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College Football Teams in Dire Need of a Facilities Upgrade

College football isn't always about the plays and the players. Success comes from a variety of factors, including an area that some major programs still lag far behind in: facilities.

From run-down stadiums to inadequate (or nonexistent) practice areas, several schools that want to be known for having big-time football still find themselves with small-scale facilities. Plans are in the works at some places, but what's proposed or under construction still might not be enough.

The college football facility arms race is a never-ending battle, with schools constantly trying to upgrade in an effort to keep up with the competition. Florida is one of the latest to make a major investment, announcing this week that it is spending $15 million to build an indoor practice field—and that the school plans to have it done by September.

Who else needs some major upgrades? Check out our list of college football teams desperate for some facility improvements.

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5-Star Byron Cowart Names Auburn, Florida as Top 2, but Could New Hire Help FSU?

Thursday was an example of just how hectic recruiting can be for players like 5-star defensive end Byron Cowart.

According to ESPN’s Derek Tyson (via Keith Niebuhr of AuburnUndercover), Cowart trimmed his list down to a final two of Auburn and Florida.

"I would have to say, just to be honest, Auburn and Florida are my top two schools," Cowart told Tyson. "I have to keep it professional—I have to. Who knows, you see coaches and they go into the league, and when it’s time for you to get drafted you don’t want to have a bad name. Right now, truly, it will come down to Auburn and Florida. That’s just being honest."

The team that was eliminated from his list was Florida State, likely due to the fact that defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri left the program for a position with the Oakland Raiders, per Josh Newberg of Noles247.

However, Jimbo Fisher moved quickly to fill the opening on his staff, hiring former Florida defensive ends coach Brad Lawing, according to Bob Ferrante of Noles247.

Lawing was involved in Cowart’s recruitment while he was with the Gators, but can his arrival in Tallahassee help the ‘Noles jump back in the race?

The answer to that question remains to be seen.

Florida has been considered the longtime favorite to eventually land the Armwood High School standout. Lawing was a big part of the Gators push because of the strength of his relationship with Cowart’s mother, according to GatorBait.

"She was so tied in with Coach Lawing, and then she was really hurt when Coach Muschamp got fired, but everything worked out,” Cowart said in the aftermath of Lawing's dismissal by the Gators.

Part of what makes this hire so critical for FSU is Lawing’s lengthy history as a strong recruiter and his resume in developing first-round picks such as Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney in recent years, as noted by Chris Nee of Noles247.

Lawing’s primary focus will likely be to make sure that he can convince Cowart to make his planned official visit to Florida State on the weekend of Jan. 30.

Given Cowart’s history with Lawing and his previous interest in the ‘Noles, FSU will have to feel good about their chances if Cowart makes it to campus next weekend.

It’s also worth noting that both Auburn and Florida were able to stay on Cowart despite going through coaching changes in the last two months. In fact, part of what helped Auburn surge in Cowart’s recruitment was their hire of former Gators head coach Will Muschamp as their defensive coordinator.

Florida State is hoping Lawing can make a similar impact and get them back in the hunt to land the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Preview of the 2015 Recruiting Season for Dummies

Don’t be afraid, friend. Deep, deep breaths. There’s nothing to fear about the game-less chasm that is the college football offseason. There is still much to do, so much to see and so much to discuss.

May I interest you in this hot new craze known as "recruiting"?

Have you heard of this? All the kids love it. In fact, "recruiting" is more widespread than it has ever been; some might say the practice has grown a bit too robust.  

It’s why websites (like this one) will spend the entire year covering what college the nation’s premier high school athletes will attend. It’s why three hats on a table mean far more than just three hats on the table.

It is an eyeball-grabbing machine that has morphed into a year-round business. And yet, because games are played, conferences are won, playoffs are chosen and oddly-shaped trophies are handed out, it can be difficult to stay current on all the latest recruiting happenings.

With national signing day somehow less than two weeks away, this presents a bit of a quandary.

Have no fear; the crash course is here.

Where are the nation’s elite players headed? What team will deliver the nation’s best class? What should you look for on national signing day? What are some of the best names in this class? Will committing with snorting, biting, defecating live animals as props become the only acceptable way to announce a decision? 

Hopefully.

Gather ‘round; let’s assess some of the necessary storylines to follow as recruiting consumes us all.

 

The New No. 1 Is the Same as the Ol’ No. 1

It’s going to take a gargantuan effort to dethrone the Alabama Crimson Tide in the recruiting world, and clearly this dethroning won’t take place this year. The suspense has already departed; Alabama is going to land the nation’s No. 1 class, and it will do so (again) by a considerable margin.

This is nothing new, of course. Nick Saban has a knack for these kinds of Herculean recruiting feats, something he has done ever since he touched down in Tuscaloosa. The 2015 class is no different. It is balanced, versatile, deep and, above all, immensely skilled.

According to 247Sports, Alabama has more 5-star commits (six) and more 4-star commits (15) than any other team in the country. Florida State (four) and Clemson (three) are the only other teams with more than two 5-star players committed.

Alabama has six. Act surprised.

The headliners of this class include Blake Barnett (No. 2 pro-style QB), Calvin Ridley (No. 1 wide receiver), Damien Harris (No. 1 running back), Deionte Thompson (No. 2 safety), Kendall Sheffield (No. 4 cornerback), Minkah Fitzpatrick (No. 5 cornerback) and Daron Payne (No. 7 defensive tackle).

And there are more. In fact, there are a lot more. The players not mentioned above are players other programs would absolutely love to get their hands on. That’s perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to college football’s great, unrelenting recruiting machine.

