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Ohio State Football: Joey Bosa, Buckeyes D-Line in for Big 2014 Season

Ohio State's defense was a tremendous disappointment last season—especially in the final three games, when Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson combined for 1,617 yards and 115 points, and the Buckeyes stumbled to a 1-2 record and needed to pull their sole victory out of a hat.

Even during that collapse, though, the one thing Luke Fickell's unit did well was get to the passer and force negative plays. It had eight tackles for loss against Michigan State, part of a season when it had 91 total tackles for loss—the 19th-best total in the country.

Ryan Shazier is gone from the outside linebacker position, but in defensive ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, Ohio State returns two players who had 13.5 tackles for loss last season. The only other team in the country that can make that claim is Clemson—and as one of those players, Stephone Alexander, is a linebacker, the Buckeyes are the only team that can make that claim about pure defensive lineman.

Which raises an obvious question: Will Ohio State have the best defensive line in college football next season?

And an even more obvious answer...probably.

Spence missed the Orange Bowl and is suspended for the first two games of the season after testing positive for ecstasy, per Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com. That will hurt in Week 2 against Virginia Tech and (especially) the previous week against Navy, but form-wise he should be a full-go when Ohio State's schedule matters most.

Even after the reported transfer of Jamal Marcus, per The Columbus Dispatch's Bill Rabinowitz, who replaced Spence valiantly in the Orange Bowl, that will leave the Buckeyes with a dominant top-two and OK depth at the end position:

Spence put up better stats, technically, than Bosa did last season, but anyone who watched the games knows that Bosa is the best defensive lineman on the team—and arguably in the conference. He bullied his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman and logged all but four of his 13.5 tackles for loss in the final six games of the season.

Bleacher Report's Michael Felder—the college football department's resident film guru—said he was doing things as a true freshman that it usually takes college players two years to master:

Despite this, there have been questions about the Buckeyes' depth now that Marcus has left the program. Especially in the first two weeks, when Spence will be out of commission, those like Brian Bennett of ESPN.com have voiced concern about the edge:

Senior Steve Miller and redshirt freshman Tyquan Lewis are the likely top candidates to start at defensive end, along with Joey Bosa. Ohio State will be thin at the position against Navy and Virginia Tech. Incoming recruits Jalyn Holmes, Darius Slade and Dylan Thompson might have to get ready early 

If the Buckeyes can weather the storm -- especially against Navy's cut blocks -- then they should be fine when Spence returns. But figuring out the defensive end rotation now becomes a major priority this summer.

While fair—in theory—Bennett's questions fail to mention Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier, who was one of the highlights of spring camp and (especially) the spring game. He had two sacks in the first nine minutes of that scrimmage, forcing a punt with the second and falling on a fumble he forced for a touchdown on the first.

According to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors, that performance was no true surprise. Frazier had been talked up all spring by defensive line coach Larry Johnson and teammate Michael Bennett:

And speaking of Bennett, we haven't even touched upon the Buckeyes' defensive tackles. Bennett was an All-Big Ten performer up the middle last year, and Adolphus Washington, a former end who looked good alongside Noah Spence in 2012, is transitioning to the inside—where he has the size (6'4", 288 lbs) to be a dominant force.

And therein lies the essence of OSU's line.

Bennett is an Aaron Donald-type: undersized but impressive shooting the gap and getting in the backfield. Washington is a converted end and a former blue-chip recruit. Spence and Bosa are both candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

And all four of these guys could share the field…together!

On a 3rd-and-7 with the season on the line and the offense needing the ball back, the Buckeyes—a team with well-noted secondary issues—could drop seven players into coverage and send four great pass-rushers at the quarterback. No gimmick, no disguise, no outside blitzer necessary. Just let them pin their ears back and go.

There are questions about depth, and those questions are fair. But between Frazier, Steve Miller, Chris Carter, Tyquan Lewis, Tommy Schutt, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill and blue-chip incoming freshman Jalyn Holmes, it should not be an issue that lingers.

There will still be a deep rotation.

"I felt we were very, very good last year and now you've got every single person coming back," said Bennett (before Marcus' transfer decision), according to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "We could have nine or 10 guys who aren't just substitutes but could start anywhere in the country."

