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#22 Penn State Nittany Lions





HEAD COACH: James Franklin, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

James Franklin takes over at Penn State after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. Franklin raised the bar for the Commodores, guiding the program to three bowl appearances and back-to-back nine-win seasons. The Nittany Lions are still under NCAA sanctions, so depth is an issue and there’s no postseason possibility. However, with a rising star at quarterback, combined with one of the top coaching staffs in the nation, Penn State could push for 10 wins this year.

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Previewing Penn State’s Offense for 2014:

New Lions coach James Franklin has said that he and his staff are going to play to the strengths they inherited rather than asking players to fit into schemes for which they weren’t recruited. And right now, the offense’s primary strength is sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who broke 11 school records and finished third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (246.3) as a true freshman. Hackenberg added about 15 pounds of muscle during the off-season and now stands 6'4", 234 pounds. He should vie for All-Big Ten honors if the rest of the offense comes together. But that’s no sure thing.

The Lions are thin up front, with junior left tackle Donovan Smith the only healthy returning starter on the line. None of the other first-team hopefuls — tackles Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, centers Angelo Mangiro and Wendy Laurent, guards Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — has started a single game. Likewise, the receiver corps is being restocked following Allen Robinson’s decision to forgo his senior year. The key returnee is Geno Lewis, who came on strong at the end of last season, catching seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s last three games. After Lewis, the depth chart is a jumble.

The one area that survived graduation day unscathed is the backfield. Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch are all back after combining for 2,150 rushing yards last season, led by Zwinak’s 989 yards.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Penn State Nittany Lions for 2014:

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Previewing Penn State’s Defense for 2014:

Three defensive linemen with starting experience are back — ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackle Austin Johnson — so the Nittany Lions should be able to withstand the loss of All-Big Ten defensive tackle DaQuan Jones. In fact, this is one of the few position groups at which they appear to have real depth. The Lions also have some experience in the secondary with cornerback Jordan Lucas, safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback-turned-safety Adrian Amos.

The biggest changes on defense are at linebacker, where Mike Hull is moving inside after starting at an outside spot last year. Hull doesn’t have prototypical middle-linebacker size (6'0", 227), but he’s a big hitter with sideline-to-sideline range and enough experience to ensure that the defense is properly aligned. Flanking Hull will be Nyeem Wartman and most likely Brandon Bell. Wartman started eight games last year, while Bell shined at the end of his freshman season.

Previewing Penn State’s Specialists for 2014:

The new coaching staff has talked a lot about making special teams a priority. The Lions finished eighth in the Big Ten in punt returns and dead last in kickoff returns a year ago, but now they have a dedicated special teams coach in Charles Huff. They also have a talented freshman return man in De’Andre Thompkins, who could make an impact. Penn State looks to be solid at kicker, with Sam Ficken back after hitting 15-of-23 field goal attempts as a junior. Ficken also practiced at punter in the spring, but that job will most likely go to walk-on Chris Gulla. 

Final Analysis

Things are looking up at Penn State following the NCAA’s decision last fall to reduce its scholarship penalties. But until they get their numbers back up, the Nittany Lions will have to improvise. They raided their defensive line this spring to patch holes on the offensive front, and even with the extra manpower, the unit looks precariously thin. The Lions also lack experience at wideout and depth at linebacker. The freshman class will help when it arrives this summer, but there’s no quick fix for the problems Penn State is facing this fall. Says Franklin, “I think we’ve got really good football players and great kids here. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s the reality.”

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Penn State No. 22:

1. James Franklin is one of the top coaching hires for 2014
Bill O’Brien stabilized Penn State’s program through some turmoil, but James Franklin is the right coach to take the Nittany Lions to the next level. Franklin maximized his talent at Vanderbilt and will do the same in Happy Valley. And if you need any evidence about the future of Penn State, take a look at the recruiting rankings for 2015.

2. Christian Hackenberg’s development
As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. Top receiver Allen Robinson must be replaced, but Hackenberg should take the next step in his development under Franklin’s watch.

