Tag Archives: Ameer Abdullah

Looking Ahead for USC: Holiday Bowl

The Scoop:

After quite the tumultuous season, USC has been selected to face off against Nebraska (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) in the Holiday Bowl. The game takes place on December 27, at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

This will be the first time the Cornhuskers and Trojans have ever faced each other in a bowl game. USC is a near perfect 3-0-1 over four regular season meetings between the two storied programs.

The Trojans’ 2014:

It’s been an extremely frustrating year for SC fans, in which a talented team ended the regular season with 4 losses. In hindsight, the only unacceptable loss was to Boston College, but the Eagles showed up against the Trojans on the East Coast.

Losses to ranked Arizona State, Utah, and UCLA were really what did the Trojans in, especially with the first two of those games being USC’s to lose. At the beginning of the year, I predicted this team would go 9-3, with losses to Stanford, UCLA and Notre Dame. After a huge week to win at Stanford, the Trojans looked capable of winning the Pac-12 south.

The unfortunate reality is that USC couldn’t close out games. the Arizona State loss was the real stab in the heart, with the win coming on a hail mary TD pass. I can’t help but wonder about how different the season would have been if that game and the Utah game had been Trojan wins. We’d be looking at a 10-2 Trojan team that would definitely sit in the top 10. I think this season represents a missed oppurtunity-the amount of talent on this team is enough to make the playoff.

Past 4 games:

USC has gone 3-1 over it’s past 4 games, with the only loss coming to UCLA. Wins over unranked Cal and Washington State preceded the loss, and last weeks blowout of the Irish came the week after.

 

Photo by Flickr user Steve White CC BY 2.0
A USC flag is flown in the teams’ last bout played in Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers’ 2014:

Nebraska’s season has gone a bit differently. After an 8-1 start (with the sole loss coming at #10 Michigan State), the Cornhuskers lost back to back games to ranked Wisconsin and Minnesota. An overtime win against Iowa ended their regular season at 9-3. Due to the late decline and comparably easy schedule, the Cornhuskers ended the season ranked #25 by AP but without a spot in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

Nebraska didn’t manage any wins against Top 25 teams, and only 3 of their victories came against teams with winning records. None of the teams the Cornhuskers beat ended the season with more than 7 wins. Probably their most impressive win of the year came in overtime at then 7-4 Iowa (which kind of goes to show how much they lack a quality win).

The Huskers are, though, ranked 14th in points for per game and 17th in rushing yards per game, coming on the legs of Ameer Abdullah, whose 1523 rushing yards are 11th most in the FBS this year.

Past 4 games:

A home win over lowly Purdue was followed by a thrashing at #20 Wisconsin (aka the Melvin Gordon superman game) and a close home loss to #25 Minnesota. An overtime win at Iowa last weekend capped off the regular season for the Huskers.

Looking ahead:

In my opinion, this game will go to the Trojans without much work. Nebraska has no quality wins, and doesn’t have the passing attack necessary to get the jump on USC. The Trojans have held opponents to 3.9 yards per rush this season and have given up the 27th least yards per game in the FBS. The fact that the game will be played in San Diego, less than a two hour drive from USC’s campus, will give the Trojans a sizable fan base. I think the combo of a home-like atmosphere and USC’s power offense should be enough to give Troy the win.

My Prediction: USC 38, Nebraska 24

 

Getting #GordonToGotham

You may remember reading a blog post on this very website prior to the season about Melvin Gordon’s Heisman candidacy and how it required no coordinated campaign effort from the University of WIsconsin, its athletics department, or anyone else. That remains true one week into November, though the power of social media has come through with a catchy hashtag known as “Gordon to Gotham”. While I could spend an entire article breaking down just how great the hashtag is with its various references and connections between Gordon, New York City, Batman (or Dark Knight), and the commissioner, this is really more about the phenomenal season of the Badgers tailback.

Gordon entered the season as a Heisman favorite, then fell off a little bit with a less-than-stellar performance against FCS Western Illinois. Since that outing in Week 2, Gordon has been nearly unstoppable. Let’s review some of the highlights:

  • Leads the nation in rushing yards (1,501) and yards per game (166.8)
  • 2nd in rush touchdowns (19) and scoring (21 TDs, 126 total points), though he is tops among Power 5 players
  • 5th in yards per carry (7.58)
  • Touchdowns in every game this season, including two games with four or more

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s clear that Gordon is the primary (if not only) running back in the race. And the Vegas odds makers at Bovada have essentially made it a three-person race. Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota (Oregon) and Dak Prescott (Mississippi State) are ahead of Gordon at 3/2 and 9/4, respectively. The UW star sits at 6/1, followed by a major drop off to Alabama receiver Amari Cooper at 18/1. Both Mariota and Prescott have the benefit of still being part of the College Football Playoff chase and with marquee games still on the schedule. While Oregon has relatively easy regular season games against Colorado and rival Oregon State, the Ducks will likely face a quality ranked opponent in the Pac-12 championship game to solidify its place in the CFP. Prescott and #1 Mississippi State has a huge road game this weekend against #5 Alabama, plus another to end the regular season at in-state rival and No. 11 Ole Miss. Wins in those games, as well as a in the SEC title game, will only happen if Prescott has his best games of the season, which could vault him into position as the favorite in the clubhouse.

So what does Melvin Gordon need to do, or have happen, to claim the Heisman Trophy December 13 in New York City?

GordonFor starters, the junior needs to win the 1-on-1 battle this coming weekend with Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah. The Cornhusker standout dropped to seventh in the Bovada odds (20/1) after suffering a knee injury six carries into their win over Purdue on November 1. The upcoming meeting in Madison will not only go a long way in determining who will represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game, but Heisman voters tend to love a good head-to-head matchup between candidates. Gordon and Abdullah have become close friends, so you know the competition will be fierce.

Another key to Gordon’s Heisman hopes actually lies with his two quarterbacks. Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy have performed significantly better the past few weeks, though their progression will need to continue against Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. The ability of the two quarterbacks to help keep defenses honest, and not loaded up in the box against the run, will mean substantially better circumstances for Gordon to make big plays. Should the tandem come through, Gordon should have plenty of opportunity to put up video-game numbers over the final month. It wouldn’t hurt either if Gordon continued to make catches and show off his versatility, much like did with a touchdown catch at Purdue.

