1 Thing Opponents Should Fear About Every College Football Team in 2014

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

1 Thing Opponents Should Fear About Every College Football Team in 2014

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    Quarterback Connor Cook is what Michigan State's opponents should fear most about the Spartans in 2014.
    Quarterback Connor Cook is what Michigan State's opponents should fear most about the Spartans in 2014.Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    Everybody's got something.

    No matter how bad or unimpressive, every college football team in FBS has something that is of a concern to other teams.

    We're not talking the generic superlatives that opposing coaches spout out in the lead-up to that week's home game against a winless, 42-point underdog.

    We're talking about the real thing to fear about that otherwise unintimidating foe or the intangible that is much more of a concern than a star player's stats or the offensive line's beefiness.

    It could be a player or a scheme. It's different for each team.

    There's something for everyone to fear. And we've charted them all for you.

Air Force Falcons

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Troy Calhoun has some face (and a job) to save

    Air Force's coach has come under fire during the offseason because of his involvement with a proposed rule that would prevent teams from snapping the ball on offense within the first 10 seconds of the play clock. As chairman of the NCAA rules committee, Calhoun has been a public face of this proposal, although he's most recently said the committee is still waiting for evidence about alleged player safety issues before voting.

    It's not a good place for him, especially with his Falcons going 2-10 last season and him entering 2014 on the coaching hot seat.

Akron Zips

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    The Zips have several chances to shock

    Akron nearly pulled off one of the most massive upsets in recent memory last year when it fell just short at Michigan, losing 28-24.

    This year's nonconference slate features a few more opportunities to get that signature win, as the Zips visit Penn State and Pittsburgh and host Marshall. Those teams went a combined 24-15 last season but are vulnerable to a letdown against a program that hasn't had a winning year since 2005.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Nick Saban doesn't do "slumps"

    Alabama ended the 2013 season with an uncharacteristic two straight losses, falling to Auburn in that epic Iron Bowl and then getting run over by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

    Is it panic time in Tuscaloosa? Hardly.

    Since Saban came to 'Bama, other than his transitional first year, he's never had back-to-back seasons with multiple losses. In fact, the year after losing more than once (as was the case in 2009 and 2011), he led the Tide to a national title.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

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    Marcus Cox will be tough to deal with

    First-year FBS program Appalachian State won't be eligible for a bowl game or for the Sun Belt Conference title, but that doesn't mean the Mountaineers won't pose a problem. Not with Cox running the ball.

    The speedy 5'10" back had a stellar freshman year, capped by a 215-yard performance in ASU's 48-27 win to end the season. He had 59 yards on 23 carries in a loss to Georgia and gets to make his FBS debut Aug. 30 at Michigan.

    You've been warned, Big Blue.

Arizona Wildcats

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    The Wildcats won't be short on receivers

    Arizona had one of the youngest and least experienced wide receiver units in 2013, but this fall, it could have one of the deepest and most talented.

    Besides Trey Griffey, Nate Phillips and Garic Wharton, all of whom performed well last year, the Wildcats will get back 2012 receiving leader Austin Hill, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Additionally, Notre Dame transfer DaVonte' Neal and Texas transfer Cayleb Jones are eligible, while the 2014 recruiting class features 247Sports' 4-star wideout Cameron Denson.

    Whoever starts at quarterback won't be short of targets.

Arizona State Sun Devils

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Taylor Kelly keeps getting better

    Kelly has shown constant improvement as a quarterback in his two years as a starter, and with his return for a senior season looming, the sky is the limit.

    Already a solid passer, he added the dimension of being an effective runner during 2013, rushing for more than 600 yards. He was particularly effective in the red zone, rushing for nine touchdowns and becoming ASU's go-to back after Marion Grice injured his leg.

Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Bret Bielema has had a year to prepare

    The first season of Bielema's tenure at Arkansas couldn't have gone worse, with the Razorbacks opening 3-0 against weak competition and then losing nine straight. That included going 0-8 in SEC play, something Arkansas hadn't ever done since joining the league in the early 1990s.

    But the 2013 season was done with mostly holdovers from the tail end of the ill-fated Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith regime. Those players might not have been suited for the slower style of play that Bielema has gained plenty of attention for advocating of late.

Arkansas State Red Wolves

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    The Red Wolves are primed to pull an upset

    Arkansas State has been most associated the last few years with being a stepping stone for coaches who were looking to get better jobs, as the previous three have left after one season to go to places like Auburn, Boise State and Ole Miss.

    But the Red Wolves have also managed to win despite this turmoil, and with a solid core of players returning from an 8-5 team in 2013, this could be the year they make a splash against a big opponent.

    That means warning sirens should be going off in Knoxville and Coral Gables, as Arkansas State visits both Tennessee and Miami (Fla.) in September.

Army Black Knights

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    Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

    The Black Knights are due for a resurgence

    Army's hiring of Jeff Monken from Georgia Southern keeps the program moving in the same direction as far as its tradition of running the option goes. But it might also mean a turnaround from the lean years of late to more wins, based on his pedigree as a coach.

    Georgia Southern was one of the most consistent FCS teams during his tenure, and prior to that, he was part of solid staffs at Georgia Tech and Navy. Combine that with a solid senior running back in Terry Baggett, and the Black Knights look poised to get back to a bowl game.

Auburn Tigers

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    The run attack is only going to get better

    While the numbers might not surpass what Auburn did in 2013, as teams become more attuned to what they should expect from Auburn, the productiveness of that running game should improve in 2014 now that the Tigers have had a year to settle into Gus Malzahn's system.

    Pretty scary, if you think of it: Last year was sort of a fly-by-night approach, while now Auburn has had plenty of time to tweak and fine-tune a run offense that led the nation with 328.3 rushing yards per game.

    Tre Mason may be gone, but Nick Marshall is still around. And the depth at running back means there won't be a drop-off; rather, the Tigers should probably be even better at running the ball.

Ball State Cardinals

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    G ANDREWS/Associated Press

    Jahwan Edwards could be a breakout star

    It's hard to believe that someone with 1,100 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns was an unknown quantity, but that's how it seemed for Ball State's Edwards last season because of the presence of talented quarterback Keith Wenning and standout receiver Willie Snead.

    But both of those guys are gone for 2014, and if coach Pete Lembo wants to keep the Cardinals near the top of the Mid-American—and maybe pull off a nice season-opening upset at Iowa—he'll make sure to feed the 5'10", 219-pound Edwards as much as possible.

Baylor Bears

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    Bryce Petty is older, wiser and (probably) better

    The first season with Petty as Baylor's starting quarterback was a rousing success—possibly the best in school history. The Bears won the Big 12 title and played in the Fiesta Bowl, with Petty throwing for 4,200 yards and accounting for 46 touchdowns.

    And for all the critics who say his production was the result of Baylor's system, take note: That system is still there, as is Petty. Therefore, expect another year of video game-like numbers from the Bears and a possible Heisman push for Petty as a senior.

