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Bleacher Report's 2014 Preseason College Football Award Predictions

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2014

Bleacher Report's 2014 Preseason College Football Award Predictions

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    USA TODAY Sports

    College football season is no longer a light at the end of a tunnel or a speck on a distant landscape; we have officially reached the one-week countdown to kickoff.

    Now is the last time for writers and fans and…well, anybody, really, to get their predictions in before it's too late. It's our last chance to go on record and say what we think will happen (but know, deep down, will inevitably not).

    With that, let's get to our final preseason awards predictions. Of the major national hardware winners, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (Heisman Trophy/Walter Camp Award) is the only position player to return in 2014, so there is plenty of room for new faces. And even Winston's old spots are up for grabs!

    Who will make that one final leap in 2014? Who will ultimately reach their potential? Whose combination of skill and opportunity will make him the best player in the country at his position?

    Sound off below and let me know where you agree/disagree.

Lou Groza Award

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Kicker 

    Projected Winner: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State

    Roberto Aguayo is the pick to win his second straight Groza Award, and he is not the only Florida State player on this list.*

    Aguayo made 21-of-22 field goals en route to last year's Groza, missing his only kick in a meaningless 59-3 win over Wake Forest. The miss came when Florida State was already up by five touchdowns.

    This year, even though the Seminoles offense should remain one of the best in college football, it loses 6'5" red-zone target/first-round NFL draft pick Kelvin Benjamin at receiver. If nothing else, that might lead to a slight uptick in stalled drives and field-goal attempts.

    Is there any reason to not pick Aguayo?

     

    Honorable Mention: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma

    Oklahoma's senior kicker has attempted 20-plus field goals in each of the past three seasons. In 2013, he bounced back from a sophomore slump to hit 24-of-27 attempts (including 11 of 12 away from home).

     

    *We can neither confirm nor deny whether he is the only Florida State redshirt sophomore/repeat award winner on this list.

Ray Guy Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Punter

    Predicted Winner: Mike Sadler, Michigan State

    Mike Sadler is America's most notable punter and arguably its most likable player. But he's also quite good at his job.

    Overshadowed by his consistently funny Twitter account and the superlatives from teeny-bopper girls' magazines was an average of 42.5 yards on 76 punts, the 39th-best figure in the country. Among players with 70 or more attempts, only 12 ranked higher.

    Sadler was a big reason for Michigan State's great field-position advantage last season, when it ranked top five on both sides of the ball. According to Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, the Spartans had "by quite a bit the best field position in the country."

    That's one of the little, under-reported things that turns a seven-win team into a conference and Rose Bowl champion.

    If it happens again, Sadler's season will be harder to ignore.

     

    Honorable Mention: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M

    Head coach Kevin Sumlin wouldn't have brought his punter, Drew Kaser, to SEC media days for no reason. He only punted 44 times last year—yeah, Texas A&M's offense was pretty good—but his 47.39-yard average would have ranked No. 2 in the country had he qualified.

Burlsworth Trophy

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Former Walk-On

    Predicted Winner: Justin Hardy, East Carolina

    Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller—the only returning player besides Justin Hardy who was a finalist for this award last season—will put up a good fight and could easily take home the Burlsworth. In fact, he is probably the odds-on favorite.

    But let's head outside the power conferences and call a win for Hardy, in no small part because a skill-position player has won the past three years (including Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis in 2013).

    Hardy finished third in the country with 114 receptions last season and No. 17 with 98.8 yards per game. He has 266 receptions in his career, and unless he gets injured, he will probably pass Ryan Broyles (349) to become the all-time leader in FBS history.

    A big reason he's so likely to get there is the return of quarterback Shane Carden, one of the 15 or 20 best signal-callers in the country. He and Hardy have developed a magnetic connection (especially on third downs) the past two seasons and grow closer every year.

    If Hardy breaks Broyles' record, there is not much Mueller or any other former walk-on can do to take this trophy away from him. It's not supposed to be a career achievement award, and it wouldn't be if Hardy has another 90-reception year, but that would still play a part.

    It's a big year for former walk-ons when one sets an NCAA record.

     

    Honorable Mention: Ryan Mueller

    There would be no shame in losing this award to Hardy, especially if Mueller performs as he did last season. Only one returning player in the country had more tackles for loss than his 18.5.

