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Breaking Down Alabama's Depth Chart Following NFL Draft Departures

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Apparently playing in Dallas twice this season, where the University of Alabama football team won more games at AT&T Stadium than the National Football League’s Cowboys, made quite an impression on running back Derrick Henry.

When asked if there’s any NFL team in particular he’d like to play for, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner said “the Cowboys, but any team that drafts me."

"(They’re) not my favorite team, just a team that I feel like has a great organization."

Henry hasn’t gone as far as look at any team’s roster, but even with his and A’Shawn Robinson’s departure, as the junior defensive lineman also declared himself eligible for the 2016 draft on Friday, the team they’re leaving behind remains pretty loaded as well.

Of the 85 scholarship players Nick Saban compiled for the 2015-16 season, 18 were initially considered 5-star recruits by 247Sports and another 47 were 4-star players. That worked out to 76.5 percent of the roster.

Here’s the scary part:

Of all the players leaving the program, only two were considered 5-star recruits. They just happened to be the two who just declared for the NFL draft together, Henry and Robinson.

“I didn't do a draft grade,” said Robinson, who could be the first defensive lineman selected and appears to be almost a first-round lock. “Coach Saban talked to coaches for me to see where they'd draft me.”

Heading into the weekend the Crimson Tide already know they're losing:

Seniors: Quarterback Jake Coker, linebacker Denzel Devall, running back Kenyan Drake, tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, tackle Dominick Jackson, cornerback Cyrus Jones, center Ryan Kelly, nose guard Darren Lake, linebacker Dillon Lee, guard Isaac Luatua, safety Geno Matias-Smith, wide receiver Richard Mullaney, tight end Michael Nysewander, defensive lineman D.J. Pettway, linebacker Reggie Ragland, defensive lineman Jarran Reed, cornerback Bradley Sylve and defensive back Jabriel Washington.

Juniors declaring for the draft: Henry and Robinson.

Transfers: Quarterback Alec Morris and wide receiver Chris Black.

All indications are that defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and tight end O.J. Howard are still weighing their NFL options (and both were 5-star recruits).

Linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams have already announced their return, as has starting strong safety Eddie Jackson—who just made the move from cornerback this past season.

Players have until Monday afternoon to declare early for the draft.

“A lot of guys will step up next year,” Matias-Smith said. “Alabama will be back.”

Although playing until mid-January will delay the team’s offseason conditioning program, the next position battles will begin during spring practices sometime in March. But there may not be as many competitions as expected.

On offense there are just four. Alabama will have another quarterback competition, this time between just three players instead of last year’s five: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett.

At running back, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are expected to form the tandem to handle the majority of snaps, while the offensive line has to replace center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Alabama already has players who could step in tomorrow if it had a game.  

On defense, the entire starting line will need to be replaced should Allen bolt, but Alabama had a nine-man rotation, 14 if you include the linebackers serving as pass-rushers, so the losses figure to be felt more on the back end.

At linebacker it appears that Reuben Foster will return in hopes of becoming Alabama’s next great player in the interior.

“When you think about Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley the next in line is Reggie Ragland, and Reuben Foster will next year be a first-round possibility,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I think it would be smart for him to go back and be the leader of that defense just as Reggie Ragland was.”

Williams and Rashaan Evans will try to take the next steps in their development with Anderson a natural fit to be the full-time Jack, the full-time linebacker/defensive end hybrid position in Saban’s scheme.

Meanwhile, the secondary will lose the leadership of Cyrus Jones, but Saban started restocking a couple of years ago, and the back end could be a real team strength.

All in all, with so many players getting experience this national championship season, there’s really not much retooling that has to be done, and Alabama will sign another top-notch recruiting class next month as well.

One has to wonder how many of them might eventually leave early for the NFL, which has become a pretty regular thing every year as the coaches reload the roster.

"We've had 20 guys go out early since 2009 and 13 of them have been first-round draft picks, which we're very, very proud of,” Saban said. “I think as always, every player—which was really demonstrated at the national championship game out in Phoenix this year when we had over 20 guys that were former players here that played in the NFL now—they were all on the sidelines with their team and in the locker room as if they were a part of the team.

“These guys know and it's a part of our tradition that we're very proud of their accomplishments, we're very concerned about their futures, and we're always here to support them. They're always welcome to come back to Alabama, and we certainly encourage them to come back and get their degree."

Robinson made a point of saying that he will get his degree.

“I'll miss everything,” Henry said. “This program is…just everything. I loved playing here. I loved going to school here. I'll miss everything about it. The fans, football, everything.”

 

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

Auburn Football: Top Targets Heading into Final Stretch of 2016 Recruiting Cycle

Auburn's coaches resurrected from the "dead period" earlier this week. Now it's time for them to nail down what they hope will be another strong top-10 recruiting class.

Gus Malzahn and his transitioning staff currently have the No. 10 class in the country, according to the 247Sports composite rankings—a collection of the industry's top rankings. What's impressive is that Auburn has already achieved that high ranking while only landing pledges from 17 recruits.

