50 Names You Need to Know for the 2014 College Football Season

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2014

50 Names You Need to Know for the 2014 College Football Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Media days are over, fall camps are open and college football season is officially just weeks away from kickoff.

    This year marks the long-awaited end of the BCS era and the start of the College Football Playoff, which will pit four teams against each other in two national semifinal games on New Year's Day. The winners will square off in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the right to be crowned national champion on January 12.

    Part of the beauty of college football is that we never know where superstars are hiding. At this time two seasons ago, for example, Johnny Manziel was an anonymous redshirt freshman competing with three other players just to start at Texas A&M.

    Five months later, he was Johnny F'n Football!

    Still, even if we can't predict where the next Manziel might come from, we can be sure of certain players, coaches and administrators whose actions in 2014 will dictate the narrative of the season.

    Whether they are Heisman contenders, small-school superstars, coaches with something to prove or executives in charge of running the CFP, they are names every fan must know before the season.

    For the sake of fairness, we have not listed multiple figures from any one school. There are too many promising players, coaches and storylines throughout the country that demand our attention.

    Here are our 50 favorites, presented in alphabetical order.

Vic Beasley

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Senior Defensive End for the Clemson Tigers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Vic Beasley had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last season, both of which are the most (or tied for the most) among returning players.

    He forewent the NFL draft (and a likely first-round paycheck) to come back for his senior season, and his return means that Clemson, in a poetic stroke of bad timing, might finally field a championship-caliber defense during the one season its offense can't keep up.

    Led by Beasley, a unit that also boasts linebacker Stephone Anthony, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (among a deep group of horses on the line) should be one of the best in the country. With Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina on the schedule, it will have no shortage of chances to prove itself.

    Get used to seeing Beasley play in prime time.

Dino Babers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Bowling Green Falcons

    Why He's Intriguing

    Dave Clawson is a fine coach, but after losing him to Wake Forest and replacing him with Dino Babers, Bowling Green might be falling up.

    Babers proved he could win at Baylor before that seemed semi-normal, coaching wide receivers under Art Briles from 2008 to 2011. While there, he helped develop Kendall Wright into a first-round NFL draft pick and Terrance Williams into a unanimous All-American.

    He left to become the head coach at Eastern Illinois two seasons ago and quickly turned the Panthers into an FCS contender. This past year, Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 5,000 yards and became a second-round NFL draft pick, and the team made the playoff quarterfinals.

    Babers has the wits to turn Bowling Green into "Baylor North," and his go-go-go offense will, if nothing else, spruce up this year's #MACtion schedule (which was sadly a bit of a letdown in 2013).

    "Tempo is what we do," Babers told warned Martin Rickman of SI.com about Bowling Green's new offense. "We will play fast."

Bret Bielema

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    Danny Johnston/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks

    Why He's Intriguing

    Bret Bielema is not exactly on the hot seat at Arkansas, but he cannot be feeling good after an 0-8 debut in the SEC last season. One more debacle like that will turn the hot-seat smoke into sparks.

    It might be rash, however, to sleep on what Bielema can do. There's a reason his hiring was so applauded in the first place. Prior to joining the Razorbacks, he had just taken Wisconsin—which is far from a recruiting powerhouse—to three consecutive Rose Bowls.

    Last year's team did not play well on the whole, but it did, at the very least, adopt Bielema's run-first identity. It rushed for 200 yards or more in half of its conference games and ended the season on a high note with a near-upset of LSU at Tiger Stadium.

    Bielema doesn't have to lead Arkansas to a bowl game or anything this year (although that would be nice). What he does need to do is keep the team competitive. More close finishes like the LSU game would be a welcome sign of improvement, however gradual.

    Keep an extra close eye on the Week 1 game with Auburn, which pits Bielema against his offseason rival, Gus Malzahn. The two coaches jousted over pace-of-play issues all winter, and even though Bielema said their feud has been blown out of proportion, per Brandon Marcello of AL.com, that matchup will feel extra personal.

Tyler Boyd

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Wide Receiver for the Pittsburgh Panthers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Tyler Boyd was the top freshman receiver in the country last season, but America's breakout freshman wideout in 2011 (Clemson's Sammy Watkins) and in 2012 (Alabama's Amari Cooper) both saw their stats drop appreciably as sophomores.

    Can Boyd break the streak in 2014?

    It's a difficult question to answer. There's no reason to think he won't after his 85-catch, 1,174-yard debut (both freshman bests), but there was no reason to think Watkins or Cooper would take a step back, either. It's almost definitely a coincidence, but it's a curious one.

    Boyd does have a bunch of factors going for him, though. Unlike Watkins, whose team returned DeAndre Hopkins, and Cooper, whose team returned almost every receiver from 2012, Boyd's team is losing its other top receiving target, Devin Street (89 targets).

    At quarterback, sophomore Chad Voytik didn't get meaningful reps until the second half of last year's bowl game, but after subbing in for an injured Tom Savage, he promptly hit Boyd for a 62-yard bomb.

    Pitt has a favorable schedule and plays in the most up-for-grabs division in any of the power-five conferences. Miami had the third-most first-place votes (26) in the preseason media poll but was still projected to finish at the top of the standings.

    It is that type of year in the Coastal.

    With so much uncertainty, is there any reason Boyd can't lead Pitt to the ACC Championship Game? He's 6'2", blazing fast and caught an absurd 71.4 percent of his targets last year, per Football Study Hall.

    This should be the end of the second-year curse.

Shilique Calhoun

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Who Is He?

    Junior Defensive End for the Michigan State Spartans

    Why He's Intriguing

    Last year's Michigan State defense was led by inside linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard, but defensive end Shilique Calhoun was always its most talented player.

    This year, the unit belongs to him, and huge things are expected from the man in the six-bar facemask. He's been popping up in first-round 2015 NFL mock drafts all over the Internet, checking in as high as No. 6 overall in the version done by Chris Burke at SI.com.

    Calhoun is 6'5", 256 pounds, and even though he plays with his hand down in East Lansing, he's athletic enough to stand up and play rush linebacker, too. That became plain at the start of 2013, when he scored three defensive touchdowns in the first 99 minutes of the season.

    Michigan State's offense didn't score its third touchdown until the 124th minute of the season, but this year's group is older, more experienced and got better as 2013 went on. If the defense performs at a similar level to last year, this team can be truly great.

    Calhoun is the Spartans' best chance of getting there.

Rakeem Cato

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Senior Quarterback for the Marshall Thundering Herd

    Why He's Intriguing

    Marshall is this year's prohibitive "group of five" darling. According to the ESPN Football Power Index, it has the third-best odds in the country of going undefeated, just ahead of Ohio State.

