UAB football is gone. And it isn't coming back anytime soon, if ever.

But the people at UAB still exist. They didn't just go away. There are still all of those folks who work in the athletic department who have experienced a miserable past month as the reality of the situation became clear and the anger spread and the tears were shed.

[+] EnlargeFBS Logos
Courtesy Brad Williams
And then came a small ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak time on campus. And it came in the most unlikely of forms -- a 5-year-old from Dublin, Ohio with no prior connection to the school.

It all started a couple months ago when a little football fanatic named Bennett Williams had his parents print out a big sheet of the 125 FBS team logos so he could learn all of the nicknames and schools. He follows after his parents and is a huge Buckeyes fan, but one logo on the sheet really caught his eye: the colorful, fire-breathing dragon of UAB. Almost immediately, he said, "I really like that team, Dad."

And so it began -- his, as it turns out, short-lived fandom of Blazers football. Bennett would follow along at home on fall Saturdays and faithfully watch that ticker on the bottom of the TV screen to look for updates on UAB and catch a glimpse of that cool dragon.

And then, just like that, the school decide to ax its football program. And a pre-schooler in suburban Columbus took the news hard. Really hard.

So one day last week, while in the car quizzing his dad about the situation and being told it was a complicated money situation, Bennett came up with an idea.

"He looked at me and said, 'How much money do they need? Would a dollar help?'" his father Brad recalled to ESPN.com. "I said, 'Bud, that's about $22 million short, but why not, we can try.'"

So Bennett wrote a letter. And sent the only money he had -- a $1 allowance he had just made by doing some dishes and chores around the house.



What happened next, they did not expect. A longtime staffer at UAB named Reid Adair was alerted to Brad's tweet by a friend and reached out to the family via Twitter. Adair, an assistant AD in charge of athletic operations and facilities, wanted to make sure Brad had the right address and that the letter would end up in the right hands. In an e-mail exchange with Bennett's dad, the 24-year veteran of the school's athletic department learned more about the backstory and it touched him deeply, writing the following to Brad:
Please tell your son that people who work at UAB saw the picture and are very excited about his letter. We’ve had some rough times around here the last week. I’m e-mailing a picture of the letter to other staff so they can also have their day brightened. The outpouring of concern from all over the country has been overwhelming, but for a child to do this truly touches all of us. Thanks so much for sharing the picture, and we look forward to the letter.

"There's been so much negativity and people have been so disappointed and upset," Adair told ESPN.com. "So something like that -- a little kid in Ohio who knew nothing else but our dragon logo giving up his allowance to help us -- I think we all look at something like that and really appreciate what a bright spot it's been in a bad time."

Bennett's good deed came with a reward, too.

The folks inside the UAB athletic department were so impressed that they sent him all sorts of swag, including a game-used football, a signed picture of Blaze the Dragon, a couple of shirts and a variety of Blazers gifts.



"We just wanted to show a kid that looking out for others has its advantages," Adair said.

There was a note inside the care package, too.

"Bennett was happy about the gifts, but he was even more excited about the letter," Brad Williams said. "He was yelling, 'Dad, Dad, they told me they saw my message! They told me I was their No. 1 fan in Ohio!'"

On Tuesday, Adair shared the letter with everyone at an administrative staff meeting, including interim athletic director Shannon James Ealy, who was so moved by the gesture that he requested the note, the dollar and a picture of Bennett be framed and hung on the wall in the department's main conference room.

"As our AD said, it will be a reminder to us of the good people out there in the world -- and of our No. 1 fan in Ohio," Adair said. "All of us can look at it and remember the positive things that happen every day and that there are plenty of reasons to smile."

According to his dad, Bennett has been just about all smiles since.

"We were not expecting this [kindness from UAB] at all," he said. "The whole thing has been so amazing to us. Like all parents, my wife and I try to teach him to do the right thing, but then to see him do it on his own, it's special. We're so proud of him. He really wants that dollar to help. He really does.

"It would be nice if us adults could look at the world like 5-year-olds do."
Midterm junior college signing day winners are headlined by Ole Miss and Oklahoma, but they weren’t the only programs that improved Wednesday.
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Wisconsin knows exactly what it's getting in new head coach Paul Chryst, who played for the Badgers and served as an assistant for two different stints. And maybe more importantly, Chryst knows exactly what he's walking into with Wisconsin.

This is a guy who, as he told it in his news conference on Wednesday night, delivered newspapers as a kid to Camp Randall Stadium. If anyone understands the culture of Madison and the Badgers athletic program, it's Chryst. That should help him hit the ground running faster than many new coaches.

