raped her. And when he was done, she said, he got up to take a phone call. She wasn't processing. "My body started freaking out. Then my instincts came crashing in. Get out of here. Go, go, go."

She says she left, got into her GMC Jimmy, backed into some pole and frantically drove home. Once there, she immediately locked the chain, then the deadbolt, then the handle lock.

She asked herself what had happened. She tried to process. She said she asked herself why she went over there, why she wore shorts. What had she done wrong?

She didn't talk about it.

And it was not until four years later that Hnida broke her silence and made her rape allegation public in an article in Sports Illustrated. That came after three women had stepped forward at the University of Colorado, saying they had been raped on the night of a party for CU football players and recruits.

She saw what was happening publicly to the other women who had come forward first, so she knew, roughly, the scrutiny and ridicule she would face. But she did it anyway, although she never named her alleged attacker.

Hnida said she was aware that people wondered why she had never gone to the police. She said she did go, but that the district attorney told her it was unlikely her alleged attacker would ever receive more than an ankle bracelet and house arrest.

Hnida decided not to push forward. At Colorado, she said there were people who thought she had made it up.

Hnida would not identify her attacker to Bleacher Report either. She said the one person she had identified him to was Mary Keegan, the district attorney in Boulder, Colorado, at the time. Reached by phone in early December to ask about her conversations with Hnida, that district attorney, now Mary Lacy of the law firm Lacy & Maguire, refused to comment, saying, "I don't talk to journalists."

Asked to comment on Hnida's allegations, a spokesperson for the University of Colorado athletic department released this statement: "Many of us thought the world of Katie and admired her for pursuing her dream of playing college football. She did have many supportive teammates, but unfortunately there were some who didn't want a woman on the team. And that should have never been tolerated. We only learned of the rape allegation after she had left the program. We've never had enough specific evidence to turn over to any authorities for investigation."

Hnida's allegation made big headlines more than 10 years ago. Today, she is still coping.

***

"It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they'll respect you. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it." — then-Colorado coach Gary Barnett to reporters in February 2004, after Hnida went public with her rape allegation

Hnida said that's who does the talking in such incidents: the coaches, the university administrators.

"People believe the coaches because they are able to speak up. They have the microphones and the platform, and because they are in a position of authority," Hnida said.

The sport of football has been overwhelmed this season with stories about violence against women, and it took an elevator video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee for the masses of football fans to believe.

Hnida identifies with the alleged victims. She hurts for them.

She said she spoke with the woman who alleged that Kobe Bryant had assaulted her. She said she tried, unsuccessfully, to talk with the woman who alleged that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had raped her, an accusation that Winston denies.

CNN reported in September 2004 that the sexual assault charge against Bryant was dismissed "after prosecutors filed a motion for dismissal," and USA Today reported in March 2005 that a civil lawsuit was settled out of court. Bryant has maintained that the sex was consensual.

When Hnida hears these cases, does she...

"Feel the parallel?" she said, jumping in. "Completely. ... The allegation comes against a big-time athlete at a school, and there tends to be a protocol at the school, and you tend to watch the fans act the same way.

"Blind loyalty. And then you get re-traumatized."

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) led a congressional study earlier this year of 440 U.S. colleges and universities. The report, called "Sexual Violence on Campus," cited the Journal of American College Health, which found that approximately one in five women is a victim of attempted or completed sexual violence during college.

Yet McCaskill's study found that more than 40 percent of schools in the sampling have not conducted a single investigation of sexual assault in the past five years. In examining policies and procedures that might encourage or discourage the reporting of sexual violence, the study found 22 percent of institutions give athletic departments oversight in cases involving athletes.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote the book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. The book is about the importance of women making their voices heard. She appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on September 9 to talk about the difficulty victims have in coming forward publicly.

"You see this in the military context; you see it in college campuses, this constant protection of the star of the favorite son of whatever the issue is," Gillibrand said on the show. "And the disbelief of the women. And then the victim-blaming. ... There's this devaluation."

Hnida said that in the outcry after she stepped forward, "My life felt disregarded."

She said she is particularly upset over how Winston's alleged victim has been treated publicly. While she said that no one knows for sure what happened between the woman and Winston, she believes the public response has been dismissive of, even hostile to, the woman.

"It's kind of a plausible blindness," Hnida said. "At Florida State, they don't want to know. They want plausible deniability. [Florida State coach] Jimbo Fisher says there is no victim because there is no crime. You better really know what you're talking about when you say that, the details. Nobody knows what happened there." Winston maintains that the sex was consensual.

