NCAA Football News
On one side, you have an offense that put up 33.2 points per game a year ago, returns 10 starters and is coached by an offensive mastermind who always keeps opposing defenses guessing.
On the other side, you have a defense that gave up 432.7 yards and 30.4 points per game a year ago, added a new co-defensive coordinator to the mix and, aside from a junior college addition at defensive end and a few other transfers, has virtually the same cast.
That'll be what you see Thursday night in Charlotte, as the high-octane North Carolina offense led by head coach Larry Fedora goes up against a South Carolina defense that is breaking in new co-defensive coordinator and play-caller Jon Hoke.
Welcome back to college football, Mr. Hoke.
"I think our defense will better represent South Carolina in a very positive way," Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said in quotes released by South Carolina. "I think we'll fly around, get our hits in, be a better tackling team and be in better position. North Carolina is going to move the ball, and we can move the ball, and it's probably going to come down to the team that takes care of the ball best and doesn't turn it over."
It better be, because the matchup between the Tar Heels O vs. the Gamecocks D will be what determines the outcome of the opening FBS game of the 2015 season.
For South Carolina to stay in this ball game, junior college transfer defensive end Marquavius Lewis is going to have to be a boss from the moment he takes the field. The 6'3", 264-pounder from Greenwood, South Carolina, has already ascended to the top spot on Hoke's depth chart despite never playing a game for the program and has impressed the staff all offseason.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams talked about the expectations surrounding Lewis, according to David Cloninger of the State:
A lot of people were kind of comparing him to Clowney. I told him, 'You know what? Just be yourself. Don't be Jadeveon Clowney—you can't be. Be yourself, be Marquavius Lewis.' That's what he's trying to do and he's working hard at it.
The Clowney comparison is quite lofty, but South Carolina might need the former No. 2 junior college prospect to do his best Clowney impression on opening night. The Gamecocks managed just 14 sacks a year ago, and that inability to create pressure allowed quarterbacks to pick a young secondary apart early and often.
If Lewis can help the Gamecocks move senior quarterback Marquise Williams off his launch point and get him rattled, it could create some of those turnovers Spurrier craves. Even if they do create that pressure and get Williams moving, it'll be up to stud linebacker Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton to clean up.
A tall order, no doubt.
There are talented corners outside in Chaz Elder and Rico McWilliams, "Spur" T.J. Gurley finished second on the team in tackles a year ago with 80 and safety Isaiah Johnson was the Big 12 newcomer of the year in 2013 at Kansas. The back end of the defense, while picked on a year ago, is talented and experienced, and it will benefit tremendously from just a little help up front.
If South Carolina's defense isn't on its game from the moment toe meets leather, it will put a ton of pressure on Spurrier and new starting quarterback Connor Mitch.
With a quarterback who has six career collegiate passing attempts, a new starting running back in Brandon Wilds (along with versatile backup David Williams) and an absence of playmakers outside other than superstar Pharoh Cooper, it will be a lot to ask this offense to dig itself out of a hole if the defense creates one.
Luckily, it has Spurrier and a very talented staff to help out.
It should make for a fun opening night at the inaugural Belk College Kickoff Game in Charlotte on Thursday.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93 XM 208. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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The Michigan Wolverines defense must be ready to dominate in the 2015 season-opener because the Utah Utes' top playmaker, Devontae Booker, is a dangerous, versatile weapon.
Last season, Booker tallied 1,512 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, adding 43 receptions, 306 yards and two more scores. He was a notable factor in every game except for one—and that opponent was the Wolverines.
Michigan quickly closed the running lanes on Booker and limited him to a season-worst 34 yards on 11 carries.
"It wasn't just like I could put myself in the game," Booker said, per Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. "I only got a couple opportunities that game to do that."
But my, how things have changed.
After the 2014 meeting, though, Booker shredded nearly every other team on the schedule. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times, including six 140-plus-yard performances. During the three outings Booker didn't reach 100 rushing yards, he tallied at least five receptions in each contest.
Plus, Bubba Poole—Utah's starter against Michigan—has since moved to wide receiver. Booker is now the unquestioned leader of the backfield, the bell-cow runner for the Utes.
Repeating the 2014 performance won't be easily done, but the Wolverines have a couple of keys to containing the 5'11", 212-pound Heisman hopeful.
First, as is the case with all successful defenses, eliminating hole No. 1 is imperative. Although that won't happen on every play, it forces the running back to find a different lane that might not exist.
On this snap, Ryan Glasgow pushed the right guard two yards into the backfield, and Mario Ojemudia's presence forced Booker back inside. He had no choice but to hesitate briefly, which allowed Willie Henry and Joe Bolden to stop Booker before he even started.
Utah's offense can seem complex because of its read-based nature, but maintaining gap control and attacking the holes negate any possible confusion.
Once Booker received this handoff, he saw a 6'3", 236-pound Jake Ryan waiting where the play call ideally goes. Booker elected to follow the center, but Ryan wasted no time, shot the gap and stuffed the running back.
Ryan's quick change from patience to aggressiveness paid off, and returning starter Joe Bolden could learn from the departed senior's lead in that case.
Earlier in the game, Bolden remained in the proper spot as the weak-side linebacker. However, though he did force Booker inside, Bolden failed to attack a block, and a successful strike to the tight end could have immediately stalled Booker, who picked up five yards instead.
The common theme to each of the previous examples is gang-tackling—or, at worst, another Michigan defender was in the proper spot to finish Booker.
Without a doubt, the defensive linemen and linebackers are primarily in charge of halting the running game. But even when both units execute their collective responsibilities, the secondary must be prepared to make its presence felt, too.
Brennen Beyer's push toward the inside impeded Utah's right guard and tackle from continuing toward Ryan. He engaged Booker, but the running back likely would've fallen a few yards forward.
That is, if it weren't for Jeremy Clark. The safety sprinted from 15 yards deep and authoritatively finished the tackle.
Additionally, notice how James Ross III contained Utah quarterback Kendal Thompson. Ross stayed in his lane and forced the handoff to Booker, which played perfectly into Michigan's defense. Ryan, thanks to Beyer's initial push, was by himself and in the right position to stop Booker.
Everything is connected. The Wolverines will not shut down Booker without another strong collective performance—though the combination of Bolden and Desmond Morgan certainly must step up in Ryan's place, considering the 2014 captain recorded 13 total tackles.
Michigan's defense is the team's biggest strength this year, and the unit will be tested immediately. How the Wolverines respond to that first exam is critical.
Booker will likely receive at least 25 touches, since he eclipsed that mark in every game as a starter. Consistently limiting his impact won't be easily done.
But if Michigan passes the test with flying colors, it will only bolster confidence in a program already filled with hope under coach Jim Harbaugh.
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WACO, Texas — Watching through a window as Baylor's Shawn Oakman approaches the restaurant door—shirtless and flanked by three unleashed bulldogs—Shorty's Pizza Shack manager Ron Brown feels a lot like the defensive end's opponents on the football field.
And also a little scared.
Tabbed by one website as the "biggest freak" in the college game, the 6'9", 275-pound Oakman sports a lime-green mohawk. Muscles bulge from every limb, and tattoos are graffitied across his chiseled torso.
"SAVAGE," one of them reads.
Oakman slips on a white tank top and enters the pizza parlor as Duke, Daisy and 75-pound Dame follow closely behind, eventually curling up in a corner while he eats a calzone. Oakman takes the dogs—and often his ball python, Baloo—with him everywhere. He doesn't need to ask if they can come inside.
"Look at him," Brown says. "You think I'm going to tell him no?"
The scenario is a perfect illustration of the narrative surrounding Oakman, a meme-come-to-life for the athlete who's become an Internet sensation partly for his play—but even more for his appearance.
It all started on New Year's Day at the Cotton Bowl, when footage of Oakman towering over two Michigan State players during the pregame coin toss flashed on television sets across America. With his biceps, triceps and deltoids pushing against his taut skin and his jersey rolled up to his rib cage, exposing his tatted-up six-pack, Oakman almost looked superhuman, like a comic book villain or an outlandish WWE heel.
Before the end of the first quarter, the image had become the talk of the Internet, as thousands of people posted clever memes—pictures with funny captions—of Oakman on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
Oakman chuckles about the memes and the nation's ever-growing obsession with his physique. Everywhere he goes, he feels people gawking at him like the bearded lady at the circus.
"Half of the people standing in front of me right now are probably scared to death," Oakman, 23, told a group of reporters at Big 12 media days last month. "It's amazing how big the whole thing has gotten. The picture is intimidating, so everyone who sees me assumes I'm intimidating. But I'm really pretty normal. I just like to chill and watch movies and play with my dogs. I have a nice, easy life."
Oakman pauses and smiles.
"Finally," he says.
The last 23 years have been quite a journey for Oakman.
Long before he blossomed into an All-American defensive end, Oakman spent the first nights he can remember in a homeless shelter.
Before he was hailed as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Oakman watched his mother battle a cocaine addiction, get sent to prison and eventually contract HIV.
And years before he emerged as a fan favorite and team captain at Baylor, Oakman was kicked out of the school closest to his home and heart, Penn State, before he ever took a collegiate snap.
"I thought my career was over," Oakman says. "I thought it was done."
Yes, as easy as it is to focus on his pictures and performance and weight-room prowess—he bench-presses 400 pounds and squats 600—the most fascinating thing about Oakman actually isn't his physical stature.
It's that he's even here in the first place.
As he trekked toward the crack house, six-year-old Shawn Oakman tried to stay out of sight. For more than a year, his mother, Vernetta, had been leaving him and his siblings at home alone for days—sometimes weeks.
Curious about her secret life, Shawn decided to spy on Vernetta, following her nearly two blocks before she spotted him, cursed him out and sent him home.
Asked about the incident 17 years later, Vernetta speaks softly into the phone.
"I remember that day," she says. "I was on my way to get high. The place I was going...it wasn't something he needed to see."
The odds of Vernetta providing a stable home for her family were never strong.
Sexually molested as a child, she said she began taking psychiatric drugs when she was seven and was addicted to cocaine by age 15. There was a suicide attempt, Vernetta says, and with no formal education she's only now learning to read.
Although she now resides in a subsidized housing facility in Philadelphia, Vernetta says she was living in a park as recently as two years ago, marking another stint of homelessness that began shortly after Shawn's birth in April 1992.
"That's my first memory, living in a shelter," Oakman says. "Just a big open room with about 200 beds and a cafeteria. It didn't bother me. I didn't know any better."
By the time Shawn was nine, he and his family had moved four times and were living in Kensington, a notoriously rough neighborhood that featured "the No. 1 drug corner in the city," according to Philadelphia Weekly.
"It was straight-up poverty—everything you see on TV," Oakman says. "Robbing, stealing, drug dealers, crackheads. I should know. I was living with one."
Vernetta says Oakman's father, who died of cancer three years ago, provided little financial assistance and was out of the picture. Oakman met him only once during childhood, at age six, when a DNA test was requested to see if Shawn was the man's son.
With his mother "bouncing from crack house to crack house," Oakman says he and his siblings did their best to support themselves.
Whether it was sweeping staircases or helping elderly people carry groceries, any odd job Oakman could find to earn a few bucks for a convenience-store sandwich, he'd take.
There were days when he didn't eat.
Oakman said his brothers and sisters lived in fear that Child Protective Services would split the family apart if it was apparent they were in a dysfunctional household.
