No. 12 Kansas State. West Virginia. A great Thursday night battle played in awful weather, with temperates expected to drop below freezing by kickoff. Both teams are coming off losses followed by bye weeks, so they should come out hot. Brandon Chatmon and Max Olson break down the matchup:

How Kansas State can control the game: If the Wildcats follow the blueprint that has become the standard for Bill Snyder's program, KSU should be in good shape, even in a tough road environment. A chilly night with the possibility of snow could play right into the hands of a Kansas State offense that leans on its running game and efficient third down conversions. Defensively, limiting the Mountaineers big plays, particularly early, could be the difference between controlling the tempo of the game or being forced to try to chase Dana Holgorsen's team from behind. -- Chatmon

How West Virginia can control the game: The Mountaineers play a lot better defense than they probably get credit for, and they made life tough for both Baylor and TCU in Morgantown because neither could operate at the speed and pace they prefer. Nobody has shut down K-State offensively the way that TCU did two weeks ago. Bet on KSU bringing some new wrinkles and a recommitment to the run game off their bye week. WVU has to respond well and get a takeaway or two to swing this game their way. -- Olson

Kansas State's X factor: Receiver Curry Sexton's emergence has been huge for K-State's offense. Sexton's 53 receptions for 723 yards and four touchdowns makes defenses account for his playmaking skills and opens up opportunities for Tyler Lockett. Jake Waters joins Lockett as a proven playmaker in the offense and Sexton's emergence makes the Wildcats even more difficult to handle. -- Chatmon

West Virginia's X factor: In addition to the homefield travel advantage and the uncomfortable weather, it's the Mountaineers' ability to score quickly with not only Kevin White but also speedster Mario Alford. White caught 16 passes against Texas but was kept relative in-check in terms of his big-play ability, and so was Alford. On a brutally cold night in which both team need to run, a couple huge pass plays can swing this game. -- Olson

What a win would mean for Kansas State: It would keep the Wildcats Big 12 title hopes alive and pass the biggest test they'll face before heading to Baylor on Dec. 6. K-State would secure, at the very least, a Big 12 co-championship with three wins in its final three games and a win tonight would be a terrific first step. -- Chatmon

What a win would mean for West Virginia: Burning couches, of course, and the satisfaction of knowing they've dethroned another one of the conference's best at Milan Puskar. Beating K-State would likely mean an 8-4 season for Holgorsen's squad and one heck of a turnaround after last year's frustrating 4-8 year.
Scooby WrightMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsScooby Wright on being a two-star recruit coming out of high school: "It definitely fires me up."
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Scooby the Underdog wasn't supposed to be a five-star recruit.

His story still could have turned out well, perhaps really well, if such a rating had been bestowed upon him. Phillip Wright III still had enough drive, enough work ethic, enough "Humble Scooby," as Arizona teammate Will Parks says, to be great if everyone thought he would be great.

But would he be this great? Would Arizona's sophomore linebacker be a front-runner for Pac-12 defensive player of the year, a guaranteed All-American, and a finalist for the national defensive player of the year (Nagurski Trophy) and the Lombardi Award, if he heard how good he would be in recruiting? Would he be the face of an overachieving team, ranked 15th nationally, filled with similarly overlooked players?

"I told our staff," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, "we've got to find as many Scooby Wrights as we can. Whatever he was so-called out of high school, you can't say he wasn't a five-star for us."

Wright was a two-star recruit, as his Twitter handle, @twostarscoob, reminds everyone, especially the Pac-12 coaches who viewed him that way coming out of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa, California. A recruiting process that brought more angst and anger than enjoyment didn't light the fire inside Wright, but it fans the flames every time he plays.

Cal didn't want him. He recorded 18 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks, and a forced fumble in Arizona's win against the Bears.

Washington dragged its feet. Scooby's answer: 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss, in last Saturday's win.

"He plays with that chip," said Matt Dudek, Arizona's director of on-campus recruiting and player personnel. "Like, 'I wasn't good enough for you. Now I'm going to have 19 tackles against you. I'm going to steal the ball three times.'"

When Arizona offered a scholarship in June 2012, Wright had been scheduled to attend camps at Oregon and UCLA. He thought: They never gave me the time of day. Why would I go?

He ended an upset of Oregon on Oct. 2 with a sack-strip-recovery against star quarterback Marcus Mariota. Arizona lost to UCLA, but Wright recorded 19 tackles, 4.5 for loss and three sacks. His numbers against the Pac-12: 84 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and five forced fumbles.

"It definitely fires me up," said Wright, who leads the nation in tackles for loss per game (2.1) and forced fumbles (5), and ranks third in sacks per game (1.2). "I went to all those combines and stuff. People always questioned my athleticism. I had one of the highest SPARQ scores in the country, like 112.

"It definitely motivated me more, being overlooked."

The overlooked label seemed to suit Wright, even before it was attached. With some exceptions, those told they are great don't approach football like he does.

[+] EnlargeScooby Wright III
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsArizona's Scooby Wright has terrorized Pac-12 foes this season, totaling 84 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and five forced fumbles.
As an eighth grader, Wright woke up his father, Phil, at 5:30 a.m., four times a week to get a ride to the high school. He would lift weights with the varsity players for an hour, hop back in the car, shower at home, and then head to the other side of town to his middle school for classes.

While at Cardinal Newman, Wright was the last player off the practice field. When he did leave the field, he and defensive coordinator Matt Di Meola would work on pass-rush techniques in Di Meola's backyard, or watch film. They spent many Sundays together, too. By the eighth game of Wright's sophomore year, he was Newman's best player.

"I don't know if we've ever seen a kid attack it like that," Cardinal Newman coach Paul Cronin said. "Scooby was just fanatical. You just think if someone works that hard, it has to work out."

Maybe Wright would have had the same drive as a four- or five-star recruit. But the snubs sharpened him.

"That stuff just ate at him, killed him. That stuff makes him work harder," said his dad, Phil, who coaches softball at Santa Rosa Junior College. "It seems crazy, but he wants to keep proving himself. I don't think it’s because he's mad and upset. He wants to prove people wrong.

"We always laugh and call him 'The Waterboy,' with tackling fuel."

Pac-12 opponents always will be lit matches for that fuel, but Wright's fire burns for Arizona.

He's the team's most recognizable player, both because of his game and his name. The quick backstory: Phil Wright, hoping to avoid the confusion he endured with his own father, started calling his son "Scooby" at a young age. It stuck.