“Top to bottom, you look at each individual player and you realize that this guy has a chance to be really good,” 247Sports’ national recruiting director JC Shurburtt told Bleacher Report. “That's what separates the Tide from the rest of the classes. It’s the fact that their No. 25 guy is as good as everyone else's No. 10 guy in terms of potential and upside.”

 

The “Look What We Have Here” Class of 2015

It’s not that Clemson hasn’t been recruiting at a high level over the past few years. The Tigers have hauled in top-20 classes in each of the last three offseasons, and last year’s haul might have landed them the best young quarterback in the country.

With that consistency fully considered and appreciated, Dabo Swinney is on the verge of landing a historic class for his program.

The Tigers currently have the No. 3 class in the country, according to 247Sports’ team rankings, checking in behind only Alabama and ACC mate Florida State. Clemson hasn’t just held its recruiting ground after losing offensive coordinator and prized recruiter Chad Morris to SMU; it has thrived down the backstretch of the cycle.

Mitch Hyatt (No. 2 offensive tackle), Deon Cain (No. 3 wide receiver), Garrett Williams (No. 4 tight end) and Christian Wilkins (No. 6 defensive tackle) are the prized commits, although this class will also add some impressive—and needed—depth, especially on defense with so many key pieces departing.

With two of the nation’s top eight offensive linemen and intriguing defensive linemen coming in, the Tigers are beefing up. Deshaun Watson, the quarterback of the present and future, is also getting plenty of help. There is so much to like here.

 

The Year of the Oversized, Mean (In a Good Way) Human Being

Each recruiting class takes on a different shape depending on the position featured prominently near the top of the rankings. The 2014 recruiting cycle was all about the running back, a collaboration of insanely skilled and developed runners that commandeered the position during the regular season.

In 2015, the shape is getting larger—much larger. Welcome to the year of the defensive tackle.

"It's the best defensive tackle class I have personally ever evaluated,” Shurburtt said.

Six of the top 24 players on 247Sports’ rankings are interior defensive linemen, including Trent Thompson, the No. 1 player overall. Thompson, a Georgia commit, figures to contribute to the Bulldogs’ defensive efforts immediately. As does Kahlil McKenzie, a Tennessee commit and a 354-pound tank operating with a jet engine.

Good luck with him, SEC.

McKenzie and Thompson are not alone in their potential. Terry Beckner Jr., Daylon Mack and Rasheem Green—the next three DTs in the class on 247Sports, all of which are 5-stars—remain uncommitted. And there are plenty more, too. The position is deep, large and collectively too fast for its size.

 

Names You Need to Know on National Signing Day

Last year’s national signing day lacked the usual punch. Given the long list of names poised to commit on the actual day this year, however, this likely won’t be the case again.

Some of the elite of the elite will be announcing in short order. Here are a handful that will be difficult to miss. (All rankings below courtesy of 247Sports.)

Martez Ivey (No. 1 OT, No. 2 player overall): Ivey looks more like a tight end than an offensive tackle. His 275-pound frame is remarkably lean and muscular and will welcome more weight once a college strength coach gets involved. Florida or Auburn appears to be the likely destination, and both would love to shore up the left tackle position for the next three years.  

Byron Cowart (No. 1 SDE, No. 3 player overall): This is more of a science project than a prospect. Perhaps that will explain how a 250-pound high school defensive end runs right around a 4.6 40-yard dash. Cowart will be a huge, destructive addition to either Auburn, Florida or Florida State, and he’ll be coming to a Saturday near you soon regardless of where he ends up.

Iman Marshall (No. 1 CB, No. 4 player overall): There just aren’t many defensive backs with this kind of physical makeup. Iman Marshall checks in at 6’1” and 190 pounds; he also runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and is the most physical cornerback in the class. USC has been the favorite for a while, although LSU and fast-riser Michigan are still lingering.

CeCe Jefferson (No. 2 SDE, No. 7 player overall): It’s not just a deep class for defensive tackles. The defensive ends are also immensely gifted. CeCe Jefferson, checking in at 275 pounds, will thrive in a variety of different defenses. Florida appears to be the favorite, but Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and LSU are in the mix.

Terry Beckner Jr. (No. 3 DT, No. 13 player overall): He might not be as explosive as Robert Nkemdiche was coming out of high school, but Terry Beckner Jr. delivers the same “I can’t believe he almost weighs 300 pounds” plays time and time again. The Missouri product has the chance to be a special, and he’ll take his talents to Missouri, Ohio State or Florida State.

Daylon Mack (No. 4 DT, No. 14 player overall): The former Texas A&M verbal commit could very well get back together with the Aggies and make it official. Mack is also looking at Texas and TCU. A powerful defensive tackle, he also played some fullback in high school at 330 pounds. He still outran everyone. That’s how you become my favorite player.

 

Storylines to Watch on National Signing Day

How much will Florida rise: The Gators currently have the No. 85 class, according to 247Sports’ team rankings, putting them behind Old Dominion, South Alabama and others they should never, ever be behind. That will change—thanks in large part to some of the names mentioned above—but the team only has eight commits and needs bodies.

What about Michigan: Well, as it stands, the Wolverines have the No. 99 class in the nation, according to 247Sports. They have six commits, one of which is a kicker. Michigan is still in the mix for Chris Clark (the nation’s No. 2 tight end) and Iman Marshall (the nation’s No. 1 corner). No one expected Jim Harbaugh to set the recruiting world on fire (yet), but a solid close would help.

