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10 Players Who Will Decide College Football's 2014 National Title

Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman

Every college football team has personnel issues heading into the 2014 season. But some teams have roster concerns with national title implications. Whether it’s a quarterback battle, an open spot at defensive tackle or cornerback, every personnel concern is magnified in the race to win a national championship.

Florida State is college football’s defending national champion, and the Seminoles have few holes on a roster that might be the best in the nation this year. Replacing Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin at receiver is a tough task for coach Jimbo Fisher, but true freshman Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane look like future stars in Tallahassee. Finding replacements for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan appears to be Fisher’s biggest task this fall.

And the personnel concerns among national title contenders aren’t just limited to Florida State. Alabama needs to settle its secondary and find a quarterback, while Auburn has concerns on both lines of scrimmage after preseason injuries. Oregon lost left tackle Tyler Johnstone due to injury this fall, and Michigan State must replace both starters at defensive tackle from last season.

What players could play a huge role in college football’s national championship picture? Athlon examined 10 key players to watch – some well-known names, as well as a few under-the-radar players at key positions for 2014.

10 Players Who Will Decide CFB’s National Title in 2014

Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama

Alabama’s biggest personnel concern could be its secondary, but this team needs to have stability under center to win another national title. Coker transferred from Florida State after spring practice and is eligible immediately after graduating in three years. The Alabama native completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown in two seasons of game action with the Seminoles and is being pushed by Blake Sims for the starting job this fall. Coker doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every week, but in key games against Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn, can he make the necessary throws to lead Alabama to victory? With a strong defense and rushing attack, Coker won’t be asked to do much. However, his performance in key SEC contests could be the difference in Alabama winning the SEC or missing out on the college football playoff.

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Shon Coleman, OT/LaDarius Owens, DE, Auburn

Auburn has been hit hard by the injury bug in the trenches this offseason. Defensive end Carl Lawson suffered an ACL injury in the spring and is expected to miss a significant chunk of the 2014 season. Guard Alex Kozan suffered a back injury and has been ruled out for the year. Kozan’s absence means Auburn will have a revamped left side of the line after tackle Greg Robinson left for the NFL. Kozan and Lawson are huge losses, as both players were slated to be All-SEC performers. Coleman is expected to win the left tackle job to replace Robinson, but he’s under extra scrutiny with the lost of Kozan. On the defensive side, Owens is the Tigers’ most experienced option at end, with sophomore Elijah Daniel and junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence also factoring into the mix. In 14 games last season, Owens recorded 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The senior will be asked to increase his production in 2014, especially as the defense could be without Lawson (a top pass-rusher) for most of the season. Auburn's defense made key stops on third downs and inside the redzone last season, but this unit has to take a step forward in its development to ensure the Tigers reach the SEC title game once again.

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Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

Florida State’s roster is arguably the best in the nation in 2014 and it’s hard to establish a (is there one?) glaring weaknesses. The receiving corps needs new targets to emerge with the departure of Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, and the punting situation is a concern. However, the defensive tackle position is the one position to watch this year. The Seminoles must replace standout Timmy Jernigan (left early for the NFL Draft), while Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. Jernigan anchored the run defense in 2013, which limited opponents to just 118.7 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Goldman is slated to move from the outside to the interior to help replace Jernigan, and the junior has the size (320 pounds) to hold the point of the attack against opposing run offenses. The former five-star recruit has big shoes to fill in Jernigan’s place, and with little in the way of proven depth behind him, new coordinator Charles Kelly needs a big season from the Washington, D.C. native.

Wesley Green/Al Harris Jr./Carlos Lammons, CB, South Carolina

Even though the Gamecocks’ defensive line must be revamped due to the departures of Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, the biggest concern for coordinator Lorenzo Ward has to be the secondary. South Carolina lacks proven options at cornerback, and three incoming freshmen could see major snaps in 2014. Al Harris Jr., Wesley Green and Carlos Lammons were key pickups on the recruiting trail for Ward and coach Steve Spurrier, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for all three to make starts this year. With Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia through the first three weeks, South Carolina’s secondary and young defensive backs will be tested.