In a written statement he released after the state attorney's decision not to charge Winston with sexual assault, Fisher wrote:

As you might imagine, I was pleased to hear that the State Attorney's Office exonerated Jameis in the matter. I'm not going to answer any questions about the situation, but I would like to point that our community and our university are blessed to have really good people in place to review matters like this.

Hnida said that in these cases, in general, the public picks apart the behavior of the rape victim, pointing out their irrational behavior as evidence they're making it up. Yet, Hnida says that after her own alleged rape, it took a few minutes for her senses to kick in and that she doesn't even remember driving home, other than backing into a pole.

"The way I was treated after I came forward..." Hnida said, thinking back. "I don't want to say it was as bad as the rape itself, but it almost was."

***

Before coming forward, though, Hnida had to go through her torment privately. She ended up returning to Colorado for her second year, but she said because of injuries and illnesses she wasn't on the team. She stopped going to classes regularly. She cut her trademark long, blond hair.

She was quiet and hadn't told anyone yet. She was going it alone.

She fell apart. She knew she couldn't stay, so she left for Santa Barbara City College in the fall of 2001. She showed up at the first day of practice, and punters and kickers took the field first. This would be her comfort zone, her safe haven.

But no, that was taken from her, too.

"The second I stepped back on the field is when the flashbacks started," she said. "It was like a movie reel."

She turned and ran, and she never came back to practice there again.

"I now know I was having a panic attack," she said. "I was so depressed. I wasn't eating. Anxiety, panic attacks."

She started going to therapy at New Mexico, which she described as similar to surgery: You go inside, and it's painful and leaves scars.

The following year, she transferred to New Mexico, sold on then-coach Rocky Long's no-nonsense style. She had never told him about the rape either, but she started to ask him if everyone would be OK having a female on the team. She said he cut her off with one word: "Yeah." But, there won't be problems, there won't be... "There will be no problem. Is there anything else?" he said. "OK. I hope to see you at New Mexico."

And he hung up.

There never was a problem at New Mexico. Her first day of class, she said a player started walking with her. She was suspicious. He squatted down and told her to climb aboard. She did. He gave her a piggyback ride all the way to her psych class, then put her down and said, "We take care of our kickers."

***

"How aggressive should I be re; Katie...sexual conquests by her?" That was an email, discovered later during an investigation, that Gary Barnett had sent to his boss.

"Hate mail. Death threats," Hnida said, describing how she was treated by CU fans. "I felt bad for the other 114 guys on the team who had not raped me. But a lot of them never stood up. You have to stand up. I think that's fair enough to say. When something is wrong, you stand up. When you can help, you stand up."

She said she had someone come over to her apartment in Albuquerque and drive her truck away so the media would follow and she could sneak out without being bothered. It didn't work.

She said a reporter called her and asked if the story was true that she had performed topless lap dances on players in a hot tub at a road game.

"It was a rumor that swirled around," she said, "as if I had done something to deserve to be raped."

Earlier this month, Barnett responded to an email request from Bleacher Report asking if he believed Hnida's rape allegation was legitimate, and also asking what he meant by the "sexual conquests" email. This, via email, is how he responded:

"Katie was one of my players. I stand behind her as I would any and all my players. I will support her and help her if she ever wants to pursue further action in regards to any allegations. I hope she is well."

Shortly after Hnida took her story public, more women came forward alleging that Colorado football players had raped them.

According to a 2007 article in The Denver Post, no charges were ever filed for any of the assault claims, though one woman, Lisa Simpson, received $2.5 million when Colorado settled her Title IX claim in 2007. And another woman, who remains anonymous, received $350,000. Barnett, athletic director Richard Tharp and CU president Betsy Hoffman all left the university within 20 months of when Hnida came forward. Barnett has not coached again.

Meanwhile, at New Mexico, Hnida's kicking style had changed. She wasn't as good as she was in high school. Video showed her not spreading her arms like a bird, in freedom, when she kicked anymore but instead curling up, "like I was protecting my body."

***

It has been 14 years now, and Hnida is still suffering. She is heard, though. She gives speeches at colleges, such as the one at Kent State. A crowd of about 75 was there—smaller than her usual—featuring at least a third of the Kent State football team, including female kicker April Goss.

