NCAA Football News

USC Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

It's fair to say that every college football team anxiously awaits the start of the 2015 season, but USC might be a little more eager than others to get to the games themselves—if only because it will turn the focus toward the on-field action rather than what's happening outside the lines.

The Trojans enter this fall with high expectations, both internal and in the form of high rankings in the polls—USC is eighth in the preseason Associated Press media poll and 10th in the Amway Coaches Poll. And the Pac-12 media picked them to win the conference title.

Yet that also brings extra scrutiny, something that's already high being in a major media market such as Los Angeles.

This came to a head on Saturday night when coach Steve Sarkisian was pulled off the stage during a speech at the school's Salute to Troy event after appearing intoxicated. He said Tuesday that the incident was the result of mixing alcohol and medication and that he will seek treatment for his alcohol use, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

With the core of a team that went 9-4 last season back for another year, USC has the pieces in place to contend for a national title for the first time since losing to Texas in the 2006 championship game.

Below is our in-depth look at the Trojans heading into the 2015 campaign:

 

Coaches

USC's staff is still on the new side from an overall standpoint, as Sarkisian overhauled the roster with his own people when he took over the program in December 2013. Only offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Clay Helton and receivers coach/passing game coordinator Tee Martin remain from the previous regime, but that makes sense since the Trojans have been a pro-style team since the Pete Carroll days and continue to operate the same offense under Sarkisian.

The only staff change for 2015 was the hiring of Bob Connelly to coach the offensive line and coordinate USC's ground game. Connelly—who replaces Tim Drevno, now offensive coordinator and line coach at Michigan—spent last season coaching Oklahoma State's line, and he has previous stops at Arizona State, UTEP, UCLA, Alabama, Washington State and San Jose State.

Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, assistants Keith Heyward, Johnny Nansen, Peter Sirmon and Marques Tuisasosopo and strength coach Ivan Lewis have all been together since Sarkisian's tenure as Washington head coach. Their collective familiarity should be a major bonus for USC this season.

 

What to watch for on offense

With eight returning starters, expect USC to look and operate very much the same as it did in 2014 when that unit averaged 457.5 yards and 35.8 points per game. And as long as Cody Kessler is at quarterback, the Trojans can expect to be one of the most efficient teams in the country.

Last year Kessler completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns, with just five interceptions on 452 attempts.

The fifth-year senior is the latest in a string of prolific passers for USC, dating back to Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart in the early 2000s, and he also finds himself in Heisman contention with 12-to-1 odds according to OddsShark.com. However, last year he was only an honorable mention on the Pac-12's all-conference team because of Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

The Trojans did lose their top running back (Javorius Allen) and No. 1 receiver (Nelson Agholor), but neither position is thin in terms of available talent. JuJu Smith had a strong season as a true freshman, catching 54 passes for 724 yards and five TDs, and appears ready to take over as Kessler's top target, while Adoree' Jackson will see time at receiver in addition to his duties on defense and in the return game.

The running back situation isn't as clear, as either junior Justin Davis or senior Tre Madden will serve as the starter. Davis ran for 595 yards and five TDs as Allen's main backup last year, while Madden missed all of 2014 with a toe injury. True freshmen Dominic Davis and Ronald Jones, part of USC's second-ranked 2015 recruiting class, are also likely to see action early and often this fall.

USC returns its entire starting offensive line from a year ago, a group that was very young in 2014 with three freshmen but now is considered mature and experienced after holding up well together. The line is anchored by senior center Max Tuerk, who has also played guard and tackle in his Trojans career.

The only major question mark for USC's offense is at tight end, where the graduation of Randall Telfer, Bryce Dixon's dismissal and a second straight season with junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick sitting out to focus on academics means it could end up starting walk-on Connor Spears. Another candidate is Taylor McNamara, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who has one career reception.

Dixon, who caught four TD passes as a freshman last year, was expelled from USC in May for violating the school's sexual conduct policy but reinstated in early August. He hoped to return to the Trojans for 2015 but on Monday a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied his request to hold the school in contempt for keeping him off the team, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News.

 

What to watch for on defense

USC ranked 78th in total defense last year, giving up 407.9 yards per game, but on a game-by-game basis the results were all over the place. The Trojans held Stanford to 10 points on the road, then a week later allowed Boston College to rush for 452 yards in an upset loss. Strong performances against Arizona State and Arizona's ground games were offset by lackluster pass defense, which enabled the Sun Devils to score three touchdowns in the final four minutes including on a horribly defended Hail Mary pass in another befuddling defeat.

Explosive defensive lineman Leonard Williams is no longer in the trenches for the Trojans, having turned pro after his junior year and going sixth overall to the New York Jets in the 2015 NFL draft. He is one of four starters that USC has to replace, along with leading tackler Hayes Pullard at linebacker and safety Gerald Bowman.

But USC still has its best all-around defender to lean on in junior Su'a Cravens. The former safety has made the full transition to outside linebacker, and last season he had team highs in tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (three). A potential high draft pick if he decides to leave school after this season, Cravens is instead focused on becoming more of a leader than what his pro future holds.

"I'm taking on the leadership by not focusing on just my game, but also on those around me, especially the young ones," Cravens said last month at Pac-12 Media Days in Burbank, California (h/t Julian Lopez of SB Nation). "Last year we were a young defense. This year, we are big on finishing, so when we get to the fourth quarter, we have to finish."

The Trojans defensive line will miss Williams' dynamic play, but senior tackles Delvon Simmons and Antwaun Woods are a strong core to build around while several veterans are ready to step in at the end positions.

USC's secondary has been boosted by newcomers, including 5-star cornerback Iman Marshall and 4-star safety Marvell Tell, to go with established starters in corners Adoree' Jackson and Kevon Seymour and safety John Plattenburg. Depth on the back line will make it possible for Jackson to spend more time on offense.

 

What to watch for on special teams

Sophomore Matthew Boermeester and junior walk-on Alex Wood are battling to replace longtime kicker Andre Heidari, who handled USC's field-goal and point-after duties from 2011 to 2014. He finished his career with 49 field goals and is the Pac-12's all-time leader in extra points with 187.

Punter Kris Albarado averaged 41.4 yards per attempt last season, up from 37.9 as a sophomore in 2013, and is set to handle that job for a third straight year.

Adoree' Jackson will be the main return man on both punts and kickoffs, after handling mostly kickoffs in 2014. He ranked fifth in FBS with a 29.7 average on kick returns, with two TDs. 

 

Injury news

USC has been fortunate to this point in that it hasn't suffered any significant injuries during training camp that will result in players missing extended time. Several key contributors have had minor bumps and bruises along the way, including running back Justin Davis (ribs), linebacker Lamar Dawson (ribs), safety Ykili Ross (shoulder) and offensive tackle Chad Wheeler (knee/head), but they're all expected to be available for the Trojans season opener.

The only notable player unlikely to be ready to go on Sept. 5 is senior defensive end Claude Pelon, who sprained a knee on Aug. 19 and underwent surgery. 

 

X-factor

USC is one of the more straightforward teams in the country in terms of its scheme—as close to a pro-style gameplan on both sides of the ball as any program around. The exception would be Adoree' Jackson, the multi-way threat who figures to be used all over this fall after showing what he was capable of last season.

The 5'11", 185-pounder started 10 games at cornerback, once at wide receiver—starting both ways against Notre Dame—and handling most of the Trojans kickoffs. He finished the year with five TDs, three via the pass and two on kickoff returns, while also registering 49 tackles and four tackles for loss.

According to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, Jackson also apparently made a field goal during a practice this month, adding to his growing legend. 

Though his primary responsibility will be to cover some of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12, Jackson figures to get even more looks on offense than a year ago while remaining one of the most dangerous return threats in the country.

 

2015 schedule

USC gets the benefit of playing its first three games at home, but Sun Belt schools Arkansas State and Idaho don't figure to provide enough competition to have it battle-tested for the Sept. 19 conference opener against Stanford. A win in Palo Alto last year during Week 2 was supposed to be an early momentum-builder, but a week later the Trojans laid a stinker at Boston College to set the tone for an up-and-down season.

The first road game of 2015 will be a major challenge in that Arizona State is loaded on offense and defense and has the confidence that came from last year's comeback win in Los Angeles to feed off of. That outcome will either send USC into its lone bye week riding a high or looking to regroup.

The remaining schedule sets up as very winnable at home through October and early November but rigorous on the road. Visits to Notre Dame on Oct. 17 and a Halloween trip to California are both potential pitfalls, as is the Nov. 21 game at Oregon which could serve as a preview of the Pac-12 title game two weeks later in Santa Clara, California.

The Trojans end with the annual crosstown clash against UCLA, this time at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Bruins have won three straight in the series for the first time since a streak of eight consecutive wins from 1991 to 1998, and this meeting could determine the South Division crown.

 

Prediction

There's no question the talent is there for USC to have a big year, which is why it's ranked so high and the division and conference predictions favor the Trojans. But the 2014 team was the same way, and it stumbled far too often to be considered a legitimate contender. That brought back talk of coach Steve Sarkisian's reputation for not being able to win big games.

Sarkisian went 35-29 in his five years at Washington, peaking at nine wins in his final season with a team that had three eventual first- or second-round NFL draft picks on defense. He's got even more talent with USC, but last season's results didn't match what the Trojans were capable of.

The coach's recent alcohol-fueled incident has suddenly added more concern over whether he was the right pick to take over the program following the Lane Kiffin/Ed Orgeron-led 2013 season, but ultimately he'll be judged on the wins and losses starting with those that occur this fall.

The veteran presence of Cody Kessler on offense and Su'a Cravens on defense will keep USC from slipping in most games, but the schedule is too daunting to expect perfection. Assuming the Trojans lose a few times, who those setbacks are to and when they happen will determine if they can land a playoff bid.

 

Overall record: 10-2

Conference record: 6-2

 

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. All statistics provided by CFBStats.com.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Dear Football: The 2015 Elite 11 Story | Ep. 8

Uninterrupted is a platform that allows personalities to connect with fans on a much deeper level, with insight and content not fit for other platforms, media outlets or channels.

Interested fans get a unique perspective that brings them closer than ever to the personalities they care about.

The Elite 11 camp brings together the top high school senior quarterbacks in the country in search of the best 11.

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Kyle Flood Under Investigation for Impermissible Faculty Contact

Rutgers University is investigating head football coach Kyle Flood for having impermissible contact with a school faculty member regarding the status of a player on the team.   

