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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.

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

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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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#5 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#5

SEC West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 12-2 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ellis Johnson, Charlie Harbison

Auburn hit rock bottom with a 3-9 record in 2012, but the arrival of coach Gus Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall helped to engineer a quick turnaround. The Tigers finished 12-2 and No. 2 nationally after a loss to Florida State in the national championship. Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson are huge losses, but Auburn isn’t short on talent heading into the 2014 season. The Tigers own one of the top offenses in college football. However, the defense is a work in progress. With a tough schedule, can Auburn repeat as SEC champions?

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

Previewing Auburn’s Offense for 2014: 

For the first time in nine seasons at the collegiate level, Gus Malzahn has a returning starter at quarterback. Not only that, but Nick Marshall seems poised to become the SEC’s top quarterback in 2014. Marshall was a dynamic threat in his first year on campus, completing 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, while also rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the Tigers want to throw more in his second season.

With the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason and his 1,816 yards, all eyes are on the race to be his replacement in the nation’s best rushing attack, but the Tigers have two capable seniors returning in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, who each rushed for more than 600 yards. They will face competition from redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who’s the biggest of the group at 225 pounds, and true freshman Roc Thomas, a five-star recruit. There is no clear replacement for valuable H-back Jay Prosch.

At wide receiver, Sammie Coates emerged as a go-to target and one of the nation’s best deep threats, but the addition of junior college transfer D’haquille Williams could make Coates even more dangerous as the two lead a deep group of young receivers that includes Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, as well as tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Four starters — Reese Dismukes at center, Freshman All-SEC pick Alex Kozan at left guard, Chad Slade at right guard and Avery Young at right tackle — return to one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The real question is who will replace Greg Robinson at left tackle. Patrick Miller will get his chance, but keep an eye on leukemia survivor Shon Coleman, a former five-star prospect in the class of 2010 before his cancer diagnosis.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Auburn Tigers for 2014:

 

Previewing Auburn’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.
Auburn’s defense finished 86th in the country last season, giving up 420.7 yards per game, but the Tigers have a chance to be much better in Ellis Johnson’s second year at the helm, even with the key losses of defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Chris Davis.

Ford’s 10.5 sacks will be hard to replace, but Carl Lawson is a natural fit to fill his shoes after coming up with four sacks as a true freshman in the SEC last season, and either Josh Holsey or Jonathon Mincy will be able to move into Davis’ spot on the boundary and play the physical brand of man-to-man coverage Auburn likes. Montravius Adams is expected to be a monster in the middle of the line, teaming with senior Gabe Wright inside.

But more important than anything, this will be the first time in three years that Auburn’s defense won’t have to learn a new scheme under a new coordinator, and the second season in a coordinator’s system is usually the year when a unit makes a significant jump.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists for 2014: 

After years of stability on special teams, Auburn has to replace every key specialist, and only Grant at kickoff return brings experience to the role. Redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson (kicker) and Jimmy Hutchinson (punter) will be thrown into the fire in place of Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, and the Tigers will hold an open competition to replace Davis, who finished third in the nation in punt return average.

Final Analysis

Auburn’s magical turnaround captivated the country last year, sparked by the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, Davis’ Kick Six in the Iron Bowl and an improbable run to the BCS National Championship Game that tied for the biggest turnaround in college football history. Malzahn’s Tigers won’t sneak up on anybody this season, but Auburn is well-placed to make a run at a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Auburn No. 5:

1. Will the bounces go Auburn’s way in 2014?
There’s no doubt Auburn caught a few fortunate breaks to reach the national championship last year. How often are plays like the one against Georgia or Alabama going to happen? Luck is a tricky part of any preseason prediction. You have to have good fortune to play for a national championship, and even if the bounces don’t go the Tigers way like they did in 2013, this might be a better overall team in 2014. So while luck might shift, Auburn is still poised to be a contender for a spot in college football’s playoff.

2. Nick Marshall’s development at quarterback
In his first season as a FBS quarterback, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores. With an ability to make plays with his legs and execute Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, Marshall should show improvement with another offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. The Tigers could have one of the SEC’s top receiving corps and feature an offensive line with four returning starters. If Marshall continues to develop as a passer, Auburn’s offense could be even more dangerous in 2014.

3. Improvement needed on defense
Timely. That’s the best word to sum up Auburn’s defense last year. The Tigers allowed 6.5 yards per play in nine SEC games but ranked first in the conference in third-down defense and second in red zone defense. Although timely stops are crucial, Auburn has to get better on this side of the ball. Six starters are back, so improvement is expected. However, how much can this defense improve in Ellis Johnson’s second year? End Dee Ford is a big loss, but there’s capable depth at end with Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson. Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy should be solid at linebacker, with the secondary the biggest concern going into fall practice. There’s enough talent in place to make gains on the stat sheet, but it seems unlikely this defense will take a major step forward to one of the best in the SEC.

4. The schedule
In addition to playing in college football’s toughest division, Auburn has crossover games against the top teams from the East – South Carolina and Georgia. The Tigers host the Gamecocks but play in Athens against the Bulldogs. Also, there’s a trip to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Nov. 29. But that’s not all when it comes to difficulty on the 2014 schedule. Auburn has a non-conference road trip to Kansas State and away games versus Ole Miss and Mississippi State.  

5. Losses on special teams
The departures of kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark are underrated losses that Auburn has to replace in 2014. Parkey hit on 15 of 21 field goals last season, while Clark averaged 42.6 yards per punt. Both players were key cogs in the run to the national championship, and as everyone witnessed in last year’s Iron Bowl, special teams could play a major role in deciding the SEC West title.

The Debate

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

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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.

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

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. 

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

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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