The Trojans can't hide from that consensus opinion after winning their final nine games last season, finishing third in the polls and returning quarterback Sam Darnold, the early betting favorite for the Heisman Trophy.
USC was tabbed to win the Pac-12 Conference this season in a vote of league media and is widely projected to advance to its first College Football Playoff.
"You have to welcome it," coach Clay Helton said at Pac-12 Media Days on Thursday in Hollywood, Calif.
"It's the reason why we came. I see it as a great opportunity rather than an obligation. The reality is this: It's easy to go from where we were to No. 3 in the country. It's harder to go from third to one. That's our challenge right now."
USC was 1-3 last season before Darnold -- who didn't start the first three games -- sparked a resurgence that culminated with a last-play field goal in a victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
Darnold, a third-year sophomore, has scouts' full attention. NFLDraftScout.com rates him as the top prospect for the 2018 draft. But USC has much more than a savvy, strong-armed quarterback who is nifty with his feet in avoiding the pass rush.
Junior linebacker Cam Smith is rated the No. 42 draft prospect, followed by junior cornerback Iman Marshall (No. 46), junior running back Ronald Jones II (No. 47), junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin (No. 72) and receiver Deontay Burnett (No. 94).
"I'm not one who really likes all the attention," Darnold said, "so I'm more than happy to spread it around."
Talent is not an issue. USC always recruits at an elite level. Part of the difference now is the steadying influence of Helton after the tumultuous tenures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Helton is 16-7 at USC, which includes two interim stints before getting the full-time job late in the 2015 season.
"What I learned from last season was really how important relationships are with 18- to 21-year-olds in gaining their trust -- not when times are good but when times are a little bit bad and you're going through adversity," Helton said. "That trust and relationships are going to carry you through."
What could trip up a potential dream season?
USC has no experience behind Darnold, who will be protected by two new starting tackles. Two premier game-changers -- cornerback/returner Adoree' Jackson and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster -- are in the NFL. The Trojans need a rock in the middle of the defensive line. They play 12 consecutive weeks without a bye, which will test depth and conditioning.
Also, place-kicker Matt Boermeester, who beat Penn State with a 46-yard field goal with no time left in the Rose Bowl, will not return "because of a student code of conduct issue," the school announced. Boermeester was suspended in the spring. He was 18 of 25 on field goal attempts last season.
There will be stiff home challenges against Stanford and Texas in the first few weeks.
"I see confidence right now," Helton said. "When you go through last season and you're coming off the momentum of the Rose Bowl, we've established a culture, a culture that we like."
--Utah coach Kyle Whittingham confirmed that WR Darren Carrington II, who was dismissed from Oregon this month following a DUI charge, will play this season for the Utes as a graduate transfer.
Carrington is rated the sixth-best NFL receiver prospect for 2018 by NFLDraftScout.com. He should be an immediate impact player in what will be a more pass-happy offense under new coordinator Troy Taylor, who previously directed a high-scoring offense at FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington.
"It's a case-by-case basis," Whittingham said of adding Carrington.
"The first thing you do is do your homework, talk to all the peripheral people in his life and talk to people who have been close to him. And then there's Darren's attitude and his take on what transpired. ... Is he a good kid who has made some bad decisions or is he just a bad kid? As a coach, you have to make that judgment."
--Arizona State coach Todd Graham called the quarterback competition between incumbent Manny Wilkins and Alabama transfer Blake Barnett "fierce." The Sun Devils are expected to feature a more pro-style attack this season, which should favor Barnett, but Graham said Wilkins enters camp as No. 1.
"Manny is the starter until Blake beats him out," Graham said. "Blake knows he has that on his shoulders. But he's elevated Manny. That spirit of competition, at an intense level, has spread throughout our team."
--Oregon QB Justin Herbert came on strong in the second half of last season as a freshman, throwing for 19 touchdowns, with only four interceptions.
"He hates losing; he hates doing things wrong. That is one of the traits you need at that position," said new Ducks coach Willie Taggart. "After going through spring ball, the one thing I really want him to focus on is to be a better leader. He led by example, and that's not good enough at the quarterback position. You have to do a little more."
--Stanford QB Keller Chryst, who suffered a torn ACL in the Sun Bowl, is "dropping back full speed ... and will partake in all the individual quarterback drills" once camp opens, coach David Shaw said. Chryst's status for the season opener -- vs. Rice on Aug. 26 in Sydney, Australia -- is to be determined.
"He made so many plays last year, against Oregon, against Cal, against Rice," Shaw said. "We believe he's starting to get closer to his ceiling. He throws a beautiful deep ball. He's so explosive and athletic, and he's a big guy. I'm excited about his future."
The Huskies managed just 194 yards.
That was no serious crime against a defense as good as that of the Crimson Tide, but that result -- paired with a 26-13 home loss to USC in mid-November -- painted Washington's breakthrough season as perhaps a bit of a mirage.
In any case, don't expect the Huskies to fade much.
Washington was picked to repeat as Pac-12 North champion in a media poll as the league's Media Days opened Wednesday in Hollywood, Calif. The media tabbed USC to win the South division and be the overall conference champion.
"I think we work so hard on just paying attention to ourselves," Huskies coach Chris Petersen said.
"I think if you just pay attention to the outside expectations -- whether they are good or bad -- it takes so much of the fun and joy out of the process. ... Let's just focus on ourselves. We can't worry about the outside. It takes away the beauty of the process."
Washington, coming off a 12-2 season, lost speedy receiver/returner John Ross (the ninth pick in the NFL draft), a trio of defensive backs who went in the second round and first-team All-Pac-12 defensive lineman Elijah Qualls.
But the Huskies retain as much NFL-ready talent as anybody in the conference, with six players among the top 100 prospects in the nation, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Defensive lineman Vita Vea (No. 11) leads the way.
One player not on that top 100 list, but who is the No. 1 topic of conversation, is junior quarterback Jake Browning.
He was seventh nationally last season in passing efficiency (167.5 rating), but he was ineffective in the losses to USC and Alabama. It was later revealed he was suffering from an undisclosed injury to his throwing shoulder, which required offseason surgery.
"I feel good," he told the Pac-12 Networks on Wednesday. "It hasn't held me back from anything for months now. All ready to go."
Browning has thrown for 6,385 yards and 59 touchdowns in two seasons, with 19 interceptions.
"We're not reinventing the wheel," Petersen said about Browning's third season as the starter. "It's not a different message. It's the same stuff over and over."
Browning and junior running back Myles Gaskin form one of the best backfield combinations in the country. Gaskin has rushed for 2,675 yards in two seasons. Dante Pettis, another speedy wideout, becomes the primary receiving weapon. Pettis caught 53 passes for 822 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
Like last year, Washington's defensive front will be salty, with Vea, defensive lineman Greg Gaines and linebackers Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria. A young secondary has a new building block in safety Taylor Rapp, last season's Freshman Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12.
"From what I have seen from our freshmen, they are just a lot hungrier," Bierria said. "We do a full workout, guys are tired, and they are like, 'OK, we've got to get extra.' That's something they have been real consistent with."
Washington's schedule, like last season, is not overly difficult. The Huskies' nonconference schedule features a game at Rutgers, followed by home games vs. lower-division Montana and Fresno State. Washington does not play USC in the regular season.
Everything aligns for another playoff run as Petersen enters his fourth year at Washington with a bedrock foundation.
"We feel excited about our chances this year," Petersen said.
--Wide receiver Darren Carrington II, dismissed from Oregon this month following a DUI charge, will play this season at Utah, his father told the Salt Lake Tribune. Carrington, a senior who has earned a degree from Oregon, is eligible this season. He caught 43 passes for 606 yards and five touchdowns last season, pushing his career totals to 112 receptions for 1,919 yards and 15 scores.
Carrington is rated the sixth-best receiver prospect for 2018 by NFLDraftScout.com.
--UCLA did not bring Josh Rosen to Pac-12 Media Days, even though the junior quarterback is a potential high pick in the NFL Draft. Rosen missed six games last season because of a shoulder injury.
"Through success and adversity, he has learned and he has matured," coach Jim Mora said.
"If his attitude, his work ethic, his approach, his sense of dedication that I have seen is any indication of what is to come, then we're in for a real pleasure watching that young man play. He's very much become a team player."
Rosen will be playing under new coordinator Jedd Fisch, UCLA's third offensive coordinator in three seasons. Mora said the lack of continuity is actually a positive for Rosen, who has been exposed to varied systems.
"Josh has a thirst for knowledge," Mora said. "He soaks up the information. He wants to know the whys and the hows."
--The Pac-12 announced a two-year extension, through 2019, to hold its championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The home of the San Francisco 49ers has been the site of the title game for the past three seasons.
The new agreement adds two years -- 2018 and 2019 -- to the current deal, with an option to extend through the 2020 Pac-12 Football Championship Game.
"I'm very pleased with the experience we've created for our fans, universities, and student-athletes over the last three years," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. "I look forward to working with our great partners at Levi's Stadium and the San Francisco 49ers to continue to grow this marquee event in the Bay Area."
Scott also said the league will experiment with a reduction in TV timeouts and a shorter halftime (15 minutes instead of 20) in non-conference games.
--Pac-12 Media Days conclude Thursday with coaches and players from Utah, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State, Stanford and USC.
The Nittany Lions lost 52-49 in the Rose Bowl to Southern Cal but beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game for the right to get there.
Fourth-year head coach James Franklin went from being on the purported hot seat in September after a 2-2 start to being touted as a coach of the year candidate by the end of the year.
Franklin, 49-30, isn't quite buying the angle that Penn State is ahead of schedule five years after the university was sanctioned -- a $60 million fine and mass reduction of scholarships -- as part of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
"That's probably better for you guys to talk about," Franklin said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. "I'll allow the fans, the media to do those types of things. For the last three years, we've been making some really, really strong progress. We just kept working. I make the argument that our probably best years coaching were years one and two. We aren't really a goal-setting organization, but we focus on maximizing every day -- offseason, in camp, days leading up to the games. Then the games will take care of themselves."
Penn State has a polished offensive line -- a massive change considering Franklin inherited a roster with seven scholarship linemen -- and a special running back in Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley, the top-ranked running back in the nation according to NFLDraftScout.com.
"We realize everybody's game plan is going to be Saquon Barkley, but the type of talent we're surrounding him with is going to make it difficult for him to do that," Franklin said. "We have so many guys who have played a lot of football for us. I think that's where the excitement comes from."
Barkley has 2,572 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons. At 5-11, 223 pounds, Barkley is being compared to recent Big Ten peer Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing with the Dallas Cowboys last season. Fair comparison? Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who coached Elliott for three years, believes it is.
"It's probably pretty fair," Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. "I think he's that quality of a back, that quality of a worker. ... I think that's very fair."
Scouts are clamoring for Barkley not just because of his 1,496-yard season in 2016. At "Lift for Life" last week, Barkley was unofficially timed in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash -- according to Penn State director of performance Dwight Galt -- and flung up 30 reps of 225 pounds on the benchpress. His resume appears to universally have a gold star stamp from the NFL even before he plays a down in 2017.
Current peers aren't bashful about complimenting Barkley.
"He's really fast. He's really quick. And he has that ridiculous hurdle that no one can predict when it's coming," Michigan State linebacker Chris Frey said.
Resumes, personal and team-wide, are not any matter Franklin wants to discuss.
"We're not going to spend a whole lot of time at all talking about last season," Franklin said. "They understand it. They get it. None of those points, none of those wins are going to transfer over. ... How we learned, how we grew from those things, that we're going to take with us. For us, we're going to spend our time focused on the things we need to do to grow, evolve as a program, individually and the whole package."
NOTES: Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said all signs of progress with the Boilermakers are positive, including a facelift on the football facility and recruiting, where the opportunity to play right away is giving Brohm more of a boost than even he expected. "We have to make sure the product we put on the field is better," Brohm said. ... Nebraska hired former UConn head coach Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator with a targeted mission, coach Mike Riley said. "Back to my roots coaching defense, I was a 3-4 defensive coach. I have been for a time interested in looking into a 3-4. The availability of coach Diacco led me there, and the interview convinced me what else he would bring: good teacher, fundamental 1-2-3-4 how it's done, love the detail and love the enthusiasm. That has all been confirmed through his initial time with the team." ... Penn State kicker Joey Julius is no longer on the roster. No reason was provided by PSU. Julius missed spring practice to seek treatment for an eating disorder. He also received treatment in 2016. Tyler Davis handled kickoffs in the Rose Bowl and could take over those duties if Julius does not return.
According to multiple media reports, the university found records of phone calls from Freeze to an escort service on his school-issued cell phone.
Rebels assistant coach Matt Luke was announced as the interim head coach.
"While Coach Freeze served our university well in many regards during his tenure, we simply cannot accept the conduct in his personal life that we have discovered," Ole Miss chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said at a press conference.
ESPN reported that Freeze met with Vitter and athletic director Ross Bjork both Wednesday and Thursday, and he resigned at the second meeting.
According to Bjork, had Freeze not resigned, the university would have "exercised the termination clause in the contract for moral turpitude."
USA Today previously reported a call to an escort service from Freeze, which was found during discovery related to former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt's civil lawsuit against the university and Freeze. The suit was filed in federal court last week.
Bjork told ESPN, "Once we looked at the rest of the phone records, we found a pattern. It was troubling."
In January 2016, the university received a notice of allegations involving football, women's basketball and track and field from an investigation that began in 2012. Thirteen of the allegations were connected to football.
Mississippi then implemented a self-imposed one-year bowl ban for the 2017 season after being notified of eight new alleged NCAA rules violations in addition to the 13 pre-existing allegations.
Among the NCAA charges was a lack of institutional control and a charge against Freeze for failing to monitor his staff.
Nutt maintains that Freeze and Bjork violated the university's 2011 severance agreement.
Nutt's lawsuit alleges that Freeze and Bjork promoted a false storyline that suggested that most of the ongoing case of NCAA infractions involved violations that occurred under Nutt.
Freeze, 47, had a 39-25 record in five seasons at Mississippi, including a 5-7 record in 2016. He was making more than $5 million a year, and he was under contract through 2019. He will not get any of the remaining money owed him.
Luke most recently was the Rebels' offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. He was a team captain while playing center for Mississippi in the late 1990s. Luke, 40, also served as an assistant coach at Murray State, Tennessee and Duke. He was on the staff at Ole Miss from 2002-05, and he returned in 2012.
Harris sustained the injury on Wednesday during team-run activities.
Harris made 73 tackles last season, including four for loss, for a Florida defense that ranked fifth in the nation in total defense (293.0 yards per game) and sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game).
"As a coach, this is one of the hardest things you are faced with," Gators coach Jim McElwain said in a statement.
"Here is a kid who has made great personal growth during his time here and has really matured both on and off the field. It is tough to see a player invest so much in himself and his teammates and have this happen, but I do know that we will support him every step of the way as he works through this injury."
Harris, who has appeared in 37 games in his Florida career, intercepted two passes last season, forced a fumble and recovered one, which he returned for a touchdown against Florida State.
His injury is a big blow to a team that finished 9-4 and won the SEC East. He was one of four returning starters on defense and was one of three players who represented the Gators at last week's SEC Media Days.
Florida was predicted to finish second behind Georgia in the SEC East in this year's league media poll.
It's up to Texas' new coach, Tom Herman, and his staff to make sure that the recent downswing in Longhorns football is not the only thing that's in the minds of the players he's working to bring to Austin to turn that tide.
