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The Epic College Football Legacy of Alabama Running Back Derrick Henry

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When the clock expired and the confetti started to fall at University of Phoenix Stadium, Deshaun Watson wanted to find one player in particular from the opposing sideline, Derrick Henry.

The University of Alabama running back and Watson had gotten to know one another and it was a relationship that the Clemson quarterback wanted to continue. Not only had they become friends, but Henry had achieved the two things that had barely eluded him during the 2015-16 season: the Heisman Trophy and national championship.

“I'm trying to do the same thing and just learn from guys who have been there and done it,” Watson said.

There are a lot of people who will be studying Henry’s Crimson Tide career, which officially came to a close with the announcement of his decision to enter the 2016 NFL draft on Friday.

Although offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sort of gave away the decision by saying at the Cotton Bowl: “We’ll replace a Heisman Trophy winner just like we did a Biletnikoff winner the year before,” there really wasn’t much for Henry to come back for, especially when compared to the money he’ll soon be making.

"I just felt like this is the way to go out," Henry said. "With everything that happened this year I've been very fortunate."

Granted, Henry may soon be doing Heisman House ads, but he may not end up being a first-round selection, which is usually the standard Nick Saban uses for giving his blessing for players considering leaving school early unless one probably can't improve his draft stock.

The NFL's advisory committee gave Henry a second-round grade. 

"Henry doesn’t have enough wiggle and change of direction to attract first- and maybe second-round interest," ESPN draft analyst Kel Kiper Jr. said. "Maybe third round for him. He’s a build-up-to-speed kind of guy, he doesn’t have that initial quickness through the hole kind type of player you need for the NFL.

"For Henry I’ll say third round, maybe second."

Nevertheless, he's already considered the best running back in Crimson Tide history.

Among Henry's accomplishments:

  • Even though he wasn’t considered Alabama’s starting running back until this season, he’s already the program’s all-time leading rusher. Henry had 3,591 yards to top Shaun Alexander’s 3,565 (1996-99).
  • His 2,219 rushing yards for the season shattered Trent Richardson’s record of 1,679 (2011), a difference of 540 yards.
  • Henry had 10 100-yard performances in 2015 and 16 for his career, both setting a school record.
  • His 28 rushing touchdowns set a season record, and the career mark of 42 tied Mark Ingram (2008-10).
  • The last time Henry failed to score a touchdown in a game was against LSU in 2014. His 28 rushing touchdowns set both a school and Southeastern Conference record that was previously 23 (Tim Tebow and Tre Mason).
  • Henry became the 25th back in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a single season but the first in the SEC. He topped Herschel Walker’s league record of 1,891 yards on 385 carries set in 1981.

The numbers are even more remarkable considering that Alabama’s initial approach this past season was to use a two-back attack.

“I didn't know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake,” Saban said.

But while Drake ran into some injury issues and the only other running backs on the roster were freshmen, Henry carried more and more of the offense, especially during the second half of the season. When he started approaching and surpassing the benchmark numbers achieved by Bo Jackson and Walker, awards voters couldn’t ignore him.

Since the Doak Walker Award for best running back started being handed out in 1990, Henry’s just the fourth player to win it along with the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp player of the years awards all in the same season (Ron Dayne in 1999, Ricky Williams in 1998 and Eddie George in 1995).

Against nine ranked teams he ended up rushing for 166.6 yards per game (1,499), exceeding 200 against three of them. The only one in which Henry didn’t get at least 125 yards against was Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, a 38-0 victory during which the coaches clearly held him back.

“We haven't really played anyone that big” Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said. “But what he does well is he doesn't go down. Takes him two, three, four guys to take him down and he's always falling forward. So he makes the two-yard gains turn into five or six. If you continue to do that for an entire game, you know, it wears down the defenses. That's what you see what happens as the third, fourth quarter comes around.”

He did get his yards against Clemson on the biggest stage of his career, rushing for 158 yards on 36 carries and scoring three touchdowns after Dabo Swinney called him “A whole different animal.” Henry probably would have been named the offensive MVP of the national championship game if junior tight end O.J. Howard hadn’t had 208 receiving yards.

“It's tough to go one-on-one with him,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “It's like old-school football, if you're not ready to go before he touches the ball, then it won't work out.”

Consequently, when it comes to Henry’s legacy he’s in very exclusive company, and you’re splitting hairs when trying to separate him from the best running backs to ever play the game.

Overall, there have been only four running backs in SEC history to have four 200-yard games in one season: Walker, Jackson, Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette just joined them with his 212-yard performance in the Texas Bowl. He’ll have a better shot of challenging Walker’s 171.9 rushing yards per game in 1981 and 159.4 for his collegiate career.

Moreover, Henry was technically only a starter for one season and is not in the top 10 of all-time SEC rushing leaders, a prestigious list topped by Walker with 5,259 yards from 1980-82, followed by Arkansas’ Darren McFadden (4,590), LSU’s Kevin Faulk (4,557) and Jackson (4,303).

But none of them led his team to a conference and national championship while playing a schedule like Alabama’s, nor as a co-captain of his team. They also never quite did what Henry accomplished in back-to-back games against Auburn and Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

“I didn't think I would see that ever, 90 carries in seven days—and then I think he could have kept going,” Kiffin said. “He was in the locker room afterwards like he just was warming up.

“Somehow he just continues to get stronger, and that goes back to how he works, the way that he practices, the way that we're in the sprints in the practice—and he's not worried about anything else except for getting himself better.”

“I think our team kind of [took] on his persona and physical nature,” former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.

Perhaps that’s Henry’s true legacy and the one that will be widely overlooked. He didn’t just have as much drive and determination as anyone else, but the Crimson Tide did as well.

That’s what earned him the honor of being a co-captain on the nation’s most high-profile team despite being just a junior. It's also what helps make him comparable to college football's greatest running backs.

“That's just the culture that our program and our coaching staff has created here at Alabama,” Henry said. “We work as hard as we can and try to get better week after week. It all comes down to hard work.” 

 

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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A'Shawn Robinson Declares for 2016 NFL Draft: Latest Comments and Reaction

One of college football's most dominant defensive players is making the leap to the pros, as Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson declared for the 2016 NFL draft on Friday.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reported Robinson's intentions.

The 6'4", 312-pound Robinson was dominant during his junior campaign in 2015, as he registered 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for the Crimson Tide. 

While the Fort Worth, Texas, native was excellent in each of his first two seasons at Alabama, he made some changes leading up to the 2015 campaign that made him even more dangerous and difficult for opposing offensive lines to handle.

According to Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated's Campus Rush, Robinson dropped some weight, which added to his athleticism and ability to wreak havoc.

"It's been good for me. I feel great. My body feels a lot better," Robinson said. "I'm stronger and quicker. I'm faster off the ball."

That certainly manifested itself, as Robinson was a handful all season long. He was a factor in essentially every game, but the contest that truly put him on the map was the Tide's victory over the LSU Tigers.

In addition to holding running back Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards, Robinson blocked an extra point by leaping over the offensive line in remarkable fashion.

While the national audience was taken aback by seeing a 300-plus-pound player pull off such an incredible feat, Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson claimed he and the rest of his teammates weren't surprised.

"That's just A'Shawn," Anderson said, per John Zenor of the Associated Press. "He can do that kind of stuff. Most people don't believe it, but he's a freak. That's what kind of stuff we're used to seeing him do."

That level of athleticism should serve Robinson well in the NFL, and all signs point toward it making him a first-round pick, although the lengthy draft process still has to play out.

With defensive linemen such as Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Leonard Williams making an instant impact as rookies in the NFL over the past couple of seasons, there is likely to be plenty of interest in Robinson.