According to Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media, citing two sources, Flood could be facing a fine or a suspension for the incident:

The university's office of general counsel is investigating the severity of the alleged violation, which, the sources said, is focused on an email Flood allegedly sent from a personal account to a faculty member at the university's Mason Gross School of Arts regarding the status of Nadir Barnwell. The junior cornerback is reportedly in danger of being deemed academically ineligible.

Sargeant noted that if Flood is found to not be in compliance with school rules by trying to provide illegal benefits to a student-athlete, the discipline can range from a public reprimand to his contract being terminated. 

The report does note it's unclear if Flood is in violation of an NCAA or a Big Ten rule for having contact with a player's professor, though a Rutgers official added "the university's athletics compliance department prohibits coaches from communicating with instructors..."

Nadir Barnwell's status has been uncertain, as the junior told Sargeant on August 16 he couldn't discuss his eligibility: "Right now I really can't comment on that. Right now I'm just focusing on myself, just getting my body right to be honest with you, taking it day-by-day just trying to win every day.''

Barnwell has appeared in 17 games over the past two seasons, recording 64 total tackles and seven passes defended. 

Flood took over as head football coach at Rutgers in 2012 after Greg Schiano moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has kept the program at a steady level in his three seasons, winning at least eight games two times and playing in three bowl games. 

Rutgers will open the 2015 season on September 5 with a home game against Norfolk State. 

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Which College Football Coaches Are on the Hot Seat Heading into 2015 Season?

The 2015 college football season is almost underway and that means there are some people on the hot seat who need their units to excel on the field. Bleacher Report's college football analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss how these coaches can get back to bringing the heat to the gridiron.  

Which coach is on the hottest seat? Tell us in the comment section below.  

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Ohio State Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

COLUMBUS, Ohio — What a difference a year makes.

After Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, it was hard to find anything but doom and gloom in Columbus. Coming off of consecutive losses to end the 2013 season, Ohio State had just lost its Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback and found itself relying on an offense with no shortage of question marks and a defense installing a new scheme after a disappointing end to the previous season.

One year later, Miller is now a wide receiver, his former backups are entrenched in an unprecedented quarterback competition and the Buckeyes are the defending national champions. Bringing back a roster that includes 15 returning starters and an abundance of potential first-round picks on both sides of the ball, there may not be a team in college football history that's been as hyped as this 2015 Ohio State squad, which on Sunday was named the first unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the history of the Associated Press Top 25.

Hype, however, will only take a team so far. Despite all of the certainties this Buckeyes team appears to possess, plenty of question marks still remain.

What follows is a complete guide to Ohio State's 2015 season as the Buckeyes look to keep a stranglehold on the College Football Playoff championship.

 

Coaches

After keeping his original Ohio State staff intact for his first two seasons in Columbus, head coach Urban Meyer finds himself replacing two assistants for the second consecutive year.

Gone are offensive coordinator Tom Herman, now the head coach at Houston, and running backs coach Stan Drayton, now with the Chicago Bears, yet Meyer has managed to keep some semblance of continuity on his staff. The three-time national champion head coach promoted offensive line coach Ed Warinner to run the Buckeyes offense and brought in Tony Alford from Notre Dame to replace Drayton, who took off for the NFL after national signing day.

Another addition to the Buckeyes staff this season comes in the form of Tim Beck, who will take over Herman's role as OSU's quarterbacks coach after having served at Nebraska in the same role. Beck has already hit the ground running in Columbus, as he now finds himself overseeing the most-talked-about quarterback competition in college football between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.

"This will be it, there's no question," Beck answered when asked about the biggest quarterback battles he's dealt with in his coaching career. "This magnitude? Not to this level. Both of them have won, both of them are very intelligent, both of them understand the offense, both of them are talented."

Beck, however, won't be making the final call on who starts between Jones and Barrett, as that will fall upon Meyer. But he will be asked to provide input—along with Warinner—in a decision that could very well shape Ohio State's 2015 season.

On the defensive side of the ball, Meyer managed to retain his entire staff, although that might not be easy to do for long. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash's quarters coverage scheme helped transform Ohio State's defense into one of the best in the nation and could make him a hot head coaching candidate come 2016.

"I think our defense the last three games was as good as I’ve ever witnessed," Meyer said of the Buckeyes' postseason run.

With Ohio State players now no longer learning, but rather perfecting Ash's scheme, that could very well continue to be the case in 2015. 

 

What to Watch For on Offense

The preseason chatter surrounding the Buckeyes has centered around the team's quarterback conundrum, which includes the reigning Big Ten Quarterback and National Freshman of the Year in Barrett and the winner of all three of Ohio State's postseason games in Jones. Both players possess different playing styles—Barrett is the more efficient passer and is shiftier in the run game while Jones has a stronger arm and is more of a power runner—but have each shown to be proficient in running Meyer's spread offense.

According to Meyer, he won't reveal his starter ahead of the Buckeyes' Sept. 7 opener against Virginia Tech, but ultimately, whether it's Barrett or Jones behind center for the Buckeyes may not matter.

That's because Ohio State just may possess the most potent running attack in the nation, spearheaded by Heisman Trophy front-runner Ezekiel Elliott. The now-junior rushed for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the Buckeyes' three postseason games in 2014 and should only be better now that the injured wrist that he played through a year ago has fully healed.

"Last year playing with one hand helped me develop my game a little bit differently," Elliott said. "I had to be creative with how to break tackles and how to torque my body different ways. I think last year I was able to develop those ways and this year I can add a little more to my repertoire."

Adding to the promise of Elliott's upcoming campaign is the return of four of five starters from an offensive line that may have been the best in country by the end of the 2014 season. Three-year starter Taylor Decker will serve as the unit's anchor at left tackle, with preseason All-American guard Pat Elflein, guard Billy Price and center Jacoby Boren providing experience inside.

The only new starter comes at right tackle, where fifth-year senior Chase Farris locked down the job during the spring after providing depth for the Buckeyes for the past few years.

Aside from the question of who will start at quarterback, Ohio State's biggest offensive concerns come at wide receiver, where the Buckeyes lost NFL draft picks Devin Smith and Evan Spencer from last season's team. But the Buckeyes return their leader in receptions from a season ago in Michael Thomas, as well as talented H-Backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, the latter two of which will miss the season opener due to suspension, along with wideout Corey Smith.

But between Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel, Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Torrance Gibson, Meyer likes the depth in Ohio State's wide receivers room, which now also includes Miller.

With his shoulder not healed in time to make the Buckeyes' quarterback competition a three-man race, Miller opted to make the move from pass-thrower to pass-catcher earlier this summer. With his freakish athleticism, Miller's new position seems like a natural fit for the 6'2", 215-pounder, although hamstring issues have hampered the two-time Big Ten MVP through his first few weeks of fall camp.

Just how much of an impact Miller will be able to make when the season comes around remains to be seen, but with or without him, Ohio State's offense has the talent to once again be one of the best in the nation. It may just be a matter of how the Buckeyes get the job done and whether it's Barrett or Jones running the show.

 

What to Watch For on Defense

With seven starters returning from a season ago, Ohio State should enjoy plenty of continuity on the defense that Meyer said was one of the best he's ever seen by the end of last year.

The headliner of the group comes in the form of All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, who will also miss the Buckeyes' season opener against Virginia Tech due to suspension.

But once the Buckeyes get Bosa back, their defensive line could be as good as any in recent memory. Not only is Bosa a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, but defensive tackle Adolphus Washington also has first-round potential. The OSU staff has also raved about the offseason work of the defensive line's two new starters: defensive end Tyquan Lewis and tackle Tommy Schutt.

"He's really handled himself the right way," Meyer said of Schutt. "He's had a really good camp."

Working in on the line, especially in the absence of Bosa, will be a pair of highly touted second-year players in defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes. Michael Hill and Donovan Munger should provide depth at tackle, as should fifth-year senior Joel Hale, who heads back to the defensive side of the ball after spending last season on the offensive line.

After enduring a period of inconsistency upon Meyer's arrival in Columbus in 2012, the Buckeyes linebackers suddenly find themselves a strength on not just the defense, but the entire team. Senior Joshua Perry was a second-team All-Big Ten selection a season ago after racking up 124 tackles, while Darron Lee was the Sugar Bowl MVP and emerged as one of the nation's best players at his position during a breakout freshman campaign.

The key to the Ohio State defense, however, might be middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who saw significant snaps playing behind Curtis Grant a year ago, but will now be charged with quarterbacking the "Silver Bullets" all on his own.

"My biggest goal for me is to be the captain of the defense, to be out there when guys can trust me and look at me when we’re in hard times," McMillan said. "That’s one of my goals. One of my goals isn’t to be the best linebacker in the world, it’s together for our defense to be the best in the nation."

Much like the two units in front of it, the Buckeyes secondary possesses plenty of talent and upside. Tyvis Powell is steady and Vonn Bell has the ability to be the best safety in the country, while cornerback Eli Apple came on strong as a redshirt freshman during Ohio State's run to the national title.

The only new starter in the Buckeyes defensive backfield is cornerback Gareon Conley, a redshirt sophomore who arrived at Ohio State as a 4-star prospect in 2013.

Should Conley be able to hold his own on his side of the field while replacing first-team All-Big Ten selection Doran Grant, there's no reason the Buckeyes defense shouldn't be one of the best in the country in 2015.

 

Injury News

Aside from a few minor nicks that have resulted in missed time at practice, Ohio State has been relatively fortunate when it's come to injuries this offseason. Freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones arrived with a torn ACL suffered in the spring that will likely result in a medical redshirt, and freshman running back Mike Weber is expected to miss 3-4 weeks due to a torn meniscus suffered in camp.

Upon his return, which should coincide with the start of the Buckeyes' Big Ten schedule, Weber could very well find himself on the field after the former 4-star prospect got off to a strong start in his first fall camp.

"Mikey's doing very well, he's walking without crutches right now. It was a meniscal tear and he had it fixed already," Meyer said. "There's a chance we won't redshirt him. He had a really good camp."

 

X-Factor

There may not be a bigger X-factor in all of the country than Miller, who has the potential to once again transform into one of the nation's most dangerous playmakers. With 3,054 career rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns to his credit, the former quarterback has an uncanny ability make defenders miss while taking them on in the open field.

But through the first two weeks of fall camp, Miller's transition to wide receiver remains a work in progress. The increase in his running routine has led to hamstring issues, which have already sidelined Miller for portions of practice.

Nevertheless, Meyer remains optimistic that Miller will be able to make an impact as a wide receiver/H-Back this season, and still thinks that he can wind up being a starter in the Buckeyes' season opener.

