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There are those outside the Virginia Tech program who have started to wonder whether coach Frank Beamer has lost his touch, whether he will be able to go out on his own terms when he believes the time is right.

Two straight sub-par seasons in Blacksburg have raised eyebrows and concerns. That is why the news that Beamer received a two-year contract extension came as a shock Wednesday. Athletic director Whit Babcock said in a phone interview he gave Beamer the extension as a show of support, to quell distractions and to help out recruiting, too.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
AP Photo/John BazemoreVirginia Tech showed its faith in Frank Beamer, giving the coach a two-year extension on Wednesday.
The extension does show support, yes, and Beamer does deserve a heaping amount of slack for a few sub-par seasons mixed in with many, many more stellar ones. So the extension makes sense, in theory. Perhaps it puts an end to immediate speculation about Beamer’s future. Certainly, it helps the selling points on the recruiting trail.

But in reality, there are questions about where this program is headed, enough to make you scratch your head at tacking two more years onto a deal that would have expired in January 2017.

What if Virginia Tech just threw its support behind a coach who never wins 10 games again? What if the Hokies continue on this downward trend, scraping together seven and eight-win seasons the way they have the past two years?

Is that the type of support Virginia Tech is talking about?

“I don't want to get boxed in on a number of wins,” Babcock said. “You evaluate the program in total at the end of every season. There’s enough pressure on coaches already. Some years there’s great years with nine wins and maybe there's others at some places where you lose to your rival and win 10 games and people don’t like that. That number of 10 is brought up a lot here, but we won't use a certain number as a barometer. Even coach has said we expect more than we’ve done the last couple of years and hopefully we’re moving in the right direction.”

There is no manual for how to replace a coaching legend. Sometimes, the process gets nasty. Recently, we have seen circuses envelope Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Joe Paterno at Penn State and even Mack Brown at Texas.

While it is true the extension does not guarantee Beamer will be around for five more seasons, it does signal that Babcock believes Beamer has earned the benefit of the doubt, at the very least, and a few more years to get Virginia Tech back among the elite. Plus, Babcock wanted to get a few more years added on because only two years, four months remained on the contract.

"Either they’re good enough to get four or five, or they’re not good enough to be your coach," Babcock said. "It was getting down to a level I thought distracted from recruiting."

Patience has gone the way of the Model T, so we will see just how much of it Babcock ends up having if the Hokies keep struggling. There is always a downside when coaches start raising the bar to unprecedented heights. When they start to miss the bar, exasperation grows much quicker with each passing season.

Beamer has spoken positively about the group he has headed into the season, one that is capable of winning 10 games, at least on paper. He has said he is energized and happy, and is excited about where the future is headed. Babcock must believe the same, or this extension will end up being worthless.

“Some people will think it’s good, some won’t, but we feel like it’s the right thing for Virginia Tech, so we did it,” Babcock said.

Only time will tell.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Who has the travel plug adapter for James Franklin's goatee clippers? And, oh yeah, how's all that Gatorade getting over to Ireland if customs won't let it on the plane?

Those are both questions that Penn State Nittany Lions' support staff has had to ask itself the past few months in preparation of the season opener against UCF in Dublin, Ireland. (Hell hath no fury like an ungroomed Franklin …) But you can't be blamed if you've gone this past week without wondering about those concerns. After all, besides Penn State's support staff, who really wants to worry about all that anyway?

"The one good thing about the trip," offensive coordinator John Donovan said earlier this week, "is that I have nothing to do with it logistically."

The support staff has attempted to address every little travel loophole and overseas scenario. Even without volcanoes in the picture, it truly is a crazy process. So we checked in with Michael Hazel, director of football operations, and equipment manager Jay Takach for an inside look on some of the odder stuff they're dealing with, along with some of the more interesting notes and numbers:
  • Dude, where's my paper? During most away games, Penn State could just use the printer, fax machine and color copier on site. But … there's no color copier near the team hotel. So, no problem, the Nittany Lions will just lug their own more than 3,000 miles away. And then it can just use the hotel's paper, right? Nope, that'd be way too easy. The staff discovered that paper sizes over there aren't necessarily uniform to the U.S. -- so they also have to take two boxes of paper for coach notes and such. Different paper; who knew?
  • Heavy lifting. Penn State is taking 20,000 pounds worth of equipment and supplies to Ireland. There are more than 9,000 items, more than 500 lines' worth of inventory on Excel, and it all barely fits into a 53-foot tractor trailer. Also, did I mention Penn State is required to list every single item it packs? The Nittany Lions are bringing some small rolls of athletic tape and a couple pencils -- and they have to list and account for them all, or the items won't make the flight as cargo.
  • A well-groomed goatee is a happy goatee. OK, OK – so the goatee isn't at the top of the "travel priorities" list. Probably. But one thing that is: making sure everyone (especially the head coach) has a power adapter and surge protector for their electronics … such as goatee trimmers. Each player and coach room will be situated with one. Lest you think the goatee is mentioned purely in jest, it was suggested to Franklin last month he let his hair/goatee grow out for a few days. Immediately afterward, it looked as if he just bit into a lemon. Said Hazel: "I'm not responsible for shaving his head, but I want to make sure he's got the power he needs."
  • You can't take what on the plane? Lithium batteries for cameras and training devices, Gatorade and air horns. For varying reasons, they're just not cleared for travel to Ireland. Outside of creating another headache – and probably increasing the amount of Advil listed on the travel carnet – these items luckily weren't too difficult to procure overseas. Penn State has a liaison in Dublin who purchased air horns along with some other items, and Gatorade was already shipped over to the Emerald Isle. "We got a guy," Takach said.
  • Interesting solutions to interesting problems. Something is bound to fall through the cracks and, on Wednesday, Takach said an issue or two still remained. For one, the team has been practicing in 75-80 degree weather recently -- but it could be around 50 degrees in Ireland. So the Lions might need some long-sleeve shirts, but that clothing wasn't included on the travel carnet. If it's not on the list, it's not allowed on the plane. Tackach's workaround? "I've got to pack some of that as personal," he said. "I'm going to have like three or four bags where I'm like, 'Oh, no, this is all my clothing.'"
The 2014 preseason top 10 is laden with the usual suspects: Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan State, South Carolina and Baylor. While a couple of those teams aren't certifiable perennial powers, they all finished the 2013 season ranked among the top 13.

There is, however, a lone outlier: UCLA. It's ranked seventh in both the AP and coaches' polls, up nine spots from its final No. 16 ranking in 2013.

Lone outlier? That was UCLA's first end-of-season ranking since 2005, when it finished 16th in the AP poll and 13th with the coaches.

Lone outlier? The Bruins haven't been ranked in the preseason top 10 since 1998.

