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LSU Football: Power Ranking Tigers' Positional Units for 2014

LSU is annually one of the most complete teams in college football. Les Miles has had, more often than not, supreme talent at every position during his tenure in Baton Rouge. 

But some position groups are stronger than others. 

LSU's most reputable positions in years past have been defensive line, defensive back and running back. But in 2013, the Tigers were a Jeremy Hill dismissal away from being average in all three units. 

Will they make a resurgence in 2014? Find out here in this preview of LSU's strongest positions. 

 

*Recruiting rankings, stats and additional information provided by 247Sports.comcfbstats.com and LSU Sports Information

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Michigan Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

Last season’s disappointing 7-6 record forced Brady Hoke to make big offseason changes to get Michigan back on track. Gone is offensive coordinator Al Borges, replaced with great fanfare by Doug Nussmeier, formerly of Alabama. He also shuffled the responsibilities of his defensive coaches in hopes of solidifying a defense that surrendered late leads to Penn State and Iowa besides giving up over a hundred combined points to Indiana (63) and Ohio State (42).

Here’s a look at Michigan’s strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons heading into the 2014 season.

 

Strengths

Defensive Playmakers

Michigan has legitimate all-conference talent at all three levels of its defense.

Talented linebacker Jake Ryan is fully recovered from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the early part of last season. Ryan is moving to the inside linebacker position to get him involved in more plays. Hoke believes that teams purposely ran plays away from him when he was lined up at outside linebacker last season.

Defensive end Frank Clark was All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) last season with 43 tackles, 12.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles. Opposing teams will need to account for Clark on every play or pay the price.

Defensive back Blake Countess was also All-Big Ten second team (coaches selection) with 46 tackles, 2.0 TFLs and one interception returned for a touchdown last season. Expectations are high for Countess, and he has been awarded the hallowed No. 2 jersey made famous by Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.

Add to the mix top recruit Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan defense is prepared to carry this team while the offense develops.

 

Running Back Depth

Last season, Michigan’s best running play was quarterback Devin Gardner scrambling for his life. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint was technically the top running back, but the running attack didn’t really find balance until Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith joined the fray late in the season.

This year, both Green and Smith are poised to battle for carries at the top of the depth chart, with Justice Hayes positioned to be the third-down back. All three backs have shown the potential to run the ball with power and speed with Hayes being the surprise of the spring scrimmage.

There’s no word yet on whether transfer Ty Isaac will be eligible this season. If he is, the battle at running back could be a four-player race.

 

Leadership

Michigan has strong leaders on both offense and defense who can inspire their teammates to battle back from last season’s collapse.

Quarterback Devin Gardner played most of the second half versus Ohio State with a leg injury that ended his season and put him on crutches for nearly two months. He also was mercilessly pounded behind an offensive line that could be best be described as porous. Gardner may struggle with the new offense, but he is the unquestioned leader of this team.

Linebacker Jake Ryan’s recovery last season from a spring ACL injury was practically miraculous. He’s a great player but his hard work to overcome an injury that would have caused most players to miss the entire season was an inspiration for his teammates. 

 

Weaknesses

The Schedule

The schedule-makers did Michigan no favors this season sending the Wolverines on the road to face all three of its major rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State). Michigan has struggled on the road under Hoke and will face an uphill struggle to change that trend this season.

 

New Offense

Rolling out a new offense is always a challenge, but offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has several hurdles to clear this season.

While quarterback Devin Gardner is the unquestioned leader of the team, he needs to show that he’s fully recovered from a leg injury that caused him to miss the bowl game. Gardner looked a little rusty during Michigan’s spring scrimmage, and he needs to prove that he's the best quarterback for the new offense.

The team also needs to completely restock at the wide receiver position with Devin Funchess being the sole returning healthy player with significant receptions from last year. Tight end Jake Butt’s loss to injury will be felt both as a receiver and a blocker until his expected return by the start of the Big Ten schedule.

And these are just minor problems compared to…

 

Offensive Line

But the biggest weakness of this team is the offensive line. The position group struggled last season and now needs to replace its two best players, tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, who have gone on to the NFL.

The offseason has not been kind, with expected starter Graham Glasgow’s arrest causing him to be suspended for the season opener and the loss of Chris Bryant to career ending injuries.

Brady Hoke needs to find some combination of Erik Magnuson, Glasgow, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis, Mason Cole and Ben Braden that can run block and protect quarterback Devin Gardner as he acclimates to the new offense.

 

Secret Weapons

Running Back Justice Hayes

Hayes isn’t mentioned much, with most of the attention going to fellow backs Green, Smith and the newly transferred Ty Isaac, but his blocking ability could make him a significant factor as Michigan attempts to reestablish the run game. With expected problems on the offensive line, blocking might be the deciding factor that determines reps at running back.

 

Wide Receiver Freddy Canteen

Canteen dominated spring practice and looks poised to seize reps at wide receiver. The true freshman made a strong impression on coaches and fellow players alike. Until tight end Jake Butt returns from injury and with Devin Funchess expected to draw the bulk of defensive attention, Canteen should have the opportunity to gash opposing defenses.

 

Recruit Jabrill Peppers

It’s hard to call one of the most highly touted recruits in the country a secret weapon, but the question may be where he makes the biggest impact. Peppers is expected to play safety and see time on special teams and offense. With a strong defensive secondary already in place and a lack of returning receivers on offense, Peppers may find himself getting reps at slot receiver sooner rather later.

 

All season statistics from mgoblue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department web site.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.

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Auburn Football: Defensive Line Depth Could Be Tigers' X-Factor in 2014

When you break records, you are going to get attention.

Auburn's offensive stars such as Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Greg Robinson received most of the spotlight last season in the 2013 turnaround from SEC cellar dwellers to conference champions.

