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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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Skill Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Natural Leader and Hard Worker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Weapons, Weapons, Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

He then took to Twitter to share the news: 

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

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

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

His athleticism, however, cannot be learned.

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

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

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

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

And Pollard transferred to Rutgers after only one season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Penn State OL Coach Herb Hand Drops Recruit over Social Media Actions

Social media can be a great tool for interaction and gathering news. For athletes, however, it can also be an easy source of controversy if it's not being used in an appropriate manner.    

According to Pennlive.com, Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand used social media—specifically Twitter—on Wednesday to alert his followers that he "dropped" a recruit because of his poor presence on the Internet:

Hand later expanded on his stance by noting that this wasn't a decision that came about lightly. He also commented on how players have to be held accountable for what they tweet or put on Facebook or other social media sites:

Kipp Adams of 247Sports wrote a piece about Hand's stance, including a quote from the coach that further elaborated on what happened with the prospect:

If a guy makes the decision to post or RT stuff that degrades women, references drug use or cyber-bullying crap, then I can make the decision to drop them. Especially if I have discussed it with them prior, and especially in today's climate of athletics.

Regardless of how highly regarded the player may or may not have been—since he's being recruited by Penn State, he's likely considered a coveted prospect—many will commend Hand for not moving forward with this recruit. 

However, according to Greg Pickel of Scout.com, Hand's announcement doesn't warrant much attention because schools are constantly making decisions based on a recruit's social media presence:

Hand clearly felt strongly in his convictions about what the player, who was not named, was doing on social media, at least enough to make it public by announcing it on Twitter. 

It's evident Hand has a clear standard that he wants young men and student-athletes to meet. This player failed that test, so he will have one fewer school from which to choose. 

This is yet another example of the growing significance and impact social media can have on sports. As young athletes continue to mature and progress in their careers, they'll need to be especially mindful of how they present themselves to those who may be watching.

 

If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter. 


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As Weird as It Sounds, South Carolina Is Getting Too Much Preseason Hype in 2014

South Carolina used to be an afterthought. A speed bump. That program that was pesky but never really had the chance to make a move to the big-boy table.

An SEC East championship in 2010 and three straight 11-win seasons from 2011-2013 changed that in a hurry. With three straight top-10 finishes under their belts, the Gamecocks are the hunted, being picked as the favorite to win the SEC East by the media at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama earlier this month.

But is it warranted?

As the offseason has progressed, massive holes on the Gamecocks roster go largely ignored, while others elsewhere in the division gain plenty of attention. Because of that, I've slowly begun to fall out of love with South Carolina this season.

Here's why.

 

Defensive Line

Yes, Jadeveon Clowney got all of the attention as the star of the defensive line over the last three years, and that attention allowed defensive end Chaz Sutton and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles to shine. Now all of those players are gone, and head coach Steve Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward are left looking to pick up those pieces.

One of those pieces is defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, who Spurrier expects to be a force this year.

"He's played a lot," Spurrier said in Hoover. "I think he started about all the games last year. He's a good, solid inside player. Defensive end is a position that some guys have got to come around and play."

Other than Surratt, there are a ton of questions. Gerald Dixon and Darius English will likely get the nods at either defensive end spot. Dixon, at 6'2", 274 pounds, is more of the run-stopping defensive end Ward typically likes on the strong side. English, a 6'6", 241-pound edge-rusher, is the most likely candidate to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.

Inside, Gerald Dixon, Jr., Abu Lamin, Phillip Dukes and others will contend for the spot vacated by Quarles.

This group has potential, sure. But can they replicate the success South Carolina had last year with that unit? That's unlikely.

That's a problem, because Spurrier needs them to get pressure with four.

Why? Because it will help out another major area of concern, which brings us to the next point.

 

Secondary

South Carolina's secondary needs all the help it can get, because right now there are more questions than answers. Victor Hampton left early and Jimmy Legree exhausted his eligibility, leaving Brison Williams as the most well-known commodity in the back end of the defense.

Williams will likely start the season at cornerback, according to Ryan Wood of The Post and Courier, but will play safety as well.