"It wasn't their first rodeo," he says of his siblings. "I was the youngest in the batch, but they had been putting on a [facade] and fooling CPS for years."
The family's troubles became impossible to hide in 2002, when Vernetta was sent to prison for 18 months for assault and possession of a criminal weapon. Her struggles continued after her release, as she was arrested again for theft (2004) and prostitution (2005 and 2008). It was around that time, Vernetta says, that she contracted HIV.
"I couldn't distinguish right from wrong," says Vernetta, who takes medication for bipolar disorder, HIV and schizophrenia. "I had anger issues, mental problems. I just fell off. I didn't make good decisions."
Crushing as it was to see his mother go to jail, the situation turned out to be a blessing for Oakman. It may have saved his life.
Kenn Roberts, a 30-year Army veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, had been a foster parent along with his wife, Tracy, to 13 disadvantaged children throughout the 1990s. The couple had decided to stop parenting foster children by the early 2000s, but the plan changed when they received a call about taking in Oakman and his brother, Future.
"I couldn't say no to family," says Roberts, who is Vernetta's cousin. "He needed the structure that I created. And he needed Tracy's heart."
Oakman arrived at the Roberts household in April 2002 almost unable to communicate. He answered questions with grunts, mumbles and shrugs and pointed when there was something he wanted.
"He hadn't been going to school on a regular basis and he had anger issues," Roberts says. "He was also the youngest of his brothers and sisters, so he had no voice in his previous environment. Words weren't of any use to him."
Within a month, Kenn and Tracy had enrolled Oakman in a speech class. And at home he was given a set of daily chores such as folding laundry, cutting the lawn and walking the dog.
Convincing Oakman to perform the tasks wasn't all that difficult. Failure to do so, Oakman quickly learned, would cause him to lose the one thing he had come to hold dear.
A budding basketball star, Oakman had joined an AAU team and was traveling the country to play in tournaments. Simply forgetting to clean his room or wash the dishes would be enough for Roberts to hold him out of competition.
"He'd go right to the core and take away what I loved," Oakman says. "He didn't care about those things. All that mattered to him was that I had structure, that I worked hard. No matter what I did, he always knew I was capable of more."
That's why Roberts showed up at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, when Oakman was a senior and demanded that the principal replace the "soft" courses on his schedule with math, science and English classes.
"He was a star athlete," Roberts says, "so they thought they were doing him a favor by giving him all those easy classes. But they weren't doing him a favor at all. It was a disservice."
Coaches at Penn Wood certainly wanted to keep Oakman and his support group happy. As good as he was in basketball, leading the school to the state title as a junior, it was clear Oakman's future was on the football field.
Too poor to afford the participation fees when he lived with his mom, Oakman had never played the sport until he reached high school. After just one game with the freshman team, he was moved up to varsity.
"It was easy," Oakman says. "I already had the aggression. I already had the pain and anger inside. When the coach told me all I had to do is hit people, I was like, 'OK!'"
By the time Oakman was a senior, Rivals.com ranked him as the 18th-best defensive end in the country. So excited was Penn State assistant Larry Johnson that, after securing a verbal commitment from Oakman, he pulled his car to the side of the highway and began to scream.
Oakman said he never seriously considered another school, as the allure of being a home-state college hero was too much to pass up. Shortly after signing his scholarship papers, he had the phrase "PSU Superman" sewn onto his letter jacket.
"I wanted to play for Joe Paterno," Oakman says. "I wanted to play for the legend."
For Oakman, though, life in State College was rocky from the start.
While redshirting as a freshman, Oakman didn't have the same supervision he did back home with his uncle. He became lackadaisical, showing up late for workouts and meetings and occasionally missing class.
After the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal cost Paterno his job midway through the 2011 season, Oakman fell victim to a zero-tolerance policy issued by new coach Bill O'Brien.
On March 17, 2012, he was caught trying to steal a $7 hoagie from a Penn State cafeteria after realizing his student meal card was short on credits. Oakman says he handed the female cashier his card to pay for a 75-cent grape juice, but when a clerk approached him and asked about the sandwich he'd attempted to hide in his jacket, Oakman grabbed the cashier's wrist, ripped his meal card from her hand and left the premises.
Oakman scoffs when asked if his size or a sense of entitlement as a football player prompted him to try to steal the sandwich.
"I was hungry and I didn't have any money," he says. "That's the only reason I did it."
Nonetheless, Oakman was fined and charged with a misdemeanor. Two days later, an assistant coach arrived at his dorm at 5 a.m. and drove him to see O'Brien, who told Oakman he was no longer a member of the team.
"I just stood up and started crying and yelling at myself," Oakman says. "All of my disappointment was toward me and my failure. I'd already been a little bit of a problem child, and now [O'Brien] had a chance to put his foot down and set the standard.
"He'd warned us, but I didn't listen."
Upon receiving the news, Roberts drove to State College that afternoon to visit with Oakman. Roberts said he looked broken, "like a homeless man." The following day, Oakman hand-delivered a note to the locker of every Penn State player, informing him he'd been dismissed and apologizing for his mistake.
Oakman remained on campus for two more months to complete his coursework for the semester. Each day after class, he returned to his room and mulled his future.
"I didn't know what was next," Oakman says. "Football is all I know. I can't do nothing else. I figured I'd just end up back in Philly, where it was going to be one of two things.
"Jail or death."
The day before the Bears opened their 2014 season against SMU, Amanda Russ snuck into Shawn Oakman's bedroom and did some redecorating.
Russ, who has dated Oakman for more than a year, tacked a banner on the wall that contained an image of his No. 2 jersey and the phrase "Second to None." A pair of cardboard signs were positioned nearby that read: "Oakman Is So Big We Had 2 Make Him 2 Posters."
Russ also had friends write inspirational messages and words of encouragement for Oakman on a football helmet.
Needless to say, when Oakman returned from class, he was surprised—and moved.
For a moment, Russ thought her boyfriend was on the verge of tears.
"I think he felt a type of support he never felt before," she says. "He needs that. He needs that love. He needs to know that he's not alone. That's why he loves Baylor so much.
"It's about more than football for him. This is his family now."
Oakman wasn't anticipating such a life-changing experience when he arrived on Baylor's campus on a 110-degree day in August 2012. Just five months removed from the cafeteria incident at Penn State, he was simply thankful to be getting another opportunity at a Top 25 program despite never playing a college game.
The Bears decided to take a chance on Oakman when Johnson, the Penn State assistant, contacted safeties coach Brian Norwood, who was on the Nittany Lions staff from 2001 to 2007.
Johnson spoke highly of Oakman, both on the field and off. Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was also a fan after recruiting Oakman when he was an assistant at Pittsburgh.
"He played violent," Bennett says. "If you were in his way, he was going to hurt you. But the thing I remembered even more was his big, beautiful smile. This wasn't the typical suburban kid that checked in with his mom and dad every night. He made it on his own. Yet despite all he was going through, that smile was always there.
"That spirit was God's gift to him. It's been a gift to everyone."
That includes Baylor head coach Art Briles, who said O'Brien also had nice things to say about Oakman. Briles has a history of providing second chances to troubled athletes, a practice that backfired this summer when Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu was found guilty of sexually assaulting a Bears female soccer player.
But there are also plenty of success stories. In fact, another Penn State transfer, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, flourished at Baylor and ended up being a first-round draft pick in 2011.
But no player has capitalized on a fresh start as much as Oakman.
"I mean, I've seen sicker dogs get well," Briles says of Oakman. "We don't judge players as freshmen. They've got so many changes going on in their lives. Who they are at 19 isn't always who they’re going to be at 23."
NCAA transfer rules forced Oakman to sit out the 2012 campaign, meaning he'd be 21 before he ever played a college down. As frustrating as it was for him to miss a second straight season, the next 12 months jump-started an enrichment in his personal life that continues today.
Nearly 1,600 miles from Philadelphia, Oakman is removed from the family drama involving his mother and siblings back home. The warm, welcoming mannerisms of Texas Southerners are a nice change for the hard, guarded personas of the Philadelphia streets.
"People from Philly hear me saying 'pardon' and 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir' and don't know what to think," Oakman says.
They're adjusting to his new, eccentric demeanor too. Rather than micromanaging him like he was at Penn State, where he was forced to cut his facial hair, Baylor's staff encourages individualism. The tattoos and green mohawk, shirtless trips to the convenience store, the bulldogs and snakes—all of it has been liberating for Oakman.
"I'm free here," he says. "Free to be me."
For the first time in his life, Oakman has stability and, moreover, peace of mind. He's not worried about being evicted from his house, split apart from his friends, finding his next team or being jettisoned from a school.
As a child, Oakman felt like an afterthought, a nuisance. As a fast-rising high school star, he was coddled like a king. At Penn State, he was tagged as a hooligan.
At Baylor, though, Oakman senses there is a genuine interest in him as a person more than a player. Fans write to him on Facebook and tell him he's an inspiration. His teammates revel in his athletic success as much as their own.
"I've never really had a family or a stable home," Oakman says. "That's what I've always searched for, someone to open up to and talk to. The connection here, the feeling...it's something I've never felt before."
Significant as his off-field strides have been, Oakman is still evolving.
Russ, 24, said Oakman remains "guarded" at times. Even though they've dated more than a year, he's still hesitant to talk about certain subjects.
"He's cautious with his feelings," she says.
Russ is sympathetic to Oakman's difficult upbringing, as her mother also battled substance-abuse issues. The two have been estranged since Russ was adopted at age eight. Russ graduated from Baylor in 2014 and is now a state trooper in Dalhart, Texas, near Amarillo.
"Everyone needs support," says Russ, who makes the eight-hour drive to Waco to visit Oakman at least once every two weeks. "At times Shawn is still the type that thinks he can handle everything by himself, that he doesn't need to voice his problems.
"I keep telling him there are people there to help."
It's an issue Oakman will have a chance to work on in the coming months.
In what may have been the best illustration of his passion for his school, coaches and teammates, Oakman approached Bennett a few days before the Cotton Bowl and informed him he'd be returning for his senior season.
The Bears went 11-2 and fell one spot shy of qualifying for the College Football Playoff in 2014, and Oakman believes this year's squad could be even better. He says he felt like he'd be abandoning his family if he didn't do everything he could to help Baylor win a national title.
"It just shows you how unselfish he's become," Briles says. "He sees the bigger picture. He's as good of a leader as we've ever had here."
Even though he was regarded as a surefire top-15 pick in last spring's NFL draft, Oakman says the allure of becoming a millionaire and helping his family never came close to swaying his decision.
"More money, more problems," Oakman says. "I just want to be a kid for one more year. My family has been poor their whole lives. They can be poor for nine more months."
His client list includes Andrew Luck, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush and LeSean McCoy. Still, after just one session with Shawn Oakman, high-profile trainer Travelle Gaines didn't hesitate to make a bold assessment.
"He's the most genetically gifted athlete I've ever seen with my own eyes," Gaines says. "Shredded, strong, explosive, fast. He shocked me with some of the things he can do."
Oakman spent two weeks this summer training at Gaines' facility in Las Vegas. The highlight of his workouts came when Oakman jumped onto a 40-inch box—while holding 70-pound dumbbells in each hand. A video of the feat has been viewed more than 110,000 times on one YouTube video and 50,000 times on another.
The way Gaines sees it, Oakman didn't cost himself money by opting not to enter last season's NFL draft. If anything, the decision will likely make him richer. Gaines says he won't be shocked if Oakman is the No. 1 overall selection.
