NCAA Football News

The Battle for No. 1 ATH Recruit Lives on at 2016 Army Bowl

SAN ANTONIO — Lasting words overheard Tuesday by 5-star prospect Mecole Hardman Jr.: "We're just out here having fun, man."

He's right. The atmosphere blanketing both the Blossom Athletic Center and Heroes Stadium—the practice sites for the two U.S. Army All-American Bowl teams—reminds everyone that although this is a prestigious all-star event, it's also an opportunity for 90 of the best athletes in the 2016 class to relax and enjoy the moment.

But let's not kid ourselves. These same prospects, who are having a good time preparing for Saturday's game, didn't get to where they are as football players by living lighthearted full-time. It's all about competition and being the best of the best.

So when Saturday's kickoff goes down, don't be surprised if Hardman, Demetris Robertson, Jack Jones and Devin Asiasi all play the game as if it were their last. According to 247Sports.com's composite rankings, these four individuals represent the top four classified at the "athlete" position.

"You don't get this opportunity all the time," Jones said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so you have to take advantage of it. You want to show you're the best."

"We all work so hard to get to this point," Asiasi added. "To be able to be here and play in this game is surreal. It motivates me knowing I'm just in the top five, but you always want more."

Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl is supposed to be played just for fun, but both Jones and Asiasi agreed that when you're surrounded by talent, it's only natural for competitive natures to rear their heads.

Consider it a time to determine who's the No. 1 "athlete."

Hardman currently occupies that top spot and is ranked No. 21 overall in the composite rankings. Robertson is the No. 2 athlete and No. 24 overall. Hardman and Robertson, two from the state of Georgia, will play for the East team Saturday.

The West team will feature Jones and Asiasi, two California players considered top-50 players by many. Jones is the No. 3 athlete and the No. 44 overall player according to the composite rankings. Asiasi is the No. 4 athlete and just missed the top-50 cut in the composite rankings at No. 51, but that could change with his play in practices throughout the week.

Saturday, everybody will look to make multiple plays. The game will be televised on NBC, which means there will be an opportunity to shine on a global level.

"That motivates me, but being in the top five motivates me, too," said Asiasi, who is looking to play tight end and not defensive end in college. "All those athletes are crazy. They're fast, they've got good hands and they're all-around great players. Every day, I have to come out with the mentality that I have to prove something."

Being No. 1 is strictly for bragging rights, but playing well against the talent on the field further enhances their already stellar recruiting resumes. Collectively, the quartet has 103 reported offers.

Hardman (31 reported offers) is eyeing schools such as Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson. Robertson (28 offers) has schools like Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame and Stanford high on his list. Jones (22 offers) posted a top-five video with Bleacher Report, including USC, UCLA, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Asiasi (22 offers) is eyeing USC, UCLA, Alabama, Washington and others.

All four could have announcements on national signing day. But on Saturday, the casual fans—those slightly unfamiliar with their talents—get to see why they are top-five talents at the position in the first place.

And expect all four to compete for the No. 1 spot as we inch closer to signing day.

"Everybody's going to compete," Jones said, "but I'll let you know that I'm coming to play and will get you better on the field and off the field. I'll let the reporters will decide on who they think is the best athlete."

 

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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Henry Swinney, Dabo's Brother, Arrested for Stalking: Latest Details, Comments

Henry "Tripp" Swinney III, the brother of Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney, was arrested Tuesday on a charge of aggravated stalking.  

Zack McDonald of the Panama City News Herald, citing the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, reported that Henry Swinney's estranged wife claimed she continued to receive messages from him despite filing a civil injunction against domestic violence.

Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports passed along comments about the situation from Dabo Swinney following Thursday's practice:

There's consequences for your actions. If you don't do the right things, you suffer the consequences. I'm no different from anybody else, my family's no different than anybody else. I think the only sad thing is, it's a story because he's my brother. You know, if I was Joe Schmoe then you're not asking me that question.

