Marcus Mariota, Jameis WinstonUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesBoth Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston have significant progress to make prior to the 2015 draft.
On Wednesday, Todd McShay released his Way-Too-Early 2015 Mock Draft. Yes, on Wednesday.

While the 2015 NFL draft is still more than 11 months away, it got me thinking: Who among this year's class of top-shelf college players will have the most to prove when the first whistles of the season start blowing Aug. 28?

Here are five projected first-round picks you should be keeping an eye on, because NFL front offices sure are.


Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State Seminoles

Wait, a Heisman winner has something to prove? Heck yeah he does, and while it does have something to do with football skills, it's really about what multiple NFL scouts have described to me over the years as the "knucklehead factor." From broken windows to sipping free sodas to “CrabGate” to the much more serious accusations of sexual assault, he hasn't been able to sidestep tales of questionable decisions.

The bad news for Winston is that there are already whispers among NFL folks that his immaturity is getting worse instead of better. The good news for him is that there already has been a precedent set that shows he can erase those questions as soon as the games finally begin.

"Last summer we were saying all this same stuff about another defending Heisman winner," one scout said, referring to the media madness that was preseason Johnny Manziel. "But once the games started and he stepped right back into being his old self on the football field, all that mess went away pretty quick. Yeah, he dropped through the first round some, but he was still a first-rounder."

On the field, it was widely reported throughout last fall that many NFL personnel evaluators would've rated Winston as the No. 1 pick had he been eligible for this year's draft. He can go downfield when he wants and has a built-in field vision that guides him through smart short-passing windows as well. But nearly all of those evaluators were still quick to point out the benefits of staying in school at least three years. When it comes to quarterbacks, pro front offices prefer four years on campus.
Vontaze BurfictAP Photo/Tom UhlmanVontaze Burfict went undrafted after a terrible pre-draft process in 2012.
Over the past two years, I’ve written four NFL draft-centric player profiles for ESPN The Magazine. In 2013, I visited with South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney. This year, I have chatted with ’12 NFL combine bust Vontaze Burfict and this year’s small-college Cinderella story (and star of ESPN’s “Draft Academy”) cornerback Pierre Desir.

Along the way, I spent time talking to players, coaches and administrators about the importance of how a college football program prepares outgoing players for the always stressful and frequently bizarre NFL draft experience.

Lattimore said he leaned on former teammates who had already endured the process in the handful of seasons leading up to his entry into the draft. And he grilled his coach, Steve Spurrier, on what to expect in the notoriously offbeat interviews and personality tests given by interested NFL execs and scouts. Spurrier, the Washington Redskins' coach just a decade ago, was able to lend some insight into the thought process behind the eccentric questions.

This year, it’s Lattimore who has done the advising, happily fielding inquiries from a large group of soon-to-be former Gamecocks hoping to hear their names called later this week. His help has been of particular value to likely No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney, who, like Lattimore, has spent some of his spring at Dr. James Andrews’ physical therapy facility in Gulf Breeze, Florida.

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Florida State's mindset to stay on top 

April, 18, 2014
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Karlos Williams and Jimbo Fisher Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher notes the confidence boost last year's championship provides.
As Florida State was beginning to gear up for its just-ended spring practices, head coach Jimbo Fisher chatted about the challenges of being the defending national champions, a position that both he as a coach and the program itself has been in before, but not together.

"We're the national champions and we should remember that, but also that last year was last year," Fisher said in March, previewing comments he would make to Ivan Maisel prior to last week's Garnet and Gold Game. "It's a line you have to walk, but hey, I'd rather be walking it than not!"

The Seminoles aren't the only program who spent spring and will go on spending summer and fall trying to find that balance between seizing the momentum of 2013 success while also instilling a sense of, "but don't get too comfortable, boys, we still have work to do."

So, how does a coach achieve that balance?

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Charlie StrongAP Photo/Eric GayCharlie Strong has quite a few issues to sort out heading into his first season at Texas.
"Nothing's broke here."

That's what Charlie Strong keeps saying. He said it when he was introduced as the new Texas head coach on Jan. 6. He's said it over and over to the groups of Longhorn supporters that he's spoken to over the past two and a half months. He's said it in the living rooms of recruits as he scrambled to save ESPN RecruitingNation's 16th-ranked class. And he said it again one week ago, to the Longhorn Network's Kaylee Hartung as his first team started spring practice.

But for a program that isn't broken, Strong has sure been doing a lot of fixing. The team has been brought back to campus to live in the same dorm. The players and staff no longer ride the bus to the practice field. They walk. And when the team lined up for its first official wind sprints of the spring, Strong lined up and took off with them.