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Joel Heath/Damon Knox, DT, Michigan State

The Spartans should have one of the nation’s top trios at defensive end with junior Shilique Calhoun, senior Marcus Rush and redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper. Calhoun anchors a pass rush that recorded 22 sacks in Big Ten games last year but replicating that total in 2014 could largely depend on the development at defensive tackle. Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds were unsung cogs on the defensive front in 2013 and are slated to be replaced by Knox and Heath in 2014. Heath played in nine games last season, while Knox recorded 22 tackles and one sack in 14 appearances. True freshmen Enoch Smith and Malik McDowell will push for time, but all four players will be needed in the rotation up front. In order to keep Calhoun attacking off the edge, the tackles have to hold their own and prevent teams from keying too much on the ends. If Heath and Knox can successfully replace Reynolds and Hoover, Michigan State’s defensive line should be among the best in the nation once again.

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Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor

Baylor’s explosive offense garnered most of the headlines last season, but the turnaround on defense was just as critical to winning the Big 12 championship. The Bears allowed only 4.8 yards per play in conference games in 2013 and held league opponents to 25.7 points per game. Only four starters return for 2013, and coordinator Phil Bennett has to fill three spots in the secondary. Howard played in 13 games as a reserve last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. The sophomore has good size (6-foot-2) and speed to become a shutdown corner for the Bears. Baylor’s front seven should be solid, but Howard’s (and other new starters in secondary) development will be critical to keeping the Bears in the mix for a spot in the playoff. With quarterback play expected to improve in the Big 12 this year, it’s even more critical for Howard to assert himself as the team’s No. 1 cover option.

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Jordon James, RB, UCLA

With 14 returning starters from a team that went 10-3 last season, the expectations are high for UCLA entering 2014. The Bruins are picked by some to win the Pac-12 and should be in the mix for a playoff spot if they can claim a conference title. UCLA isn’t without flaws, as its offensive line needs to play better, and the defense must find a replacement for standout linebacker Anthony Barr. Quarterback Brett Hundley led the team with 160 rushing attempts last season, while James ranked third with 101 carries. Keeping Hundley healthy is critical to UCLA’s title hopes, and coordinator Noel Mazzone needs to find more playmakers to take the pressure off of his junior quarterback. James opened 2013 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts but suffered an ankle injury early in the year and never appeared to be at full strength the rest of the way. If James is capable of handling 20-25 carries per game, it will allow Mazzone to save Hundley from unnecessary wear and tear.

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Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

Was Knight’s standout performance against Alabama a sign of things to come? In Oklahoma’s 45-31 upset win over the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, Knight gashed Alabama’s secondary for 348 yards and four scores. Prior to the bowl, Knight had just five touchdown passes over his previous seven appearances. While Knight’s one-game performance is gaining all of the offseason headlines, let’s not overlook his output against Kansas State (171 passing yards, 82 rushing yards) from Nov. 23. The sophomore certainly has room to develop and will benefit from having a clear path to the starting job after battling with Blake Bell last season. With Oklahoma possessing one of the Big 12’s top defenses, Knight doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards every week for the Sooners to reach the college football playoff. However, if Oklahoma is to make the leap from fringe contender to national champion, Knight has to take a take step forward in his development over the course of the season.

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Damian Swann, CB, Georgia

Senior quarterback Hutson Mason also deserves a mention in this space, but Georgia’s secondary is the bigger concern heading into 2014. This unit ranked No. 84 nationally in pass efficiency defense and intercepted a SEC-low two passes in conference games in 2013. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is revamping the defensive backfield and plans to play a handful of young players in 2014. Swann is the team’s most experienced option at cornerback with 28 career starts under his belt. The senior will have a handful of new faces surrounding him this year, which means Swann has to be a leader for the secondary and handle most of the duties against opposing team’s top receivers. With a front seven that should be one of the best in the SEC, Georgia’s secondary has plenty of help. However, Swann and his defensive backfield mates have to rebound after a tough 2014 season.

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Andre Yruretagoyena, OT, Oregon

Yruretagoyena was slated to work as a backup tackle this year, but an injury to left tackle Tyler Johnstone pressed the junior into the starting lineup. Johnstone’s absence is a huge blow for Oregon’s offense, as the Arizona native started 26 games from 2012-13 and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection for 2014 by Athlon Sports. The Ducks were slated to have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines this year, especially if the play of guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt improved after an inconsistent 2013. Yruretagoyena does not have a career start but played in eight games last season. The Arizona native was considered a four-star recruit in the 2011 signing class and ranked as the No. 85 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. Yruretagoyena will be thrown into the fire right away in 2014, as Oregon has a huge test against Michigan State – and All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun – in Week 2. Protecting the blindside of Mariota is crucial to the Ducks’ Pac-12 title hopes.