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Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about it. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in the 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be a huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or less points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
AM ET
video 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.

Wake Forest season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
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video 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons:

Key returners: WR Tyree Harris, LB Brandon Chubb, SS Ryan Janvion, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Merrill Noel, P Alexander Kinal, K Chad Hedlund

Key losses: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, WR Michael Campanaro, DT Nikita Whitlock, LB Mike Olson

Instant impact newcomer: First-year coach Dave Clawson hopes the biggest impact comes from freshman John Wolford, who was recently named the Demon Deacons’ starting quarterback. Wolford had a solid offer sheet coming out of high school, as Mississippi State and Penn State both recruited the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Jacksonville, Florida, native. Clawson ideally won’t have to ask too much of his quarterback, but he will need to find a viable running back to ease the pressure off Wolford.

[+] EnlargeKevin Johnson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWake Forest will rely on its veteran players this season, including senior cornerback Kevin Johnson.
Most important 2014 games: Aug. 28 at Louisiana-Monroe, Nov. 15 at NC State, Nov. 29 at Duke

Projected win percentage: 30 percent

Over/under Vegas odds:

Best-case scenario for 2014: Clawson knows he has a serious rebuilding project at Wake Forest, and he will not be judged on how the Demon Deacons fare in his inaugural season. There is an opportunity for a few early wins before conference play begins, though. The opener against Louisiana-Monroe won’t be easy, as the Warhawks have been a solid Sun Belt team of late. But Wake Forest also plays Gardner-Webb and Army in the nonconference. If Wake can get to three wins and Wolford shows promise, this will be a good first season for Clawson.

Worst-case scenario: No one would be shocked if the Demon Deacons did not pick up a single win, which would mean they had an ugly loss to Gardner-Webb. Even if Wake Forest goes winless, Clawson is playing for the future. If Wolford doesn’t progress throughout the season, that could be the biggest setback to Wake’s future.

They said it: “We will try and redshirt players, but if a freshman gives us the best chance to win, we’re going to play him. It’s not fair to the juniors and the seniors in the program to make a decision based on what’s best five years from now. He gives us the best chance to win, so we will now prepare him as our starting quarterback.” -- Clawson

2014 ESPN College Football Draft

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:07
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com college football experts as they compete to build the best college football team via a live, 10-round snake draft.

Brad Edwards, Heather Dinich, Tom Luginbill and Mark Schlabach will each make 10 picks -- 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 O-line unit, 1 D-line unit, 1 LB unit and 1 DB unit -- and put together their dream team from among college football's elite. Who will draft the best squad? Join us from 12-2 p.m. ET to find out. Contribute your thoughts and questions and we'll post as many as we can. See you there!
 

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:05
AM ET
With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette have been waiting for this opportunity since well before they became roommates at LSU this summer.

With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.
“We’ve talked about this since before we got here, just dreaming it up, texting all the time during the season and hearing about him breaking every record and doing this and that,” Harris said of Fournette, the only player ever to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. “So nothing surprises me, what he does.”

LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.

You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.

“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”

And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.

Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”

In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.

He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.

“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”

In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.

“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”

That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.

Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.

Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.

“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”

Preseason All-Big 12 team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
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Today, ESPN.com released its preseason All-American team. Before Big 12 media days, we released our individual preseason All-Big 12 ballots. But to pair with the All-American team, we debated, argued and eventually settled on one Big 12 blog, consensus preseason All-Big 12 team.

Here we go:

Offense

QB: Bryce Petty, Baylor
Easy choice. Petty is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after he threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three picks. He should be even better in Year 2 as a starter.

RB: Johnathan Gray, Texas
Malcolm Brown finished strong in place of Gray the past season, but there’s a reason Gray was Texas’ No. 1 back before he suffered an Achilles injury. Gray is healthy again, which gives Texas the best one-two punch at running back in the league.

RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor
Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back the past season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing. He’s the featured back now and could wind up the league’s top rusher.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett was literally uncoverable at times last year. Just ask Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan, which surrendered a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns to Lockett. With Jake Waters settled in at quarterback, Lockett could put up even bigger numbers in 2014.

WR: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Goodley might have been the most improved player in the league the past season. He was also one of the most dominant, with 1,339 receiving yards and a national-best five catches of 60 yards or more.

