Articles By David Fox
ATLANTA — The Lane Kiffin-as-Alabama-offensive-coordinator is one game old, so let’s review it, shall we?
Of course this is way too early for a referendum on the most compelling assistant coaching hire in the SEC, but Week 1 is perfect for overreaction — one way or another.
And, wow, did Kiffin and Alabama coach Nick Saban give us plenty of fodder.
From the cheap seats:
Many offensive coordinators like to work in the press box with the ability to see the whole field.
Kiffin, however, worked from the sideline in his first game with the Tide. Saban wanted his first-year coordinator to be able to talk directly to his first-time starting quarterback rather than talk to him on the phone.
The Alabama head coach can bar his assistants from talking to the media, he can try to control the messaging, but he can’t control the body language of two — let’s say, expressive — coaches on the sideline.
I assume we'll see this often pic.twitter.com/5iLG28OOtr— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) August 30, 2014
From Nick Saban:
Not surprisingly, Saban isn’t thrilled talking about Kiffin in a way he never had to talk about former coordinators Jim McElwain or Doug Nussmeier.
The implication from reporters — at least as Saban sees it — is that Saban hired a dud of an offensive coordinator.
“You know, the guy is a really good coach now, all right,” Saban said. “Y’all need to ‘fess up to that.
“And most places than don’t like him is because he left, and they were mad because he left. They weren’t mad about anything he did while he was there. Just do a little research on that.”
In the interest of research, the Oakland Raiders and USC may disagree on being “mad” about his departure. Saban’s right about Tennessee, though.
From the field:
This is what matters, right? After a quarterback competition that lasted until Friday — that’s when Blake Sims learned he’d start ahead of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker — Alabama put up 538 yards, 6.6 yards per play.
Granted, many coordinators could thrive with running backs like Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and wide receivers like Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White.
The key moment, though, may have been the second quarter.
Tied at 10, Sims was rattled at the line. Saban said his quarterback called the wrong plays, called incorrect formations in the huddle and took too much time on the play clock. Saban told Coker to warm up.
Instead of making a switch, Saban told Kiffin to switch to a no-huddle look of its own.
“When we did that, he sort of got it back together and then he was fine after that,” Saban said.
True, the decision to go no-huddle may have been Saban’s call, but adding the up-tempo to the arsenal was part of the reason he hired Kiffin in the first place.
Could the no-huddle be a more regular part of Alabama’s plans? If Sims remains the quarterback, that seems possible.
He finished 24-of-33 for 250 yards with an interception and made plays on the move against Alabama in part of the no-huddle.
However, the no-huddle has become so prevalent that Alabama’s base pro-style offense is more of the outlier, even in the SEC.
“We’re one of the few teams in the world that still plays with regular people — a tight end, two backs and two wideouts,” Saban said. “And now we’re like the dinosaur age when it comes to that.”
Kiffin comes from the same background, but he’s incorporated elements of the hurry-up. If Alabama can change tempos on a dime — and as effectively as it did against West Virginia — the Kiffin hire may be a stroke of genius for a program that already has one of the top rosters in the country.
“People really have a tough time defending what we do because nobody does it, and it does allow us to to be more physical and it does allow us to play more players,” Saban said. "But we’ll certainly consider (the no-huddle). We have the capabilities of doing it.”
ATLANTA — Let the overreaction in Tuscaloosa continue.
The final product from Alabama’s opener against West Virginia will look great, especially given the circumstances.
An offense with a first-year starting quarterback and new coordinator rolled up 538 yards and 6.6 yards per play. The running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry was as imposing as advertised, especially in the fourth quarter.
The defense played without senior preseason all-conference linebacker Trey DePriest yet allowed one only offensive touchdown. Even the first-time kicker went 4-for-4 on field goals.
But this is Alabama, where a two-game losing streak is cause for soul searching. A 33-23 win over West Virginia in a neutral site opener isn’t a reason to panic, but the path to the double-digit win did leave some questions.
The Crimson Tide spent much of the offseason talking about improving culture. Alabama could have just as easily talked about improving cornerbacks.
Against the up-tempo, against West Virginia’s variety of formations and without DePriest to lead adjustments on the field, Alabama’s defense looked ... ordinary.
“I know that we made a lot of mental errors,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “At times, the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly what it should have been.”
The communications issues were pronounced enough that West Virginia could walk away from a 10-point loss to Alabama believing it could have won.
The Mountaineers moved the ball at will in the passing game, and the best defense against West Virginia receivers turned out to be drops, not any great play from the Alabama secondary.
Take one of the major plays of the game: A thundering hit from safety Landon Collins on West Virginia receiver Jordan Thompson in the middle of the field on third down. The hit brought oohs and aahs, but it was unnecessary. By the time Collins made contact, Clint Trickett’s pass had bounced off Thompson’s hands. As a result of the incomplete pass, West Virginia failed to capitalize on an interception in a one-score game — not because of a defensive stand, but because of one of a handful of drops.
For three quarters, West Virginia — a 4-8 team from a year ago that closed the season with losses to Kansas and Iowa State — had a chance to knock off a College Football Playoff contender.
West Virginia twice had first-and-goal at Alabama’s 6 or closer and came up with two field goals. One of the last chances came early in the fourth quarter but a fullback dropped a wide open pass short of the goal line on a bootleg on first down; Trickett and junior college sensation Kevin White failed to connect on a fade to the end zone on second down; and finally a bad snap on third down set up a 41-yard field goal.
West Virginia was able to march down the field at will early in the game. Trickett completed 13-of-22 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
“They came in with a lot of formations and things we hadn’t seen before,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We had to recognize it, make the adjustment, communicate and see what we have to make changes.”
Perhaps this could be seen as a one-time issue. Indeed, Alabama didn’t have a full deck on defense, and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen is one of the game’s top offensive coaches despite his team's struggles last season.
Yet we can't ignore that Alabama had trouble with another no-huddle offense in the passing game. West Virginia averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt against Alabama, becoming the 11th team since 2012 to top seven yards per attempt against the Tide. By comparison, only 10 teams topped that mark from 2008-11.
The good news for the potentially overreacting faction in Tuscaloosa is that Alabama has time to work it out.
If Ole Miss continues to struggle at did for stretches on Thursday, Alabama may not face a formidable hurry-up spread until Oct. 18 against Texas A&M.
“What you find out in your first game is where you are,” Saban said. “This is where we are.”
Jet lag will be much easier to bear for James Franklin, Christian Hackenberg and Sam Ficken when Penn State returns from Dublin.
The Nittany Lions won Franklin’s debut in dramatic fashion, getting the first college football Saturday to a thrilling start with a 26-23 win over UCF.
As many openers, the game wasn’t always pretty as UCF staged a second-half comeback with a backup quarterback, but Penn State had two familiar heroes in the final minutes.
Read and React: Penn State 26, UCF 23
Penn State’s season will come down to Hackenberg
Christian Hackenberg attempted 47 passes and threw for 453 yards for Penn State for a two-point win over UCF. Such efforts might need to be common during the season. The Nittany Lions may have know this from the start, but it was clear Saturday that James Franklin’s debut season rests on the shoulder of his sophomore quarterback. That’s not a bad thing. Hackenberg may be the best quarterback in the Big Ten with Braxton Miller out. But the offensive line and run game (two yards per carry) gave Penn State little. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are a fine running back duo, but the woefully thin line is going to be a season-long liability.
Sam Ficken gets some well-deserved hero time
Few kickers have been through the ups and downs more than Penn State’s Sam Ficken. The game in Dublin wasn’t his first victory lap, but may have been the most satisfying. He finished 4-for-4 on field goals, including the 36-yard game-winner as time expired. Remember, Ficken’s career got off to an inauspicious start when he missed four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in his second career game in 2012.
Penn State may be on upset alert
Way too much happened in this game to make many definitive statements — the travel, the headset mishap that forced Penn State offensive coordinator to the sidelines, a better-than-advertised UCF. But still, Penn State’s early performance against Akron next week will be worth watching. The Nittany Lions did themselves little favors by scheduling a game against a MAC upstart seven days after playing in Ireland. The Terry Bowden-led Zips won four of their final five games and played one-score games against Michigan, Sun Belt champion UL Lafayette and MAC West champ Northern Illinois.
UCF found the replacement for Blake Bortles (for now)
This has to be maddening for any coach: Spend all spring and offseason trying to find a replacement for a first-round quarterback only to replace him after two quarters in the opener. George O’Leary never declared the competition over when he opted for Pete DiNovo, but the outcome may have been different if Justin Holman played the whole way. The sophomore from Snellville, Ga., completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards with three total touchdowns as UCF came back from a touchdown deficit at halftime to a lead with 1:47 to go.
In what we hope will become a regular segment on ESPN’s College GameDay, four coaches read (and responded to) mean Tweets.
Alabama’s Nick Saban assures us he’s quite happy, Florida’s Will Muschamp talks about about a Gator fan he’d like to meet, and Michigan’s Brady Hoke doesn’t necessarily deny his choice in cologne.
The response from Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was a real nice surprise.
ATLANTA — Believe it or not, Ole Miss walked out of the Georgia Dome with a trophy, or two pieces of one.
This is not the newly minted College Football Playoff trophy, by any means. It’s not even the Floyd of Rosedale.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game awards an old-style leather helmet on a stand The trophy indeed comes in two pieces, so when linebacker Ryan Lewis walked into the locker room with the stand and receiver Laquon Treadwell followed with the leather helmet on his head, they did not break said trophy.
That was Ole Miss in its opener: Not quite together and looking a little ridiculous, but with a trophy and a win nonetheless.
The final score looked the way should have — Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13 — but the first game showed Ole Miss isn’t quite ready to hoist any other trophies.
Two bowl victories, a climb from two wins to seven to eight and a stud signing class maturing into sophomores seemed to have the Rebels on the move in the SEC. But the forward progress of Ole Miss’ program sputtered for three quarters in Atlanta.
The weight of expectations was apparent. Treadwell said he was more relaxed before last year’s opener, his debut as a freshman in an SEC road opener against Vanderbilt, than he was Thursday.
“I had jitters, too,” Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace said. “I got a little nervous, so I don’t know. Usually I’m cool. I don’t know what that was.”
Good thing Wallace eventually found his cool. Good thing Boise State was the uglier team Thursday. And the Broncos needed an effort to out-ugly Ole Miss in a game that featured seven total interceptions, 23 total penalties and an early ejection for targeting.
After Thursday night’s events, the team playing the role of SEC West usurper seems to be coming from College Station, not Oxford.
Ole Miss didn’t produce more scores (four) than turnovers (three) until the 7:45 mark of the four quarter. By that time, Boise State had thrown four picks of its own.
Now this is all before the first Saturday of the season, plenty of time for Ole Miss to find its stride, which it did after the final Grant Hedrick pick broke the will of Boise State in a 28-7 Ole Miss fourth quarter.
Certainly, Ole Miss showed flashes of brilliance. The No. 1 prospect from 2013, Robert Nkemdiche, is becoming the next great SEC mega-lineman, the back end of the defense played with an edge, and the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell proved to be a mismatch.
At the same time, Ole Miss made clear Thursday that one big-time recruiting class, a preseason ranking and two-years of buzz does not make a powerhouse program.
The most experienced quarterback in the SEC at times had coach Hugh Freeze grimacing on the sideline with three first-half interceptions.
“Two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable because they weren’t even in his progression on the route,” Freeze said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that, and he knows that. It was a bit amazing.”
At one point late in the first half, Wallace overthrew Boise State’s safeties by five yards. The intended receiver — a term that generously appeared in the play-by-play — was Treadwell, who was at least 10 yards underneath the safeties.
Wallace was only a symptom of an Ole Miss offense barely ready for a Boise State game in its first game under Bryan Harsin.
The Rebels picked up seven false starts in the first half, exacerbated by Boise State shifting before Wallace went to a silent count at the line. The run game was a no-show as Ole Miss rushed for 30 yards on 23 carries in three quarters. The Rebels didn’t have a run longer than five yards until the final two carries of the third quarter.