Frank Broyles Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Assistant Coach

    Predicted Winner: Brent Venables, Clemson

    Clemson's offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, gets most of the public adulation and is the highest-paid assistant in America.

    But it's the guy on the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the veteran with the not-as-sexy name and paycheck, who's ideally situated to become this year's top assistant.

    Clemson has improved each year since Venables came over from Oklahoma, rising in the defensive F/+ ratings from No. 59 in 2011 (pre-Venables) to No. 51 in 2012 and peaking at No. 13 in 2013.

    In 2014, he returns an almost-unfairly loaded front seven—the star of which we'll get to in a bit—and a secondary oozing with potential. In particular, redshirt freshman cornerback MacKensie Alexander, a former 5-star recruit, looks ready to take this group over the top.

    Alexander would have played last season if not for a groin injury, so it's not like failed development is what forced him to redshirt. And according to Aaron Brenner of The Post & Courier, head coach Dabo Swinney said he is "special" and "looks tremendous" this spring.

    We know the attacking pass rush will be there after Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss last season. If Venables pieces together a solid secondary behind it—something he proved capable of doing at Oklahoma—this could honestly be the nation's best defense.

    That's right…Clemson. The nation's best defense. Less than two years after the 2012 Orange Bowl. Not a hint of sarcasm in my voice.

    If it happens, the Broyles Award might not even be enough.

    The school should award him some sort of tenure.

     

    Honorable Mention: Kurt Roper, Florida

    Nowhere to go but up…right? Injuries hurt Florida's offense just as much as (if not more than) former offensive coordinator Brent Pease did, so Kurt Roper will almost definitely lead an improved unit. The extent to which it improves in his uptempo, shotgun-based scheme will determine whether he competes for the Broyles.

Paul Hornung Award

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Most Versatile Player

    Predicted Winner: Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State

    Junior-college transfer Tyreek Hill walks into a rare situation at Oklahoma State: a modern offensive juggernaut—coached by one of the most creative offensive minds in the country (Mike Gundy)—that desperately needs a new top playmaker.

    Receivers Tracy Moore, Josh Stewart and Charlie Moore, who combined for 146 catches and 1,913 yards last season, are gone, as are quarterback Clint Chelf and running back Jeremy Smith. Human bowling ball Desmond Roland returns in the backfield, and Jhajuan Seales (39 catches, 571 yards) ensures at least one experienced receiver, but for the most part, the cupboard needs to be restocked.

    Hill is a former track star who ran a 20.14 in the 200-meter dash (a score that would have placed sixth in the London Olympics) when he was a senior in high school. His one season at Garden City Community College proved he could translate that speed to the football field, and his highlight tape confirmed it for those who didn't watch at the time.

    "He did everything from wildcat to running back to receiver," said Oklahoma State receivers coach Jason Ray of the role Hill has played in practice, per Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press. With regard to the award being discussed, that is the best thing a coach can say.

    Expect Hill to become a focal point of this offense sooner rather than later, and expect him to do it from a variety of spots. According to Mark Cooper of Tulsa WorldGundy said he's trying to get Hill the ball "at least 20 times a game," which would be enough for a couple of home runs (or at the very least, triples) each time out.

    And that, in turn, would be good enough to win the Hornung.

     

    Honorable Mention: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

    We already know what Ryan Switzer can do on special teams: He tied an NCAA record with five punt return touchdowns as a true freshman last season. If he expands his role as a slot receiver on offense, picking Hill could end up making me look pretty dumb in four months.

Rimington Trophy

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Center

    Projected Winner: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon

    Left tackle is the sexiest position on the offensive line, but center is the most important. It's a microcosm of the offensive line as a whole, getting the least amount of credit for doing the most work.

    Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, however, will need to become the face of his offensive line after starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone went down with a torn ACL during fall camp. He was already considered an All-America candidate, but now he must somehow be more.

    Grasu's main competition for this award, Reese Dismukes, is in a similar situation on an Auburn team that must replace No. 2 overall draft pick Greg Robinson at left tackle and injured left guard Alex Kozan. He and Grasu were choices 1a and 1b for this projection.

    Flip a coin if you want; you can't go wrong either way.

