#63 Arkansas Razorbacks





HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Robb Smith

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. 63 Arkansas.

Previewing Arkansas' Offense:

Brandon Allen’s lackluster passing numbers in his first year as the starter shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His ascension to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart coincided with the loss of high-end talent at the receiver position and the introduction of a run-first philosophy by new coach Bret Bielema. Allen completed 49.6 percent of his passes, and his accuracy fell to 47.7 percent in SEC games, worst among conference starters. Allen, who played with an ailing throwing shoulder most of the season, should produce better results this fall. Both his backups are untested — redshirt freshman Austin Allen (his brother) and true freshman Rafe Peavey.

Alex Collins led the nation’s freshmen with 1,026 rushing yards, joining Darren McFadden as the only Arkansas freshmen to hit the 1,000-yard mark. Collins did it while sharing time with Jonathan Williams, who compiled 900 rushing yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Both return, with help from speedster Korliss Marshall and big fullback Kody Walker. A better passing attack should help the run game.

Tight end Hunter Henry leads a pass-catching crew that includes senior Demetrius Wilson — who is back from a knee injury — Keon Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.

The Hogs are trying to stockpile talent on the offensive line, which will feature senior right tackle Brey Cook and standout sophomores in left tackle Dan Skipper and right guard Denver Kirkland. 

Previewing Arkansas' Defense:

Robb Smith, previously with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers, will be Arkansas’ fourth defensive coordinator in the past four seasons. Smith inherited a unit that brings back four starters after ranking 76th nationally in total defense. The lone holdover assistant is linebackers coach Randy Shannon. Smith seems more willing to attack with blitzes than the previous defensive staff, which might help the Hogs improve on their paltry takeaway count of 14.

The pass rush should be solid with veteran end Trey Flowers taking on a leading role. Sophomore ends Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston played well in the spring, and tackle Darius Philon could be ready for a breakout year alongside 343-pound run-stuffer DeMarcus Hodge.

The Hogs have struggled at the linebacker position in recent years. The expectation by the staff is that seniors Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight and sophomore Brooks Ellis will play faster, be better run-stoppers and more authoritative tacklers.

Arkansas has a bounty of options at cornerback, where Tevin Mitchel is trying to rebound from a rough season, with help from Carroll Washington, Will Hines and others. The numbers at safety are still thin, but veterans Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines should pick it up a notch, and redshirt freshman De’Andre Coley could be the kind of hard-hitting ball-hawk the Razorbacks have lacked.

Previewing Arkansas' Specialists:

Australian Sam Irwin-Hill’s introduction to major-college football was action-packed. The ambidextrous punter ranked 13th in the nation with a 44.3-yard average, and he triggered several fourth-down gambles, running and throwing, with mixed results. The Razorbacks gave a scholarship to Texas legend Cole Hedlund, hoping he can follow Zach Hocker as the next four-year kicker in the program.

Final Analysis

Arkansas should be improved on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean another winless SEC season is out of the question for the Razorbacks, who are still trying to stabilize and upgrade their roster after the disruption of the Bobby Petrino affair. Qualifying for a bowl berth would be a significant step in Year 2 under Bielema, as Arkansas chugs forward with a difficult rebuild.


#70 Kentucky Wildcats





HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Neal Brown | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot

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. 70 Kentucky.

Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2014:

The “Air Raid” didn’t exactly take flight in Year 1 under coordinator Neal Brown. Kentucky ranked 98th in passing offense in 2013 after Brown’s Texas Tech offenses ranked top-10 nationally in each of his three years in Lubbock. Blame a bad roster for some of those struggles — he inherited sparse talent and precious little depth — but Brown is not without regrets.

“What happens when you’re maybe not as talented as some of the teams you’re playing is you try to out-scheme some people and maybe deviate from the system you have in place,” Brown says. “I think we did that. We tried to maybe cover up some areas that were weaknesses for us, where if I had it to do over again I would just really concentrate on fundamentals and stuck with the system and not swayed off it as much.”

He’ll get back to that system — and his usual fast pace — this fall. Improved quarterback play will help. A pair of former four-star recruits, sophomore Patrick Towles and freshman Drew Barker, and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips staged a tight spring competition, with Towles holding a slight edge.

