SEC

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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#23 Florida Gators

NATIONAL FORECAST

#23

SEC East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Will Muschamp, 22-16 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kurt Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Durkin

2013 was a year to forget in Gainesville. Florida finished 4-8 overall and won just three games in SEC play. The Gators finished last season on a seven-game losing streak, largely due to anemic offense. Coach Will Muschamp is on the hot seat entering 2014 and needs to get this program back on track. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a significant task ahead in order to fix Florida’s offense, but the Gators should have one of the top defenses in the SEC.

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

Previewing Florida’s Offense for 2014:

One sure sign that Florida football is in a dire situation: The Gators are looking to a Duke coach to boost the confidence of the offense. The arrival of Kurt Roper from the Duke staff means that a now-healthy Jeff Driskel will run a system featuring more shotgun snaps, more plays hinging on his mobility and more no-huddle. “We’re more comfortable in the gun,” Florida coach Will Muschamp says. “That’s why Kurt Roper is here.”

Even though Florida returns the same cast of characters, Muschamp says the receiver and running back group is the most complete he’s had in his time in Gainesville. Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Florida running back Fred Taylor, emerged in the second half as a feature back who can thrive in open space. Leading rusher Mack Brown returns as well. He can be an effective runner inside the tackles.

The leading returning receiver, Quinton Dunbar, has proved to be reliable, but the key to the receivers is Demarcus Robinson. He was a standout in spring last season but caught only five passes in the regular season. The 6'2", 201-pound sophomore is Florida’s most athletic receiver. The Gators received a post-spring boost at tight end with the addition of Virginia transfer Jake McGee (43 receptions with the Cavaliers in 2013).

Florida lost two linemen who started a combined 84 career games, but the Gators hope to have two healthy starting tackles, D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, who were limited by injuries last season. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will play center.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Florida Gators 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 Florida’s Defense for 2014:

Dante Fowler Jr. is the key figure if Florida is going to improve its sack numbers. The Gators ranked 11th in the SEC in sacks per game last season (1.6) and haven’t ranked higher than sixth since 2009. Fowler’s 2013 season, though, took a turn after tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season in September, and now Easley is gone for good.

At linebacker, Antonio Morrison appeared to be on track as an impact player as a sophomore in 2013, but the linebacker was inconsistent for eight games before a knee injury ended his season. Also in the linebacker corps, fifth-year senior Mike Taylor emerged in spring as a rock-solid leader, and sophomore Jarrad Davis looked like he could be a rising star.

Beyond cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, talent in the secondary is unproven. Hargreaves quickly became one of the top players in the conference as a freshman and could be one of the nation’s best cornerbacks in 2014. Even after starter Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame, safety will be a more veteran position, comparatively, with senior Jabari Gorman and sophomores Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye.

Previewing Florida’s Specialists for 2014:

Florida must find answers to fix an atrocious kicking game. The Gators benched 2012 Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy as they finished 10th in the SEC in net punting. Christy will try to reclaim the job from Johnny Townsend. Meanwhile, Florida kickers went 12-of-22 on field goals. Sophomore Austin Hardin hit 4-of-12. Andre Debose, a rising star whose career has been derailed by injuries and off-field issues, could be a wild card on special teams if he returns healthy and in Muschamp’s good graces.

Final Analysis

Muschamp enters the most critical season of his tenure with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons in Gainesville. It’s not a stretch to say that hiring Roper is the most important move Muschamp has made. The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, the low point a 26–20 loss to Georgia Southern. Muschamp needs Roper to rebuild the confidence on offense. If not, Florida may be looking for more than an offensive coordinator.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Florida No. 23:

1. No shortage of talent in Gainesville
Despite last year’s 4-8 record, Florida isn’t hurting for talent. According to recruiting rankings, the Gators have the No. 2 roster in the SEC. With better luck in the health department, Florida should easily improve its win total.

2. Changes on the coaching staff
With Will Muschamp squarely on the hot seat, changes had to be made after a dismal 2013 season. Kurt Roper was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, and Mike Summers was picked as the new offensive line coach. Both hires should be upgrades for Florida, with Roper making a huge difference in the development of Jeff Driskel.

3. Favorable schedule
Florida has to play Alabama and LSU in crossover play, but the Gators host Missouri and South Carolina – two of its main contenders in the SEC East – and should be 3-1 in non-conference play. Even if the Gators lose two games against the West, the home slate could be favorable enough to rebound to eight wins in 2014.

4. Six starters back on defense
For all of the problems on offense last year, the defense was still one of the best in the SEC. In eight SEC games, Florida ranked No. 1 among defenses in the conference by allowing just 5.09 yards per play. This unit needs more from its pass rushers, but six starters are back, including end Dante Fowler, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard.

