NCAA Football News
SAN ANTONIO — With the three major high school all-star football games—the Under Armour All-America Game, the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl and, most recently, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl—officially in the books, athletes are now focused on the 11th hour of recruiting.
Uncommitted prospects are now down to their final three weeks before national signing day. The final two weeks of January will be huge, as athletes look to finalize their college football futures.
National signing day is Feb. 3. Here are some athletes to keep an eye on throughout the month of January and in early February.
SEC visits up for 5-star DT Brown
For Buford, Georgia, 5-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the only thing that didn't go his way during his U.S. Army All-American Bowl experience was the final score of the game. Brown competed for the East team, which lost to the West, 37-9.
What Brown left San Antonio with, however, was a few personal victories and memories. He was the recipient of the Anthony Munoz Lineman of the Year award, given to the nation's top high school offensive lineman. He also was the recipient of the American Family Insurance Defensive Player of the Year award, given to the nation's top high school defensive player. He also was a U.S. Army Player of the Year finalist.
"The Army All-American Bowl is the best experience you could have. I would tell any other kid that there isn't any other game," said Brown, who is the son of James Brown, who served in the U.S. Army. "This game was big for me. I got the opportunity to represent my dad."
Derrick Brown now focuses on his college plans. He's taken official visits to Mississippi State and Alabama in November and December, respectively, and he said on Saturday that he will take an official to Auburn this weekend, Georgia the weekend of Jan. 22 and Tennessee the weekend of Jan. 29.
A decision, Brown said, will come on national signing day. The deciding factor, he said, is pretty cut-and-dried.
"I've got to find a place that's home," he said.
Brown is the nation's No. 8 player and the No. 3 defensive tackle in the 2016 class. He finished his senior year at Lanier High School with 106 tackles and 13 sacks, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.
QB Patterson: An art to player recruiting
IMG Academy 5-star prospect Shea Patterson, the nation's No. 5 player and No. 2 pro-style quarterback, put on a show at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and took home the Pete Dawkins Trophy for MVP honors. Now that the game's over, it's time for the Ole Miss commit to turn into one of Ole Miss' best player-recruiters—a job he's taking seriously.
And while Patterson admits he's careful with his recruiting tactics, he knows that the next three weeks will be key in landing some of the top targets still uncommitted.
"There's some pros and cons to it," Patterson said. "You don't want to be overbearing with the guys. I know how it was to be on the other side being recruited. That's the worst part, when guys are shoving it in your face. I just throw in pitches every now and then to these guys."
Patterson committed to Ole Miss last February and said guys like DeKaylin Metcalf (see below), Benito Jones and Eli Johnson helped sell the dream of the program to him. Some of Patterson's targets include safety Deontay Anderson, outside linebacker Mique Juarez and strong-side defensive end Jeffery Simmons (see below)—three athletes ranked among the top three nationally at their respective positions.
"There's still a lot of guys in this class for us," Patterson said. "I just tell them that we can do something special at Ole Miss."
DE Simmons ready to shine for home state
Macon, Mississippi, 4-star defensive end Jeffery Simmons is the top-ranked player from the state of Mississippi in the 2016 class. And Simmons takes pride in representing the Magnolia State every time he steps on the football field.
"A lot of people look over Mississippi," Simmons said. "We can play, and I felt like we showed we can play."
The state is hoping to keep Simmons, the nation's No. 3 strong-side defensive end and No. 36 player overall, from playing college ball out of state. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are two of his top four schools, the others being Alabama and Tennessee.
Simmons said he will take an official visit to Mississippi State this weekend. Official visits to Alabama (weekend of Jan. 22) and Ole Miss (Jan. 29) will follow. He visited Tennessee in November.
"I want to be at a place where I can bond with the players," Simmons said. "I want to see if I can fit in with the program. I want to feel at home."
Simmons added: "On and off the field, I want to show I can be a leader. That's just the type of guy I am. Being a leader is what I want to do."
Decision for WR Richards bigger than football
West Palm Beach, Florida, 4-star wide receiver Ahmmon Richards called playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl "a once-in-a-lifetime experience." But Richards now will focus on his final three official visits, starting with Miami this weekend.
Richards, who visited Auburn in November, will follow the Miami visit with a trip to Alabama the weekend of Jan. 22 and a trip to Tennessee the weekend of Jan. 29. He said all four schools are still in the running, but he has an idea of what he wants in a winning program.
"I want to be somewhere where I can see myself outside of football," Richards said. "All the schools have pretty much the same academic parts. If you take football out of the equation, can I see myself going to that school?"
Richards said he wants to be a coach and also start his own business after college. Athletically, Richards has an idea of setting short-term goals in college.
"I just want to be a playmaker," he said. "I like making plays and scoring."
Rivals among leaders for ATH Fuller
As the nation's No. 8 athlete, Westwood, New Jersey, 4-star prospect Jordan Fuller admits that he's his own worst critic. He was very critical of his play at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl—even if others disagreed.
"Some people will say I had a good game," said Fuller, who finished with two solo tackles as a defensive back. "I didn't feel I played that well."
Being his worst critic is something he said coaches actually like about him. His expectations for himself are very high—but his ambition to strive for perfection could be a reason why he has 25 reported offers.
Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Michigan are two of the schools fighting for Fuller's commitment. Fuller said he will visit Ohio State this week and Michigan the weekend of Jan. 22. Fuller visited Notre Dame in November and said he may take an official to Penn State the weekend of Jan. 29.
Fuller said he hasn't decided on whether or not to commit on national signing day. He did say he's looking for a school that can offer him a great education and a place where the coaching staff can also serve as mentors.
He added that he's going to use Saturday's all-star game as a platform of sorts to prepare for next-level football.
"Being able to compete against the best of the best, it was an awesome experience," Fuller said. "I know I got a lot better with this, but I still have some work to do. Overall, it was fun meeting new guys."
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports.com's composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Jim Harbaugh's second season leading the Michigan football program will include an undefeated regular season, Big Ten championship and ultimately a national title.
Well, that's what the eternal optimist says.
After listening to analysts objectively critique your team for months, this is the moment to throw on the homer hat and allow the bias to shine. This is why the Wolverines are bound for a magical—or at least conference-championship-worthy—2016.
This list, which is ordered based on perceived value, is meant to show why next year's best-case scenario could come to fruition for a rising Michigan team.
Ohio State failed in its quest to defend its title and will have to replace eight starters on both sides of the ball in 2016, but quarterback J.T. Barrett's return and a lot of young talent should have Buckeyes fans excited about 2016.
It will be a busy offseason for Urban Meyer and the coaching staff as they work to shape their two-deep rotation. The Buckeyes will be young and face a horrendously difficult schedule next year, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.
As Ramzy Nasrallah of Eleven Warriors pointed out last week, the last time Ohio State had a rebuilding year, it won its first national title since 2002.
Barrett entered the 2015 season battling Cardale Jones in one of the most heated and closely watched position battles in college football history, but when Ohio State kicked off against Virginia Tech, it was Jones who emerged victorious.
But Barrett recaptured the lead midway through the season and showed why he's the ideal quarterback to run Meyer's spread offense. His ability to spread the ball effectively and run the read-option makes Ohio State's offense operate at a higher level.
Even more importantly, Barrett enters 2016 as the unquestioned centerpiece of the offense. He won't have to split time with Jones in spring practice or fall camp. That will allow him to build a chemistry with his new-look wide receiver corps.
A Wave of Unproven Talent
Ohio State is set to have a historic showing in the 2016 NFL draft with 16 former Buckeyes standing a chance to be drafted, but that has left a big void in the '16 roster.
Fortunately for Buckeyes fans, Meyer is one of college football's best recruiters, and he has the cupboard stocked with former blue-chip prospects who are hungry to prove themselves.
On offense, the wide receiver corps took the biggest hit with the deflection of all three starters—Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. But young guns such as Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, James Clark and Torrance Gibson have the skills to be stars. And at running back, Mike Weber has the opportunity to be Ohio State's next superstar.
Defensively, the secondary will get a boost from safety Erick Smith and cornerback Marshon Lattimore—once teammates at Cleveland Glenville High School—who will play alongside lead cornerback Gareon Conley.
One of the biggest holes on the 2016 roster was created by the departure of Joey Bosa, the consensus first-team All-American defensive end who set the tone for Ohio State's defense the last two seasons.
But Buckeyes fans got a glimpse into the future this year as Sam Hubbard flashed as Bosa's top backup. As a redshirt freshman reserve, Hubbard ranked second on the team with six sacks and fourth with eight tackles for loss. He set the tone for the second unit and emerged as one of Ohio State's best pass-rushers.
He'll have to make a big leap to have the kind of impact Bosa made on a weekly basis, but he's ready to step into that role.
Ohio State will feature a number of underclassmen in 2016, but Hubbard is one of the most exciting.
A Loaded Recruiting Class
The Buckeyes didn't win the College Football Playoff this year, but there's a chance they can bring home the recruiting title.
Ohio State's 2016 recruiting class, which currently stands at No. 3 in the national rankings, is headlined by 5-star defensive ends Nick Bosa and Jonathon Cooper. There's plenty of offensive firepower on the way as well with 4-star standouts Demario McCall (all-purpose back) and Austin Mack (wide receiver) in the fold.
