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Raekwon McMillan Is the Catalyst to Ohio State's Midseason Resurgence

COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the Sept. 16 edition of the Big Ten coaches teleconference, Urban Meyer was asked how he balances loyalty to his seniors with the emergence of talented younger players.

No specific players were mentioned by the interviewer, but it was obvious who he was making reference to. And judging by Meyer's answer, it was a situation that he had obviously been wrestling with recently.

“That’s a hard one," the Ohio State head coach responded.

"We have an obligation when they say, ‘You’re the head football coach’ to win the game and represent Ohio State, but you also—if the guy does everything right as far as academics, behavior on and off the field, his work ethic—then you give them every opportunity to succeed and you go with that guy.

"But there comes a point where if the younger player’s better, then you have to go with that younger player.”

Apparently, the Buckeyes are now at that point.

No disrespect to Curtis Grant, who has proven to be a solid, albeit unspectacular player at the Buckeyes' middle linebacker position in three-plus seasons at Ohio State.

But ever since the OSU coaching staff has opted to increase the playing time of Raekwon McMillan following the team's Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes defense has been noticeably improved—thanks in large part to the play of their of 5-star freshman.

That especially rang true last weekend, when McMillan put together the most impressive showing of his young college career in Ohio State's Big Ten-opening win over Maryland.

Subbing in for Grant on the second defensive series of the game—as he has since the Buckeyes' defeat at the hands of the Hokies—the Hinesville, Georgia, native tallied four tackles and returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in OSU's 52-24 defeat of the Terrapins.

“It was one of the best feelings in the world," McMillan said of his first career touchdown. "My teammate helped me out by tipping the ball and I just took advantage of the moment.”

The same could be said about the rest of McMillan's freshman campaign thus far, as he's managed to make his presence felt in limited action. On his first defensive series of the season, he recorded a tackle for loss in place of a briefly injured Grant against Virginia Tech. A week later, he totaled a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in the Buckeyes' beatdown of Kent State.

That's the type of production that the Ohio State staff was hoping to get from McMillan when it lured the 2014 recruiting class' top-ranked inside linebacker to Columbus over the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.

It also helped that McMillan opted to enroll early at OSU in January in an effort to get a head start on his college career.

"That’s what really changed the game for me," McMillan said. "Coming in early, learning the whole process through spring ball and through the summer and going through fall camp, knowing all the stuff, knowing the whole defense—well, not the whole defense—but knowing the concepts of it and certain stuff about it really helped me out a lot.”

McMillan may not know the whole playbook just yet, but he certainly brings enough to the table to make himself a more than viable option on a Buckeyes defense that's still trying to find its footing under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash.

As co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Luke Fickell explained, the freshman McMillan is already more advanced in pass coverage than the senior Grant, which has led to more playing time for the youngster against the likes of Cincinnati and Maryland.

“I communicated and talked with Curtis and said, ‘If this becomes a passing game, Raekwon might play a little bit more,’" Fickell said following Ohio State's Sept. 27 beating of the pass-happy Bearcats. "That was just a situation that maybe he had been a little bit better out in space and on the coverage side."

Even with the insertion of McMillan into the lineup on a regular basis, the Buckeyes' pass defense remains a work in progress, as evidenced by the 352 yards that Ohio State allowed through the air against Cincinnati.

However, the Buckeyes showed growth a week later, surrendering just 244 passing yards to the Terrapins and recording four interceptions in the process.

One of those, of course, belonged to McMillan, who also recovered an interception that was fumbled by fellow OSU linebacker Darron Lee. The man who led the charge in McMillan's recruitment, Fickell wasn't surprised to see the Peach State product twice regain possession for the Buckeyes against the Terps.

“It’s not by accident that somehow No. 5 comes up with the ball,” Fickell said. “He’s always around the football.”

That's not to say that there aren't strides that he can still take. His boyish face aside, McMillan may not look like a true freshman at 6'2" and 240 pounds, but Fickell admitted that he'd still like to see the former prized prospect take more command at a position that serves as the de facto quarterback on the Ohio State defense.

"That middle linebacker—like Curtis Grant does when he’s in there for us—he is the heart and soul, he is the leader and that’s what’s expected of that guy," Fickell said. "For a freshman, [McMillan's] doing an unbelievable job. But the expectation of greatness is we’re not going to just let him sit on being a freshman. We’re going to need him to continue to grow.”

With the Buckeyes currently in the midst of a bye week, McMillan will attempt to do just that as Ohio State gears up for the heart of its 2014 slate and a push for a potential playoff spot.

In fact, Meyer has altered his plan for the Buckeyes' second week off in the past month, thanks in large part to the play of his emerging middle linebacker.

“You see what Raekwon McMillan is doing with his confidence with playing," Meyer said. “I’m going to continue to give them as many game reps just to continue to show that maturity.”

That's just fine with McMillan, who couldn't be more satisfied with where he stands five games into his college career.

“I’m very happy. I feel like I’m blessed," he said. "The average 18-year-old doesn’t come in with the opportunity that I came in with.”

As he's proven lately, McMillan is far from the average 18-year-old.

 

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

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Brian Kelly, Notre Dame Poised to Go on Huge Recruiting Run

Don't look now, but Notre Dame's got the recruiting train rolling.

With the Irish flipping blue-chip quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from Penn State and head coach James Franklin, Brian Kelly is displaying just a little bit of that inner-honey badger swagger, reminding even big-time programs like the Nittany Lions that Kelly and the Irish staff can do what it wants when it comes to recruiting. 