"Ninety percent of people in his high school didn't know his name," Phil Wright said. "The only thing that says Phillip Wright is his driver's license."

He will always be Scooby at Arizona Stadium, where more fans are donning "Scooby's Crew" T-shirts. The T-shirts started with family and friends, but the increased demand led Phil to make several hundred more, and different versions.

Scooby has the fame he never had in high school, although he is not totally comfortable with it. Two days after the UCLA game, he was informed he had won his second consecutive Pac-12 defensive player of the week award. His response: "I don't care. We lost."

Still, he takes nothing for granted.

"He walks up to me after every game and says, 'Thanks for believing in me,'" Dudek said. "He doesn't want to be anywhere else."

Former Wildcats assistant Tony Gibson, now West Virginia's defensive coordinator, first identified Wright in spring 2012. The staff loved his high school highlights, but Rodriguez, aware of Wright's few suitors, wondered, "What are we missing?" He concluded the others were missing out and offered Wright, hoping no one would pick up the scent.

Wright committed June 21, his parents' anniversary.

"It really happened within a week," he said. "I never looked back. There was no gray. They were super straightforward, like, 'I want you.'"

Three days after graduation, Wright arrived at Arizona's campus. He started at outside linebacker as a true freshman and recorded 83 tackles, 9.5 for loss, but "played kind of blind." He wasn't used in pass-rush situations with four down linemen.

So he kept working.

"He was like a young Marine," said Parks, a Wildcats safety. "Most young guys come in timid. He's just got that energy, that Scooby mentality."

Wright is now a fixture in Arizona's third-down package, playing both defensive end and linebacker, as he did in high school. He's the only FBS player in the top 25 averages for tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.

"It's just something he has a knack for," safeties coach Matt Caponi said. "He's not the most mobile guy, but he's got that nonstop in him."

Wright corresponds with Tedy Bruschi, who, like Wright, was a lightly recruited player from Northern California who landed at Arizona. Bruschi became a two-time consensus All-American, leading the "Desert Swarm" defense.

"Tedy Bruschi was Scooby Wright before Scooby Wright," Rodriguez said.

Bruschi played on good teams, but Wright wants to lead a great team.

The two-star underdog wants to take Arizona to a five-star resort where it has never been: the Rose Bowl.

"That'd be the ultimate goal," he said. "Nobody's going to come back in 20 years and say, 'Oh, you had 20 tackles in this game.' If your team wins, that's all that matters in the end."

Second annual FCS Kickoff set

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The first game of the 2015 college football season is set.

North Dakota State will visit Montana in the second annual FCS Kickoff, which will be televised by ESPN on Saturday, Aug. 29. Football Bowl Subdivision (FCS) games will begin the following weekend.

The FCS Kickoff between North Dakota State and Montana features two of the most successful programs in the nation. The three-time defending national champion Bison are 10-1 this season. They've suffered only three losing seasons in 51 years, and they've won their past five games against BCS opponents. Montana has also seen plenty of success; the 7-4 Grizzlies own seven FCS title game appearances and have won or shared 16 of the past 21 Big Sky Conference titles.

North Dakota State defeated Montana 22-10 on Sept. 20 of this season, so this opener is a rematch of that contest. Prior to that, the two teams played a thriller in 2003. The Bison squeaked by, 25-24, against the Grizzlies in that one.

Both teams still have work to do here in 2014 before turning their attention to the 2015 opener. The one-hour NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Selection Show Presented by Northwestern Mutual is this Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on ESPNU. North Dakota State and Montana will learn of their place in the 24-team championship during that program. ESPN will then exclusively carry the entire tournament, beginning with the first round (Nov. 29) and ending with the FCS national championship in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 10.

Kelly, Irish push through rare slump

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly will coach his 63rd game at Notre Dame on Saturday, which is remarkable for the simple fact that the three men in his chair before him never made it this far.

Not Charlie Weis (62 games). Not Tyrone Willingham (36). Not Bob Davie (60).

No, the last time a Fighting Irish coach took the field for Game 63 of his tenure came Sept. 21, 1991, when Lou Holtz's squad rolled over Michigan State, 49-10. So much has changed since then. And yet so little has changed, too.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAfter some recent struggles, Brian Kelly's Irish look to finish the season strong.
 A win this weekend over Louisville would make Kelly the first Notre Dame coach to start his tenure with five straight seasons of eight-plus wins. No Irish coach has done that during any five-year stretch since 1987-93, a run that saw Holtz coach the program to its last national title.

Notre Dame will go yet another season without a title in 2014, a drought that now stretches 26 years, and a goal that probably looked like a distant dream this past weekend as the Irish fell to Northwestern for loss No. 3 on the year.

Of course, as recently as two weeks ago, before losing at Arizona State, the Irish were right in the thick of things. A month ago they looked ready to break through that title ceiling, unbeaten as they took defending champion Florida State down to the final seconds in a loss.

Reconciling the fall from grace has been a maddening task for the Irish as they enter Senior Day against the Cardinals.

"I think college football is such that it comes down to a couple of plays and a fine line," Kelly said. "And that's why it's so critical that when you turn the ball over like we do, and when we turn it over, it's critical. I mean it's catastrophic turnovers."

Of course, the frustration that comes with a three-loss season is a far cry from what those seniors experienced upon entering Notre Dame at the ground level of the Kelly era.

"I think definitely from freshman year to now, we definitely turned the program around," said offensive tackle Christian Lombard, who, like Kelly arrived to the Irish for the 2010 season. "It's a winning program now, and we expect to win every game. We expect to win every game at home, we expect to be right there with teams, it's just the way it is around here now. It's one of those institutions [like] it was back in the day, so we're all really proud of that."

Added end Justin Utupo, a fellow redshirt senior: "We're obviously the first class that was brought in and [the coaches] looked at us to help build what they were trying -- this winning culture. I was here from the start. I've seen when we were bad. I've seen when we were really good."

Holtz said Kelly has been able to implement such expectations because of his vision and because of his plan to execute that vision. It comes from the benefit of being a head coach at three other stops beforehand, a luxury Holtz was afforded as well, having been in the big seat at five different college and pro stops before taking the Notre Dame job.

