- One Michigan State receiver is suspended for the spring, while two others are stepping up in his place. Spartans' DL Lawrence Thomas might finally approach his potential this year.
- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood is only comfortable with the depth on one of the team's two lines.
- An excellent look at Minnesota QBs coach Jim Zebrowski.
- A closer look at Purdue's proposed renovations in the south end of Ross-Ade Stadium.
- Iowa DT Carl Davis is simply indispensable. Hawkeye fans likely must wait until next week to see a prime-time game.
- James Franklin has quickly put Penn State atop the recruiting period, but can PSU stay there?
- A good breakdown of Ohio State's new-look defense. There's still a chance the Buckeyes play Michigan State at night on Nov. 8.
- Kain Colter's pro day at Northwestern is closed to the media. Northwestern's recruiting surge continues with two more commitments.
- Jake Cotton and Alex Lewis solidify the left side of Nebraska's offensive line.
- Sporting News ranks the Big Ten coaches. A look around the Big Ten West Division.
- Wrapping up Indiana's spring practice.
- Brady Hoke says Michigan's offensive line is better than it looked in the spring game.
The top-ranked prospects tend to wait out the process, so there are still some huge names at the top of Big Ten recruiting boards. The top targets will be fought over by most teams within the conference, which will make for some interesting recruiting battles.
Here is a look at the top five targets within the Big Ten in the 2015 ESPN 300.
DE Jashon Cornell
6-4, 270 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: No. 16
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It was partly a reflection of the confidence the Ohio State coach has in the freshmen set to enroll in June, but it was also somewhat of a warning that there is a lot of work to do on the offensive line after a shaky performance for a rebuilding unit in the spring game.
But either way, the brief, matter-of-fact statements highlighted just how critical restocking the offensive line is to Meyer after leaning so heavily on it during a pair of record-setting seasons to start his career with the program.
“That’s hard for an offensive lineman, but that’s an area where we’ve got to get back to where we [were] -- maybe not where we were, but close.”
Replacing four senior starters with three true freshmen isn’t exactly the kind of formula that would get the Buckeyes back to the level they were at a season ago up front. And while Meyer wasn’t actually suggesting those talented signees are capable of coming in and winning first-team roles right away, based on some issues blocking backup defenders in a spring game that featured five sacks, finding a spot on the two-deep certainly isn’t out of the question.
Ohio State has enough options on hand to fill out the lineup in the fall, but 15 workouts didn’t provide as much clarity as about that unit as Meyer would have liked. He’s officially named Taylor Decker a starter at left tackle and Pat Elflein has won a job at guard, but leaving three vacancies and name-dropping players who have never practiced with the program is a far cry from leaving camp a year ago with a group that was essentially carved in stone and loaded with experience.
“Coach Meyer likes to have the depth chart set leaving spring, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Decker said. “That battle will just continue through camp. There’s good and bad to it, but I’d say there’s more good to it.
“It’s good because there’s that competition there, so there’s going to be a sense of urgency. You’re not going to have guys taking days off, taking plays off in practice because you still have to earn that spot.”
The downside is potentially not having a chance to develop the chemistry and familiarity that was such a critical component of the offensive line’s success last season, though tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood both seem like safe bets to keep working with the first-team offense after spending all spring there. The race to start at center remains tight, though Jacoby Boren brings a bit of experience to the mix as he jockeys with Billy Price for that crucial gig in the middle of the spread offense.
But regardless of who wins those jobs, it figures to be imperative for Meyer and the Buckeyes to identify the right fits for those final three spots to get the ball rolling to try to reach the high standard set by the linemen in the last couple seasons. Once those spots are nailed down, Meyer can give his attention to a group of newcomers looking to avoid redshirts and a depth chart that currently has a lot of openings.
“Offensive line is the one,” Meyer said. “We’ve got to really go from here.”
That process doesn’t start until June for a few guys. But even in April, Meyer made sure to include them in the plan.
- Despite all the fun and games, Nebraska is a serious Big Ten contender, Sam McKewon writes. Huskers QB Ryker Fyfe brings an edge to the huddle.
- Despite losing Brock Vereen, Minnesota appears to be reloading at cornerback for 2014.
- Ohio State joins Michigan and others in the running for offensive line transfer Chad Lindsay.
- Northwestern continues its recruiting surge with its sixth commitment since Friday. Northwestern's president fills in his colleagues about the union issue.
- Penn State is eager to take the shackles off of RB Zach Zwinak.
- Athlon debates whether Maryland or Rutgers has a better record in its first Big Ten season.
- A position-by-position breakdown of Illinois coming out of the spring.
- Some stats and notes from Iowa's open practice in Des Moines.
- Plenty of Wisconsin videos wrapping up the spring.
- "Every pound killed me," Purdue's Ra'Zahn Howard says of his dramatic weight loss.
- Running back and quarterback are among six Michigan position battles to watch exiting the spring.
- Recruit Ryan Watercutter (great name!) follows his father's footsteps and will play for Indiana.
- Several Big Ten coaches could learn from Bo Pelini's venture into fun.
The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.
Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:
Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*
Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
A few notes, quotes and observations:
November night games
Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.
"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.
"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.
Huskers, Lions back in prime
No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.
The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.
Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.
No limits on prime-time appearances
Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.
Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.
"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."
Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.
One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.
D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?
Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.
So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.
If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.
Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.
Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.
I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.
Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.
Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.
Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.
- Spring practice is over, but the evaluation process is just beginning for Penn State.
- Behind the cat jokes lies a serious contender at Nebraska, Sam McKewon writes.
- Ryan Russell is ready to become a leader for Purdue.
- Jalyn Powell and R.J. Shelton were surprise contributors in Michigan State's scrimmage on Saturday.
- Ten things we learned about the Ohio State defense on Saturday.
- Iowa is working on adding some personality to its team.
- Melvin Gordon has put up pictures of LSU, the national championship trophy and the College Football Playoff logo on his wall to keep himself motivated this year.
- A review of what Minnesota learned at its spring game.
- Notes and observations from Rutgers' practice on Saturday.
- The Maryland running back picture remains crowded.
It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.
“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”
The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.
A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.
Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.
“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”
Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.
“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”
However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.
“Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”
To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.” -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.
“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”
There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.
Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.
A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.
“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”
“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”
While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.
“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.
Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.
“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”
Including the defending SEC champs, here’s a look at three top 15 teams that I found to be overvalued in Steele’s ranks, and three that were undervalued.
Auburn Tigers (No. 4)
I do not wholly disagree that Auburn will begin the year as a top-five team, in the AP or any other poll; I’m just not sure that they should. Should they be in the top 10? Absolutely. But not No. 4.
The 2013 Tigers followed the same formula as the 2010 BCS title-winning team: an absurdly productive offense, led by an unparalleled run game and a defense with its share of liabilities. The Tigers’ D ranked 95th in yards per play (5.96).
Even defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson admitted to me last fall that it was a limited group, one susceptible to big plays. Auburn overcame that in the SEC title game against Missouri -- just keep scoring! -- but ultimately couldn’t in the BCS championship game against FSU.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.
The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.
But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.
“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”
Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.
Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.
Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.
And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.
Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.
So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.
The trick was knowing where to look.
“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”
The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller took to Twitter to insult the Wolverines' turnout for their spring game after Saturday's OSU game drew more than 61,000 fans. Michigan, who held their spring game April 5, drew about 15,000 fans on April 15.
- BRAXTON MILLER (@BraxtonMiller5) April 13, 2014
Miller did not get to participate in the game, as Ohio State's All-Big Ten quarterback sat out spring workouts after surgery on his throwing shoulder. Also sitting out were wide receiver Evan Spencer (ankle), safety Vonn Bell (knee), tight end Jeff Heuerman, wideout Jalin Marshall, H-back Dontre Wilson and starting offensive tackle Taylor Decker.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The entire roster wasn't on display, leaving some uncertainty about what Ohio State will look like at full strength. But heading into the offseason, there were still some lessons to be learned by the Gray's 17-7 victory over the Scarlet on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The secondary has improved
- The offense was short-handed, starting with the absence of a certain two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year at quarterback and including short or nonexistent workloads for key receivers. But the defensive backs showed the kind of improvement Urban Meyer demanded since last season's unit finished No. 110 in the country against the pass. In holding Cardale Jones to a 14-for-31 performance through the air without a touchdown, even with top returning cornerback Doran Grant on the sideline, the Buckeyes' defensive backs will head into the summer feeling good about their progress. Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley are both solid options at cornerback, with the former making a statement early in the game with a nice breakup on a deep ball down the sideline. And once Grant and injured safety Vonn Bell are back in the mix to play Ohio State's more aggressive man coverage this fall, the statistics should look drastically better.
- Jones made progress in several areas throughout the spring, and he's earned the right to head into training camp as the second-string quarterback. But Miller remains the most critical component in Ohio State's spread attack, and his absence was a major factor in what was largely a disappointing afternoon for the offense. Miller will be back from his shoulder surgery shortly and is cleared to resume throwing and working out in time for the offseason conditioning program. It is still obvious that the Buckeyes need him on the field if they're going to make a run at a championship this fall. He'll also need some better work from the offensive line than what the Buckeyes put on display in the exhibition, though not having guard Pat Elflein in pads and limiting tackle Taylor Decker's role didn't do the unit any favors Saturday.
- By now it should come as no surprise, but redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas again led the Buckeyes in receptions in the spring game, turned heads with some eye-popping grabs and looked like a future star on the perimeter. That's a familiar story with Thomas, who has dominated the spotlight during spring camp three years running and capped off the latest one with six catches for 64 yards, including a diving reception for a first down and a one-handed snag along the sideline that highlighted his athleticism and ability to haul in even balls thrown off target. The Buckeyes haven't settled on a true pecking order at receiver yet, though Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith are sure bets to take two top spots. One more time, it appears Ohio State should make room for Thomas in the rotation leaving spring, but obviously he'll need to follow it up with more standout work when practice begins again this summer.
New ESPN 300 Top 10 Revealed
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD California Northwestern TBD Indiana State Indiana TBD Jacksonville State Michigan State TBD Appalachian State Michigan TBD Florida Atlantic Nebraska TBD LSU Wisconsin TBD Youngstown State Illinois TBD Northern Iowa Iowa TBD Ohio State Navy TBD Western Michigan Purdue 8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF