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Why September Could Be Make-or-Break Month for Florida's 2015 Recruiting Class

The month of September will be critical for the future of Will Muschamp and the Florida program.

For starters, on the field, the Gators will get a chance to wipe away the taste of last year’s 4-8 debacle. Considering their first three opponents are at home against teams who combined to go 5-31 last season, the Gators have a chance to get off to a strong start before heading to face Alabama on Sept. 20.

However, on the recruiting trail, the Gators could take a huge step forward in righting the ship if they can land a pair of 5-star prospects—defensive end Byron Cowart and wide receiver George Campbell—who each hail from the metro Tampa area. 

According to Josh Newberg of Noles247 (subscription required), both Cowart and Campbell are both on the verge of committing soon.

Getting commitments from two top-10 in-state recruits, both whom hail from one of UF’s most traditionally fertile recruiting territories, would send a message to its rivals and the nation that the Gators are back on their way to becoming a powerhouse.

Florida—a program who has finished outside of the top 10 in recruiting rankings only once in the last decade—currently has a modest class that checks in at No. 24 in the 247Sports 2015 class rankings.

Furthermore, the biggest problem appears to be Florida’s lack of momentum with the elite prospects in its backyard. 

Currently, the Gators’ five highest-rated pledges all hail from out of state, and they have yet to receive a commitment from a player ranked among the Sunshine State’s top 50 prospects.

To put that figure in perspective, Florida State has commitments from four homegrown recruits ranked among the state’s top 25 players. Miami and Clemson each have three.

With the ‘Noles and ‘Canes claiming the upper hand in-state thus far in the 2015 cycle, the upcoming decisions of Cowart and Campbell becoming magnified for the Gators—who were the heavy favorites for both players earlier in the process.

As Chris Nee of Noles247 detailed, Florida was the perceived favorite for Campbell after his early decommitment from Michigan until FSU made a surge for his services. The Gators still claim 36 of the 39 projections on Cowart’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page

Of the two, Cowart is likely the safer bet to end up in Gainesville—even though he admitted that a visit to FSU last month gave him something to think about:

However, the Gators’ struggles on offense and the shuffle in Muschamp’s staff have made their pursuit of Campbell trickier. Specifically, the unexpected departure of receivers coach Joker Phillips in June—who was replaced by former Gators quarterback Chris Leak—has left the 6’3”, 184-pound playmaker with more questions than answers about the Gators.

“Me and coach Leak have talked and we’ve had our discussions and that’s pretty much it,” Campbell told GatorBait (subscription required) last week. “[He is saying] pretty much just keep in touch and watch the Florida Gators as they go through this season and check them out.”

Regardless of whether they can land one or both of Cowart and Campbell, a strong start to the 2014 season will be the best medicine for the Gators' recruiting efforts. As Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports noted, Muschamp and his team have to show a sense of urgency in order to get he and his staff off the proverbial hot seat. 

As the chart above illustrates, the Gators have never had problems luring talent to The Swamp when the program has been on stable ground.

Assuming the Gators get back on track this fall, expect the Gators to re-assume their place as one of recruiting’s most powerful juggernauts.


Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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12 College Football Players with Most to Prove in 2014

What is college football if not one big proving ground?

Everybody wants to show somebody something, whether it's a well-respected player who is trying to vindicate his supporters or an ill-reputed player who is trying to silence his detractors.

Even reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Jameis Winston, who is 14-0 as a starter and had the highest quarterback rating in the country last season, has critics that he needs to shut up.

For the most part, though—and this is painting with admittedly broad strokes—the players with the most to prove exist where hype exceeds production. That is, where what was expected of someone, at some point, has not yet been achieved...or perhaps was once achieved but now must be corroborated with another good season.

This is the case for 11 of the players on this list—the one exception being a freshman who hasn't had a chance to meet his hype, but whose hype is so big that he has a lot to prove regardless.

Not included on the list are players whose main thing to prove is "that they can stay healthy." Former blue-chip prospects such as USC wide receiver George Farmer and even semi-proven commodities such as Texas quarterback David Ash were considered but left off because injuries are the main thing that have derailed them.

By contrast, the players who did make the list are ones in whom we recognize potential greatness but aren't sure if we've seen it yet, even though they've had ample time to show us (with one exception).

Sound off below and let me know whom I might have missed.

Begin Slideshow

5 Rising Stars Emerging in College Football Fall Camps

 Preseason camps are underway, and in two weeks, real, live college football will be played. 

*Plays kazoo*

*Drops confetti from the ceiling*

But before the season can begin, depth charts have to be organized. It's a time for starters to cement themselves, if they haven't already, and new faces to step up. Which rising stars are emerging during August camps?

We choose five newcomers—a combination of freshmen and transfers from the five major conferences—who are making noise and could make an immediate impact on the field in 2014. 



Begin Slideshow

Should You Take the SEC or the Field to Win the 2014 College Football Playoff?

Different verse, same as the first?

The SEC dominated the BCS, winning nine of 16 titles from 1998-2013, including seven of the last eight. But it's a new day in college football, one that includes the four-team College Football Playoff.

Will the SEC's dominance continue?

Las Vegas seems to think so.

Of the 10 teams with the best odds to win the national championships, according to VegasInsider.com, five of them are members of the SEC. But the road to college football glory takes a turn this year with the playoff.

Two more teams in the meaningful postseason means more opportunities for SEC teams to get in, but also more opportunities to stumble and fall. If presented the choice, would you take the SEC or the field if you had to choose one to win the inaugural College Football Playoff national title?

The choice is simple—take the field.

Unless there's really no other options, it's unlikely that the SEC—or a team from any conference—will get multiple teams into the four-team playoff. Sure, the selection committee can wax poetic about taking the four best teams regardless of resume, as CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock did last month at SEC Media Days.

"The committee will select the best four teams, period, no strings attached," he said.

As I wrote last month, it also has a stated goal of emphasizing conference champions and an implied goal of making this a national spectacle. Those goals will take precedent over merit, which is a major problem.

Besides, even if it does land a second team in the four-team playoff, that team likely wouldn't be attractive.

"For the SEC to get a second team in the playoffs, that team would either be off an SEC Championship Game loss, or be a team that didn’t even finish first in their division," said R.J. Bell, founder of Pregame.com. "I don’t want to bet on that."

On top of that, you have top-tier programs from around the country—including defending national champion Florida State—with much easier paths to the playoff that would almost certainly get in the way of a second SEC team and perhaps even an undefeated SEC champion.

"Not only do you get the defending national champions (who power rate better this year than last) but you get the likes of Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, UCLA, and a host of other power conference teams with much more forgivable schedules," said Todd Fuhrman, Vegas insider for Fox Sports 1 and OutKickTheCoverage.com.

Yes, the most talented players in the country typically gravitate toward SEC programs; and yes, more likely than not, an SEC team will be one of the favorites to win the national title. But many of the so-called favorites this year outside the conference are teams built as SEC clones.

Take Florida State, for example.