    We'll give Grasu a slight nod because of his mobility, which (especially in Oregon's offense) should give him a series of signature pull blocks to showcase. One wouldn't think it, necessarily, but even for centers, a large faction of the voters relies on highlight tapes for information.

    Grasu should put together a pretty solid one.

     

    Honorable Mention: Reese Dismukes

    Again…flip a coin if you have to. You'll get no argument from this guy either way. Choosing between Grasu and Dismukes was picking the 50.1 percent favorite over the 49.9 percent underdog.

John Mackey Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Tight End

    Predicted Winner: Jesse James, Penn State

    By and large, quarterback Christian Hackenberg had two main crutches as a freshman: Allen Robinson and his trio of tight ends.

    This year, Hackenberg is a sophomore and projected to take the next step in his development—the leap from great to really great. But Robinson has gone to the NFL, and according to Bob Flounders of PennLive.com, one of his three great tight ends, Adam Breneman, is likely to miss the season with a knee injury. And that, of course, means even more targets for the two tight ends who are healthy.

    The standout of that duo, which also includes Kyle Carter, is junior Jesse James. He was second on the team behind Robinson with 333 receiving yards last season, and he should flirt with doubling that (if not more) with all the extra targets he'll see in 2014.

    James is also an adept blocker, something (a) Penn State desperately needs and (b) voters take into consideration. If they didn't, try to explain how Texas Tech's Jace Amaro—a tight end who finished with 44 more receptions and 379 more yards than any other player at the position last season—wasn't even named a Mackey finalist.

    James has ideal tight-end size (6'7", 254 pounds), decent long speed and reliable hands. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder gave him one of the 18 best tight-end grades in the country last season (sixth among returning players*) and praised him even further this summer.

    He's got the talent and the opportunity to win this thing.

     

    Honorable Mention: Nick O'Leary, Florida State

    Nick O'Leary might be the better overall player, but I'm reticent to pick him until I know how he'll be used in Florida State's offense. A lot of that depends on the development of true freshman wide receivers Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph. If those two aren't ready for prime time, O'Leary could post some pretty huge numbers.

     

    *Not counted in this tally are Duke tight end Braxton Deaver (torn ACL) and former Michigan tight end Devin Funchess (moved to WR).

Outland Trophy

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    Phil Sears/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Interior Lineman

    Predicted Winner: Cameron Erving, Florida State

    Cameron Erving is not a household name, in large part because he, like many of the top offensive tackles, is doing his job the best when he's not mentioned on the broadcast.

    Jameis Winston drops back again. Stays clean again. Steps up in the pocket again. Completes another pass. Delivers another strike. Leads another touchdown drive. Wins another national award.

    The offensive line just goes about its business.

    But Erving gets an undeniable assist for Winston's Heisman Trophy after protecting the QB's blind side as well as he possibly could have asked. Even against the big, bad Clemson defensive line, Erving more than held his own (and in fact sort of dominated the game).

    This year, despite losses at running back and receiver, the return of Winston and five senior linemen should keep the offense running in a similar mode of efficiency. If and when that's the case, all the fatigue voters feel toward Winston (and there should be a lot) might be transmuted into praise of his blockers—Erving in particular.

    Left tackle is, after all, the quarterback of the offensive line.

    The more votes Erving gets for his award, the more Winston loses for his. That's not fair, but it's true, and it's one of the many, many things standing between Winston and a second consecutive Heisman.

    Expect Erving to be the big offensive winner in Tallahassee.

     

    Honorable Mention: Brandon Scherff, Iowa

    The No. 2 player on Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports' annual "Freaks" list, Brandon Scherff might be the best in a long pipeline of Iowa offensive-line prospects. If the Hawkeyes seize their favorable schedule and win double-digit games, he'll get serious Outland consideration.

Dick Butkus Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Linebacker

    Projected Winner: Eric Striker, Oklahoma

    Eric Striker was one of three breakout stars of the Sugar Bowl along with teammate Trevor Knight and Alabama's Derrick Henry.

    Of the three, Striker's three-sack performance, which included the game-sealing strip sack that Oklahoma recovered for a touchdown, seems to have gone the most overlooked this offseason. Ostensibly, this has something to do with the fact that Knight (quarterback) and Henry (running back) play sexier offensive positions, because Striker was the best player on the field from start to finish.