TE: E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
With Jace Amaro gone, Bibbs takes over as the top receiving tight end threat in the league. Only Amaro had more catches and yards than Bibbs among Big 12 tight ends the past season.

OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor
With Drango in the lineup, Petty was sacked only eight times through the Bears’ first nine games last year. After Drango was sidelined with a back injury, Petty was sacked nine times in Baylor’s last four games. Suffice it to say, Petty is glad to have Drango back protecting his blindside.

OG: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders previously had plans to move Clark inside to guard, but they still have him manning left tackle this season. Whether he stays at the bookend or slides to guard, Clark is one of the most dominating offensive linemen in the league.

C: BJ Finney, Kansas State
Finney owns a Big 12-best 39 starts over the past three years. The former walk-on is also a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection and will be the favorite to garner such recognition again as the linchpin of the K-State offensive line.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
Whitehair is capable of manning either guard or tackle, but the Wildcats will be showing their trust in him by asking him to protect Waters’ blindside this season.

OT: Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
Williams is the best piece on the league’s best offensive line, which returns four starters and plenty of capable backups.

AP: Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
Grant finished sixth in the league in receiving yards per game, despite being the third option in Tech’s passing attack the past season. Grant is now the first option in the passing game, as well as an electric playmaker on special teams.

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
The Sooners have never had an All-American kicker before, but they have a strong candidate in Hunnicutt, who converted 24 of 27 field goals the past season.

Defense

DE: Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
In 2013, Mueller finished with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, which were second in the league only to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat. Mueller, who also forced four fumbles, has one of the conference’s best noses for finding the ball.

DT: Chucky Hunter, TCU
The Horned Frogs still had a formidable front the past season, even without Devonte Fields, due in large part to Hunter. TCU won’t have Fields again. But Hunter is back to anchor a defensive line loaded with quality players.

DT: Malcom Brown, Texas
This former blue-chipper broke out the past season with 68 tackles, including 12 for loss. He and Cedric Reed team up to form the best inside-outside defensive line combination in the league.

DE: Cedric Reed, Texas
Reed was third in the Big 12 in 2013 with 10 sacks, fourth with 19 tackles for loss and tied for first with five forced fumbles. He gives the Longhorns a chance to feature the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
When it comes to rushing the passer, there’s no one better in the league. Striker has spent this offseason refining other parts of his game to become a more complete player. But his pass rushing alone makes him one of the top players in the league.

LB: Ben Heeney, Kansas
Heeney was a tackling machine last year for a defense that performed valiantly despite getting little help from its offense. Heeney will get plenty of help from his defense, though, which returns eight other starters.

LB: Bryce Hager, Baylor
Hager has notched 195 tackles over the past two seasons, while twice earning second-team All-Big 12 honors. With Ahmad Dixon and Eddie Lackey gone, he takes over as the leader of a defense angling to prove it can be as good as the past year’s.

CB: Quandre Diggs, Texas
Diggs, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, is the heart and soul of the Longhorns. If the rest of the team takes on his mentality, Texas could have one feisty team in Charlie Strong’s first season.

CB: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Despite being just a second-year player, Worley has already taken over as one of the vocal leaders of the West Virginia defense. He’s also already one of the best cover corners in the league.

SS: Sam Carter, TCU
Carter has nine interceptions the past two years, the most of any returning Big 12 player. He leads arguably the best secondary in the league, too.

FS: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph has started all 25 games for the Mountaineers since he stepped foot in Morgantown. No other returning Big 12 defensive back has more career tackles than Joseph’s 170.

P: Nick O'Toole, West Virginia
The “Boomstache” ranked 15th nationally last year, with an average of 44.1 yards per punt. He also has the best mustache in the league, which has to count for something.

Preseason All-ACC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
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Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com preseason All-ACC team:

Offense

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke. One of the most dynamic receivers in the ACC, Crowder has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and gets the nod over Louisville receiver DeVante Parker in a close call. Given Crowder's past production in the offense, he should be in line to break school receiving records this season.

WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State. Perhaps one of the most underrated receivers in the country, Greene is a virtual lock to catch every pass that comes his way. He is the picture of consistency, and as the top returning target for Jameis Winston, should reach 1,000 yards again.

TE: Nick O'Leary, Florida State. One of the best tight ends in the country, O'Leary had 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He should improve on all those numbers this season.

