Big 12

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#17 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#17

Big 12 PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

It’s a new era in Austin. Mack Brown resigned in December, and Charlie Strong was hired from Louisville to return Texas to the ranks of the Big 12 elite. The Longhorns are just 16-11 in conference play over the last three years, but there’s hope for improvement in 2014. Strong inherits plenty of talent and should be able to maximize the roster better than the previous staff. Quarterback play is a concern, but the rushing attack and defense should be solid.  

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Previewing Texas’ Offense for 2014:

Quarterback and the offensive line are the two biggest questions on offense, which makes the first year of the Charlie Strong era hard to predict.

David Ash (63 percent passer, 30 TDs, 18 INTs in 21 starts) missed the final week of spring football after having surgery to repair a fractured left foot. And Ash has to prove he can take a hit — literally — after missing the final nine games of 2013 with ongoing concussion symptoms from a head injury.

Max Wittek was expected to transfer to Texas, but he won't graduate from USC until December. With Wittek out of the picture, coach Charlie Strong could look to the junior college ranks for another option. If Ash fails to win the job, coaches would look to still-developing sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or incoming freshman Jerrod Heard. Keeping Ash healthy is a priority with the inexperience on the depth chart at quarterback.

“We don’t need a great player, we just need someone to take control of it,” Strong says of the quarterback position.

Running back should be a strength as 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards return with seniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and junior Johnathan Gray.

Four of Texas’ top five receivers from last season return, including senior Jaxon Shipley, a security blanket on third down; emerging deep threats Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders; and explosive slot receiver Daje Johnson. Tight end Geoff Swaim also figures to play a key role in the offense of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.

Texas has to replace three starters from an offensive line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2013. Outside of center Dom Espinosa, who has started every game of his college career (39), and right tackle Kennedy Estelle (eight starts), the offensive line is unproven.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Texas Longhorns for 2014:

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Previewing Texas’ Defense for 2014:

The front four is the strength of the defense, led by end Cedric Reed (10 sacks in 2013) and tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond “Tank” Jackson. Keep an eye on sophomore end Caleb Bluiett, who impressed coaches in his battle with junior Shiro Davis to replace Jackson Jeffcoat.

Jordan Hicks is the team’s best linebacker and a key leader. But he’s been injury-prone. The defense has underachieved each of the past two seasons, in large part because Hicks missed 10 games in 2012 (groin) and nine games in 2013 (torn Achilles). Texas needs Hicks to stay healthy and for middle linebacker Steve Edmond and outside linebacker Peter Jinkens to take the next step.

The secondary is loaded with talent and speed. But Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said in the spring that the group lacked confidence and needed to play with the swagger of senior cornerback Quandre Diggs.

Previewing Texas’ Specialists for 2014:

Gone is Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera, who made 20-of-22 field goals while also punting in 2013. Junior Nick Rose and sophomore Nick Jordan are battling it out for kicker, and seniors William Russ and Michael Davidson are vying to be the punter. Texas needs to get much more out of its return game.

Final Analysis

If the quarterback and offensive line can play with some consistency, Texas has the talent and depth at running back and receiver to be potent on offense. The defense has a chance to be strong if the back seven can match the strength and intensity of the front four. The schedule is not forgiving early as the Longhorns will face BYU, UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma — all by mid-October. Any improvement from last year’s 8–5 record would probably be seen as a good first year for Strong.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Texas No. 17:

1. Upgraded coaching staff
Mack Brown won a lot of games in Austin, but Charlie Strong is the right coach to get Texas back on track. The Longhorns slipped in recent years and failed to maximize some of their elite recruiting hauls. Strong developed talent at Louisville and should have more to work with at Texas. He is joined by veteran play-caller Shawn Watson, one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches in Joe Wickline, and Vance Bedford at defensive coordinator. Strong will need some time to establish a foundation to compete for a national championship. However, this staff should be able to take advantage of the returning talent (No. 1 ranked roster in the Big 12) to push for nine wins in 2014.

2. Quarterback play is a concern
If the Longhorns had any stability at quarterback, this team could be picked higher in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. However, David Ash missed most of last year due to a concussion, and he suffered a foot injury in the spring that will keep him on the sidelines until the fall. Ash has made steady improvement, but how much rust will there be after missing most of 2013? If Ash isn’t 100 percent, Texas will have to turn to sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or true freshman Jerrod Heard.

3. Best backfield in the Big 12
With the uncertainty at quarterback, expect the Longhorns to lean heavily on their ground attack. Malcolm Brown rushed for 904 yards last season and should push for 1,000 yards once again in 2014. Assuming Johnathan Gray returns to full strength from an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron’s academic issues are cleared before the fall, Texas should have the top running back corps in the Big 12.

4. Improvement on defense
Texas finished fifth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) last season by allowing 5.2 yards per play. With seven starters back, combined with the arrival of Strong and Bedford, improvement is expected in 2014. The line is loaded with talent, starting with end Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown. The secondary needs to replace cornerback Carrington Byndom and safety Adrian Phillips, but Quandre Diggs headlines this unit at cornerback. The linebacking corps could be a strength if Jordan Hicks returns to full strength.

5. Strength on the offensive line?
With the departure of Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters, it’s hard to call the offensive line a strength this preseason. However, the addition of line coach Joe Wickline was an underrated offseason pickup, which should help Texas own one of the top lines in the conference in 2014. Center Dominic Espinosa is an All-Big 12 candidate, while there’s potential on the left side with Desmond Harrison and Sedrick Flowers. Question marks exist, but there’s also reason to believe this unit will finally reach its potential. 
 

