College football’s 2014 season won’t start until August, but it’s never too early to take a look at what’s ahead.
Florida State edged Auburn for the national championship in early January, and both teams will be in the mix for a playoff spot next year. But the Seminoles and Tigers will be pushed by Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
College football’s new four-team playoff format adds another dimension to an already drama-filled regular season. With a selection committee and new bowl contracts, the postseason is going to look quite different next year.
In December, Athlon Sports released an early top 25 for 2014. But as expected, early entries to the NFL Draft and coaching hires changed the outlook of that top 25 ranking.
With coaching hires and the early entries to the draft declared, let’s revisit the top 25 teams for 2014.
(Rankings updated on Jan. 20)
College Football’s Very Early Top 25 for 2014
1. Florida State
The Seminoles have a few holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but this team is equipped to repeat in 2014. Quarterback Jameis Winston returns after winning the Heisman last year and should only get better with another offseason to work under coach Jimbo Fisher. Winston’s supporting cast is solid, as Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook are set to replace Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. at running back, and receiver Rashad Greene turned down the NFL for his senior year. Center Bryan Stork will be missed, but Austin Barron is an experienced backup and four other starters return to the offensive line. The defense loses linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and cornerback/safety Lamarcus Joyner. But none of those losses are as big as Timmy Jernigan, who declared early for the NFL Draft. Replacing Jernigan will be a talented, but young group of tackles. Jeremy Pruitt was outstanding in his only year as the defensive coordinator at Florida State. Can Fisher make the right hire once again?
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A two-game losing streak to end the season should provide plenty of motivation for Nick Saban in 2014. And Saban has already taken steps to prevent another repeat of 2013, as he made a few changes to his coaching staff, including hiring Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and returning Kevin Steele to a position coach. Kiffin’s top priority in spring practice will be to develop a new starting quarterback. The race to replace AJ McCarron is wide open, with Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and incoming freshman David Cornwell each having an opportunity to win the job. And regardless of who wins the job in the spring, the job may not be settled into the fall, especially if Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker transfers to Alabama. Until a quarterback is found, the offense can lean on the one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on the ground. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart will once again develop one of the SEC’s top defenses. But this unit will have concerns to address, starting with replacing linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The Crimson Tide also needs to develop more depth and talent at cornerback.
Alabama has a slight edge over Auburn for the top spot in the SEC West in our pre-spring predictions. But the gap between the Tigers and Crimson Tide is slim. Auburn’s run to the national title included a few fortunate bounces, but this team was no fluke in 2013. Gus Malzahn’s offense returns nearly intact next season, and Nick Marshall could be the preseason first-team all-conference quarterback in the SEC. With Marshall working with Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee for a full offseason, he should show improvement as a passer, which is critical with Auburn returning a talented group of receivers. Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson are huge losses on offense. Defensively, the Tigers have a few issues to address. End Dee Ford departs after recording 10.5 sacks. Safety Ryan Smith, defensive tackle Nosa Eguae, cornerback Chris Davis and linebacker Jake Holland are other key departures on defense. Can Auburn quickly reload on that side of the ball? Ford and Eguae are huge losses on the line, but Elijah Daniel, Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson are three talented sophomores ready for a bigger role in 2014.
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The Ducks were a big winner from the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu all decided to return in 2014. With Mariota returning, plus a home game against Stanford next year, Oregon gets the nod as the favorite in the North Division. Mariota will have one of the nation’s top supporting casts at his side next year, as all five offensive line starters from the Alamo Bowl are back, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner return at running back, and the receiving corps is headlined by Bralon Addison, Keanon Lowe and tight end Johnny Mundt. While the offense will have no trouble scoring points, there will be a transition period on defense. Don Pellum was promoted to coordinator after Nick Aliotti retired. This will be Pellum’s first chance to call plays, and the Ducks have to replace three key defensive tackles, cornerback Terrance Mitchell and both starting safeties. In addition to Stanford visiting Eugene, Oregon won’t have to play USC or Arizona State from the South Division in crossover play.
When projecting for 2014, we have to be careful to not put too much stock in bowl games. Oklahoma defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, which certainly raised expectations for this team for next year. But the Sooners’ spot in this poll is more than just a reaction on beating the Crimson Tide. In what was essentially a rebuilding year, Oklahoma won 11 games and finished the regular season by defeating Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road. The Sooners also have a favorable slate next year, as Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State come to Norman. Bob Stoops’ defense returns nearly everyone, but cornerback Aaron Colvin will be tough to replace. But the key to how high Oklahoma climbs in the rankings next season is quarterback Trevor Knight. He struggled in his first year as the starter and finished by throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama. Was the performance against the Crimson Tide a sign of things to come? Or was Knight’s 348 passing yards just a one-game mirage?
