Articles By Steven Lassan

Path: /college-football/ole-miss-or-lsu-which-team-finishes-higher-sec-west-2014
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The SEC West is the toughest division in college football. The tiers in the West seem to be clear, as Alabama and Auburn are the top-two teams, with LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State battling for the No. 3 spot. Arkansas is expected to be picked at the bottom by most in 2014. Of course, LSU has been the most reliable team out of that mix in recent years, and Les Miles has another elite recruiting haul on the way for 2014.

Even though the tiers seem to be clear, Alabama, Auburn and LSU each have some personnel losses to overcome in 2014. The Tigers are replacing a handful of players on both sides of the ball and finished spring with uncertainty at quarterback.

Considering the losses at the top of the division, the door is open for Ole Miss to challenge in the West. The Rebels return 13 starters in 2014, including standout sophomores in receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner.

Injuries played a key role in the Rebels’ 8-5 record last season, as quarterback Bo Wallace was never 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery. Additionally, defensive end C.J. Johnson missed nearly all of last year, and receiver Vince Sanders struggled to get on track after a collarbone injury in the preseason.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Athlon Sports' Top 25 countdown for 2014 is underway. LSU ranks as the No. 19 team, while Ole Miss checks in at No. 18.
 

Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s easy to pencil LSU among the top three in the West Division each preseason, but 2014 could be a different story. Yes, the Tigers have talent and are consistently in the mix for 10 wins. However, this LSU team seems to have more question marks than any in recent memory. The Tigers have uncertainty and inexperience at quarterback and receiver, while the defensive line and linebacking corps needs work. The Rebels aren’t without their own flaws, as Hugh Freeze’s team is thin on the offensive line, while quarterback Bo Wallace needs to take the next step. Despite Ole Miss’ question marks, I like the Rebels to finish ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings. In last year’s final tally, the Tigers were two games better in the division. Making predictions from year-to-year isn’t as simple as personnel losses, but LSU has to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, two 1,000-yard receivers, both starting defensive tackles and standout linebacker Lamin Barrow. The Tigers didn’t have a vintage defense last year, as they allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC games, just a shade better than the Rebels (5.8). Ole Miss returns 13 starters, and the depth in this program has improved significantly over the last two years. Assuming quarterback Bo Wallace has recovered from his shoulder injury and can stay healthy, the Rebels should make the jump from 3-5 in conference play to 5-3, which will be enough to inch ahead of LSU in the West.

Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
This is the season Ole Miss hopes to take a big step in the SEC West. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all have to replace their star quarterbacks from a year ago while Ole Miss returns third-year starter Bo Wallace. The Rebels also have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball and a good amount of experience returning on defense.

LSU has to replace several key offensive players, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Then there’s the defensive tackle duo of Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, both of whom left early for the NFL.

All of this points to Ole Miss finishing ahead of LSU in the SEC West for the first time since 2008. But I don’t think it will be that easy. Ole Miss will have to play at LSU on Oct. 25 along with road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M. Those won’t be easy. Nor will home games against Alabama and Auburn. In the end, I think both LSU and Ole Miss will finish with a 5-3 record in the SEC with LSU beating Ole Miss. Tiebreaker goes to LSU.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Neither of these two teams would be my pick to win the SEC West, but the race between the Rebels and Tigers might be the most interesting battle to watch in the division this fall. One program is surging with energy and excitement with a returning senior quarterback and loads of future NFL stars in key positions. And the other is LSU - a team with quarterback questions and holes to plug up the heart of the defense. That said, Les Miles and his Bayou Bengals are the established program with four straight seasons of at least 10 wins, two high-level coordinators and a decade of championship competition. That level of operation counts for something when the fourth quarter rolls around against top-flight competition. Hugh Freeze is the hotter name running a hungrier program, but Ole Miss will have to win in Baton Rouge to leap LSU in the standings and I don't see that happening... Yet.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Recent history says it’s not wise to bet against LSU, especially in favor of Ole Miss. Still, the two programs are at a crossroads of sorts. Ole Miss is on the way up while LSU looks like it might take rare off year, as in a year when it wins eight or nine games instead of 10. Ole Miss has the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, even if that quarterback, Bo Wallace, can be a little wild. The Rebels proved that their top-10 signing class in 2013 was more than just an “on paper” victory; The class is going to play a major role in turning Ole Miss. LSU, though, has too many questions, both at quarterback and in the middle of the defense (tackle, linebacker and safety). Ole Miss is knocking on the door of relevance in the West, signaled in part by a 27-24 win over LSU in Oxford. With frontline talent like Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell, the Rebels are ready to leapfrog LSU at least for this year.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
I'm a big believer in "past performance predicts future performance", especially when things remain constant. The constant for LSU has been Les Miles and over his nine years at LSU he has had seven double-digit win seasons, one nine win season and one eight win season. In other words, you can bank on LSU winning 10 games year in and year out and they have a basement of five conference wins.

Hugh Freeze and his Ole Miss Rebels are on the rise but in his first two seasons, the Rebels have been unable to rise above three conference wins.

It's certainly possible that LSU has a down year this year with all of it's changeover and Ole Miss breaks through but until that happens I'm putting my money on Les and LSU to finish higher in the SEC West than Ole Miss and Mr Freeze.

Mark Ross
Since the turn of the millennium, Ole Miss has finished ahead of LSU in the SEC West standings just once (2008). The two teams tied at 7-1 in 2003, but the TIgers beat the Rebels to earn the right to play in the SEC Championship Game that year. So it's not an understatement to say LSU has had Ole Miss' number these past 14 seasons, including a 10-4 mark head-to-head, but I am predicting this to change this fall. Perhaps I am putting too much stock into the buzz that's coming from Oxford, but it's clear that Hugh Freeze has the Rebels headed in the right direction, especially when it comes to recruiting. I believe this will be the first season when the fruits of the coaching staff's labor on the trail starts to pay off, especially since LSU looks ripe for the picking. Les Miles has seen 17 players leave early for the NFL over the past two seasons, and even though he continues to churn out top-10 recruiting classes, at some point this will catch up to his roster, especially in the SEC. The Tigers will be introducing five new starters on each side of the ball, none bigger than whomever ends up taking over for quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Meanwhile, the Rebels welcome back all-conference candidate Bo Wallace under center along with several explosive playmakers and a defense that returns nine starters. Ole Miss does have a tough schedule to navigate, including a trip to Baton Rouge and a home date with Auburn back-to-back, but LSU has to go to Gainesville to face a Florida team that can't wait for a chance to redeem itself following last season's disastrous showing. Both host Alabama and open the season with tough non-conference matchups (LSU vs. Wisconsin at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas; Ole Miss vs. Boise State at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), but what truly matters is what happens once October and November roll around. Even though LSU will have home-field advantage on Oct. 25, I like Wallace to lead a Rebel uprising over the Tigers in the SEC West this season.

Teaser:
Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/kansas-state-qb-daniel-sams-decides-transfer
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After finishing 2013 with wins in six out of its last seven games, Kansas State is expected to be a top-25 program in 2014. However, the Wildcats suffered a setback on offense this week, as GoPowercat.com has reported receiver Daniel Sams has decided to transfer.

Sams competed with Jake Waters for the starting quarterback spot last season and finished 2013 with 452 passing yards and four touchdowns last season, while rushing for 807 yards and 11 scores.

With Jake Waters entrenched as the starting quarterback, Sams was expected to move to receiver in 2014.

It’s uncertain if Sams will transfer to a FCS school and play immediately or sit out 2014 and return at a BCS program in 2015.

Losing Sams is a setback for the Wildcats, but the receiving corps still has options. Receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the best in the nation, and junior college recruit Andre Davis is expected to contribute immediately.

Sams’ departure could play a bigger role on Kansas State’s 2015 quarterback plans, as Waters is in the final year of his eligibility, and the backup situation heading into 2014 is uncertain.
 

Teaser:
Kansas State QB Daniel Sams Decides to Transfer
Post date: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/acc-decides-stick-eight-game-conference-schedule-format
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Conference scheduling is a hot topic in college football, and the ACC is the latest league to settle on a future format.

After the first day of its league meetings, the ACC announced it would stick with an eight-game conference format in the future. The league was considering shifting to a nine-game slate, which would have allowed the teams in the league to have another crossover game each season.

However, the ACC decided to stick with eight games, but there is a caveat to the future schedules. All 14 ACC teams must play an opponent from one of the other four power conferences or Notre Dame each season.

The scheduling announcement is similar to the SEC, which announced an eight-game format with one non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent.
 

Teaser:
ACC Decides to Stick With Eight-Game Conference Schedule Format
Post date: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 17:39
Path: /college-football/penn-state-football-how-many-games-will-nittany-lions-win-2014
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Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2014. The Nittany Lions are under the direction of new coach James Franklin, who comes to Happy Valley after three seasons at Vanderbilt.

Franklin guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games and won nine contests in back-to-back seasons. Vanderbilt is the toughest job in the SEC, but Franklin elevated the program and should be a great fit at Penn State.

Franklin and his staff inherit plenty of All-Big Ten talent, but there are question marks about this team’s depth and offensive line.

Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the best signal-callers in the Big Ten, and he will have plenty of support from a solid stable of running backs and a deep group of tight ends. Only one starter is back on the offensive line, and depth is a huge concern with freshmen expected to make a major contribution in 2014.

Penn State should be solid on defense with the return of six starters, including linebacker Mike Hull, defensive end Deion Barnes, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos.

Also working in the Nittany Lions’ favor is the schedule. Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014.

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Countdown for 2014 is underway. Penn State ranks as the No. 22 team for 2014.
 

How Many Games Will Penn State Win in 2014? Over/Under: 9.5

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
At first glance, winning 10 games in James Franklin’s first year seems a bit optimistic. However, take a closer look at Penn State’s schedule and it’s not out of the question to reach double-digit wins in 2014. And as evidenced by Franklin’s ability to get the most out of a roster during his three years at Vanderbilt, 10 wins suddenly looks more manageable. The Nittany Lions should be favored to win at least nine contests, with games against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State the toughest on the 2014 slate. Of course, games at Indiana or Illinois won’t be easy, but those two matchups are late in the year, allowing Penn State time to develop on the line. With the Spartans and Buckeyes coming to Happy Valley, I think the Nittany Lions find a way to win one of those games and finish with a 10-2 record in Franklin’s first season. With a lack of depth, an injury or two on the offensive line could be a huge setback in the win column. However, if Franklin keeps Hackenberg upright in the pocket, Penn State should be a top-25 team in 2014.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
Under. I think Penn State will be competitive in James Franklin’s first season, but I can’t see any scenario in which it reaches 10 wins. Ineligible for the Big Ten title game and a bowl game, the Nittany Lions need to go 10-2 in the regular season to hit the over. Bill O’Brien was lauded for his work in two years in State College – he won 2012 Big Ten Coach of the Year – and he won eight and seven games. If Franklin won 10 in Year 1, with both the talent the Nittany Lions lost from last season and the NCAA sanctions still affecting depth, they’d start designing a statue. Simply put, there are too many question marks facing this team, from the aforementioned depth issues, unproven wide receivers and the competitive East Division, to name a few. I see another season of seven or eight wins.

Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Penn State picking up ten wins is going to be a tall order in 2014, despite the momentum being created with James Franklin taking over as head coach of the program. Penn State has a tough division with both of last season’s Big Ten championship game participants (Ohio State and Michigan State) as well as  alight game at Michigan in Big Ten play. Things start off with a game in Ireland against defending American and Fiesta Bowl champions UCF, although the Knights figure to take a step back this season. The Nittany Lions should get off to a good start and see some great growth in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but at some point the lingering concerns about depth as a result of the sanction phase in the program could come in to play along the way. Penn State won seven games last year, which would mean needing to improve by three wins to cover. If I had to bank on a result right now, I think nine might be the ceiling for Penn State in 2014.

Mark Ross
Don't get me wrong, I love the James Franklin hire for Penn State and fully expect him to enjoy quite a bit of success leading the Nittany Lions. However, this is Franklin's first go-round in the Big Ten, and while the SEC may be the nation's toughest conference, that doesn't mean the B1G won't come with its own learning curve for Franklin and his staff. Franklin does have the luxury of an elite quarterback at his disposal in Christian Hackenberg, but the talented sophomore signal-caller will be without his top target this season, as All-Big Ten wide receiver Allen Robinson will be in an NFL training camp this summer, not in Happy Valley. In fact, the offense returns just three other starters besides Hackenberg, while the defense brings back just six. Bill O'Brien didn't leave the cupboard bare for Franklin, but this program is still dealing with the aftermath of the NCAA sanctions handed down as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, so depth is still an issue. The schedule is certainly manageable, but with Ohio State and Michigan State in the same division, there's very little margin for error when it comes reaching double-digit wins. The future of the program is in very good hands with Franklin, but I'll take the under on 10 victories in Year 1.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
That’s the under for me, easy. Picking the over means Penn State has to go 10-2 during the regular season. Penn State has won 10 regular season games three times since 1997. That’s three times without NCAA sanctions. James Franklin was a miracle worker at Vanderbilt, that’s downright impossible at Penn State. I know other people on this panel are going to point to Penn State’s easily navigated schedule, but we’re essentially counting on Penn State to beat Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State while being perfect the rest of the way. The Nittany Lions entered spring practice with two scholarship offensive tackles and lost a starting guard to injury. Christian Hackenberg may be a first-round talent, but that line is going to catch up with him at some point during the season. Even if Penn State expects the defense to rebound, the Nittany Lions don’t have the depth to put together a 10-win season, no matter the schedule.

