The 2014 football season is upon us, presenting college coaches with the arduous task of double-duty. Programs must balance game-planning and practice with recruitment reach-out and official visits.
This transition sets the stage for a scintillating final stretch toward national signing day, when long days and late nights pay off for those who put in the time. There are plenty of prized prospects still searching for the right fit, unwilling to commit anywhere up to this point.
These players present opportunities for coaches to claim more talent in the 2015 cycle and build valuable momentum as February approaches. We reviewed the recruiting efforts of each team in the AP Top 25 Poll, pointing out one player who appears paramount as a target.
Last week, the college football world recalibrated its expectations for Notre Dame after the indefinite suspensions of starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. While their losses rob the Irish of their best wide receiver, cornerback and defensive end (and reserve linebacker Kendall Moore), head coach Brian Kelly was adamant it won't change anything.
"Expectations haven’t changed," Kelly said earlier this week. "They can’t change."
So the Irish move forward, picking themselves off the mat after another off-field academic incident significantly alters their plans. But that's life in the fishbowl of one of college football's most high-profile programs.
Tasked with a schedule Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, the Irish have good reason to hope for the best, even with an ongoing academic investigation.
That's because Notre Dame will field the most dynamic offense of the Kelly era. While the defense is filled with unproven talent and questions, there's still plenty of hope under the Golden Dome as the 2014 season begins.
After losing both his offensive and defensive coordinator, Kelly reached out to the NFL to fill his two staff vacancies. Brian VanGorder returns to college football after spending the better part of the last decade coaching between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons.
Spending last season coaching linebackers for Rex Ryan, VanGorder and Kelly have a long relationship, with the duo reunited long after VanGorder served as Kelly's first defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State.
While Kelly gave longtime lieutenant Mike Denbrock the offensive coordinator job, he brought in Matt LaFleur to coach the quarterbacks after LaFleur worked with the Washington Redskins in the same position. Again, Kelly had a connection to LaFleur, first coaching against him as a quarterback at Saginaw Valley State and then hiring him as an offensive assistant at Central Michigan.
The rest of Kelly's staff stuck around, with neither Chuck Martin nor Bob Diaco taking any full-time assistants with them to their new spots. There have been some shifts under VanGorder: Kerry Cooks will handle the entire secondary, and veteran Bob Elliott will coach outside linebackers.
The offseason challenges weren't limited to the roster. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock only recently rejoined the coaching staff, unable to attend the opening of training camp at Culver Academies after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and having surgery in June.
Graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy, a former Irish captain who had earned rave reviews working with the secondary, is currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer as well, though he's still working with the team through treatments.
What to Watch For on Offense
After four seasons of talking about it, expect Notre Dame's offense to move quickly and play the type of uptempo offense Irish fans expected to see from the start of the Kelly era. That's because quarterback Everett Golson has returned, allowing the Irish to break out the spread offense that Kelly ran to great success at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
With Tommy Rees at quarterback, there was no threat of a running quarterback neutralizing the zone read before ever taking a snap. But with Golson, the Irish have a quarterback with incredible athleticism and quickness, a former North Carolina point guard recruit who led the Irish in rushing touchdowns in 2012.
Of course, the 2012 offense was more of a complementary role with Notre Dame playing in the BCS title game, thanks to a stingy defense leading the way. But Golson's ability to win while learning makes the 2014 season truly exciting—he's finally back on the field after an academic indiscretion forced him off campus for last year's fall semester.
Helping Golson will be a slew of skill position players who run two and three deep. There's no better example of that than tailback, where sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant team with senior Cam McDaniel to give the Irish one of the deepest depth charts in the country.
McDaniel led the Irish in rushing in 2013. But Folston and Bryant are stars in the making, with Folston taking charge of a crowded position group down the stretch last year and Bryant returning from a medical redshirt to serve as the Irish's designated home run threat.
Finding carries for the three backs will be key. Expect Folston and Bryant to show some explosiveness in the passing game as well, with Bryant also likely serving as the team's punt returner, another way to get the ball into the sophomore's hands.
If Daniels is lost for a significant amount of time because of academic issues, Golson will have completed exactly one catch to his entire wide receiving corps, a 50-yarder to Chris Brown.
If there's been a surprise during spring and fall practice, it's been the emergence of Brown, who looked in danger of falling behind a younger and more talented depth chart. Brown has all the talent in the world, and his chemistry with Golson during camp has him primed for a breakout season.
Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller are also counted on to do big things. Robinson is a lanky target, who at 6'4.5" is a walking mismatch with Velcro hands. Fuller was the Irish's deep threat last year, though he'll get the opportunity to be more well-rounded this season.
At slot receiver, former running back Amir Carlisle has found a home. He'll be joined by C.J. Prosise to add two more dynamic weapons to the passing game. Youngsters Torii Hunter Jr., Justin Brent and Corey Holmes all expect to see their first action this season as well.
After producing top NFL talent at tight end, with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas all first- or second-round picks, Ben Koyack also has the ability to play on Sundays. He'll lead a position group that's had nobody else see the field, though it has plenty of promise.
Sophomore Durham Smythe is an early candidate for playing time, as is jumbo-sized freshman Tyler Luatua. Smythe will serve as a traditional tight end, while Luatua has H-back and fullback abilities. Sophomore Mike Heuerman could chip in too.
Along the offensive line, Harry Hiestand lost two-time captain and four-time Offensive Lineman of the Year Zack Martin and three-year starter Chris Watt. But a strong starting five is expected, with Ronnie Stanley sliding into Martin's left tackle job and senior Matt Hegarty getting the first chance of his career to start at left guard.
Returning at center is Nick Martin, a dark-horse All-American candidate. Fifth-year senior Christian Lombard returns healthy at right guard, while sophomore Steve Elmer moves to right tackle after filling in at guard during his freshman season.
What to Watch For on Defense
Notre Dame's defense is a mystery. And that element of surprise will serve VanGorder's untested troops well during the season's opening weeks. Needing to replace multiple starters at just about every layer, the Irish will be forced to count on youth and inexperience while needing to stay healthy as well.
That's not to say Notre Dame's defense isn't talented. Former 4-star recruits and Top 150 prospects man just about every position in the two-deep. They are also led by two stars-in-the-making: linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day.
Another star-in-the-making waits. Junior KeiVarae Russell, the Irish's most experienced defender with 26 straight starts, was primed for a big season. But he needs to hear from the university's honor code committee, which is investigating if he committed an academic crime that could cost him the season.
If there's one big area of concern for the Irish defense, it's along the front line. Assistant coach Mike Elston just produced NFL draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix but will need to pull a few rabbits out of his hat to get that type of production from anybody but Day.
Freshman Andrew Trumbetti beat out junior Romeo Okwara for a starting defensive end job. And sophomore Isaac Rochell moved into the starting lineup, with Ishaq Williams tied up in the same academic mess as Russell.
Joining Day at tackle is junior Jarron Jones. The closest thing the Irish have to a nose guard, Jones played in Nix's place down the stretch last season and is a contender for a breakout season.
The depth behind this group is a whole lot of inexperience. Freshman Grant Blankenship is the next man in at strong-side defensive end. Fellow freshman Daniel Cage backs up Jones. Freshmen Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner will be asked to play key snaps as well.
Senior linebacker Joe Schmidt will be the man in the middle of VanGorder's defense, anchoring the unit. He's an unlikely starter, a former walk-on who turned down scholarship offers to pay his own way to Notre Dame.
That gamble was rewarded with a scholarship before the 2013 season, and now Schmidt's in the starting lineup as Jarrett Grace recovers from a horrific broken leg suffered against Arizona State last Halloween and freshman Nyles Morgan learns the job.
Starting next to Schmidt is converted wide receiver James Onwualu, a quick study who adds speed and athleticism as the Irish try and counter the spread teams that outflanked a rugged but less-than-speedy linebacking corps last year. When the Irish do face opponents like Stanford, senior Ben Councell, a 254-pounder capable of battling in the trenches, will get the call.
The star of the linebacking corps is sophomore Jaylon Smith. Playing the Will linebacker, Smith will see his impressive freshman statistics explode, positioned in the middle of the defense and asked to search and destroy.
There are few physical specimens in college football like Smith. Arguably the team's best cover man at 235 pounds, Smith measured in at 3.1 percent body fat, just one of the ridiculous preseason testing numbers Smith produced this August. Smith looks like a first-round draft pick whenever he decides to leave Notre Dame.
Even without Russell, the secondary is talented. But there is a lot hoisted onto some young shoulders, as sophomore Jaylon Smith will ascend into the starting lineup.
They'll be joined by a pair of fifth-year seniors, Austin Collinsworth and Cody Riggs. Collinsworth will be asked to direct the young group, while Riggs comes to South Bend after starting 26 games for Florida. The graduate transfer was a key pickup, serving as a safety net at No. 1 cornerback while Russell awaits his fate.
Fall camp has been good to the Irish. Only Torii Hunter Jr. is expected to be out against Rice, with Jarrett Grace also slowly returning from his broken leg. Otherwise camp has been mostly about assorted bumps and bruises.
Tight end Durham Smythe should be ready to go after a balky hamstring, while reserve linebacker Doug Randolph is on the mend as well. The medical staff has been careful with sophomore receiver Will Fuller, limiting his reps after some leg soreness during camp.
There is no more important player for the Irish than Everett Golson. And if there's been a benefit to this recent academic brouhaha, it's that it has allowed Golson to head into the start of the season somewhat under the radar, a difficult proposition to believe a week ago.
Armed with the weapons to efficiently run the Irish offense, the kid gloves are off. After game-managing Notre Dame as a first-year player in 2012, Golson's a senior now, and this is his team. He'll be asked to run the football, throw downfield and score points by the bushel—every touchdown possible is needed as a young defense finds its stride.
After producing quarterbacks at Central Michigan and Cincinnati who put up impressive stat lines, Kelly hasn't gotten that kind of production from his Irish quarterbacks. That should change now that he's reunited with Golson.
Notre Dame's season could hinge on Michigan's visit to South Bend. Brady Hoke has beaten Brian Kelly in three of their four meetings, one of the lone feathers in the cap of the Wolverine's beleaguered head coach. The Irish have a better football team but need to end up on the right side of a rivalry that's been filled with upsets and will now go on hiatus until the two schools can find time to kiss and make up.
The annual battle with Stanford serves as another big date. David Shaw's defense may have lost some key players, but the Cardinal are expected to be a top-10 team. After their last visit to South Bend ended in a stunning overtime defeat, the early October game will likely have the Irish playing home underdogs.
Of course, no game is more daunting than Notre Dame's visit to Tallahassee, where the Irish will take on the defending national champs. Finding a way to stop Jameis Winston will be a job fit for Touchdown Jesus with the luck of the Irish—and every other good break—needing to go Notre Dame's way.
Lastly, the annual battle with USC could have serious late-season implications. First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian takes over a program filled with elite talent, but the Irish have had the Trojans' number lately, winning three of four during Kelly's tenure in South Bend after the Trojans owned Notre Dame all the way back to the Davie era.
The Irish revealed their newest Under Armour threads last week, with the traditional home and away uniforms mostly unchanged.
But the annual Shamrock Series uniforms caught the eye of many, with the Irish paying homage to the Golden Dome, a fresh take on an annual exercise that's seen the Irish wear some pretty hideous garb.
A difficult schedule and unknown defense already made predicting Notre Dame's season difficult. Throw in the potential loss of three key starters, and it's even more up in the air.
But without clarity on the situation, I'm not inclined to go doomsday just yet. So while the loss of Daniels, Russell and Williams could be as much as a one- or two-game swing, let's keep with original plans, stay calm and carry on.
The recipe is there to win 10 games:
- Handle their business. That means victories in games the Irish have to win. Namely Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy and Northwestern.
- Win most of the ones they should. The Irish are going to beat North Carolina and Louisville at home but lose to Arizona State on the road.
- Get lucky and steal a couple. The Irish don't have what it takes to beat Florida State. But they're going to beat Michigan and USC—though Stanford will once again prove better, just too tough of a matchup for the Irish defense.
Ultimately that gives Brian Kelly a 9-3 regular season and a date in one of the ACC's better bowls. But if the Irish can squeak out a win against either Stanford or Arizona State, that's a 10-2 season and a date in the former BCS bowls, a successful season even if it isn't good enough for a playoff berth.
Leading the way will be All-American Jaylon Smith. Greg Bryant will be named to the Freshman All-American team for his exploits as a tailback and punt returner.
Combined with just about the entire two-deep returning, the 2014 season will put the Irish near the top of the national radar.
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With just a little over a week until the Clemson Tigers head to Athens to take on the Georgia Bulldogs, it's time to do a complete breakdown of the 2014 season. We will take a look at the offensive and defensive units, look at this season's schedule and make predictions about how the season will unfold.
The coaching staff for the Tigers is one of the best in the country. Head coach Dabo Swinney has done a great job of hiring coordinators who really fit the direction in which the program wants to go.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has his toughest job yet at Clemson trying to replace quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. There is debate growing over whether Morris' system can be a "plug-in" system where the offense is explosive no matter who it consists of. He has playmakers at the skill positions, but getting some of them to play beyond their experience will be a big task for Morris.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has done an excellent job of turning the defense around. Watching West Virginia score touchdown after touchdown on Kevin Steele's unit in the Orange Bowl in 2011 was about as painful as it got. Who would have thought that Clemson's defense would actually be the strength of the team just three years removed from that game?
Another coach who has a tough task ahead of him is defensive backs coach Mike Reed. He has talent at the position, but not a ton of experience. The front seven is projected to be really good, so that leaves the secondary being the question mark of the defense.
What to Watch For on Offense
The offense is the ultimate question mark for the Tigers heading into the fall schedule. We know what the defense will be capable of, but can the Tigers recover from the loss of Boyd and Watkins? I think they can. Morris is an excellent coach who has taken unproven players and turned them into big names.
When the Tigers lost Andre Ellington, there was concern at running back, but Rod McDowell was able to provide stability last season. After losing DeAndre Hopkins, there was concern over who would be the No. 2 threat behind Watkins, but sure enough last season, Martavis Bryant was able to develop into an NFL talent.
It's the same situation this season with the offense, only now there is more of a spotlight on the lost players. Quarterback Cole Stoudt will fit right into what Morris wants to do offensively, and we could see him have a solid year. He won't be able to stretch the field with the deep ball like Boyd, but his efficiency is what matters. In his Clemson career, he has thrown eight touchdown passes and only one interception, and he has also completed 72.3 percent of his passes.
At receiver, there are many options as well. Adam Humphries is the most reliable target and will likely see many passes thrown his way. Charone Peake has the type of speed to make big plays, and Mike Williams has the size to spread the field. Jordan Leggett and Stanton Seckinger will also be important parts of the passing game.
At running back, it's going to be which running back is hot at the time. D.J. Howard is the starter now because of his experience, but Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson and Adam Choice will all have a chance to compete for carries.
What to Watch For on Defense
The defense could be really good this season if you haven't already heard. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony are all All-American-type players, and there is excitement building over redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander as well. Alexander, along with Cordrea Tankersley, will be very important pieces to the secondary.
The front seven is going to be dynamite, no doubt about it. With Beasley, Crawford, Jarrett and either DeShawn Williams or Josh Watson starting, getting pressure on the quarterback is going to help the back end of the defense as well.
An important factor is how well linebacker Tony Steward is able to play this year. We saw Spencer Shuey really turn it on last season stopping the run, so it will be important that there's not a big gap lost in that category. Steward, a former 5-star recruit, according to ESPN.com, has the talent to succeed this season.
Luckily for the Tigers, the injury news hasn't been too bad this offseason, but go ahead and knock on wood to be safe. Running back Zac Brooks will be out for the season with a foot injury, but that doesn't hurt the Tigers significantly in the long run. However, it means Gallman, Davidson and Choice become even more important now.
