College Football

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#47 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

NATIONAL FORECAST

#47

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Paul Johnson, 48-32 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ted Roof

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. 47 Georgia Tech.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Offense for 2014:

The thought last year was that Georgia Tech’s offense could take a jump forward because it had never had a quarterback like Vad Lee — a true dual-threat who could make run-focused defenses pay with his arm. Unfortunately, Lee completed only 46 percent of his passes — not entirely his fault — and had a hard time operating coach Paul Johnson’s option offense.

Move forward a year, and a similar thought is being applied to replacement quarterback Justin Thomas. The former state high school sprint champion is the fastest and quickest quarterback that Johnson has had, someone who could make the option offense explosive just with his feet. Last season, mostly in mop-up action, Thomas had 33 carries, and five of them went 20 yards or more.

The question, though, is whether Thomas can make that happen on a consistent basis. He struggled in the spring with his ball-handling and his decision-making with option reads. There’s also the matter of whether or not an offensive line that will replace three starters who had combined for 117 career starts can find suitable replacements among a fairly inexperienced lot.

Beyond wide receiver DeAndre Smelter — who joined the football team after a three-year run with the Yellow Jackets’ baseball team to become the team’s most consistent and dangerous threat in the passing game — Georgia Tech doesn’t have a proven pass-catcher. B-back (fullback) Zach Laskey has speed and runs hard behind his pads but has played a backup role the past two seasons. B-back Travis Custis was supposed to be a contributor in the backfield, but he was ruled ineligible following spring practice.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Defense for 2014:

Defensively, the Jackets face a similar uncertainty. Six starters are lost, including All-America defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and defensive back Jemea Thomas, a clutch playmaker.

Georgia Tech will have to find and develop three new starters on the defensive line from a group that couldn’t push the starters in 2013. Coordinator Ted Roof would prefer that he have backups who can play and contribute. Whether that happens could determine the course of the season. Key pieces include nose tackle and returning starter Adam Gotsis (14.5 tackles for a loss last season); and defensive tackle Shawn Green, who didn’t see the field much because of injuries. Jabari Hunt-Days was expected to move from linebacker to defensive end but was ruled ineligible for the 2014 season following spring practice.

There are solid players elsewhere. Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy is a three-year starter with a nose for the ball, and fellow linebacker Tyler Marcordes came on strong in spring practice. At safety, Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden missed most or all of last season with injuries, but they bring experience and savvy. Cornerback D.J. White is a star on the rise.

The Jackets also expect to be more comfortable now in the second year under Roof’s guidance. Tech improved from 28.3 points per game allowed in 2012 to 22.8 last fall.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Specialists for 2014:

Kicker Harrison Butker made 10-of-14 field-goal attempts, but he needs to improve on his kickoffs. Punter Ryan Rodwell redshirted last season after playing in six games in the 2012 season. Consistency will be his big challenge. After missing the final 10 games of the season with a shoulder injury, Golden should give a boost as a return specialist. In 2012, he was the only player in the country in the top 12 in both punt and kickoff return average.

Final Analysis 

The Jackets seem stuck around the seven-win mark, almost always competitive but usually falling short against top-tier competition. If all the variables fall their way, this could be a nine-win team that contends for the Coastal Division title. But if Thomas struggles and the defense takes a step back, six or seven wins could be the ceiling.  




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#56 Washington State Cougars

NATIONAL FORECAST

#56

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Mike Leach, 9-16 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Leach | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Breske

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. 56 Washington State.

Previewing Washington State’s Offense for 2014: 

Washington State returns many of the components of a passing offense that ranked second in the Pac-12 with 368.0 yards per game. Connor Halliday had 410 passing yards and six touchdown passes in the New Mexico Bowl, but the most impressive part of his day? He threw only one interception in 58 attempts. Halliday enters his senior season with a chance to break all of the school passing records. That’s impressive when you think of the QBs who have played at Washington State — Drew Bledsoe, Mark Rypien, Ryan Leaf, Jack Thompson and Jason Gesser, among others.

But Halliday has a tendency to throw too many interceptions. Along with 34 touchdown passes and 4,597 passing yards last year, he threw it to the opposing team 22 times.