No team in the country is generating more buzz as a nouveau contender than UCLA. ESPN "College GameDay" pundits Lee Corso and Desmond Howard both predicted the Bruins would win the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff. Nine of 23 ESPN college football pundits picked the Bruins to at least make the playoff semifinals. Twelve picked them to win the Pac-12.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Icon SMI"I think we are a mature team, a focused team," coach Jim Mora said. "When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that."
Of course, college football history is full of teams that went rear end over tea kettle after being handed high preseason rankings. Florida was ranked 10th last year in the preseason and finished 4-8. USC was No. 1 in 2012 and finished 7-6. Sports Illustrated ranked Oregon State its 2001 preseason No. 1 but the Beavers tumbled to 5-6. Arizona started at No. 4 in 1999 but floundered to 6-6.

Bottom line: If you take a high preseason ranking and $1 to the bank for change, you'll still only get four quarters for your trouble.

Make no mistake, though, there's a good reason for these lofty estimations. A perusal of the Bruins' depth chart -- even if third-year coach Jim Mora insists he doesn't have one -- reveals a team with a lot of talent and few questions. It's not just Brett Hundley behind center. It's size, athleticism and experience just about everywhere. The Bruins are loaded with skill players and are physical at the line of scrimmage.

In fact, the most obvious preseason issue for UCLA isn't about personnel. It's about handling all the hype. While a high preseason ranking means Mora and his players have been doing something right, all the headlines, backslaps and gushing media accounts could become distractions. Players could become complacent, believing a high ranking means entitlement. As the klieg lights roll into Westwood, and the velvet ropes part at the hottest L.A. clubs, there's always a chance the team could lose its way.

No one is more aware of this than Mora. There's a sign posted in the locker room that Bruins players have alluded to throughout the offseason: "Don't listen to the noise." In other words, forget buzz. Remember the work."

"We focus on the day we are living in. We try to be great today and then we come back and try to be better tomorrow," Mora said. "If you don't concentrate and focus on the daily grind and being the best you can be that very day then you are going to lose track of who you are and where you are going."

While Mora is aware of the dangers of distraction, it's also pretty clear he's not obsessed with it like many coaches. While many elite programs shut down media access, UCLA is fairly open with reporters and has even allowed the Pac-12 Network to film a behind-the-scenes account of the Bruins' season, a weekly show called "The Drive," which focused on Arizona State and California last year.

Obviously, that accounted for decidedly mixed results on the field. The Sun Devils won the South Division, beating out UCLA, and Cal's season was a tale of woe.

"It won't be a distraction, not one single bit," Mora said.

Why does he believe that? Because of the culture that he believes has been established in his locker room. It's the foundation of his team's confidence, which comes from within, not without.

"It's probably maturity," he said. "I think we are a mature team, a focused team. When you are a mature team and a focused team that practices hard, you get confidence from that. I don't think you gain confidence from other people telling you you're good. Or other people putting expectations on you, labeling you as something. That confidence is internal. It comes from working hard every day."

Mora is a pretty bottom-line sort of guy. He knows that the hype -- and "The Drive" -- won't win the Bruins any games this year. Nor, for that matter, will it lose any. Whatever is going on around UCLA or the words used to describe the team, it's still all about talent, focus, preparation and executing on game day.

As in: The usual suspects.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The challenge was always clear, and Urban Meyer offered one final reminder of its importance to his offensive line on the practice field. But it still remains a bit of a mystery who exactly will be on that unit and embracing the opportunity to protect the precious cargo in the backfield just three days shy of Ohio State’s opener.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTaylor Decker is the only full-time starting offensive lineman returning this season for Ohio State.
It appears at least two position battles remain unsettled on the offensive line for the Buckeyes based on the depth chart Meyer released on Wednesday afternoon. Picking starters from a talented pool of options at left guard and center might not have been quite as big of a deal two weeks ago with Braxton Miller around to help make up for a few mistakes or a lack of chemistry up front thanks to his innate ability to escape from pressure. But the Buckeyes don’t have the senior quarterback around to get them out of jams anymore, and with J.T. Barrett making his first start, it seems less than ideal not to have five established blockers in front of him on Saturday against Navy, even if Meyer himself isn’t concerned.

“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”

Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.

The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.

“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.

“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”

The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.

“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.

“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”

The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
When thinking of Baylor and Oklahoma State, defense is rarely the first thing that comes to mind.

Yet those two teams featured the Big 12’s top defenses in 2013, a main reason they combined for 21 victories and found themselves atop the conference standings heading into the final day of the regular season a year ago.

But neither the Cowboys nor Bears found themselves among the nation’s top 15 defenses in points allowed or yards allowed, and only Oklahoma State's 21.6 points allowed per game, which ranked No. 19 nationally, was among the nation’s top 25 in either category.

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezShawn Oakman and Baylor's defense give up yards, but measure up well in the most important statistics.
“I think people are getting educated a little bit about what is good defense and what is good defense against spread offenses when having to defend 18, 19 series a game,” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “It’s not yardage, it’s the winning game. Saying you’re the best defense in the nation because you gave up 375 yards per game? That’s ridiculous. That has no bearing on what the best defense in the nation is; that’s the most ridiculous stat ever.”

Recognizing good defense in the Big 12 is a little different.

“How are you going to win the game? How many points per possession?” Spencer asks. “We have a lot more possessions to defend than a lot of teams in the nation.”

So with the new season on the horizon, here are other ways to define good defense in the Big 12.

Yards per play: More important than total yards allowed, yards per play is a better representation for a defense’s success. For example, Oklahoma led the Big 12 in total yards allowed at 305.2, yet the Sooners were sixth in yards per play at 5.38. Why? The Sooners offense played a major role in OU’s strong overall yardage numbers by controlling the clock with its running game. Oklahoma's defense faced 65.1 plays per game, five plays fewer than any other Big 12 team. By comparison, Baylor allowed 4.77 yards per play, which led the conference, while facing 75.8 plays per game. The Bears allowed more yards than the Sooners, but BU’s defense clearly had more success stopping opponents than OU on a play-by-play basis.

Points per possession: Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Kansas State finished 1-2-3 in points allowed in 2013, but only the Cowboys finished in the top three in points per possession. Oklahoma State led the conference with 1.22 points per possession, followed by Baylor (1.38), TCU (1.5) and Oklahoma (1.6). Those four teams combined to win 36 games, including the Horned Frogs' disappointing four-win season. It’s also a meaningful stat nationally, with Florida State leading the nation in the category (0.9) followed by Michigan State (0.99), Louisville (1.05) and Alabama (1.09). Those four teams combined to go 50-4 in 2013.

Third down conversion defense: Getting off the field on third down is critical in any conference. The conference’s three teams that had double-digit wins finished 1-2-3 in third-down conversion defense. Oklahoma State led the Big 12 at 31.4 percent, followed by Oklahoma (33.7) and Baylor (33.9). Excellence on third down is one reason the Sooners still had one of the Big 12’s top defenses a year ago, even though they faced fewer plays. Oklahoma's offense controlling games wasn’t the only reason the Sooners faced fewer plays, as their defense consistently got off the field on key third downs.

“[In the Big 12] you have to defend the whole full of playmakers and you are going to give up some yardage,” Spencer said. “But you have to get off the field.”

