SEC: Florida State Seminoles

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There are less than two weeks until national signing day, and five-star defensive end Byron Cowart is closing on his college decision. The No. 1-ranked player in the ESPN 300 had a top three of Auburn, Florida, and Florida State just last week, and now the 6-foot-3, 258-pound defensive end has dwindled his choices to two.

"I would have to say, just to be honest, Auburn and Florida are my top two schools," Cowart said. "I have to keep it professional -- I have to. Who knows, you see coaches and they go into the league, and when it’s time for you to get drafted you don’t want to have a bad name.

"A lot of guys say things that they back away from, and yeah I probably said 'yeah I like this school and I might end up coming here' but that’s probably how I was feeling at the time, but a lot of things happen and I just want people to know that I’m man enough to say 'thank you for recruiting me, but I might not go to your school.' But right now, truly, it will come down to Auburn and Florida. That’s just being honest."

That is somewhat of a surprise considering FSU coaches visited Cowart at his school on Wednesday afternoon and Cowart was scheduled to take his last visit to Florida State next weekend.

"The visit was good. It was different," Cowart said. "I haven’t had the heat put to me like that before. It’s crunch time, so they want me to come up for this last visit, but it’s like I already know what they can bring to the table, I already know what I can I get from Florida State the school. It’s just crazy, I just want to relax and get away, think and get my thoughts together, and that’s why I was like 'I don’t know if I’m going to do my last visit -- I don’t know if I’m going to go anywhere on my last visit.'

"I don’t want to make a mistake. Like my mom said, when you are rushing and you’re moving too fast sometimes you can make a mistake and go somewhere that you never even thought you would go. So I want to be in the right mind and be focused, and to know that this is the school I want to go to."

One of the biggest success stories in the 2015 recruiting class has been Arkansas with its in-state recruits. The Razorbacks were 10-for-10 on players they had offered in Arkansas, but that changed Sunday when ESPN 300 receiver K.J. Hill backed off his pledge.


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videoLet's take a minute to appreciate just how well this all worked out.
The playoff was supposed to diminish the regular season, but instead we got passionate debate, huge games and high drama on a weekly basis.

The playoff was supposed to undermine conference titles, but instead we saw the one Power 5 league without a championship game miss out on a shot at a national title.

The doubters suggested the playoff would only serve to give undeserving teams a chance to win it all, but instead Ohio State -- a team that may well have finished fifth or sixth in the final polls under the old system -- not only won it all, but proved it was no fluke.

From start to finish, we just witnessed the best season in college football history.

But just because the end result was everything we'd hoped for doesn't mean the path we took to get there was the ideal one. The playoff changed the game in so many significant and positive ways, but the process in Year 1 was still very much trial and error, and so it's incumbent upon us to evaluate those trials, pick apart the errors and figure how we can make 2015 even better.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons we learned from this year's playoff debates.

Good teams can come from bad leagues

It's now been two years since the SEC won a national championship, and the two teams that took home the hardware in its place came from the two Power 5 leagues that earned the most criticism nationally - the ACC and Big Ten.

To read David Hale's full story, click here.
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SEFFNER, Fla. -- The new No. 1-ranked player in the ESPN 300, Byron Cowart, has had twists and turns throughout his recruitment. But with national signing day less than three weeks away, the five-star defensive end has narrowed his choices to three -- Auburn, Florida and Florida State -- and says he already has a destination in mind, but is not revealing it.

"Yes, sir, I just came up with it,” he said. "Me and my mom discussed it and we are good with our decision, so we know where we are going to go.”


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Top 10 instant-impact recruits in 2015 

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With signing day a few weeks away, early enrollees already on campus and the national championship game in the books, which teams are reloading with talent that can hit the field and make an immediate impact?

Here are 10 committed prospect who have the chance to contribute early and often in the 2015 season:


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Ducks, Bucks change everything

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NEW ORLEANS -- While No. 4 Ohio State was making its final preparations to play No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer couldn't take his eyes off the TV.

As Ohio State's coaches and players ate their pregame meal and then loaded their buses for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they would play the Crimson Tide in one of the two semifinal games of the inaugural College Football Playoff, Meyer couldn't help but notice the results of other bowl games on New Year's Day.

No. 18 Wisconsin, which lost to Ohio State 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6, knocked off No. 19 Auburn 34-31 in overtime in the Outback Bowl.