"I prefer Brison playing safety because when you're a safety, you get to talk to everybody," Ward told Wood. "When you're a corner, you're stuck out on one side of the field. He needs to help everybody get lined up on both sides of the field. Not that the guys don't know how to do it, but that's what he's done."

That speaks to the inexperience on the back end. South Carolina's best player in the secondary will start the season out of position because there's really no other option.

South Carolina is expecting Wesley Green and Chris Lammons, two highly touted freshmen, to come in and make an immediate impact, according to Matt Connollly of GoUpstate.com. If both come in and thrive, that will probably be enough for Ward to get his wish and move Williams back to safety. There's a problem though: Both of those freshmen haven't been cleared to enroll yet.

The Gamecocks are on the brink of having a major personnel problem in the secondary, which is much worse than having a scheme problem—which is exactly why Georgia, South Carolina's primary foe in the SEC East, is being viewed as a pretender in some circles.

An inexperienced secondary coupled with an inexperienced defensive line isn't a recipe for success; it's a recipe for disaster.

 

Schedule

South Carolina's schedule isn't the toughest in the SEC. In fact, it could even be considered "forgiving." But there are some traps for the Gamecocks.

They get Georgia at home in Week 3, but the Bulldogs do have two weeks to prepare for it, while South Carolina is coming off a tricky game against East Carolina. Even if they beat the Bulldogs and hold that important head-to-head tiebreaker, they still draw Auburn out of the West on the road and have to travel to Florida.

Say what you will about the Gators' miserable 4-8 season from a year ago, but that's still a stout defense that made the proper scheme change on offense in one of the toughest environments in college football.

Georgia draws Auburn out of the West too but gets a depleted Arkansas team, while South Carolina hosts Texas A&M in the season opener. Say what you will about Texas A&M's defense (and most of it will be bad, mixed in with uncontrollable laughter), but head coach Kevin Sumlin knows how to get the most out of his offense and is going against a defense that's littered with holes. It's far from a gimme for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina is going to be competitive, no doubt. But there are plenty of hurdles for the Gamecocks to clear before legitimately jumping into the national picture.

 

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

 

 

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Biggest Storylines Heading into USC Fall Camp

A new era of USC football kicks off in a few short weeks when new head coach Steve Sarkisian leads the Trojans against Fresno State. 

At preseason camp, Sarkisian and his staff will address some of the more glaring issues the Trojans face in preparation for Aug. 30. Chief among them—and a potential matter of season-long refinement—is the development of new contributors. 

Building and maintaining depth will be at the base of every major storyline USC faces in the 2014 season. Heading into fall camp, Sarkisian is still getting a feel for his roster and possible problem spots. But he's learning quickly. 

"As we got going into spring ball and watched the development of some of the players that red-shirted," Sarkisian said, "I'm thinking about Chris Hawkins, I'm thinking about an Antwaun Woods who played 20 snaps a game a year ago, I'm thinking about Toa Lobendahn; some of the new faces."

These new faces, blended with a cast of breakout leaders from last year's 10-win team, will chart the course for USC's coming campaign.  

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores. 

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Biggest Storylines Heading into USC Fall Camp

A new era of USC football kicks off in a few short weeks when new head coach Steve Sarkisian leads the Trojans against Fresno State...

Begin Slideshow

What Brandon Harris Needs to Do to Win LSU's QB Job in Fall Camp

The countdown is on to one of the biggest Week 1 matchups in college football, when LSU takes on Wisconsin in Houston on Aug. 30.

Before then, though, LSU has to settle on a quarterback. Simply put, the month of August is one of the most critical months in recent LSU football history.

Anthony Jennings, the incumbent, stepped in for Zach Mettenberger when Mettenberger tore his ACL late in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. All Jennings did was lead the Tigers on a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive.

In his first career start, which came in the Outback Bowl against Iowa, it was a different story. He completed just 36.8 percent of his passes (7-of-19) for 82 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. On top of that, he was sacked four times and looked incredibly indecisive in the pocket.

Those problems continued in the spring game, when he completed nine passes in 17 attempts, for one touchdown and two picks, according to stats released by LSU.