6. Ohio State
The Buckeyes ended 2013 on a down note by losing their final two games after a 12-0 start. Urban Meyer’s team is a slight favorite to win the Big Ten in Athlon’s early projections, but Michigan State isn’t far behind. Offense certainly wasn’t a problem for the Buckeyes in 2013. Quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and a veteran offensive line helped the offense average 7.2 yards per play. Miller decided to return for his senior year, but four starters from the line and Hyde are gone. Meyer and his staff have recruited well, so there is talent in the program. However, losing nearly all of the offensive line and a 1,000-yard back in Hyde won’t be easy to replace. Despite the concerns on offense, the defense is an even bigger issue. Sure, Ohio State might have one of the top defensive lines in the nation. But the back seven is a concern. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby decided to leave early for the NFL, only adding to the pressure for a secondary that ranked 11th in the Big Ten. Road games at Michigan State and Penn State will be a huge challenge, but the Buckeyes won’t play Nebraska, Iowa or Wisconsin in crossover play with the West Division.
7. Michigan State
Coming off a 13-1 record with a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, Michigan State will be hard-pressed to top its 2013 season. However, Mark Dantonio’s team will be in the mix for the conference championship once again. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi turned down an opportunity to be a head coach at UConn, and his return will help rebuild a unit that loses a few key players, including both starting tackles, linebacker Max Bullough, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. The defense may take a step back, but the offense should continue to improve. Connor Cook solidified the quarterback position (22 TDs, 6 INTs), and running back Jeremy Langford will contend with Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for the Big Ten’s rushing title. Cook and Langford’s emergence was crucial for the offense’s development, but the line was an underrated cog in the Rose Bowl run. However, three starters depart in 2014. Michigan State plays at Oregon in Week 2 and finishes the regular season at Penn State. But with Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State visiting Spartan Stadium, the path to a Big Ten title runs through East Lansing.
The South Division champion has yet to win the Pac-12 conference title game. Could that change in 2014? UCLA seems to have all of the pieces to challenge Oregon or Stanford for the conference crown. Quarterback Brett Hundley is back after considering an early departure to the NFL. Hundley has room to improve in his junior season, but his job will be made easier by an offensive line that could progress despite losing guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL. Linebacker Anthony Barr was one of the top defensive players in the nation, and his ability to get after opposing quarterbacks will be missed. But the linebacking corps should remain a strength. Myles Jack is one of college football’s rising superstars, and Eric Kendricks is back after leading the team with 106 tackles in 2013. Owamagbe Odighizuwa missed 2013 due to injury but is set to return in 2014 to anchor the defensive line. And the Bruins could have one of the best defensive backfields in the nation, as all four starters are slated to return. The schedule features a non-conference road trip to Virginia and a neutral site matchup against Texas. In Pac-12 play, UCLA plays at Arizona State and Washington but hosts Stanford, USC and Oregon.
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Despite losing to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears have momentum entering the 2014 season. Baylor is coming off its first conference title since 1980, coach Art Briles didn’t leave for Texas, and quarterback Bryce Petty decided to stay for his senior year. The Bears are also set to open a new stadium in 2014, which figures to only help Baylor continue to climb the ladder in the Big 12 program hierarchy. Petty’s return will keep Baylor’s offense among the best in the nation, and Shock Linwood appears to be a capable replacement for Lache Seastrunk at running back. The line is the biggest concern on offense, as All-American Cyril Richardson and center Stefan Huber and tackle Kelvin Palmer depart. The defense was an underrated part of Baylor’s Big 12 title and several key players have expired their eligibility. Safety Ahmad Dixon, linebacker Eddie Lackey, cornerback K.J. Morton and defensive ends Terrance Lloyd and Chris McAllister are gone. But the news isn’t all bad for coordinator Phil Bennett, as the Bears have recruited better recently, and there’s talent ready to step into the lineup. The schedule is manageable, but trips to Texas and Oklahoma will determine if Baylor can repeat as conference champions.
