NCAA Football News

Why Alabama Needs SEC to Be Dominant in 2014

Alabama running back Kenyan Drake took one last opportunity to start some Twitter fodder among fans before fall camp starts this weekend, tweeting out an interesting theory and attempting to take a peek into the minds of some of the most rabid sports fans on Earth:

The reaction among Alabama fans was not exactly what Drake hypothesized, though. Many Crimson Tide fans said they hope for the complete opposite. In fact, teammate Nick Perry was just about the only reply that said they want Auburn undefeated.

So, Drake clarified (while also learning a lesson about the dangers of hyperbole):

Fans of college football no doubt want to see both teams at their very best when they meet in the Iron Bowl. It happened in 2013 and produced possibly the greatest ending ever to a college football game. Meeting again in similar stakes in 2014, with 2013 as a backdrop, could make for an even better finish, crazy as it may be.

But for Alabama, it’s about much more than want. The Crimson Tide needs Auburn—and the rest of its SEC schedule—to be as dominant as possible in the first year of the College Football Playoff.

Nobody is really quite sure exactly how the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee will select four teams for the first playoff. West Virginia AD Oliver Luck tried to add some clarity on Tuesday but really only added to the confusion.

Regardless, the word “strength of schedule” has been thrown around plenty of times and will very likely come into play. Right now, that doesn’t look good for Alabama.

Its only power-five nonconference game is against West Virginia, a mess of a football team coming off of a 4-8 season as second-year Big 12 members. The rest of its out-of-conference slate consists of Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina—hardly an intimidating group.

In addition to its regular plate of SEC West foes and Tennessee, the Crimson Tide get Florida from the East, which usually helps strength of schedule—but not this year, after a disastrous 4-8 season under Will Muschamp.

FBSSchedules.com did an early ranking of 2014 strength of schedule using the NCAA’s method of win-loss record from the previous year (really all we have to go off of at this point), and Alabama checked in at 95 out of 128 schools.

Simply put: It’s not looking good for Alabama in the SOS department. That could be an issue come selection time.

If the Crimson Tide goes undefeated, it should get in, no questions asked. Any power-five team that goes undefeated—presumably winning their conference—will.

The problem for Alabama, though, is that under Nick Saban, it’s had trouble keeping an unblemished record through its modern-day dynasty of three championships in five years. In fact, in every season since 2009 (Saban’s only undefeated season in any of his coaching stops), Alabama has lost a game in November—the worst time to do so for your poll standings.

It’s generally regarded that it’s better to lose a game early; that way, you have the rest of the season to climb back up the ladder. A loss in November, though, is usually killer.

The Crimson Tide got help around it after 2011 and 2012 November losses, getting back into the title game. It could have happened again in 2013, but the Armageddon scenario didn’t play out for a third year in a row.

Under the BCS standings, Alabama still would have been one of the top four teams in 2013, but the College Football Playoff may not be as forgiving.

Again, nobody knows exactly how the committee will rank teams. Could it have left the Crimson Tide out last year in favor of another one-loss team?  If the committee is indeed looking at strength of schedule, it will be hard for it to put a one-loss Alabama team in this season over another with a better SOS.

That’s why the Crimson Tide needs the SEC to be dominant this year.

Alabama will look for teams like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Florida to live up to their potential, while hoping Texas A&M doesn’t have a big drop off with the loss of Johnny Manziel and recent attrition on the defensive side of the ball. Tennessee and Arkansas don’t really look like they’ll pose much of a threat.

And so, to get a few signature wins in 2014, Alabama needs LSU and Auburn—its two marquee opponents, both in November—to be great.

Beating one undefeated SEC team and one nearly undefeated SEC team (LSU and Auburn play each other October 4) in November will prove Alabama’s worth to the committee, while helping its mediocre strength of schedule.

Alabama needs both games to be major events—with both teams coming in unblemished (or as unblemished as possible)—despite what the fans in Kenyan Drake’s mentions may want.

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Can Jake Heaps Be the the Next Russell Wilson for Miami?

Jake Heaps has one last chance to make an impact in his college career. Last month, the former BYU and Kansas quarterback opted to make Miami the home for that last chance.

Since Heaps is a graduate student, he will be able to play immediately. 

Graduate quarterback transfers have become en vogue over the past few years. Jacob Coker (Florida State to Alabama), Michael Brewer (Texas Tech to Virginia Tech) and Garrett Gilbert (Texas to SMU) are just a few examples of quarterbacks who wanted to start anew right away.

Programs on the receiving end of those transfers have the opportunity to bridge the gap, so to speak, from one quarterback to another if depth and/or talent is an issue. 

No other quarterback transfer in recent years was more high-profile than Russell Wilson, who in 2011 transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. Wilson led the Badgers to an 11-3 record that season, capped off by a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. 

In a recent teleconference, Heaps said he wants to have a similar experience with the Hurricanes (via Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald):

I didn’t come here to be the backup. I made this decision for a reason. I came here to play, but you have to earn that. No one is going to give that to you, and that’s what I knew coming into this situation and that’s what I wanted.

It wouldn't be the first time Heaps has earned the starting job as a transfer. The former 4-star recruit left BYU for Kansas after his sophomore year in 2011. That was the first sign that Heaps' college career may not live up to the hype. After sitting out a year per NCAA rules, Heaps began the '13 season as the Jayhawks' starting quarterback, but he was benched late in the year in favor of freshman Montell Cozart. 

Heaps wasn't efficient at Kansas, that much is undeniable. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But he had no help from the offensive line—the team finished last in the Big 12 in first downs, per CFBStats.com—or his receivers, none of whom caught more than one touchdown pass. Head coach Charlie Weis explained this at Big 12 media days: 

With the nature of the offense we've been running from the last couple of years, I think the true dropback quarterbacks have been exposed. When you're playing with marginal offensive line, playing with marginal wide receivers, when you're playing marginal every position except for running back, you get exposed. Changing the mentality on offense, going to a more spread out, wide‐open offense with an athletic quarterback, hides a lot of sins.

Weis has traditionally coached dropback passers, but Cozart is more mobile. There was no future for Heaps at Kansas if Weis was changing his offensive philosophy. 

At Miami, Heaps will have an offense that's more suited to his skill set. The Hurricanes have an experienced and large offensive line, a dynamic playmaker in running back Duke Johnson and speedy wide receiver Stacy Coley. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to know the Hurricanes, the preseason pick to win the ACC Coastal, are a far better team talent-wise than the Jayhawks. 

Any quarterback can look good with a solid running game and time to throw. That goes for Heaps or anyone else who starts for the 'Canes. For as underwhelming as Heaps' college career has been, it's possible he can still be an effective piece of the offense. He's been playing off and on since he was a freshman in 2010. Experience in all kinds of situations, good and bad, is one thing he definitely has.

The rest of the situation, as Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports tweets, is a little odd:

If Heaps doesn't win the starting job (a possibility) or play well (also a possibility), it's not clear which direction Miami would go. Ryan Williams, the presumed starter before tearing his ACL in the spring, is out indefinitely. Kevin Olsen and Brad Kaaya are the other options. 

Certainly, Heaps seems like an early favorite. However, what he won't be is the true difference-maker that elevates Miami's offense to another level. When Wilson went to Wisconsin, he brought another dimension to what had been solely a ground-and-pound offense. Wilson was pass-first quarterback, but his athleticism allowed the Badgers to extend plays and open up the playbook. 

Heaps simply doesn't give those same options to Miami. By his own admission, he said on the teleconference that he won't be “taking off for 80-yard touchdowns running." That doesn't mean that he can't be the starter or play well in 2014. It means that opposing defenses won't have to account for him in the same way. 