That Kelly was able to flip Wimbush on the worst game-day weather in South Bend imaginable says something. It also reminds football fans that when Notre Dame is winning, they're the recruiting world's worst nightmare. 

Most years, selling the "40-year decision" that comes with a Notre Dame degree works for some impressive prospects. But selling four decades of success off the field after four years of elite college football on it? That's an offer too tough to turn down.

Wimbush fills a key need in the Irish recruiting class, finally replacing Blake Barnett as the offensive centerpiece to the 2015 class.  The 18th commit in a class that 247Sports ranks 11th in the nation, Wimbush also likely serves as a turning point, with the Irish staff set on closing this cycle with elite prospects, who may or may not be committed to another program. 

That the Irish are 5-0 and in the playoff-hunt conversation only helps spread their message. And if you're looking for clues as to how Kelly and his staff plan on closing out this class, just look back at the run they made in the 2013 cycle, building off the Irish's undefeated regular season. 

Entering October, the Irish sat at 18 commitments, a more-than-impressive group headlined by Jaylon Smith. But from there, the Irish closed with a flourish by adding six key blue-chippers, all surprises to pick Notre Dame. 

That Kelly and his staff would win the services of cornerback Cole Luke had to be considered a shocker. The Arizona product took official visits to Oklahoma and Texas but ended up in South Bend. His two interceptions last week against Stanford gave Irish fans a glimpse of what the young cornerback can do. 

From there, the Irish staff landed one of its biggest fish, getting a commitment from elite running back Greg Bryant. The Army All-American was committed to Oklahoma and had his choice of schools from all around the country, but recruiting coordinator Tony Alford convinced Bryant that South Bend was the place for him. 

Bryant wasn't the only blue-chipper to flip to the Irish. Safety Max Redfield decided at the Under Armour All-American Game that he'd rather go to Notre Dame than USC, stepping away from his commitment to the Trojans. Tight end Durham Smythe walked away from Texas to come play for the Irish. 

Closing the class with late commitments from running back Tarean Folston and elite defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, the Irish went from having a great recruiting class to one that some viewed as the best in the nation.

(Of course, Vanderdoes never stepped foot on campus, an interesting U-turn that left many questions unanswered.)

If that look back tells us anything, it's that this Irish coaching staff will be aggressively recruiting all the way until signing day in February. We saw that last weekend, with top prospects Equanimeous St. Brown and Frank Buncom joining Wimbush on official visits. The Irish also hosted Florida State commit Calvin Brewton and Alabama pledge Mekhi Brown, making their pitch to both.  

The Irish staff has long circled top, uncommitted prospects Soso Jamabo, Tevon Coney and Porter Gustin. They're also after UCLA commitment Aliz'e Jones, a high school teammate of Irish commit Nicco Fertitta. That leads to some speculation that Wimbush could flip one of his teammates, 5-star cornerback and Alabama commit Minkah Fitzpatrick, one of the top cover prospects in the cycle. That the staff is still pushing on this cycle while working hard on 2016 prospects gives you an idea that Kelly and his recruiting staff are a well-oiled machine. 

All is fair in love and recruiting. (Or at least, I think that's how it goes.) And with scholarship numbers tight and a young roster looking even better in 2015, you can't blame Kelly for trying to seize the moment, building a roster that could produce a lot of wins—and headaches for opponents—in the coming years.  

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Clemson Team Manager Dances in Locker Room After Tigers Beat NC State

Clemson routed North Carolina State over the weekend, but the 41-0 victory wasn't the highlight of the day for the Tigers.

The best moment came in the locker room after the game when team manager David Saville got in front of the team and broke out a victory dance. The team went wild when he finished showing off his moves.

To learn more about David, watch the video below.

[YouTube]

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Dak Prescott Can Ball, but Can Mississippi State Stop Auburn's Potent Offense?

There is no denying that Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the most electrifying players in all of college football. The big question for the Auburn vs. Mississippi State matchup is how the Bulldogs defense will fare against that high-flying Auburn offense.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder takes an in-depth look at this huge SEC matchup.

Is Auburn's Nick Marshall the best quarterback in the SEC?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Miami Football: 6 Startling Statistics Through 6 Weeks

One game brought anomalies and two contests provided trends, but six outings have shown what the 2014 Miami Hurricanes are truly made of.

From offensive troubles to a frustrating defense to an uncharacteristic special teams problem, a handful—plus one—of startling statistics envelop the 3-3 'Canes.

After this weekend, every game is a must-win if Miami wants to contend for the Coastal Division crown. Al Golden's team is fighting for its ACC life, but a nonconference meeting with Cincinnati gives the 'Canes one final opportunity to correct some alarming shortcomings.

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AJ McCarron Off-Base in Criticism of Nick Saban, Alabama Offense

One loss has created plenty of drama at Alabama, and some of it is coming from a highly decorated former Crimson Tide quarterback.

AJ McCarron—he of three national titles and two as a starting quarterback—told Ryan Fowler of Tide 99.1 in Tuscaloosa that this particular Crimson Tide team lacks the leadership that previous teams had, including in McCarron's final season in 2013. (The first and second segments of the interview are available online.):

"I think one of the things that this team is lacking that hurts them the most is not having the true leaders like we had last year and guys that, when things go bad, 'hey, let's calm everybody down and pick it back up and go back to work and get back on the right track," McCarron told Fowler (12:00 mark of Part I).

Not to be outdone, McCarron also commented on Saban—a defensive-minded head coach—having his hands being in the offensive cookie jar and forcing a more conservative game plan.

"I don't know if that's Lane doing that or if coach Saban has kind of put the handcuffs on Lane like I've known Coach to do in the past on his offensive coordinator," McCarron said at the 8:30 mark of Part I.

