The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.

Why Virginia Tech will win the Coastal

Defense. If we were making the case for Virginia Tech every season, then we would start with defense just about every single time. You can always expect a solid defense in Blacksburg. Despite some losses on the defensive line and at linebacker, 2014 is no exception. Virginia Tech should have one of the best secondaries in the country, with Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson and Kyshoen Jarrett all returning. And the Hokies should also have one of the best interior linemen in the ACC in Luther Maddy, a preseason All-ACC selection. Dadi Nicolas made huge strides a year ago, and Corey Marshall had a great spring after refocusing on his career. Nobody expects this group to take a step back.

[+] EnlargeVirginia Tech's Trey Edmunds
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsVirginia Tech's Trey Edmunds rushed for 675 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Trey Edmunds. Edmunds appeared to be turning a corner toward the end of last season, with solid performances in his final three games before breaking his leg against Virginia. You see why expectations around him have mushroomed headed into 2014. Virginia Tech has lacked consistency in the backfield over the last two years, a big reason why the Hokies have taken a step back. It has been well documented just how stuck this ground game has been, a rarity under Frank Beamer. But Edmunds provides hope for the running game as the unquestioned starter, a player with the ability to power through the line but also break tackles and make explosive plays. Marshawn Williams also drew praise for his play this spring, so his addition should help everybody take a collective step up.

Improved QB play. So Virginia Tech has not settled on a starter here, but Beamer and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler truly believe the offense will be better. That all starts with the quarterback. Logan Thomas took his share of criticism over his final two seasons. Perhaps Virginia Tech relied too heavily on him to make plays happen. When he forced the issue, he made mistakes. Just look at his TD to INT ratio -- 34 to 29 the last two years. While it is true Thomas did not have a lot of help around him, the default position was to have him do everything. That philosophy has to change. With that shift, the expectation is the overall offense will be more productive.

Why Virginia Tech won't win the Coastal

Offensive line. As mentioned above, Virginia Tech has not had any real consistency at running back of late. But it also has not had any consistency along the offensive line, either. The position has not been an area of strength, which has helped contribute to the poor rushing numbers. Even though four starters return with a ton of game experience, there remain questions about this group. Not only are they going on their third offensive line coach in as many years, how do we know this will finally be the year they come together and play well?

Special teams. Once an area of strength, this has become a bugaboo for Beamer in recent years. Virginia Tech kickers missed 11 field goals last season. It's a free-for-all to win the starting kicking job headed into fall practice, with nobody proven in the mix. Not only that, the Hokies gave up three touchdown returns last season (most notably the Alabama game) and had none of their own. So if the Hokies don't step it up in a hurry, special teams could cost them a game or two. Again.

Quarterback. While there is a segment of fans who are happy to see Thomas go, just look at the bowl game after Mark Leal came in to replace him as the nightmare scenario that could unfold at quarterback. Michael Brewer appears to be the guy everybody wants to see start, but he left Texas Tech after failing to secure the starting job. How do we know he truly is the answer? Do any of the guys on the roster have what it takes to lead this team to another Coastal crown? That is the biggest unknown right now.
In a way, this seems to be about taking the pressure off of Jacob Coker. To give into the public narrative and anoint him Alabama's next starting quarterback this early would go against Nick Saban's instincts. He'd be putting the weight of the world on Coker's shoulders, giving him nowhere to go but down. After all, it's a lot less stressful to compete for a job than to defend one.

So Saban went to SEC media days and said things like, "I don't want to minimize the other quarterbacks," and insisted that, "This is an open competition, no doubt."

"Everyone knows that," he added for emphasis.

Except Coker is the clear favorite. He fits the system best, has the most talent and may be the most mature after three years of ups and downs at Florida State. He may not be as popular among teammates as incumbent Blake Sims, but he's ingratiating himself quickly if you take the word of wideouts Christion Jones and Amari Cooper, who described him as laid-back off the field and take charge between the lines.

"He looks great," Cooper said. "Strong arm, takes command in the huddle, which I think is very important. You can tell he's experienced. I'm ready to see how he progresses in fall camp."

"Jacob's doing a great job since he arrived in May," Jones said. "He's done an awesome job with our wide receivers, with our coaches, learning and doing all the little things right trying to become the quarterback we want him to be.

"But it's a competitive job for him as well, and he understands that, because we have three or four other guys that can help us win."

Really, though, it's not three or four guys competing for the starting job. It's Coker vs. Sims, to be sure. And if you believe Saban, it might be both.

"It's not something that I would hope would happen," Saban said. "Is it something that I can totally rule out? Not really because I think the skill set of Blake Sims can create problems for a defense. If we wanted to utilize him to do that in some kind of way, I guess you could say that we could possibly have a two-quarterback system."

That's right, folks, a two-quarterback system. Brace yourselves.

But to say that Sims' skill set is so different from Coker's isn't exactly true. Coker does have the tools of a prototypical pocket passer in that he's 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with above average arm strength. He's also an athlete, though. The former All-Metro basketball player at St. Paul's High School has speed and agility, and knows how to run the read-option having played quarterback in a wing-T offense as a prep.