Finally, while Gordon really just needs to keep doing what he’s doing on a per game basis, his true Heisman chances may hinge on whether the Badgers get a chance to play in the Big Ten Championship against Ohio State. An opportunity to be on display nationally and possibly ruin the Buckeyes chance for a CFP spot may be enough for Gordon to become the second running back from Kenosha, WI to hear his name called in NYC.

At this point, only the “I” word (rhymes with schminjury) could keep Gordon from appearing in the Big Apple, however, it appears he may need help if he wants to hoist the 80-pound statue. In the meantime, you can fulfill your football civic duty by voting on social media to get #GordonToGotham.

Badger Bites (Weekly nuggets about Wisconsin’s next opponent): #13 Nebraska is coming off a bye week and should have a healthy Ameer Abdullah. The Cornhusker passing attack is better than UW’s, but Tommy Armstrong, Jr. is coming off one of his worst games of the season against Purdue. He’s thrown eight picks to five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s defense hasn’t played like a typical Nebraska defense. They rank eighth in the Big Ten in total defense. Playing at home will be a big advantage for Wisconsin. Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Nebraska 20

The Todd Gurley Template for Sabotage in the Big Ten

Although some might fight the idea, getting autographs is pretty cool as it provides a lasting and tangible memory of the time when you came in contact with a person you respect. Some children are introduced to the realm of autographs through visits to Disney theme parks or other places where they meet their favorite cartoon characters while others accompany their parents to training camps, spring training games, and public events to meet their athletic heroes and get them to sign something. Most autographs are real, however, when purchasing an autographed item, certain precautions need to be taken. Talented autograph fakers have made proper certification a must and have ruined the process for the honest individuals who got an item signed and may decide to sell it at a later time. At this point, a company like James Spence Authentication (JSA) comes into play.
The basic way that items are authenticated are to have a player sign, then mail it into a company like JSA with payment for the authentication service and money for the return shipping. A buyer who is purchasing an item that has been authenticated by JSA can then put the code located on the JSA certificate of authenticity into the JSA website and find a description for the item that is being purchased. Georgia Bulldogs running back and until recently, Heisman hopeful, Todd Gurley is the most recent example of what happens when a player is suspected of signing autographs for money. His signing was uncovered as a result of items bearing his signature appearing on JSA’s website with serial numbers L39251 to L39551. Having a large block of sequential serial numbers is indicative of a large batch of memorabilia being sent in for authentication at the same time, and is a sign of a player being asked to autograph many things at once, oftentimes for money. Currently, Gurley has been suspended indefinitely while the NCAA investigates if he was paid for his autographs.
A quick search of the JSA authentication fee schedule shows that Todd Gurley is listed in the database, but currently has no fees associated with his name. In comparison, a search of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon reveals that the authentication fees for him are $20 for a basic certification and $35 for a full Letter of Authenticity. After searching for other notable Big Ten players such as Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Connor Cook, and J.T. Barrett, the only player I could find who showed up was Braxton Miller who had unknown fees for authenticating his autograph.
Current Cleveland Browns backup quarterback Johnny Manziel will undoubtedly be used as a precedent in the Gurley case. Like the Manziel case, there has been no evidence of Gurley being caught on video accepting money so there is a chance that he will be reinstated at some point this season. However, the way that the situation plays out has implications for all college football programs, especially those with successful and highly-publicized stars. Gurley was suspended indefinitely for his infractions as an investigation was launched into whether he was paid for his autographs. In an instant, the balance of the SEC was changed. If Ohio State players can be caught trading memorabilia and autographs for tattoos and cash, methods of compensation that seem to be less traceable than entering item ID numbers into a website, there is nothing to stop a Gurley-like situation from happening in the Big Ten or any other college football conference.
Using the Gurley case as a template for what will happen if allegations about an athlete being paid for autographs surface, every team in college football, especially the stars, are vulnerable. Gurley’s case was pretty obvious because of the sheer volume of items that were being sold on EBay and in other venues, however, depending on how the NCAA chooses to police the selling of autographed college merchandise, it is not inconceivable that suspensions could be handed out for players who sign smaller quantities of items that are then authenticated and sold, especially if the authentication occurs for a large block of items. For the Big Ten in particular, Melvin Gordon and Braxton Miller are already in the JSA database and if a notable (perhaps more than 5 or 10) quantity of their autographs were to come onto the market at once, they could be the next players to suffer a similar fate to Gurley.
College boosters are notable for having and being willing to spend significant amounts of money in support of their favorite teams. Nevin Shapiro and the enormous sums that he gave to Miami Hurricane players with almost no publicity or ramifications is an example of this practice. Only when he got into trouble with the law for a Ponzi scheme and decided to write a book did he gain notoriety. Giving a few hundred dollars to an athlete and paying the $20 to $40 authentication fees multiplied by the number of items signed is a relatively small price to pay when compared to boosters such as Shapiro who offered up to $1000 bounties to multiple Miami players or for people like Lloyd Lake who supposedly provided USC running back Reggie Bush and his family with a home and a car. The only difference would be that the booster would be shifting his or her attention from players on the team that the booster cheers for to an opposing team. Considering that college football players do not normally come from wealthy families, a booster with enough cash could be very convincing to a star player who is one or two productive years away from getting an NFL paycheck. Instead of offering money to say, Braxton Miller, an Ohio State booster could follow the Todd Gurley template with a star player on another team. If the NCAA response is similar to the Gurley situation, suspensions and a long, drawn out investigation will ensue all while the star player is sitting on the sidelines. Meanwhile the balance of power in a conference can shift dramatically.
Depending on how the Gurley situation plays out, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to have a Michigan fan trying to get an Ohio State star suspended for signing multiple items or a Minnesota fan, tired of losing to Wisconsin, trying to ensnarl the Badgers’ top running back in an NCAA investigation. Outside of a player getting kicked off a team, injuries are the only way to unexpectedly change the dynamics of a conference. Although J.T. Barrett is very talented, Ohio State is arguably not the same team this year as it would be if Braxton Miller was in the shotgun. The current Gurley situation provides a way for anyone with the financial resources and willingness to attempt to change an entire college football season. In the end, it seems as though the only way to solve the issue of autographed memorabilia the NCAA started with their handling of the Gurley situation is to add yet another rule banning college athletes from engaging in the time-honored tradition of signing autographs. Screw the child who wants to have a mini helmet signed by his hero Melvin Gordon in his room or have a signed Ohio State number 5 jersey hanging in a closet, the NCAA needs to make sure that they are the only ones who are allowed to make money off “student athletes.”

