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College Football Playoff 2014: Breaking Down New Format and Rules


Finally, college football has a playoff. Finally, the BCS reign of terror is behind us. Finally, we're one step closer to the results on the field truly deciding who the best team in the country is, not a series of rankings. 

While college football's new system likely isn't perfect in the eyes of many, it's a huge step in the right direction. Below, we'll break down how the new system works and will be implemented in the 2014 season. 


The Format

It's pretty simple, really—the team deemed to be No. 1 in the country at the end of the season will play the team deemed to be No. 4 in one semifinal, while the Nos. 2 and 3 seeded teams will play in the other semifinal. The winners of those games will compete for the national championship. 

As per the old bowl format, the semifinal games will be played on a rotating basis at one of six traditional bowl games—the Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. These games will be played on either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. This year, the semifinals will be the Rose and Sugar Bowls on New Year's Day.

The national title game will be held on Monday, Jan. 12th this year, giving the competing teams a little under two weeks to prepare. Each national championship game will be played at an independent site.

It's important to note that there are no automatic bids or limits on the four teams that reach the playoffs (though the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 all are guaranteed at least one team in one of the six major bowls, while the best team out of the American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mid-American will receive an automatic bid to one of the six big bowls). 

Winning a conference title does not automatically mean that a team will be one of the top four in the rankings. In fact, while unlikely, four teams from the same conference could theoretically comprise the four playoff teams.

It's also important to note that the major bowls that aren't a part of the semifinals will revert to traditional pairings. So, for example, while the selection committee will generally choose the teams for the major bowls, the Rose Bowl will remain a Big Ten versus Pac-12 matchup in years it isn't hosting a semifinal.


The Selection Committee 

Ah, but how will the top four teams be decided?

Rather than rely solely on a complicated computer program to determine rankings, under the new system a selection committee has been put in place to rank the teams in the country on a weekly basis and ultimately decide who the top four teams in the nation are at the end of the season. 

Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post has more on how the voting will work:

1. Each committee member will create a list of the 25 teams he or she believes to be the best in the country, in no particular order. Teams listed by more than three members will remain under consideration.

2. Each member will list the best six teams, in no particular order. The six teams receiving the most votes will comprise the pool for the first seeding ballot.

3. In the first seeding ballot, each member will rank those six teams, one through six, with one being the best. The three teams receiving the fewest points will become the top three seeds. The three teams that were not seeded will be held over for the next seeding ballot.

4. Each member will list the six best remaining teams, in no particular order. The three teams receiving the most votes will be added to the three teams held over to comprise the next seeding ballot.

5. Steps No. 3 and 4 will be repeated until 25 teams have been seeded.

This year, the first rankings of the year will be released on Oct. 28, with new rankings being released every week on Tuesday until the end of the season. The 13-member committee is comprised of Jeff Long, Pat Haden, Dan Radakovich, Barry Alvarez, Oliver Luck, Tom Osborne, Tyrone Willingham, Archie Manning, Mike Tranghese, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, Tom Jernstedt, Steve Wieberg and Condoleezza Rice.  

It's a diverse group of folks with various experience levels in the college game, so there should be plenty of differing perspectives. And of course, the group will be privy to top analytics and trends throughout the year, helping them come to a decision. 

"I think the powers to be will do a good job and figure out who those top four teams are," Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said at the Big Ten media days, via Erik Prado of The Daily Illini. "But I think it will add another element to college football that'll be exciting at the end of the year."  

That is certainly the hope. It's a new day for college football, and for fans who want the championship to be decided on the field, it's a better day as well. Plus, with two semifinal games and the four biggest bowls all coming in two days around New Year's, the start of January will truly be college football's holiday.

At some point, perhaps we'll get an eight- or 16-team playoff. With the current system likely locked in place until 2026, it will be awhile until that potentially happens. But this is certainly a step in the right direction.



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Every Pac-12 Football Team's Odds to Make College Football Playoff

If you were to place a bet today that a team from the Pac-12 would reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, you'd probably get pretty decent odds given the squads that schools like Stanford and Oregon have produced in recent years.

Winning the conference in 2014 will be no easy task, and the likelihood that someone will reach December unscathed is slim. However, the gauntlet each team faces should be formidable enough that whoever is holding the trophy after the conference title game will have earned a spot in the final four.

To the surprise of no one, the Pac-12 media poll listed Oregon as the league favorite entering the season, with the Ducks garnering 37 of the 39 first-place votes in the North Division and 24 of the 39 votes for who will win the title game.

UCLA, a team trending up at the moment, also received 37 first-place votes in the South Division. The only other programs to receive a first-place vote for the Pac-12 championship game were USC and Stanford, with one each.

While the preseason pecking order has been made clear, rarely does the plot move forward without any twists or turns. With the ultimate goal being a spot in the College Football Playoff, let's take a look at every Pac-12 team's odds to wind up in the top four and earn a trip to the semifinals.


The Favorite: Oregon Ducks

Some folks despise preseason pieces that go the expected route in terms of highlighting the best teams and the best players, but you have to find some pretty wild reasons not to see Oregon as the favorite in the conference right now.

Among those doubts could be skepticism about Mark Helfrich, the glaring lack of depth in the front seven or perhaps the spring injury to Bralon Addison that left the receiving corps as inexperienced as ever.

But quarterback Marcus Mariota makes up for all of that and then some. No, he won't ever line up at nose tackle and wreak havoc in the backfield, but the star dual-threat signal-caller has thrown for 63 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions the past two seasons. He's also rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 scores in that same time frame.

He returns as one of the preseason Heisman Trophy favorites, and he'll be guarded by perhaps the best offensive line in the conference, led by the anchor in the middle, Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks are deep at tight endm and though Keanon Lowe is the only returning wideout with over 200 career receiving yards, young talents like Devon Allen and Darren Carrington are waiting in the wings.

The defense has a few question marks at every level, but Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at cornerback isn't one of them. He's one of the nation's best in the secondary, and the linebackers should be much better than the 2013 group with the maturation of Derrick Malone and Rodney Hardrick.

One reason the Ducks feel like the favorite to reach the College Football Playoff out of the Pac-12 teams is that the schedule sets up nicely. They'll get a September visit from a highly touted Michigan State squad, and a win would make one of the early statements of the year.

Stanford, Washington and Arizona all travel to Autzen, while the Ducks miss both USC and Arizona State on the schedule. Trips to UCLA and Oregon State figure to be challenging, but Helfrich's squad would probably still land in the Pac-12 title game with one loss, and then you have to figure the conference champion will have a place in the final four.


The Best Value: USC Trojans

Before you scoff at the notion of a team like USC being a great value bet to make the College Football Playoff, understand that the Trojans are roaring back whether you like it or not. They toppled Stanford last year en route to 10 wins, though you'd hardly know the win total with all of the attention on Oregon and UCLA.

As for talent, well, no team in the league can match USC. Depth, however, is another matter. Still dealing with the aftermath of crippling sanctions, new coach Steve Sarkisian's team will be thin across the board, and a rash of injuries could turn "best value" into "Las Vegas nightmare."

