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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#15 Wisconsin Badgers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#15

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Gary Andersen, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

The Badgers return only eight starters, but the expectations remain high in Madison. And even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin is still positioned for a run at the Big Ten title. Running back Melvin Gordon headlines an offense that should be one of the best in the nation on the ground. Four starters return on the line, including tackles Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz. The receiving corps needs to be revamped, and quarterback play is a concern. However, a rebuilt defense and solid rushing attack should be enough to remain a top 25 team in 2014.

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

Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2014:

Tanner McEvoy still gets questions about a contingency plan if he isn’t the Wisconsin starting quarterback. Blame that on the junior playing so well at safety last season after getting thrown into the position after the season started. Make no mistake, it’s quarterback or bust for McEvoy, who will compete for the starting job in camp with junior Joel Stave, the returning starter. Stave is 13–6 as a starter, but a costly decision not to slide on a scramble in the Capital One Bowl led to an AC joint injury in his throwing shoulder. That limited him in the spring, opening the door for McEvoy.

Second-year coach Gary Andersen prefers dual-threat quarterbacks, and McEvoy brings the read option to an already potent running game. Melvin Gordon and James White combined to rush for 3,053 yards last season, the most ever at the FBS level by two teammates. White is gone — and many fans believe Gordon should have left, too. Gordon was eligible for the draft as a third-year sophomore and likely would have been the first back taken.

Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry in his career, yet has never been the featured back and has carried the ball more than 20 times in only two games. Sophomore Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards on 67 carries in his first season and will share the load.
The offensive line is as big and nasty as ever. Five players have started five or more games, led by senior right tackle Rob Havenstein (6'8", 327 pounds), who has 28 career starts.

The question on offense is the passing game. The 336 passes Stave attempted in 2013 were the most in school history, and his 2,494 passing yards ranked fifth. He also threw too many interceptions (13) and frequently missed open receivers.

The three players who caught the most passes last season all departed. At least two of the five receivers signed in February must contribute immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Wisconsin Badgers 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.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2014:

Get used to seeing undersized, explosive athletes on defense, because the Badgers have put a premium on speed. They have sacrificed size, but the goal is to get more big plays — turnovers, sacks and tackles for a loss.

The defensive front seven is completely new, led by senior nose guard Warren Herring, who will also play end to bolster the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Alec James was involved in one of several position changes, going from outside linebacker to defensive end. James will also help pressure the quarterback, along with outside linebacker Vince Biegel.

Replacing All-America linebacker Chris Borland is a concern. Derek Landisch is a leader and playmaker, but Marcus Trotter doesn’t run well and must prove he can play against spread opponents.

The secondary was a big issue last season, but three starters return in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2014:

Incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone was signed to address a shaky field-goal situation. He will have to beat out incumbent Jack Russell. Kenzel Doe, who tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff returns (26.5 average) last season and had a 91-yard kickoff return for a TD in the bowl game, will be the No. 1 returner.

Final Analysis

Losses in the final two games against Penn State and South Carolina spoiled what could have been a special first season for Andersen. A large senior class departed, but there is enough talent to contend for the Big Ten West title if a quarterback emerges. Opening the season against LSU in Houston ramped up the urgency in spring, but the schedule is favorable after that — the Badgers host Nebraska and do not play the projected top four teams from the Big Ten East.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Wisconsin No. 15:

1. Significant personnel losses
Wisconsin should be able to effectively reload on both sides of the ball, but there will be a transition period in 2014. With only eight returning starters, concerns at quarterback and receiver, it’s hard to pick the Badgers to challenge Michigan State or Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

2. Question marks under center
Will it be Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy taking the first snap against LSU this year? Stave threw for 2,494 yards last season, but McEvoy was coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Andy Ludwig’s pick to challenge Stave in 2013. McEvoy played safety last year and moved back under center this spring. Stave’s shoulder injury added to the uncertainty.