"I want him to be," Meyer said when asked about Miller's prospects as a starter at his new position. "He's really developing his routine."

In order to earn that starting spot, Miller will have to continue to get used to life as a wide receiver, which has been somewhat of an adjustment for the lifelong quarterback. But if Miller can put it all together, he'll provide another weapon to an Ohio State offense that will force opposing defenses to pick their poison trying to stop it.

 

2015 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Just like the past two years, Ohio State's postseason hopes will be determined by its matchup with Michigan State.

But unlike 2014, where the Buckeyes beat the Spartans by a score of 49-37 in East Lansing, Ohio State will have the benefit of home-field advantage when Michigan State comes to town on Nov. 21. That also happens to be the second-to-last week of the regular season, making the Buckeyes-Spartans showdown a likely unofficial Big Ten East Championship Game.

The season opener with the Hokies could also be seen as a cause for concern in Columbus, especially with the game being played at night and under the lights of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia. Factor in that Virginia Tech was the only team to top Ohio State a season ago and that the Buckeyes will be dealing with suspensions to four key players, and it's certainly understandable why there will be plenty of eyeballs on Ohio State's first game of the year.

But as we learned a year ago, the Buckeyes can survive an early-season loss and still recover in time to make the Big Ten title game—and subsequently, the College Football Playoff. In order to do that, Ohio State will have to once again beat Michigan State, who Meyer holds a 2-1 record against as the Buckeyes head coach.

 

Prediction

It's so hard to go undefeated in a season, especially coming off of a long winning streak—the Buckeyes' currently stands at 13—but looking at Ohio State's schedule, it's hard to see where a loss would come from.

The suspensions for the Virginia Tech game won't help, but that opener has all of the makings of a Meyer revenge game against the only team to beat the Buckeyes in 2014. After that, Michigan State poses the biggest threat to Ohio State making the playoff for a second consecutive year, but it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes losing a game to their new rival that late in the year, especially in Columbus.

The first matchup between Meyer and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan will be interesting, but Ohio State's talent advantage should be enough to push the Buckeyes' winning streak over their primary rival to four consecutive games. Ultimately, there's a reason why Ohio State could be double-digit favorites in every game in the regular season, and it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes not repeating as Big Ten champions against a weaker representative from the West Division.

But as we learned a year ago, the College Football Playoff doesn't necessarily favor the season's best team, but rather its hottest one at the end of the year. That just might not be the Buckeyes this season, despite all of the talent it returns from last year's title team.

Without being able to tell who else would be joining Ohio State in the playoff, however, it's hard to bet against the Buckeyes this season. Meyer has three national titles and two additional undefeated seasons on his resume, but never has he had a year where he accomplished both.

I expect that to change this year, with the Buckeyes running the table and putting together a perfect season en route to capturing their second consecutive College Football Playoff championship.

Overall Record: 15-0

Conference Record: 8-0

 

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 Jared Mayden Solid in Oregon Pledge, Wants to Recruit Others to Ducks

As a player committed to a college, it's never easy to hear about a future college teammate decommitting.

In a little over a week, 4-star cornerback Jared Mayden has seen two potential teammates part ways with the Ducks. On Aug. 16, 4-star wide receiver Theo Howard reopened his recruiting process. On Monday, 4-star cornerback Troy Warner—who many thought would play opposite Mayden—decided to weigh all of his options once again.

Oregon now sits at a dozen commitments, and with Howard's decommitment, Mayden currently is the team's top-ranked recruit. As the nation's No. 11 cornerback, Mayden takes two things specifically from the recent transactions.

No. 1, the Sachse, Texas, standout wants every uncommitted player to make sure a verbal commitment to Oregon is solid.

No. 2, and perhaps more importantly, he wants the Oregon fanbase to know he's not going anywhere.

"I'm pretty solid in my commitment," Mayden said Monday night. "They have nothing to worry about with me."

Mayden's words are huge for a program that lost a top-20 receiver and a top-25 cornerback nationally in Howard and Warner, respectively. Mayden hates for the Ducks to lose commits, but he said he's using the situations as an opportunity to be a lead player recruiter and an ambassador for the 2016 class.

It all starts with what he does on the field and in the classroom. Mayden is preparing for a senior year where he will be a leader on Sachse's defense as a physical shutdown cornerback. Mayden's overall skill set earned him more than 40 offers before ultimately choosing the Ducks while at The Opening last month in Beaverton, Oregon.

Mayden said he isn't targeting anyone in particular at the present time, but he is keeping his eyes open for athletes nationwide who can be major contributors for Oregon in the near future.

"I'm trying to see what recruits are interested and let the coaches know," he said. "If you take your visit, you'll fall in love."

Mayden's mother, Katrina Salles, in July said the family made multiple visits around the country to be sure a final decision remained final. She said Oregon offered a "peace-of-mind element" that involved great relationships with head coach Mark Helfrich, secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

"For Jared and for us," Salles said in July, "it was all about finding someone who you were equally yoked to, somebody you can be a confidant to and someone who's going to help you grow mentally, physically and spiritually into the next sector of your life.

"We did a lot of traveling and had a lot of conversations with a lot of good coaching staffs to find that right fit for Jared. It was important to him and to us."

Mayden said he was "surprised" but not upset with Howard and Warner's decisions. He understands that with the recruiting process it's all about finding the right fit.

He did, however, have a message for the athletes considering playing for the Ducks—that short list including 5-star safety Brandon Jones and the 4-star trio of cornerback Nigel Knott, tight end/defensive end Devin Asiasi and defensive end Connor Murphy.

That message: Oregon is more than what is portrayed, way more than state-of-the-art uniforms and a trendy, high-octane offense.

"Honestly, I feel that more kids don't commit to Oregon because they fear people will say the only reason that they committed was for the uniforms and gear," Mayden said. "In actuality, we win out the Pac-12 almost every year. We make it [to] and win bowl games. So if they're not scared to make a great leap in a great program, they should not listen to people who only see Oregon for the gear."

Mayden said he is a lock for the Ducks. And along with being a leader for Sachse this season, he also will take it upon himself to be a leader in improving the Oregon 2016 class.

 

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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Where Will No. 1 Tight End Isaac Nauta Take His 5th Official Visit?

Top-rated 2016 tight end recruit Isaac Nauta spent eight months committed to Florida State but enters his senior season still searching for the right college fit.

He plans to take all five official visits before making a final decision following a late July decommitment from the Seminoles. Nauta announced four of those campus trips earlier this month, leaving the fifth and final destination undetermined.

It appears the 5-star IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida) senior is ironing out that detail.

Nauta discussed possibilities with Jeff Sentell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He identified Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss as programs under strong consideration for a closer look. 

The 6'4", 237-pound prospect is already scheduled to attend four games this season while examining potential collegiate landing spots. Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC will welcome him during a whirlwind tour.

Nauta, who holds more than 40 scholarship offers, is the No. 1 overall pass target in composite rankings. He's listed 12th overall among high school seniors and dominated this summer at The Opening, an invite-only player showcase held at Nike's world headquarters in Oregon.

His size, athleticism and polished skill set as a receiver set the stage for Nauta to make an instant impact within a college offensive scheme. He could compete for significant snaps as a true freshman and eventually challenge for John Mackey Award consideration if his trajectory remains on track.

Naturally, a number of teams are still vying for his attention. It seems eight schools stand above the rest, with four already locking in official visits and the rest still hoping to separate from a crowded pack of contenders.

Among interested programs, Alabama emerges as a squad that's relatively new to the party. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and his staff came on strong during the final stretch of summer.

“Alabama is a school that really didn’t recruit me while I was committed. But since I decommitted they have been all over me," Nauta told Sentell. "[Offensive coordinator Lane] Kiffin hits me up all the time on Twitter so they are definitely a school that is going to be contender for that fifth spot.”

The Crimson Tide carry the components of a dynamic attack in coming years with 5-star 2015 signee Blake Barnett and 4-star 2016 commit Jalen Hurts presenting promise at quarterback. Alabama signed the top-ranked wide receiver and running back last cycle and holds three pledges from premier rushers in its 2016 and 2017 classes.

Nauta would further solidify this group by immediately bolstering an outstanding tight end depth chart in Tuscaloosa. His advanced blocking ability and precise route-running approach make him a candidate to carve out a role at Alabama from his first day of training camp.

Another intriguing opportunity for Nauta is found in Oxford, Mississippi. IMG Academy teammate and 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson pledged to Ole Miss last winter, becoming the face of an impressive Rebels recruiting class that continues to improve.

The Elite 11 MVP would love to add Nauta to a 2016 Ole Miss offensive haul that also includes top in-state wide receiver DeKaylin Metcalf and 4-star running back Justin Connor. Though Nauta and Patterson are playing together for the first time this fall, there's a longstanding relationship between him and the Rebels.

“It's a school where I could come in right away and make an impact. That’s a school that was in my Top 4 when I originally committed," he told Sentell.

The history of mutual interest bodes well for Ole Miss, currently rated seventh nationally in composite class rankings.

Ultimately, we expect another SEC team to enter the equation for Nauta's official visit outlook. Expect Alabama or Ole Miss to claim that final spot, with Patterson potentially providing the Rebels with a pivotal edge.

 

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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Georgia Football: Justin Scott-Wesley's Injury Puts Pressure on WR Terry Godwin

"I'm not sure if we'll see Justin for a while, if at all."

Georgia head coach Mark Richt provided a little cryptic foreshadowing on Saturday afternoon on the knee injury that has prevented 5'11", 201-pound senior Justin Scott-Wesley from practicing during the latter stages of fall camp. 

Now the receiver himself has added fuel to the fire, hinting that his playing days might be over.

While there hasn't been any official confirmation on the extent of Scott-Wesley's injury and what his future holds, it's safe to connect some dots and assume that whether he's out for a few games or the season, something's up.

If Scott-Wesley can't go for part or all of the season, that will put enormous pressure on true freshman Terry Godwin.

The 5'11", 174-pounder from Hogansville, Georgia, may seem like a prototypical slot receiver based on his stature, but the former 5-star prospect in the most recent recruiting class has been impressing the coaches during his first fall camp.

"Terry is obviously a terrific playmaker, he’s a guy that’s picked up the system really well, pretty fast," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said, according to Jason Butt of the Macon Telegraph. "We’re asking him to do quite a bit, moving him around in different spots, which is a compliment to him. He’s been attacking the playbook in the classroom and being able to put it on the field."

That's enormous, because he's going to be a big piece of the Bulldogs' receiving puzzle whether he's ready or not.

