College football’s 2013 season is officially in the books. While kickoff for the 2014 season is still months away, it’s never too early to start looking at rosters, depth charts and coaching changes for teams poised to make a jump in the rankings next year.
Of course, with a few months to dissect rosters, opinions can change on teams. However, last year’s five teams on the rise article correctly pinpointed Arizona State as a team to watch in 2014.
So what teams have our attention for 2014? Iowa, Kansas State, Mississippi State, North Carolina and UCLA get the nod as our top five teams on the rise, but keep a close eye on Washington State, Texas Tech and Ole Miss.
College Football's Top Five Teams on the Rise for 2014
After a 4-8 record in 2012, most thought Iowa would finish last in the Big Ten Legends Division and struggle just to be in contention for a bowl. However, the Hawkeyes righted the ship and finished second in the Legends Division with an 8-5 overall mark and a 5-3 record in Big Ten play in 2013. And Iowa was certainly battle-tested, as its five losses came against stiff competition – Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and LSU. After a successful 2013, there should be plenty of optimism for Kirk Ferentz looking ahead to 2014. The Hawkeyes return quarterback Jake Rudock, and the rushing attack will be solid once again with Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri back next year. The offensive line loses two starters, but left tackle Brandon Scherff turned down the NFL for one more season at Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 2013 ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in total defense, and this unit should be solid even with the departure of three starters at linebacker. Even though Iowa’s roster has a few concerns, the schedule works significantly in its favor. The Hawkeyes have a tough non-conference road game at Pittsburgh, but they miss Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State in crossover play. And here’s one more factor in Iowa’s favor: Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Kinnick Stadium in 2014.
With only 10 starters returning from a team that went 11-2 in 2012, it was no surprise the Wildcats took a step back in the win column in 2013. But the rest of the Big 12 should be on notice next season. As Bill Snyder has shown throughout his tenure in Manhattan, never count out Kansas State from a surprise run at the Big 12 title. The schedule sets up favorably for the Wildcats, with Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech visiting Manhattan. John Hubert must be replaced at running back, but quarterback Jake Waters is back, along with one of the nation’s top receivers in Tyler Lockett. Kansas State will have to replace both tackles and guard Keenan Taylor, but guard Cody Whitehair and center B.J. Finney is a good duo to build around for 2014. Despite returning only two starters on defense, the Wildcats finished third in the Big 12 in fewest yards allowed per game. This unit will have a few personnel losses, but end Ryan Mueller (11.5 sacks in 2013) is back, along with safety Dante Barnett and linebacker Jonathan Truman.
Dan Mullen has guided the Bulldogs to a school-record four consecutive bowl games, but Mississippi State has never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West under his watch. That could change in 2014, as the Bulldogs return most of their core, which could be most-talented roster during Mullen’s tenure in Starkville. Guard Gabe Jackson and running back LaDarius Perkins must be replaced, but the return of quarterback Dak Prescott has the Bulldogs’ offense on the cusp of a breakout season. Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns, while leading the team with 829 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Jackson and Perkins will be missed, but the supporting cast is far from bare. Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin and Ashton Shumpert return at running back, while the top five players in the receiving corps are back, including go-to target Jameon Lewis (64 receptions, 14.4 ypc). Mississippi State’s defense allowed 5.9 yards per play in 2013, so there’s some tightening up to do in the offseason. But there’s no shortage of building blocks for coordinator Geoff Collins. Freshman tackle Chris Jones emerged as a force in the middle, and he will anchor the defensive line in 2014. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney should be one of the best in the SEC, while all four starters return in the secondary. Mississippi State’s non-conference schedule should result in a 4-0 mark, with conference swing games against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Arkansas all in Starkville.
The Coastal Division is set to be one of the toughest conferences to predict in 2014, and a case could be made for six teams to be picked as the favorite. Miami is the very early pick, but don’t overlook North Carolina for the top spot. The Tar Heels started 1-5 but finished 6-1, with its only loss in the final seven games coming by two points to Coastal Division champ Duke. Larry Fedora enters his third season in Chapel Hill with plenty of offensive talent to run his spread attack, starting with quarterback Marquise Williams. The sophomore finished 2013 as North Carolina’s leading rusher (536 yards, six touchdowns), while throwing for 1,698 yards and 15 touchdowns. Williams should improve with a spring practice to work as the starter, but he could be pushed for the No. 1 spot by Mitch Trubisky or incoming freshman Caleb Henderson. T.J. Logan, A.J. Blue and Romar Morris is a solid trio at running back, and this group will get deeper with the addition of true freshman Elijah Hood. Even though tight end Eric Ebron will be missed, Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are a capable group of pass-catchers. The biggest question mark on offense will be the line, where tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine depart. With all of the offensive firepower returning for Fedora, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. But the defense allowed 403.1 yards per game in 2013 and a few key pieces depart. End Kareem Martin, tackle Tim Jackson, cornerback Jabari Price and safety Tre Boston will be missed. The Tar Heels will have to play at Clemson, Duke and Miami next season, but Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech travel to Chapel Hill.
Considering the Bruins are coming off a 10-3 mark in 2013, this team isn’t too far off the national radar. But with quarterback Brett Hundley returning next season, UCLA could make the jump into preseason top-10 consideration. The Bruins’ three losses in 2013 went to Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State – a combined 32-9 this season. UCLA won’t get many breaks in the schedule department next year, as a neutral site matchup against Texas is on tap, while Oregon, Stanford and Washington – arguably the top three teams in the Pac-12 North – are on the slate for 2014. While the schedule will be challenging, Hundley’s continued development, along with a young (and improving) supporting cast will help the Bruins’ offense be even more dangerous next year. The offensive line will miss Xavier Su’a-Filo, but the rest of the unit returns and should have more overall depth as a result of injuries in 2013. The defense loses a few key players in the front seven, including linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive lineman Cassius Marsh. But coach Jim Mora has stockpiled promising young talent, including linebacker Myles Jack and lineman Eddie Vanderdoes. Although the schedule will be a challenge, Oregon, Stanford and USC visit the Rose Bowl next year. Combine Hundley’s development with three crucial home games and UCLA could make a case as the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014.
Three Others to Watch
The Rebels have a challenging slate, featuring road games at Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and LSU. However, Ole Miss also has a few chances at an upset, including a home dates against Alabama and Auburn. Quarterback Bo Wallace should benefit from an offseason to rest his ailing shoulder, and the Rebels will get more contributions from their 2013 top-five recruiting class.
The Red Raiders scored one of the biggest upsets of the bowl season by defeating Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. Receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro will be missed, but quarterback Davis Webb returns in 2014.
Mike Leach’s team gave away a victory in the New Mexico Bowl, but the future looks bright for the Cougars. Quarterback Connor Halliday returns in 2014, while the receiving corps is stocked with weapons. Safety Deone Bucannon will be missed.