3. Rushing attack and offensive line
Boasting one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks and offensive lines has become an annual tradition in Madison. The Badgers return four starters on the line, while running back Melvin Gordon should be a Heisman contender. Even with quarterback concerns, Wisconsin’s offense should have no trouble moving the ball with a rushing attack that ranks among the best in the nation.

4. Rebuilding on defense
Take a look at Wisconsin’s depth chart for 2014 and it's easy to see there are a ton of new faces stepping into the starting lineup. The Badgers return only three starters on defense, with standouts like Chris Borland, Dezmen Southward and Beau Allen expiring their eligibility. Despite the personnel turnover, there are reasons to be optimistic. Coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda are sharp defensive minds, and there is experience returning at linebacker Vince Biegel and Derek Landisch, underrated nose guard Warren Herring and cornerback Sojourn Shelton. The opener at LSU will be tough, but Wisconsin’s defense should get better as the season progresses.

5. Favorable schedule
While the depth chart has a lot of holes, the schedule is a huge positive for Wisconsin. The Badgers catch Rutgers and Maryland in crossover play, while Nebraska visits Madison. Sure, there’s a road trip to Iowa and a potential swing game at Northwestern, but Wisconsin’s 2014 slate is one of the easiest in the Big Ten.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#16 Arizona State Sun Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#16

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Todd Graham, 18-9 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Norvell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Graham, Keith Patterson

The Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South last year, finishing with a 10-4 overall record and a 8-1 mark in conference play. Todd Graham’s team is poised to make another run at the conference championship, but Arizona State’s defense has to be rebuilt after losing several key contributors. Tackle Will Sutton, linebacker Carl Bradford, cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby are huge losses for new coordinator Keith Patterson. With only two returning starters on defense, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on an explosive offense.

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

Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2014: 

The Sun Devils should have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12. Start with senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who had 37 total touchdowns and a combined 4,243 yards from scrimmage (3,635 passing, 608 rushing) last season. Kelly doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s adept at throwing on the run and escaping the rush. His challenge this year is to play as well against the Pac-12’s top teams as he does some of the conference’s lesser foes.

ASU’s running game will survive the loss of leading rusher Marion Grice because junior D.J. Foster is ready to assume a full-time role carrying the ball. Foster isn’t as strong as Grice between the tackles, but he’s more explosive. He’s also a terrific receiver and will be a big weapon for Kelly out of the backfield.

Foster and Kelly will be aided by an offensive line that should be able to weather the loss of two starters, including all-conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg. The addition of guard Christian Westerman, a transfer from Auburn, will allow Jamil Douglas to move from guard to left tackle.

If there’s a question mark it’s the wide receiving corps. Jaelen Strong is one of the best receivers in the country, a 6'3", 212-pound Larry Fitzgerald clone who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns last season. But there’s little returning depth behind Strong, which makes it imperative that junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale can produce immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Arizona State Sun Devils for 2014:

Previewing Arizona State’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.

It’s highly unlikely that any team in the country has more holes to fill on defense than ASU, which lost nine starters on that side of the ball, including both of its starting cornerbacks, sack leader Carl Bradford and two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Will Sutton.

The Sun Devils will have no choice but to rely on a mix of junior college recruits — particularly along the defensive line — freshmen and untested sophomores. The inexperience could be a factor early in the season; ASU plays UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in a one-month span starting Sept. 25.

Along the front, the Sun Devils have to hope that transfers Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey can step in and play right away. There’s simply not a lot of depth at the position. There are similar concerns at linebacker. True freshman D.J. Calhoun looked great in spring ball, but is he ready for Pac-12 competition? And the Sun Devils haven’t been able to find a ready-made replacement at Devil linebacker for Bradford. Unless that player steps up in the fall, ASU’s pass rush will be compromised.

The secondary? Well, the only sure thing is safety Damarious Randall. ASU is replacing both of its corners for the first time in four years. The Sun Devils had 21 interceptions last season; the returning players have a total of four.

Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Sun Devils’ kicking game should be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez — 25-of-30 last year — but the return and coverage teams were problems and are points of emphasis this season for coach Todd Graham. ASU needs to find a home-run returner and make better use of its athleticism in kickoff and punt coverage. 

Final Analysis 

Graham talks big — and so far has backed up his words. But given the massive remake of the defense, it’s hard to imagine the Sun Devils winning a second straight Pac-12 South title. ASU will attack offensively and score a lot of points, but it might also be on the wrong end of 45–42 games. ASU has to play at USC, Washington, Oregon State and arch-rival Arizona and also has a difficult non-conference game against Notre Dame in early November. A nine-win season would deserve applause.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Arizona State No. 16:

1. One of the Pac-12’s top offenses
Seven starters return from an offense that averaged 41.2 points per game in Pac-12 action last year. Quarterback Taylor Kelly should be a lock for all-conference honors, and receiver Jaelen Strong should be better in his second year in Tempe. With the concerns on defense, Arizona State will have to score at least 40 points per game in Pac-12 contests to win the South in 2014.

2. Rebuilding effort on defense
New co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is essentially starting from scratch on defense. The Sun Devils return only two starters and will be relying on several new faces for immediate contributions. Linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall are tasked with becoming the new leaders for Arizona State’s defense this year.

3. UCLA and USC return more talent
Returning starters aren’t necessarily the best way to judge how teams will perform the next year, but UCLA and USC have more talent back on campus for 2014. With Arizona State’s personnel losses, it’s going to take some time for this team to rebuild in order to compete with the Bruins and Trojans.

4. The schedule
With a rebuilding roster, a schedule that features a September game against UCLA, combined with matchups against USC, Stanford and Washington in October isn’t the ideal situation for Graham. However, the second half of the season could allow Arizona State time to build momentum in the rankings. The Sun Devils have to travel to Oregon State and Arizona and host Notre Dame in that span, but the final five games are favorable for Arizona State to pad its win total.

5. Todd Graham’s track record
In eight years as a head coach on the FBS level, Todd Graham only has one losing season and won at least 10 games in three out of his four years at Tulsa. With Arizona State recruiting well, combined with an excellent staff in Tempe, the Sun Devils shouldn’t take too much of a step back in the win column. 

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#17 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#17

Big 12 PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

It’s a new era in Austin. Mack Brown resigned in December, and Charlie Strong was hired from Louisville to return Texas to the ranks of the Big 12 elite. The Longhorns are just 16-11 in conference play over the last three years, but there’s hope for improvement in 2014. Strong inherits plenty of talent and should be able to maximize the roster better than the previous staff. Quarterback play is a concern, but the rushing attack and defense should be solid.  

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

Previewing Texas’ Offense for 2014:

Quarterback and the offensive line are the two biggest questions on offense, which makes the first year of the Charlie Strong era hard to predict.

David Ash (63 percent passer, 30 TDs, 18 INTs in 21 starts) missed the final week of spring football after having surgery to repair a fractured left foot. And Ash has to prove he can take a hit — literally — after missing the final nine games of 2013 with ongoing concussion symptoms from a head injury.

Max Wittek was expected to transfer to Texas, but he won't graduate from USC until December. With Wittek out of the picture, coach Charlie Strong could look to the junior college ranks for another option. If Ash fails to win the job, coaches would look to still-developing sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or incoming freshman Jerrod Heard. Keeping Ash healthy is a priority with the inexperience on the depth chart at quarterback.

“We don’t need a great player, we just need someone to take control of it,” Strong says of the quarterback position.

Running back should be a strength as 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards return with seniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and junior Johnathan Gray.

Four of Texas’ top five receivers from last season return, including senior Jaxon Shipley, a security blanket on third down; emerging deep threats Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders; and explosive slot receiver Daje Johnson. Tight end Geoff Swaim also figures to play a key role in the offense of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.

