NCAA Football News

Former LSU Star Jacob Hester Talks Les Miles, New TV Role and Life After the NFL

Former LSU running back Jacob Hester has a reputation for breaking down defenses.

Hester was the Tigers' leading rusher on the 2008 BCS National Championship team. When given a clean hole to run through, he would bulldoze linebackers and safeties to earn the tough yards for his team.

Hester rushed for over 1,000 yards and earned second-team All-SEC honors for his efforts. His most memorable moment of his career came against Florida when he converted two fourth downs and scored the game-winning touchdown on the Tigers' final drive.

The San Diego Chargers drafted Hester in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft. He served as a jack of all trades for the Chargers, playing multiple roles on offense and special teams. He was released in 2012 but was signed in late November by the Denver Broncos and served as a versatile piece in an injury-ridden backfield. 

After six successful seasons in the NFL, Hester has finally returned home to Louisiana. This time, though, he will be breaking down defenses off the field.  

Hester will serve as an analyst for Cox Sports Television's LSU Gameday Live, a college football preview show similar to ESPN's College Gameday. The show will air every Saturday that LSU plays, home and away, with the inaugural episode airing on Aug. 30, live from NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. 

Hester currently resides in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, with his wife, Katie, and three boys. Bleacher Report caught up with the former Tigers captain to discuss his illustrious career, this year's LSU team, the future of college athletics and more.

 

Bleacher Report: What will you be doing this year on television?

Jacob Hester: I'm doing a new gig this year for Cox Sports Television, and we are doing a pregame show. Me, (former LSU center) Kevin Mawae and (LSU sideline reporter) Gordy Rush. We will be on location, home and away. It will be live, every game day, from 11 until noon (CT). I am excited about that. Playing in the NFL, I was only able to go to one game a year with the bye week. The chance to get to go to away games is even more exciting for me because I never got to do that while in the NFL. It's going to be different getting on the media side of things, but I am excited.

 

B/R: Is your NFL career officially over?

Hester: Yeah, I think so. I had a chance to go to camp this year, but I politely declined. I had this gig at LSU (with CST), I have three boys and my wife here in Shreveport. Didn't want to do the whole year contract, moving across the country here and there. Tough as it was, I think getting into TV is kind of the route I always wanted to go after football. And with this opportunity, I didn't want to turn it down for a maybe chance at the NFL. I was lucky to play six years, got my retirement invested. So I'm blessed beyond belief, and now I am a transitioning into a new career.

 

B/R: What was it like playing with Peyton Manning?

Hester: The most unbelievable experience you can have. People use the cliche that he "is like a coach on the field," but that doesn't even begin to describe what Peyton was. He made everybody around him better. We had a very good offensive coordinator in Adam Gase, and he has a great offense. Peyton would be able to get you in the best possible play. The play call is obviously before the defense sets up. Once they are set up, you have to adjust to it. Peyton is the best I have ever seen at adjusting and getting the right play called from what the original play was.

 

B/R: Do you fear about your future health after playing football for so long?

Hester: It's tough. The game is such a violent game, especially the position I played, playing fullback and running back. There is a lot of head injuries, and I don't know what you can do to prevent it. It's just the nature of the game, and there is definitely a scare. It's not only concussions, you have guys that didn't even know they had concussions that are having memory loss and different head injuries. The scariest part about it is it doesn't necessarily hit you right away. It can be years later when you are having symptoms.

 

B/R: You were only a 2-star recruit, per Rivals, coming out of high school. How were you so successful?

Hester: You know, I think it was the first year they did the star rating stuff. And obviously going to a school like LSU, we have 5-star and 4-star guys. Not many of us, I actually might have been the only 2-star guy. But that motivated me. I knew people like that didn't expect a lot from me going to LSU. When I got there, it was my goal to be the first freshman to play in the class. That was all I focused on all summer, and I was fortunate enough to be the first freshman of the '04 class to start a game. My whole career kind of went like that. They told me I was going to play fullback, but got a chance to play running back for LSU. I kind of thrived off always being a 2-star recruit and always being a guy that was not supposed to do a whole lot at LSU.

 

B/R: What do you think of the college recruiting rankings?

Hester: To be honest, I just don't know how you can do it. I don't know how you can rate a kid playing against certain talent opposed to a kid playing against other talent. In Louisiana, I am biased, but I think we are in the top three in high school football in the country. Texas, Florida and Louisiana, in my opinion, are the top three states. So, you see, a kid from Louisiana who is dominating is a little bit different if a kid in Maine, or somewhere else, is dominating...As soon as you get on campus, coaches forget all about that (rankings). I think Coach Miles is one of the best in the country, he doesn't care really how many stars you have once you get there. I think rankings are a little overrated. I understand why they do it. It creates excitement, but it also creates some pressure for some kids too.

 

B/R: What does the No. 18 jersey mean to you?

Hester: It means the world to me. It really does. Not only for the guys continuing to wear it, but for my family. My boys being able to go into a store and seeing a No. 18 jersey. To tell my boys kind of what it means to be a Tiger on and off the field. What kind of person it really takes to wear it. It is special each and every time. I'm sure by the time they are 21, they will be tired of me telling them. As of yet, it hasn't gotten old yet.

 

B/R: Terrence Magee will wear No. 18 in 2014. What do you think of Magee carrying on the tradition?

Hester: I think he (Magee) is the perfect fit for it. He was a guy that got to LSU and kind of waited his time. He didn't get a whole lot of playing time his first couple of years at LSU. And if Jeremy Hill didn't get suspended last year, he might not have gotten that playing time, to be honest with you. He made the most of the time he got, he broke onto the scene. Talking to Coach Miles, he did everything the right way. He handled himself as well as you could. I'm glad No. 18 is coming back to the offensive side of the ball and a guy like Magee.

 

B/R: What do you think of Leonard Fournette?

Hester: He is really mature, not only in football, but off the field as well. Sitting there talking with him, he looks like he is 35 years old already with the beard and the way he is built. He is going to be a special player at LSU. When you do talk about recruits, he played against the top competition in Louisiana and dominated each and every year. He will be a special player from game one on August 30 against Wisconsin.

 

B/R: How do you see the running back position playing out?

Hester: LSU is never going to have a true starting running back. As far back as when I was there, in '04, '05, '06, we always had a 1a, 1b and 1c. It was never going to be one guy that gets 30 carries. It was one guy get 15, the next guy gets 10, the other guy gets five. That's how it is going to be. I think you will see (Kenny) Hilliard, Magee and Fournette all get a lot of carries.

 

B/R: Who was the best running back that played under Miles at LSU?

Hester: You're talking about some really great football players. Stevan Ridley, Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, but the guy I would point to is Joseph Addai. When I got to LSU, I (had) never seen a football player as complete as him. Pass blocking, catching, running. He was the guy that I looked to that I tried to be like the most.

 

B/R: Does it mean anything to you that you have the longest run of the Miles era, an 87-yard touchdown against Louisiana Tech? 

Hester: Ha! Yeah, a little bit. Just because I was kind of known for four yards here, five yards there, 4th-and-1s, so it was kind of special against an in-state opponent like Tech scoring on a long run in Tiger Stadium. Playing the way that I did, I did not get many chances to get to open up like that. So once I got the chance to do that, nobody is going to catch me. I think that was the fastest I have ever ran. 

 

B/R: Who was the best running back you have ever played against?

Hester: I think it was a no-brainer when I was in school. It was Darren McFadden. I could never beat him out for All-SEC. He deserved every bit of that. He was a man amongst boys.

 

B/R: Do you think you could have run the Wildcat like McFadden did?

Hester: Ha! I think that whole deal was so special. And a lot of people tried to do it like they did it, and he had a special talent for it. Maybe Ronnie Brown with the Dolphins, but I had never (seen) anybody run the way he did it.

 

B/R: What made the 2007 LSU national championship team special?

Hester:  I think we had a great group of seniors. We had a lot of leaders. We did not have many guys leave early. We made an effort to all stay through our senior years. You look at Matt Flynn, who waited his turn. He could have played for anybody in the country, but he happened to be behind JaMarcus (Russell), the No. 1 pick in the draft. He (Flynn) stayed with it, got to lead us to the national championship. You look at guys like Glenn Dorsey. He could have left early, but he came back, played his senior year and really had a special year.