I didn't list Seckinger on the table because he appears ready to return, according to Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier.
Running back Tyshon Dye is the mystery injury for Clemson this season. The staff isn't sure when he will be able to return to full contact and play for the Tigers, but he can certainly add another option to the running game when healthy. I suspect that we won't see the staff speed up his return because of the depth mentioned above.
You could make the case for many players to be an X-factor, but the season ultimately comes down to Stoudt. While Steward, Tankersley, Alexander, Peake and Gallman are all important pieces, the Tigers will really struggle if Stoudt isn't able to perform well.
The quickest way to argue this point is by saying Deshaun Watson is the answer at quarterback, but would you really trust a true freshman to run things so quickly? With the pieces Clemson lost on offense, it's important that Stoudt plays well this season right away. The running game will be able to help, but the big plays need to come from Stoudt.
The Tigers really need his experience in the system to show in key situations early in the year. Playing at Georgia and at Florida State would be tough for any quarterback regardless of experience. He doesn't have to be as good as Boyd for Clemson to be successful, but he needs to play without crucial turnovers and without major mistakes.
The biggest game on the schedule is September 20, no doubt about it. The Tigers will look to get revenge on Florida State and also try to get back to the ACC Championship Game. The Seminoles don't appear like they could lose multiple games, so this game will likely decide the division.
Another game to keep an eye on is Georgia Tech. The Tigers haven't beaten the Yellow Jackets on the road since 2003, and this almost always seems to be a close game.
North Carolina should be improved this season, and even though the Tigers get that one at home, it is certainly a game to watch. The Tar Heels are capable of winning, so the Tigers can't afford many mistakes in that one.
Lastly, the state championship is also very important this season. Swinney has seen his troubles against Steve Spurrier, but the Tigers have a solid chance of turning the streak in the other direction. South Carolina, like Clemson, has question marks heading into the season, so it should be a good game.
Prediction: 11-2 overall (7-1 in ACC)
My prediction for the season is that Clemson loses two games. Considering what Clemson lost from last year, I'm sure the fans would be pleased with a 10-2 campaign.
While the Tigers want their revenge on Florida State, the 'Noles will be too much to handle for Clemson's offensive line. The other loss will come against either North Carolina, Georgia Tech or South Carolina. The North Carolina and Georgia Tech games could potentially be trap games for the Tigers, and South Carolina has had their number the last five seasons.
If everything goes as planned, I think the Tigers are able to beat North Carolina and Georgia Tech. I listed South Carolina as a push game when I broke down the schedule earlier this week, but the Gamecocks are the favorite early on.
Don't get me wrong, the Tigers can certainly win that one, but for now, we will stick with 10-2. That record will likely mean Clemson goes 7-1 in the conference again, with the lone loss coming at Florida State.
If Florida State is able to return to the national championship game, Clemson has a good chance of making it back to the Orange Bowl.
Beasley and Anthony are two players to watch for major awards. Beasley is one of the best defensive ends in the nation and is my early pick to win the Ted Hendricks Award. Anthony is someone to consider for the Butkus Award.
So there you have it, a full preview of the 2014 season. The excitement will only grow over the next few days as Clemson really begins to focus on Georgia. This will be a fun season, and it will be interesting to see how many of the question marks Clemson is able to answer this fall.
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The time Nebraska football fans have been waiting for has finally arrived. It's college football season. As a result, the Huskers have begun preparations.
The Big Ten looks a little different this year with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. This change has also removed the Legends' and Leaders divisions in favor of the simpler East and West. Nebraska falls into the West, which includes Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin.
The 2014 season doesn't just bring new teams to Nebraska's schedule. It also brings a fresh start for head coach Bo Pelini and his staff. After a roller-coaster season in 2013, it's exactly what fans are looking forward to.
Pelini enters his seventh season at the helm of Nebraska football. As he prepares, it's no secret that all eyes are on him.
After all, Pelini went from a very rough end to the 2013 season to one of the best possible offseasons from a public relations standpoint. Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer recently took a look at the Pelini no one knows and highlighted everything that has happened to the coach in the last several months.
As a coach, Pelini's numbers are all over the place. Paul Myerberg of USA Today summed it up best:
On one hand, Pelini is one of eight major-conference coaches in college football history to win at least nine games in each of his first six years. Of those eight coaches, only one, Pelini, took over a program coming off a losing season. Three first-time coaches have opened with six consecutive nine-win seasons: Pelini, Osborne, Switzer.
Yet he is 8-14 against ranked teams, 2-8 against top-10 teams and 0-3 in conference championship games, the last in humbling, humiliating fashion. Only one Pelini-coached team, in 2009, finished inside the top 19 of the final Amway Coaches Poll.
That's what makes Pelini the man to watch. The staff around him is just as important. Both Tim Beck and John Papuchis have things to fix. However, it's Pelini who needs to become the CEO of this team and lead.
By doing so, the rest of the coaches on his staff will have better opportunities of being successful. This staff needs to develop and doesn't have much more time to do so. It all begins and ends with Pelini.
What to Watch for on Offense
Who else do you watch for on offense than I-back Ameer Abdullah? He's a major factor of this offense (just see the X-Factor section below for more) and easily the player whom most fans are excited to see.
His name has been thrown around as a possibly Heisman candidate. Whether he becomes one or not, the national awards will still be plentiful for the senior who chose to return over the NFL. As long as he remains healthy, the sky is the limit for Abdullah. That's what will make him fun to watch.
However, Abbullah isn't it for Nebraska. The Huskers have what looks to be a much stronger offensive line in 2014. The unit in 2013 faced several injuries, which had its positives and negatives. While the group of young players got experience, it created some growing pains right off the bat.
With a new season on the horizon, the offensive line is poised to be much stronger. Colorado transfer Alex Lewis helps, too. Big Red Report's Bryan Munson believes Lewis has a "mean streak" that Nebraska needs. With Lewis and Jake Cotton, the offensive line will be in a much better position going forward.
After all, players like Abdullah can't run without protection. Key parts of the passing game can't happen either without a strong offensive line. So while watching Abdullah run all over the place, make sure to pay attention to the offensive line, too. That's where things could really come together for the Huskers.
What to Watch for on Defense
While the offense has Abdullah, the defense has Randy Gregory. The All-American is big and quick. He posted 66 tackles and 10.5 sacks in 2013, per Huskers.com. Alone, Gregory is a powerhouse; however, it's what surrounds him that makes the defensive line worth watching.
When looking at the defensive line, Myerberg was clear that the Huskers have a lot of potential:
After some painful misses on the recruiting trail, Nebraska has accumulated the talent and tackle depth to shine across the board, harassing quarterbacks on the edges and controlling the point of attack from tackle to tackle. Ohio State's line is the best in this conference; Nebraska's, if not as star-studded, may end up being the Big Ten's most pleasant surprise.
While the secondary lost LeRoy Alexander to a suspension and Charles Jackson to a knee injury similar to the one that former Husker Rex Burkhead suffered in 2012, the Blackshirts should be able to recover. Depth is definitely going to be of some concern going forward, but the Huskers have players to take over in Jackson and Alexander's absence.
When watching the Nebraska defense, it will be hard not to zero in on Gregory. There's nothing wrong with that, either. He's going to be an outstanding player for the Huskers in 2014.
Makes sure to take a look at the newer players, though. They should be stepping up big this season.
Injuries were a major part of the daily practice news for Nebraska during fall camp. Within the first week, three players went down with season-ending injuries. Thankfully, things have been quieter since.
Going forward, the Huskers (specifically on defense) need to stay healthy. Losing Jackson and Michael Rose-Ivey definitely hurt the depth on that side of the ball. Everyone else will now need to do all they can to keep away from injuries.
Surprise, surprise. The X-factor for Nebraska is I-back Abdullah. For proof, just read his bio on Huskers.com. He'll definitely be the man to stop in 2014.
However, that also means defenses will be targeting him. While it may mean little to the senior, it's still important for the Huskers to be ready. Imani Cross should be able to step up when defenses target Abdullah.
One could argue that the entire group of running backs will be the X-factor for Nebraska. Abdullah will just be leading the way.
Nebraska's 2014 schedule isn't the most difficult in the Big Ten, but it's also not the easiest. More specifically, the home schedule is actually much easier than the road schedule.
Nebraska faces Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, Miami, Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota at home. On the road, the Huskers take on Fresno State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa. Needless to say, it's definitely unbalanced as far as difficulty of home versus away.
For the best chance at a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, the Huskers must go 7-0 at home. That would allow for some losses on the road, which seem likely.
Rutgers and Purdue sound great for cold November games, don't they? Should be interesting to see how many fans show up for those two.
The Huskers have quite a few make-or-break games in 2014. The first is the trip to Fresno State on Sept. 13. To start, the game kicks off at 10:30 p.m. ET. That's a challenge for any team. Additionally, the Huskers face Miami the week after, which could potentially distract the team from focusing properly on the Bulldogs. Fans have already been showing their excitement over Miami coming to Lincoln all offseason.
Fresno State will be a test for the Huskers, win or lose. If it's an emotional win or loss, it could carry over into the rest of the season. This is makes it a big game for Nebraska. Keeping emotions in check will be vital.
I've also talked about the Wisconsin game and its important before. The last time the two met in 2012, the Badgers defeated the Huskers 70-31. Not exactly fond memories for the Nebraska. Two years later, Wisconsin doesn't have Russell Wilson. They also have a new head coach, which makes things very different.
Wisconsin is beatable, but that doesn't mean it's a guaranteed win for the Huskers. How the team handles the challenge will speak volumes about Nebraska.
Nebraska unveiled new alternate uniforms for the homecoming game versus Illinois on Sept. 27. The uniforms were introduced to the public on Aug. 1 during Nebraska's annual fan day.
Pelini even got into the spirit of unveiling the new uniforms to the team.
When asked to describe this team in one word, it would be "opportunity." Everything is in place for the Huskers to have a breakthrough season; it all depends on the team's mentality.
Fans expect this young group to not be perfect. However, this team is talented. Due to the team's youth, victories may not come easy and may not always be the prettiest, but this group should be able to tough out the season.
After six years of four losses, it would be easy to predict the same for Pelini and his team again in 2014. However, Year 7 feels a little bit different. The team may be young, but it's talented. If the defense can establish itself early in the season and play like it did after Oct. 1, 2013, things will fall into place for Nebraska.
From there, as long as Tommy Armstrong steps up and makes plays, things should be much different for the team. The Huskers will likely still lose a couple of games, but they should escape the nonconference schedule before that happens.
Call it being overly optimistic if you wish, but the trend of four losses ends in 2014.
Overall Record: 10-2
Conference Record: 6-2
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LSU's Tiger Stadium underwent some renovations this offseason, and the football players are getting arguably the best part of the upgrades to themselves.
The locker room at Tiger Stadium has a sharp new look.
That video shows the players checking out the renovated locker room, but it doesn't give a great look at the locker room itself. The photos below help show off the renovations.
As cool as the locker room looks with the lights on, it looks even cooler in the dark.
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From Dallas to Dallas.
Florida State's mantra is not meant to be arrogant. It's just an expression of the Seminoles' confidence, a knowledge of what they can accomplish on a long journey that begins Aug. 30 with a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State and could end right back at AT&T Stadium in the national championship game. OK, technically it would be Arlington, Texas, to Arlington, Texas...but that just doesn't sound as snappy to the Seminoles.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has spent part of the last seven months trying to figure out how to get the Seminoles back to a national championship game—and win it. He has studied the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys and 1990s Chicago Bulls.
How did they put together a repeat run? How were they able to succeed?
"The common denominator is they didn't try to recreate the wheel, they didn't try to reinvent things," Fisher said. "But they stayed hungry and they kept a chip on their shoulder and they played with an attitude and they played with a purpose."
The Seminoles must navigate a challenging schedule but one that is set up well for a 12-0 regular season. FSU plays just two teams that are ranked in the AP preseason top 25 in No. 16 Clemson and No. 17 Notre Dame. But the Seminoles also face four teams—Florida, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Miami—that received votes and could be ranked by the time those games are played.
This fall's slate is a far cry from the relatively easy 2013 schedule that featured the likes of nonconference foes in Bethune-Cookman, Nevada and Idaho. But FSU also faced, and resoundingly defeated, a top 5 Clemson team on the road and a top 10 Miami team at home. At this point, neither team is anywhere close to knocking on the door of the top 10.
There will be plenty of challenges, of course. FSU is replacing a 1,000-yard rusher (Devonta Freeman) and a 1,000-yard, 15-touchdown receiver (Kelvin Benjamin). Gone is All-American cornerback (Lamarcus Joyner), leading tackler (linebacker Telvin Smith) and run-stopping defensive tackle (Timmy Jernigan). And there's a new defensive coordinator (Charles Kelly was promoted to replace Jeremy Pruitt).
Losing such talent on and off the field often leads to a few speed bumps in the road. Of course, Fisher and the Seminoles would love it if Benjamin, Freeman, Jernigan and tailback James Wilder Jr. had returned. It would have made a repeat run significantly smoother.
Jimbo Fisher is 45-10 going into his fifth season at FSU. He's put the Seminoles back on the college football map after the program's struggles in the final years under coaching legend Bobby Bowden. Fisher's resume is impressive: a national title, two ACC championships, a 4-0 mark vs. Miami and a 3-1 record against Florida.
Fisher's staff has changed dramatically through the years and it has evolved from one that was loaded with young assistants who were aggressive recruiters into one that now features veteran assistants who have a wealth of knowledge but are also strong recruiters.
A week after FSU won the national title, Pruitt made a stunning announcement that he was leaving to take the same position at Georgia. Fisher evaluated his candidates but was able to maintain stability on his staff by promoting Kelly from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.
Fisher hired longtime college assistant Bill Miller as linebackers coach. Miller has been a defensive coordinator at Miami and an associate head coach at Florida, among his stops in a 35-year coaching career.
What to Watch for on Offense
FSU scored a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 723 points in 2013 and racked up 7,267 yards. Even after losing receivers like Kenny Shaw and Benjamin and running backs like Freeman and Wilder, the offense is loaded with talent.
Fisher likes to throw a little bit of everything at defenses from three-receiver sets to two-tight-end-sets. Winston even did a few zone-read plays, so expect the playbook to be even more wide open in his second season as starter.
An offensive line that was pressed into action as freshmen in a 2011 bowl win over Notre Dame is now filled with experienced veterans. Tackles Cameron Erving and Bobby Hart and guards Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias have a combined 106 starts. Erving was the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner (given to the league's top offensive lineman). Bryan Stork, the 2013 Rimington Award winner as the nation's top center, will be tough to replace. But senior Austin Barron has five starts under his belt and has fit in well at center during the spring and preseason.
Winston will be critiqued and compared to his 2013 Heisman Trophy season, in which he threw for 4,057 yards and a school-record 40 touchdown passes. He's spent the past few months improving his footwork and mechanics, and he could have a completion percentage close to or better than the 66.9 percent from last season.
Karlos Williams is now the unquestioned No. 1 tailback (748 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2013). While he has never started, Williams has the ability to run off tackle and break off long runs. If he's also willing to run aggressively between the tackles, Williams could have a 1,000-yard season.
FSU's tailbacks are short on experience, but Dalvin Cook had an impressive few weeks of preseason practice. Fisher praised Cook for his ability to pass block, a sure indication that he will be used in passing and rushing situations. Mario Pender has been on campus two seasons and hasn't played a college down yet, but he has the speed and physicality to be successful.
Rashad Greene is a playmaker who has led FSU in receptions his first three seasons. He is fourth on FSU's all time receptions list (171) and is a consistent option for Winston. Nick O'Leary has become one of the nation's top tight ends, grabbing 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Fisher said he likes the way senior receiver Christian Green has performed in preseason practices, so Greene and Green could start. But FSU has plenty of receiving options, including senior Scooter Haggins, sophomore Kermit Whitfield and a trio of true freshmen like 5-stars Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane and 4-star Ja'Vonn Harrison.
