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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#51 Northwestern Wildcats

NATIONAL FORECAST

#51

Big Ten West Division PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Pat Fitzgerald, 55-46 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mick McCall | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Hankwitz

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. 51 Northwestern.

 

Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2014: 

 

After two years with a two-quarterback system and a run-oriented attack, Northwestern likely will return to its pass-first roots under coordinator Mick McCall. Trevor Siemian put to rest any questions about a quarterback competition with an impressive spring. He boasts a plus arm and has been productive when healthy.

 

If protected, Siemian should capitalize on Northwestern’s depth at the wide receiver and superback (tight end/H-back) positions. Veterans Tony Jones and Christian Jones return at wideout, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler is a prototype slot receiver who can stretch defenses with his speed. Kyle Prater is finally healthy and provides size on the perimeter, and top superback Dan Vitale has star potential after recording 62 receptions in his first two seasons.

 

Although the offense should have a passing lean, it also looks strong at running back, especially with Venric Mark returning after an injury-plagued 2013 season. Mark eclipsed 1,300 rushing yards in 2012, and despite his size provides a between-the-tackles threat. Treyvon Green is a solid backup, and Warren Long and Stephen Buckley both will push for carries.

 

The depth at the skill positions won’t matter if the line doesn’t dramatically improve. Competition ramped up at several positions in the spring. Other than center Brandon Vitabile and tackle Paul Jorgensen, no spot is safe. Northwestern had its lowest third-down conversion percentage (39.9) since 2006 and must get back to moving the chains.

 

Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2014: 

 

Seven starters return on a unit that repeatedly put Northwestern in position to win last season. “We were five plays away from winning five more games,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We’ve just got to make those plays.” Takeaways could be a hallmark for the defense, especially a secondary featuring more depth than any in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure. Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell is the headliner of the secondary, but Northwestern will be able to go two or three deep at every position as several redshirt freshmen, including safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, enter the mix.

 

Two veteran playmakers return at linebacker in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who has moved from the strong side to the middle. They combined for seven interceptions and 184 tackles last season.

 

Offseason surgeries hit the defensive line hard, creating some question marks entering the fall. The pass rush should be strong with ends Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Defensive tackle was a weak point a year ago, and Northwestern needs Sean McEvilly to stay healthy and C.J. Robbins to build on his strong finish. Opponents ran at the middle of the Wildcats’ defense too easily in 2013.

 

Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2014:

 

The Wildcats lose a huge piece in the kicking game in Jeff Budzien, the Big Ten’s top placekicker each of the past two years, but they also regain a weapon in Mark, an All-America punt returner in 2012. Northwestern needs Arthur Omilian or Hunter Niswander to show poise and Chris Gradone to stabilize a shaky punting situation.

 

Final Analysis

 

The good vibes accompanying Northwestern for much of Fitzgerald’s tenure vanished after the program’s first bowl-less season since 2007, but Northwestern returns a roster strong enough to return to the postseason and play spoiler in a wide-open Big Ten West. The offense finally has a quarterback and an identity, but questions remain up front. The defense is still reliant on takeaways but boasts good depth throughout the unit.

 

Northwestern plays Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Cal in non-league play but misses both Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten. The Wildcats should return to the postseason in 2014.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#30 Miami Hurricanes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#30

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Al Golden , 22-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: James Coley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark D’Onofrio

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. 30, the Miami Hurricanes. 

Previewing Miami's Offense for 2014:

Coordinator James Coley’s fast-paced attack averaged 33.8 points and 425.8 yards per game in 2013, but with quarterback Stephen Morris graduating and heir apparent Ryan Williams unlikely to be ready after undergoing April knee surgery, this group has some challenges.