Teaser:
Penn State Football: How Many Games Will the Nittany Lions Win in 2014?
Post date: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/baylor-or-oklahoma-who-wins-big-12-2014
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Baylor’s climb to the top of the Big 12 continued last season with an 11-2 final record and a conference championship. The Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF, but there’s clearly staying power with Art Briles at the controls in Waco. Baylor has a few holes to fill in 2014, but quarterback Bryce Petty is back after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.

In addition to Petty’s return, the Bears are loaded at the skill positions with talent, including running back Shock Linwood and receiver Antwan Goodley. The offensive line has question marks but getting left tackle Spencer Drango back to full strength after a back injury will be huge for the play in the trenches.

There’s no doubt Baylor’s recruiting and overall roster have improved in recent years. But with only eight returning starters, can the Bears hold off Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas for the top spot in the conference?

Oklahoma finished in a three-way tie for second last season and closed the year on a high note by beating Oklahoma State in Stillwater and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

After finishing 11-2 in 2013, Oklahoma is loaded for a run at the Big 12 title. The Sooners return 16 starters, including a rising star at quarterback. Bob Stoops’ team also has an edge in the schedule, as Baylor visits Norman in 2014.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although Baylor returns the Big 12’s top quarterback and is the defending conference champion, I like Oklahoma to win the league title in 2014. In what was essentially a rebuilding year in 2013, the Sooners went 11-2 and capped the season with a huge win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, we can’t read too much into bowl results, but Oklahoma is loaded for a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The defense returns nine starters, with the defensive line and linebacking corps poised to be among the best in the nation. Linebacker Eric Striker is a difference maker in the front seven, and cornerback Zack Sanchez is also poised for a big season after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013. Although Trevor Knight still has plenty to prove, and the receiving corps loses standout receiver Jalen Saunders, there’s reason to believe the offense will be improved in 2014. Knight’s performance against Alabama was impressive, but his output against Kansas State (253 total yards, two scores) shouldn’t be overlooked. Knight may have to carry the offense early in the season, especially as Oklahoma looks for a No. 1 running back. Bob Stoops isn’t hurting for options, including potential breakout stars in Keith Ford, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross. In addition to having few weaknesses on the depth chart, the Sooners’ schedule is very favorable. Oklahoma hosts Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State and doesn’t have a tough non-conference game. I still think Baylor is among the top 10-15 teams in the nation, but I would take the Sooners to win the Big 12 and finish among the top-five teams in college football at the end of 2014.

Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Baylor's rise to the top of the Big 12 may have caught most observers around the country off guard, but it didn't happen overnight. Art Briles has steadily built up his program by turning over rocks in Texas and finding speedy offensive playmakers to suit his version of basketball on grass. What set the 2013 team apart was its veteran defense, which was better than just "good for Baylor." Statistically, it was easily the best Briles has had, and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's aggressive philosophy complemented the uptempo O.

While the Bears have talented skill players in place to replace departed standouts such as Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, they don't have the same depth on D. Four of their top six tacklers for a year ago have departed, including tackling machine Eddie Lackey linebacker and stars of the secondary Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Despite having some studs up front, those losses are going to hurt.

On the other hand, the Sooners have the most complete team in the conference. The D is stout in the front seven, and Bob Stoops' staff has recruited well enough in the secondary to plug in promising youngsters at safety and cornerback make up for the departures of Gabe Lynn and Aaron Colvin. Offensively, the team's true Achilles' heel from '13, quarterback, now looks settled. OU did take some hits at receiver through graduation, although sensation junior Sterling Shepard should be able to carry that unit.

Most importantly, the schedule breaks decidedly in OU's favor. The Sooners catch Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home to go along with the annual trip to Dallas to face Texas. Meanwhile, in addition to going to Norman, Baylor also has a trip to Austin on deck. Even if the margin between the two squads proves to be thin, that gives OU the edge.

Mark Ross
Baylor is the defending Big 12 champion, has loads of offensive firepower returning and is enjoying the best stretch of sustained success in program history. However, I'm going to take Oklahoma to unseat the Bears this season, as the Sooners return 16 starters from a team that won 11 games in 2013, the last one a convincing victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Whether Big Game Bob is truly back remains to be seen, but Stoops should be in position to win a bunch of games this fall thanks to the emergence of dual-threat quarterback Trevor Knight and a loaded defense that finished top 20 nationally last season and welcomes back all but two starters. Baylor will score plenty of points once again with reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty back at quarterback and a bevy of athletic, dynamic and explosive pass-catchers, but the offensive line must replace three starters and, more importantly, the defense returns just four starters. Although recruiting has certainly picked up since Art Briles came to Waco, Baylor still falls behind Oklahoma in this department, which makes replacing five all-conference defenders a tougher task for the Bears. What's more, Baylor has to face both Texas and Oklahoma on the road, while the Sooners' toughest conference road game looks to be at TCU, not including the Red River Showdown date with the Longhorns in Dallas. Baylor demolished Oklahoma 41-12 last season in Waco on it way to its first outright conference crown since 1980, but I am picking the Sooners to reign supreme in the Big 12 in 2014.

Teaser:
Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/byu-unveils-alternate-home-uniforms-2014
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With a favorable schedule, 2014 could be a big season for BYU. The Cougars could go 10-2 or 11-1, which would place Bronco Mendenhall’s team in the discussion to be a top-25 team in 2014.

And BYU plans to change up its home uniforms for 2014, wearing four different variations, including royal blue, black and white.

Here’s a look at BYU’s home jerseys for 2014 (all images from BYUCougars.com):






 

Teaser:
BYU Unveils Alternate Home Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 16:28
Path: /college-football/who-leads-pac-12-passing-yards-2014
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The Pac-12 is always home to some of the nation’s top offenses, and the quarterback play in the league should be strong once again in 2014.

Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is one of the favorites to win the Heisman, and big things are expected of Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and UCLA’s Brett Hundley. Kelly finished with 3,635 yards last season, while Hundley threw for 3,071 yards on 248 completions.

The quarterback play in the Pac-12 is expected to get better this season, as USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau will only get better with more snaps. Also, Travis Wilson returns after missing a portion of last year due to injury, and he should benefit from the addition of coordinator Dave Christensen.

Arizona and Washington have unsettled quarterback situations, but it’s likely both teams will find an answer in the fall. Former USC quarterback Jesse Scroggins is considered a slight favorite for the Wildcats, while Cyler Miles – provided he is reinstated to the team – is likely the No. 1 quarterback in Seattle.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Who Leads the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Let’s keep in mind when answering this question that this isn’t the best overall quarterback in the conference. That spot is clearly reserved for Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. However, when it comes to leading the conference in passing yards, I suspect the answer to this question is outside of Eugene, Ore. Washington State’s Connor Halliday is my pick to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014. In 13 games last season, Halliday’s right arm got quite a workout, leading the nation with a whopping 714 attempts. He completed 449 of those throws for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns. Halliday needs to improve his interception total (22), but there’s no doubt the attempts and yards should be there for Washington native. And the senior should have plenty of help from the receiving corps, as Washington State’s group should be among the best in the Pac-12. And after learning for three years under coach Mike Leach, I suspect Halliday’s best is yet to come.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fantastic question because the best three quarterbacks in the league — Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly — aren't likely to even be in the mix. With pass-happy offenses and returning starters at Cal (Jared Goff), Washington State (Connor Halliday), Colorado (Sefo Liufau) and Oregon State (Sean Mannion), the race to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards should be an entertaining one to track all season. The favorites, however, have to been Halliday and Mannion after both topped 4,500 yards last season. So between the two, I can't pick against a Leach-coached QB, so I will go with Halliday. The Wazzu signal caller led the nation in pass attempts last year (714) and has a deep and talented receiving corps returning around him this fall. With some improved efficiency and another 700 pass attempts, Halliday could be the frontrunner to lead the nation in passing yards in 2014 and is my pick to top the Pac-12 charts.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I can’t go wrong with a Mike Leach quarterback, right? And a Leach quarterback who started last year at that. Connor Halliday has to be the odds-on favorite to lead the Pac-12 in passing. Halliday will have every opportunity to put up huge numbers. His 714 pass attempts last season were 55 more than anyone else last season and more than 100 more than anyone else in the Pac-12. But it’s more than just the fact that Leach has a returning starter at quarterback. Halliday will have nearly all of his receivers back. If there’s one concern it’s the departure of three starting offensive linemen. Now that Leach is three seasons in, I don’t think we can expect a repeat of 2012 when the line was revolving door, but a drop off from last season is certainly possible. That might be enough to open the door for Sean Mannion or Jared Goff, but I’m going to take Halliday on this one.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
Who better to lead the Pac-12 in passing yards in 2014 than the quarterback who did so in 2013? Certainly Oregon State's Sean Mannion is a safe pick, coming off a conference record-setting campaign of 4,662 yards.

If Oregon State head coach Mike Riley has his way, however, Mannion will not need to put up such astronomical numbers again. Mannion's production was partially a byproduct of the Beavers' inability to establish a consistent run game. A new offensive coordinator, Terron Ward and Storm Woods back healthy should take some of the burden off Mannion (not to mention the departure of Brandin Cooks).

Conversely, Washington State head coach Mike Leach is just fine with his quarterback throwing all around the field, just about all the time. For that reason, expect Connor Halliday to lead the Pac-12 in 2014. Halliday finally had the reins to himself exclusively in his third year in the program, and he finished just behind Mannion for the league lead with 4,597 yards passing. Were it not for the Cougars' collapse in the final minutes of the New Mexico Bowl, his six touchdowns that afternoon would have been the story.

Halliday has plenty of options with a deep receiving corps of Dom Williams, Gabe Marks, River Cracraft, Isiah Myers...and that's only scratching the surface. The pieces are all in place for Halliday to register some eye-popping numbers.


Mark Ross
The Pac-12 is welcoming back six quarterbacks who threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and a seventh that just missed. The conference has become very offensive, in a good way, and there's little doubt the pigskin will be flying out West this fall. But when it comes to picking a clubhouse leader, I'll bypass the Heisman Trophy candidates (Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley) as well as the Pac-12's leading returning passer (Sean Mannion), a dual-threat Sun Devil (Todd Kelly) and two other Golden State signal-callers (Cody Kessler, Jared Goff). Instead, let's head to Pullman, Wash., where one Connor Halliday serves as the trigger-man for the Washington State offense. While he may not be as heralded as Mariota or Hundley as accomplished as Mannion or hyped as Kessler, Halliday does have the luxury of playing in head coach Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense (emphasis on "Air"). Halliday attempted 714 passes last season, the most of any quarterback in the country. He threw for 4,597 yards, which ranked him just behind Derek Carr and Mannion, and there's no reason to expect anything different this season. All of Halliday's primary targets return and considering Wazzu's defense finished 102nd in the nation in yards allowed, let's just say it's not likely Leach will be looking to control the clock by running the football. In fact, don't be surprised if Halliday posts one of the "quietest" 4,500-plus-yard seasons in college football history.

Teaser:
Who Leads the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/auburns-defense-or-alabamas-quarterback-play-which-bigger-concern-2014
Body:

The SEC West is the toughest division in college football, with the Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn taking center stage once again in 2014.

Auburn experienced a quick turnaround in Gus Malzahn’s first year, finishing 12-2 and losing to Florida State in the national championship. The Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide in their regular season finale on a memorable last-second returned missed field goal for a touchdown.

Alabama continues to set the bar high in the West, winning 11 games last year and reeling in another elite recruiting class.

With both teams expected to be picked high in most preseason top 25 polls, the November Iron Bowl could decide the SEC West champion once again.

However, both teams have significant question marks to address before late November, as Alabama’s quarterback situation and Auburn’s defense are the top concerns in the SEC West at the conclusion of spring practice.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Alabama’s QB Play or Auburn’s Defense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although there may be a transition period at quarterback for Alabama, I have less concerns about the Crimson Tide offense than I do Auburn’s defense. Jacob Coker should be a good fit in Tuscaloosa, and he has plenty of help from one of the top receiving corps in the nation and a deep stable of running backs. The Tigers return six starters on defense, and another offseason under coordinator Ellis Johnson should help this unit show progression on the stat sheet. But in conference games last year, Auburn allowed 6.4 yards per play and gave up 45 plays of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC in 14 games. This unit has reason to expect improvement, especially with a talented line returning in 2014. End Carl Lawson and tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams could all be in contention for All-SEC honors, but the secondary must replace three key players, including cornerback Chris Davis. There’s no question Alabama will be in big trouble if Coker or Blake Sims fails to provide adequate quarterback play. However, the Crimson Tide can mask some of their quarterback issues with a strong defense and rushing attack. Although Auburn can outscore most of the teams in the nation, I don’t think it can win the SEC West again without improvement on that side of the ball. Both of these parts are a concern, but I have bigger issues with the Tigers’ defense in 2014.


