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Big Ten Media Days 2014: Biggest Quotes and Reaction from Day 1

CHICAGO — Change was in the air.

Day 1 of Big Ten media days served as the unofficial welcome for two new programs, one enthusiastic football coach and some renewed mentalities from the personalities that are already established in the conference. 

For some, such as Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, the conversation centered on personnel and the necessary tweaks for a breakthrough season. For others—including Penn State coach James Franklin and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini—the Chicago Hilton served as the ideal setting to reiterate familiar stances still lingering in the news cycle.

And for Rutgers and Maryland, it was all about getting the lay of the land.

Oh, and we learned that Purdue JUCO transfer Corey Clements checks in at cool 6’8” and 400 pounds, according to head coach Darrell Hazell. Somehow, someway, Purdue has to find a way to get its new guard in the end zone.

As for some the notable moments from Chicago, here’s what stood out on Day 1.

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Ray-Ray McCloud III to Clemson: Tigers Land 4-Star RB Prospect

Ray-Ray McCloud III has known where he'd be attending college for a while now. On Monday, the Clemson Tigers found out with the rest of the world.

Bright House Sports had the news: 

As expected, McCloud announced his decision to attend Clemson at a live televised special on BHSN. The 30-minute program had been in the works for some time, as the 4-star running back—like many of his contemporaries—used his moment to soak up a little limelight.

McCloud chose Clemson over Florida, UCLA and Maryland. While there was some debate in recruiting circles where he would wind up—247Sports' Crystal Ball rating had Clemson as the 44 percent favorites, with Florida right behind—McCloud has maintained his decision had already been made long before Monday.

"I've been here a lot, so just hanging out with the coaches," McCloud told Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports. "I know where I'm going, I'm not changing my mind. I won't do anything to affect the school I'm committed to. I'll talk to my coach about [official visits], but if he's not down with that, I won't do it."

As McCloud notes, he is still allowed to take official visits. His verbal commitment to the Tigers will not become official until February's national signing day. Until then, he is free to be swayed one way or another—though he's maintained his commitment is firm.

A star out of Sickles High School in Tampa, McCloud burst onto the scene as a junior. He rushed for 2,316 yards and 26 touchdowns while leading his team to the Florida 7A state semifinals. Though he's somewhat slight at 5'9" and 175 pounds, McCloud is still listed as the No. 93 recruit in the nation and sixth-best athlete by 247Sports' composite rankings.

Although he's listed as an athlete, most services project he will continue playing running back at the next level. He's an explosive ball-carrier, able to recognize holes and burst through them for long gains. Over his sophomore and junior seasons, he has averaged nearly eight yards per carry—the result of an endless supply of said big gains.

Dabo Swinney might want to see him receive more reps as a pass-catcher, as that skill has rarely been seen in his prep career. McCloud has a total of 27 catches for his career, though his 12-catch freshman season gave some hope that he could be a versatile threat. Sickles' reliance on McCloud has also prevented him from doing much as a return man; he has just 112 return yards, all in his sophomore season.

It will be interesting to see how he develops as an all-around player. Someone of his size profile and speed should be more active catching screen passes and working as an all-purpose threat. Had he not carried the ball 300 times last season, perhaps those touches could have been more evenly distributed.

That said, the Tigers are getting a unique prospect. As the running back position becomes more niche-oriented, guys like McCloud are going to get more chances. In the workhorse days of yore, scouts would have questioned whether someone his size could withstand a collegiate workload. In today's system, he won't have to withstand a weekly 30-carry load—mainly because so few backs in the country do so at all.

McCloud can be special in the right system. We're more than a year off until he'll arrive at Clemson, so he'll have plenty of time to work on his all-around game. We'll just have to see whether McCloud chose the right program to emphasize his unique skill set. 

 

Stats via MaxPreps.

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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5-Star WR Recruit George Campbell Names Top 10 Schools

Wide receiver George Campbell, a 5-star recruit and the No. 36 overall player in the 2015 class, "narrowed" his list of potential college choices down to 10 Monday afternoon.

The 6'3", 184-pound pass-catcher from Tarpon Springs, Florida, announced his top 10 teams in a tweet (and later clarified that they were not in any particular order):

"I just like all of those schools," Campbell said, per Derek Tyson of ESPN.com (subscription required). "They all have great things to offer and I just want to be able to touch the field my freshmen year and hopefully I’ll be able to get in the mix at one of those schools."