Kelly's last three coordinators at Notre Dame earned head-coaching jobs elsewhere. Last year's Irish team had eight players drafted, the program's most in a single draft in 20 years. That the Irish started 6-0 without them -- and without four players lost to academic suspensions two weeks before the season -- speaks to what is in place. That three losses in their past four games has sparked a world-is-ending feeling around the fanbase speaks to the climb left to be done.

 "He's got a young football team this year," Holtz said of Kelly. "And I think next year may be his best football team."

Depending on one's preferred math, the Irish could be returning 20 starters in 2015. And that does not include the potential return of several of their currently suspended players.

That could make this final stretch all the more important for the near-term future of a program that is toeing the line between a 7-6 and a 10-3 campaign this year, a program soon-to-be filled with a new cast of characters that had little part of that 12-1 run to the national title game two years ago.

"They understand that there are some tough times," Kelly said. "But, relatively speaking, I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4-5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparison. You're now in a winning environment. And you've won a lot of football games. Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 182 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective."

Holtz, who lasted 132 games on the Notre Dame sideline, is doing just that when it comes to the man currently in charge.

"I hope Brian Kelly reaches the next 63," he said.

Video: CFB Playoff Spoiler Teams

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video

Teams like Texas and Wisconsin know they aren’t going to the College Football Playoff but are still good enough to ruin future opponents’ dreams of making the Top 4.
Darius Hamilton can see the impact of Rutgers’ surprise season every week, including clusters of football jerseys and sweatshirts around campus, chatter in classrooms about potential bowls and energetic home crowds.

But, even with all that and a clinched postseason berth, he’s still not satisfied.

“No, I don’t see this season as a success,” the defensive tackle said. “We want to win out. We’ve got bigger things planned, man.”

[+] EnlargeRutgers defense
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsIts win over Michigan has been one of the highlights of Rutgers' first season in the Big Ten.
 Few outsiders predicted this kind of season for the Big Ten newcomer. Most -- such as ESPN, CBS and BTN -- just assumed they’d finish last in the East. But Hamilton and his teammates were never going to be OK with just a bowl berth. They always expected more.

At six wins, this is the week when most of that preseason criticism has now whittled down to whispers. This is when the Knights could take the dais and deservedly tell the Big Ten, “Told you so.” But that’s not these upperclassmen’s style; Rutgers’ work isn’t done quite yet.

“It’s a big deal going bowling but, at the same time, we expect that,” fullback Michael Burton said. “To be honest, what people think outside of Rutgers football doesn’t really have an effect us. There’s no surprise to us we’re bowl eligible.”

Added Hamilton: “We feel good, but we have a lot left to accomplish. We’re definitely not satisfied.”

Hamilton and Burton can’t help but notice the changes around Rutgers -- a result of their success -- but they’re just raising the bar higher. The average attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium has increased 9 percent compared to last year. The 2015 recruiting class already stands at 23 commits. And three of Rutgers’ five biggest-ever crowds came in just the past nine weeks.

But that’s not enough. Rutgers has made the postseason in nine of the past 10 years -- and it hasn’t lowered expectations to meet the rising level of competition. If anything, it’s only inspired more confidence.

“When we’re consistent, we’re as good as anyone in this conference,” Burton said. “We’ve had some things that just haven’t gone our way this year. We’re only going to get better.”

It’s already safe to label this a successful season, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone smoothly at all points. Rutgers suffered a three-game losing streak during the heart of its schedule, against Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Those games weren’t pretty, either; Rutgers lost by an average margin of 31 points.

But players intimated that was all part of the transitioning process. Rutgers “didn’t play Rutgers football,” Burton said. And those opponents were “top competition,” Hamilton said. Add those two facts together, and it’s a recipe for a lopsided score.

“The margin for error is so small here,” Burton said. “If you have one guy out of position by a yard or don’t go for the right gap, then guys like Melvin Gordon are going to be gone. They’re that good here. I think that’s one of the things that Rutgers and I have realized -- the margin for error is so small.”

Coach Kyle Flood acknowledged before the Big Ten season that first impressions are critical in football. And, so far, Rutgers has made a positive one in the conference. Fans hopped over the railings and stormed the field after a win against Michigan, it took Penn State down to the wire, and it finished strong during its nonconference slate.

Rutgers still isn’t on par with the Ohio States and Michigan States of the Big Ten; that much is obvious. But it’s done more than enough to paint a hopeful picture of the future. After all, most analysts figured Rutgers would have to take a step backward -- since it played the B1G’s hardest schedule -- before it took a step forward. Instead, it’s been moving in the right direction since Day 1.

And that’s not lost on Hamilton. The junior expected this kind of performance in Year 1 -- and he believes these six wins show Rutgers boasts even more potential than most Big Ten fans realize.

“This shows where this program can go,” he said. “It shows we’ve got the right people here and the right coaches. This program can be a great program. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’ve never seen people more excited or happier to work.

“And when you set the bar high, when you work every day, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.”
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Benjamin Tate, No. 77 in 2006 class

Tate came out of Snow Hill High in Newark, Maryland, as a nationally coveted running back. He committed to Auburn in July of 2005, but never closed the book on his recruitment taking visits following his pledge to Maryland and others, as well as looking at Florida with the Gators never making a big push. Tate committed to Auburn due in large part to the work of then-assistant Eddie Gran. Tate rushed for over 6,000 yards in three seasons on varsity.

Tate enrolled at Auburn in January of 2006, and went through spring drills. That helped pave the way for a freshman season that included 392 rushing yards and three touchdowns in nine games.

He truly burst onto the national scene as a sophomore rushing for 903 yards and eight scores, and followed with 664 yards as a junior in 12 games, only starting two.

It was Tate’s final season at Auburn that sent him darting up NFL draft boards in Gus Malzahn’s offense rushing for 1,362 yards and 10 TDs earning second-team All-SEC honors.

Following his career at Auburn, Tate was selected in the second round (No. 58 overall) by the Houston Texans in the 2010 NFL draft. Now with the Minnesota Vikings, Tate has more than 2,000 rushing yards in his NFL career.

Honorable mention: Quentin Hayes, No. 77 in the 2010 class. Hayes is a second-year starter for Oklahoma in 2014 as a fifth-year senior. After posting 75 tackles and two interceptions as a junior strong safety, he has 47 tackles and an INT in 10 games as a senior. Also worthy of mention, No. 77 in the 2011 class, Ben Koyack, is becoming an NFL draft prospect at tight end for Notre Dame this season.
This wasn’t how Willie Byrn wanted his career at Virginia Tech to end, but in a way, maybe it was a relief.

