NCAA Football News

Grading Every New College Football Head Coaching Hire

Once again, the 2015-16 college football coaching carousel is grinding to a halt. For now. On Thursday, Ball State hired Mike Neu as its new coach, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, and Texas State announced Everett Withers as its new leader (h/t Yahoo Sports). That leaves only Texas San-Antonio, which let veteran coach Larry Coker go earlier this week, as the only current FBS program with a head coach opening.

While the NFL sorts out its openings, that’s subject to change. But at the moment, the dust has mostly settled on the movement in head coaching circles for this season. Thus far, 26 programs have hired new head coaches. That’s up from last season, but the domino effect that some predicted in November hasn’t really materialized, with plenty of coordinators getting opportunities and several programs turning to interims to fill their vacancies from within.

While it takes several years to effectively evaluate a coaching hire, now is as good a time as any to give an initial grade to the hires. That’s what we’re doing here for all 26 programs that have filled vacancies.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think!

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Tracking Top Day 4 Practice Performers from 2016 Army All-American Bowl

SAN ANTONIO — Thursday was the final day of open practice for the U.S. Army All-Americans as they prepare for Saturday's much-anticipated U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome. The week has seen some of the best athletes in the 2016 class elevate their games—just in time for them to get ready for life in college.

The East vs. West showdown is expected to be competitive and intriguing. The participating athletes know that while they're there to enjoy the experience and overall atmosphere, they're also trying to prove they're the best at their respective positions. A few athletes have made their cases throughout the week.

The annual event has served as a platform for athletes who have made it to the NFL over the last 15 years, including Andrew Luck, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Peterson, Ndamukong Suh, Odell Beckham Jr. and many others. Every athlete to step on the Alamodome turf Saturday is hoping to follow in their footsteps.

With no Wednesday practice taking place, Thursday was huge as the athletes made their final tuneups in preparation for Saturday. Here are some of the players who made noise during Thursday's practice sessions.

 

West Team practice

Devin Asiasi: Big man, important target

It's easy to see that the tight end position will be important Saturday, and Asiasi is showing everyone why he's such a wanted athlete. Listed at 6'5" and 235 pounds, he finds a way to play bigger than his size—figuratively and literally.

What makes Asiasi so fun to watch is his hands. Seeing the big man make fingertip grabs and over-the-shoulder catches is enough to frustrate any defense. Additionally, in running situations, he makes for a sound blocker on the line.

Schools like Washington, USC, UCLA and Alabama are still in the mix for Asiasi. He will take three official visits this month, the first to Washington (Jan. 16), followed by Alabama (Jan. 22) and finally USC (Jan. 29). Some consider the Trojans a favorite, but Asiasi said he is still wide-open with his process.

 

Caleb Kelly: Raising the bar defensively

All week long, Kelly has risen to the occasion. In fact, some may say the 5-star prospect has elevated his game each practice, which is a great sign for the West roster.

Kelly's quickness, agility and lateral movement have made him a problem for the offense. He's a solid rush defender in run plays, and in passing situations, he's shown good coverage skills. Kelly plays the game with a high football IQ, and he's been a game-changer among game-changers as of late.

Kelly, the nation's No. 3 outside linebacker, has 24 reported offers but has narrowed his list to Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Oregon. He has made official visits to all three schools.

 

Landon Young: Rising to the occasion

If there's a player who may see a significant rise in his recruiting ranking, it's Young. The Kentucky commit has played well during the week, but he may have stepped up his game Thursday.

Long and agile, Young has done a good job at right tackle containing a group of defensive linemen who are looking to be buzz saws at the next level. During lineman blocking drills, Young showed his aggressiveness by scoring an emphatic pancake block on a defender. It was enough to garner shouts from his peers.

At 270 pounds, Young has room to add weight to his 6'7" frame, and Young said that's something Kentucky coaches really like. He's a streamlined big man who is technically sound and plays with a mean streak. He'll have a chance to show his skills against an East team with a talented defensive line group.

 

Usual suspects put on a show

All week long, it seems as though the same names are being praised. But there's a reason for that.

On offense, Shea Patterson is making his case as the nation's top-ranked quarterback. The Ole Miss commit has been the most consistent quarterback of the three on the West roster, and as he gets more and more comfortable with his teammates, you can see the confidence building with each throw.

On defense, Mark Jackson Jr. has been impressive and has silenced any argument about his size at defensive end—or lack thereof. Listed at 6'2" and 226 pounds, Jackson, a Texas A&M pledge, looks more like an outside linebacker, but his speed-rush ability and nose for the football make him dangerous to offenses in passing situations.

On both sides of the ball, Jack Jones has been phenomenal. He's been used more as a cornerback, and he's flourished in multiple drills. During Thursday's seven-on-seven play, he recorded an interception on one play, and on the very next play, he dropped what would have been a second pick. Jones has a top five of Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, UCLA and USC.

 

East Team practice nuggets (courtesy of 247Sports)

  • It was another solid day in the office for tight end Isaac Nauta. When he wasn't making one-handed grabs, he was giving key blocks to spring running backs. Nauta also showed his power by bulling over a defender after making a catch.
  • The defensive line as a unit has been good with Dexter Lawrence and Derrick Brown standing out as headliners. Thursday was Jonathon Cooper's time to shine, though. The Ohio State pledge showed explosiveness off the edge and played at a high-intensity level.
  • Is there anything Mecole Hardman Jr. can't do? He has been all over the field all week, and on Thursday, he lined up on the offensive side of the ball. With the ball in his hands as a receiver, you can expect yards after the catch. He's dangerous with the ball.

 

Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. All player heights and weights are courtesy of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Follow Damon via Twitter: @DamonSayles

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In What Likely Will Be Derrick Henry's Final Game for Alabama, Expect Greatness

In the College Football Playoff National Championship vs. top-ranked Clemson on Monday night, Alabama running back Derrick Henry might not break his single-game high of 271 rushing yards set vs. Auburn this year.

He might not break his single-game high of 46 carries he had in that same game.

He might not even extend his 19-game touchdown streak to 20 against the Tigers.

After all, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables boast a defense that has given up just 124.36 yards per game on the ground and is loaded with talented players in the front seven.

None of that matters though.

In what could be the final game for the junior Heisman Trophy winner before he moves on to the NFL, expect greatness. Expect Henry to grind it out when it matters most. Expect him to prove one more time that he is college football's ultimate closer.

"Obviously they've got the Heisman in Henry," said Swinney on Tuesday, according to CollegePressBox.com. "He's a whole different animal."

Indeed he is.

During his three years in Tuscaloosa, Henry has rushed for 1,954 yards in the second half/overtime of games, as opposed to 1,479 in the first half. That balanced out this year as he ascended to the top spot of the depth chart for the first time in his career.

But the 6'3", 242-pounder from Yulee, Florida, has proven from the moment that he stepped foot on campus that he shuts the door when head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin need him to.

And they'll need him to do it once more on Monday night.

While Alabama's defense is terrifying, its best defense against these Tigers is a good, punishing, ball-control offense. 

Clemson is built to hit every sore spot that typically presents issues for Alabama defenses.

It has a mobile quarterback in Deshaun Watson, who has topped the 100-yard mark on the ground in five of his last six games. It spreads defenses out with multiple wide receiver sets with studs like Artavis Scott.