They might also have five future pros.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Can Gus Malzahn, Auburn Sway Superstar American Heritage HS Trio During Visit?

Auburn has an excellent opportunity this weekend to make strides with three top playmakers from one of Florida's reigning state champions. The Tigers are set to host American Heritage High School standouts Torrance Gibson, Tarvarus McFadden and Dredrick Snelson, who shared the upcoming visit on Twitter:

All three recruits played pivotal roles during a journey to the state title last fall and remain uncommitted. Auburn currently holds 14 pledges in a 2015 class that rates third nationally in 247Sports' composite team rankings.

Snelson, a 4-star prospect, is a member of the 2016 class. He emerged as a quality member of the receiving rotation as a sophomore and should step into a much larger role following the departure of Georgia signee Isaiah McKenzie, who led the team in receptions as a senior.

The 6'1", 190-pound pass-catcher attended Auburn's spring game but remains in search of an offer from head coach Gus Malzahn. Snelson's list of collegiate options already includes USC, Miami, Wisconsin and Clemson.

McFadden and Gibson are both rising seniors who have the Tigers on their list of favorites. This latest campus visit could leave a lasting impression on the decision-making process as national signing day approaches.

Gibson, rated No. 1 nationally among athletes in 247Sports' composite rankings, is widely viewed as a dual-threat quarterback. His high-profile recruitment reached another level earlier this month when he released an ordered collection of 15 top teams.

Auburn landed at No. 2 on the list, sandwiched between SEC rivals Tennessee (No. 1) and LSU (No. 3). The 5-star playmaker is expected to narrow his recruitment down to seven schools at some point Thursday.

With a visit on the horizon, it would seem safe to assume the 6'4", 200-pound prospect plans to keep Auburn in the picture. Gibson gained more than 2,800 total yards in 2013, accounting for 29 offensive touchdowns along the way.

McFadden, a 5-star cornerback, is also apparently joining the party at Auburn this weekend. Rated No. 5 nationally among players at the position in 247Sports' composite rankings, he remains one of the most coveted 2015 defenders on the market.

The 6'3", 198-pound speedster recorded 31 tackles and disrupted 10 passes despite seeing limited targets throughout his junior season, per MaxPreps. McFadden listed Auburn at No. 6 among his top nine programs last weekend.

Florida State currently leads the race for his services, with LSU and Georgia right behind, respectively.

Auburn isn't necessarily a front-runner to land any of these American Heritage stars, but their interest is apparent. The Tigers have a chance to build on that foundation this weekend, while attempting to address to recruiting classes.

 

Recruit information and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Big 12 Football: Every Team's Toughest Road Game in 2014

Fans in the Midwest love their football, making the Big 12 home to some of the best and loudest stadiums in college football. 

Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and K-State have some of the most raucous crowds in the nation. 

A road game in league play last year cost Baylor—which went on to win the Big 12—a shot at the national championship. In 2012, a trip to Waco, Texas, cost K-State the same shot. 

Life on the road in the Big 12 isn't easy, and that's sure to hold true in 2014. Let's check out each team's toughest road game in the upcoming season. 

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Nick Saban Right to Defend Young Tiders After AJ McCarron's Questionable Comment

Speaking on The Jim Rome Show in late January, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron—one of the most successful players in college football history—blamed the two-game losing streak that ended his career on the way past success had influenced his younger teammates.

"We had a lot of young guys," said McCarron. "In the end, success was our killer. Too much success and a lot of young guys coming in who didn’t know what it took to get back to that point to win. They thought we’d just show up and we'd win."

McCarron also told Rome that this is what happens "when you don't have everyone buy into the system," following himself up by saying, "Coach [Nick] Saban I would think would tell you the same thing."

False.

Because Saban responded, candidly, to McCarron's now-infamous comments Thursday afternoon, and his sentiment was far from concurring. Saban's exact words, per Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:

I think a senior player -- and I love AJ -- but I think a senior player has a responsibility as a leader on the team to understand that when younger players come into the program, they are not going to necessarily have all the right stuff or understand the right stuff to be a part of the team. There has to be a tolerance and a commitment on the older players to sort of embrace the younger players to try to get them to where they need to play, even if they don’t play. It should not be something that upsets an older player. It should not be an issue with an older player because I can take some of these same older players and tell you about them when they were freshmen and they needed older players to help them get where they needed to be and they had to learn lessons along the way to help them develop into what they became.

