NCAA Football News
LSU's Tiger Stadium underwent some renovations this offseason, and the football players are getting arguably the best part of the upgrades to themselves.
The locker room at Tiger Stadium has a sharp new look.
That video shows the players checking out the renovated locker room, but it doesn't give a great look at the locker room itself. The photos below help show off the renovations.
As cool as the locker room looks with the lights on, it looks even cooler in the dark.
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From Dallas to Dallas.
Florida State's mantra is not meant to be arrogant. It's just an expression of the Seminoles' confidence, a knowledge of what they can accomplish on a long journey that begins Aug. 30 with a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State and could end right back at AT&T Stadium in the national championship game. OK, technically it would be Arlington, Texas, to Arlington, Texas...but that just doesn't sound as snappy to the Seminoles.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has spent part of the last seven months trying to figure out how to get the Seminoles back to a national championship game—and win it. He has studied the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys and 1990s Chicago Bulls.
How did they put together a repeat run? How were they able to succeed?
"The common denominator is they didn't try to recreate the wheel, they didn't try to reinvent things," Fisher said. "But they stayed hungry and they kept a chip on their shoulder and they played with an attitude and they played with a purpose."
The Seminoles must navigate a challenging schedule but one that is set up well for a 12-0 regular season. FSU plays just two teams that are ranked in the AP preseason top 25 in No. 16 Clemson and No. 17 Notre Dame. But the Seminoles also face four teams—Florida, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Miami—that received votes and could be ranked by the time those games are played.
This fall's slate is a far cry from the relatively easy 2013 schedule that featured the likes of nonconference foes in Bethune-Cookman, Nevada and Idaho. But FSU also faced, and resoundingly defeated, a top 5 Clemson team on the road and a top 10 Miami team at home. At this point, neither team is anywhere close to knocking on the door of the top 10.
There will be plenty of challenges, of course. FSU is replacing a 1,000-yard rusher (Devonta Freeman) and a 1,000-yard, 15-touchdown receiver (Kelvin Benjamin). Gone is All-American cornerback (Lamarcus Joyner), leading tackler (linebacker Telvin Smith) and run-stopping defensive tackle (Timmy Jernigan). And there's a new defensive coordinator (Charles Kelly was promoted to replace Jeremy Pruitt).
Losing such talent on and off the field often leads to a few speed bumps in the road. Of course, Fisher and the Seminoles would love it if Benjamin, Freeman, Jernigan and tailback James Wilder Jr. had returned. It would have made a repeat run significantly smoother.
Jimbo Fisher is 45-10 going into his fifth season at FSU. He's put the Seminoles back on the college football map after the program's struggles in the final years under coaching legend Bobby Bowden. Fisher's resume is impressive: a national title, two ACC championships, a 4-0 mark vs. Miami and a 3-1 record against Florida.
Fisher's staff has changed dramatically through the years and it has evolved from one that was loaded with young assistants who were aggressive recruiters into one that now features veteran assistants who have a wealth of knowledge but are also strong recruiters.
A week after FSU won the national title, Pruitt made a stunning announcement that he was leaving to take the same position at Georgia. Fisher evaluated his candidates but was able to maintain stability on his staff by promoting Kelly from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.
Fisher hired longtime college assistant Bill Miller as linebackers coach. Miller has been a defensive coordinator at Miami and an associate head coach at Florida, among his stops in a 35-year coaching career.
What to Watch for on Offense
FSU scored a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 723 points in 2013 and racked up 7,267 yards. Even after losing receivers like Kenny Shaw and Benjamin and running backs like Freeman and Wilder, the offense is loaded with talent.
Fisher likes to throw a little bit of everything at defenses from three-receiver sets to two-tight-end-sets. Winston even did a few zone-read plays, so expect the playbook to be even more wide open in his second season as starter.
An offensive line that was pressed into action as freshmen in a 2011 bowl win over Notre Dame is now filled with experienced veterans. Tackles Cameron Erving and Bobby Hart and guards Tre' Jackson and Josue Matias have a combined 106 starts. Erving was the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner (given to the league's top offensive lineman). Bryan Stork, the 2013 Rimington Award winner as the nation's top center, will be tough to replace. But senior Austin Barron has five starts under his belt and has fit in well at center during the spring and preseason.
Winston will be critiqued and compared to his 2013 Heisman Trophy season, in which he threw for 4,057 yards and a school-record 40 touchdown passes. He's spent the past few months improving his footwork and mechanics, and he could have a completion percentage close to or better than the 66.9 percent from last season.
Karlos Williams is now the unquestioned No. 1 tailback (748 yards, 11 touchdowns in 2013). While he has never started, Williams has the ability to run off tackle and break off long runs. If he's also willing to run aggressively between the tackles, Williams could have a 1,000-yard season.
FSU's tailbacks are short on experience, but Dalvin Cook had an impressive few weeks of preseason practice. Fisher praised Cook for his ability to pass block, a sure indication that he will be used in passing and rushing situations. Mario Pender has been on campus two seasons and hasn't played a college down yet, but he has the speed and physicality to be successful.
Rashad Greene is a playmaker who has led FSU in receptions his first three seasons. He is fourth on FSU's all time receptions list (171) and is a consistent option for Winston. Nick O'Leary has become one of the nation's top tight ends, grabbing 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Fisher said he likes the way senior receiver Christian Green has performed in preseason practices, so Greene and Green could start. But FSU has plenty of receiving options, including senior Scooter Haggins, sophomore Kermit Whitfield and a trio of true freshmen like 5-stars Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane and 4-star Ja'Vonn Harrison.
What to Watch for on Defense
The biggest change in defensive coordinators was from 2012 to '13 when Mark Stoops left for Kentucky and Fisher hired Pruitt from Alabama. Even though Pruitt is gone, the 2014 defense will schematically be very similar to what FSU showed in 2013 (and it's a defense where FSU led the FBS in points allowed at 12.1).
FSU will also throw a number of different looks at offenses. A 4-3 defense is often tweaked until it looks nothing like a 4-3. FSU loves to show off its abundance of talented defensive backs by playing nickel and dime packages against pass-first offenses. And FSU will often go with three- or five-man fronts, dropping an end into coverage or sliding up a linebacker. The confusion and athleticism has caused opponents plenty of problems.
The line features star defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tackle Eddie Goldman. Chris Casher is an athletic end who could have a breakout season. Coaches have assembled a deep rotation at tackle, and Goldman and junior Nile Lawrence-Stample will anchor a group that features 10 interior linemen. Fisher has also praised Derrick Nnadi, who appears to be one of the stars of the five-man group of true freshmen. It's not a line that generated sacks—Edwards, Goldman and Casher had just 7.5 combined in 2013—but they will collapse the pocket and make quarterbacks release the ball quicker than they want (which is part of the reason why FSU had 26 interceptions last season).
Since FSU plays so much nickel, the Seminoles will frequently play just two linebackers. Terrance Smith is FSU's returning leader in tackles (59) and will start. E.J. Levenberry has won the other starting linebacker job, but FSU will also rotate in Reggie Northrup, Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe (who is coming back from foot surgery).
FSU is loaded at defensive back. Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams are the ACC's top corner tandem, and Jalen Ramsey is a rising star at safety. The other safety spot is up for grabs between Tyler Hunter and Nate Andrews, and Fisher has also consistently praised early enrollee Trey Marshall. All six will be on the field frequently.
FSU escaped the offseason relatively healthy. Eligwe will miss the first two games but is expected to return for the Clemson game on Sept. 20, Fisher said.
The Seminoles lost sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Jones, who has been declared academically ineligible and will miss the 2014 season.
Rudolph has everything that a coach could want in a receiver. He's 6'2", 185 pounds, fast, athletic and runs routes well.
There are two things holding him back in August. The first was surgery on his left foot to repair what Fisher said was an injury stemming from his high school days. And the second is Rudolph's knowledge of the playbook. Once Rudolph has a firm grasp on things, he will see playing time in FSU's three-receiver sets.
He had 57 receiving touchdowns in his four years at West Palm Beach (Florida) Cardinal Newman. Rudolph will be a tough one-on-one matchup. It may be a slow start between the injury and his need to absorb the playbook, but Rudolph could develop into an elite receiver.
Make or Break Games
Oklahoma State presents so many challenges as a team that loves to throw the ball around, but that simply plays right into the hands of FSU's strength: defensive backs. The Cowboys will likely score some points, but FSU's defense is just too good. And Winston & Co. will light up the scoreboard on Aug. 30. Oklahoma State has lost too much experience and leadership, and FSU should put this game away in the second half.
FSU's toughest ACC challenges are Clemson (Sept. 20), at Louisville (Oct. 30) and at Miami (Nov. 15). The Seminoles shouldn't have much of a problem against a Tigers offense that will still be rebuilding after losing quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.
A Thursday night road game against Louisville could be a tougher-than-expected challenge but again it will be coach Bobby Petrino's aerial attack against FSU's defensive backs. Expect the same result: Louisville will do its damage but FSU will put up more points on the scoreboard. It all depends on the quarterback play at Miami, but any offense that has Duke Johnson will have FSU's respect. This is a fun rivalry game (with plenty of respect on both sides) but Fisher's teams have recorded double-digit wins in three of his four games as head coach against the Hurricanes.
The Notre Dame game on Oct. 18 in Tallahassee, Florida, has the makings of a potential top-10 showdown. But what effect will the four suspensions for the Fighting Irish have on the team? Notre Dame wouldn't be the same if cornerback KeiVarae Russell, receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore were not on the field.
Florida should be much better in 2014, or at least much healthier. Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has installed his spread attack, which suits quarterback Jeff Driskel better. But Florida lacks an established receiver and the Gators could struggle again on offense.
FSU's new logo and new uniforms were the talk of social media this spring. The Seminoles now have three different uniforms and two helmets.
FSU won 12 of its 14 games last season by 30 or more points. The only two close games were a 48-34 win at Boston College in which FSU rallied from a 21-point, first-half deficit and the BCS championship game, in which FSU again came back twice in the final five minutes to defeat Auburn 34-31.
So the expectation will be that FSU will again blow out opponents. And, yes, that will happen often.
Fans will want to again see decisive, dominating wins. But this schedule is tougher and it's expected that a few games will be close.
Still, FSU should run the table and go 12-0 in the regular season. Expect FSU, after winning the ACC title, to earn one of four invitations to the new College Football Playoff.
Winston likely won't win the Heisman again simply because his 2013 numbers will be compared to 2014 every week. But Winston has said he's not thinking about a Heisman repeat—only his desire to help FSU win another national title.
Winston (Maxwell), Greene (Biletnikoff), O'Leary (Mackey), Erving (Outland), Ramsey (Thorpe) and Roberto Aguayo (Groza) could all be in line postseason honors.
Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are courtesy of FSU media guides and seminoles.com. Follow Bob on Twitter. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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The first offseason of the James Franklin era has been loud.
Penn State's new head coach has never been shy, but he's never been more not shy than he has been the past eight months. He pillaged his old recruiting class before Vanderbilt could even scrub his name off the doors, and he's continued to make his presence known out on the trail by landing 12 4-star commits in the current cycle (tied for the most in the country).
To Franklin's credit, he called his shot as soon as he was hired. "We are going to dominate the state," he promised at his introductory press conference in January. "We are going to dominate the region."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, there is not much Franklin can do to continue his momentum on the field in 2014. Penn State is still banned from playing in a bowl game as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions have taken a toll on the roster that can be felt at almost every position.
Still, with Franklin and sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg serving as the new faces of the program, the Nittany Lions finally feel like they can get back to where they once were.
Making tangible improvements this year is the start of that.
Man, that's a whole lot of ones.
Franklin brought an entirely new regime with him to Happy Valley, replacing even the last holdover from the Joe Paterno era, defensive line coach Larry Johnson (who is now with Ohio State).
Almost all of his staff comes over from Vanderbilt, too. Of the nine coaches flanking Franklin on the sideline, only Charles Huff (Western Michigan) and Terry Smith (Temple) didn't come to State College by way of Nashville, Tennessee.
John Donovan has been with Franklin since the Maryland days, and together the two have worked well to maximize production with less-than-elite talent. A similar compliment can be paid to offensive line coach Herb Hand, who probably has the hardest/most important job on the staff besides Franklin this season. Before joining on at Vanderbilt, Hand helped Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham build double-digit winners out of West Virginia and Tulsa, respectively.
The defense is led by a pair of upstart coordinators, Bob Shoop and Brent Pry, who joined Franklin at Vanderbilt after coaching at the FCS level (Shoop at William & Mary; Pry at Georgia Southern).
Last year's Commodores defense ranked No. 48 on the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, a respectable finish (and then some) for an overmatched unit during a banner year for SEC offenses.
By all indications, they will do just fine at PSU.
What to Watch for on Offense
*see: injury news
There is no middle ground with this offense: Position groups are either littered with questions (wide receiver; offensive line) or remarkably stable (tight end; the offensive backfield).
Let's start with the good—or, in Hackenberg's case, the great.
His first year was an exemplar of why teams should throw their freshman quarterbacks to the fire (unless they're in "win-now" mode). He took his inevitable lumps, but those lumps helped him improve. By the season's final week, he was completing 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in a road upset over a team (Wisconsin) that almost made a BCS bowl.
If not for Hackenberg, it very well might have.
Behind the now-sophomore QB returns a trio of experienced and well-assorted running backs: Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. Zwinak is the "starter" by definition, and he fits the mold of a Franklin-esque bruiser such as Vanderbilt running backs Zac Stacy and Jerron Seymour, but all three should see the field.
The tight end position is equally well-stocked. Even with the loss of Adam Breneman, who sounds like he might be done for the season with a knee injury (more on this below), Jesse James and Kyle Carter are two of the five or six best tight ends in the conference, and freshman Mike Gesicki looks like a quick contributor behind them.
Receiver, though, is a bit of a crapshoot. It's hard to articulate how much this offense relied on Robinson last season: He was targeted 150 times to the rest of the team's 231, per Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, and he finished with 46 percent of its 3,110 receiving yards.
That's a lot.
Replacing Robinson will be a joint effort—one that includes a heavy, unsafe reliance on true freshmen. De'Andre Thompkins, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall should all be called upon to contribute along with Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton. The raw talent is there for them to succeed, but they will need a lot of help.
On that front, having an all-world quarterback such as Hackenberg is a boon. On the same front, though, having an offensive line depleted by injuries and scholarship restrictions is…well, not.
To be frank, the offensive line is hanging on by a thread. Both projected starting guards (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia) are converted defensive tackles, and both projected starting tackles (Donovan Smith and Andrew Nelson) are dealing with injury issues this fall.
The outlook is bleak beyond the top seven, which includes the five players listed on the first team plus Wendy Laurent and Brendan Mahon. No matter who gets injured, it would likely be Laurent or Mahon replacing them. Per Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com, Mahon has been double-dipping in practice because of injuries, lining up at tackle with the first team and at guard with the second-stringers.
Poor pass protection does not suit Hackenberg's strengths. He is not overly elusive, and although he is adept enough to get by with shorter, timing-based routes, his real bread and butter is the deep ball. He needs time for his receivers to get downfield.
What to Watch for on Defense
Last year's defense could match any offense in the conference—and probably any offense in the country—on the ground. It finished No. 8 in Football Outsiders' run defense S&P+ ratings, and four of the seven teams that finished ahead of it (Michigan State, Alabama, Florida State and Stanford) played in a BCS bowl game.
Gone from that defense are space-eating defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and middle linebacker Glenn Carson, and a slight drop-off can be expected because of it. Fortunately, enough talent returns that the result of that drop-off should be negligible.
A big reason for that is the introduction of Shoop—or, to be precise, of Shoop instead of a different defensive coordinator. The biggest challenge most programs face in the first year of a new coaching regime is adjusting to a new scheme or style, but Shoop runs a similar defense to that of his predecessor, Tom Bradley.
Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall explains:
Shoop's schemes reflect the evolution of 4-3 defense to the modern era. He largely uses the 4-3 over front that has been primary in State College for the last several decades, and he also loves to apply pressure with the zone blitz, another long-standing staple at Linebacker University. …
Under Franklin, you can expect Penn State to look much like it always has: relying on good fundamentals in a 4-3 defense and looking to crack skulls…
Boyd's whole piece is worth a read (if you're into the X's and O's), but essentially, he describes the new defense as a moderate variation on Bradley's. The principles and the alignment will be similar, but the role certain positions occupy will evolve.
Specifically, Shoop and Pry ask the secondary to player a bigger role in run support than the old regime did. A school famous for its linebackers still has a couple of good ones in Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, but the player who could most benefit from the new coaching staff is hard-hitting safety Adrian Amos, who is back to his preferred spot after being forced into action at cornerback last year.
"I think Adrian Amos has as unique of a skill set as I've ever been around," Shoop said this offseason, per Bob Flounders of PennLive.com. "If he makes the commitment to do it, he could be the best defensive back or safety in all of college football next year."
The pass defense wasn't as good as the run defense last season but should ostensibly improve now that the cornerbacks are another year older.
Trevor Williams is a name to watch after he struggled so publicly last season, but Jordan Lucas is a nascent star who could thrive the same way Andre Hal did at Vandy.
Along the line, C.J. Olaniyan returns after posting five sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season, and if Deion Barnes can revert to his 2012 form—the one that made him an FWAA Freshman All-American—the Nittany Lions should have a formidable pass rush to boot.
The lack of linebacker depth (and, really, depth in general) gives cause for concern, but if this group stays healthy, it shouldn't be too far off from a traditional Penn State-caliber defense.
Of course, the same could be said of almost any team before the season; that conditional "if they stay healthy" requires a good deal of luck, and Penn State has a smaller margin for error than most.
The best it can do now is hope.
Losing Breneman hurts but is not insurmountable thanks to James, Carter and Gesicki. Still, getting him back would be huge.
It doesn't sound like Breneman will be able to return, but it's not out of the question. Franklin has stayed mum on the nature and severity of his injury, only confirming that the sophomore tight end will need surgery, but Flounders cites sources saying it's a knee injury that will "likely necessitate a redshirt season."
Ben Kline tore his Achilles during summer workouts and is likely to miss the season because of it, which is a shame because he was loosely competing to start. Either way, he was being counted on to contribute, and his absence makes linebacking depth an even bigger question.