The College Quickie: King For A Day, Scarsdale Surprise, The Cat In The Hat

My Mizzou Tigers found themselves with an off-week this past weekend. As a result, I found myself with a bit more time on my hands to at least think about the college football landscape. There were plenty of exciting games to choose from and there were even more observations to be gleaned from the outcomes of those games.
KING FOR A DAY
Coach Bob Stoops. “Big Game Bob.” *sigh* What happened against TCU, buddy? You have yourself so wrapped up in how you stack up in comparison to the SEC that you lost to TCU this past weekend. Week in and week out, the entire country hears you whining in your best Marcia, Marcia, Marcia voice; SEC, SEC, SEC.
So just how far open have the Sooners left the door to the Big 12 barn? Is it far enough open for Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State or TCU to fit through? Well, here comes my opinion.
Baylor just keeps doing what they do and that is score points. Through the first five games, the Bears have scored 255 points. The next closest team to Baylor is Oklahoma who have scored 212. Now here is where things get interesting for the Bears. They have given up a total of 62 points this year. That reduces down to 12.4 points per game. Don’t look now, but when Baylor built their new stadium, they installed a defense.
Baylor has two tough games remaining on their schedule. They travel to Norman, Oklahoma and finish the season with K-State travelling to Waco.
Kansas State just keeps trudging along. They aren’t flashy, they keep winning and have been battle tested in the non-conference. They did lose that battle with Auburn, but they held their own against a team that could have lit the scoreboard up.
The Wildcats still have three challenging games remaining on their schedule. They play the Sooners on the road, TCU on the road and end the season against Baylor.
Oklahoma St is the forgotten child at this point in the season. They seem to be an after thought and much of that has to do with losing their starting quarterback. Gundy can coach, but he could be considered a wildcard in this equation if we are to believe that he is truly unhappy in Stillwater. And this is precisely what Twitter told me yesterday.
Okie State played Florida State (i’ll get to them later) tough in the first game of the season. But that was also prior to the Cowboy’s losing their starting QB. Since that game, the Cowboys haven’t really played anyone of substance and let Missouri St score 23 points, gave up 35 to a struggling Texas Tech team and beat Iowa St with the help of some controversy. Who has two thumbs and isn’t impressed? THIS GUY RIGHT HERE.
Just for the hell of it, who do the Cowboys have left to play? They play at TCU, at K-State, at Baylor and at Oklahoma. OUCH.
TCU just had the eye opening win in Big 12 play with a narrow 37-33 win over the Sooners. Does this mean the Horned Frogs are for real or does it mean that the Sooners are vulnerable. Personally, I think we know very little about TCU, but here is who I believe they are. They are better than Tennessee. How much better remains to be seen. Why do I bring this up? Tennessee went to Norman, lost 34-10, but a case could be made that they played better than the final score indicated. The second thing I know about TCU is that we know nothing until they travel to Baylor next weekend. If they are at least competitive in that game, i’ll say they are for real. If they aren’t competitive in that game, well, they’re just a slightly more talented version of Tennessee.
The Horned Frogs still have a game at Baylor and at home against K-State.
For Oklahoma, what does all of this boil down to? They’ve already lost to TCU and have games against K-State and Baylor with each game being played in Norman. Baylor seems to have found a defense and they still have that high powered offense they have become known for. And K-State is just their consistent, solid selves. I believe Baylor beast OU and I wouldn’t be shocked to see K-State leave Norman with a victory.
My money is on Baylor winning the conference and that will leave “Big Game” Bob whining.
SCARSDALE SURPRISE
If you read this title and started laughing, congratulations, you’re part of the middle aged club. If you read this title and asked, “what does this mean?”, all I can say is take a few minutes, google it, and come back when you’re up to speed.
Alright, now that we’re all laughing, let’s find out whose seat Florida St. is sitting in.
I truly believe that Florida St is riding shotgun with the 2013 version of itself. They were shaky against Oklahoma St. and had its hands full with North Carolina St and Clemson. For the time being they are in the football playoff, but they still have games against Notre Dame, Louisville and Virginia. I just don’t see the Seminoles going better than 1-2 in that stretch.
Now whose seat are the Seminoles occupying? I believe Notre Dame is the rightful owner of that seat. They haven’t played the toughest schedule, but have taken care of business. Against Stanford, they were given the opportunity to prove their worth and they did not squander that opportunity.
Just for the record, I am not a Notre Dame fan. In fact, I find it difficult to root for them regardless of who they are playing. But I cannot objectively say that they aren’t an elite team this year. I also believe that Everett Golson is that Heisman candidate who is currently lurking in the shadows.
THE CAT IN THE HAT
I call him Ameer Abdullah. Lou Holtz calls him Ameer Mohammed. Either player is a damn fine running back. But you know what would make him even better? If Pellini’s cat would put Pinkel’s visor on and utilize him less. Yes, I said LESS.
Abdullah is averaging 23 carries per game. In 2013 he average 21 and 2012 was at 16 carries per game. In his defense, his yards per carry have increased each year as well. My argument is not with his overall production it is with his utilization.
Something Gary Pinkel has excelled at is how he distributes the ball to his running backs. In the current season, Russell Hansbrough averages 13 carries per game and Marcus Murphy’s average is at 12. In 2013, Henry Josey averaged 12 carries a game with Hansbrough at 8. Finally, in 2012, Kendial Lawrence averaged 16 carries per game with Hansbrough averaging 4 rushes per game. If Pinkel doesn’t even out the carries between Hansbrough and Murphy, does Hansbrough still have enough juice to put South Carolina away on 4th and goal? And in 2013, if Josey isn’t paced, does he have enough in him to put Texas A&M away late in the 4th quarter? As for that 2012, can we just forget it ever happened?
Let’s go back and examine how Pellini distributes his running back carries. With Abdullah averaging 23 touches a game, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby each average 5 a piece. My contention is that if Abdullah averaged fewer attempts and Cross and Newby saw a few more carries, the Husker offense would have more left in the tank once the second half rolled around. Because, truth be told, the Husker’s offense is about Abdullah, NOT Tommy Armstrong.
Against significantly inferior competition, this doesn’t really matter. However, against a team like Michigan St, the Huskers could have used a version of Abdullah that was closer to full strength. Would this have helped the Huskers complete their second half comeback attempt? We’ll never know, but it couldn’t have hurt.
A lot is said about a coach’s ability to manage the game. When most people talk about game management, they are talking about the play clock, when to go for it on 4th down or when to go for the 2 point conversion. My criticism of Pellini is his in-game management of personnel. I believe he is failing his team and his fan base in his use of Abdullah. His usage of Abdullah is also connected to the in-game management of Tommy Armstrong Jr. That’s a topic for another day.