That means there is still plenty of room left for Auburn to pick up even more highly touted recruits between now and the end of signing day in less than three weeks. 

This upcoming weekend is set to be a huge one for the Tigers' recruiting efforts, with a mixture of 11 top targets and current commitments currently scheduled to be on the Plains, per Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports. 

With just a short time remaining until the end of the 2016 cycle, here are 10 of Auburn's top targets left on the board and where they stand with the Tigers at this point in the frenzy.

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The Epic College Football Legacy of Alabama Running Back Derrick Henry

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When the clock expired and the confetti started to fall at University of Phoenix Stadium, Deshaun Watson wanted to find one player in particular from the opposing sideline, Derrick Henry.

The University of Alabama running back and Watson had gotten to know one another and it was a relationship that the Clemson quarterback wanted to continue. Not only had they become friends, but Henry had achieved the two things that had barely eluded him during the 2015-16 season: the Heisman Trophy and national championship.

“I'm trying to do the same thing and just learn from guys who have been there and done it,” Watson said.

There are a lot of people who will be studying Henry’s Crimson Tide career, which officially came to a close with the announcement of his decision to enter the 2016 NFL draft on Friday.

Although offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin sort of gave away the decision by saying at the Cotton Bowl: “We’ll replace a Heisman Trophy winner just like we did a Biletnikoff winner the year before,” there really wasn’t much for Henry to come back for, especially when compared to the money he’ll soon be making.

"I just felt like this is the way to go out," Henry said. "With everything that happened this year I've been very fortunate."

Granted, Henry may soon be doing Heisman House ads, but he may not end up being a first-round selection, which is usually the standard Nick Saban uses for giving his blessing for players considering leaving school early unless one probably can't improve his draft stock.

The NFL's advisory committee gave Henry a second-round grade. 

"Henry doesn’t have enough wiggle and change of direction to attract first- and maybe second-round interest," ESPN draft analyst Kel Kiper Jr. said. "Maybe third round for him. He’s a build-up-to-speed kind of guy, he doesn’t have that initial quickness through the hole kind type of player you need for the NFL.

"For Henry I’ll say third round, maybe second."

Nevertheless, he's already considered the best running back in Crimson Tide history.

Among Henry's accomplishments:

  • Even though he wasn’t considered Alabama’s starting running back until this season, he’s already the program’s all-time leading rusher. Henry had 3,591 yards to top Shaun Alexander’s 3,565 (1996-99).
  • His 2,219 rushing yards for the season shattered Trent Richardson’s record of 1,679 (2011), a difference of 540 yards.
  • Henry had 10 100-yard performances in 2015 and 16 for his career, both setting a school record.
  • His 28 rushing touchdowns set a season record, and the career mark of 42 tied Mark Ingram (2008-10).
  • The last time Henry failed to score a touchdown in a game was against LSU in 2014. His 28 rushing touchdowns set both a school and Southeastern Conference record that was previously 23 (Tim Tebow and Tre Mason).
  • Henry became the 25th back in NCAA history to rush for 2,000 or more yards in a single season but the first in the SEC. He topped Herschel Walker’s league record of 1,891 yards on 385 carries set in 1981.

The numbers are even more remarkable considering that Alabama’s initial approach this past season was to use a two-back attack.

“I didn't know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake,” Saban said.

But while Drake ran into some injury issues and the only other running backs on the roster were freshmen, Henry carried more and more of the offense, especially during the second half of the season. When he started approaching and surpassing the benchmark numbers achieved by Bo Jackson and Walker, awards voters couldn’t ignore him.

Since the Doak Walker Award for best running back started being handed out in 1990, Henry’s just the fourth player to win it along with the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp player of the years awards all in the same season (Ron Dayne in 1999, Ricky Williams in 1998 and Eddie George in 1995).

Against nine ranked teams he ended up rushing for 166.6 yards per game (1,499), exceeding 200 against three of them. The only one in which Henry didn’t get at least 125 yards against was Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, a 38-0 victory during which the coaches clearly held him back.

“We haven't really played anyone that big” Michigan State linebacker Riley Bullough said. “But what he does well is he doesn't go down. Takes him two, three, four guys to take him down and he's always falling forward. So he makes the two-yard gains turn into five or six. If you continue to do that for an entire game, you know, it wears down the defenses. That's what you see what happens as the third, fourth quarter comes around.”

He did get his yards against Clemson on the biggest stage of his career, rushing for 158 yards on 36 carries and scoring three touchdowns after Dabo Swinney called him “A whole different animal.” Henry probably would have been named the offensive MVP of the national championship game if junior tight end O.J. Howard hadn’t had 208 receiving yards.

“It's tough to go one-on-one with him,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “It's like old-school football, if you're not ready to go before he touches the ball, then it won't work out.”

Consequently, when it comes to Henry’s legacy he’s in very exclusive company, and you’re splitting hairs when trying to separate him from the best running backs to ever play the game.

