NCAA Football News

Notre Dame Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2017 Class

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame football officially welcomed a steady if not spectacular Class of 2016 last week, and the wheels are already in motion for the Irish's 2017 class.

Notre Dame’s Class of 2016 ranks 15th nationally and filled needs throughout the roster, especially in the secondary.

What can Irish fans expect in 2017?

Off we go.

 

The Commits

The Irish already have five commitments for the 2017 cycle.

Offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons became the class’s first pledge last April. The Clearwater, Florida, product is slotted as the No. 42 offensive tackle and No. 360 prospect overall. Gibbons has visited South Bend three times since his commitment.

Fellow offensive lineman Josh Lugg became the third member of the class in mid-August, as Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and Company continue to land linemen of their choosing at an impressive clip. Lugg is the No. 21 tackle and No. 134 prospect nationally. The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native visited campus twice during the season and again last month for Notre Dame’s junior day.

Tight end Brock Wright gave his verbal commitment to the Irish in late June, joining Gibbons. Wright is currently the top tight end in the country and the No. 26 recruit in the class. Notre Dame didn’t nab a tight end in the class of 2016 and has already lined up a second for the 2017 cycle. Cole Kmet pledged to the Irish in early October. Kmet, who hails from Arlington Heights, Illinois, is the No. 4 player at his position and checks in at No. 194 overall.

Notre Dame’s most recent commitment in the Class of 2017 came in early November, when Georgia defensive end Robert Beal joined the group. Beal is the No. 3 weak-side defensive end in the class and No. 50 overall.

 

Needs

While the 2016 class might lack elite talent at the top, Notre Dame addressed a variety of needs to balance the roster moving forward.

Asked where the points of emphasis will be in 2017, Irish head coach Brian Kelly tabbed the offensive line, which already has commitments from Lugg and Gibbons.

“We’re going to have to fill that back up a little bit more,” Kelly said.

The Irish only landed three offensive linemen in the class of 2016, and Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern, John Montelus and Steve Elmer will all be entering their fourth years in the program.

Beyond the offensive line, Kelly said Notre Dame has put itself in a position of balance and can focus on rounding out each unit.

 

Names to Watch

Irish247’s Tom Loy highlighted a batch of names to know for Notre Dame in the 2017 cycle.

Quarterback Avery Davis, running backs Najee Harris and A.J. Dillon and wide receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones, Osiris St. Brown and Tarik Black headline the offensive weapons. Davis, a dual-threat signal-caller from Texas, visited South Bend in November, a month after receiving his offer. Harris is the top back in the nation and has been committed to Alabama since April, while Dillon grabbed an Irish offer last month.

Peoples-Jones, the No. 1 wideout in the country, is from Detroit and attended Notre Dame’s junior day last month. St. Brown’s older brother, Equanimeous, could be poised for a breakout sophomore season with the Irish, and Osiris garnered an early offer from the school—his third overall—last January. Black collected his offer two weeks ago.

Offensive linemen Trey Smith and Jedrick Wills are targets to join Gibbons and Lugg, while top end Joshua Kaindoh, Corey Malone-Hatcher (from nearby Saint Joseph, Michigan), Haskell Garrett (from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas), Ohio State pledge Jerron Cage (the younger brother of Irish junior-to-be Daniel Cage) and Dalyn Wade-Perry are on the board along the defensive line.

Pittsburgh linebacker David Adams, linebacker and Baylor commit Baron Browning, Ann Arbor, Michigan, linebacker Antjuan Simmons, Detroit cornerback Ambry Thomas, Detroit safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Indiana safety R.J. Potts and athlete Tyrell Ajian are other names to watch.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports composite rankings. 

Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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College Football's Most Important Offers of the Week

With the book now closed on the 2016 class, college football coaches across the nation have turned the page and are refocusing their recruiting efforts on the 2017 class.

One school looking to build on a strong 2016 class is the Tennessee Volunteers. Head coach Butch Jones and the Vols landed the nation’s No. 14 class last week and were active in searching for studs in the 2017 cycle.

One player they have targeted is 3-star quarterback Jack Sears

According to Scout’s Greg Biggins, the Vols offered the rising senior out of California's San Clemente High School.

Sears, who is the nation’s No. 25 pro-style quarterback and the No. 55 prospect overall from the Golden State, has seen his stock rise in recent weeks.

According to Tom Loy of 247Sports, Sears was excited to land his first offer from a SEC program:

I’ve been talking to (graduate assistant) Coach Nick Sheridan for about a month now. I got on the phone with (offensive coordinator) Coach (Mike) DeBord and Coach Sheridan Wednesday morning and we had a great talk. Then they were talking to my head coach and they said that they really liked me and what they saw on film. Then tonight, I called them up and Coach DeBord let me know I had an offer. He said that he wanted me to come up to campus for a visit and see what it’s like at Tennessee and what it feels like to go to school there for a day or two.

As Loy noted, Sears racked up 3,559 yards of total offense and 46 total touchdowns as a junior.

If the Vols can get Sears to make a trip to Knoxville, things could heat up between the two parties.

 

Ohio State Offers In-State DB

On the last weekend before signing day, Ohio State and head coach Urban Meyer hosted a junior day for the 2017 class.

One top target in attendance was 4-star safety Amir Riep—who netted an offer from the Buckeyes following the event.

The 6’0”, 180-pounder also landed offers from DukePenn State and Purdue last week. 

However, the Buckeyes' involvement with the in-state safety could become a major factor with Riep moving forward.

 

Big Ten, Pac-12 Powers Offer Alabama Pledge

Alabama has already jumped out to a fast start in the 2017 cycle, with 4-star offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood one the studs already bound for Tuscaloosa.

Last week, the Crimson Tide pledge landed offers from Michigan and USC

The 6’5”, 297-pounder rates as the nation’s No. 19 offensive tackle and the No. 128 player overall in the 2017 class.

While Leatherwood seems firm in his pledge at this point, his growing list of suitors could make things interesting in his recruitment if he opts to take visits.

 

Miami After Stud OL

Now that new Miami head coach Mark Richt has his first recruiting class under his belt, he and his staff can focus on starting their first full cycle with the Hurricanes in 2017.

Last week, Richt and his staff offered 4-star offensive lineman Marcus Minor

The 6’4”, 283-pounder holds early offers from programs such as Boston College, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia.

Minor is the nation’s No. 26 offensive tackle and the No. 165 player overall in the 2017 class.

 

Best of the Rest

2017

 

2018 

 

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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SEC Football: Early Odds for Each Team to Make the 2016-17 Playoff

We just wrapped up national signing day, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2016-2017 College Football Playoff, right?

