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Teams with Best 2016 College Football Rosters Based on Past Recruiting Cycles

Think recruiting doesn't matter?

Just ask Alabama, which has landed the No. 1 class in each of the past six years. The Tide have only won three of their four national championships under head coach Nick Saban in that recruiting span. 

Of course, talent alone doesn't win championships. You need great coaching, a healthy roster and some good luck along the way, in whatever form it may come. Still, recruiting is the blueprint, the building blocks on which great teams are created. 

Based on the last four recruiting cycles, which teams have the most talent returning in 2016? Our answers and methodology are explained in the following slides. 

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Arkansas Football: Bret Bielema Confident in New-Look Offense

"I like our team. I like a lot about 'em."

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has plenty of offensive holes to fill this offseason—one in which his team is not the darling of the college football world, as was the case a year ago.

Those holes include spots vacated by senior quarterback Brandon Allen (3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns), running backs Alex Collins (3,703 career rushing yards in three years) and Jonathan Williams (2,321 rushing yards in three years), tight end Hunter Henry (1,661 receiving yards in three years) and stud offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola.

"We've got some shoes to fill," Bielema told Bleacher Report Radio on Saturday. "But I like our demeanor. They go about their work ethic second-to-none. I like the way they handle themselves."

The most gaping is obviously at quarterback, where Allen went from lighting rod for criticism and his truck being egged to a difference-maker at quarterback who tossed 15 touchdowns over the Hogs' final five games of the season.

His absence is huge, but luckily for Bielema and the rest of the staff, Arkansas has amassed talent and options over the last three years.

Austin Allen, younger brother of Brandon, is the most experienced quarterback on the roster. While Allen is talented, and comes from the right lineage, that experience is hardly something to fall back on. The 6'2", 210-pound junior served as his brother's backup in 2015 but attempted just three passes with his lone completion going for a 35-yard touchdown.

"Austin is the most likely incumbent, but we are going to open that baby up and let everybody compete," Bielema said.

This should be one of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the country, with redshirt sophomore Rafe Peavey and redshirt freshman Ty Storey—who were both highly touted signal-callers coming out of high school—and USC transfer Ricky Town—who transferred prior to the 2015 season after enrolling early and going through spring practice with the Trojans.

"Ricky was kind of in a tough spot," Bielema said. "He came in after the second week of fall camp, and we jumped him right into the drills. He really didn't get to learn the offense. I know Robb Smith and our defensive coaches said he did a great job throughout the year on the scout team, and his leadership and all that goes into it. I'm excited to see Ricky pop in there.

"In bowl practice, we saw that he had a live arm and does a lot of good things in reading and understanding."

The inexperience on the roster in terms of playing time and snaps taken with the first team can be negated, though, by the presence of second-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Enos, who previously was the head coach at Central Michigan for five years, produced a 3,000-yard passer for the fifth time in the last six years in his first season in Fayetteville.

"Dan did a really great job of developing quarterbacks," Bielema said. "He was able to bring them along and do things during the year that we really haven't been able to do before. I give him a lot of credit to that partnership."

While Allen was amazing in 2015, finding the replacement—or replacements—for Collins and Williams is an enormous offseason task for Bielema. Kody Walker stepped in nicely for Williams when he was lost prior to the season and rushed for 394 yards and six touchdowns. Rising sophomore Rawleigh Williams was solid too, rushing for 254 yards and a touchdown before a neck injury suffered against Auburn ended his season.

The running back of the future, though, signed on the dotted line on national signing day.

Devwah Whaley, a 4-star running back from Beaumont, Texas, will head to Fayetteville later this year with a ton of pressure on his shoulders. He's expected to contend for snaps right out of the gate, and at 6'0", he's as complete as Collins was when he came to the program after putting on some weight.

"He's a very physical player. He's 228 pounds, runs really well and has some really good track times," Bielema said. "What's going to set him apart is how he's going to handle the transition from the spread to the power eye."

The biggest part of the transition is in pass-blocking, where Bielema and Enos depend on their running backs to be able to recognize where blitzes are coming from and not suffer any breakdowns.

"He's got to get the system, but more than anything, it's the techniques," Bielema said. "These SEC linebackers are a little different. That will be a big adjustment. But I know this, he doesn't lack courage or ability. He's got good girth and a good understanding."

While Arkansas isn't known for its receivers, it has become "tight end U," of sorts, with Henry and quarterback-turned-tight end A.J. Derby both having success during Bielema's tenure. Finding Henry's replacement will be a huge factor in the success or failure of the new quarterback. Jeremy Sprinkle caught 27 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns a year ago and should slide right into Henry's spot with relative ease.

"We like what we do," Bielema said of his team's success with tight ends. "I tell you what, Jeremy Sprinkle is a guy who I think will emerge out of the ashes from this year. At 6'5", 260 pounds, he's a guy who runs really well."

Bielema is still building, but hopes are high in Northwest Arkansas.

"It's Year 4 of our program, Bielema said. "I've always felt that Year 5 would be the measuring point. If we can get one a year early, I'd like that as well."

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Arkansas Football: Bret Bielema Confident in New-Look Offense

"I like our team. I like a lot about 'em."

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has plenty of offensive holes to fill this offseason—one in which his team is not the darling of the college football world, as was the case a year ago.

Those holes include spots vacated by senior quarterback Brandon Allen (3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns), running backs Alex Collins (3,703 career rushing yards in three years) and Jonathan Williams (2,321 rushing yards in three years), tight end Hunter Henry (1,661 receiving yards in three years) and stud offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola.

"We've got some shoes to fill," Bielema told Bleacher Report Radio on Saturday. "But I like our demeanor. They go about their work ethic second-to-none. I like the way they handle themselves."

The most gaping is obviously at quarterback, where Allen went from lighting rod for criticism and his truck being egged to a difference-maker at quarterback who tossed 15 touchdowns over the Hogs' final five games of the season.

His absence is huge, but luckily for Bielema and the rest of the staff, Arkansas has amassed talent and options over the last three years.

Austin Allen, younger brother of Brandon, is the most experienced quarterback on the roster. While Allen is talented, and comes from the right lineage, that experience is hardly something to fall back on. The 6'2", 210-pound junior served as his brother's backup in 2015 but attempted just three passes with his lone completion going for a 35-yard touchdown.

"Austin is the most likely incumbent, but we are going to open that baby up and let everybody compete," Bielema said.

