NCAA Football News

Biggest 2016 College Football Storylines 50 Days Away from Week 1

This week the media days circus opened across the college football landscape, from the four-day extravaganza in SEC country over to the tamer Pac-12 event on the West Coast.

Media days are often said to be the unofficial start of football season. But everyone knows they're nowhere close. The return of the real thing—college football in its truest form, a jam-packed Saturday of morning-to-late-night action—is just 50 days away.

College football's offseason is passing one of its biggest mile markers Friday, as we are seven weeks and an extra day from perhaps the greatest Week 1 Saturday in the sport's history. 

With 50 days left until Sept. 3—yes, we know there are a handful of games before that first true college football Saturday—here are the major storylines fans and pundits alike will discuss and dissect between now and that long-awaited game day. 

Below you'll find the 20 biggest questions, the 10 most important quarterback battles, 10 of the most anticipated debuts and 10 individual matchups fans should already circle.

Add them all up, and you have 50 reasons to get even more excited for college football's grand return.

                

20 Biggest Questions for 2016

1. Can Alabama repeat? The Crimson Tide will always be in the national championship discussion, and they return several key pieces from their title run last season—a deep defensive front anchored by sack master Jonathan Allen (14.5 sacks in 2015), an experienced secondary and several star receivers. But the Tide also have major questions in their backfield, and everyone will be gunning for head coach Nick Saban's crown.

       

2. Will Clemson stay strong? The Tigers destroyed all notions of "Clemsoning" last season by going undefeated in the regular season, winning the ACC and taking Alabama down to the wire in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. There are zero questions about the strength of an offense led by quarterback Deshaun Watson—a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. But the Tigers only return three starters from an elite defense. Can head coach Dabo Swinney and his team continue to be a model of consistency and contend again?

       

3. Is Florida State national championship material? After a brief dip in form last season in which it still won 10 games, Florida State could return every starter from its offense and brings back the majority of its defense in 2016. Head coach Jimbo Fisher still has a major question to answer at quarterback, but there is ridiculous talent all over the field for the Seminoles, who will have to navigate through a treacherous schedule to get back to the playoff.

       

4. Can we trust LSU as a contender? On paper, the Bayou Bengals have everything they need to win it all, including perhaps the best player in the game in running back Leonard Fournette. We've seen this script from LSU before, though. The passing game must take a step forward with returning quarterback Brandon Harris or else LSU will fall well short of the increasing expectations placed on it in 2016.

       

5. Will any of the hot seats cool in the SEC West? LSU head coach Les Miles could be on his way out of Baton Rouge if the Tigers don't live up to the hype this fall—especially considering how his job was in jeopardy late last season. Elsewhere in the division, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin need better seasons to ease the pressure off them. That all starts with challenging Week 1 matchups against Clemson and UCLA, respectively.

       

6. Is Tennessee for real? For the second straight year, this is the year in Tennessee. The Volunteers couldn't make it happen last season, but they still return a lot of firepower from a team that won nine games. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and his "Chain Moving Gang" in the backfield should pair well with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's unit. They've all got to get over the hump on Rocky Top.

       

7. When will Nick Chubb return for Georgia? New Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has plenty of weapons for what could be a strong 2016, and none is better than running back Nick Chubb. The superstar suffered a devastating knee injury against Tennessee last year, and it's unknown when he'll return to action for the Bulldogs. If doctors clear him for action Week 1 against North Carolina, watch out.

       

8. How much better will the ACC be as a whole this season? Speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heels won the Coastal Division last season and should be contenders again in 2016. They'll have to battle the rest of a conference that is looking to close the gap. Louisville is dangerous in the Atlantic with all of its returning talent. Strong head coach hires have the Miami Hurricanes (Mark Richt), Syracuse Orange (Dino Babers), Virginia Cavaliers (Bronco Mendenhall) and Virginia Tech Hokies (Justin Fuente) all on the rise.

       

9. Is Michigan the team to beat in the Big Ten? Jim Harbaugh's first season as head coach at his alma mater was a success both on and off the field. The Wolverines return the most experience of anyone in the loaded Big Ten East, boast new defensive coordinator Don Brown and are coming off a fantastic recruiting cycle. Can the likes of Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis and Jehu Chesson lead UM through a tough road slate and into the playoff?

       

10. Does Ohio State have too much inexperience? Head coach Urban Meyer will always have championship-caliber talent at Ohio State. But the Buckeyes return only six starters—fewer than anyone else in the country, according to Phil Steele—ahead of a challenging 2016 slate. Heisman contender J.T. Barrett and defensive star Raekwon McMillan will be tasked with paving the way for this massive youth movement in the Horseshoe.

                 

11. Are repeats on the cards for Michigan State and Iowa? These two teams played an instant classic at the Big Ten title game last season. They both have the chance to follow the same blueprints in 2016. Michigan State has a tough defense and its ball-control offense in the East, while Iowa has established talent in quarterback C.J. Beathard and Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, as well as a favorable schedule in the West. Michigan and Ohio State get most of the spotlight in the conference, but don't sleep on Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio and Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz's squads.

           

12. Does Notre Dame have what it takes to win it all? Notre Dame might be the national title contender that is getting the least amount of love this preseason. There are stars to replace in South Bend, including 2016 first-round NFL picks Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, and All-American LB Jaylon Smith, but the depth behind those departed players got plenty of experience in an injury-filled 2015. Head coach Brian Kelly's team also has a favorable schedule with only three true road games.

         

13. Can Oklahoma keep things going? Oklahoma rebounded in a huge way last season, bouncing back from a disappointing 2014 to win the Big 12 and make it to the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Sooners' rejuvenated offense still has Baker Mayfield under center as well as running back Samaje Perine and wide receiver Dede Westbrook. The secondary is also loaded with Jordan Thomas and Steven Parker returning. If OU can reload up front, another championship campaign is in the cards.

         

14. How will Baylor look on the field? Baylor will enter the 2016 season not as a title contender again, but as a giant question mark after the dismissal of head coach Art Briles and the exodus of several of its recent top recruits in the wake of its sexual assault scandal. No one knows what to expect from the Bears under interim head coach Jim Grobe. There's still plenty of talent, but some difficult days could be ahead.

                     

15. Who will contend in the Big 12? If the Bears regress on the field in 2016, who will step in to challenge Oklahoma? While TCU needs to rebuild its high-powered offense, Gary Patterson's trademark 4-2-5 defense should be a strength again. Oklahoma State has a talented passing game led by Mason Rudolph and James Washington, but the running game and the defensive front need to find some answers. Watch out for the under-pressure talent of Texas and the wide-open aerial attack of Texas Tech.

            

16. Will Christian McCaffrey lead Stanford to a Pac-12 repeat? Stanford finished 2015 on top of a wide-open Pac-12 conference but fell short of a playoff bid. Christian McCaffrey and his jaw-dropping skills are back, but there's a void at quarterback after veteran Kevin Hogan's departure. The defense should be deeper in 2016. Head coach David Shaw must navigate through the major depth-chart changes and the added pressure to repeat with the Cardinal.

           

17. Is Washington really a contender? The Huskies might be a bigger preseason darling than Tennessee. They return a lot of young talent from a team that lost a number of close games in 2015 but turned it on late in the season to post some impressive victories. Head coach Chris Petersen knows how to build a surprise contender from his days at Boise State, and he has the tools to do it in Seattle with the sophomore combo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin, as well as the Pac-12's No. 1 defense.

 

18. Who will win CFB's battle of Los Angeles? The Pac-12 South looks like it will be a competition between the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans this fall. These two teams have the most talent in the division, and both retain stars. UCLA returns quarterback Josh Rosen and defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, while USC has wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson back in the fold, just to name a few. USC has more overall returning starters than UCLA, but it will have to deal with the toughest schedule in the country.

       

19. Can Houston prove it wasn't a one-hit wonder? Head coach Tom Herman's first season in Houston was nearly a perfect success, as the Cougars ran wild with a 13-1 record and a Peach Bowl victory over FSU. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. returns to lead Herman's high-flying offense, and some highly touted newcomers are set to fill in the gaps for an attack-minded defense. The road will be more difficult with an opener against Oklahoma and a matchup against a tougher Louisville team. Let's see if the takeover continues in H-Town.

        

20. Will any "Group of Five" team challenge Houston? Houston is far and away the favorite to take the Group of Five's lucrative berth in the New Year's Six bowl matchups. But Boise State is eyeing a bounce-back campaign after losing control of the Mountain West to what should again be a stout San Diego State program. Can USF and Cincinnati spoil the party for Houston in the AAC? Who will be the breakout program in the MAC? They will all be fighting for Houston's spot. 

 

10 QB Battles to Watch During Fall Camp

21. Alabama: For the third straight year, Alabama will enter fall camp with a question at starting quarterback. Cooper Bateman is the only one with any substantial experience for the Crimson Tide, but promising young signal-callers Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts have put themselves firmly in the competition along with David Cornwell. Bateman is the projected leader, but there might be room for an upset in a new-look backfield this fall.

     

22. Auburn: A productive dual-threat quarterback makes all the difference for head coach Gus Malzahn in his offense. JUCO transfer John Franklin III looks to follow in the footsteps of Nick Marshall with his run-first ways. However, 2015 starters Jeremy Johnson and Sean White are out to prove they deserve another chance to give Auburn's offense the teeth it had in 2013 and 2014.

      

23. BYU: Brigham Young won't contend for a national title this year, but its matchups against six Power Five teams in the first seven weeks of the season mean the country needs to pay attention to the enthralling battle between veteran QB Taysom Hill and 2015 breakout star Tanner Mangum. The 6'2", 230-pound Hill is a bruising force at quarterback when healthy, but Mangum stepped in to save the Cougars in a eye-popping freshman season.

     

24. Florida State: Sean Maguire didn't get a chance to secure his starting job at Florida State this spring as he recovered from a nasty Peach Bowl ankle injury. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry to battle it out in practices and the annual spring game. Maguire will be ready to go in fall camp, when he'll go head-to-head with Francois for the chance to lead an FSU offense filled with experience into 2016.

