Articles By Steven Lassan
College football’s new four-team playoff has added extra intrigue to the upcoming season.
No one knows exactly how this year will play out and what the committee will value when it comes to evaluating and ranking the teams. However, with four teams getting a chance to play for the national championship, the margin of error has slightly increased.
Instead of trying to get to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, teams can get into the No. 3 and No. 4 positions and still win the national title.
Despite the extra margin of error, every team in the nation has a concern or weakness heading into the season.
Some concerns are obvious, while some are just minor.
Using Athlon’s projected final rankings for the 2014 season, let’s take a look at the biggest concerns for the top 15 teams.
Top Concerns for College Football's Playoff Contenders
1. Florida State
Defensive tackle: The Seminoles have a few departures on the interior, including standout Timmy Jernigan. Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stample are solid, but which players emerge to help with depth? Redshirt freshman Keith Bryant or one of the touted true freshman: Derrick Nnadi, Arthur Williams or Demarcus Christmas could help in 2014.
Wide Receivers: Talent certainly isn’t an issue here. The Seminoles boast an All-American receiver on one side in Rashad Greene, and a standout tight end Nick O’Leary attacking over the middle. But the spot opposite of Greene is up for grabs, with seniors Christian Green and Jarred Haggins competing for snaps, along with sophomore Jesus Wilson and freshmen Ermon Lane and Traivs Rudolph.
Punter: It’s easy to overlook special teams, but punting is an area of concern for coach Jimbo Fisher. Cason Beatty needs to be more consistent and will face competition from Jonathan Hernandez and Larry Lawson III.
Cornerback: Opposing quarterbacks completed only 55.5 percent of their throws against Alabama’s defense in 2013, but the cornerback position is still a concern for Nick Saban heading into the fall. 11 of the 13 touchdown passes allowed by the Crimson Tide last season came in three games (Oklahoma, Auburn and Texas A&M), and cornerback Deion Belue must be replaced. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart need more consistent production from their corners and could call on two true freshmen (Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey) to help in 2014.
Quarterback: This position has generated most of the offseason buzz in Tuscaloosa, but with a strong rushing attack and defense, Alabama won’t need too much from its quarterback position. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is considered the favorite to start over Blake Sims. Coker completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards with the Seminoles in 2013 but does not have a start in his college career. The Crimson Tide can win a lot of games with so-so quarterback play. However, when the game is on the line against Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss, can Coker or Sims make the necessary throws to elevate the Crimson Tide to a victory?
3. Ohio State
Offensive Line: It’s a tough call to pick the No. 1 concern for the Buckeyes, as the offensive line, receiving corps, secondary and linebacking corps are all worth a mention. However, the offensive line is perhaps the biggest concern for coach Urban Meyer, especially with quarterback Braxton Miller’s injuries last season. Keeping Miller healthy is the No. 1 priority this year, as Kenny Guiton is no longer around to provide insurance. Left tackle Taylor Decker is the lone returning starter, but guard Pat Elflein had a promising stint at the end of 2013. The left guard, center and right tackle spots are still up for grabs. Winning the Big Ten – especially on Nov. 8 at Michigan State – and contending for a playoff spot rests largely on how quick the Buckeyes can develop their offensive line.
Playmakers for Trevor Knight: The Sooners return 14 starters from a team that went 11-2 last year, and there are few glaring concerns for coach Bob Stoops. Quarterback Trevor Knight ended 2013 with his best performance of the year, throwing for 348 yards and four scores against Alabama. For Knight to continue his growth as a passer, the coaching staff needs to find new weapons at receiver. Three of last year’s top four receivers are gone, including Jalen Saunders (61 catches). Junior Sterling Shepard is an All-Big 12 receiver, but who steps up into the No. 2 and No. 3 roles? Is it Durron Neal or K.J. Young? How about Dannon Cavil, Derrick Woods or Jordan Smallwood? True freshman Michiah Quick is another name to watch this fall.
Lines of Scrimmage: It’s a bit cliché, but teams have to be strong in the trenches in order to win in the SEC. Auburn’s offensive line was one of the best in the nation in 2013 and was projected to rank near the top once again. However, guard Alex Kozan will miss 2014 due to a back injury, which adds to a giant void on the left side with Greg Robinson leaving for the NFL. The defensive front is also uncertain, as Carl Lawson could miss most of 2014 due to a torn ACL. Sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel are promising, and there’s depth with the addition of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. However, after giving up 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, Lawson's injury, and the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL, the Tigers head into 2014 with concerns (albeit small) about the defensive line.
Transition on defense: Second-year coach Mark Helfrich doesn’t have many glaring concerns to address this offseason, but the defense is under the direction of first-year coordinator Don Pellum after Nick Aliotti retired. Pellum is no stranger to Oregon football, as he’s worked in Eugene for the last 21 seasons. However, this will be his first opportunity to coordinate the Ducks’ defense. What tweaks will he install into the scheme? Personnel-wise, there’s not a ton of concerns, but Oregon needs to develop depth on the interior of the line and sort out its new starters in the secondary.
Offensive line: The Bruins struggled to find consistency with this unit in 2013, and line coach Adrian Klemm now must find a replacement for standout guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. UCLA played a handful of young players up front last season, which should pay dividends for 2014. Additionally, Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche is expected to solidify a spot on the left side. With more snaps, this unit should emerge as a strength for the Bruins. However, this unit will be tested right away against an underrated Virginia defensive line in the opener and against Texas in Week 3. Another position to watch for UCLA: The rushing attack. Coach Jim Mora needs to find a consistent presence on the ground to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Brett Hundley.
Secondary: New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt inherits a defense with potential, but this unit allowed nearly 30 points per game in 2013. Pruitt helped Florida State’s defense rank among the nation’s best last season and should work a quick turnaround in 2014. The front seven is among the best in the SEC, but the secondary is a significant concern. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed prior to spring practice, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins transferred to Louisville, while safety Tray Matthews landed at Auburn. The overall depth has been depleted with the player departures, and Pruitt could look to the freshmen ranks for answers. Junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng is expected to help at cornerback or safety, while true freshman Malkom Parrish and redshirt freshman Aaron Davis are also in the mix. Considering the uncertainty with this unit, it’s critical Georgia’s front seven is able to generate a pass rush against opposing offenses – at least early in the 2014 season.
9. South Carolina
Cornerbacks/defensive line: Coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have his hands full through the first couple weeks of the season, as the Gamecocks take on three explosive offenses in Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia. The defensive line returns only one starter (J.T. Surratt), but there’s enough talent returning to ensure there’s not a huge drop in production from last year’s unit that featured Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. But the secondary is a bigger concern for Ward, as South Carolina could lean on three true freshmen for major snaps: Carlos Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. With the turnover up front and in the inexperience in the secondary, the Gamecocks could use more 3-4 fronts in 2014.
Revamped defense: Coordinator Phil Bennett has brought noticeable improvement to Baylor’s defense over the last few years, and the Bears ranked second in the Big 12 in 2013 (league-only games) by allowing only 4.8 yards per play. Just four starters return for 2014, but the defensive line could be one of the best in the Big 12, and senior Bryce Hager is back to anchor the linebacking corps. The biggest concern for this unit is the secondary, which has to replace standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Also, keep an eye on offense with left tackle Spencer Drango. The standout lineman had back surgery last season and needs to quickly return to full strength in order for Baylor to repeat as Big 12 champs.
11. Michigan State
The Spartans check in at No. 11 in Athlon’s projected top 25 for 2014, but coach Mark Dantonio’s team should be higher. This team doesn’t have many glaring concerns, and the defense is one of the best in the nation. Finding replacements for a few defensive standouts (Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen) is the biggest priority for the Spartans.
A brutal schedule awaits Stanford in 2014. The Cardinal play five road games against teams projected to finish in the final top 25. Personnel-wise, coach David Shaw needs to find a replacement for running back Tyler Gaffney, as well as fill the voids on defense left behind by linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, linemen Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro and safety Ed Reynolds.
13. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish have concerns on both sides of the ball, but the offense should get a boost with the return of quarterback Everett Golson. A revamped front seven highlights the defense, as new coordinator Brian VanGorder has to replace standout linemen Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt.
New coach Steve Sarkisian’s biggest obstacle is depth. The Trojans are short on scholarships due to NCAA sanctions and an injury to a couple of players in the starting lineup could be difficult to overcome.
The Badgers return only eight starters and have concerns at quarterback and on the front seven on defense. However, a favorable schedule should keep coach Gary Andersen’s team in the hunt for the West Division title.
Michigan is set to host Penn State in a rare night game in Ann Arbor this year, and the Wolverines will wear a special uniform for the matchup against the Nittany Lions.
The uniforms aren’t drastically different from Michigan’s usual look, but there are some alterations.
The Wolverines will wear a blue jersey and blue pants, while the numbers feature laser-cut stripes.
Michigan-Penn State is slated for Oct. 11.
One of the biggest fall question marks for Rutgers entering its debut season in the Big Ten was its quarterback position. However, just a few days into fall practice, the Scarlet Knights have found their starting quarterback in Gary Nova.
Coach Kyle Flood announced Nova as the team’s starter after practice on Aug. 6.
Nova is talented, but the senior has struggled with consistency over the last three years.
In 2013, Nova tossed 14 picks to 18 touchdowns and lost the starting job late in the season to Chas Dodd.
New coordinator Ralph Friedgen should help improve Rutgers’ offense, but Nova needs to do a better job of limiting mistakes if the Scarlet Knights want to make a bowl in their Big Ten debut.
Northern Illinois opens its MAC West title defense with a home date against Presbyterian on Aug. 28.
The Huskies will open the season in style, as Rod Carey’s team is slated to wear an alternate uniform against Presbyterian.
The alternate uniform features yellow on the shoulder pads as a tribute to DeKalb’s Corn Fest. Check out more information here on Northern Illinois and the Corn Fest.
The “Corn Fest” uniforms will be auctioned to support three local causes.
Predicting college football's national champion is never an easy task. In addition to combing through schedules, returning starters, players lost and statistics, there are several factors impossible to account for. Injuries and luck will have a major impact on the 2014 season - and neither can be projected.
The impact of preseason polls on the national title race is overrated, but there’s no denying it’s better to start high than have to climb from outside of the top 25. However, starting outside of the top 10 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Florida State and Auburn both ranked outside of that range in the first preseason poll in 2013 and met for the national championship in Pasadena.
While most of college football's national title winners are likely to come from within the top 10 of most preseason polls, there are always a few dark horses sneaking into the discussion.
What teams might fit that mold in 2014? Let’s take a look at 10 teams to watch for the upcoming season:
College Football’s Top 10 Dark Horse National Title Contenders for 2014
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 6
Key Games: 8/30 at Georgia, 9/20 at Florida State, 11/29 South Carolina
Replacing quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant won’t be easy, but the Tigers won’t take a huge step back in the win column. Clemson will turn to senior Cole Stoudt and true freshman DeShaun Watson at quarterback, while the receiving corps is stocked with promising talent. And as long as Chad Morris is calling the plays, the Tigers should be fine on offense. Six starters return from a defense that allowed just 22.2 points per game in 2013. Vic Beasley is one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, and the secondary will get a boost from a healthy Mackensie Alexander at cornerback. Settling the offensive line and getting Stoudt acclimated to the starting lineup will be two areas to watch early in the year. Unseating Florida State in the Atlantic is a tall order, but Clemson isn’t short on talent and has opportunities for key victories against the Seminoles, in-state rival South Carolina and SEC opponent Georgia in the opener.
Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 7
Key Games: 9/20 at Alabama, 11/1 Georgia, 11/29 at Florida State
Sure, Florida was a massive disappointment with its 4-8 record in 2013. However, there’s certainly no shortage of talent in Gainesville, and the Gators catch key East Division swing games against Missouri and South Carolina at home. Coach Will Muschamp is squarely on the hot seat and improving the offense was his top priority this spring. New coordinator Kurt Roper plans to speed up the tempo on offense and allow quarterback Jeff Driskel to work more out of the shotgun. Those changes should help an offense that averaged just 18.8 points per game last year. Driskel has to play better for Florida to challenge in the East, but a bigger problem on offense is the offensive line and the inconsistent play of the receivers. Lost in the struggles on offense last year was a defense that led the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed in conference games (5.09). Florida should be strong on that side of the ball once again in 2014, led by standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and end/linebacker Dante Fowler.
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 9
Key Games: 8/30 Clemson, 9/13 at South Carolina, 11/15 Auburn
Everything that could go wrong seemed to go that way for Mark Richt’s team in 2013. The Bulldogs suffered a rash of injuries on offense, ranked near the bottom of the nation in turnover margin (-7) and lost four games by a touchdown or less. Expect Georgia to rebound in 2014, as 14 starters return, and the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator should pay immediate dividends. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience after Aaron Murray suffered a torn ACL late last year, while the Bulldogs have one of the SEC’s top collection of skill talent if running back Todd Gurley and receiver Malcolm Mitchell stay healthy. Georgia’s secondary is a significant concern – especially with Clemson and South Carolina to open the year – but the front seven should thrive under Pruitt’s watch.
Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5
Key Games: 9/18 Auburn, 10/18 at Oklahoma, 12/6 at Baylor
Never count out Bill Snyder’s team in the Big 12 discussion. The Wildcats finished 2013 on a tear, winning six out of their last seven games. During that stretch, Kansas State’s only loss was a 10-point defeat to Oklahoma. There’s plenty of optimism in Manhattan after the strong finish, as quarterback Jake Waters returns after throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first season with the Wildcats, and dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett is one of the best in the nation. Anchored by center B.J. Finney and tackle Cody Whitehair, Kansas State’s offensive line should be one of the best in the Big 12. Even with new faces set to emerge at running back, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for the Wildcats. However, there are concerns for a defense that returns only five starters. First-team All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman will be missed, and linebacker Blake Slaughter departs after recording 110 stops last year. How quickly the new faces in the front seven emerge could be the difference in contending for the Big 12 title. With games against three projected top 10 teams (Auburn, Oklahoma and Baylor), Kansas State has a chance to build a strong case as a playoff team with victories in each contest.
Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 6
Key Games: 10/4 at Auburn, 10/25 Ole Miss, 11/8 Alabama
It seems strange to place LSU in the dark horse national title category. After all, the Tigers have won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons. However, most believe LSU is due to take a step back in 2014, as this program has lost a significant amount of talent to the NFL over the last two years. Sure, this team will be young in a few spots, but Les Miles’ team isn’t short on talent. The passing attack may struggle early in the year with a new quarterback (Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris) under center, along with a revamped receiving corps. Expect to see the Tigers lean on one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a backfield that features top freshman Leonard Fournette. Similar to the offense, defensive coordinator John Chavis will be relying on several underclassmen to improve a defense that allowed 5.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year. The biggest concern for Chavis has to be at defensive tackle, as the Tigers lose Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson are two of the rising stars in the SEC.
Returning Starters: Offense: 4, Defense: 5
Key Games: 10/4 Stanford, 10/18 at Florida State, 11/29 at USC
The Fighting Irish’s hopes of a return trip to the national championship in 2013 were derailed with Everett Golson’s season-long suspension. Brian Kelly’s team still finished 9-4 last year, but most in South Bend expected a trip to a BCS bowl. Golson is back under center for Notre Dame this season, and his return should provide a boost for an offense that struggled with consistency in the passing attack in 2013. Golson will have plenty of help from a solid offensive line, along with an intriguing group of playmakers at running back. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to rebuild the front seven, as nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt departed for the NFL. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith is an emerging star, and cornerback KeiVarae Russell could challenge for All-America honors. Notre Dame will have strength of schedule on its side, playing 10 bowl teams from 2013. The Fighting Irish need their offense to carry the team early, but key matchups against Stanford, Florida State and USC are later in the year, which should allow Kelly’s team plenty of time to reload.
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 9
Key Games: 10/4 Alabama, 10/25 at LSU, 11/1 Auburn
The Rebels have made steady improvement under Hugh Freeze, winning 15 games over the last two seasons. The talent level in Oxford is also on the rise, as Ole Miss recruited the No. 8 class in 2013 and the No. 15 haul in 2014. With more talent and depth, combined with the roster turnover at Texas A&M and LSU, the Rebels are ready to make a move in the SEC West. The defense should rank among the best in the SEC, as the continued development of tackle Robert Nkemdiche should help a unit that allowed only 23.7 points per game last year. Safety Cody Prewitt is one of the nation’s most-underrated players. Depth on the offensive line is one of Freeze’s biggest concerns this season, but a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback should make a big difference for the offense. With Auburn and Alabama visiting Oxford in 2014, Ole Miss will have a chance to play spoiler in the West.
Returning Starters: Offense: 3, Defense: 8
Key Games: 10/4 Oklahoma, 10/11 at Baylor, 11/8 Kansas State
Transitioning to the Big 12 from the Mountain West is a difficult assignment, and as expected, TCU has suffered its share of ups and downs over the last two years. But after a 4-8 mark last season, the Horned Frogs could be ready to turn a corner in 2014. Seven of TCU’s eight losses were by 10 points or less, with four coming by a three points or less. After struggling to win close games in 2013, coach Gary Patterson decided to switch schemes on offense, hiring Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech) and Doug Meacham (Houston) to install a no-huddle, up-tempo attack. The scheme change should help TCU’s offense improve, especially if Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel settles into the starting quarterback role. The offense will be a work in progress in 2014, but the defense is one of the best in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs led the conference in rush defense and allowed only 4.8 yards per play in league contests last year. Expect another stingy defense from Patterson, while an improving offense should help TCU win their share of close games after struggling in that category in 2013.
Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 7
Key Games: 9/27 Stanford, 10/18 at Oregon, 11/8 UCLA
Chris Petersen was one of the top hires of the 2014 coaching carousel, and the former Boise State coach inherits a Washington team that made steady improvement under Steve Sarkisian. Petersen is tasked with elevating the program to the next level, and the Huskies could be a factor in the Pac-12 North race this year. Cyler Miles is expected to start at quarterback, but the sophomore was suspended in spring practice due to an off-the-field incident. Miles was reinstated in time for summer workouts and should return to the top of the depth chart after serving a one-game suspension. While a new go-to running back must emerge to replace Bishop Sankey, the Huskies could have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines. Seven starters return from a defense that allowed only 22.8 points per game in 2013. This unit could be even better in 2014, as linebacker Shaq Thompson, cornerback Marcus Peters, end Hau’oli Kikaha and tackle Danny Shelton are all among the best defenders in the Pac-12. Petersen has work to do on both sides of the ball, but with UCLA and Stanford visiting Seattle, the Huskies can play spoiler in the North.
Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 3
Key Games: 8/30 LSU, 11/15 Nebraska, 11/22 at Iowa
The Badgers return only eight starters from last year’s nine-win team, but a favorable schedule should soften the blow of the overhauled depth chart. As expected at Wisconsin, the offensive line and rushing attack will lead the way. Running back Melvin Gordon is a Heisman contender, and the line could be the best in the Big Ten. Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy are battling to start under center, and the Badgers need new faces to emerge at receiver with the departure of Jared Abbrederis. The revamped front seven on defense will get an early test with a matchup against LSU to open the season, but coach Gary Andersen has promising talent in freshmen ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, along with sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel. Helping Wisconsin’s case as a sleeper team in the playoff mix is a schedule that does not include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in crossover play with the East Division.
College football fans know about Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, but there’s a new crop of superstars waiting to emerge. Every college football season always brings new household names, and the countdown has officially started for 2014.
With fall practice underway, freshmen are on campus and ready to make an impact on the upcoming season. The recruiting hype and star rankings surrounding these players will continue for the next few years, but fall practice is the first chance for most freshmen to make a significant impact.
Every season, freshmen make an impact for some of the top teams in the nation. Last year, quarterback Jameis Winston guided Florida State to a national championship. What freshmen might make that type of impact in 2014?
Athlon has attempted to answer that question with a look at the top three all-freshmen teams for 2014. True and redshirt freshmen were considered for this list, with the emphasis on playing time. Talent and recruiting rank does play a part in compiling an All-Freshman team. However, a major factor in placement was determined by how much the players would see the field. Players from the five power conferences, Notre Dame and BYU were considered for this all-freshman team.
College Football's 2014 All-Freshman Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense||Third-Team Offense|
|WR/TE||Dalton Schultz (TE)|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense||Third-Team Defense|
|Malkom Parrish (DB)|
Wesley Green (CB)
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists||Third-Team Specialists|
|Wayne Gallman (RB)|
|Allen Lazard (WR)|
After a successful four-year stint under Charlie Strong, Louisville reached into its past to find its next coach. Strong left for Texas after a 12-1 record in 2013, and athletic director Tom Jurich hired Bobby Petrino from Western Kentucky to guide the Cardinals into the ACC.
Returning to Louisville was a strange journey for Petrino. After leaving to be the head coach with the Falcons in 2007, he spent four years at Arkansas, which culminated in his firing in the spring of 2011. Petrino sat out the 2012 season and resurfaced in '13 for one year with the Hilltoppers.
Louisville was a winner in college football’s realignment cycle, moving into the ACC after spending a season in the American Athletic Conference. While the Cardinals will benefit from the security of playing in the ACC and have a place in one of college football’s Power 5 leagues, this isn’t an easy transition. Louisville will play in the Atlantic Division, creating annual games against Florida State and Clemson. Additionally, the overall league is tougher, with crossover games against the Coastal and off-and-on matchups against Notre Dame increasing Louisville’s strength of schedule.
While the schedule will be tougher, Louisville is a capable of being a top 25 program. The Cardinals were No. 29 in Athlon’s job rankings and No. 6 in the ACC. With good facilities, and the ability to attract talent from Ohio and Florida, Louisville will be a factor in the ACC.
Petrino’s Job History:
2012-13: Western Kentucky – Head Coach
2008-11: Arkansas – Head Coach
2007: Atlanta Falcons – Head Coach
2003-06: Louisville – Head Coach
2002: Auburn – Offensive Coordinator
2001: Jacksonville Jaguars – Offensive Coordinator
1999-00: Jacksonville Jaguars – Quarterbacks
1998: Louisville – Offensive Coordinator
1995-97: Utah State – Offensive Coordinator
1994: Nevada – Offensive Coordinator
1992-93: Arizona State – Quarterbacks
1990-91: Idaho – Offensive Coordinator
1989: Idaho – Quarterbacks
1987-88: Weber State – Wide Receivers
1985-86: Carroll College – Offensive Coordinator
Obstacles to Overcome:
Transitioning to a New League: Moving from the American Athletic Conference to the ACC will be an increased challenge for Louisville. The Cardinals play only three teams from last year’s schedule, with just one of those (Miami) coming in conference play. Each team affected by realignment to a tougher league is a different case study. However, Utah, West Virginia and TCU have struggled in transitioning leagues, while Missouri, Texas A&M and Nebraska have experienced plenty of success in their new conference. With a new league, different opponents in conference play and road environments, it will take a couple of years before Louisville is acclimated to the ACC.
The Secondary: The Cardinals finished 2013 ranked No. 1 in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense. Louisville allowed only eight passing scores, and quarterbacks completed just 50.7 percent of their passes against this secondary. New coordinator Todd Grantham has work to do in the defensive backfield, as safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor have departed after standout careers. Junior Charles Gaines should be one of the ACC’s top corners, while senior Terell Floyd could shift between corner and safety. With Pryor and Smith gone, the safety position is the biggest concern on defense. Redshirt freshmen Richard Benjamin and Chucky Williams will factor into the mix to start, while Petrino inked junior college recruit James Sample to provide immediate help. The overall inexperience at safety is a concern, and there’s a drop-off expected without Smith and Pryor in the secondary.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Offense: It seems strange to call Louisville’s offense a strength after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. However, new quarterback Will Gardner looks capable of contending for All-ACC honors, the backfield has two potential starters (Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer), receiver DeVante Parker is a legitimate threat and four starters are returning along the offensive line. Despite the loss of Bridgewater, averaging over 30 points per game is within reach for this Cardinals team.
Front Seven on Defense: New coordinator Todd Grantham plans to switch Louisville’s scheme to a 3-4 approach, and the necessary pieces are in place to make that transition in the front seven. Rush end/linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin recorded 9.5 sacks last year and will be one of the ACC’s top defenders. Sophomore DeAngelo Brown is back after missing all of 2013 due to injury to anchor the interior, while the linebacking corps is a strength with Nick Dawson and James Burgess returning. With the concerns in the secondary, it’s critical for Louisville’s front seven to be active and have success in getting to the quarterback.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|Conference Rank*||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects||Five-Star Prospects|
|*Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
Louisville's rank among ACC teams was compiled using 247Sports National rankings for 2010-13.
Recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but there are some interesting trends. It’s tough to ask Louisville to out-recruit Florida State or Clemson on an annual basis, but the program has averaged a 41.4 finish nationally over the last five years. The 41.4 finish puts the Cardinals at No. 7 in the ACC during that span. Only one of Charlie Strong’s classes from 2010-13 ranked inside of the top 30.
Petrino’s first class ranked No. 47 but that doesn’t include talented transfers like former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, fromer Texas A&M receiver Ja’Quay Williams and former Georgia cornerback Shaq Wiggins. Those three transfers will be eligible in 2015.
If you can’t sign elite classes, having a head coach who is one of the best in the nation at play-calling and scheming is a must. That’s what Louisville has in Petrino. And it doesn’t hurt to gamble on talented transfers, especially while Petrino and his staff find their footing in the ACC.
Upgrading the overall talent is essential to competing with Florida State and Clemson. By comparison, the Seminoles have inked 16 five-star prospects and 49 four-star recruits since 2010. Louisville has signed no five-star recruits in that span and only 12 four-star prospects.
As mentioned above, the move to the ACC has resulted in a tougher year-to-year schedule for Louisville. But that’s certainly a manageable assignment for one of the ACC’s top six programs. The Cardinals play six 2013 bowl teams this fall, including Clemson and Florida State. Road trips to Notre Dame, Syracuse and Boston College should be swing games for Petrino’s team. A win over Miami in the opener could propel Louisville to a 7-0 record before playing at Clemson on Oct. 11. Transitioning to a new league and playing in new environments might cost Louisville a game it will be favored to win. Yes, the schedule is tougher. However, for a program that has 23 wins over the last two years, the Cardinals should be a lock to earn bowl eligibility and push for nine wins in 2014.
Yes, Bobby Petrino comes with some baggage. The backstory on Petrino is no secret, and his history of job hopping is mentioned frequently. However, considering what transpired at Arkansas, Petrino is running out of options. Another mistake and he might not land another head coaching job at a Power 5 program.
However, even with Petrino’s history and baggage, this is the right hire for Louisville. Athletic director Tom Jurich certainly knows what he is getting with Petrino and needed a home-run hire to help Louisville compete right away in its new conference. The Cardinals are entering a critical time with a move to the ACC. Within the Atlantic Division, Florida State is a national title contender, Clemson has won at least 10 games in three consecutive years, and Boston College and Syracuse went to bowl games last year. Louisville cannot afford to fall behind in the ACC, as it’s a lot tougher to make the climb back to the top. The ACC may lack for national title contenders in the Atlantic after Florida State and Clemson, but the overall depth of the conference is better than the American Athletic.
Petrino will have to raise his recruiting level to beat Florida State and Clemson consistently, but he is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the nation. With Petrino’s offensive acumen and ability to get everything out of the roster, the Cardinals can mask some of their personnel concerns or talent gap.
Fully adapting to the ACC will take some time. But Petrino is a good fit at Louisville and should add to the strength of the Atlantic Division by consistently keeping the Cardinals right around the top 25 on a national level.
Vegas Expectations: 8 over/under (Bovada)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Less than a month remains to the start of the 2014 college football season, and with fall camps opening, positions on every depth chart are up for grabs.
While battles on the offensive line, defense and receiving corps are important, the quarterback situations across all FBS teams get the most attention in the fall.
There are a handful of top 25 teams searching for answers under center, including Alabama, LSU, Washington and Wisconsin.
Additionally, a program like Texas A&M is searching for a replacement for Johnny Manziel, and offensive guru Rich Rodriguez is searching for answers under center at Arizona after sthe spring provided little clarity.