The Seminoles won the title last year with a head coach who has an SEC pedigree in Jimbo Fisher. Fisher spent 13 years as an SEC assistant at Auburn (1993-1998) and LSU (2000-2006), and has built his program as a virtual mirror image of the one Nick Saban had at LSU and has at Alabama. That program is fresh off a national title, has returning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback and a roster littered with 4- and 5-star talent.

"Right now, most oddsmakers believe Florida State would be favored over any other team in the nation," said David Purdum, a journalist who has covered the sports betting and gaming industry for six years. "So if the Seminoles were to reach the championship game, they’d likely be the favorite. Grabbing them at even money, per your hypothetical, in addition to the other top-tier contenders makes the most sense to me."

Toss in an Ohio State program that's entering its third year under former Florida head coach Urban Meyer—a man who knows a thing or two about building championship programs—an Oklahoma program that is fresh off a two touchdown victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and a locked-and-loaded Pac-12, and the field should have the edge on the SEC heading into the season.

Of course, though, that's why they play the games. 


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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Texas A&M Football: Week 2 Fall Camp Stock Report

The Texas A&M football team has completed their second full week of fall practices, and some pieces to the puzzle are starting to emerge. A few of the questions about positions that are up for grabs are being answered. 

The Aggies have had one scrimmage, which has helped the coaches better evaluate where all of the players are at. They have suffered some injuries, which may necessitate a change to the starting lineup for the South Carolina game.  

The goal for the remainder of camp is to have a few players step up and claim the starting spots that are up for grabs and remain as healthy as possible. The Aggies have about one more week of camp before they will begin game preparation for the Gamecocks. 


Hill Remains in Lead at Quarterback

There has been nothing official released about the quarterback competition between sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. However, Hill has been spotted working with the first team by the media at multiple practices and started the scrimmage on Saturday leading the first-team offense.

Hill led the ones on a two-play touchdown drive against the first-team defense to start the scrimmage. From what he has shown during the short periods that the media can watch him, Hill seems more than capable of leading the offense in 2014. 

Head coach Kevin Sumlin has reported that the competition is even at this time, according to The Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman.

Either he is trying to fool the media by showing Hill with the first team so often, or Hill has a slight lead in the race to start. 


Speedy Noil Making His Presence Felt

True freshman receiver Speedy Noil did not take long to impress the spectators at the scrimmage on Saturday. On the first play of the scrimmage, he caught a long pass from Hill.

Noil was blanketed on the play by senior cornerback Deshazor Everett but went up and high-pointed the ball. Hill found Noil in the corner of the endzone on the next play to complete a two-play touchdown drive. 

Noil appears to have locked up his starting position at outside receiver opposite from Ricky Seals-Jones. The uber-talented freshman should be able to help the Aggies out at wide receiver and on special teams while returning punts. 

Recruiting is an inexact science, but Noil appears ready to be a difference-maker right away and live up to his ranking as the top receiver recruit in the nation in 2014. 


Defensive Ends Are Looking Better

The defensive end position may have transformed from a position of weakness in 2013 to a position of strength in 2014. Sophomore Daeshon Hall and true freshman Darrell Jackson flashed during the portion of the scrimmage attended by the media on Saturday. 

Hall got consistent penetration, and Jackson had a sack of Kyle Allen. Anything the team can get out of Jackson is icing on the cake. He was a late addition to the 2014 class who transferred from Blinn Junior College. 

If the former high school safety can apply some of that quickness to his pass rush, the Aggies will have a much improved situation at defensive end in 2014. The strong play of Hall, Jackson and true freshman Myles Garrett has allowed Julien Obioha to move back over to his natural position on the strong side. 

Obioha spent the 2013 season at weak-side defensive end where he only registered one sack on the season. He is simply not a natural pass-rusher. Obioha will excel on the strong side where he can hold the edge and prevent teams from running wide on the Aggies. 

There was no real depth at defensive end in 2013. In Hall, Garrett, Jackson, Obioha, Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham, the Aggies have nice rotation of talent at the two defensive end spots. 


Davis for Harris at Corner

Texas A&M starting cornerback De'Vante Harris is out right now with an injury to his urinary tract. There is no timetable for his return. 

It appears that redshirt freshman Victor Davis will start at corner opposite Everett if Harris misses the season-opener against South Carolina. Davis was playing with the first-team defense during the scrimmage. 

The 6-foot, 191-pound cornerback has the size to match up well with SEC receivers. Davis may offer a better defender against the run than the 5'11", 175-pound Harris. Even if Harris is better against the run than Davis, it is still a blow to lose a three-year starter at cornerback and replace him with a player who will see his first career action in a hostile SEC environment. 

Harris got into some trouble off the field during the offseason. It is not yet known whether he will be eligible to play in the South Carolina game or serving some kind of suspension. 

There are multiple younger players who are stepping up when given the opportunity and making an impact during practices. Whether this will continue when the lights go on in Columbia on August 28 remains to be seen. 

Aggies fans should be cautiously optimistic about the strides their defense is making, but the starters lost to injuries and suspensions on the defensive side of the ball remain a major concern. 


Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Football: How New Practice Format Will Impact QB Competition

Alabama coach Nick Saban has been relatively mum on his quarterback competition so far in fall camp.

It's largely been generalizations about both players and how he'll play the best guy for the job. But otherwise, he's been quiet on specifics regarding Blake Sims and Jacob Coker.

On Wednesday, he offered a small bit of insight into the quarterback battle.

SportsCenter's Bus Blitz was in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, and it got some extra access to Saban and practice. In a live hit after the first of two practices Tuesday, Saban revealed a new wrinkle he's added into the competition.

"We started out sort of splitting time with guys. Maybe one guy takes one period, the other guys takes the other period," Saban said. "But what we started doing here this week is, for a practice, a guy is the starter, the other guy is the backup. Then they take turns.

"So I think it gives a guy a better chance to show his leadership, show how he can affect other people and basically show how he can go out there and consistently execute and do the job for us. That's sort of what we're doing. So today, it was Blake's turn; tonight, it will be Jacob's turn."

Saban's new strategy will allow him to get a closer look at each player and how he'll operate the system over a long period of time rather than just a few reps here and there. It also has some advantages and disadvantages for each guy.

Let's take a closer look.


Running the system

This new style gives both quarterbacks a chance to run the offense for extended periods of time rather than alternating in short bursts.

There is a lot of benefit in playing like this.

A football game transpires over the course of 60 minutes; it ebbs and flows and doesn't always go according to plan. Practice is a much more controlled environment, with each repetition going under the microscope.

Giving the quarterbacks extended time running the offense can give coaches a better feel for how a guy would respond during those ups and downs during a game.

This probably gives Sims an advantage. His knowledge of the system, the offense and the style of play Saban is looking for should allow him to operate more comfortably and react appropriately to certain situations.

We saw him in a similar situation last season.

In a glorified scrimmage last year against Georgia State, then-starter AJ McCarron was pulled toward the end of the second quarter, and Sims was allowed to operate the rest of the game as if he was the No. 1 quarterback.