Head coach Nick Saban had the chance to fire back at his former quarterback during Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference.

"I don't think we played real well last week for whatever reasons," Saban said. "I don't know that's all leadership. I'm sort of responsible for all of that, as we all are as coaches and players, to make sure we're ready to play our best against good teams in tough environments on the road. I don't know how AJ would really know, but I don't necessarily see that as the case."

Saban is right, in more ways than one.

First of all, Alabama's offense may have been less than stellar in the 23-17 loss to Ole Miss, but it's still the second-best offense in the SEC at 554.6 yards per game, which is 100.5 yards per game more than the most prolific Alabama offense under McCarron (2013). That includes last weekend's game against the Rebels, in which Alabama gained just 323 yards.

Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin brought senior quarterback Blake Sims along first as a game-manager and then as a difference-maker in the fourth game of the year against Florida, but scaled it back against the stifling Ole Miss defense—not the worst decision to make against the SEC's best defense on the road.

Is that number skewed a little bit? Perhaps. Alabama's 7.17 yards per play this year are slightly better than last year's squad that averaged 7.15 yards per play. Either way, though, it's not indicative of a problem.

McCarron also commented specifically on the lack of leadership on the offensive side of the ball on Tide 99.1.

"They gotta find that leader on offense," McCarron said in Part II. "I don't know if that's Austin Shepherd, or with [center] Ryan [Kelly] being out, somebody needs establish that. Quarterback Blake [Sims] needs to step up and do it. It's going to be a tough road."

Does McCarron have relationships with players in the program and have some insight into its internal workings this year, despite spending most of his time focusing on his NFL career?

Absolutely.

To comment on Sims' leadership, though, seems like a childish and unnecessary shot based on one loss that had more to do with fourth-quarter defense than a vanilla offense.

Saban himself even commented on Sims' leadership last week, as Sims was working through a shoulder injury and preparing for Ole Miss.

"I actually think Blake does a pretty good job," Saban said. "[He's] very well-liked by his teammates. He's a very positive, high-energy guy who has shown leadership."

Not only does Sims' coach recognize it, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema—Alabama's opponent this weekend—also sees it.

"The thing that jumps out to you is that, when you watch him and watch the players around him, you can tell that the players like him," Bielema said. "When you have a quarterback who your players can rally around, that's a tremendous thing."

If McCarron were a true leader, he'd recognize that this type of criticism from somebody so recognizable and familiar with this roster is the last thing this team needs.

Alabama is behind the eight-ball after absorbing its first loss of the season with nearly two months of games still left on the schedule.

There isn't a leadership problem in Tuscaloosa, but even if there was, McCarron isn't going to be the guy who fills his perceived leadership void left on this team. Those guys in the locker room every day are the ones that need to develop that naturally.

Instead of rallying his former team, McCarron stirred the pot in what seems more like sour grapes than constructive criticism.

Luckily for the Tide, Saban and Bielema are here to straighten this mess out.

 

Barrett Sallee is the Lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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NFL Comparisons for Top 10 College Football Players

A handful of the best players in college football are only two years out of high school, which means they will not become eligible for the NFL draft until 2016. But why should we wait that long to start making pro comparisons?

In fact, why should we wait until the run-up to the 2015 draft, either? If a fan of pro football wants a primer on the current batch of college superstars, we should give it to him or her. Hooray for context!

In picking the top 10 players for this list, I went back to my top 50 player rankings from early September and adjusted for the intervening weeks. Players from the old top 10 that dropped due to performance regression were Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

After that, one player from just outside the top 15 has been playing well enough to skate into the top 10. Feel free to disagree with the included players if you want—the rankings are inherently subjective, and I suspect any two people would have differing opinions on whom to include—but this is the 10 we went with.

As for the comparisons themselves, they were based on physical similarities and where each player excels as a prospect. The latter was more important than the former—that is, attributes such as speed or strength were preferred over height and weight—but in an ideal scenario, a comparison could be made to satisfy both.

Sound off below with your own comparisons.

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Can Arkansas Derail Alabama's College Football Playoff Hopes?

The Arkansas Razorbacks vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide. Power running vs. stout run defense. Something has to give in this wonderful SEC matchup. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer preview the big game and break down Arkansas' run game and Alabama's powerful defense.

Will Arkansas shock Alabama?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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Wisconsin Football: 5 Startling Statistics Through 6 Weeks

Coming into the 2014 season, there was no consensus on how the Wisconsin football team would do.  With uncertainty at the quarterback position and a completely rebuilt front seven, expectations were tempered a bit, despite having one of the easier schedules in the Big Ten and a Heisman candidate at running back.

Through the first six weeks of the season, those who were a bit more tepid in their predictions have seen their reservations come to light, just in a slightly different manner than might have been expected.

In Week 1, a pivotal non-conference tilt against LSU, the Badgers saw themselves up 24-7 in the third quarter before ineffectiveness at the quarterback position (Tanner McEvoy went 8-of-24 for 50 yards) and injuries along the defensive line (both Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring went down) caused their ultimate demise.

After a well-timed bye week that allowed for Zagzebski to somehow return for the next game, the Badgers coasted in their next three games, but it wasn't always as easy as the scoreline showed.  In fact, the Badgers had quite a bit of trouble playing a full game at a high level.

At halftime against FCS Western Illinois, the Badgers were up 9-3 and had trouble doing much of anything on offense.  Against South Florida, which went 2-10 the previous season, the Badgers were tied 3-3 at halftime.

