Articles By Steven Lassan
College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
Florida State dominated the ACC over the last two seasons, but the gap between the Seminoles and the rest of the league has narrowed entering 2015. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has several personnel concerns, and Clemson returns promising sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. On the other side of the league, Georgia Tech is the favorite to repeat as the Coastal champion. Virginia Tech is a team to watch next season if coach Frank Beamer’s team improves on offense.
Early Atlantic Division Rankings for 2015
1. Florida State
2014 Record: 13-1 (8-0)
It’s a close call between Florida State and Clemson for the top spot in the Atlantic. And in a potential tiebreaker between these two programs, this year’s game is in Death Valley. But for now, the Seminoles get the nod as the favorite in this division. The losses on both sides of the ball are heavy for coach Jimbo Fisher. However, only one team – Alabama – has a better average recruiting rank than Florida State over the last five seasons. Junior Sean Maguire is the favorite to replace Jameis Winston at quarterback. Maguire threw for 304 yards (Clemson) in his only career start. Until Maguire settles in under center, expect the offense to use a heavy dose of running back Dalvin Cook. In addition to replacing Winston, four starters are gone from the line and receiving targets Rashad Greene (WR) and Nick O’Leary (TE) expired their eligibility. After holding opponents to 12.1 points per game in 2013, Florida State’s defense regressed on the stat sheet. The Seminoles allowed 25.6 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2014. Getting the defense back to an elite level next year will be a challenge with the departure of tackle Eddie Goldman, end Mario Edwards Jr. and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. However, much like the offense, there’s no shortage of promising young talent waiting to emerge next season.
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2)
The Tigers are coming off their best four-year stretch in school history, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is poised to contend for the league title in 2015. Quarterback Deshaun Watson shined in limited action, and if healthy, will be one of the top signal-callers in the nation next year. Receivers Artavis Scott (1,002 total yards) and Mike Williams (18.1 ypc), and running backs Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye headline a talented group of skill players. Protecting Watson is a priority, and the line needs to be revamped with three starters departing. While there’s a lot of talent in place, coordinator Chad Morris – arguably one of the top offensive minds in the nation – left to be the head coach at SMU. Can Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott continue to keep the offense performing at a high level? And the biggest concern for this team in 2015 will be replacing the defensive losses from a unit that led the nation in fewest yards per play allowed (4.0) in 2014. Standouts Vic Beasley (DE), Corey Crawford (DE), Grady Jarrett (DT), Stephone Anthony (LB) and Garry Peters (CB) have expired their eligibility. How quickly can coordinator Brent Venables restock the cupboard?
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3)
Louisville’s first season in the ACC was a success. The Cardinals lost four games, but three of those defeats were against Florida State, Georgia and Clemson – teams ranked among the top 15 in the nation in the final Associated Press poll. Coach Bobby Petrino has some rebuilding to do this offseason to get Louisville back into the mix for nine wins in 2015. Who starts at quarterback in 2015? Will it be Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin or Will Gardner? Or will Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson win the job in the spring? In addition to settling the quarterback battle, top receiver DeVante Parker, tight end Gerald Christian and three starters on the offensive line must be replaced. The biggest surprise in 2014 was the defense, which despite the return of only four starters, limited opponents to 4.5 yards per play in ACC games. This unit loses a key player at each level, including safety Gerod Holliman, cornerback Charles Gaines and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin.
4. NC State
2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5)
The Wolfpack improved by five victories in coach Dave Doeren’s second season in Raleigh. The five wins were the biggest jump in overall improvement by an ACC team from 2013 to 2014. NC State probably won’t see another five-win increase in victories next year, but this team should take another step forward under Doeren. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett is back after passing for 2,606 yards and 23 scores last year. The senior helped the offense score at least 30 points in each of its last three games. Brissett’s return will help this unit continue to improve statistically, but top receivers Bo Hines and Marquez Valdes-Scantling decided to transfer. The running back duo of Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes should be one of the best in the ACC next year. It’s a good thing the Wolfpack should have no trouble scoring points, as the defense allowed 31.3 points per game in ACC contests in 2014. Improvement should be expected on defense, but there are some significant losses in the trenches – Art Norman, Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill.
5. Boston College
2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5)
Make no mistake: The Eagles are going to lose some key pieces off last year’s team. But after winning seven games in 2014 with just nine returning starters, it’s safe to assume coach Steve Addazio will find a few answers this offseason and keep this team in contention for bowl games. The biggest question mark of the spring will be who replaces Tyler Murphy at quarterback. Darius Wade is expected to replace Murphy, and the sophomore is considered another dual-threat option with potential in the passing game. The strength of Boston College under Addazio has been its offensive line and rushing attack. However, Addazio must replace all five starters on the line and more playmakers need to emerge at receiver to help an inexperienced quarterback. A handful of key defenders depart from a unit that allowed only 21.3 points per game in 2014.
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
Scott Shafer’s second season saw a four-game regression in the win column, and Syracuse’s only victory in ACC play came against Wake Forest. Needless to say, the third year is a critical one for Shafer. Can the program get back on track? Or will the Orange finish 3-9 again? Injuries were partly to blame for Syracuse’s regression in the win column, but there’s hope for improvement with a healthy Terrel Hunt at quarterback. In addition to Hunt’s return, the offense needs receivers Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime to avoid injuries after each played in only five games in 2014. Left tackle Sean Hickey and running back Prince-Tyson Gulley are other key losses for an offense that failed to score more than 17 points in each of its last five games. The defense suffered losses at each level, including standout safety Durell Eskridge and leading tackler (LB) Cameron Lynch.
7. Wake Forest
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
Dave Clawson has been a head coach in the FCS and FBS ranks at four different programs. At his first two stops, Clawson’s team showed marked improvement from the first season to year two. Expect Wake Forest to take a step forward on the stat sheet and on the field in 2015, as Clawson inherited a roster in need of repair and a young depth chart. The Demon Deacons aren’t slated to lose many players, but cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel, safety Anthony Wooding Jr. and end Zach Allen are big losses on defense. Improvement on offense is a must after averaging just 3.1 yards per play in eight ACC contests this year. The statistics weren’t pretty, but Wake Forest has some promising young talent in the mix. Quarterback John Wolford and tight end Cam Serigne are two players for Clawson to build around. However, the skill talent won’t matter if the Demon Deacons can’t fix their offensive line (48 in 2014).
Early Coastal Division Rankings for 2015
1. Georgia Tech
2014 Record: 11-3 (6-2)
The defending Coastal champs should be the favorite to win this division in 2015. Georgia Tech rebounded from a 14-13 record from 2012-13 to finish 11-3 in 2014 – its first season of double-digit victories since 2009. A big reason for the improvement in the win column was the emergence of quarterback Justin Thomas. In 14 games, Thomas rushed for 1,086 yards and eight scores and passed for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns to only six interceptions. Having a veteran quarterback like Thomas executing the triple option offense is critical, especially since Georgia Tech is losing five of its top seven rushers from 2014. Guard Shaquille Mason was one of the best in college football and will be missed next year. The defense gave up 6.2 yards per play in 2014 but compensated by forcing 29 turnovers. With a chunk of the starting 11 on defense returning, improvement on the stat sheet should be expected. A key scheduling note for 2015: Georgia Tech hosts Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
2. Virginia Tech
2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5)
Thanks to a favorable schedule and 13 returning starters, Virginia Tech was considered by some to be a contender in the Coastal Division in 2014. However, the Hokies never emerged as a threat to win the division and needed a victory over Virginia in the season finale to get bowl eligible. In order for coach Frank Beamer’s team to contend in the ACC once again, fixing the offense has to be a priority. Quarterback Michael Brewer has to cut down on his mistakes (15 picks) but also needs more help from the offensive line and young receiving corps. Having a healthy stable of backs after injuries robbed Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie of large chunks of playing time in 2014 will help an offense that averaged only 4.9 yards per play. As usual under coordinator Bud Foster, the defense should be among the best in the ACC. Safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner and linebacker Chase Williams are key losses, but the defense regains the services of tackle Luther Maddy and cornerback Brandon Facyson after both missed nearly all of last season due to injury. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is one of the ACC’s top defenders.
3. North Carolina
2014 Record: 6-7 (4-4)
Since an 8-4 record in Larry Fedora’s debut in 2012, North Carolina has regressed in the win column over the last two seasons. The Tar Heels went 6-7 last season and continued to struggle mightily on defense. North Carolina allowed 6.5 yards per play and gave up 39 points per game. While the defensive numbers aren’t pretty, there’s reason for optimism entering 2015. Most of the depth chart on defense was comprised of underclassmen last season, and new coordinator Gene Chizik has a strong track record. If the Tar Heels find a few answers on defense, they can contend in this division in 2015. The offense averaged 33.2 points per game in 2014 and returns largely intact. Quarterback Marquise Williams should be in the mix for All-ACC honors, while all five starters are back on the offensive line.
2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Miami is just 16-16 in ACC play under coach Al Golden. Is this the year the Hurricanes win the division crown or finish in the final Associated Press poll for the first time since 2009? Running back Duke Johnson and standout left tackle Ereck Flowers left for the NFL, but the offense can build around rising star Brad Kaaya at quarterback. As a true freshman, Kaaya threw for 3,198 yards and 26 scores in 2014. Joe Yearby is a breakout candidate as Johnson’s replacement, and the Hurricanes need receiver Stacy Coley to regain his explosiveness (17.9 ypc in 2013) after averaging only eight yards per catch in 2014. The performance on defense has been an ongoing issue for Miami under Golden, but this unit limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play in ACC games. However, the Hurricanes struggled to get stops on third downs and in the red zone, while recording only 15 sacks in conference play. Linebacker Denzel Perryman and end Anthony Chickillo are two huge losses on defense.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3)
Duke’s 19 wins from 2013-14 is the best two-year stretch in school history. Coach David Cutcliffe has elevated the program, and the Blue Devils will be in the mix for a finish among the top three in the division once again. Quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder and guard Laken Tomlinson are big losses for an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game in 2014. Running back Jela Duncan’s return from an academic suspension deepens a backfield that already returns Shaquille Powell (618 yards) and Shaun Wilson (7.7 ypc). Thomas Sirk is the favorite to replace Boone at quarterback. The defense was hit hard by departures in the front seven, but the secondary could be among the best in the ACC with the return of safety Jeremy Cash.
2014 Record: 6-7 (4-4)
Pat Narduzzi is Pittsburgh’s fourth head coach in six seasons. Stability at the head coach position is crucial for the Panthers in the long-term, and Narduzzi seems to be the right fit in the Steel City. Pittsburgh lost five games by five points or less in 2014, so a little improvement on both sides could result in a two-game swing in the win column. Narduzzi’s speciality is defense, which is an area of focus for the Panthers after giving up 29.6 points per game in 2014. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd are two of the ACC’s top players, and both should thrive under new coordinator Jim Chaney. Quarterback Chad Voytik threw for 2,233 yards and 16 scores in his first season as the starter, and to help the junior progress as a passer, Chaney needs to find a few more weapons to complement Boyd in the receiving corps. The offensive line returns largely intact, but standout tackle T.J. Clemmings must be replaced.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
2015 is a make-or-break year for coach Mike London at Virginia. The Cavaliers showed improvement in 2014, going from 2-10 (2013) to 5-7 last season. But even though the five victories represent the second-highest total of London’s tenure, Virginia has only one winning season over the last five years. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Cavaliers. Using the 2010-14 signing classes, Virginia has the No. 6 roster in the ACC. For this team to reach the six-win mark, the offense has to take a step forward. The Cavaliers averaged 20.9 points per game in eight ACC contests last season and lost 24 turnovers. The defense was the strength of this team in 2014, but standouts Eli Harold (DE), Max Valles (LB), Henry Coley (LB) and Anthony Harris (S) must be replaced.
College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The SEC had a disappointing bowl season, but the conference is loaded for another run at the national title in 2015. Georgia opens as the slight favorite in the East Division, while it’s hard to pick against Alabama as the early frontrunner in the West. However, Auburn is a close No. 2 in the West. In a loaded division, it’s difficult to expect any team to run the table in 2015. Could we see a couple of one-loss SEC teams in contention for a playoff spot next year?
Early East Division Rankings for 2015
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2)
There’s a lot of uncertainty among the East Division teams for next season, but it’s hard to pick against Georgia as the early favorite. However, the Bulldogs aren’t without question marks or personnel concerns. How will new play-caller Brian Schottenheimer adjust after spending the last 15 seasons in the NFL? Schottenheimer doesn’t need to overhaul the offense, as Georgia ranked second in the SEC (conference-only games) by averaging 6.4 yards per play in 2014. The ground attack should remain the staple of the offense, headlined by rising star Nick Chubb and Sony Michel next season. Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park will compete to replace Hutson Mason at quarterback. The defense took a step forward under Jeremy Pruitt’s direction in 2014 and should be one of the best in the conference next year. A potential roadblock in Georgia’s East Division title hopes could be its schedule, Alabama and Auburn – the likely No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the SEC next season – both play the Bulldogs in 2015.
2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1)
Even though Missouri has some significant personnel losses, it would be foolish to dismiss the Tigers from the SEC East title picture. After all, this team has won the division in back-to-back years and has one of the league’s top coaches in Gary Pinkel. Quarterback Maty Mauk had his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter but finished with 25 passing scores. Mauk will have plenty of help in the form of four returning starters on the offensive line and talented running back Russell Hansbrough in 2015. The receiving corps must be revamped after Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White expired their eligibility after the Citrus Bowl. The losses are heavier on defense, as coordinator Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State, while All-SEC ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray and standout safety Braylon Webb are off to the NFL.
2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5)
There’s a lot of positive momentum building in Knoxville. Tennessee is a program on the rise entering coach Butch Jones’ third season, and the Volunteers are coming off their first winning season (7-6) since 2009. There’s no shortage of young talent in the program, and another offseason should help the development of players like quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive end Derek Barnett. Dobbs and the growth of the offensive line will be critical to how high Tennessee can climb in the East next year. The defense returns nearly intact, with cornerback Justin Coleman, tackle Jordan Williams and linebacker A.J. Johnson (suspended last three games) the unit’s departing seniors. With Georgia visiting Knoxville next year, combined with personnel losses at Missouri and Florida, the Volunteers have a chance to surprise in the East.
2014 Record: 7-5 (4-4)
New coach Jim McElwain has plenty of work to do this spring. The Gators won seven games in 2014 and lost three contests by a touchdown or less. However, the expectations in Gainesville are higher than finishing 7-5, and this program has just one season of more than eight wins since 2010. McElwain’s background on offense should help a unit that averaged 4.9 yards per play in 2014. Quarterback Treon Harris showed promise in limited action, but the Gators are shorthanded on proven options at receiver, and the offensive line returns only one starter from the Birmingham Bowl depth chart. Even though end Dante Fowler will be missed, the strength of Florida’s team will once again be the defense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is among the nation’s top defensive backs, and there’s talent returning in the front seven. McElwain’s arrival should help the offense, but the Gators may have to lean on their defense once again in 2015.
5. South Carolina
2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5)
The Gamecocks went into 2014 with East Division title aspirations, but coach Steve Spurrier’s team finished with its lowest win total (seven) since 2009. Both sides of the ball enter spring with question marks. The offense must replace quarterback Dylan Thompson, running back Mike Davis and the top two players on the line – tackle Corey Robinson and guard A.J. Cann. Brandon Wilds and David Williams should be an effective one-two punch at running back, and receiver Pharoh Cooper is one of the best in the SEC in 2015, but the losses up front and at quarterback will be tough to overcome. The defense is in need of major repair after allowing 6.5 yards per play in SEC contests last season. That’s the bad news. On the bright side, South Carolina returns most of its personnel from the final depth chart. Can the returning talent improve after gaining experience and working with the staff in spring ball?
2014 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Kentucky had a three-game improvement in the win column from 2013 to 2014 and missed out on a bowl by one victory. Third-year coach Mark Stoops has this program moving in the right direction and another step forward should come in 2015. New coordinator Shannon Dawson is tasked with elevating the offense after Neal Brown established a solid foundation over the last two seasons. Quarterback Patrick Towles accounted for 20 touchdowns in 2014, and if he can hold off redshirt freshman Drew Barker, the junior should be poised for a jump in production with the skill talent returning to Lexington next year. The Wildcats bring back Stanley “Boom” Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton at running back, while Ryan Timmons, Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker return at receiver. While the offense won’t lose much from last season’s group, there are bigger question marks on defense. Ends Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree must be replaced, and the secondary loses safety Ashely Lowery. Dupree recorded 7.5 sacks in 2014 and was the team’s top force in the trenches.
2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8)
James Franklin set the bar high for Derek Mason, and the first-year coach struggled in his debut on West End. The Commodores finished winless in SEC play for the first time since 2009, averaged just 12.8 points in conference games and allowed 5.7 yards per play. Mason decided to shake up the staff following the three-win season and hired veteran play-caller Andy Ludwig to coordinate the offense. Ludwig inherits a veteran offensive line and a talented running back in Ralph Webb, but the quarterback situation is filled with uncertainty. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck each started a game in 2014 and will contend for the job in the spring. Mason is going to call the defensive signals in 2015 and returns the bulk of the depth chart from a unit that allowed 35.4 points in SEC games. The good news for Mason is there’s plenty of room to grow with a defense that featured several young players receiving major snaps last season.
Early West Division Rankings for 2015
2014 Record: 12-2 (7-1)
The SEC’s West Division is loaded once again. Alabama gets a slight nod as the pre-spring favorite, but the gap between the Crimson Tide and Auburn is slim. Talent isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa, as Alabama has owned the top spot in the recruiting rankings from 2010-14 and is expected to ink the No. 1 class in 2015. However, there are a few glaring personnel concerns for this team going into next season. Who steps up to replace Blake Sims under center? Is it Florida State transfer Jacob Coker? Or could freshmen (redshirt) David Cornwell or Blake Barnett (true) compete for the starting job? The supporting cast for the new quarterback is solid, but a go-to target must emerge to replace Amari Cooper at receiver. Alabama’s defense will be among the nation’s best once again in 2015. The front seven is loaded with talent and depth. However, the secondary is the biggest concern once again. Safety Landon Collins must be replaced, and coach Nick Saban needs another cornerback (or two) to emerge after giving up 19 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.
2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
The Tigers were unable to recapture the magic from the run to the national championship game in 2013 and fell to an 8-5 record last season. But Auburn wasn’t far off from double-digit wins, as coach Gus Malzahn’s team lost two games by three points (Texas A&M and Wisconsin). Auburn’s defense will receive most of the offseason attention. The Tigers have allowed at least six yards per play in three consecutive years and gave up 68 plays of 20 yards or more (most in the SEC). New coordinator Will Muschamp is one of the offseason’s top assistant hires, and the former Florida coach inherits a group that returns a good chunk of talent. The defense should get a boost from the return of end Carl Lawson from injury. A few key pieces must be replaced on offense – quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne, receiver Sammie Coates and center Reese Dismukes – but expect Malzahn to keep this unit near the top of the SEC. Junior Jeremy Johnson is a rising star at quarterback.
2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
LSU is just 9-7 in the SEC over the last two seasons, but the talent is there for a rebound in 2015. The passing game is still a major question mark until Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris consistently beat defenses with their arm. However, until the passing attack develops, the Tigers can lean on a veteran line and running back Leonard Fournette. The defense is under the direction of new coordinator Kevin Steele but should be a strength with the return of cornerback Tre’Davious White, safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and tackle Davon Godchaux. LSU also has a manageable schedule, featuring crossover games against South Carolina and Florida, along with Texas A&M and Arkansas visiting Baton Rouge next season.
4. Ole Miss
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3)
The Rebels head into 2015 with similar question marks about the roster. The defense should be among the best in the SEC, but the offense has major question marks at quarterback and at running back. Is junior college recruit (and former Clemson QB) Chad Kelly the answer under center? Or will coach Hugh Freeze turn to DeVante Kincade or Ryan Buchanan? In addition to finding an answer at quarterback, the offense has to develop more consistency on the ground. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodson decided to transfer at running back, which leaves Jaylen Walton (5.5 ypc, 586 yards) as the No. 1 option. Having a healthy Laquon Treadwell at receiver and Laremy Tunsil at left tackle will be critical for the Rebels’ chances of winning the West in 2015. The defense has a few holes to address, but the line will be one of the best in the nation. The secondary loses standout safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Senquez Golson, but the return of linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and cornerback Tee Shepard from injury will help the defense maintain its 2014 production.
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6)
Bret Bielema’s rebuilding project at Arkansas is ahead of schedule after a 7-6 record in 2014. The Razorbacks were closer to 10 victories than some may have realized, as this team lost four games by a touchdown or less. Even though coordinator Jim Chaney left for Pittsburgh, the formula for success on offense isn’t going to change. Arkansas has a run-first mentality, with 1,000-yard rushers Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins leading the way on the ground. Also, the offensive line should be one of the best in the nation next year. Quarterback Brandon Allen improved in his second year as the starter but more weapons must emerge at receiver. Robb Smith was one of the nation’s top assistant hires in the 2014 cycle, and the Arkansas defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in each of its last five games. Smith will have his hands full in the spring trying to find replacements for end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon and linebacker Martrell Spaight.
6. Texas A&M
2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5)
Since the Aggies joined the SEC, the offense has clearly been the strength of this program. However, has coach Kevin Sumlin finally found an answer for the defense? New coordinator John Chavis is one of the best in college football and comes to College Station after six years at LSU. Chavis will make a difference with Texas A&M’s defense, especially if Sumlin continues to reel in elite talent on the recruiting trail. End Myles Garrett will flourish even more under Chavis’ watch, and the defense doesn’t lose much from a unit that has plenty of room to improve after allowing 6.9 yards per play in SEC games last season. Quarterback Kyle Allen is expected to build off his Liberty Bowl performance (294 yards, 4 TDs) in 2015. The receiving corps is loaded with talent, but the line loses tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Jarvis Harrison.
7. Mississippi State
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2)
Regardless of which team is picked No. 7 in the preseason by the media, keep in mind that program will be a top 25 team in 2015. So whether it’s Mississippi State, Arkansas or Texas A&M, a team is going to be picked to finish last, yet could be ranked No. 20 in the final poll next year. That’s how loaded this division is. The Bulldogs return quarterback Dak Prescott – the likely first-team All-SEC signal-caller in 2015 – but there’s some work to do to fill out the offense. Running back Josh Robinson, receiver Jameon Lewis and tight end Malcolm Johnson depart, and the line loses three starters, including left tackle Blaine Clausell and center Dillon Day. Manny Diaz has returned to Starkville to call the defensive signals, and just like the offense, the defense has holes to fill this spring. Each level of the defense has key contributors to replace, but the biggest loss is in the linebacking corps with the departure of Benardrick McKinney to the NFL.