It has a power rushing game within that spread led by Wayne Gallman, a sophomore from Grayson, Georgia, who has rushed for 1,482 yards and is one of the most underrated players in the nation. It uses tempo to prevent defenses from substituting, which allows Swinney to exploit mismatches when they develop.

With apologies to Ole Miss—which has topped the Tide in each of the last two seasons—Alabama hasn't seen an offense like this since the 2013 Auburn Tigers, who weren't as prolific in the passing attack as the 2015 Clemson Tigers. After all, while Ole Miss has had success against Alabama, it simply hasn't had the power rushing element that Swinney's crew boasts.

While guys like defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, as well as linebacker Reggie Ragland and others are directly responsible for shutting down Watson and Co., it's Henry who will have the biggest impact. 

As long as Clemson doesn't have too much success offensively, Alabama won't stray from its tried-and-true plan of a heavy dose of Henry, as SEC Network analyst "Booger" McFarland noted on WUMP's The Cole Cubelic Show in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday morning:

That should pay dividends in the second half against a Tiger defense that, while talented, hasn't seen anything like what the Heisman Trophy winner brings to the table. 

In Bleacher Report's expert picks, which was published on Thursday, I chose Alabama to win a close one, with Henry earning offensive MVP honors. Henry probably won't top his career high in yards, but he will grind it out in the second half, deflate the football and lead Alabama to its first national title since 2012. 

Statistically, it won't jump off the page.

But it will be the best—and most important—performance of his career.

 

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.

 

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While Rivals Reload, Michigan Football Will Rely on Returning Starters for 2016

As eligibility expires for key players at Michigan State and the NFL beckons for Ohio State's studs, Michigan football's roster will remain largely intact for 2016.

The Wolverines will compose the veteran unit of the Big Ten, and college football followers saw in 2015 how dangerous depth of experience can be when watching Iowa run the table during the regular season.

Next year, Michigan will discover if continuity under head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff translates to defeating raw talent with similarly elite coaching.

Although the Maize and Blue must replace a handful of team leaders—most notably quarterback Jake Rudock, center Graham Glasgow as well as linebackers Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan—a strong majority of Michigan's standouts will return.

Second-team AP All-American tight end Jake Butt and cornerback Jourdan Lewis have announced their intentions to come back for another season. First-team All-Big Ten receiver Jehu Chesson is sticking around, and defensive back Jabrill Peppers cannot bolt for the pros quite yet.

Six more offensive starters—including versatile lineman Mason Cole and leading pass-catcher Amara Darboh—and 10 notable defensive contributors are also eligible to return.

Compare that to the program's two biggest rivals, and Michigan has a significant advantage.

Ohio State is losing a stunning nine underclassmen to the professional ranks, which is a testament to the stellar player development in Columbus. Combined with the handful of NFL-bound seniors, though, the Buckeyes are set to undergo a major transitional period.

Now, this isn't the death of Urban Meyer's Ohio State. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner shares that sentiment:

As long as quarterback J.T. Barrett is healthy, the offense can thrive. Additionally, the program is working on its sixth straight 247Sports composite top-10 recruiting class. The Buckeyes will remain a formidable opponent.

Nevertheless, will Ohio State excel right away and sustain a high level of success? That's a lot of change to overcome and unproven talent to infuse while attempting to meet lofty—maybe undefeated—expectations.

Michigan State's forecast likely won't be as optimistic from the national crowd.

The Spartans will be without Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Allen, Jack Conklin, Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Darien Harris, RJ Williamson and a few other meaningful pieces.

Again, doubting the coaching staff isn't smart, but those are multiyear team leaders. Programs rarely brush off that kind of turnover. Were it not for a tremendous defensive performance to stun Ohio State, the questions surrounding MSU would be louder.

If the Spartans feature an elite defense, they shouldn't have much of a problem reaching the 10-win mark again. Considering Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Demetrious Cox and potential sixth-year senior Ed Davis will headline the unit, elite can happen.

But another Big Ten title? "It's possible, though perhaps not probable," MLive.com's Mike Griffith said.

The knocks on reloading Ohio State and Michigan State aren't to say the Wolverines are obvious front-runners for the East Division crown. That title may fall on the Buckeyes because of Barrett.

Besides, not only is reloading not an insult for MSU and Ohio State, Michigan has clear weaknesses. Who will play quarterback is unknown. The offensive line is improved but not consistently great. Depth at linebacker is a glaring issue.

Plus, the first matchup among any two of the three programs is Michigan at Michigan State on Oct. 29. Cohesion and chemistry will—or won't—be obvious by then. Until shown otherwise, the division title will be won or lost during the three total meetings between Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

But the 2016 Wolverines will strive to show that experience from Lewis, Chesson, Butt, Peppers and the rest of the returning players is a more important asset than their rivals' promising, yet unproven talent.

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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FCS Championship 2016: Date, Start Time, TV Info for NDSU vs. Jacksonville State

The North Dakota State Bison won the FCS Championship in 2011—and no one else has since.

However, if the No. 3 team in the country wants to win its fifth-straight title, it's going to have to beat the No. 1 team in the land.

The Jacksonville State Gamecocks come in with a 13-1 record in their first appearance in the championship game.

Head coach John Grass watched film of past North Dakota State games when he took over as head coach in 2014, per Tyler Greenawalt of NCAA.com.

“I wanted to see how the best did it,” Grass said. “I wanted to see where the bar was.”

It looks like that strategy may have paid off, as he has his team one win away from a championship.

 

What: NCAA Division I Football Championship

When: Jan. 9

Where: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas

Time: 12 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2

 

The Defending Champs vs. The Upstarts

North Dakota State may come into the game ranked lower, but rest assured Grass will not be overlooking the Bison, per Greenwalt: 

I studied that film inside and out and to kind of see where the direction, where you needed to be at in recruiting and what type caliber athletes you needed to compete at this level, because they are the standard. You've got to go through North Dakota State to win a National Championship. I think that's where the bar is at right now.

The Bison have overcome adversity this season to get where they are. Star quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the season after he broke his wrist in an Oct. 17 loss to the South Dakota Coyotes.

The senior had completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 1,454 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions prior to the injury. The Bison had lost their second game in a season for the first time since 2010, and head coach Chris Klieman said many wrote off his team, per Greenwalt.

“People thought, well, the Bison are probably done,” Klieman said. “Then when Carson Wentz got hurt, I would have said most people didn't think this team probably was going to maybe even get to the playoffs, let alone make a run.”  

Boy, were they wrong.

North Dakota State hasn't lost in eight games since, despite playing with a freshman at quarterback, Easton Stick, who has filled in admirably with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.

The two teams feature different styles—at least in the playoffs—and one will have to break in order to crown a champion.

Jacksonville State has been bullying opponents in the playoffs with plays like this during its 62-10 victory over Sam Houston State in the semifinals, per FCS Football:

While the Gamecocks have been lighting up the scoreboard, it might not be as easy to do against the Bison, per FCS Football:

No matter what happens, as FCS Football shows here, it should be a good game considering the success each head coach brings to the table:

With one day left until game time, final practices and preparations are being made, but Klieman said once the ball is kicked off, it will come down to nothing more than who wants it the most at that moment, per Greenwalt.