"He's a different type of quarterback than Alabama has had," Jones explained. "I see no similarities with him or AJ [McCarron] or any other QB that's been here. He's a different type of release. He's bigger in size. He can move faster and quicker than most guys his size. He brings a lot to the table."

He brings the most to the table, which is why he will be Alabama's next starting quarterback.

Sims will push him. So will Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. But it's Coker's job to lose, whether Saban wants to come out and say it or not.

It may be a lot of pressure for a quarterback with zero career starts to handle, but at least one person thinks he can take it. It just so happens to be the one person who continues to try and keep the focus off of him.

"Let me just say this: Whoever the quarterback is at Alabama, they need to be able to manage external factors because there are lots of them," Saban said. "The clutter outside -- what people say, what people think -- you have to be able to stay focused on the process of things you need to do to play well and not worry about that stuff.

"So I would say that if you are putting too much pressure on him, that's his fault, and he needs to learn how to deal with it.

"He's never complained about it. I don't see him pressing. I like his disposition with the other players, how he engages with the other players. He just has to get comfortable with the offense. He's in a competitive situation with some other good players. It will just take a while for it to sort itself out."

How long, though, remains to be seen. Until then, prepare yourselves for plenty of coachspeak and very little talk of where each quarterback stands. We may believe it's Coker's job to lose, but don't hold your breath waiting for confirmation. Saban isn't going to tip his hand or handicap the race anytime soon.

It's an open competition, remember? Everyone knows that.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Frank Beamer took a seat before a crowded corner at the ACC Kickoff last week and asked the assembled reporters how they were doing, anticipating exactly what was coming his way.

Then came the first question. About Beamer's quarterback situation. Because of course it did.

"That would be a good start," the longtime Virginia Tech coach quipped, before conceding that, yes, he would rather have that position settled by now, and yes, a decision about a starter will come quickly once fall practice commences.

[+] EnlargeMichael Brewer
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsTexas Tech transfer Michael Brewer could be the front-runner to replace Logan Thomas at Virginia Tech.
Logan Thomas' three-year reign as the Hokies' top signal-caller is over, for better or for worse. Now it is up to a half-dozen other quarterbacks to duke it out for the right to turn around a program beset by a rather uneasy two-year slide following eight straight double-digit-win seasons.

Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer is the most decorated quarterback of a group that also includes freshmen Chris Durkin, Travon McMillian and Andrew Ford, along with upperclassmen Mark Leal and -- if the preseason media poll is to be believed -- ACC player of the year candidate Brenden Motley, who was a surprise entry among the league's five-player contingent receiving votes.

Brewer, Durkin and McMillian all arrived following the spring, so Beamer has not had a chance to watch any of them throw live on campus. But the 28th-year Hokies head coach insists that the supporting cast he has coming back eases the transition that normally comes with finding a starter so late in the game.

"I think we're ahead of the last couple years in the fact that I think we're further along in getting our running game back where it needs to be," Beamer said. "I think last couple of years we haven't been able to run it quite as well as we're used to at Virginia Tech, and I think having some experience on the offensive line, some backups that are really athletic, young kids that are athletic -- I think we're going to be more explosive at wide receiver. I think our tight ends, we've got about three guys that could block you but they can move out and maybe get matched up on the safety.

"I think the running backs are going to be more solid. Trey Edmunds was really coming along great and we expect him to get back, but a couple more guys there. So I think having people around that quarterback makes it a lot easier than what it's been the last few years, so that's the way I see it."

No quarterbacks emerged from the pack during the spring, and Beamer did little to talk around the fact that, despite not seeing Brewer, the former Red Raider who has a leg up on everyone else by almost any measure.

Brewer, whose addition Beamer attributed to second-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, has 13 games of experience in two seasons of play in Lubbock, Texas, completing 41 of 58 passes for 440 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The acclimation process for him, as Beamer said, is not like that of a freshman.

"We've got a couple freshmen that we're really high on," Beamer said. "But I think it's really hard for a true freshman to come in there. Lot of stuff going on."

Though the same could be said for the quarterback situation itself, receiver Willie Byrn thinks the offense has adjusted to the initial uncertainty that presented itself this summer without familiar faces running the unit.

"This year we've had to work with everyone, from the oldest guy down to the freshmen that just got on campus, and you've got to treat them all the same and you've got to learn all their tendencies and what they want to do," Byrn, a redshirt senior, said. "So it's been fun. It's going to continue to be fun, and I think this competition between them is only going to bring out the best in not only the starter but the backup and the second backup and so on and so forth."
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No Big Ten coaching staff has a larger social media presence than Penn State's, particularly on Twitter. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (@coachjfranklin) requires his assistants to have Twitter accounts -- it's not optional.

Some Lions aides, such as offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), wide receivers coach Josh Gattis (@Coach_Gattis) and defensive line coach Sean "Coach Chaos" Spencer (@SpenceChaos), are very active on Twitter, while others dabble in it.

The biggest reason for the push is obvious: recruiting.