What about Auburn: The Tigers are already in fabulous shape—holding down the No. 11 spot on 247Sports’ team rankings—but they could potentially gobble up all national signing day headlines. Be on alert. “If the Tigers can land the three Florida 5-stars (Martez Ivey, CeCe Jefferson and Byron Cowart), it'll be the biggest signing day storyline in the country,” Shurburtt said. “Even if they get one of the three, it'll be tremendous."

Will we have some flipping: Probably! Drama during last year’s national signing day was kept to a minimum. Don’t expect the same radio silence this year with plenty of gifted players still visiting. Kyler Murray, one of the nation’s premier quarterback prospects and a Texas A&M commit, recently took a quiet—and not-so-quiet—voyage to Texas. If he flips, the state of Texas might combust. Even if he doesn't, there are guaranteed to be a few surprises.

 

Best Names in the Class of 2015

Welcome to the most important part of this piece.

Far too much is made of skill level. What about assessing player greatness based on names and future business card potential?

Pull up a chair, friend, and behold the best names that a deep 2015 class has to offer. When Zach Morris barely makes the board, well, clearly the competition is fierce.

  1. Bull Barge
  2. Albert Funderburke
  3. Gus Cumberlander
  4. Equanimeous St. Brown
  5. Simba Short
  6. Soso Jamabo
  7. Zantravious Shields
  8. Bowman Archibald
  9. Barnabas Baning
  10. Zach Morris

 

Top Five Ways to Announce a Commitment

1. Use a live animal: Sure, it could potentially end in causalities—especially if there’s a large cat or elephant involved—but that doesn’t mean it is a bad idea. OK, maybe it does. But using a wild animal to announce would make for a wildly entertaining commitment. A dog will work, sure, but let's aim for more this year.

2. See No. 1

3. See No. 1

4. See No. 1

5. Get a tattoo? Sure, get a tattoo. Then, see No. 1

 

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Predicting the SEC's Top 7 Breakout RBs in 2015

The 2014 season was a banner year for breakout running backs in the SEC, as Georgia's Nick Chubb, Auburn's Cameron Artis-Payne, Mississippi State's Josh Robinson, LSU's Leonard Fournette, Tennessee's Jalen Hurd and Alabama's Derrick Henry all became bona fide superstars.

Who's next?

The SEC is loaded with talented running backs just waiting for the chance to shine, and many of them will get that chance in 2015.

Who will be the breakout running backs next season in the conference? Our top seven choices based on opportunity, talent and scheme are in this slideshow.

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6 Underclassmen Who Definitely Would Have Been Picked in the 2015 NFL Draft

This year, "only" 74 underclassmen declared for the NFL draft. While taking the chance to earn, at worst, a solid salary for a year is an understandable risk to make, plenty of others thought twice. Last year, 98 underclassmen declared for the draft. According to Natalie Pierre of AL.com, 36 of those underclassmen went undrafted. 

There's no shame in coming back to school for another year, even if the risk of injury looms. Players can improve their game, and ultimately, it's their decision to make.

Still, several underclassmen could have declared for the draft and been taken. These are underclassmen who decided to stay for another year, as noted by NFL.com. In one case, there's a player who isn't eligible for the '15 draft but undoubtedly would have been selected. 

Not taken into consideration are predictions for how each player will do in the NFL. 

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Texas Football: Breaking Down the Longhorns' Big Recruiting Weekend

The Texas Longhorns are on the final stretch of their 2015 recruiting, and the last portion of it will be very important for the future of the program.

Texas has less than two weeks to convince the recruits who are on the fence to pick the Longhorns for their landing spot.

Recruiting is not an easy task, and recruiting after a losing season is even more difficult. The Longhorns have struggled on the field for the last few years and head coach Charlie Strong has to convince these players to commit to the future of the program despite its past.

But Strong and his assistant coaches have hit the recruiting trails hard since the final game of the 2014 season, and they appear to be in good standing with some of the remaining uncommitted targets.

This weekend will be one of the last chances for coaches to get prospects on campus, and the list of those coming into Austin is long.

One of the most recognizable names that will be on the 40 acres for an official visit is 5-star running back Soso Jamabo. The Plano, Texas, athlete appears to be choosing between Texas and UCLA, and the Longhorns look to be in good position with the running back, according to Jason Suchomel of Orangebloods.com.

But the list of official visitors does not end with Jamabo. 

The Longhorns will also host 4-star quarterback and Florida State verbal commit Kai Locksley this weekend. Locksley has been committed to the Seminoles since October, but Texas has not given up on their attempt to flip the talented dual-threat quarterback.

Anyone who has watched Texas football over the last few years knows that adding depth to the quarterback position is a must for the Longhorns.

Texas only has two scholarship quarterbacks on campus. The Longhorns have a verbal commitment from 4-star quarterback Zach Gentry, but Gentry will take an official visit to Michigan this weekend, according to Orangebloods.com, and the recent 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions are trending in the Wolverines' direction.

It's imperative that the Longhorns sign another quarterback in their 2015 recruiting class, now that Gentry could waver in his commitment to Texas.

Locksley and Jamabo are only two of the recruits who will be in Austin for official visits this weekend. The Longhorns will host 12 players and will have a number of solid verbal commitments present to help recruit the uncommitted players.

One of the ringleaders in the 2015 recruiting class has been 4-star defensive end Charles Omenihu. The Rowlett, Texas, native has been actively recruiting players since he made his commitment to the Longhorns last year and will likely be in the ears of the Texas prospects throughout the weekend.

Strong and his staff need to be on point all weekend to land some of these highly touted recruits. But considering the feedback from future Longhorns following last weekend's visit, one could only expect the staff is fully prepared to make a final push for these talented athletes.