College football’s coaching carousel for the 2014-15 season has finished and only 14 programs changed coaches. The 14 changes among FBS programs is the lowest mark since the 2006 season (11). After at least 21 teams changed coaches from 2009-13, there’s a period of stability settling into the coaching ranks. However, the drop in changes isn’t expected to last forever.
Most programs seemed to hit the right marks in their coaching search this season. Michigan was the biggest winner in the carousel by hiring Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers. Harbaugh should win at a high level in Ann Arbor and is a critical hire for a program that needs to get back to the nation’s elite. Oregon State (Gary Andersen), Houston (Tom Herman), SMU (Chad Morris), Buffalo (Lance Leipold), Florida (Jim McElwain) and Pittsburgh (Pat Narduzzi) also earn high marks for their new coaching hires.
Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2015
1. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Previous Job: 49ers head coach
Career Record: 29-6 (San Diego), 29-21 (Stanford), 44-19-1 (49ers)
We could spend thousands of words discussing Harbaugh’s hire at Michigan, but it’s simply summed up in this statement: This is the best hire for the Wolverines and an opportunity for the program to reclaim its status as one of the nation’s elite. Harbaugh was the top target for Michigan after Brady Hoke was fired and is the best fit for a program that has been trending in the wrong direction since an 11-2 mark in 2011. Harbaugh’s ties to Michigan are no secret. He played four seasons for coach Bo Schembechler and was the 1986 Big Ten Player of the Year. Harbaugh played in the NFL from 1987-2001 and worked as a volunteer assistant coach with his father (Jack) at Western Kentucky from 1994-2001. After his playing career in the NFL was finished, Harbaugh worked with the Raiders from 2002-03 and was named San Diego’s head coach in 2004. The Toreros went 29-6 under Harbaugh’s direction, who left in 2007 for Stanford. The Cardinal increased their win total in each of the four seasons under Harbaugh, culminating in a 12-1 record in 2010. And Harbaugh was successful in the NFL, finishing his tenure with the 49ers at 44-19-1. Michigan needed a home-run hire to get the program back on track. Harbaugh is exactly what the Wolverines needed, and his arrival certainly doesn’t hurt the Big Ten as a whole. If Michigan is in contention again, it only helps the perception of the conference.
Final Grade: A+
2. Gary Andersen, Oregon State
Previous Job: Head coach at Wisconsin
Career Record: 19-7 (2013-14, Wisconsin), 26-24 (2009-12, Utah State), 4-7 (2003, Southern Utah)
Andersen’s decision to leave Wisconsin for Oregon State qualifies as one of the biggest surprises in coaching moves in recent years. Under Andersen’s watch, the Badgers went 19-7 and won the Big Ten West Division in 2014. Prior to his two-year stint in Madison, Andersen went 26-24 at Utah State, which included an 18-8 record over the final two seasons. In the six years before Andersen’s tenure in Logan, the Aggies did not win more than three games in a season. However, he guided Utah State to back-to-back bowl games and a No. 16 rank in the final Associated Press poll in 2012. Andersen also spent one year at Southern Utah (2003) and was an assistant from 1997-2002 and 2004-08 at Utah. Even though Andersen was successful at Wisconsin, he wanted to get back on the West Coast and Oregon State was open after Mike Riley left for Nebraska. Oregon State isn’t an easy job, but Andersen’s recruiting ties out west and in the junior college ranks will help to establish a solid talent base. Andersen is arguably one of the top 25-30 coaches in the nation. This is a great hire for an Oregon State program that struggled mightily prior to Riley’s first tenure in 1997.
Final Grade: A
3. Tom Herman, Houston
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator at Ohio State
Career Record: First season
Few coaches had a better 2014-15 season than Herman. The Ohio native played a huge role in Ohio State’s national championship run, won the Broyles Award as the top assistant in college football and landed a FBS head coaching gig at one of the best jobs in the American Athletic Conference. Herman was born in Ohio, but he has deep coaching roots in Texas. After a playing career at California Lutheran, Herman was hired as Texas Lutheran’s wide receivers coach in 1998. After one season at Texas Lutheran, Herman worked as a grad assistant at Texas from 1999-2000 and was hired at Sam Houston State from 2001-04 as a wide receivers/special teams assistant. Herman coordinated Texas State’s offenses from 2005-06 and spent the next two years at Rice (2007-08), guiding the Owls to an average of 41.3 points per game in 2008. After three seasons at Iowa State, Herman jumped at the opportunity to coordinate Ohio State’s offense in 2012. The Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points per game in Herman’s first year and jumped to 45.5 per game in 2013 and 44.8 in '14. Herman’s coaching ability was on full display this season after Ohio State lost starting quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller due to injuries, and third-stringer Cardale Jones guided the Buckeyes to the national championship. Despite this being Herman's first opportunity to be a head coach, there are few negatives for Houston. Herman is the right hire at the right time for the Cougars.
Final Grade: A
4. Chad Morris, SMU
Previous Job: Offensive coordinator at Clemson
Career Record: First season
Morris has been considered one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks since he ascended to the play-caller position at Clemson in 2011. The Texas native lands in a good situation at SMU, as the program has the necessary resources and talent base to contend in the American Athletic Conference, and Morris has many ties to the state. June Jones helped the program get back on track after the Mustangs posted just one winning season from 1989-2008. However, Morris seems like the right hire to elevate SMU into conference title contention. The 46-year-old coach coordinated one of the nation’s top offenses at Clemson, guiding the program to its three highest point totals in school history. Additionally, the Tigers won at least 10 games in each of Morris’ four seasons and shared or won the ACC Atlantic Division title twice. Prior to the last four years at Clemson, Morris served as Tulsa’s play-caller in 2010 and guided the Golden Hurricane to an average of 41.4 points per game. He also worked as a high school head coach from 1994-2009 at five programs in Texas. The only downside to Morris is the lack of FBS head coaching experience. However, that shouldn’t prevent Morris from winning at a high level at SMU.
Final Grade: A
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5. Lance Leipold, Buffalo
Previous Job: Head coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater
Career Record: 109-6 (2007-14 at Wisconsin-Whitewater)
Leipold has the best record among new coaches taking over a FBS program in 2014. The Wisconsin native went 109-6 in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, leading the Warhawks to six national championships in that span. Under Leipold’s direction, Wisconsin-Whitewater had only one season of more than two losses (2012). Prior to taking over at UW-Whitewater, Leipold worked as an assistant coach from 1987-2006 at a handful of programs. Leipold served as Nebraska-Omaha’s offensive coordinator from 2004-06, was an assistant at Nebraska from 2001-03 and worked as a graduate assistant under Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin from 1991-93. If Leipold continues to win at a high level, he won’t be at Buffalo for more than five years. But that’s a good problem for the Bulls to (potentially) have. Stepping up to the FBS level will present a few challenges, but Buffalo hit a home run by getting Leipold away from Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Final Grade: A
6. Jim McElwain, Florida
Previous Job: Head coach at Colorado State
Career Record: 22-16 (2012-14 at Colorado State)
Florida is one of the top jobs in the nation, but this program has just one 10-win season since 2010 (11-2 in 2012). McElwain is tasked with bringing Florida football back to the nation’s elite and fix an offense that has struggled mightily in recent years. The Gators have not averaged more than 5.1 yards per play (in SEC play) since 2009. McElwain’s background on offense should pay dividends, as he helped to guide a Colorado State attack that averaged 33.9 points per game in 2014. And under McElwain’s direction as Alabama’s coordinator, the offense averaged at least 5.8 yards per play (SEC matchups). The Rams showed steady improvement in the win column, improving from 4-8 in McElwain’s first year to 8-6 in 2013 and 10-3 in '14. In addition to his stints at Colorado State and Alabama, McElwain spent time as an assistant at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville and in the NFL with the Raiders. McElwain isn’t necessarily the big-name hire most expected Florida to make. But what’s not to like about this hire? He’s a proven winner as a head coach, has worked in the SEC at Alabama and has been successful in developing offenses. McElwain should get Florida back on track in the next few years.
Final Grade: A-
7. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
Previous Job: Defensive coordinator at Michigan State
Career Record: First season
Narduzzi was widely regarded as one of the top assistants in college football, and after eight years at Michigan State, the Youngstown native departs for his first opportunity to be a head coach. Under Narduzzi’s direction, the Spartans led the Big Ten in fewest yards per play allowed from 2011-13 and finished first in the conference in scoring defense in the 2012 and '13 seasons. And Narduzzi’s aggressive approach has paid off, as Michigan State recorded at least 32 sacks in four out of the last six seasons. Prior to his stint with the Spartans, Narduzzi worked at Cincinnati (2004-06) and Miami, Ohio (2003) as a defensive coordinator. And he also has stops as an assistant at Northern Illinois and Rhode Island. After having three coaches in the last five years, Pittsburgh needs stability at the top spot. Narduzzi is familiar with the area, is one of the nation’s top defensive minds and is ready to be a head coach. Everything points to this being a successful hire, but Narduzzi will need a year or two to shape the roster and accumulate the defensive talent needed to show marked improvement on that side of the ball.
Final Grade: A-
8. Mike Riley, Nebraska
Previous Job: Head coach at Oregon State
Career Record: 93-80 (1997-98, 2003-14 at Oregon State), 14-34 (Chargers, 1999-2001)
Riley’s departure from Oregon State to Nebraska caught the college football world by surprise. Most expected Riley to finish his career in Corvallis, but the 61-year-old coach was ready for a new challenge. When Riley left his position as USC’s offensive coordinator to take the head coach job at Oregon State, he inherited a program that was just 13-52-1 in the six seasons prior to his arrival. The Beavers showed marked improvement under Riley’s watch, recording an 8-14 mark in his first two seasons. Riley left Oregon State for a four-year stint in the NFL, but he helped to build the foundation that allowed the Beavers to record three winning seasons in four years under Dennis Erickson. After Erickson left for the NFL, Riley came back to Oregon State. Since 2003, the Beavers have made eight bowl appearances, finished the season ranked in the Associated Press poll four times and only recorded one season of fewer than five wins. While Riley’s overall record (93-80) isn’t overly impressive, it’s important to remember Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12. Simply, it’s not easy to win in Corvallis. Riley has a knack for finding and developing overlooked recruits into star players. If he can continue that trend at Nebraska, along with maintaining his success in recruiting the state of Texas, Riley should help the Cornhuskers continue to win around nine games every year. Riley may not have been the home-run hire most expected when Bo Pelini was fired, but he won a lot of games at a program that’s much tougher to win at than Nebraska.
Final Grade: B+
9. Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
Previous Job: Head coach at Pittsburgh
Career Record: 19-19 (2012-14 at Pittsburgh)
Chryst is returning to familiar surroundings after three seasons at Pittsburgh. The Madison native played quarterback at Wisconsin from 1986-88 and coached with the Badgers in 2002 and from 2005-11. Prior to his stint with the Badgers in 2005, Chryst called the plays at Oregon State from 2003-04 and spent three years in the NFL with the Chargers (1999-2001). Chryst is a highly regarded offensive guru, and under his direction, Wisconsin led the Big Ten in scoring offense from 2009-11. The Badgers set a school record by averaging 44.1 points per game in 2011, and Pittsburgh averaged 6.2 yards per play in 2014 (fourth in the ACC). Chryst’s overall record with the Panthers was just 19-19, but he also inherited some personnel problems and roster gaps from the previous coaching staffs. However, Pittsburgh had a favorable schedule in 2014, two of the ACC’s top players in wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner and only went 4-4 in conference play. Chryst knows what it takes to win at Wisconsin, and after losing two coaches in the last three seasons (Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema), athletic director Barry Alvarez has his long-term answer as the team’s head coach. Fit isn’t necessarily the best indicator or judge of a hire, but Chryst’s familiarity with the program should keep Wisconsin at the top of the Big Ten West Division.
Final Grade: B+
10. Mike Bobo, Colorado State
Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator at Georgia
Career Record: First season
After a successful stint under a previous SEC offensive coordinator (Jim McElwain) Colorado State is trying to replicate that same formula. Bobo is another successful offensive play-caller from the SEC, but is an odd fit since he has spent only one season (Jacksonville State) outside of the state of Georgia in his coaching career. While the geographic fit may not be perfect, Bobo – despite some of the criticism from Georgia fans – was one of the SEC’s underrated coordinators in recent years. Over the last seven seasons, the Bulldogs’ offense has not finished lower than sixth in the conference in yards per play. And Georgia led the SEC twice (2012, '14) during that span. Bobo has never been a head coach on any level but is a successful coordinator and hired a solid staff to help his transition. Will Friend followed Bobo from Georgia to Colorado State, while Tyson Summers was a key pickup from UCF as defensive coordinator.
Final Grade: B+
11. Neal Brown, Troy
Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator at Kentucky
Career Record: First season
At 34 years old, Brown is the second youngest head coach in the FBS ranks. The Kentucky native is a highly regarded offensive mind and returns to Troy after working under Larry Blakeney from 2006-09. Brown worked as the team’s play-caller in 2008-09, and the Trojans averaged at least 32 points per game in both seasons. In 2010, Brown left Troy to join Tommy Tuberville’s staff at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders averaged at least 31 points per game in each of Brown’s three seasons calling the plays in Lubbock. Brown joined Mark Stoops’ staff at Kentucky in 2013 and helped the Wildcats take a step forward on offense. Kentucky averaged only 17.9 points a game in the season prior to Brown’s arrival, but the offense jumped to 20.5 points per contest in 2013 and 29.2 in '14. Additionally, the Wildcats averaged five yards per play (SEC games) last season for the first time since 2010. There’s very little downside to Brown’s hire at Troy. He has experience working at Troy, is a talented offensive coach and his youth should bring a spark to a program that has not recorded a winning record since 2010.
Final Grade: B
12. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Previous Job: Offensive Coordinator at Baylor
Career Record: First season
With an enrollment of under 3,500 undergraduate students, Tulsa is the smallest FBS school in the nation. But despite the lack of a huge student base, the Golden Hurricane has experienced plenty of success in the win column. This program has four seasons of at least 10 victories since 2007, including an 11-3 mark in 2012. Montgomery has plenty of work ahead, as Tulsa has slipped to a 5-19 record over the last two seasons and can’t afford to fall too far behind in the new American Athletic Conference divisions. The Texas native has never been a head coach on the college level and has spent the last 12 years on Art Briles’ staffs at Houston and Baylor. Although Briles played a large role in shaping the offenses at both programs, Montgomery was the play-caller for the Bears. Baylor’s offense averaged at least 6.6 yards per play in each of the last five seasons and recorded 48.2 points per game in 2014. Tulsa needs to prominently recruit Texas and Montgomery’s ties to the state will help in that area. And with Montgomery’s background on offense, combined with the amount of talent at quarterback and wide receiver in the high school ranks, this hire should help get Tulsa back into contention for bowl games on a consistent basis.
Final Grade: B
13. David Beaty, Kansas
Previous Job: Wide receivers coach at Texas A&M
Career Record: First season
After missing on its last two hires – Turner Gill and Charlie Weis – Kansas needs to get this one right. Instead of turning to a proven coach, the Jayhawks picked former assistant David Beaty. The Texas native has strong ties to the state and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. In an area where Kansas needs to target for recruits, Beaty’s ties to Texas are a huge plus. Beaty spent the last three years at Texas A&M as the team’s receivers coach (2012-14) and the recruiting coordinator (2013-14). Prior to Texas A&M, Beaty had two previous stints at Kansas (2011 and 2008-09) and short tenures at Rice (2010 and 2006-07) as an assistant. Under Beaty’s watch, the Owls averaged 28.7 points per game in 2010. The biggest concern for Beaty is the lack of experience as a head coach – especially at a place that’s one of the toughest Power 5 jobs in the nation. To help Beaty’s transition, he hired a solid overall staff, which includes Clint Bowen (interim coach last year), Rob Likens (offensive coordinator) and Zach Yenser (OL coach).
Final Grade: C
14. Tony Sanchez, UNLV
Previous Job: Head coach at Bishop Gorman High School
Career Record: 85-5 (2009-14 at Bishop Gorman)
UNLV is a tough place to win. The Rebels have just one winning season (2013) since 2001 and is 31-92 since 2005. Considering where UNLV resides on college football’s food chain, it wasn’t going to attract a big-name coach or nationally regarded coordinator. Instead, the program went outside of the box and hired Sanchez from Bishop Gorman High School. In six seasons at Bishop Gorman (located in Las Vegas), Sanchez recorded an 85-5 mark and never won fewer than 13 games in a season. To help with Sanchez’s transition to the FBS ranks, he hired a veteran staff, which includes Barney Cotton (former Nebraska assistant), Kent Baer (former Colorado defensive coordinator) and Joe Seumalo (former Oregon State assistant). The last high school to college hire didn’t work well (Todd Dodge, North Texas). However, there’s little risk involved for UNLV. If Sanchez doesn’t work out, the program isn’t worse off than it was in 2014. And who knows, maybe Sanchez can keep some of the talent in Nevada from leaving the state. This hire is worth the risk for UNLV.
Final Grade: C
15. John Bonamego, Central Michigan
Previous Job: Special teams coach with the Detroit Lions
Career Record: First season
Central Michigan was put in a difficult spot once Dan Enos left Central Michigan for Arkansas less than two weeks before Signing Day. The Chippewas had to scramble to complete their 2015 signing class, and it was tough to fill a head coaching vacancy this late in the process. But Central Michigan found a familiar face in Bonamego that is ready for his first opportunity to be a head coach. Bonamego has worked for the last 12 years as a special teams assistant in the NFL, with his last collegiate experience coming in 1998 at Army. Bonamego played at Central Michigan in the 1980s and was an assistant at Mount Pleasant High School (Michigan) in 1987. As we mentioned earlier, finding a coach in late January/early February is challenging. Bonamego is familiar with Central Michigan and probably isn’t looking to bolt Mount Pleasant anytime soon. The Chippewas slipped after the Brian Kelly/Butch Jones era, and Enos was headed for the hot seat in 2015. Central Michigan is one of the better jobs in the MAC. Bonamego has no previous experience as a head coach and has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator. Hiring a good staff with proven coordinators will be essential.
Final Grade: D
College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The Pac-12 has moved up the ladder in college football’s conference hierarchy in recent years. With Oregon replacing quarterback Marcus Mariota and a loaded group of teams battling for the top spot in the South Division, the conference has even more intrigue in 2015. Can the Ducks win the conference once again? Or will Stanford or a team from the South win in the championship game for the first time?
Early North Division Rankings
2014 Record: 13-2 (8-1)
The biggest challenge of coach Mark Helfrich’s tenure at Oregon starts in 2015. Helfrich must find a replacement for quarterback (and Heisman Trophy winner) Marcus Mariota this spring, and there’s not a proven option ready to take control of the Ducks’ high-powered attack. Could a transfer come into play as Mariota’s replacement? Regardless of which quarterback starts in 2015, the skill talent is among the best in the nation. Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman anchor a talented backfield, while the receiving corps returns Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington. After finding a replacement for Mariota, the biggest area of concern for Helfrich has to be the offensive line, which loses tackle Jake Fisher, guard Hamani Stevens and center Hroniss Grasu. The defense played better in the second half of the year under new coordinator Don Pellum. However, this unit must replace end Arik Armstead, linebacker Tony Washington and loses defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB), Troy Hill (CB) and Erick Dargan (S).
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
The bar has been raised in Palo Alto. Stanford won 46 games from 2010-13 and recorded four straight years of finishes of 11th or better in the last Associated Press poll. Despite the recent success, the Cardinal slipped to 8-5 in 2014. The defense continued to perform at a high level without coordinator Derek Mason, limiting opponents to 4.2 yards per play. Second-year coordinator Lance Anderson has work to do this spring, as Stanford must replace a handful of key standouts, including end Henry Anderson, tackle David Parry, linebackers A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters, safety Jordan Richards and cornerback Alex Carter. The offense had its share of ups and downs last season and averaged only 23.8 points per game in Pac-12 contests. Even though left tackle Andrus Peat and receiver Ty Montgomery must be replaced, Stanford should be optimistic about improvement. Running back Christian McCaffrey showed promise in limited snaps, and quarterback Kevin Hogan ended the year on a high note (14 of 20 for 189 yards and 2 TDs against Maryland).
2014 Record: 8-6 (4-5)
Chris Petersen’s first year wasn’t necessarily a disappointment, but the bar was set high in Seattle after he recorded a 92-12 mark at Boise State from 2006-13. Petersen will continue reshaping the program into the offseason, and the Huskies have a chance to play spoiler in the North with Oregon visiting Seattle in mid-October. Quarterback play has to improve for Petersen to elevate the program into division title contention. Cyler Miles threw for 17 touchdowns and completed 66.6 percent of his throws in his first year as the starter. But the Huskies need more from this position, especially after the offense generated only 36 passing plays (11th in the Pac-12) of 20 yards or more. Developing the talent at receiver is another offseason priority for Petersen, and the line loses four starters from a group that limited Pac-12 defenses to just 21 sacks. Revamping the trenches on defense is also a necessity after standouts Danny Shelton (NT) and Hau’oli Kikaha (DE/LB) expired their eligibility, and linebacker Shaq Thompson left early for the NFL. The secondary gave up 55 plays of 20 yards or more in 2014 but should take a step forward in 2015 with Budda Baker, John Ross and Sidney Jones returning.
2014 Record: 5-7 (3-6)
The Golden Bears were one of the most-improved teams in the Pac-12 this season. After a 1-11 mark in coach Sonny Dykes’ debut, California jumped to 5-7 in 2014 and lost four games by eight points or less. The next step for Dykes is to get the Golden Bears back into a bowl. And there’s a good shot of this team reaching that mark in 2015, as quarterback Jared Goff is one of the best in the Pac-12, and the receiving corps returns standouts in Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler. Running back Daniel Lasco (1,115 yards in 2014) might be the Pac-12’s most underrated player. Dykes needs his offense to score 35-40 points a week until the defense turns a corner under coordinator Art Kaufman. The Golden Bears allowed 44.1 points in Pac-12 contests last season and did not place a player on the All-Pac-12 team. The challenge of getting to a bowl in 2015 won’t be easy with a schedule that features crossover games against USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Utah. Also, California plays at Oregon and Stanford next year.