But Meyer is still chasing a number of highly touted players. Four-star quarterback Dwayne Haskins is a potential flip from Maryland, 4-star wideouts Sam Bruce and Binjimen Victor are still in play and 4-star defensive backs Jordan Fuller and Damar Hamlin have a great chance of landing in Columbus.
If things go Meyer's way on national signing day, Ohio State could be inking the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.
Leaving 'The Grind' Behind
Ohio State has adopted team mottos under Meyer, and after posting an undefeated regular season in 2012, "The Chase" for a national title was on. When the Buckeyes ran through, over and around Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon during last year's postseason, the chase was completed, and Ohio State took on a new motto.
But "The Grind" ended up being too much for the Buckeyes to handle. Despite entering the year as the only unanimous preseason No. 1 in Associated Press poll history, Ohio State looked sluggish and uninspired to start the season. Things appeared to be clicking down the stretch, but the Buckeyes' season bottomed out in Week 12 when Michigan State derailed their title run with a 17-14 upset in Columbus.
But as soon as the pressure of staying undefeated lifted, Ohio State played fast and loose, posting its most impressive victories of the season over Michigan and Notre Dame to close out the year.
Leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Joey Bosa admitted to the pressure getting to the team's head, according to Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com.
It just seems like nothing you do is ever good enough unless you're beating teams by 50 points. You win by 20 and it was a bad week. That was definitely a struggle for us, because you never feel like you're good enough. It's hard when your own fan base is getting after you for being, what, 10-0? And they still weren't happy. We won  games in a row.
But with those expectations diminished and the pressure faded, Ohio State will enter the 2016 season as the hunter rather than the hunted. And if 2014 was any indication, Meyer and the Buckeyes know how to play that role well.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information via 247Sports.com.
David Regimbal is the Ohio State football lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
PELHAM, Ala. — The dream first stirred in the boy when he was four years old.
Sitting in the living room of his family’s two-story house on the corner lot at 1000 Ryecroft Road, his face pressed close to the glow of the television screen, William Swinney would be hypnotized by the action unfolding 60 miles away at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The child they called Dabo—his older brother referred to him as “that boy,” which sounded like “Dabo”—was hooked on Alabama football before he even entered grade school. One day, he told his parents, he would play for the Crimson Tide.
Autumn Sunday mornings were just as special to the boy. With several of his good friends by his side and nibbling on his mom’s chocolate muffins, Dabo would watch The Bear Bryant Show as the Alabama legend reviewed the previous day’s game in his base-thumping growl. The strategies of football fired the boy’s imagination; the making of a coach was underway.
The boy’s father, Ervil Swinney, was an Alabama fan to the marrow of his bones, and he passed down his love of the Tide to Dabo like genetic code. Ervil owned a washing machine repair shop, and he took Dabo to as many Crimson Tide games as he could afford. In 1980, the father loaded his entire family into a car—wife Carol and sons Tracy, Tripp and Dabo—and drove to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Young Dabo was in a state of ecstasy as he watched his beloved Crimson Tide demolish Arkansas, 24-9.
Alabama football became the air he breathed, the sun in his universe. So is it really any surprise that now, more than three decades later, 46-year-old Dabo Swinney has molded his Clemson program in the image of Alabama, the team Swinney will face Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, in the national championship game?
“Dabo has recruited NFL size onto his team the way Bear Bryant did and the way Saban has,” said one longtime NFL scout. “Clemson has perimeter speed on offense like Alabama, and their interior guys on defense will outmuscle you just like the Alabama front.”
Indeed, Swinney has built his defense based on Nick Saban’s philosophy that the key players are the defensive linemen. Saban loves big, athletic interior linemen (one of his pet phrases is, “Heavyweights knock out middleweights”), and Swinney has used the Saban template to construct a unit that finished the season ranked sixth in the country in total defense.
“We’ve built this team in the trenches, and most great teams, that’s where it starts,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage and have some type of running game and stopping the run, and certainly that’s been what Alabama has been for a long time. We’ve tried to do that here.”
There’s another potential Alabama connection to keep in mind tonight when watching Swinney pace up and down the sideline facing the team he grew up worshiping: It’s taken as an article of faith inside the Crimson Tide athletic department that, whenever Saban retires or leaves Tuscaloosa for another job, the first call that Alabama athletic director Bill Battle will make will be to the cellphone of Swinney.
“Dabo would be the perfect guy to hand the program to once Coach Saban moves on,” said an Alabama employee who is close to Battle. “Dabo knows what Alabama football is all about as well as anyone, knows the culture, knows the expectations. And he’s proven himself at Clemson. A lot of people around here believe he’ll be the next in line whenever Nick decides to walk away.”
It would make sense. After all, during Swinney’s head coaching tenure at Clemson, which began in 2008, hordes of his coaches and key support staff members have had experience playing, coaching or working in Tuscaloosa. The current list of past Alabama football figures is deep at Clemson: Woody McCorvey (the associate athletic director for football administration), Danny Pearman (the special teams and tight ends coach), Thad Turnipseed (the director of football recruiting and external affairs), Paul Hogan (the strength and conditioning coach) and Lemanski Hall (a defensive analyst).
What have some of the staffers, behind closed doors, jokingly called the Tigers during the Swinney era? According to multiple sources, a three-word nickname has been uttered: The Clemson Tide.
In high school, the future Tigers coach was a classic overachiever—a characteristic of most successful coaches. At Pelham High, Swinney was a standout receiver. Football became even more important to him in his sophomore year when his home life started to disintegrate. His father’s business was floundering, and Ervil began to lose himself in the bottom of a bottle. Ervil fell deeply in debt.
On nights his dad drank, a terrified young Dabo would hide on the roof of the house or sleep in the car in the garage. Eventually, the family couldn’t make its mortgage payment. The Swinneys lost their house. Ervil and Carol divorced.
Sometimes, Dabo, his mom and his brothers stayed in cheap motels. Other nights, Dabo slept in his mother’s car parked in the woods, or he’d crash on the floor at a friend’s place. But the one thing he always had was the dream of playing for the Crimson Tide.
“We never missed an Alabama game growing up,” said Norm Saia, one of Dabo’s closest childhood friends who still lives in Birmingham. “And the thing with Dabo was, he never got down. Even when his home life was a nightmare, he was positive about life. Heck, he even made me do my homework before we could go out and play basketball or throw around the football.”
But Alabama coaches weren’t interested in Swinney, who enrolled in Tuscaloosa as a student in 1988. He watched the first three home football games that fall sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. He eventually turned to his girlfriend, Kathleen Bassett, whom he met in second grade and began dating in middle school, and—never one to lack confidence—told her that he was better than any of the receivers on the field.
That spring, Swinney was one of 45 players to attend a tryout for walk-ons. The thing that stuck out about Swinney to the coaches was his toughness—at 6'1", 175 pounds, he routinely blocked players who weighed 100 more pounds than him—and the fact that he carried himself like an All-American. After a grueling six weeks of tryouts that were filled with 5:30 a.m. running sessions and trashcans full of vomit, he was one of two walk-ons to make the team.
He began as a scout-team player but played in four games in 1990 and caught one pass for 18 yards. Coach Gene Stallings, realizing Swinney’s financial woes, awarded him a scholarship. He became an ace on special teams. And always, he took his camera with him to every game, snapping photos to document his dream come true.
“Dabo was an athletic, possession type of receiver,” said Jay Barker, Alabama’s starting quarterback from 1992 to '94. “He’s been an underdog his entire life. But he worked at it as hard as anyone, both on the field and off the field. He had a coach’s mind even back then. And in a lot of ways, football was his escape.”
In his sophomore year, Swinney’s mother, Carol, unable to afford housing costs for her son and herself, moved into Unit 81 of the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa with Dabo. The two even shared a bed. But instead of being embarrassed that he took his mom to college, Swinney reveled in it, inviting teammates over to enjoy his mom’s chicken and dumplings.
“We all loved Dabo’s mom because we got home-cooked meals in college,” said Saia, who attended Alabama and walked onto the team with his buddy. “And Dabo just enjoyed having his mom there. He loved her as much as a son could.”
Dabo cleaned gutters to make extra money. And six days a week, his mother was out the door by 6 a.m. to drive 50 miles to Birmingham for her $8-an-hour job at a department store. Carol’s work ethic inspired her son.
Midway through his college career, Saia was involved in a serious car accident. He broke his pelvis and couldn’t walk for months. He moved back to Pelham. One of the few friends to frequently come see him was Swinney, who would drive him around Birmingham to see old friends and coaches.
“Here Dabo was in the middle of his college life, with football a huge priority, and he knew I was going stir crazy. So he’d come and say, ‘Hey man, let’s go for a ride,’” said Saia. “I wouldn’t even get out of the car, but just his positive attitude impacted me.”
In Swinney’s final collegiate season, 1992, he played in all 12 games (he caught four passes for 48 yards) on Alabama’s national championship-winning team. He later became the first person in his family to graduate from college, eventually earning a master’s degree in business administration.
Gene Stallings hired him as a graduate assistant in 1993. Swinney made $489 a month and typically feasted on SpaghettiOs for dinner.
That August, on a warm summer night, he grabbed the hand of Kathleen Bassett, and the two went on a walk around the Quad, the large grassy area in the center of campus. They strolled to the Denny Chimes, a bell tower where at the base the handprints and footprints of all the Alabama team captains since the 1940s are pressed into concrete.
