It was an offseason of transition in Tuscaloosa.
Quarterback AJ McCarron—he of two national title rings and only four losses in three years as the starter—exhausted his eligibility after the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, and thus began the first quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa since 2011. That battle is being waged with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin—the former USC and Tennessee head coach and lightning rod for controversy—at the helm of the offense.
One player who is vital in bridging the gap this offseason was junior wide receiver Amari Cooper.
The preseason first-team All-SEC star from Miami has 1,736 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns over his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, and he has become more of a mouthpiece for his head coach this offseason.
"I've become a better leader, just listening to the things that coach [Nick] Saban tells us," Cooper said in the Radio/Internet room at SEC Media Days. "Every time he talks, you want to listen because he knows what he's talking about. The things he tells me, I can tell my teammates and we can stay positive and have that winning mentality."
While some faces change, Cooper is acting as the reinforcement for the coaching staff this summer. Coaches get 10 hours per week of contact, which is a welcomed change, but that's still minimal in the grand scheme of things. Cooper is the glue.
That's good for Cooper and Alabama, because considering the holes on the roster and the switch to Kiffin's scheme, it was his responsibility as a veteran to take the role whether he wanted it or not.
While Kiffin adjusts to the personnel and the quarterback battle continues with the fresh face of Jacob Coker joining the mix this summer, it was up to Cooper to keep the team headed in the right direction. That means more of a role in organizing offseason workouts, which included work with Coker, as AL.com's Michael Casagrande pointed out.
His mindset has switched from focusing on personal goals immediately following the 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game after the 2012 season, to focusing on team-oriented goals heading into the 2014 campaign.
"I don't ever say I want to get so many yards or anything like that," Cooper said at Media Days, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "I just want to win and be the best teammate and do the best I can do."
Cooper is the heart and soul of this year's Crimson Tide.
He already was one of the focal points opposing defenses had to key on from a schematic standpoint, and now he's embraced more of a leadership role off the field as Alabama transitions to a new quarterback and coordinator.
His off-the-field success is already being felt, and his on-the-field success is critical for the Crimson Tide.
After a disappointing season (by his own standards) as a sophomore, Cooper needs to get on the same page with his quarterback (or quarterbacks) in a hurry, because he's likely to be an even bigger focal point with Kiffin calling the shots.
Already a weapon in the screen game and off play action, Cooper will be more versatile in this year's offense, according to Marc Torrence, B/R's Alabama lead writer.
“Coach Kiffin calls plays based on matchups and what he sees,” Cooper said this spring. “Like I said before, it's a simple offense. If he sees they are in man-to-man coverage and I have a hitch route, it converts if he's close to me. We are going to throw a little fade route and make something out of it.”
Alabama is loaded at wide receiver, but Cooper playing up to his potential will make the whole offense tick. It will allow the other stars like Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Robert Foster and tight end O.J. Howard to find themselves in favorable matchups.
Cooper is the star on the field and the leader off the field. His resurgence is key for the 2014 Crimson Tide, and that's already being felt as they attempt to take back the SEC West throne.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports, and all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com.
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While quarterbacks aren't always thought of as the most athletic players on the football field, the Florida Gators' Will Grier proved that signal-callers can do some crazy things.
Grier and fellow freshman DeAndre Goolsby messed around during a workout and put together a pretty cool clip. In it, the quarterback catches a football while doing a standing backflip.
If Grier ever gets near the goal line in a game, maybe he will whip out a flip to score a touchdown. That would be something special.
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Ideally, a college football team would like to know its starting quarterback before fall camp opens or closes.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way.
In rare cases, a quarterback battle can linger until the start of the regular season. AJ McCarron, for example, didn't win the starting job out of fall camp at Alabama in 2011, instead vying with Phillip Sims in the early part of the schedule. Sometimes, a sample against live defenses is needed for a coach to make the right decision.
But it's not always as cut-and-dried as it was with McCarron three years ago. Sometimes, even though the coach names a starter after fall camp, the battle is not exactly over. We know who will start Week 1, but that doesn't mean the questions will subside. An example of this would be Trevor Knight and Blake Bell at Oklahoma in 2013.
The Knight-Bell situation is more common than the McCarron-Sims situation. Because there are obvious benefits to "naming" a starter by Week 1, the latter is difficult to project. But based on how close each situation appears and the timing of the quarterback's remaining eligibility, it is not as tough to project which competitions will linger into the regular season a la Knight and Bell.
Here are a few that fit the bill.
Due to Michigan's outstanding recruiting, it's easy to get caught up in projecting the fates of incoming freshmen. That's not exactly a bad thing, but it does somewhat of a disservice to those who've been on the Wolverines roster for years.
Sure, it's fun to talk about 4- and 5-star players who could immediately impact Team 135, but Brady Hoke has more than a handful of existing players who are itching to make things happen. Several are—or seem to be—more than ready to do so in 2014.
This slideshow focuses on those guys, the ones who've shown something but haven't yet reached the pinnacle of their careers.
With Pac-12 media days in the books, Oregon's highly anticipated 2014 season is just a few short weeks away from kickoff.
The Ducks are not touting any taglines about revenge for how their 2013 season ended, when two losses down the stretch knocked them out of the BCS Championship race—not publicly, at least. But that doesn't mean head coach Mark Helfrich's team doesn't recognize the reality of making the first College Football Playoff.
