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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Urban Meyer, 24-2 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tom Herman, Ed Warinner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash, Luke Fickell

Ohio State opened Urban Meyer’s tenure 24-0, but the Buckeyes finished 2013 on a two-game losing streak. Despite the late-season losses, Ohio State is a slight favorite to win the Big Ten in 2014. Quarterback Braxton Miller returns after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and he will be surrounded by a talented group of skill players, including running back Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Devin Smith. The defense boasts the best line in college football, but the back seven is a concern. A trip to East Lansing in early November will play a huge role in determining the Big Ten’s East Division champion.

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

Previewing Ohio State's Offense for 2014:  

The Buckeyes went 12–0 in Urban Meyer’s first season in Columbus in 2012 and repeated that mark through the 2013 regular season largely on the exploits of quarterback Braxton Miller, backup Kenny Guiton and running back Carlos Hyde, who rambled for more than 100 yards in all but one Big Ten game.

Even with the defense faltering in postseason losses to Michigan State and Clemson, Ohio State clearly displayed it could rack up yards (511.9 ypg) and points (school-record 637) with regularity. And the offense was especially sharp at the outset of games as the Buckeyes outscored foes 229–69 in the first quarter.

It’s hard to imagine this year’s unit being nearly as efficient, especially considering OSU has to replace Hyde, four starting offensive linemen (including Jack Mewhort) and leading receiver Corey “Philly” Brown.

Still, Miller is back to carry the day, and Meyer continues to surround him with speedsters with game-changing ability. True freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon, for example, figure to mix in at the skill positions with the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, and veteran wideouts Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.

Taylor Decker will have to anchor the line at left tackle, Mewhort’s old spot, while guard Pat Elflein, center  Chad Lindsay (a post-graduate transfer from Alabama) and others try to provide stability. Tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are blocking and pass-catching assets.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Ohio State Buckeyes for 2014:


Previewing Ohio 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.
Meyer believes he has one of the premier defensive lines in the country, and a look at the returning personnel supports the theory. Senior Michael Bennett, ticketed to play an interior spot, is wily and tough, and another former end, Adolphus Washington, also is making a successful transition inside. Ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are heat-seeking missiles who give tackles fits.

The linebacking corps lost leading tackler Ryan Shazier to the NFL, but Joshua Perry, who clicked during the second half of last season, will take over his weak-side spot. Local product Darron Lee has the lead on the strong side after showing he has the tenacity and speed for the position. Senior Curtis Grant turned in his best spring according to Meyer and could be in for a productive season at middle linebacker. Then again, Grant has to hold off freshman Raekwon McMillan, who enrolled early and stood out during spring drills.

The secondary will feature senior Doran Grant, who is on track to be OSU’s next award-winning corner, while Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley also will check receivers. The safeties — Tyvis Powell and either Vonn Bell or Cam Burrows — are highly athletic and improving tacklers. This unit needs to develop in a hurry, though, as the Buckeyes struggled against the pass last season.

Previewing Ohio State's Specialists for 2014:

The Buckeyes need a new kicker and appear to have found one in rugged freshman Sean Nuernberger. Cameron Johnston made a freshman splash at punter last season and already appears to be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. Special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs again will put a premium on kick coverage, and the Buckeyes have enough top-flight athletes to make some noise on returns.

Final Analysis 

On one hand, Ohio State has too many unproven players, including several seniors with less-than-inspiring résumés. On the other, the roster is littered with raw athleticism and speed, which can cover up a lot of imperfections. Plus, the defensive line could be dynamite. This would appear to be a transition year if it weren’t for the fiery drive of Meyer and the unique talents of Miller. If the slick QB has a Heisman-like season, OSU likely will compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Ohio State No. 3:

1. Improvement on defense
Despite losing linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, Ohio State’s defense should improve off a disappointing 2013 season. The Buckeyes allowed 5.4 yards per play in Big Ten games and finished fifth in the league by allowing 24 points per game (Big Ten-only contests). Seven starters return for 2014, and this unit was bolstered by the addition of two new assistants. Larry Johnson Sr. comes to Ohio State from Penn State to tutor the defensive line, and Chris Ash was hired from Arkansas to serve as co-defensive coordinator. Although the Buckeyes didn’t have a vintage Ohio State defense last year, the returning talent and additions on the coaching staff suggest improvement is coming in 2014.

2. Braxton Miller’s development
Kenny Guiton expired his eligibility after the Orange Bowl, leaving a significant void at backup quarterback. While replacing a No. 2 signal-caller may seem like a small issue for Ohio State, Miller missed two games in 2013 and was also injured in 2012. When he’s on the field, the senior is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and made progress as a passer in 2013. Miller raised his completion percentage to 63.5 after posting a 58.3 mark in 2012. He also recorded 36 passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2013, an increase from 26 in 2012. Miller still has more development ahead, but there were positive signs last season and another step forward is expected in 2014.

