Breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
We're not far removed from the first College Football Playoff, but it's never too early for a look ahead at breakout players for 2015. This initial projection compiles input from coaches, recruiting evaluations and my college football colleagues.

There are five players from each of the Power 5 conferences, and then those players are ranked to create a top 25. I'm sure there will be some surprises -- there always are -- but last year's early breakout outlook included Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey.

Here are the first 10 players to watch for 2015, with 11-25 to follow early next week:

1. Adoree' Jackson, USC DB/WR
You'll notice a running theme in this post of jack-of-all-trades, two-way utility athletes, and Jackson is the best of the bunch.

The tug o' war will continue between the Trojans' offensive and defensive coaches, because he has the ability to change a game whichever side of the ball he is on. He mostly played corner, registering 50 tackles, but a 71-yard touchdown catch in the bowl win against Nebraska served as a reminder of the possibilities on offense.

And he will continue to impact a game in a third way, as he did when he returned a kick 98 yards for a score against the Huskers.

As valuable as he was as a freshman, relying often on instincts, Jackson could easily evolve into a Heisman-type player in the next year or two. This gen's Charles Woodson?

Coaches pick out young players to watch 

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
A quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy each of the past five years and 13 of the past 14 seasons. However, judging by feedback from coaches during and after the 2014 season, 2015 could very well be the "Year of the Running Back."

Seven Power 5 freshmen running backs surpassed 1,000 yards in '14 -- Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (1,713 yards), Georgia’s Nick Chubb (1,547), Arizona’s Nick Wilson (1,375), Oregon’s Royce Freeman (1,365), Northwestern’s Justin Jackson (1,187), LSU’s Leonard Fournette (1,034) and FSU’s Dalvin Cook (1,008).

Any one of those players could certainly find another gear and make a run at the 2015 Heisman. But the belief among coaches I’ve spoken with the past few weeks is that the best running back -- and player -- in 2015 will be Ohio State rising junior Ezekiel Elliott (1,878 yards this season).

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott racked up nearly 700 yards in three postseason games.
Coaches were raving about him at the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Convention, and that was before he bulldozed Oregon for 246 yards and four touchdowns in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

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Jim HarbaughGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has his work cut out for him at Michigan, which just went 5-7.

Back in October and November, before Michigan officially had an opening for a head coach, its fans already started daydreaming about the possibility of prying Jim Harbaugh from the NFL.

The evolution of fantasy to reality of Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, each day providing additional drama, ended up being one of the more fascinating coaching storylines of 2014.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even in the hours before Monday evening's title game, coaches were fairly satisfied with how the initial College Football Playoff had worked out.

And, no, Baylor coach Art Briles and TCU coach Gary Patterson were not among those I asked.

Several coaches tried to project themselves in the place of Urban Meyer, even before the Buckeyes won later that night.

"[Ohio State] would not have sniffed it [in the BCS era]," one coach told me at the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Convention. "They wouldn't have had a chance. To say we're going to settle it on the field now, this first year has proved that. Teams that wouldn't have had a chance were given one."

Most project that Alabama, a one-loss SEC champ, and FSU, the undefeated reigning champ, would have been the teams to play for the crystal football under the previous system. So, yeah, Oregon and Ohio State -- the teams that wound up playing for the championship -- would have been left playing for the Rose Bowl trophy.

"There's no way FSU would have been left out," one coach said.

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Braxton MillerAP Photo/Jay LaPreteWhere will Braxton Miller play football next season?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- What will Braxton Miller do?

Not even those closest to the Ohio State quarterback seem to know for sure, though there’s no shortage of opinions here at the American Football Coaches Association convention.

Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has said repeatedly in the past few weeks he expects Miller to return to Columbus. The distinct possibility remains Miller could transfer and play elsewhere in 2015. The slight chance also exists he could turn pro and enter the NFL draft.

Now, what should Miller do? That comes down to one question, really.

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Elliott/BoykinGetty ImagesOhio State and TCU are pegged as favorites heading into the 2015 season by opposing coaches.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If you thought 2014 was a wide-open season in college football, wait until you look ahead to the second edition of the College Football Playoff.