The Panama City News Herald report noted that the Bay County Sheriff's Office stated the situation began in October when Swinney's wife told him she was planning to file for divorce. He allegedly continued to "maliciously" contact her, which caused "substantial emotional distress."

"It's been a horrible experience," the unnamed victim told the outlet. "No one should have to go through that."

Swinney had his first court appearance Wednesday and was held on $15,000 bond, according to the report. He's due back in court for his arraignment on Feb. 9.

Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney is trying to prepare for Monday night's national championship game against Alabama while the situation plays out. The coach said he loves his brother, but he admitted "he's had a long history of not doing the right things," per Watson.

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Urban Meyer's Plan to Overcome Ohio State's Massive NFL Departures in 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having just wrapped up his 14th season as a head coach, Urban Meyer knows better than to compare.

After all, what's the upside to setting unfair expectations on one of his players to be the next Tim Tebow, or on one of his teams to be the next 2008 Florida Gators? Meyer's seen those unrealistic standards devour "the next Percy Harvin," and even his own expectations for seasons before.

So when the fourth-year Ohio State head coach broke his own rule and compared his outlook of the 2016 season to that of a recent Buckeyes team, it should have raised some eyebrows. Especially considering that Meyer said his program's current situation reminds him of where Ohio State found itself two years ago, before going on to win the first-ever College Football Playoff.

"Very similar to the 2014 team," Meyer said of his 2016 squad. "That was a team of development. That was a team where Eli Apple and Vonn Bell, Darron Lee and guys who either redshirted or didn’t have a big input in 2013...you saw a steady improvement. And obviously it culminated in a pretty good finish."

So much so that Apple, Bell and Lee—as well as six other underclassmen and a senior class responsible for a 50-4 record over the course of the past four seasons—now find themselves headed to the NFL as a part of an expected mass exodus of talent in Columbus.

The cupboards aren't bare—they never are when Meyer's in charge of your recruiting—but even the three-time national champion head coach would admit that his team faces no shortage of uncertainty heading into 2016. The same could have been said two years ago as well, although there was no accounting for Braxton Miller suffering a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the season.

This year, however, so long as quarterback J.T. Barrett remains healthy, Meyer knows what he'll be replacing, and he has a plan. In fact, it's already started by naming the Buckeyes' 2016 captains—Barrett, center Pat Elflein and linebacker Raekwon McMillan—something he hasn't done since arriving at Ohio State four years ago.

"I’m jumping the gun a little bit," Meyer said of announcing his three captains in January. "We’re not waiting. You won’t hear that in August like we normally do. It’s done."

The designations certainly make sense. Barrett will be in charge of an offense replacing eight starters, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. Elflein will be the undisputed leader of an offensive line breaking in three new starters, including both tackle positions, and McMillan will have his hands full with a defensive unit that will return just three starters.

Offensively, the Buckeyes will be replacing 83.1 percent of their receiving yards and 73.1 percent of their rushing yards in 2016. On defense, Ohio State loses seven of its top 10 tacklers, but will return its top tackler in McMillan and its top two sack leaders in defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard.

With Barrett, Elflein and McMillan each playing key positions and having seen extensive playing time over the course of the past three seasons, the Buckeyes' development could be accelerated as soon as this offseason.

But it will take more than just having its captains set—Ohio State is going to need new contributors to emerge, much like they did two years ago.

Starting at running back, the hole left by Elliott is going to be especially difficult to fill. A part of that transition will be eased by Meyer's desire to run a more balanced offense than he did in 2015, when Elliott accounted for 35.9 percent of the Buckeyes offense, but a running back will still need to step up in the absence of Ohio State's all-time leading rusher.

As it currently stands, a running back by committee seems likely, with Meyer mentioning fifth-year senior Bri'onte Dunn, sophomore-to-be Michael Weber and former H-back Dontre Wilson as potential replacements in the Buckeyes lineup. The wild card of the bunch is Curtis Samuel, who began his career as a running back but transitioned to H-back in 2015 and could see an increased role in the OSU offense in 2016.