That opened the door for true freshman Brandon Harris to win the job, and he's on the brink of kicking it down based on what head coach Les Miles said in Hoover, Alabama, in July at SEC media days.

"We're a team that will expect some of these freshmen to come in and play," Miles said. "(RB) Leonard Fournette, (WR) Malachi Dupre, (LB) C.J. Garrett and (QB) Brandon Harris, to name four freshmen that we would expect to have great impact on our season."

Great impact? If you weren't on Harris' bandwagon before, that should certainly force you to re-evaluate. 

What does Harris need to do to win the job during fall camp?

 

Find a Go-To Receiver

LSU is remarkably short on experience at wide receiver, with Travin Dural—he of seven total catches last year—coming in as their most experienced target.

Whether it's Dural—whom he hooked up with three times in the spring game—another veteran or one of the summer arrivals like 5-star stud Dupre, developing (or continuing the development) his go-to receiver is key.

Dupre could be the guy. At 6'3", 188 pounds, he presents matchup nightmares downfield against smaller defensive backs, but has the frame to become a dangerous weapons over the middle as a possession receivers.

Miles already saw what kind of upside Harris has in spring camp.

"Probably the best thing about him is he anticipates that great play," Miles said. "He has the opportunity to see it and has the arm to get it there. There's some real advantages with him."

Once he establishes that connection, the rest of the pieces of the puzzle can filter in around him. It will allow him to be more comfortable in the pocket and, more importantly, take advantage of the glaring weakness Jennings has showed during his brief stint at the starter. 

 

Make Smart Decisions

LSU's offense will take on more of a dual-threat flavor this year no matter who wins the job, and whoever shows the ability to play smart will likely win the job.

This is where Harris can really distance himself from Jennings.

He needs to show the ability to come off his first option and go through his progressions in the passing game, know when to take off and run and learn to throw the ball away instead of taking sacks. 

That will be key for LSU because, while it's essentially a clean slate at every skill position, the one skill position of relative strength coming in is at running back, where veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are holding down the fort until No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette is ready to take over.

LSU needs those running backs to be in advantageous situations, and taking sacks does the opposite. If Harris can avoid those, the job should be his.

 

Be Dynamic On The Ground

Both Jennings and Harris are dangerous on the ground, but Harris has the ability to be more dynamic. He rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Not only can he be a force with his legs downfield, but creating plays behind the line of scrimmage.

"He is a guy that has real strength," Miles said. "He's innately accurate. He's got great footwork. He can extend a play, get out of the pocket, move around."

The ability to extend plays behind the line while also posing a threat with the ball in his hands downfield will make Harris difficult to defend. Combine his ability on the ground with Magee, Hilliard and—eventually—Fournette, and LSU has the perfect recipe to weather the storm created by major roster turnover.

If the battle is equal—or even close—through the air, Harris' ability as a runner could be what ultimately wins him the job.

LSU opens camp on Aug. 4, which leaves Miles less than a month to decide on his quarterback. Don't be surprised if it's Harris. 

 

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

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No. 1 Overall Recruit for 2015, Josh Sweat, Sets His 5 Official Visits

The player every college football program is pursuing appears primed for a pivotal stretch of campus trips. Top-ranked 2015 prospect Josh Sweat plans to spend official visits at Ohio State, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia, according to Evan Watkins of 247Sports (VIP subscription required).

Sweat, a 5-star defensive end from Chesapeake, Virginia, rose to No. 1 overall in recently updated 247Sports composite rankings. The 6'4.5", 240-pound playmaker impressed at The Opening earlier this month, completing the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds and drawing comparisons to top 2014 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

He holds dozens of offers, and his recruitment seemingly ranks among the most wide-open of any premier prospect in the country. Recent travels to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Ohio State and Florida State provided an indication of which teams were gaining ground.

Tennessee hosted Sweat the day before his visit with the Bulldogs but is on the outside looking in when it comes to official visits. Oregon is arguably the biggest surprise in the mix and represents Sweat's only planned West Coast journey.