Senior Malcolm Mitchell is the only known commodity in the receiving corps. The Valdosta, Georgia, native caught 31 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns last season, and, when healthy, is a bona fide top-tier receiver. 

The biggest issue for Mitchell, though, is the injury bug. According to John Taylor of CollegeFootballTalk.com, he tore his ACL in the season opener in 2013, sat out spring 2014 with a leg injury suffered in the first practice and had his knee scoped last August, which kept him out of the first month of the season.

Behind him, though, there's slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie (who's back after missing some time with a pulled hamstring this month), juniors Reggie Davis and Kenneth Towns and a few other role players who have limited playing time. Combined, receivers other than Mitchell and Scott-Wesley had a total of 28 catches a year ago for Richt's crew.

Simply put, Godwin needs to be one of the stars right away for the Bulldogs.

He has the most upside of any receiver on the roster, is much more physical than his 174-pound frame suggests and already looks the part of a reliable option for the Bulldogs, as Radi Nabulsi of UGASports.com indicated with this video from practice on Friday.

Wide receivers aren't going to be the focal point of the Georgia offense.

That responsibility falls on the capable shoulders of stud running back Nick Chubb, and tight ends Jeb Blazevich and Jay Rome will certainly help in the passing game up the seam. But outside, somebody has to step up alongside Mitchell and in case the injury bug bites Mitchell yet again.

Godwin isn't that guy yet, but if he becomes that guy and helps put stress on opposing secondaries, it'll take pressure off of Chubb and the eventual winner of the three-man quarterback battle taking place among Faton Bauta, Brice Ramsey and Greyson Lambert.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com

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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15 College Football Players Who Will Make Names for Themselves in 2015

While the upcoming college football season looks to have plenty of returning star power, from quarterbacks such as Trevone Boykin and Cody Kessler to defensive greats Joey Bosa and Scooby Wright, new stars are destined to break out this fall.

With the constant turnover of college rosters, rising players are always asked to step up into starting roles. Others who are coming off good debut seasons are looking to take the next step and become household names in 2015.

This season, a pair of college football playoff contenders will turn to established backups with loads of potential at quarterback. Down south, several defensive backs are primed to become breakout stars for their respective powerhouses. Others across the country look to live up to their growing hype out wide or in the trenches.

Here are 15 players who look ready to become stars this college football season based on their projected roles, previous successes on the field and reports from those who have covered them in fall practices.

These athletes aren't completely unknown quantities, but they aren't mentioned in the same breath as those who dot All-American teams—at least not yet.

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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Vols 2017 Class off to Hot Start

One day after landing 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, Tennessee’s 2017 recruiting class added another major piece when 4-star receiver Tee Higgins announced his commitment to the Vols on Monday.

With two prospects who rate among the nation’s top 50 overall prospects in the 2017 class already bound for Knoxville, Volunteers head coach Butch Jones and his staff are clearly making a splash in the early phases of next year’s cycle.

Considering the Vols had yet to secure a commitment from any rising juniors as of last week, the two newest commits represent a huge surge for Tennessee on the recruiting trail. 

With the dynamic pass-catch duo in the fold, what’s the outlook for the remainder of the Vols 2017 class? 

There’s still a long way to go, but Jones and his staff have a strong foundation to build off with Johnson and Higgins.

Higgins—who represents the top prospect from Tennessee in 2017—chose the Vols over offers from powers such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Ohio State, among others. 

According to Ryan Callahan of GoVols247, Jones was ecstatic when Higgins told him he wanted to commit to the Volunteers. 

“I just felt like it was right,” Higgins told Callahan. “Me and my mom have been talking about it for a while, and I decided I wanted to do it today. I had no clue I was going to do it this early. I just felt like it was time.”

The 2017 flurry hasn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it’s the continuation of a theme of growing optimism surrounding the future of the Vols program under Jones.

Jones signed the No. 4 class in the nation in February, and the Vols 2016 class is currently sitting at No. 15 in the nation—with plenty of elite prospects who are heavily considering Tennessee left on the board.

If Tennessee finds success on the field this fall, where they are expected to contend for the SEC’s Eastern Division crown, the fruits are likely to be found in future recruiting classes.

As Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports details, Johnson’s pledge is likely to resonate with other top 2017 prospects who have Tennessee high on their respective lists.

Higgins leads a deep in-state crop for 2017, with nationally elite talents such as 4-star athlete Maleik Gray, 4-star running backs Ty Chandler and Cordarrian Richardson and 4-star defensive end Isaiah Stokes among the homegrown standouts that Tennessee is hoping to keep close to home.

With the momentum the Vols are building on the recruiting trail, Jones and his staff have Tennessee primed to land another loaded class in 2017.

 

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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Steve Sarkisian Will Enter Treatment for Drinking After Salute to Troy Event

USC head football coach Steve Sarkisian once again apologized for his actions at Saturday night's Salute to Troy gathering and announced Tuesday he's seeking treatment in the wake of the incident.  

Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com noted the 41-year-old coach, who's heading into his second season leading the Trojans, isn't sure whether he has a drinking problem: "I don't believe so, but I'm going to find that out. I'm going to treatment."

Sarkisian admitted his actions over the weekend were completely out of line and hopes the treatment can help him avoid similar problems in the future, per McMurphy: "The way I acted was irresponsible. There are things we're going to work on for me, moving forward."

He also provided some further details about the reason for his actions: "The moral of the story is if you mix meds w alcohol, you say things or do things you regret," per Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports on Twitter.

Sarkisian previously apologized for the situation Sunday when reports began to surface of a speech where he slurred words and used profanity, according to Dan Wolken of USA Today. The report notes both the coach and athletic director Pat Haden confirmed they spoke about the situation afterward.

Quarterback Cody Kessler said Sarkisian accepted punishment from the players, doing a series of up-downs, per Mandel. The quarterback believes the situation could actually help the team in the long run, as reported by McMurphy: "He apologized to us as a man. He earned more respect. It brought us closer together as a team. We support him 100 percent."

Sarkisian deserves credit for addressing the situation swiftly and starting the process of getting the consultation he needs to ensure this issue isn't repeated. It should help the team move past the incident so it can focus on the new season.

He didn't say whether he would be forced to miss any coaching duties as a result of the upcoming treatment, and he returned to the practice field to resume business as usual after meeting with the media.

USC is set to open the 2015 campaign against Arkansas State on Sept. 5.

 

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Cyrus Fagan Names Leaders: Which Program Is Best Fit for 4-Star DB?

Standout Florida defensive back Cyrus Fagan is focused on a pair of college football programs that contend for championships on a perennial basis.

The 4-star safety identified Alabama and Florida State as front-runners for his commitment during a discussion with Ryan Bartow of 247Sports. His decision, however, won't arrive for at least another 16 months.

Fagan, a junior at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, doesn't intend to announce collegiate plans until after the 2017 Under Armour All-American Game. This approach allots him two full football seasons to weigh a list of scholarship options that includes more than 20 universities.

The 6'0", 170-pound prospect picked up offers from the Seminoles, South Carolina, Clemson, West Virginia, USC and Wisconsin last winter. Alabama entered the race shortly after his sophomore year.

Fagan, rated fifth nationally among safeties in 2017 composite rankings, collected 83 tackles and five interceptions in 2014. He also tallied three touchdowns for the Sunshine State powerhouse.

The Seminoles have been an outright favorite in this recruitment for quite some time. It was a school he eyed earlier in this process, even prior to a Florida State offer. 

"I like them a lot and that's where my mom wants me to go," Fagan told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel in January.

His affinity for Florida State continues to develop, as the Seminoles have been a publicly declared leader for months.

“It’s right down the road from the home, great program, I like how Jimbo [Fisher] coaches, and I grew up loving them," he told Luke Stampini of 247Sports this summer.

Former high school teammate A.J. Westbrook is a freshman defensive back at Florida State. The duo dominated together at Mainland and could reconnect in Tallahassee.

"He's like a big brother to me and he took me to a couple of FSU games with him so I can get that experience early," Fagan told Hays.

He expects to visit the Seminoles at least once this season. Fagan aims to attend Florida State's Oct. 17 game against Louisville, per Bartow.

Florida State enjoys significant depth in the defensive backfield, highlighted by 5-star 2015 signees Derwin James and Tarvarus McFadden. The Seminoles claim commitments from several secondary standouts in the 2016 cycle, including top-ranked cornerback Levonta Taylor.

Fagan would also encounter a crowded depth chart in Tuscaloosa after Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban signed eight 4- or 5-star defensive backs during the past two cycles. Alabama already holds six commitments in its 2017 class, which sits atop SEC class rankings.

Alabama extended a scholarship in late May and immediately captured Fagan's attention. He traveled to the university this summer for a camp and told Bartow the school is his second option behind Florida State.

"It's just wonderful there," Fagan said. "It's all about Alabama. It is a football state."

If Fagan lands in the SEC, Alabama appears to be the likely destination. Expect Crimson Tide conference rivals Florida and LSU to continue chasing the coveted safety.

Fagan, who rates 75th overall in 2017 composite rankings, firmly looks like a Florida State lean at this stage. The Seminoles present an outstanding match when it comes to defensive schematics and program familiarity.

Seemingly destined for a lengthy recruiting process, Fagan may factor in other emerging contenders moving forward. For now, Florida State is the prohibitive favorite and an excellent fit for the in-state ball hawk.

 

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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Urban Meyer's Secret Weapon

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a combined 38-3 record in the three seasons since he arrived at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has the Buckeyes sitting atop the college football world. And as his team enters the 2015 season as the first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25, that's not something that figures to be changing for Ohio State anytime soon.

But while Meyer serves as the face of the Buckeyes program—and to a degree, college football—the three-time national champion head coach credits a large portion of his success to a confidant, friend and right-hand man whom he's known for nearly 30 years. 

And while Mickey Marotti is rarely seen or heard from publicly, the stories about him have already become the stuff of legend in Columbus. That's why he was the first call Meyer made when he took the Ohio State job nearly four years ago, as Marotti has become the secret weapon for college football's budding dynasty.

 

"That’s When It Happened"

When Jalyn Holmes committed to Ohio State in the summer of 2013, he was the embodiment of what Meyer looks for in a recruit.

A 4-star prospect by way of Norfolk, Virginia, Holmes was a top-100 recruit and the fourth-ranked weak-side defensive end in the 2014 class. At 6'5" and 225 pounds, Holmes possessed the ideal frame for adding weight and was lauded for his size, speed and athleticism as a prep player.

One trait, however, missing from Holmes' recruiting profile was his punctuality—or more accurately, his lack thereof—which he would soon learn wouldn't fly at his new school upon arriving in Columbus.

