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Spartans Looking for Bigger Step in 2014: College Football Playoff

Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio’s message to his 2013 team was simple and to the point.

“You will be the ones,” Dantonio told those remaining from 2012’s 7-6 outfit at their team banquet following Michigan State’s 17-16 victory over TCU in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Selected by many to not even win the Legends Division in its final year of existence, as the Big Ten has gone to East and West Divisions with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, Michigan State’s 13-1 season surprised many.

Snapping No. 2 Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak last December with a 34-24 victory in the Big Ten Championship Game before coming back to top Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, Dantonio’s charges set a school record with the 13 victories.

Armed with double-digit wins in three of the last four years, highlighted by finishing No. 3 in both major polls following their 24-20 win over the Cardinal, how will the Spartans respond in 2014?

As the College Football Playoff enters its first year of existence after the Bowl Championship Series has come and gone, motivation to get a spot in the four-team playoff shouldn’t be an issue.

In The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s fourth annual media poll before Big Ten media days in Chicago, Doug Lesmerises shows only nine of the 29 Big Ten writers the paper contacted for the poll picked Michigan State to repeat.

Ohio State led the way in the East by garnering 195 points, including 23 first-place votes, while Michigan State finished with 180 points, including 10 first-place votes.

Can Michigan State take the first step toward entry into the College Football Playoff in 2014 by aiming to repeat in the Big Ten?

The answers start with the firepower the offense returns before focusing on defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s defense.

With quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a stable of wide receivers led by the likes of Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings all back, the Spartan offense should rival the unit that averaged 29.4 points in 2013.

Langford, who came on strong as the season progressed, ran for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns last year and is one of two Spartans predicted to be the conference’s scoring leader in 2014, according to the Big Ten Network.

Meanwhile, all Cook did was throw for a combined 636 yards and five touchdowns in the back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Stanford in the midst of throwing for 2,755 yards and 22 TDs on the year.

Certainly, Cook will have to cut down on his propensity to try to do too much in being somewhat careless with the football at times, but he only threw six interceptions last year.

Being able to take care of the ball is paramount for him to take the next step in his development at the helm of the Spartans offense.

Detroit Free Press MSU beat writer Joe Rexrode says Nick Hill, Delton Williams and a pair of incoming freshmen, Madre London and Gerald Owens, will all be in the mix to help take some pressure off Langford:

Langford is back for his senior season and a logical candidate for preseason/early-season mentions for major awards. He will have to do his work, though, behind an offensive line that lost three significant players. And he’ll be working in an offense that may be better off spreading things around a bit. There’s a lot of talent behind Langford, and co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have the opportunity to throw some different running styles at defenses while keeping Langford fresh.

Despite losing Darqueze Dennard, Denicos Allen, Max Bullough and Isaiah Lewis off of a defense that finished second in total defense in 2013, Narduzzi and Dantonio, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State from 2001 to 2003, should have another strong unit to work with.

Shilique Calhoun, who had 7.5 sacks in 2013, will spearhead a unit that brings back Marcus Rush, Trae Waynes, Taiwan Jones and R.J. Williamson as returning starters from a defense that gave up 13.2 points a game last year.

But as the now-departed Kyler Elsworth proved in coming through on the pivotal fourth-down play in the fourth quarter against Stanford in the Rose Bowl while filling in for the suspended Bullough, Narduzzi and Dantonio do an unbelievable job of developing their guys.

Demetrious Cox came in highly regarded as a freshman last year and should compete for a spot in the defensive backfield, while a pair of highly recruited freshmen in Malik McDowell and Montae Nicholson could see immediate playing time.

In a column earlier this month, ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg said all the love Ohio State is getting is understandable.

After all, Ohio State has yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game under third-year coach Urban Meyer, going 16-0 in conference and 24-0 overall.

But Rittenberg astutely points out a case for Michigan State, a program that became the first team in conference history to go undefeated in conference play while winning every game by at least 10 points in 2013:

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.

Having possibly its three toughest Big Ten games at home by virtue of hosting Nebraska Oct. 4, Michigan Oct. 25 and Ohio State Nov. 8, the Spartans’ schedule looks favorable after their Sept. 6 meeting at Oregon.

Bye weeks are nicely scattered, after the game at Oregon and after the Michigan game on Oct. 25, so Michigan State will have two weeks to prepare for its prime-time showdown with Ohio State.

While entering the hostile environment of Autzen Stadium will be difficult, many people believe the Spartans match up with Oregon somewhat because they’re similar to the team that has consistently given Oregon problems in the Pac-12—Stanford.

Comcast SportsNet Northwest Ducks beat writer Aaron Fentress gave his early look at the Ducks’ schedule in May and has the team going 10-2 overall—with a loss to Michigan State:

In what could be considered the biggest non-conference game ever played at Autzen Stadium, the Ducks will face a serious foe with a defense capable of giving them fits. This will be the first test to see if last year’s four-game stumble by the offense at the end of the season has been rectified. The Spartans were 13-1 last season and ended the year with wins over No. 2 Ohio State (34-24) and a 24-20 victory against No. 5 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The same Stanford that has owned Oregon the past two seasons. Oregon will need young wide receivers to emerge in order to win this game. For now, I'm calling this game a loss. MSU 31-27.

Given the returning talent and the somewhat favorable conference schedule with Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State all coming to Spartan Stadium this fall, a berth in the first College Football Playoff is plausible.

But Michigan State will have to continue to heed the message Dantonio offered as a motto for last year: Chase It.

It just has a different meaning this year.


Blake Baumgartner, who has covered prep events as a freelancer for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, can be reached on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pittsburgh Football: 2014 Panthers Can't Bolster Offense Without Better Blocking

Recently, the sports biopic 42 was seen on premium cable, but Pitt's offensive linemen were too busy watching a horror film—let's just call it "43."

