Former NFL running back and Texas Longhorn Ricky Williams is a very spiritual person.
In a commercial for the Longhorn Network, he gets to show off that spiritual side by reading a hilarious poem about being a running back.
"Linebacker, backs down. Defensive back, too small. Little guy. BOOM! Those your friends? BOOM! BOOM! Hearts breaking. TOUCHDOWN!"
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The College Football Playoff and its selection committee have replaced the computer- and poll-driven BCS this season, and consequently a premium has been placed on having a schedule that's deemed tough enough to warrant getting selected for a playoff spot.
Not every championship contender has taken this to heart in 2014, though. Through the combination of conference games and non-league competition, some of the best teams in the country have pretty pedestrian schedules this fall.
It's not all their fault, however. Other than Notre Dame, the power schools are at the mercy of their conferences for giving them a quality set of league opponents. Only the nonconference portion of the schedule is flexible, and future home-and-home series—just take a look at some of the games set for Sept. 3, 2016—show us that many top programs are pushing for tougher competitions.
Here's a look at the championship contenders with the easiest 2014 schedules, based on opponents' records from a year ago and their current rankings.
Along with every college football season comes underclassmen who have breakout performances, and NFL attention soon follows the upstart players.
Some young guns have established themselves as elite—like reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston—and others are primed to become household names in 2014.
All freshmen and sophomores are eligible for inclusion as well as redshirt sophomores (despite being draft-eligible following the upcoming year).
Note: All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
It's all about the quarterback.
For the Virginia Tech Hokies, the team's success—or lack thereof—this fall could hinge largely on the play of Tech's new signal-caller.
But who will it be?
Senior Mark Leal and junior Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, are the front-runners. Brewer, who transferred to Tech this spring, was considered the favorite for the Red Raiders starting job last summer before a back injury put him on the sideline.
Leal has attempted just 48 passes in three seasons and didn't inspire coaches with his performance in the Sun Bowl in relief of an injured Logan Thomas.
While the Hokies have been inconsistent on offense in recent years, they've been fortunate to have stability at the quarterback position. Thomas is now in the NFL, and Hokie fans won't have him to kick around this fall if the team struggles on offense.
Sophomore Brenden Motley and a pair of true freshmen, Andrew Ford and Chris Durkin, could see time, too, but for now it's a two-man race between Brewer and Leal.
As the Hokies break in a new quarterback, there is less concern on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the Hokies lost six starters, but longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster doesn't worry. He reloads.
Special teams, however, is another area where the Hokies have struggled in recent years.
Virginia Tech's rise to prominence in the '90s was built on strong defense and an outstanding special teams unit. Other schools and even NFL teams would make the trip to Blacksburg to see what head coach Frank Beamer's special teams' secrets were.
The past five years, though, opponents have consistently beaten the Hokies in all phases on special teams.
Another area of concern for VT this fall could be the kicking game. True freshman Joey Slye is currently atop the depth chart and will likely face some growing pains.
For years, Beamer prided himself on the continuity of his staff and often believed it was one of the major reasons for Tech's sustained success.
Before the 2013 season, Beamer felt an offensive shakeup was needed. He brought in Scot Loeffler as offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes as offensive line coach and Aaron Moorehead as wide receivers coach.
Grimes departed to LSU after just one season, and Beamer went out and brought in a capable replacement in Stacy Searels.
Searels, a former All-American offensive lineman at Auburn, was previously the offensive line coach at Georgia, LSU and Texas. He brings a physical, hard-nosed approach that the Hokies have lacked up front in recent years.
In addition to the hiring of Searels, the Hokies added two new additions to the football staff this summer: Chuck Cantor was hired as the school's first director of player personnel, while Thomas Guerry is Tech's first director of high school relations.
Both moves were made with recruiting in mind, but Beamer didn't hesitate when asked what the Hokies' main recruiting priority is, per Virginia Tech's official website:
Our philosophy hasn’t changed. Our first priority is the state of Virginia, and then we’ll recruit within a six-hour radius after that. If there’s a special situation outside of that, then we’ll certainly look at it. But we are going to change how we go about the recruiting process. With the way people are communicating any more, there are so many more things that can happen, and I think you need a person who can keep everyone in line and up to date on what needs to take place.
Cantor is a graduate of Florida State, the defending national champion that took two recruits away from the Hokies on national signing day this past February.