This should be one of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the country, with redshirt sophomore Rafe Peavey and redshirt freshman Ty Storey—who were both highly touted signal-callers coming out of high school—and USC transfer Ricky Town—who transferred prior to the 2015 season after enrolling early and going through spring practice with the Trojans.

"Ricky was kind of in a tough spot," Bielema said. "He came in after the second week of fall camp, and we jumped him right into the drills. He really didn't get to learn the offense. I know Robb Smith and our defensive coaches said he did a great job throughout the year on the scout team, and his leadership and all that goes into it. I'm excited to see Ricky pop in there.

"In bowl practice, we saw that he had a live arm and does a lot of good things in reading and understanding."

The inexperience on the roster in terms of playing time and snaps taken with the first team can be negated, though, by the presence of second-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos. Enos, who previously was the head coach at Central Michigan for five years, produced a 3,000-yard passer for the fifth time in the last six years in his first season in Fayetteville.

"Dan did a really great job of developing quarterbacks," Bielema said. "He was able to bring them along and do things during the year that we really haven't been able to do before. I give him a lot of credit to that partnership."

While Allen was amazing in 2015, finding the replacement—or replacements—for Collins and Williams is an enormous offseason task for Bielema. Kody Walker stepped in nicely for Williams when he was lost prior to the season and rushed for 394 yards and six touchdowns. Rising sophomore Rawleigh Williams was solid too, rushing for 254 yards and a touchdown before a neck injury suffered against Auburn ended his season.

The running back of the future, though, signed on the dotted line on national signing day.

Devwah Whaley, a 4-star running back from Beaumont, Texas, will head to Fayetteville later this year with a ton of pressure on his shoulders. He's expected to contend for snaps right out of the gate, and at 6'0", he's as complete as Collins was when he came to the program after putting on some weight.

"He's a very physical player. He's 228 pounds, runs really well and has some really good track times," Bielema said. "What's going to set him apart is how he's going to handle the transition from the spread to the power eye."

The biggest part of the transition is in pass-blocking, where Bielema and Enos depend on their running backs to be able to recognize where blitzes are coming from and not suffer any breakdowns.

"He's got to get the system, but more than anything, it's the techniques," Bielema said. "These SEC linebackers are a little different. That will be a big adjustment. But I know this, he doesn't lack courage or ability. He's got good girth and a good understanding."

While Arkansas isn't known for its receivers, it has become "tight end U," of sorts, with Henry and quarterback-turned-tight end A.J. Derby both having success during Bielema's tenure. Finding Henry's replacement will be a huge factor in the success or failure of the new quarterback. Jeremy Sprinkle caught 27 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns a year ago and should slide right into Henry's spot with relative ease.

"We like what we do," Bielema said of his team's success with tight ends. "I tell you what, Jeremy Sprinkle is a guy who I think will emerge out of the ashes from this year. At 6'5", 260 pounds, he's a guy who runs really well."

Bielema is still building, but hopes are high in Northwest Arkansas.

"It's Year 4 of our program, Bielema said. "I've always felt that Year 5 would be the measuring point. If we can get one a year early, I'd like that as well."

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

NCAA Football Rules Committee Approves Proposals to Improve Player Safety

The NCAA Football Rules Committee approved multiple proposals related to player safety Thursday that, if approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel in March, will be implemented for the 2016 season.

A release posted on NCAA.com noted that some of the rules approved include an expansion of the rules related to low blocks, an increase in the players considered defenseless and the addition of a penalty for the deliberate tripping of a ball-carrier.  

Committee chairman Bob Nielson, the head coach at South Dakota, stated in the announcement that there would be an increased use of replay on targeting calls. Replay officials would be able to stop the game if the action occurred or to ensure a player should be dismissed if it's called on the field:

The targeting rule is serving the game well, and has enhanced player safety. Because this is such a severe penalty, we are instructing replay officials to review plays to ensure that the required elements of targeting exist. We are also adding the ability for the replay official to stop the game when a potential targeting foul is not detected on the field.

Other proposals sent for final approval include allowing coaches to use electronic devices during games in the locker room or press box and increased enforcement of the three-yard limit for ineligible receivers downfield, according to the NCAA release.

Nielson added: "These rules changes reflect the continuing effort by the committee to simplify rules and better protect student-athletes."

Although the NFL typically receives more attention in terms of safety standards, it's an issue at every level of football, including the college game. That's particularly true when it comes to head injuries, including concussions, which the targeting rule was created to help prevent.

Timothy Bella of Al Jazeera America reported in December that there have been more than 500 concussions in major college football over the past three seasons. The 2015 total (166) represented a 15 percent increase over 2014, despite more than 60 programs publicly reporting no concussions.

The NCAA will hope to see decreases in that number, if the rule changes are approved.

Increasing the level of safety for players at all levels is the biggest issue for football right now, and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

NCAA Football Rules Committee Approves Proposals to Improve Player Safety

The NCAA Football Rules Committee approved multiple proposals related to player safety Thursday that, if approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel in March, will be implemented for the 2016 season.

A release posted on NCAA.com noted that some of the rules approved include an expansion of the rules related to low blocks, an increase in the players considered defenseless and the addition of a penalty for the deliberate tripping of a ball-carrier.  

Committee chairman Bob Nielson, the head coach at South Dakota, stated in the announcement that there would be an increased use of replay on targeting calls. Replay officials would be able to stop the game if the action occurred or to ensure a player should be dismissed if it's called on the field:

The targeting rule is serving the game well, and has enhanced player safety. Because this is such a severe penalty, we are instructing replay officials to review plays to ensure that the required elements of targeting exist. We are also adding the ability for the replay official to stop the game when a potential targeting foul is not detected on the field.

Other proposals sent for final approval include allowing coaches to use electronic devices during games in the locker room or press box and increased enforcement of the three-yard limit for ineligible receivers downfield, according to the NCAA release.

Nielson added: "These rules changes reflect the continuing effort by the committee to simplify rules and better protect student-athletes."

Although the NFL typically receives more attention in terms of safety standards, it's an issue at every level of football, including the college game. That's particularly true when it comes to head injuries, including concussions, which the targeting rule was created to help prevent.

Timothy Bella of Al Jazeera America reported in December that there have been more than 500 concussions in major college football over the past three seasons. The 2015 total (166) represented a 15 percent increase over 2014, despite more than 60 programs publicly reporting no concussions.