5. Oregon State
2014 Record: 5-7 (2-7)
Change is inevitable at every college program. For the first time since 2002 (Dennis Erickson), someone other than Mike Riley will roam the sidelines as Oregon State’s head coach. Gary Andersen was one of the top hires this offseason and comes to Corvallis after a 19-7 mark at Wisconsin from 2013-14. Andersen has four consecutive winning seasons as a head coach, but that streak will be in jeopardy in 2015. Oregon State loses quarterback Sean Mannion, and defensive standouts in linebacker D.J. Alexander, cornerback Steven Nelson, end Dylan Wynn, and safeties Ty Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy. Running back Storm Woods and receivers Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin are a good place to start on offense, and the line – a source of concern in 2014 – should be better with all five starters back and a healthy Isaac Seumalo ready to contribute on the interior. Andersen’s background is on defense, and the hire of Kalani Sitake (Utah) should pay dividends for the Beavers.
6. Washington State
2014 Record: 3-9 (2-7)
The Cougars appeared to be trending in the right direction after a 6-7 mark and a bowl appearance in 2013. But an injury to quarterback Connor Halliday and a struggling defense prevented coach Mike Leach’s team from showing improvement in the win column. Washington State enters spring practice with several question marks, with the No. 1 priority starting at quarterback. Is Luke Falk the answer under center? Falk averaged 443.3 passing yards over the final four games but tossed six picks in his last two appearances. The return of Gabe Marks will soften the blow of losing No. 1 receiver Vince Mayle. New coordinator Alex Grinch inherits a defense that allowed 41.9 points in Pac-12 games and gave up 6.6 yards per play in league action. Grinch is already dealing with a few challenges this offseason, as linebacker Darryl Monroe transferred, cornerback Daquawn Brown was dismissed, and top lineman Xavier Cooper left for the NFL.
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Early South Division Rankings
2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)
The Pac-12 South is one of the toughest divisions in the nation to predict next season. Each team has personnel concerns, but a case could be made for five programs to have a legitimate shot at the division in 2015. The recruiting rankings favor USC as the most talented team in the South next season, but depth is an issue with the program still digging out from NCAA sanctions. Quarterback Cody Kessler is back for his senior year after throwing 39 touchdowns in 2014. Kessler headlines an offense that should be explosive once again, provided replacements are found for receiver Nelson Agholor and running back Buck Allen. The offensive line is slated to return all five starters from the Holiday Bowl, including freshman standouts Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao. With the loss of defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and rush end J.R. Tavai, the biggest concerns for USC in 2015 are with its defense. The schedule sets up favorably for a run at the South Division title, as the Trojans host Stanford, Washington, Utah, Arizona and UCLA.
2. Arizona State
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
The Sun Devils have 20 wins over the last two seasons, which is the best two-year mark for the program since a 20-4 stretch from 1996-97. Coach Todd Graham’s team should squarely be in the mix for the South Division title in 2015, especially with Oregon, Arizona and USC visiting Sun Devil Stadium. Quarterback Taylor Kelly must be replaced, but Mike Bercovici (12 TDs, 4 INTs) has proven capable in limited opportunities. Receiver Jaelen Strong and left tackle Jamil Douglas are key losses for the offense. However, the return of running back (and potential slot receiver) D.J. Foster will help the receiving corps, while Damario Richard and Kalen Ballage is a solid one-two punch at running back. Graham’s aggressiveness on defense paid off with 39 sacks and 98 tackles for a loss. This unit returns largely intact but loses All-Pac-12 safety Damarious Randall and end Marcus Hardison (10 sacks).
2014 Record: 10-4 (7-2)
The Wildcats are the defending Pac-12 South champions and should be in the mix for the conference title once again in 2015. Provided the line finds capable replacements for tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele and center Steven Gurrola, the offense could surpass last year’s 33.4 points per game average in Pac-12 contests. Quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are back after standout freshman campaigns, and the receiving corps returns Cayleb Jones, Trey Griffey, DaVonte’ Neal and Samajie Grant. While the offense is among the best in the league, the defense is still trying to find the right pieces under coordinator Jeff Casteel. Linebacker Scooby Wright is one of the nation’s top defensive players returning in 2015.
2014 Record: 10-3 (6-3)
The Bruins are picked No. 4 in our early pre-spring rankings, but that’s largely a byproduct of how loaded this division will be in 2015. And if you need anymore evidence, it’s very likely five teams from the South rank among the top 25 in most preseason polls. How high UCLA climbs in next year’s projections largely depends on its ability to replace quarterback Brett Hundley. Will true freshman Josh Rosen win the job over Jerry Neuheisel and Asiantii Woulard? Replacing a standout quarterback is a huge question mark to overcome, but the Bruins can shield their new starter with a strong supporting cast. Running back Paul Perkins returns after recording 1,575 yards and nine scores, while seven players that caught at least 26 passes are back. Each level of the defense has losses to address, with the biggest coming in the linebacking corps with the departure of Eric Kendricks.
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-4)
It’s been an interesting offseason in Salt Lake City. There was reported friction between coach Kyle Whittingham and athletic director Chris Hill after assistant coaches Dave Christensen (OC), Ilaisa Tuiaki (DL), and Kalani Sitake (DC) departed for other jobs. While the Utes have holes to fill on the coaching staff, this team will be a tough out for the rest of the Pac-12 next year. Left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi left early for the NFL, but the offense returns largely intact. Is Travis Wilson ready to take the next step in his development? Or will Kendal Thompson claim the job after recovering from a knee injury. Until the passing game stabilizes, the offense can lean on running back Devontae Booker (1,512 yards and 10 scores in 2014). Although Sitake will be missed as the team’s signal-caller, Utah’s defense shouldn’t change much with Whittingham’s background on defense. The Utes led the nation with 55 recorded sacks and held opponents to 24.9 points per game. End Nate Orchard, tackle Sese Ianu, safety Brian Blechen and cornerback Eric Rowe are the biggest losses on defense.
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
The win column may not show it, but Mike MacIntyre has Colorado moving in the right direction. The Buffaloes have won six games under MacIntyre’s watch and are just 1-17 in Pac-12 games. However, Colorado lost four games by five points or less in 2014. The outlook for this team in 2015 has improved thanks to the development of quarterback Sefo Liufau, along with the return of Nelson Spruce to Boulder after he considered jumping early to the NFL. The defense allowed 7.1 yards per play in Pac-12 games and surrendered 43 points per contest in league matchups this season. That’s the bad news. On the positive sign, most of the defensive two-deep returns, and the line regains the services of Samson Kafovalu (missed 2014 due to personal reasons). Expect improvement from Colorado in 2015.
College football’s 2014 season has ended, and the focus shifts from the national championship picture to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year and Ohio State’s national title victory over Oregon is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The Big 12 was the only power conference without a team in the college football playoff this season. However, that could easily change in 2015. Baylor and TCU are playoff contenders, while Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas should be in contention for a spot in preseason top 25 projections.
Related: Athlon's 2015 Big 12 Predictions
Early Big 12 Predictions and Rankings for 2015
2014 Record: 12-1 (8-1)
It’s a close call for the top spot in the Big 12 next season, but TCU edges Baylor in the pre-spring power rankings. The Horned Frogs have a proven option at quarterback (Trevone Boykin), while the Bears will be breaking in a new starter to replace Bryce Petty. And it certainly doesn’t hurt TCU’s chances of winning the division with the annual matchup with Baylor coming in Fort Worth this year. As usual in Fort Worth under coach Gary Patterson, defense should be a strength. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 4.7 yards per play in 2014. TCU does have a few personnel losses to address, as tackle Chucky Hunter, linebacker Paul Dawson and defensive backs Sam Carter, Kevin White and Chris Hackett must be replaced.
2014 Record: 11-2 (8-1)
With at least 10 wins in three out of the last four seasons, it’s safe to say Baylor no longer rebuilds. Under coach Art Briles, the Bears simply reload and will be in the mix for at least a share of the conference title for the third consecutive year. Seth Russell, Chris Johnson, and true freshman Jarrett Stidham are expected to battle to replace quarterback Bryce Petty, but the supporting cast is among the best in the nation. Shock Linwood returns at running back after recording 1,252 yards and 16 scores in 2014, and three receivers – Jay Lee, Corey Coleman and KD Cannon – are back after each caught at least 40 passes and averaged 15 yards per reception last season. The offense was a big winner around the draft deadline, as left tackle Spencer Drango decided to return to Waco for his senior year. Baylor is slated to return all five starters on its offensive line. The defense has room to improve after allowing 5.7 yards per play (conference-only games) in 2014. However, only two seniors are slated to depart, and end Shawn Oakman is back after recording 11 sacks last season.
2014 Record: 8-4 (5-4)
The Sooners were one of the biggest disappointments in the nation last season. Oklahoma was pegged as a playoff contender in most preseason predictions, but coach Bob Stoops’ team finished 8-5 and lost the last two games of the year. But there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. New offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley inherits a talented backfield, and a passing attack that is in need of an upgrade after the Sooners tossed only 13 scores in nine Big 12 games. Although Riley is an Air Raid disciple, Oklahoma needs to maximize its stable of running backs – Samaje Perine, Alex Ross, Keith Ford and Joe Mixon – until the quarterback situation is established. Trevor Knight couldn’t capitalize off his Sugar Bowl success and finished 2014 with just 14 touchdowns to 12 picks in 10 games. Knight will have a chance to reclaim the starting job, but he will be pushed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. Another concern for Riley is the departure of four starters on the line, including standout tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams. The offense isn’t the only side of the ball in need of repair. The defense had nine returning starters, yet allowed 5.6 yards per play, generated only 19 sacks in Big 12 play and gave up 29.2 points in conference-only matchups. Tackle Jordan Phillips and end Chuka Ndulue are big losses up front, but the linebacking corps returns intact, and Frank Shannon is back after a suspension. The secondary needs to cut down on its big plays allowed – 50 of 20 yards or more – in 2015.
4. Oklahoma State
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-5)
The Cowboys have momentum entering spring practice after a two-game winning streak to close out the 2014 season. Oklahoma State had massive personnel losses to overcome last year and returned just eight starters. The Cowboys used a win over rival Oklahoma to get bowl eligible and scored an impressive win over Washington in the Cactus Bowl. A big reason for optimism in Stillwater is the development of quarterback Mason Rudolph. The true freshman threw for 853 yards and six scores over the last three games and should benefit from the return of the top five statistical receivers from 2014. The offensive line has to play better after allowing 40 sacks last season. End Emmanuel Ogbah, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson anchor a defense that should improve after giving up 5.9 yards per play in Big 12 games last year.
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2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4)
Charlie Strong will get Texas back in contention for the Big 12 title. But don’t expect a conference championship in 2015 or even significant improvement in the win column. Texas won three out of its final five games but had a dismal showing in the Texas Bowl and was soundly defeated by TCU (48-10) in late November. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes needs to make a big jump in performance for the Longhorns to finish in the top half of the Big 12, and top receivers Jaxon Shipley and John Harris must be replaced. Until Swoopes is ready to shoulder more of the offense, this team can lean on running back Johnathan Gray and five starters on the line. The arrival of Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford paid immediate dividends for the defense. Texas held opponents to just 4.7 yards per play and only 23.4 points per game in Big 12 action. Each level of the defense has a key player to replace, but the biggest and most significant loss is tackle Malcom Brown.
6. Kansas State
2014 Record: 9-4 (7-2)
It’s tough to pick against Bill Snyder, but the Wildcats are losing a handful of key contributors from their 2014 team. Quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett are the biggest departures on offense. Waters passed for 22 scores and 3,501 yards in 2014, while Lockett was one of the nation’s top receivers (106 catches, 1,515 yards). Replacing both players will be a challenge, and the offense has to find more consistency in its ground attack next year. While the skill talent needs to be stocked and a quarterback must be found, the offensive line returns four starters, including standout left tackle Cody Whitehair. The personnel losses extend to the defense. End Ryan Mueller, linebacker Jonathan Truman and defensive back Randall Evans have expired their eligibility. Mueller is the biggest loss out of that trio, but K-State’s front seven should benefit from the emergence of linebacker Elijah Lee and the return of tackle Travis Britz.
7. West Virginia
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-4)
Coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 finish in 2013. But the Mountaineers rebounded, finishing with a 7-6 record and a winning mark (5-4) in Big 12 play for the first time since joining the conference. Skyler Howard showed promise in limited action (8 TDs, 0 INTs), but needs to raise his completion percentage (50.9). In addition to getting Howard acclimated to the starting role, the receiving corps must replace Kevin White and Mario Alford, while standout guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski have expired their eligibility. The strength of the offense should be at running back, as Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Andrew Buie return after combining for 1,742 yards. Under the direction of first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, West Virginia’s defense cut its yards per play allowed from 5.9 to 5.4 and held opponents to 27.6 points per game (sixth in the Big 12). The Mountaineers should take another step forward on defense next year, as the secondary returns three standouts in cornerback Daryl Worley and safeties Dravon Henry and Karl Joseph. Pass-rush specialist Shaq Riddick, defensive end Brandon Golson and linebacker Wes Tonkery are the biggest losses on defense.
8. Texas Tech
2014 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Since starting the 2013 season 7-0, Texas Tech is just 5-13 over its last 18 games. But the Red Raiders are a good candidate to rebound back to a bowl in 2014, as most of the team’s starting core returns, and new coordinator David Gibbs should bring stability to a defense that has struggled in recent years. Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes will battle to earn the starting nod under center for 2015, with Mahomes (averaged 439.7 total yards over last three games) likely holding an edge for the No. 1 spot. Mahomes isn’t hurting for skill talent, as DeAndre Washington (RB), Jakeem Grant (WR) and standout left tackle Le’Raven Clark are back. Gibbs’ defenses at Houston had a knack for forcing turnovers, and the Red Raiders need better discipline and takeaways after recording a -13 margin in 2014. Texas Tech allowed 41.3 points per game last season, and it’s clear Gibbs has a lot of work to do in the spring to generate improvement from the defense in 2015.
9. Iowa State
2014 Record: 2-10 (0-9)
Iowa State is one of the toughest jobs among Power 5 programs. The Cyclones are 5-19 over the last two seasons and went winless in Big 12 play in 2014 for the first time since 2008. Getting back to a bowl will be a challenge for coach Paul Rhoads, as Iowa State loses a handful of key seniors. The offense should be better under the second year of coordinator Mark Mangino, and the passing attack will benefit from a healthy Quenton Bundrage at receiver. In addition to Bundrage’s return, the coaching staff has to be pleased with the development of receiver Allen Lazard (45 catches as a true freshman in 2014). The defense allowed 6.8 yards per play in Big 12-only contests last season. But there’s optimism in Ames for improvement, as only two starting seniors depart – Jared Brackens (LB/S) and Cory Morrissey (DE). Safety Kamari Cotton-Moya should be in the mix for All-Big 12 honors next year.
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-8)
New coach David Beaty is known for his recruiting ties to the state of Texas, and his previous experience at Kansas (2008-09 and 2011) should benefit the program. But the first-year coach is going to need some time to restock the roster and get the Jayhawks in contention for bowl games. This team played better after Charlie Weis was fired, and interim coach Clint Bowen remains on staff as the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator. Both sides of the ball have major question marks entering spring practice. Quarterback Michael Cummings and running back Corey Avery are two pieces for the offense to build around next season, but the receiving corps lost its top three options. All-Big 12 linebacker Ben Heeney has expired his eligibility, and Bowen must find a replacement for rush end Michael Reynolds, and three starters in the secondary.
The early entry deadline for the 2015 NFL Draft has passed, and the 72-hour window for players to remove their name is gone.
The NFL has released the official list of players declaring for the draft on Monday, as 84 players are set to depart college for the next level.
These 10 players were granted eligibility for the 2015 NFL Draft since they have graduated:
Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
Zach D’Orazio, WR, Akron
Charles Gaines, DB, Louisville
Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
Nigel King, WR, Kansas
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Donovan Smith, T, Penn State
Tacoi Sumler, WR, Appalachian State
These 74 players were granted eligibility as underclassmen:
Nelson Agholor, WR, Southern California
Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
Kwon Alexander, LB, Louisiana State
Javorius Allen, RB, Southern California
Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon
Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
Alex Carter, DB, Stanford
B.J. Catalon, RB, Texas Christian
Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
Jalen Collins, DB, Louisiana State
Landon Collins, DB, Alabama
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Xavier Cooper, DT, Washington State
Christian Covington, DT, Rice
DaVaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame
Ronald Darby, DB, Florida State
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
Lorenzo Doss, DB, Tulane
Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State
Durell Eskridge, DB, Syracuse
George Farmer, WR, Southern California
Max Flores, LB, Northern Colorado
Ereck Flowers, T, Miami
Dante Fowler, DE, Florida
Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
Jacoby Glenn, DB, Central Florida
Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Chris Hackett, DB, Texas Christian
Eli Harold, DE, Virginia
Chris Harper, WR, California
Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky
Gerod Holliman, DB, Louisville
D.J. Humphries, T, Florida
Danielle Hunter, DE, Louisiana State
David Irving, DT, Iowa State
Jesse James, TE, Penn State
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Matt Jones, RB, Florida
Tyler Kroft, TE, Rutgers
Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
Patrick Miller, T, Auburn
Tyler Moore, G, Florida
Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DT, Southern Mississippi
Andrus Peat, T, Stanford
Breshad Perriman, WR, Central Florida
Marcus Peters, DB, Washington
Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas
Bradley Pinion, P, Clemson
Jaquel Pitts, WR, Trinity International
Jeremiah Poutasi, T, Utah
Darien Rankin, LB, North Carolina
Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State
James Sample, DB, Louisville
Jean Sifrin, TE, Massachusetts
Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Max Valles, LB, Virginia
Easton Wahlstrom, LS, Arizona State
Trae Waynes, DB, Michigan State
Leonard Williams, DE, Southern California
Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota
P.J. Williams, DB, Florida State
Trey Williams, RB, Texas A&M
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The early entry deadline for the 2015 NFL Draft has passed, and while the overall number of players leaving for the next level won’t match the 98 that declared last season, there’s no shortage of talent departing the college scene.
With the early entrants declared, it’s time to take a look at the winners and losers from a college football perspective.
The early entry deadline is a key point in the offseason, as this is usually the final hurdle to determining which key players will return to a roster for the upcoming season.
Baylor, Auburn, Notre Dame and Ohio State are four winners from the draft deadline process, while Florida State, Oregon and Florida are three teams dealing with significant personnel departures to the next level.
It’s hard to slot Alabama into either designation for this column. The Crimson Tide had major losses – receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins – but this team could have lost a few more players to the next level. Defensive end Jarran Reed and linebacker Reggie Ragland are returning to Tuscaloosa, which should ensure Alabama ranks at the top of the SEC in defense next season. Finding replacements for Cooper and Collins will be the two of the top spring priorities for coach Nick Saban this spring.
Big-play receiver Sammie Coates is off to the NFL, but the damage could have been greater for coach Gus Malzahn. Instead, Auburn managed to keep linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost on campus for their senior season, and receiver Duke Williams returns after catching 45 passes in his debut with the Tigers.
TCU is considered by most to be the early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2015, but Baylor isn’t far behind. The Bears have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four years and regain the services of left tackle Spencer Drango and defensive end Shawn Oakman after both decided to return for their senior year.
Clemson lost only one player – punter Bradley Pinion – to the NFL Draft. But that’s not why the Tigers earn a mention in this space. With Florida State losing five players early to the NFL, the door is open for Clemson to jump to the top of the Atlantic Division once again. With the Seminoles trying to retool the roster next year, the Tigers hope a healthy Deshaun Watson at quarterback will be enough to overcome a revamped front seven on defense and earn the team’s first division title since 2011.
Coach Mike MacIntyre’s rebuilding effort in Boulder will continue into 2015 with one of the team’s top offensive weapons. Receiver Nelson Spruce emerged as the offense’s go-to option after Paul Richardson left early for the NFL. The junior caught 106 passes for 1,198 yards and 12 scores. Spruce should be one of the Pac-12’s top receivers in 2015.
As expected, running back Todd Gurley left Athens for the NFL, but the rushing attack won’t miss a beat with Nick Chubb stepping into the full-time No. 1 role. Outside of Gurley, Georgia did not lose another player to the early entry deadline. Tackle John Theus, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd were four players mentioned as potential departures, but all are slated to return to Athens in 2015.
LSU seemed to be a lock for the other side of this column after the Music City Bowl. The Tigers have suffered significant losses to the NFL over the last few seasons, which were a contributing factor in the team’s 8-5 record – the first season of less than double-digit wins since 2009. The losses in 2014 aren’t as heavy as the group leaving Baton Rouge after the 2012 season, but coach Les Miles has to replace end Danielle Hunter, cornerback Jalen Collins and linebacker Kwon Alexander. But the news for Miles isn’t all bad. Defensive back Jalen Mills and offensive linemen Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander are expected to return after considering an early entry to the draft. With the concerns at quarterback, getting Hawkins and Alexander for another season is critical for a team that has to rely on the run in 2015.
The Spartans had some bad news at the deadline with cornerback Trae Waynes leaving East Lansing for the NFL. However, Michigan State returned arguably its best offensive and defensive player for next season after quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun turned down the NFL. The return of Cook and Calhoun should allow the Spartans to push for a spot among the top 10 teams next year.
The Bulldogs lost All-SEC linebacker Benardrick McKinney and running back Josh Robinson to the NFL, but quarterback Dak Prescott is back for his senior year. Prescott was a first-team All-SEC selection and averaged 341.2 total yards per game in 2014. Losing McKinney and Robinson hurts, but Prescott’s return should keep Mississippi State in the mix to be a top 25 team next year.
The Fighting Irish finished an up-and-down season with a bowl win over LSU, which should give coach Brian Kelly’s team momentum heading into spring practice. And the good news didn’t stop with the Music City Bowl victory, as tackle Ronnie Stanley, guard/center Nick Martin and defensive end Sheldon Day all decided to return to South Bend next season. Notre Dame doesn’t lose much in the way of senior starters, so this team could easily improve off its 8-5 mark from 2014.
It’s unusual for a team to win a national title and lose zero players early to the NFL Draft. But that’s exactly what transpired at Ohio State. The Buckeyes had no players enter the draft and return to defend their title in 2015 with the depth chart nearly intact. Left tackle Taylor Decker, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and quarterback Cardale Jones were the candidates generating the most interest among NFL scouts, but all three will help Ohio State make a run at the title next year.
