NCAA Football News

Tennessee Football: Grading the Volunteers' Impact Freshmen After 4 Games

Tennessee's resounding wins over Utah State and Arkansas State, as well as its close game on the road against No. 13 Georgia, are due in no small part to the Volunteers' much-hyped and highly talented freshman class.

As the season progresses, and especially as the Vols begin looking toward the 2015 campaign, it will become clear that the 2014 class will set the stage for Tennessee's impending return to national relevance. 

Every recruiting class, no matter how highly ranked by national analysts, is bound to suffer from attrition and underwhelming performances. That's often due to players not conforming to program expectations or simply being overrated as high school recruits. 

So far, it appears that Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and his staff have not only avoided those issues, they have also put together a class that's playing far beyond the typical expectations of college freshmen in the SEC.

Here are grades for each of the Vols' biggest impact freshmen so far in 2014.

 

Jalen Hurd, RB

Jalen Hurd arrived in Knoxville cold—literally and figuratively.

He was an early enrollee who began working out with the team in the frigid January air, and while most of his fellow newcomers were fresh off high school playoff runs, Hurd hadn't played a down of football since he suffered an injury in the opening game of his senior season in August 2012.

Participating in winter workouts and spring practices is undoubtedly a big reason why Hurd has progressed so quickly in Tennessee's offense. Although Marlin Lane is listed as the starting tailback for Saturday's matchup with the Florida Gators, Hurd is and will continue to be the focal point of the Vols' running game.

After two average performances against the team's opening opponents, Hurd began to run with more confidence against the Oklahoma Sooners before having a breakthrough game against the Bulldogs last weekend.

His 119 rushing yards and one touchdown on 24 carries are the most for a Tennessee true freshman since Jamal Lewis rushed for 127 yards in the 1997 SEC Championship Game, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown.

Hurd's large frame also makes him ideal for blocking assignments, and aside from a few miscues here and there, he has been solid creating space for quarterback Justin Worley to step up into the pocket and making room for wide receivers to make plays in space.

The one thing Hurd is missing from his short resume is a long touchdown run, but his explosiveness and ability to break tackles mean it's only a matter of time until he gets one.

Grade: A-

 

Ethan Wolf, TE

With his prototypical height and weight, tight end Ethan Wolf may be the biggest asset to offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian's offense moving forward. With a scheme that relies heavily on tight ends, Tennessee's offense never ran at full capacity last season due to injuries to Brendan Downs and A.J. Branisel. 

With the addition of Wolf, who also arrived on campus in January and immediately began carving out a role as a starter, Bajakian and Worley have more room to get creative when distributing the ball down the field.

Wes Rucker of 247Sports reports that while Tennessee's tight ends coach, Mark Elder, sees upside in Wolf, he says the freshman also still has a few things to learn.

There’s a lot of room for improvement there; there’s no question about that. There’s room for improvement with his blocking, there’s room for improvement with his receiving, route running, his physical capabilities. He can improve in all those areas. I don’t think he’s a tapped-out guy. You look at him, and you see he’s gonna develop physically over the next three years, and he’s gonna continue to develop technique-wise.

Wolf's presence is already showing up in the stat sheets. Despite missing the game against Oklahoma, Wolf has 13 catches for 115 yards in 2014. Like Hurd, Wolf is improving each week, and his biggest game of the season came against the Bulldogs when he hauled in five catches for 69 yards. 

The Vols caught a huge break when the injury Wolf suffered against Arkansas State caused him to miss only a single game, as his presence will be critical in helping the team finish the season with a winning record. 

Grade: B-

 

Derek Barnett, DE

Derek Barnett may have been a 4-star for 247Sports as a high school senior, but he's playing like a top-20 recruit. 

Barnett's commitment to the Vols over his hometown Vanderbilt Commodores shortly before national signing day this year didn't just help Tennessee lock down the state in terms of recruiting—it also gave the team one of its best pass-rushers in years.

A standout throughout summer camp, Barnett's raw ability quickly became apparent on game day, as he's notched 19 total tackles so far this season, including eight against Georgia last week.

Barnett is currently fifth on the team in total tackles, and while it's unlikely he will surpass stud linebackers A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, his progression from game to game means he could easily land in the top three or four by the time the season is over.

Although he has three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries, Barnett hasn't notched a sack yet. At the rate he's going, it's hard to imagine he will be denied much longer. 

Grade: B+

 

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8 Most Important College Football Recruiting Visits of Week 6

The first weekend of October is loaded with fantastic showdowns on college football fields in every corner of the country. Along with avid fanbases, a bevy of big-time recruits will be in attendance to take in the action.

Several schools are set host elite collections of high school talent from the 2015 and 2016 classes. These athletes are capable of becoming eventual cornerstones for collegiate programs and could come to define the next half-decade of success for coaching staffs currently in pursuit.

Each week we examine the most important campus visits expected to take place, keeping a close eye on the successes and recruitment of each athlete. Here's a look at the latest and perhaps most star-studded travel schedule for America's top players we've seen this season.

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Georgia DB Rico Johnson's Football Career Ended by Neurological Disorder

Georgia cornerback Rico Johnson's career in Athens is over before it ever got off the ground. Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt announced Thursday that the redshirt freshman is stepping away from football due to an ongoing neurological condition.   

“I’m thankful we caught this condition when we did,” Richt said in a statement. “Now we can help Rico transition to life after football. He will stay on scholarship through his graduation and we will assist him in finding employment through the P.O. Network!”

The genesis of Johnson's head injury is unknown at this time. According to the statement, Johnson noticed problems during Wednesday's practice and was taken to a nearby medical facility where he underwent neurological testing. Ron Courson, the university's director of sports medicine, did not reveal Johnson's diagnosis but said it will allow him to lead a "normal life."

"While we are very disappointed for Rico from a football standpoint, we feel extremely fortunate that he is healthy and that we were able to diagnose his condition and protect him from a possible catastrophic injury,” Courson said.  “Although he cannot continue his football career, he should be able to have a normal life.”

Johnson, who sat out last season, had five total tackles and one forced fumble in four games in 2014, playing mostly on special teams. A 3-star recruit from Swainsboro, Georgia, Johnson was originally brought in as a wide receiver but converted to defensive back due to need.

The 20-year-old athlete can remain on full scholarship at Georgia but will not count toward the team's 90-man limit due to medical hardship. The Bulldogs are scheduled to play 1-4 Vanderbilt at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.   

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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How Ameer Abdullah Went from Forgotten Alabama Recruit to Heisman Contender

Gus Malzahn, one of the brightest offensive minds of our generation, desperately wanted Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. So did Nick Saban. So did USC. So did a handful of other SEC schools, including Ole Miss, Tennessee and Arkansas.

All of these power programs hoped to keep the Homewood, Alabama, senior close to home, which should come as no surprise. They saw the potential in Abdullah, even at just 5'8" and 30 pounds lighter than he is today.

