NCAA Football News

Notre Dame Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule

The 2016 schedule should be relatively kind to the Notre Dame football team, but the Fighting Irish certainly won't be waltzing toward the College Football Playoff.

Still, though head coach Brian Kelly's squad begins and ends the year away from South Bend, most of his team's toughest games will be played in the comfort of Notre Dame Stadium.

That home-heavy slate bodes well for the Irish's aspirations to compete for a national championship, especially because the toughest opponent—both collectively and individually—must travel 2,200 miles.

Five teams—and one wild card—present the greatest obstacles in the path of Notre Dame ripping off an undefeated regular season.

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College Football's Most Important Offers of the Week

Every now and then, one recruit will receive a flood of interest that results in numerous offers in a short time period. 

That was the case last week with 3-star linebacker Tyler Taylor from Lanier High School in Buford, Georgia. 

Nine Power Five schools, including programs from the Big Ten, Big 12 and the SEC, pulled the trigger on the 6’1”, 213-pounder—who rates as the nation’s No. 21 inside linebacker and the No. 593 player overall in the 2017 cycle.

His offer spree netted him tenders from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

One of the new schools on his list that grabbed his attention is the homestanding Bulldogs, as detailed by Rusty Mansell of Dawgs247.

"They are a great program!" Taylor told Mansell. "I think the defense that they run fits well with how I play as a linebacker being able to play inside and outside. I don't have any leaders as of right now because I'm still fairly new to the recruiting process but they are certainly high on the list. Plus being from Georgia always helps."

Another school that could figure heavily in the mix with Taylor is Auburn, who recently signed prep teammate and 5-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown in the 2016 cycle.

Regardless, it seems that Taylor is a prospect who will continue to draw interest from top programs around the nation in the coming months.

 

Clemson Offers 2017’s Top WR

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has recruited the receiver position as well as any coach in the country in recent years.

The Tigers already have a pledge from 4-star Amari Rodgers, and they are surging for 4-star James Robinson.

However, the Tigers aren’t done in their quest to land game-breakers in the 2017 cycle.

As ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren reported, the Tigers offered 5-star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones last week.

The 6’2”, 192-pound Detroit native is the nation’s top receiver and the No. 6 player overall in the 2017 cycle. 

With the Tigers' success in grooming receivers under Swinney, their program is one likely to attract interest from a national prospect such as Peoples-Jones.

 

Ohio State After Utah DL

One of Ohio State’s primary needs in the 2017 cycle is at the defensive tackle position.

Head coach Urban Meyer and his staff have already landed verbal commitments from a pair of 4-stars at the position in Haskell Garrett and Jerron Cage, but the Buckeyes would love to add more talent and depth at that spot.

Last week, the Buckeyes offered 4-star defensive tackle Jay Tufele—who is the top overall prospect from the state of Utah, the nation’s No. 3 defensive tackle and the No. 65 prospect overall in the 2017 cycle.

According to Bill Kurelic of Bucknuts, the interest from the Buckeyes caught Tufele’s attention immediately. 

"I'm real interested in Ohio State," Tufele told Kurelic. "They are one of the top teams in the nation. For sure I'll get out to Ohio State, probably in the summer."

With a visit on tap, the Buckeyes could become a major factor in his recruitment moving forward.

 

Oregon Offers Top West Coast CB

One of the top defensive backs on the West Coast is 4-star corner and Los Angeles native Deommodore Lenoir.

Last week, Lenoir secured a summer trip to Oregon for The Opening after a dominating performance in the LA Nike Opening Regional that netted him an invite to the nation’s premier summer camp. 

However, he may take another trip to Oregon sooner after he was able to land an offer last week from Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich, as reported by Justin Hopkins of 247Sports.

Lenoir told Hopkins that he plans to visit Oregon for its spring game in April and that the Ducks joined Louisville, Michigan, Nebraska and UCLA in his top five. 

With the Ducks now in the hunt for Lenoir’s services, they are primed to make a run at landing the nation’s No. 8 corner and the No. 72 player overall in the 2017 cycle.