Who's Left Standing? Predictions For the Weekend's Biggest Games

This weekend in college football sure should be something. I think I might be looking forward to it more than Christmas. Save the gifts, just give me another Saturday with this many ranked matchups. This very well may be the biggest weekend in recent memory in college football, at least in the regular season. There may have been other weekends with multiple ranked matchups, but this weekend has two programs (Ole Miss and Mississippi State) with chances at making a case they are elite. Throw in the potential playoff implications and chances are you’ll be glued to your seat for twelve or so hours Saturday. On a normal college football weekend, Baylor at Texas and Arizona State at USC would be marquee, entertaining matchups to look forward to all week. This week those two barely crack the Top 10. So which teams will begin to separate themselves from the pack and make early resume building statements? Let’s take a look at the week’s top games.
Arizona at Oregon
We have drastically different memories of these two teams. Arizona won its last game on a Hail Mary as time expired, while Oregon struggled to overcome Washington State on the road. Though Oregon’s defense isn’t great, I think their last game was a bit of a fluke compared to what we saw up to this point from them. Arizona has been one of the nation’s top offenses to this point and will put up points on the Ducks. Fortunately for Oregon, Arizona’s defense is worse than theirs. Anu Solomon will keep the Wildcats in the game for a while, but he’s still a freshman and this is his first time in a road environment like this. If Oregon were playing a team besides Arizona, I could see them over-looking this game a bit with UCLA next week, the way Arizona embarrassed them last year will have the team focused. The Marcus Mariota Heisman train keeps steaming ahead as the Ducks win 47-30.
LSU at Auburn
LSU suffered a somewhat shocking loss a couple weeks ago, losing at home to Mississippi State. Luckily they effectively had a bye week last week to recover before this Saturday at Auburn. These are similar teams who run the ball well, are hit and miss through the air, and have some question marks on defense. As Mississippi State showed, LSU’s defense is vulnerable compared to recent years and Auburn will find some success on the ground. I think the difference here is that Auburn’s aerial attack is less effective than the Bulldogs’ so LSU will be able to focus more on stopping the run. Arkansas was able to run the ball on Auburn in the opener and LSU will have similar success. Brandon Harris will do just enough in the passing game and lead the Bayou Bengals to a potential season-saving win, 38-34.
Oklahoma at TCU
The Oklahoma buzz saw has been rolling to start the year, but this will be their toughest game to date. Both teams have stifling defenses, and TCU’s will keep them in this game. The Horned Frogs have played minimal competition so far, but if you only give up 219 yards per game on defense you’re doing something right. Each team is similar at quarterback as well. Trevor Knight has played above average, but not nearly the potential Heisman candidate some had hoped. But he has been the pass/run threat the Sooners imagined coming into the year. On the flip side, TCU signal caller Trevone Boykin is a pretty similar player and if the two swapped teams, Boykin would be getting a lot more love nationally. This wouldn’t be the huge upset some think, but in the end the Sooners have playmakers at the skill positions that TCU doesn’t, and will help Oklahoma survive 24-20.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State
After the Bulldogs’ huge win at LSU, can they follow it up with an equally impressive win and get into the Top 10? It will take a sizeable effort, and Dak Prescott will have to match A&M QB Kenny Hill play for play. Both teams have sound running games as well, so the scoreboard operator should get a good night’s sleep. Mississippi State will have to be successful on offense to keep their defense off the field. It’s a defense that is ranked #124 in passing yards allowed per game. At least Texas A&M’s offense isn’t predicated on throwing the ball. Oh wait, Kenny Hill is only the nation’s third leading passer in yards. The Bulldogs are flying high right now, but they’ll be falling hard Saturday after Kenny Hill carves up Mississippi State’s secondary and gets back in the Heisman conversation. Aggies win on the road 37-31.
Stanford at Notre Dame
Stanford and Notre Dame will give us the type of game we don’t see much of anymore. In today’s college football, even SEC teams are running some hurry up and spread offenses and on rare occasions do we get a classic defensive battle. It will be a nice change of pace compared to the scores likely put up in the day’s other big matchups. The teams are relatively equal at quarterback between Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Notre Dame’s Everett Golson. Each defense has been in lock-down mode so far as well, but Notre Dame hasn’t been tested the way Stanford has. The Fighting Irish’s biggest win was against Michigan, which isn’t exactly looking like a great win anymore. Notre Dame will still keep Stanford’s offense in check most of the game, but they won’t be able to overcome the Cardinal defense. Stanford is giving up 74 passing yards a game (is that even possible?), and Notre Dame doesn’t have a dynamic running game to fall back on. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will take home this game, and that’s going to be Stanford, 16-13.
Alabama at Ole Miss
How long have Ole Miss fans waited for this day? Undefeated, ranked 11, and a Top 5 Alabama team rolling into town. Both teams have great defenses statistically, but Bama’s has been challenged more than the Rebels’ has. They each rank Top 5 in total yards allowed, but Alabama is giving up only 62 rushing yards per game. This means the game is likely going to come down to the quarterbacks. This will be Blake Sims’ first true road start, but for some reason I still trust him more than Bo Wallace. Maybe it’s because Wallace has already thrown six interceptions this year against defenses nowhere near the quality of Alabama’s. The Tide will also be able to grind out more yards on the ground putting less pressure on Sims than what Wallace will shoulder. Even with turning the ball over way too much, Alabama dominated Florida. Ole Miss is much better than Florida, but they’re in for a rude awakening here. The Rebels could find themselves in the Top 5 after this week if things break right, but that won’t happen. The Tide gets an easier-than-the-score-indicates win 31-20.
Nebraska @ Michigan State
This might be the Big 10’s biggest game of the rest of the season so they better make it count. The Spartans won’t have another challenging game until the conference championship besides a visit from Ohio State on November 8th. They have waited almost a month to get a chance at proving themselves after the Week 2 loss at Oregon. While it isn’t nearly the signature win they would like, a dominating performance would help restore Michigan State’s image of being playoff worthy. That’s something they should be able to do here. Nebraska looks good on paper because they’re 5-0 and ranked 19th, but they haven’t really played anybody. They can run the ball almost at will, but the defense hasn’t really been tested and against the toughest team they played (Miami), Brad Kaaya threw for over 300 yards and Duke Johnson averaged over five yards per carry. That’s not a good sign heading into a game against a Michigan State offense that is adept at both passing and throwing behind Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford. Nebraska will also have to travel for this game. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond will neutralize Nebraska’s passing attack (if you can call it that). Drummond didn’t play well against Oregon, but Marcus Mariota and that offense can make a lot of defenses look bad. And Tommy Armstrong ain’t Marcus Mariota. This will allow the Spartans to stack the box and limit Heisman candidate Ameer Abdullah. The Huskers won’t be able to do enough on offense and the Spartans get back in the playoff hunt, winning 38-20.

