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Tennessee Football: Early Game-by-Game Prediction for the 2014 Season

The Tennessee Volunteers face nine teams on their 2014 football schedule that played in the postseason a year ago, making head coach Butch Jones' team's slate arguably the toughest in the nation.

The goal is a bowl.

With the Vols expected to play freshmen all over the field, the upcoming season could be exciting but will test the Big Orange Nation's patience.

Brighter days are coming, as indicated by a top-10 recruiting class on 247Sports and youthful talent all over the field. But it's incredibly difficult to win the rugged SEC with as many newcomers as Jones will be forced to play.

Throw in a nonconference schedule that includes national championship contender Oklahoma and dangerous Utah State with its talented signal-caller, Chuckie Keeton, and UT's slate of games is unenviable for anybody in Year 2 of a rebuild.

UT will find out just how talented Jones' first full recruiting class is right away and throughout the year.

Let's take a look at some early game-by-game predictions and see how it looks like the Vols may stack up to that daunting schedule.

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Alabama Football: 2015 Draft Could Be More of the Same for Crimson Tide

Potential is always a difficult thing to measure, which is why so many high school recruits don’t pan out at the collegiate level, and why so many college prospects fail to make a dent in the National Football League.

There are too many variables and possibilities to take into consideration while doing something like trying to guess how University of Alabama players might do in the 2015 NFL draft.

At best it’s a shot in the dark…

…but here’s taking one anyway.

While Alabama has numerous established seniors on the roster heading into the 2014 season, including linebacker Trey DePriest, nose tackle Brandon Ivory and wide receiver DeAndrew White, its best pro prospects for 2015 are juniors Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, with running back T.J Yeldon a solid third due to his position.

In his “way-too-early” mock draft for 2015 (with the disclaimer, "This mock draft should carry zero weight in the decision process for underclassmen after the season"), ESPN’s Todd McShay (subscription required) has Cooper second overall and Collins 10th, both to the Cleveland Browns. Mel Kiper Jr., on his too-early big board (subscription required), has Cooper sixth and Collins 20th.

So the super-early indications for 2015 are that Alabama will, like usual, have a couple of strong first-round possibilities assuming the upcoming season goes well, it continues to progress and has no major setbacks.

Otherwise there are roughly a dozen Crimson Tide players who are on NFL radars for next year. Although most would probably be considered Day 3 candidates (Rounds 4-7), Alabama could be looking at its fourth straight year of having eight or more draft picks.

They all have a long way to go, but here’s a position-by-position rundown.

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College Football Teams with Best Home Game Schedules in 2014

If you could buy season tickets to any team's stadium in 2014—not including the team you fancy—which one would you pick?

And why would you pick them?

Let's indulge the hypothetical—but with one important caveat: The atmosphere of the stadium doesn't count. You can't pick Ohio State just because you've had seeing The Horseshoe on your bucket list since you were 16; you have to pick based on their schedule, in a vacuum where all home stadiums are considered equal.

In fact, let's take it one further.

Try to ignore the quality of the home team, as well. Obviously, the more Alabama games you see next season, the better your chances of witnessing history—of watching a national champion in action. But try, for the sake of this list, to divorce your mind from such factors.

The following are the eight teams whose home-game schedules seem the best to me on paper. Based on the quality of their opponents—and their relationship to each opponent—they would warrant my spending God-knows-how-much-money on season seats.

(Or at least they would come the closest to doing so.)

Chime in below, and let me know whom you would choose.

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James Franklin's Recruiting Strategy Has SEC Coaches Scared, and They Should Be

James Franklin spent the past three seasons building his brand as a rising SEC star. The former Vanderbilt head coach returns to familiar territory this summer as the face of Penn State football and his old conference contemporaries aren't exactly thrilled.

"I don't know how Penn State relates to Georgia State football camp," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze told ESPN.com.

Georgia State, located in Atlanta, will host a camp June 10, when Franklin and his Nittany Lions staff are slated to serve as guest coaches. The traveling tour continues June 11, when the group again offers instruction at Stetson University, a school located along fertile Florida recruiting grounds.