That's the number of sacks that mostly makeshift unit allowed in 2013, which put the Panthers at No. 118 out of 123 FBS teams in said category.

As offensive coordinator at Wisconsin 2005-11, Paul Chryst had a knack for building potent attacks behind remarkably sturdy offensive lines. He has acknowledged the evolution of the collegiate game during that time, and, to wit, he's taken his time grooming fleet-footed, cannon-armed quarterback Chad Voytik.

Still, winning football—especially the kind Chryst envisions—will always have raw power at its roots.

To fully understand his vision, look no further than perhaps the signature moment of Wisconsin's 2010 season—a nationally televised upset of top-ranked Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium (warning: video contains lyrics that may not be suitable for younger audiences):

Future All-American—and Denver Bronco—Montee Ball was a member of that 2010 squad, which ended the year just four Ball rushing yards shy of becoming the first in FBS history to field three 1,000-yard rushers.

With Ball en route to stardom, Wisconsin ranked No. 5 in the FBS in points per game and, in 2011, it set a school record for the same.

The Badgers only allowed 39 sacks over those two campaigns.

Before leaving the program, Chryst also worked with one of Ball's eventual opponents in Super Bowl XLVIII: winning quarterback Russell Wilson.

In 2011, his only season with the Badgers, Wilson led the nation in quarterback rating, despite having limited time to learn Chryst's offense after transferring from North Carolina State.

Entering his third year in Pittsburgh, Chryst's team understands the correlation between putting the Panthers' offense on the uptick and keeping new signal-caller Voytik upright.

That's especially true of junior center Artie Rowell. Named to the preseason Rimington award watch list, he knows nothing absolves them from that responsibility.

Rowell spoke with Bleacher Report about the revolving door of linemen with whom he had to play in his first year as a regular:

There's going to be injuries, just because of the way we play. We play hard. We play smashmouth football, and I think our guys up front love that. We can only control the things we can control, and that means being more consistent.

National college football analyst Phil Steele tries to look scientifically at the true impact of sacks allowed on a team's progress. Even so, the Panthers sat at No. 119 nationally with a 10.72 "sack percentage" (sacks allowed divided by total pass attempts) last year.

Meanwhile, their 5.52 yards-per-play average was a pedestrian No. 73 nationally and No. 9 in the ACC.

They didn't fare much better during Chryst's first year in charge, ranking No. 109 overall in sack percentage and No. 58 in yards per play.

In 2013, Pitt tied for No. 80 nationally in points per game with 26.3 after averaging a negligibly better 26.6 in 2012.

But it's hard to imagine Pitt setting the bar for offensive line play much lower than it did in 2011, under infamous ex-coach Todd Graham. By hemorrhaging 64 sacks, that unit went down as one of the most inept in the history of major college football.

Its tale of woe was a familiar one: poor health and general inconsistency.

Senior guard Matt Rotheram, who has taken his share of lumps since, believes the development of the current O-line—arrested or not—will finally be evident this fall.

"It definitely made me rethink what I'm doing," said Rotheram, who was reminded of his own previous misfortune when defensive lineman Ejuan Price was lost for the upcoming season. "It's been a tough summer program, and I think the team is stronger, faster and in pretty good condition."

Watching tape was just the beginning of an offseason regimen led by strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, culminating weekly in the running of the Heinz Field rotunda.

"Those workouts have been tough, but they're enjoyable," Rowell said with a smile. "The whole team is there. The freshmen are there. You get to see who's working hard."

For Pitt's offensive line, progress begins, indeed, with the proper work ethic, which is the key to staying on the good side of tough-love O-line coach Jim Hueber. That progress will continue only with the proper talent.

In the twilight of Chryst's tenure at Wisconsin, the Badgers faced the same problem the Panthers have: replacing such talent up front with guys equally capable of paving the way for a capable offense.

He has tried to address that problem by bringing Pitt football back to its roots. Bethel Park (Pa.) offensive lineman Mike Grimm was a key member of his 2014 recruiting class, as was fellow lineman Alex Bookser—on whom in-state rival Penn State was very high—from western Pennsylvania rival Mount Lebanon.

Meanwhile, another local product, Fox Chapel's Adam Bisnowaty, will be one to watch as a second-year starter.

Belle Vernon's (Pa.) Dorian Johnson, once one of the most highly touted prospects in America, will push for more playing time after getting it sporadically as a pure freshman. And there seems to be a growing chemistry on the right side between Rotheram and former defensive tackle T.J. Clemmings.

"The past couple years we've gotten to know each other really well. As a group, we've been able to come together and learn what Coach Hueber has to tell us, and the offense Coach Chryst provides for us," Bisnowaty said. "Hopefully we can emphasize what we can do on the field."

Last season ended with a dramatic win in the Little Caesars Bowl fueled by Voytik and other promising underclassmen—namely receiver Tyler Boyd and tailback James Conner.

Despite the exciting victory, the mood surrounding Pitt was only bullish enough for ACC media to project a sixth-place finish in the Coastal Division (albeit with two first-place votes).

If this line can't block for those rising stars, the Panthers can't prove the looming skeptics wrong.

"We're getting stronger in every aspect of the game—on the field and in the weight room," Bisnowaty affirmed. 

But, as Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pondered at the annual ACC Kickoff event, why should we believe they will be?

As Chryst told him with characteristic bluntness: "Because they better be."


Highlights courtesy of @armanbelding. Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com, Phil Steele and the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Media Relations Office. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Wisconsin Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading into Fall Camp

Coming into fall camp, the Wisconsin football team has plenty of question marks and will look to answer as many of those as possible before their opening tilt against LSU in Houston.

From quarterback to defensive end and kicker, the Badgers have heated position battles all over the place, while in some places, like the backfield or along the offensive line, the depth chart shakes itself out a bit more neatly.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the entire depth chart for all 22 positions plus kicker and punter coming into fall camp for the 2014 season.