This year’s quarterback will benefit from a stacked backfield — four former four-star recruits, led by sophomore Jojo Kemp and junior Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard — and a veteran offensive line. Four starters return up front, including standout tackles Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle. At receiver, playmakers Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons are back along with the rest of UK’s top five wideouts from 2013.

Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2014:

The defense should take a significant step forward in Year 2. Mark Stoops’ defenses at Arizona and Florida State did, and the Cats return eight starters plus add several talented newcomers. Few SEC teams will have a more formidable pair of defensive ends than 6'6", 264-pound Za’Darius Smith and 6'4", 267-pound Bud Dupree, who combined for 13 sacks last season.

Kentucky’s biggest loss is at middle linebacker, where Avery Williamson had 100-plus tackles each of the last two seasons and was a locker room leader. Junior Josh Forrest, a long, athletic former receiver and defensive back, will battle junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan for that job.

The most important area of improvement is the secondary. UK’s defensive backs intercepted just one pass last season and ranked 117th in passes defended. But they’ll get a boost at safety from junior college transfer A.J. Stamps and at corner from J.D. Harmon, who led the team in interceptions in 2012 but was academically ineligible last fall. Four freshman defensive backs — three of them four-star recruits — will also significantly upgrade the talent.

Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Cats have a new special teams coordinator in Craig Naivar, a high-energy guy who blasts 1980s hair metal before meetings. They also have junior punter Landon Foster back in freshman form. He had 22 punts of 50-plus yards that year but just seven such bombs in 2013 thanks to a nagging quadriceps injury. He’s healthy now and averaged 45.6 yards on eight punts in the spring game. The new field-goal kicker is redshirt freshman Austin MacGinnis, a former top-three recruit nationally at his position.

Final Analysis

Stoops has done the impossible — keep fans and recruits excited after a 2–10 debut season. He signed a top-25 class and had 35,000 people show up for this year’s spring game, second-most in program history. Now he just needs to win. Although he posted exactly the same record that got Joker Phillips fired a year earlier, the Cats were more competitive in 2013, losing five games by two touchdowns or less and three by single digits. The big payoff is probably still a year away, but a four- or five-win season this fall would probably keep everyone happy.


#72 Virginia Cavaliers





HEAD COACH: Mike London, 18-31 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Fairchild | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jon Tenuta

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. 72 Virginia.

Previewing Virginia’s Offense for 2014:

There’s plenty of blame to go around for last year’s 2–10 season, but the root of Virginia’s problem was an anemic offense that lacked imagination and identity. Its lack of production put a lot on the shoulders of a defense decimated by injuries late in the year.

A second season in coordinator Steve Fairchild’s system is expected to pay dividends. Virginia also believes it has more playmakers than a year ago. Fans have heard that before.

The biggest change this year could be at quarterback, where Greyson Lambert is expected to unseat incumbent David Watford, who struggled in 2013. Lambert is not as elusive as Watford, but if he can be more accurate and less mistake-prone, it will be a net gain.
Kevin Parks, the leading returning rusher in the ACC, brings durability and between-the-tackles toughness to the tailback slot. Former five-star recruit Taquan Mizzell offers sizzle and big-play potential.

Both will depend on a rebuilt offensive line that must replace multi-season fixtures Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko.

The decision of tight end-turned receiver Jake McGee to transfer turns up the heat on a largely unproven group. Sophomores Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins, part of a youth movement last year, bring size and toughness. Senior Darius Jennings, who has 106 career catches, is being counted on to improve on his 10.8 yards-per-catch average by stretching the field.

Previewing Virginia’s Defense for 2014:

When the band was all together last season, Jon Tenuta’s defense showed signs of becoming the type of marauding bunch the longtime coordinator craves. Injuries left the team short-handed, however, and forced Tenuta to dial back on his pressure schemes. With nearly everyone returning, and with another year to tinker with different fronts and packages, the group has the potential to bring the heat this year, particularly off the edge.

Defensive end Eli Harold is a speed-rusher who has the look of a possible breakout star. So does outside linebacker Max Valles, another long, lean athlete who should thrive in Tenuta’s attacking style.