These slow starts plagued the team in last week's loss to Northwestern when the team went down 10-0 at halftime. This turned out to be an insurmountable deficit as they fell 20-14 and couldn't get anything going in the passing game while struggling to tackle, which comes back to the original two flaws coming into the season.

But in these opening six weeks, five statistics have stuck out as startling, surprising or amazing.  Whether it's the impotence of much of the Badgers receiving corps, the cream of the secondary struggling to make even basic plays and some incredible numbers from the Badger backs, let's look at five of the most eye-popping stats.

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Nebraska Football: Bo Pelini Justified in Snap-Count Frustration

Michigan State denies it did anything wrong. Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, on the other hand, isn't so sure.

During the Big Ten's weekly press conference, Pelini was asked why there was confusion between his nephew and center Mark Pelini and quarterback Tommy Armstrong.

"There were a couple times when the opposing team clapped," Pelini said, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press. "And our center heard a clap and so he snapped the football."

The conversation that has been sparked since has been fondly termed "Clapgate." Is Pelini justified in his frustration? The answer is yes.

According to Sam McKewon of The Grand Island Independent, when reviewing film, it appears that MSU linebacker Ed Davis was clapping. Positioned to Armstrong and Pelini's right, the claps prompted Mark Pelini to snap the ball.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio dismissed the claim, per Rexrode:

We have different ways we have to move that front. Some of that is in clapping, some of it is in all kinds of hand signals for us. ... In an environment like we had here, (the center) he needs to look at the quarterback, I guess. I don't know. ... From my perspective, we have the opportunity to move our people any way we want to move them.

However, the question does come up of whether the claps used by the defense violates an NCAA rule. Rexrode found the specific rule, which addresses pre-snap defensive regulations. According to Rule 7, Section 1, Article 5, Subpart A, "No player shall use words or signals that disconcert opponents when they are preparing to put the ball in play. No player may call defensive signals that simulate the sound or cadence of (or otherwise interfere with) offensive starting signals. An official shall sound his whistle immediately."

Since the officials did not make any calls against MSU's defensive clapping, Pelini requested clarification from the Big Ten office. Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman addressed the concerns, confirming that clapping is not a part of the rule.

"In general, if a player is using words or signals to disconcert an opponent, there would be a warning and then a penalty if it continued," Chipman said, per a recent Rexrode article for the Lansing State Journal.

That doesn't mean Pelini didn't have a right to be frustrated. The poor communication resulted in a fumble on fourth down and a failed two-point conversion. That wouldn't make any head coach happy.

Plus, Pelini wasn't upset when addressing the snap-count question on the Big Ten conference call. He was simply saying he wanted clarification. Since the Big Ten's response, Pelini hasn't commented further, which would imply he's moved on.

Going forward, Pelini knows he and his team will need to be prepared, as reported by Brian Christopherson of the Lincoln Journal Star:

It isn't the first time it’s ever happened. ... You would hope that they would catch it. But, you know, it went past them, and we need to make adjustments to make sure that doesn't happen again. We need to make sure we're on the same page.

If anything, Clapgate has been a good learning lesson for the Huskers. In the fourth quarter, Nebraska did implement a silent snap count.

Snap counts might be something the team needs to practice more over the bye week. As the Huskers prepare for more tough environments in the future, the issue could come up again. Knowing how to adjust to the situation will be key.

So, it's fine to be frustrated now. It's how the Huskers respond going forward that matters most.

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Updated Odds on Notre Dame Making the CFB Playoff

With each and every win, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are beginning to look more and more like College Football Playoff material. But as we know, things can change awfully quick from week to week. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Adam Kramer breaks down the odds on Notre Dame earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

What are your odds on the Irish making the playoff?

Watch the video and let us know! 


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Auburn's Improved Nick Marshall Will Be Key for the Tigers vs. Mississippi State

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn first saw it early last season.

Malzahn's 2-0 team was down by three to a resurgent Mississippi State squad with less than two minutes remaining. While Auburn's rushing attack, which would dominate the SEC later in the season, had been held in check for most of the game, the passing game had suffered from inconsistencies.

Standing 88 yards away from a potential game-winning score, Nick Marshall showed Malzahn and the rest of college football what he was capable of doing in the clutch.

"The game was on the line at that point, and that’s when we first saw that Nick is very special when the game is on the line," Malzahn said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. "He has answered the bell every time the game has been close. He has that special knack. That was really the first time we saw it."

Marshall connected with his new teammates on five straight passes for 55 yards before a two-yard handoff, an 11-yard scramble and a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah—the first of several heroic plays for a team that soared all the way to the SEC title and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

The former junior college transfer's performance on the final drive pushed him to 339 yards against Mississippi State, a career-high mark that still stands today.

Although Marshall hasn't come close to the 300-yard mark again, he is preparing for a highly anticipated rematch with the now-No. 3 Bulldogs as a much better passer than he was in last season's wild finish at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"For Nick personally, he was still learning the offense when we played them last year," Malzahn said. "It was a little bit ugly on the offensive side, and their defense had a little bit to do with that. Nick is light years ahead of where he was last year."

Marshall has thrown for eight touchdowns and just one interception through five games—four times as many scores and one quarter of the picks he had at this point last season.

He has completed several highlight-reel throws this season, from the scramble-and-heave to Quan Bray against Mississippi State to the double move to D'haquille Williams that ended the game at Kansas State. 

"My confidence level is really high right now," Marshall said after the narrow win in Manhattan, Kansas. "Last year, I would've probably flushed out of the pocket on that play. But, this year, I just trust my linemen with everything in me, and I know they trust me. So I just stayed in the pocket and delivered that ball."

For more proof of how far Marshall has come as a complete player instead of just a read-option menace, look no further than Auburn's 41-7 trouncing of LSU last Saturday night.