Teams haven't been shy about taking defensive linemen high in the draft in recent years. Houston took South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick in 2014. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh went No. 2 to Detroit in 2010.
Athletically, Oakman is expected to test better than both players.
"In 2012 people said Andrew Luck was the best pro prospect to ever come through the NFL combine," Gaines says. "But this spring I won't be surprised if Shawn has the best combine of anyone in history."
Such praise doesn't surprise coaches at Baylor, where Oakman has continued to one-up himself in the weight room since his arrival in 2012.
This summer Oakman did four pull-ups with a 120-pound harness attached to his body. His bench-press (400 pounds) and squat (600) numbers are even more impressive considering the length of his arms and legs. And his time in the 40-yard dash (4.8 seconds) is unheard of for a guy who weighs 275.
Oakman has gained 40 pounds since arriving at Baylor three years ago. His body fat was recently measured at 6 percent.
"I enjoy the process," Oakman says of weightlifting and conditioning. "You see the results and it's just astounding. If I wasn't in the weight room every day, I'd be sticks and bones. I'd be skinny."
Oakman—who eats five meals a day and loves to prepare food in a Crock-Pot—hopes more than ever that his offseason work translates to improved play as a senior. He set a Baylor single-season record with 11 sacks as a junior, when he earned third-team All-American honors.
Still, there's a sense that Oakman has left something to be desired on the field. NFL scouts note that he doesn't boast a signature game or moment, and he's been criticized for taking plays off and disappearing at times.
Baylor coaches understand the criticism, but they say any perceived lackluster play by Oakman isn't his fault, as injuries shortened the Bears' defensive end rotation last season, forcing Oakman to be in for too many snaps.
"For the first 10 or 20 snaps, there's no one better," defensive line coach Chris Achuff says. "But then his numbers go down drastically over the course of the game. When you operate with that much passion and emotion, you become drained. Fatigue sets in and your mind starts to wander.
"His growth was stunted [in 2014] because I wasn't able to pull him out of the game when I wanted to. We just didn't have the depth."
Asked to rate his performance to date on a scale of one to 10, Briles says he'd give Oakman a six.
"Hopefully by the end of the season he's an eight," Briles says, "and eventually in the NFL he could get to a 10. That's what's so encouraging. He's already really good, but he hasn't come close to reaching his ceiling. There's so much room for growth."
Determined as he is to improve individually, Oakman says he's "not worried about his highlight reel." His main focus, he says, is guiding the Bears to a third straight Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"The only people I care about are my coaches and teammates. They brought me in and embraced me and all of my problems and issues.
"Hopefully I can give them something back."
On Sept. 4, shortly before opening his senior season against SMU, Shawn Oakman will reach into his locker, remove his jersey from its hanger and slip it on over his shoulder pads.
It's no coincidence he wears No. 2.
"Second chances," Oakman says.
Oakman is certainly making the most of his—and he's not alone.
Back in Philadelphia, Vernetta's voice is filled with energy and joy as she explains the changes that have occurred in her life the past two years.
She's enrolled in a learning center, where her reading skills have improved. For the first time, she recently read a 50-page book. Soon she will leave her dorm room and move into her own apartment at Project Home, a housing facility for those who have struggled with homelessness and poverty.
More than anything, Vernetta is excited about an upcoming opportunity to counsel youth about HIV and the dangers of unprotected sex.
Vernetta says she and Shawn speak once a month. She's seen him play just one college football game in person—a 2014 victory at Buffalo—and doesn't have the funds to travel to a game this season. Instead she's saving her money to attend Oakman's graduation Dec. 19.
"I'm not that monster that they used to portray me to be," she says. "I can think for myself now. I know who I am."
"If you talk to my son," she says, "tell him I love him. Tell him he's making me proud."
Oakman hopes to give his family even more reasons to dote on him this fall, when Baylor will open the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. The Bears have finished the regular season 11-1 each of the past two years. Getting to 12-0—and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff—won't happen without an All-American season from Oakman, who Briles says is "the face of Baylor's program."
Oakman is embracing the status. He searches for his name daily on Twitter and Google and is still taken aback by the reaction to the Cotton Bowl picture that went viral.
"I'm famous now," he said recently as he joked with Russ about the photo.
Soon, Oakman vows, fans will have new images of him etched in their brains that extend beyond that pregame coin toss, ones that involve sacks and celebrations and tackles and trophies.
Everything—even Baylor's first national title—is in the realm of possibility in 2015, at least according to Oakman.
At this point, who's going to tell him no?
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The past 233 days have been a tormenting, football-less abyss. With each passing month, the darkness of the offseason has tried to pull you closer toward its deepest, darkest vortex—an emotionless, pulled-pork-less pit of despair only interested in consuming your soul.
But you did not budge, no matter how difficult it was. And now, after 233 agonizing nights of football-less sleep, there is light. The college football season, in all of its glory, lunacy, unpredictability and beauty, has returned.
The 2015 season is upon us.
In celebration of college football’s triumphant return, I have concocted the appropriate materials to ensure you are ready for Week 1 and beyond. If your offseason days have been spent doing things beyond obsessing over preview magazines or depth charts—which, by the way, isn’t the worst of ideas—the following crash course should at least get you moving in a suitable direction.
Storylines, meaningful games, unlikely (but deserving) Heisman hopefuls, imperative mascot power rankings and much more—let’s get to it. There is far too much to discuss.
Happy football to all.
But First: A Week 1 Primer
The season begins with an upscale buffet—the kind of spread that serves surprisingly acceptable crab legs in bulk. While there will be more jam-packed game lineups to come, this excitement paired with some magnificent on-paper games should make for spectacularly weird results.
Michigan at Utah (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1)
The Wolverines have spent the better part of fall practice taking reps in places that are better protected than most nuclear-missile warehouses. Utah, meanwhile, is coming off a nine-win season and will get back running back/human destroyer Devontae Booker. The return of Jim Harbaugh makes this required Thursday night viewing. No one is really sure what will happen, but it will all be magnificently entertaining regardless.
Louisville vs. Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. in Atlanta, CBS)
The Jeremy Johnson quarterback hype train is approaching deafening levels for Auburn, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, the Tigers are debuting a renovated defense—the brainchild of conductor Will Muschamp. Louisville will attempt to counter this addition with one of four quarterbacks. Heck, maybe more than that. Maybe all of them. Ah, nothing quite like a good ol’ Bobby Petrino-Gus Malzahn offensive game of Battleship to kick things off.
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. in Houston, ESPN)
If you fancy points, be sure to feast your eyes on what could easily be the most delectable matchup of the weekend. Both Arizona State and Texas A&M are being mentioned as sleepers so frequently that the term should be condemned.
This also might not be wrong. While Aggies QB Kyle Allen is the better-known thrower-of-footballs taking part in the game, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici should be up for the retort. Oh, the fun that awaits.
Texas at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC)
For the football enthusiast who enjoys large sums of intense hitting, dazzling young linebackers and robust money-making programs hoping to avoid an early mishap, I present to you this lovely matchup. The focus for this game will be the quarterback, as Notre Dame will officially begin the Malik Zaire era. The Longhorns, meanwhile, will likely showcase both Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard—hoping one finally provides separation.
Wisconsin vs. Alabama (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ABC)
A team that loves to run the football will attempt to do so against arguably the best front seven in the nation. While Melvin Gordon is gone, Wisconsin still has Corey Clement at running back. He ran for nearly 1,000 yards in a reserve role last year. On the other side, all eyes will be on the young man Nick Saban trots out to play quarterback first. Please don’t stray too far from your television; you might hear your name called and be handed a helmet if things really start to turn.
Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Monday, 8:00 p.m., ESPN)
On the topic of quarterbacks, Urban Meyer will finally unveil his starter in one of the most hostile environments imaginable, shorthanded due to both injuries and suspensions. This game will also mark the debut of reborn H-back Braxton Miller, as if you needed any more Ohio State storylines to consume. As for Virginia Tech, the questions won’t be about its defense, which should be excellent once again. It will center on the prospects of scoring against a spectacular unit. But hey, they’ve done it before.
Season Storylines, Ahoy
Hop into this blimp and let’s explore the season from above. Keep in mind, this flying bubble has a grill, a fully stocked bar and is an enormous safety hazard. Welcome aboard. Now, let’s discuss this season’s biggest talking points.
Ohio State’s Against the World
Urban Meyer refuses to use the word “repeat,” so allow us to use it for him. With so much talent returning on both sides of the football—and the most publicized quarterback battle in recent memory still to linger into the year—Ohio State is almost expected to win the whole enchilada again, which is borderline unfair.
Every quarterback throw will be dissected. Every point allowed will be deemed a failure. Every close call will be viewed as a meltdown in the making. Life on top of the mountain is a wonderful place to pitch a tent. It’s also unforgiving and relentless. The whole journey, regardless of whether it follows the plan, will be wonderfully entertaining and stressful. Pull up a chair.
The Second Act of Harbaugh Mania
Act One featured strange tweets, even stranger media appearances and speculation over how one of the biggest free-agent signings in college football history would unfold. Now there is actual football to discuss, which is good news for everyone exhausted by the pageantry. And although expectations will be reserved—as they should be—it won’t stop the masses from overanalyzing each and every development.
Progress is critical. Forget about wins or numbers or anything else that will pump adrenaline into message boards. The next step of Harbaugh Mania is actually the most important. It has nothing to do with records. It’s also where he excels beyond just about any other football-obsessed soul on the planet.
The Second Act of College Football Playoff Overreaction
The debut season of the College Football Playoff ended up being a blissfully successful money grab for all involved. Ratings were historic, there was just the right amount of controversy and the games were wildly entertaining. What an enormous win.
But that was last year. Now, with a blank canvas, what does a fresh postseason bring in a system that is still relatively unfamiliar? At least one conference will be left out again, which will likely generate a slew of table-pounding, voice-raising declarations that an eight-team playoff is the only suitable destination. This talk is inevitable; it’s simply a matter of how widespread these cries are over the coming months.
And yes, having the semifinal games take place on New Year’s Eve rather than New Year’s Day will also garner plenty of chatter. You don’t have to like it, of course, but you are guaranteed to watch regardless—cheap champagne and all.
Is the SEC Poised to Finally Cannibalize Itself?
Maybe. How’s that for a definitive response? As the almighty SEC embarks on its third season without a national championship, some of its slumbering programs are starting to awaken.
Tennessee and Arkansas are garnering hefty buzz. Ole Miss is poised to sustain a while longer. Texas A&M should be improved. Missouri is still game. Look up and down the conference—with the exception of Vanderbilt—and you’ll find teams capable of winning on any given Saturday.
Alabama and Auburn are the definitive favorites, and deservedly so. Georgia and LSU are fascinating but flawed options as usual. A defined hierarchy still exists, although it feels slightly less concrete than it has been.
As a result, chaos could become a popular dinner-party guest. What happens from a postseason standpoint if chaos arrives is another question entirely. This is not an attempt to puff up the almighty SEC or question how it fits into the national discussion moving forward. It’s simply acknowledging some of the tremendous growth taking place deep within the conference and trying to feel out what effect it might have.
The Year of the Zombie Running Back
One year ago, shortly before the season began, the running back was pronounced dead. We watched the position die. We bought flowers and everything.
