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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#12 Stanford Cardinal

NATIONAL FORECAST

#12

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: David Shaw, 34-7 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bloomgren | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lance Anderson

David Shaw has guided Stanford to back-to-back Pac-12 titles and three seasons of at least 11 wins. The Cardinal has a few holes to fill for the 2014 season, but Shaw has this program poised to challenge for the Pac-12 championship once again. Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be throwing to one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps, and the offensive line is loaded once again. Stanford’s schedule is tough, but there’s also a lot to like about the Cardinal in 2014.

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

Previewing Stanford’s Offense for 2014:

After back-to-back seasons in which Stanford’s primary running back had more than 300 carries, coach David Shaw is looking to return to a committee approach. Remound Wright, Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale and Barry Sanders are all in the mix for carries. Each one does one or two things well, but none, per one offensive coach, does everything well enough, at this point, to seize control of the job.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan returns after a steady 2013 in which he tossed 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He didn’t make the developmental leap the coaches had hoped for, but it’s tough to argue with his winning percentage. Since taking over as the starter midway through 2012, he has a 16–3 record, including a 10–1 mark against ranked teams.

The receiving corps is loaded with playmakers. Ty Montgomery, who caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, is the top returning target, but Devon Cajuste (22.9 ypc) and Michael Rector (30.8 ypc) are both big-time downfield threats.

The Cardinal have to replace four starters on the offensive line, most notably All-America guard David Yankey. But all five projected starters are from the heralded 2012 recruiting class. Left tackle Andrus Peat should get All-America consideration.
With a talented young crop of tight ends, look for Stanford to return to the multi-tight end formations that made them so potent in the days of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Stanford Cardinal for 2014:

 

Previewing Stanford’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.
Lance Anderson moves into the defensive coordinator spot to replace Derek Mason, who left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt. The Cardinal have produced one of the top pressure defenses in the country the last few years with their 3-4 scheme. And despite personnel losses like Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ed Reynolds, this group should be no exception.

Defensive end Henry Anderson should be in the running for all-conference honors playing alongside returning tackle David Parry. The defensive front has some youth, but it also has a lot of depth.

Inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley has quietly been one of the best run-stoppers in the conference the last couple of seasons. Replacing Murphy’s production at outside linebacker will be tough, but Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters have experience.
Free safety Jordan Richards should receive All-America consideration, but the Cardinal lose Reynolds at strong safety and will look to the duo of Kyle Olugbode and Zach Hoffpauir to fill the void. Alex Carter, who battled a hip injury in the spring, and Wayne Lyons are both back at their starting corner spots.

Previewing Stanford’s Specialists for 2014:

The Cardinal return both of their specialists, kicker Jordan Williamson and punter Ben Rhyne. Only one other team in the conference attempted more field goals than Stanford last season, and Williamson converted 81.1 percent of his kicks (18-of-22). Rhyne was solid with an average of 42.9 yards per punt, ranking second in the league. Montgomery is just as dangerous as a kick returner as he is as a receiver. He took two kicks back for touchdowns last season and averaged a league-best 30.3 yards per return. The punt return spot is up in the air, but it could fall to Sanders, who split time with Kodi Whitfield last season and averaged 10.1 yards per return.

Final Analysis 

Despite the losses of key players on both sides of the ball, Stanford is once again stocked with top talent at almost every position, and the Cardinal should contend for a third straight Pac-12 title. Oregon still figures to be Stanford’s biggest hurdle in the North Division, making the Nov. 1 date in Eugene the game of the year in the conference.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Stanford No. 12:

1. Tough schedule
Stanford’s schedule features road games against five teams Athlon Sports has predicted will finish in the top 25 at the end of 2014. Additionally, the Cardinal plays USC in a crossover game in the second week of the season. Needless to say, if Stanford manages to finish 11-2 or 12-1, it will have earned a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff.

