NCAA Football News

The Moment 5-Star Georgia Commit Trent Thompson Became a Star

It was two years ago when Albany (Georgia) Westover High School head coach Octavia Jones realized he had something special in then-sophomore defensive tackle Trent Thompson.

Thompson enjoyed a breakout performance against Cairo, a team Jones described as “one of the tougher teams in our region.” According to MaxPreps, Thompson accounted for 10 tackles against the Syrupmakers, including four tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

“They are a very successful program, and he kind of dominated that game,” Jones said. “They had a hard time blocking him. Their head coach, Tom Fallaw, we talked after the game and he had nothing but praise for the way Trent played.”

Fallaw recalled one play in particular that opened his eyes. 

“I can remember, at the time, we had a kid named P.J. Davis who now plays linebacker at Georgia Tech,” Fallaw said. “He was one of our running backs. We ran a zone read outside, and Trent was playing nose and he chased him down from the backside. P.J. is not slow. He [Thompson] was about 280 then. You just knew he had the size and athletic ability to be a special player who could go to the next level.

As the year progressed, the praise kept coming from opposing coaches for the Patriots' young man-child. According to Jones, one coach who played both his club and Dooly County—home to then-5-star defensive tackle and current Auburn star Montravius Adams—told him that Thompson looked “a lot like Adams.” 

“When we got to end of the season and we were doing our self-analysis, I looked back on how many plays he made, and it was unreal,” Jones said. “We didn’t realize at that time during the season, how important he was to us until we had a chance to look at it after the season.”

During his breakout sophomore campaign, Thompson recorded 65 tackles, five sacks and an interception. That was enough for in-state power and childhood favorite Georgia to extend him his first scholarship offer.

“I think I pretty much told every recruiter that came through here that year about him,” Fallaw said. “He’s a kid that who is big, athletic and uses his size well. He can move. He’s just one of those kids where after you look at him, it’s a no-brainer that he can play at the next level.”

The 6’4”, 292-pound Thompson—now rated as the nation’s top defensive tackle and the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports Composite Rankings—committed to Mark Richt’s Bulldogs over offers from powers such as Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and USC at a ceremony at his high school on Tuesday evening. 

“He got pretty emotional toward the end when he spoke about how special the day was for him,” Jones said. “He’s just very excited right now.”

Jones credits his star pupil’s rise in recruiting circles to maturity and a strong work ethic. Specifically, prior to his junior season, Thompson worked on the finer details of becoming an elite interior defensive lineman—such as improving his technique and handling cut blocks.

With his college destination now known, Thompson enters his senior season ready to build on a monster junior year in which he logged 83 tackles—including an astounding 38 for loss—and 12 sacks, according to MaxPreps

“I think everybody knows the caliber player he is, but I can’t stress enough of how good of a person he is off the field,” Jones said. “He’s genuinely one of those individuals that will make a program proud because he’s going to do things the right way.”  

 

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

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ACC Football: Power Ranking Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season

The ACC is filled with talent on both sides of the ball. As we count down the days until kickoff later this month, here's a look at the top 10 players in the conference.

The basis of this list is both talent and value to the team. Some may have to carry their offense or shut down an opposing passing attack to cover up a weak front line. Others just have too much talent to keep off an All-ACC list.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of players who can challenge the man shown above for the conference's best offensive player, not to mention a defensive group that will light up the stat sheet. 

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Arizona State OL Chip Sarafin Comes out as Gay in 'Compete Magazine' Interview

Arizona State offensive lineman Edward "Chip" Sarafin became the first publicly homosexual football player in the FBS when he acknowledged his sexuality in an interview with Joshua Wyrick of Compete Magazinea publication designed to highlight the exploits of gay athletes.  

"It was really personal to me, and benefitted my peace of mind greatly," Sarafin, who came out to teammates last spring, told Wyrick.    

The piece does not delve into many specifics about how he told teammates or about their reaction. Wyrick instead focuses on Sarafin's goals in the medical field and his work with the Pat Tillman Foundation.

"It's so important that we teach them this acceptance when they are young so when they actually experience and meet these different kind of people in real life—and they will—they are adequately prepared," Sarafin said.

A fifth-year senior, Sarafin has spent most of his career at Arizona State working on the scout team. He is yet to enter a game as an offensive lineman, largely providing depth at the center position and working occasionally on special teams. Listed at 6'6" and 320 pounds, he is one of the most physically imposing offensive linemen in the Pac-12.

Football head coach Todd Graham shared his reaction to Sarafin's announcement, via Pac-12 Networks on Twitter:

Sarafin is the first active college football player at the NCAA's highest level to come out as gay. Conner Mertens, a kicker at Division III Willamette University, came out as bisexual in January. Mitch Eby, a defensive end from Division III Chapman University, publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation in May. 

Of course, these announcements come as part of a larger movement toward accepting non-traditional sexual orientations in sports. NBA free-agent center Jason Collins, who played last season with the Brooklyn Nets, broke the barrier as the first publicly gay athlete in any of the United States' four major sports. St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam became the first openly gay player in NFL history.

Sam posted this message to Sarafin on Twitter:

Sam and Collins have been publicly lauded for their bravery and trail blazing as the faces of the movement. Sam was recently given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2014 ESPYs.

Sarafin, who like Sam told his teammates long before the public, is also an accomplished student. He graduated from Arizona State with a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering and is currently working on his master's. Wyrick's article notes that Sarafin is working on a football helmet designed to more safely withstand hits.

Arizona State and Sarafin are expected to issue a joint statement this week, per Scott Gleeson of USA Today. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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Texas Football: Analyzing Longhorns' WR Depth Heading into 2014 Season

The Texas Longhorns' depth at wide receiver took a big hit when senior Jaxon Shipley injured his hamstring during the first day of fall camp.

The Longhorns are already thin on experience at the wide receiver position, so Shipley's injury could not have come at a worse time. It happened shortly after head coach Charlie Strong dismissed wide receivers Montrel Meander and Kendall Sanders due to a pending legal investigation of alleged sexual assault.

With Shipley on the sideline, wide receiver coach Les Koenning is left with three wideouts with game-time experience and a group of very green freshmen and sophomores. But it doesn't seem like Koenning is too concerned with the way the depth chart looks at this point.

"I think we have good players there," Koenning said. "I think it's a matter of us putting it together. If you've got younger players, you have a tendency of being a little more simple. With older players, you can be a little bit more versatile and move them around a little bit. We have a great blend there with (Jaxon) Shipley, Marcus (Johnson), John (Harris) and the young freshmen coming up.

Let's start with the experienced players besides Shipley.

Junior Marcus Johnson, junior Daje Johnson and senior John Harris all have game-time experience.

Harris has some experience playing wide receiver and some at tight end, but his overall playing time has not been what the former 4-star recruit expected as a Longhorn. The fifth-year senior holds a career total of nine receptions for 190 yards and three touchdowns. 

Marcus Johnson is probably the most consistent of the group. He saw limited playing time during his true freshman season but proved to be a reliable option in 2013, bringing in 22 catches for 350 yards and two touchdowns.

Daje Johnson has shown the ability to be a difference-maker on the field but has had some off-the-field issues that have limited his talent and playing time. He will be suspended for at least the season opener against North Texas due to violating one of Strong's five core values, which are honesty, treating women with respect, no weapons, no drugs and no stealing.

But when Johnson has stayed out of trouble, he has proven to be one of the most explosive players in the Big 12. 

"We're playing him at the inside receiver and the outside receiver, and he's really made a big difference," Koenning said of Johnson. "He's always been the type of guy who would move from the inside slot to tailback. Now we have the ability to play him in the outside lane as an outside receiver. We've been direct with Daje. We have told him what we want and what we expect, and if he cannot do it, we will find somebody else." 

The question that follows him is whether he can get his act together and stay out of Strong's doghouse.

"We've told him, 'Daje, look, this is how it is, and if you don't like it, there's a lot of people out there who would," Koenning said. "He has (understood it) so far, but I cannot make any promises for later on.

"The thing about the receiver position is we have enough numbers there. We have kids who can step in and play because of the five we signed as freshmen. If those young kids play good enough, they will play in games. And with skill positions, you have a chance to get on the field a little bit earlier."

Some of the young players who are standing out are sophomore Jacorey Warrick and true freshmen Roderick Bernard, Armanti Foreman, Garrett Gray and Lorenzo Joe.

