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#63 Arkansas Razorbacks





HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Robb Smith

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. 63 Arkansas.

Previewing Arkansas' Offense:

Brandon Allen’s lackluster passing numbers in his first year as the starter shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His ascension to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart coincided with the loss of high-end talent at the receiver position and the introduction of a run-first philosophy by new coach Bret Bielema. Allen completed 49.6 percent of his passes, and his accuracy fell to 47.7 percent in SEC games, worst among conference starters. Allen, who played with an ailing throwing shoulder most of the season, should produce better results this fall. Both his backups are untested — redshirt freshman Austin Allen (his brother) and true freshman Rafe Peavey.

Alex Collins led the nation’s freshmen with 1,026 rushing yards, joining Darren McFadden as the only Arkansas freshmen to hit the 1,000-yard mark. Collins did it while sharing time with Jonathan Williams, who compiled 900 rushing yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Both return, with help from speedster Korliss Marshall and big fullback Kody Walker. A better passing attack should help the run game.

Tight end Hunter Henry leads a pass-catching crew that includes senior Demetrius Wilson — who is back from a knee injury — Keon Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.

The Hogs are trying to stockpile talent on the offensive line, which will feature senior right tackle Brey Cook and standout sophomores in left tackle Dan Skipper and right guard Denver Kirkland. 

Previewing Arkansas' Defense:

Robb Smith, previously with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers, will be Arkansas’ fourth defensive coordinator in the past four seasons. Smith inherited a unit that brings back four starters after ranking 76th nationally in total defense. The lone holdover assistant is linebackers coach Randy Shannon. Smith seems more willing to attack with blitzes than the previous defensive staff, which might help the Hogs improve on their paltry takeaway count of 14.

The pass rush should be solid with veteran end Trey Flowers taking on a leading role. Sophomore ends Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston played well in the spring, and tackle Darius Philon could be ready for a breakout year alongside 343-pound run-stuffer DeMarcus Hodge.

The Hogs have struggled at the linebacker position in recent years. The expectation by the staff is that seniors Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight and sophomore Brooks Ellis will play faster, be better run-stoppers and more authoritative tacklers.

Arkansas has a bounty of options at cornerback, where Tevin Mitchel is trying to rebound from a rough season, with help from Carroll Washington, Will Hines and others. The numbers at safety are still thin, but veterans Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines should pick it up a notch, and redshirt freshman De’Andre Coley could be the kind of hard-hitting ball-hawk the Razorbacks have lacked.

Previewing Arkansas' Specialists:

Australian Sam Irwin-Hill’s introduction to major-college football was action-packed. The ambidextrous punter ranked 13th in the nation with a 44.3-yard average, and he triggered several fourth-down gambles, running and throwing, with mixed results. The Razorbacks gave a scholarship to Texas legend Cole Hedlund, hoping he can follow Zach Hocker as the next four-year kicker in the program.

Final Analysis

Arkansas should be improved on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean another winless SEC season is out of the question for the Razorbacks, who are still trying to stabilize and upgrade their roster after the disruption of the Bobby Petrino affair. Qualifying for a bowl berth would be a significant step in Year 2 under Bielema, as Arkansas chugs forward with a difficult rebuild.


#70 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Neal Brown | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

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. 70 Kentucky.

Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2014:

The “Air Raid” didn’t exactly take flight in Year 1 under coordinator Neal Brown. Kentucky ranked 98th in passing offense in 2013 after Brown’s Texas Tech offenses ranked top-10 nationally in each of his three years in Lubbock. Blame a bad roster for some of those struggles — he inherited sparse talent and precious little depth — but Brown is not without regrets.

“What happens when you’re maybe not as talented as some of the teams you’re playing is you try to out-scheme some people and maybe deviate from the system you have in place,” Brown says. “I think we did that. We tried to maybe cover up some areas that were weaknesses for us, where if I had it to do over again I would just really concentrate on fundamentals and stuck with the system and not swayed off it as much.”

He’ll get back to that system — and his usual fast pace — this fall. Improved quarterback play will help. A pair of former four-star recruits, sophomore Patrick Towles and freshman Drew Barker, and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips staged a tight spring competition, with Towles holding a slight edge.