At 10 p.m., the chimes sounded. Dabo dropped to a knee and asked Kathleen to marry him. She melted into a puddle of tears as she said yes. For an Alabama boy, it was the perfect spot to ask the most important question of his life.
In 1996, Dabo became a full-time coach for the Crimson Tide. But, four years later, he was fired along with head coach Mike Dubose and the rest of his staff. Not knowing what he should do, he landed a job in Birmingham in commercial real estate, believing the rest of his life was about to begin. But he grew restless and called his old quarterback.
“I think I need to get back into football,” Swinney told Barker. “I need to see what I can do.”
Tommy Bowden hired him at Clemson in 2003. When Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips surprisingly tapped Swinney, the wide receivers coach who had never even been a coordinator, to be the interim head coach.
Swinney had a well-earned reputation as a top-notch recruiter—his silver tongue was responsible for landing running back C.J. Spiller, the top-ranked running back in the class of ’06, according to Rivals.com—and he responded by guiding the Tigers to a 4-3 record to finish out the ’08 season. The interim tag was removed from his title.
And now, as he prepares to play his home-state team for the national title, Swinney already has pulled off perhaps his most remarkable upset: Tonight dozens of former Crimson Tide players will be wearing the Clemson colors and rooting for the ultimate underdog.
“I’ll be in the stands in my Clemson gear just like a ton of past Alabama players,” said Saia. “If you knew what Dabo has been through to reach this moment, then you’d cheer for him, too. And hey, maybe one day Dabo will be back where he belongs—at Alabama.”
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Although the Big Ten and ACC have won the past two college football championships, the SEC ran off a streak of seven in a row before that, and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide have a chance to make it eight of 10 against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
It's safe to say the SEC is still the overall dominant conference, and it shows in the 2016 high school recruiting rankings with national signing day approaching Feb. 3.
Per 247Sports, six of the Top 10-ranked teams in terms of recruiting are from the SEC, led by the LSU Tigers at No. 1.
However, head coach Jim Harbaugh's transition from the NFL to the Michigan Wolverines is obviously making a difference, as his team is currently ranked No. 2, followed by the Ohio State Buckeyes in third.
The Florida State Seminoles are No. 4, while the SEC occupies five of the final six spots.
So, while the SEC has competition, it still has the overall edge when it comes to recruiting. Let's take a look at where some top recruits may land on national signing day.
Could Harbaugh Land No. 1 Overall Recruit?
Defensive tackle Rashan Gary of Paramus Catholic in Paramus, New Jersey, is the No. 1 recruit, and as of Sunday morning 247Sports' Crystal Ball predicts the 6'5'', 293-pounder to land at Michigan.
This video courtesy of PrepForce.com shows the strength and explosiveness that have helped Gary earn the title of top recruit:
While the Wolverines have 24 hard commitments—14 of which are from 4-star recruits—they have not landed a 5-star stud as of yet. However, that is about to change, per Brandon Brown of thewolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), who was asked if Gary was Michigan's top target.
“That’s pretty obvious, and it’s looking really, really good that he’s going to pick Michigan,” Brown said.
Harbaugh brings a winning background to Michigan and showed that by doubling the team's wins from five to 10 in 2015. An SEC team could certainly swoop in and snatch up Gary, but being from the East Coast he has no connection to the Southeast, so count on him playing in the Maize and Blue next season.
Florida or Florida State?
Per 247Sports, 32 of the Top 50 recruits have already given their hard commitments. The top offensive player yet to announce is Tampa (Florida) Catholic's Nate Craig-Myers. The No. 33 overall recruit is the No. 3 wide receiver in the country and the sixth-best senior in the state of Florida.
At 6'2'', 205 pounds, he has the skills to go up and snag passes most high school receivers can only dream about, as shown in this video from MaxPreps.com:
The 4-star athlete also shows great breakaway speed that a team like the Florida Gators could use, especially considering a stalled offense is what helped derail the Gators' 10-1 start, with embarrassing losses to the rival Florida State Seminoles, Alabama and Michigan.
The Gators seem to have the edge with the in-state product, as 247Sports currently gives Florida a 40 percent shot to land Craig-Myers over No. 2 Florida State, who checks in at 29 percent.
It's apparent both schools are leading the way in his recruitment, per Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel, who reported Craig-Myers has a strong relationship with the Gators' coaching staff.
"I have a great relationship with every coach they have. Me and [wide receivers] coach Kerry Dixon, we're real close. He's been on me hard, and he's definitely a hard coach on me, and he'll definitely try to teach me a lot of things," Craig-Myers said.
The receiver also praised the Florida State staff and said, per Hays, "I just have a great relationship with [wide receivers Coach [Lawrence] Dawsey ... We talk almost every other day."
Craig-Meyers' brother, a defensive back, verbally committed to Florida but eventually changed his mind. The wide receiver said that will not affect his decision and hasn't shown much of a sign of which team he will choose. The only indication he has given is he will wait until national signing day, per Hays.
It's hard to predict here, but I'll stick with the Gators on this one. Hays said the Seminoles seemed like a lock early, and now that does not appear to be the case, which means Craig-Meyers may have some reservations about Florida State.
SEC vs. ACC
Trayvon Mullen is the No. 29 overall prospect, per 247Sports, and the third-best cornerback in the class of 2016.
The 6'1'', 168-pounder hails from Pompano Beach, Florida, and it figures one of his state schools would have the recruiting edge. However, 247Sports experts are currently predicting Mullen to enroll at LSU with a 52 percent chance.
In this video from SB Nation Recruiting, Mullen said the Tigers have been recruiting him the hardest, although Florida State, Ohio State, TCU and others have been hot on his trail:
Mullen also said, with a smile, his goal is to be the No. 1 defensive back in the nation. It was mentioned in the video that cornerback Saivion Smith, No. 18 overall, already has committed to LSU, but Mullen said the two have not talked much about playing together.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say Florida State—with a 35 percent chance per 247Sports—comes in late and snags Mullen away from the Tigers. He'll have a chance to make a name for himself, play for a team that has put a ton of players in the NFL the past two years and stay in-state as well.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Go big or go home.
That appears to be the mantra of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in 2016 after pulling off one of the most impressive coaching-staff coups of the offseason.
Jones and former defensive coordinator John Jancek "mutually agreed" to part ways late last week in a surprise move given the timing just one week before the recruiting dead period is lifted.
It was Jones' version of taking a strike hoping to get his pitch later in the at-bat, and he knocked that pitch out of the park with the addition of former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was announced as the new defensive coordinator of the Vols in a release late Saturday night.
"We are very excited about the addition of Bob Shoop to our coaching staff," Jones said in a statement. "Bob has established himself as one of the premier coordinators in all of college football and is very well-respected as a recruiter, football coach and person. He brings a wealth of experience at the highest level and possesses all the qualities we were looking for as we went through this process."
Shoop's defenses have been nothing short of spectacular in State College.
The Nittany Lions finished with the Big Ten's best defense in 2014, giving up just 278.7 yards per game and 4.27 yards per play, and gave up 4.78 yards per play in 2015—his second season with the program. Prior to that, Shoop coordinated a Vanderbilt defense that finished in the top six in total defense in the SEC every year from 2011-2013, and second in yards per play in 2013 (5.07).
"This was not an easy decision and one that I didn’t take lightly," Shoop said in a statement. "Over the last 24 hours I had an opportunity to meet with Coach Jones and his staff. It became evident to me that he is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship."
It's not like Shoop is taking over a broken defense.
The Vols finished third in the nation in third-down defense under Jancek in 2015 (27.6 percent), on the heels of a 2014 campaign in which they finished 16th (34.21 percent). Fourth-down defense under Jancek wasn't great, which is a big reason the Vols lost to Florida for the 11th straight year and missed out on what would have been their first appearance in the SEC Championship Game since 2007.
As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports' noted on Twitter, he's walking into a perfect situation:
Cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are weighing their NFL decisions, monster defensive end Derek Barnett will be back as a true junior in 2016, talented youngsters Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be back up front and the secondary is still littered with talented youngsters like Todd Kelly and Evan Berry.
The window for Tennessee to return to the prominence it once enjoyed under Phillip Fulmer is wide-open in the SEC East thanks to the coaching changes at South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri, the quarterback issue at Florida and the depth that Jones has developed on Rocky Top over the last three recruiting cycles.
Jones knows it, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run that should resonate around the rest of the conference.
The Vols are going big, and Shoop's arrival is only more evidence.
It's a hire that could put Tennessee over the top and send it to Atlanta in early December.
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 SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R Experts Matt Miller, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, Brian Pedersen presents the Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks.
Other CFB 250 Positions
- Pro-Style QBs
- Offensive Linemen
- Running Backs
- Defensive Ends
- Tight Ends
- Defensive Tackles
- Outside Linebackers
- Inside Linebackers
The dual-threat quarterback has become the most coveted type of player in college football. That athlete with a special blend of passing acumen and running ability who can just as easily go from one to the other in a moment's notice. Across the country, more and more teams are moving toward an uptempo offense, and having a quarterback who can do it all is essential to this attack.
But just being able to run and throw effectively isn't a guarantee of success, as several of the players who were on our preseason list of the top dual-threat QBs have either dropped in the rankings or out of them altogether. They were replaced by another batch of great mobile passers.
The following rankings are based primarily on players' skills as college players rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are centered on helping their teams succeed.