Boise State Broncos

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    Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

    Jay Ajayi is back for more rampant running

    Boise State's 2013 season was one of the more uneven for the upstart program in the past decade, with the Broncos losing more games (five) than in the previous three seasons combined due to injuries and an assortment of mistakes.

    You'd think things would continue downward with coach Chris Petersen moving onto Washington, but the Broncos still feature plenty of talent. The most notable is Jay Ajayi, who as a sophomore ran for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns.

    Boise opens the 2014 season on Aug. 28 against Ole Miss at the Georgia Dome. And Ajayi will be poised to start the year in the spotlight with a big game.

Boston College Eagles

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    The Eagles are an unknown quantity

    Boston College won seven games in 2013 with a very senior-laden team that didn't go deep into the bench for subs. That means the Eagles have lost their quarterback, their 2,000-yard rusher, their top receiver and several key defensive players.

    What will BC have coming back for 2014? Therein lies the mystery. No one knows what to expect from the Eagles this season, and that kind of uncertainty can drive opposing coaches mad. The Eagles open against UMass, which won't be a telling game, so when USC visits Boston on Sept. 13, it will be going in almost blind.

Bowling Green Falcons

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    The cupboard wasn't left bare

    Dave Clawson left Bowling Green shortly after it won the Mid-American title game, taking the gig at Wake Forest with the chance to win in a more high-profile league. Often, coaches from lower levels make this kind of a jump, knowing that they're not leaving much behind for their successor.

    That's not the case for Bowling Green, which returns one of the more deadly (and underrated) offensive tandems in quarterback Matt Johnson and running back Travis Greene, both juniors-to-be. The duo combined for more than 5,000 yards of total offense and 41 touchdowns in 2013.

Buffalo Bulls

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    UB Stadium isn't the easiest place to win at

    Buffalo was unbeaten at its home stadium in 2013; its only "home" loss came to Bowling Green on the field where the Buffalo Bills play. The tiny complex has a definite small-school feel to it, with a track around the field and room for only 29,000 people.

    Big-time programs are not used to facing this kind of environment, which should make for an odd atmosphere when Baylor improbably plays there on Sept. 13.

BYU Cougars

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    Taysom Hill just keeps getting better

    Hill began last season, his first as the Cougars' full-time starter, with such accuracy issues that passing was not a viable option. But he ran all over the place, busting out for big rushing games in wins over bowl teams Texas, Houston and Middle Tennessee.

    But as the year went on, he became a more efficient passer, finishing with a .539 completion percentage. After another offseason of practice and development, look for the junior to continue progressing into a true dual-threat quarterback.

California Golden Bears

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    The second year is when the "Bear Raid" should take off

    Sonny Dykes had the nation's top-scoring offense at Louisiana Tech in 2012, but when he took the California job last year, the program bottomed out at 1-11.

    The expectations weren't that low for his first season, but they were somewhat expected. He didn't win in his first season at Tech, but he went from 5-7 in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011 as his "Air Raid" offense settled in.

    The Golden Bears are slowly getting the pieces in place for Dykes' offense to thrive in the scoring-rich Pac-12, and in 2014, some opponents are likely to feel the effects of this improvement.

Central Florida Knights

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    The Knights can still do damage in a down year

    George O'Leary's tenure at Central Florida has followed a noticeable pattern, with each conference title followed by a losing season. It happened in 2008 and 2011 and is likely to happen in 2014.

    But that doesn't meant the Knights won't be dangerous, as each of those years saw them knock off a bowl-bound team during the regular season.

Central Michigan Chippewas

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The Chippewas are trending upward

    Central Michigan ended the 2013 season on a three-game win streak to finish 6-6. And sure, those wins came against teams that finished a combined 4-32, but the quality of the opponents has no bearing on the level of confidence of the young players who are set to return in 2014.

    That includes quarterback Cooper Rush, running back Saylor Lavallii and receiver Titus Davis, who are getting lots of attention already from the coaching staffs of early-season opponents Kansas, Purdue and Syracuse.

Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Injured stars of the past are back

    Cincinnati got a pair of great offseason gifts earlier this month when quarterback Munchie Legaux and receiver Shaq Washington were each given an extra year of eligibility due to horrific injuries in the past.

    Washington was the Bearcats' leading receiver in 2013 while teaming up mostly with quarterback Brendon Kay, who took over after Legaux was lost early to a knee injury. Legaux has been dynamic as a dual-threat player, averaging six yards per carry for his career.

Clemson Tigers

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    Chad Morris didn't become a head coach

    Morris, Clemson's offensive coordinator and the architect of an attack that's been among the nation's best during the past few years, did not make a leap to run his own program. Being the nation's highest-paid assistant coach makes it easier to be patient for that opportunity.

    With Morris still in place, the loss of Tajh Boyd and his top two receivers will be much easier to handle. And it will give the same amount of stress to opposing coaches who are looking for a way to slow down the Tigers in 2014.

Colorado Buffaloes

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    Addison Gillam is only a sophomore

    As a true freshman, Gillam played anything like a guy who'd been at his senior prom a few months earlier. The linebacker had 107 tackles, second-most of any freshman, including 71 solo takedowns. He was all over the field for the Buffaloes on defense.

    He played last year at 225 pounds, which looked good on his 6'3" frame, but he's apt to get bigger and stronger before this fall. Pac-12 running backs better watch out as they hit the hole.

Colorado State Rams

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    Garrett Grayson is ready to break more records

    Grayson set Colorado State's single-season mark for passing yards with 3,696 last season while also tying the school record for touchdown passes with 23. And that was while the Rams had a record-setting running back in Kapri Bibbs.

    Grayson is likely to surpass both of those tallies in 2014, as well as obliterate the school's career passing marks. With 5,184 yards and 32 TDs entering the season, he won't take long before moving past the CSU benchmarks of 7,142 yards and 51 TDs. 

Connecticut Huskies

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    Bob Diaco will make the Huskies a tough out

    Diaco didn't leave the comfy confines of Notre Dame to take over a program that he didn't think he could turn around, so Connecticut's 2014 opponents should be on high alert.

    At the very least, the former defensive coordinator should have the Huskies giving up far less than the 30 points per game they yielded in 2013.

Duke Blue Devils

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    The coordinator is gone, but the talent isn't

    Duke lost Kurt Roper to Florida in the offseason, but while he got a lot of credit for Duke's meteoric rise from obscurity to the ACC title game, it wasn't all him.

    In fact, he leaves behind a lot of talent on the Blue Devils offense, most notably receiver Jamison Crowder and late-blooming quarterback Anthony Boone.

East Carolina Pirates

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    Shane Carden has saved his best for last

    Carden, East Carolina's senior quarterback, has thrown for more than 7,200 yards and 56 touchdowns in the past two seasons as a starter. Sure, much of that came against Conference USA-level competition, but he did throw for 631 yards and six TDs in wins last season over North Carolina and North Carolina State.

