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Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. After all, each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
With kickoff for the 2015 season just a few days away, Athlon Sports is taking a look at 50 players who could be poised for a breakout year from the Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame. Players from every position were included, and a few true freshmen cracked the list.
College Football's Top 50 Breakout Players for 2015
50. Mike Freeze, LB, TCU
The back seven of TCU’s defense must be retooled this offseason. The Horned Frogs lost standout linebackers Paul Dawson and Marcus Mallet, and the secondary lost three all-conference performers. The linebacker position was a work in progress for coach Gary Patterson in the spring, but Freeze made a push for a starting job after enrolling early in spring practice. The three-star recruit is penciled in as one of TCU’s starting linebackers.
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
49. Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia
After battling injuries in his freshman campaign, the Virginia coaching staff hopes for bigger and better things from Brown in 2015. As a five-star recruit, Brown was pegged as an impact newcomer in the ACC last year. But Brown never got on track, finishing with four tackles in six games. He needs to be a difference maker for the Cavaliers in 2015.
48. Nazair Jones, DT, North Carolina
Jones is a key cog in new coordinator Gene Chizik’s efforts to improve North Carolina’s defense in 2015. As a redshirt freshman last season, Jones recorded 35 stops (7.5 for a loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble. With another offseason to develop in the weight room, as well an offseason to learn under Chizik and new line coach Tray Scott, look for Jones to make an even bigger impact this fall.
47. Steven Parker, S, Oklahoma
The Sooners certainly have room to improve in the defensive secondary after giving up 24 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Cornerback Zack Sanchez is one of the best in the nation, but new secondary coach Kerry Cooks is looking for players to step up at the other positions. Parker is expected to take on a bigger role this season after playing in 13 games in 2014. The sophomore recorded 31 tackles, one sack and six pass breakups in limited action.
46. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Joe Wickline is one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation, and the Longhorns will be looking for improvement up front after inconsistent play in 2014. Four starters are back, but the lineup and starters may change with added competition through the recruiting ranks. Williams enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, and the true freshman is pushing for the starting job at left tackle.
45. Derwin Gray/Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
Gray and Prince are two reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Maryland’s offensive line in 2015. This duo was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for the Terrapins in 2014 and redshirted in their first season on campus. Gray suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, but he should return in September. Prince also battled injuries late in fall camp. This redshirt freshman duo should anchor the Maryland offensive line for the next few seasons.
44. Thomas Sirk, QB, Duke
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is one of the best quarterback/offensive minds in college football. Expect Cutcliffe to work his magic once again in 2015, as Sirk replaces Anthony Boone as the Blue Devils’ starter. The junior was sharp in limited action last season, throwing for 67 yards and three touchdowns on 10 completions. He also added 238 rushing yards and eight scores.
43. Robert Foster/ArDarius Stewart, WR, Alabama
Alabama’s passing attack has to be retooled this offseason. Quarterback Blake Sims has expired his eligibility, and the Crimson Tide must replace the top three receivers from last year, including No. 1 target Amari Cooper (124 catches in 2014). Foster and Stewart are the leading candidates to replace Cooper as the go-to option in the passing attack. This duo combined for 18 catches last season.
42. Jeb Blazevich, TE, Georgia
Georgia’s receiving corps is a question mark, but the concerns over this unit could be eased if Blazevich is more involved in the passing attack in 2014. As a true freshman last year, Blazevich caught 18 passes for 269 yards and two scores. The North Carolina native should be in the mix for All-SEC honors in 2015.
41. Michael Dieter, OL, Wisconsin
It’s safe to assume Wisconsin will field a strong offensive line once again in 2015. However, the Badgers are dealing with a few injuries and overall uncertainty about the position battles in the trenches this fall. There’s work to be done up front, but the coaching staff should feel secure in three positions (left tackle Tyler Marz, center Dan Voltz and Dieter at right guard). After a redshirt season in 2014, Dieter is poised to be a key cog in Wisconsin’s revamped line.
40. Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
Penn State’s secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten this season. Coordinator Bob Shoop is making a couple of tweaks to this unit, as Jordan Lucas shifts from corner to safety, opening the door for Haley to start. He played in 13 games for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman last season, recording 18 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
39. Marquavius Lewis, DE, South Carolina
Improving the performance of the defensive line is a huge priority for new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke this offseason. The Gamecocks registered only 14 sacks last year and surrendered 212.2 rushing yards per game. Lewis is expected to be an impact junior college recruit for Hoke after two standout years at Hutchinson Community College. The South Carolina native was the Jayhawk Conference Defensive Player of the Year and registered 11 sacks in 2014.
38. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
Texas A&M’s receiving corps was already one of the best in the nation, and the rich are about to get a little richer in 2015. True freshman Christian Kirk is expected to push for a starting job at one of the inside spots in Texas A&M’s receiver lineup. The Arizona native ranked as the No. 25 recruit in the 2015 247Sports and is expected to be one of the SEC’s top freshman performers in 2015.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2015
37. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
Jalen Hurd returns after leading Tennessee with 899 rushing yards in 2014, but the Volunteers’ backfield will be even deeper with the addition of Kamara from the junior college ranks. Kamara started his career at Alabama and transferred after one year in Tuscaloosa. In nine games in 2014, Kamara rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 scores with Hutchinson Community College. Expect Kamara and Hurd to share the workload in Tennessee’s backfield, which has the potential to emerge as one of the best in the SEC this season.
36. Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
With the departures of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett, Kansas State has to lean on its defense in 2015. With six starters back, there’s plenty of talent for coordinator Tom Hayes to rely on. Lee is another impact defender to watch for Hayes, as he impressed in 13 games as a freshman last season. Lee recorded 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks in limited action and should push for all-conference honors in his first full year as a starter.
35. Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
UCLA’s pass rush needs a spark after recording only 29 sacks in 13 games last season. Could Hollins be the answer for new coordinator Tom Bradley? The Texas native led the team with nine sacks, with six of those coming over the final four games of 2014. Hollins recorded three sacks against Kansas State and one in the 38-20 win over rival USC. The junior’s ability to get to the quarterback should help UCLA create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage.
34. Boom Williams, RB, Kentucky
If last season’s finale against Louisville was any indication of what to expect from Williams in 2015, the sophomore is in for a huge year. On 18 carries against the Cardinals, Williams recorded 126 rushing yards and two scores and caught three passes for 13 yards. Williams only received 74 carries, but he averaged a healthy 6.6 yards per carry and accumulated 115.9 all-purpose yards a game in 2014.
33. Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
High expectations followed Henry in 2014, and the true freshman turned in a solid debut for coordinator Tony Gibson. In 13 games, Henry recorded 45 tackles (one for a loss), two interceptions and two pass breakups. With cornerback Daryl Worley and safety Karl Joseph established as stars, combined with Henry’s development, the Mountaineers should have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
32. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
It wasn't unexpected, but coach Jim Mora officially appointed Rosen as UCLA's starter for Week 1 last week. The California native was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and the No. 1 ranked quarterback by the 247Sports Composite. If Rosen is as good as advertised, the concerns about the quarterback spot after losing Brett Hundley will dissipate.
31. De’Mornay Pierson-El, WR, Nebraska
Pierson-El is expected to miss at least the first month of the season due to a foot injury. However, the sophomore is expected to be a key cog in Nebraska’s offense when he returns, as new coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf planned to take full advantage of his ability to generate big plays. Pierson-El will see touches in a variety of ways, including quick passes or fly sweeps. He is also one of the nation’s top punt returners.
30 Josh Harvey-Clemons, S, Louisville
Even though Louisville is breaking in four new starters in the secondary, don’t expect much of a drop-off in terms of performance in the pass defense. Harvey-Clemons is a big reason why the Cardinals should have one of the top defensive backfields in the ACC this season, as the Georgia transfer is eligible after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA rules. The Georgia native started 11 games with the Bulldogs in 2013 and recorded 66 tackles. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Harvey-Clemons is a physically imposing figure in the secondary for coordinator Todd Grantham.
29. Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
The secondary is usually a strength under Gary Patterson’s watch at TCU, but this unit will be a work in progress in 2015. The Horned Frogs must replace standout cornerback Kevin White, as well as All-Big 12 safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett. Texada joins Derrick Kindred as the returning starters for Patterson, and both players will have to anchor the unit early in the year. Texada started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and recorded seven pass breakups and 31 tackles. Texada should be even better as a sophomore.
28. Wyatt Teller, OG, Virginia Tech
The emergence of Teller in the second half of 2014 is a reason for optimism on Virginia Tech’s offensive line this year. Teller started the last six games for the Hokies last season and enters 2015 as one of the top guards in the ACC. After struggling to find consistency up front over the last few years, Virginia Tech’s line could be poised to turn a corner with Jonathan McLaughlin and Teller anchoring the left side.
27. Trey Marshall/Derwin James, DB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey is the unquestioned star of Florida State’s secondary, but the junior could have some company on the All-ACC team in December. Marshall (a sophomore) and James (a freshman) are expected to be impact defenders for the Seminoles. Marshall recorded 12 tackles in limited action last season, while James – a five-star recruit – is a physical freak poised for an impact debut in 2015.
26. Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Even though Shane Ray and Markus Golden have departed, there’s not a ton of concern at defensive end for Missouri. After all, the Tigers continue to produce standout ends under line coach Craig Kuligowski. All signs point to Harris as the next star off the edge. The sophomore played in all 14 games as a reserve last season and recorded 19 tackles and two sacks.
25. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Just how high is Arizona State on Richard and fellow sophomore Kalen Ballage at running back? The coaching staff moved senior D.J. Foster out to receiver for the 2015 season. There was a huge need at receiver with the loss of Jaelen Strong, but there’s plenty of confidence in the available options at running back for coach Todd Graham. Richard averaged 5.7 yards per carry on 84 attempts last year, finishing 2014 with 478 rushing yards and four scores.
24. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s string of six consecutive seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher was snapped in 2014. But the Cardinal could reverse that trend with McCaffrey a bigger part of the offense in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McCaffrey rushed for 300 yards on 42 carries and caught 17 passes for 251 yards and two scores. McCaffrey is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top all-purpose players.
23. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Hyatt is the first of two Clemson players to make the breakout list for 2015. The Tigers’ offensive line will be under the microscope early in the season, as quarterback Deshaun Watson is recovering from a torn ACL, and there’s only one returning starter up front. But Hyatt’s emergence could go a long way in solidifying this group before a critical showdown against Louisville in a few weeks. The true freshman was a five-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and is expected to protect Watson’s blindside this fall.
22. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Mahomes isn’t guaranteed the starting job yet, as he will compete with Davis Webb for the No. 1 spot. However, Mahomes showcased his upside as a true freshman and his case for the starting spot in seven games last season. He completed 105 of 185 passes for 1,547 yards and 16 scores and tossed only four picks. In the season finale against Baylor, Mahomes threw for 598 yards.
21. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Johnson is the lone returning starter in the offensive trenches for coach Jimbo Fisher. While breaking in four new starters is never ideal on the line, having Johnson back after a promising stint last season is a good place for Fisher and line coach Rick Trickett to start the rebuilding effort. The Missouri native started the final five games in 2014 and was a major reason why Florida State’s line played better down the stretch. Expect the 6-foot-7 sophomore to push for first-team All-ACC honors.
20. Montae Nicholson, S, Michigan State
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” has a few holes to fill this offseason. The Spartans lost standouts in safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes, and Pat Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pittsburgh. Nicholson should be one of the new stars for Michigan State’s secondary after recording 31 tackles in 13 appearances as a redshirt freshman. The sophomore should push for All-Big Ten honors.
19. Otaro Alaka, LB, Texas A&M
New coordinator John Chavis inherits a defense that allowed 28.1 points per game last season but has promising young talent to build around. Alaka is one of the players for Texas A&M’s core on defense, as the Houston native had an underrated debut with the Aggies in 2014. As a true freshman, Alaka recorded 33 tackles in 12 games and also forced two fumbles. After earning Defensive MVP honors in the Liberty Bowl, Alaka is poised to push for All-SEC accolades this year.
18. Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford
Kalambayi should be the next star linebacker for coach David Shaw. After a redshirt year in 2013, the North Carolina native played in all 13 games last season and finished with 32 tackles and 6.5 sacks. With A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters departing, there should be more snaps available for Kalambayi in 2015.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
17. Charles Nelson, DB/WR, Oregon
Nelson looked like a potential two-way threat in the spring, but after a brief stint on defense, all signs point to the sophomore having a breakout year on offense. Nelson caught 23 passes for 327 yards and five touchdowns last season and scored twice on punt return touchdowns. Look for Nelson to make his share of big plays for the Ducks offense this fall.
16. Malachi Dupre, WR, LSU
LSU isn’t hurting for talent at receiver, but the success of the passing attack heavily depends on the development of quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Dupre was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and played in 12 contests last year. The New Orleans native caught 14 passes for 318 yards and five scores in his first season on campus and could easily double those totals in 2015.
15. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
If Dobbs picks up where he left off in 2014, Tennessee should be in the race to win the SEC East. Over the final six games of last season, Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine scores and rushed for 469 yards and eight touchdowns. After posting big numbers against South Carolina and Kentucky in 2014, Dobbs is tasked with increasing his production against some of the SEC’s top defenses this year.
14. Malik Zaire, QB, Notre Dame
With Everett Golson transferring to Florida State, Zaire has a clear path to the starting job. The dual-threat quarterback is a great fit for coach Brian Kelly’s offense, and the expectations are high after showing promise in a limited stint last season. In seven appearances (and one start), Zaire threw for 266 yards and one touchdown and added 187 yards and two scores on the ground. The arrow is clearly pointing up on Zaire and the Fighting Irish offense.
13. Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
Marshall is suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech, but a one-game hiatus shouldn’t stop the sophomore from becoming an even bigger part of Ohio State’s offense this season. In 15 games last year, Marshall caught 38 passes for 499 yards and six scores. Additionally, he rushed for 145 yards and one touchdown and averaged 11.8 yards per punt return. Marshall could finish 2015 as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.
12. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
The Spartans’ defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and this unit will only get better with McDowell’s emergence in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McDowell chipped in 15 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. The Detroit native was a big-time catch for coach Mark Dantonio on the recruiting trail and is poised to claim a starting spot at tackle this fall.
11. Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already have two of the nation’s top linebackers in Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Add in McMillan’s potential as a sophomore and it’s easy to see why this trio is among the nation’s best linebacker units. McMillan recorded 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a reserve last season and could push for All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter.
10. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Jefferson is only a true freshman, but high expectations surround the Mesquite, Texas native in 2015. Jefferson ranked as the No. 10 overall player in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete in spring ball. Jefferson recorded five stops (one for a loss) in the Orange-White scrimmage and is expected to start at linebacker this season.
9. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M
Talented true freshman Kyler Murray is going to see some snaps this season, but Allen was named the starter for the opener against Arizona State and should handle the bulk of the snaps for coach Kevin Sumlin. Allen was one of the top quarterbacks in last year’s signing class and eventually replaced Kenny Hill as the Aggies’ starter. The Arizona native played in nine games and finished the year with 1,322 yards and 16 scores. Allen’s best performance came against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl, tossing four scores in a 45-37 win by the Aggies.
8. Seth Russell, QB, Baylor
Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty each produced big seasons in coach Art Briles’ offense at Baylor. And Russell has been handed the keys to the high-powered attack after completing 48 of 85 passes for 804 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014. In each of the last four years, Baylor’s starting quarterback has surpassed 3,850 passing yards and 29 scores. Expect Russell to easily eclipse those marks in 2015.
7. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Rudolph’s emergence in the final three games of 2014 is one of the biggest reasons for optimism in Stillwater this season. Rudolph closed out last season by passing for 853 yards and six passing scores on 49 completions and guided Oklahoma State to a 2-1 mark in the final three games of the year. In the bowl win over Washington, Rudolph passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns. With an improving offensive line and a deep corps of receivers at his disposal, Rudolph should be able to build off a solid finish to 2014 and emerge as one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks.
6. Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State
Bercovici is no secret in the Pac-12 after a solid stint as Arizona State’s starting quarterback last season. After Taylor Kelly suffered a foot injury against Colorado, Bercovici threw for 488 yards against UCLA in a 62-27 loss and passed for 510 yards and five scores in a thrilling 38-34 win over USC. Bercovici has a strong arm and isn’t afraid to take chances downfield. He won’t have top receiver Jaelen Strong, but Bercovici could push for a spot among the Pac-12’s best at quarterback.