Turnovers: Much like third-down excellence, turnovers are critical in any conference. Oklahoma State (33) and Baylor (28) finished 1-2 in turnovers forced, and it’s not a coincidence. Both defensive coaching staffs make creating turnovers a top priority, even more than stopping the opponent. For the Cowboys and Bears, taking the ball away from the opposing offense is the primary goal.

Percentage of possible yards allowed per drive: This is another terrific stat to monitor the overall success of a Big 12 defense against opponents. BU led the conference at 32.4 percent followed by Oklahoma State (34.7), TCU (35.1) and Oklahoma (37.1). Those four teams could easily be considered the Big 12’s top four defenses in 2013.

Three-and-out percentage: The Bears led the Big 12 by forcing a three-and-out on 28.2 percent of opponent’s drives. Oklahoma State (26.8), TCU (26.7) and Texas (25.8) rounded out the top four. One of the reasons Bryce Petty and the Bears’ offense set scoring records was the ability of Baylor's defense to immediately put the ball back in the hands of the offense.
RALEIGH, N.C. -- No one expected Jarvis Byrd to still be here, and so NC State made plans for his jersey.

No. 9 never quite fit Byrd, anyway. He was wearing No. 14 when he won a starting job in the Wolfpack's secondary as a true freshman in 2009, and when he tore his ACL in that season finale, and when he fought his way back twice into the starting lineup -- and twice more, was felled by knee injuries. It was No. 14 he was wearing the previous time he was on a field, writhing in pain, assuming his career was done.

When his unlikely comeback began this spring, Byrd switched to No. 9, but that was short-lived. The number, which once belonged to NC State great Mario Williams, is being retired, so Byrd needed an alternative. Last week, coach Dave Doeren called him with a plan.

Doeren wanted a single player to don the No. 1 jersey this season. It would have a special meaning, he told his players on Monday.

"This guy's been through three ACL surgeries," Doeren told the team, "and he didn't have to come back.

"This guy loves the team.

"This guy has shown commitment from Day 1.

"This guy is unselfish.

"This guy is a leader."

The jersey went to Byrd, who earned it not with his play on the field but his determination off it. The room erupted in cheers.

He hasn't made it back yet, but this was a start.

"That was a big moment," Byrd said. "Something I'll always remember."




One of NC State's top recruits in 2009 out of Pahokee, Florida, Byrd won the starting cornerback job by November. He was wrapping up an impressive rookie campaign when in the third quarter of the season finale against rival North Carolina, he tore his right ACL.

The first knee injury was probably the easiest, because for an optimist like Byrd, who had never been seriously injured, it was easier to find hope in the unknown.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Byrd
AP Photo/Tomasso DeRosaNC State's Jarvis Byrd was granted a sixth year of eligibility because of multiple knee injuries.
The rehab was slower than Byrd expected, but mostly, he remained upbeat. He accepted a redshirt for the 2010 season, with his sights set on a big 2011.

The ACL healed, but Byrd's psyche took longer. As he began his comeback, he was reluctant to make sharp cuts and test the knee. Looking back, that was his big mistake.

"When I had to break on the right [knee], I was scared to do it," Byrd said. "And I was just walking back to the huddle [in a summer 7-on-7 drill] when I tore my left ACL. It just popped."

The second one was the hardest, because Byrd realized how much he had to lose, how far he'd have to go and how long he'd be away from the game he loved. So much of the process of rebuilding the knee was familiar, but his optimism was muted.

"I had doubts about coming back," Byrd said. "But I had a bigger goal and purpose to overcome the second one. I felt like I was doing it for my team the second time around instead of myself. That gave me a new drive to overcome the second injury."

By the start of the 2012 season, he was back on the field, but again, his season ended early after he suffered a thigh injury against Virginia.

Back home, friends and family tried to offer encouragement, but that only hurt more. Byrd's family was struggling financially and visits were rare. He felt alone and thought it might be time to go home to Pahokee. Byrd called a friend who played for Florida Atlantic and asked about transferring, but his teammates at NC State weren't ready to say goodbye.

"I had a great group of friends here and those guys helped me get through it," Byrd said. "Anything I needed, they provided. Without them, I never would've made it."

By the time the 2013 season began, the darkest times seemed a distant memory, and Byrd, who switched from corner to safety, was once again a starter and a key member of first-year coach Doeren's new defensive scheme. Through four games, it looked like Byrd's story might have a happy ending.




On Oct. 5, game day against Wake Forest, the usually exuberant Byrd was down. He had friends on the Demon Deacons' sideline, which should've been enough to make it a big game, but he felt flat.

"I wasn't myself," Byrd said. "The sun was draining my energy, the turf was hot. Then I got a cheap shot on my leg and tore my left ACL again."

That should've been the end for Byrd. He had spent five years at NC State and been named a starter three times but played in just 14 games. He had never finished a season healthy.

Byrd told his family and coaches his career was over and told himself he was out of chances. But deep down, he couldn't believe it.

"I wasn't ready to be done," he said. "I went home and was thinking about it the whole time. I couldn't focus on school, on life in general. I was thinking about football all day long."

He had already gone to his senior banquet and said his goodbyes. He put off starting rehab following knee surgery because there was no rush to get back.

He checked in with teammates, who raved about how much stronger the team looked this season, and Byrd realized he didn't want to miss out. He went to Doeren and asked what it would take to get a sixth year of eligibility -- a rare exception that must be granted by the NCAA.

If Byrd wanted, he could return as a graduate assistant, Doeren said. He could still be around the team, help as a coach.

"But I was still thinking about football," Byrd said.

He applied for an appeal, and this spring, the NCAA accepted. He had one more shot to finish his career healthy. And so the process began again.

There were 5 a.m. wake-up calls to get to rehab and long days in the training room, film room and weight room. And there were plenty of people who wondered why he was doing all this in the first place.

[+] EnlargeDave Doeren
Lance King/Getty ImagesDave Doeren gave Byrd jersey No. 1, a gesture representative of his leadership on the team.
"Some guys back home were like, 'What do you have to prove? [NFL] teams aren't looking at you anymore,' " Byrd said. "But for me, it's bigger than that. I'm not thinking about the NFL. I'm thinking about Jarvis Byrd and NC State and trying to get us back on the right track.

"If I'm able to push these guys and we're able to have a good year, I'll be happy. If I can play a whole season and walk out on senior day with my parents by my side, and I can walk out there healthy -- I've never had a healthy season -- I'm perfectly fine with that. I can live with myself without regrets and say I did what I wanted to do."

Byrd spent the spring game on the sideline, drawing up plays and coaching his younger teammates. But just putting on the jersey again felt good. The reluctance that followed past surgeries evaporated. Now, he had nothing to lose.

"I came back the first time and was cautious. The second time, it was like, 'If I get hurt again I may not have a shot,' " Byrd said. "Now, I don't care. I'm giving it all I've got. I just want to get back out there and play the game like I did when I was 6 years old. I want to play for the love of the game."

The process has been challenging. Byrd knows the pain is around each corner. During camp, his knee would swell after a few straight days of practice and he'd be relegated to the sideline again. During one practice, he turned sharply and heard a pop in his knee. He knew that it was simply scar tissue breaking up, but the fear still overwhelmed him. He has had to learn to fight through that fear.

