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Every Big Ten Football Team's Odds to Make College Football Playoff

At the start of the College Football Playoff era, it is hard to make sense of the Big Ten; one of the sport's most profitable and recognizable conferences has struggled to win big games against power-five teams and has become a bit of a punchline.

At the same time, the B1G still had two teams—Michigan State and Ohio State—play in a BCS bowl last season, and both debuted in the Top 10 of this year's preseason Amway Coaches Poll, per USA Today. Wisconsin looked unchanged without Bret Bielema, and if Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa (none of which has fallen too far) can gain back some traction, that would give the league seven formidable programs.

Further complicating matters is a final bit of conference realignment, which this year introduces Maryland and Rutgers to the conference via the ACC and AAC, respectively. Both will join the newly formed East Division, which was divided from the West on a purely geographical basis (and appears to be much stronger in 2014).

But what does this all mean for the 2014 season? Will the new-look Big Ten forge a new, more-respected identity in the post-BCS college football world? And which teams are most likely to carry the banner?

Let's take a look at the odds board.

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 in the same way as Las Vegas lines: 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

This one is pretty close.

Unlike the Big 12 and ACC, which begin the season with either large (Oklahoma) or overwhelming (Florida State) favorites, a good case could be made for two Big Ten teams as the lead dog entering 2014.

Unsurprisingly, those are the two teams that met in last year's conference championship game, Michigan State and Ohio State. But even though the Spartans won that evening, and even though that win was not a fluke, and even though the Buckeyes travel to East Lansing this season, the safe money remains on Urban Meyer.

Now entering his third year in Columbus, Meyer has a team that is far from perfect but less flawed than his previous OSU sides. Especially if new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash can patch up the secondary (where he specializes), a defense led by a terrifying front line might become the best in the conference.

Leading that front line is a trio of All-America candidates: Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence. Together they combined to put up 39 tackles for loss last season, 24.5 of which came in the second half of the schedule, once Bosa—then a true freshman—turned the proverbial corner and began to look unblockable.

Guys who weigh 285 pounds should not be able to do this:

Also returning is quarterback Braxton Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a logical favorite to repeat for a third time this season. Now a senior, his experience and his knack for conjuring plays from thin air should help an offense that lost running back Carlos Hyde, receiver Corey Brown and the majority of an offensive line that might have been the best in the country.

The Buckeyes finished No. 4 in the preseason S&P+ projections at Football Study Hall, trailing only Florida State, Alabama and Oregon. That's nine spots ahead of Michigan State (No. 13). No other Big Ten team besides Wisconsin ranked in the top 30.

It is close—and the numbers reflect that—but going with Ohio State as the preseason favorite always feels pretty safe.

 

Best Value

Northwestern won 10 games two seasons ago and started last year 4-0. Its fifth game was the Big Ten opener against Ohio State, and Evanston, Illinois—of all places—was the site of College Gameday.

The Wildcats led that game by three points, 30-27, with less than six minutes on the clock. Eventually, Hyde and the Buckeyes' offensive line became too powerful, OSU took the lead with 5:22 remaining and eventually won by 10 points, 40-30, after a meaningless touchdown on the game's final play.

That turned out to be a portent for Northwestern: both losing close games and allowing teams to score with zero seconds on the clock. The latter happened in a much-less-meaningless way at Nebraska:

And again the following week against Michigan:

All things told, the Wildcats lost seven straight games and missed the postseason in what was supposed to be a seminal year for the program. Unlike last year, they do not enter 2014 with much fanfare, and have actually found themselves in the news for off-field reasons (Kain Colter's push for unionization) instead of on-field ones.

But overlooking a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team would be unwise. Northwestern has always done better as an underdog—a role it has perpetually occupied—and injuries forced a ton of young players to see the field last season. According to Phil Steele's blog, the Wildcats return the 12th most experience in the country.

The most important returnee didn't play much in 2013, either. Running back Venric Mark, one of the most explosive scat-backs and punt returners in the country, missed most of the season with a fractured ankle but was granted a medical redshirt to return in 2014.

"He's trending to be ready to go for the season and things are moving in a positive direction," said Fitzgerald of Mark's status, per Skip Myslenski of NUSports.com.