Miles Dieffenbach tore his ACL during spring practice and is also a good bet to miss the season, although there is a modicum of promise. Dieffenbach told Flounders that he's targeting a late-season return, "hopefully…for the last 3-4 games."
A projected starter before going down, Dieffenbach's return would surely be welcome news—especially with ostensible injuries and wear-and-tear starting to accumulate in the last month of the season.
But so soon after an ACL injury, it's not worth banking on.
X-Factor: RT Andrew Nelson
More than any blunder it could make right now, the one thing Penn State can least afford to do is not protect Hackenberg.
This is scary because, more than any blunder it could make right now, not protecting Hackenberg seems the most likely to happen.
In an ideal world, a redshirt freshman such as Nelson would not be so heavily relied upon. Even if he worked his way into the starting lineup, there would be a veteran safety net behind him. Penn State doesn't have that, though, which means Nelson must play, play well and stay healthy for 12 games this season.
That is a lot to ask of any player, especially one who has never played a college snap. But Nelson might be up for the job. Hand has shown a lot of faith in Nelson this fall, trusting him to play left tackle (on Hackenberg's blind side) while Smith has sat out of practice with an injury, and those reps in the spotlight should help with Nelson's ego.
Will that be enough, though?
Penn State's schedule includes some formidable defensive linemen. Worse yet, it includes some formidable defensive line pairs. Ohio State attacks with Noah Spence on one side and Joey Bosa on the other; Michigan State attacks with Shilique Calhoun on one side and Marcus Rush on the other; Michigan attacks with Frank Clark on one side and Brennen Beyer on the other—the list goes on and on.
Penn State needs two reliable tackles if it wants to keep Hackenberg upright and healthy. On paper, Nelson is that No. 2.
But if anything goes wrong, the wheels could fall off.
Rain or shine; Ireland or America; volcanic eruption or no volcanic eruption—it doesn't matter. Penn State has to beat Central Florida.
It just has to.
Of course, that is easier said than done. UCF won the Fiesta Bowl (and beat Penn State) last season, and even though it loses quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, it returns meaningful pieces from that team such as running back William Stanback, linebacker Terrance Plummer, cornerback Jacoby Glenn and four receivers that could hang in a power conference. In a vacuum, there would be no shame in losing to the Golden Knights.
But the Nittany Lions can't afford to do it. They have to start the season with a jolt. Given the momentum they've accumulated this offseason, a loss would serve as a sobering road block, where a win would keep the ball rolling at its current pace (and then some).
As for the rest of the games on the schedule, none really stick out as "make or break." Home dates with Ohio State and Michigan State could certainly "make" the season, but because Penn State cannot win the conference or play in a bowl game or anything, they can't really "break" it. The pressure is squarely on the visiting team.
If forced to highlight a second game, though, November 1 against Maryland could have major recruiting implications. Franklin has taken giddy pleasure in recruiting the Old Line State, and even though the Terps have stayed afloat with a couple of big commitments (credit where it's due to Randy Edsall), it still feels like the wrong outcome at Beaver Stadium could bury them out on the trail.
On the flip side, Maryland has a team good enough to beat Penn State, especially one week after Penn State plays the Buckeyes. Scoring a win over Franklin—a former UMD assistant—in his own backyard could make a big impact on local recruits (e.g. Jay Stocker) in addition to exorcising some personal demons.
For many reasons, that's a game worth watching closely.
By most accounts, this will be considered a successful season.
Interpret that how you will.
Obviously, it is hard to make predictions for a team that cannot make a bowl game or win the conference championship. Ohio State raised the bar pretty high in a similar situation two years ago, finishing 12-0 and feeding off that momentum through the next offseason, and there's no reason Penn State can't enjoy something similar.
Similar. Not identical. This team will not go undefeated. It doesn't have the depth along the offensive line—or, to be honest, at almost any position—to beat all of the teams on its schedule. There will be games where this experiment looks ugly, losses that should have been wins.
However, there might also be wins that should have been losses. On the road against Michigan and at home against Ohio State and Michigan State—watch the Nittany Lions pull one of those out. They scored a signature victory at Wisconsin last season. We know what they are care capable of doing (at least for 60 minutes).
All things told, this feels like an 8-4 season. It could swing to 9-3 or 7-5 based on modest close-game luck or 6-6 or 10-2 based on crazy close-game luck, but it's hard to see them deviating too far from center.
An above-average team on the cusp of outliving its sanctions will remain enticing to local and national recruits, and Franklin will continue to dominate in that regard. Penn State might be a sneaky Big Ten title contender in 2015 and a sneaky national title contender in 2016—but only if Hackenberg stays for his senior season (unlikely).
The momentum Penn State has gathered this offseason will slow down but not change course. Keeping the ball from rolling downhill is the biggest goal of this season, and that will be accomplished. It won't blow anyone off their feet, but it also won't rub them the wrong way.
And that, by most accounts, will constitute a successful year.
Overall Record: 8-4
Big Ten Record: 5-3
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LSU head coach Les Miles has the talent to win the SEC in 2014.
Miles knows the journey back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship will not be an easy one. The Tigers were picked to finish third in the conference at SEC media days, with Alabama and Auburn ahead of them.
Can Miles lead his Tigers past the top of the SEC? That remains to be seen, but he has proven capable of doing so.
Miles has won the SEC twice, yet that should not be the only measure of his success. LSU is the only SEC team to finish in the Top 25 in each of the past nine seasons, all of which were under Miles. He has averaged over 10 wins a season in his illustrious career.
LSU finished an impressive 10-3 in 2013. However, Miles could—and should—have been even better.
LSU lacked focus in a road game against injury-plagued Ole Miss, which resulted in an embarrassing loss. The Tigers were outplayed at home by massive underdog Arkansas, yet miraculously won the game. Miles could not keep up with Alabama in a 38-17 loss in Tuscaloosa, his worst regular-season loss since 2008.
Miles and his staff will need to be on top of their game in 2013. The Tigers are ranked No. 13 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll. The goal is to finish in the top four in the minds of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Here is how the Tigers stack up in 2014.
LSU has had a change in its coaching staff in each of the past three seasons. Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes will be going into his first year, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron into his second and wide receivers coach Adam Henry and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond are going into their third.
Special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto left LSU after a below-average season as a co-defensive coordinator in 2008 to become the head coach at Northwestern State.
Peveto is now back in Baton Rouge as the special teams coordinator after Thomas McGaughey left to take the same position for the New York Jets.
LSU's position coaches are coveted recruiters, led by running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. With that said, the group must be on top of its game in practice. The youthful Tigers must be taught the proper technique to succeed in the SEC.
Cameron and defensive coordinator John Chavis could form the best coordinator combo in the country.
Last season, Cameron was given the keys to a BMW with experienced playmakers Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Now, he must rebuild the offense with young yet talented pieces.
Chavis has an experienced unit returning that should be among the country's best defenses.
What to Watch For on Offense
The Leonard Fournette Show will hit theaters on August 30.
Fournette, a 5-star running back from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, is Miles' most highly touted recruit in his best recruiting class ever at LSU. He is expected to eventually become the workhorse running back in Baton Rouge.
Fournette will have help in experienced seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard.
Magee was given the coveted No. 18 jersey this offseason and will likely start the season opener. Hilliard has yet to regain his amazing freshman form from 2011, but has still been viable option in the red zone with 21 career touchdowns.
Fullback Connor Neighbors and an offensive line that returns four of five starters should pave the way for a potent rushing attack.
Former Georgia All-American tackle and SEC Network analyst Matt Stinchomb said on SEC Now that the Tigers have the best offensive line in the conference.
Left tackle La'el Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins were all projected starters. In a somewhat shocking move, Ross Dellenger of The Advocate suggests Miles is leaning toward starting sophomore Ethan Pocic at center over Porter.
Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington are still battling to start at right guard. No matter who starts the opener, expect both to play.
And then there is the position of quarterback.
The Tigers have yet to name a starting signal-caller. The decision will be made between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Miles said he will have a decision made before the day of the opener.
"We'll tell the starter probably that Thursday (Aug. 28) when we put together the final list of starters," Miles said, per Glenn Guilbeau of The Daily Advertiser.
Miles continued by saying he could play both Jennings and Harris. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee believes Miles is playing in dangerous waters if he goes that route.
"If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks," wrote Sallee. "LSU is on the verge of having no quarterbacks."
No matter who is the starter, LSU's inexperience at wide receiver is concerning. Replacing Beckham Jr. and Landry, both of whom eclipsed 1,000 yards last season, will not be easy.
Leading receiver returnee Travin Dural will start as the No. 1 option. The other spots are up for grabs.
John Diarse, Quantavius Leslie and Avery Peterson are all program returnees looking to make their mark. However, momentum is building in favor of highly touted freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are arguably the most talented pass-catchers on the team.
The Tigers will have a boost at tight end with DeSean Smith. LSU has accumulated an abysmal 28 catches and no touchdowns from the position over the past two seasons combined.
Smith is a gifted sophomore who can present mismatches to linebackers over the middle.
Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes are LSU's best blocking tight ends in pass protection and the running game. Expect them to play a massive role in short-yardage situations.
What to Watch For on Defense
"Defensive Back University" will be back in session at LSU in 2014.
LSU has earned the reputation as "DBU" after its amazing run of defensive backs under Miles, which includes two Jim Thorpe Award and two Chuck Bednarik Award winners. The secondary was the foundation of LSU's 24 combined wins in 2010 and 2011.
The Tigers took a step back in 2013, allowing over 229 yards per game through the air in conference play. LSU only had 11 interceptions after tallying 18 in each of the two seasons prior.
LSU's secondary will improve drastically this season. The unit has multiple All-SEC candidates, led by sophomore cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White.
Robinson and White form the best cornerback duo in the SEC. They return after combining for 13 starts and three interceptions as true freshmen. Their ability to play man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage will open up the playbook for Chavis to call unpredictable defenses.
Talented backups Jalen Collins and Ed Paris can step in without a dramatic drop-off.
LSU is in good hands at safety as well.
Junior Jalen Mills was the only bona fide starter until he was arrested for second-degree battery this offseason. LSU suspended Mills indefinitely, but reinstated him the first day of fall camp once the charge was reduced to simple battery.
Mills has started all 26 games of his productive LSU career, which is now in jeopardy if Miles chooses to sit him against Wisconsin.
The junior is Chavis' most versatile defensive back. He is a dangerous blitzer when he moves inside on nickel and dime packages.
The Tigers will turn to returnees Corey Thompson, Rickey Jefferson and Ronald Martin to fill the void. Talented freshmen newcomers Jamal Adams and John Battle will see the field as well.
The LSU secondary will only be as good as the team's pass rush. The Tigers' defensive line was below average in that department last season. Danielle Hunter is expected to change that after a spectacular spring, but Hunter will need help from Jermauria Rasco, Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower.
But the first objective for a defensive line is to stop the run.
LSU struggled at times holding the edge at defensive end against power-rushing teams. Rasco, LSU's best end at defending the run, will need help from his teammates.
The Tigers lost both starting defensive tackles in Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, which could be exposed against Wisconsin. LSU's defensive tackles are inexperienced yet talented. Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas, Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain are all capable run-stoppers.
The unit must improve after allowing over 170 yards per game on the ground against conference opponents in 2013, which was good enough for eighth in the SEC.
If not, the Badgers will make the Tigers roadkill in Houston.
LSU's linebackers could eventually be the best position group on the team. LSU returns starters Kwon Alexander and D.J. Welter. Junior Lamar Louis is the likely candidate to fill the void left by leading tackler Lamin Barrow.
Backups Deion Jones, Ronnie Feist, Kendell Beckwith and true freshman Clifton Garrett will all see the field.
The injury bug has been kind to LSU this offseason.
The Tigers have only had one serious reported injury to defensive tackle Quentin Thomas. Dellenger initially reported Thomas would miss the season with torn biceps, but he has already returned to practice.
The Tigers have sat out Fournette and Dupre for some practices during fall camp. The injuries were minor and both have already returned to practice, per David Ching of ESPN.com.
Defensive back Dwayne Thomas' job on LSU's defense is to wreak havoc.
Thomas will serve as a nickel or dime back in Chavis' exotic defensive schemes. The "Mustang" package, which features three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs, is what has made Chavis' dominance at LSU remarkable.
Thomas will play a majority of snaps close to the line of scrimmage. His athleticism allows him to either blitz or drop back in coverage on every play.
This makes quarterbacks' pre-snap reads difficult, which ultimately leads to turnovers.
The brilliance of Thomas was on full display when he tallied the game-clinching strip-sack of Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen last season. His 10 total tackles in 2013 are misleading, as four of them went for loss and two for forced fumbles. Expect Thomas to surpass those numbers in 2014.
The Tigers' opener against Wisconsin will be a tough one. Miles has been dominant in games similar to these while at LSU, with a 4-0 career record against ranked nonconference opponents in season openers.
The defense will have its hands full defending Heisman hopeful running back Melvin Gordon.
LSU's toughest two-week stretch will be in early October with back-to-back road games against Auburn and Florida. The Tigers can only afford to lose one of them if they want to make a run at the SEC Championship.
The biggest home game on LSU's schedule will be against Alabama, which is the only team Miles does not have a winning record against (5-5).
The Crimson Tide are the most talented team in the conference. Both teams will have a bye week to prepare for what has become one of the premier matchups in college football.
Auburn, Florida and Alabama only make up three of LSU's eight SEC games. The Tigers get Mississippi State, Kentucky and Ole Miss at home. Their last two games will be road contests against Arkansas and Texas A&M.
LSU will keep the same uniforms as last season. With that said, the LSU Football Equipment Twitter page released the sweet kicks the Tigers will wear this season.
LSU will finish the regular season 10-2 and earn a berth to The Cotton Bowl. The Tigers' only losses will come against Auburn and Alabama.
Miles will miss out on the SEC Championship Game for the third consecutive season, but 10 wins is an impressive feat with the youth LSU will have to work with this season.
The Tigers are one year away from making a trip back to Atlanta. A young nucleus of Fournette, Dupre, Harris, Dural, Quinn and Pocic will return on offense, as will a multitude of talented playmakers on all levels of the defense.
LSU fans must have patience. Tigers fans can probably live with 10 wins and a Cotton Bowl appearance in 2014.
However, the pressure for Miles to win a SEC Championship during the Fournette era will only grow.
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Year one of the Jim Mora era at UCLA brought nine wins and a divisional championship. Year two brought 10 wins. Year three opens Aug. 30 at Virginia with the Bruins ranked No. 7 in The Associated Press Top 25 and chasing the program's first Pac-12 title since 1998.
Also at stake is a potential berth in the College Football Playoff and shot at the program's first national championship since 1954.
There's plenty of chatter to that end emanating from outside sources, but Mora isn't focusing on it.
"Every day, our goal is to be the best we can be that day and come back the next day," the head coach said in July at Pac-12 media days. "That is the approach you have to take. If you look too far down the line or listen to what's going on outside, you make a mistake."
UCLA's 2014 season is about simultaneously blocking out and meeting high expectations. It's a challenging balancing act but one that will define the Bruins' season.
UCLA made strides in each of Mora's first two seasons at the helm. He and his staff inherited a talented roster, as predecessor Rick Neuheisel recruited well.
Where Mora succeeded was tying that talent together and bringing a hard-nosed approach to the Bruins' play.
"He and I have a lot in common being...guys that want to play smashmouth, tough-guy football," Stanford head coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. "And you've seen that come to fruition down in UCLA."
Coordinators Noel Mazzone and Jeff Ulbrich have been with Mora since the beginning. Mazzone's work with the offense has made UCLA one of the most explosive teams in the Pac-12 while Ulbrich is transitioning into a new role overseeing the defense.
Ulbrich may be new to his position, but he embodied the Bruins' physical attitude in the past seasons as linebackers coach.
"Coach Brick is a beast," linebacker Eric Kendricks said at Pac-12 media days. "His NFL experience and his IQ is wearing off on all of us."
What to Watch For on Offense
All eyes are on UCLA redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley. Entering his third season as the Bruins starter, Hundley has commanded national attention—so much so that he's appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the last month.
Teammates have noticed all the attention paid to Hundley, too.
"Walk[ing] around campus, I'll yell out, 'Heisman candidate,' [or], 'Oh my God, is that Brett Hundley?'" linebacker and running back Myles Jack told me in April.
The spotlight is well-deserved. In his first two years, Hundley's been one of the nation's most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks.
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Hundley passed for 3,740 yards. In his redshirt sophomore campaign, he ran for a team-high 748 yards.
The 2014 season is about putting those two qualities together at their peak levels. If he does that, Hundley will most definitely factor into the Heisman Trophy race.
He's working with a wide receiving corps that Eldridge Massington told me was best in the Pac-12 with "the best receivers coach" in Eric Yarber.
Hundley will have no shortage of options at which to pass to. Devin Fuller and Jordan Payton are the team's leading returners, and both are primed for monster seasons.
Devin Lucien suffered a scary injury at fall camp but returned to practice this week—just in time to get a photo taken with actor Denzel Washington.
When at full strength, Lucien will be the Bruins' man on fire in the deep passing attack.
The Bruins can also go to the air effectively via the backfield with running back Paul Perkins. Perkins caught 24 passes a season ago for 296 yards, fifth-most on the team.
UCLA's offensive challenge is two-fold. First is improved protection for Hundley from an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks a season ago.
The second facet is establishing a more consistent run game. Jordon James' injury early into 2013 derailed the Bruins' ground attack, forcing Hundley and Jack into the majority of ball-carrying duties down the stretch.
What to Watch for on Defense
Ulbrich takes over a talented defense from Lou Spanos, who took the linebackers coach position with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
Kendricks said the change "hasn't been rocky at all."
Ulbrich spent the last two seasons coaching UCLA's fearsome linebackers corps, which produced first-round NFL draft pick Anthony Barr and breakout star Jack.
The same ferocity he emphasized for his linebackers is an attitude Ulbrich now brings to the entire defense.
The Bruins have toyed with more nickel and dime formations to counter the Pac-12's many spread offenses.
