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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 12-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ellis Johnson, Charlie Harbison

Auburn hit rock bottom with a 3-9 record in 2012, but the arrival of coach Gus Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall helped to engineer a quick turnaround. The Tigers finished 12-2 and No. 2 nationally after a loss to Florida State in the national championship. Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson are huge losses, but Auburn isn’t short on talent heading into the 2014 season. The Tigers own one of the top offenses in college football. However, the defense is a work in progress. With a tough schedule, can Auburn repeat as SEC champions?

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25.

Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2014: 

For the first time in nine seasons at the collegiate level, Gus Malzahn has a returning starter at quarterback. Not only that, but Nick Marshall seems poised to become the SEC’s top quarterback in 2014. Marshall was a dynamic threat in his first year on campus, completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, while also rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the Tigers want to throw more in his second season.

With the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and his 1,816 yards, all eyes are on the race to be his replacement in the nation’s best rushing attack, but the Tigers have two capable seniors returning in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who each rushed for more than 600 yards. They will face competition from redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who’s the biggest of the group at 225 pounds, and true freshman Roc Thomas, a five-star recruit. There is no clear replacement for valuable H-back Jay Prosch.

At wide receiver, Sammie Coates emerged as a go-to target and one of the nation’s best deep threats, but the addition of junior college transfer D’haquille Williams could make Coates even more dangerous as the two lead a deep group of young receivers that includes Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, as well as tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Four starters — Reese Dismukes at center, Freshman All-SEC pick Alex Kozan at left guard, Chad Slade at right guard and Avery Young at right tackle — return to one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The real question is who will replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. Patrick Miller will get his chance, but keep an eye on leukemia survivor Shon Coleman, a former five-star prospect in the class of 2010 before his cancer diagnosis.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Auburn Tigers for 2014:

 

Previewing Auburn’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Auburn’s defense finished 86th in the country last season, giving up 420.7 yards per game, but the Tigers have a chance to be much better in Ellis Johnson’s second year at the helm, even with the key losses of defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis.

Ford’s 10.5 sacks will be hard to replace, but Carl Lawson is a natural fit to fill his shoes after coming up with four sacks as a true freshman in the SEC last season, and either Josh Holsey or Jonathon Mincy will be able to move into Davis’ spot on the boundary and play the physical brand of man-to-man coverage Auburn likes. Montravius Adams is expected to be a monster in the middle of the line, teaming with senior Gabe Wright inside.

But more important than anything, this will be the first time in three years that Auburn’s defense won’t have to learn a new scheme under a new coordinator, and the second season in a coordinator’s system is usually the year when a unit makes a significant jump.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2014: 

After years of stability on special teams, Auburn has to replace every key specialist, and only Grant at kickoff return brings experience to the role. Redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson (kicker) and Jimmy Hutchinson (punter) will be thrown into the fire in place of Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, and the Tigers will hold an open competition to replace Davis, who finished third in the nation in punt return average.

Final Analysis

Auburn’s magical turnaround captivated the country last year, sparked by the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, Davis’ Kick Six in the Iron Bowl and an improbable run to the BCS National Championship Game that tied for the biggest turnaround in college football history. Malzahn’s Tigers won’t sneak up on anybody this season, but Auburn is well-placed to make a run at a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Auburn No. 5:

1. Will the bounces go Auburn’s way in 2014?
There’s no doubt Auburn caught a few fortunate breaks to reach the national championship last year. How often are plays like the one against Georgia or Alabama going to happen? Luck is a tricky part of any preseason prediction. You have to have good fortune to play for a national championship, and even if the bounces don’t go the Tigers way like they did in 2013, this might be a better overall team in 2014. So while luck might shift, Auburn is still poised to be a contender for a spot in college football’s playoff.

2. Nick Marshall’s development at quarterback
In his first season as a FBS quarterback, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores. With an ability to make plays with his legs and execute Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, Marshall should show improvement with another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. The Tigers could have one of the SEC’s top receiving corps and feature an offensive line with four returning starters. If Marshall continues to develop as a passer, Auburn’s offense could be even more dangerous in 2014.