Conspicuously absent from the list is Michigan, where Campbell committed last July but decommitted in December. In fact, the only Big Ten school he is considering is Maryland, a newcomer to the league. But according to Steve Lorenz of 247Sports, Campbell's omission of Michigan came as no surprise at all:

The SEC leads with six teams in Campbell's top 10, the ACC has two, and the Pac-12 also has one. The Big 12 is the only power conference school that is not being considered by the nation's No. 4 receiver.

Many consider Florida the favorite to land Campbell, and doing so would come at a perfect time for head coach Will Muschamp, whose job security is…shall we say, tenuous. Offense has eluded Muschamp these past few seasons in Gainesville, and scoring a receiver like Campbell is something he could sell to the fanbase.

Especially after losing his second-highest-ranked 2015 recruit when cornerback Marcus Lewis announced his decommitment earlier Monday afternoon, Muschamp would do well to bring in Campbell.

But with Clemson and LSU (and seven other teams) also in pursuit, doing so will be difficult. Where do you think Campbell will sign?

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports Composite rankings

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Florida State Football: Biggest Storylines Heading into Fall Camp

There will be no competition for the starter at quarterback and tailback. Jameis Winston and Karlos Williams have secured those jobs. And Rashad Greene is the Florida State football team's unquestioned No. 1 receiver.

But there will be plenty of competition for jobs at positions like Nos. 2 and 3 receivers, backup tailback, starting defensive tackle and starting linebacker.

Here's a look at five storylines to watch as FSU prepares for the start of preseason camp on Aug. 4.

 

Nos. 2 and 3 receivers

Contenders

Scooter Haggins, Christian Green, Isaiah Jones, Levonte Whitfield, Jesus Wilson, Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, Javon Harrison.

 

Worth noting

Green (42), Haggins (20), Whitfield (5), Wilson (3) and Jones (2) have 72 career receptions, four fewer than Greene had (76 receptions, 1,128 yards and 9 touchdowns) as a junior in 2013.

 

Analysis

Ideally, a senior with plenty of game experience—Haggins or Green—would win one of the starting jobs. Haggins has been successful but has struggled with injuries, and Green hasn't been able to duplicate the 26-catch season he had as a freshman in 2011. Jones is 6'4'' and 200 pounds, giving FSU a big body that could go over the middle to make catches. And Whitfield's speed and ability to make players miss would be ideal for a slot receiver.

 

What could happen

Experience should win out. Haggins and Whitfield are ideal slot receivers, so one should win that job. Green and Rudolph will compete for a starting job out in the three-receiver sets.

 

No. 2 tailback

Contenders

Mario Pender, Ryan Green, Dalvin Cook.

 

Worth noting

FSU loses 1,746 of its 2,844 rushing yards (61.4 percent) from 2013.

 

Analysis

Coach Jimbo Fisher had a 1,000-yard rusher in Devonta Freeman last season, and he likes to use a deep rotation of rushers. While the loss of Freeman and James Wilder Jr. is significant, FSU is very deep at running back. Odds are two of the three players will see significant carries.

Green had just 33 carries a year ago but showcased his speed and ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Pender doesn't have a college carry but has gained experience on the scout team and has the ability to break off long gains, writes 247Sports' Chris Nee. Cook, the state's Mr. Football in 2013, enrolled early to get a jump on academics and learn Fisher's playbook.

 

What could happen

FSU has an abundance of wealth at running back. Cook and Pender could share carries as the Nos. 2 and 3 rushers with Green running the ball when FSU is well ahead in the fourth quarter.

 

Starting defensive tackle

Contenders

Nile Lawrence-Stample, Keith Bryant, Desmond Hollin, Derrick Mitchell, Giorgio Newberry, Justin Shanks, Demarcus Christmas, Frederick Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Adam Torres, Arthur Williams.

 

Worth noting

The returning defensive tackles made just 60 tackles in 2013, three fewer than Timmy Jernigan (who entered the NFL a year early and was a second-round pick). 

 

Analysis

FSU has six veterans and five newcomers who are battling for playing time. Eddie Goldman will start at one tackle spot, and coaches are trying to figure out who is best suited to start opposite Goldman and who should back him up.