    It shouldn't be long, though, before the junior linebacker starts getting his due recognition. Oklahoma debuted in the Top Five of both major preseason polls, and even though I personally think it was a bit over-ranked, almost all of that has to do with questions on offense.

    Defensively, this should be one of the five best teams in America.

    If/when that happens, Striker will be a big reason why, especially now that the defense has realigned Geneo Grissom to Striker's old "Jack" position and moved Striker into a roaming role.

    In a breakdown of OU's new defense, Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall called Striker a "nickel/DE/LB hybrid," adding that "because Striker has the quickness and awareness to play out in space, Oklahoma can now play two versions of every base coverage and front."

    In very simple terms, what that means is this: Striker's versatility begets Oklahoma's versatility. Striker can beat you in multiple ways, and because of that, so can the Sooners defense.

    Throw in what should be a good amount of sacks (stats do matter for these awards, after all) and you'll have yourself a Butkus winner. At 6'0", 221 pounds, he'd be one of the smaller recipients in history.

    But in 2014—more than ever before—speed and versatility are killers.

     

    Honorable Mention: Ramik Wilson, Georgia

    Georgia should be stout against the run this season, and Ramik Wilson (133 tackles in 2013) is its unquestioned leader up the middle. If the secondary holds up behind him, this is the best team in the SEC East and a legitimate national title contender.

Fred Biletnikoff Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Wide Receiver

    Projected Winner: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

    The Pac-12 has won two straight Biletnikoff Awards (Brandin Cooks in 2013; Marqise Lee in 2012), and with Jaelen Strong returning in 2014, it stands a pretty decent chance at grabbing a third.

    Strong was a JUCO transfer in 2013 who finished with 75 catches for 1,122 yards despite tailing off at the end of the season and never totally looking like he had realized his potential. At 6'3" with good speed, great length and impressive high-point timing, he has all he needs to become the next Brandon Marshall.

    He has all he needs to post ridiculous stats this season, too. Specifically, he has one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the country (Taylor Kelly) and a defense that loses pretty much everyone. The Sun Devils will need to throw—and throw a lot—to stay in games.

    And Strong, for his part, has improved to accommodate what should be a bigger role. "He's a lot better getting off the ball in press (coverage)," said teammate Lloyd Carrington, a junior cornerback, per Doug Haller of AZCentral Sports. "He's developed new moves…He has all the intangibles a top receiver should have."

    The thought of Strong making big strides isn't shocking, but it is a little bit terrifying. How much better can one get after catching 12 passes for 168 yards at Stanford, seven passes for 103 yards against USC and eight passes for 136 yards against Notre Dame?

    Those weren't bottom-tier Pac-12 schlubs in those secondaries; they were All-America candidates and future NFL starters.

    And Strong made a lot of them look like JV players.

     

    Honorable Mention: Antwan Goodley, Baylor

    So. Many. Big. Plays. At some point, the numbers just win out. Antwan Goodley had 1,339 receiving yards last season and stands to improve upon that total—unthinkably—now that Tevin Reese is out of the mix. Make sure not to lose him on 3rd-and-long.

Jim Thorpe Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Defensive Back

    Projected Winner: Trae Waynes, Michigan State

    Trae Waynes is a stranger to the spotlight. 

    He didn't even steal headlines in high school, ranking outside the national top 1,100 recruits and fading to the background behind his star teammate/best friend, the player on the following slide.

    Last year, even though he locked up one side of the field for Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" secondary, he was the cornerback nobody talked about next to Darqueze Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award. Waynes didn't even make the All-Big Ten second team.

    But some people were paying close attention, realizing Waynes was just as important to Michigan State's success as Dennard. He wasn't quite as good—nobody was—but he made targeting the side opposite Dennard a bleak proposition. He kept Dennard Island open for business, because Waynes Island was just as inhospitable.

    Bleacher Report's Michael Felder took notice, ranking Waynes a top-20 cornerback in the country and saying he "gets tested and responds to challenges." In the same piece, B/R's Matt Miller graded him as a first-round draft talent with "prototypical NFL cornerback tools."

    Most importantly, Dennard sang Waynes' praises in comparison to himself, which is often difficult for a cornerback (whose position encourages/demands a healthy amount of egotism) to do.