Warrick saw playing time in four games last season but did not pick up any receptions. But he began to make a name for himself during spring practice. Strong mentioned him as a young player who started to shine this spring and has continued to speak highly of him during fall camp.

"Jacorey Warrick has done a really good job now," Strong said. "He has been working really hard at the wide receiver position."

The true freshmen only have a handful of practice minutes under their belts but have been mentioned by name as players with potential to see the field this season.

"Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard, Garrett Gray, Roderick Bernard and Armanti Foreman are all of those guys who are doing really good. All of them have done a really good job," Koenning said of the young wide receivers. "Right now we are going through the learning phase with them. Some of them are picking it up a little faster than others, but it's going really good."

It is still early in fall camp, but hearing positive notes about the true freshmen should be music to Longhorns fans' ears. The wide receiver position has not been a huge part of the game plan in recent years, mainly because of the lack of consistent quarterback play.

But as long as quarterback David Ash can stay healthy, the wide receiver role will likely expand in 2014.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow her on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

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Wisconsin Football: Ranking Badgers' Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season

As we inch closer and closer toward opening day, the Wisconsin football team sports a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball.  Coming off a 9-4 season that saw a debacle in the desert, a meltdown at Camp Randall and their first loss by more than a touchdown since October 2010, the Badgers have plenty of room for improvement.

Replacing their entire front seven and their top four receivers will be no easy task, but these 10 players will certainly help Gary Andersen and his coaching staff as they move into their second season at the helm of the Badgers.

To compile this list, I examined how well these players have performed in the past, be it through tangible statistics or just their impact on the field, as well as projected ahead a bit in some cases.  Honorable mentions to this list include Kyle Costigan and Tyler Marz along the offensive line as well as tight end Sam Arneson.

Without further ado, let's start with a controversial choice at No. 10 with a potential starter in the Badgers' No. 2.

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Perfect Time for Brian Kelly to Name Everett Golson as Notre Dame's Starting QB

With all apologies to Malik Zaire, the time for quarterback battles is over. Less than three weeks to the season opener against Rice, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named senior Everett Golson his starting quarterback on Wednesday.

"Everett's the starter for Rice, and we hope he's the starter for the entire year," Kelly said after practice. 

The announcement shouldn't be a surprise. Golson piloted the Irish offense in 2012, when the redshirt freshman met Alabama in the BCS title game. After returning in the spring from academic exile, Golson has taken the majority of first-team reps during camp, and the decision sounded like a formality when ESPN came to town earlier this week. 

But Kelly has been adamant about the ascent of Zaire. The sophomore quarterback made waves this spring when he said that he expected to be the team's starting quarterback in 2014. He lived up to his own hype, outplaying Golson in the Blue-Gold game before entering camp in a much tighter race than anyone ever expected. 

But with multiple moving pieces on the Irish offense that need settling, Kelly looked at Golson's early camp results, coupled with his body of work, and ended the competition. 

"When you look at making that decision, I'm using from January through right now as the basis for that decision," Kelly explained. "Winter workouts, how he handled himself with the team, our workouts, his spring practice and then his leadership in the summer and then camp here. I think he’s put himself in a position to get that opportunity to be our starter against Rice."

At this point, it's difficult to question the sincerity of Kelly when it comes to the unexpected competition. While Irish fans have yet to see Zaire take a snap that matters, that doesn't mean the young quarterback is done pushing for playing time. 

"There was competition up until I made the decision and there will continue to be competition," Kelly said. "This is a merit-based situation. We've got to win. Everett knows that."

To give Golson the best chance at doing that, Kelly needed to call the race now. Because there is still plenty of work to get done before the Irish welcome Rice to South Bend, Indiana.

First is settling on an offensive line. With depth at an unprecedented level, the past two weeks have given Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand the opportunity to see multiple players take reps at different positions. 

But that's created a bit too much fluidity along the line and coupled with minor bumps and bruises that have accumulated over training camp, locking down a front five is still up for grabs. 

"We've had some guys in and out of the lineup on the offensive line, so we're still kind of a work in progress there," Kelly said. "We're settling into that group, but I don't think we're ready to announce a starting five yet."  

The lineup likely hinges on where to play sophomore Steve Elmer. If he's at left guard, that means Matt Hegarty slides into a reserve role. If he's at right tackle, sophomore Mike McGlinchey is the next man in at both right and left tackle. 

In 2012, we saw a few communication breakdowns early in the season, courtesy of Golson struggling to get on the same page as his offensive line. With multiple players bouncing between positions, there's no reason to let indecision last any longer between the quarterback and his protectors. 

Golson also needs to build a better relationship with his receivers. A groin tweak has slowed DaVaris Daniels, a senior with great expectations. Torii Hunter is lost for four to six weeks with a groin tear.

With freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes being thrown into the mix and the trio of Chris Brown, Corey Holmes and Will Fuller having caught a total of one pass from Golson, there's no time to split reps. Letting the competition last any longer would make it difficult for the Irish's passing game to be in sync come August 30.

Ultimately, naming Golson the quarterback now allows the senior to take control of the offense. While a veteran like Nick Martin or Ben Koyack might end up with the 'C' on their jersey, Kelly turning the keys over to Golson now makes it clear that this is his offense.

That's a responsibility the veteran quarterback doesn't take lightly, especially after having football ripped away from him in 2013.

"With everything having transpired, with me being suspended, being able to come back, and then battling with Malik for a while there, [there] is a sense of accomplishment," Golson said Wednesday. "But I think my mind is so set on moving forward and what's next, that I'm just trying to get ready for Week 1 and prepare to the best of my abilities."  

To do that, Kelly needed to pull the trigger. And while Kelly made it clear that Zaire's capable of running the entire Irish offense and has a bright future ahead of him, there is no quarterback committee on the horizon. 

"We're not looking to play two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "We've got one starter." 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.  

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Why Replacing Johnny Manziel Won't Be as Difficult as It Seems for Texas A&M

The eyes of Texas have shifted from Austin to College Station over the last few years, and now those eyes are firmly entrenched on the quarterback battle at Texas A&M.

One of the hottest battles in the country is taking place in College Station this August, as sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen are vying for the job after former Aggie—and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner—Johnny Manziel moved on.

Needless to say, the winner of the battle in fall camp has big shoes to fill.

Not only did Manziel win the most prestigious individual trophy in sports, he ushered in a new era for the Texas A&M program—one that includes the move to the SEC.

Pressure? There will be some.

But replacing Manziel won't be as difficult as it seems, no matter who wins the job.

Does that seem crazy? It's really not. Here's why.

 

The Right Coach is in Place

If there's any coach in America that is prepared for a situation like this, it's Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin. He got to this point in his career by producing elite, consistent and—most importantly—flexible offenses.

The offenses he produced at Houston between 2008 and 2011 were second to none, almost literally. The Cougars led the nation in total offense in 2009 (563.2 YPG) and 2011 (599.1 YPG), and finished second in 2008 (562.8 YPG).

In each of those three seasons, quarterback Case Keenum topped the 5,000-yard mark through the air, tossed more than 40 touchdowns and completed more than 67 percent of his passes.

When Sumlin got the job at Texas A&M, Manziel fell into his lap. All Sumlin did with the dual-threat quarterback is turn him into the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and a player who led the SEC in total offense in 2012 (558.5 YPG) and 2013 (538.4 YPG), finishing in the top five nationally.

He's won with both styles of quarterback because his offensive scheme changes based on who's back there.

"It's our job to try to give them a plan that they can execute, No. 1, but No. 2 gets back to what I talked about earlier, about the other guys on the field," Sumlin said at SEC media days in July. "The other guys on the field making the offense quarterback-friendly, and the quarterback not having to do everything on his own."

That brings us to the next factor that will make the transition as smooth as silk.

 

Weapons Galore

If there's a criticism of Texas A&M this year, it has nothing to do with the weapons on offense.

Malcome Kennedy and Ricky Seals-Jones lead a talented receiving corps that also includes hotshot recruit Speedy Noil and tight end Cam Clear, who presents matchup problems for virtually anybody who covers him. 

Tra Carson, a 6'0", 235-pound running back who saw spot duty last year, is more than a bruiser. He has speed to burn and is light on his feet in space, which makes him incredibly dangerous in this offense.