What to Watch For on Offense
Of course, it's all about the quarterback, but if the Hokies are going to be successful on offense in 2014, they need experienced players at running back and wide receiver to step up.
Finding a good running back has never been a problem in Blacksburg. From Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones to Ryan Williams and David Wilson, VT has always been stocked at the running back position.
However, the past two years Tech has struggled to replace Wilson, and that likely played a part in the struggles of the passing game.
Trey Edmunds was starting to hit his stride last season before breaking his leg in the season finale against Virginia. Edmunds had some big moments, including rushing for 132 yards against Alabama in the season opener. If he's healthy, he'll be the starter at running back.
Junior J.C. Coleman is the Hokies' most experienced back. He battled some injuries last season and never completely displayed the explosiveness he had as a true freshman in 2012. Coleman can make a difference in the passing game, too, and is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He should have a big season.
A pair of true freshmen could figure into the mix at running back as well. Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams have impressed coaches this summer. McKenzie tore his ACL last fall as a senior in high school but is fully healthy now.
Unlike last season, coaches feel good about the depth and talent at wide receiver. Tech's top three pass-catchers return, and the team also has an influx of new talent at the position.
Sophomore Joshua Stanford came on last season and could end up being one of the best receivers in school history. He runs good routes, is physical and possesses excellent ability after the catch. If healthy, Stanford will lead the Hokies in receiving.
Senior Willie Byrn is steady and reliable, while Demitri Knowles is expected to be the Hokies' top deep threat.
Of the newcomers, Isaiah Ford appears best positioned to make an immediate impact. Ford can also help out in the return game immediately.
The offensive line remains a work in progress. Loeffler's arrival last season brought a renewed focus to the power running game, and that should continue this fall. But the Hokies have battled injuries along the offensive line throughout fall camp.
Laurence Gibson is VT's first-string left tackle, and sophomore Jonathan McLaughlin will be the right tackle. McLaughlin started at left tackle last fall, but coaches feel Gibson's athleticism is best served on the left side.
"I think he’s got the athleticism. Good footwork," Searels said, per Andy Bitter of The Roanoke Times. "It’s an adjustment on the left side, but I think putting your most athletic tackle on the left side is a good move."
Expect Beamer's decision about a starting quarterback to go down in the coming days. He's never been a coach who likes to play mind games, and he'll want his starter to get plenty of reps with the first-team offense.
Brewer may win the job, but will he play well enough to keep it?
What to Watch For on Defense
Virginia Tech's defense lost six starters from a unit that was dominant in 2013. The Hokies ranked No. 4 in total defense and had 19 interceptions and 39 sacks.
Gone are Kyle Fuller, Jack Tyler, James Gayle, Antone Exum, Derrick Hopkins and J.R. Collins.
Each of those players leaves big shoes to fill, and while most schools would panic at the loss of such talent, not the Hokies.
Senior Luther Maddy returns at defensive tackle and has the potential to be an All-American. Maddy is strong against the run, but he makes his biggest impact as an interior rusher.
Junior Corey Marshall returns to the field after sitting out last season. Marshall has split his time at defensive end and defensive tackle throughout his career, but Tech's lack of depth at tackle gives him an opportunity to start this season. At 262 pounds, though, Marshall will not be an every-down tackle.
Nigel Williams showed promise last season as a freshman, so look for Foster to get him on the field early and often in 2014.
True freshman Vinny Mihota is another player to watch. Mihota was recruited as a defensive end and still could find himself there. However, Mihota's size (6'5", 264 lbs) and strength were best suited to play inside. The Hokies' lack of experienced depth will likely get Mihota on the field early.
Dadi Nicolas has a chance to be Tech's next great pass-rusher. As a situational pass-rusher last season, Nicolas was effective finishing with four sacks and 13 hurries. He was the Hokies' fastest player in winter testing, running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. Yes, he's a defensive end.
The biggest question on defense is who will play linebacker.
Senior Chase Williams is ready to step in for Tyler in the middle. Williams is a better athlete than Tyler and the son of a coach (Gregg Williams), but replacing Tyler will be difficult.
The former walk-on led the Hokies in tackles the last two years and was an All-ACC player.
Now, after waiting for four years, Williams finally has the opportunity he's coveted.