Despite sharing his official visit itinerary, the coveted defender didn't outwardly eliminate any programs from contention. On the contrary, 247Sports reports that Auburn and Texas A&M "could come into the picture late," adding more intrigue to the highly publicized process.

Sweat projects as an elite pass-rush presence at weak-side defensive end. He secured 22 sacks last season, tallying 94 total tackles as a junior.

"You have to be perfect against Sweat," 5-star offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt said at The Opening after one-on-one drills. "Otherwise you're done."

Teams will attempt to leave a lasting, positive impact on him during campus visits. Facility tours, family dinners and in-depth discussions with coaching staffs are just a part of the process during multiday stays.

Georgia already holds commitments from a pair of 4-star defensive ends (Natrez Patrick and Chauncey Rivers), while Ohio State landed top-10 defensive end Jashon Cornell on July 2.

Florida State seems to be gaining ground with fellow 5-star pass-rusher Byron Cowart after a recent visit and landed 4-star end Michael Barnett last month. Oregon doesn't currently hold a commitment from any defender rated higher than a 3-star prospect.

Virginia Tech is counting on proximity and familiarity to push it toward an impactful moment for the program on national signing day. The Hokies hope to keep him home, but he is clearly open to opportunities beyond state borders.

"Wherever I end up at the next level, I want to be able to make an early impact," Sweat said at The Opening.

 

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

Recruit information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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Why Alabama Needs SEC to Be Dominant in 2014

Alabama running back Kenyan Drake took one last opportunity to start some Twitter fodder among fans before fall camp starts this weekend, tweeting out an interesting theory and attempting to take a peek into the minds of some of the most rabid sports fans on Earth:

The reaction among Alabama fans was not exactly what Drake hypothesized, though. Many Crimson Tide fans said they hope for the complete opposite. In fact, teammate Nick Perry was just about the only reply that said they want Auburn undefeated.

So, Drake clarified (while also learning a lesson about the dangers of hyperbole):

Fans of college football no doubt want to see both teams at their very best when they meet in the Iron Bowl. It happened in 2013 and produced possibly the greatest ending ever to a college football game. Meeting again in similar stakes in 2014, with 2013 as a backdrop, could make for an even better finish, crazy as it may be.

But for Alabama, it’s about much more than want. The Crimson Tide needs Auburn—and the rest of its SEC schedule—to be as dominant as possible in the first year of the College Football Playoff.

Nobody is really quite sure exactly how the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee will select four teams for the first playoff. West Virginia AD Oliver Luck tried to add some clarity on Tuesday but really only added to the confusion.

Regardless, the word “strength of schedule” has been thrown around plenty of times and will very likely come into play. Right now, that doesn’t look good for Alabama.

Its only power-five nonconference game is against West Virginia, a mess of a football team coming off of a 4-8 season as second-year Big 12 members. The rest of its out-of-conference slate consists of Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina—hardly an intimidating group.

In addition to its regular plate of SEC West foes and Tennessee, the Crimson Tide get Florida from the East, which usually helps strength of schedule—but not this year, after a disastrous 4-8 season under Will Muschamp.

FBSSchedules.com did an early ranking of 2014 strength of schedule using the NCAA’s method of win-loss record from the previous year (really all we have to go off of at this point), and Alabama checked in at 95 out of 128 schools.

Simply put: It’s not looking good for Alabama in the SOS department. That could be an issue come selection time.

If the Crimson Tide goes undefeated, it should get in, no questions asked. Any power-five team that goes undefeated—presumably winning their conference—will.

The problem for Alabama, though, is that under Nick Saban, it’s had trouble keeping an unblemished record through its modern-day dynasty of three championships in five years. In fact, in every season since 2009 (Saban’s only undefeated season in any of his coaching stops), Alabama has lost a game in November—the worst time to do so for your poll standings.

It’s generally regarded that it’s better to lose a game early; that way, you have the rest of the season to climb back up the ladder. A loss in November, though, is usually killer.

The Crimson Tide got help around it after 2011 and 2012 November losses, getting back into the title game. It could have happened again in 2013, but the Armageddon scenario didn’t play out for a third year in a row.