"The target market is the 15- to 17-, 18-year-old kid, and that's how guys communicate," Hand told ESPN.com earlier this summer. "They're going to communicate through Twitter, through Facebook, through the direct message avenues on those two sites. So you've got to bring it to them. You can't sit there and say, 'Hey, you come to me.'

"You've got to meet them where they're at."

But reaching recruits isn't the only reason Hand uses Twitter. If you follow him -- he has more than 19,000 followers -- you've probably seen the word "branding" pop up a lot on his timeline.

Hand considers Twitter and other social media outlets as branding tools. Those who use them correctly can build their brands; those who don't can destroy them.

"There’s an opportunity in social media that's very powerful to connect with people," Hand said. "It's important for people to understand that before they get involved with it because you also can shoot yourself in the foot real quick. That's one of the problems with a lot of the young guys on there, players we're recruiting. They don't think before they post stuff. They don't realize that this is your brand.

"You're telling the world who you are."

I thought about this Wednesday morning when Hand tweeted that Penn State was no longer pursuing a prospect because of the prospect's social media presence, which, in Hand's view, revealed who the player really is.



He then followed up with this:

"We owe it to our players to educate them on how to use it responsibly," Hand told me in June. "Social media is a huge part of our society. It’s a global thing. If you're really about educating guys, let's educate people on it and make sure they're not using it to destroy themselves, either, because that can happen in a heartbeat."

Franklin actually found out about the recruiting about-face through Twitter on Wednesday while attending ESPN's "Car Wash" in Bristol, Connecticut. He told ESPN's "Numbers Never Lie" that one questionable tweet won't discourage coaches from recruiting a player, but a pattern of them will.

"It's no different than transcripts, it’s no different than game film," Franklin said. "It's another piece of information."

Hopefully, recruits are listening. Hand, a 46-year-old father of three, might not look like a social-media expert, but he knows his stuff. His social media introduction came in 2001 when he was West Virginia's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. He used to use Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" tool to interact with fans on message boards.

Hand quickly saw where the trend was heading and built his own brand as he moved to Tulsa, Vanderbilt and now Penn State. He has fun with it, as you can see here and here and here, but also has a serious tone when tweeting about his work with Our Kids, an organization that helps children and families affected by child sexual abuse.

"I want to be sincere," he said. "What you see is what you get. It's who I am. I'm not trying to just be a robot on there."

The social media boom with Penn State football seems unusual, as former coach Joe Paterno obviously didn't tweet and former coach Bill O'Brien once referred to "Spacebook" and "Tweeter." But the current coaches are not only encouraging players to use Twitter, but to do so responsibly.

"I know they're going to have some people out there watching us, especially on social media," linebacker Mike Hull said. "So I try to refrain from saying anything too bad."
With fall camp beginning Friday, Auburn will turn its focus to 2014 and put last season behind it. But what a season it was. The Tigers, who were picked fifth in the West, went on to win the SEC championship and came 13 seconds from winning a national championship.

It was a sensational run by Gus Malzahn in his first year as head coach, reestablishing Auburn as a premier program in college football, but it didn’t come without a few breaks. It happens to every great team. A certain play or a certain call goes their way and keeps the dream season alive. Call it destiny if you will.

As we take one more look back at 2013, let’s revisit a few of those plays or moments that went Auburn’s way and see how they helped shape the Tigers’ season.

Week 3: What if illegal touching was called on C.J. Uzomah’s touchdown?

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn, Nick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe amazing 2013 season turned in by coach Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers was aided by several improbable plays.
Everybody remembers Uzomah’s touchdown grab with 10 seconds left to beat Mississippi State, but what people forget is that the play was actually reviewed to see if Uzomah stepped out of bounds before making the catch. The touchdown stood after the refs ruled he was pushed out by a defender, but what if they had instead called illegal touching and pushed Auburn back five yards? With so little time left, the Tigers might have had one more shot at the end zone, but the more likely outcome would have been a mid-range field goal attempt and a shot at overtime. The right call was made, but if the refs didn’t see the contact on the replay or if Uzomah failed to haul it in, there is a chance Auburn could have still been looking for that elusive SEC win.

Week 8: What if Johnny Manziel doesn’t hurt his shoulder?

Let’s set this up. It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Texas A&M is already up 31-24 and Manziel rushes for eight yards down to the Auburn 2-yard line. The only problem is that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner injures his shoulder on the play and is forced to come out. Backup Matt Joeckel comes in, throws an incomplete pass and the Aggies have to settle for a field goal. After an Auburn touchdown, Joeckel comes back on the field and the Aggies go three-and-out. Auburn would score again, and though Manziel eventually returned to the game, we all know how it ended. Had Manziel stayed on the field, that field goal might have been a touchdown and that three-and-out might not have happened.

Week 12: What if Josh Harvey-Clemons is a step slower?

Georgia’s defense looked to be in good position on the 78-yard touchdown pass that is now known as the “Prayer at Jordan Hare.” In fact, both Tray Matthews and Harvey-Clemons could have made the interception on the play, but as it turns out the two former Georgia safeties collided and batted the ball in the air where Ricardo Louis pulled it in for the touchdown. On second glance, Harvey-Clemons arrived late and essentially knocked it out of his teammate’s hands. Had he been a step slower to the ball, Matthews would have likely intercepted it or at least batted it down, forcing a turnover on downs, and we would have been talking about Georgia’s fourth-quarter comeback rather than the miracle play that kept Auburn’s season alive.

