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College Football Predictions 2014: Dark-Horse National Championship Contenders

It’s easy to pick Florida State, Alabama or Oregon when discussing potential national championship contenders as we approach the 2014 college football season.

When does college football ever go according to plan, though?

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams fans should not overlook when it comes to the national title race.

 

Wisconsin

The Big Ten may not be the SEC, but it is better than it gets credit for on a national level. However, don’t look at Wisconsin’s strength of schedule if you want to make a convincing case for the conference’s strength.

The Badgers miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan on this year’s slate and get Nebraska at home. The winner of that contest will have an inside track for the West Division crown.

Wisconsin could very well be favored in every single game it plays except the opener, which means plenty of wins. That opener comes against LSU, but don’t automatically assume the Tigers will walk away with a win.

The Badgers will rely heavily on their superstar running back in Melvin Gordon. Gordon ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago, and he could see even more carries now that James White is no longer on campus.

One of Wisconsin’s concerns heading into the season could also turn into a strength. The Badgers lost the majority of their front seven on defense, including Chris Borland, but this is a unit that finished fifth in the country against the run and sixth in scoring defense a year ago. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country and will have his unit among the nation's best yet again. 

If that defense and Gordon find a way to get past LSU, it will be time to start buying stock in the Badgers.

 

South Carolina

Much like Wisconsin, South Carolina is partially on this list because it has a favorable schedule to go along with talent.

The Gamecocks avoid Alabama, LSU and what could be a dangerous Mississippi team but still have to play Clemson, Auburn and Georgia. It’s not like that is a walk-in-the-park schedule, but it is easier to navigate than others in the SEC.

South Carolina finished in the top 10 the last three years and was the only squad in the country to beat three teams that finished in the AP Top 10 last year. It has consistently finished among the nation’s best under Steve Spurrier but simply needs to take the one final step to win the SEC championship if it hopes to reach the College Football Playoff. 

The contest with Georgia will go a long way toward determining who wins the conference’s East division, and this year’s matchup is in South Carolina, where the Gamecocks have won 18 in a row at home.

If they can extend that streak and reach the SEC title game, they would be one game away from reaching the CFP because the SEC champion is definitely going to receive the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.

Chris Low of ESPN.com thinks South Carolina will get to the conference title game:

The Head Ball Coach has a veteran offensive line, marquee running back and depth in the defensive line and at linebacker. While we're not ready to pick the Gamecocks to win the SEC championship game, we are picking them to get there and win 10 or more games for the fourth straight season. 

A healthy Mike Davis is a Heisman candidate at running back, especially behind this offensive line. If he can propel his team to a couple of critical victories this season (Georgia, the SEC title game and Clemson), a national title is not out of the question.

 

Ohio State

You would be forgiven if you left Ohio State for dead after Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder. After all, we are talking about a Heisman candidate and the two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year who makes defenders look absolutely silly in the open field.

However, Urban Meyer has accumulated plenty of talent as he enters his third year in Columbus, and it will be up to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to find those playmakers in Miller’s absence.

The one positive about Miller’s injury is that he missed spring practice and most of fall training, so Barrett has taken plenty of first-team snaps. Familiarity with the offense will be critical because the Buckeyes plan on unleashing a high-octane attack, as offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated:

“If used properly and effectively, tempo should help our cause from the standpoint of not needing the ridiculous dynamism that Braxton Miller provided.”

Barrett earned the nickname “the distributor” because of his ability to simply get the ball out to the offensive weapons and get out of the way. That’s exactly why the Buckeyes are still a threat in the national picture. They have so much speed and athleticism on the field that defenses won’t be able to lock in on just one or two guys.

Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn give Meyer a three-headed attack at running back, but freshman Curtis Samuel and sophomore Dontre Wilson will see plenty of action from the slot and backfield. Samuel and Wilson are the speedsters who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits all year.

Throw in a receiving corps that features veterans Evan Spencer and Devin Smith, youngsters Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith, and Barrett's underrated rushing ability, and Ohio State’s offense will still be dynamic without Miller.

Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer certainly thinks so:

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Ohio State’s 2014 prospects is the fact that the defense should be improved under new coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes will utilize more of a 4-3 base that presses up on wide receivers, which will ideally eliminate the gaping holes that Sammy Watkins exploited in the Orange Bowl. 

With a stronger defense and weapons all over the field, count the Buckeyes out at your own peril.

 

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Georgia Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The 2013 campaign did not go as Georgia fans, players or coaches expected.  Injuries on offense and stunted development on defense derailed the Bulldogs despite a strong early start.  Now, with (mostly) regained health and a new regime leading the defensive side of the ball, optimism lives anew.  

As is often the case with Georgia, this team is talented enough to reach great heights—even levels not previously achieved during the Mark Richt era.  The offense is loaded equally with weapons and leadership. The defense is jam-packed with potential stars eager for refinement.

Combine those elements with a schedule that is relatively favorable and a staff of hungry and diligent coaches, and this should be a memorable year for Bulldog fans.

 

Coaches

Two things stand out about the Bulldogs' coaching staff.  First and foremost is the stability brought by Richt, whose 14-year tenure is as long as any current SEC coach at a single school.  For a coach who is often underappreciated, Richt sure has demonstrated some staying power.

Conversely, the plethora of first-year assistants offers an equally intriguing element to the coaching staff.  The departure of former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is well-documented and referenced often.  Less obvious is the fact that none of his assistants remain with the program.  When Jeremy Pruitt arrived from Florida State, he made quick work of finding talented assistants and filling his staff.

Already this coaching staff and its mix of old and new has cooperated on a number of fronts.  The group closed the 2014 signing class with a fantastic sprint to the finish line.  Collectively, this unit increased the intensity of practices by adding reps.  And the staff has not wavered from its traditionally high standard of conduct for players both on and off the field.

Now, the most daunting task lies ahead.  The 2014 season will be about players stepping up, but these coaches—and not just the new ones—must prove themselves as well.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

Hopefully, the theme for this year is "more of the same" from offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.  Star quarterback Aaron Murray may be gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason seems more than ready to take over one of the most prolific offenses in the SEC.

At running back, a five-headed monster will be captained by Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley.  The junior running back has accounted for 2,932 yards of offense and 33 total touchdowns on just 440 touches.  If he stays healthy and gets enough carries, Gurley will run all the way to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

Interestingly enough, his own teammates may keep him from getting the statistics needed to compete for the nation's most prestigious award.  He'll be joined in the backfield by:

  • Keith Marshall: 1,207 yards of offense, 11 TDs over two years.
  • Brendan Douglas: 517 yards of offense and four TDs as a true freshman last year.
  • Nick Chubb: The nation's sixth-best running back in the class of 2014 per 247Sports.
  • Sony Michel: The nation's third-best running back in the class of 2014 per 247Sports.

Mason will have plenty of weapons in the passing game as well. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are two of the more consistent receiving threats of the Mark Richt era.  Both players have been major contributors over the past three seasons.  

Meanwhile, Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell, arguably Georgia's two best big-play threats in the passing game, should be back from knee injuries at some point.  

Mitchell suffered a minor setback during fall camp, but Scott-Wesley is making strides, which Mark Richt pointed out to Seth Emerson of the Ledger-Enquirer, saying, "He gets work.  We just don't have him in a contact situation right now.  He's getting better.  We're just not ready to get him in a full-speed situation right now."