He ended the day 14-of-18 passing with 130 yards and a touchdown.

"Blake has made a significant improvement as a quarterback," Saban said at the time. "This was probably the first time that he's really played where we really allowed him to run the offense. We put him in there today, and I said, 'Look, I don't want any quarterback runs. He needs to run the offense just like he has to play.'"


Chemistry with teammates

The other benefit to this new way of looking at the quarterback is that it allows each guy to develop chemistry with his teammates over an extended period of time.

The advantage here is probably to Coker, who's only been enrolled since May and is essentially playing catch-up with Sims in that regard.

"I think that's a dynamic that's probably a difficult management for Jacob because everybody loves Blake Sims," Saban said Tuesday on SportsCenter. "He's a great teammate. He's a hard worker, and he'll do anything for the team. He'll play on special teams, he'll go play running back if we ask him.”

But Coker now has an opportunity to work with his teammates over a long period of time. He can learn how they'll respond to adversity or to certain situations, something that might be harder to do switching in and out previously during practice.

"Jake is a great personality, and I think the players really like him," Saban said. "But to develop friendships and relationships, I think, is really important in terms of team chemistry and a guy that's in a leadership position. And that takes a little bit of time. But I think the first step of it is the players have to respect him and they have to like him, and I think we're off to a good start with Jake in that regard."


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

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Who Is College Football's Best Defender Headed into 2014?

Defenders are often the unheralded heroes of college football's most successful teams. While offensive players get all the hype and plaudits, there are a number of supremely talented defenders in the game today.

But which player stands out as the country's best defender? Watch as our experts decide who takes the title. 

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Why QB Devin Gardner Gives Michigan Best Chance for Success in 2014

Michigan's Brady Hoke recently named Devin Gardner his starting quarterback for the team's season opener against Appalachian State on August 30. There have been question marks all summer revolving around Gardner and whether sophomore QB Shane Morris would steal the job from him.

Why does Gardner give the Wolverines the best chance for success? Will Morris get his chance?

Watch Bleacher Report college football experts Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder break down the QB position at Michigan.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Football: Dontre Wilson Is College Football's Most Undervalued Player

Vertical lines are supposedly slimming. But if Dontre Wilson looks bulkier when he takes the field for his sophomore season this fall, it won't necessarily be because he traded in the Ohio State's No. 1 jersey for the more familiar No. 2 in the offseason.

The Buckeyes' most highly-touted freshman a season ago, Wilson was supposed to play the "Percy Harvin role" in Urban Meyer's spread offense, a do-it-all wide receiver-running back hybrid who would be the perfect complement to OSU's already dynamic backfield. Only Wilson's size—he was listed at 5'10", 174 pounds in his freshman campaign—made him more of a novelty, with the DeSoto, Texas, native only accumulating 53 offensive touches and 460 yards in 2013.

That was a far cry from what was expected of Wilson at the start of his college career, and he's well aware. That's why the former Lone Star State star spent the majority of his first college offseason in the weight room, determined to bulk up to a size that will allow him to sustain an entire season.

"I've gained like 23 pounds," Wilson proclaimed. "I feel a lot stronger, a lot more compact."

Wilson's weight isn't all that's changed, however, as he's also now listed as a wide receiver on the Buckeyes roster. That's something that wouldn't have been possible a year ago, thanks to both his size and understanding of the OSU playbook.

"He couldn't play receiver last year. He didn't know what the hell he was doing," Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said in the spring. "His ability limited us, and ability doesn't just include running fast and making guys miss. There's a lot that goes into usability in the offense."

That no longer appears to be the case, as it was clear in spring practice that the Ohio State staff was making a concerted effort to get the ball into Wilson's hands. That directive has carried over into fall camp, where the sophomore has been the Buckeyes' No. 1 slot receiver—the same position that was formerly occupied by last season's leading receiver, Corey "Philly" Brown.

Only Wilson can provide a dynamic to the OSU offense that Brown couldn't, with the ability to both catch the ball down the field and carry it out of the backfield. That happens to be the same way that Meyer used Harvin during his days at Florida, and is admittedly how Wilson envisioned he'd be used in his freshman season.

"I pretty much thought I was going to come in and be the Percy Harvin role that Coach Meyer wanted me to be," Wilson said. "But I wasn't as comfortable as I was [in high school]."

Also not helping was that every time that No. 1 came onto the field last season for the Buckeyes, he might as well have done so with a spotlight for opposing defenses. Wilson appeared to be snuffed out from the start on a lot of plays that he was in on, with his main presence coming as that of a decoy.

That may have been due to the preseason hype that accompanied Wilson, something that he now admits bothered him at times a year ago. At the first Ohio State media day of his college career, the then-freshman found himself swarmed by the local press, who was looking to learn all that it could about the Buckeyes' latest unknown commodity.

"I knew it was going to be tough and be a grind to get on the level that everybody else was already on," Wilson said of his freshman season. "I just wish that I didn't have all that hype and all that stuff before I got here."

Fortunately for Wilson, the hype that hampered him has seemingly disappeared, in favor of more realistic expectations for his sophomore campaign. At this year's media day, the crowd around Wilson was noticeably smaller, which is actually what he'd prefer.

"I just gotta perform," Wilson said. "I gotta stand up to the hype and live up to the hype."

If his new uniform is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem. He may be under the radar right now, but Wilson says he once again feels like the Texas prep product who tallied more than 2,500 yards and 46 touchdowns in his senior season—and brought more attention to Columbus with him than he could admittedly handle

Hence the switch to his high school digit.

"I just felt like I needed to get back to me. It feels like me again," Wilson said. "I had to get back to No. 2."


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

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Vince Young Hired by University of Texas: Latest Details, Comments, Reaction

Vince Young is a legend at the University of Texas for leading the Longhorns to a national title in 2005 over USC, and now the 31-year-old is returning to the school to work for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

An official press release from the school includes more information on Young's official title and what his duties will entail:

Beginning on Sept. 1, Young will serve as development officer for program alumni relations. He will help raise money to support DDCE programs that address the educational challenges of first-generation college students and students from low-income backgrounds.

Michael Felder of Bleacher Report's college football team noted Young's role at Texas is something that will become part of a bigger project in the future:

Young's former head coach at Texas, Mack Brown, showed his excitement over Twitter after learning the signal-caller was coming back to Austin:

The former Heisman Trophy runner-up got his degree from Texas in May 2013 and spoke to Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com, saying it was his greatest moment at the school:

This will rank No. 1 because it is what I came to school for. I came here to get an education and to win a national championship. And now, I get to put that smile on my mom's face. ...

... I'm about to be the first in my family to graduate. Just finishing what I started. That's why I'm trying to get back in the NFL. To finish what I started. That is the type of guy I am. I do work hard—even when the times are good or bad. That's just how I was raised.

Young has had a whirlwind football career since leaving the University of Texas after the BCS Championship game in 2006. He was the No. 3 overall pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2006, started 28 games in his first two seasons but hasn't played in a game since 2011 with Philadelphia.