Week 14: What if Brandon Greene doesn’t get called for holding?

The easy one from the Iron Bowl would have been what if the last second ticks off and Alabama never gets a chance to attempt the 57-yard field goal? The game goes to overtime, where nobody knows for sure what the outcome would have been. I take you back to a holding call on the Tide's Greene with three minutes left. Had he not been called, Alabama would have had first-and-goal from the Auburn 5-yard line leading 28-21. Instead, the Tide was pushed back 10 yards, and after an incomplete pass, Cade Foster's 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Even if Alabama doesn’t pick up the first down on the play with holding, it still would have been in much better field-goal range to put the game away.

Top ACC players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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As we get set to open fall camps around the ACC, we're counting down the conference's Top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

15. Anthony Harris, Virginia Cavaliers
Safety, senior
His junior stats speak for themselves, leading the nation with eight interceptions. Even more impressive is he picked off an opposing quarterback in five straight games, an even tougher feat considering Virginia spent much of last season on the wrong end of a blowout. The unquestioned leader of the Cavaliers defense, Harris will have to repeat his performance from last season as well as raise his teammates' level of play if Virginia is going to return to bowl eligibility. Harris also will be saddled with grooming Quin Blanding, a five-star freshman.

14. Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh Panthers
Wide receiver, sophomore
With Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street all moved on, Boyd is the face of the program. The second-year player is the lone Panthers representative on the team's media guide. He totaled nearly 1,200 receiving yards last season, but don't be surprised if those numbers increase. He is the only proven receiving target, and first-year starter Chad Voytik will need a security blanket. Boyd is one of the most explosive players in the conference, and he could easily lead the ACC in catches and yards this season.

13. Ryan Switzer, North Carolina Tar Heels
Wide receiver/punt returner, sophomore
It speaks volumes about a player's game-breaking ability when he ranks No. 13 on the list following a season with just 32 catches and 341 yards receiving. But Switzer earns the accolades considering how dynamic he is on special teams. He returned 25 punts last season and he took five back for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record. Scoring on 20 percent of your punt returns is an unheard of number. Chad Owens, who shares the record with Switzer, needed 36 returns. Devin Hester scored on less than 10 percent of his returns when he broke the NFL record with four punt return scores in 2007.

12. Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State Seminoles
Defensive lineman, junior
The best indicator on Edwards' junior season will be analyzing the statistics of those around the former No. 1 recruit nationally. The Seminoles' scheme won't consistently put Edwards in a position to rack up sacks or tackles for loss, but he will be the focal point of a defensive line filled with blue-chip prospects. Edwards will be asked to take on double-teams to open up room for his fellow linemen and to allow Florida State's athletic linebackers to run freely toward the football. On the occasions Edwards doesn't command a double-team, it could be a repeat of the national championship game when Edwards, listed at 294 pounds, was running down Auburn's Nick Marshall.

11. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech Hokies
Cornerback, sophomore
A preseason All-ACC selection, Fuller is poised to not just follow in brother Kyle's footsteps but to surpass him. The 2013 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Fuller has the tools to be the next elite defensive back to come through Blacksburg. He played in every game last season and picked off six passes. Fuller is also a factor in defending the run, totaling 58 tackles. At nearly 200 pounds, Fuller is rarely going to get bullied by opposing receivers.

Top Big 12 players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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With the season just a month away, we're taking this week to rank the Top 25 players in the Big 12.

This is a ranking of who we're projecting the best 25 players will be in 2014.

Today, we continue with Nos. 15-11, which include a pair of budding quarterbacks:

15. Malcom Brown, DT, Texas: The Longhorns' 6-foot-4, 305-pound run-stuffer might have as much NFL upside as any player in the league. The former blue-chip recruit had a breakout season as a sophomore in 2013 with 68 tackles, including 12 for loss. If Brown continues to develop he could become one of the most menacing defensive players in the league.

14. Sam Carter, SS, TCU: Jason Verrett and Devonte Fields have overshadowed Carter the past two years. But with Verrett gone and Fields' TCU future in limbo, Carter will be the cornerstone of one of the best defenses in the conference. Carter has nine interceptions the past two years, the most of any returning Big 12 player.

13. B.J. Finney, C, Kansas State: Nobody in the Big 12 has more offensive line starts than Finney, who has 39 in three years. Not only has Finney been a starter for seemingly forever, he's been a stalwart for Bill Snyder in the trenches. Finney is a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection, and was voted on the preseason all-conference squad for 2014. With Finney manning center, the Wildcats have compiled a sparkling three-year record of 29-10.

12. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: This might be our most controversial selection so far. But we're believers in Knight, who was nothing short of spectacular quarterbacking the Sooners to the 45-31 win over Alabama in January. Knight struggled with his passing accuracy and his health early on as a redshirt freshman. And sure, he's started and finished only three games in his career. But Knight was also terrific in a late-season win at Kansas State. We don't think the Alabama performance was a one-hit wonder. We think it was a sign of more to come.

11. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech: Webb gets the slight nod over Knight, due to a more impressive spring. As good as Knight was in the Sugar Bowl, Webb was just as impressive leading Texas Tech to the upset win over Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Including that bowl game and Tech's three open spring scrimmages, the rising sophomore tossed 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. He also showed more zip on his throws in the spring after adding 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. Tech's defense remains a question. But Kliff Kingsbury's passing offense should be prolific thanks to Webb's rapid development.

Coming Thursday: Nos. 10-6 ...

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The countdown started on Monday with the first five players and we climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday, setting the table for our next group of impact performers today.

No. 15: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern Wildcats: Mark is healthy and ready to go again for the Wildcats, and if there was a guarantee that he could return to the elite level he was at in 2012, the veteran rusher would surely be higher on the list. Instead he'll have to prove himself all over again this fall, though Mark will do so behind what should be an improved offensive line that could allow him to flash the explosiveness the Wildcats missed dearly last season.

No. 14: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers: In a league loaded with talented tailbacks, Indiana's dangerous, elusive rusher often goes overlooked. But Coleman is one of the most lethal weapons in the league when he's on the field, and despite playing in just nine games last season, he nearly topped 1,000 yards thanks to his eye-popping 7.3 yards per touch. If he can duplicate that again, the Hoosiers will keep racking up points and more attention will surely come his way.

No. 13: Carl Davis, DT, Iowa Hawkeyes: There may be some uncertainty behind him with Iowa breaking in three new starters at linebacker, but those fresh faces should benefit greatly thanks to the consistent work Davis can provide up front. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound, space-eating lineman doesn't accrue many individual statistics and was credited with just 41 tackles last year, but the job he does occupying blockers is invaluable for the rest of the Hawkeyes around him.

No. 12: Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Even without getting a chance to play the first two games as he wraps up a suspension, Spence still figures to challenge for the league lead in sacks by the time the season ends. The junior's incredible first step off the edge and a stacked group of Buckeyes on the defensive line will allow him to avoid double-teams, and that figures to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks as Spence tries to build on an eight-sack campaign last year.

No. 11: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland Terrapins: The Terps were stung repeatedly by critical injuries last season, but nothing might have hurt as much as seeing Diggs on the ground after breaking his leg against Wake Forest. Without his top-notch speed and ability to break free for big gains at any moment, Maryland's offense wasn't the same minus Diggs on the perimeter. He, too, will have to prove he's back to 100 percent. But Diggs has already suggested he's coming back even faster, which could make life miserable for a few defensive backs in the Big Ten.

Stay tuned as we move into the top 10 on Thursday ...

Top SEC players: Nos. 15-11

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
9:00
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As we get set to open fall camps around the SEC, we're counting down the conference's Top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

15. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss
It’s unusual for a true freshman offensive tackle to start in the SEC. And it’s highly irregular for him to dominate. That is what Tunsil did for a good portion of last season, surrendering just one sack all fall while making nine starts. As if his second-team All-SEC designation in 2013 didn’t make this clear, Tunsil is a special talent -- and his rise will only continue now that he has a full season under his belt.

14. A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina
NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Cann second among senior offensive guard prospects to watch in next year’s draft Insider [Insider], noting that Cann’s pairing with left tackle Corey Robinson should give the Gamecocks one of the best left sides in college football. South Carolina hasn’t produced many NFL-caliber offensive linemen in recent years, but this Gamecocks' line will be an exception, and Cann’s veteran presence will be one of the leading reasons for that change.

13. Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Speaking of Kiper’s 2015 prospect rankings, he has the 6-foot-5, 245-pound McKinney first among underclassman inside linebackers to watch this season Insider [Insider]. The redshirt junior ranks among the SEC’s top breakout candidates after racking up 173 tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss in his first two seasons. The Bulldogs are a popular dark horse pick in the SEC West thanks in part to what could be a feisty defense with McKinney as one of its top playmakers.

12. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss
After becoming the first Rebels safety in 40 years to be named a first-team All-American, Prewitt will accomplish something truly historic if he’s able to go back-to-back. He clearly has the skill set to do it after leading the SEC and ranking seventh nationally with six interceptions in 2013. Prewitt not only possesses the ball skills that produced all those picks, but a hard-hitting style that makes him one of the SEC’s top all-around defensive backs.

11. La'el Collins, OT, LSU
The versatile Collins returned for his senior season to prove himself as a left tackle -- he shifted there last season after starting every game at left guard as a sophomore -- and Tigers coach Les Miles predicted that he will do just that. Collins will combine with mammoth left guard Vadal Alexander to give LSU a dominant run-blocking combination on the left side -- an advantage freshman Leonard Fournette and his backfield mates probably can’t wait to exploit.
Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

15. UCLA LB Eric Kendricks

2013 stats: 106 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble

Why he's ranked here: In his time at UCLA, Kendricks has gone from an outstanding defensive scout team member to being a crucial element to one of the best linebacking groups in the conference (and maybe the country). In his redshirt senior season, we are expecting big things. And we aren't the only ones. UCLA coach Jim Mora sees big things happening for Kendricks. At Pac-12 media days last week he spent quite a bit of time complimenting Kendricks. First, on his leadership, saying, "He's kind of a glue guy. Without even saying a lot, he's kind of that guy that everyone wants to orbit around." Second, Mora complimented Kendricks' personality, explaining that if his daughter married Kendricks, he would be perfectly OK with that. Third, he said Kendricks had great hair.

