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SEC Football: 10 Scariest Nonconference Games for 2014

Few entities in sports wear the bull's-eye on their backs more proudly than the college football programs in the SEC.

What has for years been heralded as the nation’s top conference prides itself on unveiling new banners and increasing space in the trophy cases for new hardware.

The 2014 season promises to provide one of the toughest challenges for SEC dominance, though. In case you haven’t noticed, the Pac-12 is very good and loaded with returning quarterback talent, only ramping up the competition for top conference honors. Stanford, Oregon and UCLA should be among the national elite teams. The middle class is just as tough, with teams like Arizona, Arizona State, USC and Washington making life out west difficult.

The Big Ten has three legitimate Top 10 contenders as well in Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Furthermore, the departure of several key quarterbacks—Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, to name three—leaves the SEC relying on either new quarterbacks to produce right away or new teams to step up to carry the conference banner.

Teams like Florida, Mississippi State and Ole Miss—all of which return quarterbacks—need to improve for the league to maintain its reign over public opinion.

Today we examine 10 nonconference games critical in the SEC’s quest to remain the consensus pick as the nation’s top football conference.

We determined these games by considering the likelihood of a loss, what that loss would mean in the big picture to the conference and when and where the game is played.

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The Return of Utah State Quarterback Chuckie Keeton, CFB's Most Exciting Talent

His response, in many ways, was poetic. After all, it’s the unexpected that put him in this trying situation in the first place.

But when Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton rummaged for the appropriate words to describe his improvisational, chaotic and wildly successful style of play, he provided a window into his mindset.

“For me, it’s the unexpected,” Keeton says, virtually beaming through the telephone while talking about his playing style. “Everyone knows how a play is supposed to look when everything happens perfectly fine. But when things don’t go that way…”

Let’s stop it there for a moment, because this part’s important. This is where Chuckie Keeton approaches glorified Manziel-ian air.

They are very different players despite their master's degrees in impulse production, but each warrants your utmost attention on every single dropback. It’s for this reason I implore you to bookmark Keeton. Set your DVR, study the schedule accordingly and do whatever it takes to see his each and every play.

You’re likely to witness something you’ve never seen before, like when he lost his shoe mid-play against Utah and still managed to calmly pick up 16 yards and a first down.

He doesn’t garner the same consideration that Manziel or other great improv artists do nationally, but much of this is because he plays in the Mountain West (and formerly in the WAC). Still, his cult-like following has grown each year. With every magical escape and touchdown pass—every unexpected moment—he has become increasingly difficult to ignore.

The unexpected had been good to the 6'2", 200-pound QB through his first three seasons, although it turned on him on October 10 of last year.

Late in the first quarter against Utah, BYU defensive tackle Remington Peck wrapped his arms around the QB trying to deliver another highlight-reel moment. Unable to escape the tackle, however, Keeton fell almost straight downward.

There wasn’t a pop, according to Keeton; no warning signs for the serious injuries that he has since heard plenty of. Instead, it was more of an intense stretch, followed by intense pain and then a tsunami of concern.

“It was definitely a different type of pain that I had never felt before,” Keeton said on the injury. “I didn’t hear a pop, but I was hurting immediately after that.”

When Keeton went down, he had played only 20 quarters in the 2013 season. In that time, he had nearly a 70 percent completion percentage—good for fourth nationally—and accounted for 20 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Most quarterbacks would sell their non-throwing shoulder for a 20-touchdown, two-interception season. It took Keeton just five games and 11 minutes.

And then, in one awkward fall, college football’s most exciting talent was sidelined for the rest of the season.

The stretching sensation Keeton felt turned out to be his left knee’s ACL and MCL giving way. His season, as brilliant as it was shaping to be, was shut down following surgery.

“We were having a pretty good year,” Keeton said. “At first it was a very difficult thing to deal with.”

But it got easier. The competitive makeup of the athlete set in. His on-field mindset morphed to the therapy room. He spent countless hours rebuilding a knee that had made so many defenders look foolish over the past few seasons.

As Utah State continued on without its star, Keeton continued on his road to recovery with a realistic approach at what just happened and what had to happen next.

“I know a lot of people wanted to feel sorry for me, but I didn’t worry about it much,” Keeton said. “I understood the situation, the severity of my tear and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it.”

So he worked tirelessly for seven months straight.

Keeton was unable to participate in Utah State’s spring practice, although he was finally cleared for football activities last week. While his progress is undeniable, he’s not quite ready for game action yet. If the Aggies were to play tomorrow—they don’t—Keeton acknowledged that he might still be on the sidelines.

“We’re trying to be smart about this,” Keeton said on his status. “But I feel good about my knee and the doctors feel really good about where we are right now.”

Even though “cleared” is accompanied by fine print, Keeton doesn’t care. It’s progress. He remembers the post-surgery days, the days when he struggled to even walk: like putting a 35 mph governor on a Porsche 911, the injury has only made him hungrier to see the field again.

He remains patient, but he’s also itching to return.

“If I get hit 17 times, I’ll just take it,” Keeton laughed when talking about his desire to see the field. “I’ll be okay with anything that happens from now on, because I’m just thrilled to be where I’m at. It’s been such a long journey.”

The journey, while turbulent, has by no means halted his development. Despite his inability to take more reps and throw passes to a rebuilt group of wide receivers, Keeton hasn’t changed his offseason routine.

As he has since his freshman season, Keeton once again studied all his “bad” plays. His offseason included an examination of every incompletion, sack and interception from the previous year.

Perhaps it was a bad throw, or maybe it was simply a missed protection. For whatever the reason, he wants to know why it happened and ensure the same mistake doesn’t happen again.