In other words, old school.

"None of that should surprise you if you've ever spent any time around Charlie," said Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who retained only one assistant coach from the previous staff when he took over at Florida in 2005. That was Strong. "As a player you can't complain about working out when the coach is right there with you."

"Changing a culture is hard stuff," said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, entering his second year at the other UT in Knoxville, Tenn. "But it's something that you know will take a while to do. When it comes to the football stuff, time is not on your side. You have 15 spring practices to install playbooks and evaluate what you have."

So, what exactly does Strong have? What does he not? Here are the three biggest needs Texas must tackle before the April 19 Orange-White game.


3-4 or 4-3?

Strong is a defensive-minded coach and his bread-and-butter defense has been a 3-4 base formation. Under Mack Brown, Texas was a 4-3 program. So task No. 1 for Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is to determine whether they will stick with the 4-3 based on the personnel they inherited.

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Five coaches in make-or-break years 

March, 20, 2014
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Will MuschampStacy Revere/Getty ImagesTime may be running out for Will Muschamp on the Gators' sidelines.
When I receive feedback on my college football stories (go on and have at it at @ESPNMcGee or mcgeespn@yahoo.com), the vast majority comes from fans. Do I agree with them? Usually not. But do I love their passion? Absolutely.

However, when this space tackles the specific topic on tap today, the majority of the criticism comes from the men who make their living in the chosen profession about which I've just written.

"Oh man, not the hot seat again! I hate these stories!" That was the message with which my voicemail box greeted me the last time I wrote about head coaches who needed to get it into gear. The voice on the other end was Dan Hawkins, with whom I'd worked on ESPNU. When we first met on set, he was sure to call me out for saying he'd be fired from Colorado the previous year. But guess what had happened?

Yes, it is odd to discuss someone else's job fate. But the same coaches (and former coaches) who give me grief about speculating will also tell you one absolute truth about being a coach: A big part of the gig will be people predicting when you'll be fired. It is simply an accepted part of the gig.

"But," Hawk has said to me plenty, "not as big as the people screaming for you to be fired."

So now that my confessional is over, what five coaches enter spring staring at a make-or-break season? Read on ... but don't surprised if Hawk calls and gives you grief for doing so.

Will Muschamp, Florida Gators
Record at Florida: 22-16 (three years)
2013: 4-8

All seemed right in The Swamp when Mack Brown's former heir apparent led the Gators to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2012, his second season at Florida. But last year, the program posted its first losing season since 1979 and snapped a 22-year bowl streak. The historical hits kept on coming, including the first home loss to Vanderbilt since 1945 and a Nov. 23 loss to Georgia Southern, the program's first ever to a lower-division school.

And, according to the people in the college football industry that I talked to over the past week, the coach never did much to make his situation any easier.

"I've known Will for a long time," says a Big 12 coach, the first to address a topic that became a common theme throughout this list. "He's a good friend but he can be an acquired taste. With players, they love the intensity. But away from the practice field, if you don't know him, he can come off a little, um, prickly."


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Kevin SumlinAP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin spoke out against the proposal the rules committee is considering.
Ever since the NCAA football rules committee proposed the 10-second defensive substitution rule -- dubbed by many as the "slow-down" rule -- what is typically a quiet time on the college football calendar has felt more like WCW Starrcade.

"That's close," new Rutgers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen said recently. "But it actually feels more Capitol Hill politics. Trust me, I know. I coached at Maryland for a long time."

And that seems to be the most irritating rub of all: the politics.

In case you've been hibernating, here's the hurry-up version of what has happened: The rules committee, a collection of football minds covering all NCAA divisions and chaired by Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun, proposed what amounts to a 10-second pause after the start of the play clock in which time the offense can't snap the ball, which allows the defense a better chance to swap out players. That proposal will be on the table Thursday, when the NCAA's 11-member playing rules oversight committee votes on whether to make it an actual rule.

The 10-second idea was initially pitched as a safety issue, behind the argument that players aren't able to get off the field when their health is being compromised. In short, more plays equal more injuries. But coaches who live and breathe by fast-paced spread offenses -- a number that seems to grow each season -- argue that such safety concerns are nothing more than a Trojan horse, in which the "traditional" teams are seeking to slow down the game's offensive revolution.

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Top potential position-switchers for 2014 

February, 20, 2014
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Blake BellAP Photo/Darron CummingsBlake Bell will be playing tight end when the 2014 college football season begins.
Ah, the dark days of winter. Those that fall between national signing day and the start of spring practice. What exactly does a coaching staff do with this quiet time?