We can't guarantee all of that (though, if there's a Pac-12 award for best hair, he'd have to be a semifinalist, right?) but the first fact seems pretty valid. Kendricks' leadership is going to be huge for the Bruins this season, and when a player is given that kind of a role by his coaches, and looked up to by his teammates, a lot of times that results in very big numbers on the field. Will he record double-digit tackles in games? There is a good chance. In 2012, he averaged 10.6 per game and in 2013 (ailed by injuries) he averaged 8.8. But he's just the first of two Bruins linebackers in this grouping on our countdown. Running backs, take note ...

14. Washington LB/RB Shaq Thompson

2013 stats: 78 tackles, 4 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: Thompson was second on Washington last season in tackles, but he's going to take on a bigger role this season as he begins his journey as a two-way player (perhaps he can ask No. 13 a few questions about that role). At Pac-12 media days, coach Chris Petersen addressed this and said, "We don't want to water him down and make him less of a defensive player. So I think there is a fine balance there and we'll continue to work through that." What exactly that fine balance is, we'll see. But there are certainly reps to be had at running back as the Huskies attempt to replace the production of Bishop Sankey. And Thompson could be a guy who contributes there. With the ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball for Washington, Thompson -- who wasn't talked about too much even a year ago -- cracked the top 15 players in the conference in 2014.

13. UCLA LB Myles Jack

2013 stats: 75 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions; 38 carries, 267 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns

Why he's ranked here: So, with Thompson taking on a larger role on both sides of the ball, Jack is scaling back a bit. He was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but this season, look for him to be much more a defensive player. Jack has athleticism pouring out of him, and with more of a focus on defense, and the discipline that brings, he could be scary, scary good this season -- so good he is the second-highest ranked linebacker on this list (not bad for a sophomore).

Though Mora didn't have quite the flowery sentiments about Jack as he did Kendricks (no hair or dating his daughter comments), he did say that if anyone were to ask UCLA players who the hardest-working Bruin was, that they would all say Jack or quarterback Brett Hundley. That is what the fans should care about. With someone who has his talent and athleticism, the fact that he is still the hardest-working player on the team means something. And that is going to show on the field this season. Could he lead the Pac-12 in tackles? Maybe. Could he and his top-25 counterpart Kendricks be an absolute nightmare to face this season? We think definitely.

12. USC LB Hayes Pullard

2013 stats: 94 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 1 interception

Why he's ranked here: For two of the past three seasons, Pullard has led the Trojans in tackles. Chances are that this could be Year 3 for him in that category. He is going to have serious competition for best linebacker in the conference (cough, cough, Nos. 15-13), but with 39 starts and 282 tackles under his belt, we're pretty sure Pullard is going to make the most of his senior year. At Pac-12 media days, USC coach Steve Sarkisian said he thought the strength of his team was in its front seven, and at the middle of that front seven for the Trojans this season is going to be Pullard. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior should crack 100 tackles this season, and we wouldn't be too surprised if at least 10 of those are for a loss.

11. Stanford OT Andrus Peat

Why he's ranked here: At Pac-12 media days last week, Stanford coach David Shaw told NFL.com that he thought Peat was second to just one offensive tackle he has ever been around -- 11-time NFL Pro Bowler John Odgen. That is pretty high praise. Peat is the highest offensive tackle and second-highest offensive lineman on our list. Assuming nothing goes insanely wrong, he will be an easy all-conference pick at the end of the season and possibly a semifinalist or finalist for the Outland Trophy. At 6-7, 316 pounds, he's going to be pretty tough to move. We're certainly looking forward to a few potential matchups with top defensive linemen (one, whose name will pop up later on in this list ...) as Peat looks to prove himself as the most feared tackle in the Pac-12. At this point in time, he has our vote. We'll see how the season shakes out.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: No. 25-21, No. 20-16
ESPN College GameDay will be in the Metroplex during the opening weekend of the college football season for the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, between Oklahoma State and Florida State.

 
The GameDay set will broadcast from the Sundance Square Plaza in downtown Fort Worth.

The Cowboys were host to GameDay last season when they played Baylor in Stillwater. Oklahoma State won that game, 49-17.
CHICAGO -- Ameer Abdullah recounted a story of how he returned home to Alabama this summer, stunned to learn that a friend since childhood had flunked out of college, addicted to drugs, and another had been sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The top returning rusher in college football, Abdullah said he questioned how his friends could meet such fates.

“If it could happen to them,” he said, “it could happen to any student-athlete in this room today.”

 
On Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Big Ten media days, the senior running back from Nebraska addressed his peers and an audience of several hundred as the student-athlete speaker at the league’s 43rd annual Kickoff Luncheon.