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What Brian VanGorder's Georgia Defense Can Tell Us About Notre Dame's 2014 Squad

In a little over a week, Notre Dame will open training camp at the Culver Military Academy. While most of the headlines will focus on Everett Golson's return, the biggest question mark as the Irish enter the season is the state of Brian VanGorder's defense.

Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator has had 15 practices to work with a young unit that needs to replace Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo at linebacker and captain Bennett Jackson in the secondary.

New NCAA rules allowed VanGorder and his defensive staff to work with their players this summer, a huge help as installation continues.

But aside for the brief look at the new defensive scheme in the televised Blue-Gold game—where most of the Irish's big changes were likely kept away from public eye—what VanGorder plans to do with the Irish personnel is still the team's biggest mystery heading into the 2014 season. 

With only two seasons at the college level in the last decade (one as the head coach at Georgia Southern, the other as Gene Chizik's defensive coordinator at Auburn), VanGorder has spent much of his time game-planning at the sport's highest level.

That means no wasted time spent recruiting but rather just logging hours in the proverbial laboratory, building exotic sub-packages and attacking schemes as one of the heaviest blitzing coordinators in the NFL.

Charlie Weis still hasn't lived down his "decided schematic advantage" comments, but VanGorder's work with top defensive minds such as Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith and Rex Ryan can only help the Irish move forward, with Bob Diaco gone to run the UConn football program. 

To get our best guess at what VanGorder will do with the Irish defense, you need to turn back the clock to his time at Georgia.

Handpicked to be Mark Richt's first defensive coordinator, VanGorder quickly built an elite defense, immediately pushing the Bulldogs into a Top 25 scoring defense. His next three seasons had Georgia among the top units in the country, with the No. 4-, No. 3- and No. 9-ranked units from 2002-2004.

It was over a decade ago, but it's likely the best clue as to how VanGorder might approach the Irish defense in 2014. So let's turn back the clock and see if we can find any hints as we prepare for a new-look Notre Dame defense. 



Any attempt at an apples-to-apples comparison needs to start with personnel. In the four years VanGorder coordinated the Georgia defense, plenty of talent played between the hedges in Athens. 

The Bulldogs produced four All-American defenders under VanGorder, led by three-time All-American defensive end David Pollack and joined by outside linebacker Boss Bailey, Rover Sean Jones and free safety Thomas Davis. 

Six more players earned All-SEC honors, with cornerback Tim Wansley, defensive end Charles Grant, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, linebacker Tony Gilbert, rover Kentrell Curry and linebacker Odell Thurman each being named to an All-SEC team. 

The NFL draft was also very kind to VanGorder's top performers. The 2002 draft had six Bulldog defenders taken, including Grant in the first round. In 2003, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan gave VanGorder a Top 10 pick, with Bailey going in the second round and Gilbert selected late. Undrafted defensive end Chris Clemons is still active in the NFL. 

Three more defenders were taken in the 2004 draft before Georgia produced two first-rounders in 2005 with Davis (14th overall) and Pollack (17th). Thurman was selected a round later. 

Looking at Notre Dame's defensive personnel, both KeiVarae Russell and Jaylon Smith project to be potentially elite players, with Smith on pace to be another first-rounder. If VanGorder can awaken Ishaq Williams from his slumber, he's got the physical ability to play on Sunday as well. 

Defensive tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones should get a boost from VanGorder as well. Day is a breakout player waiting to happen, while Jones has the size that should play very well in VanGorder's system. Romeo Okwara is learning a new position, so he's another unknown heading into the season. 

It's too soon to tell about young players such as Cole Luke or Max Redfield, though both have expectations on their shoulders. And veteran Cody Riggs should find a perfect niche in VanGorder's attacking scheme, capable of using his diverse skill set as both a cornerback and safety.

Still, it's hard to look at Notre Dame's personnel—especially after losing Nix, Tuitt and Shembo—and see anything close to the talent the Bulldogs produced.  



A big reason why VanGorder had so many players earn postseason accolades is the ridiculous productivity the Bulldogs put together during that four-year run. Comparing those stats to the not-too-shabby four-year run Bob Diaco had in South Bend is a study in contrasting styles. 

VanGorder built his reputation around attacking. Diaco built his defense around conservative principles and an emphasis on big-play prevention. While players like Manti Te'o were able to rack up impressive stats, by and large, Georgia's defense performed far more impressively on the stat sheet. 

Te'o is Notre Dame's only player to go over 100 tackles in a season the past four years. At Georgia, six players eclipsed the century mark, with three in each the 2002 and 2003 season.

Making plays behind the line of scrimmage also greatly favors VanGorder's scheme. The Irish never made more than 70 tackles for loss (TFLs) under Diaco, staying remarkably consistent as they averaged 68 TFLs a year. Only four defenders made more than 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage, with Darius Fleming, Te'o, Tuitt and Shembo accomplishing it. 

At Georgia, the Bulldogs wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage.

Under VanGorder, they averaged 91.25 TFLs a season, including an astounding 116 in 2002.  Pollock was Georgia's biggest playmaker behind the line of scrimmage, averaging over 18 tackles for loss during his three All-American campaigns, as six different players (Odell Thurman also had two seasons with double-digit TFLs) had 10 or more stops behind the line of scrimmage. 

The last major stat worth examining are turnovers. Diaco's four-year run actually produced more interceptions than VanGorder's four seasons in Athens. Harrison Smith's seven interceptions paced the 2010 campaign, while Georgia only intercepted five passes in VanGorder's final season with the Bulldogs. 

Where Georgia had the edge was forced fumbles. Notre Dame averaged just eight forced fumbles a season under Diaco, where VanGorder's units forced an average of 14 a season. 



