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Friday, August 29, 2014
Fournette, LSU will live up to hype

By Travis Haney

Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette has been dubbed 2014's "prodigy" -- before even playing a single game.
Leonard Fournette is not a freshman.

Just keep repeating that to yourself, over and over, though not so loud that people think you’re strange.

I’ve spent the past few months working to condition and program myself to this thought. Maybe we should just call him LSU’s “first-year” running back.

Fournette doesn’t look, act -- or, most importantly -- run like a freshman. So let’s just move past the fact that he is one.

It’s a dangerous game, hyping those who have yet to gain a yard, throw a pass or make a tackle. It’s one that can make someone like me look quite foolish, causing hand-wringing from fans. (“He’s 18, HANEY!”)

But what happens when we’re right? What happens when Jameis Winston, as a first-year starter, wins the Heisman?

From all I’ve gathered, including a stop last week in Baton Rouge, we’re right on Fournette. You’ve seen the comparisons, from Michael Jordan’s determination to Adrian Peterson’s physique as a teenager.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” someone close to the program told me. “Never.”

College football’s 2014 prodigy will debut Saturday night in Houston, when LSU meets Wisconsin in a top-15 matchup at the Texans' stadium.

In addition to Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn are expected to be in the receivers rotation. Jamal Adams is a defensive back who isn’t getting enough buzz because of the offensive guys.

And, oh by the way, coach Les Miles has said QB Brandon Harris will play. He might even start.

Brandon Harris
Freshman QB Brandon Harris will also headline LSU's young group of impact players.
These players, and other youngsters, were recruited to play immediately.

“We just want to get the best players on the field,” defensive coordinator John Chavis told me last week. “We don’t care what year they are. We tell them that.”

In addition to natural attrition, LSU has lost 17 underclassmen to the NFL draft the past two cycles. That precipitates need unlike anything we’ve ever seen, really.

“These kids have embraced that idea since day one in the recruiting process,” said Jeremy Crabtree, senior recruiting writer. “They knew they were good. They knew they were going to have to play early. And they didn’t back away from it one bit.”

If some or all of the freshmen hit, LSU will be a dark horse playoff contender. Three of the 20 coaches I polled this week had the Tigers in the four-team field.

“They can sneak up on you some years,” one of them told me. “That’s when they’ve won [titles]. There’s a lot of attention on Alabama and Auburn right now, and Les probably likes it that way.”

ESPN analyst and national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who covered Harris in the Under Armour game, said his arm is in the top three for the past decade.

“He’s a great kid with a high ceiling,” he said. “[He’s] a superior talent to [Anthony] Jennings, but he hasn’t played yet.”

Even with Fournette, expect veteran RBs Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee to get the first carries. Second-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will roll Fournette in gracefully; those on staff agreed with my theory that the frosh would see between 10-15 planned carries. Don’t expect Peterson’s bruising running style as much as power mixed with elusiveness. Fournette would rather juke than bulldoze. And he’ll be more effective in the screen game.

But if he gets hot, the script could soon flip, with Hilliard and Magee serving as the complements. And that’s what I would expect, given the preface of his legend.

Fournette goes for 100-plus. A star is born.

Other breakout players to watch this week

Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Florida State will likely blister an inexperienced Cowboys team, but Hill will stand out -- even among the Seminoles’ athletic defense. I’m really curious to know how he’ll be used. Even OSU coaches said they couldn’t describe it. The sprinter is the De’Anthony Thomas du jour.

Jake Coker, QB, Alabama Crimson Tide

I’ll stick to my guns since I made him my No. 1 breakout player. Even if those outside the program are doubting him since he hasn’t separated himself from Blake Sims, he’ll light up West Virginia and earn the starts going forward. He’s 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and has Amari Cooper. I like his chances.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson Tigers

Watch him lock down Georgia’s receivers. The redshirt freshman is going to be a good one. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney told me this summer that he compares well to the two Virginia Tech freshman All-Americans, Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson.
“You know it right when you see them,” Swinney said.