"I came late, and right off the plane I went straight to workouts," Holmes told Bleacher Report of his first day as a college student. "And that’s when it happened."

What Holmes was referring to was an event that has become somewhat of a rite of passage for Ohio State players in the Meyer era. Because like most players who have entered the Buckeyes program in the past four years, Holmes' first workout under the direction of Marotti was certainly a memorable one—and for all the wrong reasons.

"We had to do lunges with weight I could not lift. I looked at him like, 'No, I can’t lift it,' and he made me do it, and I’m like falling on the ground," Holmes said. "And he’s like, 'You p----!'"

"I had never been called a p---- before. For a minute, I thought I was a p----."

 

"He Does It All"

Talk to any player on the Buckeyes roster, and they'll undoubtedly have a favorite Marotti story, from the still-shell-shocked freshmen to the seniors who can now manage to crack a smile while recounting them.

But perhaps nobody has more Marotti stories—anywhere—than Meyer.

With a relationship nearly 30 years in the making, Meyer has treated Marotti as his confidant, strength coach, psychiatrist and right-hand man—sometimes all at the same time. He has also made it clear that Marotti has earned every bit of his official title as Ohio State's Assistant AD of Football Sport Performance, describing his role in the Buckeyes program as more than just that of a traditional strength and conditioning coach.

"He’s not a strength coach, he does it all," Meyer said of Marotti. "Anybody who has their hands on our players, not necessarily reports to him, but they have a meeting. The trainers, the doctors, the nutritionists, the equipment guys, everybody reports to Coach Mick...he’s not just a strength coach, he’s a motivator. And he’s tremendous."

Meyer and Marotti first met in 1987, although the two were hardly best friends at the time. Each trying to launch his respective career at Ohio State, Meyer was the Buckeyes' wide receivers coach under Earle Bruce, while Marotti was serving as a graduate assistant strength coach.

"We were not close," Meyer said.

Any sort of relationship that was formed, however, would seem to have been short-lived, as Bruce's firing at the end of the 1987 season left Meyer looking for a new job before ultimately landing at Illinois State before rejoining Bruce at Colorado State in 1990.

Marotti, too, would soon find a new gig, taking over as the head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Cincinnati, following a brief stint as a strength assistant at West Virginia.

Soon, word of Marotti's intense workouts spread across the country.

Meyer, a former Bearcats defensive back, took note.

"I first started hearing about him when he was at Cincinnati. I’m an alum," Meyer said. "I would go down there, and I would just watch him."

Meyer, who took over as Notre Dame's wide receivers coach in 1996, was so impressed that he soon found himself vouching for his former co-worker. When the Fighting Irish were in need of a new director of strength and conditioning in 1998, Meyer went to his boss with a suggestion, imploring him to interview Marotti, who had just finished his ninth year at Cincinnati.

"One of our strength positions opened up, and I went to our head coach, Bob Davie, and I said, 'I know the guy we need to hire,'" Meyer recalled. "He came up to interview, and he blew it away and became our strength coach and made an immediate impact.

"And that’s where it started.”

 

Kicking and Screaming

When you get a Marotti story from a player, it usually follows the same formula: There's some profanity, a moment of weakness, more profanity, sometimes some humor and then an uplifting moment.

That was the case with Holmes, who, despite his first encounter with Marotti, soon saw the value in his new strength coach.

"Coach Mick really cares about everyone in this program, he just wants to see you do good," Holmes said. "If he feels like you’re not giving it your all, he’s going to let you know. He’s the most honest person I know. I thank him for everything."

Those were the same sentiments shared by Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones, who when asked to share his favorite Coach Marotti story responded with: "Do you want a good one or a bad one?"

When prompted for the latter, Jones recalled a tale from the first season of his college career, which happened to coincide with Meyer and Marotti's arrival at Ohio State.

"I hurt my knee in a drill going against Braxton [Miller]. I don’t know why they had me going against Braxton, no clue. I still won’t understand it to this day," Jones said, referring to the difference in speed between himself and the Buckeyes' quarterback-turned-wideout.

"[Marotti's] screaming at me, 'Get up!' ... All he knew was I didn’t play last year. So he was just screaming at me to get up, and I’m thinking I just broke my leg and I was so freaking hurt I was about to cry, and he’s just screaming at me, ‘Get up! You’re soft! You’re soft!’ And I’m like, 'I can’t move!'"

For Jones, who spent his share of time in Meyer's doghouse early in his career, perhaps it took a little longer to come around on Marotti. But when the 6'5", 250-pounder found himself thrust into the starting lineup as the Buckeyes were on the verge of capturing a College Football Playoff spot at the end of the 2014 season, it was Marotti who served as one of his biggest cheerleaders.

"He’s just so intense, and it’s crazy how much potential he sees in us," Jones said. "Basically saying, 'Do what you came here for. Be yourself. We believe in you, we have trust in you, so be you.'"

Jones did just that, leading Ohio State to a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin, before defeating Alabama and Oregon en route to capturing the first-ever CFP National Championship.

With that, Meyer captured his third national championship as a head coach, each of which has come with Marotti on his sideline.

 

"The First Phone Call I Made"

Despite having known each other for nearly 30 years, Meyer can't recall a specific moment where Marotti earned his trust.

What he can do, however, is point to a two-game stretch where Marotti vindicated his belief that he is the best strength coach in college football, which occurred during their second national title run together in 2008.

Coaching a Florida team that had rebounded from an early-season loss to Ole Miss, Meyer had the Tim Tebow-led Gators on the verge of clinching what would be the Gators' second national title in three seasons. All it would take would be a win over Nick Saban and No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC title game, before facing Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford in the BCS National Championship Game.

In essence, fourth-ranked Florida was taking part in a playoff six years before the official format came into existence.

And just like they would do in 2014, Meyer and Marotti came out on top.

Despite trailing the Crimson Tide heading into the fourth quarter, the Gators pulled out a 31-20 victory in the SEC title game, thanks in large part to a go-ahead one-yard rushing touchdown by running back Jeff Demps in the fourth quarter. A similar script would play out against the Sooners in Miami, with Florida scoring a 24-14 victory to capture the national title.

When Meyer looks back on those crucial consecutive games, it's Marotti's work that stands out the most.

"At one point we were behind in both games, and it was line-of-scrimmage games, and that's how you evaluate your strength coaches," Meyer said. "Injury No. 1—is it a healthy, fresh team? And then how's the line of scrimmage?"

The answer to those questions were self-evident, just as they were in 2006 when Florida captured its first national title under Meyer and Marotti's direction with a dominating defensive performance against Ohio State in the BCS title game.

Two years prior, the two had been reunited, their time in South Bend having come to an end after three seasons when Meyer left to take over as the head coach of Bowling Green and then Utah, programs that didn't possess enough prestige or big enough budgets to also hire away Notre Dame's strength and conditioning coach.

That changed when Meyer accepted the head coaching job in Gainesville in 2005, giving him an SEC platform to place a call to his old buddy.

"He was the first phone call I made at Florida when I was leaving Utah to go to Florida," Meyer said. "And he was the first call I made when I came here."

 

"Forged in Iron"

Although Marotti was crucial to the Gators success, he didn't seem to publicly receive the same praise that he has for helping Meyer turn around Ohio State upon their arrival in Columbus in 2012. Perhaps that's because rebuilding the Buckeyes required a more significant undertaking, as Ohio State dealt with sanctions stemming from NCAA violations committed by former coach Jim Tressel and members of the Buckeyes' 2010 team.

Getting their new team to buy into a new regime would require breaking old habits, something Ohio State players learned the hard way.

"Our first year here, our coaches kind of didn’t like us," Jones said. "They were establishing a new culture here."

Especially in the offseason, that meant plenty of work for Marotti, who routinely butted heads with established team leaders. Such was the case when then-senior fullback/linebacker Zach Boren chose to stand up to the new staff in the midst of a particularly tough 5 a.m. workout.

"Zach was yelling, 'You will not break us!'" Buckeyes defensive tackle Adolphus Washington recalled. "And Coach Mick was like, 'Oh yes we will!'"

Despite enduring its fair share of growing pains—and plenty of games that were too close for comfort—that 2012 Ohio State squad came together, putting together a perfect 12-0 record before sitting out the postseason due to the NCAA sanctions. Meyer, however, wasn't always optimistic that his debut season in Columbus would work out that way, which perhaps marked the first time he had overlooked his strength coach.

"I saw guys punking out at practice during training camp, I didn’t feel it at all. I said we’re gonna be 8-4, stay positive, we’re on a journey and not a sprint," Meyer said of 2012. "I undervalued the critical leadership. I give Mickey credit. Because it happened. That team by the end of the year was very good. That team at the beginning of the year was really bad, something happened along that journey, and Mickey was really involved in that.”

"Very involved" is a phrase that seems to go hand in hand with Ohio State and Marotti, whose fingerprints are all over the Buckeyes program. That's especially true in the offseason, where NCAA rules limit the contact coaches have with players, making the strength coach the de facto head man.

That means that from the end of spring practice until the start of fall camp, it's Marotti who's in charge—which can be either good or bad, depending on where you're standing.

"If you’re in the front two rows, you’re gonna get spit on. He does that all the time," left tackle Taylor Decker said of Marotti's yelling habits. "We’re there laying underneath him and just getting rained on—and he knows it."

But with a track record that speaks for itself, it's a small price to pay. Besides, it's not like the Buckeyes really have a choice in the matter. 

"Coach Mick is basically Coach Meyer when Coach Meyer's not around," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "He handles a lot of stuff, he's with us all the time, he gets to know the players really well. Everything he does with us is imperative to our success. He takes care of so much stuff."

And as was the case when he first exchanged unpleasantries with Holmes last summer, there always seems to be a method to his madness. Perhaps that's what appeals most to Meyer, who has found a steadying hand in what's been an unpredictable navigation through the college football landscape.

But regardless of how many reasons he has for it, Meyer's admiration for Marotti is apparent in the way he speaks of his "right-hand man."

"That one’s forged in iron. That one—he understands his value, and he’s earned the respect he has," Meyer said of his relationship with Marotti. "He's the best."

 

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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While QB Search Continues, South Carolina Will Lean on Pharoh Cooper

At this point during fall camp, it's safe to say that South Carolina's offense is a work in progress.

The 2015 Gamecocks quarterback battle remains unsettled, but head coach Steve Spurrier is pleased with the way junior Perry Orth, sophomore Connor Mitch and freshman Michael Scarnecchia played during Saturday's scrimmage.