What to Watch for on Defense
The biggest change in defensive coordinators was from 2012 to '13 when Mark Stoops left for Kentucky and Fisher hired Pruitt from Alabama. Even though Pruitt is gone, the 2014 defense will schematically be very similar to what FSU showed in 2013 (and it's a defense where FSU led the FBS in points allowed at 12.1).
FSU will also throw a number of different looks at offenses. A 4-3 defense is often tweaked until it looks nothing like a 4-3. FSU loves to show off its abundance of talented defensive backs by playing nickel and dime packages against pass-first offenses. And FSU will often go with three- or five-man fronts, dropping an end into coverage or sliding up a linebacker. The confusion and athleticism has caused opponents plenty of problems.
The line features star defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tackle Eddie Goldman. Chris Casher is an athletic end who could have a breakout season. Coaches have assembled a deep rotation at tackle, and Goldman and junior Nile Lawrence-Stample will anchor a group that features 10 interior linemen. Fisher has also praised Derrick Nnadi, who appears to be one of the stars of the five-man group of true freshmen. It's not a line that generated sacks—Edwards, Goldman and Casher had just 7.5 combined in 2013—but they will collapse the pocket and make quarterbacks release the ball quicker than they want (which is part of the reason why FSU had 26 interceptions last season).
Since FSU plays so much nickel, the Seminoles will frequently play just two linebackers. Terrance Smith is FSU's returning leader in tackles (59) and will start. E.J. Levenberry has won the other starting linebacker job, but FSU will also rotate in Reggie Northrup, Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe (who is coming back from foot surgery).
FSU is loaded at defensive back. Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams are the ACC's top corner tandem, and Jalen Ramsey is a rising star at safety. The other safety spot is up for grabs between Tyler Hunter and Nate Andrews, and Fisher has also consistently praised early enrollee Trey Marshall. All six will be on the field frequently.
FSU escaped the offseason relatively healthy. Eligwe will miss the first two games but is expected to return for the Clemson game on Sept. 20, Fisher said.
The Seminoles lost sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Jones, who has been declared academically ineligible and will miss the 2014 season.
Rudolph has everything that a coach could want in a receiver. He's 6'2", 185 pounds, fast, athletic and runs routes well.
There are two things holding him back in August. The first was surgery on his left foot to repair what Fisher said was an injury stemming from his high school days. And the second is Rudolph's knowledge of the playbook. Once Rudolph has a firm grasp on things, he will see playing time in FSU's three-receiver sets.
He had 57 receiving touchdowns in his four years at West Palm Beach (Florida) Cardinal Newman. Rudolph will be a tough one-on-one matchup. It may be a slow start between the injury and his need to absorb the playbook, but Rudolph could develop into an elite receiver.
Make or Break Games
Oklahoma State presents so many challenges as a team that loves to throw the ball around, but that simply plays right into the hands of FSU's strength: defensive backs. The Cowboys will likely score some points, but FSU's defense is just too good. And Winston & Co. will light up the scoreboard on Aug. 30. Oklahoma State has lost too much experience and leadership, and FSU should put this game away in the second half.
FSU's toughest ACC challenges are Clemson (Sept. 20), at Louisville (Oct. 30) and at Miami (Nov. 15). The Seminoles shouldn't have much of a problem against a Tigers offense that will still be rebuilding after losing quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.
A Thursday night road game against Louisville could be a tougher-than-expected challenge but again it will be coach Bobby Petrino's aerial attack against FSU's defensive backs. Expect the same result: Louisville will do its damage but FSU will put up more points on the scoreboard. It all depends on the quarterback play at Miami, but any offense that has Duke Johnson will have FSU's respect. This is a fun rivalry game (with plenty of respect on both sides) but Fisher's teams have recorded double-digit wins in three of his four games as head coach against the Hurricanes.
The Notre Dame game on Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, Florida, has the makings of a potential top-10 showdown. But what effect will the four suspensions for the Fighting Irish have on the team? Notre Dame wouldn't be the same if cornerback KeiVarae Russell, receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore were not on the field.
Florida should be much better in 2014, or at least much healthier. Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has installed his spread attack, which suits quarterback Jeff Driskel better. But Florida lacks an established receiver and the Gators could struggle again on offense.
FSU's new logo and new uniforms were the talk of social media this spring. The Seminoles now have three different uniforms and two helmets.
FSU won 12 of its 14 games last season by 30 or more points. The only two close games were a 48-34 win at Boston College in which FSU rallied from a 21-point, first-half deficit and the BCS championship game, in which FSU again came back twice in the final five minutes to defeat Auburn 34-31.
So the expectation will be that FSU will again blow out opponents. And, yes, that will happen often.
Fans will want to again see decisive, dominating wins. But this schedule is tougher and it's expected that a few games will be close.
Still, FSU should run the table and go 12-0 in the regular season. Expect FSU, after winning the ACC title, to earn one of four invitations to the new College Football Playoff.
Winston likely won't win the Heisman again simply because his 2013 numbers will be compared to 2014 every week. But Winston has said he's not thinking about a Heisman repeat—only his desire to help FSU win another national title.
Winston (Maxwell), Greene (Biletnikoff), O'Leary (Mackey), Erving (Outland), Ramsey (Thorpe) and Roberto Aguayo (Groza) could all be in line postseason honors.
Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of FSU media guides and seminoles.com. Follow Bob on Twitter. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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The first offseason of the James Franklin era has been loud.
Penn State's new head coach has never been shy, but he's never been more not shy than he has been the past eight months. He pillaged his old recruiting class before Vanderbilt could even scrub his name off the doors, and he's continued to make his presence known out on the trail by landing 12 4-star commits in the current cycle (tied for the most in the country).
To Franklin's credit, he called his shot as soon as he was hired. "We are going to dominate the state," he promised at his introductory press conference in January. "We are going to dominate the region."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, there is not much Franklin can do to continue his momentum on the field in 2014. Penn State is still banned from playing in a bowl game as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions have taken a toll on the roster that can be felt at almost every position.
Still, with Franklin and sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg serving as the new faces of the program, the Nittany Lions finally feel like they can get back to where they once were.
Making tangible improvements this year is the start of that.
Man, that's a whole lot of ones.
Franklin brought an entirely new regime with him to Happy Valley, replacing even the last holdover from the Joe Paterno era, defensive line coach Larry Johnson (who is now with Ohio State).
Almost all of his staff comes over from Vanderbilt, too. Of the nine coaches flanking Franklin on the sideline, only Charles Huff (Western Michigan) and Terry Smith (Temple) didn't come to State College by way of Nashville, Tennessee.
John Donovan has been with Franklin since the Maryland days, and together the two have worked well to maximize production with less-than-elite talent. A similar compliment can be paid to offensive line coach Herb Hand, who probably has the hardest/most important job on the staff besides Franklin this season. Before joining on at Vanderbilt, Hand helped Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham build double-digit winners out of West Virginia and Tulsa, respectively.
The defense is led by a pair of upstart coordinators, Bob Shoop and Brent Pry, who joined Franklin at Vanderbilt after coaching at the FCS level (Shoop at William & Mary; Pry at Georgia Southern).
Last year's Commodores defense ranked No. 48 on the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, a respectable finish (and then some) for an overmatched unit during a banner year for SEC offenses.
By all indications, they will do just fine at PSU.
What to Watch for on Offense
*see: injury news
There is no middle ground with this offense: Position groups are either littered with questions (wide receiver; offensive line) or remarkably stable (tight end; the offensive backfield).
Let's start with the good—or, in Hackenberg's case, the great.
His first year was an exemplar of why teams should throw their freshman quarterbacks to the fire (unless they're in "win-now" mode). He took his inevitable lumps, but those lumps helped him improve. By the season's final week, he was completing 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a road upset over a team (Wisconsin) that almost made a BCS bowl.
If not for Hackenberg, it very well might have.
Behind the now-sophomore QB returns a trio of experienced and well-assorted running backs: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Zwinak is the "starter" by definition, and he fits the mold of a Franklin-esque bruiser such as Vanderbilt running backs Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour, but all three should see the field.
The tight end position is equally well-stocked. Even with the loss of Adam Breneman, who sounds like he might be done for the season with a knee injury (more on this below), Jesse James and Kyle Carter are two of the five or six best tight ends in the conference, and freshman Mike Gesicki looks like a quick contributor behind them.
Receiver, though, is a bit of a crapshoot. It's hard to articulate how much this offense relied on Robinson last season: He was targeted 150 times to the rest of the team's 231, per Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, and he finished with 46 percent of its 3,110 receiving yards.
That's a lot.
Replacing Robinson will be a joint effort—one that includes a heavy, unsafe reliance on true freshmen. De'Andre Thompkins, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall should all be called upon to contribute along with Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The raw talent is there for them to succeed, but they will need a lot of help.
On that front, having an all-world quarterback such as Hackenberg is a boon. On the same front, though, having an offensive line depleted by injuries and scholarship restrictions is…well, not.
To be frank, the offensive line is hanging on by a thread. Both projected starting guards (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) are converted defensive tackles, and both projected starting tackles (Donovan Smith and Andrew Nelson) are dealing with injury issues this fall.
The outlook is bleak beyond the top seven, which includes the five players listed on the first team plus Wendy Laurent and Brendan Mahon. No matter who gets injured, it would likely be Laurent or Mahon replacing them. Per Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com, Mahon has been double-dipping in practice because of injuries, lining up at tackle with the first team and at guard with the second-stringers.
Poor pass protection does not suit Hackenberg's strengths. He is not overly elusive, and although he is adept enough to get by with shorter, timing-based routes, his real bread and butter is the deep ball. He needs time for his receivers to get downfield.
What to Watch for on Defense
Last year's defense could match any offense in the conference—and probably any offense in the country—on the ground. It finished No. 8 in Football Outsiders' run defense S&P+ ratings, and four of the seven teams that finished ahead of it (Michigan State, Alabama, Florida State and Stanford) played in a BCS bowl game.
Gone from that defense are space-eating defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and middle linebacker Glenn Carson, and a slight drop-off can be expected because of it. Fortunately, enough talent returns that the result of that drop-off should be negligible.
A big reason for that is the introduction of Shoop—or, to be precise, of Shoop instead of a different defensive coordinator. The biggest challenge most programs face in the first year of a new coaching regime is adjusting to a new scheme or style, but Shoop runs a similar defense to that of his predecessor, Tom Bradley.
Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall explains:
Shoop's schemes reflect the evolution of 4-3 defense to the modern era. He largely uses the 4-3 over front that has been primary in State College for the last several decades, and he also loves to apply pressure with the zone blitz, another long-standing staple at Linebacker University. …
Under Franklin, you can expect Penn State to look much like it always has: relying on good fundamentals in a 4-3 defense and looking to crack skulls…
Boyd's whole piece is worth a read (if you're into the X's and O's), but essentially, he describes the new defense as a moderate variation on Bradley's. The principles and the alignment will be similar, but the role certain positions occupy will evolve.
Specifically, Shoop and Pry ask the secondary to player a bigger role in run support than the old regime did. A school famous for its linebackers still has a couple of good ones in Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, but the player who could most benefit from the new coaching staff is hard-hitting safety Adrian Amos, who is back to his preferred spot after being forced into action at cornerback last year.
"I think Adrian Amos has as unique of a skill set as I've ever been around," Shoop said this offseason, per Bob Flounders of PennLive.com. "If he makes the commitment to do it, he could be the best defensive back or safety in all of college football next year."
The pass defense wasn't as good as the run defense last season but should ostensibly improve now that the cornerbacks are another year older.
Trevor Williams is a name to watch after he struggled so publicly last season, but Jordan Lucas is a nascent star who could thrive the same way Andre Hal did at Vandy.
Along the line, C.J. Olaniyan returns after posting five sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season, and if Deion Barnes can revert to his 2012 form—the one that made him an FWAA Freshman All-American—the Nittany Lions should have a formidable pass rush to boot.
The lack of linebacker depth (and, really, depth in general) gives cause for concern, but if this group stays healthy, it shouldn't be too far off from a traditional Penn State-caliber defense.
Of course, the same could be said of almost any team before the season; that conditional "if they stay healthy" requires a good deal of luck, and Penn State has a smaller margin for error than most.
The best it can do now is hope.
Losing Breneman hurts but is not insurmountable thanks to James, Carter and Gesicki. Still, getting him back would be huge.
It doesn't sound like Breneman will be able to return, but it's not out of the question. Franklin has stayed mum on the nature and severity of his injury, only confirming that the sophomore tight end will need surgery, but Flounders cites sources saying it's a knee injury that will "likely necessitate a redshirt season."
Ben Kline tore his Achilles during summer workouts and is likely to miss the season because of it, which is a shame because he was loosely competing to start. Either way, he was being counted on to contribute, and his absence makes linebacking depth an even bigger question.
Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL during spring practice and is also a good bet to miss the season, although there is a modicum of promise. Dieffenbach told Flounders that he's targeting a late-season return, "hopefully…for the last 3-4 games."
A projected starter before going down, Dieffenbach's return would surely be welcome news—especially with ostensible injuries and wear-and-tear starting to accumulate in the last month of the season.
But so soon after an ACL injury, it's not worth banking on.
X-Factor: RT Andrew Nelson
More than any blunder it could make right now, the one thing Penn State can least afford to do is not protect Hackenberg.
This is scary because, more than any blunder it could make right now, not protecting Hackenberg seems the most likely to happen.
In an ideal world, a redshirt freshman such as Nelson would not be so heavily relied upon. Even if he worked his way into the starting lineup, there would be a veteran safety net behind him. Penn State doesn't have that, though, which means Nelson must play, play well and stay healthy for 12 games this season.
That is a lot to ask of any player, especially one who has never played a college snap. But Nelson might be up for the job. Hand has shown a lot of faith in Nelson this fall, trusting him to play left tackle (on Hackenberg's blind side) while Smith has sat out of practice with an injury, and those reps in the spotlight should help with Nelson's ego.
Will that be enough, though?
Penn State's schedule includes some formidable defensive linemen. Worse yet, it includes some formidable defensive line pairs. Ohio State attacks with Noah Spence on one side and Joey Bosa on the other; Michigan State attacks with Shilique Calhoun on one side and Marcus Rush on the other; Michigan attacks with Frank Clark on one side and Brennen Beyer on the other—the list goes on and on.
Penn State needs two reliable tackles if it wants to keep Hackenberg upright and healthy. On paper, Nelson is that No. 2.
But if anything goes wrong, the wheels could fall off.
Rain or shine; Ireland or America; volcanic eruption or no volcanic eruption—it doesn't matter. Penn State has to beat Central Florida.
It just has to.
Of course, that is easier said than done. UCF won the Fiesta Bowl (and beat Penn State) last season, and even though it loses quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, it returns meaningful pieces from that team such as running back William Stanback, linebacker Terrance Plummer, cornerback Jacoby Glenn and four receivers that could hang in a power conference. In a vacuum, there would be no shame in losing to the Golden Knights.
But the Nittany Lions can't afford to do it. They have to start the season with a jolt. Given the momentum they've accumulated this offseason, a loss would serve as a sobering road block, where a win would keep the ball rolling at its current pace (and then some).
As for the rest of the games on the schedule, none really stick out as "make or break." Home dates with Ohio State and Michigan State could certainly "make" the season, but because Penn State cannot win the conference or play in a bowl game or anything, they can't really "break" it. The pressure is squarely on the visiting team.
