NCAA Football News

B/R CFB Recruiting 200: Top 12 Interior Offensive Linemen

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report recruiting analysts Damon SaylesSanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports Composite Rankings and provided in-depth analysis. As the summer camp circuit comes to a close, Bleacher Report provides a position-by-position breakdown of the best college football recruits. Today, we present the Top Interior Linemen.

 

The foundation for winning big in college football begins in the trenches. 

A quick glance at the top teams in the country shows that the interiors of their respective offensive lines are stout and able to control the action in the middle of the field.

The 2016 recruiting class features a number of intriguing guard and center prospects who are built to dominate at the next level. 

The latest edition of the B/R Recruiting CFB 200 series focuses on the top interior linemen in the 2016 class.

Bleacher Report scored the top offensive guards and centers on key metrics, such as strength (20 points), pass protection (30 points), run blocking (40 points) and explosion (10 points). The cumulative figures from those traits resulted in our overall grade for each prospect. 

How do the nation’s top interior offensive linemen grade out?

 

All analysis provided by B/R National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani. OG denotes offensive guard and OC denotes offensive center.

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Deshaun Watson's Goal Is to Make Clemson's Offense the 'Best Ever'

Fresh off a Vince Young-like performance in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game that ended on a sour note, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is not done.

Not even close.

The 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist threw for 405 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 73, and put up more yards against Alabama's defense himself than any other team did all year in the 45-40 loss on Monday night in Glendale, Arizona.

"Being able to improve on what we did this year with a lot more veterans, we have a chance to be one of the best offenses ever in college football," Watson said while accepting the 2015 Manning Award given to the nation's top quarterback.

"That's our motivation. To be the best ever."

A lofty goal, sure. But based on how they closed the season, even a small step forward might put the Tigers in the thick of that discussion.

They are currently on an 11-game streak in which the offense totaled more than 500 yards. The last time they fell under the 500-yard mark was at home in the 24-22 win over Notre Dame in a monsoon in Death Valley.

To put that in proper perspective, only 15 teams averaged 500 or more yards per game this year—nine of which were in Power Five conferences.

Clemson closed hot, and the loss to Alabama has Watson hungrier than ever.

"Even if we would have won the game and finished 15-0 and made history, it would still be the drive to achieve it again," he said. "We have to learn from the game. Everyone is very confident that we can play with the best. We went toe-to-toe with them to the last play, and it came down to that onside kick. We have a lot of confidence in this program, and Coach [Dabo] Swinney has been doing a great job over the last several years getting ready for moments like that, and we're going to come back stronger."

"I'm going to go back and watch the games from this year and fix the interceptions that I threw," he said. "Some throws I overthrew because I was kind of rushed, trusting my footwork and the guys around you. Little things like that...my mechanics, making sure I'm real polished with that. Reading defenses. I think I do a really good job of reading defenses, but I want to get better."

The core of the Tigers offense will be back in 2016, including stud receiver Artavis Scott and fellow receiver Mike Williams, who missed virtually the entire season after suffering a neck injury in the season opener. On top of that, the young offensive line—which was a question mark coming into the season—should be even better than it was in 2015, when it gave up just 1.2 sacks per game.

Wayne Gallman, who racked up 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns, announced this week that he will pass up the chance to jump at the NFL to return to Clemson in hopes of making another title-game run.

"It was great to hear that Wayne wanted to come back, graduate and take one more ride with us," Watson said. "It's going to be a special year. I feel like he's one of the best running backs in the country, and he has proven that."

Watson's return and the experience of the offense have set the goals awfully high in Clemson following the ACC title and appearance in the national championship.

The best offense ever?

Bold but not impossible.

Just take it from Watson: "Next year is going to be very special."

 

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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Arkansas RB Alex Collins Has All the Makings of a 1st-Round Pick

The age of the first-round running back has long since come to pass as NFL teams devalue running backs' importance, and for good reason. But along with Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Arkansas RB Alex Collins has the unique skill set to buck the trend and match last year's draft with two Round 1 running back selections. While he'll have competition for draft position with Elliott and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, Collins will earn high marks throughout the draft process with his sights set on the top 32 picks.

The top-ranked running back in the country coming out of high school, per 247Sports, Collins emerged as the SEC Freshman of the Year en-route to a thriving career at Arkansas. Sharing time with Jonathan Williams, another NFL-worthy back, early in his career, Collins remains relatively fresh among NFL running back prospects, with three years of experience and under 700 career touches. 

Offering elite acceleration when he has space, Collins possesses top-end speed that should approach the 4.4-second level at the NFL combine's 40-yard dash, and he gets to that top speed in a hurry during live-game action. That type of acceleration, coupled with his sheer size and bulk, gives him a Le’Veon Bell-like impact in the open field, as he can win with speed or power in open space.

Offering plus-strength at first contact, Collins works through tacklers even before he’s built up speed. In this play against Texas Tech, Collins couples that initial break through contact with that elite acceleration, gaining speed at an alarmingly fast pace and leaving second- and third-level defenders behind him en route to a long touchdown run:

He can be a bit off balance and reckless laterally when initially getting to the hole. Offering a one-cut-and-go running style when his initial hole is open, Collins gains speed at a high level and turns into a downhill, remarkably physical open-field runner.

The occasional issues in his initial running angles stem from an overeagerness to get into one-on-one opportunities. He can get lost in his initial burst at times, and could stand to play with a bit more control as he approaches the hole on most non-draw plays.

However, that primarily stems from his understanding that few college tacklers can finish against him in one-on-one opportunities. His initial-step issues are a coachable fix, and with that being his biggest issue, it could simply be a matter of a year of development before Collins is trustworthy enough to not miss opportunities at the NFL level. 

He keeps his feet moving persistently at contact, and stays strong with a willingness to fight through double tackles. He’s willing to lower his head and bulldoze upfield, keeping his feet moving. He wasn’t asked to do this often at the college level thanks to his offense and the spread nature of his blocks, but he’s displayed the ability to throw off-balance defenders off him in the red zone and initiate physicality himself. Through contact and as he splits tight gaps at the second level, he’s able to both get skinny and balanced along with playing with great ball security.

