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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.

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#10 Baylor Bears

NATIONAL FORECAST

#10

Big 12 PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Art Briles, 44-32 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Philip Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Bennett

Baylor is coming off its first outright conference title since 1980 and is poised to challenge for the Big 12 title once again. The Bears return one of college football’s top offenses, led by quarterback Bryce Petty and a receiving corps that is loaded with talent. The offensive line has to be revamped, and only four starters are back on defense. However, the personnel losses shouldn’t derail Baylor from pushing Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship in 2014.

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Previewing Baylor’s Offense for 2014: 

Not that any coach is ever relaxed, but there is nothing more soothing than having a returning starter at quarterback. After patiently waiting for his turn, Bryce Petty made the most of it, passing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns and leading Baylor to its first Big 12 championship, first BCS bowl appearance and the most wins in program history (11–2).

Petty goes into the 2014 season as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. But his chances could hinge on the development and overhaul of the offensive line. It looked more like a M.A.S.H. unit in the spring, with left tackle Spencer Drango having offseason back surgery, right tackle Troy Baker a year removed from ACL surgery and three others out with injuries. And that doesn’t even take into account having to replace two-time All-American Cyril Richardson and two other starters on the line.

Even without Tevin Reese, who left as the school’s No. 3 all-time leading receiver, Petty will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. At the top of that list is unanimous All-Big 12 choice Antwan Goodley, who hauled in 71 passes for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first year as a starter.

“Now, he’s the guy. He’s the featured guy,” coach Art Briles says. “And we’ve got guys around him that certainly can take a lot of that heat off him.” That includes Levi Norwood, Corey Coleman, Clay Fuller and Jay Lee, along with freshmen Davion Hall and KD Cannon.

Two-time All-Big 12 running back Lache Seastrunk left a year early for the NFL Draft, but the Bears are still loaded at running back with Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and freshmen Johnny Jefferson and Terence Williams.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Baylor Bears for 2014:

 

Previewing Baylor’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big 12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has to do a total makeover of an improved unit that ranked in the top 25 most of last season, allowing 360.3 yards and 23.5 points per game.

“These guys have sat there and watched all these four- and three-year starters that we’ve had on the defensive side of the ball win us a bunch of football games, win us two bowl games, win us a conference championship and get to a BCS bowl game,” Briles says. “It’s their turn to let their witness turn into production.”

Up front, the Bears have arguably their deepest and most talented line in years. Ends Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer combined for 23.5 tackles for a loss and are joined by Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu, sophomore Javonte Magee and the entire five-man rotation at tackle.

“I think our front four can be as good as anybody in America,” Briles says.
Linebacker is an issue, especially with middle man Bryce Hager out with a groin injury in the spring. But former prep running back Aiavion Edwards is an emerging talent. The secondary is also a work in progress with returning safety Terrell Burt missing all of spring drills. But Bennett loves cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Terrence Singleton, while sophomore Orion Stewart is replacing All-American Ahmad Dixon at the other safety spot.

Previewing Baylor’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Bears have to break in new starters at kicker (Chris Callahan), snapper (Jimmy Landes) and holder (Andrew Frerking). But senior punter Spencer Roth is a returning All-Big 12 pick and All-America candidate who ranked sixth nationally with a 45.8-yard average.

Final Analysis 

Defending an outright conference championship for the first time in 33 years, the Bears probably have too many question marks to give Oklahoma a serious fight for the top spot. But Baylor will be in the hunt and should have no problems going bowling for a fifth straight year.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Baylor No. 10:

1. The nation’s best offense?
The numbers for Baylor’s offense in 2013 were simply staggering. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per play, led the nation with 618.2 yards per game and recorded 13 plays of at least 60 yards. Only four starters on offense return for 2014, but the catalyst for last year’s unit – quarterback Bryce Petty – is back. Expect similar production from Baylor’s offense once again.

2. A rebuilt offensive line
It’s hard to find many weaknesses about Baylor’s offense in 2014, but the line is arguably the biggest area of concern. Guard Cyril Richardson departs after a standout career, leaving big shoes to fill on the line. Tackle Spencer Drango is recovering from back surgery and is expected to return in time for the season opener. However, can Drango return to full strength by the first game? Getting right tackle Troy Baker back to full strength after an ACL tear prior to the 2013 season will be a huge plus for this unit. Protecting Petty is a must for the Bears, so this unit needs to mesh before Big 12 play starts.