Many of the season's most notable moments—Marshall to Coates in the Iron Bowl, "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare" against Georgia and C.J. Uzomah's leaping touchdown grab to beat Mississippi State—were offensive plays that will go down in Auburn history.

While Auburn's offensive coaches and players deserve a lot of credit, the Tigers defense often gets overlooked for its role in the jump from 3-9 to 12-2 after just one season.

The Tigers not only saw significant boosts in wins and offensive production in 2013, they also showed remarkable improvement in several defensive areas:

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 system was installed to combat the increasingly popular spread offenses that had ravaged Auburn defenses in previous seasons. The defense inserts an extra defensive back while keeping a four-man front for pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.

And for Auburn, that traditional four-man line was instrumental in its defensive renaissance.

"For us defensively, it all starts up front," defensive end Nosa Eguae said prior to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. "Our main concern is stopping the run. When it's time to get after the quarterback, we get after the quarterback and affect him as well."

The Tigers constantly rotated defensive linemen onto the field and all across the line last season. An end in Johnson's defense is taught to play on both sides of the line, and tackles are not divided into traditional and three-technique positions.

"Our philosophy, we want to play left and right," Johnson said shortly after he was hired at Auburn. "We slide the front to get in our different looks as opposed to flip-flopping."

This heavy movement on the front four led to 11 different defensive linemen appearing in at least 12 games for the Tigers last season.

Four of those—first-round NFL draft pick Dee Ford, Eguae, Craig Sanders and Kenneth Carter—are no longer on the Plains.

But the Tigers have senior returning starters LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright in addition to sophomore standouts Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

Auburn also welcomes back senior defensive tackles Angelo Blackson, Ben Bradley and longtime veteran Jeff Whitaker, who missed all of 2013 with an injury.

While injuries were not a problem for Auburn's defensive line last season, they definitely affected spring practices. 

Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner tried to combat the rash of injuries across the defense by installing what Wright nicknamed "the Rhino package," a front four made up of defensive tackles.

"As a defensive unit, we are so athletic," Lawson said. "Everyone on d-end and d-tackle can go back and forth between two positions."

Lawson is currently sidelined from summer workouts after undergoing a knee surgery earlier this month. Auburn coaches have not released any details about the injury and recovery time for Lawson, who missed the annual A-Day Game this spring with a knee bruise.

"Carl's the kind of young man that he's going to work his tail off to get back as quick as he can, [but] it's an opportunity for somebody else to step up," Garner told the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. "That's the way you have to approach it. We've got to get guys ready to play."

Enter the class of 2014.

Auburn signed four defensive linemen in 2013—Bradley plus the high school trio of Adams, Daniel and Lawson. Despite only losing four after the 2013 season, Auburn signed six defensive linemen this February.

With the enrollment of in-state defensive end Justin Thornton on Wednesday, all six are currently on the Plains.

A new NCAA rule that allows eight hours of coach supervision is giving Garner an early look at his new talent for 2014, and he told AL.com's Joel Erickson he is impressed with what he has seen so far:

I think all the guys, they're all sitting there watching, and I think they can tell, athletically, they're good. Now, what are they going to do once we put on the pads, once you start the install and putting all of that stuff together, you know, it's going to be played out differently. But from an athletic standpoint, they all have good athleticism. That's a great start.

In a recovering positional unit that constantly rotated between veteran talent and highly rated newcomers last season, the opportunity to impress the coaching staff in the summer will be important for these six fresh faces.

Auburn's two transfers from Georgia Military College, DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, will both look to become the next Nick Fairley or Ben Bradley.

Lambert's versatility at both end and tackle has made an impression on Garner, but the defensive line coach likes several off-the-field qualities of the nation's No. 1 JUCO defensive lineman. 

"He has demeanor and character that reminds me of Jeff Whitaker," Garner told Auburn Undercover's Phillip Marshall. "I'm excited about his leadership and what he's going to bring to the room."

Lawrence, on the other hand, brings a much-needed boost of agility and speed to the Tigers' interior line.

"He has a lot of ability," Garner told Marshall. "I think he can definitely help us in the rotation, especially with the athleticism he brings to the position. I think we got more athletic inside than what we were. I'm excited about his development."

Garner also said he feels good about the four true freshmen, who "all have good skill sets."

Like Adams, Daniel and Lawson—who combined for 49 tackles with 12 of them for loss last season—they will get their opportunities for early playing time.

The trio of the 6'5" Justin Thornton, the 6'4" Andrew Williams and the 6'6" Raashed Kennion bring a valuable injection of size to the Tigers' defensive end unit. They will be joined by 300-pound defensive tackle Dontavius Russell, who flipped from Georgia to Auburn last December.

These bigger newcomers will be looking to make similar-sized impressions this fall for head coach Gus Malzahn and the rest of the coaching staff.

"Each year, you look at the seniors you're losing, and you try to project depth and your needs," Malzahn said. "This is the first year where our guys really got a whole year to go after the body type and the type of athleticism that goes with each position. That's what's exciting for our coaches."

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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Florida State Football: Winston Still Has a Way to Go to Be Top 2-Sport Star

This is the era of specialization. The offseason is almost nonexistent, so there is little time to play multiple sports. 

There are seven-on-seven football camps. AAU basketball tournaments. And travel baseball teams.

Most high school athletes now focus on a single sport year-round. That translates to fewer college athletes who participate in two sports.

Florida State has had a few two-sport standouts through the years, notably players like Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward and, now, Jameis Winston. Sanders also ran track, making him one of the rare three-sport stars in school history. And Sanders went on to be the first to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series.

Sanders' accomplishments in three sports leads our list of the top two-sport athletes in FSU history. The fact that he excelled in that many sports edged out Ward, who won a national title and the Heisman Trophy in 1993 and was a star point guard for the Seminoles.

