NCAA Football News

Big Ten Football: Biggest 2014 Games with Playoff Implications

Every college football game carries some level of importance for every team.  But for those vying for one of the four coveted berths in the new College Football Playoff, the stakes are even higher this season.  There are several Big Ten teams that are contenders in 2014, and there are a number of games that seem to loom on the 2014 schedule when it comes to possible playoff implications.

In just a few short days, the 2014 college football season gets underway.  Not only are we finally getting back to honest-to-God football, but we're also entering a new era with the introduction of the College Football Playoff this season.  So as teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin (as well as a few others) get geared up to make their cases to the playoff selection committee, we're going to take a look at which games on the upcoming 2014 schedule could have the biggest impact on the decision-making process.

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Kynon's Korner: The Ripple Effect of Braxton Miller's Injury on Top 2014 QBs

Ohio State's national championship hopes took a hit last Tuesday when the school announced senior quarterback Braxton Miller would miss the season with a shoulder injury. The Buckeyes will turn to former Elite 11 quarterback J.T. Barrett to step up for the injured Miller. 

On the recruiting trail, OSU has dual-threat signal-caller Joe Burrow committed. So there isn't a reason to panic when looking toward the future of the program. The 3-star is an in-state prospect that put up PlayStation type numbers to the tune of 3,732 yards passing and 47 touchdowns to go with 589 yards rushing and nine more scores as a junior. 

Burrow is a talented athlete, but Ohio State will continue to actively recruit 4-star athlete Torrance Gibson. Gibson is one of the most athletically gifted prospects in the Class of 2014. He is dangerous when plays break down, and he has to improvise. This summer he took part in the Elite 11 Finals in Beaverton, Oregon, and he seems to be serious about improving as a passer. 

On Sunday afternoon, Gibson completed 7-of-11 pass attempts for 298 yards and five touchdowns in his team's 49-23 rout of Palm Beach Gardens (Florida) Dwyer in a nationally televised game on ESPN.

Head coach Urban Meyer and Gibson could be a lethal combo in the Big Ten for years to come. The 6'4", 200-pound lefty from Plantation (Florida) American Heritage School has similar ability to former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL first-round pick Tim Tebow. Gibson will be in Columbus for the Ohio State-Virginia Tech game on September 6. Expect his visit to get the red carpet treatment. 

When asked what Gibson plans to take from the visit, he told me following his game: "I want to go up there and have a good time with all of the recruits. The last time I was there, I liked it. I'll get a chance to see Braxton. He is real cool and we have a good bond. We joked a lot when I was up there last time. I look up to him, and we have the same ability on the field, so there's a connection."

Gibson said Arizona and Oklahoma were in his top three. Both schools want him at quarterback, and that is the only position he wants to play at the next level. The 247Sports Crystal Ball has him as a 55 percent lock to Ohio State.

Gibson added, "Ohio State is my clear leader. I like the offense they run, I really like everything. I know it's cold, but it's cold in the NFL too. The most important thing is they want me a quarterback, not athlete."

The 4-star field general said Ohio State is his only planned official visit. Without trips set up to Norman or Tucson, it's safe to say the Crystal Ball could be changed to 100 percent before his announced commitment date of October 20. 

 

5-star Cornerback Kendall Sheffield Schedules Unofficial Visit

Standout cornerback Kendall Sheffield out of Missouri City (Texas) Fort Bend Marshall is heading to Arlington, Texas, this weekend for the Top 15 matchup of Wisconsin-LSU. Sheffield will be on hand to watch the Bayou Bengals. Although he doesn't have a top five, Sheffield is considering the Tigers along with Alabama and Texas A&M. 

Sheffield told me, "LSU offered me when I was in 10th grade. I have a good relationship with secondary coach Corey Raymond. I went to LSU's camp and their spring game. Plus my favorite cornerback is Patrick Peterson. Coach Raymond reminds me of that too." 

Earlier this month, Sheffield attended a scrimmage in College Station. He told 247Sports Recruiting Insider Brian Perroni (subscription required) he liked what he saw, putting the Aggies in good shape with Alabama firmly in the picture.

"I've been building a great relationship with Coach McKinney. I feel very comfortable with Texas A&M and their staff," explained Sheffield. "My family likes that it's close to home, but there isn't any pressure to stay close to home." 

Sheffield affirmed that everyone is even at this time. Track is a big part of Sheffield's recruitment, similar to Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown in the Class of 2014, who both signed with Alabama, respectively. Sheffield is a state champion in the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles. "Track is important to me, but at the end of the day I'm going to college as a football player," Sheffield noted to Bleacher Report.

The fleet-footed corner plans to announce at the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando.