According to Bovada (via Odds Shark), seven SEC squads—Alabama (7-1), LSU and Tennessee (14-1), Ole Miss (20-1), Georgia and Auburn (33-1) and Florida (40-1)—are among the 20 most likely teams to win the national title this season. 

But Las Vegas odds typically skew toward bigger names, hype and value.

Where did Vegas get it right, and which are the sucker bets? Our picks based on legitimate hype, irrelevant offseason talking points, schedule and talent are in this slideshow.

Begin Slideshow

Post National Signing Day College Football Playoff Predictions

Thanks to national signing day, rosters across college football are about as complete as they're going to be all year. Of course, incoming freshmen still have to qualify and arrive on campus in time to compete, but the number of players is as high as it's going to be. 

As such, the overall look and feel of a team changes a little bit. So, too, do projections for the 2016 season and playoff field. After all, there could be some freshmen and/or junior college transfers who impact the championship race. (Can anyone say Cam Newton and Auburn?)

With signing day now in the rear-view mirror, it's time to call our shots* and predict what next season's four-team playoff field will look like based on returning and incoming players. Seedings are based on projected outcomes in the regular season. 

(*These predictions are bound to change, probably soon and often. We're just trying to be honest here.) 

Begin Slideshow

Which Fallen College Football Blue Bloods Will Return to Glory in 2016?

College football has gone through a significant shift within the last few seasons, with new championship contenders moving past the game's traditional names.

For every Baylor, Michigan State or Oregon that finds itself in the thick of a title race, there's a fallen powerhouse frustrated with its lack of high-level success. The power balance isn't what it used to be.

But that doesn't mean the game's old money won't return to glory. Former championship programs took some major steps toward returns to the national title picture in 2015, while others have the pieces to get back to prime-time prominence after disappointing seasons last fall.

Here are four college football "blue bloods"—programs that have won multiple national championships and hold high rankings in all-time winning percentage—who have a great chance at competing for a long-awaited conference title in 2016.

By competing for a championship in a Power Five league, these teams would theoretically be in great shape for a spot in the new-school College Football Playoff system.

Some are naturally more set up for national title pushes than others, but all have an opportunity to get back to where they feel they belong in the college football landscape.

 

Michigan

Michigan football returned to some of its former glory in 2015, the first season under successful alumnus Jim Harbaugh.

But with the momentum building in what has been a headline-making offseason for Harbaugh and the amount of talent returning to the Wolverines, 2016 has the chance to be the year when Michigan gets all of that glory back with a run at a College Football Playoff berth.

The Wolverines will return an estimated 15 starters from a team that improved by five wins in 2015 to finish 10-3. That returning experience, combined with the wholesale losses of starters at rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, should make Michigan the team to beat in the Big Ten.

Michigan will be stacked at several key position groups across the field this fall. Offensively, it returns top rusher De'Veon Smith, top three receivers (Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt) and four of five starters on the offensive line.

Its defense, which ranked fifth nationally in yards per play last season, will be led by one of the nation's best lines—an experienced unit that received a huge shot in the arm on national signing day when consensus No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary announced he would join the Wolverines.

The defensive tackle was the crown jewel of the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, and his impressive all-around skill set will make him immediately push for plenty of playing time in Ann Arbor.

"When you watch Gary's tape, taking stock of his developed skills and athletic possibilities, you see he's the rare athlete who's not a tweener," Ian A. Boyd of SB Nation wrote. "He's not trapped between college positions without a firm command of the skills needed to excel in either. He is instead legitimately versatile enough to project as a dominant player in many roles."

The likes of Gary and Chris Wormley should torment opposing offenses that also have to deal with Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers in the secondary. 

The holes on the depth chart are obvious for Harbaugh and his team, as they'll have to replace quarterback Jake Rudock and the entire linebacking corps. The signal-caller spot shouldn't loom too large, as early favorite and former Houston star John O'Korn has had a year to prepare in Ann Arbor following his transfer.

Fortunately for Michigan, the 2016 schedule sets up extremely well for a title contender that will have to settle in new starters at quarterback, center and linebacker. The Wolverines' first five games are at home, with the opening three coming against nonconference opponents who combined for a 7-31 record last year.

The back half of the schedule, however, contains road games at Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State—three Big Ten foes that played in the College Football Playoff or New Year's Six bowls last season. 

But if these veteran Wolverines can keep the momentum rolling from a 10-win season and a standout recruiting cycle, there's no reason why they shouldn't be in the hunt for their first Big Ten and national titles since the Lloyd Carr era.

 

Tennessee

With six national championships and 16 conference titles all-time, Tennessee is another one of the great blue bloods of college football that has fallen off in the last decade. The Volunteers haven't won a title since 1998 and haven't played for an SEC crown since 2007.

But this year should be different for Tennessee, which has improved by two wins in each of the last two seasons under Butch Jones.

And even though the Volunteers received plenty of hype last season—not the last several seasons, as Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee has repeatedlytold fans this winter—this year sets up even better for them.

Tennessee returns dual-threat quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who scored 27 total touchdowns last season and only threw five interceptions. He'll be one of the SEC's best quarterbacks, leading an offense that returns the "Chain-Moving Gang" of backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and four starting linemen.

On the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee made what looks to be a top-notch hire with former Penn State assistant Bob Shoop.

"It became evident to me that [Jones] is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship," Shoop said last month on his decision to leave Penn State for Tennessee, via Sallee.

The new defensive coordinator had the nation's No. 3 and No. 15 defense, respectively, in his two seasons with the Nittany Lions and brings experience in the SEC East from his time at Vanderbilt.

What's even better for Tennessee is that Shoop will inherit eight returning starters from a defense that finished 39th last season in total yards per play.

Defensive end Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are supreme stat-stuffers, and cornerback Cameron Sutton's return to school will boost a secondary that has to replace a pair of starters. Projected starting safety Evan Berry and Sutton also combined for the nation's most dangerous special team duo last season.

The Volunteers will take all that returning talent into a schedule that sets up well for a run to the SEC Championship Game. They won't play a game outside Tennessee—their neutral-site game against Virginia Tech is at Bristol Motor Speedway—until the first weekend of October, when they visit a new-look Georgia program.

Tennessee gets defending SEC divisional champions Florida and Alabama both at home, and its final five games of the season doesn't contain a single team that went to a bowl game in 2015. (One of those is FCS team Tennessee Tech, which went 4-7.)

The Volunteers need to start strong and avoid early disappointments this fall. Getting to the back half of that schedule in control of their SEC East fate should lead to a trip to Atlanta—and that could just be the beginning.

