Isaiah Johnson has been playing football for 15 years. He went 13 straight years without getting hurt. When injury struck the Georgia Tech safety at the most inopportune time, the wait was insufferable.

Nineteen months removed from a devastating knee injury, however, Johnson is ready to take the field and re-establish himself as a leader in the Yellow Jackets' defensive backfield. Georgia Tech opened fall camp Thursday, and the countdown to Week 1 and return to meaningful action for Johnson is within a month.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Johnson
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson missed all of the 2013 season after knee surgery.
"Oh, I'm past 100 percent," Johnson said with a laugh. "It's been a year-and-a-half — what have I been doing? I'm good. I went through spring practice and it was good. After that first day, it was just back to normal."

Johnson had a difficult time adjusting after tearing both the anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament in his left knee in a bowl practice leading up to the Hyundai Sun Bowl against USC in December 2012. The 21-7 victory over the Trojans marked the first missed game of his career, snapping a 39-game playing streak — which included 26 consecutive starts — in his first three college seasons.

But the most difficult part might have come nine months later, with Georgia Tech's 2013 campaign already underway. Three games into the season, Johnson, who had missed spring practice, came to the conclusion with his coaches that he would be better off sitting out the remainder of the season, lest he risk further damage to a still-recovering knee.

"It was very difficult. I had to get it out of my system," Johnson said of the frustration. "But once I thought about it, [I] realized that this is the best thing for me."

"I've been playing football nonstop every year since I was 7, and 'til this point last year, I hadn't sat out a season, so it was hard for me and my family," the Tyrone, Georgia native later added, "because they had a whole football season [in which] they didn't know what to do, because they're used to watching me play."

Johnson said he stayed active by doing some light scout-team work during the season. He returned to practice this spring and was relieved to feel no hesitation breaking on balls or delivering hits to receivers. He said that the entire ordeal has only validated his love for the game.

"I think that it's been a work in progress for Isaiah," coach Paul Johnson said. "He was actually cleared last year but he just didn't feel right, so he wanted to make sure when he came back that he was completely healthy, and I think he's done that and I'm sure he's excited to play his senior year."

Isaiah Johnson led the team in tackles during his junior campaign, with 87 in 2012. And with safety Jamal Golden also returning after being granted a medical redshirt last season because of a shoulder injury, Georgia Tech will rely on its secondary to anchor the defense in coordinator Ted Roof's second season.

"Turnovers," Isaiah Johnson said when asked about the defense's goals, repeating the word three times for emphasis. "We want to lead the ACC and lead the nation or be in the top five, so turnovers, and being able to finish. We need to finish games."
Nick Harwell brings something to Kansas' offense that no other receiver on the roster can match: proven, consistent production.

[+] EnlargeNick Harwell
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMiami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell is expected to open up Charlie Weis' offense at Kansas.
The Miami (Ohio) transfer has the ability to kick-start KU's offense this fall, as a proven go-to guy for an offense in dire need of additional playmakers.

"He will bring leadership, a guy that is consistent and someone we can count on," tight end Jimmay Mundine said. "He was their go-to guy [at Miami] and they could count on him to be that. Every time."

The numbers speak for themselves.

During the past three seasons, KU receivers have combined for 229 receptions for 2,759 yards and nine touchdowns. While suiting up for Miami from 2010-12, Harwell had 229 career receptions for 3,166 yards and 23 touchdowns in three seasons. That included 97 receptions for 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore.

Harwell should bring a level of consistency to the Jayhawks' passing game that Charlie Weis has been searching for since he arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, before the 2012 season.

"He's going to open it up for everybody," Mundine said. "If you put him 1-on-1, he can beat anybody. We need that consistency, leadership and the thought that he will be there for us."

Harwell's playmaking ability could create more space for Mundine, receiver/running back Tony Pierson and quarterback Montell Cozart in KU's new offense. If the Jayhawks' spring game is any indication, offensive coordinator John Reagan will make it a point to put the ball in the hands of the explosive Harwell.

