NCAA Football News

Geno Lewis to Oklahoma: Latest Transfer Details, Comments and Reaction

Wide receiver Geno Lewis announced Monday he is transferring from Penn State to Oklahoma for the 2016 season.

Lewis caught 17 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns this past year.

The redshirt junior provided a statement on Twitter:

In 2014, Lewis was the Penn State Nittany Lions' No. 2 receiver, finishing with 55 receptions, 751 yards and two touchdowns. He appeared in every game in 2015, but like quarterback Christian Hackenberg, his impact was seemingly limited by James Franklin's coaching. Fellow wideouts DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin—both of whom had strong years—didn't make it easy for Lewis, either.

"We're looking for guys to be consistent," Franklin said in September, per Greg Pickel of PennLive.com. "Consistency is the fact with a lot of our guys at a lot of positions. They show flashes of doing special things, but they want to do it more consistently and we want them to do it more consistently. I think Geno's in that conversation like a lot of guys are."

Cory Giger of ESPN Radio 1450 in State College, Pennsylvania, wondered in December if Lewis had a future with the school beyond 2015:

Transferring to Oklahoma makes sense for all parties involved.

With Lewis out of the picture, the Penn State coaching staff can focus more on the development of Hamilton and Godwin.

Franklin will be at Penn State next season, and Hackenberg is heading to the NFL. Given the way Franklin failed to make the most of Hackenberg's time at the school, the passing game is unlikely to take a major step forward as the Nittany Lions transition to an inexperienced replacement for Hackenberg.

Lewis will instead join an offense flush with talented skill players. Baker Mayfield is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and with wide receiver Sterling Shepard graduating, he'll need a new No. 1 target in the passing game.

Oklahoma fans shouldn't expect Lewis to replicate Shepard's impressive numbers—86 receptions, 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns—but he gives the Sooners a proven pass-catcher who should provide immediate results.

Following its Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, Oklahoma will want to hit the ground running in 2016, and Lewis should help make that happen.

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Roll Tide vs. All In: The College Football National Championship Hype Tape

It's finally here. The game that everyone has been waiting for. It's the Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the Clemson Tigers in a national championship matchup that's sure to keep fans on the edge of their seats.

Check out the video above as we go in depth on the game every college football fan is dying to see. 

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Michigan's Jim Harbaugh Once Again Prepared to Dominate the Offseason

In a season that's included an unprecedented quarterback controversy at Ohio State, the breaking of Barry Sanders' 27-year-old all-purpose-yardage record and seemingly more stunning finishes than any year in recent memory, only one team will have the right to call itself the national champion of college football in 2015.

And as Clemson and Alabama prepare to face off in Monday night's College Football Playoff championship game, it will either be the Tigers or the Crimson Tide who will soon find themselves the talk of the college football world.

But with national signing day three weeks away and spring practice soon to follow, it won't be long until offseason storylines overshadow the spotlight cast upon the winner of Monday night's title game. In fact, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh has already gotten a head start on making the Wolverines college football's must-follow team of the offseason, which would make 2016 not entirely dissimilar from its predecessor.

What appeared to be Harbaugh's way of creating positive buzz for a program in need of just that a year ago is now looking more like a mere warm-up act. Last year it was subtweets (allegedly) aimed at Urban Meyer, shirtless pictures captured during his program's groundbreaking satellite camp tour and an offseason full of Twitter flirting with the likes of Judge Judy, Ciara and Lil Wayne, all seemingly in the name of positive publicity for the Michigan program.

"I'm not striving to be creating any buzz," Harbaugh insisted when asked about his offseason at Big Ten media days last summer. "Just striving to coach the football team."

Less than two weeks into his second offseason in charge of the Wolverines, Harbaugh's actions would seem to indicate otherwise.

After leading his alma mater to a 10-3 record, capped off by a 41-7 blowout win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl, Harbaugh has been back at it on social media, creating headlines for the Wolverines 140 characters or less at a time.

It started with his plea for Michigan Stadium to host a WrestleMania (including a Twitter interaction with professional wrestling legend Ric Flair) and continued with a not-so-subtle shot at his former employer after the San Francisco 49ers parted ways with his replacement, Jim Tomsula, after a 5-11 season.

Throw in a budding friendship with rapper Wale and Harbaugh's annual publicity tour already appears ahead of schedule in 2016.

But perhaps the biggest plans of Harbaugh's second offseason in Ann Arbor were revealed on Sunday, with TheWolverine.com's (h/t Mark Snyder of theDetroit Free Press) report that the Michigan head coach hopes to hold at least a portion of the Wolverines' spring practice at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

"Harbaugh has made multiple trips to visit the campus during recruiting since coming to Michigan, including a trip during Michigan's football bye week last October," wrote Snyder. "Michigan is in the enviable position of having a large football budget (over $64 million surplus for the 2013-14 fiscal year) so the resources would not be a problem."

It's a play right out of the Harbaugh playbook: build buzz for his program with a move sure to garner attention, while simultaneously strengthening the Wolverines' national recruiting base.

Per Rivals.com, IMG Academy is the home of no fewer than 19 prospects in the 2017 class, including uncommitted 5-star defensive end Josh Kaindoh, who just happens to hold a Michigan offer.

Even outside of IMG, the Wolverines' mere presence for any sort of extended period of time would likely bolster their recruiting efforts in South Florida, just as Harbaugh's satellite camp tour did a year ago.

Embarking on a nine-stop summer tour of hosting satellite camps in Florida, Texas, Alabama, California, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Harbaugh took national recruiting to the next level in 2015, much to the displeasure of coaches in the SEC.

Between the publicity generated by the "Summer Swarm Tour" and the connections made on it, the results, however, speak for themselves, with the Wolverines laying claim to the nation's second-ranked recruiting class three weeks away from national signing day.

Whether merely hosting a portion of spring practice in the Sunshine State would help yield similar results remains to be seen. But it wouldn't be a surprise to see other programs soon follow suit, much like Meyer and Penn State's James Franklin did with satellite camps of their own in the past year.

But regardless of the impact made by Harbaugh's big spring plans, his second offseason in the spotlight is just getting started. The tweets to celebrities won't stop, nor will the headline-worthy quotes, and at some point Michigan will reveal college football's first uniforms under Nike's Jordan Brand.

"It's gonna be awesome," Harbaugh asserted of his program's new threads, which, just by their association with Michael Jordan, have already caused a stir on the recruiting trail.

A successful season on the field should only boost Harbaugh's efforts off of it, as opposed to a year ago when Harbaugh was selling hope and not much else. The Wolverines' 2017 class currently possesses five commits, leaving plenty of room for Harbaugh to make the most of another year's worth of publicity.

Less than two weeks into 2016, he appears hellbent on doing just that. After Monday night's national title game, the second Offseason of Harbaugh will officially be underway and it already appears to be as unpredictable as the first.

 

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

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College Football National Championship: Vegas Odds Guide for Alabama vs. Clemson

The second college football national championship game between Alabama and Clemson does not have an overwhelming betting favorite with the wagering public

Shortly after Clemson and Alabama won their New Year's Eve games against Oklahoma and Michigan State, respectively, the Crimson Tide were installed as a seven-point favorite in the championship. That number has settled at 6.5 points, according to Odds Shark, and 57 percent of the bets have been placed on Nick Saban's Alabama team.

Total bettors will have an opportunity in this game as well, with the over/under listed at 50.5 points. While the public tends to go with the over in most high-profile games, the margin is fairly close to a 50-50 split in this game with 53.5 percent of the betting money going on the over.

Even though Clemson takes a 14-0 straight-up record into this game while Alabama is 13-1, neither team has been an overwhelming performer against the spread. The Tigers are 7-7 against the number, while the Crimson Tide are just slightly better at 8-6. Alabama has been hot recently, covering in five of its last six games.