Stetson is situated between Orlando and Daytona Beach, approximately 30 miles away from both talent-laden areas. That's a long way from Happy Valley.

Franklin views it as an opportunity to expand the collegiate horizons of players who aren't necessarily destined to visit central Pennsylvania. He explained the logic of hitting the road to StateCollege.com's Ben Jones earlier this month:

We wanted to not only have camps on our campus -- which we're going to have a bunch of them -- but also be able to maybe take the Penn State brand and be able to take it to part of the country [where] maybe young men and families wouldn't be able to make it to our place. And I'm fired up about it.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive is fired up in a rather different manner.

"It's that kind of thing that gets us to think about our rules," Slive told ESPN.com. "They [SEC coaches] like our rule; they don't like the so-called satellite camps. They see it as a loophole and asked us to see what we can do about that."

He's referring to an SEC rule that prohibits coaches from serving as guest instructors at any camp more than 50 miles from their home campus. This mandate doesn't coincide with NCAA rules at large.

Last decade, the NCAA approved Rule 13.12.1.2, which prevents coaches from holding camps anywhere beyond state borders that is further than 50 miles away from their school.

There was a time programs used to effectively implement such camps. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano—who previously worked as defensive coordinator at Miami—previously planned youth camps in South Florida.

He was hardly alone in such endeavors. But those days are done, concluding seven years ago when Rule 13.12.1.2 passed.

So how will Franklin get away with providing one-on-one instruction to promising young players in Florida and Georgia next month?

It's simple.

Penn State isn't holding the camp. Franklin and his staff are guests of the host programs, which stand to see a bump in camp participation by plastering a marquee coaching name on the brochure.

"We're going to go wherever we have to go to find players," Franklin said.

As the rule stands now, he's very much allowed to follow that ambition deep into SEC country.

“We’re all going to do what you’d let us," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops told ESPN.com (h/t StateCollege.com). "Our point is where does it end?...We’d prefer to tighten up that loophole to not allow you to do camps off your campus."

As ESPN reporters Brett McMurphy and Edward Aschoff point out, Penn State isn't an outlier here.

Oklahoma State's staff will spend time at camps in San Antonio and Dallas. Iowa coaches plan to be part of the action at a Lake Forest College camp in Chicago. Neither team is holding the events and they're just two of several squads that will follow suit this summer.

Meanwhile, SEC coaches continue to scratch their heads while abiding a self-imposed rule.

"I wish it was a national rule," Freeze said. "I don't particularly want another school in a BCS conference coming into our state and running a camp."

While some coaches would prefer SEC regulations be adopted nationwide, others just want an even playing field one way or another when it comes to out-of-state camp policy. Count Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin among them.

“It would be beneficial for everybody, if everybody could do that, or nobody should do it,” Sumlin said.

For now, SEC coaches can only sit idle—within 50 miles from home turf—as foreign football powers like Penn State swoop in and assist at camps that could potentially set the stage for future recruiting success. At the very least, a coach like Franklin stands to gain increased name recognition in areas that would otherwise remain fairly oblivious to a program more than 1,000 miles away.

Don't you think Les Miles could find a Division III school to join forces with for a camp in Michigan? Couldn't you see Nick Saban spending a couple days as a celebrity guest coach at different destinations in Texas?

Unless the SEC loosens the leash on its own football leaders or the NCAA tightens things up on a national level, out-of-conference coaches will happily continue to take advantage of "loopholes". Staffs will always take advantage of permissible recruiting opportunities until the NCAA tells them to cut it out.

Regardless of any SEC uproar, James Franklin is heading south for summer camp and there's nothing you can do to stop him.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Are SEC Players Really More NFL-Ready Than Everybody Else?

Kyler Murray, who hasn't so much as stepped on a college football campus yet, summed up the SEC as well as anyone.