"Anytime you can plug in a No. 1 wide receiver that's already been playing, played three years already as a starter with big production, it puts a whole different composition to your wide receiver position," Weis said. "Adding a valuable senior leader like Nick, with his athleticism, just makes everyone around him play better."

After off-the-field troubles forced Harwell to transfer to KU before the 2013 season, linebacker Ben Heeney got to see first-hand just how talented he was during Harwell's time on the scout team. The Jayhawks' first-team defense had to deal with Harwell every day during his 2013 season on the sideline, so those defenders could have the best understanding of the type of impact Harwell could have on KU's offense.

"Every time he touches the ball, something special happens," Heeney said. "He's got the speed and playmaking ability. He's going to be special for us this year."

FSU No. 1 in coaches' poll

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Surprise, surprise -- Florida State is the preseason No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.

Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.

Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.

Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.

Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.
Last week at Pac-12 media days, the media poll was announced and the resounding response was that the media believes the Ducks will win this year’s Pac-12 championship game.

When it came to the breakdown of where teams would finish, again it was a pretty clear agreement: most media had Oregon and Stanford as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the North Division and UCLA and USC as their counterparts in the South Division.

SportsNation

Which will be the matchup in the 2014 Pac-12 Championship game?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,737)

We didn’t need a media poll to start thinking about the Pac-12 championship game, but this just gave us even more reason to explore it. Yes, these four teams seem to be a step ahead in personnel and game plan for the season, and have some favorable matchups here and there. But, it’s college football and craziness happens, so there is certainly a chance that a team not in this group jumps into the lead in the North or South and ends up playing in Levi’s Stadium at the end of the season.

So, we wanted to ask you: which matchup do you think you will be watching when it all comes down to it on Dec. 5?

Will it be:

Oregon-UCLA: This would be a rematch of an Oct. 11 game that would match up (what could be) an explosive and dynamic Oregon run game against some of the best linebackers in the country -- Myles Jack, Eric Kendrick, we’re looking at you, can you handle Marcus Mariota, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner? It would be great to be able to see Mariota and Brett Hundley on the same field twice this season as they battle it out for NFL draft status, top quarterback in the Pac-12/nation, etc. etc.

Oregon-USC: These teams don’t play during the regular season, and if you can say that you don’t want to see USC defensive end Leonard Williams get after Mariota and the Oregon offensive line, then you are probably the kind of person who doesn’t like puppies, apple pie or happiness. This could be one of the best battles-within-a-battle to watch all season, regardless of conference. No doubt football fans all over the country would tune in to see what could be the best defensive lineman and the best quarterback battle for 60 minutes.

Stanford-UCLA: Could we see two teams play in back-to-back weekends? If Stanford wins the North and UCLA wins the South, that would be the case. They would close out the regular season on Friday, Nov. 28 in Los Angeles and then meet again a bit further north at Levi’s Stadium the following weekend. If you are not completely trusting of Oregon and its ability to close out a season, maybe this is the pick to make. Stanford has been the underdog before and has done pretty well.

Stanford-USC: This would be a great rematch. These teams play in Week 2, but can you imagine how different they would be by the championship game? The growth that happens between Sept. 6 and Dec. 5 would just be ridiculous, and it would be fun to compare these two games side-by-side and say, “Yes, this is where this team has grown the most over a season.” A Steve Sarkisian-David Shaw dual-duel is completely conceivable and would be fun to watch.

Other: Those are the front-runners in the conference, but could we see some surprises? Trap games exist for all four of those teams, and with coachs like Chris Petersen or Todd Graham, you can't completely count out their teams. Could Washington sneak into a matchup with UCLA or USC or someone else? Could Arizona State appear in the championship game for the second season in a row? It’s all possible. But is it probable? You decide.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Finding inspiration was the easy part for Cameron Lynch. All he had to do was walk out to a varsity high school football game and focus on the undersized linebacker making all the tackles.