Boy, what a boost that would be.

Together with senior quarterback Trevor Siemian (513 pass attempts since 2012), a massively underrated group of receivers and an offensive line that returns 100 career starts, Mark—if healthy—would help Northwestern field a dangerous offense. If his players can remain on the field, Fitzgerald always grooms a solid defense, too.

More than anything, though, the Wildcats have a nice schedule. Playing in the weaker West Division, they get two of their top competitors, Wisconsin and Nebraska, at home, and the one that they play on the road, Iowa, is a team they have always fared well against.

If they hold serve at Ryan Field and go 2-1 in road games against Iowa, Penn State and Notre Dame, Northwestern could enter the Big Ten Championship Game with one loss and a chance to crash the CFP.

It is likely? No. But it's not altogether unlikely, either. If you played out the season 35 times, I think it would happen at least once.

Note: For my more thorough breakdown of the Wildcats, click here.

 

Biggest Sleeper

One of these years, it'll happen. It almost has to happen.

Maryland cannot keep suffering injuries at such a disastrous clip. Two years ago, it was forced to play a walk-on freshman linebacker at quarterback, and last year—among many, many other things—it lost star receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to the same season-ending injury (a broken leg) in the same game against Wake Forest.

On paper, what the Terps return in 2014 is among the best in the conference. As Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall explicates:

Ignore everything you know about recent injuries, and see what the Terrapins return. A well-seasoned dual-threat quarterback. Starting running backs from both 2012 and 2013. The aforementioned five-star receivers (Stefon Diggs and Deon Long), plus the three exciting receivers who thrived in their absence. Five players with starting experience on a solid offensive line. The top five tacklers on a solid defensive line. Eight of last year's top 10 linebackers. Five of last year's top six defensive backs, plus the aforementioned 2012 starter (Jeremiah Johnson). A smattering of well-touted freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Basically everybody from a top-20 special teams unit.

College football is a complicated sport to predict; there are too many factors at play. But among the things we know for near-certain are that balance and experience matter. To compete, you must have players who have already competed, and in most (but not all) cases, they must be well dispersed over every position group.

In theory, Maryland has this. It has enough potential star power, too. Diggs was the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2012 recruiting class and has looked the part when healthy. C.J. Brown put up legit Heisman numbers in the first four games of last season. Andre Monroe had more tackles for loss (17) in 2013 than any returning player in the country other than Vic Beasley and Ryan Mueller.

The only thing holding this team back is injuries—which are supposed to be random from year to year—and a brutal schedule. The East Division is not as forgiving as the West, and cross-division games against Iowa and at Wisconsin are an unlucky draw.

Even if Maryland stays healthy and plays well all season, the schedule precludes it from reasonable CFP contention.

But this is a longshot bet; it isn't supposed to be reasonable. We don't know for sure what the ceiling on this group of players is, because they have never stayed together on the field for long enough. Why not take a shot on the unknown?

"Randy Edsall, despite what some say, is a good coach," said an opposing Big Ten assistant in the Athlon Sports 2014 College Football Preview magazine. It wasn't so long ago (2010-11) that he had UConn playing in the Fiesta Bowl.

And this team has a lot more talent than that UConn team.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Analyzing NCAA Top 25 Standings

One of the best parts of summer is the start of the college football preseason. And the release of the Amway Coaches Poll rankings, via USA Today, has the sports world buzzing about potential matchups and possible upsets.

With top powerhouses such as the Florida State Seminoles, Alabama Crimson Tide and Oklahoma Sooners looking for a national title, the 2014 college football season will be even more entertaining now that there is a playoff system in place.

Here is the first Top 25 of the season and a full breakdown with analysis.

 

 

Breaking Down the Top Championship Contenders

The addition of a playoff system has shaken college football to its core, but it has created genuine excitement among fans. With the BCS drawing so much animosity, the hope is that a more classic postseason format will add intrigue to the already enthralling sport.

The road to the playoffs begins with the release of the Amway Coaches Poll.

After winning the BCS National Championship, Florida State is back again this season in the No. 1 spot. Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, the Seminoles return 13 starters from last year and look to become first winners of the college football playoffs.

Winning a second-straight national championship won’t be that easy.