3. Improvement needed on defense
Timely. That’s the best word to sum up Auburn’s defense last year. The Tigers allowed 6.5 yards per play in nine SEC games but ranked first in the conference in third-down defense and second in red zone defense. Although timely stops are crucial, Auburn has to get better on this side of the ball. Six starters are back, so improvement is expected. However, how much can this defense improve in Ellis Johnson’s second year? End Dee Ford is a big loss, but there’s capable depth at end with Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson. Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy should be solid at linebacker, with the secondary the biggest concern going into fall practice. There’s enough talent in place to make gains on the stat sheet, but it seems unlikely this defense will take a major step forward to one of the best in the SEC.

4. The schedule
In addition to playing in college football’s toughest division, Auburn has crossover games against the top teams from the East – South Carolina and Georgia. The Tigers host the Gamecocks but play in Athens against the Bulldogs. Also, there’s a trip to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Nov. 29. But that’s not all when it comes to difficulty on the 2014 schedule. Auburn has a non-conference road trip to Kansas State and away games versus Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  

5. Losses on special teams
The departures of kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark are underrated losses that Auburn has to replace in 2014. Parkey hit on 15 of 21 field goals last season, while Clark averaged 42.6 yards per punt. Both players were key cogs in the run to the national championship, and as everyone witnessed in last year’s Iron Bowl, special teams could play a major role in deciding the SEC West title.

The Debate

Auburn's Defense or Alabama's Quarterback Play: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#8 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 126-45 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bobo | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

After a season filled with injuries and bad luck, Georgia is poised to challenge for the SEC title in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience late in the year, and the offense should benefit from a healthy Todd Gurley at running back and Malcolm Mitchell at receiver. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an instant impact at Florida State last season, and the Bulldogs hope for a similar development in 2014.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense for 2014:

The Hutson Mason era got off to an early start last year, and that may prove invaluable to Georgia. Instead of Mason’s first real game action coming this year against Clemson and South Carolina, the senior enters the season with two-and-a-half games under his belt.

Mason doesn’t have as strong an arm as Aaron Murray, who re-wrote most of Georgia’s passing records. But Mason knows the offense, and gained the confidence of coaches and teammates during the four years he served as Murray’s top backup. More important, Mason has most of Murray’s supporting cast.

Tailback Todd Gurley is a Heisman candidate if healthy, which he wasn’t last year. Even at less than 100 percent, Gurley gives the Bulldogs a different dimension on offense: It’s no coincidence that Georgia went 1–2 in the three full games he missed.  The Bulldogs are very deep at tailback, especially if Keith Marshall returns after tearing his ACL last year. But Gurley is on another level.

Receiver is also a deep position, bolstered by the expected return of Malcolm Mitchell, who also tore his ACL last year. Seniors Chris Conley (the team’s leading returning receiver) and Michael Bennett are as solid as they come. Justin Scott-Wesley and Reggie Davis are downfield threats. And at tight end, Jay Rome is ready to move into a bigger role after serving as a backup the past two years.

The offensive line, meanwhile, lost three starters, but experienced players will step into their spots. Junior tackle John Theus seems poised to live up to his hype, and senior center David Andrews is an underrated anchor. Still, in the long run the line is the biggest question mark on this offense.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Georgia Bulldogs for 2014:

 

Previewing Georgia’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Georgia gave up a program record for points last year, and the most yards per game (375.5) of the Mark Richt era, and a few days after the season ended defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bolted for the same job at Louisville. Richt needed just two days to hire Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State, in a move that could help Georgia twice over.

Not only is it a fresh start for the entire defense, but Pruitt also coaches the secondary, which was the weak point of Georgia’s defense in 2013. The run defense was actually solid (sixth in the SEC), and the 33 sacks were the second-most in the conference. The front seven essentially returns intact. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are poised for bigger things.