No. 8 Michigan State, which the Buckeyes beat 49-37 on the road on Nov. 8, came from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to stun No. 5 Baylor 42-41 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

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Maybe the Buckeyes were really good enough to upset the Crimson Tide, who had won two of the last three BCS national championships and were favored to beat Ohio State by more than a touchdown.

"Maybe the Big Ten's not that bad," Meyer told his players. "Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good."

The Buckeyes were more than good on Thursday night. After two turnovers put Ohio State in an early 21-6 hole, it scored 28 straight points and then broke open the game on tailback Ezekiel Elliott's 85-yard touchdown run for a 42-28 lead with 3:24 to go. The Buckeyes held off Alabama's furious rally in the final three minutes and then won the game when safety Tyvis Powell intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final play of a 42-35 victory.

Finally, after losing 10 straight bowl games against SEC opponents (the Buckeyes had to vacate a 31-26 victory over Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl because of NCAA sanctions), Ohio State slayed the giant.

"Coach maybe brought it up a little bit," quarterback Cardale Jones said. "He told us we just beat the best team from the best conference in the history of the planet."

To continue reading about how Ohio State and Oregon altered the college football landscape and effectively ended the days of the SEC and FSU running the show, click here.

UA practice notebook: Day 2 

December, 30, 2014
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Day 2 of the Under Armour All-America game practices was overcast and rainy, but the dreary weather didn't stop Team Armour and Team Highlight from having an exciting practice.

The two teams had a spirited first day of practice, however, two offensive linemen, Keenan Walker and Lester Cotton, suffered injuries and won't be able to play in the game on Friday. With the shortage of bodies along the offensive line, ESPN 300 offensive tackle Tyree St. Louis was asked to drive up from IMG Academy in Bradenton to fill in.


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UA Day 1: Best sights and sounds

December, 29, 2014
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Several players made incredible plays on Day 1 of the Under Armour All-America game practices. Byron Cowart had several sacks, quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Deondre Francois and Brandon Wimbush all made impressive throws, and Notre Dame commit Shaun Crawford had a big pass breakup. Here’s a closer look at some of the top plays caught on camera.

Notre Dame pledge Shaun Crawford with nearly perfect technique on a pass breakup of a pass intended for George Campbell.

Quarterback Kyler Murray with a beautiful touchdown pass.

George Campbell coming down with the catch.

Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins against Alabama recruit Richie Petitbon.

Georgia recruit Terry Godwin makes a catch against Iman Marshall.

Quarterback Deondre Francois with a nice touchdown pass over the middle.

UNC OL pledge Tommy Hatton winning a battle against the No. 1-ranked player in the country, Terry Beckner Jr.

Oregon recruit Canton Kaumatule with a great spin move to win his one-on-one battle.

Byron Cowart with a nice move on Drew Richmond for the sack of Blake Barnett.

South Carolina commit Arden Key with the tackle.

Brandon Wimbush with a nice touch pass.

UA player of the day: Byron Cowart

December, 29, 2014
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There were several standout performances on Day 1 of the Under Armour All-America practices, but none were more impressive than five-star defensive end Byron Cowart, who had his way with just about every offensive lineman he went up against during the morning practice. Granted, the offensive lineman usually take a few days to adjust to the speed and strength of other All-American defensive linemen, but Cowart was absolutely dominant on the first day of practice. Cowart is considering Auburn, Florida and Florida State. Here are a few of his highlights that were taken on the social media app Vine.

In this video, Cowart beats Ole Miss commit Drew Richmond off the edge for a sack.

Richmond, however, did have a good rep against Cowart earlier in the practice.

The five-star defensive end wins another matchup with this sack of five-star quarterback Blake Barnett.

Cowart teamed up with South Carolina commit Arden Key on another sack. Key, much like Cowart, had a dominating day on the defensive line.

Key and Cowart teamed up for another sack later in practice.

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Five-star defensive end Byron Cowart, with only a few months until signing day, is torn between three schools — Florida, Florida State and Auburn.

The No. 2-ranked prospect in the country plans to visit all three of those schools along with a Pac-12 school in January, if time allows.


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Florida making run at FSU QB commit 

December, 28, 2014
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- ESPN 300 quarterback commit Deondre Francois is one of three Florida State quarterback commits playing in the 2015 Under Armour All-America game -- even though Kai Locksley will be in the game as a wide receiver. The logjam at quarterback has another in-state program trying to sneak in and possibly steal away a quarterback at the last minute.


