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College Football's 5 New National Championship Contenders for 2014

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

College Football's 5 New National Championship Contenders for 2014

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    Brett Hundley is one of college football's top returning quarterbacks.
    Brett Hundley is one of college football's top returning quarterbacks.Victor Calzada

    One of the great things about college football is its propensity for change. As the game has grown across America, so has parity. College players don’t have lifetime contracts. They’re around for four years (or in some cases, three) and they’re gone—on to the NFL or the next phase of their lives.

    Coaches must recruit to replace their departed stars, and if they make mistakes (or have assistants move on), they fall back to the pack.

    In the last 14 years, 11 teams have won national titles or pieces of national titles. Florida State’s BCS national title broke up the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year run of national dominance, but even in that time, four league teams (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU) won national titles.

    The introduction of the College Football Playoff and its four-team format figures to make the national title chase even more interesting, with four teams instead of two battling for national glory.

    Much like Auburn and Florida State a year ago, a new pack of teams could emerge to seriously challenge for the national title.

    Here are five teams that could make the leap to become national championship contenders this fall.

    Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

Georgia

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    Georgia's Todd Gurley is one of college football's top tailbacks.
    Georgia's Todd Gurley is one of college football's top tailbacks.Stephen B. Morton

    The Bulldogs were an absolute M.A.S.H. unit last fall, starting with the opener against Clemson. Standout wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell suffered a torn ACL while celebrating a touchdown, and over the course of the year, fellow wideout Justin Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and star quarterback Aaron Murray all suffered torn ACLs.

    What’s more, standout tailback Todd Gurley rushed for 989 yards but missed three full games with an ankle injury.

    When Marshall and Wesley-Scott suffered their knee injuries against Tennessee in early October, they were the Bulldogs’ No. 2 rusher and receiver, respectively.

    Murray missed the final two games after suffering his injury. He finished as the SEC’s all-time leader in completions (921), passing yards (13,166), touchdown passes (121) and total offense (13,562), becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.

    On the positive side, Murray’s injury allowed rising senior Hutson Mason to begin his tenure as the Bulldogs’ starter early. The former Parade All-American and Georgia prep standout threw for 299 yards in Georgia’s comeback win over Georgia Tech and threw for 320 in a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.

    If Gurley, Marshall, Mitchell and Wesley-Scott are all healthy, it’ll ease Mason’s transition into the role and give him plenty of targets.

    Georgia’s defense must take a step forward under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was plucked from Florida State after Todd Grantham bolted for Louisville and Bobby Petrino’s staff for a reported $1 million annual salary.

    The Bulldogs allowed 29 points per game in 2013, 10th in the SEC and 78th nationally. But they do return nine starters from that defense, even after former 5-star recruit Josh Harvey-Clemons was booted for a violation of team rules.

    With a new attitude on defense and a healthy offense, there’s plenty of room for growth this fall.

    Georgia will host Clemson to begin the year and avoids powers Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M in SEC play.

Oklahoma

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    Trevor Knight had a night to remember against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
    Trevor Knight had a night to remember against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.Patrick Semansky

    Under Bob Stoops’ watch, Oklahoma has been a model of consistency. The Sooners have 12 years with at least 10 wins in Stoops’ 15 seasons and made three BCS National Title games in his first nine seasons, winning in 2000.

    But after making seven BCS bowl trips in nine years from 2000-08, the Sooners made only one trip in the next four years, winning the Fiesta Bowl following the 2010 season.

    Given the high standards Stoops set, that amounts to something of a slump.

    Last season, the Sooners answered questions about their momentum in the affirmative. Oklahoma went 11-2 and finished the season with a rousing 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over two-time defending national champion Alabama.

    Quarterback Trevor Knight ended his freshman season with a bang, shredding Alabama’s defense for 348 yards and four touchdowns.

    Rising sophomore tailback Keith Ford (134 yards, 1 TD as a freshman) will need to carry a bigger load following the departures of Brennan Clay and Roy Finch. Top receiver Jalen Saunders (629 yards, 8 TDs) is also gone. Rising junior Sterling Shepard (603 yards, 7 TDs) will be a bigger target. Joe Mixon, a 5-star tailback, could also contribute immediately.

    Continued improvement from the defense in Mike Stoops’ third season back on campus will also be required. Last season, the Sooners were 20th nationally in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense, and nine starters will return from that unit.

    The Sooners get Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home and will have the annual Red River Rivalry against Texas in Dallas. It is a very favorable schedule, and with a few breaks, the Sooners could challenge for a playoff spot.