                   

25. Georgia: Kirby Smart wasn't the only new arrival at Georgia that made offseason headlines. Five-star quarterback Jacob Eason stayed true to the Bulldogs through the coaching change from Mark Richt and put on a show at a sellout spring game in Athens. This fall, Georgia must decide between the highly touted true freshman, returning starter Greyson Lambert and reserve Brice Ramsey. The decision might be the difference in a potential SEC East title run.

              

26. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh got a lot out of Iowa transfer Jake Rudock in his first season in Ann Arbor. This season, he could do the same with former Houston quarterback John O'Korn, who had a fantastic freshman campaign for the Cougars before switching schools. But Wilton Speight had the edge leaving spring practices, and Shane Morris won't go down without a fight, either. This a battle of the highest profile.

       

27. Notre Dame: Notre Dame will have to decide between two dual-threat passers with starting experience. Malik Zaire won the job in 2015 and was riding high until an early-season injury. DeShone Kizer stepped in and led a banged-up Irish team to a Fiesta Bowl berth. Kizer will likely keep his job in South Bend, but head coach Brian Kelly is keeping all of his options open as the Irish prepare for fall camp.

      

28. Stanford: David Shaw's biggest offensive weapon in Christian McCaffrey is back, but he'll have a new backfield partner this fall after the departure of veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan. The preseason Pac-12 favorite has to pick between Keller Chryst, who backed up Hogan last season, and Ryan Burns, an older reserve who has spent more time in the system. The two have similar size—Chryst is 6'5", 237 pounds, while Burns is 6'5", 233 pounds—and skill sets, so this battle will come down to who takes charge the most in Palo Alto, California.

             

29. Texas: Texas must improve on offense in order for head coach Charlie Strong to stick around in Austin, and a lot of that will come down to the quarterback for new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's run-pass option scheme. True freshman Shane Buechele had the best spring of any of the Longhorns quarterbacks. But there's a chance a new system is just what former starters Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes need to get back on track.

                        

30. USC: USC's quarterback battle seemed to be decided before spring practices started, as many expected Max Browne to take over for Cody Kessler. However, the younger Sam Darnold had a fantastic spring, and the Trojans exited spring camp without a clear-cut No. 1 guy under center. Browne will most likely get the nod for the season opener against Alabama, but the Trojans can be confident in Darnold's abilities as well.

       

10 Debuts We Can't Wait to See

31. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart: The former Alabama defensive coordinator is back at his alma mater, ready to see if he can get the Bulldogs to the title games it missed under Mark Richt. Defense shouldn't be a problem for this Saban disciple, but his squad will get a tough test in Week 1 with North Carolina's attack.

           

32. Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver: Ed Oliver was a top-10 recruit in the class of 2016 who decided to stay at home and become an instant-impact star for Tom Herman at Houston. He'll be one of the most talented Cougars from the moment he takes the field at NRG Stadium for the highly anticipated showdown with Oklahoma.

           

33. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda: Dave Aranda built elite defenses out of overlooked and under-recruited players with the Wisconsin Badgers. Now he inherits a roster from former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele that's filled with blue-chippers at LSU, which wants to get back to its elite defensive form. And it just so happens that his debut with the Tigers will come against his former employer.

            

34. Miami (Florida) head coach Mark Richt: Mark Richt will start life at his alma mater easily with back-to-back games against Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic. But no matter the caliber of the Hurricanes' opponents, Richt's first contests at Miami are going to be quite a sight. Can he bring the swagger back to "The U"?

                    

35. Michigan defensive tackle Rashan Gary: The nation's No. 1 recruit decided to join Jim Harbaugh's growing powerhouse at Michigan, and Rashan Gary will carve out a role on a deep defensive line from day one. The Wolverines begin the season against lowly Hawaii, so Gary will have a chance to shine brightly from the first snaps of his college career.

       

36. Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa: Opponents who got tired of seeing a Bosa line up at defensive end for Ohio State will have to endure at least three more seasons of it. Former Buckeyes superstar Joey Bosa's younger brother, Nick Bosa, will most likely make his collegiate debut in Week 1 against Bowling Green, and he has the talent to fill his brother's shoes.

                   

37. Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little: Greg Little was the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2016, and he'll jump into an Ole Miss offensive line that lost a lot of talent, including elite left tackle Laremy Tunsil. There's a great chance he replaces Tunsil right away. His first matchup? The attack-minded defense of Florida State.

           

38. Oregon quarterback Dakota Prukop: Last season, Oregon had an FCS transfer quarterback in Vernon Adams Jr. who was electrifying when healthy. Dakota Prukop fits the mold of the dual-threat Ducks passer, and he should put up some huge numbers on opening weekend against the UC Davis Aggies before facing Virginia and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks.     

              

39. TCU quarterback Kenny Hill: Remember Kenny Hill? The last time he played in a season opener, he torched South Carolina for Texas A&M. Now he's at TCU, where he was named the Preseason Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12 as the presumptive replacement for Trevone Boykin. He'll look to set the tone in Week 1 against FCS school South Dakota State before facing former SEC rival Arkansas.

                         

40. Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight: And while we're on the subject of Texas A&M, the Aggies also picked up a talented transfer quarterback during the flurry of movement in the Lone Star State. Coach Sumlin already named former Oklahoma starter Trevor Knight the No. 1 signal-caller at Texas A&M, where he'll lead an offense searching for its mojo again under new coordinator Noel Mazzone. 

            

10 Week 1 Must-See Matchups

41. Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley vs. USC cornerback Adoree' Jackson: As a true freshman last season, Ridley flashed Amari Cooper-like skills and led the national champions in receiving with 1,045 yards. The South Florida native will go up against USC to open his sophomore campaign, and the Trojans will look to counter with the ultra-athletic talents of do-it-all cornerback Jackson.

                         

42. BYU's quarterbacks vs. Arizona's new defense: It will be worth watching how BYU uses both Hill and Mangum in new offensive coordinator Ty Detmer's scheme this fall. The Cougars open with Arizona, which will look to turn around its struggling defense from 2015 with the aggressive stylings of former Boise State coordinator Marcel Yates. This will be an underrated but awesome matchup.

 

43. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson vs. Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson: Watson will look to start his Heisman campaign for Clemson with a strong performance away from home at Auburn, which is eager to attack him with a healthy, edge-rushing Lawson. This will be a matchup between two stars Bleacher Report's Matt Miller thinks could be top-five picks at next year's NFL draft.

        

44. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook vs. Ole Miss' "Landsharks": The most explosive running back in college football is going up against one of the most recognizable defenses of the last few seasons. Cook will lead the way for an experienced FSU offense against Ole Miss and its swarming, physical Landshark defense. Expect speed, speed and even more speed.

               

45. Georgia running back Nick Chubb vs. North Carolina's defense: Chubb's spot here comes with an asterisk, as he might not be 100 percent healthy when Georgia takes on North Carolina inside the Georgia Dome. If he is, though, he'll meet a Tar Heels defense that improved across the board last season under coordinator Gene Chizik but gave up a bowl-record 645 rushing yards against Baylor to end 2015.

    

46. Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. vs. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield: Two of the country's best dual-threat gunslingers will open the season in style at NRG Stadium. Ward Jr. is a touchdown machine who could put up massive numbers in 2016. Mayfield has his sights set on another title run for Oklahoma and, this time, a spot in the Heisman Trophy ceremony. This has the potential to be one of the best quarterback matchups of the season.

                      

47. LSU running back Leonard Fournette vs. Wisconsin's defense: Can Fournette open 2016 on the same destructive streak that he had for most of 2015? In order to do that, he'll have to go through a stiff test from Dave Aranda's old defense at Wisconsin, which returns six starters from a top-10 unit. This matchup will be at Lambeau Field, which is fitting for a superstar running back who should be a star in the NFL for years to come.

     

48. Notre Dame's starting quarterback vs. Texas' defense: Whether it's Kizer or Zaire, the winner of the Notre Dame quarterback battle will want to put on a show from the start in the Irish's Sunday showcase against Texas. The Longhorns return eight starters on a Charlie Strong-coached defense, and linebacker Malik Jefferson should be making plays all over the place in Austin. It'll be a Texas-sized test from the opening kickoff for Notre Dame's starting signal-caller.

          

49. Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey vs. Kansas State's defense: Friday night of Week 1 will be McCaffrey's time to shine, as he'll take the field for Stanford in his first game since torching Iowa in a Rose Bowl rout on New Year's Day. Longtime head coach Bill Snyder always has Kansas State ready to play the underdog role, so don't expect this to be a breeze for the Cardinal superstar. 

             

50. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen vs. Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett: Rosen flashed his elite skills from the first series of his college career, when he lit up Virginia. Now a sophomore, Rosen opens the season against a much different challenge—a Texas A&M defense coached by coordinator John Chavis that will look to wreak havoc with superstar pass-rusher Myles Garrett. These two potential All-Americans will meet early and often in College Station 50 days from now.

 

Stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.

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

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Walter Camp Award Watch List 2016: Full List Revealed

With just seven weeks left before the college football season kicks off, 40 players appear on the 2016 Walter Camp Award watch list. 

As is often the case in football, quarterbacks dominate the list with 15 players, including Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer. 

The full list is available at the Walter Camp Foundation's official website.

The three standout names on the list are Watson, LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. 

McCaffrey and Watson finished second and third in last year's Heisman voting, respectively, behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Fournette finished sixth in the voting with 110 points. That trio owns the top three spots in Heisman odds for 2016, per Odds Shark.

Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller had high praise for Fournette heading into his junior season:

There seems to be no limit to Fournette's ceiling. He was essentially asked to carry LSU's offense last year, racking up 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 carries. By comparison, Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris had only 212 more passing yards than Fournette had rushing yards. 

McCaffrey was the breakout star in college football last year, even more than Henry. He led the nation with 2,664 yards from scrimmage to go along with 13 total touchdowns. 