2. Four starters gone on the offensive line? No problem
Considering Stanford loses four starters on its offensive line, it seems strange to say the front five will be a strength for this team. However, take a look at the returning talent. Left tackle Andrus Peat should be an All-American in 2014, and he will be joined by experienced and talented players like Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, Graham Shuler and Johnny Caspers. It may take a game or two for this unit to mesh, but expect Stanford to have one of the top offensive lines in the nation.

3. Replacing Derek Mason
Promoting from within has worked well for Stanford in recent years, and Shaw hopes to continue that trend in 2014. Lance Anderson will call the defensive signals with Derek Mason taking over as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Anderson has worked on Stanford’s staff since 2007, so he’s familiar with the program and the returning talent. Mason was one of the best assistant coaches in college football. Is Anderson ready to fill that role and keep Stanford’s defense among the best in the nation?

4. Kevin Hogan’s development
In his first full season as Stanford’s starting quarterback, Hogan threw for 2,635 yards and 20 scores. Considering the departure of Tyler Gaffney and the new faces on defense, the Cardinal needs Hogan to take the next step. Considering Hogan returns one of the top receiving corps in the Pac-12, he should develop into one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.

5. New faces on defense
Along with a new coordinator, one of the biggest concerns for Stanford’s defense is how this unit will replace the production from Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Those two players combined for 20.5 sacks last year, which is nearly half of the Cardinal’s season total (44). The defense needs a big year from the new starters at linebacker, which could include Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters. Senior A.J. Tarpley will be asked to pickup some of that production, while getting end Henry Anderson back from injury is also critical for the defense.

The Debate

Stanford or Oregon: Who Wins the Pac-12 North in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

USC opens the Steve Sarkisian era with plenty of optimism. The Trojans return 14 starters from a team that went 10-4 last year, and the coaching staff has stability after a season of uncertainty. Sarkisian hired a good staff and inherits a team capable of winning the Pac-12 South. Quarterback Cody Kessler improved as 2013 progressed, and receiver Nelson Agholor should be an All-American in 2014. Eight starters return from a defense that limited Pac-12 opponents to 25.4 points a game last year.

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

Previewing USC’s Offense for 2014:

New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian brings the up-tempo, no-huddle offense to USC, where the old, pro-style, I-formation set wasn’t just merely a staple — it was almost a religion. It will take Trojans boosters a while to adjust to the change, but the weapons are there to make it interesting. Quarterback Cody Kessler is coming off a solid first year as a starter, capped off by an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Javorius “Buck” Allen was the big surprise of 2014 at tailback, and wide receiver Nelson Agholor has the talent to follow in the cleat marks of All-Americans Robert Woods and the sure-to-be-missed Marqise Lee. Randall Telfer, a gifted tight end, is likely to be utilized much more in Sarkisian’s new scheme.

The key will be an offensive line that remains a work in progress. Three important contributors have departed, and several potential starters were held out of spring practice with injuries, leaving the situation slightly muddled heading into fall camp. Max Tuerk, the team’s most versatile linemen, will be asked to replace All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin.

Clay Helton is the offensive coordinator, but Sarkisian, like his controversial predecessor Lane Kiffin, plans to call the plays.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the USC Trojans for 2014:

 

Previewing USC’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.
Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator, will run out of a 3-4 base defense, as opposed to last year’s 5-2. But because there will be multiple fronts, it will occasionally look the same. The trick will be to play as effectively as last year’s defense, which was often the strength of the team. It helps that All-American Leonard Williams returns to lead a defensive line that could be among the finest in the country. Aggressive Antwaun Woods was the team’s most active defensive player in spring practice at nose tackle. He will be flanked by Williams and either Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or junior college transfer Claude Pelon.

Hayes Pullard, the leading tackler in 2013, will be a stabilizer at one inside linebacker, and the secondary is deeper and more experienced than the one that began the season a year ago. Look for sophomore safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III to be future stars.