The good news for Texas fans is that Strong and the coaches are getting these kids on campus. What follows could be huge for the future of the program if this weekend finishes in the Longhorns' favor.

 

Star rankings via Rivals.com.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why Auburn Should Be Favorite to Win SEC in 2015

The syncretism of Gus Malzahn's offense with Will Muschamp's defense is the most fascinating subplot of the offseason, and although their marriage comes with risk, its upside is so great that Auburn should be considered the SEC favorite.

Malzahn is known for his obsession with tempo. "Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football," he said in July 2013, per Chris Vannini of Coaching Search. "We feel like if you can execute your offense at a fast pace, it's a big advantage."

Muschamp is known for...well, the opposite of tempo. Spencer Hall of SB Nation coined "Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football" as an apt way of describing his Florida teams, which finished third-to-last, third-to-last, dead last and third-to-last in the SEC in yards per game.

There is, however, a redeeming quality to Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football: It's contagious for the other team. Even in 2014, the season that got Muschamp fired, Florida finished No. 5 in the country and led the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.55). We're talking about a guy who made the Sugar Bowl with Jeff Driskel.

There's no limit to what he can do with Malzahn.

 

The Muschamp Effect

Auburn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on Nov. 30, the morning after losing 55-44 at Alabama. The Crimson Tide averaged 8.84 yards per play in that game. The only times a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team has averaged more yards per play, its opponents were Florida Atlantic (8.86, 2014) and Western Carolina (8.85, 2012).

The Tigers have lost seven games under Malzahn, four times despite scoring 30 points. They ended the season with back-to-back losses of that nature, first against Alabama and next against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl (34-31).

Dating back to 2001, which includes his stops as defensive coordinator at Texas (2008-10), Auburn (2006-07) and LSU (2001-04), along with his four years at Florida, Muschamp has been in 76 games in which his team scored 30-plus points. His record? 75-1.

The only time he lost, he got Crabtree'd:

Johnson was an old-school coach who got his first FBS coordinator job at Southern Mississippi in 1988. For context, the quarterback of that team was a 19-year-old Brett Favre. College offenses are changing, thanks in some part to the success of Malzahn, and Johnson, despite his bona fides, could never coach his defense to keep up.

It wasn't for a lack of talent, either. The deck of Auburn's defense is stacked. Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy have All-SEC potential. So does defensive tackle Montravius Adams. Cornerback Jonathan Jones actually made the All-SEC second team in 2014.

All four return next season, as does former 5-star defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed the 2014 season with a knee injury. Muschamp will mold those front-seven players to fit his defense, a multiple-front scheme that moves between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments.

Other than depth, which Auburn has also developed, the most important thing a defense can have is versatility. That is how you stop uptempo offenses: confuse them into thinking they have a matchup advantage when they don't; teach defenders multiple roles.

Muschamp does that just as well as anybody, which is why his defenses finish near the top of the country. It's also what makes him the perfect tonic for Johnson.

"I just knew that's who I wanted and who we needed,"Malzahn said at Muschamp's introductory press conference.

"Need" might be too light a word.

 

The Offense is In Good Hands

Auburn will lose its starting quarterback (Nick Marshall), a 1,600-yard rusher (Cameron Artis-Payne), its leading receiver (Sammie Coates) and a four-year starter at center (Reese Dismukes). For most teams, that means the offense will take a big step back.

For Auburn: Might this offense be better?

Quarterback Jeremy Johnson has done everything right the past two seasons, including carving up Arkansas in the first half of the 2014 opener, when Marshall was suspended for a marijuana citation. The Tigers went 75 yards in eight plays, 75 yards in six plays and 98 yards in seven plays for touchdowns on their first three possessions.

"We feel like he could start for most teams in college football," Malzahn told reporters after the game. "I think everybody saw that tonight."

Johnson is a more traditional quarterback than Marshall, who has already made the switch to defensive back as he auditions for the NFL. The rising junior is 6'5", 230 pounds and has a live, accurate throwing arm. He isn't immobile, but zone reads will not be as instrumental as they have been to this offense. When he runs them, he will look more like Nick Foles than Michael Vick.

With Johnson, the Tigers will play something closer to a pro-style offense (although they won't lose their tempo), relying on the vertical passing game. It's a change they are comfortable making, however, because they trust their No. 1 receiver.

D'haquille Williams was the No. 1 overall JUCO prospect in the 2014 class, and he lived up to that billing in Year 1. His stats didn't jump off the page (45 catches, 730 yards, five touchdowns), but he looked the part of a future megastar. When NFL scouts compare you with Alshon Jeffery, you're doing something (a lot of things) right.

More to the point, Williams played better with Johnson than he ever played with Marshall, even if it was only for one half. Johnson targeted Williams seven times on seven drives against Arkansas. The result? Seven completions, 138 yards and a touchdown.

Yards per target: 19.7.

At running back, the Tigers have a Fredkin's paradox

Should we lean on this blue-chip prospect…the other blue-chip prospect…or the OTHER blue-chip prospect?

Roc Thomas was the No. 4 back in the 2014 class. The two backs directly behind him were Nick Chubb (Georgia) and Royce Freeman (Oregon). Combined, Chubb and Freeman gained 3,283 total yards as true freshmen. Again: Thomas was ranked ahead of them.

Incoming recruit Jovon Robinson, the No. 1 overall JUCO player in the country, and freshman Kerryon Johnson, the No. 2 high school back in the country, grade about as well as Thomas, Chubb and Freeman did, too. Those are two more impressive darts thrown at the board.