So the defense’s prospects all come down to the secondary, which wasn’t helped by the offseason dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and the transfer of cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Tray Matthews. But there is plenty of highly recruited talent back there. Pruitt just needs to find the right parts and figure out what Grantham and his staff couldn’t.

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists for 2014:

Junior Marshall Morgan is coming off an all-SEC year in which he hit 22-of-24 field goals. Punter is a bigger concern, after junior Collin Barber was inconsistent last year. One of the more intriguing new players to watch is Isaiah McKenzie, a speedy recruit who the Bulldogs hope can serve as their return specialist. “He’s a very dynamic return man,” Richt says.

Final Analysis

Barring the unforeseen, Georgia’s prospects come down to Mason and the defense. Mason’s spring performance provided some encouragement; then again, it was only spring practice. The defense, based simply on personnel, should be improved, and if Pruitt can push the right buttons, it could one of the best in the SEC. If Mason is good, the defense is better and Gurley is healthy, Georgia can be a national title contender. But none of that is assured.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Georgia No. 8:

1. Why Georgia over South Carolina?
The Georgia vs. South Carolina prediction was one of the toughest decisions in Athlon’s preseason picks. The Gamecocks host the Bulldogs, but after a year of bad luck and key injuries, the guess here is Georgia rebounds in 2014. Something to keep in mind: The Bulldogs lost four games by five points or less and had a negative turnover margin (-7). Both of those numbers could easily reverse with a healthier group of skill players.

2. Hutson Mason’s late-season experience
Even though Aaron Murray’s late-season ACL tear was a huge loss for Georgia’s offense, Hutson Mason was able to gain valuable experience as the No. 1 quarterback. Mason threw for 299 yards and two scores in a win over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws against Nebraska in awful weather conditions against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. With games against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, Mason’s experience should pay off for Georgia’s offense.

3. The addition of Jeremy Pruitt
Pruitt inherited a veteran Florida State unit last season and helped guide the Seminoles to a No. 1 finish in scoring defense. The Bulldogs allowed 5.7 yards per play last season (conference-only games) and finished 11th in SEC action by giving up 31.8 points per game. Those two numbers should easily improve under Pruitt, especially with one of the top linebacking corps in the nation. The secondary is a concern, but the Bulldogs’ front seven will help alleviate concerns against the pass.

4. Todd Gurley…the best RB in college football?
When healthy, Gurley is arguably the No. 1 running back in the nation. He played in 10 games last season and finished with 989 yards and 10 scores and caught 37 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Gurley was limited for most of the year due to an ankle injury, but he will return at full strength this fall. Keeping Gurley is a priority, especially if backup Keith Marshall is limited due to a torn ACL early in 2014. With a new starter under center, expect Gurley to see a heavy workload in 2014.

5. Good schedule
Sure, a road trip to South Carolina in Week 2 is a challenge, but if there’s a time to play the Gamecocks, early in the season against a rebuilt defense is the best moment. Georgia also hosts a key non-conference game against Clemson and has a bye week before playing Florida. The crossover matchup against Auburn is in Athens, while fellow East title contender South Carolina has to go to Auburn in late October.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#9 South Carolina Gamecocks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#9

SEC East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Steve Spurrier, 77-39 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Spurrier | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Ward

South Carolina is coming off the best three-year stretch in school history, winning 33 games and recording three top-10 finishes in the final Associated Press poll. With the Gamecocks recruiting at a high level, combined with Spurrier’s coaching, this team will remain a factor in the SEC East title picture. Quarterback Connor Shaw is a big loss, but Dylan Thompson is a capable replacement, and the offense can lean on running back Mike Davis. The defense has a few significant holes to fill on the defensive line and in the secondary. Despite the question marks, South Carolina is a top-10 team for 2014.

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Previewing South Carolina’s Offense for 2014: 

The offense will rise or fall based on the performance of quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis.

Thompson, a senior and former two-star recruit, has been a regular fill-in for starter Connor Shaw the last two years, and he will take the reins himself for the first time this season. He must improve on a career 55 percent completion percentage and prove ready to handle the role of full-time starter if the offense is going to work the way Steve Spurrier expects.