The Utes had a mixed bag of results at the draft deadline. Offensive tackle Jeremiah Poutasi (second-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) left Salt Lake City for the next level, but Utah returns standout running back Devontae Booker. In his debut with the Utes, Booker – a junior college recruit – rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 scores. He also added 42 receptions for 311 yards and two touchdowns.
A 7-6 record was a disappointing finish for a Virginia Tech program that had a favorable schedule and hopes of winning the Coastal Division in 2014. While the fanbase is getting restless in Blacksburg, there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. Cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy are back from injuries, while defensive end Dadi Nicolas (18 TFL and 8.5 sacks) decided to pass on the NFL for another season at Virginia Tech.
The return of running back Jonathan Williams keeps Arkansas’ potent one-two punch on the ground intact, but the Razorbacks lost a key piece of their defense with the departure of tackle Darius Philon. The line was already set to lose standout end Trey Flowers (15.5 TFL), and Philon was set to be one of the SEC’s top defensive linemen in 2015. Now, not only are the Razorbacks replacing their best defensive end and linebacker, their best defensive tackle is off to the NFL.
As if new coach Jim McElwain didn’t have enough personnel issues to sort out, the Gators lost four players – end Dante Fowler, offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, running back Matt Jones and guard Tyler Moore – to the NFL Draft. Fowler is the team’s biggest loss, but Florida’s offensive line is thin on depth and proven talent. Restocking the trenches is McElwain’s biggest priority going into 2015.
Five players from Florida State’s roster are off to the next level, and there are some heavy losses for coach Jimbo Fisher to address this offseason. Quarterback Jameis Winston was one of college football’s top players over the last two seasons and should be the No. 1 pick in the draft. The other four early departures are on defense, as Mario Edwards, tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams declared for the next level. All four players were considered among the ACC’s top defenders over the last few seasons.
Running back Tevin Coleman carried the Indiana offense in 2014, recording 2,036 yards and 15 rushing scores on 270 attempts. Coleman’s totals are even more impressive when you consider the Hoosiers lost starting quarterback Nate Sudfeld early in the year due to injury, and the backup signal-callers combined for one touchdown pass over the final six games.
The Cardinals lost three defensive backs off a defense that ranked second in the ACC by limiting opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. Safety Gerod Holliman, cornerback Charles Gaines and safety James Sample are leaving for the next level, and all three players were key pieces in the secondary. Holliman led the team with 14 picks, while Sample intercepted four passes and recorded 90 stops. Gaines was one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC this year, breaking up 10 passes in 13 games.
The Hurricanes are still looking for their first Coastal Division title. The path to a trip to the conference championship game isn’t going to be any easier in 2015 with the departure of running back Duke Johnson and offensive tackle Ereck Flowers early to the NFL. Johnson ranked second in the ACC by rushing for 1,652 yards, while Flowers anchored the line from the left tackle spot. After losing their last three games in 2014, there’s pressure on coach Al Golden to turn things around in 2015. Needless to say, losing Flowers and Johnson doesn’t help those odds.
The Tigers suffered only one loss to the NFL. However, it was a massive hit to the defense. End Shane Ray (22.5 TFL and 14.5 sacks) left after a standout 2014 season. Ray’s departure is magnified even more with starters Markus Golden (end) and Matt Hoch (tackle) exhausting their eligibility.
Bob Stoops is searching for a few answers after Oklahoma finished a disappointing 8-5 in 2014. A revamp of the coaching staff is underway, but the roster suffered a blow on both sides of the ball in the draft process. Receiver Dorial Green-Beckham declared without playing a down in Norman, while defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (39 tackles, 2 sacks) is a huge loss on the interior of the line.
The news at the deadline wasn’t all negative for the Ducks. End DeForest Buckner is coming back for his senior year, and his return helps to soften the blow of Arik Armstead’s decision to leave Eugene after his junior campaign. Despite Buckner’s return, that’s not enough to overcome quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner won’t be easily replaced in 2015.
Due to NCAA sanctions, Penn State was shorthanded on scholarships over the last few seasons. First-year coach James Franklin had to overcome a lot of roster problems in 2014, especially up front on an offensive line that was thin on proven depth this year. The Nittany Lions reportedly played the Pinstripe Bowl with just 41 scholarship players, and Franklin’s job in 2015 got a little tougher with the departure of end Deion Barnes, tight end Jesse James and tackle Donovan Smith.
In addition to replacing a handful of departing seniors, Stanford lost cornerback Alex Carter and left tackle Andrus Peat early to the NFL. Peat is regarded as one of the top tackle prospects for the 2015 draft and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Carter recorded 41 tackles and nine pass breakups in 2014 and is projected to go in the second or third round by some scouting services.
The Knights shared the American Athletic Conference crown with Memphis and Cincinnati this year and three of the team’s four losses came against Power 5 opponents. UCF’s league title hopes for 2015 took a hit this week with the departure of cornerback Jacoby Glenn (7 INTs) and receiver Breshad Perriman (20.9 ypc) – two first-team all-conference selections in 2014.
The Bruins return a solid core of talent for 2015 and could win the Pac-12 South if the young talent on the roster develops this offseason. But coach Jim Mora has to fill a major void under center with the departure of quarterback Brett Hundley. With Hundley bolting to the NFL, UCLA could turn to incoming freshman Josh Rosen under center next year. Defensive lineman Ellis McCarthy (21 tackles, three sacks) also left Westwood for the next level.
The good: Quarterback Cody Kessler (39 TDs) is back for his senior year. Kessler’s return could elevate USC as the favorite in the Pac-12 South, but the Trojans lost receiver Nelson Agholor, running back Buck Allen, receiver George Farmer and defensive end Leonard Williams to the NFL. Williams could be one of the first five picks off the board in the first round, while Agholor and Allen were two of the best at their position in the Pac-12 this year.
Coach Mike London earned another year at Virginia after the Cavaliers finished 5-7 in 2014. But in order for London to stick around for the long haul, he needs to get Virginia back to the postseason. That goal got tougher with the draft deadline, losing end Eli Harold and linebacker Max Valles to the next level. Valles and Harold were key cogs in UVa’s pass rush, accumulating 16 of the team’s 34 sacks in 2014.
First-year coach Chris Petersen didn’t have the debut most expected, as Washington closed out the year with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl and finished 8-6 overall. The Huskies lose a handful of key seniors next season, and linebacker Shaq Thompson must be replaced. Thompson was a two-way threat for Washington, rushing for 456 yards and two scores and recording 80 tackles on defense.
The emergence and development of young talent can play a critical role in any team’s position in the race to win a college football national championship or conference title. And unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
The 2014 college football season ended on Monday night with Ohio State’s 42-20 win over Oregon, but it’s never too early to look at what’s ahead in 2015. The Buckeyes and Ducks had the obvious star players entering the 2014 campaign. However, the emergence of linebacker Darron Lee (Buckeyes) and running back Royce Freeman (Ducks) helped to answer two key question marks for their team over the course of the season.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 10 potential breakout stars for 2015.
10 Early Picks for CFB’s Breakout Players in 2015
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
New coordinator Kevin Steele certainly isn’t hurting for young talent. Adams is one of the SEC’s top young defenders after recording 66 tackles (five for a loss) and five pass breakups as a true freshman in 2014. The Texas native ranked as the No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and should be in the mix for a full-time starting job with the defense slated to lose one starting safety (Ronald Martin) and a cornerback (Jalen Collins). Look for Adams to become one of the top players in the LSU secondary and contend for All-SEC honors next season.
Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State
Apple started 14 of 15 games in Ohio State’s run to the national championship this season, and the New Jersey native is poised for even bigger things in 2015. The Buckeyes aren’t losing much on defense, but standout cornerback Doran Grant expired his eligibility after the national title. With Grant moving to the NFL, Apple is expected to become the No. 1 cornerback for Ohio State. And the rising sophomore is ready for the promotion. In 15 games this season, Apple recorded 53 tackles (5.5 for a loss), three interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Apple should emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top cornerbacks next year.
Budda Baker, S, Washington
Baker was pegged as the top recruit in Washington’s 2014 signing class, and the true freshman certainly lived up to the hype. Baker recorded 80 tackles (fourth on the team), one interception, six pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The Washington native earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2014 and will be a key cog in the rebuilding effort on defense next season. The Huskies had two freshmen and two sophomores listed as starters for the Cactus Bowl matchup against Oklahoma State. Although youth in the secondary can be problematic, the early experience and playing time should pay off for Baker and the other Washington defensive backs in 2015.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon was the best running back in college football this season, but Wisconsin’s rushing attack is in good hands with Clement. As Gordon’s backup in 2014, Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine scores (6.5 yards per carry). He rushed for 105 yards in the bowl win over Auburn and recorded 164 yards on 13 attempts against Illinois. Clement averages seven yards per rush through his first two seasons in Madison and is due for a breakout campaign with the opportunity to record 250-275 carries next season.
Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA
The Bruins had to replace their top three statistical players in generated sacks from 2013, and the pass rush just wasn’t the same early in the 2014 season. UCLA ended the year with 29 sacks – tied for eighth in the Pac-12 – and improved over the course of the 13-game slate. Hollins came on strong over the final few weeks of 2014, recording six of his nine sacks in the final four games. Hollins was dominant at the line of scrimmage against Kansas State (three sacks) and recorded four tackles and a sack against USC.
Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
With two starts already under his belt, Johnson is the heavy favorite to replace Nick Marshall as Auburn’s starting quarterback in 2015. In 2014, Johnson completed 28 of 37 passes for 436 yards and three scores, including a 12 of 16 performance for 243 yards against Arkansas in the season opener. The Montgomery native also started as a true freshman in 2013 and completed 17 of 21 passes for 201 yards and four scores. Johnson isn’t as dynamic as Marshall was on the ground, but he is more advanced as a passer heading into the 2015 season. Coach Gus Malzahn is one of the top offensive minds in college football, and Johnson should thrive as the full-time starter in an offense that’s capable of averaging 35-40 points a game.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
Clemson’s defense led the nation by limiting opponents to just four yards per play in 2014. But coordinator Brent Venables has his work cut out for him in 2015, as the front seven has to be revamped with the departures of ends Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes, along with defensive tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Lawson is a key piece in the rebuilding effort and played in all 13 games in 2014. The South Carolina native recorded 34 tackles (11 for a loss) and 3.5 sacks. With the departure of Beasley, the Tigers need Lawson to generate around 10 sacks in 2015.
Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Texas
The Longhorns ranked second in the Big 12 by limiting opponents to just 4.7 yards per play in 2014. Coach Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford have holes to fill in order for this defense to perform at a high level next season, with the biggest departure coming at defensive tackle. Malcom Brown was arguably the top defender in the Big 12 this season, recording 72 tackles (a high number for an interior lineman), 6.5 sacks for a loss and two forced fumbles. Ridgeway started the final 10 games at nose tackle in 2014 and recorded 43 tackles (11 for a loss) and six sacks. The Texas native had a significant jump in terms of production and playing time from 2013 to 2014. Expect Ridgeway to anchor the defensive line for Strong and Bedford next year.
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys had a significant amount of roster turnover prior to the 2014 season and regressed in the win column to a 7-6 finish. However, the future looks bright in Stillwater, as quarterback Mason Rudolph (a true freshman in 2014) gave the team a spark in the final three games of the season. Rudolph completed 49 of 86 passes for 853 yards and six touchdowns and guided the team to a road win over Oklahoma and a bowl victory over Washington. After struggling with injuries and inconsistency at quarterback this season, the Cowboys have a future star in Rudolph ready to take a step forward next year.
Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State
With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and four offensive line starters, Florida State’s offense is in transition for the 2015 season. While there are new faces cracking the starting lineup, there’s no shortage of talent available for coach Jimbo Fisher. Rudolph caught 38 passes for 555 yards and four scores as a true freshman this year. The Florida native grabbed 11 of his 38 receptions over the final two games, including a 96-yard performance in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon. Rudolph and Ermon Lane were two of the top receiver prospects in the 2014 signing class, and both players looked like future stars in Tallahassee in their freshman debut.
College football’s 2014 season is officially in the books. The new four-team playoff was a success, and the new postseason format resulted in Ohio State claiming a 42-20 win over Oregon in the national championship. While the title celebration won’t stop in Columbus anytime soon, there are a handful of teams examining what’s next after key personnel departures.
Florida State and Oregon were playoff teams in 2014, but both programs have to overcome a lot of personnel question marks to reach that mark next year. The Seminoles and Ducks are due for a small step back in the win column in 2015. However, don’t expect either to disappear as a national contender in future years. There’s enough young talent and a track record at both programs to suggest any dip in the win total will be short-lived. On the flipside, Iowa is a program that seems stale. Can Kirk Ferentz find the right answers to get the program back on track?
While kickoff for the 2015 season is still months away, it’s never too early to start looking at rosters, depth charts and coaching changes for teams poised to fall in the rankings or struggle to match their 2014 win total next year.
5 CFB Teams Likely to See Their Win Total Decline in 2015
File Florida State and Oregon in this column as obvious mentions. It’s simply hard to maintain a high level of success with significant personnel departures, especially after losing the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The Seminoles have 39 victories over the last three seasons and have won at least nine games in each of coach Jimbo Fisher’s five years in Tallahassee. There’s little doubt Florida State will be back in contention for a playoff bid in the future, but without Jameis Winston, four new starters on the line and receiver Rashad Greene, there’s a transition period coming for the Seminoles on offense next year. And the Seminoles have work to do on defense, as this unit took a step back on the stat sheet in 2014 and must replace tackle Eddie Goldman, end Mario Edwards Jr. and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Florida State is Athlon’s early favorite to win the ACC Atlantic next year. However, the Seminoles will take a small step back in the overall landscape and miss out on a playoff bid with the turnover on the depth chart.
Bill Snyder is one of college football’s top coaches, and it’s always risky to count out the Wildcats in any preseason prediction. But as we turn the page from 2014 to 2015, Kansas State has some major personnel losses. The prolific combination of quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett have expired their eligibility, and the offense also must replace standout center B.J. Finney and receiver Curry Sexton. The defense loses All-Big 12 end Ryan Mueller, linebacker Jonathan Truman and defensive back Randall Evans. Mueller led the team with 11 tackles for a loss, while Truman paced all defenders with 128 stops. Evans picked recorded four picks and defended 14 passes in 2014. There’s still a solid core of players returning to Manhattan next season but winning at least eight games for the fourth consecutive year might be too much to ask with the departure of a handful of key seniors. Don’t count out Snyder’s team, but K-State is set for a small regression in wins next year.
There was plenty of optimism in Iowa City coming into the 2014 season. The Hawkeyes returned 11 starters from a team that won four out of its last six games in 2013. Additionally, the offensive and defensive lines were pegged as two of the best in the Big Ten, and quarterback Jake Rudock was coming off a solid performance (2,383 yards, 18 TDs). The schedule featured home dates against Wisconsin and Nebraska, and coach Kirk Ferentz’s team missed Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State in crossover play. Instead of capitalizing on a favorable slate, Iowa backtracked in 2014. The Hawkeyes finished 7-6 and lost five out of its final seven games. None of Iowa’s seven victories came against a FBS team with a winning record, and Tennessee thoroughly dominated the Hawkeyes in the TaxSlayer Bowl (45-28). While the Hawkeyes have surprised when low expectations surrounded this team, Ferentz and this staff have to replace standout left tackle Brandon Scherff, receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and defensive standouts Carl Davis (DT), Louis Trinca-Pasat (DT) and safety John Lowdermilk. Improving from the seven-win mark isn’t unrealistic with a favorable schedule, but it’s also hard to expect a significant jump in wins after finishing with just one winning mark in Big Ten play since 2010. Has this program simply gone too stale under Ferentz?
As we mentioned with Florida State, it’s almost too obvious to mention Oregon here. No, the Ducks aren’t going to drastically fall off in 2015, but it’s going to be difficult to contend for a playoff spot with quarterback Marcus Mariota leaving for the NFL. Coach Mark Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost will spend most of the preseason identifying a favorite under center and retooling a line that loses standouts Jake Fisher (OT) and center Hroniss Grasu. The defense played better in the second half of the season, but coordinator Don Pellum has a few areas to address this spring. The line loses end Arik Armstead, and the secondary must replace cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, linebacker Tony Washington and safety Erick Dargan. The Ducks should be the favorite in the Pac-12 North next season, but this team likely slides from playoff contention into the 7-15 range in most preseason polls.
The Gamecocks were considered by some to be the favorite in the SEC East in 2014, but this program backtracked after recording three consecutive seasons of at least 11 wins. A win over Miami prevented South Carolina from its first losing record since 2003. While coach Steve Spurrier is one of the nation’s best, this program has a ton of personnel issues heading into 2015 and a turnaround in the win column may have to wait a year. Quarterback Dylan Thompson, running back Mike Davis, and offensive linemen Corey Robinson (LT) and A.J. Cann (LG) leave big shoes to fill on offense. The defense struggled mightily, giving up 6.2 yards per play and allowing 36.8 points per game in SEC contests. Youth played a part in South Carolina’s defensive struggles in 2014 and most of the depth chart returns next season, providing hope for a turnaround on the stat sheet. On the positive side, the Gamecocks are set to ink their fifth consecutive top 20 signing class – with a few critical defensive prospects – in early February. It’s hard to count out a Spurrier-coached team. But with Tennessee and Florida improving, South Carolina’s road to another East Division title (and improvement in the win column) just got tougher.
College football’s 2014 season is over, and it’s time to take a look back and review the teams, players and coaches before predicting what’s to come in 2015. The coaching carousel is always one of the hot topics every offseason. And as expected, the 20 new coaches from the 2014 season had a mixed bag of success.
Washington’s Chris Petersen and Penn State’s James Franklin were the two coaches getting the most preseason buzz as the top first-year hires. But Petersen and Franklin had their share of struggles in 2014, as the Huskies and Nittany Lions combined for an 15-12 mark. Both coaches are still a great fit for the long run at their respective programs, but the two coaches earning the highest marks in our eyes for their 2014 performance are Georgia Southern’s Willie Fritz and UAB’s Bill Clark.
Let’s take a look at how the first-year coaches performed and grade their debut:
Grading College Football's First-Year Coaches from 2014
1. Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
2014 Record: 9-3 (8-0 Sun Belt)
Georgia Southern made a splash in its FBS debut, finishing with a perfect 8-0 mark in the Sun Belt and 9-3 overall. The Eagles were close to even bigger things in the win column, as this team held its own against NC State (lost by one point) and was lost to Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech by just four points. Fritz came to Georgia Southern after a successful stint at Sam Houston State and didn’t deviate from what made this program successful on the FCS level. The Eagles pounded away on the ground with their option attack on offense, leading the nation with an average of 379.9 yards rushing per game. Georgia Southern also finished first nationally with 55 rushing scores and lost only 12 turnovers all season. Due to the transition to the FBS ranks, the Eagles were ineligible for a postseason game. However, Georgia Southern is primed to become one of the top programs in the Sun Belt, and Fritz (146-65 as a head coach) is the right coach for the job.
Final Grade: A+
2. Bill Clark, UAB
2014 Record: 6-6 (4-4 C-USA)
Clark transformed a UAB program that won five games in its two previous years to a competitive squad and one that reached bowl eligibility (6-6) for the first time since 2004. The Blazers were significantly more competitive under Clark than previous coach Garrick McGee. UAB battled against Mississippi State (47-34), nearly defeated Marshall (23-18) and recorded a .500 mark in C-USA play for the first time since 2009. Both sides of the ball showed marked improvement, as the Blazers averaged 33.2 points per game (up from 26.3 in 2013), and the defense held opponents to 5.7 yards per play (vs. 7.2 in 2013). Despite a positive long-term outlook with Clark at the helm, UAB’s program was (wrongly) eliminated at the end of the year.
Final Grade: A+
3. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
2014 Record: 12-2 (7-1 Mountain West)
As a former player and assistant with the Broncos, Harsin is the perfect fit at Boise State. And if the first year was any indication of what’s to come, the Broncos are going to be a consistent top-25 team and play in major bowl games on a yearly basis. Boise State improved its win total by four games after finishing 2013 with an 8-5 mark and capped the year by winning the Mountain West Championship and the Fiesta Bowl over Arizona. The Broncos’ only losses came against Ole Miss in the opener (35-13) and a bizarre seven-turnover performance against Air Force. Harsin and coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. brought a spark to the offense, averaging 39.7 points per game (up from 37.5 in 2013), while Boise State’s defense held opponents to 5.2 yards per play. Harsin has to replace standout running back Jay Ajayi, but it’s hard to pick against the Broncos as the early favorites to win the Mountain West in 2015.
Final Grade: A
4. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
2014 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Bobby Petrino’s return to the Louisville sideline went as expected. The Cardinals finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play in their ACC debut. The 23-21 loss to Virginia was the only puzzling defeat on the resume, with Louisville’s other three losses coming at the hands of Florida State, Clemson and Georgia – teams that combined for a 33-7 record. Petrino has room to grow the Cardinals’ offense in 2015 after averaging only 5.5 yards per play (eighth in ACC). However, the defense was among the best in the nation under the direction of first-year coordinator Todd Grantham. Louisville limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play and generated 30 turnovers (tied for 11th nationally).
Final Grade: A-
5. Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky
2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 C-USA)
Brohm was promoted to head coach after Bobby Petrino left Western Kentucky for Louisville. Prior to 2014, Brohm had no experience as a head coach on the FBS level. However, the Louisville native had an impressive debut. The Hilltoppers went 8-5 and lost four games by eight points or less. Brohm and coordinator Tyson Helton installed a wide-open offense and averaged 44.4 points per game behind quarterback Brandon Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes. The defense allowed nearly 40 points per game in 2014, which is one area for Brohm to address in the offseason if WKU is going to make a run at the C-USA title.
Final Grade: A-
6. Dino Babers, Bowling Green
2014 Record: 8-6 (5-3 MAC)
Babers was considered by Athlon Sports to be one of the top hires in the new coach cycle for 2014, and the former Eastern Illinois coach and long-time assistant didn’t disappoint. Bowling Green went 8-6 overall and won the MAC East despite losing starting quarterback Matt Johnson after the opener and dealing with a handful of injuries on defense. The Falcons lost their final three games but rebounded to win the bowl matchup over South Alabama. Babers wants to implement a “Falcon Fast” approach on offense, and Bowling Green’s passing attack should be better in 2015 with Johnson back under center.