The NCAA will hope to see decreases in that number, if the rule changes are approved.

Increasing the level of safety for players at all levels is the biggest issue for football right now, and it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Every Big Ten Team's Biggest Recruiting Need for the Class of 2017

The 2016 recruiting cycle is officially in the books, but in a sport that never stops, coaches already find themselves looking ahead to 2017.

That rings especially true in the Big Ten, which dominated headlines during this year's national signing day and will look garner even more attention a year from now.

And while recruiting rankings matter, as evidenced by the teams that typically find themselves at the top, what's most important for a program is matching its particular needs. Much of that is determined by what a team attracted a year prior and filling in the gaps of what was left on the table.

The Big Ten is no different, with coaches hoping to acquire a mix of both talent and need. With that in mind, let's take a look at each team in the conference's top priority on the recruiting trail for the 2017 cycle.

Begin Slideshow

Every Big Ten Team's Biggest Recruiting Need for the Class of 2017

The 2016 recruiting cycle is officially in the books, but in a sport that never stops, coaches already find themselves looking ahead to 2017.

That rings especially true in the Big Ten, which dominated headlines during this year's national signing day and will look garner even more attention a year from now.

And while recruiting rankings matter, as evidenced by the teams that typically find themselves at the top, what's most important for a program is matching its particular needs. Much of that is determined by what a team attracted a year prior and filling in the gaps of what was left on the table.

The Big Ten is no different, with coaches hoping to acquire a mix of both talent and need. With that in mind, let's take a look at each team in the conference's top priority on the recruiting trail for the 2017 cycle.

Begin Slideshow

SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: SEC Should Be Angry with Michigan IMG Camp

Last offseason was the "Summer of Harbaugh" after Jim Harbaugh took over his alma mater Michigan and dominated headlines for nine months thanks to satellite camps, mean mugs and his recruiting prowess.

It looks like the next month will be the long-awaited sequel: "The Winter of Whine."

Harbaugh made waves on national signing day when he confirmed that he will take the Wolverines to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, over spring break for a week of spring practice. IMG, of course, is essentially a sports vocational school that boasts 10 of the 247Sports top 200 prospects in the 2017 class and produced seven top-200 prospects in 2016. 

Predictably, that has drawn the ire of the SEC, according to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com.

"Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we've got one program taking what has been 'free time' away," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told Dodd. "Let's draw a line and say, 'That's not appropriate.'"

Harbaugh fired back, subtweet-style, on Wednesday:

Sankey stood strong, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello.

"I'm not going to reduce what is an important conversation to some childhood use of Twitter," he said. "This is an important issue."

You have to admire the hustle and creativity of Harbaugh. It's an innovative, unique and bold way to spread the word about the Michigan program, and it enhances the buzz that he has already built in just over a year on the job. 

The weeklong trip will likely be allowed this year, mostly because there isn't enough time for the NCAA to pass a rule preventing it. It might be the only year, though.

If Harbaugh wants to portray Sankey's response as whining—either passive-aggressively or directly—that's fine. The truth is Sankey has every right to object, and not only is he looking out for himself and his conference's interests, but also the entire sport's.

Of course it's a threat for Michigan to be at the highest-profile high school football factory in the country, and it's even more of a threat that it's located within the SEC footprint in Bradenton. That's an underlying theme in his objection, but he's not going to say that publicly because it would give off the impression he is whining, as Harbaugh appears to be suggesting. 

So Sankey veiled his objection within the larger time-management issue, which is a valid concern. 

College football players don't get much downtime. They have offseason conditioning from the moment they step foot on campus for winter semester, spring practice and "voluntary" workouts during the summer that are anything but voluntary. And, of course, they're stretched incredibly thin during the season.

The only time players actually get time off is during spring break, between the spring and summer semesters and a few days prior to fall camp. That's it. And even then, some of those players choose to stick around to work out and/or work with private coaches. 

Then there's the effect this can have on college football. 

Players are already toeing the line of being considered university employees, which is what the Northwestern unionization effort alleged two years ago. How's it going to look to the outside world if coaches start taking away some of the time off they previously enjoyed?

Not good.

Enjoy Bradenton, Michigan. It's a lovely place, and the trip will certainly generate buzz. 

It's likely the only time something like this will be allowed.

 

Sour Grapes

Piling on Texas A&M is the fashionable thing to do these days, and former Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen joined in.

Allen told Dodd of CBSSports.com the culture created under former quarterback Johnny Manziel was part of what led to his transfer:

I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny's era there—the way that they let Johnny and [others] act there. They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny…and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now. A lot of people were riding off that, 'I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday.'

There's no disguising it; that's a shot directly at head coach Kevin Sumlin and his ability to run a program.

It seems more like sour grapes, though.

Allen was justifiably unhappy with how he and former quarterback Kyler Murray were used in 2015 and even voiced his support for fired offensive coordinator Jake Spavital on Twitter when he was let go in early January:

There's no doubt that there was—and perhaps still is—dysfunction in College Station and that lines were drawn in December when decisions needed to be made.

Allen, who transferred out of the program before Murray did, clearly was on the wrong side of that line. Of course he's a little bitter. I would be as well.

Because of that, let's not take his word as a full-on indictment of Sumlin's program. After all, Allen wasn't even there at the same time Manziel was.

 

Don't Screw It Up

Alabama lost former defensive backs coach Mel Tucker this offseason when he joined Kirby Smart's Georgia staff as the defensive coordinator of the Bulldogs.

On Wednesday night, the Crimson Tide announced former Kentucky co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Derrick Ansley as the new defensive backs coach for head coach Nick Saban.

"We are very happy to have Derrick and his family back at Alabama," Saban said in an emailed statement. "Derrick did an outstanding job when he was with us as a graduate assistant, and he has a very good understanding of how we run our program and what is expected. He is a bright young coach, and he will be a great addition working with the defensive backs. We also believe he will be a tremendous asset to our staff in the recruiting process."

Job No. 1 for Ansley will be to keep the ship going in the same direction it was headed when Tucker jumped.

Eddie Jackson, who moved from corner to safety prior to the season, landed on the All-SEC first team in 2015. Jackson tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. Two defensive backs appeared on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2015, true freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey.

The Tide cut down the number of long passing plays they gave up (10 or more yards) from 133 in 2014 to 112 in 2015 despite playing in one more game.