    "Trae (Waynes) will move to my side, and Trae will end up being two times better than me," Dennard told Mike Griffith of MLive.com in February. "When Trae really wants to play, he can play."

    Michigan State's pass rush should be even better than it was last year, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will not stop calling press-man coverage. Waynes will be matched one-on-one with receivers and only have to cover them for so long to keep them out of the box score. That is something he can do with regularity.

    And doing that with regularity is how one wins the Thorpe.

     

    Honorable Mention: Landon Collins, Alabama

    Landon Collins stepped in after Vinnie Sunseri tore his ACL last year, and the defense immediately got better. Which is crazy because Sunseri was playing at an All-America level before he got hurt. Good luck trying to do the math on that one—but it's true. If Collins helps a young secondary become a good one, he'll deserve the recognition.

Doak Walker Award

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Running Back

    Projected Winner: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

    How powerful is Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon? His decision to return to school this year spawned an entire NFL narrative.

    That "devaluation of the running back" thing everyone was talking about this offseason was spurred by the fact that no ball-carrier came off the board until the No. 54 pick of the draft (Bishop Sankey). Had Gordon entered, though, that would not have been the case.

    "He's so fluid and easy and graceful," an anonymous NFL personnel director told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, assuring him that Gordon would have been the top running back in the 2014 draft. "He's (expletive) really good. He's a first-rounder."

    All this praise comes despite the fact that Gordon has always been a backup. Even last season, when he rushed for 1,609 yards (No. 10 in the country) on 206 carries, James White touched the ball more. His career average of 8.1 yards on 288 carries is the stuff of legend.

    Beyond that, Gordon's team has an experienced, road-grading offensive line but major questions at quarterback and wide receiver. He is officially the No. 1 back, and he holds that role for an offense that will struggle—to put it kindly—through the air.

    That is what separates Gordon from the other prohibitive favorite for this award, Georgia's Todd Gurley. Gordon has less competition for carries on a team that will run the ball more often, which should lead to better stats despite (negligibly) inferior skill.

    He knows exactly whom he's competing with, too. "When I'm running sprints and lifting, I'm not just thinking about the guys in our room," Gordon told Chris Low of ESPN The Magazine. "I'm not just competing with them. I'm thinking about Gurley. I'm thinking about [T.J.] Yeldon, [Ameer] Abdullah and the new guys coming in."

    LSU's rebuilt front seven had better watch out in Week 1. A big game there—on national TV against a name-brand opponent—could put Gordon in the Doak Walker pole position by early September.

     

    Honorable Mention: Todd Gurley

    How could it be anyone else? Abdullah, Yeldon and Mike Davis make up a solid Nos. 3 through 5 in the running-back hierarchy, but Gurley and Gordon are the definitive Nos. 1a and 1b. Georgia's offensive line isn't quite like Wisconsin's, which tips the scales in Gordon's favor, but it doesn't feel good wagering against Gurley nonetheless.

Home Depot Award

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Head Coach

    Winner: Chris Petersen, Washington

    Amazingly, Chris Petersen has never won this award.

    He won the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award in 2006 and 2009, and the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award in 2010, but the voters for the Home Depot Award passed him over for Greg Schiano, Brian Kelly and Gene Chizik during those three seasons, respectively.

    It might be a little hasty to think Petersen can win his first Home Depot Award in his first year at a power-conference school, but if last year's winner, Gus Malzahn, could do it, why can't Petersen? Have a couple (comparatively) down seasons at Boise State made us forget who we're dealing with? How good of a coach this guy is?

    Petersen won 84 of his first 92 games with the Broncos, coaching multiple groups of unheralded recruits into national title contenders. Most notably, his 2010 team finished No. 1 in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings—a metric that adjusts for strength of opponent.

    This Washington team is already the most talented group he has coached by a wide margin, and there will be less of a learning curve from one regime to the next than most expect. The Huskies' outgoing defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, was actually Petersen's defensive coordinator at Boise State from 2006 to 2009; their new defensive coordinator, Pete Kwiatkowski, was Wilcox's defensive line coach.