He was the 2006 Rookie of the Year, a two-time Pro Bowler (2006, 2009) and the Comeback Player of the Year in 2009. Through six years, he put up 8,964 yards, 46 touchdowns and 51 interceptions, along with registering a 74.4 QB rating.

Early in 2014, David Barron of the Houston Chronicle reported that Young filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. He was trying to make an NFL comeback and received an opportunity with the Cleveland Browns in May before the team cut him fewer than two weeks after signing.

In his new role at Texas, Young will have an opportunity to make an impact.

Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory J. Vincent added, "Vince’s passion for the educational success of young people and his experiences as a first-generation college graduate make him a perfect fit for this role."

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Who Has the Most NFL Potential Heading into the 2014 CFB Season?

This time last year, all eyes were focused on Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. Now, the focus has shifted to Heisman winner Jameis Winston and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Does one of the nation's top quarterbacks have the most NFL potential, or is another player waiting in the shadows to steal their spotlight? Watch as B/R's experts discuss who they think will be most successful in the NFL. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Rise of the SEC Network

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tim Tebow sports a stylish gray suit as he settles into his seat in a television studio in this nondescript one-story office building in suburban Charlotte. If there is a football uniform in his future, Tebow isn't going to find it here, deep inside ESPN's Southern base of operations.

So is he retired from football? No, Tebow won't say that word. But as he begins his new life as a college football analyst and prepares for Thursday's debut of the much-anticipated SEC Network, maybe he is right where he belongs. Tebow is back in the Southeastern Conference, back in the place where he is most welcomed, embraced and adored, and back in the spotlight.

"We want him to be a star," said Justin Connolly, ESPN's senior vice president of college networks and the executive in charge of the SEC Network. "We want him to resonate and grow his following, which is already monumental. And that, from my perspective, would be great for the SEC Network, it would be great for Tim Tebow, it would be great for the fanbase, it would be great for the legions of folks who follow him."

And it would be great for ESPN, which is about to debut what Disney CEO Bob Iger is already boasting is one of the most successful cable network launches in history.

The SEC Network has a chance to create stars on the field, in front of the camera and maybe even in the executive offices in the coming months and years. So much is possible—and so much is at stake—when the lights go on for the first time Thursday.


1,000 Games or More

If you are an SEC fan, if you live for every football Saturday, if you wear your allegiance on your T-shirt, face paint or tattoo, you will want to turn on your television at 6 p.m. ET. The SEC Network is about to become your world.

Assuming ESPN has done its homework right, you will see something brand new and yet comfortably familiar. You will see your campuses and stadiums, you will hear your war chants, you will almost smell the local food that will be strategically featured to flavor the broadcasts. The SEC Network has worked diligently to capture the essence of the Southeastern Conference lest it comes off as nothing more than a slick ESPN South.

The SEC Network debuts with a three-hour live show, SEC Now, which is the network equivalent of SportsCenter. A shorter version will air every night with news and interviews of some of the top personalities in the conference. Thursday's show will feature live shots from all 14 campuses; appearances by Peyton, Eli and Archie Manning and Shaquille O’Neal, among others; an interview with Nick Saban; and more. Much of the assembled talent—from anchors Dari Nowkhah, Maria Taylor and Peter Burns to on-air personalities Brent Musburger, Joe Tessitore, Tebow, Marcus Spears, Greg McElroy, Booger McFarland, Kaylee Hartung, Paul Finebaum and more—will be on display together for the first time.

The game plan, at least at the start, is to show 1,000 events in the first year of the network—including football, basketball, softball, baseball, soccer and volleyball. Not all will be televised, though. The network has committed to 45 football games, 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball, 75 baseball, 50 softball, 40 volleyball matches and 25 soccer games. Hundreds more events will be streamed live on SECNetwork.com or through the WatchESPN app. Where you see events listed as being on SEC Network Plus, those are digital exclusives of the new network.

And that 1,000 figure? It's a base. The number is going to grow in time.

"Without a doubt, what you see a year from now, what you see six months from now, is going to be different from what you see on there right now today," said Chris Turner, senior director of programming and acquisitions, who is in charge of the digital platform and SECSports.com, the conference's official website, which ESPN will now run.

After laying down an average of nearly four miles of fiberoptic cable to each sports venue at every university in the conference, with nearly 23,400 miles in all connecting the network, the SEC Network will be able to stream from just about everywhere in the conference from day one.

Every conference basketball game that the SEC retains the rights for, both for men and women, will be available either on the network or digital platform. Every baseball and softball game, too. Swimming, gymnastics, tennis—all will likely have some presence. If universities can produce it—and each has upgraded facilities including a completely new $10 million studio at Tennessee as well as 10 new control rooms around the conference—the digital network will stream it.


Driving the Bus

Did we mention there will be football? The SEC Network will be on 24/7/365. Here's betting much of that time is going to be devoted to the sport that has made all of this possible.

"Football will drive this bus for a long time," said Finebaum, an analyst on SEC Nation whose popular radio show will now air on the SEC Network weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.

Football fans already know the frenzy that surrounds ESPN's College GameDay broadcasts, that pregame show on campus each Saturday morning. That's SEC Nation.

Hosted by Tessitore—with Tebow, Finebaum, Spears and Hartung—SEC Nation will travel to a different campus each week and be shot amid tailgate parties near stadiums. When the first football game to appear on the SEC Network is played on Aug. 28 between Texas A&M and South Carolina, SEC Nation will be at Gamecock Park to kick off the coverage.

Hartung, who once was on a network news track before switching to sports and moving to the Longhorn Network a few years ago, now has arguably the most enviable job in sports.

"I get to tailgate and get paid for it," she said. "For a girl from Baton Rouge, that's a dream come true."

Once the game begins, Musburger takes over the lead play-by-play job, with Jesse Palmer as analyst and Taylor on the sidelines. That's the No. 1 team. The other broadcast teams will pair Matt Stinchcomb with Tom Hart and Andre Ware with Dave Neal. McElroy and McFarland will be in-studio analysts for previews, halftime and wrap-up shows.

Beyond SEC Nation, in-season the SEC Network will have weekly editions of SEC in 60, which compacts two of the previous week's games into one-hour broadcasts; Film Room, where a guest coach from the conference will break down film of a game; and SEC Walkthrough, a look back at previous games. Weekly, coaches' news conferences will be aired.

There will be SEC Storied, a documentary film series that will focus on people, events and memorable moments in the conference. And on weekends, SEC Scoreboard will offer recaps and highlights and SEC Rewind will look back on classic games.

There won't be much of an offseason for football programming, either. National signing day, pro days, spring games and months of season previews will all assure that football will remain the focus of SEC Network.

"Obviously, football is probably the one sport that exists in some form all year," said Dan Margulis, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisition. And Margulis will be sure to program as much of it as he can.

All that attention is bound to create stars on the field, although Palmer said the SEC Network won't overhype them.

"I think it's important to allow that to happen organically," he said.

But the network, no doubt, will provide plenty of fertilizer.