 

Best of the Rest

2017

 

2018

 

2019

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why Josh Doctson is Safest Wide Receiver in 2016 NFL Draft

TCU wide receiver Josh Doctson is not the most physically gifted prospect as his position in the 2016 NFL draft.

He lacks the speed of Notre Dame's Will Fuller or the strength of Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell. But Doctson may have the most complete package of skills, which should allow for a smooth transition to life in the NFL.

We routinely see NFL teams fall in love with the elite athletes at the wide receiver position despite the fact that others with a more well-rounded skill set often end up outplaying their more highly regarded peers at the next level.

The 2014 draft provided a great example of this trend, as the Buffalo Bills not only selected Sammy Watkins fourth overall but traded their 2015 first-round selection in order to make it happen.

Watkins' career has gotten off to a nice start, but it would difficult to imagine the Bills making that selection again with Odell Beckham Jr. still on the board. Beckham went 12th overall to the New York Giants. Even Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans (seventh overall) has arguably outplayed Watkins to this point in their careers.

In 2013, the St. Louis Rams fell victim to the same trend, taking the electric Tavon Austin eighth overall, while the Houston Texans were able to land DeAndre Hopkins with the 27th selection.

Elite athleticism does not always translate to NFL success, but the other receivers mentioned—Hopkins, Beckham and Evans—all possess the same trait which has a strong correlation between success in college and the pros.

Each of these receivers lacks the explosive traits of Watkins or Austin but makes up for it with elite ball skills.

Though the term "ball skills" is often mistaken for a simple lack of drops, it goes much deeper than that.

Having reliable hands is part of the equation, but Doctson puts himself in the category with the likes of Hopkins, Beckham and Evans because of his ability to adjust to the ball and put himself in position to make the difficult contested catches.

According to CFB Film Room, Doctson hauled in over 50 percent of his targets in contested situations in 2015:

Contest Catch %
Josh Doctson, 20 rec on 37 cont. tgt (54%)
Michael Thomas, 13-25 (52%)
Corey Coleman, 13-28 (46%)
Will Fuller, 11-28 (39%)

— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) March 3, 2016

For this reason, Doctson doesn't necessarily need to create separation in order to make plays, which makes his modest speed and agility mostly irrelevant.

TCU recognized this fact, and it showed in its usage of Doctson.

While TCU utilized Doctson all over the field, according to Pro Football Focus, 24 percent of his targets came on go routes, which wouldn't be possible without his ability to win the battle for jump balls.

Many of Doctson's receptions on go routes looked like the one below. Despite strong coverage from the Kansas State cornerback, Doctson tracks the ball and times his leap perfectly, allowing him to complete the contested catch.

It's also important to note that Doctson was able to support his on-field performance with strong combine numbers in the relevant workouts.

As NFL.com's Chase Goodbread noted, Doctson's leaping ability was on full display in Indianapolis:

TCU WR Josh Doctson's killed it with the jump drills. 10'11" broad, 41" vertical. #MedalsCount

— Chase Goodbread (@ChaseGoodbread) February 27, 2016

It's reasonable to rank other receivers in this class higher than Doctson based on their ceiling, but it's difficult to find anyone with a skill set better suited for a smooth transition to the NFL.

Doctson's ability to make plays in coverage is a skill that we've seen translate from the college game to the pros consistently. Perhaps Doctson's upside is limited by his lack of elite size (6'2", 202 lbs) or speed, but his ball skills make him one of the few instant-impact receivers in this class and give him a very high floor as a prospect.

For these reasons, Doctson should be considered one of the safest prospects in the entire 2016 NFL draft class.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Pro Day 2016: Live Results for Peyton Barber, Ricardo Louis and More

AUBURN, Ala. — Before the 2016 Auburn Tigers opened their second week of spring practice, several of their NFL hopefuls from seasons past were put to the test one more time on the Plains.

Fourteen former Tigers took to the weight room and indoor practice field for Auburn's 2016 pro day. Representatives from every NFL team except the Arizona Cardinals were in attendance, including New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, as Sam Butler of the Auburn Plainsman noted: 

Cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis looked to build on their strong performances at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. 