They and redshirt sophomore Peyton Barber will run behind another good line. The loss of Dismukes, Patrick Miller and Chad Slade will hurt, but Avery Young bypassed the draft, Braden Smith played well in his first start against Wisconsin and Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson, who started 12 games for the Rebels in 2013, will be eligible.

All things told, the Tigers return 59 career starts up front. More than that, they return Malzahn and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, under whom they finished No. 5 in the country in adjusted line yards (run blocking) last season and No. 2 in 2013, per Football Outsiders.

This running game is a machine that won't stop.

 

Who Should be the Favorites Over Them?

The traditional SEC powers all have problems. So do the SEC upstarts. Auburn is the team with the easiest-to-answer questions:

  • Can Muschamp improve the defense? Probably.
  • Can Grimes rebuild the offensive line? Probably.
  • Can Johnson play this well over a full season? Probably.

None of those answers are definite, but "probably" is good enough for now. The rest of the conference should be so lucky:

  • Who is the quarterback at Alabama? Dunno.
  • Who is the quarterback at Georgia? Dunno.
  • Who is the quarterback at LSU? Braxton Mil…oh. Dunno.

Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report had Auburn No. 2 in his SEC power rankings, looking up at rival Alabama. But even he thinks it looks like a tossup. "Don't be surprised if the SEC West—and, essentially, the SEC—comes down to the Iron Bowl," he wrote.

That wouldn't surprise me at all…which is why I think Auburn is the pick. The Iron Bowl is at Jordan-Hare next season, and so is the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry (against Georgia). After a season in which the schedule was out to get them, the Tigers catch a bit of a break.

The closest parallel to Auburn is Texas A&M, another team that hired a proven defensive coordinator (John Chavis of LSU) to supplement its high-powered offense. But A&M's defensive problems are more systemic than those of Auburn.

Per the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, the Aggies finished last year with the No. 81 defense in college football, behind such juggernauts as UConn and UAB. They finished the previous year No. 86, behind Texas State and Akron. Auburn finished No. 37 and No. 18, respectively.

This defense doesn't have that far to climb to win a championship. If it makes the jump from the Top 40 to the Top 20—from where it was in 2014 to where it was in 2013—that would make Auburn the favorite. If it leaps into the Top 15 or 10, no one is going to beat it.

Either way, this team will be in the picture. Alabama won the conference in 2014, but no team has repeated as SEC champion since 1998. Sixteen years of history say the Tide should not be favored.

That they travel to the Plains says it, too.

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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Nebraska Football: Why Mike Riley's First Recruiting Class Is Already a Success

Mike Riley will have been Nebraska's head football coach for only two months when national signing day rolls around. He hasn't let the limited time to recruit stop him, though. Instead, Riley hit the recruiting trail hard and hasn't slowed down since.

That's what a new coach has to do, though. For Riley and his staff, there was no time to waste, so they didn't.

As a result, what can fans expect from the 61-year-old's first class? Will it be a success?

The short answer is yes.

You may be wondering how a class that hasn't been finalized yet can be called a success. It's a valid question, too. For Riley, it has everything to do with how he's handled his short time in charge of Nebraska and his vision for the future.

Of course, some fans will point to the numbers. Nebraska is currently ranked No. 36 on 247Sports' 2015 Recruiting Team Rankings. Don't let the ranking fool you, though. There is plenty of talent hidden in Riley's class.

That's where Riley excels, too. He's known for developing players, as ESPN's NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper noted, per Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald:

He gets the most out of his talent and he's produced NFL players. He develops players. He obviously works well with quarterbacks. He's a heck of a football coach. He's a great guy. I think he'll do a very good job. I've always been a huge Mike Riley supporter.

That's why fans can't take the final overall ranking of the 2015 class and use that to call it a success or not. A more appropriate benchmark is to look at what Riley is doing to improve recruiting at Nebraska and whether or not he's able to generate more interest for the Huskers. That's where the success ultimately lies.

Riley has already made some changes in how the Huskers recruit Nebraska. At the Outland Trophy banquet, he was clear on that.

“Our goal for the future will be to own this state—and obviously that means Omaha,” Riley said, per Rich Kaipust and Jon Nyatawa of the Omaha World-Herald.

That's great news for both Nebraska high school athletes and Nebraska fans. Recruiting talent in-state has been something fans have wanted. Players and their coaches have, too.

“One thing, he told me, was that their No. 1 priority was the state of Nebraska,” Omaha Central coach Jay Ball said, per Kaipust and Nyatawa. “And on the first day available, being back here in Omaha, that says a lot.”

That focus alone can be considered a major success for Riley and his staff.

Another area in which fans can feel good about the next class is in how transparent Riley and his staff have been about it.

An obvious supporter of social media, Riley hasn't shied away from sharing "inside information" with fans. It's nice, too, if not a little shocking.

This alone makes the class feel like a bigger success for Riley. That's not to say that a tweet will make or break this recruiting class, but it doesn't hurt.

Per the Omaha World-Herald's McKewon, director of player personnel Ryan Gunderson recently spoke on the matter:

We want to share what we’re doing. And I think you see that on social media a little bit. We’re not trying to just lock the door and close the blinds. We know that what we’re doing, people are interested in, and it’s fun and it’s exciting.

That openness is also beneficial for future recruiting. Players potentially interested in Nebraska for the 2016 class are getting a firsthand look at how Riley and his staff operate. That transparency could absolutely pay off in the end.

Ultimately, Riley's first class won't be perfect. He hasn't had much time and a portion of the class wasn't recruited by him. However, what Riley is doing is building the foundation for the future.