Ansley will have to deal with the losses of corner Cyrus Jones and free safety Geno Matias-Smith, but Saban has amassed a tremendous amount of depth, and the foundation has already been set. Another step forward should be Alabama's expectation.

 

Bret Bielema—The Hero We Want and Need

With Steve Spurrier now gone and Les Miles on the hot seat at LSU, the SEC is approaching dangerously boring territory in the offseason sound-bite department.

Luckily, Bret Bielema is here to save the day. 

Arkansas' fourth-year head coach has established himself as one of the most interesting coaches in college football thanks to his ability to light up a room with quotes, his honesty and willingness to be forthcoming in front of the microphone and his one-liners that rival those of the Head Ball Coach.

Take last year's SEC media days, for example, when he claimed that kneeling down near the end zone to put away a dominating win over Texas in the closing seconds of the 2014 AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl was "borderline erotic."

"I did not plan on saying 'borderline erotic' that day," Bielema told Bleacher Report Radio on Saturday. "I had said it before, because it kind of was when we were able to do that to them the way that we wanted to. I just kind of be me. I don't have any planned material. I just kind of roll in and see where it goes."

Luckily for fans, Bielema will be a star of Bo Mattingly's Internet reality show, Being Bret Bielema, this offseason.

"The university came to me and proposed the idea to try to have a closer look at who I am away from the field," Bielema said. "They probably wanted to show people the person that I hope I represent on a daily basis. I tend to make some people mad here and there, and they want to soften my image a little bit. Bo has done a nice job of capturing some fun moments away from the game."

Save us, Bret. You're the only one who can.

 

Quick Outs

  • John Whittle of 247Sports reported Wednesday that Shaq Davidson will transfer from South Carolina, leaving first-year head coach Will Muschamp with just seven scholarship wide receivers for spring practice. For a team that needs downfield options, the Gamecocks are incredibly inexperienced at the position after Pharoh Cooper jumped to the NFL.
  • Florida's Jim McElwain made one of the most underrated assistant hires of the offseason last week, luring Torrian Gray away from Virginia Tech to coach the Gators defensive backs. Gray's secondary in Blacksburg gave up just 185 passing yards per game over the last 10 years, according to Florida's release. Ten years. 
  • Offensive line coach and noted chef Herb Hand is now at Auburn, and he's already tweeting pics of meals. Too bad it's not a home-cooked meal.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: SEC Should Be Angry with Michigan IMG Camp

Last offseason was the "Summer of Harbaugh" after Jim Harbaugh took over his alma mater Michigan and dominated headlines for nine months thanks to satellite camps, mean mugs and his recruiting prowess

It looks like the next month will be the long-awaited sequel: "The Winter of Whine."

Harbaugh made waves on national signing day when he confirmed that he will take the Wolverines to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, over spring break for a week of spring practice. IMG, of course, is essentially a sports vocational school that boasts 10 of the 247Sports Top 200 prospects in the 2017 class, and produced seven Top 200 prospects in 2016. 

Predictably, that has drawn the ire of the SEC, according to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com.

"Our primary reaction [is] that, in the face of the time-demand conversations, we've got one program taking what has been 'free time' away," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Dodd. "Let's draw a line and say, ‘That's not appropriate.'"

Harbaugh fired back, subtweet-style, on Wednesday:

Sankey stood strong, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello.

"I'm not going to reduce what is an important conversation to some childhood use of Twitter," he said. "This is an important issue."

You have to admire the hustle and creativity of Harbaugh. It's an innovative, unique and bold way to spread the word about the Michigan program, and it enhances the buzz that he has already built in just over a year on the job. 

The weeklong trip will likely be allowed this year, mostly because there isn't enough time for a rule to be passed preventing it. It might be the only year, though.

If Harbaugh wants to portray Sankey's response as whining—either passive-aggressively or directly—that's fine. The truth of the matter, though, is that Sankey has every right to object, and not only is he looking out for himself and his conference's interests, but the entire sport's.

Of course it's a threat for Michigan to be at the highest-profile high school football factory in the country, and it's even more of a threat that it's located within the SEC footprint in Bradenton. That's an underlying theme in his objection, but he's not going to say that publicly because it would give off the impression that he is whining—as Harbaugh suggests. 

So he veiled his objection within the larger time-management issue, which is a valid concern. 

College football players don't get much downtime. They're stretched incredibly thin during the season, have offseason conditioning from the moment they step foot on campus for winter semester, slide right into spring practice and "voluntary" workouts during the summer are anything but voluntary in this day and age. 

The only time players actually get time off is during spring break, between the spring and summer semesters and a few days prior to fall camp. That's it. And even then, some of those players choose to stick around to work out, quarterbacks travel to work with private quarterback coaches and many try to get an edge by keeping sharp even while on vacation.

What's more, Sankey is looking out for the sport of college football.

Players are already toeing the line of being considered university employees, which is what the Northwestern unionization effort alleged two years ago. How's it going to look to the outside world if coaches start taking away some of the time off they previously enjoyed?

Not good.

Enjoy Bradenton, Michigan. It's a lovely place and the trip will certainly generate buzz. 

It's likely the only time something like this will be allowed.

 

Sour Grapes

Piling on Texas A&M is the fashionable thing to do these days, and former Aggie quarterback Kyle Allen joined in.

Allen told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com that the culture created under former quarterback Johnny Manziel was to blame for the last two seasons of anonymity:

I think the culture was a big part of it, and I think that stems from Johnny's era there—the way that they let Johnny and [others] act there. They [could] do that and still win games because they had Johnny…and five offensive linemen playing in the NFL right now. A lot of people were riding off that, ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and win on Saturday.'

There's no disguising it, that's a shot directly at head coach Kevin Sumlin and his ability to run a program.

It seems more like sour grapes, though.

Allen was justifiably unhappy with how he and former quarterback Kyler Murray were used in 2015, and even voiced his support for fired offensive coordinator Jake Spavital on Twitter when he was let go in early January:

There's no doubt that there was—and perhaps still is—dysfunction in College Station, and that lines were drawn in December when decisions needed to be made.

Allen, who transferred out of the program before Murray did, clearly was on the wrong side of that line. Of course he's a little bitter. I would be too.

Because of that, let's not take his word as gospel and a full-on indictment of Sumlin's program. After all, he wasn't even there at the same time Manziel was.