Overall, there have been only four running backs in SEC history to have four 200-yard games in one season: Walker, Jackson, Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette just joined them with his 212-yard performance in the Texas Bowl. He’ll have a better shot of challenging Walker’s 171.9 rushing yards per game in 1981 and 159.4 for his collegiate career.

Moreover, Henry was technically only a starter for one season and is not in the top 10 of all-time SEC rushing leaders, a prestigious list topped by Walker with 5,259 yards from 1980-82, followed by Arkansas’ Darren McFadden (4,590), LSU’s Kevin Faulk (4,557) and Jackson (4,303).

But none of them led his team to a conference and national championship while playing a schedule like Alabama’s, nor as a co-captain of his team. They also never quite did what Henry accomplished in back-to-back games against Auburn and Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

“I didn't think I would see that ever, 90 carries in seven days—and then I think he could have kept going,” Kiffin said. “He was in the locker room afterwards like he just was warming up.

“Somehow he just continues to get stronger, and that goes back to how he works, the way that he practices, the way that we're in the sprints in the practice—and he's not worried about anything else except for getting himself better.”

“I think our team kind of [took] on his persona and physical nature,” former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.

Perhaps that’s Henry’s true legacy and the one that will be widely overlooked. He didn’t just have as much drive and determination as anyone else, but the Crimson Tide did as well.

That’s what earned him the honor of being a co-captain on the nation’s most high-profile team despite being just a junior. It's also what helps make him comparable to college football's greatest running backs.

“That's just the culture that our program and our coaching staff has created here at Alabama,” Henry said. “We work as hard as we can and try to get better week after week. It all comes down to hard work.” 

 

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

A'Shawn Robinson Declares for 2016 NFL Draft: Latest Comments and Reaction

One of college football's most dominant defensive players is making the leap to the pros, as Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson declared for the 2016 NFL draft on Friday.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports reported Robinson's intentions.

The 6'4", 312-pound Robinson was dominant during his junior campaign in 2015, as he registered 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for the Crimson Tide. 

While the Fort Worth, Texas, native was excellent in each of his first two seasons at Alabama, he made some changes leading up to the 2015 campaign that made him even more dangerous and difficult for opposing offensive lines to handle.

According to Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated's Campus Rush, Robinson dropped some weight, which added to his athleticism and ability to wreak havoc.

"It's been good for me. I feel great. My body feels a lot better," Robinson said. "I'm stronger and quicker. I'm faster off the ball."

That certainly manifested itself, as Robinson was a handful all season long. He was a factor in essentially every game, but the contest that truly put him on the map was the Tide's victory over the LSU Tigers.

In addition to holding running back Leonard Fournette to just 31 yards, Robinson blocked an extra point by leaping over the offensive line in remarkable fashion.

While the national audience was taken aback by seeing a 300-plus-pound player pull off such an incredible feat, Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson claimed he and the rest of his teammates weren't surprised.

"That's just A'Shawn," Anderson said, per John Zenor of the Associated Press. "He can do that kind of stuff. Most people don't believe it, but he's a freak. That's what kind of stuff we're used to seeing him do."

That level of athleticism should serve Robinson well in the NFL, and all signs point toward it making him a first-round pick, although the lengthy draft process still has to play out.

With defensive linemen such as Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Leonard Williams making an instant impact as rookies in the NFL over the past couple of seasons, there is likely to be plenty of interest in Robinson.

He appears to be NFL-ready in terms of his body and physicality, which is why it is tough to argue with his decision to leave Alabama a year early.

Robinson accomplished essentially everything at the collegiate level, and his NFL stock may never be higher than it is right now.

There is no question that Robinson upheld Alabama's reputation as a defensive power, and he promises to be the latest in a long line of Crimson Tide defensive players to thrive professionally.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Teams with Biggest Question Marks Heading into Offseason

Every college football team has some questions it hopes to answer before the 2016 season comes around, and there's plenty of time to get this done. For some teams, though, these puzzles aren't that simple to solve.

Not every team has the luxury of just plugging in backups for departed stars and expecting the same results, since most don't know for certain yet who the replacements will be. Other teams are dealing with staff changes and don't know how that will affect their success.

The questions vary from team to team, and there's at least one for every school in FBS. We're focusing on the ones whose question marks stand out more than others.

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Way-Too-Early 2016 Big 12 Football Power Rankings

The Big 12 finally made it into the College Football Playoff in 2015, though the appearance was short-lived. Despite being one of the hottest teams in college football in November, Oklahoma fell to No. 1 Clemson, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl.

However, the Sooners are looking to reload and get back to the playoff in 2016-17. Do head coach Bob Stoops and Co. have what it takes to win yet another conference championship and finish in the top four? Let's take a peek at the way-too-early power rankings for the Big 12 based on returning starters and talent, as well as trajectory. 

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Which New College Football Coaches Will Have Most Success in 2016?

One of the wildest coaching carousels in recent memory is slowly making its way to a stop, as 27 of the 128 FBS programs in college football hired new coaches this offseason.

Only three of the new hires—USC's Clay Helton, Illinois' Bill Cubit and Minnesota's Tracy Claeys—were interim head coaches who got promoted to the full-time job. For the other two dozen, they're in brand-new situations for 2016.