"If you lose a game, that's where the opinions get the weight," Helfrich said at media days.
Indeed, two losses seemed to define the Ducks' 2013 season more than 11 wins. Such is the sentiment inherent with being a championship-contending program, which Oregon has been and should continue to be in the coming campaign.
Pac-12 media was nearly unanimous in its selection of Oregon to win the Pac-12 North before claiming its first conference championship since 2011. Expectations are high, and various storylines lay the foundation for the lofty bar set for the Ducks in 2014.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.
Previews for college football season are often fruitless endeavors. With the high annual personnel turnover inherent in college sports, it is extraordinarily rare for a team to sustain a wide-open championship window. Conversely, programs can flip over disappointing rosters and shoot back into relevance, much like Auburn did last season.
But while it's nearly impossible to accurately forecast where the season will finish, it is feasible to see where the college football landscape starts. Various preseason polls have pinpointed a handful of early favorites, but with the four-team playoff system in place for 2014, the championship field is larger than it ever was during the BCS era.
So what will the preseason polls look like upon release? Here's a guess at how the top 25 will shake out before Week 1.
1. Florida State Seminoles
The defending national champs return 13 starters from their undefeated 2013 squad. Even with high-profile losses to the NFL including Kelvin Benjamin, Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks, the Seminoles still have the most talented team in the nation due to top-notch recruiting.
Reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston is the obvious headliner. While Winston has made offseason headlines for his crab leg transgressions and defense of the NCAA, he remains the leader of the top offense in the country. Winston's dynamic playmaking has drawn comparisons to one of the top college and pro quarterbacks in recent memory:
The Seminoles do face a tough opening this year, as they face Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas. However, they also play Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida at Doak Campbell Stadium, with Miami looming as their only truly challenging road test. Florida State will be favored in every regular-season game it plays this year, and should make its way into the playoff.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Following back-to-back losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to end last season, the Alabama Crimson Tide have a bitter taste in their mouths. But Nick Saban runs the steadiest programs in the country, so the Tide figure to have an excellent chance at redemption in 2014.
Annually a defensive powerhouse, Alabama is actually overflowing with more offensive skill position talent than nearly any team in the country. No team can match the running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and former top recruit Derrick Henry, while Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and O.J. Howard should wreak havoc on opposing secondaries.
The biggest question mark may actually lie at quarterback, where Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will take the place of the departed A.J. McCarron. Coker has drawn rave reviews this spring, and he may actually face expectations to lead a more prolific offense than the McCarron-led units.
The SEC gauntlet is an annual barrier, though the conference champion will almost certainly make the playoff. Though archrival Auburn must travel to Bryant-Denny this year, road games at LSU and Ole Miss loom as significant stumbling blocks for Saban's crew.
3. Oregon Ducks
The perennially contending Ducks have yet to break through with a national championship, but with the unexpected return of quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon should once again find itself among the small handful of favorites in 2014.
Oregon is not infallible, however, and an ACL injury to top receiver Bralon Addison has left Mariota's pass-catching corps rather thin. Of course, despite playing in the Pac-12, the Ducks do have an advantage enjoyed by few teams in the conference:
A premier nonconference game against Michigan State looms in the second week, as does a November trip to UCLA. But recent nemesis Stanford will travel to Eugene this year and, all things considered, the Ducks have little excuse to win fewer than 11 regular-season games.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes
Though Urban Meyer still possesses an undefeated regular-season record at Ohio State, back-to-back losses against Michigan State and Clemson soured an otherwise excellent 2013 for the Buckeyes. With Heisman candidate Braxton Miller and a stellar defensive line, however, Meyer's crew could redeem itself in 2014.
The offensive line's development will be crucial, as the Buckeyes had multiple starting spots up for grabs after spring practice. Still, Meyer's recruiting has given Ohio State a considerable talent edge over most of the Big Ten, and there are few pitfalls in the schedule this year.
That could actually work against the Buckeyes, though, depending on how the SEC and Pac-12 shake out. Apart from a road trip to Lansing, Ohio State has few opportunities to make an impression on the selection committee. An undefeated season is a distinct possibility, but also a must for a playoff berth.
5. Oklahoma Sooners
After Bob Stoops' tenure had apparently stagnated, a shocking Sugar Bowl upset over Alabama has reinvigorated the program. Led by Trevor Knight, the Sooners are the consensus Big 12 favorite and legitimate playoff contenders.
Knight is one of the most intriguing players in the country this year, as Oklahoma is tying its hopes to the belief that the Sugar Bowl performance was not simply a one-game miracle. The mobile Knight represents a threat through the air and on the ground, but Stoops wants his quarterback to adjust his game in preparation for a long season:
If Knight proves worthy, a rock-solid defense and a relatively benign schedule should help the Sooners. Games against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State are all at Norman, so the Sooners should be favored in every game in 2014.
6. Auburn Tigers
Gus Malzahn's Tigers had a charmed run to the national title game last season, but repeating the task will be extraordinarily difficult. Nonetheless, with Nick Marshall back in tow, Auburn will once again be a top favorite in the SEC.
Malzahn's option attack terrorized the nation in 2013, and with Marshall improving as a passer this offseason, the offense should be an elite unit. But a defense that was subpar last season lost its best player in Dee Ford, and the speed-over-size emphasis could prove fatal against bruising offenses like Alabama and LSU.