3. Offensive line concerns
Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, but he will have his hands full this fall. Guard Miles Dieffenbach suffered a torn ACL in the spring and is expected to miss 2014. With Dieffenbach out, left tackle Donovan Smith is the only returning starter on the line. Depth is also a concern for this unit.

4. Six starters back on defense
2013 was not a vintage year for Penn State’s defense, as the Nittany Lions allowed 5.7 yards per play in conference games. But with six starters back, along with the addition of coordinator Bob Shoop, Penn State is primed for a turnaround on defense. Ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan, linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos could be All-Big Ten performers in 2014.

5. Favorable schedule
Penn State could be favored to win at least nine games in 2014. Road trips to Michigan and home dates against Michigan State and Ohio State are swing contests, but with a favorable schedule, the Nittany Lions could finish 10-2 this year.

The Debate

How Many Games Will Penn State Win in 2014?

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#23 Florida Gators





HEAD COACH: Will Muschamp, 22-16 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kurt Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Durkin

2013 was a year to forget in Gainesville. Florida finished 4-8 overall and won just three games in SEC play. The Gators finished last season on a seven-game losing streak, largely due to anemic offense. Coach Will Muschamp is on the hot seat entering 2014 and needs to get this program back on track. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has a significant task ahead in order to fix Florida’s offense, but the Gators should have one of the top defenses in the SEC.

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Previewing Florida’s Offense for 2014:

One sure sign that Florida football is in a dire situation: The Gators are looking to a Duke coach to boost the confidence of the offense. The arrival of Kurt Roper from the Duke staff means that a now-healthy Jeff Driskel will run a system featuring more shotgun snaps, more plays hinging on his mobility and more no-huddle. “We’re more comfortable in the gun,” Florida coach Will Muschamp says. “That’s why Kurt Roper is here.”

Even though Florida returns the same cast of characters, Muschamp says the receiver and running back group is the most complete he’s had in his time in Gainesville. Kelvin Taylor, the son of former Florida running back Fred Taylor, emerged in the second half as a feature back who can thrive in open space. Leading rusher Mack Brown returns as well. He can be an effective runner inside the tackles.

The leading returning receiver, Quinton Dunbar, has proved to be reliable, but the key to the receivers is Demarcus Robinson. He was a standout in spring last season but caught only five passes in the regular season. The 6'2", 201-pound sophomore is Florida’s most athletic receiver. The Gators received a post-spring boost at tight end with the addition of Virginia transfer Jake McGee (43 receptions with the Cavaliers in 2013).

Florida lost two linemen who started a combined 84 career games, but the Gators hope to have two healthy starting tackles, D.J. Humphries and Chaz Green, who were limited by injuries last season. Max Garcia, who started at left guard and left tackle last season, will play center.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Florida Gators 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.

Previewing Florida’s Defense for 2014:

Dante Fowler Jr. is the key figure if Florida is going to improve its sack numbers. The Gators ranked 11th in the SEC in sacks per game last season (1.6) and haven’t ranked higher than sixth since 2009. Fowler’s 2013 season, though, took a turn after tackle Dominique Easley was lost for the season in September, and now Easley is gone for good.

At linebacker, Antonio Morrison appeared to be on track as an impact player as a sophomore in 2013, but the linebacker was inconsistent for eight games before a knee injury ended his season. Also in the linebacker corps, fifth-year senior Mike Taylor emerged in spring as a rock-solid leader, and sophomore Jarrad Davis looked like he could be a rising star.

Beyond cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, talent in the secondary is unproven. Hargreaves quickly became one of the top players in the conference as a freshman and could be one of the nation’s best cornerbacks in 2014. Even after starter Cody Riggs transferred to Notre Dame, safety will be a more veteran position, comparatively, with senior Jabari Gorman and sophomores Keanu Neal and Marcus Maye.

Previewing Florida’s Specialists for 2014:

Florida must find answers to fix an atrocious kicking game. The Gators benched 2012 Ray Guy finalist Kyle Christy as they finished 10th in the SEC in net punting. Christy will try to reclaim the job from Johnny Townsend. Meanwhile, Florida kickers went 12-of-22 on field goals. Sophomore Austin Hardin hit 4-of-12. Andre Debose, a rising star whose career has been derailed by injuries and off-field issues, could be a wild card on special teams if he returns healthy and in Muschamp’s good graces.