    A big part of that is schedule-related, but it's also a testament to the Marshall offense, which is led by senior quarterback Rakeem Cato.

    Cato led the country in passing yards as a sophomore in 2012, and though his volume numbers went down in 2013, he averaged more yards per attempt and had a higher QB rating.

    Despite his size (6'0"), he is smart, decisive and accurate with the football, and if the profile Adam Kramer did on him for Bleacher Report is any indication, his work ethic does not belie his stats.

    But will that be enough to crash the "New Year's Six?"

Larry Coker

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the UTSA Roadrunners

    Why He's Intriguing

    A coach who won a national championship 13 years ago is leading a team that didn't even exist until four years ago, and it is expected, if not favored, to contend for a conference title in 2014.

    Why aren't more people talking about this?

    Larry Coker had UTSA playing legitimately decent football last season, when it finished 7-5 and ranked No. 67 in the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings. Teams that have existed for substantially longer than four years and play in a power-five conference such as Illinois (No. 71), Tennessee (No. 72) and West Virginia (No. 76) finished behind it.

    According to Phil Steele, the Roadrunners also return the most combined experience in the country (19 senior starters!), which makes sense for a program that began four years ago. Their first recruiting class is all grown up and ready for its grand finale.

    How Coker fares in 2015 and beyond is anybody's guess, but it seems like a relatively sure thing that his team will be good in the present.

    And that seems like something to watch.

Jamison Crowder

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    Who Is He?

    Senior Wide Receiver for the Duke Blue Devils

    Why He's Intriguing

    Jamison Crowder is the ACC's Jordan Matthews.

    Matthews flew under the radar at Vanderbilt, a top-flight academic institution with a depressing football history, but slowly helped the program gain traction. When his career was over, not only had the Commodores made three consecutive bowl games, but Matthews was the all-time leading receiver in SEC history.

    Likewise, Crowder helped Duke reach the ACC Championship Game last season, and he enters 2014 just 1,153 yards shy of the conference receiving record. He already graced the ACC single-season record book with his 108 receptions in 2013, and with quarterback Anthony Boone returning, he is in good position to add to his legacy.

    Not that he cares about that stuff. For Crowder, putting up stats is tertiary behind winning and improving his craft.

    "The numbers are great, it shows I’m working, but I can do better and I know I’m going to have to do better to have a chance to play at the next level," he told David Hale of ESPN.com. "And as long as we’re winning ballgames, that’s the main thing."

Mark Emmert

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    President of the NCAA

    Why He's Intriguing

    The NCAA's current model is at a crossroads, which means its president, Mark Emmert, can either double down on the traditional system or agree to seek a compromised, progressive solution.

    He and the Division I board of directors took a big step toward doing the latter Thursday afternoon, granting autonomy to the power-five conferences and their 65 universities, which will allow them to "raise the value of scholarships, improve health insurance, allow players to consult agents and more," per Marc Tracy of The New York Times.

    At the same time, Emmert must also deal with the issues of player compensation that are already at hand. The Ed O'Bannon trial took place this offseason (although the ruling has still not been issued), and the impending doom of college amateurism drew even closer when the National Labor Relations Board declared Northwestern football players employees of the university in March.

    The changing climate of collegiate athletics will not cast a pall over this season, per se, but it will be impossible to ignore. So much about this power-five autonomy deal depends on logistics, which Emmert will no doubt take some time to explain in the coming months.

    After Thursday's announcement, Ralph Russo of The Associated Press raised some great points both in favor and against the autonomous model, summing up his stance with a haunting but very apt question:

    "Which way will you go college sports?" Russo asked.

    Emmert is the man with the answer.

Leonard Fournette

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Freshman Running Back for the LSU Tigers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Leonard Fournette was the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class and is being billed as a once-in-a-generation talent.

    Better yet, he plays a position (running back) that doesn't have the steepest learning curve from high school to college. Theoretically, we could see him step in and dominate from Week 1.

    It's not hard to see what the fuss is all about. One good look at his highlights tells you all you need to know. Fournette is 6'1" and 224 pounds, runs a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash and is powerful enough to make SEC veterans look like high schoolers on the blocking sled.

    We in sports media are prone to hyperbole, so it only means so much when we declare a prospect "The Next Adrian Peterson." It really starts to mean something once the players start to say it, which is precisely what LSU teammate (and person whose job Fournette might steal) Terrence Magee did at SEC media days.

    There's a chance LSU starts another true freshman (Brandon Harris) at quarterback and a couple of others (Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) at wide receiver, which means Fournette and the running game could be asked to shoulder a big offensive load in 2014.

    Does that mean he'll flirt with Peterson's 1,925 freshman rushing yards? Probably not. But he also won't flirt with Peterson's 339 freshman carries. With a veteran offensive line in front of him, though, Fournette could easily match Peterson's 5.7-yard freshman average.

    He might even do better than it, too.

James Franklin

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions

    Why He's Intriguing

    James Franklin's first seven months at Penn State have gone well.

    Since arriving from Vanderbilt, he has reinvigorated a program that desperately needed energy, especially on the recruiting trail, where he has made good on the promise from his introductory press conference to "dominate the state…[and] the region."

    With all the good vibes emanating from State College, it would be easy to forget that Franklin hasn't coached a game yet. It would also be easy to forget that the roster has been ravaged by NCAA-mandated scholarship restrictions. Especially along the offensive line, it is clear that Penn State isn't at maximum strength.

    Still, with the bowl ban expected to be lifted in 2015, this season can serve as a veritable redshirt year for Franklin and his young team, not unlike Urban Meyer's 12-0 season at Ohio State in 2012.

    Big-name recruits are committing left and right, and all-world quarterback Christian Hackenberg is only a sophomore. The future is bright in Happy Valley—and boy, does this fanbase deserve it.

    But what can Franklin do about the present?

Everett Golson

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Junior Quarterback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish

    Why He's Intriguing

    Everett Golson led Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season, a No. 1 BCS ranking and a trip to the national title game as a redshirt freshman two seasons ago. But after getting thoroughly embarrassed by Alabama and being suspended from the university (and team) for academic impropriety last fall, he finds himself in a curious position.

    Even after struggling a bit without him in 2013, the Irish have not hailed Golson as a savior returned. Instead, his welcome-home gift has been a battle for his starting job, and redshirt freshman Malik Zaire looked like a serious competitor during spring camp.

    At the same time, though, Vegas Insider listed Golson as one of the 11 betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in May. How often can that be said about someone who (a) hasn't played a game in 19 months and (b) hasn't locked up a starting job?