Texas has to replace three starters from an offensive line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2013. Outside of center Dom Espinosa, who has started every game of his college career (39), and right tackle Kennedy Estelle (eight starts), the offensive line is unproven.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Texas Longhorns 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.

Previewing Texas’ Defense for 2014:

The front four is the strength of the defense, led by end Cedric Reed (10 sacks in 2013) and tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond “Tank” Jackson. Keep an eye on sophomore end Caleb Bluiett, who impressed coaches in his battle with junior Shiro Davis to replace Jackson Jeffcoat.

Jordan Hicks is the team’s best linebacker and a key leader. But he’s been injury-prone. The defense has underachieved each of the past two seasons, in large part because Hicks missed 10 games in 2012 (groin) and nine games in 2013 (torn Achilles). Texas needs Hicks to stay healthy and for middle linebacker Steve Edmond and outside linebacker Peter Jinkens to take the next step.

The secondary is loaded with talent and speed. But Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said in the spring that the group lacked confidence and needed to play with the swagger of senior cornerback Quandre Diggs.

Previewing Texas’ Specialists for 2014:

Gone is Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera, who made 20-of-22 field goals while also punting in 2013. Junior Nick Rose and sophomore Nick Jordan are battling it out for kicker, and seniors William Russ and Michael Davidson are vying to be the punter. Texas needs to get much more out of its return game.

Final Analysis

If the quarterback and offensive line can play with some consistency, Texas has the talent and depth at running back and receiver to be potent on offense. The defense has a chance to be strong if the back seven can match the strength and intensity of the front four. The schedule is not forgiving early as the Longhorns will face BYU, UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma — all by mid-October. Any improvement from last year’s 8–5 record would probably be seen as a good first year for Strong.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Texas No. 17:

1. Upgraded coaching staff
Mack Brown won a lot of games in Austin, but Charlie Strong is the right coach to get Texas back on track. The Longhorns slipped in recent years and failed to maximize some of their elite recruiting hauls. Strong developed talent at Louisville and should have more to work with at Texas. He is joined by veteran play-caller Shawn Watson, one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches in Joe Wickline, and Vance Bedford at defensive coordinator. Strong will need some time to establish a foundation to compete for a national championship. However, this staff should be able to take advantage of the returning talent (No. 1 ranked roster in the Big 12) to push for nine wins in 2014.

2. Quarterback play is a concern
If the Longhorns had any stability at quarterback, this team could be picked higher in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. However, David Ash missed most of last year due to a concussion, and he suffered a foot injury in the spring that will keep him on the sidelines until the fall. Ash has made steady improvement, but how much rust will there be after missing most of 2013? If Ash isn’t 100 percent, Texas will have to turn to sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or true freshman Jerrod Heard.

3. Best backfield in the Big 12
With the uncertainty at quarterback, expect the Longhorns to lean heavily on their ground attack. Malcolm Brown rushed for 904 yards last season and should push for 1,000 yards once again in 2014. Assuming Johnathan Gray returns to full strength from an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron’s academic issues are cleared before the fall, Texas should have the top running back corps in the Big 12.

4. Improvement on defense
Texas finished fifth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) last season by allowing 5.2 yards per play. With seven starters back, combined with the arrival of Strong and Bedford, improvement is expected in 2014. The line is loaded with talent, starting with end Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown. The secondary needs to replace cornerback Carrington Byndom and safety Adrian Phillips, but Quandre Diggs headlines this unit at cornerback. The linebacking corps could be a strength if Jordan Hicks returns to full strength.

5. Strength on the offensive line?
With the departure of Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters, it’s hard to call the offensive line a strength this preseason. However, the addition of line coach Joe Wickline was an underrated offseason pickup, which should help Texas own one of the top lines in the conference in 2014. Center Dominic Espinosa is an All-Big 12 candidate, while there’s potential on the left side with Desmond Harrison and Sedrick Flowers. Question marks exist, but there’s also reason to believe this unit will finally reach its potential. 
 