 

Nebraska

Nebraska's 2015 season was the quintessential "be careful what you wish for" scenario.

After consistently winning nine or 10 games a season with Bo Pelini, the Huskers went 5-7 in the regular season under first-year coach Mike Riley. While Nebraska was looking to get over the hump and back into title contention when it dismissed Pelini, last year's campaign was a far cry from the high standards this blue blood has for itself.

But there is reason for optimism again in Lincoln, starting with this second season under Riley.

Nebraska returns 15 starters from a team that saw all but one of its losses come by one possession. The Huskers knocked off eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State and beat UCLA in a bowl game.

On offense, Nebraska returns most of its skill talent, which should thrive if a rebuilding line holds up in the second season in Riley's scheme.

As Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh noted last month, electrifying receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El could be a huge difference-maker after missing most of 2015 with injuries. He was one of the nation's top punt returners as a freshman in 2014 and averaged 14 yards per catch.

"If Pierson-El returns, he'll join a loaded group of receivers alongside Jordan Westerkamp, Brandon Reilly and Stanley Morgan," Leigh wrote. "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 Nebraska defense returns several of its top edge-rushers and the core of a secondary that is led by tackle and interception leader Nate Gerry, a truly underrated defensive back on a national level.

But perhaps the best aspect working in Nebraska's favor for a huge charge in 2016 is its division. The Big Ten West is one of the weaker groups in college football, and Iowa was able to make a huge undefeated run thanks to its schedule in 2015.

This year, the Hawkeyes will have a tougher slate of games, while Nebraska has the chance to have a strong start with a front half loaded with home contests.

The Huskers only draw one tough challenge in cross-divisional play—a road game against Ohio State—and won't be overmatched in trips to Wisconsin and Iowa.

Even with the downturn in record during the 2015 season, Nebraska nailed down the best recruiting class in the Big Ten West last week.

The Huskers will be able to add some talented faces to an experienced setup this fall, but they shouldn't have to wait a couple years before making a return to the Big Ten title game. The pieces are in place for a second-year surge under Riley.

 

Miami

It's probably too early to put high expectations on Miami this season, as it will be its first under new coach Mark Richt.

But it's hard to ignore all that's working in the Hurricanes' favor for a return to conference championship contention in 2016.

When Clemson destroyed Miami by a score of 58-0 last year, it was a new low point at home for a once-proud program that won five national championships in the span of two decades. The Hurricanes haven't won a conference title since taking home a Big East crown in 2003.

However, the team rebounded in a huge way after the firing of Al Golden. Interim coach Larry Scott led Miami to four wins in its final six games, with one of its only losses coming in a snowstorm at the Sun Bowl.

Now Richt, who was fired from Georgia despite plenty of 10-win seasons in the ultra-competitive SEC, will bring stability and head coaching success at the power-conference level for a program that hasn't had either in recent years.

Richt inherits a team that returns almost every starter on offense, which is led by experienced quarterback Brad Kaaya, who has thrown for 41 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in the last two seasons.

Every offensive lineman that played a meaningful snap in 2015 will be back for the Hurricanes. Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton also provide a powerful one-two punch at running back.

The defense has to replace some key figures, but most of the front seven stays intact for 2016. Corn Elder is one of the nation's best corners and will be a leader for a secondary that needs some young talent to step into important roles this fall.

Miami has momentum from the way it finished the 2015 campaign and the hiring of Richt. It also has the advantage of playing in a traditionally wide-open ACC Coastal division with a schedule that looks favorable.

The Hurricanes draw defending division champion North Carolina at home as well as cross-divisional rival Florida State. Notre Dame will be a tough nonconference foe, but the others look like victories. They avoid both Clemson and an experienced Louisville team out of the Atlantic.

Miami arguably has as good of a chance as anyone else in the rapidly improving Coastal division to take home the title and play in the ACC Championship Game.

That would be a huge step forward for a talent-rich program that has a great chance to return to its former glory under Richt.

 

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

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B/R Recruiting Notebook: Latest News on Top 2017 Prospects

As we congratulate the members of the 2016 class for signing with their respective programs, we must be reminded that recruiting never stops.

Class of 2017, you're up.

Junior days and unofficial visits have kicked off for the next recruiting cycle. There are many athletes already in high demand, and expect more of the same throughout the spring and into the summer and fall.

 

Top 7 for nation's top-ranked CB Holmes

Calabasas, California, 5-star cornerback Darnay Holmes has more than 20 reported offers and is planning to shut his process just in time to have a double celebration.

Holmes, the nation's top-ranked cornerback and No. 6 overall player in the 2017 class, said he will commit to a school on June 23, the day when he'll not only celebrate his college future but also his birthday. He narrowed his choices down to a top seven, which includes schools from the Pac-12, SEC and Big Ten:

"A lot of schools are showing interest," Holmes said. "Right now, I'm just trying to narrow down everything. I'm trying to get to know the coaches more and make the right decision."

Holmes, who most recently took an unofficial visit to Nebraska last month, has his top seven, but added the list isn't completely set. An offer from one or two outside schools could help alter his final decision.

"LSU could be one," Holmes said. "For me, trying to be one of the top DBs in the nation, I want to go a place that produces top DBs. I know LSU has a great fanbase and a great coaching staff. If I have a chance to visit, I know I'd love it."

The winning school will be one that satisfies both his athletic and academic goals. Holmes said he has aspirations of not only being a first-round draft pick, but also someone with a quality degree.

"I want to talk to the administration guys at the schools about academics and ask what they can provide after football," he said. "I want to have something to come back to. I want to be the best football player, but I also want to be the best student-athlete."

 

OT Wilson discusses Michigan unofficial visit

Watching the Super Bowl wasn't a top priority for Brooklyn, New York, 5-star offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson Sunday, but playing in the big game one day is an ambition.

The 6'7", 322-pound Wilson, the nation's No. 5 offensive tackle and top-ranked player from New York, is focused on working to become a pro-caliber lineman, and as he inches toward 30 reported offers, he's making sure he takes his recruiting process slowly to find the best place to put him in position to shine after college.

Michigan is hoping to be that place. Wilson took in Ann Arbor on an unofficial visit over the weekend, shown here with fellow recruit Ahmir Mitchell:

"The process is going great. I'm just trying to take it for what it's worth," Wilson said. "I thought Michigan was great. I was mostly around Ahmir Mitchell and a couple other Jersey kids. Michigan has great people there, and the coaching staff seems real genuine. Michigan is an extremely friendly place. Everyone there wants you to succeed."

Wilson added Alabama, LSU and Georgia as potential destinations for unofficial visits, but said "nothing's been set in stone." Wilson said he will take his time with recruiting and knows what he's looking for in a winning program.