While this year’s examination was somewhat abbreviated due to injury—and also because the pool of mistakes was somewhat minuscule—the assessment of his game has continued.

“I was a little too quick to get out of the pocket,” Keeton said after reviewing his game. “I have to be more patient and let plays develop. It has really come through with all the film that I’ve watched.”

The film, therapy and recovery will run right into fall practice, at which point Keeton is expected to be 100 percent. It’s at that point the journey will turn its focus to a new chapter, one that is familiar in many ways.

Keeton’s first start of his career came at Auburn in September of 2011 as a freshman. He played well in the 42-38 loss—scoring twice while completing 70 percent of his passes without an interception. In his final year at Utah State, he’ll get a crack at the SEC in Week 1 once again.

“It’s coming full circle for me personally,” Keeton said.

The Aggies will travel to Knoxville to take on one of the hottest programs in the country. As if his return wasn’t going to be anticipated enough, Keeton will take on Butch Jones’ Tennessee Vols in prime time.

“This is a known name, and being able to play a program like Tennessee is a big deal,” Keeton said. “It’s also going to set the tone for our season.

“If we play well and get a win, it’s going to set a standard.”

For Keeton, this will also present an opportunity to grow his cult following at an exponential rate, all in one evening. He’ll be able to give NFL scouts something to think about, a next step he doesn’t run from but one he isn’t worried about right now.

Right now it’s about Tennessee and the opportunity to increase the brand awareness of Utah State. He’s more concerned with that than grabbing the individual fanfare that has been mysteriously absent.

While the perception of the school has drastically changed in the QB’s first three seasons—especially when the team went 11-2 in 2012 under current Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen—it’s not where it should be. Not for a program that has lost to USC, Wisconsin and Utah in the past two years by a combined 9 points. The Aggies have also beaten Utah in this time.

“We’ve given everyone excuses to not back us 100 percent,” Keeton said on the lack of respect for the program. “We have the opportunity to get everything we want—get our recognition. Until then, it’s our motivation to do great things.”

Motivation is not a problem with Keeton, not after he has spent the last seven months rebuilding his body and fine-tuning his unmistakable craft. He has put everything into this comeback, and he’s making the most of his final season as a collegiate quarterback. Now it’s a question of what happens next.

It’s the next chapter of the unexpected. And Keeton wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Adam Kramer is the College Football National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5-Star QB Kyler Murray Reportedly Sets Decision Date

Quarterback Kyler Murray is reportedly entering the final stretch of a frenzied recruiting process.

The Texas standout will announce his collegiate commitment May 28, according to ESPN.com's Gerry Hamilton:

The 5'11", 170-pound prospect has enjoyed an illustrious career at Allen High School. Murray remains unbeaten as a starter, claiming two Texas state titles along the way.

His recruitment heated up after a sensational sophomore season that featured more than 3,300 total yards and 42 touchdowns. Scholarship offers from the likes of Ohio State, Texas, Clemson, Texas A&M and Arizona State soon followed.

Cal, TCU and Notre Dame joined the mix by the time he earned his second straight state championship. Oregon, Florida and Auburn have also inserted themselves as teams to consider.

Murray, a 5-star recruit, ranks among the most productive players in the country during the past two seasons. When you pair statistical achievements with his winning pedigree, it's apparent why so many programs are in pursuit of the dual-threat playmaker.

Murray made a major leap in passing production last fall, attempting 76 more passes than the previous season. Despite a spike in Allen's aerial attack, he still managed to nearly match his rushing totals from 2012.

The poise and patience he displays in the pocket keeps downfield passing plays alive. However, he isn't hesitant to tuck the ball and do damage with his legs when the defensive front begins to apply pressure.

Respected quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr., who tutored 2012 Heisman Trophy Winner Johnny Manziel and works with Nike's Elite 11 passing camps, recognizes Murray's abilities beyond the field. He identified the rising senior as a high-character player with leadership skills during a conversation (subscription required) with 247Sports reporter Jeff Tarpley.

He’s got the right kind of temperament that can not just fit into a locker room but can lead it, especially for someone with so much hype and praise. A lot of those kids envision that as a crown and they put it on and it kind of interprets itself in different ways but not with Kyler.

Oregon, Auburn, Clemson and Ohio State figure to emerge as finalist candidates in the coming weeks, but it may be hard to contend with an in-state option. Murray has serious family ties to Texas A&M.

His father, Kevin Murray, earned All-American honors as an Aggies quarterback in the mid-1980s. He departed as the program's all-time winningest quarterback (a record since broken) and was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2012.

Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin has hosted Murray on campus several times, and the Aggies are viewed as a strong favorite. Experts project Murray to sign with Texas A&M in 98 percent of 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictions

However, the team signed No. 1 overall 2014 quarterback Kyle Allen in February, so early playing time could be hard to find in College Station. That could open the door for other options.

Murray, rated No. 2 nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks in 247Sports' composite rankings, is just three weeks away from revealing his intentions for the next phase of his football career. Expect each contending team to prepare a final sales pitch in preparation for the announcement.

 

Recruit information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Top College Football Position Battles Remaining Post 2014 Spring Practice

Spring games are officially over, which means the real offseason has officially begun. Yep, it's going to be three long months before preseason camp gets underway. 

All that's left for anyone to chew on are preseason watch lists. (And, congratulations, you've been named to every single one!) 

Still, not every position battle was solved this spring. Far from it, actually. From quarterback battles to replacing key defenders, which battles will carry over into the summer and preseason camp? 

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5 2015 Recruits South Carolina Gamecocks Fans Should Be Following This Summer

The summer recruiting trail is starting to pick up for the South Carolina Gamecocks as head ball coach Steve Spurrier has his staff actively pursuing a number of highly rated prospects. 