Final Analysis

Muschamp enters the most critical season of his tenure with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons in Gainesville. It’s not a stretch to say that hiring Roper is the most important move Muschamp has made. The Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979, the low point a 26–20 loss to Georgia Southern. Muschamp needs Roper to rebuild the confidence on offense. If not, Florida may be looking for more than an offensive coordinator.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Florida No. 23:

1. No shortage of talent in Gainesville
Despite last year’s 4-8 record, Florida isn’t hurting for talent. According to recruiting rankings, the Gators have the No. 2 roster in the SEC. With better luck in the health department, Florida should easily improve its win total.

2. Changes on the coaching staff
With Will Muschamp squarely on the hot seat, changes had to be made after a dismal 2013 season. Kurt Roper was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, and Mike Summers was picked as the new offensive line coach. Both hires should be upgrades for Florida, with Roper making a huge difference in the development of Jeff Driskel.

3. Favorable schedule
Florida has to play Alabama and LSU in crossover play, but the Gators host Missouri and South Carolina – two of its main contenders in the SEC East – and should be 3-1 in non-conference play. Even if the Gators lose two games against the West, the home slate could be favorable enough to rebound to eight wins in 2014.

4. Six starters back on defense
For all of the problems on offense last year, the defense was still one of the best in the SEC. In eight SEC games, Florida ranked No. 1 among defenses in the conference by allowing just 5.09 yards per play. This unit needs more from its pass rushers, but six starters are back, including end Dante Fowler, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard.

5. Improving weapons on offense?
In order for Florida’s offense to take the next step in 2014, its running backs and receivers have to provide more production. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor could push for 1,000 rushing yards if the offensive line is better, while the receiving corps gets a boost from the return of Andre Debose from injury. If players like Demarcus Robinson and Taylor can take the next step in their development, the Gators will have solid playmakers for quarterback Jeff Driskel.

The Debate

Who Leads the SEC in Rushing in 2014?

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#24 Washington Huskies





HEAD COACH: Chris Petersen, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jonathan Smith | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pete Kwiatkowski

Washington made steady progress under former coach Steve Sarkisian, increasing the win total from five in 2009 to nine in 2013. However, the Huskies never challenged Oregon or Stanford for the top spot in the North or finished better than 5-4 in Pac-12 play. New coach Chris Petersen comes to Seattle after a successful stint at Boise State. Petersen is regarded as one of the top coaches in the nation, but he inherits a roster with question marks at quarterback and running back. Are the Huskies ready to take the next step in 2014?

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Previewing Washington’s Offense for 2014:

The first order of business for new coach Chris Petersen will be to settle on a quarterback. Mobile sophomore Cyler Miles, last season’s backup, was the logical choice until the Denver-area product was arrested in connection with a couple of Super Bowl-related altercations involving Seahawks fans. Miles was cleared of any criminal charges but still missed spring practice. He was reinstated to the team in mid-May. Sophomore Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman Troy Williams shared spring duties and were inconsistent. The job is far from settled, but Miles is the leading candidate going into fall practice.

Sophomore Dwayne Washington, a 6'2", 221-pounder with breakaway speed, has been groomed to replace Bishop Sankey at running back and has plenty of potential. He snapped off scoring runs of 71 and 32 yards against Oregon State and 52 against Colorado. A wild card is junior linebacker Shaq Thompson, who was given several carries during the spring and was impressive.