"I simply want a program that feels like home to me," he said. "I'm going to pick a school with a good program and good academics. I just want to feel comfortable wherever I go."

 

Super Bowl finish motivation for WR Nixon

For DeSoto, Texas, 4-star wide receiver K.D. Nixon, watching the conclusion of Super Bowl 50 might have been the next-level motivation he needed.

Nixon watched Denver defeat Carolina in Sunday's game, and he watched former Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller earn game MVP honors. It was special for Nixon, as Miller is a DeSoto High School alum. The pass-rushing dynamo even gave a shoutout to his alma mater after the game, as shared by CBS 11's Keith Russell:

In short, it gave Nixon another reason to shoot for success. He kept his words short after Miller was named MVP.

"You can do the same," Nixon said. "As a matter of fact, I tweeted, 'I'm next.' when I saw it":

Nixon has 16 reported offers and most recently picked up an offer from Oregon State. He last took an unofficial visit to Oklahoma State in January and is preparing to schedule additional unofficial visits in March.

Oklahoma State, Houston, Texas Tech, Arizona State and Tennessee are some of the schools that have offered the speedy slot receiver. Baylor, TCU and Ohio State are three schools he's hoping to impress this spring.

Seeing Miller accept the Super Bowl MVP trophy further enhanced his drive to excel.

"It's going to be my last year, so I've got to keep grinding," Nixon said. "I want to be legendary. In high school, I want to be the best to come out [of DeSoto]."

 

Top-ranked ATH Stevens taking his time

Don't expect Tennessee 5-star JaCoby Stevens to make a decision on his college plans anytime soon.

Stevens, the nation's top-ranked athlete in the class, said he learned a lot after committing to LSU in September before decommitting in November. And as someone with 24 reported offers, Stevens said the recruiting process will be a marathon, not a sprint.

"As of right now, after decommitting from LSU, I've been neutral," Stevens said, "but next weekend, I'm going to Georgia for their junior day."

"I rushed my process [with LSU]," he added. "I really wasn't listening to people who said I needed to figure out if that really was the place for me. It's gotten to the point where I see what I should have waited."

Stevens said LSU is still a contender, but he also has offers from Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and a host of other programs. Stevens said he plans on making a decision next February, on national signing day.

"I'm just looking around," he said. "I'm not really trying to narrow anything down. I'm just looking at what every school has to offer as a whole."

 

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

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Urban Meyer with Cam Newton Is College Football's Greatest 'What If?'

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the door closes on an otherwise remarkable 2015 season with an ugly loss in Super Bowl 50, Cam Newton finds himself at a pivotal point in his professional career.

Despite his team's 15-1 regular-season record and his nearly unanimous MVP selection, the Carolina Panthers quarterback's historic season will now be remembered just as much for the disappointment endured on football's biggest stage as it will be Newton's 50 touchdowns and nearly 4,600 passing yards.

But compared to where his football future stood seven years ago, the 6'5", 245-pound Atlanta native is playing with house money. Dismissed from his college program for off-field issues, Newton found himself headed to junior college, with no guarantee he'd get another shot at gridiron glory.

By now, you know the rest—Newton won a junior college national championship at Blinn College before transferring to Auburn, where he put together arguably the greatest single season in college football history, capturing the 2010 Heisman Trophy and another national title for his resume. From there, he was the first overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft and after five seasons, he found himself one win away from sitting atop the football world.

Newton's storybook career might seem to be at a crossroads as we all become prisoners of the moment, but compared to the uncertainty of seven years ago, this is everything he could have asked for—and more.

Then again, before he was forced to take the JUCO route, this is exactly where Newton was supposed to wind up; the heir apparent to Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer's next great quarterback, the former 4-star signal-caller's original path to football greatness in Gainesville was much more apparent, if not predictable.

But as his issues—including a stolen laptop and allegations of academic fraud—brought an end to his time at Florida after just two short seasons that included no significant playing time for the Gators, Newton's career soon began the winding journey that's landed him where he is today.

In the process, however, it's left us with some of the biggest "what if's?" in college football history—questions and potential outcomes that wouldn't have only affected Newton and Florida, but Meyer, Ohio State and potentially Alabama.

What would have happened had Newton's college career played out as expected with the Gators? We'll never know.

But that can't stop us from exploring some of the sport's most interesting hypotheticals that include what is now football's biggest star.

 

Best season ever?

Four thousand, three hundred, twenty-seven yards, 50 touchdowns, the Heisman Trophy, a 14-0 record and a BCS national championship.

That's what Newton accomplished in his only full season as a starter at the FBS level, all while playing for a head coach in Gene Chizik who would find himself fired just two years after winning a national title.

His SEC single-season record for total offense would only last a year before the mark was broken by Johnny Manziel, but when you consider what he accomplished individually and with his team, it's fair to consider Newton's lone season at Auburn one of the best in college football history.

And yet, there stands reason to believe his college career could have been even better.

While Chizik's early ouster speaks for itself and questions arise about his successor and Newton's offensive coordinator with the Tigers, Gus Malzahn, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was originally set to play for a head coach who is arguably the best in the nation when it comes to developing quarterbacks.

From Josh Harris at Bowling Green to Alex Smith at Utah, Tebow at Florida and Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones at Ohio State, Meyer has a history of getting the most out of his quarterbacks in his spread system, which undoubtedly would have played to the strength's of Newton's dual-threat ability.

"I count Cam Newton because he was with us for a couple of years," Meyer said when asked about products of his offense during an appearance on his radio call-in show in 2014.

But with just 12 attempted passes and 16 rushes in his two seasons of backing up Tebow from 2007-2008, Newton's potential was hardly ever realized under Meyer. It's also worth noting that an ankle injury led to a medical redshirt after just one appearance in his sophomore season and that Tebow's return to Gainesville in 2009 would have meant that, barring injury, Newton likely wouldn't have stepped into the starting lineup until 2010 anyways.

But had that lone season as a starter come under Meyer—who recruited three Top 10 classes from 2008-2010, as opposed to Chizik—it's scary to think what Newton's numbers may have been.

At the very least, they would have likely have been good enough to solidify the Gators' status as national title contenders—which could have created an interesting predicament for his head coach.

 

No more Meyer for hire?

Meyer has won big everywhere he's been—for most of the years he's been there, the lone blemish on his coaching resume came in 2010, one year after he unexpectedly announced his retirement before quickly rescinding it at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

Meyer would make that retirement—from Gainesville, at least—permanent at the end of 2010 as the Gators' reign atop the college football world came to a crashing halt. After accumulating a 57-10 record in his first five years at Florida, Meyer's 2010 team recorded a 7-5 record in the regular season—which still stands as his worst in his 13 years as a head coach.

