NCAA Football News
Running back Eric Swinney is quickly approaching a commitment, with an announcement looming on May 16. According to Fox Sports reporter Chad Simmons, his decision has come down to three teams:
The trio of SEC squads are finalists in a recruitment that features more than 20 programs. The 4-star prospect previously considered offers from Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Miami, Ohio State and Oregon.
Swinney, a 5'10", 188-pound standout at Sandy Creek High School (Tyrone, Georgia), is rated No. 12 nationally among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings. He's listed at No. 98 overall in the 2015 class.
Swinney shoulders the load for Sandy Creek's offensive attack and took 288 handoffs during the past two seasons. He averaged nearly nine yards per carry as a sophomore and junior combined, rushing for 2,499 yards and 43 touchdowns.
His receiving skills also shined in 2013, when Swinney caught 11 passes for 325 yards and four touchdowns. He's a dual-threat athlete out of the backfield who displays potential to contribute early in college.
Now that he's reportedly focused on a trio of programs, it's an appropriate time to examine the opportunities each team presents.
Tennessee, Auburn and Ole Miss are each in uniquely different situations at running back. So which squad has the most dire need for an impact player at the position?
Here's a look at each option.
Former Sandy Creek star Rajion Neal led the Volunteers in rushing last season as a senior. He should have plenty of inside information to share about Tennessee with the young man who currently carries the ball at his alma mater.
Marlin Lane, a rising senior, received the second-most handoffs in Knoxville last season. He rushed for 534 yards and four touchdowns in 2013 but won't be on the roster when Swinney would be set to arrive on campus.
True freshman Jalen Hurd enrolled early and figures to see plenty of action during his first collegiate campaign. He missed nearly all of his senior high school season with an injury but rushed for more than 3,300 yards and 43 scores as a junior.
If Hurd emerges as a formidable force this fall, there's reason to believe he'd be in line to serve as the team's workhorse back through at least 2016.
Still, there's always room for a change-of-pace counterpart, and Swinney would fit the bill. Tennessee is set to lose Neal, along with veteran reserves Deanthonie Summerhill and Devrin Young, from the depth chart after this season, so there's an immediate need for running back reinforcements.
The Rebels landed 3-star Texas running back Rawleigh Williams III last month but remain on the hunt for more backfield talent. Ole Miss didn't feature a 1,00-yard back in 2013, but five players gained at least 300 yards on the ground.
Junior I'Tavius Mathers was the team's leading rusher last season and aims to build on a spring game performance that featured a 96-yard touchdown run. He's joined in the backfield by Jaylen Walton, who started seven games as a sophomore last season.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins is bigger than both of his more experienced teammates and gives Ole Miss a young player with power-back potential. He scored a touchdown in the spring game and figures to fill a significant role this fall.
The Rebels welcome top-ranked 2014 junior college running back Akeem Judd to campus this year. Ole Miss also signed in-state recruit D.K. Buford in February, adding a player with multidimensional skills that compare to Swinney.
2013 Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason will be playing on Sundays this fall, but there's still plenty of playmakers at the running back position in Gus Malzahn's attack. The Tigers produced more than 4,500 yards on the ground last season, resulting in an SEC title and BCS National Championship Game appearance.
Seniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne are each coming off 600-yard, six-touchdown efforts. However, neither player factors into the equation when examining the team's need for Swinney.
Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could see immediate reps but wasn't able to make inroads during spring game action. He suffered an injury on his first carry, though it's not considered a serious setback.
There's certainly a chance Barber will be passed on the depth chart by incoming freshman Roc Thomas. The 5-star signee has the physical makeup of a college-ready running back and rushed for 2,200 yards last fall.
Auburn's 2015 class already includes Tallahassee product D'Anfernee McGriff, a 4-star recruit who committed in April. Auburn loses two talented backs after this season but should be just fine given its collection of young standouts.
None of Swinney's finalists face dire straits at running back, but given the presence of new All-American talents Hurd and Thomas, it appears Tennessee and Auburn are in excellent shape when it comes to youth at the position.
Both teams lose key contributors from the rotation after this season, while Ole Miss could retain its entire stable of impact running backs if no one enters the NFL draft early. Still, the Rebels don't quite have the level of talent waiting in the wings that Tennessee and Auburn possess.