Lawrence-Stample started six games but made just 15 tackles. Hollin has experience at both end and tackle, and he could be a solid run-stopper. Mitchell is 6'4'', 300 pounds and is tough to move around. Newberry played defensive end and tight end before returning to defense in 2014.

 

What could happen

FSU uses a deep rotation of defensive tackles. Lawrence-Stample and Hollin have the experience to win the most playing time. But coaches are also curious to see which player from the large group of true freshmen—Christmas, Jones, Nnadi, Torres and Williams—could contribute quickly. The freshmen will get more playing time, and possibly start, as the season progresses.

 

Starting linebackers

Contenders

Ukeme Eligwe, Reggie Northrup, Ro'Derrick Hoskins, E.J. Levenberry, Matthew Thomas, Kain Daub, Jacob Pugh, Delvin Purifoy.

 

Worth noting

Terrance Smith didn't start at the beginning of the year but had 59 tackles and is the team's leading returning tackler.

 

Analysis

Without starting a game, Northrup finished with 46 tackles and excelled at the weak-side spot (where he could back up Smith). Eligwe has seen the most experience on the strong side, making 18 tackles (10 also came on special teams). Levenberry (39 tackles) is versatile enough to play any of the linebacker positions, and Thomas could be the hybrid defensive end/linebacker that Christian Jones played in 2013.

 

What could happen

Since FSU is in the nickel defense more often than not, the key is placing the linebacker in the game situation where/when he can succeed. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly will find the right spot for each of the players.

 

Starting safety

Contenders

Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter.

 

Worth noting

Andrews led the team in interceptions (four) and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (three).

 

Analysis

Despite being a true freshman, Andrews played like a seasoned veteran in 2013. He made one start but had a significant impact when he was in the game, and he had two INTs and forced a fumble in the win at Wake Forest. Hunter was supposed to be the starting safety but suffered a season-ending neck injury just three games into the year. He was able to take a medical redshirt and has two seasons left to play.

 

What could happen

Both will see playing time. One will win the starting job at safety, and the other should see playing time in the nickel defense.

Bob Ferrante is the Florida State Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bob on Twitter. All stats courtesy of seminoles.com and FSU's 2014 media guide. Recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

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Notre Dame Football: 4 Players Primed for Breakout Seasons in 2014

Hype runs rampant throughout the spring and summer, with optimism driving expectations around programs like Notre Dame football.

The glimpses, reports and projections will soon give way to actual performance.

So with fall camp rapidly approaching, which Fighting Irish players are primed for those breakout seasons? Who can live up to some of the hype we’ve heard over the past few months?

For our purposes, we won’t consider players who’ve already achieved a high level of success. While Jaylon Smith seems likely to make the leap from stud freshman to stud sophomore, that doesn’t fit our criteria of a breakout season.

In most cases, we’ll restrict the exercise to players who have yet to make major contributions to the Irish squad.

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Why Braxton Miller Is to Ohio State Football What LeBron James Is to the Cavs

Asked how important it is to Ohio State for Braxton Miller to stay healthy, Buckeyes tight end Jeff Heuerman answered the question with a question of his own.

"How important is it for Cleveland to keep LeBron (James) healthy?" Heuerman said with a laugh.

Only Miller's health is far from a laughing matter in Columbus, as evidenced by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer's remarks at Monday's Big Ten media day. Pointing out that the Buckeyes will replacing four experienced starters on the offensive line from a season ago, the third-year OSU head coach explained that getting his new hog mollies ready for 2014 has been this past offseason's top priority.

"Concern number one—I mean, that's it," Meyer said. "There's a bunch of concerns you always have. It's A through F, A through Z, A through X, whatever it is. But the number one on the list is development of that offensive line for the reasons you just said, among many other. You want to win that game, but protecting our quarterback is paramount. So that's—I don't want to say that's all our focus—but that's where a lot of our focus is right now."

And for good reason.

The inexperienced offensive line will be responsible for keeping the Buckeyes' Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback in the starting lineup. And with backup Kenny Guiton and running back Carlos Hyde no longer around to fall back on, Miller's value to the team is even higher than it was last year.