Assuming the offensive line can stay healthy, this should once again be an explosive offense.  The run/pass balance may move slightly toward the ground game, but Bobo will strive to keep defenses on their toes.  

 

What to Watch For on Defense

The new defense is still very much a work in progress under Pruitt. Coming into fall camp, the front seven was expected to be the cornerstone of this unit.  As Chip Towers of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution observed earlier this week, even the front half of the defense is chaotic:

The defensive line situation was kind of hard to figure. I hardly ever saw the Bulldogs line up in a traditional three- or four-man front, with a nose, tackle and end. Sometimes [Jordan] Jenkins was in a stance at an end position and often an end like Sterling Bailey or Josh Dawson was lineup inside as a 3-technique tackle. The one consistency I saw was senior Mike Thornton was almost always the nose with the No. 1 defense and looked very quick and effective in that role. Big John Atkins also stood out and even came up with an interception off a batted pass at one point. This is going to be a very interesting group to watch under Tracy Rocker’s tutelage.

It should come as no surprise that it took some time for the secondary to settle in as well.  After three defensive backs with starting experience (Josh Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins, Tray Matthews) left the program and another (Brendan Langley) moved to offense, this unit was in need of a makeover.  It certainly got one thanks to three newcomers—Shattle Fenteng, Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis—who are slated to be atop the depth chart in the secondary.

Ultimately, Pruitt will move a lot of pieces in a lot of different places to show a lot of different looks.  That's what made his attacking defense so successful at Florida State last year.  Accordingly, it's conceivable that every player on the three-deep depth chart could become a factor in any given situation.  Watching that develop should be a unique experience for Georgia fans, especially if it yields on-field results.

 

Injury News

A number of players, led by Marshall, are back from season-ending 2013 injuries, but a few remain sidelined.  Keep an eye on the health of the following players:

The most permanent injury news relates to Merritt Hall, who was medically disqualified last week.  He will be missed as a fierce lead blocker from his fullback position.

As for the other three offensive stars, outlooks are relatively optimistic. While it's unlikely that all three are on the field against Clemson, that possibility has not been completely ruled out.  Rome seems the closest to seeing the field, followed by Scott-Wesley, who has at least been on the field running routes.

Ideally and realistically, getting two of these three Dawgs back in time for the trip to South Carolina on September 13 would be a huge bonus for Georgia.

 

X-Factor

While it would be easy to identify Mason as the team's X-factor in his first full season as the starter under center, fans for the most part know what to expect out of him—poise and sound decision-making.

To the contrary, two Bulldogs who recently changed positions could add tremendous but unmeasured value to the team in 2014.

Last year, J.J. Green racked up nearly 500 yards of offense as a running back, spelling Gurley and Marshall as they battled injuries. This year, he's a defensive back.  

The move, which was initiated by Green, could tremendously help a defensive secondary desperately in need of athleticism and playmaking ability.  He showed both of those attributes last year, and he's already put himself in a position to play in Pruitt's secondary.

On the offensive side of the ball, look for Hicks to add another wrinkle to Bobo's ever-evolving offense.  As a tight end, H-back or even his familiar fullback spot, look for Hicks to be used more often than he was in 2013.  Hicks showed flashes of stardom early in the season last year, but prolonged struggles in pass protection kept him off the field.  This year, he should be in position to succeed.

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

Most experts believe that either Georgia or South Carolina will win the SEC East.  With the programs at Florida and Tennessee struggling to regain momentum and Missouri needing to restock a host of weapons, that assumption is not entirely unfounded.  

Accordingly, Georgia's battle with the Gamecocks is greatly important.  South Carolina has a more difficult overall schedule, so a loss to Steve Spurrier and Co. won't necessarily doom the Dawgs' chances of winning the division, but an early-season win sure would be nice. 

Additionally, a win against Florida is always nice.  Georgia has won three consecutive matchups with the Gators for the first time since 1987-1989, but a fourth win would be especially sweet.  This is always an unpredictable game.  Even last year, when Florida floundered to a 4-8 record, Georgia barely managed to survive.  A loss to the Gators in 2014 could break the Bulldogs' season.

And of course, Georgia would love to exact revenge for a heartbreaking 2013 loss at Auburn.  By most accounts, big things are expected out of the Tigers in 2014, but Georgia almost ruined their dream season last year.  Payback would be especially sweet within the cozy confines of Sanford Stadium.

 

Prediction

The accuracy of two specific assumptions will define the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs.  

First and foremost, the offense must continue to perform at the level fans have grown accustomed to.  Murray may be gone and the ground game may get more carries this year, but the Dawgs need to continue to march down field on long, methodical drives.

Secondly, the Georgia defense must take steps forward under Jeremy Pruitt.  Most expect the unit to improve, and many hope it already has. But these dreams need to come to fruition for the team to maximize its potential.

Neither of those assumptions is a given, but it's not unreasonable to presume satisfaction in both areas either.

Without question, the most daunting game on the schedule is the trip to South Carolina.  Outside of that outing, Georgia may be favored in every game on the schedule.  An accommodating schedule also gives Georgia a relatively easy seven-game stretch from September 20 through November 8.

Continued offensive prowess, an improving defense and a favorable schedule will yield an 11-1 regular-season record (7-1 in SEC play) with a lone loss coming to South Carolina.  Despite the loss to a division rival, this should be enough to get the Dawgs back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.

Todd Gurley won't win the Heisman Trophy, as he won't have the numbers to captivate voters in an increasingly stat-driven contest.  He will, however, win the Doak Walker Award as the best running back in the nation.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Meet Nebraska's New Starters for 2014

Just like the changing of the leaves, every year Nebraska fans can count on seeing new starters shine. So as the new season is less than two weeks (!!) away, it’s time to look and see which new players will be getting the nod to start for Nebraska.

Of course, without an official depth chart, some of these are guesses (or as we call them in the business, “informed analytical speculation”). Areas of the team that are unlisted have all returning starters.

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Derrick Green vs. De'Veon Smith, the Friendly Battle to Be Michigan's Top RB

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith aren’t roommates.

They’re closer than that.

Unlike roommates, they actually spend time together, eat together, study together and, well, be great friends together.

However, that bond all but disappears once the sophomores hit practice. As interchangeable 1A and 1B options in Michigan’s backfield, they’re chasing the same job—that of the true No. 1.

On Wednesday, Green was asked what he’s doing to gain leverage in the race for top billing—which is everything in his power, he says—but said he feels that running backs coach Fred Jackson and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will ultimately make that ruling, not the backs themselves.

Until that happens, he'll continue to encourage Smith to reach his goals—even if it’s the same one he wants.

“We’re competing. Every day we come out [and give full effort]—but at the end of the day, we’re brothers and we love each other,” Green said. 

And when he says “brothers,” he means “brothers.” They spend hours playing video games together. They’re pretty tight. So, it should come as no surprise that Smith had a similar answer when asked what he’s doing to claim the advantage.

“Right now, we’re pretty much even,” he said. (Note: Size-wise, that's true too. He's 5'11", 220 pounds; Green's 5'11", 230 pounds). “I honestly don’t know [what I’m doing to separate]—we’re really good friends, so we compete at every little thing we do. [Who’s No. 1] depends on who gets in Coach J’s [Jackson] room the most and studies film.”

Chances are, they’ll probably be together when that happens too. Maybe they’ll flip a coin to see who’s responsible for the popcorn?