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National links: Michigan steals spotlight 

December, 2, 2014
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Since late October, Tuesday has been reserved for speculation and anticipation over the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. But not this week.

Michigan reluctantly takes center stage hours before the committee releases its sixth set of rankings.

Next week, the four-team playoff will be set. If things fall right Friday and Saturday in each of the Power 5 leagues, next Tuesday could be epic.

TCU or Baylor? Will Ohio State remain a factor? The debate alone over the order of the top four, which determine the semifinal matchups, will make it a day like no other in college football history.

Sadly, though, we’ve seen plenty of days like this Tuesday.


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Gerald Willis, this is not the way to show your passion for the Florida-Florida State rivalry.

Willis, the Gators defensive lineman, took a cheap shop at Jameis Winston after a Winston run at the 4:33 mark of the second quarter, shoving the Seminoles quarterback on the Florida sideline well after the play.

Frustration among Florida coaches was visible afterward, as they sent Willis off to the locker room after the freshman was flagged. Winston, for his part, kept his cool, so the situation did not escalate.

"That's pathetic," ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit remarked on the broadcast.
The Florida-Florida State rivalry has been one built on runs. Only three times since 1968 have the teams alternated wins over a three-year period.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher ended a six-game skid to Florida in his first season as head coach in Tallahassee, and now he has Florida State on the verge of its fourth win in five seasons against the Gators. In all three FSU wins under Fisher, the Gators have been held to seven points.

Adding to the rivalry this season has been quarterback Jameis Winston, who has goaded Gators fans seeking his autograph by signing his name and last year’s score, 37-7, on the Florida memorabilia.

However, Florida has the distinction of being the last team to hand FSU a loss, although it came all the way in 2012, 27 games ago.

ESPN reporters Edward Aschoff and Jared Shanker break down the classic ACC-SEC rivalry:

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Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Gators know they can't allow Jameis Winston to be comfortable in the pocket.
Key to victory for Florida: If the Gators are going to win this game, they have to run the ball well. That’s how they upset Georgia, and that’s the only way Florida will leave Tallahassee with a win over the Seminoles. Florida averaged 201 rushing yards in conference games and piled up 418 on Georgia to open the month. FSU has allowed 416 rushing yards in the last two games, which means the Gators will have to heavily rely on running backs Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, who have the one-two-punch ability to frustrate a defense that has been far from elite this season.

Key to victory for Florida State: Jimbo Fisher said he will dial up the film of Florida’s win over Georgia because the Bulldogs employ former FSU assistant Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, and the Noles still run a similar scheme. Florida State has struggled to stop the rush all season, and Florida ran all over Georgia. What Florida State has to do, as it has all season, is stop the run in pivotal situations. Florida State is significantly better against the run in the second half, and if the Noles can keep Florida’s offense off the field in the second half, it will give Winston the requisite time needed for a comeback if it once again comes to that.

X-factor for Florida: While running the ball will be key for the Gators, you have to take Winston out of the game. Winston is very good against the rush, but you have to force him into bad situations if you want to beat him. Putting pressure on him will be key for Florida’s defense, and that’s where end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. comes in. The future first-round draft pick has been one of the SEC’s most disruptive players this season (credited with 15 quarterback hurries), and if he can force Winston to rush his throws it will be a major advantage for Florida’s defense.

X-factor for Florida State: There’s no point in ignoring the obvious. Anytime Winston suits up for Florida State, he is the Seminoles’ X-factor. He is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and college football’s premier prime-time player. No deficit to this point has been too large for Winston, who continually rises to the occasion in the game’s tensest moments. He leads the country with four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and has a QB rating of 194.26 when trailing by 15 or more points. For Florida to win, it will have to keep Winston out of the end zone for more than just the first half.

Aschoff’s favorite moment from the rivalry: Watching Warrick Dunn in this rivalry was fun, and so was having the game decide the national championship after the 1996 season. But two memories really stick out to me because I was actually there for them: Ron Zook getting carried off the field in 2004 (didn’t they rename the field “Ron Zook Field” after that?) and the 2008 Florida team’s impressive rain-soaked win in Tallahassee. The one thing about the 2008 game that really sticks out is how Tim Tebow, covered in garnet paint, taunted FSU’s student section after a touchdown because Seminoles fans cheered when Percy Harvin went down with an ankle injury. To this day, that 2008 Florida team is the best team I’ve ever covered.