Road games against Alabama and Georgia will likely see the Tigers as underdogs, while home contests against South Carolina and LSU are likely toss-ups at best. Auburn is good enough to beat any of those teams, but they cannot expect the same late-game fortune as they received last season.
7. UCLA Bruins
Potential first-rounder Brett Hundley should lead one of the nation's top passing attacks. Despite the loss of Shaq Evans, five of the Bruins' top six receiving targets return, while a powerful rushing attack should lead to a deadly balanced attack.
The wild card could be Hundley's struggles against top-notch competition. As ESPN's KC Joyner illustrates, Hundley's worst games have come on the biggest stages (subscription required):
As tremendous as Hundley's numbers have been in most situations, he has posted a 65.4 adjusted total QBR over the past two years against foes that end the season with a 75 percent or higher win percentage. That ranks 48th among quarterbacks from BCS conferences the past two years and is not a positive sign given how many potential teams of this caliber UCLA is apt to face this season.
Games against Oregon, Stanford and Arizona State will test the Bruins' championship viability. Jim Mora Jr. has rebuilt a previously moribund program, but it is still unclear if UCLA can break into the top tier of college football.
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
Though Steve Spurrier has yet to win an SEC Championship at South Carolina, his tenure has been one of steady improvement. Even with the losses of Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw, the Gamecocks could have their best team of the Spurrier era.
Shaw's replacement, Dylan Thompson, does have some experience, having filled in for Shaw during various injury stints. The real key, however, could be running back Mike Davis, who is one of the nation's top dark horses after a 1,183-yard, 11-touchdown season:
In a wide-open SEC East, the Gamecocks are likely slight favorites over Georgia and Florida, considering the disappointing seasons the latter two programs had in 2013. Though South Carolina does have road trips to Auburn and Clemson, an SEC title-game appearance is far from out of the question.
9. Baylor Bears
Art Briles' offense has vaulted the traditional Big 12 doormats into legitimate national title contenders. After a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2013, Baylor is now firmly on the national radar.
There are no questions about the Bryce Petty-led offense, which boasts tremendous skill position talent through the likes of Shock Linwood, Antwan Goodley and Devin Chafin. The defense, however, is much younger after the graduations of top starters Eddie Lackey, Ahmad Dixon and Sam Holl. Baylor improved tremendously on that side of the ball last year, but its Big 12 hopes likely hinge upon breakthroughs from underclassmen.
A November road trip to Oklahoma stands as Baylor's stiffest test of the year, as that game could decide the conference champion. The Bears should be favorites against Texas and Oklahoma State, so a double-digit win season is the new expectation in Waco.
10. Georgia Bulldogs
An injury-plagued 2013 may actually serve the Bulldogs well in 2014. New quarterback Hutson Mason played three games in place of the now-departed Aaron Murray, and with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall healthy again, he figures to have an excellent supporting cast in place.
But a defense that forced plenty of big plays in 2013 has seen tremendous turmoil in the offseason. Though nine starters return from last year's unit, off-field issues have plagued the unit this spring:
The season could hinge upon an inexperienced secondary led by Damian Swann. Though the SEC's passing attacks will take a step back in 2014, the Bulldogs still have a brutal schedule that includes an opening two-week slate against Clemson and South Carolina. If Georgia somehow starts 2-0, though, a legitimate SEC contender could be in place.
11. Stanford Cardinal
David Shaw's smashmouth Cardinal have turned into legitimate powerhouses after four consecutive BCS Bowl appearances. Quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery highlight a less experienced Stanford team that returns only 11 starters, but does have a strong foundation in place.
As the losses of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck illustrated, Stanford's system has transcended personnel turnover. As ESPN's Travis Haney suggests, expecting regression could be foolish (subscription required):
Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have instilled an incredible amount of confidence in the players who come to Palo Alto. They don’t know anything other than winning, just like those ahead of them did.
Stanford does have a difficult schedule, highlighted by trips to Eugene, Tempe and Westwood. That's as difficult a road schedule as any team, and two losses in that stretch could send the Cardinal out of playoff consideration. Nonetheless, Stanford figures to have an important say in the Pac-12 Championship picture.
12. Michigan State Spartans
If the playoff system had been in place last season, Michigan State's red-hot finish likely would have sent them into the field. As it is, the reigning Big Ten champions could still make a run at the inaugural playoff behind an SEC-like defense and a vastly improved offense.
Quarterback Connor Cook is largely responsible for the latter, stabilizing the Spartans' passing game after taking over the job last October. At the Nike Elite 11 quarterback camp this summer, reports suggested that Cook was ready to take another leap this fall:
The Spartans do face a brutal nonconference game against Oregon, but they also get Ohio State at home. Road trips loom against Michigan and Penn State, but given the recent trajectories of those programs, Michigan State should find itself favored.
13. LSU Tigers
Les Miles' program is no stranger to attrition, as few teams send more players to the NFL each year. With new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, among other positions, a Tigers offense that soared in 2013 could take a step back.
However, that may not be true if all-world freshman running back Leonard Fournette fulfills the immense preseason hype. With LSU likely to return to its ground-and-pound roots as it breaks in a new quarterback (either Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris), the nation's top recruit has already drawn comparisons to arguably the best running back in the world:
Fournette will need to make an immediate impact, as a season-opening neutral site game against Wisconsin highlights a brutal schedule for the Tigers. LSU also has road trips to Auburn and Florida, though they do play Alabama at Death Valley this year. Still, depending on how the young offense matures, LSU is a viable dark-horse playoff contender.