 

Don't Screw It Up

Alabama lost former defensive backs coach Mel Tucker this offseason when he joined Kirby Smart's Georgia staff as the defensive coordinator of the Bulldogs.

His replacement was named on Wednesday night when the Crimson Tide announced former Kentucky co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Derrick Ansley as the new defensive backs coach for head coach Nick Saban.

"We are very happy to have Derrick and his family back at Alabama," Saban said in an emailed statement. "Derrick did an outstanding job when he was with us as a graduate assistant, and he has a very good understanding of how we run our program and what is expected. He is a bright young coach, and he will be a great addition working with the defensive backs. We also believe he will be a tremendous asset to our staff in the recruiting process."

Job No. 1 for Ansley will be to keep the ship going in the same direction it was headed when Tucker jumped.

Alabama landed Eddie Jackson, who moved from corner to safety prior to the season, on the All-SEC first team in 2015. Jackson tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. Two defensive backs appeared on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2015, true freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey.

The Tide cut down the number of long passing plays they gave up (10 or more yards) from 133 in 2014 to 112 in 2015, despite playing in one more game.

He'll have to deal with the losses of corner Cyrus Jones and free safety Geno Matias-Smith, but Saban has amassed a tremendous amount of depth and the foundation has already been set. Another step forward should not only be the hope, it should be the expectation.

 

Bret Bielema—The Hero We Want and Need

With Steve Spurrier now gone and Les Miles on the hot seat at LSU, the SEC is approaching dangerously boring territory in the offseason sound-bite department.

Luckily, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is here to save the day. 

The fourth-year head coach of the Razorbacks has established himself as one of the most interesting coaches in college football, thanks to his ability to light up a room with quotes, his honesty and willingness to be forthcoming in front of the microphone and one-liners that rival those of the Head Ball Coach.

Take last year's SEC media days, for example, when he claimed that kneeling down near the end zone to put away a dominating win over Texas in the closing seconds of the 2014 AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl was "borderline erotic."

"I did not plan on saying 'borderline erotic' that day," Bielema told Bleacher Report Radio on Saturday. "I had said it before, because it kind of was when we were able to do that to them the way that we wanted to. I just kind of be me. I don't have any planned material, I just kind of roll in and see where it goes."

Luckily for fans, Bielema will be a star of Bo Mattingly's Internet reality show Being Bret Bielema this offseason.

"The university came to me and proposed the idea to try to have a closer look at who I am away from the field," Bielema said. "They probably wanted to show people the person that I hope I represent on a daily basis. I tend to make some people mad here and there, and they want to soften my image a little bit. Bo has done a nice job of capturing some fun moments away from the game."

Save us, Bret. You're the only one who can.

 

Quick Outs

  • John Whittle of 247Sports reported Wednesday that Shaq Davidson will transfer, leaving first-year head coach Will Muschamp with just seven scholarship wide receivers for spring practice. For a team that needs downfield options, the Gamecocks are incredibly inexperienced at the position after Pharoh Cooper jumped to the NFL.
  • One of the most underrated assistant hires of the offseason was made by Florida's Jim McElwain last week, who lured Torrian Gray away from Virginia Tech to coach the Gator defensive backs. Gray's secondary in Blacksburg gave up just 185 passing yards per game over the last 10 years, according to Florida's release. Ten years. 
  • Offensive line coach and noted chef Herb Hand is now at Auburn, and he's already tweeting pics of meals. Too bad it's not a home-cooked meal.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

CFB Future 100: Top 11 Running Backs in Class of 2017

After a thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report national recruiting analysts Damon SaylesSanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 100 players in the 247Sports composite rankings and provided in-depth analysis on each young athlete. Bleacher Report will run a position-by-position breakdown series of the best college football recruits in the 2017 class. Here, we present the Top Running Backs. 


Other Positions: 

The 2015 season was somewhat of a renaissance in college football for the running back position.

Alabama star Derrick Henry became just the second running back to win the Heisman Trophy in the last decade. Additionally, backs such as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook all had banner sophomore campaigns that should keep them in the conversation for that award this fall.

College football coaches are searching for the next wave of game-breaking rushers on the recruiting trail, and the 2017 class looks to be stacked with talented backs.

Crimson Tide pledge and 5-star California running back Najee Harris is at the top of that list, but he’s far from alone. Harris is one of 11 rushers among the nation’s top 100 overall prospects in the 2017 cycle.

The latest installment in the CFB Future 100 series takes a look those backs.

Bleacher Report scored the position on traits such as ball security (10 points), power (20 points), vision (20 points), hands (15 points), speed (20 points) and agility (15 points). The cumulative figures from those traits resulted in our overall grade for each prospect.  

How do the nation’s top running backs measure up to one another? 

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Notre Dame Football: A Look Ahead at the Irish's 2016 Schedule

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — With snow lining the Midwest campus, Notre Dame football’s season opener in September against Texas seems far away.

But with yesterday’s scheduling announcement regarding the November matchup against Navy—a game that will start at, yes, 11:30 a.m. ET—let’s look toward sunshine and the upcoming 2016 slate.

 

The Marquee Opponents

Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule shapes up similarly to the 2015 rendition. The Irish visit Texas in the opener in the back half of the home-and-home series. Standard matchups with Stanford and USC await, while Notre Dame trades one 2015 playoff team for another with Michigan State—not Clemson—on the early-season docket in 2016. The Irish also have intriguing ACC tilts against storied programs in Miami and Virginia Tech.

The Cardinal check in at No. 8 in ESPN’s early Top 25, one spot ahead of the Irish. The Spartans, who lose quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, among others, are slotted 14th. The quarterback job is also up for grabs at USC, where Clay Helton will need a replacement for Cody Kessler in his first full season as the head man of the Trojans. USC is pegged 16th.

 

Professional Venues

As is the norm at Notre Dame, the Irish will play in three different NFL stadiums during the 2016 regular season.

Notre Dame and Syracuse clash at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, at the beginning of October. The aforementioned Navy-Notre Dame rivalry game kicks off (early) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

And don’t expect much trouble for the Irish in the annual Shamrock Series game, which pits Notre Dame against Army at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

 

News and Notes

Texas turned in a 5-7 campaign in the first year of the Charlie Strong era, but the Longhorns inked 24 commits—good for the nation’s 11th-best class of 2016.