T: Cameron Erving, Florida State. Erving thought about leaving school early last season for the NFL draft but decided to return, and he now anchors the best offensive line in the country.

T: Sean Hickey, Syracuse. Hickey is going into his third season as a starter and has developed into one of the best tackles in the league. He also may be the strongest player in the ACC, too.

C: Andy Gallik, Boston College. Gallik helped spearhead a Boston College run game last season that averaged 212.5 yards on the ground. As a three-year starter, Gallik has grown into the best center in the league.

G: Tre' Jackson, Florida State. One of the best guards in the country, Jackson also opted to return to school for his senior year. He and Erving are the best players on that line.

G: Laken Tomlinson, Duke. A first-team All-ACC player a year ago, Tomlinson will be relied upon even more to lead an offensive line that has to replace two of its best players. If he has another stellar season, Tomlinson could be one of the first guards taken in next year's draft.

QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State. The returning Heisman Trophy winner had a rough season off-the-field but there is no questioning his credentials on the field. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards a year ago, the expectation is he will be even better this year.

RB: Duke Johnson, Miami. Johnson is one of the best backs in the country, averaging 6.6 yards every time he touches the ball. If he can stay healthy for the entire season, he's a virtual lock to gain 1,000 yards.

RB: Kevin Parks, Virginia. Parks is the only returning 1,000-yard back in the ACC and is hoping for more in 2014. Tough call here between Parks and Karlos Williams, the next two best backs in the league behind Johnson.

Defense

DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson. Beasley finished last season with 13 sacks (tops in ACC) and 23 TFL (4th in nation). He’s a preseason All-American and the biggest star on one of the country's top defensive fronts.

DE: Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State. The No. 1 overall recruit in the nation three years ago, Edwards is poised to come into his own in 2014. He was a critical piece of Florida State’s run-stuffing defense a year ago, finishing with 9.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks.

DT: Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech. No returning interior lineman in the ACC had more TFL last year than Maddy’s 13.5, and he was a key for the Hokies' dominant defense. This season, he'll be the centerpiece of a new-look D line.

DT: Grady Jarrett, Clemson. Dabo Swinney calls Jarrett one of the best defenders in the nation, even if he hasn’t gotten much national acclaim. He finished last season with 59 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, and should be the foundation for a dominant defensive line at Clemson this season.

LB: Denzel Perryman, Miami. Perryman is Miami’s most productive defender, finishing with 108 tackles last season (fifth in the ACC). He’s the lone ACC defender returning for 2014 to have recorded at least 60 tackles in each of the previous three seasons.

LB: Stephone Anthony, Clemson. His 15 TFL last season ranked eighth in the ACC, and no returning linebacker in the conference had more. He added 86 tackles and 4.5 sacks to boot.

CB: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech. One of the top freshman defenders in the nation last season, Fuller picked off six passes as part of Virginia Tech's exceptional secondary. His 17 passes defended tied for eighth nationally.

CB: P.J. Williams, Florida State. Williams racked up three interceptions and was dominant in coverage for Florida State, which finished with the best pass defense in the nation. He also won defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship.

S: Anthony Harris, Virginia. Led the nation with eight interceptions last season for Virginia, including picking off at least one pass in five straight games in conference play in October and November.

S: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State. The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made the transition to safety midseason and didn’t miss a beat, finishing with 49 tackles and an INT.

S: Jeremy Cash, Duke. Cash finished last season second in the ACC in tackles (121), fifth in interceptions (4) and recorded 9.5 TFL, tops in the conference among defensive backs.

Specialists

K: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State. The Lou Groza Award winner in 2013, Aguayo broke the national record for points by a kicker in a season with 157 points. He is virtually automatic every time he steps onto the field, missing just one field goal attempt and zero extra points last season.

P: A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech. A second-team All-ACC selection a year ago, Hughes averaged 44.1 yards per punt. He placed 24 inside the 20, and had 22 punts of 50 yards or longer.

KR: Kermit Whitfield, Florida State. Whitfield led the nation last year in kickoffs, with an average of 36.4 yards per return. His speed makes him extremely difficult to stop, let alone slow down.

PR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina. Teams have probably learned to kick away from Switzer at all times. Last season, he had five returns for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.