"You don't feel like you have to understand or learn the whole lay of the land," Chryst told ESPN.com in a phone interview. "We have our work cut out for us, and we look forward to rolling up the sleeves and getting to work.

"But you should be able to draw on some of the experiences we've had. I know a lot of the high school coaches and a lot of the people on campus, so hopefully that can kind of shorten the learning curve a little bit."

And it means that Chryst shouldn't be blindsided by some of the issues that have been blamed for Wisconsin unexpectedly losing its last two coaches -- Bret Bielema to Arkansas in 2012 and Gary Andersen to Oregon State earlier this month.

One of Bielema's chief complaints was the lack of competitive salaries for his assistants. Chryst was making a little more than $400,000 as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2011 when he was hired as the head coach at Pitt. He hasn't officially hired any assistants yet with the Badgers but said he will meet with coaches on Thursday. Retaining current defensive coordinator Dave Aranda remains a distinct possibility.

"I'm really confident that we can put together a heck of a staff," he said. "There's no question in my mind that there is a commitment here, not just with the football improvements but throughout the whole athletic program. There's a true commitment.

"I don't know honestly if [the salary structure] has changed since I've been here. I just feel real confident about the support we have had and will have here."

Andersen was reportedly frustrated with Wisconsin's academic admissions standards that prevented him from bringing in certain recruits. Chryst said he's proud of his degree from the school and thinks the high standards should be viewed as an advantage.

"I think every place has its uniquenesses," he said. "I've got to learn and see what are the differences from when I was last back here. But there's been a history here for a long time that academics are important. I think recruiting is all about finding a fit, and I feel real confident that we're going to find guys that are great fits with this university."

And what of the rumors that athletic director and Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez casts too long of a shadow? Chryst coached under Alvarez once and then came back to join him for his final season. He views him as a mentor and vital sounding board.

"I learned a lot from Coach Alvarez," Chryst said. "One of the big reasons I came back in 2005 was him.

"He's a tremendous resource. He always shoots you straight and has had a lot of experiences you can draw on. And he also understands and knows who I am."

Chryst stopped short of calling Wisconsin his dream job or that it was even a destination job. "I think you've got to earn the right to stay that long," he said. But it was clear from his memories of Madison that the city and the school have a strong tug on him, and he said even many of his Pitt players understood why he had to make the move.

It remains to be seen whether Chryst's homecoming will turn out to be the fairy tale story it looks like. But one thing's clear: Both sides know exactly what they're getting.

NCAA's hiring of Oliver Luck a home run

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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1. The tenure of NCAA president Mark Emmert has been one misstep after another, from his gross mishandling of Penn State to his inability, despite his best efforts, to lead the organization out of the amateur model to one that allows members to provide more benefits to student-athletes. But the hiring of West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck to be the NCAA’s No. 2 is such an inspired move it makes me wonder how Emmert made it. Luck is a talented administrator with the ability to see and synthesize the bigger picture. That’s a hole the NCAA desperately needs to fill.

2. Alabama (formerly) and Michigan (currently) are examples of how chasing a head coach with ties to the university can send a football program spiraling toward oblivion. That cautionary note sticks in my head as Wisconsin hires former Badger and state native Paul Chryst to return home as head coach. Chryst’s coaching style in two seasons at Pitt came right out of the Barry Alvarez playbook: a physical, downhill running game. Chryst receives an Incomplete grade with the Panthers. He has a Midwestern sensibility, preferring hard work to the spotlight. His hiring makes sense. But will he win?

3. Now that Chryst is gone, Pitt will be hiring its 43rd head coach in the last five years, or something like that. If the university is craving stability as well as re-establishing its identity in the still-rich recruiting area of western Pennsylvania, then Pitt will hire West Virginia assistant Tom Bradley. No one has more respect with high school coaches. No one has a better track record as a defensive coach. Bradley spent nearly four decades at Penn State and a long time as Joe Paterno’s right-hand man. It’s hard to imagine Pitt finding a more qualified candidate. Not to mention, he still lives in Pittsburgh. In other words, duh.
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The familiar story line will be trotted out again, one that has trailed Pitt for four years now through a series of botched coaching moves.

People will take one glance and declare, “Oh, would you look at that? Pitt is hiring another coach again!”

It is unavoidable to look at the messy track record since Dave Wannstedt was fired at the end of the 2010 season. Athletic director Steve Pederson fell victim to that, losing his job Wednesday night in a clear indication the administration had lost faith in his ability to hire a head coach.