Winston, with just one football season and two baseball seasons under his belt, is third on the list. His father, Antonor, told AL.com's Jeff Sentell last week that Jameis will graduate from FSU. (But he could also opt to enter the NFL draft early, a decision that he could make in January.) If he stays, that would mean two football seasons (2014, 2015) and a baseball season (2015) to add to his two-sport resume.

Here's a look at our top five two-sport athletes in FSU history:

 

1. Deion Sanders

In football: Sanders was a two-time consensus All-American (1987, '88). He had 14 career interceptions, including five in 1988. Sanders led the nation with a punt return average of 15.2 as a senior, and he also won the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top defensive back) that season.

He had 53 career interceptions in 14 NFL seasons, won a pair of Super Bowls in the 1990s (with San Francisco and Dallas) and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

In baseball: Sanders hit .281 in 76 career games from 1986-87. But while he started 56 games, he had 62 runs scored. Sanders hit .263 in nine major league seasons from 1989-2001 (he played in just the NFL in a few of those years) and led the National League in triples with 14 in 1992.

In track and field: Sanders was one of the fastest athletes on campus. He ran the 100 meters in 10.26 seconds in 1988. But perhaps his biggest track moment came at South Carolina between games of a baseball doubleheader in May 1987.

The Metro Conference held its baseball tournament and track championships in Columbia. According to FSU assistant director of athletics Rob Wilson, Sanders sprinted from the baseball field in his uniform to the track (which was nearby), changed into his track uniform and ran a leg of the 4x100 relay. FSU won the relay event, which helped the Seminoles take the track title. And Sanders played in both games of the doubleheader for FSU, which also won the conference baseball title.

 

2. Charlie Ward

In football: Ward threw for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior in 1993, winning the Heisman Trophy and helping FSU take the national title with a win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. What likely sealed up the Heisman was a 446-yard, four-touchdown day in FSU's win at Florida. He was a unanimous All-American that year and also won the Davey O'Brien, Johnny Unitas and Maxwell Awards.

In basketball: Ward played 91 career games, but his playing time was limited to January, February and March for his junior and senior seasons after he had won the starting quarterback job. Still, Ward averaged 8.1 points and had 396 assists for his career. FSU also made the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 in 1992 and the Elite Eight in '93. In 10 NBA seasons from 1994-2005, he scored 3,947 points and had 2,539 assists.

 

3. Jameis Winston

In football: Winston completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards and a school-record 40 touchdowns. A consensus All-American, he won the Heisman Trophy, Davey O'Brien and Walter Camp and helped FSU win the 2013 national title.

In baseball: Winston earned the role of closer in 2014 and had a team-low 1.08 ERA with seven saves. He had 31 strikeouts in 33.3 innings, and batters hit just .154 off of him. Winston was 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 2013.

 

4. Rohn Stark

In football: Stark was a first-team All-American in 1980 and '81. He averaged 45.2 yards per punt as a junior in 1980 and then 46 yards per punt the following season. He played in the NFL from 1982-97 and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

In track: Stark was an All-American in 1981, becoming the first male two-sport All-American in school history. He held FSU's decathlon record (7,612 points) for 21 years.

 

5. Brenda Cliette

In women's basketball: She averaged 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds as a freshman before focusing on track. She returned to basketball in 1986-87, averaging a double-double (14.9 points, 10.0 rebounds).

In track: Cliette was a four-time All-American in the sprints and helped FSU win an NCAA outdoor national title. She was an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Cliette went on to win gold medals at the World University Games and Pan Am Games.

 

We can't stop with just five. So here are six more two-sport stars that we considered:

Sammie Smith—He ran for 2,539 yards and 19 touchdowns from 1985-88. He also won Metro Conference 100- and 200-meter titles and also ran on the Metro Championship 400 relay team. Smith played four NFL seasons.

Warrick Dunn—FSU's all-time leading rusher (3,959 yards), Dunn also holds the school record for most yards in a season (1,242 in 1995) and is second with 37 career rushing touchdowns from 1993-96. He was an All-American in track in 1996 as part of FSU's 4x100 relay team.

Phillip Riley—He was a national champion in the 55 meters, a four-time All-American and was the Atlantic Coast Conference MVP in 1994 in track. Riley had 38 career catches for 433 yards and five touchdowns from 1993-95.

Lee Corso—Known more as a college football analyst for ESPN, Corso was quite the versatile athlete in the 1950s. Corso had 1,267 rushing yards and 409 receiving yards from 1953-56. He also hit .297 with 49 runs and 53 RBI in 54 games for the baseball team, posting an on-base percentage of .418.

Bobby Butler—He had 101 tackles and 11 interceptions from 1977-80. Butler was also an All-American in 1980 as part of FSU's 4x100 relay team.

Ken Lanier—The offensive lineman was an All-American as a senior in 1980. He was also a standout in the shot put, and his mark of 60 feet, 4 inches is the fifth best throw in school history.

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, all quotes obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted. All statistics and bio information are courtesy of FSU media guides, nolefan.org, pro-football-reference.com, baseballreference.com and basketball-reference.com. Follow Bob on Twitter.

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The Case for and Against Alabama Making College Football Playoff

For nearly three months last year, everything was right in Alabama head coach Nick Saban's world. His team had successfully battled against complacency—the toughest opponent for any coach in the midst of a dynasty—and had reeled off 11 straight wins heading into the Iron Bowl at Auburn, which served as the de facto SEC West title game for the first time in its history.

Then Chris Davis happened. Then the Sugar Bowl happened. Then a—gasp—two-game losing streak happened.

The Crimson Tide were down, but not out. The offseason allows teams to hit the reset button, and when the preseason polls come out this August, Saban's crew will likely land in the top five and be set up to make a run to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

But it won't be without detractors. 