Players were not required to go but were told about it.

Afterward, cornerback Kerrick Rhone said treatment like that of Goss "for our team would be a shock. We think of April as another teammate."

Hnida talked about the culture of respect and said that of all the teams she has been on, including high school, Arena Football and semipro, Colorado was the only place where she had a problem.

The truth is, it's exhausting for Hnida to give these speeches. Not only is there travel, but she has to describe the details of her alleged rape. Twice during the speech, and a couple of times afterward while grabbing a sandwich and a beer and holding a conversation, she got choked up.

She said she continues to go to counseling. She also notes she's still made to feel uncomfortable when she's in Colorado, where her parents live. Occasionally, people still recognize her there.

At Colorado, the team has not had the same level of success since the sexual assault scandals. Colorado went to 16 bowl games in the 20 years ending with the 2005 season. In the nine years since then, it has been to one bowl game (a 30-24 loss to Alabama) and has had a losing record every year.

Hnida said that after a recent CU loss she saw someone post on the Internet somewhere that it was the "Curse of Katie Hnida."

She keeps close tabs on how the speeches are making her feel. She won't give too many of them, as it's just too tiring, but she feels it's important for people to hear her story.

Later, she confides that she still loves kicking but says she hasn't gotten back to the level she reached in high school. Her trip to Kent was short, but usually on these trips she takes a tee and a ball with her and looks for an open field. When she's kicking, "It's like everything else just fades away."

The flashbacks don't start.

She's in the Hall of Fame, for one thing, but she realizes she's known for something else entirely. She starts her speech with, "My story, inevitably, starts with football."

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Odds, Schedule and Projections for Semifinals

The first-ever College Football Playoff cannot come soon enough.

Now that the bowl season is in full swing and postseason matchups are beginning to grace national television, it's only upped the anticipation for the inaugural FBS four-team playoff. College football enthusiasts are taking solace in the pre-Christmas Day bowls now, but the more prestigious games near New Year's Day may turn into afterthoughts with a pair of thrilling semifinals on tap for the first day of 2015.

Students, fans and football obsessors alike are counting down the minutes until the action begins, but it's safe to say the coaches and players are using every day of preparation to their advantage.

Here's a look at all the information for both College Football Playoff semifinals, fit with predictions for each.

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 22

 

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 FSU

The Florida State Seminoles put their 29-game winning streak on the line with a return trip to the Rose Bowl, facing Oregon in a battle between Heisman Trophy winners.

Jameis Winston dazzled college football with his Heisman run in 2013, but it's Marcus Mariota who has risen far above the rest this season. His 38 touchdowns to just two interceptions trumps Winston's numbers (24 TDs, 17 INTs). 

Along with a scintillating quarterback battle, there's also a battle of contrasting winning styles between two national powerhouses. Florida State won each of its final four games by five points or less, while Oregon's last eight wins have come by double digits.

The Ducks might have some defensive issues without star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is out for the season after a practice injury. But as head coach Mark Helfrich stated, his team expects to rebound from it:

Winston will be able to use weapons Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary to success, but it will turn into a shootout with Mariota and the Ducks' spread attack lighting up FSU's defense. The game will come down to a couple of late defensive stops, and the Ducks' team speed on that end will trump a Seminoles defense that will find it impossible to generate turnovers against Mariota.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

 

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

No strangers to meeting in games with these very same implications, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer will meet again in the Sugar Bowl as Alabama and Ohio State go at it.

Back in Meyer's days with Florida, his Gators met Alabama on numerous occasions in SEC title games that inevitably served as national championship semifinals. What a coincidence—the winner on New Year's night will secure a spot in the final.

Two high-octane, multifaceted offenses will be on display, with Blake Sims toting his usual supporting cast and new quarterback Cardale Jones stepping into a potent Buckeye offense. But while Ohio State has an entire season's worth of film to dissect, the Tide will be at a disadvantage with Jones' debut coming against Wisconsin, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg:

With two offenses that can attack just as well between the tackles, on the perimeter or deep down the field, the game is bound to come down to which defense can sustain stops late into the game. And as Alabama's offense has shown, it often peaks as the game goes on.

Jones will have some success against Alabama's secondary, but he won't get the help he needs from Ezekiel Elliott and the run game against the Tide's stout run defense. Amari Cooper's threat will keep the Buckeyes honest on the outside, leaving huge holes open for T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

It will be closer than advertised, but expect the Tide to roll.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Mike Bobo Leaving for Colorado State Is a Win for Georgia Football

As news broke on Tuesday (reported first by Terry Frei of The Denver Post) that Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo would become the next head football coach at Colorado State, gloom and doom set in for Bulldogs fans.