The season opened with lofty goals, but after a 4-5 start and a series of demoralizing losses, nearly all those goals the Hokies had set this summer had evaporated, and what was left was a three-game stretch that offered little beyond a potential bowl bid and a chance to simply keep playing football. For Byrn, that was enough.

“There’s kind of an energy,” Byrn said. “All the scenarios are out the window, and what we’re thinking about is letting go, having fun and really focusing on getting better. It’s not about that one place to get at the end of the season, but just taking it day by day. I think when you do that, it takes the pressure off.”

Maybe it was that ability to get back to basics, or maybe it was simply the talent on Virginia Tech’s defense playing to its full potential, but the recipe worked. The Hokies upended Duke on Saturday for their second road win of the season over a ranked team, and with a win this week against Wake Forest, the Hokies will go bowling for the 22nd straight season.

[+] EnlargeWillie Byrn
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWhile the season hasn't gone the way Willie Byrn (82) had hoped, Virginia Tech still has its eyes on a bowl game.
The scenarios are similar at Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Both schools opened the season with high hopes and spent time in the AP Top 25 in September. But those early expectations faded quickly and both teams are now teetering on the brink of bowl eligibility.

At Virginia, too, simply getting to six wins means something. The Cavaliers were hardly Coastal Division darlings to open the season, but at the time of their first bye week, they stood atop the division and Mike London looked like a coach of the year candidate. Now, with two games left, Virginia needs to win out to extend its season.

A conference crown or a New Year’s Day bowl are out of the question in Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Blacksburg, but there’s still an emphasis on making these final two weeks of the season count for something.

“Since I’ve been playing football, I’ve gone to a championship game or beyond the regular season,” Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd said. “We’ve been practicing all year to get to a bigger stage. So at the end of the year, I always want to continue, and I feel like the other guys want to be a part of what I’m trying to do. We’re striving for what we want.”

Pitt has lost six of its last seven games after starting the year 3-0, and for Boyd, it’s been tough to diagnose the problems. He’s been outstanding, topping 120 receiving yards in three straight games — all Pitt losses. Figuring out what’s gone wrong and finding a recipe for redemption is better done now, Boyd said, than waiting for next year.

“It’s hurt me, and it’s hurt others, but I don’t really know what it is that we’re not able to finish these games out,” Boyd said. “But guys are going to continue to work on their craft and get better. We’re still working on trying to find ways to win those close games.”

At North Carolina, the goals are twofold. The Tar Heels are trying to make a bowl, but they also wrap up with games against Duke and NC State — the team’s two biggest rivals. But like 2013, UNC also has a chance to erase a lot of bad memories by finishing on a high note.

A year ago, North Carolina opened the season 1-5 and was left for dead. It wrapped up the year by winning six of seven, however, and that was a major reason so many pundits liked the Heels to win the Coastal in 2014. That, of course, didn’t happen, but quarterback Marquise Williams wants to rewrite that familiar script.

“When people think things are not going so good, we look back at last year and say, 'Hey, we were in the same predicament, so why can’t we do it two years in a row?'" Williams said. “There are things we wish hadn’t happened and we wish there was a different outcome, but we’re where we are right now and we just want to finish these two games strong and hopefully we can be remembered as the best team in November.”

Virginia’s scenario stands in stark contrast to the struggles at North Carolina. Six weeks ago, the Hoos were the toast of the Coastal, with a narrow loss to UCLA and a win over Louisville inspiring hope that maybe all the talent on the roster would finally lead to a winning season.

Instead, UVa has lost four straight and it now must beat Miami and rival Virginia Tech to get bowl eligible and, possibly, to save London’s job. Beating Miami will be tough, but that final weekend against the Hokies is the biggest domino. Virginia hasn’t beaten Tech in 11 years, and the senior class knows its legacy can be written in Blacksburg.

“That’s the one game guys are ready for no matter what,” safety Anthony Harris said. “It’s a game players and coaches and fans remember. To have an opportunity to get bowl eligible with a win against your rival is always a plus.”

Whether it’s getting a win over a rival, making a bowl or simply finishing on a positive note, with two weeks left in the regular season, motivation isn’t entirely hard to come by for the also-rans of the ACC. It’s just about finding it in the right spots.

“Things don’t get better unless you take initiative and continue to fight,” Harris said. “We started off well, and we want to finish strong and get as many wins as we can. The message for the young guys is to keep fighting. We’re all playing for something different, but also something similar, which is to make the most of what’s in front of us.”
Each week, Adam Rittenberg takes you inside coaches' conversations in Inside Access , but we can't fit everything everyone said in one place. So here are some nuggets that didn't fit in the column, but are too good to be ignored. In today's notebook: Brett Hundley's growth, BC's defense, Missouri's Shane Ray and Colorado State's Rashard Higgins.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsBrett Hundley's performance this season has been overlooked, but his numbers are impressive.
Hundley’s continued growth at UCLA
You don’t hear Brett Hundley’s name in the Heisman Trophy conversation, while his primary preseason competitor, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, is the favorite to win it. Hundley’s numbers are excellent -- 72.1 percent completions, 24 touchdowns (17 pass, 7 rush) and 3,111 yards (2,547 pass, 564 rush), but there’s a perception that he leveled off this season.

Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone doesn’t buy it. Just because some of the more common Hundley images this fall show him harried or on his back -- he has been sacked 29 times, tied for 12th most nationally -- the junior has continued to develop.

“You hear he’s holding the ball, he’s taking too many sacks,” Mazzone told Inside Access
Aaron Rodgers said it to Packers fans and LeBron James said it to Cavaliers fans. And whomever winds up taking over as the next head coach of the Florida football program would assuredly want the same message relayed to Gators fans when it comes to the 2015 recruiting class.

R-E-L-A-X.

[+] EnlargeByron Cowart
Tom Hauck for Student SportsFive-star Byron Cowart is not letting Florida's coaching change affect his decision.
Losses on the field cost Will Muschamp his job and his successor will inherit a class with just nine verbal commits -- the fewest of any Power 5 program. With all that, panic has assuredly set in with Florida fans. But not only is it premature to worry about how this class will finish, those fans don't need to look far into history for some significant reassurance as to how strong the Gators class could be when it crosses the finish line.

