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#8 Texas A&M

Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#8

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Kevin Sumlin, 11-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clarence McKinney, Jake Spavital | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Snyder, Marcel Yates

OFFENSE

Led by the return of quarterback Johnny Manziel, the first freshman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy, the Aggies offense could be even better than the 2012 unit that became the first in SEC history to surpass 7,000 yards in a season.

With a firm grasp of coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense, added strength and even more poise in the pocket, the ultra-confident Manziel believes he will be a better quarterback as a sophomore. However, Manziel's status for the season opener is uncertain. The sophomore is under NCAA investigation due to allegations of accepting money in exchange for autographs. If Manziel has to miss any action, junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis would battle to start at quarterback.

The Aggies have more weapons at their disposal this year, including a bevy of talented running backs like returners Ben Malena and Trey Williams, along with a pair of tremendously talented transfers, Brandon Williams from Oklahoma and Tra Carson from Oregon.

A&M will undoubtedly miss Ryan Swope, who departed as the school’s career leader in receptions and receiving yards. But Swope’s records won’t last long if 6'5" sophomore Mike Evans continues to build on his sensational debut. The physically imposing Evans, who finished last season with 82 catches for 1,105 yards, is a matchup nightmare for most defensive backs. Juniors Malcome Kennedy and LeKendrick Williams and senior Derel Walker all had impressive moments last season and could all play key roles in 2013. But they will be pressed for playing time by an extremely impressive array of newcomers like Ricky Seals-Jones and Ja’Quay Williams.

The offensive line could be among the best in school history even though Luke Joeckel left for the NFL Draft. Future pro prospects like tackle Jake Matthews, tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, center Mike Matthews and guards Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi form a great front.

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DEFENSE

Losing Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy will hurt the defensive front, but if nose guard Kirby Ennis (knee) and end Julien Obioha (back) can return at full strength — as anticipated — the line could again be an area where the Aggies exceed expectations.

Linebacker is another area of concern, as the Aggies must replace Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter. Fortunately, A&M returns one of its defensive anchors from last year in Steven Jenkins, who finished third on the team in 2012 with 79 tackles from his weak-side position. A&M needs a big season from junior college transfer outside linebacker Tommy Sanders, as well as hard-hitting Donnie Baggs in the middle of the 4-3 alignment.

A&M finished 12th out of 14 SEC schools last year in passing defense, but the Aggies should be dramatically improved this season. The trio of Howard Matthews, Toney Hurd and Floyd Raven form a solid combination at the safety positions, while De’Vante Harris and Deshazor Everett are outstanding cover cornerbacks.

Key Player

Johnny Manziel, QB - Dynamic quarterback will be missed if he has to sit out any action from NCAA investigation. 

Mike Evans, WR – Third in the SEC as a redshirt freshman in receptions per game with 6.3, including some remarkably clutch catches.

Jake Matthews, LT – Passed up opportunity to be selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft to return for senior season and play with his younger brother, Mike.

Steven Jenkins, LB – Big-play specialist is the most experienced returner among the defensive front seven.

Deshazor Everett, CB – Produced 56 tackles, broke up seven passes and intercepted two, including one to help secure the victory over No. 1 Alabama.

Schedule

SPECIALISTS

A&M needs a better year from placekicker Taylor Bertolet, who has a strong leg but was not dependable on field goal attempts beyond 29 yards. While Bertolet was 8-of-9 from 29 yards or less, he was only 2-of-9 from 30 to 49 yards. Drew Kaser appears to be a solid replacement for Ryan Epperson at punter, while the Aggies have some big-play potential with return specialists such as Trey Williams and Brandon Williams on kickoffs and Harris and Sabian Holmes on punts.

FINAL ANALYSIS

After leading A&M to an historic 11-win season last year and the school’s first top-five finish since 1956, Sumlin is aiming even higher in 2013. He fully realizes that the Aggies must replace numerous key starters from a year ago and manage unprecedented expectations as one of the SEC West’s new powers. But Sumlin and the Aggies have set their sights on a national title. That may be a tall task with an extremely inexperienced defense, along with the uncertainty facing Manziel's status. Even if Manziel is forced to miss a few games, Texas A&M will be a factor in the SEC title picture.

