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Repackaging Michigan's Brutal Schedule as an Opportunity for Greatness

Michigan enters fall camp needing to bounce back after last season’s 7-6 record and facing a brutal schedule that has it playing all three of its key rivals on the road.

The prospect of playing Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State away from Michigan Stadium (where Hoke's teams are 7-11) doesn’t bode well for a squad that is retooling its offense.

But quarterback Devin Gardner isn’t intimidated by the tough schedule. Talking last week during Big Ten media day in Chicago, he sounded eager for the challenge as he served up some bulletin-board material for Michigan’s foes in South Bend, East Lansing and Columbus.

“It’s an opportunity to do something great...beat every single rival on the road,” said Gardner. “It’s going to feel good to go in and defeat them in their own house.”

The odds are stacked against the Wolverines capturing Brady Hoke’s first Big Ten title, but Gardner dismissed those who would overlook his team.

“I don’t ever feel like an underdog,” said Gardner. “If we’re perceived as that, it’s perfectly fine. I would love for teams to come in and take us lightly...we’re going to give everybody our best game.”

The media has selected Michigan to finish third in the Big Ten East Division—well behind Ohio State and Michigan State—and no one picked the team to win the division.

According to Hoke, his team needs to embrace the challenge posed by the schedule.

“We’re going back to East Lansing—two years in a row now—so what? You’re gonna play 12 games...embrace it. If not, you’re going to make excuses, and we don’t accept excuses.”

The sentiment was echoed by his quarterback.

“Every football field is the same size,” said Gardner. “It’s not about where you play. If you let that get to you, then you psych yourself out.”

But Gardner will need more than bravado when he leads his team versus Notre Dame in South Bend for its second game of the season.

Michigan’s last visit to South Bend resulted in a stunning 13-6 loss where it turned the ball over six times in a game that caused many to question former offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Gardner played wide receiver in that loss.

Now, it will be up to him to unveil Michigan’s new offense and show the critics that he can lead Michigan to a signature victory on the road.

 

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

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South Carolina Football 2014: Complete Preview and Predictions

Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks enjoyed a successful 2013 campaign, as they finished with an impressive 11-2 overall record and a 6-2 record within the SEC. They even topped off the campaign with a victory in the Capitol One Bowl against Wisconsin.

However, superstar defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney graduated to the NFL, which now leaves a major hole for Spurrier to fill on the defensive side of the ball.

Watch as Bleacher Report's experts preview South Carolina before the start of the 2014 season.

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1 Freshman to Watch for on Every SEC Football Team in 2014

The SEC dominated recruiting for the better part of the BCS era, and instead of tailing off in the last cycle before the College Football Playoff, the trend only seemed to grow stronger.

According to the 247Sports team rankings, seven of the top nine classes in America belonged to SEC schools in 2014. Seven! That means half of the conference finished with a top-nine class.

The top class from the Big 12 was Oklahoma at No. 14.

Which means, once again, that SEC fall camps will play host to a majority of the top true freshmen in college football. Some enrolled early and are trying to build off what they learned this spring, while others are making their practice debuts, but all of them are fighting to justify their prospect ratings and crack the playing rotation.

In putting together this list of "Freshmen to Watch," we did not simply highlight the highest-ranked prospect in each camp. Pedigree was a factor, but so was potential for early playing time, team need at a certain position and how they performed (if at all) this spring.

In simple terms, this list is the freshmen whose development this fall is most important to their team's 2014 season. Some schools are counting on numerous freshmen to step up and play early, in which case it might be easy to (respectfully) disagree with whom I chose.

Sound off below, and let me know if/where you do.

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5 Important Items on Pittsburgh Football's 2014 To-Do List

The 125th season of football at the University of Pittsburgh is on the horizon, as the Panthers opened training camp Monday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on Pittsburgh's South Side.

Third-year head coach Paul Chryst has been building his Panthers his way, but there's still plenty to be done after bowl appearances in his first two campaigns, and we're about to assess that workload.

We'll look at which games will be must-wins, which players need to have breakout seasons in order for the Panthers to roar and what steps Chryst can take off the field to bolster the program.

The following are five important things—plus another—Pitt must accomplish for 2014 to be a success.

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Grading Depth Charts for Every Top 25 College Football Team Entering 2014 Season

All across America, college campuses are springing to life with the sounds of football. Under the sweltering August sun, 105 or so men on every Football Bowl Subdivision campus have begun practicing and preparing for what lies ahead in the final weekend of this month: the 2014 regular season.