Ronny Vandyke should start at the whip linebacker spot. But Vandyke's biggest problem is staying healthy, and he's been slowed this summer with a groin injury. His athleticism can take this defense to another level.
If Vandyke can't stay healthy, Josh Trimble will start at whip.
Deon Clarke and Dahman McKinnon will battle to start at the 'backer (outside linebacker) position.
While there are some concerns about depth in the front seven, not the same can be said about the secondary.
The Hokies return a pair of outstanding sophomore cornerbacks in Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. The pair combined for 11 interceptions last season and were the team's best cornerbacks as Kyle Fuller and Exum battled injuries.
Phil Steele, author of Phil Steele's College Football Preview, has the Hokies secondary as the nation's best. That is no stretch. This group is that good.
Fuller and Facyson are so good that you forget about Tech's senior safeties, Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett. Both Bonner and Jarrett are All-ACC-caliber players.
Foster's 2014 defense will be fast. Really fast. But will the lack of size up front come back and haunt it in the end?
It has been a tough summer for the Hokies along the offensive line.
Brent Benedict and Mark Shuman both suffered injuries that led to them ending their football careers. Benedict had a blood clot in his leg, while Shuman suffered a third injury to the same knee.
Benedict started at guard last season and was expected to this season.
For Shuman, it was a tough blow as he had been running with the first team early in fall camp.
Even Gibson has battled a foot injury this summer. X-rays were negative, however, and he is back on the field and should be good to go for the season opener next week.
Outside of the injuries on the offensive line, the Hokies are in much better shape than a year ago. Last summer, Tech lost several starters or key contributors for either the season or a significant period of time.
Edmunds, still recovering from the leg injury last November, is a game-time decision next Saturday. Don't be surprised if Edmunds sits out Week 1 with Ohio State on the horizon in Week 2.
It's no secret the Hokies have struggled on offense in recent years. This season, the Hokies should have more experience at the skill positions.
While Stanford, Byrn or Knowles may lead the team in receiving, the team's biggest X-factor or new star could be freshman tight end Bucky Hodges.
The former quarterback switched to tight end last spring and has taken to the position quite well.
Recruited to Tech as a quarterback, Hodges himself felt he could be a tight end.
"I’m a big dude that can move,” Hodges said, per Bitter. “So I always had an open mind."
The move to tight end began last season when coaches had Hodges mimic North Carolina star Eric Ebron in practice. It went so well that Hodges and the coaching staff envisioned a position change for the freshman.
At 6'6", 234 pounds, Hodges has ideal size for the position. He's also become a solid blocker for someone so new at the position.
Blocking isn't why the Hokies moved Hodges, though.
His terrific athleticism has coaches excited. And he's apparently been lining up all over the place this summer.
"I'm learning a lot of places [on the field], I'll say that. It's really exciting to me," Hodges told David Hale of ESPN.com.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, it has experience at the position, so Hodges won't be forced on the field. Ryan Malleck, the starter in 2012, returns after missing all of last season with an injury. And sophomore Kalvin Cline, forced into duty as a true freshman last season, is also back.
Look for Hodges to be a fixture in the red zone in 2014. VT has struggled scoring touchdowns the last few years, and Hodges' presence could open up more running lanes inside the red zone this fall.
Over the past decade, the Hokies have opened the season against some of the best teams in college football: USC, Alabama (twice), LSU, Boise State and now Ohio State. Unfortunately for the Hokies, they're winless in those games.
With the Buckeyes on the slate in the Week 2 this fall, VT has a chance to reverse that trend. Even with Braxton Miller's shoulder injury that cost him the season, it will be tough for the Hokies to win at the Horseshoe.
But for Beamer, it's a chance to get the Hokies back in the national discussion. A win at Ohio State against an Urban Meyer-coached team will give Virginia Tech a boost it hasn't had in several years.
Is it a make-or-break game? Essentially no, because no one expects the Hokies to compete for a national championship this season. However, a win would make Tech's season and undoubtedly be a boon on the recruiting trail. The Hokies just lost offensive tackle Brady Taylor to the Buckeyes earlier this year.
In terms of conference play, the Hokies' biggest contests this fall will be games at UNC, Pitt and Duke, and a home contest against Miami.
The Blue Devils had a magical season in 2013, and the momentum of beating the Hokies in Lane Stadium helped propel them to an appearance in the ACC title game.