As you’d expect with an offense that stresses the passing game, the Cougars are loaded with guys who can stretch the field. It’s their strongest position, led by Gabe Marks, who had 74 receptions for 807 yards and seven TDs last year. Four other wideouts had at least 40 receptions.

Offensive line could be a source of concern with the loss of two-time honorable mention All-Pac-12 center Elliott Bosch, right guard Matt Goetz and right tackle John Fullington.

Previewing Washington State’s Defense for 2014:  

Washington State will need to improve on this side of the ball after ranking 10th in the Pac-12 in total defense (458.0 ypg) and scoring defense (32.5 ppg). The defense did, however, force 30 turnovers, second in the Pac-12 in that category.

WSU had one of the more solid defensive lines in the conference last year and returns the three standouts from that unit — Xavier Cooper, Kalafitoni Pole and Destiny Vaeao. Cooper registered five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss last year. Pole’s numbers don’t match those, but he will be the 290-pound key to WSU’s run defense this year.

At linebacker, the Cougars have a hard-hitting group featuring Kache Palacio, Cyrus Coen, Darryl Monroe and Tana Pritchard. Palacio led the linebackers with four sacks and 6.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Monroe, a junior, finished third on the team with 94 tackles.

The Cougars will need to shore up a secondary that lost three of its four starters to graduation, including All-Pac-12 strong safety Deone Bucannon. Daquawn Brown might be the best defensive back, but his status was unclear coming out of spring practice. He was arrested in the offseason on felony second-degree assault and misdemeanor assault charges.

Previewing Washington State’s Specialists for 2014: 

Michael Bowlin held the punting job for most of the 2013 season but was replaced late in the year by Wes Concepcion, who will hold the job on a full-time basis this year. Reliable Andrew Furney made 16-of-20 field goals last year, but he graduated. Now it’s freshman Erik Powell’s job. The left-footed Powell had an outstanding spring, showing accuracy and range. The Cougars have a variety of candidates for kickoff and punt returns. Dom Williams or Rickey Galvin should handle kickoffs, while Robert Lewis is the likely frontrunner for punt returns. 

Final Analysis

Leach has engineered a quick turnaround in Pullman, guiding the Cougars back to a bowl game in his second season. He has eliminated the losing culture and given the program an identity. Leach’s third season figures to be similar to his second. The Cougs, with a senior quarterback and solid corps of receivers, will score a ton of points, but the defense remains an issue. Washington State can be a consistent bowl team as it’s currently constructed but will need to improve on defense to emerge as a contender in the tough Pac-12 North.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#60 UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#60

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Hudspeth, 27-12 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: James Willis

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. 60 UL Lafayette.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Offense for 2014:

Terrance Broadway has thrown for 5,261 yards and 36 scores in two seasons. He’s 15–6 as a starter with two bowl wins, and he led the Sun Belt Conference in passing efficiency last year. In other words, the quarterback spot is secure. UL Lafayette does, however, have to find a backup — last year the offense struggled mightily when Broadway was out for the final two games with a broken arm. Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon will battle for the No. 2 spot, but running back and former prep quarterback Elijah McGuire could also take snaps this year.

McGuire and Alonzo Harris make up the Sun Belt’s most dynamic one-two rushing punch, with Harris powering for 942 yards and 14 scores and McGuire speeding his way for 863 yards and eight TDs as a true freshman. Both are bigger and stronger one year later, a bad omen for defenses trying to stop what was the league’s second-most potent rushing attack a season ago.

That attack is helped by a line that returns four starters from a group that started intact for all 13 games last year — the third year in a row for the Cajun front to accomplish that feat. Brothers Daniel and Mykhael Quave at right guard and left tackle, respectively, anchor that group, but the center spot is a question mark, with redshirt freshman Grant Horst penciled in as the starter.

Athletic Jamal Robinson emerged as a go-to receiver last year with 54 catches, 862 yards and eight scores and was high on coach Mark Hudspeth’s most-improved list in the spring. The Cajuns will have to find a replacement for talented slot man Darryl Surgent as well as a new tight end.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Defense for 2014: 

The Cajuns struggled against throwing teams last year despite leading the Sun Belt in interceptions. They need more pressure from senior tackles Justin Hamilton and Christian Ringo. Hamilton led the down linemen in tackles (38) and sacks (four) last year and should stay fresher with added depth. Hometown product Jacoby Briscoe transfers back from Miami and could be a playmaker at end.