So, while there's a lot of interest in the national championship, it's not easy for bettors to lock on to a trend with one team or another.

There are a number of props that are available to handicappers.

Getting off to a good start is often thought of as a must when it comes to winning key college football games. As a result, bettors have an opportunity to wager on which team will score 10 points first. Sports bettors who wager that Alabama will reach the 10-point mark first will risk $175 to win $100, while Clemson backers will put up $100 to win $135, according to Odds Shark.

Another option available to the public when it comes to getting off to a good start is a prop bet on whether the team that scores first wins the game. Bettors are offered the "yes" option at a price of $190 to win $100, while the "no" option returns $145 on a $100 risk.

Other prop bets available include first penalty, first timeout and the coin toss. Each of these bets is available at a $105 risk to win $100 and are available on both teams.

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Alabama vs. Clemson: TV Schedule, Start Time for 2016 CFP Championship

After a long and mostly unexciting bowl season, the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship is here. The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers will square off Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The contest that's set to decide this year's national champion will kick off at 8:30 p.m. ET. ESPN will televise the game, and fans can stream it on WatchESPN. If you're taking a road trip, you can also listen to the contest on ESPN Radio.

Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry will lead the Alabama offense against a stout Clemson defense. As Sam Cooper of Yahoo Sports reported, star defensive end Shaq Lawson expects to play Monday night despite a knee injury, which is good news for the Tigers.

But with or without Lawson, Clemson is confident it can slow down Alabama's all-world runner.

Tigers safety Jayron Kearse told John Talty of AL.com the Tigers saw ways to bottle up Henry in Alabama's game against Michigan State: "I know he can be stopped," he said. "We watch film and we see weaknesses. We watched the Michigan State game and they held him to 60-something yards, so it can be done. [Defensive coordinator Brent Venables] has to put us in a position to do that."

Should the Tigers render Henry ineffective, it will be on Alabama quarterback Jake Coker to lead the Tide offense downfield. Coker, to his credit, did throw for 286 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan State. If he can put up similar numbers against Clemson, Alabama will be in good position to win the game.

On the other side of the ball, the Alabama defense will have the difficult task of slowing down Clemson signal-caller Deshaun Watson, who can make plays with his arm and his legs. Also a Heisman finalist, Watson can be difficult to corral once he escapes the pocket.

Both teams won comfortably in their semifinal games on New Year's Eve, but don't expect that to be the case Monday night. This game will likely be close throughout, and as Venables told Talty, "The most physical team is going to win."

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B/R Recruiting Notebook: Important January Visits on Deck for Elite 2016 Targets

SAN ANTONIO — With the three major high school all-star football games—the Under Armour All-America Game, the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl and, most recently, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl—officially in the books, athletes are now focused on the 11th hour of recruiting.

Uncommitted prospects are now down to their final three weeks before national signing day. The final two weeks of January will be huge, as athletes look to finalize their college football futures.

National signing day is Feb. 3. Here are some athletes to keep an eye on throughout the month of January and in early February.

 

SEC visits up for 5-star DT Brown

For Buford, Georgia, 5-star defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the only thing that didn't go his way during his U.S. Army All-American Bowl experience was the final score of the game. Brown competed for the East team, which lost to the West, 37-9.

What Brown left San Antonio with, however, was a few personal victories and memories. He was the recipient of the Anthony Munoz Lineman of the Year award, given to the nation's top high school offensive lineman. He also was the recipient of the American Family Insurance Defensive Player of the Year award, given to the nation's top high school defensive player. He also was a U.S. Army Player of the Year finalist.

"The Army All-American Bowl is the best experience you could have. I would tell any other kid that there isn't any other game," said Brown, who is the son of James Brown, who served in the U.S. Army. "This game was big for me. I got the opportunity to represent my dad."

Derrick Brown now focuses on his college plans. He's taken official visits to Mississippi State and Alabama in November and December, respectively, and he said on Saturday that he will take an official to Auburn this weekend, Georgia the weekend of Jan. 22 and Tennessee the weekend of Jan. 29.

A decision, Brown said, will come on national signing day. The deciding factor, he said, is pretty cut-and-dried.

"I've got to find a place that's home," he said.

Brown is the nation's No. 8 player and the No. 3 defensive tackle in the 2016 class. He finished his senior year at Lanier High School with 106 tackles and 13 sacks, according to the Athens Banner-Herald

 

QB Patterson: An art to player recruiting

IMG Academy 5-star prospect Shea Patterson, the nation's No. 5 player and No. 2 pro-style quarterback, put on a show at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and took home the Pete Dawkins Trophy for MVP honors. Now that the game's over, it's time for the Ole Miss commit to turn into one of Ole Miss' best player-recruiters—a job he's taking seriously.

And while Patterson admits he's careful with his recruiting tactics, he knows that the next three weeks will be key in landing some of the top targets still uncommitted.

"There's some pros and cons to it," Patterson said. "You don't want to be overbearing with the guys. I know how it was to be on the other side being recruited. That's the worst part, when guys are shoving it in your face. I just throw in pitches every now and then to these guys."

Patterson committed to Ole Miss last February and said guys like DeKaylin Metcalf (see below), Benito Jones and Eli Johnson helped sell the dream of the program to him. Some of Patterson's targets include safety Deontay Anderson, outside linebacker Mique Juarez and strong-side defensive end Jeffery Simmons (see below)—three athletes ranked among the top three nationally at their respective positions.

"There's still a lot of guys in this class for us," Patterson said. "I just tell them that we can do something special at Ole Miss."

 

DE Simmons ready to shine for home state

Macon, Mississippi, 4-star defensive end Jeffery Simmons is the top-ranked player from the state of Mississippi in the 2016 class. And Simmons takes pride in representing the Magnolia State every time he steps on the football field.

He joined Alabama defensive tackle commit Raekwon Davis and Ole Miss receiver commit DeKaylin Metcalf as the Mississippi representatives competing at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

"A lot of people look over Mississippi," Simmons said. "We can play, and I felt like we showed we can play."

The state is hoping to keep Simmons, the nation's No. 3 strong-side defensive end and No. 36 player overall, from playing college ball out of state. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are two of his top four schools, the others being Alabama and Tennessee.

Simmons said he will take an official visit to Mississippi State this weekend. Official visits to Alabama (weekend of Jan. 22) and Ole Miss (Jan. 29) will follow. He visited Tennessee in November.

"I want to be at a place where I can bond with the players," Simmons said. "I want to see if I can fit in with the program. I want to feel at home."

Simmons added: "On and off the field, I want to show I can be a leader. That's just the type of guy I am. Being a leader is what I want to do."

 

Decision for WR Richards bigger than football

West Palm Beach, Florida, 4-star wide receiver Ahmmon Richards called playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl "a once-in-a-lifetime experience." But Richards now will focus on his final three official visits, starting with Miami this weekend.

Richards, who visited Auburn in November, will follow the Miami visit with a trip to Alabama the weekend of Jan. 22 and a trip to Tennessee the weekend of Jan. 29. He said all four schools are still in the running, but he has an idea of what he wants in a winning program.

"I want to be somewhere where I can see myself outside of football," Richards said. "All the schools have pretty much the same academic parts. If you take football out of the equation, can I see myself going to that school?"

Richards said he wants to be a coach and also start his own business after college. Athletically, Richards has an idea of setting short-term goals in college.

"I just want to be a playmaker," he said. "I like making plays and scoring."

 

Rivals among leaders for ATH Fuller

As the nation's No. 8 athlete, Westwood, New Jersey, 4-star prospect Jordan Fuller admits that he's his own worst critic. He was very critical of his play at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl—even if others disagreed.