He appears to be NFL-ready in terms of his body and physicality, which is why it is tough to argue with his decision to leave Alabama a year early.

Robinson accomplished essentially everything at the collegiate level, and his NFL stock may never be higher than it is right now.

There is no question that Robinson upheld Alabama's reputation as a defensive power, and he promises to be the latest in a long line of Crimson Tide defensive players to thrive professionally.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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College Football Teams with Biggest Question Marks Heading into Offseason

Every college football team has some questions it hopes to answer before the 2016 season comes around, and there's plenty of time to get this done. For some teams, though, these puzzles aren't that simple to solve.

Not every team has the luxury of just plugging in backups for departed stars and expecting the same results, since most don't know for certain yet who the replacements will be. Other teams are dealing with staff changes and don't know how that will affect their success.

The questions vary from team to team, and there's at least one for every school in FBS. We're focusing on the ones whose question marks stand out more than others.

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Way-Too-Early 2016 Big 12 Football Power Rankings

The Big 12 finally made it into the College Football Playoff in 2015, though the appearance was short-lived. Despite being one of the hottest teams in college football in November, Oklahoma fell to No. 1 Clemson, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl.

However, the Sooners are looking to reload and get back to the playoff in 2016-17. Do head coach Bob Stoops and Co. have what it takes to win yet another conference championship and finish in the top four? Let's take a peek at the way-too-early power rankings for the Big 12 based on returning starters and talent, as well as trajectory. 

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Which New College Football Coaches Will Have Most Success in 2016?

One of the wildest coaching carousels in recent memory is slowly making its way to a stop, as 27 of the 128 FBS programs in college football hired new coaches this offseason.

Only three of the new hires—USC's Clay Helton, Illinois' Bill Cubit and Minnesota's Tracy Claeys—were interim head coaches who got promoted to the full-time job. For the other two dozen, they're in brand-new situations for 2016.

Now that a champion has been crowned for 2015 and the hype for 2016 is already building, let's project which of these new head coaches could have the most success later this year.

Last season, Jim Harbaugh brought a 10-win season along with his gigantic spotlight to Michigan, and Tom Herman became an overnight sensation with his 13-1 campaign at Houston.

Who could be the Harbaugh or the Herman of 2016? Here is a rundown of all 24 brand-new FBS coaches, along with five strong candidates for success based on their inherited talent (including 2015 F/+ rating from Football Outsiders), past experience and upcoming schedules.

 

Kirby Smart (Georgia)

Fresh off winning another national championship as the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Kirby Smart is back to full-time work as the new head coach at Georgia this week. 

And while Smart is about to face the pressures of being the head man for the first time at a high-profile program that fired its longtime coach for not winning championships, he's in a great situation for success.

Georgia's defense will have to replace a good bit of talent up front—including pass-rushing menace Leonard Floyd—but the Bulldogs' previous staff recruited exceptionally well on the defensive line in the last few cycles. Smart will also inherit the bulk of a young secondary that did nothing but lead the nation in pass defense last season.

The offensive side of the ball will be a different challenge, but Smart immediately surrounded himself with good hires in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman. 

"You simply couldn't have drawn up a better hire for Smart," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote last month. "The combination of Chaney and Pittman will keep Georgia true to its pro-style roots while providing the ability to open things up when appropriate."

Georgia will be able to rely on the dynamic running combination of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason will immediately push for the starting job in Athens. If Pittman can continue his offensive line success from Arkansas with a rebuilding unit at Georgia, the offense should be in fine shape for 2016.

The schedule is also favorable for Smart in his first year. Georgia will have to face North Carolina at the Georgia Dome in Week 1 and head to Ole Miss several weeks later, but the Bulldogs will get their biggest competition for the SEC East—Tennessee—at home in 2016.

If some pieces on the depth chart fall into place, Georgia has all the talent to compete for an SEC East title in Smart's first season. It may be too much to expect a division crown this early, but don't be surprised if it happens.

 

Mark Richt (Miami)

The man Smart replaced at Georgia, Mark Richt, is now down at Miami. The consistent head coach will try to restore the swagger back to his alma mater, and he has a lot to work with in his first year with the Hurricanes.

Miami looked like a different team following the firing of Al Golden last season. After the 58-0 beatdown at the hands of Clemson that sealed Golden's fate, the Hurricanes went 4-2 to finish the season.

Their only losses came to division champion North Carolina and Washington State—with the latter coming in a snowstorm at the Sun Bowl.

Miami should return most of the starters from both the offense and the defense. Brad Kaaya will be back after a strong sophomore campaign, No. 2 receiver Stacy Coley is staying in school, and the one-two punch of Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton out of the backfield will be a huge bonus.

According to Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post, all 10 of the offensive linemen who logged playing time for the Hurricanes will be back.

New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz can build around Corn Elder in the secondary and a good amount of returning talent across the defensive front.

The Hurricanes avoid Clemson in cross-divisional ACC play this season and get Florida State at home. A trip to Notre Dame will be tough, but the rest of the schedule seems manageable for Miami.

Miami has the potential to be a Top 25 team from the opening kickoff of the season thanks to the arrival of Richt and the momentum of a stronger end to 2015. Richt could get the talented 'Canes to play to their full potential early.

 

Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)

Staying in the ACC Coastal, it's a new era at Virginia Tech after the retirement of legendary head coach Frank Beamer.

The new blood in Blacksburg is Justin Fuente, who orchestrated an amazing turnaround at Memphis in just four seasons. Instead of a struggling program, though, Fuente is stepping into a situation where the desire is to get over the seven- or eight-win hump.

Fuente inherits one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in Bud Foster. The Hokies have some major pieces to replace from their 2015 defense, but there isn't a coach more equipped to do just that than Foster.

Where Fuente's influence will be most needed is on the offensive side of the ball. The Scot Loeffler years for the Hokies were hard on the eyes, as they never ranked higher than 92nd nationally in yards per play.

At Memphis, Fuente and new Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen engineered a high-powered offense. Cornelsen helped develop highly touted NFL quarterback prospect Paxton Lynch, and the Tigers went from 117th in yards per game in 2013 to 12th in 2015.

The weapons are there in Blacksburg for Fuente and his new offense if they can adjust to the new scheme quickly.

Isaiah Ford just posted 1,164 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns in his sophomore season, and redshirt freshman Travon McMillian was the first 1,000-yard rusher for VT since 2011. All 6'7" of tight end Bucky Hodges will be back, too.

Virginia Tech will play Tennessee and its massive hype train early in the season and will also travel to Notre Dame. However, the Hokies avoid all the big guns from the ACC's Atlantic Division this fall.

The ACC Coastal should be a fun, wide-open race in 2016, and Virginia Tech has a solid chance to make a big statement in Fuente's first season. 

 

D.J. Durkin (Maryland)

As Bleacher Report lead Big Ten football writer Ben Axelrod wrote last month, Maryland might have made the biggest heist of the coaching carousel with D.J. Durkin.

The former Michigan defensive coordinator has worked for Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp inside the past decade. He's been in charge of several highly ranked defenses in his still-young coaching career. (Plus, he has a bit of head coaching experience as an interim during Florida's 2014 bowl game.)

Durkin's success as a recruiter will go hand in hand with the pipeline of talent near Maryland and the program's plans to become the "Oregon of the East." The Terrapins also have a soft commitment from Dwayne Haskins, the nation's No. 7 quarterback and a potential program-changer.

The new Maryland head coach should be able to make his mark right away on a defense that had pro-level talent—linemen Quinton Jefferson and Yannick Ngakoue are headed to the next level—but couldn't put it all together. 

Returning cornerback Will Likely is a game-changer on special teams and could even find his way to the offensive side of the ball.