14. USC Trojans
NCAA sanctions have taken a toll on USC's depth in recent seasons, and 2014 is no different. However, with a stable quarterback situation and the usual assortment of elite talent at the top of the depth chart, the Trojans could return to national relevance with enough breaks.
Cody Kessler led USC to six wins in his final seven starts last year, which has earned him the undisputed starting spot under center. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor and potential top-10 pick Leonard Williams give USC a strong starting lineup, so early-season contests against Stanford and Arizona State could give the Trojans a stage to shine.
But depth is crucial in a sport where injuries are inevitable, and it would not be surprising to see USC slow down as attrition takes its toll. Still, with new head coach Steve Sarkisian in place, the Trojans are on the right path toward re-establishing themselves as a premier Pac-12 program.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
After a disappointing 2013 season, Notre Dame will regain the quarterback who led them to a surprising national championship game appearance in 2012. Everett Golson is back after being academically ineligible last year, and looked impressive during spring practices:
The Irish took a significant hit in terms of personnel losses this year, but a shutdown secondary headlined by KeiVarae Russell could stabilize a young squad. Golson will also have plenty of skill position talent to work with in tight end Ben Koyack (a Mackey Award candidate in 2013) and running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Foster and former 4-star prospect Greg Bryant.
However, Notre Dame does have a brutal schedule with trips to Florida State, Arizona State and USC, as well as home dates against Stanford, Michigan and Louisville. Though the Irish may be improved, that slate will make a double-digit victory season extremely difficult to achieve.
16. Wisconsin Badgers
Madison has emerged as a haven for running backs, and 2014 will be no different. Despite the graduation of James White, Melvin Gordon could power the Badgers to an even better showing on the ground, having averaged an eye-popping 8.1 yards per carry over his career.
However, Wisconsin is not simply a one-dimensional offense. Quarterback Joel Stave showed his inexperience last year, as turnovers and slow decision-making relegated him to the bench by season's end. However, even as raw as he was, Stave still showed an ability to reach the end zone:
Apart from the season opener against LSU and a road trip to Iowa, Wisconsin has an extremely kind schedule by virtue of playing in the weaker Big Ten West. A conference title game appearance should be the expectation for 2014.
17. Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze has rebuilt a previously dysfunctional program into a legitimate top-25 team. Unfortunately for the Rebels, playing in the SEC West relegates them to being the fourth or even fifth best team in their own division. Nevertheless, coming off an eight-win season, there is reason to believe the Rebels could take another step forward in 2014.
Bo Wallace is one of the best returning quarterbacks in the conference, and he headlines a group of 15 returning starters. Wallace will also get back the majority of his top targets, including receiver Laquon Treadwell, who compiled 72 receptions and five touchdowns in an impressive freshman season.
Ole Miss also has a relatively favorable schedule (at least given their circumstances), as they host both Alabama and Auburn. They also draw Tennessee and Vanderbilt from the SEC East instead of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina or Missouri. The Rebels will be hard-pressed to reach 10 wins, but an improvement from 2013 is possible.
18. Arizona State Sun Devils
Though Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley receive most of the hype surrounding Pac-12 quarterbacks, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly deserves consideration in the top tier as well. After totaling 4,243 total yards and 37 total touchdowns in 2013, Kelly is firmly established as one of the nation's top playmakers. According to Everett Cook of the Los Angeles Times, Kelly remains driven by the fact that he and the Sun Devils remain under the radar:
Being under the radar pushes me. It makes me stay humble. There’s a chip on my shoulder to outwork everyone else.… I see myself as the best one in the conference. That’s all that matters, and no one is going to take my confidence away from me. I think that’s the most important thing.
The redshirt senior has a strong supporting cast in place as well, as Jaelen Strong is the conference's top returning receiver, while running back D.J. Foster is arguably the best receiving back in the country. Redshirt sophomore receiver Ellis Jefferson could be a name to keep an eye on as well, as he wowed observers during spring practices.
Arizona State does face a brutal second month of the season, when it will play UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington in four consecutive weeks. But Todd Graham has rejuvenated the program after Dennis Erickson's heinous tenure, and the Sun Devils could emerge as top Pac-12 contenders.
19. Kansas State Wildcats
Among long shot Heisman candidates in 2014, Wildcats quarterback Jake Waters stands out as an intriguing name. After a shaky start last season, Waters caught fire and posted one of the best quarterback seasons in program history:
Bill Snyder's crew is a consistent second-tier contender, nothing to scoff at given the abyss from which Kansas State rose. The Wildcats also have seven returning players who received All-Big 12 honors last year, led by wide receiver Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller.
Kansas State will have an opportunity to capture the nation's attention with a September contest against Auburn. A conference slate that includes trips to Oklahoma and Baylor will likely prevent the Wildcats from winning the Big 12, but an improvement from last year's eight-win season could occur.
20. Clemson Tigers
After losing Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins to the NFL, it would ostensibly appear as though Clemson is undergoing a transition season. However, while it will be difficult to match last year's Orange Bowl appearance, the Tigers could still be a viable ACC contender in 2014.
A defense that has traditionally been a weakness could carry the team this season. Clemson's defensive line was a tremendous unit last season, and All-America candidate Vic Beasley believes the line could be the best in the country this year:
The running back depth should cushion the transition to senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who has thrown just 119 passes over his collegiate career. Road trips to Florida State and Georgia will test Stoudt early in the season, but expect the Tigers to stabilize after a tough start.