The ratings are based on a tabulation of four different categories (arm strength, accuracy, mobility and intangibles) and based on evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts.
NOTE: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would gave a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.
The College Football Playoff system worked well this year. The best two teams are going to play for the national championship Monday night, 8:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and there's not one team that didn't qualify for the CFP that can make a legitimate claim it was better than the Clemson Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide.
According to Odds Shark, Alabama is a 5.5-point favorite. The two biggest reasons Alabama is favored to win are its powerful running game and stout defense.
After establishing itself as the top run defense in the nation and one of the stingiest defenses in regard to points allowed, the unit proved its mettle by shutting out the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve.
Alabama quarterback Jake Coker had a surprisingly strong game against the Spartans, but the threat of the running game set up much of his success. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry will be back as the primary weapon in the championship game.
After running the ball 90 times combined in the Iron Bowl and SEC championship, Henry only had 20 carries against the Spartans. With the decreased workload and the big gap in time between the national semifinal and the national championship, Henry should be fresh.
In what will likely be his last college game, Henry will punctuate a great career at Alabama with a big performance. Clemson has the 18th-ranked run defense, but it has been victimized on a number of occasions this year.
Appalachian State (202) and Syracuse (242) have both eclipsed 200 yards on the ground against Clemson. The Florida State Seminoles ran for 197 yards against the Tigers. With those totals, it's easy to see Alabama having success on the ground.
That should equate to a big day from Henry.
Watson, This Won't Be Elementary
Per Bryan Beasley of ESPN.com, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has been excellent against the blitz this season:
Watson has been blitzed on 27 percent of his dropbacks during his career, slightly more than the Power 5 average. Watson has had success on such plays, throwing 22 touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking third in both QBR (92) and yards per attempt (10.2) among Power 5 players.
All of that information is impressive, but the truth is Alabama doesn't need to blitz to get pressure. Its primary rushers in A'Shawn Robinson, Tim Williams and others are so nasty that there's no need to bring extra pressure.
Simply rushing four will allow Alabama to drop up to seven in pass protection on most downs or six and one to spy Watson.
Alabama's speed and versatility will make it tough for the Heisman finalist to do damage. He'll make a decent account of himself, but this won't be the QB's best performance.
Reggie, Reggie, Reggie
This year's crop of inside linebackers looks to be especially strong. After the national championship game, Alabama's Reggie Ragland will be seen as one of the top two prospects at the position.
Collectively, Alabama's defense is the best in the nation, but Ragland is the proven leader. Athletically, he's capable of making plays against the run and the pass, but what stands out with Ragland is his leadership skills.
In an interview with Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, Ragland spoke about the difference between this year's team and the one that fell short in 2014:
Everybody on the team knew that leadership wasn't the right way (last year). But some guys can't say nothing about it. But now I can say something because I'm a leader. And I feel like, if I don't like something, I'm going to say it. The guys on the team know we got to do this the right way, because the right way gets it done. The wrong way doesn't. Guys are very focused in coming in on the plane and all. So I can tell my guys are ready already.
Expect him to fly around the field and make plays and adjustments at the line of scrimmage while leading 'Bama to a victory.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
So, as it turns out, having the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve isn’t actually a great idea. Terrible ratings aside, though, the worst thing about the Orange and Cotton Bowls was that they were, to put it simply, boring.
Both Alabama and Clemson were clearly the better teams in their respective matchups, and there was little doubt by the end of the game that the committee had named gotten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams correct, even if Ohio State and Stanford fans scream until they turn blue.
But where there were bad semifinals, there is the chance at an epic clash in the national championship. With an established dynasty facing off against a team that has been on the fringe of the title picture without actually throwing its hat into the ring until this season, this could be a clash for the ages.
With two Heisman finalists—including the winner—in Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson set to take center stage, there is no absence of star power in the championship game, and it very likely could come down to which superstar plays better Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Kickoff will take place at 8:30 p.m., with game coverage on ESPN.
Odds are, though, both players will find their typical amount of success. So before making a final score prediction, let’s take a look at which players could swing the game in their team’s favor.
X-Factor for Each Team
Alabama: QB Jake Coker
It might seem a bit unfair to label a starting quarterback for any team as an X-factor in the biggest matchup of the year, but when it comes to Alabama, there is this idea that the signal-callers are merely there to not screw up.
While the defense and the running backs take all the accolades, the quarterbacks are asked to not lose games, or at least that’s how the stereotype goes. But this has never really been a fair assessment, and this season has been no different with Jake Coker.
After emerging from a seemingly arbitrary competition in the early stages of the season, Coker hasn’t quite hit the heights Greg McElroy or AJ McCarron did, but he has had an outstanding season and showed he is more than capable of winning a title.
Against Michigan State, the veteran quarterback finished 25-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and was a huge part of the 38-0 victory. If he can repeat his Cotton Bowl performance against Clemson, it could be hard for the Tigers to keep up.
Clemson WR: Hunter Renfrow
Beyond the obvious of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, there might not be a more valuable player for the Clemson Tigers on offense than No. 1 receiver Artavis Scott. Leading the team in receptions and yards by a wide margin, the sophomore is clearly Watson’s top target, and that isn’t likely to change in the title game.
Thing is, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is more than aware of this fact and will game-plan as such, leaving the door open for the rest of the receiving corps to step up for the Tigers when their name is called. With Charone Peake drawing his share of attention in the secondary and Deon Cain suspended, it could come down to Hunter Renfrow to fill that role.
Only a freshman, Renfrow finished the season with 404 yards and three touchdowns through the air—fifth on the team—but stepped up in a big way when called on, putting in vital performances against Louisville, N.C. State and Oklahoma.
His showing against the Sooners, in particular—four catches for 59 yards and a score—could be a sign of things to come if Alabama elects to focus on Clemson’s top two receivers. Don’t be surprised if the matchup comes down to how the freshman receiver performs under pressure.
Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 20
Whether it be the natural charisma that Watson brings to the table or the typical idea of Clemson as a high-flying, speedy offensive team—which was the case during the last half-decade or more—the thing that gets overlooked by most casual fans is just how good the Tigers are defensively.
Ranking No. 6 in the country in yards per game allowed and No. 16 in points per game—a number that doesn’t do justice to the season as a whole, with games against N.C. State and North Carolina breaking the curve—Clemson dominated the Oklahoma offense, one of the most balanced in the country, to earn a spot here and cannot be overlooked in the title game.
But while the Tigers might be able to hold Alabama and Henry in check, none of that will matter if they can’t score themselves, and against the Crimson Tide that is easier said than done.
Alabama has only allowed more than 25 points once this season, and that was in a game where the team turned the ball over five times and saw the ball bounce in Ole Miss’ favor time and again. After watching Ohio State run over his defense in the semifinal the year before, Nick Saban isn’t going to let the same thing happen with Clemson this time around, and it could result in a defensive struggle for the ages.
It will be far more entertaining than some of Alabama’s field-goal heavy clashes with LSU in the past, but with scoring at a premium the Crimson Tide should have an advantage with their run-based attack and will keep their dynasty rolling with a close win against Clemson.
All stats via cfbstats.com
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
It was a strong conclusion to the season for the Tennessee football program, and 2016 started with a sizzle as well.
After the Volunteers won five consecutive games to end the regular season, they pummeled Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.
Then when he lost tight ends coach Mark Elder to Eastern Kentucky and parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, head coach Butch Jones upgraded his staff by hiring Larry Scott from Miami to replace Elder and securing Penn State's Bob Shoop to lead the defense.
Tennessee is finally beginning to flex its muscles as a college football alpha dog again, and with tons of talent returning in 2016, there's no reason to believe the Vols won't be in contention for the SEC championship. If that's the case, playing for the national title can't be that far behind.
Ever since Jones signed his first full, loaded recruiting class in 2014, the '16 season has been circled on Tennessee's calendar as "The Year of the Vols." They were oh so close this season, finishing 9-4 and coming just a 4th-and-14 failure away from playing in Atlanta for the league championship.
Instead, inexperience on the field and on the sideline led to losses. But as the season progressed, so did the Vols' capacity to make plays at important moments. By the time the Outback Bowl rolled around, they handled business.
Now the expectations and exposure will be rampant leading up to next season. Jones made some coaching tweaks in attempts to take UT to the next level, and all those great players are going to be a year older.
There's plenty about which to be excited for Vols fans as the calendar flips to '16. Let's take a look at the reasons.
PHOENIX — I have spent the past 10 minutes trying to convince myself that the man standing before me is a running back. It simply cannot be. Linebacker? Sure. Defensive end? Why not. But running back? Not a chance.
His shoulders are bursting out of the sleeves of his jersey—like two spaceships waiting to blast off into orbit. His arms are a sight to behold, even when completely at ease. In fact, his entire body is constructed of granite and full of fury. His hands are the size of catchers’ mitts.
Standing among his Alabama teammates—a congregation of some of the most physically gifted human beings on the planet—he still manages to stand out. He is the one you can't help but notice first. He is a superman among men.
He stands 6’2” and weighs 240 pounds—his ideal playing body. He has a bench press of 475 pounds and a squat of 540 pounds. He was recently clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has clocked sub-4.4 40s in the past.
He is not Derrick Henry. He is Bo Scarbrough, the future of Alabama football.
Right now, however, no one seems to care. Days before the national championship, the media is far more interested in peppering Nick Saban with questions about his legacy and “the process.” They want to hear what Jake Coker has in store for an encore. They want to speak with Henry before his final collegiate game.