All jokes aside, Green and Smith’s association can only make for a positive impact on their position group. When one’s down, the other will be there to pick up the slack. When one’s on a hot streak, competitive nature should take hold, forcing the bystander into becoming an active participant.

It’s yin and yang, running back-style.

Michigan can't lose either way. And it all starts Aug. 30 versus Appalachian State, Green said. 

And so did Smith. 

The calls for someone other than Fitz Toussaint rang loud and clear for most of 2013. The senior didn't perform to his previous standards, so fans wanted a change. Unfortunately, Michigan didn’t hear those pleas until late in the year, finally giving in and presenting Green and Smith real chances to prove themselves.

Generally speaking, they didn’t do very much as freshmen—that much is clear. But they were each vital contributors during the one that counts for double, the Wolverines' 42-41 loss to Ohio State. Smith had seven carries for 57 yards (obviously a season high), and Green chipped in with 12 totes for 47 yards.

As time evaporated, the hard-running bruisers moved the chains and wore down the Buckeyes defense, which was No. 34 overall in 2013, per NCAA.com. That game serves as the best example, to date, of their one-two-punch capabilities.

Back on media day, Smith mentioned his team’s heightened sense of continuity. In hindsight, there’s a chance he could have been making a reference to his friendship with Green or to other similar bonds that teammates share. 

During a recent ESPN survey, Hoke was asked to sum up the Wolverines with one word.

He said “together.”

Green and Smith embody that. 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.

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Alabama Football: Final Camp Stock Report

TUSCALOOSA, Al. — It may be hard to believe, but fall camp is over for the Alabama football team, and the Crimson Tide can squarely turn their focus to West Virginia and the season opener in Atlanta.

There were plenty of storylines to follow for the last three weeks, as Alabama got back to the practice field as a team in preparation for the season.

Before the first week of the season begins, let’s wrap up the last week of fall practice and set the stage for the first week of in-season practice. Here’s the Week 3 stock report.

 

Closer unit

When asked what his biggest takeaway has been through these last three weeks with his team, Alabama coach Nick Saban said it was the off-field attitude of his team and hinted at something that could have been a problem last season.

"I think this team really and truly likes each other," Saban said. "I think this team is much more bought in at doing the things they need to do to be successful. There's not a lot of complaining. I don't hear a lot of negativity; I don't see a lot of negative people. And I think that's always a good sign."

The players’ leadership team took that upon them to remedy that negativity as well.

They’ve been planning team get-togethers like cookouts at players' houses. The defensive line plays video games (FIFA, Madden and UFC are the favorites) to bond.

Tight end Brian Vogler, right tackle Austin Shepherd and quarterback Jake Coker—who teammates call a “country guy”—went on a fishing trip. If players who don’t normally hang out in the same friend group see each other out and about, they’ll say hey and strike up a conversation, rather than struggle through the forced pleasantries of the past.

"We all like to play video games, and then of course we like to eat," defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. "We all go out to eat a lot."

It’s a fresh change from some of the reported contention in the locker room in 2013.

 

Final injury report

While there were a number of bumps and bruises along the way, Alabama came out of camp relatively healthy, which can’t necessarily be said of other top teams around the country.

In fact, the Crimson Tide’s situation is probably better than it was when camp started.

Eddie Jackson, likely Alabama’s top cornerback option after the 2013 season who sustained a knee injury in the offseason that required surgery, is much further along than many expected.

He’s taken part in fall camp from the first day, and while he’s been on what Saban calls a “pitch” count, Jackson could be ready to play sooner rather than later—a far cry from the vague “this fall” Saban announced at the time of his surgery.

"Eddie Jackson is back practicing and doing well," Saban said. "But probably not where he needs to be to be able to—because he missed a few practices—we're just going to take him one day at a time and see how fast he progresses, see where he gets to."

Otherwise, the players who suffered minor injuries during camp—linebacker Trey DePriest, defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson and offensive linemen Leon Brown and Dominick Jackson—are just about back to full strength and getting back up to speed in terms of conditioning.

 

Team takes ice bucket challenge

The Alabama football team joined in with the thousands of people across the world taking the ice bucket challenge to raise awareness for ALS. (You can view the video on the team’s website.)

It went much better than the first time Saban was doused with liquid from a cooler, when he got hit in the head after winning the BCS National Championship against Texas.

“Oh yeah, we had them throw it off the porch so nobody could get hit in the head,” Saban said. “We had the whole team there and they had about 15 buckets. It was good. That's why I changed shirts.”

Saban challenged U.S. senator Joe Manchin, whom Saban grew up with in West Virginia, former Alabama running back Mark Ingram, college football personality Paul Finebaum and Florida head coach Will Muschamp.

“Something as small as that, that means more than a lot of things we've ever done as a team,” center Ryan Kelly said. “As a team, we can get off the field and help a great cause. It's something bigger than what we are. Things like that where somebody might overlook that as an outside person. But that just helps you build a team. "

 

Quarterback race as tight as ever

Vogler is one of the few players on Alabama’s roster who was around for the 2011 quarterback battle and the current one that’s still raging on. He senses a different atmosphere, though, this time around compared to when AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims duked it out.

“I think last time there was a competition it was kind of clear-cut who the favorite was and who took command of the offense—no offense to Phillip Sims or anything like that,” Vogler said. “It’s kind of harder to tell right now. Both guys are just taking control of the offense, and they want it so bad. We’re all comfortable with whoever it is that’s out there at the end of the day.”

By all indications, this race is still very much a close one. That can complicate things at times, but Alabama and Saban still aren’t ready to name a starter.

“It’s kind of an awkward thing to talk about,” Vogler said. “It’s hard making that transition where you go into the huddle and you see one face, then you come back out after a series, let the twos go, and go back out there and it’s a new face. You’re just like, ‘I gotta get used to a different cadence, I’ve gotta get used to hearing the play just worded a little differently.’ It’s been a little tolling on all of us, just with that contrast. But I think once it gets sets in stone, we’ll be rolling.”

Vogler shared a Coker story that sums up the Florida State transfer’s attitude toward the competition amidst the relentless talk around it.

In addition to being a “country guy,” he isn’t much for technology either.

Coker sat at his locker one day after practice, and the SportsCenter anchors on the TVs in the locker room started to break down Alabama’s quarterback competition—”Blake and Jake,” as Vogler called it.

A walk-on noticed and said, “Hey, Jake, you’re on TV.” Coker kept his head down, didn’t miss a beat and just responded: “Cool.”

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from cfbstats. All recruiting information comes from 247Sports.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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We Remember: Michael Crabtree's Last-Second TD Upsets No. 1 Texas

The setting was November 1, 2008, in Lubbock, Texas, as No. 7 Texas Tech hosted No. 1 Texas in a Big 12 matchup. 

The game was a back-and-forth affair, as Tech jumped out to an early 19-0 lead in the first half, but the Longhorns, behind quarterback Colt McCoy, fought back to take a 33-32 lead with only 1:29 remaining in the game. 

However, that was plenty of time for the 2008 All-American tandem of QB Graham Harrell and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. After a 38-yard kickoff return by Tech, the stage was set. 

Using the famous "Air Raid" offense, Harrell moved his team into position for the finish. 

With eight seconds left, Harrell fired a deep out, looking for his favorite target. Crabtree was able to snare the ball out of the air, spin out of a tackle and find the end zone to give the Red Raiders a 38-33 lead with only a second remaining! 