Also, Maryland's 3-9 record in 2015 might not tell the whole story. The Terrapins' F/+ rating is higher than several teams that finished with better records, and they had a pair of close losses to Penn State and Wisconsin before a season-ending win over Rutgers.

Durkin has surrounded himself with arguably one of the most impressive new assistant coaching staffs in the country. Durkin hired three former head coaches—Mike London, Scott Shafer and Pete Lembo—to help him rebuild the Terps.

"It’s a collaborative effort," London said, per Callie Caplan of the Diamondback. "We all understand that there’s insights we each have specifically—where we’ve been, where we’ve grown up, the decisions we’ve had to make—and we can offer those types of insights to DJ."

Maryland will also benefit from an easier nonconference schedule that consists of Howard, FIU and UCF. The Terps have to travel to Michigan and Nebraska but get Michigan State and Ohio State at home. 

The long-term potential of Durkin at Maryland is easy to see, but he has the opportunity to get ahead of schedule in College Park. The schedule is favorable for a bowl bid, and there are several intriguing pieces already in place. Maryland could be the surprise team of 2016.

 

Jason Candle (Toledo)

A few of the hottest names from the "Group of Five" ranks had to replace their coaches during the "silly season," but none of them look better equipped to keep the momentum rolling than Toledo.

With Matt Campbell off to Iowa State—a team Toledo beat in its 10-win 2015 campaign—offensive coordinator Jason Candle took over prior to the Boca Raton Bowl. His head coaching debut was a major success, as the Rockets beat AAC runner-up Temple by a score of 32-19.

"When you have the opportunity to take over a program as a head coach, you don't always anticipate it to be in good shape," Candle told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated after the victory. "We're in pretty good shape right now."

The Rockets' offensive play-caller will lose senior quarterback Phillip Ely but will retain explosive running back Kareem Hunt, who announced he would stay in school this week.

Hunt nearly ran for 1,000 yards in just nine games in 2015, and he could get closer to the numbers from his standout sophomore season (1,631 yards and 16 TDs) with a full load of games next season. In addition to a deep running back and wide receiver core, the Rockets should return most of their starting offensive linemen.

Reinforcements must come on the defensive side of the ball, but the team should remain consistent through the transition. After all, Campbell won nine games in three of his four seasons at Toledo, and his worst one was a seven-win campaign. 

The 2016 schedule should be a highly favorable one for Toledo. The Rockets must travel to Sun Belt champion Arkansas State and a BYU team in transition, but they won't be overmatched in any of their games. The MAC schedule is split right down the middle with challenges at home and on the road.

Staying in-house was the perfect call for a Toledo program that has been consistent over the last several seasons, and Candle will get another year with a lot of his top offensive talent. The Rockets could compete for a New Year's Six bowl berth.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan State Fans Poke Fun at Jim Harbaugh with Banner About Loss

What do you get when you cross a top recruit, an outspoken coach, a sleepover and an intense in-state rivalry? The best kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek sports comedy.

As many are now aware, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh employed some fairly unconventional recruiting tactics, including possible floor-sleeping and movie-watching, in the hopes of persuading top kicker Quinn Nordin, who is currently committed to Penn State, to become a Wolverine.

Naturally, the neighbors also caught wind of the visit, according to ESPN's Dan Murphy. But rather than supporting Harbaugh's pitch, the Michigan State fans took up an entirely different cause: asserting their favorite team's superiority.

Emblazoned on a banner they mounted just a few houses away from Nordin's was the final score of the latest Spartans-Wolverines showdown (you know, the one in which MSU sealed a victory off of a late Michigan fumbled punt attempt).  

But rather than take offense, Harbaugh saluted the rival fans and commended the effort and preparation that went into the prank.


Should Harbaugh's trip be successful, Nordin's leg may well solidify a Michigan victory over Michigan State in the near future.  

[Twitter, h/t SB Nation]

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Most Important College Football Recruiting Visits 3 Weeks Away from Signing Day

The dead period is finished for college football's 2016 recruiting cycle, which suddenly has less than three weeks left. Resumed contact between prospects and coaching staffs results in a slew of final official visits as high school seniors and their families attempt to find an ideal fit.

Many of America's premier players are on the move this weekend, exploring campuses they could ultimately call home later this year. Here's a look a several standouts expected to arrive at universities across the college football landscape.

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Early List of Hot-Seat Head Coaches for 2016 College Football Season

The 2016 football season technically begins next September. Coaching is a year-long job, however, and some of college football's biggest names will be working for their job. What happens in January and February could very well affect what happens in October and November. 

In the following slides are the coaches who absolutely must have a good '16 or they risk being let go. Whether they're simply not winning enough or not showing enough progress in certain areas (i.e. offense or defense), the following coaches are, at minimum, entering their third year at their current job. 

With the '16 calendar year just getting started, it's time to look ahead at the college football coaches on the hot seat. 

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Ohio State Football: 2016 Will Be the Year of the Redshirt Freshman for Buckeyes

Ohio State's 2015 recruiting class was deep, talented and heralded as one of the best in the country, but of the 25 players who signed last February, only four saw the field for the Buckeyes last season.

That means Ohio State has 21 redshirt freshmen on the roster heading into 2016, and with the mass exodus of talent heading to the NFL, those players have a huge opportunity to shine next fall.

It starts up front defensively, where the Buckeyes have to replace three starters with the departures of superstar defensive end Joey Bosa and defensive tackles Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt.

Former 4-star standout Jashon Cornell has an opportunity to crack the two-deep rotation as Sam Hubbard's backup at defensive end, and Robert Landers should factor into the heavy rotation at defensive tackle.

On the second level, Urban Meyer will need to find two new backers to flank middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, in addition to bolstering his depth in the unit. Justin Hilliard, Ohio State's lone 5-star recruit in 2015, and Nick Conner, who shined as an early enrollee before suffering a season-ending knee injury, will have the opportunity to crack the two deep.

The Buckeyes will have to replace both safeties and cornerback Eli Apple on the back end. It'll be tough for cornerback Eric Glover-Williams to start opposite Gareon Conley, but he could be a key backup and even earn time as the nickelback.

But it's the offensive side of the ball where the biggest opportunity lies. 

Ohio State is tasked with finding eight new starters to build around quarterback J.T. Barrett, including an entirely new wide receiver corps and the pivotal running back slot vacated by Ezekiel Elliott.

On the perimeter, Buckeyes fans should be excited about K.J. Hill and Torrance Gibson, two players who nearly had their redshirts burned in 2015.

Hill was a former 4-star whom Meyer stole from Bret Bielema and Arkansas at the last minute. He proved himself early in fall camp by having the black stripe removed from his helmet—a symbolic gesture that signified his official welcome to the team. The Buckeyes didn't want to waste a year, however, and they redshirted him thanks to the depth Ohio State had at wide receiver in '15.

Gibson came to Ohio State as a 4-star dual-threat quarterback, but the depth behind center was even more crowded than it was at receiver, so Gibson made the move to the perimeter during fall camp. 

"Just helping the team out," Gibson said of the move, according to Ari Wasserman of the Plain Dealer. "That's basically what I'm doing. Because if I sat on the bench, I would be selfish to sit on the bench for the whole year. ... Anything but the bench." 

But a lingering knee injury and off-the-field problems kept him from game action in '15. Despite that setback, the future is bright for the rangy playmaker, as Meyer sees him as a "quarterback-slash," which is essentially a hybrid position that will allow Gibson to rotate from the perimeter to a situational Wildcat quarterback.

The guy with the biggest opportunity, though, is running back Mike Weber.

The 5'9", 215-pound bulldozer was tearing it up in fall camp before a minor knee surgery set him back. With Elliott's ability to carry the load, the Buckeyes didn't need to burn Weber's redshirt, but he's primed to take over and potentially lead the Buckeyes' rushing attack in the fall.