Others wanted to turn some more heads, including wide receiver D'haquille Williams, who was dismissed from the team on October 5 but was invited back on campus for drills.

Here are the full results from Monday's action, including a breakout day for defensive back Blake Countess:

Perhaps the biggest Auburn story coming out of the combine, running back Peyton Barber, felt he had a strong overall pro day workout. 

Barber, who decided to leave school early in order to provide financial assistant for his mother, posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.59 seconds and a 32-inch vertical leap.

Jeff Shearer of the school's official website shared a video Barber's performance:

"I really wanted to show off my explosion today," Barber said. "I also wanted to show teams my route running and my willingness to catch the ball...I think I did well."

Jones and Louis elected to pass on several of the athletic tests Monday morning thanks to their strong results at the combine. Jones officially ran his 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, while Louis had a 4.43 along with a position-best 132-inch broad jump.

"I think this has just been a great thing for me and my confidence, getting back from dealing with injuries during the season and being healthy right now," Jones said. "Just being able to have a time to prove what I can do, coming from the Senior Bowl into this and the combine."

Shearer shared why Jones didn't run at the school's pro day:

However, the two did test out in some on-field position drills. Louis even got some work at defensive back, which is something he said he hasn't done since his freshman year of high school.

"Whatever a team wants me to play, whatever position, it doesn't matter," Louis said. "As long as I play in the league. I want to play as long as I possibly can and be part of the reason why a team wins a Super Bowl."

Auburn's best 2016 NFL draft prospect, offensive tackle Shon Coleman, wasn't able to participate, but he still got some face time with franchises on Monday, as noted by the Montgomery Advertiser:

He didn't go through any drills at the school's pro day due to an MCL tear he said he suffered against Georgia last season.

Coleman, who is currently rated as the No. 57 overall prospect by Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller, is focusing on scheduling limited private workouts with teams ahead of the draft.

He expects to be completely healthy by minicamp for his new team.

"It's definitely frustrating," Coleman said. "Being at the combine, I truly felt like I was the most athletic lineman there. So me not being able to showcase that, it's kind of painful. But at the same time, the rehab process is going well, and I'm trying to make everything better than it was before I got hurt."

The best pro day performance belonged to Countess, who wasn't invited to the NFL combine with the likes of Jones, Louis and Coleman.

"This was my combine," Countess said. "I knew I had to do everything to the best of my abilities today, and I felt like I did that."

Countess got off to a hot start with the best vertical jump of any Tiger at 36.5 inches, and he followed it up with 21 reps of 225 pounds on bench press—more than a couple of Auburn's linemen at the event. Bryan Matthews of Rivals.com provided a video of the senior during the drill:

According to James Crepea of AL.com, Countess' bench press total would've been the best among cornerbacks and second-best among all defensive backs at the combine:

Countess' speed and strength should serve him well as an NFL prospect. The former Michigan transfer played both cornerback and safety in his one year at Auburn, and he has familiarity with a wide range of looks thanks to his time at both schools.

"That's what I expected of myself today," Countess said. "I think it was a good thing to be able to showcase that and put it on display in front of everybody. I felt like I would've been a top-three performer in more than one drill [at the combine]. I wasn't there, but I'm competing here."

Williams also competed Monday morning at Auburn, and he was able to slightly improve his numbers from what was a rough overall combine showing in Indianapolis. 

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said he made the decision to invite Williams back to campus for pro day. Fox 6's Sheldon Haygood provided a look at the former Tiger:

"I let [Williams] come out here today," Malzahn said. "I felt like that was the right thing to do. That was my decision. We wish him the best. Hopefully he impressed some guys for the future."

Several former Tigers at the combine reacted positively to Williams' return to the Plains.

"That's still our brother," offensive tackle Avery Young said. "Regardless of what all of his issues were, he's still our brother. He's still an Auburn guy. We rally around each other, no matter what things are going on... I met up with him up at the combine, and everything was good." 

For Williams and the rest of the players under the microscope Monday, taking the field back at Auburn one more time in front of Malzahn and plenty of current Tigers provided plenty of motivation.

