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Old 08-06-2017, 11:05 PM
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New Oklahoma coach Riley still adjusting
August 5, 2017

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Lincoln Riley is still getting used to his new job as Oklahoma's head football coach.

It would be hard to blame him, given how quickly everything changed. The 33-year-old was promoted from offensive coordinator in June after Bob Stoops abruptly stepped down, and it's been a whirlwind ever since.

Saturday was just another of those crazy busy days for Riley. He spent the morning meeting fans, then addressed the media in the afternoon. Riley is learning how to balance running the team, directing the coaching staff and dealing with off-the-field obligations on the fly.

''I love the Xs and the Os and coaching on the field, but I enjoy the other parts of it, too,''' he said. ''There's certainly more things to keep track of. There's more things running through your head. I've had to delegate more like we've talked about offensively, but so far, I think everybody has done a great job with it.''

Riley joked earlier in the week that he had to remind himself of his new position when fall camp opened. He expects to be more comfortable by the time the Sooners open the season Sept. 2 against Texas-El Paso.

''The first day I had to catch myself a few times, like, `Oh yeah, I'm the guy that's gotta go break `em down,''' he said. ''You know, you get in your same mode for so long. It feels good. There was a lot of buildup and it was a bit of a mad rush there from early June to now, so just to finally get on the field and get going and do what we all love to do - it was good.''

Riley isn't stepping in for just anyone. Stoops went 190-48 in 18 years, with a national title and three other appearances in title games. Stoops still works for the athletic department, and he has helped Riley's transition by attending some practices and offering advice.

''He's not the type of guy who is going to call me every single night,'' Riley said. ''That's just not his personality. He wouldn't do it that way. But he's always available for a call.''

Riley appreciates Stoops' input.

''Always good to hear what he sees,'' Riley said. ''A lot of times, it's just confirming what you think you're seeing. He just wants to be there in any way I or this program can use him. And I certainly will.''

One of Riley's first moves upon becoming head coach was hiring Ruffin McNeill as an assistant. Riley was an assistant for McNeill at East Carolina. McNeill was assistant head coach at Virginia last season before Riley brought him to Oklahoma.

McNeill said Riley is handling things with calm and poise.

''Still keeping everybody accountable and involving everyone on the staff as well,'' McNeill said. ''He's doing a great job himself of just handling the different situations that come with that job. That head coaching job is a three-legged stool. It's wobbly. But he's doing a great job keeping it balanced.''

Quarterback Baker Mayfield said the things that made Riley popular as offensive coordinator make him popular now. He's still brilliant, down to Earth, honest and humble. Mayfield said receiver Jeff Mead razzed Riley for three weeks before he finally upgraded his car.

''He has an ability to adapt to his players and relate to them,'' Mayfield said. ''Coaching-wise, he adapts to our personnel and he calls plays based on that. But he has the ability to relate to them and get the best out of every individual person.''

Riley is adjusting to being the final decision-maker when it comes to discipline. He suspended cornerback Will Sunderland indefinitely after Sunderland was arrested for burglary, and he recently dismissed backup quarterback Chris Robison from the team for a rules violation.

''Certainly, being that person that makes the final decision or has that final talk or whatever it is, that is different,'' he said. ''It's not part of the job I shy away from, but it's definitely one of the worst parts of the job, too.''
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Old 08-13-2017, 04:15 PM
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Florida suspends 7 players for Michigan game.
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Old 08-15-2017, 01:14 AM
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SEC West Predictions
August 13, 2017

1-Alabama Crimson Tide:
Best Players: WR Calvin Ridley, SS Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS Ronnie Harrison, QB Jalen Hurts, RB Bo Scarbrough & LB Rashaan Evans.
Toughest Games: vs. FSU in Atlanta, vs. LSU & at Auburn.
Danger Spots: at Texas A&M & at Mississippi State

Alabama has won 36 of its last 39 games after finishing 14-1 and just one play shy of another national championship. Other than a pair of losses to Ole Miss in 2014 and ’15, Nick Saban’s teams have dropped just two regular-season contests in the last five years. Those defeats came at Auburn in ’13 on the remarkable kick-six return on the game’s final play and the 29-24 home loss to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel back in ’12.

The Crimson Tide return six starters on offense and five on defense. They’re literally five deep at running back and probably have the nation’s best WR in Calvin Ridley. As a true freshman last season, Jalen Hurts had a 24/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 954 rushing yards and 13 more TDs. He’ll face competition from true freshman and five-star recruit, Tua Tagovailoa, who is from Hawaii and came to school early for spring practice.

Another five-star recruit and true freshman is RB Najee Harris, who was also in for the spring. He joins the nation’s premier backfield along with Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons. The defense is led by Minkah Fitzpatrick, a future-first-round pick who had 66 tackles and six interceptions last year. Other standouts on this unit include DB Ronnie Harrison, LB Rashaan Evans, DE Da’Shawn Hand, DT Da’Ron Payne and LB Shaun Dion Hamilton.

Gambling Numbers: The Westgate has Alabama’s win total at 11 (‘under’ -125, ‘over’ +105). The Tide is the +250 ‘chalk’ to win the College Football Playoff at the Las Vegas betting shop. They have -150 odds to win the SEC Championship Game.

Prediction: There’s a strong chance Alabama will be a double-digit favorite in 10 of its 12 games, with the lone exceptions being the opener vs. FSU and regular-season finale at Auburn. You never know what will happen at the Iron Bowl but even if Alabama loses in that spot, it will probably remain on solid footing for a CFP berth if it finishes 11-1. I have Alabama winning the SEC by beating Florida for a third straight season in Atlanta and getting back to the CFP for the fourth consecutive campaign. Bets: I’m on the sidelines here.

2-Auburn Tigers:
Best Players: QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway, PK Daniel Carlson, CB Carlton Davis & OT Braden Smith.
Toughest Games: at Clemson, at LSU, vs. Georgia & vs. Alabama.
Danger Spots: at Missouri & at Arkansas.

Auburn returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense. The 2016 Tigers finished 8-5 straight up and 7-6 against the spread, but they were 7-2 before injuries to starting QB Sean White and workhorse RB Kamryn Pettway derailed the season. They lost three of their last four, mustering only 19 combined points in losses at Georgia (13-7) and at Alabama (30-12). The ’16 defense was outstanding under new coordinator Kevin Steele. This unit gave up just 17.1 points per game and returns nine of its top 11 tacklers.

Although White played well before getting injured last year (9/3 TD-INT), I’m confident Jarrett Stidham will be an upgrade at QB. He was a 5-star recruit in Baylor’s 2015 class. When Seth Russell sustained a season-ending injury, the Bears were undefeated and ranked second in the nation. As a true freshman in his first start the following week, all Stidham did was guide Baylor to a 31-24 win at Kansas State by throwing for 410 yards and three TDs without an interception. In a rain game at home next, Art Briles’s club dropped a 44-34 decision to Oklahoma (but 34 points should be enough to win). Stidham would get injured in a 45-35 victory at unbeaten and No. 4 Oklahoma State during his third start. He left Baylor when Briles was fired, did not play while in junior college last year and arrived on The Plains for spring football.

Gambling Numbers: Auburn is a 34-point home favorite vs. Ga. Southern in Week 1. The Tigers are an abysmal 1-7 ATS in their last eight outings as favorites of 23 points or more, while the Eagles are 7-1 ATS in eight games against SEC or ACC foes dating back to 2011. AU has 30/1 odds to win the CFP at The Westgate. The Tigers have the second-shortest odds to win the SEC (+450, risk $100 to win $450), while their season win total is 8.5 (‘over’ -140, ‘under’ +120).

Prediction: I believe Stidham is going to be outstanding and Auburn has a pair of excellent RBs in Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. The offensive line will be led by third-team All-American Braden Smith, who turned down the NFL to stick around for his senior season. Three starters return on an o-line that’ll be bolstered by a pair of grad transfers. Wilson Bell is expected to start at guard after making 18 starts at FSU, while Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn will provide quality depth. Dunn was an FCS All-American in ’16. Gus Malzahn has brought in a new offensive coordinator in Chip Lindsey, who should work well with Stidham in an offense more suited for a pro-style passer. Even if Auburn loses at Clemson in Week 2 and at LSU in October, it will be able to win the SEC West if it takes a 6-1 conference record into the regular-season finale at home vs. ‘Bama. I think that’s what happens, but I have the Tide prevailing at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Therefore, I think Auburn finishes 9-3.

Bets: I like to have a 1.5-game cushion to play a season win total, so I’m not interested in betting ‘over’ 8.5 wins, especially with the -140 price tag. I’m leaning Ga. Southern catching the huge number in Week 1.

3-LSU Tigers:
Best Players: OLB Arden Key, RB Derrius Guice, C Will Clapp, WR DJ Chark, CB Kevin Toliver & CB Donte Jackson
Toughest Games: vs. BYU in Houston, at Florida, vs. Auburn, at Tennessee & at Alabama.
Danger Spots: at Mississippi State & vs. Arkansas.

LSU went 8-4 SU and 6-6 ATS in a season that saw Les Miles fired after an 18-13 loss at Auburn in Week 4. The Tigers lost three games by eight combined points at Wisconsin (16-14 at Lambeau in Green Bay), at Auburn (18-13) and vs. Florida (17-16), and they dropped a 10-0 decision vs. Alabama in a game that was a one-possession contest for nearly 60 minutes. Ed Orgeron earned the head-coaching gig thanks to a 6-2 record that included wins at Texas A&M (54-39 in the regular-season finale) and vs. Louisville (29-9 at Citrus Bowl).

However, AD Joe Alleva struck out on Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher before choosing Orgeron. Also, he insisted on the Gators coming to Baton Rouge after the originally-scheduled game in Gainesville was postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. As it turned out, the game decided UF’s SEC East fate but didn’t have major implications for the Tigers after they had lost to Alabama and were eliminated from the SEC West race. Not only did Florida win at Tiger Stadium to clinch the East with an epic goal-line stand in the final seconds, but now the Gators get to play LSU at The Swamp in 2017 and ’18. Therefore, LSU plays five SEC road games this year and has just three league tilts at home.

LSU brings back six starters on offense and five on defense. Derrius Guice is a legit Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs while averaging 7.6 YPC despite sharing touches with first-round draft pick Leonard Fournette last year. Guice is poised for a monster campaign behind one of the nation’s premier offensive lines, albeit one that just lost junior OG Maea Teuhema (21 starts as a freshman and sophomore) to a transfer. Nevertheless, the QB position remains a question mark. Danny Etling was adequate in ’16 and is the likely starter again, but he doesn’t scare opposing DCs. He threw for 2,123 yards with an 11/5 TD-INT ratio, but he won’t have talented WRs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural around anymore. DJ Chark will be his favorite target after hauling in 26 catches for 466 yards and three TDs last season.

LSU’s defense lost its top five tacklers. Key, who is projected as a potential top-five pick in next spring’s NFL Draft after recording 12 sacks last year, had offseason shoulder surgery and hasn’t been cleared for full contact yet. His status for early September remains a question mark. Dave Aranda is one of the country’s top DCs, directing a unit that gave up just 15.8 PPG in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: LSU’s win total is nine flat (-110 either way) at The Westgate, which has its odds to win the CFP at 20/1. The Tigers have the third-shortest odds (5/1) to win the SEC. They are favored by 12.5 or 13 points vs. BYU in Week 1.

Prediction: I have LSU going 9-3, losing at Florida and at Alabama. The third loss could come in a number of different spots, perhaps at Mississippi State or at Tennessee and Auburn at home certainly won’t be easy, either.

Bets: I’ll pass.

4-Arkansas Razorbacks:
Best Players: C Frank Ragnow, QB Austin Allen, WR Jared Cornelius, DE McTelvin Agim & OG Hjalte Froholdt.
Toughest Games: vs. TCU, vs. Texas A&M at Jerry World in Arlington, vs. Auburn, at Alabama & at LSU.
Danger Spots: at South Carolina & at Ole Miss.

Arkansas finished 7-6 SU and 5-8 ATS in 2016 after blowing leads at Missouri in the regular-season finale and vs. Va. Tech at the Belk Bowl. The Razorbacks raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead over the Hokies in Charlotte, only to see that advantage evaporate when Justin Fuente’s team scored 35 unanswered points to not only win outright, but to also crush the wallets of Arky backers (like me!!) who lost as a seven-point underdog despite being ahead of the number by 31 points at intermission.

Some pundits have suggested Bret Bielema’s seat could be warming in Fayetteville going into the fifth season of his tenure, but I believe that’s a joke and Arkansas is fortunate to have one of the league’s best coaches (3rd or 4th-best in my opinion). Arkansas had three wins over ranked teams last year, winning at TCU (No. 15 at the time) in double overtime, in addition to home scalps of 12th-ranked Ole Miss and 10th-ranked Florida.

The Hogs, who are 7-1 ATS in their last eight games as road underdogs, return 12 total starters (six on each side of the ball). The defense lost three of its top four tacklers, including Brooks Ellis, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise. Furthermore, the offense lost its best playmakers in RB Rawleigh Williams (1,360 rushing yards, 12 TDs & 5.6 YPC), WR Keon Hatcher (44 catches, 743 yards, 8 TDs), WR Drew Morgan (65/739 & 3 TDs) and TE Jeremy Sprinkle (33/380 & 4 TDs). On the bright side, Jared Cornelius returns after hauling in 32 receptions for 515 yards and four TDs. Plus, juco transfer WR Brandon Martin, who started his career at LSU, is expected to start right away and be a key contributor.

Williams had a breakout 2016 campaign, only to sustain another neck injury during spring practice that prompted him to retire from football. Devwah Whaley rushed for 602 yards and three TDs while averaging 5.5 YPC as a true freshman last season. Also, Bielema has two talented true freshmen backs who will be in the mix and Arkansas was fortunate to land South Carolina grad transfer David Williams, who brings plenty of experience with him.

Austin Allen enjoyed an excellent first season as a starter. He completed 61.1 percent of his throws for 3,430 yards and 25 TDs. The negative stat was his 15 interceptions, but we should point out that he was often under heavy pressure and took a plethora of big hits (although there was ZERO excuse for the pick he threw in the red zone with a 24-14 lead at Missouri). Nevertheless, he jumped back up each time and demonstrated toughness and leadership throughout the year.

Gambling Numbers: Arky’s season win total is 6.5 flat (-110 either way) at The Westgate. Sportsbook.ag has the Hogs with 65/1 odds to win the SEC and 300/1 odds to win the CFP.

Prediction: I initially marked Arkansas with a 4-3 record and five swing games: vs. TCU, vs. Texas A&M, vs. Auburn, at Ole Miss and vs. Mississippi State. For those wondering about the third loss I was confident about (outside of at Alabama & at LSU, obviously), it was at South Carolina, which is certainly a game the Hogs can win. I’m going to call it 7-5 for Arkansas, but eight or nine wins is undoubtedly within reach, especially if they can run the table at home. The key will be the offensive line, a unit that’s always strong under Bielema with the exception of last season. If the o-line is elite and Arkansas can avoid more injuries at the RB position, it’ll be a solid season in Fayetteville.

Bets: I like Arkansas +4.5 vs. Texas A&M (8/12 spread at Sportsbook.ag).

5-Texas A&M Aggies:
Best Players: RB Trayveon Williams, SS Armani Watts, DB Donovan Wilson, WR Christian Kirk & DT Zaycoven Henderson.
Toughest Games: at UCLA, vs. Arkansas (Arlington), vs. Alabama, at Florida, vs. Auburn & at LSU.
Danger Spots: vs. South Carolina (9/30) & at Ole Miss (11/18).

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is on a boiling hot seat going into his sixth season at the helm. The Aggies have finished 8-5 for three straight years, limping down the stretch in each of those campaigns. Sumlin’s squad started 6-0 last year and held a 14-13 lead at Alabama early in the third quarter. However, the Tide would score 20 unanswered points to win a 33-14 decision. A&M lost four of its last five contests with the lone victory coming at home vs. UTSA.

Texas A&M returns five starters on offense and seven on defense, but QB Trevor Knight is gone along with three elite WRs (Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones & Speedy Noil), the NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick (Myles Garrett), two-time third-team All-SEC DE Daeshon Hall and the defense’s two leading tacklers (Shaan Washington & Justin Evans).

Let’s hit on some positives now. Kirk is one of the nation’s top WRs and might be the country’s most dangerous return player on special teams. There are three veteran seniors in the secondary, including All-SEC candidates Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson. John Chavis is one of the nation’s top DCs and has some talent in the trenches with players such as Zaycoven Henderson, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke.

The biggest question mark is at QB. Jake Hubenak has the most experience, starting three games over the last two years while posting a 9/3 TD-INT ratio. He’ll face stiff competition to earn the starting job from redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman 4-star recruit Kellen Mond.

Gambling Numbers: The Westgate has A&M’s win total at seven (‘under’ -130, ‘over’ +110), while the Aggies have 40/1 odds to win the SEC and 100/1 odds to win the CFP.

