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?
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.
15. Anthony Harris, Virginia Cavaliers
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
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.
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 ...
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 ...
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], 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]. 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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
"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."
“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.
So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?
S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."
LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
So, on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We'll have the defensive player poll later on Tuesday. Here are the offensive results.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- offensive player in the Big Ten?
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: "Ameer Abdullah. When we played them at Nebraska, watching him run around, he made our defense look bad. We had a pretty good defense this past year, and watching him run around, he was like a water bug. You couldn’t tackle him."
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: "Shane Wynn, that’s my boy. He also played in the Offense-Defense [All-American] Bowl with me and Melvin. So I’ve known Shane for a little while just like I’ve known Melvin. And Shane Wynn, he’s electrifying. He gets the ball in his hands, he can stop on a dime, he’s really fast, and he’s a really crafty route runner. So I like watching him play."
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa: "I’d say Braxton Miller or Melvin Gordon. Braxton makes those dead plays turn into 50-yard touchdowns. All those unreal plays. I remember last year playing him; he did some pretty unreal things. And Melvin Gordon is just a great football player. He’s tough and physical, and it’s fun to watch him."
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: "I know Shane Wynn, he’s here. He’s like a little midget over there [laughs]. That’s my friend; we’re good friends. He’s good, he’s explosive -- and you see how little he is? He can make a lot of plays, and it’s just fun to watch him. And I don’t know who else. Melvin Gordon, I’ve seen a couple highlights of him and he’s pretty solid, too. … If I had a chance to pick him or Carlos [Hyde], I don’t know. We’ll see. Well, Carlos, yeah, Carlos."
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah preps his Kickoff Luncheon speech
Umm, what else can we ask?
James Franklin was just asked whether playing on natural grass is an advantage. Yep, we're out of questions, media day is over.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 29, 2014
A public service reminder from Nebraska's Bo Pelini
I heard just end of odd exchange that ended when Bo Pelini said: "There is football played outside of the SEC, contrary to popular belief."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) July 29, 2014
Huskers' Abdullah a dual threat at media days
Force is strong at Penn State
James Franklin just called his strength coach a Jedi. The force is flowing through Penn State.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
B1G fashion statements
Ohio State's Urban Meyer on LeBron coming home
Urban Meyer fielding questions about LeBron's return this morning. Said it's big in recruiting and he could play H-back or TE for him.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
The Maryland Terrapins wide receiver wasn’t fully cleared to participate in the spring game as he continued his rehabilitation from the broken leg that sent him prematurely to the sideline last season, but he was at least going to be allowed to go through warm-ups, which nearly qualified as a feast for a guy starving for football.
Even if the Terps had just stopped at giving Diggs a pair of cleats to lace up again, though, that might have been enough to hold him over until the fall based on his emotional reaction on the road to recovery.
“Seeing as how I love football so much, it almost brought me to tears just to be able to put my cleats back on,” Diggs said at Big Ten media day. “I was so happy.
“Towards the end of spring I did kind of get my feet wet a little bit. I didn’t play in the game or anything, but I did warm up with the team on game day. It was nice just to be back out there to be honest with you. I’m just looking forward to the season. It’s been a long time coming.”
Too long for both the football-crazed Diggs and the Terrapins, who missed his game-breaking ability on the perimeter. Diggs had a productive start before his fluky injury against Wake Forest.
Diggs already had caught 34 passes for 587 yards with three touchdowns before Maryland had to put him on the shelf, and even if it just had to replace his output it would have been a challenge for the offense. But Diggs wasn’t the only notable player hurt for the Terps in their final season before moving to the Big Ten. A lengthy disabled list that included as many as 13 players ruled out by late November made it difficult not only to compete in the ACC, but also to gauge how they might do in a more grueling conference this fall.
Certainly having Diggs back will go a long way toward helping Maryland make a mark in its new league, and he pronounced himself “110 percent right now” heading into training camp. But the trick will be making sure both he and the rest of the Terps can stay that way, avoiding some of the bad luck that has cursed them over the past couple of seasons.
“We had our rough spate of injuries, but we always look for the positive,” Diggs said. If we stay healthy, it’s all about potential. We’ve got a lot of potential, so let’s keep it that way. We’re looking forward to playing football, and that’s the bottom line. As far as staying healthy, we’ll do the best we can like any other team.
“For me, I feel like I’m faster than I was before. They say when you break a leg you get a little taller. Well, I got a little faster -- so I got both of those.”
That means Diggs might have to lean over a little further to tie his cleats. And as fast as he already was before the injury, he might need to lace those shoes up a little tighter as well.