Weber is thankful for the redshirt, though, because it gave him the opportunity to learn from one of the best running backs in school history, per Wasserman for Cleveland.com:

I started off really good. I kind of caught on to the college speed of the game really quick and was basically running the ball really good. The injury slowed me down a little bit. It kind of set me back this whole year and maybe pushed me toward a redshirt.

But if I had to do it again, I'd be a redshirt because I learned from Zeke and the guys in front of me. I just sat back and watched those guys. I am just going to let it all loose next year. 

Weber's primed to take charge in the backfield, and he should lead the way for a group of talented redshirt freshmen in 2016.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports.

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

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Which SEC Team Will Have the Most Intriguing QB Battle This Offseason?

For the third straight season, the SEC will have some of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the country.

Alabama will be looking for its third starting quarterback in three years, Texas A&M added former Oklahoma Sooner Trevor Knight to battle Jake Hubenak, Florida has a four-man race that includes two FBS transfers and Georgia has veterans Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey in-house to battle with 5-star early enrollee Jacob Eason.

On top of those obvious battles, Arkansas and Mississippi State have to replace veteran stars, South Carolina and Missouri are searching for answers and LSU desperately needs Brandon Harris to take the next step.

Which one is the most intriguing? 

None of the above, because Auburn's four-man battle tops them all.

Head coach Gus Malzahn tried to find more balance with Nick Marshall in 2014, but that plan backfired with losses to Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. 

Jeremy Johnson was supposed to be the cure that ailed Malzahn, but the junior tanked early, was benched in favor of pro-style passer Sean White and the Tiger offense struggled mightily all year in the passing game (173.7 yards per game).

Johnson is a pro-style passer who does have the ability to run, despite that attribute not being used as much as it should have been in 2015. White is a pure pro-style passer, but he doesn't have the wheels. The duo will be joined this January by true dual-threat quarterback John Franklin III out of East Mississippi Community College. He served as Florida State's scout team version of Marshall prior to the BCS National Championship Game two years ago. The last member to join the battle will be true freshman early enrollee Woody Barrett, who also is a dual-threat from Orlando, Florida.

Four contenders. Four different sets of skills. Four different sets of weaknesses.

Sign me up.

 

Jeremy Johnson

Johnson obviously has the experience. No, it didn't go according to plan in 2015 when he threw 10 touchdowns and seven picks, got flustered far too often and was benched in favor of White. But Johnson did spend virtually a full offseason as the starter in practice with Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, which is still good experience compared to the other contenders.

On top of that, he closed the season strong, providing a late spark for an ineffective White in Auburn's 31-10 win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.

But the lows for Johnson were more like craters, and Malzahn can't have that in a critical year for himself and his program.

 

Sean White

White looked solid as a passer in a pinch for Johnson last year when he threw for 1,164 yards, and a little more prep time this offseason should help him be a bit more consistent. But he had leg and shoulder injuries down the stretch, and he isn't nearly the running threat of either dual-threat contender or Johnson, for that matter.

 

John Franklin III

Franklin, a 6'2", 180-pounder, has the familiarity with the offense that Malzahn should run thanks to his time serving as Florida State's scout team version of Marshall prior to the 2014 title game, but he's still extremely raw and will have to prove that's the direction the offense needs to go in a crowded battle. What's more, he wasn't the full-time starter at East Mississippi last year and never was in Tallahassee, so it's been a while since he's had the keys to the offense all to himself.

"Coach (Malzahn) told me he needed somebody and he got Cam (Newton), then he needed somebody and got Nick Marshall," Franklin said in December, according to Wesley Sinor of AL.com. "Now he needs somebody so he came and got me. I'm just ready to go to work and earn my spot the right way and get the ball rolling with everything."

 

Woody Barrett

Barrett is the perfect balance of a runner and passer, and could become the quarterback of the future. But he's a true freshman who will make true freshman mistakes, and the staff probably can't afford that.

In addition to the different styles of quarterbacks in the mix, the pressure facing Malzahn adds even more flavor to the already-spicy battle. 

Auburn faces Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU during the month of September, and it's absolutely imperative that Malzahn gets this pick right before the season starts. A repeat performance of last September that saw the Tigers fall to LSU and Mississippi State, and struggle with Jacksonville State, won't sit well on the Plains.

It's not just a matter of finding the right player; it's deciding on the right style. 

Malzahn would be best-served abandoning the goal of proving that his system works with a pro-style passer, embracing the identity of a dynamic offense with a running threat at quarterback and going with either Franklin or Barrett.

The fourth-year head coach of the Tigers will be pulled in many different directions by his quarterbacks over the next nine months, and watching how it plays out will provide plenty of offseason drama.

Get your popcorn ready.

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The X-Factor of Ohio State Buckeyes' Future on Offense

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A year ago, there were no shortage of questions surrounding Torrance Gibson.

What position will he play? Would the 4-star prospect be able to handle the transition from being the star of his high school team to just one of many on his new roster? And would that roster ultimately be Ohio State's?

One year later, many of those same questions still exist.

After ultimately sticking through with his commitment to Ohio State and signing with the Buckeyes over the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, Miami (Fla.) and LSU, Gibson found himself a surprising nonfactor in the debut season of his college career. Beyond redshirting, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native found himself a distraction off the field as well, as rumors swirled that the onetime highly coveted player was seeking a midseason transfer.

Away from online message boards, highlights were nonexistent this past year for Gibson, who also dealt with an ankle injury throughout the season. Perhaps the most telling moment of his freshman campaign came when a reporter asked head coach Urban Meyer about the 6'4", 205-pounder, prefacing his question with comments made by Gibson in the Ohio State locker room following the Fiesta Bowl.

"Torrance Gibson?" Meyer asked. "I didn't know you guys got to talk to him. That's great."

Maybe Meyer was confused why reporters would want to talk to a player who didn't play in the Fiesta Bowl, let alone the rest of the 2015 season. Or perhaps he had hoped Gibson wouldn't be allowed to talk to reporters until he had "earned the right" to do so, a tactic he has previously invoked with players whose names had been attached to baggage.

But as Meyer talked out his answer, his tune soon changed. In his mind, Gibson was one of the Buckeyes' success stories of 2015—even if it didn't seem that way on the field.

"Torrance had a 2.7 [grade point average]. He worked his rear end off at a highly competitive university," Meyer said. "Probably September-ish is when he really grew up. I love Torrance Gibson, I love his talent. I love the fact that he did well academically. I think it's a future without—I use this comment sometimes—I don't see a ceiling."

Exactly where on the field that future is at remains to be seen.

After arriving at Ohio State as a U.S. Army All-American selection at quarterback, Gibson found himself as one of six scholarship signal-callers on the Buckeyes roster before Braxton Miller made the transition to wide receiver over the summer. The natural move seemed to be for Gibson to make a position change as well, considering his combination of size and speed made him as natural a fit as a pass-catcher as it did a pass-thrower.

But as the Ohio State staff found itself peppered with questions pertaining to Gibson's position as soon as national signing day, the company line seemed to be that he was sticking at quarterback.

"His future is nowhere but the quarterback position," asserted Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who served as Gibson's primary recruiter.

That sentiment, however, had changed less than a week into fall camp when the Sunshine State product began running routes with rest of the OSU receivers. At the time it was explained as a way to get Gibson on the field as a freshman, something that wouldn't have happened at quarterback with the battle between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett ongoing.

As an injury bug hit the rest of the Buckeyes wideouts, the move made even more sense, and Gibson seemed to be making progress. Availability at Ohio State's fall practices was often limited to the media, but the sizable wideout could be spotted making impressive grabs in the school-released highlight packages.

