#57 Navy Midshipmen



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Ken Niumatalolo, 49-30 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ivin Jasper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Buddy Green

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 57 Navy.

Previewing Navy’s Offense for 2014:

Keenan Reynolds was nothing short of sensational as a sophomore, setting numerous school records and several NCAA marks as well. In less than two full seasons on the job, the Tennessee native — who is 15–6 as a starter — is already being mentioned in the same breath as Navy greats Roger Staubach and Chris McCoy.

After averaging 33.5 points and 411.3 total yards in 2013, Navy’s patented triple-option offense figures to fire on all cylinders again this season as Reynolds will operate behind an experienced offensive line and has plenty of proven weapons at the skill positions.

Right guard Jake Zuzek, who has started 26 straight games, anchors an offensive line that played with great cohesion and chemistry toward the end of last season. Center Tanner Fleming, left guard E.K. Binns and left tackle Bradyn Heap are also returning starters.

Navy started three different fullbacks in 2013, and all return. Noah Copeland will start, but Chris Swain and Quinton Singleton will see plenty of action as part of a potent rotation. The Midshipmen bring back a pair of dynamic slotbacks in DeBrandon Sanders and Geoffrey Whiteside, who ranked second and third on the team, respectively, with 563 and 539 yards from scrimmage. The only question mark on offense comes at wide receiver, where Navy must replace both starters.

Previewing Navy’s Defense for 2014:

Navy must rebuild the heart of its defense after graduating two nose guards, both starting inside linebackers and the top two safeties.

Bernard Sarra, a powerfully built 303-pounder, returns as the starting nose after doing a superb job of taking on double-teams and plugging the middle a year ago. However, the Midshipmen have a pair of untested sophomores as backups at a position that has always required a rotation.

By far the biggest concern comes at inside linebacker, where the Mids must replace their top tacklers in Cody Peterson (142) and DJ Sargenti (110). Defensive coordinator Buddy Green’s 3-4 alignment requires the inside linebackers to make the majority of tackles, and none of the returning players at that position has seen much action beyond special teams. Late in spring camp, Green addressed the lack of experience by moving returning starting outside linebacker Jordan Drake (43 tackles) inside.

Rover Wave Ryder has graduated, and backup Chris Ferguson retired due to concussions. Lonnie Richardson, who also played primarily on special teams in 2013, will get first crack at the job.
Outside linebacker Chris Johnson (84) and free safety Parrish Gaines (65), the defensive captain, are the top returning tacklers. Defensive end Paul Quessenberry and cornerback Brendon Clements (three interceptions) are other key figures on defense.

Previewing Navy's Specialists for 2014:

A pair of veterans will handle the kicking chores. Pablo Beltran is only the second four-year starting punter in program history and ranks third all-time at Navy with a 41.1-yard career average. Nick Sloan begins his third season as the starting placekicker and has been fairly reliable, converting 21-of-29 field goals. Demond Brown averaged 22.2 yards on five kickoff returns in 2013 and has the speed to be a dangerous threat in that role.

Final Analysis

Navy has been one of the most consistent programs in the FBS with a winning record in 10 of the last 11 years. The Midshipmen also have been the dominant service academy during that time, capturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy nine times since 2003. In its final season as an Independent before joining the American Athletic Conference in 2015, Navy should sustain its success on both fronts. The Midshipmen have a contract to appear in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and should have no problem securing the six wins necessary to be eligible.

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#35 BYU Cougars



Independent PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Bronco Mendenhall, 82-34 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Robert Anae | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Howell

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 35 BYU.

Previewing BYU’s Offense for 2014:

BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae would love to replay the 2013 season, with his players being more accustomed to his fast-paced scheme. “I wish we would have had this as our starting point last season,” he says.

As it is, the Cougars can only hope to improve on their 8–5 record, facing a less demanding schedule. Quarterback Taysom Hill knows he can get better. Hill is a remarkable athlete who rushed for 1,344 yards as a sophomore, including a 259-yard performance against Texas. He also showed signs of passing ability, but his accuracy rate dropped off considerably against quality opponents.