Lynch, in middle school at the time, had a similar size and also played linebacker. If the undersized player in front of him could make all the plays, Lynch could, too, when he got his chance. He vowed to make them even better.

Trying to get there? Well, that would be the hard part.

[+] EnlargeCameron Lynch
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonSyracuse linebacker Cameron Lynch had 69 tackles (12 for loss) and four sacks last season.
Because that linebacker was one of the top prospects at his position despite his smaller stature. Rennie Curran racked up 198 tackles one year, and had 13 sacks the next on his way to a scholarship offer from Georgia. Curran made an immediate impact with the Bulldogs, too, eventually becoming an All-SEC player and third-round NFL draft pick.

All those accolades served as motivation for Lynch, happy to follow the footsteps. His mom made a poster for his room, detailing all Curran’s stats, along with his numbers in the weight room. Whatever Curran did, Lynch wanted to do.

“He set the bar,” said Lynch, now a senior linebacker at Syracuse. “He put up major numbers. He inspired me to do a lot of things that I've done so far, and I look up to him a lot.”

Lynch put up nearly identical numbers at Brookwood High in Snellville, Georgia. He had 188 tackles his senior season, and ended up breaking Curran’s sack record. He also led Brookwood to a state championship, something Curran was unable to do.

Still, Curran received interest from the SEC’s big-time programs. The only SEC school to offer Lynch was Vanderbilt. The two had nearly identical size (both 5-foot-11 and about 225 pounds) and nearly identical numbers. But in Lynch’s case, his smaller stature scared off some schools.

Not Syracuse. Coach Scott Shafer said Lynch’s performance in the state championship game remains “one of the best high school performances from a linebacker that I've ever watched.” Lynch ended up choosing Syracuse over Harvard and Vanderbilt, giving himself an opportunity to excel both in the classroom and on the football field.

But Curran was never far from his mind. Lynch eventually reached out to his role model for advice. The two formed a friendship, and Curran still mentors Lynch to this day.

“I go back to Brookwood a lot to speak, and I always hear how he plays like me,” Curran said in a recent phone interview. “It's an awesome feeling. When you work hard at something and put your passion into it and overcome adversity, you think you’re going at it by yourself sometimes. But when you look back, you realize you inspire other people indirectly just by overcoming different obstacles.”

The best piece of advice Curran has given Lynch, from one undersized linebacker to another?

“The biggest key is just consistent and persistent effort, just fighting hard and being mindful of trying to be the first guy to the ball every play, every down,” said Curran, who now plays in the CFL with Edmonton. “Doing the extra work in the weight room, in the film room, doing all the little things that can help you overcome not being the prototypical size.”

Lynch has been among the hardest workers at Syracuse, and he also happens to be one of its strongest – earning him a spot on the NFL.com ‘Freaks’ list for his combination of speed (4.7 40-yard dash) and strength (435-pound bench press, 620-pound squat).

He finished last season with 69 tackles (12 for loss) and four sacks but wants to bump those numbers higher, following the same upward trajectory he had in high school. His goal? One hundred tackles. Shafer said Lynch can get there before quickly saying, “Hopefully he can't get it because it means we're not on the field.”

After the season, a shot in the NFL awaits. Curran says “without a doubt” Lynch has what it takes to play in the NFL, but also added that he would need to be in the perfect system and with the right coaching staff since measurables hold much more significance in the pros.

Curran saw his NFL career cut short for a variety of reasons, including coaching staff changes. He detailed his experiences in a book he wrote called, “Free Agent.” Lynch read the book, leading to a discussion between the two about future prospects.

“I try to be real with him and let him know not only the importance of his senior year, but also the business side. There's so much to it,” Curran said. “I think he's going to be just fine. He's got a great head on his shoulders. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have your head right, it really doesn't matter. That's one thing I feel confident in with him. He's a great kid. He has his head on right. He's going to be successful whether he plays football or not.”
What do you really know about the origins of college football? If you're like me, you think of Ivy League types meeting on fields before small crowds. It was a simpler game -- no forward pass until 1906 -- played at a simpler time.

