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Notre Dame Football: Previewing the Irish's Early Enrollees

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With five players off early to the NFL, Notre Dame football officially announced five new faces Wednesday with its early enrollees.

The spring semester began Tuesday in South Bend, and the college experience started for linebacker/defensive lineman Daelin Hayes, defensive lineman Khalid Kareem, defensive back Spencer Perry, wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and defensive back Devin Studstill.

 

Daelin Hayes

Hayes, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, native is the No. 10 outside linebacker and No. 121 overall prospect in the country. The 6’3”, 239-pounder and U.S. Army All-American missed the bulk of his senior season with a separated shoulder.

Hayes decommitted from USC in mid-October then took an official visit to South Bend five days later for Notre Dame’s clash with the Trojans. He tabbed the Irish over Ohio State and Michigan State last month.

Whether he lines up as an outside linebacker or defensive end, Hayes could provide the Irish with much-needed pass-rushing ability. Notre Dame finished tied for 78th in the country with 24 sacks, 16 of which won’t return in 2016.

 

Khalid Kareem

Kareem checks in as the No. 9 strong-side defensive end and No. 194 overall prospect in the class. The Michigan product decommitted from Alabama in mid-October—two days after Hayes did the same from USC—and pledged to the Irish nine days later.

At 6’3”, 245 pounds, Kareem will get a head start adding weight to his frame. Kareem, who was the MVP of the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, will join a group of defensive linemen that must replace Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara.

 

Spencer Perry

Like Hayes, Perry missed the majority of his senior season with a shoulder injury. The IMG Academy product is the No. 32 safety and No. 525 recruit in the country.

Perry visited Notre Dame in June, decommitted from Florida three days later and announced his verbal commitment to the Irish one week after.

With Elijah Shumate’s graduation, Perry could have the opportunity to grab valuable reps this spring. Safeties Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian are coming off injuries suffered this fall.

 

Kevin Stepherson

Stepherson hauled in 48 passes for 835 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior in Jacksonville, Florida. The 5’11”, 171-pounder slides into an Irish receiving corps that must replace its top three receivers from the 2015 campaign.

Junior Will Fuller (62 receptions for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns) bypassed his senior season for the NFL, and Chris Brown (48-597-4) and Amir Carlisle (32-355-1) are gone, too.

Stepherson, a 3-star prospect and the No. 93 wideout in the class, verbally committed to the Irish in June.

 

Devin Studstill

Studstill is slotted as the No. 29 safety and No. 488 recruit in the class of 2016. He pledged to the Irish on Dec. 15.

The 3-star prospect is from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and attended the same high school as current Irish linebacker Te’von Coney.

Like Perry, Studstill joins an Irish secondary with a pair of starting spots to fill. Five other defensive back verbal commitments in Notre Dame’s class of 2016 are scheduled to arrive this summer.

  

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

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

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2016 NFL Draft: Myles Jack Is More Projection Than Sure Thing

As college football continues the trend of spreading opponents thin with lavish formations that space defenses out, athletes are moving to positions they'd have never seen two decades ago. Football is cyclical, often repeating past trends with just slight variations. The popular passing game en vogue now has put a premium on players like UCLA linebacker Myles Jack.

A standout athlete at the linebacker position allows a defensive coordinator to be creative enough to be less reactive than aggressive. With the average team throwing the ball over 60 percent of the time, run-clogging linebackers aren't as valuable. But that doesn't mean traditional linebacker duties are worthless, and pure athletes can just roam the field and expect to be successful.

Myles Jack declared for the 2016 NFL draft in early October despite tearing his meniscus in a practice session. The 6'1", 245-pound freak athlete is a highly valued player because of his immense physical gifts. He compares favorably to even the best linebackers in the NFL, if NFLDraftScout's projected 40-yard dash of 4.56 is correct.

Jack's ability to drop into space or even into man coverage is what makes evaluators drool. Rob Rang of CBS Sports has Jack going fourth overall in his latest mock draft. Jack is a great athlete, but his football acumen leaves reason for concern if that's the cost to acquire his talent.

The reason why that cost is too steep is that Jack is a large projection as an NFL linebacker. While it is exciting that he was able to cover slot receivers against New Mexico State, that's not a task he'll be asked to execute often. Jack will be expected to cover tight ends and running backs as well as drop into zone to use his speed to close out on routes.

Jack is a pure weak-side linebacker because of his ability to shoot gaps and play in space. The other linebacker positions will present massive challenges for Jack, largely because he was rarely asked to do more at UCLA. And when he was, he struggled. It is difficult to find tape of Jack shedding blocks and making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Some may want Jack to move inside to middle linebacker, but that would be an incredibly big task. Jack was at his best when playing next to a true middle linebacker in Eric Kendricks and strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr.

Unfortunately, due to Jack's knee injury, fans didn't have the chance to see how he'd do when he was the undisputed best player within his positional group.

It's not size or even bulk that makes Jack pigeonholed as a weak-side linebacker. He's very physical but almost to a fault. He doesn't use his hands when blockers approach. Jack slams into them to bounce off and then jets around. This is ineffective from a team-defense approach and increases the chance of injury.

Above, we see Jack following reactively to the ball, instead of reading the blockers and meeting the running back at the lane. He only ends up in the general area because he is shoved to the ground. This is a constant in Jack's run-defending film and a major issue if he's to be counted on as a middle linebacker.

Jack's ability to play man coverage is definitely a tremendous positive. He is like a chess piece, and defensive coordinators will love utilizing Jack on a variety of tight ends and running backs. But when Jack is asked to read plays and make the right decision, he struggles.