    Golson's season has a preposterous range of outcomes. Five months from now, he could realistically be holding the Heisman. He could also realistically spend the next five months holding a clipboard.

    Either way makes for a pretty good story.

Melvin Gordon

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Junior Running Back for the Wisconsin Badgers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Melvin Gordon has waited his turn. He hasn't exactly been stuck on the sidelines these past two seasons—players this good are not kept off the field for long—but he's never been a true lead back.

    This year, finally, he gets to assume that role. Montee Ball and James White are gone, and the spotlight belongs to him. "It's my time now," he said at Big Ten media days, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today

    And with that, the Big Ten took a long collective gulp.

    Why? Because it's hard to find a more dangerous offensive player in the country than Gordon, who averaged 10 yards on 62 carries in 2012 and 7.8 yards on 206 carries last season. He's not just explosive but also consistent, which is a rare combination indeed.

    According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, one NFL personnel director said Gordon would have been the No. 1 running back in the 2014 draft class. "He's so fluid and easy and graceful," said the scout. "He's (expletive) really good. He's a first-rounder."

    Perhaps it's time for gulp No. 2?

Todd Gurley

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Junior Running Back of the Georgia Bulldogs

    Why He's Intriguing

    When he was healthy last year, Todd Gurley was the most complete, powerful, intimidating force in college football. He's the spitting image of Marshawn Lynch and one of the few players LSU fans do not mind comparing Leonard Fournette to.

    He's also a bit of a madman (intended as a compliment). Whether he's knocking off a defender's helmet with his shoulder or continuing to run after his own helmet has been popped, Gurley plus a full head of steam is a reliable formula for wreckage.

    Can he stay healthy, though? That is the paramount question—and it's a fair one, given how Gurley plays. He was nicked up against Clemson last season, then seriously injured his ankle against LSU and missed the next three games before toughing out the rest of the year.

    If he stays on the field, Georgia is not to be trifled with.

Tyreek Hill

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Junior All-Purpose Back for the Oklahoma State Cowboys

    Why He's Intriguing

    You like speed? Good.

    We might have just found your new favorite player.

    Tyreek Hill is a 5'8" scat back who just transferred to Oklahoma State from Garden City Community College. He's also a former track star who ran a 20.14 in the 200-meter dash two years ago…when he was only a senior in high school.

    For context, that would have qualified him for the final in every semifinal heat at the 2012 Olympics and placed him sixth in the final run. And unlike other track stars who have tried to play football (see: Justin Gatlin), he has already proven his worth on the field.

    On The Jim Rome Show in early August, head coach Mike Gundy said he wants to get the ball to Hill "at least 20 times a game," per Mark Cooper of Tulsa World. In terms of his usage, receivers coach Jason Ray chipped in that Hill has done "everything from wildcat to running back to receiver," per Cliff Brunt of the AP.

    Oklahoma State has a huge need for playmakers and a coaching staff that has always been creative at deploying them. Now, they have what might be the biggest offensive wild card in the Big 12.

    This highlight reel is not for the faint of heart.

    (Special note: How awesome is it that he bursts through the end zone like it's a finish line on the run at 0:34?)

Ramogi Huma

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Who Is He?

    President of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA)

    Why He's Intriguing:

    Ramogi Huma is a former UCLA football player and labor activist who is leading the charge to improve conditions for student athletes. 

    In January, Huma teamed up with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and former West Virginia and UMass basketball player Luke Bonner to start the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).

    In a landmark victory, CAPA appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to have Northwestern football players reclassified as employees of the university and won, per Brian Bennett of ESPN.com.

    The current team cast votes in April on whether it wanted to unionize—which the NLRB ruling allowed it to do—but the results of the vote have been impounded by the NLRB pending an appeal by the university, per Todd Jones of The Columbus Dispatch.

    The process Huma has started involves a lot of headache-inducing paperwork and logistics, which makes it tempting to ignore. But it's important. CAPA is lobbying not just for payment but for improved working conditions and health care for its players.

    This stuff matters.

    The unionization discussion might get quieter during the actual season—and for the sake of Northwestern's football team, let's hope so—but Huma is not the type to fade into the background entirely.

    Last year, he helped organize the "All Players United" gear that select players wore on the field in advocacy of NCAA reform.

Myles Jack

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Linebacker for the UCLA Bruins

    Why He's Intriguing

    Most true freshmen have a hard time adjusting to one position at the college level. Myles Jack excelled at playing two.

    After starting the season at linebacker—the position he told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer he always wanted to play—Jack was forced into the offensive backfield after injuries to UCLA's running backs. The results were immediately remarkable, as Jack, playing against Arizona on national TV, rushed six times for 120 yards and one score.

    The next week against Washington, he rushed for four touchdowns.

    That is the type of athlete we are dealing with here—the kind who can succeed at a foreign position based on pure, physical aptness.

    This year, even though he'll be used primarily at linebacker, he is likely to see at least a few snaps on the other side of the ball. He wouldn't be a top-15 Heisman candidate if he only played defense.

    "Why not?" Jack asked Kramer about his Heisman chances.

    It's a question without a good answer.

Butch Jones

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Tennessee Volunteers

    Why He's Intriguing

    After firing legendary head coach Phillip Fulmer in 2008, Tennessee swung and missed with its first two replacement candidates. Lane Kiffin bolted after one year for the same position at USC, and Derek Dooley slogged through three uninspiring seasons.

    So Vols fans can be forgiven for their quasi-worship of Butch Jones, who enters his second year with a losing record in Knoxville (5-7) but a ton of positive momentum. The small village of recruits he just signed goes 32 players deep, ranked No. 7 nationally on 247Sports' team rankings and is being hailed as a turning point for the program.

    But how fast can Jones translate recruiting success to on-field success? Tennessee has a brutal schedule and loses almost every starter along the offensive and defensive lines. The skill players and defensive back seven are there, but the beef up front is not.

    If Jones can get this team to 6-6 and sneak into a bowl game, it would have to be considered a major accomplishment. His career record at Tennessee would still be under .500, but he would have a powerful chip to play on the 2015 recruiting trail (and beyond).

    Not that it seems like he needs it.

Chuckie Keeton

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Senior Quarterback for the Utah State Aggies

    Why He's Intriguing

    Utah State has been one of the most consistent "group of five" teams these past couple of seasons, and if not for a serious knee injury that ended Chuckie Keeton's season in early October, there's a chance it would have finished in the top 20 of the postseason polls.

    Without their star quarterback, the Aggies offense regressed from No. 9 to No. 93 in the country, per the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings. But the defense picked up the slack, improving from No. 38 to No. 8.

    The only other teams to field a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball since 2012? Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina and Florida State.

    That's not a bad list to be on.