Stanford

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    David Shaw has helped build Stanford into a national power.
    David Shaw has helped build Stanford into a national power.Matt York

    Under Jim Harbaugh and now David Shaw’s watch, Stanford has created a brutish model for college football success. The Cardinal pound the ball on the ground behind a nasty offensive line and play sound defense.

    It works.

    Stanford has played in four consecutive BCS bowl games, winning two, and finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll in each of the last four seasons.

    The Cardinal garnered at least 11 wins in each of those seasons and appear ready to take the next step toward national title contention.

    Stanford loses tailbacks Tyler Gaffney (1,709 yards) and Anthony Wilkerson and returns only one starting offensive lineman from 2013 following the early NFL departures of tackle Cameron Fleming and guard David Yankey.

    The Cardinal will return seven starters on defense but must replace standout linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, as well as safety Ed Reynolds and ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro.

    Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, with outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson promoted to replace him.

    Stanford has recruited offensive linemen well. The question will be how quickly they jell and how well the backfield replacements can pick up the pace. Junior Remound Wright (102 yards, 1 TD in 2013) and sophomore Barry Sanders, Jr. (who had 42 yards and a touchdown as a freshman) must prove they can be trusted.

    If returning starting quarterback Kevin Hogan (2,605 yards, 20 TD in 2013) gets time to throw and moves the offense well, the Cardinal could move to the next level and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Texas A&M

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    Senior QB Matt Joeckel is among those vying to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's quarterback.
    Senior QB Matt Joeckel is among those vying to replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's quarterback.Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    Offense was not Texas A&M’s problem last fall. Behind 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Aggies could score with anyone. Manziel threw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores.

    A&M finished fifth nationally in scoring offense (44.2 points per game), seventh in passing offense (353.3 yards per game) and fourth in total offense (538.4 yards per game).

    But too often, the Aggies found themselves needing to outscore opponents. A&M yielded 32.2 points per game (95th nationally) and finished 109th in total defense, allowing 475.4 yards per game.

    A young defense lost only two starters in safety Toney Hurd, Jr. and linebacker Steven Jenkins, but has been hampered by injuries and other issues this season. Rising sophomores Jay Arnold and Daeshon Hall have been sidelined by shoulder surgeries.

    Starting defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne were suspended following arrests for marijuana possession and a noise violation, respectively. Claiborne also missed the Chick-fil-A Bowl following an arrest for marijuana possession.

    In addition, sophomore safety Kam Miles, a projected starter, was dismissed from the team following a violation of team rules.

    Defensive end signee Myles Garrett was rated as the nation’s No.1 end recruit by 247Sports, and defensive tackle early enrollee Zaycoven Henderson has stood out in spring drills. But questions abound.

    Coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital must also find Manziel’s replacement from rising senior Matt Joeckel, rising sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.

    Hill has been suspended indefinitely following a recent arrest for public intoxication.  

    Joeckel, a pocket passer, started A&M’s opener last fall against Rice when Manziel was suspended and served as Manziel’s backup for the rest of the season. Allen was rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect.

    If the Aggies can answer their quarterback and defensive questions, there are offensive weapons. Redshirt freshman wideout Ricky Seals-Jones was a 5-star recruit and caught a 71-yard touchdown pass in his first game last fall before suffering a knee injury that led to a redshirt.

    He’ll be a top candidate to fill the void left by star Mike Evans, who left after his redshirt sophomore season for the NFL draft.

     

UCLA

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    Jim Mora, Jr. is returning UCLA to national prominence.
    Jim Mora, Jr. is returning UCLA to national prominence.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Bruins have an excellent football tradition, which until recently, had been somewhat dormant. UCLA plays in one of college football’s most picturesque stadiums, the Rose Bowl, and has 17 league titles in its trophy case.

    However, before last season’s 10-3 breakthrough, UCLA had won more than eight games just once since 1998 and has not won a Rose Bowl since 1986.

    Jim Mora Jr.’s team is poised for more this fall. Dynamic dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley is one of college football’s most multi-skilled players, and UCLA returns eight starters on offense, including four starters on the offensive line.

    A year ago, Hundley passed for 3,071 yards with 24 touchdowns against nine interceptions and added 748 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns on the ground.

    All-American linebacker Anthony Barr is among those who departed defensively along with fellow ‘backer Jordan Zumwalt, but UCLA does return seven defensive starters.

    In addition, the Bruins’ schedule is exceedingly favorable. UCLA has a Sept. 13 neutral-site game with Texas at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, but welcomes Oregon, Stanford and Southern Cal to the Rose Bowl. The toughest Pac-12 road trip will be to Arizona State.

    With 15 starters and a schedule that tilts in its favor, perhaps this is the year the Bruins rejoin the national scene.

     

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