Watson is arguably the best quarterback in the country and plays for one of the best teams in the nation, which will give him an edge with the voters. 

The Walter Camp Award watch list features essentially what any fan would expect a list of the best players in the nation to look like heading into 2016. There will be some surprises along the way, but college football will have no shortage of stars to watch this season. 

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Hits and Misses from SEC Media's All-SEC Team

The SEC concluded its week of being the center of the college football universe Friday by unveiling its three preseason all-conference teams, which were voted on by the hundreds of media members who were in Hoover, Alabama for the league's annual press event.

Defending champion and 2016 pick to repeat Alabama led the way for the SEC with seven first-team selections, which was one more than the Crimson Tide had in 2015

The star offensive trio of LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley took home the honors as the top vote-getters.

While the SEC media did mostly what was expected in sorting out the top talent in the league on the three loaded teams, there were a few surprises—good and bad—in the final tally from Hoover. Judging by the players' performances from 2015 and their potential for 2016, there were a few misses and slides down the ranks.

Here are the SEC media's three preseason all-conference teams and several notable hits and misses from the results.

Begin Slideshow

Darnell Ewell to Notre Dame: Fighting Irish Land 4-Star DT Prospect

Darnell Ewell rose to prominence at the high school level as a two-way lineman, and his intriguing football journey will continue at Notre Dame after the 4-star recruit made his collegiate intentions official Friday. 

BlueandGold.com first relayed news of Ewell's decision. 

A photo of Ewell making his choice was subsequently tweeted out by 757Teamz:

Following the announcement, Ewell explained the reasoning behind choosing ND, according to Steve Hare of Scout.com:

It really means a lot to be given an opportunity to go there, just the opportunity itself means a lot. Notre Dame is really, really different from all the other schools I went to I've got to say. There's just something about there. It's not like any other school does the same stuff. Notre Dame does things a little differently.

Ewell fielded over 30 offers over the course of the recruitment process, with the Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers, Clemson Tigers, Michigan Wolverines and Fighting Irish all vying for his attention. 

And based on his raw physical tools, it's not hard to see why so many schools pursued the 6'3'', 298-pounder. Not only did Ewell flash promise as an offensive guard during his time at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Virginia, but he throttled up lists of can't-miss prospects thanks to his play at defensive tackle.

Per Tyler James of NDInsider.com, Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network had high praise for Ewell:

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Ewell ranked 149th among all players in the class of 2017 and No. 10 overall at defensive tackle. And among players in the state of Virginia, Ewell graded out fifth overall. 

For a player who is considered "very flexible and extremely athletic for a prospect his size," and "has all the tools to become a dominant player at the collegiate level," per Scout.com, Ewell should be on national radars as a potential breakout star. 

And with the spotlight ready to shine on Ewell as he transitions to life as a key cog on one of the nation's premier squads, it should be fascinating to watch his development from a coveted high school prospect into a foundational talent.

The Fighting Irish ranked 45th in total defense and 39th in points allowed last season. While Ewell may not step into a big role right away, he should be able to help improve those numbers if he can at least work his way into the rotation as a freshman in 2017.

 

Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com

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Cory Batey Sentenced to 15 Years for Rape: Latest Details and Comments

Former Vanderbilt football player Cory Batey was sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday morning after previously being found guilty of raping an unconscious woman in 2013.

Stacey Barchenger of the Tennessean reported the 15-year sentence handed down by Judge Monte Watkins was the minimum term available in the case.

The unnamed female victim, who's now 24, spoke at the hearing and stated she has no memory of the incident, and only learned about what occurred during the investigation.

She also discussed the impact the incident has had on her life, according to the Tennessean:

It will never be possible for anyone to put into words how this has affected me. You will never understand what this has done to me if you aren't standing in my shoes. The humiliation, the pain, the isolation, being reduced to nothing but a piece of flesh right before your eyes, it does something to you that is truly impossible to describe.

Batey was found guilty in an April retrial of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery along with less-severe but related charges, including another count of aggravated sexual battery, facilitation of aggravated rape and two counts attempted aggravated rape, per Barchenger.

Kara Apel of WSMV reported the other charges amounted to eight years of prison time, which he will serve concurrently with the aggravated rape sentence. The report also noted he will be forced to serve 100 percent of the sentence.

Three other players were also charged in the case. The Tennessean noted Brandon Vandenburg was found guilty on eight counts in June and is awaiting sentencing in September. Brandon E. Banks and Jaborian McKenzie are awaiting trial after pleading not guilty.

Judge Watkins noted each defendant found guilty in the case would have to register as a sex offender after being released from prison, according to the Tennessean. He also stated he weighed "thousands of cases" before deciding to give Batey the minimum term.

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Best Facemask and Helmet Designs in College Football

Typically, aesthetics are overlooked in college football until a program unveils something spectacularly bad.

And sometimes the new look is really bad.

Instead of focusing on the unfortunate, though, we're taking a brief offseason moment to commend teams for paying attention to headwear—and in some cases not messing with it.

While a No. 1 spot is awarded, this list is not a ranking of the best helmets. Rather, the focus is on identifying the best categories and trends of helmets and facemasks in college football today.

               

5. Multicolored Facemasks

Thanks to Phil Knight and Nike, Oregon sits atop the uniform rankings. The program literally has thousands of possible combinations yet still breaks out new gear seemingly every weekend.

But the Ducks' facemasks are also ahead of the game.

Without a doubt, there's a decent amount of risk here. This feature could be abused in a hurry, but one example is quite tasteful. Oregon's silver wings blend into the primary yellow.

Rival Oregon State has flaunted a comparable look. While the Ducks' design goes from outside in, the stripes on the Beavers' helmets continue down onto the fasemask.

However, the question is which program's twist will be met with a negative review—something that seems imminent.

You're pushing it, Miami (Ohio).

                

4. Extra-Large Logos

Most helmet designs are perfectly symmetrical. No matter which side you're looking at, it's the same thing.

Recently, though, boundaries have started to get pushed. The 2011 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between Boise State and Georgia—which also featured a multicolored facemask—displayed helmets with extra-large logos on one side and a number on the other.

Among others, Arizona State has joined the trend.

Boise State remains no stranger to sporting the massive logo, but the program combined it with a personal favorite, too.

                           

3. Matte or Flat-Black Helmets

Chrome is fine, but a non-glossy black helmet is terrific.

Boise State showcased Halloween-themed digs against UNLV last season, complete with an orange eye for the Broncos logo. They also sported a great look in the 2012 MAACO Bowl.

This trend is catching on with stops all over the country. The list includes representatives from the ACC (North Carolina), Big Ten (Northwestern and Purdue), Big 12 (Baylor), MAC (Buffalo), Pac-12 (Utah and Washington) and SEC (Missouri), and that's certainly not all.

Here are some examples, like Missouri's back in 2013:

North Carolina busts out the helmet on occasion:

And finally, Northwestern:

                         

2. Timeless Classics

Despite the fancy and often good-looking upgrades teams receive today, they'll simply never match or overtake tradition.

Each school listed in this section falls under the "blue blood" category—a program that has participated in college football for a long time and is basically revered as royalty in the sport.

Although the helmet design changes, the design of the helmet doesn't need alterations. When players put on this helmet, they're wearing something that exemplifies the history of the program.

"Simple, yet elegant" defines this group, starting with Alabama:

Nebraska dropped the "U" from its helmet in 1970 and hasn't changed:

Notre Dame underwent an "exhaustive" process to make sure the helmet's color properly replicated the Golden Dome on campus, per its official site:

Ohio State complements the black-, white- and red-striped helmet with Buckeye stickers— a tradition legendary head coach Woody Hayes started in 1968, per the school:

Here's Penn State—and a bonus second appearance by Northwestern's beautiful non-glossy black helmet.

Lastly, here's Tennessee's renowned block "T":

             

1. The Winged Helmet

Relativity is a funny thing. Imagine for a moment Michigan releasing the design today, and it wouldn't be surprising if the reception wasn't all that great.

However, the winged helmet dates back to 1938, according to the school. Thanks to that history, the pattern is synonymous with college football and should never, ever be touched.

Delaware and Princeton also wear similar versions of the winged helmet, a practice which Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch noted doesn't have an official beginning, though a version existed at Michigan State in 1934.

Wolverines and Spartans fans may proceed to argue about that, but there's no denying the Maize and Blue popularized the most recognizable look in college football.

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Big Ten Q&A: Is the B1G in Danger of Becoming the Big 2, Little 12?

In what is typically the slowest sports week of the year, the SEC has dominated the headlines of the college football world thanks to the conference's annual media days. The Big Ten's own showcase with the press is only a week away, which can only mean one thing: Actual football is right around the corner.

With that in mind, let's get to this week's Big Ten Q&A, where we'll tackle the top-to-bottom strength of the league, Ohio State's biggest weakness, the potential for a brand new recruiting tool and a little drama in East Lansing.

As always, you can send me your questions each week on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Let's get started.

 

Growing up around the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, the phrase "Big Two, Little 10" was often tossed around, but really, it's been a while since that's been an accurate description of the Buckeyes and Wolverines' combined dominance over the rest of their conference.

In fact, you'd have to go back to 2007 to find the last time Ohio State and Michigan each still had Big Ten title hopes heading into the final week of the regular season—that was until last season, when Michigan State wound up winning the conference.

But with the way Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh have stood head and shoulders above the rest of the conference on the recruiting trail, it's easy to see why some may be starting to view the Big Ten as the Buckeyes, Wolverines and everyone else. That, however, ignores what the Spartans have accomplished in the past three years under Mark Dantonio and what could still be ahead in East Lansing.

As impressive as Meyer has been since arriving at Ohio State four years ago, it's worth remembering that Michigan State has won two of the past three Big Ten titles, both of which have come in years where the Spartans have gotten the best of the Buckeyes.

Having also won his lone head-to-head matchup with Harbaugh, Dantonio currently lays claim to a 3-2 record against the Big Ten's two most prominent coaches, whom he'll now be facing each season for the foreseeable future.