If forced to highlight a second game, though, November 1 against Maryland could have major recruiting implications. Franklin has taken giddy pleasure in recruiting the Old Line State, and even though the Terps have stayed afloat with a couple of big commitments (credit where it's due to Randy Edsall), it still feels like the wrong outcome at Beaver Stadium could bury them out on the trail.
On the flip side, Maryland has a team good enough to beat Penn State, especially one week after Penn State plays the Buckeyes. Scoring a win over Franklin—a former UMD assistant—in his own backyard could make a big impact on local recruits (e.g. Jay Stocker) in addition to exorcising some personal demons.
For many reasons, that's a game worth watching closely.
By most accounts, this will be considered a successful season.
Interpret that how you will.
Obviously, it is hard to make predictions for a team that cannot make a bowl game or win the conference championship. Ohio State raised the bar pretty high in a similar situation two years ago, finishing 12-0 and feeding off that momentum through the next offseason, and there's no reason Penn State can't enjoy something similar.
Similar. Not identical. This team will not go undefeated. It doesn't have the depth along the offensive line—or, to be honest, at almost any position—to beat all of the teams on its schedule. There will be games where this experiment looks ugly, losses that should have been wins.
However, there might also be wins that should have been losses. On the road against Michigan and at home against Ohio State and Michigan State—watch the Nittany Lions pull one of those out. They scored a signature victory at Wisconsin last season. We know what they are care capable of doing (at least for 60 minutes).
All things told, this feels like an 8-4 season. It could swing to 9-3 or 7-5 based on modest close-game luck or 6-6 or 10-2 based on crazy close-game luck, but it's hard to see them deviating too far from center.
An above-average team on the cusp of outliving its sanctions will remain enticing to local and national recruits, and Franklin will continue to dominate in that regard. Penn State might be a sneaky Big Ten title contender in 2015 and a sneaky national title contender in 2016—but only if Hackenberg stays for his senior season (unlikely).
The momentum Penn State has gathered this offseason will slow down but not change course. Keeping the ball from rolling downhill is the biggest goal of this season, and that will be accomplished. It won't blow anyone off their feet, but it also won't rub them the wrong way.
And that, by most accounts, will constitute a successful year.
Overall Record: 8-4
Big Ten Record: 5-3
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LSU head coach Les Miles has the talent to win the SEC in 2014.
Miles knows the journey back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship will not be an easy one. The Tigers were picked to finish third in the conference at SEC media days, with Alabama and Auburn ahead of them.
Can Miles lead his Tigers past the top of the SEC? That remains to be seen, but he has proven capable of doing so.
Miles has won the SEC twice, yet that should not be the only measure of his success. LSU is the only SEC team to finish in the Top 25 in each of the past nine seasons, all of which were under Miles. He has averaged over 10 wins a season in his illustrious career.
LSU finished an impressive 10-3 in 2013. However, Miles could—and should—have been even better.
LSU lacked focus in a road game against injury-plagued Ole Miss, which resulted in an embarrassing loss. The Tigers were outplayed at home by massive underdog Arkansas, yet miraculously won the game. Miles could not keep up with Alabama in a 38-17 loss in Tuscaloosa, his worst regular-season loss since 2008.
Miles and his staff will need to be on top of their game in 2013. The Tigers are ranked No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll. The goal is to finish in the top four in the minds of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Here is how the Tigers stack up in 2014.
LSU has had a change in its coaching staff in each of the past three seasons. Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will be going into his first year, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron into his second and wide receivers coach Adam Henry and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond are going into their third.
Special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto left LSU after a below-average season as a co-defensive coordinator in 2008 to become the head coach at Northwestern State.
Peveto is now back in Baton Rouge as the special teams coordinator after Thomas McGaughey left to take the same position for the New York Jets.
LSU's position coaches are coveted recruiters, led by running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. With that said, the group must be on top of its game in practice. The youthful Tigers must be taught the proper technique to succeed in the SEC.
Cameron and defensive coordinator John Chavis could form the best coordinator combo in the country.
Last season, Cameron was given the keys to a BMW with experienced playmakers Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Now, he must rebuild the offense with young yet talented pieces.
Chavis has an experienced unit returning that should be among the country's best defenses.
What to Watch For on Offense
The Leonard Fournette Show will hit theaters on August 30.
Fournette, a 5-star running back from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, is Miles' most highly touted recruit in his best recruiting class ever at LSU. He is expected to eventually become the workhorse running back in Baton Rouge.
Fournette will have help in experienced seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard.
Magee was given the coveted No. 18 jersey this offseason and will likely start the season opener. Hilliard has yet to regain his amazing freshman form from 2011, but has still been viable option in the red zone with 21 career touchdowns.
Fullback Connor Neighbors and an offensive line that returns four of five starters should pave the way for a potent rushing attack.
Former Georgia All-American tackle and SEC Network analyst Matt Stinchomb said on SEC Now that the Tigers have the best offensive line in the conference.
Left tackle La'el Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins were all projected starters. In a somewhat shocking move, Ross Dellenger of The Advocate suggests Miles is leaning toward starting sophomore Ethan Pocic at center over Porter.
Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington are still battling to start at right guard. No matter who starts the opener, expect both to play.
And then there is the position of quarterback.
The Tigers have yet to name a starting signal-caller. The decision will be made between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Miles said he will have a decision made before the day of the opener.
"We'll tell the starter probably that Thursday (Aug. 28) when we put together the final list of starters," Miles said, per Glenn Guilbeau of The Daily Advertiser.
Miles continued by saying he could play both Jennings and Harris. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee believes Miles is playing in dangerous waters if he goes that route.
"If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks," wrote Sallee. "LSU is on the verge of having no quarterbacks."
No matter who is the starter, LSU's inexperience at wide receiver is concerning. Replacing Beckham Jr. and Landry, both of whom eclipsed 1,000 yards last season, will not be easy.
Leading receiver returnee Travin Dural will start as the No. 1 option. The other spots are up for grabs.
John Diarse, Quantavius Leslie and Avery Peterson are all program returnees looking to make their mark. However, momentum is building in favor of highly touted freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are arguably the most talented pass-catchers on the team.
The Tigers will have a boost at tight end with DeSean Smith. LSU has accumulated an abysmal 28 catches and no touchdowns from the position over the past two seasons combined.
Smith is a gifted sophomore who can present mismatches to linebackers over the middle.
Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes are LSU's best blocking tight ends in pass protection and the running game. Expect them to play a massive role in short-yardage situations.
What to Watch For on Defense
"Defensive Back University" will be back in session at LSU in 2014.
LSU has earned the reputation as "DBU" after its amazing run of defensive backs under Miles, which includes two Jim Thorpe Award and two Chuck Bednarik Award winners. The secondary was the foundation of LSU's 24 combined wins in 2010 and 2011.
The Tigers took a step back in 2013, allowing over 229 yards per game through the air in conference play. LSU only had 11 interceptions after tallying 18 in each of the two seasons prior.
LSU's secondary will improve drastically this season. The unit has multiple All-SEC candidates, led by sophomore cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White.
Robinson and White form the best cornerback duo in the SEC. They return after combining for 13 starts and three interceptions as true freshmen. Their ability to play man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage will open up the playbook for Chavis to call unpredictable defenses.
Talented backups Jalen Collins and Ed Paris can step in without a dramatic drop-off.
LSU is in good hands at safety as well.
Junior Jalen Mills was the only bona fide starter until he was arrested for second-degree battery this offseason. LSU suspended Mills indefinitely, but reinstated him the first day of fall camp once the charge was reduced to simple battery.
Mills has started all 26 games of his productive LSU career, which is now in jeopardy if Miles chooses to sit him against Wisconsin.
The junior is Chavis' most versatile defensive back. He is a dangerous blitzer when he moves inside on nickel and dime packages.
The Tigers will turn to returnees Corey Thompson, Rickey Jefferson and Ronald Martin to fill the void. Talented freshmen newcomers Jamal Adams and John Battle will see the field as well.
The LSU secondary will only be as good as the team's pass rush. The Tigers' defensive line was below average in that department last season. Danielle Hunter is expected to change that after a spectacular spring, but Hunter will need help from Jermauria Rasco, Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower.
But the first objective for a defensive line is to stop the run.
LSU struggled at times holding the edge at defensive end against power-rushing teams. Rasco, LSU's best end at defending the run, will need help from his teammates.
The Tigers lost both starting defensive tackles in Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, which could be exposed against Wisconsin. LSU's defensive tackles are inexperienced yet talented. Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas, Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain are all capable run-stoppers.
The unit must improve after allowing over 170 yards per game on the ground against conference opponents in 2013, which was good enough for eighth in the SEC.
If not, the Badgers will make the Tigers roadkill in Houston.
LSU's linebackers could eventually be the best position group on the team. LSU returns starters Kwon Alexander and D.J. Welter. Junior Lamar Louis is the likely candidate to fill the void left by leading tackler Lamin Barrow.
Backups Deion Jones, Ronnie Feist, Kendell Beckwith and true freshman Clifton Garrett will all see the field.
The injury bug has been kind to LSU this offseason.
The Tigers have only had one serious reported injury to defensive tackle Quentin Thomas. Dellenger initially reported Thomas would miss the season with torn biceps, but he has already returned to practice.
The Tigers have sat out Fournette and Dupre for some practices during fall camp. The injuries were minor and both have already returned to practice, per David Ching of ESPN.com.
Defensive back Dwayne Thomas' job on LSU's defense is to wreak havoc.
Thomas will serve as a nickel or dime back in Chavis' exotic defensive schemes. The "Mustang" package, which features three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs, is what has made Chavis' dominance at LSU remarkable.
Thomas will play a majority of snaps close to the line of scrimmage. His athleticism allows him to either blitz or drop back in coverage on every play.
This makes quarterbacks' pre-snap reads difficult, which ultimately leads to turnovers.
The brilliance of Thomas was on full display when he tallied the game-clinching strip-sack of Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen last season. His 10 total tackles in 2013 are misleading, as four of them went for loss and two for forced fumbles. Expect Thomas to surpass those numbers in 2014.
The Tigers' opener against Wisconsin will be a tough one. Miles has been dominant in games similar to these while at LSU, with a 4-0 career record against ranked nonconference opponents in season openers.
The defense will have its hands full defending Heisman hopeful running back Melvin Gordon.
LSU's toughest two-week stretch will be in early October with back-to-back road games against Auburn and Florida. The Tigers can only afford to lose one of them if they want to make a run at the SEC Championship.
The biggest home game on LSU's schedule will be against Alabama, which is the only team Miles does not have a winning record against (5-5).
The Crimson Tide are the most talented team in the conference. Both teams will have a bye week to prepare for what has become one of the premier matchups in college football.
Auburn, Florida and Alabama only make up three of LSU's eight SEC games. The Tigers get Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss at home. Their last two games will be road contests against Arkansas and Texas A&M.
LSU will keep the same uniforms as last season. With that said, the LSU Football Equipment Twitter page released the sweet kicks the Tigers will wear this season.
LSU will finish the regular season 10-2 and earn a berth to The Cotton Bowl. The Tigers' only losses will come against Auburn and Alabama.
Miles will miss out on the SEC Championship Game for the third consecutive season, but 10 wins is an impressive feat with the youth LSU will have to work with this season.
The Tigers are one year away from making a trip back to Atlanta. A young nucleus of Fournette, Dupre, Harris, Dural, Quinn and Pocic will return on offense, as will a multitude of talented playmakers on all levels of the defense.
LSU fans must have patience. Tigers fans can probably live with 10 wins and a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2014.
However, the pressure for Miles to win a SEC Championship during the Fournette era will only grow.
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Year one of the Jim Mora era at UCLA brought nine wins and a divisional championship. Year two brought 10 wins. Year three opens Aug. 30 at Virginia with the Bruins ranked No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 and chasing the program's first Pac-12 title since 1998.
Also at stake is a potential berth in the College Football Playoff and shot at the program's first national championship since 1954.
There's plenty of chatter to that end emanating from outside sources, but Mora isn't focusing on it.
"Every day, our goal is to be the best we can be that day and come back the next day," the head coach said in July at Pac-12 media days. "That is the approach you have to take. If you look too far down the line or listen to what's going on outside, you make a mistake."
UCLA's 2014 season is about simultaneously blocking out and meeting high expectations. It's a challenging balancing act but one that will define the Bruins' season.
UCLA made strides in each of Mora's first two seasons at the helm. He and his staff inherited a talented roster, as predecessor Rick Neuheisel recruited well.
Where Mora succeeded was tying that talent together and bringing a hard-nosed approach to the Bruins' play.
"He and I have a lot in common being...guys that want to play smashmouth, tough-guy football," Stanford head coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. "And you've seen that come to fruition down in UCLA."
Coordinators Noel Mazzone and Jeff Ulbrich have been with Mora since the beginning. Mazzone's work with the offense has made UCLA one of the most explosive teams in the Pac-12 while Ulbrich is transitioning into a new role overseeing the defense.
Ulbrich may be new to his position, but he embodied the Bruins' physical attitude in the past seasons as linebackers coach.
"Coach Brick is a beast," linebacker Eric Kendricks said at Pac-12 media days. "His NFL experience and his IQ is wearing off on all of us."
What to Watch For on Offense
All eyes are on UCLA redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley. Entering his third season as the Bruins starter, Hundley has commanded national attention—so much so that he's appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the last month.
Teammates have noticed all the attention paid to Hundley, too.
"Walk[ing] around campus, I'll yell out, 'Heisman candidate,' [or], 'Oh my God, is that Brett Hundley?'" linebacker and running back Myles Jack told me in April.
The spotlight is well-deserved. In his first two years, Hundley's been one of the nation's most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks.
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Hundley passed for 3,740 yards. In his redshirt sophomore campaign, he ran for a team-high 748 yards.
The 2014 season is about putting those two qualities together at their peak levels. If he does that, Hundley will most definitely factor into the Heisman Trophy race.
He's working with a wide receiving corps that Eldridge Massington told me was best in the Pac-12 with "the best receivers coach" in Eric Yarber.
Hundley will have no shortage of options at which to pass to. Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are the team's leading returners, and both are primed for monster seasons.
Devin Lucien suffered a scary injury at fall camp but returned to practice this week—just in time to get a photo taken with actor Denzel Washington.
When at full strength, Lucien will be the Bruins' man on fire in the deep passing attack.
The Bruins can also go to the air effectively via the backfield with running back Paul Perkins. Perkins caught 24 passes a season ago for 296 yards, fifth-most on the team.
UCLA's offensive challenge is two-fold. First is improved protection for Hundley from an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks a season ago.
The second facet is establishing a more consistent run game. Jordon James' injury early into 2013 derailed the Bruins' ground attack, forcing Hundley and Jack into the majority of ball-carrying duties down the stretch.
What to Watch for on Defense
Ulbrich takes over a talented defense from Lou Spanos, who took the linebackers coach position with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Kendricks said the change "hasn't been rocky at all."
Ulbrich spent the last two seasons coaching UCLA's fearsome linebackers corps, which produced first-round NFL draft pick Anthony Barr and breakout star Jack.
The same ferocity he emphasized for his linebackers is an attitude Ulbrich now brings to the entire defense.
The Bruins have toyed with more nickel and dime formations to counter the Pac-12's many spread offenses.
One of the tweaks to look for with Ulbrich taking over is Jack roaming the field with a bit more freedom. The sensational sophomore did some of that in the Bruins' spring game, but he should have even more autonomy in 2014 to both blitz and drop back into pass coverage.
Jack's versatility was on full display a season ago when he stepped up as the Bruins' leading rusher in the final month. He'll continue to play two ways in 2014, albeit in a limited capacity, which will allow him to do what he does best—make plays at linebacker.
The defensive line is among the Pac-12's most talented. Kenny Clark was a breakout performer a season ago, making 14 of his 29 tackles in the Bruins' final four games.