A Darkhorse Heisman: Can anyone catch Marcus Mariota?

As the first third of the college football season comes to a close, most of the focus has been on which teams are in the best position to make the playoff. And rightfully so, as it is the most exciting thing about this young season. But in every other year, more talk would have focused on which players are off to great starts and can use their early season momentum into a Heisman campaign. The Heisman talk has taken somewhat of a backseat to the playoff discussion. This year, like all others, we are already seeing a few players separate themselves from the rest of the pack as favorites to be invited to the ceremony.
I won’t spend much time on the current favorites since they’re pretty obvious and universal at this point. Marcus Mariota was on his way to a possible trophy last year before a mid-season injury, and has picked up right where he left off. Combined with the potential for an undefeated season, he is the clear front runner having accounted for 16 touchdowns and 0 interceptions so far this year. In either order close behind him are Todd Gurley and Amari Cooper. Gurley is averaging on astonishing 9.8 ypc up to this point and has dominated in Georgia’s two biggest games of the year, versus Clemson and South Carolina. Meanwhile Amari Cooper is merely leading the nation in receptions and receiving yards for a Top 5 Alabama team. Both players will put up ridiculous stats this year, but it will still be difficult for them to bring home the award since neither are a quarterback.
Currently rounding out my Top 5 are Dak Prescott and Ameer Abdullah. I’m not sure why Prescott isn’t getting more love. He has as impressive of stats as the other “non-Top 3” Top Heisman contenders on ESPN’s Heisman Watch and led his team to the best win out of those players (with the possible exception of Kenny Hill vs. South Carolina). He’s only completing 60% of his passes, but has thrown for 11 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions and has added 378 yards and 3 scores on the ground. He’ll get more chances to prove himself in the next couple weeks with visits from Texas A&M and Auburn. If he plays well, Prescott will remain in the Heisman conversation for most of the year as long as Mississippi State is able to go 1-1 in those games. Abdullah hasn’t led Nebraska to a huge win yet, but he has been racking up the rushing yards and had his best game in his team’s biggest game of the season so far against Miami (Fl.) last week. He also already has his Heisman moment with his incredible touchdown reception to save the day against McNeese St.
There are some fairly common other players being mentioned just on the fringe of the Heisman discussion, but I’m going to skip past them and look at some long-shots. There are a few players who have played really well, and even though most people know who they are, they haven’t really been mentioned in Heisman talks for one reason or another. These are my Top 5 sleeper picks to make it to the Heisman ceremony.
1. Blake Sims – QB Alabama

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The first few weeks made us wonder if the quarterback position would hold Alabama back from being a true national title contender. This was understandable considering the relative lack of passing game the Tide showed in the first few weeks. But Blake Sims was unleashed last week against Florida, and proved he is capable of making big plays in the passing game. Because of the conservative nature of the offense the first few games, the counting stats aren’t there yet for Sims. But he’s completing just fewer than 70% of his passes and last week showed he can rack up the yards and touchdowns if OC Lane Kiffin continues to air it out. He’ll need to finish with at least 35 touchdowns, but as the QB for one of the nation’s top teams, he has the stage and talent around him to make it happen.
2. DJ Foster – RB Arizona State
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

DJ Foster is an explosive RB in the Reggie Bush mold. The Sun Devils have only played three games so far, but Foster has already rang up 649 yards from scrimmage to go with 6 touchdowns, all while averaging 9.4 ypc. Though they haven’t played much quality opposition, Foster’s worst game of the year so far is 173 yards and 3 touchdowns. The opposition will get tougher now that Pac-12 play is starting, and Foster gets the chance to make a huge statement tonight. With starting quarterback Taylor Kelly out due to injury, if Foster has a huge game and leads Arizona State to an upset win at home over UCLA, Foster will start to gain momentum in the Heisman race.
3. James Conner – RB Pittsburgh
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Conner, the 250 pound running back for the Pittsburgh Panthers, is tallying impressive rushing totals. He has 699 yards and 9 touchdowns already on 6.4 ypc. He also doesn’t have a game with less than 5.3 ypc. The competition may have not been the greatest, but that’s something that isn’t going to change. The Panthers play a weak schedule even by ACC standards, avoiding Florida State and Clemson. Last year Andre Williams finished 4th in the Heisman voting for a 7-5 Boston College team simply because his stats were so impressive. With Pittsburgh’s dedication to the run game (or unwillingness to risk throwing), I see no reason Conner doesn’t have a good chance at putting up a stat line that gets him close to New York.
4. Shane Carden – QB East Carolina

shane-carden

Carden’s candidacy is based both on putting up stats and quality wins. Playing in the American Conference he will certainly not have the big stage other contenders do so he will have to total astonishing stats. That is something he is on pace to do, currently totaling 1,469 yards through the air with 11 passing touchdowns to go along with 3 on the ground. He led East Carolina to a close defeat at South Carolina and followed that up by toasting Virginia Tech and North Carolina to the tune of 865 yards with 10 touchdowns and only 1 interception in the next two games. While he doesn’t have any marquee games left, if he could light up those ACC schools just imagine what he’ll do in American Conference play. They’ll have to win out and go 11-1, but a 4,500 yard season with 40+ touchdowns isn’t out of the question; those are stats that would keep him in the discussion.

5. Dylan Thompson – QB South Carolina

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dylan Thompson is another case where his team will need to win out for him to have a chance. But if the Gamecocks can rattle off 12 straight wins after an opening loss and win the SEC, Thompson is the quarterback for what would be a Top 3 team. He has completed 66.7% of his passes since the opener and even in that opening game loss he threw 4 touchdowns. In South Carolina’s last two games, which came against SEC opponents, Thompson threw 8 touchdowns and only 1 interception. A lot would need to go right, but if Thompson can keep up that kind of efficiency throughout conference play, seeing him finish in the Top 5 wouldn’t be all that far-fetched.

