5 College Football Teams Facing the Most Unknowns in Fall Practice
Preseason practice is a time for college football head coaches to find answers to their most pressing questions. Some simply have more questions than others.
From quarterback competitions to defensive turnover—or a healthy dose of both—many teams are weeks away from the season with several unknowns to iron out.
Which college football teams have the most unknowns heading into the 2014 season? Five teams, one from each of the power conferences, have been selected in the following slides.
Let's start where the attention will naturally shift: quarterbacks.
Texas A&M already has to replace Johnny Manziel, which some might argue you can never truly do. On top of that, the Aggies have a heated competition going on between sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.
As Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports tweeted, Allen and Hill have been impressive during practice. There's little question the future at quarterback for A&M is bright, but someone has to come away with the job. The sooner, the better.
There's also an abundance of young skill talent on offense, but they have to grow into starting roles.
That leads to another point: A&M's quarterbacks have been looking good against the defense. B/R's Barrett Sallee pointed out last month that the attrition on defense—from defensive lineman Gavin Stansbury to linebacker Darian Claiborne—means it's time to get anxious in College Station. Seeing as A&M's defense was last in the SEC in points allowed in 2013, per CFBStats.com, there are more pressing concerns on that side of the ball.
There's tremendous young talent on the roster, such as defensive end Myles Garrett, thanks to head coach Kevin Sumlin's impressive recruiting chops. That talent will need to grow up quickly, though. A&M lost three of its four games last year by giving up 30 or more points. Twice, its Heisman-winning quarterback had to keep the team in those games.
After winning the Pac-12 North Division the past two seasons, Stanford will be in an underdog position this season.
The Cardinal have major holes to fill at running back and their defensive front seven—not to mention they need a complement in the passing game for receiver Ty Montgomery. Tyler Gaffney, who took a majority of the snaps at running back, should be replaced by more of a committee approach. Stanford features smaller backs than it has in recent years with players like Barry Sanders Jr. and Kelsey Young.
On defense, it's not just losing the production of guys like linebacker Shayne Skov, it's losing the leadership. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News explains:
The Cardinal seems to lose respected voices in the locker room every year, and new ones always seem to emerge.
I can’t help but think this year is different. Shayne Skov was the heart and soul of the defense, to a greater extent than any player I can remember.
Losing defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who is now the head coach at Vanderbilt, might be the biggest loss of all. The Cardinal finished first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense in three of the past four years. Mason began his stint on The Farm as a defensive backs coach in 2010, but he was elevated to co-defensive coordinator in 2011 and DC in 2012.
How the Stanford defense looks during a rebuilding year will be perhaps its most pressing concern.
From top to bottom, Big 12 teams actually return a fair amount of experience. Oklahoma State, however, is largely a brand new team, returning just nine starters. According to Paul Myerberg of USA Today, that's tied for second-fewest among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Head coach Mike Gundy traditionally reveals little about his quarterback situation, but the feeling is that J.W. Walsh will be the starter. However, Gundy revealed this month that Daxx Garman is "ready to get 10, 15 snaps the first game," via Mark Cooper of the Tulsa World.
There's significant turnover at wide receiver. The group is deep, led by Jhajuan Seales, but largely inexperienced. JUCO transfer Tyreek Hill figures to see plenty of snaps there and at running back.
Many of the same things can be said about the Cowboys defense, especially at linebacker, which loses Caleb Lavey, and in the secondary. Justin Gilbert was among the most physically gifted corners in college football last year. He's gone, as is safety Daytawion Lowe.
The overriding theme for Oklahoma State is that it has talent. It just has to come together as a team during the season. The Cowboys could win six games. They could win 10 again. There's no knowing.
There are two undeniable facts (that are really opinions) about Penn State: 1) Former coach Bill O'Brien did a remarkable job considering the situation he inherited, but 2) new coach James Franklin is a better fit.
Beyond those, there's not much certainty surrounding the Nittany Lions.
Penn State does have perhaps the most physically gifted pure passer in the Big Ten: Christian Hackenberg. Who he'll throw to remains a matter of competition. Geno Lewis is the veteran, but he caught just 18 passes a year ago. There are talented tight ends like Jesse James and Adam Breneman, but the latter has been sidelined indefinitely with what Bob Flounders of PennLive.com reports is a knee injury.
There's also the concern about offensive line play. Depth is a problem, and the unit returns just one starter, Donovan Smith. Herb Hand is considered among the best offensive line coaches in the country, but he has his work cut out for him.
There are fewer questions on defense, though the reported Achilles injury to linebacker Ben Kline, per Sean Fitz of 247Sports.com, leaves question marks at linebacker around Mike Hull.
Franklin could be a great long-term solution for Penn State, but year one will have more than its fair share of obstacles. Seven or eight wins in a tough Big Ten East division could be a wildly successful year.
You're not going to believe this, but the ACC Coastal Division is up for grabs.
Miami (Florida) was narrowly selected as the preseason favorite to win the division this season, per Chip Patterson of CBS Sports, despite having some potentially major question marks on both sides of the ball.
It starts at quarterback, where the Hurricanes have an answer—sort of.
Ryan Williams was projected to be the starter, but a torn ACL during the spring has sidelined him indefinitely. Miami's coaching staff brought in Kansas (and BYU) transfer Jake Heaps to boost the quarterback competition and provide some depth.
As of the latest depth chart, courtesy of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Heaps is listed as a co-starter with Brad Kaaya. The Hurricanes are loaded at the skill positions and have a stout offensive line, but a quarterback has to make that offense go.
The Canes also lost one of their better defensive players recently. Head coach Al Golden confirmed this week that defensive back Rayshawn Jenkins would miss the season with a chronic back injury.
On that subject, Miami's defense will be under the microscope after finishing at or near the bottom of the ACC in pass defense and rush defense the previous two seasons. The Canes have a great defensive leader in linebacker Denzel Perryman, who led the team with 108 tackles a year ago; the rest of the defense needs to elevate its play to match his.
The Hurricanes have yet to make an appearance in the ACC Championship Game since joining the conference, though self-imposed postseason bans have played a role in that as well. But if Miami can't take the next step this year, when can it?
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.