And while Michigan State has no shortage of talent departures to deal with moving forward, it's just now the Spartans are beginning to reap the recruiting rewards that often accompany on-field success. If Dantonio's been able to do what he's done with 3-star prospects, imagine what he'll be able to accomplish with a roster full of 4-stars, regardless of how far his classes lag behind Meyer's and Harbaugh's in the recruiting rankings.

Factor in a Big Ten West that's actually stronger than many people realize, and the conference is arguably as healthy as it's ever been from top to bottom. That, of course, is subject to change, but at the moment, the Big Ten appears to be far from just a two-team league, both now and in the future.

 

Looking at the preseason award watch lists that have been released over the course of the past two weeks, one thing in particular has stood out when it's come to Ohio State. Sure, J.T. Barrett has been present on most of the Quarterback and Player of the Year awards lists, and Buckeye defenders like Raekwon McMillan have been listed elsewhere, but with watch-list season now complete, there isn't an Ohio State skill player to be found.

Not on the watch list of the Biletnikoff Award, nor on the one for the Doak Walker Award or John Mackey Award and certainly not on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award.

It's tough to recall a time when a Buckeyes wide receiver, running back or tight end couldn't be found on a preseason watch list, given Ohio State's rich history at such positions. This year, however, won't be any ordinary season in Columbus, with 12 draftees—including a running back, two wideouts and a tight end—headed to the NFL.

But while the holes in the Buckeyes depth chart are unprecedented, so have been the recruiting classes Meyer will now be filling them with. You may not know their names now, but don't be surprised if players like Torrance Gibson, Austin Mack, Noah Brown, Mike Weber and Marcus Baugh step right in as impact playmakers from day one, despite not being present on any preseason watch lists.

Ultimately, however, both Meyer and Barrett will find themselves relying on plenty of unknowns at the skill spots heading into the coming year. And if it's going to have one, that could ultimately be Ohio State's downfall in a season where few known quantities outside of Barrett are present on the roster.

 

Originally, the answer to this question seemed like a no-brainer. As innovative as Michigan has been on the recruiting trail under Harbaugh, the Wolverines would have to be the first program to find a way to incorporate the phenomenon that's become "Pokemon Go" into it's recruiting material, right?

And while I'm sticking with my answer of Michigan for this question, it now comes with a different reasoning. While it wouldn't have been a surprise to see the Wolverines take a pro-Pokemon stance in the near future regardless of what their rivals were up to, Ohio State's seeming disdain for the app has only made Michigan's use of it all the more likely.

The Buckeyes' issue with Pokemon Go started earlier this week, when Columbus users were allegedly sneaking into Ohio Stadium in an effort to catch digital creatures. This led to the official Brutus Buckeye Twitter account issuing a warning that no Pokemon could be found inside The Horseshoe, although some users have claimed otherwise.

Then there came a post from Ohio State's official Twitter account on Thursday, which showed Barrett taking out a Pikachu with a football as his teammates searched for the digital creatures inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Considering the video went viral within moments of being posted, perhaps the Buckeyes are now more Pokemon-friendly than originally thought. In fact, they may have just beaten Michigan—and the rest of the conference—in firing off the first Poke Ball on the recruiting trail, which I can't believe is a sentence I actually just wrote in 2016. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Jermaine Edmondson, he's the Michigan State defensive back who was allegedly involved in a fight with former Spartan and Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, which led to Green being arrested for assault earlier this week.

Well, Edmondson was a Michigan State defensive back, until he opted to transfer from East Lansing later in the week, as details in the case continued to emerge.

"In discussions with Jermaine Edmondson following spring practice and in the weeks thereafter, it became clear that Jermaine wanted to play a larger role on the team," Dantonio said in a statement. "After consulting with him in the summer, he felt it was in his best interest to finish his playing career elsewhere. We have granted his immediate release to transfer to another institution to have that opportunity.”

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine the timing of Edmondson's transfer being a coincidence.

So what we have here is a case of Sparty-on-Sparty crime, with one of MSU's most famous alums being charged with misdemeanor assault and a Spartans football player transferring in wake of the fallout. It remains unclear what caused the alleged altercation between Green and Edmondson, although according to WLNS, a part of it was Edmondson feeling "disrespected" that the NBA All-Star didn't recognize him.

If that's the case, this may very well be "peak Sparty" indeed. After all, no other program in college football has placed a more prominent chip (or chips) on its shoulder than Michigan State, although thus far, it's hard to argue with the results. 

 

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. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.

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Why Leonard Fournette Is Already 2017 NFL Draft's Top Running Back

Leonard Fournette is the biggest name in college football. In Sports Illustrated's recent effort to put together the top 100 players in the FBS, the LSU running back ranked first.

In June, Pro Football Focus' Jeff Dooley called the Tiger the toughest running back to tackle, comparing him to the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, who will likely become the NFL's leading active career rusher in the coming season. On top of that, Fournette is among the favorites for the Heisman Trophy, according to Odds Shark.

When Fournette recently told SEC media day guests "I enjoy college" in response to questions of his 2017 NFL draft status, he had a reason a reason for it. He's the man in college football.

Since his days as a super recruit, all eyes have been on Fournette. In high school, according to 247Sports, he combined for 90 rushing touchdowns and 7,630 rushing yards while as a prep in Louisiana.

Per Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani, Fournette was offered a scholarship by both LSU and Alabama, two of the Southeastern Conference's elite, when he was just a high school freshman. Three years later, as a senior, Fournette committed to play football at LSU as the top player in Louisiana, the top running back in the nation and the top overall player in America, per 247Sports' composite rankings.

Starting six games as a freshman at LSU, he rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last season, as a sophomore, he broke out with an All-American effort of 1,953 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns. Most running backs at Power Five programs would be happy with Fournette's true freshman totals for their redshirt senior seasons, and he nearly doubled his numbers in his first season as a full-time starter.

What he's been able to accomplish in a short amount of time can only be compared to other sports prodigies such as LeBron James.

The draft process will be the first time Fournette goes through months of public scrutiny in his career, but luckily for him, his flaws are fairly limited and his positives jump off the screen on Saturdays.

NFL Draft Scout projects Fournette to weigh in at 230 pounds with a 4.47-second 40-yard dash. In the past 10 draft classes, the closest first-round running backs with that combo are Trent Richardson, with a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at 228 pounds, and Jonathan Stewart, with a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at 235 pounds. When people say Fournette is a rare big, explosive back—even on the relative scale of first-round talents—they're correct.

Like Richardson, Fournette can drop a shoulder and deliver punishment like he's a linebacker. Rarely does he go down at the point of first contact, as he's always falling forward with the ball. His trucking ability is highlighted when he's in the open space, where he has the opportunity to transition speed into power and can time a shoulder strike on a safety.

In the SEC, you don't often see a running back jump from four yards out into a linebacker who has his feet planted, ready to strike, and win the forward momentum battle, but here we are. When watching Fournette, it's important to expect the unexpected.

Want him to cut away from a diving defensive back into a future top-40 pick defensive lineman and drag him for five to six yards? Fournette has no issue with that task. He's just simply not going to go down without a fight

LSU has a 2 v 2 on the right. If the LB fills, the QB is supposed to pull to a 4 v 3 in space. He doesn't. pic.twitter.com/kxKdhwiORJ

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) July 14, 2016

When watching Fournette's 2015, you start to get the feeling he'll transition even better to the professional game. Numerous times in LSU's shotgun spread looks, the quarterback will give the ball to Fournette on incorrect reads, leading him into failure less than one second into a play.

LSU folding their center, leaving a man open on the backside. Bama just beat them up front and suffocated Fournette. pic.twitter.com/W37vj59PNy

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) July 14, 2016

The difference between NFL run offenses and college run offenses can mean executing just one extra block, which can be crucial to any carry. After quarterback, there may not be a positional group that takes as stark of a jump from the college to professional level as offensive linemen.

During power rushing plays, backs can only hit the hole they've been designed to hit. If nothing is there, a runner will get stuffed.

LSU's offensive line can outathlete and outdrive the majority of the opponents they face, but when they face more talented run-pluggers, ones who are destined to play on Sundays, it's problematic. This is one reason for his season-low 1.6-yards per carry against the Alabama Crimson Tide, despite his stellar 6.5-yard-per-carry average on the season.

Numbers flat blocking an edge defender: go outside. Fournette is good about that for an "inside/power" runner. pic.twitter.com/itysGhJpe6

— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) July 14, 2016

With that being said, he does freelance a bit when the opportunity presents itself. It's hard to go against the grain of pulling and folding blockers and survive with a positive play outside of structure, but Fournette has put that on film, even against top SEC defenses. When he sees an edge defender get blocked, either turning inside or staying flat with the last Tiger blocker on the line, Fournette's instincts to bounce the play outside kick in, and with his speed, he's rarely wrong.

There is room for improvement with the back, though. On inside runs, there's little time for dancing, and with Fournette's dominance to this point, it makes sense that he's not accustomed to taking a short loss behind the line of scrimmage. He does get himself in trouble in those situations, shaking his way into even bigger losses. He's not Barry Sanders, and he never will be. That's perfectly fine.

His lateral agility is also fairly average on the relative scale of NFL running backs. Not all is lost for backfield penetrators, though. When defensive linemen are overly agressive, posting themselves further in the backfield than the initial starting point of offensive linemen, Fournette's pure speed allows him to jet past defenders into the secondary.

Some will also criticize his blocking when the ball isn't in his hands, but LSU asks a lot from him in pass protection. Typically, a back reads one side of a defense, from A-gap to C-gap or C-gap to A-gap, to assist in pass protection, whereas the Tigers seem to often ask him to keep an eye on the edges of both sides of the offensive line.

Downfield, he's also shown the effort to take two defenders out of a play for his fellow skill players, something 2016 fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott was praised for all last draft cycle. Ohio State's biggest play of the season, Braxton Miller's spin move, was sprung by Elliott's blocking of multiple Virginia Tech Hokies in one rep.