The Gamecocks are in the mix to land five of the top 10 junior college recruits, which is a staggering number of players who are probably more ready than others to have an immediate impact. 

Among the high school seniors, South Carolina has positioned itself as an elite program that is ready to take the next step toward winning an SEC title and making the new playoff system. 

The Gamecocks are building a top defense while establishing a powerful offense that can compete at the highest level. Recruits are taking notice of the recent success of Spurrier's teams, and the staff is using this on the recruiting trail. 

The Gamecocks are after many upper-tier prospects; however, here are the five 2015 recruits that South Carolina fans should be following this summer. 

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Michigan Recruiting: 5 2015 Recruits Wolverines Fans Should Follow This Summer

In the coming months, college football fans everywhere will affix their eyes to Twitter, set alerts on their phones and bookmark sites such as 247Sports in order to get the latest news on recruits.

And Michigan fans are no different. In fact, they’re among the leaders of the pack, as they were recently named as the Internet’s most engaged fanbase by TicketCity.

With that being said, this slideshow will rattle off a few names that Wolverines fans will certainly want to track during the summer. Don’t worry about setting your phone alerts or locking your browser to a recruiting site.

This post has you covered, Maize and Blue Superfan. 

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Michigan Football: Brady Hoke Keeping It in the Family with Legacy Recruiting

When Brady Hoke returned to Ann Arbor, he vowed his teams would "...respect the tradition of the University of Michigan and its football program." To rebuild the program and honor tradition, Hoke has targeted players who grew up hearing about Michigan from their fathers who played for the Wolverines.

One former Wolverine who has regaled his sons with stories of past Michigan glory is John Wangler, who played quarterback for iconic Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler. Wangler delivered one of the most famous passes in Michigan history—a 45-yard strike to wide receiver Anthony Carter to beat Indiana as time expired in 1979. He also led Michigan to victory in the 1981 Rose Bowl, Schembechler’s first bowl win.

Current wide receiver Jack Wangler walked on at Michigan to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spoke with Steve Lorenz at 247Sports.com about his decision.

I can't wait to carry on the Wangler name at Michigan. Before I made it public, I was sure to call my dad and let him know what I had decided to do. He was definitely excited. Being around Michigan my entire life and experiencing it so much the past couple seasons really made it an easy choice. My dad said my years at Michigan will end up being the best four or five years of my life. I know they were for him.

Joining Jack next season will be his brother, Jared, a linebacker prospect who originally committed to Penn State. The chance to play at Penn State, a program known for developing great linebackers, was tempting, but in the Detroit Free Press, he admitted, "The opportunity to play for my dad’s alma mater, and to play with my brother, just made the difference."

Hoke has received another commitment from a legacy who may help fortify the Michigan offensive line. Offensive tackle Jon Runyan Jr. has accepted an offer to be a part of the 2015 Michigan recruiting class. Runyan’s father played at Michigan and had a successful 14-year NFL career.

Runyan was known as a devastating blocker during his time in the NFL and ranked as one of the dirtiest players in the league in a 2006 Sports Illustrated NFL players poll.

Jon Runyan Jr. is expected to add some much-needed grit to the Michigan offensive line when he joins the team in 2015.

Michigan hopes to add another famous namesake to its 2015 recruiting class. Tyrone Wheatley Jr., whose father played running back at Michigan, is being recruited as a tight end to play for Hoke.

 

Rogue Legacy

Legacy players can help boost a program, but sometimes, they can be an unneeded distraction. The Boren family helped fuel controversy during the tumultuous tenure of Rich Rodriguez.

Mike Boren played linebacker for Schembechler, and his son, Justin, joined Michigan as an offensive lineman for the 2006 season. Originally recruited by former head coach Lloyd Carr, Justin stayed at Michigan when Rich Rodriguez was hired following Carr’s retirement. But the following year, Rodriguez declined to offer Justin's brother, Zach, a scholarship, and things got ugly.

Justin transferred to archrival Ohio State and blasted Michigan in The Columbus Dispatch:

I have great trouble accepting that those family values have eroded in just a few months. That same helmet, that I was raised on and proudly claimed for the last two years, now brings a completely different emotion to me, one that interferes with practicing and playing my best and mentally preparing for what is required.

Normally, an offseason player transfer merits little attention. But Justin's status as a legacy and his decision to transfer to Ohio State, a team that also offered a scholarship to Zach, further added to the firestorm that was engulfing Rodriguez in Ann Arbor. 

The resulting bad publicity was another unneeded distraction for Rodriguez and his coaching staff. In hindsight, a scholarship offer to Zach may have been a smart move to keep peace in the Michigan football family.

Brady Hoke is not only building his roster by pursuing talented legacy players, he’s creating a link between the present and the past.

Former players are a powerful constituency in a high-profile program like Michigan, and after last season's 7-6 finish, Hoke needs all the support he can get.

 

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

5 ACC College Football Coaches on the Hot Seat in 2014

Last fall, the ACC earned more than its share of national respect.

Florida State and freshman Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston broke through to win a BCS Championship, the league’s first national title since the Seminoles won one in 2000.

Couple that with Clemson’s Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, and the ACC had a pair of top-10 finishers in the final postseason polls and two BCS bowl wins (which matched the league’s total from 2001-2012).

The Seminoles’ and Tigers’ success, however, only increased the pressure on the rest of the league and the turnover at its bottom. Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe was the only coach to depart (replaced by Bowling Green’s Dave Clawson), but a number of league coaches find their seats hot as spring turns into summer.