Quarterback Kevin Olsen is working to hold off Gray Crow and freshmen Brad Kaaya and Malik Rosier, but Olsen has no game experience and some accuracy issues. There are some major playmakers at running back and receiver. Lining up in the backfield is one of the nation’s most talented backs, first-team All-ACC pick and All-America candidate Duke Johnson. He’s recovered from a broken ankle suffered in game eight last year and is looking to build on a season in which he averaged 174 all-purpose yards per game. He’ll run behind a solid line that returns three starters, including NFL prospect Ereck Flowers.

At receiver, Allen Hurns is gone after setting a school record with 1,162 yards, and it may be more of a receiver-by-committee approach. But if someone is going to fill Hurns’ shoes it will likely be Stacy Coley, who showed game-breaking speed as a freshman with 591 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. There’s solid depth here with Phillip Dorsett, Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters, and tight end Clive Walford is a big target down the middle of the field. Walford was second on the team with 34 receptions last season. This should be one of the ACC’s more talented group of pass-catchers.

Previewing Miami's Defense for 2014:

Miami must improve dramatically on defense after ranking 13th in the ACC last season, allowing 426.4 yards per game. The Canes struggled to get to the quarterback and had trouble stopping the run — not a good combination.

There are decent playmakers on the defensive line in end Anthony Chickillo and tackle Olsen Pierre, but there isn’t anyone here who commands a double-team. Look for five-star signee Chad Thomas and junior college arrival Michael Wyche to make immediate impacts up front.

At linebacker, Denzel Perryman ranked fifth in the ACC with 108 tackles, and he’s moving from outside to the middle. The coaches had high hopes for Alex Figueroa, but the sophomore linebacker was dismissed from the team in July.

The secondary is a solid group led by shutdown corner Tracy Howard and his team-high four interceptions. On the other side, Ladarius Gunter has 17 career starts on his résumé. At safety there’s starting experience with Rayshawn Jenkins and Deon Bush. If the line gets pressure, the defensive backs should hold up long enough to make their share of plays.

Previewing Miami's Specialists for 2014:

The Canes have to replace punter Pat O’Donnell, who ranked second in the nation with a 47.1-yard average in his only season at Miami. Placekicker Matt Goudis may handle both roles even though he says he prefers not to punt. Goudis showed off a strong leg on field goals last season, making 13-of-17 attempts with a long of 49 yards. The return game will be a strength, as the team ranked No. 2 in the ACC in kick returns (25.1 ypr) and No. 4 in punt returns (11.3 ypr). 

Final Analysis

Ten wins were once the norm at Miami, and now it’s a place to set the bar for 2014. The last time UM reached double-digit victories was 2003, and the only way it happens this year is with an improved defense and solid quarterback play. Certainly the pieces are in place on offense for an explosive group, but new faces on both sides of the ball need to make significant impacts for Al Golden’s team to reach its goals.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#34 Texas A&M Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#34

SEC West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kevin Sumlin, 20-6 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jake Spavital | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Snyder

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. 34 Texas A&M.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Offense for 2014:

While there’s no replacing Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M’s coaching staff is confident that whoever emerges as the starter will possess the necessary skills to make A&M’s offense highly effective once again. The top two quarterback candidates (sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen) have combined for 22 passing attempts. Without Manziel, A&M may rely more heavily on its ground game, where Trey Williams is an explosive breakaway threat, and junior Tra Carson, who played at Oregon as a true freshman in 2011, may be the most valuable weapon. Carson is a particularly punishing runner.

While the Aggies will miss the imposing wide receiver presence of 6'5" Mike Evans, the 6'5" Ricky Seals-Jones may be the next go-to target. A&M also features senior Malcome Kennedy, its second-leading receiver from last year, as well as some talented young players like true freshman Speedy Noil, who was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 athlete prospect by one recruiting service. “As explosive as anybody I’ve ever seen,” A&M wide receivers coach David Beaty says of Noil.

