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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.

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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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 UCLA Bruins

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jim Mora, 19-8 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Noel Mazzone | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Ulbrich

UCLA has won 19 games in two years under Jim Mora, but the Bruins have their sights set on even bigger goals in 2014. With 15 starters back, UCLA is Athlon Sports’ favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2014. And if all of the pieces fall into place, the Bruins have the schedule and personnel to make a run at a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. Quarterback Brett Hundley is one of the best in the nation, and even with the departure of linebacker Anthony Barr, the defense should be one of the best in the Pac-12. 

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Previewing UCLA’s Offense for 2014:

At a press conference in January announcing his intention to stay at UCLA for his redshirt junior season, quarterback Brett Hundley glowed about what could be in 2014, when the Bruins return plenty of talent from an offense that showed flashes of dominance during last year’s 10-win campaign. “

“With what’s coming in and what we have already,” Hundley said, “I think all the stars are really aligned.”

That starts on offense, where Hundley will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal. Last year’s leading receiver Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, but a slew of young talent, led by junior Devin Lucien and sophomore Thomas Duarte, looks more than capable of shouldering the load. The run game will be a question mark, after Hundley led the team in rushing yards (748) and touchdowns (11). Jordon James and Paul Perkins are expected to reprise their roles at the top of UCLA’s committee.

Inconsistency and injuries on the offensive line have hampered the Bruins before, but even without guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA’s offensive front looks stronger than it has in the past.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the UCLA Bruins for 2014:

Previewing UCLA’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.
Losing a freakishly athletic pass-rusher like Anthony Barr, who had 23 sacks in the last two seasons, will certainly hurt a defense that surpassed expectations in 2013. But after spending last season developing a lot of its young talent, UCLA’s defense should actually be better as a whole.

Sophomore linebacker Myles Jack — who became the first player in history to be named both Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year — is already one of the best young defenders in the nation, after finishing with 75 tackles and two interceptions as a freshman. He’ll have to take a step forward, especially in his pass rush, but all signs point toward a breakout season.

Sophomore nose tackle Kenny Clark could be this year’s star-in-the-making on defense, as he’s set to anchor a defensive line chock- full of talent. The real surprise, though, is likely to come in the secondary, where the Bruins were much better than expected last season. After finishing third in pass defense in the Pac-12, UCLA’s defensive backs look even stronger this season, led by cornerback Fabian Moreau, who UCLA coach Jim Mora says looks like a future first-round pick.

Previewing UCLA’s Specialists for 2014:

Expectations upon his arrival in Westwood were that placekicker Ka’imi Fairbairn would join a long line of elite UCLA kickers. That goal was derailed for a bit by his inconsistency from 40-plus yards the last two seasons. He had just four field goals in the Bruins’ final seven games in 2013. But early returns this season are good on Fairbairn, after he looked very consistent during the spring. Punter Sean Covington and his big leg are also back, after averaging 41.9 yards per punt as a freshman.

Final Analysis

When Mora spurned coaching offers from his alma mater, Washington, and Texas to return to UCLA, he did so with an understanding that the cupboard would be full of talent for years to come in Westwood. This season, the Bruins should start to see those returns in full force, with a Heisman Trophy candidate returning under center and a nice collection of talent on both sides of the ball.

In 2013, UCLA reached double digits in wins for the first time in eight years, but the expectations will undoubtedly be higher this time around. For the first time in a long time, UCLA’s focus has turned toward potentially competing for a national championship. First, of course, it’ll have to navigate the increasingly strong Pac-12  — a league the Bruins haven’t won since 1998. With 14 starters back, though, things are certainly trending upward in Los Angeles.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking UCLA No. 7:

1. UCLA is trending up
Jim Mora has UCLA trending in the right direction. The Bruins have won 19 games over the last two years, the most since claiming 20 victories from 1997-98. In addition to the results on the field, UCLA’s recruiting has improved. The Bruins inked the No. 45 class in 2011 but have signed three consecutive top-20 classes. With a financial commitment to Mora, improved facilities and 19 wins over the last two years, UCLA is a program on the rise.

2. Brett Hundley’s return
In 13 games last season, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns and completed 66.8 percent of his passes. Hundley’s passing yards and touchdowns dropped from his freshman season, but UCLA’s supporting cast was also going through some turnover. With experience returning at receiver and on the offensive line, Hundley should take another step forward in his development in 2014.

3. Home schedule
There’s no denying UCLA has one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Bruins play Texas in a neutral site affair, visit Tempe for a matchup against Arizona State and have home dates against Arizona, USC, Stanford and Oregon. Also, an early November road trip to Washington won’t be easy. But look at the overall slate – three of the toughest games are at home. With USC, Stanford and Oregon visiting the Rose Bowl in the regular season, that’s enough for UCLA to gain an edge in a tight South Division race.

4. Improvement on defense?
UCLA ranked fourth in the Pac-12 last season, giving up 5.4 yards per play in nine conference games. The Bruins return eight starters but must replace standout linebacker Anthony Barr and end Cassius Marsh. Although Barr and Marsh will be missed, this unit could take another step forward in 2014. The secondary could be the best in the Pac-12, and the front seven is loaded with talent, including linebacker Myles Jack, end Eddie Vanderdoes and tackle Kenneth Clark. USC, Stanford and Oregon should have solid defenses, but if UCLA’s young talent develops, this could be the Pac-12’s best unit by the end of 2014.

5. Offensive line concerns
The biggest concern for UCLA in 2014 could be the offensive line. The Bruins must replace standout guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and return four starters for 2014, including guard Alex Redmond and center Jake Brendel. Helping this unit’s rebuilding effort is the arrival of Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche. UCLA allowed 29 sacks in Pac-12 games last year (most in the conference) and rushers averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. Those two numbers have to improve if the Bruins want to be a playoff contender.

The Debate

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

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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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