Herman spoke on Tuesday at Day 2 of the Big 12 Media Days about the expectations for his team and the perceptions he and his assistant coaches are working against to reboot the Longhorns.
It seems like it's been eons since Texas, which went 16-21 in three seasons under Charlie Strong, was among college football's elite teams.
Herman mentioned the not-that-long-ago string of campaigns from 2001-09 in which the Longhorns produced at least 10 victories per season, two appearances in the national championship game, and a title in 2005, but understands that today's players barely remember those successes. Only three current Longhorns have even been on a winning team in Austin.
"These 16-year-old kids that we're recruiting, since they were 2 years old, they've seen four losing Texas football seasons," Herman said. "So, the Texas that they know is a lot different than the Texas that people in my generation know. So, it's our job to show them what Texas is capable of, what Texas has been in the past, and what we're planning on being again in the future."
Herman, who joined the Longhorns after two successful seasons at Houston, made "rebranding Texas football" one of his top priorities in his first season.
And while his players have bought in to the changes he and his staff have brought to Austin, Herman said it's too early to heap huge expectations on a team that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2013 and has posted only three since the 2009 campaign.
"All of you are going to ask me about expectations," Herman said. "I don't know. I know that these guys are going to be trained as well as anybody in the country, and we're going to play to our maximum potential. What that is, I don't know right now.
"I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had," Herman added. "They don't want that to be their legacy. They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around. I think we're well on our way."
Texas, which was picked fourth in the Big 12's preseason media poll behind Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State, will be tested by the tough and balanced league and by a non-conference schedule that includes a road game at USC on Sept. 16.
WASHINGTON LAUDED BY GUNDY
Oklahoma State wide receiver James Washington, who, along with teammate Jalen McCleskey, was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list, was lauded Tuesday by Cowboys coach Mike Gundy and included in group of the greatest receivers in team history.
Washington led Oklahoma State with 1,380 receiving yards last season and hauled in 10 touchdowns. He announced before the Alamo Bowl he would forgo the NFL draft and stay at OSU for his senior season alongside quarterback Mason Rudolph.
"James Washington is up there with the Dez Bryants and the (Justin) Blackmons and the Rashaun Woods -- the guys that have been terrific football players," Gundy said. "I think James is just scratching the surface.
"James came from a terrific community out in west Texas, a small community. When he got to our place, it was dramatically different than what he'd ever been exposed to. So, he's had three years and I think the next 10 years for him, really the sky's the limit, for two reasons. One, because he's just starting to develop. Two, he's got a terrific attitude, and he's unselfish, he loves to play the game of football, and he's tough."
TRANSFERS PLAY HUGE ROLE FOR MOUNTAINEERS
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has made a living and built some success in the Big 12 by utilizing transfers to their fullest potential.
Junior college transfers, graduate transfers who could play right away or players who came from another FBS school and sat out a year before becoming eligible have filled big roles for the Mountaineers and will again in 2017.
"The first year in the (Big 12) we had some top-end talent, but our depth wasn't very good, so we started doing a lot of transfers and they've worked out," Holgorsen said Tuesday. "It's just kind of been what our niche has been. They've just worked out for us."
Since National Signing Day in February, the Mountaineers have brought in six transfers -- including one graduate transfer, two junior college players and three transfers from FBS schools who will have to sit out the 2017 season.
The Mountaineers will rely on junior college transfers Justin Crawford, the Big 12's leading returning rusher after running for 1,184 yards in his first season at West Virginia, and Bednarik Award watch list safety Kyzir White. WVU will also look to receiver Ka'Raun White, who played alongside his brother Kyzir at Lackawanna College before the two came to West Virginia, as one of its top targets in the passing game.
Then there's quarterback Will Grier, who transferred to Morgantown from Florida. Grier went 6-0 as a freshman with the Gators before he was suspended for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. He's been sitting out since October 2015, but Holgorsen said he's shown very little rust from the layoff.
"It didn't take long for us to figure out Grier's a really good player," Holgorsen said. "He's got that starting quarterback trait and he's got the locker room ready to roll. He gets them out there and watches film with them, throws a lot with them. He controls the huddle. He does everything right."
SNYDER READY FOR HIS 27TH SEASON
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said Tuesday that he's "doing fine" while battling throat cancer and that's he's completed treatment and back to full duty after being limited in the spring.
"The recovery is ongoing, quite obviously, but I'm doing fine, getting around fine," the 77-year-old Snyder said. "I don't have any issues right now other than trying to prepare for the season. That's always an ongoing issue. That's 365 a year."
The upcoming season will be Snyder's 27th at the Kansas State helm. His team, buoyed by quarterback Jesse Ertz, running back Alex Barnes and a tough, no-name defense, has been picked third in the Big 12's preseason media poll and is a dark horse to win the conference.
"We really share one same thing and that's the fact that we want to win," Ertz said. "It doesn't matter how much we communicate or laugh together. At the end of the day we want to win and play football."
RUHLE'S RULE IS THE WORD AT BAYLOR
Baylor coach Matt Ruhle said Tuesday that the Bears will not run from the past but learn from it as a new regime takes hold in Waco after two seasons of strife surrounding a sexual-assault scandal at the university and investigations that continue into the school's football program.
"At the end of the day, I don't know everything that happened, but I just know something happened that was wrong," said Ruhle, who was hired away from Temple to replace interim coach Jim Grobe in December after the May 2016 firing of Art Briles.
"We're truly committed to getting the wrongs of the past corrected and to a bright new future," Ruhle added. "Together, we are committed to our continued cooperation with external and internal reviews of past conduct."
The Bears were 7-6 in 2016 and will be without key players from a year ago, including at quarterback, wide receiver, running back, the secondary and the offensive line. He does not come from an Air Raid background and will face a transition year not only in players but in offensive attack.
The 94-year-old Parseghian has had five operations on the hip and currently is being treated at a care facility in South Bend, Ind., according to the Chicago Tribune.
Another surgery isn't an option for Parseghian because of his age, and the infection is being treated with intravenous antibiotics.
Parseghian led the Fighting Irish to a pair of national championships and posted a 95-17-4 mark in 11 seasons. He also coached with Northwestern and Miami (Ohio) and later became a college football television analyst.
With the timing of former coach Bob Stoops' retirement, the transition has been less stressful for Riley, who addressed the media Monday. It marked the first of two 2017 Big 12 Football Media Days at Ford Center at The Star.
"It's such a unique situation," Riley said. "Normally, when there's a change in the head coaching position, so much else has changed as well as far as bringing in a new staff a lot of times, getting to know players, starting to develop those relationships.
"What made this so unique, I think, was the continuity that was kept with the decision. It's made it definitely a lot easier on me when I think about all I've done in the last month."
It certainly helps that the 33-year-old Riley, who was the Sooners' offensive coordinator, inherits a team that has won the past two Big 12 championships.
"We have a very, very strong team coming back with some new exciting young players to infuse our team with," Riley said. "Obviously, it's a very, very demanding schedule that you get every year in the Big 12, and another demanding nonconference schedule."
Oklahoma is led by a returning quarterback, senior Baker Mayfield, who set NCAA records a year ago and will work behind eight offensive linemen with starting experience.
"Baker has gotten more comfortable as a quarterback within our system and more comfortable as a quarterback with our current players," Riley said. "Obviously having great quarterback play in big-time games is always such a huge part of it. We're thrilled about his progress -- I think he really took some strides this spring."
Mayfield admits the aftermath of his February public intoxication arrest and the viral video of Fayetteville, Ark., police officers tackling him while trying to escape has humbled him and been the impetus for some lifestyle changes. Mayfield has refocused on being a role model and on doing the right things.
Oklahoma's team leaders and captains have formed a kangaroo court of sorts to help players toe the line.