If that was indeed the case, we are poised to have an amazing batch of zombie ball-carriers—spectacular undead physical specimens—poised to terrorize us weekly. Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Samaje Perine, James Conner, Royce Freeman, Paul Perkins and Devontae Booker are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quality young running backs.
Yes, throwing the ball is becoming a more common occurrence at all levels. But the latest infusion of ball-carriers is poised to create a renaissance of sorts. The running back is not dead—nowhere close, really. Or perhaps this group of super zombies will simply conquer us all.
Top 10 Games of the Regular Season
Clear the calendar. Cancel all plans. Fake sick, if necessary. These are the games that have to be on your television this year outside of all of them, of course.
Texas A&M vs. Arizona State, September 5
There’s a deep appreciation when out-of-conference teams step up and touch gloves. The winner will immediately vault to a new level of expectations. There will be points.
Alabama at Georgia, October 3
Brings back memories, doesn’t it? Watching Nick Chubb attempt to power through this brick wall-ish defensive line is worth the price of admission alone.
USC at Notre Dame, October 17
A rivalry that could carry more meaning in 2015. At this point in the season, College Football Playoff hopes for both should be very real. Keyword there is “should.”
Florida State at Clemson, November 6
The biggest game of the ACC season is one we’re mighty familiar with at this point. Plenty on the line here.
USC at Oregon, November 21
The two favorites in the Pac-12 will meet late in the year in a stadium that should go nuclear with excitement. So many potential storylines.
Oregon at Michigan State, September 12
Last year’s installment was better than the score indicated. Now in East Lansing, the encore could be even better. You don’t have to wait long, either.
Notre Dame at Clemson, October 3
It’s too early to be an elimination game, although this one could carry some enormous amount of weight. It's an unfamiliar matchup, which is a good thing.
Michigan State at Ohio State, November 21
The game that could ultimately decide the Big Ten is required viewing—especially when you consider the NFL talent to be featured in this game.
Alabama at Auburn, November 28
It’s the Iron Bowl; you don’t need any more motivation to watch. But this year’s version could have the hype to match the hate.
Baylor at TCU, November 27
Simply put, don’t make plans on this day. Don't explore the sales on Black Friday. Gather ‘round and watch two of the best teams and offenses put on another splendid show with everything on the line.
Players We’d Like to See Get Legitimate Heisman Buzz (but Probably Won’t)
There will be no quarterbacks mentioned below because, quite frankly, the Heisman has morphed into a target-practice award. Saying a good quarterback on a good team will win the bronze statue is exceptionally boring.
In an effort to cheer for the chaos scenario—hoping that another position smashes through this impenetrable barrier—let’s examine some unlikely but still appropriate candidates playing elsewhere.
Scooby Wright III (Arizona, Linebacker)
He finished ninth in Heisman voting last season after delivering the following numbers: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six—I repeat, six—forced fumbles. This was a criminally low finish after one of the greatest individual defensive seasons in recent memory.
If he can come close to this production and Arizona surpasses expectations, however, perhaps he will crash the party.
Adoree' Jackson (USC, Cornerback, Wide Receiver and Pretty Much Everything Else)
After a spectacular freshman season—one that resulted in two kick return touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns—USC’s star cornerback is poised to touch the ball even more.
His main position will be defense, although USC will use him often on offense and special teams. Seriously, watch this guy as often as you can. And if he breaks a few big ones early, watch the buzz start to churn.
James Conner (Running Back, Pittsburgh)
Other running backs—Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette, for starters—seem more poised to break the quarterback streak. But James Conner, after the quietest 26-touchdown season in college football history, should be someone to keep an eye on.
The production will be there. After running for more than 1,700 yards, that won’t be an issue. The issue, however, is getting the proper recognition on a team that hasn’t gotten much national spotlight. If he can crack 2,000 yards—which is feasible—he’ll be impossible to ignore.
Players Poised to Become Household Names… Quickly
Josh Rosen (UCLA, QB)
Playing a true freshman at quarterback is a bold endeavor. But this isn’t your average true-freshman quarterback. Rosen is immensely gifted and well ahead of his time. By the end of the year, if not sooner, he will have arrived.
Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State, LB)
With so much talent around him, McMillan has become an afterthought of sorts. Now holding down a starting job, however, the sophomore linebacker will soon become a fixture on the team. He’s going to be special.
Christian Kirk (Texas A&M, WR)
Playing on a team already deep at wideout, Kirk asserted himself the moment he arrived. The offense will allow him plenty of opportunities; look for him to be an impact target on day one.
Christian McCaffrey (Stanford, RB)
His freshman season showed plenty of promise. Now, playing in an offense that will take advantage of his ability to run and catch the football, it would not shock me to see McCaffrey become the next great Stanford back—a slightly different mold.
Budda Baker (Washington, S)
One could argue that the breakthrough already came last year. Baker was outstanding on defense, although now he could be tasked with helping on special teams and likely on offense. Superstardom is in his future.
Coaches Sitting on Warm Chairs
The “hot seat” never sleeps. And Illinois got the firing season started early with the removal of Tim Beckman, albeit on slightly different—and far more concerning—circumstances. As for other coaches in need of a big fall, let’s explore the concerned sideline generals.
Al Golden, Miami
NCAA involvement put Golden at a significant disadvantage when he arrived. That’s not an excuse; it was a reality. But clear of the black cloud, a six or seven-win season will no longer suffice. Golden needs to win now.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
He’s taken the program to some tremendous places. He’s done spectacular things. But Iowa has seemingly plateaued at a time when the rest of the conference is hitting the accelerator. Huge season upcoming for one of the nation’s longest-tenured coaches.
Mike London, Virginia
The defense made tremendous strides last season. One could argue that the Cavaliers should have won more games. Regardless, unless Virginia reaches a bowl game in 2015, it could ultimately decide to make a change.
Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
With only five wins in the past two seasons combined, Rhoads needs to somehow, even with a difficult schedule on paper, alter the current path. He’s wildly entertaining and had success, although at what point, if it continues, is new influence needed?
Kevin Wilson, Indiana
The offense has certainly taken strides, although the overall results—despite delivering a handful of close calls—simply have not come. Indiana could get fat on its schedule early, although it will need a few more wins against better teams after that to find stable ground.
Preseason Mascot Top 25
A reminder: Preseason polls exist to create rage. You care and react because you can’t help it. It’s in your DNA. Don’t blame yourself.
In an effort to drift away from this usual practice, I have decided to replace teams with mascots. Quite simply, you’ve read enough about how your team will fall short of expectations this season. Now read why your furry, branded creature is woefully underrated.
These mascots were ranked based on historical relevance, presence, appearance, entertainment value, creativity and authenticity. Live animals received bonus considerations. Large animals were granted extra bonuses.
1. The Duck (Puddles), Oregon
2. Big Red, Western Kentucky
3. Ralphie, Colorado
4. Bevo, Texas
5. Mike the Tiger, LSU
6. Brutus the Buckeye, Ohio State
7. Uga, Georgia
8. The Tree, Stanford
9. The Mountaineer, West Virginia
10. Big Al, Alabama
11. Chief Osceola and Renegade, Florida State
12. Smokey, Tennessee
13. Reveille, Texas A&M
14. Sooner Schooner, Oklahoma
15. Traveler, USC
16. Sparty, Michigan State
17. The Leprechaun, Notre Dame
18. Bucky, Wisconsin
19. Aubie, Auburn
20. Goldy, Minnesota
21. Sebastian the Ibis, Miami
22. The Masked Rider, Texas Tech
23. Otto the Orange, Syracuse
24. Albert and Alberta Gator, Florida
25. Sir Big Spur, South Carolina
Welcome back, college football. We missed you so very much. The offseason was long, dark and dreadfully boring. Regardless of what happens next, we welcome your return with open hearts and open arms.
Put your feet up. Stay a while.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
One of the top Heisman Trophy candidates is a guy who might be standing on the sidelines. Another is a quarterback who was a receiver not long ago. It seems that half of the top teams are still trying to figure out who their quarterback is.
Coaches are behaving badly and one of them was already fired. And the dominant SEC? Maybe not so much anymore. Or maybe it still will be.
Welcome to the start of the strangest, most mysterious college football season anyone can remember. It starts Thursday night in full, though a small-college offensive innovator, Montana's Bob Stitt, already beat the back-to-back-to-back-to-back FCS national champ, North Dakota State, in his first game as a head coach, making him a cult figure behind the hashtag #stitthappens.
Maybe that's the motto for this entire season.
It isn't like college football to have this many unknowns. This isn't a sport bent on parity. The worst team doesn't get the first pick in the draft—instead, the best teams get the best recruits. Things don't change.
But things are changing now.
In the South, college football fans feel that the sport is their birthright. But after watching the SEC gets its, well, rear end handed to it in the bowl season last year, who even knows what the best conference is anymore? The Pac-12? The Big 12, with TCU and Baylor flying around and above everyone? Or even the Big Ten, the sport's joke the past several years, which produced national champ Ohio State and now has the most mysterious man in football: Jim Harbaugh.
Most people figure Harbaugh will turn Michigan around and that it won't take long. Going 6-6 or 7-5 this year would be a first-step improvement in line with most expectations, but look at the Wolverines' lenient schedule. Based on it and Harbaugh's past success rate, couldn't Michigan have just one loss—and the entire nation's attention—when it faces Ohio State in the final game of the regular season?
The face of college football isn't just the person who gets on the cover of magazines and onto SportsCenter highlights. He's the person who defines the identity of the sport. Usually, we have a pretty good idea going into the season who that is.
This year? There is no more Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, who were the faces of last season. One brought focus to off-field troubles (and great play) while the other brought focus to humility (and greater play). They became the identity of the entire sport, as the player, or person, with all the attention always does.
Johnny Manziel's speed and flamboyance defined a season. Nick Saban's bullying, methodical genius identified a year or two before that. Not too far in the past, it was Tim Tebow.
But now? Maybe Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones? That's who I'd pick—a new-age guy who is big, powerful and fast all at the same time, at the quarterback position of all places.
He might not play.
J.T. Barrett, already named one of Ohio State's team captains, might be the starter. Coach Urban Meyerisn't telling reporters. But if Barrett doesn't play, then the national champions will have a captain sitting on the bench.
It could be TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, who used to be a receiver but now might be the prototype for the Heisman, a running/passing QB. Unless Jones changes the prototype.
If he plays.
Some people like USC quarterback Cody Kessler to define the season. He has the Heisman skills and the Hollywood spotlight. But his team starts the year under controversy after coach Steve Sarkisian's alcohol-fueled, f-bomb-laced speech. Sark is getting treatment, and the players got to pick a coach's punishment, which amounted to burpees.
It was better than Illinois coach Tim Beckman, already fired for his alleged mistreatment of player injuries.
Can anyone catch Ohio State? Well, it could be Oregon now that Vernon Adams Jr. passed his math test.
Seriously. Mariota is gone and Davis was able to transfer to Oregon and play immediately only after he officially graduated from Eastern Washington.
The Ducks aren't a sure thing either, though. Coach Mark Helfrich was able to keep program from regressing after Chip Kelly left, but he still had Kelly's QB. Now that Mariota has joined Kelly in the NFL, too, Helfrich needs to prove it's his program and a winning one. (Hint: He will.)