Preseason All-Pac-12 team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
The kickoff to the 2014 season is fast approaching, so it's time to unveil the Pac-12 blog's preseason all-conference team. We're doing it a bit differently. In order to account for varying schemes in the conference, we've selected three wide receivers and one tight end on offense and four defensive lineman and four linebackers on defense (so each unit has 12 preseason selections). And we have opted to choose the five best offensive linemen in the conference, in our estimation, rather than select by position.

Here it is:

Offense

QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon: A leading Heisman Trophy candidate and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback, he accounted for 40 touchdowns last season, rushing for 715 yards and passing for 3,665. The Ducks' offense led the Pac-12 with 45.5 points per game.

RB: Byron Marshall, Oregon: Marshall is the conference’s only returning 1,000-yard back after rushing for 1,038 yards last season. However, he will face stiff competition in his own backfield from Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman.

RB: D.J. Foster, Arizona State: After working in tandem with Marion Grice last season, Foster is now the headliner. That doesn’t mean he won’t still catch passes. The coaching staff loves to split him out in the slot.

WR: Nelson Agholor, USC: He caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns last season and also returned kicks (17.5 average) and punts (19.1 average). With Marqise Lee off to the NFL, Agholor will be the Trojans’ top offensive target.

WR: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State: In his first season with the Sun Devils, Strong burst onto the scene with 75 receptions for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, establishing himself as one of the conference’s best and a future pro.

WR: Ty Montgomery, Stanford: Montgomery’s totals (61 catches, 958 yards, 10 touchdowns) don’t adequately compare him to the country’s other elite receivers. In a run-heavy offense, he was responsible for 32.1 percent of the Cardinal’s receptions, which was second-most in the Pac-12 behind Colorado’s Paul Richardson (35.3).

TE: Connor Hamlett, Oregon State: After catching 40 balls for 364 yards and five touchdowns, he is widely regarded as the top tight end in a league that has produced some great ones of late. Look for him to be a popular target as QB Sean Mannion and the Beavers adjust to life without star receiver Brandin Cooks.

OL: Alex Redmond, UCLA: A freshman All-American last season, he helped an injury-riddled Bruins offensive line maintain elite offensive numbers, including nearly 40 points per game. Expect a big step forward as a sophomore with a year of seasoning.

OL: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: A rare four-year starter with 40 starts to his credit, he is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection. A favorite for the Rimington Trophy, he was the centerpiece of the Pac-12’s No. 1 rushing offense.

OL: Andrus Peat, Stanford: When your head coach is comparing you to Jonathan Ogden, you must be doing something right. If Peat comes out, the junior will be in the running to be the first offensive lineman taken in next year’s NFL draft.

OL: Jamil Douglas, Arizona State: A second-team All-Pac-12 selection last year, Douglas has started every game over the past two seasons and appeared in every game during the 2011 season.

OL: Isaac Seumalo, Oregon State: Though he has excelled at center the previous two years, the coaching staff might move him around this season to fill some holes on the line. A foot injury might limit his playing time early in the season.

Defense

DL: Leonard Williams, USC: An All-American and Bednarik semifinalist last season, Williams returns after leading the Trojans with 13.5 tackles for loss. He projects to be a top-5 pick in the 2015 NFL draft and is regarded as the top defensive lineman in the country.

DL: Danny Shelton, Washington: Shelton’s frame (6-foot-2, 339 pounds) and his athleticism make him a potential first-round NFL pick next spring. He had 59 tackles, two sacks and two blocked kicks last season while often facing more than one blocker.

DL: Henry Anderson, Stanford: An All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year despite battling injuries, Anderson is expected to fill the void left by the departures of Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro.

DL: Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: He was second in the conference last season with 13 sacks (second-most in school history) and seventh with 15.5 tackles for loss. Also on the Bednarik watch list, he was second-team all-conference last year after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury.

LB: Myles Jack, UCLA: One of the biggest names in college football, Jack was the conference’s Defensive (and Offensive) Freshman of the Year last season. He recovered two fumbles, had two interceptions and recorded 75 tackles, seven for loss.

LB: Hayes Pullard, USC: He has led the Trojans in tackles for two of the past three seasons, including 94 last season with 5.5 tackles for loss. A second-team All-Conference performer in 2013, he is a veteran of 39 starts and a mainstay on what might be the conference’s best defense.