"Accountability has been a huge thing we've been pushing," Mayfield said. "If you're not going to do it right off the field, who is to say we trust you on the field? The leaders had to set the tone, so we got together and set some standards, so there's been punishment that we've had to deal out for guys who have made mistakes."
Only one program in the Big 12 era -- the Sooners in 2006-08 -- has won three consecutive conference titles. Expectations are high for Oklahoma, which travels to Ohio State in Week 2 before heading into a league campaign that features five other teams that could be ranked in the top 25.
"The expectations are there to win, like they always are at Oklahoma, but that's something that I enjoy and something that our staff enjoys, and our players," Riley said. "You come to play and coach at Oklahoma to win and to win big. It's always been like that. If you don't enjoy that sense of pressure and those expectations, then it's probably not the place for you."
LONE STAR STATE SHOULD BE EMBARRASSED
TCU coach Gary Patterson said Monday that Texas should be embarrassed for its lack of a ranked team in last season's final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
No team from the Lone Star State was included in those rankings, which hadn't happened since 1967, when Patterson was a first-grader. At various points throughout the year, Texas, TCU, Texas A&M, Houston and Baylor had been ranked but all of them tumbled out in their own way.
"We should be embarrassed we don't have a team in the Top 25," Patterson said Monday. "There's a lot of good football players, even that come to our schools, that can play and play at a high level, and we need to play better. It's simple as that."
Patterson, the FBS' second-longest tenured coach in the nation, said an exodus of numerous in-state stars was part of reason for the state's poor showing in 2016.
NO DEFENSE FOR POOR DEFENSE
Texas Tech had the fifth-ranked scoring offense in college football last season, but it also ranked dead last in scoring defense. It's a situation that sent the Red Raiders to a 5-7 campaign and left them outside the bowl picture despite having a quarterback, Pat Mahomes III, who was drafted by the NFL in the first round.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury was taken to task about that situation by one reporter on Monday and he really had no defense for his poor defense.
"That's a great question -- I wish I had the answer," Kingsbury said with a bit of a smile and some laughter from media members. "Like I said, that's something we work on. We haven't been good enough defensively, and we'll continue to try and recruit the right players and develop them and get better.
"I expect to see us be improved. I like what I saw this spring. We played a lot of young players on defense last year, and I'm hoping those snaps pay dividends going into this year."
Iowa State will have two night home games this season at Jack Trice Stadium, including a Sept. 28 matchup with Texas. Cyclones coach Matt Campbell thinks his home field, and the hoopla around game night in Ames, can propel his players to greater heights.
"It's one of the most unique places in college football," Campbell said Monday about Jack Trice Stadium. "When you turn the lights on and you have a chance to go into that environment, it seems like it only continues to get our fan base going.
"I'll say this and continue to say this, we've got one of the most special fan bases in all of college football. So you give our great fans a whole day to get ready and revved up for a football game, it makes it pretty unique."
THE SECRET IS OUT
One of the Big 12's best football players calls the University of Kansas home.
Despite the program's long-standing residence in the conference's basement, knowledge and accolades for the talent of junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr. is so great that media voted him the preseason Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12, the first time a Jayhawks player has garnered that honor.
Armstrong, who goes 6 feet 4 and 246 pounds, was the only unanimous selection to the media's preseason all-conference defensive team. He had 10 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2016.
"The best thing I think about Dorance is that that award doesn't mean much to him," Kansas coach David Beaty said. "He knows that's just written and that the real award is given at the end of the year. He cares a lot more about his teammates and about winning. That's what makes him great."
While the timetable puts Jones' season in jeopardy, he took to Twitter to offer a positive message.
"All Ima say is watch me come back, I serve an on time God. (It will not be) no 4 to 6 months," Jones wrote.
Jones was named to the preseason watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented annually to the nation's top cornerback.
Jones recorded 37 tackles, one sack and three interceptions last season, with one pick being returned for a touchdown.
Ex-Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and former senior vice president Gary Schultz each reported to the Centre County Correctional Facility in Bellefonte, Pa., where they will be jailed for three and two months, respectively.
Both men pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor child endangerment related to the scandal involving Sandusky that led to the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno in November 2011.
Curley received a sentence of seven to 23 months -- three to be served in jail and four under house arrest, according to PennLive.com.
Schultz was sentenced to six to 23 months, with a jail term of two months and house arrest of four. Both men were fined $5,000 and must serve 200 hours of community service.
Schultz and Curley were arrested in 2011. They were charged with felony conspiracy and on suspicion of failing to notify authorities of reports of child sexual abuse by Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts in the sexual abuse of 10 boys.
Sandusky is serving 30 to 60 years in prison -- with accusations stemming as far back as the 1970s.
Former Penn State president Graham Spanier was convicted of one count of child endangerment in March over his handling of a complaint against then-retired assistant football coach Sandusky.
Spanier, Curley and Schultz handled a 2001 complaint by graduate assistant football coach Mike McQueary, who said he saw Sandusky -- at the time a retired defensive coach at Penn State -- sexually abusing a boy in a team shower.
The school administrators did not report the matter to police or child welfare authorities and Sandusky was not arrested until a decade later.
"I have visited with Darren Carrington and informed him that he is no longer a member of our program," Ducks coach Willie Taggart said in release sent by the university on Friday. "We will always consider Darren a Duck and support him in any way we can. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors."
Oregon had indefinitely suspended Carrington after police stopped him in downtown Eugene.
Carrington, about to enter his fifth season, was projected to be Oregon's top wide receiver. He led the team with 606 receiving yards and was second with 43 receptions in 2016 while averaging 17.1 yards per reception with 15 touchdowns during his career.
The precedent was set when Oregon moved to fire co-offensive coordinator David Reaves within hours of his January arrest on a similar DUII charge that also originated in downtown Eugene. Reaves later resigned in February.
Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech probably wouldn't mind much of the same because his team won the division and went on to a riveting bowl victory last season.
Miami's Mark Richt put together a nice opening season at his alma mater so the foundation could be set for the Hurricanes. Yet Bronco Mendenhall encountered the roughest waters at Virginia.
With no newcomers among the ACC's head coaches this year, the trio remains the newest among the conference's head men.
Another coach, Pittsburgh's Pat Narduzzi, showed that there can be early success. The Panthers had eight-win regular seasons in his first two years, something that hadn't been achieved since 2009.
So immediate success is possible within a Coastal Division that has seen some teams take significant dips from time to time in the past decade.
Virginia Tech's 10-4 season was capped by a Belk Bowl victory against Arkansas.
"Our long-term mission is return Virginia Tech back to the top of the ACC," Fuente said Friday during the ACC Kickoff. "That's our goal. But to me, it's about the process and it's about are we going about the process that's been proven over time that leads to our improvement?"
The Hokies went through strange stretches last season, with uplifting victories and puzzling losses.
"Our margin of error wasn't that great," Fuente said.
Despite winning the Coastal Division, there was unfinished business for the Hokies.
"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder, being that we didn't win last year (the overall league title)," Virginia Tech linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka said. "Definitely the goal is to make it back to the ACC championship."
Miami went 9-4 in the first season under Richt, who has a better grip on things entering his second year.
"A year later, we're still going through the installation (of schemes), but it's just not as crazy as it was a year ago," Richt said. "There wasn't that big of a learning curve across the board."
The second year directing the program is critical in Richt's mind because now there's a fuller understanding of all the operations from the players and staff.
"We understand how to do the little things right, and we understand how we want to go about our business," he said. "We're moving right along at a very good pace."
For Mendenhall, he said it's important to maintain perspective.
"Realistic, opportunistic and anxious to get to work," he said in describing the outlook and willing to let the process play out. "There is no time frame that I'm imposing."
Still, Mendenhall, whose team went 2-10 last year, had to endure an unusual season based on his background.
"I'm not used to losing more than winning, so that was a reframing," he said.