As long as Miami wins, though, it won't matter. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.com

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Auburn, Clemson Announce Future Home-and-Home Football Series

College football fans, rejoice!

Auburn announced Wednesday that is has scheduled a home-and-home series with Clemson that will start at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2016 and conclude at Memorial Stadium in 2017.

The first meeting of that series becomes the latest addition to a stacked schedule of of games on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016:

Despite playing in different conferences, the Tigers and Tigers actually have a long-running series that dates all the way back to 1899. They played fairly consistently through 1971, but took a long hiatus before meeting in the 1998 Peach Bowl. After meeting again in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the schools decided to renew the regular-season rivalry with a three-game series in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Auburn won the first of those three meetings, and Clemson won the final two.

The first two games of that recent series were a home-and-home setup, but the third was played at the Georgia Dome to open the 2012 season. Now they are returning to the traditional format, and ESPN 680 Radio host Mark Ennis—like the ostensible majority of people—is happy that the games will be played on campuses:

For Auburn, playing Clemson will satisfy the new SEC mandate for at least one nonconference opponent to come from a power-five league. Despite having many weaker opponents to choose from, the Tigers agreed to play a Clemson team that always manages to be competitive, and they deserve some credit for doing so.

Clemson also deserves some credit, as it is no stranger to playing the SEC blue-bloods. It will finish a home-and-home with Georgia in 2014, and it also plays an annual rivalry game against South Carolina.

One can only hope that the College Football Playoff will compel teams to schedule more nonconference games such as this one. In the past, losing early could derail a team's national title hopes in September. But now, there's a chance that it won't be as crippling.

"We don’t think in terms of most deserving on the resume," said CFP selection committee chairman Jeff Long on how the four-team playoff will be chosen, per Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News. "We’re focused on the best four teams and the best ranking in the [playoff] top 25. Again, our focus is the best, not deserving."

Agreeing to play each other gives Auburn and Clemson a chance to prove their merits in the first few weeks of the season. Even if they lose, showing well against a good team is something the selection committee will take into account. It's hard to say that for sure until we see the process in action, but it certainly seems like the case.

And if it is, games like this could be the start of a very cool trend in college football scheduling.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Biggest Storylines Heading into Ohio State Fall Camp

When the Ohio State football team takes the field for the start of fall camp on Monday, it will do so with both national championship aspirations and expectations. The Buckeyes fell short of their goal of playing for the crystal ball a season ago and will now have to qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff in order to capture a national title.

But before the Buckeyes can start thinking about selection committees or even their first (official) conference championship since 2009, Ohio State must first focus on its third fall camp under the direction of Urban Meyer. And as is often the case when it comes to Meyer, there won't be any shortage of storylines in Columbus as Ohio State sets sail for a pivotal 2014 season.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the Buckeyes' top storylines entering the fall camp season.

Begin Slideshow

Will Muschamp Offers Football Tickets in Exchange for Twitter Lessons

Learning to navigate Twitter is a bit like poling through the Everglades.

You’re going to mess up, poke something you shouldn’t have poked and end up chin-deep in snake droppings.

Will Muschamp is trying to learn from his Twitter misadventures and keep this nightmare from happening. 

While attempting to direct-message a recruit, the University of Florida football coach accidentally tweeted a message to his 56,000 followers on Monday.

Muschamp would prefer this doesn’t happen again, and he’s willing to shell out tickets for lessons in working the pneumatic tube system of snark that is Twitter. 

The coach tweeted out his offer on Wednesday morning. Tickets for tweet lessons, everyone: 

Sounds like a #gooddeal to me, coach.

Muschamp probably owns one of the better Twitter accounts for a college coach. It’s football-centric, but he clearly writes his own material.

“#NumberSign” all day long, coach. Just don’t wander into “#FSUTwitter.”

That lesson's free.

 

Follow me on Twitter for more sports and pop culture news.

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Arizona State Football: Roadblocks Between the Sun Devils and the Pac-12 Title

The Arizona State Sun Devils need to answer a few questions if they are going to win the 2014 Pac-12 title.

First question: Who is going to step up on defense?

Next question: Can they slow down Stanford?

The biggest hurdle the Devils faced last season was that team up in Palo Alto, California. The Stanford Cardinal moved the ball with ease against ASU while preventing the big plays that the Devils have thrived on for the last few years.

Flash back to September 21, 2013. The Devils were coming off of a huge win against Wisconsin at home. While the win itself was a bit controversial, the implications were monumental. ASU was finally living up to expectations, and head coach Todd Graham was building something that fans of the Devils had long been waiting for.

Stanford didn't care.

The Cardinal dominated in all phases of the game, scoring 42 points, 29 of which came in the first half. The defense forced two turnovers and had three sacks. Special teams blocked two punts and recorded a safety. The offense hit pay dirt twice through the air and three times by land.

Simply put, the No. 5-ranked team in AP's Top 25 (via ESPN.com) looked like it.

After the loss, ASU's first in the Pac-12, the Devils wouldn't lose another conference game until 11 weeks later.

ASU rolled into the Pac-12 title game on home turf riding a seven-game winning streak. The Devils had defined themselves over the course of the season as a team that could compete with anybody. Players like D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong had emerged as key contributors to a powerful offense. The Devils thought they were prepared for a visit from the Cardinal.

 

Stanford didn't care.

The script was the same. Stanford ran the ball early and often and had the game locked up by halftime.

Possibly the scariest thing about the next meeting with the Cardinal is that the 2014 iteration of the Sun Devils is missing nine defensive starters from its 2013 self. Many of the players lining up on defense this fall will be freshmen or JUCO transfers.

But there are positives. In an interview during the Pac-12's annual media day at Paramount Pictures Studio, Coach Graham had this to say, per ASU's official website:

We have 70 players out of 110 that are operating at 3.0 or higher [grade-point average]. This is the smartest team I've had. The team with the best character I've ever had, and I have a lot of confidence this will be the best football team we've put on the field at Arizona State.

So, assuming the coaching staff can put together a competent defense, what other challenges are facing the defending Pac-12 South champions?

The Devils face a still-trying-to-get-out-of-a-deep-institutional-hole USC program, a UCLA team that boasts a potential top-five NFL draft pick at quarterback in Brett Hundley and, potentially, a team that has treated ASU even worse than Stanford in recent times: Oregon.

ASU hasn't bested the Oregon Ducks since 2004, when Andrew Walter was the starting QB for the Devils. A full decade of beatdowns later, it could be Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota and his Nike-clad Ducks waiting for the opportunity to ruin Arizona State's bid for a conference title.

While the season is chock-full of pitfalls, not the least of which being the 10 returning starting QBs in the conference, the Devils can be confident they possess one of the most potent offenses in the country. From the emergence of do-it-all tailback Foster to the explosive Strong, quarterback Taylor Kelly has all the weapons he could ask for in his bid to bring home the Pac-12 title.

It's like Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral.com says:

"Let's just take a deep preseason breath and accept that if ASU gives up 30 or more points in some games and still wins, that's what this season is meant to be. And didn't you old-timers used to love that in the WAC days?"

Regardless of the questions asked of Arizona State this fall, the answer is clear.

Just keep scoring.

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Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of NCAA Top 25

College football rankings are not going anywhere, folks.

A playoff is upon us with the BCS a nightmare of the past, but rankings remain an important piece of collegiate football's culture, especially after Amway partnered with USA Today and the American Football Coaches Association.

These rankings, like all that came before them, are based on a combination of last year's results, additions or subtractions and projections based on the schedule and more.

Let's dive right into the first projected Top 25 of the season.