Eddie Vanderdoes played a prominent role in his true freshman campaign but missed much of the offseason with a foot injury. Despite the layoff, Vanderdoes seems to be acclimating to Ulbrich's tweaks well, as he told the Orange County Register's Ryan Kartje.
"The new defense really puts me and us as a front in better positions to make plays," Vanderdoes said. "It's so much better. I love being a [3-technique defensive tackle]. I've always loved being a 3. That's my natural position.
Perhaps the biggest potential impact player along the Bruins defensive front is Owamagbe Odighizuwa. He missed the entire 2013 season due to injury but is coming back in a big way.
Offensive lineman Simon Goines has been snakebit recently. He broke his leg in the regular-season finale of 2013 and this month underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle.
Fortunately for UCLA, it should get Goines back into the lineup early in the season. Other injuries sustained up and down the roster throughout fall camp were also minor.
An element missing from UCLA's offense that made a world of difference the season before was a big receiving target—someone Hundley could rely on each time the Bruins were in the red zone.
In 2012, that was tight end Joseph Fauria. More than a quarter of Fauria's 45 receptions that season went for touchdowns—12, to be exact.
He's taken his red-zone catching, touchdown-celebrating ways to the NFL and the Detroit Lions, but a current Bruin is capable of taking up Fauria's mantle in 2014.
Sophomore Thomas Duarte may or may not be able to match Fauria's dance moves, but Duarte this season could be the reliable red-zone target Fauria was.
To compete for a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth, UCLA must navigate through a treacherous schedule that includes a trip across the country to Virginia, a virtual road game against Texas and cross-divisional conference matchups with each of the North's top three teams: Oregon, Stanford and Washington.
"I think it's going to be a very challenging season for us. We've got a difficult schedule, an exciting schedule," Mora said.
UCLA was one drive shy of repeating as Pac-12 South champions, but Arizona State squashed the Bruins' final effort in a 38-33 final thriller last November in the Rose Bowl.
With the win, the Sun Devils sealed the divisional championship and avenged their two-point loss to UCLA at home the season prior.
Arizona State is UCLA's first game on the Pac-12 docket, and it doesn't get any easier from there. Oregon visits the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11 in a possible preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game—that is, assuming neither one trips up anywhere else on the schedule.
That's certainly a possibility. While the Bruins avoid going to Autzen Stadium, they must travel to Washington on Nov. 8. Husky Stadium is among the most inhospitable locales in the conference.
UCLA then closes out the Pac-12 season in the same way it opens, facing two of the conference's best. On Nov. 22, crosstown rival USC comes to the Rose Bowl looking to snap a two-game losing skid to the Bruins.
Then in the regular-season finale, two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford comes to town for the fourth meeting between these two teams in 24 months. Stanford took each of the previous three engagements.
In each of Mora's first two seasons as head coach, Adidas-sponsored UCLA has donned an alternate uniform with a particular theme. In 2012, it was L.A. Nights. Last year's was nicknamed L.A. Midnight.
In 2014, the Bruins will wear L.A. Steel:
Prediction: 11-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-12
The pressure is on UCLA this season. While the weight of such expectations might cause other teams to falter, the Bruins have the right leadership in place to keep them focused.
"I don't think when you get around our team you hear them talking about the outside expectations or a long-term goal," Mora said. "They talk about the process, the grind, going to work."
The Pac-12 has not had an undefeated champion since 2010, and there's reason for that. The conference is among the nation's deepest, and this year may be its deepest yet. UCLA is unlikely to escape the regular season unscathed.
However, if the Bruins can win their marquee home games and avoid potential traps, they'll return to the Pac-12 Championship Game with one of the nation's best strength-of-schedule rankings and a very real shot at landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
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Brady Hoke heads into his fourth season in Michigan teetering between potential breakthrough success and epic failure.
His team is stocked with talented players—attracting recruits to Ann Arbor hasn’t been a problem. But his staff needs to prove that it can mold that talent into an elite team. Last season’s 7-6 collapse has placed the program under the microscope.
Under examination will be an offense that is being rebuilt to run the ball with an offensive line that struggled mightily last season. The team’s best hope for success will be for its defense to stem the tide until the offense can find its way.
Hoke is 26-13 overall during his tenure at Michigan but 15-11 during the last two seasons. The Wolverines have dropped six out of their last eight games. Hoke and his staff need to produce this season to stop the murmurs of discontent in Ann Arbor.
The slide led to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier being hired with a mandate to fix the team’s running attack.
Nussmeier is working with longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson, who has mentored some of the best running backs in team history. With a stable of talented running backs, this season will be his chance to prove that he can still develop elite talent.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk is under scrutiny after his position group struggled last season. The offensive line was one of team’s weakest position groups despite the presence of two eventual NFL draft picks (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). Funk needs to build a stronger line this season or the team will repeat last year's disappointment.
Hoke also shuffled his defensive staff. Coordinator Greg Mattison has taken over the linebackers, and the backfield duties have been split between Curt Mallory (safeties) and Roy Manning (cornerback). The backfield move was made to give the players more coaching attention to deal with the proliferation of spread offenses.
What to Watch For on Offense
One of the main problems last year was the inconsistency of the offensive line. Nine players rotated through the five offensive line positions, and Hoke has lost two of his most talented linemen to the NFL. Rebuilding the line is the biggest obstacle Michigan faces while trying to roll out its new offense.
The talk out of camp is that last year’s position group struggled with off-the-field distractions and a lack of senior leadership. This year’s group is more unified and hopes to be greatly improved with another year of game experience and weight training under its collective belt.
The key players to watch are center Jack Miller and tackle Mason Cole. Miller was over his head last season but has improved greatly, according to Hoke. Cole is a true freshman who has seized the starting position at left tackle. If either of these players struggle, it will speak volumes to the level of talent on the offensive line and lack of improvement over last season.
Nussmeier has simplified the playbook in an attempt to jump-start the running game.
Derrick Green (20 pounds lighter than last season) and De’Veon Smith have battled for the starting job all spring and throughout fall camp while being pressed by Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes. Transfer Ty Isaac is also waiting on word of his eligibility. The running game could be back in a big way—if the offensive line can open up some holes.
Quarterback Devin Gardner returns for his senior season while learning the third offensive scheme of his career. Gardner showed his toughness last season playing injured versus Ohio State but will need to show restraint in the new offense. Last season he was the offense. This year he’ll need to become more of a game manager, distributing the ball to his running backs and receivers.
Another huge question on offense is who will emerge in the receiving ranks. Wide receiver Devin Funchess will be Gardner’s top target, and freshman Freddy Canteen has also emerged as a starter. But the graduation of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo along with the injury of tight end Jake Butt has depleted the number of experienced receivers available to Gardner.
There’s a huge opportunity for Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson or freshman Maurice Ways to fill the gap.
What to Watch For on Defense
The defense looks to improve after a lack of depth at key positions contributed to Michigan’s 1-4 November collapse last season.
Top linebacker Jake Ryan has been moved to the middle and should benefit, along with fellow linebackers Desmond Morgan and James Ross, from Mattison taking over the position group.
The defensive line is solid with Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer at the ends, and Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry at the tackles. The team needs a solid season from backups Bryan Mone, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton. The defense weakened last season when the line wore down as the season progressed. The ability for the backups to improve and pressure opposing offenses will be vital.
The most interesting position battle on defense will be in the backfield, where Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor are being tested by Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and top recruit Jabrill Peppers for playing time. Peppers will start the season at nickel but will soon challenge the incumbents for time at corner.
At safety Delano Hill and Jarrod Wilson will be pressed by Dymonte Thomas and Jeremy Clark.
Overall the defense is expected to very good and possibly great if Peppers can fulfill his potential and the defensive line can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The loss of Butt at tight end is a serious blow to an offense low on experienced receivers. His rehab is going well and his return is expected by the start of the Big Ten season. Until then A.J. Williams will need to fill in as a receiver and blocker supplementing the offensive line.
Hill broke his jaw during summer drills, but the safety expected back by the start of the season. Don’t be surprised if he returns for the Notre Dame game.
Peppers is one of the most talented, explosive players on Michigan’s roster. Despite being a true freshman, he started fall camp at nickelback and has already begun getting reps at corner. He’s also been working at returning kicks.
Hoke has been tight-lipped about plans to use Peppers on offense, but it’s a tantalizing possibility. He’d be devastating coming out of the backfield.
Expect Peppers to be everywhere by midseason.
Michigan plays all of its key rivalry games on the road—Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Hoke’s track record versus these schools (4-5) coupled with the way his teams have struggled when leaving Ann Arbor (7-11) doesn’t bode well.
There’s a lot riding on Michigan’s second game of the season versus Notre Dame. It’s the last time that these two storied programs are scheduled to meet, and Michigan would like to smack the Irish, who bailed out of future meetings.
The last time Michigan played at Notre Dame Stadium the Wolverine offense fell into a funk that torpedoed the entire season. It was also the beginning of a baffling two-year offensive stretch that would ultimately cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job. A win could exorcise of a lot of demons.
The next key game is versus Michigan State in East Lansing (October 25), where Michigan has been completely dominated on its last two visits.
The Spartans will likely be heavily favored in this game. Hoke may deny that moral victories exist, but if his team can’t win, it needs to show that it can hang with its in-state nemesis. The hammer and nail aren’t rivals—and Michigan has been the nail when playing in East Lansing. Hoke needs to put a stop to it.
If Michigan could somehow sweep these games, the team would be a virtual lock to compete for its first Big Ten Championship under Hoke. If the unthinkable happens and Michigan loses all three, Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor will be in serious jeopardy.
Michigan has announced special uniforms for its night game versus Penn State.
If Michigan can beat Notre Dame it could go 9-3 this season. Unfortunately, two of its three losses will be to Michigan State and Ohio State, sinking any chance of playing in the Big Ten title game.
Most teams would be pleased with 9-3, but losses to two key rivals and no Big Ten title will cause a lot of heartburn in Ann Arbor.
Hoke promised the return of Michigan football when he was hired. He needs deliver on that promise or at the very least show significant progress this season.
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The Oregon Ducks enter the 2014 season with expectations of a Pac-12 title and a trip to the first ever College Football Playoffs. They come into 2014 ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press and No. 4 by USA Today. This should come as no shock considering that the Ducks have Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota and playmakers at every position.
Around the country most pundits expect the Ducks to once again be one of the best offenses in college football. The Ducks finished second in the country in total offense in 2013, averaging 565 yards/game and third in points per game with 45.5. Despite the fact that the Ducks lost wide receiver Josh Huff and running back De’Anthony Thomas, the team should once again be one of the best in the nation with Mariota running the show.
More questions arise on the defensive side of the ball, where the Ducks have to replace six starters from their 2013 campaign. The Ducks have a new defensive coordinator in Don Pellum, who has been with the school for the past 21 seasons. While Oregon will miss former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who was the defensive leader since 1999, the defensive schemes will not change under Pellum. That means you can expect a 3-4 defense that shifts players in and out more similar to a hockey rotation than a football team.
The Ducks have three games this season against opponents who are ranked within the top 11, according to the Associated Press. Fortunately, two of those games will be played at Autzen Stadium (Michigan State and Stanford), while the other will come against seventh-ranked UCLA at the Rose Bowl in mid-October.
The question, as it always is for Oregon, is can it beat Stanford and can it win close games in November. The Ducks have been one of the best teams in the country for the better of the last decade but haven’t gotten to the top of the hill just yet. This season, with four teams competing in the College Football Playoff, may be Oregon’s best opportunity to win a title. Can it finally bring a title back to Autzen? That’s the question everybody in Eugene will be asking this year.
Mark Helfrich enters his second year as head coach of the Ducks. In his first season, Oregon went 11-2, which would have been an excellent first year for any head coach; however, at Oregon it was a bit of a disappointment. The loss to Stanford would have been acceptable if the Ducks had only lost that game and won the Pac-12 title.
However, the loss to Arizona, or the destruction at the hands of the Wildcats if you want to phrase it that way, was the killer for Helfrich and the program. That loss cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl appearance. Some will say that the Ducks would have never lost that game under former head coach Chip Kelly. That’s fair considering the amount of success Kelly had with the Ducks.
While Helfrich is clearly a very competent head coach, there are concerns about his ability to motivate players, especially after a heart-wrenching loss like the one they suffered at Stanford. Year two will speak volumes about Helfrich as a leader and will give us a better idea of how long his tenure at Oregon will last. Chip Kelly delivered a trip to the national title game in his second season as head coach. Can Helfrich do the same? Those are the expectations for Helfrich and the Ducks in 2014.
The Ducks have an incredible tradition of retaining continuity across the coaching staff. When a coach leaves, like Chip Kelly did in 2012 or Nick Aliotti did in 2013, they're always replaced from within the ranks. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum enters his 22nd season with the Ducks, but this will be his first in charge of the entire defense. Don’t expect much to change on that side of the ball. Oregon is going to run a 3-4 defense that focuses on turnovers and creating pressure on the quarterback.
Because the Ducks offense operates at such speed, the Oregon defense usually spends more time on the field than any other program in college football. Pellum is going to use more players on defense than almost any other coach in the country, usually 20 or more during the course of a game.
While the name on the door may be different in Eugene, nothing is going to change schematically. It’s Pellum’s show now, but he’s going to be working within Aliotti’s scheme. It’s worked pretty well for the Ducks over the last decade.
The offense will be run by Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who led the Cornhuskers to a national title in 1997. Frost, entering his fifth season with the Ducks, is in his second year as offensive coordinator. Again, you shouldn’t expect anything different this season from the Ducks offense, just more speed.
The only newcomer to the staff this season is Erik Chinander, who will replace Pellum as the team's outside linebacker coach. Chinander, who was with the Ducks as an intern and graduate assistant from 2010-2012, spent last year as the assistant defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Chinander, 34, will be focusing on the “drop-end” or “hybrid/rover” position the Ducks utilize, which will be manned by redshirt senior Tony Washington.
What to Watch for on Offense
The Ducks offense begins and ends with Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota. Mariota is one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in college football and will likely be a top-five pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In two seasons with the Ducks, Mariota has thrown for 63 touchdowns, run for 14 more and only thrown 10 interceptions along the way.
Mariota is also one of the most accurate QBs in the nation, having completed 65 percent of his throws over the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost told Daniel Uthman of USA Today that he would like to see Mariota to get even better this season in terms of completion percentage.
"I'd like to see him have an absurdly high completion percentage, because that's the kind of passer that he is," said Frost.
The only thing that can slow down Mariota is his health. While he has started every game for the Ducks over the past two seasons, he sprained his MCL against UCLA, which cost him his mobility for the rest of the season. The Ducks offense stalled without Mariota’s ability to scramble and throw on the run.
In the five games after Mariota’s injury, the Ducks produced four of their five worst offensive outputs of the season. If Mariota is going to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national title, then he’s going to have to stay healthy.
While Oregon has produced some solid quarterbacks since the “blur” offense was implemented in 2007, it’s the running backs who have benefited the most from Chip Kelly’s scheme. Since 2007, Oregon has produced running backs such as Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. This year's attack features a two-headed monster that may be the most dynamic in school history.
Oregon will start with Byron Marshall, who is powerful and quick at 5’10” and 205 pounds. In 2013 as the main ball-carrier, Marshall gained 6.2 yards per carry while totaling 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries. Marshall’s “backup” will be sophomore Thomas Tyner, who may be Oregon’s most talented running back.
Last season as a backup to Marshall and Thomas, Tyner also gained 6.2 yards a carry while totaling 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 115 carries. Tyner caught 14 balls out of the backfield while Marshall caught 13. To say they’re both extremely talented, versatile and interchangeable, would be an understatement. Throw in freshman Royce Freeman, who we’ll talk about later, and you may have the best group of running backs in the entire nation.