But quarterback Cody Kessler figures to be much improved after a solid first season, and the running back stable looks stronger than ever with the trio of Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Nelson Agholor leads a talented receiving corps, and if the offense can jell under Sark, there's no reason to think it can't score 35-40 points per game.

On defense, Leonard Williams is the big name to watch up front, but safeties Leon McQuay III and Su'a Cravens could be the scariest duo of the past decade by the end of the season, and that's saying something given the Trojans' history at the position.

The schedule isn't terribly difficult, though trips to UCLA and Stanford won't be easy. Then there's Notre Dame in nonconference play, but the Irish travel to Los Angeles. With the showdown against the Cardinal coming in Week 2, we'll have a good idea of what this team is capable of right away.

The main reason USC is the best value bet: If the talent comes together, the Trojans have the players to make a championship run. That's a monstrous "if" to be sure, but no one's eyes would pop out if it happened.


The Sleeper: Stanford

How can the reigning two-time champions of the conference be the sleeper to make the playoff? Start with the fact that Oregon and UCLA finished 1-2 in the preseason media poll. David Shaw could probably care less what the media thinks, but the questions about Stanford seem to be growing in number throughout the offseason.

It started with your basic doubts about how the team will replace its veteran leaders like Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Then, as the Ducks and Bruins began garnering buzz, the Cardinal's quarterback situation started to look shaky, the running back depth turned into a major concern, and the defense got younger and more inexperienced.

There's no reason to view this Stanford team any differently than you did back after it lost the Rose Bowl to Michigan State, but the fact is that running back Tyler Gaffney is gone, Kevin Hogan does lack the dynamic abilities of Brett Hundley and Mariota (or he hasn't shown it yet at least), and both Skov and Murphy were hugely important over the past couple seasons.

All of that said, this team knows how to win and has a system that allows it to do so. While the players on offense may be young and green, they aren't lacking talent. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery is one of the best all-around pass-catchers in the country, and according to Bryan Fischer of NFL.com, David Shaw recently compared Andrus Peat to Jonathan Ogden, probably the best offensive tackle of all time.

So while Oregon and UCLA are the sexier picks to reach the College Football Playoff, don't be surprised to see Stanford sneak up yet again and earn a trip to the final four.


The Best Long Shot: Oregon State

Any time you're evaluating a team that can score points, you can throw the rule book out the window. It doesn't matter that the Beavers didn't beat anyone of note in 2013, and the fact that receiver Brandin Cooks is gone won't hurt as much with quarterback Sean Mannion back and ready to roll.

The defense is full of questions, especially up front, but the secondary led by cornerback Steven Nelson looks quite strong. None of it amounts to what you would call a dangerous team or even a program worthy of being on the national radar.

But the Beavers simply know how to score and score often. And with Mannion boasting an NFL-caliber arm, no defense is safe. When things come together on offense for Mike Riley and company, Oregon State is going to put up some scary numbers. You can take it to the bank that it'll knock off a ranked team or two in 2014.

If things come together and manage to stay together, that's when we could see some special things happen. You aren't going to bet on Oregon State to make the playoff, but crazier things have happened. Actually, they happen every year. Will we see some of the magic appear in Corvallis?


All stats via cfbstats.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Every Pac-12 Football Team's Odds to Make College Football Playoff

If you were to place a bet today that a team from the Pac-12 would reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, you'd probably get pretty decent odds given the squads that schools like Stanford and Oregon have produced in recent years...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Wisconsin Football: Best Quotes and Key Takeaways from Big Ten Media Days

While a conference's media day—or days, in some cases—will occasionally provide a sound bite worth talking about, the Big Ten's provided nary a morsel for hungry journalists to chomp on.  No more was this true than with the cohort from Madison, Wisconsin.

With that being said, I was able to parse through the mountains of "coach speak" that littered podiums across Chicago to find four of the tastiest nuggets for your reading pleasure.

From the recruiting front to scheduling and, of course, the quarterback competition, I used the highly refined scale of what I figured you, the reader, would care about in determining how important each of the things head coach Gary Andersen said were.

So as to not drone on too long, let's get to the main course of this and dig into the best of what Andersen and the rest of the Badgers contingent had to say in Chicago at the Big Ten's media days.

Begin Slideshow

Texas Football: 3 Games That Could Ruin the Longhorns' 2014 Season

Entering fall camp, expectations are tougher to assess than ever at Texas. On one hand, you have a new head coach in Charlie Strong who knows how to motivate talent. Then again, the 'Horns are down eight starters, per PhilSteele.com, and "The Purge" has left them without some valuable depth.

But given the talent that still remains untapped on this team and the current health of quarterback David Ash, there is no excuse for a lack of improvement on last year's 8-5 record. Especially when you consider the 21.6-point average margin of defeat in those five losses.

Looking at this season's schedule, a 9-3 regular season seems like the ceiling in Strong's debut. The team can afford losses to top-15 teams Oklahoma, UCLA and Baylor, per Bleacher Report's latest Preseason Top 25. Road games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State round out the toughest games on the schedule.

Of those six contests, Texas has to find a way to get at least two victories and be competitive in all losses to prove there has been progress since last season. So long as that happens, losing one in particular is no more detrimental to the season's hopes than any other.

But the timing and circumstances of their tilts with BYU, Iowa State and TCU have the potential to ruin Texas' season if it fails to pull out victories.


Sept. 6: vs. BYU Cougars

Texas' 40-21 loss to the Cougars last season was rock bottom for the program, and all the proof needed to argue for the switch from Mack Brown to Strong. This season's matchup will gauge how much it paid off.

Since the Cougars embarrassed the Longhorns with their 550-yard rushing exhibition, this game has been circled. The players have been hearing about for the past 11 months, and it's been motivational gold for the coaches, according to both Quandre Diggs and Cedric Reed:

With all of that pent-up frustration from last year's matchup, there cannot be any more incentive for this team to play the best game of football its played in five seasons. Anything less would be disappointing, and a loss would remove the luster from Strong's tenure before he even hits the meat of his schedule.


Oct. 18: vs. Iowa State

After BYU, the Longhorns hit their most brutal stretch of the season with three of their next four games against UCLA, Oklahoma and Baylor. Losing all three is possible, which makes taking care of Iowa State at home necessary for a successful second half of the season.

Kansas looks like the trap game between UCLA and Baylor, but the Longhorns must be wary of the Cyclones. They gave the 'Horns all they could handle last season in Ames, losing because an irreversible call happened to go initially in Texas' favor.

Much like Strong with BYU, Paul Rhoads will have his team motivated to get revenge this time around. If Rhoads succeeds, it could easily be the Longhorns' fourth loss of the season right before two brutal road games against Kansas State and Texas Tech.

This is one of the last games the Longhorns should be comfortably favored, and they can't afford to screw it up with five games left on their Big 12 schedule.