    There are questions about attrition on both sides of the ball, but if Keeton's knee holds up, he and head coach Matt Wells are one of the most underrated player-coach combos in the country. They will have this team playing at a high level and competing for an MWC title.

    More than that, they'll just be really fun to watch.

    Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer called Keeton the "most exciting talent" in college football, and Sports on Earth's Matt Brown named him the quarterback of this year's "All-Watchability Team."

    Here's to hoping for a full year of good health.

Gunner Kiel

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Quarterback for the Cincinnati Bearcats

    Why He's Intriguing

    Remember Gunner Kiel?

    He was that 5-star quarterback who committed to Indiana…then LSU…then Notre Dame before transferring to Cincinnati last fall.

    Now eligible to play, though, Kiel should finally have the starting job in 2014. It's not a bad one, either. The Bearcats have lost three or fewer games in six of the past seven seasons, and they return four junior receivers who had 400-plus receiving yards in 2013.

    Typically, it's dangerous to draw inferences from a spring game, but it would be remiss not to mention how good Kiel looked in his first public exhibition, completing 17 of 22 passes for 300 yards and leading the first-team offense to 24 points…all in the first half!

    Kiel is 6'4" with a powerful arm and all the physical tools you'd imagine in a 5-star prospect, but he has some catching up to do. The only QB who ranked ahead of him in the 2012 class (Jameis Winston) has already won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship.

    Time to see how Kiel stacks up.

Lane Kiffin

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Who Is He?

    Offensive Coordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide

    Why He's Intriguing

    Nick Saban treats his assistants like students at the Milford School; between preseason media day and postseason media day, they should be neither seen nor heard. All they should do is coach.

    This is good news for new Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who did not endear himself to the media as the head coach at Tennessee and USC and could use a reprieve from the spotlight.

    But that doesn't mean he's out of the clear.

    Saban invited entropy into a stable program by hiring Kiffin this offseason, and unlike his predecessor, Doug Nussmeier, Kiffin inherits an offense that is riddled with questions. 

    How will he develop the quarterbacks? Can Jacob Coker be trusted to start? What about Blake Sims? Will Derrick Henry become the feature back? Is true freshman Cam Robinson the answer at left tackle?

    So much has been heaped on Kiffin's plate, and if the offense takes even a modest step back—something it might have done under any offensive coordinator, given all the personnel losses—it is Kiffin who will be targeted as the scapegoat.

    And he won't even be allowed to defend himself.

Jerry Kill

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    Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Want someone to root for this season? The next season? Every other season after that? Jerry Kill is probably your guy.

    Kill had to take a 10-day leave of absence and coach from the press box after suffering an epileptic seizure last October. He has battled epilepsy for a while, but it never gets easier to stomach, and it never pushed Kill away from the game as publicly as it did in 2013.

    But Kill is back and well in 2014, and according to Marcus Fuller of the Pioneer Presshe's doing everything within his power to stay healthy. He also donated $100,000 to launch an epilepsy foundation this offseason, per Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune.

    Minnesota won eight of its first 10 games last season and is more relevant now than it has been since 2003. Rallying behind Kill has played a part in that, but so has the fact that this team is plain good.

    Having been placed in the new Big Ten West, which at least for 2014 appears to be the much weaker division, it is not altogether crazy to think Minnesota could make the conference title game.

    And boy, what a story that would be.

Kliff Kingsbury

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders

    Why He's Intriguing

    Kliff Kingsbury is the hottest young coach in college football—both on the field and away from it.

    His devilish good looks would be easier to resent and make fun of, though, if not for all his success. There is substance behind the neck stubble and Ray Bans that makes Kingsbury fun to root for.

    Having played under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and studied under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M (where he was Johnny Manziel's offensive coordinator in 2012), Kingsbury brought his unique offensive concepts back to Lubbock last season and found quick success.

    A 7-0 start turned into a five-game losing streak during the difficult part of Big 12 play, but Kingsbury got his team up for the Holiday Bowl against Arizona State, ending the season with a blowout win over the Pac-12 South Champions despite entering as heavy underdogs.

    The media picked TTU to finish in the bottom half of the conference this season, but because of Kingsbury's offense, it's a team that no opponent looks forward to playing. It's too early to say for sure, but a home date with Oklahoma in November looks like it might have serious College Football Playoff implications.

    One of the few things missing from Kingsbury's resume is a signature home victory. Beating the Sooners would be a nice way to start.

Trevor Knight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners

    Why He's Intriguing

    Trevor Knight had a Jekyll-and-Hyde season in 2013, playing so poorly that he was benched for long stretches but also completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama.

    A statistician might warn against banking on Knight because of the sample size, but the fate of his offseason was sealed after that Sugar Bowl performance. He's been listed as one of the top 10 Heisman candidates (despite having thrown only 134 career passes), and his team debuted at No. 3 in the Preseason Amway Coaches Poll.

    Knight first made a name for himself as a true freshman before the 2012 Cotton Bowl, when he was tasked with simulating Johnny Manziel on the scout team. According to Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com, an OU insider said he "was virtually untouchable" in that role.

    But it wasn't just the arm and the mobility that turned Manziel into "Johnny Football"; it was the fact that he brought it every game. He was one of those hyper-competitive dudes who hated losing and loved winning so much that he would taunt teams from C-USA.

    Knight doesn't have to go overboard; in fact, he probably shouldn't. But he does have to prove that he can get up for every game.

    If he treats each opponent like it's Alabama and each weekend like it's the Sugar Bowl, there's no telling how good Oklahoma can be. If he can't, there's no telling how much it might disappoint.

    He's one of the keystone players of the entire season.

Tyler Lockett

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Senior Wide Receiver for the Kansas State Wildcats

    Why He's Intriguing

    Kansas State took a while to find itself last season, but once it did, it was easily one of the 20 best teams in the country.

    It won six of its final seven games, the only loss coming by 10 points to Oklahoma in a game it led after three quarters.

    A big reason for that improvement was receiver Tyler Lockett, one of the favorites to win the Biletnikoff Award in 2014. He is fast, precise, experienced and always steps up his game against the big boys.

    Last year, for example, he shredded the three traditional college football powers on his schedule—Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan—for a total of 35 catches, 631 yards and six touchdowns.

    He had more than 230 receiving yards in two of the Wildcats' four conference losses (Texas and Oklahoma) and missed most or all of the other two (Oklahoma State and Baylor) with a bum hamstring.

    Which is all to say that Auburn better watch out when it travels to Manhattan, Kansas, for a nonconference game in September. Bad things typically happen to teams that Lockett has circled.