“All those things are little things that maybe take some of the nerves away. But it's going to play no factor once we kick that thing off at 11 o'clock [CT] against a great football team."

For Grass, he's just glad his team has a chance to make history, per Greenwalt.

“We're excited about an opportunity to play in this game and have the opportunity to play for a National Championship,” Grass said. “It's going to be a great game.”

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Clemson's Carlos Watkins Was Devastated by Personal Tragedy, but Not Defeated

The moral of Carlos Watkins' story is that there isn't a moral to every story. You just go about your life, through incredible highs and outrageous lows, and celebrate one and try to survive the other.

Watkins is at a high point right now. A defensive tackle at Clemson, he will play Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship. He made the key play of Clemson's dream season, the one that made his team fully believe it could get here.

A year ago, he was on the team but not in position physically, emotionally or mentally—for sure not mentally—to make a play like that.

Watkins was still suffering after a car crash left him trapped in the passenger seat for two hours while the fire department arrived and tried to figure out how to get a 295-pound man out of the wreckage. He was in and out of consciousness, with one of his best friends screaming next to him and another dear friend hanging halfway out the window, not bleeding, not moving. When Watkins was awake enough, he knew that friend was dead.

Two hours of that. Imagine.

"I was just wanting to move," he said. "My legs were falling asleep. I started panicking."

That was in September 2013. It's been a long journey for Watkins from that day to Monday's national championship game. It took time, caring, loving and hard work. His support base back home in Mooresboro, North Carolina, helped him through. And it's one of the special things about the Clemson program, and head coach Dabo Swinney, that the place feels like a family.

"The physical aspect for him was more of a process that he felt he had more control over than the mental anguish of losing such a close friend," Daniel Bailey, who was Watkins' coach at Chase High, said. "I think that just kind of weighed on him pretty heavy. I told him that death is not easy for anybody, but much less for a young person. You have such a long life in front of you and ahead of you, it kind of derails your plans.

"With Carlos and his nature, he's a football player, but he's never been one to like to really hurt people. He doesn't like seeing anybody hurt. He's just a tenderhearted young man. And they'd all grown up together [Watkins and his friends], and the families are so close. There was no one blaming anyone. I think the biggest change in him is that he knows some things are just out of your control. They were not doing anything wrong. He had to come to the realization that things just happen."

When Watkins describes it now, he tells the story so calmly, even the horror of it: There was no alcohol involved. There was no other car. There was just a rainstorm, Watkins' SUV and a telephone pole.

He had let his friend and cousin Tajae McMullens drive. Watkins sat in the passenger seat. Dache Gossett, nicknamed 'Sheeke,' who was a former quarterback on Watkins' high school team, was in the back. It was just a few days after Watkins had started in Clemson's game against NC State.

The three young men were headed to a cookout when the SUV hydroplaned and ran into a telephone pole, splitting the pole in half. It fell onto the car and into Watkins' lap. It was only the massive muscles in his legs that kept them from snapping in two, too.

"My cousin was driving the car, and he came up on a turn and me and my friend yelled his name," Watkins said. "He tried to get back to the road and he hit a pole. The window shattered, and I think my head shattered the window, because I was unconscious for a little bit, which I didn't know.

"Somehow, part of the pole had lodged in the car. It was on my legs, and I couldn't move. I had to wait until the fire trucks got there to cut the pole out. They had to drag me out of the back window. I had regained consciousness. I woke up, and my cousin was screaming in the driver's seat."

And what about his friend in the back seat?

"Once I woke up and turned around, I just saw his legs, and half of his body was outside the car."

Watkins spent three days in the hospital with blood clots in both legs. He said he had trouble eating, lost 30 pounds and got emotional help from a team counselor, his coaches and teammates. He felt the accident was his fault—that if he had been driving, maybe his friend wouldn't have died.

"It was my car," he said. "I could have been the one driving to prevent this."

Watkins had back, hip and leg injuries, too, and he said it was hard to get back physically to playing condition. He didn't play the rest of 2013 and wasn't the same when he returned to the field in 2014.

Life moves on for Watkins. And this year, as a fourth-year junior, he made second-team All-ACC. He returned an interception for a touchdown against Appalachian State on what would have been Sheeke's birthday.

But his big moment was in the Notre Dame game. In the week leading up to the Orange Bowl, three Clemson players admitted to me they weren't 100 percent sold the team was good enough to win a national title until after it beat the Irish on Oct. 3. That turned out to be Watkins' moment—and the team's moment.

Clemson was up 18 points in the game, but the Irish came back and scored a touchdown with seven seconds left. With all the momentum, Notre Dame just needed a two-point conversion to take the game to overtime. Watkins made the tackle, stopping quarterback DeShone Kizer on the 2-yard line, and Clemson won.

"It happened fast," Watkins, who remembered feeling exhausted going into the play, said. "I actually took a bad step on that play. I stepped inside, and it kind of threw me out of position. But I got back, rolled my guard, and the quarterback ended up coming to me. Once we made that play, it was like a lot of relief."

Clemson improved to 4-0 with that win and has just kept winning, bringing a 14-0 record into the championship game.

Bailey has told Watkins no matter what happens in the championship game, everyone back home is proud of him, proud of the way he represents himself, their community, Clemson University.

From tragedy to the mountaintop. What's the moral? No moral, really.

"This right here is the story of my life," Watkins said. "I remember talking to my dad when I was younger. We used to watch NFL or basketball players have a life story, some sort of tragic incident they went through. I told my dad, 'I really don't have [a] story.'

"He said, 'You'll have one.' I feel like this is one of those stories."

It's not exactly a story anyone would want, but you don't always get to choose. You just live it.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Army All-American Bowl 2016: Date, TV Schedule, Rosters and Top Recruits

Although they aren't household names just yet, many of the top high school football players in the country will be on display at the 2016 Army All-American Bowl.  

The Under Armour All-America Game featured a good portion of the top competitors in the 2016 class, although the upcoming showcase isn't exactly a consolation battle. Saturday's game includes the best quarterbacks in the nation and many skill players who will be on highlight reels throughout the next few years at the collegiate level.

If you want to watch the future stars of your favorite team or just want to get a preview of the next few years of college football, this game is a good place to start. Here is a look at everything you need to know to keep you informed about the upcoming exhibition.

 

When: Saturday, Jan. 9

Time: 1 p.m. ET

Where: Alamodome, San Antonio

Watch: NBC

 

 

Top Players to Watch

Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia

One of the biggest stories during the week is the battle to be the top quarterback in the 2016 class. K.J. Costello has an argument, although most seem to consider this a two-man race between Jacob Eason and Shea Patterson.

Eason noted this week that the competition to be No. 1 is on his mind, although he is more concerned with the future, per Adam Gorney of Rivals.com:

I would be lying if it wasn’t something I strived for. I wouldn’t be devastated if I wasn’t and it wouldn’t destroy my life, but any competitive person wants to be No. 1.

We don’t really talk about rankings or who’s No. 1, it’s more about college and success. It would be really cool for Georgia to play Ole Miss for the SEC championship and to go head-to-head in that respect.

Per Gorney, Eason is committed to play for Georgia, while Patterson is headed to Ole Miss, meaning there could be some exciting SEC battles in the future if these players live up to expectations.