 

1. Florida State Seminoles

We can get cute and throw another team in the top slot and cite arbitrary things such as a "tougher schedule" and the proverbial "target on the champ's back" hooplah, but really, the Florida State Seminoles are the most talented team in the land.

These Seminoles return 13 starters from a year ago, with the most notable loss being wideout Kelvin Benjamin. But the losses mean little with Jameis Winston back in the fold, and as Emory Hunt of Football Gameplan points out, his trajectory is only on the upswing:

Miami is by far Florida State's toughest road test, and yes, the defense is in a state of flux, but when the man under center can complete better than 66 percent of his more than 380 attempts and have a 40-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the negatives start to dissipate.

 

2. Oregon Ducks

As if the plug-and-play offense in Oregon needed any help, Marcus Mariota is back for another shot at a title and his team does not have to encounter USC or Arizona State.

Skeptics will point out that the Ducks will find a way to mess up a good thing on paper, which is possible—the last few years have seen Mariota and Co. continue to suffer strokes of bad luck, be it injuries or the simple bounce of the football.

But as long as he continues to produce at this clip, the Ducks are not falling out of the title picture:

It appears the football gods have smiled upon the Ducks this year. It is Mariota's responsibility to make sure his team comes through.

 

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

So what, because Nick Saban's Crimson Tide lost two games as the curtain was drawn on last season means they will struggle this year?

Please.

Saban captains the tightest ship on the seas, and a few losses and some turnover have never thrown a wrench in that. Many will point to the loss of AJ McCarron under center, but in reality, Blake Sims looked great last year and Jacob Coker is a signal-caller who—gasp—could not beat out Winston for the starting gig in the Sunshine State.

They say competition brings out the best in players, so Saban has made sure to point out that a battle is underway, per ESPN's Alex Scarborough:

That's really not internally the perception by me, our staff or our players. Jake Coker has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position. Blake Sims has been competing for the position. He really did a pretty good job in the spring. He didn't play great in the spring game, but we really didn't do the things that he's capable of doing.

No matter who takes the gig, the Crimson Tide will be in the title picture, as always.

 

4. Auburn Tigers

Gus Malzahn's offense ran wild on the nation a year ago, and while losing a talented back such as Tre Mason hurts, it is a scheme that essentially gets production no matter who takes the field.

That said, it certainly does not hurt that quarterback Nick Marshall is back in the fold—and improving as a passer.

The schedule is downright brutal for the Tigers next year, but a run-oriented attack led by surefire star backs in names such as Roc Thomas will do much to keep the pressure off what may be an iffy defensive unit.

 

5. Oklahoma Sooners

One-game miracle or legitimate turnaround for Oklahoma under Bob Stoops?

That is the ultimate question after the Sooners were able to knock off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The team has subsequently been named Big 12 favorites and is a trendy pick to come in at No. 1 overall.

As much as Oklahoma's ability to make the playoff hinges on the defense being able to once again vanquish the pass-happy offenses of the conference, the main pressure falls on Trevor Knight, who is now alone at the position with the weight of the program on his shoulders.

Kudos to him for 348 yards and four touchdowns to one interception with a 72.7 completion percentage against the Crimson Tide, but now Knight has to prove the production was no fluke.

 

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

By all accounts, Urban Meyer's focus on the defensive side of the football is going quite well this preseason, as illustrated by Lantern Sports:

Adolphus Washington and Co. should have little issue once again clogging running lanes and putting pressure on quarterbacks, so Chris Ash's addition should help the secondary turn a corner in a critical season for the program.

On offense, Braxton Miller will surely be back in the Heisman hunt one year removed from being in the thick of things despite essentially missing three games.

 

7. Baylor Bears

Look at that—yet another program with a top-tier quarterback back in school for a shot at the playoff. 

Bryce Petty is one year removed from a 62 percent completion percentage and 4,200 yards with a 32-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Even better, behind him is elite back Shock Linwood, who averaged 6.9 yards per tote on just 128 attempts last season.

If Art Briles' squad wants to build on its Fiesta Bowl showing last year, it will have to shine on one of next season's brightest stages—a November showdown with the Sooners in Oklahoma.

 

8. UCLA Bruins

Rinse and repeat.

Jim Mora Jr. has done an outstanding job on the West Coast with UCLA to this point, but his fate and eventual legacy there in the midst of a rebuild is directly tied to the performance of signal-caller Brett Hundley.

At first glance, Hundley's numbers—3,701 yards, 24 scores and nine picks on a 67.2 average—look great, but ESPN's KC Joyner points out that the impressionable gunslinger shrunk when Mora needed him most:

As tremendous as Hundley's numbers have been in most situations, he has posted a 65.4 adjusted total QBR over the past two years against foes that end the season with a 75 percent or higher win percentage. That ranks 48th among quarterbacks from BCS conferences the past two years and is not a positive sign given how many potential teams of this caliber UCLA is apt to face this season.

That is one of a few reasons most experts thought it wise for Hundley to remain in school. His development will uplift or sink the program. 

 

9. Stanford Cardinal

It may seem dishonest in the face of all this quarterback talk, but a program's success can be directly stirred by a superb coach as well.

There is no better example of this than Stanford's Davis Shaw as the Cardinal head into next season.

The squad returns about half of the starters from a year ago, but that is no cause for concern under Shaw—who has proven time and again he did not just inherit recruiting classes from Jim Harbaugh, but improved upon them while perfecting the art of talent turnover.

The Cardinal will continue to be a force after four straight BCS appearances. A Pac-12 title, if not a playoff appearance, is not out of the question.

 

10. South Carolina Gamecocks

Dylan Thompson is a bit of a question mark under center with Connor Shaw out of the picture, but the presence of Heisman hopeful Mike Davis in the backfield will make the transition much easier.

Most, including coach Steve Spurrier, have high aspirations for the sophomore back, as illustrated by College GameDay:

Last year, Davis carried the ball 203 times for 1,183 yards and 11 scores, a surefire signal that Heisman numbers might be in the cards if his usage increases.

There is no proper way to make up for the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, but a run-first approach will make the lives of Spurrier and Co. easier in a weak SEC East.

 

11. Texas A&M Aggies

No Johnny Football, no problem.

Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen are rightful successors to the throne, and no matter who gains the job, elite tackle Cedric Ogbuehi will be there to protect the blind side.

The real issue that permeates from College Station is the road trips the Aggies must take to Alabama and Auburn, two facets of what makes up the nation's fourth-most difficult schedule:

Playoffs may not be a realistic end goal, but Manziel's impact on the program has brought on boatloads of young talent that ensure the Aggies are here to stay.

 

12. Georgia Bulldogs

With Aaron Murray out of the picture, Georgia is another squad that may or may not have what it takes to seize the SEC East in what appears to be a down year.

The focal point for the Bulldogs will be on the ground, which is easy to see thanks to likely Heisman contender Todd Gurley. In two seasons, he has averaged 6.1 yards per carry and has drawn the attention of many, including one Herschel Walker.

“Todd is a tough, tough ballplayer,” Walker said, according to dawgs247.com. “He's a very, very good ballplayer. The guy has got so much talent, and when you watch him play, you know that he can go to the next level with no problem.”

It will be a trial by fire right off the bat for Gurley and Co. with matchups against Clemson and South Carolina. We will know quickly if the team will be in the hunt.

 

13. LSU Tigers

The quarterback competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, supervised by Les Miles, is none too encouraging.

Jennings has a highlight from last season in his 99-yard, game-winning drive against Arkansas after Zach Mettenberger went down, but Harris is essentially the same player, sans the experience with the playbook.

Fortunately for Miles, his defense is set to be elite once more, and a talented back by the name of Leonard Fournette has the chance to be the best in the country.