His acceleration coupled with quick cuts laterally at the second level allow him to consistently gain separation and keep his top speed in the open field. His vertical speed rarely loses steam as he changes direction subtly in the open field, and despite appearing and playing like a bigger, more physical back, Collins offers elite open-field maneuvers to spring free.

In this play against Kansas State, notice how he works around the edge with a slower buildup, accelerates once he passes the first level and evades the open-field tackler easily with an inside cut, gaining speed at a remarkably high level for a tackle-breaking running back:

His initial vision and anticipation of defensive alignments could be improved, however, as his offensive system at times allowed for larger gaps than he’ll see at the pro level. But that’s generally true of many top running backs in offenses that threaten horizontally and vertically.

Finally, he received ample work as a pass-catcher in his junior season, including lining up in the slot, and has better than expected route-running footwork and spins his head back to the quarterback with control and readiness. Collins’ flashes as a receiver stem from confidence in space and in one-on-one matchups. He’s not an efficient route-runner yet, but he’s comfortable off of play action and in delayed routes.

Collins dips his head occasionally in pass protection on the perimeter, but he’s effective against both speed- and power-rushers. That said, he is much further along and has more experience, than most college running backs entering the NFL draft

To offer first-round value as a running back, a prospect needs to show rare running upside that can single-handedly lead an offense. With most of the NFL's top running backs being drafted after Round 1, or not at all, it's much easier to dismiss the position on the first day rather than appreciate the elite talent.

Collins doesn't have to be a Todd Gurley or Adrian Peterson type talent, but he needs to boast a skill set that can offer an offense an impact that few can provide at the NFL level. The former top-rated high school running back has the bulk, strength and acceleration combination that already puts him in the upper echelon of NFL running backs as soon as he's drafted.

It'll take at least a year in the NFL before his complete upside can be realized at the NFL level, but Collins will receive lofty draft comparisons and expectations throughout the draft process.

Collins has to earn a first-round grade from NFL teams, and at his position, with other top running backs vying for the same spot, it won't be an easy task. But he is one of the few elite skill-position talents in the 2016 NFL draft, and with so few franchise-changing players in each draft class, Collins may be too special to pass on in Round 1.

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Defensive Recruits Who Could Fortify Bob Shoop's Inaugural Defense at Tennessee

New Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator Bob Shoop received two huge bits of good news in the six days since he's been on the job with outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton electing to return to Rocky Top for their senior seasons.

But even with those elite players being the best "recruits" the Volunteers could land between now and national signing day, there are still some actual prospects who could make an immediate impact and are still very much in the picture.

With the linebacker position relatively secure, any player UT adds at that position would be a luxury. That doesn't mean the Vols are done recruiting that position, however.

There are also still major needs on the defensive line and in the secondary that should be addressed in this class. And coach Butch Jones is awaiting the final decisions for several marquee players.

Shoop needs bodies to fill out some roles in the rotation, and there are still a few guys on the recruiting board who could step right in and play for Tennessee. Getting the right players could shore up what looks on paper to be an extremely strong unit.

That's why you'll see the Vols go official-visit heavy in this final remaining month, trying to find the right few players to fill the final handful of spots left in the 2016 class.

The ranking may not be as high as the previous couple of years, but the Vols still could wind up filling all their needs. The Vols are going to cast a wide net for the precious few spots left, and with a new coordinator and new names popping up every day, the board is fluid.

Let's take a look at some prospects who could make a very big splash right away for UT.

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Georgia Football: Why the Bulldogs Should Run More Spread-Offense Plays in 2016

When Mark Richt was the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, he ran a pro-style offense that quarterbacks such as David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray were able to succeed in.

Now that Richt has moved on to Miami, Kirby Smart has arrived, and he comes from an Alabama program that runs a similar offense. The Crimson Tide ran a single-back, run-oriented scheme that throws off of play action. That offense, along with a stifling defense, has led Alabama to four national titles in a seven-year span.

So this means the Bulldogs will not change things when it comes to their offensive philosophy, right? That may not be the case, because there’s a good chance the Bulldogs will “spread” things out in 2016, if you know what I mean. And here’s why.

 

Jim Chaney

New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has a ton of experience running offenses at the college level. He’s led Purdue, Arkansas, Tennessee and Pittsburgh, and all of those schools had different offensive styles.

Chaney is best known for his work at Purdue in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He ran a spread offense there led by quarterbacks Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. When Chaney was at Tennessee, he ran a pro-style offense that was more focused on passing. That led to quarterback Tyler Bray ranking 13th in the country in passing yards per game (301) and eighth in passing touchdowns (34) in 2012.

When Chaney got to Arkansas, he adopted a run-heavy offense, and that led to the Razorbacks averaging 208.7 rushing yards per game in 2013. In 2014, the Razorbacks improved on that total, averaging 218 rushing yards per game.

What Chaney is good at is finding the strengths of each player on the offensive side of the ball. And since he’s also been a quarterbacks coach, he knows how to make the starting quarterback as comfortable as possible.

 

Jacob Eason

And that leads to the next point. Jacob Eason will have a legitimate shot to win the starting job in 2016. And if he does get it, he will be working with an offensive coordinator who will put him in the best position to make plays.

247Sports has Eason listed as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in the country. However, he played in a spread offense in high school, and he threw 43 touchdowns and six interceptions his senior year.

Jacob Eason throwing strikes just over the defender. https://t.co/ER5auRR6eX

— Jake Reuse (@ReuseRecruiting) January 4, 2016

Eason has the tools to be a great quarterback in Athens because he has the arm strength, the size and the accuracy to do some damage against SEC opponents.

He needs to be put in a position where he is very comfortable, and while Chaney will likely use a pro-style offense in 2016, per Bill King of DawgNation, having some spread plays in the mix will be vital for the Bulldogs in terms of contending in the SEC.