But losing Paul Chryst does not fit the narrative hoisted onto the Panthers since they made the mistake of hiring Mike Haywood, then Todd Graham, over a one-month span bridging 2010 and 2011.

Truthfully, Chryst leaving for Wisconsin should just be chalked up to bad luck.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPaul Chryst's departure is not an indictment on the state of Pitt's program.
Just two weeks ago, Chryst stood in a ballroom in Charlotte, North Carolina, to celebrate running back James Conner, the ACC Offensive and Overall Player of the Year. He was happy and looking forward not only to the bowl game but also to a 2015 season that he believed would finally show the results of all the hard work he, his coaches and his players have put in since he arrived three years ago.

He was not a coach looking to take the next train out.

Then the Wisconsin job unexpectedly came open when Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State after two years with the Badgers. And well, you got the feeling Chryst would be the only call athletic director Barry Alvarez would make. When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in 2012, Chryst -- a Madison, Wisconsin, native and former Badgers quarterback -- looked like the top candidate, too. But the timing was bad.

Chryst was not about to pull a Graham and leave Pitt after one season.

Now, the timing is just about perfect. While Pitt has not been much better than average in the three seasons he has coached the Panthers, perspective is in order -- and a big reason why his overall record should be ignored.

Pitt was an absolute disaster when Chryst was hired to replace Graham, who left for Arizona State after one year on the job. There was an absence of leadership and loyalty, not to mention a hodge-podge locker room filled with players who had committed to various coaches no longer there.

Players needed somebody they could trust. Chryst, with his guy-next-door demeanor and low-key attitude, proved to be the right man to steady the program. He knew Pitt was not going to be an easy fix. So did athletic director Steve Pederson.

So Chryst got to work, slowly reshaping the program in his image. He took no shortcuts, making tough decisions when they were needed, like parting ways with talented players like Rushel Shell, Tra'Von Chapman and Drew Carswell.

It has taken three years to get the locker room in order and get the players to believe and get everybody pulling in the same direction. Had any other program come calling, Chryst may have very well said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But Wisconsin has a pull nobody else does. Simply put, Wisconsin is home.

So his decision to leave is understandable and should not be seen as a reflection on the Pitt job itself. Chryst is not a career opportunist like Graham, who trotted out one excuse after another when he hightailed it to Tempe.

If there is one silver lining here, it is that Pitt is no longer a toxic mess. Chryst has left the program in much better shape than he found it. In back-to-back years, Pitt has had the ACC Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) and ACC Player of the Year (Conner). Pitt fans will tell you there are actually two silver linings: getting rid of Pederson means somebody who has not swung and missed multiple times will have the opportunity to hire a coach who should be able to win immediately.

After racking up 1,675 yards rushing, Conner returns. So does All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd, who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Quarterback Chad Voytik also will be back, having shown growth in the latter half of the season. In all, 15 starters are expected to return to a team that will be older and much more experienced.

After all, Pitt went through training camp with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores), the highest total of any FBS team in the country.

It is undeniable that losing Chryst is a blow to the players and the program. It is hard to find a more likeable guy. Though his time at Pitt was brief, he made this a much more attractive job.

For that, he deserves a hearty pat on the back. Chryst may not have finished the job, but it was a job well done nonetheless.
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It used to be that Wisconsin was the picture of stability.

Barry Alvarez coached the Badgers from 1990 until 2005, and then the Hall of Famer's handpicked successor, Bret Bielema, kept the operation running smoothly while preserving the same style of play. But lately, change has become almost a constant in Madison, Wisconsin.

A fifth-year senior on next season's team will be playing for his third head coach (or fourth, if you count Alvarez stepping in to coach a bowl game -- twice). If that player is on the offensive side of the ball, he'll be working under his third different offensive coordinator. And if he's an offensive lineman, his head is probably spinning from all the turnover there.

That's a huge reason why bringing back Paul Chryst to succeed the shockingly departed Gary Andersen carries so much appeal for the Badgers. The belief is that Chryst -- who was born and raised in Madison, played quarterback for Wisconsin in the 1980s and was an assistant coach under both Alvarez and Bielema -- isn't just some short-timer like Andersen. He wouldn't jump at a midlevel SEC job like Bielema. He could be, if all goes well, a lifer.