Prediction: Just like with Arkansas, my first look at A&M’s schedule resulted in a 4-3 record with five swing games. Those include at UCLA, vs. Arky, vs. South Carolina, vs. Auburn and at Ole Miss. I think the Aggies will go 3-2 or 2-3 in those matchups. I’ll say they finish 7-5 or 6-6 depending on how the trip to Oxford goes. The opener at UCLA is obviously pivotal. If A&M loses to the Bruins, it will be 4-1 (at best) going into games vs. Alabama and at Florida. I think the Aggies lose both of those before their open date and wouldn’t be shocked if Sumlin got fired after they get back to College Station from Gainesville. My main reasoning for that possibility is to get an early start on putting an offer on Chip Kelly’s plate that will be tough to pass up.

Bets: Another pass here.

6-Mississippi State Bulldogs
Best Players: QB Nick Fitzgerald, WR Donald Gray, LB Leo Lewis, DT Jeffery Simmons & OT Martinas Rankin.
Toughest Games: vs. LSU, at UGA, at Auburn, vs. Alabama & at Arkansas.
Danger Spots: at La. Tech in Week 2 & vs. BYU.

Mississippi State finished last year with a 6-7 SU record and a 5-8 ATS mark. The Bulldogs dropped four one-possession games, including three defeats by six combined points. They lost the opener vs. South Alabama after missing a chip-shot field goal off the crossbar on the game’s final play, fell in double OT at BYU and went home from Lexington a loser after Kentucky hit a walk-off game-winning FG. Dan Mullen’s team did win outright as a double-digit underdog twice, defeating seventh-ranked Texas A&M in Starkville and blasting Ole Miss 55-20 in Oxford for the Egg Bowl. The victory allowed MSU to go bowling despite a 5-7 record. The Bulldogs blocked a Miami (OH.) FG attempt on the game’s final play to preserve a 17-16 triumph.

There’s plenty of optimism for ’17 based on the return of QB Nick Fitzgerald, who threw for 2,423 yards with a 21/10 TD-INT ratio in his first year as a starter after replacing Dak Prescott. Fitzgerald also rushed for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs with a 7.1 YPC average. Donald Gray will be his favorite target after the senior WR brought down 41 balls for 709 yards and five TDs last season.

The defense will be led by Todd Grantham, the new DC who led the units at Louisville and Georgia over the last seven years. This was considered a big-time hire by Mullen, who has taken Mississippi State to seven bowl games in his eight seasons at the school. Leo Lewis, a sophomore LB, enjoyed a banner freshman campaign in ’16. Lewis recorded 79 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.

MSU has seven starters back on offense and six on defense. Phil Steele lists the Bulldogs’ schedule as the fifth-toughest in the nation.

Gambling Numbers: MSU has a season win total of 5.5 (‘over’ -150, ‘under’ +120). Sportsbook.ag has the Bulldogs with 75/1 and 300/1 odds to win the SEC and CFP, respectively.

Prediction: Mullen is one of the better coaches in the SEC and Fitzgerald is an elite talent who can be the difference in a number of games. Looking at the schedule, I see five wins, three losses and four swing games: at La. Tech, vs. LSU, at Texas A&M and at Arkansas. MSU lost outright in Ruston to a different set of Bulldogs in 2008. Nevertheless, I see MSU knocking off La. Tech this year and winning another one of the swing games to finish 7-5.

Bets: The expensive price on the ‘over’ makes me less interested. I lean to the ‘over’ clearly but I’d keep the play really small due to the juice.

7-Ole Miss Rebels:
Best Players: DE Marquis Haynes, QB Shea Patterson, WR Van Jefferson, LB DeMarquis Gates & OT Greg Little.
Toughest Games: at Alabama, at Auburn, vs. LSU, vs. Arkansas & at Mississippi State
Danger Spots: vs. Vandy (10/14) & vs. Texas A&M (11/18).

Ole Miss self-imposed a bowl ban and isn’t eligible for the SEC Championship Game due to NCAA violations committed on Hugh Freeze’s watch. Freeze resigned before being fired with cause in late July, ending a tumultuous tenure filled with the highest of highs (two wins over Alabama and a blowout win over Oklahoma State in the school’s first trip to the Sugar Bowl in decades) and the lowest of lows (all the lies & NCAA violations, the excruciating losses at home to Auburn in ’14 and to Arkansas in overtime in ’15 & the assbeating taken in last year’s Egg Bowl). More penalties will be levied by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in November, including a likely ban from postseason play in ’18 and maybe even ’19.

Ole Miss finished ’16 with a 5-7 SU record and a 4-8 ATS ledger. The Rebels led at halftime in four of their losses and blew leads of 22 and 21 points in setbacks against FSU and Alabama. The Rebels return five starters on offense and six on defense. Shea Patterson started the last three games of ’16 after Chad Kelly was sidelined with an injury. The five-star recruit, who is now a rising sophomore, threw for 880 yards with a 6/3 TD-INT ratio. He has a pair of extremely talented sophomore WRs in Van Jefferson and AJ Brown.

The defense will be led by senior DE Marquis Haynes, who is one of the country’s top pass rushers. Haynes had 53 tackles, seven sacks, four TFL’s, eight QB hurries, three PBU and one interception last season. Five of the top seven tacklers return, including leading tackler DeMarquis Gates (79 tackles & 4 sacks), and a lot of young players earned valuable playing time in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: Ole Miss has a win total of 5.5 flat (-110 either way). The Rebels are ineligible for the SEC and CFP.

Prediction: Interim head coach Matt Luke has never even been a coordinator before, much less a head coach. Freeze was an outstanding game coach, so he’ll be missed in that department as well. It’s difficult to gauge the morale of this club that’s been mired in the issues created by its former coach for well over a year. I think it’s a 4-8 or 5-7 finish, and then a major rebuild under crippling sanctions for the next head coach.

Bets: I liked South Alabama +26 at Ole Miss in the opener even before Freeze was escorted out (hat tip to the Oxford Eagle). Even with it down to 24 or 24.5 at quite a few books, I still like the Jaguars.
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Old 08-15-2017, 01:17 AM
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SEC East Predictions
August 4, 2017

1-Florida Gators:
Best Players: OT Martez Ivey, WR Antonio Callaway, CB Duke Dawson, DE CeCe Jefferson, CB Chauncey Gardner & PK Eddy Pineiro.
Toughest Games: vs. Michigan (Arlington, TX.), vs. LSU, vs. Georgia (Jacksonville) and vs. FSU.
Danger Spots: at Missouri on Nov. 4 & at South Carolina on Nov. 11.

UF will be looking for its third consecutive trip to Atlanta on Jim McElwain’s watch. McElwain is the first coach in SEC history to win division titles in the first two seasons of his tenure at a school. The Gators probably won’t be quite as salty on defense in 2017, especially after last season’s leading tackler, senior safety Marcell Harris, went down with a torn Achilles in late July. However, the Gators finally appear poised to field an offense that can score.

In McElwain’s first two seasons, UF averaged 23.2 and 23.9 points per game. But the offensive woes at Florida date all the way back to Tim Tebow’s exit in 2009. Since then, the Gators have averaged more than 30.0 PPG just once (30.3 PPG in 2015). Furthermore, every QB that has made a start was either a player that eventually transferred out or transferred in. Those QBs include Jeff Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg, Treon Harris and Will Grier. Two others – Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby – came to UF from other schools, and now Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire is wearing orange and blue.

The reason for optimism on offense extends well beyond the QB position, but even the most talented unit can’t function well without adequate QB play. The thinking in Gainesville is that the arrival of Notre Dame grad transfer Malik Zaire and the presence of four-star redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will cure an illness that’s engulfed the program for seven seasons. Whoever earns the starting job will have weapons galore at his disposal. Callaway, the true junior WR and special-teams ace, is the only player in school history to score five different ways – passing, rushing, receiving, kick return and punt return. He had 54 receptions for 721 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, but his status for the opener against Michigan was in question after his arrest in June for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Now it seems he’ll play, however, after McElwain addressed the media on Aug. 2. When asked if there will be in any Week 1 suspensions, he said “not at this time as long as some obligations are met.” Senior WR Brandon Powell is a three-year starter who’s joined by Tyrie Cleveland, the true sophomore who has NFL size and speed and made the huge play (a 99-yard TD reception) to trigger last year’s division-clinching victory at LSU.

The defense returns just four starters, but that’s a misleading number. When LBs Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone went down with injuries at Arkansas in ’16, true freshmen David Reese and Kylan Johnson were inserted into the starting lineup. Both played well, earned starting experience and will be better for it as full-time starters this year. Also, Jefferson and Jordan Sherit weren’t considered starters, but both took snaps galore and made many big plays in ’15 and ’16. The Harris injury is costly, especially with less depth in the secondary this year. With that said, though, CBs Gardner (MVP of Outback Bowl) and Dawson are All-SEC candidates.

Gambling Numbers: 8/1 odds to win the SEC, 50/1 odds to win nat’l title & a season win total of 8.5 (‘over’ -115).

Prediction: With every prediction I make in August, you go by the presumption that most key players stay healthy. The reality of college football (or pigskin at any level) is that teams will indeed lose key players to injuries or even suspensions in some case. So with that said pertaining to this prediction and the rest of them below, I’m confident in seven wins for UF and then there are five crucial swing games – vs. Michigan, vs. LSU, vs UGA, at South Carolina and vs. FSU. You notice how only one of those five are on the road? (Thanks, Joe Alleva!) In fact, the Gators play only three true road games all year and are likely to be favored in each – at Kentucky, at Missouri and at USC. If things fall into place, this could be a monster season for UF. Then again, the depth on defense isn’t what it has been and if injuries are anywhere near the level of last season (UF won at LSU with seven defensive starters back in Gainesville), things could go south in a hurry. And, as always, until a Florida QB has a big year, that position remains a question mark. Regardless though, I think the Gators are a given to win eight games. I feel it’s more likely they go 9-3 or 10-2. I’ll call for UF to win the SEC East but lose again to Alabama in Atlanta.

Bets: Florida pick ‘em vs. Georgia in Games of the Year (three units). Why? UF’s defensive line eats UGA’s o-line for breakfast, lunch and dinner annually.

2-Georgia Bulldogs:
Best Players: RB Nick Chubb, QB Jacob Eason, RB Sony Michel, DT Trenton Thompson & LB Roquan Smith.
Toughest Games: at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, vs. UF, at Auburn & at Ga. Tech.
Danger Spots: vs. Appalachian St. in Week 1 & at Vanderbilt on Oct. 7.

Georgia went 8-5 straight up and 6-7 against the spread in the first season of the Kirby Smart Era. In fairness, the Bulldogs lost three games by five combined points and one of those defeats came on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play. But they also stole one at Missouri on a fourth-and-10 TD pass in the final minute of a 28-27 triumph. Also, UGA’s 13-7 win over Auburn came when Gus Malzahn’s team had its two best offensive players (QB Sean White and RB Kamryn Pettway) injured, and a victory at South Carolina came before Jake Bentley was inserted into USC’s starting lineup.

Smart’s second squad has seven starters back on offense and 10 on defense. Eason was predictably inconsistent as a true freshman, displaying his NFL arm on plays like the game-winning pass at Missouri and especially on his ridiculous go-ahead TD throw against Tennessee with 10 ticks left. He completed only 55.1 percent of his passes, throwing 16 TD passes compared to eight interceptions. Five of his top six pass catchers return, but his top target Isaiah McKenzie has departed. Chubb and Michel provide UGA with the best 1-2 punch of RBs in the country, but will the offensive line show improvement? This unit, which is ranked just 46th nationally by Phil Steele in his preseason magazine, was dominated by the defensive fronts for Missouri (2.7 yards per carry), Vanderbilt (2.1 YPC), Florida (1.1 YPC) and Auburn (3.1 YPC).

Fourteen of UGA’s top 15 tacklers are back from a defense that gave up 24.0 PPG. This unit is filled with veterans. In fact, only juniors and seniors were listed as starters coming out of spring practice. Thompson, Smith, FS Dominick Sanders and Lorenzo Carter are the leaders on this side of the ball. Smart, who cut his teeth as an excellent defensive coordinator for nearly a decade at Alabama under Nick Saban, should have this side of the ball playing at a elite level in 2017.

Gambling Numbers: UGA has 6/1 odds to win the SEC and 25/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff at Sportsbook.ag. Depending on if you like the ‘over’ or ‘under,’ you probably need to shop around. I’ve seen the Bulldogs’ win total at 8.5 with the juice as high as -135 (Sportsbook.ag as of 8/2), but they can also be found at nine with a price in the -140 neighborhood.

Prediction: The first two games are crucial and it would be ignorant for anyone to think Appalachian St. doesn’t have a chance between the hedges. UGA is currently favored by 14 over the Mountaineers, while most shops with Games of the Year have it installed as a short underdog (I’ve seen it from +1 to +3) for the trip to South Bend to face the Fighting Irish. If Smart’s club wins at UT on Sept. 30, that will make the ensuing trip to Nashville even more challenging. I see Georgia finishing second in the East. I have the Dawgs going 8-4 or 9-3, depending on how their trip to The Flats for the regular-season finale works out.

Bets: I have nothing here.

3-Tennessee Volunteers:
Best Players: WR Jauan Jennings, SS Todd Kelly, LB Darrin Kirkland, KR Evan Berry & TE Ethan Wolf.
Toughest Games: vs. Ga Tech in Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Dome, not Bobby Dodd Stadium), at Florida, vs. Georgia, at Alabama & vs. LSU.
Danger Spots: at Kentucky on Oct. 28 & at Missouri (11/11).

Tennessee finished 9-4 SU and 5-7-1 ATS in 2016. The Volunteers went 2-2 in four one-possession games, beating Appalachian St. in overtime and winning at Georgia on a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play. They lost in double overtime at Texas A&M and dropped a 24-21 decision at South Carolina.

Jones enters his fifth season with a 30-21 record at UT, guiding his team to a 3-0 record in bowl games since limping to a 5-7 record in his first season in Knoxville. He is only 2-2 against Vanderbilt and remains winless against Will Muschamp’s teams in three head-to-head meetings. Many in the media seem to think Jones is on steady footing in terms of job security, but those members of the press have absolutely zero clue.

Jones is a relentless excuse maker who constantly ruffles the feathers of his fan base with asinine remarks like last year’s senior class being “champions of life” (rather than SEC East champs in a division UT was favored to win and was in the driver’s seat of after rallying from 21 points down to beat Florida and stealing its game in Athens). Jones lacked the stones to own his kindergarten-level mistake of note going for two at UF two years ago after his team took a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. In short, he’s a clown who is on the hot seat and will remain there until he takes this program back to Atlanta (in early December).

Gambling Numbers: UT has 20/1 odds to win the SEC and 85/1 odds to win the CFP. The Vols have a win total of 7.5 with the juice toward the ‘over’ in the -130 range. They are +7 at UF, pick ‘em vs. UGA, +24.5 at ‘Bama, -1 at UK, +7.5 vs. LSU & -8.5 vs. Vandy.

Prediction: UT has seven starters back on each side of the ball, but offensive playmakers like Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone are gone. On the flip side, the Vols have their top five and eight of their top nine tacklers returning. With that said, Derek Barnett and key secondary players like Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman have moved on. The QB position is a question mark, making it difficult for pundits to peg this squad in August. I look at the schedule and see a likely 5-2 record with five games I’m uncertain about. Those contests are vs. Ga. Tech, vs. UGA, vs. South Carolina, at Missouri and vs. LSU. The Vols have two weeks to prep for the Gamecocks and will be in revenge mode, but arch-rival Alabama will be on deck to potentially provide a look-ahead scenario. If UT gets quality QB play, I think it can finish 8-4. If the QB play is poor, 6-6 is a possibility. I’ll hedge and say 7-5.

Bets: I want to say fade UT as a seven-point ‘dog at The Swamp. However, I’d like to see who gets both starting jobs at QB (and then see how they play in Weeks 1 and 2) for those division rivals before committing to that wager. I’ll pass on the win total.

4-South Carolina
Best Players: TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, LB Skai Moore, LB Bryson Allen-Williams & QB Jake Bentley.
Toughest Games: vs. N.C. St. in Charlotte, at UT, at UGA, vs. UF & vs. Clemson.
Danger Spots: vs. La. Tech on Sept. 23 & vs. Arkansas on Oct. 7.

I went in-depth on my take on the ’17 Gamecocks and why I love their win total ‘over’ 5.5 victories. They have 85/1 odds to win the SEC.

5-Vanderbilt Commodores: Best Players: RB Ralph Webb, LB Oren Burks, NG Nifae Lealao, SS Ryan White & WR Trent Sherfield.
Toughest Games: vs. Kansas St., vs. Alabama, at UT, vs. UGA, at South Carolina & at Tennessee.
Danger Spots: at Middle Tennessee in Week 1 & vs. Western Ky. on Nov. 4.

