It's incredibly challenging to stand out among a group of high school football stars, but that's what it takes to become an elite college recruit and, ultimately, an impact player at the next level.
A summer filled with competitive, talent-laden showcases has seeped into a fresh season, shining the spotlight on seniors who make up the 2016 class. We witnessed some incredible efforts from several of these prospects in past months, validating hype created by impressive junior campaigns.
The athleticism in some instances can appropriately be termed "freakish," resulting in highlights that turn heads across the field. Here's a peek at eight top performers who make the difficult plays look easy and wow onlookers with sheer athletic prowess.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame football dives into a season loaded with expectations with a prime-time matchup against Texas on Saturday.
The marquee meeting pits the Irish, the second-most successful FBS program with 882 wins, against the Longhorns, the No. 3 school with 881 wins, under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. It’s such a high-profile clash that Texas head coach Charlie Strong has been showing his Longhorns video clips of both programs, not shying away from the game’s magnitude.
“I just wanted to take them back so they could go back and just realize what they're stepping into and just how big this game is,” Strong told reporters Monday.
For Notre Dame, Saturday marks the opening act in a season with high hopes. A veteran team with a slew of returning starters has its sights set on a run to the College Football Playoff.
Texas, meanwhile, is in the second year of Strong’s regime, as the former Louisville head coach and Notre Dame assistant aims to vault the Longhorns back among the nation’s elite. In his first season in Austin, Texas limped to a 6-7 campaign.
“A year ago, I was really just still trying to figure out my team and not knowing how we were going to take the field,” Strong said. “Now that you're a year into it, you feel like you have a better feel for it. Even just the whole preparation, how they come about it.”
Date: Saturday, September 5
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Place: Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, Indiana
Radio: IMG College Sports, SiriusXM Channel 129
Spread: -9 Notre Dame, according to Odds Shark
Atlanta running back Elijah Holyfield has a decision to make.
Does he choose the school his older brother attended, or does he choose the school his father's always had an appreciation for?
Or—and this could happen—does the 4-star prospect write his own ticket and choose another school?
These are some of the questions that will be answered Friday at Woodward Academy when Holyfield, the nation's No. 5 running back, commits to the college of his choice. Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are the schools in the race.
Georgia and Auburn are the two schools considered to be the front-runners, according to Holyfield's 247Sports Crystal Ball. Georgia holds the lead over Auburn, per the predictions. And with Georgia's reputation for its ground game and the backs who have come through the program, look for the Bulldogs to win this competitive recruiting battle.
Of the two schools, Georgia is considered a slight favorite, as Holyfield has built great relationships with head coach Mark Richt, running backs coach Thomas Brown and offensive coach Brian Schottenheimer. Holyfield told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he first received the offer last September that Georgia "has been my favorite team since I was young."
Holyfield watched Knowshon Moreno, Todd Gurley and other backs come through Georgia's system, and he's watching current backs Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall and Sony Michel put work in for Richt and the coaching staff. Georgia also happens to be the school that Holyfield's father, former world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, has followed for quite some time.
Dad's favorite player? Herschel Walker.
"I'm a Georgia Bulldogs fan," the elder Holyfield told 247Sports' Keith Neibuhr at The Opening in July in Oregon. "I've always been a Bulldog. I always cheered for the Bulldogs. There was just something about the Bulldogs."
There's Georgia, but the Holyfield house also knows Auburn quite well. Elijah's older brother, Evander Holyfield Jr., ran track and was a walk-on football player at Auburn a few years back.
Elijah Holyfield has been in contact with several members of the Auburn coaching staff since landing the offer in January. Holyfield has an established relationship with head coach Gus Malzahn, running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
Holyfield has two solid SEC schools to choose from in Georgia and Auburn, but Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee could be schools that end the running back's recruiting process with a twist. Alabama offered in April, and he was at a camp in May.
South Carolina offered in January, and he's made a couple of unofficial visits. Tennessee offered him near the end of his sophomore year, and he's made several visits to the campus since.
Holyfield wants to attend a school where he can put up big numbers and help his team get victories. As a junior, he rushed for 1,735 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also showed his ability to be a pass-catching back, finishing the year with 27 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
Friday will be the day one of the SEC schools gets a big recruiting win. Ask his father, and a decision—which is all in his son's court—is fairly simple.
"To me, it's about education and looking at his profile—what it’s going to take for him to be the very best and not make the mistakes that I made," Holyfield told Niebuhr. "He's proven that he can play ball. ... My thing is, because what I went through, I want to make sure he has a good education, because you can't play ball the rest of your life."
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It has begun.
It's been eight long months since hardcore college football fans have been without that for which they live and breathe. Eight long months since they saw the Ohio State Buckeyes hoist the national championship trophy in the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff.
But now, it's on—football is back! And Week 1 offers some intriguing matchups sure to whet the whistle of everyone who can't wait till Saturdays.
With questions about their starting quarterback still lingering, Nick Saban's Alabama team kicks off the season with a tough game against the always-pesky Wisconsin Badgers in a neutral-site game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Two traditional college football powerhouse programs face off as Notre Dame hosts Texas. The Longhorns are looking to put a disappointing 2014 season in the rearview as the Charlie Strong era begins to take shape. And Notre Dame is hoping new starting QB Malik Zaire can be the man to carry them to CFB's promised land.
Will Auburn's new starting QB Jeremy Johnson live up to the hype already being thrown at him? The Tigers host Louisville in a nonconference throwdown.
Out west, Arizona State hopes to improve on an impressive 2014 campaign but will face a tough test against the Texas A&M Aggies in a battle of two high-powered offenses. Don't blink in this one, or you might miss something great.
Our fifth game this week sees the Nebraska Cornhuskers host BYU and features the return of the Cougars' do-everything quarterback Taysom Hill, who returns after fracturing his leg in a game against Utah State last season.
Each week of the 2015 season, Bleacher Report’s college football experts Adam Kramer, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee, Ben Kercheval and Greg Couch will be making their predictions on the top five games of the week. These five have a strong background in college football and bring great knowledge and insight to readers.
Whether you agree or disagree with our expert picks, be sure to sound off in the comments below!
*All picks made straight up. Spread is not a factor.
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The start of a new college football season usually means nonconference play for most schools—a carryover from the league vs. league action that ended the previous campaign.
Some of the top teams in separate conferences will collide over the first few weeks of the season, paving the way for the all-important matchups at the end of the year.
This season, the SEC is looking to end its short two-year drought of national championships, while the rest of the Power Five conferences hope to build on their recent successes.
On the eve of college football's long-awaited return, let's take stock of each conference in FBS football and power rank them. These rankings were based on how each league finished last season in the polls, how they are shaping up according to preseason polls and their top-to-bottom strength—how many bad programs weigh them down?
Let us know which conference you think is the best in college football and which ones should be ranked higher or lower in the comments below.
The rivalry between Notre Dame and USC often spills over to the recruiting trail, and this year figures to bring another heated tug of war between the two titans over 4-star linebacker Daelin Hayes.
The 6'4", 235-pound Michigan native has been committed to the Trojans for more than a year.
However, as Tom Loy of Irish247 noted, Hayes has locked in a visit to South Bend on Oct. 17, when the Irish will square off against the Trojans.
But is USC in danger of losing its most tenured pledge of the 2016 cycle?
Hayes is saying the right things about still being committed, but with this latest development, it certainly appears to leave the possibility open for a switch down the road.
"I'm committed to USC, but I look forward to getting down on my official visit to Notre Dame and seeing what the Irish have to offer," Hayes told Loy.
Loy also notes a trip to this weekend's season opener against Texas isn't out of the question for Hayes.
Hayes insists his flirtation with the Irish is simply a matter of covering his bases in case something happens with USC, according to Loy:
I spoke to head coach Brian Kelly and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. With the recent events going on at USC, I've wanted to keep doors open. I talked to Coach Kelly and Coach Gilmore about setting up an official visit to Notre Dame. My official visit date will be predicated on when I'm free and when we don't have something going on with my team, because they're my first priority. I'm going to get down to South Bend and see what they're talking about and hopefully continue to build a relationship with Notre Dame.
Despite Hayes being a longtime verbal to the Trojans, Kelly and his staff have continued to push for him to consider the Irish.
As Loy detailed, Hayes actually grew up a fan of the Irish, which he admits has kept the program on his mind:
Notre Dame has always been there. Growing up, it was always the dream school. With USC, I had never seen California when I went out there. So, I went out there and fell in love with California, the school and the coaches, so I pulled the trigger on it. Notre Dame was always in the back of my mind though.
There are still a lot of positives for the Trojans in the quest to retain Hayes' commitment.
The fact he will get a glimpse of the Trojans squad on his official visit to Notre Dame can be viewed as a positive.
However, if Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff hope to hold onto Hayes, at the minimum, it appears there's work to be done in holding off the Irish.
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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Fact: The last preseason college football No. 1 team to win the AP Nat'l Championship was USC in 2004
Bleacher Report will be bringing sports fans the most interesting and engaging Cold Hard Fact of the day, presented by Coors Light.
Source: ESPN Stats & Info
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When Michigan kicks off its 2015 campaign against Utah on Thursday night, it will officially bring an end to an offseason unlike any other in school history.
From collecting the most Twitter followers of any head coach to being at the forefront of a summer-long debate over satellite camps to even assisting the victims of a car crash and every awkward radio interview in between, Jim Harbaugh has pushed the Wolverines to the forefront of the college football world before even coaching a game at his alma mater.
The reigning national champions may be Michigan's rival to the south, but the Wolverines have become college football's most talked-about team this offseason, as a palpable buzz has emanated from Ann Arbor throughout the spring and summer. The positive publicity for Michigan this offseason has been undeniable, as evidenced by the Wolverines laying claim to the nation's seventh-ranked recruiting class for 2016, despite coming off a losing season a year ago.
"It's been cool," Wolverines offensive guard Kyle Kalis told Bleacher Report. "It's been different with a guy like Coach Harbaugh at the reins. Everybody wants a piece, everybody wants to get in here and see what's going on."
But when ball finally meets foot inside of Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday night, plenty expect that positive publicity to come to an end.
Twitter followers and blog-friendly headlines won't count for anything on the field when Michigan finds itself facing the Utes, who return 16 starters from a team that went 9-4 in 2014, including a 26-10 win over the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last September. There's a reason why Bovada (via OddsShark.com) lists Utah as a 4.5-point favorite in the game and why Michigan's over-under win total for the regular season sits at just 7.5 for 2015, per SportsInsights.com.
"It's embarrassing," running back De'Veon Smith said of the Wolverines' 2014 campaign. "It's unacceptable. There's no excuse for us to have a season the way we did."
From their 5-7 record last season to a roster that doesn't currently possess a single player with All-Big Ten honors on his resume, there's a lot not to like about the Wolverines' chances of enjoying a successful season—however you may define one—in 2015.
But while Michigan certainly has its work cut out for itself in the coming season, the improvements it has made this offseason appear to be significant enough to potentially lead to results sooner rather than later.
After all, there's a reason the arrival of Harbaugh brought so much buzz to Ann Arbor.