As everyone knows, the quarterback is almost always the team leader, the face of the team, the identity. Well, it took until Monday for Florida State to name Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson as the face of its team:
Also on Monday, Georgia named Greyson Lambert starting QB, and Ole Miss named Chad Kelly. LSU coach Les Miles rushed to the hospital—he told reporters he had a bad reaction to having too much coffee—and then came back and named Brandon Harris.
Last we saw, UCLA coach Jim Mora was tearing into his freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen, in practice. And Meyer isn't the only power-program coach who has yet to name a starting QB: Michigan still hasn't, and Saban has three quarterbacks listed as the starter for Alabama's game Saturday against Wisconsin.
There's a word for all of this—a word we try to avoid, a swear word in sports: parity. Though that's better than what the Big Ten had heard for years: laughingstock.
Not anymore. It might be hard to figure out from the start who to cheer for—other than your own team—and who against. It might be exciting or just confusing. But more than ever, almost everyone gets a fair shake this time.
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.
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That giddy sensation you're feeling comes from daily fantasy college football about to kick off. On Thursday night, DFS players all across the country will cash in on unpaid athletes—and it feels so good.
In order to see a big payday, owners will need to know big-name players like Deshaun Watson or Pharoh Cooper. But to build a winning lineup over the next several weeks, finding value players can be a difficult task with so many moving parts in college football. Here's a look at our value plays to start the season.
Quarterback: Maty Mauk, Missouri ($6,500)
Looking for a consistent quarterback who is far below the $9,000 mark? Maty Mauk is your man. The Missouri signal-caller was solid last year and heads into his junior season with plenty of expectations and enough talent to carry the Tigers.
Much like several college quarterbacks, Mauk faces easy opponents to start the season before entering SEC play. If he maintains his $6,500 price tag against cupcakes like Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State and UConn, expect Mauk to outperform his value early on.
Running Back: A.J. Ouellette, Ohio ($6,400)
You may not know his name now, but A.J. Ouellette has a chance to emerge as a fantasy stud this season. The sophomore tailback exploded for Ohio as a walk-on during his freshman campaign. He'll show why he earned a scholarship last season when he explodes against Idaho.
In 2014, Idaho ranked 119th in the country (that's out of 125 teams) in rushing yards allowed with 246.2 per game. Meanwhile, Ouellette averaged 126 rushing yards with five total touchdowns in his final three games of 2014. Even at over $6,000, Ouellette is a great value play for any lineup.
Running Back: De'Veon Smith, Michigan ($4,500)
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has a quarterback battle on his hands for the season opener against Utah. But there is no question who will start at running back with De'Veon Smith emerging this offseason. The 5'11", 228-pound junior is ready to start his third collegiate game and make a statement against Utah.
Last year in the season opener, Smith rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on just eight attempts. Don't expect those exact numbers against Utah, a decent rushing defense in 2014, but look for Smith to prove why he's worthy of keeping the starting job. That makes him an ideal start as an RB2 or flex for just $4,500 on DraftKings.
Wide Receiver: Mitch Mathews, BYU ($6,700)
What is there not to like about Mitch Mathews? At 6'6", Mathews towers over defensive backs. With 73 receptions for 922 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, he's a force for BYU's dynamic offense. Oh, and he has Taysom Hill throwing him the ball again after a season-ending injury six games into last season.
Another positive, as Mathews pointed out to Talo Steves of Scout.com, is that he has help now at receiver and should put together a complete game against Nebraska.
"We’ll be able to rotate a lot of receivers to keep us fresh and be as effective as we can be," Mathews said. "Last season I was playing almost 70 plays a game and that’s a lot. At the end of the game you’re exhausted and your routes aren’t as crisp. We’ve got a lot of depth at receiver, which will help."
Expect a fresh Mathews at the beginning and end of his matchup with Nebraska. In four must-win games for the Cougars to compete on the national stage, Mathews will have to shine against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan. Even at $6,700 for the opener, Mathews is a massive value for DraftKings owners.
Wide Receiver: Marquez North, Tennessee ($4,200)
Hello, opportunity. Marquez North got just that when Pig Howard was suspended for the season opener against Bowling Green. Despite battling through an offseason injury and missing multiple games to close out last season, North is ready to go against Bowling Green, according to head coach Butch Jones.
As the top option for Joshua Dobbs, North should thrive against Bowling Green. Owners will have to play wait and see after that with Howard likely returning and a wealth of playmakers on the roster. But at $4,200, North is a low-risk, high-reward receiver on DraftKings to slot at either WR2 or WR3 in Week 1.
Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.
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At long last, college football is back. The new season kicks off Thursday night, and it's sure to provide many twists and turns over the next five months as the journey to crown the second annual playoff champion takes center stage.
Reigning champion Ohio State begins its title defense with a tricky matchup against Virginia Tech. That highly anticipated clash will close out the opening week Monday night with plenty of drama sure to unfold before the Buckeyes and Hokies take the field.
So let's check out the complete slate of action for Week 1, along with viewing details for each contest. That's followed by a look at some of the best games to keep tabs on over the next handful of days.
Week 1 TV Schedule
Top Games to Watch
Texas vs. No. 11 Notre Dame
Texas is trending in the right direction under Charlie Strong, as evidenced by a top-10 incoming class of recruits, per 247Sports. The question is how long will it take for the talent to start translating into results. Expectations for this season are low by Longhorns standards after missing out on the preseason top 25.
A Week 1 upset over Notre Dame would go a long way in changing that outlook. A senior-laden defensive group and some big-play weapons at the skill positions, led by running back Johnathan Gray, makes Texas dangerous. But a lot will depend on the play of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.
While there were flashes of potential from Swoopes last season, he lacked the game-to-game consistency necessary to push Texas into contention. A talented Fighting Irish front seven is going to test him immediately with a lot of pressure.
Notre Dame should have more stability on both sides of the ball, especially if Malik Zaire lives up to the hype under center. As a result, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports forecasts a blowout:
Don't be surprised if Texas puts up more of a fight than that projection suggests. The talent is there for the Longhorns to give the Irish some trouble, but the question is whether they are going to hit the ground running or if it's going to take some time for them to showcase the progress.
No. 20 Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Alabama
Alabama opens the season with the first of seven games against teams ranked inside the preseason top 25. As always, the difficult schedule is both a blessing and a curse. Life in the SEC can help build a strong résumé, but it also means there are few weeks where the Crimson Tide will be on cruise control.
One of the biggest questions in the nation is how they will replace Amari Cooper, who caught 124 of the team's 290 completed passes last season. Whether another wideout, should it be ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster or somebody else, can rise to the occasion will be a huge factor.
It's a facet of Bama's game that could get tested right away. Wisconsin finished 23rd in rush defense last season and returns a majority of its starts in the front seven. The Badgers should be able to slow the Tide down enough on the ground to force them into several key third-and-long situations.
The game is crucial for the underdogs too, of course. Jesse Temple of ESPN explains why this game could be a season-changer for the Badgers:
To play teams like Alabama is one thing. To win is another—something that could help elevate Wisconsin's national perception and provide the program with visions of a truly meaningful post-New Year's Day game.
Wisconsin could make a quick vault into the top 10 with a victory, and its schedule this season looks favorable, at least for now. Add in the fact Alabama doesn't want to drop a game to make the rest of the season even more daunting and you have a recipe for an intense battle.
No. 1 Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech
Yes, this is a game any national title contender should win. Virginia Tech has the appearance of a good, but not great, team, and the Buckeyes should hold the edge in most areas. There are a lot of other factors in play as Ohio State begins the title defense, though.
Along with the difficulty of getting back into game mode after a long, grueling road to a championship last season, the Buckeyes have to deal with the added pressure of being the champs. Moving from the intangible to the tangible, they also have four key suspensions, including star defender Joey Bosa.
As for the quarterback situation, it seems head coach Urban Meyer isn't going to provide any more information. He'll just wait until the offense takes the field to let everybody find out his starter, per Austin Ward of ESPN.
"We'll announce the starter when the first guy takes the snap," Meyer said. "It's still very close, both guys are performing very well.
"If it was different skill sets, we probably would [need to decide], but they're not. If you look at J.T.'s game plan when he was our quarterback and Cardale's, it was very similar. There's a chance they'll both play, as well, so that hasn't really [been a factor] with our mindset with a game plan on offense."
All of those variables at least open the door a crack for Virginia Tech to pull off a shocker. Make no mistake, it's going to take a near perfect performance from Michael Brewer, Deon Clarke and Co. to turn the season upside down right away, but the opportunity is there.
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Texas and Notre Dame each will battle for second place on the all-time wins list on Saturday, but that's the only thing these two teams have in common.
After a finishing the season strong against LSU in the Music City Bowl, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly returns one of the most experienced rosters in the country. That, along with the emergence of quarterback Malik Zaire, has the Fighting Irish within a stone's throw of a top-10 ranking.
Charlie Strong doesn't have it quite so good. A weak 2014 finish has many looking down on the Longhorns, who will replace 10 starters from last year's 6-7 squad. With 24 freshmen on the two-deep, the rebuild is still very much on.
So while the all-time implications may not live up to the hype, the first impressions provided by these teams should be plenty interesting.
When Texas Has the Ball
The Longhorns' best hope on offense is to find success against Notre Dame's depleted defensive front. If they can't, then they're going to put a ton of pressure on their defense.
As noted by the Austin American-Statesman's Brian Davis, it hasn't been a great offseason for the Irish up front. NFL prospect Ishaq Williams has been declared ineligible for this season, Jarron Jones tore his MCL in fall camp, two pass-rushers transferred out and one JUCO recruit never enrolled.
Kelly still has seniors Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara holding it down, but everyone else is a sophomore or younger. That's where Texas will try to assert its edge and spring its running backs, especially senior Johnathan Gray.
The question is whether the Longhorn line is up to the task. Texas returns three starters up front, but will trot out two true freshmen who will be charged with trying to create running lanes against the likes of Jaylon Smith.
If the running game can't get going, the onus falls on Swoopes, who struggled when he had to be a one-man show in 2014. It's no coincidence that against TCU and Arkansas, his two worst performances of the year, the Horns ran for a total of 92 yards on 54 attempts.
But if Texas can create room, and possibly keep the Irish guessing by deploying Swoopes on a runner, this team's defense gives it a chance.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Make no mistake—the Irish can hurt the Longhorns in a variety of ways.
Led by running back Tarean Folston, the Irish return all six of last season's leaders in yards from scrimmage. On top of that, dual-threat terror Malik Zaire returns after a full season to learn Kelly's system.
Heading into this matchup, Kelly feels good about where Zaire is with the offense:
Yeah, it's a totally different Malik Zaire. A lot of it was first start [against LSU], not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren't sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.
But his development has been so much more since that game through the spring, through the summer and now in pregame, he's much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable.
And while Kelly feels like he sees a different Zaire, it's the junior's legs that should scare the Longhorns. Taysom Hill, Sam B. Richardson and Trevone Boykin all had big games against the Horns in 2014, and that team had far more veteran talent than this squad.
The Longhorn defense should be fine next season, but corralling all this explosive talent with nine freshmen on the two-deep will be tough. Texas' best bet is to crowd the line of scrimmage and force Zaire to prove how much he's really developed.
If Zaire can pick the Horns apart with his arm, then so be it.
Key Players for Texas: The Offensive Line
Nothing takes the air out of an opposing stadium like some old-fashioned ground-and-pound. And that's the only way Texas is going to take out the Irish on the road.
