College Football

College Football Teams with Most Upside on Their Roster

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2014

College Football Teams with Most Upside on Their Roster

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    We have already heard—and will continue to hear—more than we can reasonably process about the eight or 10 favorites to win the College Football Playoff. They are the strongest, most complete teams in America, so their rosters deserve to be discussed and dissected more than other teams' do.

    But the national title, as you've no doubt heard, is not crowned during the middle of the summer or the beginning of the fall. It is crowned at the end of the winter, after high-upside teams such as Auburn, Baylor, Michigan State and Missouri—to cite 2013 as one of many examples—have had a chance to realize their considerable potential.

    There are teams off the current national title radar that will prove, in time, to have a realistic chance of winning it all. It happens every year. The difficult part is guessing who of the many candidates will actually put everything together and contend into late December.

    For the purposes of this list, we have excluded any team with 25-to-1 odds or better to win the national title, per Vegas Insider. That means that the "top" 10 contenders in the country—Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Oklahoma, UCLA, LSU, Georgia and Michigan State—were all not deemed eligible for inclusion.

    It did not feel right calling them "high-upside" teams when their potential has so nearly already been realized. Instead, the list focused on teams outside of that 10 that have recruited well the past few seasons but maybe not been able to put all their talent together.

    That is, after all, what high-upside means—is it not?

    Sound off below, and let me know where you disagree.

     

    Note: Unless otherwise cited, all recruiting information courtesy of the 247Sports Composite.

Florida

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Florida is just one year removed from a one-loss regular season and trip to the Sugar Bowl.

    That one year featured some historical low points for the proud program from Gainesville, but the Gators—bolstered by their location in talent-rich Florida—have continued to recruit like the team that won 57 games in a five-year span between 2005 and 2009.

    There's a reason Vegas is cautious about Florida next season, listing it even with Notre Dame and Oklahoma State at 45-to-1 to win the national title. Even coming off a four-loss season, players such as linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III have first-team All-America potential, and other former blue-chippers such as offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, running back Kelvin Taylor, defensive end Jonathan Bullard and true freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor all seem ready to make an impact in 2014.

    Even Jeff Driskel, the oft-maligned starting quarterback, has the upside of a potential All-SEC performer. His career has been up-and-down (and mostly down), but he was the No. 13 overall prospect in the country in 2011 and has a rare blend of size (6'4") and mobility that new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper should be able to utilize.

    A lot of things have to go right, sure, but this team easily could win the SEC East next season. And from there, it would likely be just 60 minutes away from making the College Football Playoff.

Miami

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    Phil Sears/Associated Press

    If the defense ever comes together, Miami will probably become the second-best team in the ACC, leapfrogging Clemson for that title.

    But it's starting to get old, each preseason, to say "if the defense ever comes together…" about Miami's chances. In defensive ends Anthony Chickillo and Al-Quadin Muhammad and cornerbacks Tracy Howard and Artie Burns, the Hurricanes have three former top-25 overall prospects (all except Burns) and another who finished in the top 100. Together with linebacker Denzel Perryman, the team's best defender, that should be a recipe for modest success (at the very, very least).

    On offense, the injury to presumed starting quarterback Ryan Williams leaves some questions, but Kevin Olsen was the No. 5 pro-style quarterback and a top-100 player in the 2013 class. He'll have a couple of the nation's top playmakers surrounding him in running back Duke Johnson and wide receiver Stacy Coley.

    The upside on this offense is still pretty darn high.

Michigan

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    Michigan's backfield of the future—quarterback Shane Morris and running back Derrick Green—didn't get off to the hottest of starts as a true freshman, but even if Devin Gardner holds onto the starting job under center, the upside of both of those guys is difficult to ignore.

    On defense, the Wolverines welcome a massive wild card in true freshman safety/corner/weapon Jabrill Peppers. He has been hyped as the re-embodied version of Charles Woodson, and everything one can see on his high school tape does not belie that reputation.

    Even the offensive line, which was by far Michigan's worst unit and perhaps one of the worst overall units in the Big Ten last season, has some upside. Three top-100 recruits from the 2013 class (Patrick Kugler, Kyle Bosch and David Dawson) and two top-100 recruits from the 2012 class (Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson) help fill out a roster that is loaded with physical potential and now gets the aide of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who helped coach up some of the game's best offensive lines at Alabama the past two seasons.

    The ceiling in Ann Arbor is still where it needs to be.

Mississippi State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There is not a quantifiable ceiling on quarterback Dak Prescott, who was not a blue-chip recruit like many of the other players mentioned on this list but has every trait a Heisman-winning QB needs.

    With a big, strong frame, good mobility and a surprisingly active arm, Prescott will lead an offense that lacks true firepower at the skill positions but returns a solid amount of depth and should benefit from the playmaking of their leader under center.

    But the Bulldogs did not make this list because of their offense. They made this list because of their defense, which is headlined by a pair of future first-round NFL draft picks, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive end/tackle Chris Jones. With those two in starring roles and a healthy amount of experience surrounding them, MSU might have a top-five defense in the SEC.

North Carolina

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    North Carolina has two freshmen in its offensive backfield, quarterback Mitch Trubisky (a redshirt) and running back Elijah Hood (who will join the team this fall), who rank among the most impressive young prospects in the country at their respective positions.