With the resume he's cultivated at San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers over the course of the past 11 years, the former Wolverines quarterback has established himself as one of the country's top turnaround artists.
In 2010, Harbaugh led Stanford to a 12-1 record including a win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl just four years after the Cardinal endured a 1-11 campaign a year before his hiring. In San Francisco, Harbaugh took a 49ers franchise that hadn't made the postseason in eight consecutive years and led it to three straight conference title games, including a Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 2012 season.
Say what you will about Harbaugh's penchant for wearing out his welcome, but his track record on the sideline speaks for itself. That rings especially true in the college ranks, where all but one of his team's records has improved from the season before, the lone exception being his last two San Diego squads, which each went 11-1.
That would certainly be a welcome trend in Ann Arbor, where Harbaugh's predecessor, Brady Hoke, saw his four Michigan teams get worse with each year. The Wolverines' decline under Hoke came to a crescendo last season when the team appeared to be continually overmatched, as evidenced by its only convincing wins on the year coming against Appalachian State, Miami (OH) and Indiana.
But with a better coach pulling the strings, it's not a stretch to think that Michigan could instantly go from 5-7 to 7-5—and bowl eligible—especially considering that two of the Wolverines' losses last season came by two and seven points apiece.
That, and perhaps more wins, will also be easier to accomplish with dramatic improvement to the team's most important position. And with the arrival of Iowa graduate transfer Jake Rudock, Michigan could very well find itself with just that.
Rudock has yet to have officially been named the Wolverines' starter, but at this point, it would almost be a shock if Shane Morris took the field as Michigan's No. 1 signal-caller against the Utes on Thursday. In the only glimpse Harbaugh allowed into the Wolverines' fall practice, it was Rudock taking snaps with the first-team offense, according to the Michigan Daily's Kelly Hall.
If it is indeed Rudock who winds up being Harbaugh's first QB1 in Ann Arbor as expected, that should be an improvement for the Michigan offense coming off of three seasons under the direction of Devin Gardner. Like Hoke, Gardner's time with the Wolverines endured a steady decline, culminating in a 2014 season that saw him complete 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,896 yards, 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Meanwhile, in Iowa City, Rudock was completing 61.7 percent of his passes for a much more impressive stat line consisting of 2,436 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions as a junior. He may not be an All-Big Ten-caliber quarterback—he left Iowa after head coach Kirk Ferentz named quarterback C.J. Beathard the Hawkeyes' QB of the future just days after Iowa's loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl—but his safer style of play will be a welcome addition in Ann Arbor, where turnovers became way too commonplace in the last three years.
"He's got that natural leadership ability," Michigan tight end Jake Butt said of Rudock. "He's been there, he's started for Iowa and had success there, so he knows what it takes to win."
With seven starters returning to a defense that ranked seventh in the nation a year ago, merely limiting the turnovers created by the quarterback position—as Rudock has proved capable of doing—could have a dramatic effect when it comes to keeping Michigan in close games. And with a head coach as accomplished as Harbaugh standing on the sideline, the Wolverines just may find themselves with an edge in those games.
If that turns out to be the case, there's no reason for the hype in Ann Arbor to have to die down anytime soon.
"We just want to do something special, we're tired of losing," Butt said. "We just want to take it one game at a time, give Utah our best shot, get on a roll and get something rolling here. See if we can do something big."
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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For Texas head coach Charlie Strong, Year 2 is the new Year 1.
Starting over is good in its own way. Sometimes it's necessary. There were lessons to be learned from the Longhorns' 6-7 campaign in 2014, but largely, it was forgettable. Plagued by disciplinary issues, injuries, poor offensive play and blowout losses, Strong's first year in Austin was highlighted by plenty of negatives. In hindsight, things weren't as bad as they were made out to be; six wins and a bowl appearance isn't the same as going 1-11, but it certainly felt that way at times.
If there's one big positive Texas can take from last season, it's that it's over and done with. What happened, happened, and it can't ever be changed. But 2015 isn't just a new year from a literal standpoint, it's also the year Strong can finally put his stamp on the program.
Consider this first and foremost: What did you hear about Texas this summer? Probably a lot about the quarterback battle between Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, right? Maybe some things about a few transfers or players not showing up to campus. The ongoing legal battle between Oklahoma State and offensive coordinator Joe Wickline over buyout money remains one of the most absurd—and completely avoidable, if we're being honest—stories in college football.
Some of those things can be frustrating to a program, to be sure. Here's what we haven't heard about, though: dismissals and suspensions. What a stark contrast from a year ago.
Strong, of course, dismissed nine players off of last year's team and suspended even more. As Strong explained at Big 12 media days, the decision to part ways with players was never his first choice.
"So much was made last season about the suspensions. I want you to understand this. My goal is never, ever to kick a young man out of the program," Strong said. "I want them to have every opportunity to be successful, but decisions are made, and sometimes guys feel like they want to do things their way. When that happens, then we have to make a decision on our end."
The series of dismissals and suspensions truly marked a change in regime in a way nothing else could. Whether Strong will thrive at Texas or not, he's going to do things his way. And players can either get on board or go somewhere else.
To date, Texas hasn't had to dismiss players like it did in '14. If nothing else, that tells you the players on the roster—both new and left over from the Mack Brown era—have bought in to Strong's vision. It's no longer just former cornerback Quandre Diggs taking a stand. These players on the whole are a reflection of their coach.
As is Texas' Week 1 depth chart heading into the opener against Notre Dame:
In all, 15 freshmen and 11 sophomores are featured on the two-deep. Several freshmen—receiver John Burt, linemen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe, linebackers Malik Jefferson and Edwin Freeman, and defensive back John Bonney—are listed as starters.
These are Strong's recruits, and if all else is equal, the coaching staff is going to go with the young players to build the program back up. This has been Strong's philosophy dating back to his days at Louisville, as Chris Hummer of 247Sports notes:
By the end of the 2011 season, the Cardinals had eight true or redshirt freshman listed as a starter on the depth chart. Including sophomores, there were 12 underclassmen listed as starters for the Cardinals in their final game of the season against South Florida. In addition, Louisville’s long snapper, punt returner and main kickoff returner were all underclassmen.
The team's final record that year did not improve – Louisville repeated its 7-6 performance from the year before. But the underclassmen the Cardinals played in 2011 helped lay the foundation for the future. It provided support, too. Over the next two seasons, the Cardinals went a combined 23-3 overall with two bowl wins, one of which included a upset victory over Florida in the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
But introducing so many freshmen also means changing the pace of preseason camp.
“There’s so many first-time starters now, we’re slowing down the installation,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said this month (via Jimmy Burch, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram). “We’re just trying to get the foundation in.”
There's a certain amount of hand-holding, but that's to be expected. The positive sign is that young players have been competing hard and pushing the more veteran players. That part can't go unnoticed, because it means no one is interested in waiting in the wings for their turn. That's the kind of mental approach that translates on the field. Whatever happens against the Irish on Saturday, Strong is confident the freshmen who do see playing time will do things at full speed.
Make no mistake, there will be growing pains. Even Jefferson, for as heralded as he's been this offseason, will goof up. It happens, and it's going to keep happening for a while, as Strong told Max Olson of ESPN.com:
You know how some guys put pressure on themselves. I don't want to see that happen to him [Jefferson]. He's going to put so much pressure on himself to always make sure he's always going to be right. No, you're not always going to be right. We do make mistakes. Just grow within the system and it will happen for you.
Inserting so many young players against an experienced and talented team like Notre Dame could easily result in a loss. The Irish, after all, have their sights on a College Football Playoff spot. Yes, it's Strong's job to win games (and to do so quickly), but that only happens when he puts what he thinks are the best players on the field. If those top players with the highest ceilings are freshmen and sophomores who lack experience, then there are going to be some bumps in the road along the way.
Ultimately, Strong is willing to live with that if he knows they'll play hard for him. In time—maybe even this year—it'll pay off. Don't be surprised if the second half of the 2015 season feels far more optimistic than the second half of the '14 season.
However Saturday's game in South Bend goes, Strong seems committed to giving his recruits a chance to thrive. This is his team now—the team for which he'll ultimately be judged.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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It’s fitting that a lot of Alabama football fans compare big annual events to Christmas, especially when they’re anxious and not certain about what’s coming.
The first game of the season definitely qualifies as one of them, and when it comes to the ongoing quarterback competition we’ve reached the part of the week that invokes the beginning of the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” with no one stirring, not even a computer mouse.
That, of course, will soon change. Electronic alerts, messages and stories will be sent, posted and seen far and wide as soon as Nick Saban makes an announcement or there's a first confirmed sighting of a starting quarterback before No. 3 Alabama takes on No. 20 Wisconsin in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.
Will it be senior Jake Coker, sophomore Cooper Bateman or junior Alec Morris?
That’s how the three leading contenders were listed with the first unit on Alabama’s depth chart released Monday. It had a defined starter listed at nearly every other position—the exceptions being nose guard, right guard, tight end-H (the one who is also a receiver) and X wide receiver—but there were five names crammed into two spaces at quarterback.
The second team had true freshman Blake Barnett and redshirt freshman David Cornwell, so all five quarterbacks were listed. Who says Saban doesn’t have a sense of humor?
Although after eight months, including spring practices and training camp, the coach still wasn’t ready to say who will take the first snaps, no one would be surprised if that ends up being the order in which they play this season: Coker-Bateman-Morris.
Still, even though they’re sick of being asked about it, their teammates have been saying the right things this week.
“I don’t think it made a difference (during practice),” senior center Ryan Kelly said. “Whoever was in there, it was whatever. We were just going to roll with it. We weren’t going to change our pace or how we play. We were just going to keep on going.”
“You just go in and make sure you do exactly what you need to do,” senior running back Kenyan Drake added. “You can’t really worry about what somebody else does at the quarterback position. As long as I have everything I need to do and the quarterback has what he needs to do on cue, then it shouldn’t really matter.”
During the SEC coaches' teleconference on Wednesday morning, all Saban would offer was, "We're going to make the best decision for our team."
So when might he announce the starter? Just like with the quarterback question itself, there are still numerous possibilities, some looking better than others:
• Wednesday evening: Saban has a press conference after practice. The guess here is that he won’t announce anything because he’ll want to meet with coaches to go over the practice film and tell the players the decision before saying anything to the media.
• Thursday night: The Nick Saban Show will air for the first time during the 2015 season, and last year the coach revealed personnel decisions during radio broadcasts. If Odds Shark was taking bets this would bring the worst return, because at this point there's nothing left to be gained by continued silence. All of the practices have been held, and it’s really too late for Wisconsin to change much in its defensive game plan.
• Friday: Alabama has a final walkthough and flies to Dallas.
• Saturday morning: Saban will almost certainly be interviewed on ESPN’s College GameDay show in the morning. Regardless of what happens between now and then, the chances are pretty good the first question will be about the quarterback position.
• Saturday evening: Maybe Saban won’t say a thing and just let the starting quarterback run out onto the field for the first offensive play. However, the starter will have taken snaps with the first unit during warm-ups, one hour prior to kickoff.