That's what makes this class a success already, and if Riley is truly able to develop talent like so many say he can, there's little reason to believe this class can't be exactly what the Huskers need. 

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Nebraska Football: Who Will Be the Huskers' Starting Quarterback in 2015?

Nebraska football fans looking forward to the 2015 season will have one question on their minds over almost all others: Who will be the starting quarterback?

There are five candidates on the roster as we speak. Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent, having started 21 games over the last two years. Waiting in the wings are Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe, who saw limited playing time in 2014, and Zack Darlington and AJ Bush, who redshirted last year.

Of course, it’s a big guessing game at this point as to who will win the job, as we don’t know what type of offense new head coach Mike Riley will be playing. We also don’t know how each of the quarterback prospects will perform this spring or this fall.

But based on what we know now, we can at least make some educated guesses as to where the quarterbacks currently on the roster stand.

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Ohio State Football: Playoff Run Proves Buckeyes' Defense Is Back

After winning his first 24 games as Ohio State's head coach, Urban Meyer watched from the sideline as his defense imploded in a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten title game.

It was a devastating defeat for Meyer and the Buckeyes, who were one victory away from punching their ticket to face Florida State in the national championship. Instead, the loss sent them to Miami for an Orange Bowl matchup against Clemson, which carved the Buckeyes up for 576 total yards in a 40-35 victory.

Those back-to-back losses triggered a change in the way Ohio State approached defense. Meyer was through with the zone schemes that allowed opposing teams to chip their way down the field. He wanted a fast, aggressive unit that set the tone against its counterpart.

A year later, that's exactly what Meyer had. Ohio State's defense clicked at the right time during the 2014 season, limiting three talented offenses as the Buckeyes marched their way through the Big Ten title game and the first-ever College Football Playoff. 

With that unexpected run, Ohio State's defense proved that it's ready to reclaim its dominant status. 

It started in the offseason when Meyer brought in Chris Ash from Arkansas to be the co-defensive coordinator alongside Luke Fickell. Ash installed his aggressive 4-3 scheme that featured a secondary that played more press coverage and man-to-man patterns. 

Early returns from that overhaul were positive. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder broke down Ohio State's 2014 spring game and highlighted a much more disruptive secondary. That was the Buckeyes' Achilles' heel the year before as they surrendered an average of 268 passing yards per game, which ranked 112th nationally, per CFBstats.com.

According to Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Dispatch, Meyer knew his defense needed to change: "I felt we were a ‘what-if’ defense last year: ‘What if they did this?’ I saw it from my coaches and I saw it from our players. What I’m looking for is simplicity — four to six, A to B. If you can’t give us that, then we’ve got to move on and get another player who will. So if you see big plays right now, I don’t care."

Ohio State's defense did surrender some big plays early in the season. After getting past Navy and its pesky triple-option attack in the season opener, Ohio State struggled in games against Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. The Hokies confounded the Buckeyes defense, converting nine of 17 third-down attempts in a 35-21 upset win. Two weeks later, the Bearcats torched Ohio State with three big plays as quarterback Gunner Kiel connected with wide receiver Chris Moore for touchdowns of 60, 83 and 78 yards. The Buckeyes offense outpaced Cincinnati to secure a 50-28 win.

But as Ohio State's season wore on, the defense showed flashes of what was to come. The Buckeyes limited their first four conference opponents to an average of 19.8 points per game. Sophomore Joey Bosa emerged as one of the country's top pass-rushers, and most importantly of all, the secondary was holding its own.

After running through the conference unscathed, Ohio State faced its stiffest challenge of the season in the Big Ten title game. After losing quarterback J.T. Barrett to a season-ending ankle injury the week before, the Buckeyes were tasked with stopping the NCAA's leading rusher in Melvin Gordon and a Wisconsin team that was hitting its stride.

Just a year removed from collapsing in the Big Ten title game, Ohio State found itself back on the big stage with its championship hopes resting in the hands of its defense.

And this time, the "Silver Bullets" delivered.

Ohio State throttled Wisconsin with a historic beatdown, limiting one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the country to a season-low 71 yards (249 yards below its season average) in a 59-0 shutout. Gordon managed just 76 yards and 2.9 yards per carry, with a long run of 13 yards.

Gordon was just the first of three consecutive Heisman Trophy finalists that Ohio State would shut down.

In the College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama, wideout Amari Cooper broke free for two touchdown catches, but he was limited to his third-worst output of the season as he registered just 71 receiving yards in a 42-35 loss.

In the title game against Oregon, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota was held in check as his Ducks were held to a season-low 20 points as the Buckeyes rolled to a 22-point victory.

In the aftermath of their title run, some Ohio State defenders had fun pointing out that they shut down the nation's top running back, wide receiver and quarterback in consecutive games:

Ohio State's defense should be even better in 2015.

The Buckeyes only lose defensive tackle Michael Bennett, middle linebacker Curtis Grant and cornerback Doran Grant from a unit that finished 19th nationally in total defense. Bosa will be back to attack the edge. Linebackers Joshua Perry and Darron Lee will look to build off breakout seasons. The secondary returns playmaking safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, along with a host of talent at cornerback.

Ohio State showed drastic defensive improvement in its last three outings, but with what's returning in 2015, the best is yet to come. 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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The 25 Best Nonconference Clashes on the 2015 College Football Schedule

The first College Football Playoff National Championship is in the books. National signing day is still nearly two weeks away, and the beginning of the 2015 college football regular season looks like just a speck on the horizon.

Still, it’s never too early to think about 2015. As the College Football Playoff selection process showed, strength of schedule is a crucial element (and will remain a crucial element) going forward in the national college football picture. More and more often, Power Five teams are beefing up their out-of-league slates with hopes of impressing future selection committees.