FEW QUARTERBACKS RETURNING: Quarterbacks Kurt Benkert of Virginia and Daniel Jones of Duke are the only returning starting quarterbacks among Coastal Division teams.
They both paid their dues last year, when in some ways they became unexpected starters and their teams combined for six victories. Now, they're considered keys to their teams' offenses.
Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, arrived at Virginia with a knee injury that was still healing. He became the starting quarterback, and yet often paid the price physically during the season.
"It kind of pushed me to the limits," Benkert said. "I look forward to starting (this) season healthy."
Jones wasn't even on the radar last summer when he was a little-known player about to enter his redshirt freshman season. That was before Thomas Sirk suffered another Achilles injury and that thrust Jones into the role as the starter.
He never relinquished that spot, quite an achievement for a player who committed to the Blue Devils as a non-scholarship enrollee.
The support from Duke coach David Cutcliffe has only grown.
"He is physically different. He's stronger and I think faster," Cutcliffe said of as Jones approaches his second season. "I think the biggest difference is confidence."
Cutcliffe said Jones should benefit from the leadership role that has grown on the team. He said it was difficult a year ago when Jones was thrust into his spot when the Blue Devils were gearing up for months to play under a different signal-caller.
Jones said he can tell there's more comfort even if he can't pinpoint when that occurred.
"I don't know if there was a specific event or a defining moment," Jones said. "A process that I kind of progressed throughout the season."
At Virginia, Benkert said there's a slightly different tone knowing he's going into this season as the clear-cut first-string quarterback.
"Competition brings out the best in everybody," he said. "This will be the first year it's not a true competition."
Mendenhall said the Benkert's development has been noteworthy.
"It has been fun seeing confidence, decision-making and maturity improve," he said.
Mendenhall said Benkert has had the ability to make every necessary throw and now his mobility and accuracy have been upgraded.
FILL THE OPENING: North Carolina will unveil a new starting quarterback after the departure of Mitch Trubisky, who was the NFL Draft's second overall pick by the Chicago Bears.
The Tar Heels had Trubisky in the first-string role for only one season, but his junior campaign was enough to send him to the next level and thus leave an unexpected void on the North Carolina depth chart.
The 2017 starter is likely to be either Chazz Surratt, a redshirt freshman, or Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU who made 15 starts across three seasons with the Tigers. Harris, though, played in only four games last year.
"The guy that's going to win that job is going to be a guy that can lead our football team," North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. "He has got to be able to make good decisions and take care of the football."
Surratt was being groomed as Trubisky's potential replacement, but with the accelerated time frame the landscape changed again when Harris enrolled.
HOKIES ON HOLD: Virginia Tech's quarterback question has yet to be fully answered.
Fuente is deflecting attention from that topic.
"The biggest thing for us is the supporting cast," he said, "in terms of the wide receivers and getting some more production out of our running back position as we move forward so that whoever does play quarterback has a chance to be productive."
NEW-NAME OFFENSE: Pittsburgh's offense will need a new identity, particularly with the departure of running back James Conner, who enjoyed an inspirational senior season last year after a bout with cancer.
Also gone is quarterback Nate Peterman.
"They're the two best examples I've ever been around on how to lead other guys and how to incorporate everybody in everything we do and hold everybody accountable," offensive tackle Brian O'Neill said. "Those are two of the biggest things we've tried to work on as a rising group of upperclassmen and leaders on the offense is being able to lead by example and incorporate everybody."
The offense is under the direction of new coordinator Shawn Watson, so new wrinkles are bound to be part of what transpires when the Panthers snap the ball.
It figures the quarterback duties could fall to Max Browne, a graduate transfer from Southern California. He started three games last year for the Trojans.
"He knows he's coming into this fall camp with guys on his heels," Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said.
CONFERENCE PRIDE: Georgia Tech provided a source of ACC pride last season by posting a 3-0 record against Southeastern Conference opponents.
The Yellow Jackets will be right back at it against an SEC foe when they open the season against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 4 at Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said it's an important clash for the Yellow Jackets, with also an impact on the ACC.
"You can't hide from the fact that people are going to compare the leagues," Johnson said.
He said Friday at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., that he had been "50-50" in the offseason about leaving early for the NFL draft.
"I just had unfinished business to do here as a team and as an individual," Blanding said. "I'm just getting ready for that."
Blanding, a two-time first-team All-ACC player, has 358 career tackles -- 9.94 per game. Both are the top returning marks in the country. NFLDraftscout.com rates him as a potential second-rounder -- the 55th-best prospect overall and the No. 2 free safety behind Texas A&M senior Armani Watts (No. 44).
Despite his numbers and accolades, if Blanding hasn't yet made much of a national name it is because Virginia has gone 11-25 in the past three seasons, including a 2-10 mark in coach Bronco Mendenhall's debut season with the Cavaliers in 2016.
"The end result wasn't what we wanted," Blanding said of last season, "but it went really well because people bought in. That's the bottom line. If you don't buy in, you're gone. ... Now, everyone bought in and everyone sees the big picture."
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Blanding has made more than 100 tackles in each of his three seasons, also picking off six passes. He has 5.5 tackles for loss.
"I'm the leader of the defense," he said.
"I make the calls, and I see everything before anyone sees anything anyway, so I've got to know what the offense is going to give me. I've got to be in their huddle before they even come out of the huddle. So that's been my job since my second year and that's job I'm going to keep continuing. I'm just going to keep growing at it."
Despite Virginia's current low status in the ACC, Blanding leads a defense that has two other top 100 prospects, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Junior Juan Thornhill, who is moving from cornerback to strong safety this season, is No. 80. Senior inside linebacker Micah Kiser is No. 81. Blanding and Kiser earned second-team preseason All-America honors from Lindy's College Football Annuals.
Now, the Cavaliers just need some more victories.
"A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people doubted me," Blanding said. "It's time to prove people wrong and show the world what we're doing and, as an individual, why I'm the best in the league as a safety."
Now the junior quarterback is learning new footwork because he has been taking snaps under center in preparation for the season.
"He can really drop and throw it from under there," Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino said. "He does a good job in the run game. The best thing about Lamar is it was never an issue of taking the snap, so he could always take the snap. It was just getting used to the footwork."
Jackson rushed for 1,571 yards and threw for 3,543 yards last season. He played a part in 51 touchdowns (21 on the ground, 30 through the air).
Jackson downplayed the impact of what could be a new view with the ball.
"I just can't wait until the Purdue game (in the opener) and go out and show everything," he said.
Petrino said Jackson will remain the focal point of the offense for obvious reasons. But he said some alterations could alleviate some pressure from him.
It also could help prepare Jackson for whenever he pursues a professional career.
"I also feel like we need to take some pressure off of him where he doesn't need to make a decision every single play out there," Petrino said. "So there's some really good run schemes that you can do and some play-action schemes you can do with the quarterback underneath the center."
Louisville's offensive line came apart at times last season, particularly during a three-game losing streak to end the season. The Cardinals finished 9-4.
That's one reason why giving Jackson more options in alignments could provide more avenues for him.
He said he knows he took physical thumpings last season.
"I got beat up," he said. "You have to deal with it. Being quarterback, you're supposed to be the leader of the team. ... I'm confident in (the offensive line)."
The attention will naturally come for Jackson as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He said he is not focusing on that, but instead the emphasis remains on winning games.
"I don't really worry about it," he said. "It's done. I have it. I wasn't trying to win it last year. It happened. My teammates helped me out. My coaches helped me out. I'm just blessed and I'm humbled."
With Thursday's session at the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff, it was clear that there will be challenges for the Tigers.
"We didn't just luck up on winning a national champion," defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. "It's not an easy path. You have to show (the newcomers) that hard work is the only way to go."
The depth and likely strength of the ACC's Atlantic Division means the Tigers will have to be at full throttle to keep pace.