Final Grade: B+
7. Steve Sarkisian, USC
2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12
Sarkisian’s first season at USC wasn’t perfect. But the Trojans won nine games, including a 49-14 pounding of Notre Dame and 28-26 win over Pac-12 South champ Arizona in early October. A 9-4 mark in Sarkisian’s debut certainly wasn’t awful, but USC lost three games by six points or less and was soundly defeated 38-20 by rival UCLA. Of particular concern were the Trojans’ losses to Boston College and Arizona State, games where USC was favored by double digits. Depth in the program has been a concern with scholarship sanctions, but the Trojans are finally able to sign a full class in 2015. With quarterback Cody Kessler and a solid group of young players returning on both sides of the ball returning, USC could be the favorite in the Pac-12 South next year.
Final Grade: B
8. Charlie Strong, Texas
2014 Record: 6-7 (5-4 Big 12)
Strong is trying to change the culture of the program, and it’s evident through roster attrition he’s trying to eliminate some of the weak links and bad apples. Although Texas and Strong want to finish better than 6-7, the Longhorns overcame the loss of starting quarterback David Ash and a shuffled offensive line due to suspensions and injuries to get to a bowl. Strong’s specialty is on defense, so it was no surprise Texas limited opponents to just 4.7 yards per play. Defense should always be a strength in Austin under Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford’s watch, but the offense has to take a step forward. Is Tyrone Swoopes the right answer at quarterback? This program is trending in the right direction. However, it may take another year or two before Texas is ready to contend for a Big 12 title again.
Final Grade: B
9. James Franklin, Penn State
2014 Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)
Much like USC’s Steve Sarkisian, Franklin is trying to juggle a roster through NCAA sanctions. According to Franklin, Penn State had only 41 scholarship players available for the Pinstripe Bowl. Most teams have around 85 scholarship players on the roster. The Nittany Lions started 4-0 but slipped to 4-4 and lost three out of their final five regular season games. A bowl win over Boston College gave Franklin’s team momentum heading into the offseason, and improved scholarship numbers should help the team address one of its glaring concerns – the offensive line. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg was constantly pressured all season, and the line surrendered 44 sacks. After losing four games by seven points or less, it’s reasonable to expect Penn State to improve by a game or two in the win column next season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the Nittany Lions’ 2015 outlook that coordinator Bob Shoop was retained after interest from LSU.
Final Grade: B
10. Blake Anderson, Arkansas State
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-3 Sun Belt)
Anderson was Arkansas State’s fifth coach in five years, yet the Red Wolves continued to have success by recording their fourth consecutive winning record. Considering the recent coaching transition and personnel losses heading into 2014, it’s no surprise Arkansas State took a small step back in the win column (8-5 in 2013 to 7-6 in '14). However, two of this team’s defeats came at the hands of Power 5 opponents (Tennessee and Miami), and the Red Wolves lost by five to an Appalachian State team that caught fire in the second half of the year. Anderson’s background on offense was showcased, as Arkansas State ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 36.7 points per game. Quarterback Fredi Knighten earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors in 2014, and his return should make the Red Wolves one of the front-runners for the conference title. Based on the 2014 season, all signs suggest Anderson is the right coach to keep Arkansas State as one of the top programs in the Sun Belt.
Final Grade: B
11. Mark Whipple, UMass
2014 Record: 3-9 (3-5 MAC)
Whipple’s return to Amherst generated a two-game improvement in the win column and a team that was significantly more competitive in the MAC. The Minutemen gave Colorado (41-38) and Vanderbilt (34-31) a scare and lost three conference games by a touchdown or less. The loss of quarterback Blake Frohnapfel against Toledo prevented UMass from having a chance at winning its final two games (Akron and Buffalo). Whipple’s return also helped the Minutemen improve an offense that averaged just 4.3 yards per play in 2013. UMass averaged 5.8 yards per play in 2014, and Frohnapfel led the MAC by recording 334.5 passing yards per game. Whipple is clearly the right coach for the Minutemen, and his return comes at a critical time for a program that does not have a conference home slated for 2016 and beyond.
Final Grade: B-
12. Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)
2014 Record: 2-10 (2-6 MAC)
Martin inherited a mess and a team coming off an 0-12 record, but the RedHawks showed improvement in 2014 and finished with two wins. And with a few breaks here and there, Miami (Ohio) could have won a few more games, as Martin’s team lost five games by eight points or less. To provide an immediate boost in the win column, Martin turned to a few graduate transfers, and quarterback Andrew Hendrix (27 total TDs) and tight end Alex Welch (former Notre Dame players) were two of the team’s top offensive weapons. And the coaching staff also unearthed cornerback Quinten Rollins (a RedHawk basketball player), and the senior emerged as a NFL prospect. Martin has a lot of work to do in 2015, as Hendrix must be replaced, and the RedHawks have to find answers for a defense that allowed 33.9 points per game in MAC contests.
Final Grade: B-
13. Chris Petersen, Washington
2014 Record: 8-6 (4-5 Pac-12)
High expectations surrounded Petersen after he left Boise State for Washington. In eight years as the Broncos’ head coach, Petersen went 92-12 and led the program to two BCS bowl wins. The Huskies were optimistic Petersen was the right coach to elevate the program after Steve Sarkisian went 34-29 in five seasons in Seattle. But things didn’t go according to preseason expectations. Petersen finished his Washington debut at 8-6, which included a loss to Oklahoma State in the Cactus Bowl and a last-minute defeat against Arizona. The Huskies were loaded with talent in the front seven on defense, and even with a young secondary, this unit limited Pac-12 opponents to 24 points per game. The main area of focus for Petersen this offseason should be on offense. Washington averaged only 5.4 yards per play and needs more production from the quarterback position. Finishing 8-6 isn’t necessarily a disappointment, but Petersen’s debut was a little underwhelming after most considered him to be one of the offseason’s top hires.
Final Grade: B-
14. Dave Clawson, Wake Forest
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7 ACC)
As expected, 2014 was a struggle for Wake Forest in Clawson’s first year. The Demon Deacons had major question marks at quarterback, running back, receiver and on the offensive line. Considering all of the personnel concerns, Clawson knew 2014 was a rebuilding year and handed the keys to the offense to freshman quarterback John Wolford. Wake Forest averaged only 3.4 yards per play and a paltry 14.8 points per game. The defense was the team’s bright spot and was better than the numbers showed in 2014. Clawson is a proven winner as a head coach, enjoying success at three different programs prior to coming to Wake Forest. Although 2014 was a struggle, most of the team’s problems weren’t going to be fixed in one offseason. Expect the Demon Deacons to take a step forward in 2015.
Final Grade: B-
15. Craig Bohl, Wyoming
2014 Record: 4-8 (2-6 Mountain West)
Bohl is going to win at a high level at Wyoming, but it’s going to take the former North Dakota State coach a few years to build the program into a consistent winner. The Cowboys started 3-1 but finished the season with just one victory over the final eight games. Three of the defeats came by 10 points or less, so there’s hope for a few more wins next year with small improvement on both sides of the ball. Wyoming struggled to find consistency in the passing game, recording only nine touchdown tosses during Mountain West play. And despite eight returning starters, the defense allowed 6.8 yards per play in conference action. Considering the scheme changes on both sides of the ball, a year of transition was expected. However, Bohl has a track record of success, and Wyoming should be in contention for a bowl in 2015.
Final Grade: C+
16. Jeff Monken, Army
2014 Record: 4-8
Winning at West Point is no easy task. Army has just one winning season since 1997 and has lost at least eight games in four consecutive years. With a background in running the option offense, Monken should be a good fit with the Black Knights over the long haul. And this program took a small step forward by winning four games in 2014, which was the highest mark since recording seven in '10. Army beat UConn, yet lost to Yale in overtime. The Black Knights were competitive (lost by seven) against Navy, so there are signs of optimism for Monken heading into spring practice. Tough job, but Monken’s the right coach.
Final Grade: C+
17. Charlie Partridge, FAU
2014 Record: 3-9 (2-6, C-USA)
Partridge was a highly-regarded assistant prior to his hire as FAU’s head coach, and the Florida native was known as an excellent recruiter within the state of Florida. Partridge’s ties to the high school ranks should help the Owls on the recruiting trail, and FAU is set to sign one of the top classes in C-USA for 2015. Partridge’s first season as the Owls’ head coach resulted in a three-game regression in the win column. FAU went from 6-6 in 2013 to 3-9 and won only two conference games. The Owls did lose four games by three points or less, so a couple of breaks the other way could have resulted in a 6-6 or 5-7 mark. If Partridge continues to recruit at a high level, FAU will be one of the annual contenders in C-USA’s East Division.
Final Grade: C+
18. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
The bar was set high for Mason after James Franklin guided Vanderbilt to three consecutive bowl games. And the Commodores were due to regress in the win column after returning only eight starters for 2014. However, Mason’s debut was a bigger struggle than most anticipated. Vanderbilt failed to win a SEC game for the first time since 2009 and its only wins came against UMass, Old Dominion and Charleston Southern. After the three-win season, Mason isn’t sitting idle. The staff has been revamped, starting with both coordinator positions. Andy Ludwig (formerly of Wisconsin) replaces Karl Dorrell as the offensive play-caller, and Mason will handle the defensive signals. According to Vanderbilt’s game notes, the Commodores played 31 true or redshirt freshmen in 2014. That’s a good sign for the future, and Mason’s staff shuffling should be a positive for this program. Winning at Vanderbilt isn’t easy, and Mason was faced with a tough task to begin with given Franklin's three-year run. Mason needs a little time to develop some of the program’s young players before contending for a bowl.
Final Grade: D
19. Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
2014 Record: 2-10 (1-7 MAC)
Eastern Michigan is the toughest job on the FBS level. This program has only one winning season (1995) since 1990. Considering the difficulty of winning at Eastern Michigan, it’s unfair to judge Creighton based on one year. As expected in 2014, the Eagles didn’t have much success in the win column. Eastern Michigan recorded only one win in conference play and narrowly defeated Morgan State (31-28) for its only other victory of the season. Prior to taking over in Ypsilanti, Creighton went 42-22 at Drake (FCS), 63-15 at Wabash (Div. III) and 32-9 at Ottawa (NAIA). That experience should pay off in rebuilding Eastern Michigan, as it’s going to take Creighton another year or two to get this program competitive in the MAC West.
Final Grade: D
20. Bob Diaco, UConn
2014 Record: 2-10 (1-7 American Athletic)
Diaco was a highly-regarded assistant coach prior to taking the top spot in Storrs. The New Jersey native won the 2012 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and helped to coordinate one of college football’s best defenses when Notre Dame played in the national championship game in 2012. Despite his success as an assistant, it was a tough go in Diaco’s first season as UConn’s head coach. The Huskies won only two games – Stony Brook (by three points) and a 37-29 victory over UCF – and finished the year on a four-game losing streak. During that late-season skid, UConn dropped its finale to SMU, arguably one of the worst teams in the nation in 2014. In fairness to Diaco, he didn’t inherit much to work with. The Huskies had major offensive line issues, uncertainty at quarterback and a defense with just five returning starters. It’s hard to find improvement in UConn’s 2014 season. But Diaco inherited a mess and needs more than a year to right the ship.
Final Grade: D
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is leaving Eugene for the NFL after three seasons as the Ducks’ starting signal-caller. The Heisman Trophy winner declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday and finished his career at Oregon as arguably the top player in school history. With Mariota moving onto the NFL, there are big shoes to fill under center for the Ducks in 2015.
During his three-year run as Oregon’s No. 1 quarterback, Mariota threw for 10,796 yards and 105 touchdowns. He also rushed for 2,237 yards and 29 scores. While those numbers are impressive, the biggest asset of Mariota in the Ducks’ offense was his efficiency. He finished his career with just 14 interceptions on 1,167 attempts and completed 66.8 percent of his throws. Mariota also averaged 13.9 yards per completion over the last three years.
With Mariota gone, the focus shifts to the next crop of quarterbacks in Eugene. Coach Mark Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost have done a nice job of picking up where Chip Kelly left off, and now it’s up to the staff to find the next star quarterback. While Mariota’s production is impossible to replace, the Ducks have one of the nation’s top offensive systems and an array of talented skill players. Frost is also a bright play-caller and Oregon’s offense will again be one of the best in the Pac-12 in 2015.
Let’s take a look at what’s next for the Ducks at quarterback next year:
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
Lockie has to enter the spring as the favorite to replace Mariota. He was listed as the backup on the depth chart in 2014 and completed 29 of 41 passes for 264 yards and one score over the last two seasons. Lockie was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and has 32 rushing yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in his Oregon career.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
Alie is a walk-on from Eugene and has yet to attempt a pass in two seasons with the Ducks. A longshot to win the job.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Redshirt Freshman
Mahalak was rated as a four-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite (No. 228 nationally) in the 2014 signing class. After a year learning the offense as a redshirt, Mahalak should be ready to compete for the starting job. The California native completed 61.5 percent of his throws and rushed for 575 yards as a high school senior in 2013.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
Griffin was recruited as an athlete to Georgia Tech and transferred to Eugene after one season. The sophomore is a talented athlete and spent 2014 working with the scout team. Griffin’s brother (Taj) is a top-100 recruit as an all-purpose back in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled early with the Ducks for spring practice.
The wild card: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Miller has one year of eligibility remaining, and there are plenty of rumblings the senior will transfer for an opportunity to start in 2015. With J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones likely entrenched as the top quarterbacks in Columbus, playing time could be limited if Miller returns to Ohio State. If Miller decides to transfer, LSU, Florida State and Oregon have been mentioned as potential landing spots. There’s some risk involved with the senior, as he is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and may not participate in practice until the fall. Despite the shoulder concerns, Miller would be a good fit in Oregon’s offense. Will he transfer to Eugene or stick in Columbus? Miller’s home for 2015 should be a hot topic over the next few months.
Oregon has one quarterback committed for the 2015 signing class (as of Jan. 14)
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 77 recruit nationally
When Waller arrives on campus, he’s the quarterback with the highest rank among recruiting experts. The California native committed to Oregon over Alabama in July. Here’s a good scouting report on the incoming freshman.
The Supporting Cast
Three key starters are gone on the offensive line – Jake Fisher, Hroniss Grasu and Hamani Stevens – but the skill talent is among the best in the nation. The Ducks return Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner at running back, while the receiving corps is loaded with Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington, Byron Marshall, Bralon Addison and Devon Allen coming back in 2015.
Lockie has to be the slight favorite based on his experience over the last two years and practice time running the Oregon offense. While the guess here is Lockie takes the first snap of 2015, Braxton Miller’s decision could alter this outlook. If Miller transfers to Eugene, he would replace Lockie as the favorite as the Ducks’ No. 1 quarterback. Waller and Mahalak are talented, but both players may be a year away from winning the starting job. Let’s go with Lockie as the favorite, but keep a close watch on Miller’s transfer destination this spring.
College football’s 2014 season is officially in the books. The new four-team playoff was a success, and the new postseason format resulted in Ohio State claiming a 42-20 win over Oregon in the national championship. The Buckeyes are the favorites to repeat next season, but winning back-to-back college football national championships isn’t easy. While kickoff for the 2015 season is still months away, it’s never too early to start looking at rosters, depth charts and coaching changes for teams poised to make a jump in the rankings next year.
With a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams – perhaps a couple of times in the offseason.
What teams have our attention for 2015? Arizona State, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Tennessee get the nod as our top five teams on the rise, but keep a close eye on Arkansas and Michigan next year.
College Football’s Top Five Teams on the Rise for 2015
With only eight returning starters (and just two on defense), most considered 2014 a rebuilding year for Arizona State. The Sun Devils ranked No. 19 in the first Associated Press poll but finished one win away from playing for the Pac-12 Championship for the second year in a row. The Sun Devils have recorded back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories for the first time since 1972-73, and this team could rank among the top 10-15 in the nation in preseason polls. Quarterback Taylor Kelly will be missed, but Mike Bercovici (12 TDs, 4 INTs) has played well when called upon. Outside of getting Bercovici acclimated to being the full-time starter, the offense has to replace top receiver Jaelen Strong and left tackle Jamil Douglas. Strong and Douglas are big losses, but the Sun Devils have a deep stable of running backs, and talented junior college recruit Eric Lauderdale is ready to contribute after a redshirt year. Despite returning only two starters on defense, Arizona State ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in sacks generated (39) and held opponents to 27.9 points per game. There’s plenty of optimism about this group for 2015 with two just senior starters departing. The Sun Devils also have a favorable path to a South Division title, featuring home games against USC, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
Since reaching the national championship in 2012, Notre Dame is 17-9 in the last two seasons and finished 2014 by losing five out of its last seven games. While those two numbers are reason to doubt the Fighting Irish, there’s a lot to like about this team in 2015. Most of the depth chart is intact on both sides of the ball, and the return of end Ishaq Williams and cornerback KeiVarae Russell should bolster a defense that struggled in the second half of the season. Malik Zaire’s performance (12 of 15, 96 yards, 1 TD and 96 rush yards) in the Music City Bowl was promising, and the young quarterback should enter spring practice as the favorite to take the opening snap of 2015. Regardless of whether it’s Zaire or Everett Golson under center, the supporting cast will be solid. Notre Dame returns its top four statistical receivers, Tarean Folston (889 yards) is back running back, and the offensive line has four starters in place, including standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Fixing the defense will be coach Brian Kelly’s top priority this spring, as the Fighting Irish gave up at least 30 points in seven out of their last eight games. On the positive side for Kelly, Notre Dame’s defense was hit hard by injuries and is due for better luck in that department next season. The schedule is tough, but the Fighting Irish has the personnel to be a darkhorse contender for a playoff spot next season.
Under coach Mike Gundy’s watch, Oklahoma State has won at least nine games in five out of the last seven seasons. The Cowboys are coming off a 7-6 mark in 2014, which was no surprise considering the team entered the year with just seven returning starters and lost around 30 seniors from the 2013 squad. After a 5-1 start, Oklahoma State lost five in a row and needed an upset win over Oklahoma in the regular-season finale to reach the postseason. The Cowboys won their bowl game over Washington to finish with a winning record for the ninth consecutive year. While 2014 was a step back in the win column, the arrow is pointing up on Oklahoma State next season. True freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph was pressed into action due to injuries and passed for 853 yards and six touchdowns over the final three games. Rudolph should benefit from a full spring to work as the starter, and the young signal-caller is surrounded by talent at receiver, including five of the top six statistical options from 2014. The biggest concerns on offense remain up front (40 sacks allowed last year) and at running back. The defense has to replace tackles James Castleman and Ofa Hautau and linebacker Josh Furman, but end Emmanuel Ogbah and linebacker Ryan Simmons lead a unit that returns largely intact. And with a team that will be developing and improving as the season progresses in 2015, Oklahoma State should benefit by playing its three toughest games (TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma) at home in Stillwater in November next year.
Georgia is the early favorite in the SEC’s East Division next year, but is Tennessee the biggest threat to the Bulldogs’ championship hopes? It’s certainly possible. The Volunteers are making steady progress under coach Butch Jones, improving their win total by two games from 2013 to 2014. And Jones was able to move the program forward in the win column despite playing 23 true freshmen – the most in the nation – this season. Recruiting is going well for Tennessee, so there’s another group of talented players headed to Knoxville to replenish the roster in time for the 2015 season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd lead the way on offense, and the receiving corps should benefit from a healthy Marquez North. The offensive line was an inexperienced group in 2014 and struggled with five new starters. However, this unit only loses tackle Jacob Gillam and should improve with an offseason to jell as a group. The defense allowed 27.1 points per game in SEC contests last season, but there’s reason to believe this could be one of the most improved groups in the conference next year, especially with the continued development of end Derek Barnett.
Texas A&M’s win total under coach Kevin Sumlin has dropped in back-to-back years after recording an 11-2 mark in 2012. But there’s still plenty to like about the direction of this program, starting with the changes to the coaching staff. Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M has struggled mightily on defense and needs to fix that group to contend in the division. The Aggies took a big step forward on defense with the addition of veteran coordinator John Chavis. “The Chief” engineered some of the SEC’s top defenses in his tenure at LSU, and his experience in developing talent should pay dividends for Texas A&M with a front seven that’s littered with youth. In the first season without Johnny Manziel, the Aggies averaged 35.2 points per game. That number could climb in 2015 with Kyle Allen’s development at quarterback, as well as the return of a talented receiving corps featuring Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones. With another top 10 recruiting class headed to College Station, the talent level and depth at Texas A&M is only going to get better.
Eight Teams on the Rise - The Next Tier
The Razorbacks nearly made the cut as one of our top five teams on the rise for 2015. In coach Bret Bielema’s second season, Arkansas may have been a year ahead of schedule. The Razorbacks used a powerful ground attack and improved defense to reach the postseason, elevating expectations for eight or nine wins next year. Coordinator Robb Smith has his work cut out on defense with the departure of talented linemen Darius Philon and Trey Flowers. The formula for success on offense won’t change much, but Arkansas will have a new play-caller after the departure of Jim Chaney to Pittsburgh. The offensive line is among the best in the nation, and a healthy Brandon Allen at quarterback made a difference for the Razorbacks in 2014. This team could finish seventh in the SEC West next year, yet rank among the top 20-25 in the nation based on the strength of the division.
The Golden Bears just missed out on a bowl (5-7) after struggling to a 1-11 record in coach Sonny Dykes’ first season (2013). Taking the next step and reaching a bowl should be a reasonable goal for California in 2015, especially since talented quarterback Jared Goff returns after throwing for 3,973 yards and 35 touchdowns. Chris Harper left for the NFL, but the receiving corps isn’t hurting for talent. Running back Daniel Lasco might be the Pac-12’s most underrated player. Fixing the defense remains a work in progress for Dykes and an instant fix after allowing 44.1 points in nine Pac-12 games is unlikely.
Tom Herman was one of the top hires of the 2014-15 coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for Houston next season. Junior quarterback Greg Ward recorded at least 350 total yards in back-to-back games to close out the year, and Herman thrived at Ohio State by coaching dual-threat options like Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Herman has to restock the receiving corps with the departure of Deontay Greenberry to the NFL, but 1,000-yard rusher Kenneth Farrow is back next year.
The Wildcats fell one win short of reaching the postseason in coach Mark Stoops’ second year. However, optimism is running high in Lexington. Kentucky lost its final six games, but Stoops and his staff have closed the gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the East. Recruiting has improved since Stoops’ arrival, and Kentucky returns a handful of key offensive contributors, including quarterback Patrick Towles, running backs Boom Williams and Braylon Heard, along with receiver Ryan Timmons. The biggest personnel issues for Stoops to address in the spring are on defense. Ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith must be replaced, and safety Ashely Lowery expired his eligibility after recording 48 stops in 2014.