Here is a look at the ACC coaches who should rightfully be feeling pressure this fall, from coldest to hottest:

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Potential Draft Picks Should Stop Spending All Their Future Money

It doesn't appear as if any of the potential picks in this week's NFL draft bothered to watch the ESPN original movie "Broke," which details the lives of countless ex-professional athletes—almost all of them recognizable by any sports fan—who went from filthy rich to dirt poor seemingly overnight.

Teddy Bridgewater, the former Louisville quarterback expected to be the third or fourth player selected at the game's most important position, was the inspiration for a Spike Lee-directed video that told the tale of a young man escaping a rough upbringing in Miami and making it all the way to the National Football League. Fulfilling a childhood dream, the 6'2", 214-pounder bought his mother, Rose Murphy, a pink Cadillac Escalade after first saying he would do so at the age of nine.

Not only did Murphy raise Bridgewater all by herself, but she is also a breast cancer survivor, hence the significance of pink.

On the surface, it's a heart-warming story and paints the picture of Bridgewater as an appreciative son who knows he never would have gotten to where he is today—on the precipice of going to an NFL team—without the unconditional love of a devoted single mom. The video, which ran Tuesday on Good Morning America and featured fellow breast cancer survivor Robin Roberts, brought tears to the eyes of most everyone watching.

What Lee failed to put on tape is that a 2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV retails for anywhere between $71,695 and $92,840, and the custom model (pink paint job, pink rims, etc.) chosen by Bridgewater likely cost him six figures.

Keep in mind that Bridgewater is yet to hear his name called at Radio City Music Hall and won't even sign his first contract for another month or two, meaning his agent probably made arrangements to loan him some money before the draft. While it's safe to say that the former Cardinals signal-caller is indeed on his way to financial gain once he finally puts pen to paper, we're not talking about Peyton Manning money here.

Considering the fact that Bridgewater's stock has been slipping in the eyes of most draftniks following a subpar performance March 17 at his pro day, he's expected to be taken after the likes of Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and maybe Derek Carr—somewhere near the top of Round 2 seems reasonable.

In the 2013 draft, the first QB chosen in the second round was Geno Smith at No. 39 by the New York Jets, and he went on to have a shaky rookie year: 66.5 passer rating, 12-to-21 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The one-time West Virginia Mountaineer signed a four-year deal before the season worth $5 million, including a $2 million signing bonus and $3 million altogether in guaranteed money.

Assuming Bridgewater is offered a similar contract, that $3 million could be every penny he makes as a professional football player, yet he's already spent $100K on a car he won’t be driving.

Four years ago, another promising young passer, Jimmy Clausen, had the look of a top-10 talent—the same can be said for both Smith and Bridgewater—but ended up tumbling down the draft board to 48th in the second round to the Carolina Panthers. He was atrocious as a rookie, watched the front office select Cam Newton at No. 1 the next year and now hasn't thrown a regular-season pass in three seasons.

After falling through the waiver process unclaimed and spending 2013 on injured reserve, Clausen's NFL career might be over already.

Here is the film summary for "Broke," courtesy of ESPN.com:

According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, 60 percent of former NBA players are broke within five years of retirement. By the time they have been retired for two years, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress. Sucked into bad investments, stalked by freeloaders, saddled with medical problems and naturally prone to showing off, many pro athletes get shocked by harsh economic realities after years of living the high life. Drawing surprisingly vulnerable confessions from retired stars like Keith McCants, Bernie Kosar and Andre Rison, as well as Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the MLB Players Association, this fascinating documentary digs into the psychology of men whose competitive nature can carry them to victory on the field and ruin off it.

McCants was drafted No. 4 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and signed a five-year, $7.4 million contract with a then-record $2.5 million signing bonus—and those were 1990 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that's a $13.2 million deal, or about two and a half times what Bridgewater can plan to get.

Kosar managed to stay in the league 12 seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 1987, with career earnings from football estimated to be in the neighborhood of $19 million. If you use his last year in the pros (1996) as the baseline, then that's the equivalent of $28.2 million today.

Rison also played 12 years, making five Pro Bowls—including four straight with the Atlanta Falcons from 1990-93—and one All-Pro team, plus he caught a 54-yard TD pass for the victorious Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. He earned an estimated $20 million in salary and endorsements, which is closer to $27 million in 2014.

Today? McCants, Kosar and Rison have one thing in common, aside from being former millionaires. They're all broke.

For McCants, it was drugs. For Kosar, it was a greedy family. For Rison, it was a hip-hop lifestyle.

Hopefully Bridgewater develops into a star and soon commands a Manning-like $20 million per year once his rookie contract expires. But if Bridgewater's career turns out to more closely resemble Clausen's, buying that Escalade—humble gesture or not—will look awfully frivolous, not beautifully generous.

My guess is Murphy is more proud of her son realizing his dream to play in the NFL, not his dream of buying her a pink Cadillac.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Darrell Williams Commits to Auburn: Tigers Land In-State 4-Star LB

Auburn added a crucial in-state prospect to its 2015 recruiting haul Wednesday, claiming a commitment from 4-star linebacker Darrell Williams.

The Hoover High School (Birmingham, Alabama) standout shared his decision on Twitter:

Earlier this week, Williams told AL.com reporter Jeff Sentell he was focused on a "top tier" of programs that consisted of Auburn, Alabama and Oklahoma. Mississippi State and Florida State were also teams of interest, though a step below his top three.

Williams also mentioned the Crimson Tide offer came with a caveat.

The status of his scholarship from Nick Saban was "contingent on him coming to their elite summer camp in June and performing well among other top-rated national linebackers," according to AL.com.

Instead, Williams was content to cap off his recruitment with a commitment to the Tigers, where there are apparently no strings attached to his scholarship offer.