 

Auburn Going After a Pair of 5-stars from Florida

The Tigers kick off SEC play on Saturday against Arkansas. Auburn will be without starting quarterback Nick Marshall, who is suspended for the regular-season opener. Currently, War Eagle sits comfortably at No. 9 in the 247Sports team rankings. Auburn may be making a move on 5-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey, according to 247Sports Recruiting Insider Keith Niebuhr. 

I spoke to Ivey's head coach, Rick Darlington of Apopka (Florida), over the weekend, and he feels Auburn and Florida are neck and neck. "Right now those are the top two. Someone will have to make a great run to get ahead of those two," stated Darlington. "I'm not saying he couldn't go somewhere else either. I know LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes loves him. Alabama and Florida State are in his top five, and everyone wants to go to those places. He wears Nebraska shirts when he works out. With Auburn, they have done a great job building relationships with Tez. Florida has a new staff in there, but they are a good program too." 

Ivey is the prototypical tackle prospect, but the thing that stands out is his ability to learn and grow on and off the field, according to Darlington.

"Tez is playing strong guard for us right now because that's where we need him to win," boasted Darlington. "He has grown as a player, but what I'm most proud of is the work he puts in. He doesn't miss a rep in practice and is first in sprints. This summer he was invited to the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge presented by Under Armour in Baltimore. He missed it because he chose to go the Bahamas to play soccer with orphans. That's the kind of person he is."

Auburn is also looking to make a big impression on 5-star cornerback Kevin Toliver II this weekend. Toliver is taking an official visit to The Plains on Friday. The Tigers are hoping a strong showing could give the LSU recruit something to think about. Toliver's teammate Jeffery Holland is high on Auburn and Florida. If they can somehow flip Toliver, expect Holland to follow. 

 

U.S. Army All-American Tarvarus McFadden Keeping It Close to Vest

Over the summer, Plantation (Florida) American Heritage cover man Tarvarus McFadden was busy with trips to the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge presented by Under Armour and The Opening. His recruitment was put on the back burner a bit. Now that the season has kicked off, McFadden is having a tough time trimming his options down. 

The 6'3", 198-pounder told Bleacher Report following his game on Sunday, "I don't really have a top five. The schools that I'm considering are Alabama, Auburn, FSU, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and UCF. I may go up to Ohio State for an official visit on September 6 with Torrance, but I haven't set up anything."

McFadden took an unofficial visit to Florida State over the summer, and he enjoyed his trip to Tallahassee. "It was a great visit. I really enjoyed it a lot," said McFadden. "I talk to Coach (Sal) Sunseri, Coach (Charles) Kelly and Coach (Bill) Miller. Really I talk to all of them."

So what if Gibson commits to Ohio State? Will that help the Buckeyes? 

"We've joked about it from time to time. However, only will time tell," remarked McFadden. "Right now I don't have a decision date, but I want to do it soon. I can't keep waiting."

 

Speedy Flanker Christian Kirk Talks Top Six

Earlier this month, Scottsdale (Arizona) Saguaro split end Christian Kirk took to Twitter to announce his top six of Arizona State, Auburn, Ohio State, Texas A&M, UCLA and USC. The 247Sports Crystal Ball has the Aggies trending, with a 74 percent chance he commits to A&M.

Kirk said he doesn't have a leader and everyone is even. When asked if he feels better about a certain staff or campus, he said: "Right now I feel comfortable with all the staff members at the schools in my top six. Same with the campuses. I'm deciding in late November or early December. The biggest factor in my decision is offensive scheme and how I fit in."

I like the fit for Kirk at A&M in its wide-open spread passing attack. He is the ideal slot receiver with superb lateral cutting ability and soft hands. If Kirk opts for College Station, he could team up with fellow Arizona natives Kyle Allen and defensive end Qualen Cunningham. Allen is the second-team quarterback, and a future Kirk-to-Allen pitch-and-catch battery could be the next Manziel-to-Mike Evans combo at Kyle Field.

Does the appeal of playing with a highly touted quarterback like Allen appeal to him, or is there family pressure to stay closer to home?

He told me emphatically, "My family hasn't pressured at all. With Allen being at A&M, it doesn't necessarily help them. However, he's a great QB, so it's just a bonus that he is a good friend of mine."

 

Clemson vs. Georgia Recruiting Impact

On Saturday, Clemson and Georgia will meet in Athens for a marquee SEC vs. ACC contest. The game will be a big one for college football fans, but the ramifications in recruiting may be bigger.

Clemson has always recruited Georgia well, and this year is no different. Suwanee (Georgia) North Gwinnett offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt is the headliner of the Tigers class. Clemson also has pledges from Peach State standouts Austin BryantShadell Bell and Zach Giella

Ryan Bartow of 247Sports says a Georgia win could help slow the Tigers, but not by much because of the value Clemson has placed on recruiting the state. 