The big topics these days -- player compensation, player safety, cheating, academic/eligibility questions, scheduling ethics, football factories, soaring coaching salaries and saturated media coverage -- seemingly have no connection with the sport in its infancy.

[+] EnlargeYale-Princeton 1893
Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library With 50,000 fans watching, Princeton's Phil King places the ball at midfield to begin the 1893 game against Yale. King went on to become the head coach at Wisconsin, where he coached Pat O'Dea.
But there are links between college football's distant past and present -- lots of links. Dave Revsine's terrific new book, "The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation," details how college football between 1890-1915 isn't all that different from the current sport.

The meticulously researched book describes a wildly popular, often corrupt, extremely dangerous sport filled with power-hungry coaches and larger-than-life stars promoted by media members at every turn. Back then, the University of Chicago was a football factory, and kickers, including Wisconsin's Pat O'Dea, dominated the spotlight. But the same themes that resonated then still hold true today.

"These games were so huge and the sport was so important to schools," Revsine recently told me. "Anyone who follows college football knows it was played in the late 1800s, but I always had this notion that it was a bunch of well-mannered Ivy Leaguers taking a break from their Shakespeare recitations to kick the ball for two hours in front of 200 people. It just couldn’t be further from the truth. I open the book with the 1893 game between Yale and Princeton, and there's 50,000 people in New York City and the New York Sun has 17 reporters at the game.

"That was such an eye-opener."

It's a great read, especially for Big Ten fans, as Revsine, the Big Ten Network's lead host, describes the league's early stages and stars like O'Dea. I caught up with Revsine to discuss the book.

What is O'Dea's legacy and place in college football history?

"I just thought he was a fascinating story and how he really helped raise the profile, not just of the University of Wisconsin, but all of the schools in the Midwest. That game in 1899, where they go out and play Yale, that was a huge, huge deal. He was such a curiosity. And the legend may have been a little larger than the reality at times, and at other times it was not. His significance is partly raising the profile of football in the Midwest. There's a great quote in there, when Michigan went out to play Harvard in the 1890s, [the Wolverines] were referred to as, 'Crude blacksmiths, miners and backwoodsmen.'

"You think of what people thought of our area of the country, and, in a larger sense, this whole sense of superstardom and our need for superstars was really fascinating. And then his story, the mystery that surrounded him. Was O'Dea the most significant college football player in that time period? Probably not. But everything that happened, all these big-picture things in the sport, happened to him in some way. He was a great way to make it a narrative."

What was the Big Ten's role in the sport?

The biggest thing I learned is how invested [the University of Chicago] was in football. I always had this notion that at a certain point, Chicago just decided that the sport was beneath them and going in a direction they weren't comfortable with. If it was going in that direction, it was going there because of the world they, more than any school in the Midwest, had helped create. And just the idea that the Big Ten's founding principles were about eligibility and academics. They were wrestling with this idea of who can play and who can't play. It was a bunch of like-minded schools trying to figure out, 'How can we put structure to this?' Now, as we see in the book, they put structure to it and then instantly ignored it. When it wasn’t convenient, they went in the other direction."

You have 60 pages of citations at the end of the book. What was the research process like?

"It took me four years. I read a lot of articles, I was in a lot of archives, I wanted to make sure that everything I put in there, I attributed. It was arduous. There were definitely times when I said, 'What in the world am I doing? What did I do this to myself? I have a job. I have a family.' But there's just a passion to it. I got so fired up by it."

What lessons does that time period in the sport provide?