The receivers look promising, yet there are nagging issues. Senior Kasen Williams, with career totals of 142 catches for 1,726 yards and 13 scores, is attempting to bounce back from a serious leg injury. Sophomore Damore’ea Stringfellow, a three-game starter, was charged in the Super Bowl incidents and remains suspended indefinitely. Until everyone’s status is clear, the Huskies will throw to junior Jaydon Mickens (team-leading 65 catches) and sophomore John Ross, the fastest player on the team. Junior Joshua Perkins, who had three TD catches among five receptions at tight end, is an able replacement for NFL-bound Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

A seasoned offensive line should give the new quarterback and tailback plenty of time to acclimate to their jobs. The Huskies return all five starters, four of whom are seniors.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Washington Huskies 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.
Previewing Washington’s Defense for 2014:

The front wall remains solidly intact with starters back at each spot, notably disruptive players in senior end Hau’oli Kikaha and senior tackle Danny Shelton. After missing consecutive seasons with knee injuries, Kikaha recorded 13 sacks and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2013. The 6'2", 332-pound Shelton is highly effective at stuffing the run.

Proven players are in abundance at linebacker in senior John Timu and Thompson, both returning starters, and junior Travis Feeney, a former starter. Timu will enter his fourth season as a first-team player and brings a steadying influence. The multi-talented Thompson plays like another safety, only closer to the line of scrimmage.

In the secondary, Petersen has major issues. He will build around junior corner Marcus Peters, one of the league’s better cover guys. Otherwise, the Huskies will turn to young, untested players to fill in the gaps. Speedy top recruit Budda Baker could find his way into the lineup immediately, either at safety or cornerback. Redshirt freshman corner Jermaine Kelly, one of the UW’s top 2013 recruits, is ready to step in.

Previewing Washington’s Specialists for 2014:

Travis Coons, who handled every field goal, extra point and punt in 2013, has moved on, leaving the kicking game unproven. Replacements are sophomore Cameron Van Winkle, who handled kickoff chores in his first year, and junior Korey Durkee, the UW’s starting punter briefly in 2012 who was limited to holder duties last season. The Huskies aren’t hurting in the return game. The versatile Ross ran back a kickoff 100 yards for a score in the Fight Hunger Bowl.

Final Analysis

Petersen inherits the bulk of a 9–4 bowl team left behind by Steve Sarkisian, who bolted after five seasons for USC. Both lines are intact. If he can find some offensive playmakers, namely a quarterback, and rebuild the depleted secondary, Petersen could move the Huskies up a notch right away and make the rest of the Pac-12 understandably uncomfortable.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Washington No. 24:

1. Upgrade at head coach?
Steve Sarkisian brought stability to Washington after the Huskies went 0-12 in 2008. Chris Petersen is unproven at the BCS level, but after a 92-12 mark at Boise State, he could be the right pick to move Washington up the Pac-12 pecking order.

2. Who replaces Keith Price at quarterback?
Petersen opened spring without the leading candidate to replace Keith Price, as Cyler Miles was suspended due to an off-the-field incident. Miles was reinstated in mid-May and will return in time for fall practice, but he is behind Troy Williams and Jeff Lindquist in learning the new offense.

3. Does Washington have a replacement for running back Bishop Sankey?
Sankey was one of the nation’s top running backs in 2013, recording 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns on 327 attempts. The Huskies have options in Dwayne Washington, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, but the wildcard to watch is linebacker Shaq Thompson.

4. Favorable schedule
Due to a road trip at Hawaii to start the year, Washington will play 13 games in 2014. The Huskies should be 4-0 before a home date against Stanford on Sept. 27. Road games at Washington State, Arizona and Oregon won’t be easy, but Washington has enough winnable matchups to push for 10 victories.

5. Strength in the trenches
Washington’s offensive line play has been inconsistent in recent years, but the Huskies return all five starters for 2014. On the defensive side, end Hau’oli Kikaha and tackle Danny Shelton are among the best in the Pac-12.

The Debate

Chris Petersen or Steve Sarkisian: Who Has a Better Debut in 2014?

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#25 Missouri Tigers





HEAD COACH: Gary Pinkel, 102-63 (13 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Josh Henson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Steckel

Missouri was a surprise champion of the SEC East in 2014, finishing 12-2 overall and 7-1 in regular season conference play. Despite significant personnel losses, the Tigers are expected to be in the mix for the East Division title once again. Quarterback Maty Mauk is a rising star, and he will be surrounded by a solid group of skill players and a steady offensive line. The defense loses key performers at each level, but players like end Markus Golden are back to ensure there isn’t much of a drop in production in 2014. 