Make no mistake: Michigan has its share of personnel concerns to address for 2015. However, Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor should be worth a couple of victories for the Wolverines. Harbaugh hired an outstanding staff, including former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. Linebacker Jake Ryan must be replaced, but Durkin’s arrival (and keeping Greg Mattison on staff) should help Michigan field one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. The offense is a work in progress, but this is Harbaugh’s area of expertise. Expect to see some improvement from the Wolverines on that side of the ball in 2015.
The Wolfpack improved their win total by five games from 2013 to 2014. With quarterback Jacoby Brissett and running back Shadrach Thornton returning, NC State could take another step forward in the win column in 2015. There are personnel concerns for coach Dave Doeren, as both starting offensive tackles (Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler) and key defenders (end Art Norman, tackle Thomas Teal and linebacker Rodman Noel) must be replaced. The receiving corps needs a new go-to target to emerge after Bo Hines transferred after a standout freshman campaign.
With a favorable schedule in place, there was hope in Blacksburg for Virginia Tech to contend for the Coastal Division title. But perhaps those title hopes were a year ahead of schedule. The Hokies were a young team in 2014 and suffered two huge injury setbacks on defense with the loss of cornerback Brandon Facyson and tackle Luther Maddy early in the season. There’s promising talent at the skill positions, but the offense won’t improve unless Michael Brewer cuts down on interceptions (15) and the line provides more protection. A key schedule note for Virginia Tech next season: The Hokies won’t have to play Florida State, Louisville or Clemson in crossover play.
With Marshall losing several key players, Western Kentucky could be the team to beat in C-USA’s East Division. The Hilltoppers went 8-5 in coach Jeff Brohm’s first season and return prolific quarterback Brandon Doughty (49 TDs) and receivers Jared Dangerfield and Taywan Taylor in 2015. The defense allowed 39.9 points per game last season, but only two seniors were listed as starters on the Bahamas Bowl depth chart.
The 2014 college football season just ended, but the upcoming 2015 campaign isn’t that far off. Bovada is getting a start on 2015 by releasing early championship odds for next season.
Ohio State is a favorite to repeat, with TCU and Alabama just behind the Buckeyes in the overall odds.
Check out Bovada’s early national championship odds for 2015:
Ohio State: 5/1
Florida State: 16/1
Michigan State: 16/1
Notre Dame: 20/1
Mississippi State: 28/1
Texas A&M: 33/1
Arizona State: 40/1
Boise State: 40/1
Ole Miss: 40/1
Georgia Tech: 50/1
Kansas State: 50/1
Oklahoma State: 50/1
South Carolina: 50/1
Penn State: 75/1
West Virginia: 75/1
North Carolina: 100/1
Oregon State: 100/1
Virginia Tech: 100/1
Boston College: 200/1
Texas Tech: 200/1
Oregon fell short of claiming its first national championship with a 42-20 loss to Ohio State on Monday night. The Ducks have played in college football’s title game in two out of the last five years but lost both matchups. The lack of a championship trophy shouldn’t minimize the run Oregon has been on in recent years. The Ducks have won at least 10 games in each of the last seven seasons, including a 24-4 start to coach Mark Helfrich’s tenure in Eugene.
As the Ducks turn the page from 2014 to 2015, Helfrich and his staff have some significant question marks to address. Will Marcus Mariota return? If Mariota doesn’t return, who steps up to fill the void under center? Can Oregon replace a few key contributors on defense?
Let’s take a look at what Oregon returns in 2015 and a few question marks for this team to address before the opening kickoff next year:
QB Marcus Mariota (may leave early for NFL)
RB Royce Freeman
RB Thomas Tyner
RB/WR Byron Marshall
WR Devon Allen
WR Darren Carrington
WR Dwayne Stanford
WR Bralon Addison
TE Pharaoh Brown
OT Tyler Johnstone
RG Cameron Hunt
OT Tyrell Crosby
WR Keanon Lowe
LT Jake Fisher
LG Hamani Stevens
C Hroniss Grasu
DE Arik Armstead (may leave early for NFL)
DE DeForest Buckner (may leave early for NFL)
NG Alex Balducci
LB Rodney Hardrick
LB Joe Walker
LB Tyson Coleman
LB Christian French
LB Torrodney Prevot
CB Chris Seisay
S Reggie Daniels
S Tyree Robinson
LB Tony Washington
LB Derrick Malone
CB Troy Hill
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu
S Erick Dargan
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
Will Mariota return to Oregon next season? If he doesn’t, coach Mark Helfrich and coordinator Scott Frost will have big shoes to fill under center. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been rumored as a possible transfer, but if the Ducks lose Mariota and fail to land any additions in the offseason, Jeff Lockie, Morgan Mahalak, Ty Griffin, Taylor Alie and incoming freshman Travis Waller will compete for the starting job.
Fill the Voids Up Front
The Ducks are loaded with skill talent next season, but the offensive line has a few holes to fill. The unit’s top players – left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu – have expired their eligibility. There’s some experience coming back, and this group will get a boost from Tyler Johnstone’s return from a knee injury. A major drop in production would be a surprise, but this unit has some significant work to do in the offseason.
Considering Oregon’s style of play on offense, it’s unreasonable to expect the defense to be a shutdown unit. However, the Ducks were an opportunistic group in the first season under coordinator Don Pellum and navigated the loss of standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in a Rose Bowl win over Florida State. But Pellum could have some major holes to address in the offseason if defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead bolt to the NFL. Additionally, the secondary loses standouts in cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, along with safety Erick Dargan. If Mariota leaves for the NFL, the Oregon offense will take a small step back on the stat sheet. While the defense could suffer a few significant losses, the Ducks will need more out of this group, at least until a quarterback is found to replace Mariota.
Ohio State is back on top of the college football world after a 42-20 win over Oregon in the national championship on Monday night. The run to the title was a surprising one for coach Urban Meyer’s team, as the Buckeyes were down to their third quarterback and had to defeat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the playoff committee rankings. However, no obstacle was too tough for Ohio State to overcome. Even though the 2014 season just finished, it’s never too early to think about next year. The Buckeyes should be the favorite to repeat with most of the depth chart returning, but like every team in college football, there will be issues for Meyer and his staff to iron out in the spring.
Can Ohio State repeat in 2015? Let’s take a look at the key returners, departures and some of the questions facing this team next year:
QB J.T. Barrett
QB Cardale Jones
QB Braxton Miller
RB Ezekiel Elliott
HB Dontre Wilson
HB Jalin Marshall
WR Michael Thomas
TE Nick Vannett
LT Taylor Decker
RG Pat Elflein
LG Billy Price
C Jacoby Boren
WR Devin Smith
TE Jeff Heuerman
RT Darryl Baldwin
DE Joey Bosa
DT Adolphus Washington
LB Darron Lee
LB Joshua Perry
LB Raekwon McMillan
CB Eli Apple
S Tyvis Powell
S Vonn Bell
DB Armani Reeves
P Cameron Johnston
DE Steve Miller
DT Michael Bennett
LB Curtis Grant
CB Doran Grant
Three Offseason Storylines to Watch
Crowded QB Depth Chart
Urban Meyer and the offensive staff have a good problem on their hands this offseason. The Buckeyes have three proven options at quarterback – Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett – and each player is slated to return to Columbus for 2015. Of course, that outlook could change if Miller transfers (as rumored). Miller is recovering from shoulder surgery, and there’s no guarantee he’s 100 percent by the end of spring practice. Even if Miller leaves, the battle between Jones and Barrett would be one of the top quarterback battles of the offseason. And it’s not out of the question for the coaching staff to rotate between Jones and Barrett next season if those two are the top options in the fall. Having three proven quarterbacks presents an interesting dilemma for Meyer in 2015.
Shuffled Coaching Staff
When you have success at a high level like Ohio State has experienced under Meyer, the assistants are going to be hot commodities for programs looking for a new head coach. And the Buckeyes are already experiencing the staff turnover, as offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired by Houston to be the program’s next coach. Meyer hasn’t officially announced the new staff assignments, but it’s expected Ed Warinner will be promoted and former Nebraska assistant Tim Beck will be hired to work as the co-offensive coordinator. Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2014. Will the revamped staff have the same results in 2015?
More Development on Defense
The addition of assistant Chris Ash as the team’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach made an impact on the Buckeyes in 2014. This unit returns largely intact for 2015, but there are a few key departures. The line was thin on proven depth throughout the season and will miss end Steve Miller and tackle Michael Bennett. The return of tackle Adolphus Washington and end Joey Bosa should alleviate some of the (small) concerns up front, and this unit won’t miss a beat if young players like end Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes take the next step in their development. In the secondary, Ohio State will miss cornerback Doran Grant. The senior was a key cog in the improved play by the defensive backfield in 2014, and the Buckeyes need more from young cornerbacks like Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore. There’s no shortage of talent on this defense. But Ash and co-coordinator Luke Fickell have some work to do up front and in the secondary this offseason.
The 2014-15 college football season concluded with Ohio State’s 42-20 win over Oregon on Monday night in Arlington, Texas. Although the on-field game action is over until next August, spring practice and offseason workouts will start for some teams in February. And with Signing Day just around the corner, there’s no shortage of college football news to fill the offseason void.
While the 2014-15 season is fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year. The second college football playoff schedule has a few tweaks from this season’s version, as the Cotton and Orange host semifinal games on Dec. 31, with the national title game slated for Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Early College Football Title Favorites for 2015
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 1
Defending a national title is no easy task, but Ohio State is equipped to return to the championship game in 2015. The quarterback battle will dominate the offseason in Columbus, as coach Urban Meyer returns three standouts (Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones) ready to compete for the No. 1 job. Regardless of who starts under center, expect to see plenty of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The defense will miss tackle Michael Bennett and cornerback Doran Grant. However, end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee are two of the top defenders in the nation.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 2
The Crimson Tide has their share of offseason question marks to answer. Is Jake Coker ready to assume the starting job at quarterback? Who steps up to replace receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins? Until those questions are answered, Alabama can lean on a ground attack anchored by Derrick Henry (990 yards in 2014) and a tough front seven on defense.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 3
The Horned Frogs were one of the nation’s most improved squads in 2014. After finishing 4-8 in 2013, TCU jumped to 12 victories and dominated Ole Miss 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Most of coach Gary Patterson’s squad returns intact, starting with quarterback Trevone Boykin and a talented group of skill players. Defense is always a strength in Fort Worth, but Patterson will have a few voids to fill, including standout defensive backs Kevin White (CB), Chris Hackett (S) and Sam Carter (S), along with linebacker Paul Dawson and tackle Chucky Hunter.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 4
Until quarterback Marcus Mariota declares for the NFL or announces he is staying in college for another year, the Ducks are the hardest team to rank in early polls for 2015. Even if Mariota leaves, Oregon has a solid foundation for next season. The backfield of Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman can carry the offense until a new quarterback emerges. The defense needs to reload up front - if Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner leave for the NFL - and in the secondary, but the Ducks should remain the favorite in the Pac-12 North.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 5
TCU is the favorite in the Big 12 next season, but the Bears aren’t too far behind. Art Briles continues to elevate the talent level in Waco, and even though quarterback Bryce Petty departs, there’s a track record of developing signal-callers at Baylor (under Briles). The Bears received some good news around the draft deadline, as offensive tackle Spencer Drango and end Shawn Oakman both decided to return for their senior season.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 6
In Mark Dantonio we trust. In four out of the last five seasons, Michigan State has won at least 11 games. Dantonio has to replace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and there’s a handful of personnel concerns to address. Receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes and running back Jeremy Langford won’t return, but the Spartans can ride veteran quarterback Connor Cook until the rest of the pieces fall into place.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 7
Fixing the defense was the top priority for coach Gus Malzahn this offseason, and he addressed the team’s biggest question mark by hiring former Florida coach Will Muschamp to call the defensive signals. Muschamp inherits a defense that returns most of its starting unit, and end Carl Lawson is back from a torn ACL that forced the rising star to miss all of 2014. The transition from Nick Marshall to Jeremy Johnson should be seamless at quarterback.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 8
The Bulldogs have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons. And with the question marks surrounding the rest of the SEC East teams, coach Mark Richt’s squad is the early favorite to win the division in 2015. New offensive play-caller Brian Schottenheimer was an interesting hire, but the formula for Georgia’s offense shouldn’t change much with running back Nick Chubb leading the way. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top assistant hires from 2014. Pruitt should help the defense take another step forward in 2015.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 9
The Pac-12 South is loaded with good teams next year, but a slight edge as the favorite – for now – goes to USC. The Trojans need to find a way to close out games better, as coach Steve Sarkisian’s team lost three games by a touchdown or less. Receiver Nelson Agholor and running back Buck Allen are off to the NFL, but quarterback Cody Kessler and talented freshmen receivers JuJu Smith and Adoree’ Jackson return. End Leonard Williams is a significant loss on defense.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 10
Over the last five years, the only team in the nation that has a better recruiting rank average than Florida State is Alabama. While the Seminoles have to replace quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, four starters on the offensive line and find a few answers on defense for a unit that allowed 25.6 points per game in 2014, there’s a ton of promising talent in place. Of course, the Seminoles will be a young team next year, but running back Dalvin Cook is a good place to start the rebuilding effort.
Under-the-Radar Teams to Watch for the Top 10 in 2015
The Yellow Jackets should be the favorites in the Coastal Division. Quarterback Justin Thomas returns, but the skill talent must be restocked with running backs Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins and receiver DeAndre Smelter expiring their eligibility.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers need to develop a passing game to pair with standout sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. How much will LSU miss veteran coordinator John Chavis?
The Rebels need to retool in the secondary, but the front seven should be among the best in the nation. Can Hugh Freeze find a quarterback this spring?
It’s a close call between USC, Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and Utah for the early nod as the favorite in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils host USC, Oregon and Arizona next year, and Mike Bercovici is ready to step in at quarterback to replace Taylor Kelly.
The Fighting Irish started 6-0 but finished 2-5 over their last seven games. Injuries and turnovers were largely to blame for the second-half struggles, but most of the team’s core is set to return for 2015. Malik Zaire is a promising option at quarterback, and the defense should take a step forward with the return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams from suspension.
2015-16 College Football New Year’s Six Bowl Schedule
If the top 10 looks like this at the end of the year, here’s a (very) early projection on the top bowls for 2015:
Chick-fil-A Bowl – Dec. 31
Projection: Georgia vs. Florida State
Fiesta – Jan. 1
Projection: Boise State vs. Arizona State
Rose – Jan. 1
Projection: USC vs. Michigan State
Sugar – Jan. 1
Projection: Baylor vs. Auburn
Cotton – Semifinal – Dec. 31
Projection: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Orange – Semifinal – Dec. 31
Projection: Alabama vs. TCU
National Championship – Jan. 11
Projection: Ohio State vs. Alabama
Ohio State used a heavy dose of running back Ezekiel Elliott and timely stops on defense to claim its first national championship since the 2002 season with a 42-20 victory over Oregon. The Buckeyes entered the college football playoff with long odds to win the title, as coach Urban Meyer’s team was on its third quarterback and suffered a puzzling, early-season loss to Virginia Tech. However, Ohio State regrouped after the defeat, and third-string quarterback Cardale Jones successfully replaced J.T. Barrett after a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Behind Jones and Elliott, the Buckeyes finished the season with wins over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and hoisted the first college football playoff championship trophy after the victory on Monday night.
The run to the 2014-15 national championship was an unlikely one for Ohio State, as losing two potential Heisman candidates at quarterback is tough to overcome. However, Meyer is one of the nation’s top coaches, the talent level in Columbus is among the best in the nation, and the Buckeyes delivered with clutch performances at the right time.
Four Things That Determined Ohio State’s National Title
1. Line of Scrimmage
The secret to Ohio State’s success in Monday night’s win over Oregon was no surprise. The Buckeyes simply won the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State recorded 296 rushing yards (4.9 ypc) and quarterback Cardale Jones was sacked only one time. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had his way against the Oregon front seven by recording 246 yards on 36 attempts, and the sophomore’s performance was critical to controlling the pace of the game to keep the high-powered Ducks’ offense on the sideline. On the defensive side, the Buckeyes limited Oregon to 132 rushing yards, recorded two sacks and five tackles for a loss. The Ducks’ inability to get a push up front limited put all of the offensive pressure on quarterback Marcus Mariota, and with a defense unable to get stops (other than turnovers), the offense had to score on every drive to have a shot at the win.
2. The Turnover Battle/Red Zone
Teams that record a -3 turnover margin in championship games aren’t usually successful in the win column. However, much like Ohio State managed to do all season, the Buckeyes found a way to overcome a major obstacle in their path. Oregon forced four Ohio State turnovers and converted those mistakes into only 10 points. In the Rose Bowl, the Ducks used five Florida State second-half turnovers to score 41 points. The Buckeyes’ ability to limit the damage on defense from the Oregon offense on turnovers was one of the deciding factors in the game. Another area where the Ohio State defense stepped up was in the red zone. The Ducks kicked two field goals and were stuffed on downs inside the red zone. Small things add up in national championship games. Oregon simply didn’t convert the opportunities on turnovers and wasn’t opportunistic enough in the red zone to overcome the defensive issues.
3. Cardale Jones
Third-string quarterbacks usually aren't this talented. However, Jones has made a strong case to be Ohio State’s starting signal-caller in 2015, capping a solid three-game stretch behind center with a win over Oregon in the national title. The sophomore played under control all night, completing 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards and one score. Jones also added 38 yards and a score on the ground. At 250 pounds, Jones is a load to bring down in the rushing game, and the sophomore has a cannon for an arm capable of stretching opposing defenses with big plays. The quarterback battle between Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller (if he stays in Columbus) will be very interesting.
4. Oregon’s Receiving Corps
Injuries and suspensions hit Oregon’s receiving corps hard in 2014. Receiver Bralon Addison suffered a torn ACL in the spring, tight end Pharaoh Brown was lost for the year in early November with a serious leg injury, and the Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State. Add in the suspension of receiver Darren Carrington and Oregon was looking for a few new faces to step up in the national championship. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was the least of the Ducks’ problems on Monday night, but his receivers dropped a couple of key passes. The injuries and personnel moves finally caught up to Oregon.
CFB National Championship Awards:
Offensive MVP: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Even though quarterback Cardale Jones played well against Alabama and Wisconsin, Ohio State wisely put the game in the hands of their best offensive weapon. Elliott earned his third consecutive 200-yard effort by gashing the Oregon defense for 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 attempts. The sophomore averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored three times from 10 yards or less to give Ohio State a 42-20 edge after the Ducks cut the deficit to 21-20 in the third quarter. While Elliott gets our nod as the most valuable player from the Ohio State offense, let’s also give a tip of the cap to the line. After struggling in the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes showed steady improvement up front. And in the win over Oregon, the Ohio State offensive line won the battle at the point of attack and allowed its offense to dominate the time of possession (37:29 to 22:31).
Defensive MVP: Darron Lee, LB
The Buckeyes didn’t have an overly dominant individual performance by a defender, as it was more of a team effort in slowing Oregon’s offense to just 20 points. However, Lee gets the nod as our defensive player of the game after recording eight stops (four solo) and a pass breakup. The freshman’s development was critical for Ohio State’s defense in replacing standout Ryan Shazier, and Lee emerged as one of the nation’s top linebackers over the last few games of 2014. Expect to see plenty from Lee in 2015.
Here are a few of the best tweets from the scene in Arlington, Texas:
THIS WINS BEST SIGN OF THE NIGHT. pic.twitter.com/wHNmaVEMgw— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) January 13, 2015
football fans are so weird pic.twitter.com/xrzLsbzEDD— martin rickman (@martinrickman) January 13, 2015
"THROW THE FLAG!" https://t.co/Ai2MBFwOqu— SB✯Nation CFB (@SBNationCFB) January 13, 2015
Bryon Marshall was THIS CLOSE to making an incredible mistake. GIF: pic.twitter.com/uRC4pl8mFM— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) January 13, 2015
Here's how close Byron Marshall was to dropping the ball early before crossing goal line. pic.twitter.com/q2cBIIQuDg— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2015
Cardale Jones has a Jameis Winston moment. https://t.co/tBslThW0Ay— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) January 13, 2015
Incredible career, sad ending pic.twitter.com/jt8F9YnexY— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) January 13, 2015
Ohio State has forced Oregon to punt 3 times in the first quarter; Oregon hadn't done that since 2009— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2015
Big Ohio State fan LeBron James is keeping a close eye on his Buckeyes from Dallas. pic.twitter.com/sUp3ZOzSZ4— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2015
College football’s four-team playoff concludes on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas when Ohio State and Oregon meet to decide the national championship. The Ducks are looking for their first title, while the Buckeyes are after their first national championship since 2002.
Oregon is around a seven-point favorite by the Vegas experts for Monday night’s game, but there’s not much separating the Ducks and Buckeyes in the depth chart breakdown.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player on the field, but Ohio State owns an edge on defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed over 200 yards in back-to-back games.
National Championship Position-by-Position Breakdown
So far, so good for Cardale Jones. Since replacing J.T. Barrett after a season-ending injury against Michigan, Jones is 32 of 55 for 500 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore also has 52 rushing yards over the last two contests. The coaching staff would probably like Jones to raise his completion percentage (58 percent), but the sophomore has thrived under pressure by hitting on 7 of 10 passes on third down with seven yards or more to go in 2014.
|Marcus Mariota is without a doubt the best player on the field in Arlington. And stopping the junior and Oregon’s up-tempo offense is the biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense, especially with just one week to prepare. Heading into Monday night’s showdown, Mariota's season stat line is simply ridiculous: 280 completions on 408 passes for 4,121 yards and 40 scores. Efficiency is an underrated aspect of Mariota’s game, as the junior enters the championship with just three picks and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Mariota also ranks second on the team with 731 rushing yards and 15 scores.|
Jones has played well. But Mariota is the best in CFB this year.
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott was overlooked in the hierarchy of Big Ten running backs this season, but the sophomore has made plenty of noise in his last two games. Elliott gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and recorded 230 yards on 20 attempts in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Expect Elliott to see a heavy workload on Monday night. For the season, Elliott has 1,632 yards (6.9 ypc) and 14 scores. When Elliott needs a break, the Buckeyes can work in Curtis Samuel or H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson.|
True freshman Royce Freeman helped the Ducks eliminate question marks about their physicality on the ground. Freeman enters the championship matchup versus Ohio State with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 1 in Pac-12), averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (511 yards, 5 TDs) returned from injury to record 124 yards on 13 attempts against Florida State and should see 10-15 carries to keep Freeman fresh for the fourth quarter. Byron Marshall (383 rushing yards, 1 TD this season) was the team’s leading rusher last year, but he’s switched to an all-purpose/receiver role in 2014.
