Here are some of the best sights and sounds from the talent-laden Miami Regional.
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And so during the spring when Cutcliffe is busy looking for a starting QB, replacing a record-setting wide receiver and finding the heir apparent for the league’s leading tackler, it’s the defensive line that is the Blue Devils’ top concern.
It’s one issue that three of last year’s four starters on the line — not to mention both starting linebackers - graduated, but turnover on the line isn’t necessarily the biggest issue at Duke. Even through the unprecedented success of the past three years, when the Blue Devils went to bowl games each season, the D line has been more of a patchwork system than a well-oiled machine.
Since 2012, Duke ranks 51st among Power 5 schools, allowing 4.81 yards per carry to other power conference teams. The Blue Devils are 56th in sack rate, dumping the QB on just 5 percent of his passing attempts. Only Iowa State has recorded fewer tackles for a loss or no gain against the run than Duke among Power 5 programs during that span.
In other words, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
On the inside, Knowles is actually quite pleased with what he’ll have to work with this season. Senior Carlos Wray is the defensive front’s lone returning starter from 2014, and he’ll be flanked by a chorus of developing talent. Junior A.J. Wolf and redshirt sophomore Mike Ramsay have seen some playing time already, and Knowles is thrilled with the development of redshirt freshmen Quaven Ferguson and Edgar Cerenord.
“Those guys are guys we haven’t had around here -- big and strong and agile,” Knowles said. “You can see how the recruiting has gotten better. Duke’s always going to be challenged to recruit defensive linemen, and those two guys and Ramsey represent a different type of player. Overall, inside, we will be better and that has shown up this spring. Our defensive tackles are really controlling things inside.”
It’s on the edge that things are more complicated.
Last season’s three most productive ends have moved on, and their replacements are largely a handful of converted linebackers. Duke even shifted responsibilities for assistant Jim Collins, who will now work heavily with the defensive ends.
“We put Jim Collins with those guys exclusively because you have a bunch of former linebackers there,” Knowles said.
At Duke, the game plan generally involves taking some disparate parts and trying to find a few bodies that fit the mold on the line, but the moves didn’t stop there. Safety Dwayne Norman will shift to linebacker, and the plan -- once he’s healthy -- is to frequently use linebacker Kelby Brown as a much-needed edge rusher.
“[Brown] is going to have to become more of a pass rusher for us in the mold of Scooby Wright at Arizona,” Knowles said.
For that to happen, Norman needs to fill the hole on the weakside and the secondary has to be strong. Norman had made a name for himself among Duke’s coaches by playing both physically and aggressively at safety during his first two seasons on the field, but with the safety position well stocked, the move to linebacker seemed a natural fit.
So far, the spring has been a learning process for Norman, and while he’s added about six pounds to his frame, he’s focused on bulking up more for his new role.
“Learning the plays, learning the schemes, recognizing plays -- as the spring goes on, I’m getting better,” Norman said.
If he can fill the job, that should free Brown up to rush the passer more often than he has in years past, and that, Knowles said, could help erase some of the deficits at defensive end. Still, Brown has his own concerns. During fall camp last year, he tore his ACL and missed the entirety of the season. He’s been working out with the team this spring, but he’s not participated in drills or been subjected to contact since the injury. There’s ample optimism about Brown’s recovery, but he still has some significant barriers to overcome before he’s 100 percent.
“Kelby Brown in the middle helps solve a lot of problems,” Knowles said. “He’s a guy who understands the defense, knows the ins and outs and makes tackles. So he can make a lot of people right.”
For now though, there remain a lot of moving pieces. It’s a work in progress, Knowles said, but the picture is starting to come into focus, even if a few parts still don’t quite fit.
“Every year it’s gotten a little bit better,” Knowles said. “But it’s not an overnight process. Nothing around here has been. When you do things the right way, it takes time, and that’s what you’ve seen.”
He arrived in Evanston last summer and immediately had to adjust to the school's rigid academics, familiarize himself with a slew of new teammates, and absorb the Wildcats' playbook. Any thoughts he might be eased into a role were dismissed early in preseason camp, when starting running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.