There are no guarantees this season. Doeren said he's confident Byrd will contribute in some way. Byrd said he may not play the first few weeks, but trainers have told him he'll be full-go by the time ACC play begins at the end of September.

If his only impact this season is occasional special teams work, he said that's OK. If he can win a starting job for the fourth time, that will be even better. If he hurts the knee again and the dream ends without warning -- well, Byrd has been through that before.

"If it doesn't work out, I'll be OK with it. I gave it another shot," he said. "I never stopped going after what I really wanted. If I hadn't gone for that sixth year, I wouldn't have been OK with that. I would've always had that on my mind."

However Byrd's story ends isn't important. His teammates have seen the chapters written, one agonizing step at a time, and no matter what happens this season, that will have been his legacy at NC State. That's his real impact. That's why he'll be wearing No. 1 this season.

"I can live with myself without regrets," Byrd said. "I did what I wanted to do."
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Perhaps the second-most popular question about this season’s edition of Texas A&M -- after the obligatory “What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?” -- centers around the Aggies’ defense.

Will they be better? And if so, by how much?

After a disastrous 2013, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder is confident that improvement is on the horizon. He might not flatly state it, but witness the bounce in his step at practice, the energy in his voice and it’s easy to surmise that Snyder is looking forward to Year 3 in Aggieland.

[+] EnlargeMark Snyder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMark Snyder's defense struggled last season, particularly against the run, ranking 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game.
“If Coach Snyder's in a good mood, I feel like everyone's in a good mood,” middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “He watches [the video], diagnoses it more than anyone else so if he's happy, I feel like we're doing something right.”

His unit’s first test, which comes against No. 9 South Carolina and a stout running game powered by one of the nation’s best running backs, Mike Davis, is first on the horizon. Stopping the run was one of the Aggies’ biggest challenges last year, as they ranked last in the SEC and 110th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (222.31).

Snyder isn’t interested in talking up expectations or why he might be confident No. 21 Texas A&M can improve in that area.

“Well, we’ll see when we get there,” Snyder said. “Talk is cheap. We’ll all know that night at the end of the game.”

Indeed they will.

No matter the measure, the Aggies were bad on defense last year. They were last in the SEC in yards allowed per game (475.8), yards per play (6.36), yards per carry (5.38), first downs allowed per game (23.4) and red zone efficiency (71.4 percent) in addition to the aforementioned run defense. In every one of those categories, they were worse than 100th nationally.

“We weren't playing Snyder defense,” senior cornerback Deshazor Everett said last month. “He sets us up to make plays. All we have to do is do what he tells us to, and we weren't doing that last year. So if we come back this year and we're doing what we did this spring, we're going to be a good defense.”

Youth and inexperience were the heart of the issues for the Aggies. Difficulties the defense had included simply getting lined up correctly, fitting the correct gaps and identifying their correct assignments. Earlier this month linebackers coach Mark Hagen called the difference “night and day” when it comes to the defense’s communication and ability to accomplish the basics.

Whether that will translate to the field when the Aggies take on a South Carolina team that averaged 198.4 rushing yards per game last season remains to be seen. The players seem optimistic, though.

“It’s been a completely different mentality,” junior defensive end Julien Obioha said. “Last year was unacceptable. There’s just been so much growth in the last year and so much growth in leadership.”

Added speed and athleticism are among the sources of optimism for the Aggies. So is increased depth, particularly along the defensive line. The 2014 recruiting class included six defensive linemen, four of whom are on the initial two-deep and will see action early, including highly regarded defensive end recruit Myles Garrett, the No. 4 overall player in last year’s class.

Snyder is careful not to heap too much praise on Garrett, but the buzz surrounding training camp made it clear that the true freshman will be a factor. Teammates have been more effusive in their praise of Garrett.

"I have never really seen anything like him,” Mastrogiovanni said. “In the weight room he's already one of the top three strongest guys as a true freshman. He's fast, he's long, he gets to the quarterback just about every play. I think teams are going to have a very hard time blocking him this year.”

There will be plenty of youth on the field this season as well. Snyder estimated that seven true freshmen will see the field on Thursday. Last season the Aggies had a dozen freshman (redshirt or true) in their two deep. But unlike last season, the Aggies are able to be strategic with how and where they are placed.

“We'll try to do our best as we sub and get them in that they're in next to an older guy,” Snyder said. “These guys won't go in unless an older guy is beside them. We didn't have that luxury last year, we just had to play them all together.”

The questions linger and won’t stop until the Aggies take the field. And Snyder’s waiting for them to be answered with results instead of words.
After 13 years of home-away-from-home games in Seattle, Washington State Cougars athletic director Bill Moos is pulling the plug on the Cougars' almost-yearly trek over the Cascade Mountains.

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Martin Stadium
Courtesy of WSU AthleticsFans will see a renovated Martin Stadium when they attend games in Pullman, Washington, this season.
Thursday's season-opener against Rutgers at CenturyLink Field will serve as the 12th and final installment of what WSU fans have known simply as The Seattle Game since 2002.

"We're going to discontinue it," Moos said. "Really feel that it's run its course -- served us well over the years."

When the tradition started, it was seen as a way to bring the team closer to a significant number of its fans. Western Washington -- and the Seattle area in particular -- is home to a majority of WSU's alumni base and there was a vocal faction of that group that had long lobbied for a game closer to home. When the Seattle Seahawks opened what was known then as Seahawks Stadium in 2002, the timing made sense.

WSU, ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP poll, beat Nevada 31-7 before a near-sellout crowd of 63,588 in the first football game played at what is now reputed as the loudest venue in the NFL. The game was widely accepted as an overwhelming success.

Over the first eight years, WSU continued to bring in out-of-conference opponents, but interest started to dwindle as the program failed to maintain the success it found early in the decade. The game still regularly drew 45,000-plus -- approximately 10,000 more than Martin Stadium's capacity -- but many believed giving up the distinct home-field advantage in Pullman was no longer worth it.

When Moos arrived in the spring of 2010, there wasn't a Seattle game waiting on the schedule.

"When I got to Washington State, I sat down and developed our blueprint that we wanted to follow to move our program in the direction to be successful," Moos said. "We had all kinds of things we wanted to accomplish, but we didn't have any [major] revenue streams."

He saw returning to Seattle in 2011 as one way to change that -- and added a twist. No longer would the Cougars play an early-season nonconference game in Seattle, instead Moos scheduled midseason conference games against Oregon and Oregon State. He knew that by playing the Oregon schools there, WSU was essentially forfeiting home games, but the price was right and WSU needed the money. Plus, the location wasn't going to affect the outcome considering how bad the Cougars were at the time.

"The money we made playing Oregon in 2012 [when the attendance was 60,929] was roughly twice the net revenue that we would have made playing at home in front of a packed house in Martin Stadium," Moos said. "It served its purpose -- it generated funds for us and kind of kick-started what our plans were."