    "This whole system started at Boise when Justin Wilcox was with us," Petersen told Ted Miller of ESPN.com. "So there's going to be a lot of carryover with that terminology, with that structure of the defense as well...It's going to be as much as the same as you can possibly have it on a brand-new staff."

    With one of the best offensive lines in the conference and legitimate star players like receiver Kasen Williams, nose tackle Danny Shelton, defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha, cornerback Marcus Peters and linebacker Shaq Thompson, Petersen can overcome some questions at quarterback (where his developmental specialty lies).

    This is not just another Pac-12 North upstart; it's a rare division challenger. Especially with USC off the schedule and Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA all coming to Seattle, it's a team besides the Cardinal and Ducks that can win the North for the first time ever.

    Even if they lose in the Pac-12 title game (as I predict), guiding the Huskies to an 11-2 record on the heels of the "Seven-win Steve" era should be enough to win Petersen some hardware.

    It's about time he was given this award.

     

    Honorable Mention: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

    By nature, this award is more likely to go to an upstart team than an established power. Hugh Freeze's Rebels have not been consistent the past few seasons, and the offense is a bit shaky, but the defense can play with anyone. They have the highest ceiling of any team outside the Top 15 and a schedule filled with prime-time games. One or two big SEC West wins could lock up this trophy.

Ted Hendricks/Bronko Nagurski Award

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Defensive End/Defensive Player

    Projected Winner: Vic Beasley, Clemson

    Vic Beasley gave up first-round NFL money to return for his senior season, forfeiting an immediate payday for one more chance to (a) beat Florida State and (b) prove he's a top-five- or -10-caliber player.

    He confirmed as much during the ACC Football Kickoff, saying he does not regret the decision and that he wants to prove he can drop in coverage and gain weight, per Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports.

    The second part of that (gaining weight) has already been confirmed, but the first part (pass coverage) will be something to watch for this season. Either way, though, it's the pass-rush skills that have gotten Beasley to this current point, and no matter how he looks in coverage, it's the pass-rush skills that will win him some awards.

    Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss last season, and with Brent Venables' attack-at-all-costs scheme still in effect and a front seven loaded with disruptive players (Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford, Stephone Anthony, etc.), Beasley should be in the backfield often.

    Last year, when this front seven was one season younger, Beasley finished fourth in the country with 23 tackles for loss and third with 13 sacks. No player who returns in 2014 had more of either stat.

    All of this puts offensive coordinators in a pickle. Nobody in their right mind would single-cover Beasley, who has proved he can he can destroy one-on-one blocking. But nobody in their right mind would double-team him, either, lest the rest of Clemson's pass rush run free.

    It's a Catch-22 that almost ensures a big season from Beasley—even if his primary function is freeing up teammates to make plays.

    Voters will (hopefully) be able to tell when that happens.

     

    Honorable Mention: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State

    Dennard was the All-American and Max Bullough was the "leader," but Shilique Calhoun was the most talented player on Michigan State's defense last season. This year, the unit is his, and if Sparty doesn't suffer a sizable drop-off, Calhoun will get a lot of the credit.

Rotary Lombardi/Chuck Bednarik Award

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Lineman/Defensive Player

    Projected Winner: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida

    Unless one player profoundly outperforms the competition—see: Aaron Donald in 2013—it is common for some of these awards with similar/identical designations to go to different players.

    It happened as recently as 2010, in fact, when Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley won the Rotary Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman even though LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. It's confusing and inconsistent, but if multiple players are close, it's condonable.

    In that vein, let's predict a split of the major defensive awards between Vic Beasley and Florida "Buck" linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., a player who is brimming with potential but hasn't quite maximized it.

    In a vacuum, it feels wrong to say that about a true junior with 19 career tackles for loss. For most, that would register as a hugely productive (or at the very least, solid) start to their career. With Fowler, it almost feels like a disappointment. 

    He should be posting 19 tackles for loss in a season.

    By all accounts, though, Fowler has come in this offseason and embraced his new leadership role. Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin called his effort level "noticeably different," per Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, going on to say "we've challenged him…to be a consistent guy there and he's really done that to this point."

    Florida returns everyone but Damien Jacobs and Dominique Easley (who missed most of the season anyway) from last year's defensive-line rotation and is counting on Fowler to be the heart and soul of its pass rush—not unlike Jarvis Jones was at Georgia in 2012.