 

14. Michigan State Spartans

Remember the traits touched on with regard to Shaw? Mark Dantonio has been doing it even longer out of East Lansing.

It always hurts to lose a player like Darqueze Dennard, but the next-man-up philosophy within Dantonio's system will once again work wonders.

The real spotlight will be on quarterback Connor Cook, who held the Spartans back at times last season with his timid arm. That said, he was a whole lot more lively under center as the season wore on toward the Rose Bowl:

Should Cook continue on his upward trajectory, a Big Ten title is certainly a possibility.

 

15. USC Trojans

Injuries are an inevitable part of the sport, so the wheels may fall off for USC by midseason, as the roster has little depth to speak of thanks to sanctions in recent years.

But in the early stages of the 2014 campaign, the Trojans are going to look like a dangerous squad indeed, especially on the offensive side of things.

Cody Kessler won five of six contests to close out last season and has both Nelson Agholor and Leonard Williams to work with, as well as borderline elite backs Javorius Allen and Tre Madden to defer to in running situations.

Going the distance will be the issue for the Trojans, but for now they are a threat.

 

16. Wisconsin Badgers

The Wisconsin Badgers have one of the worst percentages in terms of returning players this year, but yet another stable of elite backs will do much to mitigate any growth issues the roster encounters.

James White is gone, but Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are back to terrorize the collegiate football landscape yet again.

Joel Stave is quietly a sound option under center as well who should once again have no problems completing better than 60 percent of his passes with defenses transfixed on whoever lines up behind him.

 

17. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Want the main sleeper to watch next season? Try Notre Dame on for size, a school that gets a quarterback back who led the Fighting Irish to a title game in 2012.

That man is Everett Golson, who was academically ineligible a year ago. According to ESPN's Travis Haney, the young quarterback has been hard at work on improvement during his time away from the game:

Golson is also up about 15 pounds from the last time you saw him, in the title-game loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide. At just over 200 pounds, he looks a lot thicker than he did as a freshman.

From what I saw when he was throwing at the Elite 11 finals, he looked stronger and was accurate in drills. I would be tremendously surprised if Malik Zaire won the job, although Zaire was solid and pushed Golson in the spring. Remember that Golson has been re-acclimating with the program and his teammates.

We will soon see just how improved Golson truly is, with dates against Florida State, USC, Stanford and Michigan, among other strong programs, in the cards.

 

18. Arizona State Sun Devils

Do not let recent memory deter any notion that Arizona State is one of the best teams in the nation.

Yes, the Sun Devils flopped against Stanford and Texas Tech last year, but elite quarterback and potential Heisman contender Taylor Kelly will surely show no signs of regression next season in the pass-happy attack.

In 2013, Kelly tallied 4,243 total yards and 37 total touchdowns in an offense few could match, but he was often overlooked. If he takes another step and the program can form some semblance of a respectable defense, the school will be an afterthought no longer.

 

19. UCF Knights

It is easy to gloss over UCF.

A loss at both quarterback and running back is always a strong recipe for disaster, especially when the former was Blake Bortles and the latter was Storm Johnson.

But the Knights bring back pieces of a strong defense that pulled off an upset over Baylor. William Stanback took just 105 totes as a freshman and bullied his way to 443 yards and six touchdowns.

A trial by fire awaits against Penn State and Missouri to start the season, but a strong defense and running game goes a long way toward ensuring future success for the Knights.

 

20. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Ameer Abdullah is back for more after taking on 281 carries last season and accumulating 1,690 yards and nine scores on a crisp 6.0 yard-per-carry average.

Questions remain at quarterback, with Tommy Armstrong Jr. apparently leading the way after completing just 51.9 percent of his passes in a committee approach, but there are positives.

Abdullah once more takes the pressure off any quarterback under center, the offensive line figures to be rather stout and the defense can, at least in theory, improve. Even better, the team has a few cupcake games to start the season before encountering the Miami Hurricanes in mid-September.

 

21. North Carolina Tar Heels

Free from the shackles of a committee with Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams is set to run wild on the collegiate realm next season.

He attempted just 217 passes last year but managed 1,698 yards and 15 scores to six interceptions. On the ground, he led the team in rushing with 536 yards and six more scores.

Larry Fedora's team returns a wealth of starters on both sides of the ball, but more important than anything else, the offense is even more explosive than last season's iteration that helped the school to win six of its last seven and a bowl game, with just a two-point loss to then-ranked No. 24 Duke the only blemish in that stretch.

 

22. Missouri Tigers

James Franklin and Henry Josey are gone, but in their place are two stellar players set to keep the Missouri Tigers' momentum alive.

At running back, Russell Hansbrough has just been waiting to inherit the load after rushing for 685 yards and four scores last year on a 6.0 average. Maty Mauk is a versatile threat waiting to blossom who has high aspirations, to say the least, as captured by CollegeFootball 24/7:

The future is in good hands in Missouri, even if the offense may not be as explosive as past iterations right out of the gate.

 

23. Florida Gators

Injuries derailed last year for Florida, but health and another year of experience suggest great things are on the horizon for the Gators.

Vernon Hargreaves III leads an absolutely loaded defense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel captains an offense for which he is a perfect fit, so to expect anything other than a massive increase on last year's 4-8 mark is silly.

 

24. Texas Longhorns

New head coach Charlie Strong talks a big game, but the jury is still out on whether or not he can turn around the Longhorns in a quick manner.

That said, his resume when it comes to defense speaks for itself, as captured by ESPN's Numbers Never Lie:

Defense should not be the issue, but the questions at quarterback will continue to linger with David Ash always representing an injury threat. Still, a return to form seems to be in the cards.

 

25. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The air-raid offense for the Oklahoma State Cowboys is in good hands thanks to J.W. Walsh, who showed strong signs in limited play last season.

Last season's leading rusher, Desmond Roland, returns and will also give the Cowboys a legitimate threat on the ground when paired with Walsh's capabilities in that regard.

Those two losses to close the season last year overshadow major wins over Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor. Expect a step in the right direction this year.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Iowa Will Give 5 Students Scholarships for Buying Football Season Tickets

The University of Iowa is giving students a reason to go to football games this year.

According to a press release, via Iowa City Press-Citizen, the school will reward five random students who buy season tickets for the 2014 season with a scholarship. The five lucky winners will receive free tuition (based on the fee for in-state residents), worth approximately $8,000, for the fall and spring semesters for the upcoming school year.

Students can buy buy either a six-game season ticket package or a seven-game package, with tickets costing $25 per game. Here's a look at the Hawkeyes' 2014 home schedule:

Note: The six-game pack does not include a ticket to the Nebraska game.

There aren't many marquee games on the schedule, and, outside of the Iowa State game, the biggest games aren't until November. Given that home schedule, the Hawkeyes are doing everything they can in order to attract fans to the stadium to support the team. 

Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta spoke about the offer: "We want students in Kinnick Stadium, and the staff has spent the year listening and planning ways to increase the fun and excitement. A loud and active student section is such an important part of the game day experience."

Iowa will also be giving out a few other rewards for students who purchase season tickets. There will be 11 total prizes. Along with the five scholarships, here are the other prizes:

  • One student will win an away game viewing party inside the Paul W. Brechler Press Box
  • One student will receive up to $500 in free books
  • Four students will be winners of a $1,000 gift card to Hy-Vee

Students have until Aug. 1 to order season tickets and be eligible to win the prizes.

[h/t FootballScoop.com]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Penn State Football: Best Quotes and Key Takeaways from Big Ten Media Days

Penn State head coach James Franklin was one of the marquee attractions at the 2014 Big Ten media days, his first since arriving in Happy Valley after three successful years at Vanderbilt.