Thursday Takeaway: Johnny who?

Even after a visit last week to College Station, I didn’t see that coming from Kenny Hill. And if the A&M staffers I talked with did, I do not want to run into them at a poker table anytime soon.
A&M coaches might have been slow-playing me last week on Hill. He is making great decisions, running the offense. I'm impressed.

— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 28, 2014
From being around Hill and seeing him in limited action a year ago, I thought the sophomore would be ruffled by the road crowd at South Carolina. The Gamecocks clearly are missing elements up front and in the secondary that they’ve had in the past few seasons, but Hill was really smart with his decisions.

He didn’t run as well as Johnny Manziel -- but he ran the offense better than Manziel ever did.

OC Jake Spavital, in his first full year calling plays, had an excellent, manageable plan for Hill. And there are so many playmakers around him. Now healthy, 6-5 beast Ricky Seals-Jones can evolve into an uncoverable receiver outside.

With Lamar, Rice, SMU and Arkansas next, it would be improbable if the Aggies weren’t 5-0 heading to Mississippi State on Oct. 4. If Hill could handle that scene so adeptly Thursday, makes you wonder where he’ll be by then.

Myself admittedly included in them, rumors of A&M’s post-Johnny demise were overblown. Are the Aggies better off without him?

Man vs. Metrics: Stop hating Michigan State, computers

I’ve got Michigan State playing Alabama in my championship game. The computers predict MSU finishing third in the Big Ten East.

That’s a sizable gap.

According to ESPN Stats & Information’s Football Power Index (FPI), Ohio State still has the greatest chance of winning the Big Ten, at 30 percent. That’s an enormous number, given the QB change.

Wisconsin is next at 24 percent; because of the Badgers' schedule, I can't argue with that. Michigan is next (18 percent), followed by Michigan State (11 percent).

What am I missing? The Spartans did win the league and the Rose Bowl in 2013, didn’t they? Plenty of talent returns on both sides, and they’ve looked like a different team since finding QB Connor Cook.

One coach told me last week that he thought the Spartans could have beaten anyone at the end of last year, FSU and Auburn included.

“They’ve got good players, but they win because they’ve got the best coach in that league,” he said. “Urban [Meyer] has changed the league, with the way he recruits, but Mark [Dantonio] is still winning games his way.”

Hot Seat Watch: Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines

It will not happen, but good Lord, can you imagine if the Wolverines lost again to Appalachian State?

App State is now an FBS program, so there’s that. But those FCS title teams -- including the 2007 group -- were better equipped, strange as it sounds. Ann Arbor, say hello to interim coach Doug Nussmeier if the Wolverines lose Saturday.

Quick Slant: The doomed love affair with FSU

Bleacher Report compiled the ballots of ESPN's 23 analysts, the 20 coaches who voted this week in my informal poll and 47 other college football pundits -- and only one person did not have FSU in their four-team bracket. (In disclosure, it was one of my coaches; I’ll put him in witness protection, if need be.)

FPI says the Seminoles have a 40 percent chance of going undefeated. The next Power 5 school in line is Oregon -- at 6 percent.

Jameis Winston
Can Jameis Winston lead the Seminoles in another dominant season?
That’s a lot of certainty in an uncertain sport. Things in life, let alone college football, are never this certain. It doesn’t work that way.

“I think they will lose two games,” that loner coach told me. “I don’t think the leadership is what it was.”

I suggested there were new, capable leaders such as WR Rashad Greene and DB Jalen Ramsey.

He laughed at me because Ramsey was kicked out of a recent practice.

“Teaching moment,” I told him.

The team, internally, considers Winston a leader. It knows different sides than the public does, I am sure. But the presumption that FSU has a season-long bye to a second straight title is foolish considering it’s a program that has lost to NC State and Wake Forest in recent years.

This is a program that has had to hire new defensive coordinators the past two seasons and sent 18 players to the NFL draft. Yet 89 of 90 “experts” have the Seminoles waltzing into the playoff?

Even if they crush Okie State this weekend, let’s hold off on the coronation.