His message?

“Nothing is guaranteed, but if we continue to strive to educate ourselves athletically, academically and personally, then maybe, just maybe, one day we can reach our full potential,” he said.

Abdullah turned down an opportunity to leave for the NFL after he rushed for 1,690 yards last season. In his 10-minute speech, he talked of the importance of an education, the value of personal sacrifice and the essence of the student-athlete.

He said he learned a great deal from his beginnings at Nebraska in 2011.

Abdullah started school in Lincoln as one of three true freshmen at his position. In his first opportunity to carry the football in practice before that season, he took a toss and saw open field ahead.

He said he thought it was his moment to shine until he was “completely destroyed" by star linebacker Lavonte David.

“As I sat there, humiliated and embarrassed,” Abdullah said, “in that moment I learned a very valuable lesson: that in life, there’s always going to be somebody stronger than you; there’s always going to be someone faster than you; and oftentimes there’s going to be somebody smarter than you.

“But you cannot let that deter you from your goals.”

Abdullah played sparingly as a freshman but has since developed into a team leader and has accumulated nearly 3,000 yards in his career. He enters this fall with the chance to leave Nebraska as its first three-time 1,000-yard rusher.

The other two running backs in his freshman class transferred.

Abdullah has pushed forward, clearing new hurdles regularly. On Tuesday, he conquered a fear of speaking in front of a large crowd and earned a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Early in his message, he described himself as a true “Big Ten guy.” His freshman year at Nebraska marked the school’s first year in the league.

“I’m proud to be able to say the Big Ten is the only conference I’ve ever known,” Abdullah said. “And for the universities of Rutgers and Maryland, who are entering the Big Ten this year, you, too, will soon realize that the academic and athletic prestige of the Big Ten is second to none.”
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Tyler Boyd didn’t have a glove or a pair of baseball spikes. No, those were all lost in the fire.

But the struggles of the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Clairton High School were becoming too personal for Boyd. He was the catalyst for Clairton football’s state-record winning streak, but baseball is his natural sport. In the spring of 2012, the baseball team’s losing streak was the football squad's ignominious reciprocal. At that time, the football team had won 47 in a row. The baseball team, dubbed in local papers as the “Bad News Bears,” was setting the pace with its 48th consecutive loss.

“Keep hearing that the baseball team is losing and losing, it really hurt me because I’m representing Clairton, not just the football team,” Boyd said. “So me and the other guys rallied up and joined the team.

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh receiver Tyler Boyd, a native of Clairton, Pa., didn't want to stray far when it came time to pick a college.
“We stopped that.”

Inserted at shortstop and batting second, Boyd hit a home run in his first at-bat of his first career high school baseball game. The losing streak -- and the nickname -- was dropped that day.

Boyd quit the baseball team days later. He finished what he set out to do, saving Clairton from at least one black eye in a city battered and bruised from the steel industry’s 30-year decline in Western Pennsylvania.

Now a sophomore wide receiver at Pitt, Boyd, who set school freshman records with 85 catches and 1,174 yards last season, continues to shoulder the load of bringing positive publicity to the Monongahela River town stricken with a declining population and burgeoning poverty.

“There’s no upside there. It’s all negative. The only positive thing there is sports,” Boyd said. “It’s really rough growing up there.”

From 2008 to 2012, census numbers show nearly 30 percent of residents were under the poverty line, more than double the state average.

“In Clairton, we don’t have much so [sports are] what we hang our hat on. We’re the epitome of blue collar and guys coming from the gutter,” said Eric Fusco, a Clairton native and assistant coach at Clairton High who mentored Boyd. “When you truly come from the bottom and you’re not just saying it, you have nowhere else to go but up. I’ve met people like him -- I’m like him -- but it’s personal with him.”

A town such as Clairton tends to swallow its young as survival often supersedes a scholarship, one of the few outs the town provides. Boyd surrounded himself with like-minded individuals in Clairton teammates Trenton Coles, Titus Howard and Terrish Webb, who are now all with Boyd on the Panthers’ roster. If danger ever presented itself and Boyd was slow to react, his friends were prepared to pull Boyd away.

“If [they] didn’t stop me,” Boyd said, “I probably could have jeopardized my future.”

Boyd was never more reliant on the town that raised him than during the Christmas holiday in 2011, just months before Boyd took it upon himself to end the baseball streak. Boyd was playing on Clairton’s basketball team and was on the court during the fourth quarter when he looked to the stands to see his mother, Tonya Payne, missing. With the win secured, he figured she just ducked out early.

As Payne left the gym, she bumped into Fusco, who saw the look of shock and disbelief on her face. Her home was on fire.

Fusco walked to the sideline and told the coach to pull Boyd, who was still oblivious to the fire less than two blocks from the gym. As he left the court, Boyd said he expected a congratulatory handshake from his coach. Instead, he pulled Boyd close. An electrical fire was ripping through Boyd’s home, the one he had lived in nearly his entire life.

“There wasn’t any damage on the outside, but the inside was ruined everywhere,” Boyd said. “I managed to save the bit that I can. It was a heartbreaking moment for me.”

