10 Position Groups That Will Hold Back College Football Playoff Contenders
No matter how stacked a college football team is at six of the seven major position groups—quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive linemen, defensive linemen and defensive backs—the presence of just one Achilles' heel is enough to undo an otherwise promising season.
For proof of this theory, look no further than its converse: That balance among all seven position groups is the key to becoming a champion. Care to find any discernible holes on the 2013 Florida State Seminoles or the 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide?
One weak unit is enough to keep a team out of the College Football Playoff, and in 2014, the Playoff's first year, there will be no shortage of semi-flawed teams working to mask their biggest deficiency.
Whether said unit returns a bunch of underperforming pieces or loses most of its starters from 2013—or some combination of the two—there are reasons to believe it can hold the team back this year.
Whether it will is a different story, a narrative that depends on coaching and commitment from the players. But in all of the cases that follow, the unit has at least a couple of looming questions that could keep an otherwise championship-caliber team out of the CFP.
Chime in below, and let me know where you disagree.
Alabama's Defensive Backs
Alabama has a ton of blue-chip talent in the secondary because it's Alabama, which means it has a ton of blue-chip talent everywhere.
What it doesn't have is experienced blue-chip talent in the secondary. Incoming 5-star recruits Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey will be counted on to play (and maybe even to start) at cornerback in their first collegiate season.
At safety, Landon Collins will do his best to protect the deep third. He is a potential All-American—no doubt. After Eddie Jackson tore his ACL this spring, Collins became the only healthy member of the Crimson Tide secondary with four or more career starts.
Teams will test this secondary early and often.
Baylor's Defensive Backs
Baylor was surprisingly stingy on the back end last season, owing an underrated portion of its success to the pass defense of Ahmad Dixon, Sam Holl, K.J. Morton and Demetri Goodson.
All four of those guys were seniors, leaving safety Terrell Burt as the lone returning starter in the Bears' 4-2-5 formation. New first-team contenders such as Collin Brence, Terrence Singleton, Xavien Howard and especially Orion Stewart must step up in a big way.
If the group can coalesce ahead of schedule and perform at a level similar to last year's level, the Bears should compete for another Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
If it can't, this team could look a lot like 2013 Texas A&M.
Clemson's Offensive Line
Questions along the offensive line have gone overlooked at Clemson, where the story has been all about replacing high-profile stars such as quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Roderick McDowell and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
The state of the offensive line however, might ultimately define this Clemson season. Even though only two starters (Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley) departed this offseason, they were both All-ACC performers in 2013—which is more than any returning player can say.
Ryan Norton is a consistent player and leader at the center position, but there are question marks almost everywhere around him. Shaq Anthony was inconsistent when pressed into action at right tackle in 2013, and he is being counted on to make huge strides as a junior.
Georgia's Defensive Backs
Perhaps the most documented roster storyline of the offseason has been that of the defensive backfield at Georgia.
Thought to be a strength of the team back in January, the Bulldogs' secondary has lost three projected starters in dismissed safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who transferred on his own volition.
That leaves UGA with a group of largely untested and unreliable (for various reasons) players on the back end. Damian Swann was fantastic at cornerback in 2012, but he got burned consistently in 2013. Can he turn it back around this season? Can converted running back J.J. Green become a factor this quickly on defense? Can Reggie Wilkerson regain his form in the wake of last year's torn ACL?
With what should be a very good offense and a dominant defensive front seven, the answers to these questions, as well as the form of the incoming recruits, will define Georgia's championship hopes.
"I’m hoping that these young guys we have coming in can help us in the secondary," said defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, per Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com. "I’m going to give those guys a chance right off the bat. They’re going to have to prove to me that they can’t do it."
Michigan State's Wide Receivers
This group has loads of potential.
There is a chance—and not an entirely poor one—that by the end of the season, MSU's receivers will make this listing seem stupid.
Still, when the Spartans' offense has struggled the past two seasons, it has been because the receivers could not get separation on the outside. The Spartans' offense has struggled quite a lot the past two seasons. Ipso facto, so have the receivers.
Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Keith Mumphrey have all had their moments the past couple of years, but none of them has played with much consistency. Behind them, former blue-chip recruits Aaron Burbridge and DeAnthony Arnett have the potential to become stars, but neither has been able to put it all together in East Lansing.
Again, this is the group I feel the most trepidation about listing here. It is deep with potentially serviceable players. It just isn't deep with anyone who has proven he can play that way on a weekly basis.
And that is something MSU needs sorely.
Ohio State's Defensive Backs
Ohio State has gone to great lengths to improve its secondary. Most notably, they hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas, returning him to the Big Ten to serve next to Luke Fickell as co-defensive coordinator.
Ash previously served under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, where he molded some wonderful secondaries. Even though the early returns of his hire looked promising during spring practice—especially during the spring game—it is impossible to trust a defensive backfield that struggled so mightily and lost three starters.
The only starter who returns from 2013 is Doran Grant, and he might have been the weakest member of that group. Younger players such as Armani Reeves and Von Bell must prove precocious in the new press-man scheme, which will rely on their coverage abilities.
Oregon's Wide Receivers
Bralon Addison's torn ACL during spring practice was insult to injury and couldn't have come at a worse time.
The Ducks were already seeking answers at wide receiver after losing Josh Huff and Daryle Hakwins; Addison was supposed to be the one veteran they could rely on as the younger guys got ushered into the rotation. Now the younger guys must take the reins.
Keanon Lowe is a senior and the most experienced member of the unit, Dwayne Stanford is 6'5" and has the range to become a factor and track star Devon Allen was the star of the end of spring practice.
All of those guys must be ready to go by Week 2, when the "No Fly Zone" secondary of Michigan State comes to Autzen Stadium.
South Carolina's Defensive Backs
The safety position is in decent shape, but Rico McWilliams is the only reliable commodity that South Carolina has at cornerback.
Behind him, Bleacher Report's Charles Bennett predicts converted tailback Jamari Smith as the current starter with recently injured Ali Groves and former walk-on Sidney Rhodes sliding in behind him.
That could change once the Gamecocks' recruiting class comes in this summer. However, relying on true freshmen cornerbacks in the SEC is a dangerous proposition. Alabama made this list with a couple of 5-star guys in a similar spot; South Carolina is not quite as fortunate.
Especially with a defensive line that also has major questions—so much so that it was almost included on this list as well—the Gamecocks' pass defense is a difficult unit to count on.
USC's Offensive Line
Bleacher Report's Trenise Ferreira called USC's offensive line "the [position group] in the most state of flux" at the end of the spring, and there's a chance said flux could keep the Trojans—who are stacked at every other position—out of the Pac-12 South's driver's seat.
New offensive line coach Tim Drevno comes over from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had held the same position since 2010 and molded his group into the NFL's strongest unit. If anybody can be trusted to mix and match these players together, it might be him.
But with injury risks such as Aundrey Walker and Zach Banner being counted on to play big roles and little-to-no depth behind them, even Drevno might need more than a year to get this unit going.
Those scholarship restrictions can be felt—and hard—in the trenches.
Wisconsin's Wide Receivers
It seemed like a good idea, at the time, for Wisconsin to funnel the ball to the same one receiver on every play for the past two seasons. Jared Abbrederis was by far Wisconsin's best player in the passing game, so throwing him the ball as much as possible made sense.
But there is a downside to such a lopsided distribution on the outside—or at any position, for that matter.
How are you supposed to survive once that player is gone?
Abbrederis' 78 receptions were twice as many as any other player on the team in 2013, and the three players behind him were all seniors as well. The leading returnees on the outside, sophomore Alex Erickson and junior Jordan Fredrick, combined to catch 19 passes for 233 yards and zero touchdowns on the season.
Whoever wins the starting quarterback job between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will need all of the help he can get. At first glance, this roster does not appear to have such a helpful option.