Coaches across America claim that “every job is open,” which is only partially true. No one is dethroning Jameis Winston at Florida State or Brett Hundley at UCLA or Landon Collins at Alabama.

Here’s the truth: There are competitions across the nation, some of them more intense than others. Every team has strengths and weaknesses. Areas they know they need to shore up and areas they’ll lean on this fall.

In this feature, we’ll take a look at each Top 25 college football team’s depth chart entering the 2014 season, and grade it accordingly. We used the Amway Coaches Poll as our basis. 

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Nebraska Looking to Practice the 'Right Way' with Catapult GPS Trackers

When it comes to practice, Nebraska is looking to do it the right way with Catapult GPS trackers. While information on the trackers is still limited, the media got a first look at what the Cornhuskers are hoping to accomplish.

“They can track these guys, built up some data and learn a lot as far as making sure we’re tailoring practice the right way, not only for performance, but for injury prevention and that type of thing,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelinitold reporters.

The Catapult GPS system is new to Nebraska. In fact, it's relatively new to the college football landscape in general. On Catapult's website, only 15 NCAA programs are listed, which does not include Nebraska yet.

Florida State is one of those 15 programs listed, and Jimbo Fisher isn't afraid to credit Catapult with some of the Seminoles' success in 2013.

As CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd reported, "Fisher said the Noles suffered 88 percent less soft-tissue injuries last season using Catapult. That's less pulls, less tears, more front-line players on the field."

It's not just Florida State seeing the benefits of the Australia-based product. FIFA has also really embraced Catapult's GPS system. For example, the trackers offered some interesting statistics that were previously not available on players during the 2014 World Cup.

As for Nebraska, it's not clear how the Huskers will use the data yet. However, it's not lost on anyone that the technology is a big step forward for a typically old-school coach.

Lanny Holstein of 93.7 The Ticket suggested as much on Tuesday morning:

Of the 105 players on the roster, the Lincoln Journal Star's Brian Rosenthal indicates that roughly 55 players were wearing the trackers during the first practice. That includes men "two-deep on offense and defense, and some special teams players."

How do the players feel about the GPS trackers? As the Fremont Tribune reported, offensive lineman Mike Moudy thought it was neat but was still a bit unsure about how it worked.

"They’ve got, like, a thousand pieces of data on you. It’s kind of cool. It measures, like, your heart rate and … I don’t know, honestly. They explained it to us, but it took about 20 minutes to explain," he said.

It was clear the confusion was still there at the end of practice, too. As Rosenthal noted, strength and conditioning coach James Dobson had to interrupt post-practice interviews briefly to remove the trackers from underneath players' shoulder pads.

As practice continues, the confusion will lessen but the information gained will be valuable. While those outside of the program may not have much information on how the statistics will be used yet, it's a step in the right direction.

For Pelini, that's exactly what he wants for his players and from his practices.

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How Louisville and Notre Dame Could Keep ACC out of College Football Playoff

What if it's 2026 before the ACC sends another representative to the national championship game?

Before you dismiss that as being ridiculous—because it sounds like it is—remember, 13 years is precisely how long the ACC waited between Florida State’s appearance in the 2000-01 BCS national title game and 2013-14, when they beat Auburn for all the marbles.

Though there are a wide variety of reasons for the long period of time between the ACC’s visits, the most obvious is the lack of an undefeated or one-loss member.

Here’s a complete list of the ACC teams since 2000 that finished the regular season (including the conference championship game, which began in 2005) with one or no losses: Florida State in 2000 (11-1), Maryland in 2001 (10-1) and Florida State in 2013 (13-0).

Compare this number to the other power-five conferences over the same time period.

It’s intriguing, and slightly shocking, that the other power-five conferences have produced one-loss or better teams at a rate of four to five times more than the ACC.  This also means that the ACC had at least 10 fewer opportunities to send a representative to the national title game.

So, while there were a lot of reasons why Florida State was championship-worthy last season, the most meaningful was its 13-0 record: the gateway to the title game. 

Moving into the College Football Playoff era, a perfect or near-perfect record becomes even more crucial.  The math is simple: four playoff slots versus five power conferences.  No matter how you slice it, one conference will be left out each year.

Not only has the ACC struggled more than any other power conference to produce an undefeated or one-loss team since 2000, it experiences two critical changes in 2014 that will make the road to perfection even bumpier.

 

The Louisville Factor

The net effect of Louisville’s move from the American Athletic (formerly Big East) to the ACC is that it replaces Maryland.  So, if you were going to play the Terrapins, you are now going to face the Cardinals.