    He now gets to pilot the Pirates into the American Athletic Conference, and while it's no longer among the top leagues by national standards, it's still an upgrade. It will mean getting to shine on a bigger stage, and he appears more than ready.

Eastern Michigan Eagles

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    The Eagles won't just roll over

    Eastern Michigan needs to play road games against bigger programs to sustain its own, which means serving as a sort of sacrificial lamb at the beginning of each season. Last year it was Penn State and Rutgers, and this season it will be Florida and Michigan State.

    But at least once each year, one of those teams doesn't come out of the game with confidence because the win wasn't as convincing as it should have been. Rutgers fit that bill in 2013, winning 28-10 and sending out early warning signs the Scarlet Knights weren't going to be that good.

Florida Gators

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    Muschamp is going for broke

    Florida's 4-8 season in 2013 was the worst in more than 30 years, but Will Muschamp survived to coach another year based on past performance and the promise of improved play in 2014.

    But with such a reprieve comes pressure to win immediately, and it's why the Gators will be playing like a team with nothing to lose. They have to be impressive, or the coach and his staff could be gone, and when a team plays desperate, it can be unpredictable. 

Florida Atlantic Owls

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    The Owls will start 2014 playing like late 2013

    Florida Atlantic won four straight games to end last season, finishing 6-6 with solid play down the stretch after coach Carl Pelini resigned. The Owls aren't likely to keep that win streak going long, though, because the opening slate includes games at Nebraska and Alabama.

    But look for new coach Charlie Partridge to have this team learn from the likely rough outings against the Cornhuskers and Crimson Tide, making the Owls a legitimate battle-tested Conference USA contender come October.

Florida International Golden Panthers

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    The Panthers can't possibly be worse

    Florida International was 1-11 last season, only winning by one point over a Southern Mississippi team in the midst of a 23-game losing streak.

    Don't expect massive improvement from FIU in 2014, but the schedule is so favorable (eight home games, including seven of nine to start) that the Panthers might put together enough momentum early that they can play spoiler to a team like Marshall, Middle Tennessee or Rice down the stretch. 

Florida State Seminoles

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    Jameis Winston isn't going anywhere anytime soon

    The announcement by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner that he intends to play two more years at Florida State—despite being eligible for the NFL draft after the 2014 season—has to have been the worst possible news for the Seminoles' opponents. Not just in 2015 but this fall as well.

    For 2014 foes, it means Winston won't take plays off or focus on specific aspects of his game in preparation for the pros. He'll be doing his full repertoire, which is scary.

Fresno State Bulldogs

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    DeRuyter will have the defense much improved

    Tim DeRuyter was known as a defensive-minded coach when he was hired at Fresno State. But he inherited a big-play offense and a big-armed quarterback in Derek Carr, so he rolled with it despite the defense suffering.

    Carr is off to the NFL now, so DeRuyter will be spending much of the offseason getting the Bulldogs defense in shape. Opponents who grew used to expecting to score in bunches against Fresno might have to work harder to get their points.

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Todd Gurley will be healthy

    Gurley's talent was evident nearly every time he touched the ball for Georgia in 2013, whether as a rusher or a standout receiver out of the backfield. If not for injuries, he'd have won the SEC rushing title and kept the Bulldogs in the hunt longer in the SEC.

    All signs point to him being at full strength for the 2014 season. Assuming he doesn't get banged up again, he's going to give defensive coordinators fits.

Georgia Southern Eagles

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    There's another option team to worry about

    With modern football moving about as far away from the traditional triple-option run attack as possible, teams that still use this system can cause headaches. Just ask the opponents who face Army, Georgia Tech or Navy on a regular basis.

    Now you can add Georgia Southern to the mix, as the Eagles move up from FCS to play a full schedule of FBS opponents—none of whom is happy to have to deal with a scheme that can be deadly when run correctly. Just ask Florida.

Georgia State Panthers

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    Someone is going to be the Panthers' first

    Georgia State is entering its second year of FBS play, and the Panthers went 0-12 in that first campaign. They had some close games, losing by seven points or less on three occasions.

    GSU isn't going to stay winless forever, but despite that inevitability, the embarrassment of being the first team to lose to the Panthers is something 2014 opponents must worry about.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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    Georgia Tech's new QB will throw better

    Vad Lee was a surprise transfer from the Yellow Jackets program, especially since he started every game for them in 2013. But he seemed to struggle with his reads at times, and while the run portion of the option was its usual strong self, the passing game wasn't sharp like in the past.

    Don't expect a similar situation in 2014, as whoever emerges from the spring and summer quarterback battles—whether Justin Thomas or someone else—is likely to be the most polished option. 

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

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    Honolulu will remain a tough place to play

    The long travel, the small crowd and the distractions of an island paradise will all continue to make Hawaii's home-field advantage one of the best in the nation in 2014. If the Rainbow Warriors had a solid team to back that up, they might win most of those games.

    Hawaii went 1-11 in 2013, winning just its finale over a bad Army team. But in their other home games, the Warriors lost by an average of just 9.2 points, taking San Diego State to overtime and nearly upsetting Fresno State. The 2014 slate includes bowl teams Oregon State, UNLV, Utah State and Washington.

Houston Cougars

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    "O'Korn-to-Greenberry" will be a common phrase

    Houston had a solid season in 2013, and its top two offensive weapons are back to challenge for the top spot in an American Athletic Conference that's basically become a smaller version of the Conference USA league that Houston used to dominate.

    The Cougars will make the most of quarterback John O'Korn and receiver Deontay Greenberry, who last year hooked up for more than 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Idaho Vandals

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    The Kibbie Dome isn't very welcoming

    Idaho's only win in 2013 came at home in its glorified multi-purpose facility that looks like a giant half-moon warehouse from the outside. The building hosts football, basketball, track and tennis, and has all the charm of a Costco.

    The Vandals struggle to get teams to come to Moscow voluntarily, which made last year's independent season a rough one. But with Idaho now a part of the Sun Belt Conference, away teams such as Arkansas State, South Alabama and Troy will discover why it's not an easy place to play.

Illinois Fighting Illini

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    Tim Beckman will pull out all the stops

    There's no more time for patience and taking things slowly in Champaign. Beckman has had time to get the Fighting Illini moving forward, but nothing has happened. If it doesn't get better this season, he could be out.

    Therefore, look for Illinois to play with a level of intensity that hasn't been seen in previous years. Opponents should fear this appearance of desperation, because the extra pressure could lead to a fast-and-loose approach.

Indiana Hoosiers

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    The Hoosiers offense should be even better

    Indiana was by no means a pushover in 2013, despite its 5-7 record. The Hoosiers could score with the best of them, averaging more than 38 points per game and scoring at least 28 in 10 of 12 games. It was the defense that let them down more than anything.

    That defense is still a work in progress, but teams should fear the experience gained by quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Tevin Coleman. The two juniors will look to get Indiana into its first bowl game since 2007.