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2014:

Punter Kris Albarado, who had a good year, and placekicker Andre Heidari, who was somewhat erratic, both return. Agholor is one of the country’s more exciting return specialists. He averaged 19.1 yards per return and scored two touchdowns on punts last season.

Final Analysis

Sarkisian is ecstatic to be back at talent-rich USC, where he served as an assistant in the Pete Carroll glory years. But his hiring drew a mixed reaction among Trojans boosters. Many felt Ed Orgeron, who turned the season around as interim coach after Kiffin was fired, should have been offered the job. Others thought Boise State’s highly successful Chris Petersen, who succeeded Sarkisian at Washington, would have been a stronger choice. It is up to Sarkisian to silence the doubters.

He has more than enough good players to do it, but much will depend on an uncertain offensive line and his ability to overcome the final season of NCAA sanctions that limit him to a 75-man roster. The schedule is generally favorable, although that shaky offensive front will receive a severe early test in the season’s second week at Stanford, and after two consecutive losses to Jim Mora-coached UCLA, the Trojans must travel to play the cross-town rival Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

A confident Sarkisian is talking titles already, but it might behoove him to simply match last year’s 10-victory season. Anything less and the pressure will be turned up considerably at USC.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking USC No. 14:

1. Scholarship limitations…but also plenty of talent
USC is still dealing with scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, so overall depth is a concern. However, according to the recruiting rankings, the Trojans have the No. 1 roster in the conference. While USC may not have a solid second unit on offense or defense, its starting 22 is as good as any team in the conference.

2. QB Cody Kessler’s development
Under the guidance of coordinator Clay Helton, Kessler gained confidence over the final half of the season. Kessler threw for 288 yards in a 20-17 win over Stanford and torched Fresno State for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Combine Sarkisian’s background on offense, along with the return of Helton, and it’s easy to see Kessler taking another step forward in 2014.

3. Loaded skill positions
There’s little doubt USC will miss receiver Marqise Lee. However, Nelson Agholor is poised for a big year, and George Farmer and Steven Mitchell are back after missing 2013 due to injuries. The running back stable is deep, headlined by Buck Allen and Tre Madden.

4. Concerns on the offensive line
This is where scholarship sanctions come into play. USC must replace center Marcus Martin and tackle Kevin Graf, leaving Chad Wheeler, Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker as returning starters. Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers could start at right guard, while true freshmen Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn are expected to factor into the two-deep. An injury could be a huge blow to the offensive line.

5. The Pac-12’s top defense?
With eight starters back, USC’s defense has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12. New coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the top assistants in the conference and inherits four potential All-Americans in end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard, cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Su’a Cravens.

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

#15 Wisconsin Badgers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#15

Big Ten West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Gary Andersen, 9-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Ludwig | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Aranda

The Badgers return only eight starters, but the expectations remain high in Madison. And even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin is still positioned for a run at the Big Ten title. Running back Melvin Gordon headlines an offense that should be one of the best in the nation on the ground. Four starters return on the line, including tackles Rob Havenstein and Tyler Marz. The receiving corps needs to be revamped, and quarterback play is a concern. However, a rebuilt defense and solid rushing attack should be enough to remain a top 25 team in 2014.

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

Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2014:

Tanner McEvoy still gets questions about a contingency plan if he isn’t the Wisconsin starting quarterback. Blame that on the junior playing so well at safety last season after getting thrown into the position after the season started. Make no mistake, it’s quarterback or bust for McEvoy, who will compete for the starting job in camp with junior Joel Stave, the returning starter. Stave is 13–6 as a starter, but a costly decision not to slide on a scramble in the Capital One Bowl led to an AC joint injury in his throwing shoulder. That limited him in the spring, opening the door for McEvoy.