Now that a champion has been crowned for 2015 and the hype for 2016 is already building, let's project which of these new head coaches could have the most success later this year.

Last season, Jim Harbaugh brought a 10-win season along with his gigantic spotlight to Michigan, and Tom Herman became an overnight sensation with his 13-1 campaign at Houston.

Who could be the Harbaugh or the Herman of 2016? Here is a rundown of all 24 brand-new FBS coaches, along with five strong candidates for success based on their inherited talent (including 2015 F/+ rating from Football Outsiders), past experience and upcoming schedules.

 

Kirby Smart (Georgia)

Fresh off winning another national championship as the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Kirby Smart is back to full-time work as the new head coach at Georgia this week. 

And while Smart is about to face the pressures of being the head man for the first time at a high-profile program that fired its longtime coach for not winning championships, he's in a great situation for success.

Georgia's defense will have to replace a good bit of talent up front—including pass-rushing menace Leonard Floyd—but the Bulldogs' previous staff recruited exceptionally well on the defensive line in the last few cycles. Smart will also inherit the bulk of a young secondary that did nothing but lead the nation in pass defense last season.

The offensive side of the ball will be a different challenge, but Smart immediately surrounded himself with good hires in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and offensive line coach Sam Pittman. 

"You simply couldn't have drawn up a better hire for Smart," Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote last month. "The combination of Chaney and Pittman will keep Georgia true to its pro-style roots while providing the ability to open things up when appropriate."

Georgia will be able to rely on the dynamic running combination of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason will immediately push for the starting job in Athens. If Pittman can continue his offensive line success from Arkansas with a rebuilding unit at Georgia, the offense should be in fine shape for 2016.

The schedule is also favorable for Smart in his first year. Georgia will have to face North Carolina at the Georgia Dome in Week 1 and head to Ole Miss several weeks later, but the Bulldogs will get their biggest competition for the SEC East—Tennessee—at home in 2016.

If some pieces on the depth chart fall into place, Georgia has all the talent to compete for an SEC East title in Smart's first season. It may be too much to expect a division crown this early, but don't be surprised if it happens.

 

Mark Richt (Miami)

The man Smart replaced at Georgia, Mark Richt, is now down at Miami. The consistent head coach will try to restore the swagger back to his alma mater, and he has a lot to work with in his first year with the Hurricanes.

Miami looked like a different team following the firing of Al Golden last season. After the 58-0 beatdown at the hands of Clemson that sealed Golden's fate, the Hurricanes went 4-2 to finish the season.

Their only losses came to division champion North Carolina and Washington State—with the latter coming in a snowstorm at the Sun Bowl.

Miami should return most of the starters from both the offense and the defense. Brad Kaaya will be back after a strong sophomore campaign, No. 2 receiver Stacy Coley is staying in school, and the one-two punch of Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton out of the backfield will be a huge bonus.

According to Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post, all 10 of the offensive linemen who logged playing time for the Hurricanes will be back.

New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz can build around Corn Elder in the secondary and a good amount of returning talent across the defensive front.

The Hurricanes avoid Clemson in cross-divisional ACC play this season and get Florida State at home. A trip to Notre Dame will be tough, but the rest of the schedule seems manageable for Miami.

Miami has the potential to be a Top 25 team from the opening kickoff of the season thanks to the arrival of Richt and the momentum of a stronger end to 2015. Richt could get the talented 'Canes to play to their full potential early.

 

Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)

Staying in the ACC Coastal, it's a new era at Virginia Tech after the retirement of legendary head coach Frank Beamer.

The new blood in Blacksburg is Justin Fuente, who orchestrated an amazing turnaround at Memphis in just four seasons. Instead of a struggling program, though, Fuente is stepping into a situation where the desire is to get over the seven- or eight-win hump.

Fuente inherits one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in Bud Foster. The Hokies have some major pieces to replace from their 2015 defense, but there isn't a coach more equipped to do just that than Foster.

Where Fuente's influence will be most needed is on the offensive side of the ball. The Scot Loeffler years for the Hokies were hard on the eyes, as they never ranked higher than 92nd nationally in yards per play.

At Memphis, Fuente and new Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen engineered a high-powered offense. Cornelsen helped develop highly touted NFL quarterback prospect Paxton Lynch, and the Tigers went from 117th in yards per game in 2013 to 12th in 2015.

The weapons are there in Blacksburg for Fuente and his new offense if they can adjust to the new scheme quickly.

Isaiah Ford just posted 1,164 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns in his sophomore season, and redshirt freshman Travon McMillian was the first 1,000-yard rusher for VT since 2011. All 6'7" of tight end Bucky Hodges will be back, too.

Virginia Tech will play Tennessee and its massive hype train early in the season and will also travel to Notre Dame. However, the Hokies avoid all the big guns from the ACC's Atlantic Division this fall.

The ACC Coastal should be a fun, wide-open race in 2016, and Virginia Tech has a solid chance to make a big statement in Fuente's first season. 