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Previewing Missouri's Offense for 2014:

It’s Maty Mauk’s show. The precocious sophomore quarterback filled in for an injured James Franklin and kept Missouri steered toward a stunning SEC East Division title last fall, and with Franklin out of the picture, Mauk takes the reins. He brings to the table confidence and big-play ability. He completed only 51 percent of his passes in 2013, but he averaged nearly 16 yards per completion and threw only two interceptions. And he’s got weapons around him.

Three Missouri running backs rushed for at least 600 yards and 6.0 yards per carry, and while Henry Josey stole the show late in the year, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy had their share of moments. Josey is off to the pros, but Hansbrough and Murphy return to carry the load for a Missouri running game anchored by a line that improved dramatically last fall. Left tackle Justin Britt is gone, but three starters return up front, including potential all-conference center Evan Boehm.

The Tigers lost receivers Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington to graduation but still expected to field a strong corps of pass-catchers. That was until Dorial Green-Beckham, a former five-star recruit, was dismissed from the team in April. DGB’s departure will put more pressure on Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt to emerge as primary options in the passing game. They will be joined by a grab bag of rotation candidates. Senior Darius White is a former blue-chipper with one last chance to make an impact. Sophomore Levi Copelin and redshirt freshman J’Mon Moore had some strong moments in spring practice.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Missouri Tigers 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.
Previewing Missouri's Defense for 2014:

Missouri lost a ferocious pair of pass-rushers in Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, but if you were to ask insiders what position might be the biggest strength for the Tiger defense in 2014, the answer would probably be “defensive end.” Markus Golden and Shane Ray return after combining for 11 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss in backup duty. Every defensive tackle from the end-of-year two-deep returns as well. Run support could be an issue at end, however, and it’s possible that tackle Harold Brantley could see time lined up wide on the line.

The line will need to thrive again in 2014 to take pressure off of less proven pieces in the back of the defense. Kentrell Brothers, a 2013 starter at outside linebacker, takes over for hard-hitting Andrew Wilson in the middle. He will be joined by some combination of veterans who have yet to crack the starting lineup or youngsters with potential and minimal proven production.

Meanwhile, an experienced set of safeties, led by longtime starter Braylon Webb, should be able to help in big-play prevention, but there will be a lot of pressure on athletic sophomore cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson. They are tasked with replacing E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder.

Previewing Missouri's Specialists for 2014:

Missouri has loads of experience in the special teams units. Murphy was one of the country’s best return men in 2012, and Andrew Baggett made 6-of-8 field goals longer than 40 yards in 2013. They are not without question marks, however; Murphy didn’t make much of an impact last fall, and Baggett fell into a costly slump last October.

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Final Analysis:

With 12 wins and an East title last fall, Gary Pinkel and his program managed to silence every doubter and answer every lingering question after a tough first season in the SEC. The Tigers face an interesting contradiction in 2014. There is still an abundance of star power, from Mauk on offense to Golden and Ray on defense. But the depth that was so key a year ago has been thinned out quite a bit, and injuries could be particularly costly, as they were in 2012.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Missouri No. 25:

1. Rising star in quarterback Maty Mauk
Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns in limited action last year. Needs to improve on a 51.1 completion percentage.

2. Only four returning starters on defense
Tigers had quality depth last year, but four All-SEC performers need to be replaced on defense.

3. Replacing cornerback E.J. Gaines
Gaines was one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC last year. Can Aarion Penton replace him as the top cover corner in 2014?

4. Can a +16 turnover margin be replicated?
Missouri was +16 in turnover margin last season, including a +12 in SEC play. The +16 number is the best for the Tigers since a +13 in 2007.

5. Tough SEC road schedule
Missouri plays tough road tests at Florida and South Carolina early in the year, as well as swing games against Texas A&M and Tennessee in November.

The Debate

Which Player Leads the SEC in Rushing Yards in 2014?

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