Second-year coach Gary Andersen prefers dual-threat quarterbacks, and McEvoy brings the read option to an already potent running game. Melvin Gordon and James White combined to rush for 3,053 yards last season, the most ever at the FBS level by two teammates. White is gone — and many fans believe Gordon should have left, too. Gordon was eligible for the draft as a third-year sophomore and likely would have been the first back taken.

Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry in his career, yet has never been the featured back and has carried the ball more than 20 times in only two games. Sophomore Corey Clement averaged 8.2 yards on 67 carries in his first season and will share the load.
The offensive line is as big and nasty as ever. Five players have started five or more games, led by senior right tackle Rob Havenstein (6'8", 327 pounds), who has 28 career starts.

The question on offense is the passing game. The 336 passes Stave attempted in 2013 were the most in school history, and his 2,494 passing yards ranked fifth. He also threw too many interceptions (13) and frequently missed open receivers.

The three players who caught the most passes last season all departed. At least two of the five receivers signed in February must contribute immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Wisconsin Badgers for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2014:

Get used to seeing undersized, explosive athletes on defense, because the Badgers have put a premium on speed. They have sacrificed size, but the goal is to get more big plays — turnovers, sacks and tackles for a loss.

The defensive front seven is completely new, led by senior nose guard Warren Herring, who will also play end to bolster the pass rush. Redshirt freshman Alec James was involved in one of several position changes, going from outside linebacker to defensive end. James will also help pressure the quarterback, along with outside linebacker Vince Biegel.

Replacing All-America linebacker Chris Borland is a concern. Derek Landisch is a leader and playmaker, but Marcus Trotter doesn’t run well and must prove he can play against spread opponents.

The secondary was a big issue last season, but three starters return in cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo.

Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2014:

Incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone was signed to address a shaky field-goal situation. He will have to beat out incumbent Jack Russell. Kenzel Doe, who tied for the Big Ten lead in kickoff returns (26.5 average) last season and had a 91-yard kickoff return for a TD in the bowl game, will be the No. 1 returner.

Final Analysis

Losses in the final two games against Penn State and South Carolina spoiled what could have been a special first season for Andersen. A large senior class departed, but there is enough talent to contend for the Big Ten West title if a quarterback emerges. Opening the season against LSU in Houston ramped up the urgency in spring, but the schedule is favorable after that — the Badgers host Nebraska and do not play the projected top four teams from the Big Ten East.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Wisconsin No. 15:

1. Significant personnel losses
Wisconsin should be able to effectively reload on both sides of the ball, but there will be a transition period in 2014. With only eight returning starters, concerns at quarterback and receiver, it’s hard to pick the Badgers to challenge Michigan State or Ohio State for the Big Ten title.

2. Question marks under center
Will it be Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy taking the first snap against LSU this year? Stave threw for 2,494 yards last season, but McEvoy was coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Andy Ludwig’s pick to challenge Stave in 2013. McEvoy played safety last year and moved back under center this spring. Stave’s shoulder injury added to the uncertainty.

3. Rushing attack and offensive line
Boasting one of the Big Ten’s best rushing attacks and offensive lines has become an annual tradition in Madison. The Badgers return four starters on the line, while running back Melvin Gordon should be a Heisman contender. Even with quarterback concerns, Wisconsin’s offense should have no trouble moving the ball with a rushing attack that ranks among the best in the nation.

4. Rebuilding on defense
Take a look at Wisconsin’s depth chart for 2014 and it's easy to see there are a ton of new faces stepping into the starting lineup. The Badgers return only three starters on defense, with standouts like Chris Borland, Dezmen Southward and Beau Allen expiring their eligibility. Despite the personnel turnover, there are reasons to be optimistic. Coach Gary Andersen and coordinator Dave Aranda are sharp defensive minds, and there is experience returning at linebacker Vince Biegel and Derek Landisch, underrated nose guard Warren Herring and cornerback Sojourn Shelton. The opener at LSU will be tough, but Wisconsin’s defense should get better as the season progresses.