The Debate

Texas or Kansas State: Who Finishes Higher in the Big 12 in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#20 Kansas State Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#20

Big 12 PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Bill Snyder, 178-90-1 (22 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dana Dimel, Del Miller | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Hayes

With Bill Snyder on the sidelines, never count out Kansas State in the Big 12 title mix. Despite a handful of key personnel departures, the Wildcats finished 8-5 overall and 5-4 in conference play last season. Most of Kansas State’s core is back for 2014, including quarterback Jake Waters and receiver Tyler Lockett. The Wildcats have to find a new running back and replace standout safety Ty Zimmerman, but this team should be in the mix for a spot among the top-four teams in the Big 12 this year.

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Previewing Kansas State’s Offense for 2014:

Take a look back at coach Bill Snyder’s best seasons. For the most part, they all occurred when he had the opportunity to work with a veteran quarterback he could trust. That will once again be the case this season, with Jake Waters returning for what could be a special senior year. He completed 159-of-260 passes while throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He also developed a strong rapport with top receiver Tyler Lockett that should continue to blossom. Last season, Waters’ development was slowed by a position battle with Daniel Sams. But he took control of the job and is now the unquestioned starter, while Sams moved to receiver in the spring. However, Sams decided to transfer in early May.

With a strong core of offensive linemen returning in senior center B.J. Finney and juniors Cody Whitehair and Boston Stiverson, blocking shouldn’t be a problem. Give Waters time, and he will have ample options to choose from in the passing game. The Wildcats are loaded at wide receiver. Lockett, a senior, returns as one of the nation’s top playmakers, but there is more to the position. Curry Sexton caught 39 passes for 446 yards last year, and sophomore Deante Burton seems poised to take on a starting role. Kyle Klein and Andre Davis should both also see the field.

The biggest question mark on offense is at running back. John Hubert, a three-year starter and the No. 2 rusher in program history, has played his last game. That means an unproven runner will take his place. DeMarcus Robinson, a senior and former four-star recruit out of Wichita, figures to be the favorite, but sophomores Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones aren’t far behind. Freshman Dalvin Warmack could also get carries as the season goes along.

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Previewing Kansas State’s Defense for 2014:

Ryan Mueller was an unknown last season. This year, he will be at the top of every opposing team’s scouting report. After bursting onto the scene as a junior with 11.5 sacks, which tied the program record for a season, he is now expected to anchor K-State’s defensive line with his pass-rushing skills. He will have to deliver. Though the Wildcats have lots of promising young talent on defense, Mueller is one of the unit’s few proven playmakers.

Travis Britz is back for another year in the middle of K-State’s defensive line, Dante Barnett will highlight the secondary at safety, and cornerback Randall Evans and linebacker Jonathan Truman have starting experience. But the rest of the defense will be filled with new faces. A pair of touted junior college transfers could slide seamlessly into the Wildcats’ defensive plans. Terrell Clinkscales is talented enough to play immediately at defensive tackle, and D’Vonta Derricott should start at linebacker. Still, they lack experience on the FBS level.

A year ago, K-State’s defense relied on veterans such as Blake Slaughter and Ty Zimmerman to lead the way. The Wildcats may be more talented this season, but they will need new leadership from players like Mueller.

Previewing Kansas State’s Specialists for 2014: 

Jack Cantele had a strong debut season as K-State’s kicker, connecting on 11-of-13 field goals. He seems ready for more this year. Lockett will once again lead the way at kick returner. He has been one of the most explosive return men in the nation the past few seasons, scoring four touchdowns.

Final Analysis 

K-State finished 2013 strong by winning six of seven. The Wildcats will need to take advantage of that momentum with an early trip to Iowa State and a home game with Auburn looming before October. If they do, it could be a special season in Manhattan.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Kansas State No. 20:

1. Finished 2013 by winning six out of their last seven games
Kansas State started 2-4 last year, but there was no shame in losing to North Dakota State, Texas, Oklahoma State or Baylor. The Wildcats played better over the final seven contests, finishing with six victories in that span, with the only loss coming against Oklahoma. With 10 starters back, Kansas State has a chance to build off that total in 2014.

2. Jake Waters development at quarterback
In his first season at Kansas State, Waters quietly had an impressive debut. In 13 games, Waters threw for 2,469 yards, 18 touchdowns and completed 61.2 percent of his throws. He ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 in quarterback rating and averaged 15.5 yards per completion. With an offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, look for Waters to take the next step in his development in 2014.

3. Loaded receiving corps
Kansas State should have one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps in 2014. Tyler Lockett returns after catching 81 passes for 1,262 yards and 11 scores last year. Joining Lockett as key contributors will be Curry Sexton, Kyle Klein and junior college recruit Andre Davis.

4. Strength in the trenches
The defense returns only four starters, so there are some holes to fill, but coach Bill Snyder has to like what returns up front. The Wildcats return end Ryan Mueller and defensive tackle Travis Britz, and junior college recruit Terrell Clinkscales is expected to make an immediate impact. The offensive line is also among the best in the Big 12. Center B.J. Finney could be an All-American in 2014, and tackle Cody Whitehair is expected to be a first-team All-Big 12 player.

5. Challenging Big 12 schedule
Kansas State hosts Texas in a key conference swing game, but the Wildcats have five road Big 12 contests in 2014. Bill Snyder’s team plays at Iowa State, Oklahoma, TCU, West Virginia and Baylor. This team has enough talent to exceed last year’s win total, but the schedule could prevent Kansas State from reaching 10 victories or challenging for the No. 1 spot in the conference.

The Debate

Kansas State or Texas: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Big 12 in 2014?

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