3. Road game at Oklahoma
Baylor’s 41-12 victory over Oklahoma last season played a crucial role in helping the Bears claim the Big 12 title. But the roles are reversed in 2014. Baylor has to play at Oklahoma on Nov. 8, which could swing the Big 12 title back in the favor of the Sooners.

4. Rebuilding the secondary
Baylor’s turnaround on defense was an underrated storyline in last year’s Big 12 title. The Bears return only four starters for 2014 and must replace standouts like safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Eddie Lackey and cornerbacks Demetri Goodson and K.J. Morton. The secondary is arguably the biggest concern for coordinator Phil Bennett, as this unit led the Big 12 by holding opposing quarterbacks in the conference to a 47.2 completion percentage. Bennett needs a big year from Xavien Howard and Terrell Burt.

5. Talent at the skill positions
Assuming running back Shock Linwood picks up where he left off last year, Baylor is one of the deepest teams in the nation at the skill positions. Linwood averaged 6.9 yards per carry last season and assumes the No. 1 role with Lache Seastrunk off to the NFL. And the receiving corps is loaded with speed, athleticism and depth, including Antwan Goodley (18.9 ypc), Corey Coleman, Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller.

The Debate

Baylor or Oklahoma: Who Wins the Big 12 in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#11 Michigan State Spartans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#11

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Mark Dantonio, 64-29 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Bollman, Dave Warner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pat Narduzzi

Michigan State is coming off one of the best seasons in school history, winning 13 games and finishing No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll. The Spartans claimed the Big Ten title and return a solid foundation to contend once again in 2014. Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford led the way for a dangerous offense, while the defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked third nationally in points allowed per game.

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Previewing Michigan State’s Offense for 2014:

Michigan State still plays power football, but the Spartans can also hurt teams with multiple-receiver sets or by running the read-option with quarterback Connor Cook under center. Cook, the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, possesses great mobility and a big arm. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio likes Cook’s resiliency, and he has placed great confidence in the junior by granting him the power to audible at the line of scrimmage this upcoming season.

Running back Jeremy Langford is back after a 1,422-yard, 18-touchdown rushing campaign. Dantonio will be looking to get the ball to Langford more via the pass as well as run this season.

Five players with starting experience return to an offensive line that allowed 17 sacks last season, tied for third-fewest in the Big Ten. Sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin, a Freshman All-American in 2013, has yet to allow a sack in his career.

The Spartans have a deep and talented corps of pass-catchers. Senior Tony Lippett is the most consistent in the group, but juniors Aaron Burbridge, DeAnthony Arnett and Macgarrett Kings Jr. possess star power. R.J. Shelton emerged in spring and looks to figure into the mix, and Keith Mumphery is a deep threat. The tight ends, green a season ago, could figure more heavily into the passing game.

It’s an experienced offense that became more multiple as last season progressed, and co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have indicated the Spartans won’t slow down.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Michigan State Spartans for 2014:

Previewing Michigan State’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The Spartans lost six starters off a defense that ranked in the top three in the nation in all four major statistical categories, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi insists that the losses don’t mean his unit will drop off. “It’s called opportunity,” Narduzzi says. “We’ve got players.”

Michigan State possesses one of the top defensive end duos in the nation in reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun and fourth-year starter Marcus Rush. The Spartans have plugged the departures at defensive tackle adequately, and that’s before one of the top-ranked defensive line classes — headlined by Malik McDowell and Craig Evans — reports to camp.

The secondary appears sound, led by captain-in-waiting Kurtis Drummond at free safety and returning junior cornerback Trae Waynes. Sophomore corner Darian Hicks and strong safety RJ Williamson enter fall camp the other projected starters.

The biggest question mark is at linebacker, where Michigan State could have an entirely new look. Senior Taiwan Jones is the only returning starter, and he spent spring trying to transition from outside to middle linebacker. Darien Harris and Ed Davis will likely be the other starters, regardless of how the position shakes out.

Previewing Michigan State’s Specialists for 2014:

All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler is expected to return to form after missing spring drills following knee surgery. Kicker Michael Geiger earned Freshman All-America honors last season, setting a Michigan State single-season record by connecting on 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (15-of-16). Shelton is expected back on kick returns and could vie for punt return duties with Kings Jr., who handled the majority of punt returns last season. 