The score sat at 7-6 for the Rebels until Wallace started to find Treadwell in man-to-man coverage on a critical drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got to be on the level where it’s understood where if they’re good, they can beat us,” Treadwell said. “That’s the difference in this team. The defense played well and didn’t underestimate them. The offense came out and tried to do too much.”
See if you can follow the Big Ten in Week 1: Rutgers and Maryland are in the league, and one of those teams will open the season in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the three best games for the league this week will take place in Houston, Baltimore and Dublin.
The Big Ten is going worldwide in Week 1. If you need help staying grounded, luckily there’s one MAC vs. Big Ten game taking place in West Lafayette.
Some traditions are forever.
Week 1 Preview and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Pac-12 | SEC
All times Eastern.
Big Ten Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston)
Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Expect Wisconsin to rely heavily on Melvin Gordon against a reloading LSU defense in the top game of the week. Tanner McEvoy, though, may be the most interesting player in the field for Wisconsin. The Badgers made the bold move to bench incumbent Joel Stave for the more mobile McEvoy. LSU has a knack for shutting down running quarterbacks (see: Manziel, Johnny), and Wisconsin has no proven pass-catchers on the roster.
2. Ohio State vs. Navy (Baltimore)
Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network
All eyes will be on J.T. Barrett as he takes over for Braxton Miller. Without Miller, rising star running back Ezekiel Elliott is the Buckeyes’ returning leader in total offense at just under 24 yards per game. From Bowling Green to Utah to Florida to Ohio State, Urban Meyer has rarely had subpar quarterback play, but getting the redshirt freshman Barrett ready to contend for the Big Ten may be Meyer’s toughest challenge yet.
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
3. Penn State vs. UCF (Dublin)
Saturday, 8:30 a.m., ESPN2
After concerns that an eruption of a volcano in Iceland would alter travel plans, Penn State will start the James Franklin era without a hitch — assuming the Nittany Lions can handle the defending Fiesta Bowl champions. First-round draft pick Blake Bortles out-dueled freshman Christian Hackenberg in Happy Valley last season for UCF’s 34-31 win. Bortles is gone, and Penn State is hoping Hackenberg, a potential first-round pick himself, can hold his own behind a rickety Penn State offensive line.
4. Cal at Northwestern
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2
Few coaches have had as trying a year as Pat Fitzgerald. An injury-ravaged Northwestern lost seven of its final eight games last season, voted on unionization during the summer and then lost running back Venric Mark to a transfer and receiver Christian Jones to an injury in the weeks before the season. A win over a troubled Cal team would go a long way to easing some of last year’s struggles.
5. Rutgers vs. Washington State (Seattle)
Thursday, 10 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers. Now hop on a flight to Seattle to test your shaky pass D against a Mike Leach offense. Washington State will look to feast in the passing game while Rutgers tries to figure out something — anything — on offense. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen opted with experience in quarterback Gary Nova, who has thrown 39 interceptions the last three seasons.
6. Appalachian State at Michigan
Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Don’t expect a replay of Appalachian State’s 34-32 win over Michigan from 2007, considered one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Appalachian State is coming off a 4-8 season. In 2007, Appy State was about to win its third consecutive FCS title. Michigan, though, isn’t an easy team to trust after losing five of its final six games last season.
7. FAU at Nebraska
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Nebraska has the nation’s longest active winning streak in season openers at 28 in a row. That figures to continue against Conference USA contender FAU, a school that employed Bo Pelini’s brother until Oct. 31 last season. FAU quietly had a standout finish to last season. The Owls allowed 3.6 yards per play in November, second-best nationally, while recording six interceptions and no touchdown passes.
8. Western Michigan at Purdue
Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Darrell Hazell’s first season wasn’t pretty, but Purdue figured something out on offense in November. Purdue accounted for more offensive touchdowns in the last four games (11) than it did in the first eight (10). Western Michigan has gone from one of the more steady MAC teams to a 1-11 rebuilding project in one season under P.J. Fleck. Purdue will look to pick up its first FBS win since Nov. 24, 2012.
9. Eastern Illinois at Minnesota
Thursday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
Minnesota has increased its win total in each of its three seasons under Jerry Kill from three wins to six to eight, but Eastern Illinois will bring a remnant from a more forgettable time. Eastern Illinois features quarterback Andrew Manley, who passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns for New Mexico State in a 28-21 win over Minnesota in 2011.
10. Jacksonville State at Michigan State
Friday, 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Michigan State will hope its defense of its most recent outright Big Ten title goes better than the last one. The Spartans followed their 1966 outright league title with a 37-7 loss to Houston to start the 1967 season. This time, Michigan State is more likely to get a warm up before facing Oregon in Eugene for a potential make-or-break game for the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.
11. Youngstown State at Illinois
Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network
Wes Lunt returns to his home state after his transfer to Illinois from Oklahoma State. Offense doesn’t appear to be an issue for the Illini, but will the defense help save Tim Beckman’s job?
12. Northern Iowa at Iowa
Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network
Iowa returns its top passer, rusher and receiver for the first time since 2010. With that comes expectations of contending in the new Big Ten West. Iowa hasn’t always handled hype well. Will this season be different? Northern Iowa nearly knocked off Iowa in 2009 before losing 17-16. The Hawkeyes haven’t lost to Northern Iowa since 1898.
13. James Madison at Maryland
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Maryland makes its league debut in the Big Ten Network against a James Madison team coached by Everett Withers, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State and Minnesota.
14. Indiana State at Indiana
Saturday, noon, ESPNews
Indiana State (1-11 last season) will make Indiana look good. Even the Hoosiers’ defense could tee off on an offense that ranked 114th in the FCS last season.
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|Rutgers v. Wash. St. (-8)||Wazzu 52-14||Wazzu 42-21||Wazzu 45-31||Wazzu 41-17|
|Eastern Ill. at Minn.||Minn 35-14||Minn 31-17||Minn 40-14||Minn 30-27|
|Jax State at Michigan St.||MSU 38-7||MSU 34-3||MSU 38-7||MSU 37-0|
|Penn St. (-1) v. UCF||PSU 17-14||PSU 27-20||PSU 27-20||PSU 23-20|
|Ohio St. (-19) v. Navy||OSU 38-21||OSU 34-10||OSU 34-20||OSU 34-16|
|Appy St. at Michigan||Mich 42-14||Mich 38-17||Mich 38-13||Mich 34-13|
|Cal at Northwestern (-13)||NW 38-17||NW 31-21||NW 34-24||NW 31-24|
|FAU at Nebraska (-24)||Neb 31-13||Neb 41-7||Neb 40-13||Neb 31-24|
|Western Mich. at Purdue (-12)||Purdue 28-14||Purdue 27-23||Purdue 31-20||Purdue 23-13|
|LSU (-4 1/2) v. Wisconsin||LSU 28-21||LSU 31-14||LSU 30-20||LSU 27-24|
|YSU at Illinois||Illinois 35-28||Illinois 38-21||Illinois 40-13||Illinois 28-10|
|No. Iowa at Iowa||Iowa 31-10||Iowa 27-10||Iowa 30-20||Iowa 27-17|
|JMU at Maryland||Maryland 42-14||Maryland 38-10||Maryland 45-14||Maryland 38-11|
The college football offseason is long and, perhaps for many people, a little too eventful.
Lawsuits, court cases and conference realignment have all taken their time in the summer headlines in recent years. At least this summer, the sport had a little more excitement in its offseason — even if the NCAA itself was on trial at one point.
The College Football Playoff may be one of the most transformative events in the sport's history. While the Playoff itself was formed more than a year ago, the pieces started to take shape during the summer of 2014.
In a literal sense, the Playoff won’t start until Jan. 1, 2015, but the new postseason format will come to define the 2014 season. It’s a clear No. 1 in our look at all that’s new in college football even if it’s not the only fresh development fans will notice.
1. The College Football Playoff
By now, most fans — at least those likely to be reading this site — are aware the four-team playoff has replaced the BCS. The mechanism of how teams are selected and placed into the Sugar and Rose bowls (this year, at least) takes a bit of explaining. And much of the "who goes where" will change after this season. Long story short: The 13-person selection committee, using film study and a super-cool stat platform, will seed and place four teams into the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day for national semifinals. The two winners will face each other in a championship game at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 12.
2. The New Year’s holiday will be great again
The prestige of playing on New Year’s Day diminished during the BCS era as more high-profile bowls moved into the first week of January and lesser bowls moved into Jan. 1. This season and every year the Rose Bowl is involved, the semifinals will be played on New Year’s Day. The selection committee also will place top remaining teams in the rankings (more on those at No. 5) into the Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta. Seven of those premier bowl spots likely will be taken up by the Power 5 and one spot is guaranteed to the top team from outside of the major conferences. Try to stick with us.
3. The Power 5
You’re going to start seeing that term a lot. Consensus has decided that’s what we’re calling the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC now. Sorry, AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. Not to say those leagues are “powerless,” but then again...
4. Tuesday is all right for griping
No more BCS means we can stop overreacting to weekly polls, right? Wrong. In the name of transparency (and TV ratings!), the College Football Playoff selection committee will release a weekly top 25 on Tuesday nights starting Oct. 28. In theory, teams will know where they stand in the playoff picture, but we foresee plenty of excuses for coaches and fans to start howling if their teams move inexplicably.
5. Chris Fowler is the new voice of Saturday night
Every season features a handful of movement in the broadcast booth. None will be more significant than College GameDay’s Chris Fowler moving into the play-by-play role on ABC’s Saturday Night Football alongside Kirk Herbstreit. Where is our beloved Brent Musburger? Glad you asked...
6. The SEC Network
Musburger moves into a play-by-play role for the top game on ESPN’s SEC Network with analyst Jesse Palmer. Any misgivings about major providers carrying the network have been allayed, so now most fans have access to 24 hours of SEC-centric live games, pre-game shows, replays, analysis, debate and documentaries. While the Big Ten Network needed a few years to find its footing and distribution, the SEC Network launch was all but flawless. The Pac-12 Networks, without ESPN backing, is still struggling to get into homes. Not that this needed reinforcement, but ESPN tightened its grip on broadcast dominance. CBS still has the top SEC game of the week, but not the exclusive 3:30 p.m. Eastern window. Also, say farewell to Fox Sports 1’s pregame show and the old Jefferson Pilot/Raycom SEC game of the week.
7. The Big Ten realigns, still pleases no one
The Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers and used the opportunity to ditch the Legends and Leaders divisions in favor of more geographically sound East and West divisions. While the divisions are more logical, they’re not necessarily balanced. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State are all in the East while Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will carry the banner for the West.
8. Other conference dominoes fall
Believe it or not, this is the last year of major conference movement for a bit (we think). Louisville is in a new league (the ACC) with an old coach (Bobby Petrino). The American is even more Conference USA-ish with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Conference USA adds Western Kentucky and Old Dominion, and the Sun Belt adds giant-killers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern and independent refugees Idaho and New Mexico State. The Football Bowl Subdivision is up to 128 teams.
9. Bitcoin and Popeyes are our new favorite bowl sponsors
Bowl season continued to blow up with four new games — five if you count the Playoff championship game. The Miami Beach (BYU vs. AAC), Bahamas (C-USA vs. MAC), Boca Raton (C-USA vs. MAC) and Camellia (MAC vs. Sun Belt) bowls have bumped us up to 39 bowls. As long we continue to see fanciful sponsors of fried chicken (the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl), duck calls/reality show subjects (the Duck Commander Independence Bowl) and virtual money (the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl), we’re on board.
10. Other new odds and ends
Three teams have new stadiums — Baylor (McLane Stadium), Houston (TDECU Stadium) and Tulane (Yulman Stadium). ... Notre Dame replaced its sometimes-controversial and occasionally too tall natural grass with artificial turf. ... 20 teams hired new coaches. ... Dozens of teams will wear new helmets and uniforms at some point during the year.
Nebraska and Florida may have let down fans in recent years, but at least give the Cornhuskers and Gators credit for making them wait until Week 2 to complain.
In all likelihood, the two longest active season-opening win streaks will continue Saturday when Nebraska goes for its 29th consecutive season-opening win against FAU and Florida goes for No. 25 against Idaho.