Given the right tutelage, they felt that—if all went according to plan—Abdullah could eventually contribute at cornerback. Yes, cornerback.

Even Auburn—Abdullah's dream school—wanted him at a position he really wanted nothing to do with.

"It kind of ate me up," Abdullah told USA Today's Paul Myerberg about the recruiting process. "It really hurt my feelings. At a young age, my dream was to play running back. For your dream school to tell you that, it really hurt."

So it was time to leave.

 

From Alabama to Nebraska: Ameer Abdullah, 3-Star Cornerback

A Heisman Trophy was in another galaxy. A Big Ten championship—or even the thought of playing in the state of Nebraska—wasn't on the table. The NFL draft was just an entertaining telecast and nothing more. Even Abdullah's future at the position was in doubt.

Despite rushing for 1,795 yards on just 157 carries and scoring 28 touchdowns during his senior season—and doing so in one of the nation's recruiting hotbeds, in front of scouts weekly—Abdullah didn't set the recruiting world on fire. It was more of a slow churn.

The senior was listed as the No. 485 recruit nationally and the No. 25 athlete overall at 247Sports in the 2011 recruiting class. On Rivals, he was graded as a 3-star prospect and the No. 17 athlete in the nation.

He flashed brilliance, something JC Shurburtt, the national recruiting director at 247Sports, knew well before he was a star. But concerns over his size led to a much different recruiting picture than you might imagine.

"I saw him the most at the practices leading up to the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl that year in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and he was the most dynamic playmaker on the field that week," Shurburtt told Bleacher Report. "Just about every school wanted him as a cornerback or athlete, in large part because of his height. He was set on offense, though."

He didn't waver in his desire to play his position of choice, despite the pressure to play elsewhere. As interest and offers trickled in, Abdullah weighed his options.

It never felt as though the Alabama native—despite the mixed interest—would stray too far from home. Yet his dream to play running back at Auburn drifted away as spots filled up and commitments were made. 

Justin Hokanson, insider at AuburnUndercover.com, remembers his recruitment.

"Ameer's older brother attended Auburn at the time he was being recruited. Ameer was an Auburn fan, and he would have likely jumped on an offer, but it never came," Hokanson said. "The Tigers liked him at cornerback, if they had a spot for him in the class. Auburn just never pulled the trigger."

As Abdullah weighed his decision and national signing day approached, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini took a take a trip down to Alabama to visit the "athlete."

Pelini, not one for extravagant sales pitches and empty promises, entered Abdullah's home and got comfortable before the position talk began.

"He kicked off his shoes like he had been living there for seven years and put his feet up on my table,” Abdullah recalled. "I'm like, 'Look at this guy.' That's who Bo is, though."

The only guarantee that Pelini offered while visiting Abdullah was a chance. There was no talk of carries or playing time, but Abdullah would get his shot at running back. Given the way things had gone up until that conversation, even the possibility of competing at the position resonated. Pelini's tone helped seal the deal.

"He didn't promise me a thing, which was really odd," Abdullah said. "He came to my house and offered me a free education and an opportunity to potentially play on this football team. He left it at that, and that really sat with me. That's really what attracted me to Nebraska."

In committing to Nebraska, Abdullah exited his comfort zone. He left Alabama to play for a coach who was willing to give him what many others couldn't or wouldn't. Pelini, meanwhile, was happy to take a chance of his own on a player he saw potential in.

"We saw someone we thought was really talented, special and a great kid," Pelini said. "You never know how good they'll be, but we recruited him because we thought he was special. It's proven to be that way."

 

From Nebraska to Superstardom: Ameer Abdullah, Heisman Hopeful

The days of fighting for position acceptance are over. Ameer Abdullah now has his own line of batteries.

Sort of.

To push the Heisman candidacy of its star tailback, Nebraska recently sent out a courtesy reminder to media members. It came in a small, unassuming FedEx package. Inside were eight (Abdullah's number) AA batteries. As for the significance of the gift, the all-caps text on the front of the packaging—just directly below the number on Abdullah's jersey—accurately summarized the purpose of the item.

"POWERING NEBRASKA FOOTBALL SINCE 2011."

There is plenty of truth to this. Abdullah didn't exactly burst onto the scene as a true freshman back in 2011, serving as Rex Burkhead's primary backup months after he arrived in Lincoln. That changed the following season when Burkhead dealt with injuries throughout the year.

As a sophomore in 2012, Abdullah ran for more than 1,100 yards despite splitting carries. When he took over as the primary ball-carrier in 2013, his numbers took off. His 1,690 rushing yards were ninth nationally.

Thus far in 2014, he is on track to shatter all of his career bests. His 833 rushing yards are tops in the nation. He has accomplished this despite logging 20 fewer carries than Pittsburgh's James Conner, currently No. 2 in the country with 790 yards.

His eight rushing touchdowns leave him one shy of his career high. And his 7.3 yards per carry through five games is more than a yard better than his previous best output for a season, which came last year.

Abdullah has improved in every major statistical category over the course of his entire career. That might seem like common practice for college football players; however, it's really anything but. Injuries and attention gained oftentimes can be where reputation and production meet at the fork in the road.

As the attention on Abdullah has increased, however, his production has skyrocketed.

"I think he's better in every area. I think he had a great year last year, but I think he's a better football player this year," Pelini said. "That's a testament to him and his hard work. His mindset and preparation. His drive. He's just playing at a very high level right now."

There are more physically gifted backs around the country. Georgia's Todd Gurley, for starters, is unmatched in this department. In terms of straight-line speed, look no further than fellow Big Ten running back Melvin Gordon, who has the edge in this department.

But in terms of the complete catalog, the one that stretches well past 40 times and other ways to categorize a running back's worth, it's hard to find a more productive back than this one.

In his past 18 games, Abdullah has eclipsed the 100-yard mark 15 times. In five games this season, he's gone over the 200-yard mark three separate occasions. And it's not just the numbers. It's the sheer violence of his cuts, his ability to fall forward for extra yardage and the way he can turn a short completion into a physics-defying 58-yard touchdown to save the Huskers' season.

Heisman moments typically don't happen in Week 2. They also don't come against McNeese State. But when you assess the individual effort that single-handedly won Nebraska a game that had no business being a contest in the first place, you can't help but rethink the accepted Heisman assessment protocol.

If Nebraska beats Michigan State on Saturday—and if cannot be stressed enough—it will likely have a great deal to do with what its star player was able to accomplish against one of the premier defenses in the country.

At that point, the Heisman conversations will change. They will have to. It doesn't matter how quarterback-driven the award has become—it will not be able to hold back Abdullah any longer. And even if the Cornhuskers succumb to what is likely a top-five team in a difficult environment, it should not change the perception of one of the nation's best offensive weapons. He has already made it.