Nov. 27: vs. TCU

TCU on Thanksgiving is Texas' last game of the regular season—and a win the Longhorns will need in order to end it on a high note.

The 'Horns have lost each of their last four regular-season finales, punctuated by their most recent 20-point face-plant against Baylor that cost them the Big 12 title. Though Texas should be bowl eligible, limping into the postseason sets a bad tone, especially on the recruiting trail.

There's also the matter of the seniors, who have endured nothing but disappointment since they joined the program. This is their last home game, which had better yield an inspired effort from their teammates.

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Michigan Football: Brady Hoke Right to Cool Jabrill Peppers Hype

The first question lobbed at Brady Hoke after he finished his opening statement at Big Ten media days was about a player who had yet to play a down at Michigan.

Given a tumultuous offseason that saw the hiring of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, the arrest of offensive lineman Graham Glasgow and a potential quarterback controversy, the question might have surprised Hoke if he hadn’t been fielding questions about top recruit Jabrill Peppers since signing day.

Hoke did his best to put the brakes on the hype while confirming that Peppers is projected to get reps at nickelback when fall practice begins.

“I think we’ve got to be careful about anointing any true freshmen starting their college career,” he said.

Hoke is doing his best to dial down expectations, but fans and media won’t be satisfied until the talented Peppers takes the field. The challenge for Hoke is to balance the needs of the team and Peppers’ desire to play.

“Are we excited about what we’ll be able to see in the next couple weeks? No doubt about it,” said Hoke. “But I don’t think it's fair...to say he’s going to do this or be that. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Michigan is projected to be solid on defense, but questions abound on offense.

Does Hoke risk letting Peppers learn (and get beat) on the job when his team might have trouble scoring points implementing a new offense?

There are opportunities for him to play on special teams or offense while getting up to speed on defense. Hoke himself floated the possibility of Peppers playing offense earlier this spring. Looking at the need at receiver, it’s not hard to imagine him getting reps, even if it’s only as a distraction for opposing defenses.

Hoke may be trying to downplay Peppers’ ability, but fans and media aren’t the only ones eagerly waiting to see him play. Quarterback Devin Gardner told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press that Peppers is already making an impact on the team:

I don’t know how he is about learning the defense and knowing where he has to be and things like that. But as far as being a competitor and being a great athlete, he’s up there with the best I’ve ever seen. He’s one of the ultimate competitors I’ve ever seen. He brings a fire and an intensity to our team that we really need.

Peppers has never shied away from the spotlight—but everyone, including Devin Gardner, will have to wait until Brady Hoke determines when and where he’s ready to play.


Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.

Follow @PSCallihan.

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10 Most Underrated Defensive Recruits in Class of 2015

The 2015 recruiting class is full of outstanding defensive recruits. However, some are not ranked as high as they deserve to be.

Looking at the 247Sports composite rankings, several defenders can be deemed "underrated."

These prospects show better skill sets on tape than their ranking would indicate. Instincts, quickness, tackling ability, speed and awareness are all key traits for a defensive player.

Alabama has a 3-star pass-rusher who should be commanding more attention, while a ball-hawking safety is underrated mainly due to suffering an injury as a junior. Plus, a pair of 4-star cornerbacks actually deserve more praise than they are receiving right now.

All recruiting ratings and rankings are from 247Sports' composite rankings.

Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports

Begin Slideshow

USC Football: 5 Games That Could Ruin the Trojans' 2014 Season

Before we start this slideshow, let me clarify something that you may already be thinking:

Any loss for the Trojans in this or any other year has the potential to ruin their college football season—that is the cost of defeat for a proud program such as USC.

Having put that profound truism to bed, the purpose of this slideshow isn't necessarily to state the obvious but rather offer some games that USC would really, really hate to lose.

The criteria for inclusion in this slideshow varies from logistically important games within the conference to traditionally critical games that bear historic significance.

While each and every game is important and the Trojans will strive to win them all, there are some games that are crucial for USC to win.

And here they are...

Begin Slideshow

USC Football: 5 Games That Could Ruin the Trojans' 2014 Season

Before we start this slideshow, let me clarify something that you may already be thinking: Any loss for the Trojans in this or any other year has the potential to ruin their college ...

Begin Slideshow

Oklahoma Kicker Shares His IPad Playbook Featuring 1 Simple Instruction

One of the toughest tasks a college football player faces is memorizing the playbook.

One of the perks of playing for a top program is that many teams load their playbooks onto iPads to be displayed in digital form. 

Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt shared a photo of his iPad, which features just a single play he must commit to memory this season: "Kick the ball through the uprights." On a per-play basis, this particular iPad is not very economical.

[College Football Talk]

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Kenny Hill vs. Kyle Allen: Latest Updates on Texas A&M's QB Battle

Replacing a legend is always difficult. Of course, it's a little easier when you've got two talented players waiting in the wings.

Who will step into the void left by Johnny Manziel has been a topic of discussion among Texas A&M fans all ofseason. The Aggies' depth chart released during the SEC media days did nothing to answer the question as to whether Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen has the early upper hand.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin said that no decision has been made and won't be for at least a few more weeks, per Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle:

ESPN.com's Chris Low waded into the issue on Sports Talk with Bo on ESPN Radio in Arkansas and said that Allen is looking to be the better bet:

Both signal-callers were highly regarded coming out of high school. Hill was the 10th-best dual-threat QB and 230th overall in the class of 2013, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Allen ranked 10th in the class of 2014 and was the best pro-style quarterback in the country, per 247Sports. The latter is by far the better pure thrower, while the former is cut more from the Manziel mold.

Their individual styles do little to clear things up, too. Sumlin has been flexible as a head coach in terms of his quarterback. Johnny Football and Case Keenum are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both had success under Sumlin's watch.

Whomever he picks will have a baptism by fire in the opening game of the 2014 season. Texas A&M travels to Columbia on Aug. 28 to take on South Carolina.

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Chest Bump Between 170-Pound RB and 342-Pound DL Ends in Predictable Result

What do you think is going to happen when a running back tries to give a defensive lineman twice his size a chest bump?

Even though it's pretty easy to predict what would happen, Ohio State's Devonte Butler decided to give it a shot. The 5'7", 170-pound running back bounced right off the 6'4", 342-pound Chris Carter in hilarious fashion. 

The two teammates were able to share a laugh after the fact when Carter made sure that Butler was OK.

[OSU Buckeyes, h/t Dr. Saturday]

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Every SEC Football Team's Odds to Make College Football Playoff

The SEC dominated the second half of the BCS era, winning seven consecutive national titles between 2007-2013, and there is no reason to expect a drop-off in the first year of the College Football Playoff.

Just look at the talent it's securing. In 2013, five of the top nine and six of the top 11 recruiting classes in the country came from the SEC, per the 247Sports team rankings. In 2014, half of the league's 14 members landed a top-nine national class. It's a fact, not a myth, that the SEC has the best athletes in the country. Recruiting rankings are fallible, but on the whole they have been proven to matter.