“I believe that those two guys could be special,” London says. “I believe that you can do multiple things with them, whether their hands are on the ground or they’re standing up.”

The Cavaliers also look strong up the middle at defensive tackle and at middle linebacker, where senior Henry Coley is a stalwart. The secondary is loaded with experience, led by senior Anthony Harris, who led the nation in interceptions with eight last season.

Virginia increased its takeaways from 12 to 21 last year. Gambling led to some inevitable breakdowns. Minimizing those mistakes while remaining disruptive is the key.

Previewing Virginia’s Specialists for 2014:

Alec Vozenilek earned his scholarship last year, punting 85 times and downing more kicks inside the 20 than anyone in the ACC. He also filled in for the injured Ian Frye on field goals, hitting 12-of-15. Frye, who has more range as a placekicker, is back this season, good news for a team that must take points wherever it can find them.

Final Analysis 

For these keeping track, and everyone is, Virginia’s 2–10 finish last year represented its fewest wins since 1982. The Cavaliers were winless in the ACC for the first time since 1981.

London won’t survive another campaign like that. He might not even make it to midseason. With a maturing roster and the continuity that comes with a second season in offensive and defensive systems installed last year, Virginia should be better. The question, given a challenging schedule and a culture of coming up short, is how much that improvement will be reflected in the bottom line.


#65 NC State Wolfpack





HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 3-9 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Matt Canada | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dave Huxtable

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. 65 NC State.

Previewing NC State’s Offense for 2014:

Coach Dave Doeren declared quarterback Jacoby Brissett his starter last year, but the Florida transfer had to sit out the season. After juggling quarterbacks through a 3–9 season, Doeren is ready for some stability and production at the most important position. NC State’s starting quarterbacks combined to throw 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season, numbers Brissett will be counted on to improve significantly.

Junior running back Shadrach Thornton, who ran for 173 yards and two touchdowns against Florida State’s stout defense, and senior receiver Bryan Underwood will be counted on to make plays for Brissett. So will freshman receiver Bo Hines, one of nine early enrollees and a standout in the spring game. “I like him a lot,” Brissett says. “He can catch the ball and make plays.”

NC State ranked 70th in total offense (403.5 ypg) and 97th in scoring (22.8 ppg) in 2013. To make a significant improvement, the offensive line will have to get better. Junior Joe Thuney showed versatility last season, moving from center to left tackle, and now he will slide over to left guard to make room for the return of Rob Crisp, who missed all but two games last year with a concussion.

Previewing NC State’s Defense for 2014:

With so many spread teams in the ACC, Doeren and second-year coordinator Dave Huxtable are switching to a base nickel defense with five defensive backs and two linebackers. Given the problems at linebacker — the drop-off since sending three linebackers to the NFL in 2010 and ’11 has been alarming — the decision makes sense, especially if the young secondary can develop ahead of schedule.

Starters Juston Burris (corner), Jack Tocho (corner) and Hakim Jones (safety) give the Wolfpack three experienced options. Redshirt freshman Josh Jones was one of the best players during the spring and will be counted on to help at safety, especially in the tackling department.

In the middle, junior M.J. Salahuddin takes over for Robert Caldwell (105 tackles). Seniors Rodman Noel and Brandon Pittman both figure to contribute from the outside slot.

The Wolfpack have plenty of experienced options up front with seniors T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal in the middle (39 starts between them), and senior Art Norman and junior Mike Rose back at end for another season. But Doeren might be most excited about the new additions to the defensive front. Freshman end Kentavius Street was the top-rated defensive player in the state and a four-star prospect by Rivals. Freshman tackle B.J. Hill enrolled early and won a starting job, over the veteran Teal. 

Previewing NC State’s Specialists for 2014:

Seniors Nik Sade (kicker) and Wil Baumann (punter) have started since their freshman seasons. They’ve both made progress, especially over the last year, and will be counted on again. Sade, in particular, was a bright spot on the season with a career-best 19 field goals, and he made a career-best 82.6 percent of his kicks. There was never any consistency to the return game, and Doeren will try a combination of players to make strides.