Here’s a look at the top 10 quarterback battles for the fall, along with a handful of others to watch in 2014:
College Football’s Top 10 Fall QB Battles to Watch
For the first time since 2011, the Crimson Tide enter a fall with uncertainty at quarterback. AJ McCarron graduated after throwing for 9,019 yards over the last four years, and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin didn’t find an answer in the spring. However, Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrived on campus this summer, and the Mobile, Ala., native is expected to win the job. Coker threw for 295 yards in a relief role with the Seminoles over the last two years but has the talent to be one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. If Coker does not secure the No. 1 spot, Blake Sims or redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman will start. Sims threw for 167 yards as McCarron’s backup last year and is more of a dual threat than Coker.
Projected Winner: Coker
Rich Rodriguez is regarded as one of college football’s top offensive minds, but he has his work cut out for him this offseason. Arizona opened spring practice with seven quarterbacks vying to replace B.J. Denker and went into the offseason with little clarity under center. Senior Jesse Scroggins has a slight edge over redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, Texas transfer Connor Brewer and junior college recruit (and former LSU quarterback) Jerrard Randall. None of the four frontrunners has ever taken a snap during a regular-season game for the Wildcats. Solomon has the most upside of any quarterback on the roster, but Scroggins likely has the best grasp of the offense. Randall is a wildcard to watch after spending two years at LSU and one at Northeast Mississippi Community College. This battle could continue deep into the season.
Projected Winner: Scroggins
With a stingy defense and a rushing attack that will be among the best in the SEC, LSU won’t ask too much of its quarterback in 2014. And that’s a good thing considering that the Tigers have very little experience at the position. Sophomore Anthony Jennings played sparingly as Zach Mettenberger’s backup in 2013, completing 13-of-29 passes for 181 yards. Jennings led LSU to a last-minute victory over Arkansas and guided the Tigers to a 21–14 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Despite his edge in experience, Jennings failed to separate from true freshman Brandon Harris in the spring. Harris was a top-100 recruit in the 2014 signing class and has intriguing dual-threat ability. Jennings may open the year as the starter, but Harris will eventually take the starting spot.
Projected Winner: Harris
Ryan Williams was expected to replace Stephen Morris, but the senior suffered a torn ACL in spring practice. Williams is slated to return sometime during the year, but it’s unlikely he will be ready by the opener. Needing immediate help at quarterback, the Hurricanes brought in transfer Jake Heaps to play in 2014. Heaps struggled at BYU and Kansas (27 interceptions in three years), but the senior has experience and is likely to take the first snap of the season with redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen suspended for at least one game. Touted true freshman Brad Kaaya could push Heaps, Williams and Olsen for snaps depending on how fast he learns the offense. Olsen — the brother of former Miami standout Greg Olsen — had the inside track to start. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and redshirted last season. Kaaya also ranked as a four-star recruit and went 23–3 as a starter in high school. Kaaya has the most upside, but all signs point to Heaps taking the first snap of the year versus Louisville.
Projected Winner: Heaps
After losing four games by a field goal in 2013 and finishing No. 8 in the Big 12 in scoring, coach Gary Patterson decided to start over on offense. New co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie plan to upgrade the passing attack and speed up the tempo in 2014. Junior Trevone Boykin has thrown for 3,252 yards and 22 scores over the last two years, but he could move to receiver to accommodate Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel. The senior is eligible immediately after leaving College Station this spring. Joeckel completed 22 of 37 passes for 293 yards with the Aggies last year and should have a grasp on the offensive scheme after running a similar offense at Texas A&M.
Projected Winner: Joeckel
Butch Jones enters his second season in Knoxville looking for more consistency at the quarterback position. The Volunteers had three different players start under center last year, with Justin Worley leading the team with 1,239 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. Nathan Peterman played in four games, while Joshua Dobbs started four games as a true freshman. Tennessee closed spring practice without a declared No. 1, but Worley held a small edge over Dobbs and Peterman. Dobbs has the edge in talent, while Worley’s experience is valuable for a team in transition. Both quarterbacks could play significant snaps this season.
Projected Winner: Worley
Johnny Manziel was the starting quarterback for only two seasons, but he left big shoes to fill in College Station. Matt Joeckel’s post-spring transfer left true freshman Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill battling to replace Manziel. Allen is regarded by some as the top quarterback recruit in the nation and enrolled early to compete in spring practice. Hill has a small edge in experience, completing 16-of-22 passes for 183 yards last season. Although Allen is regarded as a pocket passer, he does have good mobility. However, Hill is the better runner, rushing for 2,305 yards in his last two seasons in high school. With the opener at South Carolina, could Sumlin choose Hill due to the edge in experience? Even if Hill starts the first game, it won’t be long before Allen takes over the No. 1 spot.
Projected Winner: Allen
Chris Petersen’s first spring practice at Washington was filled with uncertainty at quarterback. The transition from Keith Price to Cyler Miles was expected to be seamless. However, Miles was suspended for spring practice after an off-the-field incident and will miss the opener against Hawaii. The sophomore was reinstated to the team in May, but Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist already have a head start for the No. 1 job, as both quarterbacks had live reps in a new offense this spring. Miles proved he was capable of being a standout quarterback in the Pac-12 in limited action last year. The sophomore is behind heading into the fall, but Miles is Washington’s best quarterback.
Projected Winner: Miles
Joel Stave has thrown for 3,598 yards and 28 touchdowns over the last two years, but he is locked in a battle with Tanner McEvoy for the starting job this offseason. Stave suffered a shoulder injury in the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina and was limited in the spring. That allowed McEvoy, who started his career at South Carolina but transferred to Arizona Western after one year, to close the gap. In his first year with the Badgers, McEvoy made 11 appearances at safety. The junior moved back to quarterback in the spring, where his athleticism could be an asset for an offense looking for a spark under center.
Projected Winner: McEvoy
As expected in Blacksburg, the Hokies will have one of the nation’s top defenses in 2014. But after averaging 22.8 points in eight ACC contests last year, the offense is a work in progress. Logan Thomas is gone after an up-and-down career, leaving a host of candidates to contend for the starting job. Mark Leal has thrown 48 passes over the last three years and opened spring as the favorite to replace Thomas. However, sophomore Brenden Motley had a strong showing in the spring, and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer will arrive in the summer. Brewer was limited in Lubbock due to a back injury last season.
Projected Winner: Brewer
Others to Watch
Coach Tim Beckman and coordinator Bill Cubit maintain the starting quarterback job is open, but all signs point to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt as the team’s No. 1 passer. Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman with the Cowboys in 2012 and sat out 2013 due to NCAA transfer rules. Senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey are fighting to unseat Lunt this fall.
The Wildcats are making progress under second-year coach Mark Stoops, but improvement may not come in the form of wins in 2014. Finding a quarterback is the top priority for Stoops, as four candidates are fighting for time. True freshman Drew Barker, sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and junior Maxwell Smith are in the mix, with Towles finishing the spring at the top of the depth chart. Barker is the team’s most-talented passer and will be tough to keep off the field in 2014.
The Tar Heels offense didn’t miss a beat after Bryn Renner was lost for the year due to a shoulder injury against NC State. Williams moved into the starting lineup, and North Carolina went 4-1 over the final five games. Williams has good mobility and improved as a passer last year. He will be pushed by redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky this fall.
There’s plenty of new faces stepping into key roles on offense in 2014, as the Cowboys return just four starters from last year’s group. Despite the turnover, coach Mike Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich should keep this offense among the best in the Big 12. J.W. Walsh left spring with an edge over true freshman Mason Rudolph and junior Daxx Garman. Walsh needs to develop as a passer, but his mobility could be an advantage behind a rebuilt offensive line.
As the Scarlet Knights enter Big Ten play, coach Kyle Flood is hoping Ralph Friedgen can push the right buttons for the offense. Friedgen has been out of football for three years but was highly regarded for his work at Maryland and Georgia Tech. Gary Nova had his share of ups and downs during his career and tossed 14 picks last year. Nova will be pushed by junior Mike Bimonte and redshirt freshman Chris Laviano.
New coach Derek Mason opens his first fall practice with six quarterbacks vying for snaps. LSU transfer Stephen Rivers, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and sophomore Patton Robinette are considered the favorites, with true freshmen Shawn Stankavage and Wade Freebeck and junior Josh Grady just behind. Rivers should push for the starting job, but he has little experience from his time at LSU.
Finding consistent quarterback play is a must for the Cavaliers to push for a bowl game in 2014. David Watford struggled in 2013, throwing 15 interceptions to only eight touchdowns. Sophomore Greyson Lambert pushed ahead of Watford in the spring and is expected to win the job in the fall. Lambert completed 33 of 75 passes for 340 yards and one touchdown last year.
First-year coach Dave Clawson opens fall practice with significant uncertainty at quarterback. Kevin Sousa moved from receiver to quarterback in the spring, while sophomore Tyler Cameron is the team’s most experienced option. True freshmen Travis Smith and John Wolford could earn playing time if Sousa and Cameron struggle.
Top Battles Outside Power 5 Conferences
The Cardinals have 19 victories over the last two years and should be in the mix for the MAC West title despite the loss of a few key players. Sophomore Ozzie Mann completed 2 of 9 passes for 29 yards last season and opens the fall as the No. 1 option. He will compete with redshirt freshman Jack Milas and true freshman David Morrison.
Derek Carr departs Fresno State after throwing 50 touchdown passes and 5,083 yards in 2013. Replacing Carr’s production is impossible in 2014, but the Bulldogs should remain in the mix to win the Mountain West. Duke transfer Brandon Connette, junior Brian Burrell and redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee are battling to replace Carr, with Connette and Burrell considered the frontrunners. Connette scored 27 touchdowns with the Blue Devils last year.
Jordan Lynch leaves big shoes to fill in DeKalb after recording 4,800 total yards in each of the last two years. Three candidates – junior Matt McIntosh and sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie – are vying for snaps in the fall. McIntosh completed two passes for 54 yards, while Hare rushed for 68 yards last season.
Garrett Gilbert closed out his collegiate career by guiding the SMU passing offense to a No. 1 rank in the American Athletic Conference. Gilbert has expired his eligibility, but the cupboard isn’t bare for coach June Jones. Sophomore Neal Burcham is the frontrunner and started the final two games of 2013. Burcham will face competition from junior college recruit (and former Texas A&M signal-caller) Matt Davis.
The Rockets – Athlon’s pick to win the MAC West in 2014 – have a three-way battle to replace Terrance Owens. Alabama transfer Phillip Ely, sophomore Logan Woodside and redshirt freshman Michael Julian are battling to start, with Woodside owning a slight edge due to his experience in four games last year.
New coach Bob Diaco inherits an offense that averaged only 20.6 points per game in 2013. Diaco’s job in turning around the offense got tougher in the summer when running back Lyle McCombs was dismissed. Sophomores Tim Boyle and Casey Cochran and senior Chandler Whitmer will battle to start this fall. Cochran threw for six touchdowns to no interceptions in the final two games of 2013 and enters the fall with an edge on Boyle and Whitmer.
Blake Bortles departed for the NFL after leading the Knights to a 12-1 mark last year. Replacing Bortles won’t be easy, but UCF can lean more on its defense and rushing attack with a young quarterback under center. Sophomore Justin Holman left the spring with an edge over redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and Boise State transfer Nick Patti. Holman completed 9 of 14 passes for 75 yards and one score last year.
BYU running back Jamaal Williams is expected to contend for All-America honors this season, but the junior is suspended for the season opener against UConn.
The news of Williams’ suspension was announced after BYU’s first fall practice. According to the Desert News, Williams is suspended due to an honor code violation.
Williams rushed for 1,233 yards and seven scores and caught 18 passes for 125 yards last season.
With Williams sidelined, Paul Lasike, Alge Brown and Adam Hine are expected to handle the bulk of the carries against the Huskies.
BYU is favored by 17 points against UConn, but Williams will be missed in the opener. Expect to see the Cougars lean heavily on quarterback Taysom Hill and their defense to beat the Huskies in Week 1.
Jamaal Williams suspended one game, will miss opener at UConn. http://t.co/L7MFjZEESt— Vanquish The Foe (@VanquishTheFoe) August 2, 2014
Miami’s quarterback situation is one of the biggest uncertainties in the ACC this year. However, the Hurricanes appear to have some clarity about their quarterback battle, as redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen has been suspended for at least one game due to a failed drug test. The news was reported by Adam Kuperstein of WQAM.
With Olsen suspended for the opener, Kansas transfer Jake Heaps is expected to start against Louisville. Heaps began his career at BYU but transferred to Kansas after two seasons in Provo.
Heaps was touted as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2010 signing class but struggled at BYU and Kansas. Heaps completed only 49 percent of his passes and tossed 10 picks to eight touchdowns with the Jayhawks in 2013.
The Hurricanes were slated to start Memphis transfer Ryan Williams in 2014. However, the senior suffered a torn ACL in spring practice and is out indefinitely. Williams is expected to return early in the year, but a return date has not been set.
True freshman Brad Kaaya ranked as the No. 7 pro-style quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for the 2014 signing class. Barring a return by Williams for the opener, Kaaya will likely serve as Heaps’ backup.
Miami Hurricanes QB Kevin Olsen will be suspended for at least 1 game this season for failed drug test. No comment from UM at this point.— Adam Kuperstein (@AKuperstein) August 1, 2014
Nebraska is set to honor 125 years of football on its Sept. 27 home date against Illinois. The Cornhuskers will take the field against the Fighting Illini wearing alternate red jerseys.
Alternate jerseys are becoming more prominent in college football, and Nebraska wore a black jersey for a home game against UCLA last season.
The red jerseys certainly aren’t a bad look, but the best part of the unveiling wasn’t the uniform. Coach Bo Pelini (yes you read that right) decided to unveil the uniform by modeling it to the team.
Below are the photos and video from Nebraska’s alternate uniform unveil for 2014:
Air Force is the latest school to unveil an alternate jersey and helmet design for 2014.
The usual white or blue uniforms for the Falcons are some of the best designs in the Mountain West, and the alternate look for 2014 is another awesome uniform for Air Force.