While it's popular to look back now and blame the Gators' demise on the alleged erosion of their culture, the reality remains that opposed to the first nine years of his coaching year, in 2010, Meyer simply didn't have a quarterback he could rely on.

In the same season that Newton made his return to the SEC, Meyer found himself shuffling the ineffective John Brantley and converted skill players Jordan Reed and Trey Burton in and out of the lineup. On the year, Florida's quarterbacks threw 12 total touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Had Newton still been around, it's a safe assumption that those numbers would have been significantly better—perhaps even good enough to keep the Gators a national title contender as Auburn would have then been without its star quarterback.

What that would have meant for Meyer, who came out of his short-lived retirement to take over at Ohio State, we'll never know, but the now-three-time national champion head coach isn't interested in playing the "what if?" game.

"I’m not going to go there," Meyer told Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. "I learned six years ago not to live in a world you can’t. It’s 2016. We just had a great recruiting class and Cam is in the Super Bowl. It’s great."

Nevertheless, it's still worth wondering whether Newton could have kept Meyer in Gainesville, and if so, for how long?

Perhaps it would have been long enough to put a dent in—if not stop—what is still college football's premier dynasty.

 

Tide rolled?

Having won this past season's College Football Playoff championship, Alabama finds itself on a remarkable run that includes four national championships in the past seven seasons. The Crimson Tide don't figure to be slowing down anytime soon, with Nick Saban having just signed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class for the the fourth time in the last five years.

But of the road blocks Alabama has seen in the better part of the past decade, Newton and Meyer have provided the two most viable threats.

In his lone appearance in maybe college football's greatest rivalry, Newton dominated the Iron Bowl, tallying 255 yards and four touchdowns in a game that essentially etched his name in the Heisman Trophy as he handed Alabama its third loss of the 2010 season,

Meyer, meanwhile, knocked off the Crimson Tide in the first-ever College Football Playoff, as his Ohio State team defeated Alabama in a Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup.

Team the two of them up and perhaps the momentum of a potential 2010 Gators run to a national title would have been enough for Florida to reassert itself as college football's alpha dog. In fact, knowing what we know now, maybe Meyer made a mistake not turning to Newton sooner.

While Tebow's career made him one of college football's greatest all-time quarterbacks, there stands reason to believe that Newton could have done the same with extended time in Meyer's spread system. According to former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, the now-reigning MVP was good enough as a backup to be a championship-caliber quarterback.

"When I was at Florida [in 2008], I knew Cam Newton was the real deal but Timmy was playing," Mullen told CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon at SEC media days in 2015. "If Timmy had gotten hurt, Cam would have come in and won the championship. And that's the challenge."

It would have been an unprecedented decision to turn to Newton over Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time national champion. But in an alternate universe, it would have been interesting to see how Florida's budding dynasty would have played out had Tebow turned pro after the 2008 season.

Even then, Newton would have had to stay out of trouble—and stay healthy—in order to take over as the Gators' starter, and even then, there is no guarantee how the situation would have played out.

But as his career once again finds itself under the microscope, those in the college football world can't help but wonder what could have been.

And not just for Newton, but all of the big-name coaches, players and programs that he crossed paths with during his never-uninteresting path to where he finds himself today.

 

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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Michigan Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2017 Class

Following the final month of Michigan football recruiting for the 2016 cycle could get exhausting, so let's take a moment to relax before delving into the 2017 class.

Ready? That's all you get.

College football coaches are already sliding into those DMs, contacting prospects who will be eligible to sign on Feb. 1, 2017. In today's era of recruiting, regular communication is a necessity. Without it, a school could lose out on recruits to rivals willing to build a better rapport with them.

The Wolverines currently have five commits, though as we recently saw, there's no guarantee any verbal pledge will remain a part of the haul.

Rather than focusing on potential members of the class—because at this moment, Michigan has 242 targets, per 247Sports—this piece focuses on what the Maize and Blue need to replace, potential immediate needs and some top prospects.

 

Current Commits

Carter Dunaway was the first prospect to commit, way back in April 2015. The 3-star tight end is from nearby powerhouse Brother Rice, which regularly produces Football Bowl Subdivision prospects. Plus, per Brice Marich of Scout, Dunaway has already taken on the role of player-recruiter.

JaRaymond Hall, a 4-star offensive tackle, is the highest-rated pledge. Per the 247Sports composite rankings, Hall is the nation's 212th-best player—though that's certain to fluctuate throughout the year.

Michigan secured a pair of 3-star teammates from Newton High School (Covington, Georgia) in running back Kurt Taylor and wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman.

Lastly, the Wolverines crossed the border to snag Benjamin St-Juste, a 3-star cornerback from Montreal. What immediately stands out with St-Juste is his 6'3" frame. Size like that for a defensive back can't be taught, so it could be a tremendous asset.

 

What Will Michigan Lose?

Predictions and forecasts for the 2016 campaign will largely favor Michigan, which should be a trendy pick to win the Big Ten title in Jim Harbaugh's second season.

That's not just due to the coaching staff, though, since the Wolverines will return a majority of their starters. The eventual downside? Most of them are seniors.

Michigan will lose running backs De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, fullback Joe Kerridge and top targets Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt. Three starting offensive linemen—Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson—will exhaust their eligibility.

Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, the defense's two best linemen, will head to the NFL. Likely 2016 starting linebacker Ben Gedeon will be leaving, too. And defensive backs Jourdan Lewis, Jeremy Clark, Channing Stribling, Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill will move on from Ann Arbor as well.

Just for good measure, do-it-all specialist Kenny Allen will play his final season for the Wolverines. Additionally, potential early NFL declarations include two-year starting left tackle Mason Cole and versatile star Jabrill Peppers.

 

What Might the Wolverines Need?

Things change. We can only guess the breakout players for 2016. However, considering the departures and projected remaining players, Michigan currently needs to address a few future holes in its roster.

Wolverines fans hope quarterback Brandon Peters and running back Kareem Walker will settle into starting roles by the 2017 season, so the primary focus for those positions is depth.

Harbaugh and Co. attacked wide receiver and tight end this past cycle. Plus, Michigan signed three offensive and five defensive linemen in 2016. Expect the staff to target premier (read: highly rated) pass-catching talents while being more aggressive up front.

Linebacker will once again stand out as the No. 1 need, but the secondary isn't far behind. Recently adding David Long, Lavert Hill and Khaleke Hudson calmed many worries for the defensive backfield, though.

Quinn Nordin, one of Harbaugh's "sleepover" recruits, will theoretically replace Allen, but he'll need some competition.