 

Mixing It Up

When Richt was here, the Bulldogs were dead set on running the pro-style offense. And while it was efficient when everyone was on the same page, it was too predictable at times, which was a huge issue last season.

When Smart had his first press conference as the Bulldogs head coach, he said the offense can’t just be one style and there has to be some variety to it.

Smart discussed his offensive philosophy with Seth Emerson of DawgNation:

Now to say are you going to be spread or are you going to be pro? I don’t think you can pigeonhole yourself into that. I like to think you’ve got to be both in both situations. You’ve got to utilize the talent you have on your team. What kind of players do you have on your team? What does it set up to be successful?

The Bulldogs lacked explosive plays last season. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb were relied on too much to carry the offense, and the passing game suffered because of it. If the Bulldogs mix in spread plays, guys like Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin will have more opportunities to make plays on the outside.

This makes the spring game really interesting. If we see the Bulldogs line up in the spread offense a few times on G-Day, fans could be in for an exciting 2016 season.

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Frank Wilson Reportedly Hired as UTSA Head Coach: Comments, Reaction

Frank Wilson, who has spent the past six seasons as an assistant coach with the LSU Tigers, was reportedly hired Thursday as the new head coach of the UTSA Roadrunners, per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com.

UTSA finished 3-9 during the 2015 season, leading Larry Coker to step down after five years. The opening at coach was one of 26 among FBS schools this offseason, and Wilson became the fifth African-American to fill one of the spots, per David Ching of ESPN.com.

The hiring comes on the same day NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed "concern that women and minorities are not being given a fair shot to become coaches and administrators in college athletics," per Max Olson of ESPN.com.

LSU sophomore center Andy Dodd congratulated his former coach via Twitter:

If Wilson, who most recently served as running backs coach at LSU, is measured by the success of his former players, he is one of the nation's best. Ching noted Wilson is one of the top recruiters in college football, while three of his former players—Alfred Blue (Houston Texans), Spencer Ware (Kansas City Chiefs) and Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati Bengals)—led their respective teams in rushing in the Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs.

Wilson now has a tougher task ahead of him: leading a program that has played football for only five seasons, four of which have been at the FBS level. The Roadrunners are 26-32 in their short history, with their best season coming in 2012—their first in the FBS—with an 8-4 record.

He won't have the likes of Blue, Ware, Hill and Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns this past year, knocking down the door to come play for him next year. However, if social media is any indication, his former players have great respect for him. Former LSU running back Jacob Hester also praised Wilson while possibly lobbying for his old job:

Wilson will become just the second head coach in school history.

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Ohio State, Nike Agree to Contract Extension: Latest Details and Comments

The Ohio State Buckeyes have earned bragging rights on the football field after winning at least 12 games in each of the last four seasons under head coach Urban Meyer and winning last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship.

They now have more bragging rights in the financial aspect of college sports as well.

According to Chris Davey of OSU.edu, Ohio State and Nike signed a 15-year contract extension Thursday. “The majority of the benefits take effect in August 2018, when the previous contract would have expired,” per Davey.

Dave Briggs of the Toledo Blade added that the deal is worth $252 million in total, "including $215 million in cash and products."

Rob Kunz of Time Warner Cable SportsChannel Ohio reacted to the contract:

Ohio State University President Michael V. Drake commented on the deal, per Davey: “The comprehensive nature of this partnership is a win for all Ohio State students. The expanded commitment by Nike will support access, affordability and excellence for Buckeye students and student-athletes across our campus.”

President and general manager of Nike North America Joaquin Hidalgo also remarked on the contract extension, per Davey:

The Ohio State University has been a NIKE partner for over two decades and we’re delighted to extend that partnership with the school through the 2033 academic year. NIKE and Ohio State share similar values of innovation and a commitment to excellence, and we look forward to an exciting future both on and off the field for years to come.

This is not the first time the Buckeyes have been in the news for their financial windfall in the offseason. Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal recently noted that Ohio State’s football team was the most valuable program in the country in 2015 at a value of $946.6 million. It was the program’s second straight year on top of those rankings.

In regard to Thursday’s contract extension with Nike, DJ Byrnes of Eleven Warriors pointed out that “the deal surpasses Nike's then-record 15-year, $250 million agreement with Texas and its 11-year, $169 million deal with Michigan.”

Buckeyes fans have watched their football team handle the archrival Wolverines in 11 of the last 12 years, including a 42-13 beatdown in Ann Arbor during the 2015 season, which was Jim Harbaugh’s first campaign as Michigan’s head coach.

Now, Buckeye Nation can add Thursday’s Nike deal as another way their program has surpassed Michigan’s in recent years.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Leaders and Wild Cards for Every Uncommitted 2016 5-Star Recruit

The 2016 college football recruiting cycle continues to wind down, and we're now less than three weeks shy of national signing day. This final stretch will be defined by pivotal official visits, late pursuits from new coaching staffs and, undoubtedly, some surprises.

While many of America's marquee high school prospects already announced collegiate commitments or actually enrolled on campus early, 10 5-star recruits remain undecided. Many of these athletes started to receive substantial amounts of scholarship offers as underclassmen, so it's a process that extends years for them and their families. 

We examined the recruitments of these top-tier talents, identifying leading contenders and wild-card candidates for each prized prospect at this point.

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Auburn Football: 5 Reasons the Tigers Should Be Optimistic About 2016

At first glance, there might not be a lot to be overly optimistic about for the 2016 Auburn Tigers. 

The Tigers will be coming off a highly disappointing 7-6 campaign that started with championship hype. They'll be on their fifth defensive coordinator in six years. The quarterback situation doesn't have a clear answer, and Auburn will have to reload at several position groups.

This combination of factors and question marks put Auburn at No. 9 in Bleacher Report lead SEC writer Barrett Sallee's way-too-early power rankings for the conference. 

But this is Auburn, a program that doesn't quite stick to preseason expectations. The Tigers' best seasons in the last couple of decades all came when they didn't open the year inside the Top 20. 