Derek Mason’s fourth team should be his best but, according to Phil Steele, it has the fourth-toughest schedule in the SEC and the 15th-toughest in the nation. After 2.5 years of inept QB play on Mason’s watch, Kyle Shurmur caught fire in November and led the Commodores to consecutive home wins over Ole Miss (38-17 as 9.5-point ‘dogs) and Tennessee (45-34 as 7.5-point ‘dogs) to close the regular season and become bowl eligible. Vandy also won at Georgia and at Western Ky., which won Conference USA and finished with an 11-3 record, in addition to a 47-24 blowout victory over Middle Tennessee when Brent Stockstill was healthy. The Commodores, who finished 6-7 SU and 7-6 ATS in ’16, return nine starters on offense and seven on defense. Ralph Webb is already the school’s all-time leading rusher and appears poised for a banner senior campaign. The Gainesville, Fla., product ran for 1,283 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 5.1 YPC last year. Khari Blasingame had a strong ’16 as well in a reserve role, rushing for 449 yards and 10 TDs with a 4.6 YPC average. The top eight pass catchers are back, including Sherfield and C.J. Duncan.

After struggling on defense in Mason’s first season (33.3 PPG), he fired his defensive coordinator to take over that position himself. The results have been great and can’t even really be told in the stats. Vandy gave up just 21.0 PPG in ’15, but that was with an abysmal offense that averaged only 15.2 PPG. Then last season, the Commodores allowed 24.0 PPG while slightly improving on offense with a 23.0 PPG average.

Thirteen of 22 starters, including eight on defense, will be seniors for Vandy. The ‘Dores only lost 19 lettermen, but they lost their best player in LB Zach Cunningham, who went pro a year early after recording 125 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one QB Hurry and one blocked field goal. He should’ve had another forced fumble and fumble recovery at Auburn, but his strip and recovery of the ball on Kamryn Pettway early in third quarter was inexplicably reversed on replay (that clearly didn’t have any evidence to overturn the call on the field).

Gambling Numbers: Vandy has 225/1 odds to win the SEC. The win total varies from six (‘under’ -170 at Sportsbook) to five (‘over’ -135 at South Point).

Prediction: The only victory that’s a given is a Week 2 home game vs. Alabama A&M and the only guaranteed defeat is a Week 4 home game vs. the Crimson Tide. Every other game on the schedule can be won or lost. Vandy lost four of six one-possession games last season. If the veteran-laden ‘Dores can flip that stat, they’ll be bowling again for a second straight year. I’m taking the optimistic view on this team that I thought really turned the corner in November of last year. With 18 career starts now under his belt, I think Shurmur will look closer to the signal caller we saw in November rather than the first two months of ’16. If that’s the case, I see five wins (at Middle Tennessee and at home vs. Alabama A&M, Western Ky., UK and Missouri) and three losses (vs. ‘Bama, at UF & at UT). That leaves four swing games vs. Kansas St., vs. UGA, at Ole Miss and at South Carolina. I’m thinking Vandy goes 2-2 or 1-3 in those four contests, leaving it with a 6-6 or 7-5 mark.

Bets: I lean slightly to the ‘over,’ but I’d keep it at just one unit and wouldn’t play ‘over’ five wins if the price is north of -135.

6-Kentucky Wildcats
Best Players: RB Benny Snell, LB Jordan Jones, SS Mike Edwards, WR Garrett Johnson, DE Denzil Ware & PK Austin MacGinnis.
Toughest Games: at USC, vs. UF, vs. UT, at UGA & vs. Louisville.
Danger Spots: at Southern Miss in Week 1 & at Vandy on Nov. 11.

Mark Stoops was on the hot seat early in his fourth year at the helm, especially after blowing a 25-point lead at home in the opener vs. So. Miss before getting blasted at UF the following week by a 45-7 count. From there, however, the ‘Cats won five of their next six games with the only loss coming at Alabama. They would finish 7-6 both SU and ATS, losing 33-18 to Ga. Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But UK went to the postseason for the first time since 2010 and broke a series-high five-game losing streak to its bitter in-state rival Louisville.

Kentucky returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense. The leading rusher (‘Boom’ Williams) and leader in receiving yards (Jeff Badet, grad transfer to Oklahoma) are gone, but the best players on defense are back. Junior LB Jordan Jones is an All-American candidate who had 109 tackles, four sacks, 11.5 TFL’s, four PBU and nine QB hurries in ’16.

Gambling Numbers: UK has 120/1 odds to win the SEC and 1,000/1 odds to win the CFP. The Wildcats’ win tally is 6.5 (-110 either way at South Point).

Prediction: Stephen Johnson did an adequate job at QB (13/6 TD-INT) after Drew Barker was injured in September. This duo will battle throughout August for the starting gig. The offense averaged 30.0 PPG with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. Williams is gone, but Freshman All-American Snell is back for his sophomore campaign. Snell rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 5.9 YPC as a freshman. I initially marked UK with a 4-6 record with two swing games: vs. Ole Miss and vs. Louisville. I now think the ‘Cats will beat the Rebels, but I’m undecided on the U of L game in Lexington. I think it’s 5-7 or 6-6 for UK depending on the regular-season finale.

Bets: I’ll pass.

7-Missouri Tigers
Best Players: QB Drew Lock, DT Terry Beckner, WR J’Mon Moore, RB Damarea Crockett & DE Marcell Frazier.
Toughest Games: vs. Auburn, at UGA, vs. UF, vs. UT & at Arkansas.
Danger Spots: vs. South Carolina & at Vandy.

Missouri limped to a 4-8 SU record and a 5-7 ATS mark in Barry Odom’s first season as head coach. The offense was vastly improved, going from an anemic 13.6 PPG average in ’15 to scoring at a 31.4 PPG clip last year. The opposite was true on the other side of the ball. The Tigers had one of the nation’s top defenses in ’15, allowing only 16.2 PPG despite having one of the worst offenses in the country. But in ’16, this unit lost Beckner to a season-ending injury last summer and gave up 31.5 PPG.

The offense improved because Lock settled in as a true sophomore, throwing for 3,399 yards with a 23/10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Moore enjoyed a breakout campaign, catching 62 balls for 1,012 yards and eight TDs. Lock has his top four pass catchers back in the mix and a pair of excellent RBs in Crockett and Ish Witter (750 yards LY).

The offense returns 10 starters, while five starters are back on defense (really six, though, with Beckner’s return). The non-conference games should be a breeze and Missouri could steal a couple of home games out of four vs USC, Auburn, UF and UT.

Gambling Numbers: Missouri has 225/1 odds to win the SEC and its win total is 6.5 (‘under’ -145) at Sportsbook. Some spots in Vegas have the number at six with similarly expensive odds for the ‘over.’

Prediction: I have the Tigers going 5-7 or 6-6, so I have no bets on the win total. Many of their games could go either way, especially the ones at home vs. USC and UT, in addition to a road game at Vandy.
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Seven Gators suspended
August 15, 2017

Florida will be without seven players for its first season opener outside of Gainesville since 1987. Star junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway and six other teammates were suspended Sunday for the misuse of funds that are a part of their scholarship provided by the university.

UF will meet Michigan in the lid-lifter for both schools at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX., on ABC at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Most books had Jim Harbaugh’s squad listed as a 2.5-point favorite before this news broke on Sunday afternoon. The Westgate SuperBook immediately pushed the Wolverines up to four-point ‘chalk,’ where the number remained Tuesday afternoon (8/15). Most other shops have Michigan favored by 3.5 points.

The six other players in addition to Callaway include DE Keivonnis Davis, DE Jordan Smith, LB James Houston, OT Kadeem Telfort, DT Richerd Desir-Jones and LB Ventrell Miller. They are suspended indefinitely from all team activities, meaning that more than just the Sept. 2 opener is in doubt if certain demands aren’t met.

“Obviously, I’m very disappointed and at the same time, swift and quick action was taken," UF head coach Jim McElwain told the assembled media on Monday. “With that, we’ve had some guys not with us, been suspended from team activities, will not go to Michigan will not play in that game. Anything further from there, obviously, we’ve got a lot of time now between then and whatever the next thing is. At that point, we’ll kind of move from there.”

We should note that beyond Callaway, only Davis was expected to see significant playing time against the Wolverines. Davis is a reserve defensive lineman who started five games last year, recording 27 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss and five QB hurries.

Callaway is the team’s best player, one who was listed No. 12 on Mel Kiper Jr.’s first Big Board for the 2018 NFL Draft several months ago. He is the only player in school history to score in five different ways – by kick return, punt return, passing, rushing and receiving. Callaway had 54 receptions for 721 yards and three touchdowns in 2016.

Fortunately for UF, WR is its deepest position. Senior Brandon Powell is a three-year starter and sophomore WR Tyrie Cleveland has NFL size and speed, leading most to think he’s poised for a breakout campaign. Remember, his 98-yard TD catch at LSU was the catalyst – in addition to the epic goal-line stand in the final seconds -- in the Gators’ SEC East clinching win last year.

Florida owns the most consecutive active season-opening win streak (27) in college football. The Gators haven’t dropped an opener since a loss to Ole Miss in 1989. However, they’ve faced just two Power Five schools in that span and have played at home in Week 1 ever year since losing 31-4 to Miami at the old Orange Bowl in ’87.

UF will be looking to avenge a 41-7 beatdown from Michigan at the 2015 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines also beat the Gators in a 2007 bowl game, the same year Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.

Who will UF be starting at QB vs. Michigan? That remains a three-man race between redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, a four-star recruit out of Wakulla High School, Malik Zaire, a grad transfer from Notre Dame, and Luke Del Rio, who went 5-1 in six starts last season before getting injured.

Don’t be surprised if McElwain remains coy on his starter against Michigan up until minutes before kickoff at Jerry World.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- Wisconsin suffered a crushing blow last week when All-American candidate Jack Cichy went down with a season-ending knee injury. The senior LB started the Badgers’ first seven games last year before sustaining an injury that kept him out for the rest of the year. Before the injury, Cichy had 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL’s, two PBU and three QB hurries. We should note that Wisconsin went 6-1 in the seven games without Cichy last year, but its schedule was much more difficult in the early going than down the stretch.

-- Kentucky lost one of its starting offensive tackles when fifth-year senior Cole Mosier went down with a season-ending ACL tear several days ago. Mosier logged 13 career starts, including 10 last year, in 32 career games played.

-- Tennessee starting OT Chance Hall is also out for the entire season due to a knee injury. Hall was a Freshman All-American in 2015.

-- Western Kenutcky starting senior CB De’Andre Simmons is out for all of the 2017 campaign with a knee injury. Simmons had 30 tackles, one interception and eight PBU last season. Also, starting DE Tanner Reeves has been dismissed from the program following his arrest early Sunday morning on multiple charges dealing with driving under the influence and without a valid license. Reeves had 17 tackles, two TFL’s and two QB hurries in five starts last year.

-- Oklahoma junior WR Nick Basquine is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Basquine had 20 receptions for 265 yards and two TDs in ’16.

-- Virginia Tech announced Monday (8/14) that redshirt freshman Joshua Jackson will be its starting QB. The Hokies open the season vs. West Virginia in Landover, MY., and are installed as 4.5-point favorites.

-- Speaking of WVU, it has suspended sophomore WR Marcus Simms indefinitely following his recent arrest for driving under the influence. Simms had six catches for 95 yards as a true freshman last season, but he was expected to take on a much larger role this year.

-- After Gary Andersen announced Jake Luton as his starting QB early last week, Oregon State’s Marcus McMaryion elected to leave the team for Fresno State as a grad transfer. McMaryion started the Beavers’ last six games in 2016, throwing 10 TD passes compared to five interceptions. OSU went 2-4 straight up and 5-1 against the spread in his six starts. He can play right away for the Bulldogs.

-- To the surprise of nobody, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn announced yesterday that Jarrett Stidham will be the team’s starting QB.

-- The San Diego State team is dealing with an outbreak of chicken pox, forcing the team to cancel Monday’s practice.

-- One of the most iconic figures in the history of the state of Arkansas, legendary former coach Frank Broyles, died Monday at the age of 92. Broyles led the Razorbacks to seven Southwestern Conference championships and one national title in 1964. After retiring from coaching with a 149-62-6 record in 1976, he went on to become one of the best color analysts ever alongside Keith Jackson in the booth with ABC. Broyles served as Arkansas’ AD from 1974-2007, playing the leading role in the Razorbacks joining the SEC in 1992. This was a pivotal move for the school, one that elevated its national brand and ensured financial security for decades to come, that might have seen itself left out when four SWC schools moved to the Big Eight, prompting the league to change its name to the Big 12. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983. The Broyles Award was named in his honor in 1996, going to the best assistant coach each year. Many of his former assistants moved on and enjoyed great success as head coaches, including the likes of Barry Switzer, Johnny Majors, Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson and Hayden Fry. Gibbs and Johnson won multiple Super Bowls at the NFL level and Switzer won one. Switzer, Johnson and Majors won national titles at the collegiate level. RIP: Frank Broyles (1924-2017).

-- Former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings suffered his second stroke in less than a year when he fell ill Monday morning at a Dallas airport while awaiting a flight to Huntsville, where he was to speak at an event with Pay Dye. Stallings was in stable condition and expected to be ok, according to the most recent reports.
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Heisman Trophy Frontrunners
August 15, 2017

There are roughly 10,000 FBS football players among the 130 schools -- welcome, Coastal Carolina -- preparing for action starting later this month. The NCAA has eliminated two-a-days, one of the few useful things they've done over the last two decades, as teams will now have walk-through practices or weight training instead of two separate sessions of tackling and on-field activities.

We'll see how teams are affected, if at all, but as someone who used to cover two-a-days in the humid, Florida heat at UCF, I'm certain the media appreciates it. It's a good bet that the players who actually had to toil through the tough summer conditions are happy about the change too, but it remains to be seen what effect it has, if any, on the early season.

Will the better athletes be more dominant early since they'll presumably be fresher. Will the less disciplined be more vulnerable? Are teams that return more piece in place going to have an even greater advantage than they already would have?

The college football season has always felt more like a sprint than a marathon, but that seems even more pronounced in 2017 since we get Florida State-Alabama, Florida-Michigan and Texas A&M-UCLA on the opening weekend. Strap in for the bullet train. It speeds up immediately. Here are the 20 names you need to know if you're placing a buck or two down on the Heisman. Not coincidentally, they're the players with the best odds placed on them courtesy of the Westgate, which offered a mid-August update on Monday.

Sam Darnold, QB, USC (9/2): His talent has him atop most draft boards for 2018, but it also doesn't hurt that he's both personable and smart, since this is a popularity contest after all. The favorite for a reason, he's got a favorable schedule, too. Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA all have to come through the Coliseum. His toughest road test will come at Notre Dame. I'm guessing people will watch.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (10/1): After throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns last season, the Sooners slinger finished third in last year's voting. He'll have a new head coach and new receivers to work with since three of his top four targets are gone. He's already been defending the new crop on Twitter, which is hilarious since the season is months away. So long as he isn't stuck defending them following that Sept. 9 visit to Columbus, he'll be in the mix deep into the season. If he flops at Ohio State, you may as well rip up your tickets.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (10/1): The reigning honoree has a legitimate chance to join Archie Griffin in the lonely two-time Heisman winner club, but he'll have to be undeniably special to succeed where others have failed. Those who had little choice but vote for him last year will probably be looking to spread the wealth, so Jackson will have to pull a similar wire-to-wire act. It's possible too, since the Cards play at North Carolina and host Clemson in two of their first three games. If he hits the ground running and takes down the Heels and the defending champs, he'll likely be riding high as the favorite entering an Oct. 21 showdown at Florida State.

J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State (12/1): Back for his senior year, the kid who finished fifth for the Heisman after starting as a freshman didn't even crack the Top 10 despite throwing for over 2,500 yards and running for over 1,000 in earning First Team All-Big Ten honors. If he survives Mayfield and the Sooners, he's going to be a factor all year and could crown himself in Ann Arbor in the regular-season finale at Michigan (Nov. 25). The Wolverines bottled him up last year but he still made the winning plays when he had to in order to produce an OT win in an instant classic.

Jake Browning, QB, Washington (15/1): Following a sixth-place finish for last year's award that included three first-place votes, the Huskies star will look to build on a 43-touchdown season that saw him throw only nine interceptions. He avoids a head-to-head showdown with Darnold unless the teams meet for the Pac-12 Championship game, and there's a good chance he'll put up similar cartoonish numbers.

Deondre Francois, QB, Florida St. (15/1): He'll get his chance to become the favorite immediately, leading his offense out against the mighty Crimson Tide in Atlanta on Sept. 2. After shining in his first big game right out of the gate last year in beating Ole Miss as a redshirt freshman first-time starter, he proved he's comfortable in the spotlight and now has vast big-game experience. Francois has tasted the ups and downs of beating the Rebels, Miami, Florida and Michigan in addition to losing shootouts in head-to-head matchups against the Ville's Jackson and current pros Mitch Trubisky (UNC) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson).

Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn (15/1): After being available at 50-to-1 when odds were released on April 9, the former Baylor standout has climbed into the class of top candidates by officially winning the starting job over incumbent Sean White. Head coach Gus Malzahn made that official on Monday morning, so Stidham, who enrolled in January, has a great opportunity to become a household name since the Tigers will play at Clemson on Sept. 9. Auburn hosts the Iron Bowl this year too, so a loss in Death Valley wouldn't be a deal-breaker.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn St. (15/1): The lone non-quarterback among the top 10 racked up 22 touchdowns last season in helping the Nittany Lions become a factor again following a 2-2 start and a disappointingly mediocre start to the James Franklin era. Penn State will play Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks in late October, so he'll have to be at his best in those games to have a shot at this entering the regular season's final month. A trip to East Lasnsing is first up in November.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma St. (20/1): A fantastic sleeper candidate, the senior threw for 28 scores and just four interceptions last season and is experienced enough to run the Cowboys' high-octane spread offense in his sleep. OSU has won 10 games in each of the last two season and has a chance to run the table since Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State, the trio expected to join them in the mix for the Big 12 title, must all come through Stillwater.

Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA (20/1):
He was struggling some before a shoulder injury cut his sophomore season short, but that might help motivating into not resting on his impressive physical gifts. He was ahead of Darnold -- ahead of everyone, really -- prior to last year's disappointment, so the highly touted prospect will have redemption on his mind as he looks to lead the Bruins back from a 4-8 disaster in '16.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama (20/1): It wasn't his fault that the Tide fell short in last year's National Championship Game, but the first true freshman starter in Tuscaloosa since 1984 does bring the motivation of unfinished business into this season. He's already a household name and has plenty he can improve upon, so there's no question he's a threat to win a Heisman. However, because 'Bama is so loaded on the defensive side of the ball, Hurts will have to put up eye-popping numbers to earn the votes and overcome the inevitable bias that he's leading a loaded group. Fortunately for his sake, Nick Saban felt he was too conservative last year and will task former NFL assistant Brian Daboll, his new offensive coordinator, with spicing things up and putting his foot on the gas more often. We'll see how much he really trusts Hurts immediately against FSU.

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (25/1): Already having replaced an injured Leonard Fournette last year, he enters the season as no stranger to anyone considering he averaged 7.6 yards per carry. New coordinator Matt Canada will look to showcase his skills as he takes over intent on making the Tigers less conservative and predictable. He'll run into enough elite defenses to be a Heisman factor if LSU defies expectations in Ed Orgeron's first full season in the head seat.

Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama (30/1): Hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry, this human bowling ball starred for the Tide down the stretch and is poised to take over as the top back after sharing work with Damien Harris last season. Still, with Harris looking formidable as he returns for his junior year and other highly touted backs in Nick Saban's stable, there's a reason Scarbrough isn't even the most likely Heisman candidate on his own team.

Trace McSorley, QB, Penn St. (30/1): Speaking of which, the Nittany Lions signal caller will be most focused on handing off to Barkley, but he did put up big numbers last year in contributing to State's resurgence. After setting school records in passing yards and touchdowns, Franklin has a quarterback he actually trusts, unlike current pro Christian Hackenberg, who never achieved his potential despite all the accolades bestowed upon him coming in. McSorley's chances hinge on a prosperous run through that brutal stretch mentioned above -- while also outplaying the nation's top back, his teammate.

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (30/1):
Injuries have cut short productive seasons in each of the last two years, but if he stays healthy, there's no denying his talent. A lot of his success will also hinge on a revamped offensive line, but Chubb will have showcase games at Notre Dame, Tennessee and Auburn in addition to the annual showdown with Florida in Jacksonville. If the Dawgs are in the mix for an SEC title, he'll have a shot at this hardware.

Others: Kamryn Pettway, RB, Auburn (30/1); Luke Falk, QB, Washington St. (40/1); Derwin James, S, Florida St. (50/1); Wilson Speight, QB, Michigan (50/1); Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia (50/1); Shane Buechele, QB, Texas (60/1); Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington (60/1); Mike Weber, RB, Ohio St. (60/1); Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (60/1); Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame (60/1); Quinton Flowers, QB, USF (80/1).
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August 15, 2017

Commodores' offense could be a strength

Vanderbilt's offenses have generally been horrible for most of the past quarter-century.

That might change in 2017.

After fielding one of the worst offenses in America during the first half of the 2016 season, the light came on. In Vandy's last six games, the Commodores averaged 443 yards and 28 points.

Left tackle Will Holden, a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, is gone, and so is starting center Barrett Gouger. But practically everyone else of significance returns.

That includes junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur. As coaches gained confidence in his ability to grasp the offense last season, the playbook expanded.

The 'Dores return three quality wide receivers in seniors in Trent Sherfield -- coach Derek Mason called him the offense's most improved player in August -- Caleb Scott and C.J. Duncan. Also watch for talented sophomore Kalija Lipscomb, probably the most explosive of the bunch.

Vanderbilt also has capable down-field threats in Sam Dobbs and Jared Pinkney.

As for the ground game, senior running back Ralph Webb amassed 1,449 yards from scrimmage last year despite battling injuries, and may wind up as the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 all-time rusher.

Behind him, Khari Blasingame scored 10 touchdowns, and the coaches and players rave about the potential of redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield.

The Commodores' offensive line improved markedly under first-year offensive line coach Cameron Norcross in 2016 and now has good depth. A fierce battle has ensued in camp, with seven linemen battling for five starting spots. Norcross and Mason aim to play the best five, and sort out the positions along the way.

No, this group isn't vintage Southern California or Ohio State. But for SEC fans used to seeing an impotent Vandy offense, this year could be an eye-opener.

With the offense seemingly ahead of the defense, there seem to be more key questions on that side of the ball.

Among them, who can create a pass rush? The most obvious answer seems to be outside linebacker Charles Wright, but the junior has just one career sack.

Creating sacks and interceptions have been a deficiency throughout Mason's tenure. Vanderbilt had just 15 sacks and five interceptions last season.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kyle Shurmur -- He may not be Vandy's best player -- that would be running back Ralph Webb -- but an injury to Shurmur would send the Commodores scrambling to Deuce Wallace or Sean Stankavage, neither of whom has taken a college snap. Shurmur's numbers -- a 53.3 percent completion percentage, 2,486 yards and nine touchdowns to 11 interceptions -- weren't great last year, but he was a different quarterback in the second half once he had command of the playbook and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig loosened the reins. Shurmur has been sharp in practice, which is a big reason why coach Derek Mason recently assigned the passing game a grade of "A-minus to B-plus" for what it had done in fall camp.

BREAKOUT STAR: CB JoeJuan Williams -- The Nashville native played more often as a true freshman as last season progressed; toward the end of the year, he seemed to play as many snaps as the starter (graduated Torren McGaster) ahead of him. Williams was a top 100 recruit until he was ruled ineligible for his senior year after transferring high schools, although programs such as LSU and Alabama pursued him right up until Signing Day in 2016. Williams, a physical corner who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, had 19 stops and two breakups last year. He has the physical attributes to be an NFL player.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OT Devin Cochran -- The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Cochran drew late recruiting interest from big schools before signing with VU in 2016, and he looked the part of an SEC offensive tackle the minute he reported to campus. He was listed as the backup left tackle all last year, but wasn't quite ready mentally and the 'Dores were able to preserve his redshirt year. Cochran entered fall camp as a backup but seems to have played his way into the conversation as a starter at right tackle.

--FB Bailey McElwain, a projected starter, has missed fall camp with a boot on his right foot. McElwain is a devastating blocker who started to see more use (six catches, two TDs) in the passing game at the end of 2016.

--DL Drew Birchmaier, who projected as a second-team end exiting spring practice, has missed all of fall camp with an undisclosed injury.

--LB Kenny Hebert, a potential second-teamer at outside linebacker, hasn't participated in the scrimmage portion of fall camp.

--WR Donaven Tennyson, a third-string receiver, is the team's fastest player and could be used in the return game. However, Tennyson had missed much of fall camp as of mid-August.

--WR Caleb Scott has been held out of the contact portion of fall camp. That was also the case last spring and last fall, and it seems he'll likely be available for the opener.

--OL Bruno Reagan, a starter at right guard last year, is getting an audition at center in fall camp.

--LB Andrew Rector has moved from safety, where he played sparingly last season.
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August 15, 2017

Aggies searching for stronger finish

By the end of August, most folks in Texas long for the latter part of fall, when the fever breaks and a cool breeze can be felt even in a crowded football stadium.

However, given the trend of Texas A&M's recent seasons, Aggie fans likely wish the sweltering summer heat would hang around until mid-January.

Since 2014, Texas A&M has developed a habit of racing out of the blocks, destroying everyone in its path and climbing the national rankings. The Aggies reached No. 6 in the Associated Press poll in 2014, No. 9 in 2015 and No. 6 in 2016, posting perfect records through the early stages of all three campaigns.

But each time things began to fall apart beginning in October. All three seasons culminated in 8-5 records, which were respectable but ultimately disappointing, given the early-season promises.

To be fair, a huge percentage of teams would struggle through a portion of the season that featured a barrage of SEC West opponents. Even so, the feast-or-famine routine has seen the Aggies go 8-15 after the October tipping point. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin responded to the habitual downturn by hiring new strength and conditioning coach Mark Hocke from Florida State, specifically to bolster the team's endurance through October and November.

The Aggies will find out quickly if the change makes a difference, because the 2017 schedule sets up similarly to recent years.

Texas A&M opens the season at the UCLA Bruins, whom the Aggies edged in overtime in 2016, then continues with home dates vs. Nicholls State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Texas A&M travels to Dallas for its traditional neutral-site contest against Arkansas, then is back home to host South Carolina.

Although the first month of the season presents its challenges, the schedule once again ramps up beginning in October. The Aggies face Alabama and Florida on the first two Saturdays in October and continue with Mississippi State, Mississippi, Auburn and LSU all in the second half of the campaign.

However, before Sumlin has to answer the same old questions starting in October, he'll grapple with the more pressing issues of who to lineup where.

The Aggies most important position battle, as per usual, is at quarterback.

Senior Jake Hubenak has starting experience, while redshirt freshman Nick Starkel posted an impressive spring. True freshman Kellen Mond makes it a three-headed battle to start at quarterback. Sumlin indicated in early August that he might not make a decision until the final scrimmage a couple of weeks before the season-opener.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Christian Kirk -- Kirk is by far the most dynamic and consistent offensive weapon returning for the Aggies. He caught a team-leading 83 passes in 2016, converting those catches into 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Furthermore, he's the only returning Texas A&M player to have caught more than 20 passes last season. Whoever emerges as the Aggies' starting quarterback will lean heavily on Kirk, who will need to adjust to the role as he won't have fellow star Josh Reynolds to dilute the opposing defense's attention.

BREAKOUT STAR: RB Keith Ford -- Although Ford was second on the team in rushing yards last season, well behind fellow returner Trayveon Williams -- Williams rushed for 1,057 yards to Ford's 669 -- Ford averaged 5.3 per carry and finished the season stronger. The Aggies are likely to deploy Ford and Williams with a healthy amount of carries as a new starting quarterback finds his legs. They will also be running behind an improved offensive line. Bigger holes could allow Ford to get going downhill and accentuate his bruising running style.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Michael Clemons -- Clemons enrolled in Cisco Junior College as a relative unknown a year ago. Since then, the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder ascended to become one of the nation's top 20 junior college prospects and an intriguing new member of an Aggie defensive line that needs him. He took some time to fulfill his junior college academic requirements and joined the Aggies during the second summer school session. He was behind in conditioning when practice started, but quickly caught up. Texas A&M coaches are closely monitoring his progress, likely because they know they're going to need production from the raw talent.

--SS Armani Watts missed four games with a knee injury in 2016, but still posted 56 total tackles, including six for loss, and caused four turnovers. Texas A&M needs him to stay healthy and productive.

--DT Zaycoven Henderson had a solid season with 10 tackles for loss, including three sacks in 2016. The question will be whether he can improve on those numbers now that DE Myles Garrett is gone.

--WR Jhamon Ausbon will be counted on during his freshman season as the Aggies attempt to refill their receiving corps. Ausbon was a top 100 national prospect, much like new teammate Christian Kirk was out of high school. Texas A&M is hoping Ausbon takes to college football as quickly as Kirk did two seasons ago.

--QB Nick Starkel made a bid to be the Aggies' starter with a solid performance during the spring. He appears to be the early frontrunner in a three-way race to start with Jake Hubenak and Kellen Mond.

--LT Koda Martin married former Texas A&M volleyball player Jazzmin Babers, the daughter of Syracuse coach Dino Babers, in late July. Along with entering married life, Martin will be counted on to anchor the Aggies' offensive line as one of three returning starters.
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Old 08-16-2017, 01:32 AM
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August 15, 2017

Revamped Vols aim for elusive SEC East title

Butch Jones is known for his somewhat unorthodox outlook toward the way he governs his football team, including the assertion that his Tennessee program is adept at producing players with "five-star hearts" and that they are "champions of life."

Tennessee is talented once again -- the Vols are 24th in the preseason coaches' poll -- but the notion around Knoxville is that life titles won't cut it much longer. It might be time for the Vols to finally produce a championship of the SEC East variety.

The 49-year-old Jones will have to accomplish that feat -- one that's eluded Tennessee since 2007 when Erik Ainge and Arian Foster manned the offense -- with a roster that boasts as much skill and firepower as it does question marks.

The Volunteers will have a starkly different look from its past two squads that each finished 9-4.

Off to test their mettle in the NFL are a slew of leaders that leave enormous cleats to fill, including quarterback Josh Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton.

Those stepping in will do so under the tutelage of a revamped coaching staff.

Larry Scott, who takes over at offensive coordinator for Mike DeBord, and new quarterbacks coach Mike Canales are tasked with replacing Dobbs, whose 7,138 career yards and 53 touchdowns made him the highest-drafted Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning.

Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano impressed through a couple of weeks of camp, with Dormady drawing comparisons to Philip Rivers, a former Canales disciple. That said, Jones hasn't set a timetable for announcing a starter and hasn't ruled out going with a two-quarterback system.

Whoever gets the nod is going to be tested immediately.

A treacherous opening month awaits Tennessee with trips to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech and a home tilt against Florida within the first 13 days of the season. The Volunteers close out September with a visit to a Georgia team that eagerly awaits a chance to exact revenge on the Vols for last year's Hail Mary thriller.

The Vols' squad from last year ended up suffering a lot of injuries, which, in turn, provided plenty of young players the chance to gain valuable game experience. And while the Tennessee roster might be deep, getting the parts to come together in 2017 won't be easy.

"We're nowhere near where we need to be, in terms of being ready to play a football game," said Jones, who is 30-21 in four seasons at Tennessee.

"Every practice has to count; every rep will be valuable. I thought where our football team was at this point and time, we still need to focus on the fundamentals -- the execution and being able to focus."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Darrin Kirkland Jr. -- The Tennessee defense is deep with experienced upperclassmen, but the unit is in search of a leader. Now that he's fully recovered from an ankle injury that affected him throughout most of the 2016 season, Kirkland is poised to take charge of the Vols, on and off the field. The junior has 111 tackles in 21 career games, including 11.5 tackles for a loss.

BREAKOUT STAR: RB John Kelly -- The Volunteers entered 2016 with two horses in the backfield in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. But it was John Kelly who led all Tennessee running backs with 630 yards, to go along with five TDs. Kelly made the most of Hurd's implosion and subsequent transfer, while Kamara was derailed by injuries. Kelly rushed for 515 yards in the final six games and his 6.43 yards per carry ranked ninth in the SEC. Tennessee will lean heavily on Kelly, who will get an opportunity to play a full season as the starter. "John Kelly is an individual who waited for his opportunity in our program, and when his opportunity came, obviously he made the most of it," coach Butch Jones said.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RG Trey Smith -- Smith is earning the hype that made him a five-star recruit and the No. 13 overall prospect in the 2017 class. The 6-6, 320-pound freshman is making a case for playing time along an offensive line that returns four starters. As impressive as Smith has been, coach Butch Jones is not going to rush the first-year player. "Trey's settled in at guard, and I think we all have to be careful," Jones said. "He's never played one down of college football. Even us as coaches, we have to step back. He's still a true freshman, and make sure that we don't put too many expectations on him early."

--CB Shaq Wiggins is a potential impact newcomer. The Louisville graduate transfer intercepted four passes and broke up another 14 during 21 games in a Cardinals uniform. He provides versatility and depth to a Volunteers secondary that is looking to improve upon the 230.7 passing yards per game that the unit yielded in 2016.

--OT K'Rojhn Calbert is the latest to suffer from an injury bug that has plagued the offensive line. He joins RT Chance Hall with season-ending knee injuries. Other tackles nursing ailments include Marcus Tatum (foot) and Brett Kendrick (undisclosed).

--Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke will make his SEC debut this year as Tennessee's associate head coach and defensive line coach. Hoke arrives after a one-year stint as Oregon's defensive coordinator, where he wasn't retained after Willie Taggart took over for Mark Helfrich.
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Old 08-16-2017, 01:33 AM
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August 15, 2017

Rebels moving on from noisy offseason

The season-opener on Sept. 2 can't come soon enough for Ole Miss' players.

