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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#29 Nebraska Cornhuskers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#29

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bo Pelini, 58-24 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tim Beck | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Papuchis

The Big Ten’s West Division is up for grabs, and Nebraska has the talent and personnel to finish ahead of Wisconsin and Iowa. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong should be better in his second year under center, and he will have the luxury of working with two of the Big Ten’s top skill players in running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell. Only three starters return on defense, but one of the players is All-America defensive end Randy Gregory. The Cornhuskers have a tough road schedule, which includes trips to Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Bo Pelini’s team has a difficult path to a division title, but this program is positioned for another solid year.

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 29, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. 

Previewing Nebraska’s Offense for 2014:

All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah is back after considering an early exit by way of the NFL Draft. Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards, fourth-most in Husker history, with 100 or more yards in 11 games. There’s depth at I-back, including big back Imani Cross, who scored 10 touchdowns on just 85 carries. Ball security has been an emphasis for Abdullah and the rest of the offense.

Abdullah caught 26 passes, third-most on the team. But the Huskers ranked next-to-last in the conference in passing. Sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a threat on the option but threw almost as many interceptions, eight, as touchdown passes, nine. That has to change.

Kenny Bell, who has more career receptions than the rest of the wide receivers combined, is in position to become the leading receiver, statistically, in school history. Jamal Turner is a game-breaker but has never become the consistent threat expected when he was moved from quarterback as a freshman. He was limited by injury last season.

A key to success will be the development of a rebuilt offensive line. Left guard Jake Cotton is among the team’s emotional leaders. Left tackle Alex Lewis, a transfer from Colorado, is a potential star.

Previewing Nebraska’s Defense for 2014:

Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at every team, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Even though the Huskers are young on defense, this side of the ball should be the strength of the team, with end Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate, leading the way. He led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks, nine of them in conference play. The Huskers’ marked defensive improvement over the course of last season coincided with his development following a transfer from Arizona Western Community College. Sophomore tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins will anchor the middle of the line. They need to stay healthy, unless some young players develop quickly.

Depth isn’t a problem at linebacker, which has a wealth of returning players, including Trevor Roach, who missed last season because of injury. David Santos was second on the team in tackles but will have to compete for playing time. Sophomores Michael Rose and Josh Banderas are also important pieces.

Safety Corey Cooper and cornerback Josh Mitchell are the most experienced players on defense, with a combined 32 starts. Mitchell is among the team’s vocal leaders.

Previewing Nebraska’s Specialists for 2014:

The Huskers ranked 121st nationally in punt returns; their longest was 19 yards. Incoming freshmen should help, Glenn Irons prominent among them with nine return touchdowns as a high school senior. Bell tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff-return average. The senior wide receiver returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against Penn State. Punter Sam Foltz, a walk-on, is back, but placekicker Pat Smith must be replaced. Mauro Bondi, who had 48 touchbacks on kickoffs, will be challenged by freshman Drew Brown. 

Final Analysis

Bo Pelini’s record is 58–24, with at least nine victories in each of his six seasons. But he has yet to coach a conference champion. In fact, Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title since 1999, much too long for a program with three national titles in the five years prior to that.

In the aftermath of a 38–17 regular-season-ending loss to Iowa, speculation spread that Pelini’s tenure as coach might be over. But he has since received a contract extension through the 2018 season. Extension or not, however, there’s pressure to win a championship and return to national relevance. The Huskers should have the defense for that. The question is whether the offense can be balanced enough to get the job done against a schedule that sets up very well in a restructured division of the expanded Big Ten.

The Debate

Nebraska or Iowa: Who Finishes Higher in the Big Ten in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#26 Iowa Hawkeyes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#26

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 120-100 (18 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Greg Davis | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Parker

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 26 Iowa. 

Previewing Iowa’s Offense for 2014:

Unlike this time last season, there is reason to be optimistic about the Iowa offense. Six starters return, including quarterback Jake Rudock, leading rusher Mark Weisman, leading receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and potential All-America left tackle Brandon Scherff.

Rudock passed for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, helping Iowa double its win total from the disastrous 2012 season with an 8–5 record. Hardly a dual-threat quarterback, Rudock showed surprising mobility before being hobbled by a knee injury down the stretch. His biggest flaw was the tendency to force passes into coverage, which resulted in 13 interceptions.

Iowa is loaded at running back, and Scherff is among three starters returning on the offensive line, which is traditionally a strength for the Hawkeyes under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz. The 236-pound Weisman led the team with 975 rushing yards last season, using a bruising style that fits nicely in Iowa’s power running scheme. Junior Jordan Canzeri and senior Damon Bullock rushed for 481 and 467 yards, respectively, last season. Both are more elusive than Weisman, while Bullock is also a threat as a receiver. LeShun Daniels, a 6'0", 230-pound sophomore, is also an intriguing option.

There is a void at tight end with C.J. Fiedorowicz having moved on. But much like the offensive line, tight end is traditionally a stable position for the Hawkeyes, and that’s the expectation for this season. Senior Ray Hamilton and junior Jake Duzey are among four tight ends with extensive game experience.

Previewing Iowa’s Defense for 2014:

Six starters have to be replaced, including all three linebackers and an All-Big Ten cornerback. It’ll be a daunting task, made easier by the presence of two standout tackles. Senior Carl Davis was one of the most improved players on the team last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors after being a reserve in 2012. Fellow senior tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat also progressed throughout last season, his first as a full-time starter.

However, he and Davis won’t have the luxury of playing with three senior standout linebackers, as was the case last season. Senior Quinton Alston has waited three seasons to replace James Morris at middle linebacker and now finally has that opportunity. Alston made an impact on special teams last season, in addition to being a key part to a new rush package that was installed in 2013.

Replacing All-Big Ten cornerback B.J. Lowery is a priority, but the Hawkeyes also might have a star in the making at that position in sophomore Desmond King. He started every game last season and finished sixth on the team with 69 tackles to go along with eight pass break-ups. Senior strong safety John Lowdermilk also returns after starting all 13 games last season.

Previewing Iowa’s Specialists for 2014:

Martin-Manley is a reliable punt returner, and there plenty of candidates to return kicks. The kicking game, however, is a concern. Mike Meyer has moved on after handling the placekicking duties the past four seasons. Walk-on Marshall Koehn was listed as the starter throughout spring practice, but incoming freshman Mick Ellis will be given a chance to win the job. Junior punter Connor Kornbrath is back, but he struggled with consistency, so the staff signed junior college prospect Dillon Kidd to compete with him. 

Final Analysis

Many of the pieces are in place for Iowa to continue this latest resurgence under Ferentz, especially on offense. Combine that with a schedule that doesn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State, and has Iowa State, Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Kinnick Stadium, and there is reason to believe Iowa can be a legitimate contender in the new Big Ten West Division.




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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.

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

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. 

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

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.

The Debate

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

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