It Started with a Tweet

The on-air talent added so far—and basketball analysts have yet to be announced—is a mix of experience and potential. You know Musburger already. You will soon know folks like Maria Taylor, a 6'2" former volleyball and basketball player at Georgia who worked for Comcast Sports Southeast before moving to ESPN in 2012. She will host SEC Now, report from the sidelines on football broadcasts and work as an analyst for women's basketball and volleyball.

It's a lot of work. But this network is going to be a training ground for talent. For some, it could be a springboard to the mothership, ESPN.

"We're looking to launch careers here of the next great broadcast talent," Connolly said.

By the way, have you noticed a trend in the hires? Spears and McFarland played at LSU. Stinchcomb and Taylor: Georgia. Tebow and Palmer are from Florida and McElroy played at Alabama.

"Most of the folks that we've hired have an SEC connection, know the conference really well, and I think can kind of report and provide a perspective that is a little bit more SEC flavored than nationally flavored," Connolly said. "I think that's important."

It's one way that the SEC Network has tried to be authentic. Graphics, animations and music are another. (The network hasn't even begun yet and it already has its own song. Robert Randolph and the Family Band's "Take the Party" has been rewritten with SEC-inspired lyrics and will open SEC Nation on game-day broadcasts.)

So how did Spears, the former Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman who helped LSU win a BCS championship, land one of the sweetest gigs in all of sports television despite little broadcast experience?

With a tweet.

On a lark last winter, Spears looked up the name of Stephanie Druley, ESPN vice president of college networks, who oversees production of the SEC Network. He found her Twitter handle.

Here's the message he tweeted to Druley: "Follow me back."

Spears had to know he couldn't get a job off of a tweet. But he sent it, anyway.

"I was out of my mind," he said. "But sometimes when you're passionate and you feel something, you've got a take a chance, take a dive."

Druley took a chance, too. She followed him back and then read the 140-character job pitch Spears sent by direct message.

"If anything, he's very resourceful," Druley said, "So we brought him in and he was good."

Note to all broadcasting hopefuls and ESPN wannabes: Druley is no longer hiring via Twitter.


And a Quarterback Shall Lead Them

Back when Connolly was a young executive at Disney, he went bungee jumping north of Los Angeles. He called it petrifying. So how does that compare to starting a national network from scratch?

"I think starting a network is more nerve-racking," he said.

Connolly, 38, is a Harvard Business School graduate who came from the distribution side of ESPN before he was named vice president of college networks in December 2012 to run the Longhorn Network and later the SEC Network.

Don't worry. The former prep school quarterback, point guard and center fielder from Massachusetts is not all Yankee blue blood. Connolly actually has a bit of SEC in him, too, having spent time at Vanderbilt before transferring to Harvard as an undergraduate.

Connolly has twice made the Sports Business Journal's "40 Under 40" list of up-and-coming executives in the industry. Running a network is a big step up, and one that Connolly pushed for, but perhaps it's a natural progression in a rising trajectory that could land him in a C-suite someday.

Of course, that depends on whether the SEC Network is a success. But it would be hard to bet against it right now. Some of the most significant struggles of the Pac-12 Network, the Big Ten Network and the Longhorn Network have been the inability to get carriers to include them in their cable or satellite packages at launch.

The SEC Network will have no such concerns at the beginning. With recent announcements that DirecTV and Charter Communications are on board, the network will be available to 90 million households nationwide right away—almost as many as the nearly 100 million that get ESPN. By comparison, the Big Ten Network began with 17 million homes at its launch in 2007 and now is up to 52 million.

How's this for coverage: The new network will even be beamed to the International Space Station so that NASA Capt. Barry Wilmore can watch his beloved SEC while stationed there for six months.

In truth, carriers didn't have much choice but to add the SEC Network, despite fees that Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan, confirmed would be in the range of $1.30 per subscriber in the 11-state conference footprint and 25 cents nationally. That's well above the $1.05 in market/5 cents nationally the Big Ten Network is able to generate.

"This is an easy decision for our company to make," said Joseph Clayton, CEO of Dish Network and one of the first to sign up for the SEC Network. "Not only do we have a customer base here in the SEC geographic footprint, I'm from Kentucky, our chairman's from Tennessee—we understand the passion, the heritage, the tradition, the motivation of the Southeastern Conference fans."

Added Finebaum, who recently wrote the book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, "The SEC is a lot more than BCS championships or sold-out stadiums. It's a culture, it's a way of life and I think that's why the SEC Network is getting the distribution it is. I think some of these companies really don't want to have to come to work the next day if the word gets out they're not broadcasting it."

As for the asking price, it might not seem like a lot. But it is one more sign that sports is straining the business model for carriers.

"Are they creating any new SEC football or basketball games or Dodger baseball games or Pac-12 football or basketball games?" asked Dan York, DirecTV chief content officer. "No. What these leagues and conferences and content networks have done is re-sliced the pie and put on substantially higher prices for the exact same product with the expectation that consumers will just foot that bill, including those who will never watch one of those games. That is an unsustainable and unreasonable model."

Indeed, some say the rising cost of sports networks is driving some of the major consolidation in the industry, including the possible purchase of DirecTV by AT&T.

ESPN is the leader in that regard, garnering $6.04 per subscriber nationally. And the SEC Network is one more slice of that pie; SNL Kagan’s Baine confirmed the conference and ESPN will split revenues generated by the subscriber fees 50-50 after expenses. In turn, each university will pocket millions from the network.

Some of that money will go to athletes, who will receive more benefits as a result of the new power-five autonomy model and the recent decision in the Ed O'Bannon court case that will ultimately result in schools creating trust funds for players.

"Clearly there is going to be a need for some reallocation of resources on the basis of the autonomy model that we put forth," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said last month in anticipation of changes to player benefits, "to the extent that we can help our institutions with that we'd love to."

The SEC Network will also shine a national spotlight on the 14 universities, which will no doubt impact everything from recruiting to alumni contributions.

"For everyone involved, it will bring unparalleled exposure to our total sports programs across the footprint of the Southeastern Conference and it will begin to generate new fans from outside the regions of the 14 schools," said Dave Hart, Tennessee vice chancellor and athletic director. "It transcends the athletics department at all 14 schools, without a question, because it will bring that same level of exposure to a university."

The only glitch right now: Good luck finding the SEC Network on your television. The channel finder on SECNetwork.com is still incomplete.


Tebow's Platform

When the new SEC Nation crew made an appearance in Nashville earlier in the summer and addressed the fans who had gathered, Tebow took a moment to walk out into the crowd and hugged a man in a wheelchair. Immediately, he was engulfed by hundreds of fans.

"I've only seen Billy Graham in his heyday on television, but I can imagine it was a similar scene back in the '40s and '50s and '60s in a stadium," Finebaum said. "It was breathtaking to watch."

That's the power of Tebow. The question is what he will do with it now that he has this platform.

After years of facing scrutiny for his evangelism, will Tebow now be able to wear his religion on his sleeve the way he wore it on his eyeblack as a player? If ever there was a market that would embrace it, isn't the Southeastern Conference it?