Iowa Hawkeyes

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    The Hawkeyes secondary is no joke

    Iowa's defense was led by its trio of senior linebackers in 2013, which helped the Hawkeyes overcome an offense that was inconsistent and lacked punch. The linebacking corps is gone, so now it's time for the secondary to shine.

    And will it ever. Led by Desmond King, who started as a freshman, it's going to be hard to pass on Iowa in 2014.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Mark Mangino is anxious to make his mark

    Iowa State's hiring of former Kansas coach Mark Mangino to run its offense might have been the most underrated coaching transaction of the offseason. It could also end up being the most valuable depending on what he can do with the Cyclones' talent.

    He did lots of great things at Kansas before getting pushed out, and he's eager to show he's still got it. That being said, he's going to make defensive coordinators in the Big 12 work extra hours to plan for his schemes.

Kansas Jayhawks

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    Defensive depth should lessen scoring allowed

    Kansas gave up nearly 32 points per game in 2013, which was actually an improvement on years past and a sign that things are slowly turning around in Lawrence.

    Most of the Jayhawks' top defenders are back, and that unit might be able to shut someone down in 2014 because of their experience playing together. Their low in the Big 12 was 19 points allowed last season, and that could be bested against the likes of TCU, Iowa State or West Virginia.

Kansas State Wildcats

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    Jake Waters shouldn't be overlooked

    Kansas State's opponents would be foolish not to focus most of their defensive game plan on limiting Tyler Lockett's touches at receiver in 2014. But they'd also be remiss to ignore what the person throwing to him can do otherwise.

    Jake Waters came into his own late last season, starring in the Wildcats' bowl win over Michigan. He is primed for a breakout senior year.

Kent State Golden Flashes

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    Dri Archer was the team's second-best running back last year

    Dri Archer was the talk of his day at the NFL combine when he nearly broke Chris Johnson's record in the 40-yard dash and excelled in the drills. But as fast as he was, he wasn't the biggest part of Kent State's offense last season.

    Because of injuries to Archer early on, the Golden Flashes turned to 6'1", 248-pound bruiser Trayion Durham, who ran for 766 yards and six touchdowns. He should be a beast to deal with in 2014.

Kentucky Wildcats

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Mark Stoops won't be afraid to start a true freshman QB

    With an amazing recruiting class that wouldn't normally befit a 2-10 team, Kentucky has plenty of talent coming into town for the 2014 season. And there's no reason for the best of the lot to have to wait to play.

    That means Drew Barker could be the starting quarterback when the season opens with a pair of winnable games against Tennessee-Martin and Ohio. Mark Stoops didn't leave Florida State to take his time with Kentucky, so he'll pull the trigger and shake things up if needed.

Louisville Cardinals

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    DeVante Parker is still around

    Teddy Bridgewater and a good chunk of that amazing defense are gone, as is Charlie Strong. But new/old coach Bobby Petrino has at least one significant holdover from the previous regime to hang his hat on, and it's a doozy.

    DeVante Parker was a major nuisance for American Athletic Conference secondaries in 2013, and now with the Cardinals moving into the ACC, he'll provide that league's defenders with yet another tall (6'3") receiver to have to deal with. He chose to stay in school instead of going pro, much to the chagrin of defensive coordinators.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns

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    The Ragin' Cajuns are due

    Louisiana-Lafayette has won nine games in three straight seasons, but it's done so mostly by beating up on the rotation of teams that make up the rest of the Sun Belt Conference. That, and opponents in the New Orleans Bowl.

    The Ragin' Cajuns haven't had that signature win, though, coming close at Arizona in 2011 and Florida in 2012. The law of averages says it's going to happen, and soon, which can't make the likes of Ole Miss or Boise State (who host ULL on back-to-back weeks in mid-September) very comfortable.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

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    Rashon Ceaser plays big

    Listed at 6'0" but probably a bit shorter, Ceaser is the top receiver for a Louisiana-Monroe team that showed some offensive punch late in the season to finish at 6-6.

    He didn't play like a shorter receiver, catching 23 passes for 371 yards and six touchdowns in the Warhawks' final four games. He's going to be a handful for ULM's early 2014 opponents, which include Wake Forest, Kentucky, LSU and Texas A&M.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

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    Kenneth Dixon is ready for his big moment

    Dixon was a 1,194-yard, 27-touchdown superstar-in-the-making during his freshman season of 2012, when Louisiana Tech led the nation in scoring under Sonny Dykes. But his production dropped massively last season to just 917 yards and only four touchdowns despite still averaging six yards per carry.

    A knee injury knocked him out of the final two games in 2013, but he should be ready to be the focal point of Skip Holtz's team this fall. With the right usage, he could be Conference USA's top rusher.

LSU Tigers

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    LSU might overrun teams

    With Anthony Jennings looking like a work-in-progress at the end of the 2013 season, the emphasis early in 2014 for the Tigers could be going heavy with the run game. That means lots of carries for what seems like an endless supply of running backs.

    Throw superstar recruit Leonard Fournette into a backfield that already features Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, and LSU has the makings of the kind of run game that Auburn rode to the national title game.

Marshall Thundering Herd

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    Rakeem Cato is ready to make history

    Cato threw for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns last season, leading Marshall to a 10-win campaign and a return to prominence after some time out of the spotlight.

    That should continue in 2014 with him at the helm once more, and unwitting secondaries are going to play victim to his passing as he approaches Marshall's career marks for yards (11,903, by Byron Leftwich) and touchdowns (115, by Chad Pennington). He enters the season just 1,727 yards and 24 TDs behind those records.

Maryland Terrapins

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    The Terrapins have a ready-made Big Ten roster

    Maryland's injuries kept most from seeing how good it really was in 2013, but players like Stefon Diggs and C.J. Brown are back and should be healthy for the Terrapins' first season in the Big Ten.

    Randy Edsall's team probably won't contend for a division title this fall, but it also won't get run over. In fact, some of the teams in the East Division who are expecting an easy win might be surprised.

Massachusetts Minutemen

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    Tajae Sharpe isn't easy to cover

    Sharpe was Massachusetts' top target in 2013, catching 61 passes for 680 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers aren't that great compared to other teams, but the Minutemen were 1-11 last year and averaged just more than 156 passing yards per game.

    New coach Mark Whipple had success with the Minutemen years ago, and he's likely to make great use of Sharpe this fall to get UMass back on track.

Memphis Tigers

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    Brandon Hayes got a second (or sixth) chance

    Hayes, Memphis' top rusher last season with 860 yards and one of the few offensive bright spots, was granted a sixth year of eligibility for a career that began as a walk-on and included both a season-ending injury and a brief transfer to a junior college.

    Hayes, at 5'8" and 190 pounds, is a slippery little thing that can do damage when he gets into the open field. He's a hard guy to game-plan for, and Memphis will be wise to use him a lot in his extra season.

Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes

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    Miami might run both backs at once

    The midseason loss of leading rusher Duke Johnson to a leg injury crushed the Hurricanes' offensive rhythm last season, though it did allow for Dallas Crawford to get some time as the featured back and provide for future depth.