 

B/R: How difficult was it to convince everyone to come back?

Hester: It's tough. You can't fault the guys that do leave. If you have a chance to be a first-day pick, how can you tell those guys not to do it? It is such a special moment. But I think we, as a group, talked about how special of a team we could have if we all came back. I think those guys unselfishly put getting money that year away and came back and had a team effort. Early Doucet and Glenn Dorsey could have left early and got drafted pretty high, but they came back and were key members of our team.

 

B/R: How good were you on the wheel route?

Hester: Ha! It is definitely a route we ran a lot of, especially when Jimbo Fisher was there. The most memorable one hurts. We were playing Arkansas in '07, as we hit one for about 65 yards and got called back because one of our receivers was not on the line of scrimmage. We ended up losing that game in triple overtime.

 

B/R: What do you remember the most about that loss against Arkansas? What did it say about your football team's resiliency to come back and win two championships in two games after that loss? 

Hester: We thought we were done. We were still lucky enough to go to the national championship. We had to have four or five things go our way, which, at the time, we thought there was no way in the world that any of that would happen. We had to beat a good Tennessee football team in the SEC championship. (Arkansas) had a pretty memorable running attack with Felix Jones, McFadden and Peyton Hillis. They were a good football team that beat us on that day. Credit to the kind of guys that we had. It didn't matter. We went out and beat Tennessee, and those four or five things happened on our flight to Baton Rouge from Atlanta.

 

B/R: What was your favorite memory of playing with Les Miles?

Hester: That he trusted us. A lot of coaches wouldn't have done what he did when making the fourth-down calls and giving us the faith that he gave us. He really truly believed in each and every one of us in almost every situation. And that's hard to do.

 

B/R: LSU's victory over Florida in 2007 required five fourth-down conversions, two of which you earned on the final drive. The second one, at first glance, looked short. Did you feel like you made both of them? 

Hester: I honestly felt like I got every one of them. The one you are talking about, I know at first glance it didn't look like we got it. Luckily enough, I got some forward lean and we barely got it. Gosh they were all close, and obviously it was a situation where they knew we were running the ball and we knew we were running the ball. Our offensive line and tight ends had a heck of a game that game and we were very fortunate to convert all those fourth downs because the percentages are not with you. It was a pretty special night on a pretty special year.

 

B/R: What does it feel like to run somebody over?

Hester: That mentality was something my dad instilled in me at a very young age. My dad was in the Marines and law enforcement for 30 years. He was a tough-nosed kind of guy, and he always told me, "You run over a guy, you will get two extra yards every time. And if you have 20 carries, you have 40 extra yards that will help your team win a football game." That just always stuck with me. Always lean forward. Always fall forward. Or else you get pushed back.

 

B/R: Should college football players be compensated?

Hester: I go back and forth on it. You look at it in some ways. My jersey is in the book store, what an honor, what a privilege to say that is the jersey that they carry. You see people around campus wearing it. And, then, you step back and look at it. You are like, "Well, there are people making a lot of money on those jersey sales, and the person that is on it is not getting any money for it. And they might be struggling through college." It is a very slippery slope. Obviously a team like LSU, in the Southeastern Conference, they make a lot of money and the kids are the reason they make it. I don't know how you would do it, or what format you would do it. I don't know how you make it fair for every other sport.

 

B/R: How do you view the SEC West?

Hester: It is going to be a little bit different this year. Texas A&M loses their quarterback, LSU losing a quarterback, Alabama losing a quarterback. It is going to be a little bit of a different look. Mississippi State seems to be the "it pick" to be the dark horse, and Ole Miss is going to be good again. And Auburn, coming off a national championship game, there is not really a weak team in the SEC West this year.

 

B/R: Overall thoughts on LSU in 2014?

Hester: This year's LSU team is going to be a special group. They are kind of flying under the radar, which is always good, in my opinion. They have a special freshman class, which is going to be key. When you go visit LSU and are around those guys, you hear the trainers, the strength staff say there is not a bad guy in the class. Just being around them the couple of days I have been around them, I can feel something a little different about them. They are more mature above their years, and they are going to be expected to play and contribute. A lot of LSU's season kind of rides on those guys.

 

Stats, rankings and additional information provided by cfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Jacob Hester on Twitter @JacobHester22 and me @CarterthePower  

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Ohio State Football: 3 Stars Who Will Break out in 2014

Urban Meyer has secured three consecutive top-five recruiting classes, giving the Ohio State football team one of the most loaded rosters in all of college football.

With the Buckeyes replacing 10 starters from last year's 12-2 squad, there are bound to be a few breakout stars.

Last year, defensive end Joey Bosa and right tackle Taylor Decker emerged as pleasant surprises for Meyer and Ohio State. Bosa earned a starting spot midway through the year and earned first-team freshman All-American honors, while Decker surged down the stretch of the season.

Who will be the breakout stars for Ohio State in 2014?

 

Dontre Wilson

Ohio State is replacing its leading passer (Braxton Miller), rusher (Carlos Hyde) and receiver (Corey Brown) in 2014, so there's a big need for playmakers on offense.

Dontre Wilson is primed to fill that role.

Speed has never been an issue for Wilson, who enrolled at Ohio State last fall and instantly became one of the fastest players on the team. As a dangerous all-purpose back coming out of high school, Buckeyes fans envisioned Wilson making a Percy Harvin-like impact in 2013.

That never materialized.

With Hyde and Miller forming one of the most devastating and effective one-two punches in college football, Wilson was used primarily as a decoy in Ohio State's offense. He still managed to pile up 460 total yards and three touchdowns, but those results fell short of his preseason expectations.

The Buckeyes should get much more from him this year. Wilson was named the starting H-back in March, and he's expecting big things for his sophomore season.

"I just wanted to come in and play, but last year didn't turn out the way I wanted to," Wilson said, according to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer. "But now I am starting at the H position, which is the most prolific position on offense and I am getting a lot more touches. It feels way better."

 

Joshua Perry

Linebacker has been a consistent weakness for Ohio State since 2012—a deficiency that Meyer identified during the home stretch of the Buckeyes' 2013 campaign.

"The linebacker position is still my biggest concern on our team," Meyer said last November, according to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors. "The depth is a major concern."

Depth is no longer an issue after Meyer secured four blue-chip linebackers in his 2014 recruiting class, headlined by 5-star Raekwon McMillan. But replacing first-team All American Ryan Shazier, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a tall order.

That's where Joshua Perry comes in. 

Perry started alongside Shazier last year, recording 64 total tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, according to Ohio State's official website. He was shifted to Shazier's vacated spot this spring, and if the Buckeyes want better results from their linebackers, Perry will need to have a big year.

"There are a couple of areas where guys have got to step up," Meyer said, according to Rusty Miller of the AP. "Josh Perry has to step up and play big."

Perry is taking that challenge seriously.

Evidence of that came when a picture of Perry's growth over the years made the rounds last month. 

Perry certainly has the look of an All-Big Ten linebacker, and he'll showcase that this season.

 

Ezekiel Elliott

Running back Ezekiel Elliott has the best chance for a breakout season this year.

That wasn't the case just two weeks ago, when Miller was expected to lead an offense that primarily used bubble screens and quick passes to attack the perimeter. On top of that, a fractured wrist in the opening week of fall camp (which required minor surgery) nearly derailed Elliott's season before it started.

The rising sophomore bounced back quickly, though, and is already back at full capacity after two weeks of rehab. And with redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett now at quarterback, the Buckeyes could rely more on the steady production of the running back position.

That could mean big things for Elliott, who rushed for 262 yards on 30 carries a season ago. He showcased the strength to run between the tackles and the speed to run away from the secondary—traits that made Hyde such an effective running back in Meyer's spread offense.

"I can take it outside, run tight zone, power and catch the ball out of the backfield," Elliott said, according to ESPN's Brian Bennett. "So think [sic] it helps a lot that I'm versatile." 

The Buckeyes should utilize that versatility to help ease the loss of Miller.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Heisman Trophy Betting: Early Odds Favor Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota

After becoming the youngest player ever to claim the Heisman Trophy last season, Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston kicks off the 2014 season as a 9-2 favorite to repeat.

It was a dream season for Winston, who led the Seminoles to the national championship, earning MVP honors for his performance in the game. The 20-year-old threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2013, and is a 2-3 bet to lead the ACC in passing touchdowns this year.