Murray, a 5-star dual-threat quarterback who committed to Texas A&M for the class of 2015 on Wednesday, offered an interesting perspective on why he chose the Aggies. 

And why he chose to play in the SEC (via Brent Zwerneman of the San Antonio Express-News): 

"If Johnny (Manziel) would’ve played in the Pac 12, the Big 12, the Big Ten – not that those aren’t good conferences – but (people) might have questioned whether he could do that in the NFL. But it’s such a great league – it’s the NFL of college."

That last phrase—"it's the NFL of college"—is a stand-alone statement. It suggests that, if you play and succeed in the SEC, you're well-prepared for life at the highest level of football. 

Murray's statement is backed by another from ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, who said over the weekend (via Drew Champlin of al.com) that SEC players are generally more NFL ready than anyone else in college football: 

The Draft has been the great indicator here the last several years of where the most talent is in college football. That's why, up until last year when Florida State won, that the SEC has dominated the national championship picture as well. SEC players, for the most part, are more NFL ready than a lot of players coming from other parts of the country.

There are as many different stories of success and failure in the NFL, for as many different reasons, as there are players. Hall of Famers and Pro Bowlers alike have come from all conferences. They've been drafted in the first round and gone undrafted. Conversely, there's no conference prejudice for busts. 

Ultimately, NFL organizations draft on how well a player grades out relative to fit and position need. 

But is there a trend? Is there something that indicates Blackledge and Murray are on to something?

Bleacher Report compiled statistics for more than 800 players drafted from the five major conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 (née Pac-10) and SEC—over the last five years (2010-14). Those stats were organized in the following categories: 

— Number of players drafted.
— Number of first-round selections. 
— Number of players who started at least eight games in their rookie seasons.
— Number of players who started at least eight games in one of their first three seasons.
— Number of Pro Bowl selections within a player's first three years. 

These stats will lie to a degree. That's unavoidable. A player could be thrust into starting duty before he's ready because of an injury. Similarly, a player could be selected to the Pro Bowl after someone else turns down an invitation due to injury or because they're playing in the Super Bowl the following week. 

Conference realignment should also be taken into consideration. Take, for example, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who went sixth overall to the Atlanta Falcons in this year's draft. Matthews began his playing career when the Aggies were in the Big 12. However, he finished his career in the SEC and counts toward that conference's total. 

Or, take Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who played most of his collegiate career in the ACC at North Carolina State but ended in the Big Ten at Wisconsin as a transfer. 

Size of a conference should be considered, too. The Big 12 only has 10 teams while the SEC has 14. By that alone, the latter churns out more NFL-eligible players each year. 

The idea is to use the stats to paint a picture: Are SEC players really more NFL-ready than anyone else in college football?

(And, yes, we've reached peak offseason form.) 

 

Drafted Players

Over the past five years, the SEC is the king of the draft. No argument there. The SEC tops the next-highest conference, the ACC, in total players drafted by roughly 40 percent. Additionally, the SEC nearly doubled the number of players drafted from the Big 12. 

The SEC had the most players selected every year during the timetable. The gap was at its widest in 2013, when the SEC had 63 players selected—a whopping 41 more than the Big Ten. 

Of all the data, this is the most straight-forward chart. The SEC has the most athletes that appeal to NFL clubs, period. 

Three years ago, Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 recruit in the nation, according to 247Sports. Though football is a physically and mentally demanding sport that can take years of maturation, Clowney is a rare talent who probably could have left for the NFL after his sophomore season. If top talent is southern grown and stays in the region, the SEC (and ACC) is going to have the best players every year. It's that simple. 

And with seven SEC schools landing top-10 recruiting classes for 2014, the conference has shown no signs that the talent pool in the South is drying up. 

 

1st-Round Selections

It's one thing to be drafted. It's another to be drafted in the first round. 

Being one of the first 32 selections is the clearest indicator that a NFL organization believes a player will be the long-term face of the franchise. Anymore, it also says a player should be ready to go in Year 1. It could mean they're the full-time starter or a rotational player learning from a veteran. 