5. Favorable schedule
While the depth chart has a lot of holes, the schedule is a huge positive for Wisconsin. The Badgers catch Rutgers and Maryland in crossover play, while Nebraska visits Madison. Sure, there’s a road trip to Iowa and a potential swing game at Northwestern, but Wisconsin’s 2014 slate is one of the easiest in the Big Ten.

The Debate

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

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#16 Arizona State Sun Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#16

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Todd Graham, 18-9 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Norvell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Graham, Keith Patterson

The Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South last year, finishing with a 10-4 overall record and a 8-1 mark in conference play. Todd Graham’s team is poised to make another run at the conference championship, but Arizona State’s defense has to be rebuilt after losing several key contributors. Tackle Will Sutton, linebacker Carl Bradford, cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby are huge losses for new coordinator Keith Patterson. With only two returning starters on defense, expect the Sun Devils to lean heavily on an explosive offense.

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

Previewing Arizona State’s Offense for 2014: 

The Sun Devils should have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12. Start with senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who had 37 total touchdowns and a combined 4,243 yards from scrimmage (3,635 passing, 608 rushing) last season. Kelly doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s adept at throwing on the run and escaping the rush. His challenge this year is to play as well against the Pac-12’s top teams as he does some of the conference’s lesser foes.

ASU’s running game will survive the loss of leading rusher Marion Grice because junior D.J. Foster is ready to assume a full-time role carrying the ball. Foster isn’t as strong as Grice between the tackles, but he’s more explosive. He’s also a terrific receiver and will be a big weapon for Kelly out of the backfield.

Foster and Kelly will be aided by an offensive line that should be able to weather the loss of two starters, including all-conference left tackle Evan Finkenberg. The addition of guard Christian Westerman, a transfer from Auburn, will allow Jamil Douglas to move from guard to left tackle.

If there’s a question mark it’s the wide receiving corps. Jaelen Strong is one of the best receivers in the country, a 6'3", 212-pound Larry Fitzgerald clone who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns last season. But there’s little returning depth behind Strong, which makes it imperative that junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale can produce immediately.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Arizona State Sun Devils for 2014:

Previewing Arizona State’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.

It’s highly unlikely that any team in the country has more holes to fill on defense than ASU, which lost nine starters on that side of the ball, including both of its starting cornerbacks, sack leader Carl Bradford and two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Will Sutton.

The Sun Devils will have no choice but to rely on a mix of junior college recruits — particularly along the defensive line — freshmen and untested sophomores. The inexperience could be a factor early in the season; ASU plays UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in a one-month span starting Sept. 25.

Along the front, the Sun Devils have to hope that transfers Edmond Boateng and Dalvon Stuckey can step in and play right away. There’s simply not a lot of depth at the position. There are similar concerns at linebacker. True freshman D.J. Calhoun looked great in spring ball, but is he ready for Pac-12 competition? And the Sun Devils haven’t been able to find a ready-made replacement at Devil linebacker for Bradford. Unless that player steps up in the fall, ASU’s pass rush will be compromised.

The secondary? Well, the only sure thing is safety Damarious Randall. ASU is replacing both of its corners for the first time in four years. The Sun Devils had 21 interceptions last season; the returning players have a total of four.

Previewing Arizona State’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Sun Devils’ kicking game should be solid with punter Matt Haack and placekicker Zane Gonzalez — 25-of-30 last year — but the return and coverage teams were problems and are points of emphasis this season for coach Todd Graham. ASU needs to find a home-run returner and make better use of its athleticism in kickoff and punt coverage. 