Final Analysis

Michigan State has the potential to make the four-team College Football Playoff with all of the right bounces, but the 2014 schedule appears more challenging than last season’s, starting with a Sept. 6 road trip to play Oregon. The Spartans play Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan at home, but they’ll close the regular season at Penn State.

Michigan State’s defense will be hard-pressed to lead the Big Ten for a fourth consecutive season, so the offense might need to step up and carry the team until six new defensive starters settle in.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Michigan State No. 11:

1. Development of QB Connor Cook
In his first season as Michigan State’s starting quarterback, Cook threw for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Cook was at his best at key moments for the Spartans, including throwing for 304 yards against Ohio State and 332 yards versus Stanford in the Rose Bowl. With an offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback, expect Cook to take the next step in his development in 2014.

2.  Big losses on defense
With five starters back, Michigan State’s defense has some rebuilding to do this offseason. It’s not a drastic overhaul for coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but there are some key players departing. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard is a huge loss, and the defense must replace linebacker Max Bullough and both starters at defensive tackle. After finishing No. 2 nationally in total defense and No. 3 in scoring defense, the Spartans have work to in order to repeat those totals this year. But…

3. Pat Narduzzi’s should find the right answers on defense
As mentioned above, Michigan State is losing a few key pieces to one of the best defenses in the nation. However, with Narduzzi on the sidelines, it’s hard to see the Spartans suffering too much on defense. With ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, along with cornerback Trae Waynes, Michigan State’s defense should be dominant once again. It's probably asking too much for the 2014 unit to match last year's totals, but the Spartans will be among the best in the Big Ten.

4. Favorable home slate
Michigan State’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but the Spartans host Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State – three of their toughest games for 2014. Road dates against Penn State and Oregon will be a huge challenge and potential games with playoff implications. Considering the Buckeyes and Wolverines visit Spartan Stadium, the path to the Big Ten East Division title should go through East Lansing.

5. Promising skill players and offensive line
If Michigan State is going to knock off Ohio State for the second consecutive season, the skill players and offensive line have to take another step forward in their development. Last year, running back Jeremy Langford ran for 1,422 yards and could top the 1,500-mark in 2014. The receiving corps also emerged as a strength, with Tony Lippett becoming as a go-to target for Connor Cook. But the key to the 2014 season will be the offensive line. The Spartans have to replace three starters, including second-team All-Big Ten performer Blake Treadwell. However, center Jack Allen and tackle Jack Conklin are two potential all-conference performers to build around, and there’s experience returning with Travis Jackson at guard and Donavon Clark at tackle. If the offensive line is able to mesh with three new starters, Michigan State should finish higher than No. 11 in 2014.

The Debate

Who Leads the Big Ten in Rushing in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#12 Stanford Cardinal

NATIONAL FORECAST

#12

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: David Shaw, 34-7 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bloomgren | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lance Anderson

David Shaw has guided Stanford to back-to-back Pac-12 titles and three seasons of at least 11 wins. The Cardinal has a few holes to fill for the 2014 season, but Shaw has this program poised to challenge for the Pac-12 championship once again. Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be throwing to one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps, and the offensive line is loaded once again. Stanford’s schedule is tough, but there’s also a lot to like about the Cardinal in 2014.

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Previewing Stanford’s Offense for 2014:

After back-to-back seasons in which Stanford’s primary running back had more than 300 carries, coach David Shaw is looking to return to a committee approach. Remound Wright, Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale and Barry Sanders are all in the mix for carries. Each one does one or two things well, but none, per one offensive coach, does everything well enough, at this point, to seize control of the job.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan returns after a steady 2013 in which he tossed 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He didn’t make the developmental leap the coaches had hoped for, but it’s tough to argue with his winning percentage. Since taking over as the starter midway through 2012, he has a 16–3 record, including a 10–1 mark against ranked teams.

The receiving corps is loaded with playmakers. Ty Montgomery, who caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, is the top returning target, but Devon Cajuste (22.9 ypc) and Michael Rector (30.8 ypc) are both big-time downfield threats.

The Cardinal have to replace four starters on the offensive line, most notably All-America guard David Yankey. But all five projected starters are from the heralded 2012 recruiting class. Left tackle Andrus Peat should get All-America consideration.
With a talented young crop of tight ends, look for Stanford to return to the multi-tight end formations that made them so potent in the days of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Stanford Cardinal for 2014:

 

Previewing Stanford’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Pac-12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Lance Anderson moves into the defensive coordinator spot to replace Derek Mason, who left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt. The Cardinal have produced one of the top pressure defenses in the country the last few years with their 3-4 scheme. And despite personnel losses like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, this group should be no exception.