While the mystery will reveal itself come August 30, there are a few interesting pieces to VanGorder's defense that seemed essential-like elements in Athens. The first is the "Rover" position. A hybrid linebacker/safety, it was one of the most productive positions on the field. 

We saw early in Notre Dame's spring practice that John Turner found himself in a position fairly similar to the Rover. After spending the first two years of his career in South Bend buried on the safety depth chart, Turner looks like the leading candidate to play that role for the Irish—if VanGorder is running a similar system. 

Converted wide receiver James Onwualu was also getting plenty of reps during spring practice, another hybrid-type player who could fit that mold. Then again, you should keep an eye on fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs, who played both safety and cornerback for Florida, not to mention Matthias Farley, who transitioned to cornerback this spring but has a similar skill set. 

Of course, matching personnel to scheme is crucial to any defense's success. And while much of the spring was spent installing a completely new system and verbiage, you should expect Brian Kelly's fingerprints to be all over the defense as well. 

That means a continued emphasis on not giving up big plays and a commitment to playing a multiple front, with Kelly still wanting to shift between three- and four-man fronts. 

Regardless of the changes, one of VanGorder's main schematic challenges will be manufacturing a pass rush with a roster filled with players not necessarily recruited to get after the quarterback. Notre Dame's depth at defensive end is precarious, and a lot has been hoisted onto the shoulders of Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams, two converted defensive ends playing the position for the first time. 

The depth behind them is even more unproven, making defensive end one of the more interesting positions to watch as recruiting moves forward. While Pollack is now only known as a talking head on ESPN's College GameDay, he's a player whom blue-chippers should spend a few hours on YouTube getting to know. 



One of the biggest assets that VanGorder's unproven unit has going into the season is mystery. His one season at Georgia Southern and Auburn won't tell much. Finding coaching film from over decade ago is next to impossible. And guessing what wrinkles VanGorder took with him from coaches such as Ryan and Del Rio is even harder.  

So while Notre Dame's defense is filled with question marks and unproven talent, VanGorder has a few rabbits in his hat as well. And while we won't know what's in store until the season begins, a look back at his Georgia defenses might be our best hint.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

James Lockhart to Texas A&M: Aggies Land 4-Star DE Prospect

Texas A&M has added one of the best defensive ends in the Class of 2015, locking up the commitment of highly touted recruit James Lockhart. 

ESPN's Damon Sayles provided confirmation of the news: 

A 4-star recruit, Lockhart checks in as the 106th-best overall prospect, the sixth-best strong-side defensive end and the 11th-best player out of the state of Texas, according to 247Sports' composite rankings

While many defensive ends at this level are focused merely on rushing the quarterback, Lockhart already has the look of a versatile force capable of making an impact in all facets of the game. 

At 6'3" and a well-built 245 pounds even before his senior season, the Ennis High School star already stands out as someone who belongs on a college football field. He is big, strong and adept at shedding blocks in a hurry. 

While he doesn't combine that college-ready size with an elite first step or daunting quickness and athleticism, Lockhart fuses a high motor with impressive closing speed to help him make plays in the backfield. 

Lockhart's future level of success will likely be determined by how he grows as a pass-rusher. 

His size, physical style of play, ability to use his hands to quickly disengage from blocks and back-side pursuit all suggest that his greatest strength will be in the run game. But if he continues to develop moves that help him get to the quarterback with greater consistency, he'll be one of the most menacing defensive players in the conference in a couple of years. 

Either way, his ability in the run game makes him a candidate to see the field right away and make an early impact, suggesting this is a valuable addition that will soon pay dividends for Kevin Sumlin and his staff. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan's Jabrill Peppers Shows How Ripped He Has Gotten in Only 4 Weeks

For those who want to get ripped, Michigan freshman Jabrill Peppers showed that it can happen in a relatively short amount of time.

The No. 3-ranked recruit in the class of 2014, according to Rivals, is in even better shape than when he committed to the Wolverines after putting in four weeks of hard work.

Peppers is getting ready to play with the big boys in the Big Ten, so the added muscle should help him adjust to the physicality of the conference.

[Jabrill Peppers, h/t College Spun]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Best- and Worst-Case 2014 Scenarios for Every Big Ten Football Team

For the average college football fan, the offseason is a time of delusions. Whether they be delusions of grandeur for one's own team or delusions of squalor for one's rival, the fact that each team is 0-0 allows the imagination to run wild.

Technically, every team's best-case scenario next season is going 15-0 and winning the national title, and the worst-case scenario is going 0-12 before getting the "death penalty" for major NCAA infractions. But for the purposes of this list, let's ignore that.

Instead, let's take a look at the Big Ten and try to craft plausible best- and worst-case scenarios for the season: things that might be surprising but would definitely not be shocking should they occur.

Sound off below, and let me know what you think.

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Texas Football: Previewing 4 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp

The Texas Longhorns will kick off fall camp Aug. 4, and there are a lot of positions on the team that remain wide open.

First-year head coach Charlie Strong did not take over for Mack Brown because things were going well in Austin. He took over because it was the polar opposite.

But the time has come for players to step up and prove their worth to the new leader at Texas.

Here's a look at four of the biggest position battles to watch throughout fall camp.


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UCLA Football Best Quotes and Takeaways from Pac-12 Media Day

With the college football season nearly upon us, UCLA head coach Jim Mora, quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks gave the media a look into the UCLA football team on Thursday afternoon. 

Mora provided immense information on the team's outlook for this upcoming season. Both Kendricks and Hundley spoke about the development of the team in the offseason, including the enhanced expectations for the squad this year. 

Here's a recap from Pac-12 media day with the UCLA Bruins. 


A catalogue of pictures, video and an assortment of other things relating to the Pac-12 media day can be found here

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UCLA Football Best Quotes and Takeaways from Pac-12 Media Day

With the college football season nearly upon us, UCLA head coach Jim Mora, quarterback Brett Hundley and linebacker Eric Kendricks gave the media a look into the UCLA football team on Thursday afternoon...