3. Emerging talent at the skill positions
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman was busy this spring, as Ohio State started the process of replacing running back Carlos Hyde (1,521 yards) and receiver Corey Brown (10 touchdown catches in 2013). However, the cupboard is far from bare, and there’s hope the 2014 edition of the Buckeyes’ skill players will be even better than the 2013 version. Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball are capable options at running back, with Dontre Wilson a breakout candidate in the hybrid running back/receiver role. The Buckeyes need more consistency at receiver, and there’s veteran experience with Devin Smith and Evan Spencer returning. Urban Meyer is counting on freshmen Curtis Samuel, James Clark and Jalin Marshall, along with sophomore Michael Thomas to emerge in the receiving corps. This unit is unsettled, but there’s also a lot of talent.

4. The nation’s No. 1 defensive line
Urban Meyer is no stranger to elite defensive lines from his tenure at Florida, and the third-year coach at Ohio State has already assembled the nation’s deepest and best defensive lines for 2014. Noah Spence is suspended for the first two games, but Joey Bosa and Steve Miller are capable replacements. The interior is set with Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington – two potential All-Americans – and backups Tommy Schutt and Michael Hill are solid. Ohio State finished ninth nationally against the run and averaged three sacks per game in 2013. Expect this unit to dominate opposing Big Ten offensive lines in 2014.

5. Overall edge in talent and No. 1 coach in the Big Ten
The debate between Ohio State and Michigan State at Athlon Sports for the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten was not an easy one. The Spartans have defeated the Buckeyes in two out of the last three years and lost by one point in 2012. The gap between Michigan State and Ohio State is very small. But if you are looking for an edge, the Buckeyes have an advantage in talent in recruiting rankings. Ohio State has averaged the No. 7 class nationally from the last five years, while Michigan State ranks No. 30. Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer are two of the nation’s top-10 coaches, but an edge goes to Meyer. The Buckeyes have question marks to address, but the Spartans also must replace several key players from last year’s team. With an advantage in talent, combined with the Big Ten’s top quarterback and head coach, Ohio State is a slight favorite over Michigan State to win the conference in 2014.

The Debate

Is Braxton Miller the Big Ten's Best Quarterback?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#4 Oklahoma Sooners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#4

Big 12 PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Bob Stoops, 160-39 (15 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jay Norvell, Josh Heupel | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Stoops

With 16 starters and a favorable schedule, Oklahoma is poised for a run at college football’s national title. The Sooners ended 2013 on a high note by defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The victory over the Crimson Tide provided plenty of offseason momentum and showcased the development of quarterback Trevor Knight. The sophomore is the x-factor for Oklahoma in 2014. If Knight takes the next step in his development, his emergence will add to a team that has one of the nation’s top defenses, as well as a favorable path to an undefeated record.

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

Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense for 2014:

Oklahoma played three quarterbacks last year against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale. Then Trevor Knight provided clarity for the position, producing a breakthrough performance in a stunning Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, whom he torched for 348 yards and four touchdowns, walking off with the Most Valuable Player trophy and walking into 2014 as the No. 1 quarterback.

Knight will still have to prove he can be consistent, an issue that plagued him as a redshirt freshman a year ago. But the belief inside the program is that the Sooners have something special in Knight, a dual-threat operator who’s been creating a buzz since arriving on campus. Knight will be pushing those around him, too, as the Sooners move ahead without their top rushers, receivers and linemen from 2013.

At Oklahoma, there’s a “next up” mentality. And it’s in play again, amid a sense that there’s a cast of playmakers ready for their shot. Sophomores Alex Ross and Keith Ford are former premium prospects working to earn the feature running back role, yet both will have to hold off incoming freshman and five-star recruit Joe Mixon — a tantalizing combination of speed and power.

Sterling Shepard gives the Sooners a proven and productive receiver who’s ready to thrive as the primary target. Beyond Shepard, inexperience is a concern, although coaches are confident reliable receivers will emerge, including at tight end, which gets renewed emphasis in the passing game.

The offensive line loses All-America center Gabe Ikard, yet the unit is experienced and anchored by senior tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Oklahoma Sooners for 2014:

 

Previewing Oklahoma’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.
The front seven projects to be among the best in the Big 12, if not the nation. On the line, there’s talent and depth, headlined by first-team All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, who produced 5.5 sacks a year ago as a sophomore. Linebacker may be the team’s greatest strength, starting with Eric Striker, who led OU with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss. He’s an attacking and disrupting presence whose energy flows through the entire defense. “He’s not only a great player, he has a great feel for the game, and that’s what great players do,” says defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

Dominique Alexander, the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2013, also returns after finishing second on the team with 80 tackles. The biggest concern exiting spring was the status of leading tackler Frank Shannon, who was facing possible disciplinary action for an alleged sexual assault.

