Articles By Steven Lassan

Path: /college-football/vanderbilts-derek-mason-has-most-awesome-business-card-college-football
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Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason has a tough assignment in Nashville, as the first-year coach has to follow James Franklin after back-to-back nine-win seasons for the Commodores.

But Mason appears to be up to the task, especially after coordinating one of the nation’s top defenses at Stanford over the last few years.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt Mason’s profile that he has one of the best business cards in the nation. This photo tweeted out by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples showcases Mason’s gold business card for 2014:

Teaser:
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason has the Most Awesome Business Card in College Football
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 12:07
Path: /college-football/college-football-win-total-projections-released-2014
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Need a good way to make it through the long offseason? First, buy and read an Athlon Sports College Football preview magazine and then take a look at these win total projections provided by 5Dimes.

With a few months until kickoff, expect to see more win total projections released, but 5Dimes has 35 teams and the wager prices for 2014 to help us pass the time until August.

Here’s a look at the team and projected win totals by 5Dimes:
 

TeamProjected Win Total
Alabama 10.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Auburn 9.5 (Over -155, Under +115)
Baylor 9.5 (Over -130, Under -110)
BYU 8.5 (Over -160, Under +120)
Clemson 9.5 (Over -150, Under -190)
Duke 8.5 (Over +120, Under -160)
Florida 7.5 (Over +110, Under -150)
Georgia 9.5 (Over -120, Under -120)
Indiana 5.5 (Over +145, Under -185)
Kansas State 8.5 (Over -130, Under -110)
Maryland 7.5 (Over +100, Under -140)
Miami 7.5 (Over -160, Under +120)
Michigan 7.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Michigan State 9.5 (Over -155, Under +115)
Mississippi 7.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Missouri 9.5 (Over +110, Under -150)
Nebraska 7.5 (Over -130, Under -110)
North Carolina 7.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Notre Dame 9.5 (Over +110, Under -150)
Ohio State 10.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Oregon 10.5 (Over +100, Under -140)
Penn State 8.5 (Over +100, Under -140)
Rutgers 4.5 (Over -110, Under -130)
South Carolina 9.5 (Over -140, Under +100)
Stanford 9.5 (Over -120, Under -120)
Tennessee 5.5 (Over -160, Under +120)
Texas 8.5 (Over -110, Under -130)
Texas A&M 7.5 (Over -110, Under -130)
TCU 6.5 (Over +120, Under -160)
UCLA 9.5 (Over +100, Under -150)
USC 8.5 (Over -130, Under -110)
Virginia Tech 7.5 (Over -150, Under +110)
Washington State 5.5 (Over -165, Under +125)
West Virginia 5.5 (Over -190, Under +150)
Wisconsin 9.5 (Over -135, Under -105)
Teaser:
College Football Win Total Projections Released for 2014
Post date: Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 13:09
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, NC State Wolfpack, News
Path: /college-football/nc-state-unveils-black-helmets-2014
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NC State heads into 2014 looking for some positive momentum after a 3-9 record in Dave Doeren’s first season.

The Wolfpack have a promising quarterback in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, so improvement from Doeren’s team is expected.

But as with any offseason, teams often unveil new uniforms to build buzz for the upcoming year.

NC State did just that on Sunday, as the Wolfpack unveiled a new black helmet for 2014.

Of course, it isn’t just the color that is intriguing. Along with a patch of red at the back, the helmet will feature eyes in the back. Yes, you read that correctly:

Teaser:
NC State Unveils Black Helmets for 2014
Post date: Monday, May 19, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/georgia-or-south-carolina-who-wins-sec-east-2014
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The SEC East is one of the toughest divisions to sort out this preseason. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri each have a compelling case to be picked at No. 1 in the division.

Georgia finished 8-5 in 2013, largely due to injuries and bad luck. The Bulldogs lost quarterback Aaron Murray late in the year to a torn ACL, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against Clemson. The injuries weren’t limited to just Murray and Mitchell, as Todd Gurley was slowed all season by an ankle injury, and Keith Marshall suffered a torn ACL against Tennessee.