I’ve asked a number of coaches in attendance at the AFCA Convention to handicap the 2015 favorites. The responses, especially when judging beyond the top two teams, have been all over the place.

As for those top two picks? Most everyone likes national champion Ohio State to again be among the four playoff teams.

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Back in August, I asked 20 coaches who they liked in the initial playoff.

Here’s how they fared: FSU, the eventual 3-seed, was on 19 of 20 ballots. Top-seeded Alabama was on 16 of 20. But those preseason favorites are now on the sideline.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer's colleagues point to his résumé as a reason to pick the Buckeyes over the Ducks.
Oregon, a touchdown favorite to win Monday’s title game against Ohio State, received 10 votes.

Most interesting: After Braxton Miller’s shoulder injury the previous week, only three of the 20 coaches stuck with Ohio State as a playoff choice.

One coach, I recall, was adamant that the Buckeyes would be fine, with or without their playmaking quarterback.

So I asked him this week why he was so sure. His answer was pretty succinct.

“They’re loaded,” he said. “They’ve got great players at every position.”

For that reason, a lot of coaches now reject the idea that Ohio State is “a year ahead of schedule.” Other than the quarterback mystery, there was always enough talent for this to be a playoff-type team. It’s not surprising that OSU is here, with the way Urban Meyer has recruited since arriving.

“Oregon is the faster team,” one coach said. “Ohio State is the more talented team.”

In fact, most coaches I talked with hinted they were leaning toward the underdog Buckeyes.

Here are some other thoughts on Oregon-Ohio State that I’ve heard this week

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Two of the bigger openings in this cycle, Nebraska and Wisconsin, came about in large part because of increasing strife between head coaches and their bosses.

You might have heard Bo Pelini spout about that to his former players on the way out the door in Lincoln. And Gary Andersen wasn’t outwardly as vocal about his issues with the school’s administrators, but the fact that he left Wisconsin for Oregon State was telling about the division in Madison.

Contention is always going to exist on some level between coaches who want more resources and administrators fighting to maintain budgets. But things recently came to a boil more than we’re used to seeing.

Three additional Power 5 programs -- Georgia, Oklahoma State and Utah -- were on the brink of changes similar to Nebraska and Wisconsin. Each, it appears, has found a way to mend fences for the time being.

So what happened -- and what happens next -- for Mark Richt, Mike Gundy and Kyle Whittingham at their respective schools?

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PASADENA, California -- Following a legend is an unenviable task for a first-time head coach, but some caution should be used when throwing around that word.

Did Oregon’s dizzying tempo and creative play billboards, the zany Duck and the ever-changing uniforms, lead us to overstate Chip Kelly’s four seasons? In terms of legacy, could we have turned Kelly into a fish story for the Ducks?

He was 46-7 in those four years, going 33-3 in conference play. Those are remarkable, ridiculous records. But he never won a national title. Kelly’s teams were typically close, especially in 2010, but they never reached the top floor.

Enter Mark Helfrich. He was put under a microscope two years ago from the day he was promoted to the head job after Kelly went off to the NFL. Coaches were always skeptical of him, as if he’d come from a Pop Warner field. Peers sometimes hinted he had lucked into the job -- and they wondered whether Oregon would sink back into mediocrity.

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Grading each of the head-coaching hires 

December, 30, 2014
With Jim Harbaugh’s entertaining introduction at Michigan on Tuesday, this latest turn of the coaching carousel seems to be winding down. The results: Seven Power 5 programs have new head coaches, and four Group of 5 schools hired coordinators from flourishing Power 5 offenses. Beginning with Michigan’s big splash -- one that is dominating the news cycle, even though we’re fewer than 48 hours from the first College Football Playoff semifinal -- here are grades for those 11 hires:

Michigan Wolverines
New coach: Jim Harbaugh (former San Francisco 49ers head coach)
Grade: A+
Harbaugh said Tuesday he isn’t comfortable with the idea of being Michigan’s savior, but he’d better get used to it because that’s the expectation. He didn’t face that sort of pressure when he resurrected Stanford, but he certainly did each year in the NFL, where he averaged 12 wins a season and took his team to a Super Bowl. Harbaugh is an A-plus hire because he’s equipped for the challenge, and as an alum, he’s emotionally invested in the product. As college coaches told me this week, Michigan could not have done any better. It sought Harbaugh from the start of the process, and it got him.