The real winner? You, the fan, who gets an increased slate of juicy nonconference games. We took a look at non-league slates across the nation and compiled the top 25 for you. Games are ranked by potential importance to the season at large and power of the teams, as they stand entering the 2015 regular season.

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Georgia Football: Will Emphasis on Defensive Recruiting Yield Championships?

It's not hard to decipher a pattern in Georgia's 2015 football recruiting class.  Sixteen of 25 current commitments or early enrollees play on the defensive side of the ball.  Compared to recent Bulldog history, that's a heavy weighting.

Georgia, it appears, is banking on a defensive emphasis yielding championships, and that gamble is so un-crazy it just might work.

The concept of defense winning championships is not a new one.  To the contrary, it's one of the most trite sayings in all of sport.  But in an era in which offenses dominate college football and points abound, there's some risk in prioritizing defensive players above offensive play-makers who can turn an inch of open space into six points.

But Georgia is putting its money where its mouth is, according to recent salary reports.  Per Seth Emerson of Columbus' Ledger-Enquirer, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's recent contract extension will pay him $1.3 million per season.  On the other side of the ball, new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will earn $950,000 annually.

Combine a financial spending pattern that seems to favor the defense and an abnormally high ratio of defensive players in this year's recruiting class, and the hope is that leadership and a deep talent pool will yield immediate and lasting results.  But how does that happen?

First, and perhaps most obviously, several of Georgia's defensive recruits must make early impacts.  

Last year, Lorenzo Carter (a 5-star defensive end) and Dominick Sanders (an unheralded 3-star recruit) made waves as true freshmen, but a number of expected stars struggled to find a spot in the lineup.  

Injuries kept Malkom Parrish (a 4-star cornerback) from joining the rotation in the secondary until late in the season.  Meanwhile 4-star defensive standouts Keyon Brown and Lamont Gaillard failed to see playing time altogether.

The window for winning a championship is always slim, and the Bulldogs cannot afford to miss out on the services of elite prospects in 2015.  In particular, Georgia must find run-stopping support from the newest members of its front seven.

Trent Thompson, the nation's top overall player, according to the 247Sports Composite, must play right away and contend for a starting spot at defensive tackle from day one.  

Early enrollees and Top 100 prospects (per the 247Sports Composite) Jonathan Ledbetter and Natrez Patrick must take full advantage of an extra semester of preparation time by buying into the strength and conditioning program and finding ways to break into a rotation that is already flush with talented pass-rushers.

Stopping the run was the biggest weakness for Georgia in 2014, and all three of the Bulldogs' losses showcased this fault.  Pruitt's hope is that his seven new defensive linemen and three new linebackers can help plug some gaps.

If that comes to fruition with the help of early contributions from this class, and secondary depth continues to improve with the likes of Rashad Roundtree (the fifth-best safety in the class, per the 247Sports Composite), the defense could be a point of differentiation for the Bulldogs for the first time in years.

And the beauty of early-contributing defensive players is the carried-over value of their experience as they mature and establish tenure.  Carter and Sanders will be beacons of the 2015 defense and potential All-Americans in 2016 if they continue to improve.  The same could be true for a host of players in this 2015 recruiting class, and that level of early development extends the window for championship contention.

Right now, this defense is known primarily for the presence of speedy outside pass-rushers like Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.  As such, those are the guys that seem inclined to step up if the defense becomes championship-worthy.  But that could change very quickly if players like Thompson, Ledbetter, Patrick and Roundtree make an immediate impact.  

And that change wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.  After all, strong showings from these incoming freshmen doesn't automatically signify disappointing performances from proven veterans.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt praised Pruitt for his first season in Athens when he discussed the coordinator's recent raise.

"It's important that we solidify his tenure at Georgia and continue to build our defense in all areas including recruiting, coaching and player development," Richt added, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com.

Pruitt's tenure has been solidified.  The defense is being built through recruiting.  This program is right on track for championship contention, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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CFB Recruiting 200: Top 13 Outside Linebackers

After thorough study using specific scoring criteria, Bleacher Report recruiting analysts Sanjay Kirpalani and Tyler Donohue have graded the top 200 players in the 247Sports Composite Rankings and provided in-depth analysis. As national signing day draws near, Bleacher Report provides a position-by-position breakdown of the best college football recruits. Today, we present the Top Offensive Tackles. 

Other Positions 

The latest chapter of Bleacher Report’s CFB 200 series will focus on a position that has transformed markedly in recent years: outside linebacker.

Players at that position now have to be physical enough to be stout against the run and athletic enough to bring heat off the edge as pass-rushers or even drop into coverage against receivers and tight ends.

Admittedly, that package of skills is difficult to find.

However, the 2015 class of linebackers—headlined by 5-star Texas commitment Malik Jefferson—is filled with deep and athletic talent who can be effective against the run and the pass. 

Bleacher Report broke down the 2015 outside-linebacker class, grading them on their abilities in key metrics such as tackling (25 points), strength (20 points), run defense (15 points), pass coverage (15 points) and football IQ (25 points). The cumulative figures from those traits resulted in our overall grade of each prospect. 

How does the 2015 group of outside linebackers stack up to one another?

*All analysis from Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Sanjay Kirpalani. All rankings courtesy of 247Sports Composite Rankings

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Tennessee Pulling 4-Star DE Marques Ford's Offer Shows Dark Side of Recruiting

National signing day is less than two weeks away, and classes around the country are beginning to be finalized with future college football stars.