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
5. JuJu Smith, WR, USC
It’s a bit of a stretch to consider Smith a breakout player since he grabbed 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns last year. However, expect Smith to go from all-conference contender to a potential All-American receiver in 2015. The sophomore should be quarterback Cody Kessler’s No. 1 target this fall.
4. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Coordinator Brent Venables guided Clemson's defense to a No. 1 rank in fewest yards per game last season, but there's no shortage of question marks going into 2015. The Tigers return only two starters on defense, and the hits for this group continued in the fall. Linebacker Korrin Wiggins was lost for the year with a torn ACL, and tackle D.J. Reader’s status for 2015 is uncertain. While there are concerns, the Tigers aren't hurting for talent. Lawson is the next star defender in Death Valley after thriving as a reserve for Venables over the last two seasons and recording 11 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2014. He’s expected to join the starting lineup, and the junior should provide plenty of headaches to opposing offensive linemen this fall.
3. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was poised for a significant role in Michigan’s defense last year, but a season-ending leg injury ended his 2014 campaign after the third game. In limited snaps in 2014, Peppers recorded eight tackles and returned one punt for six yards. Peppers was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and should be an impact defender for new coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Related: Bowl Projections for 2015
2. Jamal Adams, S, LSU
Adams was an impact freshman for coach Les Miles in 2014, and the expectations are even higher for the Texas native in 2015. In 13 games last season, Adams recorded 66 tackles, one sack and five pass breakups. The sophomore's emergence is critical with Jalen Mills out indefinitely with an ankle injury. Adams will help anchor a secondary that is among the best in college football.
1. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
Johnson’s mention in this column should come as no surprise. The junior has received plenty of offseason hype, and all signs point to Johnson emerging as an All-SEC quarterback in 2015. In limited action over the last two seasons, Johnson has passed for 858 yards and nine scores.
The goal for the 2015 Texas Longhorns is very simple: Show progress. The Texas faithful do not have delusions of a national championship run, or even to be a sleeper to win the Big 12 championship. But the expectation is that this team WILL be better than last year’s 6-7 performance.
Charlie Strong defenses seem to become much better in Year 2, and Texas will have to ride that defense to victories this year, while the offense finds its identity and productivity. This is a make-or-break year for a lot of people around Austin, especially Strong, to prove that all of the changes and controversy were worth it to get back to winning Longhorn football.
Here now are Texas’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Nov. 7 vs. Kansas
This game should have been the season opener to give this young team the opportunity to gel together. Instead, it comes late in the season at a moment that could be a time of desperation. If the Longhorns are not playing well going into this game, making it a must-win situation, then a game that should have been a gimme becomes a pressure-filled experience that could quickly become the death knell for the whole “Strong” experiment.
11. Oct. 31 at Iowa State
The good news is that the Cyclones are far more desperate for wins and culture change than the Longhorns are right now. The bad news? The Cyclones are far more desperate for wins and culture change than the Longhorns are right now. This will make for a very tense and supremely competitive environment in Austin on Halloween. Iowa State will lean heavily on Senior QB Sam B. Richardson, who torched Texas last year for 371 yards and four touchdowns, as the Longhorns barely eked out a 48-45 win. Richardson will have revenge on his mind... and so will the Cyclones, who usually play pretty tough in Ames.
10. Sept. 19 vs. California
What ranks this game so low is the fact that there simply are NO guarantees in sports. On paper, the Golden Bears, which return the majority of their starters back from their 2014 5-7 team, seem to be poised to take a huge step forward in the Pac-12 and nationally. Quarterback Jared Goff leads the Cal offense and is positioned for a true breakout season, and the Bears are becoming the trendy pick to upset Stanford and Oregon. The reality, however, may be that this team may be exactly what it has been, a great offensive team that can’t stop ANYBODY on the other side of the ball.
9. Nov. 26 vs. Texas Tech
The problem with Texas Tech is that they are Texas Tech. And the Red Raiders see themselves as the chief rivals to the Longhorns, regardless if Texas sees it the same way or not. And they are always up for this game, no matter where the game is played. So it really doesn’t matter what the Red Raiders' record is, or if their team is playing poorly, or extremely well by late November, Texas Tech WILL be ready. Texas Tech is the little brother ready to beat the big brother every time they play, and Kliff Kingsbury's players will give it everything they have to win.
8. Oct. 24 vs. Kansas State
It is possible that if things come together defensively for Kansas State, that this could be the toughest challenge the Texas offense will face all season. That will depend a lot on whether sophomore LB Elijah Lee takes the next step as a pass rusher from his impressive 2014 freshman campaign (15 solo tackles, 4.5 sacks). Lee could provide the pressure needed for the Wildcats' secondary, which may be one of the best in the country, to continue carrying this defense. If Texas can’t find ways to move the ball on the ground, the Longhorns will have a very long day against Bill Snyder’s sleeper team.
7. Sept. 12 vs. Rice
After losing its first three games last season, Rice won eight out of 10 to close things, including an impressive and dominant Hawaii Bowl victory over Fresno State. The Owls are back, led by senior QB Driphus Jackson, who begins the year on the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm watch list. This Rice team comes in ready to build on last year’s success and get a signature win, and possess the talent to get it. And if Texas is reeling from their opening day game, the Owls will be poised to take advantage of that.
6. Nov. 14 at West Virginia
What do you get when you add the raucous environment Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown and a stingy defensive team that boasts one of the nation's best secondaries? The Mountaineers at home are unbelievably tough (see: Baylor, TCU in 2014). Even eventual SEC champion and College Football Playoff participant Alabama got all it could happen in the Crimson Tide's season opener. These were all really good, solid football teams, on both sides of the ball. Good luck with this one Charlie!
5. Sept. 26 vs. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys should return to being the nasty defensive team they have been known to be, especially in their secondary. Oklahoma State was embarrassed at home by Texas last year and will go into Austin with payback on its mind. The Cowboys hope quarterback Mason Rudolph steps into his own as a leader and helps stabilize the Oklahoma State offense. If the Cowboys can get production out of their young running backs, they may be poised for a breakout season. The Longhorns may be playing to get to .500 in this game, so this one could get interesting real fast. Could be a season-defining game for both teams.
4. Sept. 5 at Notre Dame
There are only two outcomes for this game. The first outcome sees the Longhorns catching Brian Kelly’s team off guard and pulling off a major upset in 2015. That would mean that an untested offense was able to come together during the offseason and devise a legitimate strategy to score on what could be one of the better defenses in the country. And it also would mean the announcement that Strong’s defense has indeed arrived. The other outcome is the one most expect — a somewhat dominant performance by the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish over a team that is too young to open the season this way.
3. Oct. 10 vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Most seasons, this game is the signature game for any Texas coach. If you lose against the Sooners, the pressure is on for the rest of the season. The challenge is a little different this year, in that the Longhorns are not expected to win this game. If the Longhorns do win, Strong could keep his job, regardless of what happens the rest of the season. The rivalry still holds major weight with the fans and boosters, and a win would signal enough stability to the fan base to probably buy Strong and his staff an extra year. And if it happens to come after beating the preseason No. 2-ranked team in the country...
2. Oct. 3 at TCU
The Horned Frogs have gone from Can They Compete in the Big 12 to The New Big 12 Powerhouse. Gary Patterson has developed a monster that dominates on both sides of the ball and a team that is extremely well coached and well prepared. TCU boasts a true Heisman candidate in quarterback Trevone Boykin, who will not sneak up on anyone this year. This team is ready to move on to bigger and better things, like a national championship opportunity. If the Longhorns are able to catch the Horned Frogs looking ahead and somehow steal this game, it would send shock waves throughout college football.
1. Dec. 5 at Baylor
This is the most significant game of the season because Baylor has become the most significant team in the Big 12. TCU (preseason No. 2) is ranked higher, but Baylor (No. 4) has assumed the position as the “circle the calendar game” for Big 12 teams. The Bears are the measuring stick, a circumstance Texas will face many times this season. An upset victory over Baylor could not only secure a bowl invite, it also could mean job security. It’s a matchup nightmare for Texas, as Baylor’s speed and game pace do not play in favor of the Longhorns, but anything is possible. The challenge will be even greater if Art Briles' Bears are fighting for a Playoff spot and NEED an impressive victory over Texas to enhance their standing with the committee. A blowout by the Bears could cost Strong more than just a winning season.
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, incuding ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ
Well here we are. Only a couple of days stand between us and the 2015 college football season. It's been, as always, a long offseason filled with anxiety and anticipation. And now its here.
If you've been following along, you seen our "outrageous predictions" for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC. Now it's time to focus on the whole. Now it's time to focus on the picture that those outrageous predictions for each conference paint of the entire college football landscape for 2015.
No team from last season's College Football Playoff will make the final four this season
If you were following along, you know that a Big Ten West team will win the B1G, eliminating Ohio State from the mix. UCLA will win the Pac-12, knocking out Oregon. Florida State won't even make it to the ACC title game and Alabama will be lucky to finish in the top 3 of the SEC West. New year. New blood. New champion.
Two Group-of-Five teams will finish unbeaten and get left out of the College Football Playoff
The committee spoke loud, clear and early in 2014: The Group of 5 is pretty much in a whole separate class when it comes to competing for a national title. Boise State and Marshall are going to run the table in 2015 and do so with ease. Boise could field the best defense in all of college football. None of it will matter. One of them will play in one of the New Year's Six bowls not included in the College Football Playoff while the other will end up in Las Vegas or Detroit the week after Christmas.
Neither TCU nor Baylor will make the College Football Playoff
Baylor won't even sniff the playoff on the back of a four-loss season, while TCU will drop its early contest with Oklahoma and play the waiting game for the rest of the season, hoping the Sooners lose. It's not happening. We don't need a conference title game to figure out who the Big 12 champion is in 2015. Boomer Sooner is back and everyone else is playing for second place.
Ole Miss Quarterback Chad Kelly will win the Heisman
Sure, he still needs to nail down the starting job. But once he does, it's all downhill from there. He'll have every lineman and skill player from last season in the huddle with him and the SEC's best defense backing him up. From there, his NFL-caliber arm and deceptive speed will make him the face of the best team in the nation's best conference, putting him in the driver's seat for college football's most prestigious award.
Notre Dame will emerge from the College Football Playoff as National Champions
Here's how it'll go down: No. 1 Notre Dame will knock off No. 4 UCLA. No. 2 Ole Miss will take down No. 3 Oklahoma, setting up a showdown between Heisman Trophy winner Chad Kelly and the runner-up, Malik Zaire. On this day, it will be Zaire taking home the hardware, as college football fans/Notre Dame haters toss half-full beverage containers at their televisions and subsequently set their furniture on fire in the street.
This is sure to ruffle some feathers.
Will Smith's new movie, "Concussion," has finally released its trailer and it's just what one would expect. CTE, a brain injury often found in football players, has been swept under the rug on numerous occasions. Smith's new movie brings it to the forefront.
Smith playing Dr. Bennet Omalu, who spent time studying those in the NFL and college football and was the first to identify just what CTE is. In the movie, we get to see just how much the NFL attempts to cover the subject in order to protect their brand.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs haven’t won a Southeastern Conference football title since 1941, and have been champions of the league’s Western Division just once. It’s been 17 years since State represented the SEC West in the Georgia Dome. However, after spending more than a month as the nation’s top ranked team, posting 10 wins and appearing in a New Year’s Six bowl game last season, there’s hope that streak could finally come to an end.
Three Reasons Why Mississippi State Will Win the SEC West
1. Dak Prescott is the Best QB in the SEC
The most important performance in Mississippi State’s historic 2014 season came from its quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound dual threat threw for a school-record 3,449 yards, added another 986 yards on the ground, and took part in part in 42 touchdowns, another of the 12 total school records Prescott set last season.
With the departures of Bo Wallace at Ole Miss and Nick Marshall at Auburn, Prescott’s 20 career starts now rank behind only Arkansas signal-caller Brandon Allen in terms of starting experience among SEC QBs. But more importantly, Prescott ranks first at his position in terms of overall talent. He was a Heisman Trophy contender most of last season, and has the ability to win the award in 2015.
Basically, with Prescott alone, the Bulldogs have a chance to beat any team on their schedule. With a prototype NFL wide receiver like De’Runnya Wilson available to him — especially in the red zone — the chances are even better.
2. The Schedule is Manageable
The SEC West is still the toughest division in college football, and Mississippi State has to play each of the other six members in the division, so it’s important to note that “manageable” and “easy” are two very different things. That said, Mississippi State’s 2015 schedule is manageable.
First, the Bulldogs start SEC play at home against LSU. The Tigers are on the upswing, but they’re still vulnerable because of the questions at the quarterback position and the Bulldogs have the benefit of playing them in early September. The next two SEC games are on the road against Auburn and Texas A&M, both of whom will still be adjusting to new defensive coordinators, which creates an opportunity for the high-octane State offense to outscore the Tigers and Aggies.
In late October, State hosts cross-division rival Kentucky and then travels to Columbia, Missouri, for a tricky Thursday night road game against SEC East champ Mizzou. But, the Tigers are very vulnerable in 2015 due to their roster turnover. The Bulldogs finish the season with a very tough stretch, but it lines up relatively well. They have Alabama at home where 63,000 cowbells will be ringing, then play a talented but beatable Arkansas squad in Fayetteville. Finally, MSU hosts Ole Miss in Starkville, where the Rebels haven’t won since 2003.
Simply put, there is no impossible situation for the Bulldogs in 2015.
3. Dan Mullen Has Elevated the Talent Level in Starkville
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is 46-31 through his first six seasons with the Bulldogs. It’s a modest record by most standards, but Mullen is quickly climbing MSU’s all-time wins list. State has gone to a bowl game in each of the last five seasons, which is a school record.
Mullen and his coaching staff have had that uncharacteristic success in Starkville because they have recruited well, and developed that talent while finding a few diamonds in the rough along the way. Since 2012, Mississippi State has an average recruiting ranking of 10th in the SEC, according to 247Sports. That’s far from elite, but No. 10 in the SEC is usually good for a spot in the top 25 or 30 nationally and the talent gap between a top-five program and a top-25 program isn’t very big. Also, unlike his predecessors, Mullen has been able to land some top-flight talent like defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Jamal Peters, all of whom ranked among the top 10 nationally at their respective positions coming out of high school.
Plus, Mullen and company have done as well as anyone in the league developing lightly recruited players. For example, Prescott was an overlooked three-star QB prospect from Louisiana that didn’t receive attention from LSU until it was too late and Wilson was primarily a basketball player not ranked among the nation’s top 150 wide receivers as a high school senior. Benardrick McKinney was a two-star quarterback before signing with the Bulldogs, moving to linebacker and becoming a second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Three Reasons Why Mississippi State Won’t Win the SEC West
1. Too Much Turnover
The biggest concern facing Mississippi State this season is the need to replace many important pieces of the 2014 squad. Only seven combined full-time starters are back: three on defense and four on offense. That makes the Bulldogs the most inexperienced team in the league. The offensive line is among the most depleted units, and with only 32 career starts back in 2015, the O-line ranks 118th out of 128 FBS programs in terms of starting experience.
Yes, the talent pool is larger than it was when Mullen took over, and the roster as a whole is deeper. However, it’s tough to expect a team to compete for an SEC West title when two-thirds of last season’s starters are no longer part of the football program – even if that team were Alabama, Auburn or LSU.
Last season’s backups were backups for a reason, and highly recruited freshmen are still 18 and 19 years old. In both instances, it’s hard to imagine that Mississippi State will be better off playing last year’s backups and true freshmen that have zero experience.
2. Poor Pass Defense
Last season, Mississippi State allowed 272.8 passing yards per game, which made the Bulldogs the worst pass defense in the SEC and No. 114 among 128 FBS teams. Referring back to the points above, State lost three starters from last year’s secondary, as well as top pass rusher Preston Smith, who helped the secondary by pressuring quarterbacks into checking down, throwing passes away or taking sacks. Smith led the way in sacks with nine.
Even if Will Redmond — a top-10 cornerback prospect according to NFLDraftScout.com — is an upgrade as a new starter at corner, the odds aren’t very good that the Bulldogs will be better equipped to shut down opponents in the passing game.