While both players have high potential, Eason represents a better physical presence at this stage in their careers. At about 6'6", he is a few inches taller than Patterson (6'2") and turns that into superior arm strength on both deep and mid-range throws. In any case, it will be interesting to see which player performs the best on the big stage in this All-Star event.

 

Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson

No matter what happens to Clemson in the national championship game, the Tigers will be back for more next year with a lot of returning talent. To make things even scarier for opposing teams, they are adding top talent like Dexter Lawrence to an already-elite defense.

You can only show so much in practice, but Lawrence has certainly been a standout in the week leading up to the All-American Bowl. Josh Helmholdt of Rivals.com noted Lawrence and Derrick Brown have been dominant on the defensive side of the ball:

Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports hears even higher praise from coaches in attendance:

Lawrence is a physically imposing specimen at 6'4", 327 pounds, but he also has the agility to get past opposing linemen and into the backfield with regularity. His strength will ensure he gets on the field early at Clemson, and it won't be long before he is an All-Conference performer or even better.

Considering how advanced he is compared to other high school players, you will likely hear his name called quite a bit in the exhibition game.

 

Isaac Nauta, TE, Undecided

It's rare to see a tight end highlighted as a top player, especially at the high school or college level, but Isaac Nauta is not an ordinary tight end. The 6'4" athlete has a chance to be a game-changer over the next few years no matter where he ends up.

Not only is Nauta an explosive athlete, but he also has soft hands that will make him a serious threat over the middle. This play down the seam will definitely beat most defenses, per Barton Simmons of 247Sports:

The tight end will announce his college decision during the Army All-American Bowl, and he is down to Michigan, Georgia and Alabama, per Sam Webb of Scout.com. As one of the top uncommitted players in the class, this moment will be just as exciting as the game itself.

Although he will disappoint plenty of fans in this moment, his play on the field will be must-see action during this showcase.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for more year-round sports analysis.

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College Football Championship 2016: Odds, Prop Bets for Alabama vs. Clemson

Lopsided results have characterized the 2015-16 bowl season and national semifinals, but college football fans can at least take comfort in knowing that the biggest game of all, the 2016 College Football National Championship, indeed features the two best teams in the nation in No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama.

There's a good chance the game is as competitive as the two teams' respective resumes would suggest. 
Clemson is looking to complete a 15-0 undefeated season and capture the school's first national championship since 1981. For Alabama, it's a chance at a 16th national title and fifth under head coach Nick Saban

The stakes are high; the stage is set. All that's left is to play the game. 

Here's a rundown of the viewing info and odds, followed by a look at some interesting prop bets for the game. Game odds are courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Friday, January 8 at 7 a.m. ET.


CFP National Championship 2016: Alabama vs. Clemson

When: Monday, January 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

Watch: ESPN or live stream at WatchESPN

Odds: Alabama (-6.5); over-under: 50.5

Tickets: ScoreBig.com

 

No surprise here. The player given the best odds to score the game's first touchdown is the Heisman Trophy winner. Derrick Henry tops the list, which is hardly a surprise considering he scored 25 of his team's 50 offensive touchdowns this year. He has a fine track record of getting the Crimson Tide off to a fine start. Henry has scored the first touchdown for either team in seven of 14 games this year.

Clemson running back Wayne Gallman and Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley aren't too far behind. Gallman is perhaps under-appreciated outside of Clemson thanks to sharing a backfield with star quarterback Deshaun Watson. The sophomore back has 13 touchdowns on the season and has scored in six of Clemson's last seven games.

Calvin Ridley is Alabama's top receiving threat and scored twice against Michigan State in the semifinal. Then again, he only has seven touchdowns on the entire season and will face a difficult test in Clemson corner Mackensie Alexander. It would be quite the feat if he beats Alexander for the first score of the game.

Watson is a better threat than most quarterbacks to take it upon himself to score. Equally dangerous as a passer and runner, Watson has scored a staggering eight rushing touchdowns in his last five games. If there is a run defense to shut him down, it would appear to be Alabama's. ESPN.com notes the Crimson Tide defense doesn't like to let quarterbacks run around too much: 

Just as Watson’s running has hit a high gear lately, Alabama’s rush defense appears to be peaking.

The Crimson Tide held Michigan State to 29 rushing yards in the Cotton Bowl, a season low for the Spartans. It was the sixth straight opponent the Crimson Tide held to fewer than 100 rush yards, the longest active FBS streak -- by four games.

Can a running quarterback hurt Alabama? The Tide have allowed one 20-yard rush by a quarterback this season.

Then again, Watson is a rare athlete. Alabama (nor any other team) doesn't often come across quarterbacks with his speed and instincts as a ball-carrier. He's the type of player who can flummox even the stoutest of run defenses, especially with a talented back like Gallman drawing plenty of attention.

According to TeamRankings.com, Alabama's highest-scoring quarter is the second, at 10.6 points per game in this frame. Same goes for the Tigers, who have averaged 11.6 points per second quarters this season. The odds in the table above reflect this reality. 

While Clemson does a pretty good job of picking up points throughout the game, it appears Alabama is a slow starter. It averages just 4.6 points per first quarter, per TeamRankings.com. For a power-running team, this seems pretty intuitive. It may take a drive or two to break down the opposing defense and let the floodgates open. Chewing the clock also comes into play.

If this game is close, the fourth quarter might be a good bet to see a bunch of points. Smaller, speedy players like Clemson's Hunter Renfrow could have a better chance of turning a short gain into a long one. Watson is dangerous in a two-minute drill against a prevent defense.

Henry loves to wear teams down. If he doesn't score early, he's a good bet to finish drives late. Alabama center Ryan Kelly told Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh why it's so hard for defenses to contain Henry:

He’s got the endurance. I mean, the guy can run for days. Defensive guys, when we start going fast in the third and fourth quarter, them getting off the ground, running back there and trying to get lined up, then you’ve got Derrick Henry running at you and you have to tackle him, do it all over again, that kind of wears down defenders.

I can’t [speak] for them, but a guy like his stature, his size, his speed, I wouldn’t want to do that every time. It would suck.

Apparently, the oddsmakers feel this game has a better chance of starting off with a touchdown than a field goal. In 55 red-zone trips, Clemson scored 33 touchdowns and 16 field goals; it has little trouble finishing off drives. Alabama also put up far more touchdowns than field goals when it got close to paydirt, with 33 touchdowns and 15 field goals in 59 red-zone trips.

This is to say nothing of the several long touchdowns Henry ripped off this year, or the big plays in the passing game engineered by Watson and Alabama QB Jake Coker.

Clemson's scoring ability is sound, but this is Alabama's defense we're talking about. Even if Watson's mobility proves troublesome, Alabama can clamp down in the red zone, where the field is shorter and there's less room to maneuver.

An early Clemson drive stalling out because the likes of Alabama linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster can hunt down Watson and Gallman without worrying about leaving swaths of open grass behind them seems like a distinct possibility.

On the flip side, Henry driving into the teeth of Clemson's excellent defensive front might take some time to set up the passing game. Jake Coker faces a strong pass rush and a strong cornerback duo in Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley.

Barring a big downfield play early on, Alabama's passing game might only take off once Henry and (perhaps) a dash of Kenyan Drake have established the run and forced Clemson to draw in its defense.