The Cajun staff went into spring drills looking for linebacker help with two-year tackle leader Justin Anderson gone, and came out with two spots locked down. Junior Dominique Tovell, the Cajuns’ second-leading tackler last year, started every game, and junior Chris Hill, a spot starter in ’13, had what Hudspeth called the best spring of any defensive player.

Senior safety Sean Thomas had 63 tackles and a team-high three interceptions. Senior Corey Trim is the only veteran at corner.

Previewing UL Lafayette’s Specialists for 2014:

Stephen Brauchle returns but missed three of his last four field goals, and kickoff specialist Hunter Stover had the only field goal in the bowl win. Stover leads that battle entering the fall, while Australian punter Daniel Cadona returns after averaging 41.7 yards in his first season of football. McGuire is the likely candidate for kick returns as the Cajun staff looks to get the ball into his hands more often.

Final Analysis

With a healthy Broadway at the helm, UL Lafayette won eight straight games and earned a share of the Sun Belt title for the first time since 2005. With him out of the lineup, the Cajuns lost two in a row before Broadway returned — not at a 100 percent — to lead them to a win in the bowl game. His value can’t be overstated as the triggerman of what could be the Sun Belt’s most potent offense.
There are some issues on defense, especially against the pass, but this is still the most talented team in the Sun Belt. As long as Broadway remains healthy, the Cajuns are the overwhelming favorite to win the league.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#59 Bowling Green Falcons

NATIONAL FORECAST

#59

MAC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Dino Babers, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Sterlin Gilbert, Matt Mattox | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kim McCloud

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. 59 Bowling Green.

Previewing Bowling Green’s Offense for 2014:

Things went from chaotic to frenetic to simply hectic as Bowling Green spent the spring adjusting to the ultra high-speed attack preferred by head coach Dino Babers.

Junior quarterback Matt Johnson, who started every game but the opener in Bowling Green’s MAC championship season last year, expects to improve on his 3,467 passing yards and 25 touchdowns since the Babers offense will provide more plays.
Running back Travis Greene rushed for a school-record 1,594 yards last season — breaking a mark that had stood for more than 60 years — while recording nine games of more than 100 yards. The junior is firmly entrenched as the workhorse back. Powerful 262-pound sophomore William Houston provides additional punch in the running game.

Most of the receiving corps is back, led by senior Heath Jackson, junior Ryan Burbrink and sophomore Ronnie Moore. Burbrink has big-play potential after catching 30 passes for 477 yards and two touchdowns last season, including a 92-yard scoring grab. SMU transfer Gehrig Dieter is eligible after sitting out 2013 and, along with early enrollee freshman Roger Lewis, is expected to press for playing time. Senior Chris Pohlman steps in at tight end after catching just four passes in 2013.

The line needs only a slight tweak with three starters back from the conference championship unit. Junior Alex Huettel, who moves from guard to center, anchors the group as a returning second-team All-MAC performer, and sophomore tackles Logan Dietz and Jacob Bennett are also returning starters.

Previewing Bowling Green’s Defense for 2014:

Bowling Green had the top-ranked scoring defense in the MAC last season, allowing a meager 15.9 points per game. Seven times, the Falcons held their opponent to seven points or less. They were also No. 1 in total defense (321.4 ypg) and rushing defense (150.6 ypg).

New personnel will have to be called on to maintain that excellence. The interior of the line will feature two new starters, but junior Taylor Royster and senior Zach Colvin both have plenty of experience. Senior ends Bryan Thomas and Charlie Walker combined to start 22 games last season. At linebacker, seniors D.J. Lynch and Gabe Martin are battle-tested on the outside, while redshirt freshman Nate Locke is pushing senior Paul Senn in the middle.

The secondary, the best in the MAC last season, gets the most severe overhaul — senior free safety Ryland Ward is the sole starter back. Senior Jude Adjei-Barimah and junior Darrell Hunter are the likely starters at the corners, and senior Brian Sutton is the top candidate at strong safety.

Specialists 

The placekicking game will be a strength again. Tyler Tate converted 18-of-22 field goals, including 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards. Joe Davidson inherits the punting job coming off a redshirt season. The Falcons led the conference in both kickoff returns and punt returns, and should be explosive again with Burbrink and Moore leading the way.