"I do see where they're coming from, because it's really tough [as a true freshman]," Jackson said. "But I also see the downside of it. You have a lot of guys who may be the best at their position, and if they can't play, it would really hurt their football team."
Jackson did all that without a full offseason to train, something he's getting now as the Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.
"I feel so much better," he said. "Some of the guys who were injured last year but are the same year as me had their first practice this week, and I was like, 'That was me last year in the fall.' It was crazy out there. Now I'm much more comfortable, I know the playbook a lot better and I can help the other guys."
Jackson, who was listed at 185 pounds last season, says he's put on about 10 pounds this winter. He hopes that helps him get ready for another potentially heavy workload, after he had 245 carries in 2014.
But rather than hit a freshman wall, he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He ran for at least 130 yards in each of his final three games, including a memorable 149-yard day in the overtime upset win at Notre Dame.
The great news for Northwestern is that Jackson is not remotely satisfied with his impressive first year. In addition to the extra weight, he's worked hard on his flexibility and explosiveness after ripping off only two 40-plus yard runs last season.
"I had a lot of those runs that were right there, where it would be 15, 17 yards and I was close to breaking them," he said. "I'll never be the best at it, because I'm not Venric Mark. I'm not a 4.3 [40-yard dash]-type dude. But I can try to improve my speed and my strength so I can break out of tackles and be that guy. You don't have to have 4.3, 4.4 speed to break long runs. You just have to be smart about it and use what you have to your advantage."
Jackson's main advantages thus far have included his vision and how hard he runs. Plus his dedication to getting better through study. "Whenever I'm bored," he says, "I just pop on the film."
It's that kind of attitude that ensured Jackson was more than ready as a true freshman.
"I think that would be a tough sell," he said of the freshman ineligibility idea, "because a lot of freshmen right now are coming in more prepared to play. It's tough, but if you have great teammates and a great support system, you can definitely do it."
Not every freshman can be as good as Jackson, of course. But we're very curious to see how good he can be as a sophomore.
Here are five things of many to know.
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If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.
For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:
EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.
2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.
3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.
7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.
MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.
2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.
3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.
8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.
Here's why: As bad as Wake was throughout 2014, there was at least small fragments of progress. And over the final half of the season, there's no question Syracuse actually had the worse offense.
Over those last five games, Syracuse scored 47 points, the fewest in the nation by a touchdown. In the past decade, there have been 734 seasons played by AQ or Power 5 teams, and only two -- 2008 Washington and 2009 Washington State -- scored fewer points over their final five games. Those two teams finished a combined 1-23.
That's about as bad as it gets -- and in some areas, markedly worse even than what was happening at Wake Forest at the same time. It's not surprising either that, despite a defense that ranked 18th nationally during that same stretch, the Orange finished by losing five straight.
Now that defense figures to have grave concerns, too. Eight of Syracuse's top 10 tacklers from 2014 are gone, including Dyshawn Davis, Durell Eskridge and Cameron Lynch. As coordinator Chuck Bullough told Syracuse.com, it's going to be “a challenging year” on D.
So, is there any hope for the Orange in 2015?
The reality is that Syracuse isn't going to challenge for the Atlantic, and the most likely scenario is another long, painful season. But historical precedent doesn't necessarily doom the Orange, and there's reason to think last year's dreadful conclusion wasn't an accurate representation of the real Syracuse offense.
Tim Lester took over as offensive coordinator midyear, and he couldn't change much at the time.
Terrel Hunt was injured, and Syracuse cycled through young QBs after that. The offensive line was bruised and battered with numerous starters missing time.
"It was the perfect storm," Lester said.
In other words, the Syracuse offense of 2015 won't be the Syracuse offense of 2014 by any real approximation, and change of any sort after a stretch like that is an upgrade.
Overall last year, Syracuse had a touchdown rate (TD/drives) of just 8.4 percent vs. its Power 5 opponents. Since 2004, only three teams have posted a lower rate, and only 14 total have posted a rate worse than 10 percent. Oddly, three of those others happened in 2014 (Wake, Vanderbilt and Penn State, which miraculously finished 7-6).