Final Analysis

Little went right for Doeren in his first season. The Wolfpack lost their final eight games and went winless in ACC play for the first time since 1959. But with Brissett and a staggering 51 new true or redshirt freshmen on the roster, Doeren’s hoping the only way to go is up. With a manageable schedule, especially out of the league, there might be a way to speed up the rebuilding process and get back to a bowl game.

After such a poor finish in 2013, the Wolfpack do have motivation on their side.

“We want to make people forget last year," Underwood says. “This is us now, we’re a new team.”


#64 Boston College Eagles





HEAD COACH: Steve Addazio, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Ryan Day | DEF. COORDINATOR: Don Brown

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. 64 Boston College.

Previewing Boston College’s Offense for 2014:

Despite the loss of 2,000-yard rusher Andre Williams, Boston College is still committed to the run game. The Eagles won’t replace Williams with one player. A committee will work, led by sophomore Myles Willis, a versatile back coming off a 346-yard freshman season.

Quarterback Tyler Murphy didn’t transfer from Florida to be a backup. The senior has one last chance to cement a winning career. The job to replace the steady yet unspectacular Chase Rettig is his to lose. Murphy went 2–4 as a starter in 2013 but played on an awful Florida team, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 1,216 yards.

Wideout is easily the team’s biggest void on offense. With Alex Amidon gone, the Eagles lose a player who was responsible for more than 50 percent of his team’s production at the position. Harrison Jackson, arguably the top returning wideout, tore his ACL in spring ball. The Eagles need Drew Barksdale, quarterback-turned receiver Josh Bordner or Charlie Callinan to emerge as reliable targets.

The strength of the offensive line starts in the middle after losing bookend tackles Matt Patchan and Ian White. 

Previewing Boston College’s Defense for 2014:

Boston College’s defense usually starts with solid linebacker play, but the Eagles lose two good ones in Kevin Pierre-Louis and Steele Divitto. Good thing Steven Daniels, who finished the year with 88 tackles, is back. Boston College likes to rush the passer from the linebacker spot, and returner Josh Keyes (3.5 sacks as a reserve) will help in that area.

The defensive line is still relatively deep despite the loss of two starters, including All-ACC third team performer Kasim Edebali (9.5 sacks). Many returning linemen have played valuable snaps and showed potential but have yet to do it on a full-time basis. Defensive end Malachi Moore is a 6'7" sophomore who is a candidate to break out in 2014. Mehdi Abdesmad had 3.5 tackles for a loss before injuries derailed his 2013 campaign.

Don’t expect BC to finish last in the ACC in pass defense again. The Eagles return all four starters in the secondary, including potential star Dominique Williams. Corners Manny Asprilla and Bryce Jones each recorded two interceptions last year. 

Previewing Boston College’s Specialists for 2014:

The loss of kicker/punter Nate Freese, the school record-holder for field goals (70) and points (324), can’t be understated. The All-American made 86.4 percent of his attempts. Alex Howell steps in as the new placekicker, and he’ll also punt. David Dudeck should have the inside track on the kick return job after doing a serviceable job last year (15.6-yard average).

Final Analysis

Steve Addazio was responsible for one of the more underrated coaching jobs last year, boosting Boston College from two to seven wins in his debut season by packaging a power-run attack around Williams. Addazio’s creativity could be tested even more in 2014 since nearly all of the Eagles’ all-conference performers from a year ago are gone. Boston College is counting on the young players left over from the Frank Spaziani era and Addazio’s first two recruiting classes to form the Eagles’ identity.

The running game and solid line play will always be Boston College staples, but how will the Eagles stretch the field? They’ll need at least one or two young wide receivers to grow up in a hurry. The defense has a chance to improve after last year’s unit under coordinator Don Brown was opportunistic but not overwhelming in any one area.

A return to a bowl game is a realistic expectation, but the Eagles aren’t likely to pose much of a threat to the top teams in the ACC Atlantic Division.


#61 Syracuse Orange





HEAD COACH: Scott Shafer, 7-6 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: George McDonald | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Bullough

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. 61 Syracuse.