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How Oklahoma Football Got Its Swagger Back

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is more fun when he's feisty Bob Stoops. 

And Stoops has been more outspoken—snarky, if you will—lately. He has every reason to be. He and his team are still buzzing from their Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama—a program-boosting win no matter who you are—and were picked to win the Big 12 by the media. Life is good, and media members are there to scoop up the dripping confidence. 

Stoops was more reserved during conference media days, but he opened up during ESPN's car wash, taking jabs at Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M's non-conference schedule. 

It's all in good fun, but Oklahoma's momentum, the sudden (don't call it a) comeback of "Big Game Bob," almost didn't happen.

The Sooners needed a last-minute touchdown to beat Oklahoma State 33-24 in the season-ending Bedlam game. If Oklahoma finished the season 9-3 instead of 10-2, it would have been passed over for a Sugar Bowl appearance altogether. No Sugar Bowl, no recruiting bump, according to Stoops. 

"In the end we were fortunate that we were able to build, finish recruiting in a really positive way," Stoops said during media days. "I think that really did give us a boost in the last week or two of recruiting."

The Sooners closed hard, landing eight commitments in the final weeks before national signing day in February. That gave Oklahoma the top class in the Big 12 and the No. 14 class nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. 

Bob Pryzbylo of Sooner Illustrated explained the recruiting impact of the Sugar Bowl to Alex Apple of The Dallas Morning News

The Sooners were right on the cusp with a number of top recruits before the upset win against Alabama. All that win did, according to the coaches, was reaffirm to the recruits that OU is the place to be…And boy did it ever. OU landed eight signees from Jan. 4 until Wednesday, giving the Sooners a 2014 class of 26 signees and the No. 1-ranked class in Scout’s Big 12 rankings and No. 13 overall.

It also gave the Sooners locker room a boost. 

"And then it also, I think, as much as anything, inspired our players to really build on it in the winter in the way we trained, the way we went into spring." Stoops said. "We had a fabulous summer. One of the best." 

Perhaps no other player has felt the impact of the post-bowl momentum like quarterback Trevor Knight, who threw for four touchdowns in the win over the Tide. The second-year starter is already getting Heisman attention from OddsShark.com—albeit long-shot odds at 25-to-1. 

"We definitely rode that momentum after the win," Knight said. "It's the foundation for this season. But, at the same time, we're not complacent."

This team can't afford to be. The 2013 Sooners, which featured many of this year's returning starters, were far from Stoops' best team. Twice, in losses against Texas and Baylor, Oklahoma got outclassed. It happened in 2012, too, when Oklahoma got pummeled by Notre Dame early in the season and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. 

The year before that, the Sooners lost at home to Texas Tech, which would lose every remaining game that year, and got blasted by Oklahoma State, 44-10. 

Those types of losses didn't traditionally happen under Stoops. It was fair to wonder if "Big Game Bob" was starting to lose his edge—even if only a little. 

The Sugar Bowl showed that nothing could be further from the truth. As Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote, Stoops is now back among the fraternity of coaches viewed as the best in college football: 

Coaches at places like Oklahoma go through changing status. Mostly, what’s-he-done-for-us-lately, followed by he-can-do-no-wrong. Stoops is in one of the latter phases now, so it’s In Bob We Trust.

From the players' point of view, nothing changed about Stoops. "He's the same every day," said defensive end/linebacker Geneo Grissom. 

How things looked in practice didn't change either. When asked at what point the offense clicked last season, offensive lineman Daryl Williams said, "I don't know. We saw it in practice every day. There wasn't really a moment." 

The tape tells a slightly different story. When Knight returned from his knee injury against Iowa State on Nov. 16, he looked like a better player than the one who tossed two interceptions against West Virginia in Week 2. 

But it was just Iowa State, right? The following week in a win over Kansas State, a team playing as well as anyone at the time, Oklahoma's offense put up 301 yards rushing in a 41-31 win. 

When the Sooners found out they were headed to the Sugar Bowl, they knew they could hang with the defending national champions. The team was talented enough, but more importantly, Oklahoma had a coaching staff that did its best job in years preparing for a game. 

Call it a fluke if you must, but Oklahoma put together a better game plan than Alabama. Now, the players and coaches are seeing the benefits. The only difference within the program now is that they have some extra confidence to exude. 

And there's nothing wrong with living it up. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

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OL Recruit Commits to Florida by Holding Up Live Baby Gator

Committing to a school by choosing a hat has been done before. That's why George Brown Jr. decided to take things to the next level to show how committed he is to his school of choice. 

The Winton Woods High School (Cincinnati, Ohio) senior, who 247sports.com lists as a 3-star recruit, had Alabama, Florida and Kentucky as his finalists. When it came time to reveal who he would play for, he had a little bit of help.

Here's a better look at Brown and his pal:

This makes you wonder what Brown would have done had he picked Alabama.

[Vine, Twitter; h/t SB Nation]

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Oregon Football: Ducks Defense Will Make or Break Playoff Bid

As linebacker Derrick Malone streaked toward the end zone in Oregon's Alamo Bowl rout of Texas last December, his play punctuated one era of Ducks football with an exclamation point.

Malone ran back an interception 38 yards to slam the door on the Longhorns' last-ditch rally effort. Oregon's 30-7 romp sent defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti into retirement with style.

And while the Alamo Bowl closed a chapter for Oregon, that performance began a new one—a chapter that could end with the Ducks hoisting a national championship trophy.

“The sky’s the limit,” Malone said at Wednesday’s session of Pac-12 Media Days. The linebacker referred to the Oregon defense, but his sentiment could describe all facets of the 2014 Ducks.