Nebraska has won 28 season openers in a row since the Cornhuskers last Game 1 loss to Florida State in 1985. Florida isn’t far behind, winning 24 consecutive season openers starting with Steve Spurrier’s first win at Florida in 1990. The Gators haven’t started 0-1 since a 24-19 loss to Ole Miss in 1989.
After Nebraska and Florida, no other team has won more than 16 season openers in a row.
The key in recent years has been regular games against the likes of FAU, Western Kentucky, San Jose State and FCS programs — and certainly both schools have been guilty of warm-up games.
Nebraska’s last 28 opponents in season openers finished a combined 149-182-2 while Florida’s last 24 have gone 134-147-2.
That said, Nebraska hasn’t gone 28-0 on cupcakes alone.
Nebraska’s streak in season openers includes two appearances in the old Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1988 (Texas A&M) and 1994 (West Virginia).
Since 1986, the Cornhuskers have opened against Florida State (avenging the 1985 loss), opened twice on the road against major opponents (Iowa in 1999, Oklahoma State in 1995) and four times faced a team ranked in the preseason top 25. It’s worth noting, though, none of those four preseason top 25 teams finished the season ranked.
Florida’s season-opening schedule during the win streak has been, ahem, less ambitious.
The Gators haven’t faced a ranked team in during its 24-game season-opener stretch — even if 1997 Southern Miss finished 19th after starting the season with a 21-6 loss to the Gators.
Florida hasn’t played a season opener outside of Gainesville since a 31-4 loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl, the final game in the regular series with the Hurricanes. The Gators have also played only two major conference teams during its win streak and none in more than 20 years. Both teams — 1992 Kentucky and 1990 Oklahoma State — finished 4-7.
So when could either of these win streaks end? Nebraska’s next two season openers would figure to be more difficult than FAU, even if both are in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers open 2015 against BYU and 2016 against Fresno State.
Meanwhile, Florida may not be tested until 2017 when the Gators play their first season opener outside of Gainesville in 30 years. Florida will open 2017 against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, for Florida’s first regular season non-conference game outside of the Sunshine State since a 1991 loss at Syracuse. The Gators open the next two seasons with New Mexico State and UMass.
Bad News Broncos
As Nebraska and Florida are good bets to continue the two longest season-opening winning streaks, Western Michigan may soon stand alone with the longest active losing streak.
Memphis and Western Michigan are tied with the most consecutive 0-1 starts with nine in a row. Memphis, though, opens against Austin Peay, a team that went 0-12 last season. Western Michigan opens at Purdue.
Worth the Wait?
Think you’re having a long offseason? Take it up with Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville.
The Bearcats won’t start the season until Sept. 12 against Toledo due to a scheduling mishap that will leave Cincinnati with a schedule odd enough to make MAC teams blush.
Cincinnati canceled its Saturday opener against Stony Brook to add a road trip to Miami to the schedule Oct. 11, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Attempts by former athletic director Whit Babcock, now at Virginia Tech, to move a game into the first two weeks of the season failed.
This doesn’t mean Cincinnati has any extra practice before facing the Rockets in two weeks. NCAA rules limit teams to 29 preseason practices, so Cincinnati will actually have two fewer weeks of practice than Toledo.
“I’ve never been through a situation like this where we had so long off,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “It is what it is. We’ll take it and get ready to run with it on Sept. 12. ... If there is (and advantage), I haven’t figured it out. The only advantage is that we won’t have as long a season as everyone else.”
Besides starting the season with two bye weeks, Cincinnati will play all of its home games at the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium while Nippert Stadium on campus undergoes renovations. After opening the season on a Friday, Cincinnati will go four weeks from Oct. 24-Nov. 13 without playing on Saturday, including two Friday games, a bye week and a Thursday game.
Quick question: Which team has the longest FBS winning streak?
Florida State is an easy call at 15 consecutive wins against FBS competition, not including last year’s win over Bethune-Cookman in September. Michigan State may be an intuitive answer with the second-longest win streak with 10 in a row since a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21.
But who is tied for the ninth-longest win streak against FBS teams? The answer is defending FCS champion North Dakota State.
Granted, the win streak spans four seasons, but it’s a win streak nonetheless. North Dakota State has defeated an FBS team in each of the last four seasons and will look to extend that stretch Saturday against Iowa State.
Only eight of the 128 teams in the FBS have an active streak of five wins in a row against FBS competition: Florida State (15), Michigan State (10), UCF (nine), Louisville (six) and South Carolina, Navy, Vanderbilt and UTSA (five each).
North Dakota State’s four-game FBS win streak includes Kansas State (2013), Colorado State (2012), Minnesota (2011) and Kansas (2010). The Bison are 43-2 with three FCS titles in the last three seasons.
North Dakota State is No. 1 in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll, but the Bison are without 24 seniors from last season and coach Craig Bohl, who took the Wyoming job during the offseason.
The trick to keeping your composure — and your lunch — on those mid-summer stair runs is a sturdy meal.
Weeks before camp, Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein watched as many of teammates ran the stairs at Camp Randall. Many gave out and ran to a garbage can. Not Melvin Gordon.
“It depends on what you eat,” Gordon said. “There are different things that play a factor. I try to hold it together.”
Havenstein says Gordon is just being modest. He’s watched Wisconsin’s star running back push himself to the brink in more places than just the stadium steps.
“You felt like he wasn’t satisfied,” Havenstein said.
Gordon isn’t satisfied with what his role can be for Wisconsin. For the last two seasons, he’s been a piece in Badgers’ ground game machine but not the complete focal point.
That will change Saturday against LSU.
A running back leading the way for Wisconsin isn’t a new development, but the Badgers will lean on Gordon in ways they haven’t in recent years.
When Gordon was a freshman, he was the third-leading rusher behind Montee Ball and James White. Last season, Gordon and White split carries essentially half and half. Gordon has only had to carry the ball 20 times in a game twice during the last two seasons. But now White is gone, and Gordon’s new running mate is sophomore Corey Clement, who carried 57 times for 547 yards last season.
At the same time, Wisconsin has a questionable situation in the passing game where former defensive back Tanner McEvoy is set to take over for incumbent drop-back passer Joel Stave. Either way, the Wisconsin quarterback does not have a returning receiver who caught more than 10 passes last season.
In other words, the Wisconsin offense may begin and end with Gordon.
“He’s said it many times: he wants to be a feature back on a great Wisconsin team,” second-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s the feature back, and let’s see if we’re a great team.”
Andersen will find out where Wisconsin stands in a hurry. The Badgers are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the Big Ten West, but their clout on the national stage will be determined by Saturday’s opener in Houston against LSU.
Though the Tigers generally have a stout defense, LSU’s front seven has been decimated by early entries to the NFL Draft in recent years. The Tigers replaced both defensive tackles and shuffled a linebacker corps that underachieved last season.
Even if the LSU defense is rebuilding, Gordon intends to be ready.
He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries last season and has been among the national leaders in yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. With fresh legs, Gordon has averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his career.
Without Ball, White or a consistent passing game, Gordon may need to retain that explosiveness even if he’s regularly hitting the 20-carry mark, something that’s never been required of him. He also hopes to be a more consistent presence on third down.
As a redshirt sophomore, Gordon could have left for the NFL in a draft that didn’t see a running back selected until the 54th pick. Even if Gordon would have left school early and been the first back selected, he had no guarantee of being a coveted first-round pick. That may have to wait.
“Melvin had a laundry list of what he wanted to get better at, and I completely agreed,” Andersen said. “A couple things are important him — grasping of pre-snap awareness, what’s out there on the defensive side of the football. And No. 2 Melvin wants to be a very good pass protector. He’s worked hard at that and he wants to be more involved in the throw game.”
While Andersen says he’s watched Gordon work with the passing machine after practice, he had to put a stop to Gordon’s work in the weight room.
The 510-pound squat was where he drew the line.
“Who cares how much more he can squat?” Andersen said.
Gordon, it seems, agreed.
“I have a problem sometimes,” Gordon said. “I worked really hard last year and every year I feel like I’m not working as hard as I worked last year. Sometimes it probably hurts me more than it helps. My strength coaches talked to me about it because you don’t want your body to fail you during camp.”
Gordon will be far too important to Wisconsin’s hopes in 2014 beyond just the opener against LSU. The Badgers will need Gordon fresh for a November stretch that could determine the division. Wisconsin’s final three regular season games will be against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
At least Andersen knows he won’t need to be a taskmaster for his key player before then.
“Some kids they walk out of the facility, you wonder how much do they really care about football,” Andersen said. “With that one you don’t have to worry about it.”
Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury may end up having the most impact of any departure all season, but it won’t be the only one. The Ohio State quarterback and Heisman contender is one of a handful of key players who saw their seasons end before it even started.
Every year, injuries, suspensions and departures put teams in a bind in the final weeks and days before the season. These are the top players who will be absent in 2014.
We’ve dubbed this the “All-Gone” team for 2014, though no player wants to find his name on this list. All the players listed will be out of action for the entire 2014 season. All have sustained their injuries or suspensions since the end of spring practice.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Reason: Shoulder injury
The Buckeyes’ Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes were thrown into question after Miller re-injured his shoulder. Ohio State instead turns the quarterback position to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
RB Venric Mark, Northwestern
Reason: Transfer to Division II West Texas A&M
The exact circumstances of Mark’s departure remain a mystery, but he would have been a key player in Northwestern’s bid to bounce back from a 5-7 season. Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last full season in 2012.
RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Oklahoma hoped Mixon, a five-star prospect, would become the kind of dynamic running back OU has lacked since DeMarco Murray in 2010. Instead, he’ll serve a season-long suspension after an alleged assault of a female Oklahoma student.
WR Christian Jones, Northwestern
Reason: Knee injury
After a cursed 2013, Northwestern got an early start to bad news in 2014. Jones, who led the Wildcats at 668 receiving yards last season, had his season-ending injury announced on the same day as Mark’s departure.
WR DaVaris Daniels, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removal” from team
Daniels is one of four casualties stemming from an investigation of academic fraud at Notre Dame (the school hasn’t gone so far as to say the players are suspended or dismissed). Daniels was the top returning receiver for the Irish after catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
TE Braxton Deaver, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Deaver was second on the Blue Devils last season in receptions (46) and yards (600). Jamison Crowder will be the only returning receiver with more than 30 catches and 300 yards.
OL Tyler Johnstone, Oregon
Reason: Torn ACL
Johnstone’s knee injury is the only thing preventing the Ducks from returning all five offensive line starters. His injury is also the second major setback for the offense after the Ducks lost receiver Bralon Addison in the spring.
OL Damien Robinson, Mississippi State
Reason: Torn ACL
The 6-8, 325-pound lineman was projected to start at tackle after Mississippi State lost standouts Gabe Jackson and Charles Siddoway.
OL Alex Kozan, Auburn
Reason: Back injury
Auburn hoped to go into 2014 with its interior offensive line intact. That won’t happen with back surgery for Kozan, the returning left guard who was an SEC all-freshman performer last season.
OL Moise Larose, Maryland
Offensive line has not been immune to Maryland’s rash of injuries and departures in recent years. Larose himself moved into a starting role at left tackle in the final four games last season when Mike Madaras left the program. Larose was suspended for a violation of the athletic department’s code of conduct
OL Drew Carroll, Rice
Reason: Kidney disease
Carroll had made 25 career starts for the defending Conference USA champions before a kidney condition ended his career. Carroll could face a kidney transplant or dialysis treatment.
DL Devonte Fields, TCU
Reason: Transfer to Stephen F. Austin
Fields earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 after recording 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss. Fields missed all but three games last season due to injury and ended his career at TCU after an arrest for misdemeanor assault stemming from an incident with his ex-girlfriend.
DL Carl Lawson, Auburn
Reason: Torn ACL
Lawson was expected to be a major cog in a pass rush that lost Dee Ford. Lawson had four sacks as an SEC all-freshman performer.
DL Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech
Reason: Academic ineligibility
Hunt-Days was declared academically ineligible after spring practice and headed to Georgia Military College. He was expected to start at defensive end in the new nickel defense after picking up 7.5 tackles for a loss as a linebacker last year.