Marshall completed 11 of his first 13 passes to help Auburn open up a huge 31-7 halftime lead on the Bayou Bengals, who entered the game with the nation's No. 5 pass defense at 130 yards per game.

When Marshall left the rout in the fourth quarter, he had 207 yards, two touchdowns and a 172.68 quarterback rating—his best against an SEC opponent during his time on The Plains.

The senior's most complete performance led the way for what Auburn coaches called the offense's most complete performance since the start of last season.

"I thought Nick played well for the most part," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday night. "There were a couple of [negative] plays here and there like everybody, but I thought he played well. Last night was the closest to what we're trying to get to."

The Tigers talked in the offseason about achieving more offensive balance after a run-heavy 2013 season, and the rout of rival LSU was just one more game in what has been a season of equilibrium for Malzahn's scheme.

"It's just one thing about our offense, you never know what to expect," junior receiver Sammie Coates said. "We can go deep, we can throw it short, we can run the ball on you. It's just one of those things that Coach Malzahn brings out...we can do either one with Nick throwing it the way he's throwing it, and the way we're running it."

Marshall has been able to improve his throwing while still remaining one of the nation's most dangerous running quarterbacks. He has run for more than 100 yards in three of five games this season and is sixth nationally among signal-callers in rushing yards.

Two of Marshall's four rushing touchdowns this season came against LSU, both of which featured some ankle-breaking moves and speed away from a traditionally tough defense out of Baton Rouge.

"He seems faster to me," LSU head coach Les Miles said after Saturday's game. "He could get seven to 10 yards in a pretty comfortable fashion. I went up to our defense and said, 'Hey, guys, that guy is pretty fast.'"

The light years of improvement in balance for Marshall and Auburn's entire offense will be put to the test Saturday in that rematch with Mississippi State, who has soared to a No. 3 ranking after a comfortable victory against Texas A&M.

Marshall will most likely have to fight for running room against what Lashlee called a "big, tough and physical" Mississippi State front seven Saturday in Starkville.

But if there is a weakness in an impressive and experienced Bulldog defense, it would be its tendency to give up long plays through the air. Mississippi State is 103rd nationally in allowing passing plays of 10 yards or more and 110th in allowing plays of 20 yards or more.

With Coates' return to prominence in the Tigers passing game against LSU, the continued excellence of newcomer Williams and several big plays from other Auburn receivers settling into their roles on offense, Marshall has more weapons this season when he faces a defense that he had a career day of yardage against in 2013.

And Marshall's knack for coming up with big plays in the clutch could be crucial Saturday in what will be the biggest game in Mississippi State's long history. If things go as expected, this SEC West clash should still be close in the fourth quarter at Davis Wade Stadium.

While many around the country are interested in seeing how Mississippi State's star quarterback, Dak Prescott, and his offense will perform in a big game, the college football world already knows what it can expect from Marshall and an offense that has all its faith in him.

"Nick brings something special to the game every time he steps on that field," Coates said. "You never know what to expect from him. He's a playmaker. He's going to do something great every time he got the ball in his hands. That's what we like about him, that's why we play for him every time we go on that field."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Top 2015 Recruits Most Likely to Sit out Their Freshman Year

One of college football’s most popular current trends is the seemingly immediate emergence of talented true freshmen across the country. 

For example, Georgia has gotten a boost offensively from talented skill players Isaiah McKenzie and Sony Michel, while Clemson has turned over its offense to dynamic freshman quarterback DeShaun Watson. 

In today’s battles on the recruiting trail, any talk of redshirting is a surefire way to turn off top prospects.

However, that doesn’t mean that every Top 100 recruit in the 2015 class will be physically and mentally prepared for the adjustment to playing on the college level.

Some recruits simply may not be able to contribute immediately, whether it be because of injuries or the need for more time to adapt to the rigors of college life on and off the field. 

Which top 2015 recruits are most likely to sit out their freshman year?

 

*players listed in alphabetical order.

 

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Notre Dame Football: Everything Irish Fans Need to Know About North Carolina

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Nestled quietly between marquee matchups with Stanford and Florida State rests a potential trap game for Notre Dame football with North Carolina on Saturday.

The Tar Heels began the season ranked 23rd in the AP poll but are currently toiling through a three-game losing streak. Losses to Virginia Tech, Clemson and East Carolina have followed wins against Liberty and San Diego State to start the season.

So what should Irish fans expect from head coach Larry Fedora’s squad Saturday?

 

Struggling Defense

There could be points aplenty Saturday, at least with Notre Dame’s offense squaring off with North Carolina’s porous defense. The Tar Heels surrendered 34 points to Virginia Tech on Saturday after allowing 50 to Clemson and 70—yes, 70—to East Carolina. The rankings aren’t pretty.

As Andrew Carter writes in The News & Observer, Fedora has reiterated the importance of “small things” and “details.” Most notably, the Tar Heels secondary has had a propensity for allowing big plays. Against East Carolina, for instance, North Carolina surrendered eight passing plays of at least 20 yards.

One key area to watch, though, is turnovers. North Carolina has still managed to coax 12 turnovers this season, and Irish quarterback Everett Golson himself has committed six giveaways in the past two games alone. Expect Notre Dame to put quite a few points on the board Saturday, but only if Golson and the Irish take care of the ball.

 

Offensive Duality

The Tar Heel offense has been somewhat enigmatic of late. The same team that tallied 41 points against East Carolina and 35 more against Clemson notched just 17 against Virginia Tech.