"Some people will say I had a good game," said Fuller, who finished with two solo tackles as a defensive back. "I didn't feel I played that well."

Being his worst critic is something he said coaches actually like about him. His expectations for himself are very high—but his ambition to strive for perfection could be a reason why he has 25 reported offers.

Big Ten rivals Ohio State and Michigan are two of the schools fighting for Fuller's commitment. Fuller said he will visit Ohio State this week and Michigan the weekend of Jan. 22. Fuller visited Notre Dame in November and said he may take an official to Penn State the weekend of Jan. 29.

Fuller said he hasn't decided on whether or not to commit on national signing day. He did say he's looking for a school that can offer him a great education and a place where the coaching staff can also serve as mentors.

He added that he's going to use Saturday's all-star game as a platform of sorts to prepare for next-level football.

"Being able to compete against the best of the best, it was an awesome experience," Fuller said. "I know I got a lot better with this, but I still have some work to do. Overall, it was fun meeting new guys."


Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports.com's composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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Michigan Football: 5 Reasons Why the Wolverines Should Be Optimistic About 2016

Jim Harbaugh's second season leading the Michigan football program will include an undefeated regular season, Big Ten championship and ultimately a national title.

Well, that's what the eternal optimist says.

After listening to analysts objectively critique your team for months, this is the moment to throw on the homer hat and allow the bias to shine. This is why the Wolverines are bound for a magical—or at least conference-championship-worthy—2016.

This list, which is ordered based on perceived value, is meant to show why next year's best-case scenario could come to fruition for a rising Michigan team.

Begin Slideshow

Ohio State Football: 5 Reasons Why the Buckeyes Should Be Optimistic About 2016

Ohio State failed in its quest to defend its title and will have to replace eight starters on both sides of the ball in 2016, but quarterback J.T. Barrett's return and a lot of young talent should have Buckeyes fans excited about 2016.

It will be a busy offseason for Urban Meyer and the coaching staff as they work to shape their two-deep rotation. The Buckeyes will be young and face a horrendously difficult schedule next year, but there are still plenty of reasons for optimism.

As Ramzy Nasrallah of Eleven Warriors pointed out last week, the last time Ohio State had a rebuilding year, it won its first national title since 2002.

 

J.T. Barrett

Barrett entered the 2015 season battling Cardale Jones in one of the most heated and closely watched position battles in college football history, but when Ohio State kicked off against Virginia Tech, it was Jones who emerged victorious.

But Barrett recaptured the lead midway through the season and showed why he's the ideal quarterback to run Meyer's spread offense. His ability to spread the ball effectively and run the read-option makes Ohio State's offense operate at a higher level.

Even more importantly, Barrett enters 2016 as the unquestioned centerpiece of the offense. He won't have to split time with Jones in spring practice or fall camp. That will allow him to build a chemistry with his new-look wide receiver corps. 

 

A Wave of Unproven Talent

Ohio State is set to have a historic showing in the 2016 NFL draft with 16 former Buckeyes standing a chance to be drafted, but that has left a big void in the '16 roster.

Fortunately for Buckeyes fans, Meyer is one of college football's best recruiters, and he has the cupboard stocked with former blue-chip prospects who are hungry to prove themselves.

On offense, the wide receiver corps took the biggest hit with the deflection of all three starters—Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. But young guns such as Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, James Clark and Torrance Gibson have the skills to be stars. And at running back, Mike Weber has the opportunity to be Ohio State's next superstar.

Defensively, the secondary will get a boost from safety Erick Smith and cornerback Marshon Lattimore—once teammates at Cleveland Glenville High School—who will play alongside lead cornerback Gareon Conley.

 

Sam Hubbard

One of the biggest holes on the 2016 roster was created by the departure of Joey Bosa, the consensus first-team All-American defensive end who set the tone for Ohio State's defense the last two seasons. 

But Buckeyes fans got a glimpse into the future this year as Sam Hubbard flashed as Bosa's top backup. As a redshirt freshman reserve, Hubbard ranked second on the team with six sacks and fourth with eight tackles for loss. He set the tone for the second unit and emerged as one of Ohio State's best pass-rushers.

He'll have to make a big leap to have the kind of impact Bosa made on a weekly basis, but he's ready to step into that role.

Ohio State will feature a number of underclassmen in 2016, but Hubbard is one of the most exciting. 

 

A Loaded Recruiting Class

The Buckeyes didn't win the College Football Playoff this year, but there's a chance they can bring home the recruiting title.

Ohio State's 2016 recruiting class, which currently stands at No. 3 in the national rankings, is headlined by 5-star defensive ends Nick Bosa and Jonathon Cooper. There's plenty of offensive firepower on the way as well with 4-star standouts Demario McCall (all-purpose back) and Austin Mack (wide receiver) in the fold.

But Meyer is still chasing a number of highly touted players. Four-star quarterback Dwayne Haskins is a potential flip from Maryland, 4-star wideouts Sam Bruce and Binjimen Victor are still in play and 4-star defensive backs Jordan Fuller and Damar Hamlin have a great chance of landing in Columbus.

If things go Meyer's way on national signing day, Ohio State could be inking the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

 

Leaving 'The Grind' Behind

Ohio State has adopted team mottos under Meyer, and after posting an undefeated regular season in 2012, "The Chase" for a national title was on. When the Buckeyes ran through, over and around Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon during last year's postseason, the chase was completed, and Ohio State took on a new motto.

But "The Grind" ended up being too much for the Buckeyes to handle. Despite entering the year as the only unanimous preseason No. 1 in Associated Press poll history, Ohio State looked sluggish and uninspired to start the season. Things appeared to be clicking down the stretch, but the Buckeyes' season bottomed out in Week 12 when Michigan State derailed their title run with a 17-14 upset in Columbus.

But as soon as the pressure of staying undefeated lifted, Ohio State played fast and loose, posting its most impressive victories of the season over Michigan and Notre Dame to close out the year.

Leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Joey Bosa admitted to the pressure getting to the team's head, according to Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com.

It just seems like nothing you do is ever good enough unless you're beating teams by 50 points. You win by 20 and it was a bad week. That was definitely a struggle for us, because you never feel like you're good enough. It's hard when your own fan base is getting after you for being, what, 10-0? And they still weren't happy. We won [23] games in a row.

But with those expectations diminished and the pressure faded, Ohio State will enter the 2016 season as the hunter rather than the hunted. And if 2014 was any indication, Meyer and the Buckeyes know how to play that role well. 

 

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

David Regimbal is the Ohio State football lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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The Clemson Tide: Inside Dabo Swinney's Lifelong Love Affair with Alabama

PELHAM, Ala. — The dream first stirred in the boy when he was four years old.

Sitting in the living room of his family’s two-story house on the corner lot at 1000 Ryecroft Road, his face pressed close to the glow of the television screen, William Swinney would be hypnotized by the action unfolding 60 miles away at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The child they called Dabo—his older brother referred to him as “that boy,” which sounded like “Dabo”—was hooked on Alabama football before he even entered grade school. One day, he told his parents, he would play for the Crimson Tide.

Autumn Sunday mornings were just as special to the boy. With several of his good friends by his side and nibbling on his mom’s chocolate muffins, Dabo would watch The Bear Bryant Show as the Alabama legend reviewed the previous day’s game in his base-thumping growl. The strategies of football fired the boy’s imagination; the making of a coach was underway.

The boy’s father, Ervil Swinney, was an Alabama fan to the marrow of his bones, and he passed down his love of the Tide to Dabo like genetic code. Ervil owned a washing machine repair shop, and he took Dabo to as many Crimson Tide games as he could afford. In 1980, the father loaded his entire family into a car—wife Carol and sons Tracy, Tripp and Dabo—and drove to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Young Dabo was in a state of ecstasy as he watched his beloved Crimson Tide demolish Arkansas, 24-9.