"The quarterbacks did a lot of good things," said Spurrier, according to quotes released by South Carolina. "I wish one of them outplayed all the rest, but when you look at the stats, they're probably pretty similar. Hopefully we'll find out something early this week.

"Nothing keeps happening. When you look at the stats, they're all about the same right now. It would be easy for all of us to say `this is the guy,' let's go. But then you've got to be fair and keep competing. We'll know something maybe by the middle of this coming week."

That timetable is a bit accelerated for the Gamecocks, because technically their gameweek starts on Friday, with the season-opener vs. North Carolina in Charlotte taking place Thursday, Sept. 3.

The beauty of South Carolina's offense this year is that Spurrier has the ultimate safety net in star wide receiver Pharoh Cooper.

Cooper is the SEC's leading returning receiver after hauling in 69 passes for 1,136 yards and nine touchdowns for a Gamecock offense that, very quietly, finished second in the conference in passing a year ago, with 282.4 yards per game.

But it's not just outside where Cooper shines.

He rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, completed five of eight passes for two touchdowns and returned 15 punts for 75 yards a year ago.

"He can play receiver, shotgun, quarterback, throw, run," Spurrier said at SEC media days ."He's really an All-American type player."

He's not lying. In fact, he's likely to be an even bigger part of the offense in 2015 on a team that has a quarterback battle, shuffled some pieces around an offensive line and have to replace running back Mike Davis.

"Teams are going to be keying on me, so I'm going to have to get the ball a lot more out of the Wildcat position," Cooper said at SEC media days. "I'm still going to do the same things as last year and still could throw the ball. I'll probably be in the backfield more this year."

Special teams is included in that mix. As David Cloninger of The State notes, Cooper will return the majority of the punts this year.

Is that a risk for Spurrier? A little bit.

Any time you put your best player on special teams, you're running the risk of getting him hurt. But for this South Carolina team—with an abundance of offensive questions—having Cooper back there would be incredibly beneficial. After all, an extra 10 yards on a punt return is a first down that the offense doesn't have to worry about.

He's the ultimate equalizer.

It's not like he was a secret last year. Teams keyed on him and he still wound up on the coaches' first-team All-SEC team, and that was with Davis, a solid offensive line and veteran quarterback Dylan Thompson on the roster.

He's up for the challenge and will be the focal point of the new-look Gamecock offense. The combination of Cooper's versatility and Spurrier's creative play-calling will keep opposing defensive coordinators guessing all season.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com

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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B/R CFB 250: Top 7 Tight Ends

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R experts Matt MillerMichael FelderBarrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, we present the Top Tight Ends.

 

Other CFB 250 Positions

 

How a team uses its tight ends says a lot about the style of offense it likes to play. It also speaks to the kind of talent it has at this underrated and unappreciated position.

The skill set needed to be both an adept blocker and an effective pass-catcher—while often being the size of a small lineman—rarely gets its due. Most tight ends toil in relative anonymity, except for those that made our list.

And it's a relatively small bunch compared to our last list, partly due to five of the top eight players graduating or turning pro. What remains, though, is still a strong group of all-around tight ends.

The following ranks are based primarily on players' skills in college, rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, first and foremost their goals are centered around helping their teams succeed.

The rankings are based on a tabulation of five different categories (hands, route running, blocking, release and speed) and on evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts.

 

NOTE: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would give a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.

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Tennessee Football: Depth-Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Prediction

Expectations are both exciting and dangerous endeavors for a long-suffering program like Tennessee football.

It can ignite a firestorm of enthusiasm around a football team that can captivate a fanbase, and a young team like the Volunteers can feed off that and excel.

Or, they can materialize as largely unrealistic and cause a overly enthusiastic subset of fans to come after the coach with torches and pitchforks after a subpar season.

Welcome to 2015, Vols coach Butch Jones!

Following a frenetic 4-1 finish that included a resounding TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa—remarkably the Vols' first bowl win since the 2008 Outback Bowl—and the discovery of a budding star in quarterback Joshua Dobbs, everybody is drinking the orange Kool-Aid entering this season.

The Vols are a trendy pick for the top 25 in most polls, including the just-released Associated Press poll, and a few national pundits even consider UT a contender for the SEC East crown instead of favorite Georgia.

Jones has built a talented and potentially dynamic roster through elite recruiting, but the vast majority of UT's playmakers are underclassmen. The lack of experience is alarming up and down the board.

When you toss in a difficult schedule and the fact that the Vols already have suffered three season-ending injuries this fall camp, including year-enders to starting left guard Marcus Jackson and nickelback Rashaan Gaulden, there are concerns.

But there's oh-so-much talent. From Dobbs to running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to a full stable of talented receivers to a defense that is loaded on the line and in the secondary, there are reasons across the board for excitement.

Can the Vols put it altogether and have the kind of season that announces their re-emergence in the national picture? That remains to be seen, but below, Bleacher Report will break down all you need to know about UT's hype-heightened 2015 season.

 

Coaches

Jones' cohesive clique of coaches that has stayed fairly intact over the course of much of his career took a bit of a shot this offseason when longtime offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian bolted Knoxville to fulfill his dream of coaching in the NFL.

Rather than go out and make a sexy hire for a big name, the Vols instead replaced the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterbacks coach with one of Jones' mentors in Mike DeBord, a man with whom he helped develop Jones' power-spread offense during their time together at Central Michigan.

Though the hire was met with little fanfare, the early returns have been promising, from Jones to the players to the assistants to the fans.

"It was a good fit," UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown this spring. "I can see exactly why Coach Jones thought so high of him. He's a great coach, a really, really brilliant mind and a very, very technique-driven coach both up front with the offensive line, the running backs, the receivers. He's brought a fundamental game to the offense, and it's been good."

DeBord wants to bring an even faster and more furious tempo to UT than what Bajakian tried to run, and he has his maestro in Dobbs. The two have hit it off, and the Vols seem primed to break out offensively. The Sports Animal's Jimmy Hyams passed along Dobbs comments regarding DeBord's conversation as it relates to plans for the passing game:

The only question (and it's a huge one) is what kind of groove can DeBord get in calling plays within the rhythm of a game, something he hasn't done since 2007? It's going to be interesting to watch.

For everybody else at every other position, nothing's changed.

It's the same staff coaching the same positions, and that continuity should benefit UT, especially on defense where a simple-yet-multiple approach from John Jancek last year yielded improvements across the board.

The Vols were exceptional in third-down defense and also excellent in getting after opposing quarterbacks. With a talented, veteran group leading the way on that side of the ball, UT looks ready to take a huge step forward defensively. 

There's reasons for optimism with the leadership such as Curt Maggitt, Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Brian Randolph essentially becoming an extension of Jancek's philosophy. That entire defensive coaching staff has been coaching a long time, so that appears to be a major combination for the Vols. Per Tennessee FB, Jancek noted he was pleased with the team defense "collectively":

As far as the head man, Tennessee fans are thrilled with what Jones has accomplished thus far in promoting the program, getting a much-improved product on the field and especially in recruiting.

But the expectations in Big Orange Country go beyond TaxSlayer championships. Jones knows it, and he and the players are saying all the right thing about embracing those lofty aspirations. He appears well on his way to building a powerhouse upon the ashes of a once-great program.

The next step is the biggest.

 

What to watch for on offense

Beyond the enigma that is DeBord's play-calling skills after so many years without doing it, the Vols' next two biggest storylines also are on offense.

The first question everybody wants to know is: Can Dobbs take the massive leap from being a talented athlete to being a championship-level quarterback?

Secondly (and this one may be the biggest issue on the entire team), is Tennessee's offensive line any better than it was during a miserable 2014?

Simply put, UT's season outcome hinges on positive answers to all three.

Starting with Dobbs who has gotten as much publicity as any SEC player this offseason not named Nick Chubb, huge things are expected. He has a strong arm, had plenty of "Wow!" moments down the stretch a season ago and tends to make things happen with his arm or feet when it matters most. The Big Orange Report shared some Dobbs highlights:

But he still hasn't beaten anybody of any consequence yet. 

The ugly truth for him and the Vols is their biggest victory a season ago came against 7-6 teams South Carolina and Iowa. When Dobbs had the opportunity for a resounding, welcome-to-the-show win against Missouri in Neyland Stadium, the Vols couldn't get the job done.

Now, UT is expected to win some of its marquee matchups this year. Can the Vols exorcise the 10-year Florida demon? Can they register a signature victory at home against one of its rugged early-season foes Oklahoma, Arkansas or Georgia? Do they have what it takes to win road games at 'Bama or Mizzou?

Dobbs holds the key. If he can take a step similar to what Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott did a season ago, UT may have a special season. He's already getting plenty of lip service this spring. Volquest.com's Rob Lewis passed along Jones' comments regarding Dobbs, confirming he has been impressed by his performance:

With all the potential playmakers UT has on offense in the running back duo of Hurd and Kamara, a wide receiving corps that can go nine- or 10-deep and a rising star in tight end Ethan Wolf, it just needs somebody who can consistently get them the ball.

Dobbs is going to be closely scrutinized this season, and he's reportedly off to a sterling start.

On the flip side, the offensive line has yet to draw many rave reviews from anybody. Coaches have been shuffling players everywhere, trying to find the best five a year after the unit was the weakest link on a mediocre team.

According to Tennessean columnist David Climer:

With the season-opener against Bowling Green less than three weeks away, the Vols have yet to finalize a starting five in the offensive line. They’re not even close. And for all the talent and depth elsewhere on the roster, the uncertainties up front on offense are cause for caution.

In short, if UT’s offensive line were up to traditional standards, you could make a case that the Vols could challenge Georgia in the SEC East. But until the offensive line questions are answered, it’s tough to make a call. There are too many unknowns.

The Vols have to be worlds better than they were a season ago when they tied for 122nd nationally in sacks allowed, per cfbstats.com, and consistently failed in opening holes for Hurd and Co.

If not, they can forget about beating the Georgias and Alabamas of the world.

 

What to watch for on defense

Forget last year's razor-thin unit that struggled and slowed at times because of a lack of depth; the Vols are loaded on defense.

If they can get adequate middle linebacker play from that wide-open battle and stay healthy at cornerback, they've got a chance to field one of the league's top-three or top-four units.

The excitement starts with a pass rush that should be among the nation's best. Sophomore Derek Barnett has one of the quickest first steps you'll ever see and is trying to duplicate or improve upon a Freshman All-America season that saw him register 20.5 tackles for a loss.