The world doesn't know this Bo. Not yet, at least.
Henry has him beat with the ruler—standing a good two inches taller than the man who will eventually replace him. In terms of thickness, Scarbrough bests the Heisman winner. He is put together unlike anyone the sport has seen in some time. Maybe ever.
I asked each player who weighed more. They both simply smiled and laughed it off. Truth is, it probably changes weekly.
“I told everybody that he’s kind of like Adrian Peterson,” IMG Academy (FL) assistant coach Adam Behrends told Bleacher Report. Behrends worked with Scarbrough his senior year of high school. “Kids like this only come around once every 10 years. I haven’t really been around anybody like Bo.”
Scarbrough is the essence of Alabama’s unrelenting run of dominance—a prodigy in a long line of prodigies that has to wait his turn. In all likelihood, he will not play a single down on Monday night.
This year, Scarbrough carried the ball 18 times. Those 18 carries—10 of which came in a single game—have already turned him into a cult hero in Tuscaloosa.
The instant Henry and his Heisman bolt to the NFL, Scarbrough will become a fixture. For now, for one more night, he will serve as Alabama’s mop-up man. When the game has been decided and the starters are removed for the day, Scarbrough goes to work.
By the time he was inserted into the Cotton Bowl, Alabama fans were booking plane tickets and hotel rooms with their iPhones in the stands. They had checked out, and the next game was coming into focus. Still, when Scarbrough emerged from the sideline in the final minutes, his presence set off murmurs in the crowd. He gave the blowout life.
True to his folklore, Scarbrough unleashed a preview of the years to come. The measureables were put to use in a single moment. When they were, Tide fans and the Alabama sideline erupted.
“He's done a very nice job,” Saban said. “He had to overcome adversity after being injured in the spring where he was having a very good effective spring practice, so it's taken him a while to come back physically. But I think he's gotten more and more confident.”
This has not come out of nowhere. Scarbrough was 247Sports' No. 2 athlete and the No. 16 overall player in the 2014 class. When he committed to Alabama, Saban knew precisely what kind of player he was getting.
Even at the prestigious IMG Academy—a place that cycles through 5-star players every year—Scarbrough was looked at differently. The coaches had not seen anyone quite like him.
“Once you see him in a cutoff on the field, you think he’s going to be good because he’s just bigger than everybody,” Behrends said. “He’s not just one of those guys who’s really good because he’s bigger and faster than everybody. He was better than everybody because he was just better than everything.”
In the red zone, Scarbrough would convert into the team’s go-to receiver. When he did, the team would often call “Him” routes.
The route was exactly what the name implies. There was no progression. There was no need to read defense. Because Scarbrough was bigger and could leap higher than anyone else, the concept was simple: Throw it up to Bo, and throw it high. Let him go up in the air and grab it.
“I’d say it worked 90 percent of the time,” Behrends said.
On the ground, Scarbrough ran for 1,420 yards and 19 touchdowns in only nine games—missing two due to injury. He averaged nearly 11 yards per carry. He also averaged more than 14 yards per reception.
When there was no opening to run through, he would still find one. In the film room, the coaches would marvel at how a back with such size would maneuver through such tight openings.
In the open field, the staff would watch Scarbrough outrun players he outweighed by more than 50 pounds.
“He has such long strides,” Behrends said. “He’s just got veins bursting in his legs, calves and knees. When he ran, it looked like a racehorse going around the track.”
When Scarbrough arrived on campus, he was dealt a flurry of setbacks in his first 18 months.
Due to academic issues, Scarbrough didn’t enroll at Alabama until the spring semester of 2015, missing the entirety of what would have been his freshman season. When he finally joined the team during the spring of 2015, he promptly tore his ACL. He was then suspended for four games in August due to an NCAA matter.
“In high school, you’re the guy,” Scarbrough said. “But once you get to college, everybody is the same. You can’t question anybody but yourself about how to get better. I think the waiting has really made me grow mentally.”
Scarbrough only saw action in four games this season, debuting against Georgia in early October. The combined final score of the four games he played was 163-22.
When Alabama decided it had buried an opponent deep enough, Scarbrough would then be given a chance. One can’t help but appreciate just how much of a rich man’s problem Alabama has on its hands.
Fully aware of the routine, Behrends would watch games—even the grandest of blowouts—until the conclusion. If a game turned sideways early, he knew his former player had a better chance of getting in. He rooted for routs.
Scarbrough, fully aware of his current status, has welcomed a role that would frustrate most.
“I’m going to do everything I am supposed to do,” Scarbrough said. “Most athletes with 15 seconds left don’t want to get in the game. I do. I’m going to take advantage of every chance that I get.”
If it were another university—perhaps any other program, really—things would be different. Bo would be starting and starring. Talents of his caliber aren’t often tucked away and stored for later.
But Alabama is a different kind of brute. Even the rarest of freak shows have to pay their dues.
This year’s Heisman winner knows this more than anyone. Henry waited until his junior year before assuming the role of the team’s primary back. The similarities between the two extend well beyond their physical makeup.
“He’s come back from injury, worked hard and gotten better,” Henry said of Scarbrough. “As the season has progressed, he’s improved each and every week.”
It’s simply a matter of time. The mystique that follows Scarbrough will morph into something more—something tangible and real. Until then, perhaps on Monday night the score will turn lopsided enough for Saban to call for a 5-star mop-up in the closing moments.
If he does, listen for the roar.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh is always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. His latest idea involves holding his team's spring practice out of state in Florida.
Per TheWolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), Michigan is looking into practicing at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Snyder said Harbaugh has been to the IMG Academy campus numerous times, and the cost should not be an issue for a school with a large budget like Michigan.
While the NCAA bylaws don't mention anything about a team's practice location, Harbaugh may still face some hurdles, per Snyder:
The issues would be the location and the amount of practice time. The NCAA spring practice rules (bylaw 184.108.40.206) govern how often a team can practice (15 times) and the span (34 calendar days not counting schools vacations) and how much contact there can be (only in 12 of the 15 practices). There is nothing noted about the location.
Often northern coaches have to schedule their spring practices around the school's spring break. Either they will start spring practice after the break or they will do what Brady Hoke did two years ago at U-M and Harbaugh did last year, have a few practices before the break, then stop for the 10 days and then resume after the break.
Michigan's spring break is from Feb. 27 to March 6, and if the team uses this timeframe for spring practice, Florida's warm weather would be appealing to players and potential recruits who aren't used to the colder northern weather.
If Harbaugh uses this break, he would still have to abide by the same practice rules he does when classes are in session, according to Snyder:
The rules state it still would have to mirror the in-school rules: "Any such practice sessions held during vacation days may not be of longer duration than those normally held when academic classes are in session."
One potential complication, if the Big Ten or NCAA nix the idea. Despite no apparent roadblocks in the bylaws, the conference and national organization likely would have to clear it before the Wolverines followed through.
Yet in unusual or unconventional situations, schools usually have the idea vetted for through their own compliance department and cleared by the conference and/or NCAA before proceeding. That is the procedure Michigan State followed when its basketball team attended the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31.
This alone may not be the difference between landing the No. 10 and No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but Harbaugh looks for all of the advantages he can find—and when added up, they can make a big difference.
He uses every available practice hour he can, per Snyder, who noted Harbaugh uses his assistant coaches as much as he can when it comes to recruiting:
The "Summer Swarm," as Michigan called it, had the U-M coaches in 10 different locations in seven different states from June 4-12. As much as it disturbed coaches in those states -- especially in the SEC and ACC who were not allowed to have their own "satellite camps" -- it was within the NCAA rules.
Whatever he's doing must be working. After Michigan's five-win season in 2014, Harbaugh guided the Wolverines to 10 wins in his first season, and they have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, per 247Sports.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
PHOENIX — The University of Alabama football team has numerous goals every year, which often translate into trophies and titles at the end of a season.
But one that often gets overlooked may best explain the Crimson Tide's success under head coach Nick Saban.
Alabama wants to be the toughest team in college football. Not just collectively—but on each unit and at every position.
“There are a lot of tough guys,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I think if we didn’t have the amount of tough guys that we have, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Coker himself won over a lot of his teammates with his toughness, dropping his shoulder and taking on linebackers and defensive backs at the end of some of his runs. No one questions that aspect of running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s game, as his pushing carries helped close out games down the stretch.
On the defensive line, A’Shwan Robinson is about as intimidating as can be, and he has a lot of company.
“That defensive line is a pretty nasty group, one of the meanest I’ve ever seen,” Coker said. “Sometimes we’re out there practicing, and we’re listening to them and it’s like ‘Man, that’s a little rough right there. We’re still on the same team.’ We wouldn’t be as good without that mentality.”
If the Crimson Tide took an informal poll to choose the toughest player on the toughest team, one player who would certainly get votes is senior right tackle Dominick Jackson.
Anyone who wants to understand what Saban’s "Process" is all about has only to look at Jackson, who may have advanced as a player more than anyone else on the roster over the past two seasons.
At 6’6,” 315 lbs., Jackson would stand out anywhere, but he does even more in Tuscaloosa because of his appearance. The self-described “city” guy likes big gold chains and sports a ton of ink.
“I love tattoos,” he said. “They’re therapeutic. I just like them. I promised my mom I wouldn’t tatt my face or my neck for later on in life. I have a whole [arm] sleeve, my chest and my stomach, the inside of my arm, my leg, my hand and my back.”