Gibson's promise was apparent and appeared to be much more than a mere message board myth. But if the goal of his position switch was to merely get him on the field, then it'd be tough to label it as anything but a failure in 2015.

As both Gibson and Meyer alluded to, making the move to college life off the field may have been even more difficult than the transition he was going through on it. As the Buckeyes beat Penn State in mid-October, Gibson was absent from the sideline, the result of academic troubles, according to Meyer.

"You have to earn the right to dress," Meyer said. "He didn't do it last week."

By season's end, Gibson hadn't played a snap, even though injuries continued to plague Ohio State's wide receiver corps. An offseason transfer seemed likely, if not inevitable, but immediately the Fiesta Bowl, he had reaffirmed his commitment to the Buckeyes program.

While the plan may have always been for his move to wideout to be temporary, the reality of Ohio State's depth chart is that his future will likely always be at wideout.

Barrett still has two years of eligibility remaining for the Buckeyes, who also possess redshirt freshman Joey Burrow and redshirt sophomore Stephen Collier on their depth chart entering 2016. Ohio State doesn't have a quarterback currently committed to its 2016 class, but remains in the running for 4-star prospect Dwayne Haskins, with 2017 commit Danny Clark set to arrive on campus in a year.

Still, Gibson hasn't ruled out the possibility of once again taking snaps behind center.

"Maybe a Wildcat quarterback, something like that. You never know," Gibson said. "Keep your eyes open."

Meyer, too, can envision Gibson making the move back to quarterback in the future. After all, the fifth-year Ohio State head coach knows just how valuable a signal-caller with Gibson's ability on the ground can be, given his work with Josh Harris, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Miller and Barrett in the past.

"I would love to use him as a quarterback-slash [athlete]," Meyer said. "Because he's that good of an athlete."

In a best-case scenario, Gibson could become the version of Cam Newton Meyer never truly got to coach at Florida, perhaps as soon as 2017 should Barrett opt to turn pro after his junior season. But what's much more likely is for the American Heritage product to see the majority of his playing time come at receiver, with Wildcat snaps keeping opposing defenses off balance.

In order to make that work, however, Gibson is going to have to make progress on the field while maintaining the same off of it. The skill may be natural, but the transition is not yet complete and the opportunity will certainly be there on an Ohio State offense replacing eight starters, including all of its top skill players.

"This spring is going to be big," Meyer said of Gibson's development.

But as high as his ceiling is, Gibson's floor is equally is as low.

Will he be a "what could have been?," as he appeared poised to be at times during his freshman season? The next 12 months will tell the tale. But Gibson insists that 2016 will provide positive answers when it comes to his still unknown future in the Buckeyes offense.

"I'll be ready next year," he said. "I guarantee I'll be ready."

 

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Football: Wolverines' Strengths, Weaknesses Heading into 2016 Offseason

Heading into the 2016 offseason, the Michigan Wolverines college football program has clear strengths and weaknesses throughout the team on paper.

The Wolverines will be a popular choice to win the Big Ten because of the returning talent, but they also must address a few problem areas.

Michigan lost starters at quarterback and middle linebacker, which are considered the captains of the offense and defense, respectively. Replacing that leadership is doable but not always easily accomplished.

Nevertheless, the team's collective coaching prowess is reassuring for followers of the Maize and Blue. After all, few staffs in college football boast the NFL background Michigan does.

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Versatile 4-Star OL Matt Farniok Down to 3 B1G Schools

SAN ANTONIO — The moment was nearly astronomical, but Matt Farniok never let the thrills of playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl get too overpowering.

He'll be the first to admit, however, that behind closed doors, he wanted to do backflips. After all, ending your high school career playing in one of the most prestigious all-star bowls around makes for a nice bullet point on an athlete's football resume.

"To be honest, it was incredible," said Farniok, a 4-star offensive lineman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "To say I was one of 90 kids who got selected, that I got to play in front of the United States Army, that I was able to meet some really great guys and get to hang out with them and talk with others going through the same stages of recruiting as I am…it was just a ton of fun."

Farniok now shifts his focus to his college future. The 6'5", 297-pound lineman has two official visits in January, the first taking place this weekend at Michigan State and the second occurring the weekend of Jan. 22 at Iowa.

Michigan State and Iowa make up two of Farniok's top three schools. Nebraska is the third school; he officially visited it last week. All three programs, Farniok said, have equal chances of signing him.

"Really, it's just a matter of seeing myself there and getting to know the guys better," Farniok said of his pending decision. "I want to see if I can picture myself being a part of it."

Wherever he ends up, Farniok will have big shoes to fill. And that is in addition to all the accolades he's earned while playing for Washington High School, including being the South Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year, a U.S. Army All-American, a 4-star athlete with nearly 20 offers and a state champion.

With all that, Farniok finds himself chasing the success of his big brothers. Older brothers Tom and Derek both were offensive linemen in the Big 12, with Tom a center at Iowa State and Derek a tackle at Oklahoma. Tom even saw time in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, signing last year as an undrafted free agent.

With Matt, the third of four football-playing Farniok brothers, preparing for his upcoming college career, the expectations are high for him to be successful. In fact, back when Matt was a junior, Tom described his younger brother as a "freak of nature."

"He's by far the best out of all of us," Tom said of Matt, as told to Stu Whitney of the Argus Leader. "Genetically, we got it pretty good, but he absolutely hit the jackpot."

Farniok is a lineman who can play guard or tackle in college. He's a national top-300 player who also is the top-ranked player from the state of South Dakota and someone who is looking to make an impact early in his college career. He also excels off the field, as he owns a 3.78 grade-point average and is a member of his high school's student council and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Farniok is a confident athlete who is driven by an athletic family. Along with his older brothers, his father, Brad, was a lineman for St. Cloud State in Minnesota in the 1980s. His uncle, Bob Reeves, played tight end in the 1980s at South Dakota State and also was a star pitcher for the baseball team.

The Farnioks have a fourth brother expected to be in Matt's shoes in two years. Will Farniok is a 2018 lineman who can play every position on the offensive line. Will already has offers from two of Matt's top three schools, Iowa and Nebraska.

From a recruiting perspective, Matt is only planning to use three of his five allowed official visits. With an important decision coming up, Matt said he's relied on his big brothers for advice—and he's received great words of wisdom regarding his choice.

"Go where you feel comfortable. Go where you feel like it's the best fit," he said. "If you're just chasing a team with the most wins or a team with the nicest things, you could end up having a miserable, five-year career. That's the main advice they gave me."

And what will the winning school get out of Farniok? Oldest brother Tom needed one word to describe his younger brother.

"Superstar," Tom called Matt, as told to David Nicholson of the Argus Leader. "But he works his butt off. He works out like he's going to be a walk-on."

 

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

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Bold Predictions for 2016 College Football Offseason

The 2015 college football season officially ended Monday night when Alabama held off Clemson 45-40 in a fantastic national title game, but the great thing about college football is that it never really ends. While no games are played, the offseason—from now until September—tends to generate a healthy share of news that impacts the games that unfold on the field.

Coaching-staff shuffles, realignment rumors, player arrests, head coaching smack talk—it’s all talk, but it fuels fans’ fires for the part of the college football calendar that truly matters. Here’s a look at some bold predictions for the 2016 college football offseason. “Bold” predictions doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll happen, but they’re certainly within the realm of possibility. Let’s go.

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Adam Kramer's College Football Notebook: Complete Offseason Preview

Thanks to industrial-sized fans and a crew the size of Alabama’s scout team, the confetti that blanketed University of Phoenix Stadium hours earlier was gathered in piles and slowly taken out of sight.