    With Johnson expected to be healthy for the fall, don't be surprised if coach Al Golden puts both runners in the backfield together at times, making for what could be the ACC's scariest one-two rushing punch.

Miami (Ohio) RedHawks

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    Someone is going to help end the streak

    Miami (Ohio) went 0-12 last season, an abysmal campaign that featured really bad defense and even worse offense. The saving grace for the RedHawks? It probably can't get worse.

    New coach Chuck Martin has had success at the Division II level and was part of Brian Kelly's staff at Notre Dame. Miami is going to end what is currently a 16-game losing streak this season, which means someone has to play the victim. 

Michigan Wolverines

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    Doug Nussmeier has a plan

    Michigan's acquisition of Nussmeier to be its offensive coordinator was a big get for a program in need of an offensive spark. The Wolverines were 102nd in rushing last season, a figure that doesn't fly in the grind-it-out Big Ten Conference.

    You have to figure he already had a plan in place when he agreed to leave a good gig at Alabama for Ann Arbor. And now opposing defensive coordinators have to spend the offseason wondering what that plan is—and whether they'll be able to stop it.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Connor Cook is just getting started

    Michigan State's defense was solid in 2013 and served as the backbone for arguably the best team in school history. But the Spartans wouldn't have gone as far as they did without the continued improvement of Cook at quarterback.

    He set career highs in passing in each of his last two games, which just happened to be the ones on the big stages of the Big Ten final and the Rose Bowl. With another year of development to work with, who knows how much better he'll be in the fall.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

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    T.T. Barber likes to get involved

    With 118 tackles in 2013, Barber showed his control of the middle of the field from his linebacker position. But he also had three sacks and four interceptions, so he can pretty much go wherever he is needed.

    Such versatility makes for difficult times when trying to plan for he will do on any given play. Middle Tennessee's opponents won't easily find ways around him.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

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    Mitch Leidner is ready to run the show

    Minnesota rotated between Leidner and Philip Nelson at quarterback in 2013, and combined they put together one of the least productive passing attacks in the country. Nelson has since transferred, leaving Leidner as the go-to guy.

    Though his overall numbers might not show it, Leidner is ready to take charge. He played well in the Golden Gophers' bowl loss to Syracuse, throwing for 220 yards and two touchdowns, and his seven rushing touchdowns show a level of versatility that will make him tough to plan for.

Mississippi Rebels

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    Bo Wallace is the SEC's most experienced quarterback

    Entering his third year as Ole Miss' starter, Bo Wallace has played more than any other passer in the league, and that experience should pay huge dividends for the Rebels.

    Though that means opponents will have more of a book on his skills and tendencies than any other quarterback, it also means he's got more savvy and know-how. He was stellar in the Rebels' bowl win over Georgia Tech, and all signs point to him being even better in 2014 as a senior.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    A healthy Dak Prescott is a scary Dak Prescott

    Mississippi State was at its best in 2013 when Dak Prescott was doing his dual-threat quarterback thing, throwing effectively and running with a purpose that made him hard to stop. Injuries got in the way at times, or else he would have put up much better numbers.

    He accounted for 23 touchdowns (13 as a rusher) in part-time duty last season. If he's given the reins all by himself this year, look out, SEC.

Missouri Tigers

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    Dorial Green-Beckham can outleap anyone

    He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2012, and after minimal involvement in Missouri's passing game as a true freshman, Green-Beckham really showed why he earned that ranking during his sophomore campaign.

    The 6'6" wideout has the chance to be a very high pick in the 2015 draft (assuming he leaves early), and that will be because of his ability to go up and take any ball that comes near him. This is what Missouri's opponents will have to deal with a lot this season.

Navy Midshipmen

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    Keenan Reynolds isn't going to let up

    He rushed for 1,346 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, including an FBS record (for a quarterback) seven TDs in a late November win at San Jose State. And Keenan Reynolds still has two more years at Navy.

    His passing numbers aren't spectacular, but they don't need to be in the Midshipmen's option attack. He just had to make the right reads, which usually means keeping the ball, and he'll continue to baffle and befuddle opponents.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Ameer Abdullah is hungry for the end zone

    Abdullah is the top returning rusher in the nation, as his 1,690 yards from 2013 was ninth-best nationally and tops in the Big Ten. He only scored nine touchdowns, though.

    With a six-yards-per-carry average and more than 300 touches (rushing and receiving) last year, he showed durability and dependability. He's going to be searching for the scores more this year and will be hard to deny. 

Nevada Wolf Pack

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    Cody Fajardo has the experience to win

    Fajardo will be entering his fourth season as Nevada's starting quarterback, and he's looking to move past an injury-plagued junior year that saw the Wolf Pack fail to make a bowl for the first time in a decade.

    He didn't run nearly as much last season as he had in the past, but he still has that ability. For his career, he has more than 7,000 passing yards and 2,400 rushing yards and has accounted for 70 total touchdowns.

New Mexico Lobos

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    The Lobos will keep on running

    New Mexico's passing game in 2013 wasn't much to speak of. Because it wasn't very effective and was hardly used, coach Bob Davie stayed almost exclusively on the ground as a way to maximize his best athletes.

    Expect much more of the same in 2014, and although top gainer Kasey Carrier is gone, the Lobos have a long list of guys they'll hand it off to. Or one of the quarterbacks will just keep it and run. 

New Mexico State Aggies

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    Travel time will doom an Aggies foe

    New Mexico State doesn't fit geographically into the Sun Belt Conference, but it was the only league that would take the team that was forced to play an independent schedule in 2013.

    But this means that schools based in the Southeast will be forced to visit out-of-the-way Las Cruces this fall, and such a long trip could be costly if not planned for properly.

North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Ryan Switzer is seeking records

    The speedy little freshman tied the FBS record for punt-return touchdowns in a season with five in 2013, including one in the Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati. He's a fearless returner who's not quick to call for fair catches.

    Short of never kicking toward him, opponents are going to have to figure out a way to slow him down. Considering he averaged almost 21 yards on 24 returns last year, that's not an easy task.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Shadrach Thornton can put up some yards

    Not much went right for North Carolina State in 2013, as the Wolfpack went 3-9 and finished winless in the ACC. But Thornton's effort in the lost season is something to look high on for 2014.

    He has the capability to break off big runs, as he showed by rushing for 173 yards and two touchdowns (including a 72-yarder) against Florida State.

North Texas Mean Green

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    The Mean Green channel their namesake on defense

    North Texas' nickname comes from the school's most famous player "Mean" Joe Greene, who starred there in the 1960s. And his alma mater's defense played like the legendary NFL star last season, allowing less than 18 points per game.

    The Mean Green didn't allow more than 21 points in any of their final eight games, and with a solid corps of returners back from that unit, expect more of the same in 2014.

Northern Illinois Huskies

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    Winning in DeKalb isn't an option

    Northern Illinois has been nearly unstoppable in the Mid-American Conference the last few seasons, and beating the Huskies at home has been next to impossible.