"First of all, you've got to be who you are," Tebow said. "You've got to be authentic, you've got to be real. But my job and what I'm asked to do and what I'm paid to do is give my opinion on football players on teams on coaches and the games—on what is happening on the field—and that's what I'm going to do."

If he succeeds at that, there's no telling how much greater his following will be. And what might come next. Those are the stakes for Tebow.

How will it all play out? We'll find out starting Thursday.

Stay tuned.


Viv Bernstein is a freelance journalist based in Charlotte. She has been a regular contributor to The New York Times for 12 years and has covered everything from the Democratic National Convention to the Daytona 500. Bernstein has written for USA Today, The Washington Post, ESPN.com, espnW.com and previously was a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press, Hartford Courant and Raleigh's The News & Observer. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pac-12 Football: 8 New Starters Who Will Dominate in 2014

With every Pac-12 team's fall camp in full swing, fans are eager to see which players will step up and become household names by the end of the season.

The list of stars in the conference goes on and on, and no one will be surprised to see players like Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota do well. But which guys, previously in the shadow as either a backup or still in high school, will step forward into the spotlight and make an impact?

The players who replace the departed stars often have the biggest say in a team's overall success. If glaring holes along the offensive line are filled with guys who just aren't ready, performance will suffer. If those holes are patched up by first-year starters who immediately make a case for all-league honors, success will follow.

The same can be true for any position, which is why we're taking a look at eight new starters in the Pac-12 who will dominate in 2014.

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Pac-12 Football: 8 New Starters Who Will Dominate in 2014

With every Pac-12 team's fall camp in full swing, fans are eager to see which players will step up and become household names by the end of the season...

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Michigan Football: Why Passing Game Will Evolve in 2014

Jeremy Gallon’s gone. Roy Roundtree and Junior Hemingway are memories, and the era of Braylon Edwards is miles behind Michigan.

However, some of the Wolverines’ best days through the air could be around the corner—that is, if Amara Darboh bounces back from foot surgery, Jake Butt rebounds from an ACL tear, Devin Funchess lives up to his Walter Camp Award bidding, Jehu Chesson emerges as a true threat and Freddy Canteen carries over his play from the spring to the fall...

And then there's the quarterback. If Devin Gardner can perform to his immense potential, the 6'4", 218-pound fifth-year senior should pick apart nemeses with ease. Look at those choices. It should be like tic-tac-toe.

OK, you get it.

There are a lot of ifs in the equation.

But given recent feedback from players such as Shane Morris and Jourdan Lewis, not to mention the implementation of Doug Nussmeier's simplified pro stylings, Team 135 should survive and thrive with aerial connections in 2014.

Throughout the spring and summer, reports of improvement among the receivers and tight ends flooded social media.

The escalation is more than noticeable, and upping levels is the norm for a position group that promises to yield massive returns this fall.

“Our receivers have developed so much in this past year—this offseason,” said Morris, a sophomore quarterback who mentioned that the team’s offense should be more “effective” and “balanced” this time around.

“We got Darboh, Funchess—Jehu Chesson. I mean, we got some freshmen coming in—Moe Ways and Freddy Canteen are doing really well—but our receiving corps is going to be very good this year and hard to stop.”

Being "hard to stop" comes naturally when a team has this:

But there is more than Funchess to cause commotion for the other guys.

Darboh’s been viewed as a potential difference-maker since 2013, but he didn’t play due to injury. Now healthy, he’s expected to add another dynamic to the Wolverines’ arsenal.

At 6’2” and 211 pounds, the redshirt sophomore possesses obvious physical advantages—such as an extra muscle on his forearm to secure catches, according to MLive.com’s Brendan F. Quinn—over much smaller defenders.

He just hasn’t done anything on Saturday...yet. Once that happens, the Wolverines could enter a new phase, despite renewing their commitment to the ground game.

When coming together as one, the pass serves as the knockout punch while the ground game wears away at the opponent's body.

Darboh is built for that type of scheme. He's big enough to block downfield and then turn around and plow through defensive backs for gaudy gains.

As for Chesson, he’s incredibly quick and developing a set of reliable hands. In 2013, he tallied 15 receptions for 221 yards and a touchdown.

An obvious target, he’s one of three Wolverines returning with 15 or more catches—a group that includes Funchess, a 6’5”, 230-pound nightmare of a junior who’s capable of 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Butt, who impressed as a freshman with 20 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

When at full capacity, Butt, a 6’6”, 249-pound sophomore, presents considerable issues for those who choose to cover him. During media day, he said that his ligaments are healing and he’s “been cutting for a while” on the mended right knee.

Consider that as a warning.

As for the others, there just so happen to be a few hidden gems on the roster, such as defensive-end-turned-tight-end Keith Heitzman, a 6’4”, 258-pound redshirt junior who’s behind A.J. Williams, a 6’6”, 260-pound junior.

“[They’re] amazing—all of the receivers, everybody [including TEs], they give us challenges. They make sure we’re on our game every single day,” said Lewis, a 5’10”, 170-pound sophomore.

“If we’re not, it’s going to get bad [for DBs] at practice. That’s how we like it. All of that competition is great for us.”

When asked to predict what’s in store for opposing DBs, Lewis didn’t hesitate to express how he really felt. “Problems. Big problems. I’m talking about big problems [for] everybody,” he emphasized. “That receiving crew is amazing, probably one of the best in the country, I would say.”

To say that Michigan expects leaps and bounds from its receivers would be an understatement. Now that Nussmeier is in control of the offense, anything short of that would be a disappointment.

In all likelihood, his influence and rapidly improving stock of receivers will lead to lead to production far beyond Team 134's average of 247.8 yards per outing.

As Lewis said, the secondary will be confronted during each down. Far from a standard group—it's the deepest and most talented of Brady Hoke's tenure—the corners and safeties are essentially training receivers for action.

Size- and potential-wise, the wideouts are also the best crop Hoke's had in Ann Arbor.

Blending everything together will be the trick.


Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer. Video shot and edited by JJ Sports Video (Monroe, Michigan).

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Georgia Football: What Is the Bulldogs' Next Move After Losing Merritt Hall?

One of the reasons the Georgia Bulldogs struggled last year was the fact the injury bug bit them hard, which led to younger players having to play more than originally planned.

The Bulldogs were hoping this season would be different, but it doesn’t look like that will happen because they already lost a key player for the rest of the season.

Fullback Merritt Hall was medically disqualified, according to Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This means not only he will miss the entire 2014 season, but his career as a Bulldog will more than likely come to an end.

The fullback position is not what it used to be. More teams are using one-back formations instead of the traditional formations, which include a fullback and a tailback.

That is not the case for the Bulldogs. Todd Gurley has been successful the last two seasons because Hall has been there to open holes for him. So the question that has to be asked is how does the offense move on without a key piece to their running game?

Hall has played in 25 games the last two seasons and has started seven of them. He only had three carries for nine yards during that span, but he was known for his blocking abilities and creating holes for Gurley and Keith Marshall.