Shanker’s favorite moment from the rivalry: No doubt those games were memorable ones and that 2008 image of Tebow will live on this rivalry’s lore for quite some time. However, I’m going with the 1994 “Choke at Doak.” I’ve watched it a handful of times over the last few years with the 20-year anniversary being this week, and it’s crazy how so many little plays added up to help FSU overcome a 31-3 deficit to tie it in the final minutes. That ’94 comeback makes this 2014 season look tame by comparison. This season’s renewal could go down in history, too, if Muschamp leaves like Zook did. I don’t know if Nole Nation would be able to take that a second time.

Florida carried Ron Zook off the field in his final game, an upset that remains so memorable, people continue to point to that win 10 years later.

Especially this week.

Because everybody wants to know: Can the Gators win one for Champ, the way they won one for the Zooker?

The similarities between Zook’s last triumph over Florida State and the 2014 Gators headed into the Florida State game on Saturday are too similar to ignore.

Both Florida teams 6-4. Both heavy underdogs. Both playing for an outgoing coach.

“We were in the same position those guys are in this year,” said former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a captain on the 2004 team. “Our coach got fired. We hadn’t beaten them in Tallahassee in a very long time, so it made us want to go out there and play for Coach Zook but also win at Doak. It happened to be on the same day they were naming the field for coach (Bobby) Bowden, so we wanted to go up there and upset every celebration they had.”

In the days leading up to the game, nobody gave down-and-out Florida much of a chance against the No. 10 Seminoles. Florida State had one of the best defenses in the country and had shut down just about every running back that came its way.

But Florida believed it had nothing to lose. To the Gators, all the pressure belonged to Florida State.

“Nobody expected us to win, and that just mentally makes you feel like, ‘We can go out here and cut it loose. Don’t worry about mistakes. We can go for it on fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-3 because we’ve got nothing to lose and Florida State has everything to lose,’" Fason said. "As a Gator, we know we’re trying to keep them from get a national championship, and it being a rival game with nothing to lose that works to our advantage.”

Fason also believes the way Florida played in 2004 caught Florida State off guard. He ended up with 100 yards rushing in the game and was a big reason why the Gators won, saying the Seminoles were not prepared for their smash-mouth style.

After Florida took a 10-3 lead into halftime, Fason told his teammates he wanted them to carry Zook off the field if they ended up winning. They assembled around him in the final minute, a 20-13 win theirs to celebrate.

“As soon as that final tick went off the clock, everybody picked up Coach Zook,” Fason said. “It was the best moment of my life.”

And it still remains one of the top moments not only in Gators football history, but in Zook's career. Mike Degory, the starting center on the 2004 team, later coached with Zook at Illinois. Even there, Zook talked about the way the Gators won his final game there.

“He always used to say how much it meant to him, and how much he felt the commitment from the players was there,” Degory recalled. “Everybody knows after this week, Coach Muschamp is going to be looking for another job, but the players feel a lot of commitment to that coach. We wanted to send Coach Zook out a winner. What we had 10 years ago was a connection with Coach Zook. Deep down in my heart, that is the guy that I wanted to play for and we wanted to echo that by giving him that victory.”

Muschamp was even asked about it during his press conference earlier this week in Gainesville.

“That isn't going to help us win the game. I can assure you of that,” he said. “So we'll prepare well and we'll go up there and play well. That's what we need to do.”

Florida has a history of doing that under Muschamp. It was two years ago Florida went into Doak Campbell Stadium and forced five turnovers in a 37-26 win. Florida was a much better team then -- ranked higher than Florida State, in fact. But it also happens to be the last time the Seminoles lost.

Since then, Florida has not come close to another 11-win season, while Jimbo Fisher has won two ACC championships, one national championship and 27 straight games. But this season, Florida State has played in so many close games, the expectation is this will be another close one.

Especially if the Gators play as emotionally as they did for Zook in 2004.

“Emotion always counts, but I think at the end of the day, execution wins,” Fisher said. “Hopefully, we'll be emotional. To play Florida, our kids will be high. Our kids will be excited. I think you'll see two teams that are emotionally and physically ready to play, and then who can go out and execute and win the battles in the physical and mental execution will be the team that wins.”

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