South Carolina has won 11 games in each of the last three seasons and finished No. 4 nationally in the final Associated Press poll. The Gamecocks return 13 starters for 2014 but must replace defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, tackle Kelcy Quarles and quarterback Connor Shaw.

Although the upcoming season is still months away, it’s never too early to start thinking about 2014 and projections. Athlon Sports is counting down the top 25 teams for 2014, and the debate among the staff was Georgia and South Carolina for the No. 1 spot in the East.

Will Georgia reclaim the top spot in the East? Or Will South Carolina win 11 games once again? Or could Florida or Missouri end up as the No. 1 team in the East?

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

Georgia or South Carolina: Who Wins the SEC East in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Close call, but I like Georgia over South Carolina. The Bulldogs had a lot of bad luck go their way in 2013, which included an awful turnover margin (-7) and injuries to several key players. After a year of bad luck, perhaps the ball will bounce more in Georgia’s favor in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason should be a solid replacement for Aaron Murray, and the senior has plenty of talent to work with. Running back Todd Gurley is healthy, and backfield mate Keith Marshall should be able to contribute in 2014 after tearing an ACL last year. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation with Malcolm Mitchell returning to full strength. After allowing 31.8 points a game in SEC action last year, Georgia’s defense should easily improve behind new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs have the personnel to run Pruitt’s scheme, especially at linebacker with Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson. The biggest concerns for Mark Richt’s team have to be in the secondary and on the offensive line. Georgia’s schedule is tough, but an early road trip to Columbia to take on South Carolina could work in the Bulldogs favor, especially with the Gamecocks reloading on the defensive line and in the secondary. Both teams should rank among the top 5-10 nationally at the end of the year. However, give me the Bulldogs to represent the East in Atlanta in early December.

Mark Ross
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina rolling, but Mark Richt is certainly no stranger to success in his own right. Georgia will have to begin the post-Aaron Murray era at quarterback, but the same can be said for South Carolina with defensive stud Jadeveon Clowney, not to mention underrated quarterback Connor Shaw and several other key players, off to the NFL. The Ol Ball Coach has the Gamecocks in pretty good shape for another strong showing, but Richt has new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt ready to apply his magic touch to a Bulldogs defense that welcomes back 10 starters. There's no substitute for experience, especially in a conference like the SEC. Georgia's offense may be more of a question mark with Hutson Mason taking over the reins, but this also is a unit that was wrecked by injuries last season and boasts one of the more talented and explosive backfields in the nation with Todd Gurley leading the way. South Carolina running back Mike Davis is certainly no slouch himself, but it remains to be seen if quarterback Dylan Thompson can provide the type of consistent, steady production that Shaw did, or even the leadership for that matter. South Carolina will host Georgia in the third week of the season and this game figures to loom large in determining who wins the SEC East in 2014, along with the crossover date each has with defending champion Auburn. Even though the Gamecocks are tough at home and Spurrier's team appears to have the momentum, I like Richt's squad to capitalize on its experience on defense and enjoy better health on offense on its way to picking up another "home" game — one that takes place on Dec. 6 in the Georgia Dome.

Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
I’m going with Georgia. That road game at South Carolina on Sept. 13 won’t be easy for Georgia. The Bulldogs could certainly lose, but I’ll take them to win on the road and start SEC play with a comfortable lead in the SEC East.

Georgia looks like a serious SEC championship contender with all its talent. Replacing Aaron Murray at quarterback will be difficult, but senior Hutson Mason will have plenty of guys who can help him, especially in the backfield. That will help ease the transition.

Georgia’s defense should be better this season thanks to so much experience returning and the arrival of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs ranked No. 10 in the SEC in scoring defense last season. That will surely improve. South Carolina, which ranked second in the league in the same category, will likely have a difficult time maintaining that level of play with the loss of several key defenders, including linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. I’ll give Georgia the advantage over South Carolina in what should be a very competitive battle in the SEC East.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
After struggling for the better part of five years at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier finally broke through with the 2010 team that went to the SEC Championship Game. Since that time, the Gamecocks have been amazingly consistent as every year they have gone 11-2 overall and 6-2 in the conference. It will be interesting to see how the Gamecocks stabilize with losing their big name talent on defense (Clowney) and their heart and soul on offense (Connor Shaw). They still have a lot of talent but the loss of Shaw in particular could be bigger than some think.