The tradition of great left tackles at A&M continues, as Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to possibly follow in the first-round draft pick footsteps of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. The rest of the offensive front looks imposing as well. Junior Mike Matthews (Jake’s younger brother) is continuing to develop as an outstanding center, and Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi return on a exceptional offensive front.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Defence for 2014:

Texas A&M's defense took a huge hit in early June with the dismissal of defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne. Both players were expected to start and were key cogs in a defense that needs to take a step forward in 2014. Had Golden returned up front, the Aggies would have returned all four starters on the line. Without Golden in the mix, combined with a struggling line, newcomers will make the biggest difference, as the Aggies added a tremendous recruiting class of defensive linemen highlighted by five-star end Myles Garrett. The newcomers join returning starters Gavin Stansbury, Alonzo Williams and Julien Obioha to provide defensive coordinator Mark Snyder some impressive depth.

The linebackers may have been the weakest link of a defense that ranked last in the SEC in total and rushing yards allowed per game. A&M was extremely young at linebacker last season, as three true freshmen — Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni and Shaan Washington — received considerable playing time. A&M should receive a lift from the return of those players, as well as the addition of TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard and true freshman Otaro Alaka. Hilliard and Alaka's presence is even more critical with the dismissal of Claiborne.

The Aggies feature one marquee player in the secondary in senior playmaker Deshazor Everett, a lock-down cornerback. The rest of the backfield is filled with uncertainties. Fellow cornerback De’Vante Harris, for example, has been solid as a pass defender, but he has not been a particularly good tackler. 

Previewing Texas A&M’s Specialties for 2014:

Junior Drew Kaser led the SEC in punting last year (47.4-yard average) and is a legitimate Ray Guy Award candidate in 2014. Placekicker Josh Lambo was practically an answer to prayers last season, providing accuracy and consistency that had been a major issue in 2012. The Aggies also feature a big-play return specialist in Trey Williams.

Final Analysis

A&M’s stadium is undergoing a $450 million redevelopment that will make Kyle Field one of the premier venues in college football when construction is done in 2015. Until that time, however, Kyle Field remains a work in progress. The same could be said for the inhabitants of the facility. With a strong offensive line, a stable of promising, young skill players on offense and a defense that should improve, the Aggies could be a factor in the SEC West. But 2015 may be the year A&M steps back into in the national spotlight.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Mississippi State Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

SEC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 36-28 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

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. 33 Mississippi State.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense for 2014:

The high hopes for the Mississippi State offense are centered around the lofty expectations for quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior returns as the SEC’s active leader in rushing touchdowns (17) by a quarterback, three more than Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace  He’s also second in the conference in rushing yards by an active quarterback with 947. To take the next step, Prescott will need to improve his consistency throwing the ball down the field.

Brian Johnson, MSU’s new quarterbacks coach, likes what he sees from his star pupil. “When you see him, you can tell he’s a quarterback,” says Johnson, a former quarterback at Utah. “He carries himself with a certain demeanor that draws people to him. He has some special abilities and special tools.”

The expectations are just as high at running back, where LaDarius Perkins has passed the torch to Josh Robinson. Now a junior, Robinson arrived at spring camp 10 pounds lighter than he was in the fall. He said he lost weight in the offseason, but gained muscle. Physically he looks bigger.  Robinson will have help in the backfield from senior Nick Griffin, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and promising true freshman Aeris Williams.

Senior Jameon Lewis headlines a receiving corps with plenty of weapons. Lewis totaled 923 receiving yards last season — the second-most in school history — including a 220-yard performance in the Liberty Bowl. He hopes to build upon the momentum from last year by adding consistency. Despite his breakout season, Lewis still posted four games with three or fewer receptions.

The offensive line is one of the few areas Mississippi State has questions marks entering the 2014 season. The Bulldogs need to replace guard Gabe Jackson, who was MSU’s most talented player last season, and tackle Charles Siddoway. The Bulldogs went through the spring without finding definitive answers at either spot.  