Davis is a more known commodity. The 5'9", 216-pounder rushed for 1,183 yards in 2013, the fourth-best single-season total in school history. He had seven 100-yard games, but only one after Oct. 19 because of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries in the second half of the year. He was held out of most of the contact work this spring.

Sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper may be the surprise name in the SEC this fall. He caught only three passes for 54 yards last season, but Spurrier has loved the North Carolina native since he set foot on campus. Cooper came to South Carolina planning to be a cornerback, but Spurrier quickly moved him to offense, where he had a passing, rushing and receiving touchdown once he got settled in. He’ll start in the slot this year and be a regular in the Wildcat quarterback position. Junior Shaq Roland, one of the most talented pass-catchers in the SEC, will be the top target on the outside.

The offensive line, led by guard A.J. Cann and tackles Brandon Shell and Corey Robinson, has a chance to be the best of the Spurrier era.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the South Carolina Gamecocks for 2014:

Previewing South Carolina’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
A defense that was second in the SEC in points allowed last year (20.3 ppg) will have to shore up its front and back ends quickly to be that good again.

The Gamecocks lost two first-team All-Americans on the defensive line. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles led the team with 9.5 sacks and then decided to give up his senior year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Jadeveon Clowney, meanwhile, drew more attention from opposing offenses than any defender in college football last year, and the Gamecocks must make up for that drawing power with a team effort this year.

Linebacker, last year’s weak point, will be a strong suit this year, and sophomore Skai Moore is leading the way. He led the team in tackles with 56 last year as a true freshman.

The secondary is set at safety, and there may be enough depth there to move veteran Brison Williams to cornerback, which is a good thing because there is zero depth at cornerback. If defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward decides not to move Williams to corner in the fall, and maybe even if he does, a true freshman will be starting on the edge for South Carolina.

Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists for 2014: 

Sophomore Elliott Fry hit 15-of-18 attempts last year and has the look of a four-year starter. Punter Tyler Hull averaged an SEC-worst 37.8 yards last year. Cooper is expected to man both of the return spots and is hoping to give that area a punch it hasn’t seen since Ace Sanders left.

Final Analysis 

The Gamecocks have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons, making it easily the best three-year run in school history. Replacing Arkansas and Mississippi State on the schedule with Texas A&M and Auburn will make matching that number a tougher task this year.

However, if Thompson proves to be a worthy successor to Shaw and solid reinforcements on the defensive line and in the secondary can be identified, a second-ever trip to the SEC Championship Game is a realistic goal.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking South Carolina No. 9:

1. South Carolina has staying power in the East
With Florida struggling, along with Georgia and Missouri replacing key players, South Carolina will be a popular pick to win the East Division in 2014. The Gamecocks have also recruited four top-20 classes, which has bolstered the overall talent and depth in the program. Make no mistake: South Carolina’s 33 wins over the last three years are no fluke. This team is here to stay as a SEC title contender.

2. The schedule
The Gamecocks have a favorable slate to an East Division title. Georgia, Texas A&M and Missouri all visit Williams-Brice Stadium. The Bulldogs and Tigers are picked by most to be among the top teams in the East and getting both games at home is a huge plus for South Carolina.

3. Cornerback concerns
Although the schedule works in South Carolina’s favor, the turnover at cornerback is a concern early in the year. The Gamecocks play Texas A&M’s high-powered offense in Week 1, followed by solid offenses at East Carolina and Georgia. Brison Williams moving from safety to cornerback should help concerns at corner, but true freshmen could be counted on to play major roles in 2014. Without defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, will South Carolina have a pass rush to protect an inexperienced secondary?