Fournette's flaws could either be avoided by scheme or are coachable. Effort is never an issue with him on film. It's why LSU ran him over and over again on the goal line against Alabama. It's why the Tigers implemented a pseudo-wildcat formation for him, where he was snapped the ball and ran downhill on defenses in short-yardage situations.

If Fournette falls into the hands of an NFL offensive coordinator who wants to run a traditional I formation offense, he'll thrive—just like he did in traditional formations in college.

With six or seven blockers in front of him and his breakaway speed, he's always one poor angle or missed tackle away from the home run ball. When the holes are there for him to explode straight into the secondary, he jumps on the opportunity with a hunger rarely seen at the professional level.

Against defensive backs, who almost always have to tackle the 230-pounder low, he knows how to game blindly diving players with either a spin move, a shoulder drive or with his offhand shifting through trash.

He has a clear second gear, which should help him out on screen plays despite the fact he's only caught 26 passes in two years with the Tigers. To put that speed into perspective, he has even pulled away from SEC edge defenders with outside containment responsibilities who had a clean outside shoulder on the boundary side of the field.

Even on broken plays, Fournette can sustain momentum. In the SEC, he is a man among boys. In the NFL, teams only need to allow him to be what he already is: a bully.

In any power scheme, Fournette is the best draft-eligible running back heading into the 2016 regular season. Even in a draft class that could feature Georgia's Nick Chubb, Florida State's Dalvin Cook, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Oregon's Royce Freeman, Fournette stands out. That speaks volumes in itself.

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Ohio State Football: Meet Dante Booker, the Buckeyes' Next Freak Linebacker

Since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State in 2012, the Buckeyes defense has been fueled an athletic freak at linebacker.

From 2012-13, Ryan Shazier brought his rare blend of speed and power to Ohio State's outside linebacker position, leading the team in tackles in both seasons. That speed is setting him apart with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason, when he beat wide receiver Antonio Brown—widely considered one of the fastest wideouts in the league—in a foot race

Over the last two seasons, it was quarterback-turned linebacker Darron Lee who set the tone for Meyer's more aggressive defense. He was an AP freshman All-American in 2014 and a second-team AP All-American a season ago. He declared for the NFL draft, ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the combine and was selected by the New York Jets in the first round.

Now with two open spots alongside middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Dante Booker is ready to emerge as Ohio State's next freak linebacker. 

Entering his junior season with the Buckeyes, Booker has seen the field in a limited role over the last two years. He was Joshua Perry's primary backup in 2015 and registered 22 total tackles, but in seven games last year, most of his action was registered as a special teams ace on the coverage team.

The lone returning starter in Ohio State's linebacker corps thinks Booker could be even better than the All-Big Ten standout he's replacing.

“You can tell Josh [Perry] I said this: Dante [Booker] is a way better athlete,” McMillan said, according to Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors

Mickey Marotti, Ohio State's strength coach, agreed with McMillan's assessment that Booker brings something different to the field, via Shoemaker.

I just think it’s his turn. There goes Josh Perry, here comes Dante Booker.

He’s a gifted, talented player that has done some good things for us, but look around and it’s, ‘OK, it’s my turn.’ Some of these younger players after the other guys are gone, it’s just different.

There must be something to all the praise Booker has garnered this offseason, because on Monday he found himself among the best linebackers in the country on the preseason Butkus award watch list

It's just a preseason watch list, of course, but Booker's inclusion speaks to his potential, as he's nearly two months away from making his first collegiate start. 

The Buckeyes boast a defense he can thrive in, as they've showcased the ability to put speedy linebackers in position to produce. He has the skill set to shine, and his teammates are eager to unleash him in the open field.

"Dante’s a good athlete, man," McMillan said, according to Tony Gerdeman of The Ozone. "When he gets on the field, he does some stuff that you all haven’t even seen yet in practice. It’s amazing. One of the fastest guys on defense regardless of position. He just brings that pop."

 

All recruiting rankings and information via 247Sports.

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

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The Face of the SEC, Leonard Fournette, Has Highest Expectations for 2016

HOOVER, Ala. — For the record, LSU running back Leonard Fournette says he doesn’t eat anything except peanuts and yogurt after 7 p.m., his decision on turning pro next year will depend on his ability to get his degree and he still calls Georgia’s Nick Chubb the best running back in the Southeastern Conference.

Whatever. He’s a little more convincing regarding his top goal for the upcoming season.

“My personal goal is to win a national championship—nothing else,” he said Thursday while giving a good demonstration on how to handle the spotlight at SEC media days. “Any individual award, any dream I have is going to take care of itself.”

On Friday, Fournette will have his first chance to make history during the 2016 college football season when the media’s preseason All-SEC selections are announced, and he could become just the second player since 2000 to be a unanimous choice.

The first was Darren McFadden in 2007. The Arkansas running back was coming off finishing second to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith for the Heisman Trophy. He had tallied 1,647 rushing yards, which were the fifth-most in SEC history at the time, and 14 touchdowns.

Fournette’s 2015 blew those numbers away. As a sophomore, he crushed LSU’s single-season rushing record with 1,953 yards, which, with the NCAA using average yards per game, made him its rushing king (162.8).

He set seven other single-season school marks while becoming the first LSU player to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two years.

“No doubt he’ll be better,” LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic said. “He’s probably what, 20 or 21 years old, and still developing. Each year, he’s only going to get better.”

That’s bad news for the rest of college football, especially with LSU returning 18 starters.

Through the first two months of last season, Fournette was running away from the field for the Heisman and became the fastest player in LSU history to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He did it in just five games, including 244 at Syracuse, only to have it all stopped as abruptly as a needle being yanked off a record.

At Alabama, the eventual national champion, he was stonewalled en route to 19 carries for 31 yards, most of which came on one play. That and a touchdown were his only highlights, as Fournette was continually hit behind the line of scrimmage by Crimson Tide defenders.

“Having that extra week of preparation [during the bye] definitely did help some of the guys get healthy, but it was ultimately a pride thing,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “The coaches didn’t really run a lot of different calls. It was just mano a mano.”

The 30-16 loss didn’t just dash his Heisman run, as the Crimson Tide’s Derrick Henry ran for 210 yards on 38 carries and three touchdowns; it also derailed LSU’s entire season. The team responded with two more losses (against Arkansas and at Ole Miss) and had to win its regular-season finale against Texas A&M to save head coach Les Miles’ job.

That’s why Fournette now calls last season a “learning experience” and downplays performances like his 228 rushing yards against Auburn. He knows better than anyone how performing in the biggest games counts the most.

“Everybody’s heads weren’t in the right place. That’s all it was” Fournette said.

“We forgot our why. Why we work so hard, just to get here. We were on top of the world, 7-0, and we’re in the SEC, the hardest and best conference to play in. We just have to get that back.”

With 18 starters back, few doubt that LSU can at least match that start or that the returning consensus All-American can again elude defenders like the braces that were on his teeth last season but are now absent.

Consequently, Fournette was recently listed first in Sports Illustrated's ranking of college football's top 100 players for 2016, and former LSU running back Jeremy Hill called him the best player in college football. “That means a lot,” Fournette said before adding that he’ll be saying the same thing about Derrius Guice next year.

Few who have faced him would argue the point.

“They are kind of freaky guys that are big, so you don’t expect them to move as fast as they do,” Mississippi State linebacker Richie Brown said about Fournette and Henry. “Players like that can really stress a defense.”

Fournette said he hasn’t been timed in the 40-yard dash at LSU, but he ran 4.36 in high school when he was a little smaller.

Miles has been encouraging him to lose some weight after Fournette gained 10 pounds during the early offseason, getting up to approximately 235. He quickly complied, thus the food-related questions here.

“He wants to be able to have speed, strength, and the combination of the two is certainly the advantage for the elite back, and so we felt like that would happen somewhere between [225] and 231, and he's right there,” Miles said. “Just where he needs to be.”

That statement could have had a double meaning, as Fournette had to dismiss rumors that he had been considering sitting out his junior year to avoid the risk of injury heading into the NFL.

He’s already used to those kinds of questions, which go hand-in-hand with the high expectations, even if he doesn’t want to admit to being the face of the SEC this season.

“There’s multiple guys just like me in the SEC,” Fournette said. “I don’t mind sharing the platform with those guys like Chad Kelly, Nick Chubb, Jalen Hurd and, I think he’s a sophomore now, Calvin Ridley.”

But none of them are quite like Fournette.

        

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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Chad Kelly Says He Is Best Quarterback in Nation at SEC Media Days

Few deny Chad Kelly is the best returning quarterback in the SEC. But the Ole Miss signal-caller and Heisman Trophy hopeful made it clear Thursday he's not satisfied with just being the best in his conference.

"I'm the best quarterback in the nation," Kelly said at SEC media days, per Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com.   

"You have to feel that way," Kelly continued. "In order to have confidence in yourself and team, you have to think you're the best. That's what I want our whole team—from offensive linemen to running backs—we have to think we're the best players and the best team out there. I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback that ever played."

A redshirt senior, Kelly threw for 4,042 yards and 32 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2015. He became the first Ole Miss player to win the Sugar Bowl MVP since Archie Manning in 1970 and was named second-team All-SEC. Mississippi State's Dak Prescott bested him for first-team honors.

Expectations have only grown heading into 2016, with ESPN The Magazine and Lindy's naming Kelly the preseason SEC Offensive Player of the Year (h/t Ole Miss Sports).

What makes Kelly a potential NFL quarterback is his ability to affect the game through the air and the ground. He added 500 yards and 10 scores as a runner to his prodigious passing numbers last season. CBS Sports ranks him the best NFL quarterback prospect among seniors; Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had him seventh at the position overall in May.

Clemson's Deshaun Watson, the Miami Hurricanes' Brad Kaaya and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph are just a few of the underclassmen Kelly will have to unseat on draft boards.