LB Frank Shannon, Oklahoma
Shannon’s status has not been cemented yet, but Oklahoma’s leading tackler is appealing the university’s decision to suspend him for a year. Shannon is facing a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Brown returned from two ACL surgeries on his right knee to become an All-ACC performer for the Coastal Division champs. Now, he’ll miss the season after sustaining a torn ACL in his left knee.
LB Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska
Reason: Knee injury
Rose-Ivey would have entered 2014 with plenty of momentum after racking up 49 tackles in the final five games of last season. The middle linebacker’s 66 total tackles was a freshman record for the Huskers.
LB Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
Claiborne was one of two defensive starters dismissed in June along with nose guard Isaiah Golden. Linebacker may have been a weak spot a year ago, but Claiborne’s departure dwindles the numbers.
DB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removed” from team
Russell was arguably the biggest loss among the four players Notre Dame removed from the roster. He was a rising star at cornerback who could have challenged for All-America honors. Projected starting defensive end Ishaq Williams also was lost due to the investigation.
DB Shaq Wiggins, Georgia
Georgia’s troubled secondary took another hit when Wiggins, who started eight games as a freshman, elected to transfer at the end of spring practice.
DB Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami
Reason: Back injury
One of the strengths of the Miami defense took a hit when Jenkins, a returning starter at strong safety, was lost for the season to a chronic back injury. He recorded 46 tackles and three interceptions last year.
DB Jered Bell, Colorado
Reason: Torn ACL
A fifth-year senior who already missed a year due to a torn ACL won’t have a chance to follow up his breakout season. Bell is a returning starter who had 71 tackles last year.
K Ross Krautman, Syracuse
Reason: Hip injury
Krautman, who hadn’t played since the second game of 2013, will end his career due to a chronic hip injury. Krautman was 49-of-63 on field goals in his career.
P Sean Covington, UCLA
Reason: Academically ineligible
Covington left the program due to eligibility concerns. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt last season
Dear college football, please don’t screw up this first weekend.
Week 1 features its fair share of power teams playing other power teams, but we’re not quite sure the first week is going to be the most competitive.
We’ve waited all summer for this, so please, college football, give us some drama.
Let’s pretend Alabama-West Virginia and Florida State-Oklahoma State aren’t going to be lopsided. Let’s pretend Clemson-Georgia and Texas A&M-South Carolina won’t be games where teams are trying to figure their way in some form or another.
We can dream, right?
The Week Ahead: Aug. 28-Sept. 12
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
When and where: Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re a little concerned the top games in Week 1 may end up lopsided, and this game has as much potential for drama as any. The running back of the present (Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon) and the running back of the future (LSU freshman Leonard Fournette) could feast against rebuilding front sevens. Both teams also will try to find out if they can win their respective divisions with unsettled quarterback situations.
Vegas says: LSU by 4.5
Clemson at Georgia
When and where: Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... two Southern powers will actually meet on a campus site instead of a neutral field. That said, this game will be hard-pressed to be a replay of Clemson’s 38-35 win at home last year. Two senior quarterbacks with parallel experiences — Cole Stoudt waited for three years behind Tajh Boyd, Hutson Mason behind Aaron Murray — will try to stay composed. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley will make that tough on Mason, but the Bulldogs have a healthy Todd Gurley at running back.
Vegas says: Georgia by 8
Texas A&M at South Carolina
When and where: Thursday, 6 p.m., SEC Network
We’re watching because... we can’t say no to a Thursday night opener even if we have a suspicion South Carolina will roll in a game lacking Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney. The Aggies answered one question by opting for sophomore Kenny Hill in a heated QB competition with freshman Kyle Allen, but the Aggies may not have an answer for the South Carolina run game if Mike Davis is able to play. The A&M defense was last in the SEC at 5.4 yards allowed per carry before dismissing two front seven starters during the offseason. A banged up Davis may be A&M's only hope.
Vegas says: South Carolina by 10.5
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
When and where: Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re still trying to figure out how seriously to take Ole Miss. The Rebels have momentum after back-to-back bowl wins, an eight-win season in 2013 and a standout signing class entering its sophomore season. Ole Miss’ opening three weeks against Boise State, Vanderbilt and UL Lafayette won’t put the Rebels in Playoff contention, but September is a tone-setter. That’s especially true of senior quarterback Bo Wallace, who is finally healthy enough to be confident in his arm.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 10
Ohio State vs. Navy (Baltimore)
When and where: Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network
We’re watching because... we’re intrigued by the Buckeyes without Braxton Miller. Ohio State may win this game convincingly — Navy’s option plays right into Ohio State’s strength in the front seven. Urban Meyer moves on from the Miller injury with freshman J.T. Barrett, who will face a tougher test against Virginia Tech’s secondary in Week 2.
Vegas says: Ohio State by 12.5
A year after Duke had one of the most versatile players in the country in No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils will have a different kind of stud freshman who seems destined for a high draft pick.
Jahlil Okafor won’t be the jack-of-all-trades Parker was. That said, Okafor isn’t merely a classic center. He’s a throwback to an earlier era expected to be the best at the position in several seasons.
As decorated as Okafor may be by the end of the season, he’s not the only highly touted freshman in Duke’s class. The Blue Devils add a point guard (Tyus Jones) and small forward (Justise Winslow) in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Duke’s haul relegated Kentucky to No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite, but as usual the Wildcats will have their normal group of potential draft picks in the class. Kansas and Arizona, a year after having some of the best rookies in college basketball, again find their way near the top of the list of top freshmen in 2014-15.
Other Class Teams
2014-15 All-Freshman Squad
All-Freshman First Team
G Tyus Jones, Duke
One of three stud freshmen signed by Duke in 2014-15, Jones will push veteran Quinn Cook for minutes at point guard.
F Stanley Johnson, Arizona
At 6-7, 226 pounds, Johnson can play either the 2 or the 3 for Arizona in his first (and potentially only) season at Arizona. He steps in for Aaron Gordon, but Johnson may be more explosive offensive threat.
F Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Alexander is another Kansas freshman who can score down low. His toughness and rebounding ability, though, has been one of his key assets.
F Karl Towns, Kentucky
Towns arrives into a crowded frontcourt at Kentucky, but the seven-footer’s offensive game may set him apart. He should be able to stretch the floor in a way the Wildcats’ other star forwards can’t.
C Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor will challenge for All-America and national freshman of the year honors in addition to being Duke’s best big man is several years. He’s a traditional back-to-the-basket center who will be among the top picks in the 2015 draft.
All-Freshman Second Team
G Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
G Kelly Oubre, Kansas
G/F Daniel Hamilton, UConn
F Trey Lyles, Kentucky
C Myles Turner, Texas
All-Freshman Third Team
G Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
G Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
G/F Justin Jackson, North Carolina
F Abdul-Malik Abu, NC State
F Kevon Looney, UCLA
The College Football Playoff executive in charge of developing one of the key tools for his selection committee found his solution from a Tweet.
As the Playoff administrators assembled their group of 13 selectors during the last year-and-a-half, chief operating officer Michael Kelly knew he had to find a tool to keep the assemblage of college football luminaries informed.
The BCS computers were out. The polls would be of no use. No one wanted the rigid tools similar to the ones used by the basketball committee — RPI, strength of schedule and so on.
The Playoff executives wanted the selection committee to be the last word, and handing the selection committee opponent records or total offense and total defense wouldn’t suffice.
Lucky for Kelly, a Twitter follower stepped up.
Ex-college baseball players, brothers Stephen and Scott Prather and a third partner Drew Borland, once had aspirations of starting a data-driven coach search firm that leaned heavily on an extensive database they developed as a side project. (Stephen Prather and Borland both played at Vanderbilt from 1998-2000; Scott Prather played at Georgia Tech from 1996-98 and spent five years in the minor leagues for the Cardinals.)
They had trouble catching on in the search firm market, but athletic departments and coaches liked their database, dubbed Coaches By The Numbers. They went forward with an analytic platform called SportSource Analytics, culling play-by-play and season data from college football games going back to 2001.
A year-and-a-half ago, with the Coaches By The Numbers consulting business in full swing, Stephen Prather noticed Kelly’s conundrum, and he thought SportSource Analytics might be the solution.
"Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part. That's the way it should be."
The Playoff executive committee and SportSource Analytics team (which also came to include Marty Couvillon, proprietor of cfbstats.com) met several times over the course of 18 months, including at CFP headquarters in Dallas with the selection committee.
“That Twitter (interaction) led to an online demo of our product,” Prather said. “Over the next year-and-a-half it went from ‘this is pretty cool’ to ‘can we build something specifically for the committee.’”
Kelly and the selection committee needed a tool that would provide the committee a wealth of comparative data, from surface-level statistics to more in-depth metrics. The interface had to be simple enough for even the more tech-adverse members of the committee. And the committee members had to be able to access it at anytime, anywhere.
“We found this to be the most user-friendly and what we needed for our committee,” Kelly said. “What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams. They even have great ways to go deeper.”
The College Football Playoff signed SportSource Analytics to a two-year contract to provide an exclusive platform for the selection committee. The team will be available through the selection process to provide tech support and answer questions about the tool, but both parties are clear that SportSource Analytics will not influence the committee on selection.
The platform will contain raw data on a per-play, per-possession, per-game and season-long basis but not a stand-alone metric similar to an RPI or Sagarin rating.
Prather and Kelly both said avoiding a “magic bullet” statistic was key. If the committee members can’t explain their reasoning, the data wouldn’t be useful, Prather said.
“We have nothing to do with the decision,” said Stephen Prather, who is a vice president for a commercial real estate company in Nashville. “We are building tools for them to look at data. ... We’re trying to give you ways of looking at data. We’re not trying to tell you what to look at.”
So what will the selection committee be able to access through the SportSource Analytics tool? That depends on the committee member.
The tool will allow committee members to compare teams in more than 60 statistical categories from the basic statistics — total offense and defense, turnover margin — but also more advanced metrics including yards per play, points per possession and detailed red zone success metrics.
The platform also will allow for detailed strength-of-schedule breakdowns including combined record of opponents, record of opponents’ opponents, record of conference opponents, records against ranked teams and teams with winning records.
Committee members also will be able to compare team performance in certain games, i.e. statistical data in games against winning teams. The platform will provide team sheets with data on all 128 teams, including detailed schedule analysis, statistical ranks and how they compare to the nationwide average.
The platform will allow committee members to dive as deep as they’d like, allowing them to customize more than 100 different rankings: How many points per possession did a team score against conference teams with winning records? That’s available.
How often are defenses holding top-25 opponents to three-and-outs? That’s available.
Which team has played the teams with the best cumulative conference record? That is available, too.
The tool also will be adaptive by request of selection committee members, so SportSource Analytics can add or create stat categories on demand.
“What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams,” Kelly said.
Of course, there’s the possibility committee members won’t take a deep statistical stat dive, either.
That’s not going to hurt Prather’s feelings. For him, maybe the playoff spots shouldn’t be determined exclusively by red zone defense.
“Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part,” Prather said. “That’s the way it should be.”
For Athlon Sports, the offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season as much as any crazed college football fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason annuals, our national edition and regional previews for five conferences. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2014 editions, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason.
|2014 Preseason College Football Rankings|
Playing an iconic coach in a sports movie isn’t an easy task, especially if that coach happens to be in the audience.
Just ask actor Jim Caviezel, 45, who spent months in front of the camera capturing the emotions and dedication of legendary high school football coach Bob Ladouceur in the new movie “When the Game Stands Tall.”
From 1979 until his retirement in 2013, Ladouceur, now 60, built a machine at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High School. Although Ladouceur stressed teamwork over winning, his teams achieved an astonishing national record of 151 consecutive wins from 1992 through 2004.
To get inside the coach’s mind, we made Caviezel — best known for portraying the title role in 2004’s “The Passion of Christ” — an honorary reporter for Athlon Sports and had him interview Ladouceur.
Here are the highlights from their conversation:
Jim Caviezel: You’re not the type of person to say you’re going to win this many games in a row. Winning games was not something you stressed. The world does it completely different. How did you form your approach to coaching?