Abdullah hasn't forgotten where he's come from or what it took from him to get here. Neither have the people who watched him thrive as a running back at Homewood High School or the various coaches that glazed over the prospect for someone else.

"It's probably the first thing I hear when I get off the plane," Abdullah said.

The state of Alabama didn't really want him; neither did the rest of the SEC. Neither did many others, for that matter, at least at the position he now dominates.

Ameer Abdullah has shed his 3-star label for something much more fitting: Heisman contender and the man powering Nebraska football since 2011.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow Adam Kramer on Twitter @Kegsneggs

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UCF Knights vs. Houston Cougars Live Blog: Reactions and Analysis

The University of Central Florida Knights will travel to TDECU Stadium to take on the Houston Cougars in an American Athletic Conference showdown Friday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Both teams will be looking to get off to a fast start in conference play after underwhelming starts.

Houston enters the matchup at 2-2, fresh on the heels of a 47-14 victory against UNLV. UCF has started the season 0-2 but rebounded last week with a 41-7 thrashing of Bethune-Cookman.

Although UCF leads the series 4-1, four of those five matchups have been decided by just a touchdown. Houston will be looking to avenge last season's 19-14 loss which saw UCF hold on after stopping the Cougars on 4th-and-goal at the end of the game.

After one quarter, Houston leads UCF 3-0 courtesy of a Kyle Bullard field goal.

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Rapper Stalley Says Johnny Manziel and Coach Kevin Sumlin Partied with Rick Ross

It's no secret Johnny Manziel has been living up the party scene since his college days.

However, it seems he had a surprise wingman join him for at least one of his escapades—Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin.

In an interview with Bomani Jones and Dan LeBatard on ESPN's Highly Questionable, rapper Stalley reveals the two were out together at a party thrown by hip-hop mogul Rick Ross, and Sumlin was "the life of the party."

So, how much fun did they have?

Stalley says, "On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say 15."

[Highly Questionable, h/t Yahoo Sports]

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Alabama Football: Will Blake Sims' Shoulder Injury Be an Issue vs. Ole Miss?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Blake Sims jogged through drills with the rest of the quarterbacks.

He watched Jake Coker, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell zip quick throws to a line of receivers and would occasionally jump in himself, taking a little bit off his throws. They were closer to lobs than darts.

That was during the media viewing period of Wednesday’s practice, and it’s looked like that for most of this week and last, when Alabama had a bye week. Sometimes, Sims wouldn’t throw at all.

Sims is on a “pitch count” in practice, as Saban called it last Monday, while he recovers from a shoulder injury sustained against Florida. Saban compared the injury to AJ McCarron’s last year, when McCarron wouldn’t put in as many reps in practice so his shoulder wouldn’t be worn out for the upcoming game.

So the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not Sims will be healthy for the Crimson Tide’s undefeated showdown against Ole Miss this weekend?

The injury shouldn’t be an issue, according to Saban. He said as much twice on Wednesday.

“Blake has done very well in practice,” Saban said on the SEC coaches teleconference. “He hasn't had any issues this week so far in terms of being able to throw the ball. We're really pleased with the way he's progressed. He's been able to take all the reps that he's prescribed to take, so we're pleased with that.

He reiterated that again Wednesday night after practice.

“Blake’s fine, he’s done really well,” Saban said. “Hasn’t had any issues or problems. Looks like his old self, I would not know that he was ever hurt based on the way he’s practiced and the way he’s played. He hasn’t had any discomfort at all after doing it, which I think is the real key to it.”

That’s good news for an Alabama team that will need its fifth-year senior leader under center to perform at a high level on Saturday.

The Ole Miss defense is second in the country and first in the SEC in interceptions with nine. The only team with more picks than the Rebels is Louisville, which has played one more game.

The Rebels have allowed the fewest total yards and second-fewest passing yards of anyone in the conference.

It’s not like Sims hasn’t been practicing—that's far from the case.

While we don’t know exactly what his load has been like, it sounds like the team has been cautious with how much it’ll work him.

“I think as long as he’s in there on quality plays. I mean, if we’ve got a run play, we’ll let another guy go take it and let Blake get ready,” tight end Brian Vogler said. “It doesn’t really affect most of us as long as we’re making the right calls and running the right routes. The timing’s there, it’s already been built, but obviously we improve on it when he’s in there.”

To say Sims has been a pleasant surprise for Alabama this year would be an understatement.

He’s thrown for 1,091 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’s fourth in the country in passer rating. According to Aaron Suttles of TideSports.com, Sims is 18-of-21 passing on third down.

Sims also brings a dynamic to Alabama’s offense that it hasn’t had in a long time. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher with 141 yards.

His shoulder injury hasn’t slowed him down in that regard.

"He looks amazing to me,” defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. “Trying to rush against him, he's pretty fast. He's been looking good, though.”

Sims’ shoulder injury was initially concerning, and its long-term effects are yet to be determined. But Alabama is managing him well, already having some experience with a similar injury. All signs point to it not being issue in Alabama’s biggest game of the year.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from cfbstats.com.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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8 Most Improved College Football Players from a Season Ago

Maybe it's a result of maturity. Maybe it's because of improved coaching. Or it could just be that something clicked.

Whatever the case, several college football players this fall are performing leaps and bounds better than what we saw from them a year ago. In some cases, that individual improvement has helped put their teams over the hump.

Improvement can easily be judged based on statistics, but there's often more to it than just better numbers. For each of the eight players we've identified as the most improved in college football from a year ago, there's something that changed for them that enabled the performance upgrade.

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Set to Explode: 4-Star ATH Donte Jackson Is a Name to Remember

Donte Jackson is a 4-star athlete out of New Orleans, LA. With Georgia and LSU leading the pack, Jackson has numerous schools pushing for his commitment. Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down this underrated and underappreciated recruit in the 2015 class.

Who else do you think is underrated in the 2015 class?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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5 Week 6 Games That Will Have Biggest Impact on College Football Playoff

It's October and it's on.

Though much of September played out like college football's version of the preseason, it still served to whittle down the field of potential playoff teams. Only 17 of the 128 FBS teams made it out of the month without a loss and that number is guaranteed to dwindle by a quarter in the first weekend of October.

All 17 unbeatens will be in action this weekend, including four matchups between undefeated teams, beginning with Thursday night's Oregon-Arizona showdown. There are six games between teams currently ranked in the AP poll—that's as many as the previous four weekends combined.

The center of the college football universe this Saturday will be the state of Mississippi (when's the last time you heard this phrase uttered?...like, never?), where the SEC West shakeup will begin in earnest. The four combatants in the games in Oxford and Starkville have a combined record of 17-0, but two teams will emerge with their first losses of the season by sundown Saturday.