“I'd love to tell you that Virginia Tech is a great defense and did something spectacular, but it was whatever we could do wrong, whatever could go wrong for us offensively, went wrong the entire first half,” Fedora said to reporters following Saturday’s game.

Three turnovers (and two other fumbles the Tar Heel offense recovered) proved costly.

There’s enough talent on the North Carolina offense. Quarterback Marquise Williams is one of just nine players in the country leading his squad in both passing and rushing yards. Wide receivers Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer boast big-play ability. But for some reason, the offense hasn’t found a groove of late.

Fedora and the Tar Heels have remained steadfast in getting backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky work throughout the games. Trubisky has come on for Williams on one of the first few drives in each game so far this season.

According to Powell Latimer of the Greensboro News & Record, Fedora said he doesn’t believe the quarterback shuffle has been the primary problem with the offense.

Assuming Notre Dame’s offense has no trouble scoring on the Tar Heels, North Carolina’s offense will need to develop quickly to keep pace with the Irish. That being said, it’s difficult to see North Carolina all of a sudden playing crisply enough to conquer Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s aggressive, multiple looks.

Expect VanGorder to bring pressure for Williams in a similar way that he dialed up constant blitzes for Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt and, to a lesser degree, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan.

 

Elijah Hood Returns to South Bend

Simmering quietly on the back burner is the story of North Carolina freshman running back Elijah Hood, a one-time Notre Dame commitment who reneged on his verbal to the Irish and stuck with his home-state Tar Heels.

As Brooke Pryor of Carolina Blue notes, Hood will be a part of his first game-day experience in South Bend.

Hood, who was ranked the No. 8 running back and No. 47 overall player in the class of 2014 according to 247Sports’ Composite Rankings, has been part of a crowded backfield in Chapel Hill. Outside of Williams, Hood has the most carries (39) and yards (166) on the squad. His marquee showing was a 13-carry, 71-yard, one-touchdown performance against Clemson.

Needless to say, the Tar Heels must find a way to do what Stanford couldn’t—rush the ball successfully against the Irish. With balance on offense, North Carolina can better set up Williams to find passing lanes to get the ball to the likes of Davis and Switzer. And, of course, the Tar Heels must keep the defense fresher by stabilizing the time of possession. Virginia Tech held the ball for 41 minutes, three seconds on Saturday.

That won’t be a winning formula against the Irish.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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4 Sleeper Teams the College Football Playoff Committee Should Take Seriously

There is no question that the AP and coaches polls will exert influence on the selection committee. How could they not? Whether you're watching the games, reading the papers or checking out the scores online, many teams' names are attached to a number, signifying their rankings.

But the trouble with the polls is that, since they start in the preseason, perception bias is always built in. Voters don't rank their teams from scratch week to week—as they should—but only slide them up or down as if there are fixed pole position and starting grid.

That's why you have the current absurdities such as Oklahoma being ranked three spots ahead of TCU (in the coaches poll) even though the undefeated Horned Frogs just beat OU last week. Or Oregon two ahead of Arizona even after losing at home to the unbeaten Wildcats, also last week.

In the BCS era, how you started in the polls often mattered greatly in how you finished since the polls accounted for two-thirds of the standings for most of BCS's run. In 2004, Auburn never got to play for the national championship even though it was the undefeated SEC champion because it began the year at No. 17 in the AP poll and could never catch up to USC and Oklahoma, which started 1-2 and finished 1-2 at the end of the regular season.

In the College Football Playoff, the selection committee will not release its rankings until the last weekend of October. The 13 committee members theoretically should be able to keep an open mind, as they're not beholden to any outside rankings. 

If that's the case, then they should have these "sleeper teams" on their radar because while they're not at the top of the polls, they deserve every consideration for the four-team playoff field if they continue to perform the way they have been this season.

 

TCU (AP ranking: No. 9)

The Horned Frogs spent their first two years in the Big 12 in rebuilding mode after double-digit-win seasons in their final four years in the Mountain West. The expectations for this year's team weren't very high either, as they were 35th in the preseason AP poll.

But after last week's upset victory over Oklahoma, people are beginning to take notice. If TCU can shock another Top Five team—this week at Baylor—it'll be in the driver's seat for the Big 12 title. With Gary Patterson's typically stout defense restored and Trevone Boykin at quarterback, this team is very much a dark horse for a spot in the playoff field.

 

Ohio State (AP ranking: No. 15)

OK, the Buckeyes are not your typical sleeper, as they were ranked fifth in the preseason AP poll. But after losing quarterback Braxton Miller before the season began and losing to Virginia Tech in the second game of the season, they have vanished from the list of playoff contenders.

But Urban Meyer has quietly restored order, and J.T. Barrett is now up to speed running the OSU offense, putting up at least 50 points in his last three games. With the Big Ten mired in mediocrity, the Buckeyes have only one remaining game against a ranked opponent. And if they can win at Michigan State on Nov. 8, they should be able to take the Big Ten title with a 12-1 record and possibly crash the playoff field.

 

Georgia Tech (AP ranking: No. 22)

Of the nine unbeaten power-five conference teams, the Yellow Jackets are by far the lowest ranked. And that has little to do with their performance on the field and everything to do with the fact that they didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll, when Florida, Texas and even Louisiana-Lafayette all did.

But Georgia Tech is very much a threat to run the table in the ACC Coastal, as it has already beaten Virginia Tech and likely won't face a ranked team until its season finale at Georgia. Of course, the Jackets have lost the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate 12 of the last 13 years, and even if they get past that, they'll in all likelihood face Florida State in the ACC title game. But for now, the committee should keep an eye on them.