Swinney would have to bide his time at any of his top three options, but his best shot at an expanded role in 2016 seems to be in Oxford. He would have a true opportunity to emerge as a feature back before his third season on campus at Ole Miss—that path would be more convoluted at Tennessee and Auburn.
Ole Miss may need him most, but the decision ultimately comes down to where Swinney feels most comfortable. Whichever team adds him to the 2015 class will pick up a versatile playmaker capable of doing damage against SEC opponents for years to come.
Recruit information and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
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The grueling stretch of the offseason is officially here, which means all anyone can do is pine for Aug. 27, when the 2014 season gets underway.
In the meantime, it's time to examine which one-on-one matchups to look forward to when the season does start. From wide receivers and cornerbacks to quarterbacks and linebackers and everything in between, there will be plenty of star power on the field in 2014.
Which matchups should catch the most attention?
Spring workouts at Oregon were about one thing above all else: improvement. Head coach Mark Helfrich said the Ducks made progress to that end, per Stephen Alexander of the Portland Tribune: "Overall, we got better. Through 14 practices, we really got better, and we’re really pleased with where we are."
The conclusion of spring practice turns attention to Aug. 30, the date of Oregon's 2014 season opener against South Dakota.
With the groundwork laid, Helfrich and his staff must now begin shaping the Ducks lineup. Some spots in the rotation are easily tabbed—the Ducks return All-Conference and All-America honorees on both sides of the ball.
Other positions feature internal competitions that will rage into preseason camp. Still, the spring provides some clarity into just what the Oregon lineup will resemble come Week 1.
High school football prospects choose their colleges for myriad reasons. There is proximity and prestige and, if you're cynical, a cadre of dedicated "bag men" slipping payments under the table.
Even the less cynical among us, however, cannot deny that money plays a motivating factor. Everybody wants to make a healthy living, and for teenagers good enough at football to earn an FBS scholarship, the thought of being drafted into the NFL and cashing a seven- or eight-figure paycheck is hard to set aside.
But where would a player like that be best served?
Coming out of high school, which schools have done the best job taking signed players, coaching them up, putting them in a position to succeed, training them for the rigors of the draft process—both on the field and off—and shipping them away to the NFL?
That is what we set out to find before this weekend's NFL draft, albeit with a few stipulations.
Namely, we did not count players who transferred into the program from another FBS school or out of the program at all.
This was done in part because of logistics, as there is no good way to quantify which school "developed" the player more, but also because it is not necessarily what we're looking for.
What we're looking for are programs that started the job and finished it, that are telling the truth when they harp to a prospect about their rich history of nurturing talent.
Starting with the 2007 NFL draft—which in many (but not all) cases was the first entered by players from the recruiting class of 2003—only 21 FBS schools have had 25 or more players drafted.
Those teams are, in alphabetical order:
Alabama, California, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Iowa, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Nebraska, UNC, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Texas, USC and Virginia Tech.
But how does this group stack up beyond that?
Let's take a look and find out.
The Overall Leaderboard
Pete Carroll can't stop winning things.
Although USC has had just seven players drafted the past two seasons, its dominance in the early and middle part of last decade was so profound that it still came out atop the list of overall drafted players. And it did so by a healthy margin:
The schism in USC's draft numbers is obvious, occurring predictably around the time Carroll left for the NFL and the program was hit with scholarship restrictions for committing NCAA violations.
Carroll's replacement, Lane Kiffin, recruited well considering the situation he inherited, but he did not develop his own or Carroll's leftover talent the way his forerunner did. That left USC relying mostly on two huge draft classes to finish this study on top.
By contrast, the two teams behind USC were paragons of consistency.
LSU had six players drafted in three consecutive years between 2009 and 2011 and an average of six for the five-year span that sandwiched it (with seven players drafted in 2008 and five in 2012).
Georgia, meanwhile, was tied with Clemson for the smallest range in the top 10, never finishing with more than eight or less than four players selected—and doing both of those things exactly once.
There are different ways to dominate a decade, especially with the waxing and waning so many programs experience over 10 years.
Which means, of course, that the overall leaderboard does not tell the entire story. We can decipher part of what happened the past decade by looking at it, but not everything.
In order to do that, we must dive even deeper.
The Star Raiser
If you live anywhere but Tuscaloosa, Ala., it is frustrating to watch what Nick Saban does in recruiting. His past four classes have ranked first, first, first and first in the country on the Rivals.com (and 247Sports) team rankings and featured 16 5-star recruits.