21. Texas A&M Aggies
Life after Johnny Manziel commences for Texas A&M this year, but don't expect Kevin Sumlin's program to take a significant step back. Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen provide the Aggies a pair of high-upside successors, and while growing pains are inevitable, there is enough talent in College Station to maintain top-25 status.
Even without Manziel, the Aggies welcome back 15 starters, including six of their eight top tacklers on defense. Tackle Cedric Ogbuehi also returns for his senior year to anchor a strong offensive line, which boasts another potential high draft pick in senior guard Jarvis Harrison.
The schedule is certainly difficult, as Texas A&M faces both Alabama and Auburn on the road, while also drawing Missouri and South Carolina from the SEC East. A mid-tier bowl is the likeliest end result during this transition season.
22. Washington Huskies
New head coach Chris Petersen carries an impressive track record from Boise State and will head a rising Washington program. After notching their first top-25 finish since 2001, the Huskies face higher expectations despite losing quite a bit of talent in the offseason.
Washington does get much of its defense back, including five starters from the front seven. Defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha could emerge as the team's best pass-rusher after a breakthrough performance in the Fight Hunger Bowl, while cornerback Marcus Peters returns after leading the team with five interceptions in 2013.
Losing Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins on offense will hurt, and an October road game against Oregon will serve as a litmus test for how far the Huskies have progressed. But Washington is headed in the right direction and could be a legitimate Pac-12 contender shortly with Petersen's arrival.
23. Florida Gators
Will Muschamp's squad was arguably the most disappointing in the country last year after a 4-8 campaign. However, the roster talent is plainly obvious, and some like ESPN's Phil Steele have pinpointed Florida as a prime rebound candidate in 2014 (subscription required):
This season, the Gators have 14 returning starters, and several young players saw extensive action because of injuries last season. The offense has really struggled in the Muschamp era but should be improved, especially with a healthy QB in Jeff Driskel, who is a great fit in new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's system...Last season, the Gators' offensive line had three players start at each of the left tackle, left guard and right tackle spots, with only center having the same starter for all 12 games. This season they return 66 career starts and figure to be stronger and more stable.
Florida's defense should be one of the best in the country, led by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and the defensive end tandem of Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard. With a healthy season from Driskel and a potential breakout from wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, last season's offensive impotence could become a distant memory.
24. Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns are in the unfamiliar position of being a mid-level Big 12 team. With new head coach Chuck Strong instilling a disciplined culture, however, the lackadaisical and underachieving squads of Mack Brown's final days are gone.
Despite tremendous defensive talent, Texas allowed over 400 yards per game over the last two seasons. Much of that unit returns, and with top-notch talent like Cedric Reed, Jordan Hicks and Quandre Diggs, Strong's defensive background could engineer a significant turnaround:
David Ash is healthy again, and Strong has named the junior his starter for the season. A challenging schedule that includes a neutral-site game against UCLA and back-to-back contests against Baylor and Oklahoma could limit the ceiling for 2014, but Texas should begin to maximize its talent once again.
25. Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall is arguably the only team in the country that absolutely should finish the season undefeated. The Thundering Herd are likely the best non-power-five conference team this season, as quarterback Rakeem Cato leads an explosive passing attack:
Marshall will not threaten the playoff picture, as they do not play any significant nonconference games, while Conference USA itself is one of the weakest in the FBS. But coming off a 10-win season and a Military Bowl victory over Maryland, the positive momentum should continue for the Herd.
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The longest offseason in recent memory for many Auburn fans is almost over.
The Tigers return to the practice field in a few days for their final weeks of practices before the start of the 2014 season, which they hope will end with another SEC Championship and a national title.
Auburn entered fall camp last season with a lot of question marks as a team fresh off a disappointing 3-9 campaign and a complete overhaul of the coaching staff.
Head coach Gus Malzahn's squad thrived off being the underdog last season, but how will they perform heading into a fall filled with preseason hype and tremendous expectations?
Here are six storylines to watch for when Auburn opens a busy August of practice and preparation for the 2014 campaign.
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.
The wide receiver position is trending upward—from the NFL, where teams selected nine receivers before a running back came off the board in the 2014 draft, to the youth level, where more talented athletes are gravitating toward the position.
The game has rapidly evolved, shifting away from grind-it-out styles of offense that lean heavily on a methodical rushing attack and a powerful offensive line. Instead, teams are airing it out more than ever, posting prolific passing statistics and repeatedly shattering records.
College programs attempting to stockpile premier pass-catchers are in luck during the 2015 recruiting cycle, which features a variety of game-changing receivers with unique size, speed and style.
These playmakers put their skills on display earlier this month at The Opening, an annual football showcase that draws the most coveted high school prospects to Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
We watched all the action, from one-on-one drills to seven-on-seven showdowns. Several fresh recruiting ratings were released shortly after the event, resulting in newly ordered 247Sports composite rankings.
Based on what we've seen in person and our notes from game-film assessment, here's a breakdown of the top 10 receivers in this recruiting cycle.
This article is part of Bleacher Report's CFB 200 Recruiting Rankings Series. The overall rankings are based on the 247Sports Composite, which takes into account every recruiting service's rankings. The positional rankings also correspond with those composite scores. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as we take an in-depth look at college football's stars of tomorrow.