So here's our look—and predictions—of this week's five key games for the College Football Playoff race. OK, so we lied, we counted the SEC West Six-Pack as one game:

SEC West Six-Pack

Texas A&M (5-0) at Mississippi State (4-0)
Alabama (4-0) at Ole Miss (4-0)
LSU (4-1) at Auburn (4-0)

The toughest division in college football will see all six of its ranked teams cannibalize each other. And with the exception of LSU, which already lost to Mississippi State, the losers on Saturday won't necessarily be out of the running for the division title, and hence, the College Football Playoff field.

But the most intriguing game of the trio just might be the one not played in Mississippi. The battle of the Tigers has gone LSU's way in six of the last seven years, with Auburn only winning in 2010, when it went undefeated and won the BCS title. Keep in mind that was the only time Gus Malzahn faced LSU on The Plains as a member of the Auburn staff.

Predicted winners: Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn

Oklahoma (4-0) at TCU (3-0)

It should surprise no one that Gary Patterson has righted the ship at TCU after a rough start in its first two years in the Big 12. But the Horned Frogs' rebuilt defense will be severely tested by Oklahoma, which has its sights set on winning the Big 12 and earning an entry to the playoff field. 

Because there is no conference championship game, OU can ill afford to lose any games as it could potentially mean the loss of the Big 12 title. But the visit to Fort Worth just might be the toughest remaining road game for the Sooners, who will get all the other Big 12 contenders at home.

Predicted winner: Oklahoma

Stanford (3-1) at Notre Dame (4-0)

In Notre Dame's magical season of 2012, it was able to beat Stanford in OT thanks to a controversial call. (Is it me or does it seem like all of Notre Dame's close shaves in 2012 were aided by the refs?) That loss might very well have kept the Cardinal out of the BCS title game.

The scenario is very similar this season. Everett Golson is back and with him the Irish are once again in the mix for the national championship run. For Stanford, already with an early-season loss to USC, this is a must-win game to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Predicted winner: Notre Dame

Nebraska (5-0) at Michigan State (3-1)

This is essentially an elimination game for the Big Ten's flickering playoff hopes. A loss by either team will end its chance of landing a spot in the four-team field.

The Huskers are the only B1G team coming out of September without a loss, and that's only the case because of an Ameer Abdullah miracle run to beat McNeese State. With Nebraska's weak schedule, it'll have to run the table to make any claims for the playoff, and even that might not be enough. 

Predicted winner: Michigan State

Utah (3-1) at UCLA (4-0)

This game would've been another battle of the unbeatens until Utah was stunned by Washington State at home, blowing a 24-7 halftime lead. Still, it's a major showdown in the Pac-12 South, which currently seems to be UCLA's for the taking.

But the Bruins have shown a maddening inconsistency in the Jim Mora era so don't be surprised if they suffer a letdown after last week's big win over Arizona State. On top of that UCLA might also be caught looking ahead to a huge showdown next week against Oregon. This is a classic trap game. 

Predicted winner: Utah

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Texas A&M Football: Why LB Position Will Keep Aggies from Being Elite in 2014

The Texas A&M football team is undefeated and ranked No. 6 in the country. Unfortunately for Aggie fans, the team's deficiencies at the linebacker position will prevent it from taking the next step and becoming a playoff team in 2014. 

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has again built one of the top offenses in the land. The Aggies are averaging 594.6 yards and 51.2 points per game. The defense is allowing a respectable 376.4 total yards per game. 

The Aggies are currently in the middle of the pack when it comes to defenses in college football, which is a major improvement over 2013, when they had the No. 109 overall defense. The Aggies have improved with better safety play and a much improved defensive line.

The issue for the Aggies is that their linebacker play is still lagging behind. They do not have the size, talent or depth at the linebacker position to help form an elite SEC defense.

 

Size Does Matter

The Aggies entered the 2014 fall camp with an expected starting lineup of Shaan Washington at strong-side linebacker, Jordan Mastrogiovanni at middle linebacker and Donnie Baggs at weak-side linebacker.

Washington is a 6'3", 235-pound sophomore who has the size and speed needed to be an effective linebacker in the SEC. Unfortunately, he broke his collar bone early in fall camp and was forced to miss the first three games of the season. 

With Washington out, the Aggies opened the season with Baggs at weak-side linebacker, Mastrogiovanni in the middle and A.J. Hilliard on the strong side. Then Hilliard got injured in the season opener against South Carolina. 

Like Washington, the 6'2", 230-pound sophomore had the requisite size to make plays in the SEC. Baggs is a 6'1", 230-pound senior who looks and plays a lot smaller than his listed weight. 

The key to winning games in the SEC is to stop the opponent's running game. Aggie fans have grown tired of watching opposing running backs shake off the tackles of the Aggies' smallish linebackers like Baggs. 

Mastrogiovanni is a 6'3", 244-pound sophomore who has plenty of size and speed. His issue is that he does not possess the instincts to be an effective middle linebacker. In the Aggies' 35-28 overtime win over Arkansas, he often found himself in the wrong place or struggled to get off blocks.

The Razorbacks ran 74 offensive plays against the Aggies including 47 rushing attempts. Mastrogiovanni was in on three assisted tackles for the game. The starting middle linebacker of the Texas A&M defense did not get a single solo tackle against a team that the Aggies knew was going to run the ball.

Baggs put up a similar stat line with three tackles against the Hogs, but he did add a tackle for loss. He will be in the right place at the right time, but he does not possess the size and strength to bring down some of the bigger backs in the SEC. 

The Aggies allowed 285 yards rushing against Arkansas because their linebackers could not get off blocks to make plays. When they did get off blocks, the bigger Arkansas running backs just shrugged off their tackle attempts. 

Washington returned from his injury in Week 4 against SMU. He has tallied 13 tackles with two tackles for loss and two sacks in two games. Washington had seven tackles against Arkansas.

The lack of size and talent will be exacerbated as the Aggies move into the meat of the SEC schedule. The Aggies have games against Mississippi State, Alabama and LSU remaining on their schedule. 

All three teams feature running backs with the size to give the Aggie linebackers problems. The sad reality for Aggies fans is that they have one legitimate SEC linebacker on the squad right now in Washington. 

 

How To Fix The Problem

The only way to solve this deficiency of talent at the linebacker position is to recruit more talent to Aggieland. The Aggies had huge issues on their defensive line in 2013, but the addition of defensive end Myles Garrett and a few other recruits has given them the depth and talent to be an effective SEC unit. 

The Aggie coaches need to do the same thing at linebacker in the 2015 class that they did on the defensive line in the 2014 class. They need to recruit some of the best linebackers in the nation and hope they come in ready to play. 

The Aggies simply need to get bigger and better at the linebacker position. Getting Hilliard back from injury in 2015 will help. He and Washington at the two outside linebacker spots will be a formidable duo. 

Texas A&M has three linebackers verbally committed in the 2015 class. Two of them, Riley Garner and Landis Durham, should have the size required in 2015 to walk in and help the team. The Aggies need to land elite linebacker recruit Malik Jefferson to give this class the kind of boost that Garrett gave the 2014 class. 