Oregon Ducks QB Marcus Mariota remains neck-and-neck with Winston in Heisman Trophy betting, with odds of 5-1. Since Mariota took over the starting job in 2012, the Ducks have posted an outstanding 23-3 record and enter the new season closely trailing the Seminoles in college football futures betting with odds of 15-2 to emerge as this year’s national champions.

UCLA Bruins QB Brett Hundley rounds out the top-three favorites in Heisman Trophy wagering with odds of 10-1. The 21-year-old had been touted as the top QB prospect prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, but opted to return to UCLA this season for his junior year.

Named the MVP of the 2013 Sun Bowl, Hundley threw for 2845 yards and 22 TDs last season, while rushing for an additional 587 yards and nine TDs. The Bruins are favored by 21 points at Virginia Saturday.

Three players trail the leaders with odds of 12-1 to win this season’s Heisman Trophy, including Baylor Bears QB Bryce Petty, Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon and Auburn Tigers QB Nick Marshall.

Petty was named last season’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after leading Baylor to a record 11 victories and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Baylor opens this weekend as huge favorites against SMU, a team they have handled four times since 1995, and he could get a head start on the Heisman race.

Gordon ran for 1609 yards and 12 TDs in 2013, and is a 10/13 college football props betting favorite to amass over 1554.5 total rushing yards in 2014.

Marshall, who led the Tigers to victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in last season’s Iron Bowl, threw for 1976 yards and 14 TDs in 2013, to go along with an eye-popping 1068 rushing yards and 12 TDs. With Marshall again at the helm, the betting line on Auburn’s regular-season win total is set at 9, with the OVER favored with moneyline odds of 20-27.

Stats and odds courtesy of Odds Shark.

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On the Lines: NCAA Football Week 1 Preview

New Year’s Eve. The last Monday in May. July 4. And, of course, August 27.

Those are all dates that we, as red-blooded Americans, look forward to celebrating. The last one, of course, signifies the return of college football!

And who isn’t stoked about flipping on a memorable matchup between the juggernauts that are Abilene Christian and Georgia State?

No? Well, how about the return of yours truly writing about the gridiron once more? This time, I’m going back to school—and putting it all on the line (the betting line, that is).

So, without further ado, let’s crash a rush party, do a keg stand, steal a rival’s mascot (it’s been awhile, but I’m pretty sure that’s how I recall college worked) and check out the top betting plays for the inaugural week.

Begin Slideshow

Miami Football: Everything You Need to Know About Canes' New QB Brad Kaaya

In a somewhat surprising move, Miami Hurricanes head coach Al Golden named true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya the starter for the 2014 season-opener at Louisville.

Kaaya had been locked in a battle with transfer Jake Heaps, whose collegiate road has included stops at BYU and Kansas before veering toward South Florida. Heaps was long considered the unspoken favorite after 25 total starts in 33 combined appearances at his first two destinations.

But Kaaya stepped up throughout August and outplayed three competitors, emerging as only the second opening-game true freshman starter for the 'Canes since the Howard Schnellenberger era began.

Who exactly is Kaaya, and how did he wind up at a school approximately 2,700 miles away from his home?

A 6'4", 215-pound gunslinger from West Hills, CA, Kaaya was rated the seventh-best pro-style quarterback and No. 141 overall prospect by the 247Sports composite rankings. Miami offensive coordinator James Coley handpicked Kaaya and was the first to offer the 4-star recruit a scholarship.

Kaaya led Chaminade to a state championship in 2013, completing 62.2 percent of his attempts for 3,853 yards and 27 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

He was a finalist in the Elite 11 and appeared in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. After his recruitment built significant momentum as signing day approached, Kaaya stuck with Miami over UCLA, USC and Boise State.

His mother, Angela Means, played "Felicia" in the movie Friday, which starred Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, among others.

Kaaya's ascent to the starting position is rather impressive considering he was not an early enrollee but rather a mid-May arrival. Ryan Williams' unfortunate injury in the spring and Kevin Olsen's poor overall performance presented an opportunity to the freshman, and he never looked back.

Beyond his physical attributes, Kaaya impressed fellow Hurricanes with his mental makeup, none more impressive than top NFL prospect Denzel Perryman.

Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald writes Golden was satisfied with Kaaya's off-field work translating to fall camp:

The biggest thing was we saw how much he was devoted to it, how many sacrifices he made, how well he learned and how it translated to the field. A guy can be good in the film room or be good out of the book and then it doesn't translate. But it has translated here. We've put him in very tough situations.

A young player looking to establish himself may be tempted to become an All-American on his first career possession, but Kaaya doesn't have to be the guy. Safeguarded by Duke Johnson and Stacy Coley, the first-year starter will get plenty of help from his offensive weapons.

Johnson—the unquestioned current star of the program—knows he carries the burden, no matter who is handing him the ball.

"He's ready. He's shown them enough to get the nod, but at the end of the day, like I've said before, my role doesn't change," Johnson said of Kaaya, per Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "I'm the same guy and I'll have the pressure on me, whoever's the quarterback."

Coley, a sophomore receiver, said the offense is preparing to simplify the game for Kaaya, as noted by David Lake of 247Sports (subscription required).

"We don't look at it as pressure, but we want to perform well for him in order to make it easy for him," Coley said. "We are going to surround him with guys who can make plays."

"If you can play, you can play," Johnson said, speaking from a position of experience, via Chirinos. Two seasons ago, Johnson nearly broke the program record for single-season all-purpose yards. "Freshman is just a title. You're a freshman in school. That's your class, but that doesn't define the way you play. It doesn't define how you play."

Clearly, the first-year starter has the full support of his teammates and coaches heading into the 2014 regular season. Now, it's a matter of Kaaya growing into the role he earned.

"He's not a freshman anymore," Coley emphatically stated, per Chirinos. "He's the starting quarterback at the University of Miami."

 

Recruit information courtesy of 247SportsAll quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Georgia vs. Clemson: An Endangered College Football Rivalry

The best college football rivalries are defined by tenure and consistency.

Alabama and Auburn’s “Iron Bowl” has been played 78 times and every single year since 1948. Georgia and Auburn have squared off even more often, 117 total games, in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” Army and Navy have battled for the Thompson Cup in each of the past 84 seasons and 114 times since 1890. Michigan and Ohio State have played “The Game” on 110 different occasions.

“Fleeting” and “endangered” are not the types of adjectives that describe rivalries in college football. But those words accurately depict what was once—and what still should be—one of the greatest rivalries in the tradition-rich sport.

Those words portray the grim fate of Georgia versus Clemson.

 

What Once Was

“In the 1980s, Clemson vs. Georgia was the pseudo-national championship,” says Kevin Butler, one of the series' all-time greats and the only kicker to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Butler has the credentials to back that bold claim up, given his participation in four classic games against Clemson from 1981-1984.

In 1980, the year before Butler's enrollment at the University of Georgia, the Bulldogs won their first (and to date, most recent) national championship since 1942, but only after squeaking by Clemson 20-16 in a September game that proved the be their closest of the season. A year later, Clemson vaulted to 12-0 en route to a national championship of its own, beating Georgia along the way.

In 1982, Georgia survived against Clemson in the season opener and went on to play (and lose to) Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for a national championship. The Bulldog victory was Clemson’s lone defeat of the season.

In 1983, the two programs tied 16-16. Georgia finished the season 10-1-1 and Clemson closed out the year 9-1-1.

Georgia vs. Clemson was the Alabama vs. Auburn of the early 1980s. The rivalry did more than simply represent college football; it defined college football.

Of course, it helped that the annual matchup logically appealed to the geographic epicenter of college football—the South. And the bitterness of contention was exacerbated to a staggering extent by the similarities between the two programs.

The two universities—a mere 70 miles apart—had similar student bodies, comparable surrounding college town atmospheres and long-standing gridiron traditions dating back to the 19th century.

Most importantly, however, Clemson and Georgia were brought together by competition.

“We played against each other and we recruited against each other and we dreamed of bad things happening to each other,” Butler recalls of his former foe from the Palmetto State. “Beating Clemson meant everything.”

That context gives even more credence to a battle nearly 30 years ago that is largely considered the greatest game in the rivalry's history.