Final Analysis 

Graham talks big — and so far has backed up his words. But given the massive remake of the defense, it’s hard to imagine the Sun Devils winning a second straight Pac-12 South title. ASU will attack offensively and score a lot of points, but it might also be on the wrong end of 45–42 games. ASU has to play at USC, Washington, Oregon State and arch-rival Arizona and also has a difficult non-conference game against Notre Dame in early November. A nine-win season would deserve applause.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Arizona State No. 16:

1. One of the Pac-12’s top offenses
Seven starters return from an offense that averaged 41.2 points per game in Pac-12 action last year. Quarterback Taylor Kelly should be a lock for all-conference honors, and receiver Jaelen Strong should be better in his second year in Tempe. With the concerns on defense, Arizona State will have to score at least 40 points per game in Pac-12 contests to win the South in 2014.

2. Rebuilding effort on defense
New co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is essentially starting from scratch on defense. The Sun Devils return only two starters and will be relying on several new faces for immediate contributions. Linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall are tasked with becoming the new leaders for Arizona State’s defense this year.

3. UCLA and USC return more talent
Returning starters aren’t necessarily the best way to judge how teams will perform the next year, but UCLA and USC have more talent back on campus for 2014. With Arizona State’s personnel losses, it’s going to take some time for this team to rebuild in order to compete with the Bruins and Trojans.

4. The schedule
With a rebuilding roster, a schedule that features a September game against UCLA, combined with matchups against USC, Stanford and Washington in October isn’t the ideal situation for Graham. However, the second half of the season could allow Arizona State time to build momentum in the rankings. The Sun Devils have to travel to Oregon State and Arizona and host Notre Dame in that span, but the final five games are favorable for Arizona State to pad its win total.

5. Todd Graham’s track record
In eight years as a head coach on the FBS level, Todd Graham only has one losing season and won at least 10 games in three out of his four years at Tulsa. With Arizona State recruiting well, combined with an excellent staff in Tempe, the Sun Devils shouldn’t take too much of a step back in the win column. 

The Debate

Arizona State, UCLA or USC: Who Wins the Pac-12 South in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#17 Texas Longhorns

NATIONAL FORECAST

#17

Big 12 PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vance Bedford

It’s a new era in Austin. Mack Brown resigned in December, and Charlie Strong was hired from Louisville to return Texas to the ranks of the Big 12 elite. The Longhorns are just 16-11 in conference play over the last three years, but there’s hope for improvement in 2014. Strong inherits plenty of talent and should be able to maximize the roster better than the previous staff. Quarterback play is a concern, but the rushing attack and defense should be solid.  

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

Previewing Texas’ Offense for 2014:

Quarterback and the offensive line are the two biggest questions on offense, which makes the first year of the Charlie Strong era hard to predict.

David Ash (63 percent passer, 30 TDs, 18 INTs in 21 starts) missed the final week of spring football after having surgery to repair a fractured left foot. And Ash has to prove he can take a hit — literally — after missing the final nine games of 2013 with ongoing concussion symptoms from a head injury.

Max Wittek was expected to transfer to Texas, but he won't graduate from USC until December. With Wittek out of the picture, coach Charlie Strong could look to the junior college ranks for another option. If Ash fails to win the job, coaches would look to still-developing sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or incoming freshman Jerrod Heard. Keeping Ash healthy is a priority with the inexperience on the depth chart at quarterback.

“We don’t need a great player, we just need someone to take control of it,” Strong says of the quarterback position.

Running back should be a strength as 80 percent of the team’s rushing yards return with seniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and junior Johnathan Gray.

Four of Texas’ top five receivers from last season return, including senior Jaxon Shipley, a security blanket on third down; emerging deep threats Marcus Johnson and Kendall Sanders; and explosive slot receiver Daje Johnson. Tight end Geoff Swaim also figures to play a key role in the offense of Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline.

Texas has to replace three starters from an offensive line that gave up only 16 sacks in 2013. Outside of center Dom Espinosa, who has started every game of his college career (39), and right tackle Kennedy Estelle (eight starts), the offensive line is unproven.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the Texas Longhorns 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.