 

D.J. Durkin (Maryland)

As Bleacher Report lead Big Ten football writer Ben Axelrod wrote last month, Maryland might have made the biggest heist of the coaching carousel with D.J. Durkin.

The former Michigan defensive coordinator has worked for Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp inside the past decade. He's been in charge of several highly ranked defenses in his still-young coaching career. (Plus, he has a bit of head coaching experience as an interim during Florida's 2014 bowl game.)

Durkin's success as a recruiter will go hand in hand with the pipeline of talent near Maryland and the program's plans to become the "Oregon of the East." The Terrapins also have a soft commitment from Dwayne Haskins, the nation's No. 7 quarterback and a potential program-changer.

The new Maryland head coach should be able to make his mark right away on a defense that had pro-level talent—linemen Quinton Jefferson and Yannick Ngakoue are headed to the next level—but couldn't put it all together. 

Returning cornerback Will Likely is a game-changer on special teams and could even find his way to the offensive side of the ball.

Also, Maryland's 3-9 record in 2015 might not tell the whole story. The Terrapins' F/+ rating is higher than several teams that finished with better records, and they had a pair of close losses to Penn State and Wisconsin before a season-ending win over Rutgers.

Durkin has surrounded himself with arguably one of the most impressive new assistant coaching staffs in the country. Durkin hired three former head coaches—Mike London, Scott Shafer and Pete Lembo—to help him rebuild the Terps.

"It’s a collaborative effort," London said, per Callie Caplan of the Diamondback. "We all understand that there’s insights we each have specifically—where we’ve been, where we’ve grown up, the decisions we’ve had to make—and we can offer those types of insights to DJ."

Maryland will also benefit from an easier nonconference schedule that consists of Howard, FIU and UCF. The Terps have to travel to Michigan and Nebraska but get Michigan State and Ohio State at home. 

The long-term potential of Durkin at Maryland is easy to see, but he has the opportunity to get ahead of schedule in College Park. The schedule is favorable for a bowl bid, and there are several intriguing pieces already in place. Maryland could be the surprise team of 2016.

 

Jason Candle (Toledo)

A few of the hottest names from the "Group of Five" ranks had to replace their coaches during the "silly season," but none of them look better equipped to keep the momentum rolling than Toledo.

With Matt Campbell off to Iowa State—a team Toledo beat in its 10-win 2015 campaign—offensive coordinator Jason Candle took over prior to the Boca Raton Bowl. His head coaching debut was a major success, as the Rockets beat AAC runner-up Temple by a score of 32-19.

"When you have the opportunity to take over a program as a head coach, you don't always anticipate it to be in good shape," Candle told Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated after the victory. "We're in pretty good shape right now."

The Rockets' offensive play-caller will lose senior quarterback Phillip Ely but will retain explosive running back Kareem Hunt, who announced he would stay in school this week.

Hunt nearly ran for 1,000 yards in just nine games in 2015, and he could get closer to the numbers from his standout sophomore season (1,631 yards and 16 TDs) with a full load of games next season. In addition to a deep running back and wide receiver core, the Rockets should return most of their starting offensive linemen.

Reinforcements must come on the defensive side of the ball, but the team should remain consistent through the transition. After all, Campbell won nine games in three of his four seasons at Toledo, and his worst one was a seven-win campaign. 

The 2016 schedule should be a highly favorable one for Toledo. The Rockets must travel to Sun Belt champion Arkansas State and a BYU team in transition, but they won't be overmatched in any of their games. The MAC schedule is split right down the middle with challenges at home and on the road.

Staying in-house was the perfect call for a Toledo program that has been consistent over the last several seasons, and Candle will get another year with a lot of his top offensive talent. The Rockets could compete for a New Year's Six bowl berth.

 

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michigan State Fans Poke Fun at Jim Harbaugh with Banner About Loss

What do you get when you cross a top recruit, an outspoken coach, a sleepover and an intense in-state rivalry? The best kind of fun, tongue-in-cheek sports comedy.

As many are now aware, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh employed some fairly unconventional recruiting tactics, including possible floor-sleeping and movie-watching, in the hopes of persuading top kicker Quinn Nordin, who is currently committed to Penn State, to become a Wolverine.

Naturally, the neighbors also caught wind of the visit, according to ESPN's Dan Murphy. But rather than supporting Harbaugh's pitch, the Michigan State fans took up an entirely different cause: asserting their favorite team's superiority.

Emblazoned on a banner they mounted just a few houses away from Nordin's was the final score of the latest Spartans-Wolverines showdown (you know, the one in which MSU sealed a victory off of a late Michigan fumbled punt attempt).  

But rather than take offense, Harbaugh saluted the rival fans and commended the effort and preparation that went into the prank.


Should Harbaugh's trip be successful, Nordin's leg may well solidify a Michigan victory over Michigan State in the near future.  