 

Notre Dame (AP ranking: No. 6)

The Fighting Irish can be considered a sleeper because few gave them much of a chance to replicate their 2012 success. While Everett Golson returned at quarterback after a one-year absence, they were ranked only 17th in the preseason AP poll, as they faced what appeared to be a daunting schedule.

But look again now, and Notre Dame might be just one victory away from locking up a playoff spot and possibly even crashing the playoff field with one loss. The Irish play at Florida State in two weeks, and after that, they might not face another ranked team the rest of the season. How well they play against the defending champs will be key, as style points may very much influence the committee's decision at season's end.

 

Follow on Twitter @ThePlayoffGuru

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College Football Rankings 2014: Official Week 7 Polls and Playoff Projections

After a crazy week of college football, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the College Football Playoff as the end of the season draws near.

Five of the top eight teams in the nation went down, and the teams that knocked them off are looking at their own bids to the postseason. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, TCU and Arizona might have earned surprise wins in Week 6, but they are all undefeated and have as much of a chance at reaching the playoff as any other FBS team.

The problem is there is a lot of football left to be played, as few teams have even reached the halfway mark of the season. A lot can change in the rankings, and conference matchups continue to get tougher.

Here is a look at the latest rankings heading into Week 7, although the projected playoff might seem a bit different as we predict what will happen for the rest of the season.

 

College Football Playoff Projection

If the season ended today, there would likely be two, if not three SEC teams in the College Football Playoff. Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State remain undefeated, while Alabama and Texas A&M are not too far behind.

However, it is a long season in what is clearly the toughest division in the country. The top team will be lucky to come away with just one loss, while the others will probably end up with at least two defeats.

It might not take an undefeated record to get into the playoff based on all the losses we have seen around the nation, but it is hard to imagine a two-loss squad getting into the discussion over a team with a better record.

This forces us to choose the best team in the SEC, and that leaves Auburn after showing that it is really the best in all of college football to this point in the year. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee believes the Tigers should be ranked above Florida State:

Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN agrees and puts them as the top team:

While the Tigers might lose a game this season—something that could even come Saturday at Mississippi State—this is a great squad that was also unafraid to go out and schedule a non-conference road game against a very good Kansas State team. 

Auburn should be able to survive the SEC and earn a spot in the playoff while the rest of the conference struggles to stay consistent enough to earn a spot.

The path to the playoff would not be as difficult for either Florida State or Baylor. The Seminoles survived arguably their toughest conference foe in Clemson despite not having Jameis Winston for the entire game.

Notre Dame could end up pulling off an upset, but the game will be in Tallahassee. As long as Florida State walks away with a victory, it should be able to keep winning until it earns a spot in the playoff.

Baylor will have a tougher road in the Big 12, although matchups against TCU, Oklahoma State and Kansas State are all at home. This leaves just a road game at Oklahoma as the toughest test on the path to an undefeated regular season.

While the Bears have not faced the most difficult schedule to this point, they have an explosive offense that should be able to keep the team in the win column for the rest of the year.

As for Oregon, head coach Mark Helfrich knows the latest loss could be damaging but told reporters after the game that he believes there is an opportunity for redemption:

As soon as your record isn't hyphen zero you lose the con and so from that standpoint it's a little bit frustrating but we can't do anything about that now, just like we can't do anything about winning the previous game, you can't do anything about losing the previous game if you don't handle your business moving forward. I think there's going to be a ton of movement nationally as well as in our conference. This is a tough conference, as we've said for a long time, couple with the toughest path to the playoff.

Despite being behind four different one-loss teams in the latest Amway Coaches Poll, Oregon has a chance to end up with some good wins against UCLA, Stanford and whomever it will face in the Pac-12 Championship Game, not to mention the victory over Michigan State earlier in the season.

If the Ducks can run the table, they would be extremely difficult to keep out of the playoff. Luckily, they have the talent to pull off this feat and join the rest of the top squads for an exciting postseason.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Predicting College Football's Biggest Headlines for Week 7

After Week 6, aka "Shakeup Saturday," it's becoming very difficult to forecast what will transpire on game day. Top teams are falling every weekend, and this is just the beginning. 

With that, Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee throw out their biggest headlines for Week 7. 

Which team will impress the most?

Watch the video and let us know! 

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Answering College Football's Hottest Questions After Upset Saturday

With Week 6 in the books, the college football world turns its attention to another frantic slate of games.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer play a classic game of "Would You Rather."

Would you rather be Nick Marshall or Dak Prescott? 

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Day of Chaos Brings Ohio State Back into the College Football Playoff Race

When Virginia Tech pulled off its improbable upset last month, the Ohio State Buckeyes plummeted from their No. 5 ranking and became an afterthought in the College Football Playoff race. But after a trio of consecutive blowouts and a chaotic Week 6 that featured numerous upsets, Urban Meyer's squad has suddenly re-entered the fray.

That development is not lost on the Buckeyes head coach, who said he'll be discussing Ohio State's postseason prospects with the team because "everyone is talking about it," according to Todd Porter of The Repository.

If not for a wild week of upsets, college football's inaugural playoff would not have been a talking point in Meyer's "state of the union." 

No. 2 Oregon triggered the madness last Thursday when it fell to then-unranked Arizona. The next day, No. 18 BYU lost to a 2-2 Utah State team. On Saturday, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 8 UCLA, No. 16 USC and No. 17 Wisconsin all fell to lesser-ranked or unranked teams. 

The Buckeyes also benefited from No. 15 LSU getting walloped by fifth-ranked Auburn and No. 19 Nebraska falling short against 10th-ranked Michigan State.