These two teams have little trouble finishing drives, but national-title jitters and strong defensive play might mean field goals come first in this contest.


Prop bets are courtesy of Oddschecker.com and updated as of Friday, January 8 at 7 a.m. ET.

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Urban Meyer Comments on Ohio State Underclassmen Declaring for 2016 NFL Draft

Urban Meyer expected to lose a few underclassmen to next year’s NFL draft, but the Ohio State Buckeyes head coach didn’t expect the reigning champs to lose as much firepower as they have.

Nine Buckeyes have already announced their intentions to go pro, a figure well above what Meyer forecast—even with Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones declaring in November with two games to play. 

But Meyer admitted it comes with the territory, per Austin Ward of ESPN.com:

Nine is a lot. Nine’s a lot. The four or five [is more manageable]. One year at Florida we had 12 players send in their paperwork, and you're like, 'My goodness.' I mean, it's what we do when you recruit like that.

I've been in scenarios where you don't have a lot of conversations about the NFL because you don't have that caliber of players. This was over the top.

Meyer's recruiting classes have ranked fifth, second, third and seventh in the nation, respectively, in his four seasons, per 247Sports.

The nine Buckeyes who have declared for the 2016 draft are Jones, Elliott, defensive end Joey Bosa, safety Tyvis Powell, safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Darron Lee, wide receiver Jalin Marshall and wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Meyer admitted some of those decisions surprised him, but he wouldn’t specify which ones. 

"A couple, yeah, but I'm not going to get into names," Meyer said, per Ward.

But the three-time national champion coach also said he appreciated how each player handled his departure: "I'm a fan of great players, and a bunch of those guys are going to play for a while. They decided to chase their dreams, and everyone was so professional about how they did this."

As many as five players project to go in the first round, meaning the Buckeyes will have voids across the depth chart to fill before national signing day in February.

But Meyer and Co. are already in prime position to reload with a class that ranks second in the 247Sports composite rankings. 

Ohio State went 12-1, with its one blemish being a 17-14 loss to Michigan State, which dashed the Buckeyes’ chances of playing in the Big Ten Championship Game and reaching the College Football Playoff. 

While Ohio State will look different in the fall, given Meyer’s track record of turning around rosters after churning out NFL talent, there’s no reason to believe the Buckeyes won’t be in the thick of CFP contention in 2016.

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Why Tennessee Football Must Get This Defensive Coordinator Hire Right

With Tennessee's athletic department finally operating in the black after having to emerge from a deep financial hole created by poor leadership and blundering coaching hires, some may think the Volunteers can't yet afford to hire a marquee defensive coordinator.

Quite frankly, at this stage of coach Butch Jones' tenure, the Vols can't afford not to.

Tennessee is ready to win big. The Vols just finished a 9-4 season with six straight victories to close a very successful 2015 campaign. They were 17 points away from being undefeated and led in the second half of every single loss.

Yet on Wednesday, Jones parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek after a season where UT finished 36th nationally in total defense.

Despite the respectable ranking, the Vols struggled on defense at key moments, particularly in fourth-down situations during a grueling 28-27 loss at Florida that culminated with a 63-yard Antonio Callaway reception on 4th-and-14 that ultimately gave the Gators the win.

Also, the fourth quarter and overtime in the loss to Oklahoma and the final drive against Alabama stood out as opportunities for UT to make a call or a play that could have turned the season's momentum sooner.

Though there were moments of futility, Jancek's tenure at Tennessee was solid. Players developed, the numbers were never bad and the Vols progressed and improved. That's why you can't make this move if you're Jones unless you know you can make a home run hire.

VolQuest's Brent Hubbs and John Brice wrote that those close to Jones say this was a "move to take Tennessee to a championship level." Now, Tennessee has to pony up whatever it takes to do that.

If UT is going to be an elite program again, it has to act like one. More importantly, it has to pay like one.

Once LSU lost defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to Auburn, the Tigers opened the checkbook for Wisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda, quickly securing him with $1.3 million to come to the Bayou, according to NOLA.com's James Smith.

Sure, that's a lot of money, but big bucks can be parlayed into big wins which generate even bigger bucks.

As Alabama has shown over Nick Saban's tenure, you have to spend money to make money. Think anybody in Tuscaloosa is grumbling about that huge paycheck Saban makes, especially with all those national championship rings and dollar bills being pumped out of the Crimson Tide factory like NFL defensive linemen?

Of course not.

Alabama football is a moneymaking machine, and when it comes to coaching hires, nobody pays like UA. Strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran's $600,000 paycheck is more than any Tennessee on-field assistant coach currently makes.

The Vols are getting there financially.

Jones received a lucrative raise this year, and athletic director Dave Hart also gave him another $500,000 for his assistant coaches' pool. The financial doldrums are a thing of the past as UT ranked third in Forbes.com's list of most valuable college football programs.

It's time to take that money and make some more. Jones has to get the right guy, but, most importantly, he needs to get his guy.

Most of the buzz surrounding this search is centering on Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Not only is he one of the most respected coaches in the game, he has a history recruiting Middle Tennessee for Penn State head coach James Franklin when both were at Vanderbilt.

Considering Nashville and the corridor to Murfreesboro have been fertile recruiting soils recently and only figure to keep producing more talent, it's essential that the Vols improve the relationships there. After plucking several top-notch prospects out of the area the past two years, UT hasn't fared as well in this cycle.

Plus, Shoop is a pretty darn good on-the-field coordinator, too.

Other names being thrown around are North Carolina DC and former Auburn national championship head coach Gene Chizik and Houston DC Todd Orlando—a young, energetic assistant who has excelled everywhere he's been.

That trio is a strong start to the search, and if that's truly who Jones is zeroing in on, it needs to go no further than there. If Shoop's the guy, throw enough money at him to make him take it. If it's Chizik you want, do what it takes to get him back to the SEC.

With eight defensive starters returning in 2016 (if Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin don't choose to enter the NFL draft early), next year could be special. The Vols have all their offensive horses returning, and there's no reason to believe a playoff run is out of the question.

But you can't be bumbling around on defense and expect to win games. Jones must find the perfect fit for his scheme and philosophy and make a move that will be seamless as UT enters an era where it should compete for SEC championships. 

The Vols have experienced both sides of the coin recently. When offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian left for the NFL following last season, Jones pegged Mike DeBord as his replacement, and UT rushed for the second-most yards in school history and wound up with a strong step forward offensively.

However, back in 2012 when Derek Dooley was facing a make-or-break season with a slew of talent, he lost defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to Washington and replaced him with Sal Sunseri, who implemented a 3-4 scheme without the personnel.

The Vols wound up having a historically awful defense that cost Dooley his job and UT a step forward with an offense full of future NFL players.

Nobody is comparing this situation to that one. Tennessee is in far better shape from a personnel standpoint, on firm footing as a program and appears to be on the precipice of sustained success.

But the Sunseri failure is a lesson in hires gone awry, nonetheless. Does Dave Clawson ring a bell? That one wound up backfiring for the Vols, too.

So pardon Tennessee fans if they're a little bit gun shy when it comes to making drastic changes at pivotal program points. There have been forgettable nightmares that sent UT spiraling.

Jones, however, should be commended for taking this type of chance at this juncture of his tenure.