Above is an example of Jack guessing. He can't read the offensive linemen, who rise into a pass-blocking stance as soon as the ball is snapped. Cal quarterback Jared Goff immediately sees Jack crashing down to play the run, instead of covering the tight end. The gaffe cost UCLA about 40 yards.

Issues like this are why UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr. warned Jack of leaving for college so early. According to Michael Silver of NFL.com, Mora had this to say about his decision to declare for the NFL draft:

He's taking his chips and shoving them into the middle, and we hope he draws a good hand," Mora told reporters Tuesday. "I think it's risky to do this. Having been on that side, there's going to be a lot of speculation as to what he is and where he fits. And as I told Myles on Sunday, NFL teams are very, very conservative, and if there's any question whatsoever, they'll pass on you in a heartbeat…

"If he played all year, I was thinking that we would (not have him next year), but when you only play in three games and that's all the tape they have of you your junior year. ... I've been in 25 draft rooms, and I've never seen a guy taken off of that ever. I worry about that for him."

Mora seemed like he had sour grapes at the time, but he had a good point. We cannot be sure that Jack will fully heal from his knee injury. Arthritis can develop in any surgically repaired knee, which hurts the long-term outlook and longevity of a career.

For all of his boundless athleticism Jack has 4 INT's, 1 sack, and one forced fumble in 29 games. Assign what value you will to production.

— Keith Mullins (@KeithDeuces) January 13, 2016

The NFL will scout Jack's talent more than production, which helps boost his draft stock. But comparing his collegiate production to that of linebackers who ended up being very good or elite in the NFL shows more cause for concern. Take a look at the numbers comparison below, per DraftCobern.

These numbers represent the percentile rank of Myles Jack's solo tackles in his 29-game career compared to elite NFL linebackers and his closest competition. Jack fails to sniff the area where the finest NFL linebackers were in college, which should raise massive flags.

Someone taking Jack in the top-10 of the draft should be wary of production that is closer to average than not.

Will Myles Jack be the next Ernie Sims? Sims was another great athlete miscast as a traditional linebacker. He bounced around the NFL because of his poor instincts and small frame. I doubt it, since Jack fits the current NFL perfectly as a weak-side linebacker and is exceptionally good at seeing and attacking. Those skills have value but don't project to a top-tier inside linebacker or pass-rusher.

And if not a pass-rusher or an elite middle linebacker prospect, then the value for a weak-side linebacker alone will make Jack go lower than some may expect.

Speaking of elite physical specimens at linebacker, Kwon Alexander fell to the 124th overall pick in 2015, and he had a very similar skill set. Stephone Anthony was a better overall player and still an elite athlete for the position, but he went 30th overall in 2015.

Can Jack be a great, impactful player? Yes, in time he can be.

However, what he starred at in college is not what he will be asked to do in the NFL. That gives major cause for concern, especially when talking about a top-10 pick.

 

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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2016 NFL Draft: Myles Jack Is More Projection Than Sure Thing

As college football continues the trend of spreading opponents thin with lavish formations that space defenses out, athletes are moving to positions they'd have never seen two decades ago...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Tim Williams to Return to Alabama: Latest Comments and Reaction

Junior linebacker Tim Williams announced Wednesday he'll return to Alabama for his senior year.

Williams broke the news on Twitter:

Williams finished 2015 second on the Crimson Tide in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (12.5). Both represented a significant improvement over his sophomore season, when he recorded 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss.

According to Matt Zenitz of AL.com, Williams told reporters he received a late-first or an early second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. However, Zenitz wrote head coach Nick Saban "strongly advised" Williams to put the draft off another year.

Staying in school is the smarter decision for Williams, who failed to crack the top 300 on the big board of Bleacher Report's Matt Miller. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. was much higher on Williams' ability, listing him as the third-best outside linebacker. CBS Sports considered him to be a 2017 prospect, ranking him eighth among draft-eligible OLBs.

Alex Byington of the Decatur Daily argued Williams would help his draft stock by becoming a more consistent defender:

The Crimson Tide won't be lacking in talented players along the front seven next year, particularly with defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand and linebacker Rashaan Evans coming back. Having Williams for his senior season is still a major boost to the defense. He could be one of the premier pass-rushers in college football in 2016.

Another good season will only improve Williams' chances of becoming a first-round draft pick as well. Especially since he'll likely have a more prominent role on the Crimson Tide, he can truly emerge as a dominant presence coming off the edge.

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Revisiting Top CFB Players' 2015 NFL Draft Decisions 1 Year Later

With the 2015 college football season officially in the books, the sport's calendar is now transitioning to two important matters—recruiting and the NFL draft.

Departing college players will spend the next several months preparing for the draft and looking to push their stocks even higher in the final few events before the big weekend.

Early draft declarations for underclassmen who are already eligible to go pro have been rampant since the regular season ended, and more and more names—such as Clemson's trio of Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and Mackensie Alexander, per the Independent Mail—are joining the list.

For some, going pro early is an easy call, with the guaranteed money of a first- or a second-round pick waiting. Others have to gamble on their futures and hope they can do enough to get their stock where it needs to be.

Let's take a look back to this time last year, when plenty of the top players in college football where considering whether to declare for the NFL draft or stay in school. 

Who made the right call, and who could've used another year?

 

No-brainers

The NFL Draft Advisory Board tweaked its grading system for underclassmen prior to last year's draft. Now players deciding whether they want to stay in school or go pro receive either a "first round," "second round," or "stay in school" grade.