Final Analysis

Immediately after winning its first conference championship in 21 years, Bowling Green lost coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest. The Falcons recovered quickly, landing Babers after he led Eastern Illinois to a No. 4 final ranking in the FCS — and did so with the division’s No. 1 total offense (589.5 ypg) and scoring offense (48.2 ppg). Babers and his staff — most of which followed him from EIU — changed some things that weren’t necessarily broken, and Bowling Green will be a different animal this fall as Babers unleashes his dizzying pace on offense. The defense has more holes to fill, but there is enough returning talent to make the Falcons the heavy favorite in the MAC East.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#57 Navy Midshipmen

NATIONAL FORECAST

#57

Independents PREDICTION

#3

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.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#55 UCF Knights

NATIONAL FORECAST

#55

American Athletic PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 72-56 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Taaffe | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Summers

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. 55 UCF.

Previewing UCF’s Offense for 2014:

UCF brings back plenty of weapons on offense from a 12–1 Fiesta Bowl champion squad that averaged nearly 34.6 points per game. One major problem: The Knights will be without the director of that offense. Quarterback Blake Bortles opted to declare for the NFL Draft, leaving a major hole under center and only inexperienced options to replace him. Sophomore Justin Holman, Bortles’ primary backup last season, is the most likely candidate to step in to the starting role. His top challenger will be Boise State transfer Nick Patti, who was granted a waiver to play for the Knights immediately. Holman came out of the spring as the narrow leader over redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris, but Patti has one year of college experience and will push for the job.

With the question mark at quarterback, the biggest issue will be finding a way to get the ball into the hands of the Knights’ playmakers. UCF brings back five receivers, including team leaders Rannell Hall (57 receptions, 886 yards), J.J. Worton (47-721), Breshad Perriman (39-811) and Josh Reese. UAB transfer Jackie Williams adds another solid option out of the slot. Sophomore running back Will Stanback has the size, speed and natural instincts to be an NFL prospect, and he’ll be counted on to replace Storm Johnson as the Knights’ feature back after rushing for 443 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman.

UCF also must replace three starters on the offensive line and will rely on some untested options at tackle.

Previewing UCF’s Defense for 2014: 

The Knights’ inexperienced defense used smoke and mirrors to finish 17th in the country in scoring defense last season, allowing just 21.3 points per game. It will be a much stronger unit this season.

UCF returns eight starters and will add two major junior college recruits to the mix in defensive tackle Lance McDowdell and linebacker Errol Clarke. With Freshman All-American Jacoby Glenn back as the top cover corner and senior leader Terrance Plummer still patrolling the middle of the defense at Mike linebacker, UCF brings back its two top defenders.

The Knights are experienced on the back end with senior safeties Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander. Sophomore Shaquill Griffin is slotted as the nickel back but will be pushed by an influx of top-end defensive back recruits, including four-star Kyle Gibson and former Alabama commit Chris Williams.

UCF will be bigger, more experienced and more athletic than last season, when it smothered opponents and limited big plays. The Knights allowed 122.5 rushing yards per game, 16th-best in the nation. The biggest concern will be the pass rush; UCF had just 29 sacks last season. The Knights need ends Thomas Niles, Luke Adams and Deion Green to be more effective getting to the quarterback.

Previewing UCF’s Specialists for 2014:

UCF returns the most consistent kicker it has had in recent seasons in senior Shawn Moffitt, who connected on 21-of-23 field goals last season and all 49 extra-point attempts. Punter Caleb Houston also is back after averaging 42.2 yards on 41 punts. The Knights could be more dynamic in the return game. Williams was a threat at UAB, averaging 9.6 yards on 29 punt returns with a touchdown. Worton has been an all-conference returner, and incoming freshman Mike Rogers could also factor.

Final Analysis 

UCF will have a tough task replicating its 2013 success without Bortles, but they have the talent in place to put together another strong season. The Knights will rely on a stingy defense to keep them in every game and a pro-style offense that takes few risks but has playmakers at running back and wide receiver. If UCF finds an answer at quarterback, it should once again be a strong contender in the American.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#54 Utah Utes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#54

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Kyle Whittingham, 76-39 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dave Christensen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kalani Sitake

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. 54 Utah.