As for the 2014 season, Aggie fans are going to have to hope that true freshman linebackers Josh Walker and Otaro Alaka develop as quickly as possible. It would behoove the Aggie coaches to get them more playing time. 

The freshmen may make youthful mistakes, but they will get better in the future. Watching Walker or Alaka cover the wrong gap will be more beneficial for the future of Aggie football than watching Baggs get run over by another opposing running back. 

The Aggies have the offense, special teams and defensive line to be a championship-level team. They are missing the linebackers, and that will limit their success in 2014. 

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Ohio State Football: What Could Have Been If Urban Meyer Had Landed Stefon Diggs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Even for a recruiter as talented as Urban Meyer, Ohio State's 2012 class was nothing short of a miracle.

With just 15 prospects and not a whole lot of star power committed to becoming Buckeyes with two months to go until national signing day, Meyer certainly had his work cut out for him when he accepted Ohio State's head coaching position on Nov. 28.

But by the time Feb. 1 rolled around, 5-star prospects Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington signed on to be Buckeyes, as did big-name prospects such as Bri'onte Dunn, Taylor Decker, Se'von Pittman and Kyle Dodson.

And although Meyer's 25-man haul ranked an astounding fifth in the nation, per 247Sports, it appeared to be missing at least one key element. For a coach who had found so much success at Florida with offensive speed, Meyer's premiere patchwork class was short on playmaking skill players—3-star prospects Michael ThomasRicquan Southward and Frank Epitropoulos being the only wide receivers to sign with Ohio State in 2012.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Meyer's top target at the position remained uncommitted—at least for the time being. But nine days later, Stefon Diggs officially took his name off the market, when the Olney Good Counsel 5-star prospect opted to stay close to home and sign with Maryland.

"We had a good relationship with Stefon Diggs and his family," Meyer said on Monday. "I really thought we had a legitimate shot at him. I knew when we were watching him play that he was something special. Now that I see him, he’s as good as there is in America.”

The Buckeyes bounced back from Diggs' decision to take his talents elsewhere, reeling off 24 consecutive wins to start Meyer's career in Columbus. But in the two complete recruiting cycles since Diggs turned Terrapin, Ohio State is still yet to sign a prospect with the same type of talent as the class of 2012's second-ranked wideout.

This Saturday, the loss of Diggs for the Buckeyes could become twofold, when Ohio State squares off with its former target. As Meyer mentioned, the 6'0", 190-pounder has proven to be as good as advertised in his two-plus seasons in College Park, which could prove problematic for a Buckeyes secondary still struggling to find its footing this season.

"He's going to be a first-round draft pick," Meyer said of Diggs on his weekly call-in show on Thursday. "A real dynamic guy."

The numbers back up Meyer's assessment.

After accumulating 962 yards (848 receiving, 114 rushing) yards of total offense and eight touchdowns (six receiving, two returns) in 2012, Diggs' stats were stunted as a sophomore as a broken leg limited him to just seven games. Despite only playing roughly half a season, Diggs tallied 34 receptions for 587 yards and three touchdowns—numbers which would have made him Ohio State's third-leading receiver in 2013.

Back to full strength, it hasn't taken long for Diggs to prove that he's back on track, as in five games he's already racked up 29 receptions, 398 yards and two touchdowns. That comes as no surprise to Buckeyes cornerback and Massachusetts native Armani Reeves, who became plenty familiar with the Old Line State product on the northeast prep-camp circuit.

“He’s a great player. I remember going against him in high school at a lot of camps, and he’s a great guy, a great player and he’s going to be a workload for us," Reeves said. "But that’s why we came to Ohio State, to play against guys like that."

That's a sentiment shared by OSU sophomore safety Vonn Bell, a fellow 5-star prospect, who sees plenty of himself in Diggs when he watches the Maryland star on film. But rather than big hits, it's big plays that Diggs is dying to deliver, and if Diggs does, Bell knows he's going to hear about it.

“He has swagger. He’s very confident. If he gets a catch on me, I see that he’s gonna try to talk to me, but I’m gonna tell him that I coming the next play," Bell said of Diggs, seeking out a camcorder to emphasize his message. "Those type of guys like that—you gotta let them know you’re there.”

In order to better prep themselves for what they're about to face, the Buckeyes have called upon freshmen wideouts James Clark and Terry McLaurin.

Both 4-star prospects, each were highly touted players coming out of high school, but it's telling that Ohio State has needed two different players to emulate Diggs on this week's scout team, as no one single Buckeye possesses the same size and ability that their upcoming opponent does.

Capable of making plays down the field, off of screens, reverses and in special teams, it seems as though Diggs would have been a perfect fit to play the "Percy Harvin role" in Meyer's spread offense at Ohio State.

Bell compared the Maxwell Award and Biletnikoff Trophy preseason watch list member to Buckeyes H-back Dontre Wilson, which is somewhat of an understatement of what Diggs has already accomplished in his college career.

"He’s quick, but he’s very strong and very aggressive," Reeves said. "He has a lot of different tools. Especially in college, a lot of guys either have the speed or the strength. He’s a gifted athlete—he has both. That’s what makes him special."

It's also what made him so attractive to Meyer. And while the third-year Ohio State head coach insists that he moved on "quickly" from the failed recruitment of Diggs, it's hard to imagine that he won't find himself thinking "what could have been" when he finally sees him play in-person at the college level on Saturday.

Because for the Buckeyes to contain Diggs, it may just take another miracle.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Ole Miss Battles Distractions and Alabama

Uncharted Waters

Times, they are a-changin' at Ole Miss.

For the first time in history, ESPN's College GameDay will emanate from "The Grove" on Saturday morning prior to the 11th-ranked Rebels hosting third-ranked Alabama in a battle of unbeaten SEC West border rivals.

As if that spotlight wasn't bright enough, this week has also brought out distractions of other kinds.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports reported early Thursday morning that Ole Miss is under NCAA investigation. Granted, it's an investigation primarily focused on women's basketball and the only mention of football is under a previous staff.

Not to be outdone, USA Today dropped a feature on the evolution of Ole Miss' identity away from Colonel Reb and other elements of its past.

Timing is everything, right?

There are lots of distractions in Oxford this week, and the one that should concern Ole Miss football fans the most is the extreme exposure brought on by ESPN taking up real estate in "The Grove."

The meeting with Alabama could be labeled as the biggest Ole Miss home game in a generation, and certainly the biggest since LSU topped the Rebels in November of 2003 in what served as the SEC West title game. 

Saturday won't be unique for Alabama. In fact, it'll be par for the course. College GameDay has been on location at Alabama games 12 times since the start of the 2010 season and, according to Alabama's game notes, leads the nation with 20 GameDay appearances since 2007—head coach Nick Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa.