"We want the kid to make an informed decision," NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said in 2014, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated. "Use our resources, make an informed decision. Each institution has those resources for every prospect and every head coach. The numbers and the facts speak for themselves."

If the recommended target for declaring underclassmen is to get drafted in the first two rounds, then plenty of them made incredibly informed decisions last year.

Heisman-winning quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2015 draft, respectively. Both were Day 1 starters for their new teams, and both have legitimate chances to win Rookie of the Year, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.

Five more underclassmen joined Winston and Mariota in the top 10 of the draft—former Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams, Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

Gurley was a Pro Bowler and a second-team All-Pro, while Cooper was a four-time Rookie of the Week. On a more somber note, No. 3 overall pick Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie minicamp and didn't play at all this season.

Other first-round picks include Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Missouri defensive end Shane Ray and Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson.

Alabama defensive back Landon Collins and Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess were among the underclassmen who were solid second-round picks. Arizona State wide receiver Jaelen Strong, Indiana running back Tevin Coleman and Miami running back Duke Johnson were selected in the third round but still received valuable playing time in 2015.

While every year has horror stories about leaving school too early for the NFL draft, most of the big names who forgo their final college seasons make the right call. 

 

Left too soon

According to Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, 24 of the 84 underclassmen who declared early for the 2015 NFL draft did not get drafted at all.

College football fans may recognize some of the names from that list—USC wide receiver George Farmer and TCU safety Chris Hackett are notables—but none of them were top players at the college level.

Two underclassmen who went early, though, received quite a bit of spotlight during their time on campus but fell into the latter rounds.

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley redshirted before starting two seasons for the Bruins, so he faced the NFL draft question twice during his college career. As Bleacher Report's Dan Hope wrote in November of 2014, Hundley was the "most polarizing quarterback prospect" in the draft:

A three-year starter with pro potential and a university degree, it makes sense for Hundley to move on to the next stage of his career. That said, some believe Hundley would be better served by returning to school for another season, as he still has not yet developed into an NFL-ready signal-caller.

While some draft analysts pegged him as a second-day draft pick, others had him sliding even lower. The latter experts won out, as Hundley was drafted in the fifth round at No. 147 overall by the Green Bay Packers.

As Hope mentioned, Hundley already had his degree from UCLA and three years of experience under his belt. The Bruins also had 5-star quarterback prospect Josh Rosen, his eventual replacement, enrolling early for the 2015 season.

Still, sliding to the fifth round was far from ideal for Hundley and his football future. Another year at UCLA or a possible graduate transfer to another school would've given him more time to round out his skill set for NFL teams.

Gerod Holliman could have used more time at Louisville in order to fine-tune his game.

While the Thorpe Award-winning safety tied an all-time record with 14 interceptions in the 2014 season, Holliman did not win over those at the next level.

"He needs to go back to school," an unnamed NFL scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He's horrible. He can't make a tackle to save his life. He's got pretty good instincts, but he's not that athletic."

While some analysts weren't as harsh on Holliman as that scout, the former Cardinal fell all the way down to the seventh round and the 239th overall pick. He was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers before the season began and is now a practice squad member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Holliman's rough first year as a pro is that he was only a redshirt sophomore in 2014. He had two more years of college eligibility left.

But there's an exception to every rule, and Stefon Diggs was just that in 2015.

The former Maryland wide receiver left school early and was selected in the fifth round of the draft—a low spot for a declaring underclassmen.

However, Diggs finished the season better than some first-round selections and made plenty of teams regret passing on him in the draft.

He was second among rookies in yards and touchdown catches despite being inactive for the first four games of the year, according to Jeff Ermann of 247Sports.

 

Way to stay

Patience is going to pay off—literally—in the future for a good number of draft prospects that opted to stay in school for the 2015 season.

One of the players who saw his stock soar with one more year is Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day. According to Pete Sampson of Rivals, the Irish defensive lineman received a "stay in school" grade from the Advisory Board, and he listened.

In 2015, Day more than doubled his tackles for loss (7.5 to 15.5) and quadrupled his sack total (one to four) while anchoring an experienced Notre Dame defense. 

"He wants to help this football team as a captain, and I think—he came back for a reason," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November, per JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. "He came back so this would be his best year and help Notre Dame and help himself, and I think he's living up to all those things."

Day has jumped from "stay in school" to the No. 54 overall prospect in the latest big board from Bleacher Report NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller.

Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper did something similar by staying with the Sooners for a College Football Playoff run. He rebounded from a rough 2014 season and is now Miller's No. 73 overall recruit.

The Michigan State duo of defensive end Shilique Calhoun and quarterback Connor Cook had strong seasons for the Big Ten champions. Both were projected to be somewhere around late-first round or second-round picks in 2015, and they kept their stocks strong this fall.

Georgia defensive end Leonard Floyd was a possible first-round pick heading into last year's draft process, but he decided to stay in Athens for one more season. Now, the first-round designation seems like a lock for the edge-rusher.

"You guys [the media] are too low on Leonard Floyd," a scout told Miller in early December. "He's going to be top 10 for us."

 

Stayed too long

These stories are rare, but they happen every now and then in college football—a player's stock soars ahead of the draft, and their decisions to stay in school don't pan out at all.

One of the biggest examples of this is the most famous name from last year's College Football Playoff.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones only needed three starts to have NFL scouts salivating over his pro potential. He replaced the injured J.T. Barrett and showed a tremendous arm and power-running style during the Buckeyes' national title run.

Jones' future was one of the hottest debates during the first few cold days of 2015, and he decided to stay in Columbus and battle to become the Buckeyes' full-time starter.