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense for 2014:
It all starts up front for Mississippi State’s defense. The Bulldogs return eight defensive linemen who played at least 10 games last season.  MSU excelled at stopping the run last year, but struggled getting to the quarterback. It only recorded 20 sacks — and four came against Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Improved depth along the line should help Mississippi State increase that number.

The coaching staff referred to the linebackers as the heart of the defense last year. It could be the same in 2014. The Bulldogs return two of their three starters, including leading tackler Benardrick McKinney. The junior looks to return to numbers he put up as a freshman when he recorded 102 tackles.

The Bulldogs are loaded at corner, where several young players were forced into action last fall. The staff has confidence in Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Love and Will Redmond to contain some of the league’s top wideouts.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialties for 2014:
No unit struggled more for Mississippi State than special teams in 2013. MSU made 10-of-21 field goals, a 47.6 percent accuracy rate that ranked 120th in the country. The Bulldogs were one of four teams in the country that didn’t make at least 50 percent of their field goals. Last year’s kicker, Devon Bell, will now focusing on punting. Sophomore Evan Sobiesk, who made 3-of-6 last year, is the favorite to handle the field goals.
 
Final Analysis
Expectations are high in Starkville. Mississippi State enters the season with one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and a defense that has the potential to be among the best in the league. If suitable replacements are found on the offensive line and the special teams improves, the 2014 season could be the best in Dan Mullen’s six years at the school. 



COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38 Duke Blue Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe , 31-44 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scottie Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Collins, Jim Knowles

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. 38 Duke.

Previewing Duke's Offense:

Quarterback Anthony Boone was at the controls of a highly productive offense in 2013 (32.8 ppg), but his performance last season was actually quite uneven. There were times, such as the historic win at Virginia Tech, in which the Blue Devils won in spite of Boone. There was talk of a legitimate QB competition in the spring, but that all changed in April, when Brandon Connette — who has been used in more of a Swiss Army knife role in previous seasons — announced his plans to transfer to a school in California to be near his mother, who has brain cancer.

Duke flourished despite erratic play at quarterback because it developed into a highly balanced offense. The Blue Devils ran for 178.0 yards per game in 2013, their highest average since 1977. The four-back rotation that Duke used to pile up those yards took a hit when Jela Duncan was dismissed from school for violating academic policy, but the Blue Devils still have productive options in Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell.

Two starters must be replaced on an offensive line that opened holes and still pass-blocked at the usual high levels (just 17 sacks allowed), but the three most vital parts — left tackle Takoby Cofield, right guard Laken Tomlinson and center Matt Skura — all return.

Duke also gets one more season from arguably its most valuable player, explosive wideout/returner Jamison Crowder, who enjoyed a record-setting season in 2013. 

Previewing Duke's Defense:

The Duke defense still had its struggles in 2013 (58 points against Pitt?) but it made up for its tendency to give up yards (418.0 per game) with a timely knack for making big plays. The Blue Devils forced the fourth-most turnovers in the ACC (26), led by a ball-hawking secondary that was responsible for 16 of the team’s 18 interceptions.

That will have to be the formula again this fall, because Duke still has issues on the defensive line. The Blue Devils had loads of experience there last season, but still not much in the way of production. Now all but one starter on that unit is gone, leaving just defensive tackle Jamal Bruce and a whole lot of question marks.

Fortunately for Duke, the secondary that was the big concern heading into last season is now the source of strength in 2014. Even without All-ACC corner Ross Cockrell, there’s plenty of talent in this group, led by tackling machine Jeremy Cash at safety. It may get even better if redshirt freshman Evrett Edwards makes the impact that many expect.

Also expected? Plenty of tackles from Duke’s pair of starting linebackers, David Helton and Kelby Brown. Keeping the talented but injury-prone Brown healthy will be key.

Previewing Duke's Specialists:

Perhaps no school in the country is more set on special teams than Duke. The Blue Devils feature All-ACC-caliber performers at kicker (Ross Martin), punter (Will Monday), punt returner (Crowder) and kick returner (DeVon Edwards). Last year, special teams played a critical role in several Duke wins. Expect the same this fall.