    NIU has won 27 straight at Huskie Stadium, with its last loss coming in the 2008 finale to Navy. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they mostly face their top opponents in 2014 on the road.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Trevor Siemian is ready to take charge

    Northwestern split its quarterback snaps between Siemian and Kain Colter in 2013. The plan worked early but was ineffective during the Wildcats' painful seven-game losing streak.

    Siemian has the job all to himself in 2014, and if his last performance (414 yards, four touchdowns against Illinois) is any indication, game-planning for just him isn't going to be easy.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Everett Golson wants to make up for lost time

    Golson's absence from Notre Dame in 2013 had an impact on the offensive production, even though the scoring was on par with when he led the Fighting Irish to the national title game.

    Now back and (presumably) at the helm again for 2014, he will be eager to show he can be the same guy he was two years ago.

Ohio Bobcats

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    Frank Solich can still win

    Ohio struggled down the stretch in 2013, losing four of five after a 6-2 start to post its worst record in five years despite making a bowl game for the fifth consecutive year.

    Solich, who won consistently at Nebraska but didn't win enough for that program to get to stick around, is a wily veteran who is among the toughest to coach against in college football. 

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Braxton Miller wants to go out on top

    Injuries severely affected Miller's performance and output in 2013, but the Buckeyes still managed to get to 12-0 before fading in the big games at the end.

    The quarterback's return for another year bodes well for OSU's chances at another great season, especially since Miller will want to justify his decision to stay was a wise one.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Trevor Knight isn't a fluke

    Knight was stellar in Oklahoma's romp of a bowl win over Alabama, and with Blake Bell getting a look at tight end this spring, it appears Knight is the man at quarterback in 2014.

    It was an overall uneven year for Sooners passers last season, but with Knight ready to take complete control, there should be a much more consistent level of production from the Oklahoma offense.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Desmond Roland can be a workhorse

    Roland didn't get heavily involved in Oklahoma State's offense until midway through the season, but he made the most of his chances to finish with 16 total touchdowns despite limited use.

    It stands to reason that Mike Gundy will be more willing to give Roland consistent carries in 2014, which will mean opponents will have their hands full taking down the 6'2", 210-pound power runner.

Old Dominion Monarchs

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    Taylor Heinicke will throw you into submission

    Heinicke is the nation's active leader in passing yardage with 12,483 to go with 102 touchdowns, but he's probably the most unheralded quarterback in the country because Old Dominion is still transitioning into FBS.

    He has thrown for as many as 730 yards in a game (a Division I record), though that was at the FCS level. He had 300-yard games against three different FBS teams last season and will likely surpass that tally early in 2014 as the Monarchs play a full FBS slate.

Oregon Ducks

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    Marcus Mariota will be back to his old self

    Mariota was nearly unstoppable during Oregon's unbeaten start to 2013, but once some knee issues surfaced, his production was limited in the run game, and the Ducks began to struggle.

    Passing up on a chance to go to the NFL was the right move for Mariota, who needs to show he can stay healthy and dominate. The Ducks' 2014 foes will see that's the case.

Oregon State Beavers

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    Sean Mannion doesn't need Brandin Cooks

    Mannion has more than 10,000 career passing yards and 68 touchdown passes, and not all of that went to Oregon State's electric receiver Brandin Cooks.

    And no more will go to him, as Cooks has left for the NFL. But Mannion has the ability to find the open receiver no matter who he is—something he'll show in spades during his senior season. 

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Bill Belton is ready to run wild

    Belton was not Penn State's starting running back for much of 2013, taking a backseat to Zach Zwinak save for one game. And Belton made the most of that lone start, rushing for 201 yards in an overtime win over Illinois.

    It's Belton's job all alone in 2014, and defensive coaches will need to watch lots of tape from that Illinois game to try and figure out a way to slow him down.

Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Tyler Boyd's sophomore year will probably surpass his freshman one

    Boyd put together a first season of college football that was among the best ever for a wide receiver. He surpassed what former Pitt greats Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald managed.

    He did this despite Tom Savage struggling at times with his accuracy. Savage is gone now, and whoever is throwing for the Panthers in 2014 will know that Boyd is a target to aim for early and often. 

Purdue Boilermakers

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    The Boilermakers are going to break through

    Purdue might have been the worst BCS-level team in 2013, going 1-11 and losing nine games by at least 20 points. Odds are the Boilermakers won't be nearly as bad this time around, but just how improved they'll be is unknown.

    Purdue was very young last year, and first-year coach Darrell Hazell played a lot of guys while looking for the right lineup. With another offseason to get things settled, the Boilermakers are going to knock someone off. Maybe a few.

Rice Owls

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    The Owls hold serve at home

    Rice's Conference USA title in 2013 was borne from the stellar play of many senior leaders, who helped the Owls win 10 games for the first time since 2008.

    But while most of those principals are gone, Rice's strong home-field advantage remains. The team has won nine straight in Rice Stadium, and league contenders North Texas and UTSA will have to head there in 2014.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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    A healthy Paul James is a solid weapon

    A leg injury midway through the 2013 season kept James from being a 1,000-yard rusher and also contributed to Rutgers' major struggles after starting the year off strong.

    He should be at full strength for the Scarlet Knights' debut in the Big Ten, which more than anything else should help Rutgers get acclimated to the tough road ahead.

San Diego State Aztecs

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    Quinn Kaehler has a flair for the dramatic

    Kaehler didn't become San Diego State's starter until the third game of the 2013 season, and after losing his first start, he led the Aztecs to eight wins in 10 games. Several of those required overtime.

    Now a senior and the full-time starter without competition, he will get a chance to show off his late-game heroics in early road games against North Carolina and Oregon State.

San Jose State Spartans

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    Jarrod Lawson can be a featured back

    Lawson had a solid freshman season, rushing for nearly 800 yards but mostly playing second fiddle to a prolific passing attack led by David Fales.

    The Spartans won't have that luxury of launching through the air in 2014, so Lawson will need to step up like he did with major efforts in wins over Wyoming and UNLV.

SMU Mustangs

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    Darius Joseph is a slot secret

    SMU's passing attack spreads the ball all over the field, although most of the attention goes to the outside receivers, who put up big numbers in 2013.

    But Joseph managed 103 catches last season as the third option, and he'll be the No. 1 target for Neal Burcham this fall.

South Alabama Jaguars

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    Shavarez Smith can go deep

    Smith averaged a healthy 18.8 yards per reception in 2013 but only got 50 catches as South Alabama spread the passing around. Six of those were for more than 40 yards, though, showing his speed and capability as a deep threat.

    The Jaguars got to 6-6 in their second year of FBS play, and with the Sun Belt adding more former FCS teams this year, a bowl bid could be in the works. If that happens, Smith will be a major factor.

South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Mike Davis is ready to run the show

    Davis is one of the best running backs in the nation, but South Carolina didn't use him as much as it could have in 2013 because of Steve Spurrier's game plan and numerous injuries that limited the sophomore's availability.