Still, how the conference will fare in the four-team playoff has been a subject of constant debate this offseason. How many teams will the SEC get into the national semifinal? Two? Three? Zero?!

With so much roster turnover—especially at quarterback, where four of the five media favorites to win the conference are breaking in a new starter—along with the annual concern of teams "beating up on one another," how will the SEC fare in year one of the CFP experiment?

Who has the best chance of breaking through? 

Note: These odds reflect the author's point of view on how likely each team is to make the CFP. They have not been crafted the same way Las Vegas lines are crafted: with the intent to draw action on certain sides. Instead, they represent how many times the season would have to be played for Team X to make the playoff once.


Full Odds Board 


The Favorite

Up top we established that recruiting rankings matter. They are not the be-all, end-all of what makes a great team—if they were, Alabama would have won a third straight national title last season—but they are one of the two or three most important factors.

And on that front, Alabama is loaded:

Nick Saban's recruiting dominance the past four seasons is without precedent. It even led South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who has never been afraid to poke Saban with a stick, to call Saban "the greatest recruiter in college football history" at SEC media days.

And for once, he wasn't being sarcastic.

"Arguably they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team," Spurrier continued, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com. "If the recruiting services are correct, and they're pretty much correct. So they're the favorites…As long as they recruit like that, they're always going to be the favorites."

Yes, there are obvious questions. Likely starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who backed up Jameis Winston at Florida State last season, has impressive physical attributes but only enrolled this summer; a group of cornerbacks that already could not be trusted lost its most reliable player, Eddie Jackson, to a torn ACL this spring; Lane Kiffin.

But the positives still outweigh the negatives. Saban and Kirby Smart lead a defense that is littered with blue-chip recruits, and the offensive skill positions (receivers and running backs) ranked No. 7 and No. 1, respectively, on my list of best position groups in the country.

T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper, Arie Kouandjio, A'Shawn Robinson, Trey DePriest and Landon Collins could all realistically make the All-America first team without anyone batting an eyelash.

Auburn comes to Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Iron Bowl.

'Bama is the rightful favorite.


Best Value

If we're betting on teams to make the College Football Playoff, which ostensibly means winning or very nearly winning the SEC, the best value isn't necessarily the safest team on the board.

In other words, you're better picking a team with a high ceiling and a low basement than a low ceiling and a high basement. Who cares if they might crash and burn and finish toward the bottom of the league? As long as they also might click and jell and morph into a SEC title contender, that is fine.

What Florida did in 2013 was inexcusable. It was embarrassing. Will Muschamp was lucky to keep his job. No Gators coach should be losing to Georgia Southern in "The Swamp" or winning less than five games in a season. Not at Florida; not with an athletic department that rakes in $130 million of revenue in a fiscal year.

Still, Muschamp and a lot of the players on this roster are just one year removed from winning 11 games and playing in the Sugar Bowl. Starting with 2011, its past four recruiting classes have finished No. 12No. 4No. 3 and No. 9 in the country. Those aren't Alabama numbers, but they're about as close as anyone will get.

Last year's team was poorly coached, yes, but it was also ravaged by injuries, which tend to normalize from year to year. The offensive line should be much better, and quarterback Jeff Driskel—despite not thus far justifying his recruiting pedigree—is definitely a massive upgrade over Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg.

Driskel is 6'4" with a good arm and great mobility, but inconsistency and poor decision-making have marked his career in Gainesville. For that, Florida brought in former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, a 2013 Broyles Award finalist who helped mobile QB Anthony Boone maximize his potential by working from the shotgun.

He plans to do the same at Florida, and according to Bleacher Report's Randy Chambers, Driskel fits that system just as well:

Seriously, Kurt Roper’s offensive system was built for a quarterback such as Driskel. Spread the field, allow the quarterback to use his legs when needed, get the ball out quickly and allow the receivers to make things happen. In past years, Driskel was asked to do too much and wasn't able to take advantage of his athleticism.

If Roper and Driskel can fix last year's offense, why shouldn't Florida contend for an SEC championship? It doesn't need to be great on that side of the ball; something in the national top 40 would do. With all the talent that returns on defense—a group highlighted by linebacker Dante Fowler and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III—and Muschamp and D.J. Durkin on the sideline, you know the Gators will make it hard for opponents to score. Plus, the SEC East is always up for grabs.

The main reason Florida represents a good value, though, is because of the strength of its schedule. The number I projected up top is higher than it ought to be because Florida has a pair of impossibly difficult games—at Alabama and Florida State—on its schedule. And we don't really think a two-loss team can make the playoff, do we?

Yes, actually, we do…provided those two losses come in Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee. Those would be completely forgivable defeats.

No one knows for sure how the CFP selection committee will function, but chairman Jeff Long said in April that the four "best" teams will be chosen over the four "most deserving" teams with the best resumes, per Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News.

If Florida goes 10-2 with losses at Alabama and Florida State, it would likely enter the SEC Championship Game with a "win and we're in" mindset. No matter what happens elsewhere in the country, an 11-2 SEC champion with two quality road losses would almost definitely qualify for the four-team playoff.

And just imagine if it beats Alabama or FSU!


Best Sleeper

Man, what a difference a year makes.

Before his team went 3-9 and winless in the SEC, Bret Bielema was regarded as one of the 10 best coaches in America, right? It's not as easy as it looks bringing Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls.

If Bielema can better adjust to his new conference in 2014, Arkansas actually has quite a few things going for it—not the least of which is a likeness to last year's Auburn team. Their style of ground game is different, but the Razorbacks can run on anybody, have a potentially great head coach and won double-digit games three seasons ago before losing every conference game last year.

More than all that, they also have the benefit of a favorable home schedule, just as Auburn did in 2013. Arkansas does not stand much of a chance, on paper, of beating Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss, but its chances are certainly better at Razorback Stadium than they would be anywhere else.

What if the Razorbacks can channel a little home magic? Who's to say which stadium will be this year's Jordan-Hare?

It is obviously not likely for any of this to happen. That's the reason Arkansas is a sleeper. But was what Auburn did last season any less probable? Wouldn't writing the same things about the Tigers in July 2013 have been equally insane?

Why shouldn't Alex Collins become the next Tre Mason? Why can't Trey Flowers be the next Dee Ford? Both of those guys flashed All-SEC potential in 2013 despite losing game after game after game.

In some ways, isn't that even more impressive than playing well for a team that consistently wins?

If you really want to bet on a long shot, this is your squad.


Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Mississippi State Putting Together SEC's Surprise Recruiting Class of 2015

When Justin Johnson picked up the phone July 18 and called Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, the Alabama wide receiver didn't realize he was kicking off one of the most memorable days in this Bulldogs era.

"I was ready to make my commitment official and really looked forward to that conversation," Johnson said. "It felt great to become a Bulldog, but the day definitely got better from there."

By the end of the day, Mullen and his staff took part in seven similar conversations. The team fielded eight total verbal pledges that Friday, including 2016 in-state offensive lineman Dee Nalls.