Mark Ross
Although I do think Alabama will miss the underrated AJ McCarron, especially once conference play heats up, the Crimson Tide have enough talented skill position players to ease Jacob Coker's transition into the starting lineup. Plus the defense should be more than capable of picking up the slack, if necessary. On the other hand, there's Auburn's defense, which ranked 86th in FBS last season in yards allowed and 100th against the pass. Yes, the Tigers are the defending SEC champions and were 79 seconds away from winning the national title, but this is a team that was on the receiving end of numerous lucky bounces last season (see: Georgia game, Iron Bowl) and out-gained conference foes by less than 19 yards per game. So while the offense was churning out more than 500 yards per game, the defense was giving up more than 420. This defense also lost two of its best players in first-team All-SEC end Dee Ford and second-team cornerback Chris Davis. With no Ford rushing (10.5 sacks) the quarterback and Davis not patrolling the secondary (or able to run back a missed field goal to put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game), I'm leery of any marked improvement from a defense that returns just six starters. So while quarterback play may be a question mark for Alabama entering this season, the Crimson Tide have a well-rounded supporting cast that should provide plenty of answers. As good as Auburn's offense was last season, it took a tipped, last-second Hail Mary and one of the most improbable endings in college football history to bail out a rather generous defense. If the status quo holds for these two units, I think it's too much to expect a repeat this fall of what transpired in 2013.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This is an easy one, right? It’s the Auburn defense. The Tigers, to their credit, did most of their defensive work last season when it counted. Auburn led the SEC in third down defense and finished third in touchdown rate in the red zone. The Tigers were fourth in sacks per game and fifth in tackles per game. Yet at the same time, Auburn was 10th in yards per pass and yards per carry. To me, that means the departure of Dee Ford and three other key contributors from the defensive line will be missed even more than anyone would anticipate. Alabama adds a potential two-year starting quarterback in Jacob Coker, who challenged Jameis Winston for the starting job at Florida State. It’s unreasonable to expect Coker to come close to what Winston did last season, but with Alabama’s skill position talent on offense, Coker doesn’t need to be Heisman-caliber. Coker will at worst be a caretaker of the offense in Tuscaloosa. I'm not sure Auburn has a similar solution on defense. In 2014, Auburn will have a much tougher time replacing Ford than Alabama will have replacing AJ McCarron.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Auburn's defense finished the year 12th in the SEC in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. In year one of the Ellis Johnson era, they weren't great but generally they made plays when they had to (and in some cases they got bailed out by miracles). This year, they should be better although they will have to find a replacement for star Dee Ford. Gus Malzahn's offense will also be able to hide some of the deficiencies of Johnson's defense.

For Alabama, a change in quarterback is not something that has happened often in the Nick Saban era. In fact, in Saban's eight years he's only had three starters (John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron). Now they must replace a four-year starter and do so with a wildcard offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin. Like Auburn's offense, Bama's defense will cover a lot of faults of their offense but at some point during the year Alabama's QB (be it Jacob Coker or Blake Sims) is going to have to step up and make game winning plays. When you combine that with the question mark of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, I have to say that Alabama's quarterback play is more of a concern heading into the 2014 season than Auburn's defense.

Teaser:
Auburn's Defense or Alabama's Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/who-leads-big-ten-rushing-2014
Body:

The Big Ten produced seven 1,000-yard rushers last season, headlined by Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah with 1,690 yards on 281 attempts. Abdullah was joined in the 1,000-yard club by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and James White, Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford and Minnesota’s David Cobb.

Hyde and White expired their eligibility, but the race to be the Big Ten’s leading rusher should be a tight battle once again in 2014.

Abdullah is the default favorite after leading the league in rushing last season, but Gordon and Langford are expected to improve on their totals in 2014.

Gordon shared time with White last season, but the Badgers are expected to give Gordon more carries this year with White expiring his eligibility. Corey Clement should pickup some of White’s workload after averaging 8.2 yards per carry last year. However, Gordon could increase his attempts to 275-300 as the Badgers look to lean on a solid rushing attack and one of the nation’s best offensive lines.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This seems like a two-man battle between Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Both players should be All-American selections for 2014 and two of the top running backs in the nation. But with that being said, I like Gordon to edge Abdullah in the final rushing tally of the season. Gordon finished second in the Big Ten last year, recording 1,609 yards to Abdullah’s 1,690. Gordon has room for his total to increase, as he had 75 less carries than Abdullah in 2013. Also, Gordon produced more big plays last season, recording nine carries over 30 yards, six over 40 yards and four over 50. All of those numbers were better than Abdullah, and Gordon should add to those totals with more carries in 2014. Corey Clement is a capable No. 2 in Wisconsin, but Gordon should approach 275 carries, which will allow the junior to make a push for 2,000 rushing yards in 2014.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
I love Indiana’s Tevin Coleman this season, but it’s hard to go that bold when last year’s leading rushers, Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon, return. So, to answer the question, I’ll take Gordon, the guy who finished 81 yards behind Abdullah for the 2013 lead. Gordon is the ideal mix of speed and power, and he’s a back who absolutely shreds average defenses – to be fair, at 7.8 yards per carry, he was pretty strong against all comers. Whatever the case, Gordon doesn’t face Michigan State, the Big Ten’s expected top defense, or Ohio State, an annual run-stuffer, while he does draw Illinois and Purdue, units that finished outside the top 100 against the rush. Another reason to like Gordon: James White is out of the picture, which should yield more opportunities. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Despite the loss of Carlos Hyde and James White, the Big Ten is still loaded with elite ball-carriers. The Spartans Jeremy Langford plays for the defending champs and was arguably the most important back in conference play a year ago. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is the most physically talented player at his position in the league. Northwestern welcomes back do-everything dynamo Venric Mark after he missed all of last year. And Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah actually led the league in rushing a year ago and is back in Lincoln. Needless to say, the Big Ten is stacked at the position entering a critical first season in the playoff. But with one of the nation's top offensive lines returning and no James White to steal 200 carries, I have to go with the Badgers Melvin Gordon. He is the most explosive back in the league and has the best supporting cast returning up front. He proved he can score from anywhere on the field at anytime by averaging nearly eight yards per carry (209 att.). Now, he is now the true featured back in an always run-heavy UW offense.

Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
If there is one thing we know about Wisconsin, it is the Badgers are going to thrive running the football. That will absolutely be the case once again in 2014 with Melvin Gordon leading the way on the ground. Gordon led the Badgers with 1,609 rushing yards and paired that with 12 touchdowns in a dynamic duo with James White. With White gone, the bulk of the carries will be put in Gordon’s hands behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The carries will be there for Gordon, as will the protection. The schedule certainly helps as well, after facing LSU in the season opener at least. Five of Wisconsin’s new division opponents finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten in rushing defense in 2013.

Mark Ross
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, third and first in the Big Ten in rushing last season respectively, certainly have to be considered the frontrunners to repeat their success in 2013. However, I'm going to go a slightly different direction and say Northwestern's Venric Mark will top them both. To start with, Mark rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012 when he was considered one of the conference's top playmakers. Injuries limited him to just three games last year because of injury, but he is reported to be back to health and should resume his role as the Wildcats' top ball-carrier. Additionally, all five starting offensive linemen return from a unit that paved the way for 172.4 rushing yards per game and Tervor Siemian, a more traditional drop-back passer, replaces dual-threat Kain Colter as the starting quarterback. When Mark ran for 1,366 yards two seasons ago, he did so on 226 carries (17.4 per game) while Colter had 169 rushing attempts. Combine those two factors with a schedule that includes porous rushing defenses like Purdue, Illinois, California and Northern Illinois and, perhaps more importantly, does not include Michigan State or Ohio State, and I like Mark's chances of putting together a big senior season. Provided he stays healthy and gets at least 20 carries a game, I think Mark could leave his on the Big Ten and lead the league, which does not lack for quality running backs, in rushing.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This may be crazy, considering Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah led the league in rushing last year and Wisconsin backs are pretty much a sure thing. I’m going to pick Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford. He finished last season as consistent a runner as any back in the country, rushing for at least 100 yards in the final eight games before the Rose Bowl (he rushed for 84 against Stanford). He also topped 20 carries in every game since Oct. 12. As much as Abdullah will be productive, he’s going to be under more pressure this season than last when he had a Big Ten-high 21.6 carries per game. Langford was right behind at 20.9, but I like quarterback Connor Cook and a deep group of backup running backs to keep Langford fresh and the offense more varied. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is probably the favorite since he topped 1,609 yards last season with James White in his backfield, but Corey Clement will be a worthy No. 2 to the Badgers’ top tailback.

Teaser:
Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/byu-football-how-many-games-will-cougars-win-2014
Body:

BYU returns 14 starters from last year’s 8-5 team, and with a favorable schedule, the Cougars could be poised to win 10 games for the first time since 2011.

Quarterback Taysom Hill had a standout debut as BYU’s starter, throwing for 2,938 yards and 19 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,344 yards and 10 scores. Hill has to find new receivers with the departure of Cody Hoffman, Skyler Ridley and JD Falslev, but UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie and junior college recruits Nick Kurtz and Devon Blackmon should provide an easy transition in the passing game.

Running back Jamaal Williams is an underrated player nationally after rushing for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

While the offense should have no trouble scoring in 2014, BYU’s defense is a concern with the departure of linebacker Kyle Van Noy.

BYU played a challenging schedule in 2013, but the 2014 slate is manageable. The Cougars could be favored to win 10 games this year and will be a darkhorse to play in one of college football’s top bowl matchups if they could finish 11-1.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

How Many Games Will BYU Win in 2014?: Over/Under 9.5

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I’ll take the under and say BYU finishes 9-3. The schedule is very manageable for coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team, as the Cougars could be favored in 10 contests. Games at Texas and Boise State appear to be the toughest on the slate, but Utah State is one of the top teams in the Mountain West, while the season finale at an improving California team will be tough. There’s a lot to like about this team, starting on offense with the one-two punch of quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. Hill will have to adapt to a new set of receivers, but UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie and junior college recruits Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz should provide an instant fix. The defense returns six starters, and this unit received help at linebacker with the return of Zac Stout. However, Kyle Van Noy was one of the nation’s top defenders and replacing his production won’t be easy. Although the schedule says to take the over and pick BYU to finish with 10 wins, I think the Cougars stumble on a game we don’t expect, perhaps at California or at UConn in the opener. Even if BYU finishes 9-3, I think this team has a good shot at finishing among the top 25-30 in the final Associated Press poll.

Mark Ross
BYU is always an interesting case study because of the schedule flexibility its independent status allows, and this season is no different. The Cougars will face at least one team from six different conferences, including one each from the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Bronco Mendenhall's teams have won fairly consistently and this year's team certainly brings some offensive firepower to the table in dynamic, dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams. The defense has to replace standout linebacker Kyle Van Noy, but from my perspective the Cougars have enough talent and experience on both sides of the ball to win a fair amount of games. In fact, there are only four matchups — at Texas, Utah State, at UCF and at Boise State —  on their slate that look troublesome to me. These four games will not be easy, especially the road trips to Austin and Boise, but I have enough confidence in Mendenhall and the duo of Hill/Williams to say that the Cougars will find a way to claw out at least one win from this group. I'm just not so sure about coming up with two, which is why I'll take the under. But it's close and I wouldn't be shocked if BYU got to double-digits by the end of November.

Teaser:
BYU Football: How Many Games Will the Cougars Win in 2014?
Post date: Monday, May 5, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/who-sleeper-team-watch-acc-2014
Body:

There are few certainties in the ACC this season. Florida State is expected to be selected by every preseason poll as the top team in the conference, with Clemson expected to be a clear No. 2 in the Atlantic. Louisville isn’t far behind the Tigers and could be a top-25 team this year.

In the Coastal, it’s a wide-open battle for the No. 1 spot. The top six teams in the division are close, and a 5-3 record may be enough to play in the conference championship.

Considering the uncertainty in the Coastal, along with the teams in the Atlantic outside of Florida State and Clemson, it seems the ACC is ripe for a surprise team to contend for a spot in the conference championship game.

With a favorable schedule, a solid rushing attack and a potential All-American in receiver Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh is an interesting team to watch this season. The Panthers have the schedule to be a factor in the Coastal, especially if Chad Voytik settles into the starting role at quarterback.

In the Atlantic, Syracuse is a team worth monitoring in terms of sleeper status. The Orange finished 7-6 in Scott Shafer’s first season and return quarterback Terrel Hunt and a solid group of skill players.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Which Team is a Sleeper to Watch in the ACC in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I like Pittsburgh as a sleeper team to watch in 2014. The favorite in the Coastal Division is really anyone’s guess, and the Panthers have one of the league’s best crossover schedules. Pittsburgh doesn’t play Florida State, Clemson or Louisville from the Atlantic and hosts Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke in key games against its Coastal foes. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is impossible to replace, but Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render should form a solid duo on the interior. Second-year coordinator Matt House needs to replace two starters in the secondary as well, but there’s enough talent returning for this unit to ensure a huge drop-off won’t happen. While the defense has a few question marks, I think the offense could have a breakout year. Chad Voytik is a promising quarterback, the Panthers have two solid running backs in James Conner and Isaac Bennett, while receiver Tyler Boyd is already among the nation’s best. The offensive line has been a weakness in recent years, but this unit returns four starters and appears ready to turn a corner in 2014. With a tight Coastal race expected, very little will separate the top six teams in the division. And with a favorable schedule, Pittsburgh is a darkhorse team to watch in the Coastal title picture.