One of the tweaks to look for with Ulbrich taking over is Jack roaming the field with a bit more freedom. The sensational sophomore did some of that in the Bruins' spring game, but he should have even more autonomy in 2014 to both blitz and drop back into pass coverage.
Jack's versatility was on full display a season ago when he stepped up as the Bruins' leading rusher in the final month. He'll continue to play two ways in 2014, albeit in a limited capacity, which will allow him to do what he does best—make plays at linebacker.
The defensive line is among the Pac-12's most talented. Kenny Clark was a breakout performer a season ago, making 14 of his 29 tackles in the Bruins' final four games.
Eddie Vanderdoes played a prominent role in his true freshman campaign but missed much of the offseason with a foot injury. Despite the layoff, Vanderdoes seems to be acclimating to Ulbrich's tweaks well, as he told the Orange County Register's Ryan Kartje.
"The new defense really puts me and us as a front in better positions to make plays," Vanderdoes said. "It's so much better. I love being a [3-technique defensive tackle]. I've always loved being a 3. That's my natural position.
Perhaps the biggest potential impact player along the Bruins defensive front is Owamagbe Odighizuwa. He missed the entire 2013 season due to injury but is coming back in a big way.
Offensive lineman Simon Goines has been snakebit recently. He broke his leg in the regular-season finale of 2013 and this month underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle.
Fortunately for UCLA, it should get Goines back into the lineup early in the season. Other injuries sustained up and down the roster throughout fall camp were also minor.
An element missing from UCLA's offense that made a world of difference the season before was a big receiving target—someone Hundley could rely on each time the Bruins were in the red zone.
In 2012, that was tight end Joseph Fauria. More than a quarter of Fauria's 45 receptions that season went for touchdowns—12, to be exact.
He's taken his red-zone catching, touchdown-celebrating ways to the NFL and the Detroit Lions, but a current Bruin is capable of taking up Fauria's mantle in 2014.
Sophomore Thomas Duarte may or may not be able to match Fauria's dance moves, but Duarte this season could be the reliable red-zone target Fauria was.
To compete for a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth, UCLA must navigate through a treacherous schedule that includes a trip across the country to Virginia, a virtual road game against Texas and cross-divisional conference matchups with each of the North's top three teams: Oregon, Stanford and Washington.
"I think it's going to be a very challenging season for us. We've got a difficult schedule, an exciting schedule," Mora said.
UCLA was one drive shy of repeating as Pac-12 South champions, but Arizona State squashed the Bruins' final effort in a 38-33 final thriller last November in the Rose Bowl.
With the win, the Sun Devils sealed the divisional championship and avenged their two-point loss to UCLA at home the season prior.
Arizona State is UCLA's first game on the Pac-12 docket, and it doesn't get any easier from there. Oregon visits the Rose Bowl on Oct. 11 in a possible preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game—that is, assuming neither one trips up anywhere else on the schedule.
That's certainly a possibility. While the Bruins avoid going to Autzen Stadium, they must travel to Washington on Nov. 8. Husky Stadium is among the most inhospitable locales in the conference.
UCLA then closes out the Pac-12 season in the same way it opens, facing two of the conference's best. On Nov. 22, crosstown rival USC comes to the Rose Bowl looking to snap a two-game losing skid to the Bruins.
Then in the regular-season finale, two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford comes to town for the fourth meeting between these two teams in 24 months. Stanford took each of the previous three engagements.
In each of Mora's first two seasons as head coach, Adidas-sponsored UCLA has donned an alternate uniform with a particular theme. In 2012, it was L.A. Nights. Last year's was nicknamed L.A. Midnight.
In 2014, the Bruins will wear L.A. Steel:
Prediction: 11-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-12
The pressure is on UCLA this season. While the weight of such expectations might cause other teams to falter, the Bruins have the right leadership in place to keep them focused.
"I don't think when you get around our team you hear them talking about the outside expectations or a long-term goal," Mora said. "They talk about the process, the grind, going to work."
The Pac-12 has not had an undefeated champion since 2010, and there's reason for that. The conference is among the nation's deepest, and this year may be its deepest yet. UCLA is unlikely to escape the regular season unscathed.
However, if the Bruins can win their marquee home games and avoid potential traps, they'll return to the Pac-12 Championship Game with one of the nation's best strength-of-schedule rankings and a very real shot at landing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
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Brady Hoke heads into his fourth season in Michigan teetering between potential breakthrough success and epic failure.
His team is stocked with talented players—attracting recruits to Ann Arbor hasn’t been a problem. But his staff needs to prove that it can mold that talent into an elite team. Last season’s 7-6 collapse has placed the program under the microscope.
Under examination will be an offense that is being rebuilt to run the ball with an offensive line that struggled mightily last season. The team’s best hope for success will be for its defense to stem the tide until the offense can find its way.
Hoke is 26-13 overall during his tenure at Michigan but 15-11 during the last two seasons. The Wolverines have dropped six out of their last eight games. Hoke and his staff need to produce this season to stop the murmurs of discontent in Ann Arbor.
The slide led to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier being hired with a mandate to fix the team’s running attack.
Nussmeier is working with longtime Michigan assistant Fred Jackson, who has mentored some of the best running backs in team history. With a stable of talented running backs, this season will be his chance to prove that he can still develop elite talent.
Offensive line coach Darrell Funk is under scrutiny after his position group struggled last season. The offensive line was one of team’s weakest position groups despite the presence of two eventual NFL draft picks (Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield). Funk needs to build a stronger line this season or the team will repeat last year's disappointment.
Hoke also shuffled his defensive staff. Coordinator Greg Mattison has taken over the linebackers, and the backfield duties have been split between Curt Mallory (safeties) and Roy Manning (cornerback). The backfield move was made to give the players more coaching attention to deal with the proliferation of spread offenses.
What to Watch For on Offense
One of the main problems last year was the inconsistency of the offensive line. Nine players rotated through the five offensive line positions, and Hoke has lost two of his most talented linemen to the NFL. Rebuilding the line is the biggest obstacle Michigan faces while trying to roll out its new offense.
The talk out of camp is that last year’s position group struggled with off-the-field distractions and a lack of senior leadership. This year’s group is more unified and hopes to be greatly improved with another year of game experience and weight training under its collective belt.
The key players to watch are center Jack Miller and tackle Mason Cole. Miller was over his head last season but has improved greatly, according to Hoke. Cole is a true freshman who has seized the starting position at left tackle. If either of these players struggle, it will speak volumes to the level of talent on the offensive line and lack of improvement over last season.
Nussmeier has simplified the playbook in an attempt to jump-start the running game.
Derrick Green (20 pounds lighter than last season) and De’Veon Smith have battled for the starting job all spring and throughout fall camp while being pressed by Drake Johnson and Justice Hayes. Transfer Ty Isaac is also waiting on word of his eligibility. The running game could be back in a big way—if the offensive line can open up some holes.
Quarterback Devin Gardner returns for his senior season while learning the third offensive scheme of his career. Gardner showed his toughness last season playing injured versus Ohio State but will need to show restraint in the new offense. Last season he was the offense. This year he’ll need to become more of a game manager, distributing the ball to his running backs and receivers.
Another huge question on offense is who will emerge in the receiving ranks. Wide receiver Devin Funchess will be Gardner’s top target, and freshman Freddy Canteen has also emerged as a starter. But the graduation of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo along with the injury of tight end Jake Butt has depleted the number of experienced receivers available to Gardner.
There’s a huge opportunity for Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson or freshman Maurice Ways to fill the gap.
What to Watch For on Defense
The defense looks to improve after a lack of depth at key positions contributed to Michigan’s 1-4 November collapse last season.
Top linebacker Jake Ryan has been moved to the middle and should benefit, along with fellow linebackers Desmond Morgan and James Ross, from Mattison taking over the position group.
The defensive line is solid with Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer at the ends, and Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry at the tackles. The team needs a solid season from backups Bryan Mone, Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton. The defense weakened last season when the line wore down as the season progressed. The ability for the backups to improve and pressure opposing offenses will be vital.
The most interesting position battle on defense will be in the backfield, where Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor are being tested by Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling and top recruit Jabrill Peppers for playing time. Peppers will start the season at nickel but will soon challenge the incumbents for time at corner.
At safety Delano Hill and Jarrod Wilson will be pressed by Dymonte Thomas and Jeremy Clark.
Overall the defense is expected to very good and possibly great if Peppers can fulfill his potential and the defensive line can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The loss of Butt at tight end is a serious blow to an offense low on experienced receivers. His rehab is going well and his return is expected by the start of the Big Ten season. Until then A.J. Williams will need to fill in as a receiver and blocker supplementing the offensive line.
Hill broke his jaw during summer drills, but the safety expected back by the start of the season. Don’t be surprised if he returns for the Notre Dame game.
Peppers is one of the most talented, explosive players on Michigan’s roster. Despite being a true freshman, he started fall camp at nickelback and has already begun getting reps at corner. He’s also been working at returning kicks.
Hoke has been tight-lipped about plans to use Peppers on offense, but it’s a tantalizing possibility. He’d be devastating coming out of the backfield.
Expect Peppers to be everywhere by midseason.
Michigan plays all of its key rivalry games on the road—Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Hoke’s track record versus these schools (4-5) coupled with the way his teams have struggled when leaving Ann Arbor (7-11) doesn’t bode well.
There’s a lot riding on Michigan’s second game of the season versus Notre Dame. It’s the last time that these two storied programs are scheduled to meet, and Michigan would like to smack the Irish, who bailed out of future meetings.
The last time Michigan played at Notre Dame Stadium the Wolverine offense fell into a funk that torpedoed the entire season. It was also the beginning of a baffling two-year offensive stretch that would ultimately cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job. A win could exorcise of a lot of demons.
The next key game is versus Michigan State in East Lansing (October 25), where Michigan has been completely dominated on its last two visits.
The Spartans will likely be heavily favored in this game. Hoke may deny that moral victories exist, but if his team can’t win, it needs to show that it can hang with its in-state nemesis. The hammer and nail aren’t rivals—and Michigan has been the nail when playing in East Lansing. Hoke needs to put a stop to it.
If Michigan could somehow sweep these games, the team would be a virtual lock to compete for its first Big Ten Championship under Hoke. If the unthinkable happens and Michigan loses all three, Hoke’s tenure in Ann Arbor will be in serious jeopardy.
Michigan has announced special uniforms for its night game versus Penn State.
If Michigan can beat Notre Dame it could go 9-3 this season. Unfortunately, two of its three losses will be to Michigan State and Ohio State, sinking any chance of playing in the Big Ten title game.
Most teams would be pleased with 9-3, but losses to two key rivals and no Big Ten title will cause a lot of heartburn in Ann Arbor.
Hoke promised the return of Michigan football when he was hired. He needs deliver on that promise or at the very least show significant progress this season.
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The Oregon Ducks enter the 2014 season with expectations of a Pac-12 title and a trip to the first ever College Football Playoffs. They come into 2014 ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press and No. 4 by USA Today. This should come as no shock considering that the Ducks have Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota and playmakers at every position.
Around the country most pundits expect the Ducks to once again be one of the best offenses in college football. The Ducks finished second in the country in total offense in 2013, averaging 565 yards/game and third in points per game with 45.5. Despite the fact that the Ducks lost wide receiver Josh Huff and running back De’Anthony Thomas, the team should once again be one of the best in the nation with Mariota running the show.
More questions arise on the defensive side of the ball, where the Ducks have to replace six starters from their 2013 campaign. The Ducks have a new defensive coordinator in Don Pellum, who has been with the school for the past 21 seasons. While Oregon will miss former defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who was the defensive leader since 1999, the defensive schemes will not change under Pellum. That means you can expect a 3-4 defense that shifts players in and out more similar to a hockey rotation than a football team.
The Ducks have three games this season against opponents who are ranked within the top 11, according to the Associated Press. Fortunately, two of those games will be played at Autzen Stadium (Michigan State and Stanford), while the other will come against seventh-ranked UCLA at the Rose Bowl in mid-October.
The question, as it always is for Oregon, is can it beat Stanford and can it win close games in November. The Ducks have been one of the best teams in the country for the better of the last decade but haven’t gotten to the top of the hill just yet. This season, with four teams competing in the College Football Playoff, may be Oregon’s best opportunity to win a title. Can it finally bring a title back to Autzen? That’s the question everybody in Eugene will be asking this year.
Mark Helfrich enters his second year as head coach of the Ducks. In his first season, Oregon went 11-2, which would have been an excellent first year for any head coach; however, at Oregon it was a bit of a disappointment. The loss to Stanford would have been acceptable if the Ducks had only lost that game and won the Pac-12 title.
However, the loss to Arizona, or the destruction at the hands of the Wildcats if you want to phrase it that way, was the killer for Helfrich and the program. That loss cost the Ducks a shot at the Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl appearance. Some will say that the Ducks would have never lost that game under former head coach Chip Kelly. That’s fair considering the amount of success Kelly had with the Ducks.
While Helfrich is clearly a very competent head coach, there are concerns about his ability to motivate players, especially after a heart-wrenching loss like the one they suffered at Stanford. Year two will speak volumes about Helfrich as a leader and will give us a better idea of how long his tenure at Oregon will last. Chip Kelly delivered a trip to the national title game in his second season as head coach. Can Helfrich do the same? Those are the expectations for Helfrich and the Ducks in 2014.
The Ducks have an incredible tradition of retaining continuity across the coaching staff. When a coach leaves, like Chip Kelly did in 2012 or Nick Aliotti did in 2013, they're always replaced from within the ranks. New defensive coordinator Don Pellum enters his 22nd season with the Ducks, but this will be his first in charge of the entire defense. Don’t expect much to change on that side of the ball. Oregon is going to run a 3-4 defense that focuses on turnovers and creating pressure on the quarterback.
Because the Ducks offense operates at such speed, the Oregon defense usually spends more time on the field than any other program in college football. Pellum is going to use more players on defense than almost any other coach in the country, usually 20 or more during the course of a game.
While the name on the door may be different in Eugene, nothing is going to change schematically. It’s Pellum’s show now, but he’s going to be working within Aliotti’s scheme. It’s worked pretty well for the Ducks over the last decade.
The offense will be run by Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who led the Cornhuskers to a national title in 1997. Frost, entering his fifth season with the Ducks, is in his second year as offensive coordinator. Again, you shouldn’t expect anything different this season from the Ducks offense, just more speed.
The only newcomer to the staff this season is Erik Chinander, who will replace Pellum as the team's outside linebacker coach. Chinander, who was with the Ducks as an intern and graduate assistant from 2010-2012, spent last year as the assistant defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Chinander, 34, will be focusing on the “drop-end” or “hybrid/rover” position the Ducks utilize, which will be manned by redshirt senior Tony Washington.
What to Watch for on Offense
The Ducks offense begins and ends with Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota. Mariota is one of the most talented dual-threat quarterbacks in college football and will likely be a top-five pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In two seasons with the Ducks, Mariota has thrown for 63 touchdowns, run for 14 more and only thrown 10 interceptions along the way.
Mariota is also one of the most accurate QBs in the nation, having completed 65 percent of his throws over the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost told Daniel Uthman of USA Today that he would like to see Mariota to get even better this season in terms of completion percentage.
"I'd like to see him have an absurdly high completion percentage, because that's the kind of passer that he is," said Frost.
The only thing that can slow down Mariota is his health. While he has started every game for the Ducks over the past two seasons, he sprained his MCL against UCLA, which cost him his mobility for the rest of the season. The Ducks offense stalled without Mariota’s ability to scramble and throw on the run.
In the five games after Mariota’s injury, the Ducks produced four of their five worst offensive outputs of the season. If Mariota is going to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national title, then he’s going to have to stay healthy.
While Oregon has produced some solid quarterbacks since the “blur” offense was implemented in 2007, it’s the running backs who have benefited the most from Chip Kelly’s scheme. Since 2007, Oregon has produced running backs such as Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. This year's attack features a two-headed monster that may be the most dynamic in school history.
Oregon will start with Byron Marshall, who is powerful and quick at 5’10” and 205 pounds. In 2013 as the main ball-carrier, Marshall gained 6.2 yards per carry while totaling 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries. Marshall’s “backup” will be sophomore Thomas Tyner, who may be Oregon’s most talented running back.
Last season as a backup to Marshall and Thomas, Tyner also gained 6.2 yards a carry while totaling 711 yards and nine touchdowns on 115 carries. Tyner caught 14 balls out of the backfield while Marshall caught 13. To say they’re both extremely talented, versatile and interchangeable, would be an understatement. Throw in freshman Royce Freeman, who we’ll talk about later, and you may have the best group of running backs in the entire nation.
While we likely know what the Ducks are going to get from their quarterback and running backs, the same cannot be said about their wide receivers. Gone are Josh Huff, Daryle Hawkins and Thomas. Second-leading receiver Bralon Addison may be out for the year with an ACL injury, something we’ll discuss in a bit.
That means Oregon is without its top four receivers from the 2013 season. While some teams would suffer dramatically due to the lack of experience, Oregon is uniquely positioned to fill the holes due to the type of athletes it has on the roster.
Mariota will now rely on senior Keanon Lowe, who caught 18 passes last season, to lead the group of young wide receivers. Lowe will likely be Mariota’s main target, and at 5’9”, 186 pounds, he will see a lot of time as a slot receiver. Joining Lowe in the wide receiver corps will be sophomore Dwayne Stanford and freshmen Darren Carrington and Devon Allen.
Stanford, who is 6'5", is the only one with game experience, having caught 11 balls in 2012 as a true freshman before missing all of last season with a knee injury. Allen, 6'0", is likely the fastest player on the Ducks roster.
Allen won the 2014 USA Outdoor Track and Field Men’s 110M hurdles with a time of 13.16 seconds. Allen is so fast that the Oregon coaches probably feared they would lose him to track full time. He’s likely a future Olympian.
Lastly, there’s Carrington, 6'2", who also has track speed but figures to give Mariota a bigger target to find down field. Beyond Stanford, Allen and Carrington, the Ducks will be using sophomore Chance Allen and junior B.J. Kelly.
Mariota will also be depending on tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown, who replace Colt Lyerla. Mundt and Brown aren’t nearly as talented or physically imposing as Lyerla was; however, together they may be more effective for the Ducks offense than Lyerla was. Expect both players to catch between 25-35 passes this season.
