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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#1 Florida State Seminoles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#1

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jimbo Fisher, 45-10 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jimbo Fisher | DEF. COORDINATOR: Charles Kelly

Florida State ended the SEC’s run of dominance with a 34-31 victory over Auburn to win the final BCS Championship. As college football shifts to the playoff era, the Seminoles are the pick to repeat in 2014. Quarterback Jameis Winston is poised to make another run at the Heisman, and the offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, including running back Karlos Williams and receiver Rashad Greene. Tackle Timmy Jernigan is a big loss, but the Seminoles are loaded with talent and feature the nation’s top defensive backfield. With a favorable schedule, Florida State is an overwhelming pick to finish 12-0 in the regular season and claim the No. 1 seed in college football’s new playoff format.

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Previewing Florida State’s Offense for 2014:

Sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, who was a runaway winner of the Heisman Trophy and a slew of other awards, is back again to lead the offense, and he will operate behind an experienced and talented offensive line. All five starters will be seniors, including All-America candidates Cameron Erving and Tre’ Jackson, and the only “newcomer” is center Austin Barron, who has been a part-time starter in the past.

The Seminoles are replacing their first- and second-string tailbacks and their starting fullback from a year ago, but no one in their camp seems concerned. That’s largely because of the excitement surrounding converted defensive back Karlos Williams, who racked up 730 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 8.0 yards per carry as a third-teamer in 2013. Speedy backups Mario Pender, Ryan Green and true freshman Dalvin Cook give the Seminoles a group of potential home-run hitters off the bench.

When Winston drops back to pass, he will have back his two favorite targets — senior wide receiver Rashad Greene and senior tight end Nick O’Leary. Greene led FSU in receiving as a freshman, sophomore and junior, and has a chance to be the most productive receiver in school history. O’Leary led all tight ends nationally with 16.9 yards per reception, and he was one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award. 

The biggest loss on offense was 6'5" receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who led the team with 15 touchdown receptions, including the game-winner in the national championship game.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Florida State Seminoles for 2014:

 

Previewing Florida State’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 ACC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The Seminoles will have a challenge replacing five of their top six tacklers from a year ago, including superb defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and emotional leaders Telvin Smith at linebacker and Lamarcus Joyner at defensive back. But few programs have recruited as well defensively over the past four years.

Junior defensive end Mario Edwards blossomed in 2013, displaying the talent that made him the USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in high school, and he will be joined by a slew of powerful and athletic defensive linemen. The lone returning starter at linebacker is junior Terrance Smith, but he is a good one. It was his ascension to the starting lineup that helped spur FSU’s defensive turnaround after a bumpy start in 2013.

And the Seminoles couldn’t be more confident about their secondary, despite losing two starters, including a unanimous All-American in Joyner. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true freshman at both cornerback and safety last season, is expected to take over where Joyner left off.

Previewing Florida State’s Specialists for 2014:

Though overshadowed at times by his classmate at quarterback, placekicker Roberto Aguayo received his just due during the postseason when he snared the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. The Seminoles are not quite as loaded at punter, where junior Cason Beatty returns after averaging 41.1 yards per attempt. For all of FSU’s successes in 2013, the Noles ranked next to last among ACC teams in net punting. Beatty was shaky again in the spring game, leading to speculation that he would have to win the job again in preseason camp. FSU’s return game likely will be led by Kermit Whitfield, whose 100-yard touchdown return against Auburn in the national championship game was essential to the Seminoles’ comeback.

Final Analysis 

Despite losing several key pieces from the 2013 national championship team, Florida State has more than enough talent to make another run this fall. The keys will be staying healthy on the offensive line, where the Seminoles have almost no experienced depth, and rekindling the competitive fire that drove them to that undefeated season.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Florida State No. 1:

1. The No. 1 roster in college football?
Whether or not you believe recruiting rankings are 100 percent accurate, there is truth in what the experts at Rivals, 247Sports, Scout or ESPN compile each season. Over the last five years, Florida State has averaged a 5.6 finish in recruiting rankings, placing the Seminoles No. 2 nationally behind Alabama. Acquiring talent is just one part of the equation for any program, as development is even more crucial to its success. Florida State has been arguably the best program in the nation at developing talent over the last few years, and coach Jimbo Fisher does an outstanding job of identifying players who could be successful at a different position (Karlos Williams, Cameron Erving). It’s tough to beat Alabama on the recruiting trail, but the Seminoles can match the Crimson Tide’s roster thanks for Fisher’s recruiting and development. 

2. The schedule
Repeating as a national champion is no easy task. After all, only one team (Alabama) was able to go back-to-back in the BCS era. Take one look at Florida State’s schedule for 2014. Where is the loss going to come from in the regular season? Maybe at Louisville on Thursday night? What about a home date against Florida in the regular season finale? Notre Dame? Even though those three games represent possible losses, it’s hard to see Florida State dropping one of those games. Barring a major upset or any significant injuries, the Seminoles have a favorable path to 13-0 (counting the ACC title) and a spot in college football’s playoff.