While we likely know what the Ducks are going to get from their quarterback and running backs, the same cannot be said about their wide receivers. Gone are Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins and Thomas. Second-leading receiver Bralon Addison may be out for the year with an ACL injury, something we’ll discuss in a bit.
That means Oregon is without its top four receivers from the 2013 season. While some teams would suffer dramatically due to the lack of experience, Oregon is uniquely positioned to fill the holes due to the type of athletes it has on the roster.
Mariota will now rely on senior Keanon Lowe, who caught 18 passes last season, to lead the group of young wide receivers. Lowe will likely be Mariota’s main target, and at 5’9”, 186 pounds, he will see a lot of time as a slot receiver. Joining Lowe in the wide receiver corps will be sophomore Dwayne Stanford and freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen.
Stanford, who is 6'5", is the only one with game experience, having caught 11 balls in 2012 as a true freshman before missing all of last season with a knee injury. Allen, 6'0", is likely the fastest player on the Ducks roster.
Allen won the 2014 USA Outdoor Track and Field Men’s 110M hurdles with a time of 13.16 seconds. Allen is so fast that the Oregon coaches probably feared they would lose him to track full time. He’s likely a future Olympian.
Lastly, there’s Carrington, 6'2", who also has track speed but figures to give Mariota a bigger target to find down field. Beyond Stanford, Allen and Carrington, the Ducks will be using sophomore Chance Allen and junior B.J. Kelly.
Mariota will also be depending on tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown, who replace Colt Lyerla. Mundt and Brown aren’t nearly as talented or physically imposing as Lyerla was; however, together they may be more effective for the Ducks offense than Lyerla was. Expect both players to catch between 25-35 passes this season.
Lastly, we cannot mention the Oregon offense without talking about the offensive line. The Ducks were set to return all five starters from last year’s team; however, left tackle Tyler Johnstone re-tore his ACL in fall camp and will miss the entire 2014 season. While Johnstone’s loss will be felt across the line, his replacement, Andre Yruretagoyena, has been practicing with the first-team offense since spring camp. He’s more than ready to fill the role.
The rest of the projected starters are left guard Hamani Stevens (6’3”, 307 pounds), center Hroniss Grasu (6’3”, 297 pounds), right guard Cameron Hunt (6’4”, 285 pounds), and right tackle Jake Fisher (6’6”, 299 pounds). Grasu is the unquestioned leader of this group and is the most vocal leader, along with Mariota, that the Ducks offense has.
Overall, the Ducks have the potential, the playmakers and the quarterback to once again be the best offense in all of college football. If the wide receivers live up to their potential, and Mariota is healthy all season, the Ducks will score over 45 points per game and average more than 550 yards per game.
What to Watch for on Defense
Oregon’s defense will be spending a lot of time on the field this season, as it does every season. In fact, in 2013 the Ducks defense spent 447.8 minutes on the field, more than any other team in college football. You can expect more of the same this year as the Ducks offense continues to push the tempo even further.
Due to the offense’s propensity to score quickly (and often), Oregon’s defense faces unique challenges that other defenses around the country don’t have to deal with. This is why the defense, under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, will continue to rotate players in and out of the lineup about as often as a hockey team shifts lines.
Under former coordinator Nick Aliotti, the Ducks defense routinely used as many as 20 players per game, if not more. The Ducks will not change that rotation schedule under Pellum, nor will they change from the 3-4 scheme that has worked relatively well for them in recent years.
While Oregon ranked a respectable 33rd in total yards allowed in 2013, the defense is actually much better than that when you account for how many more plays Oregon had to face than a normal college defense. In terms of yards per play, Oregon’s defense ranked seventh in college football by only allowing 4.6 yards/play.
The downside for the Ducks defense is that it only returns five starters from a year ago. The good news is that because of the rotation schedule Oregon employs defensively, the backups from last year have a significant amount of playing time already under their belts and should be ready to take over more full-time roles.
Oregon’s best defensive player is cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who likely would have been a first-round pick if he had left school and entered the 2014 draft. Ekpre-Olomu isn’t necessarily a “lock-down” corner, but he is a physical player who is solid against the pass and will come up and make tackles against the run. He will need to be the leader in the secondary this season due to the fact that the rest of the defensive backs will feature new starters.
The new starters in the secondary will be senior cornerback Dior Mathis, senior free safety Erick Dargan, while sophomore Reggie Daniels or redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson will man strong safety.
The Ducks strength comes up front where they feature one of the longest and most athletic defensive lines in the Pac-12. 6’8” defensive tackle Arik Armstead and 6’7” defensive end DeForest Buckner are agile, long and will be able to put pressure on every quarterback in the Pac-12 this season.
Throw in 6’4” defensive tackle Alex Balducci and rover/hybrid linebacker Tony Washington rushing the edge, and you have a group that should be able to take over games and impose their will on inferior offensive lines.
Lastly, the Ducks will run Washington alongside Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone and newcomer Tyson Coleman. Washington, Hardrick and Malone combined for 230 tackles last season and should form one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Pac-12.
Overall, the Ducks have a strong defense, but it has room form improvement. While there are six starters from last season to replace, the players coming in are more than qualified to fill the holes adequately. The Ducks should once again finish within the top 10 in the country in terms of yards-per-play allowed.
The only concern for the Ducks should be getting beat over the top against Pac-12 offenses, where nine of the other 11 teams in the conference feature returning starters at quarterback. If the defensive line does live up to its potential, then the inexperience in the secondary shouldn't be an issue.
The good news for the Ducks is that there have only been two causalities so far during spring and fall practices. The bad news is that the two injuries were catastrophic, and they happened to two of Oregon’s best and most reliable players.
The Ducks lost wide receiver Bralon Addison during the spring to an ACL tear. Addison, a junior, caught 61 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He figured to be Mariota’s favorite target this season.
While most expect Addison to miss a large portion of the season, at the least, Mariota isn’t so sure about that. According to an NFL.com report by Bryan Fischer, Mariota says that Addison is targeting the Michigan State game for a return to the lineup.
"He looks good," Mariota told Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. "I'm excited. Hopefully he gets ready for that second game."
For the record, a September 6 comeback for Addison would mean a five-month recovery from an ACL tear. Comparatively, Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back, took nine months to recover from a similar knee injury, which is considered the fastest comeback in professional sports history from an ACL tear.
The other big loss for the Ducks was that of left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who had started that past 26 games for the Ducks at that position. Johnstone re-tore the ACL in his right knee, an injury he originally suffered in the Alamo Bowl against Texas in December. Johnstone was a mainstay along Oregon’s offensive line, a line that was set to return all five starters from the 2013 squad.
In to replace Johnstone is Yruretagoyena, the 6'5" and 290-pound redshirt junior who has made 11 career appearances for Oregon. Yruretagoyena won’t be completely unfamiliar to the rest of the Ducks offense, as he has taken first-team reps during the spring and summer as Johnstone’s replacement.
While both injuries are certainly blows to Oregon’s offense, they won’t define how the offense operates or how successful it can be. Oregon has plenty of speedy and talented wide receivers ready to fill the hole left by Addison, and Yruretagoyena has the experience and the size necessary to fill Johnstone’s spot along the line.
As they say in Eugene it’s “next man up”.
The clear X-factor for the Ducks this season will be freshman running back Royce Freeman. Freeman, who rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior at Imperial High School (Calif.), figures to find himself playing on special teams this season; however, it would not be a surprise to see him play some running back this year, especially if Tyner or Marshall goes down due to injury.
The reason he’s going to be an X-factor for the Ducks this season is because no one really knows that much about him, other than he’s been an absolute stud in fall camp so far. The Ducks coaches, specifically running backs coach Gary Campbell, who has been with the Ducks for 31 years, have been raving about Freeman’s abilities all over the field, according to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian.
Campbell thinks so highly of Freeman that he told Alger that Freeman is already where Thomas Tyner was at the end of the 2013 season.
He's at the point where Tyner was at the end of last year. He's fast. He's big and he's tough. A lot of times you get guys like him that come in and have great success in high school and they haven't really had to work at it and when they get into tough competition at the college level they shy away from it. He steps right up.
That’s extremely high praise from a coach who has seen Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas come through the program in recent years.
There’s no telling how much playing time Freeman is going to get this season, especially when he’s working behind Tyner and Marshall. However, Oregon usually figures out a way to get speed and talent onto the field, regardless of experience.
It would seem that Freeman will fill a role similar to De’Anthony Thomas’ during his freshman year in 2011. Look for Freeman to find a place as a returner, slot receiver and running back at different times during the course of the 2014 season.
The Ducks first big game of the season will come against Michigan State on September 6 in Eugene. However, that’s not a make-or-break game for them. If Oregon loses to Michigan State and sweeps the Pac-12, that would make them 12-1 on the season and undefeated in Pac-12 play. That would likely be good enough to get into the College Football Playoff. While it’s a big game, it won’t make or break the Ducks 2014 campaign. Games against UCLA and Stanford will.
Oct. 11 at UCLA
The Ducks have won the last five games against the Bruins and have done it with ease. Last year in Eugene, UCLA played Oregon tight for the first half, 14-14, but the Ducks exploded in the second half to win 42-14. Don’t anticipate another blowout.
UCLA has two of the best players in the country in quarterback Brett Hundley and running back/linebacker Myles Jack. Jim Mora, UCLA’s head coach, is one of the best in the business as well. The Rose Bowl, during UCLA games, isn’t the most hostile territory, and the house will likely be filled with a sea of green, yellow, black, silver, white and whatever other color the Ducks decide to wear on October 11.
While the Ducks should have confidence in their ability to beat UCLA, they should not take this game lightly. UCLA is talented all over the board and comes into the season preseason ranked seventh in the country. The Ducks and Bruins could potentially meet three times this season (October 11, Pac-12 Title Game, College Football Playoffs). The Ducks need to make a statement in Pasadena. That statement should be that they’re still the class of the conference and that they’re here to win a championship in 2014.
Nov. 1 vs Stanford
This is the big one. Stanford has been Oregon’s kryptonite over the past two seasons. In 2012 and 2013 Stanford derailed Oregon’s chances of making it to the national title game. If Oregon would have taken down Stanford in Eugene in 2012 it would have gone undefeated and played Notre Dame in the BCS title game in Miami. That was probably Oregon’s best shot at a title, outside of 2010.
Last year the Ducks dug themselves a 26-0 hole before miraculously climbing out of it to make it a game late in the fourth quarter. However, they couldn’t muster enough to take down the Cardinal. Once again, Stanford had taken down the beast and kept it from a shot at the title.
In 2011 it was the Ducks who spoiled Stanford’s shot at the BCS title, taking down an undefeated Cardinal team in Palo Alto by the score of 53-30. Stanford and Oregon are single-handedly responsible to derailing each other’s national championship aspirations. Will 2014 be any different? Will either Stanford or Oregon finally get over the hump?
If Oregon has any shot at reaching the College Football Playoff, it's going to have to beat Stanford on November 1 in Eugene. There’s no way around it. If you were to look up the definition of “Make or Break Game” in a dictionary, it would simply say “Stanford vs. Oregon."
Can you expect new uniforms from the Oregon Ducks this season? That’s like asking Bill Gates if he has a lot of money. Of course you can expect new uniforms from the Ducks. In fact, you can expect new uniforms for every single game Oregon plays in this season.
We got a sniff of what the Ducks have planned attire-wise this season in the Alamo Bowl. The new design featured an updated shoulder “wing” pattern that the Ducks have utilized since 2010. The Ducks will continue wearing their winged helmets, which are mesmerizing.
Expect to see new variations every week. As always, the Ducks will awe us every week with their outfits.
The Ducks have all the ingredients a team needs in order to compete for a national championship. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, a great coaching staff, playmakers at all of the key positions and a good enough defense to keep them in games in which the offense stalls a bit. Of course, you could have said the same thing about the Ducks for each of the past four seasons.
The real key for the Ducks this season will be winning close games, something they’ve struggled with for the past couple of seasons. If Oregon can squeak out victories when it's not destroying opponents, then this team should win the Pac-12 North, the Pac-12 title and should be in the College Football Playoff come January.
So, you want a prediction? Oregon will go 12-1 this season, 8-1 in the Pac-12 conference and win the Pac-12 title game. For their efforts, they will be rewarded with a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff as the third seed.
Here’s another prediction: Marcus Mariota will win the Heisman Trophy, which would be a first for the University of Oregon. Hroniss Grasu will also win the Rimington Award as the top center in College Football.
As for how they’ll fair in the College Football Playoff, we’ll have to wait and see.
Follow Jason Gold on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
With a week until the season opener versus Virginia, Jim Mora and the Bruins returned to Westwood this past week in order to put the final touches on their fall camp.
This week was a quiet one from a media perspective. Access to practice wasn't nearly as open as it was in San Bernardino. It makes sense considering the period of preparation for Virginia has begun.
This piece will take a look at the injury situation for the Bruins. It will also address roster musings, as well as other miscellaneous items.
As reported by Ryan Kartje of TheOrange County Register, Mora expects all three of the incoming defensive linemen (Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner) to play. This decision could have been made partly due to the unexpected transfer of Kylie Fitts.
Assistant coach Mike Tuiasosopo has been complementary of Tuioti-Mariner's development as a player. Tuiasosopo commented on how Tuioti-Mariner "is very coachable, listens and tries to do everything right. He's doing some nice things, has gotten better every day and is a guy we're counting on."
Mora also praised Dickerson, calling him "a specimen."
It appears as if Kenny Young will likely start at middle linebacker next to Eric Kendricks.
As Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times reports, Young is making a huge impact early in his career.
Guard NaJee Toran also looks primed for time this year. He has been running with the first team at times during camp in San Bernardino.
In my opinion, the other true freshmen slated to potentially play this year in addition to the aforementioned five include Jaleel Wadood, Jordan Lasley, Zach Whitley, Alex Van Dyke and Adarius Pickett.
Health of the Football Team
UCLA did suffer various bumps and bruises throughout fall camp. The offensive line in particular dealt with various ailments: heat exhaustion, muscle pulls, concussions and also ligament sprains.
In Mora's most recent press conference, the head man said he "hasn't been concerned with the health [of the team] since day one. Any dings we had were minor. We're coming out of camp in great health and did work the past couple weeks."
The most serious injuries were suffered by reserve wide receiver Sam Handler and freshman linebacker Cameron Griffin. Both are expected to be out for the foreseeable future.
The team voted on captains for this upcoming season, according to Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News:
Mora also spoke about the trip across the country to Virginia and what potential challenges it could pose for his team. The team practices at 8:00 a.m., which would be an hour before the kickoff time in Charlottesville.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone commented on the potential concerns over the offensive line.
They've hit that time that where now, starting [Wednesday], we worked on getting their legs back. We're getting guys back [from injury] and that's been good for depth. I feel good about the depth, and [the unit] is starting to gel.
It will be fascinating as to whom starts on the offensive line next Saturday. Starting center Jake Brendel has been battling an MCL injury, and projected starter Caleb Benenoch might not be fully healthy, either (per comments by Benenoch in a press conference posted by Wang).
According to Mora on Tuesday, "Jake [Brendel] is going to be ready [for Virginia].
Assuming Brendel can go, Alex Redmond will move back to his natural position at guard. If Benenoch isn't quite mobile enough to play at right tackle, one could envision a scenario in which he starts at right guard. The right tackle spot would be a battle between a number of guys, including Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala.
A big concern going forward is solidifying the group. UCLA has a week to do so.
Lastly, a very special guest spoke to UCLA at practice this week. I wonder if he perhaps retold a speech he gave during his time as a high school football coach?
Unless otherwise noted, all comments from coaches and players were obtained via press conferences posted on the Bruin Sports Report channel on YouTube.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
It's a good time to be a Gamecock…but it could be so much better.
Coming off a third consecutive 11-win season, South Carolina enters 2014 ranked No. 9 in both of the major preseason polls and even received a first-place vote from one of the coaches.