"I stare at the depth-chart board a lot," Larry Fedora admitted as signing day drew to a close and he started to concentrate fully on his third season as head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. "Who is coming back? Who fits where? Where might the new guys fit in? Honestly, I don't think you want the coaches to have too much time to fiddle around with that board, swapping guys in and out of different positions. We can start coming up with some crazy ideas."

Crazy? Well, yes, some of them are. But most are born of necessity.

"Obviously, you want your players in the positions where they are the most comfortable," new Penn State head coach James Franklin said after having some time to digest his Penn State roster, still very much affected by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and resulting NCAA sanctions. "But at the end of the day, I want to come as close to having my 22 best athletes on the field as I possibly can."

That means some position switching will likely be coming to Happy Valley, as it will throughout the land during the great experiment that is spring practice. What roster swaps will have the greatest impact on the 2014 college football season? It's too early to tell. But here are some potential flip-flops to keep an eye on this March and April:

Blake Bell, Oklahoma Sooners

Bell, the one-time heir apparent to Landry Jones, is no longer a Sooners quarterback. He's a tight end, officially handing over the QB duties to teammate Trevor Knight. As a junior in 2013, Bell ceded the QB job to Knight, who locked up the starter's role by leading OU to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. With Bell moving over to TE, and only a pair of freshmen and Texas Tech refugee Baker Mayfield behind Knight, the soon-to-be sophomore looks to have that job from now until he leaves Norman.

But you remember the Belldozer, don't you? The guy who scored 24 touchdowns in 104 rushes during his two years watching Jones under center? Now head coach Bob Stoops hopes to recapture that red zone magic using the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder as a tight end, the same position his father Mark played (as well as defensive end) during five seasons in the NFL.

"Blake wants to stay here and finish out. He wants to try tight end and I think it's a great fit," said Stoops.

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College coaches most coveted by the NFL 

February, 11, 2014
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Kevin SumlinAP Photo/Dave EinselWould Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin ever consider a move to the NFL?
You want to start a fight? Walk into a hotel lobby full of NFL executives and shout aloud the question, "Hey, do you think college coaches can make in the pros?" Then just sit back and watch the room turn into a bunkhouse stampede.

For decades it seemed the conga line of coaches moving in from college were sent back to campus with bruised egos and lopsided win-loss records. But in recent seasons, the results from head coaches who have moved over to the pros have been as good as they’ve been bad. At least they are certainly not the forgone conclusions they once were.

For every Nick Saban bailing on Miami or Greg Schiano being run out of Tampa Bay, there has been a Jim Harbaugh or Pete Carroll coaching in the Super Bowl or Chip Kelly mystifying the NFC East with the same fast-paced playbook that he was tweaking at the University of New Hampshire less than a decade ago.

So who among the current college coaching crop is the most coveted by the front offices of the NFL? We asked the pros, and these are the five names they mentioned most.


1. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M Aggies

Sumlin, whose name kept coming up in the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings rumor mills, is looked upon favorably for many reasons. Among them are his reputation for organization, personnel management (see: his handling of Johnny Football) and ease when dealing with the media and supporters, even during tough times (see: his handling of the Johnny Football fiasco).

But it's Kelly's success in Philadelphia that has cracked the door open to thinking about Sumlin as a viable pro candidate.

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ACC poised to return to elite level 

January, 29, 2014
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Jameis WinstonHarry How/Getty ImagesLed by BCS champ Florida State, the ACC gained a lot of momentum this past season.
On the night of Jan. 6, as the confetti fell from the sky over the Rose Bowl and Florida State took to the stage to hoist the BCS championship trophy, the biggest smile in the stadium didn't belong to anyone wearing a Seminoles jersey or even an FSU T-shirt. It belonged to the man in the very nice suit who stood off to the side, not in the middle of the celebration, but no less a part of it.

“Am I relieved?” ACC commissioner John Swofford said, repeating my question back to me with a smile. “I wouldn't say relieved. I’d say proud. Just really, really proud.”

Then, before walking away to join the team as it headed for the tunnel, he allowed himself a brief moment of confession. “This does feel great, doesn't it? It’s been awhile.”

Yes, it has. FSU’s second BCS title was its first since 2000 and its first appearance in the championship game since ’01. All of those numbers were true for the conference, as well. During the years between taking home crystal trophies, the ACC endured upheaval, scandal, endless public speculation of its seemingly imminent demise and, oh yeah, that brutal 3-13 all-time record in BCS bowls.