4. Dylan Thompson a capable replacement for Connor Shaw
Thompson is 3-0 as a starter at South Carolina, but 2014 is the biggest test of his career. Last season, Thompson threw for 783 yards and four touchdowns but also tossed three picks. Those numbers represented a regression from his relief effort in 2012, as he tossed 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Although Thompson didn’t post overpowering totals in 2013, he has a chance to be an All-SEC quarterback in 2014. Shaq Roland, Pharoh Cooper and Damiere Byrd is a solid trio at receiver, and running back Mike Davis is a 1,000-yard rusher. Needless to say, Thompson has plenty of help and should ensure the Gamecocks’ offense continues to thrive.

5. One of the best offensive lines in the nation
Four starters return from an offensive line that allowed only 17 sacks in eight SEC games in 2013. The tackle positions are anchored by All-SEC candidates in Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell, while guard A.J. Cann is expected to challenge for All-America honors. Cody Waldrop is slotted in at center, with junior Mike Matulis is penciled in at right guard after missing 2013 due to injury.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#18 Ole Miss Rebels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#18

SEC West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Hugh Freeze, 15-11 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Luke, Dan Werner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Jones, Dave Wommack

Ole Miss is a program on the rise, and with the personnel departures at LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. Injuries played a huge role in last year’s 8-5 record, but improving depth and a return to full strength by several players should help this team in 2014. Quarterback Bo Wallace needs to cut down on his mistakes, and the Rebels need Laquon Treadwell to fill the void left behind by Donte Moncrief at receiver. The biggest concern on offense is the line. However, the defense could be among the best in the SEC.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25.
 

Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense for 2014:

The Rebels return the most experienced quarterback in the SEC in Bo Wallace and have more than ample talent around him. Wallace has led the Rebels to some big wins — including an improbable 27–24 win over then-No. 6 LSU a year ago — but he was the subject of criticism for his struggles against rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, a 17–10 overtime loss in which his fumble into the end zone ended the game. It was the unfortunate exclamation point on a four-turnover game in which Wallace threw three interceptions. Wallace, though, is in the best shape of his career and poised for a big senior season.

Wide receiver Donte Moncrief left a year early for the NFL, but there’s exciting potential for sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who moves from the slot to the outside. Treadwell caught 72 balls and was named the SEC’s top freshman by league coaches last year.
While Wallace struggled to the regular-season finish line in 2013, he was missing a key weapon. Evan Engram, a stretch-the-field tight end, is healthy again after doing enough in eight games as a true freshman to earn second-team All-SEC honors.

Running backs Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers combined to rush for almost 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. They are juniors now. Look for sophomore quarterback Jeremy Liggins in short-yardage situations. He left the spring listed at 6'3", 296 pounds. That’s almost 40 pounds heavier than Jared Lorenzen’s playing weight at Kentucky in 2003.

Sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle is already drawing the attention of NFL scouts. Junior Aaron Morris returns at left guard after tearing his ACL in the season opener last year. The Rebels have to replace a three-year starter at center, a competition that could see veteran Justin Bell move over from right guard.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Ole Miss Rebels for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense for 2014:

Finally healthy, defensive end C.J. Johnson should lift last year’s subpar pass rush with help on the other side from Fadol Brown, one of two FBS transfers expected to fill key roles. Brown played at Florida International two years ago. That’s when Anthony Alford was a quarterback at Southern Mississippi. Now Alford’s an Ole Miss safety and is considered the team’s most athletic player.

Sophomore Robert Nkemdiche was the nation’s No. 1 recruit as a defensive end. He moved to tackle toward the end of last season and had eight tackles and a sack in his last two games.

There is experience at corner with senior Senquez Golson and junior Mike Hilton, and intriguing depth behind them in long and athletic Derrick Jones (6'2", 188) and junior college transfer Tee Shepard, once a Notre Dame signee. Senior free safety Cody Prewitt is a returning All-American, while sophomore Tony Conner is a rising star at the Huskie position in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists for 2014:

The Rebels will miss the flip-the-field ability of punter Tyler Campbell. Freshman Gary Wunderlich could get a look here. Redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and senior Andrew Fletcher are competing to replace kicker Andrew Ritter. Both have impressive high school résumés, but there’s no college game experience for Pappanastos and precious little for Fletcher.

