Articles By Braden Gall
SEC Media Days are here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. With the launch of the much-anticipated SEC Network right around the corner, the guys caught up with some of the biggest names involved in the launch.
Braden Gall and David Fox were joined by lead sideline reporter Maria Taylor, studio host extraordinaire Dari Nowkhah and Mr. College Football himself Tony Barnhart to talk all things SEC Network and the upcoming season.
SEC Media Days are here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. Day 3 featured the College Football Playoff, LSU, Missouri and Arkansas.
Day 3 was highlighted by a Playoff presentation from Bill Hancock, a visit with Les Miles, an entertaining Bret Bielema and Missouri's Gary Pinkel.
SEC Media Days are here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. Day 2 featured South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Tennessee.
Day 2 was highlighted by a visit with Steve Spurrier, Kevin Sumlin deflecting Johnny Manziel questions, a very confident Dan Mullen and Tennessee's Butch Jones.
Sure, we are all looking forward to Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota battling it out for a potential playoff spot in mid-October. How about Bryce Petty visiting Trevor Knight for a Big 12 championship? I can’t wait for Braxton Miller’s shot at revenge against Connor Cook in East Lansing.
Fans can only hope to get a Mariota-Jameis Winston quarterback matchup in the national championship game. Or Miller vs. Winston. Or Miller vs. Mariota. Or Hundley vs. any of them.
There are plenty of elite quarterback matchups set to take place in 2014. But what about the best, most important matchups of the year that could feature seriously questionable quarterback play?
Here are the most anticipated matchups of the year that will likely feature less than stellar play under center:
LSU at Florida (Oct. 11)
Brandon Harris could eventually be a star in the SEC but he will go through lots of growing pains in 2014 should he earn the starting spot. Florida welcomes back Jeff Driskel to the starting lineup as well as a new offensive coordinator for the third time in four seasons. Both teams have aspirations of competing within their respective divisions but QB play will be a huge storyline to track for both traditional SEC powers.
Miami at Virginia Tech (Oct. 23)
The Hokies are picked first in the Coastal Division and the Hurricanes are picked second. Both will feature a transfer under center and neither team has any idea what it will get from the QB position this fall. Michael Brewer comes to Blacksburg from Texas Tech and has lots of ability while Miami could turn to former BYU and Kansas signal-caller Jake Heaps.
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30)
LSU figures to get improved QB play as the year goes along from either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris. Wisconsin has an incumbent in Joel Stave but Gary Andersen has made it known the starting spot is up for grabs. So in Week 1 and with two of the best running games in the nation, this Big Ten-SEC showdown could feature upwards of 100 handoffs.
Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)
Both the Huskers and Hurricanes feel like they have a shot to win their respective conference's division this year and both will have question marks under center. Tommy Armstrong got plenty of experience last year and has upside but needs to prove it as just a sophomore. Miami is in much worse shape as Kansas transfer Jake Heaps could take over the reins. Expectations are high for both teams and an early-season, non-conference matchup in Lincoln should be fun to watch. Especially, considering the national title history between these two.
Florida vs. SEC East
Jeff Driskel has a chance to redeem himself in 2014 and many expect Florida to be much better this fall. But Driskel has to prove he can stay healthy and be consistent for that to happen. The good news is the rest of the SEC East is also dealing with unknowns at the QB position. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri feel confident in the guy they will be running out there but none have ever been a starter. And Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky could be using first-year starters.
LSU at Texas A&M (Nov. 27)
LSU once again makes an appearance and odds are that both the Aggies and Tigers have much better QB play on Thanksgiving than they will early in the year. Kyle Allen looks to be the heir apparent to Johnny Manziel but will be just a true freshman — albeit an extremely highly-touted freshman. Should problems persist for both teams under center, this season finale could end up defining either's 2014 campaign.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15)
Fans of both teams should expect growth at the QB position throughout the course of the season but there is no guarantee that either Armstrong or Stave is still the starter by mid-November. With a potential trip to the Big Ten title game on the line, quarterback play will become imperative for both squads by the time these two meet near the end of the year.
Washington at Arizona (Nov. 15)
The Huskies are not only breaking in a new head coach in Chris Petersen but also a new quarterback after Keith Price departed. Cyler Miles looks the part of a future star but has yet to prove it on the field. Rich Rodriguez has plenty of options (maybe, too many) and will have to settle on either a guy who doesn't fit his system (Jesse Scroggins) or a very inexperienced player (Anu Solomon). For two popular sleeper teams in the Pac-12, quarterback play will be a huge storyline all season long.
TCU at Texas (Nov. 27)
Both teams look to be improved this year and both are eyeing the postseason. But both could have major quarterback questions all season. The questions for David Ash aren't talent-related. There is no telling how long he can stay healthy. Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Matt Joeckel transfers in from Texas A&M and tries to stabilize a position that has flustered Gary Patterson since the departure of Andy Dalton. Pecking order in the Big 12 figures to hang in the balance when these two developing Lone Star rivals get together on Thanksgiving Day.
Duke vs. Miami/Virginia Tech
The defending champs of the ACC's Coastal Division return Anthony Boone but the Duke starter struggled at times last year. With Brandon Connette gone to Fresno State, all of David Cutcliffe's eggs are in Boone's basket. And when the Blue Devils play Miami (Sept. 27) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 15), the Coastal title could be on the line. All three teams have concerns at the position entering the year.
Ali-Frazier. Manning-Brady. Magic-Bird. Mariota-Hundley?
Okay, maybe I’m over doing it a bit. But as far as college football fans are concerned, there will be no bigger quarterback matchup in 2014 than when UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota battle it out on the same field.
College football entered the “super quarterback” era when Michael Vick ran around on the Superdome floor in the 2000 Sugar Bowl nearly bringing Virginia Tech what would have been one of the most improbable national championships in college football history. And it’s never looked back since. Names like Hundley and Mariota now regularly wow fans with precision passing, electric athletic ability and spotlight showcases.
Since Vick took the football world by storm, names like Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel have stolen the college football headlines. There is no reason to think this season won’t be any different.
Here are the most anticipated quarterback battles of the 2014 college football season:
1. Marcus Mariota at Brett Hundley
Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11
It would take UCLA or Oregon reaching the national title game against Florida State for there to be a better QB matchup than when Brett Hundley welcomes Marcus Mariota to town in mid-October. Division, conference and national championship implications are on the line for two players who could be top-10 draft picks next May. Each has unique dual-threat and leadership abilities for two top-10 teams. Every fan of every team should kick back and enjoy this one.
2. Bryce Petty at Trevor Knight
Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8
The Big 12 title could very well hang in the balance when Baylor visits Oklahoma on Nov. 8. Petty, who accounted for 46 touchdowns and just three interceptions last year, put a 41-12 beatdown on the Sooners last year. Knight, fresh off an immaculate Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama, is looking for revenge in what should be a breakout season. Petty is more experienced, more of a passer, runs an offense as good as any in the land and is a defending Big 12 champ. Knight is a superstar in the making who can drop jaws and is leading the team picked to win the Big 12.
3. Braxton Miller at Christian Hackenberg
Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 25
Penn State could have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft under center and Urban Meyer could have a Heisman Trophy candidate running his offense. The Buckeyes will face two difficult road tests en route to what many believe will be a playoff berth and visiting Happy Valley will be one of them.
4. Brett Hundley at Taylor Kelly
UCLA at Arizona State, Sept. 25
These two quarterbacks will square off for the third time in three years. Hundley and UCLA won 45-43 in Tempe in 2012 while Kelly and Arizona State knocked off the Bruins in the Rose Bowl 38-33 last fall. The fireworks should continue in what could be a de facto Pac-12 South Division championship game.
5. Braxton Miller at Connor Cook
Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8
The first meeting between these two signal-callers was an epic battle in the Big Ten title game that won’t soon be forgotten by either. Miller rushed for 142 yards, threw for 101 and scored three times in the loss. Cook had his coming out party, throwing for a career-high 304 yards and made clutch plays down the stretch to lead the Spartans to their first Big Ten crown in nearly three decades. And a trip back to the Big Ten title game will likely be on the line in this contest.
6. Everett Golson at Jameis Winston
Notre Dame at Florida State, Oct. 18
Golson returns after sitting out last year with a nearly perfect record as a starter. The Irish could be the best team on the Seminoles' schedule and Golson makes them a playoff contender now that he is back in control. Winston’s resume speaks for itself and his best matchup under center comes against Notre Dame.
7. Connor Cook at Marcus Mariota
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6
It’s the biggest marquee non-conference showdown in college football and it will feature two quarterbacks eyeing a trip to the college football playoff. Cook set career highs with 300 yards passing in both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl. Mariota, now fully healthy, might be the nation’s best player. The X's and O's on both sides of the ball will be fascinating to watch, as both teams will likely be ranked in the Top 10 when they meet in Week 2.
8. Chuckie Keeton at Taysom Hill
Utah State at BYU, Oct. 3
When it comes to pure athletic ability, few players in the nation can match Hill’s speed and size. He is a must-watch player every time the ball is in his hands. Keeton, arguably Utah State’s greatest football player, returns to the team after missing the entire second half of last season because of injury. Add popcorn and beer, shake well and enjoy.
9. Nick Marshall at Bo Wallace
Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1
Last year, Wallace threw for 336 yards as Ole Miss significantly out-gained Auburn (464 to 375) but lost at home to the Marshall-led Tigers. The Auburn quarterback threw for just 93 yards but ran for 140 on the ground and scored two touchdowns in the thrilling and critical SEC West win. Both teams have eyes on getting to Atlanta in 2014.
10. Connor Cook at Christian Hackenberg
Michigan State at Penn State, Nov. 29
There is a good chance Michigan State is still in playoff contention when the season finale in Happy Valley rolls around. Hackenberg will be finishing his second full season and will have a chance to make an early Heisman statement for 2016, especially if Penn State doesn’t have a bowl game to go to again. Just ask Wisconsin fans what it’s like to face Hackenberg in a season finale.
Best of the rest:
Texas Tech vs. Baylor: Davis Webb vs. Bryce Petty
Notre Dame at Arizona State: Everett Golson vs. Taylor Kelly
Oregon at Oregon State: Marcus Mariota vs. Sean Mannion
Oklahoma at Texas Tech: Trevor Knight vs. Davis Webb
Auburn at Mississippi State: Nick Marshall vs. Dak Prescott
Stanford at Oregon: Kevin Hogan vs. Marcus Mariota
Oregon at Washington State: Marcus Mariota vs. Connor Halliday
Stanford at UCLA: Kevin Hogan vs. Brett Hundley
Auburn at Kansas State: Nick Marshall vs. Jake Waters
Mississippi State at Ole Miss: Dak Prescott vs. Bo Wallace
Football Nerds Unite!
Keenan Reynolds vs. Braxton Miller
Navy vs. Ohio State, Aug. 30
This duo combined for 2,414 yards rushing and a staggering 43 scores on the ground last year.
Cody Fajardo at Taysom Hill
Nevada at BYU, Oct. 18
Two of the most explosive athletes in the nation go at it in mid-October.
Rakeem Cato at Taylor Heinicke
Marshall at Old Dominion, Oct. 4
The top two QBs in C-USA combined for 7,938 yards and 72 passing TDs last year.
Terrance Broadway at Fredi Knighten
UL Lafayette at Arkansas State, Oct. 21
The top two signal callers in the Sun Belt battle for a potential league title.
Nate Sudfeld at Matt Johnson
Indiana at Bowling Green, Sept. 13
This could be a shootout pitting two elite passing attacks early in the year.
SEC Media Days kicks off today in Hoover, Alabama.
While it can be quite burdensome to cover and navigate for the novice journalist — and is probably too big for its own good — SEC Media Days has become a tradition in and of itself down South.
No real news happens in Hoover. Coaches aren’t ripping apart the Playoff Committee or honestly explaining why they are so vehemently opposed to the nine-game schedule. More than 1,300 credentialed media folks gather to listen to coaches and players say nothing of real importance.
But it signifies the start of the college football season. That camps are opening up across the nation. That football is back.
Part of what makes the SEC the best league in America is the passion of the fans and the interwoven nature of the community with their favorite team. It’s these traditions that make college football the best sport in the land and the SEC the best conference in the sport.