[Twitter, h/t SB Nation]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Most Important College Football Recruiting Visits 3 Weeks Away from Signing Day

The dead period is finished for college football's 2016 recruiting cycle, which suddenly has less than three weeks left. Resumed contact between prospects and coaching staffs results in a slew of final official visits as high school seniors and their families attempt to find an ideal fit.

Many of America's premier players are on the move this weekend, exploring campuses they could ultimately call home later this year. Here's a look a several standouts expected to arrive at universities across the college football landscape.

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Early List of Hot-Seat Head Coaches for 2016 College Football Season

The 2016 football season technically begins next September. Coaching is a year-long job, however, and some of college football's biggest names will be working for their job. What happens in January and February could very well affect what happens in October and November. 

In the following slides are the coaches who absolutely must have a good '16 or they risk being let go. Whether they're simply not winning enough or not showing enough progress in certain areas (i.e. offense or defense), the following coaches are, at minimum, entering their third year at their current job. 

With the '16 calendar year just getting started, it's time to look ahead at the college football coaches on the hot seat. 

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Ohio State Football: 2016 Will Be the Year of the Redshirt Freshman for Buckeyes

Ohio State's 2015 recruiting class was deep, talented and heralded as one of the best in the country, but of the 25 players who signed last February, only four saw the field for the Buckeyes last season.

That means Ohio State has 21 redshirt freshmen on the roster heading into 2016, and with the mass exodus of talent heading to the NFL, those players have a huge opportunity to shine next fall.

It starts up front defensively, where the Buckeyes have to replace three starters with the departures of superstar defensive end Joey Bosa and defensive tackles Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt.

Former 4-star standout Jashon Cornell has an opportunity to crack the two-deep rotation as Sam Hubbard's backup at defensive end, and Robert Landers should factor into the heavy rotation at defensive tackle.

On the second level, Urban Meyer will need to find two new backers to flank middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, in addition to bolstering his depth in the unit. Justin Hilliard, Ohio State's lone 5-star recruit in 2015, and Nick Conner, who shined as an early enrollee before suffering a season-ending knee injury, will have the opportunity to crack the two deep.

The Buckeyes will have to replace both safeties and cornerback Eli Apple on the back end. It'll be tough for cornerback Eric Glover-Williams to start opposite Gareon Conley, but he could be a key backup and even earn time as the nickelback.

But it's the offensive side of the ball where the biggest opportunity lies. 

Ohio State is tasked with finding eight new starters to build around quarterback J.T. Barrett, including an entirely new wide receiver corps and the pivotal running back slot vacated by Ezekiel Elliott.

On the perimeter, Buckeyes fans should be excited about K.J. Hill and Torrance Gibson, two players who nearly had their redshirts burned in 2015.

Hill was a former 4-star whom Meyer stole from Bret Bielema and Arkansas at the last minute. He proved himself early in fall camp by having the black stripe removed from his helmet—a symbolic gesture that signified his official welcome to the team. The Buckeyes didn't want to waste a year, however, and they redshirted him thanks to the depth Ohio State had at wide receiver in '15.

Gibson came to Ohio State as a 4-star dual-threat quarterback, but the depth behind center was even more crowded than it was at receiver, so Gibson made the move to the perimeter during fall camp. 

"Just helping the team out," Gibson said of the move, according to Ari Wasserman of the Plain Dealer. "That's basically what I'm doing. Because if I sat on the bench, I would be selfish to sit on the bench for the whole year. ... Anything but the bench." 

But a lingering knee injury and off-the-field problems kept him from game action in '15. Despite that setback, the future is bright for the rangy playmaker, as Meyer sees him as a "quarterback-slash," which is essentially a hybrid position that will allow Gibson to rotate from the perimeter to a situational Wildcat quarterback.

The guy with the biggest opportunity, though, is running back Mike Weber.

The 5'9", 215-pound bulldozer was tearing it up in fall camp before a minor knee surgery set him back. With Elliott's ability to carry the load, the Buckeyes didn't need to burn Weber's redshirt, but he's primed to take over and potentially lead the Buckeyes' rushing attack in the fall.

Weber is thankful for the redshirt, though, because it gave him the opportunity to learn from one of the best running backs in school history, per Wasserman for Cleveland.com:

I started off really good. I kind of caught on to the college speed of the game really quick and was basically running the ball really good. The injury slowed me down a little bit. It kind of set me back this whole year and maybe pushed me toward a redshirt.

But if I had to do it again, I'd be a redshirt because I learned from Zeke and the guys in front of me. I just sat back and watched those guys. I am just going to let it all loose next year. 

Weber's primed to take charge in the backfield, and he should lead the way for a group of talented redshirt freshmen in 2016.

 

All recruiting information via 247Sports.

David Regimbal is the Ohio State football lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Which SEC Team Will Have the Most Intriguing QB Battle This Offseason?

For the third straight season, the SEC will have some of the most intriguing quarterback battles in the country.

Alabama will be looking for its third starting quarterback in three years, Texas A&M added former Oklahoma Sooner Trevor Knight to battle Jake Hubenak, Florida has a four-man race that includes two FBS transfers and Georgia has veterans Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey in-house to battle with 5-star early enrollee Jacob Eason.