Behind him, speedster Trey Williams, the versatile Brandon Williams and redshirt freshman James White give Sumlin depth and options out of the backfield.

Up front, four of five offensive linemen return including Cedric Ogbuehi—who moved from right to left tackle and is projected as a first-round pick by many services, including NFL Draft ScoutBleacher Report's Curt Popejoy and NFL.com's Gil Brandt.

. @Gil_Brandt: OT Ogbuehi should keep Texas A&M's top-10 pick streak alive in 2015 #NFLDrafthttp://t.co/m8v2ncOq6Z

— CollegeFootball 24/7 (@NFL_CFB) May 14, 2014

With Ogbuehi, center Mike Matthews, right tackle Germain Ifedi and the rest of that group, the quarterback will be well protected and the running backs—who will take pressure off Hill or Allen—will have plenty of holes to exploit.

 

Raw Talent

No, replacing a legend is never easy, but it's not like Texas A&M held open football tryouts like coach Ed Gennero in Necessary Roughness in search of the next Paul Blake. 

Hill and Allen are both supremely talented football players with tremendous upside.

Hill was a 4-star prospect in the class of 2013 according to the 247Sports composite index. One look at his high school tape, and you can see why.

He has a big arm, is accurate downfield and while he's not Manziel on the ground, he's certainly capable of succeeding in a system that includes the zone read, a punishing running game and a passing game that takes advantage when safeties creep up.

Allen, a true freshman early enrollee who was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2014, is more of a Keenum-type player who's effective in all facets of the passing game and able to put stress on defenses by taking the top off of defenses after lulling them to sleep underneath.

With all of the weapons Allen has at his disposal, he should be able to ease into the role rather easily if he wins the job—especially since the offense was more suited to his style during the last week of spring practice, when Hill was suspended.

Matthews told 12thman.com (h/t Sean Lester of the Dallas Morning News) that a starter should be determined this week.

Whoever wins the job doesn't need to replace Manziel. He just needs to be himself.

The coaching staff, the players on the roster and the signal-callers' natural ability will allow them to be successful from the moment toe meets leather against South Carolina on Aug. 28.

 

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

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Big Ten Football: Best Running Backs in the FBS Will Help Rebuild Tainted Image

Since the days of Woody and Bo, the Big Ten has prided itself on power running. The conference and its fans love the smash-mouth style of old school football.

If this describes you, watch the Big Ten this year, as the conference will serve up its best set of running backs in decades.

The Big Ten has had little to brag about on the field in recent years, but that’s about to change—no other conference can compete this season when it comes to the running back position. The league returns four running backs and a quarterback that rushed for at least 1,000 yards in 2013 and another three backs that rushed for over 900 yards making it the premier rushing conference in the FBS.

Here is a breakdown of the top five rushers in the Big Ten this season:

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (5’9”, 195 pounds) has a rare combination of speed and power. He’s an elusive runner on the outside and explosive between the tackles. He earned First Team All-Big Ten last season after finishing with 1,690 yards (ninth in FBS and first in the Big Ten) and nine touchdowns.

Abdullah also had 232 receiving yards with two touchdowns, making him a legitimate threat out of the backfield.

Most backs with his talent and production would have jumped early to the NFL, but Abdullah came back for his senior season to chase a couple of notable on-the-field goals this season. He needs 1,803 yards to pass Mike Rozier to become Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher. He’s also looking to lead the Cornhuskers to their first Big Ten title.

Both goals might be tough to accomplish considering the Cornhuskers return only one offensive lineman, and they play at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Abdullah seems ready for the challenge though, telling Michael Bruntz of Husker Illustrated last January, “I know we lost a lot of guys, but I have a feeling we can be physical. We have big boys filling in some spots right now, and they're hungry and ambitious.”

With the mounting injuries on the defensive side of the ball, Nebraska’s offense will have to share more of the load, giving Abdullah a strong chance at retaining his title as the Big Ten’s rushing leader.    

Abdullah may be the reigning rushing leader, but Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, (6’1”, 213 pounds) could easily claim that he is the Big Ten’s best running back. He shared duties with James White last year and still managed to gain 1,609 yards (tenth in FBS, second in Big Ten) and 12 touchdowns averaging 7.8 yards per carry earning him Second Team All-Big Ten.  

With four returning starters on the Badgers' massive offensive line, Gordon has a reasonable chance to hit the 2,000-yard mark as long as he stays healthy.

"It's out there," Gordon said to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's a goal that I want to reach."

More importantly, with his starting quarterback unsettled and the defense reloading from graduation losses, head coach Gary Andersen needed a leader to ready the team to compete for the Big Ten West division title.

He told Mike Larsen of the Kenosha News at Wisconsin’s annual media day that Gordon has filled that void:

“To this point (I) couldn’t be more proud of the way he handles his team, his expectations of his team and I think that will be able to show as we continue to grow,”

Expect Andersen to lean heavily on Gordon in the season opening game against LSU in Houston on August 30. The Tigers always field one of the better run defenses in the FBS.

Gordon can firmly plant himself in the Heisman race if he plays well. If he carries the team to a win, the Badgers will be in the hunt for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Lost in Michigan State’s magical season last year was just how abysmal the offense was early in the season, until Jeremy Langford (6’1”, 208 pound) started to heat up in week six. In the first five games, he had just 311 yards with four touchdowns. In the last nine games, he rushed for 1,111 yards and 14 touchdowns.

The Spartans’ defense may have been the engine that carried the team to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win, but Langford provided much of the gas.

Achieving similar production this year will hinge on how well the Spartans’ newly built offensive line begins to gel. Gone are Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti, who combined for 85 career starts.

While replacing them is a huge concern, senior guard Connor Kruse told Matt Hoeppner of isportsweb last week that he believes the cupboard is hardly bare.

A lot of people assume that (we won’t be as deep) because we lost three great players but I think we are going to have that seven or eight guys (rotation) again. Those (new) guys just need to step up and perform, and they can.

Langford will also reap the benefits of playing with seasoned quarterback Connor Cook and several capable backups. Fresher legs late in the season should help him succeed as the grind of the Big Ten season intensifies in November.

Similar to Gordon, it won’t take long for the nation to see if Langford can pick up where he left off last season. Michigan State plays at Oregon on September 6. The early top-10 matchup will give him an opportunity to highlight his skills against Heisman front-runner, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota.

If Langford plays well, and the Spartans pull the upset, he’ll move into the Heisman race.

Minnesota's David Cobb (5’11”, 220 pounds) is a prototypical Big Ten running back. He’s big, strong and loves to run between the tackles. Last season, he became the first Golden Gopher since 2006 to rush for more than a 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns.

Despite his production, Cobb is still flying under the radar compared to his Big Ten peers. For him, 2013 was just the beginning. He wants more for his team this season, telling reporters at the Big Ten media days in Chicago, "The goal is 12 wins," Cobb said, "but for myself 1,500 yards."

Cobb could become a household name in November. Minnesota’s last four games are at home against Iowa and Ohio State, then on the road at Nebraska and Wisconsin. They also play at TCU and Michigan early in the season.

The beefed up schedule could impact Cobb’s ability to exceed 1,000 yards again, but the return of four offensive linemen and head coach Jerry Kill’s run-centered offense gives him a good chance.

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (6’2”, 215 pounds) is the only non-running back to make the list. The two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year finished with 1,068 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.

Getting more carries out of him is hard to imagine or desirable, but the loss of Carlos Hyde might force him to keep the ball rather than hand it off.

Having his speed and running ability is an incredible asset for head coach Urban Meyer, but the beating Miller took last year left its mark. A knee injury kept him out of two games and he had offseason surgery to repair the shoulder injury sustained against Clemson. Missing last Saturday’s scrimmage certainly flamed the lingering doubts about Miller’s health, but if is concerned, he isn’t showing it.

Meyer told Ari Wasserman of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

I anticipated this. I've dealt with guys with arm issues before and we're being very cautious. He could have certainly practiced yesterday, but we're in it for the long haul. He's right on schedule.

To stay healthy, Miller will be relying on unproven talent on the offensive line to keep him upright. Replacing Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell won’t be easy, but line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the business.

Two years ago, he quickly turned those guys into one of the nation’s top units, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman is confident he’ll do the same with this group.

"I think when you take a step back and have some perspective and understand the talent that’s in that room and the guy that’s coaching them, you’re confident in the future," Herman told Patrick Maks from Eleven Warriors in July.