Under the BCS standings, Alabama still would have been one of the top four teams in 2013, but the College Football Playoff may not be as forgiving.

Again, nobody knows exactly how the committee will rank teams. Could it have left the Crimson Tide out last year in favor of another one-loss team?  If the committee is indeed looking at strength of schedule, it will be hard for it to put a one-loss Alabama team in this season over another with a better SOS.

That’s why the Crimson Tide needs the SEC to be dominant this year.

Alabama will look for teams like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Florida to live up to their potential, while hoping Texas A&M doesn’t have a big drop off with the loss of Johnny Manziel and recent attrition on the defensive side of the ball. Tennessee and Arkansas don’t really look like they’ll pose much of a threat.

And so, to get a few signature wins in 2014, Alabama needs LSU and Auburn—its two marquee opponents, both in November—to be great.

Beating one undefeated SEC team and one nearly undefeated SEC team (LSU and Auburn play each other October 4) in November will prove Alabama’s worth to the committee, while helping its mediocre strength of schedule.

Alabama needs both games to be major events—with both teams coming in unblemished (or as unblemished as possible)—despite what the fans in Kenyan Drake’s mentions may want.

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Can Jake Heaps Be the the Next Russell Wilson for Miami?

Jake Heaps has one last chance to make an impact in his college career. Last month, the former BYU and Kansas quarterback opted to make Miami the home for that last chance.

Since Heaps is a graduate student, he will be able to play immediately. 

Graduate quarterback transfers have become en vogue over the past few years. Jacob Coker (Florida State to Alabama), Michael Brewer (Texas Tech to Virginia Tech) and Garrett Gilbert (Texas to SMU) are just a few examples of quarterbacks who wanted to start anew right away.

Programs on the receiving end of those transfers have the opportunity to bridge the gap, so to speak, from one quarterback to another if depth and/or talent is an issue. 

No other quarterback transfer in recent years was more high-profile than Russell Wilson, who in 2011 transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. Wilson led the Badgers to an 11-3 record that season, capped off by a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. 

In a recent teleconference, Heaps said he wants to have a similar experience with the Hurricanes (via Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald):

I didn’t come here to be the backup. I made this decision for a reason. I came here to play, but you have to earn that. No one is going to give that to you, and that’s what I knew coming into this situation and that’s what I wanted.

It wouldn't be the first time Heaps has earned the starting job as a transfer. The former 4-star recruit left BYU for Kansas after his sophomore year in 2011. That was the first sign that Heaps' college career may not live up to the hype. After sitting out a year per NCAA rules, Heaps began the '13 season as the Jayhawks' starting quarterback, but he was benched late in the year in favor of freshman Montell Cozart. 

Heaps wasn't efficient at Kansas, that much is undeniable. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But he had no help from the offensive line—the team finished last in the Big 12 in first downs, per CFBStats.com—or his receivers, none of whom caught more than one touchdown pass. Head coach Charlie Weis explained this at Big 12 media days: 

With the nature of the offense we've been running from the last couple of years, I think the true dropback quarterbacks have been exposed. When you're playing with marginal offensive line, playing with marginal wide receivers, when you're playing marginal every position except for running back, you get exposed. Changing the mentality on offense, going to a more spread out, wide‐open offense with an athletic quarterback, hides a lot of sins.

Weis has traditionally coached dropback passers, but Cozart is more mobile. There was no future for Heaps at Kansas if Weis was changing his offensive philosophy. 

At Miami, Heaps will have an offense that's more suited to his skill set. The Hurricanes have an experienced and large offensive line, a dynamic playmaker in running back Duke Johnson and speedy wide receiver Stacy Coley. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to know the Hurricanes, the preseason pick to win the ACC Coastal, are a far better team talent-wise than the Jayhawks. 

Any quarterback can look good with a solid running game and time to throw. That goes for Heaps or anyone else who starts for the 'Canes. For as underwhelming as Heaps' college career has been, it's possible he can still be an effective piece of the offense. He's been playing off and on since he was a freshman in 2010. Experience in all kinds of situations, good and bad, is one thing he definitely has.