Auburn still has plenty of talent and resources needed for a successful season—it's just a matter of it all coming together for Gus Malzahn and his roster. Here are five reasons why Tigers fans can be hopeful that will happen in 2016.

 

The return of Carl Lawson 

Auburn wasn't able to retain what it hoped would be the architect of a strong defense, but its biggest difference-maker is staying put for 2016.

A few weeks after one-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was officially announced as South Carolina's head coach, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson announced he would not enter the 2016 NFL draft in a Wolf of Wall Street-inspired tweet:

Lawson's father confirmed the news to Brandon Marcello of AL.com and gave some insight on why his son was staying at Auburn:

He does love Auburn and he wants to get his degree, which he's close to doing. He feels like he personally set some goals for himself when he came, he hasn't accomplished them yet and he wants to get that done. He just figures he hasn't played his best football and he certainly wants to win a national championship ring. There's a lot of things he wants to do and show he can come back and get better.

While Lawson is just one player, he has been crucial to Auburn's defensive success since he enrolled prior to the 2013 season.

The pass-rush specialist missed virtually one half of the 2015 season—the second half of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic against Louisville and the next six games—because of a hip injury. 

When Lawson returned, Auburn's defensive numbers improved.

If Byron Cowart can develop into a force alongside tackles Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell, Lawson should lead a fierce Auburn defensive line into 2016. A consistent pass rush has been Auburn's biggest defensive weakness these last two seasons, and that lineup should be able to get great pressure.

 

A deep group of experienced running backs 

It's no secret Malzahn's offense works at its absolute best with a dual-threat quarterback.

And with Auburn picking up two such signal-callers in this year's recruiting class—JUCO transfer John Franklin III and incoming freshman Woody Barrett—a move back to the run-heavy system of offense could be in store for 2016.

That would be the best move for Malzahn, whose play-calling received plenty of deserved criticism in 2015. His roster has a giant question mark at quarterback, an underdeveloped group of wide receivers and a stacked running back depth chart.

Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson, Roc Thomas and Kerryon Johnson are all set to return this fall, and they each averaged at least four yards per carry in 2015.

Barber kept the Auburn offense from completely sinking during Jeremy Johnson's early struggles, and Robinson was getting nearly six yards a touch at the end of the season.

(In another confusing decision from the coaching staff, Robinson would disappear at times in close games. That also has to change.)

Thomas and Johnson both have the explosiveness to become even better big-play weapons in the running and the passing games. 

If Auburn goes back to the Wing T-style offense that tormented the SEC in the days of Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, the starting quarterback will be able to rely on four established rushers.

With a running quarterback alongside them, these skilled backs would present a lot of challenges for any defense.

 

Malzahn's reunion with Herb Hand 

Malzahn's latest addition to his coaching staff following J.B. Grimes' departure to Penn State was met with concerns from some fans.

But don't let Penn State's offensive line performance this season fool you. Herb Hand is potentially the best hire Malzahn has made in his Auburn career.

The former Penn State offensive line coach was the quick front-runner to replace Grimes as soon as the job became available, and Malzahn wasted no time signing on his close friend and former co-worker.

Malzahn and Hand were co-offensive coordinators at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008. As football writer Chris B. Brown noted in a Grantland story from 2014, Hand introduced zone-read rushing concepts to Malzahn and created the nation's most potent offense:

Tulsa led the country in total offense in both of Malzahn’s two seasons, sporting a slightly different style each time: In 2007, Tulsa finished third in the nation in passing offense, as quarterback Paul Smith threw for more than 5,000 yards and 47 touchdowns. The next season, Tulsa finished fifth in rushing, as Malzahn merged his wing-T-infused run game with the zone-read ideas Hand brought from West Virginia, where he’d coached under Rich Rodriguez. 

Now, after one of Malzahn's worst offensive seasons as a college coach, he's reuniting with the man who helped him build a No. 1 offense.

While Hand's offensive lines at Penn State ranked 113th and 124th nationally in sacks allowed, keep in mind he was dealing with a roster that had been crippled by NCAA sanctions.

According to Marcello, Hand had to bring two players over from defense to help build a depth chart with the Nittany Lions:

Auburn doesn't have depth issues on the offensive line, as Grimes built one of the best units in the entire SEC during his three seasons with the program. Hand will have to replace NFL-bound tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young, but he won't have to do it with defensive players.

From a total offensive perspective, Hand is a great hire for Auburn. He could be the key in helping Malzahn find that play-calling magic that made the Tigers so fearsome in 2013 and 2014.

 

Strong recruiting finish in store 

With less than three full weeks to go until national signing day, Auburn is in a great position to close out the year with another top-10 recruiting class.

The Tigers are currently No. 10 in 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings, which combine scores from the major recruiting outlets.

There's still great room for improvement between now and the beginning of February, too, as Auburn is tied for the second-fewest commitments among Top 10 teams.

Auburn currently has 17 pledges and has five blue-chip players listed as "top targets" in 247Sports' database.

Those targets include No. 8 overall player Derrick Brown, a defensive tackle, and former wide receiver commitment Nate Craig-Myers—the No. 3 player at his position.

The way the Tigers are succeeding on the recruiting trail despite a lackluster 7-6 season has to be encouraging for Malzahn and his new-look staff.

Some of his newest assistants, such as defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff, have plenty of experience at getting highly ranked recruiting classes.

McGriff played a major role in helping Ole Miss land its star-studded 2013 recruiting class, one that featured Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell.

"McGriff could have a domino impact on those players because it’s players that Auburn have gotten late interest from and he’s able to tell them that he knows how to get talent to the NFL, which is where every player wants to be," Jason Caldwell of Scout told Matthew Stevens of the Montgomery Advertiser

If Auburn can add a few more instant-impact players in the 2016 class, the Tigers should have a much brighter outlook for the fall.

 

Five home games to start the season 

An even-numbered year means only one thing for Auburn: the all-road "Amen Corner" duo.