Alabama football became the air he breathed, the sun in his universe. So is it really any surprise that now, more than three decades later, 46-year-old Dabo Swinney has molded his Clemson program in the image of Alabama, the team Swinney will face Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, in the national championship game?

“Dabo has recruited NFL size onto his team the way Bear Bryant did and the way Saban has,” said one longtime NFL scout. “Clemson has perimeter speed on offense like Alabama, and their interior guys on defense will outmuscle you just like the Alabama front.”

Indeed, Swinney has built his defense based on Nick Saban’s philosophy that the key players are the defensive linemen. Saban loves big, athletic interior linemen (one of his pet phrases is, “Heavyweights knock out middleweights”), and Swinney has used the Saban template to construct a unit that finished the season ranked sixth in the country in total defense.

“We’ve built this team in the trenches, and most great teams, that’s where it starts,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage and have some type of running game and stopping the run, and certainly that’s been what Alabama has been for a long time. We’ve tried to do that here.”

There’s another potential Alabama connection to keep in mind tonight when watching Swinney pace up and down the sideline facing the team he grew up worshiping: It’s taken as an article of faith inside the Crimson Tide athletic department that, whenever Saban retires or leaves Tuscaloosa for another job, the first call that Alabama athletic director Bill Battle will make will be to the cellphone of Swinney.

“Dabo would be the perfect guy to hand the program to once Coach Saban moves on,” said an Alabama employee who is close to Battle. “Dabo knows what Alabama football is all about as well as anyone, knows the culture, knows the expectations. And he’s proven himself at Clemson. A lot of people around here believe he’ll be the next in line whenever Nick decides to walk away.”

It would make sense. After all, during Swinney’s head coaching tenure at Clemson, which began in 2008, hordes of his coaches and key support staff members have had experience playing, coaching or working in Tuscaloosa. The current list of past Alabama football figures is deep at Clemson: Woody McCorvey (the associate athletic director for football administration), Danny Pearman (the special teams and tight ends coach), Thad Turnipseed (the director of football recruiting and external affairs), Paul Hogan (the strength and conditioning coach) and Lemanski Hall (a defensive analyst).

What have some of the staffers, behind closed doors, jokingly called the Tigers during the Swinney era? According to multiple sources, a three-word nickname has been uttered: The Clemson Tide.

In high school, the future Tigers coach was a classic overachiever—a characteristic of most successful coaches. At Pelham High, Swinney was a standout receiver. Football became even more important to him in his sophomore year when his home life started to disintegrate. His father’s business was floundering, and Ervil began to lose himself in the bottom of a bottle. Ervil fell deeply in debt.

On nights his dad drank, a terrified young Dabo would hide on the roof of the house or sleep in the car in the garage. Eventually, the family couldn’t make its mortgage payment. The Swinneys lost their house. Ervil and Carol divorced.

Sometimes, Dabo, his mom and his brothers stayed in cheap motels. Other nights, Dabo slept in his mother’s car parked in the woods, or he’d crash on the floor at a friend’s place. But the one thing he always had was the dream of playing for the Crimson Tide.

“We never missed an Alabama game growing up,” said Norm Saia, one of Dabo’s closest childhood friends who still lives in Birmingham. “And the thing with Dabo was, he never got down. Even when his home life was a nightmare, he was positive about life. Heck, he even made me do my homework before we could go out and play basketball or throw around the football.”

But Alabama coaches weren’t interested in Swinney, who enrolled in Tuscaloosa as a student in 1988. He watched the first three home football games that fall sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. He eventually turned to his girlfriend, Kathleen Bassett, whom he met in second grade and began dating in middle school, and—never one to lack confidence—told her that he was better than any of the receivers on the field.

That spring, Swinney was one of 45 players to attend a tryout for walk-ons. The thing that stuck out about Swinney to the coaches was his toughness—at 6'1", 175 pounds, he routinely blocked players who weighed 100 more pounds than him—and the fact that he carried himself like an All-American. After a grueling six weeks of tryouts that were filled with 5:30 a.m. running sessions and trashcans full of vomit, he was one of two walk-ons to make the team.

He began as a scout-team player but played in four games in 1990 and caught one pass for 18 yards. Coach Gene Stallings, realizing Swinney’s financial woes, awarded him a scholarship. He became an ace on special teams. And always, he took his camera with him to every game, snapping photos to document his dream come true.

“Dabo was an athletic, possession type of receiver,” said Jay Barker, Alabama’s starting quarterback from 1992 to '94. “He’s been an underdog his entire life. But he worked at it as hard as anyone, both on the field and off the field. He had a coach’s mind even back then. And in a lot of ways, football was his escape.”

In his sophomore year, Swinney’s mother, Carol, unable to afford housing costs for her son and herself, moved into Unit 81 of the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa with Dabo. The two even shared a bed. But instead of being embarrassed that he took his mom to college, Swinney reveled in it, inviting teammates over to enjoy his mom’s chicken and dumplings.

“We all loved Dabo’s mom because we got home-cooked meals in college,” said Saia, who attended Alabama and walked onto the team with his buddy. “And Dabo just enjoyed having his mom there. He loved her as much as a son could.”

Dabo cleaned gutters to make extra money. And six days a week, his mother was out the door by 6 a.m. to drive 50 miles to Birmingham for her $8-an-hour job at a department store. Carol’s work ethic inspired her son.

Midway through his college career, Saia was involved in a serious car accident. He broke his pelvis and couldn’t walk for months. He moved back to Pelham. One of the few friends to frequently come see him was Swinney, who would drive him around Birmingham to see old friends and coaches.

“Here Dabo was in the middle of his college life, with football a huge priority, and he knew I was going stir crazy. So he’d come and say, ‘Hey man, let’s go for a ride,’” said Saia. “I wouldn’t even get out of the car, but just his positive attitude impacted me.”

In Swinney’s final collegiate season, 1992, he played in all 12 games (he caught four passes for 48 yards) on Alabama’s national championship-winning team. He later became the first person in his family to graduate from college, eventually earning a master’s degree in business administration.

Gene Stallings hired him as a graduate assistant in 1993. Swinney made $489 a month and typically feasted on SpaghettiOs for dinner.

That August, on a warm summer night, he grabbed the hand of Kathleen Bassett, and the two went on a walk around the Quad, the large grassy area in the center of campus. They strolled to the Denny Chimes, a bell tower where at the base the handprints and footprints of all the Alabama team captains since the 1940s are pressed into concrete.

At 10 p.m., the chimes sounded. Dabo dropped to a knee and asked Kathleen to marry him. She melted into a puddle of tears as she said yes. For an Alabama boy, it was the perfect spot to ask the most important question of his life.

In 1996, Dabo became a full-time coach for the Crimson Tide. But, four years later, he was fired along with head coach Mike Dubose and the rest of his staff. Not knowing what he should do, he landed a job in Birmingham in commercial real estate, believing the rest of his life was about to begin. But he grew restless and called his old quarterback.

“I think I need to get back into football,” Swinney told Barker. “I need to see what I can do.”

Tommy Bowden hired him at Clemson in 2003. When Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips surprisingly tapped Swinney, the wide receivers coach who had never even been a coordinator, to be the interim head coach.

Swinney had a well-earned reputation as a top-notch recruiter—his silver tongue was responsible for landing running back C.J. Spiller, the top-ranked running back in the class of ’06, according to Rivals.com—and he responded by guiding the Tigers to a 4-3 record to finish out the ’08 season. The interim tag was removed from his title.