The student section flooded the field thinking the game was over, causing two unsportsmanlike penalties on Tech, but the damage was done. Tech completed the upset. 

[YouTube]

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Texas Football: Final Fall Camp Stock Report

The Texas Longhorns are wrapping up the first fall camp of the Charlie Strong era, and the team seems confident of the product it will put on the field.

At least that's the case on one side of the ball.

Strong addressed the depth chart questions Thursday and stated that the defense is settled. However, the offense may still be a work in progress.

"On offense, we're still trying to piece it together. But on defense, we know exactly where we sit," Strong said Thursday. "You look at our offensive line, we're still shuffling it there. We still have not made a decision just yet on the complete five. When you look at the wide receivers, we're still trying to fill that position."

It should not entirely come as a surprise that the offensive line and wide receiver positions are not settled. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline has repeatedly expressed that the line will change week in and week out throughout the first half of the season.

Texas' depth at wide receiver took a hit when Strong dismissed Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander earlier this month and when senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley was sidelined with a hamstring injury the first day of fall camp.

But one concern for the Longhorns is when Shipley will be able to return to the team.

 

Injury Update: Shipley Still Not Cleared

The most veteran receiver on the roster has not practiced since the first day of fall camp. No timetable was set for Shipley's return after he sustained a hamstring injury on Aug. 4, but for him to not be participating in practice could be cause for concern for Texas fans.

Hamstring injuries are not something new to the senior receiver. Shipley sustained a hamstring injury in fall camp last year but was cleared in time to kick off the 2013 season.

Will that be the same case for him in 2014?

That question remains unanswered.

"I don't know if it's worse than the injury he had last year. It's not so much the injury, but he just hasn't had the reps at practice. It's about being game-ready because he hasn't been in the practice mode. It's just a matter of him going out there and running those routes," Strong said. "We need to get him back. I don't know if he's going to be at full speed in game one."

If Shipley is not ready for the Longhorns' first game of the season, the offense will likely have senior John Harris, junior Marcus Johnson and redshirt freshman Jacorey Warrick as the starting wide receivers against North Texas.

 

Strong Commends Quarterback and Running Backs

It is not all negative for the Texas offense. Strong gave junior quarterback David Ash a rave review, saying Ash has had a great fall camp.

Strong named Ash as the starting quarterback at Big 12 media days and has not once faltered on his decision.

After being sidelined for the majority of the 2013 season due to recurring concussion symptoms, Ash has taken the leadership reins for the Longhorns offense.

"I feel very calm and very relaxed out there. It's not my first rodeo," Ash said of his leadership role. "You have to keep working. Turn every mistake into fuel to make you want to get better the next day. Everything you do well can grow your confidence and make you keep doing it over and over again."

Being named the starter helped Ash's confidence. But it also helped the confidence that his teammates have in him.

"David is taking control. That's the thing that stands out to me," senior running back Malcolm Brown said. "If somebody messes up, he'll put them in their place and just roll with it. He is taking control. He showed it last year, but it's just a little bit more now."

But Ash is not the only offensive player Strong commended Thursday. Brown and Johnathan Gray were also praised for their fall camp performance and their work ethic.

"It's so fun to watch those guys go out and practice. They work hard each and every day," Strong said of Brown and Gray. "They have so much respect for one another. I don't even know if it would matter with them who's the starter because they know they're going to get their touches and the reps that they need."

Strong has not discussed how the offense will split the reps between Brown and Gray, but both running backs have shown the ability to be difference-makers on the field.

 

A Fair Shot for All Longhorns

It is not very common for Division I programs to feature walk-on athletes on the two-deep, but that is not the case for the Longhorns.

Walk-on safety Dylan Haines has caught the attention of the Texas coaches and is expected to see playing time next week.

"Some guys were blessed with the ability where they were given a scholarship, but look at the job that Ty Templin and Dylan Haines are doing for us now. They come out there and go to work each and every day, and they don't get the credit they deserve," Strong said. "When they have the chance, they're going to get the opportunity to play, and you feel comfortable playing them. Dylan is going to line up next week at safety and he knows what to do."

Haines first caught the attention of the coaches during spring practice, but the public may not have known who he was until the spring game, when he intercepted a pass from the first-team offense on the first drive of the Longhorns' Orange-White Spring Scrimmage.

"He came out in spring ball and really showed up," defensive backd coach Chris Vaughn said of Haines. "We didn't know much about him prior to spring ball, but he made some plays and showed he could be tough. He runs well; he's accountable. All of those things kind of spilled over."

Haines is battling with true freshman Jason Hall for the starting safety position, but keep an eye out for No. 44 when the Longhorns take the field next Saturday.

With all things considered, Strong has spoken confidently about his team and has displayed little doubt that this team will be able to compete against anyone on the schedule.

Is his confidence just coachspeak, or will the Longhorns surprise many college football fans this season?

Only time will tell, but the final countdown has officially begun.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Teams Who Have Exploded on the Recruiting Scene in Last 5 Years

Recruiting success can serve as a precursor to a rise in the standings. Though top prospects don't always equate to increased win totals, college football coaches who can consistently stockpile talented classes eventually see their efforts come to fruition with improved on-field performance.

We've grown accustomed to certain teams residing atop national recruiting rankings, from Florida State and Georgia to Alabama and LSU. However, various factors fuel changes in the landscape and allow other programs to emerge as desired destinations for premier players.

During the past five years, the ebbs and flows of recruiting have resulted in a number of risers. Credit goes to dedicated coaching staffs, star performers and, of course, big victories.

Though they may not all be giants in the recruiting spectrum, here's a look at teams that continue to climb the ladder.

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Ranking the Top 50 College Football Team Schedule Posters of 2014

College football's schedule poster game is strong this season.

The glossy, stylized promotional posters that pretty much every school creates each year serve a few purposes, not the least of which is to remind fans when their favorite team plays this fall. But beyond that, the posters are meant to advertise the tone and theme for 2014.

Each school takes their own approach to these placards; some keep it simple, others blow the doors off conventional wisdom. Whatever the case, there's one common goal in mind: to be memorable.

We took a look at all of the schedule posters released by FBS teams for the 2014 season to find the best of the best, the ones we'd want on our wall. We've ranked the top 50 based on their noteworthiness, their uniqueness and how much they would inspire the casual fan to consider that team to be the coolest in the land.

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B/R Exclusive: 5-Star DB Iman Marshall Reveals How He Picked Schools to Visit

The frenzied recruitment of 5-star defensive back Iman Marshall includes dozens of college football programs across the country. Despite dealing with nationwide attention, the Southern California standout has played things close to the vest throughout this process.

That changed Thursday, when the Long Beach Poly High School senior declared his intentions to spend official visits at five campuses:

The announcement comes with a significant caveat, as Marshall hasn't yet made up his mind about one visit. He's asking fans to weigh in on whether Texas or Oklahoma is the right destination to complete his cross-country itinerary.

"Texas and Oklahoma are both known as top programs, so that made it really hard for me to pick one or the other," Marshall said. "Guys are always looking for different ways to make the recruiting process a little more interesting, and I thought this would be a cool thing to do. I'm bringing in the fanbases to help me out."

Followers of the Sooners and Longhorns had already poured in their opinions less than an hour after Marshall's tweet.