Opposite him is senior hybrid defensive end/strong-side linebacker Curt Maggitt, who'll be getting ready to wreak havoc in the NFL this time next year. The most talented end is true freshman Kyle Phillips, who can't even crack the rotation because of those in front of him.

Throw in ballyhooed freshman defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, and you can understand why UT is excited about the present and future along that offensive front.

The second level is where leader Jalen Reeves-Maybin resides, roaming sideline to sideline from his weak-side linebacker position and leading a unit that is young but promising. ESPN.com's Chris Low selected Reeves-Maybin as the player to "explode this season": 

Freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. has been recently making noise in the middle and may hold the current edge to start over junior Kenny Bynum and sophomore Colton Jumper.

All three should play.

On the back level, UT has the senior duo of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil at safety and potential All-American Cameron Sutton at cornerback. Throw in speedy sophomore Emmanuel Moseley who has been one of the Vols' brightest stars during camp, and that group looks strong.

JUCO transfer Justin Martin has an elite skill set, but he's just raw. He'll have to play a big role now, however, with nickelback Rashaan Gaulden out for the year with a broken foot.

The Vols need to stay healthy at the position for the defense to be strong. There aren't a ton of bodies at corner.

Strong recruiting has built a really sturdy group on defense that made a big move a season ago. If this unit makes the same progression in 2015, the Vols are going to be stout.

 

Injury News

This facet of the game hasn't been good to Jones' boys since the start of camp.

Tennessee needs to go ahead and have a revolving door to the training room installed in its plush new football facility. It seems the walking wounded are a veritable who's-who of the team's playmakers.

While most of the injuries aren't going to keep anybody out for an extended period of time, UT has suffered three season-ending injuries.

Gaulden's is the biggest with the position's lack of depth and because it takes such a unique skill set to play nickel. Perhaps the defense's best option is to move Sutton over there to replace him, but that takes a star from his comfort zone.

The Vols are going to have to find some answers quickly.

Injuries also have racked the offensive line, an area of concern to begin with. Fifth-year senior left guard Marcus Jackson is going to be difficult to replace. He is out for the year after tearing his biceps earlier this month.

Jackson had more starts and experience than anybody else on the unit. Though he wasn't the most talented lineman, the elder statesman was a leader and a quality player.

Redshirt sophomore Austin Sanders would have provided depth, but he too tore his biceps in what continued an odd stretch of injuries. Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that UT is looking into the recent rash of injuries:

I have a five-year study on injuries, and I can tell you this: The last three years were about the same — where we’re at in terms of individuals being held (out of practices), individuals kind of being status pending going into practice. We research everything, and there’s so much that goes into it, so we’re still in the process of researching it.

Regardless, UT must deal without those three. The Vols can ill afford to lose any other major contributors. They're a program on the upswing, but the depth isn't there to overcome any big losses.

 

X-factor

On offense, there are a few different options such as tight end Ethan Wolf and head-turning freshman receiver Jauan Jennings.

But the easy answer here is Kamara.

There just aren't many athletes like the 5'10", 215-pound sophomore JUCO transfer who began his college career at Alabama. He's dynamic, and ever since he arrived on Rocky Top this spring, he has done crazy things with the ball in his hands.

After admittedly having some maturity issues in Tuscaloosa that led to his transfer, he's embraced and is being embraced by his new teammates. Most importantly, he's making a difference on the field and off. Jones had some high praise for him recently (via Dustin Dopirak of the Knoxville News Sentinel). 

Hurd may be the starter, but Kamara is Option 1B, and he's the ideal back for Jones' system. He can hit a seam or the sideline, turn it up a gear and get to the end zone.

If the Vols' offensive line is any good at all, AK is going to be fun to watch.

Defensively, there are also several quality choices, but the nod here goes to Martin.

He's listed as a 6'1", 183-pound cornerback, but the JUCO transfer sophomore looks taller, and he's so fluid out there it's hard to believe he's in the secondary. With his size, length and speed at the position, he hearkens back to some of those special Vols legends of old.

It may seem ridiculous to make a comparison to Dale Carter, but he made a massive impact after coming in from JUCO, and Martin has the same sick skills. GoVols247's Wes Rucker's also believes Martin is a huge asset and has great potential:

With Gaulden out, he'll get every opportunity to start and excel. Once he gets acclimated to SEC play, his instincts will take over, and he'll fit right in in a strong secondary.

Missing a couple of weeks of fall drills with an injury won't help at all, but Martin has the ability to come back and be one of UT's three or four best defensive backs.

 

2014 schedule

Make-or-break games

The Vols load up on some extremely important games early in the season, beginning with a revenge match against Oklahoma on Sep. 12 when the Sooners travel to Neyland Stadium.

Win that game and the nation will take notice. Emerge victorious and a bunch of young pups that have been hyped by the media may begin to realize if they buy in, the sky is the limit.

But there is no game bigger than the one in the Swamp on Sep. 26.

The Gators own Tennessee, having won a decade's worth of games. With all of Florida's offensive issues, injuries in the defensive front seven and breaking in a new coach with a new offensive philosophy in Jim McElwain, everything points to UT being the favorite here.

That hasn't mattered recently. The Vols blew a 9-0 lead against UF in Knoxville last year, and it seems they just can't get the albatross off their back. Now's the ideal time to do it.

If they win that game, the Georgia battle in Neyland may be for the SEC East crown, and though Tennessee hasn't beaten the Dawgs since 2009, when Lane Kiffin was the head coach, the past three have been one-possession losses.

If they can break through with a win, they'll be in the driver's seat in the division, and that, in turn, will make the late-season showdown in Columbia, Missouri, massive as well.

There are plenty of potential "games of the season" for the Vols, but if they can go ahead and beat Florida, it'll go a long way in determining the season's long-term tenor.

 

Prediction

I may admittedly be a little Kool-Aid-drunk myself when it comes to looking at the Vols this year, as I picked them to win nine games this season.

The past two seasons, I've correctly guessed 5-7 and 6-6, but there's just something about this season. Yes, the injuries are more than mildly concerning, and there are plenty of strong opponents on the schedule.

But the way the Vols melded together down the stretch last year, got better and then dominated Iowa in the bowl game, they just looked like they began to believe.

"We played pretty well toward the end of the season, and a lot of guys, myself included, we wish we could have had that mindset or playing that way throughout the whole season, and now we know what a little bit of success feels like," Maggitt told Bleacher Report this spring. "I know we're not to our goal yet, but we know what it feels like a little bit.

"So we've got to keep that momentum rolling through the offseason and training camp."

There are major offensive line issues, and those are never a good thing. But the Vols have talent there. With a running quarterback in Dobbs, they'll be able to manufacture plenty of yards on offense.

Defensively, they've got the potential to be really, really good.

Yes, there will be some stumbles, but there are also going to be some big wins that prove these guys are on the cusp of returning to the conference conversation. Eight wins is probably the safe bet, but I'm going to go on the high side of optimism for a change.

 

Overall Record: 9-3

Conference Record: 6-2

 

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information obtained from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered from UTSports.com unless otherwise noted. 

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

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Texas Football: Depth-Chart Analysis, Complete 2015 Preview and Predictions

Fall camp is in the books, and it's on to the regular season for the Texas Longhorns.

Charlie Strong's team is young, passionate and ready to turn things around. The addition of the 2015 freshman class has made that official, infusing a different intensity to fall camp. Even oft-criticized Tyrone Swoopes has picked up a new edge, as noted by his coaches.

But even with those traits working for this team, its youth will keep it just one step away from competing for anything beyond a bowl appearance.

 

Offensive Depth-Chart Analysis

If you've been following fall camp, nothing of what you see on Texas' offensive depth chart should surprise you.

Swoopes will take the first snap against Notre Dame. He dominated fall camp, and this will be his job until he shows that he can't handle it. Strong insists that Heard will still play in the opener, but the redshirt freshman will likely see five snaps or fewer. HornsDigest.com's Chip Brown shared Strong's quarterback projections:

Running back is also a no-brainer at this stage. Johnathan Gray's the driving force of this offense, with powerful sophomore D'Onta Foreman stepping into Malcolm Brown's complementary role. Freshman Chris Warren will mix in as well, with Kirk Johnson being the fourth option.

Receiver looks a little different than expected, but Armanti Foreman, freshman John Burt, Marcus Johnson and Daje Johnson are having by far the best camps of anyone on the roster. They'll be the guys when Texas goes four-wide, and just about all of them can mix and match, as Strong said on Saturday:

At the wide receiver position, 7 [Marcus Johnson] is playing really well for us, he's doing a really good job. Foreman, 83, Armanti's doing a really good job for us. That's going to be the position there because Daje [Johnson] has come alive here the last week or so and then you have [John] Burt outside.

So many weapons there at the wide receiver where you can place guys and you can move guys.The good thing about it, they have to learn all four positions so you can just move them around and try to get the ball in the playmaker's hand.

Behind this crew, Ryan Newsome, Jacorey Warrick and former tight end DeAndre McNeal, per HornsDigest.com's William Wilkerson, will fight for snaps. Newsome and Warrick are both inside receivers, but the 6'1" McNeal could be interesting. He's extremely versatile despite being a bigger body, and Texas could use him to create a variety of mismatches.

Tight end's the only real mystery left on this side of the ball. Blake Whiteley's injury clears the way for Andrew Beck, but Caleb Bluiett's position change could make things interesting. Burnt Orange Nation's Wescott Eberts envisions Bluiett as a "potential contributor at TE":

Lastly, we hit the offensive line, which remained unchanged from the spring until Patrick Vahe blew things up halfway through fall camp. The highly regarded freshman worked in with the ones the rest of the way, pushing Kent Perkins to right tackle and Connor Williams off to the blind side. Center Taylor Doyle confirmed Vahe's work with the ones, per the Statesman's Ryan Autullo:

Senior Marcus Hutchins looks like the odd man out and will likely work in along with swing guys Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson. Overall, this should be one of the team's most improved groups, thanks to the physical young players who have burst into the mix.

 

Defensive Depth-Chart Analysis

Even after almost a month of fall camp, the defense is much more difficult to pin down than the offense. Every one of these positions has high potential for being changed up, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The defensive line will be the bread-winner for this side of the ball. Strong trusts just about everybody on the roster there, and for good reason. Poona Ford might the second-best lineman on the team, yet he's a backup because of Hassan Ridgeway

In fact, this group is so stacked, it might consider parting with one of its best athletes. HornsDigest.com's Chip Brown reports the rangy "Fox" end Naashon Hughes could move back to linebacker to help with depth, where he would challenge Peter Jinkens to play in nickel sets. Standing 6'4" with elite speed, Hughes will excel wherever he ends up.