Previewing Syracuse’s Offense for 2014:

It was feast or famine for the Syracuse offense in 2013, as it generated 50-plus points twice in a 13-game season but failed to score 20 six other times. The inconsistency was to be expected considering the team had a new offensive coordinator, a new starting quarterback and untested receivers. It didn’t help that the quarterback, Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, struggled and was benched four games into the season in favor of sophomore Terrel Hunt.

With game experience returning at every position except one interior line spot, and offensive coordinator George McDonald having a year under his belt, the Orange should be poised to improve significantly on last season’s mediocre 376.8 yards per game (85th in the nation).

“We want to play faster, that’s the biggest thing,” McDonald says. “We want to be great at what we do and continue to put pressure on the defense whether it’s the run game or the pass game.”

Syracuse was better in the run game thanks in large part to the ability of Hunt to run like a power back. He finished with 500 yards rushing and seven TDs, a nice complement to decent passing numbers — 1,638 yards and 10 TDs and a 61.2 completion percentage.

It is the passing game that will determine the unit’s fate, as the 2013 team lacked a game-breaking burner. Junior Ashton Broyld (6'3", 223) is an imposing physical presence who set a school record for receptions by a sophomore last season with 52, although none of them went for a score. The team had no receiver surpass 500 yards, let alone approach 1,000.

Coach Scott Shafer hopes one or two of the five incoming freshman receivers can make the jump to FBS ball, because he has a veteran dual-threat quarterback, a deep stable of running backs and an offensive line led by senior tackle Sean Hickey that returns four of five starters.

Previewing Syracuse’s Defense for 2014:

Syracuse’s Jekyll-Hyde performance on offense was mirrored on defense, as the Orange pitched two shutouts and held five other foes to 17 or fewer points but also yielded at least 48 points four times.

“We want to get better at the details,” defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough says. “This season we should be better.”

SU must replace star tackle Jay Bromley and middle linebacker Marquis Spruill. The unit will be thin at tackle but has loads of experience returning at end, including starters Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson.

The back seven also has plenty of experience. Whoever wins Spruill’s vacant spot at middle linebacker will be flanked by veterans Cam Lynch and Dyshawn Davis. The secondary, led by junior free safety Durell Eskridge (team-leading 78 tackles and four interceptions), will return solid game experience at all four positions.

There are critical holes to fill at tackle and middle linebacker but experience everywhere else, and that should make the Orange defense more Jekyll than Hyde this season.

Previewing Syracuse’s Specialists for 2014:

Every key player returns on special teams. Sophomore Brisly Estime, whose 70-yard punt return triggered a Texas Bowl victory over Minnesota, will be a key asset. SU will get a boost if Ross Krautman, the second-most accurate kicker in school history (49-of-63), can return from injury.

Final Analysis

With numerous returners on each side of the ball and the momentum from the Texas Bowl win over Minnesota, Syracuse is poised to take another step in 2014. Yet the talent gap between the Orange and ACC Atlantic Division members Florida State and Clemson remains huge. Every other game will be a crapshoot, and another upper-division finish and bowl are attainable.


#69 Houston Cougars



American Athletic PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Tony Levine, 14-12 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Travis Bush | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Gibbs

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. 69 Houston.

Previewing Houston’s Offense for 2014:

The Cougars are loaded with skill players who could comprise the American Athletic Conference’s most explosive offense. As a freshman, John O’Korn showed UH why the future is promising by averaging 287.4 passing yards in his first seven career starts. But his production diminished late in the season as the Cougars faced better defenses (Cincinnati, Louisville and UCF). The offense became fairly predictable because of O’Korn’s inexperience, and opponents pounced. But the Cougars believe O’Korn, a natural pocket passer, can thrive after a full offseason.

Wide receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer combined for 134 catches, nearly 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago. They are both back. Greenberry might be the conference’s best. Houston moved Greg Ward from quarterback to receiver, and coaches believe he can be effective in the open field. Markeith Ambles, the former high-profile recruit from USC, broke out in the bowl game against Vanderbilt. The Cougars have serious depth at receiver and often run four-wideout sets as a result.

The offensive line must adjust to the loss of starting left tackle Zach Johnson to a torn ACL in spring ball. Junior Alex Cooper will take over Johnson’s spot. The Cougars must adapt without offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, who left for TCU. Houston promoted internally with Travis Bush as Meacham’s replacement.