Seven of those teams improved their win total the following year, which is good news for Syracuse. Of course, since the average team on that list won only 2.5 games, there wasn't much room to go but up.
Still, there were noteworthy names.
- In 2006, Stanford went 1-11 while posting a TD rate of 6.0 percent -- the worst (by a wide margin) of any Power 5 team in this study. A year later, with Jim Harbaugh on board as coach, the Cardinal added three wins to their total and doubled its TD rate to 12.4 percent.
- In 2008, Auburn finished 5-7 with a TD rate of 8.5 percent. A year later, with Gene Chizik taking over as head coach, the Tigers jumped to eight wins with a TD rate of 24.4 percent.
- In 2011, Ole Miss was a dismal 2-10 with a TD rate of 10 percent. A year later, Hugh Freeze came aboard as head coach and the Rebels won seven games and upped their TD rate to 22.6 percent.
- And most notably, in 2012, Auburn again was awful offensively, posting a TD rate of 8.2 percent and finishing the year just 3-9. A year later, with Gus Malzahn taking over as head coach, Auburn scored TDs on 32.7 percent of its drives vs. Power 5 foes and played for a national championship.
Perhaps you've noticed a common thread here. Each improved dramatically only after a change in leadership at the top. Malzahn, Freeze and Harbaugh were all offensive-minded head coaches, and while Chizik was not, he did have Malzahn as his OC in 2009.
At Syracuse, the 2015 season will feature many of the same key players -- Lester, Hunt and head coach Scott Shafer chief among them -- who were around last year. That's got a lot of Orange fans doubtful that much will change.
But perhaps things aren't quite so bad. A healthy Hunt has to be an improvement over the QB quagmire of last year's second half, and he spent the latter half of last season in the coaches box with Lester, learning and watching the game from a new angle. Lester now has a chance to install his own offense, and he's focused on using his quarterback's strengths. The Atlantic was stacked with strong defenses a year ago, but that should shift a bit in 2015. Maybe.
"[Last year,] I didn't put anything in moving forward with the offense. I just did the best job with the things we'd been doing since I got here," Lester said. "At this point, I'm putting in my offense, our offense, and it's formations, names, cadence, everything. If we're going to go, we're going with something I've run, I have experience with, and our coaches can do a great job teaching. We've carried over two or three pass names or formation names, but other than that, everything else is new."
It's spring -- even in a place like Syracuse, where there's still snow on the ground and dismal memories of last season in the air -- so there's hope.
"We're trying to make the transition as easy possible, but they're all fired up about what we're doing," Lester said. "It's a fresh start."
But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.
Thanks BuckeyeNation for supporting the Cruise to beat cancer raising over $2 million!! Back on land-on way home.— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) February 25, 2015
Now that he is back on the field for spring practice, Hunt has reclaimed his spot as the leader on offense -- a spot he has no plans to relinquish.
“It feels like I never left," Hunt said in a phone interview with ESPN.com. "I earned my teammates’ respect throughout the years I’ve been here. As long as I continue to work hard, they’re going to respect me. The minute I slack, they’re going to let me know. I feel like I haven’t missed a beat.”
During games, Hunt would sit in the coaches’ box with quite a different view of the playing field.
“The game’s a lot slower up top,” Hunt said. “You can see all the little tendencies that may give away a Cover 4 or a Cover 2, little things like that. It’s definitely a blessing in disguise. As a player, everything moves so fast and sometimes you forget the coaches are up there and see everything. They see way more than you do. It helped me a lot to recognize defenses and understand the tendencies.”
Hunt watches film in an entirely different way now because he knows what to look for and how to evaluate what he is seeing. Already that has translated on the field during the first set of practices.
“The first day, I was talking football with my coach and there was one play where I threw a post, and he was like, ‘Why did you go there?’” Hunt said. “I told him they were playing low over the top and it was Cover 4. It was a one-on-one matchup outside, and he said, ‘Good job.’ Even if you don’t complete it, just the fact that you’re thinking that goes a long way.”