Texas has to be able to run to win this game. Even if Tyrone Swoopes is a new guy, he's missing his top-two receivers from last season, and he has a freshman protecting his blindside in Connor Williams. He can't win this game throwing 40-plus passes.
On the flip side, Williams and fellow freshman starter were brought up because they're real maulers. They're also going to be blocking for a probable 1,000-yard back in Gray, a rising star in D'Onta Foreman and a freak-show athlete in Chris Warren. Against a depleted defensive front, this team has a chance to move the chains.
Truly, it'd be one of the year's bigger upsets for Texas to run up to Notre Dame, with one of the nation's youngest rosters in the country, and tie up the all-time series. If it happens, it'll be because the offensive line set the tone.
Key Player for Notre Dame: RB Tarean Folston
With Greg Bryant possibly gone for good, it's Tarean Folston's show in the backfield. That means it's his job to make Zaire's job easy in the first game of the season.
Running behind an elite offensive line, Folston can end this one early. He's going to get the ball for as long as he's productive, and that will open things up for his quarterback down the field.
If Folston can't break through Texas' sneaky deep defensive line, then this offense could be in trouble. Not only are Horns underrated up front, but they return three starters from a secondary that gave up only 5.7 yards per attempt last season. That was good enough to tie for fourth in the nation, per cfbstats.com.
So, much like Swoopes, Zaire could easily throw his way into a lot of trouble. Or Folston can run like the feature back he wants to be, and the Irish will handle their business.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Texas 23
Two things are pretty obvious about this matchup.
The first is that whoever can control the ball will force the other team to get away from what it really wants to do. The other is that Notre Dame has much more talent and experience that says it'll get this done.
However, Texas isn't going to lay down. This is a young team, but it's a young team composed of exactly the type of players Strong wants to go to war with. Even last season, when his defense was shoving opposing offenses into quicksand, there were still some issues with guys being fully committed to the team.
This time around, Strong feels like his team is buying in:
It's been fun to watch, even with the offensive linemen where guys are still coaching the younger players. But when you take on that type of personality and you start seeing it form as a team, that's what you want to see. What you're developing for them as a team and you watch the confidence, you watch the consistency and you watch guys just all of a sudden begin to pull everybody in and become as one.
These Horns will figure out a way to make this closer than it should be, but the Irish will emerge with a comfortable win. There's just too much skill and experience on that sideline.
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An offseason of hype will finally come to an end on Monday when No. 1 Ohio State invades Blacksburg, Virginia, for a prime-time matchup against Virginia Tech.
The Buckeyes, fresh off their run through the first-ever College Football Playoff, are looking to avenge their only loss of their championship season—a stunning 35-21 defeat in last year's home opener. The Hokies, coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign, are hoping to prove that last year's game wasn't a fluke.
Beyond that, the highly anticipated season opener should answer a lot of the offseason's biggest questions. Which of the elite quarterbacks will take the field first as Ohio State's starter? Will the suspensions of Joey Bosa and a trio of pivotal receivers play a huge (and potentially decisive) role? Is Virginia Tech ready to reemerge as the national contender it was a decade ago?
Date: Monday, Sept. 7
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia
Spread: Ohio State State (-11), via Odds Shark
The Tennessee Volunteers will finally end all this hype and speculation when they take the field Saturday in a neutral-site season opener that will still have a hometown feel.
Coach Butch Jones' Vols will open in Nashville's Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, in a game that will showcase plenty of UT's young talent on display against Mid-American Conference upstart Bowling Green.
It's only fitting that the Vols open in the Midstate considering all the talent on the roster that hails from there.
After a preseason camp that featured far too many injuries, plenty of physical position battles and a wealth of attention from national media in nearly every major publication, it's good to finally be playing football. UT begins the season ranked 25th, and it'll kick right into full-throttle action.
The Falcons finished 8-6 a season ago with a win over South Alabama in the Camellia Bowl, and that was without star quarterback Matt Johnson, who'll return from a season-ending injury suffered last year.
"They're a very, very explosive offense," Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.
Tennessee, meanwhile, took an important step forward, finishing 7-6 to have its first winning season since 2009 and win its first bowl game since two years before that.
It was just the tip of expectations on Rocky Top, and this offseason already has come to a head of excitement ready to explode. UT fans are hungry to contend for an SEC title. That may still be a year away, but a strong start against BGSU may get the Vols believing.
Let's take a look at everything you need to know for the matchup.
Date: Saturday, Sep. 5
Time: 4 ET
Place: Nissan Stadium, Nashville
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, Bowling Green Falcons Sports Network, Sirius 119/XM 192
Spread: Tennessee by 20.5 points, according to Oddsshark.com.
When breaking down 2015 college football win totals and trying to assess best bets for the upcoming season, one of the most important factors to address is the juice you might need to lay to wager on the over or under when favored.
For this reason, bettors would be wise to look for value on the underdog side of the equation and hope oddsmakers missed the boat when setting their opening numbers.
However, one school that stands out this year with the same number on both sides for a pick’em at sportsbooks monitored by Odds Shark is the UCLA Bruins at nine over/under (20-23). The Bruins appear to be undervalued despite being public darlings because they underachieved last season.
Former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley was an early Heisman Trophy candidate but left school early after his junior year and went from being a potential first-round pick in the NFL draft to a fifth-round pick. The Bruins finished with a 10-3 record last season, but that included a 40-35 win over the Kansas State Wildcats in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Keep in mind that conference championships and bowl games do not count in the final win total tally at most sportsbooks, so make sure to check the rules.
This year, UCLA has one of the most prized freshmen in the country replacing Hundley in Josh Rosen. The Bruins are hoping the buzz around Rosen will help them play a lot better at the Rose Bowl this season after going just 3-3 there compared to 5-0 on the road.
If this team comes together and the offensive line protects Rosen better than it did Hundley, then going over nine wins is a solid play for this top Pac-12 contender.
Another school that looks to be over-hyped in 2015 is the Big 12’s TCU Horned Frogs at 10 over (2-3).
Even though the Horned Frogs are coming off a 12-win season and should be motivated after missing the College Football Playoff a year ago, they have tough road games against the Kansas State Wildcats and Oklahoma Sooners along with a difficult home matchup with the Baylor Bears in their home finale.
TCU going 9-3 does not seem like a long shot, although the betting odds have that possibility listed at 6-5.
With quarterback Trevone Boykin getting a lot of love as the early Heisman Trophy favorite, the Horned Frogs are receiving more media attention than ever. That has a tendency to backfire, so take a shot on the under with value.
Odds courtesy of Odds Shark.
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In case you’ve been living under a rock, the college football season kicks into high gear on Thursday night.
Yes, we’ve once again made it through another offseason and finally can put a halt to the bloviating and pondering to sit down and watch a real, live, actual football game.
One of the most anticipated contests of Week 1 has been the much-anticipated debut of Jim Harbaugh as the head coach at his alma mater, Michigan. You’d actually be hard-pressed not to know the game is happening judging by the amount of media coverage that has been generated by Harbaugh-mania.
While the return of a conquering hero (in the minds of the Maize and Blue faithful) is a notable storyline heading into Thursday night’s game, it is not the only one. In fact, if that’s all you know about the game, you might want to keep an eye out for the home team.
You know, the one that we know is actually good.
Utah isn’t ranked in the top 25 to start the year, but they should be and enter 2015 as one of a number of teams which legitimately earn the label of “Pac-12 contender.” Head coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad is coming off a 9-4 season, has a ton of starters returning and will be led on the field by a Heisman hopeful in running back Devontae Booker.
Sadly for the Utes, the most notable media coverage they’ve gotten about their opener may have been about cupcakes. Yes, cupcakes.
In this month’s edition of Popular Mechanics, editors noted that the college football season will get underway with Michigan taking on a “cupcake” opponent in Utah. The line did not go unnoticed in Salt Lake City, and it was promptly posted on the team’s bulletin board, according to local station Fox 13.
While the team and the magazine later had a good laugh over the whole matter, the incident was quite indicative of what most fans’ thinking is coming into the game: Michigan, Michigan and more Michigan.
Even Fox Sports, which is broadcasting the game, has trotted out a Harbaugh-inspired bus with a khaki paint scheme to promote the game. Tune into a show on the network this week, and you could even be treated to a promo shot of a handful of people dressed up like the Wolverines’ new coach—complete with a whistle. Heck, Fox Sports’ press release for the game noted the company would be tracking Harbaugh’s every move by streaming a camera locked on the coach that they dubbed the “Khaki Cam.”
There was no mention of any Whitting-cam, it should be noted.
Despite all the attention on Big Blue, you won’t find the Utes playing the overlooked card as motivation.
“Our guys know what’s out there,” Whittingham said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 conference call. “You shouldn’t really need much to motivate a football team to get ready for a game like this. We’ve just been going through our normal preparation process.”
Every opener is big. It sets the tone for the season in more ways than one. This game, however, means far more for Utah than a rebuilding Big Blue program. Expectations are high long-term for Michigan but decidedly mid-level for 2015.
That isn’t the case for Utah, which is looking to prove that last season’s breakthrough campaign in the Pac-12 was no fluke.
The Utes have every expectation of being in the thick of the Pac-12 South race. Their schedule is manageable—Arizona State and UCLA both come to Rice Eccles Stadium this year—and Booker figures to be one of the headliners on a team with plenty of potential. Quarterback Travis Wilson will start under center for his senior season and, if nothing else, has plenty of experience under his belt.
The defense will miss defensive end Nate Orchard and his FBS-leading sack total from 2014 but still returns enough to be one of the saltier units opposing offenses will face. There's plenty more to be optimistic about in Salt Lake City, too.
Harbaugh is a legitimate national storyline to follow this season as he tries to revive an historic power in Michigan. Don’t be surprised if the Wolverines are better than expected record-wise (they have plenty of top recruits on the roster, after all) and play well in the opener and beyond.
Just remember that as you settle in to watch Utah and Michigan on Thursday night, the game isn’t all about the Maize and Blue. The home team will shape the national landscape of the college football season more on the field than Harbaugh's khaki's ever will off it.
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The year of the grad transfer quarterback in college football is officially a go. Now the question is which one rises to the top of the landscape? After all, the idea of the grad transfer quarterback as a quick fix is popular, but not always accurate, as diagrammed by Matt Hinton of Grantland.com.
Not every one is the new Russell Wilson, but that hasn't stopped anyone from hoping they've landed him.
In preparation for Week 1 games, depth charts from around the country were released. Specifically, three high-profile programs named a grad transfer quarterback as their starter: Georgia (Greyson Lambert), Florida State (Everett Golson) and Oregon (Vernon Adams Jr.).
Additionally, Alabama and Michigan have a pair of grad transfers—Jake Coker and Jake Rudock, respectively—who are still in a quarterback battle, at least publicly. It's entirely possible that five major programs, many of which are in the preseason College Football Playoff conversation, will start a first-year transfer quarterback in Week 1.
Which one has the best year? It depends on how you define "best," but Vernon Adams fills out some critical areas.
He Can Put up Video Game Stats
We've already seen this on a limited basis when Adams played two Pac-12 opponents: Oregon State (2013) and Washington (2014). Put one way, he's a one-man machine of the NCAA Football video game variety whose overall rating is 99.
For his career at Eastern Washington, Adams compiled 11,670 total yards. He joins an Oregon team that, despite losing Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, returns plenty of skill players at running back and wide receiver. There's no shortage of speed and playmaking ability in Eugene. Royce Freeman, Charles Nelson, Bralon Addison and Byron Marshall are more than capable of scoring on every touch.