The hiring of Chryst also indicates that Wisconsin itself isn't likely to change.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesWisconsin has struggled to find consistent play from its quarterbacks since Paul Chryst left for Pitt.
Bielema complained about the pay rates for his assistants, and the Badgers still rank just ninth in the Big Ten in total staff pay, according to the latest USA Today salary database. Andersen reportedly bristled at the school's admission standards, which are higher than many of the other programs in the conference. Wisconsin is not likely to lower its entry policies in the near future, nor should it if that's a core value for the university. There is nothing wrong with high standards, after all.

Thanks to his history in and around the program, Chryst is likely to know all of these things when he walks in the door. And he'll understand what it takes to work around some of those restrictions. There should be zero buyer's remorse, as seemed to be the case with Andersen when he bolted after just two seasons.

Just hiring a guy because he knows the place and isn't likely to leave right away, however, is rarely a good idea. If that's all this were, then Wisconsin could be trading one problem for another. But Chryst could also be the right guy at the right time for this job.

Forget his pedestrian 19-19 record at Pitt. He inherited a program whose revolving coaching door makes the Badgers' recent problems pale in comparison. Focus instead on his work from his previous stint in Madison, and how much Wisconsin could use that again.

In Chryst's final season as offensive coordinator, 2011, the Badgers set a dozen school records, including points per game (44.1) and total offense. The team averaged 39.2 points per game from 2009 to 2011. Chryst, who was also the quarterbacks coach, turned Scott Tolzien into a reliable starter and future pro and of course experienced his greatest success with Russell Wilson at the helm.

It's no coincidence that Wisconsin has struggled to find consistent play from its quarterbacks since Chryst left for Pitt, and that's one of the biggest areas that has held the team back from winning its most challenging games. The running attack and powerful offensive line should remain a constant going forward, but better performances under center could lift the program toward being more than just a Big Ten West Division power. Another Russell Wilson isn't likely to fall out of the sky, but it's way past time for Wisconsin -- which just got destroyed by a third-string quarterback in the Big Ten championship game -- to develop a respectable passing game.

If Chryst can convince current defensive coordinator Dave Aranda -- one of the brightest defensive young minds in football -- to stick around, along with bringing popular former Wisconsin assistant Joe Rudolph back with him from Pitt, then he would have the makings of an excellent coaching staff (and one that will need to be paid accordingly, by the way). Chryst is not a rah-rah guy who's going to light up the room in a news conference, but then neither was Andersen. His personality should mesh well with Alvarez and the long shadow he still casts from the athletic director's office.

Alvarez might have hired Chryst after Bielema left in December 2012 if Chryst had coached more than one season at Pitt by that point. Now he's handing the keys over to a guy he's liked and admired for years.

Wisconsin has averaged 9.7 wins per season over the past 10 years. It has won three Big Ten titles plus this year's West Division crown in the past five years. There aren't many reasons to overhaul the way things have been done in Madison. And maybe, just maybe, there won't be a need for more coaching changes again in the near future.
The motion W on Paul Chryst's hat and sweatshirt next fall won't stand for wandering eye. For that, Wisconsin fans can breath a sigh of relief.

It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.

Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.

Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Jason Redmond/Associated PressGetting Paul Chryst in the fold should close the revolving door at Wisconsin for a while.
Hiring a capable coach is Wisconsin's first priority here, and despite inheriting a mess in Pittsburgh from Todd Graham and yielding middling results, Chryst can deliver with the Badgers. But it's also important for the Badgers -- and the Big Ten -- to bring in coaches who want to stick around.

Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.

Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.

Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.

Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:

Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.

Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.

Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.

Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.

Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.

Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.

Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
videoSo much for Oregon, injury riddled much of the year, getting healthy for its Rose Bowl matchup with Florida State in the College Football Playoff. So much for the A-list matchup between Ducks All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee Tuesday, and Seminoles receiver Rashad Greene.

So much for the Ducks hitting their earnest preparation for, potentially, the program's first college football national title with positive momentum.

Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, but we do and this is a bad one. Oregon, when it does at least acknowledge that a key player might be hurt, reverts to the mantra, "Next man in," and that will be the case here. But the Ducks next man in at cornerback won't be anyone close to Ekpre-Olomu, a consensus All-American. While Oregon will don all-green uniforms for the Rose Bowl, the guy who steps in for Ekpre-Olomu might as well show up in highlighter yellow -- an actual Ducks uniform option! -- based on how the Seminoles and quarterback Jameis Winston are going to view him.