 

Names to Remember

To say the 2017 recruiting picture is "fluid" would be a wild understatement. National signing day is almost an entire year away. Nevertheless, you'll probably hear these names.

Quarterback: Dylan McCaffrey, Davis Mills, Bailey Hockman and Kasim Hill

In-state prospects: Donovan Peoples-Jones, Ambry Thomas, Josh Ross, Corey Malone-Hatcher, Jaylen Kelly-Powell, Allen Stritzinger, Antjuan Simmons and Emani Mason

IMG Academy (where Michigan will hold a portion of spring practice): Among others, Joshua Kaindoh, Isaiah Pryor, Jordan Anthony, Robert Hainsey, Cesar Ruiz and Cam Spence

Best of the rest: Marvin Wilson, Jarez Parks, Isaiah Wilson, D'Andre Swift, Anthony McFarland Jr., Stanford Samuels, Drew Singleton, Tedarrell Slaton and Corey Bolds

 

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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Will Shea Patterson or Jacob Eason Have Better SEC Football Career?

"It probably isn't what it has been in years past. That's not to say that it's bad."

Ole Miss head coach Huge Freeze served as "Captain Obvious" regarding the current state of SEC quarterback play on the SEC coaches teleconference on Nov. 25, 2015—the final week of the 2015 regular season.

Of course, he wasn't referring to his own program. All Rebel quarterback Chad Kelly did as a junior was finish with the SEC's third-most total yards in a single season in conference history with 4,542, behind former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's 5,116 in 2012 and 4,873 in 2013. 

If that perception is going to change, his new quarterback is going to play a significant role.

Shea Patterson, a 5-star pro-style prospect from Shreveport, Louisiana, enrolled early in Oxford to learn behind Kelly for a year before taking control of Freeze's offense. 

The only other 5-star quarterback in the class of 2016—Jacob Eason from Lake Stevens, Washington—also enrolled early at an SEC program and will hope to jump-start a Georgia offense that's been too one-dimensional over the last two seasons.

"It's all been good," Eason said of his transition, according to quotes emailed by Georgia. "The big thing is balancing your free time with classes, weight room and learning the system. It's been a big transition, but I think it's been a good one."

Both quarterbacks will be successful at the college level, with Eason likely getting the chance to make the first impression thanks to Georgia's uncertainty at the position and Kelly's decision to come back at Ole Miss.

But what about long-term?

"From a college football standpoint, I think Shea Patterson is going to have a better career," said Bleacher Report national recruiting analyst Damon Sayles.

When Patterson assumes the roll of starting quarterback in Oxford once Kelly moves on, he will be inheriting a loaded offense that Freeze has already proven can produce video game numbers and will have unlimited potential at wide receiver. 

Despite being unable to run between the tackles and take pressure off of quarterbacks for three years, the Rebels have finished with a top-five passing offense in the conference in each of Freeze's four years in town. With apologies to Kelly and former signal-caller Bo Wallace, Patterson is a different breed. 

"I love everything about that kid and love the way he's helped be a leader in this class before he ever got here and now that he’s already enrolled and going through workouts and things, everything he does continues to validate my opinion," Freeze said in quotes emailed by Ole Miss.

Plus, the fire in his belly impressed scouts on the recruiting trail.

"Patterson's competitive nature is so deep," said Sayles. "It runs ridiculous. He plays in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and everybody's having fun, but he's one of the guys who has goals. 'I want to win MVP. I want to win the game. I want to throw for a certain amount of yards.' The competitive nature of him, you have to like it if you're an Ole Miss fan."

He isn't as much of a running threat as Kelly, but both Kelly and Wallace struggled with interceptions throughout their careers. What Patterson loses in athleticism as a dual-threat quarterback, he makes up for with arm strength, pinpoint accuracy and ability to throw receivers open.

The receivers he has to work with are scary.

Freeze reeled in Van Jefferson and Damarkus Lodge last year, both of whom were 4-star prospects. Jefferson redshirted in 2015, while Lodge saw action in six games in a backup role and caught a touchdown in the season opener.

On national signing day, Freeze added even more power to the wide receiver punch by signing Laquon Treadwell clone D.K. Metcalf, slot threat Tre Nixon and Starkville native A.J. Brown—all of whom were 4-star prospects. 

An offense geared toward the quarterback, Freeze's track record of success, the weapons in Oxford and Patterson's ability to stretch the field vertically and sideline to sideline will not only make him a star, but could land him in New York City at some point as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

That's not to say that Eason won't have success too. Of course he will. 

He's the most talented quarterback Georgia has had since Matt Stafford, and like Stafford, will be thrown into the fire at some point as a true freshman. 

He also is more likely to follow Stafford's path to the pros, which included being picked first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL draft.

"Jacob Eason, when you look at him physically and see all of the measurables, he checks out so well as the better pro prospect," said Sayles. "When we are talking college football, Patterson is the better prospect. But when it comes to pro prospects, Eason is going to be the guy who everybody keeps an eye on."

He also will play in a system at Georgia that will take a ton of pressure off of his shoulders if all goes according to plan.

He'll have one more year of Nick Chubb in 2016 before Chubb decides whether to stay or go on to the NFL, will have Sony Michel lining up behind him in 2017 and 4-star prospect Elijah Holyfield enrolled early with Eason and will be with him for the long haul.

Pounding the rock and working off of play action was Georgia's identity under former head coach Mark Richt and will be its identity under first-year head coach and former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

The SEC has struggled in the quarterback department since 2013, when Wallace, AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin, Nick Marshall and Connor Shaw all were bona fide studs for their respective schools.

Patterson and Eason will be leading the charge to return the position to prominence over the next few years and provide a solid foundation for the conference as others try to follow suit.

 

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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The One Recruit Each Top 25 Class Wishes It Had Signed for 2016

On Wednesday, coaches across America welcomed their 2016 recruiting classes as prospects put pen to paper on national letters of intent. Invariably, coaches touted their classes as “filing all of their needs,” being “the guys we really wanted” and “guys who will bring this program forward.” Was it true? Kind of.

Recruiting is a difficult, competitive process, and no program gets every guy it targets. Top prospects make decisions that surprise coaches, fans and sometimes even their families. And for even the best classes, there’s always that one guy who got away. Here’s a look at one recruit every Top 25 recruiting class missed out on, using the 247Sports ranking of the nation’s best recruiting classes.

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Ohio State Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2017 Class

Ohio State's 2017 recruiting class could be the best collection of talent Urban Meyer has ever assembled, and with the success Meyer has had on the recruiting trail during his career, that would be a historic accomplishment.