Adams gives the offense something extra that longtime backup Jeff Lockie simply doesn't, as evident by his highlight videos from Eastern Washington and comments from former coach Beau Baldwin.
"He's just so good in so many ways, that part of it is going to be a challenge," Baldwin told Andrew Greif of the Oregonian." It's a challenge for any team when they play Vernon Adams—you're up against one of the best in the country at any level."
All the same, he won't have to be a one-man show, either. And that's an important difference.
Still, Adams is a two-time runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, which is the FCS version of the Heisman. If Adams can eclipse, say, 4,000 total yards in 2015, who's to say he won't have a shot at the actual Heisman?
He's Showing Natural Leadership
Despite the popular narrative, there's nothing guaranteed about a grad transfer quarterback coming into a new environment and starting. Earlier this month, I spoke to B/R colleague Michael Felder, a former college player at North Carolina, about what Adams was facing in his new home. Long story short, Adams had to come in humble, ready to work and willing to show the utmost respect to Lockie—and that was on top of mastering the playbook.
That's a tough task. It doesn't matter who you are. Complicating things more was that Adams was late (albeit only by a few days) arriving to preseason camp because of a math test. There's a lot of trust he had to earn right away.
But by being named the starter so quickly, Adams has showed he's gained the respect of the locker room. As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports tweeted, that's a good sign for him moving forward:
Now, that leadership must show itself during the season when Oregon finds itself in tight games. Most players on the Ducks roster have been together for two to four years. They trust one other. As a newcomer, Adams is in a position of leadership that requires instant trust.
Oregon is Primed for Another Playoff Run
Yes, Mariota is gone. Even Adams can't "replace" him. No one can. Mariota was a once-in-a-generation player for the Ducks who had a season unlike any other before him. But that doesn't mean the cupboard is bare in Eugene.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports stated a case for why Oregon could return to the playoff this year. In summary, it boils down to the experience returning to the field:
Better still, the Ducks will surround Adams -- or understudy Jeff Lockie -- with even more skill talent than Mariota had last year. Royce Freeman is no longer a freshman, and he should prove to be one of the best RBs in college football. The guy who would've been the Ducks' top wideout last year, Bralon Addison (who missed all of 2014) returns, and he should lead a deep, fast, talented WR group.
DeForest Buckner is back to spark the D-line, and folks around the UO program are gushing about huge freshman DL Canton Kaumatule. The Ducks' front seven, with four seniors at linebacker, should be very stout, better than the group they had that made it to the title game.
What does that have to do with Adams? It shows he doesn't have to carry the entire team on his back. The pieces are in place for another run at a Pac-12 North title...which could lead to a Pac-12 title...which could lead to a playoff appearance...which could, well, you get the point.
What Oregon has in Adams is a unique individual talent who can change and take over games like few others can. Surrounding him is a supporting cast of players who have what it takes to win at the highest level.
The numbers, the intangibles, the national profile—it's all there for Adams to have a monumental year in his only FBS appearance. Not every grad transfer quarterback in 2015 will have things line up for him that way. That's what separates the Russell Wilsons of the college football world from everyone else.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com unless noted otherwise.
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When Oregon announced Vernon Adams as its starting quarterback late last week, Darnay Holmes instantly beamed with pride.
The 2017 5-star athlete shares the same hometown of Pasadena, California, with the new Ducks passer.
Adams’ journey from little-known recruit to the edge of superstardom has resonated with the 5’11”, 190-pound rising junior at Calabasas (California) High School.
“That’s a great honor for Pasadena,” Holmes told Bleacher Report. “I definitely know he is going to put on for the city and try to win the Heisman and bring that back to Pasadena. Oregon is definitely going to be a contender to win it all in my opinion. “
Holmes said the communication between he and Adams has been infrequent. However, he notes that Adams has given him some helpful advice on the recruiting process and finding success at the next level.
“When we do [talk], it’s about football and just trying become a better man,” Holmes said.
While Adams came up as an unknown in the recruiting world, Holmes—who is the nation’s No. 2 corner and No. 8 prospect overall in the 2017 class—is one of the biggest prizes in the country in his class. Still, he admits watching Adams overcome a series of hurdles to win the Ducks quarterback job has inspired him.
“He’s just telling me not to take anything for granted,” Holmes said. “He just tells me to keep working hard. He came from a lower-division school and I’m getting recruited from a higher-division school. So he worked his tail off to get to Oregon, so that definitely motivates me that no matter where I’m at, just to try and do my absolute best and play my heart out. He’s proof that if you do that, you can achieve great things.”
A two-way standout who plays both corner and receiver, Holmes appears to have a bright future ahead of him on the gridiron.
He’s already amassed more than 20 offers heading into his junior season, and his recruitment is beginning to take shape.
As noted by Brad Allis of 247Sports, Holmes released a list of his top 10 schools in late July. Alabama, Arizona, Miami, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, Stanford, USC, UCLA and Washington were the lucky schools that made his list.
However, he said his list could change if and when new schools enter the picture with offers.
His two most recent summer visits were to Ohio State and Stanford.
He came away impressed with his time spent in Columbus.
“They are a great program,” Holmes said of the Buckeyes. “They know how to groom players into men. They know what they are doing over there. They just have that dog mentality. When I went up there, it was just a different environment. Everybody was hungry. When I went to the camp, I was just acting like I was one of their players who already have that type of same mentality and I performed well.”
The Cardinal represent the in-state school that seems to have the most traction with him at the moment.
“When I was there on campus, it just gave me that feeling of wanting to strive for greatness,” Holmes said. “Stanford is definitely one of those schools that has great academics and the football side of it is also great now. They have a great 2016 class coming in, and that’s something a lot of the guys in the 2017 class are looking into and paying attention to. Stanford is definitely a school that is going to be on the rise in the next couple of years.”
He has a tentative visit planned to Virginia Tech for the Labor Day matchup with Ohio State, which he said he will know for sure whether or not he will be able to attend by Wednesday. That trip is the only one on his agenda currently.
He tentatively mentioned next summer as a time that he would like to make a decision, but there are a few more visits he wants to take and schools such as Florida State and Texas he is hoping to hear from in the future.
His duties are likely to include making game-changing plays on both sides of the ball, which is something he hopes to continue to do at the next level.
“Whenever I get to college, I will see how I fit in going both ways,” Holmes said. “If I’m man enough to play both ways, I think they will let me do it. In my opinion, I was born a corner. But I’ve played on the offensive side since I was young. If they give me a chance to go offense, I will definitely try to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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Making fun of your coach probably isn't the best move for a freshman. But that's exactly what linebacker Malik Jefferson did Monday night.
Using this photo of Charlie Strong standing on a stool during a presser, Jefferson tweeted: "He didn't drink his milk."
Teammate Connor Williams may have said it best:
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Teams don't win championships in September. But that doesn't mean they can't get a head start in the race.
Week 1 of the college football season is prime time for programs who want to set the tone for a playoff push. While early losses won't put an end to those title dreams, teams can cement themselves as serious contenders with big opening-week wins.
So which team has the most to gain from a Week 1 victory?
As John Solomon of CBS Sports noted Tuesday, the first week of the 2015 season only has one game between top-25 teams—No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 20 Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. According to Solomon, fans were treated to three top-25 matchups to open 2014.
Being the only preseason contender to play a ranked team to open the season, Alabama would be the easy answer here.
But according to Odds Shark, Alabama is a 10-point favorite over Wisconsin, which is breaking in a new head coach and must replace half its starters from last season. While a loss for the Tide would produce some nuclear-level hot takes, few would be impressed if Alabama takes care of business in Arlington on Saturday.
The same goes for No. 2 TCU, which opened as a 16-point road favorite for Thursday night's game at Minnesota. No. 1 Ohio State is favored between 11 and 12 points on the road against a Virginia Tech team it lost to last season, and No. 6 Auburn is steady as a 10.5-point favorite over Louisville in neutral-site Atlanta.
Later on down the list, No. 11 Notre Dame is a nine-point favorite at home against Texas, and No. 13 UCLA has a slightly larger advantage on Virginia. If all six of these teams record multi-score wins this weekend, don't expect to see a big shakeup in the polls or the national conversation.
The rest of the major contenders, from No. 2 Baylor down to No. 19 Oklahoma, will feast on an easy and steady diet of Group of Five and FCS programs—except for one.
No. 15 Arizona State is becoming a trendier playoff dark-horse pick, and the Sun Devils have the best opportunity to make a huge statement on Saturday night.
Arizona State will face Texas A&M, which is ranked just outside the AP's preseason top 25, in a virtual road game at neutral-site NRG Stadium in Houston.
Spoiler alert: The crowd will mostly be made up of Aggie fans.
And that in-state advantage for Texas A&M makes Arizona State the underdog in this matchup. The Aggies opened as three-point favorites over the Sun Devils and are holding steady there, even though Arizona State is the higher-ranked team in all the major polls.
According to Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham is already well aware of the challenge his team will face from those "Aggies" who aren't lining up on the field Saturday night:
Obviously, I'm very familiar with what type of atmosphere we're going into; it's why we took the game. It's going to be one of the loudest places we've ever played. It'll be a big-time atmosphere, which we hope to get a lot of opportunities in.
There's a reason why they call [Texas A&M's crowd] the 12th man. They've got one of the best home atmospheres. Even though we're playing at a so-called neutral site, with their alumni base there, it will be a major crowd for them.
While they don't have the name value of a USC or an Oregon out of the Pac-12, the Sun Devils have the potential to make a serious run at championships this season.
Last year, Arizona State overachieved in a huge way, winning 10 games in a season in which it had just eight returning starters—with just two on defense. The Sun Devils beat four ranked teams in the span of five weeks.
Now, they have 16 returning starters, including their top two rushers, three of their top five receivers, four offensive linemen and all but two of their top playmakers from last year's defense.
Arizona State's offense is both balanced and explosive. The Sun Devils ranked No. 33 nationally in passing and No. 58 in rushing last season while finishing No. 20 for offensive plays of 10 yards or more.
One of Arizona State's few new full-time starters, senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, threw for more than 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns last season in just three starts. Now he's ready to take over an offense that returns plenty of weapons and veteran linemen.
"I know one thing: If I was an NFL coach, that's the kind of quarterback I'd look for—a guy that's not just talked about character, but has demonstrated it by his walk," Graham said, via Haller. "Mike's getting better every day. He's like having a coach on the field."
Bercovici and the veteran Arizona State offense will take on a Texas A&M defense that has struggled in recent seasons but has a new coordinator in veteran John Chavis. If the Sun Devils can hit the Aggies with their speed and power on offense, big plays will come against a unit in transition.
Arizona State should get the most trouble from Texas A&M when the Aggies have the ball, but the Sun Devils are experienced on defense.
Texas A&M will look to push the ball through the air Saturday night with sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen and a deep corps of talented receivers including Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones.
Arizona State returns its top six linebackers from a season ago and all but one starter in the secondary. The back seven will be busy, but it's the most veteran, battle-tested unit on the entire team.
As Ian Boyd of SB Nation wrote earlier this year, Arizona State is "perfectly designed to ruin (the Aggies') day," even though it's are considered the underdog in this matchup away from home.
"The Arizona State game plan will be simple: attack the Aggies with exotic blitzes on defense and motion/misdirection on offense," Boyd wrote. "Look for a lead, then pound the ball on the ground to avoid having to block (Texas A&M defensive end Myles) Garrett in crunch time."