But make no mistake about it, Bobo's departure is a win for the Georgia football program—and not for the arbitrary and consistently broken logic of a vocal minority of Bulldogs faithful.

No, Bobo's departure is not a home run because it means better coaching, stronger recruiting or more adept play-calling.  Truth be told, Bobo's tenure in Athens was defined equally by fantastic development of quarterbacks (David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray), a consistent ability to woo incoming talent (Bobo currently ranks as the nation's 23rd-best recruiter, per 247Sports) and prolific offenses (this year's unit topped the SEC in points per game).

But his departure is a win for the Georgia football program nonetheless.

For Colorado State, the hiring of Bobo fit a recent pattern.  In December 2011, the Rams brought in a proven offensive coordinator from an SEC power to be its head coach.  Jim McElwain left national prominence as an assistant at Alabama for the top job in Fort Collins.

Now, Colorado State has done the same thing, and the implications are not to be ignored.  Bobo's tenure at the helm of Georgia's offense merited head coaching consideration and a commitment from a program on the rise.  

And while this doesn't concretely mean Georgia is the next Alabama or even on the same echelon, it certainly bodes well for how far this Bulldogs program has come.  After all, when McElwain was ushered in at Colorado State, Georgia was fewer than 12 months removed from a losing 2010 campaign.

Further, the last time Georgia lost an assistant coach to a head coaching vacancy was following the 2006 campaign when Neil Callaway departed for UAB.  Callaway coordinated Georgia's offense during one of the most successful periods of the program's history (from 2001-2006) before his departure.  In a way, Bobo's move to Colorado State is indicative of similar success—at least as perceived from the outside looking in.

And while Bobo can't claim the accolades Callahan did, including an SEC Championship as offensive coordinator in 2005, his exit from Athens is a far cry from the circumstances that have led to more recent moves.  

Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was fired after the 2009 campaign and his successor, Todd Grantham, left for the same post at Louisville following the 2013 campaign.

Now, Georgia's athletic department must find a way to capitalize on this counterintuitive momentum.  It is a credit to the football program that Bobo was afforded such an opportunity, but if Mark Richt doesn't make a strong hire backed with a large checkbook, then Bobo's departure could soon read more like an indictment.

Georgia returns a plethora of talent at the running back position, four starters on the offensive line, a number of capable wide receivers and a deep recruiting pipeline extending all the way into the class of 2016.  Undoubtedly a bevy of candidates will be interested.  But this hire shouldn't be about vetting potential employees so much as it should be about claiming the best man for the job.

Georgia did just that in January of this year when Grantham was quickly replaced with Jeremy Pruitt, who was fresh off a national championship win at Florida State.  If the Bulldogs can stage a coup of that magnitude the program's future could suddenly be even brighter.

While Pruitt's first year in Athens was a convoluted mix of personnel changes, transfers, dismissals, improvements against the pass and regressions against the run, he energized the players under him and the fans in the stands.  

It won't be easy for the next offensive coordinator to mirror that transition.  For better or worse, Pruitt followed a coach who was disliked by many, and benefited—at least in fan sentiment—from Grantham's lateral, cash-grabbing move.  

Whoever succeeds Bobo will be replacing the man behind the best offenses (statistically) in Georgia history.  That's a high calling, and the challenge is all the more difficult since Bobo, who also played quarterback at Georgia, didn't burn bridges on his way out of town.

But such a hire isn't impossible.  After all, if Bobo's move to Colorado State says anything about Georgia's program, it's that being the Bulldogs offensive coordinator can yield some very attractive opportunities.

Further, the next man up will have some coaches at his disposal as well.  As Seth Emerson of The (Macon) Telegraph is reporting, offensive line coach Will Friend and director of player personnel Ronnie Letson are being considered for Bobo's staff at Colorado State.  That means several other offensive assistants—most notably running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Bryan McClendon—should be back in Athens.

If a talented roster of players and assistants with a history of strong performance in the nation's toughest conference sounds like the recipe for future head coaching consideration, it's because Bobo maximized those ingredients.  He leaves Georgia with a chance to replicate the process.  That's a great gig in its own right.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com. 