In the secondary, youngsters will be under fire to hold up the back end, and perhaps, the defense overall. Cornerback Zack Sanchez returns off a Freshman All-America season that saw him lead the team in passes defended. And there’s optimism that OU’s next wave of defensive backs have simply waited their turn.

Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists for 2014:

Michael Hunnicutt made 24-of-27 field goal attempts in leading the Sooners in scoring last fall when he was a semifinalist for the Groza Award. Jed Barnett averaged 41.7 yards per punt, with more than a third of his boots downed inside the 20. There’s a search for return men, but several candidates are on hand, with Mixon and Shepard offering intriguing possibilities.

Final Analysis

The pulse of a program changed dramatically with wins over in-state rival Oklahoma State and Alabama at the end of last season. Reasons for optimism are plenty, from Knight to a talented cast of playmakers and a stout defense to a schedule set up to accommodate ambitious goals.

These Sooners can win. And win big.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Oklahoma No. 4

1. Trevor Knight’s development
No, we aren’t expecting to see the same Trevor Knight that gashed Alabama’s secondary for 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl, but he should continue his development in 2014. Although the performance against Alabama was clearly Knight’s best game last year, he also played a big role in Oklahoma’s 41-31 victory over Kansas State by accounting for 253 total yards and two scores. Even with the turnover at receiver, Knight is set to show major improvement as a passer and will continue to hurt defenses with his legs.

2. An elite defense?
Oklahoma’s defense allowed 5.4 yards per play in Big 12 games last season and finished No. 2 in the conference by allowing 22.1 points per game through 13 contests. With eight starters back (nine if Frank Shannon returns to the team), the Sooners should have one of the nation’s top defenses. The front seven is loaded with talent, and the return of tackle Jordan Phillips will help improve a run defense that struggled at times in 2013. Replacing Aaron Colvin is coordinator Mike Stoops’ biggest offseason priority, but sophomore Zack Sanchez is ready to step up into the No. 1 role. With speed, talent and depth, Oklahoma will have one of the nation’s best defenses in 2014.

3. The schedule
Outside of Florida State, the team with the easiest path to an unbeaten record among programs in a power conference has to be Oklahoma. The Sooners host Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor and play Texas in Dallas. The toughest road games would appear to be against West Virginia and TCU, as well as a matchup at Texas Tech one week after hosting Baylor. Without a tough non-conference game or road date against a top-25 team for 2014, the Sooners have a favorable path to college football’s playoff.

4. A consistent winner at Oklahoma
The Big 12 picks meeting at Athlon Sports featured healthy debate between Baylor and Oklahoma for the No. 1 spot in the conference. The edge went to the Sooners, and a big reason why was the overall consistency and recruiting level of the program. Oklahoma has won at least 10 games in seven out of the last eight years, and Bob Stoops is one of the nation’s best coaches. Outside of Texas, the Sooners have the best roster (according to recruiting rankings) in the Big 12). Baylor should be one of the nation’s top 10-15 teams in 2014, but the Bears have to reload on defense and replace standout guard Cyril Richardson. With an edge in talent, a favorable schedule and a rising star at quarterback, Oklahoma should reclaim the top spot in the Big 12 this year.

5. Special Teams
Special teams are often underrated or forgotten in preseason predictions. The Sooners have one of the nation’s top kickers in Michael Hunnicutt, and punter Jed Barnett averaged 41.7 yards per kick last year. Jalen Saunders will be missed on punt returns, while Roy Finch departs as the top kick returner. However, incoming freshman Joe Mixon could help in this department, and top receiver Sterling Shepard may replace Saunders as the top punt returner.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

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

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

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

Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2014: 

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

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

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

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

 

Previewing Auburn’s Defense for 2014: 

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

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

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

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2014: 

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

Final Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#6 Oregon Ducks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#6

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Helfrich, 11-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scott Frost | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Pellum

A late-season knee injury to quarterback Marcus Mariota ended Oregon’s national title hopes last year, but the Ducks are poised for a run at a spot in college football new four-team playoff in 2014. Mariota turned down the NFL for another season in Eugene, and the junior is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including five starters back on the offensive line. The defense is under the direction of a new coordinator (Don Pellum), but five starters are back, including likely All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu at cornerback. It's a close call for the favorite in the Pac-12 North, with Athlon Sports picking Oregon as a slight favorite over Stanford.

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

Previewing Oregon’s Offense for 2014:

A leading Heisman candidate until his knee injury in 2013, Marcus Mariota was considered a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he decided another year of college seasoning was better for his long-term future. He’d do well to stay healthy, because there’s no obvious replacement on the depth chart.

It’s a different story at running back, where junior Byron Marshall is the Pac-12’s top returning rusher after a 1,038-yard season. Young backups Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman may be even more gifted, if less consistent or experienced.

