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Scoggins: College football programs on the upswing

The most wonderful time of the year is finally here. Christmas? Close. College football season.

We’ve got the countdown clock in motion here at Star Tribune World Headquarters. To celebrate the new season, Joe Christensen and myself will have a daily look at the Gophers and national college football scene on our blogs with a series of Top 5 lists. Everyone loves a good list, right?

Joe will post his inside look at the Gophers team on his blog that can be found right here.

My previous blog posts can be found here. Today’s installment focuses college football programs on the rise.

NOTE: We’re not including the Gophers in this discussion but for reasons that we’ve written about many times in the past year, Jerry Kill’s program certainly is moving in the right direction.

Trending upward

  1. Arkansas – The Bret Bielema fan club in the Twin Cities probably won’t like this, but Bielema has done a very good job changing the culture at Arkansas after Bobby Petrino’s disastrous tenure.

The Razorbacks went 7-6 and won a bowl game last season. Optimism is so high that there’s even talk that Arkansas could contend in the SEC West after finishing at the bottom last season.

Bielema brought his power offense from Wisconsin to the SEC.

The Razorbacks lost 1,000-yard rusher Jonathan Williams for the season because of a foot injury suffered in camp, but they have one of the best offensive lines in college football.

  1. Tennessee – Promise, no bias here.

Butch Jones has proven to be a dynamite recruiter who has re-stocked the roster with blue-chip talent.

No team nationally played more true freshmen last season – 23 total – and the Vols finished with a winning record after a victory against Iowa in a bowl game.

The Vols found a quarterback in Josh Dobbs and they should continue to improve as their young talent gains experience. They could challenge in the SEC East this season.

  1. Arizona State

Todd Graham is 28-12 in three seasons as head coach and has led the Sun Devils to back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973.

The Sun Devils have ranked in the Top 16 nationally in scoring offense in all three of Graham’s seasons.

Graham should be able to attract elite talent to Tempe as his program continues to build and become a regular Pac-12 contender.

  1. Penn State – The Nittany Lions are on their way back.

The severe scholarship sanctions levied in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal have been lifted and the Nittany Lions are nearly back at full strength with the 85-scholarship limit. That will help their depth and overall talent.

Second-year coach James Franklin landed a Top 15 recruiting class this spring, a sure sign that can attract the kind of talent needed to rebuild that storied program.

Franklin led Penn State to a 7-6 record and bowl win in his first season. A third-place finish in the Big Ten East this season behind Ohio State and Michigan State is not unrealistic expectations.

 

  1. Cal – The Bears went from 1-11 in Sonny Dykes first season to 5-7 last season.

Can they take another step this season? That depends on whether they make defensive improvement.

Dykes’ offense will score lots points. That’s a given, especially with Jared Goff back at quarterback.

Cal averaged 38.3 points and 495.2 yards per game last season.

Defense is another story. The Bears had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, allowing 39.8 points and 511.8 yards per game.

If Dykes can fix that side of the ball, the Bears will make the Pac-12 even more formidable.

Scoggins: Five observations from Gophers camp

The most wonderful time of the year is finally here. Christmas? Close. College football season.

We’ve got the countdown clock in motion here at Star Tribune World Headquarters. To celebrate the new season, Joe Christensen and myself will have a daily look at the Gophers and national college football scene on our blogs with a series of Top 5 lists. Everyone loves a good list, right?

Joe will post his inside look at the Gophers team on his blog that can be found right here.

My previous blog posts can be found here. Today’s installment focuses my impressions of the Gophers after several visits to fall camp.

  1. Any conversation about the Gophers and season expectations starts at quarterback and whether Mitch Leidner can take a step forward in his development.

My prediction? Honestly, I don’t know.

I understand the theories that have been floated this offseason – that Leidner is more comfortable as the starter and leader of the offense; that he should be more accurate as a passer in his second season; that he has more talented wide receivers around him now.

That all makes sense in theory, but until I see Leidner in game situations, I’m not sure what is realistic.

Just like last season, I’ve seen him make some good throws in practices and some bad throws.

Leidner’s inconsistency was frustrating last season because he had some really nice moments – the Nebraska game comes to mind – that made you feel like he was turning a corner as a quarterback.

I like Leidner’s maturity and his attitude. He’s a tough player. If he can improve his completion percentage to around 58-60 percent this season, the offense should have more balance and become harder to defend.

 

  1. I still shake my head when I watch practice at the night-and-day difference in talent and speed in the secondary from a few years ago.

The Gophers could have three defensive backs selected in the NFL Draft next spring, a crazy thought given what we’ve witnessed from Gophers pass defenses in the past.

Their starting group of Murray, Boddy-Calhoun, Travis and Johnson ranks among the best in the Big Ten, if not nationally.

They also have some depth behind them.

Jerry Kill’s staff has done a good job of recruiting to that position and developing players once they join the program. They have a specific idea of what they want in a defensive back. Eric Murray is a perfect example.

Jay Sawvel is a terrific defensive backs coach who likely will get his shot as a defensive coordinator somewhere before long. He’s ready for it.

  1. I was a big David Cobb fan in terms of his running style and ability to turn negative plays into positive yards. He made the offensive line look better than it should many times.

What should have been second-and-13 often became second-and-6 instead because of Cobb’s extra effort. I don’t think that will be easy to replace.

I’ll be surprised if one of the tailbacks emerges as the main guy who gets 90 percent of the carries. I envision the group sharing the workload.

That said, Rodney Smith catches my eye every time I see him practice. He has a burst when he finds his crease. He looks like a fluid runner. If he can stay healthy, he could have a big impact this season.

  1. The Gophers should be much deeper at linebacker. They had paper-thin depth last season, which isn’t always a major problem because teams use their nickel package more than base defense these days. But their lack of depth at linebacker was a concern.

LB coach Mike Sherels should have at least five, and maybe six, players in his regular rotation this season.

De’Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn are locks to start. Cody Poock and Everett Williams are in a good competition at middle linebacker. And backup Jonathan Celestin might be the hardest hitter on the team.

True freshman Julian Huff has impressed coaches in camp and could have a role, too.

  1. I still don’t know what to make of their receiving corps.

The Gophers have more potential options and a lot of the young guys certainly look the part in uniform. But they are young and unproven and developing at different rates.

It’s no secret the Gophers need more explosive plays down the field. They need receivers that can make a difficult catch and help Leidner. It’s hard for offenses to sustain 10, 12-play drives all the time.

Kill’s staff has recruited some intriguing receivers who possess size and speed. Jeff Jones was a highly regarded running back coming out of high school, but can he transition to a new role?

They have a group of either true or redshirt freshmen -- Melvin Holland Jr., Desmond Gant, Isaiah Gentry, Rashad Still and Hunter Register – that all stand at least 6-3 in height.

Watch them in practice and you can see their talent. But they must develop consistency and adjust to a higher level of competition.

The Gophers need a few of those guys to emerge and be able to provide some home-run plays to take pressure off their running game.

 

 

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