In college football, there are no guarantees. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and every summer, new recruits arrive on campus intent on making their own splash in the college gridiron world.
This fuels competition, angst and, occasionally, transfers, which fuel even more competition.
College coaches love to say that every job is up for grabs in preseason practice. This is partially hyperbole, but partially true. If a player has a terrible August, coaches feel they won’t be able to trust them in September, which leads us back to, you guessed it, competition.
Here is a look at some returning college football starters who are in danger of losing their jobs in 2014.
Malik Jefferson is the No. 1 outside linebacker in the class of 2015, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. His freakish speed, combined with natural instinct, creates a recruit that every college coach is dying to have.
Jefferson took some time to talk with Bleacher Report about everything from who he models his game after to where he may go to college.
How well do you think this stud will do at the next level?
Rankings from 247Sports' composite rankings.
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One of the most intriguing University of Tennessee football seasons in recent memory will see its first chapter written Friday as coach Butch Jones' class of 32 newcomers steps onto the field together for the first time.
Because of all the newness and uncertainty, the story of this season will be rich with plot twists.
As Jones embarks on his second season as UT coach, he could be complaining about having to restock the shelf on Rocky Top. Instead, he sees opportunity.
"I like it," Jones said at SEC media days, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown. "They sit there, they're eager, they listen to every word you say. They have no preconceived notions on anything. They just want more. They want to learn. They're hungry."
A deeper dive into the roster shows the Vols are even greener than the huge class indicates. Brown noted 51 UT players are either in their first or second seasons, and just 11 players have 10 or more starts.
While that much youth could be the key ingredient for a long season, the Vols haven't exactly lit the world on fire in recent years. Perhaps that's why Jones seems a little bit invigorated.
He hasn't settled on a quarterback, has enough questions along the lines of scrimmage to make the most optimistic coaches squirm and has a team chock-full of unknowns.
But the roster flip the past two seasons means this is Jones' team, and everybody is eager to see how it'll look. So, let's take a look at the top storylines entering the 2014 season.
LSU head coach Les Miles wants to win more trophies, and despite being picked to finish third at SEC media days and having lost a multitude of talent to the NFL, Miles can see more titles in the future.
"We return 16 starters: six on offense, seven on defense, three on special teams. We're a team that's really on the cusp of an opportunity to win championships," he said.
LSU's much-anticipated fall camp begins in less than a week. The Tigers have gone an impressive 20-6 over the past two seasons combined, but neither resulted in a SEC championship.
A new era will begin in Baton Rouge with the arrival of the 2014 recruiting class, the best the head coach has ever put together in his career. Miles and the coaching staff have had limited interaction with them due to NCAA rules, but they will get the chance to practice at full roster strength once fall begins.
Here are five big storylines to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks.
There’s plenty to talk about as the Florida Gators prepare for a month of fall camp. Whether it’s the adjustments the offense is going to make or the new faces we’re going to see, juicy storylines have made their way to Gainesville.
Fall camp is always the most interesting part of college football’s offseason because it’s made up of the most crucial practices. With the season just weeks away from taking place, the margin of error is slim. It puts pressure on the coaches and players to get in regular-season mode.
Here are the biggest storylines for the Gators in fall camp.
The Miami Hurricanes open fall camp on August 5 at the newly resurfaced GreenTree Practice Fields, and a few storylines will demand headlines throughout the next month.
Offensive skill positions unquestionably comprise the Hurricanes' biggest strength, but one coach must be careful to neither over- nor under-utilize his scoring weapons.
It's no secret Al Golden wants to show Miami is ready to win the school's first-ever Coastal Division title, and an early-season showdown is an integral factor in determining how the Hurricanes will fare throughout 2014.
How James Coley Plans to Distribute the Ball
Save for a quarterback dilemma, Miami has an exciting offensive unit spearheaded by Duke Johnson and protected by veteran leaders Shane McDermott, Jon Feliciano and Ereck Flowers.
Behind Duke, sophomore Gus Edwards and freshman Joe Yearby give the 'Canes a well-rounded backfield, something the team has not truly had for nearly a decade. Edwards' power and Yearby's one-cut prowess are exciting attributes if used properly by offensive coordinator James Coley.
Coley faces a difficult task of spreading the ball throughout his offense without over-relying on Johnson and sophomore wide receiver Stacy Coley. Every opponent will be preparing for the dangerous combination, so the second-year coach must use other offensive assets effectively without failing to give the running back and receiver enough touches.
The resulting balance is certainly delicate, and James Coley will need multiple games to uncover the proper rotations. Unfortunately, he is not necessarily afforded that time before Miami gets challenged.
Importance of Season Opener at Louisville
"I'm 0-1 against those guys," senior linebacker Denzel Perryman said, per Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald. "I ain't going 0-2."
Call it revenge, redemption or a desired start, the 'Canes need a win against the Louisville Cardinals.
Of course, whether it is Kevin Olsen, Jake Heaps or Brad Kaaya, Miami will send out a first-time starter for the program. Ryan Williams continues to approach an official return date, but availability in time for Louisville is hardly discussed and not anticipated.
"We have to operate like he's not going to be ready for us," Golden told the ACC Digital Network's Jeff Fischel (h/t Palm Beach Post).
More importantly, though, the Hurricanes' result on Labor Day Monday will largely define the direction of Miami's season.