Expectations are characteristically high for Oregon heading into the season. Voters picked the Ducks to win the Pac-12 championship, and the win over Texas validates some of that confidence. It also gives new defensive coordinator Don Pellum a building block for 2014.

The Ducks defense shutting down the Longhorns made an emphatic, and much needed, statement.

“There were a lot of questions of can we stop a running team,” Malone said. “Once we did it in the last game, that carried over great momentum into the spring.”

Coming into the Alamo Bowl, Oregon’s defense suffered through a few lackadaisical performances—particularly against the run. Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney effectively took the air out of the ball in the Cardinal’s 26-20 upset of the Ducks on Nov. 7.

Two weeks later, Arizona All-American Ka’Deem Carey gashed Oregon for 206 yards and four touchdowns, while dual-threat quarterback B.J. Denker averaged 7.3 yards on his 14 carries in the Wildcats' confounding 42-16 rout of the Ducks.

The losses kept Oregon out of the national championship hunt and drew scrutiny on the defense—not all of it warranted, according to head coach Mark Helfrich.

“It’s a full-end deal,” he said. “It’s everybody [who is responsible for team performance].”

Nevertheless, an inability to stop the rush vexed Oregon right down to the very end of the regular season.

Thanks to quarterback Marcus Mariota’s touchdown strike to wide receiver Josh Huff in the waning moments, Oregon salvaged its win streak over rival Oregon State to end the regular season. But the Beavers forced a photo finish by scoring 35 points, powered in part by 231 rushing yards.

Oregon State averaged just 94.4 rushing yards per game all season, which ranked the Beavers No. 11 in the Pac-12.

Helfrich attributed Oregon’s late-season inconsistencies to execution, and “execution is coached.”

Execution was not a problem against Texas. The Ducks limited the Longhorns to 4.1 yards per carry and completely stifled any attempt at a passing attack.

Malone also credited “a sense of urgency and aggressiveness” for the turnaround against Texas. That mindset was on full display as the Ducks took two interceptions back for touchdowns to bookend the blowout.

Of course, one strong performance on its own cannot buoy a team from week to week, much less into a new season. But for Oregon, it served as a springboard into an offseason in which the Ducks aggressively tackled the weight room.

“We made a concerted effort to [get stronger] on both sides of the ball,” Helfrich said. “On the field in the spring, I think it made an absolute difference.”

One area in which the Oregon defense could see improvement from its offseason regimen is in getting to the backfield.

Applying pressure behind the line of scrimmage is crucial for generating turnovers, a key component of the Ducks’ defensive strategy. Oregon ranked No. 82 nationally in tackles for loss last season. In contrast, the Ducks were No. 19 in 2011, their last Pac-12 championship-winning season, and No. 10 in a 2010 campaign that culminated with a BCS Championship Game appearance.

"For me personally, it was a little bit of hesitation,” Malone said. “I'm very [much a] perfectionist in that the decisions I make are just precise, just right.”

Combining that meticulousness with the level of aggression that made former Ducks linebacker Kiko Alonso a headache for opposing offenses could make Malone one of the top defensive playmakers in the Pac-12.

“Derrick’s a guy along the lines of Don Pellum,” Helfrich said. “He can walk into every position meeting room and have instant credibility.

“He’s the kind of guy [who] walks a walk and always talks the talk,” the coach added.

That’s exactly the kind of confidence Oregon needs from its linebacker corps, the most veteran and deepest unit on the defensive side. Malone leads a group that includes returning starters Tony Washington and Rodney Hardrick, as well as up-and-comers Joe Walker, Tyson Coleman and Torrodney Prevot.

The Ducks face considerable turnover on the defensive line and in the secondary, but Malone likes the outlook of both groups. He offered considerable praise for the line, a unit vital to Oregon’s pass-rushing efforts.

“They’re getting bigger and stronger, just like everyone else,” Malone said. “They’re ready to take off. They say there’s a lack of experience because there aren’t many starters [returning], but they’re going to be great.”

He added he likes the potential of DeForest Buckner. Malone called the third-year defensive lineman “a beast.”

The challenge now for Oregon is replicating that Alamo Bowl performance for 12 regular season games and a Pac-12 Championship tilt. If it can, a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff is within reach.

“Defense did a great job this spring, and from all accounts this summer, of raising the bar to a higher standard of accountability and effort,” Helfrich said. “In fall camp … we’ll see how that went.”


Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.  


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Oregon Football: Ducks Defense Will Make or Break Playoff Bid

As linebacker Derrick Malone streaked toward the end zone in Oregon's Alamo Bowl rout of Texas last December, his play punctuated one era of Ducks football with an exclamation point...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

LSU's Mike the Tiger Received a Meat Cake for His 9th Birthday

Even tigers like birthday cake, especially when it's a meat cake.

LSU's Mike the Tiger turned nine years old on Thursday, and he was lucky enough to get a meat cake for his birthday.

That must have made for a great day.

[Twitter, h/t SB Nation

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Inside Look at How Lane Kiffin's Offense Will Look at Alabama in 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what the biggest story of Alabama’s offseason was.

It wasn’t coach Nick Saban’s contract extension and raise. It wasn’t cornerback Eddie Jackson having major knee surgery that will keep him out indefinitely. It wasn’t even quarterback Jacob Coker transferring in from Florida State, giving the Crimson Tide a bonafide option under center after AJ McCarron’s departure. (Saban wearing a Luigi hat was pretty close, though.)

No, Alabama’s biggest offseason story was, unquestionably, Saban hiring former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator.

The jokes were plentiful at first and showed their heads again during spring practice, when we had our first visual confirmation that Lane Kiffin was, indeed, Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

But for now the dust has settled (until Kiffin gives his only public comments before a potential bowl game at the start of fall camp), and we can turn our attention to how Kiffin will actually coach the offense—what will change and what will stay the same.