"It's fascinating, just the discussion about likenesses this summer with the Ed O'Bannon case. The book mentions Willie Heston, who played for Michigan, and they sold Willie Heston cigars on campus in Ann Arbor. Part of the lesson is there's nothing new. We live in this time period where we say these are unique challenges for the sport and the sport is in an unprecedented place. The scope has definitely changed, it's a much bigger enterprise, but the sport has been grappling with these issues for a long time, almost from the outset."
HOOVER, Ala. -- Last year's season-opener should have been a moment of triumph for Jay Hughes. His unranked Mississippi State Bulldogs went into Reliant Stadium in Houston against the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys with something to prove. Down three starters in the secondary, including two NFL-caliber cornerbacks, it was thought that the game would devolve into a shootout that favored the air-it-out Cowboys offense, which had averaged 547 yards and 45.7 points per game the season prior.

[+] EnlargeJay Hughes
Marvin Gentry/USA Today SportsJay Hughes, who has recovered from last year's season-ending injury, says the Bulldogs have the talent to make some noise in the SEC this season.
Hughes heard "all the negative things about the secondary," he said toward the end of fall camp. He also heard one Cowboys player say that, "Sometimes those SEC defenses lose their breath" against up-tempo offenses like theirs. He heard it all, and showed up anyways, ready for his first full season as a starter at safety. And for two series, it looked like Hughes and his defense would have the last laugh.

But with a second straight three-and-out in sight, Hughes stepped in front of a pass from Clint Chelf, knocked down the ball and immediately fell to one knee. He could have been stepped on or fallen awkwardly; you couldn't tell from the television replay. Writhing on the turf, he grabbed his right heel, and after a minute or so, tried to get to the sideline under his own power but couldn't. With the support of two trainers, he limped out of the frame. He had a torn ACL. His season was over.

It was hard for everyone on the team to see Hughes go down like that. Veteran linebacker Bernardrick McKinney described it as a "very emotional time for Jay." He had a decision to make: Either ask "Why me?" or "What can I do?" He chose the latter.

"I knew the moment I got hurt I still had to be there for my teammates," Hughes said. "I was still going to meetings, still going to special teams meetings, all while I was doing my rehab."

After a couple of road trips spent recuperating at home in Starkville, Mississippi, he decided enough was enough. He was going to the Texas A&M game to be a part of his team no matter what.

"I said, 'I'm going to pack my bags. I'm going to go with my boys this week,'" he said. "I'm on the sideline with crutches and a boot. I'm there saying, 'I don't need no crutches.'"

As the lone member of the Juice Boys in College Station that day -- the group whose "role is to keep the crowd going" is made of primarily scout team players who don't usually travel to away games -- he wrapped two towels together in order to better stand out. And he did, especially to his teammates.

"That means a lot," McKinney said. "He has a lot of heart. He pushes us even when he's hurt. He was at every game trying to push us up, even in the bad times telling us, 'We got it.'"

Despite losing the opener to Oklahoma State, 21-3, and dropping five of the next nine games, Mississippi State rallied to win three straight and finish 7-6 overall.

Instead of entering this season with a bleak outlook and a lack of experience on defense, there's hope and optimism and depth on both sides of the ball. The secondary alone returns three starters -- not including Hughes, who wasn't able to fully participate in spring practice but will be 100 percent in time for fall camp, which begins Thursday.

"I'm back, so let's go," Hughes said. "It's time. Let's do it.

"I'm hungry. I'm ready to eat. It's really good to be back on the field."

"Him coming back made his life complete again," McKinney said. "He's a hard worker. He's getting the safeties right. He's back running full-speed."

Coach Dan Mullen called Hughes a "great young man, worker and leader" on defense.

"It is a huge lift for all of our guys to have him back," he said.

Even quarterback Dak Prescott has noticed.

"They're all following Jay's lead," he said. "When you have a guy like that to look up to, it's fantastic."

If Hughes is setting the tone, it might be best described as "Championship or bust."