[+] EnlargeOregon defense
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsOregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a severe knee injury during the Ducks' practice Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.
It's likely senior Dior Mathis will get the call. The fifth-year senior has seen a lot of action but he has been unable to break into the starting lineup. Or the Ducks could go with promising youngster Chris Seisay, a redshirt freshman who was listed behind Ekpre-Olomu on the depth chart in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. At 6-foot-1, Seisay, who started against Wyoming in place of Troy Hill, brings better size to field than the 5-foot-9 Mathis -- or the 5-10 Ekpre-Olomu for that matter -- but it's not encouraging when the laudatory remark next to his name on the depth chart is "has tackles in five straight games."

Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who has been a starter since midway through his freshman year, has 63 tackles and nine passes defended, including two interceptions, this season. While he's been notably beaten a few times, there were whispers that he was playing through some bumps and bruises that were slowing him down. He was one of many Ducks who were expected to greatly benefit from nearly a month off.

Suddenly losing a star like Ekpre-Olomu is about more than a starting lineup, though. It also takes an emotional toll on a team, both during preparation as well as the game. The Ducks secondary loses its best player -- a potential first-round NFL draft pick -- and a veteran leader, a guy everyone counted on. Think Mathis or Seisay will have some butterflies when they see Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards this season, coming his way? Think Oregon's safeties will be asked to play differently than they have all season with Ifo in street clothes?

The Ducks secondary will be less talented and less confident without Ekpre-Olomu.

Injuries? Oregon's had a few. It lost offensive tackle Tyler Johnston, a 26-game starter, and No. 1 receiver Bralon Addison before the season began. It saw emerging tight end Pharaoh Brown go down on Nov. 8 against Utah. It's been without All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu for three games. It's seen several other key players miss games, including offensive tackle Jake Fisher, running back Thomas Tyner and defensive end Arik Armstead.

Yet the general feeling was the Ducks had survived. And, in fact, thrived, scrapping their way to the No. 2 seed in the CFP. By scrapping we mean winning their last eight games by an average of 26 points since suffering their lone loss to Arizona.

That, in itself, will be something the Oregon locker room will look at and point to as it gets ready for FSU. This is an elite program, one that can overcome adversity, even an injury to perhaps the team's second-best player behind a certain guy who plays behind center.

But there is no changing the fact that Oregon is worse without Ekpre-Olomu, and against a team like FSU, the defending national champions and winners of 29 consecutive games, you don't want to be at anything but your best.
The last time we saw Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight in action during the holiday bowl season, he was making Alabama’s defense look like the Philadelphia 76ers.

This time around, Oklahoma is hoping Knight will provide a much-needed boost and balance to the Sooners' attack.

The sophomore quarterback was cleared to return to practice last Saturday and has been practicing with the team as the Sooners prepare to face Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 29. Knight missed Oklahoma's final three games after suffering a neck injury against Baylor on Nov. 8.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight, Oklahoma
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTrevor Knight became a breakout star in last season's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
“He’s doing everything right now as he always did,” coach Bob Stoops said. “The key part is after practice he’s feeling good, it isn’t taking a toll on him.”

Redshirt freshman Cody Thomas started during Knight’s absence but struggled to keep defenses honest with his passing. Thomas passed for 292 combined yards in those three games as the Sooners leaned on the excellence of freshman running back Samaje Perine, who rushed for at least 150 yards in each of those games. Oklahoma went 2-1 with Thomas starting, with victories over Texas Tech and Kansas before its Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State as the Sooners rushed for 1,198 yards during that three-game span.

Knight’s return should bring confidence to the passing game, even though the sophomore has had plenty of ups and downs of his own during his first season as the unquestioned starter in Norman. The San Antonio native has been brilliant at times, highlighted by his 376 total yards and six touchdowns in a 59-14 win over Iowa State on Nov. 1. When Knight returned to practice this week, he hasn’t looked like a guy who has been out of action for more than a month.

“Trevor actually looks like himself; he looks great,” tackle Daryl Williams said. “It looked like he never left.”

Knight averaged 244.1 passing yards per game in nine starts this season and led the Big 12 with an Adjusted QBR of 80. He finished 162-of-279 for 2,197 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games. While Knight clearly has improved in his second season, his overall performance has been overshadowed by three critical interceptions that helped lead to losses to TCU, Kansas State and Baylor.

With Knight at quarterback, the Sooners passed for less than 200 yards twice in nine games and were unable to eclipse that mark in all three games with Thomas as quarterback. Knight’s sophomore campaign has showed he is still a young quarterback prone to game-changing mistakes, yet he remains the Sooners’ best hope for balance on offense against Clemson.