LB: Shaq Thompson, Washington: Like Jack, Thompson has the potential to be among the most versatile players in college football, as new coach Chris Petersen also plans to use Thompson on offense. He was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year and is on the watch list for the Bednarik Award.

LB: Eric Kendricks, UCLA: No one has more tackles in the Pac-12 over the past three seasons. He doesn’t get the premium tackles-for-loss stats or sack stats that some of the lauded outside linebackers in the conference get. But he is as good a run-stopper as there is in the country.

CB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon: Perhaps the best cornerback in the country, Ekpre-Olomu has twice been named first-team All-Pac-12. He led the Ducks with 53 unassisted tackles last season, recorded three interceptions and broke up six passes.

CB: Marcus Peters, Washington: A second-team all-conference performer, he tied for third in the league last season in passes defended (14) and had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He projects to be a high draft pick in 2015.

S: Jordan Richards, Stanford: One of the more unique athletes in the conference, Richards is effective against the run and in coverage. He has started every game the past two years and recorded 168 tackles and six interceptions the past three.

S: Su'a Cravens, USC: He earned freshman All-America honors after an outstanding rookie campaign that included 52 stops and four interceptions. Has All-America potential as a sophomore.

Special teams

K: Andy Phillips, Utah: Phillips was a Lou Groza semifinalist last year when he connected on 17 of 20 field goal attempts. Not bad for a former competitive alpine skier who had never kicked before walking on in 2012.

P: Tom Hackett, Utah: The All-Pac-12 first-team punter last season, Hackett averaged 43.4 yards per punt and downed 27 of 76 punts inside the 20-yard line.
By now, you're probably familiar with the story of 8-year-old Nebraska fan and cancer patient Jack Hoffman, who gave a speech at the 2013 ESPY Awards after winning "Best Moment" in sports for his 69-yard touchdown dash during the Huskers' spring game. Big Red fans and well-wishers all around the country rallied behind the kid, with the #TeamJack Twitter hashtag a particular rallying point on social media.

However, Hoffman was dealt a setback recently as the inoperable brain tumor that was previously in remission began to grow again, forcing Jack to start new treatments that begin Thursday in Boston.

Undoubtedly with a heavy heart, Huskers head coach Bo Pelini and his football team created a video this week with words of inspiration and support for their biggest little fan.

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin has experienced his share of headaches with all the logistics of holding a season opener 3,000 miles away in Ireland. But there's one new wrinkle he probably hadn't counted on.

The potential eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Seriously.

The staff probably just wanted to watch some film on UCF quarterback Pete DiNovo or wideout Rannell Hall. Now, it's keeping an eye on Bardarbunga, the name of the volcano that kind of looks like it belongs to a defensive tackle. A real eruption could lead to some potential travel issues.

"We're aware of that, and we're monitoring that situation," said Michael Hazel, Penn State's director of football operations. "That's kind of out of our area of expertise."

Sadly, this isn't the synopsis to a terrible B-movie. Iceland evacuated the largely uninhabited area around the volcano, and its meteorological office raised its threat level to orange --which is the second-highest alert.

But don't go trading in those Croke Park tickets just yet. It's still too early to say whether the volcano will really erupt. And, even then, there's no telling whether the ash will create enough of a hazard to impact flights like an eruption did in 2010.

It could wind up as absolutely nothing. But the fact we even have to discuss a volcano -- and that Penn State is monitoring it -- sure is surreal. Normally, we just have to stick to following wind, rain and snow. Maybe we should start adding volcanoes and earthquakes to our Big Ten game-day weather reports?

Illini name Wes Lunt starting QB

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
3:00
PM ET
In what has to be one of the least surprising resolutions ever to a quarterback competition, Illinois has named Wes Lunt as its starter for the 2014 season opener against Youngstown State next Saturday.

Head coach Tim Beckman made the announcement after Wednesday's practice.



Oh, sure, the Illini officially held a three-way competition for the job this offseason, with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey pushing Lunt. O'Toole, a senior, had the experience edge and played very well at times this spring. Bailey is an excellent athlete who's a little raw as a pocket passer, but his playmaking skills can't be ignored.