The Debate

Texas or Kansas State: Who Finishes Higher in the Big 12 in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#18 Ole Miss Rebels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#18

SEC West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Hugh Freeze, 15-11 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Luke, Dan Werner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jason Jones, Dave Wommack

Ole Miss is a program on the rise, and with the personnel departures at LSU and Texas A&M, the Rebels have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. Injuries played a huge role in last year’s 8-5 record, but improving depth and a return to full strength by several players should help this team in 2014. Quarterback Bo Wallace needs to cut down on his mistakes, and the Rebels need Laquon Treadwell to fill the void left behind by Donte Moncrief at receiver. The biggest concern on offense is the line. However, the defense could be among the best in the SEC.

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

Previewing Ole Miss’ Offense for 2014:

The Rebels return the most experienced quarterback in the SEC in Bo Wallace and have more than ample talent around him. Wallace has led the Rebels to some big wins — including an improbable 27–24 win over then-No. 6 LSU a year ago — but he was the subject of criticism for his struggles against rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, a 17–10 overtime loss in which his fumble into the end zone ended the game. It was the unfortunate exclamation point on a four-turnover game in which Wallace threw three interceptions. Wallace, though, is in the best shape of his career and poised for a big senior season.

Wide receiver Donte Moncrief left a year early for the NFL, but there’s exciting potential for sophomore Laquon Treadwell, who moves from the slot to the outside. Treadwell caught 72 balls and was named the SEC’s top freshman by league coaches last year.
While Wallace struggled to the regular-season finish line in 2013, he was missing a key weapon. Evan Engram, a stretch-the-field tight end, is healthy again after doing enough in eight games as a true freshman to earn second-team All-SEC honors.

Running backs Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers combined to rush for almost 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. They are juniors now. Look for sophomore quarterback Jeremy Liggins in short-yardage situations. He left the spring listed at 6'3", 296 pounds. That’s almost 40 pounds heavier than Jared Lorenzen’s playing weight at Kentucky in 2003.

Sophomore Laremy Tunsil at left tackle is already drawing the attention of NFL scouts. Junior Aaron Morris returns at left guard after tearing his ACL in the season opener last year. The Rebels have to replace a three-year starter at center, a competition that could see veteran Justin Bell move over from right guard.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Ole Miss Rebels 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.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Defense for 2014:

Finally healthy, defensive end C.J. Johnson should lift last year’s subpar pass rush with help on the other side from Fadol Brown, one of two FBS transfers expected to fill key roles. Brown played at Florida International two years ago. That’s when Anthony Alford was a quarterback at Southern Mississippi. Now Alford’s an Ole Miss safety and is considered the team’s most athletic player.

Sophomore Robert Nkemdiche was the nation’s No. 1 recruit as a defensive end. He moved to tackle toward the end of last season and had eight tackles and a sack in his last two games.

There is experience at corner with senior Senquez Golson and junior Mike Hilton, and intriguing depth behind them in long and athletic Derrick Jones (6'2", 188) and junior college transfer Tee Shepard, once a Notre Dame signee. Senior free safety Cody Prewitt is a returning All-American, while sophomore Tony Conner is a rising star at the Huskie position in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.

Previewing Ole Miss’ Specialists for 2014:

The Rebels will miss the flip-the-field ability of punter Tyler Campbell. Freshman Gary Wunderlich could get a look here. Redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and senior Andrew Fletcher are competing to replace kicker Andrew Ritter. Both have impressive high school résumés, but there’s no college game experience for Pappanastos and precious little for Fletcher.

Final Analysis 

After the Rebels closed strong in Freeze’s debut season, then added a consensus top-10 recruiting class, they were a popular pick as a team to make a big leap in 2013. That didn’t happen, largely due to offensive struggles late in the season.