Despite the madness, Ohio State elevated just five spots in this week's polls and now sits at 15th nationally. Two teams jumped the Buckeyes (No. 9 TCU and No. 10 Arizona), while four of the teams that fell last week remain in the Top 14.

But an impressive performance against an overmatched Kent State team paired with blowout wins over quality Cincinnati and Maryland squads have Ohio State trending upward. 

Quarterback J.T. Barrett—who stepped in when Braxton Miller was lost for the season—looked lost (as did the rest of the offense) when the Buckeyes fell at home in Week 2 against Virginia Tech. But Barrett bounced back, and now he's guiding one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

The defense is surging as well. Outside of a few broken plays against Cincinnati, the unit is responding well to new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash's aggressive 4-3 scheme. 

Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network believes that if Ohio State continues to improve, it will boast a solid resume for the College Football Playoff.

"I think if the Buckeyes run the table and win the Big Ten with just one loss, they would have a good shot to make the playoffs," Dienhart wrote on BTN.com. "This team is getting better and better. It’s scary."

The Buckeyes, now at 4-1 on the year, are entering their second and final bye week of the season. They'll host Rutgers the following week before traveling to Penn State for a prime-time game in Happy Valley. Then, the Buckeyes will tune up against Illinois before their biggest showdown of the season—a November night game on the road against Michigan State.

Ohio State will close out November with games against improved Minnesota and Indiana teams before hosting Michigan in the regular-season finale. It's a manageable slate for Meyer and his Buckeyes.

But will the Virginia Tech loss be too big of a blemish for the selection committee to overlook?

ESPN.com's Heather Dinich writes that Miller's injury would come into consideration when the group evaluates Ohio State's resume.

The selection committee can't ignore the injury to quarterback Braxton Miller, and it could lend to some leniency by the 13-member group when evaluating the Buckeyes' 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech in Week 2. It's the lone blemish on Ohio State's schedule, and it has looked worse since the Hokies lost back-to-back games after their upset. The committee, though, has said it will factor in injuries. It was the first home game of J.T. Barrett's career -- and he threw three picks.

The Big Ten's perceived weakness could ultimately cost the Buckeyes, but it does pave the way for a potential run at the College Football Playoff. And if Ohio State continues to look as impressive as it has the last few weeks—along with a few more upsets of higher-ranked teams—that's exactly where Meyer's team could be headed.

 

Week 6 and Week 7 rankings per ESPN. 

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Former Alabama QB AJ McCarron Says Tide Lack 'True Leaders'

Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron went on the radio Tuesday and said a bunch of things to make Alabama fans angry, continuing a trend he started in the offseason. (Apparently, rehabbing his shoulder and backing up Andy Dalton and Jason Campbell in Cincinnati is not taking up too much of his time.)

Speaking his mind after the Crimson Tide lost their first game of the season at Ole Miss, McCarron questioned the leadership on the current roster.

"I think one of the things that this team is lacking that hurts them the most is not having the true leaders like we had last year and guys that, when things go bad, 'hey, let's calm everybody down, pick it back up and go back to work and get back on the right track,'" McCarron told Tuscaloosa's Tide 99.1 FM radio show, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com.

On the topic of wide receiver Amari Cooper, whose 52 receptions this season are 40 more than any other player on the team, McCarron wondered about the decision-making dichotomy between head coach Nick Saban and first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin:

I don't know if that's Lane doing that or if coach Saban is kind of putting the handcuffs on Lane like I've known Coach to do in the past on his offensive coordinator and we're going to be very bland and run this play and do this and we'll throw it on third down if we have to. It's going to be interesting to see how they bounce back against Arkansas this week and what kind of offense comes out this week.

I understand Coop is an unbelievable player. He was that for us when I was there, but when you target somebody so much ... I think that was one of the best things we did while I was there. We spread the ball around to everybody. I mean, I think in numerous games ... where we had almost everybody on offense catch the ball that was eligible to catch the ball. Teams could never really pinpoint and play their defenses to cover Coop and I think that's one of the things they're struggling with right now.

McCarron led Alabama to back-to-back national titles after the 2011 and 2012 seasons and the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season. After losing the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma—the first season-ending loss of his career—McCarron said on TheJim Rome Show that the team was plagued by having too much success, which influenced the younger players.

His opinion holds weight in Tuscaloosa because of the legend he created the past three seasons, but at this point, McCarron is starting to become an unnecessary headache for the current players. Alabama lost a close road game against a team that is ranked No. 3 in the current Associated Press poll. Its offense is ranked No. 2 in the country according to the S&P+ ratings at Football Outsiders.

There is not exactly trouble in paradise. And even if there were, Saban—not McCarron—is the one who is best equipped to fix it.

On the point of Saban "handcuffing" his offensive coordinators—the point from McCarron's interview that will probably grab the most headlines—it is salient to look not just at Alabama's numbers but also at Michigan's. The Wolverines, after all, hired former Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier to run their offense this offseason, ostensibly unshackling him from the "binds" Saban had "tied."

In its first three games against power-conference teams (counting Notre Dame)Michigan gained 768 yards on 195 plays—an average of fewer than four yards per play. It didn't score an offensive touchdown against Notre Dame and Utah and looked even worse against Minnesota.

So much for Nussmeier's "liberation."

McCarron's comments will serve as a midweek distraction for the Alabama media and maybe even one or two players, but on the whole, the opinion of the former Crimson Tide quarterback has little to no bearing on the current team.

If Alabama loses at Arkansas this weekend, it will be because Arkansas is better than people realize. It won't be because the team "lacks true leaders," and it especially won't be because the team is distracted by what the Cincinnati Bengals' third-string quarterback had to say.

And rightfully so.

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