These are uncharted waters for Ole Miss.

Does that mean players will thrive under the intense spotlight? Some will. If things go south, though, you never know how players will react.

This is just "another Saturday" for Alabama, which is a good thing if you're a fan of the Crimson Tide.

 

Time for LSU's Defense to Shine

After giving up 570 yards and 7.81 yards per play against Mississippi State, it's safe to say defensive coordinator John Chavis didn't have his team prepared for Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen's multi-dimensional attack led by Dak Prescott.

Was that the exception or the rule?

It's likely the exception. Sure, the faces have changed, but Chavis has proven over his career that he knows how to shut down dual-threat quarterbacks—particularly those like Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who's much more of a home run threat than Prescott.

LSU held Auburn in check last year as its offense cruised out to a big first half lead, and then held off a late Auburn charge to hand head coach Gus Malzahn his only regular-season loss of the season. That same year, Chavis' defense held Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in check, holding "Johnny Football" to just 54 rushing yards—one season after it held him to 27 yards on the ground.

LSU has the athletes to shut down Auburn's dynamic rushing attack. Outside linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis are both fast and quick, which will allow them to get out in space and make tackles when Marshall and speed back Corey Grant get outside.

The big question for LSU is the interior of the defensive line, where sophomore Christian LaCouture and freshman Davon Godchaux are being counted on to grow up in a hurry. If the defensive tackles can come of age and slow down Auburn rushing between the tackles, Chavis' defense is more than capable of leading the Tigers from Baton Rouge to a big upset on the Plains.

 

Kenny Trill or Kenny Chill?

As was the case two seasons ago when Manziel burst onto the college football scene and eventually became the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy, another young Texas A&M quarterback is doing the same.

True sophomore Kenny Hill leads the SEC with 349 passing yards per game, is third with 9.7 yards per attempt and has tossed 17 touchdowns—the second-most in the country. Is that a product of Hill's talent, the offense or weak competition?

Probably a combination of the three. Arkansas boasts the best pass defense of any of Texas A&M's FBS opponents, but it's not like the Hogs have been world-beaters. The Hogs rank 98th in the nation heading into Week 6, giving up 263.8 yards per game.

This week's opponent, Mississippi State, is another cupcake in the pass defense department. At least on paper, that is. The Bulldogs rank 124th in the nation (319 YPG). Those numbers lie, though.

They rank second in the SEC in opponent completion percentage (50.3), third in passes defended (6.75 per game) and are tied for third with six interceptions. Mississippi State's pass defense numbers are skewed by one bad game against UAB and LSU fighting back through the air against a prevent defense in a win in Death Valley.

"They’ve always been talented defensively, they have a big, athletic defensive line," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said in quotes emailed by the university. "The secondary is very, very good. They are one of the tops in the league in tackles for loss. Their defensive coordinator Geoff Collins likes to play football on your side of the line of scrimmage. They’re extremely aggressive."

This is by far the biggest challenge of Hill's young career. If he succeeds, he'll stay in the mix for the Heisman Trophy. One stumble, though, could prevent him from walking in Manziel's footsteps.

 

The X-Factor

When Florida takes the field in Knoxville on Saturday afternoon, it will be a make-or-break game for head coach Will Muschamp. Win it, and he'll still be fighting to save his job all year, but he will have preserved what will be a 10-game winning streak this time next week. Lose it, as I mentioned earlier this week, and Muschamp will be fighting to win his job back for the rest of the season.

A big factor on Saturday will be Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.

The redshirt junior of the Gators currently ranks last in the SEC in yards per attempt (5.5) and passer rating (111.14) among qualifying quarterbacks. Despite his struggles, there's no quarterback change on the horizon for the Gators.

"He takes the heat and understands that comes with the territory," Muschamp said in quotes emailed by Florida. "[He's] about all the right things, and I think again, will continue to move forward this season and he'll make the Gator Nation proud. He's their quarterback."

That doesn't mean he's their only quarterback, though. True freshman Treon Harris has been Florida's primary backup and could see time on the road on Rocky Top in specific situations.

"We go into every game considering some situational things, especially the red zone, to put him in the game," Muschamp said. "If that opportunity presents itself, in the Kentucky game and the Alabama game it never did, we would do that."

Florida should hope that it doesn't all that much.

Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper need the offense to click with Driskel and keep Harris as the change-up quarterback—even in the red zone. If he starts to become a crutch rather than a change-up, it's a sign that Florida's offense isn't clicking the way it should.

Driskel needs to take a step forward this week on the road at Rocky Top. If he doesn't, the Gators—and Muschamp—will be in big trouble.

 

Quick Outs

  • No, Georgia doesn't have a quarterback controversy. Hutson Mason hasn't been great, but getting receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell back will help. Of course, for Mason to really take the next step, it'd help if offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called more passing plays between the hash marks.
  • "Checker Neyland" is a real thing and should be spectacular. Tennessee fans, if your lucky shirt doesn't match the color you're supposed to wear, don't worry about it. After all, it's not like it has brought you a lot of luck over the last half-decade.
  • South Carolina is just over a field goal favorite on the road at Kentucky this week, according to Odds Shark. That's more of a sign that oddsmakers think Kentucky is better than it's getting credit for than a slight to the Gamecocks. I still don't see how Kentucky can hang for a full four quarters, though.
  • If you can't figure out what the most compelling part of Saturday is yet, it's Alabama's offense vs. Ole Miss' defense. If you miss everything else, don't miss that.

 

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

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

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Why Tennessee Running Back Jalen Hurd Is SEC's Best Freshman Offensive Player

Tennessee freshman running back Jalen Hurd's Twitter handle is "@MrHurd_1," appropriate considering the 18-year-old Volunteers star runs like a grown man.

Hurd's production has skyrocketed with each of his four games, more than doubling the production of senior Marlin Lane with his 328 yards on 72 carries thus far.

He also has seven catches for 59 yards and has accounted for three total touchdowns.

After earning his first career start in last week's 35-32 loss at Georgia, the 6'3", 227-pound runner finished with 119 yards on 24 carries.

That's the most yardage for a UT true freshman since Jamal Lewis in the 1997 SEC Championship Game.

In a league full of superstar freshmen, Hurd is emerging as the class of the 2014 class.

Because of all that success, Hurd's aforementioned Twitter account is filling up with praise from some of the biggest names in sports.

Everybody from his idol Eddie George to gold-medal Olympian Carl Lewis have chimed in with positive words.

The kind of feedback Hurd is getting for his play so far is unique, especially for a Vols team that hasn't been in the national spotlight in some time.

Headlines gravitate toward the dynamic freshman. Part of it is his strong start on the field, but he is also lauded for his maturity in front of cameras and handling of the press.

Though it's extremely early in his career, Hurd appears to have a touch of the same mixture of talent and charisma as Vol legends Peyton Manning and Eric Berry did before him. The Hendersonville, Tennessee, native already is treated with similar reverence and love throughout the Vol Nation.