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David Shaw has his work cut out for him in 2014. The Cardinal has won at least 11 games in three seasons in a row, but that mark could be in jeopardy next year. Not only is Stanford is replacing a wealth of talent, but one of the key cogs in the recent run – defensive coordinator Derek Mason – is now the head coach at Vanderbilt. The rebuilding effort for next year has to start on the offensive line. The Cardinal return only one starter up front, but there’s talent waiting in the wings, including Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy to team with left tackle Andrus Peat. Don’t expect Stanford’s offense to change its philosophy despite the personnel losses, but Shaw can lean more on quarterback Kevin Hogan and a veteran group of receivers. In addition to replacing Mason’s play-calling, the Cardinal loses linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Josh Mauro and safety Ed Reynolds. Stanford’s schedule could be one of the toughest in the nation next year. The Cardinal host USC and Oregon State but play at Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.
The SEC East will be a tight battle between Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia next year. For now, the early nod goes with the Bulldogs. Mark Richt needs to replace quarterback Aaron Murray, but Hutson Mason started the final two games of 2013 and should be a capable starter. Mason’s transition into the lineup will be easier with running back Todd Gurley returning to full strength, along with Malcolm Mitchell and Keith Marshall back from knee injuries. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left for Louisville, but the defense upgraded by hiring Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State. Pruitt will have plenty of talent to work with, starting with linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. The Bulldogs host Auburn in crossover play with the West Division but travel to Missouri and South Carolina next year.
12. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons. Coach Steve Spurrier has this program on solid ground, and South Carolina will be back in the hunt for the SEC East title. Quarterback Connor Shaw is a big loss, but Dylan Thompson showed he was a capable option over the last two years. Thompson won’t have to carry the team, especially with running back Mike Davis and four starters returning on the line. While Shaw will be tough to replace, the biggest losses are on defense. The Gamecocks have to replace ends Chaz Sutton and Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Kelcy Quarles. Cornerback Victor Hampton left early for the NFL Draft. Talent isn’t an issue for South Carolina, but restocking the defensive line to replace Clowney, Sutton and Quarles won’t be easy. South Carolina might have the most favorable path in the East Division to a trip to Atlanta. Missouri and Georgia visit Williams-Brice Stadium and a matchup against Texas A&M in the opener comes at an opportune time with a rebuilding Aggies’ offense.
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Another year, another batch of players departed early for the NFL. After losing 11 players last season, Les Miles lost seven to the NFL this January. But despite the personnel concerns, LSU isn’t short on talent. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has to overhaul the passing game, as quarterback Zach Mettenberger and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham depart. With one of the SEC’s best offensive lines returning and a five-star freshman running back in Leonard Fournette available, Cameron can ease quarterback Anthony Jennings into the starting role. Linebacker Lamin Barrow and safety Craig Loston will be missed by the defense. But the biggest losses are in the trenches, as tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson decided to leave early for the NFL.
The Badgers finished 2013 on a two-game losing streak, but Gary Andersen’s first season in Madison was still a success. Wisconsin has won at least seven games in every year since 2002 and there’s little doubt that streak can continue in 2014. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down an opportunity to enter the NFL Draft and expects to shoulder the bulk of the carries with James White expiring his eligibility. As usual in Madison, the Badgers will be strong in the trenches and on the ground. But the passing attack is a question mark. Quarterback Joel Stave will face competition in the spring, and standout receiver Jared Abbrederis will be missed. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a rising star in the coaching ranks, but can he keep Wisconsin’s defense among the best in the Big Ten in 2014 with linemen Pat Muldoon, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly departing? Wisconsin has a favorable path to a Big Ten West Division title. The Badgers host Nebraska and won’t face Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Michigan State in crossover play.
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As mentioned in the Georgia and South Carolina write-ups, the gap in the SEC East is very small. For now, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks are slightly ahead of Missouri and Florida. Despite some key personnel departures, Gary Pinkel’s team should have a good shot at repeating as the East Division champion. Maty Mauk will provide a seamless transition from James Franklin at quarterback, and Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy are set to replace Henry Josey at running back. Replacing left tackle Justin Britt and guard Max Copeland are the biggest question marks on offense. On defense, ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, along with cornerback E.J. Gaines are huge losses. But the Tigers have the necessary depth to ensure there’s not a huge drop in production. Road trips to South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M will be tough, but Missouri hosts Georgia, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and key non-conference games against Indiana and UCF.
New coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t walking into a rebuilding effort, as the Trojans finished 2013 with 10 victories. Quarterback Cody Kessler will have to hold off redshirt freshman Max Browne for the starting spot, but Kessler finished last season on a high note by throwing for 344 yards and four touchdowns against Fresno State. Marqise Lee entered the NFL Draft, leaving Nelson Agholor as the No. 1 target. The offensive line is thin on depth and center Marus Martin, guard John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf must be replaced. With the Trojans short on proven receivers, expect the ground attack to lead the way on offense next year. The good news for Sarkisian is USC isn’t short on talented runners, including Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Ty Isaac. Safety Dion Bailey and lineman George Uko left early for the NFL Draft. But the rest of the defense returns largely intact, including standout end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens. USC has a challenging schedule, including road trips to Stanford, Arizona, Washington State and UCLA. But the Trojans miss Oregon in crossover play and Arizona State travels to Los Angeles next year.
17. Arizona State
UCLA is the early favorite to win the Pac-12 South, but Arizona State and USC aren’t far behind. The Sun Devils’ quest to repeat as the division champs starts with an explosive offense that averaged 39.7 points per game in 2013. Quarterback Taylor Kelly headlines the offense, but he will have help from running back D.J. Foster and receiver Jaelen Strong. Having an offense capable of scoring 40 points a game is critical, especially with a defense that has several holes to fill. Gone are tackle Will Sutton, end Davon Coleman, linebackers Carl Bradford and Chris Young, cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby. A rebuilding defense will have time to grow with Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado to open the season. But Arizona State’s next four games will define how high it can climb in the Pac-12 standings: UCLA, at USC, Stanford and at Washington.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins are huge losses, but Clemson kept one of the top offensive play-callers in college football on its staff – Chad Morris. With Morris returning, the Tigers will rank among the best offenses in the ACC once again. Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and Deshaun Watson will battle to replace Boyd, while the receiving corps will turn to Mike Williams, Adam Humphries and Charone Peake to become the top targets in the passing game. With Vic Beasley returning at defensive end, Clemson should have one of the top defensive fronts in the ACC. The cornerback spot is a concern, especially after Bashaud Breeland left early for the NFL. Redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander will be a player to watch in the secondary next year.
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19. Ole Miss
With LSU losing a chunk of talent to the NFL, the door is open for Ole Miss to make a run at third place in the SEC West. Despite losing receiver Donte Moncrief to the NFL, the Rebels are poised to push LSU in the West Division and exceed last year’s eight victories. Quarterback Bo Wallace will benefit from another offseason to rehab his shoulder, while Laquon Treadwell is set to replace Moncrief as the top option at receiver. Three starters depart from the line, but Laremy Tunsil is back after a standout freshman season, and guard Aaron Morris returns after missing nearly all of 2013 due to a knee injury. Linebacker Mike Marry and end Cameron Whigham will be missed, but the defense returns nearly intact. This unit will benefit from another year of development out of defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, safety Tony Conner and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche. The Rebels host Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama but travel to Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and LSU. Ole Miss opens the year with a neutral site matchup against Boise State in Atlanta.
20. Notre Dame
It’s been a busy offseason for Brian Kelly. The Fighting Irish lost both of their coordinators (Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco) to head coaching jobs, and tight end Troy Niklas, running back George Atkinson III, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and tackle Louis Nix III all left for the NFL. Perhaps lost in the roster and coaching staff turnover is the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Although Golson will have some rust after missing a year of college football, his return is a boost to the passing game. Replacing Tuitt and Nix III is a tough assignment for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. But the cupboard isn’t empty. Linebacker Jaylon Smith had a standout freshman season (67 tackles), the line can restock with Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. The schedule is tough, but Stanford, Northwestern, Louisville, Michigan and North Carolina come to South Bend.
Washington deserves an A+ for its hire of Chris Petersen, and the Huskies will be one of the Pac-12’s most-intriguing teams to watch in 2014. While Petersen oversaw some of the nation’s top offenses at Boise State, expect defense to carry Washington next year. Seven starters return for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, including linebacker Shaq Thompson and end Hau’oli Kikaha. Offensively, the Huskies will be solid, but quarterback Keith Price, running back Bishop Sankey and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be tough to replace. Cyler Miles is slated to replace Price after throwing for 418 yards and four scores in eight games in 2013. A favorable schedule should allow Washington to open the year 4-0 before Stanford comes to Husky Stadium on Sept. 27.