Houston can get creative with the running game with the tandem of Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson at tailback and fullback Tyler McCloskey getting involved, too.

Previewing Houston’s Defense for 2014:

With eight starters returning, Houston’s defensive plan is simple: Build on last year’s opportunistic group that led the country in turnovers with 43, eight more than any other team in the nation. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs presided over one of the country’s top turnarounds (118th in total defense in 2012). The Cougars could stand to improve the 266.8 passing yards allowed per game, but overall this is a playmaking group.

Houston was set to return its top nine defensive linemen before starting end Eric Braswell tore his ACL in spring camp. The staff doesn’t want to change much about its 4-3 scheme but plans to refine what’s already in place.

Linebacker Derrick Mathews has 39 career starts and even more big hits. He’s a leader, as is safety Trevon Stewart. If there’s one concern, at least on paper, it’s cornerback. The Cougars lost two good starters. But UH feels good about its depth there with William Jackson, who has elite speed, Turon Walker and two experienced transfers — Marcus Dillard (junior college) and Tyler White (Utah).

Previewing Houston’s Specialists for 2014:

Head coach Tony Levine has a long-standing special teams background, and Levine’s hands are all over this unit. Houston was first in the American in kickoff returns — Demarcus Ayers averaged nearly 28 yards per kickoff — and second in punting. Kyle Bullard, who was 6-of-6 on field goals a year ago, appears to have the inside track over Ty Cummings for the starting job.

Final Analysis 

There’s a lot to like about Houston, which has acquitted itself well in the call-up from C-USA to the American. This year’s schedule is manageable, and at least eight wins should be the expectation. Houston is a proud place — two of the country’s most established coaches, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, were roaming UH sidelines not too long ago. This team always seems to thrive off quarterback play, so the question is whether O’Korn has peaked or is just lifting off. The latter appears to be the case. Playmaking is there on both sides of the ball. Houston should be in the conversation as preseason American favorites along with Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF.

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#68 Illinois Fighting Illini





HEAD COACH: Tim Beckman , 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Cubit | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tim Banks

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. 68 Illinois. 

Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2014:

Second-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback in the spring. He wanted to watch the three challengers compete for the job. But it was clear to those who watched the battle that there wasn’t much of one. Barring injury before the opener against Youngstown State, Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt gets the call.

There are big hopes at Illinois for Lunt. He has a rocket arm and a quick release. The coaches also rave about his decision-making.

Lunt will rely plenty on running back Josh Ferguson. The dual-threat back led the team in rushing with 779 yards, averaging a robust 5.5 per carry. He was also second on the team in catches.

By far, receiver was the biggest area of concern for the offensive coaches going into the spring. They have to replace three key departed players. Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Justin Hardee and Mike Dudek all pushed for playing time with solid results. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse are threats at tight end.

With four starters back, the coaches are hoping the offensive line will be a strength. Guard Michael Heitz enters his fourth year as a starter. Tackle Austin Schmidt could turn into a star.

Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2014:

Sacks. Fumbles. Interceptions. Areas in which defensive coordinator Tim Banks wants to see a lot of improvement.

The Illini had just 15 sacks in 2013. This from a school that has twice had individual players (Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus) exceed that number by themselves in a season.

Teko Powell and “Chunky” Clements figure to see heavy minutes at tackle. Kenny Nelson and Dawuane Smoot get the first shot at end.

Two players return at linebacker with starting experience, led by two-year regular Mason Monheim. While not in the J Leman mold as a playmaker, Monheim often puts himself in position to make the tackle. In an effort to add speed, the Illini moved Earnest Thomas from safety to outside linebacker.

“We need to be more aggressive,” Banks says. “When the ball is in the air, go attack it. Make them earn everything they get. Make them throw through smaller windows.”

V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence patrol at corner.

Overall, the defense returns eight starters and slew of backups from last year. But the unit struggled to make stops, so is that a good thing? “We like to think it’s a good thing,” Banks says. “We expect to be better.”

Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2014:

Illinois welcomes back both starting punter Justin DuVernois and placekicker Taylor Zalewski. DuVernois finished 59th nationally in punting average with 41.1 yards. Zalewski connected on 12-of-17 field goals but only hit two longer than 40 yards. The return game got a boost from Bentley. He brought back both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in 2013.

Final Analysis

The third year has usually been the charm for Illinois head coaches. Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook all reached bowls in their third seasons. Now, it’s Tim Beckman’s turn to try to keep the streak going. While the school hasn’t issued an ultimatum, a bowl bid would help secure Beckman’s future. The non-conference schedule is set up for success, with winnable home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. Take those three, and the Illini are halfway to a postseason berth.

The offense should continue to pile up yards and points, and the defense can’t be much worse. If Banks’ guys climb 20 spots or so in national defensive rankings, it will translate to more wins. Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.


#80 Purdue Boilermakers



Big Ten West Division PREDICTION


HEAD COACH: Darrell Hazell, 1-11 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Shoop | DEF. COORDINATOR: Greg Hudson

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. 80 Purdue.

Previewing Purdue’s Offense for 2014: 

As goes Danny Etling, so goes Purdue. That’s not much of an overstatement. Etling took over as the starting quarterback midway through last season as a true freshman, and coach Darrell Hazell and his staff know his improvement likely will mirror the Boilermakers’ improvement as well. Austin Appleby is a good backup, but Etling is the man.

Raheem Mostert won the 60- and 200-meter titles at the Big Ten indoor track meet, and the coaches hope he can provide a much-needed big-play threat. Incumbent running back Akeem Hunt will also see time at slot receiver. The coaches are looking to get him and Mostert on the field at the same time. The Boilermakers averaged 6.1 yards per passing attempt, worst in the Big Ten, and had no one who could stretch the field most of the season. DeAngelo Yancey came on as his freshman season progressed. He provide Etling with an inviting target the next three years.

Center Robert Kugler is solid, but the rest of the offensive line is a concern. Some incoming junior college transfers need to contribute in a major way. No one expects this line to blow away the opposition, but Purdue has to do better than 67.1 yards rushing per game — its average last season.

Previewing Purdue’s Defense for 2014:

Purdue has a tradition of strong defensive ends, and Ryan Russell may be the guy to continue it. Hazell says he challenged Russell after a mildly disappointing junior year and was pleased with the way he responded during spring practice. Sophomore Jake Replogle is a likely starter at the other end spot, but Kentucky transfer Langston Newton also is in the mix.

The improved defensive line should lead to a better defense overall, but questions still abound. Seniors Sean Robinson and Joe Gilliam provide experience at linebacker, but youth might also be served. Gelen Robinson, the son of Purdue basketball legend Glenn Robinson, one of the top recruits in the incoming freshman class. It would not be a surprise to see him crack the starting lineup at some point in the season.

Reliable Frankie Williams returns at one corner and Taylor Richards returns at one safety spot. Fellow safety Landon Feichter was Purdue’s defensive MVP in 2012, but had an injury-plagued 2013. His return to form would be a nice boost.

Previewing Purdue’s Specialists for 2014: 

It’s generally not a good sign if a team’s best player is its punter, but that is what Purdue had last year in Cody Webster, a first-team All-Big Ten performer and a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. Thomas Meadows is his likely replacement. Returning kicker Paul Griggs showed a strong leg at times, but not much consistency, going only 6-for-12 on field-goal attempts. Meadows may get a shot there as well. The return game should be a strength. Mostert and Hunt each returned kickoffs for touchdowns last year. Purdue returned only nine punts last fall, a testament to how much it struggled. Williams was effective in limited opportunities, averaging 16.8 yards on five returns.

Final Analysis

Most Purdue fans realized Hazell was inheriting a rebuilding situation, but last season still ended up being a nightmare. The lone victory was over FCS foe Indiana State, and the season ended with the Boilermakers getting thumped by archrival Indiana.

The non-conference schedule is more forgiving this year, and Purdue gets a break in conference play. It doesn’t play Michigan or Ohio State. Wisconsin and defending Big Ten champion Michigan State visit Ross-Ade Stadium. Still, it’s hard to envision this team making a move in the Big Ten in 2014. The talent level simply isn’t good enough at this point.