Unless new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is able to work the same type of magic that helped his 2014 Louisiana Tech defense lead the nation in turnovers, the Bulldogs could be in big trouble against strong passing teams like Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and will probably struggle to stop mid-level passing attacks like Auburn and Alabama.
3. Depth Deficiency
Even if the replacements in 2015 turn out to be just as good as the starters from '14, the Bulldogs' depth chart is decidedly thinner across the board.
Mullen made a consistent effort to rotate players onto the field early in the season, which has given his backups more live-game experience than the average SEC second-teamer. In theory, that helps build depth in the two-deep and better prepares those backups to become starters in later years. But because of the sheer number of players that must be replaced (14 starters, 32.8 percent of 2014 letter winners, 31.1 percent of offensive yards, and 39.6 percent of tackles from last season according to Phil Steele), including talented players and recent NFL draft picks like McKinney, Smith, linebacker Matthew Wells and running back Josh Robinson, there are major concerns.
But aside from just replacing last year’s production, the thinnest margin of error is at the quarterback position. Junior backup Damian Williams (who is a candidate to redshirt) and redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald are both talented, but neither is anywhere close to the level of Prescott.
If something happens to State’s top signal-caller — which is more likely than ever because he’ll have a weaker offensive line and is likely to be leaned on even more heavily in the running game — the Bulldogs will be in big, big trouble.
The Mississippi State football program is in a much better place than it was when Mullen took over. Mullen and his coaching staff have worked extremely hard to make the Bulldogs a better program in 2015 than they were just a couple of years ago.
However, the loss of personnel from last season’s 10-win, SEC West-contending team is just too much to overcome. Even with the momentum of last season, even with talented playmakers on offense, including the league’s top QB, and even with players that gained valuable on-field experience in backup roles last season, there are too many question marks that need answers.
Even if the Bulldogs were somehow able to fill every hole, the brutal SEC schedule makes it nearly impossible. Sure, State will probably score a major upset or two, but to make it to Atlanta for the first time since 1998, the Bulldogs probably need to go 7-1 in conference play. That’s just not a realistic expectation.
Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West during SEC Media Days, and it was a fair prediction. If they avoid last place and make it to a sixth consecutive bowl game, the Bulldogs should be proud. But seven or eight wins are probably the best this team can do.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Oh, the woes of rooting for a popular, historically successful team!
Sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers have sold out every non-strike game since 1972, get on television a lot, and have won the most Super Bowls.
But with that success and popularity comes the demand from networks to have the franchise in an extra preseason game. And so while almost every other team only has to put up with four of these snooze fests this season, the Steelers must have five.
Pittsburgh's record is 1-3. The Steelers have lost 10 of their last 12 preseason games. And considering the sloppiness the Steelers showed when they allowed the last 30 points of Saturday's game, only the most bleeding-hearted of fans will weep over the fact the roster will be trimmed to 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m.
1. Your Flat is Open
Two weeks ago Jacksonville backup quarterback Chad Henne drew great praise by completing 9-of-10 passes for 87 yards against the Steelers, with his only incompletion being a dropped pass.
On Saturday at Buffalo, whose quarterbacks are among the least impressive manning NFL rosters, the Bills' signal-callers combined to complete 30-of-33 attempts for 386 yards. Fourth-stringer Matt Simms, who had competed only three of his eight pass attempts entering this game, was 5-for-5 for 65 yards and a touchdown. Potential starter EJ Manuel also would have been perfect save for one poorly thrown ball to finish his final completed drive in the fourth quarter at a time when the game had played out.
The Bills did it by exploiting the Steelers' new Cover-2 defense. Receivers consistently had room to catch passes as Pittsburgh's cornerbacks seemed to either be lax and allow them room towards the sideline while the middle seemed to be covered by no one repeatedly throughout the game.
The latter circumstance has been a major problem throughout the preseason. In a Cover-2, cornerbacks are often asked to "jump the route" when a receiver slants inside. This can lead to more interceptions, and second-round draft choice Senquez Golson led the SEC in interceptions last season with 10. Unfortunately, Golson has missed the entire preseason and his return status is unclear.
And where are the safeties to make the stick?
2. This Man Vick
This preseason has followed a script in which Ben Roethlisberger, when he does play, starts at quarterback, leads the Steelers to an early score, and then fans watch Landry Jones come in and the offense sputters. Against the Bills, despite hints that Roethlisberger might play into the third quarter, he left after a couple of series.
Then came in Michael Vick, telling due to the fact he had just signed and could have conceivably been listed third on the depth chart. But the Steelers aren't paying Vick a million dollars this year to be deactivated on game day. Vick laid waste to the coaches' claim about needing time to learn an offense when he completed four of his five passes for more than 100 yards, including a nifty 63-yard bomb to Martavis Bryant on his first play.
True, Vick did not actually put the Steelers in the end zone. In fact, he struggled in the red zone. But rest assured, Vick is the Steelers' backup quarterback for the foreseeable future. But that leads us to ask...
3. Who Will Replace Bryant?
Bryant had such a good game against the Bills, catching three passes for 138 yards and a touchdown, and even drawing two pass interference penalties, that Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan was praising him to reporters at halftime and following the game. Which leads us to ask who will replace Bryant if and when the Steelers need a third receiver during his proposed four-game suspension to start the season.
Darrius Heyward-Bey did not catch a pass, but neither did Antonio Brown, leading to speculation Heyward-Bey might be held back for the regular season. Despite the fact Heyward-Bey only caught three passes last season one figures a seven-year veteran like him does not need the preseason to get into shape or learn football fundamentals.
Otherwise, Shakim Phillips caught the only pass thrown his way, Tyler Murphy had one reception for four yards, and Sammie Coates was targeted twice but did not make a catch. The odd man out right now would appear to be C.J. Goodwin, a local product from Wheeling and Division II California (Pa.) University but also a player cut last year in camp who hasn't made a catch for two straight games despite starting the Hall of Fame Game and hauling in a touchdown against Jacksonville.
4. No, Not Again
When Garrett Hartley injured his right hamstring in the first half, it meant the Steelers would not have the services of a placekicker and would have to ask a punter kick off. It also now means Hartley is a question mark for the season opener Sept. 10 against New England.
Hartley beat out Jay Feely and Alex Henery when Shaun Suisham was injured making a tackle in the first preseason game and both remain unsigned. Pittsburgh could pick one of those kickers up, or they might wish to wait until the cuts come down by Tuesday and see who is available then.
The question is how serious Hartley's injury is. If he would be out for, say, a month, many teams might just deactivate him. But that would mean having two kickers on the roster, and one wonders if the how effective the new kicker would be with Hartley looking over his shoulder, itching for his opportunity once he's healthy.
5. New Punter
Speaking of the kicking game, it would appear Jordan Berry of Eastern Kentucky has taken the steps to become the new punter. The 24-year-old not only handled kickoff duties after Hartley was hurt, but he punted four times for a 58.2-yard average, including kicks of 78, 66 and 55 yards.
In comparison, Brad Wing had only two punts, though one did go for 53 yards. Berry's 78-yarder went into the end zone, but for a 58-yard net, who cares?
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
In 2015, the most iconic pregame show in college sports, ESPN’s College GameDay, will undergo a changing of the guard. Chris Fowler, who has hosted the show since its inception in 199, will move full-time onto the ABC primetime game of the week, a role he first started last season in conjunction with GameDay.
Hosting GameDay will be Rece Davis, the voice of ESPN’s featured Thursday night game and GameDay Final. Analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit are still on the team, but the field has expanded over the years to include additional reporters and analysts, a guest picker and an extra hour. More changes may be afoot in coming years as Corso, 80, nears retirement.
As GameDay was well on its way to becoming a fixture for college football fans, Athlon’s Mitch Light joined the team for a broadcast during the 2001 season. The broadcast turned out to be “definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay.”
A week earlier, Nebraska and Oklahoma appeared to be on track to play in a game with BCS championship game implications in the Big 12 title games. Both ended up losing, turning the focus on the Florida-Tennessee rivalry in Gainesville.
The following story appeared in regional editions of the 2002 Athlon Sports College Football preview.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Chris Fowler had been watching college football for more than 10 hours. He’s been talking college football since reporting to the set just outside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after 7 a.m.
There is a throng of jubilant Tennessee fans waiting for Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso to film their next SportsCenter segment. But that won’t happen for another 30 minutes. Fowler can sit and relax and watch his alma mater, Colorado, battle Texas in the Big 12 title game from the relative comforts of the ESPN trailer adjacent to the GameDay set.
This has been a typical fall Saturday for Fowler, Herbstreit, Corso and the traveling road show known as ESPN’s College GameDay: attend meetings and rehearsal, broadcast the 90-minute live show, watch games on television, go to the on-site game, watch more games, film SportsCenter segments and watch more games.
Not a bad way to spend 17 hours.
“Doing the show is phenomenal,” says Fowler, who has hosted GameDay since 1990. “It is incredible. That is what you remember every time you whine about a missed (plane) connection or you whine about the hotel check-in desk. You just remember that you are incredibly blessed to be able to do this. Anything you have to do or put up with to make this happen is trivial.”
Fowler has witnessed GameDay grow from a struggling studio show “that was kind of on life support” to arguably the most popular pregame show in sports. “I never would have imagined this,” he says. “It is a unique show. I think the people who watch it have the same passion for the sport that we do and appreciate that we take them to the site of the biggest game each week.”
This week, the GameDay gang is in Gainesville, Fla., for the annual Tennessee-Florida grudge match. The game, normally played in mid-September, has been pushed back to Dec. 1 due the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fans begin gathering around the show’s set at 6 a.m., nearly four-and-a-half hours before the 10:30 airtime. The crowd eventually swells into the thousands and includes Scotty Spurrier, the 14-year-old son of the Gators’ coach. “The atmosphere is incredible,” Fowler says. “It is very hard to show up and give a lame effort when the atmosphere is like this. It is impossible to give a low-energy show.”
GameDay is in Gainesville for the sixth time in the past five years, yet there is still a tangible excitement around campus. “We have been here quite often, but we still had a front-page headline in the Gainesville Sun : GameDay is in Town,” says Steve Vecchione, the show’s coordinating producer since 1994. “The excitement here is great. I don’t think people take us for granted. It is still exciting when we go to a place for the fifth or sixth time.”
Rachel Shapiro, a 2000 Florida graduate, flew down from New York City to watch her beloved Gators — and be a part of the GameDay experience. “The most exciting part of the weekend is the people coming out to watch, getting that GameDay feeling,” she says. “This is the best part of living in Gainesville and going to school here. There is just no better feeling that having a GameDay in Gainesville for a big Florida football game.”
“Like Rock Stars”
GameDay’s popularity has turned Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso into celebrities. In Gainesville, they receive a police escort for the short walk from the ESPN trailer to the stadium. Fans scream their names and reach out for a handshake and high five.
“They are like rock stars,” says Tony Barnhart, a college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who is a regular guest on the show. “Everywhere they go, people go nuts. It’s been great for college football and great for the show.”
Herbstreit, a 1993 Ohio State graduate and a former Buckeye starting quarterback, receives the most attention from adoring fans. He stops for every autograph and poses for as many photographs as possible. “It is part of the business,” he says. “I don’t mind it. I don’t love it, but it’s part of what we do. We are out there in front of people. It is important for us to show how much we appreciate them and the fact that they like our show. We would be silly not to recognize those people who come up to us.”
Herbstreit is known for his youth and good looks, while Corso (top right, pictured in 1982 as head coach at Indiana) is “like your crazy uncle or your crazy grandfather,” according to Herbstreit. “Lee has a unique relationship with most fans across the country. They have a love-hate relationship with him. People get upset with him, but at the same time, they love him to death.”
Corso, a former head coach at Northern Illinois, Louisville and Indiana, has a cult-like following from the younger generation of college football fans. Just off the GameDay set, one young Florida woman holds up a ‘Lee, I’m Pregnant’ sign. Another sign reads ‘Lee Corso is my father.’ The Pike House flies a banner taunting Corso, an alum of the hated Florida State Seminoles. “Kirk always picks (Florida),” Shapiro says, “and Corso is usually the devil’s advocate. It is fun. It fires everybody up.”
Corso shines in the final moments of each GameDay broadcast when he dons the mascot head of the school he is picking to win. The tradition began in 1996 when in Columbus, Ohio, when Corso noticed Brutus Buckeye stroll by the GameDay set. “I decided I wanted to put that head on when I picked Ohio State,” Corso says. “So I asked Kirk’s fiancée (now his wife) Allison, who was a cheerleader, and she went and got the head. We got a great reaction and thought we were onto something. I started putting mascot heads each week and one time I went 16 straight mascot heads without a loss. I was lucky.”
Corso has been with GameDay since 1989. Fowler joined the following year, and Craig James, the former All-America running back at SMU, came on board in 1992. “When we started doing this, the show really didn’t rate very well,” Fowler says. "It didn’t have good games to lead into and the show didn’t know what it wanted to be.
“But then we began to hit on something. The chemistry and liveliness of it kind of jump-started things and people started taking notice. Then we convinced management to take the show on the road and that is what we did in 1993 and that is what has led to the increased popularity.”
South Bend, Ind., was the site of GameDay’s first remote broadcast, and they could not have selected a better game. Second-ranked Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 Florida State in one of the great Irish wins of the Lou Holtz era. The game might have been a classic, but GameDay’s first road show was a rather meager production. “We were set up on the floor of the (College Football) Hall of Fame with a rope around the set,” Fowler says. “And there were some curious people wondering what the hell they were seeing.”
The first show, however, was a huge hit with the viewers, and ESPN decided to take GameDay on the road on a more frequent basis. There were six remotes in 1994 and an average of 10 per year ever since. “We are budgeted for 11 road shows (per year),” says GameDay coordinating producer Barry Sacks, who estimates each show costs “somewhere in the $200,000-250,000 range.”
The on-location setup for each show begins Thursday morning when the stage is assembled. By Friday afternoon, the road show crew has swelled to 50 and consists of on-air talent, an operations manager, two directors, three producers, five cameramen, technicians, a researcher, a make-up artist and a catering company that provides three meals a day to keep the staff well-fed.
"This is a major circus on wheels,” Fowler says. “Our crew is phenomenal. Those guys have been doing this for years and they do their jobs well. They love this sport and they love the idea of doing this show.”
A Great, Gutsy Hire
Fowler’s fears subsided after he met with Herbstreit (pictured in 1992 with Ohio State), who had served as a sideline analyst for ESPN’s college football broadcasts in 1995.
“Kirk was a great, gutsy hire,” Fowler says, “because he didn’t come from a real experienced background and he wasn’t a big-name player. But he was a natural and he had a knockout audition. He seated immensely. He was like Robert Brooks in Broadcast News. He has grown so much and that has been so much of the reason for the popularity of the show. Lee and I have been here and Kirk comes in and brings a real young, energetic, hard-core football mentality to it.”
Herbstreit formed an immediate bond with Fowler, the savvy host, and Corso, the wacky analyst. “You either have chemistry with a group of people or you don’t,” says Herbstreit. “You can’t fake it. You hear football coaches talk about a special chemistry and I think we are fortunate to have that on this set.”
Herbsterit was a loyal GameDay viewer during his playing days and still has the same passion for the game now that he is on the other side of the camera. “We absolutely love what we do,” he says. “We love talking about the games. We are just thrilled that people are enthusiastic about the sport. Even if I had an opportunity to do something else, I would stay in this position because I love college football and all of the emotion that goes with it.”
There is still plenty of emotion on the sidelines in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when the Gator sand Vols take the field for the opening kickoff. Fowler and Herbstreit are situated on the Florida side, while Corso opts for the Tennessee sideline. Simultaneously, Fowler and Herbstreit scan the 85,000-seat stadium and smile. This is the biggest game of the college football season to date in one of the great environments in sports. “This is incredible,” Fowler says, “We love doing the show, but the gravy is getting to watch probably the best game every week from the field and being able to witness places like the Swamp and Tennessee and Nebraska. We get a great opportunity to see the best teams close up. It helps us with our assessments of teams. It helps to get to know the personalities of teams besides just watching them on TV.”
Your Program Has Arrived
When College GameDay shows up on your campus, you know your football program has arrived.
“There is a certain truth to that,” Fowler says, “because in a sense if we are there, then it is the biggest game in the country and if it is the biggest game in the country then your program has arrived.”
