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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#8 Georgia Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 126-45 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bobo | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

After a season filled with injuries and bad luck, Georgia is poised to challenge for the SEC title in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason gained valuable experience late in the year, and the offense should benefit from a healthy Todd Gurley at running back and Malcolm Mitchell at receiver. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an instant impact at Florida State last season, and the Bulldogs hope for a similar development in 2014.

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Previewing Georgia’s Offense for 2014:

The Hutson Mason era got off to an early start last year, and that may prove invaluable to Georgia. Instead of Mason’s first real game action coming this year against Clemson and South Carolina, the senior enters the season with two-and-a-half games under his belt.

Mason doesn’t have as strong an arm as Aaron Murray, who re-wrote most of Georgia’s passing records. But Mason knows the offense, and gained the confidence of coaches and teammates during the four years he served as Murray’s top backup. More important, Mason has most of Murray’s supporting cast.

Tailback Todd Gurley is a Heisman candidate if healthy, which he wasn’t last year. Even at less than 100 percent, Gurley gives the Bulldogs a different dimension on offense: It’s no coincidence that Georgia went 1–2 in the three full games he missed.  The Bulldogs are very deep at tailback, especially if Keith Marshall returns after tearing his ACL last year. But Gurley is on another level.

Receiver is also a deep position, bolstered by the expected return of Malcolm Mitchell, who also tore his ACL last year. Seniors Chris Conley (the team’s leading returning receiver) and Michael Bennett are as solid as they come. Justin Scott-Wesley and Reggie Davis are downfield threats. And at tight end, Jay Rome is ready to move into a bigger role after serving as a backup the past two years.

The offensive line, meanwhile, lost three starters, but experienced players will step into their spots. Junior tackle John Theus seems poised to live up to his hype, and senior center David Andrews is an underrated anchor. Still, in the long run the line is the biggest question mark on this offense.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Georgia Bulldogs for 2014:

 

Previewing Georgia’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.
Georgia gave up a program record for points last year, and the most yards per game (375.5) of the Mark Richt era, and a few days after the season ended defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bolted for the same job at Louisville. Richt needed just two days to hire Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State, in a move that could help Georgia twice over.

Not only is it a fresh start for the entire defense, but Pruitt also coaches the secondary, which was the weak point of Georgia’s defense in 2013. The run defense was actually solid (sixth in the SEC), and the 33 sacks were the second-most in the conference. The front seven essentially returns intact. Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson emerged as a first-team All-SEC pick, and outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are poised for bigger things.

So the defense’s prospects all come down to the secondary, which wasn’t helped by the offseason dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and the transfer of cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Tray Matthews. But there is plenty of highly recruited talent back there. Pruitt just needs to find the right parts and figure out what Grantham and his staff couldn’t.

Previewing Georgia’s Specialists for 2014:

Junior Marshall Morgan is coming off an all-SEC year in which he hit 22-of-24 field goals. Punter is a bigger concern, after junior Collin Barber was inconsistent last year. One of the more intriguing new players to watch is Isaiah McKenzie, a speedy recruit who the Bulldogs hope can serve as their return specialist. “He’s a very dynamic return man,” Richt says.

Final Analysis

Barring the unforeseen, Georgia’s prospects come down to Mason and the defense. Mason’s spring performance provided some encouragement; then again, it was only spring practice. The defense, based simply on personnel, should be improved, and if Pruitt can push the right buttons, it could one of the best in the SEC. If Mason is good, the defense is better and Gurley is healthy, Georgia can be a national title contender. But none of that is assured.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Georgia No. 8:

1. Why Georgia over South Carolina?
The Georgia vs. South Carolina prediction was one of the toughest decisions in Athlon’s preseason picks. The Gamecocks host the Bulldogs, but after a year of bad luck and key injuries, the guess here is Georgia rebounds in 2014. Something to keep in mind: The Bulldogs lost four games by five points or less and had a negative turnover margin (-7). Both of those numbers could easily reverse with a healthier group of skill players.

2. Hutson Mason’s late-season experience
Even though Aaron Murray’s late-season ACL tear was a huge loss for Georgia’s offense, Hutson Mason was able to gain valuable experience as the No. 1 quarterback. Mason threw for 299 yards and two scores in a win over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws against Nebraska in awful weather conditions against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. With games against Clemson and South Carolina to open the season, Mason’s experience should pay off for Georgia’s offense.

3. The addition of Jeremy Pruitt
Pruitt inherited a veteran Florida State unit last season and helped guide the Seminoles to a No. 1 finish in scoring defense. The Bulldogs allowed 5.7 yards per play last season (conference-only games) and finished 11th in SEC action by giving up 31.8 points per game. Those two numbers should easily improve under Pruitt, especially with one of the top linebacking corps in the nation. The secondary is a concern, but the Bulldogs’ front seven will help alleviate concerns against the pass.

4. Todd Gurley…the best RB in college football?
When healthy, Gurley is arguably the No. 1 running back in the nation. He played in 10 games last season and finished with 989 yards and 10 scores and caught 37 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns. Gurley was limited for most of the year due to an ankle injury, but he will return at full strength this fall. Keeping Gurley is a priority, especially if backup Keith Marshall is limited due to a torn ACL early in 2014. With a new starter under center, expect Gurley to see a heavy workload in 2014.

5. Good schedule
Sure, a road trip to South Carolina in Week 2 is a challenge, but if there’s a time to play the Gamecocks, early in the season against a rebuilt defense is the best moment. Georgia also hosts a key non-conference game against Clemson and has a bye week before playing Florida. The crossover matchup against Auburn is in Athens, while fellow East title contender South Carolina has to go to Auburn in late October.

The Debate

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

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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.

The Debate

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.

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

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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