Then comes the next question: Will Alabama play more than one quarterback? A lot will obviously depend on how the game develops, so Saban isn’t ruling it out.
“There's been a lot of people who have success playing two quarterbacks, especially if they have a different style, which a couple of our guys do have a different style,” he said.
Granted, every quarterback is different, but this isn’t like last year, when Blake Sims and Jake Coker had contrasting styles and Saban had offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin speed things up because Sims was more comfortable running a fast-pace offense.
This time, the differences are much more subtle.
“Coker has a great arm,” junior tight end O.J. Howard said. “Cooper Bateman throws the ball precise (sic). Alec has a great leadership (quality), and he also throws the ball precise. Each guy does different things, but they all do something really well.”
So fans are left wondering and wishing for their favorites, knowing that the answer is finally close at hand. It is a holiday weekend, after all.
“No matter which quarterback starts, I think the quarterback that starts will be the guy for us,” Howard said. “I have confidence in him that he’ll get the job done.”
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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Nick Saban is one of the most successful head coaches in the history of major college football, but the Alabama Crimson Tide's lead man still doesn't believe his coaching career has lived up to its fullest potential.
According to Connor Smolensky of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Saban revealed Wednesday in an interview with ESPN's Paul Finebaum that he should have far more than four national championships to his credit.
"We haven't finished the season in the last two seasons like we'd like," Saban said. "People talk about you won four national championships. Well, I feel like we've had good enough teams to win eight. So I feel like we failed four times. I feel like I failed four times."
The 63-year-old native of Fairmont, West Virginia, won his first national title at LSU in 2003 before taking three more at Alabama in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
With the exception of his first season with the Tide in 2007, he has never lost more than three games in a single campaign during his time at Alabama.
In addition to the years in which he won national championships, Saban's teams have lost two games or less five times, including earlier stints at Toledo and Michigan State.
While most coaches at Saban's age with such a strong track record might consider retirement in the near future, Saban told Finebaum he has plenty of good years left at the helm, per Smolensky.
"You know my mother had a hole-in-one when she was 80," Saban said. "I never had one. So I'm thinking I have 16 more good years of golf, and if I can play golf I should be able to coach."
Some might question Saban's rationale, but it is music to the ears of Crimson Tide fans. At the same time, it is likely a scary thought for Alabama's rivals in the SEC and across the nation.
Saban currently has 177 career wins to his credit, so if he coaches for another 16 years and averages 10 wins per season, he will reach 337 career victories, which would put him ahead of Alabama legend Bear Bryant on the all-time FBS list and behind only Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.
One can only assume such a run would bring many more national titles as well, so while Saban can never get back the four championships he believes he squandered, there is no reason why he can't push his total to eight or more at some point.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.
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The frenzied recruitment of top-ranked 2016 prospect Rashan Gary isn't slowing down anytime soon.
The dominant New Jersey defensive lineman elected to postpone plans for a preseason list of favorites, according to Todderick Hunt of NJ Advance Media. Gary, a senior at Garden State powerhouse Paramus Catholic High School, previously expected to release a group of five college programs before his first game.
Instead, Gary is taking a step back and surveying various options. Notre Dame and USC will each receive a visit from the 6'4", 311-pound playmaker.
"Rashan wanted to have his top choices by now, however, he does not," Jennifer Coney, Gary's mother, told Hunt. "Before he decides anything, he wants to go to USC and Notre Dame. I know that he said before school (he'd cut down to a top five), but it doesn't even look like it's gonna be September or October."
This develop prolongs an already lengthy recruiting process. Gary has commanded considerable collegiate interest since the earliest stages of his high school career and actually received a verbal scholarship offer from Rutgers in eighth grade.
"It's been a journey since I got that first offer in eighth grade," he told Bleacher Report this spring. "I didn't think much of it until I got to high school and realized there were seniors who worked really hard and still didn't have any offers. Seeing players struggle to get colleges interested at camps kind of puts things in perspective and keeps me humble. A lot of people want to be in my shoes."
Despite expansive attention on his recruitment, Gary has managed to remain largely quiet when it comes to which teams he's leaning toward. Many of his peers named leaders or simply committed well before their senior seasons.
"My mom and I are taking this step by step," Gary told Bleacher Report in April. "I'm not feeling a lot of pressure, but I'm focused on finding the best place for me."
That sentiment still seems to hold true and now sets the stage for more campus visits.
It shouldn't be surprising to see USC attract attention from another premier East Coast prospect. The Trojans routinely sign top-tier talent from far beyond Pac-12 territory, most recently luring 5-star offensive lineman Chuma Edoga away from Georgia.
Trent Thompson, the top-rated 2015 defensive tackle and fellow Peach State product, also reciprocated interest from USC last year. Gary could be inclined to widen a recruitment that previously didn't seem to have a contender west of Louisiana.
Notre Dame didn't extend an offer until last December, which is relatively late in a process that started so early. However, the Fighting Irish carry clout as a national brand and feature fellow New Jersey native Brandon Wimbush.
If Gary does indeed journey to South Bend this season, expect the freshman quarterback to join his group of hosts. Those two faced off last fall in a state championship clash, with Wimbush and St. Peter's Prep claiming the title.
Still, much of the intrigue here lies in SEC country, where Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU are legitimate landing spots for the 5-star defender.
Gary, who carries more than 60 scholarship offers, believes he would fit in well as a conference competitor.
"It's grown-man football down there, and these teams have had a lot of defensive players reach the next level," Gary told Bleacher Report. "I've been interested in the SEC since those schools started offering me early."
Expect at least three SEC squads—namely LSU, Auburn and Georgia—to land on his eventual top-five list.
Auburn leads that group with 16 percent of experts' predictions in 247Sports' Crystal Ball, but you can't undervalue the impact of a proven recruiter like LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Georgia certainly gained ground with Gary during recent visits.
Although Notre Dame and USC are obviously in the mix for his favorites list, things still point toward a pair of Big Ten teams. Michigan and Ohio State are well-positioned to enter the winter among final options for Gary.
Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh have both treated him like a top priority, and that's exactly what he is for those staffs. Veteran Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson holds a strong rapport with Gary, while Michigan harbors his strongest connection to any team.
Wolverines assistant Chris Partridge served as head coach at Paramus Catholic last season, leading Gary's squad to the state title game. His presence is paramount in this process and could ultimately prove to be the difference on signing day.
“They treat us like family. Coach Partridge knows how my mom is and knows how I am, so our visit was smooth," Gary told Bleacher Report after an early summer visit to Ann Arbor. "He showed us everything we needed to see.”
Clemson and South Carolina are also programs who could become a factor moving forward following past on-campus experiences.
Gary projects as an immediate candidate to start in college, carrying immense potential at both defensive end and tackle. He collected 55 tackles—10 for loss—and 14 sacks last season.
Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.
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On one side, you have an offense that put up 33.2 points per game a year ago, returns 10 starters and is coached by an offensive mastermind who always keeps opposing defenses guessing.
On the other side, you have a defense that gave up 432.7 yards and 30.4 points per game a year ago, added a new co-defensive coordinator to the mix and, aside from a junior college addition at defensive end and a few other transfers, has virtually the same cast.
That'll be what you see Thursday night in Charlotte, as the high-octane North Carolina offense led by head coach Larry Fedora goes up against a South Carolina defense that is breaking in new co-defensive coordinator and play-caller Jon Hoke.
Welcome back to college football, Mr. Hoke.
"I think our defense will better represent South Carolina in a very positive way," Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said in quotes released by South Carolina. "I think we'll fly around, get our hits in, be a better tackling team and be in better position. North Carolina is going to move the ball, and we can move the ball, and it's probably going to come down to the team that takes care of the ball best and doesn't turn it over."
It better be, because the matchup between the Tar Heels O vs. the Gamecocks D will be what determines the outcome of the opening FBS game of the 2015 season.
For South Carolina to stay in this ball game, junior college transfer defensive end Marquavius Lewis is going to have to be a boss from the moment he takes the field. The 6'3", 264-pounder from Greenwood, South Carolina, has already ascended to the top spot on Hoke's depth chart despite never playing a game for the program and has impressed the staff all offseason.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams talked about the expectations surrounding Lewis, according to David Cloninger of the State:
A lot of people were kind of comparing him to Clowney. I told him, 'You know what? Just be yourself. Don't be Jadeveon Clowney—you can't be. Be yourself, be Marquavius Lewis.' That's what he's trying to do and he's working hard at it.
The Clowney comparison is quite lofty, but South Carolina might need the former No. 2 junior college prospect to do his best Clowney impression on opening night. The Gamecocks managed just 14 sacks a year ago, and that inability to create pressure allowed quarterbacks to pick a young secondary apart early and often.
If Lewis can help the Gamecocks move senior quarterback Marquise Williams off his launch point and get him rattled, it could create some of those turnovers Spurrier craves. Even if they do create that pressure and get Williams moving, it'll be up to stud linebacker Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton to clean up.
A tall order, no doubt.
There are talented corners outside in Chaz Elder and Rico McWilliams, "Spur" T.J. Gurley finished second on the team in tackles a year ago with 80 and safety Isaiah Johnson was the Big 12 newcomer of the year in 2013 at Kansas. The back end of the defense, while picked on a year ago, is talented and experienced, and it will benefit tremendously from just a little help up front.
If South Carolina's defense isn't on its game from the moment toe meets leather, it will put a ton of pressure on Spurrier and new starting quarterback Connor Mitch.
With a quarterback who has six career collegiate passing attempts, a new starting running back in Brandon Wilds (along with versatile backup David Williams) and an absence of playmakers outside other than superstar Pharoh Cooper, it will be a lot to ask this offense to dig itself out of a hole if the defense creates one.
Luckily, it has Spurrier and a very talented staff to help out.
It should make for a fun opening night at the inaugural Belk College Kickoff Game in Charlotte on Thursday.
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 Sirius 93 XM 208. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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The Michigan Wolverines defense must be ready to dominate in the 2015 season-opener because the Utah Utes' top playmaker, Devontae Booker, is a dangerous, versatile weapon.
Last season, Booker tallied 1,512 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, adding 43 receptions, 306 yards and two more scores. He was a notable factor in every game except for one—and that opponent was the Wolverines.
Michigan quickly closed the running lanes on Booker and limited him to a season-worst 34 yards on 11 carries.
"It wasn't just like I could put myself in the game," Booker said, per Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. "I only got a couple opportunities that game to do that."
But my, how things have changed.
After the 2014 meeting, though, Booker shredded nearly every other team on the schedule. He topped the 100-yard mark seven times, including six 140-plus-yard performances. During the three outings Booker didn't reach 100 rushing yards, he tallied at least five receptions in each contest.
Plus, Bubba Poole—Utah's starter against Michigan—has since moved to wide receiver. Booker is now the unquestioned leader of the backfield, the bell-cow runner for the Utes.
Repeating the 2014 performance won't be easily done, but the Wolverines have a couple of keys to containing the 5'11", 212-pound Heisman hopeful.