Final Analysis

The Coastal Division race should be wide open again this season, and Duke should be in the thick of it. Thanks to a pillow-soft non-conference schedule, and the absence of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville among Atlantic Division crossover opponents (the Devils get Syracuse and Wake instead), a third straight bowl game seems highly likely for the Blue Devils. A repeat trip to the ACC title game? Duke seemed to catch just about every late-game break in 2013 (for a change). It’s hard to envision a repeat of that level of magic again this fall. And the Blue Devils certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#36 Pittsburgh Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#36

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Paul Chryst, 13-13 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Joe Rudolph | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House

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. 36 Pittsburgh.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2014:

Pittsburgh was more jugger-not than juggernaut in its debut season in the ACC. It ranked 118th nationally in sacks allowed, 102nd in rushing yards and 80th in points. Are better times ahead? Hard to tell.

For the second consecutive season, coach Paul Chryst must break in a new starting quarterback. Sophomore Chad Voytik is a dual-threat in the mold of Russell Wilson (whom Chryst coached as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). He threw for more than 5,000 yards as a prep. Problem is, his collegiate sample size is limited to 11 career passing attempts. That said, Voytik opened eyes after stepping in for injured starter Tom Savage in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and leading a last-second victory.

Voytik’s transition should be made easier thanks to sophomore wideout Tyler Boyd, who was the nation’s most productive freshman receiver with 85 receptions for 1,174 yards. The challenge is finding a No. 2 pass-catcher to offset the attention Boyd is sure to face.

At running back, bruising sophomore James Conner is coming off a 799-yard season (5.5 per carry), during which he ran for 229 yards in the bowl victory over Bowling Green. The offensive line could be a concern. The unit returns four starters, but given last season’s struggles, that might not be a positive.

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2014:

How does Pittsburgh replace all-everything tackle Aaron Donald? It doesn’t. However, “Just because one guy left doesn’t mean the whole defensive line is going to fall apart,” says junior tackle Darryl Render. The belief is that Donald’s tenacity will have a residual effect for current and future Panthers. And with only five starters returning from a unit that ranked 34th overall, that’s a must. Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith will provide experience on the interior line, while sophomore end Shakir Soto, who had a sack in his lone start in ’13, is a player to watch as Pittsburgh tries to increase its sack total of 25.

A point of emphasis for the linebackers and defensive backs this spring was creating more turnovers, given that the Panthers ranked 107th in that category. They also had an ACC-low eight interceptions. A big season is needed from athletic linebacker Todd Thomas, who was fourth in tackles but provided no sacks or interceptions. Ditto for cornerback Lafayette Pitts (no interceptions). As a unit, the linebacking corps could flourish with returning starter and former blue-chip quarterback Anthony Gonzalez joining Thomas and true sophomore Matt Galambos. In the secondary, safety Ray Vinopal returns after ranking second in tackles. He also had two interceptions in an upset of Notre Dame. 

Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2014:

Chris Blewitt set a record for Pittsburgh freshman kickers with 82 points, converting 14-of-18 field goals. At punter, redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow steps in for three-year starter Matt Yoklic. 

Final Analysis

In recent vintage, Pittsburgh would best be described as unimpressive and/or average. The words are cringe-worthy for those involved with the program, but not inaccurate. The Panthers are 13–13 in two seasons under Chryst and 19–20 since 2011. The good news is that the program firmly belongs to Chryst — only 17 players remain from previous regimes — and young players are making an impact. Chryst played 12 freshmen extensively last season. Still, the Panthers should expect to experience more growing pains, given the uncertainty at quarterback, the precarious nature of the offensive line and a defense that lost the best lineman in the nation. Victories over Notre Dame, Duke and Bowling Green in ’13 can serve as building blocks, but losses to Navy, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are reminders that more work must be done. 




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