Defensive end Henry Anderson should be in the running for all-conference honors playing alongside returning tackle David Parry. The defensive front has some youth, but it also has a lot of depth.

Inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley has quietly been one of the best run-stoppers in the conference the last couple of seasons. Replacing Murphy’s production at outside linebacker will be tough, but Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters have experience.
Free safety Jordan Richards should receive All-America consideration, but the Cardinal lose Reynolds at strong safety and will look to the duo of Kyle Olugbode and Zach Hoffpauir to fill the void. Alex Carter, who battled a hip injury in the spring, and Wayne Lyons are both back at their starting corner spots.

Previewing Stanford’s Specialists for 2014:

The Cardinal return both of their specialists, kicker Jordan Williamson and punter Ben Rhyne. Only one other team in the conference attempted more field goals than Stanford last season, and Williamson converted 81.1 percent of his kicks (18-of-22). Rhyne was solid with an average of 42.9 yards per punt, ranking second in the league. Montgomery is just as dangerous as a kick returner as he is as a receiver. He took two kicks back for touchdowns last season and averaged a league-best 30.3 yards per return. The punt return spot is up in the air, but it could fall to Sanders, who split time with Kodi Whitfield last season and averaged 10.1 yards per return.

Final Analysis 

Despite the losses of key players on both sides of the ball, Stanford is once again stocked with top talent at almost every position, and the Cardinal should contend for a third straight Pac-12 title. Oregon still figures to be Stanford’s biggest hurdle in the North Division, making the Nov. 1 date in Eugene the game of the year in the conference.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Stanford No. 12:

1. Tough schedule
Stanford’s schedule features road games against five teams Athlon Sports has predicted will finish in the top 25 at the end of 2014. Additionally, the Cardinal plays USC in a crossover game in the second week of the season. Needless to say, if Stanford manages to finish 11-2 or 12-1, it will have earned a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff.

2. Four starters gone on the offensive line? No problem
Considering Stanford loses four starters on its offensive line, it seems strange to say the front five will be a strength for this team. However, take a look at the returning talent. Left tackle Andrus Peat should be an All-American in 2014, and he will be joined by experienced and talented players like Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, Graham Shuler and Johnny Caspers. It may take a game or two for this unit to mesh, but expect Stanford to have one of the top offensive lines in the nation.

3. Replacing Derek Mason
Promoting from within has worked well for Stanford in recent years, and Shaw hopes to continue that trend in 2014. Lance Anderson will call the defensive signals with Derek Mason taking over as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Anderson has worked on Stanford’s staff since 2007, so he’s familiar with the program and the returning talent. Mason was one of the best assistant coaches in college football. Is Anderson ready to fill that role and keep Stanford’s defense among the best in the nation?

4. Kevin Hogan’s development
In his first full season as Stanford’s starting quarterback, Hogan threw for 2,635 yards and 20 scores. Considering the departure of Tyler Gaffney and the new faces on defense, the Cardinal needs Hogan to take the next step. Considering Hogan returns one of the top receiving corps in the Pac-12, he should develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.

5. New faces on defense
Along with a new coordinator, one of the biggest concerns for Stanford’s defense is how this unit will replace the production from Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Those two players combined for 20.5 sacks last year, which is nearly half of the Cardinal’s season total (44). The defense needs a big year from the new starters at linebacker, which could include Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters. Senior A.J. Tarpley will be asked to pickup some of that production, while getting end Henry Anderson back from injury is also critical for the defense.

The Debate

Stanford or Oregon: Who Wins the Pac-12 North in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

USC opens the Steve Sarkisian era with plenty of optimism. The Trojans return 14 starters from a team that went 10-4 last year, and the coaching staff has stability after a season of uncertainty. Sarkisian hired a good staff and inherits a team capable of winning the Pac-12 South. Quarterback Cody Kessler improved as 2013 progressed, and receiver Nelson Agholor should be an All-American in 2014. Eight starters return from a defense that limited Pac-12 opponents to 25.4 points a game last year.