Here are our favorite SEC football traditions every fan needs to add to their bucket list of sports experiences:
The 12th Man
Born in January 1922, the phrase and tradition stemmed from one particular game with the nation’s top team at the time, Centre College. Because the team was so battered and injured, head coach Dana Bible had to call for E. King Gill, a basketball player at the time, from the stands to join the team. Texas A&M went on to win 22-14 and although Gill never made it into the game, he was the last and only man standing on the sideline. He answered the call to help his team and no one has ever forgotten about it.
It just might be the best place on Earth. This beautiful collection of oak, elm and magnolia trees surrounds a 10-acre plot adjacent to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The party in The Grove has been going on since football began at Ole Miss, but became the Holy Grail of Tailgating by the 1950s. The gorgeous, um, scenery is second to none and the setting is historic. Everyone is undefeated in The Grove.
Death Valley, La.
There is no singular way to describe a night home game in Tiger Stadium. The variety and flavor of an LSU tailgate is second to none with a wide-ranging menu from some of the best chefs in college football. And the stadium is arguably the loudest in the nation, especially when the Bayou Bengal fans have had all day to marinate.
May it rest in peace… for now. The Harvey Updyke saga is one of the most bizarre tales of fandom gone wrong in history. At the corner of Magnolia Avenue and College Street in front of 130-year-old Toomer’s Drug store, Auburn fans have rolled the two massive southern live oaks for roughly six decades. While those trees have been poisoned and subsequently cut down, there is hope that the new entryway to campus and new trees will continue one of the SEC’s greatest traditions.
Since 1990, 22 immovable cabooses have sat dormant on an unused railroad track behind the south end of Williams-Brice Stadium. Each caboose is privately owned and features running water, restrooms, working television, air condition and heat. The set up offers a perfect way to tailgate in style before each Gamecocks home game and provides a cool resting spot afterwards while traffic clears out. Packaged with the "2001: A Space Odyssey" entrance, the pre-game rituals in Columbia are second to none.
The Vol Navy
It isn’t nearly as picturesque as Sailgating on Lake Washington, but Tennessee has its own fan flotilla every Saturday. The tradition of floating to the game instead of driving actually began when former broadcaster George Mooney didn’t want to sit in traffic and instead traveled by boat down the Tennessee River to Neyland Stadium.
Originally an impromptu post-dinner get-together to “learn heartily the old time pep,” Midnight Yell Practice at Texas A&M didn’t officially start until 1931. Today, the tradition is held on Friday nights before home games at Kyle Field and Thursday before road games at The Arches. It is a fairly self-explanatory tradition as fans and cadets gather to practice cheering for the Aggies — and making out some too.
It might be the most recognizable fight song in the nation. Yes, visiting teams and fans get tired of the jingle after the 30th or 40th rendition on any given Saturday but Big Orange Nation never tires of the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song written back in 1967.
Woo Pig Sooie
There isn’t a clear story as to when or how this one came about, but since at least the 1920s, Arkansas fans have been Calling the Hogs. The high-pitched chant echoes throughout the hills of Arkansas over and over and over again every Saturday.
Supposedly, the origin of Ole Miss’ famous chant remains unknown only adding to its mystique. Some claim it was taken from Virginia Tech’s “Highty Tighties,” which was an old World War II cheer about, appropriately, an alcoholic beverage.
Combine The Rammer-Jammer, the University of Alabama's student newspaper and a Yellowhammer, the state bird, and you get this unique and signature cry, which dates back to the '20s. And generally speaking, it is at its best at the end of the game when Bama just “beat the hell out of you!”
Like many of the older SEC traditions, no one is quite sure when or why or how Mississippi State started bringing cowbells to football games. However they got there, the cowbells were so effective that the SEC had to ban artificial noisemakers in 1974 — before reversing course on the decision in 2010.
Stemming from Mississippi State’s band’s version of "Jaws" in 1981, some Florida band members modified the tune slightly and added the famous vertical chomping motion. It eventually spread across the stadium and is now synonymous with Gators football.
Possibly the best pre-game, live mascot ritual in all of college football, Auburn’s Golden Eagle “Nova” performs the War Eagle Flight down through the rabid home crowd and onto its perch. Nova is officially the eighth such bird to grace Jordan-Hare Stadium as War Eagle I is said to have started the timeless tradition in 1892.
Smokey the Dog
Dating back to 1953, the Tennessee Vols have played with Smokey the Blue Tick Hound at their side. The Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity cares for him and currently Smokey X, who made his debut last fall, will be standing on the sidelines in Neyland Stadium each Saturday.
Mike the Tiger
In 1934 some LSU powers that be decided they wanted a live Bengal tiger on the field in Death Valley. Conveniently placed near the visitors’ entrance to the field, Mike the Tiger has been striking fear into opposing players and coaches for over nearly 80 years. Few mascots embody their school like Mike does.
Nine different English Bulldogs have stood on the Georgia sideline dating back to 1956 with Uga I. However, this pup gets the royal treatment between the hedges, residing in his own air-conditioned dog house. The marble mausoleum near the entrance of the Southwest corner of Sanford Stadium is the resting place for Ugas of yesteryear.
The “First Lady of Aggieland” is the highest-ranking member of the Corps of Cadets, as she is technically a Five-Star General. She showed up at games in 1931 for the first time and the full-blooded Collie is cared for by Company E-2.
World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
This rivalry is so great that these two SEC East powers won’t even agree on how many times they have played. Georgia claims 92 meetings while Florida claims 91 (1904 is in dispute) and all but two since 1933 — when the SEC was created — have come in Jacksonville, Fla. When thousands of fans from both teams pour onto St. Simon’s Island East Beach the Friday before the game, the term Outdoor Cocktail Party comes to life.
The Iron Bowl
The state of Alabama is the most territorial in the nation when it comes to college football. Just ask Paul Finebaum or Mr. Updyke or Chris Davis. And many times, the in-state season finale carries great importance in the SEC standings. The name stems from Birmingham’s historic role in the steel industry, as up until the mid-'90s the state's biggest game hosted the game.
The Egg Bowl
It may not carry the national importance of other famous rivalries but this Magnolia State showdown is as heated as any in the land. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have met 110 times dating back to 1901 and it's the longest continuous rivalry game in the nation.
The Third Saturday In October
Each year on the third weekend in October, Alabama and Tennessee get together one more time. These two have met 95 times and Alabama holds the edge 51-37-8.
Deep South's Oldest Rivalry
Georgia and Auburn began playing in 1892 and have met 117 times with the series standing nearly deadlocked at 55-54-8 (Auburn).
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Big 12 statistics you need to know about in 2014:
3: Players who declared early for the NFL Draft
A record 98 underclassmen declared early for the 2014 NFL Draft — up from the previous high of 73 set in '13. The SEC had 28 early departures and the Pac-12 lost 25 underclassmen to the NFL. The Big 12, however, was last among all Big 5 conferences with just three early departures. The overall trend of diminishing elite talent in the Big 12 is a concern and the recruiting rankings don’t provide any comfort. The entire league signed seven Top 100 recruits in 2014 (247Sports). Alabama signed 13 and Texas A&M almost matched the entire Big 12 on its own with five. To top it all, the Texas Longhorns went without a player taken in the NFL Draft for the first time since 1937.
0: Times Baylor has won in Norman
Baylor and Oklahoma have played 24 times total in history and the Bears have only won twice. One of those was a 41-12 beatdown the Bears put on the Sooners last season in Waco. The other was a 48-38 win in Waco in 2011. But to defend their Big 12 championship in 2014, Baylor will have to beat Oklahoma (and Texas) on the road this season. Baylor is 0-11 in Norman all-time against the Sooners. So while the Bears have won two of the last three against Oklahoma (and three out of four against Texas), Baylor will most likely have to do something it has never done before in 2014 if it wants to have a chance of repeating as conference champs.
46 and 3: Bryce Petty total TDs and INTs
Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy. Nick Florence set multiple school records. But Bryce Petty took Art Briles' offense to a new level statistically. Petty accounted for 46 total touchdowns a year ago (32 pass, 14 rush) while throwing just three interceptions in 403 pass attempts. Baylor scored 70 points four times and scored at least 59 points seven different times en route to the team’s first-ever Big 12 title. Petty also helped Baylor set a single-game Big 12 record with 872 yards against West Virginia — which would be a record in every other conference in the nation except the Pac-12. Petty is back with a plethora of talented wide receivers and should find himself in New York as a Heisman finalist at season’s end.
5: Touchdowns thrown by Trevor Knight in the regular season
Most fans only remember the remarkable Sugar Bowl performance from Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight in which he completed 32-of-44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Alabama. No one really remembers the fact that he threw a grand total of five touchdowns during the entire regular season — three of which came against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 1. He missed five games due to injury and does a lot of damage with his legs, but he also was benched due to inconsistency at times. The Sooners' offense is now his alone in Norman and most believe he has the talent to develop into a superstar, but there could still be plenty of learning curves to navigate for the Oklahoma signal-caller.
11-4: Texas' record the last two years with David Ash starting at quarterback
Over the last two years, David Ash has been the starter in 15 games for the Longhorns. He missed 10 games a year ago and the Kansas State game in 2012. In those 15 games, the Longhorns went 11-4 and averaged 6.4 yards per play on offense. In the other 11 games, Texas went 6-5 and averaged just 4.9 yards per play. For perspective, 6.4 yards per play would have averaged 22nd in the nation last fall while 4.9 would have tied Akron for 108th nationally. Needless to say, Texas needs Ash to stay healthy for Charlie Strong to build a winner.
23-3: Charlie Strong’s record in 2012-13
Texas has been ranked in the final AP poll just once since 2009 (19th in 2012) and the fall off from the BCS national title game in ’09 led to the hiring of Charlie Strong. The no-nonsense defensive guru brings with him a sterling resume of success at Louisville. The Cardinals won 23 games over the last two years, including two top 15 finishes and a BCS bowl thumping of Florida two years ago. Strong won at least 11 games in each of the last two years, something Texas hasn’t done since 2009.
8.5: Average margin of defeat for TCU
The Horned Frogs suffered their first losing season since 2004 and lost as many games in Big 12 play last year (7) as it had during its entire seven-year tenure as a member of the Mountain West Conference. A big reason, however, why Athlon Sports likes TCU to bounce back in 2014 was how those losses took place. TCU lost eight games in 2014 by an average of just 8.5 points per game. Included in the Frogs' seven losses were just two by more than 10 points and four by a field goal or fewer points. With eight starters returning to a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in average yards allowed on first down (4.4), Gary Patterson should expect to be back in the postseason this fall.
32: Oklahoma State departing lettermen
Mike Gundy has his work cut out for him this fall and part of the reason the Pokes aren’t really considered in the mix for a Big 12 championship is roster turnover. Oklahoma State loses 32 of 70 players who earned a letter last year. That 54.3 percent rate of returning letterman is ranked dead last in the nation (128th), making the Cowboys the least experienced team in the entire country. Basically, it’s the worst possible time to face the defending national champions in the first week of the season.
48.6: Points allowed per game by Texas Tech in its last five games
Kliff Kingsbury began his career as the Red Raiders head coach with seven consecutive wins. But his team lost five straight games and allowed nearly 50 points per game along the way. Coach Skinny Jeans had a lot of work to do on his defense in his first full offseason in Lubbock after allowing 48.6 points per game over the final five games of regular season a year ago. The schedule isn’t that much different this time around either, as Tech will face the top three teams in the preseason rankings (Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas) in the final month of the season.
7.8: West Virginia's average yards to go on third down
Staying ahead of the chains is a big deal in football. In fact, there are entirely new statistical measures of offensive efficiency dedicated to defining a “successful offensive play.” Basically, gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yards on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down would be considered successful. West Virginia, a team that averaged nearly 40 points per game just two seasons ago, was behind the chains constantly a year ago. The Mountaineers ranked 115th nationally by averaging 7.8 yards to go on third down a year ago and it led to West Virginia scoring just 26.3 points per game (79th).
4.29: Kansas' yards per play
Kansas averaged just 4.29 yards per play last year on 825 offensive snaps. That number ranked 122nd nationally and dead last among all Big 5 teams — worse than Florida, UConn, Purdue, Virginia and Wake Forest. The Jayhawks were also one of just eight teams in the nation to average less than 300 yards of total offense per game (294.7 ypg) and finished last in the Big 12 and 119th in the nation at finishing drives. Kansas scored just 3.27 points per trip inside the opponent's 40-yard line. Basically, the KU offense was completely inept, something that should be totally unacceptable for a head coach who has made a serious living as an offensive guru.