Funny what one win can do for a conference, right?

“Actually, it runs much deeper than just a BCS championship win,” observed Roy Kramer, father of the BCS, who was in Pasadena to see his creation’s final big night. “What John and his group have done with the ACC, over the last few years in particular, is remarkable. Within the industry, we have always recognized that. But it was always going to take some success on the field to turn the public tide of opinion. Now that’s happening. And they are set up for some big things in the near future.”

Kramer isn't alone in that opinion. Not even close. Here are the keys cited by others in the college sports world as to why the ACC is poised to return to being an elite-level college football conference.


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College football's best head-coaching jobs 

January, 13, 2014
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Stron/SarkisianGetty ImagesCharlie Strong and Steve Sarkisian have two of the best head coaching jobs in college football.
On the morning of Jan. 6, I sat in the media tent outside the Rose Bowl. The small handful of us already there was glued to the TV, watching as the Texas Longhorns introduced Charlie Strong as their newest football coach. That’s when one of the tent’s official attendants, who identified himself as a USC graduate, asked a question that has come up often in the past few months, especially when the jobs at USC (September) and Texas (December) became open. "If you were a football coach and you had your choice of any job in the country," he asked, pointing to the Longhorns' news conference broadcast with a hand that sported a USC class ring, "which one would you take?"

Inspired, I took that question around all day long, to current coaches, former coaches, former players and some of the suits who help run the nation’s most powerful athletic conferences. What’s the best head coaching job in college football and why? These were the five that came up the most, ranked in order of most desirable.


1. Texas Longhorns

Of the 24 people I polled in Pasadena, every single one mentioned Texas among their top five and more than half ranked it No. 1. “As a head football coach, you want to be put in position where football is priority one,” former Oregon Ducks coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Belotti said Monday. “At Texas, the numbers are just so overwhelming, whether you’re talking about the fan base, the size of the school itself, the tradition of winning, the massive number of recruiting talent in the state and, of course, the money.”

Ah yes, the money. No one spends more or makes more than Texas.

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Butch JonesAP Photo/Wade PayneArmed with a top recruiting class, Butch Jones and the Vols are poised to rise next season.
So many people out there love to complain about there being too many bowl games and too many teams playing in the postseason. Of course, that's easy to say if your team was one of the 70 teams playing and not one of the 54 teams sitting at home.

As legendary Tennessee head coach and tweeter from the great beyond @GeneralRNeyland posted last week: "To schools whose fans don't show up to their 'too small/too far away' bowl. Try sitting out a couple yrs. That'll fix it."

So who among 2013's non-bowl programs are most likely to rebound for a postseason berth one year from now? In order to find out, I talked to a variety of coaches and administrators for their leading candidates.

Here are the results, the five non-bowl teams most likely to rebound in 2014.


Tennessee Volunteers

2013 record: 5-7
Last bowl game: 2010 Music City Bowl (30-27 double-overtime loss to North Carolina)

This is where you say, “What? Over Florida?” But it only takes a few phone calls to football experts through the Southeast to convince you that the Vols, who haven't bowled in three years and just posted a fourth consecutive losing season for the first time in history, are on the more comfortable side of the SEC East growth curve than the Gators.

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Five 'sleeping giant' programs 

November, 22, 2013
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Todd GrahamChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesTodd Graham and the Sun Devils have a lot of momentum going into 2014 and beyond.
No matter what happens to Baylor this weekend versus Oklahoma State (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, ABC) and the rest of the season, is there a better story in college football in the past few seasons than the Bears?

For those of us of a certain age, we remember when games against the Bears were an opportunity for bigger programs to wipe off their shoes and get some walk-ons into a game before moving on to the next real opponent. There would be rare stretches when the Bears would crack the top 25 and make a bowl game, and there were certainly a handful of great players to come through, but Baylor’s place in the college football world was a foregone conclusion -- a weaker cousin to the bigger brand names in Texas and the Southwest.

Then came Art Briles, Robert Griffin III and wins over TCU and Oklahoma. That led to a Heisman, three consecutive bowl games for the first time in the program’s 115-year history and (surprise) enough cash flow to finally ditch dilapidated Floyd Casey Stadium for a new $260 million facility in 2014. Now the Bears are the BCS Cinderella story of the season, sitting 9-0 with a legitimate shot to play for the Vizio BCS National Championship.

“A turnaround like Baylor’s gives a lot of other programs hope,” Duke athletic director Kevin White said earlier this year. “It says that if the right people and the right focus are put into place, then you can create the kind of energy and enthusiasm needed to create a winning football program, no matter what your history in the sport might be.”