"They just kept coming," Johnson said. "All I could say is, 'Wow, this is big.' I'm glad I got to be a part of that."

The standout from reigning national public school champion Hoover High School joined a class that now features 27 commits and rates 13th nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings. He was commitment No. 1 of a spectacular one-day haul that featured three 4-star recruits, including top-rated in-state prospect Jamal Peters.

“It’s a very exciting time to be around this program," said Missouri running back Alec Murphy, who also committed July 18. "Mississippi State fans are pumped up to see the team expanding and improving. Days like that Friday are a big step toward that."

Mullen, who took over the program in 2008 after serving as an assistant under Urban Meyer for nearly a decade, has provided plenty of reasons for Bulldogs followers to feel optimistic about the program's direction.

He is the first Mississippi State coach to deliver the team to four consecutive bowl game appearances, winning three of those matchups, and appears primed to secure a top-25 recruiting class for the third time in four years.

Efforts during the 2015 cycle have resulted in five 4-star commits, already matching Mississippi State's highest total during his tenure. Still, Mullen sounds just as excited about the class' depth as he does about its headliners.

"There are some guys in this class who I think are going to be some real sleepers," he told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "Guys who when we go watch their film, we go, 'Wow, this guy is special,' and then you go to the recruiting rankings and he's not ranked very high. There are some of those guys in this class."

Murphy is one of those guys. His commitment may have been overshadowed by 4-star Alabama running back Nick Gibson on July 18, but they'll spend the coming years competing for carries.

The 6'1", 222-pound playmaker rushed for 1,973 and 22 touchdowns in 2013. He sees himself as part of a group that's capable of elevating Mississippi State's offensive attack.

“The defense is already pretty stacked, and I think the players on offense in this class can create more balance, which is so important," Murphy said. "If we can take things to another level on one side of the ball, it challenges the other side to get better. That's what you want."

Murphy and Gibson bring talent to the backfield, while Johnson is just one of multiple impact receivers. Junior college standout Donald Gray and speedster Malik Dear are 4-star weapons, while 6'4" prospect Dontea Jones presents a big downfield target.

Jones and Dear are among 14 in-state recruits committed to the Bulldogs.

247Sports reporter JC Shurburtt sees an upward trend at both Mississippi State and Ole Miss due to talent on home turf:

The Magnolia State is a top 20 NFL talent producer overall (40 first round picks since 2005) and annually is top five per capita. Combine that with Mullen and staff’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and Freeze and company being able to go national for elite players, and suddenly both programs are in position.

Of course, it also helps to find athletes beyond your backyard.

Texas quarterback Chason Virgil remains rather raw as a passer but has the makings of a promising playmaker. He turned down offers from Florida, Clemson, Arizona State and Auburn for a chance to lead the Bulldogs attack.

"With the guys we have coming in, I think things are going to come together pretty fast," Johnson said. "We're bringing both size and speed to the offense. The defense can already hold its own, and now things are going to click for the whole team. It's going to happen quickly."

Mullen also aims to help the defense improve. Top-ranked inside linebacker Leo Lewis (Brookhaven, Mississippi) is a top priority in that department.

The 4-star recruit decommitted from Alabama on, you guessed it, July 18. He made that decision while attending Big Dawg camp at Mississippi State, providing a strong indication of which program he may focus on next.

Johnson said he'll be working on 5-star defensive tackle Daron Payne, another Birmingham area prospect.

The dominant run-stuffer was on campus earlier this month. He received a sales pitch from Shades Valley High School teammate and Mississippi State commit Keith Mixon.

"We talked about it when he was down at Big Dawg," Mixon says. "He said he really liked it and that it was one of the best camps he's been to so far this summer. That made me really feel good. I think we've probably got a chance to get him."

Payne, once thought to be headed to either Auburn or Alabama, could end up in Starkville.

“We're definitely overlooked in the SEC," Johnson said. "That’s going to change, though. We’re all on the same page and committed to making this a special team. People are going to look at the Dawgs differently."

The challenge will come as signing day approaches, when other teams attempt to poach Mississippi State commits. That should provide a pivotal test for Mullen and company, though, it's ultimately up to the players to keep things from coming unglued late.

“If we can keep this class together and continue to add talented guys, there’s a bright future ahead for all of us," Murphy said. “It’s all about maintaining communication with the coaching staff and other commits. Keeping your word is also a huge deal. My biggest thing about committing anywhere was treating it like I was signing a contract or getting married. I hope other players feel the same.” 


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

Recruit information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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TJ Yeldon vs Derrick Henry vs Kenyan Drake: Latest Updates on Alabama RB Battle

A number of elite running backs have emerged from Alabama's program. Take the current professional players: 2012 No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy.   

But the 2014 college football season may see one of the deepest Crimson Tide backfields of all time. Between junior incumbent starter T.J. Yeldon, electric sophomore Derrick Henry and even Kenyan Drake, Alabama has three fully capable contributors to pound the rock in the SEC.

AL.com's Andrew Gribble and Michael Casagrande debated how carries would be shared between the formidable trio. They noted that last year Yeldon had 62 percent (207) of the carries, while Drake had 28 percent (92) to Henry's 10 (35 total carries).

Casagrande feels that in 2014, Yeldon, Henry and Drake will have carries distributed by percentages of 45-40-15 respectively, while Gribble says it will be even between Yeldon and Henry, with Drake getting 20 percent.

Yeldon has the edge to garner the most touches because he's proven himself ever since he set foot on the gridiron as a true freshman. In two years, he's averaged over six yards per carry, amassed 2,343 yards on the ground and scampered for 26 touchdowns.

Between that production and Yeldon's ability to catch the ball, he figures to be featured most. Gribble previously reported that Yeldon, not any of his fellow running backs, was under consideration for preseason all-conference honors, and he made the first team:

However, Henry made his own strong first impression as a freshman in Tuscaloosa—enough to garner the No. 50 spot in college football player rankings by ESPN.com's staff.

Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com provided his take on Yeldon, highlighting a weakness that could cause Henry to supplant him as the starter:

A stunning combination of size and speed saw Henry burst onto the scene in the Tide's loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Henry had eight carries for 100 yards and a touchdown and also scored on a 61-yard reception, where he did most of the work to find pay dirt.

That is likely why Henry joined Yeldon as part of the Doak Walker Award watch list, an accolade given to the nation's top running back, per TideSports.com's Aaron Suttles:

Star wide receiver Amari Cooper also praised Henry's work ethic, as reported by Marquavius Burnett of The Anniston Star:

An offseason arrest may hurt Drake's cause to be among the team's top two ball-carriers in light of Henry's emergence. Nevertheless, it appears Drake is determined to become a big factor, in light of his recent Twitter posts:

As long as the Tide's offensive line remains among the nation's best, there's likely no stopping this offense, dialed up by first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Although a quarterback battle is taking place between Jacob Coker and Blake Sims, either one of those signal-callers is capable of running the show with such a magnificent stable of backs at their disposal.