While Florida doesn't share much in common with USC -- opposite coasts, different conferences, public vs. private, etc. -- there's one thing they share that is the only thing that matters in this situation. It's something that only a handful of college football programs can take advantage of. Because Florida -- like USC -- is one of college football's most visible power programs, a coaching change can lead to immediate positive effects, especially on the recruiting trail.

After the second game of the 2013 season, the Trojans might have had the least recruiting clout in the Pac-12. Dozens of high-profile USC recruits had just sat through a sloppy 10-7 loss to Washington State, complete with loud boos and chants to fire the coach.

“It was kind of a letdown,” said one ESPN 300 prospect following the game. “It's really thrown me off of them."

USC kept Lane Kiffin at the helm until Sept. 30, when the decision was made to let him go. Steve Sarkisian took over on Dec. 2 and the recruiting impact was felt almost immediately.

That decision was met with immediate excitement from prospects and galvanized the recruiting efforts in a hurry. After sitting outside the ESPN class rankings for months, the Trojans made their way back among the top 40 recruiting classes just two weeks after Sarkisian's hiring.

When the recruiting class was finished, only three prospects who originally committed to Lane Kiffin remained. The Trojans finished with 19 commitments, including the three Kiffin landed and four former Washington pledges that followed Sarkisian to USC. The Trojans finished with the No. 14 group in the country, and not only did the Trojans eventually sign Adoree' Jackson -- the lone five-star prospect in the region -- they also wound up signing the aforementioned ESPN 300 recruit that was so down on the Trojans following the Washington State loss.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian's hiring jumpstarted USC's recruiting efforts in the final two months of the 2014 cycle.
When Florida fans look at USC carrying only three commitments from early December through signing day last year, the idea of having nine committed at this point -- including four ESPN 300 prospects -- should be rather reassuring (provided they don't take a glance at Florida State's class at the moment). What should be even more reassuring are the prospects still left on the board for Florida. ESPN 300 prospects Byron Cowart, Martez Ivey, CeCe Jefferson, Adonis Thomas and Jeffery Holland are just a few of the names in the region still looking at the Gators following the loss of Muschamp. The talent available is even greater than what the Trojans collected in sweeping ESPN 300 prospects Jackson, JuJu Smith and Damien Mama on signing day last year.

Cowart probably said it best when he told ESPN.com's Derek Tyson: "I’m still considering Florida. At the end of the day, they will pay top dollar for whoever the next head coach will be, so whoever they get will be a top coach."

Getting out in front as the first major program to announce a coaching change will be a significant benefit to Florida, as often the rumblings of a coaching change can be far more detrimental to a recruiting class than the coaching change itself. In addition, the Gators are likely guaranteed that whoever takes over as head coach will bring with him several recruits -- either because they are committed to whatever program he is coaching for right now, or his name recognition alone will be too much to turn down.

While mention of the 2015 recruiting cycle makes it feel like this class goes through just one fluid stage from first offers to signing day, the truth is that there are a number of separate recruiting seasons for these seniors. We're about to step into the two that matter most -- the months between the end of the season and the beginning of February, and the final 48 hours leading up to signing day. What matters most is the recruiting momentum that can carry a program through those periods, and Florida -- like USC last year, or a handful of programs including Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas and a few others -- is one of those programs that has the ability to become a freight train on the trail with the right hire.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Look for the hidden meaning as Minnesota visits Nebraska on Saturday. It’s not hard to find.

The 25th-ranked Golden Gophers come to Memorial Stadium at 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten after a seven-point home loss to Ohio State last week. The No. 23 Huskers stand at 8-2 and 4-2 on the heels of losing by five touchdowns at Wisconsin.

The 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN provides a chance for Minnesota and Nebraska to move on from the disappointments of last week. There’s more at work, though. This 55th meeting in the series offers a study in how two programs appear on a similar trajectory, yet, upon close inspection, may represent passing ships in the night.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Cornhuskers are looking ahead to their big game against Minnesota on Saturday.
 Minnesota is trending up. Eight wins over 12 games of Big Ten play marks its best run in 40 years. Nebraska, meanwhile after the debacle in Madison, is struggling to move out of neutral in its seventh season under coach Bo Pelini.

The Huskers have lost seven games by 17 points or more since joining the Big Ten in 2011. And as the careers wind to a close of their most dynamic players over that period -- record-setting Ameer Abdullah at I-back and receiver Kenny Bell -- questions have gone largely unanswered this week about how to fix the big-game problems.

“We need to win this football game,” Bell said. “We have to.”

It’s a sentiment shared by players and coaches on both teams.

The Gophers remain in control of their destiny to win the West Division, though they must win in Lincoln and at Wisconsin next week. Sound farfetched? So did an eight-win season in 2013. Or a chance to repeat it.

With one victory, Minnesota will reach eight wins again -- a feat it has accomplished once in the past 50 years.

Even after last week, the moment of which the Gophers have dreamed is here, said fourth-year coach Jerry Kill.

“I wish close counted,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, “but it doesn’t.”

Kill said the Gophers are confident about their final stretch. He also recognizes the potential danger in wanting too badly to clear the next hurdle as a program.

“Preparation takes all the pressure out of it,” Kill said. “I think the big challenge for us coaches and players is to make we do a great job of preparation, so we’re confident going in.”

Minnesota beat Nebraska 34-23 last year in Minneapolis, the Gophers’ first win in the series in 17 games. Nebraska has won the past seven meetings in Lincoln, dating to 1960.

“Winning on the road, in the Big Ten or anywhere,” Kill said, “is not easy to do.”

Nebraska was reminded as much last week. The stunning defeat to the Badgers created anxiety in Lincoln. Pelini, 66-26 at Nebraska, defended his program to fans and media.

“I’ve been around coaching and football long enough to know that you stay the course,” Pelini said.

The Huskers face the longest odds of the four teams left in contention to win the West Division. A Wisconsin win Saturday at Iowa or next week over the Gophers or one Nebraska loss -- it closes at Iowa -- would eliminate the Huskers.

Nebraska last won a league title in 1999.

“It’s about having a short memory,” senior offensive guard Mike Moudy said.

The Wisconsin game, Moudy said, “is in the past.”

“You can’t change anything about it,” he said. “All you can do is get better. We are just going to worry about Minnesota.”

As the Huskers picked up the pieces from last week, Brian Saunders, a Nebraska fan and ex-Marine formerly of Laurel, Nebraska, helped arrange an online fund drive to fly a banner near Memorial Stadium on Saturday before kickoff with the message: “Fire Bo Pelini.”