3. No. 1 offensive line in the nation
We could pick several of Florida State’s positions to highlight here, but the offensive line is the best in the nation and a key reason why this team is poised to repeat. Four starters are back from last year’s line, including tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre Jackson. Erving, Jackson and Josue Matias are expected to be All-America selections for 2014. The only new starter up front is at center with Austin Barron, but he has five starts under his belt. Overall depth on the line was a concern last season, and the coaching staff took steps to alleviate that concern with seven incoming recruits in the 2014 class. 

4. Jameis Winston…better as a sophomore?
Considering Winston’s stat totals and Heisman Trophy victory, it’s hard to believe he could be even better as a sophomore. But after an offseason to learn under Jimbo Fisher, Winston might be a more complete quarterback in 2014. Of course, finding a flaw in Winston’s game is tough, especially since he’s poised to be one of the first picks off the board in the 2015 draft. One concern for Winston will be the development of a receiving corps that must replace Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin. However, as we mentioned above, this roster isn’t hurting for talent, so incoming freshmen like Travis Rudolph or Ermon Lane could help to ease the transition from Shaw and Benjamin. With one of the top coaches and quarterbacks in the nation, it’s hard to find a flaw in Florida State’s overall roster in 2014.

5. Biggest concern for Florida State is…punting?
It’s pretty easy to tell how stacked a team is when punting is one of the top concerns heading into the season. Cason Beatty didn’t have many opportunities last season, but he averaged 41.1 yards per punt and failed to answer concerns about the position in the spring. Beatty hit several low kicks in 2013, and even though Florida State has speed and talent on its special teams to prevent big returns, he needs to work on his hang time and overall yardage this offseason. The Seminoles should easily handle most of their opponents, but in a tight game, a bad punt could result in a short field or seven points for the opposing team.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 79-15 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kirby Smart

Alabama’s 2013 season ended on a down note, but as usual, the Crimson Tide is loaded for another run at the national championship. Coach Nick Saban continues to recruit at a high level, and the offense can lean on the one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry until quarterback Jacob Coker settles into the starting role. The defense has a few holes to fill at cornerback, but Alabama will rank among the best in the nation once again. Also helping the Crimson Tide’s case to get back to the national championship is a favorable schedule, including a visit by defending SEC West champion Auburn in Tuscaloosa in late November. 

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Previewing Alabama’s Offense for 2014:

Alabama’s competition to replace AJ McCarron is expected to last all the way through fall camp and maybe a few games into the season. The highly anticipated arrival of Florida State transfer and former Jameis Winston backup, Jacob Coker, who will join the team over the summer and has two years of eligibility remaining, gives Alabama presumed frontrunner. His top competition will come from senior Blake Sims, an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who started his Alabama career as a running back and drew constant praise from Nick Saban throughout the spring.

Tailback T.J. Yeldon has been rock solid over the past two years, and he’ll be counted on again for another big season. His workload might not be as heavy, though, as the emergence of Derrick Henry makes an evenly split, two-man backfield seem realistic. Don’t forget about junior Kenyan Drake, either; he has game-breaking speed and is a bona fide weapon in space.

Junior wide receiver Amari Cooper is poised for big-time production. He’ll have a deep supporting cast around him, as DeAndrew White passed on the NFL Draft to return as the likely No. 2 option in Alabama’s passing game.

Senior Leon Brown looks to be the answer for the departed Anthony Steen at right guard, but the left tackle competition wasn’t resolved by A-Day. Promising true freshman Cam Robinson could follow in the footsteps of Andre Smith and start the season opener, but he’ll have to beat out third-year sophomore Brandon Greene. 


Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Alabama Crimson Tide for 2014:

 

Previewing Alabama’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.
On the defensive line, it starts with sophomore end A’Shawn Robinson, who led the Crimson Tide with 5.5 sacks as a true freshman. There’s no shortage of options on the opposite side of the line, as junior college transfers Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway and sophomores Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson are poised for regular work. Senior Brandon Ivory returns for another season at nose guard, where he will be spelled by junior Darren Lake.

There’s no replacing Butkus Award winner C.J. Mosley, but senior Trey DePriest has embraced the unenviable task. The search for his running mate in the middle of Alabama’s defense could result in a three-man rotation at the two spots with junior Reggie Ragland and talented sophomore Reuben Foster. On the outside, junior Dillon Lee’s spring was marred by an arrest for driving under the influence, but he appears best positioned to replace Adrian Hubbard.

There’s one solid answer and many more questions in Alabama’s secondary, as junior safety Landon Collins, one of the best in the nation at his position, is the lone returning starter. The uncertain status of Eddie Jackson, who had emerged as the top corner in spring ball before he injured his knee, means juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones will need to step up. At free safety, junior Geno Smith and fifth-year senior Nick Perry are the likely answers. 