"A Georgia win could help with a guy like Albert Huggins. Huggins grew up a big fan of Georgia, but he has only been there once," noted Bartow to Bleacher Report. "He has been to Clemson several times, and it seems like everyone around him wants him to go to Clemson." 

Head coach Dabo Swinney has made the state of Georgia a priority for his staff. Swinney has made a strong effort to lay pipeline in the fertile ground of the state. 

"Clemson has always had success in Georgia. They always should too. Clemson is only 20 miles from the Georgia border. What they've done since Jeff Scott took over as the recruiting coordinator is put four coaches in the Atlanta era," added Bartow.

"(Brent) Venables has Cobb County. Mike Reed has Fulton County. Marion Hobby has DeKalb County and Tony Elliott has Gwinnett County," Bartow continued. "They also have Robbie Caldwell covering Middle Georgia. Danny Pearman has Valdosta and southwest Georgia, and Scott has southeast Georgia. So in total, [they have] seven coaches dedicated to the area. They treat it like it's in-state, and they need to do that. Georgia is the fourth biggest producer of Division I talent." 

Huggins is down to Clemson and Georgia. The 247Sports Crystal Ball has him 92 percent leaning toward Clemson. Georgia is hoping to reverse the trend on Huggins and make a push with a win over Clemson to start the season. 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Brad Kaaya Named Starting QB for Miami Hurricanes

Following a battle that stretched throughout the last several months, true freshman Brad Kaaya has been named the starting quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps for the position.   

Miami coach Al Golden spoke about the decision to put Kaaya under center for the season opener, per the Associated Press (via ESPN):

As I told him, he's our quarterback. He's not a freshman quarterback. He's the University of Miami quarterback. [...]

It was a tight battle. It was a battle that none of us could have foresaw at the end of June or the beginning of July or maybe even the beginning of camp. I'm excited about that position. ... But right now, Brad nudged out Jake, and he's our quarterback.

Kaaya came to Miami as a 4-star prospect and the seventh-best pro-style quarterback in the nation, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, and he immediately made an impact. The West Hills, California, native arrived on campus in May and took over the starting position in that length of time.

In the final season of his high school career, Kaaya registered 3,853 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, six interceptions and a rushing score. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports offers his take on the freshman:

The decision might come as a surprise with Golden even admitting no one could have foreseen this conclusion. But after a strong showing in camp, a lot will be expected of the young signal-caller.

As for Kaaya's actual opponent for the season opener, he will have to take on Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in their first game as an ACC program. With the matchup coming on Monday, Sept. 1, all eyes will be on Kaaya to see how he responds.

If Kaaya can get past the Cardinals, he will have a few weaker opponents in Florida A&M and Arkansas State, both home games for Miami. But with Nebraska and a tough slate against programs like North Carolina, Duke and Florida State on the schedule, Kaaya's job will not be easy.

After finishing 9-4 last season, Kaaya takes over for a program that is trending in the right direction. But in order to keep that trend going, the Canes will have to rely on the young quarterback to shine after the departure of Stephen Morris.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas A&M vs. South Carolina Complete Game Preview

The Texas A&M football team will travel to Columbia, South Carolina, on August 28 to take on the No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks. The Aggies and Gamecocks will play a close game that will be decided in the fourth quarter. 

The season-opening meeting between Texas A&M and South Carolina will be the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Aggies enter the game ranked No. 21 and looking to improve on their 9-4 record in 2013. 

This will be the first game ever televised on the SEC Network. The contest has major implications on the SEC title race as neither team can afford to start off conference play at 0-1.

Both teams will be attempting to replace program-defining stars from their 2013 squad. Former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney were both selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. 

A national television audience will get to watch two Top 25 teams square off in a game that will help shape the 2014 SEC race. This is a look at how the two teams match up with each other.

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Welcome to College Football's Playoff Era

Playoffs? You want playoffs, and finally, you've got playoffs.

Nearly a century-and-a-half after the first college football game was played in 1869, a playoff will decide the national champion in college football's highest division. In this, the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff, a four-team tournament will be held at the end of the season to determine the 2014 champion.

Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP, is understandably stoked.

"The playoff will be extremely popular, the fans will love it," Hancock predicted when he spoke to Bleacher Report. "It's a joy to be involved in something that will be an iconic event."

Hancock mentioned the "bracket" aspect of the CFP, which is no doubt foreign to top-division college football but familiar to all NCAA championships, particularly the men's basketball tournament, which he ran for more than a decade. The CFP won't be March Madness, as it's only a four-team, three-game tournament, but it's a significant departure from what decided the mythical national championship in the past.