Florida State has serious competition in 2014. Not only are Nick Saban and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide looking to bounce back and win another championship, but the No. 4 Oregon Ducks are packed with high-powered weapons who will keep the team at the top of the polls each week.

Two teams that Alabama has come to fear over the past year are the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners and the No. 5 Auburn Tigers. After each knocked off the Crimson Tide late last season, the programs are brimming with confidence and look to translate that to success on the field.

While all of the teams mentioned could be considered serious championship contenders, there are several programs with the talent and coaching staff to make a run in their respective conferences and push for a berth in the playoffs.

Elite schools such as No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 UCLA, No. 9 South Carolina, No. 10 Baylor and No. 11 Stanford are all bringing teams with the senior leadership and raw talent to make a splash in the Top 25 rankings.

Add in the SEC teams undergoing major changes this offseason (namely No. 12 Georgia, No. 13 LSU and No. 20 Texas A&M), and there is a cloud of uncertainty around many of the programs ranked high in the preseason poll.

With a clean slate and every team starting from the same point, there are many universities across the country looking at the playoff system as their way to get into a NCAA National Championship game.

College football fans should be ready for a wild year.

 

*Stats via CFBStats.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Amway Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Complete Order Released

College football fans have long awaited a definitive pecking order entering the 2014 season, and now they have one, as the Amway Coaches' Poll was officially released Thursday.  

The College Football Playoff committee will ultimately decide which four teams deserve to vie for the national title at the end of the season, but this poll provides a jumping-off point. It also goes to show that there are plenty of potential championship contenders with a legitimate chance to win it all.

Some of the teams near the top of the poll will fade, while others will very much be in the mix when the season concludes. If nothing else, the Amway Coaches' Poll allows observers to get an idea of what they can expect in 2014.

Here is a full rundown of the season's first official Top 25 ranking, courtesy of USA Today.

Brett McMurphy of ESPN broke down the first-place voting in the poll:

 

Teams to Watch

Florida State

On the heels of an undefeated 2013 season that culminated in a national championship, it comes as little surprise that Florida State tops the initial poll. The Seminoles certainly lost some talent to the NFL in the form of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and several others. Even so, Florida State is a stacked team boasting the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

Quarterback Jameis Winston was labeled the best player in college football last year, and it is difficult to argue with that notion. He shined as a freshman, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns while adding another four rushing scores to his total.

In fact, perhaps no single player was more vital to his offense last season than Winston, as seen in this graphic courtesy of ESPN College Football on Twitter:

As important as Winston was, it will take more than a great season from him for the Seminoles to repeat. The coaches clearly feel as though there is enough talent in place, and Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher feels the same way, per Natalie Pierre of the Tallahassee Democrat.

"Everybody talks about Jameis and he is the best player in college football in my opinion, there's no doubt," Fisher said on ESPN's Sportscenter. "We're much more than Jameis Winston. ... We're lots more. I'm very confident in our team."

Perhaps the biggest thing working in Florida State's favor is the fact that it resides in a fairly thin ACC. The Seminoles don't figure to face many big challenges on their conference slate, which gives them a golden opportunity to potentially get back to the National Championship Game.

Florida State is the team to beat, and the rankings certainly reflect that fact.

 

Alabama

Alabama has consistently been one of the top teams in the nation throughout Nick Saban's tenure as head coach. The poll suggests that things will be no different this season, but the Crimson Tide are far from a sure thing in 2014.

After losing quarterback AJ McCarron to the NFL, Bama has been placed in the unenviable position of replacing a proven leader and winner.

It remains to be seen who will be under center when the season starts, but Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the presumed favorite. Whoever ultimately wins that job will be surrounded with talent in the form of running back T.J. Yeldon as well as wide receivers Amari Cooper and Christion Jones.

The offense should be explosive, but Alabama's defense wasn't as dominant last year as observers have grown accustomed to. Even Saban himself acknowledges the fact that some aspects of his team are shrouded in uncertainty, per ESPN College GameDay on Twitter:

Alabama is used to roster turnover, though, and always manages to reload due to Saban's superior recruiting ability. That is largely why the Tide have dominated many of the premier programs in college football over the past several seasons.