He is the 13th member of a 2015 Auburn Class that ranks No. 3 nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings, trailing only Alabama and Penn State.

Head coach Gus Malzahn extended an offer to Williams in December, shortly after the disruptive defender helped Hoover earn the national public school championship title. He tallied 61 tackles as a junior, including 13 for a loss.

Williams is rated No. 16 nationally among outside linebackers in 247Sports' composite rankings, listed at No. 6 overall in Alabama. The Tigers picked up athlete Kerryon Johnson—rated No. 2 in the state—last month.

Auburn adds to a 2015 linebacker haul that also includes Montavious Atkinson, a 3-star inside linebacker from Georgia. Expect the Tigers to continue targeting prospects at the position, specifically Josh Smith (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), Jeffery Holland (Jacksonville, Florida) and Roquan Smith (Montezuma, Georgia).

 

Recruit information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted. 

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Dark-Horse SEC Players Who Could Jump into 2014 Heisman Discussion

Guess what time of year it is? Watch list time!

SI.com's Zac Ellis and HeismanPundit.com's Chris Huston each came out with their post-spring Heisman Trophy watch lists this week, and on them you'll find several familiar SEC faces.

Arkansas running back Alex Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker, LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk all appeared on one or both of the lists.

That's quite a few running backs listed as contenders for the quarterback-driven award. Who outside the two lists could jump into the Heisman discussion?

Our list is in this slideshow.

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James Franklin Reacts to Penn State's Huge Recruiting Day

It's hard to imagine a college football coach delivering a more efficient first four months on the job than the opening stretch James Franklin has enjoyed. Though the only wins on his resume remain as a Vanderbilt Commodore, the 42-year-old continues to claim recruiting victories against top contemporaries.

When Franklin arrived at Penn State in January, he inherited a roster riddled with holes, a direct result of severe NCAA sanctions many thought would doom the program for a decade. The 2015 recruiting class was a bare cupboard, devoid of any commitments.

Fast-forward to the first week of May, and the class is now considered one of the country's best, brimming with talent from across the region. That stockpile grew again Tuesday when Penn State picked up pledges from Pittsburgh offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins and New Jersey quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

The pair of 4-star prospects gives Franklin 15 commits. Every player has jumped on the bandwagon since Feb. 15, making the Nittany Lions an unquestionable force to be reckoned with on the recruiting spectrum.

Excitement was evident in Franklin's tone Tuesday evening as he spoke at an engagement in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Well aware that he may be on the verge of landing two top targets, the coach gave his audience an honest forewarning:

Sure enough, Franklin's phone did ring. As promised, he accepted the call. (Jenkins later said it was him on the other line.)

Then, he gave the entire crowd an opportunity to partake in the conversation:

Fortunately, there's video of Franklin rallying his audience before stepping aside to continue the phone call:

You'll have to excuse Franklin for his enthusiasm. After all, he was on the verge of beating Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in a one-on-one showdown for Pennsylvania's top-ranked rising senior.

The celebration continued into the night.

Roughly an hour after Jenkins declared his intentions, Wimbush picked Penn State from a group of finalists that featured Miami, Boston College and Ohio State. He then led family and friends in his own "We Are" chant during an exclusive announcement broadcast on Bleacher Report:

When asked about the allure of Penn State, Wimbush told Bleacher Report's Michael Felder that it's hard to ignore the mounting momentum in Happy Valley.

"The energy right now that they have around the program. ... I feel like they're going to come in and dominate the Big 10," he said.

Nine months still separate this impressive class from national signing day, and actual games will be played between now and then, but Franklin is arguably the hottest figure in recruiting right now. Only Nick Saban's Crimson Tide currently rank ahead of Penn State in 247Sports' composite class ratings.

Now that he's laid an impressive foundation for 2015, Franklin expects his pledges to help take this class to another level.

"It's no different than getting our team to buy in to our philosophies," he told 247Sports reporter Jeff Rice on Tuesday night. "Same thing in the recruiting process. You want those guys to take ownership of their class. That recruiting class will be as good as they decide they want it to be."

 

All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pac-12's Proposed Championship Move to Levi's Stadium Step in Right Direction

Larry Scott is mulling a move to put the Pac-12 football championship game at Levi's Stadium.

To borrow a phrase from the benefactor of one Pac-12 powerhouse: Just Do It.

The Pac-12 commissioner told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated via a text message on Thursday that after three years of hosting on campus sites, the conference is considering a neutral site for its championship game. Levi's Stadium, the 49ers' new home in Santa Clara, California, could host the game as soon as the upcoming season on Dec. 5.

It just makes too much sense.

After expanding to 12 teams in 2011, the Pac-12 has been staging its title games on the campus stadium of the team with the best regular-season record. The results have been a haphazard mess, with swaths of empty seats and schools scrambling to get tickets sold on short notice. As a result, the game severely lacked the profile of the SEC title game, held annually in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

The move to Levi's Stadium would remedy nearly all the problems that have plagued the game thus far, so let's count the ways:

—Once the site is chosen, the conference can sell tickets for the game year-round and gain additional revenue from Levi's Stadium's 165 suites and 9,000 club seats. Currently, the hosting institution has only a few days to distribute tickets, and most campus stadiums have only a small number of suites and boxes.

—Levi's Stadium is a state-of-the-art facility and the most wired one in the country, befitting its location in the heart of Silicon Valley. Hosting a game there will immediately give the Pac-12 a high profile for its championship game, especially in the stadium's inaugural season.

—The Bay Area is the geographic center of the Pac-12 conference. Two schools are located there, and it's a short, nonstop flight away from the rest of the campuses. And it's home to large alumni bases for nearly all conference schools.