Former Irish assistant coach Brian Polian spent five seasons in South Bend under Charlie Weis and will direct his Nevada club into Indiana in Week 2.

Duke, meanwhile, announced Tuesday morning that redshirt senior quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a ruptured left Achilles tendon and will be out indefinitely following surgery that was scheduled Wednesday. Sirk completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,625 yards and 16 touchdowns to go along with a team-best 803 rushing yards and eight scores in 2015.

Dino Babers (Syracuse), Mark Richt (Miami), Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Clay Helton (USC) will all be in their first full seasons as head coaches of their respective programs.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rick Neuheisel Responds to Jim Mora's Comments About 'Soft' UCLA Team

UCLA football coach Jim Mora has been on a mission to toughen up the program since taking over as head coach prior to the 2012 season, but former Bruins boss Rick Neuheisel reportedly took issue with some comments his successor made earlier this week. 

In a Tuesday appearance on The Herd With Colin Cowherd, Mora told the host he thought UCLA's program was "soft" during one of his initial interviews for the head coaching position: 

The school evidently agreed, and the two sides formed a partnership that has produced a 37-16 record that includes two bowl wins over the past four seasons.

However, Neuheisel—who led the program from 2008-2011—explained he wasn't thrilled with the comments Mora made and those attributed to athletic director Dan Guerrero in the interview with Cowherd (h/t CoachingSearch.com's Chris Vannini):     

We were 21-29, and I’m man enough to own that record. That’s the facts. That’s what we were, and I own it. Jim Mora has done a nice job at UCLA, but to hear Dan Guerrero say that we were soft? That makes me bristle, because Dan Guerrero never came to practice. He never came to my office in four years. Not one time did he ever come and be a part of what was going on out there.

[...]

This tough team that Jim Mora’s talking about, in the year he took over, they were last in the country in penalties. Talking about mental toughness? 124th out of 124 teams in penalties. The next year, they’re 122nd, the next year, they’re 117th, and this year, they’re 123rd. Something systemic about this mentally tough team. All he did was paint the walls black and wear black on the sideline and thinks that’s tough. I’ve been in the locker room. There’s all sorts of stuff about Sun Tzu and the Art of War and pain. He takes the team to Navy SEAL training. Congratulations. I’m glad you had the money to do it. But don’t talk about toughness with my football team. I’ll go to war with any of (my former players).”

Neuheisel also told Cowherd the athletic department hit him with an ultimatum prior to the 2011 season and said, "You make it to a bowl game, we’re fine." But despite qualifying for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Neuheisel was relieved of his duties after USC demolished the Bruins, 50-0, in UCLA's 2011 regular-season finale. 

Although the jettisoned UCLA boss went just 21-28 during his four seasons in Westwood, his career winning percentage of .600 that was bolstered by stellar seasons at the University of Colorado and the University of Washington shouldn't be glossed over. 

Mora, meanwhile, has his sights set on a bounce-back 2016 season. Following 10-win campaigns in 2012 and 2013, UCLA managed an 8-5 record last season with freshman sensation Josh Rosen under center. 

Factor in an incoming recruiting class that's ranked 12th in the nation, per 247Sports' composite rankings, and Mora should be equipped with the tools to help UCLA compete for its first Pac-12 title since 1998. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rick Neuheisel Responds to Jim Mora's Comments About 'Soft' UCLA Team

UCLA football coach Jim Mora has been on a mission to toughen up the program since taking over as head coach prior to the 2012 season, but former Bruins boss Rick Neuheisel reportedly took issue with some comments his successor made earlier this week...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Ranking Top Returning WRs for 2016 College Football Season

College football's passing game is more alive than ever, thanks in large part to the depth of wide receivers.

Many of the best depart from last year, but that's nothing new. The well is stocked deep enough to replenish itself, especially given some of the upperclassmen who could have, but didn't, declare for the NFL draft.

This ranking looks mostly backward but also forward, assessing players on past performance with an eye toward how they'll perform in 2016. Its a preseason ranking of receivers we would choose to build our team around, not a prediction of who will post the highest numbers.

But those things often go hand-in-hand.

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The Next Blake Sims? Alabama QB Enrollee Jalen Hurts Ready for Challenges Ahead

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For four days, he got a taste of what it’s really like to be on a national championship team, and he didn’t disappoint.

Because the University of Alabama was still playing football when the early enrollees from the recruiting class of 2016 could sign their scholarships and start preparing for classes, quarterback Jalen Hurts was able to practice with the team during its on-campus workouts for the College Football Playoff National Championship.

But he didn’t just sit around and watch. Coaches told Hurts to come in ready to go because he would have a pretty important role as the Crimson Tide prepared to face Clemson, helping to play the part of Deshaun Watson for the scout team.

“It felt good knowing that I was getting after it against the No. 1 [actually No. 3] defense in the country,” he said. “It also felt good to know that I helped in preparation for winning the national title, that I had a little something to do with that. It was a great experience.

“I guess I was officially a member of the program, so it felt good to be a part of something great like that.”

Although Hurts wasn’t the only player filling that role, as it was the primary responsibility of Blake Barnett, the two rotated depending on what the coaches wanted.

Hurts compared it to sticking his toe into the college football waters, learning firsthand what it meant to be evaluated by the Crimson Tide coaching staff on a daily basis.

“Really pleased with the quarterback prospect we have,” head coach Nick Saban said.

Of Alabama’s early enrollees, Hurts may be the most intriguing not only because of his style of play as a dual-threat quarterback but the wide range of opinions on his potential.

The one consistent evaluation among the major recruiting services was that he’s a 4-star prospect, resulting in a No. 3 national ranking at his position and No. 176 overall ranking.

He was rated the top dual-threat quarterback in the nation by 247Sports' own evaluations but seventh (among all QBs) by Scout.com, ninth by Rivals.com and 13th by ESPN.com. That led to national rankings of No. 104 on 247Sports, No. 154 on Scout.com, No. 231 on Rivals.com, and he wasn’t listed in the ESPN300.

Part of that discrepancy probably has to do with the way he was used in high school. Hurts passed for 2,371 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 games as a senior while also rushing for 1,393 yards and 25 more scores.

He passed more (2,545 yards and 21 touchdowns) and ran less (951 yards and 19 scores) as a junior.

“I had to [run more] as a senior because we didn’t have an every-down running back like we did the year before,” Hurts explained. “My junior year, I scrambled more than designed runs. As a senior, I got a few more quarterback draws and things of that sort.”