The perceived weak schedule and the higher standard to which Alabama is held may come into play for the selection committee. 

Here's the case both for and against Alabama making the College Football Playoff.

 

The Case For

Alabama has earned the benefit of the doubt. If it finds itself on the bubble with another team, that likely means it has at least one loss. Even if the other options have conference titles under their belts and Alabama doesn't, the Crimson Tide should get the nod.

Selection committee chairman Jeff Long said in April that it isn't all about the resume, it's about overall worth.

Jeff Long says it's not most DESERVING teams, but the focus is the BEST four teams that shall get into the bracket

— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) April 30, 2014

Even with losses, Alabama's proven track record on the game's biggest stage should make it hard to keep the Tide out, even if it doesn't have a conference title on its resume.

But just how good will Alabama be this year?

Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake could be the No. 1 running back on the majority of rosters around the country, and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has more options at wide receiver than Johnny Manziel has clubs to choose from in Las Vegas.

Assuming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the starter, all he has to be is a care-taker for the offense to click. If he's a difference-maker, that's a bonus.

Defensively, there are some questions in the secondary. But that front seven is frightening.

Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest should be able to hold down the fort in the middle of the linebacking corps, and the defensive line should be more athletic with ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen taking on bigger roles. Instead of the defensive line occupying blocks and letting linebackers clean up, Allen and Robinson are more capable of getting off blocks and tracking down mobile quarterbacks or running backs off the edge.

If we are talking about the "best" team in college football, it's hard to make the case that the most talent resides somewhere other than Tuscaloosa. Saban has reeled in the nation's top recruiting class in each of the last four recruiting cycles, distancing himself from the field.

Do stellar recruiting classes make a team great?

That depends on your opinion, and certainly keeping those stars on campus helps. But whether you think it's more the "X's and O's" than the "Jimmy's and the Joe's," talent pool plays a part.

According to Bill Connelly's S&P+ projections over at Football Study Hall, which ranks teams based on two-year recruiting data, returning starting data and attrition, Alabama's starting in the SEC catbird seat and No. 2 overall behind defending national champion Florida State.

Does this mean Alabama is a shoo-in for the playoff? Of course not.

It indicates that Alabama has a head start, though.

 

The Case Against

Let's get this out of the way right now: If Alabama wins the SEC Championship Game with an undefeated record or one loss, it's going to get in. 

But what if it has more than one loss or it doesn't have the SEC Championship Game trophy in its trophy case?

Tuscaloosa, we have a problem.

If Alabama is on the bubble without a title or with multiple losses, that schedule could come in to play. I wrote back in May that your perception of Alabama's schedule should be fluid, and to adjust accordingly during the season. If all goes according to plan around the country, though, its 2014 schedule could be used against it in the court of public opinion if it gets into a playoff debate.

Now it's not Alabama's fault if West Virginia continues to struggle, and it only played a minimal role in Tennessee going in the tank for the last several years. But unless one or more of Alabama's opponents pull off an Auburn-like turnaround, the Crimson Tide don't exactly have the most daunting path to Atlanta.

If Alabama gets into a conversation with, say, a one-loss Big Ten champ or a one-loss Big 12 champ, that schedule will be a big factor with the selection committee. If it's coupled with the absence of a conference title in Tuscaloosa, that might knock the Tide out of the playoff.

Is that fair?

Of course not. Winning a conference title doesn't make a team elite, and the goal of the playoff should be to reward elite teams. After all, Wisconsin was 8-5 in 2012 and won the Big Ten (two teams within its division were ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game). 

But the presence of a selection committee adds more subjectivity to the equation, and arbitrary conference titles will matter whether it's appropriate or not.

On the field, there are some issues for the Tide to work out as well. Saban's defense-first, conservative approach has worked in the past. But the defense has struggled with mobile quarterbacks at times, and the secondary was far from settled last year.

Has that really changed?

Up front, they should be fine. As mentioned above, the presence of super-athletic defensive ends in that 3-4 scheme should help against mobile quarterbacks, who could be taking snaps in up to seven of Alabama's eight conference games. 

In the secondary, though, there are some issues. 

Eddie Jackson, a likely starter, tore his ACL in spring. While Saban didn't rule out his return this season when the injury happened, it's safe to assume that it will take him some time to get back to full speed.

Could Alabama start true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey at corner? It's a reasonable possibility.

If it doesn't get consistent play from its corners, Alabama won't contend for the playoff. Even though there are quarterback issues around the SEC, the conference is now loaded with offensive minds both as head coaches and coordinators who know how to get production from their quarterbacks through the air. 

When all is said and done, Alabama is probably going to have to win the SEC to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. Since this is the first year, participation from around the country from various conferences will play a role even though it won't be specifically stated. Because of that, the margin for error for every team is razor-thin.

Yes, even for Alabama.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com and all scheduling information is courtesy of FBSchedules.com.

 


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3 Things Standing Between Oklahoma and a Trip to College Football Playoff

The Sugar high for Oklahoma hasn't worn off yet. 

Nearly six months after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the vibe around the Sooners is still College Football Playoff or bust. With quarterback Trevor Knight returning, along with most of the defense, Oklahoma has its sights on returning to the national championship conversation. 

What needs to happen to make sure Oklahoma's hopes don't come crashing down? Here are three keys to the 2014 season. 

 

Trevor Knight's Health

The offseason is a time when bold, piping hot predictions are not only acceptable, but encouraged. If for no other reason, here's why: No one, not even with all the research and film study available, knows how things are going to play out during the season. Might as well take a shot, then. 

Here's the bold prediction for Knight: He'll be the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. 

The obvious reply to that #hotsportstake is he had just one good game last season: the Sugar Bowl. But anyone who followed the Sooners more closely should agree that Knight began to turn the corner as a passer several weeks before against Iowa State and Kansas State. 