And now, as he prepares to play his home-state team for the national title, Swinney already has pulled off perhaps his most remarkable upset: Tonight dozens of former Crimson Tide players will be wearing the Clemson colors and rooting for the ultimate underdog.

“I’ll be in the stands in my Clemson gear just like a ton of past Alabama players,” said Saia. “If you knew what Dabo has been through to reach this moment, then you’d cheer for him, too. And hey, maybe one day Dabo will be back where he belongs—at Alabama.” 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

National Signing Day 2016: Predictions for Top Recruits Before CFP Championship

Although the Big Ten and ACC have won the past two college football championships, the SEC ran off a streak of seven in a row before that, and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide have a chance to make it eight of 10 against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

It's safe to say the SEC is still the overall dominant conference, and it shows in the 2016 high school recruiting rankings with national signing day approaching Feb. 3.

Per 247Sports, six of the Top 10-ranked teams in terms of recruiting are from the SEC, led by the LSU Tigers at No. 1.

However, head coach Jim Harbaugh's transition from the NFL to the Michigan Wolverines is obviously making a difference, as his team is currently ranked No. 2, followed by the Ohio State Buckeyes in third.

The Florida State Seminoles are No. 4, while the SEC occupies five of the final six spots.

So, while the SEC has competition, it still has the overall edge when it comes to recruiting. Let's take a look at where some top recruits may land on national signing day.

 

Could Harbaugh Land No. 1 Overall Recruit?

Defensive tackle Rashan Gary of Paramus Catholic in Paramus, New Jersey, is the No. 1 recruit, and as of Sunday morning 247Sports' Crystal Ball predicts the 6'5'', 293-pounder to land at Michigan.

This video courtesy of PrepForce.com shows the strength and explosiveness that have helped Gary earn the title of top recruit:

While the Wolverines have 24 hard commitments—14 of which are from 4-star recruits—they have not landed a 5-star stud as of yet. However, that is about to change, per Brandon Brown of thewolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), who was asked if Gary was Michigan's top target.

“That’s pretty obvious, and it’s looking really, really good that he’s going to pick Michigan,” Brown said.

Harbaugh brings a winning background to Michigan and showed that by doubling the team's wins from five to 10 in 2015. An SEC team could certainly swoop in and snatch up Gary, but being from the East Coast he has no connection to the Southeast, so count on him playing in the Maize and Blue next season.

 

Florida or Florida State?

Per 247Sports, 32 of the Top 50 recruits have already given their hard commitments. The top offensive player yet to announce is Tampa (Florida) Catholic's Nate Craig-Myers. The No. 33 overall recruit is the No. 3 wide receiver in the country and the sixth-best senior in the state of Florida.

At 6'2'', 205 pounds, he has the skills to go up and snag passes most high school receivers can only dream about, as shown in this video from MaxPreps.com:

The 4-star athlete also shows great breakaway speed that a team like the Florida Gators could use, especially considering a stalled offense is what helped derail the Gators' 10-1 start, with embarrassing losses to the rival Florida State Seminoles, Alabama and Michigan.

The Gators seem to have the edge with the in-state product, as 247Sports currently gives Florida a 40 percent shot to land Craig-Myers over No. 2 Florida State, who checks in at 29 percent.

It's apparent both schools are leading the way in his recruitment, per Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel, who reported Craig-Myers has a strong relationship with the Gators' coaching staff.

"I have a great relationship with every coach they have. Me and [wide receivers] coach Kerry Dixon, we're real close. He's been on me hard, and he's definitely a hard coach on me, and he'll definitely try to teach me a lot of things," Craig-Myers said.

The receiver also praised the Florida State staff and said, per Hays, "I just have a great relationship with [wide receivers Coach [Lawrence] Dawsey ... We talk almost every other day." 

Craig-Meyers' brother, a defensive back, verbally committed to Florida but eventually changed his mind. The wide receiver said that will not affect his decision and hasn't shown much of a sign of which team he will choose. The only indication he has given is he will wait until national signing day, per Hays.

It's hard to predict here, but I'll stick with the Gators on this one. Hays said the Seminoles seemed like a lock early, and now that does not appear to be the case, which means Craig-Meyers may have some reservations about Florida State.

 

SEC vs. ACC

Trayvon Mullen is the No. 29 overall prospect, per 247Sports, and the third-best cornerback in the class of 2016.

The 6'1'', 168-pounder hails from Pompano Beach, Florida, and it figures one of his state schools would have the recruiting edge. However, 247Sports experts are currently predicting Mullen to enroll at LSU with a 52 percent chance.

In this video from SB Nation Recruiting, Mullen said the Tigers have been recruiting him the hardest, although Florida State, Ohio State, TCU and others have been hot on his trail:

Mullen also said, with a smile, his goal is to be the No. 1 defensive back in the nation. It was mentioned in the video that cornerback Saivion Smith, No. 18 overall, already has committed to LSU, but Mullen said the two have not talked much about playing together.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say Florida State—with a 35 percent chance per 247Sports—comes in late and snags Mullen away from the Tigers. He'll have a chance to make a name for himself, play for a team that has put a ton of players in the NFL the past two years and stay in-state as well.

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Tennessee Landing Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop a Home Run for Vols

Go big or go home.

That appears to be the mantra of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in 2016 after pulling off one of the most impressive coaching-staff coups of the offseason.

Jones and former defensive coordinator John Jancek "mutually agreed" to part ways late last week in a surprise move given the timing just one week before the recruiting dead period is lifted. 

It was Jones' version of taking a strike hoping to get his pitch later in the at-bat, and he knocked that pitch out of the park with the addition of former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was announced as the new defensive coordinator of the Vols in a release late Saturday night.

"We are very excited about the addition of Bob Shoop to our coaching staff," Jones said in a statement. "Bob has established himself as one of the premier coordinators in all of college football and is very well-respected as a recruiter, football coach and person. He brings a wealth of experience at the highest level and possesses all the qualities we were looking for as we went through this process."

Shoop's defenses have been nothing short of spectacular in State College.

The Nittany Lions finished with the Big Ten's best defense in 2014, giving up just 278.7 yards per game and 4.27 yards per play, and gave up 4.78 yards per play in 2015—his second season with the program. Prior to that, Shoop coordinated a Vanderbilt defense that finished in the top six in total defense in the SEC every year from 2011-2013, and second in yards per play in 2013 (5.07).

"This was not an easy decision and one that I didn’t take lightly," Shoop said in a statement. "Over the last 24 hours I had an opportunity to meet with Coach Jones and his staff.  It became evident to me that he is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship." 

It's not like Shoop is taking over a broken defense.

The Vols finished third in the nation in third-down defense under Jancek in 2015 (27.6 percent), on the heels of a 2014 campaign in which they finished 16th (34.21 percent). Fourth-down defense under Jancek wasn't great, which is a big reason the Vols lost to Florida for the 11th straight year and missed out on what would have been their first appearance in the SEC Championship Game since 2007.

As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports' noted on Twitter, he's walking into a perfect situation:

Cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are weighing their NFL decisions, monster defensive end Derek Barnett will be back as a true junior in 2016, talented youngsters Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be back up front and the secondary is still littered with talented youngsters like Todd Kelly and Evan Berry.

The window for Tennessee to return to the prominence it once enjoyed under Phillip Fulmer is wide-open in the SEC East thanks to the coaching changes at South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri, the quarterback issue at Florida and the depth that Jones has developed on Rocky Top over the last three recruiting cycles.

Jones knows it, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run that should resonate around the rest of the conference.

The Vols are going big, and Shoop's arrival is only more evidence.

It's a hire that could put Tennessee over the top and send it to Atlanta in early December.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

B/R CFB 250: Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R Experts Matt Miller, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, Brian Pedersen presents the Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks.