"Instead of being a guy second to someone," Meyer said of Samuel, "him and Dontre have got to take charge."

At wide receiver, Meyer mentioned Noah Brown, who enjoyed a breakout preseason before suffering a season-ending broken leg last summer, as a player to watch, as well as freshman K.J. Hill and tight end Marcus Baugh. On the offensive line, the Buckeyes will be counting on junior Jamarco Jones and sophomore Isaiah Prince at their two tackle positions, with Elflein, guard Billy Price and a right guard to be named later solidifying the interior offensive line.

Defensively, it's no secret what Ohio State is losing, with defensive end Joey Bosa possessing the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Lee, Bell and Apple could all go in the first round as well, leaving defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Luke Fickell with their work cut out for themselves heading into the offseason.

"It is a different mentality to climb the mountain than stay on top of the mountain and hold the mountain," Fickell said. "I don’t think it will be real difficult. It could be more exciting."

A part of that excitement will be Ohio State seeing what it has in inexperienced but highly touted players such as defensive linemen Jason Cornell and Dre'Mont Jones, linebackers Dante Booker, Chris Worley, Jerome Baker and Justin Hilliard, safeties Malik Hooker and Erick Smith and cornerbacks Damon Webb, Denzel Ward and Eric Glover-Williams.

They may not be household names just yet, but neither were Apple, Lee and Bell at this point in 2014.

"You have a lot of guys who are hungry and have a chip on their shoulder like these guys did two years ago," Fickell said.

Perhaps more than that, what will be most important will be for the Buckeyes to draw on lessons from not just 2014, but last season as well. After suffering a devastating defeat to Michigan State that ended Ohio State's playoff hopes, the Buckeyes finished 2015 strong with convincing wins over Michigan and Notre Dame.

With an early-season date with playoff participant Oklahoma looming, the Buckeyes may once again need to bounce back from a disappointing loss. They would follow a path similar to that of the 2014 squad, which fell to Virginia Tech in its second week of the season.

"I’m going to ask this team coming back, 'Why did he do that?'" Meyer said, pointing to Elliott's play in the final game of his college career as an example. "He did it for love of teammates, for love of unit and for the culture that’s here at Ohio State."

It's that culture Meyer is going to need to rely on as he faces a dramatic overhaul of his roster.

It's one that served him well two years ago and resulted in, in his words, a "pretty good finish" to the season.

 

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

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4-Star WR Cavin Ridley Tweets Decision to Enroll Early at Georgia

Less than a week after he announced intentions to play college football for South Carolina, wide receiver recruit Cavin Ridley shared he will instead enroll early at Georgia. 

The 4-star Florida playmaker revealed his new plan Thursday night on Twitter:

"I took a step back to go over my recruiting options and take an in-depth second look at all the schools on my final list," Ridley wrote. "After talking things over with my family and coaches at Deerfield Beach [High School] I have decided to 'Commit to the G' and become an early enrollee at the University of Georgia."

His declaration gives new Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney another promising piece. The fact that Ridley will arrive on campus in January is pivotal, providing the young pass catcher with an opportunity to develop on and off the field during spring camp.

The 6'1 ½", 198-pound prospect spent just two days committed to South Carolina. Ridley provided a public Gamecocks pledge Jan. 2, immediately after the Under Armour All-America Game. 

He cited South Carolina's freshly acquired coaching regime, led by former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, as main motivation to commit.

“It’s just the new environment they have going on and all the new coaches they are bringing in,” Ridley told Phil Kornblut of The State. “When they were recruiting me for Auburn, they showed me that they know how to recruit players down South. Now I just have to get up there and compete.”

Those sentiments quickly faded and Ridley reopened his recruitment Monday. He hopped in a rival SEC class three days later.

"This was by far the biggest and hardest decision I've had to make in my life," Ridley wrote. "As you all have seen I've really struggled to choose between some amazing universities with outstanding football programs."