—The conference, with its headquarters in Walnut Creek and San Francisco, will have the benefit of being able to easily manage the event from the build-up to the actual game. A Pac-12 game between Oregon and Cal will be played at Levi's Stadium on Oct. 24, allowing the conference to study the logistics in a live-game setting.

Scott already made a bold move by relocating the conference's basketball tournament to Las Vegas two years ago. It has been an unqualified success with huge fan support and sold-out championship games as opposed to the half-empty Staples Center, where the event was held for more than a decade.

With that in his back pocket, moving the football title game shouldn't be a tough sell to the conference's school presidents, who will ultimately vote on the decision at their annual meeting in June. As the Pac-12 tries to gain a foothold in the brave new world of the College Football Playoff, the relaunching of its title game would be a nice start.

Follow on Twitter @ThePlayoffGuru

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Penn State Recruiting: Sterling Jenkins Commitment Serves as Symbol of New Era

The Penn State football program received a big boost last night, both literally and figuratively.

Shortly before landing the seventh-best dual-threat quarterback prospect in Brandon Wimbush, 6'8", 305-pound offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins gave his verbal pledge to James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

Just announced my commitment to THE Penn State University!!🎉🔥🐾

— Sterling Jenkins⚡™ (@S_Jenkins72) May 6, 2014

Jenkins' commitment is the epitome of what Franklin had in mind when he said he intends to "dominate the state."

The 247Sports composite rating lists the mountain that is Jenkins as the fifth-best tackle prospect in the country and the top overall player coming out of Pennsylvania in 2015.

According to those same rankings, Penn State hadn't landed the top player from Pennsylvania since Justin King signed in 2005, and in that class, the Nittany Lions didn't land another in-state player ranked higher than No. 20.

The 2015 class already includes six of the top 14 in-state prospects, and there's room for growth, as the Nittany Lions are in the mix for several others on that list.

While Franklin has exceeded expectations , pulling some of the top players from the Eastern Seaboard, locking down a commitment from Jenkins feels like a turning point.  

Hailing from Pitt's backyard and holding offers from from Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan and Georgia, Jenkins chose the road less traveled and will head to Happy Valley to continue his academic and football careers.

Franklin and Nittany Nation hope it will serve as a turning point in the history of the program.

Being able to lock down the top local talent has a ripple effect in recruiting. Generally, players from the same areas attend the same camps and off-field functions and become familiar on the field. It can work as a form of peer pressure.

If you have 15 players at a given camp or seven-on-seven tournament and seven of them are committed to one school, the influence can be a huge factor.

And the timing couldn't be better. 

The Keystone State boast seven 4-star recruits in the class of 2015, and next year's class is loaded with no fewer than eight prospects already rated as 4-star prospects. Penn State is in the mix for several of them already.

In an interview with KDKA, Pittsburgh's local CBS affiliate, Jenkins said the following about Coach Franklin: "I trust this guy. I believe in his vision and he's a guy I can work under."

Franklin's trustworthiness and confidence have become contagious on the recruiting trail. Seemingly every target Franklin sets his eyes on falls under his trance and truly buys into his pitch.

If this success continues, the new head coach will be able to deliver on his promises with a roster full of highly coveted recruits. 

In the recruiting world, success and momentum feed off each other with a snowball effect. Dominating the state in 2015 will breed more success and create more momentum for future recruiting endeavors, making the sky the limit.

Fans who weren't around to experience the 1980s are seeing the true potential of this football program for the first time. That includes the top high school prospects from in and around the Commonwealth.


All recruit ratings courtesy of the 247Sports composite rating.

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'Hearing Boos Again' One of Reasons QB Garrett Gilbert Transferred from Texas

In an interview with Judy Battista of NFL.com, SMU quarterback and former Texas Longhorn Garrett Gilbert spoke openly about his 2011 transfer decision, admitting that the boo birds he heard at home games played a part in his choice to leave.

In Gilbert's own words:

Hearing boos again, not really being able to shake that, at that point I kind of knew it might be time to start over and wipe the slate clean. It's tough to sum up quickly. For whatever reason, things didn't work out. I think that led to some forcing the ball, trying to force things to happen. Maybe I read the papers a little too much, as well.

Coming out of Lake Travis High School in 2009, Gilbert was a 5-star recruit and the No. 14 overall player on the 247Sports Composite. As a true freshman, he served as Colt McCoy's backup and played a few snaps of mop-up duty during the regular season.

The Longhorns made it to the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama that season, and when McCoy was forced to leave with an injury, Gilbert was thrown into the fire.

He completed 15 of 40 passes for 186 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions in the 37-21 loss.

Gilbert became the starter the following season and struggled. He threw 10 touchdowns to 17 interceptions, and the Longhorns finished 5-7. He began 2011 as the tentative starter as well, but after completing two of his first eight passes against BYU in Week 2, he was yanked from the lineup. He transferred in November of that year.

Gilbert revived his career in relative anonymity under June Jones at SMU the past couple seasons, most notably with 3,528 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 10 games this past year.

Jones said he could tell upon Gilbert's arrival that what happened at Texas had scarred him, telling Battista that "he had to get through some demons." 

After a strong pro day, however, the 6'4" passer is finally starting to put his poor experience in Austin behind him and might be a sleeper in this weekend's NFL draft.

In his final seven-round mock draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had Gilbert going to the St. Louis Rams with the No. 214 overall pick.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Georgia Football: Why Arthur Lynch Is a Better NFL Prospect Than Aaron Murray

Aaron Murray left the University of Georgia as a four-year starter and the holder of practically every school passing record. He led the Bulldogs to two SEC East Championships, set several new highs in conference statistical categories and was the face of the Bulldog program from 2010-2013. 