College football is used to having polls crown its annual champions. The Associated Press writers poll was founded in 1936, followed by the coaches poll with its various sponsors beginning in 1950. The Bowl Championship Series, which began in 1998 and lasted 16 years, pitted the purported top two teams in the regular season in a one-game championship showdown.

The BCS used a combination of polls and computer rankings to determine its top teams, a practice that will be discarded by the CFP. Instead of 170-plus voters and six computers, a 13-member selection committee will decide which four teams play in the playoff, as well as eight other teams for the four prestigious CFP bowls.

The 13-member committee includes five current athletic directors representing the five power conferences as well as retired administrators, coaches and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They are to serve two- to four-year terms, as the committee membership will eventually have turnovers on an annual basis.

A protocol has been set up for the committee members, who will vote each week beginning the last weekend of October to determine their collective rankings. These rankings will be made available to the public each Tuesday until the final weekend of the regular season, when the playoff field as well as the other CFP bowl participants are announced.

"I feel very comfortable with the selection process and the transparency of our setup," said Hancock, who along with committee chair Jeff Long will be the lone voices of the committee during the season. "I really believe the committee's protocol is excellent and our recusal policy is even a little more stringent than for the NCAA Tournament."

Nine committee members must recuse themselves when their respective institutions are discussed during their weekly meetings in Dallas. The committee will take a series of votes to settle on the pecking order of the teams under consideration each week.

This year, the final pairings will be revealed on Dec. 7, and there will be controversy. Whereas during the BCS era the No. 3-ranked teams were usually the aggrieved, in the CFP regime that snub will be keenly felt by No. 5 instead.

That's OK, Hancock said, as the committee will be fully prepared to defend its decisions. Besides, debates and arguments are simply part of the very fabric of college football.

"We wouldn't have it any other way," Hancock said. "Sure, teams will be disappointed, especially those that came very close, but there will always be debates, as that's a reflection on the popularity of college football. That'll never change, and we don't want it to change."

 

Follow on Twitter @PlayoffGuru

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Wisconsin Football: Depth-Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

The last time the Wisconsin football team stepped onto the field, the Badgers got shellacked by South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day. Eight months later, the Badgers face another unfamiliar SEC foe, LSU, in one of the most anticipated games of the opening weekend.

With a lot of winnable games littered across their schedule, a Heisman trophy candidate in their backfield to go along with a lot of question marks at major positions, let's take an in-depth look at everything Badgers fans will need to know going into the 2014 season.

 

Coaches

Source: uwbadgers.com 2014 Wisconsin Badgers Coaching Staff Title Name Years on Team Head Coach Gary Andersen 2 Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Dave Aranda 2 Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Andy Ludwig 2 Wide Receivers Chris Beatty 2 Running Backs Thomas Brown 1 Safeties Bill Busch 2 Tight Ends/Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Genyk 2 Defensive Line Chad Kauha'aha'a 2 Cornerbacks Ben Strickland 3 Offensive Line T.J. Woods 2

Year 2 of the Gary Andersen era sees very little turnover, all of his coaches have been retained except for star running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who moved to the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens.

Hammock created a strong tradition of having not just one or two top running backs but at least three guys who could make opposing teams pay thanks to competitive practices and a spirit of friendly competition.

Stepping in to replace the massive shoes of Hammock is Thomas Brown, the former running back for the Georgia Bulldogs was a star there and spent a couple of years in the NFL before becoming a coach.  

Last season, as the running backs coach for Marshall, he coached a trio of backs to at least 500-yard seasons, one of only seven teams to accomplish that feat.

What Brown also brings to the table is excellent prowess as a recruiter in areas the Badgers have rarely mined for talent. In 2015, Brown has signed four players, which includes two from New Jersey, one from Georgia and another from Texas.

Overall, the coaching staff is particularly strong on the defensive side of the ball, with Andersen holding a background in defense, while defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has smoothed the transition from Chris Ash seamlessly, despite implementing a new defensive scheme.

Aranda's 3-4 defense will likely be more effective this season now that he is able to install more of his own players as opposed to those he inherited from Bret Bielema. While the Badgers have to replace their entire front seven (more on that later), the current set of players fit the 3-4 defense a bit better than the defensive ends and outside linebackers from last year's team.

On offense, the coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig will need to figure out packages for Tanner McEvoy to play and how to maximize Joel Stave's effectiveness, all while maintaining an identity as a run-first team.