Perhaps that's because a fanbase starved for something positive anointed him a star before he ever stepped onto the field, and all the hype wasn't overblown.

His early success has come in spite of the Vols' offensive line struggles. Not only does Hurd get tough yards between the tackles with defenders all around, UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian finds ways to get him the ball in space so he can have room to roam.

Georgia has some star freshmen such as Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Isaiah McKenzie, but their supporting cast—and especially their offensive line—makes their success possible.

Texas A&M receiver Speedy Noil has made an impact, but it's the same story. Alabama's Cam Robinson is already one of the league's top left tackles. There are countless other impressive freshmen to mention.

But Hurd should get the early nod as making the biggest impact thus far.

No other running back in the league is hamstrung by such a young and inexperienced offensive line, yet Hurd continues to prove himself.

He's putting up better numbers than either of the first-year Georgia runners. Though LSU's Leonard Fournette is beginning to round into form after a tough start, Hurd has put up similar stats against stouter competition.

He has plenty of motivation coming from external entities as well. Perhaps that's why he runs so violently when he gets the football.

On national signing day when he officially signed with Tennessee, a voice from the USC war room said, "Jalen Hurd is so soft and terrible. I don't know why he (unintelligible)," reported Knoxville News Sentinel writer Evan Woodbery.

Anybody who's watched Hurd truck defenders and grind out extra yards after contact knows he's anything but soft.

Hurd has put to rest any concerns about his height so far as well, hitting holes with a vengeance and making himself a small enough target that he protects his lower body. Once he gets in the open field, Hurd's length and speed are to his advantage.

Even while Hurd produces, rivals talk.

Just this week, Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis stirred the pot a little more when he told GatorBait's Thomas Goldkamp that Hurd "can't hang" with the Gators.

Georgia was a big test for him, that's a physical team. But I feel like we have more to offer for him. We're going to come down, we're going to talk to him a little bit with the pads. We're not going to talk with our mouth, we're going to hit him and get back and get lined up. I don't think he can hang with us.

He's a good athlete, but we've got a whole defense coming for him.

Typical Florida smack talk. In one breath, Davis says the players won't talk with their mouth; in the next, he delivers the barb.

Davis later praised Hurd for being "physical" and "fast" but said that he "doesn't have top end speed."

"We have to welcome him to the SEC."

Hurd already stomped all over that welcome mat at Georgia and Oklahoma, which is another reason he is producing the best season by a true freshman in the league.

As the competition gets better, so does he.

The doubters will come, but Hurd takes it in one of those long strides.

Now, the spotlight will be firmly focused on Hurd entering the Florida game, but not just because of Davis' comments.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, the Gators have outrushed Tennessee 181.5 to 52.6 yards per game in their current nine-game winning streak over UT.

The rushing advantage in this series goes even further.

The Vols must get a big game from Hurd. As if the jab from Davis and questions from all of the doubters weren't enough motivation, he wants to atone for his huge freshman miscue last week against the Bulldogs.

With UT backed up in the shadow of its own goal post, Hurd and quarterback Justin Worley fumbled a handoff exchange. Hurd took the blame for the fumble and is now ready to play in the game he's dreamed about since he was a little boy growing up in Middle Tennessee.

Hurd told Brown of the rivalry: "That's something that I was looking forward to all year when I was a kid and just growing up and being a Tennessee fan, and actually now playing in it, it's amazing."

If his progression throughout the first four games is any indication, Hurd won't just play; he'll star.

It's something most Tennessee fans expected when he committed to the Vols, giving UT its first blue-chip running back commit since Bryce Brown.

Now that he's actually on the field, the nation is getting a glimpse of what kind of monster Hurd can be with the ball in his hands. And this is only the beginning.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics gathered from UTSports.com.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Oklahoma vs. TCU Complete Game Preview

You know you’re in for a good one whenever the Oklahoma Sooners and TCU Horned Frogs match up.

This weekend’s tilt should be no different, as one of the top offenses in the Big 12 will go head-to-head with the best defense the conference has to offer. Not to mention four of the last five meetings between the Sooners and Horned Frogs have been decided by seven points or fewer.

With that said, prepare yourselves for another nail-biter.

Here’s everything you need to know.

 

Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium

When: Saturday, October 4, 3:30 p.m. ET

Watch: FOX

Live Stream: Sooner Sports

Listen: Sooner Sports Radio Network

Betting Line: Oklahoma (-5), per Odds Shark

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The Hype: Who Will Rise, Alabama vs. Ole Miss

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Ole Miss Rebels will battle it out in Oxford, Mississippi. With both teams heading into this SEC showdown undefeated, this game will attract everyone's attention. 

Can the Rebels dethrone the Crimson Tide?

Watch the video and let us know!

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USC Defense Has Opportunity to Erase Bitter Taste vs. Arizona State

There was a lot of talk floating around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last Saturday about washing away a bad taste following USC's 35-10 romp over Oregon State. The USC defense was coming off a loss to Boston College during which it allowed the Eagles to rush for 452 yards.

Both defensive lineman Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard described holding the Beavers without an offensive touchdown as a palate-cleanser.

This week at the Coliseum presents the Trojans with a similar opportunity against Arizona State: the reigning Pac-12 South champion and a team that ran up 62 points on the USC defense a season ago.

That mark matched the single-game record for points that any USC defense has surrendered to an opponent. It was set just a season prior in a loss to Oregon.

The Arizona State loss set the wheels in motion for the arrival of current Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was then at Washington. USC athletic director Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin just hours later and Sarkisian accepted the vacancy a little more than two months after that.

Sarkisian was adamant this week about USC not getting caught up in what happened a season ago.

"I wasn't here for all of that late. I know it was a relatively emotional sequencing of events," Sarkisian said on his conference call Sunday. "I'm sure there's a little bit of that in there, that they want to go out and redeem themselves to a degree. But that won't be a focus. We're going to be focused on fixing ourselves."

Fortunately for this year's Trojans, they have their turnaround after the Arizona State loss as a frame of reference for remedying the problems that hindered them in last year's contest.

USC rallied from the defeat to go 7-2 over its next nine games, and it lost just once more in the conference.

If the Boston College loss was comparable to last year's Arizona State game for USC, the Oregon State win is more akin to the Trojans' 2013 finish.

The Trojans held Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion to 15-of-32 passing for just 123 yards last week.

"The numbers don't say we had a bunch of sacks or those things, but we were aggressive up front," Sarkisian said on the Pac-12 conference call Tuesday.

USC's lone sack came from Williams, who brought down Mannion with a little extra oomph.

"It feels good to make a play, but even better after a loss," Williams said.

Applying similar pressure on Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici is crucial. Bercovici made his first career start last week at UCLA and slung the ball around Sun Devil Stadium at a Mannion-like rate.