Kelly also has a long way to go if he even wants to be the best quarterback in his own family. Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Jim Kelly is Chad's uncle.

         

Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.

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Pac-12 Media Days 2016: Best Quotes and Reaction from Day 1

The Pac-12 Conference is the second league to hold its college football media days, beginning the first of its two sessions on Thursday in California just as the SEC ended its four-day marathon on the other side of the country. And the contrast between the events is staggering.

While the SEC has a rigid, regimented process held entirely within a series of hotel ballrooms in Alabama, the Pac-12 takes over a section of an outdoor mall in Hollywood. This laid-back atmosphere allows for more casual conversation as well as the chance for coaches and players to goof around—and show off their bottle-flipping skills—on a miniature football field set up in a mall concourse.

Oh yeah, and team-specific ice cream flavors:

But while college football fans might be anxious for the 2016 season to begin, that same sentiment isn't necessarily echoed by the coaches:

The Pac-12 will be the first of the five power conferences to get underway this year, as California takes on Hawaii in Sydney on Aug. 26. The logistics of playing a game in a foreign country have proved to be very taxing for Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who told reporters it's been difficult trying to secure passports for as many as 120 players.

A week later, the league will be in the spotlight thanks to a series of high-profile games, most notably USC taking on defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

The Pac-12 is coming off a banner year in terms of bowl participants, sending 10 of 12 teams to postseason games. However, none of those invites were to the playoffs, as the league was the odd man out from last year's four-team College Football Playoff.

Speaking to reporters to open media days, via the Pac-12 Network broadcast, commissioner Larry Scott praised his league's dedication to tough nonconference scheduling and believes his teams will get “the benefit of the doubt” when the playoff committee compares teams with similar records this fall.

                 

Quarterback concerns

Six of the league's 12 teams return their starting quarterbacks from 2015, including big names such as UCLA's Josh Rosen and Washington State's Luke Falk. The other half of the league will have decisions to make before the season starts, and the competition between now and then figures to be fierce.

USC coach Clay Helton said he plans to choose between junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold "two weeks before the season opener against Alabama," per the Orange County Register's Joey Kaufman. Either guy will have big shoes to fill, as Cody Kessler was the Trojans' starter for three years.

Another three-year starter who must be replaced is Cal's Jared Goff, who went on to become the No. 1 pick in April's NFL draft. The Golden Bears landed one of the biggest targets from the graduate transfer market this offseason in former Texas Tech passer Davis Webb, who originally committed to Colorado before signing with Cal.

Dykes said on the Pac-12 Network broadcast that the competition remains open among Webb, redshirt sophomore Chase Forrest and redshirt freshman Ross Bowers, and any of the three would make for a fine starter.

"We're excited about the level of quarterbacks we have, the depth that we have, but Davis is a little bit different right now," Dykes said.

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has a multiyear starter to work with in junior Anu Solomon, but he feels he has "two returning starters" (per Michael Lev of the Arizona Daily Star) in Solomon and sophomore Brandon Dawkins, and the pair will split reps in training camp. There's also true freshman Khalil Tate, who Rodriguez said "can throw it 80 yards but I don't have a player on the roster that requires an 80-yard throw" (per Zack Rosenblatt of the Arizona Daily Star).

     

Mike Leach at the mic

It's appointment viewing, or listening, any time the Washington State coach gets in front of a microphone. The many topics Mike Leach discussed at last year's Pac-12 media days included dating tips—bring a two-for-one coupon, maybe go sturgeon fishing—and thoughts on Batman and underwater treadmills. There was also a story, relayed by Arizona's Rodriguez, about a time Leach wore a Speedo at a Nike event.

What did Leach have in store this time around? Here are a few of his thoughts (with video context, when necessary).

His opening remarks (h/t Shotgun Spratling of Scout.com): "Alright, any questions?"

On the Heisman Trophy (h/t Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times): "I'm in favor of it."

On the media's fascination with milestones:

On the recently retired Steve Spurrier (on the Pac-12 Network broadcast): "The guy's always on the move. I think we're kind of both examples of you need to figure out, to develop the ability to do nothing periodically. I need to work on it, maybe I'll call him and we can work on it together."

On the lack of communication between people due to the prevalence of technology (h/t Greg Beachem of the Associated Press): "I think the days before cell phones, when it was dirt clod wars at construction sites, was more wholesome, to be honest."

On PokemonGo:

         

(Projected) leader of the pack

Stanford has won three of the last four Pac-12 titles despite not being picked to do so in any of those seasons. In fact, the Cardinal had never been chosen by the conference's media as the preseason favorite ...until now.

The Cardinal were the choice on 20 of 33 media ballots despite losing 11 starters, including three-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan. Having FBS all-purpose yardage record holder and Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey back at running back helps, however.

Stanford was also the overwhelming choice to win the Pac-12 North Division, while UCLA narrowly edged rival defending South champ USC for the media pick on that side. But these are just predictions, and recently they've been way off. The Pac-12 media has correctly picked the league champ 29 times in 55 years but only twice in the last nine.

         

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted. All statistics provided by CFBStats, unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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SEC Media Days 2016: Highlights, Comments and Twitter Reaction from Thursday

Interviews at the 2016 SEC media days wrapped up Thursday with representatives from LSU, Ole Miss and South Carolina taking center stage. 

Will Muschamp assuming control of the Gamecocks program is one of the conference's top stories heading into the new season. Not only is the 44-year-old head coach back in charge of an SEC team after a previous stint at Florida, but he's trying to fill the void left by Steve Spurrier last October.

Graham Hall of the Gainesville Sun passed along Muschamp's opening remarks. He thanked the "Head Ball Coach" before stating, "There's only one Steve Spurrier in life. And I'm not it."

Brad Crawford of 247Sports noted Muschamp also doubled down on the growing sense of optimism around the current team, which is rare when coming off a 3-9 campaign. He's expecting to make some noise immediately rather than take time to revamp the roster.

"There is no three-year plan, no five-year plan, that's my mentality. We want to win now," Muschamp said.

It's quite a turnaround in the short-term outlook since he took the job in December. He admitted the players were "pretty beat down" when he first met them, per Brett McMurphy of ESPN.

Now his players are buying into the quick revitalization. Senior defensive lineman Marquavius Lewis talked about how the team views the upcoming season, as relayed by SEC Sports.

"I wouldn't say it's a sense of urgency," he said. "We all have the mindset to go out there and change this program around and get them [the team] on the right path."

South Carolina faces no shortage of competition in the nation's top conference, though. LSU head coach Les Miles stated, "our goals have not changed." Those include a 100 percent graduation rate, along with winning the SEC and national titles, as noted by the SEC's Twitter account.

Miles actually spent a sizable portion of his time at the podium discussing social issues, though. Baton Rouge has been the site of protests in recent weeks, and he's held meetings with his staff about what actions to take moving forward, per ASAP Sports:

And I feel like our society's the same and you need everybody. If you look to see change and if you watch the representation of our country on live TV, you realize that change is necessary. And it comes through all of us, everybody in the room, certainly me. It's an inclusive. You reach for others. You need to be respectful of their life and their opinion and who they are. You need compassion for people. You build them up and you train them and you give them the best practices, and we change as a team and as a community and as a society.

He added, "What I'd like to do is have them, our guys, have a platform where they could affect change. I think they're wonderful men. I think they're constantly involved in roles—they're a student, they're a football player, they're role models."

Football can be a unifying force in the area, and, while winning games is important, clearly Miles thinks the team could take on an even bigger role in the community this year.

Alex Martin Smith of SEC Country noted superstar running back Leonard Fournette received some backlash for wearing an Alton Sterling shirt last week. Fournette explained Thursday he's trying to make a positive impact in any way he can, regardless of the controversy.

"I figured, you know, I have a voice," Fournette said. "My whole meaning toward that was just pray until change come. That's not just in (Baton Rouge). That's everywhere in the world."

Turning the focus back to football, Campus Insiders provided the Heisman Trophy candidate's comments about what means the most to him heading into the 2016 campaign:

Elsewhere, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze stated he hasn't been given a timetable for a resolution on the NCAA's investigation into the program. Freeze said he would prefer the situation to end in the near future, per Ben Garrett of Scout.

"Of course. I've had a long enough time with it," Freeze said. "I would love for it to be sooner than later. But I don't know what that means, really. I'm not crazy about if it happens in the middle of the season. But if it does, it does. We'll argue our facts and our side of things and we'll be held accountable in and around our program."

"I have zero interest in cutting corners to be successful and our staff knows that," Freeze added, per Paul Finebaum of the SEC Network.

Bill King of Nashville Sports Radio felt the Rebels' coach handled the situation well:

Freeze's quarterback, Chad Kelly, provided one of the day's most entertaining moments by taking a not-so-subtle shot at Clemson, his former school. AL.com shared those comments:

Kelly also called himself "the best quarterback in the nation" during the session, via Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com, who provided more comments from Kelly:

"You have to feel that way," Kelly told reporters when he was asked follow-up questions. "In order to have confidence in yourself and team, you have to think you're the best. That's what I want our whole team -- from offensive linemen to running backs -- we have to think we're the best players and the best team out there.

"I want to be remembered as the greatest quarterback that ever played."

All told, it was a wide-ranging day of conversation to close the annual SEC media showcase. While most of the football discussion was pretty straightforward, the other discussions shed plenty of light on critical topics surrounding each of the three programs.

The oddsmakers believe LSU will have the best season of the trio of teams featured Thursday, ranking the Tigers second to Alabama for the SEC title, per Odds Shark. Ole Miss and South Carolina rated sixth and 13th out of 14 teams, respectively.

 

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Winners, Losers from 2016 SEC Media Days

HOOVER, Ala. — The 2016 edition of SEC media days is in the books, and it's time to analyze how some of the conference's biggest names handled the Super Bowl of "talkin' season."

Georgia's Kirby Smart, Missouri's Barry Odom and South Carolina's Will Muschamp made their first trips to the annual event in their new positions, while seasoned veterans such as Alabama's Nick Saban and LSU's Les Miles drew big crowds.