On top of those obvious battles, Arkansas and Mississippi State have to replace veteran stars, South Carolina and Missouri are searching for answers and LSU desperately needs Brandon Harris to take the next step.

Which one is the most intriguing? 

None of the above, because Auburn's four-man battle tops them all.

Head coach Gus Malzahn tried to find more balance with Nick Marshall in 2014, but that plan backfired with losses to Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. 

Jeremy Johnson was supposed to be the cure that ailed Malzahn, but the junior tanked early, was benched in favor of pro-style passer Sean White and the Tiger offense struggled mightily all year in the passing game (173.7 yards per game).

Johnson is a pro-style passer who does have the ability to run, despite that attribute not being used as much as it should have been in 2015. White is a pure pro-style passer, but he doesn't have the wheels. The duo will be joined this January by true dual-threat quarterback John Franklin III out of East Mississippi Community College. He served as Florida State's scout team version of Marshall prior to the BCS National Championship Game two years ago. The last member to join the battle will be true freshman early enrollee Woody Barrett, who also is a dual-threat from Orlando, Florida.

Four contenders. Four different sets of skills. Four different sets of weaknesses.

Sign me up.

 

Jeremy Johnson

Johnson obviously has the experience. No, it didn't go according to plan in 2015 when he threw 10 touchdowns and seven picks, got flustered far too often and was benched in favor of White. But Johnson did spend virtually a full offseason as the starter in practice with Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, which is still good experience compared to the other contenders.

On top of that, he closed the season strong, providing a late spark for an ineffective White in Auburn's 31-10 win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.

But the lows for Johnson were more like craters, and Malzahn can't have that in a critical year for himself and his program.

 

Sean White

White looked solid as a passer in a pinch for Johnson last year when he threw for 1,164 yards, and a little more prep time this offseason should help him be a bit more consistent. But he had leg and shoulder injuries down the stretch, and he isn't nearly the running threat of either dual-threat contender or Johnson, for that matter.

 

John Franklin III

Franklin, a 6'2", 180-pounder, has the familiarity with the offense that Malzahn should run thanks to his time serving as Florida State's scout team version of Marshall prior to the 2014 title game, but he's still extremely raw and will have to prove that's the direction the offense needs to go in a crowded battle. What's more, he wasn't the full-time starter at East Mississippi last year and never was in Tallahassee, so it's been a while since he's had the keys to the offense all to himself.

"Coach (Malzahn) told me he needed somebody and he got Cam (Newton), then he needed somebody and got Nick Marshall," Franklin said in December, according to Wesley Sinor of AL.com. "Now he needs somebody so he came and got me. I'm just ready to go to work and earn my spot the right way and get the ball rolling with everything."

 

Woody Barrett

Barrett is the perfect balance of a runner and passer, and could become the quarterback of the future. But he's a true freshman who will make true freshman mistakes, and the staff probably can't afford that.

In addition to the different styles of quarterbacks in the mix, the pressure facing Malzahn adds even more flavor to the already-spicy battle. 

Auburn faces Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU during the month of September, and it's absolutely imperative that Malzahn gets this pick right before the season starts. A repeat performance of last September that saw the Tigers fall to LSU and Mississippi State, and struggle with Jacksonville State, won't sit well on the Plains.

It's not just a matter of finding the right player; it's deciding on the right style. 

Malzahn would be best-served abandoning the goal of proving that his system works with a pro-style passer, embracing the identity of a dynamic offense with a running threat at quarterback and going with either Franklin or Barrett.

The fourth-year head coach of the Tigers will be pulled in many different directions by his quarterbacks over the next nine months, and watching how it plays out will provide plenty of offseason drama.

Get your popcorn ready.

 

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.

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The X-Factor of Ohio State Buckeyes' Future on Offense

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A year ago, there were no shortage of questions surrounding Torrance Gibson.

What position will he play? Would the 4-star prospect be able to handle the transition from being the star of his high school team to just one of many on his new roster? And would that roster ultimately be Ohio State's?

One year later, many of those same questions still exist.

After ultimately sticking through with his commitment to Ohio State and signing with the Buckeyes over the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, Miami (Fla.) and LSU, Gibson found himself a surprising nonfactor in the debut season of his college career. Beyond redshirting, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native found himself a distraction off the field as well, as rumors swirled that the onetime highly coveted player was seeking a midseason transfer.

Away from online message boards, highlights were nonexistent this past year for Gibson, who also dealt with an ankle injury throughout the season. Perhaps the most telling moment of his freshman campaign came when a reporter asked head coach Urban Meyer about the 6'4", 205-pounder, prefacing his question with comments made by Gibson in the Ohio State locker room following the Fiesta Bowl.

"Torrance Gibson?" Meyer asked. "I didn't know you guys got to talk to him. That's great."

Maybe Meyer was confused why reporters would want to talk to a player who didn't play in the Fiesta Bowl, let alone the rest of the 2015 season. Or perhaps he had hoped Gibson wouldn't be allowed to talk to reporters until he had "earned the right" to do so, a tactic he has previously invoked with players whose names had been attached to baggage.