First, as is the case with all successful defenses, eliminating hole No. 1 is imperative. Although that won't happen on every play, it forces the running back to find a different lane that might not exist.
On this snap, Ryan Glasgow pushed the right guard two yards into the backfield, and Mario Ojemudia's presence forced Booker back inside. He had no choice but to hesitate briefly, which allowed Willie Henry and Joe Bolden to stop Booker before he even started.
Utah's offense can seem complex because of its read-based nature, but maintaining gap control and attacking the holes negate any possible confusion.
Once Booker received this handoff, he saw a 6'3", 236-pound Jake Ryan waiting where the play call ideally goes. Booker elected to follow the center, but Ryan wasted no time, shot the gap and stuffed the running back.
Ryan's quick change from patience to aggressiveness paid off, and returning starter Joe Bolden could learn from the departed senior's lead in that case.
Earlier in the game, Bolden remained in the proper spot as the weak-side linebacker. However, though he did force Booker inside, Bolden failed to attack a block, and a successful strike to the tight end could have immediately stalled Booker, who picked up five yards instead.
The common theme to each of the previous examples is gang-tackling—or, at worst, another Michigan defender was in the proper spot to finish Booker.
Without a doubt, the defensive linemen and linebackers are primarily in charge of halting the running game. But even when both units execute their collective responsibilities, the secondary must be prepared to make its presence felt, too.
Brennen Beyer's push toward the inside impeded Utah's right guard and tackle from continuing toward Ryan. He engaged Booker, but the running back likely would've fallen a few yards forward.
That is, if it weren't for Jeremy Clark. The safety sprinted from 15 yards deep and authoritatively finished the tackle.
Additionally, notice how James Ross III contained Utah quarterback Kendal Thompson. Ross stayed in his lane and forced the handoff to Booker, which played perfectly into Michigan's defense. Ryan, thanks to Beyer's initial push, was by himself and in the right position to stop Booker.
Everything is connected. The Wolverines will not shut down Booker without another strong collective performance—though the combination of Bolden and Desmond Morgan certainly must step up in Ryan's place, considering the 2014 captain recorded 13 total tackles.
Michigan's defense is the team's biggest strength this year, and the unit will be tested immediately. How the Wolverines respond to that first exam is critical.
Booker will likely receive at least 25 touches, since he eclipsed that mark in every game as a starter. Consistently limiting his impact won't be easily done.
But if Michigan passes the test with flying colors, it will only bolster confidence in a program already filled with hope under coach Jim Harbaugh.
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WACO, Texas — Watching through a window as Baylor's Shawn Oakman approaches the restaurant door—shirtless and flanked by three unleashed bulldogs—Shorty's Pizza Shack manager Ron Brown feels a lot like the defensive end's opponents on the football field.
And also a little scared.
Tabbed by one website as the "biggest freak" in the college game, the 6'9", 275-pound Oakman sports a lime-green mohawk. Muscles bulge from every limb, and tattoos are graffitied across his chiseled torso.
"SAVAGE," one of them reads.
Oakman slips on a white tank top and enters the pizza parlor as Duke, Daisy and 75-pound Dame follow closely behind, eventually curling up in a corner while he eats a calzone. Oakman takes the dogs—and often his ball python, Baloo—with him everywhere. He doesn't need to ask if they can come inside.
"Look at him," Brown says. "You think I'm going to tell him no?"
The scenario is a perfect illustration of the narrative surrounding Oakman, a meme-come-to-life for the athlete who's become an Internet sensation partly for his play—but even more for his appearance.
It all started on New Year's Day at the Cotton Bowl, when footage of Oakman towering over two Michigan State players during the pregame coin toss flashed on television sets across America. With his biceps, triceps and deltoids pushing against his taut skin and his jersey rolled up to his rib cage, exposing his tatted-up six-pack, Oakman almost looked superhuman, like a comic book villain or an outlandish WWE heel.
Before the end of the first quarter, the image had become the talk of the Internet, as thousands of people posted clever memes—pictures with funny captions—of Oakman on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.
Oakman chuckles about the memes and the nation's ever-growing obsession with his physique. Everywhere he goes, he feels people gawking at him like the bearded lady at the circus.
"Half of the people standing in front of me right now are probably scared to death," Oakman, 23, told a group of reporters at Big 12 media days last month. "It's amazing how big the whole thing has gotten. The picture is intimidating, so everyone who sees me assumes I'm intimidating. But I'm really pretty normal. I just like to chill and watch movies and play with my dogs. I have a nice, easy life."
Oakman pauses and smiles.
"Finally," he says.
The last 23 years have been quite a journey for Oakman.
Long before he blossomed into an All-American defensive end, Oakman spent the first nights he can remember in a homeless shelter.
Before he was hailed as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, Oakman watched his mother battle a cocaine addiction, get sent to prison and eventually contract HIV.
And years before he emerged as a fan favorite and team captain at Baylor, Oakman was kicked out of the school closest to his home and heart, Penn State, before he ever took a collegiate snap.
"I thought my career was over," Oakman says. "I thought it was done."
Yes, as easy as it is to focus on his pictures and performance and weight-room prowess—he bench-presses 400 pounds and squats 600—the most fascinating thing about Oakman actually isn't his physical stature.
It's that he's even here in the first place.
As he trekked toward the crack house, six-year-old Shawn Oakman tried to stay out of sight. For more than a year, his mother, Vernetta, had been leaving him and his siblings at home alone for days—sometimes weeks.
Curious about her secret life, Shawn decided to spy on Vernetta, following her nearly two blocks before she spotted him, cursed him out and sent him home.
Asked about the incident 17 years later, Vernetta speaks softly into the phone.
"I remember that day," she says. "I was on my way to get high. The place I was going...it wasn't something he needed to see."
The odds of Vernetta providing a stable home for her family were never strong.
Sexually molested as a child, she said she began taking psychiatric drugs when she was seven and was addicted to cocaine by age 15. There was a suicide attempt, Vernetta says, and with no formal education she's only now learning to read.
Although she now resides in a subsidized housing facility in Philadelphia, Vernetta says she was living in a park as recently as two years ago, marking another stint of homelessness that began shortly after Shawn's birth in April 1992.
"That's my first memory, living in a shelter," Oakman says. "Just a big open room with about 200 beds and a cafeteria. It didn't bother me. I didn't know any better."
By the time Shawn was nine, he and his family had moved four times and were living in Kensington, a notoriously rough neighborhood that featured "the No. 1 drug corner in the city," according to Philadelphia Weekly.
"It was straight-up poverty—everything you see on TV," Oakman says. "Robbing, stealing, drug dealers, crackheads. I should know. I was living with one."
Vernetta says Oakman's father, who died of cancer three years ago, provided little financial assistance and was out of the picture. Oakman met him only once during childhood, at age six, when a DNA test was requested to see if Shawn was the man's son.
With his mother "bouncing from crack house to crack house," Oakman says he and his siblings did their best to support themselves.
Whether it was sweeping staircases or helping elderly people carry groceries, any odd job Oakman could find to earn a few bucks for a convenience-store sandwich, he'd take.
There were days when he didn't eat.
Oakman said his brothers and sisters lived in fear that Child Protective Services would split the family apart if it was apparent they were in a dysfunctional household.
"It wasn't their first rodeo," he says of his siblings. "I was the youngest in the batch, but they had been putting on a [facade] and fooling CPS for years."
The family's troubles became impossible to hide in 2002, when Vernetta was sent to prison for 18 months for assault and possession of a criminal weapon. Her struggles continued after her release, as she was arrested again for theft (2004) and prostitution (2005 and 2008). It was around that time, Vernetta says, that she contracted HIV.
"I couldn't distinguish right from wrong," says Vernetta, who takes medication for bipolar disorder, HIV and schizophrenia. "I had anger issues, mental problems. I just fell off. I didn't make good decisions."
Crushing as it was to see his mother go to jail, the situation turned out to be a blessing for Oakman. It may have saved his life.
Kenn Roberts, a 30-year Army veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, had been a foster parent along with his wife, Tracy, to 13 disadvantaged children throughout the 1990s. The couple had decided to stop parenting foster children by the early 2000s, but the plan changed when they received a call about taking in Oakman and his brother, Future.
"I couldn't say no to family," says Roberts, who is Vernetta's cousin. "He needed the structure that I created. And he needed Tracy's heart."
Oakman arrived at the Roberts household in April 2002 almost unable to communicate. He answered questions with grunts, mumbles and shrugs and pointed when there was something he wanted.
"He hadn't been going to school on a regular basis and he had anger issues," Roberts says. "He was also the youngest of his brothers and sisters, so he had no voice in his previous environment. Words weren't of any use to him."
Within a month, Kenn and Tracy had enrolled Oakman in a speech class. And at home he was given a set of daily chores such as folding laundry, cutting the lawn and walking the dog.
Convincing Oakman to perform the tasks wasn't all that difficult. Failure to do so, Oakman quickly learned, would cause him to lose the one thing he had come to hold dear.
A budding basketball star, Oakman had joined an AAU team and was traveling the country to play in tournaments. Simply forgetting to clean his room or wash the dishes would be enough for Roberts to hold him out of competition.
"He'd go right to the core and take away what I loved," Oakman says. "He didn't care about those things. All that mattered to him was that I had structure, that I worked hard. No matter what I did, he always knew I was capable of more."
That's why Roberts showed up at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, when Oakman was a senior and demanded that the principal replace the "soft" courses on his schedule with math, science and English classes.
"He was a star athlete," Roberts says, "so they thought they were doing him a favor by giving him all those easy classes. But they weren't doing him a favor at all. It was a disservice."
Coaches at Penn Wood certainly wanted to keep Oakman and his support group happy. As good as he was in basketball, leading the school to the state title as a junior, it was clear Oakman's future was on the football field.
Too poor to afford the participation fees when he lived with his mom, Oakman had never played the sport until he reached high school. After just one game with the freshman team, he was moved up to varsity.
"It was easy," Oakman says. "I already had the aggression. I already had the pain and anger inside. When the coach told me all I had to do is hit people, I was like, 'OK!'"
By the time Oakman was a senior, Rivals.com ranked him as the 18th-best defensive end in the country. So excited was Penn State assistant Larry Johnson that, after securing a verbal commitment from Oakman, he pulled his car to the side of the highway and began to scream.
Oakman said he never seriously considered another school, as the allure of being a home-state college hero was too much to pass up. Shortly after signing his scholarship papers, he had the phrase "PSU Superman" sewn onto his letter jacket.
"I wanted to play for Joe Paterno," Oakman says. "I wanted to play for the legend."
For Oakman, though, life in State College was rocky from the start.
While redshirting as a freshman, Oakman didn't have the same supervision he did back home with his uncle. He became lackadaisical, showing up late for workouts and meetings and occasionally missing class.
After the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal cost Paterno his job midway through the 2011 season, Oakman fell victim to a zero-tolerance policy issued by new coach Bill O'Brien.