Recently, Georgia has been more up and down than it's rival from Columbia. Since 2010, Georgia has posted conference records of 3-5, 7-1, 7-1 and 5-3. While Georgia has not been as consistent as South Carolina, they have also shown that they have the a bit of a higher ceiling (with the two 7-1 seasons versus South Carolina's peak of 6-2).

I like the direction both of these teams are headed and I would not be surprised if either is representing the East in the SEC Championship Game. If I had to choose one, I pick Georgia because despite being more inconsistent in the recent past they have also shown the capability of rising higher. That and Todd Gurley.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The nod goes to Georgia, though I expect this to be a heated four-team race. That means the race at some point will include Florida and Missouri in addition to South Carolina. And it probably means the East champions could win with two losses. I pick Georgia for a few reasons. First, no team in the East has better skill position talent on offense. True, Hutson Mason is unproven as a starting quarterback, save for a comeback against Georgia Tech. But Todd Gurley is the best back in the SEC, and the group of receivers, now healthy, could be the top receiving corps in the league. Mason needs only to be capable, and Mark Richt rarely has subpar quarterback play. The defense hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC in yards per play since at least 2007, and while I doubt the Bulldogs will end that streak this season, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is a major addition to the staff. All these teams in the East have their flaws, but Georgia has enough going for it where the Bulldogs should be able to cover them up.


Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
They both have senior quarterbacks who have waited their turn to start. They both have an elite tailback ready to carry the load. They both play Clemson in the non-conference and Auburn from the West Division. Georgia has nine starters back on defense led by new star coordinator Jeremy Pruit and should be much healthier on offense. South Carolina has arguably the best one-game coach in the nation, five offensive lineman back and the benefit of an important home SEC schedule. I will split hairs and take the Gamecocks - despite a rebuilt defensive line - due in large part because of the schedule. Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M are critical games should all be wins at home. So a road split between Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida and Auburn will likely give the 'Ol Ball Coach his second East Division title at South Carolina.

Teaser:
Georgia or South Carolina: Who Wins the SEC East in 2014?
Post date: Friday, May 16, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/stanford-or-oregon-who-wins-pac-12-north-2014
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Oregon and Stanford have been two of college football’s top programs in recent years, as the Ducks and Cardinal have combined to win all three of the Pac-12’s championship games.

Different year, same story in 2014. Stanford and Oregon are the favorites to win the Pac-12 North this season, and both teams are expected to factor into the national title conversation.

Oregon returns Heisman contender Marcus Mariota at quarterback, a solid offensive line and a backfield that features Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

Stanford suffered a few losses in the offseason, including defensive coordinator Derek Mason leaving to take over as Vanderbilt’s head coach. However, the Cardinal should be able to easily replace four starters on the line, and the defense has enough returning pieces to prevent a major drop in production.

One factor that should play a key role in determining the North champion is the schedule. Stanford has a tougher crossover slate with the South Division and has to play at Eugene in 2014.

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

Oregon or Stanford: Who Wins the Pac-12 North in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Deciding between Stanford and Oregon for the No. 1 spot in the North has to be one of the toughest preseason debates in 2014. Both teams have areas of concern and transition on the coaching staffs, but the Cardinal and Ducks should still be among the top 10-15 teams in the nation. If I had to pick a favorite, I would pick Oregon slightly over Stanford – but not by much. The Ducks have the easier schedule and won’t have to play Arizona State or USC from the South in the regular season. Getting an improved Washington team at home is also huge for Oregon’s chances of winning the North. Another reason to like the Ducks at No. 1 in the North is quarterback Marcus Mariota returning to full strength from a knee injury. Mariota will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, but there should be plenty of weapons to choose from, including a deep group of tight ends. If Stanford had an easier schedule, I would probably pick the Cardinal. However, with Mariota returning to 100 percent and a favorable schedule, I lean Oregon as the top team in the North in 2014.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
Marcus Mariota has accomplished much in his two seasons at Oregon, but one accomplishment eluding the dynamic quarterback is a Pac-12 championship. The roadblock standing between Mariota and this milestone twice has been Stanford and its stout defense.