 

What to Watch For on Offense

Source: rivals.com 2014 Wisconsin Badgers Offensive Depth Chart Position1st String2nd String3rd String QB Tanner McEvoy Joel Stave Bart Houston RB Melvin Gordon Corey Clement Taiwan Deal FB Derek Watt Austin Ramesh Derek Straus WR Kenzel Doe Reggie Love George Rushing WR Jordan Fredrick Alex Erickson Robert Wheelwright TE Sam Arneson Austin Traylor Troy Fumagalli C Dan Voltz Michael Deiter Micah Kapoi OG Kyle Costigan Trent Denlinger Logan Schmidt OG Dallas Lewallen Ray Ball George Panos OT Rob Havenstein Hayden Biegel Beau Benzschawel OT Tyler Marz Walker Williams Jacob Maxwell K Rafael Gaglianone Jack Russell Andrew Endicott KR/PR Kenzel Doe Natrell Jamerson A.J. Jordan

There's a lot in this depth chart to digest. Some of these players may redshirt, particularly the freshman linemen that are third string right now (I'm looking at Beau Benzschawel and George Panos as likely candidates to redshirt) while D.J. Gillins could step in as the third-string quarterback over Bart Houston.

Speaking of quarterback, I had penciled incumbent Joel Stave in as the starting quarterback; however, Friday, Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported sources tell him Tanner McEvoy will be the starter against LSU.

McEvoy brings something to the table Stave doesn't: mobility. McEvoy may not be the runner that Gillins or prized 2015 quarterback recruit Austin Kafentzis does in terms of running ability, but McEvoy is quite mobile and is athletic enough to run a successful read option.

Joel Stave, who started all 13 games last season and started 19 games in his career, will be valuable as a backup. It will be interesting to see how Stave is used as he has more experience and a stronger arm, but he has struggled with consistency.

At running back, the man to watch is Melvin Gordon. Gordon is a Heisman trophy candidate and has been excellent throughout his first two years of eligibility, rushing for more than 10 yards per carry his freshman season and following that up with 1,609 yards on 7.8 yards per carry while scoring 12 touchdowns.

Backing him up is Corey Clement, who rushed for 547 yards as a freshman last season and showed why he was so highly touted coming into Madison. Gordon and Clement hope to recreate the success of last year's running back tandem—Gordon and now-New England Patriot James White—who eclipsed 3,000 yards on the ground.

The vaunted third running back spot is up in the air between freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw. Kinlaw is faster and quicker than Deal, but injuries that have piled up throughout camp may hand the job to Deal.

At fullback, the Badgers have one of the best in the country in Derek Watt. Brother of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, Derek has cemented himself as an able pass-catcher and an excellent lead blocker.

Watt's pass-catching abilities have moved him into a hybrid fullback/tight-end role, which should give Austin Ramesh plenty of chances to see the field. Ramesh was excellent in the spring game and has carried that momentum into a strong fall and should see his hard work pay off.

At tight end, the Badgers have two guys who have patiently waited their turn behind guys like Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak, both of whom earned training camp invites with the Atlanta Falcons, and now look ready to contribute in a big way.

With Sam Arneson, the Badgers have a dependable red-zone threat, who has turned 10 career receptions into four touchdowns, including a huge touchdown grab against Ohio State last season while getting clobbered in the end zone.

Backing him up is Austin Traylor, who despite not recording a catch yet in his collegiate career, projects out as an excellent blocker and should see a few targets, similarly to the way Wozniak was used last season as primarily a blocker but also a good safety valve.

Along the offensive line, the Badgers boast one of the strongest units in both the Big Ten and in the country. Led by offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, this starting group boasts dozens of starts between the five of them and nearly everyone along the line is on a preseason All-Big Ten team. Of note, Havenstein and offensive guard Kyle Costigan made Phil Steele's First Team All-Big Ten.

At kicker, the Badgers used a scholarship on incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone, who impressed with every kick throughout fall camp. With seemingly limitless range, Gaglianone has probably overtaken incumbent Jack Russell on the depth chart, thus limiting the dog puns in my future columns.

Kenzel Doe has been shaky at times as a returner, but his 91-yard kick return in the Capital One Bowl last season showed he has the highlight-reel ability that teams look for in a kick returner and will handle kick and punt returns. Backing him up is freshman burner Natrell Jamerson and A.J. Jordan.

 

What to Watch For on Defense

Source: rivals.com 2014 Wisconsin Badgers Defensive Depth Chart Position1st String2nd String3rd String NG Warren Herring Arthur Goldberg Jeremy Patterson DE Chikwe Obasih Alec James James Adeyanju DE Konrad Zagzebski Jake Keefer Billy Hirschfeld OLB Vince Biegel Jesse Hayes Jack Cichy ILB Derek Landisch Michael Trotter D'Cota Dixon ILB Marcus Trotter Ben Ruechel Chasen Andersen OLB Joe Schobert Leon Jacobs Sherard Cadogan CB Sojourn Shelton Derrick Tindal Dare Ogunbowale CB Darius Hillary Devin Gaulden T.J. Reynard SS Michael Caputo Peniel Jean A.J. Jordan FS Lubern Figaro Leo Musso Austin Hudson P Drew Meyer P.J. Rosowski  

The first thing you notice when you look up and down the depth chart is a lot of unfamiliar names, even to the most ardent of Badger fans. With that caveat aside, there is actually a lot of talent in here, much of which fits into defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme.

