Ranking the 8 Softest Teams and Players in College Football

Michael Carroll@mjcarroll531Featured ColumnistJune 6, 2013

Ranking the 8 Softest Teams and Players in College Football

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    American football is not a sport for “soft” personalities. It’s a physically demanding and highly competitive game that lifts the strong and suppresses the weak.

    Some college football teams and players have enough talent to be good, even great, but the softest can never be the best.

    The following list ranks the four softest teams and players in the FBS.

    “Soft” is a broad term, and each team and player listed has a soft reputation, in my opinion, for varying reasons. Therefore, I will not spend time going over my criteria here; rather, the text in the slides should give you a good idea as to why I consider these teams and players soft.

    I will say that I have alternated slides (player one slide, team next slide, player next slide and so on). There are four players and four teams listed.

    With that, here we go.

Player 4: Keith Price (Washington)

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    Keith Price went from a Heisman candidate in the 2012 preseason to a mid-level Pac-12 quarterback in the 2013 preseason. Lack of adjustment littered the time in between.

    Bryan Fischer of The Pac-12 Post started a piece from April 25th about Price like this:

    “It was an almost regular occurrence for Washington fans to wonder what, exactly, was going on between the ears of their starting quarterback last season. There were the interceptions. The fumbles. Worst of all there were the losses.”

    Price also found himself on the ground a lot, as the Huskies tied for 102nd in the country with 38.0 sacks allowed in 2012.

    That doesn’t sound like a Heisman-caliber player to me.

    Head coach Steve Sarkisian said Price tried to do too much in 2012 after losing good players to the NFL after 2011.

    Price expected to struggle after saying “it just felt too easy” in 2011, but believes he will be “back to myself” in 2013.

    Athlon Sports calls the changes made this spring to improve Price’s game “drastic.” That’s a stronger word than Sarkisian and Price used to discuss what happened in 2012, and it suggests the transition back to a strong season will be harder than anticipated.

    Phil Steele does not believe Price is one of the four best quarterbacks in the Pac-12.

    Does Price have the mental toughness to return to form? Through spring practices, it appears so, but we will find out for sure once the games start in the fall.

Team 4: USC

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    What happened to USC in 2012?

    Now that the Trojans were again postseason eligible, they were picked to win the national championship in the preseason. Instead, the Trojans had their worst win-loss record since 2001.

    Matt Barkley returned to USC instead of entering the 2012 NFL draft, where he would have been a first-round pick. The record-breaking quarterback failed to receive enough votes for the Top 10 in the 2012 Heisman voting despite being the preseason favorite to win the award. Barkley has no regrets about his decision, which has landed him a third-string quarterback role on the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, who selected Barkley in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft.

    Everything seemed to fall apart for a program trying to get back on steady ground. USC was finally past its punishments resulting from the Pete Carroll era. Oddly enough, the Trojans played better while on probation, which included bowl bans.

    Maybe it’s head coach Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has failed to win a bowl game in his four years as an FBS head coach. (Granted, his teams were not bowl eligible for two of those years). The guy even coached the Oakland Raiders, which is not a glorious position, to two seasons of failure.

    Even with the recruiting penalties, USC could put together one of the most talented teams in college football. Kiffin, who coached the program through the penalties, has collected four Top-15 classes and two Top-10 classes, according to ESPNU.

    Perhaps USC cracked under pressure, suggesting a lack of toughness.

    In 2013, the Trojans will have new identities at quarterback and in the running game. Athlon Sports says, “It remains to be seen if [Kiffin] can produce the kind of overpowering running game featured by USC teams in the past.”

    In my mind, a strong running game equates to toughness on offense.

    The Trojans are no strangers to the "soft" label. After all, players like Keyshawn Johnson, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez called USC home. Also, the scandals have not helped the program appear disciplined.

Player 3: Sammy Watkins (Clemson)

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    Sammy Watkins is one of college football’s best wide receivers, but he could use some toughening up.

    Watkins has dealt with injuries and an arrest, which doesn’t sound newsworthy in the sports world, but he has at least acknowledged a need for change.

    Jeremy Fowler of College Football Insider reports Watkins saying this about his approach to the game: “[Last offseason] made me approach the spring totally different…I can’t just come to the field and make plays. I expect the most for myself.”

    Fowler also reports Watkins saying he did not expect to receive extra attention from defenses in 2012 after playing All-American-caliber football in 2011, and he even said there were tougher players than himself on the opposing teams.

    As the No. 39 overall player in the ESPNU Class of 2011, Watkins headed to Clemson with tons of potential. Watkins realized that potential in 2011, but since then, he has needed to work back to the top.

    Maybe 2013 will be different. Watkins had an outstanding spring game without projected starting quarterback Tajh Boyd. The star receiver seems to be injury-free and drug-free, but until he quiets all the negative talk, we can only wonder.

Team 3: West Virginia

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    Even though West Virginia was a newcomer to the Big 12 in 2012, it appeared the program was ready for the heightened challenge. After all, Dana Holgorsen became one of the brightest offensive minds in the country at Big 12 schools Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Then October 13th happened.

    The Mountaineers were ranked No. 5 in the AP poll after snatching a three-point victory from then-No. 11 Texas the week before. Rather than breeze by Holgorsen’s old team, Texas Tech, they were crushed 49-14. This set off a downward spiral, as West Virginia dropped its next four games following the Texas Tech loss.

    Sure, West Virginia’s roster was mostly built during the Big East era, but was it really that less talented than the rest of the Big 12? Maybe not, but it was definitely softer.

    When I think of tough football, I think of defense. The Mountaineers finished 117th of 124 FBS teams in scoring defense in 2012. That’s very soft.

    The type of offense West Virginia plays is also soft. Successful but soft.

    Holgorsen loves to air it out. That’s how he earned his stripes in coaching. Once Holgorsen writes up the playbook, the offensive record books get rewritten. But the offense lacks a true running back, and there are instead all-around athletes who run and catch.

    Now that West Virginia has come back down to Earth after dominating the Big East but getting schooled in the Big 12, hopefully the team gets tougher. With uncertainty at quarterback heading into 2013, the Mountaineers could rely more on the running game early on. Also, the defense must be stronger.

    Until then, though, we should consider West Virginia soft.

Player 2: Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati)

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    Gunner Kiel will spend the 2013 season at Cincinnati, but he changes schools too often to expect him to stay there.

    Kiel is soft because his commitments to schools are soft.

    First, Kiel committed to Indiana as a junior in high school. Then, Kiel switched his commitment to LSU. Kiel ultimately signed with Notre Dame upon leaving high school in 2012. Before taking an official snap for the Irish, Kiel transferred to Cincinnati.

    Many players second-guess their initial college choices, but saying yes to four colleges in not quite two years seems like a commitment issue to me.

    Now that Everett Golson has left Notre Dame, Kiel could have moved up the depth chart on a team in the national championship discussion. As we have seen with Kiel’s commitment history, though, patience doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.

    Moving to Cincinnati should work out for Kiel. Incumbent quarterbacks Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux are seniors, which means Kiel should be the front-runner for the 2014 starting job. Additionally, Kiel has developed a strong relationship with quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw.

    The real losers in this carousel are the Hoosiers. Kiel surely would have challenged for the No. 1 quarterback spot almost immediately and brought a new energy to the program. Meanwhile, as Kiel moves on to his fourth school (technically second), Indiana still waits for its first Top 25 ranking in the AP poll since 1994.

Team 2: Virginia Tech

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    Virginia Tech earned a spot on this list because they struggle in major bowl games.

    Frank Beamer, whose head coaching career began at Virginia Tech in 1987, has a .450 winning percentage in bowl games as a head coach. Beamer’s winning percentage in BCS bowls is .167; the only victory was in the 2009 Orange Bowl.

    The Hokies have no problem getting to major bowl games, but once they get there, they can’t seem to win them. In fact, Virginia Tech has played in a bowl game every season since 1993.

    Winning major bowl games is important. Success on the biggest stage gets your program noticed across the country. It puts your name on the map, which helps in recruiting, too.

    Virginia Tech needs to get better at recruiting if it wants to again challenge for national championships, or maybe just to win BCS bowl games. The Hokies have not collected a Top 15 recruiting class since 2008, according to ESPNU.

    Good recruiting starts with winning your state. Virginia has some great players entering college football this year, and Tech should try as hard as possible to get them. The No. 1 players at defensive tackle, defensive end and safety (according to ESPNU) come from Virginia. Only Quan Blanding, the safety prospect, has committed to a program so far: intrastate rival Virginia.

    Building a proverbial recruiting fence around Virginia will not make Virginia Tech a tougher program, but Beamer and Co. need to change the culture around Blacksburg to make it more attractive to the state and to the college football world.

Player 1: De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon)

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    To justify my placement of De’Anthony Thomas on this list, I told myself “delicate” is an appropriate synonym for “soft.” And boy, is Thomas delicate.

    Thomas relies on speed and shiftiness to burn opposing defenses. What would happen, though, if the defense finally caught him?

    At 5'9'' and 176 pounds, Thomas lacks the bulk required for No. 1 running backs in BCS programs. Athlon Sports says Oregon will limit Thomas’ workload at running back because of his size. Also, Thomas’ home-run threat style of play doesn’t mesh well with the every-down back style.

    Chip Kelly was masterful in using Thomas on offense, but with Mark Helfrich taking over as head coach, how much will change?

    So far in his Oregon career, Thomas has been so fast and shifty that the opportunities for getting hit square-on have been limited. Thomas has not gotten whacked hard enough as a returner to warrant serious injury, either.

    Some might point to his high school experience, where he played some cornerback. Matt Hinton of CBS’ Eye on College Football said Thomas could have played cornerback at USC, but he decided to play offense at Oregon instead. Were USC’s plans pushing him away, or were Oregon’s plans pulling him in? Also, the Ducks have shied away from using Thomas on defense despite the team suffering numerous injuries in the secondary last season, Hinton said.

    Until Thomas bulks up close to 200 pounds, he will stay on this list.

Team 1: Florida State

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    Under Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has lost too many close games to unranked opponents.

    In 2012, the No. 3-ranked Seminoles lost by one point to NC State.

    In 2011, the No. 23-ranked Seminoles lost by five points to Wake Forest and by one point to Virginia.

    In 2010, the No. 16-ranked Seminoles lost by four points to NC State. The next week, the No. 24-ranked Seminoles lost to UNC by two points.

    Florida State won enough games in those seasons to finish in the Top 25 of the final AP poll, including Top 20 finishes in 2010 and 2012, but the losses I brought up hurt the program’s chances of entering the national championship discussion.

    Fisher has brought some of the best recruiting classes in the country to Tallahassee, according to ESPNU, so the teams he has put on the field have undeniable talent. Maybe the folks in the university’s chemistry department can figure out the problem.

    This is not all on Fisher, though. Bobby Bowden’s 2000s teams were nowhere near as strong as those from the 1990s. NationalChamps.net offers a reason why:

    For the last 12 seasons (since 2000), the Seminoles are the most penalized team in all of college football. Until a coach comes in to finally address this problem, FSU will never see the light of a Top Ten finish no matter how much talent they recruit.

    Florida State brought in Sal Sunseri over the offseason to coach the defensive ends. As the defensive coordinator of Tennessee, Sunseri earned a reputation as someone focused on discipline and toughness. Maybe Sunseri will be the coach to make the Seminoles a less soft team. At least until the 2013 season ends, Florida State should be considered soft.


    As always, thanks for reading, and check me out on Twitter at @MCarroll_Philly!