2015 NFL Draft Prospects (QB, RB Edition)

The 2015 NFL Draft projects to be plentiful with quality running backs and quarterbacks, but I wanted to delve deeper into this group than the usual suspects of: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, and Todd Gurley. I think an abundance writers have been penned many superlative articles about the top Heisman Trophy candidates and quite frankly I find anointing players as “can’t miss” usually leads a draft analyst down the primrose path. My list includes Heisman hopefuls, likely first round picks, and small college studs that will be fighting for an opportunity to compete at the combine, in February.
Ameer Abdullah RB Sr. Nebraska 5’9 195
Abdullah, an Alabama native, spurned SEC schools that recruited him as a corner because he believed in his ability to run the football. It would appear that Abdullah knows best and the gamble to go to Nebraska has paid off. With the running back position being devalued in the NFL (none taken in the first round in 2014) it is imperative that a player offers more than just running the ball. Ameer Abdullah has showcased his great return skills and hands during his career in Lincoln. He is a capable blocker despite his diminutive size and has excellent hands, (50 receptions last two years) vision, and breakaway speed. I think with most teams employing a two running back system, coupled with his incredible return skills, Ameer Abdullah projects anywhere from the 2nd-4th round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Jeremy Langford RB Sr. Michigan State 6’0 205
Jeremy Langford has enjoyed a nice career at MSU and starts this season on the Doak Walker watch list. Last season Langford enjoyed a banner campaign for the Rose Bowl Champions; he had 1422 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 28 receptions and 18 touchdowns. While Langford needs to learn to be patient in letting his blocks develop (it’s not speed TO the hole but speed THROUGH the hole) sometimes he runs straight into the pile; he’s a great blocker, makes one cut and goes downhill. He runs with great body lean and always moves the pile while falling forward. Langford is the type of running back that projects as a mid round pick but could easily rush for 1,000 yards multiple times and have a stellar NFL career.
David Johnson RB Sr. Northern Iowa 6’1 215
If I were to predict one running back currently in college to usurp Marshawn Lynch and become next “Beastmode” David Johnson would be the guy. Johnson runs the ball with a violent thudding style where he is the aggressor not the would be tackler. Johnson is a workhorse for the Panthers, amassing 3,129 yards, 103 receptions, and 44 TD’s; during his career at Northern Iowa. Johnson begins 2014 on the Walter Payton watch list (FCS Heisman) and like Langford could be another mid round selection that contributes mightily during his rookie year.
Trayion Durham RB/FB Sr. Kent State 6’1 248
I would be remiss if I didn’t include one fullback prospect on my list, even as the evolution of the Spread Offense has made the position a bit of an anomaly. While at Kent State, Durham hasn’t been the typical battering ram type of Moose Johnston traditional fullback (2755 yards and 24 TD’s) he projects as one in the NFL. He is much more than just a lead blocker on the blast however. He and Dri Archer (3rd round 97th pick Steelers) combined in 2013 to be one of the most prolific tandems in the country. Durham has some wiggle and it is a matter of which team drafts him and how they choose to utilize him that will ultimately decide his professional fate. Whether he gets designated as a big back like a Jerome Bettis or a fullback really doesn’t matter. I expect Durham to enjoy a lengthy career in the league.
Bret Hundley QB Jr. UCLA 6’3 227
Hundley was the first five star QB prospect (Scout.com) to ever sign with the Bruins. Last season Hundley had a completion percentage of 67.2 and threw for 24 TD’s with 9 Ints.
The UCLA signal caller possesses all the tangible physical metrics that would seemingly guarantee him NFL success. Athleticism, arm strength, and size are all features Hundley has an abundance of. In 2014 Hundley will need to show more poise and confidence working through his progressions. During the NFL evaluation process next spring it’ll be vital for Hundley to demonstrate that he can effectively read defenses, like he will have to do at the next level. UCLA’s offense is almost exclusively shotgun so he will have to showcase good footwork and technique from under center. With that being said, I fervently expect Hundley to be a 1st-2nd round pick in 2015 and with a transcendent year Hundley could very easily vault ahead of Winston and Mariota and find himself at the very top of the draft. If Hundley struggles, it would behoove him to come back to school and he will be at the very top of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Sean Mannion QB Sr. Oregon State 6’5 220
Mannion is the definition of a pure pocket passer, in the mold of a Drew Bledsoe. He displays a cannon arm and has nice touch on his intermediate passes. When he’s under fire he tends to fade in the pocket instead of stepping up to get better velocity on his throw. His mobility is limited but he has the arm to make all the throws in the NFL. In 2013 Mannion threw for a PAC 12 record 4,662 yards and OSU record 37 TDs. Right now I’d put Mannion in the 3rd to 4th round range but with the caveat that he could quickly develop into a franchise QB.
Kevin Rodgers QB Sr. Henderson State 6’3 215
There isn’t a quarterback playing in college currently that has had a more prolific career than Kevin Rodgers. Rodgers has put up back to back 4,000 yard passing seasons in Henderson State’s vaunted Scorched Earth Offense and lead the Reddies to the D2 playoffs the past two seasons. Rodgers football cognition is off the charts. He is able to process and decipher coverages on the fly with relative ease. He displays surprising velocity and throws an accurate ball. The 2013 Great American Conference Player of the Year and Harlon Hill Finalist (D2 Heisman) is now on the NFL radar and will look for a spot in a post season all star game to ascend up NFL draft boards; much like Jimmy Garrapolo (Eastern Illinois, 2nd round Patriots) did this year.
Whether they play “big time” college football or at a small school the NFL doesn’t discriminate if you can play. Whether you play in the SEC or NAIA all college players dream of a chance to play in the league. These players have all had remarkable collegiate careers and look to build on their past successes and become just another rookie in 2015. With a healthy and productive 2014, I expect all seven of these players to hear their name called at the 2015 NFL Draft. Look for my prospects column throughout the season, as well as my picks column. Follow me on twitter: @purebredwarrior to stay up on all things cool.