The Cardinal will again set the conference benchmark for defensive intensity, despite losing Ed Reynolds, Trent Murphy and noted Duck-stopper Shayne Skov. But is Stanford equipped to once again slow the Oregon offense with Derek Mason no longer directing the defense?

This should be the year Mariota finally cuts down the Trees and wins the Pac-12 North. He leads what should be the most talented Oregon offense yet—a staggering reality given the teams that have come through Eugene in recent years. But perhaps more important to the Ducks' championship aspirations is that the defense should be tougher in 2014.

New defensive coordinator Don Pellum emphasized strength training in the offseason, and building depth during the spring. Last year against Stanford, the Ducks' inability to stop Tyler Gaffney up front was the difference. This year, a bulkier and deeper front seven is better prepared to counter a power-run game, such as Stanford's.

Mark Ross
Stanford has ruled the Pac-12 North the past two years, thanks in large part to two straight victories over Oregon. David Shaw has his Cardinal in good shape to make it three division titles in a row, but I am leaning towards Mark Helfrich's Ducks to reclaim the crown this season. Both teams are talented and should finish pretty high in the national polls, but I like Oregon's roster a little bit more than Stanford's. For the Ducks it starts with Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota at quarterback, who should be the engine that drives one of the nation's most explosive offenses. The defense has some star power of its own, however, and as long as the offense does its job, it won't have to come up with too many stops. Stanford brings back seven starters on defense, but it also watched a total of five all-conference performers either get drafted or signed by an NFL team just a few days ago. The offense returns even less experience (four starters), as four pieces to one of the most dominant offensive lines in the nation and 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Gaffney have departed. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of talent left on The Farm, but with this year's head-to-head matchup set for Eugene on Nov. 1, I like the Ducks to protect their home turf (this time), a victory that will help propel them to the Pac-12 North title in 2014.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I’m taking Oregon, and that’s partially because of the personnel losses at Stanford. The Cardinal will maintain a level of excellence, but replacing offensive line starters and a horde of major contributors on defense will make it tough to win a division or conference title. Meanwhile, the Ducks still have at least a year with Marcus Mariota. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll keep Oregon in contention. Throw in depth at running back and all five starters on the line, and there’s no reason Oregon won’t continue to have an explosive offense. Defensive line is the biggest question on defense, but if the Ducks aren’t going to be great there, at least it’s in a year where Stanford might not be mauling teams up front (yet).

Teaser:
Stanford or Oregon: Who Wins the Pac-12 North in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, May 15, 2014 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/washington-reinstates-qb-cyler-miles
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Washington’s quarterback situation was one of the key storylines in the Pac-12 this spring, but it appears the Huskies will have some clarity before the fall. After missing spring practice due to an off-the-field incident, Cyler Miles was reinstated to the team by coach Chris Petersen on Tuesday.

Miles threw for 418 yards and four touchdowns in 2013, serving as the top backup to Keith Price. Price missed the Oregon State game due to injury, and Miles led the Huskies to a 69-27 win, throwing for 162 yards and one score.

The addition of Miles is huge for Washington, as Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams have yet to throw a pass on the collegiate level.

Miles has some work to do in order to learn the new offense. However, he should provide Washington with its best chance to win in 2014. And with Stanford visiting Seattle this year, the Huskies have a chance to make some noise in the North Division – if Miles continues to develop after a promising stint in 2013.
 

Teaser:
Washington Reinstates QB Cyler Miles
Post date: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 20:13
Path: /college-football/wisconsins-defense-or-quarterback-play-which-bigger-concern-2014
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Wisconsin is one of the top programs in the Big Ten, winning at least seven games in each season since 2002. Additionally, the Badgers have experienced only one losing season since 1996.

As Wisconsin turns the page from a successful 9-4 debut by coach Gary Andersen, there are several holes to address on the depth chart. The Badgers need more from their starting quarterback – Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy – and the defense returns only three starters.