Lou Holtz lobbied for GameDay to bring the show to Columbia, S.C., for the Gamecocks’ SEC clash with Florida last November. “I pick up the phone one day,” Sacks says, “and this guy says, ‘Barry, this is Lou Holtz from South Carolina. I just want to let you know that it would be important to the state of South Carolina and to me personally for you to bring your show to South Carolina.’”
GameDay did in fact make its first appearance at South Carolina on Nov. 10, 2002, remarkably just two years after the Gamecocks completed an 0-11 season. “In my first year on the job,” Holtz says, “we asked some of the underclassmen what they hoped would happen for the team before their careers were over. One of the things they mentioned was they wanted to have GameDay come to campus. They said when that happened, they would know the program really arrived.”
GameDay in Columbia attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000 for a pregame show that ended seven-and-a-half hours prior to kickoff. “Coach (Holtz) promised me a great atmosphere,” Sacks says. “I knew there would be. They have great fans.”
Nebraska currently holds the GameDay attendance record (15,800 for the Oklahoma game last October), while Kansas State has drawn two 15,000-plus crowds in the past several years. “It’s all unofficial and all in good fun,” Vecchione says.
Fowler enjoys being a part of the college football experience each Saturday, but he never wants the show to be bigger than the games. “I don’t like to get too caught up in what we mean,” he says, “We are never going to be the show. The game is the big deal and that is the way it should be. We are just happy to be a small part of it.”
The show, however, influences public perception. When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso speak, people listen. “What happens on this show reverberates all through college football,” Barnhart says. “That is a statement about them and the people that put on this show.”
GameDay’s influence isn’t limited to the sport’s passionate fans. Coaches and players often tune in on the day of the game to see what is being said about their program or their conference.
“If we have a night game, the whole team is up watching (the show) in the morning because we all want to know what Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit have to say about not only us, but all the games that day,” says Ronyell Whitaker, a cornerback at Virginia Tech. ”And if we have a noon game, we’re all bummed because we know we can’t watch the show.”
And often, things said during a 10:30 a.m. GameDay telecast can serve as motivation for a game later that day. On Dec. 1, the Tennessee Volunteers watched from their hotel in Gainesville as Herbstreit and Corso picked the Gators to roll past UT with relative ease.
“Guys started yelling and banging on the walls of their rooms (after the picks),” UT defensive end Bernard Jackson told The Tennessean. “It got loud at the hotel. We wanted to play them right then.”
Tennessee’s players weren’t the only ones fired up about the perceived anti-UT comments. Long after the Vols secured their 34-32 win — the program’s first victory in Gainesville since 1971 — that throng of jubilant Tennessee fans is still waiting for Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso to emerge form their trailer. It’s almost 11 p.m., but these die-hards have been waiting all day to throw the predictions back at the GameDay experts.
When Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso take the stage for the final time, they are overwhelmingly complimentary of the Tennessee program for its gutsy win at the Swamp. Volunteer fans erupt in the background and belt out a few rounds of ‘Rocky Top.’ And just as another ESPN GameDay comes to a close, Corso puts on a bright orange Tennessee cap. It’s a little late to change his pick, but Corso has jumped on the Tennessee bandwagon.
From Dallas to Blacksburg to Gainesville
During a wild weekend near the end of the 2001 season, GameDay settled on three different locations. Here’s the behind-the-scenes look:
Friday, Nov. 23, 2001
Barry Sacks settles into his living room in Southbury, Conn., to watch the annual Colorado-Nebraska showdown. Like most college football observers, Sacks, the senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s College GameDay, is confident Nebraska will wrap up its fourth Big 12 North title in six years. A trip to the league championship game in Dallas is looking very good for the Husker nation. And with Oklahoma playing host to 3-7 Oklahoma State Saturday afternoon, the dream matchup featuring Nebraska (No. 2 in the BCS) and Oklahoma (No. 3) will soon be a reality.
And this is very good news for Sacks and the entire GameDay gang, who are planning to take their show to Dallas — the site of the Big 12 Championship game — on Dec. 1. Plans for GameDay in Dallas began 11 months earlier after Oklahoma completed its national championship season with a 13-2 win over Florida State. “When the (2000) season ended,” Sacks says, “we were already thinking about Oklahoma-Nebraska playing for the (2001) Big 12 Championship. We want to go to the biggest game each week with the biggest national championship implications. And all along, (throughout) the whole season, it looked like the Oklahoma-Nebraska rematch would be another Game of the Year. Obviously, that is where we try to be.”
So the plans are set. Plane reservations are made. Hotels are booked. College GameDay is coming to Dallas.
But just in case something strange happens, Sacks and Steve Vecchione, GameDays coordinating producer, have been working on alternate plans of attack. “We have (the games) ranked,” says Sacks. “We are going to Oklahoma-Nebraska. But if one of them loses, we are probably going to Miami-Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg) because Miami has a chance to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl.”
It becomes clear in the opening minutes of the Nebraska-Colorado game that the contingency plan might be needed. Colorado’s power running game is completely dominating Nebraska’s defense. Early in the second quarter, Colorado has rolled up 301 total yards and leads the stunned Huskers 35-3.
Sacks calls Vecchione at the office to discus Nebraska’s meltdown. Vecchione is still in favor of Dallas, despite the Huskers impending loss. Colorado has been playing as well as any team in the country and Oklahoma is still very much alive in the championship race. Sacks agrees that Colorado-Oklahoma, because of the Buffs’ dominating showing against Nebraska, is now a viable option, but he isn’t quite ready to commit to any game.
“Colorado-Oklahoma is intriguing,” he says. “Maybe people think that Colorado, coming off their win, can beat Oklahoma, too. But let’s see what happens tomorrow.”
Late Friday night, Vecchione and Sacks dismiss the possibility of moving the show to Gainesville for the epic Tennessee-Florida battle. “There is no way we’re going to Gainesville, right?” Vecchione asks. “As for right now,” Sacks says, “it is not even on the radar screen.”
Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001
All GameDay-to-Dallas discussion ends when Oklahoma State, a 27-point underdog, completes its stunning 16-13 win over Oklahoma. With both Nebraska and Oklahoma no longer in the equation, GameDay bails on the Big 12 Championship Game. “The Texas-Colorado game, though a nice game, really doesn’t have the national championship implications by itself,” Sacks says.
With all of the crazy happenings, the Florida-Tennessee game, which wasn’t even on the radar screen 24 hours ago, emerges as the biggest game of an important Saturday of football. Florida now has a clear path to the Rose Bowl: Beat Tennessee and win the SEC Championship Game. Tennessee’s road is a bit more difficult, but the Vols still have legitimate national title aspirations. “Gainesville is not only not the radar screen, as a start thinking about it, it’s almost a no-brainer,” Sacks says.
With the decision almost official, Vecchione calls the Florida athletic department to inform them GameDay will likely be making its sixth trip to Gainesville.
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001
It’s official. The executives at ESPN agree with Sacks, Vecchione and Chris Fowler, the show’s host, that Gainesville, Fla., is where GameDay needs to be on Dec. 1.
“It was a good decision,” Sacks says. “It was definitely the craziest weekend we’ve had at GameDay. (Gainesville) went from a place were not going to, to the place where we had to be. It is the only one of the three games we considered that we had not booked travel for because there was no way anybody on our show’s staff thought both Nebraska and Oklahoma would lose. That was the only way we were going to Gainesville. Friday night we were going one place, Saturday night we were going somewhere else.
“To me, that is what makes the show as special as it is. We are at the biggest game of the week, regardless of what it takes to get there.”
South Carolina plans to honor the nine victims from June 17 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with a helmet sticker this season.
“The tragedy that happened in Charleston doesn’t just affect people in Charleston; it affects the entire state,” athletic director Ray Tanner said in a release from the school. We feel very much a part of that at the university. Coach Steve Spurrier and University President Harris Pastides felt very strongly that the ‘Emanuel 9’ should be recognized.”
The sticker features the Palmetto tree, with nine doves representing each of the victims.
Here’s a closer look at the sticker on the helmets:
Pittsburgh wide receiver Martavis Bryant’s recently announced four-game suspension could have a larger fantasy impact than teammate Le’Veon Bell’s two-game sentence. Bryant was a big playmaker for the Steelers alongside All-Pro Antonio Brown last season. With his pending absence, it leaves a large hole on the opposite side of the field.
Bryant is of course appealing the suspension which could impact when the suspension is actually upheld, and for how long. Either way, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey stand for more targets, but neither is the downfield or playmaking threat Bryant was.
Wheaton will likely remain in the slot, and without Bryant could see more targets. His value should bump up slightly, but I would not be rushing to the waiver wire, or vaulting him up draft boards to snag Wheaton. I can’t imagine needing to start him in place of Bryant, or if you do you will be in trouble.
Ideally your fantasy squads have adequate depth to replace Bryant with a receiver from another team. Whenever the suspension begins, however, it will greatly impact the Steelers, namely Brown and Ben Roethlisberger. Brown will still remain an elite option and his targets should uptick significantly, but defenses will have an easier time to hone in on Brown without a legitimate deep threat on the other side.
Rookie Sammie Coates is another appealing option, and has looked solid in camp so far. The issue is he is a rookie, and is unlikely to immediately step in to the Bryant role immediately. If Bryant’s suspension is delayed then it is a possibility. Once again though, Coates is unlikely to be worth a spot on your bench in seasonal redraft leagues.
Keep tabs on the news and developments related to Bryant’s suspension, and either way do not overreact by boosting the value of the Steelers’ remaining receivers to fill the void. Their impact is unlikely to be significant.
— Written by Chris Meyers, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the FSWA. Meyers' work appears on many other sites, including socalledfantasyexperts.com. Follow him on Twitter @FantsyChillpony.
Epic disasters bring out the best and worst in human beings. I am not the first person to point out that. However, I can confirm the accuracy of this statement, as this was revealed by the costliest natural disaster and one of the most devastating in United States history.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina ten years ago, some people shared their possessions and even risked their lives to help those affected. People living hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of miles from New Orleans welcomed into their homes some strangers who were displaced by the hurricane. Rescuers arrived by land, air and water to pluck stranded people from rooftops, trees and other precarious locations. Charities arrived to feed and clothe those who had lost everything that they owned except for what they had managed to grab in both hands before fleeing. Heroism and compassion abounded among the devastation then greeted the survivors wherever they arrived.
Others revealed their selfish and malicious nature in response to the devastation. Thugs took advantage of limited and distracted law enforcement in order to loot superfluous items such as overpriced athletic shoes and jewelry. Landlords inflated rents to astronomical levels, knowing how many residents needed places to live and how little housing was available. People found out that family members and friends were of the "fair-weather" variety, with doors shut in the faces of those who were left homeless. Con artists swindled donors out of money intended to aid the victims. Others of the same loathsome ilk did the same to property owners desperate for repairs on their homes and businesses. The slimy underbelly of humanity exposed itself in the days, weeks and months following Katrina's destruction.
Interspersed with reports about the death and carnage were reports related to the football teams that reside in Louisiana. Speculation and rumors floated rampantly. Where would the Saints play their home games considering the obvious damage to the Superdome? Could LSU manage to host games considering that much of its campus and Baton Rouge in general had been turned into a huge evacuation camp? Would Tulane University and Nicholls State University even field teams after their campuses were so devastated that those universities suspended classes for the fall semester of classes? Outsiders, in the media and among the general public, seemed baffled as to why anyone in the state would give any of those teams any thought considering the dire situation in the state's largest metropolitan area.
As someone who endured the ordeal of evacuating from the New Orleans area a day ahead of Katrina's landfall, who briefly returned and saw the devastation then waited out my fate far away from home, I struggle now as I did ten years ago to express the relevance of football games. How could some football games matter to an exile such as myself who was on the verge of losing his career after having no home in which to live in the New Orleans area? If someone witnesses so many familiar sights and sounds being destroyed, ruined or just simply swept away by wind and water in one day, one craves to find that something of value still remains. People hope for a tiny bit of normalcy and familiarity, no matter how trivial that may seem to others.
I sat in a hotel room outside Dallas watching LSU play at Arizona State less than two weeks after Katrina's demolition of my home city. It was supposed to be the second home game. Instead it served as the season-opener on the road. The Tigers blocked a field goal then a blocked punt in consecutive possessions. LSU returned both for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, erasing a 10-point deficit. JaMarcus Russell's desperate pass to Early Doucet in the end zone in the last two minutes of the game pulled out a victory. That result did nothing to alleviate the uncertainty of my future, professional or personal. It did provide a much-needed respite from the stress of thinking about what awaited me.
The next day, I managed to find a bar showing the Saints' game at Carolina. Though I was not watching it in my home, as I would have liked, I still could forget about the maddening uncertainty weighing on my mind for a few hours. The tightly contested game provided a nerve-racking yet healthy diversion from the real drama facing me at the time. The efforts by Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister and the rest of the team during the game and John Carney's last-second, game-winning field goal did not help rebuild anyone's house or restore any businesses. That game did give Saints fans, wherever Katrina had dispersed them, a reason to smile after so much sadness and anger had been consuming them.
In the aftermath of Katrina, so much went horribly wrong in so many ways. However, football provided some glimmers of joy despite the horrors surrounding the area. In 2005, Nicholls State won its conference despite having two non-conference games and multiple practices canceled. LSU won its division and, in an ironic matchup, thrashed a team known as the Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl en route to a finish in the top six of both major polls. A year after the Superdome was the scene of suffering for thousands, Steve Gleason blocked a punt that resulted in the first touchdown scored in the Superdome since Katrina. He set off the first collective expression of jubilation in the city in over a year. The Saints experienced their most successful season up to that point in their history, winning only their third divisional title and advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the first time. When faced with so much negativity, the mere results of football games provided desperately desired relief.
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Running backs are arguably the most valuable position for any fantasy owner, and as such, are targeted early and often during drafts, and that’s no different in NFL or college fantasy leagues. As a result, owners focused on other positions can see top-end talent slip through their grasp.
However, there is always solid talent at the RB position, lesser-known commodities that are often overlooked, but can make or break a fantasy season. In this installment, we look at five potential sleeper college running backs that should help fantasy owners bring home the bacon.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Going into 2014, many people expected Marlin Lane to take over from Rajion Neal as the Volunteers’ lead back. However, that notion was quickly dashed, as Hurd out-carried Lane in all but one game during the season. Lane still managed to get 86 carries, but he’s no longer in the picture, leaving Hurd as the No. 1 ball carrier. Not only does he run well (4.7 yards per carry), he’s also a valuable contributor in the receiving game, recording 35 catches for 221 yards. With a stable of weapons at WR for defenses to focus on (Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Marquez North, Jason Croom, Josh Malone, Preston Williams), Hurd, who’s bulked up to over 240 pounds, should find tons of space to run and be a terror near the goal line. Hurd could be a major coup for owners in the middle rounds once all of the household names are off the board.
Don Jackson, Nevada
Jackson had a solid season in 2014, leading the Wolf Pack in carries (216) and finishing second in rushing yards and touchdowns behind QB Cody Fajardo (957 yards, 7 TDs). With Fajardo graduated, and Nevada breaking in a new QB, Jackson has the potential for a monstrous breakout season. Fajardo had 177 carries in 2014, many of which should fall to Jackson in 2015. Even if Jackson received a quarter of the carries given to Fajardo last season, he would still get more than 260 attempts, which would almost certainly take him over the 1,000-yard plateau. Fajardo also scored 13 rushing TDs last season, so there’s potential for Jackson’s scoring opportunities to increase as well. Even with James Butler in the picture, Jackson should get more than enough carries to be very productive and thrill fantasy owners willing to scoop him up in the later rounds of their drafts.
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
To say that Vanderbilt’s offense was atrocious last year would be putting it mildly. The Commodores were one of the worst offensive units in the country in 2014, finishing 116th in FBS at just 17.2 points per game. The only bright spot to Vandy’s train-wreck of an offense was Webb, who ran for 912 yards on 212 carries. Webb wasn’t particularly flashy, averaging only 4.3 yards per carry, but he did grind out 76 yards per game on a squad that only averaged 109 yards on the ground as a team. Vandy fired offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell in the offseason and replaced him with former Cal, San Diego State and Wisconsin OC Andy Ludwig. Under Ludwig, five different running backs (Shane Vereen, Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, James White and Melvin Gordon) since 2009 have surpassed 1,000 yards, becoming fantasy mainstays in the process. Ludwig has proven he’s a guru when it comes to developing running backs. Couple that with four returnees on Vanderbilt’s offensive line, and everything points to Webb having a great 2015 season. Fantasy owners should grab him with confidence in later rounds.
