Draft prep is still going on, folks. However, college football remains at my core, and this mailbag is a fun chance to put down the flashcards and talk a little bit about something that doesn't concern NFL team needs. You've got some questions. I've got some answers. Then we'll all have a great weekend—mine will include homemade Kentucky Hot Browns.
I actually like Ole Miss a good deal in the 2014 season. While the return of quarterback Bo Wallace will elicit mixed feelings, the other pieces on that offense are impressive. Yes, Austin Golson transferring creates real questions about the tackle spot opposite Laremy Tunsil, but I have high hopes for Fahn Cooper. That kid certainly looks the part and should come in ready to play.
LaQuon Treadwell is one of my favorite receivers, the type of dude who can really do everything for an offense. His bodying of a Texas A&M defender for 10 yards last season was a sight to watch. He'll pace the passing game while there will be a host of ball-carriers to run the football.
However, the big thing I'm excited about is the defense. Tony Conner was my favorite safety coming into school a season ago, and he lived up to the billing. Cody Prewitt is for real at the safety spot opposite Conner, and that gives Ole Miss a pair of guys in the back end that are as good as any in the country.
Deterrian Shackelford gets his sixth year of eligibility, and that helps boost the front seven. Obviously the Nkemdiche brothers (Robert and Denzel) returning will be a boost, but I like the versatility of Shackelford and the way he can impact the game.
The SEC West is going to be an interesting bear in 2014 as Alabama replaces key pieces, Auburn grows into its own in Year 2 under Gus Malzahn, LSU looks for a new quarterback, and Texas A&M tries to live life without Johnny Manziel. There is space for Ole Miss to come up, and the question for the Rebels will be one of consistency.
If they limit turnovers, squeeze the run and pressure the quarterback, I think they have the ability to climb up into the top three of the division. And, I think if they can climb into that area, that does make them a threat.
Speaking of the SEC West, if everything that seems to be happening is true, then nine to 10 wins should be the expectation going into 2014 for the Auburn Tigers. Nick Marshall getting better throwing the ball. Duke Williams and Sammie Coates being legitimate threats on opposite sides of the field to tax secondaries. C.J. Uzomah being more of a target on the interior.
Basically, phase two of Malzahn's offense, with his first year of having a returning quarterback, sounds real scary. Faster pace. More points. Plus, plenty of running the football.
The defense is where Auburn has to improve to be a truly complete team, and Ellis Johnson's unit showed flashes a year ago. The defensive line, even with the loss of Dee Ford, is going to be the strength of this side of the ball. The guys will be healthy for 2014, and that means a solid rotation of monsters playing both the run and the pass.
In the back seven, Kris Frost showed that he could be a quality linebacker when it all comes together. The addition of safety Derrick Moncrief will be something to watch as the JUCO transfer works himself into a larger role.
A record of 9-3 or 10-2 should be what folks look toward, even as the Tigers draw South Carolina in addition to rival Georgia. Alabama, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina are the biggest threats, with Ole Miss providing another possible stumbling hazard. This team has the talent to win every game.
Alabama and Georgia, on the road, will be interesting contests late in the season that will play a major role in whether or not the Tigers find a way into the playoff.
Oh, and watch for that Kansas State game. Auburn has the talent edge, but Bill Snyder's magic, especially at home, has a way of making things interesting.
Yes, there will be a new trophy for the new playoff. Personally, I love the crystal football, but with a new system and a new name should come a new trophy. This one is sponsored by Dr. Pepper, and while it has yet to be revealed, I'm sure they will do a quality job.
The old crystal football is not going away. The Coaches Poll, which is not a part of the College Football Playoff, will still award the Coaches Trophy to the team that finishes tops in the Coaches Poll, ran by the American Football Coaches Association.
When it comes to surprise teams in the SEC, out of the west, I don't expect to see one. Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss will be the top five in some order. If Ole Miss or A&M wins the division, that would count as a surprise. However, as far as true "surprise" teams go, I look to the SEC East and peg Tennessee and Florida as truer versions.
Neither team has a very forgiving schedule. Tennessee has Ole Miss and Alabama from the other side plus Oklahoma and Utah State. Florida has 'Bama and LSU plus the end-of-the-year date with the Seminoles. Tennessee fought hard a year ago, and that should continue into 2014. If it can close out games like Vandy or UGA from 2013, it can hopefully get to a bowl game.
As for the Gators, I was super high on them last year, and that came back to bite me in the behind, thanks in part to injury issues all over the roster. This year, hopefully healthy, with a plan by offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, I expect Florida to at least be in the running for the SEC East title.
In the ACC, surprise is a relative term, especially on the Coastal side. I don't expect to see a non-Clemson, Florida State or Louisville contender out of the Atlantic. On the Coastal side, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Miami, Duke and Georgia Tech will likely all finish within a game of each other, and that means chaos through November.
A surprise might be NC State—if it can get its mind right—pushing toward eight wins or Pitt pushing into that discussion with the other five teams in the Coastal. I'll go with NC State. I think the offensive production will be better this year, and that should take it a long way after being a team that just could not score the football.
I always knew the Pokes were going to struggle this season, in the terms of not getting back to the double-digit win plateau. However, thanks to your question, I decided to do some early, preseason looking at the schedule, and whew, that seven-win mark is an interesting beast.
Starting with the team: Questions on the offensive line and how ready quarterback J.W. Walsh is are the two biggest points of note.
Receiver Blake Webb had a solid spring day after being injured basically all of 2013, but the weapons are limited. I'm looking forward to transfer Tyreek Hill, but that still is not nearly the arsenal of playmakers the Cowboys have had in recent years.
Defensively, Justin Gilbert is the big name that's gone, but I think Shaun Lewis and Calvin Barnett may be bigger losses as a whole. Lewis was the heart and soul of that defensive front seven, and he not only made plays but helped set the tone. Barnett is a guy that lined up at a 0 on passing situations, a 3 and a 4 on normal downs and really played well in all situations. Tough to replace a guy like that.
Now, here's the real kicker, the schedule which goes: Florida State, Missouri State, UTSA, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas, TCU, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma. It looks to have four "should win" games on the schedule in Missouri State, UTSA, Iowa State and Kansas. Those are games the Pokes should not be losing.
Some will push West Virginia into that same mix, and for discussion's sake, let's call that a "should win" and put Oklahoma State at five victories.
To get to the seven-win mark that means going at least 2-5 against Florida State, Texas Tech, TCU, K-State, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma. Of those remaining seven, only Texas and Texas Tech are home games for Mike Gundy's team.
That means, if the Cowboys lose in September to the Red Raiders, they have to replace that possible win with a victory, on the road, against Baylor or Oklahoma later in the season to hit the seven-win threshold.
That said, with the exception of Florida State to start the year, the remaining teams are beatable, and given the conference nature of the contests, there is a level of familiarity that exists—and upsets happen. As long as the Cowboys don't drop a game they should win, this squad should still find its way to seven wins.
It just won't be easy.