 

The Rivalry at Its Finest

T. Kyle King wrote the book on the storied past of Georgia and Clemson—literally. A lifelong Bulldog loyalist and college football historian, King dedicated nearly 200 pages to the rivalry in Fighting Like Cats and Dogs, which was published (in truly equitable fashion) by Clemson University Digital Press. And while King can wax poetic about traditions galore and recount games with a seemingly photographic memory, he’s surprisingly curt when identifying the best game between these two teams.

When asked which game between the Bulldogs and Tigers he'd like to go back and take his children to, he's surprisingly short-winded. “1984. Yeah. Absolutely. No doubt about it.”

King is not alone in this assessment. A 2004 poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s official athletic website revealed that fans selected the 1984 bout between the Dawgs and the Tigers as the best game ever played in Sanford Stadium, per CBS Sports.

On that particular day, Clemson came to Athens as the No. 2 team in the country. The Tigers raced out to a 20-6 lead before the Bulldogs methodically manufactured one of the program’s greatest second-half comebacks. A 60-yard field goal by Butler with 11 seconds left to play gave Georgia the upset win.

Famed sportswriter and Southern icon Lewis Grizzard was so moved by the game that he used his syndicated Atlanta Journal-Constitution column to pen a letter to the son he never had and recounted Butler’s strong-footed feat:

Only seconds were left when Georgia’s kicker, Kevin Butler, stood poised in concentration. The ball rushed toward him, and it was placed upon the tee a heartbeat before his right foot launched it heavenward.

A lifetime later, the officials threw their arms aloft. From 60 yards away, Kevin Butler had been true, and Georgia led and would win 26-23.

I hugged perfect strangers and kissed a fat lady on the mouth. Grown men wept. Lightening flashed. Thunder rolled. Stars fell, and joy swept through, fetched by a hurricane of unleashed emotions.

Grizzard concluded the letter saying, “I give this to you, son. Read it and re-read it, and keep it next to your heart. And when people want to know how you wound up with the name ‘Kevin’ let them read it, and then they will know.”

Though written with some degree of his signature jest, Grizzard’s letter was a far cry from a misrepresentation of fan sentiment.

King recalls the game so vividly that with no prodding he dives into what he calls Georgia broadcast legend Larry Munson's most famous play call from Between the Hedges. "So we'll try and kick one 100,000 miles," he begins with a feigned drawling snarl before cutting himself off.

The intense rivalry between these two teams made that game-winning moment poignant for the game’s star as well.

Without hesitation, Butler (who also won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears) calls the 60-yard game winner the highlight of his career. “And the fact that it came against Clemson separated it from any other kick I ever had,” he adds.

 

Fading Fast

The come-from-behind Georgia win in 1984 was followed by three more classics. In 1985, Georgia won by seven points on the road. Clemson went on two win the next two contests by a combined four points.

But then a number of factors, not the least of which was speculation surrounding conference expansion for both the ACC and the SEC, contributed to the non-renewal of the yearly rivalry. And since 1987, the two once-bitter rivals have played just three home-and-home series, with this year's season opener marking the conclusion of a fourth.

After a two-season hiatus, the Bulldogs and Tigers met in 1990 and 1991. Following two more off years, they squared off again in 1994 and 1995. After that, six seasons passed without a Clemson-Georgia matchup. Consecutive games in 2002 and 2003 gave way to nine vacant years for the rivalry.

The frequency of these rivalry games is becoming increasingly rare. Georgia vs. Clemson is a casualty of conference expansion and the scheduling challenges power-conference growth has yielded. 

In 1991, the ACC added Florida State to its fold and in doing so increased from eight to nine teams. Simultaneously, the SEC expanded for the first time since its founding in 1932 by adding South Carolina and Arkansas.  

More conference foes meant two things for both Georgia and Clemson:

  1. Less flexibility in scheduling.
  2. Less need for strong out-of-conference competition.

Combine those two modifications with pre-existing in-state but out-of-conference rivalries for both schools and the need for the rivalry—at least from the perspective of resume building—diminished. Clemson maintained a rivalry with South Carolina. Georgia continued an ongoing feud with Georgia Tech. Nothing else was needed.

The most recent waves of conference expansion have further threatened this rivalry—intermittent as it may now be. Both the ACC and the SEC are now home to fourteen teams. Both conferences hold an annual conference championship game. Each league is under pressure to feature a nine-game (instead of eight) conference schedule.

The push for an extra in-conference game isn't alway a popular one for coaches and university administrators, but as SEC commissioner Mike Slive told Ryan Black of the Ledger-Enquirer this spring, there are pros and cons to each side of the argument:

We tell them that all of the formats — every one of them — has a series of advantages and disadvantages. There's no one that lines up with all advantages and there's no one that lines up with all disadvantages. So people are going to have to make a decision knowing that whatever decision they make is going to have some advantages and some disadvantages.

Undoubtedly one disadvantage of a nine-game conference slate is the all-but-guaranteed evaporation of rivalries like Clemson vs. Georgia. While the current college football playoff format is too new to thoroughly analyze, it hasn't added much room for error by offering just four spots for national championship contenders. Furthermore, with selection for the playoff increasingly subjective and decreasingly stat-driven, there's no immediately pressing need for added strength of schedule.

 

Salvaging History 

Georgia's 1990 battle with Clemson was different, King asserts in Fighting Like Cats and Dogs. The difference wasn't changed uniforms, the absence of Munson in the radio booth as he recovered from back surgery or even the unfamiliarity that comes from two years of not playing each other.

No, the most noteworthy alteration was that, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, a Clemson-Georgia game was being played with someone other than Vince Dooley standing on the Bulldog sideline and, for the first time in a dozen years, a Clemson-Georgia game was taking place with the Orange and Purple being coached by anyone besides Danny Ford.

The two head coaches defined the series in the 1980s.  

In present day, King thinks two different characters, the schools' athletic directors, could affect the renewal of the rivalry.  

Dan Radakovich, the athletic director at Clemson University, knows all about the value of competition with the University of Georgia. While serving as the senior associate athletic director at LSU from 2001 to 2006, his Tigers split four games with the Bulldogs, including a pair of conference championship games (LSU won in 2003, Georgia won in 2005). He then served as the athletic director at Georgia Tech, a program all too familiar with the Dawgs.

Last year, Radakovich described the game as great for both Clemson and Georgia when speaking to John Taylor of NBC Sports. He added, "It'll be a wonderful atmosphere for college football."

Though Georgia AD Greg McGarity has been slow to offer any firm commitment on future scheduling, he has been aggressive in pursuing out-of-conference matchups. Most recently, the plan for a home-and-home with Notre Dame in 2017 and 2019 was announced. And as recently as last December, McGarity told Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer that there was still some scheduling flexibility in the latter part of this decade.

So there is still an opportunity for a major conference non-regular opponent to come into the fold in the future. And it's hard to imagine McGarity, who identified Clemson as a "traditional" rivalry with "a lot of merit" when speaking with Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald (subscription required) nearly four years ago, objecting to a renewal if the schedule permitted.

 

The Effect of Extinction

Last year, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier quipped, per Mike Herndon of AL.com, in one of his classic Spurrierisms that every team Georgia plays is a rival:

"Georgia has so many rivals. It's difficult for them to have a big rivalry game every week. I think they've got as many as probably anybody in the country, with Georgia Tech, Florida, Auburn, even Vanderbilt. You can have only so many."

There's a startling degree of truth to that sentiment, and as teams have risen and fallen priorities have shifted.  

Today, no win is sweeter for Georgia fans than one in Jacksonville over the Gators. After all, Florida terrorized Georgia for the better part of two decades, losing just three times between 1990 and 2010. Earlier in the 2000s, wins against Tennessee, then a perennial national championship contender, were invaluable for fans. In the 1980s, King says Auburn and Clemson took the crown.

To be sure, Georgia's hardly an outlier for its multiple rivalries or even the ebb and flow of them. But rivalries are what make college football so appealing.  

For decades, polls and pundits struggled to clearly declare a national champion. The BCS system added rules and procedures for reaching such a conclusion, but even that needed refinement (as evidenced by the new playoff). College football does not survive on its finale or the legitimacy of its champions. To the contrary, the game thrives because of its week-in, week-out gridiron battles and the passion tied thereto.