But Knight was unable to show what looked like a major progression because of injury problems (He missed most of the regular season-ending game against Oklahoma State.). Therein lies Knight's biggest obstacle for 2014: staying healthy. 

All of the questions about Knight's consistency are moot if he can't stay on the field for two or three consecutive weeks. The Sooners have a pair of freshmen behind Knight, Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen, but neither have collegiate game experience.

More importantly, neither bring what Knight brings to the game. Thomas, a dual-sport player for Oklahoma, is athletic, but if he was truly better than Knight, well, he'd be starting. 

With Knight, Thomas and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, head coach Bob Stoops has shown a willingness to add more dual-threat quarterbacks. In college, few things are more dangerous than a legit dual threat. Stoops saw what Knight could be when he named the then-redshirt freshman the starter last season. 

Knight may not live up to expectations this season. Oklahoma may not, for that matter. But the probability of that happening increases dramatically if Knight can't stay healthy. 

 

The Interior of the Defense Fails to Improve

So much is made of Knight and his role in Oklahoma's CFP-or-bust mentality. But another reason why the Sooners should be the preseason Big 12 favorites, and why Phil Steele has them as a preseason top-five team, is the defense. 

The defensive line and linebackers return intact. That's a group that includes names like Charles Tapper, Jordan Phillips, Geneo Grissom, Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander.

According to ESPN's Brandon Chatmon, the Sooners "should easily go six or seven deep along the defensive line" and the linebackers are why the defense should be one of the "most athletic and versatile in the conference." 

That defensive front six will determine the tone for Oklahoma's postseason run, especially with questions about Knight, youth on offense and the secondary. 

But that group also struggled against the run at times last season, especially up the middle, even though statistically it finished second in the Big 12 behind TCU (per cfbstats.com).

Signs of this weakness began surfacing during a late September win against Notre Dame when Irish running back George Atkinson III scooted for an 80-yard touchdown. In losses to Baylor and Texas, the Sooners gave up exactly 255 yards on the ground per game, allowing 4.5 yards per rush on average. 

Oklahoma gave up another 144 yards on 21 carries to Oklahoma State running back Desmond Roland in the Bedlam game. Even in the win over Alabama, the Sooners allowed 100 yards on just eight carries to Tide running back Derrick Henry. 

Offenses that had had solid running games, oftentimes with bruising running backs, had success against Oklahoma. Of course, the back injury that cost Phillips most of last season didn't help. At 324 pounds, Phillips is a mammoth who can occupy double-teams to create openings for linebackers in run support. 

With Phillips ready to go, run defense should improve. As odd as it sounds, the Big 12 wasn't a quarterback conference last year. Outside of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Texas Tech's Davis Webb and perhaps Kansas State's Jake Waters, not much may change this season. 

So Oklahoma better be ready to stop the run. 

 

Developing the Wide Receivers

For being only a second-year starter, Knight is going to be the leader of the offense, an offense that should be more run-heavy. 

Junior Sterling Shepard moves into the No. 1 spot after a breakout 2013. Who fills in the spots alongside Shepard remains a battle to watch in preseason camp. Durron Neal and Derrick Woods are young, talented guys who have to step up in a way similar to how Shepard did last season. 

Developing the wide receivers beyond Shepard gives Oklahoma's offense balance. The Sooners don't have to be the Air Raid team they once were, but they do need to have a passing threat. For as talented as Knight is, he can't face eight or nine-man boxes week after week. 

Wide receivers coach Jay Norvell has done an excellent job with his group since arriving in 2008. This year will be one of his biggest challenges yet with the Sooners. 

Winning a Big 12 title isn't impossible with a one-sided offense, but it doesn't make things any easier. Even the threat of the passing game would be enough to let Knight and Oklahoma's running backs run wild. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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Power Ranking Ohio State's Positional Units for 2014

Ohio State has made a habit of stockpiling the most talent in the Big Ten, and that hasn't changed with Urban Meyer at the helm.

The Buckeyes have signed the conference's top recruiting class in each of the last three years, giving Meyer a roster that's loaded at every level.

Which positional unit has the most talent? 

It's not just about the experience level or the ability of the starters. Depth, past production and potential are all factors in determining where the Buckeyes are the strongest.

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5-Star Damien Harris: Where Will 2015 No. 1 RB Thrive at Next Level

Damien Harris is the top running back in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. His versatility allows him to become a threat in any offensive scheme at the next level.

Still uncommitted, Harris has narrowed down his choices to a few SEC and Big Ten schools. Where do you think he will fit best? 

College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down this 5-star's potential.


Highlights courtesy of XOS Digital.

Rankings from 247Sports' composite rankings.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

South Carolina Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier is quiet, perhaps a little too quiet. But that could mean great things for this year's South Carolina squad. 

With a promising young roster that now has a respectable amount of experience after another 11-win season, the 2014 season has huge potential for the Gamecocks. They can assert their dominance at most positional units and can unleash a flurry of talented offensive and defensive weapons.

Here is a look at the strengths, weaknesses and secret weapons for the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2014. 

 

Strengths

Strength No. 1 is, without a doubt, the man in charge, head coach Steve Spurrier. Spurrier is one of the most elite coaches in college football, and he is ready to lead his team to newfound success in 2014. 

Year after year, Spurrier delivers double-digit wins, but he has yet to haul in an SEC championship. That could change in 2014 given South Carolina's depth and Spurrier's ability to achieve goals as a head coach. 

The second strength is Mike Davis and the ground game. Davis is one of the nation's best running backs. 

With his quick bursts and his excellent vision to hit gaps, Davis is the perfect back for Spurrier's offense. Davis' ability to find holes, consistently chew up yardage against defenses and break free for the big plays makes him an offensive force and also opens up the passing game for Dylan Thompson and Co. 