His favorite is on the arm. It’s the Alabama script-A logo that begins to spell out his 1-year-old daughter’s name, Aiyana. When he shows it, it’s with pride.
Moreover, Jackson’s from California. He attended Homestead High School in Cupertino, which is just west of San Jose on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. While he was a good player, his grades were not. So to keep playing, he had to go the junior college route, spending two years at the College of San Mateo.
The Bulldogs ran an option offense that helped him develop a reputation as a mauler in the running game. The flip side to that was Jackson hardly ever pass protected, which is the toughest thing to develop at this level.
“It was a wing-T offense, and I came here and played big-time, NFL, spread, power, big-boy football,” Jackson said. “I’m just thankful to be here.”
So yeah, he stood out. The other Tide players from California, Isaac Luatua, Richard Mullaney, Cole Mazza and Blake Barnett, made it easier for him to fit in. The coaches went to work on his pass-blocking.
Just getting him back on track academically was also a big task. But Alabama’s academic center helped him make progress in the classroom.
The key word there was “work,” and he put a whole lot in.
“He was like taking a large-mouth bass and throwing in the middle of the ocean a coral reef. This guy was all over the place,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “But the one thing that always stood out was his motor and a desire to get it done. As long as he had that, we’d find a way.”
Although an injury slowed his initial progress in 2014, it was steady and continual. Jackson played in eight games as a reserve and the jumbo-blocking back in goal-line situations last season, and then won the starting job over the offseason. Every week he got better, and with each game the line became a little tighter.
Jackson ended up getting beat for a sack only twice this season while being credited with 43 knockdown blocks that ranked third on the team. Alabama won the inaugural Joe Moore Award for having the best offensive line, and of course, the Heisman went to Henry.
When the coaches handed out team honors after winning the Southeastern Conference title, Jackson was one of four to receive an Up-Front Award (for the outstanding lineman from each unit), along with defensive end Jonathan Allen, center Ryan Kelly and guard Ross Pierschbacher.
He was also named second-team All-SEC by the conference coaches.
“He’s a tremendous competitor with tremendous ability,” Cristobal said. “I really think his best football is still in front of him. He’s now really learning how to play the game. He’s a tough, physical son-of-a-gun who’s really earned the respect of his teammates.
“Alabama isn’t for everybody. Alabama is for people who want to be great, who want to be challenged, pushed, motivated every single day.”
So should Alabama defeat Clemson for the national championship on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it’ll be because of guys like Jackson, who might be the most overlooked player on the Crimson Tide offense.
It’ll be because of a line that has starters who are as different as can be and hail from California, Ohio, Iowa, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, yet play together as one.
It’ll be because it again had the toughest team in college football, which has been the key to Saban’s dynasty with the Crimson Tide and might cause Jackson to get another tattoo to match the one celebrating the 2014 SEC championship—although he isn’t ready to say so yet.
“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said with a smile.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers made it abundantly clear they are the two best teams in college football on December 31. Now they'll decide who is truly the best in college football in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday.
For the Crimson Tide, this is the culmination of a tear that came after some were giving their eulogy for the Alabama dynasty. For Clemson, this is the final opportunity to earn the respect its fought for all season. Even when the Tigers were the only undefeated team left in the field, they still weren't the unanimous No. 1 team in the country, according to the AP and Coaches Polls.
Now, they get a chance to take those votes on the field. It's an epic matchup and the best game that college football could provide. Here's a look at all the information you'll need to catch the action:
When: Monday, January 11, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: Alabama (-7), per Odds Shark
Key for Clemson: Get Wayne Gallman Going
If you've read anything about his game, it's likely that quarterback Deshaun Watson is the key for the Clemson offense. It's usually followed by the narrative that Alabama has traditionally struggled with some mobile quarterbacks with losses in recent years to teams that had Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and (to a lesser extent) Chad Kelly.
There might be some truth to that narrative, but Clemson's offense can't rely on Deshaun Watson to go out and beat the Tide defense alone. Finding a way to get running back Wayne Gallman going will be just as important.
The running back tends to be the unsung hero of the Tigers offense. While Watson gets the glory and Heisman Trophy votes for carving up defenses, Gallman has put up 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
That production isn't just a product of great blocking and Watson either. According to CFB Film Room, Gallman has forced missed tackles at a similar rate to Alabama Heisman winner Derrick Henry:
The Clemson running back's teammates see some of Henry in his running style as well. "He runs aggressive, runs hard, fights for every yard he gets,” Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said of Gallman, per David M. Hale of ESPN.com. “He’s determined not to be stopped, just like Henry.”
Gallman will have his work cut out for him to experience success against the Tide. Head coach Nick Saban's defensive front is the best in the nation at stopping the run, and finding daylight will be harder than ever. Gallman is on a trajectory to rise to the occasion, though.
His numbers are better than ever on a per-game basis as the championship game approaches:
Some of Gallman's best games have come when the Tigers have played their biggest games of the season. If he can break off a few runs in this one, it's going to take some pressure off Watson and divide the defense on option plays.
Key for Alabama: Allow Jake Coker to Throw the Ball Downfield
The attention surrounding the Tide's offense has been the exact opposite of Clemson. Alabama's offense is all about running back Derrick Henry, while quarterback Jake Coker is reduced to mere minion.
But that certainly wasn't the case in the 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory over Michigan State that got Alabama to this spot.
The Spartans front was able to limit Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries, but it was all for naught. Jake Coker went ahead and beat the Spartans secondary for 286 yards on 25-of-30 passing.
Simply put, if Coker has another night like that one, this game won't be close. The Tigers have the ability to slow down Alabama's running game like the Spartans did. Clemson's stout front has given up just 3.59 yards per carry.
If Alabama is able to stretch the secondary vertically, it becomes more difficult for the safeties to aid in stopping the run.
Perhaps even more important than Coker is Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, though. He was a big part of Coker's success and has been a boon for the offense since the team's loss to Ole Miss. From ESPN.com's Cotton Bowl research notes:
Jake Coker continued to rely on true freshman Calvin Ridley, who broke Amari Cooper's school record for the most receiving yards by a freshman. Coker completed 8-of-10 passes and both of his touchdowns targeting Ridley Thursday. Ridley has led the Crimson Tide receivers in targets in 10 of 11 games following Alabama's loss to Ole Miss.
Ridley will see one of his most difficult matchups of the season against Clemson's Mackensie Alexander. Bleacher Report Lead NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller has Alexander ranked as his No. 3 cornerback in the draft class.
That doesn't spell doom for the dynamic freshman, though. He already took on Miller's No. 1 corner in Vernon Hargreaves III when he played against Florida and came away with eight receptions for 102 yards.
Ridley vs. Alexander is one of the most intriguing individual matchups in this game. Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can't be afraid to test that early and often to lighten the load on Henry and the offensive line.
The Tide come into this game as a touchdown favorite. After watching them dismantle the Spartans, it's easy to understand why.
But this Clemson team is far more complete than Michigan State. The Spartans came into the game averaging fewer than four yards per carry on the ground and were marginal in defending the pass all season. Both flaws were exposed in a big way.
Looking at Clemson statistically, there aren't many holes. They average 4.99 yards per carry on the ground, have a more than capable passer in Deshaun Watson and rank 13th in the nation in yards allowed per pass attempt.
The Tigers have the talent to make sure this game is competitive.
What makes this game compelling is the fact that both teams are so complete. Neither team really has a weakness to speak of, and when that's the case, it comes down to winning the battle up front and minimizing mistakes.
No one is better at doing those two things than Alabama.
Getting Gallman going will be crucial for Clemson. However, the Tide have made running games nearly obsolete over the final stretch of the season. They're giving up just 2.3 yards per carry on the season and only get stronger as the game goes on. Teams average just 1.89 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter.
The Alabama offensive line will have its work cut out for it. Shaq Lawson and the Clemson defensive front are among the best defensive lines in the country, but there's a reason Alabama's hosses won the first Joe Moore Award given to the country's best offensive line. They are the best at what they do.
Expect Alabama to have the slight edge in the trenches and on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Alabama 23, Clemson 20
All statistics used courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
There is no shortage of chatter in advance of the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship, a hotly anticipated contest between the No. 1 Clemson Tigers, looking to complete an undefeated season, and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, a perennial football powerhouse under head coach Nick Saban.
Take Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Never one to mince words, Alexander has talked up a big game in advance of Monday's championship tilt. For starters, he's hardly convinced Alabama should be favored over his undefeated squad.
"We are 14-0, and we were underdogs last week, it's all a brand thing," Alexander said, per AL.com's John Talty. "Everyone cares about the brand, the Alabama brand. I understand it's a lot of fans, and they've done it for a long time, but this is a new year, and it's our time."
Alexander's also more than ready to take on Alabama's top wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, per ESPN.com's Sam Khan Jr.: "Listen, I don't stroke nobody's ego. I go out there and handle my business. I feel like I'm the best and biggest man in the country, and I go out there and do it. I'm done talking about this. We do what we do. We face great players. They have great players. We faced great players all year."