Earlier this offseason, Saban gave a cheerier assessment of McCarron's leadership skills.

Asked about McCarron's curious behavior in the run-up to the NFL draft—behavior that reportedly included "rubbing teams the wrong way" during one-on-one interviews—Saban said the following, per D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com:

It does surprise me. He was never that way to me. And I think if you ask a lot of teammates they would probably say the same. I think AJ is a very good person. And regardless of what he said to you and whatever way he sort of left you with an impression, if he could do something to help you, he would be the first one there to do it.

He is a good person and I think in the long run, he will have a chance, and an opportunity to prove he can be a good leader and a good quarterback in the National Football League.

What Saban said Thursday does not directly contradict what he said earlier this month. It's not like he threw his former player under the bus, trashing him as soon as he left the program and joined the NFL.

All he's done is side with the younger players on his roster—the ones who can still influence whether Alabama wins and loses.

Without explicitly condemning McCarron, he has defended his current players against his former player's finger-pointing and shifted some of the guilt onto the older players themselves. This rare sort of oratory gymnastics can only be done by an experienced college football coach or an expert politician—and Saban has always been both.

And in like manner, he has handled this situation smartly. Aschoff spoke of the sternness, the agitation in Saban's voice. The way that he seemed genuinely upset. This lets the current guys know that he will always have their back, no matter who attacks them.

Even if it's someone he loves.

This promise of loyalty is part of Saban's charm at Alabama. It is the reason he has attracted so much talent to the school—finishing atop 247Sports' recruiting rankings in each of the past four seasons—and why he should continue to do so in the future.

No one reads this story and sees a spiteful head coach lashing out against a former player. That isn't what happened. It was a conflicted head coach choosing his current guys—who did nothing wrong—over a former guy who lit and stoked a fire where none was needed.

And you wonder why those 5-star recruits want to play for him.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BleighDAT

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why State of Arizona Is Key to Pac-12 Rivaling SEC as Best Football Conference

The Pac-12 title doesn't normally come through the state of Arizona, but the long-term health of the conference will be boosted by what happens there. 

On Wednesday, Arizona and Arizona State reportedly locked down their respective coaches—Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham—with extensions and raises. 

Rodriguez is in line to make $1.5 million in base salary plus $100,000 raises every year and a retention bonus based on stock options, according to Doug Haller of USA Today. Graham is set to make $2.7 million under his new agreement. Both contracts have yet to be finalized. 

But what really matters in all of this is that a pair of Pac-12 South programs have found good fits. Both programs have passionate fanbases and supportive athletic directors. In short, Rodriguez and Graham are in a good place and both schools are happy to have them. 

Make all the jokes you want about Graham and loyalty—no, really, go ahead; he's earned them—but he has the Sun Devils competing at a high level. 

Rodriguez is accurately described by Ted Miller of ESPN.com as "among a small handful of true offensive innovators." The disastrous stint at Michigan aside, Rodriguez has won at just about every level of college football. The guy knows X's and O's like few others in the business.

Together, Graham and Rodriguez can take the Territorial Cup out of Arizona and make it one of the better national rivalries in college football. Miller explains: 

When both teams are good, a rivalry is better. That appears to be where these two are headed. That means more national relevance and, therefore, more national attention. That is good for both schools, at least as long as one or the other doesn't establish a strong pattern of dominance. 

For the record, Graham holds a 2-0 edge on Rodriguez in the rivalry. If both programs are competitive on any given year—that shouldn't be an issue under either coach—the series will naturally even out. 

There's no question Graham and Rodriguez are solid coaches, but now think about the Pac-12 outside Arizona. Start listing off the coaches in the South Division: Jim Mora (UCLA); Steve Sarkisian (USC); Kyle Whittingham (Utah) and Mike MacIntyre (Colorado). There are some rebuilding projects in Boulder, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, for sure, but there are a lot of recognizable names.

Now, list off the North Division coaches: Chris Petersen (Washington); Mike Leach (Washington State); Sonny Dykes (Cal); David Shaw (Stanford); Mike Riley (Oregon State) and Mark Helfrich (Oregon). 

