NCAA Football News

Tennessee Football: 5 Bold Predictions for the Vols' Bowl Game

In a surprise selection, the Tennessee Volunteers' postseason fortunes went from an all-but-guaranteed blustery and cold bowl game somewhere in the mid-South to a berth in the TaxSlayer Bowl in balmy Jacksonville, Florida, against the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

With potential opponents ranging from the West Virginia Mountaineers, the Louisville Cardinals and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, it looks like the Vols lucked out not only on location but also on their opponent.

The Hawkeyes are a solid team that underachieved in 2014, while the Vols met expectations in an unexpected way by clawing their way to bowl eligiblity after winning three of their last four games.

Although the Vols are already reaping the benefits of making the postseason by scheduling 15 extra practices, the season won't be a true success unless the team brings home a win from Jacksonville.

And with a full month to heal and game-plan for the team's Big 10 opponent, expect Tennessee's coaches to give fans and players alike a glimpse of what the team will look like heading into 2015.

With that said, here are five bold predictions for Tennessee's matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the TaxSlayer Bowl. 

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2014 Alabama Team Is Nick Saban's Crowning Achievement

It's Alabama, so I shouldn't be surprised the Crimson Tide are a final four team. Well, I am surprised. I'm actually a little bit stunned, even with the SEC being down this season.

I mean, these guys need two wins to snatch a national championship with a squad that should have gone 9-3.

This is Nick Saban and his staff's best work at Alabama in the eight seasons he has been there. It really is.

The quarterback is 6' tall. He was a scout team quarterback. They tried to put him at wide receiver, then running back. There were all kinds of reasons not to hand the job to Blake Sims. Saban was ready to give it to transfer Jake Coker the morning of the August 16 scrimmage, a team source said, but decided on Sims. Now look at Sims. MVP of the SEC Championship game.

Here's the true measure of the coaching done by Saban and his staff this season. He has always hated the no-huddle, hurry up offense—calling it "continuous offense" (and much worse things), according to a source who has worked with him in the past. He really detested it. Then, in the first game of the 2014 season against West Virginia in the Georgia Dome, Saban watched Sims settle into a groove when the pace was fast.

I asked Saban about "continuous offense" after the SEC Championship Game. It was so un-Alabama.

"It's been very, very beneficial to us. He's the reason we do it because it's what he does best," he said. "If we didn't do it, I don't think we would be here where we are right now."

The no-huddle played to Sims' strengths, which are quick feet, quick throws.     

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin then worked with the veteran wide receiver Amari Cooper to move him around so he was difficult to double-team. Cooper learned the routes of different wide receiver positions, Saban said. That's coaching from Kiffin and second-year assistant Billy Napier. Sims and Cooper drew the defense close and then Sims threw some of the prettiest deep balls you will ever see.

Here is something else about the offense. They have a true freshman left tackle, Cam Robinson. They have another offensive lineman, Leon Brown, who they plucked from some place called ASA College in New York. They have a right tackle, Arie Kouandjio, who has had multiple knee surgeries. Alabama really needed his brother, Cyrus Kouandjio, to stay and not go to the NFL last spring.

Did you know these guys are winning without their most dynamic offensive player? I know, it's sacrilegious to say such a thing because you have been watching Cooper all season. Well, injured running back Kenyan Drake was faster than Cooper. Drake could run and catch passes. Sources around the team said Alabama had a home run play—a wheel route to Drake—that would have wrecked defenses, or made them pay so much attention to it, another play would have opened up.

The coaching on defense has been no less spectacular. Kirby Smart, the Alabama defensive coordinator, had to go fast on defense because of so many no-huddle offenses. He adapted. Instead of eight-word signals via hands from the sidelines, a source close to the team says Smart has compressed the signal to one word. Are you kidding? You are telling teenagers on the field, OK, this one word means eight things from blitz path to shade. Don't forget it.