Lastly, we cannot mention the Oregon offense without talking about the offensive line. The Ducks were set to return all five starters from last year’s team; however, left tackle Tyler Johnstone re-tore his ACL in fall camp and will miss the entire 2014 season. While Johnstone’s loss will be felt across the line, his replacement, Andre Yruretagoyena, has been practicing with the first-team offense since spring camp. He’s more than ready to fill the role.
The rest of the projected starters are left guard Hamani Stevens (6’3”, 307 pounds), center Hroniss Grasu (6’3”, 297 pounds), right guard Cameron Hunt (6’4”, 285 pounds), and right tackle Jake Fisher (6’6”, 299 pounds). Grasu is the unquestioned leader of this group and is the most vocal leader, along with Mariota, that the Ducks offense has.
Overall, the Ducks have the potential, the playmakers and the quarterback to once again be the best offense in all of college football. If the wide receivers live up to their potential, and Mariota is healthy all season, the Ducks will score over 45 points per game and average more than 550 yards per game.
What to Watch for on Defense
Oregon’s defense will be spending a lot of time on the field this season, as it does every season. In fact, in 2013 the Ducks defense spent 447.8 minutes on the field, more than any other team in college football. You can expect more of the same this year as the Ducks offense continues to push the tempo even further.
Due to the offense’s propensity to score quickly (and often), Oregon’s defense faces unique challenges that other defenses around the country don’t have to deal with. This is why the defense, under new defensive coordinator Don Pellum, will continue to rotate players in and out of the lineup about as often as a hockey team shifts lines.
Under former coordinator Nick Aliotti, the Ducks defense routinely used as many as 20 players per game, if not more. The Ducks will not change that rotation schedule under Pellum, nor will they change from the 3-4 scheme that has worked relatively well for them in recent years.
While Oregon ranked a respectable 33rd in total yards allowed in 2013, the defense is actually much better than that when you account for how many more plays Oregon had to face than a normal college defense. In terms of yards per play, Oregon’s defense ranked seventh in college football by only allowing 4.6 yards/play.
The downside for the Ducks defense is that it only returns five starters from a year ago. The good news is that because of the rotation schedule Oregon employs defensively, the backups from last year have a significant amount of playing time already under their belts and should be ready to take over more full-time roles.
Oregon’s best defensive player is cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who likely would have been a first-round pick if he had left school and entered the 2014 draft. Ekpre-Olomu isn’t necessarily a “lock-down” corner, but he is a physical player who is solid against the pass and will come up and make tackles against the run. He will need to be the leader in the secondary this season due to the fact that the rest of the defensive backs will feature new starters.
The new starters in the secondary will be senior cornerback Dior Mathis, senior free safety Erick Dargan, while sophomore Reggie Daniels or redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson will man strong safety.
The Ducks strength comes up front where they feature one of the longest and most athletic defensive lines in the Pac-12. 6’8” defensive tackle Arik Armstead and 6’7” defensive end DeForest Buckner are agile, long and will be able to put pressure on every quarterback in the Pac-12 this season.
Throw in 6’4” defensive tackle Alex Balducci and rover/hybrid linebacker Tony Washington rushing the edge, and you have a group that should be able to take over games and impose their will on inferior offensive lines.
Lastly, the Ducks will run Washington alongside Rodney Hardrick, Derrick Malone and newcomer Tyson Coleman. Washington, Hardrick and Malone combined for 230 tackles last season and should form one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Pac-12.
Overall, the Ducks have a strong defense, but it has room form improvement. While there are six starters from last season to replace, the players coming in are more than qualified to fill the holes adequately. The Ducks should once again finish within the top 10 in the country in terms of yards-per-play allowed.
The only concern for the Ducks should be getting beat over the top against Pac-12 offenses, where nine of the other 11 teams in the conference feature returning starters at quarterback. If the defensive line does live up to its potential, then the inexperience in the secondary shouldn't be an issue.
The good news for the Ducks is that there have only been two causalities so far during spring and fall practices. The bad news is that the two injuries were catastrophic, and they happened to two of Oregon’s best and most reliable players.
The Ducks lost wide receiver Bralon Addison during the spring to an ACL tear. Addison, a junior, caught 61 catches for 890 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He figured to be Mariota’s favorite target this season.
While most expect Addison to miss a large portion of the season, at the least, Mariota isn’t so sure about that. According to an NFL.com report by Bryan Fischer, Mariota says that Addison is targeting the Michigan State game for a return to the lineup.
"He looks good," Mariota told Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. "I'm excited. Hopefully he gets ready for that second game."
For the record, a September 6 comeback for Addison would mean a five-month recovery from an ACL tear. Comparatively, Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back, took nine months to recover from a similar knee injury, which is considered the fastest comeback in professional sports history from an ACL tear.
The other big loss for the Ducks was that of left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who had started that past 26 games for the Ducks at that position. Johnstone re-tore the ACL in his right knee, an injury he originally suffered in the Alamo Bowl against Texas in December. Johnstone was a mainstay along Oregon’s offensive line, a line that was set to return all five starters from the 2013 squad.
In to replace Johnstone is Yruretagoyena, the 6'5" and 290-pound redshirt junior who has made 11 career appearances for Oregon. Yruretagoyena won’t be completely unfamiliar to the rest of the Ducks offense, as he has taken first-team reps during the spring and summer as Johnstone’s replacement.
While both injuries are certainly blows to Oregon’s offense, they won’t define how the offense operates or how successful it can be. Oregon has plenty of speedy and talented wide receivers ready to fill the hole left by Addison, and Yruretagoyena has the experience and the size necessary to fill Johnstone’s spot along the line.
As they say in Eugene it’s “next man up”.
The clear X-factor for the Ducks this season will be freshman running back Royce Freeman. Freeman, who rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns as a senior at Imperial High School (Calif.), figures to find himself playing on special teams this season; however, it would not be a surprise to see him play some running back this year, especially if Tyner or Marshall goes down due to injury.
The reason he’s going to be an X-factor for the Ducks this season is because no one really knows that much about him, other than he’s been an absolute stud in fall camp so far. The Ducks coaches, specifically running backs coach Gary Campbell, who has been with the Ducks for 31 years, have been raving about Freeman’s abilities all over the field, according to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian.
Campbell thinks so highly of Freeman that he told Alger that Freeman is already where Thomas Tyner was at the end of the 2013 season.
He's at the point where Tyner was at the end of last year. He's fast. He's big and he's tough. A lot of times you get guys like him that come in and have great success in high school and they haven't really had to work at it and when they get into tough competition at the college level they shy away from it. He steps right up.
That’s extremely high praise from a coach who has seen Jonathan Stewart, LaMichael James, LaGarrette Blount, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas come through the program in recent years.
There’s no telling how much playing time Freeman is going to get this season, especially when he’s working behind Tyner and Marshall. However, Oregon usually figures out a way to get speed and talent onto the field, regardless of experience.
It would seem that Freeman will fill a role similar to De’Anthony Thomas’ during his freshman year in 2011. Look for Freeman to find a place as a returner, slot receiver and running back at different times during the course of the 2014 season.
The Ducks first big game of the season will come against Michigan State on September 6 in Eugene. However, that’s not a make-or-break game for them. If Oregon loses to Michigan State and sweeps the Pac-12, that would make them 12-1 on the season and undefeated in Pac-12 play. That would likely be good enough to get into the College Football Playoff. While it’s a big game, it won’t make or break the Ducks 2014 campaign. Games against UCLA and Stanford will.
Oct. 11 at UCLA
The Ducks have won the last five games against the Bruins and have done it with ease. Last year in Eugene, UCLA played Oregon tight for the first half, 14-14, but the Ducks exploded in the second half to win 42-14. Don’t anticipate another blowout.
UCLA has two of the best players in the country in quarterback Brett Hundley and running back/linebacker Myles Jack. Jim Mora, UCLA’s head coach, is one of the best in the business as well. The Rose Bowl, during UCLA games, isn’t the most hostile territory, and the house will likely be filled with a sea of green, yellow, black, silver, white and whatever other color the Ducks decide to wear on October 11.
While the Ducks should have confidence in their ability to beat UCLA, they should not take this game lightly. UCLA is talented all over the board and comes into the season preseason ranked seventh in the country. The Ducks and Bruins could potentially meet three times this season (October 11, Pac-12 Title Game, College Football Playoffs). The Ducks need to make a statement in Pasadena. That statement should be that they’re still the class of the conference and that they’re here to win a championship in 2014.
Nov. 1 vs Stanford
This is the big one. Stanford has been Oregon’s kryptonite over the past two seasons. In 2012 and 2013 Stanford derailed Oregon’s chances of making it to the national title game. If Oregon would have taken down Stanford in Eugene in 2012 it would have gone undefeated and played Notre Dame in the BCS title game in Miami. That was probably Oregon’s best shot at a title, outside of 2010.
Last year the Ducks dug themselves a 26-0 hole before miraculously climbing out of it to make it a game late in the fourth quarter. However, they couldn’t muster enough to take down the Cardinal. Once again, Stanford had taken down the beast and kept it from a shot at the title.
In 2011 it was the Ducks who spoiled Stanford’s shot at the BCS title, taking down an undefeated Cardinal team in Palo Alto by the score of 53-30. Stanford and Oregon are single-handedly responsible to derailing each other’s national championship aspirations. Will 2014 be any different? Will either Stanford or Oregon finally get over the hump?
If Oregon has any shot at reaching the College Football Playoff, it's going to have to beat Stanford on November 1 in Eugene. There’s no way around it. If you were to look up the definition of “Make or Break Game” in a dictionary, it would simply say “Stanford vs. Oregon."
Can you expect new uniforms from the Oregon Ducks this season? That’s like asking Bill Gates if he has a lot of money. Of course you can expect new uniforms from the Ducks. In fact, you can expect new uniforms for every single game Oregon plays in this season.
We got a sniff of what the Ducks have planned attire-wise this season in the Alamo Bowl. The new design featured an updated shoulder “wing” pattern that the Ducks have utilized since 2010. The Ducks will continue wearing their winged helmets, which are mesmerizing.
Expect to see new variations every week. As always, the Ducks will awe us every week with their outfits.
The Ducks have all the ingredients a team needs in order to compete for a national championship. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, a great coaching staff, playmakers at all of the key positions and a good enough defense to keep them in games in which the offense stalls a bit. Of course, you could have said the same thing about the Ducks for each of the past four seasons.
The real key for the Ducks this season will be winning close games, something they’ve struggled with for the past couple of seasons. If Oregon can squeak out victories when it's not destroying opponents, then this team should win the Pac-12 North, the Pac-12 title and should be in the College Football Playoff come January.
So, you want a prediction? Oregon will go 12-1 this season, 8-1 in the Pac-12 conference and win the Pac-12 title game. For their efforts, they will be rewarded with a spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff as the third seed.
Here’s another prediction: Marcus Mariota will win the Heisman Trophy, which would be a first for the University of Oregon. Hroniss Grasu will also win the Rimington Award as the top center in College Football.
As for how they’ll fair in the College Football Playoff, we’ll have to wait and see.
Follow Jason Gold on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
With a week until the season opener versus Virginia, Jim Mora and the Bruins returned to Westwood this past week in order to put the final touches on their fall camp.
This week was a quiet one from a media perspective. Access to practice wasn't nearly as open as it was in San Bernardino. It makes sense considering the period of preparation for Virginia has begun.
This piece will take a look at the injury situation for the Bruins. It will also address roster musings, as well as other miscellaneous items.
As reported by Ryan Kartje of TheOrange County Register, Mora expects all three of the incoming defensive linemen (Matt Dickerson, Ainuu Taua, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner) to play. This decision could have been made partly due to the unexpected transfer of Kylie Fitts.
Assistant coach Mike Tuiasosopo has been complementary of Tuioti-Mariner's development as a player. Tuiasosopo commented on how Tuioti-Mariner "is very coachable, listens and tries to do everything right. He's doing some nice things, has gotten better every day and is a guy we're counting on."
Mora also praised Dickerson, calling him "a specimen."
It appears as if Kenny Young will likely start at middle linebacker next to Eric Kendricks.
As Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times reports, Young is making a huge impact early in his career.
Guard NaJee Toran also looks primed for time this year. He has been running with the first team at times during camp in San Bernardino.
In my opinion, the other true freshmen slated to potentially play this year in addition to the aforementioned five include Jaleel Wadood, Jordan Lasley, Zach Whitley, Alex Van Dyke and Adarius Pickett.
Health of the Football Team
UCLA did suffer various bumps and bruises throughout fall camp. The offensive line in particular dealt with various ailments: heat exhaustion, muscle pulls, concussions and also ligament sprains.
In Mora's most recent press conference, the head man said he "hasn't been concerned with the health [of the team] since day one. Any dings we had were minor. We're coming out of camp in great health and did work the past couple weeks."
The most serious injuries were suffered by reserve wide receiver Sam Handler and freshman linebacker Cameron Griffin. Both are expected to be out for the foreseeable future.
The team voted on captains for this upcoming season, according to Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News:
Mora also spoke about the trip across the country to Virginia and what potential challenges it could pose for his team. The team practices at 8:00 a.m., which would be an hour before the kickoff time in Charlottesville.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone commented on the potential concerns over the offensive line.
They've hit that time that where now, starting [Wednesday], we worked on getting their legs back. We're getting guys back [from injury] and that's been good for depth. I feel good about the depth, and [the unit] is starting to gel.
It will be fascinating as to whom starts on the offensive line next Saturday. Starting center Jake Brendel has been battling an MCL injury, and projected starter Caleb Benenoch might not be fully healthy, either (per comments by Benenoch in a press conference posted by Wang).
According to Mora on Tuesday, "Jake [Brendel] is going to be ready [for Virginia].
Assuming Brendel can go, Alex Redmond will move back to his natural position at guard. If Benenoch isn't quite mobile enough to play at right tackle, one could envision a scenario in which he starts at right guard. The right tackle spot would be a battle between a number of guys, including Conor McDermott, Kenny Lacy and Poasi Moala.
A big concern going forward is solidifying the group. UCLA has a week to do so.
Lastly, a very special guest spoke to UCLA at practice this week. I wonder if he perhaps retold a speech he gave during his time as a high school football coach?
Unless otherwise noted, all comments from coaches and players were obtained via press conferences posted on the Bruin Sports Report channel on YouTube.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
It's a good time to be a Gamecock…but it could be so much better.
Coming off a third consecutive 11-win season, South Carolina enters 2014 ranked No. 9 in both of the major preseason polls and even received a first-place vote from one of the coaches.
It's not hard to feel unfulfilled, however, considering what these past few seasons have reaped. How often does a team win 33 games in three years but not claim a single division title? How often does it do that when it's beaten the division champion all three years?
This season marks the exit of quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, two players who will surely be remembered among the best handful in program history. Also gone are valuable contributors such as Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton.
There are plenty of players to replace.
But South Carolina would not rank as a consensus top-10 team—not to mention the conference media's favorite to win the SEC East—if it didn't have the pieces in place to overcome those losses.
Will this be the year that it finally breaks through?
Coaching stability is something that everybody understands the importance of—on principle—but still tends to underrate. It's almost as valuable to return a whole staff intact as it is to return a whole position group, but the latter is inevitably more talked-about.
South Carolina is about as stable as it gets on the sideline, starting, of course, with the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Having his son, Steve Jr., return beside him for a 10th season is the icing on the cake, especially considering how good last year's offense was.
Lorenzo Ward remains one of the hottest names in the realm of assistant coaching and should get a head coaching job soon enough. South Carolina fans cannot expect him to hang around forever, but they can live in the moment and reap the reward of his sixth season.
Outside of the coordinators, things look just as promising. Especially on the recruiting trail—where Deke Adams (9), G.A. Mangus (16) and Everette Sands (18) all rank in the top 20 of 247Sports' 2015 recruiter rankings—this is one of the deepest staffs in America.
That bodes well with the climate of the other top teams in the conference. Alabama is breaking in a new offensive coordinator (and a controversial one at that). Ditto for Florida (minus the controversial part). Georgia is doing the same thing on defense. LSU and Auburn are still in just their second year of new offensive systems.
South Carolina is the only top-six contender in the SEC whose staff has held firm for more than a couple of seasons.
That is something to feel pretty darn good about.
What to Watch for on Offense
*see: injury news
**also working at tight end
It's rare for an offense to lose its long-time starting quarterback (Shaw), its leading receiver (Bruce Ellington) and a two-year starter at right guard (Ronald Patrick) but return the following year with so much confidence and so few question areas.
Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has seen a ton of game action at quarterback the past two seasons. Even though he looked shaky in the first three quarters at Missouri last year, he inspires confidence from coaches, teammates and fans alike.
Mike Davis is an All-SEC-type running back (if not more), and the offensive line—led by arguably the best guard in the country in A.J. Cann—rated as my No. 25 overall position group in college football.
In Shaq Roland, Pharoh Cooper, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd, the Gamecocks also have a group of receivers with a fairly low basement (how bad could those four possibly be?) and a very high ceiling.
Roland in particular might be poised for a big season, but even the untapped potential of Byrd is worth feeling good about.
In short, the offense should be, well, more of the same. It should honestly be even better. Losing Shaw, Ellington and Patrick hurts, but compared with other programs, that attrition is minimal. And South Carolina was stocked well at each of their positions.
Last year's offense finished No. 5 in the country on the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, trailing only Texas A&M, Ohio State, Florida State and Baylor. Other teams might post bigger raw numbers, but those are inflated by tempo and an excess of plays. South Carolina's offense is efficient, which helps on both sides of the ball.
A lot depends on Thompson, but another top-five finish is in play.
What to Watch for on Defense
*see: injury news
**first-team BOB in 3-4 defense (see below)
The biggest thing to watch for on South Carolina's defense is difficult to impart on a depth chart: a switch to a 3-4 alignment.
This will not be South Carolina's base set, but it will be something the team implements. How often it implements the 3-4 will depend on the opponent, the situation and, obviously, how well it works.
The move plays to the strength of South Carolina's defense: the linebackers. Having lost three of four starters on the defensive line and in the secondary, the Gamecocks must get as many linebackers on the field as possible and put them in favorable situations.