Kevin Rodgers, Henderson State
Kevin Rodgers, Henderson State

Bret Hundley, UCLA
Bret Hundley, UCLA

Who to Watch in 2014: Big Ten Edition

With draft picks firmly entrenched in training camp and the college season tantalizingly close, it only makes sense for fans to start identifying the new stars of the college game.  Certain players are no brainers such as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.  They were great last season and, barring injury, will continue to be great this season.  However, looking deeper into who the experts think will be good NFL prospects, the skill position player pool thins quickly.  Many 2015 NFL mock drafts are very lineman (defensive and offensive) heavy in the first round.  While it is not out of the realm of possibility that a fan might want to watch a lineman, it typically is not the primary reason for a person who is not already a fan of a team to sit down and watch a game solely because of a lineman.  With that said, here are some Big Ten players to keep an eye on this season.
If you want to watch a quarterback: Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.
It is hard to not like a mobile quarterback in the Urban Meyer system.  Miller has always been able to make and extend plays with his legs and is becoming a good passer.  Essentially his skillset combined with the playmakers around him make Ohio State a defensive nightmare.  Miller has a ton of motivation coming into this season as he has the opportunity to cement himself as a viable and potentially great NFL quarterback prospect with a productive senior year.
If you want to watch pass rushers: Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun.
Gregory is a former junior college player who recorded 10.5 sacks in 10 games for Nebraska.  He clearly showcased talent and a knack for getting to the quarterback and could prove to be a game changer this upcoming season.  Likewise, Calhoun was an impact player for the Spartans last year as he accounted for 14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and 18 quarterback hurries.  If you are a fan of watching a quarterback run for his life, tune into Michigan State and Nebraska games and you might just get your wish.
If you want to watch running backs: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.
There is a reason why Melvin Gordon is in the first round of many 2015 NFL mock drafts; he is explosive, quick, and powerful.  He averaged 7.8 yards a carry for Wisconsin last year.  Looked at in a vacuum, this number is impressive and becomes more impressive considering the Badgers’ had the serviceable, but not spectacular, Joel Stave at quarterback and opposing teams knew that they had to stop the run to beat Wisconsin.  Currently, Ameer Abdullah needs 1,783 yards to pass Mike Rozier and become the leading rusher in Nebraska history.  With Nebraska’s quarterback position in flux, the explosive and exciting Abdullah should be in line for many touches per game.
Other players in the Big Ten will undoubtedly emerge in the 2014 season, but these players are thought to be good NFL prospects, with the possible exception of Braxton Miller who scouts still question as a viable NFL quarterback.  If you are bored on a Saturday and your favorite team has already played or has a bye week, consider checking some NFL draft projections and watching a player who might be a possible early round pick.
Others: Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan; Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan; Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State; Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State

Sleeper Teams for the College Football Playoff

It’s really hard not to make predictions. It all starts with the preseason polls. No matter how much some hate the fact that the rankings start before any team has taken a snap, it’s difficult not to look at them and project. Which teams are too high? Which are too low? The anticipation is even higher this year with the playoff, and we’ve already begun to see plenty of experts’ predictions of which teams will be fortunate enough to find themselves in the first playoff. Equally as difficult as resisting making predictions is picking the top teams in those predictions. After all, that’s why they’re preseason Top 5 or Top 10 teams. They are perceived to be the best teams at the start of the season, so why wouldn’t we expect them to make the playoff? As much as I’d like to think I have the best teams pegged in my Top 10, chances are one or two teams that ultimately wind up in the playoff will start the season outside of the top 10. Based on talent, experience, and schedules I’ve put together a list of the sleeper teams with the best chance to make the playoff that start the season outside of the Coaches Poll Top 10.
 
1. LSU
It’s tough to call LSU a sleeper team considering their recent success, but I feel this year, if any, they qualify. Counting on so many freshmen on offense has them flying somewhat under the radar this year. Behind a dominant run game and a defense that will be stifling as usual, the Tigers have as good a shot as any outside the top 10 to make the playoff. A win in the opener over Wisconsin would give them early momentum and conference games at Auburn, at Florida, and against Alabama (with a bye week beforehand) give LSU ample opportunities to make a statement.
 
2. USC
The Trojans have as much starting talent as most of the top teams in the country, but they will need to stay mostly healthy considering their lack of depth. If they can, a great defense and stable of running backs will keep USC in every game this year. Getting a win at Stanford early in the season would set the Trojans up with a great chance of being 10-0 heading into their rivalry game at UCLA. Depending on the season UCLA has, a split in their final two games (@UCLA, Notre Dame) and USC could find themselves in the Pac-12 championship with a spot in the playoff on the line.
 
3. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish came out of nowhere for their championship game appearance a couple years ago and could do the same this season. If Everett Golson can pick up where he left off from that championship game appearance, he and an improved defense could lead ND to another run. If we’re being realistic, with Notre Dame’s history and their difficult schedule, they will probably have the same leeway SEC teams will get. Even if Notre Dame has two losses, I can see a scenario where splitting their four toughest games (Stanford, at Florida State, at Arizona State, at USC) has Notre Dame sitting at 10-2 and squarely in the discussion for a playoff spot.
 
4. Ole Miss
I feel a natural drop-off at this point in teams’ chances. It’s not that Ole Miss isn’t talented. They’re one of the most experienced teams in the SEC, with the best returning quarterback in the conference. But have they accumulated enough talent to navigate a brutal schedule? If no teams go undefeated, Ole Miss may have a chance at making the playoff with two losses. An SEC title game win over a top 10 team (likely Georgia or South Carolina) might be enough to overcome two regular season losses. Fortunately for the Rebels, they get their toughest opponents at home outside of a trip to LSU.
 
5. Texas
Texas has the talent, but Charlie Strong’s impact on the team’s discipline on and off the field will have to take effect immediately. Texas should run the ball almost at will, and the defense should be vastly improved with health and a defensive minded head coach. The Longhorns can make an early season statement against Top 10 UCLA, and not having to go on the road to face Baylor or Oklahoma puts Texas in a prime spot to be a dark horse title contender.
 
6. Nebraska
This is where you start to see some of the long-shot teams. These teams will have to have a lot of “ifs” come true, but you could’ve said the same about Auburn before last season started. Nebraska will have one of the better defenses in the Big 10, and have one of the best running backs in the country in Ameer Abdullah to carry the offense. Thanks to injuries, QB Tommy Armstrong was able to get his feet wet last year and should come into this year more confident. Playing in East Lansing gives Nebraska the chance for a marquee win, and the rest of the schedule is manageable with games against Miami (Fl.), at Wisconsin, and at Iowa. They then would have the Big 10 title game against Ohio State or Michigan State to further prove their case.
 
7. Florida
Florida might be the most polarizing team going into the year. Some feel they are Top 25 worthy based on the talent on hand and considering the injuries they had last year. Others feel like a team that was 4-8 last season has no business being ranked to start the year. I tend to lean towards the idea that this is a new year and Florida has the defense that makes them a Top 25 team and a sleeper in the playoff race. They will need to get drastically better on offense, but if the new spread offense more suited to Jeff Driskel’s skills takes off even a little it will make the Gators tough to beat. A typical SEC schedule will give Florida more than enough opportunities to make a statement. As long as they can keep from getting housed by Florida State like last year, a one or two loss Florida Gator SEC championship team would likely make the playoff.
 