From top to bottom, the Pac-12 is stacked with excellent head coaches. 

There's no predicting the future. Anyone could leave at any time. But it seems like everyone is happy where they are. With $334 million in revenue coming according to Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, Pac-12 schools can pay their coaches and provide them with proper facilities.

In short, the Pac-12 is in good position to challenge, and perhaps, eventually take over the SEC in terms of being the most complete conference in college football. 

Just last year, Washington State gave Auburn, which would eventually play for a BCS championship, everything it could handle in a 31-24 loss. That's not intended to start a "could X team beat Y team" debate, but it does show there's quality football being played in the western United States.

There's also no replacing Alabama's Nick Saban, Auburn's Gus Malzahn or South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. But this isn't about replacing them, either. It's about acknowledging that Shaw, Petersen or Leach could go headset-to-headset with anyone in the country. 

The key, like all conferences, is in recruiting. On that front, the Pac-12 can always do better. Three Pac-12 teams—USC, Stanford and UCLA—finished with top-20 recruiting classes this past February. The SEC had nine. National championships come when you combine blue-chip prospects with top-level head coaches. 

With an expanded postseason field in College Football Playoff starting this year, perhaps some of these coaches will finally get to face off against one another. And the fans win in that situation. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why State of Arizona Is Key to Pac-12 Rivaling SEC as Best Football Conference

The Pac-12 title doesn't normally come through the state of Arizona, but the long-term health of the conference will be boosted by what happens there...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

How Wake Forest Football Can Turn Things Around in 2014

When toe meets leather for the Demon Deacons on Aug. 28 against UL-Monroe, everything will be different. A new season, new starters at quarterback, running back and receiver, and not to mention, a new head coach. In sum, the Deacs exemplify a program in flux following the departure of longtime head coach Jim Grobe.

Grobe left Wake Forest as the all-time leader in wins at the school, but five straight losses to close out the 2013 campaign and a lack of experienced talent will make treading in the ACC a strenuous task for new head coach Dave Clawson.

The former head coach of Bowling Green brings with him a reputation for building programs, though, and the Deacs' first hurdle will be buying into a new philosophy and system. The defense will switch from a 3-4 system to Clawson’s 4-2-5 zone-based scheme. While roving linebacker Marquel Lee will be a perfect fit, the Deacs lack an obvious answer for a second, equally versatile linebacker, and the transfer of James Looney leaves the line vulnerable at best.

Thus, the Deacs will rely on what should be the team’s greatest strength in 2014—the secondary. The cornerback tandem of Merrill Noel and Kevin Johnson will be second to none in the ACC. If an inexperienced offensive line can find a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks, the secondary should be able to lock down most of the passing attacks it faces. 

On offense, the Deacs may need to begin fall practices with name tags. Michael Briggs of RantSports.com sums up the obvious gaps with a positive spin:

“The Deacs will replace their leading passer, two leading receivers, top two rushers and two starting offensive lineman. The good news? Those players led the team to a 14th-place finish in the conference in total offense, 13th in scoring, 13th in rushing and 11th in passing.” 

Clearly, a breath of fresh talent may be just what Clawson needs to begin the rebuilding process. Last year’s backup quarterback Tyler Cameron was in prime position to become the starter, but an inconsistent spring has the Deacons searching for alternative solutions.

Two incoming 3-star recruits, Travis Smith and John Wolford, are poised to make immediate impacts should Cameron continue to struggle. Regardless of who lines up under center, Wake will need consistent play from the position if it hopes to flourish in year one of the Clawson era.

This first year could very well be one of progress that doesn’t translate to scoreboards on Saturdays, but as Clawson has shown in his previous stints at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green, building an eventual conference champion takes time.

The non-conference slate features an away date with a tough Utah State squad, but if the Deacs can take care of business against the likes of Gardner-Webb and Army at home and steal a couple conference wins, a 6-6 season would be monumental as the program looks to turn things around.

Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Creation of NCAA Concussion Database Shows Tangible Commitment to Player Safety

The NCAA is getting serious about player safety, and it's joining forces with the United States Department of Defense to do so.