I remember @RGoldinGATA telling me years ago Merritt Hall was going to contrib at #UGA. He certainly did. Tough news http://t.co/e9hsddZHeR

— Fletcher Page (@FletcherPage) August 13, 2014

During the scrimmage on Saturday, Marshall was working with the first-team offense and that was the last time he would practice with the team before being sidelined the next three days. So the Bulldogs will have to find a replacement for Hall as quickly as possible.

One of the moves the Bulldogs made was adding Detric Bing-Dukes to the unit. Bing-Dukes is also a linebacker. He will bounce back and forth with both positions, but because the linebacker position is crowded, he will likely see more action as fullback. However, he will have to catch up with the rest of the fullbacks that know the offense.

Another option is Taylor Maxey, who is a fifth-year senior walk-on. Maxey moved to fullback last year after spending the majority of his career as a linebacker. He only played in one game as linebacker, which was in 2012 against Georgia Southern. Maxey and Bing-Dukes both saw reps with the first-team offense during practice on Wednesday.

Then another option, and probably the best option, would be Quayvon Hicks, who is now a tight end/H-Back. There are no plans to move Hicks to fullback, but if Bing-Dukes and Maxey don’t pan out, and Hicks is not getting time at his new position, it would be wise to move him back because he knows the position and he is a better runner than Hall.

It will be interesting what the Bulldogs will do moving forward. They have their options, but not having Hall there to have Gurley and Marshall’s back will not be the same, and the Bulldogs need to make the right choice in order for the running game to be elite in 2014.


Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Predictions 2014: Dark-Horse Heisman Contenders Worth Watching

The last two Heisman Trophy winners were mentioned by zero people in their respective preseasons. At this time in 2012, Johnny Manziel was battling for his starting job. At this time in 2013, Jameis Winston was doing the same.

All that Manziel and Winston managed to do is become the first freshmen to win college football's most prestigious award in its 78-year history. Manziel created an entire cottage industry out of his likeness. Winston became a Heisman winner, conference champion and national champion by his 20th birthday.

So as we near the two-week mark before the 2014 college football season kicks off, it's only right we take a look at some guys who could muck up this year's Heisman race. Winston enters as a considerable favorite and is followed down the line by the likes of Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Baylor's Bryce Petty, among others.

But, and I'm just throwing this out there, you probably have a good idea who those folks are. Let's instead focus on the others. We'll probably fail in our goal to uncover the next Manziel or Winston, but I wanted to highlight a few players on the purview who might force their way into the conversation.

With that in mind, here's a quick look at some Heisman dark horses.


Rakeem Cato (QB, Marshall)

First thing: Marshall has to go undefeated for Cato to have a legitimate chance. And I'm talking undefeated with a bang. The last Heisman winner from a non-power conference was BYU's Ty Detmer in 1990. A year before, Houston's Andre Ware took home the bronze statue.

Before that (excluding Notre Dame?) Navy's Roger Staubach won it in 1963. And that was a time period in which Navy had a football team that wasn't playing for hair tousles and attaboys. Colt Brennan of Hawaii (2007) and Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (2013) are the only players from non-power conferences to even get the invite to New York City since the turn of the century. 

The point being, history is not on Cato's side. The numbers, though? They just might be. Over the last two seasons, Cato has thrown for 8,117 yards and 76 touchdowns against 20 interceptions. Add in an increased emphasis on utilizing his feet—Cato rushed for more than seven times his 2012 total last season—and the 6'1" senior seems to be putting it together at the right time.

Marshall finished eighth last season in total yards and scoring offense. Football Outsiders' metrics, which tend to penalize small-conference schools due to lack of schedule strength, had the Thundering Herd near the top of their brethren.

Even the Vegas oddsmakers are taking notice. Odds Shark has Cato at 75-1 odds to take home the Heisman, putting him right in the same general strata as LSU's Leonard Fournette and USC's Javorious Allen. 

“What Rakeem has accomplished in his three seasons at Marshall speaks for itself,” Herd coach Doc Holliday told the HerdZone last month when Marshall launched its Heisman campaign for Cato. “His maturing as a person and as a player is obvious to all of those in our program and those who follow the Herd closely."

Beyond conference bias, Cato has to rely on surrounding talent that has been middling during his ascent. The Herd are 15-11 over the last two seasons. While they are bringing eight starters back on defense and Cato will have leading receiver Tommy Shuler back in the fold, Marshall is walking a tenuous tightrope.

They are undoubtedly the favorite in Conference USA and don't have much in the way of difficult nonconference opponents. A road trip to Southern Miss might be the only thing stopping Marshall from going into the Conference USA title game undefeated. If that's the case, then Cato will have played his way into the conversation.

One loss and we can pretty much write him off.


Christian Hackenberg (QB, Penn State)

Odds are, we're at least one more year away from Hackenberg being a true contender. Penn State remains outside the larger national purview as it continues serving its NCAA sanctions, and giving college football's highest award to a Nittany Lion may turn some voters off. The possibility that college sports' governing body expresses leniency for next season makes Hackenberg's candidacy much more palatable.

As it stands, the sophomore signal-caller should be able to lay some major groundwork in 2014.

Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last season, propping up a depleted supporting cast in Bill O'Brien's second season. The Virginia native set 11 school records en route to winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award. On Wednesday, he was named Penn State's first sophomore captain in its 128-year history.

“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” head coach James Franklin, who took over for O'Brien this offseason, recently told reporters during Big Ten media days (h/t ESPN.com's Josh Moyer). “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.” 

How Hackenberg fits in Franklin's offense will likely determine his trajectory next season. O'Brien was regarded as one of the best quarterback gurus in college football, turning Matt McGloin from basket case to NFL quarterback his first year and mentoring Hackenberg his second. Franklin does not have quite the same reputation. His offenses at Vanderbilt were largely built around an attacking running game, though he opened up quite a bit last season.

Of course, Franklin did not have anyone the caliber of Hackenberg during his SEC turn. A 6'4", 235-pound behemoth, Hackenberg looks like he was built out of a quarterback lab. He is not as mobile as you would like in today's college atmosphere, but he can make every throw with ease. Improving his pocket presence under pressure and making quicker reads will be the key to him taking the next step.

The Heisman will be a difficult trek. Looking at the schedule, Penn State could easily start the season 5-0. UCF is not nearly as intimidating without Blake Bortles, Rutgers is in the midst of a transition and Northwestern graduated a ton of players. Back-to-back contests against Michigan and Ohio State follow the breezy start, and the Lions might as well chalk a loss to Michigan State at the end of their season.

Is 9-3 enough to win the Heisman? Certainly. Is 9-3 enough to win the Heisman without a Robert Griffin III-esque single-season domination? Probably not.


Leonard Fournette (RB, LSU)

Because the law of three dictates we have a freshman. Fournette's hype is unlike that of any player I can remember in recent memory. Comparisons to Adrian Peterson, one of the best college football running backs and the best NFL running back of his generation, are not thrown around lightly. And the crazy thing is that all accounts have Fournette backing it up in camp.