"When you don’t have a big-name pass rusher that’s proven himself, and your most experience coming back is at the linebacker spot," Ward told Ron Morris of The State, "you’ve got to make sure you’ve got your players on the field in the right position."
Freshman linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams—the highest-rated player in the incoming class—is listed with an asterisk because, although he's not a rotation player in the base 4-2-5 formation, linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said he holds the edge to start over Larenz Bryant and Cedrick Cooper at the BOB position in the 3-4 alignment, per David Cloninger of GoGamecocks.com (subscription required).
That could be a lot of fun to watch.
In either formation, though, the play of the linemen and defensive backs will ultimately decide the strength of the unit.
J.T. Surratt is a proven commodity at defensive tackle, but he's surrounded by largely unproven players.
Guys like Darius English and the two Gerald Dixons have gotten solid reviews this offseason, but the offseason is, inherently, a time for coaching optimism. It's not often that young players get scathing reviews. We have to see it in a game before believing it.
The secondary poses even bigger questions than the line. Especially now that converted running back Jamari Smith, who at the very least would have been part of the cornerback rotation, is out for the year with a foot injury, the depth chart is loaded with freshmen.
Starting safety Brison Williams made the move to cornerback this fall and will likely man one spot. Opposite him, the lowest-ranked of South Carolina's four incoming freshman cornerbacks, Al Harris Jr., has been the most impressive young defensive back in camp. Expect him to win the other starting job.
But that doesn't mean other true freshmen such as Chris Lammons and Wesley Green will be buried in the background. They won't be. All of those youngsters will be forced into action, as will second-year players Rico McWilliams and Ali Groves.
From the scheme to the personnel, this unit has far more questions than it did last year. Can it be equally successful? Sure. But should South Carolina fans bank on it? Probably not. Especially in early games against Texas A&M and Georgia, the offense will need to score, and score a lot. The growing pains will be real.
By the end of the season, though, this group could be playing quite well. With so much youth on the roster, 2015 could be even better.
The biggest and most recent injury scare of South Carolina's preseason was cleared up with a tweet Thursday afternoon.
Davis had missed a good portion of camp with a ribs injury, and with rumors swirling that he might sit out the Week 1 game against Texas A&M, the running back took it upon himself to inform us otherwise:
Probably the most confusing injury on the depth chart right now is that of Mike Matulis, the former Freshman All-American who had recovered from injuries to both of his shoulders and forced his way back into the starting lineup at right guard.
Matulis is suffering from a knee sprain that at first made it seem like his season (and perhaps career) would be over. Instead, as reported by Matt Connelly of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal he is expected (or at least hoped) to be available around midseason.
In his stead, look for Will Sport to slide into the starting lineup.
Smith's injury—as discussed earlier and in the following section—thins the ranks at cornerback and makes the young secondary pieces more vital. Donell Stanley is having wrist surgery that won't keep him sidelined all season but will probably result in a redshirt nonetheless (he is, after all, a third-stringer), and Devin Washington, who redshirted last year with a concussion, now has a hamstring problem, although it is unclear at the time how severe that injury is.
X-Factor(s): The Freshman Cornerbacks
In 2013, the SEC had a breakout group of true freshman cornerbacks.
Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida and Tre'Davious White at LSU played at an All-SEC level, and others such as Cameron Sutton at Tennessee and Shaq Wiggins at Georgia were quality, reliable starters.
South Carolina desperately needs for that be a rule and not an exception. It signed four cornerbacks in the 2014 class, three of whom (Green, Lammons and D.J. Smith) ranked in the top 20 at the position and one of whom (Harris Jr.) is projected to start in Week 1.
It's a bit of a copout to name more than one player in the X-factor section, but the truth is that South Carolina doesn't care which freshman cornerbacks emerge as viable players; it only cares that at least one or two of them do.
Harris Jr. has been one of the stars of fall camp and is the name to watch right now, and his NFL bloodlines—his father, Al Sr., was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2008—provide an odd feeling of comfort (specious as it may be). But Green, Lammons and Smith were all ranked higher than Harris as recruits for a reason, and they will be counted on to play early and often and justify their pedigrees.
The SEC will not be the pass-happy juggernaut it was last season, but there are enough good quarterbacks and receivers to punish South Carolina for trotting out a below-average secondary.
These freshmen are its only chance of not doing that.
The first three games of the season are huge. Massive. South Carolina almost has to start 3-0 to stand a realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff. Even at 2-1, the waters begin to get rough.
Georgia is the most pivotal game of that triad, the winner getting a leg up on the other presumptive favorite in the East. Forfeiting the tiebreaker on its home field is not something this team can afford to do, especially in early September.
But beating Texas A&M to start the season is almost as important—especially if you subscribe to the theory of the Aggies taking a big step back this season. Their schedule is littered with difficult games in the SEC West, and suffering a home loss to a team that finishes, say, 8-4, would be crippling to South Carolina's resume.
Needless to say, so would losing to East Carolina from the AAC. But the Pirates are talented and scrappy and will put up a good fight.
If the Gamecocks do begin 3-0, however, things start to get easier. A 2-1 split against Missouri, Auburn and Florida would probably get them into the SEC Championship Game. And even if they lose at Clemson in the last week of the regular season, it's hard to imagine the winner of the country's top conference not making the CFP.
Even with two losses, they would be one win away.
Oddly enough, my prediction corresponds with the scenario drawn out in the make-or-break section.
I think South Carolina can hang 40-plus points on Texas A&M in Week 1. I think it will come out ready to play against East Carolina in Week 2. I think a big game from Thompson (and Williams-Brice Stadium) propels it to a close win over Georgia in Week 3.
It will lose its only SEC game at Auburn—a team whose offensive line might expose the thin defensive front—and eke out a hard-fought win at Florida to clinch the division November 15.
However—and I know this will be a wildly unpopular opinion—I think that is where the season hits its apex. Clemson's defense is not to be trifled with, and with just as much potentially at stake, I think this is the year it finally gets the Gamecocks on its home-field, snapping a five-game losing streak in the rivalry.
Add to that a loss against my predicted national champion, Alabama, in the SEC title game and a win in whatever bowl they make, and you have yourself another 11-win season. But at least they would have gotten over one hurdle by winning the SEC East.
Perhaps next year is the one when they clear that other pesky hurdle and win more than 11 games. Thompson will be gone, but all of the young talent on the current depth chart (especially on defense) will be one year older and poised for a monster season.
That feels like it's more likely their year.
Overall Record: 11-3
SEC Record: 7-1
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Michigan State went from 7-6 Big Ten also-ran to 13-1 Big Ten champion last season, which on the surface made it seem like one of the most improved teams in the country.
But it wasn't.
Yes, MSU was one of the best teams in the country, but it didn't have to improve too much to get there. It was never really all that bad. The 7-6 season in 2012 was hampered by bad luck in one-score games, but according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, Mark Dantonio's team was still one of the 15 best in college football.
All of which is to say, well, that you shouldn't write this team off as a fluke. Last year required some magic, but in many ways it was the culmination of a seven-year building project, not some arbitrary blip on a radar. Care to guess how many teams have won 11 or more games at least three times since 2010? The answer is five.
South Carolina, Oregon, Stanford, Alabama…and Michigan State.
Dantonio has done a heck of a job turning "little brother" into a full-grown man, and this year's team, which debuted in the Top 10 of both major preseason polls, has a chance to be his best. But there isn't that much further to climb. This team either contends to make and win the College Football Playoff, or it takes a step back.
Which one do we think it will be?
Pat Narduzzi could have been gone by now. He could have been a head coach elsewhere, most notably Connecticut, but he turned down the job. According to Dantonio, that wasn't the only one.
Instead, the eighth-year defensive coordinator and reigning Broyles Award winner (nation's top assistant coach) was rewarded internally with a massive raise. With a new annual salary of $904,583, he becomes one of the highest-paid assistants in the country.
And it's impossible to say he hasn't earned it.
Narduzzi's return is a big reason folks remain so keen on this year's defense despite some important personnel losses. As long as he and Dantonio are running the show, there is only so far it can fall.
But credit should also be given on the other side of the ball, where what started as an anemic offense eventually found its stride in the second half of the season. Former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman was a…um…let's say controversial hire last offseason, and the japes at his expense got louder when Michigan State's offense was getting outscored by its defense in the first few games of the year.
By the end of the season, Bollman had had the last laugh.
No one is going to confuse this offense for Auburn's nor Bollman and Dave Warner for Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, but the way MSU's coordinators and position coaches—chief among them Mark Staten and Brad Salem—cobbled together a viable unit was impressive. With plenty of pieces returning, it should improve again in 2014.
The positional ranks of the coaching staff are loaded with veterans of the industry, many of whom accomplished great things at the non-FBS level under current FBS head coaches. Defensive line coach Ron Burton, for example, won a Division II national title under Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State in 2002 (before spending the next decade at Air Force), and receivers coach Terrence Samuel spent a few years under Craig Bohl at North Dakota State.
Jim Tressel's nephew, Mike Tressel, followed Dantonio from Ohio State to Cincinnati to Michigan State and does a fine job with the linebackers and special teams (two strengths of last year's team).
What to Watch for on Offense
*See: injury news
**Recently moved to defensive tackle
Andrew Maxwell took the first snap of the season for Michigan State last year. Riley Bullough was one of his featured running backs, and Aaron Burbridge was one of his most important receivers.
Man, what a difference a year makes.
Connor Cook relieved Maxwell of his duties after just a few games, and even though it wasn't all sunshine from the beginning—lest we forget Cook's own benching on the final drive in the loss at Notre Dame—it eventually worked out better than anyone could have expected.
Michigan State would have been happy finding a half-decent game manager, but instead it found a quarterback capable of winning the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl (and playing his best on those two biggest stages). It would have done fine with just a serviceable-but-forgettable college player, but instead it found a potential top-10 NFL draft pick, according to Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com.
This year, along with 1,400-yard tailback Jeremy Langford, Cook returns to an offense that should be even better from start to finish than it was in the last two games of 2013.
Especially at receiver, where every impactful player besides Bennie Fowler returns and Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett finally looks ready to make a difference, the ceiling on this unit is markedly higher than before.
The one thing that might be able to derail that is the offensive line.
The first string as currently listed should be one of the better groups in the Big Ten, but depth behind that is a serious concern.
It got even more serious recently, too, after the team announced an undisclosed injury to right guard Connor Kruse (more on that below). In his absence, right tackle Donavan Clark will slide inside to guard—where he has experience playing—and sophomore Kodi Kieler will take his spot at tackle, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com.
The Spartans should be able to survive that blow, for now, but losing Kieler from the second team makes true freshman Brian Allen the most reliable backup lineman on the offense. It's never good when a true freshman is the most reliable backup lineman on your offense.
With Kruse already down, this line cannot afford a single added injury.
What to Watch for on Defense
*See: injury news
Michigan State lost two of the most important defenders in program history from one of the most important defenses in program history: cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.
How the Spartans replace those two has been a subject of much debate this offseason, although it looks like their actual spots will be occupied by 2013 starters. Trae Waynes is moving over from field corner to boundary corner, and Taiwan Jones is sliding in from "Star" linebacker to the "Mike."
Even though two-thirds of the second and third strings are made up of freshmen, Michigan State's linebacking depth is actually in good shape. The third sibling of the Bullough clan, Byron, isn't listed above, but he gives MSU a 10th linebacker to feel good about.
New "Sam" linebacker Ed Davis, who takes over for Denicos Allen after showing well in limited time last season, might be the breakout star of the group.
Secondary depth, however, is a bit of a bigger concern. The top three safeties (Kurtis Drummond, RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox) all played well last year and can be relied upon, and Waynes is a legitimate All-America candidate. But the battle for the second cornerback spot between Darian Hicks, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson lasted a little too long and seemed a little too close for comfort.
According to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press, Dantonio finally named Hicks the starter Thursday afternoon, but no player stepped up and grabbed the role the same way Waynes did last season. (We will touch on this a little bit more below.)
As far as the defensive line is concerned, there's an interesting contrast that might make the depth chart above sort of misleading.
In essence, the defensive end position has an obvious top three (Shilique Calhoun, Marcus Rush and Demetrius Cooper) that might be the three best linemen on the team. Behind them, though, the best options to play at defensive end are actually a couple of end-tackle hybrids: Lawrence Thomas and Malik McDowell.
An injury to starter Damon Knox has thrown a wrench into the defensive tackle rotation, likely pushing Thomas into the starting role. Coaches have played coy with Knox's injury, so we don't know what it is or how long he'll be out (more on this below).
The top three in the middle do not look as good as the top three at end, but the tackles have a little more depth. Impressive freshmen such as Craig Evans and David Beedle didn't even crack the third string listed above, but if something were to happen to Calhoun or Rush (knock on wood), chances are McDowell or Thomas would start seeing more snaps on the edge because there are more viable bodies inside.
(In fact, the defensive tackle rotation was so deep that projected contributor Brandon Clemons was moved to offensive guard in the wake of Kruse's injury to provide depth at a thinner position.)
Overall, the defensive line should be the strength of the defense—and, by extension, this team. Calhoun and Rush are the obvious stars, but Cooper, Thomas and McDowell are the names to watch.
Cooper was the breakout performer of spring practice, emerging in much the same way Calhoun did last offseason; Thomas is a junior and onetime blue-chip recruit who finally seems ready to reach his potential; and McDowell is the incoming 5-star recruit regarded as one of the biggest signings in program history.
How that trio performs will be the difference between a very good line and a great one. It could also be the difference between finishing near or at the top of the Big Ten standings.
For the most part, Michigan State has been blessed with injury luck during fall camp. It has only added two names on the report.
Unfortunately, those two names were both supposed to be starters—and new starters at that. They were supposed to be replacing Micajah Reynolds (Knox) and Dan France (Kruse), and their absence forces MSU to pull back even deeper into its depth chart.
Unfortunately, the coaches have played coy on both players' injuries, which makes it impossible to properly analyze them.
"Damon Knox has got some surgery right now, so he'll be out for a little bit of time," Dantonio said in the vaguest terms he could think of, per Griffith. On Kruse he said: "We don't talk about injuries if they aren't season-ending, and it's not season-ending."
Hopefully, MSU can get both guys back in the fold and improve its interior line play. Reading the tea leaves on Dantonio's comments, it feels like Kruse has a better shot of returning than Knox, if only because no surgery has been confirmed.
That would be big, because, as mentioned above, defensive tackle depth is far superior to offensive line depth.
Part of that scarcity along the offensive line has to do with Zach Higgins' torn ACL, which was suffered in April and will likely keep him out for the season. He would have provided a valuable extra body up front but wasn't competing for a starting job.
X-Factor: CB Darian Hicks
In Narduzzi's defense, the second cornerback is just as important as the first. He doesn't get the same type of credit or even half of the fanfare, but teammates and coaches understand how vital he is.
Two years ago, that second cornerback was Dennard, who combined with Johnny Adams to make MSU's press-man schemes work. Last year, that second cornerback was Waynes, who combined with Dennard to make MSU's press-man scheme work.
This year, that second cornerback will be Hicks, and if he doesn't combine well with Waynes, MSU's press-man schemes will not work.
Is Hicks good enough to do it? Definitely. Will he get there as soon as this season? Your guess is as good as mine. Based on how he played in limited reps last season, he should be OK. But stepping into a starter's role for a unit called the "No Fly Zone" comes with pressure, and pressure affects different people in different ways.
To Hicks' credit, Tom Dienhart of Big Ten Network called him a potential breakout player, saying he's "a perfect fit…because he's a top athlete with the cover skills to make MSU's aggressive scheme work."
Despite standing only 5'10", the physical tools are there for Hicks to have a big season. So is a coaching staff renowned for molding players just like him into stars. The only things standing in his way are inexperience and the pressure of expectations.
On that second front, let's hope he doesn't stumble across this article. Because as far as I can tell, the way he performs will be the key to this Michigan State pass defense.
All things considered, the schedule shapes up pretty well.
Obviously, the game that sticks out off the top is a Week 2 road game at Oregon, but no matter what happens in Eugene, I wouldn't call that situation "make or break." No one knows for sure how the CFP selection committee will work, but I find it hard to believe that a 12-1 Big Ten Champion whose only loss came in a true road game at Oregon would be omitted from the field of four.
Truly, the make-or-break game comes against Ohio State. Even without Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes have the talent to beat anyone in the conference—Michigan State included—and new quarterback JT Barrett should have his feet wet by November 8.
Especially if Michigan State's offensive line is not holding up, a date with Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and the rest of OSU's defensive line could end in disaster.
Beyond that, a couple of tricky road games stick out as ones Michigan State could lose (but should probably win).
Maryland is one of the biggest question marks in the country, because there is no way to evaluate a team that can't stay healthy, and Penn State, despite NCAA sanction-related depth problems, has a first string capable of beating Sparty in Beaver Stadium.
Last year, PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg went off in his regular-season finale, throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns in an upset win at Wisconsin that ended the Badgers' BCS dreams.
A loss would do the same to the Spartans' with the CFP.
Michigan State is shedding the green shoulder yoke from its white road uniforms, which produces (in my opinion) a much cleaner look.
Check it out for yourself:
Like it? Hate it? Totally ambivalent toward it?
Sound off in the comments.
In 2013, Michigan State played its two best games in its last two games of the year. They were also its only two on a neutral field.
In perhaps their toughest road environment of the season, the Spartans slogged to an ugly, one-score loss at Notre Dame. Yes, that game was contentious/riddled with dubious pass-interference calls, and sure, this team has come a long way since then, but it feels remiss to not at least mention that before heading into Oregon.
I don't think this team has the wherewithal to win in Autzen Stadium. At least not by Week 2, it doesn't. That is an unfortunate reality of the schedule, but the fortunate part is that it may not matter in the end.
There's a lot of time to atone for that loss.
And atone is what I expect this team to do, winning the rest of its regular-season games and getting better as the young new starters get used to consistent playing time. The loss of Miller at Ohio State takes at least a little bit of intrigue out of the Big Ten East race, especially since Michigan State gets OSU off a bye and at home.
At 12-1 with an 11-game winning streak and a loss to an ostensible Top 10 team on their resume, the Spartans will have an intriguing case to make the CFP. A lot depends on parity in the other conferences, but I feel with roughly 90 percent certainty they would get it.