Auburn will have to face its two biggest rivals, Georgia and Alabama, away from home in 2016. The Tigers lost both legs of the road series in 2014, the first time the SEC schedule had changed to the new format.

However, while the 2016 schedule looks brutal for Auburn, there is one big positive.

Auburn will start 2016 with five straight home games, opening with defending national runner-up Clemson on September 3 and concluding with an October 1 meeting with Louisiana-Monroe.

The season opener will undoubtedly be a huge challenge for Auburn, as Clemson will return Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson and several other star players from a team that took Alabama to the brink in the national championship game.

However, the five-game home stand to open the year is a great place for Auburn to build momentum in what is sure to be a make-or-break season for Malzahn and his staff.

Being able to rely on a loud home-field advantage at Jordan-Hare Stadium for games against LSU and Texas A&M can be a real difference-maker.

Momentum is everything in college football, and if Auburn can get off to a strong start in 2016 with several home wins in a row, then the Tigers should be in much better shape when they hit the tough road games in the back half of the slate.

With just four true road games on the 2016 schedule, the odds might not be as highly stacked against Auburn as they seem. The first five contests will be a good opportunity to set the tone for a bounce-back campaign. 

 

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

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Kirby Hocutt Named Chairman of College Football Playoff Selection Committee

The College Football Playoff selection committee wasted no time finding a new chairman, naming Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt to the position Thursday. 

Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee provided the official announcement from College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock:

Hocutt, who has been Texas Tech's athletic director since 2011, takes over the position that was previously held by Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long.   

On Tuesday, Long stepped down as selection committee chairman after two years. He presided over the first two seasons of the College Football Playoff, in which Ohio State and Alabama won national championships. 

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated did note Long handled a "thankless" role as well as possible. The biggest thing Long did that Hocutt will now be tasked with is handling the morning-after media appearances when questions about the playoff rankings inevitably come up. 

Hocutt knows the committee well, having served on the group since last February after taking over for West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck. 

The College Football Playoff selection committee consists of 12 diverse people, including former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who determine the Top 25 teams in the country starting after the season's ninth week.     

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4-Star WR Devonta Smith Tweets Decision to Decommit from Georgia

Three days after winning a national championship with his old employer, new Georgia head coach Kirby Smart suffered a loss that could impact his chances of claiming another title.

Devonta Smith, a 2017 prospect who had pledged to the Bulldogs in August, announced on Twitter Thursday that he's re-opening his recruitment:

A 4-star wide receiver from Louisiana, Smith is rated as the No. 86 overall prospect in the 2017 class. He had been Georgia's second-best recruit for 2017 behind No. 1-ranked athlete Richard LeCounte III.

No reason was given for the decommitment, but 247Sports' Jake Rowe cited Georgia's staff turnover as contributing to the move.

"Smith was very close [with] former Georgia director of player personnel Sam Petitto, who will be taking a job at Alabama," he wrote. "Two other major factors in Smith's commitment to Georgia, Bryan McClendon and Jeremy Pruitt, are also no longer at Georgia."

Petitto, who had been with Georgia since 2014, is a native of Smith's hometown of Amite and was previously on the staff of Southeast Louisiana in nearby Hammond. McClendon is now co-offensive coordinator under Will Muschamp at South Carolina, while Alabama hired Pruitt to be defensive coordinator in place of Smart.

Smith, listed at 6'1" and 155 pounds, is also a standout basketball player for Amite High School in Louisiana. He recently scored 24 points against Loranger, skying for a pair of impressive dunks in the process.

Besides Georgia, Smith has scholarship offers from Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss. According to 247Sports' Crystal Ball, 'Bama has the edge with five of seven experts (71 percent) picking the Crimson Tide as Smith's landing spot.

With Smith's departure, Georgia is left with just two commitments for 2017: LeCounte and 4-star linebacker Breon Dixon.

 

Unless otherwise noted, recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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LSU Commit Erick Fowler to Visit Texas: Can the Longhorns Flip 4-Star LB?

SAN ANTONIO — Surrounded by those who followed Texas Longhorns football, Erick Fowler wanted to blaze his own path.

Fowler's hometown of Manor, Texas, is roughly a 20-minute drive from the University of Texas campus. His family and friends—and many in his neighborhood—grew up rooting for the Longhorns.

And although there was nothing wrong with that, Fowler felt like there was more out there. He remembers watching TV on a Saturday afternoon and seeing a team that opened his eyes.

"When I was playing Little League, I played running back and linebacker," Fowler said. "I used to always come in and smash people. I watched an LSU game and said, 'Man, that's what I do.' I just started watching them ever since."

The Tigers have been Fowler's favorite team since he was little, and on June 13, the 4-star hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end verbally committed to his favorite team. With a couple of weeks remaining until national signing day, LSU is now hoping to keep him committed.

And Texas is hoping to flip him.

Fowler will take an official visit to Texas this weekend—one week before taking an official to LSU. The next few days will give him an opportunity to weigh both options before putting ink to paper on national signing day, February 3.

"I kind of shied away from UT," Fowler said, discussing Texas and LSU. "My whole family and outside of the family loved UT, so I went and found something different that I liked."

That was then. Now, both schools appear to be on relatively equal playing fields. The good news for Tigers fans is that his favorite team still holds the advantage as of now.

"I'm still committed to LSU," he said, "but there's a lot of pressure coming from a lot of schools. I didn't expect that."

Listed as the nation's No. 5 outside linebacker and the No. 80 overall player in the 2016 class, Fowler was a versatile, all-purpose defender at Manor. He had 55 tackles and five sacks as a senior, but it was his sophomore and junior seasons that helped put him on the map. He recorded 148 tackles and 33.5 sacks during that span.

Per Danny Davis of the Austin American-Statesman, Fowler sacked 40 quarterbacks over his three-year varsity career. The 6'1", 226-pound athlete capped his high school career as a U.S. Army All-American, and he finished last Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl with five tackles and helped the West team defeat the East, 37-9, in front of 39,121 in attendance and millions watching on national television.