Rather than wring his hands over a decision or tread water in the mires of mediocrity, the third-year coach evaluated his team, decided Jancek wasn't the man to get the defense to a championship level and made the tough decision.

With this move, Jones proves he isn't scared to roll the dice. Just because it was a bold move, though, doesn't make it the right one.

Now comes the hard part: What the Vols do with the hire is what will ultimately determine how good they can be. When it comes to elevating your program, you can't be scared of change—as in personnel change or pocket change. 

You don't make a move this drastic without having somebody in mind. Now, Jones just has to go out and get him, no matter what it takes.

 

All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted.

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

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Mel Tucker Hired as Georgia DC: Latest Comments and Reaction

The Georgia Bulldogs lured former Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart away from Tuscaloosa to be their head coach. Now, Smart has landed another former Crimson Tide assistant for his staff, as Mel Tucker will be Georgia's new defensive coordinator, according to Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman.

Tucker was previously the defensive backs coach at Alabama and was a veteran NFL defensive coordinator before then. 

Georgia could never quite get over the hump with former head coach Mark Richt at the helm, so it is simply pulling from the biggest obstacle to everyone else in the SEC. Weakening Nick Saban's staff at Alabama probably wasn't the primary intention, but it's a nice byproduct of Smart's hiring.

Buck Belue of 680 The Fan in Atlanta applauded the decision for the Bulldogs to bring Tucker aboard and referenced how he could help the team rebound after not meeting expectations in 2015:  

Tucker is clearly cut out to handle play-calling duties in Athens. The 44-year-old had prior experience at a big-time college program in Ohio State as a member of Jim Tressel's staff.

He then proceeded to the pros to serve stints as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears, respectively. Smart couldn't have done much better than Tucker as a defensive coordinator.

With his expertise being in the secondary, landing with Georgia had to be an attractive option for Tucker, considering the Bulldogs were the top-ranked passing defense in the country in 2015. His arrival should only make Georgia even more formidable against the pass.  

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Clancy Pendergast Hired as USC DC: Latest Comments and Reaction

Clancy Pendergast was the defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans in 2013 and will reportedly return to the program in the same role in 2016, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.

Pendergast was an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 2015 after he elected to sit out during the 2014 campaign.

Nick Bromberg of Yahoo Sports highlighted the fact USC has made a habit of hiring coaches with past ties to the program in recent years, considering Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton are the last three permanent head coaches. All were offensive assistants with the team before earning the nod.

Pendergast will replace Justin Wilcox, who was fired in early December after a disastrous showing in the Pac-12 title game.

The Trojans finished a dismal 70th in the nation in yards allowed per game and 57th in scoring defense this season. They had realistic national title aspirations heading into the year, but they ended up a disappointing 8-6 and lost in blowout fashion to Stanford in that conference championship game and to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.

It was apparent how much improvement USC needed on defense during its marquee games of 2015, when it allowed 48 points to Oregon, 41 to Notre Dame and 41 against Stanford on two different occasions.

Feldman described why the Pendergast hire could prove fruitful for the Trojans:

In 2013, he turned the Trojans from a unit that ranked No. 7 in the Pac-12 to No. 1. A few years earlier, he sparked as dramatic a turnaround when he took over Cal's defense and made it the conference's top-rated D. Pendergast gained a rep in coaching circles for having a handle on containing the spread after his 2010 Bears slowed down Chip Kelly's prolific offense, holding them to 40 points below their average. However, when Steve Sarkisian was hired as USC's new coach, he opted to not retain Pendergast.

USC won 10 games with Pendergast in charge of the defense in 2013, which it has only done one other time since the 2008 campaign. 

Max Meyer, digital content producer for the NFL, noted Pendergast’s 5-2 philosophy should fit in well with the talent pool at USC:

Ken Goe of the Oregonian reported earlier Thursday that the Oregon Ducks were interested in bringing Pendergast aboard after they demoted Don Pellum from defensive coordinator to linebacker coach.

Alas, it will be the Trojans who add him in an effort to slow down some of the Pac-12’s high-powered offenses that include stars such as Josh Rosen and Christian McCaffrey and uptempo schemes such as the one at Oregon.

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Breaking Down the 2016 Transfer QB Market in College Football

A national champion hasn't even been crowned yet for the 2015 season, but college football's version of free agency for 2016—the quarterback transfer market—is already in full swing.

As the most important position on the roster, quarterbacks are in high demand each year. And whether it's due to coaching changes or depth-chart issues, the trend of passers on the move continues to grow.

This year's quarterback market started with a frenzy down in the Lone Star State, and pieces continue to fall into place in other areas across the country.

Some schools will gain valuable depth at the position for the future, while others will pick up instant-impact graduate transfers who will be eligible immediately.

Let's recap all the action in the transfer quarterback market so far this offseason and update some situations for those still looking for new schools.

 

Decisions finalized

The epicenter of the early quarterback transfer market was at Texas A&M.

The Aggies' two quarterbacks with starting experience in 2015—former 5-star recruits Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray—both announced their intentions to leave College Station early last month. 

Allen, who took over as Texas A&M's starting quarterback in the second half of his 2014 true-freshman season and was the original 2015 starter, decided to stay in Texas earlier this week. The strong-armed quarterback chose AAC and Peach Bowl champion Houston, where he'll compete for the job left by Greg Ward Jr. in 2017.

"I just have a lot of trust in Coach [Tom] Herman," Allen said, via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. "He had recruited me in high school [when Herman was at Ohio State]. I had gotten to know him extremely well. I know he can really help me grow as a man and get to the NFL."

Although Murray decided to transfer after Allen, he chose his new school in less time. The 5'11" speedster, who never lost a single game as a high school starter, signed with Oklahoma before Christmas.

Murray seems like a great fit for Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's scheme when he becomes eligible to play as a redshirt sophomore in 2017. While he needs to continue to develop his passing accuracy, he was an electrifying rushing threat with the Aggies, averaging 6.32 yards per carry.

The transfers left Texas A&M with only one quarterback on its roster, but the Aggies turned the situation into a virtual "player to be named later" trade with Oklahoma.

Former Sooners starter Trevor Knight decided to transfer to Texas A&M this week, and he will be eligible immediately for the 2016 season.

The experienced Knight lost his starting job to former Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield in 2015 after passing for 2,300 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2014. He famously led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama at the end of the 2013 season.

Before the Texas A&M quarterback saga was finalized, Dakota Prukop was the top transfer QB story in college football.

Prukop decided to make a move from the FCS ranks after throwing for 3,025 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions at Montana State. According to Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval, he may be more dangerous with his legs.

"The ability to extend plays with his arm and his legs not only makes Prukop hard to physically defend in space, but forces opposing defenses to account for him at all times," Kercheval wrote last month.

He visited SEC champion Alabama, who will have a new starting quarterback in 2016, but decided to transfer to Oregon—a school that picked up FCS star Vernon Adams Jr. for the 2015 season. 

Prukop will have huge shoes to fill from Adams, who led the nation in passing efficiency in his one and only season for a warp-speed Oregon offense that struggled in a huge way when he was injured.

But unlike Adams, Prukop will have plenty of time to prepare in Oregon's offense. According to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com, Prukop is already enrolled in classes in Eugene. Adams didn't arrive at Oregon until late in fall practice last year after some academic drama.