 

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#30 Virginia Tech

Hokies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#30

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Frank Beamer , 216-104-2 (26 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scot Loeffler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bud Foster

OFFENSE

After a 7–6 record, Virginia Tech’s worst in 20 years, coach Frank Beamer finally made radical changes on the offensive side of the ball, hiring Scot Loeffler as coordinator, Jeff Grimes as line coach and Aaron Moorehead as receivers coach. The goal was to inject new life into an offense whose production traditionally has lagged behind the defense.

Getting quarterback Logan Thomas back for his senior season helps. Although he struggled as a junior, throwing for 2,976 yards and 18 touchdowns but also 16 interceptions, Thomas remains the Hokies’ best offensive weapon. Loeffler, who has worked with six future NFL quarterbacks as a coach — including Tom Brady as a graduate assistant at Michigan — was hard at work during the spring fixing Thomas’ faulty mechanics.

The rest of the offense has question marks. The line, which struggled to open holes for the running game, has to replace two tackles, although senior center Andrew Miller returns to solidify the interior. J.C. Coleman led the running backs last year with 492 yards, hardly the featured back Tech enjoyed for years. Expect redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds, who has drawn some Kevin Jones comparisons, to vie for carries.

After losing its top three receivers from last year, Tech will lean heavily in the passing game on senior D.J. Coles, who is coming off a lost season because of a knee injury.



DEFENSE

Bud Foster’s crew appeared to turn a corner in the second half of last season, playing like the unit many expected at the start of the year. There should be some carryover, with the defense returning nine starters.

Two-time second-team All-ACC defensive end James Gayle and the tackle duo of Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy headline a deep defensive line that came into its own late in the year. The Hokies had 27 sacks in the final seven games, an average of 3.86 per game.

Jack Tyler, who had a team-high 119 tackles, returns at linebacker, joined by senior Tariq Edwards, an emerging player at the end of 2011 who missed significant time in 2012 with a knee/leg injury.

It’s the secondary that has the biggest question mark. All-ACC cornerback Antone Exum tore an ACL playing pickup basketball in January, an injury that puts his return anywhere from the beginning of August to mid-October. With cornerback Kyle Fuller and safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett returning as starters, there’s plenty of experience on the back end, but Tech will need to plan to be without Exum. Sophomores Donovan Riley and Donaldven Manning got the majority of spring reps in his place, although 5-star cornerback signee Kendall Fuller (Kyle’s brother) and fellow incoming freshman Brandon Facyson could compete for playing time.

SPECIALISTS

The Hokies have some talent here if they can avoid the gaffes that have plagued them in recent years. Kicker Cody Journell made 80 percent of his field goals last year, including three game-winners. Sophomore punter A.J. Hughes (40.6-yard average) brought some relief to Tech’s long-standing punting problems. Demitri Knowles and Jarrett are threats in the return game.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Virginia Tech made changes to its staff in hopes that the shuffling gets the offense closer to the decades-long success of Foster’s defense. The reality is that with completely new offensive tackles, a revamped receiving corps and question marks at running back, it might be more of the same until the new coaches can get a few recruiting classes under their belts.

Virginia Tech still has Thomas and a defense that returns nine starters from a group that finished 18th nationally last year. An ACC title isn’t out of the question.




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#29 Miami

Hurricanes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Al Golden, 13-11 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: James Coley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark D’Onofrio

OFFENSE

Stephen Morris finished his junior season as one of the hottest quarterbacks in college football. In his final four games, Morris completed 60 percent of his passes and threw for 11 touchdowns without an interception. Equipped with a big arm and great feet, Morris is also durable, tough and now has the experience and playmakers around him to thrive.

Tailback Duke Johnson didn’t even start on a full-time basis as a freshman, but he’s one of the best players in the ACC. After breaking Clinton Portis’ school freshman rushing record, Johnson will see his workload increase substantially. Johnson has amazing vision, quickness and speed, and his versatility as a runner and receiver makes him a defensive nightmare.

There’s no shortage of solid pass-catching options on the roster. Back are Phillip Dorsett and Rashawn Scott, the team’s leading receivers last season. Dorsett isn’t very big, but he’s plenty dangerous. Scott and Allen Hurns give the offense a pair of big receivers who can go up and catch the ball. The tight end position has been a black hole on offense recently, but Clive Walford finished last season by catching a combined seven passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns against USF and Duke.

All five starters return on the offensive line. When right tackle Seantrel Henderson is focused, he can be dominant. He’s big enough to swallow defensive ends and light enough on his feet not to get beat on speed rushes. 