Whether it's LSU or Texas, Fowler wants all to know that the winning school will get a player who will play with a high motor and tons of intensity throughout his college career.

"[I'm] hardworking and dedicated ... see ball, go get ball," Fowler said. "I play hard and definitely play with a purpose. You can't find that in other football players. Some just do it for the show and for the cameras. That's not me at all."

LSU needs to hold on to a player like Fowler. They currently have two linebackers committed in Fowler and 4-star outside linebacker Michael Divinity. The Tigers didn't have a linebacker commit in their 2015 class, so for depth reasons, keeping Fowler committed is huge.

Texas, however, had one of the nation's best linebacker classes in 2015, headlined by outside linebackers Malik Jefferson and Anthony Wheeler. The 2016 class features inside linebacker Demarco Boyd, but no other linebackers are committed.

LSU and Texas are the primary contenders in Fowler's process, but he also said Oregon has been recruiting him consistently. Fowler said a final decision will come on signing day, but it'll take a lot for Texas and Oregon to change his mind.

"You can't go wrong with the numbers. They produce NFL players, especially on defense," Fowler said of LSU. "Any position you play, you have a good chance of going to the league with LSU.

"But if [Texas and Oregon] can show me more than that ..."

He left his quote with a shoulder shrug and a smile.

There's hope for Texas. But will hope turn into reality?

 

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

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10 College Football Teams That Will Take a Step Back in 2016

Let the turnover begin.

With the college football season officially over, and the NFL draft season set to get started, programs from around the country are dealing with an enormous amount of attrition and turnover. Of course, no two programs are hit the same way. Some are bound to take a bigger step back in 2016 based on losses and what they accomplished in '15. Projected strength of schedules play a role as well. 

With that in mind, we've compiled 10 teams who feel like the safest bets to take a step back. 

The definition of taking a "step back" as it relates to this conversation is fairly straightforward. The following teams aren't projected to match their win total based on personnel and/or coaching losses. It doesn't mean the step back has to be huge—it could be by as little as one game—but it will be there all the same. 

But to take it a step further, moving back also means there could be obvious deficiencies on offense and/or defense because of a major departure(s). 

Begin Slideshow

Way-Too-Early 2016 Pac 12 Football Power Rankings

The 2015 season came to an official close on Monday night with Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson in the national title game. While the SEC and ACC battled for the sport’s ultimate prize and the Pac-12 was left out of this year’s College Football Playoff, Commissioner Larry Scott’s league proved once again to be one of the deepest in the country even if it was not right there in the end.

What are in the cards for 2016 though? Can a team emerge as an elite power and make the final four? Will somebody take a big step back?

It’s time to take a look into our crystal ball and look ahead to 2016, sorting out how the Pac-12 stacks up next season based on everything from coaching changes to player departures.

Begin Slideshow

Predicting Every 2016 College Football Conference Champion

Every FBS football team has hopes of winning the College Football Playoff National Championship, but this isn't a realistic goal for most schools. Only a select list of contenders are truly in the running each year, leaving the rest to strive for other achievements.

Such as winning a conference title, a goal that's well within reach of every team in the country.

There are 10 conferences at the FBS level—five so-called "power" leagues and then five more lumped together on a second tier known as the "Group of Five." Compare and contrast them all you want, but each is its own entity, and thus whoever wins that conference stands out from the rest of the pack.

As part of the long list of "way-too-early" pieces that come out during college football's offseason, we've predicted the winner of all 10 FBS conferences for the 2016 season. Check them out, and if you think otherwise, let us know in the comments section.

Begin Slideshow

Rashard Lawrence Sets Commit Date: Which School Has Best Shot to Land 5-Star DT?

The LSU Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes currently occupy two of the nation’s top three recruiting classes, and their battle over 5-star defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence could help the winner take a big step forward toward landing the nation's top overall class.

Lawrence announced via Twitter that he will make his decision on Jan. 22—with the Tigers and the Buckeyes representing his two finalists.

The 6’3”, 305-pounder took an official visit to Columbus last October, and he will be on LSU’s campus this weekend—which will represent his last trip before he announces his commitment.

Which program has the best shot to land Lawrence next Friday?

LSU has been the overwhelming favorite to land Lawrence and with good reason.

Lawrence, who is the Pelican State’s top prospect in the 2016 cycle, the No. 5 defensive tackle and the No. 22 player overall, admits that he’s close to Tigers head coach Les Miles and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, according to Sonny Shipp of Geaux247.

"I think Coach Miles is a great guy,” Lawrence told Shipp. “The players love playing for him. To see him not there would be completely different for the program. I'm glad he stayed because it did help my process and probably other kids around the nation. I'm glad he stayed."

In addition to his relationship with the coaching staff in Baton Rouge, Shipp also notes that Lawrence has grown close to current Tigers such as defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Christian LeCouture.

Considering he made multiple visits to Baton Rouge last year, Lawrence is very familiar with the inner workings of the Tigers program.

Miles and his staff will try to seal the deal with Lawrence this weekend, but it’s tough to discount Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer in any recruiting battle.

In addition to his official trip last fall, Lawrence also visited the Buckeyes for their summer camp.

Similar to the bonds that tie him to the Tigers, he has a strong relationship with the man that would be his position coach in Columbus if he elects to leave his home state for school.

“[Defensive line] Coach [Larry] Johnson, me and him have an excellent relationship,” Lawrence told Shipp. “From Day 1, whenever I told him I was interested, he soaked it all in and really recruited me hard. He doesn’t pressure me into anything and is a really great guy. He’s really the only one I talk to, and he’s a special man and definitely develops them.”

Since Meyer has taken over the Buckeyes program, he’s been able to recruit in foreign territories such as Florida, Georgia and Texas with great success. Still, he has yet to land a Louisiana native in that same span.