If Arizona State can move the ball efficiently against the Chavis defense and frustrate what should be another high-powered offense from Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, the upset is there for the taking.
A big win in a virtual road game would give Arizona State huge momentum heading into a trio of home games—the last of which is a matchup with Pac-12 favorite USC.
Get the early-season hype train rolling, and these Sun Devils will be more than dark horses in the race for the national championship.
Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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It's officially Week 1 of handicapping season, which of course means the return of college football!
(Wait…I think I might have had the backward.)
But seriously, welcome back for another year of picks against the spread, where each week we attempt to pick winners for the games involving Top 25 college football teams.
Last year I subbed in for Adam Kramer, who left the column to care for his newborn, and managed not to spit on his grave. I started slow in October, but a hot streak at the end of the year (31-13 over the final three weeks) landed me at 59 percent for the season.
That is a percentage I can live with.
Everyone who picks games against the spread has a unique handicapping philosophy. Mine relies heavily on numbers, but all numbers require context. I'll explain to the best of my ability why I make each pick I make, and I welcome any comments or criticism.
Just remember: We are all on the same team here. The line is our only enemy.
You hear it all the time. Big-time commit, stressed out about the recruiting process, announces his verbal commitment and feels as if a 500-pound weight is no longer on his shoulders.
Philadelphia standout Naseir Upshur fit the description perfectly. And when the 4-star tight end announced Tuesday afternoon that he has verbally committed to Florida State, it gave him a second wind of sorts, one that allows him to focus solely on his senior year at Imhotep Institute.
"I just feel free now," Upshur said. "No more stress."
Upshur chose Florida State over Michigan. He also gave the Seminoles and head coach Jimbo Fisher their 18th pledge—13 of those 18 are ranked as at least 4-star athletes. Cornerback Levonta Taylor is the team's only 5-star pledge.
Upshur's commitment also put Florida State in a good position to retake the top spot in the 247Sports team rankings for the 2016 class. Entering Tuesday, Florida State (253.19 points) trailed Ohio State (277.05) and LSU (266.15) for the top spot.
The Seminoles are still at No. 3 after Upshur's commitment, but the team now has 260.8 points.
Sure, the rankings are solely for entertainment, strictly for bragging rights, but in a game that thrives off of competitive natures, having the top spot is something every class wants.
And it's something within reach for the Seminoles.
The recruiting process is only in September, which means there are still five months remaining for coaches to gain—and potentially lose—top-ranked recruits. Florida State has done a solid job with its class thus far, particularly despite watching 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta and 4-star wide receiver Keith Gavin reopen their recruiting in July and August, respectively.
Landing Upshur could be the first step in Florida State overtaking the top spot. A few 5-star talents would boost the ranking. The No. 1 spot could be in reach with commitments of defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Shavar Manuel, as well as wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers. Lawrence and Manuel are ranked the Nos. 2 and 3 defensive tackles, and Craig-Myers is ranked the No. 1 receiver nationally.
The Seminoles still have room to also land 4-star players like cornerback Trayvon Mullen, linebacker Keion Joyner and offensive lineman Landon Dickerson. While those players can help Florida State's rise, potential decommitments from Ohio State and LSU also could play a role in the Seminoles being the top-ranked team.
It's still early to determine whether or not the Seminoles will be ranked No. 1 when it's time for athletes to sign national letters of intent. It is, however, safe to say that the Seminoles will be in the running for the top spot deep into the recruiting season.
Upshur was a big get Tuesday. Fisher and the rest of the coaching staff are hoping the good news doesn't stop there.
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon on Twitter @DamonSayles.
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The Michigan Wolverines football team hasn't suffered many setbacks on the 2016 recruiting trail, soaring near the top of national class rankings.
Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh faced a rare dose of adversity on that front Tuesday afternoon, when elite tight end target Naseir Upshur announced intentions to attend Florida State.
The 4-star Philadelphia prospect picked the Seminoles over Michigan in an exclusive commitment video with Bleacher Report:
Upshur, a 6'2", 233-pound senior at Imhotep Institute, received interest from the Wolverines as an underclassman. The program's pursuit intensified upon the arrival of a new coaching regime, as tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh made him a priority.
"I talk to Michigan just about every day, so I'm very comfortable with them," Upshur told Bleacher Report in April. "I talk to Jay Harbaugh on the phone at least twice a week for like an hour. We have a great relationship."
Michigan seemed to be in the driver's seat for this recruitment when summer arrived. A June visit to Ann Arbor further solidified his strong rapport with the Wolverines:
Just a month ago, Upshur discussed plans to spend an official visit at Michigan. He told Bleacher Report the goal was to attend a Wolverines home game against either Michigan State or Ohio State.
It remains to be seen whether Upshur, rated fifth nationally among tight ends in 2016 composite rankings, will still visit other universities. For now, his decision fills a need at Florida State and leaves Michigan searching for an alternative tight end option.
Ultimately, this entire process may come full circle.
Isaac Nauta, the nation's top overall tight end prospect, backed off an eight-month verbal pledge to the Seminoles in late July. The coaching staff suffered a major blow but quickly moved on to Upshur, who told Bleacher Report he frequently heard from Florida State even when Nauta remained committed.
This development turned the tide of his recruitment, gradually shifting momentum from Ann Arbor to Tallahassee. Rather than wait to weigh things further, Upshur elected to make a decision before the season.
As a result, Nauta now becomes the Wolverines' chief offensive concern. He already revealed plans to use an official visit at Michigan in October.
The 5-star IMG Academy (Florida) standout will travel north for the team's Oct. 17 matchup with Michigan State. Nauta also locked in official visits to TCU, Georgia and USC.
He isn't just the country's No. 1 tight end recruit, as Nauta also sits atop the entire crop of receiver rankings in this cycle. His skill set and stout 6'4" physical frame will provide an immediate boost for whichever offensive attack he joins next season.
Michigan already claims a pair of 4-star running backs and an Elite 11 quarterback in its 2016 class. Solid pieces are in place, but none would arrive in Ann Arbor with greater initial expectations than Nauta, who is also mulling visits to Alabama, Oregon, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State.
A rough 2014 season and eventual coaching change cost Michigan top-tier 2015 tight end Chris Clark, who decommitted and eventually signed with UCLA. Nauta carries even more potential than Clark and could warrant all-conference consideration as a true freshman if he arrives healthy and motivated.
Expect Jim and Jay Harbaugh to heavily recruit Clark for the duration of this cycle. He and 5-star New Jersey defensive tackle Rashan Gary likely own the top two spots on the Wolverines' recruiting board.
Nauta's decommitment may have inadvertently derailed Michigan's chances with Upshur on Tuesday. Still, there's a possibility Wolverines fans will ultimately sing his praises on national signing day.
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Another one bites the dust.
Game week has answered several lingering questions around the SEC, including ones surrounding quarterbacks at LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss.
Despite losing two-year starter Nick Marshall, Auburn didn't have that question hanging over its head. Head coach Gus Malzahn tabbed junior Jeremy Johnson as his No. 1 signal-caller shortly after spring practice.
Now we know who's going to be lining up behind (or alongside) him.
Auburn released its depth chart for the first week of the season via email, and the three-man running back battle taking place this fall among junior Jovon Robinson and sophomores Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas appears to be down to one.
With Thomas as the No. 1 and Barber and Robinson bracketed with "or," it's a clear indication that Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have faith that their 5'10", 203-pound sophomore is ready for the big time.
Get ready for Thomas to become a star, because he's in the perfect place for instant success on the Plains
True All-Purpose Back
If you're looking for a home run hitter, Thomas is it.
He was "Mr. Football" in the state of Alabama in 2013 and was a 5-star prospect in the class of 2014 out of Oxford (Alabama) High School. He rushed for an eye-popping 5,515 yards and 76 touchdowns in three high school seasons and has the potential to be one of the most electric running backs in college football.
Johnson is excited about what Thomas is bringing to the table, according to Tom Green of the Opelika-Auburn News.
That's not good enough to be Auburn's feature back, though.
Former Tigers Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne each led the SEC in rushing attempts in 2013 and 2014, respectively. For Auburn to operate at the tempo that Malzahn likes, he needs to find a running back who can do everything and prevent the staff from substituting within drives.
Thomas ran much more north/south in the spring game than he did during his freshman season, and according to Lashlee, has improved as a pass-blocker as well.
"Hopefully, having more weight will help keep him healthy through the season," Lashlee said last month according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. "He's not small—he's over 200 pounds, 5"11"—and 200-something pounds is a good sized back. Some guys that run hard and violent and with a lot of cutting like him sometimes you’re more concerned about them with durability.
"I think that's No. 1 thing we're most excited about. We hope that will help keep him healthy. And two, it has probably given him confidence to be tougher. He's been tough all fall camp. He's been great in pass protection. He's been great in short yardage situations. He's really grown up so far in practice from where he was in the spring."
Is he the same kind of back as Mason and Artis-Payne were for Malzahn?
No, of course not. But he has the burst to be a superstar, can do some of the things they thrived doing for their Tiger teams and has clearly won over a staff that knows a thing or two (or 12) about running backs.
The Perfect System
Malzahn gets pegged as a spread guru and perhaps labeled as gimmicky at times. Make no mistake, though, at his core, Malzahn is a two-back, power coach who operates out of the spread with tempo.
Over Malzahn's nine seasons as a college head or assistant coach, he's produced 12 1,000-yard rushers during stints at Arkansas, Tulsa, Auburn and Arkansas State.
There's no shortage of talent on the Plains. Thomas has a ton of hype, Robinson set the junior college rushing record in 2013 with 2,387 yards, according to his Auburn bio, and freshman Kerryon Johnson is carrying virtually the same hype to the Plains as Thomas did a year ago including the "Mr. Football" title.
Despite that dangerous backfield, Thomas has emerged as the starter despite only limited game action in college.
But wait, isn't Auburn going to be more balanced this year thanks to new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson?
Balance is the wrong word. As my colleague Michael Felder noted in our Auburn preview video below, it's not going to be different, it's going to be better and more complete.
Don't forget, Malzahn became the first offensive coordinator in FBS history to produce a 5,000-yard passer (Paul Smith, 5,065), 1,000-yard rusher (Tarrion Adams, 1,225) and three, 1,000-yard receivers (Brennan Marion, 1,244; Trae Johnson, 1,088; Charles Clay, 1,024) in the same season when he did it at Tulsa in 2007.
The running game won't be diminished by a more complete attack, the Auburn offense as a whole will simply be better.
Let's Get Creative
Thomas is an all-around back and will get the first snaps, but neither a preseason depth chart nor a game-week press conference can properly indicate just how players are going to be used.
Expect Thomas to get plenty of looks not just as a running back out of the backfield, but as a receiver/safety valve for Johnson and in the speed sweep role splitting time with wide receiver Ricardo Louis.
While he has evolved into a true all-purpose back, his ability to move in tight spaces will be a huge benefit to Auburn on screen passes and in traffic off the edge. In the spring game highlights above, you see just how dangerous he is in space including at the 0:09 mark, when he stumbles, regains his feet, cuts outside, jukes one defender and takes it to the house.
That ability to be a home run threat, when combined with the creative ways Malzahn and Lashlee get the ball in the hands of playmakers in space, should vault Thomas into stardom in 2015.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93 XM 208. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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