Head coach Nick Saban prides his teams on defense, too. By the time even the most physical opponents get later into games, they will be too worn down. The Tide figure to dominate time of possession in most contests with fresh legs constantly rotating into the backfield. Their physicality up front and blue-chip ball-carriers promise to devastate the SEC's best.

In the unfortunate instance that any back gets hurt, there are plenty of options for the offensive staff to choose from. Both Yeldon and Henry could easily be workhorse, No. 1 backs at other schools, and Drake has similar talent.

All three will extend the length of their careers by contributing to a timeshare, though, forming a three-headed monster that the rest of college football will struggle to stymie.

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Florida State Football: Insider's Tour of the Seminoles' New Locker Room

Florida State football players return to the practice field on Monday as preseason camp opens. And when they get back to work, they will enjoy a remodeled, state-of-the art locker room and lounge areas.

The new lockers feature iPads for each player, allowing them to watch game film, communicate with coaches and check email. Surrounding them will be large statues of FSU players that have had their numbers retired.

The not-so-subtle message to the current Seminoles: Respect FSU's rich football history, but also be motivated to succeed. One sign in the locker room: "YOU MAKE THE HELMET. THE HELMET DOES NOT MAKE YOU."

"Florida State has as much history as anybody in America," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. "You see the rings, you see the national championships, the Heisman trophies, the great players in the NFL and the great men we have developed. And it sends a message to your players that we are demanding from you but we are demanding from everyone. Excellence is expected, and being elite is just the way of Florida State."

There is also a new players' lounge area just outside the locker room where food and drinks will be available before and after practice.

Fisher and his staff also now have renovated offices, and walls in entry areas and corridors leading to the coaches' offices are lined with large images of FSU greats past and present, a Heisman Trophy display, and jerseys of former Seminoles now in the NFL.

While the locker room upgrades are the big prize for the players, the hallways are what will make for a slower, more enjoyable walk. Once the door opens into the entry area for the coaches' offices, there is a wall with a large image of Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown reception in the final moments of the BCS National Championship Game that sealed a 34-31 win over Auburn. And to the left of that will be a display of FSU's three crystal footballs from the 1993, '99 and '13 seasons.

A Heisman wall was also established to honor FSU's three Heisman quarterbacks—Charlie Ward (1993), Chris Weinke (2000) and Jameis Winston (2013).

One wall is devoted to "Seminole History" and features a timeline of the program along with a large image of coaching legend Bobby Bowden touting his two national championships and accomplishments from 1976-2009.

FSU also used hallway wall space to frame individual NFL jerseys of the 50 former Seminoles that are currently in the NFL. And large numerals are set in glass frames that showcase the number of FSU's consensus All-Americans (32), first-round NFL picks (40), ACC titles (14), national championships (3) and undefeated seasons (3).

FSU director of football operations Mark Robinson said that some concepts were taken from what other college programs and pro teams have done. But he feels that FSU has some unique features, such as the statues in the locker room for retired players, the Heisman wall and a "Florida State Gameday" spot, which mimics the look of an ESPN "GameDay" set, with an anchor desk in front and a large image of a previous "GameDay" in Tallahassee behind it. The idea is to give FSU fans a chance to make this a stop on Saturdays and to have their pictures taken.

While media were given a tour of the renovations on Wednesday afternoon, construction crews were busy completing various projects. But the goal is to have all of the work done by Saturday night, just in time for when players report on Sunday.

Seminole Boosters, Inc., provided the funding for the locker room and upgrades to coaches' offices. The cost is expected to be between $5 million and $6 million, said Jerry Kutz, senior vice president of Seminole Boosters.

A number of FSU football players will also move into a new residence hall on Sunday. Champions Hall was built by the Seminole Boosters and will have space for both football players and traditional students. Two players will share two-bedroom apartments at the complex, which is a short walk to Doak Campbell Stadium.

FSU officials and the Seminole Boosters have been working together to build a variety of projects over the past few years, notably the construction of an indoor practice facility that was completed in August 2013. But on Wednesday, they jointly announced an eight-year, $250 million Champions Campaign to fund a variety of projects. The campaign began quietly in July 2010, and about half of the $250 million has already been raised, said Andy Miller, president and CEO of Seminole Boosters.

At the top of the list: improvements to Doak Campbell Stadium; the construction of a "Champions Club" that features premium indoor-outdoor seating not just on game days but also on game weekends; and upgrades at the Donald L. Tucker Center, where the men's and women's basketball teams will play.

Kutz said the goal of the "Champions Club" project is to be the engine that drives revenue for future upgrades to Doak Campbell Stadium. The Seminole Booster hopes to begin the "Champions Club" project after the 2015 season and be finished before the start of the 2016 season.

"Today we are going to set about making our aspirations a reality," said FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox.

Said Fisher: "I like being aggressive. I think that's what this is about. That's what this campaign is about. It sends a message that Florida State is not content with where we are at."

For more information about the Champions Campaign, see www.championscampaign.com.


Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter.

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Jacob Coker Replacing AJ McCarron Won't Cause Alabama to Fade in 2014

Jacob Coker has some big shoes to fill in Tuscaloosa this year. The 2014 transfer is looking to replace Alabama legend AJ McCarron, who won two NCAA championships as the team's starting quarterback and a third as a redshirt freshman.

Coker comes from Florida State, where he lost a tightly contested quarterback battle with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston just prior to the 2013 season. 

This year, Coker will enter another quarterback battle, highlighted perfectly by Bleacher Report's SEC lead writer, Barrett Sallee.

The eyes of the nation will be on Coker, and how he's able to handle the added attention could ultimately help decide his future with Alabama.

Despite all the controversy surrounding Alabama's quarterback competition, there are a few reasons to believe that Coker will succeed, win the starting job and adequately replace McCarron, beginning with his impressive skill set.


Skill Set

Coker has good footwork, a solid arm and a great mind for the position. According to TideSports.com's D.C. Reeves, Coker received high praise from his former head coach, Jimbo Fisher. 

Fisher was noted as having said this about his former backup quarterback:

"Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had," he said. "I don't mean to discredit the previous guys, they were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind."

Coker's arm is his carrying card, and he put it on display in a recent video that's starting to make some waves on YouTube.

Though the throw in the video was a bit high, Coker displayed solid footwork and—even more impressively—an arm that is capable of stretching the field. Coker attempted just 41 passes in his time with the Seminoles, but, in that time, averaged over 14 yards per completion.

Coker is also a great athlete. With a stout, 6'5", 230-pound build, it's impressive to see him get out and run. In the same Tide Sports interview, Fisher praised Coker for his athleticism and his willingness to take hits and be a physical runner.


Natural Leader and Hard Worker

One of the most important parts of being a top-tier quarterback is leadership ability. This is even more true at Alabama, where high expectations and its perennial status as a top contender are major factors.

McCarron displayed an ability to work with his wideouts and also had five years at the program to develop relationships with those players. Coker will not have the same opportunities that McCarron did to build those relationships over time, as the team needs him in top form by the time it opens the season against West Virginia.