Storm Barrs-Woods, Oregon State
Barrs-Woods was quite effective last year, averaging a robust 6.3 yards per carry while racking up 766 yards and five scores. The only problem is he didn’t receive enough carries to be fantasy-relevant, as he was second on the Beavers behind Terron Ward (133 to 121). However, with Ward gone, the workload should fall squarely to Barrs-Woods. New Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen has already confirmed Barrs-Woods will see more touches this season, in the range of 20-25 carries per game. Everyone knows that Andersen-coached teams love to pound the rock. In two seasons at Wisconsin, the Badgers finished no worse than eighth in rushing yards nationally. Playing for a coach who loves to run the ball and having little competition for carries is a perfect fantasy recipe for Barrs-Woods. Fantasy owners should be quick to pull the trigger if he falls to them in the mid-rounds; he should be a great RB2 for any team.
Shadrach Abrokwah, UMass
Abrokwah was quite effective last season, rushing for 578 yards and seven TDs on 122 carries. If this doesn’t seem overly impressive, keep in mind that Abrokwah missed the season’s first four games after being ruled ineligible. So, all of his work was done in just eight games. Over those eight games, Abrokwah averaged 72.3 yards per game. If he had not missed the first four games, at his 2014 per game pace, he would have rushed for more than 860 yards. Four extra games would definitely have added to Abrokwah’s touchdown totals as well. With an increased workload, Abrokwah could see a sharp spike in his numbers, as he only received 15-plus carries in four games last season. In three of those he broke the 100-yard barrier and also scored five times. With QB Blake Frohnapfel keeping defenses honest with his arm, Abrokwah should find more than enough room to operate on the ground. In the late rounds of a draft, Abrokwah should be a steal for owners looking for depth at the RB or FLEX positions.
— Written by Andrew Bursey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network.
Every year, there are countless fantasy studs that prospective owners pencil in at the top of their draft boards, both in NFL and college fantasy leagues. The performance of these types of players is generally what makes or breaks a fantasy season. Every year though, there are those sleepers, those hidden, undervalued gems that fantasy owners stumble upon, who can often play a major role in cementing an owner’s place at the top of the standings.
Below, are 5 potential college quarterback sleepers who should help owners bring home fantasy gold in 2015.
Wes Lunt, Illinois
Lunt was having a great season in 2014 until he went down with a broken leg, and missed the better part of five games. Over the season’s first five games, Lunt was as solid as any QB in the country, averaging over 313 passing yards per game, and throwing 13 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Lunt is healthy now, and expected to slip back into his usual slot as the Fighting Illini’s starter. With a solid receiving duo in Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek (when he returns from injury) and one of the nation’s top receiving running backs in Josh Ferguson, Lunt should easily replicate his early 2014 numbers if he can stay healthy, and could be a late-round steal for owners looking for depth at the QB position.
Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
Two seasons ago, Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 TDs with seven INTs, while running for an additional 238 yards and five more scores. In short, he had a fantastic season. He started last season strong by throwing for 313 yards and a TD before injuring his hip, which ended his 2014 campaign. James Knapke was solid in relief, but Johnson is the Falcons’ unquestioned starter going into 2015. Bowling Green returns its top four wide receivers, led by stud rising sophomore Roger Lewis (73 rec. 1,093 yds., 7 TDs). Throw in talented running back Travis Greene, who’s always a threat to break off a big catch-and-run (14.6 ypc in 2014), and Johnson has all the pieces around him to become a nightmare for those fantasy owners not fortunate enough to grab him on draft day.
Matt Linehan, Idaho
Idaho definitely was not a good team last year, finishing the season with a 1-10 record. As a freshman, Linehan understandably showed some nerves, throwing 18 picks to only 11 touchdowns. He did have his positives however, throwing for over 320 yards in four of his first five games, along with nine touchdowns. Linehan’s production should receive a boost this fall, as 2013 receiving leader Dezmon Epps returns after missing all of last season following his dismissal from the team. Epps had 79 catches for 980 yards and four TDs in 2013, and should be ultra-productive again this season. The Vandals lose stud WR Joshua McCain (more than 1,100 yards receiving last year), but in addition to Epps, they also return improving tight end Deon Watson (37 rec., 343 yds., TD), as well as WR Jacob Sannon and RB Elijhaa Penny (combined for 34 receptions in 2014). With a year as the starter under his belt, and a number of returning weapons at his disposal, Linehan’s fantasy stock should definitely be on an upward trend in 2015. He could be a waiver wire gem for owners as the season progresses.
Sam B. Richardson, Iowa State
Can a guy who threw for 18 touchdowns, nine interceptions and 2,669 yards, and ran for 421 yards and three more scores really be considered a sleeper? When you take into account that Richardson plays for the worst team in the Big 12, and that fantasy owners have a tendency to shy away from players on bad teams, Richardson is often overlooked. However, he should be one of the top signal-callers in the Big 12 this year. He’s a dual-threat guy who has shown the ability to make plays with his legs as well as his arm. Richardson’s stock should be aided significantly by the return of a trio of talented wideouts — Quenton Bundrage, Allen Lazard and D’Vario Montgomery. Bundrage missed all of 2014 after tearing his ACL, but had 676 receiving yards and nine TDs in 2013. Lazard led the Cyclones with 45 catches in 2014, to go along with 593 yards. Montgomery had one fewer reception, but led the team in yards with 605. With a group of talented receivers and a relatively soft schedule (games with Northern Iowa, Iowa, Toledo and Kansas), Richardson could be a major contributor for owners willing to take a gamble on him.
Dane Evans, Tulsa
Last season, Evans was hardly a player fantasy owners could count on. Sure, he thew for more than 3,100 yards and 23 touchdowns, which would be solid numbers for any QB. However, Evans struggled mightily with consistency, throwing a whopping 17 picks. While this is definitely a red flag to fantasy owners, Evans should rebound nicely this year. Not only does he have arguably the best wide receiver in FBS to play catch with in Keevan Lucas (101 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 TDs) as well as rising senior Keyarris Garrett, but Evans’ game should definitely improve with the arrival of new head coach Philip Montgomery. Montgomery, the former offensive coordinator at Baylor, was a key figure in the development of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as well as Nick Florence and Bryce Petty, each who became coveted commodities for fantasy owners. Under Montgomery’s tutelage, Evans should see a major uptick in production, and become a reliable QB2 for fantasy owners.
— Written by Andrew Bursey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network.
The Miami Dolphins are 0-2 in this preseason, but their record can be a bit deceiving. While the Dolphins have lost to both the Chicago Bears and the Carolina Panthers, their first-team offense and defense have played well in each contest.
In the third preseason game on Saturday, the Atlanta Falcons will present the Dolphins with their biggest challenge so far.
Here are the five things to observe in Miami's game against Atlanta on Saturday.
1. Who Will Play At Left Tackle?
Branden Albert is still recovering from his ACL and MCL tear and the Dolphins don’t expect to have him back until the start of the regular season. Backup left tackle Jason Fox suffered a concussion against the Panthers last week and is questionable to play against the Falcons.
If Fox cannot play, that would leave either Dallas Thomas or Jeff Linkenbach to play left tackle. Head coach Joe Philbin isn’t sure who will line up on the left side if Fox cannot go.
“We’ll have to figure that out during the course of the practice week, said Philbin. “We’ll take a look. Dallas Thomas has played tackle in this league in games and we’ll take a look at him. Jeff Linkenbach has played tackle in this league in games. We’ve had (Donald) Hawkins play and (Audrey) Walker play. We’ll get an idea as the week unfolds what’s the best combination.”
2. How Much Will Ryan Tannehill Play?
South Florida reporters such as Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald have suggested that Ryan Tannehill shouldn’t play in Saturday’s game because of the uncertainty at left tackle. Tannehill is expected to play on Saturday, but no one knows how many snaps the quarterback will receive.
If it was up to Tannehill, he wants to be out there a lot with his teammates.
“I expect to play and play as much as I would regardless of who is out there just because those are the guys that are going to be out there when we play in a couple of weeks,” said Tannehill. “Injuries are a part of the game and, like it or not, that’s just kind of the way it is. That’s the risk you take when you play this game. Our guys are stepping up, guys are working hard and people are going to have opportunities, and I want to see them take advantage of it.”
So far this preseason, Tannehill has thrown for 126 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 126.9. With Tannehill playing so well, along with the injuries on the offensive line, Philbin could decide to limit Tannehill’s snaps.
3. How Will the Dolphins' Defense Perform?
So far in limited duty, the Dolphins' first-time defense has been impressive. Last week, the unit produced an interception and two three-and-out possessions against Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense.
This week, Miami will face a high-octane Falcons offense, that’s played well during the preseason. In two games quarterback Matt Ryan has passed for 161 yards, two touchdowns and has a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
"Atlanta is a good team that has been to playoffs before, a well-respected quarterback that I’ve played against before," said Ndamukong Suh. "I’m excited about going against a team like that and I think it’ll be a good measuring stick, but at the end of the day, we’re not playing a full game against them. They’re not going to have their starters or every single piece like it’s a real game, so you respect it and you go from there.”
Miami's first-team defense has allowed just three points this preseason. They will have to play even better if they want to limit the Falcons.
4. Starting Safety
With Louis Delmas out for the 2015 season with his second ACL tear in nine months, Walt Aikens and Michael Thomas are both competing for the starting strong safety spot.
Philbin has been impressed with Aikens dating back to OTAs in June. He also thought Aikens played well in Saturday’s contest against the Panthers.
“I showed him the pictures kind of on the same drive where he was in the alley, he had an opportunity to, they popped a lead draw against us and it got out to him in the alley and he missed the tackle,” said Philbin. “But yet then he came back within the same possession and, on third down, he made a big stop and a big tackle. He’s a young player, but I like the way he’s practicing and doing things.”
With two games left in the preseason, the job appears to be Aikens' to lose.
5. Will Either Kicker Separate Themselves?
When Andrew Franks was brought on to provide competition for Caleb Sturgis, who has struggled in his first two seasons in the league. The problem is, the Dolphins aren’t any closer to figuring out who will be the kicker for Week 1 at Washington.
Sturgis is two-for-two this preseason in field goal attempts and appears to be the leader in the clubhouse. The problem is, Sturgis hasn’t been consistent throughout his career.
If Sturgis kicks well on Saturday, then Miami could include Franks among the first cuts on Sept. 1.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Illinois fired coach Tim Beckman a week before the 2015 season started after the program received the preliminary results into an investigation surrounding allegations about the program. The Fighting Illini will proceed with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit as the interim coach for the upcoming season.
Cubit will have an opportunity to earn the full-time position, but a decision on the coach in 2016 is still a ways away. While athletic director Mike Thomas likely won’t hire a coach until late November or early December, it’s never too early to look ahead.
Here’s 20 candidates to watch in 2015 as Illinois’ looks to find its next head coach:
20 Candidates to Watch in 2015 for Illinois' Coaching Search
Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Aranda has emerged as one of college football’s top defensive minds. He joined Gary Andersen’s staff in Madison in 2013 and guided the Badgers’ defense to a No. 2 rank in the Big Ten (20.8 points allowed last season).
Chris Ash, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State – Ash was hired by coach Urban Meyer to work as the co-defensive coordinator with Luke Fickell last season. And the hire paid dividends for the Buckeyes’ defense, as this unit allowed only 22 points per game en route to a national championship. Ash also coordinated defenses at Arkansas and Wisconsin and is known for his work with defensive backs.
Dino Babers, head coach, Bowling Green – Babers’ first season at Bowling Green was slightly derailed by an injury to starting quarterback Matt Johnson. However, Babers finished 2014 with an 8-6 mark and a MAC East title. Prior to last season, Babers was the head coach at Eastern Illinois (19-7) and made stops as an assistant at Baylor, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Arizona.
Jeff Brohm, head coach, WKU – Brohm entered 2014 as an unknown commodity in his first opportunity as a head coach on the FBS level. But the former Louisville quarterback had a solid debut (8-5 in 2014) and has the Hilltoppers among the favorites to win Conference USA in 2015. Brohm is a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Matt Canada, offensive coordinator, NC State – Canada has worked since 2007 as an offensive play-caller at four different stops (Indiana, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin and NC State). A longshot but ready for a chance to run a program.
Rod Carey, head coach, Northern Illinois – The Northern Illinois program hasn’t missed a beat with Carey at the controls. The Wisconsin native was promoted to head coach after Dave Doeren left for NC State. Under Carey’s watch, the Huskies are 23-6 since the 2013 Orange Bowl. Additionally, he guided Northern Illinois to the 2014 MAC Championship.
Bill Cubit, interim head coach, Illinois – Cubit is a proven coach (51-47 at Western Michigan) and has an opportunity to earn the permanent position with a good season in 2015. Although Cubit is a solid coach and good play-caller, he’s probably a longshot to get the full-time job.
P.J. Fleck, head coach, Western Michigan – Fleck is known as an ace recruiter, and his work on the recruiting trail is starting to pay off at Western Michigan. After a 1-11 record in his debut, Fleck rebounded with an 8-5 mark in 2014. The Broncos are among the favorites to win the MAC West in 2015.
Willie Fritz, head coach, Georgia Southern – Fritz has a proven track record of success at three different jobs. After a 97-47 mark at Central Missouri and a 40-15 record at Sam Houston State, Fritz replaced Jeff Monken at Georgia Southern and guided the Eagles to a 9-3 mark in its first season at the FBS level.
Justin Fuente, head coach, Memphis – Fuente can probably aim a little higher than Illinois. In three years with the Tigers, Fuente is 17-20 and guided the program to a 10-3 record in 2014. He should be a hot commodity at the end of the 2015 season.
Doc Holliday, head coach, Marshall – Holliday was known for his recruiting ability when he was hired at Marshall prior to the 2010 season. And after five seasons with the Thundering Herd, it’s safe to say Holliday is one of Conference USA’s top coaches. The West Virginia native is 40-25 since 2010 and has won 23 games over the last two years.
Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator, Alabama – Kiffin will get another opportunity as a head coach after he was fired at USC during the 2013 season. But he’s got a good job as Alabama’s play-caller and can take his time finding the right position.
Lance Leipold, head coach, Buffalo – Leipold is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks and enters his first season at Buffalo after a successful stint at Wisconsin-Whitewater. From 2007-14, Leipold went 109-6 with the Warhawks and won six Division III titles.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State – It’s only a matter of time before Lembo gets a promotion to a Power 5 program. The New York native is a proven winner at three different programs and guided Ball State to back-to-back bowls in 2012-13. Lembo went 35-22 at Elon from 2006-10 and 44-14 at Lehigh from 2001-05. In 14 seasons as a head coach, Lembo only has one year with a losing record.
Doug Meacham, co-offensive coordinator, TCU – Meacham has never been a head coach on the FCS or FBS level, but he made a significant impact as TCU’s play-caller last season. The Horned Frogs were one of the nation’s most improved offenses, averaging 46.5 points per game. He also coached as an assistant at Houston and Oklahoma State.
Mike Norvell, offensive coordinator, Arizona State – Norvell is one of college football’s brightest offensive minds and a rising star in the assistant ranks. After a playing career at Central Arkansas, Norvell went into coaching in 2006 and joined Todd Graham’s staff at Tulsa in 2007. He followed Graham to Pittsburgh and Arizona State, where he coordinated a Sun Devil offense that averaged 36.9 points per game in 2014.
Barry Odom, defensive coordinator, Missouri – Odom is in his first year at Missouri after a successful three-year stint as Memphis’ defensive coordinator. The former Missouri linebacker will be a FBS head coach in the near future.
Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Rising star in the coordinator ranks was hired away from East Carolina to call the plays for the Sooners in 2015.
Brock Spack, head coach, Illinois State – Spack is a longshot, but Illinois State is 46-26 under his watch and is among the favorites to win the FCS title in 2015. The former Purdue defensive coordinator guided the Redbirds to the FCS Championship game last season.
Bobby Wilder, head coach, Old Dominion – Wilder built the Old Dominion football program from scratch and transformed it into a FBS team ready to push for bowl appearances – all in just seven seasons. Wilder is 52-20 in seven years with the Monarchs and guided the program to a 6-6 record in its first year at the FBS level.
Illinois has fired coach Tim Beckman following the results from an external investigation into the football program. According to an official release from the school, athletic director Mike Thomas indicated this move “was in the best interests of student-athletes.”