Running back Jamaal Williams almost matched Hill’s per-game rushing average last season, finishing with 1,233 yards while missing one game due to injury. He’s a shifty, explosive runner who helped the Cougars rank 10th in the country in rushing.

The Cougars must replace Cody Hoffman, the school’s all-time leading receiver. Mitch Mathews, who caught three touchdown passes against Utah State, and senior Ross Apo are the top returnees. Junior college transfer Nick Kurtz improved during the spring.

Because of injuries and inconsistency, BYU used 11 different starters at the five offensive line positions in 2013. Ten of those players return, but former defensive lineman Tuni Kanuch has emerged as the starting right guard after missing last season due to injury.

Previewing BYU’s Defense for 2014:

Defensive coordinator Nick Howell expects the linemen to be “more physical and more stout against the run” than in 2013, when BYU ranked 56th in rushing defense, allowing 159.9 yards per game. BYU will have a more traditional look up front, with Bronson Kaufusi having moved to outside linebacker.

No defensive player in BYU history made as many impact plays as Kyle Van Noy. BYU’s coaches believe they’ve found a creative solution to replacing Van Noy by moving Kaufusi from the defensive line. As a linebacker, Kaufusi “just looks so much more natural,” Howell says. “He’s leaner and faster, and he’ll shock some people.”

On the other side, Alani Fua is a versatile athlete who was used as a nickel back at times, when BYU’s secondary was depleted, while also excelling as a linebacker.

BYU scrambled to fill the cornerback positions last year after Trent Trammell was injured on the first day of spring drills and Jordan Johnson also was lost for the season with a knee injury in August. In their absence, Robertson Daniel became a highly valuable player on one side, but BYU struggled to find a consistent player at the other corner.

Previewing BYU’s Specialists for 2014:

Scott Arellano proved to be a fairly consistent punter as a junior college transfer, averaging 41 yards with 13 of his punts covering 50-plus yards. BYU will have to shore up the protection after having three punts blocked. The Cougars needs a new kicker, with sophomore Moose Bingham having moved ahead of Trevor Samson in the spring competition.

Final Analysis

A tough schedule and a bowl defeat kept BYU stuck on eight victories in 2013, but coach Bronco Mendenhall likes the trajectory of the program. “We win every year, and it’s just a matter of how much,” Mendenhall says. “I think this group wants to do even more than we’ve done before.”

Even after a Fight Hunger Bowl loss ended BYU’s streak of five bowl victories, the Cougars have “tons of momentum,” Mendenhall says. “I like our program a lot right now, and I like our players.”

In BYU’s fourth season of independence, the Cougars are positioned to make some national impact especially if the defensive front seven comes together and Hill becomes a more consistent passer. 


#13 Notre Dame Fighting Irish



Independents PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 37-15 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Denbrock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian VanGorder

After reaching the BCS title game in 2012, Notre Dame took a step back in 2013, finishing 9-4 in Brian Kelly’s fourth year. The Fighting Irish return only nine starters for 2014 but regain the services of quarterback Everett Golson. With Golson’s return, along with a solid offensive line, Notre Dame’s offense should show improvement after averaging 27.2 points a game last year. The defense is in transition with a new coordinator and the loss of defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. As always, the schedule isn't easy at Notre Dame. However, games against Florida State, USC and Stanford allow for marquee wins for the Fighting Irish.

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Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2014:

Notre Dame has yet to average 30 points per game in any of Brian Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend. The main culprit has been the offense’s inefficiency in the red zone, scoring just 53 touchdowns in 105 trips (.504) the last two seasons.

The Irish are loaded with offensive potential, beginning with quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire and running backs Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel. The receiving corps took a hit with the graduation of wideout TJ Jones and the early departure of tight end Troy Niklas. But DaVaris Daniels headlines a deep albeit inexperienced receiving corps, and Ben Koyack looks primed to follow in the long line of standout tight ends.

The Irish are without left tackle Zack Martin, who started an incredible 52 straight games from 2010-13, and his left guard running mate, Chris Watt. But Zack’s younger brother, Nick Martin, holds down the center job, and Ronnie Stanley has the skills to ably follow Zack Martin at left tackle with veteran Christian Lombard returning to the right side at guard.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for 2014:


Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at Notre Dame for the upcoming season.