Jeff Long

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Athletics Director of the University of Arkansas/Chairman of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee

    Why He's Intriguing

    Jeff Long and the 12 other members of the CFP selection committee—which includes former coaches, administrators and media members who have long been around college football—are tasked with deciding which four teams will play in the two national semifinal games.

    In a departure from the BCS model, this committee will make its selections subjectively (without a formula). However, based on what they are looking for, it is almost guaranteed to end in dispute.

    "We don’t think in terms of most deserving on the resume," Long said of his committee's criteria, per Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News. "We’re focused on the best four teams and the best ranking in the [playoff] top 25. Again, our focus is the best, not deserving."

    In theory, picking the best four teams is romantic.

    Clemson, for example, can lose road games to Georgia and Florida State this season and still theoretically be a top-four squad. But would the committee really pick a 10-2 Clemson team over, say, a 12-0 Oklahoma team, even if it thought the Tigers were better?

    We eagerly await the answer.

Sean Mannion

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Senior Quarterback for the Oregon State Beavers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Perpetually overshadowed by one of his receivers (Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks) or the other star quarterback in the state (see next slide), Sean Mannion is ready to become a star.

    The big-armed senior finished with 4,662 passing yards last season, second in the country after Derek Carr, but needed 603 attempts and the steady brilliance of Cooks to get there. In 2014, he must improve his efficiency without sacrificing any aggressiveness.

    If this summer has been any indication, he is up for the challenge. According to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, Mannion won the accuracy competition at the Manning Passing Academy in July, connecting on all nine of his targets at various distances.

    Winning an offseason throwing competition in a relaxed camp environment is not huge news, but it definitely doesn't hurt.

    For Mannion, every little bit of exposure helps.

Marcus Mariota

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Who Is He?

    Junior Quarterback for the Oregon Ducks

    Why He's Intriguing

    Marcus Mariota was playing at a Heisman level before spraining his MCL in the middle of last season. He stayed in the lineup but had to wear a brace against Stanford and never looked the same afterward.

    Despite this, the prevailing wisdom says he would have been a top-five pick (if not higher) had he declared for the 2014 NFL draft. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, who also projected Mariota to go No. 1 overall in his first 2015 NFL mock draft, said Mariota would have graded out as his No. 1 quarterback this past year if he didn't return to school.

    Mariota is a perfect scheme fit at Oregon, where his mobility and short-to-intermediate accuracy have always been accentuated. But after losing Josh Huff, De'Anthony Thomas and Daryle Hawkins to graduation and Bralon Addison to a torn ACL, he will now have to shoulder the biggest offensive load of his career.

    Addison's goal is to be ready for the Michigan State game September 6—as Mariota reportedly told Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of SI.com—but a five-month recovery period for a torn ACL is a pipe dream. Mariota will be breaking in a new cast of receivers against a secondary that has earned the nickname "No Fly Zone."

    Between that, a road game at UCLA and a home game against Stanford (his personal kryptonite), Mariota has multiple opportunities to meet, exceed or fall short of expectations on a national stage.

Nick Marshall

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Senior Quarterback for the Auburn Tigers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Auburn loses its two best pieces from last year's offense—Heisman finalist Tre Mason at running back and No. 2 overall draft pick Greg Robinson at left tackle—but returns just about everybody else.

    That group is highlighted by quarterback Nick Marshall, a converted cornerback who was deadly with his legs but a work in progress with his arm last season. He did slowly get better in 2013, but the extent to which he can be trusted throwing the ball remains a question.

    If he's truly turned the corner, though, this offense might unthinkably be better than last year's, which finished No. 8 in the country with 6.92 yards per play. The addition of D'haquille Williams (the No. 1 JUCO recruit in the country) next to Sammie Coates (Bruce Feldman's No. 1 athletic freak in the country) might give Auburn the best receiving duo in the SEC, and the running game should remain strong.

    Marshall might wind up with legit two-category Heisman numbers.

Maty Mauk

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Quarterback for the Missouri Tigers

    Why He's Intriguing

    There is no way one can "replace" Johnny Football, but Maty Mauk might be the next best thing…both on the field and off of it.

    "He's someone that I can look to," Mauk said of Manziel at SEC media days, per Nick Cole of USA Today. "I watch him on film all the time. He was a great player and someone I'm going to try to play like."

    "I see a lot of Johnny in Maty," added senior defensive end Markus Golden. "Maty is going to be a good player, man. He can throw the ball. He's a good leader in the huddle. That's what I've noticed more about him this year."

    Mauk will need those leadership skills in 2014, as Missouri is tasked with replacing quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey, its top three receivers and the majority of its offensive line.

    He looked great with all those weapons around him when he subbed in for an injured Franklin last season, but now Mauk must prove he can do it on his own—as the leader instead of the freshman.

    If he does, "Maty Football" might become an actual thing.

Urban Meyer

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes

    Why He's Intriguing

    Urban Meyer started his Ohio State tenure with 24 consecutive wins, but thanks to a couple of ill-timed losses—first to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, then to Clemson in the Orange Bowl—he has nothing but a box of cold pizza to show for it.

    This year's team, however, might be the best he's had since Florida in 2009. It might be his best staff, too. The hirings of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash to fix the secondary and defensive line coach Larry Johnson from Penn State were terrific moves (at least on paper).

    Meyer doesn't typically need three years to reach his goals at a program. He went undefeated in his second season at Utah and won the BCS National Championship in his second year at Florida.

    Technically, this is his third year at Ohio State, but the 2012 season (in which Ohio State went 12-0 but was banned from playing in a bowl) can be counted as a mulligan. This is his second year with postseason eligibility, which means he's right on track to start hitting his marks.

    Anything short of the national semifinals would be a letdown.

Robert Nkemdiche

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Defensive Tackle for the Ole Miss Rebels

    Why He's Intriguing

    Robert Nkemdiche was the No. 1 overall recruit in 2013 and the most-hyped high school defensive lineman since Jadeveon Clowney.

    He "only" had two sacks and eight tackles for loss last season, which on paper might make it seem like he was a letdown, but the numbers do not tell the whole story. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder explains the discord between Nkemdiche's tape and stats:

    Nkemdiche is not the sack machine that people wanted when he came out of high school, but he’s been a treat to watch. The freshman does things in the run game that go unnoticed by casual viewers, but that frees up his teammates to make plays. He is a monster against the run, a rare trait for someone so young.

    Nkemdiche and Clowney are drastically different players. The comparison between them was obvious because of their recruiting pedigree, but the sooner people realize their differences the better.