It's tough to see the Hokies losing to Duke two straight years, and Tech has a good history at Wallace Wade Stadium.
As for the Tar Heels, the talent is there. The talent is always there. UNC just can't seem to put it altogether. Whether it's suspensions, poor coaching or underachieving, the Heels never play to their talent level. But they remain dangerous.
Quarterback Marquise Williams is a better fit for coach Larry Fedora's spread offense than Bryn Renner was. UNC will score a lot in 2014. The Hokies will need a strong defensive effort to overtake UNC in October. This game could very well help determine the Coastal Division.
Pitt is a team on the rise. The Panthers under third-year coach Paul Chryst are coming off a 7-6 season and thumped the Hokies two years ago in Pittsburgh. Last year, the Panthers fought the Hokies til the end before losing 19-9. That loss snapped Pitt's four-game winning streak against VT.
With eight returning starters on offense, Pitt will prove to be a tough test for the Hokies. And the game is in Pittsburgh, too.
And then there is Miami.
For years, dating back to their days as opponents in the old Big East Conference, the Hokies and the Hurricanes have had a fierce rivalry. Usually the winner of this matchup would go on to win the conference.
In recent years, though, that hasn't been the case. Miami coach Al Golden, entering his fourth season as coach, has the 'Canes headed in the right direction. Recruiting has picked back up, and Miami should be here to stay awhile.
But just like the Hokies, there are questions at quarterback. Unlike VT, Miami does know who its best offensive player is, though. Running back Duke Johnson is a star. Tech had its hands full with Johnson two years ago, and after an ankle injury slowed the speedster late last season, he's back and 100 percent healthy.
Just like the game versus UNC, this contest could very well help determine the winner of the Coastal.
Heading into last season, Virginia Tech was a tough team to project. However, the Hokies did have Logan Thomas and a strong, experienced defense, so you knew they'd be tough.
There are many more questions with this year's squad than there were in 2013.
How do the Hokies replace six starters on defense? Will the lack of depth at defensive tackle come back to haunt them?
The best thing that Tech has going for it defensively is Foster. He will find the best players and always have them prepared. The defense may not be as dominant this fall, but it will attack.
Offensively, things are more in flux.
If Brewer wins the job, can he stay healthy? He's a smaller guy and battled injuries throughout his college career.
As for Leal, do the coaches have confidence he can get the job done? You'd think a fifth-year senior quarterback who'd been the backup for three years would be ready to step in and assume the starting position. However, Brewer's transfer, Motley's ascension and the presence of the two true freshmen leave you wondering what the coaches truly think of Leal.
And is this the year that Tech gets back to running the football?
If Edmunds is healthy, he'll be the lead back. He improved as the season went on, but he runs a bit upright at times, leaving himself susceptible to injury. Coleman will also be heavily involved in the offense. Coaches need to find a way to get him in space and take advantage of his speed.
But the running game will come down to the offensive line. Searels has mixed and matched this group since the spring trying to find his five best linemen. It has led to several players switching positions. If the Hokies can settle on five linemen, that is a good sign for the quarterback and running game.
When you look at Tech's schedule, it's easy to point out wins and losses. It's just no one knows what the Hokies will be this year, either.
VT doesn't have a bye until Week 7 when it heads to North Carolina. At that time, the Hokies should have a 5-1 record with the lone loss coming at Ohio State.
Tech's overall record will hinge on the offense. The defense should be strong enough to give the Hokies a 9-3 regular-season record and 6-2 mark in conference play. Expect Tech to be in a lot of close games this fall.
Who will be this year's stars?
Fuller and Facyson first come to mind, as does Maddy. Each of these three players along with Nicolas and and Jarrett should be in the mix for all-conference honors. Fuller could be an All-American as soon as this year.
On offense, keep an eye on Stanford and Hodges. Stanford is the clear No. 1 receiver and should get plenty of targets.
Hodges, though, is the wild card.
If he is truly taking to the position as well as coaches have said, he'll be on the field often. Given the Hokies' talent at tight end, with Malleck and Cline, too, expect a lot of two-tight end sets.
Hodges could be in line for a big season as he provides a big target for the quarterback on third down and in the red zone.
For years, Virginia Tech has left its fans disappointed early in the season. Could this be the year—with lower expectations—that the Hokies surprise people and get back in the national mix?