Based on recent results, it’s fair to say that this will be a more difficult task.  Take a look at the two programs' win-loss marks over the past five years.

Even though Louisville’s most recent surge only began two seasons ago, it still won more games than Maryland two of the three years it wasn’t in double digits.  These additional wins are huge because they mean that another team had to lose the same game.  Though these weren’t all conference games, it’s logical to conclude that ACC teams have a better chance of losing to Louisville than they did to Maryland.

What really hurts the ACC, at least in the short term, is Louisville’s placement in the ACC's Atlantic Division, putting it in direct competition with the league’s best chance at the national limelight—Florida State and Clemson.

The last three ACC champions (Clemson in 2011, Florida State in 2012 and 2013) beat Maryland by a combined score of 160-59.  The last time the Terps beat a ranked ACC team was in 2010 when they edged No. 21 N.C. State 38-31. 

This is significant to both Clemson and Florida State, who have been ranked in the Top 25 every week since the beginning of the 2012 season.

If you’re thinking that the Cardinals have a new head coach, replacing the guy who went 23-3 over the last two seasons, and that playing in the ACC is more difficult than the American Athletic, take a look at the following numbers.  It is outgoing coach Charlie Strong versus incoming coach Bobby Petrino, in a battle of stats compiled at the same school, Louisville.

Not only was Petrino clearly more successful at Louisville than Strong, he went on to post a 34-17 record in four seasons at Arkansas, including two top-12 finishes.  Those numbers are from the SEC West, which trumps the difficulty of even the ACC Atlantic.

 

The Notre Dame Factor

How lucky was the ACC to ink its loose football relationship with Notre Dame? 

Did the Big Ten really miss the boat by not convincing the Irish to be its permanent football partners?  Well, the ACC may sell more tickets and generate additional TV revenue due to the deal, but it may pay for it with College Football Playoff bucks.

In other words, they’ve just made it more difficult for their members to get to the playoff.

Take a look at the last five ACC champs and the teams they beat out of conference in the year they won the title.  

Given that only one of these teams managed to clean their non-league slate and go on to win the ACC title, it’s safe to say that throwing Notre Dame into the mix in place of another nonconference opponent will increase the chance of losing exponentially.

Though ACC teams will face Notre Dame on a rolling schedule—five teams will have to play the Irish each year. When your number is up, it could make the difference between going undefeated or losing only once, or not. 

Here’s Notre Dame’s ACC schedule for the next three years.

Each season, the ACC will sacrifice one of its potential contenders for Notre Dame to pluck off the road to a championship.  Next season, it will be reigning national champion Florida State, in 2016 it's Clemson and in 2017 it’s Miami (Florida) and Virginia Tech, teams which could be the class of the Coastal.

And keep in mind that if the Irish sweep their ACC slate and win a national title, it will count as an Independent winning the big enchilada, not a quasi-ACC member.

Where on one hand, a win against a ranked Notre Dame team will look great on an undefeated resume submitted to the College Football Playoff committee, staffed with real humans, a loss will mean that your credentials won’t even make it to the “must review” stack.

No, your application won’t even be considered.

 

Statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.  Schedule data courtesy of FBSchedules.com.

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Nebraska Football: 5 Best Quarterbacks Cornhuskers Will Face in 2014

Nebraska football fans will be looking at the quarterbacks facing NU in 2014 and wondering who will be the greatest challenge.

While it is fair to say that 2014 does not present a murderer’s row of opposing signal-callers, some of the opposing quarterbacks will give the Blackshirts fits. Here are five of the toughest.

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Georgia Football: 5 Best QBs the Bulldogs Will Face in 2014

Fall camp has begun for the Georgia Bulldogs, and they are currently in the middle of a stretch where they will practice for nine consecutive days, including some days with full pads and some days with two-a-day workouts.

It will be a rough stretch for the Bulldogs, but it will be needed because they face Clemson in less than a month.

The Tigers will be led by quarterback Cole Stoudt, who has been the backup for Tajh Boyd the last three seasons. Stoudt is talented and has been solid when he has entered the game.

But is he one of the best opposing quarterbacks the Bulldogs will face all season?

Read on to find out the five best quarterbacks the Bulldogs will face all season.

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Michigan State Spartans' Locker Room Sign Features Misspelling

The Michigan State Spartans are ranked as one of the best teams in the country this season and have a new sign outside their locker room. Unfortunately, the sign features a misspelling.