As for his physical health, Hunt tried to stay as active as possible while he was rehabbing. He lives on the third floor of his building, so when it was time to go downstairs, he’d use his arms to swing himself down – ensuring a good arm workout. On his way up, he’d walk on one leg, then he eventually put pressure on his broken leg when it was more stable.
The strength and conditioning staff had him do work with medicine balls to maintain his balance. His strength exercises also required more reps with lighter weights. So far during practice he has felt no pain, though he acknowledged there remains soreness once he hits the sideline.
But it is nothing he believes will slow him down. Hunt has a new offense to master, one that he says he loves because “it creates a lot of mismatches.” The goal, of course, is to get back to a bowl. Motivation is not difficult to come by, either.
“If one of us is slacking on a run or bending over during a run, we yell 3-9, 3-9!” Hunt said. “Nobody ever wants to go back to that because you feel like a failure.”
An end-of-season injury prevented him from participating in most workouts, but there was still the opportunity to meet and interview with potential employers.
Earlier this month, as Ogbuehi did last year, dozens of Texas A&M athletes learned how to "dress for success."
The seminar, which aimed to teach athletes how to dress professionally when they enter the workforce, is part of a program hatched by athletic director Eric Hyman and his wife, Pauline. The pair started it in its current form roughly 15 years ago when Eric was at TCU.
"We're trying to give them that little bit of an edge," Eric Hyman said. "We've been doing parts of this for a long time, 15, 20 years."
The seminars, which are mandatory once a year for A&M athletes and cover different topics, are meant to help them transition from college to life. Aggies football players were among the dozens of athletes (all juniors) who received a crash course on what types of suits to wear, how to care for them and how to tie a necktie, with representatives from a local men's dress clothes retailer offering the knowledge.
It was an eye-opening experience for some of them.
"For one, I learned how to tie a tie," cornerback De'Vante Harris said. "That was my first time ever trying. I was pretty successful."
Offensive lineman Mike Matthews said he always had his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, tie his neckties for him. But Mike said his dad taught him how to do it during the NFL draft, when Mike's brother Jake was being drafted. Still, the seminar served as a memory jog for Mike, who doesn't often wear ties.
"I learned it for about a week and then I forgot it because I didn't have to tie a tie for a while," Matthews said.
Quarterback Conner McQueen was one of the handful who did have experience with tie knots. The way he learned?
"YouTube," McQueen said.
Before that, McQueen relied on sales clerks.
"Whenever I purchased ties before, I always asked the people at Dillard's or Macy's, as soon as I purchased it, to tie it for me and just loosen it a little bit," McQueen said. "When I got home, I just put it on a hanger so I don't ever have to tie it."
It's not just about dressing professionally. While "dress for success" is for junior athletes, Hyman said the Aggies conduct mandatory seminars for freshmen (discussing consequences of their actions), sophomores (an etiquette dinner to learn how to eat properly) and seniors (networking and job interview skills are taught).
Some schools teach these things in a classroom setting, but Pauline Hyman thought a more hands-on approach would be more effective.
"What I began to learn along the way is that we talk about this stuff, so it came to me, instead of trying to lecture about this in a classroom, why don't we have an etiquette dinner? Why don't we have a dress for success?" she said. "Let them see it, be interactive, have fun. It was sort of evolved into, 'How's the best way to get his message across?'"
The Hymans said feedback over the years has been positive from several who claimed they wouldn't have otherwise obtained those skills.
An added plus for the athletes: The NCAA's Division I student assistance fund allows the school to provide a suit or dress for each of the attendees so they have one for formal events or job interviews.
"It's been phenomenal," Eric Hyman said. "We get a wide cross-section of people from different socioeconomic levels. This is how we'll help support them. They begin to learn the value of having a suit. Some of them don't have one, but now they all will have one."
And one of Hyman's favorite memories came in 2014 from a former Aggies offensive lineman and soon-to-be NFL draft pick.