The 6'5", 250-pound quarterback wasn't consistent in the first seven weeks of the season, and he was ultimately benched for Barrett. He didn't take a single snap during the final three games of the campaign.

As Miller told Bleacher Report Big Ten Football Lead Writer Ben Axelrod, Jones "would have easily been the third QB drafted" behind Winston and Mariota last year. His stock after the national title game couldn't have been any higher.

Now, Miller doesn't even have him as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the 2016 class. 

"If he interviewed well, I think he's still drafted," Miller told Axelrod. "But he's a project based on potential, and not being able to show that potential makes him a Day 3 [Rounds 4-7] guy."

Another breakout star of the 2014 season, former Auburn wide receiver D'haquille Williams' future turned south in an even bigger way this past year.

A former No. 1 JUCO prospect, Williams was a reception machine at Auburn, grabbing 45 passes in just 10 games for the Tigers. Analysts loved Williams' physical nature and massive catch radius, and he showed signs of possibly being picked in the first few rounds of 2015's draft.

Then the problems started arising for the wideout.

Williams, who was suspended for the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin and missed two games due to injury, made the surprising decision to stay in school. He was later suspended for the first part of fall practice and only had 12 catches for 147 yards in the first five games of the 2015 season.

Auburn dismissed the former star in early October, and reports emerged later that week that he punched multiple people in an altercation at a bar.

Now Williams is expected to be a late-round pick at best in 2016, according to NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein (via NFL.com's Chase Goodbread):

Tape says he should be drafted inside the first four rounds, maybe the first three, but his character and athleticism are going to probably make him a third-day guy (rounds 4-7). And if the Auburn staff can't support his character when scouts ask about it, he might not even get picked.

That's a long way to fall for a talented wide receiver that had many buzzing this time last year.

 

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

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Big 12 Wins NCAA Vote for Right to Hold Championship Game: Details, Reaction

After playing the last five years without a conference championship game, the Big 12 will bring it back after winning an NCAA vote.    

Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday that the NCAA vote granted the Big 12 its right to stage a title game featuring the top two teams in the conference during the regular season. 

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Power Ranking Top 25 College Football Coaches

Alabama coach Nick Saban claimed his fifth national championship on Monday night, the fourth with the Crimson Tide in just the last seven seasons. That puts him in elite company, as only legendary 'Bama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant has claimed more national titles.

With this latest championship in hand, Saban is sure to rank among the greatest coaches in college football history when his career is done. But what about among current FBS head coaches?

We've listed the 25 best coaches who will be on the sidelines for the 2016 season, their ranking determined by a combination of overall success, what they've done recently and how well-regarded they are in the industry. Only coaches who were in their current job in 2015 were considered, since the likes of Justin Fuente (Memphis), Bronco Mendenhall (Virginia) and Mark Richt (Miami, Florida) have yet to show what they can do in their new gig.

Check out how everyone stacked up, then give us your thoughts in the comments section.

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TE over DE: 4-Star ATH Devin Asiasi Looking to Play Offense in College

With a little more than nine minutes remaining in last Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl, 4-star athlete Devin Asiasi caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Stanford Cardinals quarterback commit K.J. Costello to extend the West's lead over the East. The touchdown capped a 37-9 West win.

The touchdown helped support the "pro" argument of Asiasi playing tight end at the next level. The "con" argument involves putting the 6'3", 270-pound athlete on the defensive line as a defensive end.

For Asiasi, convincing everyone that he can play tight end has been a little tougher than originally expected. Asiasi wants to play tight end in college, even though many are still saying that he'd make more of an impact on the other side of the ball.

"In general, people think I'm going to be a D-end. I want to play tight end. That's where my heart's at," said Asiasi, who played both positions for De La Salle High School in Concord, California. "I'm going to come out every day and prove myself that I can be a tight end at the next level. That's where my mentality is every day."

Asiasi said he's considering schools that will allow him to live out his college dreams of becoming a reliable offensive option. On the weekend of Jan. 15, he will make the first of three official visits this month, as he takes in Washington. Asiasi, who has 22 reported offers, will visit the Michigan Wolverines the weekend of Jan. 22, and he'll visit the USC Trojans the weekend of Jan. 29.

A fourth school to keep an eye on is UCLA. Asiasi took an official visit to UCLA last month, and with Asiasi's recruiting contact from USC, Marques Tuiasosopo, leaving the Trojans to become the quarterbacks coach at UCLA, the Bruins are a team to watch for national signing day. Prior to Tuisasosopo's departure, USC was considered a favorite to land Asiasi.

The new national champion Alabama Crimson Tide round out Asiasi's top five. All five schools are solid options. And, perhaps more importantly, all of the schools are allowing Asiasi to play on the offensive side of the ball.

"I come out every day working hard to get blocking techniques down and schemes down," he said. "I'm going to prove I can do it every day."

De La Salle won the CIF Open Division state championship last month, and Asiasi, used more as a blocking tight end, caught 17 passes for 311 yards and five touchdowns this season, per MaxPreps.com. Defensively, Asiasi finished with 49 tackles, five pass deflections and four sacks as a defensive end.

Because of his versatility, Asiasi is listed as a jumbo athlete and is ranked No. 4 in the 2016 class among all athletes. He is ranked No. 51 overall in the class.

Statistically, it's easy to see why many feel his ticket to early playing time in college would come as a defender. To Asiasi, however, playing tight end fulfills a dream he said he's had since he was a young boy.

For now, it's all about finding the right place to fulfill that dream.