On March 17, 2012, he was caught trying to steal a $7 hoagie from a Penn State cafeteria after realizing his student meal card was short on credits. Oakman says he handed the female cashier his card to pay for a 75-cent grape juice, but when a clerk approached him and asked about the sandwich he'd attempted to hide in his jacket, Oakman grabbed the cashier's wrist, ripped his meal card from her hand and left the premises.
Oakman scoffs when asked if his size or a sense of entitlement as a football player prompted him to try to steal the sandwich.
"I was hungry and I didn't have any money," he says. "That's the only reason I did it."
Nonetheless, Oakman was fined and charged with a misdemeanor. Two days later, an assistant coach arrived at his dorm at 5 a.m. and drove him to see O'Brien, who told Oakman he was no longer a member of the team.
"I just stood up and started crying and yelling at myself," Oakman says. "All of my disappointment was toward me and my failure. I'd already been a little bit of a problem child, and now [O'Brien] had a chance to put his foot down and set the standard.
"He'd warned us, but I didn't listen."
Upon receiving the news, Roberts drove to State College that afternoon to visit with Oakman. Roberts said he looked broken, "like a homeless man." The following day, Oakman hand-delivered a note to the locker of every Penn State player, informing him he'd been dismissed and apologizing for his mistake.
Oakman remained on campus for two more months to complete his coursework for the semester. Each day after class, he returned to his room and mulled his future.
"I didn't know what was next," Oakman says. "Football is all I know. I can't do nothing else. I figured I'd just end up back in Philly, where it was going to be one of two things.
"Jail or death."
The day before the Bears opened their 2014 season against SMU, Amanda Russ snuck into Shawn Oakman's bedroom and did some redecorating.
Russ, who has dated Oakman for more than a year, tacked a banner on the wall that contained an image of his No. 2 jersey and the phrase "Second to None." A pair of cardboard signs were positioned nearby that read: "Oakman Is So Big We Had 2 Make Him 2 Posters."
Russ also had friends write inspirational messages and words of encouragement for Oakman on a football helmet.
Needless to say, when Oakman returned from class, he was surprised—and moved.
For a moment, Russ thought her boyfriend was on the verge of tears.
"I think he felt a type of support he never felt before," she says. "He needs that. He needs that love. He needs to know that he's not alone. That's why he loves Baylor so much.
"It's about more than football for him. This is his family now."
Oakman wasn't anticipating such a life-changing experience when he arrived on Baylor's campus on a 110-degree day in August 2012. Just five months removed from the cafeteria incident at Penn State, he was simply thankful to be getting another opportunity at a Top 25 program despite never playing a college game.
The Bears decided to take a chance on Oakman when Johnson, the Penn State assistant, contacted safeties coach Brian Norwood, who was on the Nittany Lions staff from 2001 to 2007.
Johnson spoke highly of Oakman, both on the field and off. Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett was also a fan after recruiting Oakman when he was an assistant at Pittsburgh.
"He played violent," Bennett says. "If you were in his way, he was going to hurt you. But the thing I remembered even more was his big, beautiful smile. This wasn't the typical suburban kid that checked in with his mom and dad every night. He made it on his own. Yet despite all he was going through, that smile was always there.
"That spirit was God's gift to him. It's been a gift to everyone."
That includes Baylor head coach Art Briles, who said O'Brien also had nice things to say about Oakman. Briles has a history of providing second chances to troubled athletes, a practice that backfired this summer when Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu was found guilty of sexually assaulting a Bears female soccer player.
But there are also plenty of success stories. In fact, another Penn State transfer, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, flourished at Baylor and ended up being a first-round draft pick in 2011.
But no player has capitalized on a fresh start as much as Oakman.
"I mean, I've seen sicker dogs get well," Briles says of Oakman. "We don't judge players as freshmen. They've got so many changes going on in their lives. Who they are at 19 isn't always who they’re going to be at 23."
NCAA transfer rules forced Oakman to sit out the 2012 campaign, meaning he'd be 21 before he ever played a college down. As frustrating as it was for him to miss a second straight season, the next 12 months jump-started an enrichment in his personal life that continues today.
Nearly 1,600 miles from Philadelphia, Oakman is removed from the family drama involving his mother and siblings back home. The warm, welcoming mannerisms of Texas Southerners are a nice change for the hard, guarded personas of the Philadelphia streets.
"People from Philly hear me saying 'pardon' and 'yes, ma'am' and 'yes, sir' and don't know what to think," Oakman says.
They're adjusting to his new, eccentric demeanor too. Rather than micromanaging him like he was at Penn State, where he was forced to cut his facial hair, Baylor's staff encourages individualism. The tattoos and green mohawk, shirtless trips to the convenience store, the bulldogs and snakes—all of it has been liberating for Oakman.
"I'm free here," he says. "Free to be me."
For the first time in his life, Oakman has stability and, moreover, peace of mind. He's not worried about being evicted from his house, split apart from his friends, finding his next team or being jettisoned from a school.
As a child, Oakman felt like an afterthought, a nuisance. As a fast-rising high school star, he was coddled like a king. At Penn State, he was tagged as a hooligan.
At Baylor, though, Oakman senses there is a genuine interest in him as a person more than a player. Fans write to him on Facebook and tell him he's an inspiration. His teammates revel in his athletic success as much as their own.
"I've never really had a family or a stable home," Oakman says. "That's what I've always searched for, someone to open up to and talk to. The connection here, the feeling...it's something I've never felt before."
Significant as his off-field strides have been, Oakman is still evolving.
Russ, 24, said Oakman remains "guarded" at times. Even though they've dated more than a year, he's still hesitant to talk about certain subjects.
"He's cautious with his feelings," she says.
Russ is sympathetic to Oakman's difficult upbringing, as her mother also battled substance-abuse issues. The two have been estranged since Russ was adopted at age eight. Russ graduated from Baylor in 2014 and is now a state trooper in Dalhart, Texas, near Amarillo.
"Everyone needs support," says Russ, who makes the eight-hour drive to Waco to visit Oakman at least once every two weeks. "At times Shawn is still the type that thinks he can handle everything by himself, that he doesn't need to voice his problems.
"I keep telling him there are people there to help."
It's an issue Oakman will have a chance to work on in the coming months.
In what may have been the best illustration of his passion for his school, coaches and teammates, Oakman approached Bennett a few days before the Cotton Bowl and informed him he'd be returning for his senior season.
The Bears went 11-2 and fell one spot shy of qualifying for the College Football Playoff in 2014, and Oakman believes this year's squad could be even better. He says he felt like he'd be abandoning his family if he didn't do everything he could to help Baylor win a national title.
"It just shows you how unselfish he's become," Briles says. "He sees the bigger picture. He's as good of a leader as we've ever had here."
Even though he was regarded as a surefire top-15 pick in last spring's NFL draft, Oakman says the allure of becoming a millionaire and helping his family never came close to swaying his decision.
"More money, more problems," Oakman says. "I just want to be a kid for one more year. My family has been poor their whole lives. They can be poor for nine more months."
His client list includes Andrew Luck, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush and LeSean McCoy. Still, after just one session with Shawn Oakman, high-profile trainer Travelle Gaines didn't hesitate to make a bold assessment.
"He's the most genetically gifted athlete I've ever seen with my own eyes," Gaines says. "Shredded, strong, explosive, fast. He shocked me with some of the things he can do."
Oakman spent two weeks this summer training at Gaines' facility in Las Vegas. The highlight of his workouts came when Oakman jumped onto a 40-inch box—while holding 70-pound dumbbells in each hand. A video of the feat has been viewed more than 110,000 times on one YouTube video and 50,000 times on another.
The way Gaines sees it, Oakman didn't cost himself money by opting not to enter last season's NFL draft. If anything, the decision will likely make him richer. Gaines says he won't be shocked if Oakman is the No. 1 overall selection.
Teams haven't been shy about taking defensive linemen high in the draft in recent years. Houston took South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick in 2014. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh went No. 2 to Detroit in 2010.
Athletically, Oakman is expected to test better than both players.
"In 2012 people said Andrew Luck was the best pro prospect to ever come through the NFL combine," Gaines says. "But this spring I won't be surprised if Shawn has the best combine of anyone in history."
Such praise doesn't surprise coaches at Baylor, where Oakman has continued to one-up himself in the weight room since his arrival in 2012.
This summer Oakman did four pull-ups with a 120-pound harness attached to his body. His bench-press (400 pounds) and squat (600) numbers are even more impressive considering the length of his arms and legs. And his time in the 40-yard dash (4.8 seconds) is unheard of for a guy who weighs 275.
Oakman has gained 40 pounds since arriving at Baylor three years ago. His body fat was recently measured at 6 percent.
"I enjoy the process," Oakman says of weightlifting and conditioning. "You see the results and it's just astounding. If I wasn't in the weight room every day, I'd be sticks and bones. I'd be skinny."
Oakman—who eats five meals a day and loves to prepare food in a Crock-Pot—hopes more than ever that his offseason work translates to improved play as a senior. He set a Baylor single-season record with 11 sacks as a junior, when he earned third-team All-American honors.
Still, there's a sense that Oakman has left something to be desired on the field. NFL scouts note that he doesn't boast a signature game or moment, and he's been criticized for taking plays off and disappearing at times.
Baylor coaches understand the criticism, but they say any perceived lackluster play by Oakman isn't his fault, as injuries shortened the Bears' defensive end rotation last season, forcing Oakman to be in for too many snaps.
"For the first 10 or 20 snaps, there's no one better," defensive line coach Chris Achuff says. "But then his numbers go down drastically over the course of the game. When you operate with that much passion and emotion, you become drained. Fatigue sets in and your mind starts to wander.
"His growth was stunted [in 2014] because I wasn't able to pull him out of the game when I wanted to. We just didn't have the depth."
Asked to rate his performance to date on a scale of one to 10, Briles says he'd give Oakman a six.
"Hopefully by the end of the season he's an eight," Briles says, "and eventually in the NFL he could get to a 10. That's what's so encouraging. He's already really good, but he hasn't come close to reaching his ceiling. There's so much room for growth."
Determined as he is to improve individually, Oakman says he's "not worried about his highlight reel." His main focus, he says, is guiding the Bears to a third straight Big 12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
"The only people I care about are my coaches and teammates. They brought me in and embraced me and all of my problems and issues.
"Hopefully I can give them something back."
On Sept. 4, shortly before opening his senior season against SMU, Shawn Oakman will reach into his locker, remove his jersey from its hanger and slip it on over his shoulder pads.
It's no coincidence he wears No. 2.
"Second chances," Oakman says.
Oakman is certainly making the most of his—and he's not alone.
Back in Philadelphia, Vernetta's voice is filled with energy and joy as she explains the changes that have occurred in her life the past two years.
She's enrolled in a learning center, where her reading skills have improved. For the first time, she recently read a 50-page book. Soon she will leave her dorm room and move into her own apartment at Project Home, a housing facility for those who have struggled with homelessness and poverty.
More than anything, Vernetta is excited about an upcoming opportunity to counsel youth about HIV and the dangers of unprotected sex.