Even - Oregon has an edge in depth. But Elliott is on fire.
The Buckeyes may not have Oregon’s depth of options at receiver, but this unit has made progress under coach Urban Meyer. Devin Smith leads the nation with a robust 27.7 yards per catch average on 32 receptions and has scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Michael Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards in the Sugar Bowl, placing the sophomore at 50 receptions in 2014. Corey Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are also major contributors. The Buckeyes also get partial credit here for H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall (13.5 ypc).
The loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury from the Rose Bowl is a significant blow to Oregon’s receiving corps. Allen was one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen in 2014, recording 41 catches for 684 yards and seven scores. The Ducks also received more bad news at receiver this week, as Darren Carrington failed a drug test and is out for Monday night's game. While Allen and Carrington will be missed, this unit was also able to overcome the loss of Bralon Addison in the preseason and perform at a high level in 2014. Without Allen, leading receiver Byron Marshall (66 catches) and Dwayne Stanford will see more passes in their direction. Freshman Charles Nelson (4 catches for 40 yards in Rose Bowl) is a gamebreaker that could see more time, and tight end Evan Baylis emerged as another threat by catching six passes against Florida State.
Even - Allen's absence is a setback for Oregon. OSU's group continues to trend up.
This unit needed to be revamped with the departure of four starters in the offseason. Left tackle Taylor Decker was the only returning starter for 2014, and this group struggled early. In the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes allowed seven sacks. However, the offensive line progressed throughout the year and limited opponents to just 15 sacks in nine Big Ten games. Decker and guard Pat Elflein are the standout performers, but freshman guard Billy Price, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin have each started all 14 games this season. The Buckeyes have averaged at least five yards per carry in seven straight games.
A healthy Jake Fisher (LT) and center Hroniss Grasu (C) (both first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) made a huge difference in the performance of Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks had to mix and match personnel up front all year due to injuries and has not allowed a sack in their last two games. Fisher and Grasu are two of the best in the nation at their position and helped pave the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Tyrell Crosby (RT - 8 starts in 2014), sophomore Cameron Hunt (RG - 13 starts) and senior Hamani Stevens (LG) round out the starting five. The Ducks' 5.5 yards per carry average ranks No. 12 nationally. In the Rose Bowl win over FSU, Oregon gashed the ' Noles for 301 yards. Winning the battle up front is a must for UO on Monday.
Even - Another close call. Fisher and Grasu's health is a huge plus for OSU. However, Ohio State has improved all year.
The Buckeyes have one of – if not the No. 1 – defensive line in college football. This unit limited opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry through 14 games and held Wisconsin to just 71 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship. End Joey Bosa was quiet in the Sugar Bowl, but the sophomore is one of the top defensive players in the nation. Bosa recorded 53 tackles (20 for a loss), 13.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2014. Tackle Michael Bennett is another All-American up front, as the senior came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. End Steve Miller returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama, while junior Adolphus Washington joins Bennett on the interior.
The Ducks ranked eighth in the Pac-12 (4.2 ypc allowed) in rush defense and was susceptible to plays on the ground against Florida State in the Rose Bowl (180 yards, 4.6 ypc). While Oregon will give up yards, this unit was disruptive at times against the Seminoles. And Don Pellum's line has generated at least two sacks in four consecutive games. Ends Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) present a challenge with their length and athleticism, and this duo combined for 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oregon uses a lot of odd-man fronts, but Armstead and Buckner can create havoc against the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Junior Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are the main contributors at nose guard. Oregon's defensive line will play a critical role on Monday night. Can this unit stop the run? UO has played better up front in recent weeks.
Ducks have talent up front, but the Buckeyes might have the best DL in the nation.
Similar to the offensive line, the Buckeyes went into fall practice with some concern in this group. Standout Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and while there wasn’t an issue about talent, this unit needed to find its next playmaker. Mission accomplished. Junior Joshua Perry led the team with 118 tackles, but freshman Darron Lee recorded 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced turnovers. Lee’s emergence helped ease the loss of Shazier, while senior Curtis Grant (58 tackles, 5 INTs) provides steady play at middle linebacker. Talented true freshman Raekwon McMillan (49 tackles, 6 TFL) is the team’s top reserve.
This unit delivered a solid performance against Florida State and needs to have another big game on Monday for the Ducks to win the national title. Tony Washington returned a fumble 58 yards for a score and recorded a sack, Rodney Hardrick forced a fumble, and Derrick Malone made four stops. Outside linebacker Tyson Coleman recovered a fumble and made three stops against FSU. All four players will be tasked with slowing Ohio State’s rushing attack, as well as limiting the plays by Cardale Jones outside of the pocket. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot also recorded a sack against Florida State and joins Washington and Christian French (6.5 sacks in 2014) as key pass-rush threats for coordinator Don Pellum.
Even - Oregon's group is coming off a good performance. Lee is a rising star for OSU.
Fixing the pass defense was a priority for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash this offseason. Ohio State allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up 31 touchdown passes last season. Even without first-round pick Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes have made progress against the pass. Ohio State limited opponents to 15 passing scores – tied for third in the Big Ten – and opposing quarterbacks were held to a 55.1 completion percentage. Cornerback Doran Grant had a standout year (58 tackles, 5 INTs, 9 PBU), while the young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell combined for 10 interceptions. While Ohio State has made progress against the pass, the matchup against Oregon will be its toughest of the season.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a big loss for the Ducks, but Chris Seisay held his own in the Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman made six stops in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State and will be under the spotlight once again on Monday night. On the other side, Oregon senior Troy Hill was one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2014 and needs to follow up his Rose Bowl effort (9 tackles, 2 PBU) against a dangerous receiving corps. Safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels combined for 17 stops in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (35 tackles in 2014) is a future star but also a key contributor in a backup role. Dargan was the team’s top ball hawk in the secondary, picking off seven passes in 2014. Similar to the run defense, Oregon will give up some yards through the air. However, the Ducks limited the big plays (eight of 40 yards or more) by opposing offenses.
Ducks played well versus FSU last week. However, Ekpre-Olomu's absence could be felt this week. Close call here.
Winning the field position battle is an underrated part of any game, and punter Cameron Johnston (45.3) is a key weapon on special teams for the Buckeyes. Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 13 of 20 on field goals this year and has missed 5 of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more. Returns are in good shape with Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall on special teams. Marshall averages 12 yards per punt return, while Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return this year.
The impact of Allen’s knee injury isn’t just limited to offense, as the redshirt freshman averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return. In his absence, freshman Charles Nelson (20.3 yards per kickoff return) will see additional time on special teams. Nelson is one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners (15.5 ypr, 2 TDs). Kicker Aidan Schneider passed Matt Wogan as the No. 1 kicker this year and connected on 9 of 10 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler (39 yards per punt) isn’t used much (41 attempts) thanks to an explosive offense.
Johnston is a weapon on punts. Returns are almost even. Field goals are a wash.
Urban Meyer is one of the nation’s best coaches and has been an instant winner at each of his four FBS coaching opportunities. The Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer’s direction and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular season game. Prior to Ohio State, Meyer won two national titles at Florida, went 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was hired as Houston’s new head coach. The additions of assistants Chris Ash (safeties, co-defensive coordinator) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) made a huge impact on Ohio State’s defense.
Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly, and the second-year coach is 24-3 in his first two years at Oregon. Helfrich and this staff did a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season and the Ducks have a nine-game winning streak entering the national championship. Coordinator Don Pellum has stabilized the defense after a slow start, holding the last four opponents to 20 points or less. Pellum's defense has been opportunistic with 30 forced turnovers and held Florida State to field goals - not touchdowns - in the red zone last week. Offensive play-caller Scott Frost guided the Ducks to an average of 40 points per game for the fifth consecutive season.
Credit to Helfrich for getting the Ducks here. However, Meyer is arguably one of the top 3 coaches in CFB.
Oregon and Ohio State close out college football’s first four-team FBS playoff on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. Monday night’s matchup is uncharted waters for college football in the new postseason format, as the Ducks and Buckeyes have to regroup for the championship just one week after bowl victories. Oregon used five Florida State turnovers and 41 second-half points to defeat the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State overcame a 21-6 first-half deficit to defeat Alabama – the No. 1 ranked team – in the Sugar Bowl.
Both teams have been hit hard by injuries this season. Oregon suffered a couple of injuries to its offensive line in the regular season, including ailments to star left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a knee injury after the regular season and is out for the remainder of the year. But those three players aren’t the full extent of the Ducks’ injury report. This team lost starting tackle Tyler Johnstone and receiver Bralon Addison before the first snap of the year. Despite all of the injuries, Oregon’s offense continued to perform at a high level thanks to Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks averaged 47.2 points per game and rebounded from a loss against Arizona in early October to finish the year with nine consecutive victories.
While Oregon’s injuries have been significant at various positions, Ohio State’s losses have been centered on one position – quarterback – without a doubt the most important spot on the field. Braxton Miller was lost for the year in fall practice due to a shoulder injury, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett filled in admirably, leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season. Barrett suffered a season-ending leg injury against Michigan, which pushed third-stringer Cardale Jones into the lineup. Jones had only two career pass attempts prior to this season, but the sophomore delivered with solid performances in big games against Wisconsin (Big Ten championship) and Alabama (Sugar Bowl).
Oregon and Ohio State have met eight previous times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes have won all eight matchups. The last meeting between Oregon and Ohio State took place in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
Oregon vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Marcus Mariota
When the College Football Playoff National Championship kicks off on Monday night, there’s no doubt the best player on the field will be wearing a white No. 8 jersey. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won Oregon's first Heisman this year, entering this game with 4,121 yards passing and 40 scores. The junior also has rushed for 731 yards and 15 touchdowns while tossing just three picks in 408 passing attempts. Additionally, Mariota is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt – the best in the nation – and boasts a quarterback rating of 184.4. The junior started slow in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win over Florida State but finished with 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks are far from a one-man show on offense, as the line is one of the best in college football, running back Royce Freeman has rushed for 1,343 yards as a true freshman, and the receiving corps is loaded with speed and talent. Stopping Oregon’s offense falls to Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell, while its offense shares some of the burden by attempting to slow down the pace and keep the Ducks on the sideline. No defense held Oregon under six yards per play through the first 14 games. Can Ohio State find a few answers? This assignment is no easy task, especially with just a week to prepare. On the positive side, teams with a good defensive line/front seven have been able to slow Oregon’s offense (at times). Ohio State has one of the nation’s most-talented front sevens on defense, headlined by end Joey Bosa, tackle Michael Bennett and rising star Darron Lee at linebacker. The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s most active teams around the line of scrimmage (105 tackles for a loss, 43 sacks) and need a big performance from the front seven in order to slow down Mariota. Of course, it’s going to be hard for Ohio State to completely keep Oregon in check all four quarters. The Buckeyes have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and limit the damage done by the Ducks’ skill players in open space. Ohio State may have to give up some yards, but this unit needs to limit big plays and force Oregon into longer drives than this team is used to.
2. Ohio State’s Gameplan on Offense
Oregon is going to rightfully garner the pregame attention as the best offense in Arlington. But let’s not forget about Ohio State’s attack. There are more similarities between these two offenses than some may realize, as coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman have modeled the Buckeyes’ gameplan after former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s attack. This season, the Ducks have run 1,047 plays in 14 games. Ohio State has run 1,015 in 14 contests. And in terms of yards per play, Oregon is averaging 7.4, Buckeyes 7.0. While Ohio State’s offense isn’t as explosive as the Ducks, this unit is capable of scoring 40 points on Monday night. Quarterback Cardale Jones has kept Ohio State’s offense performing at a high level, but the key to Monday night’s game could be running back Ezekiel Elliott. The sophomore has rushed for 450 yards and four scores over the last two games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 180 yards on 39 attempts against Florida State. Even though the Buckeyes want to play at an up-tempo pace, slowing down the game and allowing Elliott and Jones to control the flow of the game on the ground might be the best plan of attack. When Jones drops back to pass, the sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, including big-play threat Devin Smith (27.7 ypc), the steady Michael Thomas (50 catches) and rising star Jalin Marshall. When Ohio State moves into scoring position, the Buckeyes can’t afford to settle for field goals or have turnovers like Florida State experienced last week. Oregon’s defense is prone to allowing yards in exchange for turnovers and stops in the red zone. Ohio State has to grind it out with its rushing attack and eliminate the giveaways.
3. Turnovers, Third Downs, Red Zone Offense/Defense
While the good folks in Vegas pegged Oregon as a touchdown favorite, there doesn’t appear to be a significant advantage for either team on Monday night. Considering there’s very little separating Oregon and Ohio State, small aspects of the game like turnovers and red zone performance will be critical. In the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the Ducks forced five turnovers. And for the season, Oregon has posted a positive or even turnover margin in every game. It’s critical the Ducks win the turnover battle (+20 for the season), especially since their defense will give up yards. Ohio State is +10 in turnover margin but lost 22 this year. The Buckeyes can be sloppy with giveaways, as Meyer’s team lost at least two turnovers in a stretch of four out of five games. However, in Ohio State’s last three contests, this team has lost only two turnovers. Oregon simply won’t beat itself with turnovers on Monday night. The Buckeyes need to find a way to force a couple of turnovers and finish with a zero in their giveaway column. These two teams are also among the best in the nation at converting third-down attempts. The final stat sheet may not look pretty for either defense in terms of yards or points allowed, but both units have to get off the field on third downs and get the ball back to their offenses. And when Ohio State is on defense, it has to find a way to make the Ducks kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. In the red zone, Oregon has scored 51 touchdowns on 76 trips. That news has to be concerning for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are tied for 87th nationally in red zone defense. The motto for Ohio State is pretty simple on Monday night: Allow yards but give up only three points.
There’s no shortage of intrigue for the Ohio State-Oregon showdown. For the first time since the 2006 BCS National Championship Game (Texas vs. USC), there’s not a team from the SEC in the final game of the college football season. The Ducks are looking to win their first national title in school history, while the Buckeyes are hoping to claim their first since 2002. Despite losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, coach Urban Meyer kept Ohio State in contention for the playoff and national championship. Meyer is one of the best in the nation, and his big-game experience could benefit the Buckeyes on Monday night. On the other sideline, Oregon has the No. 1 player in college football and an offense that is tough to stop with only a week to prepare. Will Mariota deliver in what could be his final college game? Or will the Ducks’ defensive concerns eventually be too much to overcome? Is this the game where a relatively inexperienced Cardale Jones struggles? All of those questions (and more) will be answered on Monday night.
Here are the staff predictions from Athlon Sports, along with a pick for MVP honors:
|Mitch Light||Ohio State 34-30||QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State|
|Steven Lassan||Ohio State 38-34||RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State|
|Mark Ross||Oregon 37-31||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
|David Fox||Oregon 42-35||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
Florida State is starting over at quarterback next season after 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday. Replacing Winston’s on-field production will be one of college football’s top offseason storylines to monitor, as coach Jimbo Fisher has a cast of talented, yet largely unproven options in the mix.
Before previewing Florida State’s quarterback battle for 2015, let’s take a step back and examine Winston’s two-year career in Tallahassee.
Winston’s departure ends one of the top two-year runs by a quarterback in recent memory. The Seminoles went 26-1 under Winston and claimed the 2013 national championship with a victory over Auburn last season. The Alabama native led Florida State to the playoff in 2014, but the Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Statistically, Winston’s numbers dropped from 2013 to 2014. After throwing for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2013, Winston threw for 3,907 yards and 25 scores in 2014. Additionally, Winston’s interceptions climbed from 10 (2013) to 18 this year.
Even with Winston’s drop in production, coach Jimbo Fisher believed the sophomore had a better year than he did in 2013. It’s also worth noting Winston was playing with a revamped receiving corps and a shuffled offensive line that struggled at times in 2014.
While Winston received plenty of attention for off-field matters, his two-year run at Florida State is going to be hard to top by the next starter or any passer in Tallahassee. And it’s not unfathomable to suggest Winston was the most talented quarterback to play at Florida State.
Considering Winston’s two-year run in Tallahassee, there are big shoes to fill under center. Assuming Winston goes in the first few picks as expected, he will become the third consecutive Florida State quarterback to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. That’s some impressive accolades for Fisher to tout on the recruiting trail.
Let’s examine the next options in Tallahassee:
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
Maguire should open spring practice as the favorite to win the quarterback job. The New Jersey native was a three-star recruit coming out of high school after running a wing-T offense at Seton Hall Prep. In two years of snaps at Florida State, Maguire completed 38 of 70 passes for 455 yards, three scores and four interceptions. He has one start (Clemson) under his belt, throwing for 304 yards against a tough defense on Sept. 20 this year. Maguire isn’t as talented as Winston, but he has experience in the offense.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Redshirt Freshman
Cosentino is a Pennsylvania native with plenty of talent, but he’s also a bit on the raw side after also playing in a wing-T offense in high school. Cosentino was considered by 247Sports to be a four-star recruit last year and redshirted in his first year on campus. The talent is certainly there for Cosentino. How quickly can he adapt to Fisher’s offense?
John Franklin III
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
Franklin III played in two games this year after spending 2013 as a redshirt. The Florida native isn’t short on athleticism, as he was a member of Florida State’s track and field teams. According to his school bio, Franklin III recorded a 6.82 time in the 60-meter dash and shared Offensive Scout Team Player Award honors with Wilson Bell last year. Franklin III is probably a longshot to win the starting job next year.
The wild card: Braxton Miller
Ohio State’s quarterback situation is crowded for 2015. Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller are each proven options for coach Urban Meyer. Miller is eligible to transfer and start at another program in 2015, and unless he’s guaranteed a starting spot in Columbus, it’s hard to envision the senior staying to sit on the bench or playing sparingly as a third-string quarterback. The Palm Beach Post reported in late December there was interest from Miller about transferring to Florida State. Miller is a different quarterback than what Fisher has worked with recently, as the senior is a dynamic dual-threat option. However, Miller is coming off two shoulder surgeries and may not be at full strength by this spring. Although Miller has the talent to be an All-American quarterback, he seems like an unlikely fit for Florida State.
Florida State has three freshman quarterbacks committed (as of Jan. 7).
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 100 recruit nationally
Kai Locksley (listed by 247 as an athlete)
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 225 recruit nationally
3-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 377 recruit nationally
Johnson is already enrolled at Florida State, but Francois and Locksley could still flip to another school by Signing Day. Even if all three sign with the Seminoles, it’s hard to envision a true freshman taking the first snap of the year for Fisher.
The Supporting Cast Consideration
Regardless of which quarterback starts for Florida State next season, Fisher and the staff needs to retool the supporting cast. Receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary combined to catch 147 of the Seminoles’ 330 completions in 2014, and both players have expired their eligibility. There’s certainly no shortage of talent, as Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones is a solid group of young receivers. Four starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but left tackle Roderick Johnson is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. And the new quarterback will have a rising star in sophomore Dalvin Cook to lean on at running back.
Maguire takes the first snap of 2015 for Florida State. Even though he wasn’t the biggest recruit in the quarterback huddle for the Seminoles, the New Jersey native has experience and will have a better grasp of the offense with an offseason to work as the No. 1 passer. Maguire’s first start (Clemson) wasn’t overly impressive on the stat sheet (21 of 39, 304 yards, two picks), but it’s also important to consider the Tigers had one of the best defenses in college football in 2014. Fisher will find an answer at quarterback by the opener, and the guess here is Maguire is the starter against Texas State.
Ohio State and Oregon clash in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12 to decide college football’s national champion. The Ducks and Buckeyes advanced to the national championship after bowl wins on Jan. 1, setting up an intriguing matchup with no shortage of storylines. Both teams are led by offensive-minded coaches and were two of the top programs during the BCS era. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will be the best player on the field in Arlington, but Ohio State counters with a defense that limits opponents to 22.1 points per game. Despite losing starter J.T. Barrett, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones has filled in admirably and kept the Buckeyes’ offense hitting on all cylinders.
While Mariota, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa will get most of the pregame hype as the top players on Jan. 12, there are always a few x-factors that deliver with a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine five potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 12.
5 X-Factors for the 2015 College Football National Championship
1. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
Jones easily passed his first two tests as Ohio State’s No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore threw for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Jones doesn’t have the explosive running ability of former starter J.T. Barrett, but he’s certainly not a statue in the pocket. Against Wisconsin, Jones only rushed for nine yards on eight attempts, but he added 43 yards on 17 rushes against Alabama. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is clearly the best quarterback on the field when the Buckeyes and Ducks meet on Jan. 12. However, Jones has proven he is more than just a third-string quarterback in two starts. If Jones plays like he did against Wisconsin and Alabama, Ohio State has a good shot to win on Monday night in Arlington.
2. Evan Baylis, TE, Oregon
The loss of standout tight end Pharaoh Brown was a huge blow to Oregon’s offense. Brown suffered a major knee injury in the win over Utah and finished the year with 25 receptions for 420 yards and six scores. With Brown sidelined over the final three regular season games, Oregon tight ends – Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis – only caught three passes. But in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the tight end was featured more by coordinator Scott Frost and quarterback Marcus Mariota. Baylis grabbed six passes for 73 yards against the Seminoles, and both totals were season-high marks for the sophomore. With the speed and vertical threats in Oregon’s passing game, having a tight end like Baylis attacking the middle of the field is another dangerous option for Mariota.
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3. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State
Stopping Oregon’s offense starts at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has the necessary defensive line to give the Ducks trouble from the snap, as end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett earned All-America honors in 2014. But Bosa and Bennett aren’t the only contributors to a line that is among the best in the nation. Washington ranked as the No. 21 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and has been a major contributor since his true freshman campaign. In 14 games this year, Washington recorded 45 tackles (9.5 tackles for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. The junior will be tasked with disrupting Oregon’s offense and winning the battle at the point of attack with interior linemen in guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt, along with center Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks will be focused on keeping Bosa and Bennett out of the backfield. However, with the attention diverted to the two All-Americans, Monday night’s game is a good opportunity for Washington to have a huge performance.