That first game is going to be really important for them," ESPN's Rece Davis told Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post. "They're facing a Louisville team in transition as well, after getting handed it to them in the bowl game last year. Certainly if you win it, but if you play really well on the road, with a new quarterback and the issues Miami has at that position, then maybe that can get positive momentum, a little positive energy going.
Otherwise, a loss to Louisville puts the Hurricanes in an amazingly tough position to achieve their ultimate 2014 goal: winning the Coastal.
Miami Still Seeking Division Title
Nearly every Coastal team has a realistic chance to win the division in 2014, which is a testament to the parity—err, overall mediocrity—between the seven schools.
Miami was tabbed the victor in the conference's media poll, though the Hurricanes only received the third-most first-place votes.
Granted, the intent is not to analyze a preseason poll. The point remains that Miami is not being disrespected, overlooked or any other negative motivational buzzwords. The final actual results—not hype or collective potential—are the only things that ultimately matter.
"We have the potential to be great, but what I'm hoping for is to finally win the Coastal," Johnson said, according to Degnan, before mentioning overall conference title aspirations.
In order to win the division, Miami must win at least six of eight ACC matchups. However, with Monday and Thursday night prime-time road contests at Louisville and Virginia Tech, respectively, reaching that six-win mark will be difficult.
Essentially, Miami can only afford one loss beyond falling to reigning national champion Florida State.
The once-dominant program has spent 10 years in its current conference without earning a single Coastal championship, and fall camp is the first step toward answering if the 'Canes can change that fact.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.
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SEC football programs across the country open fall camp this week—many with substantial questions yet to be answered.
Some of those answers won’t come until the season begins.
The vast majority, though, will be discovered during fall camp. Whether coaches decide to make public what might be obvious during closed practices, naturally, varies from program to program.
Today, we will focus on positions that see few substitutions, thus making the starting competitions more important.
Of course, quarterbacks will get the most attention—typically only one can play at a time and coaches are hesitant to give more than one player significant practice repetitions.
Other positions that will get the most attention include offensive line and safety.
While competitions such as the tailback race at Auburn might be intriguing—largely to figure out who might be a potential breakout star of the year in the SEC—it isn’t a crucial battle.
Remember, Tre Mason hadn’t locked down the starting job by the season opener last year, and he finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
If numerous players stand to receive numerous opportunities, the importance of who “wins” the job fall camp diminishes greatly.
Here is a look at our nine biggest position battles entering fall camp.
With the Big 12 being one of the best conferences in the country, its champion is almost guaranteed a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
The Oklahoma Sooners were picked as the league favorite in the preseason poll with 47 first-place votes, with defending champion Baylor projected to finish second with nine first-place votes. Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State rounded out the top five.
As wild as the Big 12 can be, the preseason poll means almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, certain teams like Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa State are at extremely long odds to make the playoffs.
With that, let's check out every team's odds to make the College Football Playoff.
Picked as the preseason league champion, the Oklahoma Sooners have the best odds in the Big 12 to make the College Football Playoff at 2-1. The Sooners have a ton of talent coming back, including linebacker Eric Striker and defensive back Zack Sanchez.
The biggest question mark for the Sooners surrounds quarterback Trevor Knight. Wildly inconsistent during the regular season, he ended last season on the best note possible by throttling the Alabama secondary in the Sugar Bowl. Which Knight the Sooners get this year will determine how well they perform this season.
The Sooners also have a very advantageous schedule, with home games against Tennessee, Texas, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Their toughest road game is their trip to Lubbock, Texas, to face the Texas Tech Red Raiders on November 15.
With a favorable schedule, as well as arguably the best coach in the conference in Bob Stoops, there's no question that the Sooners are strong candidates to make the playoffs.
The Best Value
This year, it seems that Big 12 pollsters finally figured out to not bet against Bill Snyder and the Kansas State Wildcats, placing them in the third spot in the preseason poll.
After a rough start to last season, the Wildcats ended the season on a 6-1 tear, capped off with a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over Michigan.
Now with the Wildcats loaded on both sides of the ball, they're projected to be one of the top contenders in the conference. And at 11-3 odds, they're also the best value bet in the league.
The best thing going for K-State is the passing tandem of quarterback Jake Waters and wideout Tyler Lockett. Both are among the best in the Big 12 at their positions, with Lockett being possibly the best receiver in the nation.
The Wildcats' first big test comes in Week 3, where they'll host reigning SEC champion Auburn under Thursday night lights at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report made the case for this game being the best of the year in all of college football, writing:
"It’s not circled four times with oversized exclamation points on your schedule—at least not yet—although it should be. And on that note, clear your calendar accordingly. Avoid all obligations and make it to Manhattan, Kansas, on this date if you can."
If the Wildcats can grab an upset win that night, they'll be on the inside track to the playoffs.
K-State's biggest concern is at running back, where they'll have to replace three-year starter John Hubert. DeMarcus Robinson, Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett are all in the running, and they all could end up being utilized by Snyder. Either way, the Wildcats routinely rely on a strong run game, so Snyder will need a quality back to take the load off of Waters.
If you're looking to cash in on a sleeper in the Big 12, look no further than Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys have been routinely one of the Big 12's best teams in recent memory. They won the conference in 2011 and were one win away from claiming the league again last year before losing to Oklahoma in the Bedlam game.