His 2006 recruiting class had 5-star studs Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and 4-star Brandon Spikes, who led the Florida Gators to two BCS National Championships in 2006 and 2008. The Buckeyes' 2013 recruiting class was headlined by 4-stars Joey BosaEzekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett, who carried the Buckeyes to a national title in 2014.

Ohio State's 2017 recruiting class is already off to a fast start, and it has the potential to not only finish at No. 1 on national signing day next February, but also help the Buckeyes win a championship down the road.

 

The Early Pledges

The 2017 recruiting cycle didn't officially start until last Wednesday, when the 2016 class was signed and finalized on national signing day. But Meyer and Ohio State have been recruiting '17 prospects for more than two years, and they've already laid a solid foundation for their next class.

The first commit came from quarterback Danny Clark back in December 2013. He's been instrumental as an early recruiter for the Buckeyes, who already have two 5-stars in the fold, which equals their total from the last two years. 

Those 5-stars—offensive tackle Josh Myers and cornerback Shaun Wade—pace a 10-member Ohio State class that already has five top-80 players and currently ranks No. 1 nationally. 

 

The Top Targets

The Buckeyes aren't done with 5-star talent.

After nabbing the 10th- and 12th-ranked wide receivers from the class of 2016 in Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor, respectively, Ohio State is leading the way in the recruitment of 5-stars Donovan Peoples-Jones and Trevon Grimes, whom 247Sports rates as the top two pass-catchers in the country.

Ohio State is also in the thick of things for 5-star safety Jeffrey Okudah, 5-star defensive end Joshua Kaindoh and high 4-stars Lamont Wade (cornerback), Micah Clark (offensive tackle) and Darnell Ewell (defensive tackle).

Even if Meyer and the Buckeyes landed just half of the top targets listed above, their grip on the No. 1 recruiting class would almost assuredly become too tight for any other team (read: Alabama) to overcome.

 

The In-State Talent

Ohio State has taken a more national approach to recruiting with Meyer at the helm, but he's still made it a priority to secure Ohio's top talent.

In his first five recruiting classes, Meyer has managed to secure commitments from 25 of the state's top 50 players. He already has verbal pledges from five of the top 10 players in Ohio for 2017—Myers, Marcus Williamson, Todd Sibley, Brendon White and Jerron Cage.

On top of that, the Buckeyes are favored to land four of the other top five undecided Ohio prospects—4-stars Jaylen Harris, Lynn Bowden, JaVonte Richardson and Danny Davis—that comprise the top 10. 

Due to scholarship restrictions, however, it's hard to imagine Ohio State being able to sign all nine. The Buckeyes will only graduate six seniors at the end of the 2016 season, so the class Meyer signs in 2017 won't be a large one. 

Even still, it's clear that the Buckeyes have built a strong fence around the state of Ohio. 

 

All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.

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

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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2017 Class

Despite a rocky start to the the 2017 recruiting cycle on Rocky Top, it would be unwise to bet against Tennessee head coach Butch Jones building yet another stellar group.

After all, only Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State have signed more 4- and 5-star players than the Volunteers in the past three years.

Yes, this year's national signing day just came and went last week, but scouting and selling your university to players never stops. Coaching staffs all over the country have already turned their attention to the prospects in next year's class, and it's no different at Tennessee.

The Vols should be able to sign a full class of 25 in 2017 after having to be judicious with numbers this year. That's a good thing, too.

It may just wind up being the best in-state crop of prospects ever in Tennessee, as there appear to be more than 20 players who will wind up playing high-level Football Bowl Subdivision football. 

"We've been hearing about the 2017 class in Tennessee for a few years now, with people saying it could be the best in the state's history, and it appears to be living up to the hype so far," GoVols247 recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan told B/R. "There are several elite prospects and a number of others who are likely to be SEC-level players. And other names are still emerging, as they do every year.

"It's as impressive of a class as I've ever seen in Tennessee."

So who are some of the top players to watch? What are some of the early storylines that look like they'll materialize over the course of the next year? Where are the areas of need for the Vols moving forward?

Way too early to be looking at lists and top targets? Well, sure it is. But where's the fun in waiting? Let's take a glance at what to expect from the Vols in the 2017 recruiting cycle.

 

About that rough beginning…

Early commitments are great when you can get the players to hang on, but Tennessee hasn't had any luck with that so far in its 2017 recruiting efforts.

After getting off to a torrid start with verbal pledges from 3-star strong-side defensive end Jordon Riley, 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson and 4-star receiver Tee Higgins, all three have decommitted.

The latest of those came from Higgins, the electrifying 6'5" wide receiver from nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who decided to take a step back and re-evaluate his college choices, since he wants to play football and basketball at the next level. Tennessee is going to give him the opportunity to do that, but he wants to be sure.

Higgins—a massive in-state target the Vols simply can't afford to lose out on—tweeted that Tennessee will still be in heavy consideration for his signature.

There's a long way to go before next year's class is in place, but things are lining up for Tennessee to have a potentially huge, talent-rich class. However, the breaks haven't fallen the Vols' way, at least in the early going.

Most Vols fans probably weren't pulling for hated rival Alabama in the national championship game, but it's the other team that's giving UT fits right now. Clemson may wind up being a major detriment to the Vols' 2017 recruiting efforts.

Johnson flipped from Tennessee to the Tigers already. Higgins, Knoxville Catholic High School receiver Amari Rodgers (Tee Martin's son) and key linebacker target Justin Foster are giving them a lot of attention, too. Meanwhile, offensive tackle target Blake Vinson pledged to Dabo Swinney last week.

So the two orange teams are going head-to-head early, and Swinney is winning right now. The Tigers are hot on the recruiting trail currently, but a lot can change.

Not only did the three decommitments occur, but two of the top players in the state seem wide open with others ahead of UT. JaCoby Stevens committed to LSU early but has since backed off that pledge and has the Vols in his top group. Maleik Gray talks a lot about Florida State and USC, but he seems open to Tennessee, too.

Those kids are national prospects, and Jones will really have to show his recruiting chops to get them in orange. Just how receptive will they be? Hopefully for Tennessee, they'll listen more than 2016 receiver Dillon Mitchell, who had his heart set on Oregon.

Gray told Volquest.com's Austin Price last week that he has the Vols on his mind.

"I've spoken with JaCoby [Stevens], Princeton [Fant] and Gentry Bonds about the chance to stay in-state and player together," Gray said. "They were for it so it's definitely something we could all end up doing."

That would be big news for Tennessee if all of those guys decided to stay home.

Jones and crew won't have to log as many miles this year to pull in a top-ranked class, but they will definitely have to put in plenty of extra work. The Vols are batting with the big boys in recruiting now, and they came away with a few late home runs in the 2016 cycle.