At the end of the day, Miller is a run-first playmaker. Meyer and Herman may talk about having a balanced attack, but the core of the Buckeyes’ offense is still running the ball. This year will be the same, and there is a solid chance that Miller exceeds 1,000 rushing yards again.

Beyond the leaders, the list of 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten should grow this year as several teams return quality running backs.

Penn State running back Zach Zwinak, (6’1”, 233 pounds) finished with 989 last year, but with one starter on the line back, the yards might be a little more difficult to get. New head coach James Franklin will feed him the ball often, and the schedule is manageable so Zwinak should have a solid season.

Iowa running back Mark Weisman (6’0”, 240 pounds) finished 2013 with 975 yards. Three starters return on the Hawkeye offensive line, and the schedule is soft so Weisman has a good chance to exceed 1,000 yards this year.

Indiana running back Tevin Coleman (6’1”, 210 pounds) finished with 978 yards last year. The Hoosiers offense has dramatically improved every season under head coach Kevin Wilson, and Coleman should benefit from having a seasoned team around him. The schedule is tough, but he should become the Hoosiers' first back since 2001 to gain 1,000 yards.

The Big Ten’s image has taken a pounding over the last decade, but this season the conference will reclaim some respect. The best running backs in the country are in the Big Ten, and they’ll help carry their teams to significant wins over top-10 teams.

Watching them do it will be entertaining.  

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Alabama Football: How OJ Howard Will Be Matchup Nightmare for SEC in 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — O.J. Howard is giving up Snickers.

The Alabama tight end said it’s part of a personal focus for him on eating right, to gain weight and to help it stay there. He said he used to eat two of them a night.

The only problem is what he’s replacing it with.

“Ice cream, to be honest with you,” he said. “I had to do something else.”

That doesn’t quite add up, but neither does a 6’6”, 240-pound human running this fast:

Much has been made about Howard’s size and athleticism. Still, in 2013, he was only targeted 23 times, according to Rotogrinders.

That could be attributed to his inexperience in the offense, the coaches’ trust in him as a freshman or a weakness as a blocker—an integral skill for any tight end under coach Nick Saban.

But Howard, now with a year of experience under his belt, will be a matchup nightmare in 2014 and is in line for a breakout year.

“O.J. Howard is doing really, really well,” Saban said. “He's gotten a little bigger, a little stronger. He's improved some as a blocker, still has a way to go. But is really a mismatch player as a receiver. Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him. He's worked hard and responded well.”

Howard very much fits the bill of the prototypical “new-age” NFL tight ends that have taken the league by storm and are causing headaches all over the league. It’s appropriate that Howard said he tries to mimic one of the poster boys for that movement.

“Jimmy Graham is a great guy you can model your game behind,” Howard said. “He’s a really good receiver, also. You don’t really see him blocking as much, though. He’s a great guy on field. He has a really good game. I want to model my game from him.”

Graham made news this offseason when he went to arbitration over his classification as either a tight end or wide receiver for franchise-tag purposes. Graham racked up more than 1,200 yards receiving last season and 16 touchdowns. According to ESPN, he lined up as a wide receiver on 67 percent of the New Orleans Saints’ offensive plays.

Howard should have a better opportunity to play like Graham this season.

Besides the aforementioned blocking improvements, Howard will benefit from playing under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who’s already noticed Howard’s skill as a receiver.

“O.J. is really extremely talented,” Kiffin said. “A guy who was more of a receiver last year, so we’re working more with him about speed and his ability to do everything. The last thing I want to do here is focus on what they do really well. That’s our challenge here this fall. Let’s focus on what you haven’t done so well and not what you’ve done. We know what you can do, let’s bring your game up. A good example of that is get a player who can play all of the time.”

Howard noted how Kiffin has been using him so far, starting in the spring and into fall camp.

“As a receiver, I’ll move to the slot, more mismatches against defensive backs, safeties,” Howard said. “We can go out wide. Things like that. That’s really different this year.”

His teammates on the defensive side of the ball have noted his ability, too.

“O.J. Howard’s difficult (to cover),” senior safety Nick Perry said. “He can be a tight end, he can be out wide and play receiver. He has talent, all-around talent. Teams definitely have to prepare for him.”

Howard’s presence could be the linchpin that takes Alabama’s offense from good to great.

The Crimson Tide is loaded at the skill positions. T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake create a dangerous three-pronged attack at running back, each with different strengths and weaknesses that complement each other.

Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White form a veteran and explosive wide receiver trio, with talented youngsters like Chris Black, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart behind them.

Howard gives defensive coordinators another problem to worry about on top of those other skill guys.

It’s still unclear who will be distributing the ball to all of those weapons. But whoever it is will also have a big and explosive target to throw to.

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from cfbstats. All recruiting information comes from 247Sports.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Everett Golson Named Notre Dame's Starting QB vs. Rice

After serving a suspension from the school throughout the fall semester last season for cheating on a test, Everett Golson returned to the Notre Dame football program this season. Now, the quarterback reportedly has earned back the starting quarterback position again.    

Golson beat out sophomore Malik Zaire for the starting job over the summer. Irish coach Brian Kelly revealed the news that Golson will start the season opener against Rice, per Dan Murphy of 247Sports:

The last time Golson was under center for Notre Dame was in the National Championship Game following the 2012 season. Though the Irish lost that contest to Alabama, Golson had a breakout season with 2,405 passing yards, 18 total touchdowns and just six interceptions on the season.

Following the game, Golson was suspended for the fall semester after violating the honor code and missed the entire 2013 season. Though he had to fight to earn the spot back, Golson had this reaction to the news, per Matt Fortuna of ESPN:

As for the reaction from other football analysts, both Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports and Bryan Fischer of NFL.com passed along their thoughts:

Notre Dame comes in as the No. 17 team in the country on the USA Today Poll and has plenty of buzz surrounding the program. Luckily, Golson is used to dealing with pressure on the field.

In order to lead the charge to another undefeated regular season for the Irish, Golson will need to lead the team against a tough slate. Rice will be a good warm-up contest, but matchups with Michigan in Week 2 along with Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State in October will be trying.

Following a 9-4 season for the Irish, the program now has its leader back on offense. But with an absurd schedule coming up this year, near perfection will be necessary from the entire team to make it to the first College Football Playoff.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Notre Dame TE Tyler Luatua Is College Football's Most Versatile 270lb Freshman

Notre Dame traditionalists, take solace. While the Irish lost the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium, they might have gained a fullback. 

That's because freshman tight end Tyler Luatua is shaping up to be one of college football's most versatile freshmen.

At 6'2.5" and already growing past his 260-pound roster weight, Luatua could be a Swiss Army knife for the Irish offense, giving Brian Kelly a tight end who's big enough to play attached to the line of scrimmage, but mobile enough to play H-back or fullback. 

The 4-star recruit wasn't one of the highest-rated players the Irish signed. But as one of the early surprises in fall camp, he's caught the attention of his head coach, who is convinced Luatua will add something to the Irish offense. 

"He's gonna play," Kelly said of Luatua. "We're going to feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size. He's a load. He's close to 270 pounds, and when he brings it, he's a heavy load. We haven't had that kind of downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and then play downhill."

Playing fast will make Irish fans happy, with Kelly's spread attack and diverse set of weapons allowing Notre Dame to push the tempo after only talking about it these past four seasons. But after struggling in red-zone and short-yardage situations, a weapon like Luatua will help enhance a roster that hasn't recruited a scholarship fullback since Kelly arrived on campus.   

"He gives us some really good flexibility," Kelly said. "He's a fullback/H-back that gives us some versatility that we would like to have, especially blue zone [inside opponent's 10-yard line] coming in and black zone [inside Irish's 10-yard line] coming out. Short-yardage situations he can really help us."

As Notre Dame's playbook expands, we've caught glimpses of how Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock plan on using Luatua. Capable of serving as a lead blocker for a trio of Irish running backs (none weighing more than 209 pounds), an additional battering ram should help fortify the ground game. 

But Luatua can also do some damage in the passing game, providing a safety valve out of the backfield as an H-back, joining a group of talented but unproven tight ends on the field with senior Ben Koyack. 

A hernia injury has kept sophomore Mike Heuerman off the field, pushing Luatua into the mix with sophomore Durham Smythe while fellow freshman Nic Weishar still gets comfortable. 