"I'm just looking for a good position coach, someone who can get me ready for the next level," Asiasi said. "I want to be around good people and be at a place where I can graduate in three-and-a-half years. Life after football is important to me."

"The winning school will get everything I can provide. Whatever the coaches want me to do, that's what I'll be there for. Hopefully, I can elevate my game to the next level."

 

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

 

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Super Early Top 25 Preseason Poll for 2016 College Football Season

The 2015-16 college football season is officially in the rearview mirror. So, what do you do now? Stare longingly out a window for eight months? Pick up a couple of new avocations? Re-watch highlights on YouTube all day?

There's no wrong answer, but you can also take a blindfold and start throwing darts at a board to project next year's Top 25. That's what we're doing.

(Kidding. This is a touch more scientific than that.)  

After all, it's never too early to look ahead. Otherwise, what else would we talk about in the offseason?

As with every way-too-early Top 25, this is not a projection of how teams will finish the season or their path to the College Football Playoff/national championship in 2016. On the contrary, it's a ranking of the teams right now heading into the offseason based on who's coming back from a coaching and personnel standpoint. 

With that said, take a gander at B/R's official way-too-early poll and sound off in the comment section below. Then, you can go back to looking out your window. 

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What's Left for Alabama's Nick Saban to Do in College Football?

It took until his third head coaching job, but in 2004, at the ripe old age of 51, Nick Saban had finally arrived atop the mountain. Holding up the crystal ball after beating Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game at the Sugar Bowl, few could have predicted the wild ride the then-LSU coach was about to embark on over the next decade-plus.

But here we stand. That one title led to an NFL gig, which later begat an escape from the league to the comforts of Tuscaloosa. The rest, as they say, is history, and things continued to roll right along for Saban as he put the finishing touches on his fifth title Monday night in dramatic fashion against Clemson.

The resume is now an all-timer for the son of a West Virginia gas station owner, putting Saban one ring behind fellow Alabama titan Bear Bryant for most in history by a college head coach. Considering Saban’s five came in the modern era of 85-man scholarship limits, 24/7 coverage and national recruiting competitiveness, one realizes that all that "greatest of all time" talk is both real and warranted.

That’s why, after he stood on the stage at University of Phoenix Stadium to collect that shiny new national championship trophy once again, one cannot help but wonder: Is there anything left for Saban to accomplish in college football?

When asked about his legacy at his press conference following the title game, Saban said:

I really haven't thought about it. After somebody asked me that question the other day, the first thing that came to my mind was my first game at Michigan State when we played Nebraska, when Tom Osborne was the coach, and we got beat like, 56-7, and I had been in the NFL for four years, and I'm saying, 'We may never win a game as a college coach.'

I learned a lesson that day, and you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game. So I've never really ever thought too much about all that. I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for all the players who have played for us, came to our school, bought into our program, did the things that they needed to do to have a chance to experience a championship, whether it was at LSU or the four at Alabama.

That's where most of my appreciation lies, with the players.

Let’s start with those players, and the fact that Saban is pretty good at identifying great ones and making them better. The seeds of this year’s title came from the quick development of his 2015 recruiting class, ranked No. 1 in the country in the 247Sports composite team rankings. That's an impressive accomplishment, but it's overshadowed by the fact it was the fifth straight year Alabama finished No. 1 overall.

Nothing encapsulated Saban’s dominance in recruiting more than during a key stretch in the fourth quarter of this year’s title game. After storming back to take a 31-24 lead, the Tide were in danger of letting Clemson retake momentum as they marched down into the red zone following O.J. Howard’s second score of the night.

With most of the defensive line huffing and puffing from the Tigers’ uptempo attack, Alabama rotated in defensive end Da’Shawn Hand. A former 5-star recruit who was ranked by some recruiting services as the No. 1 player in the country, Hand tracked down heroic quarterback Deshaun Watson to drop him for a loss that effectively killed any momentum Clemson had.

The defensive stand eventually led to a field goal, which Alabama responded to with a 95-yard touchdown return by Kenyan Drake, a 4-star tailback back in high school who had to find carries behind a few first-round picks and a Heisman Trophy winner in his college career. That stretch all but put the game away halfway through the fourth quarter.

There’s depth, and there’s Alabama depth. Nobody in college football comes close to the latter.

Then there’s the hardware to go with that. And no, we’re not just talking about the championship rings.

Running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy this season, the second such player to win that prestigious award under Saban during his time in Tuscaloosa (the school had zero before his arrival). Additionally, Crimson Tide players have taken home the Maxwell (twice), Walter Camp, Doak Walker (twice), Biletnikoff, Butkus (twice), Outland (twice), Rimington (twice) and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards. Saban himself has won every major coaching award.

The only hole, if you want to call it that, is the fact that no defensive back (Saban’s coaching specialty) has won the Thorpe Award.

Accepting the Grantland Rice Trophy at another press conference, the coach added:

You remember all the lessons that you learned in terms of developing a process that works for young people to have a chance to be successful, a team dynamic that gives you a chance to be successful, and right now as long as I'm going to continue to do this, I'm going to keep things in perspective and look forward and not backward.

I think it's a tremendous accomplishment by a lot of great people, a lot of great coaches and a lot of great players, a lot of whom were at the game last night. That really makes us proud that they're great ambassadors for the university and always happy to come home.

But I can't really talk to you much more about the perspective and the significance of this, because moving forward, it doesn't really mean a lot.

That’s the Saban we are all used to, the one who watched film of the national title game on the plane ride home and who was no doubt fired up for Wednesday morning’s staff meeting. He is relentless and shows no sign of slowing down to keep the Alabama dynasty on top.