Still, just about everyone expected Lunt to be the 2014 starter for Illinois the moment he transferred in from Oklahoma State after the 2012 season, and it became increasingly apparent in preseason practice this month that he was The Guy. The former heralded recruit from Rochester, Ill., opened 2012 as the Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback and ended up starting five games as a true freshman; his transfer was seen as one of the best personnel coups Beckman has registered in his tenure.

At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds with a strong arm, Lunt very much looks the part as a future star at the position. He should fit in very well in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's system, which helped turn Nathan Scheelhaase into the Big Ten's leading passer a season ago. Lunt has better pure tools than Scheelhaase; it remains to be seen if he has Scheelhaase's poise and moxie, and if he has enough weapons around him at receiver, where Illinois is young and inexperienced.

So, Lunt will open 2014 as the Illinois starter. And there's a good chance he stays there for the next three years.
Oddball is coming to the Big Ten in 2014.

After spreading through the NFL and much of college football, odd defenses -- with three down linemen instead of four -- will be more visible in the Big Ten this season. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana -- will operate mainly with three linemen and four linebackers. Although the Terrapins and Hoosiers prefer the hybrid label for their defenses, all three units will show alignments somewhat foreign to the conference.

In 2012, all 12 Big Ten teams used base defenses featuring four down linemen. Defenses with odd fronts had made cameos at places like Michigan and Indiana in the past -- Northwestern considered moving to a 3-4 early in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure but has since elected to remain in a 4-3 -- but unlike the NFL, where about half of the teams use odd fronts, the Big Ten steered clear of the trend.

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda installed a 3-4 scheme last season, and the Badgers finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg).
Last season, Wisconsin installed the 3-4, which the new coaching staff had used at Utah State. Indiana hopes to upgrade a perennially poor defense as it uses more of a 3-4 look under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. Maryland will keep its scheme -- three linemen, four linebackers but not the traditional two-gap approach seen with 3-4 defenses -- as it transitions from the ACC.

"[Big Ten teams] don't see an odd front every week," Knorr told ESPN.com. "Being multiple, giving them different looks, something they haven't seen, hopefully that's an advantage for us."

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda always planned to install a 3-4 at Wisconsin. He just wasn't sure the Badgers had the personnel to do it in Year 1. They needed a nose tackle who could occupy two blockers, and outside linebackers with the speed-size mix to do it all. Fortunately, Beau Allen filled the nose position and Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly occupied the outside spots.

Wisconsin finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg), rush yards allowed (102.5 ypg), total yards allowed (305.1 ypg) and third-down conversions against (30.6 percent). Aranda likes having an extra linebacker to defend spread offenses, and the 3-4 also has the flexibility to stop the traditional offenses for which the Big Ten is known.

"The power run fits in well with the 3-4," Aranda said.

Indiana will mix three- and four-man fronts, but like Aranda, Knorr inherits players he thinks can fill the critical roles in the 3-4. Nick Mangieri and Zack Shaw, who played defensive end in the previous system, have the ability to blitz from the perimeter or drop back in coverage.

"The offenses are so wide open, and you have to be able to cover the entire field," Knorr said. "Having the ability to drop eight at times, gives you an extra guy in coverage. Having the ability to have five guys in a great position to blitz right away gives you the versatility we're looking for, while being able to keep our disguise."

The disguise, according to Aranda, is what can set 3-4 defenses apart. He wants to keep offenses guessing about the fourth rusher: Will it be the weakside inside linebacker? The strongside outside linebacker? A safety? A cornerback?

As long as the outside linebackers have the ability to both rush and cover, without giving up too much, defensive play-callers can really mix things up.

"I know a lot of teams will be confused and we'll cause a lot of uncertainty and chaos for the offense," Indiana linebacker David Cooper said. "I think we'll do great in the Big Ten."

Maryland typically will use four linebackers, but doesn't feature the massive defensive linemen seen in standard two-gap, 3-4 looks. The Terrapins last season generated pressure both from the linebacker spot (Marcus Whitfield had nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss) and the line (end Andre Monroe had 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss). They return nine defensive starters.

Aranda used to visit Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart when Stewart coached in the NFL under Wade Phillips, a longtime 3-4 defense practitioner. Aranda looks forward to seeing how other odd defenses fare in the Big Ten this season.