Bercovici finished with 488 yards and three touchdowns in the Sun Devils' 62-27 loss. He's set to once again start behind center with Taylor Kelly out due to a foot injury sustained in Week 3 at Colorado.

Kelly's absence means a much different look from the Arizona State offense than what USC saw a season ago. Dual-threat QB Kelly burned the Trojans for 79 yards on just four carries, much in the same way Boston College's Tyler Murphy went for 191 yards against USC three weeks ago.

Bercovici won't tuck and run in quite the same fashion, but he will test USC's streak without allowing a passing touchdown.

He has a number of talented options to target, starting with wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Strong has 412 yards and two touchdowns on the season and went for 103 yards last year against USC.

"It's one of those games when me, Kevon [Seymour] and Adoree' [Jackson] have to step up," cornerback Chris Hawkins said. "Jaelen Strong is one of the best receivers in the country. He's big, physical, he's got decent speed but his hands are awesome. If he touches the ball, he's going to catch it.

"It's one of those games where we have to be prepared to knock balls down before they get to receivers' hands," Hawkins added.

Hawkins did so against Boston College with his first career interception. Jackson batted away a Mannion throw into the end zone last week, which safety Leon McQuay III came in to intercept.

Takeaways should continue to play an integral role for the USC defense this week—they certainly did for Arizona State in its loss last week, as UCLA used two interceptions by Bercovici to swing momentum.

There should be no shortage of opportunities for USC's defensive backs to make those plays if Bercovici's 68 pass attempts a week ago are any indication.

Although Arizona State figures to play a different style this week than it did against USC last year, Bercovici playfully projected a similar result for the USC defense, via AZCentral.com:

Should the Trojans have their way, the bad taste that lingered for them previously will be Bercovici's and the rest of the Sun Devils' to experience.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

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College Football Picks: Week 6 Predictions for Every Game

If the college football season is a full-course meal, consider the first five weeks to have been made up of appetizers and salad. That's because Week 6's slate has all the ingredients you'd find in the main dish.

All but one team currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 is playing this weekend—enjoy the rest, Missouri—and six pairs of ranked teams are squaring off, five in key conference matchups. Of the 57 games set for Week 6, 49 of them are in conference play.

Four games pit unbeaten schools against each other, and we even have a battle of winless teams trying to get on the board. The weekend has pretty much everything, including a clash of service academies.

Check out our predictions for every Week 6 game, as well as our experts' picks for the weekend's top clashes, and then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

Last week: 40-14 (.741)

Season record: 261-66 (.798)

Begin Slideshow

Winners, Losers from College Football Recruiting Trail for Month of September

Each month of the football season pushes programs one step closer to national signing day. Just four months separate teams from a pivotal February morning that will ultimately determine on-field fortunes for seasons to come.

September provided plenty of highs and lows for coaching staffs across the country. As we turn the page to October, it's an appropriate time to look back on those who shined and struggled on the recruiting trail over the past month.

Begin Slideshow

2014 Season Proving Fans Shouldn't Overreact to a QB's Spring Game Performance

Spring practice is a time for college football teams to develop young players and reshape their leadership hierarchies. When it's over, a live public scrimmage is often played, not unlike the talent show at the end of summer camp. The final score and stats have almost no bearing on the regular season.

Again: The final score and stats have almost no bearing on the regular season.

The first five weeks of the current regular season have been a lucid reminder of this—a reminder we probably shouldn't need at this point but do. They have chewed up and spat out our assertions from late April, especially when it comes to quarterbacks.

Consider, for example, this broad-stroke list of narratives that were gaining steam after the 2014 spring games:

  1. Blake Sims is not good enough to start at Alabama.
  2. Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl performance was a fluke for Oklahoma.
  3. Malik Zaire should start over Everett Golson at Notre Dame.
  4. Hutson Mason can be just as good as Aaron Murray at Georgia.
  5. Cole Stoudt is the right man to lead Clemson's offense. 

Then consider all that's happened since:

*benched for a true freshman in Week 4

It feels dirty reading some of this in hindsight.

Why should it matter that Sims completed 13 of 30 passes with two interceptions in a scrimmage? It's a scrimmage! The only thing that separates A-Day from a blissfully anonymous afternoon of practice is the 73,000 butts in the stadium.

How one performs in front of fans should matter a little bit, but a one-day sample is still just a one-day sample. (Just go ask the NFL scouts who passed on Teddy Bridgewater because of his pro day.) The spring game matters more than any other day of spring camp but not so much that it erases the previous weeks.

The coaches, of course, tried to remind us of this. They begged us to look at the forest instead of the tree.

"Everybody needs to understand that in games like today we really limit what we do on offense, we really limit what we do on defense, and we really don't try to feature players," said Nick Saban after A-Day, per The Associated Press. "That may be a little bit of a disadvantage to our players. 

"Blake Sims did some things at quarterback that we really don't feature."

Some things that we don't really feature.

The spring game is like a science lab or a nuclear testing ground. It's a venue for experimentation, not execution. Especially at Alabama (and Notre Dame), where a new offensive coordinator was being broken in, we should have known better than to overreact.

We should have known that it was trial with error.

But we didn't. Of course we didn't. We read the box score, saw 13-of-30 passing, knew Jake Coker was transferring from Florida State—then anointed him the next Alabama quarterback.

On the flip side, we read the Georgia box score, saw Mason completed two-thirds of his passes for 241 yards, knew what kind of weapons he was surrounded by—then anointed him a capable starter.

Never mind that he's a fifth-year senior who's been working with the same offensive coordinator for half a decade. Never mind that Georgia's defense was stocked with underclassmen and converted offensive players and coached by a first-year coordinator. Never mind that Mason was decidedly average at the end of 2013.

The Bulldogs will be fine without the SEC's all-time leading passer!

Wanna know the craziest part about the list above?

It omits the most erroneous-in-hindsight narrative of the entire spring—i.e., that Kenny Hill's arrest/suspension for public intoxication meant a true freshman, Kyle Allen, would start at Texas A&M. The Aggies didn't have a public spring game, but we didn't need one.

Our decision had already been made.

Flash-forward to the start of October. Hill is the No. 2 favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, per the numbers at Odds Shark. Golson is ranked No. 3 right behind him, and Knight is in the top 15. If Sims plays well at Ole Miss in Week 6, he's a safe bet to join them.

All four of those players were trending downward during spring camp. Mason and Stoudt were trending up. The stories based around them and the hopes pinned upon them were based on the results of a glorified scrimmage. Based on numbers that amount to gobbledygook.

We all know this is true…except we don't. Or at least we don't remember to know it. We are blinded by three months of withdrawal, jonesing hard for a fix of football with meaningFor a box score that actually matters. And so, each spring, we are lured into the same recurrent fallacy, making assertions that will never come true based on games that aren't even really games.

And we'll do it all again in six months.

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