Related Content: Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2014
22. Texas A&M
Johnny Manziel is gone, but the Aggies aren’t short on talent. Kevin Sumlin recruited a top-10 class last season and could have a top-five haul in 2014. Replacing Manziel is the No. 1 priority in spring ball for Sumlin and coordinator Jake Spavital. Senior Matt Joeckel has the most experience, but Kenny Hill and incoming freshman Kyle Allen have more upside. The supporting cast is solid for the new quarterback. Brandon Williams, Tra Carson and Trey Williams form a solid trio in the backfield, while four starters return on the line. After allowing 475.8 yards and 32.2 points a game on defense in 2013, the Aggies need considerable improvement to help an offense that will slightly regress without Manziel and receiver Mike Evans. Although the numbers on defense were awful last season, Texas A&M had a host of underclassmen playing major snaps. This unit should be better by default, but another recruiting class is needed to help establish more talent and depth.
23. Kansas State
The Wildcats were one of the Big 12’s hottest teams to finish 2013, winning six out of their final seven games. Despite some personnel losses, Bill Snyder’s team is poised to build off that momentum next year. Kansas State’s offense has to find a new go-to running back with John Hubert expiring his eligibility, but quarterback Jake Waters returns, and Daniel Sams can move to an all-purpose threat if necessary. Receiver Tyler Lockett is quietly one of the nation’s best. Despite only two returning starters, the Wildcats’ defense finished third in the Big 12 in fewest yards allowed and held their opponents to 22.9 points per game. This unit will have a few holes to fill at each level, but end Ryan Mueller is one of the top defenders in the Big 12. Kansas State plays Auburn in non-conference action, while Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma State visit Manhattan.
A new era begins in Austin next year. Charlie Strong takes over for Mack Brown after a four-year stint at Louisville. Can Strong return Texas to the nation’s elite? The Longhorns have talent, but Strong needs some time to find answers on offense. David Ash returns at quarterback after missing most of 2013 due to a concussion. But he will be pushed for the No. 1 spot by sophomore Tyrone Swoopes this spring. Until Strong and his staff can settle on a quarterback, expect the ground attack to be featured on offense. Texas has a wealth of talent at running back, but Johnathan Gray is recovering from a torn Achilles. Strong is known as one of college football’s top defensive coaches, and he inherits a unit that allowed 407.2 yards per game in 2013. Expect immediate improvement with Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford calling the plays. This unit received a boost in January when Cedric Reed and Quandre Diggs decided to return for their senior season.
Another year, more uncertainty in the Coastal Division. North Carolina and Duke will be in the mix, but for now, an early edge goes to the Hurricanes. Is 2014 the year Miami finally plays for the ACC title? The offense has averaged at least 30 points a game in each of the last two seasons, and there’s firepower returning with running back Duke Johnson and receiver Stacy Coley. Departing quarterback Stephen Morris had an inconsistent, but productive career. Will Memphis transfer Ryan Williams replace Morris? Or will offensive coordinator turn to sophomore Gray Crow, redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen or incoming freshman Brad Kaaya? Quarterback is a huge question mark, but the defense is an even bigger issue. Miami allowed 426.4 yards per game (5.7 yards per play) in 2013 and ranked 10th in the ACC in points allowed (26.8 ppg). Despite the lackluster numbers over the last two years on defense, this unit has reason to expect improvement. Linebacker Denzel Perryman and end Anthony Chickillo decided to return for their senior year, and Tracy Howard could be one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC in 2014. More talent is needed on defense, but Miami has to show improvement if it wants to win the Coastal.
The Next Five Teams
Hawkeyes must replace entire linebacking corps, but a favorable schedule (no Ohio State or Michigan State in crossover play) should have Kirk Ferentz’s team in the mix for the Big Ten West Division title.
27. North Carolina
The offensive line and defense are a concern for Larry Fedora’s team. However, the Tar Heels should be dynamic on offense behind quarterback Marquise Williams, running back T.J. Logan and receiver Quinshad Davis.
There’s simply no way the Gators can be as bad as they were last season. The offense won’t be dynamic but improvement is expected. Florida should be solid on defense.
29. Oklahoma State
Mike Gundy has a significant rebuilding effort ahead in 2014. The Cowboys lose 28 seniors, including quarterback Clint Chelf, linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey, cornerback Justin Gilbert and defensive tackle Calvin Barnett. Receiver Josh Stewart also declared for the NFL Draft.
30. Mississippi State
Dan Mullen’s 2014 squad should be the best in his tenure. Quarterback Dak Prescott returns after averaging 251.7 total yards per game in 2013, and the defense has to replace only one starter.