Brady Hoke is entering a critical fourth season in Ann Arbor.
His offense, particularly on the ground, has taken progressive steps backwards in all three seasons and it led to the firing of longtime Hoke assistant Al Borges. Michigan didn’t waste any time hiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier in the same afternoon.
The hope is that the changes will reinvigorate the running game and stabilize inconsistent passer Devin Gardner.
With tricky non-conference games and a move into a much tougher division, the Wolverines' schedule in 2014 is anything but easy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Maize and Blue can’t make a run at a division crown should things break their way this fall.
2014 Michigan Schedule Analysis
2014 Michigan Schedule
|Aug. 30||Appalachian St|
Archrival no more
Although there will be some serious revenge on the minds of Michigan faithful when Utah and Appalachian State come to town in September (SEE: 2007-08), the biggest non-conference game of the year is by far the trip to South Bend. The Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry is ending after this meeting for the foreseeable future and both coaches have taken to the court of public opinion to make their sentiments heard. There will be no love lost between these two and a Michigan win over a ranked Irish team on the road could jumpstart a big year. Conversely, an ugly defeat gives Notre Dame bragging rights and creates concern about the trajectory of the season in just the second weekend of action.
Minnesota at home to open Big Ten play isn’t all that scary, while a road trip to Rutgers for the first-ever meeting between the Knights and Wolverines should be a cinch. But a late-October, two-game home-and-home with Penn State and Michigan State will be enormous. Michigan lost both last year by allowing an embarrassing 72 total points to the Nittany Lions and Spartans. Michigan will either be leading the Big Ten East Division or will be completely out of the race by the end of October. The good news is Hoke and company will get two weeks to prepare for the road trip to East Lansing.
Don’t look ahead
The final stretch of play in November isn’t all that scary for Michigan. Home games with Indiana and Maryland are games the Wolverines need to win and a road trip to Northwestern, while very tricky, should also be a winnable game. The key for Hoke and his staff is to keep his team focused on the game at hand during November and make sure his squad doesn’t look ahead to the Ohio State battle. The loss at home on a failed two-point conversion was one of the great moments of a crazy ’13 season but another loss to “Ohio” this fall would make 10 defeats in 11 tries. And that simply isn’t going to cut it for Michigan fans.
Hoke has a lot of quality pieces to work with this fall and has a new name leading his offense. The schedule isn’t easy — either within the league or out — but is broken up into manageable segments. Notre Dame early, a two-game stretch late in October and a road trip to Ohio State are the four games fans are likely circling. Pull an upset in that group and take care of business against teams like Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern and Michigan could find itself right in the thick of the Big Ten title race at season’s end.
Nick Saban and Alabama are once again picked to win the SEC. They have the best coach, the best roster and, among most contenders, the best schedule.
Every SEC schedule is perilous and extremely difficult relative to the rest of the nation. But Alabama’s schedule — as one of the weaker slates in the conference — isn’t that much more difficult than those of other leagues. Like the Pac-12, for example.
Alabama’s 2014 run for a national title is fraught with intrigue, upset alerts and four preseason Top 25 teams. But it is very manageable for a team of this caliber.
2014 Alabama Schedule Analysis
2014 Bama Schedule
|13.||Nov. 22||W. Carolina|
Roll Tide, Roll
The trio of West Virginia, FAU and Southern Miss is as easy a three-game start to the season Nick Saban has had since arriving in Tuscaloosa. The Mountaineers were supposed to be better when the game was scheduled and that could eventually hurt Alabama when it comes to the playoff committee. Either way, Bama should crush its way to a 3-0 start when Florida comes to town in Week 4.
Crossover breaks again
Alabama beat Tennessee and Kentucky in crossover play last year. Those two teams combined for 17 losses in 2013 and this year’s tandem for Tennessee and Florida didn't fare much better with 15 combined defeats last season. Florida comes to Tuscaloosa in Week 4 fresh off the worst campaign in school history, but still features plenty of talent. In late October, Bama and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will return to Knoxville. So while both Tennessee and Florida figure to be improved from last year and both games are loaded with storylines, it’s hard to see anything but two big wins for the Tide in SEC crossover play.
On the road in October
Critical games with Ole Miss and LSU will happen over a month-long span from Oct. 4 to Nov. 8. Mixed in are two more road trips to Arkansas and the aforementioned Tennessee, as well as a home game with Texas A&M. The bookends are the games to focus on here, as both Ole Miss and LSU are ranked in the preseason Top 20 and both are eyeing SEC West contention. Bama hasn’t lost to Ole Miss since 2003 and has an impressive record against LSU in the state of Louisiana. Alabama has won three out of four against LSU in games played in the state and is 10-4 in its last 14 games versus LSU in The Pelican State.
The Final Stretch
The final stretch includes two extremely winnable home games with Western Carolina and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have only won once in Tuscaloosa since 1997 and that win resulted in a coach getting fired and the arrival of Saban. These two games set up what could be a rematch of epic proportions. Before last year never had the Iron Bowl meant as much as it did, but the SEC West could again be hanging in the balance should things go as planned for both Yellowhammer schools. There won’t be another atmosphere in the country like the afternoon a potential top-five Tigers team rolls into town in the season finale with another SEC title on the line.
In all, Alabama is scheduled to play four preseason Top 25 teams and is a heavy favorite in all but one game (the Iron Bowl). The non-conference schedule is as weak as Saban has had at Bama and while crossover play is more intriguing with Florida involved, the Crimson Tide are still significant steps ahead of both the Gators and Vols. Handling their business on the road with four games in five away from Tuscaloosa in October will be critical but none of the bouts appear to be overly taxing. No, it is likely that Bama again will face Auburn with a perfect record and a berth in the SEC title game at stake at the end of the year.
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Pac-12 statistics you need to know about in 2014:
7: Top returning passers in the Pac-12
Oregon State’s Sean Mannion led the Pac-12 and was second nationally with 4,662 passing yards. Washington State’s Connor Halliday led the nation with 714 pass attempts. Both Marcus Mariota and Taylor Kelly posted in excess of 4,000 total yards of offense last year and both have returned. Potential Heisman candidate Brett Hundley and his 35 total touchdowns return to the league as well. In all, the Pac-12 returns its top seven passers from a year ago, including six who threw for at least 3,000 yards. This group doesn’t include USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan or Colorado’s Sefo Liufau. It’s pretty clear which league has the best quarterback play in college football.
63-10: Marcus Mariota’s career TD-INT ratio
The Ducks' starting quarterback is the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. Many will tell you that’s a bad thing, as a true Las Vegas front-runner hasn’t won the award since… Ricky Williams? But the laid-back, Hawaiian dual-threat is one of the best players in the nation and has his team eyeing a return to the national championship discussion. In two full seasons as the starter, Mariota has tossed 63 touchdowns, just 10 interceptions, completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 6,342 yards and rushed 202 times for 1,467 yards and 14 more touchdowns. He also set the Pac-12 record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception (353) last year and is 23-3 as a starter. There is a reason he’s the Heisman front-runner and could become one of the few to go wire-to-wire chasing the stiff-armed trophy.
1997-98: Last time UCLA won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons
Jim Mora and the Bruins are trying to do something this year that hasn’t been done at UCLA since 1997-98. That was the last time UCLA won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons. In fact, UCLA has won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons only twice in school history with the only other occasion coming in 1987-88. UCLA has never won 10 or more games in three straight seasons, further underlining their status as underachieving little brother. USC won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons (2002-08) and even won 10 games in two heavily sanctioned years since (2011, '13). But that could all change this fall. After going 10-3 and finishing second in the Pac-12 South a year ago, Mora and returning star signal-caller Brett Hundley are poised to reclaim the division title and make a run at a playoff berth.
4.84: Washington’s average points per trip inside the 40
Finishing drives is one metric Athlon Sports uses to evaluate teams. How many points does a team score per trip inside the opposition’s 40-yard line? Washington was excellent a year ago at finishing drives, scoring an average of 4.84 points per trip inside the 40. That was good for second in the Pac-12 to only Oregon (4.98) and ranked the Huskies 18th nationally. For new coach Chris Petersen, who won 92 games in just eight years at Boise State, repeating this level of efficiency without Bishop Sankey running the ball will be a tall order. Especially, while breaking in a new quarterback. Interestingly enough, Oregon also led the league in points per trip inside the 40 on defense (3.69).
46: Stanford wins over the last four years
Only the Oregon Ducks (47) have more wins among Big 5 schools over the last four years than Stanford (46). The Cardinal have won at least 11 games in four straight seasons but are replacing star power on both the defense and the offensive line. That said, the reason Athlon Sports is picking Oregon to win the Pac-12 North has nothing to do with depth chart replacements but rather what could be the toughest schedule in college football. Stanford will play six preseason Top 25 teams, including five of the top 16. What's worse? Five of those six showdowns will come on the road. If fans are looking for a reason for Stanford to take a slight step back this fall, look no further than the schedule.
444.8 and 35.1: USC's yards and points per game under Coach Sark
Steve Sarkisian knows his way around Heritage Hall. He was the QB Coach from 2001-03 and from 2005-06 under Pete Carroll. He then took over as the offensive coordinator from 2007-08. During those two years — his last two at USC — his offenses averaged 444.8 yards per game and 35.1 points per game while going 23-3 overall and winning back-to-back conference championships. Last year, USC was 74th in total offense (399.1) and 60th in scoring offense (29.7). Sarkisian's offense failed to score 20 points just three times during his last two years as an assistant coach at USC. Last year, the Trojans failed to score 20 points five times, losing three of those contests.
6: Departing All-Pac-12 starters on Arizona State’s defense
Todd Graham has had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 in each of his two seasons in Tempe. However, after losing nine total defensive starters in the offseason, including six who were either first- or second-team All-Pac-12 selections, his defense has major holes to plug in 2014. Ten of the team’s top 12 tacklers are gone as are the top five sack artists on the team. Veteran free safety Damarious Randall is the only returning upperclass starter for a team that will face one of the best offensive schedules in the nation.
246.3: Arizona yards rushing per game under RichRod
Rich Rodriguez totally transformed Arizona’s identity overnight. The year before he showed up on campus, Mike Stoops' "Air Raid" averaged 94.5 yards rushing per game. In two years since taking over, RichRod’s teams have finished 15th (227.8 ypg) and 11th nationally (264.4 ypg) in rushing. In 26 games as the Wildcats' head coach, Arizona has averaged nearly 250 yards rushing per game. The last time Arizona averaged over 200 yards rushing per game in a season was 1999 when it posted 218.8 yards per game. RichRod hasn’t posted a winning Pac-12 record yet (4-5 both years) but is a perfect 8-0 in non-conference play including two bowl wins. The ‘Cats should continue to pound the rock again in 2014 and it could make Arizona the sleeper team to watch in the Pac-12 South Division.
9: Times the Cougars rushed for less than 10 yards under Mike Leach
In 2012, Washington State rushed for negative yards four times and failed to reach 10 yards rushing five times. In 2013, Wazzu improved and was held to negative yards rushing just once (Colorado State) and failed to reach 10 yards rushing four times. So in nine of the 25 games Mike Leach has coached in Pullman, the Cougars failed to reach 10 yards rushing as a team. For the record, WSU rushed for seven yards against USC, two yards against both Oregon and Arizona State and minus-10 against the Rams. While a Leach-run offense will never be centered around the running game, some semblance of balance is needed to compete for division titles. The good news is the last-ranked rushing offense from last year (53.4 ypg) was actually markedly better than the last place showing the year before (29.1).
13-41: Combined Pac-12 record for Utah and Colorado
Stepping up in competition has been hard for all teams across the nation but has been especially difficult on the Pac-12 newcomers. As Larry Scott has his league poised to challenge the SEC for national supremacy this fall, Utah and Colorado are still trying to find their footing. The duo has combined for go 13-41 in three seasons since joining the league. Utah went 21-3 in Mountain West play the three years prior to entering the Pac-12 and has been 9-18 since. The Buffaloes are 4-23 in Pac-12 play. These are two historic programs that have won a national championship and two BCS bowls in the last 25 years, so 41 losses in three years is unacceptable.