Mark Ennis, (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
This is going to sound ridiculous, given the way that last season went for them, but I have a feeling that one team worth watching that folks might not be talking about as much is NC State. Dave Doeren didn't forget how to coach or be innovative last year. He just took over a roster that didn't completely fit what he likes to do and, frankly, he didn't have a healthy quarterback. With Jacoby Brissett in the fold now, Doeren will get to unleash his unique version of a power spread offense and will lead the Wolfpack to a significant bounce back in 2014. The schedule doesn't hurt either. Non-conference games against Georgia State, Old Dominion, South Florida, and Presbyterian should guarantee a 4-0 start. They won't beat Florida State or Clemson, but they'll be 4-2 with games against Boston College, Syracuse, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina. It's not unthinkable that they win 3-4 of those games to get to 7-5 or 8-4.

Mark Ross
Even though the Pittsburgh Panthers lost the ACC Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) and will have a new quarterback under center this fall, I think there's a chance this team could surprise in the Coastal Division. Head coach Paul Chryst will hand the reins of the offense over to sophomore Chad Voytik, who looked pretty impressive after taking over for an injured Tom Savage in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green. Voytik has wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who broke Larry Fitzgerald's freshman receiving records last season, to throw to and should get support from a ground game and offensive line that gained valuable experience in 2013. The defense will clearly miss Donald, but returns 21 players who saw significant action last season and should be led by a relatively deep linebacking corps. Another reason I like Pitt is its schedule. Outside of hosting Iowa, the non-conference slate is easy and the Panthers will host Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in divisional play. Crossover games are against Syracuse and at Boston College, so depending on how Pitt handles late road trips to Chapel Hill, N.C., and Miami, I think there's a chance for Chryst's team to post as many as nine wins and finish above .500 in the ACC. Considering how crowded the Coastal is expected to be with Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina and Miami jockeying for the top spots, don't be surprised if Pitt forces its way into the discussion too.

Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
I'm going to wimp out with this one and pick Louisville as my "sleeper" ACC team for 2014. I know, I know, I'm picking a team that has won 23 games in the last two seasons, including two bowl victories. Not exactly a gutsy pick, right? But with Charlie Strong off to Texas, Teddy Bridgewater off to the land of NFL Draft speculation and the Cardinals off to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it would be awfully easy to write off U of L this coming season.

Still, there is a lot to love about Louisville for 2014. Bobby Petrino's back in the fold to replace Strong, and Will Gardner seems groomed to replace Bridgewater (at least on paper). Plus, add in wide out DeVante Parker, an NFL-caliber player, and the Cardinals could be lighting up scoreboards like they did during Petrino's first go around in The Blue Grass State. The other side of the ball will likely be a different story, especially without Strong's guiding hand and a change of defensive schemes. But there is plenty of talent to be competitive in the Atlantic Division -- which, outside of Florida State, isn't exactly a Murder's Row (especially with Clemson looking to replace both Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd). Louisville could be off the national radar for a bit this coming season, but that probably won't be the case for long.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Technically, anyone not named Florida State has to be considered a "sleeper" in the ACC since the Seminoles are vastly superior to every other team and will be the prohibitive favorite to run away with the league. And since pretty much everyone in the Coastal is a contender, I will go further off the board with the Pitt Panthers. I have long been a believer in Paul Chryst and his ability to produce an effective offense dating back to his days in Madison. He now has his guy under center (Chad Voytik), returns four offensive line starters and has a developing superstar on the outside to work around (Tyler Boyd). Top off an emerging roster with a schedule that doesn't include Florida State, Clemson or Louisville in crossover play and Pitt could sneak into the Coastal Division mix as a true sleeper in the ACC this fall.

Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
Hopefully I’m not stealing a future topic with a bold prediction, but I think Duke will surprise and, while I’m not guaranteeing a Coastal title defense, they should be in contention once again.

When I first considered the question, I was trying to find a team that would make a dramatic jump in their win total. I had serious trouble finding an ACC squad that I thought will significantly improve in that department, but I think Duke staying near the top of the Coastal counts as a surprise. Simply because they are Duke, people will sleep on them heading into 2014.

The Blue Devil offense returns several key pieces, including starting quarterback Anthony Boone — seemingly a rarity in the ACC this year — as well as star receiver Jamison Crowder, tight end Braxton Deaver, who will be one of the league’s best, and running back Josh Snead, last year’s leading rusher. Also, the three top tacklers from 2013 — linebacker David Helton, safety Jeremy Cash and linebacker Kelby Brown — all return, and the trio combined for 368 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and four recovered fumbles.

As long as I justified why I can call the defending Coastal Champs a sleeper, put me down for David Cutcliffe’s squad as the one people will sleep on heading into 2014.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The ACC won’t be fun to watch. I’m going to start with that. Florida State may win its share of blow outs. Clemson is in a rebuilding year. Virginia Tech is ambling along. Louisville might be interesting in its first year in the league. Other than that, every team is just fighting for anything it can get. I suppose if any team could do what Duke did last year and emerge from obscurity to claim the Coastal Division title, it’s Pittsburgh. No one will pay too much attention to the Panthers without Aaron Donald, especially if Tom Savage ends up as a high draft pick. But there’s enough here to go 5-3 in the division, which, sadly, could be enough to win the Coastal. I like Chad Voytik as a quarterback, and he’ll have plenty of tools to succeed with a star receiver in Tyler Boyd, four starting offensive linemen returning and two capable running backs. Pitt’s defense will take a step back without Donald, but the Panthers face Boston College and Syracuse (rather than FSU, Clemson or Louisville) from the Atlantic. The defense might be able to hold on enough to make a run at the division.

John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
If we're going away from teams that everyone's picking to be at or near the top of their respective divisions (Florida State, Clemson, Duke, Miami, North Carolina), then the answer's pretty clear to me: the Syracuse Orange. Yes, total homer pick. But at the same time, why not SU? The Orange return four of five starters on the offensive line. They bring back Terrel Hunt, a very experienced group of receivers and outside of Jerome Smith, their entire running game. The secondary may be addition by subtraction, and the front seven has more depth than last year. Plus, look at that schedule. Four of their five toughest opponents -- Florida State, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville -- are at "home" (they count MetLife as a home game). Three of their four non-conference matchups look very winnable. No, Syracuse is not going to win the Atlantic. But don't be surprised if the Orange make even more noise than last year, and find themselves somewhere around 8-4 (5-3) at the end of the regular season.

Teaser:
Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the ACC in 2014?
Post date: Friday, May 2, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/steve-sarkisian-or-chris-petersen-who-has-better-first-season-pac-12
Body:

The Pac-12 had a quiet offseason in the coaching carousel, as Washington and USC were the only head coach jobs to open.

After five years and a 34-29 record in Seattle, Steve Sarkisian was hired at USC. Sarkisian never coached a team that won more than eight games in the regular season at Washington, but the Huskies made considerable improvement under his watch. Washington was 0-12 under Tyrone Willingham in 2008 and went 5-7 in Sarkisian’s first year. The Huskies were never able to push Oregon or Stanford for the North Division title but four straight bowl games was a good rebound after a sluggish tenure under Willingham.

Petersen replaced Sarkisian at Washington after a 92-12 stint at Boise State. Replicating that record in the Pac-12 will be a challenge, but all signs suggest Petersen is up to the task. Under Petersen’s direction, the Broncos won 10 games in seven consecutive seasons from 2006-12.

Both of the Pac-12’s first-year coaches seem to be setup for immediate success. Washington and USC can be a factor in their respective divisions, and both have to be considered legitimate conference title contenders.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Chris Petersen or Steve Sarkisian: Which New Coach Has a Better Season in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This is a tough one. I think USC and Washington will both be in the mix for nine (and maybe more) wins in 2014, so there’s not much separating these two teams. I’m tempted to take Washington since I think the Huskies have a good shot at finishing ahead of Oregon or Stanford this year. However, even though I like Washington’s chances to surprise, I’m going to take Sarkisian. USC returns 14 starters, including eight on a defense that ranked second in the Pac-12 in points allowed. The Trojans also have an edge over the Huskies at quarterback and running back, although I think Cyler Miles is going to be a solid signal-caller in Seattle. USC’s schedule isn’t particularly friendly, as road trips to Stanford, Arizona, and UCLA will be tough. Washington should go 4-0 in non-conference play, and with home matchups against Stanford and UCLA, Petersen’s team will have a chance to make some noise in 2014. As I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Huskies finish ahead of Oregon or Stanford in the North. However, if UCLA is the favorite in the South, then USC isn’t too far behind. I’ll take the Trojans – but I’m also very intrigued about this year’s Washington squad.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
USC has a higher ceiling than Washington in 2014. However, Washington has a much wider margin for error.

When the NCAA first levied sanctions against USC, 2014 was the most obvious season to pinpoint as the program's rock-bottom. Two 10-win seasons and recruiting classes consistently heavy on talent, even if they were light on numbers, kept the ship steady. The situation Sarkisian inherits is not nearly as dire as it could have been, but the roster is at its thinnest.

The Trojans will walk a tightrope all season. Just a few injuries can derail USC from its goals.

Chris Petersen faces more question marks in his starting lineup than Sarkisian, particularly on the offensive end. Replacing Keith Price, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Bishop Sankey is a tall order. However, Petersen starts with the foundation of an experienced offensive line and deep, talented defense. That suits Petersen.

His Boise State teams were often built from stellar offense lines and stout defenses. Filling the skill position roles isn't as urgent. And while the candidates may not match Price, Sankey and Seferian-Jenkins, Sarkisian left a stocked cupboard.

With a collectively clean bill of health and the right breaks, Sarkisian finishes with a better record than Petersen. But such good fortune is rare in college football. For that reason, I like Petersen in 2014.

Of course, since the Huskies play one more game--the result of a Hawaii road trip--the two teams could conceivably finish with the same record in the loss column, but USC with the better win percentage.
 

Mark Ross
Both teams should enjoy a fair amount of success under their new leadership, but I am really looking forward to seeing what Chris Petersen can do at Washington. His track record (92-12) during his eight seasons at Boise State speaks for itself and all eyes will be on him as he makes the move to a major conference. Petersen has plenty of talent to work with, as Steve Sarkisian did a fine job restocking the Huskies' roster and rebuilding a program that hit rock bottom under Tyrone Willingham. I think UW's defense is going to surprise some people and as long as Petersen can settle on a quarterback and develop some sort of running game, the Huskies should win plenty of games. In fact, while USC is probably considered the closest challenger to frontrunner UCLA in the Pac-12 South Division, I am expecting Washington to serve the same role to Oregon in the North. Considering this division also includes two-time defending league champion Stanford, I would think that result would count as a pretty successful first season in Seattle for Petersen. And I know it's something Huskies fans will gladly take.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Due to the incestuous coaching implications, watching both USC and Washington compete this fall should be fascinating. The two won't play unless they meet in the Pac-12 title game — which isn't THAT out of the question — so "better" likely has to be defined by where each finishes within their division and shouldn't necessarily be based solely on win-loss record. First, the Huskies play 13 games and don't have one difficult non-conference game. Meanwhile, USC plays 12 games and includes three non-conference games against bowl teams Notre Dame, Fresno State and Boston College. So unless Washington finishes ahead of either Stanford or Oregon in the North, Coach Sark and the Men of Troy get my vote for "better first season" — even if UW has more wins. Look for USC to compete for a division title and for Washington to hold firm to third place in the North. The slight edge goes to USC.

Teaser:
Steve Sarkisian or Chris Petersen: Who has a Better First Season in the Pac-12?
Post date: Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/tennessee-or-vanderbilt-which-team-finishes-higher-sec-east-2014
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The SEC East isn’t as strong as the West in 2014, but this division features plenty of depth. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri are considered the preseason favorites for the East title, but Florida should be improved with the addition of Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator and a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback.

While the top four teams in the East seem to be clear, it’s the next group of teams that isn’t easy to sort out. Kentucky is improving but will likely be picked No. 7 in the East by most in 2014. Vanderbilt finished two games ahead of Tennessee in the East last year, but the Volunteers are expected to improve in Butch Jones’ second season on Rocky Top.

Vanderbilt lost coach James Franklin to Penn State in January but hired highly regarded defensive coordinator Derek Mason from Stanford to lead this team in 2014. Mason has a tough assignment ahead in 2014, as the Commodores return only eight starters and have a question mark at quarterback. LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is expected to start the season opener against Temple, and the receiving corps is a concern with the departure of Jordan Matthews.

Tennessee showed progress in Jones’ first year, knocking off South Carolina and nearly defeating Georgia. But showing significant improvement in the win column will be tough with revamped offensive and defensive lines.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Tennessee or Vanderbilt: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC East in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
This one should be close, but I will go with Tennessee. Both teams have significant question marks, and Vanderbilt is going through a coaching change after a successful three-year stint under James Franklin. The Volunteers have an edge in talent, but this team has not won more than seven games since 2007. Can Butch Jones turn some of that top talent into victories? Time will tell, but the results in 2013 were a positive sign, especially as Tennessee beat South Carolina and lost to Georgia by three points. The Volunteers have several personnel concerns in 2014, starting at quarterback and on both lines of scrimmage. The offensive line is a huge issue, but if this unit meshes in the fall, there’s plenty of talent at running back and wide receiver for this offense to succeed. Much like its in-state rival, Vanderbilt has a question mark at quarterback, but LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is expected to win the job in the fall. The Commodores need to develop more receiving options at receiver, as well as transition to a 3-4 scheme on defense. On the positive side, Vanderbilt returns a solid offensive line, and running back Jerron Seymour could be in for an All-SEC season. The schedule favors the Commodores with a home game against Tennessee and crossover matchups against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, as opposed to Alabama and Ole Miss for the Volunteers. Derek Mason has a tough assignment following Franklin after back-to-back nine-win seasons. But Vanderbilt’s program is in good shape and should be in the mix for a bowl. However, Tennessee finds a way to just edge the Commodores in the standings in 2014.