Previewing Texas’ Defense for 2014:

The front four is the strength of the defense, led by end Cedric Reed (10 sacks in 2013) and tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond “Tank” Jackson. Keep an eye on sophomore end Caleb Bluiett, who impressed coaches in his battle with junior Shiro Davis to replace Jackson Jeffcoat.

Jordan Hicks is the team’s best linebacker and a key leader. But he’s been injury-prone. The defense has underachieved each of the past two seasons, in large part because Hicks missed 10 games in 2012 (groin) and nine games in 2013 (torn Achilles). Texas needs Hicks to stay healthy and for middle linebacker Steve Edmond and outside linebacker Peter Jinkens to take the next step.

The secondary is loaded with talent and speed. But Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said in the spring that the group lacked confidence and needed to play with the swagger of senior cornerback Quandre Diggs.

Previewing Texas’ Specialists for 2014:

Gone is Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera, who made 20-of-22 field goals while also punting in 2013. Junior Nick Rose and sophomore Nick Jordan are battling it out for kicker, and seniors William Russ and Michael Davidson are vying to be the punter. Texas needs to get much more out of its return game.

Final Analysis

If the quarterback and offensive line can play with some consistency, Texas has the talent and depth at running back and receiver to be potent on offense. The defense has a chance to be strong if the back seven can match the strength and intensity of the front four. The schedule is not forgiving early as the Longhorns will face BYU, UCLA, Baylor and Oklahoma — all by mid-October. Any improvement from last year’s 8–5 record would probably be seen as a good first year for Strong.

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Five Reasons why Athlon Sports is Picking Texas No. 17:

1. Upgraded coaching staff
Mack Brown won a lot of games in Austin, but Charlie Strong is the right coach to get Texas back on track. The Longhorns slipped in recent years and failed to maximize some of their elite recruiting hauls. Strong developed talent at Louisville and should have more to work with at Texas. He is joined by veteran play-caller Shawn Watson, one of the nation’s best offensive line coaches in Joe Wickline, and Vance Bedford at defensive coordinator. Strong will need some time to establish a foundation to compete for a national championship. However, this staff should be able to take advantage of the returning talent (No. 1 ranked roster in the Big 12) to push for nine wins in 2014.

2. Quarterback play is a concern
If the Longhorns had any stability at quarterback, this team could be picked higher in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. However, David Ash missed most of last year due to a concussion, and he suffered a foot injury in the spring that will keep him on the sidelines until the fall. Ash has made steady improvement, but how much rust will there be after missing most of 2013? If Ash isn’t 100 percent, Texas will have to turn to sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or true freshman Jerrod Heard.

3. Best backfield in the Big 12
With the uncertainty at quarterback, expect the Longhorns to lean heavily on their ground attack. Malcolm Brown rushed for 904 yards last season and should push for 1,000 yards once again in 2014. Assuming Johnathan Gray returns to full strength from an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron’s academic issues are cleared before the fall, Texas should have the top running back corps in the Big 12.

4. Improvement on defense
Texas finished fifth in the Big 12 (conference-only games) last season by allowing 5.2 yards per play. With seven starters back, combined with the arrival of Strong and Bedford, improvement is expected in 2014. The line is loaded with talent, starting with end Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown. The secondary needs to replace cornerback Carrington Byndom and safety Adrian Phillips, but Quandre Diggs headlines this unit at cornerback. The linebacking corps could be a strength if Jordan Hicks returns to full strength.

5. Strength on the offensive line?
With the departure of Donald Hawkins, Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters, it’s hard to call the offensive line a strength this preseason. However, the addition of line coach Joe Wickline was an underrated offseason pickup, which should help Texas own one of the top lines in the conference in 2014. Center Dominic Espinosa is an All-Big 12 candidate, while there’s potential on the left side with Desmond Harrison and Sedrick Flowers. Question marks exist, but there’s also reason to believe this unit will finally reach its potential. 
 

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Texas or Kansas State: Who Finishes Higher in the Big 12 in 2014?

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