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Predicting Where the Top 5 Uncommitted 2015 Recruits Will Land

National signing day is quickly approaching, but several of the top recruits remain uncommitted. Where will they land? Which head coaches will make the final pitch?

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder predicts where he thinks the top five uncommitted recruits will land in the video above. 

Where will these players commit to? Check out the video, and let us know! 

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Top Candidates to Replace Mike Bobo as Georgia Offensive Coordinator

Georgia received some bad news on Monday night when Colorado State nabbed offensive coordinator Mike Bobo from Athens to become the new head coach of the Rams.

Under Bobo's direction, the Bulldogs finished in the top four in the SEC in yards per play four times over the last five seasons and led the conference in 2014 (6.82).

So where do the Bulldogs go from here?

Our top five candidates to replace Bobo as Georgia's offensive coordinator are in this slideshow.

Begin Slideshow

SEC Football Year in Review with Barrett Sallee

You wanted it, you demanded it, well here it is.

As has become a tradition, every holiday season it is customary to go back and check out what was said in the preseason and give the readers something that is often demanded but rarely delivered.

Accountability.

Did you take exception to that crazy preseason prediction? Who was right, and who was wrong?

If you did, this column is for you.

Let's wrap up 2014 with some "end of the season accountability."

 

The Good: South Carolina's Struggles

Remember this summer when South Carolina was all the rage?

Head coach Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were picked to win the SEC East by the assembled members of the media in Hoover, Alabama, at SEC media days. 

"Defensively we lose some good players," Spurrier said in July. "Of course, Jadeveon [Clowney], Chaz Sutton, the two ends, Kelcy Quarles inside, Victor [Hampton] and Jimmy Legree, our two corners. But we got all of our linebackers back, a bunch of guys. So we should have a good defense, hopefully a real good one."

He didn't.

South Carolina finished 13th in total defense (433.6 yards per game), last in yards per play (6.26), 13th in rush defense (214.42 YPG) and ninth in pass defense (219.2 YPG).

The defensive line and the defensive backfield were two major problems for the 2014 Gamecocks, just as I said in July when I wrote that the Gamecocks were getting way too much preseason hype.

It was a rebuilding year in South Carolina, and those are allowed. This is a program that has reached unprecedented heights under Spurrier, winning 11 games in a season for the first time in school history in 2011 and then repeating the feat in each of the next two seasons. 

But it isn't Alabama, and rebuilding years will be more pronounced than those at, say, Alabama or LSU. 

 

The Bad: Georgia's Playoff Run

This summer, everybody had an "Auburn." You know, that team that wasn't the safe pick to make the inaugural College Football Playoff but, with a few bounces here and there, could evolve into a national championship contender overnight?

Georgia was that team for me.

I picked the Bulldogs to go 12-0, no 13-0, no 14-0 and lose to Oklahoma in the national championship game.

Apparently overlooked in that process was the annual inexplicable Georgia loss—which this year produced a sequel—as it lost to 6-6 South Carolina and got run by 6-5 Florida, which fired its coach just a couple of weeks later.

Toss in the second loss to Georgia Tech since the Y2K bug had just been dodged, and it was a disappointing, yet totally normal Georgia season.

Georgia's going to have to earn my trust, moving forward.

 

The Good: Dak Prescott's Heisman Push

It may have seemed crazy this fall when Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott jumped from seemingly out of nowhere to become not only a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, but, at one point, a favorite.

It shouldn't have seemed crazy.

Way back in January, I called Prescott a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

The reasons were simple. We knew Prescott would put up filthy numbers that are pleasing to Heisman Trophy pollsters thanks to his ability to put pressure on defenses with his legs and work within head coach Dan Mullen's offense that is predicated on passing efficiency.

Prescott's biggest Heisman hurdle was getting his Bulldogs into the national discussion by winning big games, and they did just that, beating LSU on the road and Auburn at home to earn the first No. 1 ranking in program history.

Prescott finished eighth in Heisman voting, which is the highest finish in program history and also a far cry from where he was in late October and early November. That should tell you just how good his season really was.

 

The Bad: Auburn's Secondary Renaissance

Auburn's defense was more punch line than power during its run to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game following the 2013 season, and its pass defense was the biggest reason why.

The Tigers finished that year giving up 257.7 yards per game through the air but had a solid supporting cast returning that could help them get to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"The Tigers will be in the mix for a College Football Playoff berth regardless, and if the secondary takes just a small step forward, it will go a long way toward securing one of those four coveted spots," I wrote in July.