    He will be the man in 2014 and might become Spurrier's best rusher ever if he can stay healthy. He had seven 100-yard games last season and should have at least that many this fall. 

South Florida Bulls

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    Andre Davis can be a major factor

    South Florida's offense was very bad in 2013, and that's being nice. The Bulls had several games without an offensive touchdown and averaged just over 255 yards per game.

    But Andre Davis managed to have some solid numbers last season, and with the expectation that coach Willie Taggart will have a better grasp of his available weapons, Davis could be the top receiver in the American Athletic Conference this fall.

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles

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    Nick Mullens will tap into his past

    Mullens, who took over as Southern Miss' starting quarterback midway through his freshman season, showed hope for the future with his six-touchdown performance in the Golden Eagles' blowout win over UAB, which ended a 23-game losing streak last November.

    Now Mullens has his old high school coach Chip Lindsey as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Mullens was a standout at the prep level under Lindsey, and the two working together should scare Conference USA defensive coaches.

Stanford Cardinal

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    The Hogan-to-Montgomery combination will shine

    Kevin Hogan wasn't a very heralded quarterback when he replaced Andrew Luck, but all he's done is win as a starter. It helps that he's had Ty Montgomery as a target.

    This tandem is going to be one of the best in the Pac-12, if not the nation, in 2014. And it will be one of the hardest for opposing defenses to stop.

Syracuse Orange

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    Terrel Hunt will thrive

    Hunt didn't get control of Syracuse's quarterback job until late in the 2013 season, but he did well once it was his and his alone. The effort in the bowl win over Minnesota (262 total yards, two rushing touchdowns) showed this.

    Now he will enter this fall as the go-to guy in the Orange offense, and as a dual-threat passer who's getting better at throwing the ball, he'll be tough to stop.

TCU Horned Frogs

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    Trevone Boykin as a receiver will reap benefits

    TCU coach Gary Patterson moved Trevone Boykin from quarterback to receiver midway through last season, and while Boykin's numbers weren't stellar, he showed some promise for the future.

    That future is now, with the Horned Frogs implementing a more pass-happy attack that the 6'2", 215-pound Boykin should thrive in.

Temple Owls

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    Tyler Matakevich can't be blocked

    Matakevich was one of the few things that Temple could be proud of in 2013, as the sophomore seemed to be wherever the play was on defense. He managed 136 tackles, including an astounding 105 of the solo variety, which was best in the nation.

    The Owls might not do much better than last year's 2-10 mark, but he will remain a matchup nightmare who will find his way to the ball-carrier no matter what blocking schemes are used.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Marquez North is ready to go in all directions

    North was a heralded freshman who was part of Butch Jones' first Tennessee recruiting class, and though he led the Volunteers in receiving last year, production was minimal because of the team's struggling offense.

    With another year of practice and preparation, though, North is poised to have a breakout season that should at least double the 38 catches and 496 yards. And the one touchdown catch he had last year should be topped within the first two games.

Texas Longhorns

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    The Brown/Gray combo is as good as they come

    Texas lost a talented running back in Johnathan Gray to injury early in the season but thankfully had Malcolm Brown to fill the void. In 2014, the Longhorns will have both at full strength all the time.

    There's no point in trying to game-plan for just one of these backs, as the Longhorns should go heavy on the run with a tandem approach that produced 1,684 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Kevin Sumlin finally has his own quarterback

    For all of the success that Sumlin has had, both at Texas A&M and previously at Houston, he's done so with quarterbacks who were recruited by his predecessors. FBS career passing leader Case Keenum had been with the Cougars for two years before Sumlin showed up, while Johnny Manziel was redshirted by Mike Sherman.

    But now Sumlin will be going with someone he's recruited, either Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen. Either one is someone that the coach specifically targeted for his system, which has already shown great success without a prototype quarterback.

Texas State Bobcats

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    Dennis Franchione can still coach

    Franchione became the 73rd coach in NCAA history to reach 200 wins in football last season and sits at 203 after leading Texas State to a 6-6 record. And though he's bounced around a lot since his first head gig in the early 1980s, he's had some level of success everywhere.

    He also pulls off an upset or two along the way, as was the case last year when his Bobcats knocked off a hot Wyoming team early in the season. This year, that could be Navy or Illinois.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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    Jakeem Grant plays much bigger

    Grant comes into 2014 as Texas Tech's most experienced and productive returning receiver after catching 65 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns last season. That includes two catches in the Red Raiders' bowl win over Arizona State.

    And while he's nowhere near the size of now-departed slot/tight end Jace Amaro, the 5'6" Grant will make himself seem much larger when he's catching passes all over the middle of the field.

Toledo Rockets

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    Kareem Hunt is going to be a stud

    Hunt took over as the starting running back midway through last season after David Fluellen was sidelined by injuries. He responded with 100-yard performances in five of six games down the stretch.

    And that was as a freshman. Now he'll return as an experienced rusher who will bring his 5'11", 200-pound frame and six-yards-per-carry average right at opposing defenses, which will struggle to slow him down.

Troy Trojans

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    The Trojans will be a mystery at quarterback

    For the first time in four years, Troy will be starting someone not named Corey Robinson. A four-time 3,000-yard passer who finished his career with more than 13,000 yards, he has exhausted his eligibility, as has backup Deon Anthony.

    Facing a team that's starting an all-new quarterback can be a stressful situation for opponents, who won't be able to properly plan for how to stop the passer.

Tulane Green Wave

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    The new stadium will be like an added weapon

    Tulane failed to top 23,000 fans in any of its six home games last season at the cavernous Superdome, though more than 54,000 did show up for the Green Wave's bowl game. Having Louisiana-Lafayette there probably helped, though.

    But Tulane is set to move into a shiny new on-campus facility, the 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium, where a crowd of 23,000 will seem pretty solid. The Wave will christen the stadium with Georgia Tech on Sept. 6, and future opponents would be wise to see what sort of advantage the new digs provide.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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    Michael Mudoh will make your acquaintance early

    Tulsa gave up a lot of yards and points last season, but at least the Golden Hurricane knew that Mudoh would make the tackle. He made almost all of them, it seemed, logging 133 from the secondary.

    He moves all over the field and finds his way into the action, so it will be tough for opponents to take the ball away from his direction.

UAB Blazers

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    Jamarcus Nelson is dangerous in many ways

    One of the best pieces that new coach Bill Clark will have to work with this fall is Nelson. And he'll have various options for how best to utilize this efficient and speedy player.

    Nelson averaged more than 150 all-purpose yards in 2013, scoring touchdowns as a receiver, punt returner and kick returner.

UCLA Bruins

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    Myles Jack probably won't play running back...but he might

    Jack came out of nowhere—actually, it was out of the linebacker position—when UCLA inserted him in the backfield in a game at Arizona last November. He scored a touchdown and had 120 yards on just six carries, and when the year was done, he had seven rushing TDs on 38 attempts.