529.6: Cal’s total yards allowed per game
Sonny Dykes is a well-respected coach but probably didn’t realize what he was getting himself into when he took the Cal job. In his first year, his defense was historically bad. Cal allowed a Pac-12-worst 529.6 yards per game, ranking 124th nationally — out of 125 teams. The Bears had the worst defense of any of the Big 5 conferences and was better than only New Mexico State’s 549.5 yards per game allowed. Cal’s 45.9 points allowed per game were also dead last in the Pac-12 and among all Big 5 teams, finishing 124th nationally (ahead of only Idaho - 46.8). New defensive coordinator Art Kauffman has orchestrated quick turnarounds at both Texas Tech and Cincinnati over the last few seasons but he has his work cut out for him in Berkeley this fall.
A new era of Texas football is set to begin in a few weeks.
Charlie Strong steps into the most powerful athletic department in the nation with immediate pressure to win games. His roster is loaded with elite recruits but there are some serious questions marks under center and along the offensive line.
Most believe the coaching staff Strong has assembled is perfectly constructed to manage the Horns' areas of weakness (i.e., the O-line). But this team won’t compete for a national playoff spot unless it can maneuver a very difficult schedule.
2014 Texas Schedule Analysis
2014 Texas Schedule
The start of the Strong Era in Austin won’t be an easy one. Certainly, an easy win over North Texas should be expected in the season opener. However, the next two games will be dripping with national intrigue. No one in Burnt Orange has forgotten what Taysom Hill and BYU did to the Texas rushing defense last year and now BYU comes to Austin. The following week, a national playoff spot could be up for grabs when a likely top 10-ranked UCLA squad comes to The Lone Star State to play the Horns in Arlington. Both games are winnable for Strong and it would make a huge statement should Texas start the year 3-0.
Two most important games
After Texas opens Big 12 play on the road against lowly Kansas, the two most important games of the year will take place in back-to-back weeks. Baylor comes to town in Week 6 while Texas will have to head back to The Cotton Bowl for the Red River Showdown the following week. These two teams are picked No. 1 and 2 in the Big 12, and if Texas wants to compete in the league, the Longhorns will have to — at minimum — split with the Bears and Sooners. The good news is neither matchup will come as a true road game. Texas also will essentially have three weeks to prepare with an off weekend falling before the Kansas game.
Tricky true road tests
After facing Baylor and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks, Texas will get a slight breather with Iowa State coming to town in Week 8. However, the Horns will need to get healthy quickly as the two toughest true road games loom when the calendar flips to November. Texas will visit Kansas State and Texas Tech and could be playing for a Big 12 title (or possibly more).
The home stretch is fairly manageable for Strong and company. West Virginia at home should be an easy win and TCU, who is expected to be a much improved team, should be another win in the season finale — especially, with an off weekend before to prepare. A road trip to Stillwater looks a lot tougher late in the year than early, as Mike Gundy’s very inexperienced team should improve throughout the season. Either way, with two home games and a bye week in the final four weeks, Texas could cruise home to a Big 12 title if it can win the tough early games.
Related: 2014 Texas Longhorns Team Preview
The bad news is Texas is breaking in a brand-new coach and could face three top 10 opponents as well as five other potential bowl teams. The good news is Texas won’t face any of the top 10 opponents (Baylor, Oklahoma, UCLA) in a true road game. And a loss to UCLA doesn’t do anything to the Big 12 race. A split early with Baylor and Oklahoma would set up massive road trips to Manhattan, Lubbock and Stillwater late in the year. Should Texas get on a roll early, the front-loaded schedule could be a blessing for Strong in his first season.
It’s been since 1997 that the Tar Heels did two things. It was the last time North Carolina finished a season ranked in the AP poll and it was the last time it posted an ACC record with fewer than three losses.
Larry Fedora has thoughts of ending both of those droughts in 2014.
Fedora has recruited well enough to be considered one of the contenders in a very deep, balanced and impossible to predict ACC Coastal Division. There are holes to plug on both sides of the ball and the team needs to get more consistent across the board.
This means week-in, week-out consistent production against one of the more difficult ACC schedules.
2014 North Carolina Schedule Analysis
2014 UNC Schedule
The Tar Heels started the season 1-5 last year with an ugly loss to South Carolina in the season opener. North Carolina should begin this fall in much better fashion. Wins in the first two games are musts and a victory over giant-killer and in-state rival East Carolina on the road could easily give UNC a 3-0 start — especially, with two weeks to prepare for the Pirates. From there, however, things toughen up considerably.
Late September grind
The toughest stretch of the schedule appears to be from Week 5 through Week 8. North Carolina will play its toughest non-conference game against Notre Dame on the road, the best ACC team it will play in Clemson on the road and possibly the two most important divisional games of the year against both Tech schools at home. Virginia Tech, picked to win the Coastal, has to come to Chapel Hill but the Tar Heels must face the Hokies smack dab between arguably the toughest two teams on the schedule in Clemson and Notre Dame. North Carolina could crumble during this stretch (like, say, 1-3) or could set itself up for an ACC title run (with a 3-1 mark).
The Coastal Division is always wide open and the Tar Heels get a couple of breaks in the round-robin with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Pitt all coming at home. Having to visit Miami and Duke won’t be easy but if UNC can hold serve at home, it has a good shot at being in the thick of division contention all the way to the end of the season. The road trip to Miami on Nov. 1 could become a de facto division title game should The U take steps forward on defense.
Difficult stretch run
The final three games of the year won’t be easy for Fedora’s guys. Pitt is much improved and won’t be an easy out at home in Week 12. Then the year ends with back-to-back rivalry games within the state against the defending Coastal champs — who figure to be much better at season’s end — and an improving NC State team. The important divisional games may already be behind the Heels at this point of the year, but these final three weeks will be very tricky and important. The good news is North Carolina gets a bye week to catch its breath in Week 11 after not getting a break from Week 4 through Week 10.
There is a lot to like about the Tar Heels entering 2014. There is talent to work with and Fedora should have his system well in place entering his third season. The schedule breaks up into three distinct pieces with an easy first three games, a brutal middle stretch and a manageable but tricky final swing. Should Carolina make it to the bye week with only one or two ACC losses, it will have as good a chance as any team to win the Coastal Division. A three-loss team could easily win the division if the three losses come against the right opponents.
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting SEC statistics you need to know about in 2014:
39-3: Nick Saban at home since 2008
Since his first year in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban is 39-3 at home in Bryant-Denny Stadium. During that stretch, Alabama has never lost more than once at home during a season, posted three perfect records and is currently on a 10-game home winning streak. That said, Alabama was beaten at home by Texas A&M (2012), LSU (2011) and Auburn (2010) in marquee national showdowns. Saban and the Crimson Tide will host Auburn, Texas A&M, Florida and Mississippi State in 2014. For what it’s worth, Saban has an SEC-best nine-game winning streak in crossover play as well.
69.7: Alabama’s opposing completion percentage in losses
Alabama under Saban is 72-9 overall in the last six seasons, finishing ranked in the top 10 in each season. The common thread, however, among those nine losses has been the Tide’s inability to stop the pass. In nine losses over the last six years, Alabama allowed 69.7 percent passing with 12.2 yards per completion. In 72 wins, Alabama allowed just 49.8 percent passing. In the last three losses, the opposing QB has been incredibly effective. Trevor Knight completed 72.7 percent of his passes in the Sugar Bowl, Nick Marshall was good on 68.8 percent of his throws in the Iron Bowl and Johnny Manziel chucked it around at a 77.4 percent clip in the historic upset in 2012. Alabama returns one starter in the secondary this fall.
85.3%: South Carolina’s returning letterman
The Gamecocks suffered some marquee departures on both offense (Connor Shaw) and defense (Jadeveon Clowney) but, by one metric, Steve Spurrier’s bunch is the most experienced team in the nation. South Carolina lost just 10 out of 68 players who earned a letter last year, giving Spurrier 85.3 percent of his roster back intact. Are there holes to plug along the defensive line or at cornerback? Of course, but the Cocks return their entire offensive line, a star tailback and a deep linebacking corps. By comparison, Georgia ranks as the 73rd most experienced team in the nation (68.9 percent returning) while Florida is 57th (70.0) and Missouri is 111th (61.9).
466.6: Yards per game allowed in SEC play by Auburn
Folks down on The Plains don’t like the word luck when it comes to their improbable run to the SEC title last year. But the ball definitely bounced the Tigers' way last fall as Auburn went 6-1 in games decided by one score or less — with the lone defeat coming in the national title game. While Gus Malzahn’s offense was an utter juggernaut a year ago (and could actually be better this fall), this defense, statistically, had no business playing in the BCS national title game. The Tigers allowed 466.6 yards per game in SEC play in 2013, just ahead of winless Arkansas (475.3) and historically bad Texas A&M (499.1). This team allowed 32.4 points per game against Big 5 teams with a winning record, including 35.5 points per game in its final four contests. By comparison, only 10 times in the previous five seasons did an SEC team allow more than 400 yards per game in league play. One really good sign for Auburn? The Tigers led the SEC in third-down defense a year ago (33.0 percent).
27: Total TDs scored by Florida in 2013
Florida was 113th in scoring offense last year at just 18.8 points per game. The Gators managed an SEC-worst 27 total touchdowns scored. Among all Big 5 schools, only Kansas (22) and Purdue (23) reached the end zone fewer times than the traditional SEC East powerhouse. Will Muschamp’s offense was also 113th nationally in total touchdowns scored and both Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs scored more touchdowns individually (31) than the entire Florida roster. Additionally, the Gators' managed just 3.5 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, ranking 112th nationally. Muschamp better hope Kurt Roper is the answer on offense.
4.6: Losses per year for Georgia over the last five years
Despite two SEC East championships in the last three years, Mark Richt is still losing nearly five games per season in Athens. Three times in the last five years (2009, ’10, ’13) the Dawgs lost at least five times for an average of 4.6 losses per year over the last half-decade. Georgia is once again poised to make a run at Atlanta this fall but it’s hard to pick Richt to accomplish something he hasn’t done since 2002 — which is lose just once in a season. In fact, since the 13-1 SEC title run of 2002, Georgia has lost an average of 3.6 games per season. No one questions his resume — eight double-digit win seasons, only one losing campaign — but the Bulldogs have only finished the season ranked twice in five years. The fans in Athens haven’t had many lows but also haven’t had an SEC title since 2005.
22,681: Maty Mauk's high school record for career national total offense
Nick Marshall is, rightly so, the SEC’s preseason first-team quarterback. But Missouri’s new official starter could be the best passer in the league by season’s end. Mauk enters the starting lineup with as impressive a prep resume as there has ever been. He owns the national high school records for career total offense (22,681), passing yards (18,932), touchdown passes (219) and completions (1,353). Missouri was 7-1 in games in which Mauk attempted a pass last year and his brief taste of SEC action should be enough to motivate the very confident young gunslinger. The loss of some talented wide receivers is a concern but the offensive line and scheme stability are among the league’s best. Fans shouldn’t be surprised if Mauk is neck-and-neck with Marshall for the SEC’s total offense lead at season’s end.
3,701: Bo Wallace's total offense yardage in 2013
Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Connor Shaw, James Franklin and Zach Mettenberger have all departed the SEC leaving a massive void under center in the nation’s top league. Marshall is the first-team option but it’s actually Ole Miss’ Wallace who is the league’s returning leader in total offense. His 3,701 yards of total offense were No. 2 last year to only Manziel and were well ahead of third place (Murray: 3,261). His 284.7 yards per game were No. 3 in the league and Wallace should be poised for his best season to date in Oxford now that he is fully healthy.
33.3: Average starting position for Vanderbilt
The Commodores average starting field position was the 33.3-yard line — good for seventh nationally and tops in the SEC. The Dores' defense was excellent at getting third-down stops and creating turnovers, giving the offense the best starting position of any team in the SEC. However, Vanderbilt’s offense didn’t capitalize on its good fortune. The offense averaged just 5.4 yards per play, ranking 80th in the nation in offensive efficiency. Derek Mason’s defense should be equally as effective and opportunistic as the previous regime, but he and coordinator Karl Dorrell will need to improve their offense’s efficiency if Vandy wants to reach a fourth straight bowl game.
15.8%: LSU's returning receiving yards
As a team, LSU caught 205 passes for 3,263 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall. Of those numbers, only 35 receptions (17.1%) and 515 yards (15.8%) return to the team. No returning player caught more than seven passes or posted more than 145 yards receiving last season. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. combined for 136 receptions, 2,345 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013, becoming just the third duo in SEC history to top 1,000 yards in the same season (Florida, 1995 and 2001). Both left early for the NFL along with the team’s third-leading receiver, tailback Jeremy Hill (18 receptions). These departures leave sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural (7 rec., 145 yds) and senior fullback Connor Neighbors (7 rec., 92 yds) as the team’s leading returning receivers. Needless to say, this isn’t a good year for Les Miles to be breaking in a true freshman quarterback.