This year’s quarterback will benefit from a stacked backfield — four former four-star recruits, led by sophomore Jojo Kemp and junior Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard — and a veteran offensive line. Four starters return up front, including standout tackles Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle. At receiver, playmakers Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons are back along with the rest of UK’s top five wideouts from 2013.

Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2014:

The defense should take a significant step forward in Year 2. Mark Stoops’ defenses at Arizona and Florida State did, and the Cats return eight starters plus add several talented newcomers. Few SEC teams will have a more formidable pair of defensive ends than 6'6", 264-pound Za’Darius Smith and 6'4", 267-pound Bud Dupree, who combined for 13 sacks last season.

Kentucky’s biggest loss is at middle linebacker, where Avery Williamson had 100-plus tackles each of the last two seasons and was a locker room leader. Junior Josh Forrest, a long, athletic former receiver and defensive back, will battle junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan for that job.

The most important area of improvement is the secondary. UK’s defensive backs intercepted just one pass last season and ranked 117th in passes defended. But they’ll get a boost at safety from junior college transfer A.J. Stamps and at corner from J.D. Harmon, who led the team in interceptions in 2012 but was academically ineligible last fall. Four freshman defensive backs — three of them four-star recruits — will also significantly upgrade the talent.

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Cats have a new special teams coordinator in Craig Naivar, a high-energy guy who blasts 1980s hair metal before meetings. They also have junior punter Landon Foster back in freshman form. He had 22 punts of 50-plus yards that year but just seven such bombs in 2013 thanks to a nagging quadriceps injury. He’s healthy now and averaged 45.6 yards on eight punts in the spring game. The new field-goal kicker is redshirt freshman Austin MacGinnis, a former top-three recruit nationally at his position.

Final Analysis

Stoops has done the impossible — keep fans and recruits excited after a 2–10 debut season. He signed a top-25 class and had 35,000 people show up for this year’s spring game, second-most in program history. Now he just needs to win. Although he posted exactly the same record that got Joker Phillips fired a year earlier, the Cats were more competitive in 2013, losing five games by two touchdowns or less and three by single digits. The big payoff is probably still a year away, but a four- or five-win season this fall would probably keep everyone happy.


#44 Vanderbilt Commodores





HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Karl Dorrell | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Kotulski

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. 44 Vanderbilt.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2014:

Vanderbilt must replace a pair of wide receivers who accounted for 92 percent of the team’s production at the position, but the primary focus for first-year coach Derek Mason during preseason camp will be to identify a starting quarterback. Patton Robinette played a key role in some great moments last season — a comeback win over Georgia, a road victory at Florida, the winning touchdown at Tennessee — but the sophomore is far from a lock to earn the starting assignment. Robinette, a good athlete who lacks elite arm strength, will face stiff competition from redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, a transfer from LSU.

Whoever wins the job — and don’t be surprised if it’s Rivers — will be lacking proven playmakers at the wide receiver position. The new staff plans on incorporating tight ends (think Stanford) and running backs in the passing game, but the Dores will need some young wide receivers to take on much larger roles in 2014.

Mason is looking for big tailbacks to pound the ball between the tackles. He inherited what has to be the smallest running back duo in the SEC — Jerron Seymour (5'7", 200) and Brian Kimbrow (5'8", 185). Despite this duo’s shortcomings, the running game should be improved after a lackluster performance last fall.

Mason singled out the line as the strength of the offense during the spring. The Dores must replace All-SEC tackle Wesley Johnson, but otherwise this unit returns largely intact.

Previewing Vanderbilt’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.
Vanderbilt’s move to the 3-4 has forced some reshuffling on the front seven. Last year’s defensive ends are now outside linebackers. Last year’s defensive tackles are either ends or nose guards. The biggest beneficiary of the new scheme could be Vince Taylor, a 6'2", 310-pound senior. “Vince will be as good as any nose (guard) or interior player in this conference,” Mason says.

Mason and the defensive staff spent the spring reprogramming the Commodores’ talented corps of inside linebackers. “These guys need to be thumpers,” he says. “(Last year), they were edge players. They ran around blocks. That is not what we do.” Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, who were pass-rushing ends last season, should make a smooth transition to outside linebacker.