It took a small step forward (239.2 yards per game), but Auburn took a big step back in the process. 

Auburn lost four regular-season games, including a rather inexplicable loss to Texas A&M at home, and will be spending the holidays at the Outback Bowl instead of the Sugar or Rose Bowls.

Sometimes "baby steps" aren't the answer.

 

The Good: Leonard Fournette's Debut

LSU running back Leonard Fournette came into his freshman season at LSU with a ton of hype. 

Big things were expected from the former No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2014, not only from himself (telling WAFB's Jacques Doucet in August that he expected to win the Heisman), but from his head coach Les Miles, who compared him to NBA legend Michael Jordan at SEC media days in July.

My predictions were a bit more conservative.

Way back in April, I predicted that Fournette would rush for 850 yards and six touchdowns during his freshman year in Baton Rouge. He finished the 2014 regular season with 891 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Perfect? No. Close? Yes.

Consider it a "gimmie."

 

The Bad: Alabama's Path to the Playoff

In July, I wrote that Alabama's playoff hopes rest in the arms of the secondary, not the quarterback decision—which, at the time, was a battle between Blake Sims and Jake Coker.

I was wrong. It has everything to do with the quarterback.

Without Sims, there's no way Alabama would be spending the holidays on Bourbon Street and playing in the Allstate Sugar Bowl national semifinal. Sims set the single-season school record with 3,250 yards, tossed 26 touchdowns and only seven picks, leading top-ranked Alabama into the showdown with Ohio State.

What's more, Sims helped new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin get into a play-calling groove and helped head coach Nick Saban usher in an era of a more flexible offense in Tuscaloosa that thrives on tempo and uses the attributes of mobile quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, the secondary struggled in a similar fashion as last year's group. 

The Crimson Tide gave up 223.7 yards per game in 2014—11th in the SEC. The've shown the susceptibility to be burned deep often, particularly in the last two games to Missouri and Auburn. 

Sims' ability to lead the offense as a game manager and a difference-maker makes up for those deficiencies, whether games are slugfests or shootouts.

 

The Ugly: Florida, Jeff Driskel for Heisman and Hope

I was all aboard the Florida rebound train this offseason, saying that the Gators could not only contend for the SEC East (and that the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party would decide the division), but that quarterback Jeff Driskel was a dark-horse contender for the Heisman Trophy.

Needless to say, none of that worked out the way I had planned.

Driskel was benched for good on Oct. 18 after throwing 10 picks in six games, Florida was eliminated from SEC East contention with a loss to South Carolina on Nov. 15 and head coach Will Muschamp was informed the next day that he won't be back to coach the 2015 Gators.

I went all in on the Gators, and I rolled snake eyes.

You don't hit home runs unless you swing for the fences.

 

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

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

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Orange Bowl 2014: Top Storylines and More for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

While much of the attention surrounding college football centers on the inaugural four-team playoff, there are still four New Year's Six bowl games that do not have playoff implications this season.  The 2014 Orange Bowl is arguably the most exciting of those bowls, pitting two of the biggest surprises this season in Mississippi State and Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets have followed eerily similar paths as non-traditional powers that rose into the Top 10 before ultimately falling short against conference Goliaths.  However, these 2014 bridesmaids could turn into trendy 2015 playoff picks, as both feature young rosters primed to build upon their breakthroughs this fall.

Let's take a look at both the present and future surrounding the two squads in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 (8 p.m. in Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida), highlighting the game's top storylines as well as the best NFL prospects on each team.

 

Top Storylines

Will MSU Stop the Option Again?

Arguably the pinnacle of the Bulldogs' season was their 38-23 romp over the high-powered Auburn Tigers, a win that sent MSU to the No. 1 ranking.  The Tigers led the SEC with 258.5 rushing yards per game this season, but while Auburn experienced first-half rushing success at Oxford, it ultimately compiled just 10 points and 172 total yards after halftime, in large part because of MSU's ability to hold down Nick Marshall and Co. on the ground.

However, Georgia Tech presents an even more daunting monster, with Paul Johnson's famed triple-option attack powering the Yellow Jackets to a whopping 333.6 rushing yards per game and 41 touchdowns—marks that ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the FBS.  As the ACC championship illustrated, even an uber-athletic defense like Florida State's cannot utilize its physical advantage without the supreme gap and containment discipline that defending the option requires.