"He's doing a good job of acclimating himself to playing either H or Y [tight end] for us," tight ends coach Scott Booker told UND.com. "Being a diverse guy. He brings a little bit of girth to our group, he's already over 260 pounds and he's a guy that we really like in-line and attached."

It doesn't look like Luatua's done growing any time soon. His brother Isaac, who plays for Nick Saban at Alabama, is in the Crimson Tide two-deep along the offensive line and looks every bit the 315 pounds he's listed at. 

Luatua chose Notre Dame over Alabama in part because of the Irish's reputation for developing tight ends. 

After losing Troy Niklas, another Southern California product, to the NFL, Luatua is almost the bizarro Niklas. While the current Arizona Cardinal earned his nickname "Hercules" for his statuesque body type, Luatua doesn't fit the that mold, built more like a bowling ball than a bodybuilder.

His modest height had some fans wondering how Luatua would fit in. He's found a key niche before his freshman season even starts. At a school that's been on an incredible run producing top-flight NFL tight ends, Luatua might not look the part, but he's already making his presence felt. 

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Florida Football: Ranking Gators' Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season

The Gators were better than their 4-8 record last season—that much is inarguable. The defense finished in
the top 10 nationally, and the offense was filled with highly recruited players.

The question is: Who are the Gators’ 10 best players headed into the season?

With a top-10 defense, it makes sense that players on that side of the ball would dominate this list, but don’t overlook the offense.

With that said, here are the top 10 Gators heading into the season, based on past accomplishments, value to the team and the upside they possess this year. If a player hasn't fulfilled expectations but is poised to play a big part of this season's success, there's a good chance he made this list. 

Begin Slideshow

Oregon Football: Losing Tyler Johnstone Leaves O-Line No Margin for Error

A commonly applied analogy to offensive play is the hand. If one digit is out of place, it can't make a fist. With left tackle Tyler Johnstone sustaining a season-ending knee injury this week, the Oregon Ducks need a quick remedy in order to knuckle up for the start of the season.    

Johnstone is a preseason All-America candidate, two-year starter and was to be the cornerstone of the Pac-12's most seasoned offensive line. 

But in reinjuring the knee that sidelined him throughout the offseason, Johnstone leaves Oregon with a tremendous void that head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff must fill quickly.

This setback is obviously significant for the Ducks offense. However, Johnstone's absence from spring practices lessens the learning curve somewhat for junior Andre Yruretagoyena, who practiced with the first string in April. 

Now playing a role as Oregon's "left tackle coach," as he described to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian, Johnstone hopes to help Yruretagoyena through the process.  

"He wanted to earn a spot for himself on the O-line and I think that's the thing that's difficult for him," Johnstone said. "He didn't want it to happen this way. He's going to jump at the opportunity, though. I've had a couple of talks with him about how he's the guy now."

Johnstone's commitment to contributing off the field is no surprise to quarterback Marcus Mariota, as he told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard.

"We understand that Tyler is going to do his best to contribute anyway he can," Mariota said. "He's one of our spiritual leaders, he's one of those guys who can really get guys going. He understands he can use his words to be powerful and mean a lot of things."

The Ducks need Johnstone's presence as a leader to help manifest in the presence of his replacements on the field. Yruretagoyena and Matt Pierson took on first-team repetitions in the spring while Johnstone recovered from the knee injury he suffered in last December's Alamo Bowl.

Even as Yruretagoyena settles into the top spot on the depth chart, offensive line coach Steve Greatwood told Alger, "Next week we'll starting moving some guys to different positions and build that depth across the board."

Johnstone was tasked with protecting Mariota's blind side, a role of paramount importance for the Ducks offense. Yruretagoyena is talented—he was a 4-star prospect coming into the program—and he's well-tenured within the program. The 2014 season is his fourth with the Ducks. 

But Yruretagoyena's window for getting up to Johnstone's speed on game day is narrow. The Ducks host Michigan State in Week 2, a team that racked up 91 tackles for loss and ranked No. 2 nationally in rush defense a season ago.

Yruretagoyena will likely draw the most difficult assignment—preseason All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun. 

Oregon's new starting left tackle isn't without support. The other four returners across the Ducks front five logged starts a season ago. Hroniss Grasu, Jake Fisher and Hamani Stevens are seasoned veterans. 

However, a dramatic shift in even just one position can have profound consequences—a reality the Ducks experienced firsthand last season. 

While Mariota was playing through an injury of his own, the offensive line lost guard Mana Greig. Greig's absence threw freshman Cameron Hunt into the mix.

Hunt is now among the game-tested leaders of the Ducks' most experienced starting unit, but he did face struggles acclimating initially.

The hope for Yruretagoyena is that years of practicing in the system and backing up the Oregon starters have him prepared to hit the ground running—and he'll need to in order to help keep the Ducks offense running.   

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores.

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How Butch Jones Is Getting Wiser in Season 2 at Tennessee

There's always a learning curve for people unaccustomed to life in the SEC, and that goes for coaches as well as players.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones found that out the hard way in his first season as Tennessee's head coach in 2013, when his Vols finished 5-7 and missed the postseason for the third straight year.

At SEC Media Days in July in Hoover, Alabama, Jones said that his first trip through the conference was about what he expected. He went on to elaborate:

"The competitive balance and makeup of this league is second to none," Jones said. "The ability to go on the road, every institution has tremendous passion, loyal fanbases. So the ability to have to go on the road and play in those hostile environments, it takes a mentally tough football team in how you train, the standard and expectation that goes into winning on the road."

It really wasn't what he expected, though. 

Jones waited until game week of last season's opener vs. Austin Peay to name a starter—then junior Justin Worley. Worley threw five touchdowns and only one pick through his first three games of the season, but he was inconsistent downfield and benched before the Vols went on the road to face the stingy Florida Gators defense.

Pulling your quarterback for marginal ineffectiveness the week of a road game in one of the most hostile environments in the nation against one of the best defenses in the SEC isn't something seasoned SEC coaches do.

Not surprisingly, his replacement Nathan Peterman struggled, got injured and was replaced by Worley, who didn't fare much better.

The quarterback position in Knoxville was unstable from the jump, and in his second season on Rocky Top, Jones appears to have learned from his biggest mistake of last season.

Butch Jones says #Vols 'getting closer' to naming starting QB. 'I expect...we'll name [one] at some point this week.' http://t.co/Z8NtmUrgSQ

— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) August 12, 2014

That's great news for the Vols, because as was the case last year when they went on the road to Oregon and Florida before the end of September, the 2014 slate is front-loaded with some tough matchups.

Utah State at home is no slouch in the opener, and Arkansas State in Neyland is at worst competitive and at best "tricky." After that, the Vols have road trips to No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 12 Georgia before September ends.

The last thing Tennessee needs this season is more instability at the quarterback position. Whoever wins the job—and I've contended that it should be senior Justin Worley—he needs to have full first-team reps and the confidence of the coaching staff for a significant period of time during fall camp, because the start of Tennessee's season is no joke.

Does that mean that the eventual winner will shine?

Not necessarily. 

Jones was critical of all of his quarterbacks just last week, but he was more complimentary following Tuesday's practice.

JONES: I see Justin (Worley) continuing to make plays.

— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) August 12, 2014

Is that a hint?

It certainly is, and if he's leaning in Worley's direction—or anybody's direction—the time is now to name a starter.

The last thing Tennessee needs is to head into the season with a quarterback looking over his back, which was the case last season with Worley.

 

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

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How Dylan Thompson, Kyle Berger's Injuries Will Impact Ohio State's 2014 Defense

Ohio State's defensive front seven, which is loaded on the first-team but lacking for quality depth, will be without a pair of potentially useful freshman backups in defensive end Dylan Thompson and linebacker Kyle Berger this season.

According to Tim May of the Columbus Dispatcha team spokesman confirmed that both players are expected to sit out the entire year after getting hurt in practice, although the official nature of the injuries has hitherto gone undisclosed.

Berger, however, tweeted over the weekend that he re-tore his ACL, a relapse of the injury that ended his senior year of high school:

Thompson's injury is believed to be a fractured kneecap that will not require surgery, according to May's report.

As far as immediate repercussions are concerned, this does not appear to be a fatal blow to Ohio State's defense. Bleacher Report's David Regimbal did not list either player on his projected two-deep depth chart in July, so the first and second teams remain intact.