1977: Last time Kentucky had a winning SEC record
Mark Stoops has the Kentucky program headed in the right direction, both on and off the field. But he is battling history in the worst way, as Kentucky hasn’t posted a winning SEC record in nearly 30 years. Four times (1993, 1998-99, 2006) the Wildcats finished 4-4 and twice (1979, ’84) they went 3-3, but Big Blue Nation hasn’t had a winning SEC season since the perfect 1977 campaign (10-1, 6-0). Despite the obvious momentum in Lexington, odds are this streak will continue in 2014.
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting ACC statistics you need to know about in 2014:
0-0: ACC teams in BCS title game not named Florida State
Much like Ohio State and the Big Ten, the ACC sent only one team to the top of the college football mountain. Florida State is the only ACC team that played in the BCS National Championship Game during the 16-year BCS Era. The Noles played in the first three games (1998-2000), losing two and winning the 1999 title. The league went without a team securing a berth in the title game until those very same Seminoles bookended the era with an ACC championship last year. Much like the Big Ten, the ACC needs other programs to develop into national contenders around Florida State in order to keep up with the best leagues in the nation (ahem, the SEC). As a whole, the ACC went 5-13 in BCS bowls with two of those wins coming last year.
41-9: Bobby Petrino at Louisville
As a college head coach, there can be no doubting Bobby Petrino’s ability to win games on the field. In four full seasons as the Cardinals' head coach from 2003-06, Petrino won 41 games, including two seasons with at least 11 wins and the school's first BCS bowl berth and victory (Charlie Strong beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl two years ago in the only other BCS appearance by Louisville). The two highest finishes for the Cards in school history are No. 6 in the final AP poll in 2004 and '06. His off-the-field decisions and abrasive personality aside, the bottom line is Petrino wins games and he is likely to make Louisville the best new addition to the league in very short order.
42.3: Avg. margin of victory for Florida State
In 13 regular season games, the Florida State Seminoles not only defeated, but obliterated their opponents by an average score of 42.3 points. Jimbo Fisher's squad outscored its 13 regular season opponents 689-139 for an average margin of victory of more than six touchdowns per game. Again, that's more than six touchdowns per game. Even with the tightly-played, three-point win over Auburn in the BCS national title game, Florida State still crushed all 14 opponents last year by an average of 39.5 points per game.
73.4: Yards/game Duke was outgained in ACC play
Despite posting the best season in school history, winning the Coastal Division and finishing 6-2 in the regular season, the Duke Blue Devils were still statistically much worse than their opponents. In nine ACC games, Duke produced just 377.7 yards per game of offense while allowing 451.0 yards per game on defense. This means the Blue Devils were outgained by a per game average of 73.4 yards. It’s hard to repeat when the opposition is dramatically out-producing the offense on a regular basis in a league with so much balance.
19: Georgia Tech seasons without a losing ACC record
The Yellow Jackets went 1-10 overall and 0-8 in ACC play in 1994 under Bill Lewis. It was his last year in Atlanta and it marked the last time Georgia Tech posted a losing record in ACC play. Since then George O’Leary (7 years), Chan Gailey (6) and Paul Johnson (6) have each kept Tech from a losing ACC record. Johnson has been to a bowl game in all six of his season in charge of the Ramblin’ Wreck.
96.8: Yards rushing per game after Duke Johnson got hurt
Miami averaged 214.7 yards rushing per game through the first seven games of last season. The Canes were 7-0 and had scored 19 rushing touchdowns behind the elite play of star tailback Duke Johnson. When Johnson got hurt in the blowout loss to Florida State, the Canes rushing attack went into the tank. Over the last six games of the year, Miami rushed for just 96.8 yards per game, scored six total rushing touchdowns and lost four times. On a team with major quarterback issues, a healthy Johnson is a must if Miami is going to contend in the wide open Coastal Division.
5: Miami losses/year since joining the ACC
Speaking of the Hurricanes moving from the Big East to the ACC, here are some staggering numbers to consider about The U. Miami went 46-4 in the four years prior to joining the ACC and 96-25 in the 10 years prior to landing in their new home. In the 10 years since joining the ACC, Miami is 75-50 and has lost an average of five games per season. By comparison, Miami lost five games in a season just once (1997) between 1985 and 2003. The Canes have yet to post a 10-win season since joining the league after posting seven such seasons in 13 years as a member of the Big East.
8.3: Yards to go on third down by Virginia Tech opponents
No one in the nation got their opponents into tougher third down situations than the Hokies last fall. Virginia Tech’s opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down in 2013, the highest average in the nation. The defense in Blacksburg should once again be dominant so something must be done about an offense that ranked 102nd in the nation a year ago at only 356.0 yards per game if Tech wants to win the Coastal.
17.2%: Clemson’s total returning offense
Clemson’s offense produced 6,611 total yards a year ago, ranking ninth in the nation at 508.5 yards per game. With a departing quarterback, running back and two star wide receivers, the Tigers lose 82.8 percent of their total offensive production from 2013. Cole Stoudt (471 yards of total offense), Zac Brooks (246), D.J. Howard (213) and C.J. Davidson (155) are the only four returning players on the team with more than 100 yards of total offense to their name a year ago. Everyone believes that Chad Morris will have the Clemson offense humming again in ’14 at some point, but losing 5,471 yards of total offense off any roster is tough to overcome.
1997: Last time North Carolina lost fewer than 3 ACC games
In Mack Brown’s final season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels won 11 games, went 7-1 in the ACC and finished sixth in the AP poll — the second-highest finish in school history to only the 1948 North Carolina squad that finished third. Since then, North Carolina has finished above .500 in the ACC only four times (1998, 2001, '04, '12) and has yet to post fewer than three losses in any season. Larry Fedora is the fifth coach to lead the Tar Heels program since Brown left for Texas and he is looking to end a season in Chapel Hill ranked for the first time since ’97.
27: Total TDs scored by Virginia in 2013
Virginia was 110th in scoring offense last year at just 19.8 points per game but managed an ACC-low 27 total touchdowns scored. Among all Big 5 schools, only Kansas (22) and Purdue (23) reached the end zone fewer times than Virginia. The Cavaliers were 113th nationally in total touchdowns scored and both Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs scored more touchdowns individually (31) than the Wahoos did as an entire football team. Mike London could use an offensive spark in 2014.
It’s a cliché for a reason and it’s survived more than 2,000 years for a reason.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — which some say first originated in 3rd century B.C. — applies to most subjective arguments hundreds of years later. Especially, when it comes to ranking things in the college football world.
Ranking past teams, current coaches, logos, uniforms and pretty much anything else that can be bantered about on a message board is, by definition, subjective. Part of what makes college football great (in my opinion) is a vibrant college campus on Saturdays in the fall. Nowhere else in sports is the pageantry, passion and connectivity of a sports team and its fans more obvious than at a great college football game.
Colorful tailgating with eclectic menus, picturesque college towns, massive ear-shattering crowds, unique and historic traditions all make college football games special. And varied.
Fans can float to a game in Seattle or Knoxville, eat anything under the sun in Baton Rouge, watch an entire team touch a small stone before sprinting down a hill in Clemson and so much more.
Athlon has polled 15 experts in an effort to rank the best college football stadiums and game day atmospheres in the nation. Some, like me, value the tailgating experience, the surrounding area and the intimidation factor of the crowd. Others value the traditions steeped in decades of experience. While others only care about home-field advantage.
There is no right or wrong answer. Athlon tabulated the ballots, giving each No. 1 vote 10 points all the way to one point for a No. 10 vote. Here is what we learned:
Tim Brando, SiriusXM/Fox Sports
Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports
Dave Revsine, Big Ten Network
Stewart Mandel, Fox Sports
Dan Rubenstein, SB Nation
Bryan Fischer, NFL.com
Travis Haney, ESPN
Zac Ellis, Sports Illustrated
Mike Huguenin, NFL.com
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports/SiriusXM
|1. Tiger Stadium||120||13|
|2. Ohio Stadium||105||15|
|3. Autzen Stadium||64||12|
|4. Kyle Field||61||9|
|5. Bryant-Denny Stadium||48||7|
|6. Notre Dame Stadium||47||9|
|7. Neyland Stadium||43||6|
|8. Sanford Stadium||42||12|
|9. Husky Stadium||36||7|
|10. Beaver Stadium||31||7|
ORV: UCLA (30), Auburn (30), Clemson (30), Florida (28), Michigan (28), Wisconsin (23), Army (19), Nebraska (13), USC (11), Oklahoma (5), Virginia Tech (4), Texas (3), Air Force (2), BYU (1), South Carolina (1), Stanford (1)
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What we learned:
• LSU’s Tiger Stadium, which is going through a major upgrade this offseason, was on all but two ballots and ran away with top billing. Death Valley received seven first-place votes, the most of any team in the nation by a wide margin. Notre Dame Stadium and Neyland Stadium were the only other buildings to receive more than one first-place vote. Tiger Stadium was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on 11 of the 15 ballots.
• Ohio Stadium, affectionately known as The Horseshoe, was the only stadium to be on every single ballot. The Buckeyes' home turf was a clear No. 2 and was the only building even close to LSU. It only got one first-place vote from the panel but was no lower than seventh on any ballot.
• Kyle Field in College Station could easily become the best place to watch a college football game in the very near future. The Aggies' home venue finished fourth, well behind OSU and LSU and just behind Oregon, but with new renovations underway to make it one of the largest buildings in the nation, Texas A&M could easily jump to the top of this list. It was a fantastic place to see a game well before TAMU joined the SEC or upgraded the building.
• Oregon and Washington have underrated venues among most fans but these media experts don’t think so. Both the Ducks' and Huskies' fabulous, high-tech digs landed in the top 10 among experts, ranking third and ninth nationally. Both are extremely scenic and both have produced big winners in the past. Oregon finishing third in the overall rankings might be the biggest surprise of the voting.
• S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C. People are tired of hearing it but part of the reason the SEC is the best conference in football is the venues. Five of the top 10 and seven of the top 13 hail from the SEC while eight total stadiums received at least one vote. Interestingly enough, Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium was on less than half of the ballots but was no lower than fifth, while Georgia’s Sanford Stadium was on 12 ballots but was higher than seventh only twice. Florida, South Carolina and Auburn also received votes.
• Small(er) stadiums can be charming for a variety of a reasons and Army’s Michie Stadium is a perfect example. It only seats 38,000 people but it landed on three ballots and got one first-place vote for reasons mostly other than football. Overlooking the Hudson River, there are few sights in college football like the West Point cadets marching into a football game on a fall Saturday.
• Seven different buildings got a first-place vote. LSU (7), Tennessee (2) and Notre Dame (2) got the majority of the votes but The Rose Bowl, Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ohio Stadium in Columbus and Michie each got one first-place vote as well.
• Where is the ACC? Clemson was voted as the top choice to catch a game in the ACC but was tied for 11th overall nationally. Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium was the only other ACC venue to receive a vote (21st).
• Nebraska and Oklahoma seem to be the most "underrated" buildings to receive a vote but there are some names I was surprised not to see in the voting. The buildings I was most surprised to see go without a single vote: Doak Campbell (Florida State), Razorback Stadium (Arkansas) and Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium (Ole Miss).
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Big Ten statistics you need to know about in 2014:
0-0: Big Ten teams in the BCS title game not named Ohio State
Nebraska's 2001 national championship game appearance doesn't count for the Big Ten (although, the Big Ten would probably be fine with the Big 12 keeping that one). So other than Ohio State's BCS win in 2002 and losses in 2006 and '07, no other Big Ten team made a showing in the BCS National Championship Game. Some compare conferences by overall depth, focusing on the top of the standings, be it quantity or quality. But at the end of the year, only one conference can be called a champion and the Big Ten did it one time during the BCS' 16-year run. Five different SEC teams made 11 total national title appearances during the BCS Era. Other teams around Ohio State need to elevate themselves to national contention if the Big Ten wants to keep pace with the nation's best. Hiring coaches like James Franklin at Penn State is a great start.