 

Other CFB 250 Positions

 

The dual-threat quarterback has become the most coveted type of player in college football. That athlete with a special blend of passing acumen and running ability who can just as easily go from one to the other in a moment's notice. Across the country, more and more teams are moving toward an uptempo offense, and having a quarterback who can do it all is essential to this attack.

But just being able to run and throw effectively isn't a guarantee of success, as several of the players who were on our preseason list of the top dual-threat QBs have either dropped in the rankings or out of them altogether. They were replaced by another batch of great mobile passers.

The following rankings are based primarily on players' skills as college players rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are centered on helping their teams succeed.

The ratings are based on a tabulation of four different categories (arm strength, accuracy, mobility and intangibles) and based on evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts. 

 

NOTE: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would gave a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.

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College Football Championship 2016: Predictions for Stars in Alabama vs. Clemson

The College Football Playoff system worked well this year. The best two teams are going to play for the national championship Monday night, 8:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and there's not one team that didn't qualify for the CFP that can make a legitimate claim it was better than the Clemson Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide.

According to Odds Shark, Alabama is a 5.5-point favorite. The two biggest reasons Alabama is favored to win are its powerful running game and stout defense.

After establishing itself as the top run defense in the nation and one of the stingiest defenses in regard to points allowed, the unit proved its mettle by shutting out the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve.  

 

Regarding Henry

Alabama quarterback Jake Coker had a surprisingly strong game against the Spartans, but the threat of the running game set up much of his success. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry will be back as the primary weapon in the championship game.   

After running the ball 90 times combined in the Iron Bowl and SEC championship, Henry only had 20 carries against the Spartans. With the decreased workload and the big gap in time between the national semifinal and the national championship, Henry should be fresh.

In what will likely be his last college game, Henry will punctuate a great career at Alabama with a big performance. Clemson has the 18th-ranked run defense, but it has been victimized on a number of occasions this year.

Appalachian State (202) and Syracuse (242) have both eclipsed 200 yards on the ground against Clemson. The Florida State Seminoles ran for 197 yards against the Tigers. With those totals, it's easy to see Alabama having success on the ground. 

That should equate to a big day from Henry.

 

Watson, This Won't Be Elementary

Per Bryan Beasley of ESPN.com, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has been excellent against the blitz this season:

Watson has been blitzed on 27 percent of his dropbacks during his career, slightly more than the Power 5 average. Watson has had success on such plays, throwing 22 touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking third in both QBR (92) and yards per attempt (10.2) among Power 5 players. 

All of that information is impressive, but the truth is Alabama doesn't need to blitz to get pressure. Its primary rushers in A'Shawn Robinson, Tim Williams and others are so nasty that there's no need to bring extra pressure.

Simply rushing four will allow Alabama to drop up to seven in pass protection on most downs or six and one to spy Watson.

Alabama's speed and versatility will make it tough for the Heisman finalist to do damage. He'll make a decent account of himself, but this won't be the QB's best performance.

 

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie

This year's crop of inside linebackers looks to be especially strong. After the national championship game, Alabama's Reggie Ragland will be seen as one of the top two prospects at the position. 

Collectively, Alabama's defense is the best in the nation, but Ragland is the proven leader. Athletically, he's capable of making plays against the run and the pass, but what stands out with Ragland is his leadership skills.

In an interview with Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, Ragland spoke about the difference between this year's team and the one that fell short in 2014:

Everybody on the team knew that leadership wasn't the right way (last year). But some guys can't say nothing about it. But now I can say something because I'm a leader. And I feel like, if I don't like something, I'm going to say it. The guys on the team know we got to do this the right way, because the right way gets it done. The wrong way doesn't. Guys are very focused in coming in on the plane and all. So I can tell my guys are ready already.

Expect him to fly around the field and make plays and adjustments at the line of scrimmage while leading 'Bama to a victory.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama vs. Clemson: Preview, Prediction for 2016 College Football Championship

So, as it turns out, having the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve isn’t actually a great idea. Terrible ratings aside, though, the worst thing about the Orange and Cotton Bowls was that they were, to put it simply, boring.

Both Alabama and Clemson were clearly the better teams in their respective matchups, and there was little doubt by the end of the game that the committee had named gotten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams correct, even if Ohio State and Stanford fans scream until they turn blue.

But where there were bad semifinals, there is the chance at an epic clash in the national championship. With an established dynasty facing off against a team that has been on the fringe of the title picture without actually throwing its hat into the ring until this season, this could be a clash for the ages.

With two Heisman finalists—including the winner—in Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson set to take center stage, there is no absence of star power in the championship game, and it very likely could come down to which superstar plays better Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Kickoff will take place at 8:30 p.m., with game coverage on ESPN.

Odds are, though, both players will find their typical amount of success. So before making a final score prediction, let’s take a look at which players could swing the game in their team’s favor.

 

X-Factor for Each Team

Alabama: QB Jake Coker

It might seem a bit unfair to label a starting quarterback for any team as an X-factor in the biggest matchup of the year, but when it comes to Alabama, there is this idea that the signal-callers are merely there to not screw up.

While the defense and the running backs take all the accolades, the quarterbacks are asked to not lose games, or at least that’s how the stereotype goes. But this has never really been a fair assessment, and this season has been no different with Jake Coker.

After emerging from a seemingly arbitrary competition in the early stages of the season, Coker hasn’t quite hit the heights Greg McElroy or AJ McCarron did, but he has had an outstanding season and showed he is more than capable of winning a title.

Against Michigan State, the veteran quarterback finished 25-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and was a huge part of the 38-0 victory. If he can repeat his Cotton Bowl performance against Clemson, it could be hard for the Tigers to keep up.

 

Clemson WR: Hunter Renfrow

Beyond the obvious of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, there might not be a more valuable player for the Clemson Tigers on offense than No. 1 receiver Artavis Scott. Leading the team in receptions and yards by a wide margin, the sophomore is clearly Watson’s top target, and that isn’t likely to change in the title game.

Thing is, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is more than aware of this fact and will game-plan as such, leaving the door open for the rest of the receiving corps to step up for the Tigers when their name is called. With Charone Peake drawing his share of attention in the secondary and Deon Cain suspended, it could come down to Hunter Renfrow to fill that role.

Only a freshman, Renfrow finished the season with 404 yards and three touchdowns through the air—fifth on the team—but stepped up in a big way when called on, putting in vital performances against Louisville, N.C. State and Oklahoma.

His showing against the Sooners, in particular—four catches for 59 yards and a score—could be a sign of things to come if Alabama elects to focus on Clemson’s top two receivers. Don’t be surprised if the matchup comes down to how the freshman receiver performs under pressure.

 

Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 20

Whether it be the natural charisma that Watson brings to the table or the typical idea of Clemson as a high-flying, speedy offensive team—which was the case during the last half-decade or more—the thing that gets overlooked by most casual fans is just how good the Tigers are defensively.

Ranking No. 6 in the country in yards per game allowed and No. 16 in points per game—a number that doesn’t do justice to the season as a whole, with games against N.C. State and North Carolina breaking the curve—Clemson dominated the Oklahoma offense, one of the most balanced in the country, to earn a spot here and cannot be overlooked in the title game.

But while the Tigers might be able to hold Alabama and Henry in check, none of that will matter if they can’t score themselves, and against the Crimson Tide that is easier said than done.

Alabama has only allowed more than 25 points once this season, and that was in a game where the team turned the ball over five times and saw the ball bounce in Ole Miss’ favor time and again. After watching Ohio State run over his defense in the semifinal the year before, Nick Saban isn’t going to let the same thing happen with Clemson this time around, and it could result in a defensive struggle for the ages.