The Commodores must replace four seniors in the secondary who combined to start 110 games over the last four seasons. There is, however, a decent amount of experience returning. Many of the young defensive backs were forced into duty late last season due to injuries. Paris Head and Torren McGaster gained the most experience at corner last year, but Darrius Sims also saw some action as a true freshman. Mason also has been pleased with redshirt freshmen Taurean Ferguson and Tre Bell. Oren Burks was recruited as a linebacker but has been moved to safety. He received praise from Mason throughout the spring.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2014:

Finding a reliable replacement for standout placekicker Carey Spear will be of paramount importance. Redshirt freshman Tommy Openshaw is atop the depth chart for now. Taylor Hudson handled most of the punting last year but lost his job late in the season to Colby Cooke.

Final Analysis 

Mason is in uncharted territory for a first-year football coach at Vanderbilt. Unlike the vast majority of men who have occupied his seat, Mason is not facing a massive rebuild. The former defensive coordinator at Stanford inherits a program that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and been to three straight bowl games. There is enough talent on the roster to extend the postseason streak to four, but some playmakers need to emerge on offense, and the defense must adapt to a very different style of play for this team to finish higher than sixth in the SEC East.


#42 Tennessee Volunteers





HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, 5-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bajakian | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Jancek

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. 42 Tennessee.

Previewing the Tennessee Offense for 2014:

If Tennessee’s offense improves significantly in 2014, you can throw football cliches out the window — or something like that. Championships may be won at the line of scrimmage, but the Vols are losing all five starting linemen from a year ago and still should be more productive on offense.

Tennessee is pinning its hopes on an influx of speedy playmakers, like freshman wideout Josh Malone and junior college star Von Pearson. Combine that with second-year improvement from Jason Croom and Marquez North, and Tennessee coaches believe their receiving corps will be vastly improved.

The primary question is, who will get the ball to the playmakers? If the quarterback battle were a political race, Justin Worley would be the conservative, reliable but somewhat bland incumbent. Riley Ferguson was the brash young challenger — risky, but perhaps worth it. However, Ferguson transferred in late May, leaving Worley and sophomore Joshua Dobbs to compete for the starting job.

The running game will be tested behind an entirely new offensive line. Tennessee had 2,261 rushing yards a year ago, the most since 2004. Senior Marlin Lane will have to hope that the running lanes are as generous as they have been for most of his career. But Lane is a placeholder for Jalen Hurd, the elite freshman back who coaches hope will add a bigger, tougher dimension to the Vols’ ground attack.

Previewing Tennessee’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.
The SEC offers no place to hide for teams lacking speed in the back of their defense, and the schedule was particularly cruel to the Vols in 2013. Games against warp-speed teams Oregon and Auburn provided Exhibits A and B of Tennessee’s need to upgrade its speed. The changes might not be dramatic in 2014, but by improving some of the weakest links (like the nickel spot), coaches hope to notice a difference.

Speed is the new mantra now, so much so that Emmanuel Moseley, a gangly athlete who had no big-school offers when he was discovered by Tennessee, could be the starting cornerback as a true freshman. He’s truly fast. After two years of breakdowns tolerated only because there were no better options, expect some veterans to lose their jobs or be pushed for playing time.

Depth at the defensive line is a real concern, but this could be the year defensive end Corey Vereen appears on the national scene. He played on passing downs in 2013 but is likely to be an every-down player now. Linebacker A.J. Johnson and hybrid Curt Maggitt will anchor the defense. Johnson keeps putting up ridiculous tackle numbers (now 324 in three years), but more widespread respect has eluded him.

Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists for 2014:

Maybe it was a reflection of a rough year, but Butch Jones designated kicker/punter Michael Palardy as the team’s MVP in 2013. It might take three players to replace him. Freshman Aaron Medley could end up handling field goals, although George Bullock showed a solid leg in the spring. The punting job returns to Matt Darr after he lost it to Palardy in 2013. UT has a handful of young athletes who could impact the return game, but they’ll have to unseat senior Devrin Young.

Final Analysis 

Even after a 5–7 debut season, Jones has retained his relentlessly sunny attitude, and it seems to be infectious in Knoxville. But here’s the downer: While this team will eventually be better than the 2013 version, the roster turnover represented by 32 newcomers offers plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. And this schedule (once again) offers little margin for error. Reaching six wins and a bowl game won’t be easy, but it will be a critical hurdle in keeping the Jones-fueled optimism alive and well in Knoxville.