Starting at nose guard, filling in for the massive Beau Allen—a draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles—is Konrad Zagzebski, a move which surprised some. Zagzebski was originally penciled in as a defensive end, but in order to move Warren Herring to defensive end, Zagzebski moves to nose guard.

Behind him, while the coaching staff had reservations about backups Arthur Goldberg and Jeremy Patterson, Goldberg has progressed nicely and coach Kauha'aha'a looks more comfortable playing Goldberg at this point. Freshman Jeremy Patterson has the frame to be a great nose guard, but for now, is firmly entrenched in the third string role.

At defensive end, the Badgers lost the most experience, losing Pat Muldoon, Tyler Dippel and Ethan Hemer, all three of whom were very good for the Badgers, particularly in run support. Konrad Zagzebski saw a few snaps last season, but more than the lion's share of playing time went to the three aforementioned departed seniors.

This leaves a potentially huge void at defensive end; however, the combination of Chikwe Obasih and Alec James should provide plenty of speed along the outside to help increase the pressure on opposing quarterbacks while also working in run support.

Furthermore, moving Herring to defensive end lets him spend more time pressuring the quarterback. Spelling Allen last year, Herring picked up four sacks—tied for second on the team. If Herring could pick up four sacks in a part-time role on the inside, the hope is that number can increase if he's playing more and at end.

With Herring and Obasih or James, the Badgers have more pieces to rush the passer than in years past, which will only be a good thing for them as coach Aranda gets to blitz a little bit more this season, now that the coaching staff has more of their own players in place.

At outside linebacker, the Badgers graduated Brendan Kelly and Ethan Armstrong; however, both Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert played quite a bit last season and both are chomping at the bit for their first real chance to start. Behind them, Leon Jacobs has been very good throughout camp and will be called upon to play plenty of snaps this season as the primary backup to Biegel and Schobert.

On the inside, the Badgers will attempt to replace the All-World production of Chris Borland. While no one will be able to do what Borland did, when called upon to start against Iowa after Borland went down with an injury, it was Marcus Trotter who stepped up to the plate and delivered a strong performance in relief.

Whether Trotter can keep up that kind of production throughout the course of a whole season is still yet to be seen; however, if that game was an indicator of anything, it's that Trotter is a sound tackler with good instincts and is very strong in run support.

Set to start alongside Trotter is Derek Landisch, who started a couple of games last season and, along with Herring, will be called upon to be a leader of this young defense. If Trotter and Landisch can play as well as they did against Iowa all season, the Badgers won't miss Borland as much as they may have anticipated.

For the first time in a long time, the secondary is not a question mark, but rather a position of strength. At cornerback, Sojourn Shelton looks to improve off an excellent freshman season. Paired with Shelton is Darius Hillary, who got picked on quite a bit last season but still performed very admirably.

In the nickel corner role is likely Devin Gaulden, who has struggled with injuries throughout his Badgers career, but if he can stay healthy, he will be a big contributor for the team. Also fighting for that nickel corner spot is freshman Derrick Tindal, who has been quite good throughout fall camp.

At strong safety, the Badgers have a strong, physical presence in Michael Caputo. Caputo is a tackling machine, recording the second most tackles on the team last season, and with Borland's departure, Caputo should rack up even more tackles this season.

Playing alongside him is likely freshman Lubern Figaro. Figaro has been nothing short of a revelation during fall camp, which has been a sigh of relief for the coaching staff as free safety was the only spot in the secondary with a question mark. Behind him is Leo Musso, who has been a valuable contributor in special teams thus far and should see snaps at safety.

At punter, Drew Meyer will likely retain his role. Meyer was really good as a freshman and solid last season as a sophomore. While the Badgers would love to see more distance on his punts, Meyer has been very effective in limiting the returns on his kicks.

 

Injury News

Source: Various Wisconsin Badgers Injuries Player NameInjuryExpected Return Date Derek Landisch Hamstring By Opening Day Vince Biegel Head By Opening Day Caleb Kinlaw Undisclosed Unknown Robert Wheelwright Unknown Late August Jazz Peavy Hamstring Late August

The Badgers have been hit with the injury bug throughout fall camp, with more than a dozen players going down for stretches of time. With that being said, thankfully for the team, most of those injuries haven't been particularly serious, carrying tags of precautionary and the team has seen most players back on the field a couple of days later.