Franklin and his larger-than-life personality have been a constant topic of conversation this offseason—not just in Penn State and Big Ten circles, but in the national college football dialogue. His brash recruiting tactics have been working, and he has revived the program with an energy it seemed to lack under former head coach Bill O'Brien (who left this winter to coach the NFL's Houston Texans).

O'Brien did well with the hand he was dealt, which included unprecedented NCAA penalties in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the ensuing report conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Now a few years removed from that ugly period, Penn State hopes Franklin can restore its former glory.

Joined in Chicago by three senior leaders—running back Bill Belton, linebacker Mike Hull and kicker Sam Ficken—Franklin took the podium to unofficially kick off his first season with the Nittany Lions.

Here are a few highlights from the event.

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Auburn Football: 5 Games That Could Ruin the Tigers' 2014 Season

Life in the SEC West is a constant grind of tough opponents, but Auburn will take that to another level in 2014.

Head coach Gus Malzahn and his Tigers will look to repeat as SEC champions with one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in all of college football.

This year's slate includes a rare Thursday night road trip to an unfamiliar foe, a pair of home games against tough conference title contenders, trips to both under-the-radar Mississippi schools and the first all-road edition of Auburn's "Amen Corner."

When you are hoping to finish your season back at the biggest stage of them all, the national championship game, each loss could be fatal to your hopes. But all losses are not created equal in college football, and that rings true for Auburn's 2014 schedule.

Here is a look at five games that could effectively ruin the Tigers' dreams of repeating as SEC champions and grabbing a spot in the first College Football Playoff. Let me know in the comments section which one of these losses you think would be the worst for Auburn's 2014 season.

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ESPN College Gameday Will Open Season at Florida State vs. Oklahoma State

Playing host to ESPN College GameDay is a prestigious honor for any school. That honor won't go to a specific school to open the season, though, as ESPN will tout a neutral-site game between Florida State and Oklahoma State.

ESPN College GameDay first reported the news via its official Twitter account:

According to Sandra Baker of the Star-Telegram, the Chris Fowler-led crew will converge on Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, Texas on Aug. 30. The annual Cowboys Classic will then be contested between the defending national champion Seminoles and the Pokes at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Fort Worth is a somewhat unconventional choice due to the fact that the show won't be held on a college campus or in front of a stadium, but College GameDay coordinating producer Lee Fitting believes that it is the best possible location, per Baker.

"It's a can't-miss spot," Fitting said. "Sundance Square has great natural energy and it's got a great vibe to it. ... We decided why not go to the people. That's when we have our success. We want to set a GameDay attendance record here. We want fans to come out and make signs. We want to be blown away."

Fitting also added that AT&T Stadium's status as the host of this season's National Championship Game and College Football Playoff Final makes it the perfect venue to highlight in the opening week, according to Rachel Margolis of ESPNMediaZone.com.

We can't think of a better place to kick off the College GameDay season than the location that will host the first College Football National Championship in January. We've had great luck in Fort Worth with ESPN's Super Bowl and Final Four coverage, and now we have a matchup that includes the defending national champions, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and a perennial top-25 team. These two teams are known for their passionate fanbases, so we challenge them to come out in full force on the opening Saturday.

While there is something special about College GameDay touring college campuses and being in the midst of truly partisan crowds, Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post & Courier points out that kicking the season off from a neutral site has become a trend for ESPN:

With that said, the majority of fans figure to support Oklahoma State due to the close proximity. That will create an interesting atmosphere as the Seminoles look to begin the defense of their national title in what promises to be a hostile environment.

There will be storylines abound for ESPN as defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston will lead Florida State. Also, the palace that is AT&T Stadium is always good for several talking points.

When push comes to shove, there is no bigger game in the opening week of college football than Florida State vs. Oklahoma State, so it is tough to argue with ESPN's decision.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Rival Coaches Respond to UNC Coach Larry Fedora's 6-Pack

A recent picture of Larry Fedora at the beach revealed how the North Carolina football coach does a pretty good job of staying in shape. He's not the only ACC coach who was willing to show what he was working with, however.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren wanted Fedora to know that they each have six-packs of their own:

[ESPN, Duke Football; h/t SB Nation]

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Notre Dame Football: 3 Games That Could Ruin the Irish's 2014 Season

The beginning of August ushers in fresh optimism surrounding the Notre Dame football squad in 2014.

Fans heap high expectations on the Fighting Irish, with the hope of Notre Dame gliding on a magical season like that of 2012. This season, the Irish face a challenging schedule, highlighted by Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC.

Schools with the toughest strength of schedule this season, according to @ESPNInsider Brian Fremeau #CFBLIVE » pic.twitter.com/r7pzw7yfOj

— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) July 24, 2014

Of the difficult 12-game slate, let’s highlight three games that could derail Notre Dame’s campaign. Now, a loss to, say, Florida State wouldn’t ruin the Irish season. Toss-ups or games in which the Irish figure to be favored can be more fittingly classified as potential derailments for Notre Dame.

Here we go.

 

North Carolina

Nestled between two powerhouse programs on Notre Dame’s schedule rests another solid school, one that figures to be waiting to clip the Irish in mid-October.

The Irish welcome Stanford to Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 4 and travel to Tallahassee, Florida, to battle Florida State—the likely preseason No. 1 team in the country—on Oct. 18.

In between those two matchups, the Irish will square off with North Carolina.

UNC cracked the post-spring practice Top 25 of Bleacher Report’s Brian Pedersen at No. 16 in the country. The Irish will have to keep close tabs on UNC playmakers T.J. Logan, Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer. Their big-play ability could spell trouble against an aggressive Notre Dame secondary.

The placement of the matchup with the Tar Heels makes it even more difficult for the Irish. Notre Dame should benefit, however, from playing at home and not needing to hit the road following the Stanford tilt.

There’s a decent chance Notre Dame could enter the early-October Stanford game at 4-0 after opening the season with Rice, Michigan, Purdue and Syracuse. If the Irish defend their home turf against Stanford but fall to North Carolina, the loss could be crippling with the Seminoles looming the next week. All of a sudden, the Irish would sit at 4-2 with Arizona State, Louisville and USC, among others, still looming.

 

Louisville

The Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time in 2014 when they square off with Louisville in the penultimate week of the regular season.

At that stage, Notre Dame’s season could be spoiled with a loss to the Cardinals, especially with a trip to USC the next week (more on that later).

Back for his second stint as the head coach, Bobby Petrino could have the Louisville offense rolling by that point in the season. Petrino may not have quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but the offensive-minded coach has a trio of terrific playmakers in running backs Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer and wide receiver DeVante Parker.

Brown was the team’s leading rusher in 2013, while Dyer—who eclipsed 1,000 yards in his two seasons at Auburn—battled injuries in his first season at Louisville. Parker was Bridgewater’s top receiver but eschewed the NFL for one more season in Kentucky.

If Notre Dame somehow successfully maneuvers through the first 10 games of its gauntlet in 2014 with just one or two losses, a loss to Louisville at home on senior day would be a letdown.

 

USC

Speaking of late-season showdowns, Notre Dame closes out the regular season with the customary trek to California to face USC.

Recent history provides us with a good example of what could be at stake.

Two years ago—the last time the Trojans hosted the Irish—Notre Dame was undefeated heading into the rivalry game at USC. Had the Trojans been able to take down the Irish, Notre Dame’s national championship hopes would have crumbled right there at the finish line against one of its main enemies.

Now, it’s highly unlikely Notre Dame will be undefeated when the teams meet in this year’s rendition. But there still could be enough on the line for USC to ruin Notre Dame’s prospects of making the College Football Playoff or, more realistically, some of the other marquee bowl games.