Not long after Alabama had retreated to the locker room to spark victory cigars, the grass on the empty stadium started to re-emerge, one patch after the next, until no traces of confetti were left. Another brilliant college football campaign—one of heartbreak, triumph and lasting individual moments—was tucked into storage.

This is the hard part.

There is no easy way to stomach this transition. No words will fill that football-less void. But the start of the offseason is not exclusively dreadful; we are now a wee bit closer to what might be the greatest Week 1 slate of games ever played.

Let us not look back. In fact, with everything still so fresh, let us look forward.

Feast your eyes on the delectable football buffet.

This is what's coming. And in time, we will get there. When we have exhausted every storyline, overrated and underrated every team, and undoubtedly been handed a fistful of unexpected turns along the way, we will be treated to a weekend-long celebration of the sport we already miss.

So do not bury yourself any deeper than you need to, friend. Do not let the end of the year overpower your senses. Just don’t lose sight on what’s ahead.

Here’s a look at what storylines may greet us before we get there, an early Top 25 that everyone will completely and totally agree on, and a checklist of important matters to accomplish before we do the whole thing all over again.

 

Five Important (and Unavoidable) Offseason Storylines

1. Playoff Aftershock: After a wonderful debut, here is the current state of the College Football Playoff. Ratings for semifinals plummeted on New Year’s Eve—a development expected by basically everyone except the people running the whole thing. Even a compelling title game saw a drop in viewership of more than 15 percent, according to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal. As for the overall picture, John Consoli of Broadcasting & Cable magazine reported that ESPN might have to pony up more than $20 million in makegoods to sponsors for falling below projections.

The master puppeteers tasked with pulling all the playoff strings say all is well even though the walls are on fire. They say it’s only one year and semifinals will continue to be played on a night most people have other plans. They say the existing bowl contracts getting in the way of logic are no big deal.

The reality, however, is that no sport cherishes a full piggy bank more than this one. With so much ground lost, the topic of switching playing times and altering bowl contracts will persist over the months to follow.

 

2. New-Look Buckeyes: Nine Ohio State underclassmen decided they were ready for the NFL, which makes the Buckeyes one of the nation’s most curious teams moving forward. Add in the loss of a handful of seniors, and Urban Meyer will have to replace a significant portion of an immensely gifted roster. 

(Spoiler: It's still pretty darn gifted.)

It would be reckless to assume Ohio State could seamlessly fill the holes left by Joey Bosa and the likes. With that being said, this depth chart is densely packed with hungry, talented replacements. This is probably the closest assembly line to what Alabama has to offer out there.

In a sea of change, the return of quarterback J.T. Barrett cannot be emphasized enough. And while many might handicap a major drop-off come fall, it may not be as drastic as we’re led to believe. Stay tuned.

 

3. SEC West Meat Grinder: A year ago, if you told me that Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin and Les Miles would be sitting on warm, uncomfortable chairs entering the 2016 season, I would have chortled at this take until losing consciousness. But this is where we are now after three different debacles ranging in severity.

All three, despite having vastly different situations and outsider perceptions, need big seasons to keep their jobs.

Looking at the rosters, the most logical of the three to do so appears to be Miles. More on that in a bit. Although at this point, nothing should be assumed for any of the three. The only thing known is that the SEC West will be somehow more cutthroat this spring than it already was, which is saying plenty.

 

4. Heisman Hysteria: We are on the cusp of one the most fascinating Heisman races the sport has seen in ages—a battle that will undoubtedly generate enough propaganda and declarations to rival this year’s presidential election. The campaigning began during bowl season and the playoff with huge performances, and it will persist until actual games are played.

Just think about the talent we have coming our way for one more season: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and many, many others will return with a vengeance in the fall.

The star power is extraordinary, and it’s going to be spectacular when the hype eventually takes a backseat to actual games. Please, for the love of everything, everyone stay healthy. Don’t practice. Don’t go outside. Wrap yourselves in bubble wrap, and let’s invent a time machine.

 

5. The Great Unknown: Piggybacking off the point above, the offseason’s most significant storylines are off in the distance—out of sight and buried beneath the surface. They are the things we couldn’t possibly predict.

Outside of national signing day, spring practice and media days, you don’t want to hear your team mentioned over the next seven months. No news is usually good news—especially after a season that saw an outbreak of injuries unlike any we have seen in some time.

The only constant over the months to follow is that there is no distinct pattern: injuries, legal issues (ugh), unexpected transfers and other unknown developments will ultimately shape where we go from here.

Hopefully these negative developments don’t involve your team. Hopefully they don’t involve any team, for that matter.

 

So…Will Alabama Still Be Good?

On the flight home from Arizona, Nick Saban was caught watching film of the national championship. He wasn’t celebrating or decompressing. He was watching film. After a brief nap, he woke up and tossed on the game tape without another game on the schedule—something ESPN caught a glimpse of while tagging along for the ride home.

"We always evaluate how we did in the game on offense, defense and special teams," Saban told ESPN’s Marty Smith. "We don't have a lot of time to do this when we get back because we have to go recruiting as soon as possible.”

In short, coaches, this is what you are up against. This is what you have to deal with until he says he’s had enough, which isn’t coming this year.

“I know you can't do this forever,” Saban said when asked about retirement. “But I certainly enjoy the moment and certainly look forward to the future challenges that we have and really have no timetable for ever not being a part of a team.”

To answer the question originally generated in the above subheadline: Yes.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper.

Saban has crafted the kind of machine that can lose a Heisman winner, its starting quarterback, plus a plethora of quality defensive talent and still return a team that will be a popular choice to repeat.

The focus will likely be at quarterback for the third consecutive offseason, and, more specifically, on soon-to-be redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. If Barnett struggles, Cooper Bateman could win the gig.

As for replacing Henry, Alabama will likely lean on two former 5-star talents who are both incredibly talented and gifted. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, while lacking experience, will give Alabama one of the most dynamic backfields in the country. (Seriously, if you have not seen Scarbrough yet, you are in for a treat.)

Defensively, Alabama will have to absorb the losses of some key members up front. But given the unbelievable depth (and youth) still on the roster, the drop-off between this year’s dominant unit and the one in line may not be much.

Alabama undoubtedly has questions entering this offseason, but these are the kind of questions only a team like Alabama has to answer.

It’s not a matter of good; it’s more like how good?

 

What About Clemson?

Keep in mind that the Tigers soared well beyond all reasonable expectations without Mike Williams, their talented wideout, who was lost in the very first week after suffering a serious neck injury.

So many offensive pieces, headlined by quarterback Deshaun Watson, will return next season. They will give opposing defensive coordinators night terrors. Watson has a chance to do something extraordinary, and he has everything around him to function at such an elevated level.

The big question, of course, is the defense. For the second year in a row, Clemson must replace a slew of NFL talent along that side of the ball. 

The Tigers filled these holes somewhat seamlessly in 2015. But now Mackensie Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Travis Blanks, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green will need to be replaced after saying farewell.

In most games, it won't matter. The Tigers offense will bury an opponent in so many points that the defense will just need to sign in. But that may not fly in games with higher stakes, like playoff games, and that's precisely what the expectations are moving forward.

The defense has questions, but you might as well start game-planning for Watson now, opposing coordinators. Did you see what he just did to one of the best defenses of the last five years?

 

Three Teams That Will Be Sold Excessively and Repeatedly This Offseason

Tennessee: THIS IS THE YEAR. THIS ONE—THIS ONE RIGHT HERE—IS MOST CERTAINLY THE YEAR.

You know what? The gentleman who commandeered my computer momentarily dressed as Smokey in a Peyton Manning jersey might not be wrong. The offense will remain almost entirely intact, and the defense, already chock-full of good, young players, will now have the services of recently acquired defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.