As things progressed, other revenue streams developed. Thanks to network television contracts and the debut of the Pac-12 Network, money was no longer as tight.

"We were able to invest the extra monies that we were realizing from [the Seattle games and TV contracts] to help build $130 million worth of facilities for the football program and Martin Stadium," Moos said. "We've got enthusiasm now. We've got energy. I think we've done a good job of creating exposure in the western side of the state -- which we'll continue to do -- we’re just not going to bring a football game over anymore.

"It just felt like it was time to bring everything home."

When the Cougars play their Pullman-opener on Sept. 13 against Portland State, fans will be greeted by a finished product. In the spring, construction was completed on a $61 million football operations building which encloses the west end zone, and more recently a new brick finish at the base of the stands surrounding the field was installed along with a ribbon board for messaging atop the north stands.

"It certainly isn't the largest stadium, but I think it's one of the nicest and really I think is inviting and complements our campus," Moos said.

Moos has told other schools Seattle is no longer on the table for a potential home-and-home series. He turned down an offer from Oklahoma State -- OSU played in Seattle in 2008 and WSU went to Stillwater in 2010 -- because the Cowboys were only interested if the WSU home game was again in Seattle.

Largely as a result of the game being played on a Thursday this year, the final Seattle game will also be the least attended.

"I think I'd be happy if we have 30,000 with what the numbers are now," Moos said.

As part of the home-and-home contract that will also send WSU to New Jersey next year, Rutgers would only commit to a weekday road game, citing travel concerns. Moos said WSU wanted to play Rutgers in Pullman on a Saturday and play the Seattle game midseason, like the past few years, but it just didn't work out. He acknowledged that a Thursday night game in Seattle is less than ideal -- primarily because it'll prevent students, who have begun classes, from attending -- but thought playing on the first big night of college football on national television was a decent-enough consolation.

These SEC openers are getting pretty routine for Clemson. The past two years, the Tigers started the season with wins against Auburn and Georgia. On Saturday, they face the Bulldogs again, this time in Athens, Georgia. Who has the edge? SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson debate.

Andrea Adelson: In the buildup to this game, nobody is giving Clemson a shot to win. I find that amusing, considering Georgia's reputation to underachieve. I know that Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are gone, but the Tigers bring back several key players on defense -- including All-American Vic Beasley. Nobody wants to hear that since offenses generate all the headlines. And, well, Georgia has Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley coming back. But the Bulldogs have their own issues headed into this game. So tell me, Edward, why is Georgia such a clear-cut favorite?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia running back Todd Gurley is healthy and primed for a big junior season.
Edward Aschoff: Clemson's defense got better last season, but Georgia's offense will be too much for the Tigers between the hedges. This is an offense that returns most of the pieces to an offense that notched 484.2 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play in 2013. Yes, record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason knows the offense backward and forward. He might not have the resume Murray had, but he's run the offense in practice over and over and over for years. He has great chemistry with that stacked receiving corps, has a solid offensive line to protect him and is working with one of the deepest running games in the country.

Mason doesn't have to be perfect on Saturday, he just has to find his targets. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are dealing with injuries, but Chris Conley, who led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards last season, has the potential to be one of the SEC's best this fall. He's tough enough to make plays over the middle and is a deep-play threat. Michael Bennett is tough and catches everything thrown this way, and the Bulldogs won't hesitate to use Gurley and Keith Marshall more in the passing game.

Speaking of Marshall, he's cutting and sprinting like he did before last season's knee injury, so that doesn't bode well for Clemson's defense, either.

While the Bulldogs will be able to throw, run and score for days, I do have concerns about the defense, especially that secondary. But what should help make up for the shortcomings is the nation's best linebacker group. Watch out for Leonard Floyd. He should have a breakout year and could be the SEC's best pass-rusher.

The game is also in Athens, where Georgia has lost just two games since the start of the 2011 season.

AA: Georgia definitely has the edge on offense. Nobody is going to argue that. Clemson players have repeatedly praised Gurley, who had a monster game against the Tigers a year ago with 154 yards and two touchdowns. But the running game seems to be the only real certainty on the offense. If Mitchell and Scott-Wesley don't play, who becomes the home-run threat to stretch the field? That is one key aspect in this game that cannot be overlooked. Gurley and Marshall are fantastic. But if Clemson clogs the box and slows them down, does Mason have enough playmakers around him to keep the Tigers honest?

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson QB Cole Stoudt will look to throw often to his experienced receiving corps against Georgia.
Let's not forget, Clemson made a living in the opposing team's backfield a season ago, leading the nation in tackles for loss (122). The D had four sacks and five tackles for loss a year ago against the Bulldogs. Players who accounted for 96.5 of those TFLs return in 2014. When you are the underdog, going on the road to open the season, surely you want to be able to rely on a strong defense to help set the tone -- especially at the outset. Clemson has the ability to do that in this matchup given the return of guys such as Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.

The secondary should be a concern for Georgia. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a senior with game experience (he owns the school record for single-game completion percentage) and years spent learning the Chad Morris offense. Freshman Deshaun Watson should throw a nice curve into the offensive mix as well, something not even new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can properly anticipate. Pruitt may have flustered the Clemson offense a year ago when he was at Florida State, but he has new personnel to coach and new personnel to plan for on the other side.

Now that we laid out our points, what is your prediction and why?

EA: I think this one will be tight until the end, with Georgia pulling away, 31-24. You might question Georgia's deep-play ability, but Conley will come up with the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth before Georgia's defense makes a last-minute stop. I'm going out on a limb to say Floyd will be a major part of that final defensive drive for the Bulldogs.

AA: I am going with the upset in this one. I think Clemson's defense will make a huge difference, forcing several turnovers. Stoudt, Watson and the Clemson receivers will make their names known against a patchwork secondary. Clemson wins, 28-27.

LSU-Wisconsin primer

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
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For more than a decade, no FBS programs have experienced more success in out-of-conference games during the regular season than LSU and Wisconsin -- programs that open the season against one another on Saturday in Houston.

LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).

Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.

Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU may need Anthony Jennings (10) and Brandon Harris (6) to have success against Wisconsin.
Key to victory for LSU: With a talented backfield and experienced offensive line, the Tigers figure to run the ball effectively against a retooled Wisconsin defensive front. But it will be up to LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris to do just enough with the pass to prevent the Badgers from crowding the box to defend the run. Regardless of which quarterback is on the field, he will have either little or no college experience. If the Tigers throw the ball as ineffectively as Jennings did in his lone start -- LSU’s 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa, where he was 7-for-19 for 82 yards, no touchdowns and one interception -- it might become difficult to move the ball even against an inexperienced Wisconsin defense.

Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.

Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.

What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.

What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.
Karlos WilliamsJeff Gammons/Getty ImagesFlorida State's Karlos Williams has upgraded his game with a color-coded notebook.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Karlos Williams walked into the room, briefly introduced himself and within seconds was knee deep in offensive football parlance.

“There are different calls, maybe on the same play. On the front side I might be a free release to the flat with no blocker responsibility,” explained Williams, while probably holding a quiet suspicion his breakdown was hardly resonating with the rest of the room. “If you’re on the backside you might have a leak, or you may just be in protection, period.”