It could, but it depends heavily on quarterback play.
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Arm strength is the sexiest skill in football. The Johnny Manziels of the world can keep their impossible defiance of earthly physics and their tap-dancing acrobatics, because when push comes to shove, we all know that chicks dig the long ball.
But ranking the strongest-armed quarterbacks in college football is no easy task. Because arm strength is such a sexy skill, it is something that players and fans take seriously—borderline personally.
To combat that, we have put in the time to watch the game tape, read what the scouts are saying and come up with what we believe to be an exhaustive list of the 14 biggest arms in the country.
Keep in mind that "who can chuck the ball the furthest distance?" is not the sole criterion for measuring arm strength, because part of that has to do with torque. How far a player can throw the ball was a factor in this evaluation, but so was repetitive velocity.
Basically, we were looking for players who throw hard, far and often.
Here's what we came up with.
College football games are often won and lost based on exceptional performances by a handful of players, and this list ranks the 10 top playmakers on the Tennessee Volunteers roster.
Although second-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones stocked the cupboard full of talent with the 2014 recruiting class, the jury is still out on the freshmen and junior college transfers who joined the team in January and June.
It's likely that many of those newcomers will prove themselves on the field in the coming weeks and months, but until they actually experience a live snap in a game, they're not eligible to be ranked just yet.
Instead, this list ranks the top 10 returning players on the Tennessee roster who are battle-tested and known assets for the team. It's up to these veterans to beat the odds and score an upset or two along the way to secure the Vols' first bowl berth since 2010.
The Louisville Cardinals received some potentially devastating news on Friday. Prolific senior wide receiver DeVante Parker injured his foot in practice, and, according to Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports, it doesn't sound good:
Furthering concern about the wide receiver's status, Paul Myerberg of USA Today reported exactly which specialist Parker was going to see:
Based on the tone of each tweet, this injury is being taken very seriously.
At 6'3" and 208 pounds, Parker is one of the most talented receivers in the nation. He erupted last season in the Teddy Bridgewater-led offense, accumulating 55 receptions for 885 yards and 12 touchdowns—all career highs.
While Louisville isn't ranked in the preseason top 25 due, in part, to the departure of Bridgewater—he led the Cardinals to the 16th-ranked passing offense last season—the team is hoping sophomore quarterback Will Gardner can keep up the pace—mostly due to the significant impact of Parker.
Said Petrino, "[Parker]'s really special. He has a combination of size and strength. He can really control his body and make different catches in the air. The thing that excites me as much as anything is his ability to run after the catch. He's a special talent."
If Parker does miss any significant amount of time, Louisville will be without its signal-caller and top two receivers from a year ago—Damian Copeland also departed from the team last season.
In that instance, we could see this offense become far more run oriented, as senior running back Dominique Brown returns for another season after averaging 5.1 yards per carry in 2013.
Keep a keen eye on this situation as it develops—the outcome will severely affect the Cardinals' impending season.
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A new era is about to begin for the Texas Longhorns. For the first time since 1998, the Longhorns will begin the college football season with a new head coach leading the charge.
The Charlie Strong era will debut Aug. 30 against North Texas, and the Texas football nation is eager to see if Strong can bring the Longhorns back up the college football ranks.
But the task will not be easy in his first season.
Strong has spent the last eight months implementing new schemes on both sides of the ball while trying to work the talent he inherited from Mack Brown into those schemes.
He has been clear about his goals for the Longhorns, which are primarily centered on bringing toughness back to Texas football.
Now is the time for the public to see if Strong's no-nonsense, tough approach will be emulated by his players on the football field.
New Regime in Austin
The Texas football program went through a complete overhaul in January. Following Strong's hire, he bought in a new group of assistant coaches to aid him in his journey of bringing Texas football back to national prominence.
Strong brought three assistant coaches with him from his staff at Louisville, including his offensive and defensive coordinators.
Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford has a unique and much deeper tie to the Longhorns compared to most of his colleagues. Bedford is a Texas alumnus and played defensive back for the Longhorns between 1977 and 1981.
His coaching background includes two national championships at Florida and Michigan and coaching 1997 Heisman trophy winner Charles Goodson.
Bedford helped turn Louisville into one of the top defenses in college football. The Cardinals led the nation in total defense, rushing defense, fewest first downs allowed, sacks and third-down conversion defense during his final season coaching at Louisville.