Here are some photos of Air Force’s new uniform for 2014:
More pictures of the new 2014 Alternate Football Uniform! pic.twitter.com/9NtbYqEk9I— Air Force Football (@AFFootball) July 31, 2014
Check out the new 2014 Alternate Football Uniform! Which game do you hope to see them this season? pic.twitter.com/6wMjjscYoL— Air Force Football (@AFFootball) July 31, 2014
With fall practice set to open around the nation for all 128 college football teams, the time to finalize preseason predictions is coming to an end.
Of course, there are a handful of teams every year that are flagged in the preseason as a wildcard to watch. These "wildcard" teams are often the most difficult team to figure out in predictions.
Most projections for the Big Ten in 2014 designate Ohio State and Wisconsin as the favorites to meet in Indianapolis for the conference title game. While Ohio State and Michigan State are the clear No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the East, there’s more uncertainy in the West.
Wisconsin is pegged as the preseason favorite, but the Badgers return only eight starters. The significant personnel turnover in Madison provides plenty of hope for Iowa and Nebraska to contend for the West Division title.
Could the Cornhuskers be the surprise team in the West Division in 2014? Despite a -11 turnover margin and an injury to starting quarterback Taylor Martinez early in the season, Nebraska finished 9-4 last year. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why to buy into this team and a few reasons to pick against Nebraska in 2014.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Will Surprise in 2014:
1. Development of front seven on defense:
Ohio State and Michigan State own the top two defensive lines in the Big Ten for 2014, but Nebraska can make a strong case as the No. 3 group in the conference. End Randy Gregory is one of the nation’s best and could improve on last year’s sack total (10.5) in 2014. The Cornhuskers are searching for more options at the other end spot, with Greg McMullen and A.J. Natter leading the way for snaps. While there’s some uncertainty at end, the interior of the line should be improved in 2014. Sophomores Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are both breakout candidates this year, with junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Kevin Maurice also in the mix for snaps. Combine the emergence of Collins and Valentine on the interior with emerging players like David Santos, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose at linebacker, and it’s easy to see why Nebraska’s defense should be better against the run. The Cornhuskers allowed 4.5 yards per carry against Big Ten offenses and gave up 16 scores in eight conference contests. Expect both of those numbers to improve in 2014.
2. Ameer Abdullah and the Receivers:
Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong is still developing, but the Cornhuskers can insulate their young passer with a strong rushing attack. Ameer Abdullah is one of the nation’s top backs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in Big Ten play last season. Abdullah checks in at only 195 pounds, but he’s capable of handling carries between the tackles or bouncing it to the outside to break big plays. The senior can handle 275-290 carries if necessary, but Abdullah has plenty of help from backfield mates Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor. The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s deepest backfields in 2014. Kenny Bell averaged only 11.1 yards per catch last season but inconsistency at the quarterback spot hurt his overall numbers. The senior is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers and should benefit from an offseason to work with Tommy Armstrong as the No. 1 quarterback. Nebraska’s receivers may not have the flash of Maryland or Ohio State, but this group should rank among the top five in the Big Ten. Needless to say, the talent at the skill positions is there for the Cornhuskers.
3. Quarterback Play…
Nebraska’s offense was placed into a difficult spot last year when Taylor Martinez suffered a season-ending foot injury. Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III each attempted over 130 passes, and the Cornhuskers finished No. 11 in the Big Ten in passing offense. Despite the inexperience at quarterback, Nebraska managed to finish 9-4 and 5-3 in the Big Ten. Armstrong has the physical tools to be a successful quarterback in the Big Ten, but he has to develop as a passer. That goal seems reasonable in 2014, especially as Armstrong is expected to be more comfortable with the offense in his second year, and the Cornhuskers have a strong supporting cast in place. With a tight battle expected at the top in the West Division, Armstrong’s emergence could be the difference between finishing third or playing in Indianapolis in early December.
Three Reasons Why Nebraska Won’t:
1. …Quarterback Play
While improvement is expected, is Tommy Armstrong ready to take a step forward in his development this year? Armstrong is credited with a 7-1 mark as Nebraska’s starting quarterback last season, but he completed only 51.9 percent of his passes and tossed eight picks on 131 attempts. Considering 2013 was his first taste of college snaps, it was no surprise Armstrong had his share of ups and downs. But is he ready to take that next step? Armstrong should have a better overall season than he did in 2013. However, is modest improvement going to be enough to win the West? Or will it take Armstrong having a special season to lift Nebraska to the division title? For the Cornhuskers to win the West Division, Armstrong has to do a better job of protecting the ball in 2014. With a strong rushing attack and defense, Nebraska doesn’t need Armstrong to throw for 300 yards each week. However, limiting mistakes and playing with more efficiency is a must.
2. The Schedule
Out of the projected top three teams in the West, Nebraska has the toughest route to a division title. Wisconsin and Iowa do not play any of the projected top four teams from the East in Athlon’s 2014 Big Ten projections. The Cornhuskers only catch one of the top four teams, but it’s a huge road test at Michigan State. Nebraska also has road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa – the two teams Bo Pelini's squad is likely to be fighting for the division title. The Cornhuskers also travel to Evanston to play Northwestern, and each of the last three meetings against the Wildcats has been decided by a field goal or less.
3. Rebuilt Secondary
Nebraska’s secondary finished 2013 ranked No. 4 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. The Cornhuskers allowed only eight passing scores in conference games last year, but three starters must be replaced. Safety Corey Cooper is the lone returning starter, with Ciante Evans, Andrew Green and Stanley Jean-Baptiste departing from last year’s unit. The secondary isn’t hurting for experienced options, as senior Josh Mitchell has 15 career starts and sophomore LeRoy Alexander played in all 13 games last season. Junior cornerback Charles Jackson had a good spring and is ready to seize a starting job. Can this unit match last year’s totals? The Cornhuskers should have one of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines, so the secondary won’t have to hold their coverage for too long. The schedule doesn’t feature a plethora of standout passing games, but Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern and Fresno State will each provide a stiff test for Nebraska’s rebuilt secondary. Even with a front seven that will rank near the top of the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers can't afford to give up many big plays in the secondary.
The North Division of the Pac-12 has been dominated by Oregon and Stanford since the conference shifted to a 12-team alignment in 2011.
Over the last three years, Oregon is 35-5 overall and 23-4 in Pac-12 play. Stanford is 34-7 overall and 23-4 in conference play during that same span.
Washington hopes to join the Ducks and Cardinal at the top of the Pac-12 North, and after a 34-29 record under Steve Sarkisian, Chris Petersen is tasked with elevating the Huskies into the top tier of the division.
Sarkisian guided Washington to four consecutive bowl games and clearly improved a program that recorded five losing seasons in a row prior to his arrival. The Huskies went 23-16 overall and 15-12 in Pac-12 play over the last three years.
Petersen was regarded as one of the top hires of the offseason, arriving in Seattle after a successful eight-year stint at Boise State. Petersen went 92-12 with the Broncos and finished six times in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.
Replicating that level of success at Washington won’t be easy for Petersen. And the expectations of the program are higher than finishing 5-4 in conference play on a consistent basis. Washington rates as the No. 23 job in the nation – No. 2 in the Pac-12 North. With a renovated stadium, good tradition and fan support, the Huskies can climb higher in the North.
Petersen’s Job History:
2006-12: Boise State – Head Coach
2001-05: Boise State – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
1995-00: Oregon – Wide Receivers
1993-94: Portland State – Quarterbacks
1992: Pittsburgh – Quarterbacks
1987-91: UC Davis – Head Freshman Coach/Wide Receivers
Obstacles to Overcome:
Quarterback Play?: Cyler Miles is expected to be a breakout star for the Huskies in 2014, but the sophomore missed spring practice due to an off-the-field incident and is suspended for the opener against Hawaii. With a new offensive scheme, it’s important for Miles to get acclimated to new coordinator Jonathan Smith this fall. Although quarterback play should be a strength by the end of the year for Washington, how long will it take Miles to settle into the starting role? With games against Oregon and Stanford early in the Pac-12 slate, Miles is under pressure to perform right away.
Running Backs: Is there a clear replacement for Bishop Sankey on the roster? The Huskies may not need a back capable of toting 275 carries this year, but the pecking order at running back needs to be established. Will sophomore Dwayne Washington claim the No. 1 job? Or will Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper factor into the mix? How about redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman or linebacker Shaq Thompson?
Secondary: This group is the biggest concern for Petersen in year one. The Huskies ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense last season and must replace three starting defensive backs. Junior cornerback Marcus Peters is one of the best in the conference, but safety Sean Parker and cornerbacks Tre Watson and Gregory Ducre have expired their eligibility. True freshman Budda Baker and redshirt freshman Jermaine Kelly are two names to watch in the revamped secondary.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Offensive Line: This unit has been a source of concern in recent years, but the Huskies should have one of the Pac-12’s top lines in 2014. All five starters return this season, including guard Dexter Charles and tackles Ben Riva and Micah Hatchie. Having a veteran line should help ease the transition for new quarterback Cyler Miles.
Front Seven on Defense: New coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski inherits a defense that held opponents to 22.8 points per game last year. The Huskies return six out of the seven starters up front, including All-American linebacker Shaq Thompson and standout end Hau’oli Kikaha. Washington’s defensive line and linebacking corps rank among the top three in Athlon’s 2014 Pac-12’s unit rankings.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|Pac-12 Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects||Five-Star Prospects|
|* Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
This area will be one critical aspect of how high Petersen can take this program. Recruiting at Boise State and at Washington are two different challenges. Petersen’s first class at Washington ranked No. 37 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, which was the Huskies’ lowest recruiting haul since a No. 72 finish in 2009. However, Petersen got a late start after taking the job in December and managed to salvage the class after inking 17 three-star prospects.
As of July 30, Washington’s 2015 class ranks No. 63 nationally with only eight commitments.
It’s far too early to make any judgments about Petersen’s ability to recruit. Washington is a top 25 program with plenty of resources, and this coaching staff needs time to build connections. And Petersen’s job on the recruiting trail could get much easier if the Huskies win 10 games in 2014.
However, in order to consistently challenge Oregon and Stanford in the North, Washington needs to consistently bring in top 30 classes. Petersen knows how to develop players, but he has to bring in recruits capable of elevating the program.
Washington has recorded just one season of 10 or more victories since 1992. Could that change in 2014? The Huskies play 13 regular season games and should start 4-0 with non-conference matchups against Hawaii, Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State. The Sept. 27 contest against Stanford is a huge statement game for Petersen and Washington. If the Huskies win, they should be 6-0 heading into a matchup against Oregon on Oct. 18. Also, with home games versus Arizona State and UCLA, Washington has a chance to surprise in the North. Of course, road trips to Washington State and Arizona in November won’t be easy. It’s not unreasonable to think the Huskies can sweep their non-conference and Pac-12 home games, while beating California and Colorado on the road. That leaves road swing contests versus Arizona, Washington State and Oregon.
Washington is a program with potential. Sarkisian did a nice job of getting the Huskies relevant in the Pac-12 once again, but the school hopes Petersen is the right coach to take the program even higher.
Petersen was highly successful at Boise State, but transitioning from a job in the Mountain West to the Pac-12 will require an adjustment period. And even with Petersen’s strong track record of player development and X’s and O’s ability, recruiting at a higher level is a must in Seattle.
While Petersen’s run with the Broncos was impressive, can he do what former Boise State coaches Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins couldn’t in the Pac-12? Koetter and Hawkins both struggled to find success at a higher level away from the blue turf.
The pieces are in place for Washington to push for nine or 10 victories this year. The Huskies should go 4-0 in non-conference play and Stanford visiting Seattle in late September is a huge chance to earn a marquee Pac-12 win.
The Huskies have 14 returning starters, including one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the Pac-12. The question marks are few, but fairly significant. The secondary must be rebuilt, and quarterback Cyler Miles has to settle into the starting role.
Sarkisian is leaving plenty of talent behind, and it’s up to Petersen to capitalize on what’s coming back in 2014 and '15. With Oregon and Stanford both expected to lose plenty of key players after 2014, the door is open for the Huskies to make their move in the division over the next two seasons.
Vegas Expectations: 9 over/under (CG Technology)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-4 (5-4)
USC is one of the premier jobs in college football. With a fertile recruiting area in its backyard, combined with a strong tradition, it’s easy to see why most coaches would consider the Trojans one of the nation’s top-five jobs.
Despite all of its advantages, success isn’t guaranteed at USC. The Trojans failed to win at least 10 games in a season from 1989-2001. And the program has struggled to regain its place among the Pac-12’s elite recently, as the Lane Kiffin era ended after a 28-15 mark in just over three years. Of course, NCAA sanctions have played a role in the Trojans’ record in recent seasons.
After Kiffin was fired, Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim coach and helped to lead the Trojans to a 10-4 record. But Orgeron wasn’t hired as the full-time coach, and former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian was hired from Washington to guide the program back to national prominence.
Sarkisian certainly knows his way around USC, as the California native spent seven years as an assistant with the Trojans. Although Sarkisian’s overall record at Washington was just 34-29, there was noticeable improvement from a program that went 0-12 in the year prior to his arrival. Sarkisian won at least seven games in three out of the last four years and left after an 8-4 mark in 2013.
Is Sarkisian the right fit at USC? Let’s take a look at the former Washington coach and his outlook for 2014 and beyond.
Sarkisian’s Job History:
2009-13: Washington – Head Coach
2005-08: USC – Assistant Coach/Offensive Coordinator
2004: Oakland Raiders – Quarterbacks
2001-03: USC – Offensive Assistant/Quarterbacks
2000: El Camino JC – Quarterbacks
Obstacles to Overcome:
Depth: Scholarship sanctions have significantly reduced USC’s depth. At Pac-12 media days, Sarkisian indicated the Trojans would have around 65 scholarship players in 2014. Needless to say, an injury could be a huge setback to this team, as the depth on the team is razor thin. One area of particular concern is the offensive line, where a couple of freshmen could see time.
Playmakers at Receiver: File this as a minor concern for Sarkisian. Top receiver Marqise Lee must be replaced, but junior Nelson Agholor should be a candidate for All-American honors. But who will emerge as a No. 2 and No. 3 target behind Agholor? Is it sophomore Darreus Rogers? Junior George Farmer or freshman Steven Rogers?