Bob Ladouceur: I played on teams in high school and college that were good role models. They were team-oriented. I was trained by coaches who said this is a team sport and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about who is getting credit or if you’re the star. It’s mostly what can you contribute to a team.
Caviezel: When I talked about playing the De La Salle football coach, people said they remembered when the win streak happened. When did the win streak get to a point where you knew that people were tracking it week to week?
Ladouceur: I really blocked it out. I never talked about the streak to the kids. I rarely talked about winning to the kids. I did when we got close to the state record or the national record, maybe a couple of games before. There were probably only four weeks in the whole thing that I really paid attention to it.
Caviezel: How did you feel when you learned there was going to be a movie about your career and your life?
Ladouceur: I have to admit that I wasn’t really excited about it. I always preach to the kids about humility and not singling yourself out or not making a show of your accomplishments. I like the movie. Hopefully, it will be taken as, these guys approach (the game) in a different way. These guys are looking for more than wins. They’re looking for a band of brothers.”
Caviezel: The hardest movies to make are the ones where the guy you’re playing is alive because you know there’s a foundation outside (the film). There’s a script outside. The most important question I’m leading to is: Did I do OK?
Ladouceur: I always thought — in any sports movie — that whoever takes on the role of playing the coach has a lot of guts. That’s a tough role to play and to make it believable and not schmaltzy or choreographed. Everybody who has seen the film said you did a good job of playing me. They said you stayed true to the character. That’s a great compliment because I feel like I’m a hard guy to play. All coaches are complex in some way. They’re hard to figure. There’s a lot of angst and a lot of other things in a coach’s life in the way he does business. What a hard role to play, and I think you did a good job.
If Missouri center Evan Boehm had any doubts about the definition of a “gamer” he learned it by watching quarterback Maty Mauk.
On Oct. 12 against Georgia last season, Mauk got his first taste of SEC play when starting quarterback James Franklin went down with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Mauk entered the game on a third-and-6 and promptly picked up a first down on a six-yard run.
Mauk oversaw the final two touchdowns in the 41-26 win over the Bulldogs, but he could hardly claim player of the game status. The biggest pass play when Mauk was in the game came from wide receiver Bud Sasser on a 40-yard touchdown. The second Mizzou touchdown came on a short field after an Aaron Murray interception.
In other words, Missouri didn’t put too much on the shoulders of a redshirt freshman quarterback. That would change the following week against Florida.
The week of practice didn’t go as smooth as it would under the seasoned veteran Franklin. Boehm and his teammates tried to encourage Mauk — do the things that go you here and so on. Running back Henry Josey told Mauk to “just be a kid.”
Mauk offered some odd reassurance: He wasn’t a great practice player, but he’d be a playmaker once he was in the game.
Boehm was flabbergasted.
“What does he even mean by that?” Boehm said. “You practice how you play. That’s what I’ve been taught.”
In Missouri’s first possession against the Gators, Mauk proved his point in 27 seconds. He completed a 41-yard pass to L’Damian Washington which had a personal foul tacked onto the end of the play. On the next snap, he completed a 20-yard pass to Sasser for a touchdown.
Mauk’s first two passes set the tone for a 36-17 win over Florida in his first of four starts in place of Franklin. Mauk’s 3-1 record helped Missouri to become the surprise team of the SEC East.
With Franklin departed, Missouri will expect more of the same from Mauk as the Tigers defend their division title. In a league with limited quarterback experience returning Mauk may be the next star at the position.
His high school statistics at Kenton (Ohio) — a national record 18,932 career yards — only scratch the surface of what Boehm expects from his quarterback.
“Maty Mauk will surprise everybody, every week with something you’ve never seen from Maty,” Boehm said. “Whether good or bad.”
Now, that’s an intriguing way to describe a quarterback, a position where consistency in the ultimate virtue.
“He’s a playmaker,” Boehm said. “You saw it in Johnny Manziel. You saw it in AJ McCarron. You saw it in Aaron Murray. They weren’t perfect 100 percent of the time. They made their mistakes, too. Maty’s going to make his mistakes. It’s the way you bounce back. That’s what makes Maty a good quarterback.”
Boehm isn’t the only one throwing around the Johnny Football name. No one is expecting Mauk to turn into a Heisman contender or SEC record breaker overnight, but Mauk and Manziel share a something-out-of-nothing ability.
“I modeled my game after him,” Mauk said. “He can turn anything into something. He can change a game so quick by making plays. I feel like that’s something I can do.”
Mauk finished last season completing 51.1 percent of his passes for 1,071 yards, but he also showed burst of electrifying play as a passer and a runner. Beyond his hot start against Florida, he rushed for 114 yards and passed for three touchdowns against Tennessee and passed for five more scores against Kentucky.
The numbers, though, are only part of the reason for optimism in Columbia.
“He’s just got the ‘it’ factor,” said coach Gary Pinkel, who has a long track record of above-average quarterback play at Missouri. “He’s a winner. Players know it.”
For Missouri to continue to contend in the SEC, Mauk will have to be the focal point for the Tigers.
Missouri loses its top three receivers from last season, including the dismissed former No. 1 overall prospect Dorial Green-Beckham. no returning player has caught more than 26 passes. The Tigers return two running backs who combined for 1,286 yards but lost top rusher Henry Josey.
Mauk acknowledges the questions surrounding the receivers from the outside, but he remains confident in the top returning targets.
“I can throw to (Darius White) and expect him to catch it every time,” Mauk said. “And Bud Sasser is somebody that I’ve been playing with that I love. He runs tremendous routes. Jimmie Hunt didn’t show what he can do. He’s got that speed. We need to find who is going to be that fourth and fifth receiver.”
The key will be Mauk, who has four starts under his belt entering his sophomore season.
All that experience could add up before Missouri opens SEC play at South Carolina, the only team to defeat the Tigers during the regular season.
“You could tell that after every pass Maty makes,” Boehm said. “His confidence just goes up more and more and more.”
Any college football coaching tree probably goes all the way to Walter Camp.
We’re not here to settle that kind of family tree today. Instead, we’re going for a smaller approach trying to diagram the top sources of today’s cast of major coaches.
In that way, the former coach in Iowa City is looking like quite the patriarch.
Roughly a dozen of the current 128 coaches, and probably more, in the FBS can trace their lineage back to Hayden Fry at Iowa. Granted, not all of the coaches — all the way down to FAU’s Charlie Partridge — coached or played for Fry, but it’s enough to make him the top “root” in our coaching trees.
A few things before we get to the rankings:
• In general, our “branches” are all active coaches who worked directly with the “root” of the coaching tree.
• There will be a lot of overlap and omissions. Take Bob Stoops: He played for Hayden Fry and coached under Bill Snyder and Steve Spurrier. We’ve placed him in the Fry and Snyder coaching trees and could have placed him in Spurrier’s if the South Carolina coach had a more exact coaching tree lineage.
• We’re organizing by “Roots,” “Branches” and “Leaves” as wings of the coaching tree get further removed from the source. The "Branches" coached directly with the "Roots" while the "Leaves" are at least a step or two removed.
1. Roots: Hayden Fry (Iowa 1979-98) and Bill Snyder (Kansas State 1989-2005, 2009-present)
Branches: Bob Stoops, Kirk Ferentz, Dan McCarney, Bret Bielema
Leaves: Kevin Sumlin, Kevin Wilson, Dave Doeren, Paul Chryst, Mark Stoops, Paul Rhoads, Charlie Partridge
Let’s just start naming the programs the have flourished because Fry hired Snyder as his offensive coordinator in 1979: Iowa, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Iowa State and (for a time) Kansas and USF ... we could keep going. The Fry and Snyder coaching trees are so intertwined they must be listed together. Barry Alvarez took the Fry coaching tree to Wisconsin, where hired Bret Bielema and Dan McCarney, who hired Paul Rhoads at Iowa State. Think of that: Iowa's coaching tree even benefitted Iowa State. Bob Stoops, though, is the most intriguing by joining the Fry/Snyder tree with high-flying offensive minds: Mike Leach (a Hal Mumme guy), Mark Mangino (another Snyder product), Kevin Wilson (Randy Walker) and Kevin Sumlin (Joe Tiller).
2. Root: Nick Saban (Michigan State 1995-99, LSU 2000-04, Alabama (2007-present)
Branches: Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain
Saban is closely associated with Bill Belichick and Don James, but his tree stands on its own. Naturally, other coaches in this group could be closely associated with other coaching trees: Dantonio is as much of a product of Jim Tressel as he is Saban, and Fisher was a former Terry Bowden quarterback and assistant. Still, all of them hit their stride career-wise after working with Saban.
3. Root: Bo Schembechler (Michigan 1969-89)
Branches: Les Miles, Jim Harbaugh
Leaves: David Shaw, Brady Hoke, Derek Mason, Willie Taggart
We could spend hours diagramming the Cradle of Coaches, but for our purposes of looking primarily at active coaches, we’ll take on the Schembechler branch. Miles played for Schembechler before coaching under UM assistant Gary Moeller while current Michigan coach Brady Hoke worked for another Bo assistant in Lloyd Carr. The most interesting one of late is that of one of Schembechler’s former quarterbacks in Harbaugh, who counts Shaw, Taggart and Mason as a coaching tree of his own.
4. Root: Hal Mumme (Valdosta State 1992-96, Kentucky 1997-2000)
Branch: Mike Leach, Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorsen
Leaves: Art Briles, Kliff Kingsbury, Ruffin McNeill
They all love to overwhelm opponents with the passing game. They’re mostly Texans. And they’re all just a little bit off, personality wise. McNeill is a bit of an outlier here — he played defensive back for Pat Dye at East Carolina — but he runs the Air Raid as effectively as any of the others.
5. Root: Bobby Bowden (Florida State 1976-2009)
Branches: Jimbo Fisher, Terry Bowden, Mark Richt, Rick Stockstill
The handoff from Bobby to his coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher was a little clumsy at first, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t a success. Elsewhere, the Bowden tree has worked out in unexpected ways. Terry (with brother Jeff and longtime FSU assistant Chuck Amato) have a MAC upstart in Akron. And in some ways the Bowden tree is responsible for the rise of the spread offense, Tommy Bowden hired Glenville State head coach Rich Rodriguez as his offensive coordinator at Tulane and scoreboards haven’t been the same since.
6. Root: Urban Meyer (Utah 2003-04, Florida 2005-10, Ohio State (2012-present)
Branches: Dan Mullen, Kyle Whittingham, Steve Addazio
Leaves: Gary Andersen, Matt Wells, Mark Hudspeth
Meyer would be the first to mention Ohio State coach Earle Bruce as his mentor, but the current Buckeyes coach has built quite the coaching tree of his own. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, an assistant for Meyer at Bowling Green, is probably the clearest disciple by offensive scheme. Whittingham was Meyer’s defensive coordinator (and a holdover from a previous staff) at Utah before his promotion. Meyer, though, excels at what we’ll call “cross pollination.” At Florida, he hired a Lou Holtz guy (Charlie Strong), a Hayden Fry guy (Dan McCarney), a Don Nehlan guy (Doc Holliday) among others.
7. Root: Bear Bryant (Alabama 1958-1982)
Branches: Mike Riley, David Cutcliffe, Joey Jones
Leaves: Mike MacIntyre
Hard to believe the Bryant coaching tree is still going more than 30 years after his final game and years after two of his best disciples — Gene Stallings and Howard Schnellenberger — have retired. Riley and Jones, the head coach at South Alabama, both played for the Bear and Cutcliffe was a student assistant. MacIntyre joins the group as a former Cutcliffe assistant at Duke.
8. Root: Don James (Kent State 1971-74, Washington 1975-92)
Branches: Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel, Jim L. Mora
Saban’s tree has already been detailed, but James’ other two major proteges deserve notice. James may be a bit of an aberration on this list (along with Hayden Fry and Bear Bryant) in that the most proiment members of his coaching tree played for him. Saban and Pinkel played for James at Kent State. Pinkel then was an assistant for James at Washington. At the same time, Mora was a player for the Huskies’ coach.