All five starters are back on the offensive line, led by centers Hroniss Grasu and tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher. Guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt will look to be more physical in 2014, to help address Oregon’s red-zone woes last fall. All the depth and experience in the backfield and on the line could signal a more run-based attack this season, particularly considering the loss of the top four receivers from last season, including junior Bralon Addison after his knee injury in the spring. Keanon Lowe and Dwayne Stanford look like solid if unspectacular starters, and Devon Allen and Darren Carrington look like future playmakers out wide.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Oregon Ducks for 2014:


Previewing Oregon’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.
The Ducks will need to prove on the field in 2014 that their defense can stop powerful, pro-style rushing attacks, and will do so under a new coordinator, with Don Pellum having replaced longtime assistant Nick Aliotti. Pellum pledged to improve Oregon’s fundamentals, demand more discipline and streamline things schematically so that the Ducks can play faster.

Projected defensive line starters DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead average about 6'6" and 295 pounds, but after being pushed around by Stanford and Arizona they worked hard to get stronger in the weight room this winter. “It’s a big priority,” Buckner says. “You look at us and we don’t really pass the eyeball test. It’s a really big emphasis.”

Veterans Tony Washington and Tyson Coleman should hold down the two outside linebacker spots, and in the middle starters Rodney Hardrick and Derrick Malone return along with 2013 backups Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker. They’ll work on getting better penetration this season.

The surprising decision by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to return for his senior season saved the Ducks from needing to replace all four starters in the secondary. Seniors Dior Mathis and Erick Dargan seem poised to finally win starting spots at corner and safety, respectively, and the Ducks believe they have a future star in redshirt freshman safety Tyree Robinson.

Previewing Oregon’s Specialists for 2014: 

Matt Wogan capped an inconsistent true freshman season with three field goals in the Alamo Bowl, giving him confidence entering 2014. He’s also expected to handle punt duties as a sophomore. Addison’s injury cost the Ducks their punt returner. De’Anthony Thomas will be missed on kickoff returns, though Tyner’s speed makes him an intriguing option there.

Final Analysis

With 11 wins, a bowl victory and a No. 9 final ranking, Mark Helfrich experienced unprecedented success for a first-year Oregon coach. It’s a reflection of how high the bar is now set that there are still whispers around Eugene about whether Helfrich really was the right guy to replace Chip Kelly. An Alamo Bowl victory over Texas allowed Oregon to finish on a high note, but listless losses to Stanford and Arizona, in which the Cardinal and Wildcats pushed the Ducks around at the line of scrimmage, lingered in the minds of coaches, players and fans alike.

“Those two losses hit us last year,” Hardrick says. “We’re not satisfied with where we’re at.”

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Oregon No. 6:

1. Marcus Mariota is back
Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the No. 1 quarterback in college football, but Marcus Mariota isn’t far behind. Despite a knee injury late last year, Mariota threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. Mariota also tossed only four interceptions on 386 attempts and averaged 9.1 yards per play. After considering the NFL Draft, Mariota decided to return to Eugene for his junior year, ensuring the Ducks will be a factor in college football’s new playoff format.

2. Favorable schedule
Deciding between Stanford or Oregon as the No. 1 team in the Pac-12 North is no easy task. However, one key factor in the preseason debate was the schedule. The Ducks have an easier path to a division title, as the Cardinal must play five of Athlon’s top 25 teams for 2014 on the road. Oregon misses USC and Arizona State in crossover play and hosts Washington and Stanford.

3. Who steps up at receiver?
With Bralon Addison out with a knee injury, the Ducks are missing their top three receivers from last year. Talent certainly isn’t an issue here, but Oregon will have some transition in the passing attack. Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington and Chance Allen must become a bigger part of the offense, along with one of the nation’s top trios at tight end in Johnny Mundt, Evan Baylis and Pharaoh Brown. With a matchup against Michigan State in Week 2, this unit needs to develop in a hurry.

4. Transition on defense
Veteran defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti retired after Oregon’s win over Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Long-time assistant Don Pellum was promoted to defensive play-caller, and he will have only five returning starters to work with in 2014. While the Ducks have transition on defense, this unit has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The line returns potential breakout players in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, and the linebacking corps will be among the best in the Pac-12. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu should be a first-team All-American in 2014. Stopping the run has to be a priority for Pellum, and his tweaks for the defensive scheme will be important with Michigan State coming up in Week 2 and then Stanford on Nov. 1.

5. Improving offensive line
With five returning starters, Oregon’s offensive line could develop into one of the best in the nation. Of course, that assumes tackle Tyler Johnstone is able to return at full strength from a knee injury suffered in the Alamo Bowl. Improving the play from the guard position is a priority, especially as Oregon needs to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota upright and healthy for a full season.

The Debate

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

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