This has not been happening for no reason. The bluest of blue-chip prospects are not merely charmed by Saban's accent or engaging in some follow-the-leader sort of groupthink; they are noticing a trend.
A trend the school has not been shy about flaunting:
Alabama pitches itself as a school that can make players money. Big whoop. So do a lot of schools. Is it actually telling the truth?
In short, the answer is yes. At every level. But at the 5-star level in particular—the level where Saban cleaned up by landing six commitments this cycle—the answer is yes resoundingly:
*Note: Does not include players that entered the 2006 NFL draft, players that entered the 2014 NFL draft or players that are still on the team.
Earlier this year, I took a look at how 5-star prospects have fared in the NFL since the first Rivals.com class in 2002. On pure draft rate, ignoring where they are picked and how well they play, I found that they are selected at a 52.8 percent clip—or at least that that was the case up through the recruiting class of 2008.
That Saban succeeds almost 11 percent more often is good, although the sample size is hardly ideal. However, that is not what makes this chart so remarkable. It's the part about average draft position.
Of the teams with at least three 5-star prospects drafted, none came even close to Alabama's ADP (average draft position) of 21.6. The nearest was Ohio State with an ADP of 48.4, which was still more than two times worse.
What's more, Alabama's draft position numbers actually look better when you examine the players in question:
Nico Johnson is a manifest outlier, holding back the other six players on the list. Without him, this number would go from impressive to incredible—and he wasn't even drafted outside the top 100!
Excluding Johnson, none of the other 5-star recruits Alabama has had drafted since Saban arrived have gone outside the top 20, and five-of-six have gone inside the top 11. Their six-man ADP is 8.7.
This year, Alabama has safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and tackle Cyrus Kouandjio entered in the draft as former 5-stars. Their selections will likely bring that score down on aggregate—B/R's Matt Miller has them going No. 13 and No. 37 overall in his big board-based mock draft—but the difference should be negligible, and they will further increase the sample size and pump up Alabama's draft ratio to 9-of-13 (69.2%).
So when the next 5-star prospect commits to Alabama, try to empathize before harassing him, casting him aside as a no-good front-runner and swearing him your lifelong enemy.
Would you have the chutzpah to turn down such great odds at making it? To turn down such great odds at making millions?
"It's grown men. They are asking me why I did this to them," Evans said of all the backlash, according to Evan Bone of TideSports.com. "I told them I had to do what is best for me."
Auburn, for the record, did not even make this list.
The Quiet Giant
How on Earth did North Carolina make this list?
That's a fair question.
Especially if you look at the notable omissions—teams such as Auburn, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Stanford, UCLA and Texas A&M—it befuddles to think the Tar Heels are grouped up with the Alabamas, LSUs and USCs of the world in terms of talent production.
They aren't just grouped with them, either; in some ways, they actually exceed them. Not in terms of overall draft picks, of course, but in terms of where those draft picks came from and what part of the draft they were selected in:
UNC churns out top-90 selections like almost no team in the country.
Despite ranking toward the bottom of the list with only 25 overall draft picks—the minimum requirement for inclusion—they are tied with Oklahoma with the sixth most top-90 draft picks since 2007. The only teams they trail are Alabama, Florida, LSU, Texas and USC.
Below is a small sampling of teams that did not produce as many top-90 draft picks as North Carolina, along with their average Rivals.com recruiting ranking between 2003 and 2010:
This contrast is not meant as a hard scientific data point. A small few of the prospects from these classes declared for the NFL draft before 2007 or are still in school, so the entire sample was not studied.
Rather, the contrast is meant to merely nudge at the disadvantage UNC was dealing with. Even if you allow for some small margin of error, there is no denying the chasm between what kind of talent the Tar Heels recruited and what kind of talent Georgia, Florida State, Miami and Michigan dealt with on a yearly basis.
And yet, North Carolina pumped out more guys at the top end of the draft. Also, since they didn't have a single player drafted in 2007, the Tar Heels did all of this with a year shaved off the top. They were consistently able to turn lesser prospects into higher draft picks.
If the premise of this piece was "Teams that produced the most NFL draft picks in the last 10 years," USC would be the obvious leader with teams such as Georgia, LSU and Alabama filing in close behind.
But that's not the premise of this piece. The premise of this piece is "Teams that developed the most NFL draft picks in the last 10 years," and in that case, North Carolina deserves a tip of the cap.