9. Root: Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State 2005-present)
Branches: Larry Fedora, Dana Holgorsen, Todd Monken, Tim Beckman
Gundy’s tree may not have the clear identity of the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach tree or the close network of the Hayden Fry/Bill Snyder/Bob Stoops group, and the most successful members of the group of been the offensive coordinators. Gundy’s OC spot has been a place to thrive as an assistant and quickly move to a head coaching role.
Perhaps we should have seen the signs for Auburn’s turnaround from winless in the SEC in 2012 to conference champions in 2013.
In only his first season as a head coach, Gus Malzahn had an unblemished record in close games at Arkansas State the year before he arrived at Auburn. He was 4-0 in one-score games with the Red Wolves, but Auburn already may have an idea of Malzahn’s composure under pressure.
In 2010 and 2011, Malzahn’s final two seasons as offensive coordinator, Auburn was 10-0 in one-score games.
Going by numbers like that, Malzahn could make a case to be the most clutch coach in the country.
Indeed, Malzahn’s 11-1 record in one-score games as a head coach gives him the best win percentage in the nation the last five years. No other coach wins more than 90 percent of his games in one-score situations the last five years. Only three coaches who have presided over 10 or more one-possession games have won three-quarters of those matchups.
Granted, two of Malzahn's most dramatic wins — the Prayer on the Plains against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama last season — had little to do with great Xs and Os acumen. Even disregarding those two finishes, he remains the only coach who has won 90 percent of his close games the last five seasons, and his only loss came by three points to an otherwise dominant Florida State team in the national title game.
Athlon Sports decided to take a look at how every program and every active coach has fared in one-possession games during the last five seasons, i.e. games decided by eight points or less.
While simply looking at scoring margins does not exactly reflect how close a game was — garbage time touchdowns could skew are metrics — this still gives us an idea of how coaches and teams fare in close games. Our method also doesn't account for games that go out of reach within the final minutes, for example, a team going up — or falling behind — by six points in the final five minutes with a field goal in the final two for a more decisive final margin.
Here’s the data we found for coaches:
|Best coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By wins|
|1. Gus Malzahn, Auburn/Ark. St. (.917, 11-1)||1. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (20-8)|
|2. Pete Lembo, Ball State (.765, 13-4)||2. Frank Solich, Ohio (19-9)|
|t3. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (.750, 15-5)||3. Les Miles, LSU (18-9)|
|t3. Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette (.750, 9-3)||t4. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (17-6)|
|5. Bill Snyder, Kansas State (.739, 17-6)||t4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern (17-13)|
|t6. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame/Cincy (.714, 20-8)||t4. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy (17-13)|
|t6. Dave Doeren, NC State/N. Ill. (.714, 10-4)||7. George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
|8. Urban Meyer, Ohio St./Florida (.706, 12-5)||t8. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina (15-5)|
|9. Rocky Long, San Diego St. (.688, 11-5)||t8. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State (15-12)|
|10. David Shaw, Stanford (.684, 13-6)||10. Six coaches tied with 14 wins|
• Malzahn is the gold standard here with an 11-1 record in one-possession games in just two seasons as a head coach. Consider this: Malzahn has won as many one-possession games the last two seasons as Alabama has played (6-5) during the last five years.
• Steve Spurrier’s 15-5 record is impressive enough, but he’s 11-3 in the last three seasons in one-possession games as the Gamecocks have finished in the top-10 each year.
• Brian Kelly started his Notre Dame tenure with a 2-5 record in his first seven one-possession games. The Irish are 14-3 since, including 11 wins in a row.
• Penn State also would be advised to be patient with some heartbreaking losses. Vanderbilt started 1-6 in close games under James Franklin before he finished 6-1.
• Another lesson in the patience category: Louisville went 9-2 in one-possession games in the final two seasons under Charlie Strong after starting 5-10. Granted, one of those losses was a 38-35 home loss to UCF that cost the Cardinals an undefeated season and an AAC title.
• Are we noticing a trend? Washington went 10-4 in close games in the final four seasons under Steve Sarkisian, now the coach at USC.
• Will Muschamp is combustible enough as it is. This might not help. He went 4-0 in close games in 2012 and 0-4 in 2013.
• Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has a nice record (11-8), but it’s probably not a stat he wants people to examine closely. Those close wins have included Troy, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Wake Forest, Bowling Green, Kentucky and Ole Miss (twice).
• Want to know why Ball State’s Pete Lembo and UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth will be hot commodities for Power 5 programs? Lembo is 13-4 in one-possession games in three seasons, including two wins over Toledo, two over Indiana, one over USF and another over Arkansas state in a bowl. Hudspeth is 9-3 with two of those losses at Arizona and at Florida.
• Kevin Sumlin is 12-11 in one-possession games during the last five years. His record is skewed by an 0-4 performance in such games in 2010 at Houston, the year quarterback Case Keenum missed with injury.
• Dave Doeren may be the strangest name in the best win percentage column, considering his first NC State team went winless in the ACC. Still, he went 9-3 in one-score games at Northern Illinois.
• Three coaches have presided over 30 one-possession games the last five years, tied for the most in the country: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Navy’s Ken Niumatalo (17-13 each) and UCF’s George O’Leary (16-14).
• Three coaches have won 80 percent of their one-possession games but didn’t meet our 10-game threshold: UTSA’s Larry Coker (7-1), Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter (5-1) and Boise State’s Byran Harsin (4-1 at Arkansas State).
And here’s the other side of the equation:
|Worst coaches in one-score games, last five seasons|
|By win percentage (10+ games)||By losses|
|Kevin Wilson, Indiana (.154, 2-11)||Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (12-17)|
|Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (.263, 5-14)||Larry Fedora, North Carolina/So. Miss (12-16)|
|Bob Davie, New Mexico (.273, 3-8)||Troy Calhoun, Air Force (6-15)|
|Troy Calhoun, Air Force (.286, 6-15)||Larry Blakeney, Troy (12-15)|
|Charlie Weis, Kansas/Notre Dame (.333, 5-10)||Dave Clawson, Wake/Bowling Green (5-14)|
|Joey Jones, South Alabama (.357, 5-9)||Bret Bielema, Arkansas/Wisconsin (11-14)|
|Bobby Hauck, UNLV (.364, 4-7)||Brady Hoke, Michigan/San Diego St. (11-14)|
|Terry Bowden, Akron (.400, 4-6)||Gary Andersen, Wisconsin/Utah St. (11-14)|
|Mike MacIntyre, Colorado/San Jose St. (.412, 7-10)||Skip Holtz, La. Tech/USF/E. Carolina (14-14)|
|Kirk Ferentz, Iowa (.414, 12-17)||George O'Leary, UCF (16-14)|
• Kevin Wilson has lots of what-ifs in that 2-11 mark. Those losses include two to Ball State, two to Navy and one to North Texas.
• This makes sense: There are very few coaches with dismal records in close games. Most of the coaches with poor records in close games end up getting fired before putting up a truly lopsided number.
• Wake Forest traded a coach who was 11-17 in close games (Jim Grobe) for one that is 5-14 (Dave Clawson at Bowling Green).
• Among the lowlights for former coaches: Dennis Erickson (4-11 at Arizona State), Derek Dooley (2-7 at Tennessee) and Houston Nutt (2-6 at Ole Miss).
Until recent months, the No. 1 name atop the list of top freshmen in the American Athletic Conference would have been clear. SMU’s Emmanuel Mudiay may have been the top freshman in the country.
The Mustangs may still be an NCAA Tournament team even without one of the NBA’s top prospects at point guard. That’s partly due to another influx of transfers into Larry Brown’s program. New arrivals from Xavier and Texas Tech — both eligible immediately — will give the Mustangs players with experience at a high level.
But SMU won’t have the AAC’s top freshman. That honor belongs to UConn, which adds Daniel Hamilton as one of several new faces in a backcourt looking to fill the void left by Shabazz Napier.
1. Daniel Hamilton, UConn
Shabazz Napier is gone, but hopes are high for Hamilton to be UConn’s next star. He’s a lanky, athletic wing with a multi-faceted game who should give the Huskies the scoring boost they need.
2. Rodney Purvis, UConn
Transfer from NC State
All Purvis has to do is help fill the void left by Shabazz Napier in the backcourt for the defending national champions. OK, so maybe it’s not that drastic. Still, he’s a key cog in a talented backcourt that returns Ryan Boatright and adds freshman swingman Daniel Hamilton. Purvis averaged 8.3 points per game on an NCAA Tournament team that featured five double-digit scorers in his only year at NC State.
3. Justin Martin, SMU
Transfer from Xavier
Martin will be a major addition for the Mustangs if for no other reason than his experience. Martin played for two NCAA Tournament teams at Xavier in 2012 and 2014. In his final season at Xavier, the 6-6 forward was second on the team in scoring at 11.7 points per game while adding 5.2 rebounds.
4. Jordan Tolbert, SMU
Transfer from Texas Tech
Like Martin, Tolbert gives SMU another source of high-major experience, even if none of it was in the NCAA Tournament. Tolbert was in the rotation all three seasons at Texas Tech, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in Lubbock. The 6-7, 225-pound forward added 3-point shooting to his repertoire last season (10 of 33).
5. Markel Crawford, Memphis
Departures have left Memphis with a ton of inexperience and no clear answers in the backcourt, especially at point guard. Crawford may be the first guy up at the point even though he’s like the rest of the candidates here — he’s not a natural fit at the position. At 6-4, he’s the biggest of the major contenders. Crawford (ACL) and Pookie Powell (academics) both missed last season.
6. Farad Cobb, Cincinnati
Junior college transfer
Cobb may be able to play the point, but his most important contribution may be long-range shooting. The Bearcats shot 33.5 percent from 3-point range last season, ranking 204th nationally.
7. Avery Woodson, Memphis
Junior college transfer
Woodson may be in the mix at point guard for Memphis, but he’s considered to be a standout 3-point shooter. With the logjam at the point, perhaps that would be his best fit.
8. Octavius Ellis, Cincinnati
Junior college transfer
Ellis will be one of the nation’s most interesting second-chance stories. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin kicked Ellis off the team in May 2012 and was one of three Bearcats suspended in the aftermath of the brawl with Xavier earlier that season. After a stint in junior college, the 6-10 forward will return to Cincinnati.
9. Sam Cassell Jr., UConn
Junior college transfer
Yet another name boosting UConn’s backcourt, this one the son of the former NBA player. Cassell will keep Ryan Boatright company at the point guard position as they replace Napier for the defending national champs.
10. Terry Whisnant, East Carolina
Transfer from Florida State
Whisnant started 19 games at Florida State in 2012-13 before his playing time dwindled down the stretch. The 6-3 guard returns to his home state to offer an outside shooting boost. Of his 128 shots from the floor as a sophomore in Tallahassee, 90 were from 3-point range.
Arizona has restored its spot atop the Pac-12 thanks to back-to-back signing classes headlined by major recruits. The trend should continue.
Aaron Gordon spent one season surrounded by veterans last season. Now, Stanley Johnson will do the same for another Final Four contender.
UCLA under Steve Alford hopes to follow the lead of the Wildcats. Alford will have two impact newcomers who were major recruits in Kevon Looney and, after a one-year delay, Isaac Hamilton.
No program in the Pac-12 is able to match Arizona and UCLA in recruiting, even though Stanford was able to add a McDonald’s All-American this season. Other programs are relying on Division I and junior college transfers to keep up in 2014-15.
1. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Arizona trades out one star freshman (Aaron Gordon) for another in Johnson, who was the No. 4 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. Like Gordon, Johnson steps into a veteran cast ready to compete for the Final Four. Johnson figures to be more of an offensive threat who could fill the scoring void left by Nick Johnson. The 6-foot-7, 226-pound shooting guard will be a threat to score from all over the court.
2. Kevon Looney, UCLA
UCLA was thin in the frontcourt last season, but that may not be the case anymore with the arrival of the 6-9, 208-pound power forward Looney. Of course, without Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine, the Bruins will need help everywhere. UCLA is counting on Looney, the No. 12 prospect in the 247Sports Composite, to contribute on the boards and in the post.