Previewing Utah’s Offense for 2014: 

Utah’s best moment of the 2013 season also became the start of a downward spiral that created a complicated quarterbacking situation in 2014. While leading the Utes past Stanford, quarterback Travis Wilson injured his hand. He struggled in the next three games, then was diagnosed with a concussion. Further tests revealed a pre-existing condition that sidelined him for Utah’s final three games. Wilson was cleared to participate in spring drills, without being tackled, and reclaimed his No. 1 position. He’ll be re-evaluated in July.

Regardless of Wilson’s status, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson will compete for the starting job. He’s listed No. 2, prior to arriving on campus as a graduate student with two years of eligibility remaining. “Finding out about Kendal will be job one,” coach Kyle Whittingham says.

The Utes also are adjusting to new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen’s fast-paced scheme. The spread offense is similar to what the Utes have used, but the tempo is “drastically different,” Christensen says.

Leading rusher Bubba Poole returns, but the Utes need help at receiver to complement the dynamic Dres Anderson. Much is expected from Kenneth Scott, who caught 32 passes in 2012 before being injured in last season’s opener, and Kaelin Clay, who will have one season to play as a junior college transfer.

Utah’s offensive linemen were asked to lose weight to thrive in the up-tempo offense, and left tackle Jeremiah Poutasi has responded well.

Previewing Utah’s Defense for 2014: 

Utah will miss Trevor Reilly, a versatile athlete who played end and linebacker in various alignments and led the team with 8.5 sacks as a senior. Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake hopes senior Nate Orchard can fill Reilly’s void as a disruptive lineman who also can move around in the scheme.

Utah appeared loaded at linebacker in their 4-3 scheme until Jacoby Hale and Gionni Paul sustained significant injuries during spring drills. Hale recorded 6.5 sacks last season, helping the Utes lead the Pac-12 with 3.25 sacks per game, and Paul was making a great impression as a transfer from Miami. Each is expected to become available at some point this season, but for now, Uaea Masina is listed as the starter at one position and as the backup at another spot. Orchard may be asked to spend more time at linebacker.

The Utes were tied for last in the country with only three interceptions in 2013, and they hope Brian Blechen’s return at strong safety will make an impact. Blechen, who has eight interceptions in 35 career games, missed last season with tendinitis in his knee. Eric Rowe is a returning starter at free safety, but Sitake hopes Tevin Carter establishes himself at that position, enabling Rowe to move to cornerback.

Previewing Utah’s Specialists for 2014:

Andy Phillips became a big story as a former international ski racer who tried out for the team and earned the placekicking job as a freshman at age 24. Phillips made three field goals in his first football game at any level and finished 17-of-20 for the season, including a 51-yarder against Arizona State. Tom Hackett excelled as a short-punting specialist in 2012 and earned the full-time job in 2013, when he averaged 43.4 yards and the Utes led the Pac-12 in net punting.

Final Analysis 

Whittingham believes the Utes are improving their talent level and depth in their fourth season of Pac-12 membership. They were competitive in every conference game in 2013, including an upset of eventual champion Stanford, but the Utes need to double last season’s total of two conference wins for 2014 to be judged as any kind of success.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#53 Oregon State Beavers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#53

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Mike Riley, 88-73 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Garrett | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Banker

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. 53 Oregon State.

Previewing Oregon State’s Offense for 2014:

The Beavers breathed a sigh of relief when quarterback Sean Mannion elected to return for his senior season after considering early entry into the NFL Draft. Mannion was inconsistent his first two years with the Beavers and was benched at the end of his junior season, but he re-established himself as the starter heading into 2013 and had a record-setting year. Mannion broke the Pac-12 single-season record with 4,662 passing yards, and he threw 37 touchdowns.

He lost his top target when Brandin Cooks opted to leave early for the NFL after leading the nation with 1,730 receiving yards and winning the Biletnikoff Award. Junior Richard Mullaney started across from Cooks and is the top returning receiver with 52 catches for 788 yards and three touchdowns. No other returning wide receiver had more than seven catches. Oregon State has a strong group of tight ends, led by Connor Hamlett, who was fourth on the team with 40 catches for 364 yards and five touchdowns. Caleb Smith also started several games and finished with 25 catches for 343 yards and four touchdowns.