Even if the OSU offensive front five can come together and prove to be a cohesive unit, what's scarier for Meyer is his acknowledgement that the Buckeyes offensive line is only a part of a potential preemptive strike. Having coached numerous notable names throughout his career, Meyer is aware that some of the same traits that make Miller great are also the ones that kept him on the sideline with an MCL injury for the better part of three nonconference games in the 2013 season.

"Braxton Miller, his issues are he goes sometimes above and beyond what his body is going to allow him to do," Meyer said. "(Tim) Tebow, John Simon, Braxton Miller, Christian Bryant—those are guys that have the competitive spirit at the highest possible level, and that's all they do is know how to go."

So how does Meyer plan on balancing the risk vs. reward of Miller's all-out style?

He doesn't. With an adequate offensive line, emerging weapons on the perimeter and a better understanding of the offense from his star quarterback, Meyer believes that Miller's senior season should see him act as a distributor more than the player who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.

"I'll not one time say, 'Don't go hard,'" Meyer said of Miller. "You have to be smart sometimes in certain situations to get down. But when we coached John Simon it wasn't, 'Hey, slow down a little bit.' Football's a tough, violent sport. Some people go really, really hard at it. Braxton's one of those players."

To further put the importance of Miller's health in perspective, there isn't another signal-caller on the Buckeyes roster who has taken a significant snap at Ohio State.  

In fact, No. 2 quarterback Cardale Jones is better known for an infamous tweet than anything he's done on the football field. The inexperience behind Miller alone is reason enough to believe that any serious injury suffered by the reigning two-time Big Ten MVP could derail a potential Buckeyes run to the first-ever College Football Playoff.

While Meyer claims that Miller is in the "best shape of his life," Miller himself insists that he'll do what's necessary to stay on the field for the duration of his senior season. Having just fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery that sidelined him for five months, that may be easier said that done, but the Huber Heights, Ohio, native remains optimistic about his health nonetheless.

"I love competition, so (Meyer's) correct on that. But you just gotta be smart about your play and make sure you don't do anything that brings you to being out for a couple of games," Miller said. "Just be smart, be about your game and take care of your business."

If Miller really is to the Buckeyes what James is to the Cavs, Ohio State will be in big trouble if its quarterback misses any extended playing time. Relayed Heuerman's hypothesis, a knowing grin flashed across Meyer's face, although he ultimately attempted to decline comment.

"I don't want to make a headline," Meyer said.

Unfortunately for Meyer, his tight end already did.

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.  

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Keisean Lucier-South Releases Top 5: Which Program Is Best Fit for 5-Star DE?

Keisean Lucier-South, a 5-star defensive end from Orange County, California, announced the list of five programs he will choose from Monday afternoon, and a certain local powerhouse was conspicuously absent.

The 6'5", 225-pound pass-rusher listed Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon and UCLA among his final five, leaving out traditional California power USC along with supposed contender Notre Dame:

Although Lucier-South listed his top five teams in no order, UCLA is considered a modest-to-strong favorite to land him. It's clear that being local is not his primary concern—otherwise, USC would have likely cracked the top five over Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma—but the Bruins have stuck out to him for other reasons.

Here is a closer look at his 247Sports "Crystal Ball" predictions:

UCLA is a pretty clear favorite to land Lucier-South, but is it actually the best fit for his style? Might another school suit him better?

Probably not, to be honest.

Lucier-South is not thick or strong enough to play with his hand down in a 3-4 defense, which might initially make Michigan, a base 4-3 unit, seem like the stronger fit. But he has the rare speed off the edge that should allow him to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

The Bruins have a pretty good selling point on that front, as they just developed Anthony Barr into an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Barr started his college career as a running back but was molded by head coach Jim Mora and new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich into one of the best defenders in the country.

That comparison has not been lost on Lucier-South, who has a similar body type to Barr. He says the Bruins' staff has approached him about it.

"[A UCLA assistant coach] said Anthony Barr was having trouble his first year, but his second year he did great," the rising senior told Edward Lewis of Rivals.com (subscription required). "He said right now, I'm better than Anthony when he started."

Of course, a team like Oklahoma could champion its similar defense and the budding star it has in Eric Striker, but Lucier-South is five inches taller (and much lankier) than Striker, so the comparison is a little imperfect. Plus, the Pac-12 better fits his style of play.