(For that matter, so too does Iowa, which led all teams with 24 drafted players that were neither 4-star prospects nor 5-star prospects. The next highest total was 18.)
The Final Word
So what do we take away from all this?
Well, there was a pretty distinct top five—USC, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and Florida—that produced the most draft picks since 2007.
Those teams put themselves at an obvious advantage by recruiting well, but there is still something to be said for pumping out five or six NFL draft picks each season.
We all know that recruiting rankings aren't gospel.
This was proved further down the list by teams such as North Carolina, Iowa and even California, which consistently out-developed their rankings and produced draftable players. Those teams have combined to go 31-43 the past two seasons but still have 12 draft picks projected between them in Miller's seven-round mock.
Since 2007, in fact, Iowa has had more 3-star recruits (or worse) drafted than Auburn has had players drafted, period.
Auburn, meanwhile, has made two BCS National Championship Games and won a national title since 2010.
Ideally, a player wouldn't have to choose between winning games in college and fostering his draft stock. Logically, one of those things should kind of follow the other.
In reality, things aren't always so simple.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Bret Bielema's first season as Arkansas' head coach didn't go according to plan, but it wasn't due to lack of effort by the running backs.
Alex Collins rushed for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, and Jonathan Williams added 900 rushing yards and four touchdowns in an offense that was painfully one-dimensional.
It's up to quarterback Brandon Allen to add that second dimension through the air, but one thing Bielema did accomplish this spring was solidify a third option at running back.
Korliss Marshall, a 6'0", 203-pound sophomore, broke out in Arkansas' spring game last month, rushing for 99 yards and two touchdowns, including a 59-yarder, according to the box score released by Arkansas. His performance on spring's biggest stage impressed Allen.
“He’s a very fast back. He’s powerful, he’s strong and he can break away like you saw today," Allen said in quotes released by Arkansas. "He just adds to that trio of running backs we have going. They all three have their own special abilities. He’s a very explosive back.”
That trio could be one of the best running back groups in the SEC.
Sure, Alabama has T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyon Drake. Georgia has Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and talented freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Texas A&M has Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Tra Carson.
How does Arkansas' group compare to those?
It's right up there.
Collins' performance as a true freshman last season doesn't get talked about enough. He broke the century mark for a team in a season when the passing game was nonexistent and everybody in every building the Razorbacks played in knew what was coming.
It didn't matter to Collins, and it didn't matter to Bielema.
The same can be said for Williams, who fought the same battles Collins did when he was in the game. The two established players know that competition is good, and that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“It is competition, always," Williams said in quotes released by Arkansas. "It is good. Everyone is going to be working hard. I just feel like we should be running the ball 80 times a game.”
Whoa now, 80 times per game?
Sounds a bit like an exaggeration, but judging from Bielema's track-record, managing a trio of running backs won't be an issue.
In 2010 at Wisconsin, Bielema won a share of the Big Ten with James White (1,052 yards), John Clay (1,012 yards) and Montee Ball (996 yards) all splitting carries. That trio combined for 506 carries, and the Badgers as a team ran the ball 584 times—44.9 times per game.
This group of running backs is going to be solid even if Allen, Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney don't figure out a way to stretch the field.
If the passing game picks up and keeps opposing defenses honest, this running back corps could be the SEC's best.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Few entities in sports wear the bull's-eye on their backs more proudly than the college football programs in the SEC.
What has for years been heralded as the nation’s top conference prides itself on unveiling new banners and increasing space in the trophy cases for new hardware.
The 2014 season promises to provide one of the toughest challenges for SEC dominance, though. In case you haven’t noticed, the Pac-12 is very good and loaded with returning quarterback talent, only ramping up the competition for top conference honors. Stanford, Oregon and UCLA should be among the national elite teams. The middle class is just as tough, with teams like Arizona, Arizona State, USC and Washington making life out west difficult.
The Big Ten has three legitimate Top 10 contenders as well in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Furthermore, the departure of several key quarterbacks—Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, to name three—leaves the SEC relying on either new quarterbacks to produce right away or new teams to step up to carry the conference banner.
Teams like Florida, Mississippi State and Ole Miss—all of which return quarterbacks—need to improve for the league to maintain its reign over public opinion.
Today we examine 10 nonconference games critical in the SEC’s quest to remain the consensus pick as the nation’s top football conference.
We determined these games by considering the likelihood of a loss, what that loss would mean in the big picture to the conference and when and where the game is played.