"Oh yeah, I've heard from a lot of people," he said. "It should he fun to see the reasons they come up with for me to make the trip."

Though Marshall doesn't know exactly when he'll determine which Big 12 rival will receive an official visit, his plan is to decide soon in order to arrange a jam-packed travel schedule.

"I have dates in mind for these visits, but I need to get them locked in," Marshall said.

Though the particulars remain a mystery, he is definitely headed to Notre Dame, Michigan, LSU and Florida State. Marshall, the top-rated cornerback in 247Sports' composite rankings, explained his rationale for each choice.

Notre Dame stood out due to its distinguished football history. However, Marshall maintains a future with the Fighting Irish is also alluring due to off-field aspirations.

"I think a degree from Notre Dame could really set me up well for a post-football career," he said. "The tradition there is also pretty amazing, and that certainly caught my interest. Coach [Brian] Kelly is one of the best, so I'm looking forward to that one."

The Irish have done a nice job fortifying a strong defensive front seven but could use an infusion of elite talent in the back end. Notre Dame flipped former Michigan commit Shaun Crawford, a 4-star cornerback, in June.

The Wolverines are still in search of his replacement, and Marshall would certainly fit the bill. It's another school that warrants respect for past accomplishments, according to the coveted defender.

"The legacy of that team is known, and a degree from Michigan can take you places," he said. "There's a lot to like about Michigan."

One of those things is the presence of true freshman Jabrill Peppers, who was considered one of the nation's top 2014 prospects and should make an immediate impact in the Wolverines' defensive backfield.

"Playing with Peppers would be crazy," Marshall said. "That would be something special."

His excitement also piques when he imagines pairing up with 5-star LSU commit Kevin Toliver. They competed together at The Opening last month and are viewed as the consensus top two cornerback recruits in this class.

"Toliver is a great athlete, and he's very competitive like me," Marshall said. "We could make some serious noise down there."

They would also continue a tradition of high-level play in the Tigers secondary, which has thrived under the direction of defensive coordinator John Chavis.

"LSU is known as 'DBU' for a reason," he said. "They send a lot of defensive backs to the league, which is important to me. It's a place where I feel like I could really develop and polish my skills."

Marshall would excel in a press-coverage setting that allows his aggressiveness to shine. The 6'1", 190-pound playmaker implements physicality as a key part of coverage.

"Receivers really have to fight to get open against him because he always seems to be on the attack," 5-star Alabama quarterback pledge Blake Barnett said at The Opening. "He's pretty fearless. That definitely doesn't make it easy on us quarterbacks."

While LSU jumps out as a top option in the southeast, Marshall also identifies Florida State as a place that perennially produces NFL prospects.

"Jimbo Fisher has a track record of developing guys and putting them in position to reach the next level," he said. "They could have three defensive backs enter the draft next year."

Of course, there's also another edge the Seminoles hold over teams.

"They're the defending national champions, so that's something everyone should be interested in," Marshall said.

Florida State currently claims commitments from 4-star defensive backs Tyrek Cole and Calvin Brewton, along with top-ranked safety Derwin James. The Seminoles would solidify a strong secondary foundation for years to come by reeling in Marshall from across the country.

Though he listed six possible landing spots today, Marshall isn't limiting things to just this group. Stanford, UCLA and USC remain major contenders.

"I'm very interested in those three California schools, but I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to see what the rest of the country has to offer," he said. "I only have five official visits to use, and I didn't want to waste any here on the West Coast."

Experts agree he's likely to end up staying close to home. Prognosticators pick USC to sign him in 100 percent of 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions.

Marshall, who didn't allow a single pass completion in league action last season, was named to the USA Today All-USA Preseason Team on Thursday. His senior season begins Aug. 30 against Crenshaw.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R national recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

Ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Complete Predictions for Every SEC East Team in 2014

On Wednesday, the full SEC West predictions were released. Now, it's time to head across the division and pick the winners and losers from the SEC East. 

Will South Carolina get back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2010? Can Georgia pick up the pieces and get back into the national discussion? Will Florida's offense get back on track?

The SEC East has been the lesser of the two SEC divisions over the last few years, but 2014 could mark its return to national power.

Full picks, previews and predictions for the SEC East are in this slideshow.

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Nebraska Football: Final Fall Camp Stock Report

It's the final week of fall camp for the Nebraska football team. Next week, Bo Pelini and his staff will start leading regular practices as the Huskers prepare for Florida Atlantic.

The final week has answered more questions about the quarterback position as well as shed more light on additional injuries and departures. There are still plenty of things that won't be settled until the first game rolls around, but things are taking shape for the season.

Adding to the excitement of the final week, the Big Ten Network also rolled into Lincoln for the Aug. 18 practice. Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo, Howard Griffith and Tom Dienhart were all on hand to watch practice and chat with players and coaches.

 

News from the Week

The whole Nebraska football team wished Jack Hoffman well this week as he begins another round of chemotherapy. The message from Pelini and his team is touching, and folks everywhere are cheering for Jack as he faces this new battle.

Junior defensive tackle Kevin Williams is battling another injury, as Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald reported. Pelini says Williams' ankle injury is day-to-day and shouldn't keep him out of practice for too long. After two previous knee injuries, it has to be a big relief for Williams, and Pelini understands that.

"It's a very mild one," Pelini said about Williams, per Grant Muessel of HailVarsity.com. "I think it just scared him more than anything. When you've been through what he's been through, I can see why."

 

Important Position Battles

The battle for the starting role at quarterback continued this week. Per Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald, Tommy Armstrong had his strongest practice on Aug. 18. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck agrees:

He really seemed to step his game up. Much more crisp in the passing game. Much more decisive in the run game, read game and option game. He really just saw things well and made good decisions. He was very consistent in what he was doing, and the ball placement was there. I saw a little extra gear in him.

At this point, it sounds like Armstrong is locking the starting role down.

According to an Omaha World-Herald report, Nebraska is in need of a long snapper to step up in Gabriel Miller's absence.

"If I had a crystal ball, I could tell you, but right now, I would say we're not counting on him," Pelini said, per McKewon.

Who will the Huskers count on then? It seems likely that it will come down to freshman Josh Faulkenberry and sophomore Nate Gerry.

 

Biggest Storylines

Aaron Curry has officially been released from the team, per the Omaha World-Herald. Why did he want to leave?

"He didn't like the fact that he was the fifth tackle," Pelini said, per Muessel. "There you go."

The Huskers have started prepping for their first opponent, Florida Atlantic.

"I'm ready to go hit somebody other than our teammates," sophomore Vincent Valentine said, per Nyatawa.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The Texas A&M football team will kick off the 2014 season against South Carolina in just a week. The Aggies will try to mesh 10 new starters along with a new assistant coach and improve on their 9-4 record from 2013. 

The Aggies lost six starters on offense and four on defense from the 2013 squad. Defensive backs coach Marcel Yates took the defensive coordinator job at Boise State. Head coach Kevin Sumlin tapped Nebraska defensive backs coach Terry Joseph to replace him. 

The Texas A&M defense ranked No. 109 in the country in 2013. They were hurt by poor play at all three levels of the defense, but particularly at linebacker and safety. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder needs to put a better unit on the field in 2014 or he will likely be looking for a new job in 2015. 

 

Joseph Joins The Team

Joseph has been tasked with one of the most difficult jobs on the staff. It is his responsibility to improve the play of the safeties on the 2014 team. The play by safeties Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven was very poor in 2013. 