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will serve as the interim coach. Cubit was Western Michigan’s head coach from 2005-12 and went 51-47 with the Broncos.
While Beckman’s firing comes as no surprise, the timing - a week before the season starts) – is odd. The fourth-year coach was slated to begin 2015 squarely on the hot seat after a tumultuous offseason. However, the timetable for his firing was expedited after Thomas received the preliminary results into a review of the program.
The release from the school provides insight as to why the program decided to make the switch:
“Thomas learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries. He also said in some instances student-athletes were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren't on the team.”
Beckman will not receive the remaining amount left on his contract ($3.1 million) or the buyout ($743,000).
On this upcoming Tuesday the first cuts of the 2015 NFL season will take place, thus meaning many of the players participating in Pittsburgh's game at Buffalo Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET will be playing in their final game.
Of course, if the player is playing in his final NFL game, and this game is only an exhibition, very few fans will want him to be playing in any other NFL games in the future.
On that cynical thought, here's what to look for when the Steelers play the Bills, which will be broadcast on the NFL Network.
1. Will Michael Vick Play?
The real reason to watch preseason football is to see just how good the backup quarterbacks are. Now, it's a chance to potentially see Vick's first action as a Steeler.
On Thursday head coach Mike Tomlin indicated he did not know if Vick would play Saturday. But it would seem the Steelers are not committing $1 million for Vick to be their third-string option.
If he does play, it will lay waste the coaching excuses that it takes vast amounts of time to learn an offense, if that concept isn't blown away by the fact Vick comes in less than two weeks before the season starts. Vick has been playing football for more than 20 years. He can handle handing the ball off and where receivers should be on post patterns.
If he doesn't, could it be Landry Jones' last stand? Jones has received so much playing time this preseason he has thrown for more yards (500) than any other quarterback this preseason. But one figures he'll have to continue to perform as he did at the end of the Green Bay game to be back for a third year on the Steelers' roster.
One interesting aspect on the Vick signing is it potentially gives the Steelers an option for goal-line and 2-point situations, though that hasn't been utilized this preseason with quarterback/wide receiver Tyler Murphy.
2. Where Does That Leave Tyler Murphy?
To date Murphy has caught six passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. Against Green Bay he made two key catches, first for a 22-yard touchdown to pull the Steelers within a point of the lead in the fourth quarter, then another for 25 yards on 3rd-and-6 that served as the key play prior to Shakim Phillips' game-winning, 20-yard catch.
Phillips himself has averaged 17 yards on six catches this preseason, including a great 35-yard, one-handed grab against Minnesota in the Hall of Fame Game to set up the Steelers' only score in a 14-3 loss. He also dropped a couple of passes against Jacksonville that practically erased that image from fans' minds, but at press time he was still one of only 10 wide receivers to haul in 100 yards this preseason.
With Martavis Bryant potentially suspended the first four games for drug use, a third wide receiver must be found. Happily, it seems the Steelers have plenty of options.
Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey has quietly caught four passes this preseason, one more than he caught in all of the 2014 regular season, and is said to be the leading option as the third wideout. But rookie third-round pick Sammie Coates leads the AFC with 124 preseason receiving yards. Even long shot C.J. Goodwin, 25, a local product cut by the Steelers last preseason, has caught four passes thus far, including one for a touchdown, and started against Minnesota. Goodwin did not play against Green Bay due to injury.
The Steelers generally dressed only five or six wide receivers last season, and as a third-round selection this season Coates is going to make the team. That leaves Murphy, Phillips, Goodwin and potentially Heyward-Bey as the one receiver on the outside looking in when the Steelers play New England to open the season.
What makes Murphy such an interesting wild card is his ability to play quarterback, as he did in the Hall of Fame game. If the Steelers were ever down to having to play their third-string quarterback, it would seem Murphy's legs might be the sort of improvisation needed to succeed in such a situation.
3. How Much Time Will the Starters Play?
Tomlin has hinted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could play into the second half. After so many players have been injured this preseason, one wonders if it is worth it, but traditionally the next-to-last preseason game is when starters receive their longest action.
What player is playing and when could lend to insights as to who will make the team. Furthermore, will running back DeAngelo Williams get a longer stint this week, since he will be the starter in Week 1 of the regular season, and then used sparingly in the final preseason game Sept. 3 in an attempt to keep him healthy, or will Le'Veon Bell continue to see his regular action with the first team?
One interesting note about the starters, linebacker Ryan Shazier is leading the NFL in tackles this preseason with 16, though he has often played longer stints in games than most Steelers on the first team have.
4. How Will Cody Wallace and Doug Legursky Play?
In the 1990s, when Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns were trying in vain to catch the Steelers for division supremacy, Browns center Steve Everitt was developing a reputation as a quality center around the league but became a whipping boy in Cleveland media as frustrations about the Browns' shortcomings became prevalent.
"Just focus in on him when you watch the game!" a Cleveland talk show host told his listeners, which led one to ask who, outside of the Browns' offensive line coach, is so petty and so looking to sharpen long knives they would otherwise ignore the other action in a football game in an effort to gain critical talking points against the center.
But with the left ankle injury to starting center Maurkice Pouncey, one might want to pass a glance or two at who is playing center, Wallace or Legursky?
In years gone by, Legursky filled in when Pouncey was injured for Super Bowl XLV and the divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos the following season. Wallace started the final four games of the 2013 season, and was impressive enough, as the Steelers won three of the four games he started, that he was signed to a three-year contract in the offseason.
Generally speaking, centers aren't noticed unless they have a bad snap. So see if that happens, and perhaps give a look at how often runs go up the middle when Wallace and Legursky is feeding the ball to the quarterback.
There has been some talk Pouncey might be able to return for the end of this season. Hopefully, fans won't be ignoring ball movement and screaming "SEE! He let the guy go past! The running back had to pick up the block and it moved Roethlisberger from the pocket!" by that time.
5. Josh Harris or Jawon Chisholm?
"There's a certain level of urgency that comes with getting back. Those that are injured, like Josh Harris, it's a big week for him." So said Tomlin after the Steelers' 24-19 victory against Green Bay on Sunday.
Harris, a second-year running back out of Wake Forest, was projected to be DeAngelo Williams' backup for the first two games of the season and a potential short-yardage specialist.
Instead, a foot injury suffered in Jacksonville has limited Harris to seven snaps this year and two carries, while free agent Chisholm has taken his place. Truthfully, Chisholm hasn't done much this preseason, gaining 35 yards on 20 carries. But he wasn't even on the team until August, so his stock has been rising. And he hasn't been called out by the coach, either.
Chisholm is a Harrisburg, Pa., native who went to Akron. The rookie is 6-1 and weighs 206 pounds, while Harris, who carried the ball nine times for the Steelers last year, stands 5-11, and weighs 210 pounds. In what is likely a typo, the roster at steelers.com lists Chisholm as 19 years old, but his bio from Akron lists him as being born Sept. 19, 1991.
Harris is 24.
(Michael Vick photo courtesy of www.steelers.com)
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
Despite limping through bowl season, the SEC is still the closest thing to the NFL when it comes to college football. In fact, the SEC West's overall poor performance in bowl games could be attributed in part to the physical gauntlet those teams trudged through the regular season.
As good as the West was last season, it might be even better in 2015. Add in the fact that the SEC East is beginning to resurface and you get a regular season chock-full of intense matchups on a week-to-week basis.
Here is a slew of games that will have SEC fans glued to their TV sets in 2015.
1. Georgia at Auburn (Nov. 14)
Why not start with two teams expected to meet in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game? The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry will feature arguably the SEC's two best teams, both equipped with a stable of running backs. Georgia destroyed Auburn 34-7 in 2014, but there's a good chance the Bulldogs haven't forgotten the "Prayer in Jordan-Hare," which took place a year earlier.
2. Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 28)
Two weeks after hosting the Bulldogs, Auburn will be met with another immense challenge when the Crimson Tide head east approximately 156 miles. Alabama could take a step back in 2015 but it won't matter in this bitter rivalry. Just as Georgia remembers its ill fate to Auburn two years ago, Alabama will be looking to avoid another "Kick Six."
3. Alabama at Georgia (Oct. 3)
The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide look similar on paper heading into the season. Both have questions at quarterback and receiver and both have heavy, capable offensive lines leading the way for an NFL-caliber running back. Defensively, both teams are very good up front. It should be an interesting matchup when these two SEC powers collide for the first time since the classic 2012 SEC Championship Game.
4. Georgia at Tennessee (Oct. 10)
Despite being atrocious the last several years, Tennessee has been within a possession of beating Georgia every year since 2011. Now, the Vols are climbing the SEC food chain and finally have a roster that might be able to get them over the hump. The Bulldogs and Vols will be coming off physical contests against Alabama and Arkansas, respectively, the week before, so they could be sore when they square off in Knoxville.
5. Texas A&M at LSU (Nov. 28)
One could argue this game is too high on the list, but the national media may be overlooking the potential of the Aggies and Bayou Bengals. LSU has pquality depth everywhere besides quarterback and A&M brings back a multitude of starters on both sides the ball. Throw in the fact that former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis will be returning to Baton Rouge with the Aggies and this could have the makings of a showdown.
6. Arkansas at Tennessee (Oct. 3)
This is last year's Mississippi State/Ole Miss. Arkansas and Tennessee are two teams that have dwelled near the bottom of the conference standings recently, but are now poised to compete with the SEC's elite. The key matchup will be Arkansas' bruising offensive line against Tennessee's talented front seven. The Vols lead the series all-time 13-4 but Arkansas won the last meeting, 49-7 in Fayetteville in 2011.
7. Auburn at Texas A&M (Nov. 7)
A stumbling A&M team stunned Auburn 41-38 last year giving the Tigers their second loss of the season. Both programs have upgraded on defense with the hires of Chavis at A&M and Will Muschamp at Auburn. This game could have major implications in the SEC West race come November, especially if those upgraded defenses have these two teams near the top of the standings.
8. Arkansas at Alabama (Oct. 10)
If this game weren't being played in Tuscaloosa, Arkansas would probably hold a slight edge. Expect lots of physical football as the Hogs and Tide try to wear each other down. In 1962, Alabama beat Arkansas 10-3 in the Sugar Bowl. This contest might not look all that different. The Razorbacks were a PAT away from overtime against the Tide last year, eventually losing 14-13.
9. Ole Miss at Alabama (Sept. 19)
The 2013 class signed by Hugh Freeze is one of the biggest recruiting wins in recent history. The Rebels have since molded those players into SEC stars on the brink of a potential championship. Fans tore down the goal posts in Oxford after upsetting Alabama last year, a memory that likely still haunts Nick Saban. The Tide will be motivated and Ole Miss hasn't won in Tuscaloosa since 1988.
10. Auburn at Arkansas (Oct. 24)
Gus Malzahn knows the state of Arkansas well, having coached high school football there from 1991-2005. The atmosphere in Fayetteville is usually electric when Malzahn is in town and it should be no different this year. The SEC West will be up for grabs when these two tangle midway through the season. Malzahn is 2-0 vs. Bret Bielema.
11. Missouri at Georgia (Oct. 17)
The narrative with Mizzou is that they never get enough love and respect from their SEC brethren. It's too bad, but obviously the Tigers have been doing just fine as the underdog, having won back-to-back SEC East titles. Still yet, many believe Georgia and Tennessee are the division's two best contenders. Mizzou will have something to prove when they face the 'Dawgs in Athens. Fun fact: the road team has won this game the past three years.
12. Alabama vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 5 in Arlington, Texas)
If this game doesn't scare Alabama fans a little bit, then well, it should. Wisconsin is coming off an 11-win season, including a bowl win over Bama's evil nemesis, Auburn. Albeit, the Badgers have a new coach, but they also return eight starters on defense. With the Crimson Tide breaking in a new quarterback, expect this to be a battle. Anything can happen in week one.
13. Texas A&M at Ole Miss (Oct. 24)
Bo Wallace led the way as Ole Miss punished the Aggies 35-20 last year in College Station. The 2015 matchup is more intriguing because it will showcase an improved Ole Miss offense and an improved Aggie defense. With A&M's ability to put points on the board and the Rebels' losses in the secondary, the advantage might be with Texas A&M, even on the road.
14. Oklahoma at Tennessee (Sept. 12)
Are the Vols for real? We're going to find out quickly when the Sooners visit Knoxville in early September. Oklahoma won last year's game 34-10 in Norman, but Tennessee is on the rise and some would say Oklahoma is on a descent. The Vols match up well here with an experienced defensive line and secondary. For an Oklahoma team trying to get back to the Air Raid offense, that could spell a victory for the Big Orange.
15. Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 26 in Arlington, Texas)
As stated above, we'll find out early if Tennessee is for real, but is Arkansas? The Razorbacks will face their first true test of the season in "Jerry's World" against the Aggies. They came close to knocking off A&M last year, and in fact, probably would have won the game if not for a late tripping penalty. Two completely different styles will make this an exceptional clash early on.
16. LSU at Alabama (Nov. 7)
Ok, so it's not 2011 but this is still a huge game. Any time the purple and gold meet up with the crimson and white there's bound to be a classic football game. It would be more exciting if this one were played at night in Death Valley, especially considering the fact Alabama blew out the Tigers the last time they visited Tuscaloosa. However, we'll take what we can get. Alabama-LSU is must-see TV.
17. Mississippi State at Missouri (Thursday, Nov. 5)
A Thursday night SEC game in November will have a national audience. After all, what else is there to watch on a Thursday night in November, Survivor? As much as Mizzou complains about not getting respect, how about Mississippi State? The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2014, yet are picked by most to finish last in the SEC West. There will be plenty at stake here as these two teams meet for the first time since 1984.
18. Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
Everyone talks about the way Ohio State and TCU finished the season in 2014, but there might not have been a hotter team at the end of the year than Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets won three of their last four against Clemson, Georgia and Mississippi State. The Jackets return 14 starters and should be anxious to get their hands on Georgia again late in the season.
19. LSU at South Carolina (Oct. 10)
How could we possibly not include the Ol Ball Coach and South Carolina on the list? That's what makes this matchup most fascinating. College football fans get to see Steve Spurrier and Les Miles match wits for the first time since 2008 when LSU beat the Gamecocks 24-17 in Columbia. What will Spurrier dial up against LSU's salty defense?
20. Florida at Kentucky (Sept. 19)
It's no secret Jim McElwain has his work cut out for him in trying to revive a dormant Florida offense. The Gators have some weapons, but it's year one. Kentucky is more experienced all around and has the luxury of hosting the Gators in Lexington. If Florida doesn't come ready to play, the Wildcats are more than capable of beating them. Kentucky will be looking to avenge a poor finish to the 2014 season.
Best of the Rest:
21. Ole Miss at Auburn (Oct. 31)
22. Tennessee at Alabama (Oct. 24)
23. LSU at Ole Miss (Nov. 21)
24. Florida vs. Georgia (Oct. 31 in Jacksonville, Fla.)
25. Missouri at Arkansas (Friday, Nov. 27)
26. Auburn at LSU (Sept. 19)
27. Arkansas at LSU (Nov. 14)
28. Arkansas at Ole Miss (Nov. 7)
29. Tennessee at Florida (Sept. 26)
30. Alabama at Mississippi State (Nov. 14)
31. Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 5 in Houston)
32. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 28)
33. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 28)
34. Kentucky at Vanderbilt (Nov. 14)
35. Ole Miss at Memphis (Oct. 17)
Minnesota’s Thursday night opener against TCU is one of Week 1’s most anticipated games. And what better way to prepare for the opener than with a Frogger-inspired video game?
Thanks to Minnesota’s official Twitter account (@GopherSports), college football fans can have a little fun in the video game form. On Friday, the school released “Go Gopher Go,” a game where Minnesota's mascot (Goldy) tries to dodge TCU defenders, as well as a few other objects to reach the endzone.
No, this won’t fill the void of the annual college football game from EA Sports that’s currently on hiatus. However, it’s a good way to pass the time until the offseason officially ends.
As everyone probably knows around these parts, getting a scholarship as a walk-on is a pretty emotional moment.
Stanford walk-on Craig Jones has put in work, and that moment was thrust upon him when coach David Shaw announced he was now on scholarship. At a school like Stanford, that's something worth getting emotional about.
Jones tweeted about the moment he thought would never come.