That’s an excellent hire at a critical time. It’s also an outstanding time to play in the SEC East—a division the Vols will be heavily favored to win.

It’s hard to argue with the building buzz here, quite honestly. I get it. But be prepared regardless.

 

LSU: Having survived The Great Baton Rogue Booster Apocalypse, Les Miles returns in 2015 with a team loaded in many places. Running back Leonard Fournette is back and could be better, which is moderately terrifying. The defense, having lured Dave Aranda from Madison, is poised to be one of the nation’s best.

The concern exists in a place it has existed before: quarterback.

Can Brandon Harris be just good enough—not outstanding, but acceptable—for this team to match significant expectations? The assumption for many will be probably, which is why it will be sold en masse and repackaged until fall.

 

Michigan: Let me start by saying that I will be one of many carrying the offseason Michigan torch. With the exception of quarterback—and even this part of the roster has options—the Wolverines have all of the ingredients, not to mention an elite recruiting class coming in, to be a team that competes for a national championship.

John O'Korn, a Houston transfer, is the quarterback who will be mentioned plenty this year. He could be the missing piece for a team with few questions outside of linebacker, which needs to be completely overhauled.

Oh, and then there’s that Harbaugh individual. That seems important. Last offseason really was The Jim Harbaugh Show. Let’s see what he has planned for an encore.

 

Five Names You Need to Know by Fall

Saquon Barkley (RB, Penn State): Hopefully many of you know him by now. Penn State fans are certainly well aware. Saquon Barkley’s freshman season was one of production and jaw-dropping moves. He finished the year with more than 1,000 yards rushing and also caught 20 passes. Moving forward, he will be the key cog in James Franklin’s offense and a budding superstar.

Jake Browning (QB, Washington): Chris Petersen has his quarterback. That much became apparent late in the year when Jake Browning, only a freshman, started to get cozy in the offense. Browning had two four-touchdown games in the second half of the season. He made mistakes along the way, as most freshman QBs will do, but he improved a great deal. While the focus in the Pac-12 will be on UCLA’s Josh Rosen, don’t be surprised if Browning makes a big splash next year.

Sam Hubbard (DE, Ohio State): The next great defensive lineman for Ohio State—the one tasked with replacing Joey Bosa—is already on the roster. Sam Hubbard finished with 6.5 sacks in his redshirt season despite logging limited snaps, and he’s still only learning the position and growing into his body. By the end of 2016, Hubbard will be one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. I'm not sure he's quite at Bosa's level, but he has a chance to be awfully close.

Marlon Mack (RB, South Florida): Next year’s running back class is unimaginably talented and deep. And while we salivate over known commodities, don’t forget Marlon Mack, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two years at the collegiate level. In 2015, he ran for nearly 1,400 yards and averaged 6.6. yards per carry. South Florida is poised for takeoff next season now that there is stable ground, and Mack could be in line for a monster 2016. 

Dakota Prukop (QB, Oregon): The Ducks are back to the graduate-transfer well once again. After hitting a home run with Vernon Adams Jr., Dakota Prukop is the new quarterback in Eugene, Oregon. At Montana State, Prukop was a star. He scored nearly 40 touchdowns last season and is a true dual-threat. He's big, fast and can push the ball downfield. He's a much different player than Adams, although he could provide a similar impact. At the moment, he seems like the favorite to be Oregon’s starting quarterback next fall.

 

The Entirely-Too-Early, Make-You-Unreasonably-Incensed Top 25

Here’s the thing about ranking teams days after the national championship and weeks before national signing day: It doesn’t carry much weight, and it enrages just about everyone.

With those factors fully recognized, let’s rank some teams.

Yes, things will look different. Players leave. Injuries (unfortunately) will reshape expectations. The rosters in mid-January will vary significantly from those in early August. Change is the only assurance.

Plus, anger is a good color on you.

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Michigan

5. Florida State

6. Notre Dame

7. LSU

8. Ohio State

9. Houston

10. Tennessee

11. Baylor

12. Stanford

13. Ole Miss

14. Michigan State

15. Oklahoma State

16. USC

17. TCU

18. Iowa

19. North Carolina

20. Oregon

21. Washington

22. Georgia

23. Louisville

24. Florida

25. UCLA 

Teams that barely missed, aka the last chance to cool your Internet rage: Arkansas, Miami, Northwestern, South Florida, TCU, Washington State, Wisconsin.

 

Offseason Checklist Items

There is indeed a life outside of computer screens, box scores, stadiums and airports. Or, so I have been told.

It’s always hard to ease back into this life, but let’s attempt to do so regardless.

Family: Three days after I arrived home from the national championship, a new kitchen set arrived for my 16-month-old daughter. I assumed it would be a seamless assembly until I opened the box.

I will be putting together this kitchen until August. I also look forward to that extra family time—the most anticipated  perk of the season coming to a close.

Fitness: The season ruined me. It’s time to get back on the ol’ horse until I abandon that horse later in the year. I can report that the first few intense treadmill sessions have been slightly less awful than expected. Great start.

Golf: I love golf. I am bad at golf. I am writing this sentence while sitting in a house caked in snow and ice. But eventually, we will get to a point when I can go outside again and play bad golf. Come quickly.

Find New Television Shows: I am locked in for Better Call Saul and The Americans. That is about it. I am anxious to start BoJack Horseman after many reviews, although I need more. I welcome your suggestions.

Fallout 4: This is the Alabama football of games. It might consume me to the point where I do nothing else on this list.

Rearrange/Finish the Basement: Of all the things listed here, I feel quite comfortable saying that this is the least likely to get done. In fact, thinking about it now, this has almost no chance of happening. Maybe next year.

 

Thanks for a great season. Thank you for reading. This sport, as you know, doesn't have an offseason these days. There will be things to discuss. We'll get by.

That glorious Week 1 slate of games will be here before you know it. Cheers.

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

B/R CFB Recruiting 200: Top 12 Interior Offensive Linemen

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report recruiting analysts Damon SaylesSanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports Composite Rankings and provided in-depth analysis. As the summer camp circuit comes to a close, Bleacher Report provides a position-by-position breakdown of the best college football recruits. Today, we present the Top Interior Linemen.

 

The foundation for winning big in college football begins in the trenches. 

A quick glance at the top teams in the country shows that the interiors of their respective offensive lines are stout and able to control the action in the middle of the field.

The 2016 recruiting class features a number of intriguing guard and center prospects who are built to dominate at the next level. 

The latest edition of the B/R Recruiting CFB 200 series focuses on the top interior linemen in the 2016 class.

Bleacher Report scored the top offensive guards and centers on key metrics, such as strength (20 points), pass protection (30 points), run blocking (40 points) and explosion (10 points). The cumulative figures from those traits resulted in our overall grade for each prospect. 

How do the nation’s top interior offensive linemen grade out?

 

All analysis provided by B/R National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani. OG denotes offensive guard and OC denotes offensive center.

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Deshaun Watson's Goal Is to Make Clemson's Offense the 'Best Ever'

Fresh off a Vince Young-like performance in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game that ended on a sour note, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is not done.

Not even close.

The 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist threw for 405 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 73, and put up more yards against Alabama's defense himself than any other team did all year in the 45-40 loss on Monday night in Glendale, Arizona.

"Being able to improve on what we did this year with a lot more veterans, we have a chance to be one of the best offenses ever in college football," Watson said while accepting the 2015 Manning Award given to the nation's top quarterback.

"That's our motivation. To be the best ever."

A lofty goal, sure. But based on how they closed the season, even a small step forward might put the Tigers in the thick of that discussion.