The bid raised less than 25 percent by the deadline of the required $1,500.

Saunders, 25, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said he still hoped to fly the banner next week in Iowa City.

The effort, while perhaps extreme, illustrates the restless state around Nebraska’s program.

Some fans and players, it seems, don’t know what to think. In practice on Tuesday, seven top-unit defenders voluntarily relinquished their traditional Blackshirt jerseys. The other Blackshirts remained.

“All you can do is take the coaching,” senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “We have proven that we know how to do things correctly.”

So has Minnesota.

Who moves forward on Saturday? Maybe it's the team that most successfully got past last week.

Ray and Golden producing for Mizzou

November, 20, 2014
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The tradition continues.

Missouri has a knack for producing elite pass rushers, and 2014 is no different. Shane Ray and Markus Golden picked up where their predecessors, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, left off. The Tigers continue to attack opposing quarterbacks proficiently and get in opposing backfields frequently, with Ray and Golden leading the efforts this season.

Missouri ranks first in the SEC in sacks (34) and second in sack percentage (nine percent). This is the eighth time in the past 10 seasons Missouri will finish with 30 or more sacks as a team. A defensive line that has had six first-team all-conference selections since Gary Pinkel was hired in 2000 seems certain to add its seventh such member, with Ray putting together the kind of season he has.

Ray, a junior, already holds the school’s single-season record for sacks with 13 and has had five games of at least two sacks, the only FBS player this season with that distinction. He also has 18 tackles for loss.

Ray continues to produce even as opponents try to scheme for him weekly.

“Every week somebody throws something kind of different at me,” Ray said. “They might keep a fullback in or slide my way and do things to keep me away from the quarterback. But the best thing I can do is just continuing to play as hard as I can. When the plays present themselves, just make the play. Schemes are tough to combat sometimes but you just have to keep going.”

Golden, meanwhile, was bothered by a hamstring injury suffered in September that forced him to miss Missouri’s loss to Indiana but has played through the injury since. He showed no ill effects of the ailment last week, however, picking up nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Tigers’ 34-27 win over Texas A&M, a night he spent matched up mostly against NFL draft prospect and preseason first-team All-SEC offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi.

“I'm back healthy,” Golden said afterward. “I'm 100 percent now, and I feel good. My hamstring feels good, and I was able to play the way I play all the time. I was myself [on Saturday].”

Despite the injury, Golden has compiled a respectable 53 tackles (one more than Ray), 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

“They are great competitors, and they're great teammates, and they have a great friendship,” Pinkel said. “They're also competitive with one another. I think it's great.”

Pinkel said the extra focus Texas A&M gave Ray allowed Golden to excel.

“There's more attention sometimes, and they had a back over there to help a little bit with that offensive tackle with Shane and that allows Markus to be single-covered, so he got to do some of the things he did,” Pinkel said. “Just really, really good stuff.”

Golden said he has seen his fair share of double teams this season, too. Still, with 105 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss between them, the defensive end tandem has produced, and if Missouri is to win its final two games and return to the SEC championship game, those two will be a big reason for it.

"They scheme both of us: Some games I got double teamed; some games he got double teamed,” Golden said. “But it's no excuse. We don't make excuses around here. So whatever you do to us, we still have to get after the quarterback. That's our job, and we take pride in that.”
Brett Hundley, Cody KesslerAP PhotosBrett Hundley and Cody Kessler will be fighting for individual awards and the Pac-12 South title.
It's safe to assume that when the postseason awards are handed out, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will once again be holding top honors as the league's First-Team All-Conference quarterback.

Second-team, however is still up for grabs. And this weekend's rivalry game between USC and UCLA might move the debate. There are only two quarterbacks in the conference who are completing more than 70 percent of their throws -- UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (72.1) and USC quarterback Cody Kessler (70.2).

And while there are plenty of dynamic players on both sidelines, it's the quarterbacks who typically take center stage in this rivalry.

"I think a big part of deciding that stuff will be in this game," Kessler said. "Brett has played really well this year. He's one of my good friends and he's done a great job. I'm happy for him. This game will probably help define that. Not just the all-conference stuff. But some of the other awards and the Battle of LA thing. This game has a lot of emphasis on the quarterbacks and it's going to be a fun competition."

The league's two most accurate passers took different routes to get to where they are heading into Saturday. Hundley had a "competition" in the spring of 2012, but easily emerged as the starter before the season began and he hasn't looked back since. Kessler's road has been more serpentine as he had to win over two different coaching staffs (and multiple head coaches) along the way.

No one is going to confuse the two. They play very different styles, run different schemes and bring unique skill sets to their teams. But coaches who have seen both this season agree on the same thing: Both are very good at what they do.

"Very different style, but equally effective," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who was on the winning end of both games against the LA schools. "Both of them are tremendous talents. I believe both will play a long time in this sport beyond college. Kessler is more of a traditional, pocket, NFL type guy. Hundley is very dynamic and can run the football as well as throw it. They are both great leaders and do a great job in their respective systems. Should be a great matchup."

Even the way they handle pressure is a contrast in styles. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kessler is completing 57.4 percent of his throws when he's under duress, which is tops among Power 5 quarterbacks. Conversely, Hundley ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks with 391 scramble yards. One sticks in the pocket, the other uses his legs to make plays downfield.

"I think that Kessler is really doing a nice job executing that offense and taking care of the ball and not making mistakes," said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, who dropped both games to USC and UCLA. "Hundley can make a lot of plays with his feet. In some ways, he's probably at his best when he can freelance a little bit. But he's certainly capable of being a pocket guy and he does that well. I think his talent really comes out more when he's forced to make some plays with his feet and sustain some plays. They are very different that way, but they are both playing at a high level with two different styles. But both are good at what they do."

Worth noting that both also have very strong run games supporting them. USC's Buck Allen leads the conference with 1,184 rushing yards. UCLA's Paul Perkins is right on his heels with 1,172 yards.

And yet for as much credit as Kessler gets for staying in the pocket and Hundley for leaving it, both aren't too bad when the roles are reversed. Kessler will never be a tuck-and-run guy, but he can improvise if needed.

"He has that in his arsenal," said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. "… He probably doesn't get enough credit for being as good of an athlete as he is. But I think we'd all prefer for him to stay within the system and utilize his reads and throws."