As The Big Lead points out, the sign features a misspelling on the word "accurate," which is the most ironic word to misspell on the entire sign.

[Twitter, h/t The Big Lead]

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Texas Quarterback David Ash Opens Up on Returning from Injury

AUSTIN, Texas — Roughly one year has gone by since Texas quarterback David Ash was made available to speak with the media, but that drought ended Monday morning.

"How are y'all doing? Did y'all miss me?" Ash joked as he sat down for his first media interview since suffering a concussion against BYU on September 7, 2013.

The redshirt junior is not usually known as a player who is eager to speak with the media. Often times, if he is asked a closed-ended question, he will likely answer it with "Yes" or "No."

But he looked a lot more at ease Monday. Maybe it was a fluke, or maybe it was just his eagerness to start fall camp shining through his answers. But this Ash spoke openly about the struggles he has faced since last season.

"It was hard," Ash said of his head injury. "A concussion is something where nobody sees a cast. Nobody really knows what is going on. It's a tough deal. But that's past, and we're moving on to the future now." 

After suffering his initial concussion against BYU, Ash returned in time for the Kansas State game on September 21. He led his team to a 17-7 lead heading into halftime, but he did not return for the second half due to experiencing concussion symptoms.

That was the last time he was seen playing in a game for the Longhorns.

The concussion symptoms lasted for the rest of the season, which caused a lot of speculation about his future as a football player. 

"A lot of people told me, 'You need to give it up. You need to quit,'" Ash said. "But I honestly never really thought about it. In my mind, I always knew that I was going to play again. I feel like this is where God has placed me. These are the talents He has given me. And whenever I work hard and play hard, I feel like it pleases Him and gives Him glory.

In January, Ash was cleared to return to the team and was expected to compete for the starting role during spring practice. He worked hard to win over head coach Charlie Strong and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, but he experienced another bump in the road when he suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot that sidelined him for the last portion of spring ball.

"Oh man, I thought I was off the struggle bus," Ash laughed. "I hopped right back on for a little bit. You get off the struggle bus eventually. I'm off of it now. I'm getting ready, and I'm just thankful to be back."

Ash said he is completely recovered from his Jones fracture and is confident that there will not be any lingering issues from the injury.

"The medical staff, doctors, surgeons did a great job with that whole thing," Ash said. "They got me back as fast as they could and made sure that the broken bone there is sturdy, strong and is not supposed to give me anymore issues."

A lot of questions still surround Ash as he prepares for his redshirt junior season. His injury-prone past will continue to be brought up until he proves he can stay healthy. But he is confident in his ability, and he has taken to heart the advice Strong has given him about staying healthy.

"He has told me that I have to get down. And he's right. I have taken a lot of hits that were not necessary," Ash said about his conversations with Strong. "He made it clear that's not what I have to do in order to play.

"I'm going to start being smarter. I need a little baseball practice to help with sliding, I need to get out of bounds and not take those hits anymore."

Ash said he does not have any expectations for himself other than growing more as a leader and working hard day in and day out. But one of the most important takeaways he learned from his struggles is being grateful for having the opportunity to play football.

"I'm so thankful to get to do this. Nothing is guaranteed. I for sure learned that. I just feel so blessed to get another opportunity to play this game."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand.

Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow her on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.

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Ohio State Football: First Impressions from 2014 Fall Camp

Addressing his team for the first time during fall camp, Urban Meyer made it clear that last season's disappointing finish is no longer on his mind.

"The past? Who gives a s--t?" the Ohio State head coach asked rhetorically, referring to the Buckeyes' losses to Michigan State and Clemson in the Big Ten Championship Game and Orange Bowl to close the 2013 campaign.

And with that, the Buckeyes 2014 campaign was officially underway.

Losses may no longer linger in Columbus, Ohio, but a changed atmosphere was apparent on the first day of Meyer's third fall camp as Ohio State's head coach.

Music ranging from Kanye West to Bruce Springsteen blared from loudspeakers—as did vulgarities from the soundtrack and coaches alike—as the Buckeyes embarked on a redemption tour of sorts in the coming season. But familiar themes rang throughout Ohio State's first fall camp session of the year as well, with Meyer explaining to his team that his "four to six seconds of relentless effort" culture was "non-negotiable."

Whether mixing a looser atmosphere with his permanent philosophy will lead to improved results for the Buckeyes this season remains to be seen. But there was plenty to take away from Ohio State's first practice session of the year, as the Buckeyes set sail on a pivotal season under their two-time national champion head coach.