4. Chris Seisay, CB, Oregon
Seisay was pushed into the spotlight in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury ended Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s season. Despite Ekpre-Olomu’s absence, Oregon held Florida State to 20 points and no receiver eclipsed the 100-yard mark. The Ducks limited All-ACC receiver Rashad Greene to six catches for 59 yards, while tight end Nick O’Leary caught only one pass for four yards. Judging cornerbacks by statistics is always tricky, but Seisay recorded six tackles in his second career start. By all accounts, Seisay’s performance was not an issue in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State’s receiving corps doesn’t have an All-American performer like Greene, but this unit has made strides over the last few seasons. Devin Smith averages 27.7 yards per catch, while Michael Thomas has 10 catches over the last two games. Seisay was under the spotlight in the Rose Bowl, and it’s a safe bet to assume the Buckeyes will test the redshirt freshman once again on Monday night.
5. Jalin Marshall, All-Purpose, Ohio State
The official Ohio State depth chart lists Marshall at the starting H-back, but the freshman will get the ball in a variety of ways. And if something happens to Cardale Jones on Monday night, Marshall is technically the backup quarterback. Regardless of where he lines up, Marshall is an emerging star for the Buckeyes. The freshman rushed for 142 yards and a score on 23 attempts this year, attempted two passes and caught 33 balls for 447 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, Marshall was a weapon on special teams, averaging 12 yards per punt return. In the Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, Marshall recorded 10 touches in an all-purpose role. And if Ohio State is going to win on Monday night, he needs to have 10-15 opportunities to make plays in a variety of ways. The Buckeyes aren’t hurting for playmakers with running back Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Dontre Wilson was the starter at H-Back earlier this year and missed the Sugar Bowl due to injury. Even if Wilson returns against Oregon, Marshall is too valuable (and too productive recently) to leave out of the gameplan.
The college football coaching carousel is one of the most intriguing aspects of every offseason. Regardless of whether a team had a losing record or finished in the top 10 of the final rankings, coaching changes are possible for any program after the regular season has finished.
The 2014 carousel produced several interesting hires, including Lane Kiffin to Alabama, Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia and Doug Meacham to TCU. And all four of college football playoff’s teams this season had a shakeup at one of the coordinator spots, as Florida State replaced Pruitt with Charles Kelly, and Oregon promoted Don Pellum to replace long-time coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Let’s take a look at the coordinator hires that had the biggest impact on the 2014 season:
College Football’s Top Coordinator Hires from 2014
Lance Anderson, Defensive Coordinator, Stanford
Derek Mason’s departure was expected to have an impact on Stanford’s defense, but Anderson ensured the Cardinal remained near the top of the nation in fewest yards per play and points allowed per game. Stanford held opponents to 4.2 yards per play and limited opponents to 16.4 points per contest. The Cardinal also generated 46 sacks and allowed only 10 plays of 30 yards or more. It’s a small sample size, but Anderson appears to be plenty capable of keeping Stanford’s defense among the best in the nation.
Chris Ash, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
After allowing 31 passing scores last year, Ohio State needed to find a few answers in the secondary this offseason. The first step to fixing the pass defense came in the form of Ash, as the former Wisconsin and Arkansas assistant has an extensive background in working with defensive backs. The Iowa native brought immediate improvement to the Buckeyes’ defense, as the secondary limited the big plays and held opposing passers to just 55.1 percent completion percentage. Ohio State’s defense also cut its yards per play allowed mark from 5.3 to 4.9 in 2014.
Manny Diaz, Defensive Coordinator, Louisiana Tech
Diaz was one of the nation’s top rising stars in the assistant ranks but was dismissed at Texas just two games into the 2013 season. However, Diaz rebounded in a big way this year, coordinating a Louisiana Tech defense that led the nation with 42 takeaways. The Bulldogs also limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play and 24.7 points per game. Diaz accepted a job at Mississippi State in early January, but he made a huge impact on Louisiana Tech’s defense and helped the Bulldogs win Conference USA’s West Division in 2014.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
The final numbers revealed Wake Forest’s defense allowed 26.4 points per game and ranked 10th in the ACC (league-only games) by giving up 5.6 yards per play. While the Demon Deacons didn’t rank near the top of the ACC or nation in defensive categories, this unit had to overcome an offense that averaged just 3.1 yards per play in league contests. Additionally, Wake Forest’s offense ranked 12th in the ACC in time of possession, leaving the defense on the field for large chunks of the game. Despite some of the offensive shortcomings, Elko’s work was noticeable with this defense. The Demon Deacons generated 19 sacks in conference play and tied Clemson for the fewest touchdown passes allowed in the ACC.
Ralph Friedgen, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers
Friedgen was one of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2014 and was a critical addition for a Rutgers program looking to build positive momentum in its first season in the Big Ten. Friedgen joined the Scarlet Knights’ staff after being out of football since 2010 and brought immediate improvement in a tougher league. Rutgers averaged 26.7 points per game and six yards per play this season, while producing 31 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Gary Nova also recorded a 57.2 completion percentage, which was the highest mark of his career.
Tony Gibson, Defensive Coordinator, West Virginia
The West Virginia defense benefited from having a little better luck in the injury department and improved overall depth, but Gibson and veteran assistant Tom Bradley helped this unit take a step forward in 2014. In nine Big 12 contests, the Mountaineers allowed only 5.3 yards per play – ranked No. 3 in the league – and held conference opponents to 27.1 points per game. West Virginia also ranked second in the Big 12 in third down defense and third in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Gibson’s work in 2014 resulted in a significant raise to place the West Virginia native among the nation’s highest paid assistants.
Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Louisville
Grantham inherited a defense that wasn’t short on talent but had only four returning starters and had to transition to a new 3-4 scheme. Despite the preseason question marks, this group was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals allowed only 4.8 yards per play, held ACC opponents to 19.3 points per game and led the conference with 30 forced turnovers.
Tyson Helton, Offensive Coordinator, Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky’s offense flourished under Helton and first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. The Hilltoppers used an up-tempo approach on offense to record 534.6 yards per game and a robust 7.1 yards per play. Western Kentucky ranked second in Conference USA by averaging 44.4 points per game and recorded 39 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Brandon Doughty was one of the biggest benefactors of the change in coaching staffs, as he threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns under Helton’s play-calling. Prior to 2014, Helton was an assistant at Cincinnati for one year after spending 2007-12 at UAB.
Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Kiffin’s hire was met with some skepticism after his stint with USC ended during the 2013 season. However, Kiffin was one of the finalists for the Broyles Award – nation’s top assistant – after leading Alabama’s offense to an average of 36.9 points per game in 2014. The Crimson Tide also averaged 6.7 yards per play, produced 20 plays of 40 yards or more and finished second in the SEC in third down offense.
Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
TCU’s offense was in need of an overhaul after averaging just 25.1 points per game in 2013. Coach Gary Patterson turned to Meacham and former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie as the team’s new co-offensive coordinators, and the Horned Frogs offense quickly emerged as one of the best in the Big 12. TCU averaged 46.5 points per game, led the Big 12 by recording 6.7 yards per play and generated 41 plays of 30 yards or more. Meacham and Cumbie also developed quarterback Trevone Boykin into one of the nation’s most improved players in 2014.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt was pegged as an upgrade over former coordinator Todd Grantham, and the former Florida State assistant helped Georgia’s defense improve after allowing 29 points per game in 2013. Under Pruitt’s direction in 2014, the Bulldogs held opponents to 20.7 points per contest and just 4.8 yards per play. Georgia also forced 29 turnovers – 14 more than this unit posted in 2013 – and ranked third nationally in fewest plays of 30 yards or more allowed. Pruitt’s background as a defensive backs coach was also a huge boost for a secondary that was filled with youth in 2014.
Doug Ruse, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia Southern
Ruse is a veteran play-caller, serving as an offensive coordinator for six different programs since 1988. The Missouri native followed coach Willie Fritz from Sam Houston State to Georgia Southern and helped to guide the offense to an average of 7.3 yards per play. The Eagles also led the Sun Belt by averaging 39.1 points per game and finished first nationally by scoring 55 rushing touchdowns.
Mike Sanford, Offensive Coordinator, Boise State
Sanford is no stranger to life on the blue turf in Boise. The former Boise State quarterback returned to coordinate coach Bryan Harsin’s offense in 2014, and the Broncos averaged 39.7 points per game – the highest mark by the Boise State offense since 2011. The Broncos also averaged 6.7 yards per play in Mountain West games and produced 89 plays of 20 yards or more. Sanford was targeted by Vanderbilt this offseason, but he decided to stay at Boise State for the 2015 season. The former Stanford assistant will have his work cut out for him next year, as the Broncos have to replace standout running back Jay Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick this offseason.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Penn State has a strong track record of success on defense, and Shoop continued to raise the bar in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions led the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 4.3 yards per play and finishing first in the conference in scoring defense (18.6 ppg). The numbers posted by Shoop’s defense are even more impressive when you consider the offensive struggles by Penn State (14th in Big Ten in scoring). Prior to following James Franklin to Happy Valley, Shoop spent three years calling the plays for Vanderbilt’s defense. Under Shoop’s watch, the Commodores finished second in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) in 2013. Shoop might be the nation's most underrated defensive coordinator.
Robb Smith, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Bret Bielema’s decision to hire Smith after Chris Ash left for Ohio State paid huge dividends for the Arkansas defense. The Razorbacks allowed 30.8 points per game in 2013 but limited opponents to just 19.2 points per contest in 2014. The defense was playing at a high level to finish the season, as Arkansas allowed only 28 points over its last four games. Smith’s group also ranked second in the SEC in red zone defense, gave up the fewest plays of 20 yards or more in the conference (44) and held opponents to 5.9 yards per play – a yard decrease (6.9) from the 2013 performance.
Other Key Power 5 Coordinator Hires
Vance Bedford, Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Bedford and Charlie Strong helped to transform Texas back into one of the top defensive teams in the Big 12. The Longhorns allowed only 4.7 yards per play and held opponents to 23.8 points per game.
Art Kaufman, Defensive Coordinator, California
The Golden Bears took a step forward on defense under Kaufman, but this unit still needs more talent and depth. California allowed 6.3 yards per play this season – a decrease from 7.1 in 2013.
Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Coordinator, Washington
The Huskies had a young secondary but still managed to limit opponents to 24.8 points per game and 5.4 yards per play (Pac-12 only games).
Mark Mangino, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa State
Mangino didn’t bring a ton of improvement to Iowa State on the stat sheet, but the Cyclones lost standout receiver Quenton Bundrage to injury early in the year. Quarterback Sam Richardson tossed 18 touchdowns, which was the most by an Iowa State quarterback since Bret Meyer had 19 in 2005.
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
Former NFL assistant returned to Durham and coordinated an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game in 2014. Montgomery is a rising star in the coaching ranks and a name to remember over the next few seasons.
Don Pellum, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
Pellum’s start as Oregon’s defensive coordinator got off to a rocky start, but the Ducks played better in the second half of the year. Oregon limited its last six opponents to an average of just 17.5 points per game.
Kurt Roper, Offensive Coordinator, Florida
Roper is looking for a new home after Will Muschamp was dismissed as Florida’s coach at the end of the regular season. Roper was only in Gainesville for a year, but the Gators made small gains on the stat sheet. Florida averaged 30.3 points per game in 2014, which was a sizeable increase after finishing last in the SEC with an 18.8 mark in 2013. The Gators also generated 27 plays of 30 yards or more.
Other Key Group of 5 Hires
Scott Boone, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Nevada
Nevada rebounded back into the postseason after missing out on a bowl bid in coach Brian Polian’s debut in 2013. Boone’s arrival from William & Mary helped the defense take a step forward on the stat sheet. The Wolf Pack gave up 7.1 yards per play last season but cut that number to 5.9 in 2014. Also, Nevada allowed the fewest plays of 30 yards or more (17) in the Mountain West this year.
Kevin Clune, Defensive Coordinator, Hawaii
Clune inherited a defense that returned just five starters and allowed 38.8 points per game in 2013. The Rainbow Warriors showed improvement under Clune’s watch, limiting opponents to 26.8 points per game and finishing first in the Mountain West in red zone defense.
Travis Pearson, Defensive Coordinator, South Alabama
South Alabama’s defense had a couple of key losses from its front seven, but the Jaguars remained one of the top units in the Sun Belt. Pearson’s group held opponents to 5.2 yards per play and 22.9 points per game in conference matchups. The Jaguars also ranked second in the Sun Belt with 21 forced turnovers.
Tyson Summers, Defensive Coordinator, UCF
Summers started his tenure as the defensive signal-caller at UCF on a high note, as the Knights defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In his first full year as the coordinator, Summers guided UCF’s defense to a No. 1 rank in the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards allowed per play and limited opponents to 19.2 points per game.
Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB
Vincent inherited a good group of skill talent in Birmingham, but the Blazers did not have a quarterback with any attempts in a FBS game. Despite the lack of experience under center, Vincent’s offense helped UAB to reach six victories. The Blazers averaged 5.5 yards per play and 33.2 points per game in 2014.
Duwan Walker, Defensive Coordinator, UAB
UAB’s defense allowed 43.8 points per game in 2013, but Walker and coach Bill Clark helped the Blazers cut that total to 29.9 points per contest in 2014.
Marcel Yates, Defensive Coordinator, Boise State
Yates returned to Boise State after a stint on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M and coordinated a defense that limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play in 2014. Additionally, the Broncos led the Mountain West in third down defense.
Ohio State advanced to the College Football Playoff National Championship after a 42-35 upset victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes have played Oregon eight previous times, but the meeting on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas is easily the matchup with the most implications between these two programs.
Urban Meyer’s team had to overcome two significant injuries at quarterback this season, yet the offense hasn’t suffered much of a drop with third-stringer Cardale Jones in games against Wisconsin and Alabama. In addition to the steady play from Jones, Ohio State’s offensive line has showed marked improvement since losing to Virginia Tech, and the defense has allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more – the fewest in the nation.
The Buckeyes enter the national championship with a 12-game winning streak and are looking to win their first time since 2003. Ohio State’s last appearance in the title game came in 2007 with a 38-24 loss to LSU.
Five Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the National Title
1. Ezekiel Elliott
The Big Ten was home to two running backs (Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman) that eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark, so Elliott’s production was largely under-the-radar throughout the course of the season. However, after back-to-back 200-yard efforts, Elliott is quickly emerging as one of the nation’s top running backs. The sophomore enters the national championship with 1,632 yards and 14 scores. In games against Wisconsin and Alabama – two solid run defenses – Elliott rushed for 450 yards and four scores on 40 attempts. The sophomore eclipsed at least 100 yards in his last four games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 6.9 yards per carry on 15 attempts to Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks allowed 156.1 rushing yards per game this season and were vulnerable at the point of attack against the Seminoles. Elliott should plan on a heavy workload in the national championship, especially as Ohio State needs to control the clock and keep Marcus Mariota on the sidelines.
2. Cardale Jones
Jones opened fall practice as Ohio State’s No. 3 quarterback, but the sophomore has been the least of coach Urban Meyer’s problems over the last two weeks. Against Wisconsin, Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores. And in the Sugar Bowl versus Alabama, Jones completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown. The sophomore isn’t as mobile or elusive as former starter J.T. Barrett, but he has 52 rushing yards on 25 attempts over the last two games. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jones is a load for opposing defenders to bring down, and he’s been plenty capable of making plays through the air. If Jones continues to play mistake-free ball and delivers on third downs, Ohio State’s offense will continue to perform at a high level.
3. Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line was pegged as one of the best in college football this season and is anchored by two All-Americans in end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett. Bosa was quiet in the win over Alabama (just three tackles), but the rest of the line stepped up and limited T.J. Yeldon to 47 yards on 10 carries, while Derrick Henry rushed for 95 yards on 13 attempts. End Steve Miller returned an interception 41 yards for a score, while Bennett recorded a sack and four stops. Stopping Oregon’s attack starts at the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes have the defensive line to disrupt quarterback Marcus Mariota’s timing, and the development of the linebackers have only added to the ability of the front seven to control the flow of the game. Ohio State generated 43 sacks this season and tied for seventh nationally in 105 tackles for a loss. If this unit continues to be disruptive at the point of attack, the Buckeyes should be able to limit the damage from Mariota and the array of talented Oregon skill players.
4. Coaching Experience
In a one-game scenario, there are few coaches better than Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Although Oregon’s Mark Helfrich is 24-3 in his first two years in Eugene, the edge in coaching has to lean to the Ohio State sideline. Meyer is 37-3 in his first three years at Ohio State and navigated injuries to his top two quarterbacks to reach the national championship this season. Prior to taking the top job in Columbus, Meyer went 65-15 at Florida, 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. And in 13 years as a college coach, Meyer has reached the national championship game three times. The Ohio State staff is among the best in college football, which features Broyles Award winner in offensive coordinator Tom Herman and veteran offensive line coach Ed Warinner. On the defensive side, the addition of co-coordinator Chris Ash made a huge impact in 2014, and line coach Larry Johnson Sr. is one of the top assistants in the nation. The best player in the national championship is clearly Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, it’s a safe bet to assume Meyer’s big-game experience will help Ohio State on Jan. 12.
5. Development of the Offensive Line
Line coach Ed Warinner had his work cut out for him at the start of the season. The Buckeyes had only one returning starter and surrendered seven sacks in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in early September. But over the last seven games, Ohio State has allowed only 11 sacks and rushers have averaged at least five yards per carry in five out of the last seven games. Left tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein both earned All-Big Ten honors, while the same five players have started all 14 games for the Buckeyes this season. Center Jacoby Boren suffered an ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl but returned to action and delivered a solid performance against a talented Alabama defensive line. Oregon’s defensive front has been vulnerable to the run this year, and establishing Elliott and Jones on the ground will be crucial to Ohio State’s hopes at victory. Even though Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner played well for the Ducks in the victory against Florida State, the Buckeyes should have an advantage in the trenches.
Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five turnovers by the Seminoles to score 41 points in the second half. As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive plays by its offense, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.
Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State. The Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes and lost their last trip to the national championship game, as Auburn defeated Oregon 22-19 in 2011.
Five Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the National Title
1. Marcus Mariota
When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground. While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Oregon has played this year.
2. Defensive Improvement
Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season. Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shut down defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start to the year, as evidenced by five forced turnovers in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.
3. Improving Health
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff has done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. The Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, but this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year. Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year and is nearly at full strength. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu back to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.
4. Winning the Turnover Battle
Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship. The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 – the fewest in the nation – and forced 30 (tied for 10th) this season. How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been in turnover margin this year? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin. The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.
5. Skill Talent
Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and the freshman recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 ypc) when needed. At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 ypc), Keanon Lowe (14.3 ypc), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. This group also contains talented freshman Charles Nelson and tight end Evan Baylis – caught six of his 10 passes in 2014 against Florida State – as additional options. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s offense will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their heated rivalry with a Saturday night, AFC Wild Card showdown on NBC. This will be the fourth time since 2001 the Ravens (10-6) and Steelers (11-5) have played in a playoff game, with the Steelers winning all three previous matchups.
There’s no love lost between these two teams and the annual meetings are usually close. However, this season’s get-togethers produced two blowouts. Baltimore used three Pittsburgh turnovers en route to an easy 26-6 victory on Sept. 11. The Steelers returned the favor in early November, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards in a decisive 43-23 victory over the Ravens.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday night’s game is that the Steelers will be missing a big piece of their offense because of injury, while the Ravens will wecome back a key defender. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore’s All-Pro nose tackle, is set to return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in last week’s win over Cincinnati and has already been ruled out for the wild card game. The team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, Bell's absence is something the Steelers must overcome.
Pittsburgh owns a 21-17 overall series edge against Baltimore. The Steelers have won the last two meetings in Heinz Field, but the Ravens claimed back-to-back victories in enemy territory on Nov. 6, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Win the Battle in the Trenches
With All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata’s return, the Ravens’ defensive line is at full strength and will create plenty of headaches for Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first two meetings this year, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger five times and held Steeler rushers to just 154 yards on 43 carries. Considering the problems in pass defense this season, the Ravens need to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offense by generating pressure on Roethlisberger. And when Roethlisberger breaks free of the initial rush, it’s critical the Ravens stick with their coverage to limit big plays by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Even with Le'Veon Bell already ruled out because of a knee injury, Baltimore should look to put Roethlisberger in long-yardage situations and use its physical, aggressive front seven to generate pressure. When the Ravens have the ball on offense, getting running back Justin Forsett on track will be a priority. In the first meeting between these two teams, Forsett gashed the Steelers for 96 yards on 22 attempts. In the rematch, Forsett was limited to 38 yards on nine carries. Balance on offense is crucial to set up Baltimore’s play-action game from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable to play, which means rookie James Hurst will be under pressure to protect Flacco against Pittsburgh’s front seven. If Flacco has protection, there will be opportunities for big plays against a secondary that ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass. Even if cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu return from injury, the Steelers could struggle to contain the Baltimore pass offense.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Attack the Ravens’ Secondary
Even if Le'Veon Bell ended up playing, running the ball against Baltimore still figured to a be a tough task for the Steelers. After all, Pittsburgh managed only 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first matchup, and the Ravens limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 25 carries in the second meeting. Combine Bell’s absence with Haloti Ngata’s return, and it’s easy to see why this game will rest on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh added some backfield insurance with the addition of veteran Ben Tate, but it’s difficult to envision Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate having much success against a Ravens defense that limited opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards per game. Roethlisberger battled an illness in last week’s win over Cincinnati but should be at full strength for this one. In the early November meeting against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass, but held its last four opponents under 200 yards through the air. Of course, the Ravens didn’t exactly run the gauntlet of quarterbacks in playing Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami. With the uncertainty surrounding the ground attack and the strength of Baltimore’s front seven, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect for Pittsburgh to win. The veteran is having an outstanding season (32 TDs, 9 INTs) and is surrounded by a deep group of receivers. Antonio Brown led the NFL with 1,698 receiving yards this season, while tight end Heath Miller (66 receptions) and Markus Wheaton (53 catches) were steady options. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an emerging star, averaging 21.1 yards per reception in 2014. The Steelers are known for winning with their defense and rushing attack, but on Saturday night, their best chance of advancing in the playoffs likely rests with an offense taking to the air and Roethlisberger attempting 40-50 passes.
Five out of the last seven matchups between these two teams were decided by three points or less. While both Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh games in the regular season were one-sided affairs, the wild card battle on Saturday night should be close. No Le'Veon Bell for the AFC North champions puts even more pressure on Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to produce out of the backfield. However, the Steelers still have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. Although defenses usually control this rivalry, don’t be surprised if Saturday night’s affair features more scoring. If Pittsburgh had Bell in on the field, the Steelers would be at least a touchdown favorite. Without him, the game moves closer to a toss-up. Roethlisberger does just enough, and Pittsburgh’s defense picks up a late turnover to seal the victory and send the Steelers to Denver for next weekend’s AFC Divisional Round.