Honeycutt was benched in favor of Raven after the Alabama game. Matthews was known more for his ineptitude against the wheel route than the three interceptions he made in 2013. 

It is Joseph's responsibility to put two quality safeties on the field from a group that includes Matthews, Raven, Honeycutt, Jonathan Wiggins, Nick Harvey, Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson. 

Defensive line coach Terry Price will have much more depth to work with than he did in 2013. He is a tremendous recruiter and will coach the unit that should be the strength of the defense in 2014. 

Mark Hagen coaches the linebackers and will be tasked with finding a way to build a unit that will help stuff the run in 2014. The 2013 Aggie defense allowed 5.4 yards per rush. The Aggie linebackers were simply too small to stand up to the punishing ground games of the SEC.

Hagen will try to form a competent unit with one returning starter dismissed from the team and an expected starter out with an injured collarbone. He will have to mix and match players in an attempt to find an effective group. 

On offense, Jake Spavital will continue to call plays after taking over those duties before the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In addition to being the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Spavital is considered one of the bright young offensive minds in college football and will likely be a head coaching candidate if the Aggie offense performs as expected in 2014. 

Sumlin has assembled an all-star staff of recruiters. Offensive line coach B.J. Anderson and wide receivers coach David Beaty are two of the best recruiters in the nation and have played a huge role in the Aggies bringing in consecutivetop-10 recruiting classes. 

Clarence McKinney returns at running backs coach after Spavital replaced him as the offensive coordinator. He will have three very talented junior running backs to work with in 2014. 

 

The Offense

The Aggies run Sumlin's version of the hurry-up no-huddle spread offense. He will adjust the scheme to the talent available. His base offense includes a one-back scheme with the quarterback taking short drops and getting the ball out quickly. 

With Johnny Manziel under center, Sumlin inserted some zone-read into the offense in order to take advantage of Manziel's scrambling ability. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill will open the season as the starter at quarterback and ran a spread offense with a lot of zone-read in high school. He led Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas, to the 2011 class 5A state championship in that scheme. 

Expect Sumlin to keep the quarterback running game in the offense to take advantage of Hill's ability to run. When the play breaks down, he is an extra running back on the field and should prove invaluable as the offense breaks in three new starters at the receiver position. 

Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Malcome Kennedy will start at wide receiver against South Carolina. Noil and Reynolds have never caught a pass in an FBS game while Seals-Jones has only caught three passes. 

All three are very talented and are expected to make life easier for Hill as he makes the adjustment to being the starter. Hill competed 16 of 22 attempts for 183 yards and a touchdown in 2013. Kennedy is the elder statesman of the receiving corps as a fifth-year senior. 

He caught 60 passes for 658 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. Kennedy and 6'6", 285-pound tight end Cameron Clear will act as security blankets for Hill.

The Aggies return four of five starters from the 2013 offensive line. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi is an All-American and All-SEC candidate. He projects to be the third Aggie left tackle in a row to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. 

That veteran line will block for three talented junior running backs in Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Tra Carson. The 6'0", 235-pound Carson is expected to start. All three backs averaged more than five yards per carry in 2013. 

With Spavital calling the plays, this Aggie offense has enough talent to be the best in the SEC and among the top offenses in the nation in 2014. 

 

The Defense

The biggest question facing the 2014 Aggie football team is whether the defense will improve enough to allow the team to compete for championships. The 2013 defense allowed 475.8 yards per game. The 2014 version of the defense will have to be much improved to prevent every game from turning into a shootout. 

The defensive line should be the strength of the defense with three-year starter Julien Obioha moving back to strong-side defensive end. Hardrick Walker got one start at nose guard in 2013 but will be the backup to begin the 2014 campaign. True freshman Zaycoven Henderson has shown the coaches enough to earn a start in his first collegiate game. 

Alonzo Williams is a third-year junior who will start at defensive tackle. Daeshon Hall is a 6'6", 260-pound defensive end from Lancaster, Texas, who is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign on the weak side. 

The difference between this defensive line and the 2013 line is that in 2014, the coaches have a lot more depth. They will be able to rotate linemen throughout the game to keep them fresh.

True freshmen Myles Garrett and Zaycoven Henderson are in the two-deep and will see immediate playing time in 2014. The second team defensive line will be Qualen Cunningham at strong-side defensive end, Justin Manning at defensive tackle, Walker at nose guard and Garrett at weak-side defensive end.

That is a strong eight-man rotation that should allow the Aggies to pressure the opposing quarterback while remaining strong against the run. 

At linebacker, Donnie Baggs will start on the strong side, with Jordan Mastrogiovanni in the middle and A.J. Hilliard on the weak side. None of the three is a proven playmaker, which is why the position is such a major question mark for 2014. 

Deshazor Everett returns at cornerback to lead the secondary. The four-year starter will compete for All-SEC honors in 2014. De'Vante Harris has started at corner opposite Everett for the past two years, but he is out for an undetermined period of time with a urinary tract injury. 

Redshirt freshman Victor Davis will start in his place. Matthews and true freshman Armani Watts will start at safety. The safeties will need to take a quantum step forward in their play if the back end of the Aggie defense is going to improve in 2014. Devonta Burns will start at nickel back when the Aggies open the game with five defensive backs on the field. 

 

Notable Injuries

The two most noteworthy injuries for the Aggies are on defense. Harris and Washington are two starters whom the Aggies were depending on to help improve the defense in 2014. Their absence is a major blow to a defense that has to be better than it was in 2013.  

 

Keep Your Eye On

The one player whom Aggie fans need to focus on in 2014 is Noil. He has the speed and elusiveness to be an impact player at wide receiver and on special teams. 

Noil could conceivably lead the Aggies in receptions and receiving yards as a true freshman. He will be their punt returner and has the ability to change games on special teams. 

All of the pundits who are focusing on the offense and defense need to realize that special teams is a major part of the game. Noil could have the biggest impact of any freshman on the team in that facet of the game. 

The most important game of the 2014 season for the Aggies will be the October 4 contest against Mississippi State at Starkville. The Bulldogs will be a competitive team in the west division and a tough test on the road. 

The Aggies are 2-0 against MSU since they joined the SEC. The game against Mississippi State marks the halfway point of the season. It is important for the Aggies to get a conference win in a hostile environment in order to get some momentum as they head into the second half of the season. 

The Aggies should be able to get a win at Starkville. They will end the season with a 9-3 record, 6-3 in conference with losses to South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn. 

The Aggies will surprise some with their ability to win games without Manziel under center, but they are not quite good enough yet to make a run at a conference championship. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bleacher Report's Preseason College Football All Freshman Team

With the start of the college football season one week away—technically it starts this Saturday, but who's counting?—it's time to roll out preseason All-American lists.

With freshmen playing bigger and bigger parts for their teams, preseason freshman All-American lists are making the rounds as well. 

There's a lot of freshman star power making noise in preseason camps. Which ones, redshirt or otherwise, could have All-American seasons in 2014? We go position by position with the answers in the following slides. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com

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USC Trojans Football: Final Fall Camp Stock Report

The transition from preseason camp to game-week preparation approaches for USC. Saturday's Salute to Troy officially welcomes the 2014 season with a fan barbecue and an autograph session. 

Before the fun on Saturday, however, the Trojans are putting in work—especially on Tuesday. 