From there, it is anybody's guess. This team will not be intimidated by anybody, as it proved in last year's Rose Bowl, and it has the horses to win any time, any place, against any caliber of team.
If it gets the No. 4 seed and plays, say, a Florida State or an Alabama, the smart money says it will lose. Sparty maximizes the ability of its recruits as well as (if not better than) any other team in the country, but at some point, recruiting stars and talent tend to win out.
Except, of course, in those rare cases when they don't…
Overall Record: 12-2 (loss in national semifinal)
Big Ten Record: 8-0
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The theme for the Alabama football team is pretty straightforward this year: get back to the top.
Two losses to end the 2013 season, including a heartbreaker to their in-state rival that knocked them out of the national title picture, have left the Crimson Tide with a bad taste in their mouth. The idea of revenge has been on the team’s mind since it left New Orleans after an uninspiring 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Another No. 1 recruiting class, several returning veterans and a renewed sense of purpose have the team and its fans energized for the upcoming campaign, but there are still question marks to be sure, the biggest of all being at the game’s most important position.
Below, Bleacher Report breaks down everything you need to know about the 2014 Crimson Tide in our complete season preview.
There is very much a getting-the-band-back-together feel for the 2014 coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where it's a near mirror image of the 2007 staff that built the foundation for coach Nick Saban and Alabama’s run through college football.
Kevin Steele returned to Tuscaloosa in 2013 as director of player personnel and this year will be back on the field coaching inside linebackers like he did from 2007-08. Bo Davis was hired back from Texas to once again coach the defensive line. Thompson returned for the 2012 season and this year will work with the outside linebackers. And while Kirby Smart has been on staff for Saban’s entire time at Alabama, he’s now working with the secondary.
Those four are back with the position groups they coached in 2007.
And then there’s Lane Kiffin.
Possibly the biggest surprise piece of news from the college football offseason was Saban and Alabama hiring the former Tennessee and USC coach to be the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
Kiffin had come in as an offensive consultant during Alabama’s Sugar Bowl prep (while Kiffin had nothing else to do after his firing from USC), but hardly anyone expected him to join the staff full time.
He’s drawn high praise from players and coaches so far during the spring and fall camp and should bring some creativity to the Crimson Tide offense, while not deviating from what it does best.
“Very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games,” Kiffin said at the start of fall camp.
“Coming here and being around the people of Alabama, they have been great. They've really welcomed me from the day I got here and really made me feel at home no matter where it is around town.
"Whether it's the people in the building, whether it's the fanbase, I'm just excited to be a part of this and just excited to go back to work, go back to work and doing like the last two days and being in there, to grind in football, to grind in camp and just be a part of this staff and program with these players.”
What to watch for on offense
*Note: This depth chart is just an estimation. Alabama will release an official depth chart on Monday, and this post will be updated.
Quite possibly the two biggest storylines on the team are on offense: Kiffin and the quarterbacks.
For Kiffin, it’s about making small changes that put Alabama’s best players in a position to succeed, something that may have been lacking under former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here providing good leadership for the whole offense,” Saban said.
“The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have, and emphasizing some of the intangible things—the fundamentals—we needed to improve on. I think he does a really good job in terms of—you know, it’s not just about knowledge. Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it, and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it.
"Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”
If you were looking for answers at quarterback before the season, you were sorely disappointed.
Neither Blake Sims nor Jake Coker separated himself from the other, so this battle will likely continue well into the season. And Saban has offered no real judgement either way on either guy, except to say that Sims is playing a bit faster because of his familiarity in the offense.
The offensive line is pretty much set except for right guard. Alphonse Taylor has been the primary option there with Leon Brown and JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson nursing minor injuries. Brown, Jackson and Taylor will battle for that starting spot during the first week of game practice.
Otherwise, Alabama is as loaded as it has ever been at skill positions.
T.J. Yeldon leads an extremely capable and diverse running back group. The powerful Derrick Henry and the lightning-quick Kenyan Drake will spell Yeldon throughout the season.
And at wide receiver, Amari Cooper is the star of a unit that could go four and five deep with elite talent.
What to watch for on defense
*Note: This depth chart is just an estimation. Alabama will release an official depth chart on Monday, and this post will be updated.
A quick look at the defensive lineup for Alabama shows that the Crimson Tide should be much improved in the pass-rushing department.
The defensive line may be as deep as Saban has seen at Alabama, headlined by the hulking sophomore A’Shawn Robinson, who led the team in sacks as a freshman. D.J. Pettway is back on the team after being dismissed in early 2013 in connection with an on-campus robbery. Freshmen Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier have been making their names known as well.
At linebacker, Trey DePriest will look to fill the leadership gap left with the departure of C.J. Mosley. Reggie Ragland has come along in his development, and former 5-star Reuben Foster is looking to make the next step and get significant playing time.
“I think Reuben’s first practice and how he picked it up, he looked like a guy lost,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said at the start of fall camp.
“He could run fast, play hard, didn’t know what he was doing all the time. I actually texted him after practice last night, I said ‘You’ve come a long way. You still have a ways to go.’ But he’s comfortable in the huddle now, he can command the huddle. He can make the calls, he can make the adjustments. He knows what’s going on. I think he feels much more comfortable.”
Landon Collins leads a secondary with experience at safety but still looking for consistency at cornerback. Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve took their lumps in 2013 but will be pushed by 5-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Brown, who enrolled in the spring, looks like a candidate to play a lot as a freshman.
The only major injury right now is to cornerback Eddie Jackson, whose rehab from a knee injury sustained during the spring is going much more quickly than expected.
Jackson was Alabama’s No. 1 cornerback before his spring injury. His return would give Alabama a solid option at corner while others battled it out behind him.
"Eddie Jackson is back practicing and doing well," Saban said on Thursday. "But probably not where he needs to be to be able to—because he missed a few practices—we're just going to take him one day at a time and see how fast he progresses, see where he gets to."
Otherwise, just about everyone else who was nicked up in practice is back on the field working back to full speed. The only question in terms of being ready for the season opener is defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, who tweaked his knee in camp but is working to get his quickness back. Said Saban of Robinson: “When he’s ready to play, we’ll play him.”
On offense, tight end O.J. Howard could give Alabama the type of weapon it hasn’t had under Saban.
The 6’6”, 240-pound Howard moves like a wide receiver and has hands like one too. He was seemingly underutilized in 2013, catching just 14 passes in 13 games, and Kiffin has talked about him as a mismatch player—someone who can cause major problems for a defense.
Howard can also be a good safety net for the new quarterback, providing a security blanket as a third or fourth option in the passing game when nothing is open downfield.
Defensively, 5-star freshman Rashaan Evans could give Alabama that dynamic pass-rusher that it’s lacked since Courtney Upshaw in 2011.
Evans has benefited from Tim Williams’ suspension by taking extra reps at outside linebacker and getting to impress coaches. He’s also made a mark on his teammates.
“Rashaan Evans is really fast,” right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “He’s got really good speed off the edge.”
The first real test for Alabama (and its new quarterback) will come when Florida comes to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide’s first SEC game of the season and first game against a team that could do some damage against them.
The game being in Bryant-Denny Stadium should help Alabama ease into the SEC grind a little bit, but there won’t be much room for error against the Gators.
Two weeks later, after a bye, a road trip to Ole Miss could cause some problems. The Rebels took down LSU at home last season and could put the Crimson Tide on their heels with a quick score or two to open things up in Oxford.
A trip to Knoxville could be tricky, but Alabama’s next major test doesn’t come until its annual November showdown with LSU, this time in Baton Rouge. Depending on what happens early in the year, that game could be a major player in the SEC West crown, a game that’s come down to the wire the last three years in Tiger Stadium.
Finally, the rematch that fans and players have been waiting for will come at the end of the regular season. The Iron Bowl should be one of the most anticipated games of the 2014 college football season with major implications across the country.
I picked Alabama to lose two games this season, largely because of the question mark at quarterback.
The team should find its rhythm eventually, but an early visit to Ole Miss looks daunting, especially for a new signal-caller.
LSU will be extremely tight as well, as the Tigers are regularly one of the few teams in the country that can match Alabama talent-wise and have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, where “opponents' dreams come to die,” according to their coach, Les Miles.
Two losses won’t totally knock Alabama out of the SEC or even College Football Playoff contention, though. The West will be quite the meat grinder this year, and if some tiebreakers go the Crimson Tide’s way, they could find themselves in Atlanta.
Overall record: 10-2
Conference record: 7-2
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.
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More than a month after the media picked its All-SEC first, second and third teams, the coaches have weighed in with their own version of the preseason superlatives.
Announced Friday afternoon on the SEC's official website, the coaches' selections bear a general resemblance to the media's from mid-July, but there are a few minor differences of note. Two second-teamers on the previous list were named first-teamers on the newer one—and, of course, vice versa.
All 14 SEC programs had at least one player represented, and half of them had at least seven. Alabama and LSU led the way with 11 players recognized in total, but the Crimson Tide had an SEC-best eight on the first team while the Tigers checked in with just one.
But where did the coaches do the best job deviating from the media? And where did they make a mistake?
Was anyone egregiously under/overvalued?
Here's a quick recap of the list.
The beauty of college football is its ever-changing nature.
Each fall, even the most stable collegiate rosters experience some turnover.
Star players graduate. They transfer. They leave early for the NFL. Regardless of how it happens, even the most prepared programs enter each season with question marks, ready to be filled by the next frontline player or superstar.
Here, then, are 10 players who will have the opportunity to make names for themselves this fall. Players were chosen based on their talent, the opportunity that lies before them and the belief that they’ll have a special season in 2014.
While many may know these names already, their recognition is rooted in potential more than production or reality, thanks to talk from media or fellow players. In the next few months, these players will get the chance to finally make a name for themselves on the national scene and show what the hype is all about.
Evolution Of Spurrier
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier used to be known as the "Fun-n-Gun" innovator when he was the head coach at Florida from 1990-2001. Spurrier called a game more geared toward slinging the ball all over the field, which helped Florida win the 1996 national title and quarterback Danny Wuerffel win the 1996 Heisman Trophy.
My, how things have changed.
The arrival of running back Marcus Lattimore and dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw to the South Carolina program in 2010 forced Spurrier to go with a more conservative approach, and the result was one SEC East title and three straight 11-win seasons—the first three 11-win seasons in program history.
"I don't know for sure, but I'd imagine there's some tension between wanting to win period and his love of throwing the ball," Wuerffel said at media day for the new College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. "There's been times where they've won some big games, and I called to congratulate him after big wins, and he says 'Well, we couldn't even throw it in there, we had to run it.'"
Wuerffel points to the more complicated running schemes in this age of dual-threat quarterbacks that have challenged Spurrier to evolve with the times.
"They way that they're running the ball and the sophistication is different," he said. "I think everybody, as they get older, mellow out a little bit; although some people find that hard to believe because he's still so dynamic."
The Gamecocks' offense will be more "old-school Spurrier" in 2014, with a more traditional pro-style quarterback in Dylan Thompson, a solid receiving corps led by Shaq Roland and a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back in Mike Davis.
Don't be surprised, though, if Thompson runs more than he's expected to, and Spurrier blends the old with the new.
High Praise From Coaches
The SEC coaches released their preseason All-SEC team Thursday night, and it's quite similar to the media's picks that were released at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama, in July—with a few notable, and appropriate, exceptions.
There were some predictable choices. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall is listed as the first-team quarterback, Georgia running back Todd Gurley a first-team running back and Alabama safety Landon Collins a first-team safety.
But the coaches got more first-teamers right than the combined poll of us assembled members of the media in Hoover. Which differences stood out as the right choices for the coaches?
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis was picked as the coaches' other first-team running back rather than Alabama's T.J. Yeldon. Davis doesn't have the careers stats of Yeldon but was an absolute workhorse for the Gamecocks last year, rushing for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns in an offense that absolutely needed him to be a star. Yeldon got bitten by the fumble bug, losing four (in key situations, no less), and is fighting for carries this year with Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake.
- Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers is a first-team defensive lineman over Auburn's Gabe Wright. Flowers had 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks a year ago and is a complete defensive end who's strong against the run and pass. Wright is a defensive tackle by trade who will play some defensive end this year in Auburn's "rhino" package. He's a great player for sure, but Flowers is more versatile right now.
- Both the media and coaches missed on one first-team offensive lineman—Alabama's Arie Kouandjio. Kouandjio was hit or miss last year and was particularly lost in the season opener vs. Virginia Tech and the Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma. He's a better guard than consensus second-teamer A.J. Cann of South Carolina? I don't think so. Cann has been a big part of South Carolina's success on the ground, and rarely—if ever—has been a liability.
Going With Experience
Vanderbilt's quarterback race was one of the more underrated position battles of the summer, with sophomore Patton Robinette, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and LSU transfer Stephen Rivers vying for the top spot on the depth chart.
First-year head coach Derek Mason announced the winner Thursday night, and it was the only player with starting experience—Robinette.
"I'm excited for Patton as we prepare this team for the season opener next Thursday," Mason said in a statement. "Patton has really made strides and consistently improved from the spring to now. I believe he has worked to earn this opportunity."
Robinette started three games last year and played in 11, throwing for 642 yards, four touchdowns and five picks, and his season included a road win at Florida.
Surprised? USA Today's Dan Wolken is.
Robinette starting for VU makes previous Tweet obsolete. Had been some talk McCrary was ahead. Robinette is TN native.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) August 22, 2014
These are uncharted waters for Mason, though, and having a quarterback who knows what to expect in the SEC is a huge benefit to a Vanderbilt team that is undergoing a rather significant transition in Mason's first year.
Robinette's ascension to the top of Vandy's depth chart means that LSU and Alabama are the only two teams in the SEC without starting quarterbacks for the 2014 season.
Uncertainty On The Plains?
Auburn has a starting quarterback for the season, but its starter for the season opener still is up in the air...at least in theory.
Gus Malzahn has yet to name sophomore Jeremy Johnson the starter against Arkansas while full-time starter Nick Marshall serves his punishment for his July citation for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
"If I worried about anything about that, we'd have already done it, but we don't worry at all," Malzahn said Thursday, according to James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser. "We'll have a good plan. Our guys will respond well. We know our guys pretty well."
He knows his guys pretty well, and he also knows who's going to start against the Hogs—Johnson. He was solid last year as a freshman, completing 70.7 percent of his passes (29-of-41 passing) for 422 yards, six touchdowns and two picks, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, according to his Auburn bio.
Malzahn was high on Johnson at SEC media days in July.
"The great thing is we got Jeremy Johnson, who could start for a lot of teams around the country, probably a majority of them," he said.
Malzahn's reluctance to name Johnson the starter for the opener is likely just a case of motivation, nothing more and nothing less.
Another Brick In The Wall
Remember when the absence of carriage deals for the SEC Network were all the rage?
Ah, the good 'ole days.
The Sports Business Daily reported on Thursday that Verizon FiOS has agreed to carry the now week-old network on its expanded basic tier in SEC territories. According to the report, Cablevision—which doesn't operate in SEC territories—is the only top 10 distributor that hasn't signed on.
With just under a week to go before the first football games on the network—Texas A&M at South Carolina and Temple at Vanderbilt—that makes the launch of the SEC Network one of the most successful in television history.
ESPN and the SEC Network brilliantly used the power of ESPN and Disney, coupled with a strategic plan to sign deals in a specific order, to put pressure on the market and get the network as much exposure as possible.
Not bad, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Not bad at all.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame football begins its regular season eight days from now, when the Irish host Rice on Aug. 30.
It feels as if preseason camp has flown by. After Friday’s afternoon practice to finish out the week, the Irish will turn their attention to the Owls and the upcoming season.
Notre Dame held media day Tuesday on campus, prompting a flood of activity. Notre Dame’s home, road and Shamrock Series uniforms were released, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly provided an in-depth season preview in his press conference.
Let’s get to the highlights.
Team Moves on Amid Academic Investigation
Friday marks the one-week checkpoint after news broke last Friday of the academic investigation that has resulted in four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore—being held out of practice and competition.
And in the one week since the initial frenzy, not much has changed.
No surprise, but DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams weren't at #NotreDame practice today.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) August 19, 2014
Kelly did say he has spoken to the four players, but he did not have any “clarity” to provide on a timetable.
So Notre Dame remains in limbo for the time being, and Kelly has maintained he doesn’t expect to have the quartet against Rice. So how will Notre Dame respond?
“Sometimes, I think the coaches get more worked up about it than the players,” Kelly said of being without the foursome. “Players have such resolve. They're young guys. They get over it. They move on.”
It doesn’t feel like the indefinite loss of the four teammates will affect the mentality of the remaining squad. The biggest effect, of course, is the loss of on-field production.
At cornerback, graduate student Cody Riggs will assume the top role, and sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler follow on the depth chart. Kelly said Riggs has been “more than advertised for us,” and the Irish will certainly need that to continue to lessen the impact of losing Russell.
Kelly says Cody Riggs has been a leader and “accountable” for #NotreDame this camp. “He’s a darn good corner for us."— Blue and Gold News (@BGInews) August 19, 2014
With Daniels out of the mix for the time being, junior Chris Brown and sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will likely get the most work on the outside. There’s vast potential in the receiving corps to go along with the inexperience. Expect at least one of the unproven options to have a much-improved season.
#NotreDame DE Sheldon Day on Isaac Rochell: “When he goes in the weight room, whatever you put on the rack, he’s throwing it up."— Rachel Terlep (@eTruth_Irish) August 19, 2014
Sophomore Isaac Rochell has filled in for Williams as the strong-side defensive end. Players and coaches alike have raved about Rochell’s strength—junior Sheldon Day compared Rochell to former Irish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt in that sense. The sophomore, however, will need to develop into a consistent option, especially with a true freshman, Andrew Trumbetti, starting opposite him. The defensive line is one of the biggest question marks of the Irish roster.
Starting Units Coming into Focus
Kelly has not announced a full depth chart, but the head coach did discuss some specific position battles and roles.