3. Isaac Hamilton, UCLA
Hamilton sat out last season after backing out of his Letter of Intent to UTEP and coach Tim Floyd. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound McDonald’s All-American is expected to split time with Bryce Alford at point guard. Hamilton figures to be a more dynamic scorer than Alford for a team replacing most of its key players from a year ago.
4. Reid Travis, Stanford
The arrival of Travis, a McDonald’s All-American, is a major recruiting victory for Stanford, giving the Cardinal a chance to capitalize on the momentum from a Sweet 16 appearance. Travis should become an contributor right away thanks to his relentless rebounding on both ends of the court.
5. Kadeem Allen, Arizona
Junior college transfer
Allen was the National Junior College Player of the Year after averaging 25.9 points per game. Clearly, he’s not going to replicate that in the Pac-12, but he’ll be a key addition in the backcourt for a team that struggled to find its offense at times. Allen is expected to battle for the starting off guard spot.
6. Katin Reinhardt, USC
Transfer from UNLV
Andy Enfield needed to replenish the roster in a major way in his first season at USC, a year that yielded only two Pac-12 wins. Reinhardt, who sat out last season after his transfer, will be a major part of that. He started 34 games as a freshman at UNLV, averaging 10.1 points and 2.5 assists per game. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound sophomore will be a combo guard in Enfield’s system in Los Angeles.
7. Quevyn Winters, Washington
Junior college transfer
Washington already has point guard locked down with Nigel Williams-Goss, one of the few sure things on the roster next season. Winters, then, will step in for C.J. Wilcox at the two guard spot. Winters averaged 9.6 points as a freshman at Duquesne before transferring to junior college. Winters was 55-of-145 from 3-point range (37.9 percent) during his only season with the Dukes.
8. Kyle Kuzma, Utah
Utah is expected to have a breakout season with Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge returning. One key pice, though, will be the freshman Kuzma. He’s a 6-foot-8 small forward who should be a matchup problem on both ends of the court.
9. JaQuan Lyle, Oregon
Scandal cost Oregon three players from the 2014-15 roster, so the Ducks need their top recruit to contribute immediately. Even that, though, is in question as Lyle’s academic situation is unsettled. If he’s on the court, Lyle can hold down either guard spot.
10. Robert Upshaw, Washington
Transfer from Fresno State
Upshaw could be an impact player in the Washington frontcourt, but his situation is uncertain. He was suspended three times while at Fresno State and is not certain to play with the Huskies. His production was meager at Fresno State, but the 6-11 explosive big man has plenty of potential.
With nearly every major conference operating its own television network — we see you, SEC Network, finally joining hands with DirecTV — fans have unprecedented access to their favorite college teams.
There’s one area, though, where we’d like to see college teams take a cue from HBO and NFL Films. Every season, HBO provides an inside look at training camp for one NFL team. Today, the ninth season of Hard Knocks premieres with a behind-the-scenes look at the Atlanta Falcons.
The series has shown a rarely seen side of the pro game, from the personalities of players to the gut-wrenching process of cutting a player or being cut.
College football, too, should provide plenty of content for a Hard Knocks-style program. Certainly, TV networks and the schools themselves have shown glimpses, but all feel a little sanitized. Here are the schools we’d like to see get the full-on Hard Knocks treatment.
The defending national champions are the easy choice for the top team for a behind-the-scenes look. Jameis Winston has had a quiet offseason since the crab legs incident, but there’s still plenty of intrigue on how the defending Heisman winner handles his season. He’s been in the news for off-field scandal, but his command over the locker room has never been questioned. Meanwhile, fast-talking Jimbo Fisher tries to keep his squad hungry as it starts the season at No. 1.
Again, we’re enjoying the fantasy world where Nick Saban peels back the curtain just for fun. This is the same coach who allows his coordinators to speak to the media just once a year — and unfortunately for us he has one of the most compelling coordinators in the country. Offensive boss Lane Kiffin says he’s enjoying concentrating on coaching football this season rather than the other obligations of being a head coach. That in and of itself would be interesting as Kiffin tries to work integrate new quarterback Jacob Coker into a loaded offense.
Who knew Bo Pelini would be the comic relief of the preseason? The coach says he’s always had this sense of humor, but it’s just never been on display. This is the chance for Pelini to show the whole picture — and more than just riffing on @FauxPelini and the cat. Beyond the Bo Show, running back Ameer Abdullah and wide receiver Kenny Bell have personality in spades.
On this week’s episode: A grad assistant teaches a confused Will Muschamp how to use Twitter. Muschamp, of course, has bigger problems than sending direct messages intended for recruits to the general public. He has a new offensive coordinator working with a quarterback returning from injury. The results of that tandem may determine if the Gators coach has a job next season.
Ann Arbor is quite the pressure-cooker this offseason. Brady Hoke may or may not be a hot seat guy as his chief rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State, are riding high. Streaky quarterback Devin Gardner has a new coordinator, and defensive end Frank Clark likes to talk. All of this leads into an uncomfortable rematch with Appalachian State.
What’s life like behind the scenes with Les Miles? Players say he’s the same wacky personality with his players as he is with the media. Players indeed have impressions ready for his post-meeting sign (“Well, men, see ya!”). He generally has compelling teams, but this year will be more interesting than most. LSU has an unsettled quarterback situation and a young defense getting ready for the rough-and-tumble SEC West. Miles also has one of the top freshmen in the country in Leonard Fournette.
Rich Rodriguez is sealing his spot as the best talker in the Pac-12. His football team will have plenty of intrigue, too, as he tries to sift through a four-man quarterback race.
The opulent new football facility would probably be more appropriate footage for MTV or E! programming, and Johnny Manziel is off to the NFL. Still, we’d like to take a peek at Kevin Sumlin’s program. The defense is a mess, the quarterback situation is uncertain, and his squad has discipline issues resulting in dismissals of key players during the summer. All of this in the face of an opener against South Carolina.
Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury is a draw all on his own with his movie-star looks, sense of fashion and whatnot. He’s also entering his second season as a head coach with only a bowl win over Arizona State giving his program momentum after a five-game losing streak to end the Big 12 season. Davis Webb is the last quarterback standing after Kingsbury had to play three last season.
Might as well finish up the tour around the Lone Star State with a look at Texas. Charlie Strong isn’t the most dynamic personality for the cameras, but he’s certainly laying down the law. His fire-and-brimstone approach to the roster would be an episode all to itself. He dismissed five players and suspended three more last week alone.
Like Strong, Chris Petersen might not be the most compelling coach for the cameras, either, but he’s taking over a program that likes to think of itself as a national power. Washington has one of the top defensive players in the nation in Shaq Thompson, who could also find himself on offense during camp. Petersen also has a quarterback question with Cyler Miles. The Huskies’ top player at the position missed all of spring and is now suspended for the opener against Hawaii.
The Bruins arguably have the two biggest football stars in Los Angeles in Brett Hundley and Myles Jack. UCLA has higher expectations this season than its crosstown rival.
Offensive line coach Herb Hand has already appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped, so you know Penn State’s new regime is OK with unconventional publicity. How does a force of personality like James Franklin take over a Penn State hampered by scholarship limitations and its own troubled pass? With a quarterback like Christian Hackenberg, that’s how.
Mike Leach wrote a book on the leadership strategies of Geronimo during the offseason. Just another day in Pullman.
Bret Bielema talks like he’s 8-0 in the SEC. His record is 0-8. What does the big guy have in store for Year Two?
How does Kansas keep winning the Big 12 regular season title year after year? For starters, take a look at two of the top three newcomers in the league for 2014-15.
In a season after the Jayhawks lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the top three picks in the NBA Draft, Kansas replaces them with another pair of standout freshmen. Granted, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre might not be top draft picks in 2015, but they’ll make sure Kansas remains the favorite for an 11th consecutive Big 12 title.
Kansas, though, will have company. Texas adds big man Myles Turner to a veteran roster that surprised by winning 24 games and saving Rick Barnes’ job. Turner will be another feather in the cap for the longtime Longhorns coach.
Of course, no list of Big 12 newcomers would be complete without transfers. Thank Fred Hoiberg and Iowa State for that.
1. Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Kansas replaces Joel Embiid, who flirted with the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft before injury concerns dropped him to No. 3, with another highly rated big man to team with Perry Ellis. Alexander was the third-ranked prospect in the 247Sports Composite. The 6-9, 240-pound power forward will replace Embiid’s offensive skill with a physical presence in the paint.
2. Myles Turner, Texas
Texas already returned every key player from one of the surprise teams in the country. The Longhorns bolster their chances to contend for the Big 12 title by adding the Turner, the final major recruit from the 2014 class to pick a school. Turner gives the Longhorns a 6-10, 223-pound skilled big man, but more important, the Euless (Texas) Trinity product gives Rick Barnes a sorely needed in-state recruiting victory.
3. Kelly Oubre, Kansas
Kansas figures to have plenty of able bodies at the 2 and 3 in 2014-15 season, but Oubre should have plenty of opportunity to shine. The 6-7, 190-pound McDonald’s All-American wing has a varied offensive game. He can hit the 3 and get to the rim. He’ll be an All-Big 12 contender.
4. Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State
Transfer from UNLV
The Iowa State transfer trend continues with Dejean-Jones, who is on his third stop after transferring from USC to UNLV to Ames. Dejean-Jones averaged 13.6 points per game in 31 games in his final season with the Runnin’ Rebels. He’s an effective scorer who will have to integrate himself into a lineup including returning point guard Monte Morris and Georges Niang.
5. Jonathan Holton, West Virginia
Junior college transfer
Iowa State isn’t alone in the Big 12 in bringing in a slew of transfers. West Virginia has added Juwan Staten (Dayton) and Aaric Murray (La Salle) and now another player who started his career in the Atlantic 10. Holton averaged 10.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game as a freshman at Rhode Island in 2011-12. Holton, who was dismissed from Rhode Island, pleaded no contest to a charge of video voyeurism when he was accused of secretly recording a sexual encounter and posting video to Facebook. Holton spent a season at junior college and then a redshirt season at West Virginia, where he’ll be a regular double-double threat.
6. Anthony Hickey, Oklahoma State
Transfer from LSU
Oklahoma State will need a number of players to fill the gaps left by Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. At least Travis Ford will have a veteran point guard in the mix in Hickey, who was a three-year starter at LSU. Hickey’s scoring output dropped in his final season in Baton Rouge, but he finished second in the SEC with a 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 3.8 assists per game in his career. He averaged nearly three steals per game as a sophomore.
7. Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Scott Drew has brought in his share of highly touted recruits, but Motley was more of a project. Motley redshirted last season and is poised to become an impact player in his second season on campus. The 6-9, 210-pound forward could be one of the Bears’ top post players while bringing an expanded offensive game away from the basket.
8. Justin Edwards, Kansas State
Transfer from Maine
Edwards was a prolific scorer at Maine before leaving for a more high-profile program in the Big 12. The 6-foot-4 guard from Ontario led America East in scoring with 16.7 points per game in 2012-13 before sitting out a year at Kansas State. The Wildcats will hope a better supporting cast will improve his efficiency numbers: Edwards has shot 27 percent from 3-point range and averaged 3.6 turnovers per game in his career.
9. Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State
Returning from injury
Cobbins’ Achilles injury at the end of December was one of the first dominoes in a season that unraveled in conference play for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State went 12-1 with Cobbins in the lineup and 9-12 the rest of the way. The 6-8, 230-pound forward contributed far more than his 5.4 points per game. His interior defense forced coach Travis Ford to shuffle the lineup with limited success.
10. Jameel McKay, Iowa State
Transfer from Marquette
Dejean-Jones won’t be the only impact transfer for Iowa State. McKay will join Niang in the frontcourt. McKay has yet to play a game in the Division I level after transfer from junior college to Marquette. He comes from the same JUCO as Cyclone Dustin Hogue and should be a factor on Iowa State’s defense.
Even in a year when Kentucky will have an uncharacteristically veteran team, the Wildcats will feature some of the top freshmen in the SEC.