"Tuesdays are lunch-pail, hard-hat kind of days," head coach Steve Sarkisian said, per Sarah Bergstrom of USCTrojans.com. "We've got to work and there's no easy way around it. We've got to get a lot done and it's going to be a physical practice." 

Bringing some of that physicality this week, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News, was linebacker Scott Felix. 

Felix has continued the momentum of a standout spring game through fall camp. His emergence gives defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox options in the Trojans' blitz packages, as Sarkisian explained to Wolf: 

When he’s playing like that and with [J.R. Tavai] on the other side, those guys are two forces. It made it difficult for us at times. Scott is really starting to come into his own. Maybe he will remind us of a couple other guys that came off the edge in the past.

On the topic of options, freshmen John "JuJu" Smith and Adoree' Jackson offer USC plenty. The two 5-star gems of Sarkisian's Pac-12-leading recruiting class have been working on two-way roles, practicing on both offense and defense.

But this week, each demonstrated the capacity to play three-way football in the 2014 season.  

A role in all three phases is unlikely for Smith, however. Sarkisian said via Bergstrom that Smith is establishing himself as an invaluable asset in a wide receiving corps seeking playmakers. 

"He's going to play so much for us offensively and he's earned it, it probably wouldn't be fair to him right now [to play defensive back]," Sarkisian said. 

With Smith strutting his stuff on offense, Jackson showed off some on defense. Jackson's prep alma mater, Junipero Serra High School in nearby Gardena, California, tweeted the below image of Jackson breaking up a pass attempt to Smith. 

Considering their immediate acclimation into USC's plans, it's no wonder USA Today's Paul Myerberg includes Jackson and Smith among his Trojans to watch.

Myerberg tabs USC as the nation's No. 13 squad in his complete Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Of course, as is the case for any preseason projection for the Trojans in 2014, meeting this benchmark requires staying healthy. 

Tuesday's physical practice Sarkisian touted brought it with a few dings. Evan Budrovich of ConquestChronicles.com reported that freshman defensive back John Plattenburg, a standout last week, as well as linebackers Anthony Sarao and Michael Hutchings suffered minor injuries.     

The biggest injury news of this week's practices is that running back Tre Madden appeared at practices Wednesday wearing a boot, per The Orange County Register's Michael Lev: 

USC is loaded at running back, with last year's breakout star Javorius "Buck" Allen back in the fold and sophomore Justin Davis impressing through fall camp. However, Madden's injury takes away some of the possibilities for the Trojans' rushing attack. 

Some good news for USC on the injury is that defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, who had been facing Week 1 uncertainty after suffering an elbow injury, is once again practicing. 

Woods told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times he's "99 percent" ready and will be 100 percent in time for the Trojans' season opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30. 

The sooner Woods returns to USC's lineup, the better; teammate and All-American Leonard Williams said Woods is a potential difference-maker for the Trojans.  

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Trojans Football: Final Fall Camp Stock Report

The transition from preseason camp to game-week preparation approaches for USC. Saturday's Salute to Troy officially welcomes the 2014 season with a fan barbecue and an autograph session...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Ohio State Football: Final Fall Camp Stock Report

If this were an actual stock report, the market in Columbus would have crashed this week when it was announced that Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the entirety of the 2014 season due to a torn labrum.

Or maybe the Buckeyes would have turned into a value stock, with their national championship odds dropping from 12-1 to 50-1 in the blink of an eye.

Regardless of how you look at it, Ohio State's final week of fall camp has been an eventful one, as a single shoulder injury has turned the Buckeyes' season on its ear. In the span of a day, priorities—and perhaps expectations—in Columbus have changed, as Ohio State finds itself just nine days away from opening the 2014 season in Baltimore against Navy.

 

Next Man Up

With Miller out until at least the 2015 season—he hopes to return as a fifth-year senior—Urban Meyer now turns to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who only recently was named the two-time Big Ten MVP's top understudy. The OSU offense will undoubtedly change with Barrett at the helm, as the 6'1", 225-pounder doesn't possess the arm strength or leg speed that made Miller one of college football's most dangerous weapons for the past three seasons.

But while Barrett may not be the one-man highlight show that Miller has been, he's also plenty capable, particularly in the passing game. Look for the Buckeyes to install more of dink-and-dunk approach than they used with Miller, as Barrett will try to distribute the ball to Ohio State's plethora of playmakers.

If you're looking for a comparison for what the Buckeyes offense could resemble in the coming year, look no further than to a year ago, when Miller missed the better part of three nonconference games with a sprained MCL. It was then that backup quarterback Kenny Guiton stole the show, passing for a combined 643 yards and 12 touchdowns in three games.

And while Barrett may now be three years younger than Guiton was at the time of his hot streak, Meyer sees a lot of similarities between the two signal-callers. In fact, Meyer compared Barrett to the now Los Angeles Kiss quarterback, adding a new adjective to the Ohio State dictionary.

With game week approaching, the Buckeyes have only nine days to get Barrett ready for the first start of his college career. And although Meyer didn't rule out playing Cardale Jones in Ohio State's season opener as well, Barrett's teammates appear to be behind him and confident that he'll make the most of his opportunity.

 

Where To Now?

With the Buckeyes now aware of the task at hand, Ohio State players and coaches alike find themselves facing one overarching question: How do expectations change for the 2014 season?

While the company line may be that they won't—that the Buckeyes' season will still be defined by its championships—they aren't naive to the situation they currently find themselves in. As a player who once compared Miller's importance to Ohio State to LeBron James' importance to the Cleveland Cavaliers, tight end Jeff Heuerman didn't necessarily back down from his comparison, but did state that the Buckeyes now must find their versions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

"We understand what happened and what we lost," Heuerman said. "But just like the Cavs, just because LeBron is out, you don't put them out, do you? They have a lot of other playmakers and that's kind of the situation we're in. We have a lot of playmakers and we're going to have to rely on them."

As for Meyer, the third-year Buckeyes head coach said that Ohio State responded to the news of Miller's injury with perhaps its best practice since he arrived in Columbus. Asked how expectations should change for the Buckeyes after their star quarterback's season-ending injury, Meyer refused to take the bait, but didn't shy away from expressing optimism.

“You know the answer to that,” Meyer responded to a reporter. “Got practice 21 [Thursday] and I still like our team. After today’s practice, I really, really like our team.”

As for the pundits writing Ohio State out of the national title picture, senior linebacker Curtis Grant had a message as well: Just watch.

“That’s cool on their part,” Grant said. “We can show you better than we can tell you.”

 

Buckeye Battles

Speaking of Grant, Ohio State's battle at the middle linebacker spot appears to be over, with the senior getting the better of 5-star freshman Raekwon McMillan.

That leaves just the starting spot opposite Doran Grant at cornerback up for grabs on the Buckeyes defense, with Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb all vying for playing time. With co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash's new press coverage scheme in place, all have a chance at experiencing significant action this fall, but one is yet to emerge from the pack as a solidified starter.

On the offensive side of the ball, three spots in particular remain unfilled, with Ohio State still searching for starters at running back, left guard and center.

At running back, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott had a firm grasp on the Buckeyes' starting role through the first two weeks of camp, before wrist surgery knocked him out of action for a week. That opened the door for fifth-year senior Rod Smith, third-year sophomore Bri'onte Dunn and true freshman Curtis Samuel to take reps with Ohio State's first team, giving the Buckeyes backfield more of a committee feel heading into game week.