The offensive line has remained in flux throughout fall camp, but Kelly was ready to name the rotation, although he did say it remains subject to change. For now, the line features, from left to right, junior Ronnie Stanley, senior Matt Hegarty, senior Nick Martin, graduate student Christian Lombard and sophomore Steve Elmer. Sophomore Mike McGlinchey (tackle) and senior Conor Hanratty (guard) will be first off the bench, per Kelly.
It’s important for Notre Dame to finalize the starters along the line, as comfort and chemistry are key at the position. The line still figures to have some growing pains with new starters at new positions, but the ranks feature talent and versatility. It would be surprising if the offensive line was a major issue in 2014.
What is surprising is the rapid ascension of sophomore James Onwualu. As a true freshman wide receiver, he tallied two receptions for 34 yards while making an impact on special teams. The Saint Paul, Minnesota, native then switched to safety in the spring and quickly started working as the “Sam” outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.
Now, Onwualu has been spotted with the first-team defense in each of Notre Dame’s last two practices open to the media, and Kelly confirmed he has risen up the depth chart.
“He cares so much,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “I mean, he's got so much pride that he spends hours just mastering his craft. He will not take a minute off if he doesn't know what to do. So that's what makes that kid a special player.”
It’s natural to be skeptical of Onwualu’s ability on game day, but Kelly pointed out Onwualu has begun with a strong knowledge base thanks to his brief time at safety. As an outside linebacker, if Onwualu can focus on just reading and reacting, he could perform well in the new role.
Youth and Tempo
So much is new and different when it comes to the 2014 Irish. From two new coordinators to new styles of play on both sides of the ball to loads of new faces, the Irish will be different this season.
Kelly made that clear even all the way back in January when he introduced VanGorder and discussed the offense with coordinator Mike Denbrock. Now, the unveiling is almost here.
“We have a lot of inexperienced players playing for us this year, and they'll get that opportunity playing the toughest schedule in the country,” Kelly said. “We will grow up quickly.
“We'll play faster on offense, we'll play faster on defense, and we'll all together be excited to watch this football team play and grow as the season progresses.”
It will be an exciting team to watch. The offense wants to push the tempo. The defense wants to be aggressive and dictate how the opposing offense plays. Young, athletic players are eager to make contributions.
But with these changes comes a heaping portion of uncertainty. How quickly will the young players develop? Will the defense be continually burned by its attacking mentality? And, of course, how will the academic investigation end up? When will there be a decision?
There are a lot of big-picture questions surrounding the Irish, making it difficult to pin down expectations for the season. We’ll stick to our most recent predictions for the Irish and peg them as an 8-4 team. Of course, a few breaks in the team's favor—players cleared to return or some growing pains bypassed—and Notre Dame might make a push for nine or 10 wins. For now, however, this looks like an entertaining, young and inexperienced team.
Start the countdown. Football is right around the corner.
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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Soon enough, the media circus will slow down, and actual football will begin for Oklahoma. Perhaps no Top 10 program has had more uncertainty since July.
Here's the list of what's going on: Running back Joe Mixon, generally regarded as an impact freshman, has been suspended for the season after being charged with misdemeanor assault. Linebacker Frank Shannon may not play either because of a Title IX investigation into a sexual assault allegation (Oklahoma is trying to suspend him for a year). Ex-Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is awaiting the results for a waiver that would allow him to play right away, as is backup quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Even quarterback-turned-tight end Blake Bell is getting snaps at his old position. Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World relayed the scene from Thursday's practice on Twitter:
Despite all that's happening in Norman, Oklahoma remains the favorite to win the Big 12, and quarterback Trevor Knight is easily the most intriguing player in the conference—besides Green-Beckham, that is.
So, what can we realistically expect from Knight and the Sooners?
To put numbers to it, it's beyond reasonable that Knight could throw for 2,000 yards and rush for another 750. In eight games last season—not to be confused with eight full games—Knight ran for 445 yards. As a developing passer, he threw for 819 yards.
Knight would have to account for 230 yards by himself to make that happen. He's more than capable of doing that. But he would also have to stay healthy, which remains his biggest concern and why his realistic number projections are on the conservative side.
Even though running Knight will remain part of the offense, expect co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to try to keep his quarterback upright. Oklahoma's skill players beyond receiver Sterling Shepard are largely inexperienced, so the fewer direct hits Knight can take, the better.
Yes, there will be times Knight has to make a play on his own to keep a drive, a game and maybe a season alive. But the more the rock can be distributed early, the better off this team will be later.
Beyond the stat sheet, Knight has to show he's improved in his accuracy and decision-making in the passing game. The Sugar Bowl (348 passing yards and four touchdowns) provided a glimpse that he's capable of doing that, but can he keep it up? His performance in the spring game (5-of-14 with an interception) wasn't his best.
More than anything, though, Knight has to become the leader of the offense. That, per Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman, "has helped him keep an even keel through the struggles of last regular season and in the aftermath of his Sugar Bowl coming-out party."
It's probably unfair to say Oklahoma will go as Knight goes, but the redshirt sophomore is an important piece of the team's playoff hopes. Stopping a legitimate dual-threat quarterback puts an added stress on defenses. If Knight takes that next step as a passer, he would become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the Big 12.
"We've known Trevor was going to be a great quarterback," Sooners offensive tackle Tyrus Thompson told Jake Trotter of ESPN.com. "It was just a matter of him showing everybody else that."
The good news is that Oklahoma isn't all Knight. The Sooners have as good a front seven as anyone in its conference, even without Shannon. Considering that three of the Sooners' five toughest games on paper—Texas in the Cotton Bowl, Kansas State, Baylor, at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State—are at home, the schedule is favorable as well.
Barring injuries, anything less than 10 wins would be a disappointment. In Oklahoma's eyes, though, it's playoff or bust.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report.
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The Gators are grateful to see the dawn of a new season. They can finally wipe away the mess that was 2013. Florida heads into the season with some new coaches, new starters and a schedule that would be tough for any team in the country. Let’s see how the team looks with the opener a week away.
Florida has four new coaches on the staff and none is as important as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. After leading Duke to an average of 32.8 points per game last season, Florida is hoping he can improve an offense that ranked 114th in the country in points scored. Roper will speed things up, spread the field and preach getting the ball out quickly. How much Florida improves from last season will be determined on the success of Roper’s offense.
Chris Leak is the new wide receivers coach after Joker Phillips resigned. Leak threw for more than 11,000 yards and 88 touchdowns in four seasons as Florida’s quarterback. Although Leak has no prior coaching experience, he's young enough where he can relate to the players. He also has a feel for what wide receivers should be doing and understands the relationship they should have with their quarterback.
The other big coaching change was getting former USC offensive line coach Mike Summers. Summers has more than 30 years of experience and has had success at schools such as Kentucky and Louisville.
There’s a lot of pressure on this staff to succeed this season. Will Muschamp enters the year on the hot seat after a mediocre 22-16 record in his first three seasons. Florida has a veteran group of coaches and the new hires on offense have the potential to pay off in a big way.
What to Watch for on Offense
With Roper now calling the shots, Florida will be a faster offense and likely a lot more productive. It will no longer be a slow-paced and predictable offense. The Gators will run the no-huddle, take far less time between snaps and simply try to wear down their opponent. Roper wants quarterback Jeff Driskel to get the ball out of his hands quicker and use his athleticism more than he’s done in past seasons.
Florida will be a quick-tempo offense that spreads teams out and forces defenders to make tackles in space.
Jeff Driskel, QB—Driskel is the key to making this offense work. With 10 career interceptions, he’ll have to make better decisions and manage the game. This offense is perfect for somebody such as Driskel because it will allow him to make plays with his feet and take advantage of the short passes. If Driskel has a good grasp of this offense, Florida will be improved offensively.
Chaz Green, OL—Green is one of the better offensive linemen in the SEC when healthy. The problem is he missed all of last season with an injury. Green is great in pass protection, but he’s also athletic enough to be a key part in a successful rushing attack. With shaky quarterback play at times, Florida needs a reliable offensive line. Green provides stability on the right side.
What to Watch for on Defense
Last season, Florida finished with the eighth-best defense in college football. With seven starters returning, another top-10 defense certainly isn’t out of the question. The Gators strength will be their defensive line and pass rush, as 19 sacks last season just scratched the surface of this team’s potential. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin is sure to get more aggressive with his play-calling and take a few more risks.
Defense wasn’t an issue for Florida. With the players returning, the Gators' D could be one of the best in college football.
Vernon Hargreaves III, CB—Hargreaves is one of the more irreplaceable football players in the country, as he’s probably the best cornerback. Last season, Hargreaves had 11 pass deflections and intercepted three balls. Those numbers would have been even better if quarterbacks dared to throw his way more often. The second-year corner can go toe-to-toe with any receiver in the country.
Dante Fowler, DL—Fowler is another key player on Florida’s defense who will lead the charge in pressuring the quarterback. Fowler finished last season with 3.5 sacks and 50 tackles, but he’s capable of so much more. His athleticism and quickness off the ball is scary. Don’t be surprised if Fowler has the best season of any defender in the SEC.
There were points last season when the injury report was lengthier than a Stephen King novel. For the most part, Florida has shaken the injury bug and heads into the season opener as healthy as a team can hope.
The biggest injury comes to Thomas Holley, who needed hip surgery after suffering a torn labrum. While you never want to see anybody get hurt, Holley is a true freshman and he’s a defensive lineman, an area where the Gators are already loaded with depth. Florida will be fine.
Hargreaves should also be ready to go for the season opener considering he participated in practice despite suffering a bone bruise early in camp.
Florida’s X-factor will be wide receiver Andre Debose.
Debose has had a tough career at Florida, as he’s never fully fulfilled expectations as a top recruit, and he’s now coming off a torn ACL that kept him out last season. Entering his sixth year with the program, Debose has just 29 catches for 543 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers could change drastically in Roper’s offense. When healthy, Debose is one of the fastest players in the country and has that elite top-end speed that can stretch the field. Florida is desperate for playmakers at wide receiver and having a guy on the outside who can take the top off a defense would give the Gators a weapon they haven’t had in years.
Debose has the skill set to really thrive in this new offense. Unfortunately for Florida fans, they’ve been hearing that for over half a decade.
At Alabama—With three cupcake games to begin the season, this will be Florida’s measuring stick. The Alabama Crimson Tide will continue to be what they’ve been under head coach Nick Saban. Playing in Tuscaloosa just makes things that much more difficult. If the Gators can pull off the upset, a run at an SEC title wouldn't seem that far-fetched.
Vs. Georgia—There’s a chance that the winner of this game makes it out of the SEC East. Florida has lost three straight meetings against the Bulldogs, and the last two were due to sloppy play at crucial points in the game. The Gators must regain control of this rivalry to make a strong statement to the rest of the teams in this conference. A victory over a talented Georgia team would get the job done.
At Florida State—The Seminoles have beaten the Gators in three of the last four meetings and have done so quite easily. If Florida is truly going to turn things around and make a run for the SEC title, this year’s rivalry could be the biggest it’s been in decades. Florida State is on a collision course for a playoff spot to defend its national championship. This may be the biggest make-or-break game for Florida this season if things go its way.
The Gators will finish the season with a 7-1 conference record and 10-2 record overall. Florida will have one of the top defenses in the country, which means the Gators just have to average anywhere from 21 to 24 points per game to really have a shot at pulling this off. Florida has a lot of favorable home games and seems to have adopted that Auburn-like mentality where it's the team against the world. That’s dangerous for its opponents.
If Florida can average three or more touchdowns per game, 10 wins won’t be a problem.
Fowler has a real shot to win the Chuck Bednarik Award. This is the season Fowler really takes his game to another level and sniffs double-digit sacks. Add those numbers to Florida’s surprising success and the award is his. Hargreaves may make a strong case for an award as well, but he's at a disadvantage with quarterbacks likely avoiding him at all costs.
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One of the top defensive recruits in the nation is officially off the market as linebacker Joshua McMillon has committed to Alabama, according to Riley Blevins of the Jackson Clarion Ledger:
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Memphis native committed to Alabama Friday morning live on ESPN's Recruiting Nation. He's the No. 5 inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Memphis native committed to Alabama Friday morning live on ESPN's Recruiting Nation. He's the No. 5 inside linebacker in the country, according to ESPN.
McMillon is a four-star prospect from Memphis, Tennessee, per 247Sports. The site rates him as the No. 15 outside linebacker in the class of 2015, as well as the No. 216 overall player.
At 6'3" and 239 pounds with supreme athleticism, McMillon has been highly recruited for quite some time. He had his pick of the litter in terms of elite programs, particularly within the SEC, according to Yancy Porter of Scout.com:
Rather than making a rash decision, though, McMillon explored all his options. Per Tim Sullivan of the Detroit Free Press, McMillon was impressed with the situation that Alabama laid out for him in terms of immediate playing time and a scheme fit.
Coach Kirby Smart sat me down and went through the things they like about middle linebackers. My parents were in there with us. They have three positions I can play. They don't have much depth. They need help at the Mike and Will (positions). I could also play the Sam. They are recruiting 6-foot-2 and taller linebackers. They want guys who are 230 pounds and heavier who can move sideline to sideline.
As much as McMillon liked Alabama, he was also extremely complimentary of Ole Miss. Much like Bama, McMillon was under the impression that he had an opportunity to step in and play right away for the Rebels, according to Porter.
They think I have a chance to play as a freshman too. Their returning starter at middle linebacker is graduating and the guy behind him is a junior so I have a chance to get into the rotation as a freshman. They are trying to recruit a middle linebacker in this class that fits the mold they are looking for in the future. Whoever they sign at middle linebacker this year will be the guy in the future for that position. That's a big plus.
McMillon's strong feelings for multiple schools likely mean that he was somewhat torn. Now that he has finally settled on his next team, though, the focus shifts toward making the transition to the collegiate game.
Luckily, McMillon still has one more year of high school football to make further strides before moving on to college. He has been a dominant force in high school, but this final year will be extremely beneficial, particularly in terms of him getting his body college ready.
Based on a recent tweet, McMillon already has the positive attitude necessary to succeed in major college football:
That should go a long way toward making him a success. With that said, McMillon shouldn't set unattainable goals as a freshman.
He was spoken often about wanting to play right away, which is great, but he could also be setting himself up for disappointment. McMillon has to have the mindset of doing whatever is asked of him as a freshman even if it involves being a reserve player.
As long as McMillon comes in humble and ready to learn, he has all the tools necessary to be a great player. He also seems to be a good fit for the system he chose, so it is now up to him to live up to his immense potential.
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You know how the old saying goes: "Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good."
There's no denying that luck was on Auburn's side on more than one occasion in 2013.
"The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" against Georgia was perhaps the luckiest Hail Mary play in college football history.
The Tigers were also lucky Alabama straight up missed a couple of early field goals and opened the door for Chris Davis to take another miss 109 yards for the most improbable ending in college football, no, sports history.
However, that worn-out adage doesn't apply to the Auburn Tigers, who are coming off the definition of a storybook season.
As they showed last season, it's better to be lucky and good.
The same team that won on back-to-back miracle finishes snapped a lengthy conference losing streak on a last-minute touchdown drive against Mississippi State, outscored Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on the road and broke several school records set by legendary rushing attacks.
First-year head coach Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains marked a return to lightning-fast, high-scoring offense and an aggressive defense that usually found a way to make stops when it mattered the most.
The two combined with an experienced special teams unit to grab an SEC Championship and a berth in the final BCS National Championship Game, where the Tigers were 13 seconds from the biggest prize. Auburn wasn't the best team in college football, but it became a really good one in the span of a few months.
So while it's hard to imagine two legendary strokes of good fortune happening again this season, this team shouldn't need them to get back into the SEC and national title picture.
There are definitely question marks surrounding Malzahn's program. NFL draft picks Tre Mason, Greg Robinson, Dee Ford and Jay Prosch are no longer on campus. Auburn's brutal schedule has the Tigers playing more preseason Top-25 teams than any other ranked squad, and only time will tell how much offseason issues and injuries affected the returning talent that has to play those tough matchups.
On the more positive side, Auburn returns a majority of its starters, including quarterback Nick Marshall and leading tackler Cassanova McKinzy. Both units had an entire offseason with the second-year coaching staff to fine-tune their skills, get a better grasp of their respective systems and welcome new playmakers who can make an immediate difference.
So while the lucky and good Auburn team from 2013 gave its fans a dream season, it wants more.
The Tigers are hoping to show this season that, ultimately, it's better to be better—13 seconds better.
Malzahn might have lost a few behind-the-scenes faces from his support staff this offseason, but his entire on-field coaching staff is back for its second year on the Plains.
Keeping the 2013 coaching staff intact was important for Auburn this offseason on and off the field. The staff continued to develop current talent without a hitch and brought in new talent with another top-10 recruiting class.
The second-year head coach has a wealth of experience and talent around him, from 33-year collegiate coaching veteran Ellis Johnson to 31-year-old offensive protege Rhett Lashlee. Malzahn also has Rodney Garner, J.B. Grimes, Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith, who each have over a decade of experience coaching at power-conference programs.
The younger coaches on Malzahn's staff also bring top-level recruiting prowess to the Tigers. Dameyune Craig, former Auburn quarterback and Florida State position coach, spent some time in the summer of 2013 on top of 247Sports' recruiter rankings, per AL.com's Joel A. Erickson. Lashlee and Tim Horton have joined Craig with a big offseason on the recruiting trail.
While other top schools in the SEC are implementing new coordinators and coaches this season, Auburn will have the advantage of having the exact same group that led the team to a conference championship.
What to Watch For on Offense
- The Feature Back vs. The Committee: Auburn lost a school record-breaking Heisman finalist in running back Tre Mason, but the nation's No. 1 rushing offense from a year ago still has a pair of senior backs with a good amount of experience. Both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have worked on developing their respective "smash and dash" role into more all-around styles this offseason.
The Tigers started the 2013 season with a running back-by-committee style before Mason took over—will one of the seniors step up and command a bulk of the carries after the first few games of the 2014 season?
- It's All About Balance: The Tigers ran the ball 72 percent of the time last season, and Malzahn talked about his desire to throw the ball more in 2014 before the 2013 season even ended.
Nick Marshall and Auburn had a limited playbook for most of 2013 but still found ways to beat up on opposing defenses. This season, with an entire year to work on Marshall's throwing mechanics and develop more chemistry with a receivers unit that did not lose a single player, look for the Tigers to still be run-first but also move those play-calling percentages toward an even split.