When asked which he prefers, Hurts said, “I’m going to do whatever coach asks me to do.”

Regardless, there’s no denying that Hurts is a top-notch athlete, and he also hails from a sports-oriented family. Older brother Averion just finished his freshman season at Texas Southern and passed for just under 1,000 yards. The father was their high school coach, but Hurts isn’t about to take on either of his parents in basketball. They can still shoot.

“I grew up watching my brother,” Hurts said. “He’s shorter than I am. I watched him and kind of went after his game. He’s not as mobile as I am and can’t do the things I can do. But he is my hero; I look up to him.”

While Averion is listed as 6’0”, Jalen’s 6’2” frame was enough to draw national attention—especially from Southeastern Conference schools that are known for their dual-threat attacks.

In the end, he was considering Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Florida, but Hurts eventually didn’t base his decision on what offensive scheme each team was running. He preferred what Alabama could offer both on and off the field.

“What got me here was the program,” he said. “You come to Alabama, you have to compete every day in everything you do. Every day here is an evaluation—you’re being evaluated. I have no problem with that. Everything is about competition. You come here, you’re going to do what’s best for the team. That’s being the best player.”

What put Alabama over the top was what it did in 2014 with Blake Sims. With offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin gearing the offense to best suit his quarterback and obviously get the ball to wide receiver Amari Cooper as often as possible, Alabama set numerous program records en route to winning the SEC Championship.

Hurts could envision himself doing something similar.

“When you see Blake Sims, it was only right that I look at that and say I could possibly have a shot here,” he said. “Anything is possible.”

Like with Sims, it’s probably going to be a while before Hurts can put himself into position to challenge for the starting job. With Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Barnett poised to start a three-man race in the spring barring a rash of injuries, he’ll most likely spend the 2016 season running the scout team full time.

But he’ll still be in the mix and competing, which are the important things, and Hurts knows he has a lot to learn. 

Consequently, considering what he’s already been through, the rest of what will likely be a redshirt year could be gravy—or “snow crabs and catfish,” as Hurts put it. His favorite part of campus life so far has been the meals.

He plans on eating a lot of them while trying to add five pounds to get his playing weight up to 217.

“You never go hungry here,” he said.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Who Will Be No. 1 Weapon of Each Top 25 College Football Team in 2016?

At this time each year—after the drama of national signing day and before the first snaps of spring practices—the buzz around college football becomes fixated on early preseason projections.

A large part of predicting who will be the contenders for conference and national titles falls on returning experience. Think of it this way: The more returning starters you have, the better. The more returning star players you have, the best.

That's what this countdown is all about. Using last month's "super-early preseason Top 25" from Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval as a guide, let's take a look at the projected ranked teams and predict the No. 1 weapon for each. (This isn't my personal top 25, so don't come after me with your objections.)

This isn't necessarily a list of the best players, although a lot of them would take the preseason MVP title for their respective schools. It's more of a selection of the players each team would turn to right now to come up with the big game-changing play, whether it's on offense, defense or special teams—or, sometimes, all three.

Who do you think will be the No. 1 weapon on your favorite school in 2016? Let us know in the comments below, and try to stay focused on the players instead of the team rankings themselves.

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AAC Championship Game Security Guard Charged with Assault: Details, Reaction

A security guard who was working at TDECU Stadium during Houston's AAC title-clinching victory over Temple in December was charged with misdemeanor assault on Wednesday. 

According to Meagan Flynn of the Houston Press, a grand jury indicted Derrick Hicks after videos captured him getting into a physical altercation with a University of Houston student who stormed the field following the Cougars' win.    

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh Questions the Attractiveness of Whining in Tweet

When Michigan Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has something on his mind, he's going to say what he is thinking.

Fortunately for the rest of us, we get to see those thoughts whenever they pop up thanks to social media.

On Tuesday, Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com reported that the Southeastern Conference is pushing for the NCAA "to prohibit college football teams from holding spring practice during spring break." That came after Harbaugh decided Michigan would be holding spring practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, during its spring break.

Coincidentally, Harbaugh took to Twitter on Wednesday to pose a question:

Is that a shot at the SEC? Only the Wolverines coach can say for sure. At the very least, it does make you wonder if the Subtweet Master has made another appearance.

Amusingly, Harbaugh is no stranger to, um, having his team's back on the sideline himself:

You can be the judge as to whether that's attractive.

[Jim Harbaugh, Yahoo Dr. Saturday]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Best Offensive Minds in College Football

No offense to a certain defensive-minded professional football championship game that just played out in front of millions of viewers over the weekend, but at the college level we still love our production.

It's as much a necessity as helmets and shoulder pads to have an effective offensive game plan at the college level in order to survive, and to do more than that requires plenty of innovation. Resting on tried-and-true tactics doesn't cut it anymore, not with the players becoming bigger, faster, stronger and more adaptive to what's happening on the field.

Alabama and Clemson had two of the country's most punishing defenses, but when they met in the national championship game, it ultimately came down to which team could do more with the ball. The result was 75 points and a combined 1,023 yards of offense.

Much credit goes to the players who take the play calls and turn them into positive results, but here we're focusing on the people who are making those calls. Particularly, those who come up with the game's most creative and productive schemes.

Follow along as we pick the brains of the best offensive minds in college football—chosen for not just the schemes that they run (and how well they've produced) but also for their ability to make it work in varying situations and environments.

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Where Should USC Turn to Replace Pat Haden as Athletic Director?

The Friday before the Super Bowl is always a perfect day to release some news that might garner a mixed reaction, and there were several organizations that did just that in order to fly under the radar.

One of the more interesting bits of information that surfaced on Feb. 5 was USC's announcement that athletic director Pat Haden would be stepping down from his current role at the end of June in order to focus on the burgeoning renovation project of the Trojans' historic home at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

It was a move many observers of the school expected at some point in the near future (Haden is 63 and battling health issues), but it nevertheless failed to register among some—because of the timing—just what a big moment this was for the school.

"It has been a tremendous honor serving my alma mater, a school I love so much, as well as serving Max Nikias, our coaches and staff and, most importantly, our student-athletes," Haden said in a statement. "I am proud of what has been accomplished here the past six years and knowing that USC Athletics is on an upward trajectory. I look forward to finishing out this academic year as athletic director and then spending time on the Coliseum project."