Writes Bleacher Report's Edwin Weathersby:

Outside of Stanford, most of the Pac-12 schools have offenses that lean more toward passing the football. That means pass-rushers can go crazy in the conference, as they don't have to worry as much about stopping the run as they would in another league.

Lucier-South isn't the strongest defensive end one will see on tape, but he can get after the passer. The fact that UCLA plays in the traditional pass-happy Pac-12 offers him a chance to consistently do what he does best.

This logic eliminates Florida as Lucier-South's best option; even though he would be interesting as a Dante Fowler-type Buck linebacker, the physical, run-first nature of the SEC would not suit his style well. He would need to spend at least a year (and maybe even two) bulking up before he could see the field consistently.

It does point well to Oregon, though, as the second-best contender behind UCLA. Michigan also plays in a run-first conference, and the best defensive ends it's developed the past few years have been shorter, stockier types such as Brandon Graham and Frank Clark.

Oregon has the benefit of the Pac-12 style and the development of longer, leaner defensive ends such as Dion Jordan. It can't pitch the local angle that UCLA can, but it's not exactly far from home, either.

KLS would do fine at either West Coast location.

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

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Nebraska's Bo Pelini Ready for the Challenges in Make-or-Break Season

When it comes to the 2014 season, Bo Pelini is ready for the challenges it presents. As the coach's seventh season at the helm of Nebraska football, it truly is make-or-break.

During Pelini's time at the Big Ten Media Days podium, the coach didn't shy away from his expectations for the season. He also didn't sugar-coat the challenges his team will face to meet those expectations, either.

"We're looking for a championship," Pelini told the media, via the Omaha World-Herald. "I think we have the pieces. We have a lot of potential on our football team, but there's going to be a lot of hard work that needs to be done for that to make that become a reality."

What exactly does that mean for the team? As Pelini noted, a lot of changes are in store:

We've tried to turn over every stone in the offseason, look at everything we can do to make ourselves a better football team. I guess you could say a little bit -- what do they say? -- loco as far as not getting too far outside of the box but trying to turn over every stone and trying to look at everything we can do as a football team to make ourselves the type of program we want to have.

And I think we've done that. We're going to make -- institute some changes, some things, different things about how we practice, when we practice. It's a long season. Do everything we can to make sure that we give our players the best opportunity to have success on the field.

As for the exact changes, Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald noted a few Pelini mentioned. Those include keeping the Sunday practice with Monday off, as well as potentially flipping Thursday and Friday practices. Pelini is also considering shortening the amount of time players are on the practice field, too.

Additionally, in a very surprising move, Pelini announced that he will open fall camp to the media.

The willingness to make changes and be more open shows a different side of Pelini. It shows a coach that is aware of the challenges ahead of him. And the challenges are nothing to ignore.

For instance, according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer poll, 29 sportswriters selected Nebraska to finish third in the Big Ten's West division. Of those that voted, only one picked the Huskers to win the conference title.

While it likely isn't something Pelini thinks about too much, he has to be feeling the pressure to win. His first six seasons with Nebraska all brought four losses. He has won three bowl games, but has also lost three. The highest the Huskers have peaked in a poll under his leadership was No. 14 in both the Coaches and AP in 2009.

Fans, and Pelini, want more. To accomplish this, the head coach talked about improving the Huskers' efficiency. “By the time we walk onto the practice field to the time we step off, we want to be as efficient as we possibly can. We want to get our players on and off the field," Pelini said, as noted by the Omaha World-Herald's Sam McKewon.

That efficiency should carry over from the offense to turnovers and everything else Nebraska does. That will also include correcting the turnover issue. Pelini made sure to say that, as Hail Varsity noted:

Turning the ball over, that’s No. 1. (We’re) doing everything we possibly can to simplify in every area. The terminology, as far as what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, make sure that our players can play a hundred miles an hour.

Pelini's hopeful that the focus on efficiency will give his team the tools needed to be successful on and off the field. If all goes according to plan, it should get Nebraska back to the Big Ten Championship.

The 2014 season is make-or-break for Pelini and his staff. After a rocky 2013 season, the coach used the offseason (and a cat) to improve his public persona.

Now it's time for the coach to do the same on the field. With the amount of changes Pelini has made in the offseason, he's ready for the challenge.