They've spent their offseason having to answer one question after another about the program, few of them pertaining to the upcoming season. Ole Miss has been college football's biggest storyline with various twists in its NCAA case that ultimately led to a sudden change in the program's leadership.

Players are ready to expend their energy physically rather than verbally.

"We keep getting hit with stones. We're going to keep getting up," offensive lineman Javon Patterson said. "Somebody's going to have to feel this frustration. We're going to go out there, play 12 games and get after it."

That frustration has been building for a while.

The Rebels experienced their first losing season under Hugh Freeze last fall, a 5-7 record that was punctuated with a 55-20 home loss to Mississippi State. Freeze overhauled his staff as a result, bringing in five new assistants, including offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, that players are still getting used to during camp. A sixth assistant -- offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. -- was hired last month.

In February, players found out they have no chance at a bowl game this season as the school imposed a one-year postseason ban as part of its penalties stemming from the investigation, which has Ole Miss facing 21 charges of rules violations, including 15 Level I allegations, which the NCAA deems the most serious.

The most stunning development came last month when Freeze's five-year tenure ended with an abrupt resignation after it was discovered that a call placed from Freeze's university-issued cell phone to a number linked to an escort service led to a more thorough examination of Freeze's phone records. That revealed what athletic director Ross Bjork called a "concerning pattern" of personal misconduct.

"It was shocking," Patterson said.

But the players are moving on with the coaches that are still around. It starts with interim coach Matt Luke, a former Ole Miss player whose first head coaching job comes at his alma mater after serving two stints as an assistant with the Rebels.

"He's passionate. That's the best way I can describe Coach Luke," defensive tackle Breeland Speaks said. "I love Coach Luke because he gets after it. He doesn't mind the grind. He doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. That's just how Coach Luke has always been."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Shea Patterson -- The defense needs to be better after bottoming out last season, but with much of the same personnel on that side of the ball returning, Ole Miss will go as their young quarterback goes. Patterson, a former five-star recruit, got some unexpected experience last season after having his redshirt burned once Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury, throwing for 880 yards and six touchdowns while adding 169 yards on the ground in the last three games. With an experienced offensive line and backfield, as well as another talented receiving corps to work with, the natural expectation is for Patterson to take another step in his development during a season in which the Rebels may once again have to outscore opponents to win.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR D.K. Metcalf -- Metcalf showed his potential on the outside last season as a true freshman with his only two catches going for touchdowns before a broken foot ended his debut season early. Pushing 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Metcalf already looks like an NFL receiver and possesses the physical tools to overwhelm smaller defensive backs. Metcalf, the son of former Ole Miss All-American and NFL offensive lineman Terrence Metcalf, could emerge as one of the SEC's top wideouts by season's end if he's able to stay healthy.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB D.D. Bowie -- The highest-ranked signee in Ole Miss' latest recruiting class, Bowie was running with the second-team defense during the first couple of weeks of camp. Also a receiver in high school, Bowie already has the speed and range coaches covet at the position. Technique and consistency can improve like any true freshman, but Bowie is already showing advanced ball skills for a youngster. "When you put on the tape every day, at some point, that young man has gotten his hand on the football," defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said.

--LB Detric Bing-Dukes and CB Ken Webster are suspended for the Sept. 2 opener against South Alabama after being arrested earlier this month on shoplifting charges. Webster, who's coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and Bing-Dukes are projected starters.

--CB Ken Webster, who's still being allowed to practice despite his arrest, has gotten an extensive look at safety during camp. There aren't many proven commodities at the position behind strong safety Zedrick Woods, with defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff saying he's currently taking a by-committee approach to the No. 2 safety spot.

--RB Jordan Wilkins is eligible again and getting his first chance to be Ole Miss' primary back entering his senior season. An academic credits snafu cost Wilkins all of last season.

--TE Octavious Cooley, a backup, has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Interim head coach Matt Luke said he expects Cooley, the biggest tight end on the roster at 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds, back at some point.
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Old 08-16-2017, 01:34 AM
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August 15, 2017

Gamecocks to face early challenges

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp should find out rather quickly if his Gamecocks are going to continue the success they had late in his debut season a year ago.

The Gamecocks, who closed fast to finish with a 6-7 record following a 2-4 start, open the season against North Carolina State in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 2, then dive right into SEC play with a trip to Missouri and a home game against Kentucky in the next two weeks.

With 16 starters back, 10 of them on offense, and the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons before a neck injury sidelined him for 2016, the Gamecocks are in much better shape to handle the challenge than they were a year ago.

Among those returning starters is sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley was the key to last season's turnaround and has a firm grasp on the position going into the fall. Michael Scarnecchia, a junior coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him last year, backs him up.

"Those guys have made a lot of progress," Muschamp said. "I see a lot of progress with those two young men, and I've been pleased with their work ethic."

Despite the number of returning starters, Muschamp sees lots of competition for playing time for other spots on offense -- at running back, tight end, receiver and the offensive line.

Sophomore Rico Dowdle, who started the last six games of 2016, North Carolina transfer Ty'Son Williams and A.J. Turner provide depth and variety at running back.

"Ty'Son and Rico are very similar running style, and A.J. gives us a little different style," Muschamp said. "We need to get the ball into A.J.'s hands as well."

Deebo Samuel, who shared the team's MVP award with Bentley, is a versatile receiver who had 59 catches in just 10 games. He also had 15 rushes -- six that went for touchdowns -- and stood out in the return game. He also has had a "great camp" so far, Muschamp said.

"Deebo is extremely bright. He's extremely intelligent," Muschamp said. "He can play inside, he can play outside, he can play running back. He can do a lot of different things for us."

There are some concerns on defense from a depth standpoint.

"I do like our first group that we roll out there, but we've got to have some guys continue to step up and be more consistent," Muschamp said. "I don't think it's ability. I think it's consistency and a lot of that goes to youth. We're sort of working through that right now."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Deebo Samuel -- Samuel has been hobbled by nagging injuries in the past two years, with a hamstring problem sidelining him for three games last season and the first seven the year before. Despite that, he led the team in catches in 2016 with 59 for 783 yards, 14 of them in the Birmingham Bowl. He gives the Gamecocks a big-play threat not only as a receiver but in the return game. He even threw a 33-yard touchdown pass last year. He should get plenty of opportunities as he moves into his junior season. "The more you put him in different spots, the harder it is to defend," coach Will Muschamp said.

BREAKOUT STAR: FS D.J. Smith -- Smith backed up a solid junior season in 2016 (a team-high 80 tackles, an interception and two fumble recoveries) with an outstanding performance in the spring. Smith's 62 solo stops were the third-highest in the SEC. As a senior, he looks to take over more of a leadership role as the "quarterback" of the Gamecocks' defense. "He needs to continue that going forward," coach Will Muschamp said.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DT Javon Kinlaw -- Kinlaw is one of several first-year Gamecocks who are being counted on to step up on defense. Kinlaw spent last season at Jones County Community College in Mississippi, where he recorded 4.5 sacks among his 26 tackles. At 6-6, 326, the sophomore could be a huge factor in a run defense that often was shredded for big yards last fall.

--CB Korey Banks is moving to the secondary after spending his freshman campaign at wide receiver last year. He saw limited action in six games and had one reception in the bowl loss to USF.

--OL Zack Bailey is at right tackle after spending last year as the starter at left guard.

--OT Malik Young has moved to the left side after starting nine games on the right side last year, but he could be used on both sides.

--TE Evan Hinson missed last spring because he was a member of the Gamecocks basketball team that made a run to the NCAA tourney's Final Four. A redshirt freshman, he is competing for time at a crowded position that includes returning starter Hayden Hurst.

--DB Chris Lammons, a senior, will play all the positions in the secondary -- corner, nickel, dime, and safety. "He'll be able to handle that," coach Will Muschamp said.

--DE Shameik Blackshear, who played in nine games as a redshirt freshman last year, suffered a concussion in practice and is out indefinitely.

--DB Jaylin Dickerson will miss the season after requiring shoulder surgery. He a true freshman who enrolled early to go through spring drills and was expected to be a contributor this fall.

--DB Steven Montac, who has played safety, corner, and nickel, has a stress fracture in his foot, but it will not require surgery.
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August 15, 2017

Missouri hopes to build on late success

A 4-8 record in the 2016 may be nothing to celebrate, even in the Southeastern Conference, but two wins in the final three games gives coach Barry Odom something to build on at Missouri for 2017.

The Tigers return 10 offensive starters and get some welcome returnees on a defense that sorely needs a boost with the return from injury of defensive end Terry Beckner Jr. The Tigers allowed nearly 247 yards a game to opposing rushers and gave up over 50 points in two different games last year, one of which was a 63-37 loss at Tennessee that came between wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas to close the season.

Brian Odom, the head coach's younger brother, takes over the linebackers. Brick Haley, who spent the last two years at Texas and has SEC experience after a stint a LSU, comes in to coach the defensive line.

He expressed confidence in the group he inherited.

"My confidence on the defensive end is high," Haley said after a recent scrimmage. "We've got enough bodies to find a few guys to get us some help, maybe some younger guys.

One of the younger guys is sophomore Franklin Agbasimere, who is moving to end.

"Frank had a good week last week, then had a great scrimmage on Saturday," Haley said. "I tell the guys all the time, I don't make the depth chart every week, they do. It's all based on performance."

Offensively, Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter give the Tigers a one-two punch at running back, and quarterback Drew Lock is entering his third year as the starter. Lock has been inconsistent at times, especially in some of the bigger games, but he still ranked first in the SEC at the end of the regular season in passing yards with 3,339.

He is enjoying a solid fall and earned Odom's praise after the scrimmage along with Beckner and linebacker Cale Garrett.

"I thought Drew Lock did a really nice job of getting guys in the right position a couple of times," Odom said. "He took control of that, which was really nice to see.

"Beckner did a couple of really nice things defensively, Cale Garrett did some nice things also, defensively. We've got a lot of playmakers and they consistently caught the football, which was really fun to see."

Missouri gets a break to start the season with four consecutive home games in September. The Tigers open against Missouri State, then get South Carolina in an SEC East matchup followed by Purdue and Auburn.

Their first road game comes after an open date, Oct. 7 at Kentucky.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Damarea Crockett -- Crockett got only two carries in the opener and missed the finale while serving a one-game suspension, but in between he set a program freshman rushing record with 1,062 yards, which included a single-game freshman record 225 yards against Tennessee along with 10 rushing touchdowns. His four rushing touchdowns against Middle Tennessee tied a school record. He has the power to run inside and the speed to capitalize once he breaks through. Crockett credits running backs coach Cornell Ford with his development. "Coach Ford and the rest of the staff deserves the rest of the credit," he said. "They kept my head into it mentally and showed me all the little things it takes to take my game to the next level."

BREAKOUT STAR: WR J'Mon Moore -- Moore is the only returning 1,000-yard receiver in the SEC, and he has the opportunity to increase his numbers (62 receptions, 1,012 yards) if he can overcome the drops that seem to plague him from time to time. He earned a starting job as a junior and finished No. 1 in catches and yards, though with only 29 for 250 yards. He has 103 receptions for 1,395 yards in his career.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DT Rashad Brandon -- Brandon finally got to practice after a 10-wait for clearance over issues on his transcript from junior college. He was a second team junior college All-American at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, and was a standout in the spring after enrolling early. He should provide valuable depth if not compete for a starting position this fall.

--Suspended DE Nate Howard was already facing a felony drug charge when he was arrested in Columbia on an out of county warrant. Howard failed to pay a speeding ticket in Montgomery County, Missouri, and subsequently failed to appear in court. His court date on the drug case is Aug. 24. He is not currently on the roster with his suspension.

--C Jonah Dubinski, who started two games after walking on, is now on scholarship.

--RB Nate Strong is competing for a backup spot behind Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter in the backfield after serving a suspension that cost him some days in the spring.

--DT A.J. Logan, a returning starter, has missed time after sustaining a concussion in early camp.

--DT Terry Beckner Jr., who 2016 season was cut short by a knee injury, looks to lock down a starting spot after his standout performance in the first major scrimmage.

--DE Marcell Frazier, who finished the 2016 season strong (6.5 sacks over the final three games) and looks to be recovered from the broken forearm he sustained in the spring.
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August 15, 2017

Mississippi State focused on fixing its defense

Mississippi State backed into its seventh straight bowl game last season with a 5-7 record, thanks to its high APR score.

This year the Bulldogs are hoping they can close out more games to keep their postseason streak alive without a technicality. MSU's losses to South Alabama, LSU, BYU and Kentucky all came on the game's final drive.

One area of concern coach Dan Mullen needed to address was the defense. It ranked at the bottom nationally in nearly every statistical category, including 120th in pass defense and 110th in total defense under first-year coordinator Peter Sirmon.

Mullen made a move, hiring Todd Grantham, a veteran of college and the NFL, to head his defense.

"I want people, when they watch your defense play, to see an intimidating defense. I want people to see 11 guys flying to the ball with a chip on their shoulders and a nasty disposition to get after it. When you are led by a guy who is that way, your defense is going to play that way."

To help fill some of the experience gaps on the roster, State signed several junior college prospects who arrived on campus in January. Among those additions are four former Division I defensive players -- outside linebacker Montez Sweat (Michigan State), defensive end Chauncey Rivers (Georgia) and safeties Johnathan Abram (Georgia) and Brian Cole (Michigan).

"They have really transitioned well into the program," Mullen said.

On offense, the Bulldogs bring back one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in Nick Fitzgerald. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder led the conference in total offense last season, racking up 4,160 yards and 37 touchdowns while setting nine school records and two league marks.

Fitzgerald proved to be a force on the ground, rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 scores, but he wants to improve upon his 54.3 completion percentage.

"Obviously I have to be more of an accurate passer," Fitzgerald said. "I have to be more consistent in that aspect, but still keeping in tune with the run game and making sure I can still make plays with my feet."

Helping carry some of the rushing load will be running back Aeris Williams. Williams rushed for 450 yards during November, including 140 yards against Texas A&M and 191 against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, both of which were victories for the Bulldogs.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Nick Fitzgerald -- Fitzgerald's importance goes far beyond the fact that he led the SEC in total yardage last season. He is one of only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, the other being true freshman Keytaon Thompson. Fitzgerald has to stay healthy while still maintaining the physical running prowess he displayed last fall.

BREAKOUT STAR: CB Cam Dantzler -- Dantzler missed most of his redshirt year with a fractured ankle last season but made up for lost time during the spring. The long, lean cornerback picked off two passes during the spring game -- one of which he returned 81 yards for a touchdown. Dantzler's size gives the Bulldogs a strong match-up option against taller receivers.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LB Willie Gay -- Gay is likely to see the field immediately as a true freshman after arriving at MSU as the No. 3 outside linebacker in the nation and a U.S. Army All-American. The 6-foot-2, 231-pounder is a local product out of Starkville High School who the Bulldogs were able to flip back from Ole Miss during the recruiting process. Gay possesses the size, strength and speed to make an impact right away.

--CB Tolando Cleveland is returning from a torn left ACL suffered in 2016 fall camp that kept him out all of last season. Cleveland was set to be MSU's starting corner last year and will assume that role this fall.

--C Elgton Jenkins has made eight career starts -- five at left tackle, two at left guard and one at right tackle. But Jenkins shifts to center this season after missing all of spring due to injury.

--WR Malik Dear tore his ACL during spring practice and his status for this season is in jeopardy. Dear was not among the 105 players who reported for fall camp; he will join the team when school starts.

--G Darryl Williams is projected to be the Bulldogs' starter at left guard in 2017. Williams suffered a neck injury against Kentucky last year and missed the remainder of the season and spring.
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August 15, 2017

LSU's Orgeron can lean on run game, defense

LSU will start a season with someone other than Les Miles as its head coach for the first time in 13 years.

Ed Orgeron, who was promoted to interim coach when Miles was fired after a 2-2 start last season, was named head coach in December after leading the Tigers to a 6-2 record, including a 29-9 victory against Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

LSU didn't land a big-name hire, such as Tom Herman, who flirted with the Tigers on his way to becoming head coach at Texas, but Orgeron as a Louisiana native was a mostly popular choice among players and fans, despite a failed stint as Ole Miss' head coach. He has a long, impressive resume as an assistant coach and recruiter, and his performance as interim head coach was well received, as was a similar stint at USC when he stepped in for Lane Kiffin in 2013.

Orgeron's first staff features former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was brought in to try to boost an offense that struggled for much of Miles' overall successful tenure, particularly in the final few seasons. LSU hopes that Canada will have a comparable impact to that which Dave Aranda had last season in his first year as defensive coordinator when LSU ranked 10th nationally in total defense. Convincing Aranda to stay was as big a priority, as was hiring Canada after Orgeron got the full-time gig.

The Tigers received a lift when Orgeron took over for Miles, but the challenge of running a program full time is different than the one that came with grabbing the steering wheel in late September with no guarantee of remaining on board beyond November.