Davis could be in for a monster season of productivity if he receives enough carries. And don't forget the impact he can have on the passing game. 

And how can I give all the credit to Davis when he has a top-tier offensive line leading the way up front?

The Gamecocks offensive line is big, agile and talented at blocking in both running and passing situations. A.J. Cann and Brandon Shell lead the way, though Mike Matulis, Cody Waldrop and potential All-SEC player Corey Robinson are no slouches at their positions. 

This will be an intimidating and scary offensive line for any defense to match up against. Thompson and Co. should have a sufficient amount of time to work with and execute big plays. 

 

Weaknesses

Even though the Gamecocks are a strong team across the board, there are some positional unit concerns.

The cornerback position is the red flag right now. With the reliance on a trio of freshmen to step in and play right away, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward is going to need all of his other units to elevate their levels of play and help the secondary in whatever ways they can. 

The talent level is entirely there, but the transition from high school to college, especially at cornerback, can be a giant leap for even the most talented players. 

Another weakness is the pass rush, though that is because it is a relatively unknown and unproven area of the team. The Gamecocks need to recover from the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton, who were all key factors in the South Carolina pass rush. 

With the changing of the guard to Darius English, Cedrick Cooper, Mason Harris and Gerald Dixon on the edges, the Gamecocks need players with fewer repetitions to step up. The speed rush will be a strength, though power-rushing with a bulldog-like approach at offensive lineman will be a struggle considering the lack of power and size for a handful of the rushers off the edge. 

 

Secret Weapons

The secret is probably out at this point, but wide receiver/running back Pharoh Cooper is the ultimate offensive weapon for South Carolina. 

He can make plays out of the backfield and line up in the slot or beat the defense over the top with his elite speed and on-field smarts. With crisp route-running skills, Cooper will be a menace in 2014. 

Cooper can even take over in the Wildcat formation, where he ran the football 20 times for 202 yards and a touchdown. And when he doesn't run or hand the ball off in the Wildcat, he can display some trickery with the occasional pass, as he went 2-for-3 for 29 yards and a score. 

Cooper's versatility to be an impact player at multiple positions makes him a potent option in the Gamecocks offense and special teams.

Another secret weapon to highlight is a fast-rising player who is now ready to be a starter. Safety Chaz Elder has gone from a redshirt freshman who probably aligned as a solid depth player in the secondary to the starting free safety with the potential to earn a multitude of accolades.

Elder is long and quick, and he has spectacular range that will make him difficult to deal with. He is a superb athlete who gets involved in plays by having a nose for the football and wrapping up tackles.

With the lack of experience at cornerback, South Carolina will needs its safeties to pick up the slack, which could open up the door for Elder to have a huge season. He's a little under the radar for the time being, but Elder's quick progress and potential make him a secret weapon for the defense and an impact player.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Former College Football Greats Who Might Struggle Today

College football in 2014 looks like a mutated ancestor of the football of yesteryear. The speed of the game is faster even though the players (at all positions) have gotten bigger and stronger. Offenses regularly pass 50 times per game.

For obvious reasons, this means that many of college football's former stars would not have been stars had they played in 2014. This is not meant as an insult to their respected (and revered) careers but merely as an acknowledgement of fact. They were still in the 99th percentile of their time, which is something to be celebrated.

But where would yesterday's 99th percentile have fallen today?

To illustrate this point, we have selected six former college football stars who would have struggled to find success in modern times.

More often than not, this had to do with size. Yesterday's linemen, for example, looked more like today's linebackers and strong safeties.

Even the best would have been at too big of a disadvantage to hold up.

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Tennessee Football: Strengths, Weaknesses and Secret Weapons

Appreciating the rebuilding process is difficult when it's not yielding wins. Tennessee coach Butch Jones knows that, but he also understands growing pains are inevitable in 2014.

"It's going to be a great challenge, only having 12 seniors," Jones said at a Big Orange Caravan stop in May, according to 247Sports' Chris Vannini. "It's like raising your kids. We're going to be exceptionally young, but it’s also invigorating. It's exciting. Our patience will be challenged, but they're very talented."

For Tennessee to have success, Jones is going to have to work a little magic. The Vols must first find the things they do well, utilize them, then mask the shortfalls.

Along the way, young players are going to have to make veteran plays.

It's an unenviable—but unavoidable—situation for a program forced to play up to 25 newcomers.

The feeling-out process for the coaching staff has to happen quickly. Utah State looms Aug. 31, and on-the-job training has consequences.

Can the young Vols find themselves quickly and get into a bowl game for the first time since 2010, or could they even surprise some folks and contend for a wide-open SEC East? All that depends on how quickly the team matures.

 

Strengths

There are few teams in the nation that have stockpiled as much pass-catching talent as Tennessee.

Though most of them are unproven, the top targets for whoever wins UT's quarterback battle are going to be difficult to defend.

Marquez North and Josh Malone were two of the most highly recruited prospects in their recruiting cycles. They've got the size, speed and skills to be among the league's best receivers.

Talented slot receivers Alton "Pig" Howard and Von Pearson, as well as jumbo receiver Jason Croom, also have the potential to break out.

Howard did not participate in spring drills at UT, but after meeting with his teammates and coaching staff, he is working toward rejoining the team, receivers coach Zach Azzanni told The Sports Animal.

[Howard] has a list of expectations he needs to meet in order to jog out through that Power T here in the fall. Whether it's academically, socially, football-wise…just some things between me, him and Coach Jones that he needs to prove to us, his teammates, himself that he can do on a daily basis consistently. So far, so good.

Don't overlook a talented freshman tight end duo of Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, either. There are question marks about their experience, but there is no doubting ability.

The Vols' linebackers also should be stout with the return of Curt Maggitt, who will put his hand down and play a rush end in nickel situations.