Team Strengths for 2014:
Cody Kessler’s Emergence: Kessler had his share of ups and downs under center early in 2013 but settled into the starting role late in the year. Kessler threw only one interception over the final five games and completed over 60 percent in each contest during that span. Coordinator Clay Helton returns in 2014, and Sarkisian is regarded for his work with quarterbacks and offenses. Kessler should continue to improve this year, especially with standouts at the skill positions in running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor.
No. 1 Defense in the Pac-12?: It’s a close call for the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12 this year. Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, USC or Washington each could claim that honor. The Trojans figure to have a strong case for the No. 1 spot, as eight starters are back in 2014. End Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens could all push for All-America honors. USC held opponents to just 21.2 points per game last year and 4.9 yards per play. Depth is an issue, but the Trojans are strong in the starting 11.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|Pac-12 Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects||Five-Star Prospects|
|Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
Despite the late start on building a class for 2014, Sarkisian didn’t miss a beat on the recruiting trail. The Trojans signed the No. 11 class, putting USC’s five-year average at 7.6. USC has plenty of elite talent, inking 12 five-star recruits since 2010. And each class since 2010 has signed at least eight four-star prospects.
With scholarship sanctions coming to an end, USC can sign 25 players in 2015, which will help with the shortage of depth. As of late July, the Trojans rank No. 10 nationally in the 247Sports team rankings and have five-star recruits committed.
Over the last five years, USC’s five-year recruiting average ranks as the best in the Pac-12. The overall numbers aren’t there due to scholarship restrictions, but the Trojans have the best talent in the league.
Sarkisian inherits a roster capable of winning the Pac-12 in 2014. However, this team is just 23-13 in conference play since 2010. Getting elite talent to play up to its recruiting rank and maximizing the roster will be a challenge for this staff.
USC’s schedule is more favorable than its crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans catch Stanford, Oregon State, California and Washington State in crossover play, while the Bruins play Oregon, California, Washington and Stanford. However, UCLA has won the last two matchups against USC, and the Nov. 22 contest could decide which team wins the South. In non-conference play, the Trojans have a favorable path to a 3-0 record. If USC stays healthy, this team could be a darkhorse contender for a playoff spot in 2014.
Sarkisian’s 34-29 record from his tenure at Washington isn’t particularly overwhelming. However, he inherited a program coming off an 0-12 season and quickly turned the Huskies into a consistent bowl team. Was it fair to expect more of Sarkisian at Washington? Yes. But let’s also not dismiss the difficulty of the Pac-12 North, which featured two national title contenders in Oregon and Stanford.
Sarkisian’s expectations at USC are much higher. Consistently contending for Pac-12 titles and earning a spot in the playoff aren’t unreasonable goals with the talent available in California for the Trojans.
While Sarkisian didn’t elevate Washington into conference title contention, he has a chance to make a splash in 2014. The Trojans return 14 starters and play a favorable schedule. If Cody Kessler continues to improve at quarterback, the offense should take a step forward on the stat sheet. The defense is one of the best in the Pac-12 and should thrive under coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Sarkisian is working with a better roster and is at one of the best jobs in college football. Barring major injuries, finishing 8-5 or 7-6 in 2014 would be a disappointment.
Considering Sarkisian’s experience at the program and all of the resources available, his task is to elevate USC back into national title contention.
While he wasn’t the home-run hire some may have expected for USC, Sarkisian inherits a team capable of winning a Pac-12 title in 2014. And if Sarkisian can take the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship and an elite bowl, it will be a huge step forward in answering this overriding question: Is Sarkisian is the right hire?
Vegas Expectations: 8.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-3 (6-3)
Louisiana Tech is planning a one-game switch for its helmet design in 2014.
The Bulldogs usually wear a helmet with the state of Louisiana headlined by a “T” at the top.
In 2014, Louisiana Tech will wear a red helmet with a Bulldog logo for its red out game against UTEP on Oct. 4.
Here’s a look at the alternate helmet:
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2014.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the top positions that must produce in 2014.
All eyes in Tuscaloosa will be on the quarterback battle, but the Crimson Tide must address its cornerback spot after struggling in key moments against the pass. Florida’s offense struggled mightily last season and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kurt Roper. The Gators need a big year from quarterback Jeff Driskel, but the supporting cast has to give the junior signal-caller more help.
10 SEC Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014
Alabama Defensive Backs (CB)
The quarterback battle will garner most of the preseason attention in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama’s secondary could be a bigger concern. The Crimson Tide finished No. 3 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 55.5 percent of their throws. Despite the No. 3 finish in the SEC, this unit was torched by Oklahoma (348 yards, three scores) and Texas A&M (464 yards, five touchdowns). Eddie Jackson was slated to start at one cornerback spot, but a torn ACL will sideline the sophomore indefinitely. Juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are the frontrunners to start at cornerback, with freshmen Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown expected to push for snaps this fall. With the turnover at quarterback in SEC, the cornerback position isn’t a huge concern for coach Nick Saban. However, this unit has to play better against spread teams and could be a potential stumbling block in the playoffs if Alabama meets Florida State.
Auburn Defensive Line
Improving on defense is a top priority this offseason for coach Gus Malzahn, but this unit has already suffered a setback due to an ACL injury to end Carl Lawson. The sophomore was expected to play a key role in Auburn’s pass rush, especially with the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL. With Lawson sidelined, the Tigers will ask more of junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, along with sophomores Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. Senior LaDarius Owens is penciled in at one end spot, and Gabe Wright could shift between end and tackle this year. Coordinator Ellis Johnson isn’t hurting for talent, but there are a handful of new faces stepping into new roles. The Tigers allowed 162.1 rushing yards per game in 2013.
Florida Wide Receivers
From 2006-10, Florida had six receivers selected in the NFL Draft. Since 2010, it’s been a different story in Gainesville. The Gators haven’t had a receiver drafted since 2010 and no wide receiver has recorded more than 600 yards in a season since 2009. Last season, Florida pass-catchers averaged only 10.3 yards per catch. Improving the offense is a top priority for coach Will Muschamp this year, and new coordinator Kurt Roper is tasked with finding a quick fix for a unit that averaged only 18.8 points per game last year. Not only must quarterback Jeff Driskel pickup his performance for Florida to double its win total from 2013, but the receiving corps has to provide more help. Senior Quinton Dunbar is the top returning performer (40 catches), and sophomores Ahmad Fulwood and Demarcus Robinson are back after combining for 23 receptions last year. There’s certainly talent on the depth chart, but this unit has to provide more big plays, consistency and overall better performance in 2014.
Georgia Defensive Backs
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should provide a quick fix for a Georgia defense that allowed 29 points per game in 2013. The Bulldogs have a strong front seven, led by a linebacking corps that could be the best in the nation. The secondary is the main area of focus for Pruitt, and he will coach this unit in 2014. Shaq Wiggins and Tray Matthews transferred this offseason, leaving senior Damian Swann and sophomore safety Quincy Mauger as the only returning starters. Junior college recruit Shattle Fenteng, redshirt freshman Aaron Davis, converted running back J.J. Green and true freshman Malkom Parrish lack experience but could play significant snaps in 2014. Pruitt doesn’t inherit elite talent in the secondary like he had at Florida State, and he will need to mix and match in the fall to find the right combination. With the turnover at cornerback and safety, along with the performance of this group in 2013, Georgia needs its front seven to set the tone on defense. However, with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, the secondary will be under pressure early and often in 2014.
LSU Defensive Line
Make no mistake: The Tigers aren’t hurting for talent in the trenches. However, LSU ranked eighth in conference-only games last season by allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. John Chavis’ defensive front also registered only 15 sacks in eight league matchups, the lowest number for the Tigers since recording 11 in 2009. Junior Danielle Hunter and senior Jermauria Rasco should start at end this year, and both players should be in the mix for All-SEC honors. The tackle position is up in the air, as Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson departed after 2013. Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas are listed as the starters on the preseason depth chart, but freshmen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore should push for snaps. Considering the amount of athleticism, speed and talent at this position, LSU’s defensive line will eventually be one of the best in the SEC. The opener against Wisconsin should provide a good barometer test for a unit that has room to improve after 2013.
Missouri Wide Receivers
Despite the departure of Dorial Green-Beckham, the Tigers aren’t in bad shape at receiver. In addition to replacing DGB, Missouri’s L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas expired their eligibility, leaveing senior Bud Sasser as the No. 1 statistical option from 2013 (361 yards). In addition to Sasser, seniors Darius White and Jimmie Hunt are expected to round out the starting trio, with freshmen J’Mon Moore, Lawrence Lee, and Nate Brown vying for snaps. New quarterback Maty Mauk impressed in limited action and should be one of the SEC’s top passers in 2014. DGB will be missed, but the talent is there for Missouri to not suffer a dramatic drop in production. Can Sasser become the go-to option? Or will Hunt or White seize that spot? Although there’s talent, it may take a few games for Missouri to settle its pecking order at receiver.
Ole Miss Offensive Line
Thanks to back-to-back top 20 recruiting classes under coach Hugh Freeze, the depth and overall talent on the Ole Miss roster has improved. But the one area of concern on offense in 2014 has to be the line. Sophomore Laremy Tunsil returns after a standout freshman season and should team with guard Aaron Morris (back from ACL surgery) to form a strong combination on the left side. Junior Justin Bell is expected to start at right guard after making 13 starts in 2013, while Ben Still is penciled in at center. The right tackle spot could go to Robert Conyers, but junior college recruit Fahn Cooper could also factor into the mix. Even though the starting five could rank in the top half of best SEC offensive lines, depth is a concern. Freshman Rod Taylor may have to play immediately at guard, with redshirt freshman Davion Johnson providing depth at tackle. An injury up front could be a big problem for the Rebels.
South Carolina Defensive Backs
The Gamecocks finished 2013 ranked seventh in the SEC in pass defense efficiency, limiting opponents to just 15 touchdown passes and under 60 percent completion percentage (59.9). This unit must replace cornerbacks Victor Hampton (second-team All-SEC) and Jimmy Legree, while also dealing with extra pressure due to the departure of standout linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. Depth at cornerback is thin, and the situation could get more perilous if incoming freshmen Chris Lammons and Wesley Green fail to qualify. Senior Brison Williams is listed on the preseason depth chart at safety but could shift to cornerback. Sophomore Rico McWilliams (one tackle in 2013) is slated to start at the other corner spot. This unit is thin on proven options, which is cause for concern with Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia in the first three weeks of the season.
Tennessee Offensive Line
The Volunteers are starting from scratch on the offensive line, replacing all five starters from a unit that allowed 12 sacks in SEC games last year. Making matters worse for second-year coach Butch Jones is there’s little in the way of proven options stepping into the starting role. Center Mack Crowder made one start in 2013, while guard Marcus Jackson redshirted after playing in 24 games in his first two years on campus. The Volunteers hope junior college recruit Dontavius Blair can step in at left tackle, with junior Kyler Kerbyson and freshman Coleman Thomas in the mix to anchor the right side. This unit is young, unproven and inexperienced. Building a cohesive line will take some time, which isn’t good news for a team that takes on Utah State, Oklahoma and Georgia before October.
Texas A&M Defensive Line
All three of Texas A&M’s defensive units warrant a mention in this article, but we will focus on the line in this article. The Aggies allowed 236.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests last year and generated only 14 sacks. This unit has already suffered a few setbacks in the offseason, as end Gavin Stansbury left the team in July, and tackle Isaiah Golden was dismissed after an off-the-field incident. Incoming freshman Myles Garrett ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the 247Sports Composite for 2014, and he will have to play a significant role. Coordinator Mark Snyder also needs freshmen Zaycoven Henderson, Justin Manning and sophomore Daeshon Hall to emerge as key contributors. There’s talent available, but how quickly can this unit find its footing with new faces stepping into major roles? With an opener against South Carolina, Texas A&M needs to find answers in the fall.
Other Position Groups Under Pressure in 2014:
The last Arkansas linebacker to win first-team All-SEC honors was Sam Olajubutu in 2006. This position has seen its share of ups and downs in Fayetteville recent years, and the Razorbacks enter 2013 with just one returning starter. Senior Braylon Mitchell headlines the unit after recording 77 stops in 2013, but Arkansas needs Martrell Spaight, Otha Peters, Brooks Ellis to step up this year.
Georgia Offensive Line
Three starters depart from a line that allowed only nine sacks in eight SEC contests. Center David Andrews is one of the best in the SEC, and tackle John Theus returns after making eight starts in 2013. The other three spots on the line are up for grabs this fall.
Kentucky Wide Receivers
This unit was littered with inexperience and question marks last season, and three newcomers (Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons) finished as the team leaders in receiving yards. The outlook for Kentucky’s pass catchers is better in 2014, but coordinator Neal Brown still needs more consistency from this group. Keep an eye on newcomers T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass.
Mississippi State Running Backs
Quarterback Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs with 829 yards in 2013, and LaDarius Perkins – the No. 1 running back in 2013 – departs after recording 542 yards on 137 yards last year. Junior Josh Robinson, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and true freshman Aeris Williams are expected to handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield, and it’s critical the Bulldogs get consistent production from their running backs to limit the wear and tear on Prescott during the season.
Missouri Defensive Backs
The Tigers return only one starter from a secondary that finished No. 6 in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last year. Cornerback E.J. Gaines will be missed, but senior safety Braylon Webb will push for All-SEC honors, and sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson played well at corner in limited action last year.
South Carolina Defensive Line
The Gamecocks’ defensive line was depleted with the departures of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with standout tackle Kelcy Quarles. Due to the losses up front, coordinator Lorenzo Ward may utilize more 3-4 looks in 2014. A drastic drop in production isn’t expected, but the Gamecocks need contributions from junior college recruit Abu Lamin and sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English.
Tennessee Defensive Line
Much like the offensive line, Tennessee’s defensive front is in need of major repair entering fall practice. The Volunteers will have four new starters and expect major contributions from freshmen Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Derek Barnett. Sophomore Corey Vereen could be in for a breakout season.