    Clowney was a defensive end in a 4-3 who could play outside linebacker in a 3-4, whereas Nkemdiche is a defensive end in a 3-4 who can play defensive tackle in a 4-3. Head coach Hugh Freeze confirmed as much in an interview with Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee, saying Nkemdiche will be listed at tackle but play all over the line in certain packages and that "his future is a 3-technique."

    So let's resolve to love Nkemdiche for what he is: not a speedy pass-rusher off the edge but a 6'5", 295-pound monster with the abs of a 125-pounder and the ability to play running back when called upon.

    If that's not "good enough" for us, perhaps we don't deserve him.

Bo Pelini

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers

    Why He's Intriguing

    Why is Bo Pelini intriguing?

    What part about him is not?

    Pelini has thoroughly rebranded himself in the past 10 months, going from a stone-faced curmudgeon who cusses out his fanbase (NSFW) and dares his boss to fire him to a lovable teddy bear figure who embraces his parody account on Twitter, wrestles prospects on recruiting trips and re-enacts scenes from The Lion King with cats.

    He's been the runaway MVP of the offseason.

    Once the real season begins, however, Pelini will face the same old questions as last year. He has lost exactly four games in each of his six seasons with the school, which most programs would be fine with but which Nebraska cannot tolerate for much longer.

    A school so rich in history cannot sit back and allow itself to become the Atlanta Hawks of college football—a team stuck in purgatory. If the curse of the four-loss season reaches a seventh year, Pelini might not have enough cat-hijinks up his sleeve to save his job.

    Sad as it would be to watch him go.

Jabrill Peppers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Freshman Defensive Back for the Michigan Wolverines

    Why He's Intriguing

    Jabrill Peppers is the No. 3 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class. Even though he's listed as an "athlete" and head coach Brady Hoke hinted he might be used on offense, he is projected to start his career at defensive back—the same place last year's No. 3 overall recruit, Vernon Hargreaves III, starred at Florida in 2013.

    Peppers is less of a pure cornerback but more of a pure playmaker than Hargreaves III, which is a big reason he's worth keeping an eye on. He's been likened, for obvious reasons, to former Michigan great Charles Woodson, another two-way star and freak athlete.

    That might seem like a lofty comparison, and it is. Woodson is the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, and 99.99 percent of incoming freshmen would be over-the-moon to have his career.

    Peppers is the .01 percent who wouldn't.

    "When people say Michigan, I want them to say Jabrill Peppers, then Charles Woodson," he told Bleacher Report in November.

    If he keeps making impossible plays like this, he'll be well on his way.

Denzel Perryman

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Who Is He?

    Senior Linebacker for the Miami Hurricanes

    Why He's Intriguing

    Sometimes, the whole of a unit does not equal the sum of the parts.

    For Miami's defense, it barely registers as a fraction.

    The Hurricanes have talent all over the defensive depth chart but cannot seem to field a viable unit. They finished No. 12 in Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings in 2010 but have since dropped to No. 73, No. 88 and (last year) No. 91 under coordinator Mark D'Onofrio.

    If schematics are not what's going to save Miami's defense, it will have to be through sheer talent that the unit improves. And no player on the roster—and perhaps no player in the entire ACC—personifies sheer talent quite like linebacker Denzel Perryman.

    Perryman led the team last season with 108 tackles, many of which were notable for their viscousness. Even teammate Gus Edwards could not escape Perryman's wrath during the spring game.

    But Perryman is more than just a highlight waiting to happen. He's instinctive and physical and burgeoning as a leader.

    The speed has always stood out, but the other parts of his game have steadily caught up these past few seasons, to the point where he now looks the part of a bona fide All-America candidate.

    He's the best chance Miami has at a defensive breakthrough.

Kyle Allen

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Freshman Quarterback for the Texas A&M Aggies

    Why He's Intriguing

    True freshmen quarterbacks don't often succeed off the bat, no matter their recruiting pedigree, but it's hard to dream up a better first-year environment than the one Kyle Allen has at Texas A&M.

    He was the No. 10 overall player and top-ranked QB in the recruiting class, and he's joining an offense with a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (Cedric Ogbuehi) at left tackle, two veteran running backs (Trey Williams and Tra Carson) and a deep, athletic, albeit largely untested group of pass-catchers out wide.

    Most importantly, he is entering the Kevin Sumlin quarterback machine, which has yielded Johnny Manziel and Case Keenum as its last two products. The former became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy two seasons ago, and the latter finished his career with an FBS record 19,217 passing yards at Houston.

    Allen didn't win the job over sophomore Kenny Hill in fall camp. But considering the sad state of Texas A&M's defense, whoever starts under center will be asked to throw…a lot. If Allen gets the call at some point during the season, he could put up big numbers.

Chris Petersen

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Washington Huskies

    Why He's Intriguing

    Chris Petersen spent years flirting with the big boys, popping up as a candidate for some of the highest-profile coaching vacancies in the country before inevitably ending up back at Boise State.

    After a couple of down seasons with the Broncos, however, Petersen was finally on the market in earnest, and Washington made quick work of snatching him up after Steve Sarkisian left for USC.

    The resume Petersen brings to Seattle speaks for itself. He won 84 of his first 92 games as a head coach, including a 13-0 season in his first year (2006) and a 14-0 season three years later (2009). One year after that, his Broncos lost one game but still finished No. 1 in the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings —a metric that adjusts for opponent!

    Petersen did all of this despite substandard recruiting. According to Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer, he hadn't signed a single 4- or 5-star recruit since 2008. Washington, by contrast, signed 25 between 2010 and 2013 and added four more during Petersen's first half cycle.

    Is year one too soon to expect on-field results? Probably. But there's a weird deja vu that comes with underestimating Petersen.

    Better just to wait and see.

Bobby Petrino

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Louisville Cardinals

    Why He's Intriguing

    Bobby Petrino spent last year at Western Kentucky, leaving on his own volition to accept the job at Louisville. That was the first of his past four job departures that did not come mired in controversy.

    A brief timeline for those who may have forgotten:

    July 2006: Petrino signs a 10-year contract to remain at Louisville, where he has spent the past three seasons as head coach. "I fully expect him to turn his back on other jobs," says athletic director Tom Jurich, per Eric Crawford of The Courier-Journal.

    January 2007: Six days after Louisville beats Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, Petrino leaves to become the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. "I'm in shock right now," says Cardinals kicker Arthur Carmody, per Joe Schad of ESPN.com. "…We were all thinking national championship. I didn't think this would happen."

    December 2007: Petrino resigns from the Falcons, absconding in the middle of the night and leaving a 78-word letter to his team explaining that he has accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas. "He quit on us," says Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington, per Ray Glier of The New York Times"That's not what a man does. He lied to us."