This is not a column arguing for the greatest college football coach in history to give it another go in the NFL. The open New York Giants job would be interesting, no doubt, but the college game is better with Saban in it.

Many within the industry believe the next stop for Saban is College GameDay or a similar broadcasting gig, not a different sideline.

The fact is Saban belongs in college football's Mount Rushmore of coaches. The problem with standing on the mountaintop for so long, however, is that there is nothing left to climb. When one is a perfectionist whose whole process is dedicated to taking the next step, that might be an issue.

Yet it isn’t for the uniquely wired Saban.

He’ll still be recruiting a top class for February and will still field a top-five team in September with designs on another title. There may be nothing left to add to that illustrious resume beyond a sixth ring to tie Bryant and leave no doubt as to who is the GOAT. Even then, it wouldn’t add much validation to the already impressive job the head coach has done in his stops across the college football landscape.

There’s simply nothing left for Nick Saban to do in college football, and yet we shouldn’t be surprised at all if he winds up back on that big stage once again in the near future, accepting another trophy. That’s what he does, as the chase for another begins again in 2016.

 

Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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10 Best Teams That Lost College Football National Championship Games

History is indeed written by the victors, and in college football, history can often forget those who came the closest to putting their own names into the books.

Since the arrival of the BCS in the 1998 season, there have been 18 national championship games in college football. Many of the 18 winners are well-known for their excellence, but what about those who fell short of winning it all?

Where does this season's Clemson team rank compared to other runners-up?

Here are the top 10 teams that lost either a BCS or a College Football Playoff National Championship. These rankings were determined by three factors—average point differential (the difference between scoring offense and scoring defense), strength of schedule (a given number rating from Sports-Reference.com) and the quality of the teams' losses.

It's difficult to try to objectively compare teams from different seasons, but this list is based on which title-losing teams were the most dominant with respect to the quality of opponents they faced that year. 

Tell us how you would rank the teams that lost title games in the BCS/CFP era in the comments below.

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Breaking Down Florida's Wild Offseason QB Battle

During a typical offseason, if a team returns a quarterback who finished each of the last two seasons as a starter, it would qualify as a pretty strong foundation no matter what other pieces are around him.

Florida's offense this offseason, though, is anything but stable.

Junior Treon Harris will return after ascending to the top spot on the depth chart in the middle of each of the last two seasons, but he completed just 47.8 percent of his passes once the calendar changed to November and seemed like a square peg in a round hole in head coach Jim McElwain's system from the jump.

Will Harris win the job out of fall camp, or will another contender out of a group step up? 

Let's break down the contenders:

 

Junior Treon Harris

Harris obviously has the most experience, which will be beneficial for McElwain's crew considering the woes of the offensive line and the absence of last year's starting running back, Kelvin Taylor. Having somebody back there who has been through the rigors of the season, knows the speed of the game and is comfortable with the simple things like getting plays in and players lined up is important.

But Harris' upside simply isn't there.

He is erratic with the football, struggles to go through reads and doesn't have the touch that McElwain-coached quarterbacks need to be successful.

As former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe pointed out on Twitter, Harris has the kind of reputation no player wants.

Experience matters, as does his elusiveness and ability to create behind the line of scrimmage when the protection breaks down. 

Will that be enough to earn him the starting job? Probably not. He is going to have to improve his decision-making and his accuracy if he wants to win the job coming out of fall camp.

Outlook: Not likely the starter

 

Junior Luke Del Rio

The long and winding patch to Gainesville for junior Luke Del Rio has taken the California native to Alabama and Oregon State, but after sitting out his transfer year in 2015, the former Elite 11 quarterback is ready to contend for the starting quarterback job at Florida.

Does he have what it takes?

The 6'1", 216-pounder has a big arm, experience in a variety of systems, knows what to expect out of McElwain after spending time on the Gator scout team a year ago and will likely enter spring practice as the top contender to earn the job.

As GatorCountry.com's Nick de la Torre pointed out during Florida's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan, Del Rio has fans in the Gators coaching staff.

The journeyman has seen a lot but doesn't have a ton of experience. He completed just eight of his 18 passes for 141 yards as Sean Mannion's backup in 2014. That's not a lot to work off of.

He's much more of a natural fit for McElwain's offense than Harris, and the experience he gained last year while sitting out should allow him to hit the ground running and become one of the favorites exiting spring practice provided he stays healthy.

Outlook: Probable starter

 

Senior Austin Appleby

If McElwain wants a quarterback who has the arm and stature to stand tall in the pocket, Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby might be his guy.

The 6'5", 239-pound former starter for the Boilermakers made 11 starts, threw for 2,777 yards and tossed 19 touchdowns over the last three seasons, but he lost his job to hotshot freshman David Blough in 2015.

A former Elite 11 finalist, Appleby isn't as familiar with the system as Harris or Del Rio, but he has had more success at the college level than Del Rio and is a much better fit for the ideal Gators offense.

With Blough out with a concussion, Appleby got the start in Purdue's final game of the regular season against Indiana. He went out with a bang, as Brady Ackerman of Florida Sports Talk and the Gator Radio Network noted on Twitter:

He'll have to learn the system on the fly in a crowded race, which is never an easy thing to do. If he picks it up, though, he could turn out to be one of the most important graduate transfers of the offseason.

Outlook: Possible starter

 

Freshman Feleipe Franks

True freshman early enrollee Feleipe Franks is the future of the quarterback position, and one of the biggest questions facing McElwain this spring is deciding whether the future is now.