Vanderbilt Defensive Backs
The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Big 12 is home to a handful of intriguing names for 2014. Oklahoma has young talent ready to emerge at running back, including Keith Ford and Joe Mixon. In-state rival Oklahoma State has an emerging star in Jhajuan Seales at receiver, while West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley is a key cog in the defense in Morgantown.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Big 12 Breakout Players for 2014
B.J. Catalon, RB, TCU
After averaging only 20.9 points per game (conference-only matchups) in 2013, TCU’s offense was overhauled in the offseason. New co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham plan to increase the tempo and run more spread looks, which should help the Horned Frogs take a step forward on offense this year. There’s uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, but Meacham and Cumbie should be able to utilize Catalon more in 2014. The Texas native caught 11 passes and led TCU with 569 rushing yards and six touchdowns last season. Catalon’s 5.3 yards per carry was impressive, especially behind an offensive line that struggled to find consistency last year. Don’t expect Catalon to log 250 carries, but he should find plenty of touches on the ground and through the air this season.
Terrell Clinkscales, DT, Kansas State
Predicting what type of impact junior college recruits will have in a given season is never easy. For every success story, there are a handful of players who struggle to adapt to the transition. Kansas State has a strong track record of developing junior college recruits, and Clinkscales has a chance to push for a starting role in 2014. The Illinois native played in one season at Dodge City Community College and recorded 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Clinkscales rated as the No. 10 junior college recruit by 247Sports. Even if Clinkscales doesn’t start, the 315-pound tackle will contribute as a key piece of K-State’s defensive line rotation.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Reginald Davis, WR, Texas Tech
Eric Ward and Jace Amaro leave big shoes to fill in Texas Tech’s receiving corps, and the answers for quarterback Davis Webb could come in the form of a few players. The Red Raiders may not have a dominant No. 1 option in 2014, but there’s still a lot of talent for Webb to target. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez combined to catch 114 passes last year and will play a bigger role in the offense in this year, while Davis is a name many in Lubbock expect to have a breakout year after catching 15 passes for 200 yards in 2013. He showed his explosiveness by catching a 38-yard pass against Arizona State and by returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
Keith Ford, RB, Oklahoma
Oklahoma loses its top three statistical running backs from last season (Brennan Clay, Damian Williams and Roy Finch), but Bob Stoops’ team isn’t hurting for talent. Off-the-field issues have clouded touted freshman Joe Mixon’s status for now, but Ford is a five-star talent ready for an opportunity to star in the Oklahoma backfield. The Texas native played in 10 games last season and rushed for 134 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries. Ford never recorded more than seven carries in a game but rushed for 34 yards on six attempts against Texas and 15 yards on three carries against Alabama. With one of the Big 12’s top offensive lines leading the way, Ford should find plenty of running room for the Sooners in 2014.
Nick Harwell, WR, Kansas
Fans of MACtion will remember Harwell from his time at Miami, Ohio. The Texas native transferred to Lawrence after three seasons with the RedHawks and is poised to be the No. 1 target for quarterback Montell Cozart in 2014. Harwell caught 229 passes in three years in Oxford, including a monster 2011 season (97 catches, 1,425 yards and nine touchdowns). Asking Harwell to replicate those numbers with a young quarterback is unrealistic, but the senior is a much needed difference maker for a receiving corps that has struggled mightily under coach Charlie Weis.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.
Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor
While Baylor’s offense grabbed most of the headlines for last year’s Big 12 championship, the defense quietly led the conference in fewest yards allowed per play (4.7) in 2013. This unit has to be remodeled in 2014, as only four starters return for coordinator Phil Bennett. The secondary must replace three starters, including standout safety Ahmad Dixon and cornerbacks K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson. Howard played in 13 games in a reserve role last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. Opposing offenses will test the revamped secondary early, but Howard (an imposing 6-foot-2 cornerback) should ensure there’s not a drastic drop in the secondary this season.
Marcus Johnson, WR, Texas
Depth in the receiving corps for Texas has dwindled recently, as Montrel Meander and Kendall Sanders were suspended indefinitely due to an off-the-field incident. With Sanders (37 receptions) out of the picture, Johnson should have a bigger role in the offense. He caught 22 passes for 350 yards (15.9 yards per catch) and two scores last season. Johnson should benefit from the return of quarterback David Ash, along with a rushing attack that features standouts Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. Even if Johnson doesn’t catch 60 passes, his big-play ability will help Ash stretch the field in 2014.
Luke Knott, LB, Iowa State
Knott was on his way to a breakout season in 2013 but a hip injury sidelined him for the final six contests. Through the first six games, Knott recorded 45 tackles, one forced fumble and two pass breakups. The Missouri native was one of the Cyclones’ most active defenders in Big 12 play, recording 11 stops against Texas and 10 against Texas Tech. Knott is expected to start at weakside linebacker, and the sophomore should be one of the leaders in a revamped Iowa State defensive front.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
It might be unrealistic to ask Lazard to make a huge impact as a freshman, but the Iowa native is simply too talented to sit on the bench. Lazard ranked as the No. 11 receiver in the 247Sports Composite and caught 105 passes and 34 touchdowns during his high school career. Lazard should give quarterback Grant Rohach another weapon in the passing game, as the Cyclones already have reliable options in tight end E.J. Bibbs and receiver Quenton Bundrage. If Lazard picks up the offense this fall, he will play a significant role in the passing game for Iowa State.
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk’s big-play ability will be missed in Waco, but Baylor’s backfield should still rank among the best in the Big 12 this season. Linwood played in 12 contests last year and finished second on the team with 881 yards and eight scores. The Texas native recorded four 100-yard efforts, including 182 yards in the 41-12 victory over Oklahoma. Linwood should handle the bulk of the carries in Baylor’s backfield, but redshirt freshman Johnny Jefferson, sophomore Devin Chafin and true freshman Terence Williams will all factor in to the mix. Linwood is a projected first-team All-Big 12 back by Athlon Sports for 2014.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is an imposing figure off the edge for Phil Bennett’s defense. The Pennsylvania native started his career at Penn State but transferred after a redshirt year. Oakman’s first game experience in college occurred last season, as he played in all 13 games, recorded 33 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Most of Oakman’s production came early in the year, including 3.5 tackles for a loss against Wofford and two against Iowa State. He only recorded 0.5 tackles for a loss over the final six games, but the experience gained by Oakman through his first extended playing time should be valuable in 2014. Expect the junior to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 this year.
Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State
NFL first-round pick Justin Gilbert leaves big shoes to fill in the Oklahoma State secondary. Gilbert’s presence was a key reason why the Cowboys allowed only 11 passing scores in Big 12 games last year, and coordinator Glenn Spencer is counting on Peterson and Ashton Lampkin to raise their game in 2014. Peterson recorded 24 tackles (three for a loss), two interceptions and four pass breakups last year. The Oklahoma native received plenty of attention opposite of Gilbert, but he’s likely tasked with defending opposing team’s No. 1 receivers in 2014. Expect Peterson to challenge for all-conference honors. Another name to watch on Oklahoma State’s defense: Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
With Aaron Colvin departing, Oklahoma is counting on Sanchez to be the top cornerback on a defense that should be one of the nation’s best. Most Sooner fans are familiar with Sanchez after a standout freshman season, but the Texas native is poised to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Sanchez started all 13 games, recorded 46 tackles and intercepted two passes. With Colvin on the other side last year, it was no surprise Sanchez was frequently targeted. However, he responded by defending 15 passes. Opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will likely stay away from Sanchez this season.
Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
There’s a significant amount of roster turnover for Oklahoma State in 2014. The Cowboys return only eight starters and lost 28 seniors from last season’s team. Despite the turnover, Mike Gundy’s team can still push for eight wins. For Oklahoma State to push for a spot among the top four teams in the Big 12, quarterback J.W. Walsh has to play with more consistency after an up-and-down stint in 2013. But Walsh should have plenty of help at the skill positions, as running back Desmond Roland rushed for 811 yards last year, and Seales is primed for a breakout year at receiver. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Seales grabbed 39 receptions for 571 yards and three scores. The Texas native is a physical presence on the outside but also has the speed to be a big-play threat for Walsh.
Rushel Shell, RB, West Virginia
Remember him? Shell was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and rushed for 641 yards and four scores during his freshman season at Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native transferred following the 2012 season and landed at West Virginia. After sitting out 2013 due to NCAA transfer rules, Shell is poised to be one of the top playmakers for the Mountaineers. The sophomore will battle with Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie for carries, but Shell has the most upside and talent among the running backs in Morgantown. With quarterback Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery, West Virginia’s offense could feature the run more in 2014. If Shell picks up where he left off in 2012, he could push for All-Big 12 honors.
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett will be missed, but there’s optimism in Fort Worth that TCU’s secondary is still the best in the Big 12. The safety spots are in good hands with Sam Carter and Chris Hackett, and cornerback Kevin White is a second-team All-Big 12 selection by Athlon Sports for 2014. Texada was a spring standout for the Horned Frogs after redshirting in 2013, and the Texas native should team with White to help the defense ease the loss of Verrett.
Dalvin Warmack, RB, Kansas State
In the last seven years, no Kansas State freshman running back has rushed for more than 400 yards in a season. Could that change in 2014? The Wildcats lack a clear replacement for John Hubert, with Demarcus Robinson, Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones considered the early favorites for the No. 1 job. Warmack is a name to remember this fall, as the true freshman could stake his claim for playing time. The Missouri native rushed for 2,223 yards and 29 touchdowns at Blue Springs High School in 2013 and ranked as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
Worley has generated plenty of buzz this offseason in Morgantown. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and recorded 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. And the Mountaineers’ defense may have to shoulder more of the load in 2014, as the offense – especially the quarterback spot – is a work in progress. With another year to develop, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Vanderbilt is coming off one of the best three-year stretches in program history. The Commodores won 24 games under James Franklin, including back-to-back bowl victories and top-25 finishes in the Associated Press poll for the 2012-13 seasons. Franklin left for Penn State after Vanderbilt’s win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl and was replaced by Derek Mason.
Mason arrives at Vanderbilt after three years as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. Under Mason’s watch, the Cardinal defense was a driving force in the program’s back-to-back Pac-12 Championships. Stanford ranked first or second in fewest yards per play allowed (conference-only games) and points allowed in Mason’s three-year tenure.
Franklin set the bar high for Mason. Vanderbilt has just three seasons of nine victories, with two coming under Franklin’s direction.
After a successful three-year stint under Franklin, Mason is tasked with taking the program to new heights and pushing the Commodores into SEC title contention.
Expectations are usually high for any first-year coach. There’s a new excitement and buzz throughout the program. However, immediate success isn’t always guaranteed.
Let’s take a look at Mason’s history and set the realistic expectations for 2014:
Mason’s Job History:
2011-13: Stanford – Defensive Coordinator
2010: Stanford – Defensive Backs Coach
2007-09: Minnesota Vikings – Asst. Defensive Backs Coach
2005-06: Ohio – Wide Receivers Coach
2004: New Mexico State – Wide Receivers Coach
2003: Saint Mary’s – Co-Defensive Coordinator
2002: Utah – Wide Receivers/Special Teams Asst. Coach
1999-01: Bucknell – Defensive Backs Coach
1997-98: Idaho State – Running Backs Coach
1995-96: Weber State – Wide Receivers Coach
1994: Mesa Community College – Wide Receivers Coach
Obstacles to Overcome:
The Passing Game: The Commodores finished ninth in the SEC in passing offense last season, averaging just 227.5 yards per game. Total yards per game can be deceiving when judging offenses, but Vanderbilt has not ranked higher than eighth among SEC teams in passing offense in the last seven years. The passing game is a huge concern for Mason and coordinator Karl Dorrell in 2014. The Commodores could turn to LSU transfer Stephen Rivers at quarterback, while top receiver Jordan Matthews (112 of Vanderbilt’s 243 receptions in 2013) departs. The offensive line and rushing attack should carry the offense, but the Commodores have to develop a passing game to top last year’s win total.
The Secondary: The defensive backfield was a strength for Vanderbilt last season, finishing sixth among SEC teams (conference-only games) in pass efficiency defense. This unit heads into fall practice under construction, as four new starters must emerge. The secondary isn’t without talent, as junior Andrew Williamson and sophomore Paris Head are two building blocks for 2014.
Team Strengths for 2014:
Rushing Attack/Offensive Line: The backfield is headlined by Jerron Seymour (716 yards in 2013), Brian Kimbrow (341 yards) and freshmen Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers. Until a quarterback emerges, expect Vanderbilt to rely on its ground attack and an offensive line that returns four starters.
Front Seven on Defense: Mason plans to change Vanderbilt’s scheme on defense to a 3-4. Although it’s a significant shift in philosophy, the Commodores have the personnel to make it work. Vince Taylor is poised for a breakout year as the team’s nose guard, and the outside linebacker positions are manned by Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike (10 sacks in 2013). Establishing a pass rush is critical with four new starters in the secondary.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
|SEC Rank||National Rank||Three-Star Prospects||Four-Star Prospects|
|Rankings from 247Sports Composite|
Despite a late start on recruiting in 2014, Mason managed to ink the No. 45 overall class (247Sports Composite). Vanderbilt’s class ranked last in the SEC, but Mason and his staff signed two four-star and 16 three-star prospects. Those totals were almost equal to Franklin’s class in 2012 but did not match the No. 26 rank in 2013. The No. 26 class in 2013 is the outlier in Vanderbilt’s five-year recruiting trend. Over the last five seasons, the Commodores averaged a 46.5 rank in recruiting and have only one finish (26) above 45.
Vanderbilt should be favored in its four non-conference games (Old Dominion, Temple, UMass and Charleston Southern), which leaves the Commodores just two wins short of bowl eligibility. Getting two wins in SEC play will be a challenge, as Vanderbilt plays an improving Ole Miss team in LP Field on Sept. 6 and travels to Mississippi State on Nov. 22 in crossover games with the West. The Sept. 27 date at Kentucky and the Nov. 29 game against Tennessee are two key swing games.
Mason is walking into an interesting situation. The Commodores could show improvement on the field, yet finish with a worse record. Last year, Vanderbilt was outgained by 75.5 yards per game in SEC play and finished with a -28 scoring differential. A +6 turnover margin helped the Commodores narrow the gap in yardage and scoring.
Winning eight games in 2014 would be a surprise, especially with Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky all expected to improve.