In 2012, the Irish topped the Trojans, 22-13, behind five field goals from Kyle Brindza and 146 rushing yards from Theo Riddick. It wasn’t pretty, but Notre Dame never trailed and eventually got the job done.

The Trojans will be lurking again at the end of the home stretch.

New head coach Steve Sarkisian headlines this year’s USC squad, and the Trojans can turn up the offensive pace with quarterback Cody Kessler returning for his second season as the starter and wide receiver Nelson Agholor climbing to the top of the depth chart in place of Marqise Lee.

Defensively, USC boasts a standout at each level of the defense, with defensive end Leonard Williams, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard and defensive back Su’a Cravens.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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College Football Recruiting TE Rankings 2015: Top 10 After the Opening

No position in football has evolved as quickly and fully as tight end. It demands versatility from players, requiring both downfield receiving and strong blocking abilities.

College programs pursue prospects who can exploit the seam on one play and then spring a big run by laying out a linebacker on the next. The 2015 class has athletes who can do both, though it's difficult to find a complete tight end at the high school level.

Many are wide receivers with tremendous size who will transition during the next phase of their career. Others are punishing blockers who haven't tapped into their potential as pass targets.

Multiple playmakers flashed impressive skill sets at The Opening, an annual July football showcase held in Beaverton, Oregon. Bleacher Report was on hand for the event while gaining familiarity with other recruits through game film.

Here's our breakdown of the top 10 tight ends in this recruiting cycle.

 

This article is part of Bleacher Report's CFB 200 Recruiting Rankings Series. The overall rankings are based on the 247Sports composite system, which takes into account every recruiting service's rankings. The positional rankings also correspond with those composite scores. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we take an in-depth look at college football's stars of tomorrow.

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Oregon Football: Red-Zone Adjustments Fuel Evolution of Ducks Offense

For many offenses around college football, a 45.5-point per game average is cause for celebration. At Oregon, it's motivation to improve. 

Head coach Mark Helfrich said at Pac-12 media days that Oregon's "constant deal...is getting better."

Constant pursuit of improvement fuels the program. Despite being one of the nation's best for almost a decade, the Ducks offense is no exception.

"We have to finish drives," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Not leave points off the board."  

On the surface, it might seem the nation's third-ranked scoring offense could not possibly have left many scoring opportunities unfulfilled. After all, the 2013 season marked Oregon's sixth straight of ranking in the nation's top 10 for points scored per game.

And yet, with a 78.4 percent conversion rate, Oregon ranked No. 95 in the Football Bowl Subdivision for red-zone efficiency. Sixteen of its 74 trips into the red zone failed to yield any points, and four of those misfires came in the Ducks' two losses.  

The season's dynamic changes considerably if just one of those scoreless red-zone opportunities goes for a touchdown at Stanford. Convert on half of the 16 red-zone failures into touchdowns, and the Ducks' season average jumps to a hair below 50 points per game.

Oregon has operated in a hurry-up spread system since Chip Kelly's hire as offensive coordinator in 2007. Basic concepts remain the same, but each season, the offense evolves.

The next phase in that evolution is a more effective attack near the goal line. Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost will fine-tune elements that have powered the Ducks in the past, while introducing new dimensions.

Mariota is taking it upon himself to excel in one such facet.

"Specifically, our red-zone passing," Mariota said, stating his focus. "We understand that teams like to load the box against us, and we have to be able to be more efficient outside of it."

Attacking the perimeter is consistent with Oregon's typical game plan: force the action sideline-to-sideline to create space in the defense.

As red-zone touchdowns come through the air, opposing defenses will be forced to pull some of those extra players out of the box and into coverage. Look for the Ducks then to aggressively pound with the rush, as Helfrich discussed.

"That used to be one of the things people said about our league and other Western leagues," Helfrich said. "It's pass-happy and finesse. I think our rushing numbers can speak to that in a different way." 

Rush offense has not been an issue for the Ducks in recent years. An Oregon running back has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark every season since 2007; returning Byron Marshall is the latest.

Marshall is a big-play threat, but before a late-season injury slowed his production, he proved consistent in the red zone. Eight of his team-leading 14 rushing touchdowns were scored from inside the opponent's 20.

Combine Marshall with dynamic sophomore Thomas Tyner, and Frost has the option of throwing more two-back looks at defenses.

That backfield then becomes a three-pronged attack, as the Ducks can also counter with Mariota's decision-making out of the zone read.

The quarterback is among the team's most dangerous ball-carriers, last season racking up 715 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. It's no coincidence the Ducks' worst red-zone performances—against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona—occurred while Mariota played with a knee injury.

A healthy Mariota leaves defenses with a thin margin for error when anticipating zone-read plays.

If misdirection cannot get the Ducks in the end zone, the evolutionary step Oregon can take in 2014 is actually something of a throwback.

In addition to multiple-back sets, a stronger offensive line should allow Frost to play some power football near the goal line.   

Take offensive guard Cameron Hunt, who was thrown into the lineup as a freshman last season. Per 247Sports' Matt Prehm, Hunt arrived at spring practices 20 pounds heavier than his 2013 listed playing weight.

Hunt is the least experienced of the Ducks' starting offensive line. His work in the weight room should have him up to speed with the rest of the unit, and both Hunt and veteran Hamani Stevens should be effective pull-blockers.  

Oregon's physicality inside the 20 will be vital to its offensive evolution, but Helfrich addressed another area in which offseason gains made in the weight room should bolster the Ducks.

"On the scale, [the offseason weight room regimen] absolutely made a difference," Helfrich said. 

"With some guys, it's just confidence. If you weigh 12 pounds more than I do or I've seen you bench more than I do, whatever those things are, I'm going to be a little less confident," he added, speaking from the perspective of an opponent faced with a bulkier Oregon.

Should the Ducks improve their red-zone efficiency, it won't just be players' weight gain making Pac-12 defenses less confident.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com

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LSU Football: 6 Tigers Primed for Breakout Seasons

LSU head coach Les Miles knows coaches are only as good as their players.

Miles deserves plenty of credit for LSU's success in his tenure. He has led the Tigers to 95 wins in nine seasons despite players leaving early. But there is no question his success is powered by his players, more often than not, being superior than their opponents. 

Luckily enough for Miles, talent-rich states such as Louisiana makes roster transformation easier. His 2014 recruiting class, arguably his best ever, has taken over the offseason buzz in Baton Rouge.  

Overall, Miles has a young, yet talented, roster. If LSU's youth play like veterans, they will be successful.

Here are six players, which includes two juniors, three sophomores and one freshman, that will breakout in 2014. 


*Rankings and stats provided by 247Sports.com and LSU Sports Information. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Every ACC Football Team's Odds to Make College Football Playoff

August will be here by the end of the week, and every ACC team's goal will be the same: Make the inaugural College Football Playoff and win a national championship.  Realistically, some teams have better odds than others of achieving that goal.  

Florida State, for one, begins its quest to repeat as national champs with a Heisman winner still in tow.  Plenty of other teams in the conference have the talent to make the Noles feel the heat as they pursue perfection again, and it's rarely the most cost effective solution to go with the favorite when it comes to Vegas.  

Here's a rundown of my odds for each ACC team to go dancing, in the football sense, come December, including the teams I'd put my money on for the most bang for my buck.  

The Favorite

This one's pretty clear.  Florida State will look to bring home another title to Tallahassee, and the odds seem to be in its favor, as it should be the favorite in each regular-season game this year.  