What Coker does have, however, is innate leadership capabilities.

According to Marq Burnett of USA Today, star wide receiver Amari Cooper stated that Coker looked great and "takes command in the huddle, which I think is very important. You can tell he's experienced. I'm ready to see how he progresses in fall camp."

Coker also received high praise from his teammates in regards to his work ethic.

In the same piece, receiver Christion Jones had this to say of Coker and what he's shown him thus far:

He's done a great job competing, doing everything that coach has asked him to do. He's paying attention to detail and what his reads are. Even off the field, he's rehabbing, getting his body right, getting everything he needs to do done. He's just a mature player. Coming from Florida State, he understands the level of competition that he's going against.

Coker has done a wonderful job of winning over his teammates and has displayed the work ethic and leadership qualities necessary to replace McCarron.


Weapons, Weapons, Weapons

Fisher heaped praise upon Coker, but the young quarterback has an opportunity to really thrive in an offense that's absolutely loaded with top-tier talents.

Assuming he wins the starting job, Coker will throw to the likes of Cooper, tight end O.J. Howard and wide receivers DeAndrew White and Robert Foster.

The trio of Cooper, Howard and White combined for 1,539 receiving yards last season, as well as 10 of the team's 30 receiving touchdowns.

The group accounted for over 47 percent of Crimson Tide receiving yards and 30 percent of their receiving touchdowns. With another year of experience under their belts, as well as a new offensive scheme thanks to the addition of Lane Kiffin as the team's offensive coordinator, the offense could be poised to break out as the best in the SEC.

With this group of standout pass-catchers, Coker should have little difficulty stepping in and becoming an impact player.

That group alone is impressive. Then you have to account for Foster, a redshirt freshman who ranked as the No. 2 wide receiver in the class of 2013, per 247Sports' composite rankings. Foster made some noise in Alabama's spring game and impressed the likes of Bleacher Report's lead college football writer, Michael Felder, who highlighted his accomplishments in the video above.

All of these players should figure heavily into the team's play-calling efforts, and they'll help make Coker's job that much easier.

The offense has a lot of potential, but the defense is also going to help take some pressure off Coker. The group ranked as the No. 1 defensive unit in the country in regards to total defense, and they've only added to it over the last two seasons, posting the No. 1 recruiting class, according to ESPN.com, for both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.


All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

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Jacob Coker vs. Blake Sims: Latest Updates on Alabama's QB Battle

The Alabama Crimson Tide have gotten to the point in recent years where anything less than a national football championship is considered somewhat disappointing. A critical ingredient to what has allowed the dynastic program to reign supreme in the difficult SEC is seamless transitions between quarterbacks.

Next up to lead Alabama in 2014 will either be fifth-year senior Blake Sims or redshirt junior Jacob Coker. Sims has been groomed in Tuscaloosa for his entire collegiate career and is finally getting a shot at the starting gig following A.J. McCarron's departure.

But the 6'5", 230-pound Coker complicates matters—and may even have the inside track on Sims. The Florida State transfer backed up first-round NFL draft pick E.J. Manuel before losing to Jameis Winston in a heated competition under center in 2013.

At this time, the competition is tight to the point that Alabama head coach Nick Saban is at least considering deploying a two-QB system, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough:

It's not something that I would hope would happen. Is it something that I can totally rule out? Not really because I think the skill set of Blake Sims can create problems for a defense. If we wanted to utilize him to do that in some kind of way, I guess you could say that we could possibly have a two-quarterback system.

Michael Carvell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the latest inside information as to what's transpiring internally:

That aligns with what AL.com's Andrew Gribble reported last month:

Learning for three years under the complex pro-style offense FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher deploys had to help Coker's football IQ immensely. Now the Tide are operating a new system under first-year play-caller Lane Kiffin, which mitigates the advantage Sims may have had by sticking with Alabama for so long.

Fisher firmly believes that Coker is the right man to take over for the Tide.

"Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had," said Fisher, per TideSports.com's D.C. Reeves. "I don't mean to discredit the previous guys, they were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind."

While Coker does have some athleticism, he isn't quite the dual-threat dynamo Sims can be with his legs. In terms of passing from the pocket, though, Coker is the superior option at the moment.

Whichever way the Tide decide to turn, they can't really go wrong.

Junior T.J. Yeldon anchors yet another deep Alabama backfield, which also figures to feature Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. Then, of course, Saban's teams tend to have dominant defenses year in and year out. It's been the bedrock of the Tide's SEC success and a big reason they've won three of the past five national titles.

Sims seems like more of a sentimental choice due to his loyalty to Alabama, along with the way he's making Saban delay a most important decision. In the end, the consensus seems to be that Coker is the one who will ascend to the top of the QB depth chart.

There may be a schism in the locker room if and when that decision is made. However, based on the rave reviews Coker draws, he should soon win over any teammates adamant that Sims should be under center.

At worst, Sims could have a special read-option package that he comes in for. With constant fresh legs out of Alabama's ball-carriers and Sims' threat to run, the Tide could get the best of both worlds with their current QB conundrum.

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Notre Dame Football: Once Again, Brian Kelly Puts His Faith in Mike Denbrock

Five years ago, Mike Denbrock didn't expect to be the Irish's newest offensive coordinator. Not after he just took a job at Indiana State.

Terre Haute, Indiana may be just 200 miles away from South Bend, but it feels a world away from Notre Dame. But that's where Denbrock was coaching, latching on to Trent Miles' Sycamores staff as associate head coach and special teams coordinator before the 2009 season. 

Denbrock had just gone down with the ship in Seattle, part of Ty Willingham's ignominious, 0-12 Washington Huskies. So Denbrock's coaching career had proverbially washed ashore in southern Indiana after jobs at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.

After coaching on some of the biggest stages in college football, the veteran assistant found himself celebrating a program-changing win over Western Illinois, Indiana State's first victory in 33 games, cheered on by a reported crowd of 6,000 fans. 

But Brian Kelly's move to Notre Dame set in motion a reunion that few saw coming. And if most Irish fans are honest with themselves, Denbrock's return to South Bend was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Kelly named Denbrock as his tight ends coach, reuniting the two after they began their coaching careers together at Grand Valley State. Kelly also tasked Denbrock with recruiting on the West Coast. Assigning him such a fertile battleground showed a great deal of faith in a former assistant who hadn't worked with Kelly in over a decade and had recruited for Willingham, a reputation not exactly embraced by ND Nation.  

"Mike Denbrock will coach our tight ends which is a great fit because he played the position in college and has a familiarity with our offense," Kelly told reporters back in 2010

Combining that with the knowledge he gained of my offensive system as a coordinator for me in the past will help make him a great coach for us.

Where he could really pay dividends for Notre Dame is on the recruiting trail. Mike will be our lead West Coast recruiter and that fits him well considering he has recently spent five years at schools in the Pac-10 developing relationships with high school programs. That is a competitive part of the country when it comes to recruiting and I'm excited to see him represent us out there.