It's not hard to feel unfulfilled, however, considering what these past few seasons have reaped. How often does a team win 33 games in three years but not claim a single division title? How often does it do that when it's beaten the division champion all three years?
This season marks the exit of quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, two players who will surely be remembered among the best handful in program history. Also gone are valuable contributors such as Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton.
There are plenty of players to replace.
But South Carolina would not rank as a consensus top-10 team—not to mention the conference media's favorite to win the SEC East—if it didn't have the pieces in place to overcome those losses.
Will this be the year that it finally breaks through?
Coaching stability is something that everybody understands the importance of—on principle—but still tends to underrate. It's almost as valuable to return a whole staff intact as it is to return a whole position group, but the latter is inevitably more talked-about.
South Carolina is about as stable as it gets on the sideline, starting, of course, with the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Having his son, Steve Jr., return beside him for a 10th season is the icing on the cake, especially considering how good last year's offense was.
Lorenzo Ward remains one of the hottest names in the realm of assistant coaching and should get a head coaching job soon enough. South Carolina fans cannot expect him to hang around forever, but they can live in the moment and reap the reward of his sixth season.
Outside of the coordinators, things look just as promising. Especially on the recruiting trail—where Deke Adams (9), G.A. Mangus (16) and Everette Sands (18) all rank in the top 20 of 247Sports' 2015 recruiter rankings—this is one of the deepest staffs in America.
That bodes well with the climate of the other top teams in the conference. Alabama is breaking in a new offensive coordinator (and a controversial one at that). Ditto for Florida (minus the controversial part). Georgia is doing the same thing on defense. LSU and Auburn are still in just their second year of new offensive systems.
South Carolina is the only top-six contender in the SEC whose staff has held firm for more than a couple of seasons.
That is something to feel pretty darn good about.
What to Watch for on Offense
*see: injury news
**also working at tight end
It's rare for an offense to lose its long-time starting quarterback (Shaw), its leading receiver (Bruce Ellington) and a two-year starter at right guard (Ronald Patrick) but return the following year with so much confidence and so few question areas.
Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has seen a ton of game action at quarterback the past two seasons. Even though he looked shaky in the first three quarters at Missouri last year, he inspires confidence from coaches, teammates and fans alike.
Mike Davis is an All-SEC-type running back (if not more), and the offensive line—led by arguably the best guard in the country in A.J. Cann—rated as my No. 25 overall position group in college football.
In Shaq Roland, Pharoh Cooper, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd, the Gamecocks also have a group of receivers with a fairly low basement (how bad could those four possibly be?) and a very high ceiling.
Roland in particular might be poised for a big season, but even the untapped potential of Byrd is worth feeling good about.
In short, the offense should be, well, more of the same. It should honestly be even better. Losing Shaw, Ellington and Patrick hurts, but compared with other programs, that attrition is minimal. And South Carolina was stocked well at each of their positions.
Last year's offense finished No. 5 in the country on the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, trailing only Texas A&M, Ohio State, Florida State and Baylor. Other teams might post bigger raw numbers, but those are inflated by tempo and an excess of plays. South Carolina's offense is efficient, which helps on both sides of the ball.
A lot depends on Thompson, but another top-five finish is in play.
What to Watch for on Defense
*see: injury news
**first-team BOB in 3-4 defense (see below)
The biggest thing to watch for on South Carolina's defense is difficult to impart on a depth chart: a switch to a 3-4 alignment.
This will not be South Carolina's base set, but it will be something the team implements. How often it implements the 3-4 will depend on the opponent, the situation and, obviously, how well it works.
The move plays to the strength of South Carolina's defense: the linebackers. Having lost three of four starters on the defensive line and in the secondary, the Gamecocks must get as many linebackers on the field as possible and put them in favorable situations.
"When you don’t have a big-name pass rusher that’s proven himself, and your most experience coming back is at the linebacker spot," Ward told Ron Morris of The State, "you’ve got to make sure you’ve got your players on the field in the right position."
Freshman linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams—the highest-rated player in the incoming class—is listed with an asterisk because, although he's not a rotation player in the base 4-2-5 formation, linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said he holds the edge to start over Larenz Bryant and Cedrick Cooper at the BOB position in the 3-4 alignment, per David Cloninger of GoGamecocks.com (subscription required).
That could be a lot of fun to watch.
In either formation, though, the play of the linemen and defensive backs will ultimately decide the strength of the unit.
J.T. Surratt is a proven commodity at defensive tackle, but he's surrounded by largely unproven players.
Guys like Darius English and the two Gerald Dixons have gotten solid reviews this offseason, but the offseason is, inherently, a time for coaching optimism. It's not often that young players get scathing reviews. We have to see it in a game before believing it.
The secondary poses even bigger questions than the line. Especially now that converted running back Jamari Smith, who at the very least would have been part of the cornerback rotation, is out for the year with a foot injury, the depth chart is loaded with freshmen.
Starting safety Brison Williams made the move to cornerback this fall and will likely man one spot. Opposite him, the lowest-ranked of South Carolina's four incoming freshman cornerbacks, Al Harris Jr., has been the most impressive young defensive back in camp. Expect him to win the other starting job.
But that doesn't mean other true freshmen such as Chris Lammons and Wesley Green will be buried in the background. They won't be. All of those youngsters will be forced into action, as will second-year players Rico McWilliams and Ali Groves.
From the scheme to the personnel, this unit has far more questions than it did last year. Can it be equally successful? Sure. But should South Carolina fans bank on it? Probably not. Especially in early games against Texas A&M and Georgia, the offense will need to score, and score a lot. The growing pains will be real.
By the end of the season, though, this group could be playing quite well. With so much youth on the roster, 2015 could be even better.
The biggest and most recent injury scare of South Carolina's preseason was cleared up with a tweet Thursday afternoon.
Davis had missed a good portion of camp with a ribs injury, and with rumors swirling that he might sit out the Week 1 game against Texas A&M, the running back took it upon himself to inform us otherwise:
Probably the most confusing injury on the depth chart right now is that of Mike Matulis, the former Freshman All-American who had recovered from injuries to both of his shoulders and forced his way back into the starting lineup at right guard.
Matulis is suffering from a knee sprain that at first made it seem like his season (and perhaps career) would be over. Instead, as reported by Matt Connelly of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal he is expected (or at least hoped) to be available around midseason.
In his stead, look for Will Sport to slide into the starting lineup.
Smith's injury—as discussed earlier and in the following section—thins the ranks at cornerback and makes the young secondary pieces more vital. Donell Stanley is having wrist surgery that won't keep him sidelined all season but will probably result in a redshirt nonetheless (he is, after all, a third-stringer), and Devin Washington, who redshirted last year with a concussion, now has a hamstring problem, although it is unclear at the time how severe that injury is.
X-Factor(s): The Freshman Cornerbacks
In 2013, the SEC had a breakout group of true freshman cornerbacks.
Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida and Tre'Davious White at LSU played at an All-SEC level, and others such as Cameron Sutton at Tennessee and Shaq Wiggins at Georgia were quality, reliable starters.
South Carolina desperately needs for that be a rule and not an exception. It signed four cornerbacks in the 2014 class, three of whom (Green, Lammons and D.J. Smith) ranked in the top 20 at the position and one of whom (Harris Jr.) is projected to start in Week 1.
It's a bit of a copout to name more than one player in the X-factor section, but the truth is that South Carolina doesn't care which freshman cornerbacks emerge as viable players; it only cares that at least one or two of them do.
Harris Jr. has been one of the stars of fall camp and is the name to watch right now, and his NFL bloodlines—his father, Al Sr., was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2008—provide an odd feeling of comfort (specious as it may be). But Green, Lammons and Smith were all ranked higher than Harris as recruits for a reason, and they will be counted on to play early and often and justify their pedigrees.
The SEC will not be the pass-happy juggernaut it was last season, but there are enough good quarterbacks and receivers to punish South Carolina for trotting out a below-average secondary.
These freshmen are its only chance of not doing that.
The first three games of the season are huge. Massive. South Carolina almost has to start 3-0 to stand a realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff. Even at 2-1, the waters begin to get rough.
Georgia is the most pivotal game of that triad, the winner getting a leg up on the other presumptive favorite in the East. Forfeiting the tiebreaker on its home field is not something this team can afford to do, especially in early September.
But beating Texas A&M to start the season is almost as important—especially if you subscribe to the theory of the Aggies taking a big step back this season. Their schedule is littered with difficult games in the SEC West, and suffering a home loss to a team that finishes, say, 8-4, would be crippling to South Carolina's resume.
Needless to say, so would losing to East Carolina from the AAC. But the Pirates are talented and scrappy and will put up a good fight.
If the Gamecocks do begin 3-0, however, things start to get easier. A 2-1 split against Missouri, Auburn and Florida would probably get them into the SEC Championship Game. And even if they lose at Clemson in the last week of the regular season, it's hard to imagine the winner of the country's top conference not making the CFP.
Even with two losses, they would be one win away.
Oddly enough, my prediction corresponds with the scenario drawn out in the make-or-break section.
I think South Carolina can hang 40-plus points on Texas A&M in Week 1. I think it will come out ready to play against East Carolina in Week 2. I think a big game from Thompson (and Williams-Brice Stadium) propels it to a close win over Georgia in Week 3.
It will lose its only SEC game at Auburn—a team whose offensive line might expose the thin defensive front—and eke out a hard-fought win at Florida to clinch the division November 15.
However—and I know this will be a wildly unpopular opinion—I think that is where the season hits its apex. Clemson's defense is not to be trifled with, and with just as much potentially at stake, I think this is the year it finally gets the Gamecocks on its home-field, snapping a five-game losing streak in the rivalry.
Add to that a loss against my predicted national champion, Alabama, in the SEC title game and a win in whatever bowl they make, and you have yourself another 11-win season. But at least they would have gotten over one hurdle by winning the SEC East.
Perhaps next year is the one when they clear that other pesky hurdle and win more than 11 games. Thompson will be gone, but all of the young talent on the current depth chart (especially on defense) will be one year older and poised for a monster season.
That feels like it's more likely their year.
Overall Record: 11-3
SEC Record: 7-1
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Michigan State went from 7-6 Big Ten also-ran to 13-1 Big Ten champion last season, which on the surface made it seem like one of the most improved teams in the country.
But it wasn't.
Yes, MSU was one of the best teams in the country, but it didn't have to improve too much to get there. It was never really all that bad. The 7-6 season in 2012 was hampered by bad luck in one-score games, but according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, Mark Dantonio's team was still one of the 15 best in college football.
All of which is to say, well, that you shouldn't write this team off as a fluke. Last year required some magic, but in many ways it was the culmination of a seven-year building project, not some arbitrary blip on a radar. Care to guess how many teams have won 11 or more games at least three times since 2010? The answer is five.
South Carolina, Oregon, Stanford, Alabama…and Michigan State.
Dantonio has done a heck of a job turning "little brother" into a full-grown man, and this year's team, which debuted in the Top 10 of both major preseason polls, has a chance to be his best. But there isn't that much further to climb. This team either contends to make and win the College Football Playoff, or it takes a step back.
Which one do we think it will be?
Pat Narduzzi could have been gone by now. He could have been a head coach elsewhere, most notably Connecticut, but he turned down the job. According to Dantonio, that wasn't the only one.
Instead, the eighth-year defensive coordinator and reigning Broyles Award winner (nation's top assistant coach) was rewarded internally with a massive raise. With a new annual salary of $904,583, he becomes one of the highest-paid assistants in the country.
And it's impossible to say he hasn't earned it.
Narduzzi's return is a big reason folks remain so keen on this year's defense despite some important personnel losses. As long as he and Dantonio are running the show, there is only so far it can fall.
But credit should also be given on the other side of the ball, where what started as an anemic offense eventually found its stride in the second half of the season. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was a…um…let's say controversial hire last offseason, and the japes at his expense got louder when Michigan State's offense was getting outscored by its defense in the first few games of the year.
By the end of the season, Bollman had had the last laugh.
No one is going to confuse this offense for Auburn's nor Bollman and Dave Warner for Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, but the way MSU's coordinators and position coaches—chief among them Mark Staten and Brad Salem—cobbled together a viable unit was impressive. With plenty of pieces returning, it should improve again in 2014.
The positional ranks of the coaching staff are loaded with veterans of the industry, many of whom accomplished great things at the non-FBS level under current FBS head coaches. Defensive line coach Ron Burton, for example, won a Division II national title under Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State in 2002 (before spending the next decade at Air Force), and receivers coach Terrence Samuel spent a few years under Craig Bohl at North Dakota State.
Jim Tressel's nephew, Mike Tressel, followed Dantonio from Ohio State to Cincinnati to Michigan State and does a fine job with the linebackers and special teams (two strengths of last year's team).
What to Watch for on Offense
*See: injury news
**Recently moved to defensive tackle
Andrew Maxwell took the first snap of the season for Michigan State last year. Riley Bullough was one of his featured running backs, and Aaron Burbridge was one of his most important receivers.
Man, what a difference a year makes.
Connor Cook relieved Maxwell of his duties after just a few games, and even though it wasn't all sunshine from the beginning—lest we forget Cook's own benching on the final drive in the loss at Notre Dame—it eventually worked out better than anyone could have expected.
Michigan State would have been happy finding a half-decent game manager, but instead it found a quarterback capable of winning the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl (and playing his best on those two biggest stages). It would have done fine with just a serviceable-but-forgettable college player, but instead it found a potential top-10 NFL draft pick, according to Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com.
This year, along with 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford, Cook returns to an offense that should be even better from start to finish than it was in the last two games of 2013.
Especially at receiver, where every impactful player besides Bennie Fowler returns and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett finally looks ready to make a difference, the ceiling on this unit is markedly higher than before.
The one thing that might be able to derail that is the offensive line.
The first string as currently listed should be one of the better groups in the Big Ten, but depth behind that is a serious concern.
It got even more serious recently, too, after the team announced an undisclosed injury to right guard Connor Kruse (more on that below). In his absence, right tackle Donavan Clark will slide inside to guard—where he has experience playing—and sophomore Kodi Kieler will take his spot at tackle, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com.
The Spartans should be able to survive that blow, for now, but losing Kieler from the second team makes true freshman Brian Allen the most reliable backup lineman on the offense. It's never good when a true freshman is the most reliable backup lineman on your offense.
With Kruse already down, this line cannot afford a single added injury.
What to Watch for on Defense
*See: injury news
Michigan State lost two of the most important defenders in program history from one of the most important defenses in program history: cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.
How the Spartans replace those two has been a subject of much debate this offseason, although it looks like their actual spots will be occupied by 2013 starters. Trae Waynes is moving over from field corner to boundary corner, and Taiwan Jones is sliding in from "Star" linebacker to the "Mike."
Even though two-thirds of the second and third strings are made up of freshmen, Michigan State's linebacking depth is actually in good shape. The third sibling of the Bullough clan, Byron, isn't listed above, but he gives MSU a 10th linebacker to feel good about.
New "Sam" linebacker Ed Davis, who takes over for Denicos Allen after showing well in limited time last season, might be the breakout star of the group.
Secondary depth, however, is a bit of a bigger concern. The top three safeties (Kurtis Drummond, RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox) all played well last year and can be relied upon, and Waynes is a legitimate All-America candidate. But the battle for the second cornerback spot between Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson lasted a little too long and seemed a little too close for comfort.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press, Dantonio finally named Hicks the starter Thursday afternoon, but no player stepped up and grabbed the role the same way Waynes did last season. (We will touch on this a little bit more below.)
As far as the defensive line is concerned, there's an interesting contrast that might make the depth chart above sort of misleading.
In essence, the defensive end position has an obvious top three (Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush and Demetrius Cooper) that might be the three best linemen on the team. Behind them, though, the best options to play at defensive end are actually a couple of end-tackle hybrids: Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell.