"We had a tie-tying contest [last year] and Ogbuehi won the contest," Hyman said. "He was so happy that he won it. ... He took great pride in it and told some of his offensive linemen that he won the tie-tying contest. You try to make it a little fun."
1. Florida State
With its history, national profile and recruiting radius, there isn’t a better job in the conference. However, while Florida State has ranked among college football’s elite programs for much of the last three decades, it’s not always the easiest place to win. It needs a coach who can draw prospects to Tallahassee, and Jimbo Fisher has the program rolling.
Coach Dabo Swinney has turned the Tigers from perennial underachievers into annual ACC title contenders. There is a commitment to excellence at Clemson, and the Tigers have one of the most iconic stadiums in college football. South Carolina is not littered with prospects, but Clemson is close to Charlotte and Atlanta.
While they haven't always been viewed as one of the better jobs, the Cardinals have turned themselves into a quality program. Five different coaches have put together at least one season with just a single loss, and Bobby Petrino and Charlie Strong combined to elevate the program into title contenders. Athletic director Tom Jurich offers the required support for a football program in a basketball state, too.
The Hurricanes have fallen on hard times the last decade, but it is still Miami. There are certain financial hurdles, but the history and fertile recruiting area still make the Canes an attractive job. Miami might not be able to make A-plus hires, but it should be able to attract top up-and-coming coaches.
5. Virginia Tech
The Hokies have been on a linear incline since Frank Beamer took over, although the last few seasons have been disappointing. Whenever Beamer leaves Blacksburg, though, VaTech should be able to make a solid hire. It’s a little tougher to recruit, but there is a ton of support for the program as Lane Stadium provides one of the most intimidating atmospheres.
6. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are the proverbial sleeping giant, yet Carolina has never been able to break through. Maybe it just needs the right coach -- and Larry Fedora could still be that coach -- or maybe it is just too tough to win at a place where football will always be a distant second.
7. Georgia Tech
There is a branch of Yellow Jackets fans who expect Georgia Tech to compete for an ACC title annually, but the reality is it can be a tough place to win and recruit. However, Tech resides in the Coastal Division, which is ripe for the taking for whichever program can separate from the pack.
Like UNC, Virginia is a program that has the resources to be better than it has been historically. The state is not stocked with talent, but the Virginia Beach area has produced some of the country’s greatest talents. The campus is among the nicest, too. There are donors to be tapped into if the program can string together a couple of winning seasons.
9. NC State
The talent is growing in the state, and Charlotte, which has seen drastic population increases recently, has been open for one team to come in and clean up in recruiting for quite some time. A brand new indoor facility is set to open in the spring.
It hurts that the Panthers do not have an on-campus stadium, and the empty, bright yellow seats can be unattractive for prospects. There is significant talent in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, which Pitt can tap into. Pitt does have a rich history, and the right coach should be able to turn the Panthers into an annual ACC contender. It could take some time, though.
David Cutcliffe was the perfect hire at Duke as he was able to create a buzz around the program and finally use the school’s academics to his advantage. Cutcliffe has turned Duke into a winner, but is it sustainable? Will the next coach be able to duplicate or build upon what Cutcliffe started? It didn’t happen when Steve Spurrier left after 1989.
12. Boston College
New England and the Northeast are not football havens, so there are challenges in building a roster. It takes a coach willing to embrace what the university has to offer and use it in his favor. Steve Addazio has done that, but how will future coaches fare?
The weather can be brutal, and there is not much nearby football talent. Sustainability is a huge question mark at Syracuse, and it is hard to imagine a successful coach remaining in central New York for the long haul.
14. Wake Forest
Whoever is coach of the Demon Deacons has his work cut out for him every season. Jim Grobe showed you can surprise people and put together a few winning seasons, but after going 20-7 in 2006 and 2007 combined, he went 31-43 over his final six years. Of the 28 coaches Wake has had since 1908, only three finished with winning records, and none since D.C. “Peahead” Walker left after 1950.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.
Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.
Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.
Here's what we came up with:
1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.
2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.
3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.
4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.
5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.
6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.
7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.
8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.
9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.
10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.
11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.
12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.
13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.
14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.