But it's not always quite that simple. Berger was a 4-star recruit and one of the top 160 players in the 2014 class, and Thompson, despite ranking all the way down at No. 464 nationally, had the size (6'5", 270 pounds) and potential to become a useful rotation player off the bat.

Here's what Christopher Jason of Land-Grant Holy Land had to say of Thompson during national signing day:

Thompson is a very solid defensive tackle who has the intangibles to get into the defensive line rotation right away. He is a workout warrior and does well against the run and as a pass rusher. He is quick off the ball for his size and is a disruptive force on the line of scrimmage. By mid-to-late season, I expect to see Thompson to see the field in the defensive line rotation.

Jason's assessment that Thompson might be playing early came before Jamal Marcus transferred out of the program, too. Marcus started the Orange Bowl in place of suspended star Noah Spence and was projected to keep that role while Spence finished up his suspension in the first two weeks of this season.

Now the Buckeyes defensive line will be lacking yet another body when it plays Navy and Virginia Tech—a tougher pair of opponents than last year's opening duo, Buffalo and San Diego State.

Navy in particular has a running game capable of exploiting line attrition. The Midshipmen finished second in the country with 325.4 rushing yards per game last season, trailing only Auburn, and ran for 331 yards against the toughest opponent they played: a Notre Dame team with similarly regarded athletes as OSU.

They are not an offense to be taken lightly.

Assuming Ohio State survives the first two weeks without Spence, though, the biggest impact of these losses will be a thinning of the ranks and a diminished margin for error regarding future injuries.

Every potential contributor that goes down—even if he wasn't projected to land on the two-deep—makes the continued health of other players more imperative. For a team that already had depth concerns such as Ohio State, this holds doubly true.

Players such as Joshua Perry, Curtis Grant, Darron Lee, Trey Johnson, Raekwon McMillan and Camren Williams can hold down the linebacker spots in the opening weeks, but if one or more of them goes down, Berger might have been the man counted upon to replace them.

Losing former blue-chip linebacker Mike Mitchell to a transfer (Texas Tech) in February hurts in this regard, too—even more than losing Marcus hurts the defensive line.

Still, the impact of Berger's injury is probably less germane to 2014 than Thompson's. More than how it affects this season, the biggest questions concern how a second torn ACL affects Berger's career.

Will he ever be the same player that he was in 2012?

Thompson's loss, on the other hand, presents immediate and important questions about the state of the current defense.

The Buckeyes line desperately needs another player to step up behind the core four—Spence, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington—and proven rotation player Steve Miller.

Thompson stood a decent shot of becoming that guy, and his absence puts an even bigger onus on players such as Chris Carter, Tommy Schutt, Rashad Frazier, Tyquan Lewis and higher-ranked freshman Jalyn Holmes to step up and contribute.

If nobody does, Ohio State's defensive line might underachieve despite fantastic individual numbers the same way it did in 2013, when it finished No. 96 in adjusted line yards (which broadly measures how a line defends the run), per Football Study Hall.

With running backs such as Jeremy Langford, Tevin Coleman and David Cobb on the Big Ten schedule and either Melvin Gordon or Ameer Abdullah potentially looming in the conference title game, a repeat of those numbers would be unacceptable.

Ultimately, it could even mean the difference between making and missing the College Football Playoff.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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How North Dakota State Built the College Football Dynasty You've Never Heard Of

Last year, Craig Bohl did what Nick Saban couldn't: He won his third straight national championship.  

The term "dynasty" gets thrown around at the slightest hint of a three-peat these days and for good reason. Including Bohl, only a handful of coaches at any level of college football have accomplished that feat. Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne didn't get it done. Bear Bryant never did it either as a consensus champion. Saban came close, winning BCS titles with the Crimson Tide in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but the third has eluded him.  

With his 2011-2013 FCS Championship trifecta, Bohl, joined the ranks of Jerry Moore (Appalachian State), Bob Reade (Augustana), Lance Leipold (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Larry Kehres (Mount Union) and Mike Van Diest (Carroll), cementing himself among coaches in the modern era with at least three straight national titles. And Bohl went through the FCS playoffs to get it done. 

In 11 seasons as the Bison's head coach, Bohl won 104 games and three national straight national championships.

Since the end of the 2014 regular season, two of the main architects of the Bison dynasty have departed. On December 8, Bohl was named the new head coach at Wyoming. Then, in June, former athletic director Gene Taylor announced he was taking a deputy AD job at Iowa.

It's been a time of transition for North Dakota State ever since, but that doesn't mean fans are giving up on the four-peat just yet. 

"The pressure is to go out and find the next Nick Saban," said Taylor

Little about North Dakota State gives off the impression of a steppingstone job—other than it doesn't compete at the highest level of college football. The program enjoys a passionate fan base that ranked among the best in Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) attendance in 2013.

It has a stable administration that constantly supports its athletics program through funding and facility improvement. Above all, the Bison have had steady success with 11 national championships. 

Under new head coach Chris Klieman, the Bison are looking to maintain their success. From a stunning upset over Kansas State in 2013, to an appearance on ESPN's College GameDay, few football programs at the FCS level have experienced the kind of exposure in recent years like North Dakota State has. 

"When we talk about someone leaving, whether it’s me or Craig, it’s not about the individual," Taylor said. "Do you have a culture for winning and success? Do you have a culture that people want to support?

"That was in place long before I was at North Dakota State."

 

A Turnaround From Humble Beginnings

North Dakota State wasn't always a powerhouse. It's easy to imagine a small program from Fargo, North Dakota, offering little to college football. 

Before the first wave of championships began at the Division II level in the 1960s (1965, '68 and '69), North Dakota State hadn't had a coach with a winning record since before World War II. 

But then came head coach Darrell Mudra, who later coached at Arizona and Florida State, who guided the Bison to their first Division II title. Ron Erhardt, who would later coach the NFL's Patriots, would succeed Mudra and win another two. Then came another four in the 1980s (1983, '85, '86 and '88) with Don Morton, Earle Solomonson and Rocky Hager. 

The program established itself as one of the consistent powers in Division II. Its next challenge was to conquer Division I. 

In 2004, shortly into Taylor's tenure as AD, the university moved up to what was then known as Division I-AA. It was a risky move that not every program made successfully. There are more strenuous financial obligations, including more scholarships (36 to 63) to support.

Furthermore, NDSU wasn't sure what conference it would be joining. Keeping boosters, coaches and recruits confident in the future was difficult. 

"The NCAA had come up with a new set of rules because a lot of schools were moving up [to Division I], and they weren’t ready. Financially, they were struggling," Taylor said. "So the NCAA said you get a five-year probationary period. You don’t get to compete for championships, share in NCAA money, can’t win a conference championship. 

"There was a lot of anxiety during that time."

Not to mention a coaching change. The program was trending down under Bob Babich, so Taylor hired Bohl. Because of the NCAA restrictions, the Bison weren't able to compete in the Division I playoff despite winning 10 games in 2006 and 2007.

Every program boasts about the team-oriented players it recruits. However, with no opportunity for a championship, the players who transitioned the Bison to Division I did so knowing they were only there to lay the groundwork.

They would not be able to add championship banners next to the ones from the '60s and '80s.

"They didn’t get a chance to do that," Taylor lamented, "but they helped build us to where we are today."

That would soon change, however. By 2010, the Bison were competing in the Division I playoffs. The three-peat title run began the following year. 

 

Establishing the Attitude

Defense is a point of pride for North Dakota State, which, dating back to the Hager era, has exclusively hired defensive-minded head coaches. 

In 2011, Klieman joined Bohl's coaching staff as a defensive backs coach following a successful stint at another FCS power, Northern Iowa, where he was the defensive coordinator. In 2012, he took over the same responsibilities with the Bison. 

"You have to take chances. You have to continue to network. You have to continue to better yourself and challenge yourself as a coach," Klieman said. "It was time for a new challenge."

Klieman is an Iowa native and a Midwestern guy familiar with the Missouri Valley Football Conference, formerly the Gateway Conference. There's an attitude in the region, he says, that favors sound defense and good field position. 

Klieman, like so many coaches at North Dakota State before him, is rooted in that mantra. North Dakota State had a stout defense in 2013, allowing just 11.3 points per game.

In each of Klieman's three years in Fargo, the Bison have led the nation in scoring defense. 