"Every single week you better come to play," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Clemson has put together back-to-back 14-1 seasons, though the 2015 campaign ended with a loss in the national championship game. A year later, the conquest of Alabama capped the best six-year span in school history for the Tigers.
"We weren't perfect even though we did win a national championship," Wilkins said.
The Tigers have six consecutive seasons with at least 10 victories.
Finding a replacement at quarterback for Deshaun Watson is of utmost importance for Clemson, which also is without departed running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Mike Williams.
There's no shortage of candidates to fill prominent roles.
"We've got players who want to prove themselves," offensive guard Tyrone Crowder said. "That's why they come here -- to be that guy."
Before the Tigers can be consumed with repeating as national champions, they have to make it out of the ACC's Atlantic Division, which includes a Florida State team that might be picked as the division favorite when that poll is released next week.
Plus, there's Louisville with a dynamic quarterback (Lamar Jackson), a veteran North Carolina State team and an improving Wake Forest program among those in the way.
"We want to be a great league," Swinney said. "That competitive balance in our division has grown tighter and tighter. This division is tough."
ON TO THE NEXT THING: ACC commissioner John Swofford predictably pointed out the strength of the conference, noting a significant uptick in recent years.
The ACC has two of the past four national champions.
"You know you don't live too long on last year's laurels," Swofford said. "You can't live in the past in college athletics. You move ahead."
For Swofford, improvements across the league have been most notable. He said that Clemson's two toughest games prior to the national championship clash with Alabama came in ACC games at home -- a loss to Pittsburgh and a near-upset to N.C. State.
STILL ON THE SCENE: Florida State has five consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. While Clemson has been prospering in the postseason, the Seminoles haven't been far behind.
For coach Jimbo Fisher, he sees motivation all around him.
"I think there's a hunger, an urgency," Fisher said.
Sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois said he knows that for the most part the Seminoles are only a few plays away from being among the elite.
So that's why Francois said the details have become vital.
"Decision-making and accuracy," he said of his offseason emphasis. "Get the ball out of my hand faster. Make faster decisions."
ON THE RISE: A popular choice for a sleeper team this season could be North Carolina State, which has 17 starters returning.
The Wolfpack's defensive front includes depth that includes six seniors, so a unit that ranked high last year could be even stingier.
"You want expectations and you have to earn them," N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. "That (perception) changes when you don't live up to them."
Overcoming Clemson, Florida State and Louisville in the division will be no easy task. Yet with defensive end Bradley Chubb, the Wolfpack has one of the most highly regarded returning players in the ACC.
Chubb said the Wolfpack can't be consumed with the competition within the division. That helps with the internal motivation.
"We're pushing to be the best," he said. "We're pushing every week to not be comfortable."
All-purpose offensive back Jaylen Samuels said the Wolfpack is shying away from some of the attention.
"We just try to let the media do what they do with all the hype about N.C. State and we do all the dirty work," Samuels said.
RECORD SETTER: Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin became a three-time attendee at the ACC Kickoff. That's a league record.
Some of the shine has worn off for the senior, but he embraces the assignment.
"I take a great deal of pride in it that my coaches feel that way and the program honestly just gave me that responsibility to be considered an ambassador of the program for three straight years," he said. "I'm not going to lie. It's not too fun the third time around, but I do it for Syracuse."
HELLO, CHARLOTTE: The ACC will bring its championship game back to Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
The 2017 title game will mark the seventh time the conference holds its championship event there.
Because of the controversial North Carolina law known as HB2, the 2016 game was moved out of the state and played in Orlando, Fla. With that law altered, the ACC (along with NCAA postseason events) have returned to North Carolina.
It's not Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, or any number of talented SEC running backs such as LSU's Derrius Guice, Georgia's Nick Chubb or the Crimson Tide's Bo Scarbrough. The top Heisman candidate, at 15-to-1 odds, is Auburn sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Hey, no pressure, kid.
The former Baylor quarterback is expected to immediately transform an Auburn offense and make the Tigers a legitimate threat to Alabama in the SEC West. Auburn is showing up as top-10 timber in some preseason publications.
"Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days on Thursday in Hoover, Ala. "I think that's a common sense deal."
Since going 12-2 and winning the SEC in 2013 -- losing to Florida State in the BCS title game -- the Tigers have gone a pedestrian 23-16, usually struggling in the passing game. Auburn failed to score 20 points in any of its five losses last season.
When healthy, junior quarterback Sean White has done some good things, so Malzahn hasn't yet anointed a No. 1 quarterback. But Stidham-as-savior is Auburn's theme heading into camp.
The former five-star recruit dazzled in a mop-up role and as a late-season injury replacement at Baylor in 2015, completing 75 of 109 passes for 1,265 yards, with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.
"I've got a lot of history with Stidham," Malzahn said. "We actually recruited him in high school. He's a good athlete. He's a lot better athlete than people think. He's got a 35-, 36-inch vertical. He runs a 4.6.
"In our league, you have to escape. Things are going to break down. The defensive lines are too good. You have to have a quarterback that can escape pressure, keep his eyes down the field, know when to throw it, know when to run it, and protect the football and make good decisions."
Stidham, who did not play at a junior college last fall, impressed in the spring in new coordinator Chip Lindsey's offense.
"Jarrett Stidham is competitive," safety Tray Matthews told the SEC Network. "One word: competitive."
Auburn has one of the best running back tandems in the country in powerful Kamryn Pettway and all-purpose Kerryon Johnson. The Tigers also return eight defensive starters from a unit that was seventh nationally in points allowed (17.1 per game) and have Daniel Carlson, a preseason All-American kicker.
Just add Stidham.
"He's really done a good job trying to win over his teammates," Malzahn said. "We're going to throw it. We're going to throw it quite a bit more."
In terms of being "hungry" and having a "chip on their shoulder," Malzahn said this team -- which gets Alabama at home to end the regular season -- is beginning to remind him of something good.
"The last time I felt this way was 2013," he said.
--The SEC has ample exciting sophomore quarterbacks, including Hurts, Stidham, Ole Miss' Shea Patterson and South Carolina's Jake Bentley. Bentley started the final seven games of last season after coach Will Muschamp pulled him out of his freshman redshirt.
Bentley completed 65.8 percent of his passes, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He led South Carolina to a 4-3 record that included an overtime bowl loss to South Florida in which he passed for 390 yards.
The Bentley-created optimism has helped recruiting, Muschamp said.
"Guys want to understand that having a guy at that position that can excel, you're going to win games," he said. "Which we are at South Carolina. No doubt."
--Former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, who was fired after the 2011 season, filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging defamation by school officials and current coach Hugh Freeze for a "smear campaign" that tried to blame him for an ongoing NCAA investigation.
"I would love to share my opinion on it," Freeze said Thursday about the lawsuit, "but unfortunately it's a legal case and I just can't comment."
--Ole Miss can't play in the postseason due to a self-imposed bowl ban because of the NCAA investigation.
"I think this has the potential to set up our staff to have our greatest hour," Freeze said. "We can model for a lot of people what it can look like for people that genuinely care for one another and look at what we do have as a blessing, and then set an example of how you go through difficult times."
--Auburn's game at defending national champion Clemson on Sept. 9 is one of the top early nonconference games of the season. Clemson won 19-13 at Auburn to open last season.
"It will be a good measuring stick of where we're at," Malzahn said. "We're still sick about the loss at home last year."
Frantz disclosed his sexual orientation to his teammates during a team-building exercise, and told the network on Wednesday that he was relieved to find acceptance within the locker room.
"I came out to my teammates, and I've never felt so loved and so accepted ever in my life than when I did that," Frantz said. "And ever since then it's been great. I've grown so much closer to my teammates since. So it's been an amazing experience.
" ... So the very first time I said those words were in front of, you know, 110, 120 football guys. So you can imagine how scared I was, how nervous I was. ... This could go either really bad or could go really good. And thankfully my teammates embraced me with open arms, and it was great."