But he isn't Georgia's best pro prospect in this year's draft.  

That distinction belongs to tight end Arthur Lynch.

 

Two Impressive Careers

One would be hard-pressed to nitpick the collegiate accomplishments of Murray or Lynch.  

Murray completed 62 percent of his career passes while throwing for 12,885 yards and 119 touchdowns.  From the tight end position, Lynch was—particularly over the past two seasons—one of the record-setting QB's favorite targets.

Sure, the Dawgs never claimed an SEC Championship during the duo's tenure in Athens, but even that relative shortcoming does not rest squarely on the shoulders of these offensive stars.  Over the course of their final three seasons in Athens, Murray, Lynch and the rest of the Dawgs lost a total of 11 games.  Opposing offenses scored 31 or more points in 10 of those outings.

Murray's statistics speak for themselves, and Lynch's role as a foundation for Georgia's passing game was unquestioned, but season-end accolades probably tell the best story of their individual careers.  At the end of the season, Georgia players selected four permanent captains from the 2013 team.  One was Murray; another was Lynch.

 

Mock Draft Projections

Despite recent success, Murray and Lynch may be the lone Bulldogs drafted this week.  And experts don't exactly agree on where either player could land.

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has tabbed Murray as the Saints' third-round pick (No. 91 overall) in his latest mock draft.  Interestingly enough, he has Lynch joining him in New Orleans via a fifth-round pick (No. 169 overall).  

Meanwhile, CBS Sports project both players to go in the fourth round, with Lynch going 129th and Murray being selected 140th.

NFLDraftScout.com projects Lynch and Murray will be selected in the fourth round.

 

The "Fit"

With such unclear futures ahead, this week's draft can have a drastic impact on the careers of both players.  That wide array of possibilities is what makes Lynch a better NFL prospect.

For Murray, much of his success will depend on outside factors. He seems to be fully recovered from a late-season knee injury, but if that's not the case, his progress as a rookie will be hindered.  Similarly, if he's drafted by a team that resigns him to third-team duty, he may miss out on valuable reps early in his career, and as a result, he could be lost in the shuffle.

Murray possesses many of the skills necessary to succeed at the NFL level, but some of his best qualities are intangibles that won't necessarily be displayed if he's on the sideline holding a clipboard while the top two quarterbacks on the roster duke it out for playing time.

Lynch, on the other hand, can fit in just about anywhere.  Murray supporters are quick to point out his experience in Georgia's pro-style offense as a selling point for his NFL future, but Lynch thrived in the very same offensive system.  Accordingly, he's an NFL-ready football player in several regards.  

He's a capable run-blocker.  If he wasn't, he wouldn't have seen the field as a Bulldog.  In his two years as a full-time starter, he helped pave the way for Georgia runners to rack up over 4,700 yards on the ground.  That skill will translate to the NFL, where a big, sturdy, blocking tight end is still valued.

Additionally, he's capable of getting open downfield as a receiver.  He registered 13 games with three or more catches as a starter at tight end.  He averaged more than 16 yards per catch over the course of his career.

Lynch does not fit the hyperathletic mold of a Jimmy Graham or even a Rob Gronkowski, but he does have a diverse skill set that can help practically any team in the draft immediately—even if only on special teams.

Murray may also have a fantastic NFL career, and he's certainly hard to write off.  But in the simplest of terms, this may be a matter of supply and demand.

Most teams keep three tight ends and three quarterbacks, but the usage rate of a third tight end is much higher than that of a third passer.  Combine that notion with the fact that many major outlets have Lynch ranked higher than Murray in their respective position groups, and Lynch seems to have a more firm NFL future.

To be sure, neither player's work is done.  Murray must strive to take ownership of a new playbook and master control of an offense the same way he did at the University of Georgia.  Lynch must pick up the finer points of footwork and continue to add size and strength to be a formidable force within an offense.

If their time at Georgia is any indication, NFL fans can expect both players to handle their business in a professional and diligent manner. But for Lynch, there may be fewer obstacles beyond his control.

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Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn: 'We Have to Be 13 Seconds Better'

ATLANTA — Thirteen seconds mean the world to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn

When Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston hit wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the game-winning touchdown of the 2014 BCS National Championship Game, 13 seconds were left on the clock. When they ticked off, Auburn's national championship hopes—which seemed ever so close to becoming reality just a few hours before—went with them.

The number "13" will always be special for the 2013 Tigers, first for their improbable run to the title game and later for what might have been.

It's also serving as motivation for the 2014 team.

"TnT XIII" is the new slogan for the 2014 football team. It stands for "Tough-N-Together" with the Roman numeral for 13 serving as a reminder of those final seconds of the BCS National Championship Game and just how close the Tigers were to capping their season with a shiny crystal football.

"It's a mindset," Malzahn said shortly before his appearance at the Atlanta Auburn Club meeting at Druid Hills Golf Club. "We have to be 13 seconds better in everything we do. From a coaching standpoint and from the way our players perform on the field and in the weight room and everything that goes with it."

Despite the constant reminder of what might have been, the way the title game ended and the 21-3 lead Auburn let slip away aren't consuming Malzahn or the football program. It isn't "national title or bust" for Malzahn.

"We have high expectations at Auburn," he said. "It's a process. We're going to be as good as we can possibly be. That will be our goal again."

But just how good can the Tigers be?

For the first time in his college coaching career, Malzahn has a starting quarterback coming back for Year 2 in his system.

That quarterback, senior Nick Marshall, was phenomenal in his first season as Auburn's starting quarterback, passing for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 more scores.