Irish fans grew impatient with Bob Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break, keep-the-football-in-front-of-you approach, because it seldom created turnovers. But it did keep points off the scoreboard. The Irish allowed an average of 17.9 points per game from 2010-12. In ’13, the worst under Diaco, they still allowed just 22.4 points per game and held five of 13 opponents to 13 points or less.

Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut. Enter Brian VanGorder, who has been plying his trade in the NFL after coordinating one of the best defenses at Georgia a decade ago.

The Irish lose five starters on the front seven, led by nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace may have to skip the 2014 season as he continues a slow recovery from a nasty leg injury. That would leave the Irish with a former walk-on, undersized Joe Schmidt, lining up next to the team’s most dynamic defensive player, Jaylon Smith, who moves from Sam to Will linebacker.
KeiVarae Russell looks like one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Sophomore Cole Luke will challenge fifth-year Florida transfer Cody Riggs for the starting job opposite Russell. Fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth heads into ’14 on a three-game interception streak. Sophomore Max Redfield, a former five-star recruit, takes over at the other safety.

Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2014:

Kyle Brindza talks like a football player, not a kicker, and looks like a linebacker. He converted 23-of-31 field goals in 2012 and 20-of-26 in 2013 with half his games coming on Notre Dame’s treacherous old stadium turf. Brindza also took over punting duties last fall, averaging 41.1 yards per attempt.

Final Analysis 

Kelly took Cincinnati to BCS games in back-to-back seasons (2008-09) and Notre Dame to the national championship game in 2012. He did it with offense in Cincinnati and defense at Notre Dame.

With a defense that loses five of its front seven — a year after it bid farewell to Manti Te’o, the most decorated defensive football player in college football history — it’s imperative that Kelly and his new offensive coordinator, long-time assistant/first-time coordinator Mike Denbrock, carry the lion’s share of the burden in 2014 while the defense gets its bearings.

If the offense can average 30-plus points per game — which means producing against good defenses, too — and VanGorder can create a productive, up-tempo defensive attack to mask some of the unit’s deficiencies, the Irish could make a run at a spot in the initial College Football Playoff.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Notre Dame No. 13:

1. Everett Golson’s return
After throwing for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Golson appeared to be on his way to emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in college football. However, he was suspended for a season due to academics. Golson might be a little rusty from missing all of last year, but his return should provide a boost for Notre Dame’s offense.

2. The schedule
With 10 bowl teams from 2013 on the slate, Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule is among the toughest in the nation. The Fighting Irish have trips to Florida State, Arizona State and USC, while Stanford, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan visit South Bend. While a tough schedule could help with playoff chances, there are several swing games on this schedule. And with Notre Dame’s transition on both sides of the ball, will the Fighting Irish match last year’s win total?

3. Transition on defense
New coordinator Brian VanGorder plans on adding a few tweaks to Notre Dame’s defense, which will be a challenge with the departure of linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. The back seven should be the strength of the defense, as linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback KeiVarae Russell are expected to be in contention for All-American honors. How quickly can VanGorder blend the new starters together on defense?

4. Potential at the skill positions
With DaVaris Daniels back in the mix this fall, Notre Dame’s skill positions will help ease Golson’s transition to the starting role. Tight end Ben Koyack is a rising star, and the ground game will have additional help from redshirt freshman Greg Bryant. TJ Jones will be missed at receiver, but there’s also a lot to like about the potential at receiver and in the backfield.

5. Strength on the offensive line
Despite losing left tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt, Notre Dame could have one of the top 15-20 offensive lines in college football in 2014. Ronnie Stanley could slide to left tackle to replace Martin, while the guard spots are anchored by veterans Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty. Nick Martin is back after starting 11 games last season, and sophomore Steve Elmer is expected to claim the right tackle job. Notre Dame allowed only eight sacks last year, and this unit should open up more holes for its running backs after averaging only 4.5 yards per carry in 2013.

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