The combination of Bedford and Strong's defensive minds is a force to be reckoned with. They are the perfect duo to fix the Longhorns' recent defensive woes.
Former Louisville offensive-coordinator-turned-Texas-quarterbacks-coach Shawn Watson has a decent track record of coaching successful offenses. His most recent success story is 2014 first-round NFL draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, who was the starting quarterback for the Cardinals from his true freshman season in 2011 until 2013.
One of the bigger offensive hires came in offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Wickline, who spent the last nine seasons coaching at Oklahoma State. Wickline is often regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in college football.
Strong made it a point to surround himself with some of the best coaches in the game, and the future is bright for the new group leading the Longhorns.
What to Watch for on Offense
The Longhorns offense will be heavily focused on running the ball, which is a wise plan when one considers the talent Texas has at running back.
Running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown are arguably two of the best backs in the Big 12, and a lot of the offensive load will be put on their shoulders.
How Watson and Wickline will divide the reps is still unknown, but Strong said he doesn't think it matters who is the starter because both guys will get their fair share of carries.
A lot of questions surround quarterback David Ash and his ability to stay healthy. After being sidelined for the majority of the 2013 season with recurring concussion symptoms, Ash returned to the team in time for spring practice. But the injury bug bit him once again when he suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot and missed the second half of spring ball.
Ash has been injury free during fall camp, but that does not erase the concern about his health. He has not faced contact since before halftime of the Kansas State game last season, so many spectators will cringe when he takes the first hit of the season.
If the injuries are a thing of the past, there's a chance the Longhorns offense will be pretty solid with Ash at the helm.
The Longhorns have a lengthy list of talented wide receivers, but the group is mostly young and inexperienced.
Texas has two automatic starters in senior Jaxon Shipley and junior Marcus Johnson. Shipley is the most experienced of the receivers and leads the group with 1,933 career-receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 36 games.
Johnson proved to be a reliable option for the Longhorns last season, starting four games and bringing in 22 catches for 350 yards and two touchdowns.
The third position is somewhat open but will likely be nabbed by redshirt freshman Jacorey Warrick or fifth-year senior John Harris.
One of the most explosive players for the Longhorns is wide receiver/running back Daje Johnson. He will likely play in the slot, but wide receivers coach Les Koenning said he has been working at both inside and outside receiver.
The question that surrounds the speedster is whether he can stay out of trouble off the field. He will be suspended for at least the first game of the season for violating team rules. Strong has not decided if his suspension will go beyond Week 1.
If Johnson can stay out of trouble, he has the talent to be a difference-maker for the Longhorns this season.
The offensive line is still a work in progress. Wickline is known for mixing up his linemen until he finds the perfect fit for the offensive game plan, and the shuffling on the line will likely continue throughout the first half of the season. It will be interesting to watch if Texas can come up with the right mix to help protect Ash and open up holes for the running backs to do work.
What to Watch for on Defense
"The Texas defense is soft" is a phrase the Longhorns have heard for the last two seasons. But there's a chance that label will be a thing of the past under the new coaches.
The strength of the defense starts up front. Defensive end Cedric Reed is up for numerous preseason college football awards and is the No. 1 senior defensive end for the 2015 NFL draft, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. But Reed is not the only lineman with a lot of potential. Defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson are two of the best tackle tandems in the conference and will be key components in shutting down the run game.
The one question mark will be Shiro Davis, who will line up opposite of Reed. Davis has earned the starting nod but will have to step up his game, as opponents will likely place more of an emphasis in covering Reed.
The linebackers have been one of the weaker positions on the defense since the 2012 season, but the time for the group to play to its abilities could be right around the corner.
Fifth-year senior Jordan Hicks returns to the group after missing the previous two seasons with injuries. One could argue the defense is better when Hicks is healthy, not only due to his skills, but because he gives the defense a coach on the field. He is obviously talented, but his role as a coach on the field is invaluable for the team.
The featured defensive back is senior Quandre Diggs, who has high expectations following him into his final season at Texas. The talented cornerback is not the biggest guy on the team but plays like he is, which is why he earned the nickname Quandre the Giant as a freshman.
The Longhorns have a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball. If the defense plays up to its abilities, it could erase the soft label this season.