Until that situation becomes more clear, Jinkens told Brown he's battling Malik Jefferson to be the middle linebacker. Jefferson's the better athlete and fits the new trend of teams putting their most physically gifted defenders in the middle of the defense. He's not going anywhere.

The secondary's an even bigger mess. Dylan Haines and Jason Hall are set in stone at safety, but there's a battle royale for all the corners not named Duke Thomas.

Holton Hill was the odds-on favorite to assume the role opposite Thomas before an injury interrupted his fall camp. That opened the door for Davante Davis, John Bonney and Kris Boyd to get work at that spot, with the latter two also trying out the nickel spot. Strong expressed how impressed he had been with Hill's on-field performance, per Ebert:

Bryson Echols will probably get the start at Notre Dame, but all of these guys will be competing on a weekly basis. Eventually, Hill, Boyd and Davis will have their day.

 

Special Teams Depth-Chart Analysis

Nick Rose will resume kicking duties after showing some improvement this offseason. Until Australian Michael Davidson settles down at punter, Mitchell Becker will do his best to help the defense out. Becker's a below-average talent, so this will be a problem area while the team works on Davidson.

Return duties seem pretty wide-open as well. Daje Johnson's the name that comes up most often in both phases of the return game, and it's hard to imagine Ryan Newsome and Armanti Foreman won't get their cracks as well.

No matter what, Texas needs more from its entire special teams unit. Jeff Traylor's had his work cut out for him with this group.

 

Preview and Prediction for 2015

One thing's for sure about these Longhorns—they're going to fight.

"There is such a different team chemistry and energy this year compared to last year," said safety Dylan Haines at the end camp.

Renewed competitiveness and sense of team have been recurring themes this offseason. The practices have been intense, and the players are taking pride in the team's improvement, which center Taylor Doyle elaborated upon as well:

Every day we're trying to get better as individuals and as a team and guys are playing well and grinding. I'm really happy with how the freshmen have come in and worked and the older guys also. Everyone has come in to work and is positive and it's really exciting to be around.

Whether that improved team attitude will lead to wins is another question. Not only is this team replacing 10 starters, but it also has a tough nonconference schedule before it dives straight into some unforgiving Big 12 play.

Just because this team wants to improve doesn't mean it will. So much of its success in this conference depends on a quarterback finding his way. And for all the praise for Swoopes' improvement, he still has a lot to prove before he's considered trustworthy.

Then there's the fact that so many of the team's best players are in their first year playing. There are 15 true or redshirt freshmen up there in the two-deep, and it's only reasonable to expect that some of them will act like, well, freshmen at times.

Still, this team will play hard for Strong and his staff. It won't be able to hang with teams such as Baylor, TCU or Notre Dame, but it's good enough for 7-5. These Horns will pull off a surprising win or two before the season's done on their way to bigger things in 2016.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats and information courtesy of TexasSports.com.

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Virginia Tech Football: Week 3 Fall Camp Stock Report

The Virginia Tech Hokies completed Week 3 of fall camp Saturday with a scrimmage, likely the last open one before the season begins.

Fortunately for the Hokies, they remained essentially injury free last week, with no new injuries reported. It's a welcome departure for head coach Frank Beamer and his staff as the Hokies have dealt with numerous season-ending injuries in fall camp in recent years. 

Attrition once again reared its ugly head, though, as a pair of redshirt freshmen departed the program, per Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Holland Fisher, a former 4-star recruit from Midlothian, Virginia, requested his transfer, as did cornerback Shawn Payne. Payne wasn't as highly recruited as Fisher, and his departure likely won't be felt as Tech has several talented cornerbacks in the pipeline ready to contribute.

Fisher and Payne's departures come on the heels of C.J. Reavis' dismissal in July, although that situation was a bit different as Reavis was dismissed by the student conduct committee. Fisher and Payne's situations appear to be more about academics. 

As disappointing as it is to see a former top recruit depart without reaching his full potential, running backs coach Shane Beamer says that's the way it is everywhere, per Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times:

I think that’s recruiting. You look across the country, all these highly recruited guys that may not turn out to be great players and guys that weren’t recruited at all who turn out to be great players. That’s just part of the recruiting aspect of it. You hate it from a standpoint of you want guys when you bring them into your program to have success, and disappointed that it didn’t quite work out for Holland and Shawn because they’re good kids and they’re really good football players.

What else went on with Virginia Tech during Week 3 of fall camp?

 

Freshmen DBs Ready to Contribute

As disappointing as it is to see promising, young players leave, it opens the door for other talented newcomers. In Tech's case it is a pair of true freshmen: cornerback Mook Reynolds and rover Adonis Alexander.

If Reavis were still on campus, there's a good chance Alexander may have redshirted. Tech would've had Desmond Frye and Donovan Riley—also a cornerback—behind Reavis at rover. However, Alexander took advantage of his opportunity and most likely will see the field this fall and could end up overtaking Frye as the starter at rover. 

Alexander has the size (6'3", 193 pounds) and athleticism coaches covet for the safety position. He also enrolled in January and has a strong grasp of defensive coordinator Bud Foster's defense. 

Reynolds figures to see his initial playing time at nickelback behind sophomore Greg Stroman. Reynolds, of course, could play in relief of Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson on the outside at cornerback, too. 

Regardless, Reynolds is ready and understands the coaching staff may call on him this season.

“No one has said it,” Reynolds said, according to Norm Wood of the Daily Press. “It’s understood. I know what kind of impact I had in the spring coming in early, and I know how high I set the bar for myself. Everybody wants to reach the bar that they set and go a little higher. I’m not the kind of guy to set a bar and then go low.”

That confidence is one of the many reasons why coaches love Reynolds and Alexander. 

 

Offensive Line Still Not Set

For most of the offseason, it was widely assumed Tech had its starting offensive line set in stone. Fall camp has shown us that isn't entirely true, though.

Right tackle Wade Hansen has missed some time with an injury, opening the door for Parker Osterloh, a 6'8", 323-pound sophomore. Osterloh has impressed coaches filling in for Hansen, while also spending some time at left tackle and inside at guard. It's that type of versatility Osterloh believes will help him see the field this fall, per Barber.

“I really, every day, have played at least two positions,” Osterloh said. “It’s sort of challenging, just being able to flip sides and flip plays in your head, but I pride myself on trying to be able to do the best I can wherever Coach needs me.”

Hansen's starting job doesn't appear to be in jeopardy at this time, but Osterloh has shown coaches that if Hansen does go down, he's capable of stepping in and not missing a beat. 

Wyatt Teller, the returning starter at left guard, practiced with the second-team offense at times last week, leading to speculation that perhaps he'd been replaced in the starting lineup.

That isn't the case, as it appears to be a case of Teller not finishing plays in practice as strongly as coaches would like and he was pushed to the bench. Teller's insertion into the starting lineup last season coincided with VT's re-energized running game. He has the ability to be a dominant player. 

If Hansen or left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin struggle this fall, keep an eye on true freshman Yosuah Nijman.

Nijman is 6'8" and 273 pounds with the athleticism of a tight end. He's also new to the position, as he was recruited as a defensive lineman and made the switch to offense in the spring. He's picking up the position fast and will be a starter at some point early in his college career. 

 

Other News and Notes

Redshirt freshman running back Travon McMillian continues to impress coaches. In Saturday's scrimmage, McMillian ripped off a 70-yard touchdown run, displaying his outstanding athleticism in the process. With his speed and shiftiness, McMillian brings a different element to the position and could help the offense this fall.

McMillian's rise also gives the coaching staff some time with rising sophomores Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie. Both second-year players tore an ACL last fall and could be redshirted in 2015 with J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and McMillian in the mix. 

Former Hokie legend Bruce Smith was named to the 75th anniversary All-America team last week. It was yet another honor for Smith, who still tops Tech's record books with 46 career sacks and 71 tackles for loss.

Country star Brad Paisley will hold a free concert in the Cassell Coliseum parking lot September 6—the night before Tech's season opener against Ohio State. 

Athletic director Whit Babcock said this concert was a way to thank Virginia Tech fans for their passion and dedication, per the school's official website:

Hokie Nation supports us with tremendous passion and dedication. The opportunity to bring a Grammy award-winning artist like Brad Paisley to the Virginia Tech campus is great way to thank our great fans and kick off an amazing weekend. We appreciate IMG helping make this memorable event possible.

 

 

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Georgia Southern Kicker Performs Wild Trick Field Goal, Finishes with a Backflip

Kickers are evolving.

Once viewed as a nonmember of the football team, the iron-legged beasts have gone from knocking in 20-yard field goals to nailing unbelievable, what-did-I-just-watch feats of kicking skill.

Like this one.

Georgia Southern kicker Younghoe Koo, a New Jersey native, got the pigskin spinning with some swift touch and then drilled it through the uprights while performing a backflip.

Let's see the so-called "skill" positions do this.

[Twitter]

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Tee Higgins to Tennessee: Volunteers Land 4-Star WR Prospect

The Tennessee Volunteers added an explosive playmaker to their already promising 2017 recruiting class Monday in the form of wide receiver Tee Higgins.

Ryan Callahan of 247Sports noted Higgins committed to the Volunteers despite scholarship offers from more than 12 other teams, including powerhouses such as Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma.

It is no wonder so many blue-chip teams recruited the 6’4”, 185-pound Higgins. He is a 4-star prospect, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, and the No. 43 overall prospect, No. 8 wide receiver and No. 1 player in the state of Tennessee for the class of 2017. 

Here is a look at Higgins explaining his rationale behind his college choice, per his Twitter account:

Ultimately, the lure of playing near home as a Tennessee native certainly helped the Volunteers in their pursuit of Higgins. Paul Fortenberry of Rivals passed along a quote from the receiver underscoring the importance of staying in-state:

The local CBS affiliate in Knoxville, Tennessee, pointed out the importance of this acquisition for the Volunteers:

Tennessee finished its 2014 campaign with a decisive victory over Iowa in the Gator Bowl and open the 2015 season at No. 25 in the Associated Press Top 25 and Amway Coaches Poll Top 25. There is plenty of momentum within the program under coach Butch Jones, as his success on the recruiting trail highlights.

Higgins joins pro-style quarterback Hunter Johnson in the Volunteers’ 2017 class. Johnson is a 5-star prospect, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback for 2017. It is not difficult to envision Higgins and Johnson connecting for a number of touchdowns for years to come in the SEC, particularly if Tennessee continues to add talented pieces around them.

Things are moving in the right direction for the Volunteers, especially after they added Higgins Monday. 

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