Last season, the Cowboys spoiled Baylor's bid at a perfect season and what would've almost certainly been a ticket to the final BCS National Championship. They also were the Big 12's representative in the Cotton Bowl.
The Cowboys, as always, have plenty of offensive firepower this year, including quarterback J.W. Walsh and wideout Jhajuan Seales. Plus, with Mike Gundy's high-powered air raid offense, you can never count the Cowboys out of a contest.
Florida State faces off against Gundy and Co. in Week 1 of the season, so that'll be as good an early-season test as you can get. Should the Cowboys upend the reigning national champions, they could find themselves on the inside looking out when it comes to making the playoffs.
The Best Long Shot
The magical touch of Kliff Kingsbury could not only turn around Texas Tech this season, but make them dark horses in the Big 12.
The Red Raiders started last season 7-0 before dropping their last five games. But with Davis Webb now the bona fide starter in Lubbock, and all the first-year jitters worked out of Kingsbury, Texas Tech could very well shock fans around the Midwest.
At 64-3 odds, you shouldn't put your smart money on the Red Raiders to make the playoffs. But as always with college football, anything goes.
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With Braxton Miller at quarterback, Ohio State has a chance to make a serious run at major college football's first-ever playoff.
For Urban Meyer to get his team to the big show, however, other players will need to have breakout seasons for the Buckeyes.
That's especially true when you factor in who Ohio State must replace. Players such as Carlos Hyde, Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby—in addition to four senior starters along the offensive line—have Meyer searching for playmakers and leadership heading into the 2014 season.
Whether they're stepping in for a new starter, looking to boost an unproductive unit or eager to explode in an expanded role, these three players are primed for big seasons.
With Hyde rushing his way into the Ohio State history book, there weren't a lot of opportunities for other ball-carriers in 2013.
That was especially true for Ezekiel Elliott, a former 4-star running back out St. Louis, Missouri. The speedy playmaker saw action in half of Ohio State's 14 games, rushing for 262 yards on just 30 carries (8.7 yards per rush) to complement three total touchdowns.
On the brink of his sophomore season, Elliot's role is expanding in a big way.
The search for Hyde's replacement started in the spring, when candidates such as Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn had a chance to shine. Elliott seized control, though, and set himself up to become the Buckeyes' starting running back this fall.
Even though he played sparingly, Elliott's limited playing time a season ago gave him confidence heading into his second season.
"Getting out there and playing helped a lot, just getting those jitters out," Elliott said, according to Brian Bennett of ESPN.com. "Hopefully this year, I'll be ready to go."
It may have come late in the season, but Ohio State fans got a glimpse of the future when Vonn Bell got his first start against Clemson in the Orange Bowl last January.
The 5-star safety was the crown jewel of Ohio State's 2013 recruiting class, but he saw close to no action for most of his freshman season. His lack of playing time was a puzzling development, especially as the team's pass defense sunk to the bottom of the national ranks.
Bell got his chance in the Orange Bowl, and even though Ohio State's defense got torched, he made one of the best plays of the game when he picked off Tajh Boyd to prevent an easy touchdown.
It was really hard for me to not play as much as I wanted to. It's something I can learn from and use to motivate me through the spring. That's every young guy. It's a little bit frustrating but you've always got to be patient and wait for the right time. So I was always ready.
Bell proved that last January, and even though he missed spring practice with a knee injury, he should bounce back and make a huge impact for the Buckeyes this fall.
The hype was there last season—the production just didn't follow.
It seemed like everyone was talking about Dontre Wilson throughout fall camp last season. The electrifying freshman (and one-time Oregon commit) dominated the headlines the same way he flashed in Ohio State's practices.
When the season finally came, though, he found himself playing the role of decoy as most of the action was designed for Hyde in the running game and Corey Brown in the passing game. He still managed to pile up 460 total yards and three touchdowns, but that fell wildly short of the expectations most had at the beginning of the year.
Both Hyde and Brown are gone, so Meyer will need Wilson to step up and make plays for the Buckeyes this season.
The blazer out of DeSoto, Texas, is looking forward to his expanded role.
"I felt like a decoy [last year]," Wilson said, according to Daniel Rogers of The Lantern. "But now, things have changed, so now I’m getting my chance and I’m making the best of it.”
Wilson was named the starting H-back in the spring. In an offense designed to get the ball on the perimeter more often, he could be on the verge of a huge season.
David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.
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It's been a tumultuous week for the Texas Longhorns, who now need breakout seasons from players like Edwin Freeman more than ever.
Following the arrests and indefinite suspensions of receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander, Charlie Strong has dismissed running back Joe Bergeron along with safeties Josh Turner and Chevoski Collins for violating team rules.
The suspensions and dismissals leave Texas with holes at receiver and safety, but provide ample opportunity for other promising talents to prove their worth.
So long as they survive Monday's meetings, these five players are due for a breakout season based on talent and opportunity.
The impending start of fall camp can only mean one thing: position battles.
There are certainly many returning stars in the Big Ten who, barring major injury, will be full-time starters. There are also several hotly contested position battles that we'll outline for you here.
Players like Braxton Miller or Connor Cook are clearly central to their respective teams' chances of success, both in the past and in 2014, but some of the great championship teams often rely on unexpected contributions from underclassmen or previously unknown players who were buried on the previous season's depth charts.
With several roster spots opening up for these potential stars, we'll take a look at the looming position battles we'll see around the Big Ten during fall camps in the run up to the 2014 college football season.