An injury to starter Damon Knox has thrown a wrench into the defensive tackle rotation, likely pushing Thomas into the starting role. Coaches have played coy with Knox's injury, so we don't know what it is or how long he'll be out (more on this below).
The top three in the middle do not look as good as the top three at end, but the tackles have a little more depth. Impressive freshmen such as Craig Evans and David Beedle didn't even crack the third string listed above, but if something were to happen to Calhoun or Rush (knock on wood), chances are McDowell or Thomas would start seeing more snaps on the edge because there are more viable bodies inside.
(In fact, the defensive tackle rotation was so deep that projected contributor Brandon Clemons was moved to offensive guard in the wake of Kruse's injury to provide depth at a thinner position.)
Overall, the defensive line should be the strength of the defense—and, by extension, this team. Calhoun and Rush are the obvious stars, but Cooper, Thomas and McDowell are the names to watch.
Cooper was the breakout performer of spring practice, emerging in much the same way Calhoun did last offseason; Thomas is a junior and onetime blue-chip recruit who finally seems ready to reach his potential; and McDowell is the incoming 5-star recruit regarded as one of the biggest signings in program history.
How that trio performs will be the difference between a very good line and a great one. It could also be the difference between finishing near or at the top of the Big Ten standings.
For the most part, Michigan State has been blessed with injury luck during fall camp. It has only added two names on the report.
Unfortunately, those two names were both supposed to be starters—and new starters at that. They were supposed to be replacing Micajah Reynolds (Knox) and Dan France (Kruse), and their absence forces MSU to pull back even deeper into its depth chart.
Unfortunately, the coaches have played coy on both players' injuries, which makes it impossible to properly analyze them.
"Damon Knox has got some surgery right now, so he'll be out for a little bit of time," Dantonio said in the vaguest terms he could think of, per Griffith. On Kruse he said: "We don't talk about injuries if they aren't season-ending, and it's not season-ending."
Hopefully, MSU can get both guys back in the fold and improve its interior line play. Reading the tea leaves on Dantonio's comments, it feels like Kruse has a better shot of returning than Knox, if only because no surgery has been confirmed.
That would be big, because, as mentioned above, defensive tackle depth is far superior to offensive line depth.
Part of that scarcity along the offensive line has to do with Zach Higgins' torn ACL, which was suffered in April and will likely keep him out for the season. He would have provided a valuable extra body up front but wasn't competing for a starting job.
X-Factor: CB Darian Hicks
In Narduzzi's defense, the second cornerback is just as important as the first. He doesn't get the same type of credit or even half of the fanfare, but teammates and coaches understand how vital he is.
Two years ago, that second cornerback was Dennard, who combined with Johnny Adams to make MSU's press-man schemes work. Last year, that second cornerback was Waynes, who combined with Dennard to make MSU's press-man scheme work.
This year, that second cornerback will be Hicks, and if he doesn't combine well with Waynes, MSU's press-man schemes will not work.
Is Hicks good enough to do it? Definitely. Will he get there as soon as this season? Your guess is as good as mine. Based on how he played in limited reps last season, he should be OK. But stepping into a starter's role for a unit called the "No Fly Zone" comes with pressure, and pressure affects different people in different ways.
To Hicks' credit, Tom Dienhart of Big Ten Network called him a potential breakout player, saying he's "a perfect fit…because he's a top athlete with the cover skills to make MSU's aggressive scheme work."
Despite standing only 5'10", the physical tools are there for Hicks to have a big season. So is a coaching staff renowned for molding players just like him into stars. The only things standing in his way are inexperience and the pressure of expectations.
On that second front, let's hope he doesn't stumble across this article. Because as far as I can tell, the way he performs will be the key to this Michigan State pass defense.
All things considered, the schedule shapes up pretty well.
Obviously, the game that sticks out off the top is a Week 2 road game at Oregon, but no matter what happens in Eugene, I wouldn't call that situation "make or break." No one knows for sure how the CFP selection committee will work, but I find it hard to believe that a 12-1 Big Ten Champion whose only loss came in a true road game at Oregon would be omitted from the field of four.
Truly, the make-or-break game comes against Ohio State. Even without Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes have the talent to beat anyone in the conference—Michigan State included—and new quarterback JT Barrett should have his feet wet by November 8.
Especially if Michigan State's offensive line is not holding up, a date with Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and the rest of OSU's defensive line could end in disaster.
Beyond that, a couple of tricky road games stick out as ones Michigan State could lose (but should probably win).
Maryland is one of the biggest question marks in the country, because there is no way to evaluate a team that can't stay healthy, and Penn State, despite NCAA sanction-related depth problems, has a first string capable of beating Sparty in Beaver Stadium.
Last year, PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg went off in his regular-season finale, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in an upset win at Wisconsin that ended the Badgers' BCS dreams.
A loss would do the same to the Spartans' with the CFP.
Michigan State is shedding the green shoulder yoke from its white road uniforms, which produces (in my opinion) a much cleaner look.
Check it out for yourself:
Like it? Hate it? Totally ambivalent toward it?
Sound off in the comments.
In 2013, Michigan State played its two best games in its last two games of the year. They were also its only two on a neutral field.
In perhaps their toughest road environment of the season, the Spartans slogged to an ugly, one-score loss at Notre Dame. Yes, that game was contentious/riddled with dubious pass-interference calls, and sure, this team has come a long way since then, but it feels remiss to not at least mention that before heading into Oregon.
I don't think this team has the wherewithal to win in Autzen Stadium. At least not by Week 2, it doesn't. That is an unfortunate reality of the schedule, but the fortunate part is that it may not matter in the end.
There's a lot of time to atone for that loss.
And atone is what I expect this team to do, winning the rest of its regular-season games and getting better as the young new starters get used to consistent playing time. The loss of Miller at Ohio State takes at least a little bit of intrigue out of the Big Ten East race, especially since Michigan State gets OSU off a bye and at home.
At 12-1 with an 11-game winning streak and a loss to an ostensible Top 10 team on their resume, the Spartans will have an intriguing case to make the CFP. A lot depends on parity in the other conferences, but I feel with roughly 90 percent certainty they would get it.
From there, it is anybody's guess. This team will not be intimidated by anybody, as it proved in last year's Rose Bowl, and it has the horses to win any time, any place, against any caliber of team.
If it gets the No. 4 seed and plays, say, a Florida State or an Alabama, the smart money says it will lose. Sparty maximizes the ability of its recruits as well as (if not better than) any other team in the country, but at some point, recruiting stars and talent tend to win out.
Except, of course, in those rare cases when they don't…
Overall Record: 12-2 (loss in national semifinal)
Big Ten Record: 8-0
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The theme for the Alabama football team is pretty straightforward this year: get back to the top.
Two losses to end the 2013 season, including a heartbreaker to their in-state rival that knocked them out of the national title picture, have left the Crimson Tide with a bad taste in their mouth. The idea of revenge has been on the team’s mind since it left New Orleans after an uninspiring 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Another No. 1 recruiting class, several returning veterans and a renewed sense of purpose have the team and its fans energized for the upcoming campaign, but there are still question marks to be sure, the biggest of all being at the game’s most important position.
Below, Bleacher Report breaks down everything you need to know about the 2014 Crimson Tide in our complete season preview.
There is very much a getting-the-band-back-together feel for the 2014 coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where it's a near mirror image of the 2007 staff that built the foundation for coach Nick Saban and Alabama’s run through college football.
Kevin Steele returned to Tuscaloosa in 2013 as director of player personnel and this year will be back on the field coaching inside linebackers like he did from 2007-08. Bo Davis was hired back from Texas to once again coach the defensive line. Thompson returned for the 2012 season and this year will work with the outside linebackers. And while Kirby Smart has been on staff for Saban’s entire time at Alabama, he’s now working with the secondary.
Those four are back with the position groups they coached in 2007.
And then there’s Lane Kiffin.
Possibly the biggest surprise piece of news from the college football offseason was Saban and Alabama hiring the former Tennessee and USC coach to be the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
Kiffin had come in as an offensive consultant during Alabama’s Sugar Bowl prep (while Kiffin had nothing else to do after his firing from USC), but hardly anyone expected him to join the staff full time.
He’s drawn high praise from players and coaches so far during the spring and fall camp and should bring some creativity to the Crimson Tide offense, while not deviating from what it does best.
“Very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games,” Kiffin said at the start of fall camp.
“Coming here and being around the people of Alabama, they have been great. They've really welcomed me from the day I got here and really made me feel at home no matter where it is around town.
"Whether it's the people in the building, whether it's the fanbase, I'm just excited to be a part of this and just excited to go back to work, go back to work and doing like the last two days and being in there, to grind in football, to grind in camp and just be a part of this staff and program with these players.”
What to watch for on offense
*Note: This depth chart is just an estimation. Alabama will release an official depth chart on Monday, and this post will be updated.
Quite possibly the two biggest storylines on the team are on offense: Kiffin and the quarterbacks.
For Kiffin, it’s about making small changes that put Alabama’s best players in a position to succeed, something that may have been lacking under former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here providing good leadership for the whole offense,” Saban said.
“The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have, and emphasizing some of the intangible things—the fundamentals—we needed to improve on. I think he does a really good job in terms of—you know, it’s not just about knowledge. Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it, and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it.
"Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”
If you were looking for answers at quarterback before the season, you were sorely disappointed.
Neither Blake Sims nor Jake Coker separated himself from the other, so this battle will likely continue well into the season. And Saban has offered no real judgement either way on either guy, except to say that Sims is playing a bit faster because of his familiarity in the offense.
The offensive line is pretty much set except for right guard. Alphonse Taylor has been the primary option there with Leon Brown and JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson nursing minor injuries. Brown, Jackson and Taylor will battle for that starting spot during the first week of game practice.
Otherwise, Alabama is as loaded as it has ever been at skill positions.
T.J. Yeldon leads an extremely capable and diverse running back group. The powerful Derrick Henry and the lightning-quick Kenyan Drake will spell Yeldon throughout the season.
And at wide receiver, Amari Cooper is the star of a unit that could go four and five deep with elite talent.
What to watch for on defense
*Note: This depth chart is just an estimation. Alabama will release an official depth chart on Monday, and this post will be updated.
A quick look at the defensive lineup for Alabama shows that the Crimson Tide should be much improved in the pass-rushing department.
The defensive line may be as deep as Saban has seen at Alabama, headlined by the hulking sophomore A’Shawn Robinson, who led the team in sacks as a freshman. D.J. Pettway is back on the team after being dismissed in early 2013 in connection with an on-campus robbery. Freshmen Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier have been making their names known as well.
At linebacker, Trey DePriest will look to fill the leadership gap left with the departure of C.J. Mosley. Reggie Ragland has come along in his development, and former 5-star Reuben Foster is looking to make the next step and get significant playing time.
“I think Reuben’s first practice and how he picked it up, he looked like a guy lost,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said at the start of fall camp.
“He could run fast, play hard, didn’t know what he was doing all the time. I actually texted him after practice last night, I said ‘You’ve come a long way. You still have a ways to go.’ But he’s comfortable in the huddle now, he can command the huddle. He can make the calls, he can make the adjustments. He knows what’s going on. I think he feels much more comfortable.”
Landon Collins leads a secondary with experience at safety but still looking for consistency at cornerback. Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve took their lumps in 2013 but will be pushed by 5-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Brown, who enrolled in the spring, looks like a candidate to play a lot as a freshman.
The only major injury right now is to cornerback Eddie Jackson, whose rehab from a knee injury sustained during the spring is going much more quickly than expected.
Jackson was Alabama’s No. 1 cornerback before his spring injury. His return would give Alabama a solid option at corner while others battled it out behind him.
"Eddie Jackson is back practicing and doing well," Saban said on Thursday. "But probably not where he needs to be to be able to—because he missed a few practices—we're just going to take him one day at a time and see how fast he progresses, see where he gets to."
Otherwise, just about everyone else who was nicked up in practice is back on the field working back to full speed. The only question in terms of being ready for the season opener is defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, who tweaked his knee in camp but is working to get his quickness back. Said Saban of Robinson: “When he’s ready to play, we’ll play him.”
On offense, tight end O.J. Howard could give Alabama the type of weapon it hasn’t had under Saban.
The 6’6”, 240-pound Howard moves like a wide receiver and has hands like one too. He was seemingly underutilized in 2013, catching just 14 passes in 13 games, and Kiffin has talked about him as a mismatch player—someone who can cause major problems for a defense.
Howard can also be a good safety net for the new quarterback, providing a security blanket as a third or fourth option in the passing game when nothing is open downfield.
Defensively, 5-star freshman Rashaan Evans could give Alabama that dynamic pass-rusher that it’s lacked since Courtney Upshaw in 2011.
Evans has benefited from Tim Williams’ suspension by taking extra reps at outside linebacker and getting to impress coaches. He’s also made a mark on his teammates.
“Rashaan Evans is really fast,” right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “He’s got really good speed off the edge.”
The first real test for Alabama (and its new quarterback) will come when Florida comes to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide’s first SEC game of the season and first game against a team that could do some damage against them.
The game being in Bryant-Denny Stadium should help Alabama ease into the SEC grind a little bit, but there won’t be much room for error against the Gators.
Two weeks later, after a bye, a road trip to Ole Miss could cause some problems. The Rebels took down LSU at home last season and could put the Crimson Tide on their heels with a quick score or two to open things up in Oxford.
A trip to Knoxville could be tricky, but Alabama’s next major test doesn’t come until its annual November showdown with LSU, this time in Baton Rouge. Depending on what happens early in the year, that game could be a major player in the SEC West crown, a game that’s come down to the wire the last three years in Tiger Stadium.
Finally, the rematch that fans and players have been waiting for will come at the end of the regular season. The Iron Bowl should be one of the most anticipated games of the 2014 college football season with major implications across the country.
I picked Alabama to lose two games this season, largely because of the question mark at quarterback.
The team should find its rhythm eventually, but an early visit to Ole Miss looks daunting, especially for a new signal-caller.
LSU will be extremely tight as well, as the Tigers are regularly one of the few teams in the country that can match Alabama talent-wise and have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, where “opponents' dreams come to die,” according to their coach, Les Miles.
Two losses won’t totally knock Alabama out of the SEC or even College Football Playoff contention, though. The West will be quite the meat grinder this year, and if some tiebreakers go the Crimson Tide’s way, they could find themselves in Atlanta.
Overall record: 10-2
Conference record: 7-2
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
More than a month after the media picked its All-SEC first, second and third teams, the coaches have weighed in with their own version of the preseason superlatives.
Announced Friday afternoon on the SEC's official website, the coaches' selections bear a general resemblance to the media's from mid-July, but there are a few minor differences of note. Two second-teamers on the previous list were named first-teamers on the newer one—and, of course, vice versa.
All 14 SEC programs had at least one player represented, and half of them had at least seven. Alabama and LSU led the way with 11 players recognized in total, but the Crimson Tide had an SEC-best eight on the first team while the Tigers checked in with just one.
But where did the coaches do the best job deviating from the media? And where did they make a mistake?
Was anyone egregiously under/overvalued?
Here's a quick recap of the list.
The beauty of college football is its ever-changing nature.
Each fall, even the most stable collegiate rosters experience some turnover.
Star players graduate. They transfer. They leave early for the NFL. Regardless of how it happens, even the most prepared programs enter each season with question marks, ready to be filled by the next frontline player or superstar.
Here, then, are 10 players who will have the opportunity to make names for themselves this fall. Players were chosen based on their talent, the opportunity that lies before them and the belief that they’ll have a special season in 2014.
While many may know these names already, their recognition is rooted in potential more than production or reality, thanks to talk from media or fellow players. In the next few months, these players will get the chance to finally make a name for themselves on the national scene and show what the hype is all about.