“Trevor has looked good,” linebacker Eric Striker said. “When we’ve gone against him [in practice], he’s looked the same. He’s ready, he’s back and he’s looking good, real good.”
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A flurry of commitments and decommitments has led to considerable movement in the latest class rankings update. Several top-10 programs added ESPN 300 prospects, including Tennessee, which picked up top-10 ILB Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols already have a class that features a talented group of defensive linemen, and have now added a big, powerful inside linebacker that can develop into a tough downhill run-stopper. Butch Jones now has Tennessee in contention for a second-straight top-five finish.

Outside the top 10, USC landed a verbal from in-state tight end Tyler Petite, a tall, lengthy prospect with the size, speed and leaping ability to potentially create mismatches as a receiving target at the position. After landing the former Duke commit, USC's class features eight ESPN 300 prospects.

Ole Miss also saw a move up in the rankings with a pair of additions. The Rebels landed ESPN Junior College 50 QB Chad Kelly, a player who is physically gifted enough to be a strong candidate to replace QB Bo Wallace, a one-time junior college transfer himself. Ole Miss, who not sits at No. 17, also landed ESPN 300 OT Michael Howard. He is a lean OL prospect that needs to fill out, but is an athletic and tenacious player and with development could end up being a real strong pick-up out of Florida for the Rebels.

Inside the rankings

Coach Art Briles has had two very distinct luxuries when it comes to recruiting in today's complicated landscape -- recruiting in the shadows and recruiting without pressure. Both are actually in many ways, one in the same. As Briles has built this program, he's been able to do it his way without public pressure or booster interference because early on, nobody thought it could be done and nobody cared.

This staff was able to go after who they wanted, on their own timetable and without much scrutiny. In today's recruiting world, that's a huge luxury. Players like Levi Norwood, Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese, who was a late qualifier, were all bypassed by other Power 5 programs, but nobody even noticed Baylor signed them or griped, "who are these guys" on signing day.

As a result, prospects like these were brought along at a normal pace and developed properly by the coaching staff. Redshirting the bulk of the classes for the first few years has also been huge for the Bears. The challenge going forward will be dealing with increased program exposure and expectation level which almost always brings with it increased recruiting scrutiny from boosters and fans alike. But the Bears don??t need to change a thing.



To see the full class rankings, click here.
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The College Football Playoff will replace former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck on its selection committee, as Luck has taken a job with the NCAA. The Big 12 will nominate a replacement, and the playoff’s management committee will review the nomination and make the final decision by this spring.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, said he thinks the candidate will be another sitting athletic director, “But we won’t know for sure until the spring.”

Knowing the candidate will have Big 12 roots, will likely be a sitting athletic director, and possibly have a football background as either a coach or a player, here’s an educated guess as to who might be considered:

Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt: From Texas? Check. Played football? Check. Big 12 grad? Double check (K-State and Oklahoma). Hocutt has his bachelor’s degree from K-State, where he was a four-year letterman at linebacker and led the conference in tackles as a junior. He also received his master’s degree from Oklahoma. Hocutt is the Big 12’s representative on the NCAA Division I Leadership Council and is also the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Recruiting Subcommittee. The only knock on Hocutt is that he’s relatively young in comparison to some of the veterans currently on the committee. Still, he’s established throughout the Big 12. When Hocutt was previously hired as Miami’s athletic director, he got a glowing review from Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. Speaking of the ideal candidate ...

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione: He’s highly regarded nationally. There’s just one problem: Castiglione was recently reappointed to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee for a three-year term, ending after the 2015-16 season. It’s difficult enough serving on one selection committee, but the two biggest in college sports? Doubtful.

Former Texas coach Mack Brown: If the playoff is looking for a household name from the Big 12, Brown is one of the biggest names out there right now, and he’d fit in well with current committee members and former coaches Tom Osborne, Barry Alvarez and Tyrone Willingham. After 16 seasons at Texas, where he led the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS National Championship, an appearance in the 2009 BCS National Championship and two other BCS bowl wins, Brown joined ESPN as a college football analyst. He’s probably paying more attention now to the national picture than he ever did before.

Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger: After playing football at Fort Hays State and MidAmerica Nazarene University, Zenger finished his undergraduate degree at Kansas State. His first college football coaching job came at Drake University right after graduation. He’s a coach at heart, and K-State coach Bill Snyder can vouch for it. In 1989, at age 23, Zenger joined Snyder's staff as one of the nation's youngest full-time football staff members. He was an assistant recruiting coordinator and director of football operations.

TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte: He might win the people’s choice award for his sense of humor and candor, but he was also blunt about his disappointment in TCU dropping from No. 3 to No. 6 in the CFP committee’s final ranking. ESPN’s Travis Haney wrote last week that Del Conte vented to Hancock about it because he felt the program had been given false hope. Del Conte has put his stamp on TCU's program by ushering it into the Big 12, but like his program, Del Conte’s ties to the Big 12 are still in their infancy. He has spent some significant time in Texas, though, as Del Conte was also athletic director at Rice for 3 ½ years.
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and count down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

EJ Manuel, No. 51 in 2008 class

Manuel was a highly coveted quarterback coming out of Bayside high in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In what wasn't a close recruitment, Manuel chose Florida State over LSU and others in June 2007 due in large part to his relationship with Jimbo Fisher, and the positive vibe he got around Florida State players and commitments. Manuel was part of a 2008 class that included Nigel Bradham and Nigel Carr, among many others.

After redshirting in 2008, Manuel served as the backup in 2009 to future NFL first-round selection Christian Ponder before an injury to Ponder forced Manuel into the starting lineup. Manuel responded going 3-1 to end the season and keeping Bobby Bowden from leaving his final season in Tallahassee with a losing record. Manuel earned Gator Bowl MVP honors after leading the Seminoles to a win against West Virginia.

Manuel was again the backup in 2010 for the most part, making two starts against Clemson and Virginia Tech after an injury to Ponder. He came in for the injured Ponder in the second quarter of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and led the Noles to a 26-17 win against South Carolina. He threw for 861 yards and four touchdowns in 2010.

Manuel became a full-time starter in 2011, passing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns, which included a third straight bowl win, this time a victory over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl in which Manuel threw for 249 yards and two scores.

As a fifth-year senior, Manuel led Florida State to a 12-2 record and a BCS Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois, the Seminoles' first BCS Bowl win since 2000. On the season, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Manuel passed for 3,392 yards and 23 touchdowns earning All-ACC honors.

Manuel was the 16th overall selection in the 2013 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills.

Honorable mention: Damore'ea Stringfellow, No. 51 in 2013 class. Stringfellow chose Washington over USC and others. After a 20-reception, 259 yards freshman season at Washington, Stringfellow was dismissed from the program. Now at Ole Miss, the former Under Armour All-America Game selection will be eligible in 2015 and is expected to become a starter with high-ceiling potential.
Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonGetty ImagesMarcus Mariota will try to use his accuracy to hand Jameis Winston his first career defeat.
The College Football Playoff already has epic storylines leading into its inaugural season.

Headlining the No. 2 Oregon-No. 3 Florida State matchup in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual is the quarterback pairing of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, creating what has the potential to be one of the best showings of quarterbacks that college football has seen in recent memory.

The strengths of these two quarterbacks are evident in the statistics (which we’ll get to in a bit), but the main thread that runs through both is that they know how to win. Criticize Florida State’s play (specifically in the first half) all you want, but one thing is for sure -- late in a game Winston has been a QB worth having and he has proven that time and time again.

The same can be said for Mariota. Though the Ducks haven’t had as many tight games as the Seminoles -- and they do have a loss, which FSU doesn’t -- Mariota has shown the guts needed in crucial situations to make something out of nothing.

And the numbers back that up. Of active FBS quarterbacks (with at least 15 starts under their belts), Mariota and Winston have the highest career winning percentages -- Winston is 26-0; Mariota is 35-4.

But what is it about these two guys that makes them such winners?

We analyze …

MARIOTA’S STRENGTH: He’s clean.

Mariota’s biggest strength is his accuracy. He has attempted 372 passes this season and only two of those have ended up in the hands of opponents. His 0.5 percent interception rate is the lowest among qualified FBS quarterbacks and his TD-interception ratio of 19-1 is more than double that of the nation’s second best (Cody Kessler, 9-1) and 13 times better than Winston (1.41-1).

Mariota is highly accurate when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers. He has gone more than 300 pass attempts against this kind of pressure without throwing a pick, and guess what … Florida State sends four or fewer pass-rushers on 67 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks.

Additionally, 27 of Mariota’s 38 passing touchdowns this season have come when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers.

WINSTON’S STRENGTH: He’s clutch.

Yes, his statistics aren’t as impressive as they were last year. But, as Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pointed out on Tuesday, that can’t always be a very accurate portrayal of how effective any given quarterback is during a game.

“We don’t have the luxury of knowing, ‘OK, Clemson played them this way last year and this way the year before and now it’s that much different or leading up to that game how they defended people,'” Helfrich said of Winston.