Vanderbilt isn’t hiring a head coach to rebuild or help the program get to a bowl game. Instead, Mason was picked to take this program to the next level and in contention for SEC titles. This is Mason's first season as a head coach, and life in the SEC is never easy. Expect plenty of growing pains over the next few years, as Mason needs time to mold the roster to his liking and settle into his new role. Defense will be the backbone of Mason's teams, especially in 2014 while the offense develops under Dorrell.
The Commodores closed the gap under Franklin and should chip away at it even more under Mason. But expecting Mason to elevate Vanderbilt into SEC title contention in 2014 is too much to ask. With a glaring question mark at quarterback, along with a scheme change on defense, a bowl game (and seven wins) is a reasonable first-year expectation for Mason.
Vegas Expectations: 6.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 6-6
Texas A&M opens its third set of fall practices under Kevin Sumlin searching for answers on both sides of the ball. The Aggies went 4-4 in SEC play last season and must replace three first-round draft picks in quarterback Johnny Manziel, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and receiver Mike Evans.
Replacing Manziel is the top offseason storyline for Sumlin, but Texas A&M’s defense is a bigger concern. The Aggies allowed 6.7 yards per play in SEC contests last year and gave up 36.5 points per game.
Texas A&M has plenty of positive momentum heading into the 2014 season, as a newly renovated Kyle Field is one of the top stadiums in college football, and Sumlin continues to reel in elite talent on the recruiting trail.
What should Sumlin and the Texas A&M coaching staff concentrate on this fall? Here’s a few things to watch when fall practice begins in College Station.
Texas A&M 2014 Fall Practice Priorities
1. The Quarterback Battle
Study Materials for 2014
Will Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital get separation between Allen and Hill this fall? Or will this battle continue into the opener and beyond?
2. Fixing the Defense
Where should we start? The good news for Texas A&M: It’s hard to get any worse. The bad news? The Aggies may not show dramatic improvement on defense in 2014.
Texas A&M ranked 14th in the SEC in points allowed, last in the conference against the run and generated only 14 sacks in eight league matchups. The Aggies also allowed 42 scores on 48 redzone trips by their opponents.
Each level of the defense has concerns, which were magnified by the loss of tackle Isaiah Golden, end Gavin Stansbury and linebacker Darian Claiborne this offseason. With only five returning starters, coordinator Mark Snyder has his work cut out for him this fall.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue, but there’s a good chance the Aggies will field a defense with only eight seniors in the defensive two-deep. How quickly will the young talent reach its potential?
The line will be counting on true freshman Myles Garrett to play right away, while sophomores Hardreck Walker and Daeshon Hall need to take on a bigger role. Redshirt freshman Justin Manning and true freshman Zaycoven Henderson will be asked to play significant snaps on the interior. As mentioned above, the line has talent, but it's also very young. Snyder needs this group to be stronger at the point of attack and eliminate some of the big plays allowed on the ground in 2013 (84 rushes of 10 or more yards).
At linebacker, Tommy Sanders or A.J. Hilliard will get first crack at replacing Claiborne on the weakside. This unit as a whole has to perform better and will be needed to help plug a run defense that was gashed frequently in 2013.
Establishing a consistent pass rush will help the secondary, which allowed 23 touchdowns in eight SEC contests last year. The defensive backfield could be the strength of Snyder’s defense, especially if cornerback Deshazor Everett plays at an All-SEC level. Junior De’Vante Harris has 18 starts under his belt and will start on the opposite side of Everett. The Aggies have to get better play from their safeties, which include senior starters Floyd Raven and Howard Matthews.
It's hard to envision this defense performing any worse than last year, but it may take a chunk of the season for the defense to find its footing with the young players stepping into the lineup.
3. Solidify the Offensive Line
Out of the three fall practice goals, this is the least of Kevin Sumlin’s worries. The Aggies have a future first-round pick in Cedric Ogbuehi anchoring the line at left tackle, while Mike Matthews is one of the best centers in the SEC. Senior Jarvis Harrison starts at left guard, and sophomore Germain Ifedi returns after starting 13 games as a redshirt freshman. Ifedi will move from guard to tackle in 2014.
The only open spot on Texas A&M’s line is at right guard, where junior Joseph Cheek holds an edge over junior college recruit Jermaine Eluemunor. With Cheek stepping in at right guard, combined with Ogbuehi and Ifedi changing positions, the line needs snaps to jell in the fall.
Gary Andersen’s first season in Madison was a successful one, as the Badgers went 9-4 with all four losses coming by 10 points or less.
Despite having just eight returning starters, the Badgers are Athlon’s early favorites to win the Big Ten West Division in 2014.
Wisconsin won’t play Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State in crossover play and host Nebraska in mid-November.
The Badgers have some uncertainty at quarterback, as Joel Stave is locked into a tight battle with Tanner McEvoy for the No. 1 spot. The defense has several new faces stepping into the starting lineup, but there’s plenty of potential in the revamped front seven.
Early Wisconsin Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Even though Wisconsin has question marks, I still like the Badgers to win the West Division. The schedule is very favorable, as Wisconsin won’t play one of the top four teams from the East and Nebraska visits Madison in late November. With games against the Huskers and Iowa coming later in the year, it should allow coach Gary Andersen plenty of time to find reinforcements on the front seven on defense and in the receiving corps. Wisconsin won’t have an explosive passing offense, but the rushing attack will be among the best in the nation. As long as Melvin Gordon and the offensive line stays healthy, the Badgers will reach double-digit wins in Andersen’s second year.
Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com
Gary Andersen and company couldn’t have asked for a better 2014 schedule. This is one of the Big Ten’s most favorable slates – yes, even with mighty LSU in the opener. Speaking of LSU, one could make the argument it’s the only real test until mid-November, when the Badgers host Big Ten West rival Nebraska on Nov. 15. Here’s a crazy stat: Wisconsin’s Big Ten opponents went a combined 22-42 (.344 winning percentage) in 2013 conference play - this includes Maryland and Rutgers, which went 3-5 in the ACC and AAC, respectively. The Badgers lost a lot of talent, particularly on defense, and their leading returning receiver (Jeff Duckworth) caught just 12 passes, but they have a forgiving schedule that can help ease in the new faces.
Brandon Cavanaugh (@EightLaces), HuskerCorner.com
Time to take off the training wheels for Badgers' second-year head coach Gary Andersen. Last year, he had the talent to introduce himself properly to the Big Ten. More importantly, he had an immense amount of leadership on the field.
As always, Wisconsin has its punishing running game to rely on. One of the best one-two punches in the nation returns in Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Who'll be handing off to them is a mystery as questions loom about Joel Stave's future under center. He's been serviceable, but Tanner McEvoy could oust him come fall camp. Who's going to replace Jared Abbrederis is a huge question mark as is what the receiver corps is going to look like in the first place.
Wisconsin offers up a treasure trove of offensive linemen yet again such as left tackle Tyler Marz. The entire line should not only be able to protect whomever's under center, but clear a path for the Gordon-Clement tag team.
Defense looks to be touch-and-go for Anderson's crew. The front seven suffered major losses in three starting defensive linemen and All-Everything linebacker Chris Borland. The Badgers have a stud in the secondary in Sojourn Shelton who started every game as a freshman in 2013 while leading the team in picks. There's enough talent in the defensive backfield to produce a quality secondary and the Badgers' Egyptian cotton-soft schedule gives them plenty of time to do so.
While Wisconsin's schedule should allow them to make a mistake or two on their way to Indianapolis, the bad news is the Big Ten East's representative likely tops them easily
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
That schedule, woof. Wisconsin might have a nice record, but there are not a lot of ranked teams on that schedule, especially if teams like Nebraska and LSU regress. Wisconsin’s run game give the Badgers a chance in every game, especially against the dregs of the Big Ten. I’ve tabbed LSU and a road game against Iowa as losses, and I threw in Maryland. Wisconsin, with an unproven defense and unsettled quarterback situation, isn’t good enough not to have a lapse or two. With Maryland’s impressive receivers, the Terps may be able to catch the Badgers napping.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
With Wisconsin, you know what you are going to get year-in and year-out. The Badgers are going to run the football, and this fall they will do so with one of the best running backs in the country in Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin may very well open the season with a loss against LSU in Houston, but little should be standing in the way of a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game at the end of the year. Wisconsin gets Nebraska at home for what could be the deciding game in the west, but Wisconsin must stay alert with a road trip to Iowa the following week. That has letdown written all over it for me right now, but ultimately it should not be enough to keep the Badgers from booking a trip to Chicago. The big question for me is who steps up as a go-to receiver and will this defense be as good as it has in recent seasons in Madison? Wisconsin will be good, but they will not be great in 2014.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
The season opener with LSU in Arlington will be a tough test, but after that, Wisconsin's schedule opens up about as big as some of the holes All-America candidate Melvin Gordon will be running through. Bowling Green is a good team, but it won't be able to take down the Badgers at Camp Randall. Other than a road game at Northwestern and a visit from Nebraska in the middle of November, I don't see any big potential land mines on the Big Ten slate either. The Badgers are the big winners of the Big Ten's conference realignment as far as 2014 goes and I fully expect them to represent the new West Division in Indianapolis at the conference championship game on Dec. 6.
Mike Fiammetta (@B5Q), Buckys5thQuarter.com
Picking an 11-1 schedule for Wisconsin surely seems radical. Coming from a Wisconsin writer, it probably comes off as obscenely biased. But considering the Badgers' weak-on-paper schedule in the Big Ten West Division, the ceiling is very high for UW in Gary Andersen's second season. Questions persist on offense -- a starting quarterback may not be named until well into fall camp and there is not one proven receiver on the roster, but as the old saying goes, "Death, taxes and Wisconsin rushing yards." Or something like that. Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are back, primed to prove to the nation that they form the best rushing duo in the country. The offensive line should also be solid once again, and while quarterback issues are never encouraging, some combination of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy is expected to be solid enough to keep the Badgers atop the division.
Defensively, the 3-4 base defense moves into year two without Chris Borland and Dezmen Southward, two mainstays of the past several years. Losing Borland especially hurts, and while there are questions as to where quarterback pressure and other big plays will come from, there are several breakout candidates including defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, as well as inside linebacker Leon Jacobs. The secondary is still kind of young, but sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be on his way toward becoming one of the conference's best. On special teams, the Badgers might be going with a true freshman kicker in Rafael Gaglianone, and while that might be troubling to some, the Brazilian can really boot it.
Back to the schedule -- everything hinges on that LSU game in Houston. A win there, no matter the margin, gives Wisconsin the genuine possibility of running the table. That's not exactly bold reasoning, but most people picking wins/losses at this juncture likely having Wisconsin dropping a game or two, like, at Northwestern or Iowa. Even in that scenario, a 9-3 season would be welcomed by most Badgers fans, I'd say. That should be enough to land a spot in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game and possibly another Rose Bowl.
Florida is one of college football’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2014, as the Gators have the talent to win the SEC East but are coming off a 4-8 season with an offense full of question marks.
Coach Will Muschamp sits squarely on the hot seat this season and likely needs at least seven wins to return for 2015. Muschamp shuffled his offensive staff in the offseason, hiring Kurt Roper from Duke to fix a unit that averaged only 19.9 points per game in SEC contests.
Getting quarterback Jeff Driskel back to 100 percent will help, but Florida also needs improvement from its offensive line and receiving corps.
The Gators should have one of the SEC’s top defenses, which includes standout cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
With a schedule that features home games against LSU, South Carolina and Missouri, Florida will have a chance for a quick rebound in 2014.
Early Florida Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
|at Florida State|
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Florida is a tough team to project in 2014. On one side, the talent is there to win 10 games. The Gators’ roster is tied with Florida State for No. 2 nationally in recruiting rankings. However, Florida’s offense struggled mightily last year and averaged only 4.7 yards per play (conference-only games) in 2013. New coordinator Kurt Roper was a solid hire, and his first assignment is to help quarterback Jeff Driskel reach his potential. Driskel may not win All-SEC honors in 2014, but that’s not the biggest problem facing the offense. The line and receiving corps are huge question marks, and both units have to improve for Florida to contend in the East. With seven starters back, expect the Gators’ defense to rank among the best in the SEC once again this year. With South Carolina, Missouri and LSU visiting Gainesville, Florida has the schedule for a quick turnaround. However, this team doesn’t have much room for error, which is why I think they lose a game they probably shouldn’t.
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
This isn’t the best time for Will Muschamp to have to add a road trip to Alabama onto the Gators’ schedule. But that’s what Florida will face, along with LSU from the SEC West and a game at Florida State to finish up the regular season.
I didn’t consider picking Florida against Alabama or Florida State. Those teams are just too powerful right now. That road trip to Tennessee will be critical. If Florida wins that game, which I picked it to do, the Gators could go on a bit of a run. In the end, I think Georgia and South Carolina bring back too much for Florida to handle. I have the Gators finishing with an 8-4 record, which should be good enough to save Muschamp’s job. Anything less than that and he’s in trouble.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Florida’s schedule will help the rebuilding process in Gainesville. Having potential swing games against LSU and Missouri, plus a key divisional game against South Carolina, at home should serve Florida well. I don’t know if the Gators can win all of those games, but winning two out of three is possible. Florida’s offense will be better, if no other reason than the fact that it can’t get much worse. The defense will keep Florida competitive, but this team still has a long way to go to compete with Georgia and South Carolina. The offense, too, may have trouble keeping up with a dynamic offense like the one at Missouri.
Brandon Larrabee (@TeamSpeedKills), teamspeedkills.com
Florida might be the hardest team in the SEC to figure out heading into this season. Don't let last year fool you: there's still plenty of talent in Gainesville. The offense will improve and the defense will be solid. But how much better will the Gators be? Have they completely caught back up with Georgia and South Carolina? And there's a clear trap game looming in Knoxville. The Gators are better than the Volunteers this year, but either an upset win at Alabama or looking ahead to the game against LSU could cause Florida to slip up. If they can get through that game, though, a three-week stretch that includes games against Georgia and South Carolina should decide who wins the East.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Florida may not make it all the way back in one season, but I do think better days are ahead for embattled coach Will Muschamp's team. The offense is the key, which starts with quarterback Jeff Driskel staying healthy and new coordinator Kurt Roper jumpstarting one of the nation's worst units last season. Even if the offense shows only modest improvement, it should be good enough for a few more Ws because of the strength of the defense. The SEC is tough, no doubt about that, but there's just one conference road game (at Alabama) that Gator fans should worry about. As long as Florida takes care of business at home, something that didn't happen frequently in 2013, this team could build momentum and find enough confidence to potentially make things interesting in Tallahassee Thanksgiving weekend. How's that for a turnaround?