The Buckeyes make a fairly dangerous underdog in the race to land Lawrence, but the arrows in his recruitment seem to point toward him staying close to home in college.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Derrick Brown Reveals Top 5: Which School Is Best Fit for 5-Star DT?

Coveted defensive tackle recruit Derrick Brown doesn't plan to deliver his collegiate commitment until national signing day, but he provided some insight on the decision Thursday afternoon.

The 6'4", 317-pound prospect revealed five finalists from the SEC that will compete for his Feb. 3 pledge:

Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee remain in the mix for Brown, who began receiving scholarship offers as a sophomore. This list excludes plenty of programs that pursued him during different stages of the process, including Clemson, Stanford, Texas and Florida.

Brown visited Bleacher Report's New York City offices last month and expressed intentions to finalize his college choice at least a few days before signing day, when he will publicly share a destination. In the meantime, there's a lot to look into here as he sorts through options. 

It speaks volumes about annual coaching staff shifts in college football that none of his five finalists will enter the 2016 season with the same defensive coordinator as 2015. 

Kirby Smart left his post at Alabama to become head coach at Georgia, where he hired former Crimson Tide colleague Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator. Alabama replaced Smart with former Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Tennessee unveiled a new defensive coordinator earlier this week, landing former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Mississippi State saw defensive coordinator Manny Diaz depart for the same position at Miami and recently replaced him with USC linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. 

Former Florida head coach Will Muschamp lasted just one season as defensive coordinator at Auburn, bolting in December for a return to head coaching with South Carolina. 

Now that the dust has settled from staff perspectives, it's time for teams to present their very best sales pitch to one of America's most prized uncommitted talents.

Brown, rated No. 3 nationally among defensive tackles in composite rankings, is considered the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. He is fresh off the most dominant season of his high school career.

The Lanier High School (Buford, Georgia) standout secured 106 tackles—42 for loss—and 12 sacks as a senior. Brown was the lone defensive prospect named a U.S. Army All-American Player of the Year finalist.

He may join the winner of that award, 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, at Georgia later this year. The top-rated passer enrolled early in Athens, headlining a Bulldogs recruiting class that's still chasing three in-state 5-star prospects.

There's no bigger Peach State target, figuratively and literally, than Brown. He is considered Georgia's top overall talent in this cycle and is set to spend an official visit in Athens this month, presenting the new regime an opportunity to impress.

“It’s definitely going to be something new at Georgia. I think I’ll make my final thought about the situation when I go up for my official visit in January," Brown told Bleacher Report.

The Bulldogs landed top-ranked defensive tackle Trent Thompson last signing day and carry 2016 commitments from a pair of 4-star defensive linemen. Smart opted to retain defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, providing continuity for Brown. 

The positional coach also plays a pivotal role at Auburn, where Rodney Garner leads the defensive front. Brown didn't seem pleased with the departure of Muschamp, but consistency remains in place at a pivotal spot for his relationship with the Tigers, and Garner has been a fantastic recruiter here.

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt previously helped spearhead recruiting efforts at Georgia, so a strong sense of familiarity is already in place. The newly crowned national champions welcomed Brown to Tuscaloosa for an official visit last month.

When it comes to Mississippi State, the ties go beyond football coaches and facilities. Brown's parents both graduated from the university, according to Chris Kirschner of DawgNation.com. Starkville was actually his first home.

“I would feel great if he went to Mississippi State because he would be near relatives, but this is Derrick’s life and our thing is to help guide him toward his decision. We want to help guide him toward his own path," his mother, Martha Brown, told Kirschner. 

Georgia is the runaway favorite in Brown's crystal ball on 247Sports. He is projected to sign with the Bulldogs by 96 percent of 28 experts' predictions and, ultimately, Georgia looks like the probable pick.

Tennessee, expected to be his fifth and final stop on a whirlwind official visit tour, could be a wild card worth watching closely as Feb. 3 approaches. While discussing his potential collegiate landing spots, Brown displayed particular affinity toward Knoxville.

“It is like no other place I’ve been to," he said. "You can feel it in Knoxville. They call it VFL—‘Vol for Life’—and at the end of the day, those people really are Volunteers. They’re not Georgia fans one week and Florida fans the next week. Those people are Volunteers.”

With trips to Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn slated to occur during the next three weeks, expect a fluid situation to become more clear in the aftermath of those visits. Brown projects as an absolute force in SEC trenches, but it remains to be seen which uniform he will wear during those battles.

 

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

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Who Will Be the out-of-Nowhere College Football Playoff Contender in 2016?

There's one team every year.

No matter the season, one perceived bottom feeder emerges from the benthos and becomes a national title contender.

Consider Auburn's turnaround three years ago. Consider TCU in 2014. Consider the fact that Iowa just started 12-0!

From all those massive turnarounds, we can gather certain insights and attempt to predict the next out-of-nowhere College Football Playoff contender. My past two attempts included only teams with losing records, but Iowa and North Carolina, which both just played de facto playoff quarterfinals, forcing me to reconsider and at least include 7-6 teams.

Sound off below and let us know which teams you would add! 

 

1. The Performance Factor

"The strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons."

The above quote is a "basic" at Football Outsiders. If you think it makes no sense, click away. It's OK to disagree (as long as you have your reasons), but this idea provides the basis of my theory.

If you haven't clicked away yet, let's explain the methodology of that quote. Here's how Football Outsiders elaborated: 

It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.

Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.

Basically, instead of analyzing numbers from just last season, the idea is to analyze numbers from the past five seasons. Proceeding this way would have helped predict Auburn's breakout two years ago and TCU's breakout last season.

Because of that, I always start this process by computing Football Outsiders' average F/+ ratings over a five-year sample. I want a team that won seven or fewer games in 2015 but has still been a top-50 program since 2011.

From there, it's time to look at just this past year's performance.

For the sake of being faithful to the headline, I want a team that actually turns its season around. I don't want a team that was deceptively pretty good in 2015. That goes against the spirit of this concept.

Here's how those 12 teams fared in 2015:

From that list, you'll notice one major outlier.