After so many years of running in the middle of the pack of the SEC West, Mississippi State feels this season is its best chance to reach Atlanta. Alabama and LSU have new quarterbacks, and Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have a promising offense with Prescott under center, a defense loaded with depth and young talent such as rising star Chris Jones, and a schedule that sets up favorably with no real challenges out of conference and an SEC East rotation that includes Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

"It's almost like we know, man," Hughes said of the team's hunger to win a championship. "It's almost like we know. We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers and the experience we have on the field. And with that, it's all up to us.

"We have the talent, we have the numbers, now what are we going to do?"

Expectations have risen among coaches, fans, family and "even ourselves," Hughes said. After the way last season went down and the promise that lies ahead, Hughes isn't ready to waste the opportunity.

"It's really serious right now," he said. "I tell my guys as soon as you step in this building, nothing else matters. You get that look in your eyes, and let's go, let's work."

Top Big 12 players: Nos. 10-6

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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 think the best 25 players will be over the course of the 2014 season.

You can click here to see the previous three installments.

Today, we continue the series with Nos. 10-6:

10. Le'Raven Clark, OG, Texas Tech: Clark was a freshman All-American tackle two years ago and a first-team All-Big 12 performer last season as the anchor of the Texas Tech offensive line. With the addition of junior-college tackle Dominique Robertson, Clark is moving inside to guard, a more natural position for his 315-pound frame. Clark already has proven to be a terrific pass-blocker, but he could also become a road-grader in the run game in his new spot.

9. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor: Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone. Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty found out the hard way just how valuable his left tackle is when Drango suffered a season-ending back injury in early November. With Drango protecting his blindside, Petty was sacked only eight times through the Bears’ first nine games. With Drango sidelined, Petty was sacked nine times in Baylor’s last four games -- two of which the Bears lost as their high-powered offense sputtered down the stretch. The good news for Petty, and Baylor, is that Drango is healthy again and ready to help keep one of the nation’s most lethal quarterbacks upright.

8. Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma: One offensive lineman at Big 12 media days noted that Tapper was the most difficult defender to block in the Big 12. The 6-foot-4, 281-pound junior runs like a linebacker with the strength of a defensive tackle. He was the only defensive underclassman to be named first-team All-Big 12 last season, and considering he’s only started 12 games in his career, he figures only to get better playing alongside one of the most talented and deepest defensive lines in the country.

7. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: Coach Art Briles has been effusive in his praise of Oakman, whom he called “unblockable” during the spring. The 6-foot-9, 275-pound outspoken defensive end could be an unstoppable force this season in the Big 12. Despite being a part-time player in 2013, Oakman still finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss. The switch just now appears to have flipped for Oakman this offseason, which is a frightening proposition for Big 12 quarterbacks not named Bryce Petty.

6. Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State: Mueller doesn’t have the length or the athleticism that Tapper and Oakman do. But the former unrecruited walk-on finds a way to make plays. In 2013, Mueller finished with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, both of which were second in the league only to Jackson Jeffcoat, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Mueller forced four fumbles, too. There are players, and then there are playmakers. Mueller fits the latter.

Coming Friday: Nos. 5-1 ...

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 10-6

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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, then climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday before we reached No. 11 Wednesday. Next up is Nos. 6 through 10.

10. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State Spartans: It took the Spartans a few weeks last season to settle on a starter, but there are certainly no doubts anymore. All Cook did was toss 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading MSU to a conference title and a Rose Bowl victory. The question mark on the Spartans was always the offense, but Cook helped replace that with an exclamation mark and has gained a reputation as one of the Big Ten’s best as a result.

9. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State Buckeyes: Say hello to a big reason the Buckeyes boasted one of the top 10 run defenses in the country last season. The 288-pound lineman is the anchor and leader of this line, and he should be in for another solid season. He had 11.5 stops in the backfield last season and had his hand in five fumbles (three forced, two recovered). His burst should give opposing interior linemen a lot of problems in 2014.

8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s only a sophomore, but he’s already in the preseason conversation as the B1G’s defensive player of the year. He started 10 games last season, played like at a veteran at points and improved as the season wore on. Bosa ended 2013 by recording a tackle for loss in his last six games. It’s scary to think where he might be in another two years.

7. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State Nittany Lions: NFL Draft: Will Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016? That was a headline from The Sporting News back in February and for good reason -- Hackenberg appears to be the Nittany Lions’ best pocket passer since Kerry Collins, who was taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. He can make all the throws, upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin last season and should be even better this season. The only question is whether his patchwork offensive line and inexperienced receivers will be able to keep up.

6. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: He’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top defenses in the country. He makes plays at key moments -- his three defensive TDs last season tied a school record that was set 67 years ago -- and his efforts were rewarded by being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He’s an All-American talent and one of the best the B1G has to offer.

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11

Top SEC players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
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Our top 25 countdown of the SEC's best 25 players for 2014 continues with selections 10-6.

10. Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: Like any true freshman, Jones was inconsistent at times last year. But it was obvious the talent was there. He had 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, and maybe his most impressive stat was the 10 quarterback hurries. He proved to be a nightmare for opposing signal-callers. This fall, the true sophomore is bigger, stronger and more experienced. The sky's the limit for the former star recruit.

9. Reese Dismukes, C, Auburn: After briefly flirting with the NFL, Dismukes felt he had unfinished business at Auburn and returned to school for his senior year. The veteran, who has started 37 games over the past three seasons, has been through the good times and the bad during his time on the Plains. He hopes to end his career on a high note, anchoring one of the best offensive lines in all of college football.

8. A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama: Fellow freshmen Jones and Robert Nkemdiche stole the headlines heading into last year but Robinson outplayed both, finishing with 38 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Nobody's sleeping on him this year. Robinson has yet to turn 20, though he looks closer to 40, and he'll be counted on to make plays up front for a Crimson Tide defense that struggled down the stretch a year ago.

7. Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Florida: It was a disappointing season for the Gators last year, but Fowler was one of the only bright spots for this team. The sophomore, who played all over the defense, led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and three fumbles forced. This could be his last year in Gainesville -- he's a projected top-10 draft pick -- and his play will be critical if Florida wants to rebound and contend in a wide-open SEC East.

6. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn: This will be the first time since Gus Malzahn has been at Auburn, both as head coach and offensive coordinator, that he has a quarterback returning. The question is, can Marshall take that next step? He's reportedly improved his throwing ability, and despite his recent citation, teammates claim he's become more of a leader this offseason. If he can stay healthy and stay out of trouble, he has the talent to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Top ACC players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
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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.

10. Tre' Jackson, Florida State Seminoles

Position: Offensive guard
Year: Senior

The interior linemen for Florida State have never gotten quite as much credit as the guys on the edge, but both Jackson and fellow guard Josue Matias have developed into top NFL prospects and elite blockers. At 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, Jackson is the biggest member of a senior-laden line for FSU, and in his two years as a starter, the Seminoles have rushed for an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

9. DeVante Parker, Louisville Cardinals

Position: Wide receiver
Year: Senior

Only five receivers in the nation recorded double-digit touchdown totals in both 2012 and 2013. Of that group, just one will be back for 2014, and that’s Parker. Louisville is the newest addition to the ACC, but the conference’s cornerbacks better get to know Parker quickly. For his career, Parker has racked up 113 catches and nearly 2,000 yards, but with offensive guru Bobby Petrino taking over as head coach this year, Parker is poised for his biggest season yet.

8. P.J. Williams, Florida State

Position: Cornerback
Year: Junior

A preseason first-team All-ACC selection, Williams is finally starting to get the credit he so richly deserved for handling so much of the dirty work on Florida State’s dominant secondary in 2013. Williams was often tasked with shadowing the opponent’s top receiver, and he was targeted more than any other defensive back on the Seminoles’ roster, but he held his own and clearly made strides as the season progressed. The result was 35 tackles, three interceptions and defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship game.