The Beavers have to give Mannion more help in the running game after ranking 11th in the conference with only 94.4 rushing yards per game. OSU does return its top two rushers from last season, Terron Ward (521 yards) and Storm Woods (477).
Oregon State returns only two starters on the offensive line, guard Sean Harlow and center Isaac Seumalo. This could be a problem area.

Previewing Oregon State’s Defense for 2014:

The Beavers return a wealth of experience at linebacker, where Jabral Johnson, D.J. Alexander and Rommel Mageo combined for 29 starts last season. Michael Doctor started 25 straight games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the second game last year. He received a medical redshirt from the NCAA to return for one more year. Doctor, who has 185 tackles in his career, will start at outside linebacker along with Alexander.

Safeties Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman are back along with cornerback Steven Nelson. Murphy and Nelson both received honorable mention, All-Pac-12 honors last season.

OSU will need to rebuild its defensive line after Scott Crichton left early for the NFL Draft, leaving defensive end Dylan Wynn as the only returning starter. Senior Siale Hautau and junior Jalen Grimble are the projected starters inside, while Jaswha James is expected to start on the end.

Previewing Oregon State’s Specialists for 2014:

Trevor Romaine will be the kicker for the fourth season in a row as he looks to bounce back to the form he showed as a sophomore. Romaine was 16-for-18 in 2012 before going 14-for-20 on field goals last season. Punter Keith Kostol was also better as a sophomore when he averaged 41.9 yards per kick before falling to 40.5 yards last year. Victor Bolden was seventh in the conference with 20.7 yards per kickoff return as a freshman and could also be a candidate to replace Cooks as the punt returner.

Final Analysis 

The Beavers return one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Mannion, but he will be operating without Cooks and must adapt to new offensive coordinator John Garrett, who spent the last seven seasons in the NFL. The defense, with seven returning starters, should be better under veteran coordinator Mark Banker.

The Beavers should get off to a good start with non-conference home games against Portland State and San Diego State along with a trip to Hawaii before opening Pac-12 play with back-to-back road games at USC and Colorado. This looks like another bowl team, but Oregon State doesn’t figure to pose too much of a threat to the top teams in the tough Pac-12 North.

The Debate

Who Will Lead the Pac-12 in Passing Yards in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#52 Minnesota Golden Gophers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#52

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Jerry Kill, 17-21 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Limegrover | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tracy Claeys

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. 52 Minnesota.

Previewing Minnesota’s Offense for 2014: 

Three weeks after Minnesota’s loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl, the Gophers’ most experienced quarterback, Philip Nelson, announced he was transferring. He said he was seeking a more pass-oriented offense and quickly landed at Rutgers before his dismissal from the team this summer. Nelson’s departure leaves Mitch Leidner in charge of Minnesota’s offense. Leidner battled Nelson for playing time last season, starting four games and completing 55.1 percent of his passes.

Beyond Nelson, most of the offense returns, including 1,200-yard rusher David Cobb. With the offensive line returning almost fully intact, the Gophers will rely heavily on their running game again, especially with redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards flashing loads of promise during spring practice.

Tight ends have become a major part of Minnesota’s passing game, especially Maxx Williams, but wide receiver is still the team’s biggest concern. Derrick Engel, who led the team in receiving last year before tearing his ACL, has graduated. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones both had productive freshman seasons, and junior KJ Maye is back from a sports hernia injury. But the Gophers probably need some of their incoming freshmen to emerge.

Previewing Minnesota’s Defense for 2014:

A defense that ranked 25th in the nation in points allowed (22.2 ppg) needs to replace two All-Big Ten selections — defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen. The defensive line still has Theiren Cockran, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last year, but depth looked like an issue for that unit this spring.

The linebacker corps took a hit this spring when Cody Poock suffered a torn ACL. Poock, who looked ready to start at outside linebacker, didn’t rule out a return this fall, but the Gophers wasted little time moving Jack Lynn into the strong-side role. Lynn was stuck at middle linebacker, behind Damien Wilson, who made 78 tackles as a junior. The Gophers believe weak-side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell will be an eventual star, and as much as they’ll miss Vereen’s leadership, they still believe the secondary is the strength of the defense.