$44.5 million: Projected new Big Ten payout
Recently, the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier reported that the projected payout to Big Ten schools each year from the conference will be a staggering $44.5 million in 2017-18. That's nearly double the league's current and nation-leading $25.7 million payout. Jim Delany added both Maryland and Rutgers not to improve the play on the field immediately but to grow the Big Ten's footprint into population-rich areas. He knows his league is facing stagnant population growth — by far the worst of the major five leagues — and by expanding east into talent-rich areas of the country, he hopes his league will be able to elevate both the Terps and Knights to a new level of competition.
5.4%: Population growth in the Big Ten footprint
Before moving to Fox Sports recently, Stewart Mandel reported in Sports Illustrated that the Big Ten's biggest obstacle isn't Nick Saban or the SEC but rather slowed regional population growth. The Big Ten footprint is slated to grow by just 5.4 percent in population by 2030, a number well behind the other four major conferences. The Pac-12 is projected to grow the most, projecting a whopping 28.9 percent growth by 2030. The SEC is second at a projected 25.9 percent growth. The Big 12 isn't far behind at 22.4 percent and the ACC is fourth at 18.6 percent growth. As CFBMatrix.com shows, overall population is directly tied to recruiting base as well as TV contracts. Any way the numbers are sliced, the Big Ten is lagging significantly behind the other major leagues in one of the most crucial statistical categories.
42: Wins for Michigan State in the last four years
Among Big 5 schools, only Oregon (47), Stanford (46), Alabama (46), Florida State (45), LSU (44) and Oklahoma (43) have won more games over the last four years than the Spartans. That's more wins than Clemson, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame or Auburn, to name a few, and the same number as Ohio State and South Carolina. Mark Dantonio finally broke through last fall, winning a school-record 13 games and claiming both the Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships. Replacing over half of his defensive production will be a tall order, especially with massive road showdowns in Eugene and Happy Valley looming (as well as a visit from OSU), but fans around the country shouldn't expect a significant step back from Sparty in 2014. If anything, Dantonio has proven he can plug holes quickly on both sides of the ball.
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18-8: James Franklin's record the last two years
People are obsessed with James Franklin moving from the SEC to the Big Ten and Athlon Sports might be just as guilty as anyone. Penn State made it into the preseason Top 25 and is picked to win 10 games behind the leadership of its new head coach. The detractors will point to offensive line issues in Happy Valley — a concern that is warranted — and that Franklin has yet to prove himself on the biggest of stages. However, the latter argument holds no water. Franklin led Vanderbilt to unprecedented levels of success. The Commodores had never been to three consecutive bowl games, hadn't won eight games in back-to-back seasons since 1926-27 and hadn't ever beaten Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. Franklin did all of that in Nashville during his three seasons leading Vanderbilt. Now, he comes home to The Keystone State where his charismatic persona, progressive thinking and verbal sparring matches will transform Penn State from a traditional program with elite history to a forward-thinking national powerhouse. Franklin's is a personality that the Big Ten desperately needs.
48.7%: Wisconsin's opponents winning percentage from 2013
Only two Big Ten teams will play a schedule in 2014 that posted a combined record under .500 a year ago. Wisconsin (48.7%) and Iowa (49.3%) play, statistically, the worst schedules in the Big Ten this fall as both will avoid Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State in crossover play. Using last year's win-loss records to determine overall strength of schedule has many flaws, one of which is the volatile nature of college football rosters, but there is a reason why Athlon Sports is projecting the Badgers and Hawkeyes to finish 1-2 in the Big Ten West Division. Both have extremely manageable schedules that set up very well for a run at a Big Ten title game.
6,584 and 64: Braxton Miller total yards and TDs under Urban Meyer
Few players fit into their coach's scheme better than Braxton Miller does with Urban Meyer's spread. In each of the last two seasons under Meyer, Miller has thrown for at least 2,000 yards, rushed for at least 1,000 yards, scored 64 total touchdowns and led his team to a 24-0 record in the regular season. Miller's passer rating, completion percentage and yards per carry has gone up in three consecutive seasons. For his career, Miller has accounted for 84 total touchdowns and has thrown just 17 interceptions. Should he stay healthy and continue his developmental trend, Miller has a shot to land in New York at season's end.
3.3: Yards per carry for Michigan's rushing offense
Rich Rodriguez and Michigan averaged 5.6 yards per carry on offense — good for fifth in the nation — during his final season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines' rushing proficiency has gotten worse every season since he departed. In his first year, Brady Hoke's offense averaged 5.2 yards per carry (16th nationally). That number dropped to 4.8 yards per carry in 2012 (38th nationally) and plummeted to 3.3 yards per carry a year ago. Michigan ranked 115h nationally last year in rushing average, ahead of only Purdue in the Big Ten and only a few other Big 5 teams (Virginia Tech, Washington State, Wake Forest). Hoke's top two returning rushers are Devin Gardner (2.9 ypc) and Derrick Green (3.3 ypc). Needless to say, Doug Nussmeier's first order of business is to fix the Maize and Blue rushing attack.
4: Nebraska's losses every year under Bo Pelini
How could it be any other number? Sure, Ameer Abdullah is the nation's leading returning rusher from a year ago at 130.0 yards per game, but that's boring compared to Bo Pelini's remarkable streak of six consecutive seasons with exactly four losses. To lose exactly four games in each of his six seasons at Nebraska seems borderline impossible in the volatile modern college football landscape. And Pelini has done it every way imaginable. He went 6-1 down the stretch and nearly beat national runner-up Texas in the Big 12 title game in 2009. He won the last four and six of seven in his first year in '08 as well. He lost the final two games of the year in '12 in ugly fashion and three out of the last four in '10. He methodically alternated wins and losses down the stretch in both '11 and '13. Most teams in the nation would take nine or 10 wins every season. But expectations in Lincoln have been of the national championship variety for decades, so the relationship between Pelini and his fan base will once again be one of the most fascinating to watch in the nation. Especially, if the Huskers finish third in the division with an 8-4 record this fall.
15.9: Yards per touch for Stefon Diggs
Maryland's receiving corps could be the best in the Big Ten — if it stays healthy. Both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long were lost to season-ending injuries last fall and both are slated to return this summer to full strength. Long is a solid player who was averaging nearly 70 yards receiving per game through seven contests but getting Diggs back could mean the difference in a bowl game or not for the Terps. On 176 career touches, Diggs is averaging 15.9 yards per play and has totaled 2,808 all-purpose yards in just 18 career games. He catches passes (88 rec.), runs the ball (27 att.) and returns both kickoffs (37 att.) and punts (24 att.). Randy Edsall needs his star playmaker in the lineup for a full season.
527.9: Yards allowed per game by Indiana
Kevin Wilson has led the Big Ten in passing in each of the last two seasons, averaging over 300 yards per game in both seasons. No Big Ten team had topped 300 yards passing per game for a season since Northwestern and Purdue did it in 2007. So offense isn't Wilson's problem entering a critical fourth season in Bloomington. The defense ranked 123rd in the nation last year at over 527.9 yards allowed per game — ahead of only Cal (529.6) and New Mexico State (549.5). Indiana hasn't been to a bowl since 2007 and hasn't won a bowl since '91, so if Wilson expects to end those droughts this season, he and his revamped defensive staff will have to make major strides with a unit that allowed 6.7 yards per play last year (117th nationally).
The 2013 Auburn Tigers storybook season was one for the ages.
Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, went from worst to first in the SEC, played in a thrilling and heartbreaking BCS National Championship Game and most believe the offense could be even better in 2014.
Just don’t use the word “lucky” around War Eagle fans. But that is what Auburn was last year en route to two rivalry wins and an SEC championship. In fact, almost every championship team in every sport needed some factor of luck to win its title.
So the offense could be just as good and the defense — which gave up over 420 yards per game last year and over 35 points per game in November — could show improvement. But will the bounces go the Tigers’ way again?
With a dramatically improved schedule, a repeat as SEC champs will be extremely difficult but isn’t out of the question.
2014 Auburn Schedule Analysis
2014 Auburn Schedule
The Auburn Tigers should be 2-0 heading into the first off weekend of the year on Sept. 13. The developing rivalry between Malzahn and Arkansas' Bret Bielema is fun to watch off of the field but likely won’t be very competitive on it. So Auburn figures to be 2-0 with extra time to prepare for a brutal road trip to Big 12 outpost Kansas State. The Xs and Os coaching chess match between Malzahn and Bill Snyder figures to be fascinating to watch on a Thursday night in primetime. This game will teach fans of both teams a lot about their team very early on.
In the heart of the schedule, Auburn will get three marquee SEC showdowns at home. LSU (Week 6), South Carolina (Week 9) and Texas A&M (Week 11) will all have to visit The Plains in a span of five games. The Tigers are looking for revenge of their own against LSU and will get an extra week to prepare for South Carolina with a bye weekend in Week 8. Both will be physical bouts where the last guy standing will win. And getting the Aggies late in the year isn’t an enviable position to be in for any SEC team, as Texas A&M should be one of the more improved teams over the course of the season.
Magnolia State Swing
There may not be a team in the nation that plays a tougher road schedule in the country than the Auburn Tigers. The tricky test in Manhattan is one of the tougher non-conference games the SEC will play all season. But package that with four tremendously difficult road games in the SEC and the Tigers will be lucky to stay in playoff contention. Two road trips to the Magnolia State to face both Mississippi State (Week 7) and Ole Miss (Week 10) come on the heels of physically taxing games against LSU and South Carolina. A 3-0 record in the first three road trips of the year would be a huge success for Malzahn.
After three already tough road games, Auburn will have to face Georgia and Alabama on the road over the final three weeks of the season. Malzahn will be very aware of the revenge that will be at stake in both games and both will come away from the friendly and fortunate confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. There is no telling what the standings will look like when these two games roll around, but fans can bet these rematches will carry significant weight in both the SEC and potential national championship races.
Related: 2014 Auburn Tigers Team Preview
Auburn could be better in 2014 and still not win the SEC title. The road slate is one of (if not the) toughest slate in the nation with five potential top 25 games taking place away from The Loveliest Village. The offense should be as good, if not better, and the defense should take small steps forward. But to repeat as SEC champs and earn a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Tigers will likely need a few more lucky bounces. It may not be reasonable to expect more fortuitous breaks like Auburn got last year, but they may need them to repeat as SEC champs this fall.
There are some who believe the Bruins will be playing for the national championship come January.
Should UCLA earn a playoff berth in the debut edition of the College Football Playoff, there will have been no doubt about its merit. The Bruins are poised to play at least six preseason Top 25 teams with a shot at playing possibly three top 10 teams by season’s end.
The offense is still led by all-everything quarterback Brett Hundley and should some playmakers develop around him, the Bruins should once again be one of the top offensive units in the nation. The defense is incredibly talented and maturing every month.
With coaching stability and a talented returning corps, UCLA should be ready to face one of the toughest schedules in the nation this fall.
2014 UCLA Schedule Analysis
2014 UCLA Schedule
Leaving the West Coast
Virginia was bad last year. Like, really bad. But they also upset BYU in Week 1 at home in bad conditions. UCLA should roll through the Cavaliers (and Memphis in Week 2) but Mora is likely looking for crisp performances in both games before a Texas-sized showdown in the Lone Star State in Week 3. The Bruins should expect a heavy Burnt Orange crowd in Arlington when UCLA faces Texas. The Horns will have already faced BYU and will be battle-tested under new coach Charlie Strong. A win for either could vault that program into the national spotlight very quickly while a loss could end all playoff hopes for the other. No pressure.
Early Pac-12 tests
Before UCLA gets doormats Cal and Colorado at the end of October, the Bruins will have to face a three-game stretch against the defending South Division champs on the road and the preseason Pac-12 favorite at home. The road team has won the first two meetings between Mora and Arizona State and a visit to Tempe won’t be an easy way to break into conference play. Should the Bruins return victorious — and beat Utah at home — then a potential top-5 matchup with Oregon in the Rose Bowl could steal national headlines. Once again, UCLA could be facing a playoff elimination game.
Not an easy November
After facing Texas, Arizona State and Oregon in the first two months, UCLA gets no breaks in the month of November. Arizona at home is manageable but the other three tests will be especially difficult. A road trip to Washington has “letdown alert” or “looking ahead” written all over it, as crosstown rival and South Division contender USC comes to town the next game. To top it off, UCLA will have to face two-time defending Pac-12 champ Stanford at home in the season finale. The only comfort for Mora over the final month is that three of the four games come at home and that there is an off weekend before the brutal two-game stretch to end the season.