Other transfers who will immediately compete for starting jobs in 2016 include Austin Appleby, who joined a quarterback-hungry Florida team from Purdue.

Boston College picked up former Kentucky starter Patrick Towles, and Georgia's Faton Bauta joined former Bulldogs assistant Mike Bobo at Colorado State.

Will Gardner, who started at Louisville in the 2014 season, stepped down to Division II's West Georgia. Alec Morris will also be on the move from Alabama's crowded quarterback room to Sun Belt school North Texas.

 

Still on the market

While most of the big names on the quarterback transfer market have already been claimed by schools, a few impact passers are still looking for new homes.

Former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb could become a new starter somewhere in 2016. He threw for 44 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Texas Tech and averaged more than 300 yards per contest in 2014. 

Health woes limited Webb, and Patrick Mahomes took control of the starting quarterback job in the 2015 season. Still, Webb's 6'5" frame and high football IQ should make one school happy for the upcoming campaign.

"He has a chance to be very special," Kingsbury told Feldman in 2013. "He has one of the quickest releases and strongest arms I've been around. Very smart, intellectual thinker. Processes things very quickly. Sees the field. Great at checking to the right place."

There haven't been any reports yet of any schools leading for Webb, although Feldman wrote that SEC and Pac-12 options were the most likely landing spots for him. 

Pittsburgh's Chad Voytik will also be eligible in 2016 after receiving his release from the Panthers earlier this week.

Voytik recorded more than 2,500 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns as Pitt's starting quarterback in 2014. He lost the starting quarterback job to former Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman this past season, the first for Pitt under new coach Pat Narduzzi.

According to Saralyn Norkus of the Cleveland (Tennessee) Daily Banner, Voytik is considering Arkansas State, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee-Chattanooga.

The Tennessee native mentioned Memphis to Norkus because of new coach Jay Norvell, who was the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh when he signed in 2011.

Elsewhere, Will Grier is looking for a new school.

He broke out as Florida's new quarterback in 2015 and went 6-0 as a starter with 10 touchdowns and just three picks before receiving a one-year suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

Even without the suspension, Grier would have to sit out one season for his new team due to the NCAA's transfer rules. He will be eligible again for 2017.

Other SEC quarterbacks set to transfer are Ole Miss' DeVante Kincade and Vanderbilt's Johnny McCrary.

Kincade played the last two seasons as a reserve and is considering joining North Texas, according to Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle. McCrary, who started 12 games at Vanderbilt, can finish his degree this summer and be eligible for the next two seasons at his new school, according to Adam Sparks of the Tennessean.

 

A final possiblity

There's still plenty of time for some more movement in the market, especially with the fluid roster situations across the country.

The biggest rumor right now in that area revolves around BYU senior Taysom Hill.

When he was healthy for the Cougars, Hill was one of the most exciting dual-threat players in the country, racking up more than 4,000 yards of offense in 2013 (he's only been able to play in eight games since).

With Bronco Mendenhall leaving BYU to become the new coach at Virginia and Tanner Mangum breaking out as a freshman starter in 2015, Hill is expected by some to finish his eligibility elsewhere.

According to Dick Harmon of the Deseret News, Mendenhall and his new Virginia staff have reached out to Hill:

Michigan has also been connected with Hill's name since the regular season, and Matt Brown of SB Nation's Vanquish the Foe mentioned Stanford as another possible landing spot for the Cougar quarterback.

Of course, Hill has had three straight season-ending injuries, and his health may prevent him from playing another season in Provo or anywhere else.

Still, if he leaves BYU for the 2016 season, another school could cash in on a veteran talent and send the market spinning once more. 

 

Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.comRecruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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Clemson Granted Release on Practice Limitations for Championship Game vs Alabama

The NCAA granted Clemson a waiver Wednesday that will allow football players to practice more than 20 hours per week in the lead-up to Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

"We're appreciative of the NCAA working with us in granting this waiver to assist in our preparations for next Monday's game while maintaining our commitment to student-athlete welfare," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said in a statement Thursday, per ESPN.com.     

He continued, "As Coach [Dabo] Swinney pointed out, this was not going to be a big difference-maker in our team's schedule, but it's great they've reached a solution that prioritizes the well-being of our student-athletes while allowing them to adequately prepare for the national championship."

Because Clemson's spring semester is in session, players would have been subject to more strict practice rules than Alabama, which has not resumed class. The Tigers would have been held to limits of no more than four hours of football-related work per day and 20 hours or less over the course of a week. 

It's worth noting the game itself counts as three hours, meaning coaches realistically have only 17 hours of prep time during the week. This is the second straight season the rule has come into play, as Oregon was left with a 20-hour limit during its prep for its title game matchup with Ohio State.

With the College Football Playoff extending the season by a week, this is something the NCAA needs to address immediately. Giving Clemson a waiver helps the Tigers in the interim, but more than likely we'll be facing a similar situation a year from now. Exempting championship teams from the 20-hour workweek is logical, and yet it also clearly sends a message that academics come second to athletics.

While most would acknowledge that's the case in high-profile college athletics, it's not a message the NCAA wants to send publicly. Clemson players are having to skip classes and coursework to ready themselves for Monday night's game, though it's worth noting the school is only allowing such instances when it receives professor approval, per ESPN.com.

Nevertheless, it creates a strange conflict of interest. The NCAA needs to either set a practice-limit rule for all teams that applies no matter the status of the semester or find a workable middle ground that avoids such situations in the future. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter

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How Clemson Compares to Nick Saban's Past Title Game Opponents at Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though this will be his last game with the University of Alabama, national championship games have become familiar for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

This will be his fourth as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator, and thanks to the BCS and College Football Playoffs, all have seen matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

While statistically Alabama is pretty similar to its national title teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012, the opponents have been as different as the venues. Should it defeat Clemson in Arizona on Monday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. CT) it’ll have a clean sweep of what used to be the four BCS title sites, Pasadena, New Orleans and Miami being the others.

“You’ve been in there with LSU, kind of tight, bunched up, running at you; Texas was a little bit spread; then Notre Dame spread it out some,” Smart said.

“These guys are probably the fastest tempo we’ve played in a championship game. So they create a lot of challenges for us because they’ve got a lot of formations, a lot of space plays, a lot of good skill players. So it creates kind of a new dynamic, this situation for us, to be able to stop those guys in what seems like a short week.”

That dynamic, of course, is led by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who will be going up against a defense that just pulled off a 38-0 shutout of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl and has Alabama fans drawing comparisons to the great Crimson Tide defenses of old.

Its place among them can be debated after the national title game, and when it comes to intangibles, some claim Alabama has a big advantage because it’s been there before. All of the seniors who didn’t transfer in were at the BCS game at the end of the 2012 season, and a few were there in 2011 as well.

Nevertheless, Clemson will be the Crimson Tide’s biggest challenge of the four title opponents.

“Looking back, I would say absolutely,” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who has been a broadcast analyst for each Alabama championship game.

Of the four, LSU clearly had the best defense and the most overall talent. Combined, the two teams have had 45 players from that game selected in the NFL draft, including 16 of the 22 defensive starters (12 in the first three rounds).