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Previewing USC’s Offense for 2014:

New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian brings the up-tempo, no-huddle offense to USC, where the old, pro-style, I-formation set wasn’t just merely a staple — it was almost a religion. It will take Trojans boosters a while to adjust to the change, but the weapons are there to make it interesting. Quarterback Cody Kessler is coming off a solid first year as a starter, capped off by an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Javorius “Buck” Allen was the big surprise of 2014 at tailback, and wide receiver Nelson Agholor has the talent to follow in the cleat marks of All-Americans Robert Woods and the sure-to-be-missed Marqise Lee. Randall Telfer, a gifted tight end, is likely to be utilized much more in Sarkisian’s new scheme.

The key will be an offensive line that remains a work in progress. Three important contributors have departed, and several potential starters were held out of spring practice with injuries, leaving the situation slightly muddled heading into fall camp. Max Tuerk, the team’s most versatile linemen, will be asked to replace All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin.

Clay Helton is the offensive coordinator, but Sarkisian, like his controversial predecessor Lane Kiffin, plans to call the plays.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the USC Trojans for 2014:

 

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Pac-12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator, will run out of a 3-4 base defense, as opposed to last year’s 5-2. But because there will be multiple fronts, it will occasionally look the same. The trick will be to play as effectively as last year’s defense, which was often the strength of the team. It helps that All-American Leonard Williams returns to lead a defensive line that could be among the finest in the country. Aggressive Antwaun Woods was the team’s most active defensive player in spring practice at nose tackle. He will be flanked by Williams and either Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or junior college transfer Claude Pelon.

Hayes Pullard, the leading tackler in 2013, will be a stabilizer at one inside linebacker, and the secondary is deeper and more experienced than the one that began the season a year ago. Look for sophomore safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III to be future stars.

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2014:

Punter Kris Albarado, who had a good year, and placekicker Andre Heidari, who was somewhat erratic, both return. Agholor is one of the country’s more exciting return specialists. He averaged 19.1 yards per return and scored two touchdowns on punts last season.

Final Analysis

Sarkisian is ecstatic to be back at talent-rich USC, where he served as an assistant in the Pete Carroll glory years. But his hiring drew a mixed reaction among Trojans boosters. Many felt Ed Orgeron, who turned the season around as interim coach after Kiffin was fired, should have been offered the job. Others thought Boise State’s highly successful Chris Petersen, who succeeded Sarkisian at Washington, would have been a stronger choice. It is up to Sarkisian to silence the doubters.

He has more than enough good players to do it, but much will depend on an uncertain offensive line and his ability to overcome the final season of NCAA sanctions that limit him to a 75-man roster. The schedule is generally favorable, although that shaky offensive front will receive a severe early test in the season’s second week at Stanford, and after two consecutive losses to Jim Mora-coached UCLA, the Trojans must travel to play the cross-town rival Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

A confident Sarkisian is talking titles already, but it might behoove him to simply match last year’s 10-victory season. Anything less and the pressure will be turned up considerably at USC.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking USC No. 14:

1. Scholarship limitations…but also plenty of talent
USC is still dealing with scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, so overall depth is a concern. However, according to the recruiting rankings, the Trojans have the No. 1 roster in the conference. While USC may not have a solid second unit on offense or defense, its starting 22 is as good as any team in the conference.

2. QB Cody Kessler’s development
Under the guidance of coordinator Clay Helton, Kessler gained confidence over the final half of the season. Kessler threw for 288 yards in a 20-17 win over Stanford and torched Fresno State for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Combine Sarkisian’s background on offense, along with the return of Helton, and it’s easy to see Kessler taking another step forward in 2014.

3. Loaded skill positions
There’s little doubt USC will miss receiver Marqise Lee. However, Nelson Agholor is poised for a big year, and George Farmer and Steven Mitchell are back after missing 2013 due to injuries. The running back stable is deep, headlined by Buck Allen and Tre Madden.

4. Concerns on the offensive line
This is where scholarship sanctions come into play. USC must replace center Marcus Martin and tackle Kevin Graf, leaving Chad Wheeler, Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker as returning starters. Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers could start at right guard, while true freshmen Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn are expected to factor into the two-deep. An injury could be a huge blow to the offensive line.

5. The Pac-12’s top defense?
With eight starters back, USC’s defense has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12. New coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the top assistants in the conference and inherits four potential All-Americans in end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard, cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Su’a Cravens.

The Debate

UCLA, USC or Arizona State: Who Wins the Pac-12 South in 2014?

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