"Part of the issue with us last year is we'd go into games not knowing how people would block us," Aranda said. "That works both ways because people don't know how we're going to line up, either, or at least that first year. Now that film's out, but it definitely helps to me when you see someone play Indiana or someone play Maryland, you can see how they're lining up vs. 3-4."

Will the 3-4 keep spreading around the Big Ten? Defensive line has been the league's strongest position in recent years, as players in traditional end or tackle roles have gone on to the NFL in droves.

"There's such a fertile ground for defensive linemen in our area," Aranda admits. "We're trading some of those guys for linebackers and secondary players. Our corners and our safeties are as much our pass-rushers as our D-linemen are.

"There has to be a decision or a philosophy, somewhere along the line, of where you're going with it."

Depending on the results at Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, more Big Ten teams could choose to be odd.
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There's a certain pride that comes with playing along the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line. If you sign up to be one of Tuscaloosa's big uglies, you better be prepared for the pressure of living up to the past.

While this year's line, which is replacing two starters from last season, is still slightly covered by the shadows of players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Cyrus Kouandjio, and William Vlachos, the pressure of living up to what they did is absent.

The pressure for this line is to live up to its own potential.

"We want to be better than those lines," senior right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "We try not to live in the past so we'd like to have a million rushing yards if we could. We want to be the most dominant offense in the NCAA."

[+] EnlargeRyan Kelly
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kelly and Alabama's offensive line are working together to build unity; plans include more speed in practice and more gatherings during the week.
To do that, Alabama's offensive line tried to move faster this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, speed has increased for lineman before snaps. Instead of lumbering to the line to make checks and adjust to the defense, redshirt junior center Ryan Kelly said offensive linemen have been running to get set and make calls earlier before the snap.

"That way we can at least be set before we want send motions or figure out what the defense is doing," Kelly said. "It's kind of speeding up the offense, but it's also helping us have more time and put us in better situations."

So far, the offensive line, which has the responsibility of protecting a new starting quarterback and arguably the nation's best running back stable, is coming together. There have been some natural hiccups, and coach Nick Saban even called out the line's physicality recently, but this doesn't appear to be a problem area for the Crimson Tide.

The three returning starters -- Kelly, Shepherd and fifth-year senior left guard Arie Kouandjio -- have cemented their places up front, while welcoming a few new pieces to the bunch. Most notably, left tackle Cam Robinson, the true freshman pegged to replace former All-American Cyrus Kouandjio.

The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class, Robinson stepped into the first-team spot at left tackle toward the end of spring, and hasn't moved.

With senior Leon Brown and junior college transfer Dominick Jackson dealing with injuries during camp, there has been a little shuffling up front, but third-year sophomore Alphonse Taylor has impressed at right guard.

The biggest thing the players want to take care of along the line is communication. Kelly said communication broke down at times last year, leading to some glaring errors up front.

One way to enhance that? Develop better chemistry, and to do that, Alabama's linemen are hoping to bring back the Thursday night dinner tradition started by former quarterback AJ McCarron.

A chance to unwind and leave Alabama football talk at the facilities, the Thursday night dinners have done wonders for bringing the big boys together, Kelly said.

"It was good," Kelly said of past dinners. "You spend so much time up here [at the football facilities] talking about football and stuff that you can get away. ...It clears your mind going into Friday and getting ready for the game [on Saturday].

"When you get away, your bonds become more than just a football relationship. You have real friends you can do stuff with and that carries over to the football field and makes us a better team."

McCarron played host before, but Shepherd is hoping to take over the reins this season.

"It's time to get away from all the coaches and just be guys around everyone else," Shepherd said. "The only other time we're all together at the same time is when we're in the offensive line meeting room with a coach in there. We can't really talk because he's teaching us. It's time to mingle and do what you want and hang out."

From watching Thursday night football games and playing a variety of sports video games on the house Xbox to dining on the finest red meats and starches, Thursday nights for Alabama's offensive line are special.

Meals have usually involved a combination of steaks, burgers, brats and tight end Corey McCarron's famous mac & cheese. Every once in a while, the group gets a surprise, like when former guard Anthony Steen's parents brought over venison to make tenderloin.

Just looking for a succulent steak? Talk to Shepherd.

"I cook a mean filet. I like it fresh off the cow," he said.

Need a tidy house to eat in? Well, Shepherd doesn't think he needs to go that far.

"It doesn't matter when you have all these nasty guys in there."

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