Nothing exemplifies the game or amplifies those passions quite like a bitter rivalry with historic significance. And unless something changes, that may soon be extinct for Georgia and Clemson. The loss of even one potential rival diminishes the return for Bulldog and Tiger fans alike.

When toe meets leather on Saturday evening, it will be the last time these rivals square off for the foreseeable future. College football fans—not merely those with allegiance to Georgia or Clemson—should cherish the moment.  

The future of the rivalry is unknown, but the past is worth remembering.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ted's Takes: Pac-12 QBs & Coaches Look Like Nation's Best; Sleeper Team of 2014

To suggest that the SEC might not be college football's best conference in 2014 will strike some as appalling, shocking or simply insane. However, contrary to recent history, I predict the Pac-12 will emerge as the nation's top conference.

Why? Two reasons: coaches and quarterbacks.

While the SEC is in a rebuilding year after losing significant star power at quarterback, the Pac-12 is stacked with the innovative coaches and veteran signal-callers necessary to dethrone the kings of college football.

Coaches are the Pac-12's unheralded weapons. It started with the financial gains provided by new TV contracts. Over three years, conference schools have "invested" in football. Facilities from Pullman to Tucson are undergoing major improvements. Even UCLA has committed to improved infrastructure and increased coaching salaries.

But the biggest "get" has been the head football coaches: Rich Rodriguez, Jim Mora, Mike Leach and Todd Graham have arrived following success in other conferences. David Shaw and Mark Helfrich have sustained success after being promoted from within.

It was the Pac-12 that finally lured Chris Petersen from Boise State, Mora from a lifetime in the NFL and, in the Pac-10 era, kept Steve Sarkisian from becoming the Oakland Raiders head coach.

Strong head coaches attract excellent assistants. There are no greater examples than Jim Harbaugh/Shaw at Stanford and Mora at UCLA. The Bruins lost defensive coordinator Lou Spanos to the Tennessee Titans but had 10-year NFL linebacker Jeff Ulbrich as a replacement. Stanford lost DC Derek Mason to Vanderbilt but had Lance Anderson ready.

And most of the Pac-12's top men specialize in offense, with varied schemes but consistent results. Quarterbacks and receivers realize the Pac-12 is a place to play a style of game increasingly embraced by the pros: spread the field, throw and catch.

This year's QB crop is deep and experienced. Mora showed Brett Hundley a presentation emphasizing 30 college starts as a predictor of NFL success. Hundley understood and returned to UCLA.

Here is the Pac-12 QB rank by games started:

Their skills are as varied as the offenses they command. Sean Mannion may be the best pure passer of the group, while Hundley has breathtaking running skills. Marcus Mariota reminds me of a younger Colin Kaepernick and, I believe, is the best overall QB. Taylor Kelly and Kevin Hogan (10 wins over ranked teams) also have winning resumes.

Can the SEC, even with a fine array of coaches, approach this level of QB play? The only coach/QB combo that rivals the Pac-12 is Gus Malzahn/Nick Marshall at Auburn. 

Finally, let's address perception. In last year's AP preseason poll, the SEC had five of the Top 10 while the Pac-12 had two of the Top 20. Neither computer polls nor BCS formulas could compensate for the overwhelming human bias. SEC teams winning national championships created a faulty assumption of assured success the following year. That head start has been too much for any conference to overcome.

The four-team playoff with its selection committee and no ranking until late October should diminish that bias. If so, then the Pac-12 rises, carried by its coaches and QBs. They are too good.

 

Scheduling 

Pac-12 schools play some of the toughest schedules in the country. Early games of importance:

Sept. 6, Michigan State at Oregon: Mark Helfrich told me the one spring game he tried to watch was Michigan State. This is the win Oregon needs to legitimize itself as a playoff contender.

Sept. 6, USC at Stanford: The conference opener is close to a must-win for Stanford. The Cardinal face a brutal road schedule and can't afford an early home loss.

Sept. 13, Texas at UCLA: This will be Hundley's biggest national test and the Bruins' opening to enter the national conversation.

Oct. 4, Stanford at Notre Dame: The second of five tough road games on the Cardinal's schedule, this is a perception game. Winning in South Bend still carries weight. And Stanford has not forgotten its painful 2012 OT loss at Notre Dame Stadium.

 

Is Oregon Tough Enough?

The Ducks' longtime DC, Nick Aliotti, is now on TV. But his words linger.

He would confide that playing defense at Oregon was made more difficult by the tempo of the Ducks offense. Simply, Oregon scored fast, forcing its defense to spend more time on the field. It wore down, being run over by Stanford and Arizona last year.

Kadeem Carey ran for 206 yards against the Ducks last November. I charted each run, and he had over 80 yards after first contact with an Oregon defender.

To reach its long-awaited match with Stanford, and to handle Michigan State, Oregon's defensive front will have to be stronger and tougher.

 

Will Stanford Change Its Identity?

Talking to David Shaw at the Cardinal's spring game, I sensed his hope that Barry J. Sanders would emerge as their top running back. Heading into their first game, it appears Kelsey Young is the starter. But the back to watch is freshman Christian McCaffrey, the son of former Stanford and Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey, who arrived on the Farm "ready to play." 

But will Stanford "ground and pound" without a dominant back in the Stepfan Taylor-Tyler Gaffney mold?

 

Don't Sleep on Washington State

My dark-horse team in the conference is the Cougars. They won't win the North, but they will upset one favored team—and reach a second straight bowl. Connor Halliday has thrown a ton of passes and should have full comfort in Leach's offense. No one relishes a prep week for Leach or the Pullman trip. My first upset watch: Oregon on Sept. 20.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ultimate Guide to Week 1 of 2014 College Football Season

The wretched stink of the offseason is wearing off, and real college football is (finally!) almost back in our lives.

Last week's FCS kickoff was a suitable appetizer, but the real (FBS) schedule kicks off with Abilene Christian at Georgia State Wednesday night before a stream of high-profile games on Thursday, Friday and straight through the weekend.

In preparation for this all-you-can-watch football buffet, we've put together a handy little guide to help keep things together. It highlights all of the biggest storylines, games, matchups and players you'll want to keep track of during the first week of the season—plus more.

The start of the College Football Playoff era brings myriad questions, but nothing about the CFP can change the fact that college football has, and will continue to have, the best regular season in sports. 

The five-month sprint begins…now!

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North Carolina Investigating Hazing Within Football Team

The North Carolina Tar Heels football program is under internal investigation for a reported hazing occurrence, which then culminated in a physical confrontation.

Eric Adelson and Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports reported news of the alleged fall training camp event on Tuesday. Assistant athletic director for communications Kevin Best addressed the hazing issue through a statement that was included in Yahoo Sports' exclusive story.

"We are aware of an incident involving members of the UNC football team that took place earlier this month. We take this allegation seriously and the University is conducting a thorough review," said Best in the statement.

It is unclear which members of the team were allegedly involved in inflicting the assault, but the one who reportedly caught the brunt of it was walk-on receiver Jackson Boyer.

Sources told Adelson and Forde that the redshirt freshman was beaten to the point of suffering a concussion in an altercation at Chapel Hill's A-Loft hotel in the first week of August.

Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer offered his take on the matter:

This Tar Heels program has undergone adversity outside of this severe case in recent years. UNC had its wins from 2008 and 2009 vacated, along with three years' probation and a 2012 postseason ban as part of NCAA sanctions for various rules violations.

The UNC athletic department has been under fire as much as any in the country—for its more highly regarded basketball program, too. An investigation into academic fraud was reopened this summer.

Former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin created controversy by bringing to light a bullying saga that shook the franchise and raised awareness about the concept. Player safety, particularly with regard to head injuries, has been an emphatic area of focus at all levels of football to make the game safer.

Boyer's case encompasses the worst of both worlds. Not only was there an apparent negligence to Boyer's well-being with regard to his alleged injury, but this report documents a nightmare scenario of hazing that was not addressed at all, by the team or an alternative party.

While it is a positive development for North Carolina to look into this matter, there appears to have been some deference, delay and a dereliction of duty for events to unfold this way. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: How Josh Shaw's Injury Impacts Trojans' Defense

Details behind USC senior cornerback Josh Shaw sustaining two high ankle sprains over the weekend are unclear. Also unclear is when the Trojans can expect their co-captain back in the lineup. He's "sidelined indefinitely," per Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com

One certainty for USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, however, is that his team's secondary has a major hole to patch in preparation for a Fresno State team that led the nation in passing offense a season ago. 