The most veteran wide receiver may not be at full speed when the Longhorns kick off the 2014 season Aug. 30. No timetable was set for Shipley's return after he suffered a hamstring injury the first day of fall camp.
He has not practiced since Aug. 4.
Shipley was in a similar situation last season. He suffered a hamstring injury, which held him out of fall camp, but he was ready to go the first game of the season.
But this injury may not be the same as last year. Strong said it is currently unknown if he will be part of the game plan against North Texas.
"I don't know if it's worse than the injury he had last year. It's not so much the injury, but he just hasn't had the reps at practice. It's about being game-ready because he hasn't been in the practice mode," Strong said. "We need to get him back. I don't know if he will be at full speed in Game 1."
If Shipley is not healed in time, the Longhorns will likely feature Harris, Marcus Johnson and Warrick as the starting wide receivers, leaving Johnson as the only receiver with starting experience.
A number of players have the talent to be the Longhorns' X-factor this season. Running backs Brown and Gray could combine to be the X-factor on offense.
But one player who has the chance of having a monster season is cornerback Diggs.
The strength of this defense is on the line. Bedford and Strong's defenses feature a lot of aggressive traits and heavy pass rushes, which helped Louisville rank No. 1 in rush defense in 2013.
If the defensive line plays to its strengths to stop the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball, the backfield will have the chance of picking up turnovers.
And that's where Quandre the Giant comes into the picture.
Bedford has put a lot of pressure on Diggs to be a playmaker this season, and the coach expects to see the player's interception and tackle numbers increase as a senior.
"His interception ratio needs to go up. His tackles need to go up. When you play nickelback, especially in this conference, that position needs to be the most productive position on the football field," Bedford said of Diggs. "If he has a productive year at that spot, whether it be tackles for loss or interceptions, then we'll probably have a pretty solid season on defense."
Unlike the NFL, every week matters in college football, which makes every game a make-or-break situation.
But two games that will stand out most for the Longhorns are Baylor and Oklahoma, which just so happen to fall on back-to-back weeks.
The Longhorns do not have a cupcake nonconference schedule this season. Texas will look to seek revenge against BYU, which embarrassed the Longhorns last season and then will face preseason No. 7 UCLA the following weekend.
There's a decent possibility Texas will lose at least one of the nonconference games. And if that happens, the pressure will be on the Longhorns to upset No. 10 Baylor and No. 4 Oklahoma to keep the season alive.
Texas has some positive momentum heading into the 2014 season, but expecting anything more than an average season might be premature.
The Longhorns have an entirely new scheme on both sides of the ball and nine new coaches trying to piece it all together. The roster obviously has talent, but a lot of offensive positions remain works in progress.
It's no secret that the best football teams are the ones that can keep their defense off the field, and the Longhorns may struggle to do that in 2014.
The schedule does not help the situation. If the AP poll is accurate in its preseason rankings, Texas will face three Top 10 teams in the first six games of the season.
Does this mean Texas will be a complete failure in Year 1 of the Strong era? No, but it's difficult to imagine it being among the top teams in college football at the end of the season.
A positive season for Texas will be to upset at least one of its higher-ranked opponents and maintain at minimum the same record as 2013.
Big 12 record: 6-3
Overall record: 8-5
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.
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For what seems like forever, the college football landscape resembled a wide-open terrain, one where all the best teams in the country were spread all over in hopes of being considered the best of the best.
The Bowl Championship Series gave us 16 years of trying to sort through the clutter to give us a national champion.
Through a designated title game or just a post-bowl game vote, the national champion in college football has often been a source of controversy and rarely one of consensus. But now we have the College Football Playoff, the first-of-its-kind format that aims to erase all debate by having the champ determined through a bona fide elimination process.
Four teams will be slotted into a winner-takes-all tournament, using the Rose and Sugar bowls as semifinal games on New Year's Day and then an official national championship on Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Additionally, four more games—known as "host bowls"—will feature champions from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC that don't qualify for the playoffs, as well as at-large selections that will include the top-rated team from outside the five power conferences.
A 13-person selection committee will rank teams, beginning in late October and then every week until determining the 12 CFP entrants.
With a true process to knock teams out of the running and determine a champion, a mountain has been established. There will be many programs striving to climb that hill in 2014, including plenty of the traditional powers, but they won't be alone.
Here's a look at the teams heading into this season who are ready to climb the CFB mountain.
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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