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Biggest Storylines Heading into Notre Dame's Fall Camp

With training camp a week away, the Notre Dame football season is finally upon us.

After a star-crossed 2013 season went awry in the spring with the surprise suspension of quarterback Everett Golson, Notre Dame fell short of their lofty goals as injuries struck All-American candidates Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix and chipped away at the offensive line. 

But the 9-4 season is in the rearview mirror. And so is a lot of talent—Tuitt, Nix and captains Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson are in NFL training camps, among the eight Irish players drafted. 

Yet the cupboard is hardly bare in South Bend. Brian Kelly has plenty of talent, but the Irish are young and inexperienced. 

That makes fall camp crucial, as an August 30 date with Rice is right around the corner. With Golson and a lot of young offensive talent back, expectations are once again sky-high.

Let's run through the biggest storylines heading into Notre Dame's fall camp. 

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5 Freshmen to Watch for This Year's Heisman Trophy Race

The first Heisman Trophy was awarded to Jay Berwanger as college football’s most outstanding player for his performance in the 1935 season. The first time either a redshirt or true freshman earned these honors was 2012, when Texas A&M’s Johnny “Football” Manziel took the country by storm with his performance as the Aggies’ quarterback. It did not take true freshman Jameis Winston all that long to double this number to two with a stellar season as quarterback for Florida State in its run to the 2013 National Championship.

Now that two freshmen have broken down this barrier with back-to-back Heisman Trophies, it’s time to sort through this year’s ranks of top high school recruits that might have a chance to make it three in a row. Doc’s Sports has listed a complete set of Heisman Trophy odds for the 2014 season to get bettors ready for all the action and excitement of another season of games.

 

Joe Mixon: Running Back, Oklahoma

Oklahoma is in excellent position to grab quite a bit of attention this season as a 2-3 favorite to win the Big 12, and its odds to win this year’s national title have been set at 9-1.

Mixon comes into the Sooners’ program as one of the most highly-touted running backs in recent memory, but his run at a Heisman may never even get off the ground after reports surfaced late last week that he faces a possible arrest for allegedly punching a woman in the face. If this is the case, it would be a tremendous waste of talent from a player that was in perfect position to make a huge impact on an Oklahoma title run as a freshman.

 

Travis Rudolph: Wide Receiver, Florida State

Winston will be back throwing the ball for the Seminoles this season, and he has been opened as a 4-1 odds-on favorite to become just the second two-time winner of the Heisman after Archie Griffin first achieved that feat in 1974 and 1975.

Rudolph comes on board as one of his newest weapons in the receiving corps. Given the departure of both Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw from last year’s offense, he should have a good shot at making an impact right away, starting with the season opener against Oklahoma State. Florida State was ranked 15th in the nation in passing yards last season and second in scoring.

 

Kyle Allen: Quarterback, Texas A&M

Allen may not be the second coming of Johnny Manziel, but head coach Kevin Sumlin may have found himself another big-time quarterback in this 6'3", 200-pound freshman. He comes in as the top recruit at the quarterback position in the 2014 class, and given his size and arm strength, he should get a legitimate shot at earning the starting nod sometime this season. This becomes especially true if quarterback Kenny Hill remains indefinitely suspended from the team.

 

Max Browne: Quarterback, USC

Browne comes into this season as a redshirt freshman after being named the top-rated recruit at the quarterback position for the class of 2013. At 6'5" and 215 pounds, he definitely has the prototypical size to make an immediate impact at the quarterback position. However, he is still competing with incumbent Cody Kessler for the starting nod. New head coach Steve Sarkisian has been tasked with turning this program around, which means that whichever player gives USC the best chance to win will get the call.

 

Leonard Fournette: Running Back, LSU

There is a major buzz surrounding Fournette in Baton Rouge as Les Miles opens summer camp for his Tigers. He has already caught the eye of the oddsmakers, who have listed the 6'1", 225-pound running back at 66-1 odds to win this year’s Heisman.

LSU was ranked 29th in the nation last season in rushing yards per game (202.3) behind both Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, but those two backs are trying to extend their careers in the NFL. This means that Fournette should get the opportunity to fill the void from Day 1.