    And both might be backups until 2016.

    Why? Because the Tar Heels' projected starters at those positions, junior quarterback Marquise Williams and sophomore running back T.J. Logan, were both underclassmen down the stretch in 2013, and each put up big numbers to help compile a 6-1 late-season record.

    The offense also boasts a pair of game-changing receivers, 6'4" outside threat Quinshad Davis and punt-return ace/slot specialist Ryan Switzer, and the defense has a few (albeit less) physically imposing young players who could emerge in 2014 as well.

    Underestimate UNC at your own risk.

Notre Dame

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Golden Dome still means something to most young prospects—and especially to their parents—which is one reason why Notre Dame, only one season removed from a trip to the national title game, continues to boast a roster with massive upside.

    It's tempting to think what might have been had Eddie Vanderdoes not ditched for UCLA, but the defensive line still boasts names such as Sheldon Day and Ishaq Williams who are rare athletes. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield were top-30 overall players in the 2013 class, and the former enjoyed a fine freshman season last year.

    He's a legit All-America candidate as a sophomore in 2014.

    On offense, the upside at quarterback is obvious. Everett Golson is a proven commodity, but behind him—or, if you prefer, at his parallel—redshirt freshman Malik Zaire looks like a superstar. Here is how Keith Arnold of Bleacher Report described him during spring practice:

    In a few open looks at the Irish last week, Zaire's striking athleticism was on display. Many marveled at the clear distinction between Zaire and Golson once they broke into the open field. Golson is a more than competent runner, leading the team in touchdown runs in 2012, but Zaire is electric, a far more dangerous playmaker in the open field.

    One other area where Zaire would be a clear upgrade is in the option run game. If the zone read is going to anchor the Irish rushing attack this season, Zaire could be the better trigger man. After three years in a mostly running system in high school, he is a wizard in the option.

    Combined with the upside of running back Greg Bryant, another top-50 recruit from the 2013 class, and a deep but largely unproven group of receivers, Notre Dame has an offense worth getting excited about.

Ole Miss

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    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    Ole Miss' upside is a product of its 2013 recruiting class, which featured two of the top four, three of the top 14 and four of the top 32 overall players in the country.

    Among that group was the No. 1 overall player and defensive end (Robert Nkemdiche), the No. 1 offensive lineman (Laremy Tunsil) and the No. 1 wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell). All three from that group justified their ranking with impressive freshman campaigns.

    The other top-32 player, safety Tony Conner, made his presence felt from the onset with an interception in the Rebels' season-opener and continued to play well throughout the season. He is not that far off from the other three blue-chippers he came to Oxford with.

    This was the easiest inclusion on the list.

Texas

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    Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    Charlie Strong is expected to need some time before he can get Texas back to the glory days, and although I subscribe to that expectation, would it really be that crazy to see the Longhorns become an instant Big 12 Championship contender in 2013?

    They are, after all, still the Longhorns. And even though Texas A&M has emerged as a recruiting powerhouse and poached some of the state's best prospects these past couple of seasons, Texas still has enough pedigreed talent to match up with any team in America.

    Running back Jonathan Gray, running back Malcolm Brown and defensive tackle Malcolm Brown—yes, you read that correctly—were all top-15 overall recruits coming out of high school, and the rest of the roster is peppered with other former top-50 and -100 players.

    At this point, we know what David Ash is (and isn't) as a quarterback, but sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Jerrod Heard are both tantalizing physical talents who should benefit from having Strong and QB coach Shawn Watson around to provide mentorship (as they did for Teddy Bridgewater). It would be surprising, but not shocking, to see one of them succeed as early as 2014.

    In that case, why shouldn't UT be kind of awesome?

Texas A&M

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle Allen has the look of a young Aaron Rodgers, which is to say his upside is as high as any young quarterback's could be.

    He was the No. 1 quarterback and the No. 10 overall player in the 2014 class for a reason, and combined with wide receivers Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones and running back Trey Williams—all of whom were also former top-25 overall recruits—this offense has more upside at the skill positions than any other team in America.

    (Yes, that includes Alabama.)

    There are large-looming questions on defense, but incoming defensive end Myles Garrett has the highest upside of any player—at any position—in the 2014 class. It took a while for his technique to match his physical gifts, but after dominating the all-star game circuit, Garrett became the consensus No. 2 overall player in the class (and checked in at No. 1 on the 247Sports subjective rankings).

    Who knows what sort of impact he might make?

USC

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    Scholarship restrictions have hurt the depth of USC's recruiting the past few seasons, but Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian—plus recruiting ace Tee Martin—both did will to continue landing blue-chip recruits.

    The upside on this secondary, for example, is ridiculous. Just think of what it might look like two seasons from now. Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay were both 5-star recruits and top-31 players in the 2013 class, and Adoree Jackson and John "Juju" Smith were both 5-star recruits and top-30 players in the 2014 class.

    Woah.

    The upside (and future) of the passing game is in capable hands as well. Redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne was the No. 11 overall player in the 2013 class and has vowed not to transfer despite being relegated to the bench behind Cody Kessler for another year.

    "I'm staying put," Browne said in April, according to Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register"I'm here for good."

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