That brings us to Trey DePriest, the Mike linebacker. Reggie Ragland is a more talented linebacker, but DePriest is more indispensable because Smart has coached him to understand those one-word signals and get the defense lined up. Saban and Smart's defense is a stuffed toolbox. They have an answer for every scheme the offense can come up with, 45 years worth of tools for Saban, and DePriest gets his guys straight on the field.

Now look at the rest of these guys on defense. Corner Eddie Jackson has a brace on his knee. He's just a sophomore and wounded. Cyrus Jones, the other corner, first played offense at Alabama, but the Tide were so weak at corner they had to move him to defense. He's green, still learning. Safety Nick Perry is good, not great.

There are first-round picks, don't get me wrong. Safety Landon Collins is one. Tackle A'Shawn Robinson is another. But look at the youth of the defensive line. Look at DePriest. He was discounted as the season started, fifth-round, NFL scouts tell me. He was named All-SEC on Tuesday.

 

Turning point

On October 11, Alabama squeaked by Arkansas, 14-13, and it was treated as a debacle. Saban fumed, but he wasn't fuming at his team. Privately, I'm told by a source close to Saban, he was fuming at fans, the media, anybody who labeled the win shameful Alabama football. He saw a team come together. Others saw a season ready to fall apart.

This is going to get sappy. Saban loves his football team. We all saw how good a team Arkansas became. Saban knew how good the Razorbacks were that week. His team showed guts with that win. He was daddy-proud.

"I really think that our team came together in the Arkansas game," Saban said. "I saw an energy and enthusiasm in our players that I hadn't really seen before. After that game you saw them play really well against Texas Texas A&M. I think it was a result of what happened at Arkansas."

That's coaching. Stand behind your guys.

Here is what's really special about Alabama besides coaching. Chemistry.

This group, more than others, an insider told me, has pushed aside that chatter about getting to the NFL as fast as you can and getting to the "second contract," where all the money is. Saban talked about chemistry in the postgame press conference at the SEC Championship Game. I mean, one of the most taciturn men in the business of football used the word "love" when describing his squad.

"I think that part of the reason that I love this team so much is we have great team chemistry," Saban said. "We don't have a lot of issues ever. Everybody really sort of supports and helps each other. I think everybody has been all in to the vision of what we want to accomplish this year."

You are talking about ambitious five-star, highly recruited athletes who usually want nothing more than to play on Sundays. Sure, it's a tribute to the players, but Saban has had something to do with that, too.

"We have lots of opportunities on our team where guys could be selfish, because we had one receiver that had a fantastic year and maybe they could have caught more balls," Saban said. "Christion Jones is out there blocking like crazy for that guy, and so is De White. Nobody really cares. Everybody really cares about having success and being successful. Everybody kind of has each other's back.

"In this day and age, the way people are, that's kind of unique, and it's really appreciated by me as a coach to have that kind of group of guys to work with."

Digest that if you are Ohio State. You have to play an Alabama team in a national semifinal that has talent, but also has the "it" factor. 

Alabama is on the cusp of another national title. Coaching got them there, not sheer talent.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report. He has covered college football and various other sports for 20 years. His work has appeared in USA TodayThe New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is the author of How the SEC Became Goliath (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2013).

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Florida Recruiting 2014-15: Latest News, Rumors and Commit Updates

With the hire of new head coach Jim McElwain, the Florida Gators are set to be one of the busiest teams in the country on the recruiting trail heading toward national signing day. 

The Gators currently have seven commitments in their 2015 class, per 247Sports.

Here's a look at the latest news, top targets and commits for the Gators.

 

Latest News

Tuesday, Dec. 9

McElwain has hit the ground running in his first week as the new leader of the Gators program. On Tuesday, he focused on the Tampa area—which has been a hotbed for the Florida program over the years. 

Per ESPN's Derek Tyson, 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart, 4-star running back Ray-Ray McCloud and Auden Tate were among the prospects McElwain was slated to visit with. 

While McElwain is still in the infant stages of rebuilding the Gators program, he's off to a good start in creating a buzz and capturing the attention of recruits in the 2015 cycle.

 

Top Targets and Commitments

 

 

Recruit ratings and information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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