It will be far more entertaining than some of Alabama’s field-goal heavy clashes with LSU in the past, but with scoring at a premium the Crimson Tide should have an advantage with their run-based attack and will keep their dynasty rolling with a close win against Clemson.

All stats via cfbstats.com

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: 5 Reasons Why the Volunteers Should Be Optimistic About 2016

It was a strong conclusion to the season for the Tennessee football program, and 2016 started with a sizzle as well.

After the Volunteers won five consecutive games to end the regular season, they pummeled Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.

Then when he lost tight ends coach Mark Elder to Eastern Kentucky and parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, head coach Butch Jones upgraded his staff by hiring Larry Scott from Miami to replace Elder and securing Penn State's Bob Shoop to lead the defense.

Tennessee is finally beginning to flex its muscles as a college football alpha dog again, and with tons of talent returning in 2016, there's no reason to believe the Vols won't be in contention for the SEC championship. If that's the case, playing for the national title can't be that far behind.

Ever since Jones signed his first full, loaded recruiting class in 2014, the '16 season has been circled on Tennessee's calendar as "The Year of the Vols." They were oh so close this season, finishing 9-4 and coming just a 4th-and-14 failure away from playing in Atlanta for the league championship.

Instead, inexperience on the field and on the sideline led to losses. But as the season progressed, so did the Vols' capacity to make plays at important moments. By the time the Outback Bowl rolled around, they handled business.

Now the expectations and exposure will be rampant leading up to next season. Jones made some coaching tweaks in attempts to take UT to the next level, and all those great players are going to be a year older.

There's plenty about which to be excited for Vols fans as the calendar flips to '16. Let's take a look at the reasons.

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Alabama's Secret Superstar, Bo Scarbrough, May Not Even Play in Title Game

PHOENIX — I have spent the past 10 minutes trying to convince myself that the man standing before me is a running back. It simply cannot be. Linebacker? Sure. Defensive end? Why not. But running back? Not a chance.

His shoulders are bursting out of the sleeves of his jersey—like two spaceships waiting to blast off into orbit. His arms are a sight to behold, even when completely at ease. In fact, his entire body is constructed of granite and full of fury. His hands are the size of catchers’ mitts.

Standing among his Alabama teammates—a congregation of some of the most physically gifted human beings on the planet—he still manages to stand out. He is the one you can't help but notice first. He is a superman among men.

He stands 6’2” and weighs 240 pounds—his ideal playing body. He has a bench press of 475 pounds and a squat of 540 pounds. He was recently clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has clocked sub-4.4 40s in the past.

He is not Derrick Henry. He is Bo Scarbrough, the future of Alabama football.

Right now, however, no one seems to care. Days before the national championship, the media is far more interested in peppering Nick Saban with questions about his legacy and “the process.” They want to hear what Jake Coker has in store for an encore. They want to speak with Henry before his final collegiate game.

The world doesn't know this Bo. Not yet, at least.

Henry has him beat with the ruler—standing a good two inches taller than the man who will eventually replace him. In terms of thickness, Scarbrough bests the Heisman winner. He is put together unlike anyone the sport has seen in some time. Maybe ever. 

I asked each player who weighed more. They both simply smiled and laughed it off. Truth is, it probably changes weekly.

“I told everybody that he’s kind of like Adrian Peterson,” IMG Academy (FL) assistant coach Adam Behrends told Bleacher Report. Behrends worked with Scarbrough his senior year of high school. “Kids like this only come around once every 10 years. I haven’t really been around anybody like Bo.”

Scarbrough is the essence of Alabama’s unrelenting run of dominance—a prodigy in a long line of prodigies that has to wait his turn. In all likelihood, he will not play a single down on Monday night.

This year, Scarbrough carried the ball 18 times. Those 18 carries—10 of which came in a single game—have already turned him into a cult hero in Tuscaloosa. 

The instant Henry and his Heisman bolt to the NFL, Scarbrough will become a fixture. For now, for one more night, he will serve as Alabama’s mop-up man. When the game has been decided and the starters are removed for the day, Scarbrough goes to work.

By the time he was inserted into the Cotton Bowl, Alabama fans were booking plane tickets and hotel rooms with their iPhones in the stands. They had checked out, and the next game was coming into focus. Still, when Scarbrough emerged from the sideline in the final minutes, his presence set off murmurs in the crowd. He gave the blowout life.

True to his folklore, Scarbrough unleashed a preview of the years to come. The measureables were put to use in a single moment. When they were, Tide fans and the Alabama sideline erupted.

“He's done a very nice job,” Saban said. “He had to overcome adversity after being injured in the spring where he was having a very good effective spring practice, so it's taken him a while to come back physically. But I think he's gotten more and more confident.”

This has not come out of nowhere. Scarbrough was 247Sports' No. 2 athlete and the No. 16 overall player in the 2014 class. When he committed to Alabama, Saban knew precisely what kind of player he was getting.

Even at the prestigious IMG Academy—a place that cycles through 5-star players every year—Scarbrough was looked at differently. The coaches had not seen anyone quite like him.

“Once you see him in a cutoff on the field, you think he’s going to be good because he’s just bigger than everybody,” Behrends said. “He’s not just one of those guys who’s really good because he’s bigger and faster than everybody. He was better than everybody because he was just better than everything.”

In the red zone, Scarbrough would convert into the team’s go-to receiver. When he did, the team would often call “Him” routes.

The route was exactly what the name implies. There was no progression. There was no need to read defense. Because Scarbrough was bigger and could leap higher than anyone else, the concept was simple: Throw it up to Bo, and throw it high. Let him go up in the air and grab it.

“I’d say it worked 90 percent of the time,” Behrends said.

On the ground, Scarbrough ran for 1,420 yards and 19 touchdowns in only nine games—missing two due to injury. He averaged nearly 11 yards per carry. He also averaged more than 14 yards per reception.

When there was no opening to run through, he would still find one. In the film room, the coaches would marvel at how a back with such size would maneuver through such tight openings.

In the open field, the staff would watch Scarbrough outrun players he outweighed by more than 50 pounds.

“He has such long strides,” Behrends said. “He’s just got veins bursting in his legs, calves and knees. When he ran, it looked like a racehorse going around the track.”

When Scarbrough arrived on campus, he was dealt a flurry of setbacks in his first 18 months. 

Due to academic issues, Scarbrough didn’t enroll at Alabama until the spring semester of 2015, missing the entirety of what would have been his freshman season. When he finally joined the team during the spring of 2015, he promptly tore his ACL. He was then suspended for four games in August due to an NCAA matter.

“In high school, you’re the guy,” Scarbrough said. “But once you get to college, everybody is the same. You can’t question anybody but yourself about how to get better. I think the waiting has really made me grow mentally.”

Scarbrough only saw action in four games this season, debuting against Georgia in early October. The combined final score of the four games he played was 163-22.

When Alabama decided it had buried an opponent deep enough, Scarbrough would then be given a chance. One can’t help but appreciate just how much of a rich man’s problem Alabama has on its hands.

Fully aware of the routine, Behrends would watch games—even the grandest of blowouts—until the conclusion. If a game turned sideways early, he knew his former player had a better chance of getting in. He rooted for routs.

Scarbrough, fully aware of his current status, has welcomed a role that would frustrate most.

“I’m going to do everything I am supposed to do,” Scarbrough said. “Most athletes with 15 seconds left don’t want to get in the game. I do. I’m going to take advantage of every chance that I get.”

If it were another university—perhaps any other program, really—things would be different. Bo would be starting and starring. Talents of his caliber aren’t often tucked away and stored for later.

But Alabama is a different kind of brute. Even the rarest of freak shows have to pay their dues.