Minor things change from coach to coach like blitz or personnel packages. The overall model, however, remains the same. The Bison practice hard and play hard with the goal of wearing down their opponents. 

That starts with workouts. Of all the hires Klieman made, none were more important than keeping strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer. 

"He was the No. 1 focal point," Klieman said. "I know Craig was trying to get him at Wyoming, and we were trying to keep him.

"Jim loves it here. He has a great bond with our players. They’re with the strength coach 12 months out of the year." 

It was Klieman's biggest recruiting victory. His point of view was echoed by new Washington coach Chris Petersen, who told Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated about the importance of hiring good strength coaches: 

They're everything. Finally people are starting to figure out how valuable [strength and conditioning coaches] are. They're starting to get paid better. I mean, they probably spend, and I don't even think it's a probably, they do spend more time than myself or the assistants with these kids. That was my first hire, and probably my most important.

Kramer is one the many people who have molded the program that has defeated a Football Bowl Subdivision team each of the last four years, including last year's stunning upset of Kansas State. 

 

24-21

At 74 years old, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is still a living box score. 

"We had a good offensive line last year," he said at Big 12 media days. "We averaged about four or five yards per rush."

"Against North Dakota State," he continued,"we averaged about 1.8 yards per rush."

Look it up and he's dead on. The Wildcats averaged 4.5 yards per carry in 2013, according to cfbstats.com. In a 24-21 loss to the Bison in the '13 season opener? Sure enough, it was 1.8

The Bison offense was just as impressive. North Dakota State had just one drive in the fourth quarter, but it made it count. An 18-play, 80-yard grinder that lasted 8:30 resulted in the go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left. 

On the very next play, linebacker Grant Olson intercepted Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters. The upset was sealed. The reigning Big 12 champs were toppled. 

The Manhattan crowd, which just hours before watched an unveiling of Snyder's statue outside of the stadium named for the legendary coach, was blindsided.

How was it possible?

The Bison's fourth quarter dominance revealed a universal truth about football, no matter the level: Good teams are excellent in the trenches since everything that happens on both sides of the ball before, during and after the snap begins right there. 

"Everyone would say we’re a running team. I would say we’re 50-50 balanced team when games are not in doubt," Klieman said. "Once the game is in hand, then we’re probably 80 percent run/quick passes to try and wear someone down." 

Recruiting has to match that philosophy. The Bison coaching staffs have historically tried to recruit the big Midwestern prospects you'd expect to find in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Even in-state recruiting is a priority.

"We have to win in the state of North Dakota," Klieman said. 

There are other places that Klieman calls auxiliary recruiting grounds: Kansas City, St. Louis, Florida and Arizona. The roster is sprinkled with them. 

Almost all of the players were overlooked elsewhere, usually by Big Ten schools. They're an inch or two short, a hair slow in their 40 time, but they can play. And the coaching staff knows how and where to find them. 

"If you have a guy who comes in and says he wants to build his program with bunch of D-I and JUCO transfers, that changes your culture," Taylor said. "If you quit recruiting your base, that changes your culture."

The Bison have no intention of changing that.  

Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

Even through coaching and administrative changes, North Dakota has been able to remain largely the same. That's easier said than done.

Consider that Pitt once had three different head coaches in the span of a year: Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood and Todd Graham in 2010-11. 

Bohl declined to be interviewed, but Wyoming released a statement to Bleacher Report. "Craig had a great time while he was the head coach of the Bison and has so many great friends still there," it read. "But he feels it is best for NDSU that he let them move forward and build their program without him commenting on the program now that he has left."

Sure, playbooks will be modified, as they are every year. But, most importantly, the players who were a part of three national championships remained the same. 

"I told our guys, 'We’ve changed a lot of coaches, but we haven’t changed you players,'" Klieman said. "'It's still your football team.'"

Retention rate is of the utmost importance. No matter how good North Dakota State has been, scholarship limitations means less depth. Some players never receive full scholarships like they would at the Football Bowl Subdivision. 

There simply isn't as large a margin for error when it comes to attrition as there is at the highest division of college football. 

It takes leadership to keep the retention rate high. "We have great seniors. There just aren't as many," Klieman said. "But they were freshmen when we won our first national championship. They weren't the stars, but they've seen how a successful season goes."

Taylor and Klieman preached, almost verbatim, that buying into a culture is what breeds success. North Dakota State's culture has been about finding regional high school players who have a chip on their shoulder. "You have to understand who you are," Taylor said. 

It's paid dividends. The Bison have been picked to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season despite the coaching change. A season opener against Iowa State is another winnable game against a FBS opponent. A victory against the Cyclones would only boost recruiting for Klieman and his staff. 

As if North Dakota State needed more help. Summer camps are nearing 1,000 prospects per session. The brand of Bison football is as good as its ever been. The future is undeniably bright. 

Still, it's hard not to look back at what has been an unthinkable journey. Klieman let out a chuckle as though he was still in a state of disbelief.

"Last year was a special year." 

 

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

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NCAA Football Preseason Rankings 2014: Analyzing List of Top 25 NCAA Teams

College football fans around the globe finally have their hands on a list of the top 25 teams in the nation.

Of course, chaos is the best term to describe the aftermath.

The College Football Playoff committee is in control of the four teams that make it to the playoff, but the Amway Coaches Poll provides a strong measuring stick as to how the nation feels about the best teams.

To better understand how the poll is crafted, one has to carefully peruse the explanation given by USA Today:

The panel is chosen by random draw, conference by conference plus independents, from a pool of coaches who have indicated to the American Football Coaches Association their willingness to participate. Each coach submits a Top 25 with a first-place vote worth 25 points, second place 24, and so on down to one point for 25th.

With that in mind, below is a look at the official poll results and some of the sticking points to watch as the season gets underway.

 

2014 Amway Coaches Poll Results

Poll courtesy of USA Today.

 

Oregon's Unexpected Dip

There has been trouble in Oregon Ducks country, yes, with the news that left tackle Tyler Johnstone suffered a season-ending injury, per Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports:

Even with the loss, the argument that Oregon should be ranked even higher makes a ton of sense. It starts with quarterback Marcus Mariota. Johnstone himself put it best, per ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings:

We love [Mariota’s] ability to turn nothing in something. He never gives up on a play. I think that’s kind of what makes Marcus him, and I wouldn’t have him change anything in his play. I think that attack mindset is what wins us games ... he could be more aggressive in my opinion.

Fresh off a season in which he was a contender for the Heisman thanks to 3,665 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to four interceptions, Mariota will survive without a big-play threat such as De'Anthony Thomas thanks to the return of names such as back Byron Marshall and center Hroniss Grasu.

The offense will undoubtedly be explosive once more, and even better, the school somehow managed to dodge contests with USC or Arizona State on this year's schedule.

Given the fact there are plenty of questions surrounding Alabama and Oklahoma might just be a one-hit wonder under Bob Stoops, that lone first-place vote for Oregon is questionable at best.

 

Disrespect Toward Michigan State

After a 13-1 season, an undefeated mark in the Big Ten and a Rose Bowl triumph over Stanford, one would think Mark Dantonio's team would get a little respect in the polls.

Apparently not.

Critics are quick to point out that corner Darqueze Dennard is gone, and while it is true an elite corner can make the lives of those around him easier, Dantonio's defenses have been perennial powerhouses. Last year, the Spartans ranked third in points allowed, second in rushing defense, third in passing defense and second in total defense.

Those sort of numbers cannot possibly rely on just one player, but a unit and core foundation. Even better, quarterback Connor Cook did nothing short of improve last season, as illustrated by ESPN CollegeFootball:

“He’s matured, I think that’s something that is very obvious and stands above everything right now,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. “He’s more serious, he’s taken on more of a leadership role, and he’s becoming a little bit more of a no-nonsense type of guy, you know? He’s grown leaps and bounds in that area over the last four, five, six months.”

A complementary potent offense in tandem with a defense that can hang with any group in the nation makes Michigan State underrated in a bad way. Expect an upward climb to begin soon.

 

Those That Nip at the Heels of Alabama

Despite two losses and some turnover, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide man the No. 2 spot in the land despite no first-place votes.

The writing is on the wall—there are clearly those who believe the end of a dynasty may be nigh. Fun fact—in this year's preseason poll, South Carolina received more first-place votes than Alabama.