    April 2012: Petrino is fired from Arkansas after getting into a motorcycle accident with his mistress, Jessica Dorrell, whom he hired to be part of the football staff and at one point gave $20,000 to. "The simplest response I have is: I'm sorry," says Petrino, who is visibly injured, per ESPN.com. "…All I have been able to think about is the number of people I've let down by making selfish decisions."

    Now, if you believe what Petrino said in his final press conference at Arkansas, and if you only judge him on his actions since then, he seems like a brilliant hire. If you can separate the coach from the man, he might have been the best option on the market.

    That Jurich—who is still the athletic director at Louisville—was able to forgive Petrino and bring him back speaks volumes. Might it have been a panic move after losing Charlie Strong to Texas? Maybe. But it still took a prodigious leap of faith (plus a $10 million buyout).

    Ultimately, it's good to have Petrino back at a major program for the same reason Breaking Bad was better with Gustavo Fring: He's a villain, sure, but he makes things entertaining as hell.

    This might be the ripest storyline of the season.

Bryce Petty

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Senior Quarterback for the Baylor Bears

    Why He's Intriguing

    He wasn't quite Robert Griffin III last season, but Bryce Petty wasn't far off. Considering he was a first-time starter, that is pretty wild.

    Petty didn't post the same volume rushing stats as RGIII, but he did score 14 touchdowns on the ground, and he is by no means an inferior athlete. In fact, he ranked No. 6 on Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks List" at FoxSports.com, an honor he justified at the start of fall camp when he was seen leaping over a tackling dummy.

    He also finished with the second-highest quarterback rating in the country, a number that was boosted by his 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Pushing the ball down the field without giving it away is a rare but useful combination.

    All things told, Petty has the talent, supporting cast and coaching staff to make a legitimate run at All-America honors (if not more). Antwan Goodley's 103 receiving yards per game last season were more than any returning FBS player, and Art Briles and Philip Montgomery are borderline offensive savants.

    RGIII might not be the only Baylor Heisman finalist for long.

Dak Prescott

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    Kerry Smith/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Junior Quarterback for the Mississippi State Bulldogs

    Why He's Intriguing

    Dak Prescott is a microcosm of the entire Mississippi State team: big, tough, physical and overlooked by the national media.

    After taking over for Tyler Russell toward the start of last season, his presence changed the ceiling on how good the Bulldogs could be. His ability to run opened up their offense considerably, and his passing—while far from perfect—made for a decent enough complement.

    According to ESPN's Total QBR metric, Prescott was tied with Zach Mettenberger as the fifth-most valuable quarterback in the country last season. Only Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Aaron Murray and Bryce Petty placed higher, and the two players directly behind him were Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.

    So why have you heard of all those players but not Prescott?

    Good question.

Condoleezza Rice

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is She?

    Member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee

    Why She's Intriguing

    Of the 13 appointees to the College Football Playoff selection committee, Condoleezza Rice is the only former U.S. Secretary of State and the only one who's appeared (four times!) on Time magazine's list of the "100 Most Influential People" in the world.

    She's also the only woman.

    Of course, you'll wind up hearing more about the latter than the former this season, which is a shame. But it's also to be expected. The belief David Pollack intimated on ESPN's College Gameday last season—that women don't belong on the committee—was misguided and misogynistic, but it probably won't be the last of its kind.

    Rice, however, should not take long to shut people up with her role on the committee. She may not have "stuck her hand in the dirt" during college, but she is duly qualified for the new position.

    Having served as the Provost at Stanford University from 1993 to '99 (a role that involved overseeing the athletics department), she was responsible for hiring Tyrone Willingham as head football coach in 1994, per the official CFP website. Willingham did well enough in Palo Alto that he was poached away by Notre Dame in 2002.

    Plus, there's also that whole "former Secretary of State" thing.

    She's made much more important decisions.

Kurt Roper

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    Phil Sandlin/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Offensive Coordinator of the Florida Gators

    Why He's Intriguing

    The numbers say that Florida's offense was bad last season, but they don't even begin to do it justice. At times, it was painful to watch.

    To help fix things up, the Gators hired Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, a Broyles Award finalist as one of the nation's top assistant coaches in 2013. Despite inferior talent, Duke finished No. 33 to Florida's No. 99 in Football Outsiders' offensive F/+ ratings.

    Roper brings—if nothing else—an imagination to Florida's previously banal offense. He likes to spread things out, play fast and keep the quarterback in the shotgun, all of which is antithetical to the HB dive-centric scheme this team deployed under Brent Pease.

    He has the perfect physical specimen to run the show in QB Jeff Driskel, a mobile 6'4" athlete and one-time 5-star recruit whose career has been marked by injuries, turnovers and inconsistent decision-making. But so far, the scheme change has gone smoothly.

    "I'm really comfortable with [Roper's shotgun system]," said Driskel, per Steven Godfrey of SB Nation. "We were almost exclusively in shotgun during the spring. It's just something that helps us in our two-back and our quarterback runs."

Brandon Scherff

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Senior Offensive Tackle for the Iowa Hawkeyes

    Why He's Intriguing

    Brandon Scherff is the best Iowa tackle prospect since Robert Gallery, which is a bit inauspicious. But he also might be the best Big Ten tackle prospect since Joe Thomas, which is…well, a whole lot better.

    At 6'5", 320 pounds, Scherff mixes the old-school brand of Hawkeyes size and toughness with the new-school brand of mobile, athletic offensive linemen. According to Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com, who ranked Scherff No. 2 on his annual "Freaks List," he was originally recruited to the school as a 280-pound quarterback.

    He's basically a rich man's Lane Johnson.

    "In terms of pure explosiveness, Scherff is the best we've ever had," said Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle, who has also coached Gallery, Bryan Bulaga and Marshal Yanda, per Feldman. "…He's extremely gifted genetically, and he's such a great kid to work with because he's as competitive as any kid you'll ever be around."

    Scherff leads an Iowa team that flew under the radar last season and should be even better in 2014. Playing in the new Big Ten West with a schedule that looks exceedingly easy—especially when you map it out visually—the Hawkeyes can realistically win the conference.

    If they don't, it won't be for lack of muscle.

David Shaw

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Stanford Cardinal

    Why He's Intriguing

    It takes a pretty good football coach to replace Jim Harbaugh and keep winning double-digit games. It takes a very good football coach to continue that momentum despite losing his top coordinator.

    But only a great football coach can continue—or improve upon—that momentum despite losing both of his top coordinators.

    David Shaw has already proven that he is the first two things, and in 2014, he will get a chance to prove that he's the third. With Pep Hamilton entering his second year as the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts and Derek Mason having just accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, Shaw is officially on an island without the two main consiglieri from his first year in 2011.