And Hundley -- who leads all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage -- has to be a good pocket passer for those kinds of numbers. And when the Bruins throw on first down, he's completing nearly three out of every four passes (74.8 percent).

Of course, these two aren't alone in the quest for all-conference honors. Cal's Jared Goff and Arizona's Anu Solomon will get strong consideration. Even injured WSU quarterback Connor Halliday still leads the league with 32 touchdown passes and 3,873 yards.

But neither is all that concerned with that right now. Both teams are still fighting for the Pac-12 South title and a date with Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

"There is always going to be a lot riding on this game," Hundley said. "It's the end of the season and typically both teams are doing well. This is usually the game where the South is decided and this year it's no different. We respect them as a team. They've put together a good season. We've done the same. It's two well-respected teams and we're going to go out there and put on a show."
Hugh Freeze, Dan MullenAP Photo, Getty ImagesHugh Freeze and Dan Mullen will be at the top of the short lists for ADs looking for a head coach.
Try as they might to avoid all the chatter, Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen will be highly sought after coaches over the next few weeks.

Ole Miss and Mississippi State have two of the hottest coaching names running their programs at the moment, but in a world controlled by the big dogs, it's inevitably going to be hard for either school to lock these guys up. That's not saying that it won't happen at either or both schools, but as bigger programs deal with coaching turnover -- and these guys stay successful -- Freeze and Mullen will continue to answer questions about their futures and appear on many athletic directors' short lists.

It's unfair that both of these guys have to deal with that distraction with two crucial games left in their regular seasons, but they should have thought of that before they got really good at their jobs. Mullen's team was finally dethroned from the nation's No. 1 spot last week, but is still in line for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Freeze's Rebels might have two losses but winning out and getting some help from Auburn would send Ole Miss to its first SEC championship game in Atlanta.

Win there, and the playoff is well within reach.

So while both fan bases bask in their impressive glories from the 2014 season, they have to realize that the guys who have directed their ships on these improbable journeys will hear their names surface more and more during the last two weeks of the regular season.

For Mullen, it almost seems like a long time coming. He's taken Mississippi State to a school-record four straight bowl games and is on the verge of the school's first 10-win season since 1999. Mullen is 45-29 at Mississippi State, and you'd be crazy to think he won't get looks and calls from bigger schools willing to park a dump truck full of money in front of his house.

Winning in Starkville -- and the state of Mississippi in general -- isn't easy, but Mullen has a team legitimately competing for a national championship in his sixth year. And you also have to wonder how long he can keep this up. Yes, he's winning now, but can he sustain this kind of winning in Starkville? Can he develop faster now and keep that winning edge in 2015 and beyond with so many veterans on this current team? What happens when Dak Prescott is gone and that receiving corps thins out?

I'm not saying he can't, but what happens when it takes time again? It's not like a fan base just accepts losing after a season like this. It's definitely something he'll have to consider.

Mullen's name might have been temporarily scratched from the Florida job search, but never say never. And what happens if Michigan opens up and there's interest from the Maize and Blue? It would be a chance to get back to the Midwest and face longtime buddy Urban Meyer every single year.

As for Freeze, he's going to have his options as well after making Ole Miss bowl eligible for the third straight year. He rescued this program from an absolute mess and has his team in line for a nice January bowl.

Like Mullen, his name is springing up when it comes to the Florida job. Now, before you talk about how Freeze's dream job is at Ole Miss, considering he's a north Mississippi guy, think about the ebbs and flows of this sport and coaching in the SEC West. Like Mullen, a chance to get out of the toughest division in college football might be attractive.

Freeze has tremendous ties to Oxford and the state of Mississippi, but his range spreads wider than that. Freeze is no stranger to recruiting in the state of Florida and two of his coaches have been around high school ball there. Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin played high school football at Jesuit High in Tampa, while linebackers coach Tom Allen has coached high school football in and around the Tampa area.

With the amazing job he's done recruiting at Ole Miss, imagine what he could do with the state of Florida as his main playground. That 2013 class would be more of the norm away from Oxford.

For as good as Freeze has it at a place that absolutely loves him, in the business world that we live in, it shouldn't shock anyone if he decides to listen to a bigger program (with a lot more money). The same goes for Mullen.

These two have been wildly successful at schools that have trouble consistently competing with the big boys and call the SEC West home. And as bigger jobs pop open, it's going to be increasingly tough to keep them put.

Revised image suits Michigan's Jake Ryan

November, 20, 2014
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Jake RyanMatthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Jake Ryan has grown into a leadership role since suffering a torn ACL in his left knee.
Jake Ryan has been looking forward to this weekend for a long time.

Playing his final game at the Big House as a Michigan linebacker will be a moment to remember, as will the pregame curtain call in front of his family and more than 100,000 other onlookers. The chance to clinch bowl eligibility by beating Maryland for the team’s sixth win this season is nice, too. But that is not what Ryan has been waiting for. No, this weekend he’s finally getting a new suit.

Since turning a few heads at Big Ten media days in Chicago this summer, Ryan has been beseeching his father to help him upgrade his wardrobe.

"He’s asked me to call my suit person like six times in the last two months. It’s nonstop," said Tim Ryan, who lent Jake the plaid, maize-ish and blue sport coat and matching gold tie that he wore to represent the Wolverines in Chicago.

Jake stuffed the jacket’s pocket with a silk blue handkerchief, pinned a Block M to his lapel and then canvassed the gathered media to see if he was the sharpest-dressed player in town. He held his own. At the very least, this GQ-styled, well-coiffed version of Ryan was a far cry from the long-haired sophomore who emerged as one of the conference’s most promising young defenders two years earlier.

"I like dressing nice," Ryan said months later. "I do, I’ll admit that. I’ve always thought I’ve gotta have some style."

Ryan’s style took a sharp turn 19 months ago, shortly after the lowest point of his football career. Eight days removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Ryan chopped off and donated 10 inches of the shoulder-length blond hair that had been his calling card during the first half of his Michigan career.

This was a fresh start, he told his family, a symbolic reminder that he would have to remake himself to get where he wanted to go. It was the first step in a tumultuous year and a half -- one that included a painful and patience-testing rehab, a position change and a senior season besmirched by disappointing losses and distractions. As it draws to a close, that path has transformed Ryan into a more polished professional, in football and fashion.