Eighteen months ago, Williams wouldn’t have been nearly as articulate or intuitive about the game of football. He would have talked just as much -- only Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher rivals the senior running back in words per minute -- but the conversation would not have been as in depth, because he wasn’t atop the depth chart.

Fast forward to days before the 2014 opener and Williams will be making his second career start. With him on the plane to Texas will be his jersey, playbook and an 8.5 x 11-inch green, college ruled notebook.

“Always, always” is the notebook tucked under his arm, Williams said.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams' notebook
Jared Shanker/ESPNThese notebooks have come in pretty handy for Karlos Williams during his time at FSU.
It is always with him now, but began only during spring practice in 2013, shortly after then-defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt arrived and demanded Williams pipe down and put pen to paper. Williams never took notes -- in class or team meetings -- until Pruitt ordered Williams to start writing things down.

Williams, formerly a safety and linebacker, played in 25 of his first 26 games at Florida State but did not crack the starting lineup until the 2012 ACC championship and even then it was due to an injury. He wasn’t picking up the little details in Florida State’s defensive scheme. He wasn’t too concerned about learning them either.

“I was very immature when I first got here. I didn’t understand the power of preparation,” Williams said. “I thought you just went out there and did it. I saw Nick Moody play safety, Terrance Parks, Terrence Brooks, Lamarcus Joyner do it and I said ‘How do those guys do it?’ When I look back on it, those guys were sitting in the front row taking notes.”

Williams’ prep status as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound five-star athlete with 4.4 speed caused part of those poor study habits. Williams and his brothers were all superior athletes, and when a player of Williams’ caliber is on the field, high school offenses revert to words instead of plays -- “Just give Karlos the ball.”

Williams played with his brother Vince, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, for two seasons in college. Williams does his best impression of how he looked when he saw how intently Vince took notes -- eyes wide, mouth agape. Vince would take notes without his eyes ever coming off the screen. Williams didn’t understand and didn’t care to figure it out. Vince would rub his eyes to regain focus on the screen while Williams closed his, rolling over to go to sleep.

Pruitt, who has since left for Georgia, expected the same dedication from Williams. Pruitt knew Williams understood the basis of his scheme, but he would continue to toil on the second team if he could not master the defense completely.

“He understood I wasn’t going to be the best if I didn’t take notes. I got the big picture but the little details could have made me a better DB,” Williams said.

So Williams bought a color-coded notebook. Blue was his notes on an offense’s trips package. Red signified if a team was in a four-wide set. Without even seeing his notebook, Williams hand gestures a flow chart, recalling how on the field his mind would flip between colors if the offense sent a receiver in motion.

By the time the season rolled around, Williams felt indebted to Pruitt, and his junior season might have been the year he saw his most extensive playing time. But early in the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonKarlos Williams rushed 91 times last season for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He was forced back to just the fundamentals of the game, and he once again was straining his eyes on the big picture. Initially, he thought running back was simple: get the ball and follow your block. But he was blown away again at the details required, the details he watched Devonta Freeman perfect in the hours after practice each day.

It was time for another notebook.

“When I first moved to running back, I focused on what a stretch is and I know what a zone is,” he said, “but I wasn’t focused on the footsteps or how I carried the ball or hat placement.”

That’s what the entirety of fall practice was for, shoring up the minor details that could turn a first down into a touchdown or keep quarterback Jameis Winston upright in pass protection. Williams’ running back notebook is filled with corrections and commendations, audibles and adjustments. If the offense uses a new terminology for a stretch or zone rush, it’s in his notebook.

During Florida State’s first preseason scrimmage, Williams jogged back to the huddle after the first play already with new material for his notebook. He didn’t roll his shoulders carrying out a play-action fake. When Williams opened his notebook, the first line was bulleted and read: “Play-action pass, roll your shoulders.”

This season, Williams is tasked with taking pressure off Winston and the passing game. He said he wouldn’t be prepared for the increased role if not for dedicating himself to writing notes

“It takes initiative to write something down, writing down what you can understand without every word, writing what you need to hear,” Williams said. “It helped me through camp.

“… I learned the lesson the hard way, which is the best way. It paid off for me.”
Myles JackAP Photo/Mark J. Terrill"At first it was flattering," said UCLA dual-threat Myles Jack. "Now it's getting to be a little overbearing."

By the time the 2014 season has come to an end, UCLA's Myles Jack will have tallied 20 sacks and eight interceptions, run for 25 touchdowns, won a Heisman, a national championship, dropped a Grammy-winning album, rescued 17 kittens from trees, cracked Kryptos and will have single-handedly brought balance to the force. The chosen one, he is.

What? Too much? You wouldn't think so the way the national media has bowed at the altar of this dual-threat sophomore.

No doubt about it, America is jacked up for Jack. He's a full-time linebacker, a part-time running back and college football's preseason darling. And the expectations on the second-year player have proliferated without him playing a snap since UCLA's Sun Bowl victory (to be fair, he did have a pick-six in that game).

"It's impossible not to be aware of it," Jack said. "I won't lie. I can try to hide from it all I want. But I know it's there. I'm aware of it for sure. But I can't let that change me. I can't put pressure on myself. Football is a game. That's how I treat it. I don't make it anything more than that. I'm trying to have fun with it all.

"At first it was flattering. Now it's getting to be a little overbearing. I can't wait to get the season underway and get all of the talk out of the way. I'm ready to play. Hopefully it will simmer down. But it probably won't."

In other words, slow your roll.

Jack is on almost every preseason All-America team (including ESPN.com's), even though we haven't seen him play a game without first-round draft pick Anthony Barr, who occupied a lot of attention last year, opposite him. He's been dubbed a Heisman darkhorse and a Heisman favorite, even though it's a quarterback-driven award and he hasn't thrown a single pass in his collegiate career (not yet, anyway, but he's only a sophomore).

[+] EnlargeMyles Jack
Harry How/Getty ImagesLinebacker Myles Jack rushed for four touchdowns against Washington last season.
"I think he's handled it extremely well," said UCLA coach Jim Mora. "He hasn't changed a bit. He's never going to be able to live up to those expectations. It's almost impossible. All we want from Myles is to be the very best Myles Jack he can be every day. If he can do that, that's good enough for me."

Jack is a budding superstar. There's no denying it. And he captured national imaginations last year when he switched to the offensive side of the ball and busted out with a 120-yard rushing performance (including a 66-yard touchdown) in a 31-26 win in Tucson. A week later he washed it down with four rushing touchdowns at home against Washington.

Twitter -- and America -- had no idea what hit them.

"I'm thankful for the appreciation," Jack said. "I appreciate people admiring what you do. I think that's really cool. All the extra stuff and the expectations, I can't really control any of that."

Adding thermite to the discussion is the fact that UCLA is a top-10 team headlined by SI cover boy Brett Hundley. The Bruins are the favorites in the Pac-12 South and a trendy pick to win the conference and possibly a national championship.