In some ways, it makes sense. Look at Alabama, which sees Jacob Coker and Blake Sims embroiled in a battle for the starting quarterback gig. That in itself is seemingly causing a first on the roster, per Michael Carvell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

But no matter who wins, backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry are an elite combo, and wideout Amari Cooper is arguably the best in the land. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will squeeze the absolute best out of the unit.

South Carolina is talented and an SEC title game favorite. Oklahoma seems resurgent, especially after that big win over Alabama last bowl season. The aforementioned Ducks are offensively potent once more.

But until Saban's ship actually sinks, the seemingly slipping grip his team holds on one of the top two spots in the nation should be much stronger, even in preseason rankings.

 

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Florida State Football: Nick O'Leary's Health Is Paramount to Title Defense

Florida State's search for consistent receivers to complement playmaker Rashad Greene will continue for the next few weeks.

But the Seminoles already have a pass-catcher who is a tough one-on-one matchup for defenses in tight end Nick O'Leary. By no means is he a receiver, but O'Leary consistently produces. Of his 33 receptions in 2013, 27 went for a first down.

O'Leary, who was a Mackey Award finalist as a junior last season, had 557 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 16.9 yards per reception, which led all Football Bowl Subdivision tight ends.

He also has 11 career touchdown receptions, the most of any tight end in FSU history.

"Nick to me is the best tight end in the country," FSU quarterback Jameis Winston said. "Nick is unstoppable out there."

A three-year starter, O'Leary is an essential piece of the offense as the Seminoles attempt to repeat as national champions. But he's also been fortunate to avoid serious injuries off the field after a pair of motorcycle accidents.

In May 2013, O'Leary was riding his motorcycle near campus and had a split-second decision to make when an oncoming car pulled into his lane. O'Leary hit the car, went airborne and was able to avoid serious injuries, Bud Elliott of TomahawkNation.com reported.

And in March, O'Leary was involved in a second accident, this time with a dirt bike. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said at the time that O'Leary was skinned and had a swollen ankle, and he missed FSU's spring game.

But O'Leary again made a quick recovery.

"I'm done riding motorcycles and all that," O'Leary said.

Nick's father, Bill, sold the dirt bike, according to The Palm Beach Post's Tom D'Angelo.

O'Leary has recovered and he can focus on his senior year. At 6'3'' and 250 pounds, O'Leary is a mismatch for defenses. He's too fast to be covered well by a linebacker and too strong to be defended by a safety. He uses his physical talents but also film study to find holes in the defense.

"It's just splitting those two guys (linebacker and safety) and getting between their coverages to get open," O'Leary said. "You just have to know how they play you in certain coverages."

O'Leary certainly seems to have figured defenses out. He has the soft hands of a receiver and quickly turns upfield, all the while looking to lower his shoulder and deliver a bruising shot to a defender.

He is an old-school football player, playing and practicing without gloves or wristbands. While he had problems securing the ball early in his career, which led to a few fumbles, O'Leary has developed into a consistent, sure-handed option for Winston. 

"Nick is like a throwback football player," ESPN analyst Desmond Howard said. "Don't need any gloves, wristbands or tape. Just give me a jersey and a helmet and let me do what I do. And I'm going to get it done."

 

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter. All stats courtesy of seminoles.com and FSU media guides.

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Meet Melvin Ray, the Undercover Leader of Auburn's Receivers

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's veteran receiving corps has several potential leaders for an offense determined to throw the ball more in 2014.

There's junior Sammie Coates, a freakishly athletic star who finished third nationally in yards per catch as the run-heavy Tigers' lone deep-ball threat in 2013.

There's also junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams, who has been described as a game-changer by coaches and teammates for his attack mentality toward passing thrown his way.

And don't forget about Ricardo Louis, a still-developing former running back and the now-legendary receiver of "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare."

The same goes for Quan Bray, a senior looking to end his Auburn career by living up to his high school hype, and junior Jaylon Denson, who made a name for himself as a physical playmaker before tearing his ACL midway through last season.

But these wide receivers already have a player they look up to—25-year-old junior Melvin Ray.

"What I like about him is he brings a maturity to the room," Denson said. "He's somebody we can go to when something goes wrong. He's obviously been here longer than we have. He's like the big brother of the room."

Ray's journey to the Plains was not the prototypical one by any means.

A standout baseball player from his youth, he did not start playing football until he was a high school sophomore. 

"I loved [baseball], I played it my whole life," Ray told AL.com's Brandon Marcello in 2013. "It was the first sport I ever played, following my dad and my brother. And it was something that I loved. Once I started football around 10th grade, I realized that was a sport that physically was probably better for me overall."

As a young wide receiver at North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Ray emerged as a highly rated recruiting target for some of the South's biggest programs.

He was a 4-star recruit out of high school after a 1,058-yard, 16-touchdown senior season in 2007 and committed to play for Alabama over programs such as Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Miami.

But baseball came calling back several months after he committed to play for the Crimson Tide. Ray was picked in the 33rd round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and he decided to step away from football to follow his dream of playing professional baseball.

The two-sport star did not enjoy the same success that he had in high school in the Dodgers' minor league system—he had a .189 batting average with 14 RBI and 95 strikeouts over three seasons, according to Baseball-Reference.com—and he soon realized how much he missed the gridiron.

"It's actually a very hard grind, especially starting at the bottom in the minor leagues," Ray told Auburn's official website earlier this year. "It's not the lifestyle that people think about playing professional baseball. College football is a whole lot more enjoyable than the minor leagues."

Ray enrolled at Alabama early in 2011, but he never saw the practice field for the team that once held his commitment.

He then started looking down the road to Auburn, where he said he was impressed by the level of the school's academics and the program's football facilities—things he was not necessarily worried about during his original recruitment.

After taking a redshirt year in 2011, Ray was a contributor on special teams in the 2012 season.

"When I got here, I spent that whole first year away from the team," Ray said. "I was with them at practice, and then the redshirt workout with everybody, so I had that whole year to get my body back in football shape. So by the time that I did come back, I was really ready to go; it was just about getting the mental part of it back as far as plays, being a wide receiver again."

When Gus Malzahn and his staff arrived in Auburn, Ray got a few opportunities to showcase just how far he had come.

While he made a few catches against FCS-level Western Carolina and one against Georgia, he made a name for himself in the BCS National Championship Game.

Ray scored his first collegiate touchdown, a wide-open 50-yard reception, against his hometown Florida State Seminoles just outside of Los Angeles, the home of the baseball team he dreamed of playing with in the pros.

"Obviously, that game didn't come out the way we wanted to come out, but it felt good to do that," Ray said. "The goal is just to get back, however that is. If I make a play or don't make a play, I just want to make sure we end up [making] it back."

That selfless attitude has made an impact on Ray's fellow receivers.

"His attitude [is] what makes him a leader and a really cool dude," junior Tony Stevens said. "He knows when to play around and have fun with us and he knows when it's time to get on us and be serious. He knows everything about playing receiver here and he knows what the coaches want at every spot."

On the field, Ray is hoping to carry over his success from the national title game.

He showed his speed on the touchdown grab against the Seminoles, and his 6'3" frame makes him the kind of big target Auburn coaches want on the inside and the outside.

"If someone went down, and it’s even a position he’s not playing you could move him there and he’s be able to plug in and play," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black. "Melvin will have a role, and he’ll help us win."

Although newcomer Williams has been the talk of fall camp with his big-play ability, teammates say the junior college stud has not made the best play of practice so far. That honor belongs to Ray.

"Probably the play Melvin Ray made in the first scrimmage," Denson said. "It was a long ball. He went up between two defenders and caught it. It was like a 50-yard gain."

Ray already has the respect of his teammates on and off the field as a veteran offensive leader. This season, he is hoping to come from an under-the-radar player to a playmaker who will command the respect of SEC defenses.

Just ask the players who have to cover him every day in practice.

"He’s got a big body and he knows how to put his body in front of you and place the ball," said senior Trovon Reed, a former Auburn wide receiver now playing cornerback. "He’s just a guy waiting on his turn, waiting on his breakout time. He’s going to shock the world."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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Biggest Dark-Horse Contenders for the 2014 Heisman

Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Braxton Miller are easy picks to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy. However, this season's college football crop boasts several under-the-radar talents capable of stealing the spotlight.

Who will be this year's Heisman dark horse? Watch B/R's experts break down a few possibilities.

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