Kelly showed a great deal of faith in Denbrock, taking him out of college football's Siberia and bringing him back to one of the flagship programs in the sport. And it was easy to understand why Denbrock was grateful. 

"It's hard to put into words how grateful I am for an opportunity to come back and be part of this University," Denbrock said to the media

My wife Dianne and I feel very blessed to have this opportunity. We loved our time when we were here before and to get a second opportunity to come back to such a great place is a dream come true. I just feel very fortunate that Brian Kelly has called upon me to come back and play a small part in what will be a very successful run.

Kelly's leap of faith has more than been rewarded by Denbrock. Serving as one of Kelly's most trusted assistants these past four seasons, Denbrock has more than held his own on the recruiting trail while also serving as one of the program's most valued—and versatile—assistants.

Denbrock can help with the offensive line, as he coached there at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington. He's worked as Kelly's offensive and defensive coordinator at Grand Valley. He even served as a medical replacement at defensive-line coach in 2010, when Mike Elston's serious illness forced Denbrock to coach Notre Dame's young defensive front for a few weeks. 

Denbrock received a promotion before the 2012 season, moving to outside-receivers coach and adding the responsibilities of passing-game coordinator. And after Chuck Martin took the head coaching job at Miami, Kelly kicked the tires on a few national candidates before eventually giving Denbrock the chance to coordinate the offense after serving as interim coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl. 

"He brings a great deal of experience as a football coach, he's a great developer of football players at all positions, he's coached virtually all the positions for me, a great understanding of the offense that we want to run, and certainly has my trust in putting together the offense on a day‑to‑day basis for us," Kelly said upon making the choice at the end of January.

"He will lead the offense and put it together on a day‑to‑day basis for us, so I'm really excited about having Mike lead the offense as our offensive coordinator."

After handing the play-calling duties over to Martin the past two seasons, Kelly will return to that job. But even without the play sheet in his hands, Denbrock's been tasked with quite a responsibility, as Notre Dame returns to the spread attack that Kelly ran successfully at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. 

That meant a spring spent opening up the attack, showing quarterback Everett Golson plays (and a few chapters) that the returning quarterback didn't know existed. But it's all part of a transition that's easier now with a dual-threat quarterback under center and a variety of weapons at their disposal.  

"With the athletes that we have, we feel like we're in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like," Denbrock said this spring. "One that's dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently."

With camp opening next week, that hoists quite a bit of responsibility on Denbrock's shoulders. For the first time since Kelly made Denbrock his offensive coordinator over 20 years ago at D-II Grand Valley, he's the leader of the offense. 

That means continued installation of an offense most of the personnel hasn't played. It means coordinating reps in a unlikely quarterback battle between Golson and Malik Zaire. It also means making sure that Notre Dame's scoring attack is ready from day one, especially as Brian VanGorder's defense will likely go through some growing pains. 

No, Denbrock's not calling plays. But that doesn't mean he's not in charge of the offense. 

"I think moving into this role, I move into that seat a little bit more where with the help of a very talented offensive staff it's my responsibility to really make sure this thing looks the way Coach Kelly wants it to look," Denbrock said.  

"Have the menu, if you will, available to him that he feels like he needs on Saturday for us to be successful offensively, so that the game runs smooth and his play-calling runs smoothly and our offense runs smoothly."

After spending most of his 28 years coaching in a mostly behind-the-scenes role, Denbrock is out of the shadows. And it's not hard to connect the dots and realize that Kelly's last three coordinators at Notre Dame all left for head coaching jobs. 

That hardly feels like reality for a coach who just five years ago was at Indiana State. But if Denbrock helps the Irish offense finally take flight, a program of his own might be a worthy reward.

Sure, it's a dream scenario. But five years ago, just getting here was an even bigger long shot. 


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter for more coverage on Notre Dame football. 

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Shane Simmons Commits to Penn State: What Versatile 2016 5-Star Brings to PSU

Penn State landed a commitment from versatile defender Shane Simmons, a 5-star recruit from Hyattsville, Maryland, who checks in as the No. 27 overall player and No. 2 strong-side defensive end in the 2016 class (rising juniors).

Simmons chose the Nittany Lions over a final five that included Florida State (the favorite on his 247Sports Crystal Ball), Ohio State, Alabama and Maryland, announcing his decision live on ESPN.com.

He then took to Twitter to share the news: 

Simmons is 6'4", 221 pounds and light enough on his feet to play standing up or with his hand in the dirt. He could commit full-time to playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense or outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, or he could do a little bit of both. With defenses nowadays focused on being "multiple," a player such as Simmons, who can oscillate between roles, becomes even more valuable.

The only weaknesses listed on his junior evaluation from ESPN Scouts Inc. (subscription required) are a need to add muscle and to be more consistent with his hands.

But the same could be said about almost any high school prospect; those are flaws that are expected to be fixed with good coaching and a college-level weight program.

His athleticism, however, cannot be learned.

Simmons is the latest in a long string of recruiting coups for Penn State head coach James Franklin, who is making good on the vow he made to "dominate the region" at his introductory press conference.

Although he is only the second commitment of Penn State's 2016 class, Simmons is slated to join defensive tackle Adam McLean—the No. 113 overall player in the 2015 class and another top prospect from Maryland—in Happy Valley two years from now.

As it stands, Simmons also represents a huge get for the Nittany Lions in terms of positional balance. Despite overall success since arriving at Penn State seven months ago, Franklin has not done as well recruiting along the defensive line.

Highly regarded defensive tackle Thomas Holley flipped from Penn State to Florida soon after Franklin joined the program, and McLean was the first top-325 ranked defensive lineman to commit to PSU since Jamil Pollard in 2012.

And Pollard transferred to Rutgers after only one season!

Even though he won't arrive for another two years, Simmons takes the pressure off Franklin to land one of his top defensive line targets (Tim Settle and Christian Wilkins) in 2015. Yes, those are both tackles, and Simmons is an end, but with McLean already signed on to occupy one spot in the middle, landing anyone else along the defensive line provides a buffer.

In Bob Shoop's 4-3 defense, Simmons is more likely to play along the line than he is standing up. He is a pass-rusher first and foremost, and according to Ian Boyd of SB Nation, Shoop relies on his linebackers to cover more often than Penn State's previous regime:

At Vanderbilt, the linebackers were coached to handle the stresses of modern spread offenses and be able to play coverage or fill inside against the run while bringing physicality.

 … While former DC Tom Bradley and [Joe] Paterno would rely on cover 3 defense and dropping the "hero" safety down to provide an eight-man front, Shoop will maintain the evolution towards quarters coverage and mix in far more two-deep safety coverages.

Against the passing game, that means that linebackers will often be asked to cover wide areas of grass without an eighth man in the front to help cover the middle of the field.

If Simmons fills out these next few seasons, though, he is a candidate to play early and enjoy quick success the same way Deion Barnes did as a freshman in 2012 (five sacks, 10 tackles for loss).

To date, he is probably the biggest signing of the Franklin era.


Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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