But next year's class will be pivotal, and they've got plenty of time to rally from a bummer beginning.

 

Biggest needs are clear

Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the 2017 class is the fact that the Vols could address all the gaps on their roster address with impact players and eliminate them altogether.

Each year, Jones' classes have not only elevated the athleticism and talent on the roster, they've also made the Vols deeper and deeper. At times throughout this year's class, the players already on a healthy UT team allowed Jones to get into taking the best players available, regardless of position.

When teams can do that, you're able to take highly ranked difference-makers without fear of falling behind from a numbers standpoint. 

Up to this point, this Tennessee coaching staff has been making up for the lingering deficiencies the last coaching regime left in its wake. Soon, that will no longer be the case.

With their needs dwindling, the Vols should be ready to begin redshirting a lot of young players, which leads to a seasoned roster of well-prepared players on the depth chart. They have the opportunity to shore up some desperation spots this year and finally be caught up after this season. 

They can be pickier, too. 

Bob Welton, UT's director of player personnel, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown following the conclusion of the 2016 class that the Vols were able to do that this year, too.

The great thing we have now, what Coach [Jones] has done here, is our culture's set. ... There's a culture here. Before, with these other recruiting classes, we had to kind of bring kids in to create that culture. Well, these kids now have to fit the culture. That's a lot more fun to go out to recruit kids in which the character part plays a big role, because they've got to be able to fit what we're doing now.

So before we talk about some of the players for you to keep an eye on as you begin to build your list of "wants" for Tennessee, you have to know the team's biggest needs.

Without question, three areas stick out while another one will be important, too. The Vols must sign at least two quality running backs and three good defensive tackles. If they don't do that, the class won't be considered a success.

On top of that, defensive end needs addressing, too, since Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis are out of eligibility following the 2016 season and stud junior-to-be Derek Barnett is almost certainly heading to the NFL early. 

Those are the three biggest needs Jones needs to set his sights on.

Getting another couple of offensive tackles would be big, too, though it would fall fourth on the list of UT's priorities. 

If the Vols can recruit elite players to those areas, it would fill nine or 10 spots in the class, and it would mean the program would be on firm footing to establish sustained success over the next several seasons.

 

Who are some top targets to remember?

Everybody's list is going to vary, but several players are already emerging as viable, necessary targets for Tennessee's 2017 class.

Gray, Stevens, Bonds, Higgins, Rodgers, Foster and Fant have already been mentioned. Every single one of those guys is pivotal, and they'll all be heavily pursued until the Vols can get them to Knoxville or until they elect to sign with other teams.

That's a start to the elite names that will be topping the list on the Vols' war room whiteboard.

But there are plenty more.

Since running back is a pivotal position in this class, perhaps one of the top three or four overall targets has to be Montgomery Bell Academy runner Ty Chandler. The 5'11", 190-pound athlete is an elite runner right in UT's backyard from a school the Vols have successfully recruited from in recent years.

Yes, he's an Ole Miss legacy, and it's difficult to rule out coach Hugh Freeze these days when it comes to recruiting. But Jones has enjoyed his share of success winning battles against Freeze in the past two years—most notably in landing the signing day commitments of Drew Richmond and Jonathan Kongbo over the past two years.

Chandler is a dynamic 4-star running back who may just be Tennessee's top target at the position. But he's far from the only one.

Tennessee is home to two more legit runners in Cordarrian "Big Baby" Richardson and Vols legacy Chase Hayden. The latter could wind up playing a lot of different positions at UT, and considering that his father is former Vols runner Aaron Hayden, it would be unwise to bet against the Vols luring him to Knoxville.

Alabama commit Cam Akers and Trey Sermon of Marietta, Georgia, among others, may wind up being viable targets as well.

Four other major Vols targets who need to be mentioned are 5-star Loganville, Georgia, athlete Deangelo Gibbs, electrifying dual-threat quarterback N'Kosi Perry, Pennsylvania 5-star cornerback Lamont Wade and Jackson, Tennessee, offensive tackle Trey Smith.

Gibbs will be one of the most highly recruited prospects in the entire nation, and Tennessee winning the Nigel Warrior sweepstakes could pay huge dividends for the Vols in his recruitment. The 6'2", 207-pound defensive back/linebacker is Warrior's first cousin as well as the nephew of former UT legend Dale Carter (Warrior's dad).

When Warrior visited Knoxville officially on the final weekend before national signing day, Gibbs was with him on an unofficial visit. That's huge for the Vols, as Gibbs is one of the most freakish athletes in the class.

With Johnson flipping to Clemson, the Vols need a quarterback, and Perry is a dynamic athlete who is arguably at the top of UT's list right now. He was committed to Miami for a while but backed off that this week, according to 247Sports' David Lake. UT could be a major player there.

Smith loves Tennessee and Alabama, and the Vols have really done a good job recruiting the Jackson area under Jones, so getting a player of Smith's ilk at a spot like offensive tackle that teams must address every year would be huge.

Finally, with the defensive line being such a major need, who are some of the players who will emerge there? That will be a long list that will change countless times between now and next February, but a few guys the Vols are in on early could wind up being important commits.

In-state target Rutger Reitmaier is a player the Vols like a lot from Nashville who could get the class off to a nice start at the position. They've shown him a lot of early attention, and it would be big for UT if he could reciprocate that love with a quick commitment.

The Virginia trio of Eric CrosbyJordan Williams and Elijah Conliffe are vital to Tennessee's class, and Riley is another one who could re-commit at some point. That list will swell, and the Vols will wind up being in on a lot of high-profile players with playing time to sell.

If that seems like a lot of early names to digest, it's because boards are just now beginning to fill out, and the Vols are in the early stages of shaping how they want things to shake out next year.

It's going to be a big cycle for Jones in terms of keeping Tennessee's program heading in the right direction. Getting a few guys to pledge early and getting the peer recruiting going would go a long way in making the 2017 class one of Jones' best yet.

 

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

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

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Early Power Ranking of Best Week 1 Games for 2016 College Football Season

If you're bummed about the end of college football season, especially after national signing day, remember there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

It might be seven months away, but when Week 1 of next season arrives, it will feature the best slate of opening games in recent memory. And even that might be selling it short.

"The best day in college football history is coming," wrote USA Today's Dan Wolken two years ago. Kevin Kelley of FBS Schedules wrote more of the same. The matchups are so compelling they've been hyped since 2014.

So, without further ado, let's break them open. Here are 10 games whose teams and stories make us giddy for fall to arrive.

Sound off below and let us know where you disagree!

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