7. Cameron Erving, Florida State

Position: Offensive tackle
Year: RS Senior

When Erving first made the switch from a back-up defensive tackle to the starting left tackle in the spring of 2012, coaches immediately gushed about his natural ability on the offensive side of the ball. And it was true, he was a quick fit on a developing line that made huge strides in his first year. But now Erving has refined those natural skills and, as coach Jimbo Fisher raved, he’s a far more nuanced lineman and leader, and he’ll be the cornerstone of a senior-laden line in 2014 that promises to be among the best in the nation.

6. Denzel Perryman, Miami Hurricanes

Position: Linebacker
Year: Senior

A first-team All-ACC selection, Perryman is the heart and soul of Miami’s defense. Perryman racked up 108 tackles last season, including double-digit tackles in six different games, highlighted by a 13-tackle performance in an upset win over Florida. Perryman’s speed and athleticism in the middle should make him one of the ACC’s most feared defenders again in 2014 and opens options for the Hurricanes to break in some young talent around him.

Best cross-conference recruiting battles 

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
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Some recruits get attention from all over the country. Whether it’s their prowess or proximity to multiple teams, top prospects will have schools from multiple conferences pursuing them. ESPN.com’s conference recruiting reporters look at five players in the recently updated ESPN 300 who have different conferences after them and have recruiting battles that could carry throughout the fall.

NOTE: For battles with multiple teams, reporters chose reported leaders or best fits.

The Oklahoma Sooners reported for the start of fall camp Wednesday. And this year, the Sooners went digital with their playbooks, passing out iPads to the players before their first practice Thursday.



The playbook for Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt, however, came loaded with just one play.



Hunnicutt, who will vie to become the first All-American kicker in Oklahoma history, knows how to kick the ball through the uprights. He went 24 of 27 on field goals last season.

Of course, that's not all Hunnicutt can do. He scored a touchdown off a fake field goal in the upset win at Oklahoma State that catapulted the Sooners to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Hunnicutt did not divulge on Twitter whether his iPad also included another fake play.
For all those people fretting that a playoff in college football would somehow water down the regular season, I offer up the blockbuster weekend of Sept. 3. 2016.

Yes, it’s still a couple of years away and we’re supposed to be focusing on what’s right in front of us. But, geez, that Saturday to open the 2016 season could very well provide the most attractive lineup of nonconference games on one day that we’ve ever seen.

For that, at least in large part, we all have the College Football Playoff to thank.

Some of the matchups were already set or in the process of being set. But the real impetus in beefing up all these nonconference schedules was that a playoff was coming.

And, now, with a selection committee holding the keys to those coveted four playoff spots, we’re going to be in store for some terrific nonconference showdowns in the regular season for years to come. Simply, teams that don’t play and win those types of games are going to be on the outside looking in, which makes the regular season as important as ever.

My only knock on that weekend to kick off the 2016 season is that there are too many good games. I want to watch them all.

We’ve all been clamoring for an Alabama-USCmatchup. Well, we’re finally going to get it in Arlington, Texas to open that season.

And if you like your football Southern style, Clemson at Auburn has a nice ring to it. Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist, once said that Clemson was Auburn with a lake. In a lot of ways, they’re virtual clones of each other right down to their break-neck style of offense. Even more enticing, this is a home-and-home series with Auburn traveling to Clemson the next year.

There won’t be a more unique game that weekend than LSU facing Wisconsin in historic Lambeau Field. Perhaps we’ll get to see Les Miles perform the “Lambeau Leap” if the Tigers win.

Have the remote control ready because we also get UCLA at Texas A&M, Notre Dame at Texas and BYU Cougars at Arizona (in Glendale, Ariz.).

That’s just the first weekend, too.

A week later, Tennessee and Virginia Tech will “trade paint” at Bristol Motor Speedway. And two weeks later, Ohio State travels to Oklahoma and Oregon visits Nebraska.

So much for opening the college football season with a tune-up … or two.

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