A $30 million joint initiative was announced Thursday during a day-long concussion summit at the White House. This initiative is aimed at enhancing the safety of student-athletes and service members, including a comprehensive study of concussion and head impact exposure and the creation of a database for advanced research.

President Barack Obama told the Associated Press (via ESPN.com) that there's a very simple reason for more attention to be paid to concussions.

"We have to change a culture that says, 'Suck it up,'" he said.

NCAA president Mark Emmert commented on the study in a statement:

NCAA schools have placed a priority on improved concussion management, but we still have many unanswered questions in this area. We believe in the incredible potential of this research. Student-athletes will be first to benefit from this effort, but it also will help to more accurately diagnose, treat and prevent concussions among service men and women, youth sports participants and the broader public.

The goal of the program is to further understand the risks that concussions present and determine treatments after they occur.

"We don't really have an understanding of the natural history of concussions," said Dr. Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer. "The best project would be to set up a clinical study to try and come to that understanding."

The NCAA estimates that 30 institutions and four service academies will participate, and a total of 37,000 student-athletes across all sports are expected to enroll in the program over a three-year period. Those participants will be examined before the start of their respective seasons and monitored in the event of an injury.

"Let's really look at the member institutions, and try to get as many as we can to follow a similar protocol," Hainline said. "Every single student athlete undergoes a baseline concussion protocol. After a concussion, every student athlete undergoes a similar protocol for up to six months and then everybody is re-tested on a yearly basis."

But it isn't just a small sample size of players in contact sports. The study will compare the impact of head trauma in student-athletes within their own sport and other sports.

"Each concussed athlete will two separate matched control athletes," said Hainline. "One control athlete will be matched based on the sport so that they're sustaining head impacts through routine participation. The injured athlete will also have a second control, who is an athlete who participates in non-contact sports."

Roughly 75 percent of the budget will be devoted to the study, which will be conducted by Indiana University, the University of Michigan and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The rest of the money will be devoted to the educational grand challenge for schools and private companies to develop new ways to educate the public on concussions symptoms and risks.

"We don't have a good sense of what kind of educational initiatives really help change the culture of concussion," said Hainline. "It was felt that if we could address education and come to a better understanding of the natural history of concussion, that it would be the best way."

The hope is that the study will not only help college athletes, but benefit those playing youth sports as well.

"One of our future dreams is that we will be able to take this foundational research and extend it to high school and youth," Hainline said. "That's for another time, and not too far off."

It's a big step for the NCAA and makes a statement that it's committed to player safety. 

The education and prevention of brain trauma is a primary goal of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), and the NCAA is currently in the midst of a class-action lawsuit related to concussions, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com.

But it's bigger than that. 

The study is a just one piece of a concerted effort by the NCAA, its institutions and the government to make sports safer for participants at all levels.

"We want our kids participating in sports," Obama said, according to the AP. "As parents, though, we want to keep them safe and that means we have to have better information."

The age of reform is upon us.

The NCAA seems open to the idea of the "power five" conferences having autonomy, and is making a giant leap toward improving player welfare, which has been one of the points of concern over the last few years.

It isn't just lip service.

It's real, and the NCAA should be commended for it.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

 


 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M Football: Biggest Issues Facing the Aggies Defense in 2014

The Texas A&M football team needs to improve on defense in 2014. The Aggies are facing multiple issues on defense that need to be addressed in order for them to have a successful season. 

The Texas A&M defense was one of the worst in the country in 2013. It ranked No. 109 nationally and struggled to stop any opposing offense. 

The team's defensive ineptitude forced the Aggies offense to score on almost every possession in order to win games. With the loss of three first-round draft picks from the offensive side of the ball, the Aggies offense may take a step back in 2014. 

The defense is going to have to raise its level of play and pick up the slack. If the defense does not improve, then the Aggies are going to struggle to win games in 2014. 

This is a look at the major issues facing the Aggies defense in 2014. 

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

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

The goal is a bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At best it’s a shot in the dark…

…but here’s taking one anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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College Football Teams with Best Home Game Schedules in 2014

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

And why would you pick them?

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

In fact, let's take it one further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Drafted Players

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

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

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

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

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

 

1st-Round Selections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Starting in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pro Bowl Selections

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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