Ridley, a freshman, is far and away the Crimson Tide's biggest receiving threat, with 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. Alabama is a power-running team predicated on Derrick Henry slowly eroding a defense while quarterback Jake Coker takes advantage of an over-committed and tired opposition. This is why neutralizing Ridley is one of the keys to the game for Clemson, per Newsday's Greg Logan:
Ridley has drawn comparisons to former Alabama star Amari Cooper, who was a first-round pick by Oakland in last spring’s NFL Draft. But Alexander, a redshirt sophomore with first-round talent who is eligible for this year’s draft, didn’t hesitate to compare himself to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis when it comes to shutdown ability. And he meant Revis in his prime when the top wide receivers in the game disappeared on “Revis Island.”
Although Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Alexander won’t necessarily “shadow” Ridley the whole game, the Tigers’ defense is predicated on being able to leave their corners in single coverage so they can commit more numbers to the line of scrimmage.
Ensuring Alabama has the right blend of pass and run against Clemson's stellar defense falls upon offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has worked wonders under Saban the past couple of years. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Barkley, who played at USC during Kiffin's tenure as head coach, says his former coach has given Alabama an added dimension with his play-calling acumen.
“I think he’s really given them a spark on offense with all the play action and the schemes that he’s brought,” Barkley said, per Duane Rankin of the Montgomery Advertiser. “I think he’s done a good job utilizing the athletes that Alabama has and made the most of it.”
A big part of the Tigers thwarting a Kiffin-devised offense depends on the health of defensive end Shaq Lawson, one of the best players in college football. Lawson suffered a knee injury in Clemson's national semifinal win over Oklahoma, but he's optimistic he will suit up on Monday.
"I have been doing pretty much everything I can to get strength back in my knee," Lawson said at the team media day, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I have been having a busy week with treatment. I am in the training room probably about two hours a day and getting two treatments per day."
The challenges for Clemson in this game extend far beyond containing Alabama's offense. Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson is going to need a big game both on the ground and through the air if Clemson is to win this game. Alabama's defense is nasty, to put it mildly.
“They want to go live, they want to hit people. You got to almost hold them back; you don’t want them to injure a scout team player or injure themselves. But they’re not worried about that,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said, per Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In order to live up to his eye-popping potential, he'll need a strong performance from his offensive line.
Alabama features a menacing front seven replete with NFL-caliber players like linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson. It makes sense that Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain is using the reputation of his opponents to fire up his teammates on the offensive line.
"I try to express that to the offensive line," Mac Lain said, per AL.com's Matt Zenitz. "If they have any aspirations of playing in the NFL, you have to do good against NFL prospects. I think we all realize that, and excited for the challenge."
Mac Lain's strategy for pumping up his teammates puts things in a long-term perspective, a reminder of the riches still unattainable for these talented athletes. That may sound overly serious and business-like, but it's nothing more than a little perspective.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has no problems with his team forsaking dour demeanors and having a little bit of fun. He insisted his team show joy in the buildup to the national championship, per Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde:
Well, is that against the rules? That question right there is what's wrong with society. I mean, it's like a big deal if somebody enjoys what they do. Like we're supposed to be miserable going through this. I don't understand that. I mean, there's no rule that says you can't have fun.
Saban isn't exactly known for sporting a fun-loving demeanor, but he has his own motivational tactics that at this point shouldn't really be disputed. Per Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post, Saban spoke of truly appreciating what his team has accomplished up to this point:
Let me try to put it this way. You know, at the banquet this year, I gave a speech about "thank you." But there’s a second part to "thank you" that no one ever thinks about, that when I was a kid, I was thanking my coach and my teams for whatever, and my dad was picking me up after practice, and he said, "You thanked your coach. That was really nice. But there’s an IOU that goes with every 'thank you,' which is, you owe them your best." [With this team,] I thanked them for all their hard work, their togetherness, their competitive spirit, all that they were able to accomplish in winning the SEC championship.
Building up a sense of appreciation, trust and togetherness is key when the whole world is waiting for you to perform. It can be especially helpful for players in unfamiliar environments. For at least one Alabama player, Arizona has proven to be an alien backdrop for what is potentially the most important game he'll ever participate in.
"It's a little bit different from where I'm from," Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said, per Talty. "I've never seen a cactus on the side of the road. I had never seen huge mountains before, either. It's pretty cool."
It's not just the scenery. Everything about the game will be different for the vast majority of these players. It's a different atmosphere, a different level of scrutiny. There is one game, a mere 60 minutes, for these players to make their mark in college football history.
The CFP is still a nascent adventure. History is to be made in Glendale, Arizona. A win at this early stage of the CFP—a system that seems quite likely to stick and would probably benefit from expansion—would be the achievement of a lifetime. Of course it's going to be different.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has begun a push to have the NFL delay offering draft-evaluation reports until a player's season is over.
Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News and Duane Rankin of the Montgomery Advertiser reported the news Sunday. ESPN.com's Joe Schad reported Saturday that the Crimson Tide voted as a team not to read its reports until after Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
"All our focus is on one game," Alabama tight end O.J. Howard told Schad.
Underclassmen who apply for NFL draft reports are typically given a range of rounds in which they may be drafted. Saban explained the reasoning behind his proposal Sunday, per Chase Goodbread of NFL.com:
The NFL moved the draft back. I wish they'd move the declare date back. I wish they'd make a rule that says you can't even tell a player what his draft status is through the NFL committee until they've finished their competition as college players. So that you don't put them and their family in this situation where there's a big timing issue relative to competition. Now if you finish your season on Dec. 6, you can make a decision. If you finished it on Jan. 11, then you get your (feedback) information after that, but you have a significant amount of time to make that decision when you finish playing so you can stay focused on what you need to do to play well, because it benefits all those players to play well in the game.
Clemson players have not made a collective decision on when to view draft reports, according to Goodbread. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has allowed each player to make his own decision regarding his report, though he agreed with Saban's point that the grades should not be seen until the end of the season.
It's easy to see where both coaches are coming from. Their teams are days away from the national championship game, but players making draft decisions are also on the verge of one of the most important times of their lives.
The draft reports are important for players, who want to have a general idea of where they stand. Anything that allows them to make an informed decision should be viewed as a positive, even as their well-paid coaches try to wrest control of the process.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
No more polls, no more committees, no more voting, no more politics. Just 100 yards of grass, a pigskin and 22 men in between two white lines to settle who is the best college football team in the land.
A southern tilt will shift west to Arizona as No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama face off at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Clemson used a big second half in the Orange Bowl to move past No. 4 Oklahoma easily, while Alabama thrashed No. 3 Michigan State 38-0. With both teams holding plenty of momentum, there are a few key factors that can deliver one team to victory or spoil its national title hopes.
Let's take a look.
If there's one thing that has been able to throw a wrench in Alabama's defensive machine, it's been a scrambling quarterback.
While Chad Kelly of Ole Miss didn't need his legs to pick apart the Crimson Tide for Alabama's lone loss this season, they have burned in the past by mobile passers. Last year, it was Bo Wallace of Ole Miss and Ohio State's Cardale Jones in the Sugar Bowl.
Their ability to use their legs and extend plays helped to beat an Alabama defense that makes a living off getting after the quarterback and disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage.
If Alabama can't get to the quarterback, the rest of its defense is left stranded. It's in for quite a test in Clemson's Deshaun Watson.
Watson has rushed for over 1,000 yards to go with 3,699 passing yards in an offense he throttles with big plays each and every week. He's accounted for 43 total touchdowns this season, which basically means Clemson goes as he does.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban knows his unit is up against it too.
"The guy is an outstanding player and does a great job of executing their offense, tremendous dual threat," he said, per Matt Connelly of the State (h/t Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post). "You know, really is a very good rhythm passer as well as a guy who can sustain plays and extend plays because of his athleticism and ability to scramble.
If Watson is able to throw for 300 yards and rush for 75, Clemson has a really good chance of winning this football game.
If Jake Coker plays like he did against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, then Alabama is going to win this game easily.
Coker was surgical in breaking down the Spartans defense, putting up season highs in completions and yards with 25 and 286, respectively. It's been an up-and-down season of sorts with Coker.
With a Heisman Trophy-winning running back in Derrick Henry in the backfield, Coker was relegated to playing second fiddle on offense, and his numbers were pedestrian at best. There were times this season when he struggled to command the offense, but he's come on strong as of late.
In his past four games, he's thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions as the Crimson Tide have made easy work of some big programs like Mississippi State, Florida and Auburn.
Leading up to the game, the quarterback who wasn't given much of a chance in his first three years in Alabama looks set to lead the Crimson Tide into battle.
Everyone and their mothers know that Henry is going to see a lot of the ball. In the biggest game of the year, it's only natural that the best player in the nation gets the ball as much as Saban allows it.
So if Clemson decides to key in on the run and load up the box in preparation of Henry's impending arrival, Coker's arm is going to have to be on the money if Alabama wants to outscore Clemson.
Put up a game like he did against Ole Miss or even Arkansas, and Alabama will have problems on Monday.
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
After a week-and-a-half of hype and hoopla, Clemson and Alabama are just one day away from their duel in the desert.
But really, this matchup has been nearly a full season in the making. The top-ranked Tigers have maintained their perch atop the College Football Playoff rankings since Week 10, and Alabama has been lurking at No. 2 nearly the entire way, one week notwithstanding.
Here is a guide to Monday’s national championship game.
Date: Monday, January 11
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Venue: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Odds (via OddsShark.com): Alabama -5.5
These teams have been the class of the field all season, and while they are among the sport's annual heavyweights, their respective paths to the title game have been unique.