Based off of comments from players, coaches and Kiffin himself, along with observations from practice, here is what we know so far about how Kiffin’s offense will look at Alabama.


Introducing a fullback

Alabama has never really used a fullback in the traditional sense under Saban, but we’ll be seeing one now with Kiffin.

Previously, it would shift a tight end or H-back into the backfield as a lead blocker, and someone would line up there on the goal line. Otherwise, it was a one-back offense.

Jalston Fowler will be the biggest beneficiary of the change.

“I play the fullback a lot,” the 6’1”, 250-pound Fowler said during spring practice. “That’s the type of offense that we run, a fullback-based offense, so I’m pretty much in there most, all of the time.”

Fowler has been a versatile weapon for Alabama in the past, lead blocking, carrying in short-yardage situations and catching his signature play-action touchdown on the goal line (last year he caught seven passes for 15 yards—and five touchdowns).

This year, he’ll likely be doing a lot more blocking, still some receiving but likely not as much running. And that’s all right with him.

“I like blocking and opening up those holes for those guys,” he said. “It’s pretty fun, going against the D every day. It might be harder in the game, but right now it’s pretty easy because I’m going up against these guys and we know each other pretty well. I like it so far.”


Creativity in the passing game

Even in McCarron’s third year as a starter, the passing game got stale at times.

It was a lot of short throws and bubble screens, mixed in with some play-action passes over the top and McCarron’s signature corner route connection with Kevin Norwood.

Kiffin is adding some creativity and changing things up, however. Junior wide receiver Amari Cooper offered up on example of this during spring practice.

“Coach Kiffin calls plays based on matchups and what he sees,” Cooper said. “Like I said before, it's a simple offense. If he sees they are in man-to-man coverage and I have a hitch route, it converts if he's close to me. We are going to throw a little fade route and make something out of it.”

That will also include using pass-catchers in different ways.

“Versatility,” wide receiver Christion Jones said. “Guys doing different things, being able to play different spots, different positions. Instead of having a set for these type of receivers and these type of tight ends, anybody can play any position.”


Getting the ball to playmakers

A major criticism of the offense under Doug Nussmeier was its underutilization of key weapons.

The most common example cited is tight end O.J. Howard. Howard, a 5-star and the top tight end in the class of 2014, showed off his athleticism on a 52-yard catch-and-run against LSU, where he blew by the secondary for a go-ahead score.

But at the end of the season, he had caught only 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

“It's like getting our athletes in space and showing off our ability,” Howard said of Kiffin. “We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball. It's going to really help our athletic ability and show it off for us.”

Cooper could be another who benefits from these tendencies.

“Obviously he's a guy that we want to get the ball to as many times as we can,” Saban said of Cooper. “Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands.”


Still goes through the run game

For all the talk of the passing game, though, this offense is still going to start with the run game. As it should.

Alabama has a loaded backfield, with returning starter T.J. Yeldon headlining the group, bruising Derrick Henry looking to build off of a big Sugar Bowl and the lightning-quick Kenyan Drake providing a change of pace.

Kiffin recognizes as much.

“As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks,” he said, according to AL.com’s Mike Herndon. “There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."

Pete Roussel of Coachingsearch.com took a look at Kiffin’s offensive tendencies compared to Alabama’s since 2009, and he ran the ball 51 percent of the time compared to 60 percent for Alabama. Look for that number to stay somewhere in that range this year, especially with Kiffin and Alabama breaking in a new quarterback.

Kiffin will bring much-needed changes to the passing game, but the running game that has become a trademark for Saban isn’t going anywhere.

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

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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10 College Football Players We Wish Could Be Traded in 2014

There are a couple of ways around the NCAA's transfer policy, which requires athletes sit out one season after switching colleges. Graduate students are granted immediate eligibility, as are certain players who apply for a hardship waiver.

Unfortunately, there is no waiver for players we just want to see at a different program. There is no manual override for a trade that just makes sense on paper, that would make the upcoming season more entertaining to watch.

Trades like that pop into our minds all the time, however, forcing us to indulge hypotheticals such as this. Why can't that blue-chip recruit see the field sooner? What if that small-school star played in the SEC?

But this list did not include all of the best players from outside the power conferences. No matter their skill level, and no matter how much we would love to see them play against the best competition, a player was not considered if he is one of the leaders on a team with a realistic shot of making a College Football Playoff Bowl this season.

The list of players omitted under this clause includes: Shane Carden and Justin Hardy (East Carolina), Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler (Marshall), Deontay Greenberry (Houston), Chuckie Keeton and Kyler Fackrell (Utah State) and Derron Smith (Fresno State).

This was done because it doesn't seem right to wish a star player away from a team that could become this year's Central Florida. Blake Bortles wouldn't have been wise to leave last season…right?

Instead, we've highlighted 10 players whose change of school would make this season more objectively fun for college football fans, along with the ideal program we would want them to play for in 2014.

Sound off below with any other trades you can think of!

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SEC Football Q&A: Will Texas A&M Need to Use Two Quarterbacks in 2014

Do you smell that? It smells like football is in the air.

SEC media days is in the books, and pads will start popping in just over a week when fall camps open around the country. So to hold you over until we have real, tangible practice reports to discuss, let's resume the Friday tradition of SEC Q&A after a week off recovering from Hoover.

Who will take the snaps in College Station? What should you make of Tennessee's quarterback situation? What are the must-win games for LSU? Take a look at this week's SEC Q&A.


@BarrettSallee Do you think Coach Sumlin will play both QBs Allen and Hill, or select one starter and stick with him until proven otherwise?

— aggiedave (@aggiedave) July 25, 2014

No. Ideally Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin will choose either sophomore Kenny Hill or true freshman Kyle Allen for the No. 1 job and let the winner run with it unless he fails miserably or gets hurt.