They are currently on an 11-game streak in which the offense totaled more than 500 yards. The last time they fell under the 500-yard mark was at home in the 24-22 win over Notre Dame in a monsoon in Death Valley.

To put that in proper perspective, only 15 teams averaged 500 or more yards per game this year—nine of which were in Power Five conferences.

Clemson closed hot, and the loss to Alabama has Watson hungrier than ever.

"Even if we would have won the game and finished 15-0 and made history, it would still be the drive to achieve it again," he said. "We have to learn from the game. Everyone is very confident that we can play with the best. We went toe-to-toe with them to the last play, and it came down to that onside kick. We have a lot of confidence in this program, and Coach [Dabo] Swinney has been doing a great job over the last several years getting ready for moments like that, and we're going to come back stronger."

"I'm going to go back and watch the games from this year and fix the interceptions that I threw," he said. "Some throws I overthrew because I was kind of rushed, trusting my footwork and the guys around you. Little things like that...my mechanics, making sure I'm real polished with that. Reading defenses. I think I do a really good job of reading defenses, but I want to get better."

The core of the Tigers offense will be back in 2016, including stud receiver Artavis Scott and fellow receiver Mike Williams, who missed virtually the entire season after suffering a neck injury in the season opener. On top of that, the young offensive line—which was a question mark coming into the season—should be even better than it was in 2015, when it gave up just 1.2 sacks per game.

Wayne Gallman, who racked up 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns, announced this week that he will pass up the chance to jump at the NFL to return to Clemson in hopes of making another title-game run.

"It was great to hear that Wayne wanted to come back, graduate and take one more ride with us," Watson said. "It's going to be a special year. I feel like he's one of the best running backs in the country, and he has proven that."

Watson's return and the experience of the offense have set the goals awfully high in Clemson following the ACC title and appearance in the national championship.

The best offense ever?

Bold but not impossible.

Just take it from Watson: "Next year is going to be very special."

 

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

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

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Arkansas RB Alex Collins Has All the Makings of a 1st-Round Pick

The age of the first-round running back has long since come to pass as NFL teams devalue running backs' importance, and for good reason. But along with Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Arkansas RB Alex Collins has the unique skill set to buck the trend and match last year's draft with two Round 1 running back selections. While he'll have competition for draft position with Elliott and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, Collins will earn high marks throughout the draft process with his sights set on the top 32 picks.

The top-ranked running back in the country coming out of high school, per 247Sports, Collins emerged as the SEC Freshman of the Year en-route to a thriving career at Arkansas. Sharing time with Jonathan Williams, another NFL-worthy back, early in his career, Collins remains relatively fresh among NFL running back prospects, with three years of experience and under 700 career touches. 

Offering elite acceleration when he has space, Collins possesses top-end speed that should approach the 4.4-second level at the NFL combine's 40-yard dash, and he gets to that top speed in a hurry during live-game action. That type of acceleration, coupled with his sheer size and bulk, gives him a Le’Veon Bell-like impact in the open field, as he can win with speed or power in open space.

Offering plus-strength at first contact, Collins works through tacklers even before he’s built up speed. In this play against Texas Tech, Collins couples that initial break through contact with that elite acceleration, gaining speed at an alarmingly fast pace and leaving second- and third-level defenders behind him en route to a long touchdown run:

He can be a bit off balance and reckless laterally when initially getting to the hole. Offering a one-cut-and-go running style when his initial hole is open, Collins gains speed at a high level and turns into a downhill, remarkably physical open-field runner.

The occasional issues in his initial running angles stem from an overeagerness to get into one-on-one opportunities. He can get lost in his initial burst at times, and could stand to play with a bit more control as he approaches the hole on most non-draw plays.

However, that primarily stems from his understanding that few college tacklers can finish against him in one-on-one opportunities. His initial-step issues are a coachable fix, and with that being his biggest issue, it could simply be a matter of a year of development before Collins is trustworthy enough to not miss opportunities at the NFL level. 

He keeps his feet moving persistently at contact, and stays strong with a willingness to fight through double tackles. He’s willing to lower his head and bulldoze upfield, keeping his feet moving. He wasn’t asked to do this often at the college level thanks to his offense and the spread nature of his blocks, but he’s displayed the ability to throw off-balance defenders off him in the red zone and initiate physicality himself. Through contact and as he splits tight gaps at the second level, he’s able to both get skinny and balanced along with playing with great ball security.

His acceleration coupled with quick cuts laterally at the second level allow him to consistently gain separation and keep his top speed in the open field. His vertical speed rarely loses steam as he changes direction subtly in the open field, and despite appearing and playing like a bigger, more physical back, Collins offers elite open-field maneuvers to spring free.

In this play against Kansas State, notice how he works around the edge with a slower buildup, accelerates once he passes the first level and evades the open-field tackler easily with an inside cut, gaining speed at a remarkably high level for a tackle-breaking running back:

His initial vision and anticipation of defensive alignments could be improved, however, as his offensive system at times allowed for larger gaps than he’ll see at the pro level. But that’s generally true of many top running backs in offenses that threaten horizontally and vertically.

Finally, he received ample work as a pass-catcher in his junior season, including lining up in the slot, and has better than expected route-running footwork and spins his head back to the quarterback with control and readiness. Collins’ flashes as a receiver stem from confidence in space and in one-on-one matchups. He’s not an efficient route-runner yet, but he’s comfortable off of play action and in delayed routes.

Collins dips his head occasionally in pass protection on the perimeter, but he’s effective against both speed- and power-rushers. That said, he is much further along and has more experience, than most college running backs entering the NFL draft

To offer first-round value as a running back, a prospect needs to show rare running upside that can single-handedly lead an offense. With most of the NFL's top running backs being drafted after Round 1, or not at all, it's much easier to dismiss the position on the first day rather than appreciate the elite talent.

Collins doesn't have to be a Todd Gurley or Adrian Peterson type talent, but he needs to boast a skill set that can offer an offense an impact that few can provide at the NFL level. The former top-rated high school running back has the bulk, strength and acceleration combination that already puts him in the upper echelon of NFL running backs as soon as he's drafted.

It'll take at least a year in the NFL before his complete upside can be realized at the NFL level, but Collins will receive lofty draft comparisons and expectations throughout the draft process.

Collins has to earn a first-round grade from NFL teams, and at his position, with other top running backs vying for the same spot, it won't be an easy task. But he is one of the few elite skill-position talents in the 2016 NFL draft, and with so few franchise-changing players in each draft class, Collins may be too special to pass on in Round 1.

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Defensive Recruits Who Could Fortify Bob Shoop's Inaugural Defense at Tennessee

New Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator Bob Shoop received two huge bits of good news in the six days since he's been on the job with outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton electing to return to Rocky Top for their senior seasons.

But even with those elite players being the best "recruits" the Volunteers could land between now and national signing day, there are still some actual prospects who could make an immediate impact and are still very much in the picture.

With the linebacker position relatively secure, any player UT adds at that position would be a luxury. That doesn't mean the Vols are done recruiting that position, however.

There are also still major needs on the defensive line and in the secondary that should be addressed in this class. And coach Butch Jones is awaiting the final decisions for several marquee players.

Shoop needs bodies to fill out some roles in the rotation, and there are still a few guys on the recruiting board who could step right in and play for Tennessee. Getting the right players could shore up what looks on paper to be an extremely strong unit.

That's why you'll see the Vols go official-visit heavy in this final remaining month, trying to find the right few players to fill the final handful of spots left in the 2016 class.

The ranking may not be as high as the previous couple of years, but the Vols still could wind up filling all their needs. The Vols are going to cast a wide net for the precious few spots left, and with a new coordinator and new names popping up every day, the board is fluid.

Let's take a look at some prospects who could make a very big splash right away for UT.

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