Related: 2014 UCLA Bruins Team Preview
The Bruins could be sitting at 10-0 with four or five marquee Top 25 wins entering the final two weeks of the season. And it all could be for naught. The margin for error in the Pac-12 this year is going to be razor thin and a two-loss team may not reach the playoffs. UCLA has the talent, the leadership and the coaching to be one of the best teams in the nation, but surviving this incredibly perilous slate unscathed seems rather impossible. However, an 11-win regular season and Pac-12 title is well within reach.
The importance of scheduling in college football cannot be overstated. Sure, coaching, rosters and even a little bit of luck play bigger roles in determining championships in the NCAA ranks. But scheduling in college football plays as big a role as any of those other factors.
Non-conference play varies greatly from team to team. So, too, do home and road slates — especially for the championship-deciding, rivalry-bragging, marquee showdowns. And the important bye weekends also play a large role in ironing out win-loss records in any given season.
So taking all of the above into account, which team has the toughest schedule in the Big 12 in 2014 and how has that impacted our 2014 Big 12 Predictions.
* - indicates neutral site game
1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Non-Conference: Alabama*, Towson, at Maryland
Big 12 Road: Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-59 (62.1%, 12th)
Things aren’t going to be easy in Morgantown for embattled coach Dana Holgorsen. The Mountaineers play one of the toughest non-conference slates with Alabama in Atlanta to start and a trip to Maryland in Week 3. Wrapping up September is a home date with Oklahoma, all but assuring a 1-3 start to the season. The slate alternates home and road dates over the final two months but features few winnable games with the exception of Kansas at home and Iowa State on the road. Even with five home Big 12 games, West Virginia boasts the toughest schedule in the league in 2014.
2. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Non-Conference: Florida State*, Missouri State, UTSA
Big 12 Road: Kansas, TCU, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-65 (56.9%, 32nd)
Starting the season with the defending national champions is literally as hard as it gets, but the rest of the early schedule is manageable. The two other non-conference games are sure-fire wins and the month of October should provide at least three wins. Texas Tech at home (Week 5) and at TCU (Week 8) are two massive swing games in the first half of the season. The importance of an early run for the Pokes cannot be overstated because the second half of the schedule is as tough as it gets in the Big 12. Ok-State will face the top four teams in the league in succession to end the year, including road trips to Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma.
3. Kansas State Wildcats
Non-Conference: Stephen F. Austin, Auburn, UTEP
Big 12 Road: Iowa St, Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia, Baylor
Opponents ’13 Record: 79-72 (52.3%, 65th)
Facing the BCS runner-up at home is a brutal battle in the non-conference but both KSU and Auburn will have two weeks to prepare for the Thursday night showdown. An early road trip to the always pesky Cyclones in the previous game needs to be a win for Bill Snyder’s bunch. Following what should be an easy win over UTEP in Week 5, Kansas State gets no breaks until deep into November. The Wildcats will face Texas Tech, Oklahoma (away), Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU (away) over a six-week span before finally getting a “breather” in Morgantown. A home game with rival Kansas should be merely a tune-up for a road trip to Baylor. In all, Kansas State could face three top 10 teams, including the top two in the Big 12 on the road, and could face four more potential Top 25 teams as well.
4. Texas Longhorns
Non-Conference: North Texas, BYU, UCLA*
Big 12 Road: Kansas, Oklahoma*, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State
Opponents ’13 Record: 89-63 (58.6%, 26th)
The Longhorns and new coach Charlie Strong play the toughest non-conference slate of any team in the league but both will be in the state of Texas, as BYU comes to Austin and the UCLA game is in Arlington. Texas also has to face Big 12 bowl teams (and Achilles heels) Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech on the road. This, of course, doesn’t include the annual showdown with archrival and Big 12 front-runner Oklahoma. There is one solid home game with TCU and one huge home game with Baylor, otherwise, the majority of the Horns' Big 12 showdowns will come away from the 40 Acres. This schedule has plenty of chances for marquee wins and plenty of chances for major disappointments.
5. Iowa State Cyclones
Non-Conference: North Dakota State, at Iowa, Toledo
Big 12 Road: Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas, TCU
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-57 (62.9%, 7th)
According to last year’s records, Iowa State will play the toughest schedule in the league. However, everyone knows last year doesn’t count. The non-conference schedule has three very tricky games against North Dakota State (who beat Kansas State in Manhattan last year), archrival Iowa (on the road) and MAC West Division front-runner Toledo. Additionally, TCU and Texas both figure to be improved and both of those will come on the road. Lastly, season ticket holders in Ames should be either very excited or very worried about ’14 as Kansas State (Week 2), Baylor (Week 5), Oklahoma (Week 10), Texas Tech (Week 13) and West Virginia (Week 14) all visit Jack Trice Stadium this fall.
6. Kansas Jayhawks
Non-Conference: SE Missouri State, at Duke, Central Michigan
Big 12 Road: West Virginia, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-66 (56.6%, 38th)
First, not getting to face Kansas in Big 12 play makes it hard to find wins for the Jayhawks. Second, Kansas is very unlucky in that Duke is playing the best football of its entire existence, making a perfect 3-for-3 in non-conference play unlikely. Third, beleaguered coach Charlie Weis will face three of the best four teams in the league — Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State — on the road. This could be construed as a positive as the ‘Hawks aren’t likely to be competitive in those games and maybe getting more winnable games at home is the right recipe. TCU, Iowa State or Oklahoma State are spots for upsets at home. No matter where the games are being played, however, wins are going to be extremely tough to come by for a team picked to finish last in the Big 12.
7. TCU Horned Frogs
Non-Conference: Samford, Minnesota, at SMU
Big 12 Road: Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas, Texas
Opponents ’13 Record: 87-65 (57.2%, 30th)
The non-conference schedule is very manageable with a rivalry game against SMU looking easier by the day and a sneaky good bout with Minnesota coming at home. TCU should start 3-0 and then things heat up in a big way. TCU hosts both Oklahoma schools packaged around a road trip to Baylor to start October in brutal fashion. The second half of the schedule, however, provides plenty of chances for important wins in key swing games, like Texas Tech and Kansas State at home. The Horned Frogs will face four teams picked to finish in the bottom half of the league in the final six weeks. Minus a Thanksgiving road trip to Austin, TCU faces a very workable second half schedule in ’14.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Non-Conference: Central Arkansas, at UTEP, Arkansas
Big 12 Road: Oklahoma State, Kansas State, TCU, Iowa State, Baylor*
Opponents ’13 Record: 74-75 (49.7%, 81st)
Two teams in the Big 12 will face a schedule whose opponents combined for a sub-.500 record last year and the Red Raiders are one of them (Oklahoma is the other). Arkansas could be a tricky clash of offensive tempos but Texas Tech should be perfect in non-conference play before Big 12 play begins with two tough road trips to Stillwater and Manhattan. Otherwise, Texas Tech won’t face any of the top three Big 12 teams on the road. Both Texas and Oklahoma come to Lubbock and the battle with Baylor is being played again in Arlington. The only problem is that all three of those games will take place in the final four weeks of the year, making another second half slump a concern for Kliff Kingsbury. This is a very manageable slate overall and Tech could be soaring into the final month with some marquee showdowns coming at home late in the year.
9. Baylor Bears
Non-Conference: SMU, Northwestern State, at Buffalo
Big 12 Road: Iowa State, Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech*
Opponents ’13 Record: 78-72 (52.0%, 67th)
Baylor really faces a two-game schedule in 2014 and both will come on the road. Texas and Oklahoma both host the Bears, but Baylor has handled both programs with ease of late (especially, last year). Revenge against Oklahoma State and a tough game with Kansas State will be served in the friendly confines of brand-new McLane Stadium and a tricky game with Texas Tech comes in Arlington. Outposts in Ames and Morgantown should have Art Briles worried as well, however, Baylor dropped 144 points on Iowa State and West Virginia combined last year. With an easy non-conference slate and just two Top 25 games in the league, Baylor is poised to roll through another schedule.
10. Oklahoma Sooners
Non-Conference: Louisiana Tech, at Tulsa, Tennessee
Big 12 Road: West Virginia, TCU, Texas*, Iowa State, Texas Tech
Opponents ’13 Record: 71-78 (47.6%, 93rd)
As the team predicted to win the league, Oklahoma has one distinct advantage over every other team: It doesn’t have to face Oklahoma. It also gets Texas on a neutral site — one Bob Stoops has dominated — hosts the Baylor Bears (who have never won in Norman) and plays a very simple non-conference schedule. There is a lot to like about the Sooners' slate as the toughest road test of the year will take place in either Fort Worth or Lubbock. Of the top four teams picked to finish in the top half of the league, Oklahoma will play three of them at home (Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State) and gets Texas in the Cotton Bowl. There is a reason Oklahoma was picked to win the league and land in the College Football Playoff.
You want to know why the United States never has a shot at winning the World Cup?
It has nothing to do with our love of capitalism or that many believe the sport is boring. It has nothing to do with our country lacking athletic ability or other nations simply being superior humans.
The answer is simple. With no disrespect to Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan or Claudio Reyna, the best athletes in the country grow up dunking basketballs, hitting fastballs and tackling running backs.
So imagine what our Men’s National World Cup team would look like if this country’s greatest athletes had grown up kicking a soccer ball for hours everyday instead?
Assuming that no current men’s soccer players are eligible — because Howard would probably still make the starting line-up — Athlon Sports took a shot at projecting our starting line-up if everybody in the US played soccer and only soccer.
Men's National Team Starting Line-Up:
Full 23-man roster:
Starting Forward: LeBron James, F, Miami Heat
Starting Forward: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Back-up: A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Back-up: Justin Gatlin, Track & Field
Offensive Midfielder: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Offensive Midfielder: Mike Trout, OF, LA Angels
Offensive Midfielder: Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Back-up: Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Back-up: Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Back-up: Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
Defensive Midfielder: John Wall, G, Washington Wizards
Defensive Midfielder: Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Back-up: Patrick Peterson, DB, Arizona Cardinals
Back-up: Jon Jones, MMA
Back-up: Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs
Defender: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Defender: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
Defender: Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio Spurs
Back-up: Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Back-up: Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Bucs
Back-up: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Goalkeeper: Jonathan Quick, G, LA Kings
Back-up: Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets
Conference realignment reached a fever pitch a few years ago and it caused great headaches for fans and coaches across the nation.
The dollars and “sense” of conference realignment blazed a path through college football for a few years following the turn of the century, however, teams shifting leagues for greener pastures isn’t a new phenomenon.
The Big Ten was created in 1896, is the oldest Division I collegiate conference in the NCAA and is adding two new teams this July in Maryland and Rutgers. Did you know the University of Chicago was a founding member? Or that Michigan was kicked out of the league for a decade?
The point is conference realignment has been happening for over 100 years of college football, and, while the process escalated to dizzying speeds recently, it’s not even close to ending. Want some proof? Here is a complete look at the history of the Big Ten conference and how realignment has shaped the league over time.
John Griffith, 1922-44 (died in office)
Kenneth “Tug” Wilson, 1945-61
William Reed, 1961-71 (died in office)
Wayne Duke, 1971-89
Jim Delany, 1989-present
1896: The Big Ten is formed as the first major collegiate conference of universities. Purdue president James Smart is credited with spearheading the decision to regulate and control intercollegiate athletics. The seven founding members were the University of Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. Lake Forest College attended the 1895 meeting that eventually spawned what was then referred to as the Western Conference, but it did not join the league.
1899: Iowa and Indiana both join the Big Ten Conference three years after its inception. It was then commonly called the Big Nine. Both Iowa and Indiana would begin athletic competition the following year. Interestingly enough, Nebraska petitioned to join the league the same year (and would again request an invitation in 1911 to no avail).
1908: Michigan was voted out of the conference due to rules issues. The Wolverines failed to adhere to league-wide regulations and were subsequently ruled inactive.
1912: Ohio State joins the league.
1917: After Michigan was finally allowed back into the conference after its decade-long hiatus, the term Big Ten became an instantly popular way to refer to the conference.
1946: Due to the on-going World War in Europe, the University of Chicago had de-emphasized athletics in 1939 by discontinuing its football program. By 1946, Chicago withdrew from the league. The Big Ten went back to being referred to as the Big Nine.
1950: Michigan State is invited to join the Big Nine and does so to return the total number of league institutions to ten. The term Big Ten was re-adopted at this point. It would begin athletic competition in 1953.