Unfortunately, though, there's a downside to the stretch run for some prospects who may be on the lower end of their school's priority list.

Marques Ford, a 4-star defensive end from Gibsonton, Florida, decommitted from Tennessee on Wednesday and committed to Rutgers the next day.

Why? As Scout.com's John Garcia Jr. puts it, it's time for the "flip game."

According to Ford's high school coach (via Matt Slovin of The Tennessean), Tennessee coaches pulled Ford's offer, which left the player "a little bit angry."

"It's an ugly business," said Frank LaRosa, coach at East Bay High School. "In the nasty business, they kept it sort of honest by at least saying that they had other commits and they were pulling his commitment."

Should Tennessee be criticized for this?

No, as long as it handled it properly, as LaRosa said it did.

The Vols have 28 commitments so far in the class of 2015, 10 of which enrolled early and could be counted back to last season if they need to make room. Three of those early enrollees are defensive linemen, 4/5-star defensive end Kyle Phillips, 4-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and 4-star defensive end Andrew Butcher.

More defensive line help is on the way this summer, when 5-star monster Kahlil McKenzie, 4-star defensive end Darrell Taylor and several other defensive linemen are slated to head to Rocky Top.

It's a tough break for Ford, but this is how things work.

As classes start filling up and some players who coaching staffs may not have been counting on begin to flip to them, somebody has to go. It's better that the players know now rather than on national signing day, when it's darn near impossible to find a home.

It could be worse.

In 2012, former Arkansas defensive lineman Darius Philon—who recently declared for the NFL draft after his redshirt sophomore season—announced his commitment to Alabama on national signing day, only to sign with Arkansas later in the day, according to Mike Herndon of AL.com

Philon, who had been an Alabama commit since September 2011, was asked to grayshirt by the Tide once their class of 2012 began to fill up.

That's the worst possible scenario, and the Vols were proactive in making sure Ford didn't suffer the same fate.

Over the last few years, less emphasis has been placed on national signing day, and more emphasis has been put on building classes early and getting players on campus in January.

Because of that, players at the bottom end of classes in the weeks leading up to signing day are forced to keep their options open down the stretch, in case the team they are committed to gets hot and runs out of room.

It's unfortunate, but, as LaRosa said, it is the nature of the business nowadays.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Michigan Football: Players Who Benefit Most from Jim Harbaugh's Arrival

The arrival of a new coaching staff gives most players a fresh slate while marking the end of the road for others. Jim Harbaugh comes in with no preexisting relationships with his new players. It’s an opportunity for a careful evaluation of talent and a position shuffling to match the needs of new schemes.

Not all players survive the transition. Offensive lineman Kyle Bosch hoped to return to the team after taking a leave of absence last season but decided to transfer after a meeting with Harbaugh.

Linebacker Michael Ferns also has left the program and transferred to West Virginia.

The following players will enter spring practice with the best opportunities to impress their new coaches.

 

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand

Follow @PCallihan

All season statistics from MGoBlue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

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LSU Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Tigers to Improve in 2015

LSU fans are not pleased, and head coach Les Miles knows it. 

The Tigers went 8-5 last season, which was the first time they failed to win at least 10 games in a season since 2009. This is not acceptable for the standards Miles has set for himself in Baton Rouge. 

A double-digit win total will not be easy. The SEC is deep, particularly in the West division. The Tigers must improve in all facets of the game if they want to reach the SEC Championship Game. 

Here are a few areas the Tigers must improve to take a step forward next season.

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Texas Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Longhorns to Improve in 2015

The Texas Longhorns' improvement in 2015 will depend almost exclusively on the development of their offense and the quarterback that leads them.

Head coach Charlie Strong's defense can't do much better than it did last season. It led the Big 12 in passing yards per attempt and sacks while allowing 3.9 yards per carry on the ground. The defense in 2015 may not be as stout as it was this past year, but there's no reason to doubt what Strong and his staff are doing on this side of the ball.

The offense is another story, as the Horns were below average in just about every category. Of course, the quarterback position remains an issue, but more changes must be made for this team to improve on its 6-7 record.

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UCLA Football: 5 Things That Must Change for Bruins to Improve in 2015

At the conclusion of each season, every college football staff has a self-reflection period to gauge the current state of their respective programs. 

As for Jim Mora and the UCLA football program, an introspective look will likely lead to the realization that there are areas within the team in need of improvement.

This piece will take a look at five specific things that could stand to see refinement.

Two of these principles deal strictly with scheme. One delves into a specific position unit, and the last two items speak about a collective mindset within the squad.

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UCLA Football: 5 Things That Must Change for Bruins to Improve in 2015

At the conclusion of each season, every college football staff has a self-reflection period to gauge the current state of their respective programs...

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Oregon Football: 5 Things That Must Change for the Ducks to Improve in 2015

While Oregon’s 2014 season came to a disappointing end in the national title game against Ohio State, it was still a season of firsts for the Ducks.

Oregon came away from 2014 with its first Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff, a win in the first CFP game ever played and a trip to the first CFP title game.

All in all, it was a memorable season. Now, the Ducks must turn their attention to 2015.

The Ducks are, and should be, recognized as one of the finest programs in the country. They have to be considered a College Football Playoff threat from here on out. Moreover, the program should be expected to win the Pac-12 title and earn a spot into the playoff every year.

Yes, the Ducks lose their best player in Mariota. However, they will still likely be heavily favored to win the Pac-12 North and the Pac-12 title.

In order to do so and get back to the CFP National Championship, the Ducks must improve in a variety of ways.

It all starts with what they lacked in the national title game: toughness.

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