"This time of year is always exciting, to see these guys take the next step," Malzahn said. "It looked like they're having a good time out there, flying around. I'm really proud of this group."

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The SEC West's Most Indispensable Players for 2016

The most misleading statistic in college football entering the 2016 season is that the majority of teams in the Southeastern Conference have their starting quarterbacks returning.

Technically, it’s true but only in spirit, especially in the SEC West.

With Jake Coker, Brandon Allen and Dak Prescott having all seen their eligibility expire, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State will all be having quarterback competitions.

Alabama will see if Cooper Bateman can hold off Blake Barnett and David Cornwell, Southern California transfer Ricky Town will compete with Austin Allen at Arkansas, and Nick Fitzgerald is considered the favorite at Mississippi State but has to beat out Elijah Staley for the job.

But they won’t be the only ones.

After Sean White and Jeremy Johnson combined to have 11 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season, Auburn added junior college transfer John Franklin III.

After Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen both left Texas A&M, Jake Hubenak took over, which made him the starting quarterback. However, Trevor Knight transferred in from Oklahoma and will have one chance to win the starting job.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin addressed Knight's importance to the team during his press conference on national signing day:

I count Trevor in this class and as probably the most important recruit. We secured him right after the bowl game. Trevor Knight is a young man—a man at this point—that has graduated and has enrolled in the Mays Business grad school. Was MVP of the Sugar Bowl. Has been on big stages and won big games. Brings experience, brings stabilizing factor, brings competitive nature to the position along with Jake.

That leaves Brandon Harris at LSU and, of course, Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, who might be the league’s most indispensable player in 2016.

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Predicting the 10 College Football Teams Most Likely to Regress in 2016

Breakout teams will emerge during the 2016 season, but other college football programs will regress compared to their most recent campaign.

Whether due to coaching changes, departing players or a combination of both, the following teams are most likely to fall short of their 2015 achievements—which is not exclusively limited to the win column—next season.

Another key factor in determining the list was a school's respective schedule. Nonconference foes may be more difficult, and crossover games might not be as favorable.

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Justin Broiles to Oklahoma: Sooners Land 4-Star CB Prospect

Class of 2017 4-star recruit Justin Broiles announced Monday he has committed to the University of Oklahoma.   

Here is his announcement via Twitter:

Broiles is the second-ranked Class of 2017 prospect coming out of the state of Oklahoma and the 21st-rated cornerback in the nation, per 247Sports

He was a highly sought-after prospect, as he received scholarship offers from "at least 30" Power Five conference schools, per Eric Bailey of Tulsa World Sports. 

At 6'0", 175 pounds, Broiles is a physical defensive back who likes to throw his weight around in the secondary. During his junior season at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City, he recorded 47 tackles and an interception, per 247Sports.

His play earned him a trip to the 2016 Army Underclassmen Combine, where he "nabbed plenty of attention," per Bailey.

Broiles is already the seventh Class of 2017 hard commit for Oklahoma, and all of them are 4-star recruits, per 247Sports' composite rankings. Two others, Robert Barnes and Trajan Bandy, will play in the secondary as well. 

Broiles is poised to join a Sooners defense that improved its passing defense greatly in 2015. Last year it was 34th in the nation with just over 202 passing yards allowed per game. The year before, it was 120th and allowed almost 75 yards more per week. 

Getting a player with a talent level like Broiles will allow Oklahoma to build its depth in the secondary and give it a chance to keep improving on those numbers in the coming years. 

 

Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bleacher Report's Ultimate Guide to 2016 Spring Football

There are limited moments in the calendar when each individual fanbase—from puffy-chested Alabama to wandering soul Kansas—can scream from the highest mountaintop that this is their year.

Welcome to this glorious time of unfiltered optimism. Welcome to the latest installment of spring football.

Over the next few months, teams will hit the practice field with a blank canvas. What happened last year, well, happened last year. Although the fall slate of games is still off in the distance, lying stretched out on a hammock with a mai tai in one hand and a good book in the other, it will eventually be asked to move.

And when it does, the work put in during these unassuming spring months will undoubtedly loom large.