Canada faces similar a question to those that faced his most immediate predecessors -- Cam Cameron and Greg Studrawa -- which is developing a playmaking quarterback who provides a consistent threat in the passing game to complement a traditionally rock-solid run game.

Senior Danny Etling, who was mostly efficient but a limited playmaker after replacing Brandon Harris during the second game of last season, held off challenges from a group of talented but untested youngsters early in preseason camp.

Etling, who appears recovered fromback surgery after spring practice, is likely to be the starter when LSU opens the season against BYU on Sept. 2 in Houston, but freshman Myles Brennan was earning some first-team reps during the early stages of camp.

The Tigers once again are poised to have an outstanding running game with junior Derrius Guice running behind a solid offensive line, but the wide receiving corps features just one proven player -- D.J. Chark -- among a talented group.

Aranda has a talented group on defense, led by outside linebacker Arden Key, but LSU has to replace its top six tacklers. There's potential for another top-flight defense, but there could also be growing pains with so many untested players taking on starting roles.

"There are a lot of question marks that we have to answer, but we have the talent to answer them," Orgeron said.

BYU and Syracuse represent the only potential stumbling blocks among the non-conference opponents, but the SEC schedule features road games against Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, the last of which is the result of last year's meeting being moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge because of Hurricane Matthew's threat to the Sunshine State.

Under Miles, the Tigers won the 2007 national championship and was undefeated and ranked No. 1 prior to its loss to Alabama in 2011 title game -- a result that started a gradual descent from national champion contender status.

Orgeron figures to have a brief honeymoon period before being expected to return LSU to where Miles had it during the Pinnacle of his tenure as the second-winningest coach in school history.

"My goal is to build a championship program fast, very fast," Orgeron said. "I understand the expectations at LSU and I invite them."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Derrius Guice -- He burst out of Leonard Fournette's shadow for good last season, rushing for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns. His big-play ability as Fournette's backup, as well as Fournette's ankle injury that sidelined the future first-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers, made Guice one of the most productive running backs in the SEC last season. With Fournette gone, Guice will be the featured back and just might put up numbers approaching those a healthy Fournette put up two years ago when he had 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Devin White -- The sophomore stepped in for injured Kendell Beckwith late last season and demonstrated that he is on his way to being a defensive leader. He finished the season with 30 tackles in limited playing time. He forced a fumble and recovered a fumble in the regular-season finale victory against Texas A&M, and he made five tackles, including a sack of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson for a 19-yard loss in LSU's bowl victory. His rare combination of size (6-foot-1, 250 pounds) and speed (roughly 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) make him a strong candidate to be a primary playmaker in the Tigers defense this season.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Grant Delpit -- The true freshman enrolled in January and was impressive during spring practice, leading coach Ed Orgeron to compare Delpit to former LSU S Jamal Adams, who was the New York Jets' first-round draft choice last April. After the Tigers' second scrimmage of preseason camp, Orgeron said he considered Delpit -- who received additional first-team reps after Ed Paris missed practice time because of a leg injury -- a starter, even with Paris' return.

--OL Maea Teuhema, a junior who was expected to start at right guard, was granted his release shortly after being suspended during preseason camp. Orgeron indicated that Teuhema's suspension was related to academic difficulties. SI.com reported that Teuhema was given permission by the Tigers to speak with five schools about transferring -- USC, UCLA, Houston, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

--QB Lindsey Scott Jr., a redshirt freshman, quit the team midway through preseason camp and planned to transfer. Scott was caught in a logjam among several young backup quarterbacks.

--WR Justin Jefferson, a freshman, became academically eligible after the start of preseason camp. His presence means the Tigers will have a Jefferson brother on its roster for a 10th consecutive season. Jordan Jefferson was a quarterback at LSU from 2008-11 and Rickey Jefferson was a safety with the Tigers from 2012-16. "That was a big signing for us," coach Ed Orgeron said.

--TE Aaron Moffitt signed as a defensive end but has been moved to offense. Moffitt is a son of LSU strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt. "He's tough," coach Ed Orgeron said. "We originally thought that he could play defensive end or fullback for us. That's why he was originally recruited here. We're very deep on the defensive line. We're very thin on offense so we wanted to get some blockers over there and maybe he could help us over there."

--TE J.D. Moore has moved to tight end, although he might still see action at his former fullback position. Last season he caught 10 passes for 58 yards.

--OL Seth Stewart, a three-star recruit, reported to campus in the summer but quit the team and left before the start of camp, coach Ed Orgeron said.

--DL Breiden Fehoko will sit out this season after transferring from Texas Tech. He has two years of eligibility remaining. "Fehoko would play for us this year if he was eligible," coach Ed Orgeron said. "He is beyond our high expectations."

--TE Thad Moss, a transfer from North Carolina State, seems capable of having an impact after sitting out this season.
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August 15, 2017

Ball protection a priority for Kentucky quarterbacks

Stephen Johnson might have rescued Kentucky's 2016 season when he took over for injured quarterback Drew Barker, leading the Wildcats to seven wins in their last 11 games.

But he also comes into this fall with some work to do to get his team back into the postseason. And not just on his passing accuracy, which was a mere 54.7 percent last year (10th in the SEC).

Johnson also was responsible for six of Kentucky's 16 lost fumbles in 2016; fixing that is a major goal.

"I think we could have won a couple more games if we don't turn the ball over," coach Mark Stoops said. "So, everybody's well aware of that."

Johnson and Barker, who is competing to get his starting job back, have gotten the message.

Though the offense lost one fumble near the goal line in Kentucky's first scrimmage of fall camp -- it was a closed scrimmage so the culprit is unknown -- Stoops noted how the quarterbacks took care of the ball.

"I saw both guys really do a good job protecting the football, first and foremost," Stoops said. "I thought both guys really showed up with some impressive throws and threw it in some really tight windows.

"I liked seeing that. I liked seeing the competitive plays when it's good defense, good offense and somebody making a play. And you saw that at times today."

Stoops rated the overall scrimmage as just "OK" and gave thanks that the Wildcats have more time to get ready for the Sept. 2 opener at Southern Mississippi. But one of the few players who did "show up" -- offensive coordinator Eddie Gran's words -- was freshman Lynn Bowden. Rated the team's top recruit, Bowden is making up for lost time after reporting late to clear up some issues with the NCAA Clearinghouse.

"Lynn is really coming on," Stoops said after the scrimmage. "He's just a good football player. It's hard to force-feed them. There's so much learning involved. He just got here. The other day he had a really good practice. He showed up today with a couple nice catches. I believe he's got a really good future.

"I love his attitude. The kid comes in and is what I expected. He's a great kid. He's a competitor. He doesn't want anything handed to him."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Benny Snell -- Snell set six program freshman records in rushing for 13 touchdowns and 1,091 yards last year despite not logging a carry until the third game of the season. With Stanley "Boom" Williams (1,170 yards) and Jojo Kemp not around anymore, Snell becomes the primary ball-carrier this time around. "He goes hard in practice, every snap, every day," coach Mark Stoops said. "And if he keeps that mentality, he'll continue to be successful like he has. But he has a good, tough competitive mentality about him."

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Josh Allen -- Allen had nine starts as a sophomore last year and recorded a team-high seven sacks among his 62 tackles. Coach Mike Stoops expects him to make "a very big jump this year" as he continues to fine-tune his game. "He's a guy that when he puts the fine strokes on things, he's going to be a very good football player," Stoops said. Allen recorded seven or more tackles in four games and a tackle for loss in nine of his 13 appearances.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Lynn Bowden -- The much-heralded signee out of Youngstown, Ohio, missed a week of fall camp to clear up some academic issues and was being eased into practice. Playing quarterback last fall, he rushed for 2,277 yards, passed for 1,366 yards and accounted for 57 touchdowns. He is fitting in at receiver, where he can use his open-field running ability. He also likely will get a look as a returner.

--LT Cole Mosier, who had 13 starts among his 32 appearances, is lost for the season after tearing his ACL in a scrimmage. The senior, a former walk-on, had been slated as a starter in his final year. "Coming here as a walk-on and then earning a scholarship was a dream come true," he said.

--DB Mike Edwards made second-team All-SEC last year at safety but is slated for time at nickel back this season. He had three interceptions last year to tie for team honors in the category.

--RG Nick Haynes is coping with Type 1 diabetes as he tries to maintain the 300 pounds listed on is 6-foot-3 frame. He is down to 260, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Haynes started at left guard last year and is flipping to the other side this fall.

--DT Tymere Dubose is back with the team after sitting out the spring. He played in 11 games as a sophomore last year. "He needed to get focused, and he needed to put all of his attention on academics," coach Mark Stoops said. "I'm proud to say that he did that."

--DB Davonte Robinson moved back to his old position in high school at safety in the spring after getting a look at corner as a redshirt freshman last year.

--P Grant McKinniss is getting a challenge from Matthew Panton, a graduate transfer from Columbia. McKinniss averaged just 39.2 yards as a freshman last year with only 10 of his 58 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

--LB Jaylin Bannerman, a redshirt freshman, is getting a look at tight end after spending last season on the scout team at linebacker, although he could also move into the defensive line. "We're just trying to find the right position for him," coach Mark Stoops said.
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August 15, 2017

Georgia eyes improvement in passing game

The focus for coach Kirby Smart in his second season at Georgia is to make sure his team is considerably more offensive than it was a season ago.

Last year the Bulldogs ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring (24.4 points per game) and total offense (384.7 yards per game), subpar numbers that led to Georgia finishing 8-5, tying for its fewest wins in a season since 2013.

Between a freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason, inconsistencies on the offensive line and the lack of big-play receivers, Georgia scored only 30 or more points four times in 13 games. On four other occasions, they tallied fewer than 17.

"Offensively, obviously throwing the ball more efficiently is a big goal of ours, because I think if you throw the ball efficiently, you'll be able to run ball with the backs we've got," Smart said. "When you can't throw the ball, it makes it hard. It doesn't matter who your backs are."

With Georgia's stable of backs, if the passing game can take a step forward -- watch out.

Now two years removed from a devastating knee injury suffered at Tennessee, senior Nick Chubb is primed for a huge year. With Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia's backfield should be one of the best duos in the country.

Defensively, there's a lot of optimism in Athens as Georgia returns 10 starters from a unit that finished fourth in the SEC in total defense and features junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and junior linebacker Roquan Smith, a pair of preseason All-SEC selections.

But Smart still has concerns.

"We've got to improve in the red area," said Smart, whose team finished next-to-last in the SEC in red zone defense. "That was probably statistically the worst thing we did on defense last year."

With another tough SEC schedule, plus a highly anticipated game Sept. 9 at Notre Dame, the Bulldogs will have to be ready if they are to do as predicted at SEC Media Days -- win the SEC East.

"I think the big demand for us is what can we do to do a better job helping our players be successful," Smart said. "To pinpoint one of those, the No. 1 goal for me is to reach our goals."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jacob Eason -- Statistically, Eason did not have a bad freshman year, completing 204 of 370 passes for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, but his lack of efficiency was a big problem for the Bulldogs as it stifled numerous drives and kept Georgia from reaching its full offensive potential as a team. Assuming Eason can iron out those issues and do a better job getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers -- which are abundant -- the Bulldogs could be a much different animal and, as a result, might find themselves playing for higher stakes come season's end.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Mecole Hardman -- A former five-star performer in high school, Hardman played cornerback as a freshman last fall, seeing little action, before moving back to offense in the spring. At 5-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Hardman is one of the fastest players on the team and is back where he's more comfortable -- on offense -- where he figures to be one of the team's better deep threats, as well as seeing action in the "Wild Dawg" where he will take direct snaps in Georgia's version of the option. Hardman is also expected to return kicks.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Isaiah Wilson -- Georgia has several key newcomers, but we'll offer Wilson, a five-star performer from Brooklyn, N.Y. The freshman blocks out the sun at 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds and is currently working at right tackle for the Bulldogs. Although he might not start to begin the season, Wilson is expected to become an anchor on the offensive line for Georgia sooner rather than later.

--WR Riley Ridley and RB Elijah Holyfield, both sophomores, are expected to miss the season-opener against Appalachian State on Sept. 2 following their respective offseason arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

--DT Trenton Thompson, a junior, is healthy following offseason shoulder surgery.

--PKs Rodrigo Blankenship and David Marvin, a graduate transfer from Wofford, are battling to be the team's starting kicker.

--S Dominick Sanders, a senior, has 12 career interceptions and needs four more to tie Jake Scott for first on Georgia's career list.

--RB Nick Chubb needs 1,835 yards to tie Herschel Walker for the most career rushing yards. Walker holds the Bulldogs record with 5,259, which he accomplished in three seasons at UGA.

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August 15, 2017

Gator goal: get more offensive

Through his first two years at Florida, coach Jim McElwain has won a pair of SEC East titles and recorded 19 victories, including 13 in conference play.

But for the Gators to take the next step and win the entire SEC, McElwain will need to complete what he was tasked to do when hired as an offensive-minded coach from Colorado State -- fix UF's offense.

The Gators finished 116th out of 128 FBS teams in total offense last season, averaging 344 yards per game. In McElwain's first season in 2015, Florida's offense was 112th at 334 yards per game.

"As we all know, that's what I was brought here to do, and it hasn't been done yet," McElwain said. "And yet, it's been obviously something that is continually evolving as we get to the competition phase and the roster balance on that side of the ball.

"With that being said, I was also instructed when I took this job to figure out how to win, and I guess maybe we've won a couple and nobody really thought we would. And yet in the art of coaching, in the art of business and whatever that is -- let's call it the art of poker -- whatever hand you're given, you figure out how to play that hand."

McElwain said he feels good about the experience and depth of UF's offensive line, which returns all five starters from the end of last season. There's also more depth at wide receiver and running back. The question mark is quarterback play, which has been shaky at UF since Tim Tebow left campus in 2009.

The quarterback competition in camp has come down to a three-player race between redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, redshirt junior Luke Del Rio and Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.

Franks started in UF's spring game, passing for 119 yards and one TD. Del Rio passed for 1,358 yards with eight TDs and eight interceptions in six starts last season, while Zaire has passed for 816 yards with six TDs and no interceptions in his three-year career with the Fighting Irish.

"Malik coming in has really elevated both Feleipe and Luke," McElwain said. "I see a real drive to get those reps."

Defensively, the Gators lost seven starters, all of whom were picked in the NFL Draft. But the Gators are looking to reload behind a talented group that includes junior defensive lineman Cece Jefferson and sophomore defensive back Chauncey Gardner Jr.

Florida gets a tough test in its opener Sept. 2 against Michigan at the AdvoCare Classic in Arlington, Texas. That has heightened the intensity at camp as well.

"The guys realize it's for real right off the bat," McElwain said.

"You know, it's an opportunity for them to go on national television in a great environment and find out who they are. I think that this is one of those games where you get to find out who you are, and yet you've also got time to recover. You also have time to learn from it and continue through the season."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: OL Martez Ivey -- It's rare to consider an offensive lineman an impact player, but Ivey is not your typical college offensive lineman. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Ivey is a third-year junior and preseason All-SEC first-teamer who has started since his freshman season. Ivey will move from left guard to left tackle this season and will be counted on to protect the blind side of whichever QB wins the starting job for Florida this season. Ivey is the leader of UF's most improved unit, an offensive line that flourished late last season once T.J. McCoy moved into the role of starting center and Jawaan Taylor took control of the starting job at right tackle. UF's offensive line this season should be able to protect the quarterback better and open more holes in the run.

BREAKOUT STAR: DB Chauncey Gardner Jr. -- Gardner has a chance to be the next to uphold Florida's "DBU" tradition. With defensive backs Marcus Maye, Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson all departed for the NFL, the 5-foot-11, 204-pound Gardner will get a chance to emerge as the next playmaker in UF's secondary. Gardner earned Outback Bowl MVP honors as a true freshman last season, finishing with two interceptions, including one returned for a TD, in UF's 30-3 win over Iowa. Gardner is versatile enough to play cornerback and safety, and he will be counted on in the return game because of his breakaway speed.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB/WR Kadarius Toney -- The 5-foot-11, 180-pound true freshman was recruited to Florida as an athlete and has impressed Florida coaches in workouts with his hands and route-running ability. In UF's spring game, Toney played quarterback and had 74 yards rushing, 9 yards passing and one passing TD. Toney could be used in some direct-snap wildcat formations against Michigan and may also need to be counted on at receiver with Antonio Callaway suspended for the season opener.

--WR Antonio Callaway is one of seven players suspended for UF's season opener against Michigan due to alleged misuse of a student aid credit card during camp. Also suspended are DL Richerd Desir-Jones, DL Keivonnis Davis, LB James Houston, LB Ventrell Miller, OL Kadeem Telfort and DL Jordan Smith. "We have a small group of players that have made some choices that are extremely disappointing," Florida coach Jim McElwain said in a statement. "Action has been taken -- they have missed some practice and will miss the Michigan game. We will use this as a learning opportunity and we will have some players step up as we move forward." Callaway had 54 catches for 721 yards and three touchdowns last season, along with one punt return for a TD and one kickoff return for a score.