Previewing Minnesota’s Specialists for 2014:

Junior punter Peter Mortell averaged 43.3 yards per punt last season — the third-best mark in Gophers history. Redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, an Under Armour All-American in 2012, is the leading candidate to take over at kicker for departing senior Chris Hawthorne. Marcus Jones is back after scoring touchdowns on a punt return and kick return within the first two weeks last year.

Final Analysis

Coming off its best season since 2003, Minnesota has the talent to improve again this year, if the Gophers can survive a more difficult schedule. Coach Jerry Kill’s teams have gone 3–9, 6–7 and 8–5 in his first three seasons. He sees parallels to the way his programs progressed at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. “We built it on defense, and now you’ve got to bring the offense (along),” he says. “That’s what we’ve done everywhere we’ve been.”

Kill, who turns 53 in August, faced more questions about his health last season after an in-game seizure against Western Illinois and another that kept him from traveling to Michigan.

He was the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten last year, at $1.1 million, but the university more than doubled his salary with a new deal that will pay him an average of $2.3 million through 2018.
“I think it shows our commitment to football,” Gophers AD Norwood Teague says. “It shows our commitment to Jerry, and it’s the right thing to do at this time.”

Now, Kill will seek to justify his big payday, as the Gophers move into the Big Ten West. They have a non-conference matchup against TCU and two tough draws from the Big Ten East — Michigan and Ohio State.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#51 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#51

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 55-46 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

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. 51 Northwestern.

Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2014: 

After two years with a two-quarterback system and a run-oriented attack, Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots under coordinator Mick McCall. Trevor Siemian put to rest any questions about a quarterback competition with an impressive spring. He boasts a plus arm and has been productive when healthy.

If protected, Siemian should capitalize on Northwestern’s depth at the wide receiver and superback (tight end/H-back) positions. Veterans Tony Jones and Christian Jones return at wideout, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a prototype slot receiver who can stretch defenses with his speed. Kyle Prater is finally healthy and provides size on the perimeter, and top superback Dan Vitale has star potential after recording 62 receptions in his first two seasons.

Although the offense should have a passing lean, it also looks strong at running back, especially with Venric Mark returning after an injury-plagued 2013 season. Mark eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards in 2012, and despite his size provides a between-the-tackles threat. Treyvon Green is a solid backup, and Warren Long and Stephen Buckley both will push for carries.

The depth at the skill positions won’t matter if the line doesn’t dramatically improve. Competition ramped up at several positions in the spring. Other than center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen, no spot is safe. Northwestern had its lowest third-down conversion percentage (39.9) since 2006 and must get back to moving the chains.

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2014: 

Seven starters return on a unit that repeatedly put Northwestern in position to win last season. “We were five plays away from winning five more games,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We’ve just got to make those plays.” Takeaways could be a hallmark for the defense, especially a secondary featuring more depth than any in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is the headliner of the secondary, but Northwestern will be able to go two or three deep at every position as several redshirt freshmen, including safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, enter the mix.

Two veteran playmakers return at linebacker in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who has moved from the strong side to the middle. They combined for seven interceptions and 184 tackles last season.

Offseason surgeries hit the defensive line hard, creating some question marks entering the fall. The pass rush should be strong with ends Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Defensive tackle was a weak point a year ago, and Northwestern needs Sean McEvilly to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins to build on his strong finish. Opponents ran at the middle of the Wildcats’ defense too easily in 2013.

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2014:

The Wildcats lose a huge piece in the kicking game in Jeff Budzien, the Big Ten’s top placekicker each of the past two years, but they also regain a weapon in Mark, an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern needs Arthur Omilian or Hunter Niswander to show poise and Chris Gradone to stabilize a shaky punting situation. 

Final Analysis

The good vibes accompanying Northwestern for much of Fitzgerald’s tenure vanished after the program’s first bowl-less season since 2007, but Northwestern returns a roster strong enough to return to the postseason and play spoiler in a wide-open Big Ten West. The offense finally has a quarterback and an identity, but questions remain up front. The defense is still reliant on takeaways but boasts good depth throughout the unit.

Northwestern plays Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Cal in non-league play but misses both Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten. The Wildcats should return to the postseason in 2014.




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