The family was homeless, and not long after, the house’s owner decided to tear it down instead of rebuilding. But the town’s youth football president quickly sought out Payne, offering an empty room in a building he owned only a few houses down from Payne’s previous home. The youth league’s vice president helped set up a bank account for donations, while local businesses in Clairton and up and down the Monongahela turned tip jars into donation buckets. Raffles were held. Rival high schools chipped in.

“We were truly blessed because in a month’s time it was like we never had the fire,” Payne said.

It all resonated with Boyd. When it came to committing to a college, Boyd felt a loyalty to the region. So when Tennessee and West Virginia made late pushes, Boyd was conflicted but never decommitted from Pitt.

“I felt with all that support, how can I leave?” Boyd said. “I can get help from a lot of people, and it’s not even from family or friends. It’s the people out there that respect us as a family and see what we’re doing and that it’s all positive. ... If I went far, I don't think people would have my back like in Pittsburgh.”

So when Boyd moved 13 miles up the Monongahela Valley to Pittsburgh’s campus, he carried with him a civic duty. Clairton, with all of its baggage, helped Boyd to a college scholarship, and he responded with a season unmatched by any freshman receiver in school history, Larry Fitzgerald included. With Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street now in the NFL, coach Paul Chryst views Boyd as the core piece that can elevate a Pitt program from a forgettable 30-year period.

The same way he did for Clairton.
CHICAGO -- The preseason primping in college football is over. The beauty contest has been canceled. If the playoff selection committee does its job, nothing that is said, written or ranked between now and early October will matter.

And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.

"That football side now matters."

Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking forward to the new College Football Playoff.
Although some question whether any poll should have bearing on the national title race, at least these rankings will be shaped by what happens on the field in the current season. While the playoff technically broadens the national championship field from two to four teams, in reality, the doors are open to dozens of others.

"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."

Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.

"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"

Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.

"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."

The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.

"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."

Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.

So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?

"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Evan Engram might have been one the most underrated true freshman in the SEC last season. Of course it didn’t help that he rolled his ankle and missed five games, and when he did return for the Music City Bowl he simply wasn’t 100 percent. But when he was on the field and healthy, he was the type of pass-catching threat that makes defenses cringe. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he had the build of a tight end and the athleticism of a receiver. On a team with Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, he had 20 receptions and three touchdowns in seven games before being sidelined.

[+] EnlargeEvan Engram
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsTight end Evan Engram had 20 receptions and three TDs in seven games for Ole Miss last season.
Coach Hugh Freeze’s eyes lit up when asked about Engram at SEC media days this month. The guru of the Rebels’ offense couldn’t hide his enthusiasm; he couldn’t wait to see his promising tight end back on the football field this season. When Engram went out last season, Freeze had to turn to two walk-ons at the position. Though he “loved having them” and praised their effort, they were no replacement for Engram. It got to the point that from Week 8 on, Ole Miss released its pregame depth chart with three receivers, two running backs and no tight ends.

“I cannot overstate it,” Freeze said of Engram’s absence. “We changed last year when he went out. We were not the same.”

Early on against Vanderbilt, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss averaged 466 yards and 35.75 points per game. Week 7 against LSU -- the same game Engram rolled his ankle in the second half -- the Rebels racked up 525 yards and 27 points in a dramatic upset victory. But down the stretch in losses against Missouri and Mississippi State, the offense faltered, failing to score more than 10 points in either game. Without Engram, there was no one to work the middle of the field and keep the safeties honest. Quarterback Bo Wallace began forcing the ball and threw six interceptions in November alone as the Rebs limped to an 8-5 finish.

A healthy Engram should mean greater consistency for Ole Miss in 2014. He and fellow freshman Treadwell are a year wiser, and Wallace’s arm is finally back to 100 percent after never fully rehabilitating from shoulder surgery prior to last season. Moncrief might be off to the NFL now, but there is plenty to like about the depth of the receiving corps, especially 6-foot-3 sophomore Quincy Abedoyejio, whom Wallace said is the best route-runner and the fastest receiver of the bunch.

Even though the receivers deserve their fair share of acclaim, don’t sleep on Engram. He might not be a household name yet, but to the people who matter most he’s held in high esteem. As junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, “I think it will be key to keep him healthy.”

“Evan is a little faster than people give him credit for, I think,” Johnson added. “He’s tough, really long, really athletic, has good hands. He can really cause some problems in the slot.

“Having Evan and the skill set he has is pretty special.”

Asked in May what Engram brings to the table, offensive coordinator Dan Werner said simply, “The fact that he’s almost a wide receiver.”

“He’s got the talent of a wide receiver, but he’s more physical so he can play inside. Now we’re getting him matched up on linebacker and safeties a bunch. That’s just a total mismatch.”

But it’s not just Engram who is poised to wreak havoc on SEC defenses this season. The entire league seems to be strong at tight end. When the John Mackey Award watch list came out last month, Engram and six other SEC players were on it: Rory Anderson, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Malcolm Johnson, Jay Rome and C.J. Uzomah. The seven total selections (compared to five the year before) were more than any other conference in college football.

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