Who were the winners and losers of SEC media days?

Our picks are in this slideshow. 

Begin Slideshow

Hugh Freeze Opens Up on NCAA, Frustration and Ole Miss' Perception

HOOVER, Ala. — The final day of SEC media days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham - The Wynfrey Hotel was the most anticipated day of the four-day event, thanks to the presence of Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and the ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding impermissible benefits and academic fraud.

Freeze did his best to handle the situation as honestly and be as forthcoming as possible, while also holding back the fact that he can't comment on specifics of the case due to the ongoing investigation. 

Ole Miss released its response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations this spring. That response includes 11 scholarship reductions over four years, three years of probation, the recruiting suspension for two assistant coaches and a reduction in evaluation time. 

While Ole Miss has responded to the NCAA, the organization continues to investigate the program after images leaked online during the 2016 NFL draft suggesting former staffers paid former offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.

"I remain very confident in who we are, our core values and how we do things," Freeze said in the main ballroom. "We have fully cooperated with the NCAA."

Freeze confirmed in Destin, Florida, at SEC spring meetings in May that, of the four Level I violations involving the current Ole Miss program and staffers, the program is only disputing one—which relates to impermissible contact between a recruit and booster.

"We believe our response to the Notice of Allegations stands on its own," Freeze said in the main ballroom. "As a head coach, I understand that I'm held accountable for the things that happened within our building and even outside the walls of our building. Our compliance team is working extremely hard to seek a resolution to this case and into the -- and also into the events from NFL draft night and we look forward to the conclusion of this entire process. No one looks forward to that more than I do."

 It was a tough spot for Freeze to be in.

With one response to a Notice of Allegations out and other lingering issues popping up when the process was nearing a close, thanks to Tunsil's draft night debacle, it could wear on a head coach. Freeze doesn't feel that frustration.

"I'm really not [frustrated], Freeze told Bleacher Report while making the rounds. "Do I come across like I am frustrated? Because you're the second one who's asked me about that.

"I really believe that all things work together for good. I don't like going through it. But really, think about this—there are only a few players involved in that deal. What about those 82 or 83? These families chose to come play for me. So how in the world can I not be motivated every day to go to work for them?"

The unresolved aspect of the case—the screen shots that were released on Tunsil's Instagram account that suggest Ole Miss director of football operations John Miller had been in discussions for small payments to cover Tunsil's mother's electric bill—have kept a dark cloud hovering over Oxford. 

When it comes to the status of Tunsil's level of cooperation with the NCAA, Freeze is in the dark.

"I have had zero [input on the level of Tunsil's cooperation]," he told Bleacher Report. "I have not been talked to about it, interviewed about it or anything. I ask questions all the time, but it's just not something that I'm included in. The investigation with this new stuff, I'm just not involved in it."

It isn't taking a toll on Freeze, though.

He has passed the point of fighting the battle of perception and is content with pleasing the people most closely associated with his program.

"Initially it was difficult," Freeze said of the constant PR hits. "You get to a spot, though, where you ask yourself, 'Who are you living to please?' You get to that spot, and you kind of just kind of callus to the other. Not in a bad or angry way. I know what my family thinks about me, I know what my players think of me and I want to honor my God and how I do things. Should we be held accountable if wrong is done within our program? Yes, and that day will come.

"I have a lot of things, Barrett, that I don't do very well. Being tempted to cut corners to be successful, I have zero interest in that. So I'm confident in who I am and the tone I set around our place. That kind of gives you a peace."

Peace will come when Ole Miss meets with the Committee on Infractions in the fall. 

Until then, Freeze just wants to focus on football.

 

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

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee

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SEC Media Days Is a Spectacle That Goes Beyond Football

HOOVER, Ala. — Off in the distance, down an escalator in the lobby of a suburban Birmingham hotel, the sweet sound of college football is in the air.

One day, that sound is a cowbell incessantly clanging and echoing through the halls. The next, fans with giant fake championship rings on their heads yell "Roll Tide" to each other and the cameras. 

This is SEC media days. 

"It's dubbed the unofficial kickoff, so I'll take that."

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey enters his second season as the most powerful man in the most powerful conference in the country, and his 15th overall as an employee. During that time, he has witnessed firsthand the rise of SEC media days from an annual event that simply introduces media to players and coaches shortly before the start of fall camp, to what it is now—a four-day college football extravaganza. 

"It's truly intentional that we choose these days, because it allows us to have a conversation first," he said. "It is a positive promotional platform for the Southeastern Conference and our student-athletes walking around here to be interviewed. It also gives a break after media days prior to preseason practice."

With over 1,500 media members credentialed for the 25th edition of media days, 30 radio stations on radio row, 15 rooms for the three players and one head coach from each school to meet with media, live television coverage on ESPN and SEC Network and a lobby at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham - The Wynfrey Hotel that resembles a pep rally, the event is unlike any other in the sport.

"The level of interest indicates that it is enormously important around our region and around our country. Football never stops in a lot of people's minds," Sankey said.

It truly doesn't. 

The lobby of the Wynfrey during SEC media days is a different world. With hundreds of people packed into a space that's no larger than a putting green, fans of different schools flock to celebrate the upcoming season.

Cow bells clang, "Roll Tide" gets yelled incessantly and fans anxiously stare at an escalator for hours on end for the moment that their player or coach takes the ride down to the lobby. Sometimes fans even show up from halfway around the world.

Glavine Tillman is an 8-year-old Georgia fan from the area who came to media days with his mother, Leigh. His one goal was to meet new Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart, where he had one simple message to convey.

"Go DAWGS," he said. 

Tillman got his autographs and the chance to meet with Georgia's contingent but also talked a little football with Bleacher Report and the fans around him.

"I think [Georgia] is going to be pretty good this year," Tillman explained as Mississippi State superfan Steven "Stingray" Ray stood on, "but not good enough to win the SEC. Maybe in a few years, though."

Ray and the rest of the Mississippi State fans made an impression on Tillman in the lobby, and it's one that he'll never forget.

"They're pretty crazy," Tillman said. "They ring A LOT of bells."

Ray, a 2010 graduate of Alabama who, instead of cheering on his alma mater, has stayed true to his Bulldog roots and evolved into the ultimate Mississippi State fan.

"It is unbelievable here," Ray told Bleacher Report. "When [Mississippi State head coach] Dan Mullen walked in, it was unbelievable. Mississippi State likes to be a family, and family is here in the lobby when the players walk in. It's really nice."

This is Ray's first trip to the media circus, and it came complete with an appearance on the Paul Finebaum Show on SEC Network. He says he won't troll Ole Miss on Thursday when the Bulldogs' heated rival makes the rounds.

Jeff Moorer, however, doesn't have the same mindset. 

Moorer, an Auburn fan from the Birmingham area, showed up on Wednesday morning when Alabama made the rounds sporting an Ole Miss hat and shirt. During Alabama day last year, Moorer donned Ohio State gear to needle the Crimson Tide just a few short months after Ohio State beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

"Alabama said that they weren't going to be beaten, but I want to show that they can be beaten by a good Ole Miss team," Moorer told Bleacher Report.

It's all in good fun for Moorer, who's more interested in seeing the players and coaches and getting autographs and pictures than he is in harassing Alabama fans.

"I come to rub elbows with the great players and coaches and relish being in the SEC," he said. "I don't get to go to the games during the season, and this right here gets you ready for football season."

If you think that an Auburn fan who routinely trolls Alabama fans by wearing gear of teams that beat Alabama in previous seasons wouldn't be welcomed on "Alabama day," you're wrong.

Shannon Villa, an Alabama fan who annually wears a ring hat when the Tide arrives and trolled Auburn on Monday with a championship belt, has struck up a friendship with Moorer through the years while hanging out in the lobby.

Things don't get contentious in the lobby of the Wynfrey, which is packed to the brim when Alabama makes the rounds. Moorer and Villa are rivals in terms of the programs they support but share a passion for kicking off the season in style in Hoover. And Ray's cowbell only came out when Mississippi State made the rounds.

"We share the same passion," Villa told Bleacher Report. "I enjoy talking to fans from other states and from other fanbases. I like to give them a little southern hospitality." 

The four-day SEC media event held annually outside of Birmingham serves as a greater purpose.

It's a modern-day college football convention where coaches, players, media and fans converge to talk football, reconnect with old friends, make new ones and celebrate the sport they love.

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

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Best and Worst Dressed from 2016 SEC Media Days

SEC media days, which serve as the unofficial start to college football season, is all about getting the best of the best from the country's premier conference to talk about their upcoming campaigns.

It's also about looking good while they do it.

Over the years, the suits at SEC media days have been almost as memorable as the lengthy opening statements from head coaches and witty one-liners from players. Just like it is at the NFL draft, everyone's suit games are discussed on social media alongside the football. The SEC itself even released a style guide to media days this year and updated it each day. 

Most of the representatives from the 14 SEC schools had looks as sharp as their play on the field in Hoover, Alabama, this week. However, there were a few fashion miscues.

Here are a dozen head coaches and players who make up this year's edition of the best and worst dressed of SEC media days. As I wrote last year, please keep in mind that I am nowhere near a serious fashion expert. I am just a college football writer trying to have some fun with a lighthearted offseason piece.

Now, here are the highlights and lowlights from the sights at the 2016 SEC media days.

Begin Slideshow

Reassessing Notre Dame's 2017 Recruiting Class Following the Opening

College football recruiting never ends, but Notre Dame recently completed a couple of important landmarks for the 2017 cycle.

The program hosted the "Irish Invasion," adding two of its three mid-June commitments at the camp. Plus, a couple of 4-star prospects gave their verbal pledges to head coach Brian Kelly and Co. during the string of announcements at The Opening 2016.

During the last two months, Notre Dame has stuck at No. 7 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings, but a few of its commits have received notable jumps—or drops—individually.

Note: Notre Dame's two athletes are separated by unit (offense or defense) based on their projected positions.