Final Analysis 

After the Rebels closed strong in Freeze’s debut season, then added a consensus top-10 recruiting class, they were a popular pick as a team to make a big leap in 2013. That didn’t happen, largely due to offensive struggles late in the season.

This season, with increased depth and more experience from the stellar 2013 recruits, expectations are soaring once again. This team has the potential to be a factor in the SEC West race. For that to happen they need Wallace — with talent around him — to reduce turnovers and deliver in big games more consistently.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Ole Miss at No. 18:

1. The door is open for a move in the SEC West
With LSU, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M losing some key pieces from last year’s team, Ole Miss and in-state rival Mississippi State have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. The Rebels have improved their overall depth over the last two seasons, and 13 returning starters could help this team make a two-game improvement in the win column. Under coach Hugh Freeze, recruiting has improved, which has allowed this team to bolster its depth to challenge the top teams in the West.

2. A healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback
In his second year as Ole Miss’ starting quarterback, Wallace increased his completion percentage to 64.8 percent and lowered his interception total to 10. However, Wallace wasn’t healthy for most of the season due to a shoulder injury, and the offseason should allow him to return at full strength. Assuming Wallace makes another jump on the stat sheet, the Rebels’ offense should take off in 2014.

3. Concerns on the offensive line
This unit is coach Hugh Freeze’s biggest concern. The Rebels must replace Emmanuel McCray, Jared Duke, Evan Swindall and Pierce Burton as key members of last year’s offensive line. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is already one of the best in the SEC, while guard Aaron Morris is back after suffering a torn ACL in the opener. With Tunsil, Morris and Justin Bell returning, the foundation is there for a solid group. However, filling out the final two spots and the overall depth is a concern that could last into the season.

4. Injuries on defense last season
Injuries hit Ole Miss’ defense hard last season, as a handful of key players missed time. Getting defensive end C.J. Johnson back to full strength will help the defensive line, while Robert Nkemdiche has settled into the rotation at tackle. The Rebels allowed 5.8 yards per play in SEC action in 2013 but should improve in 2014 with better injury luck and Nkemdiche’s presence on the interior.

5. Manageable schedule
Ole Miss plays in the toughest division in college football, so it’s hard to call this year’s schedule easy. However, Alabama and Auburn both visit Oxford, and the Rebels host rival Mississippi State. Also, Ole Miss catches Tennessee and Vanderbilt in crossover play. The Oct. 25 matchup against LSU is a huge swing game, but the Rebels defeated the Tigers last season and only lost by a touchdown or less in their last two meetings in Baton Rouge.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#19 LSU Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#19

SEC West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Les Miles, 95-24 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Chavis

LSU has won at least 10 games in each of the last four years, but that streak could be in jeopardy in 2014. The Tigers return 12 starters from last year’s 10-3 team and have one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. However, quarterback play is a concern with the departure of Zach Mettenberger, while receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will be playing on Sundays next year. The defense should be solid, but question marks exist at defensive tackle and at linebacker. Additionally, the brutal SEC West doesn’t provide for many breaks on the schedule in 2014.

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Previewing LSU’s Offense for 2014:

LSU’s leading passer (Zach Mettenberger), leading rusher (Jeremy Hill) and three leading receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Hill) from 2013 will be playing on Sundays in 2014, so the Tigers will have to lean heavily on their dominant offensive line and stingy defense early.

It’s been awhile since LSU had a full-blown quarterback battle, and the competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris could extend into the regular season. Regardless, it’s been awhile since LSU was this young at quarterback, and both players are likely to see snaps this season. Jennings and Harris offer vastly different skill sets than Mettenberger, a pure drop-back passer who excelled last season under coordinator Cam Cameron’s tutelage. Jennings and Harris are skilled athletes who do their best work on the move.