The rest of the situation, as Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports tweets, is a little odd:

If Heaps doesn't win the starting job (a possibility) or play well (also a possibility), it's not clear which direction Miami would go. Ryan Williams, the presumed starter before tearing his ACL in the spring, is out indefinitely. Kevin Olsen and Brad Kaaya are the other options. 

Certainly, Heaps seems like an early favorite. However, what he won't be is the true difference-maker that elevates Miami's offense to another level. When Wilson went to Wisconsin, he brought another dimension to what had been solely a ground-and-pound offense. Wilson was pass-first quarterback, but his athleticism allowed the Badgers to extend plays and open up the playbook. 

Heaps simply doesn't give those same options to Miami. By his own admission, he said on the teleconference that he won't be “taking off for 80-yard touchdowns running." That doesn't mean that he can't be the starter or play well in 2014. It means that opposing defenses won't have to account for him in the same way. 

As long as Miami wins, though, it won't matter. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com

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Auburn, Clemson Announce Future Home-and-Home Football Series

College football fans, rejoice!

Auburn announced Wednesday that is has scheduled a home-and-home series with Clemson that will start at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2016 and conclude at Memorial Stadium in 2017.

The first meeting of that series becomes the latest addition to a stacked schedule of of games on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016:

Despite playing in different conferences, the Tigers and Tigers actually have a long-running series that dates all the way back to 1899. They played fairly consistently through 1971, but took a long hiatus before meeting in the 1998 Peach Bowl. After meeting again in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the schools decided to renew the regular-season rivalry with a three-game series in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Auburn won the first of those three meetings, and Clemson won the final two.

The first two games of that recent series were a home-and-home setup, but the third was played at the Georgia Dome to open the 2012 season. Now they are returning to the traditional format, and ESPN 680 Radio host Mark Ennis—like the ostensible majority of people—is happy that the games will be played on campuses:

For Auburn, playing Clemson will satisfy the new SEC mandate for at least one nonconference opponent to come from a power-five league. Despite having many weaker opponents to choose from, the Tigers agreed to play a Clemson team that always manages to be competitive, and they deserve some credit for doing so.

Clemson also deserves some credit, as it is no stranger to playing the SEC blue-bloods. It will finish a home-and-home with Georgia in 2014, and it also plays an annual rivalry game against South Carolina.

One can only hope that the College Football Playoff will compel teams to schedule more nonconference games such as this one. In the past, losing early could derail a team's national title hopes in September. But now, there's a chance that it won't be as crippling.

"We don’t think in terms of most deserving on the resume," said CFP selection committee chairman Jeff Long on how the four-team playoff will be chosen, per Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News. "We’re focused on the best four teams and the best ranking in the [playoff] top 25. Again, our focus is the best, not deserving."

Agreeing to play each other gives Auburn and Clemson a chance to prove their merits in the first few weeks of the season. Even if they lose, showing well against a good team is something the selection committee will take into account. It's hard to say that for sure until we see the process in action, but it certainly seems like the case.

And if it is, games like this could be the start of a very cool trend in college football scheduling.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Biggest Storylines Heading into Ohio State Fall Camp

When the Ohio State football team takes the field for the start of fall camp on Monday, it will do so with both national championship aspirations and expectations. The Buckeyes fell short of their goal of playing for the crystal ball a season ago and will now have to qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff in order to capture a national title.

But before the Buckeyes can start thinking about selection committees or even their first (official) conference championship since 2009, Ohio State must first focus on its third fall camp under the direction of Urban Meyer. And as is often the case when it comes to Meyer, there won't be any shortage of storylines in Columbus as Ohio State sets sail for a pivotal 2014 season.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the Buckeyes' top storylines entering the fall camp season.

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Will Muschamp Offers Football Tickets in Exchange for Twitter Lessons

Learning to navigate Twitter is a bit like poling through the Everglades.

You’re going to mess up, poke something you shouldn’t have poked and end up chin-deep in snake droppings.

Will Muschamp is trying to learn from his Twitter misadventures and keep this nightmare from happening. 