So who might be the next Baylor? Which “sleeping giant” program is quietly stepping into the on-deck circle with a chance to suddenly shock us all with a not-too-distant BCS run and sustained success? In order to find out, I talked to some of the people who make their living in the sport for their leading candidates.

Here's a look at five programs on the verge of making a Baylor-like leap to elite status.

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Long-term outlook for Miami 

October, 30, 2013
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Miami Hurricanes Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesWith the NCAA investigation over, is Miami's program on the rise?
As Miami head coach Al Golden wrapped up his news conference on Monday, a media member remarked to the 44-year old coach that he looked relieved. "Relieved?" Golden said, pausing before hustling off to join his team. "Yeah, maybe a little bit."

Oh, it's more than a little bit. Perhaps he understated it because he's not yet used to working in Coral Gables without the asterisk that leads to the phrase "pending NCAA investigation." But the stories are still being revealed of that moment on Oct. 22 when Miami athletic director Blake James met with the team before practice to inform it that the 26-month investigation was over and the penalties -- probation, no postseason ban and nine lost scholarships over three years -- were relatively minor.

"When we won that sixth game [at North Carolina], we were thinking, 'Man is it going to happen again?'" defensive lineman Anthony Chickillo said after last week's win over Wake Forest. The junior has had to miss two bowl games and an ACC championship game berth because of Miami's self-imposed sanctions during the investigation. "When that finally went away, everybody was excited and stuff ... Just a long wait, long time coming. We were all excited. It was just something that just lingered over our program the whole time I've been here. So, we love it."

Now relief will start to give way to reality. The past is officially in the past, so the future can finally become the focus. We already know the Hurricanes have a well-respected coach, in addition to some promising talent on the field and recent recruiting success. (This summer, our Insider panel ranked them at No. 18 in the College Football Future Power Rankings, which assessed the likelihood of teams to have success over the next three seasons -- and that was before the sanctions were announced.)

How will the end of the investigation affect the program? Will the Hurricanes rise over the next few seasons? We called up some athletic administrators and coaches who have been in the U's shoes and asked them what we should expect.

Recruiting can switch from defense to offense

Miami's recruiting efforts have always been as much about digging moats as firing arrows, forced to defend its fertile football homeland against recruiters arriving from every corner of America. Those poachers have always looked to exploit any edge they can get on the U, including undermining the reputation of the Hurricanes' program.

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Hokies lead top five BCS wrecking balls 

October, 11, 2013
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Logan ThomasBob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsLogan Thomas and Virginia Tech will not be an easy out for any future opponent.
Three months ago in this very space, I laid out my top five BCS wrecking balls, those teams that likely weren't good enough to be a BCS bowl team but were good enough to ruin the BCS bowl chances of others.

So far, a handful of schools have done exactly what we thought they would. On the July list, Washington State ranked fifth among our wrecking balls and promptly punted USC in Week 2. BYU and Ole Miss were also on the list, ranked third and first, respectively, and they combined to ruin Texas' season and cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job.

As we approach the season's halfway mark, it's time to amend that original list. Our original five have not been as good as expected, or their opponents aren't as BCS-worthy as we once thought, or their best chances to ruin top teams’ campaigns have already come and gone.

Here’s an updated look at the top five BCS wrecking balls for the remainder of the season.

1. Virginia Tech Hokies (4-1)
Wrecking ball games: Nov. 9 at Miami; Dec. 7, ACC championship game

Look who's waking up in Blacksburg!

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What is Mack Brown’s future at Texas? 

September, 16, 2013
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Mack BrownAP Photo/Rick BowmerFollowing a pair of early-season losses, is Mack Brown's job in jeopardy at Texas?
It’s getting tense in Austin, Texas.

OK, it’s always tense in Austin. But these days the air seems to be growing thicker by the minute, thanks to back-to-back losses to solid but, at least in the minds of the Texas faithful, not-Longhorn-worthy programs of BYU and Ole Miss.

Head coach Mack Brown is under more fire than the Alamo, roundly booed by the Royal-Memorial Stadium faithful during the Mississippi game and the target of columns such as this scathing review in The Oklahoman.

But in the case of a man like Brown and a program like Texas, the reality isn’t as simple as firing the coach and moving on. There are more factors at play here, the kind of layers that are created with history and success and, well, just being a guy who people like.

Over the weekend, I chatted with a few athletic administrators about dilemmas such as Texas’. They all agreed that Brown’s days are numbered.

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