Almighty Alabama, going for its fourth national title in the Nick Saban era, fielded speculation that its dynasty had drawn to an end following a Week 3 hiccup to Ole Miss. But Saban and company reminded everyone they own the throne until someone yanks them from the top.
Clemson has returned to relevancy behind flamboyant head coach Dabo Swinney, who in a sport chalk full of villains is arguably the toughest figure to root against.
His abundance of endless motivation and sincerity has made Clemson one of the most fun teams to watch this season. Swinney never shies from celebrating after big wins, such as the Tigers’ 24-22 victory in Week 5 over then-No. 6 Notre Dame, as shown by the ACC Network:
Swinney has not only revitalized Clemson after 10 years of underachievement under former head coach Tommy Bowden, but he’s shaken the program’s stigma for “Clemsoning”—the moniker aligned to its well-chronicled history of inexplicably choking in games with so much on the line.
Since 2012, Swinney’s Tigers have defeated some of the best programs in college football away from the ACC, including Ohio State, LSU, Georgia and Auburn, and this year, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
They’d sure like to add Alabama to that impressive list.
In doing so, the Tigers would become the first team in FBS history to finish the season 15-0 and claim their first national title since 1981.
"August 3, when we started the season, I gave them shirts that said 'Dream the Dream,'" Swinney said, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "And I said '15 for 15,' with the message being let's make them print 15 tickets this year, somehow, some way.”
The Tigers are FBS' last unbeaten team, and their path to remain unblemished fittingly pits them against the juggernaut that has defied odds by dominating a cyclical sport for nearly a decade.
And Alabama has unfinished business to resolve.
The Tide were the best team in college football last year but admittedly let Ohio State get the best of them in a 42-35 loss in the CFP semifinal.
They returned to the grand stage in typical Saban fashion—behind a rugged defense, a run-heavy offense and toe-of-the-line coaching that were put on best display in Alabama’s 38-0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal.
Never has Saban’s “process” been on better display than with this year’s Crimson Tide—a team that complements its humility from last year’s disappointment with relentless intensity, as Saban admitted, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports:
First of all, when you talk about a team that buys in to doing things the way that you like to do it, you define principles and values of the organization that you think are important to helping the organization be successful. That’s the easy part. Getting everybody to follow the process and having the discipline to execute that on a day-to-day basis, on a game-to-game basis all season long and get everybody to buy into those things, that’s the difficult part and that’s what this team has done a really good job of.
This team appears to be on a mission to return to glory.
Clemson has been arguably the most complete team in college football this season. Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson anchors a prolific offense that has complemented a rugged defense that ranks sixth overall.
But there’s an old saying that seems fitting given each team’s path to this year’s culminating game—you have to lose one to win one.
Despite its dynasty under Saban, Alabama has been in the losing locker room of monumental games—the 2013 "kick-six" in the Iron Bowl, the 2011 home loss to LSU in "the Game of the Century" and of course last year’s Sugar Bowl semifinal.
And while the Tigers have been impressive under Swinney, they haven’t yet played on this stage. Clemson was resilient in the Orange Bowl win, shutting out Oklahoma in the second half after trailing after the first two quarters. But Oklahoma is no Alabama.
Clemson is on the cusp of a crown—but it's not there just yet.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Clemson 20
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Love it or hate it, the College Football Playoff did its job and gave the world a showdown between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Prestigious histories aside, both programs have something to prove. Clemson marched to historic numbers and would love to reel in a 15-0 mark and a national title after blowing through Oklahoma in the semifinal, 37-17, but it has its own recent history to overcome.
Meanwhile, Alabama already put last year's sloppy debut in the CFP behind it by becoming the only program to make a return appearance, pasting Michigan State in a 38-0 laugher in the semifinal. But the winds of change and transition once again encircle the team.
Let's take a look at the integral details surrounding this heavyweight showdown.
When: Monday, Jan. 11, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Spread: Alabama (-6.5)
Team Injury Reports
Injury reports courtesy of USA Today.
The expectations around Clemson entering the season were, well, interesting.
After all, over the past few years, the Tigers helped invent the word "Clemsoning," loosely defined as coming up short in a big opportunity. Folks looked for it when the team lined up against then-No. 6 Notre Dame in October. Nope. Clemson won, 24-22. Same against then-No. 16 Florida State in November, a 23-13 win. Ditto for December's encounter with then-No. 10 North Carolina, a 45-37 win.
Fine, most figured, there was still the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, the fourth-ranked team. There, sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson accounted for two total scores while lead back Wayne Gallman posted two of his own and the Clemson defense posted two interceptions in the rout.
So much for the funny word that's chased the program for years. Now Clemson's the most dangerous No. 1 underdog around.
“I’m glad we’re going against the best,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said, according to ESPN.com's David M. Hale. “Well, what everybody says is the best team in college football. Technically we’re ranked No. 1.”
It's a fitting role for Clemson. Watson completed 68.2 percent of his passes this year with 31 scores and added another 12 on the ground. Gallman had 1,482 yards and 12 scores of his own on the ground. The tandem helped keep the narrative at arm's length to make it this far.
Clemson has to do it once more, though this time against the best defensive line in the nation and a Nick Saban-led team littered with future NFL talent. It's not an easy task by any means, but the vibes coming out of Death Valley hint the Tigers wouldn't have it any other way.
Past blemishes chase the Crimson Tide, too.
It's a tad different for Saban's powerhouse, though. The program's elite status means Alabama has to worry more about a letdown than the opposition—at least in most games.
Last year still haunts the Crimson Tide, whose crop of NFL-bound talent seemed to look forward to waltzing to the podium instead of focusing on Ohio State in what turned into a 42-35 upset in the semifinal.
So far, it seems Saban's players have put the gaffe behind them. In the 38-0 whipping of the Spartans, Jake Coker tossed two touchdowns, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry added two on the ground and the Alabama defense picked off supposed future first-round pick Connor Cook twice.
Monday isn't most games, though.
Alabama's taken care of its fair share of top-ranked opponents, besting Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and Michigan State teams ranked in the top 10. But the Crimson Tide really haven't encountered an attack as deadly as Clemson's.
Alabama has made a point of adapting its defensive system to such attacks over the years, of course, as Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and even Chad Kelly helped force the changes.
"The diversity in the kind of players that we have helps us against the kind of offenses we see now," Saban said, according to ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "We can play some situational defense with some of those guys."
The question, though, is whether the changes are enough. So far, so good, but Alabama's going to need to use Henry in a run-heavy approach and exploit its newfound defensive speed—every ounce of it—to win the title.
Clemson's defense might play a bigger role in this game than the highly publicized Alabama unit.
If the Tigers cannot slow Henry, who has of 2,061 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns alongside his individual hardware, Watson and Gallman might have a hard time getting on the field at all. This is the same Clemson defense that struggled to contain the North Carolina (142 rushing yards, 4.4 average, two touchdowns) and South Carolina (181 yards, 4.8 average, one score) rushing attacks down the stretch.
The Crimson Tide will control the pace in this one. Watson's going to do some damage, but scoreless drives in the Orange Bowl will lead to issues against a stout Alabama defense.
Look for the Crimson Tide to buckle down with something to prove, keeping the Tigers mostly in check and grinding this one out.
Prediction: Alabama 35, Clemson 30
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Lane Kiffin has been pretty successful as the offensive coordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide. You can't say the same thing about his tenure as a head coach.
The former Southern California Trojans and Tennessee Volunteers headman went a pedestrian 35-21 in five years as a head coach, failing to win even one bowl game. In four years at USC, he was 28-15, which won't cut it with one of the most storied football programs in the country.
He left Tennessee after just one year, which did not sit well with the team, and was ousted from USC five games into his fourth season.
Yet if he finds himself leading a team in the future, he would be fine with hiring another embattled former USC coach.
Per Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com, Kiffin would have no problem hiring Steve Sarkisian, who was fired by the Trojans in the middle of the season after allegedly appearing intoxicated at a team meeting. According to SB Nation (via ESPN.com), he later checked into a rehabilitation facility.
"Oh, I definitely would [hire him]," Kiffin said, per Khan. "People go through things, and they happen. There are all kinds of comeback stories. ... Hopefully he'll be one of them."
Kiffin pointed to Sarkisian's success with the Washington Huskies as a big reason he would add him to his future staff, per Khan:
People go through things. It doesn't mean he can't coach. The guy is a great playcaller. I always go back to his last year at Washington. In the history of the school there had been six games of over 600 yards. He had six in the same season.
There's no question about that. There's no question about his relationships with the players, quarterback development. We all go through things, and I can tell talking to him that he has come back stronger and he'll be even better.
Of course, Kiffin was just answering a question that came his way, and it's not as though he landed a job and now has to put his money where his mouth is.
However, he didn't brush off the question, either, adding that he invited Sarkisian to attend an Alabama practice last month, though Sarkisian declined, per Khan. Instead, he offered some advice for Kiffin via text message at halftime of Alabama's 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory over the Michigan State Spartans.
Kiffin declined to discuss any possible head coaching jobs prior to his team's College Football Playoff Championship Game against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers, per Khan.
"That's why you have an agent to deal with all of that stuff, but I'm not going into all that," he said. "I have a great job. So any time that stuff comes up, I remind myself that I have a great job with great players and a great head coach and there are only two teams still playing, so we're fortunate to be here."
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com