For those somehow unfamiliar with one of college football’s biggest growth areas, it goes something like this: teams practice for a few weeks during March and April. To close out the exercise, most teams then partake in a spring football game—a glorified scrimmage that, in many cases, is televised.

Fans tailgate. Grills are put back into circulation. Sunburn happens. It really is a lovely thing, minus the sunburn, of course.

After that, we go back into our slumber until media days start to kick in. In many ways, that’s when the offseason—a term that should be banned for this world—truly begins.

Before we arrive there, however, there is work to be done. Here is a look at this year’s top spring storylines, an updated Top 25 that you’ll undoubtedly hate and much more.

 

5 Spring Football Storylines

1. Jim Harbaugh vs. the World

At some point this spring, the head coach of one of the nation’s fastest growing monsters is destined to challenge a coach’s golden retriever to a race. He will then send a tweet at the dog telling him how woefully insignificant he competed.

Or perhaps this coach will just open up a frozen custard stand right outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Or maybe Jim Harbaugh will just show up at Michigan State’s practice, rip off his shirt and spend the next two hours playing the Michigan fight song on a recorder.

Here is where we are: On the field, Michigan is ahead of schedule. Greatness is coming, it’s simply a matter of when.

But off the field, Harbaugh has continued to gobble up headlines since he touched down in Ann Arbor. Moving one week of his spring practice to IMG Academy in Florida during Michigan’s spring break has become national news. The mighty SEC has taken this very thing head-on.

Harbaugh has not budged. Not from any of it. Not after coach after coach questioned the idea entirely.

"As a youngster, I remember the circus coming to town," Harbaugh told reporters in Florida when asked whether the concept was a circus. “I remember looking forward to it, saving my pennies up and dollars up because the circus was coming to town. And every circus that I ever went to, I always left feeling really great about it, and it was a lot of fun. That's the way I feel about this. It was much anticipated, and it was a heck of a lot of fun."

There is no off switch. He is as authentic as he is brilliant. We have to talk about Michigan football; he has made it as such. Although we don’t know his next target yet, he is by no means done. 

 

2. Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin’s Next Championship Navigator is...

About 60 or so minutes before the national championship began, I stood on the Alabama sideline and focused exclusively on the future. Jake Coker was the main attraction for the evening; there was no doubt there. But with only one game left, this seemed like a better time than any to look at what’s coming next for Alabama at quarterback.

There is no question in my mind that redshirt freshman Blake Barnett has the best overall tools on the roster. Having spent last season serving as the scout team’s QB and the defensive line’s daily lunch, he has the experience to win the job.

My only question about Barnett having watched him up close is his size. And perhaps that serves as an ideal transition to present time. Barnett will get every opportunity to win the job with his play. But it shouldn’t be viewed as a given that the job is his.

Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell will serve as the primary competition, with each having much more experience to lean on. Bateman would add an element of athleticism; Cornwell is without question the “thrower” of the group.

Spring won’t ultimately decide Alabama’s next QB. But one of the three names above will navigate next fall’s national championship favorite, which seems significant. Here we go again.

 

3. The Next Great Quarterback Conundrum

Urban Meyer just handed off the baton to Brian Kelly. This year’s three-headed, supremely talented quarterback battle resides in South Bend.

Heading into last offseason, Notre Dame’s quarterback situation was complicated. Once Everett Golson said farewell to the Irish and hello to Florida State, however, the Malik Zaire era began.

But Zaire, after a brilliant performance against Texas in the opener, was lost for the season in the second game with a fractured ankle. DeShone Kizer came in as an unseasoned but naturally gifted thrower and was outstanding given the circumstances. He wasn’t always perfect, but Notre Dame, despite dealing with a rash of injuries, stayed in the playoff discussion until the end.

With Zaire back healthy, Kizer better than he was and talented Brandon Wimbush—one of the top quarterback prospects in the class of 2015—on the roster, we have ourselves a glorious logjam.

Or maybe not. If healthy, Zaire will likely get his job back. (As he should. He’s going to be great.)

But given all of these fascinating pieces to work with, it just doesn’t seem that easy. Let’s start sorting out this rich-man’s problem.