--S Marcell Harris is out for the season after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during summer workouts. With Harris out, the Gators could move cornerback Chauncey Gardner Jr. to safety. Other options at safety include sophomore Jeawon Taylor and freshman Brad Stewart.
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August 15, 2017

Auburn moves forward with Stidham at QB

After two weeks of camp drama, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn picked the quarterback most everybody expected would win the job.

Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham will be the guy going into the Sept. 2 opener against Georgia Southern, beating out incumbent starter Sean White and talented freshman Malik Willis for the job. A big date at defending national champion Clemson awaits the second week.

"He has done a lot of good things," Malzahn said of Stidham after the Tigers' second major scrimmage of camp. "He's a talented young man."

In a bow to modern-day mores, Malzahn announced his decision in a tweet:

"Just told team Jarrett Stidham will be the starting QB. The team is excited for Jarrett and ready for the season."

Malzahn said Stidham earned the job because of his leadership, talent and work ethic.

"He's performed very well the last two weeks," the coach said. "He performed very well in the spring, too. We're excited about that. I know the team's excited about that when we announced it. He had a different step out there in practice today."

The decision gives the offense the down-the-field threat in the passing game it lacked a year ago. Although White completed 63.9 completion percent of his passes, he averaged only 153 yards a game. In 2015 at Baylor, Stidham averaged more than 311 yards in three starts after taking over for injured starter Seth Russell before going down with a broken ankle.

The receivers look capable of giving the Tigers more of a threat as well. Malzahn praised their play in the second scrimmage.

Junior Ryan Davis, the leading returning receiver with 25 catches last year, leads an inexperienced but promising group as the Tigers look to take some of the pressure off what should be another strong running game. The only senior among the receiving corps is now gone. That would be John Franklin III, who was transitioning from quarterback. He announced he was leaving the team Tuesday as a graduate transfer.

Sophomores Eli Stove, Darius Slayton, and Kyle Davis were in double figures in catches last year,.

"I thought the young receivers really responded well," Malzahn said following the scrimmage. "A couple of them made something happen after they caught the ball, broke some tackles. It's just a matter of that group taking that next step."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Kamryn Pettway -- Pettway has a very specific target for 2017. "My individual goal is to break the school rushing record," he said, "but whatever I can do to help my team." Pettway rushed for 1,224 yards last year, which is well short of Tre Mason's school record 1,816, but he missed three games to injury. The one thing that could keep him from an even more productive season is Auburn's depth at running back, where fellow junior Kerryon Johnson rushed for 895 yards in 2016.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Marlon Davidson -- Davidson was All-Freshman SEC after starting all 13 games for the Tigers last year and recording 38 tackles (2.5 sacks). He was the first true freshman to start on Auburn's defensive line in the opener in 30 years. He has been out with an undisclosed injury in camp, but that is not thought to be a long-term problem. "He has a chance to be an impact player," coach Gus Malzahn said. "I can't say enough good things about Marlon."

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: QB Jarrett Stidham -- Stidham had the spring mostly to himself but had to fend off a challenge from returning starter Sean White before earning the starting job. The Baylor transfer gives the Tigers' passing game a major boost. Stidham was 75 of 109 passing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman for the Bears in 2015. He was a backup early in the season, then started three games before going out with an injury. "I haven't played since Nov. 21 of 2015," Stidham said. "I know exactly when my last snap was. I'm itching to get back out there."

--C Austin Golson, a returning starter, is getting some time at guard in fall camp. The senior started on the offensive line the last two years after transferring from Ole Miss in 2014.

--WR John Franklin III, who picked up his degree at Auburn's recent graduation ceremony, announced he was transferring Tuesday. The converted quarterback -- he started one game last season as an injury replacement -- is eligible immediately. Coach Gus Malzahn said in a statement that Franklin wants to play closer to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. "John has been an outstanding young man during his time here and leaves Auburn with a degree," Malzahn said in the statement. "We wish John nothing but the best and thank him for his time at Auburn."

--S Jason Smith spent last season as a wide receiver. He played quarterback at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

--S Jaylen McGriff was moved to the secondary from wide receiver, where he started for Savannah State in 2014.

--TE Tucker Brown, who joined the team as a walk-on offensive lineman, is now at tight end full time. The junior played the position in some offensive sets last year.

--S Carlito Gonzalez, a 2017 signee who didn't qualify academically, was thought to be headed for a junior college but instead has enrolled at Memphis.

--S Mike Sherwood, a former walk-on, left Auburn to seek a spot on another team as a graduate transfer.
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August 15, 2017

Bielema's blueprint: Run to win

There is no shortage of storylines for the Arkansas Razorbacks as they enter Bret Bielema's fifth season as head coach.

Bielema's Hogs limped to a 7-6 finish in 2016, giving up big halftime leads in the regular-season finale at Missouri and the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.

Arkansas fans have been mostly patient with Bielema, who is 25-26 with the Razorbacks after going 68-24 in seven seasons at Wisconsin. But after Arkansas went 8-5 with a victory in the Liberty Bowl in 2015, last season's 7-6 finish was a disappointment. Arkansas' 10-22 record under Bielema in SEC play isn't what Razorback fans were hoping for, either.

When Arkansas has won under Bielema, it's been with a straightforward strategy: Run the ball effectively behind a big offensive line, control the line of scrimmage and avoid turnovers.

With four starters returning on the offensive line this fall, the Razorbacks have a chance to build on that blueprint, although the offense suffered a significant loss when a spring neck injury forced running back Rawleigh Williams III to give up football after rushing for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016.

With Williams sidelined, the Hogs will instead count on sophomore Devwah Whaley as their top running back. Whaley is capable, having rushed for 602 yards and three scores on 110 carries last season.

Senior Austin Allen returns for his second season as the starting quarterback. Allen completed 61.1 percent of his passes for an SEC-leading 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, but he also led the SEC with 15 interceptions and was sacked a league-high 34 times.

Arkansas' offensive line will be anchored by senior center Frank Ragnow, a first-team preseason All-SEC pick who has started 26 consecutive games.

Defensively, the Hogs have a new coordinator in Paul Rhoads, a former Iowa State head coach. Rhoads will oversee a shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. The Razorbacks have five defensive starters returning, led by junior linebacker Dre Greenlaw and sophomore defensive end McTelvin Agim. Arkansas' secondary is deep and talented. A key on defense could be senior Bijhon Jackson, a 339-pounder who is expected to start at nose tackle.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Devwah Whaley -- Rawleigh Williams III and Whaley were expected to give Arkansas one of college football's top backfield tandems. But with Williams' career ending prematurely because of injury, the Razorbacks will be counting on Whaley, a sophomore, to carry more of the load. Whaley has great speed and acceleration. His durability could be a major key to the Razorbacks' chances of a successful SEC season.

BREAKOUT STAR: DL McTelvin Agim -- Agim, a sophomore, was among the most sought-after recruits in the country coming out of high school, and he started Arkansas' final five games last season as a true freshman. Arkansas' shift to a 3-4 defense could give the 6-3, 286-pound Agim more freedom to use his outstanding speed, and that could be a problem for Arkansas' opponents.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Koilan Jackson -- Jackson, a freshman who is the son of former Oklahoma All-American and NFL All-Pro tight end Keith Jackson, has made some impressive catches in preseason camp and could benefit from Arkansas' lack of experienced depth at wide receiver. Arkansas returns just three wide receivers who caught passes in 2016, and only one of those, senior Jared Cornelius, caught more than two.

--RB David Williams has enrolled at Arkansas and is immediately eligible as a graduate transfer from South Carolina. Williams rushed for 794 yards and five touchdowns during his career at South Carolina, including 239 yards and three touchdowns in 2016.

--OL Hjalte Froholdt, a junior who started all 13 games at left tackle last season, is a native of Svendborg, Denmark, who didn't start playing football until his junior year of high school, when he was a foreign exchange student in Ohio.

--Arkansas' No. 2 quarterback likely will either be sophomore Ty Storey or redshirt freshman Cole Kelley. Senior starter Austin Allen was responsible for 401 of the Razorbacks' 406 pass attempts in 2016, with Storey completing 1 of 4 attempts for three yards.
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August 15, 2017

No. 1 Alabama to lean on talented backfield

Alabama has the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, and the best part of the best team is its backfield.

The Tide has stars all over the field -- including defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who headlines 10 Alabama players ranked among the preseason national top 100 by NFLDraftScout.com -- but it's the backfield depth that is particularly stunning.

Running Back U. -- stretching in the Nick Saban era from Glen Coffee to Mark Ingram Jr. to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy to T.J. Yeldon to Derrick Henry -- will be in full effect when Alabama plays Florida State in an epic college football season-opener on Sept. 2 in Atlanta.

Pick a headliner: Is it powerful Bo Scarbrough, healthy again after suffering a broken leg in the national title game? Is it Damien Harris, who rushed for 1,037 yards on 146 carries last season? Is it five-star freshman Najee Harris?

Don't forget that Josh Jacobs ran for 567 yards as a true freshman last season. And true freshman Brian Robinson Jr., a top 100 recruit, might yet find a way to factor into the mix as a versatile, big back.

Coach Nick Saban says Harris can be a "dominant player," but it was the oft-injured Scarbrough who stole the spotlight late last season in a brief window of full health. He rushed 63 times for 454 yards and six touchdowns in the final four games against the stout defenses of Auburn, Florida, Washington and Clemson.

Good news for the Tide is the burly Scarbrough (6-foot-2 and 235 pounds) has been fine in camp, recovering from his injury against Clemson.

"I'm feeling pretty good. My legs feel good," he said after the first week of camp. "I'm feeling pretty great right now."

He's ready to turn the page from the loss in the national title game.

"That's something that I can't go back and speak on," he said. "That book is closed. So, I'm only focused on what's going on now and not the past."

How the coaching staff will juggle all these running backs is something of a mystery as first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll puts a new spin on the offense while Alabama moves on from the play-calling of Lane Kiffin. In Daboll's preseason media availability, he talked about installing a variety of new plays.

Maybe that means more downfield passing with improving quarterback Jalen Hurts and star wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Perhaps it means a stop-me-if-you-can ground game. The Tide can't go wrong leaning on its running backs and a talented offensive line, led by center Bradley Bozeman, guard Ross Pierschbacher and sophomore Jonah Williams, emerging as the Tide's next great left tackle.

"I don't call it competition. I call it creation," Scarbrough said of the running back depth chart. "We're all on the same team and trying to help each other out."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jalen Hurts -- He took Alabama to the national title game as a true freshman, winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, which are huge accomplishments. But his room to grow was evident at the end of the season, when he completed only 31 of 65 passes for 326 yards in the final three games. "The goal was stated many times before that we wanted to improve his ability to be more efficient, effective, confident passer," coach Nick Saban said at the start of fall camp. Hurts has been in control in camp, showing better leadership and confidence as a passer as he works on his mid-range accuracy and deep throws. Not only will that improvement help unlock the full potential of the Tide's offense, but Hurts' value is further seen when noting that Alabama has two true freshmen behind him on the depth chart.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Rashaan Evans -- The senior didn't make his first career start until last season's College Football Playoff, subbing in nicely for the injured Shaun Dion Hamilton. Evans made seven tackles against Washington and 11 stops vs. Clemson, giving him enough confidence that in February he tweeted, "I'll win the Butkus Award." Becoming the nation's best linebacker is a big goal, but he does appear poised for a huge season lining up next to Hamilton at inside linebacker. Alabama's first scrimmage was closed to the media, but reports were that Evans was dominant.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Jerry Jeudy -- So much to choose from, as Alabama had the nation's top-ranked class, but the 'Bama buzz started particularly early with Jeudy, who was MVP of the A-Day spring game, when he caught five passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The five-star recruit already reminds many of teammate Calvin Ridley. Jeudy (6-1, 187) might not be in the starting lineup -- look for Ridley, Robert Foster and Cam Sims -- but he'll be a big-play option in Alabama's attack.

--DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, a returning consensus All-American, has practiced at every spot in the Alabama secondary during camp. He has lined up at corner, safety, star (nickel back) and money (a sixth defensive back who replaces the middle linebacker in some formations). Where he ends up in the starting lineup likely depends on where he is needed most after the coaches see how other defensive backs are stepping up at their respective positions.

--OL Alex Leatherwood, a five-star true freshman, has been working as a backup at right and left tackle in camp. Another true freshman tackle, Jedrick Wills, has been getting reps as a backup right tackle, with coach Nick Saban saying, "We think both of those guys have potential to help us."

--RB B.J. Emmons left a crowded backfield and transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in the summer.

--RB Josh Jacobs was dealing with a hamstring injury midway through camp that kept him out of the first scrimmage.
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August 15, 2017

Demon Deacons ready to build on success

Wake Forest finally realized some of the rewards after a series of rough seasons. Now, the Demon Deacons face the task of pushing further upward.

"We're looking forward to building off the momentum and the improvement that we made in the '16 season," fourth-year coach Dave Clawson said.

The Demon Deacons had an uplifting victory in the Military Bowl by defeating Temple to finish with a 7-6 record and snap a three-game losing streak from the end of the regular season.

Before last season, the team posted losing records in seven consecutive years, including three-win marks in 2014 and 2015.

So it's probably no surprise that the preseason polls haven't looked all that favorably on the Demon Deacons entering this season.

"We're used to it," senior tight end Cam Serigne said of low preseason ratings. "We want to be there. We want to be that team."

That underdog mentality is a mindset that seems to be spreading throughout the roster.

"We want the other teams to doubt us," senior defensive lineman Wendell Dunn said. "We want them to think, 'Oh, it's just Wake Forest we're playing,' so when we get out there and punch them in the mouth (it feels better)."

An upgrade on the offensive side is in order, and with a cast of promising running backs competing behind an upgraded offensive line that could be in the works.

Running backs Matt Colburn and Cade Carney could be major factors, particularly with the quarterback situation unclear amid the competition between Kendall Hinton and John Wolford.

After all, it's a Wake Forest team that failed to score more than 14 points in half of its regular-season games last year.

"I think on offense for the first time, you're looking at a lineup that isn't freshmen and sophomores," Clawson said.

"Even last year I think there was a game that we started nine freshmen and sophomores on offense. ... That's the thing I'm most excited about is you can become more creative when kids understand the system."

Wake Forest was involved in its share of close games last year, going 4-2 in outcomes decided by eight points or less.

Yet Clawson points out that his Wake Forest teams have yet to register a real eye-catching result.

"We want to have that big, signature win against one of the top teams in the conference," he said. "That's something that we still haven't accomplished, and that is certainly a big goal for this year is you win one of those games, you're like, 'Wow, Wake got it done.'"

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DB Jessie Bates III -- He made a big impact a year ago as a redshirt freshman and now the stakes are raised. The Demon Deacons lost a large chunk of their experience in the defensive backfield, so now it will be Bates' turn to provide some leadership as well. He was second in the ACC last year with five interceptions, returning two of those for touchdowns so he has displayed the big-play capabilities. He's also a punt returner who the Demon Deacons would like to see break loose.

BREAKOUT STAR: QB Kendall Hinton -- He ended up taking a redshirt season in 2016 despite a promising stretch in the first couple of games before an injury. He entered the 2017 preseason camp atop the depth chart, although he's battling QB John Wolford for the first-string role for the second year in a row. The Demon Deacons know the benefits of Hinton winning the job, with the redshirt sophomore potentially holding that role for a few years. He has breakaway speed and shows a good knack when he's able to tuck the ball and run. He has made three career starts, including once last year before going out for the season with a knee injury in the third week.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Sage Surratt -- The true freshman is competing at a position where the Demon Deacons have needed to find more production, so there could be opportunity there. He received largely positive reviews through the early part of camp, so he won't be overlooked when the coaching staff determines what roles he can fill. He received state Player of the Year recognition in football and basketball in high school in North Carolina, so his athleticism is well-documented. His brother, Chazz Surratt, is a candidate for the starting quarterback role at North Carolina.

--S Traveon Reed, a redshirt freshman, has an elbow injury that's expected to keep him out of action until at least October.

--S Thomas Dillon is back on the field after missing the 2016 season with an injury. He has been moved from cornerback to safety.

--DT Deon Young, a graduate transfer from Northern Arizona, is expected to be in the mix along the defensive front.

--CB Cedric Jiles, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State, has missed preseason workouts because of a hip flexor.

--RT Je'Vionte Nash has taken reps with the first team. He's a redshirt freshman competing for a starting role.
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August 15, 2017

Cavaliers pin bounce-back hopes on defense

Optimism quickly turned into gloom last season as the first year of the Bronco Mendenhall era turned sour in the blink of an eye.

While many hoped Mendenhall could revive Virginia football, the Cavaliers instead went 2-10 and again face underdog status heading into 2017. Virginia was picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division in a preseason poll of the league's media.

The Cavaliers do have some bright spots, and their strength this season should come on defense, where they return eight players who started at least seven games last season, including two potential All-Americans in safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser. Both skipped the NFL Draft and returned with the hopes of helping Virginia curb their struggles.