While attempting to direct-message a recruit, the University of Florida football coach accidentally tweeted a message to his 56,000 followers on Monday.

Muschamp would prefer this doesn’t happen again, and he’s willing to shell out tickets for lessons in working the pneumatic tube system of snark that is Twitter. 

The coach tweeted out his offer on Wednesday morning. Tickets for tweet lessons, everyone: 

Sounds like a #gooddeal to me, coach.

Muschamp probably owns one of the better Twitter accounts for a college coach. It’s football-centric, but he clearly writes his own material.

“#NumberSign” all day long, coach. Just don’t wander into “#FSUTwitter.”

That lesson's free.

 

Follow me on Twitter for more sports and pop culture news.

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Arizona State Football: Roadblocks Between the Sun Devils and the Pac-12 Title

The Arizona State Sun Devils need to answer a few questions if they are going to win the 2014 Pac-12 title.

First question: Who is going to step up on defense?

Next question: Can they slow down Stanford?

The biggest hurdle the Devils faced last season was that team up in Palo Alto, California. The Stanford Cardinal moved the ball with ease against ASU while preventing the big plays that the Devils have thrived on for the last few years.

Flash back to September 21, 2013. The Devils were coming off of a huge win against Wisconsin at home. While the win itself was a bit controversial, the implications were monumental. ASU was finally living up to expectations, and head coach Todd Graham was building something that fans of the Devils had long been waiting for.

Stanford didn't care.

The Cardinal dominated in all phases of the game, scoring 42 points, 29 of which came in the first half. The defense forced two turnovers and had three sacks. Special teams blocked two punts and recorded a safety. The offense hit pay dirt twice through the air and three times by land.

Simply put, the No. 5-ranked team in AP's Top 25 (via ESPN.com) looked like it.

After the loss, ASU's first in the Pac-12, the Devils wouldn't lose another conference game until 11 weeks later.

ASU rolled into the Pac-12 title game on home turf riding a seven-game winning streak. The Devils had defined themselves over the course of the season as a team that could compete with anybody. Players like D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong had emerged as key contributors to a powerful offense. The Devils thought they were prepared for a visit from the Cardinal.

 

Stanford didn't care.

The script was the same. Stanford ran the ball early and often and had the game locked up by halftime.

Possibly the scariest thing about the next meeting with the Cardinal is that the 2014 iteration of the Sun Devils is missing nine defensive starters from its 2013 self. Many of the players lining up on defense this fall will be freshmen or JUCO transfers.

But there are positives. In an interview during the Pac-12's annual media day at Paramount Pictures Studio, Coach Graham had this to say, per ASU's official website:

We have 70 players out of 110 that are operating at 3.0 or higher [grade-point average]. This is the smartest team I've had. The team with the best character I've ever had, and I have a lot of confidence this will be the best football team we've put on the field at Arizona State.

So, assuming the coaching staff can put together a competent defense, what other challenges are facing the defending Pac-12 South champions?

The Devils face a still-trying-to-get-out-of-a-deep-institutional-hole USC program, a UCLA team that boasts a potential top-five NFL draft pick at quarterback in Brett Hundley and, potentially, a team that has treated ASU even worse than Stanford in recent times: Oregon.

ASU hasn't bested the Oregon Ducks since 2004, when Andrew Walter was the starting QB for the Devils. A full decade of beatdowns later, it could be Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota and his Nike-clad Ducks waiting for the opportunity to ruin Arizona State's bid for a conference title.

While the season is chock-full of pitfalls, not the least of which being the 10 returning starting QBs in the conference, the Devils can be confident they possess one of the most potent offenses in the country. From the emergence of do-it-all tailback Foster to the explosive Strong, quarterback Taylor Kelly has all the weapons he could ask for in his bid to bring home the Pac-12 title.

It's like Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral.com says:

"Let's just take a deep preseason breath and accept that if ASU gives up 30 or more points in some games and still wins, that's what this season is meant to be. And didn't you old-timers used to love that in the WAC days?"

Regardless of the questions asked of Arizona State this fall, the answer is clear.

Just keep scoring.

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