DEFENSE

Miami’s defense was awful last season, allowing school records in virtually every important statistical category. Much of the blame goes to a defensive line that couldn’t rush the passer or stop the run. Despite leading the team with four sacks, end Anthony Chickillo endured a sophomore slump. Shayon Green, playing the end opposite Chickillo, is solid against the run but didn’t have a single sack despite starting every game. When Curtis Porter is healthy — which isn’t often — he might be the team’s best defensive tackle.

Denzel Perryman is a ferocious hitter who has started games at middle and outside linebacker. Perryman isn’t particularly big, but he’s relentless and delivers blows that separate runners from the ball and their senses. Raphael Kirby was the starter at middle linebacker in spring practice and did nothing to make coaches think he can’t do the job. Disciplinary issues ended the Miami careers of starting linebackers Gionni Paul and Eddie Johnson.

Ladarius Gunter is a big cornerback with the ability to play the run and pass equally well. Tracy Howard, Miami’s top recruit in 2012, has yet to make an impact and is playing behind Antonio Crawford at the other corner spot. The safety positions will be manned by a pair of ball-hawking, athletic sophomores — Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins. 

SPECIALISTS

Matt Goudis is regarded as a better kicker than punter, but he had a chance to fill both vacancies until post-graduate Cincinnati transfer Pat O’Donnell arrived on campus. Johnson was one of the nation’s top kickoff returners and, despite an increased workload on offense, will not see his special teams chores reduced.

FINAL ANALYSIS

It’s been a decade since Miami last won 10 games in a season, and the lack of success has gradually eroded expectations. But things could be on the upswing in Coral Gables despite a never-ending NCAA investigation that has dogged Al Golden in his two-plus seasons as coach. With eight starters returning for a potentially explosive offense, four starters back on a rebuilding defense and a manageable schedule, the Hurricanes are a legitimate contender for a Coastal Division title and their first trip to the ACC title game.




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#28 Vanderbilt

Commodores

NATIONAL FORECAST

#28

SEC East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 15-11 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

OFFENSE

It wasn’t always the smoothest ride, but Jordan Rodgers will be remembered as one of the top quarterbacks in school history. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a two year-starter at Wyoming and the 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, is the favorite to take over. Carta-Samuels is a dual-threat who threw for 3,655 yards and rushed for 758 in his two seasons at Wyoming. He started one game last year for Vanderbilt, throwing for 195 yards in an easy win over Presbyterian.

The Commodores will replace Zac Stacy, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, with a three-man committee — senior Wesley Tate and sophomores Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Tate emerged as a consistent No. 2 back last year after spending the 2011 season at wide receiver. Kimbrow was the Commodores’ second-leading rusher as a true freshman, though more than half of his 413 yards came against Presbyterian and UMass. Seymour, the No. 2 back in 2011, redshirted last fall due in part to the depth at the position.

Vanderbilt boasts the SEC’s best pair of starting wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Matthews earned first-team all-conference honors as a junior after catching a league-best 94 passes for 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. The tight end was expected to be a bigger part of the passing attack in 2013, but Brandon Vandenburg was dismissed from the team after an offseason incident.

No position group has progressed more during the course of the past two seasons than the offensive line. This year, however, this group has a chance to be a strength from the start. The headliner is senior tackle Wesley Johnson, who has not committed a holding penalty in his career despite starting every game over the past three seasons.



DEFENSE

The same six schools have ranked in the top six in the SEC in total defense in the last two seasons — Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and … Vanderbilt. That’s right. After finishing last in the league in total defense in 2010, the Commodores climbed to sixth in 2011 and fifth in ’12.

The Commodores feature three defensive ends — Walker May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike — who could play for any team in the league, a statement that can’t often be made with conviction. Depth at defensive tackle is an issue.

The linebacking corps was an area of significant concern heading into the 2012 season. It became a strength of the defense by the end of the year. Coordinator Bob Shoop gives a lot of the credit to one player. “The success of the Vanderbilt defense — and the team — went hand-in-hand with when Chase Garnham became comfortable at middle linebacker,” he says.

Three starters return in the secondary, most notably senior cornerback Andre Hal, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2012. 

SPECIALISTS

One of the underrated aspects of Vanderbilt’s breakthrough season was the play of the kicking specialists. Placekicker Carey Spear rebounded from a disappointing sophomore season to convert 20-of-24 as a junior, and punter Richard Kent was consistently strong all season long. Spear is back, but Kent must be replaced.