 

4. Clemson’s Road to Redemption

For the second year in a row, Dabo Swinney hit the ol’ reboot button. Time to rebuild a defense (again).

Given the talent that departed heading into last year’s offseason, we didn’t think this was possible then. But then players such as Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and Mackensie Alexander made themselves an enormous sum of money with their play. Now, Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables must replace these three fixtures plus a few more.

Here’s the reality for Clemson: In the majority of its games in 2016, an average defense—even a "meh" performance on this side of the ball—will suffice.

With just about every key piece of the offense returning—headlined by quarterback Deshaun Waston—it will bury most opponents in points without issue. Let us not forget that wideout Mike Williams, one of the nation’s top deep threats, missed almost the entire year with a neck injury. He is back.

I have no idea what you do to stop this offense. Godspeed, everyone.

But for the Tigers to take that next quantum leap in their program evolution, they must find new pieces on the other side of the ball. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley are certainly a start.

It’s time to find out who’s next.

 

5. Healing the Wounded and Avoiding the Same Injury Treachery

For such a beautiful sport that ended with a such a beautiful final game, the 2015 season was nothing short of a continuous gut punch. One after the next, the nation’s brightest stars were lost for the year. By the end, it didn't feel real.

Some of these players, including linebackers Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith, said farewell to this level. Others, headlined by Georgia running back Nick Chubb, are using the spring to ensure that all engines will be ready to fire come August.

Chubb is not alone. Baylor quarterback Seth Russell is still working his way back from a significant neck injury but will continue to make progress. Notre Dame will welcome back Malik Zaire along with talented running back Tarean Folston, who was lost early to a knee injury.

Mike Williams’ return will give an enormous boost to Clemson. Others will offer a similar impact in returning to the field.

For those not trying to battle back from broken bones or torn ligaments, please do whatever possible to get healthy and stay healthy. The reality of spring, however, is that some of the biggest unexpected stories will matriculate as unfortunate injuries unfold.  

Let us hope that it is nowhere close to what happened last year. Please, Football Gods. Spare us this one time.

 

Spring Football Top 25

For those in search of some supercharged offseason Internet anger, allow me to help.

After crafting a Top 25 not long after the season ended, I have updated this poll to account for national signing day, returning players and other changes.

Please keep in mind that these are subject to change. And if you have any issues to where your team is currently ranked (or not ranked), please feel free to email me at Ihateyourteamsoincrediblymuch@itspersonal.com.

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Oklahoma

4. Michigan

5. Florida State

6. Ohio State

7. LSU

8. Houston

9. Notre Dame

10. Baylor

11. Tennessee

12. Ole Miss

13. Stanford

14. TCU

15. Michigan State

16. Iowa

17. USC

18. North Carolina

19. Oklahoma State

20. Washington

21. Georgia

22. Louisville

23. UCLA

24. Oregon

25. South Florida

 

So... Should We Start Talking About Houston More?

Yes. That is probably a good idea. Perhaps the biggest upset of the past three months was when Houston held onto head coach Tom Herman with so many quality programs in need of a new head coach.

He gave these openings a look, although he will be back with the Cougars with a new contract for at least one more season. And with quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returning, there’s reason to believe they will actually be better.

Keep in mind, they're coming off a win against Florida State. The bar is already high.

Now, there are pieces to replace. The secondary will need some massaging, as will some of the other non-quarterback pieces on offense. But we should probably start talking about Houston for the playoff as we monitor spring progress.

There will be an early chance to prove it, too. The Cougars open with Oklahoma on Sept. 3.

Goodness will that be fun.

 

Superstars in the Making: Spring Names That Will Emerge

Bo Scarbrough (Alabama, RB): I had a chance to write extensively on Scarbrough prior to the national championship game after speaking with him at media day. He is, quite simply, one of the most unique running backs I have ever seen. Although the loss of Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry is unquestionably significant, Scarbrough and his 240 violent pounds will fill this hole quite nicely. If he stays healthy, he could be special. 