Alabama was also considered a strong contender, due in large part to the presence of older brother Calvin Ridley. The Crimson Tide freshman was America's top-ranked receiver in the 2015 recruiting cycle and leads Alabama with 83 receptions through 14 games.

“I’ve got the chance to play with my brother, but I’ve got to do what’s best for me. I want to be my own man," Cavin told Kornblut.

Georgia adds Ridley to an impressive collection of offensive talent. He joins fellow 4-star receivers Charlie Woerner and Javon Wims, top-rated in-state running back Elijah Holyfield and 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, who will join him in Athens this month.

The Bulldogs hope to bag another coveted recruit Saturday when 5-star tight end Isaac Nauta announces his choice during U.S. Army All-American Bowl action. The Peach State native will decide between Alabama, Georgia and Michigan.

Ridley, rated No. 32 nationally among receivers in composite rankings, caught 36 passes for 501 yards and four touchdowns as a high school senior, according to MaxPreps.

 

Tyler Donohue is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.

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Ohio State Football: Is Mike Weber Destined to Be Buckeyes' Next Great RB?

With the mass exodus of talent leaving for the NFL draft, the Ohio State Buckeyes football team will feature a number of underclassmen in 2016. None, however, will have a bigger void to fill than running back Mike Weber, who's primed to step in for All-American Ezekiel Elliott.

The 5'10", 215-pound bruiser committed to Ohio State on national signing day last February, spurning Jim Harbaugh and the home-state Michigan Wolverines.

He was one of the most coveted running backs in the country—a high 4-star prospect who ran for 2,268 yards and 29 touchdowns (averaging 10.1 yards per carry) despite playing in just 10 games as a senior, according to Ohio State's official website.

He brought that bruising running style with him to Columbus when he reported for fall camp, and he made an instant impact on a team brimming with talent.

With Curtis Samuel's transition to wide receiver, the spot behind Elliott on the depth chart was wide open. There was Bri'onte Dunn, a redshirt junior who's played sparingly at Ohio State, and Warren Ball, who's seen very little game action during his three years in Columbus.

Weber didn't waste any time and immediately caught the attention of his teammates and coaches.

He showcased his toughness and explosiveness, both of which were on display during a scrimmage in fall camp, when he said he ran the ball 15 times for nearly 200 yards with "a few touchdowns," according to Dave Biddle of 247Sports.

Everything was setting up for Weber to make his college football debut as Elliott's backup in 2015. He had his "black stripe" removed in fall camp—a tradition that signifies a freshman is ready to officially join the team—three weeks before the opener at Virginia Tech.

But three days later, Weber suffered a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery. He was expected to return after a four-week recovery, but with the nagging injury and Elliott's ability to carry the load, Weber took a redshirt and sat the season out.

Behind the scenes, though, Weber was still working hard and continued to improve.

He was sharp during bowl practice and completely recovered from the injury, and with his health back, he's ready to make a big impact in 2016, according to Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com:

I started off really good. I kind of caught on to the college speed of the game really quick and was basically running the ball really good. The injury slowed me down a little bit. It kind of set me back this whole year and maybe pushed me toward a redshirt.

But if I had to do it again, I'd be a redshirt because I learned from Zeke and the guys in front of me. I just sat back and watched those guys. I am just going to let it all loose next year. 

The Buckeyes will need him to let it loose in an offense that has to replace eight starters next year. But Weber won't be bringing the elusiveness and breakaway speed that Elliott gave Ohio State's offense over the last two years.

Weber's running style more closely resembles that of Carlos Hyde, whom Elliott replaced after two dominant seasons in 2012 and 2013.

In fact, he looks so similar to Hyde—who ran for 2,491 yards and 31 touchdowns in Urban Meyer's offense—that teammates are calling him "'Baby 'Los,' Carlos Hyde," according to Eleven Warriors' Eric Seger.

If Weber can capitalize on his potential in 2016, then Ohio State's next great running back is on the verge of his breakout season. 

 

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

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

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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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