 

Offensive Commits

No need on offense is going unaddressed. The difference is Notre Dame hasn't secured pledges from the big-name players on the offensive line or at wide receiver.

But the Irish have locked up the nation's most impressive haul of tight ends. Brock Wright remained steady at No. 69 overall, though he slid to No. 2 at the position. Cole Kmet is still the third-rated tight end but dipped six spots in the 247Sports composite rankings.

Although Joshua Lugg dropped from 140th to 191st, the offensive tackle retained his 4-star billing. Avery Davis rose one place among dual-threat quarterbacks yet fell seven overall.

CJ Holmes and Robert Hainsey both committed while attending The Opening. Holmes—who could later have a backfield companion in Colin Wilson—revealed his decision on Bleacher Report.

Hainsey, on the other hand, won't be the final lineman. Notre Dame is still pursuing top-50 prospects Foster SarellJedrick Wills and Trey Smith. Nevertheless, Hainsey joined Lugg and Dillan Gibbons as the current commits up front.

Jordan Pouncey gave the Irish their first pledge at receiver. Osiris St. Brown, Tarik Black, Jamire Calvin and Michael Young remain on the board, while 5-star Tyjon Lindsey is a hopeful pull.

Notre Dame is in excellent shape for a strong finish.

 

Defensive Commits

Considering the haul of defensive players, the Irish might be heading toward a make-or-break ending to the 2017 cycle.

David Adams is currently the featured commit, carrying a No. 111 overall ranking. The second highest pledge is Paulson Adebo, an athlete slotted at No. 254 overall. Adebo—who projects as a defensive back—committed in mid-June.

Isaiah Robertson officially received an expected switch from receiver to safety. A 6'3", 190-pounder, he's now the 22nd-rated prospect at his position and 266th in the country. He and outside linebacker Pete Werner complete the 4-star bunch.

Defensive tackle Kurt Hinish, D-end Jonathon MacCollister and inside 'backer Drew White round out the pledges. Hinish soared from No. 642 to No. 488 nationally, MacCollister committed at Irish Invasion and White jumped 81 spots overall.

At this point, it's a decent haul. To push the defensive group higher, Notre Dame is working to land highly rated targets, highlighted by 5-stars Baron Browning and Shaun Wade—who Bleacher Report's Damon Sayles notes Holmes will personally recruit. Holmes said:

Definitely going for Shaun Wade. He's an Ohio State commit, but I'd like to see him flip. He's long and physical. He's everything you look for in a corner, especially with his strength, skill and ability to make plays. You need big, physical corners out there to take care of those big wide receivers from all different conferences.

Justin FosterHunter Echols (UCLA), Darnell Ewell, Salvon Ahmed, Jacob Phillips and Joshua Paschal are each worth watching. Other possibilities—though likely to a lesser extent—include Thomas Graham, C.J. Avery and Chaz Ah You.

Irish fans should also track 3-stars Amari Carter, Christopher Whittaker, K'Jakyre Daley and Dalyn Wade-Perry.

Notre Dame has no shortage of options to pursue down the stretch. The key is narrowing the list, especially as available spots in the 2017 class continue to decrease.

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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Xavier McKinney Decommits from Alabama: Latest Comments and Reaction

Xavier McKinney, one of the most coveted safeties in the 2017 recruiting class, announced Thursday he's decommitting from Alabama in order to reconsider his options. 

McKinney posted his decision on Twitter. He stated there's no timetable to make a final choice about where he's going to play college football.

Here's the Roswell High School (Georgia) standout's entire message:

First of all, I would like to thank all of my family, coaches and friends for supporting me through this decision. I would also like to thank coach (Nick) Saban and (defensive backs) coach (Derrick) Ansley and the whole Alabama staff that gave me this opportunity, but I would like to open my options back up by de-committing. I feel this is the best thing to do so I can re-evaluate things. There is no timetable for a decision. I would like no interviews from anyone at this time. Thank you.

McKinney originally committed to Alabama last September. He told Woody Wommack of Rivals at the time there was something unique about the Crimson Tide program: "Just being up there felt right. The atmosphere, their campus and their coaching staff. It was a special feeling when I went up there and that kind of is what led me to this decision."

He also admitted he had thoughts about letting the process play out, though: "At first I was thinking I should wait it out, but then I felt like I should make the decision now because Alabama is a great place and the place for me."

Ultimately, that initial gut feeling must have continued to linger, because now he's going to see what else may be available around the country.

Chris Kirschner of SEC Country noted in June the safety had continued to do his homework on other schools while committed to Alabama. He listed Florida and Clemson as the programs of interest.

McKinney is a 4-star prospect who checks in at No. 108 overall in the 2017 class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. He also rates at the No. 11 safety and the No. 13 recruit from the state of Georgia. The outlet lists him as having received 11 offers so far.

Based on his comments, it sounds like he's going back to square one just to make sure before announcing his official decision. He didn't rule out eventually committing back to Alabama, but it's unclear where the Tide rank as he restarts the evaluation procedure.

 

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2016 Preseason Watch Lists Prove Jim Harbaugh's Power as a Player Developer

At this time last offseason, Michigan could hardly find its name as the annual July tradition that's become preseason award watch list releases in college football took place.

What a difference a year makes.

Dating back to the start of this year's watch list releases last week, the Wolverines have enjoyed a prominent presence as anticipation for the 2016 season continues to build.

The name of at least one Michigan player can be found on nine of the 13 performance-based watch lists to have been revealed thus far—the lone exceptions being the Lou Groza Award (best kicker), Ray Guy Award (best punter), Butkus Award (best linebacker) and Davey O'Brien Award (best quarterback). For the latter three awards, the Wolverines will be breaking in new starters at those positions in 2016.

Given the number of Michigan players to have been named to watch lists already, the Wolverines are practically a shoe-in to be represented on the lone list remaining to be revealed, the Walter Camp Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top player.

The steady stream of Michigan players to have thus far been recognized this preseason stands in stark contrast to a year ago, when Jake Butt served as the Wolverines' lone watch list representative as a preseason candidate for the John Mackey Award (nation's top tight end).

Michigan found itself not only shut out on defense but in each of the major individual awards on either side of the ball when it came to watch lists in 2015, a strong indication of an apparent talent issue Jim Harbaugh was inheriting when taking over his alma mater.

According to this year's watch lists, that problem no longer exists.

"Tremendous difference from what they were and what they are," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of the Wolverines' roster on a conference call this past spring. "Now they have national credibility with what Jim has done already in terms of the winning that went on there."

For anybody who followed Harbaugh's coaching career before his return to Ann Arbor at the end of 2014, the sudden shift in Michigan's award-caliber talent has hardly been a surprise.

After all, whether it be during his time with the San Francisco 49ers or at Stanford before that, you'd be hard-pressed to find a head coach who's developed a stronger track record when it comes to player development than Harbaugh.

In the NFL, he took a team that had missed the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons to three consecutive NFC Championship Games—and one Super Bowl—with a roster full of Pro Bowl players, while in Palo Alto, California, he transformed a dormant program into an unlikely factory for NFL talent.

Watch lists aren't the be-all, end-all in college football—far from it—but with the Wolverines, Harbaugh already appears to be following a similar path.

Even in an NFL draft where Michigan wasn't expected to provide much of a presence, center Graham Glasgow (third round), defensive lineman Willie Henry (fourth round) and quarterback Jake Rudock (sixth round) each proved to benefit from just one season under Harbaugh's watch.

''Coach [Jedd] Fisch, Coach Harbaugh, Coach [Tim] Drevno, those guys, they really train us like NFL players,'' Rudock told reporters after being drafted by the Detroit Lions. ''They really preach that and have us study what the NFL guys do and how well they do it.''

For the second-year Wolverines head coach, however, the best appears yet to come.

Not only are Michigan players now littering the watch lists they were largely absent from a year ago, but they're doing so at a rate that makes the relative red flags of last offseason look like a distant memory.

After winning last year's Big Ten Tight End of the Year award, Butt not only repeats on the Mackey Award watch list but also appears on the watch list for the Maxwell Award, where he is joined by Wolverines wide receiver Jehu Chesson, who was also named to the watch list for the Fred Biletnikoff Award.

Offensive tackle Erik Magnuson made the cut on the Outland Trophy watch list, as did converted center Mason Cole, who was also named to the Rimington Trophy watch list earlier this week.

Running back De'Veon Smith added to his team's preseason profile with an appearance on the Doak Walker Award watch list, and on the defensive side of the ball, Michigan is no longer shut out from the preseason watch lists—as it was a year ago.

Far from it.

Safety/linebacker/jack-of-all trades Jabrill Peppers appears on the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy, while defensive end Chris Wormley can also be found on the Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award watch lists.

Cornerback Jourdan Lewis, meanwhile, was named to the three same lists as Peppers as well as the watch list for the Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's top defensive back.

There may not be a better example of Harbaugh's prowess in player development than Lewis, who went from relative unknown to potential first-round pick, all in just one season under the direction of his new head coach.

"If he had come out, he'd have certainly been one of the top corners," Kiper said of Lewis. "Next year's draft, if you look at the top five right now and you look at a corner, you'd have to put him in there."

Given Michigan's quick rise from a 5-7 team in 2014 to a 10-3 record a year ago, its increase in prominent players hardly comes as a surprise.

At this time a year ago, the Wolverines couldn't lay claim to a single player on their roster who had earned All-Big Ten selections, while at season's end, they were honored with eight—each of whom returns to the Michigan roster in 2016.

With another year of Harbaugh's development under their belts—and rival Ohio State now being the one lagging behind in watch list selections—the preseason hype isn't limited to just the Wolverines players but Michigan itself, as premature preseason polls suggest U-M should remain in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff throughout the 2016 season.

If that turns out to be true, the attention paid to the Wolverines players won't just be limited to preseason watch lists. Michigan may even find itself with an award-winner in its bunch, given its head coach's track record of developing the sport's top stars.

           

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. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.

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