FINAL ANALYSIS

James Franklin has accomplished something most thought was not possible: He’s made Vanderbilt football relevant in the SEC. The Commodores went 9–4 overall and 5–3 in the SEC. The nine wins were the most since 1915, and the winning record in the league was the school’s first since 1982. And there was nothing fluky about Vanderbilt’s breakthrough season — the Dores ranked fifth in the league in total defense and a respectable eighth in total offense. While a few key players must be replaced on both sides of the ball, there is more than enough returning talent to take this program to a third straight bowl game




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#9 Louisville

Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#9

American Athletic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

OFFENSE

Charlie Strong ended spring practice by saying that he would not trade Teddy Bridgewater for Johnny Manziel — and nobody laughed. A creative playmaker, Bridgewater ignored a broken wrist to direct Louisville to a dominant 33–23 Sugar Bowl win over Florida. It’s difficult to imagine that Bridgewater could improve his 27 touchdown passes and 69.0 completion percentage season, but Strong says that Bridgewater knows the schemes as well as his assistants. Louisville’s only fear is another injury to Bridgewater, because the backups lack any game experience.

But that’s the only place Strong’s team lacks sizzle. Halfback Dominique Brown returned from a knee injury for the Spring Game to run like the power back Strong covets. He’ll share time with Senorise Perry, who is also returning from knee surgery. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer transferred to Louisville in August and is expected to share the workload at running back with Perry and Brown. Bridgewater throws to an elite group of receivers. Junior DeVante Parker is NFL-ready, averaging nearly 19 yards per catch. Eli Rogers has been Bridgewater’s security blanket since high school. Speedster Damian Copeland led the team in receptions.

Strong’s only challenge is replacing two three-year starters on the offensive line. Coaches experimented with guard Jake Smith at the center spot during spring practice, a move Bridgewater endorsed, but Smith remains at guard for now. Tackle Abraham “Nacho” Garcia played as a true freshman and has star potential.

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DEFENSE

Strong made his name as a defensive coordinator, and he bristled last season over grumbling about the defense. But there were reasons for the unease. Louisville did not rank in the top half of the Big East in rushing or scoring defense, and the Cardinals did not play to their potential until the Sugar Bowl, when they recorded a pair of interceptions and three sacks against the Gators.

Only one full-time starter, cornerback Adrian Bushell, must be replaced from that group, so expectations will be extremely high.

Defensive tackles Brandon Dunn and Jamaine Brooks are confirmed run-stuffers. They demand double teams that create lanes for Deiontrez Mount to pursue the quarterback. Linebacker Preston Brown remains a foundational piece of the defense that Strong started building in 2010, and sophomores James Burgess and Keith Brown have star potential. George Durant fended off a challenge from the youngsters and held on to his outside linebacker spot. Terell Floyd mans a cornerback spot, where he will benefit from the support of a pair of ferocious hitters — safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor.

Key Player

Teddy Bridgewater, QB – Blossomed into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks last year, throwing for 3,718 yards and 27 scores. If he declares early, Bridgewater could be one of the top-five picks in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Hakeem Smith, S – Three-year starter and three-time all-conference performer at safety. Smith recorded 73 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2012.

DeVante Parker, WR – Emerged as Teddy Bridgewater’s big-play threat last season, catching 40 passes for 744 yards and 10 scores.

Schedule

SPECIALISTS

This is another area where Louisville needs improvement. The Cards failed to rank in the top 100 in either punt or kickoff returns. Perhaps freshman James Quick, who turned down offers from Ohio State, Tennessee and Oregon to stay home, can change that, because he excelled returning punts in high school and is a sprint champion. Placekicker John Wallace was 14-of-14 inside 40 yards. Ryan Johnson, the punter, is dependable, but not spectacular.

FINAL ANALYSIS

With 14 returning starters, a likely first-round draft pick at quarterback and memories of thumping Florida in New Orleans, anything less than a 12–0 season would be considered a disappointment by many Louisville fans. Strong’s team is loaded with speed, toughness and experience on both sides of the ball.

Another reason for raging expectations: the schedule. Louisville likely will not play a top-25 team during the regular season now that Boise State has snubbed the crumbling Big East — known now as the American Athletic Conference. Syracuse, one of two teams to beat Louisville in 2012, is gone to the ACC. That leaves a rivalry game at Kentucky and a season-ending visit to Cincinnati as the major obstacles.

 

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