8. North Carolina
This is where the real long-shots begin. North Carolina will be experienced with 15 starters returning from a team that was 5-1 down the stretch. That success coincided with a change at quarterback to Marquise Williams. Even with a non-conference game against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels will only be able to afford one loss max during a soft ACC schedule. They would also need to pull off a drastic upset of Florida State in the ACC Championship game to prove their worthiness.
 
9. TCU
Running game, efficient quarterback play, and dominant defense. That’s what TCU will have to rely on if they want to have a chance at making the playoff. The defense should be there and they have enough quality running backs to be successful in that area. However, the Horned Frogs will need transfer QB Matt Joeckel to acclimate himself to the offense and be able to make enough plays to keep the chains moving. With the lack of a conference championship game and starting the season so low in the polls, TCU will have to run the table to keep their hopes alive. Getting conference favorite Oklahoma at home helps, but games at Baylor and Texas will require a 2013 Auburn-like run to make it a reality.
 
10. Marshall
Marshall has a real chance at going undefeated. Dark horse Heisman candidate Rakeem Cato leads an offense that will be one of the best in the country statistically. They also return 10 of their 11 top tacklers which should make the defense good enough. The problem is Marshall plays absolutely nobody of significance even in the non-conference. There will be plenty of support in some circles that a team from a non-major conference deserves a shot if they had a great season. However the only scenario this happens is if Marshall dominates almost every week on their way to an undefeated season, and many of the major conference champions have two losses.

Pre-Season Top 25: 21-25

tommy_armstrong
If there’s one thing college football fans love (and love to hate), it’s countdowns and pre-season polls. But pre-season polls indicate that the college football season is right around the corner, a positive sign that is one thing all college football fans can agree on. My idea of a Top 25 poll is not who I think will finish the season where, or a list of teams descending from 0 losses to 1 loss to 2 losses, etc., but for the most part which team I think would win on a neutral field. I will be unveiling my personal top 25 in groups of five, starting with 25. The season starts in six weeks, with my top 5 teams in the country coming out the week the season starts. I had a lot of fun putting this list together, so hopefully you’ll enjoy reading it (and forget everything once the season starts and a pick inevitably goes horribly wrong).
 

25. TCU

While TCU had a forgettable season last year, that will allow them to surprise some people this year. The offense should be improved this season if for no other reason than it can’t be worse than it was last year. Transfer Matt Joeckel will hopefully bring consistency to the offense and allow Trevone Boykin to focus at WR. With a solid offensive line, TCU should have a productive running game with B.J. Catalon and Aaron Greene, who both showed promise in limited time last year. However, the defense is what is going to carry the Horned Frogs this fall. They return nine starters from the Big 12’s second ranked defense and add Devonte Fields, who had 10 sacks as a freshman in 2012 but missed most of last year due to injury, and junior college transfer S Kenny Iloka who had 126 tackles last year. The Horned Frogs lost to Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Baylor all by three points or less last year, and I expect them to turn some of those close calls into upsets this season.
 

24. Michigan

Michigan, like TCU, is a team coming off a disappointing year but will make a slight resurgence because of its defense. The D returns eight starters including all three linebackers. Desmond Morgan and Jake Ryan, both seniors, will help form one of the top LB units in the nation. Michigan could push for a top 20 finish in rush defense which will be crucial in the Big 10. The offense has a little more uncertainty. The offensive line was a disaster last year and the team loses Jeremy Gallon, one of the most productive wide outs in school history. On the plus side, Devin Gardner’s return will ensure the offense doesn’t fall too far, and it will be hard not to improve on the 3.5 ypc of departed starting running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Incoming top recruit Jabrill Peppers should add much needed playmaking to the defense and return game, and possibly the offense as well. The Wolverines will have just enough offense to complement the defense. They trade Nebraska and Iowa on the schedule from the West division for Minnesota and Northwestern which will help them to only their second nine win season since the Lloyd Carr era.
 

23. Notre Dame

Notre Dame should have a solid team again this year, but not one I see challenging for a playoff spot just yet. The Fighting Irish will have a formidable defense as they have the last few seasons, helped by having NFL talent on all three levels. Linebacker Jaylon Smith will improve on the potential he showed last year as a true freshman and the defense will be aided by Florida transfer CB Cody Riggs. On the other side of the ball, the offensive line will need to come together as it is a little inexperienced. Regardless, the skill positions should thrive. The run game will be a strength with the return of leading rusher Cam McDaniel and highly touted RB Greg Bryant, who missed most of last year. The big story however is the return of QB Everett Golson, who led the team to the National Championship two years ago but was suspended all of last year. He should be a better QB than his freshman season and with the run game should keep the Irish offense humming.
 

22. Wisconsin

Expectations seem to be unrealistically high for this year’s Wisconsin team. As a Wisconsin resident that pains me to say, but much of it likely is the result of their soft schedule. However, I’m not sure how good the team will actually be. They lose eight starters from a defense that gave up only 16.3 points per game, and every member of the front seven will be a new starter. That doesn’t bode well in a conference known for running the ball (or for a season opener against LSU). Luckily the offense should continue to put up points in bunches. You can always count on the Badgers’ offensive line, and behind that will be one of the best RB tandems in college football with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Joel Stave, if he even ends up the starter, will have to be much more consistent for Wisconsin to sniff double digit wins. The talk of being a playoff sleeper is a pipe dream based on the schedule, and Badger fans should be happy with a 9 win season and a spot in the Capital One bowl.
 

21. Nebraska

Rounding out our group of five for today is another team that will rely on its defense and a strong running game. The defense returns seven starters and should have a stout front seven with all three staring linebackers coming back and a defensive line led by potential Top-10 pick Randy Gregory. The offense returns five of its top six pass catchers but will once again be led by the rushing of Ameer Abdullah, one of the best running backs in the nation. Abdullah was overshadowed some by Melvin Gordon last year but actually finished with more rushing yards. Ultimately, the offense’s success will be determined by the improvement of QB Tommy Armstrong. Taylor Martinez’s injury allowed Armstrong to get a lot of starting experience last year, which will prove valuable this fall, as I believe he leads them to the Big 10 championship game.
 
Check back next Monday for teams 16-20 and to see which ACC, Pac-12, and SEC team will be the first to show up from its conference.