Previewing Alabama’s Specialists for 2014:

With Cade Foster gone, Adam Griffith is poised to make a whole new set of memories as Alabama’s top — and only — option at kicker. Replacing Cody Mandell, one of the nation’s best punters in 2013, will be an even tougher task for freshman JK Scott, who joins the team over the summer. While there’s uncertainty at the specialist positions, there’s nothing of the sort at returner, where Christion Jones will reside for one more year.

Final Analysis 

Alabama might not enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship, and that’s probably a good thing for a team that lost its identity and grew complacent when it had a shot to win three in a row. Though questions abound on both sides of the ball, the Crimson Tide certainly have the talent to contend for another set of championships.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Alabama No. 2:

1. Best schedule in the SEC?
With crossover games against Florida and Tennessee, along with a home date versus rival Auburn in late November, Alabama has a favorable path to an unbeaten record. Sure, road dates at LSU and Ole Miss will be tough, but one loss might be enough to win the West. In non-conference action, the Crimson Tide will have no trouble with West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss or Western Carolina.

2. Best stable of running backs in college football
The SEC is loaded at running back this year, and the nation’s No. 1 backfield resides in Tuscaloosa. Georgia is also a strong candidate with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but an edge goes to Alabama. T.J. Yeldon is slated to hold the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Derrick Henry showcased his potential with a breakout performance against Oklahoma, and the sophomore is expected to see a bigger workload in 2014. Kenyan Drake rushed for 694 yards last season and returns as the No. 3 back. This unit also features Altee Tenpenny, Jalston Fowler and incoming freshman Bo Scarbrough.

3. Is Jacob Coker the real deal?
Florida State is Athlon Sports’ pick to win the national title, but Alabama isn’t far behind at No. 2. The biggest concern for the Crimson Tide has to be at quarterback with the departure of AJ McCarron. None of the candidates appeared to claim the job in the spring, leaving Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as the starter in 2014. Coker is also working under new coordinator Lane Kiffin and has yet to make a start in his collegiate career. Despite the unknown factor surrounding Coker, there’s plenty of upside. The Alabama native has all of the measurables (6-foot-5, 230 pounds and a strong arm) and spent three years learning under quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher. With a punishing ground attack and a solid defense, Coker probably won’t have to win too many games on his own this year. With matchups against LSU and Auburn later in the year, that should allow Coker plenty of time to develop as Alabama’s No. 1 quarterback.

4. The front seven on defense
Stopping spread offenses has been an issue for Alabama, but the Crimson Tide’s elite recruiting up front could help with some of the concerns. Sophomore A’Shawn Robinson should be one of the top ends in the SEC this year, and junior college recruits Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway will be expected to contribute right away. Brandon Ivory is a prototypical 3-4 nose guard, and there’s other options at end in the form of Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and freshman Da’Shawn Hand. With more athleticism up front, Alabama should have flexibility and speed in the trenches, which should help against spread teams. And it doesn’t hurt the linebackers are loaded with talent for coordinator Kirby Smart. Trey DePriest replaces C.J. Mosley as the team’s top linebacker, while Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee are two names to watch in the fall. With the concerns at cornerback, it’s important for the front seven to set the tone on defense.

5. Why Alabama over Auburn?
Alabama versus Auburn for the top spot in the West was a huge debate in Athlon’s prediction meetings. The Tigers knocked off the Crimson Tide last year and have plenty of returning talent to win the West once again. Alabama’s defensive issues versus spread teams were a concern, as well as special teams with the departure of kicker Cade Foster and punter Cody Mandell. However, with this game in Tuscaloosa and a revenge factor for the Crimson Tide, that might be enough to swing the division back in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#3

Big Ten East Division PREDICTION

#1

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

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

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Previewing Ohio State's Offense for 2014:  

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previewing Ohio State's Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Meyer believes he has one of the premier defensive lines in the country, and a look at the returning personnel supports the theory. Senior Michael Bennett, ticketed to play an interior spot, is wily and tough, and another former end, Adolphus Washington, also is making a successful transition inside. Ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are heat-seeking missiles who give tackles fits.

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

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

Previewing Ohio State's Specialists for 2014:

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

Final Analysis 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#4 Oklahoma Sooners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#4

Big 12 PREDICTION

#1

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

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

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Previewing Oklahoma’s Offense for 2014:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Previewing Oklahoma’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big 12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The front seven projects to be among the best in the Big 12, if not the nation. On the line, there’s talent and depth, headlined by first-team All-Big 12 end Charles Tapper, who produced 5.5 sacks a year ago as a sophomore. Linebacker may be the team’s greatest strength, starting with Eric Striker, who led OU with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss. He’s an attacking and disrupting presence whose energy flows through the entire defense. “He’s not only a great player, he has a great feel for the game, and that’s what great players do,” says defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

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

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

Previewing Oklahoma’s Specialists for 2014:

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

Final Analysis

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

These Sooners can win. And win big.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Oklahoma No. 4

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

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

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

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

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

The Debate

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

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