This year’s Heisman winner knows this more than anyone. Henry waited until his junior year before assuming the role of the team’s primary back. The similarities between the two extend well beyond their physical makeup.

“He’s come back from injury, worked hard and gotten better,” Henry said of Scarbrough. “As the season has progressed, he’s improved each and every week.”

It’s simply a matter of time. The mystique that follows Scarbrough will morph into something more—something tangible and real. Until then, perhaps on Monday night the score will turn lopsided enough for Saban to call for a 5-star mop-up in the closing moments. 

If he does, listen for the roar.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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Jim Harbaugh Reportedly Attempting to Hold Michigan's Spring Practice in Florida

Michigan Wolverines head football coach Jim Harbaugh is always trying to stay one step ahead of the competition. His latest idea involves holding his team's spring practice out of state in Florida.

Per TheWolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), Michigan is looking into practicing at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Snyder said Harbaugh has been to the IMG Academy campus numerous times, and the cost should not be an issue for a school with a large budget like Michigan.

While the NCAA bylaws don't mention anything about a team's practice location, Harbaugh may still face some hurdles, per Snyder:

The issues would be the location and the amount of practice time. The NCAA spring practice rules (bylaw 17.10.6.4) govern how often a team can practice (15 times) and the span (34 calendar days not counting schools vacations) and how much contact there can be (only in 12 of the 15 practices). There is nothing noted about the location.

Often northern coaches have to schedule their spring practices around the school's spring break. Either they will start spring practice after the break or they will do what Brady Hoke did two years ago at U-M and Harbaugh did last year, have a few practices before the break, then stop for the 10 days and then resume after the break.

Michigan's spring break is from Feb. 27 to March 6, and if the team uses this timeframe for spring practice, Florida's warm weather would be appealing to players and potential recruits who aren't used to the colder northern weather.

If Harbaugh uses this break, he would still have to abide by the same practice rules he does when classes are in session, according to Snyder:

The rules state it still would have to mirror the in-school rules: "Any such practice sessions held during vacation days may not be of longer duration than those normally held when academic classes are in session."

One potential complication, if the Big Ten or NCAA nix the idea. Despite no apparent roadblocks in the bylaws, the conference and national organization likely would have to clear it before the Wolverines followed through.

Yet in unusual or unconventional situations, schools usually have the idea vetted for through their own compliance department and cleared by the conference and/or NCAA before proceeding. That is the procedure Michigan State followed when its basketball team attended the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31.

This alone may not be the difference between landing the No. 10 and No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, but Harbaugh looks for all of the advantages he can find—and when added up, they can make a big difference.

He uses every available practice hour he can, per Snyder, who noted Harbaugh uses his assistant coaches as much as he can when it comes to recruiting:

The "Summer Swarm," as Michigan called it, had the U-M coaches in 10 different locations in seven different states from June 4-12. As much as it disturbed coaches in those states -- especially in the SEC and ACC who were not allowed to have their own "satellite camps" -- it was within the NCAA rules.

Whatever he's doing must be working. After Michigan's five-win season in 2014, Harbaugh guided the Wolverines to 10 wins in his first season, and they have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, per 247Sports.

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Toughness Is the Key to Nick Saban's Alabama Dynasty

PHOENIX — The University of Alabama football team has numerous goals every year, which often translate into trophies and titles at the end of a season.

But one that often gets overlooked may best explain the Crimson Tide's success under head coach Nick Saban.

Alabama wants to be the toughest team in college football. Not just collectively—but on each unit and at every position.

“There are a lot of tough guys,” senior quarterback Jake Coker said. “I think if we didn’t have the amount of tough guys that we have, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Coker himself won over a lot of his teammates with his toughness, dropping his shoulder and taking on linebackers and defensive backs at the end of some of his runs. No one questions that aspect of running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s game, as his pushing carries helped close out games down the stretch.

On the defensive line, A’Shwan Robinson is about as intimidating as can be, and he has a lot of company.

“That defensive line is a pretty nasty group, one of the meanest I’ve ever seen,” Coker said. “Sometimes we’re out there practicing, and we’re listening to them and it’s like ‘Man, that’s a little rough right there. We’re still on the same team.’ We wouldn’t be as good without that mentality.”

If the Crimson Tide took an informal poll to choose the toughest player on the toughest team, one player who would certainly get votes is senior right tackle Dominick Jackson.

Anyone who wants to understand what Saban’s "Process" is all about has only to look at Jackson, who may have advanced as a player more than anyone else on the roster over the past two seasons.

At 6’6,” 315 lbs., Jackson would stand out anywhere, but he does even more in Tuscaloosa because of his appearance. The self-described “city” guy likes big gold chains and sports a ton of ink.

“I love tattoos,” he said. “They’re therapeutic. I just like them. I promised my mom I wouldn’t tatt my face or my neck for later on in life. I have a whole [arm] sleeve, my chest and my stomach, the inside of my arm, my leg, my hand and my back.”

His favorite is on the arm. It’s the Alabama script-A logo that begins to spell out his 1-year-old daughter’s name, Aiyana. When he shows it, it’s with pride.

Moreover, Jackson’s from California. He attended Homestead High School in Cupertino, which is just west of San Jose on the edge of the Santa Clara Valley. While he was a good player, his grades were not. So to keep playing, he had to go the junior college route, spending two years at the College of San Mateo.

The Bulldogs ran an option offense that helped him develop a reputation as a mauler in the running game. The flip side to that was Jackson hardly ever pass protected, which is the toughest thing to develop at this level.

“It was a wing-T offense, and I came here and played big-time, NFL, spread, power, big-boy football,” Jackson said. “I’m just thankful to be here.”

So yeah, he stood out. The other Tide players from California, Isaac Luatua, Richard Mullaney, Cole Mazza and Blake Barnett, made it easier for him to fit in. The coaches went to work on his pass-blocking.

Just getting him back on track academically was also a big task. But Alabama’s academic center helped him make progress in the classroom.

The key word there was “work,” and he put a whole lot in.

“He was like taking a large-mouth bass and throwing in the middle of the ocean a coral reef. This guy was all over the place,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said. “But the one thing that always stood out was his motor and a desire to get it done. As long as he had that, we’d find a way.”

Although an injury slowed his initial progress in 2014, it was steady and continual. Jackson played in eight games as a reserve and the jumbo-blocking back in goal-line situations last season, and then won the starting job over the offseason. Every week he got better, and with each game the line became a little tighter.

Jackson ended up getting beat for a sack only twice this season while being credited with 43 knockdown blocks that ranked third on the team. Alabama won the inaugural Joe Moore Award for having the best offensive line, and of course, the Heisman went to Henry.

When the coaches handed out team honors after winning the Southeastern Conference title, Jackson was one of four to receive an Up-Front Award (for the outstanding lineman from each unit), along with defensive end Jonathan Allen, center Ryan Kelly and guard Ross Pierschbacher.

He was also named second-team All-SEC by the conference coaches.

“He’s a tremendous competitor with tremendous ability,” Cristobal said. “I really think his best football is still in front of him. He’s now really learning how to play the game. He’s a tough, physical son-of-a-gun who’s really earned the respect of his teammates.

“Alabama isn’t for everybody. Alabama is for people who want to be great, who want to be challenged, pushed, motivated every single day.”

So should Alabama defeat Clemson for the national championship on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), it’ll be because of guys like Jackson, who might be the most overlooked player on the Crimson Tide offense.

It’ll be because of a line that has starters who are as different as can be and hail from California, Ohio, Iowa, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, yet play together as one.

It’ll be because it again had the toughest team in college football, which has been the key to Saban’s dynasty with the Crimson Tide and might cause Jackson to get another tattoo to match the one celebrating the 2014 SEC championship—although he isn’t ready to say so yet. 

“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said with a smile.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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