The U.S. Army All-American from Crawfordville, Florida, flipped from LSU to the Gators last fall and has everything the staff wants from a quarterback. At 6'5", 210 pounds with a big arm and solid accuracy, he is a perfect fit for the Florida program.

It's not a matter of "if," but a matter of "when" for Franks. 

The beauty of Florida's current quarterback battle is, while the position has been a sore spot since Tim Tebow moved on after the 2009 season, Del Rio's eligibility and the decision to transfer to the program by Appleby actually gives McElwain some flexibility on how he fits his future quarterback into the mix.

"When" might not be the first series against UMass on September 3, but he will likely be part of the game plan in some capacity as the season goes on. He has all of the talent to be a superstar, and the staff will find out just how ready he is during the season and usher him along as needed.

Outlook: Won't start but could end the season as starter

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

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

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Jayron Kearse Declares for 2016 NFL Draft: Latest Comments and Reaction

Clemson Tigers safety Jayron Kearse won't return for his senior year, opting instead to enter the 2016 NFL draft.

Kearse took to Instagram to announce his decision Wednesday. He wound up with 62 total tackles (6.5 for loss), six passes defensed and one interception in his final college season, per CFBStats.com.

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Way-Too-Early 2016 Big Ten Football Power Rankings

The 2015 Big Ten season is officially in the books and although the conference doesn't once again find itself the home of the defending national champions, it'd be hard to look at the past year as anything but a step forward for the league.

From the resurgence of Michigan under its new head coach to 10 teams finding themselves participating in bowl games and the emergences of several new stars and an unlikely playoff contender, there was no shortage of positives to be found in the Big Ten in 2015. But although bowl season just ended, it's never too early to start looking ahead to the future, as spring practice for the 2016 season will be here before you know it.

Who will dominate the headlines for the conference in the coming year? That remains to be seen.

But while we're waiting, here's a look at some way-too-early Big Ten power rankings for 2016.

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Shaq Lawson Declares for 2016 NFL Draft: Latest Comments and Reaction

Clemson Tigers defensive end Shaq Lawson announced Wednesday he will skip his senior season and declare for the 2016 NFL draft:  

The 6'3'', 275-pound junior is No. 14 on Matt Miller of Bleacher Report's big board and the No. 2 overall defensive end prospect.

Dane Brugler and Rob Rang of CBSSports.com described Lawson as having a "terrific motor:"

Lawson's compact frame and power make him equally effective against the run and the pass, where he shows surprising initial quickness and agility as well as a terrific motor. He has quick, strong hands to create push with his upper-body strength, showing the fluid lower body to drive his legs and smoothly change directions based on his reads.

Lawson is terrific leveraging blocks off the edge, using an iron shoulder and natural body flexibility to dictate his path and beat single blocks. Does a nice job setting the edge and playing contain, working off his blocks to the outside and finishing in space.

Lawson, a 2015 Consensus All-America selection, had a combined 7.5 sacks his first two years before registering 12.5 this season as Clemson made it to the final of the College Football Playoff where it lost to Alabama.

Lawson battled a knee injury during the latter stages of the campaign. At one point, he listed the pain from the ailment at an eight on a 10-point scale, per College Football 24/7. He fought through the issue to register four tackles and two sacks in the team's loss to the Crimson Tide in the national title game.

NFL teams will surely want to take a look at the medical information during the draft process to see if there's any reason for long-term concern stemming from the knee problem.

He's got a terrific opportunity to land in the first half of Round 1, and potentially even inside the top 10, if there are no lingering health issues. His combination of size, power and small-space quickness makes him an ideal edge-rusher in today's NFL.

Lawson must continue to improve against the run, and he'll likely need to add some more moves to his arsenal in order to make a consistent pass-rushing impact at the next level. Those are not uncommon areas of concern for an incoming rookie, though.

The more important thing is his skill set, which is highly impressive. He's capable of stepping right into the lineup on Day 1 and steadily developing into a force off the edge over the next few years.

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Kevin Dodd Declares for 2016 NFL Draft: Latest Comments and Reaction

Following a dominant performance in the Clemson Tigers' College Football Playoff National Championship Game loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, defensive end Kevin Dodd officially declared for the 2016 NFL draft Wednesday.

According to David Hood of TigerNet.com, Dodd released a statement explaining his decision to forgo his senior season through Element Sports Group:

After speaking with my family, I have decided to apply for early entry into the 2016 NFL draft. Leaving Clemson is an extremely tough decision, but I truly feel like I am physically and mentally ready for the next challenge. We had an amazing season. I am so proud of what we accomplished, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to play football here at Clemson. Thank you to my coaches, especially Coach (Dabo) Swinney, Coach (Brent) Venables and Coach (Marion) Hobby for all they have done for me. Thank you to my teammates and all of the academic and athletic staff here at Clemson as well. I will be staying in Clemson this spring in order to complete my degree and graduate this coming May. Clemson football has given me opportunities I never thought were possible. I am so proud to be a Tiger and will always be a Tiger! Clemson is truly a special place—thank you for everything.

Dodd finished the 2015 campaign with 62 tackles and 12 sacks, and he figures to be among the most highly sought-after pass-rushers in his class.

The Taylors, South Carolina, native dominated Alabama to the tune of three sacks on Jake Coker. While it wasn't enough to lift the Tigers to a national title, it undoubtedly improved his draft status.

Per Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, Dodd is a strong candidate to be selected within the first two rounds in April:

Dodd is somewhat of a late bloomer, as he didn't have a single sack in his collegiate career until 2015, but he broke out in a big way with 23.5 tackles for loss in addition to the 12 times he got to the quarterback.