But as Meyer talked out his answer, his tune soon changed. In his mind, Gibson was one of the Buckeyes' success stories of 2015—even if it didn't seem that way on the field.

"Torrance had a 2.7 [grade point average]. He worked his rear end off at a highly competitive university," Meyer said. "Probably September-ish is when he really grew up. I love Torrance Gibson, I love his talent. I love the fact that he did well academically. I think it's a future without—I use this comment sometimes—I don't see a ceiling."

Exactly where on the field that future is at remains to be seen.

After arriving at Ohio State as a U.S. Army All-American selection at quarterback, Gibson found himself as one of six scholarship signal-callers on the Buckeyes roster before Braxton Miller made the transition to wide receiver over the summer. The natural move seemed to be for Gibson to make a position change as well, considering his combination of size and speed made him as natural a fit as a pass-catcher as it did a pass-thrower.

But as the Ohio State staff found itself peppered with questions pertaining to Gibson's position as soon as national signing day, the company line seemed to be that he was sticking at quarterback.

"His future is nowhere but the quarterback position," asserted Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who served as Gibson's primary recruiter.

That sentiment, however, had changed less than a week into fall camp when the Sunshine State product began running routes with rest of the OSU receivers. At the time it was explained as a way to get Gibson on the field as a freshman, something that wouldn't have happened at quarterback with the battle between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett ongoing.

As an injury bug hit the rest of the Buckeyes wideouts, the move made even more sense, and Gibson seemed to be making progress. Availability at Ohio State's fall practices was often limited to the media, but the sizable wideout could be spotted making impressive grabs in the school-released highlight packages.

Gibson's promise was apparent and appeared to be much more than a mere message board myth. But if the goal of his position switch was to merely get him on the field, then it'd be tough to label it as anything but a failure in 2015.

As both Gibson and Meyer alluded to, making the move to college life off the field may have been even more difficult than the transition he was going through on it. As the Buckeyes beat Penn State in mid-October, Gibson was absent from the sideline, the result of academic troubles, according to Meyer.

"You have to earn the right to dress," Meyer said. "He didn't do it last week."

By season's end, Gibson hadn't played a snap, even though injuries continued to plague Ohio State's wide receiver corps. An offseason transfer seemed likely, if not inevitable, but immediately the Fiesta Bowl, he had reaffirmed his commitment to the Buckeyes program.

While the plan may have always been for his move to wideout to be temporary, the reality of Ohio State's depth chart is that his future will likely always be at wideout.

Barrett still has two years of eligibility remaining for the Buckeyes, who also possess redshirt freshman Joey Burrow and redshirt sophomore Stephen Collier on their depth chart entering 2016. Ohio State doesn't have a quarterback currently committed to its 2016 class, but remains in the running for 4-star prospect Dwayne Haskins, with 2017 commit Danny Clark set to arrive on campus in a year.

Still, Gibson hasn't ruled out the possibility of once again taking snaps behind center.

"Maybe a Wildcat quarterback, something like that. You never know," Gibson said. "Keep your eyes open."

Meyer, too, can envision Gibson making the move back to quarterback in the future. After all, the fifth-year Ohio State head coach knows just how valuable a signal-caller with Gibson's ability on the ground can be, given his work with Josh Harris, Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Miller and Barrett in the past.

"I would love to use him as a quarterback-slash [athlete]," Meyer said. "Because he's that good of an athlete."

In a best-case scenario, Gibson could become the version of Cam Newton Meyer never truly got to coach at Florida, perhaps as soon as 2017 should Barrett opt to turn pro after his junior season. But what's much more likely is for the American Heritage product to see the majority of his playing time come at receiver, with Wildcat snaps keeping opposing defenses off balance.

In order to make that work, however, Gibson is going to have to make progress on the field while maintaining the same off of it. The skill may be natural, but the transition is not yet complete and the opportunity will certainly be there on an Ohio State offense replacing eight starters, including all of its top skill players.

"This spring is going to be big," Meyer said of Gibson's development.

But as high as his ceiling is, Gibson's floor is equally is as low.

Will he be a "what could have been?," as he appeared poised to be at times during his freshman season? The next 12 months will tell the tale. But Gibson insists that 2016 will provide positive answers when it comes to his still unknown future in the Buckeyes offense.

"I'll be ready next year," he said. "I guarantee I'll be ready."

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines' Strengths, Weaknesses Heading into 2016 Offseason

Heading into the 2016 offseason, the Michigan Wolverines college football program has clear strengths and weaknesses throughout the team on paper.

The Wolverines will be a popular choice to win the Big Ten because of the returning talent, but they also must address a few problem areas.

Michigan lost starters at quarterback and middle linebacker, which are considered the captains of the offense and defense, respectively. Replacing that leadership is doable but not always easily accomplished.

Nevertheless, the team's collective coaching prowess is reassuring for followers of the Maize and Blue. After all, few staffs in college football boast the NFL background Michigan does.

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