Winston’s total QBR has dropped from 89.4 last season to 67.1 this season and his touchdown-to-interception total has plummeted (40-10 in 2013, 24-17 so far in 2014), but he is clutch. And not just in late-game scenarios.

Of all quarterbacks who have started at least one year, Winston leads the nation in third-down QBR (91.6) and has converted 51 percent of his third-down pass plays, which is 15 percent higher than the national average.

In a strange way, considering these two teams have never faced off, this sort of feels like a rivalry game in the fact that tendencies and statistics will probably be thrown out the window as we see some really incredible football unfold.

But would anything less be expected when a field plays host to two Heisman winners? After all, this has only happened three times before. And all three times proved to be very exciting games.

Most recently, it was Tim Tebow’s No. 2 Florida Gators facing off against Sam Bradford’s top-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in January 2009. Tebow had won the Heisman the year before, but the Gators took this game 24-14 and went on to win the national title.

Four seasons earlier, it was 2004 Heisman trophy winner Matt Leinart and his top-ranked USC Trojans who took down the 2003 winner -- Oklahoma quarterback Jason White -- in the Orange Bowl with the national title on the line. Leinart led the Trojans with five touchdown passes as they cruised to a season-high 55 points.

And the only other time it happened was during the 1949 championship season when 1949 Heisman winner Leon Hart and Notre Dame took on Doak Walker and SMU (though to be fair, Walker didn’t play that game as he was sidelined due to an injury).

In each of these instances, whichever quarterback won the Heisman versus Heisman matchup also went on to win the national title. That could certainly be the case when Florida State and Oregon face off on Jan. 1.

If past be present, both of these quarterbacks are going to bring their best play and the qualities that won each of them the Heisman are going to be on full display. For everyone watching in Pasadena, California, or at home, that means this is going to be a really, really fun matchup. Not only between Florida State and Oregon, but also between Winston and Mariota.

Players provide College Football Playoff picks

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
1:32
PM ET
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Some of the top college football players in the country provide their picks on who will win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a win in the SEC championship game, Alabama was given the week off before it began preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the players had that much time off since July. How did they spend it?

“I did a little Christmas shopping for my little girl,” quarterback Blake Sims said. “I got a few things that she asked Santa for and just tried to give this year instead of receiving.”

Sims was also in attendance for Saturday’s graduation where he watched 14 members of the Alabama football team walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

But aside from that, most of the players went home to spend time with their families. Others, such as Amari Cooper and Landon Collins, traveled across the country to take part in various award presentations. Ryan Kelly stayed in Tuscaloosa where he attended an engagement party for teammate and fellow offensive lineman Austin Shepherd.

“I think it was a much-needed [break],” Kelly said. “Coach [Nick] Saban always tries to look out for our best interests, especially with a lot of guys getting banged up and just the grind of the season. He knows what possible stretch we have ahead of us.

“That long weekend was huge for a lot of guys to just rest and get their bodies back. I know a lot of guys feel a lot better.”

There was some rust at Tuesday’s practice, though. Players made mistakes. They lacked the intensity they had before the break, the same intensity that helped them win eight straight games to finish the regular season.

But that’s to be expected. It’s going to take a day or two to get back into football shape. For that reason, the coaches are stressing fundamentals this week as they prepare for Ohio State and the impending College Football Playoff.

“This is really kind of a new season for us, a new opportunity,” Saban said Tuesday. “What does everybody want the legacy of this team to be? Everybody should have the right mindset. You have to commit to a lot of hard work and preparation, trust what we need to do to get fundamentally back to where we need to be.

“In these kind of circumstances, it's really important to eliminate clutter, distractions, to focus on what we need to do to play your best.”

Alabama has been here before. This team has played in a bowl game every year since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, and three of the past five years, they have played in the BCS National Championship Game. The month of December hasn’t changed much over the years.

But this year feels different. The preparation might be the same, but the stakes are not. Rather than one game to decide a national championship, the Crimson Tide will have to play two if they want to win it all. Beating Ohio State is just the beginning.

“It’s a new season,” Collins said, echoing the sentiments from his coach. “You get the opportunity to possibly play two games, and you’ve got to prepare. You’re going to be busy. If we win this game, we’re probably going to fly in and fly right back out -- just like a regular game -- and then get ready for the next game.

“If we get to the second game, I’ll see how it works. But the first game is always (business) as usual. We go through these three weeks of preparing for the game, and then after that, I don’t know.”

Nobody knows. That's the beauty of it.

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