The Tigers open the 2014 season with a high-profile matchup against Wisconsin in the Texas Kickoff Classic, so the freshman phenom that has already been compared to Adrian Peterson will have the perfect platform to catch the Heisman voters’ attention right out of the gate.

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What Marcus Lewis' Decommittment from Florida Means for Gators, 4-Star CB

Washington, D.C., cornerback Marcus Lewis, a 4-star prospect and one of the top 125 overall players in the 2015 class, decommitted from Florida Monday afternoon.

Lewis committed to the Gators only a few months ago—April 15, to be precise—and announced his decision with a tweet that said he was "grateful for the opportunity" UF had granted him:

For Lewis, the move means a reopening of his recruitment to a wide-ranging group of schools. Big Ten powers Michigan (72 percent) and Ohio State (7 percent) make up the entire non-Florida portion of his 247Sports "Crystal Ball," but other big programs such as Miami and Oregon are also hot on his trail.

Michigan is definitely the front-runner, though, and in truth, that might have been the case even before this announcement. Lewis named the Wolverines his favorite during a visit to Ann Arbor this weekend, per Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports (subscription required), which helped explain the spike in his Crystal Ball numbers.

But that doesn't mean he's going to stop looking. What Lewis realized more than anything during his time at the BBQ at the Big House was that he needs to take more visits before making an informed decision.

"I just chose to open up my recruitment because I want to take official visits," Lewis told Ryan Bartow of 247Sports (subscription required) Monday afternoon. "I want to make sure I make the right decision and do what's best for me and my family."

In addition to Michigan, Lewis listed Oregon and Miami as his other two favorites and alluded to UCLA and nearby Maryland as other schools he plans on considering now that he is uncommitted.

For Florida, losing Lewis is a pretty big blow.

He was the second-highest ranked prospect in its 2015 class, and although it is still in the running for a number of top-125 prospects, he fit a positional need with blue-chip talent.

The Gators' new second-highest ranked prospect, Derrick Dillon, is listed as an athlete at 247Sports and is capable of playing cornerback, but he projects more naturally as a wide receiver, where he played (and looked pretty good) at The Opening in early July.

Per 247Sports, the next three pure cornerbacks that Florida is targeting are 4-star prospect Micah Abernathy and 3-star prospects Jalen Julius and Carlton Davis. No member of that trio ranks as highly as Lewis, and the Gators do not have even one percent of the predictions on any of their respective Crystal Balls.

Fortunately, the cycle is young, and increased focus on those players might alter their recruitment. Plus, lower-priority targets such as Justin Martin (a solid JUCO player) and/or Jeremy McDuffie could come into play. Better Lewis leave now than five months from now.

More importantly, cornerback is a position of strength in Gainesville. It is lacking a bit in the current recruiting cycle, but the Gators' active roster is well-stocked.

Vernon Hargreaves III is only a sophomore and already looks like a potential All-American, and Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson both looked ready to contribute after enrolling this spring.

"[Tabor] and Duke Dawson both have been a quick study as far as the corner position is concerned," said head coach Will Muschamp of his pair of true freshmen, per Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com. "Both of them are going to be really good players."

Florida's 2015 class was hurt by Lewis' departure, but Hargreaves, Tabor and Dawson provide a unique buffer. No team ever wants to lose a player so good, but if any one could afford to, the Gators might have been it. All three of those players are underclassmen.

Plus, again, the recruiting cycle is young.

 

Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.

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Steve Spurrier Should Be Remembered as Greatest Player's Coach in NCAA History

"I think the days of a coach talking a kid into staying are not smart."

Those were the words of South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, earlier this month, when asked how he approaches players who are considering jumping to the NFL early.

In fact, Spurrier is even preemptively issuing tickets for his current players to play on Sundays.

According to Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com, the Head Ball Coach is already preparing for life after Mike Davis, as the star junior running back for the Gamecocks prepares to help the program build on three straight 11-win seasons.

"Mike Davis, if he has a big year, he's going to go pro," Spurrier said last week. "And we're going to tell him to go pro, because he should. The lifespan of a running back is only a certain amount of years. If a young man after three years can go, we're going to shake his hand and let him go."

Not exactly the most shocking news. After all, Davis did rush for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, helping the Gamecocks post their third straight 11-win season.

It is, however, a nice compliment to a player that his coach is already assuming that he's going to jump for the NFL even before he takes the field for his junior campaign. It builds a brand for the individual and the program, which is huge for both parties.

The goal for coaches is to win, and the easiest way to do that is with good players. Good players often get the chance to jump to the NFL early, which is something Spurrier urges if and when it's appropriate.

He even did so last year with star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who had the skills to jump to the NFL pretty much whenever he wanted, but he had to wait until he was three years removed from high school.

"He did not even have to play last year at the University of South Carolina," Spurrier said at SEC Media Days earlier this month. "A lot of people advised him to sit out the season. Why risk injury if $22 million-plus is waiting for you? He wanted to play, come back and help his team. He played three years, and we won 33 games. Best three years in the history of the school. We appreciate what he did there."

He even publicly apologized to Clowney in the middle of last season, after a miscommunication of his status for the Kentucky game—a game Clowney sat out with a rib injury. Not many coaches would do that.

Success builds off success, and that's something Spurrier embraces.

It doesn't stop there, though.

Spurrier even blames himself when only four Gamecocks were named to the three-deep preseason All-SEC team.

Spurrier wasn't happy Skai Moore was left off media preseason All-SEC teams: "We've gotta do a better job of promoting these guys."

— Ryan Wood (@rwood_SC) July 24, 2014

While he oftentimes downplays the importance of "talkin' season" from a team perspective, he knows how important it is for his players. The ones we talk about for the nine months of the offseason are the ones who get the most publicity early, which makes it much easier for them to make names for themselves if they shine.

He's the ultimate player's coach, so much so that he famously gave former quarterback Stephen Garcia five chances before ultimately letting him go.

A stretch? Maybe in Garcia's case, but Spurrier always seem willing to dole out tough love before showing players the door.

Sure, there are always issues. He played musical quarterbacks at Florida, but that was more due to the talent at the position and the need to go with the hot hand than anything else. It created competition and pushed each of them to play better, and many of those quarterbacks parlayed that into NFL careers.

Spurrier gets it, as do many other coaches in the SEC including Alabama's Nick Saban.

"My philosophy is, look, I'm not disappointed in any players," Saban said. "When they make the decision to go do what they're going to do, we're 100 percent supportive of them and we want to see them do well. That benefits them, it benefits us. It's what we're all about, all right?"

It is. 

But Spurrier goes to bat more for his stars more than others. When everybody on the planet was fawning over former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, former Texas A&M signal-caller Johnny Manziel and the rest of the last year's talented cast at quarterback, Spurrier hyped Connor Shaw.

“He is the most underrated,” Spurrier said according to Josh Kendall of The State. “Every time they mention these guys, they don’t even talk about him, and I don’t know why. He runs; he throws; he makes first downs for us with his legs at times.”

He fights the PR battle more often and better than most, which is something that benefits the player and program. At South Carolina, he knows it's a little more of a task than it was at Florida, when he was busy basking in the glow of six SEC titles, one national championship and the eyeballs of the nation firmly entrenched on Gainesville.

Spurrier is second-to-none in terms of making a splash in the media for his players when it's appropriate. He's the ultimate "player's coach."

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.


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How Moss, Harvin and Boldin Influence 5-Star WR George Campbell

George Campbell is a 5-star WR, according to 247Sports composite, out of the state of Florida. This freak 2015 recruit has the size and speed to create some serious mismatches wherever he goes. Campbell took some time to talk with Bleacher Report about the recruiting process and life after football.

Where do you think this monster will land?

Watch the video and let us know.

Rankings from 247Sports composite.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Why Amari Cooper Will Be the Heart of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2014

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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Florida Quarterback Will Grier Catches Football While Doing Standing Backflip

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.

[Will Grier, h/t Gator Country]

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

2014 College Football QB Battles That Won't Be Decided in Fall Camp

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.

Begin Slideshow

Michigan Football: 5 Wolverines Primed for Breakout Seasons

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. 

Begin Slideshow

Biggest Storylines Heading into Oregon Fall Camp

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.

Begin Slideshow

Biggest Storylines Heading into Oregon Fall Camp

With Pac -12 media days in the books, Oregon's highly anticipated 2014 season is just a few short weeks away from kickoff...

Begin Slideshow

Preseason College Football Rankings 2014: Early Predictions for NCAA's Top 25

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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