With that being said, the five injuries listed above are the most cause for concern. Both Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy were in the discussion for serious playing time at wide receiver, with Wheelwright's name being bandied about as the No. 1 receiver.

Unfortunately, neither can seem to stay on the field, with Wheelwright watching his window of opportunity slip away as the trio of freshmen receivers along with previously unheralded players like Reggie Love overtaking them on the depth chart.

Kinlaw left practice on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury. Kinlaw was looking like a good change-of-pace option for the Badgers as the third string running back, though this injury could put the brakes on the freshman taking that role.

The last and arguably most important of these injuries is the one suffered by Derek Landisch. Landisch is one of the three most important players on the Badgers' defense and would expose some serious depth issues at inside linebacker.

With that being said, Landisch is expected back by the time the Badgers travel to Houston to take on LSU, though it will be important to monitor his health status leading up to the game.

 

X-Factor

While there are plenty of candidates for this role, there's one player who stands above the rest. Sure, one could point to Corey Clement, who will need to step into James White's big shoes as the complement to Gordon. One could point to Kenzel Doe in his attempt to fill the shoes of Jared Abbrederis, both as a receiver and a punt returner.

On the defensive side of the ball, one could look at Obasih or Biegel as the primary pass-rushers or Figaro as he is the freshman center fielder for the Badgers.  But it is the man under center, Tanner McEvoy, that will make the biggest impact on whether the Badgers will be 8-4 or significantly better than that.

Originally, this section was written with Joel Stave as the X-Factor, when signs pointed to him being the starting quarterback for the Badgers; however, the substitution of McEvoy into this role shows just how important the man under center is.

McEvoy has the ability to hurt teams with his feet and his arms, though his 3/4 delivery is highly unconventional and, as a result, can be a bit erratic. He was good two years ago, the last time he played quarterback, when he was at Arizona Western, but last season, his first at Wisconsin, he played safety.

At safety, he played in 10 games, starting three and allowed Dezmen Southward to move over to a hybrid cornerback/safety role last season.

The questions that need to be asked include, "how much will McEvoy play?" and "how will the Badgers implement a mobile quarterback?" Outside of Russell Wilson in 2011, the Badgers haven't really had a mobile quarterback since the start of the Bielema era.

With that being said, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and coach Andersen have been looking to install a mobile quarterback, and while all reports have been that Stave has had the edge in camp, Ludwig and Andersen's preference for someone who can hurt you with their legs and their arm wins out.

While I don't believe McEvoy is Chuckie Keaton, the standout Andersen had under center at Utah State, by introducing an offense with a mobile quarterback this season, it could pave the way more easily for Gillins and Kafentzis in the coming years.

 

2014 Schedule

Wisconsin Badgers 2014 Schedule DateOpponentLocation Aug. 30 LSU Houston, TX Sept. 6 Western Illinois Madison, WI Sept. 13 BYE   Sept. 20 Bowling Green Madison, WI Sept. 27 South Florida Madison, WI Oct. 4 Northwestern Evanston, IL Oct. 11 Illinois Madison, WI Oct. 18 BYE   Oct. 25 Maryland Madison, WI Nov. 1 Rutgers Piscataway, NJ Nov. 8 Purdue West Lafayette, IN Nov. 15 Nebraska Madison, WI Nov. 22 Iowa Iowa City, IA Nov. 29 Minnesota Madison, WI

 

Make or Break Games

Opening day is a good place to start, though beating LSU does more for the Big Ten than it does for the Badgers. A loss to the Tigers on opening day won't kill their chances to notch double-digit wins or make it back to Indianapolis, so I don't believe it is a make or break game.

The team's two make or break games come in consecutive weeks in mid-November, when the Nebraska Cornhuskers travel to Madison and the Badgers travel to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

These three teams are the class of the newly realigned Big Ten West division, and it's more than likely that the West's representative in Indianapolis will be decided in these two games.

If the Badgers can go 2-0 in these two games, even a slip-up against Minnesota or Northwestern at Ryan Field would still virtually ensure them a berth in the Big Ten Championship game.

Iowa has a similar schedule to the Badgers with their crossover games coming against Indiana and Maryland, two of the weaker teams in the East, while the Badgers get Maryland and Rutgers. Furthermore, Iowa's two toughest Big Ten games, against Nebraska and Wisconsin, both come at home.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln, Nebraska gets to play in East Lansing for one of their crossover games against Michigan State and also have to travel to Madison and Iowa City. With such a difficult schedule, I would be surprised to see Nebraska get through that gauntlet unscathed.