But it was a run-first, run-second and run-third mentality for Auburn in 2013, and Marshall's consistency in the intermediate passing game was one of the primary goals for Malzahn this spring.

Now that it has wrapped up, he's had time to evaluate how much Marshall improved.

"He's got a better understanding now," Malzahn said. "You can tell he's more confident. His eyes are in the right spot, he's throwing the ball on time and his checkdowns are right. He's just got an overall better feel for the offense."

Toss in four of five starters returning on the offensive line, the addition of D'haquille "Duke" Williams to a veteran receiving corps that already includes Sammie Coates and a talented group of running backs that includes Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, and it's going to be tough to stop Auburn's offense.

Defense doesn't win championships anymore; "just enough" defense wins championships. The definition of "just enough" depends on the offense a team boasts. Auburn's was nearly good enough last season, and with six starters returning on defense and plenty of depth being built through the last two recruiting classes, the defense doesn't need to take a gigantic leap forward.

It just needs to take a small step.

If it does, there won't be a need for a Roman-numeral reminder of what might have been for next year's Tigers.

That title could become reality.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com.

 


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Florida Recruiting: 5 2015 Recruits Every Gator Fan Should Be Following

Believe it or not, the college football season is truly right around the corner, which means that the recruiting process is heating up as well. Throughout the summer, recruits are going to be making visits, eliminating teams, possibly committing and breaking hearts of football fans everywhere.

The Florida Gators currently have one of the better 2015 recruiting classes in the country with seven commits, but it can certainly be a lot better. Florida has the attention of several elite recruits, and a few of them you should be watching very closely.

Some of these guys, once thought to be locks to end up in Gainesville, are getting cold feet. Others have taken that next step in their recruiting process.

Overall, here are the five key Florida targets you should be following. 

Begin Slideshow

USC Football: Time to Stop Thinking About QB and Start Worrying About the O-Line

Much attention was given to the quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Browne, one that was, for all intents and purposes, decided well before spring camp even began. Despite new head coach Steve Sarkisian's claims that this position duel was anyone's game, we knew that Kessler's experience would trump however impressive Browne's arm strength is. 

But it doesn't really matter how much Kessler has improved as a quarterback or how much he has grown into his role as a starter if his offensive line can't protect him.

Sark has made it clear that giving the O-line a facelift is high on the to-do list in Troy, and as we transition into the fall, it needs to be priority No. 1. Through the spring, we saw a lot of progression from young guys like Khaliel Rodgers and Zach Banner, as well as early enrollees Toa Lobendahn and Jordan Austin. We also were reassured of the abilities from veterans like Max Tuerk and Chad Wheeler.

Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simmons and Nico Falah missed all of the spring due to injury, so depth concerns severely limited just how much Sark and offensive line coach Tim Drevno could push for improvement. It wasn't always pretty, but it looked as if the Wheeler-Lobendahn-Tuerk-Rodgers-Banner rotation could be promising. 

But according to Sark, musical linemen will still be the name of the game come the fall.

The fact that Sark isn't set on Tuerk as center is a bit troubling because he is the most experienced veteran on the O-line, and his transition has gone swimmingly. Not only that, but Kessler has openly discussed with Steve Bisheff of ESPN how much he likes having Tuerk at center:

I think Max [Tuerk] is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson [Agholor] and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.

Furthermore, Tuerk evaluated his own development at the position and spoke favorably about his new responsibilities:

I love it. I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.

With chemistry swirling between Tuerk and Kessler, what sense does it make to disrupt that in the fall?

It's not like the Trojans will be particularly short on talent at that time. As previously mentioned, Walker, Simmons, and Falah will return from injury. Then the highly touted signees in Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown will join the ranks, adding depth across the board. 

In a teleconference earlier in May, Sark spoke about his plans for Mama and Talamaivao, the two newcomers who stand to be the biggest assets to the O-line:

It appears Rodgers and Lobendahn have the respective starting spots at right and left guard locked up, but Mama and Talamaivao will certainly provide spirited competition. Both are considered to be game ready, so however it ultimately shakes out, USC will have quality guards in the rotation.

But Walker is also expected to line up at an interior spot next fall, so there won't be a whole lot of depth at right tackle behind (or potentially in front of) Banner. 

Sark's indecision about Tuerk at center could be that he would rather play Tuerk at right tacklewhere he lined up against Oregon State last season while Kevin Graf was outinstead of the inexperienced Banner. 

Moving Tuerk away from center for that reason is still questionable, though, as Banner has excelled throughout the spring and made a statement about how ready he is to contribute to the team.

Having a weak O-line has been USC's M.O. for the past few seasons, and that's not going to fly anymore if Sark plans to return the Trojans to greatness by way of his new uptempo offense. And the head coach should already be well versed in how disastrously things can go when fielding with a shaky O-line, as he had to deal with it himself at Washington in 2012. 

To avoid getting off to a similar rough start at USC, it's important that Sark correctly places his experienced linemen. 

“I do know that Max Tuerk is a tremendous football player,” Sarkisian said to Johnny Curren of ESPN. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s going to play for us this fall. He went through the entire spring as our center. We’ll obviously take a good, hard look at that early in training camp, along with a couple other guys.“ 

It's still a bit too early to be really concerned, but shuffling Tuerk's position again could be a bad call for the Trojans next season. Sark still has a few months to figure out how he wants things to look and really start cementing the starters in August. 

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USC Football: Time to Stop Thinking About QB and Start Worrying About the O-Line

Much attention was given to the quarterback battle between Cody Kessler and Max Browne, one that was, for all intents and purposes, decided well before spring camp even began...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

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