- The Youth Revolution: Although Auburn returns plenty of offensive starters this season, the coaching staff has made it clear this fall there will be several opportunities for new players to own major roles.
Outside of JUCO transfer D'haquille Williams—more on him later—the Tigers can choose from 5-star running back Roc Thomas, speedy slot receiver Stanton Truitt and massive offensive lineman Braden "Drago / The Hulk / The Terminator" Smith. Expect all three of these true freshmen to play this season for Auburn and start their path to becoming big-time players for the program.
What to Watch For on Defense
- Somebody, Get to the Quarterback: The blow of Dee Ford's departure to the NFL was supposed to be eased by standout sophomore Carl Lawson, who earned major minutes as a true freshman on Auburn's defensive line.
But with Lawson out for an extended amount of time with an ACL injury and surgery from the spring, Garner is on the hunt for someone to become the main third-down pass-rusher this fall. Names mentioned to take over that role include sophomore Elijah Daniel, true freshman Raashed Kennion and, surprisingly enough, middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy.
- Slowing Down the Passing Attack: It has been the constant thorn in Auburn's side for several years running: pass defense. Auburn lost two starters from a secondary that finished 102nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
Even with those departures, Auburn still has veteran leadership in Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie—if and when the latter is cleared to play from his ongoing "eligibility issues." Reinforcements have arrived in JUCO star Derrick Moncrief and several 4-star true freshmen, and the Tigers will hope they will help bring change to a secondary that must improve in 2014.
- Can Carlson Really Do It All?: This note affects both the offense and the defense because it's about Auburn's all-important and completely rebuilt special teams unit.
The Tigers will try to replace experienced starters Cody Parkey and Steven Clark with one redshirt freshman, Daniel Carlson, who won the kicker, punter and kickoff specialist job during the offseason. One of these positions contains plenty of pressure for a new starter, and now all eyes will be on the talented Carlson to take over three positions that have been important to Auburn's success in recent seasons.
Carl Lawson's injury sent shockwaves throughout a defensive line that prides itself on heavy rotation. Lawson made an incredible impression on the SEC last season with some breakout performances, and the Tigers will now have to rely on someone else to step up in place of Lawson and the departed Ford.
Lawson and his coaches are aiming for a comeback toward the end of the season, but Auburn cannot rely on him to carve out a major role again this season.
But the Lawson injury leaves some hope for fans as he might return before the end of the season. That's not the case for another talented sophomore, left guard Alex Kozan.
He was such a vital part of Auburn's success along the offensive line last season, but an offseason back injury and surgery forced the Tigers to shift the starters a bit—right guard Chad Slade to left guard, right tackle Avery Young to right guard and former starter Patrick Miller back to right tackle.
Senior Brandon Fulse had Jay Prosch's job locked down at H-back, but the depth behind him took a massive hit with a pair of undisclosed injuries to Fulse's backups. Batten's injury will especially hurt as he was Prosch's backup all last season, which gave him a great amount of practice at the position.
Auburn will look to build depth with newcomers Chris Laye and Jakell Mitchell, so they should be fine if Fulse can avoid a long-term injury.
Dameyune Craig called new wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams "our Jameis Winston" and "a once-in-a-lifetime player" weeks before he stepped on the field for his first practice at Auburn.
For an offense that is intent on throwing the ball more, there is no doubt the former No. 1 junior college player is the Tigers' X-factor this season.
Last season, most of Auburn's pass plays were either screens or deep balls to Sammie Coates, who seemed like the only target at times for quarterback Nick Marshall. This season, Marshall gets an all-around receiver in Williams who can torment defenses inside or outside.
"Duke’s role is get him the ball," Lashlee said earlier this month. "He’s a guy who needs the ball and plays well with the ball, but the thing I have been most impressed about with Duke is we really ask a lot of our receivers outside of catching footballs...he’s been exceptional like the other guys in that area."
Williams' arrival gives Marshall, who spent the offseason working on his accuracy issues, a new intermediate threat that he did not have last season. Another weapon for Marshall is ultimately another weapon for Malzahn and an offense that looked unstoppable at times with just one dimension.
Make or Break Games
- Kansas State: Auburn will reach unfamiliar territory in the schedule several times this season, including a rare SEC game to open the season and the program's first all-road "Amen Corner" of Georgia and Alabama games.
A trip to power-conference team Kansas State on a Thursday night in September will also be out of the ordinary for the Tigers, who will face their first test against a preseason-ranked opponent when they head to Manhattan. Bill Snyder's disciplined team will test Auburn's defense through the air with dangerous receiver Tyler Lockett, and a road collapse here would be such a huge early blow to the Tigers' playoff race.
- LSU: There's no way around it: LSU has won seven of the last nine Tiger Bowls, and no wins have come easy in this series for Auburn since 2002's 31-7 victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn will be looking for revenge of 2013's lone regular-season loss and a crucial divisional victory against a Les Miles squad that might not be getting the proper credit it deserves. Sure, the Bayou Bengals have to replace several key offensive playmakers, but a veteran offensive line and defensive backfield should make this another hard-fought matchup between the two sets of big cats.
- Alabama: If Auburn drops one of the cross-divisional games to South Carolina or Georgia, the Tigers still have a good chance of getting back to Atlanta if they get back on the right track. However, it will be nearly impossible to win the conference championship again without a road victory at powerhouse rival Alabama.
The Crimson Tide have several question marks across its depth chart, but a strong base of players from No. 1 recruiting classes puts Alabama in a perfect position to reload once again. Auburn matched Alabama punch for punch last year—something that doesn't happen often to Nick Saban's team—and delivered a knockout blow no one saw coming. Nothing will top 2013's ending, but the stakes should be just as high for 2014's rematch in Tuscaloosa.
B/R's Michael Felder, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee all predicted Auburn to go 11-1 this year in the above video, and all three predicted completely different postseason fates for the Tigers.
I am continuing to stick with my original 11-1 prediction from May. With the returning talent and incredible potential on offense and the fire of an underappreciated and underrated defense, Auburn will be one of the best teams in college football this season.
However, I don't think any team in the country could survive a schedule as brutal as Auburn's without dropping at least one game. I see Georgia getting the best of Auburn again in Athens, but Malzahn's offense will stay one step ahead of Saban's defense at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the SEC West crown and a rematch with the Bulldogs in Atlanta.
I predict Nick Marshall will get an invite to New York City this year for the Heisman Trophy presentation—he won't win the award, but he will finish in the top three of voting. Reese Dismukes will get his hands on the Rimington Award as the nation's best center, while Cassanova McKinzy will be Auburn's best chance at a defensive award since Nick Fairley in 2010.
In Malzahn's second year as the head man, this Auburn team will show great improvement on both sides of the ball, shatter a few more school records and find a way into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
And don't be surprised when luck has little to do with it.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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Despite his preaching patience and all the youth and questions surrounding his team, Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones still expects to go bowling.
Never mind that the program hasn't reached the postseason since 2010. Even with 32 newcomers including many who will play significant roles, there are always high expectations at UT.
Jones has them, too.
He watched his first full crop of freshmen develop over the past few weeks. Perhaps the particularly surly mood he displayed can be translated into the belief that if the Vols play to their abilities, they could surprise.
Why else would he have told the Rotary Club of Knoxville on Tuesday: "When we go to a bowl game this year, we will have 14 college graduates on this year's team performing. That will be the most in the country."
Not if. When.
This is the second full season for UT's entire coaching staff, and just the simple fact that there is some continuity for a change is huge.
For instance, this is the first time in any of the offensive linemen's careers that they've had the same position coach for consecutive seasons. From teaching methods to strength-and-conditioning aspects, that familiarity can't be oversold.
What else the Vols' unproven staff brings to the program is still yet to be determined. They've been through the rugged conference wars of one season but were outmanned.
Now that Jones has a full class in tow for his second season, UT fans will really begin to see the glimmers of how his schemes and concepts translate into the nation's toughest league.
Jones has re-energized the fanbase with his elite recruiting and program-pumping propaganda, but it remains to be seen whether he can win in the SEC. While boosting the talent will have a direct, immediate effect, winning the way the Vols want to win will take time.
Jancek and Bajakian—and much of the staff, for that matter—have not yet proven they've got the coaching chops for the SEC. A 5-7 season a year ago isn't a fair barometer due to the roster in shambles they inherited, but it's the only measuring stick thus far.
This staff won at Central Michigan in time. It won at Cincinnati. If they stay together, the continuity and work they're doing on the recruiting trail could pay huge dividends.
What to Watch For on Offense
A season ago, the Vols struggled to implement Bajakian's "power-spread" offense with the personnel already on the roster. From a heavy offensive line used to running man-blocking concepts instead of zone to a lack of speed at skill positions, it was a scheme mismatch.
Now the Vols have taken steps toward addressing their dearth of playmakers with some electrifying newcomers. Featuring a revamped line, UT should be more athletic (though inexperienced) in the trenches as well.
It's a work in progress, but there is no reason the Vols shouldn't improve on a unit ranked 12th in total offense a season ago. If the line gives quarterback Justin Worley time to get the ball to his talented targets, UT could enjoy an offensive resurgence.
Worley is the key to everything.
He struggled in 2013, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Even during his two best performances (versus Georgia and South Carolina) he had mediocre numbers.
That isn't going to cut it this year. If the 6'4", 230-pound South Carolina native is able to stay in the pocket, he has to take command of the offense, as task which has eluded him thus far in his career.
Worley was sharp in the spring finale and after a sluggish start to camp has impressed many during the past two weeks. GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) said of Worley: "He also looks much better than he ever has from a physical standpoint, and he’s carrying himself like an SEC quarterback in every other way imaginable."
Considering neither Nathan Peterman nor Joshua Dobbs pressured Worley in the quarterback race this fall, his health is essential to the team's success. If he goes down, there will be much more uncertainty surrounding the position.
If his timing and tempo are improved, Worley can be the game manager UT needs, and for the Vols' sake, the more downfield plays he can produce, the better.
Many of those throws are going to target sophomore receiver Marquez North. A season ago, the 6'4", 221-pound receiver was UT's only downfield threat. Though he battled through injuries and was thrust into action from day one, he still finished with 38 catches for a team-best 496 yards and one touchdown.
This year, the Vols need North to take the next step toward stardom. He's the most talented in a stable full of elite (albeit unproven) potential playmakers. Worley and the Vols need a go-to player in crucial moments, which has to be North's role.
Finally, none of the weaponry matters if Worley has minimal time to throw the football.
Everybody who has read anything about UT this offseason knows the Vols return zero starters on the offensive line, but that doesn't mean they're going to be terrible. The group has shown some promise this fall, even if it's a unit thrown together with baling wire and twine.
A prime example of that is fifth-year senior and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam. After a career on the scout team, Gilliam emerged this spring as he surged ahead of JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair at the all-important left tackle position.
Rather than just lighting a fire under Blair, this fall proved Gilliam was legit. After earning a scholarship this May, the hometown feel-good story has held that job with a strong camp.
He'll be the Game 1 starter and has been one of UT's most consistent linemen. If that makes you nervous that UT is starting a walk-on, it's understandable. But Gilliam deserves the opportunity on his own merits, per GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).
Strong left tackle play is the key to any good offensive line, so the microscope is firmly placed on Gilliam.
What to Watch For on Defense
Coming up with a depth chart for Tennessee's defense is as easy as quantum physics.
The Vols are going to be so versatile and multiple, there is no certainty what personnel will make up its formations from a down-to-down basis, much less game-to-game.
That's good news for Jancek. While UT is going to take plenty of lumps with a freshman-laden unit that is still at least one more recruiting class away from being strong, the Vols defense is so much faster than a season ago.
There is also better depth at all positions, even if it's unproven depth.
For instance, outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has enjoyed a great fall and is in line to start. But in pass-rushing situations, Chris Weatherd may be on the field. In nickel sets that are definite passing downs, the coverage skills of freshman duo Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry could be utilized.
Jancek has options—something that didn't exist a year ago.
While the line remains a major concern, the Vols have enough talented players to be much more versatile at important positions such as defensive end and nickelback.
The Vols will go as Curt Maggitt goes. He may be the most important player on the entire team.
UT is a much better defense with the 6'3", 251-pound redshirt junior defensive end on the field. Though he hasn't played a live snap since November 2012, Maggitt is the unequivocal team leader, and the Vols desperately need him.
When he's healthy, he's a game-changer. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay on the field. An ankle injury has sidelined Maggitt for much of camp, and UT is being extra cautious with him. If he can't stay healthy, a worrisome defensive line situation gets much bleaker.
With the Vols playing much more nickel this season, they've called on senior cornerback Justin Coleman to fortify a position that was brutal a season ago: nickelback.
The 5'10", 188-pound defensive back has never really performed up to expectations at boundary corner, but after a full offseason of learning nickel, Coleman's physicality and tackling ability should benefit his move closer to the center of the field.
That spot is incredibly important to UT's defense, and Coleman has shone this fall. Considering nickelback was a revolving door that led to countless big plays in 2013, Coleman has the chance to end his Tennessee career as a key player.
So many new names checker the depth chart for the Vols, but one steady, constant force in the center of that defense is senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.
The 6'2", 245-pound star bypassed the NFL to return to Knoxville for his senior season and is the anchor around which the entire unit will be built. His 324 career tackles is evidence that he has a nose for the football, even if he hasn't made as many splash plays as he would like.
With more talent and speed around him than at any time in his college career, the stage is set for Johnson to excel.
If he can show he is improved in his lateral game and coverage skills, he'll surge up NFL draft boards, and UT's defense will be vastly improved.
The Vols have stayed relatively healthy for the most part since the start of camp.
Neither Cody Blanc nor Charles Mosley were going to factor that much into the 2014 team, so the impact of their losses is minimal.
The other players on the list are a little more pressing, especially Maggitt and Saulsberry. Both defensive linemen have a history of injuries, but both are being relied on in a big way this season.
Unlike last year, the Vols have depth to soften the blow, but a loss of Maggitt's elite playmaking potential could be especially catastrophic to the defense. He returned to the field Thursday after missing a week of practice, which is huge news for UT.
Saulsberry has been slow to shake off the rust from missing most of last year and all of spring drills, but he has the size and athleticism to eventually start at UT's thinnest position of defensive tackle. He needs to return soon not only for depth purposes but because his ceiling is as high as any DT on the Vols' roster.
Freshman running back Jalen Hurd is the missing link to Tennessee's offensive turnaround.
The 6'3", 227-pound heavily recruited running back from Hendersonville, Tennessee proved early as a midterm enrollee that he commanded immediate playing time. He did the same throughout fall camp.
Blessed with superior size and dynamic speed, Hurd has the potential to be the game-breaking talent UT hasn't had in the offensive backfield since Travis Stephens. Hurd is a physical freak who is a threat to score every time he touches the football.
He has heard the questions about his height, and a voice from the Southern Cal War Room on national signing day was overheard saying Hurd was "soft", per KnoxBlogs.com. Hurd is different, but "different" also describes the next-level potential he has.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie told The Tennessean's David Climer: "He's a focused kid. He's not a guy that feels like he has to fit in the crowd. He's not a follower. He has a different bounce to him, which is good. I think anybody that wants to be great isn't afraid to be different."
Even though he has the open-field wheels to run away from defenders, he has every-down potential to secure the tough yards, too.
Senior Marlin Lane is in line to start, but in an era where multiple running backs are a necessity, Hurd will receive plenty of touches. With proper blocking, he'll show quickly that the Vols simply can't afford to keep him on the sideline.
Tennessee's schedule is so difficult this season; very few games are certainties. But four in particular are pivotal.
Dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Chuckie Keeton is enough to make most teams shudder, especially one like UT that has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks recently.
Throw in the fact that the Aggies led the Mountain West Conference in total defense last year, and that looks like a tall, early test for UT's youngsters.
Athlete-for-athlete, USU shouldn't be able to hang with the Vols, but Keeton could be a great equalizer. It's essential Tennessee takes care of business early to have a successful season. If UT slips it, it'll be a long season.
Tennessee hasn't beaten the Gators since Ron Zook roamed the sideline all the way back in 2004. That's nine years of frustrating futility.
Even during their poor 2013 season, the Gators handled the Vols by two touchdowns. This year, UF comes to Knoxville with its coach Will Muschamp on the hot seat and tons of offensive question marks.
It's tough to predict a UT win when it hasn't happened in so long, but if the Vols get this one, it would give them a ton of momentum heading into a grueling midseason stretch. It also would go a long way in making them bowl-eligible, considering that's a game few pundits are picking UT to win.
A season ago, Maty Mauk and the Tigers' able stable of star offensive skill players demoralized UT 31-3 in Columbia. That night, the programs looked extremely far apart.
But Mizzou has lost most of its playmakers on both sides of the football, and the Vols have upgraded their team speed considerably—the team's greatest weakness from a season ago.
The game will be much closer than it was in 2013, but can the Vols break through for a win? If they don't get this one or Florida, making a bowl is going to be an uphill battle.
The Commodores' winning streak over UT has reached two games, which is difficult for every Vols fan to stomach.
But James Franklin is gone. Derek Mason is the new coach in Nashville, and while he has some talent left over from his predecessor's regime, there are numerous holes (like quarterback) and question marks (such as transitioning to a 3-4 defensive base).
Last season, VU knocked Tennessee out of a bowl game with a controversial win in Knoxville that featured a late overturned ball spot. This year, that game could have the same meaning.
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 SEC
When everything is said and done, Tennessee will do enough to make a bowl game. There's too much talent on the roster, even if it's young.
Even though they'll go into the final three games winless in the conference, the Vols will beat Mizzou, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to close the season and secure a lower-tier bowl berth. A bowl victory will give Jones his first winning season on Rocky Top and be a major catalyst for the future.
Johnson will be an All-SEC linebacker, but he won't be a first-team All-American. North also will receive all-conference honors, as will Cameron Sutton.
Hurd, tight end Ethan Wolf, guard Jashon Robertson and defensive end Derek Barnett are all going to garner freshman All-SEC awards, and a firm foundation will be built for Jones' program.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. All observations were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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