Chad Neipling (@SEC_Chad), SECSportsInsider.com
This year will be the turn around year for Florida following an abysmal 4-8 season, the worst since 1979. Roper's offense is going to bring speed of play and a faster release for Driskel, which hopefully turns in to a better red zone performance. The Alabama game is a definite loss since the Crimson Tide will be playing with an even bigger chip on their shoulder this season than the Gators. LSU will feature a lot of youth but they've done so for the last two seasons with success. This one could be a toss up since they play each other so closely. But luckily for Florida, LSU travels to Auburn the week before. Georgia is another toss-up game for the Gators and could very well depict Muschamp's future in Gainesville. As of late, the Dawgs have had the Gators’ number with three straight wins, so I wouldn't be surprised with a loss here for Florida. SC in the swamp is a win. UF was leading in the 4Q last season 14-13 and if not for SC's two FG's Florida would have won the game. I'm probably one of the few that think the FSU game is a win. The away team is 3-0 in this series and Florida is on the road this year.
Washington quarterback Cyler Miles has been suspended for the 2014 season opener against Hawaii. Miles’ suspension was announced on Thursday at Pac-12 Media Days by first-year coach Chris Petersen.
Miles was involved in an off-the-field incident in February and missed all of spring practice.
The sophomore was reinstated to the team in May and is slated to compete for the starting job in fall practice with Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.
Miles is considered a rising star in the Pac-12 and should reclaim the starting job in time for the second game against Eastern Washington.
Williams and Lindquist will compete in the fall to start against Hawaii, and the Huskies are big favorites against the Rainbow Warriors.
While the opener shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for Washington, getting Miles acclimated into the offense will be something to watch early in the year.
After missing spring practice, the sophomore is already playing catch-up this fall. With Eastern Washington, Illinois and Georgia State on the schedule before playing Stanford, Miles will have time to transition into the starting role before the Huskies step into the heart of their Pac-12 slate.
UW’s Chris Petersen on QB Cyler Miles 1-gm suspension: “The courts didn’t do anything but we did,”— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) July 24, 2014
More details on Cyler Miles' one-game suspension: http://t.co/000AMiiwyG— Adam Jude (@A_Jude) July 24, 2014
Houston is expected to be one of the top contenders for the American Athletic Conference title in 2014, and the Cougars will have a new uniform design as they push for the conference crown.
Houston released an updated look at its uniforms for the upcoming year on Wednesday, which is just a slight alteration on its 2013 design.
Here’s a look at the 2014 uniforms:
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Big Ten is home to a handful of intriguing names for 2014, as Ohio State receiver/running back Dontre Wilson could emerge as one of the conference’s top playmakers, while Illinois’ quarterback Wes Lunt could be in for a huge season under coordinator Bill Cubit.
On the defensive side, Nebraska's defensive tackle duo of Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins are two names to remember. Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel has the difficult task of replacing standout Chris Borland.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Big Ten Breakout Players for 2014
Antonio Allen, S, Indiana
Allen was one of Indiana’s top recruits in the 2013 signing class, ranking as the No. 292 recruit in the 247Sports Composite. The Indiana native played in seven games and made one start but suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan in early November. Allen finished 2013 with 35 tackles and one fumble recovery. The sophomore is a key piece in Indiana’s rebuilding effort on defense, especially after the Hoosiers allowed 24 passing scores last year. Allen has the speed and talent to be a difference-maker on the back end of Indiana’s defense.
Vonn Bell/Tyvis Powell, S, Ohio State
Ohio State’s defense finished fifth in the Big Ten in points allowed (22.6 per game) and ranked No. 7 in total yards allowed. Those numbers have to improve in 2014 if the Buckeyes want to make the playoff, and the defense will have two new assistant coaches (Larry Johnson Sr. and Chris Ash) leading the way. Top cornerback Bradley Roby left early for the NFL, leaving three new starters in the secondary. However, there’s no shortage of talent ready to emerge, as Bell and Powell are two of the Big Ten’s rising stars at safety. Bell recorded 19 stops and one interception in 14 appearances last year, while Powell recorded 48 tackles and two pass breakups.
Vince Biegel, LB, Wisconsin
Biegel and fellow linebackers Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert have big shoes to fill in 2014, as the Badgers face a difficult assignment in replacing standout Chris Borland. While Borland will be missed, Wisconsin isn’t in bad shape at linebacker. Trotter and Landisch are seniors, while Biegel is primed for a breakout year. The Wisconsin native redshirted due to injury in 2012 and played in 13 contests with two starts last season. He recorded 25 tackles in 2013 and finished with two sacks. Expect Biegel to become one of the top defenders on Dave Aranda’s defense in 2014.
Wes Brown, RB, Maryland
Maryland’s rushing attack finished No. 10 in the ACC and averaged just 3.3 yards per rush in conference games. The Terrapins return talented backs in Brandon Ross and Albert Reid, but keep an eye on Brown’s performance this fall. He sat out 2013 due to a suspension, but ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2012 247Sports Composite. Brown rushed for 382 yards and two scores as a true freshman and adds speed to the Terrapins’ backfield. A committee approach at running back in College Park seems likely, but Brown will be a key piece of coordinator Mike Locksley’s offense. Another name to remember for the Terrapins: True freshman lineman Damian Prince.
Freddy Canteen, WR, Michigan
New coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired to fix a Michigan offense that ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in total and rushing offense. Quarterback Devin Gardner had his share of ups and downs, but the senior also didn’t have a ton of help from the offensive line and rushing attack. Those two areas are a concern again, but Michigan’s passing attack should take a step forward. Tight end Devin Funchess will shift to the outside, and the coaching staff has to be encouraged with the development of Canteen in the spring. The Maryland native was a standout performer in the spring and could claim a starting role this year. With Jeremy Gallon departing, Michigan needs a new go-to receiver, and the combination of Funchess and Canteen should be an effective duo for Gardner.
Leontee Carroo, WR, Rutgers
The addition of Ralph Friedgen as Rutgers’ new play-caller should help an offense that averaged just 5.0 yards per play (conference-only games) and lost 30 turnovers in 2013. Friedgen’s first task is to develop Gary Nova into a consistent quarterback. If Nova plays with more consistency and eliminates the turnovers, the Scarlet Knights' offense will show improvement on the stat sheet. Carroo only caught 28 passes last season but averaged 17.1 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns. The junior should be the top option at receiver for Rutgers in 2014.
Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota
Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman will be tough to replace, but defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys returns three starters up front. Cockran quietly had a solid 2013 campaign, recording 30 tackles (10 for a loss), 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Although Cockran is known among the Minnesota fan base, another big season should give him plenty of recognition among the rest of the conference. Not having Hageman on the interior will create more attention on Cockran, but the junior is poised to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive ends.
Maliek Collins/Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line is young, but there’s no question the coaching staff has to be excited about the talent in place. End Randy Gregory is one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the combination of Collins, Valentine and Aaron Curry is a promising trio for coordinator John Papuchis. Valentine got better as the season progressed in 2013, capped by recording a sack and two tackles for a loss against Iowa. He finished 2013 with 21 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack. Collins wasn’t as active on the stat sheet last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. However, Collins and Valentine both will see a larger role in the defense in 2014. And with both players checking in over 300 pounds, opposing offenses won’t have much room to run on the interior against Nebraska.
Demetrius Cooper, DE, Michigan State
The Spartans already have one of college football’s top defensive end tandems with Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, and it appears the depth on the outside will only improve with the emergence of Cooper. The Illinois native redshirted last season, and according to the Michigan State roster, gained 31 pounds from 2013 to '14. Cooper had a strong spring and finished with two tackles (one for a loss) and one sack during the White vs. Green scrimmage. Don’t expect the redshirt freshman to post monster numbers this year, but Cooper should be a key piece of Michigan State’s defensive line rotation.
Pat Elflein, OG, Ohio State
Ohio State’s offensive line is under construction this offseason. The Buckeyes lost four starters, but junior Taylor Decker is back to anchor the left side of the line, and Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay is expected to start at center. Elflein is slated to start at right guard and impressed in limited action last year. The Ohio native played in all 14 games and started in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State. There’s a lot of turnover at guard in the Big Ten in 2014, and if Elflein continues to develop after a solid showing last year, he could be one of the top players at his position in the conference.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was the first back to top 1,000 yards under coach Urban Meyer, and his departure to the NFL is a big loss for Ohio State’s offense. Hyde’s tough running will be missed, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Elliott is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, with Dontre Wilson, Warren Ball, Curtis Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn all expected to contribute to the rotation in 2014. Elliott impressed in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 carries (8.7 ypc). He may not handle 250 carries, but Elliott will headline a deep and talented Ohio State backfield.
Darian Hicks, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans no longer have Darqueze Dennard manning the “No Fly Zone” in East Lansing. But coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t too worried about his secondary in 2014, as junior Trae Waynes is a likely All-American and Hicks is ready to step up and replace Dennard at the other cornerback spot. Hicks played in all 14 games and recorded only two tackles, but the sophomore is primed for a bigger role in Michigan State’s defense this year.
Austin Johnson, DT, Penn State
New coordinator Bob Shoop followed James Franklin from Vanderbilt to Happy Valley, and the Pennsylvania native inherits a defense that returns six starters. Shoop’s defenses at Vanderbilt were underrated, and he should mold Penn State’s defense into one of the best in the conference this year. After playing in all 12 games last season, Johnson is expected to become a full-time starter at tackle in 2014. The New Jersey native recorded 27 tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. With Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan anchoring the outside end spots, Johnson should have plenty of room to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
Alex Lewis, OT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s offensive line returns just one starter from 2013, but the Cornhuskers should be solid up front in 2014. Lewis transferred to Lincoln after starting 12 games at guard for Colorado in 2012. He also played in 12 games as a freshman in 2011 with the Buffaloes. The Arizona native solidified his place atop the depth chart in the spring and should be a key piece in Nebraska’s offensive line and rushing attack in 2014.
Geno Lewis, WR, Penn State
Allen Robinson accounted for 97 of Penn State’s 241 receptions last season, leaving little in the way of proven options for quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2014. While there’s not much in the way of proven receivers, the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent. Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman headline a deep group of tight ends, while Lewis is a rising star on the outside at receiver. After redshirting in 2012, Lewis caught 18 passes for 234 yards and three scores in his first season of action with Penn State. The Pennsylvania native closed out 2013 on a high note, grabbing three receptions for 91 yards and two scores against Wisconsin. Freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saaed Blacknall and De’Andre Thompkins are names to watch in the fall, but Lewis should be the top receiving target for Hackenberg.
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois
Even though Lunt hasn’t been guaranteed the starting job, it’s hard to envision the Oklahoma State transfer not taking the first snap for the Fighting Illini. Lunt was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and threw for 1,108 yards and six scores as a true freshman for the Cowboys. After one season in Stillwater, Lunt transferred back home to Illinois and landed with the Fighting Illini. Coordinator Bill Cubit injected immediate improvement into Illinois’ passing game last year, and Lunt should be a perfect fit in this offense.
Chikwe Obasih, DE, Wisconsin
The Badgers are breaking in several new faces on defense in 2014, as only three starters return from a unit that held opponents to 16.3 points per game last year. Obasih redshirted in his first season in Madison and was one of the spring standouts for coordinator Dave Aranda. Obasih ranked as the No. 343 player in the 247Sports Composite and recorded two tackles in the spring game. At 245 pounds, Obasih is undersized against traditional power offenses, but he has the speed and quickness off the edge to be a disruptive force in the backfield.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
We could list a couple of Michigan defenders here, but Peppers is just too talented to leave off the list. Peppers ranked as the No. 3 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is slated to push for a starting job in the fall. The New Jersey native could play a number of roles in the Michigan secondary in 2014, as he might start at cornerback or safety or play in the nickel role for coordinator Greg Mattison. Regardless of where he lines up, Peppers is too valuable for the Wolverines to keep on the sidelines. The true freshman could be a difference maker in Michigan’s secondary and also could see time on special teams this year.
Miles Shuler, WR, Northwestern
With Kain Colter expiring his eligibility, expect Northwestern to focus more on the passing game behind new (but experienced) quarterback Trevor Siemian in 2014. Siemian should have plenty of options in the receiving corps, especially with Shuler’s emergence in the spring. The Rutgers transfer is largely unproven, as he caught 11 passes in two years with the Scarlet Knights. However, Shuler has excellent speed and should help the receiving corps out of the slot. Shuler won’t need to catch 50 passes to make a huge impact, but his speed should create a few big plays.
Reggie Spearman, LB, Iowa
Iowa’s linebacking corps loses three standout performers from a unit that held opposing Big Ten offenses to just 19.6 points per game last year. Despite the departure of three starters, the Hawkeyes aren’t in bad shape at the position. Senior Quinton Alston and junior Travis Perry are experienced, while Spearman recorded 10 tackles in his first season in Iowa City. The Illinois native has a bright future and should secure a starting role on Phil Parker’s defense in 2014.
Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State
It seems Urban Meyer has been looking for the next Percy Harvin for a couple of years now, but Wilson could finally be the right fit as a hybrid receiver/running back. Wilson rushed for 250 yards and one score last season and caught 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Wilson to be more involved in the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014, as the departure of Carlos Hyde will open up more carries on the ground, while the receiving corps is searching for more playmakers.
DeAngelo Yancey, WR, Purdue
The Boilermakers finished 1-11 in coach Darrell Hazell’s debut, but there were a few bright spots on the depth chart. Yancey played in 11 games as a true freshman last year and grabbed 32 receptions for 546 yards and two scores. The Georgia native averaged 17.1 yards per catch, which ranked No. 2 among receivers in the Big Ten. Yancey should see his numbers increase in 2014 and should be one of the Big Ten’s top big-play threats. Another name to watch in West Lafayette this year: Running back Raheem Mostert.