Vernetta says she and Shawn speak once a month. She's seen him play just one college football game in person—a 2014 victory at Buffalo—and doesn't have the funds to travel to a game this season. Instead she's saving her money to attend Oakman's graduation Dec. 19.
"I'm not that monster that they used to portray me to be," she says. "I can think for myself now. I know who I am."
"If you talk to my son," she says, "tell him I love him. Tell him he's making me proud."
Oakman hopes to give his family even more reasons to dote on him this fall, when Baylor will open the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. The Bears have finished the regular season 11-1 each of the past two years. Getting to 12-0—and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff—won't happen without an All-American season from Oakman, who Briles says is "the face of Baylor's program."
Oakman is embracing the status. He searches for his name daily on Twitter and Google and is still taken aback by the reaction to the Cotton Bowl picture that went viral.
"I'm famous now," he said recently as he joked with Russ about the photo.
Soon, Oakman vows, fans will have new images of him etched in their brains that extend beyond that pregame coin toss, ones that involve sacks and celebrations and tackles and trophies.
Everything—even Baylor's first national title—is in the realm of possibility in 2015, at least according to Oakman.
At this point, who's going to tell him no?
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
The past 233 days have been a tormenting, football-less abyss. With each passing month, the darkness of the offseason has tried to pull you closer toward its deepest, darkest vortex—an emotionless, pulled-pork-less pit of despair only interested in consuming your soul.
But you did not budge, no matter how difficult it was. And now, after 233 agonizing nights of football-less sleep, there is light. The college football season, in all of its glory, lunacy, unpredictability and beauty, has returned.
The 2015 season is upon us.
In celebration of college football’s triumphant return, I have concocted the appropriate materials to ensure you are ready for Week 1 and beyond. If your offseason days have been spent doing things beyond obsessing over preview magazines or depth charts—which, by the way, isn’t the worst of ideas—the following crash course should at least get you moving in a suitable direction.
Storylines, meaningful games, unlikely (but deserving) Heisman hopefuls, imperative mascot power rankings and much more—let’s get to it. There is far too much to discuss.
Happy football to all.
But First: A Week 1 Primer
The season begins with an upscale buffet—the kind of spread that serves surprisingly acceptable crab legs in bulk. While there will be more jam-packed game lineups to come, this excitement paired with some magnificent on-paper games should make for spectacularly weird results.
Michigan at Utah (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., FOX Sports 1)
The Wolverines have spent the better part of fall practice taking reps in places that are better protected than most nuclear-missile warehouses. Utah, meanwhile, is coming off a nine-win season and will get back running back/human destroyer Devontae Booker. The return of Jim Harbaugh makes this required Thursday night viewing. No one is really sure what will happen, but it will all be magnificently entertaining regardless.
Louisville vs. Auburn (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. in Atlanta, CBS)
The Jeremy Johnson quarterback hype train is approaching deafening levels for Auburn, and deservedly so. Meanwhile, the Tigers are debuting a renovated defense—the brainchild of conductor Will Muschamp. Louisville will attempt to counter this addition with one of four quarterbacks. Heck, maybe more than that. Maybe all of them. Ah, nothing quite like a good ol’ Bobby Petrino-Gus Malzahn offensive game of Battleship to kick things off.
Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. in Houston, ESPN)
If you fancy points, be sure to feast your eyes on what could easily be the most delectable matchup of the weekend. Both Arizona State and Texas A&M are being mentioned as sleepers so frequently that the term should be condemned.
This also might not be wrong. While Aggies QB Kyle Allen is the better-known thrower-of-footballs taking part in the game, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici should be up for the retort. Oh, the fun that awaits.
Texas at Notre Dame (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., NBC)
For the football enthusiast who enjoys large sums of intense hitting, dazzling young linebackers and robust money-making programs hoping to avoid an early mishap, I present to you this lovely matchup. The focus for this game will be the quarterback, as Notre Dame will officially begin the Malik Zaire era. The Longhorns, meanwhile, will likely showcase both Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard—hoping one finally provides separation.
Wisconsin vs. Alabama (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ABC)
A team that loves to run the football will attempt to do so against arguably the best front seven in the nation. While Melvin Gordon is gone, Wisconsin still has Corey Clement at running back. He ran for nearly 1,000 yards in a reserve role last year. On the other side, all eyes will be on the young man Nick Saban trots out to play quarterback first. Please don’t stray too far from your television; you might hear your name called and be handed a helmet if things really start to turn.
Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Monday, 8:00 p.m., ESPN)
On the topic of quarterbacks, Urban Meyer will finally unveil his starter in one of the most hostile environments imaginable, shorthanded due to both injuries and suspensions. This game will also mark the debut of reborn H-back Braxton Miller, as if you needed any more Ohio State storylines to consume. As for Virginia Tech, the questions won’t be about its defense, which should be excellent once again. It will center on the prospects of scoring against a spectacular unit. But hey, they’ve done it before.
Season Storylines, Ahoy
Hop into this blimp and let’s explore the season from above. Keep in mind, this flying bubble has a grill, a fully stocked bar and is an enormous safety hazard. Welcome aboard. Now, let’s discuss this season’s biggest talking points.
Ohio State’s Against the World
Urban Meyer refuses to use the word “repeat,” so allow us to use it for him. With so much talent returning on both sides of the football—and the most publicized quarterback battle in recent memory still to linger into the year—Ohio State is almost expected to win the whole enchilada again, which is borderline unfair.
Every quarterback throw will be dissected. Every point allowed will be deemed a failure. Every close call will be viewed as a meltdown in the making. Life on top of the mountain is a wonderful place to pitch a tent. It’s also unforgiving and relentless. The whole journey, regardless of whether it follows the plan, will be wonderfully entertaining and stressful. Pull up a chair.
The Second Act of Harbaugh Mania
Act One featured strange tweets, even stranger media appearances and speculation over how one of the biggest free-agent signings in college football history would unfold. Now there is actual football to discuss, which is good news for everyone exhausted by the pageantry. And although expectations will be reserved—as they should be—it won’t stop the masses from overanalyzing each and every development.
Progress is critical. Forget about wins or numbers or anything else that will pump adrenaline into message boards. The next step of Harbaugh Mania is actually the most important. It has nothing to do with records. It’s also where he excels beyond just about any other football-obsessed soul on the planet.
The Second Act of College Football Playoff Overreaction
The debut season of the College Football Playoff ended up being a blissfully successful money grab for all involved. Ratings were historic, there was just the right amount of controversy and the games were wildly entertaining. What an enormous win.
But that was last year. Now, with a blank canvas, what does a fresh postseason bring in a system that is still relatively unfamiliar? At least one conference will be left out again, which will likely generate a slew of table-pounding, voice-raising declarations that an eight-team playoff is the only suitable destination. This talk is inevitable; it’s simply a matter of how widespread these cries are over the coming months.
And yes, having the semifinal games take place on New Year’s Eve rather than New Year’s Day will also garner plenty of chatter. You don’t have to like it, of course, but you are guaranteed to watch regardless—cheap champagne and all.
Is the SEC Poised to Finally Cannibalize Itself?
Maybe. How’s that for a definitive response? As the almighty SEC embarks on its third season without a national championship, some of its slumbering programs are starting to awaken.
Tennessee and Arkansas are garnering hefty buzz. Ole Miss is poised to sustain a while longer. Texas A&M should be improved. Missouri is still game. Look up and down the conference—with the exception of Vanderbilt—and you’ll find teams capable of winning on any given Saturday.
Alabama and Auburn are the definitive favorites, and deservedly so. Georgia and LSU are fascinating but flawed options as usual. A defined hierarchy still exists, although it feels slightly less concrete than it has been.
As a result, chaos could become a popular dinner-party guest. What happens from a postseason standpoint if chaos arrives is another question entirely. This is not an attempt to puff up the almighty SEC or question how it fits into the national discussion moving forward. It’s simply acknowledging some of the tremendous growth taking place deep within the conference and trying to feel out what effect it might have.
The Year of the Zombie Running Back
One year ago, shortly before the season began, the running back was pronounced dead. We watched the position die. We bought flowers and everything.
If that was indeed the case, we are poised to have an amazing batch of zombie ball-carriers—spectacular undead physical specimens—poised to terrorize us weekly. Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Samaje Perine, James Conner, Royce Freeman, Paul Perkins and Devontae Booker are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quality young running backs.
Yes, throwing the ball is becoming a more common occurrence at all levels. But the latest infusion of ball-carriers is poised to create a renaissance of sorts. The running back is not dead—nowhere close, really. Or perhaps this group of super zombies will simply conquer us all.
Top 10 Games of the Regular Season
Clear the calendar. Cancel all plans. Fake sick, if necessary. These are the games that have to be on your television this year outside of all of them, of course.
Texas A&M vs. Arizona State, September 5
There’s a deep appreciation when out-of-conference teams step up and touch gloves. The winner will immediately vault to a new level of expectations. There will be points.
Alabama at Georgia, October 3
Brings back memories, doesn’t it? Watching Nick Chubb attempt to power through this brick wall-ish defensive line is worth the price of admission alone.
USC at Notre Dame, October 17
A rivalry that could carry more meaning in 2015. At this point in the season, College Football Playoff hopes for both should be very real. Keyword there is “should.”
Florida State at Clemson, November 6
The biggest game of the ACC season is one we’re mighty familiar with at this point. Plenty on the line here.
USC at Oregon, November 21
The two favorites in the Pac-12 will meet late in the year in a stadium that should go nuclear with excitement. So many potential storylines.
Oregon at Michigan State, September 12
Last year’s installment was better than the score indicated. Now in East Lansing, the encore could be even better. You don’t have to wait long, either.
Notre Dame at Clemson, October 3
It’s too early to be an elimination game, although this one could carry some enormous amount of weight. It's an unfamiliar matchup, which is a good thing.
Michigan State at Ohio State, November 21
The game that could ultimately decide the Big Ten is required viewing—especially when you consider the NFL talent to be featured in this game.
Alabama at Auburn, November 28
It’s the Iron Bowl; you don’t need any more motivation to watch. But this year’s version could have the hype to match the hate.
Baylor at TCU, November 27
Simply put, don’t make plans on this day. Don't explore the sales on Black Friday. Gather ‘round and watch two of the best teams and offenses put on another splendid show with everything on the line.
Players We’d Like to See Get Legitimate Heisman Buzz (but Probably Won’t)
There will be no quarterbacks mentioned below because, quite frankly, the Heisman has morphed into a target-practice award. Saying a good quarterback on a good team will win the bronze statue is exceptionally boring.
In an effort to cheer for the chaos scenario—hoping that another position smashes through this impenetrable barrier—let’s examine some unlikely but still appropriate candidates playing elsewhere.
Scooby Wright III (Arizona, Linebacker)
He finished ninth in Heisman voting last season after delivering the following numbers: 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six—I repeat, six—forced fumbles. This was a criminally low finish after one of the greatest individual defensive seasons in recent memory.
If he can come close to this production and Arizona surpasses expectations, however, perhaps he will crash the party.