Never thought I'd see the day— Craig Jones (@CraigJones_30) August 26, 2015
Aaliyah sang, "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number." The title track off the late R&B singer's debut album may have been released in 1994, well before any of the Pac-12's freshman class were born, but it's a sentiment the group's standouts will prove.
What the conference's top freshmen lack in experience, they make up for in promise. Many will get an opportunity to make an immediate splash on the Pac-12 scene in the upcoming campaign.
CB Ugo Amadi, Oregon
The departures of All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill and Dior Mathis leave a considerable hole in the secondary — typically a strength of the Duck defense. Reports emanating from early Oregon practices suggest Amadi is prepared to help fill the gap. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, the star of this Oregon defense, told Pete Martini of the Statesman Journal Amadi is performing well in practices.
WR Shun Brown, Arizona
Brown joins a loaded wide receiver corps at Arizona, with the Wildcats returning Cayleb Jones, Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey and Samajie Grant from a unit responsible for 3,945 yards of offense. While finding a spot in such a deep rotation is a challenge, the speedy and elusive Brown is reportedly playing his way into a role, per Bard Allis of 247Sports.com.
QB K.J. Carta-Samuels | Jake Browning, Washington
Washington's three-man quarterback race between Jeff Lindquist, Carta-Samuels and Browning appears headed into the Huskies' Week 1 matchup with Boise State. Redshirt freshman Carta-Samuels and true freshman Browning should be in the mix, and starting either signals an investment in the long-term future of Huskies football.
Carta-Samuels has the slight experience edge over Browning as a redshirt. He was Washington's Offensive Scout Team MVP in 2014.
QB Seth Collins | Marcus McMaryion, Oregon State
Oregon State will have a new starting quarterback for the first since 2012 this season. And the Beavers will have two of them.
True freshman Collins and redshirt freshman McMaryion have been locked in such a tight battle that new Beavers head coach Gary Andersen plans to start both.
"I'm pretty impressed with those guys, how they carry themselves," said senior running back Storm Barrs-Woods. "They command the offense pretty well."
An early enrollee, Collins had the opportunity to participate with the Beavers in spring practices. He electrified in his first collegiate workouts, breaking out a front flip in the Beavers' spring game.
RB Dominic Davis, USC
A variety of newcomers making noise in USC fall camp should came as no surprise, given the lofty billing of the Trojans' recruiting class. That Davis is one of those commanding attention is somewhat unexpected, however.
A 3-star recruit, Davis has quickly turned heads with his quick feet and ability to find holes. He was a standout of USC's traning camp-concluding scrimmage on Aug. 22, earning kudos from head coach Steve Sarkisian.
"Dom did what Dom's been doing all training camp," Sarkisian said. "No. 16 showed up today and said, 'You know what? I'm capable of playing football for USC.'"
DE Canton Kaumatule, Oregon
With the departure of Arik Armstead, an opportunity for playing time on the Oregon defensive line is wide open. Kaumatule got a jump on contributing when he enrolled in the spring and particated in practices then. He's now settling into a more prominent role through training camp and preparations for the Ducks' opener against Eastern Washington.
QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
Hype was brewed around true freshman Rosen from the moment he committed to UCLA. The 5-star prospect enrolled early and participated in spring practices, almost immediately leaping to the front of the competition to replace Brett Hundley — at least, in terms of public sentiment.
It took awhile, but Bruins head coach Jim Mora validated that sentiment on Aug. 26 by naming Rosen UCLA's starter for the season opener against Virginia. "Chosen Rosen" has drawn comparisons to Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck — only two of the best college and NFL quarterbacks of the last 20 years. No pressure.
LB Cam Smith, USC
The USC linebacker corps is loaded with talented newcomers. Five-star prospects Osa Masina and Porter Gustin have both seen first-team reps in early-season practices, and you can anticipate both seeing extensive field time come autumn.
Of the group thus far, however, Smith stands out as the leader. His early enrollment allowed him to acclimate in spring ball.
S Marvel Tell, USC
USC played one of the nation's youngest secondaries last season, in part because of lack of depth. A freshman, Tell doesn't make the unit any older, but he certainly gives defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox more option. Along with 5-star cornerback prospect Iman Marshall, Tell was expected to have an instant impact for the Trojan secondary.
While the talented Marshall will indeed see plenty of action, Tell has stood out as a potential starter through initial workouts. He's impressed with his uncanny athleticism and Tell's demonstrated keen instincts while manning the Trojans' backline.
DT Joseph Wicker, Arizona State
In Todd Graham's first two seasons at Arizona State, the Sun Devil defense built around star tackle Will Sutton. Arizona State might have its next Sutton in the talented Wicker.
Scout.com's Chris Karpman reports Wicker is seeing repetitions with the first team, playing both on the interior of the line and in the blitz-heavy devil-backer position. Such versatility goes a long way in the Arizona State defense.
Best of the Rest:
WR Britain Covey, Utah
RB Taj Griffin, Oregon
RB Ronald Jones II, USC
RB Lonny Powell, Cal
OT Keenan Walker, Arizona
Building a winning program in the Pac-12 South is not an easy task. Utah finally figured out the formula for doing it a year ago. The Utes built an identity rooted in aggressive, swarming defense, a bruising running game and spectacular special teams play.
It helped Utah finish with a 9-4 record and notch a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Colorado State even while playing one of the nation's toughest schedules last fall. The Utes ended a season with an Associated Press Top 25 ranking for the first time since leaving the Mountain West Conference.
Duplicating such a feat in 2015 will not be easy. Utah faces four 2014 bowl teams within its own division. The Utes are also one of only a handful of FBS teams who do not play an FCS opponent. The Utes will need to elevate their offense to rise up the Pac-12 South ladder and finally claim a division title – all while grinding through another brutal schedule.
Here's a look at Utah's 2015 schedule, ranking opponents from easiest to toughest:
12. Sept. 19 at Fresno State
Utah's one-time WAC rival is now light years behind the Utes on the football field. Fresno State's porous defense yielded 32.4 points and 456 yards per game a year ago. Travis Wilson shredded the Bulldogs for five touchdown passes in a 59-27 victory for Utah last September. A similar outcome in 2015 will not surprise anyone.
11. Nov. 28 vs. Colorado
Since resuming their rivalry in 2011, Utah and Colorado have fought to the finish each time the two teams have met. The last four games in the series have been decided by an average of 5.3 points. Those nail-biters have favored Utah. The Utes have beaten their Pac-12 rival three straight seasons.
Colorado will not make it a simple task. Nelson Spruce is a dangerous receiver who will test Utah's secondary. Spruce tallied 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. Still the Buffaloes must improve on a 102nd-ranked run defense and a 116th-ranked scoring defense a year ago to keep Devontae Booker and company from shredding it to pieces.
10. Oct. 31 vs. Oregon State
Utah has been caught up in shootouts with Oregon State in past seasons. Each of the last two games has been decided by overtime – with the road team claiming victory both times.
New head coach Gary Andersen returns to face his mentor Kyle Whittingham on Halloween night. It could be a scary proposition for the Beavers. Oregon State must break in a new quarterback to replace Sean Mannion. Returning all five starting offensive linemen and running back Storm Woods should ease the offensive transition. The Beavers also return just two defensive starters. That's not a good formula for new defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake.
9. Oct. 10 vs. California
If California's defense can take some steps forward this season, this could turn into a much more dangerous game. The Golden Bears boasted the 10th-ranked scoring offense among FBS teams a year ago and should be equally potent in 2015. Still, California missed out on a bowl after allowing opponents to score at least 31 points in each of its final 10 games.
Jared Goff enters his third season at quarterback with 7,481 yards and 53 touchdowns in two years in Sonny Dykes' high-octane offense. Cal also returns Daniel Lasco, who piled up 1,115 yards in the backfield last season.
8. Sept. 11 (Friday) vs. Utah State
Utah's oldest rival is coming off the schedule after this season, with no future games lined up beyond 2015. Utah State will be motivated to walk away from the Battle of the Brothers with a final upset. It won't be easy for the Aggies. Utah has won seven straight games in Salt Lake City against Utah State dating back to 1997.
Upset hopes for the Aggies likely hinge on senior quarterback Chuckie Keeton's health. When Keeton is 100 percent, he confuses defenses with his mobility and smart play. Utah State's main strength lies on defense. Linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil set the tone with swarming and aggressive play. Don't be surprised to see a low-scoring dogfight between these two teams.
7. Nov. 7 at Washington
The Huskies have never lost to Utah in eight previous meetings. With Chris Petersen's squad facing major rebuilding this season, that winning streak could end. Washington returns only one full-time starter, Travis Feeney, in its defensive front seven and no full-time starters on the offensive line after Dexter Charles retired from football in fall camp because of injuries.
If that wasn't enough, a freshman quarterback will face Utah's sack-happy defense. Redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning are battling for the starting job. The winner must figure out how to elevate an offense that averaged 30.2 points and 388.6 yards per games in 2014.
6. Sept. 3 (Thursday) vs. Michigan
A rematch with Utah marks the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan. The Wolverines are yearning to dish out revenge after being embarrassed in the Big House last season. Utah did not allow an offensive touchdown in a 26-10 win at Michigan a year ago.
Michigan had one of the nation's worst offenses last season, ranking 112th in total offense. Having Harbaugh at the controls should elevate things. Defense, on the other hand, should be a strong point again. The Wolverines ranked seventh nationally in total defense and return depth and experience across the board – highlighted by senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who registered 102 tackles a year ago.
5. Nov. 21 UCLA
Former UCLA standout Brett Hundley is probably still having nightmares of getting sacked by Utah players. The Utes registered 10 sacks on Hundley to lead Utah to a huge upset win in the Rose Bowl last season. With Utah's defensive line stronger than ever, and the Bruins likely breaking in new QB Josh Rosen, it could get ugly at the line of scrimmage once again this fall.
UCLA does have some experienced playmakers where it counts. Nine starters return overall on offense – highlighted by Paul Perkins, the Pac-12 leader in rushing yards last season. Defensively, linebackers Myles Jack and Deon Hollins create all sorts of problems with the pressure they create for opposing quarterbacks.
4. Oct. 17 vs. Arizona State
The Sun Devils have beaten Utah 11 straight times, dating back to 1976. None of those losses hurt as much as the last pair of setbacks. The Utes blew fourth-quarter leads each of the last two years against Arizona State and lost by a combined four points.
Breaking the jinx might not be any easier in 2015. Arizona State returns seven defensive starters. The Sun Devils also return strong-armed quarterback Mike Bercovici, who threw for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. D.J Foster and UCLA transfer Devin Lucien are both dangerous receivers who can make Bercovici look good. Demario Richard leads a deep and balanced backfield.
3. Nov. 14 at Arizona
Rich Rodriguez has Utah's number. Since Rodriguez took over the Wildcat program, Arizona has beaten the Utes three straight times and averaged 37 points per game in those victories. It won't get easier for Utah against the defending Pac-12 South champions this season.
Arizona still has all the pieces in place that obliterated Utah a year ago. Anu Solmon broke freshman records after passing for 3,793 yards and 28 touchdowns for the Wildcats last season. Nick Wilson powered his way for 1,375 yards in his debut season. Scooby Wright, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, comes off a season where he totaled 163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss and 14 sacks.
2. Oct. 24 at USC
The Trojans were stung by a last-second loss to Utah last season. USC has the tools in place to exact revenge this time around. Few teams can match the explosive potential of the Trojan offense.
Cody Kessler is deadly in quarterback efficiency. Kessler threw for 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions in 2014. Justin Davis and Tre Madden are talented backs that can churn out enough yards to keep defenses honest. USC is just as tough to handle on defense. Su'a Cravens highlights a strong unit, coming off a season where he led the Trojans with three interceptions and 17 tackles for a loss last season.
1. Sept. 26 at Oregon
Utah has struggled to ground the Ducks in recent meetings. The Utes have lost three straight to Oregon overall and has allowed an average of 47.5 points in their last two losses to the Ducks. The task of slowing Oregon down won't get any easier in 2015.
Losing a quarterback like Marcus Mariota might be a blow for most teams. Oregon isn't like most teams. The Ducks still have enough speed, talent and depth at the skill positions that either Jeff Lockie or Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams should be able to keep the offensive engine moving without skipping a beat. The strongest area might be the backfield, where Royce Freeman leads a stable of talented ball carriers.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
Trying to predict the future is hard, especially when it comes to fantasy football, but extremely fun at the same time. But it can also be supremely frustrating. So why do it at all?
Well if you are reading this, you love making predictions. That’s what fantasy football is all about. We all look into our own crystal ball to see which players are going to breakout or be a complete bust and we draft our team accordingly.
Unfortunately more times than not, we’re wrong. But when we’re right, it’s glorious. But sometimes you really have to go out on a limb. So with that in mind, here are 10 bold fantasy football predictions for 2015.
1. Adrian Peterson will score the most fantasy points
The last time Peterson had such a large chip on his shoulder he was coming off a torn ACL and everyone was doubting him, saying that he was coming back too early and that he would never be the same again.
That was back in 2012 and all Peterson did was almost set the single-season rushing record, as he ran for 2,097 yards and scored 12 TDs on the ground. Oh and he also added 40 catches for 217 yards and a score, making him a beast in PPR leagues too.
Fast-forward to 2015 and after Peterson basically took a year off (I’m not going to get into it), he is once again facing the doubters who say that he has lost a step since he is now 30 years old. But this year will be the first season that Peterson is actually featured in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense and the sky is the limit for Peterson.
All-Day is going to challenge Jeremy Hill (see below) for the rushing title and don’t be surprised when he finishes the season with more than 50 receptions and 400 yards receiving. Oh and chalk up about 15 total TDs too.
2. Jeremy Hill will lead the league is rushing
Raise your hand if you thought that DeMarco Murray would lead the NFL in rushing last year? That’s right – no one saw that coming. Hill burst onto the scene last year when starter Giovani Bernard got hurt. Seizing the opportunity, Hill averaged 103.2 yards rushing per game and 5.4 yards per carry over the Bengals’ last nine regular season games, scoring six TDs over that stretch and nine on the season.
Hill is now the unquestioned bell-cow in an offense led by coordinator Hue Jackson, who loves to pound the ball. Plus, wide receiver A.J. Green is now 100 percent healthy and so is tight end Tyler Eiffert, meaning defenses won’t be able to stack the box to slow Hill down. Hill is going to rush for more 1,500 yards this year and score 10-plus TDs. If you can get him in the second round you should thank your lucky stars.
3. Aaron Rodgers will finish the year as the No. 3 fantasy football quarterback
Blasphemy! Not really – hear me out. This is all due to the loss of Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL for the entire 2015 season. Nelson’s loss means second-year wide receiver Davante Adams (and others) need to step up big time.
It’s true that Rodgers (much like Peyton Manning) elevates anyone he plays with to superstar status and Adams will probably finish the season as a top-15 WR. However, until Adams proves himself, defenses probably won’t shade his way like they did last season when Nelson was running routes. This means more coverage underneath where Randall Cobb makes his living. This also means more check downs, which increases the fantasy potential of tight end Richard Rodgers, but lowers Rodgers’ ceiling.
In all probability the Packers will become more of a balanced offence and lean on Eddie Lacy in the running game. This might not be a good idea as Lacy has a concussion history and losing him even for a couple of games would really slow down Rodgers and the offense. Plus Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger will be airing it out this year to better targets operating from more wide-open offenses. Yes, the Seahawks are going to lean more of Wilson this year than Marshawn Lynch. Also you can never count out Drew Brees and Peyton Manning from fighting for the No. 2 spot behind presumed position leader Andrew Luck.
4. Carson Palmer will be a top-8 fantasy QB this year
Injury limited Palmer to just six starts last year. But he was 6-0 in those starts and if you project that out to a full season the Cardinals would have finished 16-0. Okay, probably not, but Palmer’s stats projected over an entire season would have looked something like 29 TDs and 4,300 passing yards. Not bad numbers for a guy who is currently being drafted as a QB22.
The Cardinals will be a very good team again in 2015. Palmer has solid veteran receiving targets in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd (who should be ready to go for week 1). Plus, Palmer has an emerging star to throw the ball to in John Brown, who some have compared to Marvin Harrison and is almost on everyone’s top-10 sleeper list this year.
It’s true that Palmer now has the “injury-prone” label attached to his name, but it’s fair to note that he has started all 16 regular season games six times in his career. He’s a savvy vet that has amazing upside based on his ADP.