Repeating is a different animal though, and head coach Jimbo Fisher has repeatedly stated, according to 247Sports' Tim Linafelt (subscription required), that the team won't be trying to defend their title but rather pursue another in 2014.  

The Seminoles return Jameis Winston, and even a sophomore slump would still make him one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.  If he puts up similar numbers to a year ago, he could be walking away with similar hardware in 2014.  

Perhaps even more significant in Florida State's chance to repeat is the offensive line, which returns four of five starters.  The unit paved the way for a running attack that featured three of the top seven running backs in yards per carry last year, according to cfbstats.com.  The line did give up 33 sacks last year, but some of that can be attributed to a quarterback who loves to improvise and throw the ball downfield when things break down.

Don't think the new starters will hurt their team's chance of repeating either says Matt Brown of SportsOnEarth.com

Fisher has signed five recruiting classes since replacing Bobby Bowden, two of which finished in Rivals.com's top five and none of which finished worse than 10th.  Lose a bunch of all-conference players?  So what?  There are still eight (first-, second- or third-team) returning and plenty more likely on their way to that recognition.

The Noles will undoubtedly be among the most talented teams in the nation this year, and Jimbo Fisher has already proved he can win a championship.  What's scarier is that he looks poised this year to do something his predecessor never did: Repeat.

 

The Best Value

The Miami Hurricanes know a thing or two about recruiting the nation's best talent too, which is why I think they have the best value for making the College Football Playoff at 12-1.  

The scenario is easy to envision if Duke Johnson has an even more spectacular season than his first eight games last year when he rushed for 920 yards.  If he stays healthy this year, he may very well dethrone Jameis Winston as the ACC Player of the Year.  

Johnson has the ability to take over a game, and if he has the endurance to make plays in the fourth quarter, he could lead Miami to even more than a Coastal Division crown.

The brilliance of Johnson is somewhat expected this season though, and to sneak into the playoff the Hurricanes will have to surprise the country with a stout defensive performance in 2014.  Much of the fanbase in Coral Gables was hoping head coach Al Golden would replace Mark D'Onofrio at the end of last season, but the defensive coordinator is getting one more shot.  

He has plenty of talent to work with as well, with linebacker Denzel Perryman likely being one of the conference's top tacklers and a secondary that returns both Tracy Howard and Deon Bush at corner.  

The Canes will have to shore up the front four on defense and find a quarterback if they hope to be legitimate contenders for the playoff this fall, but this team is the definition of dangerous with a wide variety of weapons and talent on the field.  

 

The Sleeper

If there's one quality of every successful sleeper team, it's a great coach who can get the entire squad to believe anything is possible.  David Cutcliffe is a brilliant coach and a tough motivator, which is the primary reason the Duke Blue Devils are my sleeper team.  

It's hard to claim a team coming off a 10-win season is a sleeper team, but that was the first 10-win season in school history and their first appearance in the ACC title game.  What's more, the Dukies have the pieces in place to do it again.  

They return quarterback Anthony Boone, who may have even more to play for this season, per ESPN's Matt Fortuna:

Don't be surprised if Anthony Boone enters this season with a chip on his shoulder after seeing multiple preseason All-ACC teams list UNC's Marquise Williams ahead of him as the second-team quarterback. Boone took his Blue Devils into Chapel Hill last season and beat Williams and the Tar Heels, and Williams isn't even assured of starting this season.

Boone will have plenty of options to throw to as well, with Jamison Crowder vying to be the conference's top receiver.  He'll get help from tight end Braxton Deaver and an offensive line that returns three starters.  

In short, the offense shouldn't be a problem for the Blue Devils.  If they hope to make a Cinderella run to the College Football Playoff though, they'll need huge seasons from everyone in the talent-laden secondary to cover up an offensive line that only returns tackle Jamal Bruce.

Safety Jeremy Cash will have to at least duplicate his 121-tackle, four-interception season, and linebacker Kelby Brown will have to be a First Team All-ACC performer for Duke to have a shot.

Far-fetched?  Maybe.  But remember, it could happen.

 

 

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Florida Football: Gators Primed for Breakout Seasons

After a 4-8 season last year, the Florida Gators are going to need everybody to step up in order to bring about a turnaround.

That’s obvious, but the Gators also need breakout seasons from some underachievers.

That includes a quarterback who has been a turnover machine and never blossomed into that leader the offense desperately needs, and a receiver who has been with the team four years and has four receiving touchdowns.

If Florida is truly going to make a genuine run at an SEC East title, these players and others need to fulfill their potential.

Here are some of the players who you can count on having that breakout season.

 

Jeff Driskel, Quarterback 

If Driskel doesn't figure things out this season, there's always a baseball future to fall back on. 

Seriously, Kurt Roper’s offensive system was built for a quarterback such as Driskel. Spread the field, allow the quarterback to use his legs when needed, get the ball out quickly and allow the receivers to make things happen. In past years, Driskel was asked to do too much and wasn't able to take advantage of his athleticism. 

There's a reason Roper was drooling over Driskel the second he arrived on campus, according to Robbie Andreu of Gainesville.com. Roper said of Driskel:

He's really talented. I didn't get to see him much before I got here. I watched him in high school and knew he was heavily recruited and those things. I don't know that I was one of his choices, so now I get the luck of the draw here, I guess I should say.

But that's a big, powerful, fast-twitch, natural throwing motion. He's talented, folks. I mean we're sitting here talking about a guy that's really, really gifted. And his experience shows whenever we have conversations. He understands football. It's not his first rodeo.

Roper obviously sees something many others don’t about a quarterback who has 14 career touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.

These two should click and could bring Florida its most successful season from a quarterback since the Tim Tebow era.

Get excited. 

 

Jonathan Bullard, Defensive Lineman 

Sometimes that third year really is a charm. That's where Bullard comes in.

The versatile defensive lineman is capable of more than the three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss that he's racked up in two seasons. Bullard has the size (6'3", 271 pounds,) explosiveness and the overall strength to be a monster in the SEC and possibly even make the all-conference team this season. His skill set is unique, and there are not many offensive linemen who can stop him when he's focused on the football field.

Being dialed in was a problem last season, as Bullard didn't enjoy moving from defensive end to defensive tackle. The switch inside really frustrated Bullard and didn't help his production, but he's made the proper adjustments in camp, according to Marty Cohen of 247Sports:

I’ve got the hang of it, I can read things better at D-tackle like I could at end. Now it’s kind of even and to be honest, I’m trying to embrace it, enjoy it, rather than last year not really wanting to but knowing I had to. Now I’m trying to embrace it and do it at a high level. Now I look at it as a plus because I can also play end and I can play inside and if I can do both at a high level it helps me in the long run.

Having a talented player along the defensive front who can play multiple positions only helps Florida's defensive line. Bullard is too gifted not to have that breakout season. Expect big numbers from the third-year defensive lineman. 

 

Andre Debose, Wide Receiver 

This will be the season Debose lives up to the hype.

Wait, haven't we heard this the past four seasons? Actually, it feels more like a decade. 

Debose, who tore his ACL last spring, has been cleared for full contact in the fall, according to Edward Aschoff of ESPN:

[Team doctors] didn’t think there was any way he’d participate in non-contact in spring practice, and right now he’s been cleared for everything in the summer. Here’s a guy who’s really worked his tail off to put himself back into position to do some things.

That's great news for a receiver who has been given a sixth year by the NCAA. Debose seems a sure bet to be successful, as—like with Driskel—Roper's offense fits him perfectly. He'll be asked to help spread the field and become that deep threat that has been missing from Florida's offense since Percy Harvin.