Heralded running back recruit Leonard Fournette is too talented to sit for long. By midseason, he should see the majority of carries. The receiver corps is talented but woefully inexperienced. The Tigers desperately need either sophomore Travin Dural or newcomers John Diarse, Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre to emerge as a playmaker.
With so little experience at the skill positions, look for the Tigers to lean heavily on their talented, experienced offensive line. Senior left tackle La’el Collins leads four returning starters.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the LSU Tigers for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing LSU’s Defense for 2014: 

The Tigers must replace several key players who bolted early for the NFL Draft, but there’s more than enough returning talent and experience to once again rank among the SEC’s stingiest units.

In terms of depth and sheer athleticism, few teams anywhere can match the Tigers across the front four. Ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will give the Tigers two of the top edge-rushers in the SEC if they can become more consistent. The playmaking Hunter (6'6") appears primed for a breakout season. Defensive tackle remains a question mark, but Quentin Thomas, Chris LaCouture and a trio of talented redshirt freshmen in Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron could provide answers.

The linebacker play was below LSU’s standards last season, so coordinator John Chavis shook up the ranks in the offseason by switching several players to new positions. The six returning lettermen combined to produce just one takeaway, so there’s room and need for major improvement. The staff is waiting for the light bulb to turn on for Kendell Beckwith, a former star recruit with size, speed and explosiveness to dominate on the second level.

The secondary is led by promising sophomore cornerbacks ­Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson. Both are former top recruits who should uphold the school’s tradition of outstanding secondary play. Safety is a question mark.

Previewing LSU’s Specialists for 2014:

Big improvement is expected from punter Jamie Keehn. His leg isn’t quite as strong as fellow Australian and former LSU punter Brad Wing, but he might be more consistent in the end. Colby Delahoussaye is solid if unspectacular on kicks. The Tigers must find a replacement for Beckham on returns. Dural and White will get the first crack.

Final Analysis

In many ways, this team should resemble the 2011 team that rode a power rushing attack and dominant defense to the BCS title game. If Les Miles’ heralded recruiting class lives up to expectations — particularly explosive offensive playmakers like Fournette, Quinn and Dupre — the Tigers should be capable of posting another 10-win season. But with so many new faces at key positions, it would be surprising if LSU could unseat Alabama or Auburn for supremacy in the brutally tough SEC West.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking LSU at No. 19:

1. No shortage of talent
Despite the loss of a handful of key starters from last year’s team, LSU still has a ton of talent on the roster. The Tigers have signed four top-10 recruiting classes over the last five years, including the No. 2 class in 2014. The roster boasts plenty of future stars, including freshman running back Leonard Fournette. How quickly can this talent reach its potential?

2. Quarterback uncertainty
Will it be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris taking the first snap of the season for LSU? It’s a question not expected to be answered until deep into fall practice. Jennings received limited snaps last year and struggled in the bowl win over Iowa. Harris – a true freshman – enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Even though the quarterback position is a concern, LSU can lean on a solid offensive line and rushing attack to win games.

3. The front seven on defense
LSU’s defense is a factory for NFL talent, but question marks remain about the front seven going into 2014. Both starting tackles (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) must be replaced, and the Tigers need more from starting ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. Coordinator John Chavis also has work to do at linebacker. LSU did not boast a vintage defense last year, allowing 5.7 yards per play in SEC games (ranked seventh in the conference). Talent certainly isn’t an issue, but the front seven needs a lot of work before this team can contend for the West Division title.

4. Who steps up at receiver?
With Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both departing for the NFL, LSU’s receiving corps is thin on proven options. Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie are the top returning statistical receivers, but the Tigers will count on a group of young players to contribute, including true freshman Malachi Dupre and redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and John Diarse. Combine the uncertainty at quarterback with the lack of experience at receiver, and it’s clear LSU will need some time to develop its passing attack.

5. Best offensive line in the SEC?
Four starters return from an offensive line that was one of the best in the SEC last year. The Tigers need to replace guard Trai Turner, but Hoko Fanaika is a proven option. Tackle La’El Collins could push for All-American honors, and guard Vadal Alexander is one of the best in the SEC. With the uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, the Tigers need to lean on this unit in 2014.

The Debate

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

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