Either way, that first-round selection should, in most cases, expect to see the field. 

That's why the above chart is another indicator that SEC players are considered more NFL-ready. Three times in the past five years, the SEC had double-digit first-round selections. 

The SEC's 49 first-round selections are nearly double what the next-highest conference, the Big 12, has produced in the same span.

(The Big 12 got a boost from significant top-tier talent in 2010 and '11. Since then, however, the Big 12 has only had 10 first-round selections, the second-fewest among major conferences.) 

The SEC is undoubtedly boosted by percentages. With 63 SEC players drafted in 2013, it's not that surprising to see 12 go in the first round—though that's still a remarkable number. However, 11 SEC players went in the first round of this year's draft—roughly 22 percent of the 49 SEC players taken. 

 

Starting in the NFL

Just because a front office thinks a prospect is NFL-ready, doesn't mean he is. For every player who lives up to his potential, there's a JaMarcus Russell waiting to happen. 

Generally, though, how do players from certain conferences project in their first three years?

From 2010-12, roughly 29 percent of SEC players who were drafted started at least eight games—or, half of a regular season—during their rookie year. That's second only to the Big 12. By Year 2 and Year 3, 41 percent of those same SEC players started at least eight games in at least one season. That's the most of any conference.  

That's not to say some won't become impact players after three years, or that being a starter in Year 1 is indicative of long-term success. Some will fizzle out of the league for one reason or another—or have already—while others will blossom down the road with the right team, coach or playbook. Injuries should be taken into account as well. 

This is merely a snapshot of how many players have made an instant impact in the NFL. 

Of course, it's not the end of the world if a player isn't starting right away. The odds are against it, actually. From first rounders to undrafted free agents, the NFL presents a serious learning curve for everyone. What NFL teams hope is that high draft picks catch on quickly and, say, lower draft development projects come through.

Sometimes, impact is a matter of depth. Former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart was probably NFL-ready when he was drafted by Minnesota, but he happened to sit behind Adrian Peterson, the best running back of his generation. Expect Gerhart to show he's ready to shoulder the load of Jacksonville's running game this season. 

Contracts can play a factor, too. Quarterback Sam Bradford has been St. Louis' starter since he arrived in the league in 2010, but many would say the jury is still out on him. Obviously, the Rams felt Bradford was NFL ready when he was selected No. 1 overall. With a huge rookie contract, the organization has little choice but to squeeze the most production possible out of him. 

But when it comes to putting impact players on the field within the first three years, no conference has done it better than the SEC. 

 

Pro Bowl Selections

Since the Pro Bowl is nothing more than a touch football game a week before the Super Bowl, its existence is easy to question. Being selected to the Pro Bowl is a nice accolade, but it doesn't quite carry the weight it once did. 

Still, many players will go their entire careers without ever being chosen for one. In that sense, the Pro Bowl can still be a big deal. 

From 2010-13, no conference produced more Pro Bowlers in their first three seasons than the SEC. (Note: Numbers do not reflect multiple pro appearances by a single player.)

Not only are SEC players starting games in the NFL, they're quickly becoming among the best at their respective positions. 

 

***

So, are SEC players more NFL-ready than those from other conferences? Looking at the raw numbers, it's hard to suggest otherwise. 

The next logical question, then, is why: Why are SEC players more NFL-ready? That's another subject entirely. It's likely a combination of superior talent mixing with great coaching and NFL-friendly schemes. 

But other conferences like the ACC and Pac-12 are showing they can produce plenty of NFL-ready talent, too. It's no surprise, then, that the ACC shares the southern recruiting hotbed with the SEC while the Pac-12 mines talent-rich California. 

There's also an argument that the Pac-12, from top to bottom, has the best group of head coaches in college football. 

When crowning a champion for NFL factories, though, look no further than the conference that won seven National Championships in a row. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. Numbers calculated are courtesy of NFL.com. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Commit Taeon Mason Talks Reggie Bush and Demaryius Thomas

USC commit Taeon Mason, a wide receiver/defensive back, is a shifty athlete who plays both ways in high school. The 6'0", 170-pound athlete favors playing WR, but he has been working hard to improve his defensive skills.