Yes, Haden has seen his fair share of tough press over his handling of recent matters regarding the football team, but he is still a respected member of the Trojan family who did plenty to leave his school in better shape than he found it upon taking over in 2010. His departure also signals a major opportunity for the school to hire a top-notch candidate to fill one of the more attractive jobs in college athletics.

After all, one does get to live in Los Angeles, get paid handsomely (USAToday believes Haden was the highest-paid AD in the country) and run a department that finds success in just about every Olympic sport in addition to fielding top-25 teams in revenue sports such as football and basketball.

The question is, especially at this critical time in the school’s history: Where does USC go from here? Can it lure a savvy outsider to come in and provide stability, or do power brokers in LA even want somebody from the outside? According to David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times, all but one of the school's seven athletic directors since 1926 had some previous connection to the Trojans.

Hiring an insider is not necessarily a bad thing, as the recent praise being heaped on Michigan for hiring former football player Warde Manuel can attest to. Still, USC has proved to be quite insular in its decision-making the past few years, which has resulted in some issues that were likely preventable.

Complicating things might be strong-minded school president Max Nikias, who resisted plenty of alumni pressure to clean house last year when the football team was swept up in controversy and Clay Helton was eventually tapped to be the full-time head coach over the objections of many.

Interestingly, the school has retained a search firm to find its next athletic director, but it has virtually zero experience in finding candidates in the athletics realm and is typically unitized for dean and CEO searches.

With all that in mind, here are a few candidates USC is likely to consider as the Trojans try to find the perfect person to replace Haden.

 

The insiders: Steve Lopes, John "J.K." McKay

Lopes has been a member of the Trojans athletic department since the mid-1980s and is one of the longest-serving administrators in Heritage Hall. He’s been a senior associate athletic director since 2002 as the right hand of both Mike Garrett and Pat Haden and is currently the COO and CFO of the athletic department.

He is likely to be the top candidate if USC chooses to go with an internal hire and very likely will be named the interim AD if a full-time replacement hasn’t been selected by June.

For Lopes, who is well-respected among boosters and department officials alike, his biggest advantage—being at the school for so long—may also be one of the things that will work against him. He has not been an athletic director elsewhere at a major school and may be guilty by association for simply being around during some turbulent times.

The other internal candidate likewise has to combat the fact that he’s been around for some messy issues. McKay is a Trojan through thick and thin however, and no doubt would draw on his connections to the program as a selling point.

The son of national title-winning USC head coach John McKay, J.K. is very accomplished in his own right. He was a star receiver for two national championship teams at the school in the 1970s, played briefly in the NFL and later became an accomplished lawyer for several firms in Southern California.

McKay was brought on board at Heritage Hall when Haden came aboard and currently serves as the senior associate athletic director for football. While he no doubt has the credentials and reputation to become the school’s next athletic director, the fact that he’s been the person directly responsible for overseeing four head coaches during his six years on campus is a big hill to climb. His age (he'll be 63 next month) doesn’t help, either.

 

The insider with outside experience: Mark Jackson

Timing is everything in the world of athletics, and one wonders if Jackson is kicking himself just a bit for leaving last August to become the athletic director of Villanova. A former senior associate athletic director at USC, he was a big factor in building one of the best football operations buildings in the country in the John McKay Center and was instrumental in pushing through the stunning renovation of venerable Heritage Hall.

Long considered an up-and-comer in the world of athletics, Jackson would likely have been named Haden’s replacement almost immediately had he remained in Los Angeles and would have been the welcome choice for many boosters and administrators. He will likely still be a top-tier candidate for the USC job, but it remains to be seen if he’d leave Philadelphia so soon after getting his first AD job, especially with the Wildcats sitting pretty at No. 1 in the men’s basketball top 25.

 

The sitting ADs: Chris Del Conte, Greg Byrne, Jim Phillips, John Currie

If USC is looking to land the best candidate for its opening, it would be wise to put in a call to this group and not take no for an answer.

Del Conte should likely top the list, as he’d bring the personality needed for the job to glad-hand boosters and deal with the L.A. media while also bringing an impressive administrative record to the table. USC is one of the few jobs he’d likely leave Fort Worth for, and he has numerous connections to the state of California that could help lure him west.

He checks off all the boxes when it comes to experience, and the fact that he helped deliver on major football and basketball stadium renovations has to be a big plus for a school looking to update the Coliseum.

Byrne is familiar to USC fans from his time running Arizona’s athletic department and has about as good a resume as they come in college sports. He has a phenomenal track record when it comes to hiring coaches, and his creativity in dealing with administrative matters would serve him well at a place like USC. He’s still among the younger ADs in the country, which could be very attractive for the Trojans in charge, given how they are hoping for some long-term stability with this hire.

As for Phillips and Currie, both seem like more long shots, but a premiere athletic department like USC should likely put in a call anyway. Phillips’ next move is probably to either Notre Dame or to replace Jim Delany as Big Ten commissioner, but it’s possible that Currie would listen to a big step up from Kansas State and a chance to be even more of a player on the national stage.

 

The executive suite: Dan Bane, Rich McKay

It’s been a recent trend of late for schools to look outside college athletics and pick somebody with a more business-oriented approach to run their athletic departments. This has backfired tremendously at places like Michigan and Texas lately, but it’s possible that is still a direction USC could go, especially when factoring in its search firm’s lack of athletics placement experience.

That could open the door for USC to lure somebody like Dan Bane to the job, the current CEO of Trader Joe’s and a former baseball player at the school under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. It seems like a long stretch that Nikias could convince him to give up such a high-profile job (Bane is also relatively press-shy and even older than Haden), but finding a successful businessman like that with ties to the school wouldn’t be a stretch by any imagination.

Also a possibility? Atlanta Falcons CEO Rich McKay, the brother of J.K. and son of famed head coach John. He’s both younger than his brother and, perhaps more importantly, has enough ties to the school without really at risk of being labeled as a big-time insider. He’s had success on the field as general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they won the Super Bowl, and his involvement in building a new stadium in Atlanta is also a big plus.

Either way, the search for the Trojans' next athletic director will be fascinating and capable of taking many twists and turns as the school looks to replace Pat Haden. As one of just three athletic departments in the country with over 100 NCAA titles and a very prestigious football brand, it’s a marquee job in college athletics that pays handsomely.

While it is an attractive opening for somebody, figuring just who that is appears to be a big challenge for those in charge at USC.

 

Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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