Derwin James (Florida State, S): I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a safety quite like him, and Florida State fans are likely protesting his inclusion because in their eyes he's already a superstar. Fair enough. At 6’3” and 213 pounds, James is big enough to punish tight ends and fast enough to cover anyone on the field. In his first season, he finished with 91 tackles and four-and-a-half sacks. He also forced two fumbles. Let’s take it one step further—by the end of the year, he might be the best defensive player in football.

Jacob Eason (Georgia, QB): Stardom won’t come instantly. But by the end of the year, the future of Georgia football—already on campus and ready to roll—will have emerged as one of the best young quarterbacks in the sport. Arriving early was a wonderful decision for the 6’5” quarterback pegged as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016 and the No. 5 player overall by 247Sports. He already has one of the best arms in the country—something that will be on display early. Ultimately, new head coach Kirby Smart will turn to Eason in time. And while it will be a process, he will not disappoint.

Ronald Jones II (USC, RB): Outside of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, no freshman back impressed me more last year than Ronald Jones II. He finished the year with 987 rushing yards on only 153 attempts, making his transition look seamless at times. The only question I was left with was why didn't they hand him the ball more. Those numbers across the board should go up this year, because Jones will be given more chances in an offense loaded with options.

 

Speaking of, Let’s Talk About Saquon Barkley

On the topic of one of the best young offensive weapons in all of college football, Penn State strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt had this to say when asked about Saquon Barkley.

“He’s a once-every-10-year guy,” Galt told reporters. “A lot of people ask me what it was like to train Vernon Davis, there you go.”

After a brilliant freshman season, Barkley followed up his 1,076 rushing yards and 161 receiving yards by posting a sub-4.4 40 this spring. He also power-cleaned 390 pounds.

Penn State RB Saquon Barkley power cleans 390 pounds, teammates go nuts 💪🏾🔥 (via @Coach_Gattis)https://t.co/OEwuCn7nbl

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 1, 2016

I shouldn’t have to tell you about what sort of freak we have on our hands, but I am going to do it anyway. As Penn State looks to reignite its offense after Christian Hackenberg’s departure, it shouldn’t need to look far.

Although we will talk about other backs first before the season begins, Barkley will change that in time. The transformation has already begun.

 

Spring Football Game Attendance Odds

This is not actually something you can wager on, which is truly unfortunate. However, there is tradition to uphold when it comes to handicapping what humans will do with their free time over these next few months.

For those keeping score at home, Ohio State led the nation with more than 99,000 fans at its spring game last year. It was 20,000 clear of Nebraska, last season’s second-place finisher.

As for this year’s odds on the team that will take home spring game bragging rights, let’s take a crack.

Alabama 7-2

Ohio State 4-1

Michigan 4-1

Nebraska 7-1

Tennessee 8-1

Clemson 10-1

Auburn 12-1

Penn State 12-1

Georgia 15-1

Arkansas 18-1

Oklahoma 20-1

Michigan State 22-1

 

Parting Shot: So Should I Tailgate For My Spring Game?

I’m glad you asked, friend. Yes. Yes you should. This is very important.

Few opportunities present a better tailgate environment than this one.

Think about it. Crowds, in many cases, will not be the same sort of issue. Weather, in plenty of instances, will be pristine. The results of this day will not generate any agony or heartbreak either way. You can head into this event with no expectations at all, focusing instead on food, drink and bettering your soul.

Spoiler: Your team will win. No matter what happens, your team will win. It's great.

Although we talk so much about the improvement of the players and team, this is also a time to better ourselves as fans. Now is the time to perfect a dish that you have battled with for some time. Now is the time to ensure your outdoor cable stream is ready for September.

I have faith that you can do this. We can all be better. Now is the time.

 

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KegsnEggs. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Lovie Smith Will Make Illinois an Instant Contender in the Big Ten West

When Josh Whitman announced the firing of head football coach Bill Cubit less than a day into his reign as Illinois' new athletic director, two theories seemed to prevail when it came to the untimely move.

Theory 1: Whitman had something up his sleeve to justify the sudden shakeup.

Theory 2: By firing his head coach a week away from the start of spring practice, the new Fighting Illini AD was only furthering the mess that had been left for him by his predecessors in Champaign.