Shaw is a proven veteran and among USC's top returning playmakers. He recorded 67 tackles a season ago to go with four interceptions—one of which came in the Trojans' 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State. 

Regardless of the position, injuries will test USC more than any other team in the Pac-12. The Trojans enter 2014 with fewer than 70 scholarship players on the roster, the result of NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions in the previous three seasons.

"It's not about the overall numbers [or] sheer depth," Sarkisian said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. "We will be a little bit inexperienced [at cornerback]—perhaps a little bit more inexperienced than we'd like to be." 

Indeed, the collective experience among this group declines dramatically with Shaw out of the lineup.  

"Kevon Seymour is a pretty good, experienced player for us at the corner spot," Sarkisian said.  

The junior Seymour started 11 games opposite Shaw a season ago. Otherwise, there is a whole lot of youth in the USC secondary. 

Many of the Trojans who must now take on more prominent roles are making their collegiate debuts Saturday, including redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins. 

Hawkins, listed No. 2 behind Shaw on the depth chart, like jumps into the starting rotation, the official USC Athletics account tweeted Sunday. 

Sarkisian called him "one of the most improved players...from spring practice to training camp." 

Whether it's Hawkins or a teammate making the start Saturday, the entire USC depth chart at cornerback now reshuffles. 

"This allows for opportunities for young guys to play at corner, whether it's Adoree' Jackson, Jonathan Lockett, Lamont Simmons," Sarkisian said. 

Jackson came into fall camp as the most recognized of USC's true freshmen defensive backs. A 5-star recruit from Southern California prep powerhouse Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Jackson is listed second behind Seymour at the other cornerback spot. 

This reordering of the lineup puts the spotlight more on Lockett and Simmons. 

At 6'2", 185 pounds, Simmons' size stands out among the USC cornerbacks. He gives defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox matchup options against bigger receivers. 

Speed, however, may prove to trump size in Saturday's contest. 

Fresno State offensive coordinator Dave Schramm operates a system that produced 1,088 snaps a season ago, fifth-most in the nation. The Bulldogs lost leading wide receivers Isaiah Burse and Davante Adams, but top returner Josh Harper caught for more than 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. 

The sheer volume of plays Fresno State runs guarantees there will be plenty of passes for the young Trojans cornerbacks to defend. Simmons explained to Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times how practicing against USC's new no-huddle offense prepares him. 

"Our offense is very fast,” he said. “After the deep ball you got to come right back to the line and get ready to press another guy."

The most significant change USC faces against this year's Fresno State team is with quarterback Derek Carr gone, the Bulldogs will be going more to the ground. 

"Offensively, where they could be different from [2013] is the athleticism of the quarterbacks," Sarkisian said. "[Brian] Burrell and [Brandon] Connette, both of [whom] are athletic, big, strong guys [who] can run the ball. That's where things can change most dramatically, how they use the athleticism of the quarterback." 

The spread principles Fresno State employs, including the potential for designed runs for the quarterback, likely means a lot of zone coverage from the Trojans Saturday. 

It's a fitting introduction for the first-year players. Between Pac-12 South counterparts Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA alone, USC will be seeing a lot of that style of offense throughout the season—with or without Shaw. 

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Rice Owls Complete Game Preview

After an eventful preseason camp, Notre Dame will kickoff its 2014 season when Rice visits South Bend on Saturday afternoon. Coming off a 10-win season, David Bailiff's Owls hardly resemble the previous Rice squads that went winless against Notre Dame, with those past teams only managing a single touchdown in the four games between the two programs. 

For Brian Kelly's Irish, it's an opportunity to see Everett Golson back on the football field, his first game in over 600 days. It's also the debut of new coordinators Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder, with expectations set for both units if Notre Dame wants to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

With Kelly pronouncing that the Irish's four academically suspended players will miss Saturday's game on Tuesday, it means the team will be without starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. But Rice has suffered a few injuries during fall camp, including a foot injury to star receiver Jordan Taylor that has him still questionable for Saturday. 

The last time Notre Dame played Rice, Lou Holtz's Irish squad kicked off their 1988 national championship season with a 54-11 victory. Let's take a closer look at Saturday's matchup. 

 

Date: Saturday, Aug. 30

Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

Place: Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Indiana

TV: NBC

Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129

Spread: Notre Dame -21, according to Vegas Insider

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5 Bold Predictions for Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 Season

It's finally game week for the Tennessee Volunteers, and that means it's time to do the one thing we writers do best: put on our Nostradamus hats and predict the upcoming season. 

Part of the fun of college football is its uncertainty. For every game that plays out exactly the way Vegas said it would, there's another massive upset where a three-touchdown underdog blows out their opponent. 

Tennessee isn't getting much respect from the oddsmakers or the experts this season, and for good reason: The Vols are one of the youngest teams in the nation, and they're replacing their entire offensive and defensive lines. 

That simply isn't a winning formula. 

But it's not all doom and gloom. Tennessee has enough talent and experience at those positions to be competitive throughout their brutal schedule, and the Vols' skill position players are some of the best (and youngest) in the conference. 

The roster certainly has the potential to carry Tennessee to six or even seven regular-season wins, along with some surprise end of the year stats and conference recognition along the way. 

Here are five bold predictions for Tennessee's 2014 season. 

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Georgia's Front 7 Will Be the X-Factor vs. Clemson

Georgia's defense was more punch line than power in 2013, but new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was brought in to fix the glitch.

He'll have a tough test in the season opener against Clemson and offensive coordinator Chad Morris—the highest-paid assistant coach in the country, according to USA Today's coaching salary database.

This isn't your ordinary Clemson offense, though. The Tigers are replacing quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, running back Roderick McDowell and tackle Brandon Thomas.

They also recently lost running back Zac Brooks to a season-ending foot injury suffered late in fall camp.

Cole Stoudt will step in at quarterback, Charone Peake and Adam Humphries at wide receiver, D.J. Howard at running back and Isaiah Battle at tackle.

As Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier notes, Clemson's starting offensive line has 25 career starts with two starters—left guard Reid Webster and right tackle Joe Gore—making their first career starts.

It won't be easy in the trenches for the Tigers.

Georgia's problems on defense stemmed from scheme and uncertainty in the secondary. At times last season, it looked like the Bulldogs' secondary was doing aerobics before the snap trying to get on the same page.

Up front, though, there's plenty of reason for hope.

Five of the six members of the defensive line are upperclassmen, including senior nose guard Mike Thornton, junior defensive end Sterling Bailey and defensive tackles James DeLoach and Ray Drew. Drew was a starter last year and notched six sacks.

The front three is loaded—and is actually the weaker portion of the front seven.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented group of linebackers in the entire country. Inside linebackers Ramik Wilson (the SEC's leading tackler last season with 133) and Amarlo Herrera return, along with outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. The latter led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last year.

There was one major surprise up front with sophomore Tim Kimbrough listed ahead of Wilson—a preseason first-team All-SEC selection—at "Mike" linebacker, according to Tanya Sichynsky of The Red & Black:

Of the changes to Georgia's depth chart for Clemson Saturday, Ramik Wilson not listed as a starter has to be the one that sticks out most.

— Tanya Sichynsky (@tanyasic) August 25, 2014

Will it last? Probably not. Pruitt came in and gave the entire defense a clean slate.

"Coach Pruitt told the guys that, 'I'm not going to give you what you want—I'm going to give you what you earn,'" head coach Mark Richt said during Pruitt's introductory press conference in January. "I think that resonated with all of the guys in the room, and I think they were very excited about it."

Since Wilson has missed several practices during fall camp with a concussion, it's not surprising that he is a little behind. If he's healthy by game time, don't expect him to sit for very long.

Current Bulldogs accounted for 26 of the team's 33 sacks a year ago, which was the second-best mark in the conference.

If they can repeat the feat against an new-look Clemson offense, it will help out the rebuilt Georgia secondary—which could use some turnovers to boost its confidence.

Everybody is going to focus on "strength vs. strength" in this matchup, with Georgia's powerful offense going up against Clemson's loaded defense. That won't decide the game, though.

Georgia's front seven holds the keys to the matchup, and its ability to rattle Stoudt will have a huge impact on the outcome of the game.

Don't be surprised to see the Bulldogs defense bounce back in a big way and set the tone for a title run

 

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.


Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M vs. South Carolina: Key Matchups to Watch

The Texas A&M football team will play the South Carolina Gamecocks in a clash between two top-25 teams on Thursday, August 28. The game will be decided by which teams win the most individual matchups on the field. 

Football is a team game that requires all 11 men on the field to do their job for the team to have success. You can have 10 people do their job correctly, but if one offensive lineman misses a blocking assignment, the play can be screwed up. 

So while football is played by 11 per side on the field at one time, the game can be won or lost by the individual battles that take place all across the field. 

This is a look at the individual battles that will determine the outcome of Texas A&M's game against South Carolina. 

 

 

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4-Star WR K.J. Hill Sets 5 Official Visits: Where Would He Fit Best?

Explosive Arkansas wide receiver K.J. Hill holds an expansive list of scholarship offers but recently narrowed his focus to five programs. The 4-star prospect plans to spend official visits at Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Notre Dame and Ohio State, per his high school.

Hill, who caught 63 passes for 1,143 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, is rated 22nd nationally among receivers in 247Sports' composite rankings. The North Little Rock High School senior holds the distinction of consensus No. 1 recruit in Arkansas.

He's expected to announce his decision date following a Tuesday evening scrimmage, according to Dudley Dawson of Scout.com, setting the timeline for teams to make an impact in this recruiting process. Hill, also a highly regarded guard on the basketball court, is a key target for the in-state Razorbacks, but other options in the SEC and beyond present possibilities.

The 6'0", 190-pound playmaker impressed at The Opening, an invite-only July football showcase at Nike's world headquarters in Oregon. He teamed up with USC quarterback commit Ricky Town to reach the championship game of a talent-laden seven-on-seven tournament.

Hill's big-play ability and reputation for plucking the ball away from his body make him a candidate to compete for early playing time in college. Each team in his top five presents a unique opportunity.

 

Alabama

Nick Saban has the Crimson Tide cruising toward a fifth straight No. 1 recruiting class. Naturally, that success creates a crowded and talented depth chart.

Receiver is no exception, as Alabama holds commitments from two of the nation's top 20 prospects at the position. Calvin Ridley (No. 1) and Daylon Charlot (No. 16) pledged earlier this cycle, while 2014 signees Cameron Sims and Derek Kief were 4-star recruits.

Hill spent time in Tuscaloosa for the team's spring game and returned earlier this month. First-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin inherited a plethora of playmakers and could add Hill to the stockpile if he can convince him there's an opportunity to compete for early consideration in the receiver rotation.

There's a lot to like about the Tide's aerial attack moving forward, especially with 5-star California quarterback Blake Barnett on board. Hill might not emerge as the No. 1 target at Alabama but would lend versatility to a loaded group.

 

Arkansas

The Razorbacks didn't exactly set the world on fire during Bret Bielema's first season at the helm, losing nine straight contests to close out the season. The head coach and his staff are in the process of reshaping the roster and perimeter offensive players are imperative.

Hill, who received an Arkansas offer early last season, has the skill set to contend for a sizeable role with the Razorbacks in 2015. The team landed multiple receivers in its 2014 class, but none commanded the attention Hill has received during his recruitment.

In-state pass target Deon Stewart, ranked 88th nationally among receivers, stands alone as Arkansas' only 2015 pledge at the position. Hill has been a top priority for the Razorbacks since last September and is the kind of talent Bielema can't afford to let leave state borders.

Arkansas holds a commitment from 4-star quarterback Ty Storey, who has tossed 100 touchdown passes during the past two seasons. Expect him to work on selling a fellow homegrown product to join team up together with the in-state program.

Hill visited the Razorbacks with uncommitted 4-star tight end Will Gragg last weekend. Both players have the potential to change the dynamics of Arkansas' offense.

“It was nice,” Hill told Richard Davenport of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “It really did put something in me, in my heart about staying at home. It was a good visit.”

 

Florida

Gators fans are clamoring for signs of explosiveness from the Florida offensive attack, which struggled mightily last autumn due to injuries and lack of execution. An unproductive 2013 campaign concerns recruits, many of whom have shared they're taking a wait-and-see approach before pulling the trigger on a commitment.

Will Muschamp needs a strong year to restore faith, which could help land a much-needed playmaker in Hill. The Gators have lost pledges this summer from multiple prospects at the position, though the late July addition of 3-star in-state receiver Kalif Jackson eases the sting a bit.

Florida lost 5-star pass-catcher Ermon Lane during the final stretch toward last signing day when he flipped to Florida State. His departure created a need for an infusion of top-tier talent atop the depth chart in coming years.

Hill would have every opportunity to claim an expansive role with the Gators as a true freshman.

The Gators landed Elite 11 quarterback Sheriron Jones in June and have celebrated 2014 signees Treon Harris and Will Grier waiting in the wings, so there is promise for sustained offensive success moving ahead.

Another disappointing season could spell doom for the current Gators coaching regime, but a bounce-back effort would reinvigorate a program that has major potential for growth in this recruiting class. Hill added an offer from the team in April and is interested enough to visit The Swamp.

 

Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish may not come away with a top quarterback in this class (or any passer at all perhaps), but Brian Kelly has done a nice job assembling a solid collection of receivers. Speedster C.J. Sanders, 6'4" target Miles Boykin and Texas standout Jalen Guyton give the team a trio of options.

Hill, rated higher than each of them, would create excellent depth at the position if he heads to South Bend. The Irish continue to maintain contact but haven't yet hosted him on campus.

“Coach Kelly just wants me to get up there to get the environment,” Hill told Christian McCollum of IrishSportsDaily.com. "When I get up there, I just want to see if that’s me. I want to see if I can fit in up there, if the coaches are down to earth and if I can play for them.”

Notre Dame faces a challenge in terms of proximity, as Hill is largely expected to stay in SEC territory. Still, Kelly is a coach who likes to get vertical on offense, and that's appealing for a playmaker who excels when called upon to attack the secondary.

 

Ohio State

The Buckeyes must also overcome a regional disadvantage in the race for Hill's commitment. Urban Meyer has shown time and time again the ability to reach back into the southeast for talent, and he'll need to do the same in this instance.

Ohio State stocked up with receiver talent during the 2014 recruiting cycle but is still searching for its first 2015 commitment from a pass-catcher. The team was a finalist for 4-star recruit Van Jefferson before losing out to Georgia for his pledge Monday.

Hill, who added an offer from the Buckeyes in March, could see a fit in Columbus and arrive on campus as the team's unquestioned top incoming receiver. Ohio State seems to be a lock for 5-star dual-threat quarterback Torrance Gibson and remains in good shape with top-ranked running back Damien Harris, setting the stage for an explosive attack in Meyer's offensive scheme.

The Buckeyes also bring back Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller in 2015, giving Hill a chance to run routes for a proven passer. Few coaches can sell a player on their offensive vision like Meyer, and there appears to be plenty for him to pitch in that regard these days.

 

Verdict: Arkansas

Florida could threaten the Razorbacks here if things get back on track for the Gators this fall, but the home team is on top right now.

Arkansas has been at the forefront of Hill's recruitment for a while, establishing outstanding rapport along the way. It's difficult to lock down a key commitment when you're riding a nine-game losing streak so signs of improvement are imperative for Arkansas to convince prospects the program is worth an investment.

Hill would have a clearer path to playing time in Fayetteville than other potential landing spots, allowing him to emerge as a potential No. 1 option in the passing game before the end of his sophomore season.

The Razorbacks have collected an impressive stable of quarterback prospects, and Bielema is building things up in the trenches. It's time for Arkansas to secure a true difference-maker on the outside, and Hill fits the bill.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

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What QB J.T. Barrett Must Do to Restore Confidence in Ohio State's Playoff Hopes

The Ohio State Buckeyes have quarterback J.T. Barrett leading the way during the 2014 season. Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses some key points to watch for during the Buckeyes' first game versus Navy. How well do you think Barrett will do this season?

Watch the video and let us know.

 

Rankings courtesy of 247Sports' composite system.