Despite the heavy personnel departures, it’s unlikely Wisconsin takes a huge step back in the win column. The schedule is one of the easiest in the Big Ten, as the Badgers won’t play Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State or Ohio State in crossover play.

Although the quarterback spot is a concern, Wisconsin can still lean on a ground attack that will be among the best in the nation. Running back Melvin Gordon should be in Heisman contention, and Corey Clement is a capable replacement for James White.

With an easy schedule, Wisconsin is Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division in 2014. But for this program to challenge Ohio State or Michigan State for the conference title, the quarterback play has to improve. But which is a bigger concern heading into 2014? Is it a rebuilt defense with three new starters? Or is the production at quarterback the bigger issue?

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

Athlon Sports' Top 25 Countdown for 2014 is underway. Wisconsin ranks as the No. 15 team in college football for 2014.

Wisconsin’s Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Despite returning only three starters on defense, I think Wisconsin is going to be fine on that side of the ball. Sure, it might struggle to stop LSU’s ground game in the opener, but the Badgers have enough returning to prevent a major drop on the stat sheet. Nose guard Warren Herring is a good piece to build around up front, while the linebacking corps should be in good shape with Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert and Derek Landisch. The secondary ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense, and sophomore corner Sojourn Shelton is a rising star. Assuming Wisconsin gets the same type of production from its quarterback spot as it did in 2013, the Badgers should be able to win the West Division. However, for this program to take the next step, coach Gary Andersen needs more from its quarterbacks. Joel Stave was steady last year but is being pushed by Tanner McEvoy for snaps. McEvoy is a dual-threat option and played safety after transferring from junior college last season. And if Stave and McEvoy struggle, Wisconsin may have to dig deeper in the depth chart and turn to true freshman D.J. Gillins or sophomore Bart Houston.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
It has to be quarterback. The Badgers will have a good offense, no matter who starts under center, thanks to the one-two backfield punch of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. But, if the incumbent (Joel Stave) can’t improve or the dual-threat challenger (Tanner McEvoy) can’t win the job – and keep it – this could be a one-dimensional offense that isn’t nearly as prolific as the ones we’re used to seeing in Madison. It’s no secret Stave and Wisconsin have struggled to pass the last two seasons, and things won’t get any easier with Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and James White, the team’s top pass-catchers, all out of eligibility. Making the quarterback’s job even tougher, the Badgers lack a proven vertical threat who can stretch the field and keep defenses honest. That said, a surprise year from Stave or McEvoy could be the difference between a good offense and a top (Big Ten) offense.

Mark Ross
With Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement carrying the load and four starting offensive linemen returning, Wisconsin will do what it always does — run opposing defenses into the ground. Because of this well-established and highly successful formula, I'm not that worried about the quarterback play. No, I'm looking more at having to replace eight starters from a defense that ranked seventh or better nationally in three of the four major categories (17th in pass defense). Three of those starters were taken in the recent NFL Draft and anytime you have to basically revamp your starting 11, that's no easy task. The only returning all-conference performers are in the secondary, which means the Badgers will be employing a largely untested and inexperienced front seven. What was a strength for last year's team can now only be characterized, at best, as a rather large question mark headed into this season. The conference realignment does provide the Badgers with a break, as Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State have been replaced by Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern when it comes to divisional foes. The Badgers' crossover schedule doesn't include the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions, or even the Spartans or Wolverines for that matter, but rather Maryland and Rutgers — the Big Ten's two newcomers. So while I am expecting Wisconsin to finish atop the West Division standings in 2014, I don't think the Badgers will be near as dominant on both sides of the ball as they were last season.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Wisconsin’s biggest concern isn’t so much the quarterback as much as it is the entire passing game. What here inspires a ton of confidence? Joel Stave missed most of spring with a shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Quarterbacks and bad shoulders can be bad news. And even before that Stave wasn’t the sharpest quarterback, throwing 13 interceptions. Five of those picks came in the final three games. His back up, Tanner McEvoy, may be athletic enough to scramble (or play safety), but he’s an unpolished passer. If that’s not enough, Wisconsin doesn’t have the security of Jared Abbrederis. It’s a good thing Melvin Gordon is back, otherwise, this offense would be in a heap of trouble. While Wisconsin’s pass defense was torched late in the season against Penn State and South Carolina, the Badgers should be fine on that side of the ball. Even with those two games, Wisconsin’s ranked third in the Big Ten in yards per attempt. Wisconsin’s secondary really was a mess to start the season in 2013 and returns three starters in 2014. Chris Borland is a big loss at linebacker, but Wisconsin has veterans there to replace him. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