This season, with increased depth and more experience from the stellar 2013 recruits, expectations are soaring once again. This team has the potential to be a factor in the SEC West race. For that to happen they need Wallace — with talent around him — to reduce turnovers and deliver in big games more consistently.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Ole Miss at No. 18:

1. The door is open for a move in the SEC West
With LSU, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M losing some key pieces from last year’s team, Ole Miss and in-state rival Mississippi State have a chance to make some noise in the SEC West. The Rebels have improved their overall depth over the last two seasons, and 13 returning starters could help this team make a two-game improvement in the win column. Under coach Hugh Freeze, recruiting has improved, which has allowed this team to bolster its depth to challenge the top teams in the West.

2. A healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback
In his second year as Ole Miss’ starting quarterback, Wallace increased his completion percentage to 64.8 percent and lowered his interception total to 10. However, Wallace wasn’t healthy for most of the season due to a shoulder injury, and the offseason should allow him to return at full strength. Assuming Wallace makes another jump on the stat sheet, the Rebels’ offense should take off in 2014.

3. Concerns on the offensive line
This unit is coach Hugh Freeze’s biggest concern. The Rebels must replace Emmanuel McCray, Jared Duke, Evan Swindall and Pierce Burton as key members of last year’s offensive line. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is already one of the best in the SEC, while guard Aaron Morris is back after suffering a torn ACL in the opener. With Tunsil, Morris and Justin Bell returning, the foundation is there for a solid group. However, filling out the final two spots and the overall depth is a concern that could last into the season.

4. Injuries on defense last season
Injuries hit Ole Miss’ defense hard last season, as a handful of key players missed time. Getting defensive end C.J. Johnson back to full strength will help the defensive line, while Robert Nkemdiche has settled into the rotation at tackle. The Rebels allowed 5.8 yards per play in SEC action in 2013 but should improve in 2014 with better injury luck and Nkemdiche’s presence on the interior.

5. Manageable schedule
Ole Miss plays in the toughest division in college football, so it’s hard to call this year’s schedule easy. However, Alabama and Auburn both visit Oxford, and the Rebels host rival Mississippi State. Also, Ole Miss catches Tennessee and Vanderbilt in crossover play. The Oct. 25 matchup against LSU is a huge swing game, but the Rebels defeated the Tigers last season and only lost by a touchdown or less in their last two meetings in Baton Rouge.

The Debate

Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#19 LSU Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#19

SEC West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Les Miles, 95-24 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Cam Cameron | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Chavis

LSU has won at least 10 games in each of the last four years, but that streak could be in jeopardy in 2014. The Tigers return 12 starters from last year’s 10-3 team and have one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. However, quarterback play is a concern with the departure of Zach Mettenberger, while receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will be playing on Sundays next year. The defense should be solid, but question marks exist at defensive tackle and at linebacker. Additionally, the brutal SEC West doesn’t provide for many breaks on the schedule in 2014.

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

Previewing LSU’s Offense for 2014:

LSU’s leading passer (Zach Mettenberger), leading rusher (Jeremy Hill) and three leading receivers (Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Hill) from 2013 will be playing on Sundays in 2014, so the Tigers will have to lean heavily on their dominant offensive line and stingy defense early.

It’s been awhile since LSU had a full-blown quarterback battle, and the competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris could extend into the regular season. Regardless, it’s been awhile since LSU was this young at quarterback, and both players are likely to see snaps this season. Jennings and Harris offer vastly different skill sets than Mettenberger, a pure drop-back passer who excelled last season under coordinator Cam Cameron’s tutelage. Jennings and Harris are skilled athletes who do their best work on the move.

Heralded running back recruit Leonard Fournette is too talented to sit for long. By midseason, he should see the majority of carries. The receiver corps is talented but woefully inexperienced. The Tigers desperately need either sophomore Travin Dural or newcomers John Diarse, Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre to emerge as a playmaker.
With so little experience at the skill positions, look for the Tigers to lean heavily on their talented, experienced offensive line. Senior left tackle La’el Collins leads four returning starters.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the LSU Tigers 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.