While Dodd isn't quite at the same level as edge-rushers like Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Georgia's Leonard Floyd due to the fact that his resume is a fairly short one, his ability to perform on the big stage is something that should appeal to many NFL talent evaluators.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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Michigan Football: 5 Commits with Most Immediate-Impact Potential

Michigan football's highly rated recruiting class is full of untapped potential, but only a handful of currently committed players are ready to make an instant impact in 2016.

Now, expectations should be tempered. It's rare for a true freshman to perform well enough to immediately earn a rotational spot, let alone a starting role.

Enrolling early does help, however, and the Wolverines have welcomed seven new faces to campus during the spring semester. Not every player mentioned here is already in Ann Arbor, but most are.

The key factors used while creating the list were a given prospect's skill set, projected ability to adapt to the college game and roster need.

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Early Predictions for Biggest 2016 College QB Battles

As one college football season ends, we square our attention on another.

And where else to start but at quarterback?

Quarterbacks are football's leading men and make a disproportionate difference in an otherwise team-driven sport. Therefore, offseason quarterback battles are like casting decisions made public. It's an intrigue on par with almost any actual game.

Last year, I nailed most predictions, but also had big swings and misses. A lot of that concerned future transfer news, as Everett Golson joining Florida State (and leaving Notre Dame), Vernon Adams Jr. joining Oregon and Greyson Lambert joining Georgia changed the spectrum of those battles after my article was published.

This year, with pieces such as Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb and Pittsburgh transfer Chad Voytik on the board, I expect something similar to happen. Only this time, as it does, I will come back in and update my predictions to reflect the new battles.

Until then, this is based on the best information we have available at the time, plus my personal belief about certain quarterbacks.

Sound off and let me know where you disagree!

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Way-Too-Early 2016 SEC Football Power Rankings

Alabama is fresh off the airplane after toppling Clemson 45-40 in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night, but it's never too early to start breaking down the 2016 season.

Will the Crimson Tide win their third straight SEC title? Who else will compete for the playoff? Which teams will regress?

Our way-too-early 2016 power rankings based on talent, returning starters and trajectory are in this slideshow. 

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Ohio State Football: Looking Ahead to the Buckeyes' Brutal 2016 Schedule

It feels like an annual tradition for fans of other teams to criticize the perceived weakness of Ohio State's schedule, but with the brutal slate that lies ahead of the Buckeyes in 2016, that custom should come to an unceremonious end. 

Urban Meyer's squad is already facing the mountainous task of replacing a load of NFL talent—an undertaking that will require finding eight new starters on each side of the ball. Many of those holes will be filled by underclassmen, so Ohio State will take on one of the most challenging schedules with one of the most inexperienced teams in the country.

Will Meyer be able to get his young Buckeyes ready for this gauntlet? 

 

The Nonconference Slate

Even the gimme games aren't really gimmes. 

The Buckeyes will open the season against Bowling Green, the reigning MAC champion and a team that knocked off two Big Ten squads in 2015—Maryland and Purdue. The Falcons will have to replace quarterback Matt Johnson, who piled up an incredible 5,105 yards of offense and 50 touchdowns as a senior.

A week later, Ohio State will host an explosive Tulsa team that ranked 13th nationally in total offense (averaging 507.4 yards per game in 2015) and 21st in scoring offense (37.2).

But those games will serve as a warmup to one of the most highly anticipated nonconference games of the year when Ohio State heads south for a showdown with Oklahoma. 

The Sooners—who were knocked out of the College Football Playoff by Clemson on New Year's Eve—are projected by Ryan McCrystal of Bleacher Report as the No. 2 team, and they are expected to make another playoff run in 2016. They return seven starters on both sides of the ball, highlighted by quarterback Baker Mayfield, who exploded for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns (against just seven interceptions) to complement 405 yards and seven scores on the ground last season.

Facing that veteran squad on the road in what will most likely be a prime-time game will be a stiff challenge for a green Ohio State team.

 

B1G Play

2016 is the year the Big Ten shifts to a nine-game conference slate, so Ohio State won't be able to squeeze in a tuneup game before league play.

Fortunately for Meyer, Ohio State will have a bye week following the big showdown with Oklahoma, then the Buckeyes open conference play against a rebuilding Rutgers team and an Indiana squad that's losing a ton of offensive firepower—namely quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard.

But things take a decidedly hard turn after the Indiana game, when Ohio State makes back-to-back road trips to two of college football's most hostile environments—at Wisconsin and Penn State. The Badgers surged under new head coach Paul Chryst, winning 10 games in 2015, and they'll be geared up to host Ohio State for the first time since 2012.

The Northwestern Wildcats aren't the walkover they used to be, and Ohio State will have to deal with them before kicking off November with a home bout against Nebraska. A week later, the Buckeyes will hit the road to take on Maryland before the most difficult stretch of the schedule.

Like in 2015, Ohio State will close out next season with back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan. Of course, with the alternate venues, it'll be the Buckeyes traveling to East Lansing to face the Spartans before coming home to host the Wolverines. 

Both Michigan State and Michigan will be breaking in new quarterbacks in 2016 but by the time November rolls around, both should be fully entrenched in their respective offenses. The Buckeyes will be looking to avenge the lone loss of their 2015 campaign, while the Wolverines will be gunning for revenge after the humiliating 42-13 blowout loss they suffered at the hands of Ohio State last November.

With these two games at the tail end of the schedule, it's likely that the East Division will come down to the wire—again—in 2016.

 

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

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