5. Improving weapons on offense?
In order for Florida’s offense to take the next step in 2014, its running backs and receivers have to provide more production. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor could push for 1,000 rushing yards if the offensive line is better, while the receiving corps gets a boost from the return of Andre Debose from injury. If players like Demarcus Robinson and Taylor can take the next step in their development, the Gators will have solid playmakers for quarterback Jeff Driskel.

The Debate

Who Leads the SEC in Rushing in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#25 Missouri Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#25

SEC East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Gary Pinkel, 102-63 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Henson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Steckel

Missouri was a surprise champion of the SEC East in 2014, finishing 12-2 overall and 7-1 in regular season conference play. Despite significant personnel losses, the Tigers are expected to be in the mix for the East Division title once again. Quarterback Maty Mauk is a rising star, and he will be surrounded by a solid group of skill players and a steady offensive line. The defense loses key performers at each level, but players like end Markus Golden are back to ensure there isn’t much of a drop in production in 2014. 

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

Previewing Missouri's Offense for 2014:

It’s Maty Mauk’s show. The precocious sophomore quarterback filled in for an injured James Franklin and kept Missouri steered toward a stunning SEC East Division title last fall, and with Franklin out of the picture, Mauk takes the reins. He brings to the table confidence and big-play ability. He completed only 51 percent of his passes in 2013, but he averaged nearly 16 yards per completion and threw only two interceptions. And he’s got weapons around him.

Three Missouri running backs rushed for at least 600 yards and 6.0 yards per carry, and while Henry Josey stole the show late in the year, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy had their share of moments. Josey is off to the pros, but Hansbrough and Murphy return to carry the load for a Missouri running game anchored by a line that improved dramatically last fall. Left tackle Justin Britt is gone, but three starters return up front, including potential all-conference center Evan Boehm.

The Tigers lost receivers Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington to graduation but still expected to field a strong corps of pass-catchers. That was until Dorial Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit, was dismissed from the team in April. DGB’s departure will put more pressure on Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt to emerge as primary options in the passing game. They will be joined by a grab bag of rotation candidates. Senior Darius White is a former blue-chipper with one last chance to make an impact. Sophomore Levi Copelin and redshirt freshman J’Mon Moore had some strong moments in spring practice.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Missouri 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 Missouri's Defense for 2014:

Missouri lost a ferocious pair of pass-rushers in Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, but if you were to ask insiders what position might be the biggest strength for the Tiger defense in 2014, the answer would probably be “defensive end.” Markus Golden and Shane Ray return after combining for 11 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss in backup duty. Every defensive tackle from the end-of-year two-deep returns as well. Run support could be an issue at end, however, and it’s possible that tackle Harold Brantley could see time lined up wide on the line.

The line will need to thrive again in 2014 to take pressure off of less proven pieces in the back of the defense. Kentrell Brothers, a 2013 starter at outside linebacker, takes over for hard-hitting Andrew Wilson in the middle. He will be joined by some combination of veterans who have yet to crack the starting lineup or youngsters with potential and minimal proven production.

Meanwhile, an experienced set of safeties, led by longtime starter Braylon Webb, should be able to help in big-play prevention, but there will be a lot of pressure on athletic sophomore cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson. They are tasked with replacing E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder.

Previewing Missouri's Specialists for 2014:

Missouri has loads of experience in the special teams units. Murphy was one of the country’s best return men in 2012, and Andrew Baggett made 6-of-8 field goals longer than 40 yards in 2013. They are not without question marks, however; Murphy didn’t make much of an impact last fall, and Baggett fell into a costly slump last October.

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Final Analysis:

With 12 wins and an East title last fall, Gary Pinkel and his program managed to silence every doubter and answer every lingering question after a tough first season in the SEC. The Tigers face an interesting contradiction in 2014. There is still an abundance of star power, from Mauk on offense to Golden and Ray on defense. But the depth that was so key a year ago has been thinned out quite a bit, and injuries could be particularly costly, as they were in 2012.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Missouri No. 25:

1. Rising star in quarterback Maty Mauk
Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns in limited action last year. Needs to improve on a 51.1 completion percentage.

2. Only four returning starters on defense
Tigers had quality depth last year, but four All-SEC performers need to be replaced on defense.

3. Replacing cornerback E.J. Gaines
Gaines was one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC last year. Can Aarion Penton replace him as the top cover corner in 2014?

4. Can a +16 turnover margin be replicated?
Missouri was +16 in turnover margin last season, including a +12 in SEC play. The +16 number is the best for the Tigers since a +13 in 2007.

5. Tough SEC road schedule
Missouri plays tough road tests at Florida and South Carolina early in the year, as well as swing games against Texas A&M and Tennessee in November.

The Debate

Which Player Leads the SEC in Rushing Yards in 2014?

Click here to join the debate.




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