But here's a head-scratcher: What if Jack is just a really, really good cover linebacker? He's not asked to do the sorts of things that Barr was. Barr was a bona-fide pass-rusher, a backfield menace. Jack makes his bones at or above the line of scrimmage, not behind it. What if Jack finishes the year with 85 tackles and four or five picks and the occasional rushing touchdown?

"I'm happy with that," Jack said. "That's a solid year for me."

Will the hype machine be happy with that? "Probably not."

Right now, much of Jack's hype is based on potential. One UCLA coach recently told the Pac-12 blog that Jack has "done things on a football field I didn't know were possible." But contrast that to the hype of Hundley -- a three-year starter who has been a character guy and led his team to a South Division championship. Hundley has earned his hype. Jack doesn't believe he has.

"Not yet, I don't think so," Jack said. "I've had one season. I feel like I've gotten better. And I had a great first season. But my mindset is that that season is over. If I don't do anything year, no one will care about what I did my first year. I won't even care what I did my freshman year. My goal is to get better and have a better sophomore year."

Mora does his best to shield his players from the outside noise. But he also understands where the Jack craze is coming from.

"Whether he's earned this attention isn't for me to decide," Mora said. "It is what it is. Personally, I think all hype is overblown myself. But he's the first player in conference history -- maybe national history -- to win offensive and defensive freshman of the year. With that comes some hype."

No one is looking to spit on anyone's Cheerios. No one is being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. Jack himself admits a lot of what's been written and said about him -- while a boost to his ego -- is simply overblown.

"I'm not looking for any encores," he said. "I've worked really hard this offseason. Right now, all I can do is go out on the field and show people how hard I've worked. And hopefully we'll win. Because at the end of the day that's the most important thing. My only expectation is to play better than I did last year."

That, seems fair.
Bob StoopsKevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsBob Stoops hasn't been shy about publicly questioning the perceived dominance of the SEC.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Bob Stoops' former players swear he hasn't changed.

Instead, the rest of us are just getting to know Oklahoma's head football coach a little better.

The last year and a half, college football's third longest-tenured coach -- Stoops moved up a spot after rival Mack Brown resigned -- has become a walking, talking national newsmaker.

But his ex-players say he's always spoken his mind to them. Now, he's just speaking his mind to everyone else, too.

"Coach is the same person," said Dusty Dvoracek, who was an All-Big 12 defensive tackle for the Sooners in 2003 and 2005. "But like anything else, once you've established yourself, and had as much success as he'd had, naturally your guard comes down a little bit. I don't think it was always the case for him, but now he feels comfortable and confident to speak his mind. He's garnered enough credibility that when he gets asked questions he can answer them honestly."

Stoops isn't quite as loquacious as his mentor and godfather of his twin boys, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who just this week cracked that he hopes fans don't egg a banner of his likeness if this season goes badly for the Gamecocks.

But Stoops also has some Spurrier in him. And of late, that side has surfaced in the public domain more and more.

"You're seeing that side of Coach more than ever before," Dvoracek said. "When you've been in the profession that long, you get to a point where you can tell it how it is, and not worry about the fallout. Depending of what side of the fence you're on, you might like it and you might not. But he's not afraid to be honest."

The southern side of that fence most definitely has not liked it.

More than any other figure in college football, Stoops has taken on the SEC hype machine head on. No holds barred. Like Rooster Cogburn charging into a posse, Stoops rides alone in daring to proclaim what his colleagues might think, yet don't say.

"Oh yeah, he can bristle," said former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, who has never himself been accused of holding back. "Bob says what he feels. I admire that about him. That's a good quality. I always reacted the same way. I never cared what people thought about my opinion. Bob is that way, too .... and when you're the coach at Oklahoma, you carry a megaphone. You reach everybody."

Like Switzer, Stoops has utilized that megaphone in recent months.

In May 2013, he used the word "propaganda" while taking aim at the bottom half of the SEC, which Stoops correctly pointed out had gone winless the season before against the top half of the league.

A few months later, he questioned the reputation of SEC defenses, which were having difficulty slowing down Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and Johnny Manziel.

"Funny how people can't play defense," Stoops said then, "when they have pro-style quarterbacks over there ... which we've had."

When the Sooners were paired with the Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, virtually everyone from College Station, Texas, to Gainesville, Florida, was eager to see Stoops' comeuppance. Instead, he delivered another blow to SEC pride, toppling -- in his words -- "the big, bad wolf" 45-31.

"Coach always let our football do the talking for us," said former Oklahoma safety Roy Williams, the 2001 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. "But sometimes, enough is enough. The media pumps up the big, bad SEC as some unstoppable force; that they were going to kick our butt. But that didn't happen. Look, we're not whipping boys in Oklahoma. We're a force to be reckoned with, too, and that was proven."

With his credibility cemented, Stoops hasn't backed off.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops and Nick Saban
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertBob Stoops wasn't sympathetic to Nick Saban's suggestion that he couldn't get the Crimson Tide motivated in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
This summer, he tagged Texas A&M for all the "toughies" -- Lamar, Rice, SMU and Louisiana-Monroe -- on its nonconference schedule. And when Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested he couldn't get his team up to play in the "consolation" Sugar Bowl, Stoops fired right back.

"We've played in a bunch of national championship games, right?" he said. "So that means I've got a built-in excuse the next time we don't play for a national championship?"

Switzer especially enjoyed that retort.

"I laughed when I heard that," he said. "I understood what [Stoops] meant. It doesn't matter what game it is, you have to be ready to go play. They outcoached Alabama and they outplayed Alabama."

For the coup de grace, after being introduced as "the man who single-handedly shut up the SEC" during a preseason booster event, Stoops noted he's only been "stating facts."

"Every now and then," he said, "a few things need to be pointed out."

Days later, he was given the option to back down from his comments questioning SEC depth, SEC defenses, SEC scheduling and SEC motivation in games that don't decide national titles. He didn't budge.

"Oh, get over it," Stoops said. "Again, where am I lying?"

There's an obvious means to an end to Stoops' newfound role of Big 12 advocate. In college football, perception is reality, especially once 13 people will arbitrarily be determining who gets included in the four-team playoff.

But Stoops' loosened public persona isn't all business. And it hasn't been limited to needling the SEC.

The same Dallas hotel that hosted Big 12 media days was also home to a convention for Mary Kay, of which Stoops' wife, Carol, is a national director. While she gave a TV interview, Stoops purposely photo-bombed the shot. Twice.

Then, at the end of two-a-days, Stoops came rolling into practice on the Sooner Schooner and passed out frozen treats to the players while wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a "RUF/NEK" shotgun.

"Coach is the same," Williams said. "But when you're a young coach, you have to keep your head down and prove yourself. When you've won a lot of games, and you have the job security ... of course, you become more comfortable. Maybe that all comes with age, too. When you get to a certain point, you can say, ‘I'm going to let my hair down' in front of people a little bit more."

J.D. Runnels, who once was the lead blocker for Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma, agreed that age, success and tenure have contributed to Stoops' less guarded public approach. But Runnels believes the return of Stoops' brother, Mike, to the coaching staff has eased Stoops' mind, too.