It was a rematch of what had been hailed as “The Game of the Century” and turned out to be just that for fans of defensive football. Neither team was able to reach the end zone, with the Tigers pulling out a hard-fought 9-6 overtime victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

With the loss occurring so late in the season, Alabama needed some big-time help to get another shot at LSU, which was being hailed as maybe having the best team in college football history. But with the defense giving up just 92 total yards, including 39 rushing, the Crimson Tide made five field goals and then finally scored a touchdown for a 21-0 victory.

LSU, which had defeated eight ranked teams en route to the BCS Championship Game, didn't cross midfield until eight minutes remained and finished with only five first downs. In contrast, Alabama had 384 yards of total offense.

Jordan Jefferson was LSU’s quarterback that day, while Texas had Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy (who won the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas and Manning awards), and Notre Dame was led by Everett Golson.

All three were known for the ability to run as well as pass (McCoy actually had 1,571 career rushing yards), but none of them did so like Watson this season.

The list of college quarterbacks who have passed for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 during a single season is short, and includes Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012, Texas’ Vince Young in 2005 and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick in 2010 (along with Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan in 2007 and Chandler Harnish of Northern Illinois in 2011).

Manziel was the only one to pull it off during the regular season. Watson didn’t clear 1,000 rushing yards until the Orange Bowl, but it was his fifth 100-yard game out of the past six. Previously, he didn’t have any.

“I would say he’s unique,” Smart said about comparisons to Manziel, Nick Marshall and Cam Newton. “You could go there, it’s almost like a mixture of the three guys with Nick Marshall as a perimeter runner. Deshaun runs well on the perimeter. Johnny Manziel was a great athlete, create things in space. So does Deshaun Watson. This guy runs more power run game like you would say Cam Newton does. Obviously, he’s not the same stature as Cam, but he runs some of the similar plays that Auburn ran with him.

“So the mixture of those three guys, he takes a little bit from each one.”

Smart, who recruited Watson for Alabama two years ago (“We wanted him. We wanted him bad”), added that the quarterback has the “it” factor that all coaches are looking for and creates an enormous confidence with his teammates.

Consequently, Clemson has the best offense that Alabama’s seen in a championship game, and the last team that moved the ball against this defense was Ole Miss, which runs a very similar system.

Moreover, the Tigers are peaking at the right time and really have nothing to lose. Despite having been ranked No. 1 since early November, they’re playing up the “us against the world” mentality, complete with Dabo Swinney dancing in the locker room and massive pizza parties with fans.

“When you’re 14-0, the confidence that this football team is playing with, that somehow they’re able to maintain a chip on their shoulders, play that disrespect card, and 18-to-23-year-olds, when they all believe it, can become a very powerful thing much like Ohio State did a year ago—Clemson has that on its side right now,” Herbstreit said.

Yes, Alabama has faced undefeated teams in the title game before. It’s been favored in all four games and, like Clemson, is playing its best football at the right time.

But it has yet to win a title in the playoff format and has never played in this desert venue, and Clemson is nothing like the team that it crushed 34-10 in 2008. This will be much more of an endurance test.

“This is going to be a totally different kind of game, too, because these guys average 80-something plays a game,” Saban said. “Michigan State didn't average that many. They weren't a fastball team. The game's going to be long, and the players are going to play more plays. It’s going to be a game where conditioning's going to be at a premium.”

 

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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5-Star Isaac Nauta Breaks Down His Finalists, Says He Knows Where He Will Commit

Isaac Nauta finally knows where he's going to play college football.

The country's top-ranked tight end recruit and No. 9 overall prospect reached a decision Wednesday night after weeks of weighing three finalists. Nauta will let everyone know those plans Saturday afternoon when he announces a commitment at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.

"I'm excited to get it off my chest," Nauta told Bleacher Report. "I'm ready to head to school and get this next chapter of my life started."

It's down to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines for the 6'3", 244-pound prospect. Head coaches Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jim Harbaugh will apparently wait until his in-game commitment just like the rest of us, as Nauta doesn't plan to contact any coaches until after the national television broadcast.

"The hardest part about it all is I felt comfortable with all three," he said. "I felt I could go to school at all three and be happy. It was really more of a soul-searching thing. Where do I want to be? What do I want to do after football? I broke it down into everything and it was definitely the hardest decision of my life."

Nauta, a senior at Florida powerhouse IMG Academy, also made official visits to the Ole Miss Rebels and Oklahoma State Cowboys during the season. He previously spent eight months committed to the Florida State Seminoles, a verbal pact that began shortly after his junior campaign and lasted until late July.

After years experiencing the peaks and valleys of a high-profile recruitment process, the 5-star prospect is ready to wrap things up Saturday.

"It's a huge mix of emotions. It can be stressful. It can be fun. It can be tiring. It can be annoying. But at the end of the day, you have to realize you have an opportunity that a ton of kids wish they could have," Nauta said.

He traveled to the campuses of all three finalists this fall, setting the stage for a difficult decision. 

The selling point for Alabama under Nick Saban has been simple and consistent for almost a decade—come to Tuscaloosa and win a national title. The Crimson Tide are now one victory away from finishing atop the college football world for a fourth time in seven seasons.

"They always compete for championships and win a lot of games. Alabama also does a great job developing guys for the NFL," Nauta said.

Georgia hopes to have him in Athens as part of an effort to challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy. New head coach Kirby Smart, a longtime Crimson Tide defensive coordinator, made Nauta an immediate priority.

He was long the focus of Mark Richt's regime. Nauta stongly considered Georgia before his initial pledge to Florida State and grew up in the Peach State, playing at Buford High School until last year.

"It's close to home and there's always a chance to win the SEC East with all the talent around the area," he said. "I have a good relationship with Kirby Smart."

The Bulldogs hope to bag several homegrown athletes during these final weeks before national signing day. A commitment from Nauta could represent a major shift in momentum that sends Georgia surging toward a top-five class in this recruiting cycle.

Smart and his staff secured a key recruiting victory last month by maintaining a commitment from 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, who flirted with a possible flip to the Florida Gators following Richt's departure. Nauta has been impressed by his potential teammate throughout All-American action this week.

"I've seen Eason out here slinging it. He's playing really well in practice," Nauta said.

Michigan 4-star quarterback commit Brandon Peters is also in attendance. The Wolverines would love to pair him with Nauta in Ann Arbor for years to come.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a proven fan of tight ends, evidenced by the production at the position during previous tenures with the Stanford Cardinal and San Francisco 49ers. Michigan tight end Jake Butt finished second on the Wolverines this season with 51 receptions, emerging as a potential top-tier NFL target in the 2017 draft.

"Coach Harbaugh's system is a true pro system that gets you prepared for the NFL. He uses the tight end very well," Nauta said.

He also noted the presence of multiple family members near Michigan, which could help create a comfortable situation that far from home.

Georgia is considered a strong favorite entering Saturday's announcement ceremony. The Bulldogs claim 84 percent of experts' commitment predictions in his 247Sports Crystal Ball.

Whichever school ultimately secures Nauta's pledge, the wait for his arrival will be brief. He plans to enroll early this month, providing him with a jumpstart toward an immediate role next fall.

"I want to get with coaches every day and learn the offense so by the time spring ball rolls around I'll be ready to go. I want to play right away as a freshman," Nauta said.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake. 

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