With all of that being said, that would make the Badgers' game against Iowa the make-or-break game on their schedule as both teams have a good chance to go undefeated in Big Ten play headed into this game, which would be the de facto West division championship game.

 

New Uniforms

Not a lot is new this year, though the team has experimented with quite a few new combinations over the past few years. This season features an all-red uniform, which fits in with the rest of the team's uniform options nicely.

 

Prediction

I think 11-1 is certainly in the cards. I also think the opening game against LSU will be too steep a challenge, considering the amount of losses at both the skill positions on offense and their entire front seven, but I think there is a lot to learn from this game, win or lose.

While it may be a bit optimistic, I think the Badgers have a good chance to run the table in conference. From there, a matchup with probably Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game is on the cards. While anything can happen in a game like that—just look at the 2012 Big Ten Championship against Nebraska—I think Michigan State's defense would bottle up the run too well for the Badgers to overcome.

In terms of awards, Rob Havenstein is one of the best lineman in the country, and I think people will quickly find that out over the course of the season; however, Iowa's Brandon Scherff has the inside track on the Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

As for the much talked about Gordon, I think he will earn an invite to New York for the Heisman trophy award presentation, but Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota will probably edge him out for the award itself.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Teams Impacted Most by Injuries in 2014

There is no game-planning for injuries.

Try as they might, college football coaches still haven't found a way to prevent the inevitable injuries that pop up and throw a wrench into their plans for the upcoming season.

Developing depth can help mitigate the impact of an injury, but only to a point. The same thing can be said with limiting the snaps that starters and key contributors get during the various offseason and preseason practices and workouts, as the lack of reps could lead to poor performance and timing that ends up being just as much a nuisance as an injury.

Since the 2013-14 season ended, nearly every FBS team has seen an important player go down with an injury. Most of them return quickly or only miss a few practices. Others, though, end up out of action for a much longer stretch. The closer that ailment comes to the start of the season the more games that player is apt to miss.

There are 10 teams, in particular, who will head into this fall without the services of at least one major player. Scroll through to see which teams are most impacted by injuries this season, and how they are dealing with it.

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Oklahoma State Football: Updated Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014

Oklahoma State Cowboys football begins in just one week, making now a good time to revisit predictions made last spring, just as the Cowboys were breaking from spring camp.

As you can see here, we predicted in April that Mike Gundy's boys would find a way to win seven regular-season games and get themselves eligible for a bowl in what is sure to be a rebuilding year.

That was three months ago. Players have moved up and down the depth charts, young men have been suspended or injured, and the college football landscape in general has shifted to merit a second look at the Pokes' schedule.

The question is: Do those predictions we made in April still hold water? Or were we completely off our rocker?

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Eastern Washington DB Tevin McDonald Hits QB and Intercepts Ball on Same Play

Eastern Washington's Tevin McDonald showed exactly why persistence is key in football. 

During a game against Sam Houston State, McDonald hit quarterback Jared Johnson as he dropped back to pass, which sent the ball into the air. After it bounced off a lineman, McDonald plucked it out of the air for the improbable turnover.

Although the play is incredible, unfortunately we can't help but focus on that red field. That will definitely take some getting used to. 

[Vine, h/t Yahoo Sports]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ricky Williams Reads Poetry in This Funny Commercial for the Longhorn Network

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!"

[Longhorn Network, h/t Yahoo Sports]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Title Contenders with Easiest 2014 Schedules

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.

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10 College Football Underclassmen Who Will Generate NFL Buzz in 2014

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.

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Virginia Tech Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview, Predictions

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.

 

Coaches

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?

 

Injury News

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. 

 

X-Factor

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. 

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

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.

Yes, Duke. 

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. 

 

Prediction

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. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2014 College Football QBs with Best Arm Strength

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.

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Tennessee Football: Ranking Top 10 Vols Heading into 2014 Season

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. 

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DeVante Parker Injury: Updates on Louisville WR's Foot and Return

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.

Head coach Bobby Petrino weighed in on what Parker means to the team during the ACC media day, via Jeff Greer of The Courier-Journal.

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Texas Football: Depth Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

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.

 

Injury Update

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.

 

The X-Factor

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."

 

Make-or-Break Games

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.

 

Prediction

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.

Ouch.

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.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

7 Teams Ready to Climb the CFB Mountain

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.

Begin Slideshow

1 Recruit Every Top 25 College Football Team Must Land This Fall

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.

Begin Slideshow

Notre Dame Football: Depth-Chart Analysis, Complete 2014 Preview and Predictions

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. 

 

Coaches

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. 

 

Injury News

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. 

 

X-Factor

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. 

 

2014 Schedule

 

Make-or-Break Games

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. 

 

New Uniforms

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. 

 

Prediction

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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