"Mike is Bob's enforcer," Runnels said. "He takes some of that pressure off Bob. That's less micromanaging Bob has to do."

Whatever the reason, the rest of the world seems to be getting to know the real Stoops. The one who enjoys having fun. The one who says what he thinks. The one his former players say has always been there.

"He's always had the willingness to tell it how it is," Dvoracek said. "That was one of the things that stuck out to me when he recruited me.

"The players, we've always seen that. Now you're starting to see that shine through on the other side, too."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- At the beginning of this week, Florida State was still celebrating the hashtag #Dallas2Dallas. It's been the motto all offseason for a team that opens its season in the home of the Dallas Cowboys, the same place the first College Football Playoff championship will be held. It's even printed on the athletic department's Cowboys Classic flyer.

By the end of the day Monday, the trending topic was now taboo. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher put the kibosh on the hashtag during a team meeting before practice.

Earlier Monday, I asked Fisher if the #Dallas2Dallas promotions set Florida State up for a championship-or-bust season in Tallahassee, if anything short of a return trip to Jerry World would be deemed disappointing.

[+] EnlargeDallas2Dallas
Jared Shanker/ESPNDallas2Dallas is even printed on the athletic department's Cowboys Classic flyer.
"I'm not worried about the national championship. I'm worried about playing well," he said. "Our goal is to be in the national championship every year. I want this team to be the best it can be, play as good as it can and we'll live with the results.

That's often not how the fans -- at least the most vocal -- and the media -- at least the most vocal -- operate, though. If you believe Las Vegas, the Seminoles are the slight favorite to win the national title. If you believe the polls, the Seminoles are the prohibitive favorite, garnering all but nine of the first-place preseason ballots in the two polls combined.

But with all of the preseason hype -- magazine covers, double-digit June point spreads and draft experts salivating at a roster stocked with NFL talent, none greater than at quarterback -- the 2014 season, like it or not, will be defined by a north Texas city more than 800 miles west of the Florida capital.

I'm not saying it is fair. It's not. It's irresponsible to expect perfection from a team, but that's the college football world where we reside. Fisher acknowledged being a preseason No. 1 is much different now than it was 20 years ago. Hours after the Seminoles hoisted the crystal ball in January, the train championing Florida State's repeat chances already left its Pasadena station.

Last month, Nick Saban was peppered with questions about Alabama's consecutive losses to end the season. Forget the Crimson Tide were a missed field goal from potentially playing for another national championship, there was the palpable sense that 11-2 was not good enough in Tuscaloosa, and the identity of the program, which has won three of the last five BCS titles, needed to be reshaped.

At ACC media days in July, Fisher waxed nostalgic about the era pre-dating the BCS and Bowl Coalition, when there was not always a guarantee No. 1 would play No. 2 to crown a definitive champion. "It mattered if you won the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl or the Rose Bowl, you had a great year," he said. "Now, we went 12-2 and won the Orange Bowl and won our first ACC [championship in 2012], we act like it's not a big deal."

Fisher said without that 2012 season, the national championship wasn't possible. But now Florida State is among the elite, the program some believe is poised to earn the dynasty distinction. That top tier, for example Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma (Bob Stoops has dealt with unreasonable expectations for years) to name a few, are judged by national titles.

What Florida State does have is a locker room that proved in 2013 it could isolate itself from outsiders. Over the last few days, Fisher has asked his team not to "eat the cheese," his way of telling his players to sniff out the bait, to not buy into the hype. He said he feels "really good" about how his team has received the message, and he will continue to drill it in their heads.

"We're just going to take it one day at a time, one game at a time and eventually we'll reach Dallas. That's how he told us to approach it," defensive lineman Derrick Mitchell said.

Added senior Christian Green: "Us as players, we know it's a grind every day. We know that this week is our first game and we have to focus on Oklahoma State."

When I asked Fisher about #Dallas2Dallas, he smiled and joked the Seminoles will be in Dallas on Thursday. So many others have already booked their return.

Stats that matter: North Texas-Texas

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
9:00
AM ET
Are you ready for some numbers? It's time once again for our weekly stat digs, in which we team with ESPN Stats and Info to find the numbers that matter most for the Longhorns and their next opponent. Here are the stats to remember going into Texas’ season opener against North Texas (7 p.m. CT, Longhorn Network).

No. 1: 101.6

Charlie Strong admitted on the Big 12 coaches' teleconference Monday there's one number he cares about (after the final score) when he's handed the postgame stat sheet: Rushing yards allowed.

His defense at Louisville led FBS in run defense last season, allowing just 81.5 yards per game. Texas gave up an average of 183.1 rushing yards per game a year ago. You better believe Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford intend to close that 101.6-yard gap as much as possible in 2014.

In the past four years, only one Big 12 defense has given up fewer than 100 rushing yards per game: The 2011 Longhorns, who held teams to 96.2 yards per game on the ground.

For what it's worth, and maybe not much, Georgia's defense did hold North Texas to 7 total rushing yards on 25 attempts last year.

No. 2: 123

We know very little about North Texas starting quarterback Josh Greer, a juco transfer who spent 2012 at UAB and 2013 at Navarro College. He's seen as a guy who has some similar traits to the successful guy he replaces, Derek Thompson, and he was a 63.5-percent passer at Navarro. He's a bit of an unknown otherwise.

But we do know he'll be protected by an offensive line that, on paper, looks impressive with 123 career starts among the five starters. Cyril Lemon, a first-team All-CUSA guard last year, moves from right tackle and has 37 career starts. He's one of four senior starters along with Mason Y'Barbo (37 starts), Antonio Johnson (34) and Shawn McKinney (2).

Texas players think they have the best defensive line in the Big 12, if not the nation. Those boasts will be put to the test Saturday as they try to rattle a QB making his first college start.

No. 3: 434

When you talk about David Ash's best games as Texas' starting quarterback, his 2013 season opener against New Mexico State doesn't usually get brought up. But in his only compete game of that injury-wrecked season, Ash accounted for 434 total yards (343 passing, 91 rushing) and offered an appealing glimpse of what he might've been able to do had he stayed healthy.

Texas struggled to get rolling until late in the second quarter, but Ash got the offense to open up from there. He threw for four touchdowns, busted off a 55-yard touchdown scramble and showed poise in the second half to guide an offense that put up a school-record 715 total yards.

North Texas should be a better foe than NMSU, which went on to finish 2-10 with the fourth-worst scoring defense in the country. But will we see a version of Ash that's as good or better than the one that showed up in last year's opener?

Three more to remember

Eight: The number of kicks North Texas blocked last season, most in FBS. Four were blocked punts. Against Georgia last year, UNT blocked a punt for TD and also returned a kickoff for a TD.

Two: North Texas coach Dan McCarney coached the defensive line on Strong's Florida defenses for two seasons, in 2008 and 2009.

35-21: The score of North Texas' last game against a Big 12 program, a loss at Kansas State in 2012. UNT is 7-57 all-time against the Big 12 but 0-9 in the past decade.

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