Adoree' Jackson (USC, Cornerback, Wide Receiver and Pretty Much Everything Else)
After a spectacular freshman season—one that resulted in two kick return touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns—USC’s star cornerback is poised to touch the ball even more.
His main position will be defense, although USC will use him often on offense and special teams. Seriously, watch this guy as often as you can. And if he breaks a few big ones early, watch the buzz start to churn.
James Conner (Running Back, Pittsburgh)
Other running backs—Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette, for starters—seem more poised to break the quarterback streak. But James Conner, after the quietest 26-touchdown season in college football history, should be someone to keep an eye on.
The production will be there. After running for more than 1,700 yards, that won’t be an issue. The issue, however, is getting the proper recognition on a team that hasn’t gotten much national spotlight. If he can crack 2,000 yards—which is feasible—he’ll be impossible to ignore.
Players Poised to Become Household Names… Quickly
Josh Rosen (UCLA, QB)
Playing a true freshman at quarterback is a bold endeavor. But this isn’t your average true-freshman quarterback. Rosen is immensely gifted and well ahead of his time. By the end of the year, if not sooner, he will have arrived.
Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State, LB)
With so much talent around him, McMillan has become an afterthought of sorts. Now holding down a starting job, however, the sophomore linebacker will soon become a fixture on the team. He’s going to be special.
Christian Kirk (Texas A&M, WR)
Playing on a team already deep at wideout, Kirk asserted himself the moment he arrived. The offense will allow him plenty of opportunities; look for him to be an impact target on day one.
Christian McCaffrey (Stanford, RB)
His freshman season showed plenty of promise. Now, playing in an offense that will take advantage of his ability to run and catch the football, it would not shock me to see McCaffrey become the next great Stanford back—a slightly different mold.
Budda Baker (Washington, S)
One could argue that the breakthrough already came last year. Baker was outstanding on defense, although now he could be tasked with helping on special teams and likely on offense. Superstardom is in his future.
Coaches Sitting on Warm Chairs
The “hot seat” never sleeps. And Illinois got the firing season started early with the removal of Tim Beckman, albeit on slightly different—and far more concerning—circumstances. As for other coaches in need of a big fall, let’s explore the concerned sideline generals.
Al Golden, Miami
NCAA involvement put Golden at a significant disadvantage when he arrived. That’s not an excuse; it was a reality. But clear of the black cloud, a six or seven-win season will no longer suffice. Golden needs to win now.
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
He’s taken the program to some tremendous places. He’s done spectacular things. But Iowa has seemingly plateaued at a time when the rest of the conference is hitting the accelerator. Huge season upcoming for one of the nation’s longest-tenured coaches.
Mike London, Virginia
The defense made tremendous strides last season. One could argue that the Cavaliers should have won more games. Regardless, unless Virginia reaches a bowl game in 2015, it could ultimately decide to make a change.
Paul Rhoads, Iowa State
With only five wins in the past two seasons combined, Rhoads needs to somehow, even with a difficult schedule on paper, alter the current path. He’s wildly entertaining and had success, although at what point, if it continues, is new influence needed?
Kevin Wilson, Indiana
The offense has certainly taken strides, although the overall results—despite delivering a handful of close calls—simply have not come. Indiana could get fat on its schedule early, although it will need a few more wins against better teams after that to find stable ground.
Preseason Mascot Top 25
A reminder: Preseason polls exist to create rage. You care and react because you can’t help it. It’s in your DNA. Don’t blame yourself.
In an effort to drift away from this usual practice, I have decided to replace teams with mascots. Quite simply, you’ve read enough about how your team will fall short of expectations this season. Now read why your furry, branded creature is woefully underrated.
These mascots were ranked based on historical relevance, presence, appearance, entertainment value, creativity and authenticity. Live animals received bonus considerations. Large animals were granted extra bonuses.
1. The Duck (Puddles), Oregon
2. Big Red, Western Kentucky
3. Ralphie, Colorado
4. Bevo, Texas
5. Mike the Tiger, LSU
6. Brutus the Buckeye, Ohio State
7. Uga, Georgia
8. The Tree, Stanford
9. The Mountaineer, West Virginia
10. Big Al, Alabama
11. Chief Osceola and Renegade, Florida State
12. Smokey, Tennessee
13. Reveille, Texas A&M
14. Sooner Schooner, Oklahoma
15. Traveler, USC
16. Sparty, Michigan State
17. The Leprechaun, Notre Dame
18. Bucky, Wisconsin
19. Aubie, Auburn
20. Goldy, Minnesota
21. Sebastian the Ibis, Miami
22. The Masked Rider, Texas Tech
23. Otto the Orange, Syracuse
24. Albert and Alberta Gator, Florida
25. Sir Big Spur, South Carolina
Welcome back, college football. We missed you so very much. The offseason was long, dark and dreadfully boring. Regardless of what happens next, we welcome your return with open hearts and open arms.
Put your feet up. Stay a while.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
One of the top Heisman Trophy candidates is a guy who might be standing on the sidelines. Another is a quarterback who was a receiver not long ago. It seems that half of the top teams are still trying to figure out who their quarterback is.
Coaches are behaving badly and one of them was already fired. And the dominant SEC? Maybe not so much anymore. Or maybe it still will be.
Welcome to the start of the strangest, most mysterious college football season anyone can remember. It starts Thursday night in full, though a small-college offensive innovator, Montana's Bob Stitt, already beat the back-to-back-to-back-to-back FCS national champ, North Dakota State, in his first game as a head coach, making him a cult figure behind the hashtag #stitthappens.
Maybe that's the motto for this entire season.
It isn't like college football to have this many unknowns. This isn't a sport bent on parity. The worst team doesn't get the first pick in the draft—instead, the best teams get the best recruits. Things don't change.
But things are changing now.
In the South, college football fans feel that the sport is their birthright. But after watching the SEC gets its, well, rear end handed to it in the bowl season last year, who even knows what the best conference is anymore? The Pac-12? The Big 12, with TCU and Baylor flying around and above everyone? Or even the Big Ten, the sport's joke the past several years, which produced national champ Ohio State and now has the most mysterious man in football: Jim Harbaugh.
Most people figure Harbaugh will turn Michigan around and that it won't take long. Going 6-6 or 7-5 this year would be a first-step improvement in line with most expectations, but look at the Wolverines' lenient schedule. Based on it and Harbaugh's past success rate, couldn't Michigan have just one loss—and the entire nation's attention—when it faces Ohio State in the final game of the regular season?
The face of college football isn't just the person who gets on the cover of magazines and onto SportsCenter highlights. He's the person who defines the identity of the sport. Usually, we have a pretty good idea going into the season who that is.
This year? There is no more Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, who were the faces of last season. One brought focus to off-field troubles (and great play) while the other brought focus to humility (and greater play). They became the identity of the entire sport, as the player, or person, with all the attention always does.
Johnny Manziel's speed and flamboyance defined a season. Nick Saban's bullying, methodical genius identified a year or two before that. Not too far in the past, it was Tim Tebow.
But now? Maybe Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones? That's who I'd pick—a new-age guy who is big, powerful and fast all at the same time, at the quarterback position of all places.
He might not play.
J.T. Barrett, already named one of Ohio State's team captains, might be the starter. Coach Urban Meyerisn't telling reporters. But if Barrett doesn't play, then the national champions will have a captain sitting on the bench.
It could be TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, who used to be a receiver but now might be the prototype for the Heisman, a running/passing QB. Unless Jones changes the prototype.
If he plays.
Some people like USC quarterback Cody Kessler to define the season. He has the Heisman skills and the Hollywood spotlight. But his team starts the year under controversy after coach Steve Sarkisian's alcohol-fueled, f-bomb-laced speech. Sark is getting treatment, and the players got to pick a coach's punishment, which amounted to burpees.
It was better than Illinois coach Tim Beckman, already fired for his alleged mistreatment of player injuries.
Can anyone catch Ohio State? Well, it could be Oregon now that Vernon Adams Jr. passed his math test.
Seriously. Mariota is gone and Davis was able to transfer to Oregon and play immediately only after he officially graduated from Eastern Washington.
The Ducks aren't a sure thing either, though. Coach Mark Helfrich was able to keep program from regressing after Chip Kelly left, but he still had Kelly's QB. Now that Mariota has joined Kelly in the NFL, too, Helfrich needs to prove it's his program and a winning one. (Hint: He will.)
As everyone knows, the quarterback is almost always the team leader, the face of the team, the identity. Well, it took until Monday for Florida State to name Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson as the face of its team:
Also on Monday, Georgia named Greyson Lambert starting QB, and Ole Miss named Chad Kelly. LSU coach Les Miles rushed to the hospital—he told reporters he had a bad reaction to having too much coffee—and then came back and named Brandon Harris.
Last we saw, UCLA coach Jim Mora was tearing into his freshman quarterback, Josh Rosen, in practice. And Meyer isn't the only power-program coach who has yet to name a starting QB: Michigan still hasn't, and Saban has three quarterbacks listed as the starter for Alabama's game Saturday against Wisconsin.
There's a word for all of this—a word we try to avoid, a swear word in sports: parity. Though that's better than what the Big Ten had heard for years: laughingstock.
Not anymore. It might be hard to figure out from the start who to cheer for—other than your own team—and who against. It might be exciting or just confusing. But more than ever, almost everyone gets a fair shake this time.
Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
That giddy sensation you're feeling comes from daily fantasy college football about to kick off. On Thursday night, DFS players all across the country will cash in on unpaid athletes—and it feels so good.
In order to see a big payday, owners will need to know big-name players like Deshaun Watson or Pharoh Cooper. But to build a winning lineup over the next several weeks, finding value players can be a difficult task with so many moving parts in college football. Here's a look at our value plays to start the season.
Quarterback: Maty Mauk, Missouri ($6,500)
Looking for a consistent quarterback who is far below the $9,000 mark? Maty Mauk is your man. The Missouri signal-caller was solid last year and heads into his junior season with plenty of expectations and enough talent to carry the Tigers.
Much like several college quarterbacks, Mauk faces easy opponents to start the season before entering SEC play. If he maintains his $6,500 price tag against cupcakes like Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State and UConn, expect Mauk to outperform his value early on.
Running Back: A.J. Ouellette, Ohio ($6,400)
You may not know his name now, but A.J. Ouellette has a chance to emerge as a fantasy stud this season. The sophomore tailback exploded for Ohio as a walk-on during his freshman campaign. He'll show why he earned a scholarship last season when he explodes against Idaho.
In 2014, Idaho ranked 119th in the country (that's out of 125 teams) in rushing yards allowed with 246.2 per game. Meanwhile, Ouellette averaged 126 rushing yards with five total touchdowns in his final three games of 2014. Even at over $6,000, Ouellette is a great value play for any lineup.
Running Back: De'Veon Smith, Michigan ($4,500)
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has a quarterback battle on his hands for the season opener against Utah. But there is no question who will start at running back with De'Veon Smith emerging this offseason. The 5'11", 228-pound junior is ready to start his third collegiate game and make a statement against Utah.