The redshirt junior sat out last year rehabbing a knee injury and will team with senior A.J. Johnson to form a formidable duo. ESPN's Chris Low rated Maggitt as the league's third-best linebacker with Johnson right behind him at fifth.

Between Maggitt and Johnson, the Vols return 410 total tackles, but the pair has got to improve on their impotent disruption plays. They've accounted for just 3.5 career sacks, 31.5 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and no interceptions.

If the addition of speedy youngsters like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates and Neiko Creamer upgrades the talent, the second level really could be a bright spot.

As B/R's Barrett Sallee notes, if Jones can keep his quarterbacks healthy, his offenses have consistently thrived. Of the seven years he has coached, five have featured offenses that produced at least 417 yards per game.

Even though there are plenty of youth and questions, the Vols can take comfort in knowing they've got an innovative offensive coach with history in his corner.

 

Weaknesses

The biggest roadblock facing Tennessee's climb from the dark ages can be found in the trenches.

Over the past few years, the Vols have been awful when it comes to generating a pass rush. According to ESPN, UT hasn't cracked the league's top five in sacks since 2007. The past three years, Tennessee has finished last, last and next-to-last.

Suddenly, replacing all four starters doesn't seem like a bad thing.

Several of Tennessee's nine freshmen could play on the defensive front. The talent is there, but it was a major team weakness this spring, and considering the experience is a crucial component to play on the defensive line, it's difficult to be optimistic.

UT also must replace all five offensive line starters, and while the old guard underachieved throughout their careers, it's ridiculous to underestimate their loss.

Tennessee's new crew up front hasn't played meaningful snaps together. It's going to be a growing process, and the SEC is tough on baby steps.

Shoring up the holes in the secondary is going to be vital for a team that watched 10-yard plays turn into long touchdowns throughout 2013 because of a lack of athleticism on the back end.

LaDarrell McNeil is a former 4-star prospect who was a major weak link a season ago. He lacked good enough speed to ever be a weapon in coverage, and his poor angles led to multiple big plays.

Justin Coleman is a rising senior cornerback who never proved to be good enough to play outside. He'll be bumped to nickelback for his final season, and it's his last shot to make his mark.

UT signed tons of defensive backfield talent, so if McNeil and Coleman don't improve significantly, they won't be in the starting lineup.

 

Secret Weapons

One glimpse of Von Pearson's highlight video makes it a complete head-scratcher that Utah and Illinois were his best offers before Tennessee came calling.

At 6'3", 181 pounds, Pearson has the perfect blend of size and athleticism to be a star. 

When Howard was going through his hiatus, the Vols placed Pearson in the slot. All he did was turn heads and become a major spring story.

What's even more impressive is that he isn't too far removed from working fast-food counters and wondering if he'd ever get an opportunity. UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Nooga.com's Daniel Lewis:

Von brings a unique perspective and has been a good resource for the other 14 newcomers that are here this winter for the first time. His perspective is, he's seen the other side. He's seen what it's like to work at McDonald's, to do the same thing day in and day out, at an 8-5 job or a 9-5 job.

With his skill set, Pearson is going to make some serious plays immediately.

One of the biggest keys to Tennessee's defensive progression is finding a space-eating defensive tackle who can wreak havoc from the interior.

Rising junior Trevarris Saulsberry has that ability. He just has to stay healthy.

At 6'4", 297 pounds, the Gainesville, Florida, native has the size and strength to anchor a line. He missed eight games last year with a knee injury after standing out as UT's best defender against Oregon. He also was out this spring.

For a player who has just 10 total tackles in nine games to be relied upon so heavily is a scary proposition for UT, but Saulsberry has shown glimpses of his immense ability. If he can stay on the field, he'll be a force.

Maggitt and Johnson are going to get the preseason headlines at linebacker, but UT's most talented defender may be a youngster who has never taken a college snap.

Vol legacy Dillon Bates—son of UT legend Bill Bates—chose to spend his college days in Knoxville rather than go to Alabama or Florida.

At 6'3", 216 pounds, he has the versatility a team needs when it is going to play as much nickel as the Vols are this year. Bates has elite coverage skills and can still pack a punch in the box. Though it wouldn't hurt him to get a little bigger, Bates is going to have his opportunity early.

It wouldn't be surprising to see him secure the other starting linebacker spot as a true freshman, and his abilities can go a long way in helping UT shore up its defense.

 

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

@Brad_Shepard

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

Twenty-three freshmen from Notre Dame football's 10th-ranked class of 2014 are set to don the blue and gold in the coming months.

We've already gone step-by-step through the entire class of incoming freshmen, so we'll focus this week on projecting which of those players are most likely to start for the Irish in 2014.

In 2013, six different true freshmen—linebacker Jaylon Smith (13 starts), offensive lineman Steve Elmer (four), wide receivers Will Fuller (three) and Corey Robinson (three), running back Tarean Folston (two) and safety Max Redfield (one)—logged a combined 26 starts for the Irish.

On national signing day, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was asked about the prospects of this year's crop of freshmen earning playing time.

"Physically, these guys are coming in so much more prepared," Kelly said. "It's developing them mentally to find out whether they're going to play. It's not physical."

Kelly added it's tough to determine who will be mentally ready without seeing how training camp takes its toll on the rookies, but we'll take a crack at outlining the possibilities.

In determining our choices, we'll consider the freshman's overall skill level, Kelly's scouting report on the player and the competition at the position.

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New College Football Coordinators with Toughest Tasks in 2014

Each winter, college football’s coaching carousel spins with furious abandon, seemingly faster with each passing year.

The dominoes fall from the highest level to college football’s lowest rung, affecting everyone from power-five programs to the sacrificial lambs who march into power-five stadiums for a huge paycheck on autumn Saturdays.

A recent ESPN.com article estimated that 103 college football coaches were affected by Mack Brown’s resignation at Texas alone, from Louisville coach Charlie Strong on down.

We focus on the head coaches who shuffle, but the coordinators who change zip codes are equally important. Last winter, over 50 FBS coordinators changed jobs, whether they were following their boss to a new job, chasing a bigger paycheck or simply taking a job, period.

And some jobs are easier than others. Here are five coordinators who face potentially difficult transitions this fall.

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Power Ranking Virginia Tech's Positional Units for 2014

The Virginia Tech Hokies have the potential to be contenders for the ACC title in 2014 if a few position groups can just come together faster than expected, but the divide between the top positional units and the ones that need work couldn’t be clearer.

Even though Tech is losing two exceptional cornerbacks in Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller, the secondary remains one of the top groups in the country and should carry the defense.

But that group will have to make up for a linebacking corps that’s breaking in a pair of new starters and features one player who hasn't set foot on a football field in a year.

On offense, the skill positions are loaded with a combination of depth and experience, something that couldn’t be said a season ago. However, the team’s quarterback situation will likely remain unsettled right up until the season opener against William & Mary. 

Essentially, the Hokies are a team of extremes: The roster is loaded with both great talent and great uncertainty.

Read on to find out how the different positional units stack up, starting with the ones that need improvement and ending with the team’s biggest strengths.

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Power Ranking the Florida Gators Positional Units for 2014

This is going to be an interesting season for the Florida Gators. Not only is it Will Muschamp’s fourth season, but it’s also going to tell us a lot about where the program is heading after arguably its worst season in program history.

As we inch closer to fall camp and the regular season, now would be a good time to rank how each particular unit stacks up. We’ve heard all about how lousy Florida’s offense is, but what about the rest of the team? There is a chance that a certain position on offense could top a position on defense. Maybe that would prove that the sky isn’t falling after all.

There’s no question that Florida will go as far as its defense carries it. But let’s break this team down position-by-position and see where the Gators are the strongest.

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Power Ranking Miami's Positional Units for 2014

The Miami Hurricanes showcase individual talent in Duke Johnson, Stacy Coley and Denzel Perryman, but it takes a complete roster to win games.

So then, how do the Hurricanes' positional units compare in respect to one another? From skill positions to the team's bulk to specialists, Bleacher Report is taking a shot at power ranking everything Miami will put on the field in 2014.

Each position is broken down into top players and question marks, the latter of which includes current unknowns and past inconsistencies on the roster.

Remember, this is a subjective ranking, so please feel free to post your order in the comments section.

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SEC Football: Top 10 Coordinators for 2014 Season

SEC football has raised the bar with coordinator salaries for good reason—many of the best assistant coaches make their livings in Southeastern college towns.

Such fierce competition breeds top-notch head coaching prospects.

Before they became head coaches, Gus Malzahn, Will Muschamp and Dan Mullen created names as elite coordinators in the SEC.

The new wave features Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who seems capable of landing nearly any gig he fancies.

Today we explore the current top-10 coordinators as we near the open of fall camps.

To do so, we consider recent success of each of the assistant coaches against that of their peers.

Of course, trying to evaluate numerous coaches who come from different backgrounds doesn’t always prove easy.

The toughest call on the list to make was Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Yes, Kiffin served in the same role for some very good USC teams under Pete Carroll, but he also split duties with new Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian. Carroll entrusted Sarkisian with play-calling duties.

Kiffin’s head coaching experience would seemingly give him a leg up in the power rankings.

Then again, one needs only watch the goal-line failures USC endured against Notre Dame in 2012 to see Kiffin freeze up on the sideline as a play-caller in a critical moment.

Alabama fans don’t have to think back very far to recall similar circumstances inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Former Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula showed similar indecision—and borderline incompetence—during the closing stages of the 2006 Auburn game.

The Tigers came away with a 22-15 victory and the contest served as the last of the Shula era.

Needless to say, Alabama fans would scoff at the notion of Shula making this list.

Enough about who didn’t make the list.

Here are the preseason top 10 coordinators in the SEC.

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13 College Football Players Who Could Set Stat Records This Season

The 2014 college football season is shaping up to be one for the record books.

School, conference and even FBS benchmarks are likely to be established this fall in a slew of statistical categories. Most of these will be of the career variety, as this season's senior class includes several players who have been key contributors since their freshman year.

Based on how these players have fared in previous seasons, their projected 2014 numbers put them in line to get their names etched atop certain single-season and all-time lists. Some records on this list have stood for quite a while, and others are ones that seem to get re-set every few years thanks to college football's continued uptick in offensive production.

Here's our look at 13 players who you should be able to call record-setters by the end of the season.

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Scouting Report, Highlights and Predictions for 4-Star LB Roquan Smith

Roquan Smith is a dynamic 4-star linebacker who knows how to attack from the second level. In a national class full of defensive standouts, Smith is among the top defenders in the country.

The Georgia native has a number of schools after him, as he has a chance to be a cornerstone player in college. Although he has a great skill set now, Smith will only get better in college.

He warrants a more in-depth look as a prospect.

All recruiting ratings and rankings are from 247Sports' Composite Rankings.Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports.

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Georgia Football: Incoming Freshmen Most Likely to Start This Season

There is always a level of excitement around this time of year for college football fans. Preseason practice for all teams is right around the corner, and this means the 2014 signees will have a chance to show what they got and why the coaches wanted them on their teams.

The Georgia Bulldogs have a talented set of incoming freshmen on campus as we speak and have been working hard to get ready for preseason practice, which will begin in August. Some of the incoming freshmen will not see any playing time this season and will just practice with the team and get ready for the 2015 season. But there are a few that will not only see playing time in 2014, but will have a chance to be part of the starting lineup.

And here are the incoming freshmen that will have a chance to start this season.

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