A family affair

The Ryans are a football family. Tim played wide receiver at Wake Forest. Jake’s cousin John was a defensive end at Notre Dame, and Jake's older brother, Connor, was a receiver at Ball State. Their younger brother, Zack, is a starting linebacker at Ball State, and the youngest of the four Ryan boys seems destined to follow them when he finishes high school. It’s what the Ryans do. They play for Chuck Kyle’s St. Ignatius football powerhouse in Cleveland and then find a college to continue their career.

In high school, Jake needed to forge an identity he could call his own. He picked a surfer’s wardrobe and adopted the laid-back personality to match. His inspiration was his West Coast cousin Mikey. Ten years older, Mikey was the epitome of cool in the eyes of his younger cousins.

Mikey used product to slick back his hair as a teenager, so 7-year-old Jake slapped globs of gel in his hair until his father nixed that idea. Mikey wore Vans, so Jake searched Cleveland for whatever psychedelic-colored, floral-patterned shoes he could find. Mikey was a surfer. There were no waves anywhere near Ohio, so Jake learned to snowboard.

When Jake injured his hand during a playoff run in his senior year at St. Ignatius, he opted to wrap it in a neon pink cast. He visited Ball State a few weeks later on a recruiting trip, which meant Connor had to explain to his teammates that the goofball prospect with the pink cast was actually his little brother.

"He always wanted to be different," Connor said. "He’s starting to [learn] a little bit more from me I would say. He’s getting a little bit better fashion sense, definitely starting to get the hang of it."

Jake’s style on the football field was equally unique.

"Unorthodox," he said. "That’s what they’re calling it now, I guess."

He finds the ball by instinct, he says, more than following a premeditated path or assignment. His coaches at St. Ignatius stuck him at safety during his first week with the varsity team, but Ryan had trouble understanding why they wanted him to move backward when the ball was in front of him. Midway through double sessions they moved him to linebacker, and his coaches say he "just started wrecking guys."

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/Rich SchultzLinebacker Jake Ryan (90 tackles) has had six games this season with at least 10 stops.
His unorthodox style, combined with a lack of size he wouldn’t overcome until a last growth spurt as a senior, put Ryan behind schedule on the typical recruiting process. Brady Hoke, who had recruited Connor to Ball State before moving on to coach at San Diego State, had one of his Aztecs assistants call the Ryans to say he wasn’t interested in offering Jake a spot on the team.

"I still tell him that when he messes up," Hoke said. "I probably should have done a little more homework on him."

It worked out for Hoke, who inherited Ryan when he took the Michigan job and played him as an outside linebacker and defensive end during their first two years together. As a redshirt sophomore, Ryan led the Wolverines' defense in tackles (88), tackles for loss (16) and sacks (4.5).

The following winter Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told Ryan they wanted to move him to inside linebacker so opposing offenses couldn’t run away from him. Ryan, a budding star on the edge, was skeptical. Mattison, the former linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, handed him a stack of Ray Lewis film to explain the new role, and Ryan was sold. He would soon be the new centerpiece of the Michigan defense. A few weeks later, he tore his ACL.

Surviving rehab

Rehab was miserable. Patience was a virtue Ryan had not yet acquired. He vowed to get through the process as quickly as possible. If NFL star Adrian Peterson could get back on the field six months after ACL surgery, so could he. Ryan cut every distraction that might slow him down, including his hair.

Ryan became a fixture in the Michigan training room and tried to help his teammates with their assignments during practice. He learned he could never be a coach. It turns out telling someone to do something over and over is a lot more frustrating than trying to do something over and over.

He sought advice from teammates past and present who had gone through a similar injury, including Michigan fullback Joe Kerridge, who tore his ACL as a high school senior. Kerridge told him surgery wasn’t a death sentence. Stay with your recovery program and you’ll be back, he said.

"He attacked everything with the workouts and the rehab," said Kerridge, who has lived with Ryan for the past three years. "I think the knee really tested him. He excelled through it and he really matured. He learned what he had to do to be a great football player."

Teammates recognized Ryan’s diligence and selected him to be a team captain even though he spent all of training camp on the sideline. The new leadership position made Ryan more conscious of all the eyes that were on him and pushed him to continue to evolve into the more professional version of his free-spirited self. He started speaking up more often when needed. He became a regular volunteer at the university’s children’s hospital. And of course, he made sure he looked sharp whenever he knew he would be going in front of a camera.

"He knows that he can be one of the faces of the team," said his brother Connor. "I think he wants to resemble that 'Michigan man.' When you’re asking to grab some nice suits or dress a little nicer or watch your language, whatever it may be, I think that’s him growing up."

Ryan reached his goal of making it back on the field in six months, but the eight games he played during the 2013 season were humbling. He didn’t fully trust his knee yet, and he didn’t have the speed to keep up with his instincts. The coaching staff kept him at outside linebacker for the rest of the season so as not to overload him with adjusting to a new position while trying to get healthy.

The hurdles came in quick succession from there.

When Ryan felt comfortable with his knee, he set about learning to fend off lineman and see the game from a new angle as an inside linebacker. His first game in the middle, a blowout win against Appalachian State to open the 2014 season, allowed him to settle in.

As Ryan got better at his new job, the program around him seemed to get worse. Michigan lost four of its next five, and off-the-field turmoil spiraled out of control. Ryan continued to hone his image while learning how to ignore the negative public feedback.

"You always learn more from losing than winning," he said. "You learn how to stick together. You learn how to mold a team. I think you do need to go through some situations that put you down to learn a lot of things. It prepares you to be a man."

A resilient leader

This is not the senior season Ryan imagined. It has, though, helped him grow into the resilient face of a team that, if nothing else, continues to show up no matter what punches fate throws its way.

Michigan has won three of its past four during a more forgiving stretch in its schedule. A victory on Senior Day would keep the Wolverines from a losing record and salvage a bowl trip.

Ryan is the team’s top defender again. He is 10 tackles shy of reaching 100 on the season. He has had six games this season with at least 10 stops. Only nine players in the history of Michigan football have had more double-digit performances in a single season. He is one of 15 linebackers in the country still in the running for this year’s Butkus Award, and most experts expect Ryan will be picked in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft in the spring.

Before the team’s most recent game, a 10-9 win at Northwestern, Ryan made a deal with his father. If he made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass against the Wildcats, he would earn a trip to the tailor for a new suit. Ryan had never picked off a pass before in his career, but he finished with an interception and 11 tackles. Close enough.

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