As pointed out by Bill Bender of Sporting News, no other team has had as much success against highly ranked teams in recent years than Alabama:

If Bama is going to qualify for the College Football Playoff, it will have to earn it in the difficult SEC. With teams like Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and LSU hoping to reach the pinnacle of college football as well, Alabama can never afford to let its guard down.

Provided Saban's team plays up to its potential, though, it should be one of the best.

 

Ohio State

Last season Ohio State was one win away from playing Florida State for the national championship, but a final-week loss to rival Michigan State sent the Buckeyes to the Orange Bowl instead.

Ohio State is considered the class of the Big Ten once again this season, and the expectation in Columbus is that the Buckeyes will make the College Football Playoff at the very least.

If they do, then it will almost certainly be thanks to the play of quarterback Braxton Miller. The skilled senior is coming off the best season of his collegiate career, as he racked up well over 3,000 total yards and 36 touchdowns. He is a major threat as both a passer and a runner, which is what makes Ohio State's offense so difficult to contain.

As good as Miller was last year, head coach Urban Meyer seems to believe that he is in position to perhaps be even better in 2014, according to ESPN.com's Brian Bennett:

If Miller improves as a passer and remains healthy throughout the season, then it is tough to bet against the Buckeyes as a national title threat. The loss of running back Carlos Hyde to the NFL could hurt, but Ohio State has plenty of depth on offense and a defense that is coming into its own as well.

The Big Ten has some solid teams, but there aren't a ton of threats to Ohio State. The Buckeyes aren't a perfect team by any means, but Miller's presence makes them a force to be reckoned with.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Oregon Ducks Football Ticket Will Feature Scratch-and-Sniff in 2014

The Oregon Ducks just found a way to stay a step ahead of the rest of college football.

Everyone already knows about the Ducks' modern uniforms and innovative offense. Now, Oregon fans are being treated to something even crazier this year: a scratch-and-sniff ticket.

On the ticket to the team's game against Michigan State, the scratch-n-sniff part features a burger from Carl's Jr.

This scratch-and-sniff ticket definitely shows that the Ducks continue to think outside of the box and amaze us with their creativity.

[Oregon Duck Tickets, h/t Reddit and SB Nation]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The 6 Most Entertaining Personalities from College Football Media Days

The chairs have been tucked away. The microphones and cameras have been stored in their mobile hiding places—at least for now—as they wait for what comes next, just like us.

College football’s media-day circuit has come and gone. The most exciting and interesting personalities in the sport flocked to their conference’s destinations, which included stops in Hoover, Dallas, Los Angeles, Greensboro and Chicago, among other places.

They talked. They joked. They jabbed. Some of them (cough, cough...Mike Leach...cough, cough) even excelled in the prop department.

Of course, included in these various stops were unique presences primed for the occasion. Some of these coaches have established themselves as being a character in the sport they teach; others are simply getting started. 

Who entertained the masses this year at media days? Let’s have a look.

 

Adam Kramer is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats courtesy ofCFBStats.com.

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College Football Recruiting DE Rankings 2015: Top 10 After The Opening

Headlined by the nation's top-ranked recruit, the 2015 class of defensive ends should make life miserable in offensive backfields for years to come. College prospects from across the country bring rare blends of athleticism and size to the position, providing pass-rushing prowess and run-stuffing skills.

Dominant defensive ends can impact the game today more than ever, as offenses increasingly rely on keeping the quarterback upright in air-oriented attacks. Playmakers who can consistently pursue and harass the passer alter the fortunes of a defensive unit and force opponents to rewrite their game plans.

This recruiting cycle isn't lacking for talent at the position. A versatile mix of athletes attended The Opening in early July, testing their skills during a three-day showcase at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon and providing us a glimpse of several premier prospects.

Based on what we witnessed in Beaverton and have identified during game-film breakdowns, here's our examination of the top 10 defensive ends in America. 

 

This article is part of Bleacher Report's CFB 200 Recruiting Rankings Series. The overall rankings are based on the 247Sports composite system, which takes into account every recruiting service's rankings. The positional rankings also correspond with those composite scores. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we take an in-depth look at college football's stars of tomorrow.

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College Football Playoff 2014: Breaking Down New Format and Rules

Finally.

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.

 

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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...

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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.

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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

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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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