Who that quarterback should be has changed frequently for me this offseason. First I was aboard the Allen bandwagon, then I started thinking that Hill gives the offense a little more stability because he's similar in stature and skill set to former dual-threat stud Johnny Manziel.

Now I'm back in the Allen camp. 

After talking to Billy Liucci of TexAgs.com and some other folks in Hoover at SEC media days, it seems like all the momentum is with the true freshman from Scottsdale, Arizona. That, coupled with Sumlin's refusal to discuss the quarterback position makes me lean his way.

"I didn't come here today to tell you who the quarterback was going to be, so we can eliminate those questions," he said. "That will play itself out. I think we're looking at a couple weeks before we play South Carolina that we'll name a starter."

That will give Allen plenty of time to win the job.

The only caveat is, if Allen wins the job, Hill may have an impact in certain packages that are designed for him to take advantage of his dual-threat capabilities. That's the only way I see them both playing unless the winner tanks or gets hurt.


@BarrettSallee How about Tennessee's QB situation? Should Butch Jones be concerned?!

— Phil Webber (@61Webhead) July 22, 2014

He shouldn't be concerned quite yet.

Jones had four in spring and he had essentially narrowed it down to two—Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson—prior to the spring game. Sophomore Joshua Dobbs had a fantastic spring game and Ferguson reportedly left the program, so the battle is still essentially between two guys, which is a departure from last season when a four-man battle went deep into fall camp.

While contenders played musical chairs, Worley stayed in the mix. I expect him to win the job. Tennessee has a completely new offensive line, so it's not unreasonable to expect some breakdowns. When that happens, having Worley—a senior who has been around the block a time or two—will be invaluable. 

He doesn't have the same upside as some of the others, but he knows when to throw it away and when to check down, which will be very important for this Vols' team.

Now if August 15 rolls around and there's still no clarity, then maybe it'll be time worry. The last thing Jones needs is for another quarterback battle to drag on late into fall camp, because then No. 1 reps are getting taken away from the eventual winner.


@BarrettSallee What is the first must win game of the season? #tigersoul#lsu#lsu18#GeauxTigers#lplg

— CesLSU (@ceslsu) July 25, 2014

I'm assuming you mean for LSU, and it's definitely the Mississippi State game in Death Valley on September 20.

I know, I know. Wisconsin is the opener, and LSU absolutely has to win that one.

Well, for national title purposes, maybe. But winning the SEC, as I wrote earlier this month, is the more important part of that equation because I feel the committee will put far too much emphasis on conference championships.

Because of that, LSU—particularly the LSU offense—needs to get off to a good start against a Mississippi State team that returns 19 of 22 on its defensive two-deep and should be able to give the new-look Tiger offense a major test in late September.

That's a tricky game for LSU, and if it goes south, the rest of the season could follow in a hurry.


Do you have a question for next week's Q&A? Send it to SEC Lead Writer Barrett Sallee on Twitter at @BarrettSallee. If your question wasn't answered this week, it has been saved and could be used in the future.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports, and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.


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Michigan Football: Brady Hoke in the Crossfire Between AD and Regents

On one side is athletic director David Brandon, who has been nationally lauded for his business acumen and overseeing the transformation of the University of Michigan's athletic department.

On the other is the Michigan Board of Regents, who thus far have been willing accomplices to Brandon’s dramatic reinvention of Michigan football tradition.

The gap between the two sides became apparent last week when the regents rejected a request from the athletic department to have fireworks at two games this season. Regent Mark Bernstein’s comments reported by The Detroit News echo the sentiment of many fans—that Brandon’s attempt to make every game an event is negatively impacting the distinctive nature of the Michigan game-day experience.

“We are not Comerica Park, Disney World or a circus…I love Michigan football for what it is...and for what it is not. It remains and should be an experience, a place that resists the excesses of our culture; intentionally simple. The fireworks should be on the field, not above it.”

Caught in the middle is Brady Hoke, who is just trying to win football games and deliver a Big Ten title. Hoke has wisely stayed out of the fray, but the retirement of former University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman has changed the equation for the athletic department. Hoke can bring these two sides back together if his team can unleash some offensive fireworks when the season begins.

Fans will return to Michigan Stadium if Hoke’s offseason changes bear fruit. Offensive players are raving about new coach Doug Nussmeier and fans can’t wait to see top recruit Jabrill Peppers hit the field.

Warming up on the sidelines is new Michigan president Mark Schlissel, a scientist and former Ivy League administrator who seems a little puzzled that his new job began with questions about whether he supported fireworks during a football game.

Schlissel shared how athletics fit into his overall vision of Michigan with Melanie Maxwell on MLIVE.COM:

What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does. Athletics isn't part of the mission statement of the university. We're an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics.

For years, Brandon has been wildly successful at filling the coffers of the athletic department.

But this season a combination of factors has the athletic department scrambling to fill Michigan Stadium for its home opener. Overall enthusiasm has been dampened by last season’s 7-6 record, a lackluster slate of home games and a steady rise in ticket prices.

Many fans were disappointed when Hoke was hired to replace Rich Rodriguez, but Brandon has been steadfast in his support. Now Brandon faces scrutiny from a new boss and the regents, who need to approve any future initiatives.

It's time for Hoke to justify Brandon’s support. Brandon has provided lavish facilities for the football program and given Hoke the resources to hire top coaches for his staff.

If Michigan stumbles out the gate and attendance falters, Hoke won’t be the only one on the hot seat.


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.


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Five Nebraska Players Sure to Surprise at Fall Camp

Nebraska football fans are always looking for surprises as fall camp opens. While the established stars are well-known, fall camp provides an opportunity for new playmakers to arise and take the stage for the upcoming season.

So while “sure to surprise” is a bit of a contradiction in terms (much like the advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to “expect the unexpected”), here are five players who might be a bit off fans’ radar screens but could play a major role this season.

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