5. Brandin Cooks will outscore Antonio Brown in fantasy points
Have you seen the insane chemistry between Drew Brees and Cooks this preseason? In about two quarters of action the duo already has two touchdowns and seems unstoppable. This is against opposing defenses who are playing their starters.
There is no way that Brown can match his stats from last year (129 catches, 1,689 yards, 13 TDs). Brown is very, very good but the Steelers now have more options than ever before with Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, plus don’t forget about Le’Veon Bell.
The Saints on the other hand lost target monster Jimmy Graham and deep threat Kenny Stills in the offseason and while Marques Colston returns, he has lost a step and is no longer Brees’ No. 1 option. It’s true that New Orleans might run the ball more, but don’t forget this is a team led by Sean Payton with Drew Brees as his QB – both these guys love to air it out. Plus while the Saints’ defense has improved, they aren’t great, which means Brees and company will probably be playing from behind a lot, raising Cooks’ value.
Cooks is currently ranked as a WR18 – a complete steal for someone who is going to have 100-plus catches, more than 1,300 receiving yards and 8-plus TDs.
6. David Cobb will win offensive rookie of the year
While it’s true that not many NFL teams were beating down the door to draft Cobb, he couldn’t have landed in a better spot than with the Tennessee Titans, who took him in the fifth round. Cobb is a rugged runner who will enter the year as the Titans’ No. 1 RB. Last year the Titans featured the uninspiring combo of Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene. Sankey is still around and so far is getting every opportunity to be the lead ball carrier and all he is doing is stinking it up.
Coob on the other hand has performed extremely well so far in the preseason and looks like he has the tools to be a workhorse. He ran for 1,626 yards and 13 TDs last year at Minnesota. Those numbers are especially impressive when you consider how anemic the Gophers’ passing attack was last season. Cobb (5-11, 229) is built to take NFL punishment.
7. Eddie Royal will finish the year with 1,200 receiving yards and 8 TDs
So the Bears decide to let Brandon Marshall go and trade him to the Jets for a bag of footballs. And while the team did draft Kevin White with the seventh overall pick, Chicago also signed Eddie Royal to provide depth to its wide receiver corps. Statistically speaking, Royal enjoyed his best season in 2008, when both he and current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were in Denver.
Now with the possibility that White could miss the entire 2015 season because of a stress fracture in his shin, Cutler will be leaning on Royal even more. Alshon Jeffery is still the No. 1 option, but he’s been hampered during training camp and the preseason by different injuries. If Jeffery’s injury issues persist into the start of the regular season, Royal could emerge as Cutler’s No. 1 target. This is great news for anyone gambling on Royal in the late rounds, as offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a history of relying heavily on his No. 1 WR (Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas).
8. Tyler Eiffert will be a top-5 fantasy TE by the end of the year
If you’ve been watching any of the Bengals’ preseason games so far you’ll have noticed that Andy Dalton looks Eiffert’s way a lot. It appears that they have some decent chemistry going into the season. Whether or not you think Dalton is any good doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Eiffert is the No. 2 receiving option on a team that has a very balanced and well-run offense. What makes Eiffert even more enticing his he is currently being overlooked in many drafts and currently has an ADP in the 10th round as a TE10. You can load up on other positions and wait for Eiffert and reap the rewards.
9. Tre Mason will rush for over 1,000 yards
Everyone knows that Todd Gurley is the next great running back. Some have gone as far as comparing him to Adrian Peterson. That might be going a little too far. For one, Gurley has yet to see a single snap in an NFL game. And secondly, he is coming back from a torn ACL and will be playing with a surgically repaired knee.
No one knows for sure when Gurley will see game action, but at least for the first few games of the 2015 season, the Rams will be handing the ball off to Mason, probably around 20 times per game. And Mason is going to take this opportunity and run with it (pun intended). Mason is not going to just let Gurley come in and be the starter when he’s ready. Mason finished the 2014 season with 543 yards over his last eight games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Mason is currently being drafted as a RB31 in the seventh round. That’s extreme value for a guy who is going to be given every opportunity to produce and is going to surprise everyone with the results.
10. Sam Bradford stays healthy and throws more than 30 TD passes
That’s right – this is the year that Bradford puts it all together, stays healthy and plays 16 games and with the tutelage of Chip Kelly, becomes a bona fide star QB.
What’s not to like here? Bradford is the best QB Kelly has ever had in the NFL and don’t forget Kelly was the one who turned Nick Foles into a household name. Bradford has the arm, accuracy and smarts that Kelly loves in his QB. Sure Kelly would love it if Bradford was a little more mobile, but Kelly didn’t trade for the No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 draft because of his ability to make plays with his legs.
The Eagles are going to have a top-5 offense this year. They have added DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews to their backfield. They have emerging stud WRs in Jordan Matthews and rookie Nelson Agholor plus a soon-to-be top TE in Zac Ertz. The best part about Bradford is that he is going undrafted in the majority of standard leagues, so you can go right now and pick him up on the waiver wire. Go do it now.
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
Every season of college football starts out the same way. We have all of these things that we think are knowns — lead-pipe locks as one popular radio host calls them. Then, by midseason, we're all wrong, sitting around wondering what happened to all that we thought was written in stone.
It shouldn't surprise us, considering that we are dealing with young men in their late teens and early 20s, but it always does.
When it comes to the SEC, one of the things we think we know is that, despite not having won the national championship in the last two seasons, it's still the toughest conference. The coaches and media agree, as eight SEC teams appear in the Top 25 of the two major preseason polls. But are those rankings legit, or are we in for a few surprises?
Sounds like a good time to makes some outrageous predictions about the SEC in 2015.
Vanderbilt will go bowling
The Commodores return 16 starters from a season ago and face a very manageable non-conference schedule. Additionally, by way of playing in the SEC East, they get to play two or three teams with some serious question marks heading into the season. All of these things point to a season where we could very well see Vanderbilt win seven or eight games.
Florida won't win a conference game
The Gators may boast one of the finest players in the land in cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, but the rest of the roster leaves a whole lot to be desired. They've got freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen all over the depth chart. They are easily the youngest and most inexperienced team in the conference. To make matters worse, they're going through a regime change. Jim McElwain's first season in Gainesville is going to be long and painful.
Nick Chubb will run for 1,000 yards in September
Georgia loves the spotlight. They love having a guy in the Heisman conversation, and in 2015, Chubb is the guy. Look for him to carry the ball 30 times a game in all four September contests against some extremely suspect defenses. The folks at ESPN and the SEC Network (one and the same) will be ready to shut down the Heisman voting altogether after the first month of the season.
Ole Miss will win the West
The success the Rebels had at the beginning of 2014 was maybe a season too early. Ole Miss will feature one of the nation's top defenses and play in a fairly weak offensive division. On the other side of the ball, the Rebels return every starting offensive lineman and skill player. That will make life pretty easy for quarterback Chad Kelly.
Missouri will win the East for the third straight year
There are only two teams in the country who have played in two consecutive conference title games and return their starting quarterback from a season ago. One is Ohio State. The other is Mizzou. Gary Pinkel and Maty Mauk are the SEC's most successful quarterback/coach combo over the last two seasons. The Tigers have systems that work on both sides of the ball and athletes who are willing to play specific roles to help the team. While everyone else in the SEC East is looking for an identity or to make a move to the next level, Missouri already knows exactly who and what they are.
I spend a lot of time perusing college football message boards and fan groups, usually trying to get a read on how each fan base views its team's chances in the upcoming season. Additionally, I notice plenty of trash talk going on between fans of different teams — which isn't surprising. Many times, the trash talk and arguments are over which program is better, has more history, has more wins in the series, or has "scoreboard" (the last victory in the series).
This gave me an idea. I would create a tournament — much like college basketball's March Madness — where the best programs in college football history were ranked, broken up into four regions, and seeded in a bracket. The teams are ranked and seeded according to all-time wins. I've included the top 32 teams who currently play in Power 5 conferences.
Celebrate, Michigan fans! You got the No. 1 overall seed!
The matchups and results are easy, as they have already taken place. To win and move on, a program simply must have more head-to-head wins all-time than its opponent. In the case of a tie, I would give the win to the team that won the last game (scoreboard). In the event that the two teams have never played, I would give the win to the team with the higher all-time winning percentage.
It's not science, but it works. The best part is, it can change from year to year.
Based on who the top four teams were in all-time wins, I broke the bracket into four geographic regions and gave each of the top four teams a No. 1 seed. I made sure to set up the bracket in a 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3 traditional style, leaving us with this:
East vs. West, South vs. Midwest, winners meet in the finals.
Here's how the brackets turned out:
1. Michigan vs. 8. Boston College
4. Georgia Tech vs. 5. Syracuse
3. Georgia vs. 6. Clemson
2. Penn State vs. 7. Michigan State
1. Nebraska vs. 8. California
4. Virginia Tech vs. 5. Washington
3. USC vs. 6. Colorado
2. Oklahoma vs. 7. Wisconsin
1. Texas vs. 8. Ole Miss
4. Auburn vs. 5. Texas A&M
3. Tennessee vs. 6. Florida
2. Alabama vs. 7. North Carolina
1. Notre Dame vs. 8. Missouri
4. West Virginia vs. 5. Pittsburgh
3. LSU vs. 6. Arkansas
2. Ohio State vs. 7. Minnesota
Using Winsipedia.com, I proceeded to fill out the bracket. Head-to-head records are in parentheses, as well as any other tie-breakers.
Michigan over Boston College (4-0)
Georgia Tech over Syracuse (3-0)
Georgia over Clemson (42-18-4)
Michigan State over Penn State (14-14-1, scoreboard)
Nebraska over California (3-0)
Washington over Virginia Tech (all-time winning percentage)
USC over Colorado (9-0)
Oklahoma over Wisconsin (2-0)
Texas over Ole Miss (6-2)
Texas A&M over Auburn (4-1)
Florida over Tennessee (25-19)
Alabama over North Carolina (1-0)
Notre Dame over Missouri (2-2, scoreboard)
Pittsburgh over West Virginia (61-40-3)
LSU over Arkansas (37-21-2)
Ohio State over Minnesota (43-7)
Michigan over Georgia Tech (1-0)
Georgia over Michigan State (2-1)
Nebraska over Washington (5-4-1)
USC over Oklahoma (5-2-1)
Texas over Texas A&M (76-37-5)
Alabama over Florida (23-14)
Notre Dame over Pittsburgh (47-21-1)
LSU over Ohio State (1-1-1, scoreboard)
Georgia over Michigan (1-1, scoreboard)
USC over Nebraska (4-0-1)
Texas over Alabama (7-1-1)
Notre Dame over LSU (6-5)
USC over Georgia (3-0)
Notre Dame over Texas (8-2)
College Football's Tournament of Bragging Rights Championship
Notre Dame over USC (45-35-5)
So there you have it. Again, this is not science, but something to reference or even do on your own someday. As previously mentioned, these results could change literally every year. For now, however, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and their fans can hold their heads up high. In a sport where your history and the results of your last game means so much simultaneously, Notre Dame wins the argument at the water cooler in 2015.
While every college football team would prefer to have an established, superstar No. 1 running back, using a committee of options is the preferred approach to save wear and tear on the starter. Some teams prefer to split the carry workload close to a 50-50 split or use certain players in situational roles. Regardless of the usage, more teams are looking to a committee of players to establish a rushing attack. And with that in mind, it's not easy to rank the best backfields in college football. Weighing a team with a clear superstar but little depth, as opposed to a team with three proven options and no standout No. 1 option is a tough assignment.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2015 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2015, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2014.
College Football's Top 35 Running Back Units for 2015
The Bulldogs got an early preview of their 2015 backfield after Todd Gurley’s 2014 season ended following a suspension and torn ACL. Nick Chubb rushed for only 224 yards through the first five games but emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs in the second half of last year. The five-star recruit from Georgia finished 2014 with 1,547 yards and 14 rushing scores. Chubb averaged at least 8.0 yards per carry in three of his last five games. Sony Michel also impressed as a true freshman last year, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Michel and Keith Marshall will compete for the No. 2 spot behind Chubb.
A freshman was supposed to make an impact at running back for Oklahoma last season, but most believed it would be Joe Mixon. However, Mixon was suspended for the entire year, allowing Samaje Perine to emerge as the Big 12’s top running back. Perine set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards against Kansas, led all freshman running backs with 1,713 yards and added 21 scores. Mixon is slated to return in 2015, giving Oklahoma a dynamic one-two combination at running back. Alex Ross is another weapon for new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley after averaging 6.8 yards per carry in 2014.
3. Ohio State
With an offensive line that was struggling to find its footing early in the year, Ezekiel Elliott got off to a slow start in 2014. However, no running back was performing at a higher level by the end of last season. Elliott finished with three consecutive 200-yard efforts, including 246 yards and four scores in the national championship game against Oregon. Elliott is one of the favorites to win the Heisman, but he won’t have to shoulder all of the workload. Curtis Samuel is ready for a bigger role after averaging 6.6 yards per carry last year. True freshman Mike Weber may end up as Elliott's top backup at running back by the end of 2015.
T.J. Yeldon left Tuscaloosa for the NFL, but there’s no shortage of talent at running back in Tuscaloosa. Junior Derrick Henry – one of college football’s most physically impressive running backs – is set to take the lead role in the backfield after recording 990 yards and 11 scores last season. Kenyan Drake is back from a serious leg injury to assume the No. 2 role. He will also see his share of receptions as a weapon on passing downs. Bo Scarbrough’s status is uncertain for the 2015 season after suffering a torn ACL in spring practice. Talented true freshman Damien Harris could be the No. 3 back for coordinator Lane Kiffin.
5. Florida State
With Jameis Winston off to the NFL, the rushing attack should be a bigger part of Florida State’s offense in 2015. Dalvin Cook was one of the top running back recruits in the 2014 signing class and averaged 141.3 rushing yards per game over the final three contests of 2014. After accumulating only 170 carries last season, Cook is poised for an uptick in touches and an opportunity to push for All-America honors in 2015. Mario Pender (206 yards last year) is also due for a bigger workload, while true freshman Jacques Patrick will also factor into the mix.
With uncertainty surrounding LSU’s passing attack once again, it’s Leonard Fournette’s show on offense. The sophomore is arguably the most talented running back in college football and should be one of the preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2015. In 13 games as a true freshman last year, Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 scores. While Fournette is locked into the starting job, the backup situation is unsettled. Sophomore Darrel Williams is the frontrunner, but freshmen Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette are expected to see carries.
There’s a new coaching staff, but the gameplan for the Panthers won't change on offense. Running back James Conner is one of the best in the nation and is the reigning ACC Player of the Year. In 13 games last season, Conner recorded 1,765 yards and 26 scores. Rachid Ibrahim was lost with an Achilles injury, leaving Chris James (437 yards) and true freshman Darrin Hall as the top backup options.
Behind a massive offensive line and two of the SEC’s top running backs, the Razorbacks have averaged 200 rushing yards per game in back-to-back seasons. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams finished 2014 as the only running back duo in college football to both reach the 1,000-yard mark. However, the backfield suffered a huge loss when Williams was lost for the season due to a foot injury suffered in fall practice. Collins will step into the No. 1 role after recording 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. True freshman Rawleigh Williams III and fullback Kody Walker provide depth and will help to fill the void left by Jonathan Williams.
The Ducks have produced a 1,000-yard rusher in eight consecutive seasons, and that streak should extend to nine in 2015. Royce Freeman led the team with 1,365 yards and 18 scores as a true freshman in 2014. Freeman is Oregon’s go-to back, but the No. 2 spot is up for grabs after Thomas Tyner was ruled out for the year due to shoulder surgery. Touted freshmen Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James will be needed to fill Tyner’s shoes in 2015.
While most of the attention on Baylor’s offense usually focuses on the quarterbacks and receivers, the Bears have averaged at least 200 rushing yards a game in four consecutive seasons. This year’s stable of running backs might be the most underrated group nationally. Shock Linwood returns after leading the team with 1,252 yards and 16 scores last season. Johnny Jefferson (5.2 ypc in 2014), Devin Chafin (383 yards) and redshirt freshman Terence Williams will compete for carries behind Linwood.
15. Miami (Fla.)
16. Michigan State
20. West Virginia
23. Boston College
28. San Diego State
29. Georgia Southern
30. Appalachian State
32. NC State
34. Texas Tech
35. North Carolina