Debose will face many one-on-one situations, which you have to believe he'll be able to win due to his elite speed. Having Quinton Dunbar, Latroy Pittman and Debose on the field at the same time would cause headaches for opposing defenses. 

Debose, who was one of Florida's top recruits in 2009, hasn't contributed much on the offensive side of the ball. With the change at offensive coordinator and the drastic need for playmakers at wide receiver, that's likely to change this season.

Better late than never. 

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Will Lack of Experienced SEC QBs Hold Conference Back in 2014?

In the iron-sharpens-iron SEC football environment, only the battle-tested survive and rise to the top of national rankings.

So what happens when iron goes up against a weaker substance?

It cuts right through.

Therein lies the concern for SEC programs this season.

The normally star-studded league still features some of the country’s elite talent—players such as Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, Auburn receiver Sammie Coates and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.

For the SEC to be the top conference in 2014, though, it must do so with at least eight quarterbacks who will start the majority of their teams’ games for the first time this season.

More than half the league will turn to quarterbacks with six career starts or fewer, including recent powerhouses Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina.

Gone are Heisman Trophy winners (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel) and finalists (Alabama’s AJ McCarron).

So, too, are conference record-setters (Georgia’s Aaron Murray) and program record-setters (South Carolina’s Connor Shaw).

So the nation’s perennial top conference must reload at the game’s most pivotal position or risk falling back toward the middle of the pack in the college football landscape.

Right?

Well, that gets into what “holding back the conference” really means.

Do all the new signal-callers really mean the SEC champion will be kept out of the inaugural College Football Playoff?

Those odds are probably about as closer to zero as Kentucky winning the national title.

Face it: The SEC will get at least one team into the four-team playoff this year.

No matter how bold the College Football Playoff committee intends to be, it won’t be prepared for the backlash of leaving out the SEC champion—no matter how justified it might be in such a decision.

It seems more likely that two teams from the SEC would make the playoff than zero.

So from that perspective, inexperience at the quarterback position won’t impact the conference in any real way.

As long as the SEC remains at the top of college football in the court of public opinion, it will be difficult to erase the perception.

National championships certainly go a long way toward building a case for being the best league in America.

Then again, no sane person outside of the 14 ACC programs is arguing the ACC is better than the SEC based on Florida State beating Auburn last year.

With no football equivalent of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge in men’s basketball, all arguments against the SEC remain conjecture or speculation.

No matter what the eye test tells us about the Pac-12 and its experienced quarterbacks, such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, many fans will still side with the SEC.

The Pac-12 and Big 12—two of the leagues most likely to stake a claim for top-conference honors—will have a hard time proving on the field they’re better than the SEC.

Teams from the SEC play Big 12 opponents just four times during the coming regular season.

Two of those games feature Tennessee and Arkansas, who combined for two wins in conference play last season. They play at Oklahoma and Texas Tech, respectively—both of whom qualified for bowl games last season (and the Sooners reached the Sugar Bowl).

Meanwhile, Alabama should be a prohibitive favorite in a neutral-season opener against West Virginia.

Only the nationally televised Thursday night Auburn-Kansas State game should be evenly matched—and could easily be explained away by dismissive SEC defenders should the Tigers fall.

There are no SEC-Pac-12 matchups scheduled for the 2014 regular season.

Any “best conference in America” will be a matter of opinion.

Over the course of the last decade, the SEC has built enough of a reputation to earn benefit of the doubt in the “best conference” conversation.

Thus, inexperience at quarterback won’t hold the league back there, either.

Here’s where it could hurt the league—whether the SEC is “held back” or not: The best teams in the SEC might not emerge with the resumes they have compiled in recent years.

If LSU’s young quarterbacks struggle, a win over a 4-4 or 5-3 Tigers team won’t mean what it has in years past. Namely, beating Les Miles’ team won’t necessarily mean a program has a reasonable chance to make a run in its division.

Texas A&M could be in for a fall as well with Manziel now gone, weakening the SEC West, which is at very least a strong contender for best division in the country.

An SEC program will reach the College Football Playoff this year.

The league often represents well in big games—Alabama’s performance against Oklahoma notwithstanding.

This season will likely be no different.

New quarterbacks won’t hold back the SEC this year.

They could, however, lead to a weaker top-to-bottom conference in 2014.

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2014 Heisman Contenders: Analyzing Top Candidates for Prestigious Award

Heading into the NCAA preseason, and with media days behind us, there are a few players who stand out as compelling prospects to watch for the 2014 Heisman Trophy award.

To make matters more interesting, the two previous winners have been redshirt freshmen, and the trophy has been awarded to underclassmen more frequently since the early 2000s. That means the field of inclusion for the award is wider than ever—as long as you're a quarterback or running back. 

The following players' seasons will play an important role in the competition as they attempt to win their first—or perhaps second—Heisman.

 

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

When head coach Chip Kelly departed Oregon prior to the 2013 season to coach the Philadelphia Eagles, many thought it would result in a hit to Mariota's stats and a less productive offense across the board for the Ducks. But new coach Mark Helfrich led the team to an 11-2 finish and emphasized the passing game. Mariota had 3,665 passing yards compared to 2,677 in 2012 under Kelly.

Mariota's accuracy decreased in 2013 from a 68.5 completion percentage in 2012 to 63.5 percent, but that's not unusual with 50 more attempts (h/t Sports-Reference.com). In 2014 he'll continue to benefit from the Ducks' high-octane spread offense, which should allow him plenty of opportunities to pad his stat sheet.

In 2013, Mariota demonstrated a keen ability to progress quickly through his reads. He lost two top targets from last season (Josh Huff to the NFL and Bralon Addison to a torn ACL in spring practice), but he has a corps of young talent in Chance Allen, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford.

The stats also suggest that Mariota's knee injury in Stanford game affected the rest of his season considerably. Though he hadn't thrown an interception to that point, he threw four over a two-game stretch against Arizona State and Oregon State, and he didn't rush for a single touchdown post-injury after scoring nine prior. Better health in 2014 should translate to better production from Mariota. 

If Mariota falls out of Heisman discussions, it'll likely be because the Ducks don't have the weapons he needs. But if he can match or exceed his production last season, and if the young receivers step up, he'll be at the front of the pack.

 

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

Despite only playing in 10 games last season, Todd Gurley racked up 989 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Bulldogs in 2013. He also dramatically increased his role in the passing game, notching 37 receptions for 441 yards compared to 16 for 117 in 2012. 

That increased production as a pass-catcher gave Gurley the opportunity for six additional scores, bringing his total to 16 over 10 games. 

What's really impressive about Gurley's 2013 campaign is that, as Tony Barnhart of the SEC Network pointed out, he only had four games last season with 20-plus touches. 

With Aaron Murray's departure, the Bulldogs will feature the ground game more prominently in 2014, and provided he can stay healthy, Gurley should have his best season yet. Being a high-profile player in a high-profile conference certainly won't hurt him either as Heisman discussions begin to gather steam. 

 

Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

In 2014, Winston could make a legitimate push to be just the second player in college football history to win consecutive Heisman awards—a feat accomplished first by Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975. 

If Winston can even come close to replicating his production in 2013, it's hard to imagine he won't be a frontrunner for the award. The Seminoles face a tough season opener against Oklahoma State, along with Notre Dame further down the stretch, but their conference schedule is winnable.  

Last year, in the best freshman season by a college quarterback on the books, Winston set single-season NCAA freshman records for passing yards (4,057) and touchdowns (40). Though he lost receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, the Seminoles return top target Rashad Greene, while Isaiah Jones and Kermit Whitfield could fill holes on the outside and in the slot, respectively. 

It will be hard for anyone to touch Winston in the Heisman race if he repeats his performance from 2013. 

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