    At his best, Fowler is just as good as Jones was, and he will have every chance to flirt with Jones' 2012 numbers (24.5 TFL) this season.

    That and a Florida resurgence—something in, let's say, the eight-to-10-win range—should land Fowler on the national award circuit.

     

    Honorable Mention: Leonard Williams, USC

    Ndamukong Suh set the blueprint a few years ago, and Aaron Donald followed it last season. There's a way for a interior pass-rushers to sweep the major defensive awards, and Leonard Williams definitely has the talent to get to that level. It's just a bit of a risk to predict.

Johnny Unitas Golden Arm/Maxwell Awards

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    Awarded to: Nation's Top Senior Quarterback/Most Outstanding Player

    Winner: Bryce Petty, Baylor

    The past three Heisman Trophy winners have not won the Maxwell Award as the nation's most outstanding player. Instead, the Maxwell has gone to similarly deserving candidates who for one reason or another didn't fit the "profile" of a Heisman winner.

    Bryce Petty could be next in line to follow in those footsteps, the same AJ McCarron walked in 2013, Manti Te'o walked in 2012 and Andrew Luck walked in 2011. McCarron and Luck—like Petty in this prediction—also took home the Unitas Award as the nation's top senior QB.

    Why wouldn't Petty fit the "profile" of a Heisman winner, you ask?

    Because Robert Griffin III won too recently.

    That is misguided and nebulous, but it's the truth. The sixth of Chris Huston's "10 Heismandments"—"The winner cannot be considered an obvious product of his team's system"—precludes any Art Briles-coached quarterback from winning so soon after RGIII.

    Expect Petty to have a season in line with McCarron's in 2013. His stats will be inflated (a great deal) by Baylor's offense, but he'll be the senior quarterback and unquestioned leader of a conference and national title contender.

    It's possible for Petty to refute the "Heismandments" and win the ultimate award, but a lot would have to go right. Baylor would have to win the Big 12 (and likely go undefeated), and other candidates' teams would have to falter out of College Football Playoff contention.

    More likely, he'll end up with what's become the sport's consolation bundle. All things told, that is nothing to complain about.

     

    Honorable Mention: Sean Mannion, Oregon State

    Sean Mannion has the physical build (6'5", 227 pounds) of a first-round NFL draft pick and averaged 358.6 passing yards per game last season. Sure, losing Brandin Cooks from the offense is devastating, but he's got the arm to at least flirt with similar numbers during his senior year.

Davey O'Brien/Walter Camp Award/Heisman Trophy

18 of 18

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Awarded to: Nation's Top Quarterback/Most Outstanding Player (x2)

    Winner: Brett Hundley, UCLA

    Yes…that Brett Hundley.

    The same guy who threw for 64 yards on 19 passes at Oregon last season. The same guy who once threw four picks in a 26-point loss at Cal. The same guy who's taken roughly 86 sacks in 27 games.

    This will be your Heisman Trophy winner.

    Assuming the offensive line stays at least relatively healthy (for once), Hundley has all the ingredients of a Heisman-winning QB. 

    His team ranked No. 7 in both major preseason polls, and I've gone on the record predicting it to make the CFP. He finished fifth among returning players in ESPN's Adjusted QBR metric, and he returns five of his six leading receivers. He ranked fourth among quarterbacks in rushing EPA (expected points added), and he ended the year with 241 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries against USC and Virginia Tech (which both had top-five defenses, per the F/+ ratings).

    And it still feels like he is only scratching the surface.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller wrote that Hundley "has a clear shot at being the No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 overall player taken (in the 2015 NFL draft) if his play continues at the high levels seen in 2013."

    Miller's entire piece is worth reading for skeptics of this prediction, but at one point, he describes Hundley as a mixture of Matt Ryan's arm, Ryan Tannehill's speed and Cam Newton's power. That is the type of person we are dealing with: a create-a-player in a video game.

    This should be the year that all comes together.

     

    Honorable Mention: Jameis Winston, Florida State

    Winston deserves to be the betting favorite. Quite frankly, anything else would be nonsense. But I'll defer to Huston's "Heismandments," one of which states that we will never see another two-time winner. For more on the topic, refer to Huston's full breakdown here.

     

    Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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