Bleacher Report caught up with Mason, who discussed what he loves about the Trojans, head coach Steve Sarkisian's reaction when he committed, and his eventual goal with football.

Watch the video and meet a future star at USC.

Highlights courtesy of XOs Digital

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Commit Taeon Mason Talks Reggie Bush and Demaryius Thomas

USC commit Taeon Mason, a wide receiver/defensive back, is a shifty athlete who plays both ways in high school. The 6'0", 170-pound athlete favors playing WR, but he has been working hard to improve his defensive skills...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Optimistic, Pessimistic and Realistic Predictions for Every SEC West Team

Summer is almost upon us, preseason magazines are hitting the newsstands and college football is just around the corner.

That means it's prediction time. Well, sort of.

In the age of instant information, it'd be silly to set your preseason predictions in stone in late May or early June, considering there's still plenty of time for personnel moves in the offseason and a whole month of fall camp to learn about the new batch of stars in the SEC.

We can still cover our bases a little bit and give you some options. Our optimistic, pessimistic and realistic predictions for each SEC West team are in this slideshow.

 

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The 14 Most Important College Football Games of 2014 Season

Surprise teams emerge every season, and with those surprises, games that appeared merely decent in the spring and summer materialize into amazing ones come the fall.

For an (admittedly flawed) example of this, look no further than the 2013 SEC Championship Game between Missouri and Auburn. Neither of those teams was supposed to achieve much of anything last season; a bowl game would have been considered a success on both fronts. And yet, it is one of the games we will remember the most—and most fondly—from the year that was.

In this regard, picking the 14 most important games of 2014 seems like a doomed exercise. Of the list I have compiled, at least one will almost certainly take on lesser meaning by the time it arrives, while a game I have ignored will turn momentous.

But based on timing, opponent and what they mean to the broader landscape of college football—i.e., this is not just a list rivalry games—here are 14 games for '14 with the best chance of becoming important.

Chime in below, and let me know what I missed.

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Texas Football: Top Prospects Who Must Finally Step Up in 2014

Recruiting is an inexact science, and not every highly regarded signee is going to become a star. But if guys like Shiro Davis and Josh Turner can finally step up, then it will make a world of difference for the Longhorns.

At a program like Texas, which is supposed to attract the best players in the country, you expect at least most of the top 10 members of each recruiting class to become a starter at some point in their careers. Usually, that group consists of the high-end 4-stars who should only take a year or two to find their paths.

If not, then it becomes reasonable to question whether those players will ever pan out. A year on the active roster, plus an additional redshirt season for the projects, should yield some results on the field. This is especially true if a player is supposed to be a starter in the upcoming season based on the current roster situation.

Sure, it can take more or less time. But if this guy is a top-10 recruit and you need him to start, he needs to be ready to do that earlier on in his career. That said, the need is less of a pressing matter if there is somebody in place to handle the job.

So to ask a former top recruit to finally step up, he must have been a top-10 recruit for his class, have spent at least one season on the active roster and must be an expected starter for the upcoming season. 

The Longhorns have eight players fitting that description, and all of them need to have career years in 2014 for Texas to have a successful season.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Why Tennessee Will Miss out on 5-Star ATH Torrance Gibson

The University of Tennessee has been on an absolute tear in the recruiting world as second-year head coach Butch Jones is trying to revolutionize the Volunteer program.

The 2015 recruiting class is already coming together nicely for the Vols, but there are three 5-star prospects on the horizon whom Jones would love to land.

Bleacher Report caught up with 247Sports.com National Recruiting Analyst JC Shurburtt to discuss where 5-star ATH Torrance Gibson, 5-star DT Tim Settle and 5-star DT Kahlil McKenzie stand with the Vols, and where he predicts they will end up.

Where does he believe Gibson will go?

 

Highlights courtesy of XOs Digital.

Rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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