Mark Ross
If you had asked me this about a month or so ago, I would probably have said Tennessee since the Volunteers have the luxury of coaching stability and a distinct recruiting advantage over its in-state rival. However, even with James Franklin leaving for Penn State, I am slowly warming up to new Commodores head coach Derek Mason and how he has gone about remaking the program to fit his mindset and philosophies. Besides, Vanderbilt has clearly gotten the better of Tennessee in recent seasons and I'm also a believer in momentum. While mighty mo may be starting to swing in Butch Jones' favor, as his success on the recruiting trail this year attests, I think the Vols have too many holes to fill on a team that won just five games last season. The offensive line will be completely new as a wealth of NFL-caliber talent has departed and Jones still is trying to figure out his quarterback situation. The linebackers should be pretty solid, but the rest of the defense is full of question marks for UT. 

Vanderbilt's not exactly settled at quarterback either and has to find a way to attempt to replace the production of All-SEC wide receiver Jordan Matthews, but I think there's enough experience and talent returning elsewhere to, at minimum, keep the Commodores' bowl streak alive. Then there's the schedule. Tennessee has to play Oklahoma in Norman and opens the season with difficult home games against Utah State and Arkansas State. Meanwhile Vanderbilt's non-conference slate consists of four home games against Temple and three teams that are relatively new to the FBS ranks — Charleston Southern, Old Dominion and UMass. I know the question is which team will finish higher than the SEC East, but I think the non-conference slate is certainly a factor in determining this. Both Vandy and UT will play Ole Miss in crossover action with the 'Dores also facing Mississippi State on the road and the Vols welcoming Alabama to Knoxville. Which team would you rather face? Mason's team also has the benefit of hosting South Carolina and Florida, while Jones' bunch will have to travel to Columbia to play the Gamecocks as well as Athens and Nashville. The Vandy-UT game could decide which team will finish higher in the SEC East standings and even though Franklin won't be around, I still like Mason's chances to extend the Commodores' winning streak over the Volunteers to three and maintain in-state bragging rights for at least one more season.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Vanderbilt fans don’t want to hear this, and Tennessee fans wish this had happened sooner: Eventually, balance will be restored in the SEC, and Tennessee will be better than Vanderbilt. This isn’t an indictment on Derek Mason any more than it’s a ringing endorsement of Butch Jones, but Vanderbilt just isn’t going to be a nine-win team on an annual basis at the same time Tennessee is missing bowl games. That said, I don’t think it will happen this year. Vanderbilt is set up to succeed in 2014 with a solid defense and all the tools for a run-first offense with two quality tailbacks and a veteran offensive line. In other words, exactly what Stanford was doing with Mason as a coordinator. Tennessee, meanwhile, has to replace an entire starting offensive line and find answers on a not-ready-for-the-SEC defensive front. That’s not a good recipe for the Volunteers. Yet Jones has shown an ability to install a system, and at Tennessee, he’ll be doing so with standout recruiting classes. That’s going to even out, just not in 2014.

Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
Tennessee faces another brutal SEC schedule. Look at the Vols’ first five league games: at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama and at South Carolina. Tennessee should be an underdog in all five of those games as the Vols are working to replace all of their starters on the offensive and defensive lines.

But Vanderbilt has its own challenges. The Commodores have to replace key players like Jordan Matthews, Wesley Johnson and Kenny Ladler while adjusting to a new coaching staff. Vanderbilt will have to play at Mississippi State late in the season, which won’t be an easy road trip in between games against Florida and Tennessee.

It’s going to be a long year for both Tennessee and Vanderbilt. I think this will come down to their head-to-head matchup in the regular season finale on Nov. 29. I’ll take Tennessee to win that game in Nashville, helping the Vols finish ahead of Vanderbilt in the SEC East for the first time in four years.

Teaser:
Tennessee or Vanderbilt: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC East in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/notre-dame-football-how-many-games-will-fighting-irish-win-2014
Body:

Notre Dame has found stability and plenty of success under Brian Kelly, winning 37 games over the last four years and making an appearance in the BCS national championship after the 2012 season.

The Fighting Irish navigated conference realignment without many changes in its long-term outlook, but the program joined the ACC as a partial member and will play four opponents from that league in 2014. But beginning in 2015, the ACC and Notre Dame will play five conference games a year.

Although joining the ACC as a partial member doesn’t change a ton for its football outlook, Notre Dame has an improved bowl situation with a potential bid in the Orange Bowl at the end of this season.

But as college football’s postseason format is changing, so is the personnel in South Behind. The Fighting Irish return only nine starters for 2014 but regain the services of quarterback Everett Golson.

Notre Dame’s schedule isn’t particularly overwhelming, but Brian Kelly’s team has a lot of transition in the lineup and must play 10 bowl teams from 2013.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

How Many Games Will the Fighting Irish Win in 2014?: Over/Under on 9.5

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I will take the under and say Notre Dame wins nine games in 2014. The Fighting Irish weren’t able to repeat their success from 2012 last season, largely due to quarterback Everett Golson’s suspension. Golson is back in 2014 to lead the offense, and once he knocks off the rust, he could be one of college football’s top 10-15 quarterbacks. And Golson has no shortage of skill players at his disposal, as the backfield has three players that rushed for at least 200 yards last year, while redshirt freshman Greg Bryant is ready to contribute. Provided DaVaris Daniels returns to the team as expected, Notre Dame also has a good group of receivers for Golson, and the offensive line is solid with three starters back. My biggest concern for the Fighting Irish is a defense that returns only five starters and must replace end Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Louis Nix. Despite the concerns on defense, there are enough winnable games on the schedule to get to 10 victories. I’m giving Notre Dame losses against Florida State and USC and there’s another likely to come against Stanford or Arizona State. But if the new pieces and coordinator mesh on defense, swing games against the Cardinal and Sun Devils suddenly become more manageable. I like the under, but this one will be right on the edge.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The state of the Irish program in is great shape despite the heavy departures along both lines of scrimmage over the last two seasons. Brian Kelly has recruited extremely well, more than a few young stars should step into bigger roles and the quarterback situation — be it Everett Golson or Malik Zaire — should be a major upgrade. But can the 2014 Notre Dame squad return to playoff contention — i.e., 10 or more wins? It's really difficult to say yes to 10 wins with the nasty slate the Irish must face this fall. A three-game round robin with Pac-12 powers Stanford, USC and Arizona State — with the latter two coming on the road — already makes 10 wins a tall order but add in a road trip to Florida State and it's darn near impossible. This speaks nothing of must-win battles against Michigan, North Carolina, Louisville and Northwestern as well. There is no doubt this Notre Dame squad should be improved from a year ago, and, certainly will be more fun to watch, but getting to 10 regular season wins seems like a reach. Even for Brian Kelly.

Mark Ross
I'll take the under, but barely. Notre Dame lost quite a bit of experience and talent, especially along both the offensive and defensive lines, from last year's team which went 9-4. However, head coach Brian Kelly has done a good job keeping the cupboard pretty well stocked, and the Fighting Irish offense should get a huge boost from the return of 2012 starting quarterback Everett Golson. Remember Golson was the signal-caller for the team that went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Golson and company won't go 12-0 again, not with road games at defending national champion Florida State and historic rival USC on the slate. However, outside of these two tough tests, the only other really difficult matchups I see is an Oct. 4 home date with Stanford and a Nov. 8 trip out to Tempe to face Arizona State. The Irish should be able to handle the ACC-centric (FSU, Louisville, North Carolina and Syracuse) aspect of their schedule with just the one loss, and the rest of the schedule is made up of the likes of Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern, Rice and Navy. There's nary a preseason Top 25 team in that group. In fact, Notre Dame plays just three true road games (at FSU, Arizona State and USC) all season with neutral site matchups against Syracuse (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford N.J.) and Navy (FedEx Field in Landover, Md.). Even with a schedule that gets tougher as the season develops, I think Kelly's team will find a way to match last season's win total before any bowl bids or playoff berths are decided.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Double-digit wins is a pretty high bar for a team with only nine returning starters and some pretty major departures. Give Notre Dame credit for winning nine games despite losing quarterback Everett Golson for the season in 2013. His return will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the season, but remember who Golson was in 2012. He was a solid quarterback on an undefeated team. He completed 57 percent of his passes against nine winning teams on his schedule that year with six touchdowns and five interceptions. And on defense, Notre Dame is regrouping without Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. That’s not easy. Certainly, Notre Dame is capable of defeating every opponent on its schedule, save for perhaps Florida State. But it’s tough to expect Notre Dame to win three of its four swing games against Michigan, Stanford, Arizona State and USC while staying perfect for the rest of the season.

Teaser:
Notre Dame Football: How Many Games Will the Fighting Irish Win in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/sec-makes-right-decision-eight-game-conference-schedule-remains
Body:

The future of scheduling in the SEC has been a hot topic in recent weeks, as the conference attempted to settle whether or not to stay with an eight-game conference slate each year.

And after much debate among coaches, presidents and athletic directors, the decision is official: The SEC will play eight conference games.

However, there is a slight twist to the schedule announcement. SEC teams have to play at least one team from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12 every year. That requirement isn’t a huge switch for the SEC, as 13 teams fulfilled that obligation last year.

A switch to nine conference games had merit, especially as the SEC needed valuable inventory to fill its new network. However, nine conference games would hurt the bottom of the league and potentially had an impact on how many SEC teams made the playoff.

Although eight conference games doesn’t match the Pac-12, Big 12 or Big Ten’s scheduling philosophy, the SEC is widely considered the No. 1 conference in college football and additional schedule strength isn’t necessarily needed. However, the new playoff format is a wildcard and could force the SEC’s hand to switch to nine games in the future.

For now, the eight-game format is the right decision for the SEC. Until there’s more data on how the playoff teams are selected, the SEC doesn’t need to pile up additional losses on its resume, which could hurt its teams at the end of the year. Also, switching to nine games would have hurt the bowl prospects of the bottom of the league.

Permanent non-division opponents were also maintained in the announcement, but that’s something that should be revisited at a future date. Does the SEC really need Kentucky-Mississippi State or Texas A&M-South Carolina every year?

A better solution to the permanent non-division opponent structure is to protect the rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee or Auburn-Georgia and remove the others to allow teams to play opponents more often.

Nine conference games may eventually happen in the SEC. However, for now, the conference made the right decision to stick with eight league games every year.


 

Teaser:
SEC Makes the Right Decision: Eight-Game Conference Schedule Remains
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/duke-qb-brandon-connette-transfers-fresno-state
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Fresno State has announced Duke quarterback Brandon Connette will transfer to the Bulldogs for the 2014 season. Connette is a graduate transfer and is eligible immediately.

Connette’s mother is battling cancer, and the senior quarterback wanted to transfer to Fresno State to be closer to her.

Connette threw for 1,212 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 337 yards and 14 scores last season with the Blue Devils.

With Derek Carr departing Fresno State, Connette will have a chance to win the starting job this fall.

Connette will compete with Brian Burrell and Zack Greenlee this fall for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and could be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West if he wins the job.

Teaser:
Duke QB Brandon Connette Transfers to Fresno State
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 07:55
Path: /college-football/nebraska-or-iowa-which-team-finishes-higher-big-tens-west-division-2014
Body:

The Big Ten’s new 14-team and East/West Division alignment should provide for an intriguing 2014 season.

The East Division is loaded with likely top-10 teams in Ohio State and Michigan, followed by Penn State and Michigan – two of college football’s top programs. The depth in the East extends to the bottom tier of the division, as Maryland and Indiana could be bowl teams in 2014.

The West Division isn’t loaded with elite teams, but Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska each have a strong case to be ranked in the preseason top 25.

The Badgers lose a good chunk of talent, including several key members on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. But even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin could be the favorite to win the West.

If the Badgers are the No. 1 pick in the division, then it’s a close call between Nebraska and Iowa for the No. 2 spots. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s six seasons, while the Hawkeyes improved to 8-5 last year after a 4-8 mark in 2012.