Frantz, who started 13 games for Kansas State last year as a sophomore, elected to come out to his teammates after a motivational speaker brought in by coach Bill Snyder encouraged players to reveal something they hadn't before.
Frantz, who said he knew he was gay in the fifth grade, told his family of his sexual orientation one week after disclosing it to his teammates.
Frantz and incoming Arizona freshman defensive end My-King Johnson will be the first two openly gay active FBS players when the 2017 season kicks off in the fall.
Nutt's lawsuit alleges that Freeze and Bjork promoted a false storyline that suggested that most of the ongoing case of NCAA infractions involved violations that occurred under Nutt.
Nutt is seeking compensatory and punitive damages for lost wages, emotional distress, embarrassment and attorney's fees.
Mississippi has been accused of 21 infractions related to its football program, and university officials are expected to appear in front of the NCAA's committee on infractions later this year.
The school self-imposed some penalties, but is defending Freeze, who could face major sanctions if it was determined that he failed to monitor the program effectively.
According to the USA Today report, most of the NCAA's case deals with misconduct under Freeze's watch.
Nutt, who was the coach of Ole Miss from 2008 to 2011, claims in the suit that Freeze, Bjork and sports information director Kyle Campbell "reached an agreement in 2014 to carry out a carefully orchestrated misinformation campaign, the specific purpose of which was to mislead the media, Ole Miss boosters, and potential recruiting prospects about the true nature of the matters that were being investigated by the NCAA."
Yahoo! Sports reported on Jan. 29, 2016, that Mississippi received its Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, but the university did not release it publicly.
Reports from various media outlets, often quoting anonymous sources, indicated the university claimed that most of the alleged violations occurred during Nutt's time as coach.
Nutt's lawsuit claims, according to USA Today, that phone records for Freeze, Bjork and Campbell were obtained, and they indicated they spoke with reporters who produced stories that contained misleading information about the Notice of Allegations and Nutt's involvement.
"During the 10 days leading up to the crucial weekend recruiting event, Coach Freeze initiated 'off the record' conversations with numerous sports journalists for the specific purpose of creating multiple false and misleading news stories, Tweets and other social media comments supporting the above-referenced false narrative, i.e., that the NCAA's focus was on the former football coaching staff and Houston Nutt in particular."
Nutt tried to obtain an apology from Ole Miss, but when he did not get one, he decided to sue.
Nutt currently works as a television analyst for college football.
Freeze is scheduled to speak Thursday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.
Long sustained an injury to his meniscus during an offseason workout, according to Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated.
Long collected 65 tackles while appearing in 13 games during his freshman season in 2016. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound Long posted a career-best 11 tackles in a loss to Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
West Virginia, which opens the season against Virginia Tech on Sept. 3, is hopeful that Long will return by Oct. 7 for its road clash with Texas Christian.
Alabama has won four of the past eight national championships, has been SEC champion in four of the past five seasons and is the only team to advance to the College Football Playoff in each of the three years of its existence.
And the Crimson Tide are back for more: Alabama is the pick for No. 1 in various preseason publications.
Much of the talk through three days of SEC Media Days has been about chasing Alabama. Can anyone catch the Crimson Tide?
"I think there's a lot of parity in our league," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Alabama is 29-3 in the SEC over the past four seasons. Georgia has the next best record at 20-12.
Nobody disputes that Saban has acquired more raw talent than anybody in the country, but there are questions.
--Brian Daboll, most recently the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, takes over as offensive coordinator. What will the attack look like?
"They are running a little bit of a different offense," defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said of informal offseason workouts. "I can't give you the details and everything."
--Quarterback Jalen Hurts, who won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman last season, needs to be a better downfield passer.
True freshman Tua Tagovailoa was impressive in the spring, prompting a question Wednesday about a quarterback controversy. Saban bristled.
"We're not going to tolerate people making stuff up just to create interest," he said.
That said, Tagovailoa figures to get early playing time, if only to be ready in case of injury because Alabama has no experience at quarterback behind Hurts.
--Alabama lost seven defensive players to the NFL draft, all selected in the top four rounds. Saban cited "defensive identity" as his top concern.
"This is going to be one of the youngest teams that we've had probably since maybe 2012, especially on defense," Saban said.
--The right side of the offensive line is unsettled, with Saban saying he thought after the spring he had just four offensive linemen who had shown they could play winning football.
--Saban delivered a great line about motivation after losing last season's national title game to Clemson in the final second.
"I don't want to waste a failure," he said. But he also reiterated the difficulty of staying on the mountain top year after year.
"The challenge is not, 'Are you willing to do it?' but 'Why are you willing to do it?' To me, that creates your passion, and passion gives you the ability to sustain."
Can the Tide sustain one more season? Can anyone in the SEC catch 'Bama?
"The consistency of that program did not come overnight," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "But you can't argue that (Alabama) is the mark and that's where everybody wants to be."
--Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough and LB Shaun Dion Hamilton are expected to be full-go at the start of camp, Saban said. Scarbrough suffered a broken leg in the national championship game; Hamilton sustained a torn ACL in the SEC title game.
--Missouri coach Barry Odom returns 16 starters after going 4-8 in his debut season last year. "And when you win four games, guys, believe me, it hurts your soul," he said.
--Missouri RB Damarea Crockett ran for a school freshman-record 1,062 yards last season but was suspended for the final game. Odom said Crockett handled that punishment well and has to be ready for an even bigger role in 2017. "He's got a chance to be a game-changing player," Odom said.
--Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said he had "no idea" that his brother, Bob, was going to retire as Oklahoma's head coach during the offseason. "It's one of those moments you won't forget," Mark Stoops said. "He called me and it came out of the blue. It was a bit of a shock to be honest with you. ... Mixed emotions, I guess you would say. Very proud of him, what he's done, and very happy for him and Carol and his family, to be able to step away when he wants, how he wants. And that's Bob."
--Starting with last season, here is how Texas A&M has finished nationally in rushing defense in the past four years: 90th, 107th, 109th, 110th. Perhaps the hiring of strength coach Mark Hocke, who has experience at Alabama, Georgia and, most recently, Florida State, will help shore up that area. Sumlin mentioned "toughness" multiple times Wednesday.
"The biggest sign in our building says 'No excuses,'" he said.
--Texas A&M OT Koda Martin is set to marry the daughter of Syracuse head coach Dino Babers in a couple of weeks. Jazzmin Babers completed her eligibility as a volleyball player for the Aggies last season. Martin was asked if he is on a first-name basis with Dino Babers. "It's Coach Babers for now," he said with a smile.
--SEC Media Days concludes Thursday with coaches and players from Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina.
NFLDraftScout.com rates him as the No. 9 prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft, and if there needed to be another reason why he is so highly coveted, there is this:
He said Wednesday at SEC Media Days that he ran a 4.39 40 in the spring in front of scouts at Alabama's Pro Day.
Scouts also love his versatility. He played the "star" nickel-back position as a freshman, began last season at cornerback, and then took over at safety for the final seven games when Eddie Jackson suffered a broken leg.
As for this season, he is likely to stick at safety -- saying he has no preference -- but his multiple skills will allow coach Nick Saban to experiment with combinations as needed.
"I have been playing a little corner, a little bit of star, a little bit of safety," Fitzpatrick said Wednesday. "We've been trying to feel it out, see what we can do, see what's the best fit."
Fitzpatrick (6-1, 202) intercepted six passes last season on a big-play Alabama defense, returning two for touchdowns. He has four career interception returns for scores.
Fitzpatrick brushed off talk about leaving for the NFL after this season -- "I'm only concerned about a national championship," he said Wednesday -- but he is in line to be Alabama's sixth defensive back to be a first-round pick since 2010.
NFLDraftScout.com ranks him as the second-best defensive back in the country behind Florida State safety Derwin James (No. 4), who is coming off an injury-shortened season.