Blanding and Kiser -- as well as cornerback Juan Thornhill -- are considered top 100 prospects for the 2018 draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.

"I believe in the system," Blanding said. "I trust the system. I trust the process. (So) why not go one more year and go out with a bang and increase the status of Virginia?"

Even with some star power on defense, Virginia allowed 446.6 yards per game last season, ranking 93rd nationally.

Three consecutive home games to start the season may be exactly what Virginia needs to build some momentum before entering ACC play. Last season, the Cavaliers played two of their first three contests on the road and stumbled to an 0-3 start.

The defense won't be able to do it alone, and senior quarterback Kurt Benkert will likely have to be the Cavaliers' answer on offense. But where will his help come from?

Virginia is thin on the offensive line and has little depth behind Benkert. Incoming freshman Lindell Stone and redshirt freshman De'Vante Cross, who was planning on making the transition to wide receiver, will be Benkert's only protection on the depth chart.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kurt Benkert -- Healthy, leaner and poised to build on a solid 2016 campaign, Benkert will need to pilot the Virginia offense in order for the Cavaliers to compete this season. He threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, returning as the conference's second-leading passer. He should be more consistent and confident after playing through a shoulder injury that hampered him at times.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Andrew Brown -- Touted as a five-star recruit out of Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., in 2014, Brown has yet to live up to expectations in a Virginia uniform -- but there have been signs. Brown started 10 games as a junior in 2016 and led the team in tackles for loss with 13 after making a minimal impact during his first two years. Look for Brown to anchor coach Bronco Mendenhall's 3-4 defense up front, with dangerous weapons in linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding lined up behind him.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Jamari Peacock -- One of 15 three-star recruits the Cavaliers nabbed for the class of 2017, Peacock will likely see enough time to make an immediate impact on offense. The 5-foot-11, 245-poiunder from Yulee, Fla., will provide a fullback-like stature to help the running and the blocking aspects of Virginia's offense. Peacock, who was an early enrollee, could also be a key part of Virginia's success at the goal-line with his ability to muscle the ball into the end zone -- something he did 34 times as a senior in high school last season.

--OL Jack McDonald had his knee scoped during camp and could likely miss the first part of the season. McDonald was expected to be an anchor for an already-thin Virginia offensive line.

--QB/WR De'Vante Cross committed to the Cavaliers as a quarterback and is currently listed as one on the depth chart, but he could also make the shift to wide receiver with his playmaking abilities.

--QB Sonny Abramson, who is a rising sophomore, left the Virginia football program during the spring but remains enrolled at the university, making the Cavaliers even thinner at the quarterback position.

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August 15, 2017

Fuente urges right perspective for Hokies

Justin Fuente's successful opening season as Virginia Tech's head coach can now be spun two ways.

There will be pundits who say Virginia Tech can't possibly repeat last season's success -- a 10-4 record, ACC Coastal Division championship and Belk Bowl win -- after losing so much talent in the offseason.

Other observers will assume last season was just a launching pad to bigger success for the Hokies, who were ranked 22nd in the preseason coaches' poll.

"I don't buy into the whole, 'We can't be good because guys aren't here,'" Fuente said. "Or, 'We should be good because guys are here.'

"I told my team when we were starting back after Christmas break, they've got a difficult job, because people are going to say two things about them. One, they're going to say that they can't have success because all the good players have left. And that's not true. We have this opportunity in front of us. It's up to us.

"And then the other half of the people are going to say you're going to have success because you had success last year. You've arrived. And that's not true either. It's right here in the middle. We're neither born winners or losers, but we are what we make ourselves. Every single day, let's go about building this thing forward."

The Hokies tied or broke 10 school offensive records last season, including for points (490), touchdowns (61) and total yards (6,223), but they must replace a group of players that accounted for most of that production.

Tech must replace its starting quarterback, Jerod Evans, its top wide receiver, Isaiah Ford, game-breaking tight end Bucky Hodges and versatile fullback Sam Rogers.

Much of the spotlight this preseason is on the quarterback battle among redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, freshman Hendon Hooker and junior college transfer A.J. Bush, but the Hokies also have critical battles at running back, wide receiver and along the offensive line.

"Regardless of what we lost, I still think we have a large nucleus of talent, especially on defense, and on the offensive side we have experience as well along with great coaching, which is very important," said wide receiver Cam Phillips.

"The senior leadership and the experience that we have in myself and (running back) Travon McMillian and (offensive lineman) Wyatt Teller, I think that can help us greatly to bring along some of these young guys."

Tech will have an elite-caliber defense, however, capable of keeping opponents at bay while the offense comes around.

Led by longtime coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies' defense returns seven starters and a host of other players who saw critical action last season in reserve roles.

Tech is especially deep in the back seven, where it returns three starting linebackers, three big-play cornerbacks and a strong group of safeties led by Terrell Edmunds, who had a team-leading four interceptions last season.

"I think we're going to have a pretty thin margin for error," Fuente told reporters at the start of camp. "We're going to have to do some things really well. Execute on a fundamental level and a consistent basis in terms of taking care of the football, taking the football away.

"There are going to be some young guys in there mixed in with some very experienced, very good players. And I'm anxious to continue camp and get to see those young guys grow and develop and mold in there with some very talented older guys."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR Cam Phillips -- Phillips is the most seasoned skill player on the roster following the departures of top wideout Isaiah Ford, tight end Bucky Hodges and jack-of-all-trades fullback Sam Rogers. The experienced Phillips caught 76 passes for 983 yards and five touchdowns last year and is on pace to break the school career records for receptions and receiving yards. He will help ease the transition of a new quarterback and an otherwise unproven cast of wide receivers.

BREAKOUT STAR: DT Tim Settle -- A much-ballyhooed recruit out of high school, the 6-foot-3, 335-pound redshirt sophomore spent his first couple of years in Blacksburg learning the ropes. Now is his time to star as a gap-plugging, disruptive defensive tackle, one of the biggest interior linemen to ever suit up for the Hokies. Settle had seven tackles for loss as a reserve last year. His contributions as a backup provided a welcome glimpse of what he could be as a starter. The Hokies will need Settle and junior Ricky Walker to fill the sizeable shoes of Woody Baron and Nigel Williams on a re-tooled defensive line that could use more depth.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: SS Devon Hunter -- The five-star freshman is arguably Virginia Tech's most touted recruit from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, aka "The 757," since quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Hunter may not crack the starting lineup right away -- he has competition for the strong safety spot from sophomore Reggie Floyd -- but if his credentials are any indication, he may force his way into the rotation sooner rather than later. Hunter was rated the No. 3 player in Virginia last year by ESPN and was selected to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

--CB Brandon Facyson has been limited this preseason after having surgery on his right wrist in the offseason. He ramped up his activity through the first couple of weeks of preseason practice, however, and has participated in non-contact drills while wearing a cast on his right forearm.

--WR Caleb Farley suffered a season-ending knee injury while doing non-contact drills on the first day of preseason practice. Farley is a true freshman who enrolled early and made the move from defensive back in the spring. He was expected to at least provide depth at a thin receiver position this season.

--OL Parker Osterloh has returned after sitting out spring practice with an ankle injury. He is battling with Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung for the open right guard spot.

--DE Houshun Gaines has been reinstated after missing spring ball because of an academic suspension. Gaines had five tackles as a reserve last year.
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August 15, 2017

Orange must get defensive in Babers' second season

The irony of Dino Babers' first go-round with Syracuse was -- despite an overhaul in rhetoric, scheme and process -- the Orange had the same record (4-8) as the previous season.

First-season doldrums were predictable. Babers lacked the personnel for his up-tempo offense, inheriting more bruisers than speedsters. Injuries exacerbated problems at crucial spots, and the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule brutalized an inexperienced roster.

There are positives heading into year two.

Back under center is Eric Dungey, who battled injuries last season but managed to complete 230 of 355 passes for 2,679 yards, with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Dungey, who also scored six touchdowns on the ground, distributes the ball well to playmakers like wideouts Erv Philips and Steve Ishmael.

Replacing last season's breakout star wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo is an obstacle, but Syracuse has unusual depth at the position.

By and large, it was a lackluster defense that derailed Syracuse's season.

The Orange was one of seven teams in the nation that allowed 500 yards per game. Syracuse was 115th in sacks (16) and 122nd in passes defended (26). Injuries this summer left the Orange with one practicing scholarship contributor (Kendall Coleman) at defensive end. Junior college transfers, converted linebackers and freshmen round out the position group in camp.

Linebacker will presumably be a position of strength for the defense, as seniors Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas are set to start. Up front at defensive tackle are Chris Slayton and McKinley Williams, two of the more gifted athletes, pound for pound, on the roster.

This season might boil down to the performance of Syracuse's defensive backs. Graduate transfer cornerbacks Devin Butler and Jordan Martin are expected to see significant snaps right away. But Babers has said as many as six cornerbacks could play, with sophomores Scoop Bradshaw and Chris Fredrick having entered camp listed among the first team.

Antwan Cordy returns at strong safety after suffering a season-ending forearm injury last September. Next to him at free safety will be Evan Foster, who saw limited time as a freshman.

The difficulties facing Syracuse in 2017 are immense, as highlighted by a schedule featuring LSU, Clemson, Miami, Florida State and Louisville. To compete for a bowl bid, Syracuse will need to win its first three games (mild contests in the Carrier Dome) and stay reasonably healthy into November.

Late season home games against Wake Forest and Boston College could determine whether or not Babers can claim his first postseason berth at Syracuse.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: LB Zaire Franklin -- He likely will be named as the first three-year captain at Syracuse since 1990. It is difficult to imagine where Syracuse would be without Franklin manning the middle of the defense, bridging the gap between systems and ushering in young starters across the board. Franklin had 101 tackles and tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for loss in 2016. If Franklin is complemented by more competent play in the secondary, he could be more of a factor rushing the quarterback.

BREAKOUT STAR: S Antwan Cordy -- Any chance at defensive stability last season took a huge hit when Cordy suffered a season-ending injury in week two. A dynamic player with great instincts, Cordy amassed 12 tackles for loss and two interceptions as a starter in 2015. Two years later, Cordy should benefit the most directly from coach Dino Babers' move to the Tampa-2 system. Protection from an experienced linebacker corps should allow Cordy to roam the field and make plays on the ball. Leading the ACC in defensive turnovers is not out of the realm of possibility for the 5-foot-8 Cordy, who was nicknamed "Giant" under the previous coaching staff.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TE Ravian Pierce -- For years, it has been puzzling that Syracuse could not cultivate the tight end position into more of a threat in the passing game. Perhaps coach Dino Babers has finally brought a player into the fold who can change that. Pierce, from Southwest Mississippi Community College, was ranked 21st among all junior college transfers by 247Sports.com. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound tight end was also offered by Mississippi State and LSU. Back in February, the coaching staff described Pierce as a potential downfield threat in the ACC.

--QB Tommy DeVito was coach Dino Babers' most prized recruit in 2017, listed by 247Sports.com's composite ranking as the No. 15 pro-style quarterback in the country. After committing to Syracuse in 2016, DeVito rose in popularity after being named an Elite-11 finalist and Under Armour All-American. DeVito received attention from schools around the country, including in the SEC, but Babers credits the quarterback's unwavering commitment to Syracuse in bringing the rest of the class together.

Time will tell when DeVito gets his first crack at playing quarterback for Syracuse, as incumbent starter Eric Dungey has two years of eligibility left. DeVito is currently behind former walk-on Zack Mahoney for the backup quarterback job. Mahoney has appeared in 16 games and thrown 253 passes for the Orange over the past two seasons. Untimely injuries to Dungey thrust Mahoney into games against nationally-ranked opponents such as LSU, Clemson and Florida State.

--CB Devin Butler comes to Syracuse with promise but also some baggage that he hopes to put behind him. The 6-foot-1, 189-pound Butler appeared in 37 games for Notre Dame between 2014 and 2016. He was pushing for a starting job with the Fighting Irish before being suspended following a controversial altercation with a police officer last August.

--S Kielan Whitner burst onto the scene in his second season, starting three games at safety. At 6-feet, 200 pounds, Whitner has excellent size for a safety, and he can also be used at strong-side linebacker.

--WR Jamal Custis (6-5, 224) has long tantalized Syracuse fans as an apparent basketball prospect in shoulder pads. Used minimally for two seasons under Scott Shafer, Custis has only two remaining seasons of eligibility after redshirting in 2016. Custis reportedly caught a pair of touchdowns passes from Eric Dungey in a closed scrimmage early in camp, perhaps an indication he will help see the field consistently for the first time.
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August 15, 2017

Pitt's defense will start season short-handed

Pitt had five players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, so the Panthers knew there would be a difficult transition at some positions.

But the Panthers had even more adversity to get through before they ever set foot on the field for training camp.

Senior defensive linemen Rori Blair and Jeremiah Taleni were dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons, leaving that unit without a returning starter and just one senior.

Senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis and junior safety Jordan Whitehead were suspended for the first three games of the season, meaning they will miss an important rivalry game against Penn State in Week 2 and a visit from nationally ranked Oklahoma State in Week 3.

Wirginis is the team's lone senior linebacker; Whitehead was an All-ACC selection a year ago. That is a lot of experience and talent that will be temporarily missing from a defense that finished 101st in the country in yards allowed per game a year ago.

Pitt's offense wasn't exempt from offseason losses, either. Running back James Conner declared for the NFL Draft with a season of eligibility remaining, sophomore wide receiver Tre Tipton suffered a season-ending injury in an off-the field accident over the summer and his likely replacement, sophomore Aaron Mathews, missed the first two weeks of training camp due to personal reasons.

In the press box, offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who managed the Panthers' attack in 2016 to the tune of a program-high 532 points and a top-10 national finish in scoring, left for the same job at LSU, meaning that new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will be installing the third offense in three seasons under Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi.

The offseason wasn't all doom and gloom, though.

The Panthers brought in three graduate transfers, by far the biggest of whom was quarterback Max Browne, who spent four years at USC. Browne was one of the most highly sought-after quarterbacks in the nation coming out of high school, but got limited opportunities to show what he could do with the Trojans and was passed by Sam Darnold on the depth chart early in 2016.

Eager to show what he's capable of, Browne joined the Panthers for their spring practices and summer workouts. Browne has been able to spend valuable time meshing with his new offensive teammates.

"I think if you get an offensive tackle in August, it will be OK, but if you get a quarterback in August, it's little bit more difficult," Narduzzi said. "He's been able to go through spring ball, and go through the entire summer, which the summer is a major thing."

Said Browne: "With each week, I become less and less a new guy. Learning a new offense isn't the easiest thing, but now I have it down, which is a big reason I came in January and I'm glad I did that."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: OT Brian O'Neill -- O'Neill made headlines a season ago for doing some very unlineman-like things. The 300-pounder scored two touchdowns, one on a screen pass and the other on a reverse handoff. But this season, the converted tight end will shift from right tackle to left tackle and while there's still a chance for some chicanery, the serious task of protecting Max Browne's blind side will be his primary duty.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Dwayne Hendrix -- A transfer from Tennessee before the 2015 season, Hendrix spent an entire year getting rave reviews as a defensive lineman with a mean streak on Pitt's scout team. He seemed poise for a starting role and breakout season in 2016, but was lost for the season to an injury in the opener against Villanova. A healthy Hendrix would go a long way to replacing the production of graduated end Ejuan Price, who finished third in the ACC with 13 sacks a year ago.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Brandon Hodges -- Hodges came from the University of Texas as a graduate transfer at the last minute, joining the team a week into training camp. The former junior college star started eight games for the Longhorns last year and could be an immediate upgrade to the depth on Pitt's offensive line. Hodges is starting out at right tackle, competing with senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, who has worked back from a catastrophic knee injury in 2015.

--DB Paris Ford, a four-star recruit, had yet to be cleared academically as of the start of the third week of camp. Ford was expected to compete for a starting job at one of the safety spots, but his lengthy absence brings into question whether he'll play this season, even if he is eligible.

--RG Alex Bookser will serve a one-game suspension for an off-the field incident in which he was arrested and charged with DUI in March. Bookser started all 13 games at right guard in 2016.

--FB George Aston is expected to miss considerable time with an undisclosed injury. Aston scored 10 touchdowns in 2016. Instead replacing Aston directly, QB Max Browne said the offense is utilizing more tight ends and three-receiver sets.

--RB Qadree Ollison will attempt to hold off a deep group at the running back position in an effort to replace James Conner, who moved to the other side of the building shared by the Panthers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ollison rushed for 1,121 yards when Conner was sidelined with a knee injury in 2015, but talented young backs A.J. Davis, Darrin Hall, Chawntez Moss and Todd Sibley will challenge for playing time.

--WR/KR Quadree Henderson was one of the nation's most dominant players with the ball in his hands a year ago. A consensus All-American at kick returner, Henderson also had 630 yards rushing and 286 yards receiving. Now a junior, Henderson is expected to be asked to do a lot more down-the-field pass catching than he has in the past.
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