Early in the season the answer will be the defense when Wisconsin has to face a power running game from LSU and sneaky explosive offense from Bowling Green. The front seven needs to be rebuilt and a replacement for Chris Borland needs to be found. However, as the year goes along, Joel Stave's play will grow into the bigger issue - especially in November with big divisional games against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota looming. Over time the defense should develop and won't be nearly as tested against some average Big Ten offenses. But Stave will have to create balance on offense in those critical swing games late in the year if Wisconsin wants to cruise into its third Big Ten title game in four years. 

Teaser:
Wisconsin's Defense or Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/ole-miss-or-lsu-which-team-finishes-higher-sec-west-2014
Body:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/kansas-state-qb-daniel-sams-decides-transfer
Body:

After finishing 2013 with wins in six out of its last seven games, Kansas State is expected to be a top-25 program in 2014. However, the Wildcats suffered a setback on offense this week, as GoPowercat.com has reported receiver Daniel Sams has decided to transfer.

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Kansas State QB Daniel Sams Decides to Transfer
Post date: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/acc-decides-stick-eight-game-conference-schedule-format
Body:

Conference scheduling is a hot topic in college football, and the ACC is the latest league to settle on a future format.

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

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

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

Teaser:
ACC Decides to Stick With Eight-Game Conference Schedule Format
Post date: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 17:39
Path: /college-football/penn-state-football-how-many-games-will-nittany-lions-win-2014
Body:

Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s most intriguing teams to watch in 2014. The Nittany Lions are under the direction of new coach James Franklin, who comes to Happy Valley after three seasons at Vanderbilt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Penn State Football: How Many Games Will the Nittany Lions Win in 2014?
Post date: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/baylor-or-oklahoma-who-wins-big-12-2014
Body:

Baylor’s climb to the top of the Big 12 continued last season with an 11-2 final record and a conference championship. The Bears lost in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF, but there’s clearly staying power with Art Briles at the controls in Waco. Baylor has a few holes to fill in 2014, but quarterback Bryce Petty is back after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?
Post date: Friday, May 9, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/byu-unveils-alternate-home-uniforms-2014
Body:

With a favorable schedule, 2014 could be a big season for BYU. The Cougars could go 10-2 or 11-1, which would place Bronco Mendenhall’s team in the discussion to be a top-25 team in 2014.

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

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






 

Teaser:
BYU Unveils Alternate Home Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 16:28
Path: /college-football/who-leads-pac-12-passing-yards-2014
Body:

The Pac-12 is always home to some of the nation’s top offenses, and the quarterback play in the league should be strong once again in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Steve Sarkisian or Chris Petersen: Who has a Better First Season in the Pac-12?
Post date: Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/tennessee-or-vanderbilt-which-team-finishes-higher-sec-east-2014
Body:

The SEC East isn’t as strong as the West in 2014, but this division features plenty of depth. Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri are considered the preseason favorites for the East title, but Florida should be improved with the addition of Kurt Roper as offensive coordinator and a healthy Jeff Driskel at quarterback.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Teaser:
SEC Makes the Right Decision: Eight-Game Conference Schedule Remains
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/duke-qb-brandon-connette-transfers-fresno-state
Body:

Fresno State has announced Duke quarterback Brandon Connette will transfer to the Bulldogs for the 2014 season. Connette is a graduate transfer and is eligible immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SEC Needs to Expand to Nine Conference Games:

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

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

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

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

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

The SEC Should Stay at Eight Conference Games:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Should the SEC Stay at Eight Conference Games or Expand to Nine?
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 07:15

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