    Also gone this year is a historic class of defenders (Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro) and offensive linemen (David Yankey, Cameron Fleming, Khalil Wilkes, Kevin Danser) who were instrumental in forging Stanford's blue-collar identity.

    That the Cardinal debuted at No. 11 in the Amway Coaches Poll seems fair. Given all the losses, it could have been worse, but Shaw's peers have faith that he is more than just a "very good" coach.

    Now he has to prove them right.

Steve Spurrier

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks

    Why He's Intriguing

    More than any of his most recent teams—the last three of which have each gone 11-2 and beaten the eventual SEC East champion—this year's Gamecocks feel like they belong to Steve Spurrier.

    Yes, there's potential star power in running back Mike Davis, but he's not a domineering force the way Jadeveon Clowney was. Davis wasn't even voted to the preseason All-SEC first team by conference media, a fact he shares with every single one of his teammates.

    Alas, South Carolina was still picked by conference media to win the East division, despite this lack of all-league players. Spurrier has built a deep, balanced, consummate team in Columbia, and especially on offense, it has a chance to be one of his best.

    Although, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that Spurrier would have made this list even if he was the head coach at some Division III school in rural Idaho.

    His is always a name you need to know.

Charlie Strong

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Head Coach of the Texas Longhorns

    Why He's Intriguing:

    The term "culture change" is bandied about quite often in college football, and more often than not, it is bluster. It's a way for a coach to act like he is installing discipline, when really that is just a facade.

    But Charlie Strong is not kidding around.

    The first-year Texas head coach made that clear in recent weeks with a barrage of suspensions and dismissals to players who did not live up to his five core values for a program, confirming the disciplinary action at the beginning of fall camp, per Max Olson of ESPN.com.

    "If a young man doesn't want to be part of this program, just go break a core value of this program," said Strong with conviction. "You'll be telling me a lot about where you want to stand."

    In terms of temperament, Strong is not the same as former head coach Mack Brown. Not even close. Brown was a great football coach in his own right, but what really made him perfect for Texas was his ability to schmooze with the media, kiss babies, etc. At a school with it's own freakin' television network, that is important.

    But winning games is also important, and Strong used his authoritarian formula to win exactly as many in the past three years at Louisville (30) as Brown did in the past four years in Austin.

    If he keeps winning in 2014, no one will care how many bad seeds Strong gets rid of.

    If not, well, he'd better start winning the following year.

Jaelen Strong

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Who Is He?

    Junior Wide Receiver for the Arizona State Sun Devils

    Why He's Intriguing

    It happens every season, like clockwork: A freak athlete transfers from junior college to a big-name program, steps in at wide receiver and promptly makes FBS defenders looks like schoolchildren.

    Two years ago, it was Cordarrelle Patterson at Tennessee. This year, all signs point toward D'haquille Williams at Auburn.

    Last year, it was Jaelen Strong at Arizona State.

    Unfortunately, not enough people took notice, which in large part has to do with the timing of Pac-12 games. But make no mistake about it: Strong might be the hardest one-on-one matchup in America.

    At 6'4" with a long, lean, rangy physique, Strong is a dead ringer for NFL superstar Brandon Marshall. His timing, vertical leap and high-point passes are redolent of Marshall, too. All he needs to do is fill out a bit, and on that front, Strong is improving.

    "[He] just seems so much...stronger," said head coach Todd Graham at the start of fall camp, per Nick Krueger of House of Sparky.

    If you've ever wanted to be ahead of the curve on an NFL prospect, start telling your friends about Strong today. Like, right now.

    If you wait a couple of months, the bandwagon might be full.

Ryan Switzer

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Wide Receiver/Punt Returner for the UNC Tar Heels

    Why He's Intriguing

    Long punt returns are on the short list of most exhilarating plays in college football—nestled somewhere between fat-guy touchdowns and last-ditch hook-and-ladders—and at almost any given moment on a Saturday, Ryan Switzer is the most likely candidate to produce one.

    As a freshman last season, Switzer led the nation with a punt return average of 20.9 yards and tied the single-season NCAA record with five punt return touchdowns. He tied the record in the Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati on a play where almost any other (sane) player would have called for a fair catch.

    Switzer's a pretty good receiver, too, having finished his first season with 32 catches for 341 yards. He should improve on those numbers as a sophomore, perhaps even considerably, but it's the special teams that make him a must-know national name.

    And if you're scared teams will just kick away from him (which they should), Switzer has the perfect explanation for why they won't.

    "Because people are stupid, man," he told Mark Thompson of the Greensboro News & Record. "All it takes is one to try me."

Leonard Williams

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Junior Defensive End for the USC Trojans

    Why He's Intriguing

    In Michael Felder's CFB 250 series for Bleacher Report last season, Leonard Williams checked in as the No. 6 overall player in the country, highest among all returning players in 2014.

    In the same piece, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wrote that Williams has the "power, strength and versatility of a future No. 1 overall pick."

    Yeah…you should probably take note of this guy.

    Williams is a 3-4 defensive end who can also slide down and play tackle, much like Robert Nkemdiche. He suffers from the same deflated stats (five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2013), which aren't bad but do not do justice to the impact he has on a game.

    Williams can get to whatever spot he pleases on a given play, whether it be setting the edge with a power move or darting through a gap with speed and quickness. His presence is a big reason why USC finished No. 5 in Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings and No. 15 in the adjusted sack rate numbers at Football Study Hall.

    At least the team stats reflect how well Williams played.

Jameis Winston

50 of 50

    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Who Is He?

    Sophomore Quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles

    Why He's Intriguing

    Where do we start?

    Jameis Winston led Florida State to a 14-0 season and national title last season, becoming the second consecutive freshman to win the Heisman Trophy after almost 80 years without a first one.

    His subsequent offseason has been very different than the "Summer of Johnny Manziel," but it's been equally over-reported. He hasn't played football since January, but he still can't stay out of the news.

    Of course, a lot of that is Winston's own fault.

    The citation for stealing crab legs from a supermarket was innocuous enough in the grand scheme of things, but it was definitely boneheaded, and it definitely shined a spotlight on Winston that was wholly unnecessary. Especially after a high-profile sexual assault allegation last season—a case that Winston was never charged in—even a minor resurfacing on the police blotter was imprudent.

    But now that is all in the past, hopefully, and Winston can get back to reminding us how good he is at football. He will always be a bit of a divisive figure—that's just who he is—but we can all agree in uniform that he is a fantastic young quarterback and leader.

    History suggests that it's unlikely, but don't be surprised if he winds up with a second Heisman Trophy this season.

    Who on Florida State's schedule is going to stop him?

    Note: Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

    Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT