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10 College Football Teams Bringing Back the Most Talent for 2014 Season

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2014

10 College Football Teams Bringing Back the Most Talent for 2014 Season

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Unofficially, 96 college players have declared early for the 2014 NFL draft, shattering last year's then-record mark of 73 by a factor of 30.5 percent.

    This mass exodus has depleted the well of talent at many programs. Teams like LSU have again become victim of their own successful player development, pumping underclassmen into the league when they're still eligible to remain in college.

    But for some teams, the well is less dry. Whether it be by good fortune—players opting not to declare early—or by quality recruiting and depth, the players returning from last year's roster have fans looking forward to next season, not pitying who just left.

    This isn't a preseason ranking system. It ignores things like coaching and schedule and scheme. It's not a prediction of who will win their conference or which teams will play in the College Football Playoff.

    It's simply a measure of talent, as it exists on paper. Let's take a look.

10. Michigan

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    Blake Countess (left), Raymon Taylor (center) and Desmond Morgan (right) all return in 2014.
    Blake Countess (left), Raymon Taylor (center) and Desmond Morgan (right) all return in 2014.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    The sum of the parts is strong in Ann Arbor; the whole has just yet to catch up. There's a reason Brady Hoke is sitting on the hot seat. He needs to translate talent into wins.

    On paper, though, there's no reason Michigan can't be competitive. Devin Gardner, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan, Frank Clark, Blake Countess and Devin Funchess all checked in on Bleacher Report's CFB 250, and all will be back next season.

    Doug Nussmeier is a quarterback guru by trade, and given the innate physical gifts of Gardner and Shane Morris, it's likely that position is less of a problem next season. Stability under center should help new playmakers emerge at the other skill positions, despite the loss of Jeremy Gallon on the outside.

9. USC

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    Leonard Williams (left) and Hayes Pullard (right) will lead another strong USC defense.
    Leonard Williams (left) and Hayes Pullard (right) will lead another strong USC defense.USA TODAY Sports

    With better luck from its underclassmen, USC might have ranked much higher. Receiver Marqise Lee was an obvious choice to bolt, but losing toss-up guys like Dion Bailey, Xavier Grimble, George Uko and Marcus Martin hurts on almost every level.

    Still, the Trojans are still pretty stacked. Say what you will about Lane Kiffin—much of which might be justified—the man knew how to recruit, even despite some scholarship restrictions. The depth might be lacking, but few teams in America boast young, top-end talent like USC.

    Cody Kessler got better as the year went on in 2013, and his development could turn Nelson Agholor into a true Biletnikoff candidate. On defense, Leonard Williams should be a preseason first-team All-American at end, leading tackler Hayes Pullard forewent the NFL draft and sophomore safety Su'a Cravens is a star in the making.

    For new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the cupboard is far from bare.

8. UCLA

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    Brett Hundley (left) and Paul Perkins (right) both return in the UCLA backfield.
    Brett Hundley (left) and Paul Perkins (right) both return in the UCLA backfield.Harry How/Getty Images

    Xavier Su'a-Filo declared early for the draft, which is a shame, but Brett Hundley's surprising return should make up for his absence (and then some). Other than Su'a-Filo and receiver Shaq Evans, every other significant piece of this offense returns in 2014.

    On defense, the loss of Anthony Barr is obviously a tough pill to swallow. Same goes for emotional leader Cassius Marsh. But the young secondary returns one year older and completely intact, while Eddie Vanderdoes is ready to explode along the line.

    More than anything, though, the Bruins should have one of the best linebacker groups in college football, despite the loss of Barr. Eric Kendricks and Myles Jack (assuming he stays on defense) are All-Pac-12 talents, and Kenny Orjioke showed flashes of star potential down the stretch of 2013.

7. Oklahoma

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    Frank Shannon (left), Charles Tapper (center) and Eric Striker (right) all return in 2014.
    Frank Shannon (left), Charles Tapper (center) and Eric Striker (right) all return in 2014.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Oklahoma's defense should be a menace next season, despite losing its best player, All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin. The sky is the limit for young guys like Charles Tapper, Eric Striker, Frank Shannon, Zack Sanchez and Dominique Alexander.

    The real questions come on offense, where center and team leader Gabe Ikard will graduate along with running back Brennan Clay and receiver Jalen Sanders. The receiving corps had very little depth in 2013, so Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal will need to take big steps forward.

    Those offensive questions are negated, however, by the upside of quarterback Trevor Knight, who broke out with a massive Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. It's hard to say how good he'll be in 2014, but strictly on talent, there's not much Knight can't do.

    The same could be said of running back Keith Ford, who was a 5-star recruit in the 2013 recruiting class, per the 247Sports composite. If he starts to reach his potential, this offense could still be very good.

6. Ohio State

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    Joey Bosa (left) and Noah Spence (right) combined for 17.5 tackles for loss last season.
    Joey Bosa (left) and Noah Spence (right) combined for 17.5 tackles for loss last season.Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    Ohio State's two-deep is loaded with blue-chip recruits, and they'll all be needed given what this team stands to lose. Four starters are gone along the offensive line, and the only returning starter in the secondary, Doran Grant, was abused in the Buckeyes' final three games of the year.

    The return of Braxton Miller is huge for this offense, which will need his experience and mobility to overcome those losses up front. With guys like Devin Smith, Dontre Wilson and tight end Jeff Heuerman all back surrounding him, Miller has enough weapons to contend for a Heisman once again.

    What makes this team scary is the defense—more specifically, the defensive line. No team in the country has a group as talented as the Buckeyes, which boasts future NFL players in Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington.

    For a young-but-talented secondary, there is no better friend at the start of the season than a pass rush. Ohio State's should be dominant in 2014.

5. Auburn

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    QB Nick Marshall (14) returns with most of his weapons intact.
    QB Nick Marshall (14) returns with most of his weapons intact.Kelvin Kuo-Oncea-USA TODAY Sport

    Auburn loses some of its best players from 2013, most notably left tackle Greg Robinson—a likely top-10 pick—defensive end Dee Ford and running back Tre Mason. They should all be gone by Round 3.

    Still, the national runners-up bring back a spate of talent next season, including four starters along the offensive line and every consequential piece of the passing game. Quarterback Nick Marshall should take another step forward with his arm, while Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne are experienced, capable replacements for Mason.

    The defense was young last season and only stands to get better. Rising sophomore Carl Lawson might be an All-SEC player at defensive end, Robenson Therezie came on toward the end of the year and former 5-star tackle Montravius Adams should benefit from a full offseason of college workouts.

4. Georgia

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    Jordan Jenkins (left) and Leonard Floyd (right) are two of many All-SEC talents on UGA's defense.
    Jordan Jenkins (left) and Leonard Floyd (right) are two of many All-SEC talents on UGA's defense.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Georgia's defense could go from weakness to strength in 2014. Todd Grantham couldn't piece together the talented young players last season, but under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the Bulldogs emerging stars should all improve.

    Those stars include 12 of the 13 leading tacklers from 2013, most notably Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson, Josh Harvey-Clemons*, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Those guys could all realistically go All-SEC next season, as could gifted cornerback Damian Swann (provided Pruitt tweaks some of his mechanics).

    And then there's Todd Gurley. The closest thing college football has seen to Adrian Peterson since Peterson himself, Gurley is officially the leader of this offense. He's ready to carry this team

    If Gurley can stay healthy and on the field, the loss of Aaron Murray can be negated, especially with some talented pass-catchers like Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathan Rumph coming back.

    *Harvey-Clemons is suspended for the first three games of 2014 after violating team rules, according to Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

3. Oregon

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    From left to right: Byron Marshall, Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Bralon Addison all return in 2014.
    From left to right: Byron Marshall, Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Bralon Addison all return in 2014.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    The return of Marcus Mariota makes Oregon the prohibitive Pac-12 favorite once again next season, especially given the talent around him.

    De'Anthony Thomas is gone, but with Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Bralon Addison in tow (behind what should be a better offensive line), there's no reason to expect anything but the usual, traditional dominance from Oregon's offense.

    The defense got a major boost, too. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was expected to be a first-round pick but opted to return to Eugene, which should help Oregon overcome the NFL declaration of his coverage partner, Terrance Mitchell.

    Despite some other notable defensive losses, the upside of athletes like Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Alex Balducci should keep both Ducks units among the best in America next year.

2. Alabama

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    Derrick Henry didn't look like a freshman in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
    Derrick Henry didn't look like a freshman in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Alabama loses two of the most influential players in program history—quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley. The two-deep is oozing with talent at every level, but between those two, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Adrian Hubbard, Cyrus Kouandjio and Jeoffrey Pagan leaving, the Tide lost too much to finish No. 1.

    But let's get to that two-deep. Whoever wins the messy quarterback battle will have an embarrassment of weapons at his disposal, including the one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back and Amari Cooper at receiver. Tight end O.J. Howard could be a breakout star as well.

    On defense, Landon Collins is an All-American threat at safety, Trey DePriest will be back at middle linebacker and A'Shawn Robinson is the best true sophomore tackle in the nation. The rest of the depth chart will be inexperienced but almost exclusively made up of 4- and 5-star recruits.

    This is a ranking of talent, and Alabama still has plenty.

1. Florida State

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    Cameron Erving (left) will spend another year protecting the blind side of Jameis Winston (right).
    Cameron Erving (left) will spend another year protecting the blind side of Jameis Winston (right).Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Jameis Winston wasn't quite as spectacular in his Heisman-winning freshman campaign as Johnny Manziel the year before. All told, he's probably a slightly worse college player than Manziel, which is intended as the highest form of compliment.

    However, Winston has a better chance of re-hoisting the trophy.

    Why? The rest of his team will be better. Fresh off winning a national championship, FSU returns four of five offensive linemen, running back Karlos Williams, leading receiver Rashad Greene and Mackey Award finalist Nick O'Leary at tight end.

    On the other side of the ball, though leaders like Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones and (especially) Lamarcus Joyner will be hard to replace, the talent is still remarkable. This secondary might again be the best in America, while former No. 1 overall recruit Mario Edwards Jr., is finally starting to realize his potential on the line.

    It's neck-and-neck between them and Alabama, but the Seminoles still have the best roster in college football...along with the best player. 

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