The question

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Coaches react to Harbaugh's hire 

December, 30, 2014
In the middle of November, when it became clear that Jim Harbaugh would be Michigan’s priority focus, college coaches -- like many others -- remained skeptical whether Harbaugh would really return to the college game, even if it was for his ailing alma mater.

And even as momentum seemed to build, coaches continued to reach out, asking, “Is this really going to happen?” or “Are they going to get him?”

U-M made Harbaugh’s hire official Tuesday, and also officially ended that skepticism.

The disbelief was rooted in whether Harbaugh’s ego

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Who will fill open coordinator positions? 

December, 23, 2014
Of the Power 5 conferences, the only remaining head-coaching vacancies are at Michigan and Pitt. But don't underestimate how important coordinator hires can be for the future of a program.

After all, it was a year ago that TCU’s Gary Patterson hired Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie to run an up-tempo offense in Fort Worth -- and it nearly resulted in a playoff berth. Another: Lane Kiffin’s addition to the Alabama staff worked out better than many imagined. The Tide is favored to win the initial playoff.

Here’s an update on many of the Power 5 coordinator vacancies. I didn’t include Baylor or Ohio State’s offensive coordinator positions, since the Bears will likely promote Kendal Briles and OSU will elevate Ed Warinner. That still leaves attractive offensive assistant jobs open at both schools, however.

Florida offensive coordinator
Florida AD Jeremy Foley hired Jim McElwain because of his background as an OC

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Possible candidates to become Pitt coach 

December, 16, 2014
Now that Paul Chryst's return to Wisconsin is official, Pitt is looking for a new football coach. Again.

Sadly for Pitt, the school Chryst is leaving, his 19-19 record in three seasons actually marks progress in terms of stability. Including offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who will serve as interim coach in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Pitt has had seven head coaches since 2010.

And you can add an athletic director to the final tally of those departing Pittsburgh, as the Panthers announced Steve Pederson’s dismissal Wednesday night. The goal of finding a head coach who will stay for a while will fall on someone else's shoulders. Winning in the wide-open ACC Coastal would be nice, too.

That likely eliminates some up-and-comer types. Then again, Chryst seemed like a longer-term fit. Coaching hires sure would be a lot easier with an accurate crystal ball.

So, where will Pitt look this time?

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The University of Houston spoke this week with Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Tom Herman, multiple sources with knowledge of the search have told

They added that the 39-year-old Herman impressed athletic director Mack Rhoades and the school’s administration.

Those familiar with the program say it is looking for someone to again make its offense as explosive as it was when Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Baylor’s Art Briles were at UH.

This season, Ohio State finished behind only Oregon in terms of Power 5 yards-per-play offense (7.04). The Buckeyes overcame a lot at the quarterback position to accomplish that.

Ohio State lost Heisman candidate Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury midway through preseason camp in August, but Herman and OSU’s coaching staff were able to turn backup J.T. Barrett into another Heisman hopeful by November.

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Jason Mowry/Icon SMITom Herman has spoken with Houston about its open head coaching job, according to sources.
Then, when Barrett broke his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan, the Buckeyes plugged in Cardale Jones for the team’s 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

The win propelled OSU into the first College Football Playoff. Jones, the No. 3 quarterback in August, had 257 yards and three touchdowns against the Badgers.

Herman has some familiarity with the Houston area, as well. He was the offensive coordinator at Rice from 2007-08. Rice and Houston’s campuses are separated by a couple miles.

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Considering I’d written last week about Gary Andersen’s frustrations at Wisconsin, his decision Wednesday to leave didn’t come as much of a shock to me as it did to many.

But I never got the impression that Andersen was really on the way out the door -- and especially for Oregon State.

I actually thought Andersen, 19-7 in two seasons in Madison including the 2014 Big Ten West division title, might get in the Nebraska conversation. That search, however, was over in a hurry. And so was Oregon State’s once it knew it could land Andersen, the Utah native who is perhaps more of a regional fit with the Beavers.

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