Regarding Fitzpatrick, NFLDraftScout.com writes:
"He is a fluid, coordinated athlete with impressive top-end speed shown not only as a starting cornerback and safety the past two seasons but as a very effective gunner on special teams. Alert and physical, Fitzpatrick may project better to safety but for some as he is a bit high in his back pedal. However, he transitions and accelerates smoothly and possesses the long arms so popular for cornerbacks in today's game."
Fitzpatrick and James will be on the same field in a huge opening-weekend matchup in Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 2.
"It's going to be a whole lot of fun to play in and a game to remember," Fitzpatrick said.
The former five-star recruit, who played left guard in his first two seasons, is poised to make a major statement in terms of the NFL Draft. NFLDraftScout.com rates Ivey as the 21st-best overall prospect and the third-best offensive tackle behind Oklahoma's Orlando Brown (No. 7 overall) and Texas' Connor Williams (No. 14).
"Tez is a natural left tackle. That's what he was coming out," McElwain said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "It speaks volumes to his unselfishness that he went in there and played at guard, knowing that we needed that to happen."
McElwain said he inherited only four scholarship offensive linemen when he joined Florida for the 2015 season, and he needed Ivey (6-foot-5, 305) in the interior of the line to piece together the best unit. Ivey's opportunity to move to left tackle this season came when David Sharpe left early for the NFL, and was selected in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders.
"I think he'll really flourish now," McElwain said of Ivey. "He has that ability to move on the outside."
NFLDraftScout.com notes Ivey's "imposing frame with a thick lower half and surprisingly light feet" and writes that he "is at his best retreating in pass protection, showing patience, balance and agility to mirror rushers. He shows power to move opponents off the ball in the running game and is quick to climb to the second level but gets too far over his skis and struggles to hit moving targets."
Ivey earned second-team All-SEC honors last season from the league's coaches.
Eason was pushed in spring drills by incoming freshman Jake Fromm but Smart stomped out any controversy with the announcement during SEC media festivities at Hoover, Ala.
"Jacob Eason is our starter going into the season. Jake Fromm's got to do something to beat him out," Smart said. "Very similar to a lot of positions. You've got to beat them out. But we're very excited about both of them. Including Brice (Ramsey), we have three talented players."
Eason passed for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season.
The highly regarded Fromm was rated the No. 3 quarterback prospect nationally by 247Sports.com and rivals.com last season. He passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia's spring game to increase speculation that he narrowed the gap.
But it wasn't enough for Smart to transition away from Eason as the starter.
"Will Jake Fromm push Jacob Eason? Yeah, he already has," Smart said. "I think he's made Jacob respect the game and understand the importance of knowing the ins and outs of every play. Jake does that."
Ramsey, the No. 3 quarterback, has 582 career passing yards and four touchdowns. The senior actually decided to transfer from Georgia in March before returning to the program in June.
More specifically, quarterback.
The Gators have been searching for excellence and consistency at the position since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow completed his eligibility after the 2009 season.
Perhaps Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire is the answer.
"He didn't come here to hold a clipboard," Florida coach Jim McElwain said Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "If you're afraid of competition, you can just run away."
Zaire's potential impact is one of the big questions in the SEC as Florida tries to win its third SEC East title in three years under McElwain. He is 19-8 at Florida -- inheriting a team that had gone 11-13 in the previous two seasons -- but there's also this:
Florida has scored more than 20 points in only half of its 22 games against major conference teams in the past two seasons.
McElwain has mostly tasked his offense to just not mess things up, but he needs a more dynamic attack moving forward to truly make the Gators a playoff contender.
"What I am excited about is I truly believe the strength of our football team is the offensive line," McElwain told the SEC Network. "We're at the point right now where, you know what, it's time to go. We've got some real parts."
Much of Zaire's buzz comes from a big performance against LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, but an injury cut short his 2015 season after two games and he mostly backed up DeShone Kizer last season.
Before his post-spring transfer to Florida, the favorite to win the job was redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. He was a bit erratic in the spring, but he's talented with a bigger arm and more potential than Luke Del Rio, who started six games last season and is coming off shoulder surgery. He is more of a caretaker than a playmaker.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Trask is another option.
Florida has arguably the top receiving corps in the SEC, led by Antonio Callaway. Jordan Scarlett heads a deep group at running back. The offensive line that McElwain loves returns a collective 64 starts.
The only real question for this offense -- which was 107th in scoring (23.9 points per game) and 116th in total offense (344.0 yards per game) last season -- is quarterback.
Zaire isn't a sure-fire solution, but his mix of athleticism and experience might be better than Florida's other options. McElwain welcomes the competition at quarterback but offered only a dead-pan answer when asked who will be behind center for the opener against Michigan.
"I know we will start at quarterback," he said.
--Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both surprisingly decided to return for their senior seasons, forming one of the top tandems in the country. "In my mindset, it's not so important to be the featured guy at this point," Michel said. "Our mindset is trying to win football games. ... We want to get to Atlanta (for the SEC title game). By not wanting to be the featured guy, I think that could possibly get us there."
--Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who is 13-24 in three seasons with the Commodores, was asked about the "ceiling" for his program. "For me, what it comes back to is this: There are only two types of people in this world, limited and limitless. ... We work extremely hard every day to make our mark and figure out exactly where we're going."
Vanderbilt returns 18 starters, including standout senior running back Ralph Webb, from a 6-7 team.
"The future is bright," Mason said, "but the future is now."
--Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, rushing for 1,375 yards last season. One area of improvement is his passing accuracy, which was 54.3 percent last season.
"If you want to improve your completion percentage, which Nick has to do for us, make non-spectacular plays," said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. "You know, don't be afraid to take a check down. Hey, I'm just going to take an underneath throw over and over and over to get you up before I take a shot down the field."
--Florida WR Antonio Callaway, rated the 44th-best draft prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, was cited for marijuana possession in May. Coach Jim McElwain was non-committal about Callaway's status for the season opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. "He's a talented young man and he's really a good person," McElwain said.
--Media Days continues Wednesday with coaches and players from Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M.
He looked NFL ready as a true freshman in 2014 with 1,547 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, showing raw power and lateral cuts that immediately put him on the radar as a top prospect. Even after suffering a major knee injury as a sophomore, he came back last season to rush for 1,130 yards.
With 535 college carries, he seemed poised to start earning a paycheck.
But he made the surprising decision to come back, ready to chase Herschel Walker's school rushing record and re-show the full promise of his freshman season.
"At the end of the season I thought I was running full speed, but it was hard to tell," Chubb said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., on Tuesday. "Now and during the spring I feel a lot better."
NFLDraftScout.com rates Chubb as a fringe first-rounder, the No. 35 overall prospect heading into fall camp and the third-best running back behind Penn State's Saquon Barkley (No. 3) and LSU's Derrius Guice (No. 12).
"I know I'm working hard, pushing my body, trying to get better to where I once was, I guess," said Chubb, 5-foot-10 and 228 pounds. "We'll see come September. ... No matter what, I can't come back next year. Leave it all out there."
Chubb has a strong, compact frame and is known as a weight-room warrior, but second-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart said his strength staff is more concerned about preparing for football than putting up crazy lift numbers.
"Nick Chubb could probably put upward of 700, 800 pounds on his back and squat it," Smart said. "That might fire y'all up and might get a lot of hits on the internet, but it's not going to do one thing in winning a game."
Chubb's decision to come back to college was matched by senior running back Sony Michel, another draft prospect who rushed for 2,001 yards in the past two seasons. They give Smart one of the top running back tandems in the country.
Chubb has 3,424 career rushing yards, needing 1,836 yards to pass Walker. That would be a huge season, but it's not out of the question.
"I think Nick will tell you that he wasn't 100 percent last year, and he certainly has improved that," Smart said. "So with his ability to move up in the draft and create value for himself, he wanted to come back."