Karl Towns, Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles all could be impact players in the league for Kentucky even as they fight for playing time on the national runners up. Meanwhile, many other SEC teams are counting on transfers — from Division I and junior college — to keep them competitive in the league.
Florida is looking toward a transfer and the brother of a former All-SEC performer to keep the Gators atop the league. Alabama and LSU are bringing in transfers to play point guard in an attempt to push the Crimson Tide and Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
Our breakdown of the top freshmen, transfers and players returning from injury continues with the top newcomers who will impact the SEC standings.
1. Karl Towns, Kentucky
Kentucky may have been loaded in the frontcourt even without this freshman class. Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee all return, meaning perhaps Towns won’t be quite as prolific as recent Kentucky freshman big men. Still, he’s a 7-1, 250-pound center who can can stretch a defense. Towns was named the Gatorade High School Male Athlete of the Year in July, the second Kentucky player under John Calipari to win the award. Towns joins 2010 point guard Brandon Knight as a recipient of the award.
2. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
With guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison back, Ulis won’t be asked to score from the backcourt. That’s no problem. He’s much better as a distributor. As the Harrisons took time to grow into their roles as facilitators, the 5-9 Ulis already has that ability locked down. His vision will be an asset to another loaded Kentucky team.
3. Ricky Tarrant, Alabama
Transfer from Tulane
Tarrant will compete with freshman Justin Coleman for minutes at point guard, where Trevor Releford departs. Tarrant was a second-team All-Conference USA selection in his last season at Tulane in 2013-14. Tarrant averaged 15.3 points and 3.4 assists per game in two seasons at Tulane, needing only 66 games to cross the 1,000-point mark.
4. Trey Lyles, Kentucky
John Calipari may need to get creative to keep Lyles, Towns and the rest of his big men happy. Lyles’ natural position may be power forward, but he can also play small forward. Lyles, though, may be off to a slower start as he (and junior Willie Cauley-Stein) will miss Kentucky’s tour of the Bahamas in early August. Lyles is recovering form a procedure on his left leg.
5. Yante Maten, Georgia
Maten was a big get for Mark Fox as the Bloomfield Hills (Mich.) Andover product was considered a strong Michigan State lean in the recruiting process. Instead, Maten will head to Georgia where the 6-8, 225-pound power forward be a player off the glass.
6. Josh Gray, LSU
Junior college transfer
Sophomore forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin need someone to get them the ball with point guard Anthony Hickey transferring to Oklahoma State. Gray from junior college may be the answer. Before heading to Odessa (Texas) College, Gray averaged 9.6 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman at Texas Tech. He’ll be more than a facilitator, though, as Johnny Jones expects him to score in a variety of ways.
7. Alex Murphy, Florida
Transfer from Duke
Florida may have to wait until the second semester to add Murphy to the lineup. When he’s eligible, Murphy will be a stretch four and another transfer on a roster that includes Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech), Jon Horford (Michigan) and Eli Carter (Rutgers). Murphy is the brother of Erik Murphy, who averaged 12.2 points per game in 2012-13.
8. Antoine Mason, Auburn
Transfer from Niagara
Bruce Pearl isn’t the only interesting newcomer at Auburn. The Tigers at Mason, who was second behind National Player of the Year Doug McDermott in scoring last season. Mason averaged 25.6 points per game, but he took an average of 18.5 shots per game to get there. Auburn’s not going to be a great team in the SEC, but the Tigers won’t need to lean nearly as heavily on Mason as 7-26 Niagara did last season.
9. Cameron Biedscheid, Missouri
Transfer from Notre Dame
Biedscheid is another SEC transfer who will have to wait until the second semester to be eligible. New Mizzou coach Kim Anderson is counting on the 6-foot-7, 205-pound guard to be one of his leading scorers, but he averaged only 6.2 points per game during his freshman season at Notre Dame. Biedscheid will join Deuce Bello (Baylor) and Keith Shamburger (Hawaii) in another round of transfers for Missouri.
10. Robert Hubbs, Tennessee
Returning from injury
As the coach who recruited him left for Cal, Hubbs elected to stay with his home-state school. From Newbern, Tenn., Hubbs was was a five-star recruit out of high school but played only 12 games in an injury-shortened freshman season. Hubbs scored in double figures only twice and shot 30.7 percent in limited duty. New coach Donnie Tyndall will need more from one of the few holdovers on his roster.
CHICAGO — At first, Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t thrilled when Nebraska's sports information director put his name in the running for the featured player speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon without his knowledge.
“I didn’t want my name on the ballot at all,” Abdullah said during a small roundtable interview session Tuesday before his speech. “I’m terrible at speaking. Ironically, they picked me, so here goes nothing.”
He was being self-deprecating. Abdullah did just fine during his comments to hundreds of Big Ten fans and media.
Abdullah mentioned “capitalism” in college athletics as a reference to the ongoing unionization issue at Northwestern and the autonomy and cost-of-attendance discussion going on around the power five conferences.
Instead of dwelling on those hot-button topics, Abdullah focused on the advantages of being a student-athlete. Nowhere was that more evident than when he returned home to Alabama to find one of his high school friends, who went to college as an athlete himself, kicked out of school and facing a drug addiction. Another was in jail.
“These aren’t people I read about or saw on TV,” Abdullah said. “These are my friends. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room.”
Abdullah’s growth in Lincoln has been stark, he says.
By his own admission, Abdullah was “socially awkward” as a high school senior from Homewood, Ala. At a high school all-star game — at a time when Abdullah was still being recruited as a defensive back — he and eventual Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon struck up a friendship that would last into their college years.
Both were introverts, so they ate breakfast together all week. By last spring, they were Nos. 1-2 in the Big Ten in rushing and contemplating going to the NFL Draft. They talked it over and elected to return to school.
“We’ve been clicking ever since then,” Gordon said. “We talk all through the season. He’s a great person to know. We’re good friends.”
At Nebraska, Abdullah had no choice but to come out of his shell. Nebraska recruits nationally, so Abdullah arrived in Lincoln around a handful of players from all walks of life.
Abdullah will talk anything now. He’ll joke with reporters. A day before his speech to Big Ten fans and media, he joked: “Speech? I’m making a speech? Uh oh.”
But if you really want to get Abdullah going, start talking draft trends and running backs. No running back has been drafted in the first round since three did it in 2012. What does that mean for Abdullah and his pal Gordon?
“Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking,” Abdullah said.
A self-described film junkie since age 7 when his father filmed park league games, Abdullah said he watches NFL Live on ESPN regularly. That leads him to believe the days of running backs are coming back.
“Football works in fads,” Abdullah said. “This is the D-end fad.”
Abdullah sees tall, stand-up defensive ends and outside linebackers like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA’s Anthony Barr — both first-round picks last year — and sees his future. Those two players are built to rush the passer.
The answer? Abdullah says its the running back.
“Everything eventually comes full circle,” Abdullah said. “At some point, the NFL is going to come to the conclusion that the stand-up guys aren’t the best guys against the run. To beat those guys, you’ve got to get more running backs. It’s going to come back around to running backs in the first round.”
But just in case the running back pendulum doesn’t swing back to Abdullah in time for the 2015 draft, he’s doing everything he can to improve his pro potential.
Abdullah is a slippery back and tough to tackle. But he’s only 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds. Even if running backs become en vogue in the next year, he’ll need to round out his skill set. He’s playing on special teams in 2014. He says he wants to block punts, return punts and return kickoffs.
If that makes him a Heisman contender, he won’t say. And what’s the point of projecting? Abdullah remembers last season’s surprises all too well.
“I don’t like to get caught up in preseason accolades because (Boston College running back) Andre Williams didn’t know he was going to win the Doak Walker award. (Oregon State wide receiver) Brandin Cooks as well with the Biletnikoff.
“You never know when it’s your time.”
CHICAGO — Braxton Miller has been good — very good — the last two seasons. Only now, though, is Ohio State coach Urban Meyer starting to see his quarterback nearing his potential.
“He’s real close,” Meyer said from Big Ten Media Day Monday. “I made the comment that you couldn’t see the ceiling (before). You can see the ceiling with him now.”
That ceiling is a mix of a lethal run-pass threat at quarterback and a leader of a potential national title-contending team. To reach that ceiling and for Ohio State to remain in championship contention, Miller may have to get through a season unscathed.
Meyer tried to deflect some attention away from Miller to an offensive line that returns only one starter, but it’s clear the quarterback is the key. Ohio State has sent him to work with Jon Gruden and brought in a former NFL general manager to meet with him.
“We’ve pulled out every possible stop to make sure he’s ready to go and he embraced it,” Meyer said.
Miller isn’t shy about talking about the possibility of what could happen if he has a season at his potential. This is a guy who walks past seven Heisman Trophies on his way through the Ohio State football facility. He’s twice finished in the top 10 and appeared on several watch lists.
“I’ve been in the Heisman talk since my sophomore year,” Miller said. “I walk past that all the time, and I think about what I need to do to walk across that podium.”
With a Sept. 6 game against Virginia Tech — ranked 27th by Athlon Sports in the preseason — Miller will need to get off to a healthier start than he did a year ago if he's going to achieve those kinds of goals.
Miller missed two full games and most of a third in September last season with a knee injury. Lucky for Ohio State, those games were against San Diego State, Cal and Florida A&M. Miller, though, returned to the lineup at full strength, throwing four touchdown passes in a 31-24 win over Wisconsin on Sept. 28.
But Miller also struggled by the end of the year. He was a combined 14-of-36 for 234 yards passing against Michigan and Michigan State, though he rushed for nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns as the Buckeyes split games against the Spartans and Wolverines. He also played through a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, in which he accounted for three total touchdowns but also threw two interceptions.
Miller attempted to rehab the shoulder without surgery for the first seven weeks of the offseason before deciding to undergo outpatient surgery in late February. The surgery kept him out of spring practice, which may not have been all bad for Miller.
"It's probably what I needed," Miller said. "Just learning the game from the defensive coaches. Learning how practice is without you practicing."
Since his offseason surgery, Miller says he's been throwing for two weeks, and he has returned to full strength.
The margin for error, though, will be slim. Ohio State is counting on Miller like never before. Perhaps that’s a strong statement for a quarterback who has passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 the last two seasons. But it’s accurate.
Ohio State will need to replace Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 1,521 yards in 11 games last season. Two starting receivers return, but Meyer was displeased with the progress of the entire position group during the spring.
Perhaps most important is the departure of Kenny Guiton, a senior who flourished in his role as backup the last two seasons. Guiton completed 68.4 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in September last season, and a year earlier, he led Ohio State to an overtime win over Purdue in relief of an injured Miller.
Ohio State’s backup quarterback is now sophomore Cardale Jones, who has thrown two career passes. Of course, the Buckeyes hope the season doesn’t come down to a backup.
A healthy Miller may be the difference between a solid Ohio State team and one looking to make up for near misses the last two seasons.
In 2012, the Buckeyes went 12-0 but missed a chance at a Big Ten championship and a potential national championship game while serving a bowl ban. Had Ohio State served its bowl ban a year earlier — when the Buckeyes wrapped up a 6-7 season with a Gator Bowl loss — the 2012 team may have been able to play for a national championship.
And last season, Ohio State started 12-0 before losing 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and 40-35 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
In addition, a healthy and productive season could make Miller the most prolific quarterback for Meyer and the Big Ten.
With a career year, Miller could top Florida’s Tim Tebow in career total offense among Meyer quarterbacks. Miller enters his senior season 3,886 yards short of the 2007 Heisman winner. With a monster year, Miller could challenge Purdue’s Drew Brees’ for the Big Ten record of total offense. Miller is 4,346 yards short of Brees’ record of 12,692 total yards.
Granted, Miller’s average the last two seasons is 3,236 yards per year, both times in 12 games. Ohio State, ranked No. 3 in the Athlon preseason top 25, has aspirations of playing more than a dozen games, though.
The goal isn’t the numbers. It’s the balance. Meyer needs Miller to improve his ability in the passing game to reach that ceiling that’s now in his quarterback’s sights.
“We have to be very balanced,” Meyer said. “We have been too one-dimensional with him. He’s got the skill set and we believe he has the knowledge, and we believe the personnel around him is better.”