As for the two vacancies on the offensive line, Ohio State is still waiting for a pair from a plethora of interchangeable parts to emerge and grab hold of its two open starting spots. Chad Lindsay, Jacoby Boren, Billy Price, Joel Hale, Chase Farris and Antonio Underwood are all still in the hunt to start at either center or left guard, where they'll team up with set-in-stone starters Taylor Decker (left tackle), Pat Elflein (right guard) and Darryl Baldwin (right tackle).

With an inexperienced quarterback behind it, the need for the Buckeyes offensive line to be a cohesive unit has only increased in the past week. Meyer and his staff will spend the next nine days attempting to ensure that they have just that before they head to the Charm City, as their battle with the Midshipmen is right around the corner.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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5-Star Recruit Iman Marshall Asks Fans to Decide If He Visits Texas or Oklahoma

The recruiting process can be a lot to handle, so defensive back Iman Marshall is turning to fans in the Red River Rivalry to help him decide which schools he will visit.

Marshall is a 5-star recruit, according to 247sports. He is one of the top players in the Class of 2015, so many schools will make a big push for him. Unfortunately for him, he is only allowed to go on five recruiting visits.

It appears that he has already decided that he will visit four schools (Notre Dame, Florida State, LSU and Michigan) for sure. With one possible visit remaining, he must decide between Texas and Oklahoma. Given the intensity of the Red River Rivalry, Marshall is asking fans from both sides for input.

Fans will be able to tell the 17-year-old what is so good about their school and rip the other one at the same time. Once he gets some feedback, it will be up to the high school senior to make the final call.

It's a unique—and fun—way for Marshall to make a tough decision that could determine his future.

[Iman Marshall]

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10 Biggest Upset Alert Games of the 2014 College Football Season

It's difficult to put a team on upset alert before the season, because the best upsets materialize over a gradual interval of time. Injured players, breakout stars and other in-season developments play a huge role in setting the stage.

Still, in perusing the schedule each preseason, a handful of games manage to jump off the page as potential upsets-to-be.

This can happen for a number of reasons. 

Sometimes, a certain underdog matches up well against a certain favorite. Its strengths nullify the favorite's strengths and/or magnify the favorite's weaknesses.

Sometimes, the underdog catches the favorite at the most opportune time. It gets the favorite tired on the heels of a close game and/or looking ahead to the following week.

Other times, it's as simple as having the best player on the field: a weapon that the favorite can't stop. Football isn't basketball, where the best player on the court out of 10 has a disproportionate impact, but we have seen heroic one-man efforts lift a team.

All three of those upset types have been included in this article, albeit to varying degrees. We also made an effort to include all different magnitudes of upset: some that we think actually will happen but others that we admit are far-fetched.

Even if it is the latter, though, that doesn't mean the favorite should get a pass. There were still enough elements of an upset to put it on notice—especially since the biggest upsets of every season are the ones that sound "admittedly far-fetched" in August.

Sound off below with any games you think I might have left off.

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Notre Dame Football: In Search of Clues to Brian VanGorder's Defensive Strategy

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—With assistant coaches and a select group of players available to the media Tuesday at Notre Dame, I went out in search of clues, trying to unravel the mystery of Brian VanGorder's defense. After four years playing Bob Diaco's system, the Irish will unveil a defense that looks nothing like the one we've seen Notre Dame run during the Brian Kelly era. 

But what exactly can we expect? Having already dug through the archives to check out VanGorder's Georgia defenses, I dipped my toes in the water in South Bend, trying to unlock the mystery behind a system that sounds like a marriage between Dr. Frankenstein and Bigfoot, all designed by a mad scientist named VanGorder.

Nobody would bite. With just 10 days before the Irish have the chance to spring a surprise on unsuspecting opponents, just about every coach or player made available kept things cloak and dagger. 

Take middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. As bright and articulate as any player on the Irish, he must've said, "as you'll see against Rice" a half-dozen times. When pressed, this was the best the senior linebacker gave. 

"We’re extremely multiple now in our schemes and how we are going to attack offenses," Schmidt said. "It’s a little bit different in that there’s some similarities with some defenses that we run. You guys will see soon against Rice, but there are some key differences, and we're a little bit more multiple than we’ve been in the past."

One thing that stood out in an otherwise bland quote was the word "attack." Diaco's defenses didn't attack. They relied on limiting big plays and forcing an offense to beat you with a 10- or 12-play drive. But the loss of key personnel like Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese forced a reshuffling. Paired with a coaching change, things are going to be drastically different. 

"The system that we were in was awesome. We won a lot of games with that system. I think we were 21-5 over the last two years," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "There was nothing wrong with the system and the philosophy that we had. But the system right now allows these guys to be flexible and be more aggressive, which I think young kids, by nature, it's part of their mentality."

The Irish defense likely wouldn't have been ready to take on VanGorder's system if it weren't for the seasons under Diaco. Taking over a unit that was a punchline under Charlie Weis, Diaco's system demanded operational excellence, with assignment-correct football key.

He also spent time rebuilding the psyche of his personnel, instilling a "B.I.A." (Best in America) chant on the practice field, something most Irish fans chuckled at until Diaco almost pulled it off in 2012, fielding the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. 

VanGorder was a busy man on Tuesday, fielding questions from a throng of media, all trying to figure out how the former NFL assistant planned to develop a defense filled with teenagers. After spending the majority of the last decade working with professionals, VanGorder talked about the teaching aspect that he relishes at the college level.  

"All these guys are so developmental in the game. For me, that’s a good thing in respects that I still like to coach from a developmental standpoint," VanGorder said. "It’s constant. It’s occurring on every play. You’ve just got to stay focused and stay on it and keep the standards and expectations on top of the players."  

The entire defensive staff has spent the past six months teaching, prepping a defense that got significantly younger with the indefinite loss of KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Ishaq Williams and counts on freshmen and sophomores all across the two-deep. 

Kelly plans to have freshman Andrew Trumbetti and sophomore Isaac Rochell starting at defensive end. Rochell is backed up by freshman Grant Blankenship while Trumbetti has junior Romeo Okwara behind him, though Okwara is playing defensive end for the first time. 

Freshman Daniel Cage is in the two deep at defensive tackle. Sophomore James Onwualu is a starter at linebacker, one year removed from starting four games at wide receiver. Sophomores Max Redfield, Cole Luke and Devin Butler all will be counted on in the secondary, a ridiculously young group that needed to start at ground zero in the spring.

This personnel will drive VanGorder's defense. It'll also allow the depth of the roster—another dozen backups are expected to be key contributors in select personnel groupings—to add versatility to a unit that needs to accentuate the positives if it's going to be successful.  

"I think that the fundamentals of the game are always critical. We want to start there," VanGorder said. "[But] going back to what the player does best and building the scheme, that allows us to feature that part. Sometimes, it also involves scheming to hide, maybe, a weakness. Fundamentals, effort, effort, effort and a defense that can constantly be changing based on the development of players and new players coming in."

We've seen countless practice videos showing corners playing tight man coverage after spending four seasons in a Cover 2 base. At practice Tuesday, we saw defensive tackle Sheldon Day dropping into coverage and rushing off the edge, while Trumbetti lined up at linebacker on a few snaps.

A sign of things to come? A smoke screen, like the vanilla packages we saw in the Blue-Gold game?

I guess we'll find out against Rice. 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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