Apart from Auburn, the Bulldogs have not really faced an offense like Tech's.  MSU was largely excellent defending the run this year, allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt, the 31st-best mark in the nation.  With a front seven that includes four senior starters, the veteran defense has held its own against some premier SEC running backs.

For what it's worth, defending the option largely comes down to prep time.  Paul Johnson-coached teams are just 1-5 in bowl games, in part because the long layoff has allowed teams to stymie his offenses to 14.8 points per game in those contests.  Like most Georgia Tech opponents, Mississippi State holds the physical edge and will need to play with nearly flawless discipline to contain one of the nation's most unique offenses.

 

Who Wins in the Red Zone?

An underrated storyline will unfold when the two offenses enter the red zone.  While Georgia Tech is stingy, ranking 26th in opponent touchdown percentage, the Bulldogs lead the nation in red-zone defense, having allowed offenses to score touchdowns on a meager 37.5 percent of their opportunities.

This is a matchup the Yellow Jackets probably need to win to hang with favored Mississippi State.  Georgia Tech has had issues with its pass rush, as its 4.47 percent sack percentage ranks 101st in the FBS, per TeamRankings.com.  Tech has won all six games in which it has accrued two or more sacks. But as Jameis Winston illustrated, Tech's defense is particularly vulnerable when opposing quarterbacks are given plenty of time in the pocket.

Dak Prescott is always dangerous with his feet, but the Mississippi St. quarterback will need to revert to his early-season form, when he carved up defenses through the air as well.  Based on raw QBR, Prescott's two worst games this season were easily the final two losses against Alabama and Ole Miss, in which he combined to complete 57.6 percent of his passes. 

Georgia Tech's low-variance rushing attack defies statistical comparison to the other offenses MSU has faced this season, as it's not as concerned with the smaller red-zone passing windows as most offenses.  That's a large X-factor that could swing this game, but assuming the Bulldogs' top-ranked red-zone defense doesn't regress too much, Tech will need to fluster Prescott to keep Mississippi State's offensive output down.

 

Top NFL Prospects

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State

The junior McKinney led the Bulldogs with 61 tackles en route to a second-team All-SEC selection.  As the leader of a veteran defense, the underclassman is expected to turn pro after the season, according to head coach Dan Mullen:

A prototypical "Mike" linebacker at 6'5" and 245 pounds, McKinney's floor is probably a two-down run-stuffing linebacker.  However, as NFL.com's Chase Goodbread relays, some scouts see a rare size-speed combination that has drawn comparisons to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain:

But here's what one NFL personnel executive will see: "Rolando McClain or a poor man's Brian Urlacher."

That's how an AFC college scouting director described McKinney to NFL Media's Albert Breer. McKinney (6-5, 250 pounds) is roughly the same size as McClain, the former Alabama star who has revitalized his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys.

It's too early in the draft process to suggest where McKinney will end up, though optimistic projections have seen him as a potential late first- or early second-round pick.  Given that Tech's option attack will test his range, reaction, discipline and tackle form, McKinney will receive an invaluable opportunity to shine against an offense tailor-made to highlight his strengths.

 

Darren Waller, WR, Georgia Tech

It's probably surprising to hear that Georgia Tech's top 2015 draft prospect is a wide receiver, but the 6'5" Waller has plenty of potential as a perimeter split end threat, as these fade routes illustrate:

Of course, straight 9-routes are essentially the entirety of what Waller has run in the unsophisticated Tech passing offense, making him a raw late-round prospect.  However, that tantalizing upside makes him a nice low-risk, high-reward investment for Day 3, as his ESPN scouting report suggests a player who should make some big plays vertically (subscription required):

Prototypical vertical threat with rare size-speed combination. Doesn't have elite second gear but smooth strider that can climb over top of coverage and stretch field when gets clean release. Can produce after the catch despite average burst. Flashes ability to make first defender miss and strong enough to slip out of would-be arm tackles. Faster than quick and a threat to rip off chunk of yards if allowed to build steam.

For his career, Waller has averaged 18.6 yards per catch on 41 receptions.  Among receivers with at least that many catches in that three-year stretch, Waller ranks tied for 21st in yards per catch, per Sports-Reference.com.  Considering that Georgia Tech has produced other physically freakishwide receivers, Waller should not be so quickly dismissed simply because of the Jackets' primitive passing game.

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