Last year in the season opener, Smith rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on just eight attempts. Don't expect those exact numbers against Utah, a decent rushing defense in 2014, but look for Smith to prove why he's worthy of keeping the starting job. That makes him an ideal start as an RB2 or flex for just $4,500 on DraftKings.
Wide Receiver: Mitch Mathews, BYU ($6,700)
What is there not to like about Mitch Mathews? At 6'6", Mathews towers over defensive backs. With 73 receptions for 922 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, he's a force for BYU's dynamic offense. Oh, and he has Taysom Hill throwing him the ball again after a season-ending injury six games into last season.
Another positive, as Mathews pointed out to Talo Steves of Scout.com, is that he has help now at receiver and should put together a complete game against Nebraska.
"We’ll be able to rotate a lot of receivers to keep us fresh and be as effective as we can be," Mathews said. "Last season I was playing almost 70 plays a game and that’s a lot. At the end of the game you’re exhausted and your routes aren’t as crisp. We’ve got a lot of depth at receiver, which will help."
Expect a fresh Mathews at the beginning and end of his matchup with Nebraska. In four must-win games for the Cougars to compete on the national stage, Mathews will have to shine against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan. Even at $6,700 for the opener, Mathews is a massive value for DraftKings owners.
Wide Receiver: Marquez North, Tennessee ($4,200)
Hello, opportunity. Marquez North got just that when Pig Howard was suspended for the season opener against Bowling Green. Despite battling through an offseason injury and missing multiple games to close out last season, North is ready to go against Bowling Green, according to head coach Butch Jones.
As the top option for Joshua Dobbs, North should thrive against Bowling Green. Owners will have to play wait and see after that with Howard likely returning and a wealth of playmakers on the roster. But at $4,200, North is a low-risk, high-reward receiver on DraftKings to slot at either WR2 or WR3 in Week 1.
Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
At long last, college football is back. The new season kicks off Thursday night, and it's sure to provide many twists and turns over the next five months as the journey to crown the second annual playoff champion takes center stage.
Reigning champion Ohio State begins its title defense with a tricky matchup against Virginia Tech. That highly anticipated clash will close out the opening week Monday night with plenty of drama sure to unfold before the Buckeyes and Hokies take the field.
So let's check out the complete slate of action for Week 1, along with viewing details for each contest. That's followed by a look at some of the best games to keep tabs on over the next handful of days.
Week 1 TV Schedule
Top Games to Watch
Texas vs. No. 11 Notre Dame
Texas is trending in the right direction under Charlie Strong, as evidenced by a top-10 incoming class of recruits, per 247Sports. The question is how long will it take for the talent to start translating into results. Expectations for this season are low by Longhorns standards after missing out on the preseason top 25.
A Week 1 upset over Notre Dame would go a long way in changing that outlook. A senior-laden defensive group and some big-play weapons at the skill positions, led by running back Johnathan Gray, makes Texas dangerous. But a lot will depend on the play of quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.
While there were flashes of potential from Swoopes last season, he lacked the game-to-game consistency necessary to push Texas into contention. A talented Fighting Irish front seven is going to test him immediately with a lot of pressure.
Notre Dame should have more stability on both sides of the ball, especially if Malik Zaire lives up to the hype under center. As a result, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports forecasts a blowout:
Don't be surprised if Texas puts up more of a fight than that projection suggests. The talent is there for the Longhorns to give the Irish some trouble, but the question is whether they are going to hit the ground running or if it's going to take some time for them to showcase the progress.
No. 20 Wisconsin vs. No. 3 Alabama
Alabama opens the season with the first of seven games against teams ranked inside the preseason top 25. As always, the difficult schedule is both a blessing and a curse. Life in the SEC can help build a strong résumé, but it also means there are few weeks where the Crimson Tide will be on cruise control.
One of the biggest questions in the nation is how they will replace Amari Cooper, who caught 124 of the team's 290 completed passes last season. Whether another wideout, should it be ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster or somebody else, can rise to the occasion will be a huge factor.
It's a facet of Bama's game that could get tested right away. Wisconsin finished 23rd in rush defense last season and returns a majority of its starts in the front seven. The Badgers should be able to slow the Tide down enough on the ground to force them into several key third-and-long situations.
The game is crucial for the underdogs too, of course. Jesse Temple of ESPN explains why this game could be a season-changer for the Badgers:
To play teams like Alabama is one thing. To win is another—something that could help elevate Wisconsin's national perception and provide the program with visions of a truly meaningful post-New Year's Day game.
Wisconsin could make a quick vault into the top 10 with a victory, and its schedule this season looks favorable, at least for now. Add in the fact Alabama doesn't want to drop a game to make the rest of the season even more daunting and you have a recipe for an intense battle.
No. 1 Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech
Yes, this is a game any national title contender should win. Virginia Tech has the appearance of a good, but not great, team, and the Buckeyes should hold the edge in most areas. There are a lot of other factors in play as Ohio State begins the title defense, though.
Along with the difficulty of getting back into game mode after a long, grueling road to a championship last season, the Buckeyes have to deal with the added pressure of being the champs. Moving from the intangible to the tangible, they also have four key suspensions, including star defender Joey Bosa.
As for the quarterback situation, it seems head coach Urban Meyer isn't going to provide any more information. He'll just wait until the offense takes the field to let everybody find out his starter, per Austin Ward of ESPN.
"We'll announce the starter when the first guy takes the snap," Meyer said. "It's still very close, both guys are performing very well.
"If it was different skill sets, we probably would [need to decide], but they're not. If you look at J.T.'s game plan when he was our quarterback and Cardale's, it was very similar. There's a chance they'll both play, as well, so that hasn't really [been a factor] with our mindset with a game plan on offense."
All of those variables at least open the door a crack for Virginia Tech to pull off a shocker. Make no mistake, it's going to take a near perfect performance from Michael Brewer, Deon Clarke and Co. to turn the season upside down right away, but the opportunity is there.
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Texas and Notre Dame each will battle for second place on the all-time wins list on Saturday, but that's the only thing these two teams have in common.
After a finishing the season strong against LSU in the Music City Bowl, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly returns one of the most experienced rosters in the country. That, along with the emergence of quarterback Malik Zaire, has the Fighting Irish within a stone's throw of a top-10 ranking.
Charlie Strong doesn't have it quite so good. A weak 2014 finish has many looking down on the Longhorns, who will replace 10 starters from last year's 6-7 squad. With 24 freshmen on the two-deep, the rebuild is still very much on.
So while the all-time implications may not live up to the hype, the first impressions provided by these teams should be plenty interesting.
When Texas Has the Ball
The Longhorns' best hope on offense is to find success against Notre Dame's depleted defensive front. If they can't, then they're going to put a ton of pressure on their defense.
As noted by the Austin American-Statesman's Brian Davis, it hasn't been a great offseason for the Irish up front. NFL prospect Ishaq Williams has been declared ineligible for this season, Jarron Jones tore his MCL in fall camp, two pass-rushers transferred out and one JUCO recruit never enrolled.
Kelly still has seniors Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara holding it down, but everyone else is a sophomore or younger. That's where Texas will try to assert its edge and spring its running backs, especially senior Johnathan Gray.
The question is whether the Longhorn line is up to the task. Texas returns three starters up front, but will trot out two true freshmen who will be charged with trying to create running lanes against the likes of Jaylon Smith.
If the running game can't get going, the onus falls on Swoopes, who struggled when he had to be a one-man show in 2014. It's no coincidence that against TCU and Arkansas, his two worst performances of the year, the Horns ran for a total of 92 yards on 54 attempts.
But if Texas can create room, and possibly keep the Irish guessing by deploying Swoopes on a runner, this team's defense gives it a chance.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Make no mistake—the Irish can hurt the Longhorns in a variety of ways.
Led by running back Tarean Folston, the Irish return all six of last season's leaders in yards from scrimmage. On top of that, dual-threat terror Malik Zaire returns after a full season to learn Kelly's system.
Heading into this matchup, Kelly feels good about where Zaire is with the offense:
Yeah, it's a totally different Malik Zaire. A lot of it was first start [against LSU], not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren't sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.
But his development has been so much more since that game through the spring, through the summer and now in pregame, he's much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable.
And while Kelly feels like he sees a different Zaire, it's the junior's legs that should scare the Longhorns. Taysom Hill, Sam B. Richardson and Trevone Boykin all had big games against the Horns in 2014, and that team had far more veteran talent than this squad.
The Longhorn defense should be fine next season, but corralling all this explosive talent with nine freshmen on the two-deep will be tough. Texas' best bet is to crowd the line of scrimmage and force Zaire to prove how much he's really developed.
If Zaire can pick the Horns apart with his arm, then so be it.
Key Players for Texas: The Offensive Line
Nothing takes the air out of an opposing stadium like some old-fashioned ground-and-pound. And that's the only way Texas is going to take out the Irish on the road.
Texas has to be able to run to win this game. Even if Tyrone Swoopes is a new guy, he's missing his top-two receivers from last season, and he has a freshman protecting his blindside in Connor Williams. He can't win this game throwing 40-plus passes.
On the flip side, Williams and fellow freshman starter were brought up because they're real maulers. They're also going to be blocking for a probable 1,000-yard back in Gray, a rising star in D'Onta Foreman and a freak-show athlete in Chris Warren. Against a depleted defensive front, this team has a chance to move the chains.
Truly, it'd be one of the year's bigger upsets for Texas to run up to Notre Dame, with one of the nation's youngest rosters in the country, and tie up the all-time series. If it happens, it'll be because the offensive line set the tone.
Key Player for Notre Dame: RB Tarean Folston
With Greg Bryant possibly gone for good, it's Tarean Folston's show in the backfield. That means it's his job to make Zaire's job easy in the first game of the season.
Running behind an elite offensive line, Folston can end this one early. He's going to get the ball for as long as he's productive, and that will open things up for his quarterback down the field.
If Folston can't break through Texas' sneaky deep defensive line, then this offense could be in trouble. Not only are Horns underrated up front, but they return three starters from a secondary that gave up only 5.7 yards per attempt last season. That was good enough to tie for fourth in the nation, per cfbstats.com.
So, much like Swoopes, Zaire could easily throw his way into a lot of trouble. Or Folston can run like the feature back he wants to be, and the Irish will handle their business.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Texas 23
Two things are pretty obvious about this matchup.
The first is that whoever can control the ball will force the other team to get away from what it really wants to do. The other is that Notre Dame has much more talent and experience that says it'll get this done.
However, Texas isn't going to lay down. This is a young team, but it's a young team composed of exactly the type of players Strong wants to go to war with. Even last season, when his defense was shoving opposing offenses into quicksand, there were still some issues with guys being fully committed to the team.
This time around, Strong feels like his team is buying in:
It's been fun to watch, even with the offensive linemen where guys are still coaching the younger players. But when you take on that type of personality and you start seeing it form as a team, that's what you want to see. What you're developing for them as a team and you watch the confidence, you watch the consistency and you watch guys just all of a sudden begin to pull everybody in and become as one.
These Horns will figure out a way to make this closer than it should be, but the Irish will emerge with a comfortable win. There's just too much skill and experience on that sideline.
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