Iowa has a favorable schedule in 2014, but Nebraska might have an edge in talent, especially with the return of standout running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Iowa or Nebraska: Which Team Finishes Higher in the West Division in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think these two teams are going to be almost identical in the win column this year, likely right around eight or nine victories. But I give a slight edge to Iowa over Nebraska, largely due to the Hawkeyes’ favorable schedule. Iowa returns 12 starters from last year’s 8-5 squad, which pounded the Cornhuskers 38-17 in Lincoln. Quarterback Jake Rudock was solid in his first year as the starter, and he should improve in 2014 after being pushed by C.J. Beathard in spring practice. The Hawkeyes are deep at running back and have one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines. More big-play threats need to emerge at receiver, but there are options for Rudock. As usual, Iowa’s defense should be solid. The biggest concern on that side of the ball will be replacing three starting linebackers, including second-team All-Big Ten selection James Morris. The Hawkeyes usually quickly reload at this position, so there’s optimism the defense won’t have much of a drop in production at linebacker. I think Nebraska’s offense will improve as Tommy Armstrong has more time to develop at quarterback, but the Cornhuskers have to play at Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Iowa hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks in late November and catches Indiana and Maryland in crossover play with the East Division. These two teams are fairly even, but the schedule favors Iowa. The margin between the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers is small and another 5-3 tie in Big Ten play wouldn’t be a surprise. However, considering Iowa hosts Nebraska late in the season, I like the Hawkeyes to finish ahead of Bo Pelini’s team in 2014.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
On paper, Nebraska is the better team. But, as they say, the game isn’t played on paper; more importantly, Iowa has the far easier schedule of the two teams. While the Hawkeyes lost a lot of talent, including their decorated linebacking trio, and don’t boast the star power Nebraska does, it’s impossible not to like this Big Ten draw: at Purdue; vs. Indiana; at Maryland; vs. Northwestern; at Minnesota; at Illinois; vs. Wisconsin; vs. Nebraska. Looking at that, it’s very possible Iowa brings a 6-0 Big Ten clip into the final two weeks, the final week being a home game vs. the Huskers. Nebraska doesn’t just travel to Iowa City, either, as it also visits reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State - which the Hawkeyes don’t play - and Wisconsin. Advantage, Iowa.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a facinating debate that we won't know the answer to until the final weekend of the year. That's when Nebraska visits Iowa the day after Thanksgiving. And in all likelihood, that game will decide second place in the Big Ten West. Nebraska returns a deeper roster with more talent across the board, but Iowa has an easier schedule — the Huskers get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa on the road while the Hawkeyes get Indiana and Maryland in crossover and host both Wisconsin and Nebraska in divisional play. Both coaching staffs are difficult to trust and Iowa traditionally struggles when much is expected of it. It's splitting hairs and both teams should be in that 7-9-win range but, splitting hairs, I will take Bo Pelini and the Huskers to finish higher because they are a lock to win nine games (and lose exactly four) every single season.

Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big Ten as they start to look to 2014.

Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football leading up to the 2014 season.
iTunes | Podcast Archive
 

Mark Ross
For all of the criticism and scrutiny that's directed at Bo Pelini, he should at least get credit for what he has done at Nebraska - win at least nine games every year. If you want to make the case that he should have won more, fine, but that's not relevant for this exercise. As far as 2014 goes, if you are asking me to pick between Nebraska and Iowa, I'll take the Cornhuskers. The Pelini implosion factor aside, players keep showing up in Lincoln to play for him and again, the results speak for themselves. On the field, Nebraska entered the post-Taylor Martinez era at quarterback early because of injuries to the dual-threat signal-caller last season and the offense appears to be in pretty good shape with Tommy Armstrong running the show. All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah should be one of the most productive ball-carriers in the conference again, if not all of FBS, and Armstrong also has an all-conference target in wide receiver Kenny Bell. The defense returns a fair amount of talent and experience as well and let's not forget that side of the ball is Pelini's calling card. As far as Iowa goes, the Hawkeyes had a nice bounce-back season in 2013, but they will be without a lot of key pieces from the team that went 8-5. Two honorable mention All-Big Ten offensive linemen and one of the conference's top tight ends are gone. The defense was hit ever harder by graduation, as head coach Kirk Ferentz must replace all three standout linebackers and two starting defensive backs, all of whom earned all-conference honors last season. That's a lot of talent and experience gone from a team that consistently trails behind Nebraska in the recruiting rankings. Don't get me wrong, I think Iowa is a solid team, but I like Nebraska a little bit more in 2014. After all a "typical" season for the Cornhuskers under Pelini is nine wins. Iowa hasn't won that many in a season since 2008.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Nebraska is far more predictable than Iowa, so it would make sense to take the Cornhuskers. Nebraska overcame injuries at quarterback and all the questions surrounding Bo Pelini to win nine games last season. That should bode well, but I wonder if this is the year Nebraska takes a step back. With its schedule, Iowa would be in position to pounce in the standings. The Hawkeyes get Nebraska at home and miss Ohio State, Penn State and the Michigan schools in crossover games. Beyond the schedule, Iowa has a lot of things working in its favor: A returning starting quarterback (Jake Rudock), healthy running backs for a change, an All-America-caliber tackle and a mostly intact defense. Iowa has to replace all three starting linebackers, but that’s a spot where the Hawkeyes usually have success. Of course, the Hawkeyes haven’t always thrived when they’re the team to watch. Will that be the case again in 2014?

Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Iowa is going to surprise some people this season. The running game was healthy last year and looks to be in good shape again after this spring. Put that typical brand of Iowa football in front of a favorable schedule and it would not be a surprise at all to see Iowa make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game. The schedule is clearly in favor of Iowa over Nebraska in the new division line-up. Iowa does not have to play any of the top programs from the East (Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State) and they also get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to wrap up the regular season. There is barely a challenge ahead of them before that that should see Iowa as an underdog. Nebraska, on the other hand, must play at Michigan State and Wisconsin before the regular season finale at Iowa. This feels like advantage, Iowa.

Teaser:
Nebraska or Iowa: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Big Ten's West Division in 2014?
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/should-sec-stay-eight-conference-games-or-expand-nine
Body:

Future schedules are a hot topic in the SEC. With the creation of college football’s four-team playoff postseason format, most BCS teams have beefed up the non-conference schedule in order to improve the resume.

While improved non-conference scheduling seems to be directly tied to the new playoff format, that’s not the only discussion involving scheduling in most conferences.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 already play nine conference games, and the Big Ten is set to expand to nine league contests in 2016.

The ACC is considering a switch from eight games in the future, and the SEC is in discussions its schedules for upcoming seasons.

As college football’s No. 1 conference, is it worth it for the SEC to expand to nine league contests every year?

With the creation of the SEC Network, more inventory for television is needed. However, could a tougher schedule hurt the SEC when the playoff teams are announced?

To help answer this question, Athlon Sports has enlisted two editors to discuss the SEC schedule. Braden Gall breaks down why the SEC should expand to nine conference games, while Steven Lassan makes the case for staying at eight games.

The SEC Needs to Expand to Nine Conference Games:

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Don’t listen to my esteemed and respected colleague Steven Lassan. There is no rational, financial or strategic reason why the SEC should play eight conference games. There are only coaches acting in the interest of self-preservation. They've voted against nine-game SEC schedules because they want to go to bowl games and keep their jobs. That’s it. Otherwise, there is no other rational argument that can be made against a nine-game slate.

First, always follow the money. The money is really all that matters in this situation. Mike Slive and the SEC could play — and subsequently sell — 57 total SEC games to its TV partners. Or it can produce and sell 64 games to its TV partners. Which one do you think the TV partners are going to vote for? And when it comes time to renegotiate the deal? Slive and the SEC are in an even better position to drive the broadcasting price higher. The desire for more SEC football is only getting stronger and adding a game to the schedule enhances the conference’s situation financially.

That’s not all, however, as there's more than one money angle. A home SEC game is worth in excess of $10 million in revenue to the local economy. A fifth home SEC game for half of the league would be a huge coup to local businesses and the community in general. Additionally, the sport as a whole has seen its attendance numbers stagnate and even decline. The best way to curtail that trend is to put a better product on the field. Texas A&M and South Carolina is obviously a bigger draw than a game between the Citadel and South Carolina.

Lastly, and most importantly for the fans, is strength of schedule. From a strategic standpoint, strength of schedule is going to play a larger and larger role in determining playoff spots — no matter how big the College Football Playoff bracket gets. Every other major league plays nine conference games and adding a marquee SEC win to your favorite team’s resume will give it a much better shot at landing in the playoffs. Nick Saban knows this is the direction college football, the SEC and the selection committee is heading and he is simply the first one to jump on board the moving train. He’s not scared of anyone, not from the SEC or any other league. And as the college basketball selection committee has shown in recent years, the strength of one’s schedule is paramount to evaluation process. A ninth quality conference game and likely 10th opponent from another “Big 5” league will almost be a necessity rather than an obstacle.

To top it all off, I am a selfish college football fan and I want to see more good games and no more of these garbage, sacrificial showdowns between college football’s greatest teams and rosters that don’t belong anywhere near an SEC campus. Top that, Lasso.

The SEC Should Stay at Eight Conference Games:

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I can’t deny that Braden makes a lot of good points in his writeup. And I’m probably fighting an uphill battle here since it seems inevitable that the conference will go to nine games.

However, is it possible there is too much of a good thing here?

The SEC is the SEC, and as long as elite talent on the recruiting trail continues to flow into the conference, this league will always be No. 1 nationally. However, adding a ninth game could eat into the bottom of the league, and there's no need to make the path to a conference championship more difficult.

If I am Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State, I do not want a ninth conference game. If a ninth conference game is added, could it widen the gap between the top and bottom of the league? Also, I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so I do not want to see rivalries like Auburn-Georgia and Tennessee-Alabama move away from their annual format. Sure, new ones will be created, but the SEC thrives on its old rivalries between crossover division rivals. 

Eliminating a non-conference game (likely a guaranteed win) would put a huge dent in the bowl hopes of the bottom of the league. Sure, you can argue there are too many bowl games, but let’s also not forget the postseason has expanded because bowls benefit television networks in December/January. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games and nine teams were eligible for the postseason last year. The Big 12 had six bowl-eligible teams and failed to fill two of their spots (Pinstripe, Texas). Heading into 2014, the SEC has at least 11 bowl tie-ins. I’m not defending the bowl system, but do we really want a postseason where 5-7 or 4-8 teams are reaching the postseason? I didn’t think so.

While the playoff has encouraged tougher scheduling, are we really sure that is going to last? I could be wrong, but the beefy non-conference schedules programs are touting may be a short-term gain of the playoff. In 10-15 years, it could go back to a weak non-conference schedule, especially as teams get a better grasp of how the committee will handle the rankings.

If the SEC expands to nine conference games, one would think a two-loss team from this league would still have a good shot at being ranked among the top four teams in the final committee poll. However, we can’t say for sure. What if the league ends up with a handful of two loss teams every year in the top 10? Would a one-loss team from the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 rank ahead of the SEC? This is all hypothetical, but the SEC already has enough strength to stand on its own with eight conference games. Not to mention, check out the list of non-conference opponents SEC teams played during the 2013 regular season: Florida State, Miami, Washington State, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Clemson, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas, North Carolina and Oregon.

If I were in charge of the SEC tomorrow, I’d encourage my teams to schedule one marquee non-conference game (similar to the opponents above) and try to use only FBS opponents for all of the out of league matchups.

If something works, even if it may not be perfect, why change it? In this case, the SEC already has the No. 1 ranking among conferences, schedules plenty of good non-conference games and would seem to have the inside track on getting at least two teams in the playoff every year. Perhaps one way of improving the SEC schedule is to eliminate some of the crossover games every year (South Carolina-Texas A&M, Mississippi State-Kentucky) to allow teams to play every other program in the league more often.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the lure of nine conference games. But the SEC doesn’t need nine conference games to improve its national standing. As the No. 1 conference in college football, the SEC can afford to sit back and see how the new playoff works before changing its scheduling principles.

Teaser:
Should the SEC Stay at Eight Conference Games or Expand to Nine?
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/ucla-usc-or-arizona-state-who-wins-pac-12-south-2014
Body:

With six teams expected to be ranked in the preseason polls, the Pac-12 should provide plenty of must-see games during 2014.

On paper, the South Division appears to be a three-team race between Arizona State, UCLA and USC. Arizona is slightly behind the top three teams, but if Rich Rodriguez can find a few answers on offense, the Wildcats will be a sleeper team. Utah and Colorado will likely be picked in the bottom two spots in predictions. However, both teams are capable of pulling an upset or two in 2014. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Buffaloes and Utes both found a way to get bowl eligible.

UCLA played for the conference title from the South Division in 2011-12, while Arizona State claimed the title last season. The South is 0-3 in Pac-12 Championship appearances, but the Bruins, Sun Devils and Trojans are all capable of ending that streak in 2014.

It’s tough to pinpoint a favorite, as all three teams have plenty of concerns and strengths going into the season.

UCLA continues to trend upward under coach Jim Mora, while USC finished 10-4 under an interim coach. Arizona State is the defending South Division champs, but the Sun Devils must replace most of their core on defense.

Arizona State, UCLA or USC: Which Team Wins the Pac-12 South?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
While I think Arizona State is a top 15-20 team nationally, I would choose between USC and UCLA for the top spot in the South Division this year. And it’s a close call between the crosstown rivals, but I give a slight nod to the Bruins. UCLA coach Jim Mora has the Bruins on the rise, winning 19 games over the last two years, which is the most for the program since Bob Toledo won 20 games from 1997-98. Sure, there are some personnel losses to overcome, but quarterback Brett Hundley should continue to develop as a passer after an offseason to work under coordinator Noel Mazzone, and the Bruins have a plethora of talented skill players. The offensive line will miss guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, but Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, along with the development of several young players should help this unit progress in 2014. Despite the departure of linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr and defensive end Cassius Marsh, new coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has no shortage of talent to mold. The Bruins could have the top secondary, linebacking corps and defensive line in the conference – and three top-20 recruiting classes certainly helps to improve the overall talent of the roster. The schedule isn’t easy, but UCLA hosts USC, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona. Road tests at Washington and Arizona State will be tough, but a 7-2 mark would probably be enough to win the division. There’s no question the Pac-12 is one of college football’s toughest conferences, and USC’s improvement under Steve Sarkisian will add another element to the South Division. However, not only does UCLA have all of the pieces to win the South, there’s more than enough talent here to win the Pac-12 in 2014.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
UCLA is the Pac-12 South favorite--and really, it's not close. Each South contender has its glaring concerns heading into the season: USC is talented but the depth issues brought on by NCAA sanctions reach their peak in 2014. Arizona State is completely overhauling its defense. Arizona is left replacing a two-time All-America running back, its starting quarterback and still has strides to make defensively.