Despite its 7-6 record, Washington finished No. 13 in the country—nine spots ahead of a Utah team that beat it in Husky Stadium, 10 spots ahead of an Oregon team that beat it in Husky Stadium and 37 spots ahead of an Arizona State team that beat it in Tempe.

How is that possible? It's a matter of consistency and ceiling. Washington lost six games and deserved to lose all six, but when it won, it really won. In six of the Huskies' seven wins, they performed above the 90th percentile, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly.

The one in which they didn't was a road win at USC.

How does this factor into our analysis? I suppose that's a matter of semantics.

It's hard to call the 13th-best team in the country—even if it's only by one metric—an out-of-nowhere candidate. If I had to pick one team from that list to compete for next year's playoff, I'd choose Washington without thinking twice. It's just wrong to say the Huskies are coming from nowhere.

Similarly, I refuse to cast Texas and its Powerball-jackpot bankroll as an underdog. According to USA Today's finance database, the Longhorns rank No. 2 in athletic department revenue. The only team with more is Oregon, which has Phil Knight pulling the strings as a benefactor.

Texas can't come from nowhere, because it's coming from a throne made of money.

Eliminated Teams: Washington, Texas

 

2. The Luck Factor

Luck is what happens when a 50-50 factor skews away from that even center. Good luck is when it skews one way in your favor. Bad luck is when it skews one way in your disfavor.

Turnovers are not entirely luck, but elements of turnovers are. Fumble recoveries and interceptions per pass defensed are the two main stats to examine. Connelly explained this in his theory of adjusted turnover margin:

[Adjusted turnover margin is] what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.

If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

Another big stat that regresses to the mean is close-game luck.

Over time, teams win roughly half of their one-score games. Because so few happen during a 12-game season, the sample allows for meaningful outliers. Had you looked at that after the 2012 season, when Michigan State lost five conference games by 13 combined points, you might have predicted, as some did, that the Spartans would make a run to the 2013 Rose Bowl.

On that note, let's examine how the remaining 10 teams fared in terms of close-game and turnover luck: 

Of that list, only Nebraska endured double bad luck.

Everybody knows about the close-game failings—the Hail Mary against BYU, overtime against Miami, buzzer-beater losses against Wisconsin and Illinois—but it also suffered horrible luck on turnovers.

Based on how it played, it should have finished with a plus-0.5 turnover margin, according to Connelly's numbers. Instead the Huskers finished with a minus-12 turnover margin. Tack on nearly five points per game, and they would have finished 9-3 or 10-2.

Other teams, however, have fewer reasons to expect progression. Missouri and Arizona can't use on-field luck as a scapegoat.

Missouri can blame unique off-field distractions, while Arizona can maybe blame injuries. But for the purposes of this article, they are not prime bounce-back candidates. 

Eliminated Teams: Missouri, Arizona

 

3. The Schedule Factor 

If Iowa and North Carolina taught us anything, it's the importance of evaluating schedules.

We can only predict so much in the offseason—especially when it's three days old—but the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal were objectively bad divisions. It looked that way 12 months ago, it looked that way five months ago and it looked that way all year.

Iowa, for example, won 12 games despite ranking No. 38 in F/+. It started 12-0 because it failed to play a single top-30 team.

North Carolina, meanwhile, made Iowa's schedule look fierce. Of its 10 wins, two came against FCS teams and eight came against teams with five or more losses. It didn't beat a single four-loss team!

We can't anoint the next UNC or Iowa by looking at schedules, but we can eliminate teams from realistic playoff contention. Certain divisions will probably struggle as much as the Big Ten West and ACC Coastal, but other divisions will never be that bad.

Here is how next year's schedule breaks down, with "Top 25 opponents" referring to Ben Kercheval's super-early B/R poll:  

And here are the opponents that yield those three red X's:

  • Arizona Stateat USC, vs. WSU, at ORE, at UW
  • Kansas State: at STAN, at OU, vs. OKST, at BU, at TCU
  • Auburn: vs. CLEM, vs. LSU, at MISS, at UGA, at ALA

Nebraska (Big Ten West), South Carolina (SEC East) and Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech (ACC Coastal) move on thanks to traditionally soft divisions and favorable home schedules.

Penn State (Big Ten East) is in a loaded division but gets three of its four best opponents—Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State—in Happy Valley. It almost got the X, but for now, let's keep it alive.

Eliminated Teams: Arizona State, Kansas State, Auburn

 

4. Stopping the Fight

Other crucial factors such as scheme change, returning starters and quarterback situation play a role in contending from nowhere, but let's spare those and stop the fight.

One team has led this battle from wire-to-wire, meeting every single benchmark on the list.

  • It was better than its record last season.
  • It has been a top-25 team since 2011.
  • It suffered horrible turnover luck.
  • It suffered horrible close-game luck.
  • It plays an easy schedule.

It's Nebraska!

The Huskers snuck into a bowl game at 5-7 but made the most of their good fortune and beat UCLA, 37-29. 

They lose some important pieces, especially on defense, but return a four-year starting quarterback and basically every skill player.

One of those skill players, receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El could totally change the ceiling of this outlook.

He broke out as a freshman in 2014, ranking No. 1 in the nation in punt return average, but missed the start of last season with a foot injury and the end of the season after tearing up his knee against Purdue. He's expected to play next season, although his health will be a story all summer.

"You want him out there, but I want him to be healthy so I don't want to rush him," receivers coach Keith Williams told Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star. "I don't want to push it. If he's not ready to go, you just have to adjust and deal with it."

If Pierson-El returns, he'll join a loaded group of receivers alongside Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan. If ever senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, whose best days look as good as his worst days look bad, were to post a consistent season, now would be the time.  

The schedule is navigable but tricky. Oregon visits Lincoln in September, and road trips to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa loom large. This team will have to start games faster, finish games stronger and play games cleaner than last year.

It's unlikely, but the numbers say it's possible.

 

Brian Leigh covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BLeigh35

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