"I'd probably say it took about seven seconds [to realize] when I saw him run the ball, the power and the speed and the vision that he runs with," running back Terrence Magee said during SEC media days, per CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. "I feel like I'm getting my opportunity to play with a guy they're comparing to AP."

Now please keep in mind that Magee is heading into his senior season. Also keep in mind that Magee is ostensibly competing with Fournette every day in camp for carries. And that Magee himself might be drafted next April.

When someone of Magee's caliber, who stands to benefit from downplaying Fournette's effect, says what he did, well, game over folks. Like Winston did a year ago, Fournette heads into his freshman season with a world of talent and everyone eager to see how he'll pan out. We don't have to look too hard to find surefire superstars who have flamed out early.

With Magee and fellow senior Kenny Hilliard on the roster, one might think Fournette might be the one with modest expectations.


"For my freshman year—1,000 yard rusher, All-American, All-SEC and hopefully Heisman candidate," Fournette recently told reporters at LSU media day of his expectations.

Carries might be the only thing that hold Fournette back from ascending into the national conversation. Magee was sensational last season in a limited workload, rushing for 626 yards and eight touchdowns on only 86 carries. He's patiently waited for an opportunity to be a lead back, as has Hillard, who has received limited reps across three seasons.

LSU may have the most talented running back corps in the nation. We'll have to see if the player they're calling the most talented running back in the nation can ascend ahead of his teammates. If he does, look out.


Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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The Moment 5-Star Georgia Commit Trent Thompson Became a Star

It was two years ago when Albany (Georgia) Westover High School head coach Octavia Jones realized he had something special in then-sophomore defensive tackle Trent Thompson.

Thompson enjoyed a breakout performance against Cairo, a team Jones described as “one of the tougher teams in our region.” According to MaxPreps, Thompson accounted for 10 tackles against the Syrupmakers, including four tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

“They are a very successful program, and he kind of dominated that game,” Jones said. “They had a hard time blocking him. Their head coach, Tom Fallaw, we talked after the game and he had nothing but praise for the way Trent played.”

Fallaw recalled one play in particular that opened his eyes. 

“I can remember, at the time, we had a kid named P.J. Davis who now plays linebacker at Georgia Tech,” Fallaw said. “He was one of our running backs. We ran a zone read outside, and Trent was playing nose and he chased him down from the backside. P.J. is not slow. He [Thompson] was about 280 then. You just knew he had the size and athletic ability to be a special player who could go to the next level.

As the year progressed, the praise kept coming from opposing coaches for the Patriots' young man-child. According to Jones, one coach who played both his club and Dooly County—home to then-5-star defensive tackle and current Auburn star Montravius Adams—told him that Thompson looked “a lot like Adams.” 

“When we got to end of the season and we were doing our self-analysis, I looked back on how many plays he made, and it was unreal,” Jones said. “We didn’t realize at that time during the season, how important he was to us until we had a chance to look at it after the season.”

During his breakout sophomore campaign, Thompson recorded 65 tackles, five sacks and an interception. That was enough for in-state power and childhood favorite Georgia to extend him his first scholarship offer.

“I think I pretty much told every recruiter that came through here that year about him,” Fallaw said. “He’s a kid that who is big, athletic and uses his size well. He can move. He’s just one of those kids where after you look at him, it’s a no-brainer that he can play at the next level.”

The 6’4”, 292-pound Thompson—now rated as the nation’s top defensive tackle and the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports Composite Rankings—committed to Mark Richt’s Bulldogs over offers from powers such as Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and USC at a ceremony at his high school on Tuesday evening. 

“He got pretty emotional toward the end when he spoke about how special the day was for him,” Jones said. “He’s just very excited right now.”

Jones credits his star pupil’s rise in recruiting circles to maturity and a strong work ethic. Specifically, prior to his junior season, Thompson worked on the finer details of becoming an elite interior defensive lineman—such as improving his technique and handling cut blocks.

With his college destination now known, Thompson enters his senior season ready to build on a monster junior year in which he logged 83 tackles—including an astounding 38 for loss—and 12 sacks, according to MaxPreps

“I think everybody knows the caliber player he is, but I can’t stress enough of how good of a person he is off the field,” Jones said. “He’s genuinely one of those individuals that will make a program proud because he’s going to do things the right way.”  


Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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ACC Football: Power Ranking Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season

The ACC is filled with talent on both sides of the ball. As we count down the days until kickoff later this month, here's a look at the top 10 players in the conference.

The basis of this list is both talent and value to the team. Some may have to carry their offense or shut down an opposing passing attack to cover up a weak front line. Others just have too much talent to keep off an All-ACC list.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of players who can challenge the man shown above for the conference's best offensive player, not to mention a defensive group that will light up the stat sheet. 

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Arizona State OL Chip Sarafin Comes out as Gay in 'Compete Magazine' Interview

Arizona State offensive lineman Edward "Chip" Sarafin became the first publicly homosexual football player in the FBS when he acknowledged his sexuality in an interview with Joshua Wyrick of Compete Magazinea publication designed to highlight the exploits of gay athletes.  

"It was really personal to me, and benefitted my peace of mind greatly," Sarafin, who came out to teammates last spring, told Wyrick.    

The piece does not delve into many specifics about how he told teammates or about their reaction. Wyrick instead focuses on Sarafin's goals in the medical field and his work with the Pat Tillman Foundation.

"It's so important that we teach them this acceptance when they are young so when they actually experience and meet these different kind of people in real life—and they will—they are adequately prepared," Sarafin said.

A fifth-year senior, Sarafin has spent most of his career at Arizona State working on the scout team. He is yet to enter a game as an offensive lineman, largely providing depth at the center position and working occasionally on special teams. Listed at 6'6" and 320 pounds, he is one of the most physically imposing offensive linemen in the Pac-12.

Football head coach Todd Graham shared his reaction to Sarafin's announcement, via Pac-12 Networks on Twitter:

Sarafin is the first active college football player at the NCAA's highest level to come out as gay. Conner Mertens, a kicker at Division III Willamette University, came out as bisexual in January. Mitch Eby, a defensive end from Division III Chapman University, publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation in May. 

Of course, these announcements come as part of a larger movement toward accepting non-traditional sexual orientations in sports. NBA free-agent center Jason Collins, who played last season with the Brooklyn Nets, broke the barrier as the first publicly gay athlete in any of the United States' four major sports. St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam became the first openly gay player in NFL history.

Sam posted this message to Sarafin on Twitter:

Sam and Collins have been publicly lauded for their bravery and trail blazing as the faces of the movement. Sam was recently given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2014 ESPYs.

Sarafin, who like Sam told his teammates long before the public, is also an accomplished student. He graduated from Arizona State with a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering and is currently working on his master's. Wyrick's article notes that Sarafin is working on a football helmet designed to more safely withstand hits.

Arizona State and Sarafin are expected to issue a joint statement this week, per Scott Gleeson of USA Today. 


Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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