But UCLA is no favorite-by-default. The South has plenty of good teams; UCLA is a great team. Jim Mora's first two seasons at the helm were building to 2014. He's working with the most veteran starting lineup in the conference. Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return for his redshirt junior season should pay dividends, as he has the Pac-12's deepest and most diverse wide receiving corps.

The indecisiveness that sometimes vexed him in the pocket last season should be improved with an offseason of work, but he will also be playing behind a considerably more experienced offensive line.

Mora and his staff loaded up on defensive talent in each of their three recruiting classes. Obviously Myles Jack was a revelation as a freshman, and Zach Whitley can have similar impact this season. If Whitley can make a similar transition to the college game as Jack, UCLA will again have one of the better linebackers corps in the nation, with Eric Kendricks as its anchor. The secondary was young last year and should be improved in 2014. Ishmael Adams was coming along nicely at season's end in 2013 and could be on the cusp of a star turn.

The sky's the limit for the Bruins if they can put it all together. Nevermind a divisional title, UCLA just may be the favorite to win the whole conference.
 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
UCLA has been building to a breakthrough season for several years, and 2014 might be the one where the Bruins start to join the Pac-12 elite. Last season was UCLA’s first 10-win season and first top-20 finish since 2005. Don’t forget that a year ago UCLA had the unfortunate schedule that included back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon. I doubt UCLA could have defeated either of them anywhere, but imagine if UCLA had an easier draw from the Pac-12 North. The Bruins get both this season at home and a road trip to Washington. That’s not easy, but UCLA should be ready for the challenge. With three consecutive top-20 signing classes and the return of Brett Hundley, UCLA will rival USC as the top roster in the South. There’s a lot to like here with young talent, not least of which Myles Jack, the linebacker/running back combo. Four offensive linemen return among 15 total returning starters from a team that beat USC by 21 last season and only lost to division champ Arizona State by five.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fascinating debate that has many different angles making it virtually impossible to decide. The best starting 22 goes to USC, but the Trojans have the smallest margin for error with little depth on the sanctioned roster. The best starting quarterback goes to UCLA, but the Bruins will play the toughest schedule of the three. And the best head coach of the bunch is in Tempe, but Todd Graham has the most to replace. All three schedules are nasty as the Pac-12 could be the best league in the nation and all three teams will play each other — one at home and one on the road. Both USC and Arizona State miss Oregon in crossover play while the Bruins welcome the Ducks to town on Oct. 11 (as well as Stanford, USC and Arizona). All three will likely have to play on the road in the Pac-12 Championship game considering how difficult the division slate could be in the South. Arizona State might have the most question marks but it has the best combination of coaching, quarterback play, scheduling and depth chart. In a three way tie, Arizona State gets the nod because it will get two weeks to prepare for a potential division championship game on Thursday, Sept. 25 against the Bruins.

Mark Ross
Arizona State is the defending division champions, but I think the Sun Devils will have a hard time replacing some key pieces, most notably two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton. I think it will come down to the two Los Angeles schools and while I feel that USC is in position to make some noise in Steve Sarkisian's first year at the helm, I'll give the edge to its crosstown rivals this season. Jim Mora has clearly put his stamp on this program in just two seasons, going 19-8 overall and 12-6 in conference play. This year's team could take the next step with quarterback Brett Hundley, a potential Heisman Trophy contender, running the offense and stud linebacker Myles Jack wreaking havoc on the other side of the ball, as well as making an impact as a running back. UCLA has some holes of its own to fill, but it has the edge over USC and Arizona State when it comes to quarterback and returning starters. The Bruins have to go to Tempe to play the Sun Devils and Seattle to face Washington, but they get to host the Trojans, as well as Oregon and Stanford. The schedule's not easy, but the pieces seem to be in piece for Mora to lead UCLA to a pretty special season.

Teaser:
UCLA, USC or Arizona State: Who Wins the Pac-12 South in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/duke-or-north-carolina-which-team-finishes-higher-coastal-2014
Body:

The ACC Coastal should be one of the toughest divisions to predict in 2014. After all, Duke won the league with a 6-2 conference record last season and three teams finished tied at 5-3 just behind the Blue Devils.

Considering how close the top six teams in the division are, another 5-3 record might be enough to finish second and 6-2 will probably win the division.

Duke and North Carolina are both in the discussion for the Coastal Division title in 2014, but both teams will be pushed by Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.

The Tar Heels finished two games behind the Blue Devils last year and barely lost to Duke 27-25 in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale. Larry Fedora’s team is expected to take another step forward in the win column in 2014, especially with an offense that should be among the best in the ACC. North Carolina’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but home games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech will help in a tight division battle.

David Cutcliffe has raised the bar at Duke, guiding the Blue Devils to the most wins in school history last year. And even with a few concerns about the defense, Cutcliffe should have Duke back in the discussion for the Coastal Division title.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Duke or North Carolina: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Coastal in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I don’t expect much separation in the win column among the top six teams in the Coastal this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if North Carolina and Duke tied with a 5-3 or 4-4 conference record. However, even with little room to maneuver in the win column, I think the Tar Heels will finish ahead of the Blue Devils. North Carolina finished last season on a tear, averaging 40.6 points per game (slightly skewed by the 80 points scored on ODU) over its final seven contests. Most of the offense returns intact, as coach Larry Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s deepest collection of skill players, and quarterback Marquise Williams is a contender for All-ACC honors. The biggest concern is a line that loses standout tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. And it’s a good thing North Carolina should have one of the best offenses in the ACC, as the defense is still searching for the right pieces. However, improvement should be noticeable on that side of the ball in 2014. Duke won’t take a huge step back in the standings, but this team is a good candidate to regress after being outgained by 73.4 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Also, the Blue Devils no longer have Brandon Connette to help with short-yardage and goal-line situations, the defensive line must be rebuilt, and standout cornerback Ross Cockrell has expired his eligibility. Duke also has four potential swing games on the road, including a crossover date against Syracuse and a Sept. 27 matchup at Miami. North Carolina and Duke should both go bowling in 2014, but I’ll take the Tar Heels to finish ahead in the standings.

Mark Ross
I realize the Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal Division champions and I am not expecting David Cutcliffe's team to take a gigantic step backwards this season. However, I also think it's perfectly fair to say that Duke got quite a few breaks to go its way last season. After all, this is a team that while it won 10 games, it was out-gained by more than 73 yards per contest in ACC play. The blowout loss to Florida State in the conference championship game has a lot to do with this deficit, if you will, but Duke beat Virginia Tech on the road by three points in a game in which the Blue Devils didn't convert a single third down and threw four interceptions. What's more, most of the starting defensive line and all-conference cornerback Ross Cockrell are gone, leaving some pretty big holes to fill. Cutcliffe's team doesn't have a particularly (ahem) devilish schedule to contend with this season, but I don't expect him to orchestrate anything that closely resembles a repeat of 2013's success either.

To that point, North Carolina was a late defensive stop away from ruining Duke's title chances last fall. The Tar Heels fell to the Blue Devils 27-25 in Chapel Hill, a victory that put Duke in the ACC Championship Game. But with UNC welcoming 14 starters back and the pieces in place to produce one of the nation's most prolific offenses, there's a chance that the roles between these two basketball-centric schools could be flipped for 2014. Yards and points shouldn't be an issue for Larry Fedora's team this fall, at least not from an offensive standpoint. With dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams leading the way, the Tar Heels should improve on their production from last season, when it ranked 49th in the country in total offense and 43rd in scoring. The key will be the improved play of the defense, which struggled mightily to start but got better as the season progressed. An early road trip to Clemson will serve as an ideal barometer for how far the defense has come and if the Tar Heels can be considered a legitimate contender in the Coastal. But regardless of the outcome in Death Valley, I expect North Carolina to finish higher in the division standings than Duke this fall. Who would have ever thought that a Duke-UNC matchup in late November would generate as much attention as one in February or March?


Listen to our staff discuss every team in the ACC as Athlon starts to look to 2014.

 

Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football leading up to the 2014 season.
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John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
Both teams have their issues -- Duke's running game, North Carolina's defense -- but for the last few seasons (and this year, too), they're pretty evenly matched. So in what should be a wide-open division yet again, it may end up coming down to schedule construction. Both squads visit Miami, while Duke's other conference road games include Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse; a slightly easier group of teams than the Heels' respective ACC road opponents, Clemson, Virginia and Duke. The winner of that mid-November Duke-UNC matchup may not only finish higher in the division of these two teams, but also end up representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game. And for right now, I'm going with the Blue Devils there, who should look even more consistent on offense now that Anthony Boone has more experience under his belt. With Miami already dealing with a key injury (QB Ryan Williams), and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech breaking in new quarterbacks themselves, this division may find itself ruled over by its North Carolina squads in 2014.

Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
Really, when you're talking Duke and North Carolina, you're talking Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Wil...oh, right, this is football! And isn't it nice that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are both relevant enough on the gridiron to be worth discussing? David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora seem to have their respective teams heading in the right direction and the beauty of that is the two rivals are in the same division.

Actually, he two are flying high after Duke took the Coastal last season and North Carolina ending the year with a bowl win over Cincinnati. Good times behind with good times seemingly ahead. So which one will finish higher in 2014? Well, that answer will likely come November 20, when the Tar Heels head to Durham for a game that could rival their basketball counterparts in terms of hype.

Still, with the Blue Devils hitting the road for four of their first five ACC games, Cutcliffe's boys may be destined for something of a letdown. Plus, quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone, is transferring to be closer to home to be with his is ailing mother. Of course, Anthony Boone, who split time at QB with Connette, looks ready for prime time but Cutcliffe also has to replace the likes of Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx on the defensive front line. The foundation is certainly set in Durham for success, so the seasons of two or three wins are gone, but it will be tough to replicate the meteoric rise last season brought.

That's not to say UNC doesn't have issues of its own -- the offensive line being a major concern. But quarterback Marquise Williams looks like the real deal with a ton of skilled talent for him to get the ball to on offense. Plus, the final month of the season gives the Tar Heels a bye week and two home games sandwiched around the trip to Durham. Ultimately, it will be close, but I'm going with UNC to finish higher than Duke in the Coastal and to likely contend for the division championship -- only fitting the year after the Blue Devils take the Coastal, the Tar Heels get their answer. It's what makes a rivalry fun to talk about.

Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
This is a pretty tough question with how wide-open the Coastal Division is. The first thing to keep in mind is that North Carolina’s game at Notre Dame is a non-conference one this year, so that might tip the scales their way. 

When I look at the two teams’ conference schedules in late April, I would give them the same number of games I expect each to win, lose and what I’d deem toss-ups games. With everything still pretty equal, it’s time to look at what each squad lost and returns.

UNC won six of its last seven games, but lost its best two offensive linemen, its stud tight end and several key pieces on defense. Meanwhile, Duke returns 17 starters off of their 10-win squad, including eight on offense and six on defense. The transfer of quarterback Brandon Connette, who was an automatic seven inside of the red zone, is underrated, but I’m putting my faith in David Cutcliffe to keep the Blue Devils from taking too far of a step back and stay ahead of the Tar Heels in 2014.

Teaser:
Duke or North Carolina: Which team finishes higher in the Coastal in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Arkansas Razorbacks, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/arkansas-updates-uniforms-2014
Body:

After a disappointing 3-9 record in Bret Bielema’s first season at Arkansas, the Razorbacks are hoping for bigger and better things in 2014.

And what better way to build momentum for 2014 than the release of new uniforms and logos?

It seems every BCS school is releasing uniforms recently, and the Razorbacks unveiled an updated look for 2014 on Monday night.

Here are some photos of Arkansas’ new uniforms, as well as updated logos:
 

Teaser:
Arkansas Updates Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 08:30
Path: /college-football/who-leads-sec-rushing-2014
Body:

2013 was the year of the quarterback in the SEC. The league featured standouts in AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw.

But heading into 2014, the SEC is a league searching for answers at quarterback. Auburn’s Nick Marshall ranks as the No. 1 signal-caller, with Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Missouri’s Maty Mauk in the next tier.

With the SEC losing several quarterbacks, expect the league to feature its rushing attacks and defenses more in 2014.

The SEC is loaded at running back in 2014, as Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Arkansas’ Alex Collins could all be All-Americans this year.

Gurley missed action last year due to a foot injury, but the junior is expected to be at full strength in 2014. Collins and Yeldon should have plenty of opportunities, but both players will have competition from a talented backfield. Davis should have no trouble matching last year’s numbers, especially with an offensive line that could be the best in the SEC.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The SEC is loaded at running back this year. Just how loaded? One of these backs: Mike Davis (South Carolina), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) or Todd Gurley (Georgia) will have to be placed on the second-team All-SEC squad this preseason. And the depth extends deep in the conference, as Derrick Henry is ready for a breakout year at Alabama, Jerron Seymour could shine at Vanderbilt under new coordinator Karl Dorrell, and Texas A&M has a talented trio of running backs waiting for more opportunities. With the losses at quarterback this offseason, expect to see a return by the offenses in the SEC on the ground attack. While I expect this will be a close race for the top spot, I’ll take Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Despite a nagging ankle injury last season, Gurley finished fourth among SEC running backs by averaging 98.9 yards per game. Gurley also averaged six yards per carry and opened the year with back-to-back 100-yard games (Clemson, South Carolina). The Bulldogs’ offensive line is a work in progress, but I suspect a motivated (and healthy) Gurley will finish atop the SEC leaderboard in rushing yards in 2014.

Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
I’ll take Todd Gurley. He averaged six yards a carry last year despite playing at less than 100 percent for much of the season. Gurley has the perfect combination of size and running ability and should enter his third season at Georgia in the best shape of his career. There are other strong choices for this question – Mike Davis at South Carolina and Alex Collins at Arkansas come to mind – but I’ll stick with Gurley. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason called Gurley the “best back in the country” when he’s healthy. Sure, Mason is biased. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Last year, the SEC was a QB driven league that was deep at that position. This year, those QBs have exited but a bunch of great RBs remain. Todd Gurley, TJ Yeldon, Mike Davis, Alex Collins and Derrick Henry just to name a few. In looking at this question, I looked back at the last four years in the SEC and noted that the player that led the SEC in rushing was either the best RB in the league (Tre Mason, Trent Richardson) or a QB (Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton).

So the way I figure, it's either going to be Todd Gurley, Mike Davis, Derrick Henry, Nick Marshall or Dak Prescott. Alabama and Georgia are deep at RB and I think that will take some carries away from Gurley and Henry (and you also have to factor in Gurley's past durability). South Carolina will rely more on Davis this year but I still wonder how much the Ol' Ball Coach wants to pound the rock play after play. I might be going outside the box a bit but my pick is Nick Marshall.

He finished 7th in the league last season in rushing, but he also had to learn Gus Malzahn's offensive system and he had a feature back in Tre Mason to hand the rock to. He had at least 89 yards rushing in six games last season and he got better at making decisions as the season went on. Auburn will still have some good RBs in the backfield but I foresee more of an onus being put on Marshall to carry the load in 2014 and it will result in more carries and more yards and maybe, just maybe, for the third time in five years a QB will lead the SEC in rushing yards.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
History says the SEC’s rushing leader will be something of a surprise. I doubt anyone would have predicted Tre Mason to win the rushing title by more than 400 yards last year. Or that a quarterback would do it in 2012 and 2010. The off-the-wall pick would be Arkansas sophomore Alex Collins, but the Razorbacks might not give him enough leads to protect late in the game. My guess, then, is Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Think about what he did last season before he got hurt: 154 yards against Clemson, 132 against South Carolina. Going back to his freshman season, Gurley topped 100 yards in five of the final seven games. With a new quarterback and the possibility that Keith Marshall will redshirt, Georgia will need to rely on Gurley. We know he’s up to the task.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
With the recent departure of elite quarterbacks from the SEC, fans should expect a return to normalcy in the nation's toughest league in 2014. That means running the ball with a deep and talented collection of running backs. Georgia's Todd Gurley is the most gifted back, but he has dealt with injuries and may lose touches with the return of Keith Marshall. Alabama's T.J. Yeldon is an All-American back but should also lose touches to the very talented Derrick Henry in Nick Saban's traditional two-back system. Alex Collins at Arkansas is in the same boat with Jonathan Williams expecting at least 150 carries for the Hogs. So I will go off the board with South Carolina's Mike Davis. He is as talented as any of the aforementioned runners and will be playing behind five returning starters for the Gamecocks. The schedule isn't all that daunting as Steve Spurrier's bunch will miss all of the toughest defenses from the West: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Davis dealt with his own small injuries a year ago and still managed to finish fourth in the SEC with nearly 1,200 yards. Should he play in every game, my money is on the rising junior star in Columbia to lead the SEC in rushing.

Mark Ross
I'm going to give a slight edge to Todd Gurley over Mike Davis. Gurley, a junior, has been consistent in his first two seasons in a Georgia uniform, averaging 98.9 yards rushing per game. Last season, Gurley missed three-plus games because of an ankle injury. Taking his 98.9 yards per game average into consideration, if Gurley had played all 13 games he would have finished with 1,286 yards rushing. That total would have placed him third in the SEC behind Auburn's Tre Mason (1,816) and LSU's Jeremy Hill (1,401). Both Mason and Hill are gone, so as long as Gurley stays healthy, I think he will get more than enough carries to post some pretty big numbers, especially with unproven Hutson Mason entering his first full season as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. South Carolina's Davis, a fellow junior, averaged basically the same number of rushing yards per game (98.6) as Gurley last season, and he definitely should be the Gamecocks' workhorse this fall. However, I'm giving Gurley the slight edge over Davis in this matchup of SEC East ground-gainers based on Gurley's more impressive track record and the assumption that he will be able to stay healthy this season.

Teaser:
Who Leads the SEC in Rushing in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, TCU Horned Frogs, Big 12, News
Path: /college-football/tcus-qb-concerns-could-be-answered-texas-am-transfer-matt-joeckel
Body:

Despite owning one of the Big 12’s top defenses last season, TCU finished with its worst record under Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs finished 4-8 overall and just 2-7 in Big 12 play.

The main culprit of last season’s four-win mark was an offense that ranked ninth in the Big 12 in total yards per game (349.1) and managed just 4.9 yards per play.

Some of TCU’s offensive struggles were due to bad luck, as quarterback Casey Pachall was injured early in the year, which hindered the development of the passing attack.

Despite last year’s disappointment, there is plenty of optimism in Fort Worth going into 2014.

New co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham have installed an up-tempo attack, and TCU landed Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel after spring practice to bolster the quarterback spot.

Joeckel doesn’t have a wealth of experience from his three years with the Aggies. Joeckel threw for 335 yards in his Texas A&M career and tossed two touchdown passes in 2013.

Despite his lack of experience, Joeckel’s transfer is a key addition for TCU. While eight overall losses on the resume last year looks bad, the Horned Frogs had several close calls against some of the top teams in the Big 12. TCU lost by only two points against Kansas State, by three to Baylor and by three to Oklahoma.

With slight improvement on offense, the Horned Frogs would easily make a bowl in 2014.

That’s where Joeckel comes in.

Why is his transfer important for TCU in 2014? Joeckel should claim the starting job in the fall, which would allow Trevone Boykin to switch to receiver. The Horned Frogs need more weapons on the outside, and moving Boykin from quarterback would bolster the passing game.

Also, Joeckel is no stranger to this style of offense. At Texas A&M, he was tutored by Kliff Kingsbury and Jake Spavital – both coaches that worked under Dana Holgorsen, who spent time at Oklahoma State with Meacham. So switching from the offense in College Station to TCU's up-tempo attack shouldn't be much of a concern.

Joeckel probably isn’t going to be an All-Big 12 quarterback, but he should help TCU’s passing attack improve, as well as allow Boykin to become one of the offense’s top receivers.

And while a Big 12 title seems unrealistic, with Joeckel in command, the Horned Frogs could be the most-improved team in the conference this year.

Teaser:
TCU's QB Concerns Could be Answered With Texas A&M Transfer Matt Joeckel
Post date: Monday, April 21, 2014 - 09:15
Path: /college-football/will-indiana-make-bowl-2014
Body:

Under coach Kevin Wilson, Indiana has made steady progress over the last three years. The Hoosiers went 1-11 and winless in Big Ten play in 2011, but Indiana improved to 4-8 in 2012.

Wilson continued his improvement project in Bloomington in 2013, as the Hoosiers went 5-7 last season and 3-5 in conference play. Just how close was Indiana to playing in a bowl last season? The Hoosiers lost by six to Navy and by three to Minnesota.

After improving their win total in each of the last two years, getting to six victories would be quite an accomplishment for Indiana in 2014.

The Big Ten realigned the divisions with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, which placed Indiana in the East Division. The Hoosiers are now division rivals with Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. While the division should produce plenty of games against top-25 teams, getting to a bowl game will be a huge challenge with a tougher schedule.

Indiana’s non-conference schedule provides few breaks in 2014, as Kevin Wilson’s team plays at Bowling Green and Missouri – two potential 10-win teams. North Texas also visits Bloomington, and the Mean Green could be the favorite in Conference USA’s West Division.

If Wilson is able to guide Indiana to a bowl in 2014, he could be one of the top candidates to win coach of the year honors in the Big Ten.

Will Indiana Make a Bowl in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Tough call. I think Indiana will be right in the 5-7 win range once again. The Hoosiers should have one of the Big Ten’s most-explosive offenses, but the defense is a huge question mark. In conference play last year, Indiana allowed a whopping 7.4 yards per play. The Hoosiers also gave up 41.9 points per game in eight conference contests. Those two numbers have to improve if Kevin Wilson’s team wants to make a bowl. With 10 starters back, there is certainly potential for this unit to show improvement. However, it’s hard to envision significant growth by the defense in 2014, even with new coordinator Brian Knorr. Once again, the Hoosiers’ bowl hopes will rely on an explosive offense. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson are two of the best in the Big Ten and have weapons at their disposal in running back Tevin Coleman and receiver Shane Wynn. And Indiana quietly has one of the Big Ten’s best offensive lines. Despite possessing a dynamic offense, I think the Hoosiers are going to fall short of a bowl. Swing games against Missouri, Rutgers and Iowa are away from Bloomington, and Indiana was one of the losers in the Big Ten’s newly aligned divisions with Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule every year. It’s possible the Hoosiers are a better team in 2014 than they were in 2013. However, a bowl will be just out of reach due to a tougher schedule this year.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
Yes. The Hoosiers have gone from one to four to five wins in Kevin Wilson’s first three seasons, so they’re moving in the right direction. Expect the trend to continue in Year 4 – even in the loaded East Division and with OC Seth Littrell now at North Carolina. We know the offense is going to be exciting and as prolific as any in the Big Ten, with QBs Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson both back, in addition to underrated RB Tevin Coleman and WR Shane Wynn. The defense, well, there’s always the hope a new DC (Brian Knorr) and schematic change (4-3 to 3-4) can do the trick. Thing is, the defense doesn’t even have to be average to get the Hoosiers to six wins; it just has to show some improvement and avoid being the Big Ten’s worst unit for the fourth consecutive season. 

Mark Ross
Offense was not an issue for Indiana last season (9th nationally in yards gained, 16th in scoring), but defense certainly was. The Hoosiers ranked near the bottom of FBS teams in all four major defensive categories. This is why a team that piled up more than 500 yards and 38 points per game only won five games. In Big Ten play alone, Indiana was out-gained by 71 yards per game and out-scored by a total of 52 points, nearly a touchdown per contest. The defense returns all but one starter this season, but is that a good thing? The offense should be pretty productive once again, but I don't see it putting up big enough numbers to offset what was one of the worst defenses in college football a year ago. Then there's the schedule. The Hoosiers should (hopefully) beat Indiana State and North Texas in non-conference action while Purdue and Big Ten newcomer Rutgers figure to bring up the rear in the East and West divisions, respectively. However, after that I have a hard time finding two more wins. Missouri is the defending SEC East champion and Bowling Green won the MAC last year. Both should be pretty good again in 2014 and these two games are on the road. The rest of Indiana's conference slate consists of Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland at home with road dates against Ohio State, Michigan and a crossover game at Iowa. Maryland may be the other new kid on the Big Ten block, but I actually think the Terrapins are more talented and better than the Hoosiers. So unless Indiana pulls off an upset or two at some point in the season and doesn't lose a game it's expected to win (and I'm not sure I would put the Bowling Green game in that category), I think Kevin Wilson's team will be hard-pressed to put together six wins this fall. In fact, from my perspective, five would be nothing to be ashamed about.

Kevin McGuire
It is hard to not appreciate the work done by Kevin Wilson since his arrival in Bloomington, because he has managed to build something at Indiana. The Hoosiers had nowhere to go but up when Wilson was hired and this season could be the best yet. The Hoosiers return all 11 starters an offense that has become one of the more entertaining units in the Big Ten and 10 on defense that could benefit from the experience. The problem is Indiana has quite the uphill battle to get to the minimum six victories. Road games at Bowling Green (defending MAC champions) and Missouri (defending SEC East champions) could be extremely difficult in the non-conference slate, and North Texas will not be a pushover either. The Hoosiers are also lumped in the same division with both of the Big Ten’s 2013 division winners (Ohio State, Michigan State) and play at Michigan and at home against Penn State in back-to-back weeks (and I suspect Penn State will not unravel the way they did in Bloomington last season). Indiana came close with five wins last year, but five games may be the high mark again unless the defense drastically improves.

Teaser:
Will Indiana Make a Bowl in 2014?
Post date: Monday, April 21, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/washington-gets-new-uniforms-start-chris-petersen-era
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It’s a new era in Seattle, as Chris Petersen was hired away from Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian. Petersen is regarded as one of the top coaches in the nation, so it’s no surprise there is plenty of excitement around the program in 2014.

The Huskies continued to build on their offseason momentum with the release of new uniforms and helmets for 2014.

And by all accounts, these new uniforms are a hit with the players and fans.

Check out the full gallery of the new uniforms here and below are a few selected images from today’s release:
 

Teaser:
Washington Unveils New Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Friday, April 18, 2014 - 21:56

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