"The decision to change football staffs has broader implications than just about anything else," Whitman said in a Saturday press conference. "You make a decision to change football coaches, you throw a lot of things into chaos."

Perhaps Whitman was comfortable in admitting the risk of his decision because he knew that Theory 1 was in play.

Just hours after the announcement of Cubit's firing, news began to trickle out of the Prairie State that Whitman had his replacement in sight. Less than two days later, Illinois made it official by announcing Monday that longtime NFL head coach Lovie Smith would be taking over the Fighting Illini program.

In a press release announcing his new six-year, $21 million contract, Smith said:

I am extremely excited to be named head coach of the Fighting Illini. Josh approached me about this possibility, and I immediately seized on the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young men who are part of the program today and in the future.

I take this responsibility very seriously and can't wait to get a staff in place to start our move to make Illinois a contender for Big Ten titles.

With Smith's track record, that goal could become a reality as early as his first season in Champaign.

In Smith, Illinois now has a head coach with instant credibility, one who's spent 11 of the past 12 years as a head coach at football's highest level. In his decade-plus as an NFL head coach, Smith went to one Super Bowl and coached in an additional NFC Championship Game, accumulating a combined 89-87 record during stints with the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This isn't merely a retread head coach looking for his next gig but one who many felt was unjustly fired after he improved Tampa Bay's record by four wins in 2015 while developing No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston at quarterback.

Per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the firing of Smith wasn't about performance as much as it was the fear of losing offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who had become a hot head coaching candidate as a member of Smith's staff.

In essence, Illinois now has a head coach who would likely still be the head coach of an NFL team if not for the off-field politics that often play out in pro football.

"Naming Lovie Smith as the Illinois head football coach is the first step in taking this program to a place of national prominence," Whitman said in Monday's statement.

"National prominence" might be a stretch—at least for now—for a program that still plays in the same conference as Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Smith may possess star power and credibility of his own, but not as much as Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, nor will he enjoy the benefits of continuity that Mark Dantonio has built in his nine years in East Lansing.

But as far as his new league is concerned, Smith finds himself in the right division.

While it may be improved as a whole, the Big Ten West is there for the taking, with reigning champ Iowa unproven as a consistent contender. Wisconsin is solid, and Northwestern and Nebraska both appear to be on the rise, but one could have made a convincing case for the Fighting Illini as a division dark horse even prior to Smith's hiring.

Smith inherits a defensive unit that ranked 30th in the nation in 2015, and his presence should only help improve it, even following the departures of key players Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and Clayton Fejedelem. In particular, the defensive-minded Smith should be able to get the most out of outside linebacker Dawuane Smoot, who recorded eight sacks in his junior season in 2015.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Fighting Illini's new head coach will have his work cut out for him, taking over a team that ranked 88th in total offense last season. But Illinois does return 74 percent of its production, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly, and pro-style QB Wes Lunt should receive a boost with the return of wideout Mike Dudek (76 receptions, 1,038 yards and six touchdowns in 2014) from injury.

Divisional crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State could present issues, but the Fighting Illini could potentially remain in conference contention in 2016 with two league losses.

This hiring, however, is more about the long term than it is just the upcoming year, as evidenced by the length of Smith's contract. And while it's been more than 20 years since recruiting was last one of his responsibilities, his NFL experience should give him instant gravitas on the recruiting trail—just as it has for Harbaugh in his 14 months in Ann Arbor.

When it comes to NFL-to-college transitions, this hiring has more of the feel of Pete Carroll to USC or Jim Mora to UCLA than it does Dave Wannstedt to Pitt. In fact, one could argue the Fighting Illini have been one of college football's biggest sleeping giants, given the fertile recruiting ground of the Midwest, in particular Chicago.

"We will build a program that contends annually for Big Ten and national championships," Whitman said.

For a program that has shown the ability to make major bowl games in the past but hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2011, those are certainly lofty expectations.

The last time he did or said something that raised eyebrows, Whitman proved to have an ace up his sleeve. Now it will be up to Smith to make the seemingly impossible a reality in Champaign.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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