    His use was one of necessity due to injuries, and it's most likely he'll stick to playing linebacker in 2014. But the fact he can be put in as a rusher will keep opposing coaches on their toes during pregame planning.

UNLV Runnin' Rebels

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    Devante Davis has huge upside

    Davis had 87 catches for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, making up one-third of a stellar and experienced offensive attack that got UNLV into a bowl for the first time in more than a decade.

    The 6'3", 210-pounder has the size and skills to play in the NFL but chose to come back for another year of preparation in college. That's not what Mountain West foes wanted to see happen.

USC Trojans

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    Last year's injuries equal this year's depth

    USC seemed to never get more than a few snaps before someone of significance got hurt, testing an already thin roster due to NCAA scholarship limitations. The Trojans somehow muddled through it, thanks to their overabundance of talent, to win 10 games.

    But what this means for 2014 is that the Trojans are seemingly two- and three-deep at most positions when it comes to critical game experience, which gives new coach Steve Sarkisian lots of flexibility and requires opponents to have to plan for countless personnel scenarios.

Utah Utes

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    Travis Wilson's return would be bad for opponents

    Wilson was having a relatively solid year for Utah (other than some bad interceptions at critical times) when concussions and other medical issues sidelined him. For a while, it looked like his career was over because of a neurological condition, but this week he was cleared for non-contact drills.

    If he is able to return to the form he had during the first half of 2013—when he led the Utes to an upset of Stanford—it will make Utah a much tougher foe.

Utah State Aggies

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    Chuckie Keeton will be back to wreak more havoc

    Few quarterbacks were as dynamic and explosive as Chuckie Keeton, and when he went down with a season-ending knee injury, it completely changed Utah State's offensive approach. It also made it easier to defend the Aggies, since his replacements didn't run as much.

    It's unknown just how effective he will be coming back from injury, but assuming he's able to return to form, the Mountain West's Mountain Division will probably go through Utah State.

UTEP Miners

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    Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

    UTEP has expertly mined the return game

    UTEP's offense wasn't effective in 2013, despite starting with pretty solid field position thanks to a kickoff return team that was 13th-best in FBS.

    If the Miners continue to struggle moving the ball, at least they know Autrey Golden (two return touchdowns) and others will provide an opportunity for a spark.

UTSA Roadrunners

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    Coker has the Roadrunners speeding forward

    Larry Coker is the only coach in UTSA football history; he was hand-picked to start up a program that hopes to compete with the big boys in Texas after cutting its teeth at lower levels. So far, so good.

    UTSA has gone 15-9 in its two seasons transitioning into FBS, winning nine of 14 league games split between seasons in the WAC and Conference USA. With the team now eligible for a bowl, the experience gained from those two years will make the Roadrunners a very tough out in 2014.

Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Scoring will be at a premium against the Commodores

    Vanderbilt has the kind of schedule in 2014 that you'd want for a program going through a major transition, with eight home games and a weak nonconference slate.

    Those early games will serve as an opportunity for the Commodores to transition to a defensive-minded team, which will be molded under new coach Derek Mason. By the time SEC play begins, look for Vandy to force opponents into low-scoring contests.

Virginia Cavaliers

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    The Cavaliers will be much improved on defense

    Virginia gave up far too many big plays in 2013, a key part of why it finished 2-10 after a 2-1 start that included a win over BYU. For improvement to happen this year, the defense has to get better.

    The arrival of a pair of 247Sports' 5-star defensive recruits in Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown, combined with returning stud safety Anthony Harris, almost ensures the Cavaliers won't be getting beaten for big yards as much as last season.

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    Trey Edmunds is ready for a bigger role

    Edmunds rushed for 675 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2013, but he was mostly the second rushing option behind keepers and draws from Logan Thomas.

    Thomas is gone now, which means Edmunds will get utilized more in the Hokies offense. He seems ready for the increase and will pose a tough challenge for opponents.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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    Wake Forest is going to hang its hat on defense

    Dave Clawson's arrival from Bowling Green, where he had one of the nation's top defenses, signals that Wake Forest is going to be a team that relies on defensive pressure to get the job done.

    This fits well with the Demon Deacons' returning personnel and will allow what looks to be a young defense some time to develop. Clawson has a strong background in defense, so opponents should expect that to continue with Wake Forest.

Washington Huskies

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    Shaq Thompson will control the middle

    Thompson was Washington's top defensive player in 2013, and he's back for another year of delivering hard hits and keeping opponents honest over the middle.

    New coach Chris Petersen is apt to keep Thompson as the focal point of the defensive attack, so Pac-12 coaches will need to plan for him being involved in the pursuit on every play.

Washington State Cougars

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    Mike Leach will keep you guessing

    One of the game's most eccentric coaches, Leach is best known for being a pass-first play-caller who makes the most of quarterbacks and receivers. But that doesn't mean he's not going to mix things up from time to time.

    The Cougars were one of the worst rushing teams in the country last season, but the numbers were affected by more than 200 yards in sacks. WSU didn't try to run much, but every now and then Leach would call an unexpected run that paid dividends, and every Pac-12 coach must plan for this rarity.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    Mario Alford will be the main weapon to stop

    Alford, a junior college transfer whom West Virginia swiped from Arizona at the last minute in 2013, made a lasting impression in the final game of the Mountaineers' tough season last year. He caught eight passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Iowa State.

    With so much uncertainty surrounding West Virginia's team, particularly at quarterback, Alford's presence will be a welcome piece of consistency and one that opponents will need to key on.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

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    Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

    Jeff Brohm will open up the passing game

    Western Kentucky wasn't as much of a quarterback-driven team as you'd have expected in 2013 under coach Bobby Petrino, but that's because the Hilltoppers had a stud running back in Antonio Andrews.

    Both Petrino and Andrews are gone now, with Brohm getting his first shot as a head coach. A former quarterback star at Louisville for Petrino, he'll no doubt air it out and make WKU's new Conference USA opponents very stressed. 

Western Michigan Broncos

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    Corey Davis can make big plays

    Western Michigan had one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the nation last season, which was a big part why it went 1-11. But Corey Davis showed promise for the future, with four 100-yard receiving games as a freshman.

    He will be Mid-American opponents' main concern when facing the Broncos, and his 6'2" frame will make it difficult for defenders to cover him.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Melvin Gordon wants to make his mark

    Gordon surprised many by deciding not to go to the NFL early—a departure from the norm for standout running backs who want to get their professional clock started while they're still young. That's good for Wisconsin and bad for everyone else.

    Last season he averaged only 16 carries per game, but whether he touched the ball nine times or 22, he averaged at least 5.7 yards per rush in 10 of 13 games.

Wyoming Cowboys

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    Craig Bohl will shake things up

    Wyoming's hire of the wildly successful Bohl from North Dakota State got solid grades across the board and seems like a perfect fit between coach and program. Now it's time to translate that marriage to the field.

    He ran a pro-style offense that goes against what most college teams are running and trying to defend against, especially in the Mountain West conference. This will lead to some game-planning headaches for the Cowboys' opponents this year.