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LSU vs. Wisconsin: Who Will Emerge as Victors in Cross-Conference Battle?

The LSU Tigers and Wisconsin Badgers are battling in Week 1 of the 2014 college football season. Bleacher Report's College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss a few key points heading into this game. Who do you think will come out on top?

Watch the video and let us know.

Rankings courtesy of the 247Sports Composite.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Which Freak Athletes Will Explode Week 1 of the 2014 College Football Season?

The college football season is set to get underway with some of the biggest names looking to prove themselves in 2014. Bleacher Report's College Football Analysts name who they think will explode this week in college football. Who do you think will have monster games in Week 1?

Watch the video and let us know.

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Big Programs with Big Questions at QB: College Football's Quarterback Crisis

Once again, the soul of Goliath is about to be revealed.

The Southeastern Conference had its year of merriment, its orgy of quarterback stats in 2013. Now we're about to see the SEC ruled once again by the baddest men on the planet, defensive linemen. We're about to see the true marrow of the SEC, the two-deep offensive lines and four-deep running back rotations. Here comes downhill Rock'em, Sock'em football.

Yet, in this era of quarterback-centric offenses, can the SEC afford to have obscure quarterbacks for very long this season? Does it need the next Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray or Zach Mettenberger to emerge sooner rather than later to apply the cosmetics of points galore to impress the Playoff Selection Committee (or whatever it's called)? 

Starting Thursday, the committee pulls out its notebooks and revs up its DVRs. The shine always blots out the substance, I'm afraid.

The committee members, as far as I know, are not going to show up at LSU's practice one day and take stock, face-to-face, of the Tigers' physical talent, and then jet off to Oregon to compare the Tigers with the Ducks. They are going to watch games, not practice. Will they be putting their noses to the TV screen to analyze whether a Pac-12 left guard would be able to whip an SEC defensive tackle?

They'll probably try, but what the committee/voters will see more easily is the smoothness of offense. You can't help it. And the SEC has lost some of its smooth. Its array of quarterback name guys—Connor Shaw, James Franklin and AJ McCarron are gone, in addition to Manziel, Murray and Mettenberger—is diminished. Is this a problem for college football's blue-blood programs?

The old school says that the SEC will be just fine with game managers—or a dazzling runner like Auburn's Nick Marshall—and that voters will be impressed by the conference's defensive lines, linebackers and offensive lines, or the reputations thereof. It says that the SEC will have four teams in the Top 10 in midseason, as befits the talent level.

I wonder about that. I look at these teams like Oregon and Baylor and their quarterbacks slinging the ball around and the oooohs and ahhhhs, and I wonder if the SEC had better throw the rock around and not merely turn and stuff it into the gut of a 225-pound running back. Somebody is going to say, "Oklahoma is going to stack defenders at the line and make the SEC team throw it, and they can't"—and the next guy will say, "That's right, you have to pass the ball to get in the playoff. Can't be too one-dimensional."

All this means is that when LSU and its new quarterbacks play Wisconsin on Saturday, the Tigers' tandem better look sharp. Alabama better have a presence at QB against West Virginia, whether it's Jake or Blake. The Tide out-talent the Mountaineers all over the field, but you can bet all eyes will be on the quarterback. 

Nothing can ruin a team's rep more than a shaky-looking quarterback. Georgia hosts Clemson with a new quarterback, Hutson Mason. The Bulldogs have a veteran offensive line, and there is nothing friendlier to a new quarterback than pass protection and nothing more toxic than a pass rush. What's he got? We'll be watching. If the Dawgs lose, it will be his fault, right?

There were eight defensive players drafted out of the Big 12 in 2014. There were 19 taken out of the SEC. There were five offensive linemen taken out of the Pac-12. There were 11 taken out of the SEC, including two in the first six picks. The SEC simply has a deeper talent pool to choose from in its region. Is it easy to see who has better talent when the other conferences "look" sensational throwing the ball while the SEC grinds?

But if the Pac-12 and Big 12 quarterbacks hog the spotlight and attract all the chatter, it could obscure the overall picture. The SEC, for now, has a wart in the middle of its forehead for the bathing suit part of this contest. Its new quarterbacks better apply some cosmetics to the beast.

Here is a rundown of other quarterback issues around D-1:

 

Ohio State

Now we're going to see just how good of a recruiter Urban Meyer really is. We have heard it for years: "Nick Saban and Meyer rule signing day." Let's see if the offensive line Meyer recruited can ease the way for rookie starter J.T. Barrett, who takes over for Braxton Miller, knocked out for the season with a torn labrum. Let's see if the O-line can open up holes and drive the ball to take the pressure off Barrett. Let's see if the receivers are NFL-quality and make plays on bad throws.

The SEC and ACC programs have been gearing to replace quarterbacks since the end of last season. Ohio State has had to do it in a week. Pages will be ripped out of the playbook—for a few games at least. The offense has to be scaled back. The other offensive players might not be confident in the new guy, at least not at the start. The defense might suddenly say, "We have to make more plays," and that could lead to it instead making more mistakes.

"Next man up" is a fine slogan when you are talking about a lineman or linebacker. It is a little more complicated when you are talking about a quarterback, the face of the program. Miller accounted for more than 3,000 yards in 2013. The "next man up" better be damn good to match that and get the Buckeyes back in the national championship discussion.

 

Notre Dame

Notre Dame's Everett Golson will be back at starter after a year off. He learned his lesson about academics, but did coach Brian Kelly learn his lesson about getting bigger and faster at other positions? When Alabama and the Irish kicked off for the national championship two years ago and the two kickoff teams ran toward each other, you gasped. Bama was so much bigger and faster as the two sides collided. The game was over.

It was going to take at least two years for Kelly to get some reinforcements and improve height, weight and speed. Has he done it? His quarterback is depending on it. If Kelly's recruiting did not get better, Golson will need to be a sensational playmaker.

 

Michigan

Quarterback is a big deal for the Wolverines because the defense will be one of the best in the country. What UM doesn't need is Devin Gardner—working behind an unknown offensive line—throwing interceptions and making bad reads. In comes Doug Nussmeier, the former Alabama assistant coach. His qualifications: coaching AJ McCarron on reading defenses pre-snap and a history of coaching quarterbacks not to plague the defense with a short field because of turnovers.

The Big Ten really misses Michigan. The conference profile has fallen off dramatically. Michigan State is very good, but the Big Ten needs Michigan. It needs Gardner not to be a ball-and-chain. He has to be a playmaker with his arm and help the conference that can't count restore its glory.

 

Oklahoma 

Trevor Knight beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Threw four touchdown passes against the Crimson Tide. Kingpin of the Sooners offense, right?

Not so fast. Let's see more. Knight threw three touchdown passes against Louisiana-Monroe to start 2013. He threw just two more the rest of the regular season against the bad defenses of the Big 12. He hurt his elbow. Lost his job. 

Sure, Knight carved up Alabama, but the Tide stunk at cornerback, and when a national championship is not on the line, Bama seems less ferocious. Knight looked good in the Sugar Bowl. He has the ingredients. Let's see him turn it loose for 12 games.

 

The ACC

Florida State won eight regular-season conference games by an average of 39 points. FSU still has the best offense in the conference with Jameis Winston, while most of the rest of the conference is wondering how things are going to turn out at quarterback. It could be ugly again.

Virginia Tech is relying on a transfer, Miami is relying on a freshman, North Carolina State is relying on a transfer, Boston College is relying on a transfer…and on and on. Clemson has the most talent in the ACC of any team other than FSU, but the Tigers have a new quarterback, too.

 

Ray Glier is a journalist based in Atlanta. His work has appeared in USA TODAY, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is a 1981 graduate of West Virginia University.

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5 Teams That Could Surprise College Football World and Crash the Playoff

With the 2014 football season just days away, every fan and media outlet have likely put their playoff predictions on the record. Ralph Russo of The Associated Press, for example, has Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon as his final four. 

(For what it's worth, #FSUTwitter, Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer went out on a limb and predicted the Ducks would win it all.) 

For the most part, playoff predictions have included those teams or some variation of Auburn, UCLA, Michigan State and Oklahoma. But which teams could come out of nowhere to crash the playoff party? Picking these teams is even harder since they (1) have to exceed expectations and (2) need some things break their way schedule-wise. 

Here are five programs poised to do it, though. 

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