 

Braxton's Back

After missing the entirety of Ohio State's spring practice session following offseason shoulder surgery, star quarterback Braxton Miller was back on the field for the Buckeyes in what Meyer described as "the best shape of his life." The third-year OSU head coach insisted that his senior signal-caller is now 100 percent recovered, although he admitted that Monday's heat took a toll on Miller.

"He wasn't as sharp today. When he got tired he started raising his left shoulder a little bit," Meyer said of Miller. "But he'll be fine. His attitude is tremendous."

With just one season of eligibility left, time is ticking on Miller's already impressive Ohio State legacy. And while he already has two Big Ten MVP awards and an undefeated season to his credit, Meyer knows that there are still goals remaining on Miller's college career checklist.

"I know the one thing he's missing is a championship," Meyer said. "The great players are measured by championships. We haven't had that conversation yet, but we will. And he knows."

 

Fresh Faces

Although it didn't technically count as a two-a-day, the Buckeyes held two separate practice sessions on Monday. First-year players—including true freshmen and Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay—practiced in the morning, while Ohio State's returning veterans took the field in the afternoon.

And although Meyer was pleased with the productivity he saw in both sessions, he was particularly impressed by what 247Sports.com's third-ranked recruiting class has already brought to the table for the Buckeyes.

"We're going to try to get those guys ready to play," Meyer said of Ohio State's true freshmen. "It was a really good first day with the young guys."

It should, however, be noted that two true freshmen were noticeably absent from the Buckeyes' A.M. session, as neither linebacker Raekwon McMillan nor wide receiver Johnnie Dixon were on the field. That's because they already received their respective calls up to the big leagues, with Meyer inviting each to practice with OSU's veterans in the afternoon.

"It's rare," Meyer admitted. "They act like grown men, so we let them practice with the grown men today."

With both McMillan and Dixon vying for starting spots this season, it's hard to imagine either of their college careers getting off to better starts.

 

Buckeye Battles

Speaking of position battles, one in particular has caught Meyer's eye already. As the Buckeyes attempt to replace four experienced starters from a season ago on the offensive line, the OSU head coach is particularly interested in seeing who will replace Andrew Norwell, as Antonio Underwood, Billy Price, Chase Farris and Joel Hale slug it out at left guard.

"That's the one," Meyer admitted. "If I had to say, 'Where's all the focus?,' to me, it's that left guard. What are we going to do with the left guard?"

Another interesting personnel development in Monday's afternoon practice came when Vonn Bell found himself with OSU's second-team defense. Presumed to be a starter this season, Bell will battle with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows to earn that right and appears to have already used his current spot on the second team as motivation.

"He had a really good day," Meyer said of Bell. "That's a three-man race right now. All three of them think they're going to play and you throw Erick Smith in there champing at the bit too. You just gotta keep them healthy. Yeah, that's a good battle right there."

 

Extra Points

  • Meyer confirmed that defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle has been reinstated to the Ohio State roster. The redshirt freshman was charged with possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia and rioting/failure to disperse after an incident in Lorain, Ohio, in July, but he recently had his drug-related charges dropped and passed a drug test. Although he has been reinstated, Sprinkle will be removed from scholarship for the remainder of the summer and suspended for the Buckeyes' season-opener against Navy, according to Meyer.
  • Meyer also confirmed the transfer of offensive lineman Tommy Brown. The redshirt junior and Akron, Ohio, native failed to make much movement on the OSU depth chart in his three seasons in Columbus and will spend the remainder of his college career at the University of Akron.
  • One position that Meyer doesn't have much concern about right now is punt returner. The Buckeyes head coach said that wide receiver/running back Dontre Wilson is currently working with the first team, but he expects Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and Marshon Lattimore to make pushes for playing time on special teams as well.
  • Redshirt freshman cornerback Gareon Conley missed practice with flu-like symptoms. Meyer said that he anticipates him returning to practice on Tuesday. Conley is expected to battle with Armani Reeves and Eli Apple for the right to start opposite senior Doran Grant.
  • Former Texas quarterback and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite observed Ohio State's practice.
  • After suffering a season-ending injury early last year, defensive lineman Michael Hill was officially granted a medical redshirt and will have four years of eligibility remaining starting with the upcoming season.
  • Initially listed as a tight end, freshman Sam Hubbard is now listed as a linebacker on the OSU roster. Wearing uniform No. 49, Hubbard will still be eligible to receive passes should the Buckeyes opt to use him on offense.

 

*All quotes obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.

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