Previewing LSU’s Defense for 2014: 

The Tigers must replace several key players who bolted early for the NFL Draft, but there’s more than enough returning talent and experience to once again rank among the SEC’s stingiest units.

In terms of depth and sheer athleticism, few teams anywhere can match the Tigers across the front four. Ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will give the Tigers two of the top edge-rushers in the SEC if they can become more consistent. The playmaking Hunter (6'6") appears primed for a breakout season. Defensive tackle remains a question mark, but Quentin Thomas, Chris LaCouture and a trio of talented redshirt freshmen in Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron could provide answers.

The linebacker play was below LSU’s standards last season, so coordinator John Chavis shook up the ranks in the offseason by switching several players to new positions. The six returning lettermen combined to produce just one takeaway, so there’s room and need for major improvement. The staff is waiting for the light bulb to turn on for Kendell Beckwith, a former star recruit with size, speed and explosiveness to dominate on the second level.

The secondary is led by promising sophomore cornerbacks ­Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson. Both are former top recruits who should uphold the school’s tradition of outstanding secondary play. Safety is a question mark.

Previewing LSU’s Specialists for 2014:

Big improvement is expected from punter Jamie Keehn. His leg isn’t quite as strong as fellow Australian and former LSU punter Brad Wing, but he might be more consistent in the end. Colby Delahoussaye is solid if unspectacular on kicks. The Tigers must find a replacement for Beckham on returns. Dural and White will get the first crack.

Final Analysis

In many ways, this team should resemble the 2011 team that rode a power rushing attack and dominant defense to the BCS title game. If Les Miles’ heralded recruiting class lives up to expectations — particularly explosive offensive playmakers like Fournette, Quinn and Dupre — the Tigers should be capable of posting another 10-win season. But with so many new faces at key positions, it would be surprising if LSU could unseat Alabama or Auburn for supremacy in the brutally tough SEC West.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking LSU at No. 19:

1. No shortage of talent
Despite the loss of a handful of key starters from last year’s team, LSU still has a ton of talent on the roster. The Tigers have signed four top-10 recruiting classes over the last five years, including the No. 2 class in 2014. The roster boasts plenty of future stars, including freshman running back Leonard Fournette. How quickly can this talent reach its potential?

2. Quarterback uncertainty
Will it be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris taking the first snap of the season for LSU? It’s a question not expected to be answered until deep into fall practice. Jennings received limited snaps last year and struggled in the bowl win over Iowa. Harris – a true freshman – enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Even though the quarterback position is a concern, LSU can lean on a solid offensive line and rushing attack to win games.

3. The front seven on defense
LSU’s defense is a factory for NFL talent, but question marks remain about the front seven going into 2014. Both starting tackles (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) must be replaced, and the Tigers need more from starting ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. Coordinator John Chavis also has work to do at linebacker. LSU did not boast a vintage defense last year, allowing 5.7 yards per play in SEC games (ranked seventh in the conference). Talent certainly isn’t an issue, but the front seven needs a lot of work before this team can contend for the West Division title.

4. Who steps up at receiver?
With Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both departing for the NFL, LSU’s receiving corps is thin on proven options. Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie are the top returning statistical receivers, but the Tigers will count on a group of young players to contribute, including true freshman Malachi Dupre and redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and John Diarse. Combine the uncertainty at quarterback with the lack of experience at receiver, and it’s clear LSU will need some time to develop its passing attack.

5. Best offensive line in the SEC?
Four starters return from an offensive line that was one of the best in the SEC last year. The Tigers need to replace guard Trai Turner, but Hoko Fanaika is a proven option. Tackle La’El Collins could push for All-American honors, and guard Vadal Alexander is one of the best in the SEC. With the uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, the Tigers need to lean on this unit in 2014.

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Ole Miss or LSU: Which Team Finishes Higher in the SEC West in 2014?

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