1987: Technically, the league had been named the “Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives.” But since ICFR doesn’t roll off the tongue, the league officially changed its name to The Big Ten when it was incorporated as a non-profit business entity.
1990: After remaining unchanged for four decades of success, the Big Ten voted to expand to 11 schools and asked Penn State to join. The Nittany Lions, who were denied entrance into the Big East in 1982, were happy to oblige. It would begin Big Ten athletic competition in 1993.
2010-11: Nebraska applies for Big Ten membership and is unanimously approved as the league’s 12th institution. Nebraska played its first Big Ten conference schedule the following year and the league splits into two divisions to accommodate the Cornhuskers. Additionally, the Big Ten plays its first league championship game in Indianapolis.
2014: As the College Football Playoff Era begins, so too, does a new edition of the Big Ten. Maryland and Rutgers join the conference in all sports, pushing the league to a record 14 members. The divisions have been renamed the West and the East and will feature seven teams each. Both the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights will play in the East Division and both extend the B1G footprint into the coveted, population-rich Northeast. Lastly, Johns Hopkins University is actually joining the Big Ten as a men’s lacrosse member only. Officially, JHU has won 44 lacrosse national championships since being founded in 1883.
Big Ten's BCS Bowl Record: 13-15*
Big Ten's BCS National Championships: 1-2
* - including any vacated appearances
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Conference realignment reached a fever pitch a few years ago and it caused great headaches for fans and coaches across the nation.
The dollars and “sense” of conference realignment blazed a path through college football for a few years following the turn of the century, however, teams shifting leagues for greener pastures isn’t a new phenomenon.
Did you know that South Carolina was a founding member of the ACC or that the league was created as an offshoot of the Southern Conference? The ACC was created in 1953 and has gone through more changes in the last 10 years than any of the other major leagues. Since 2004, the ACC has added six new football programs to its ranks, including 2014 with the addition of Louisville and the subtraction of Maryland. And that doesn't include the partnership with Notre Dame, whose annual schedule includes five ACC opponents starting this season.
The point is conference realignment has been happening for over 100 years of college football, and, while the process escalated to dizzying speeds recently, it’s not even close to ending. Here is a complete look at the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference and how realignment has shaped the league over time.
James Weaver, 1954-70
Robert James 1971-87
Eugene Corrigan, 1987-97
John Swofford, 1997-present
1953: After losing a multitude of members to the SEC in 1932, the once massive (23-member) Southern Conference loses eight key members to the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The SoCon had a league-wide ban on postseason play and this is why many believe the ACC got started to begin with. Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina and, a few months later, Virginia became the charter members.
1971: South Carolina decides to leave for independence, but would later join the SEC in 1991.
1978: After only containing seven teams for most of the '70s, Georgia Tech leaves the Metro Conference for the greener pastures of the ACC.
1991: Also from the Metro Conference, Florida State’s decision to join the ACC might have been the most important maneuver in ACC history. The Noles went on to dominate the league for the first decade and it played in the first three BCS National Championship Games (1998-2000). The league’s two national titles during the BCS Era (1999, 2013) and all four appearances in the game were produced by the Seminoles.
2004: Miami and Virginia Tech both officially join in the summer of 2004. Adding the two football powers gives the ACC two more viable national championship football programs to package with FSU.
2005: Boston College comes aboard, giving the ACC 12 teams and the opportunity to split the conference into two divisions and host a title game.
2011: In an effort to get out in front of the curve, John Swofford continues to stabilize his league by adding two more Big East powers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, to the group. The ACC technically expanded to 14 before any other major power conference.
2012: Founding member Maryland becomes the first such ACC program to jump ship in the modern rounds of realignment. The Terrapins desired more league stability and a much bigger payday and got both with the decision to move to the Big Ten. To counter the loss of Maryland, Swofford moves quickly to find a replacement and settles on Louisville. To top it off, the ACC also adds the highly coveted Notre Dame brand to the conference in all sports except football.
2013: In a shrewd legal move by the conference, the ACC signs a "Grant of Rights" deal locking in ownership of media rights for all member institutions. This is a simple but effective way to keep teams from leaving the ACC in the short term. From now until the end of the GOR contract (2027), if a school leaves the league, the ACC will retain the media rights, effectively rendering the move to another league fairly pointless. Additionally, Syracuse and Pittsburgh make their debuts in the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports while Notre Dame begins ACC play in every sport except football.
2014: The Maryland Terrapins officially begin play in the B1G while Louisville officially begins play in the ACC. Notre Dame will begin playing five games a year against ACC foes on the gridiron.
ACC’s BCS Bowl Record: 5-13
ACC’s BCS National Championships: 2-2
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Things didn't go as planned in Dave Doeren's first season in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack didn't win a game in the ACC and lost four times to programs inside the state of North Carolina (Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and East Carolina). So why would a program that didn't win a game a year ago and essentially finished fifth in the state have so much optimism heading into 2014?
Doeren and his staff are entering their second season, ideally, giving this program much-needed stability from an established business culture standpoint. He has 12 returning starters and a former big-time SEC recruit under center in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Lastly, NC State also has a very manageable slate to navigate this fall.
2014 NC State Schedule Analysis
2014 NCST Schedule
Stack up wins early
For a team that didn’t win a game in ACC play and won just three times all year, NC State should be excited about the start of the 2014 season. Georgia Southern, Old Dominion and Presbyterian have to be wins and all will take place in the first four weeks of the year. The lone non-conference game that could provide some difficulty is South Florida on the road in Week 3. There is a good chance NC State starts the year with four straight wins and should that happen, a bowl game is well within reach.
Within the division, Florida State, Clemson and Louisville seem to be a cut above the rest. NC State will face all three — including both the Tigers and Cardinals on the road — over a four-week span from Sept. 27 to Oct. 18 with a home date with Boston College mixed in. Two wins in that span would be considered a huge success and a 1-3 mark is more likely. However, if things play out the way most expect, the Wolfpack could be sitting at five wins entering the final month of play.
Finish the year strong
It won’t be easy but NC State could enter November needing just one win to reach the postseason. And the schedule in the final month of the year sets up very well to provide that one (or more) much-needed victory to reach bowl eligibility. Road trips to Syracuse and North Carolina won’t be easy but aren’t overly taxing either while home games with Wake Forest and Georgia Tech could also be winnable. This is a very manageable final month that could shake things up in the Atlantic Division.
Related: 2014 NC State Wolfpack Team Preview
NC State is an intriguing team to track this preseason. Doeren is a respected coach and new quarterback Jacoby Brissett should be a major upgrade under center. The schedule is extremely manageable minus a few inevitable divisional battles with traditional powerhouses. If NC State can win the games it is supposed to and can steal a swing game or two (Boston College, Georgia Tech, for example), then the Wolfpack could produce not only a bowl team this fall but also perhaps a winning overall record.
Bret Bielema has draw a lot of attention during his short tenure at Arkansas.
After a winless first season in the SEC and various off-the-field headlines concerning pace of play and one particular head coach at Auburn, it's safe to say that the majority of this attention has not been positive.
But Bielema understands what he has gotten himself into. He understands the deep and treacherous waters of the toughest league in the nation. And to his credit, he is sticking with his game plan — the same one that won him three consecutive Big Ten championships at Wisconsin.
Arkansas should boast one of the best running games in the SEC, but that doesn't mean the Hogs will be able to move out of the SEC West cellar. This team should be improved in Bielema's second season, but will that translate into wins with one of the toughest schedules in the league this fall?
2014 Arkansas Schedule Analysis
2014 Arkansas Schedule
|2.||Sept. 6||Nicholls St|
The Razorbacks have the unenviable task of taking on the defending SEC champs on the road in the season opener. It would be a brutal game even if there wasn’t a budding rivalry between the two head coaches, so fans can be assured that Auburn’s Gus Malzahn won’t overlook the winless Hogs in Week 1. After a guaranteed win over Nicholls State in Week 2, the Hogs take to the road again to face pass-happy, up-tempo Texas Tech and Red Raider cult hero Kliff Kingsbury. Bielema will have to face two of the fastest offenses in the nation in the first three weeks and a 1-2 record is more than likely against the BCS runner-up and a former Southwest Conference rival.
Must-wins and home cooking
There aren’t many wins to be had on Arkansas' schedule so the must-win games carry even more importance for Bielema. Northern Illinois and UAB at home in Weeks 4 and 9 are obvious must-win situations and the Hogs should handle both with ease. In between, however, the Hogs will face Texas A&M in Arlington, Alabama in Fayetteville and Georgia in Little Rock. While not all of the games are true home games, Arkansas won’t play a true road game between Sept. 13 (Week 3) and Nov. 1 (Week 10). This gives the Razorbacks a chance to pull an upset and just one victory against either the Aggies or Bulldogs could create momentum for a team that failed to win an SEC game last year.
Divisional swing games
The Razorbacks played well at times a year ago despite losing all eight SEC contests. The Hogs fought valiantly against Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU. In 2014, there are three divisional swing games that could provide Arkansas with a much-needed boost of confidence heading into the offseason. Road trips to begin and end November at Mississippi State and Missouri respectively will be tough, but a win in either isn’t out of the question. Between those two road trips are hugely important home games within the division against Ole Miss and LSU. Both are winnable for Arkansas and a solid finish to the season with just one or two upsets could mean the difference between a forgettable season and one that features a bowl trip.
Arkansas was winless in the league last year for a reason. The Hogs weren’t very good. That said, this team lost the final three games of the season by a grand total of 21 points — against quality teams — and played well in other contests (Rutgers, Texas A&M). If the Razorbacks can develop some balance on offense, pull an upset or two at home in swing games (LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia) and snag a critical road win against lower-tiered SEC West teams (Mississippi State, Texas A&M) then there is an outside, albeit extremely outside, chance Bielema can get this team to a bowl game.
It's hard to believe that West Virginia is just two seasons removed from hanging 70 on Clemson in an Orange Bowl win.
But after an atrocious 4-8 record in 2013, the luster has clearly worn off of head coach Dana Holgorsen's resume in Morgantown. The deterioration of the program — most specifically the offense — has been alarmingly rapid and has led to major question marks about Holgorsen's future.
Needless to say, this is a critical year for Holgorsen and West Virginia. Does the schedule set up for a return to the postseason or does it appear Mountaineers fans will endure another brutal season on the gridiron?
2014 West Virginia Schedule Analysis
2014 WVU Schedule
Big, bad blue bloods
West Virginia picked the worst possible time to play a season opener against the SEC in the Georgia Dome. The first game of the year against Alabama was scheduled years ago but no one could have foreseen this type of mismatch. Bama enters the year No. 2 in the nation and the SEC front-runner while West Virginia is coming off its worst season since 2001. Then, three weeks later, the Mountaineers must face Big 12 front-runner Oklahoma in Morgantown. According to Athlon Sports' preseason rankings, West Virginia will face two of the projected four playoff teams in the first four weeks of the year.
Steve Slaton Bowl
With an easy win over Towson scheduled for Week 2, a huge non-conference game with Maryland looms large in Week 3. The Terps rolled over WVU last year 37-0, have changed leagues to the Big Ten and get the Mountaineers at home. This game should provide an example of just different the direction of both programs are heading. So with Alabama and Maryland both on the schedule, a 1-2 non-conference record might be the best case scenario for WVU.
Home swing games
If there are going to be some wins for the embattled Holgorsen in the Big 12, they are likely to come at home (See: Oklahoma State last season). Kansas, Baylor, TCU, Kansas State and the Sooners will all have to make the long and circuitous trip to Morgantown. West Virginia should win two of those contests with an outside shot at a third win from this quintet of games. The road slate is extremely tough and if the Mountaineers want to improve on last year’s 2-7 Big 12 record, they will have to get work done at home.
West Virginia won one game on the road last year (at TCU) and that came in overtime against one of the worst offenses in the league. A winless record on the road in 2014 could be very possible. Holgorsen has to face Maryland, Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State on the road — four of which beat the Mounties in Morgantown a year ago.
The overall direction of the West Virginia program is concerning. The 4-8 overall record was the worst win total since Rich Rodriguez won only three games in his first season back in 2001. Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be in place for the Mountaineers to post a dramatic turnaround. The non-conference schedule is extremely difficult and the road slate within the Big 12 is going to be brutal. One non-conference win, one or two home Big 12 wins and one road conference victory might be too much to expect and that would barely match last year’s four-win total.