Predicting College Football's Offensive, Defensive Juggernauts for 2014
When you look at your team’s 2014 schedule, which opponents keep you tossing and turning in bed at night?
Think of the squads that have that rare but lethal combination of previous success, inherent skill and experience—either as an entire team or an individual unit—creating an overwhelming, destructive force.
Some such opponents are as obvious as their win/loss record from last season, while others hide under the shadows of total team mediocrity, ready to pounce on their unaware victims without so much as a single warning.
Here’s a look at 16 individual units that will be among the toughest nuts to crack this season—these are the matchups that we should look forward to not looking forward to.
Rush Offense: BYU
The heart and soul of BYU’s 2013 team was a rushing offense that finished the season ranked No. 10 in the FBS in yards per game. In 2014, the Cougars return all six of their top rushers from 2013, including quarterback Taysom Hill (1,344 yards on 246 carries) and running back Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards on 217 carries).
Hill was the No. 3 quarterback in the nation last season in rushing yards, finishing 576 yards behind Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch and two yards short of Navy’s Keenan Reynolds.
If that weren’t enough, BYU brings back its entire starting offensive line from last season.
As a note, Williams will miss the opener against UConn due to an honor code violation.
Rush Offense: Oregon
Oregon had the No. 9-ranked rushing attack in the FBS ranks last season, averaging 273 yards per game. The great news for the Ducks, and the nightmare for their opponents, is the return of the top three rushers from last season: running back Byron Marshall, who ran for 1,038 yards on 168 carries, quarterback Marcus Mariota with 715 yards on 96 attempts and running back Thomas Tyner, who went for 711 yards on 115 touches.
Also back in 2014 are four of the starting offensive linemen from last season, a number that doesn’t include left tackle Tyler Johnstone, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Rush Offense: Wisconsin
Even though senior James White rushed for a whopping 1,444 yards last season, he wasn’t Wisconsin’s leading rusher. No, that honor went to sophomore Melvin Gordon, who carried the ball 206 times (15 fewer than White) for 1,650 yards.
Leading the way for Gordon in his junior campaign will be four starters from last season’s Badger offensive line, a unit that anchored the No. 8-ranked rushing attack in the nation a year ago.
Rush Offense: Auburn
Despite losing running back Tre Mason to the draft and left guard Alex Kozan to injury, Auburn should still have the best rushing attack in the SEC this season.
The Tigers return three starting members of their offensive line in 2014, a unit that led the way for the No. 1-ranked rushing offense in the country last season. Back also are No. 2 rusher and quarterback Nick Marshall (1,068 yards on 172 attempts), No. 3 rusher Corey Grant (664 yards on 66 carries) and the No. 4 guy, Cameron Artis-Payne (614 yards on 91 carries).
Rush Offense: Navy
By virtue of running the option, Navy is consistently ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation in rushing offense. Last season was no exception, with the Midshipmen finishing No. 2 in the FBS in rushing yards per game with 325.
This year, Navy has the potential to be even more productive—and more difficult to stop—with all five of its starters returning to the offensive line and both of its top rushers, quarterback Keenan Reynolds (1,346 yards on 300 carries) and running back Chris Swain (424 yards on 107 attempts), back on campus.
Pass Offense: Washington State
No other team in the nation has the potential to explode through the air this season more than Mike Leach’s Washington State does.
Phil Steele calculates that the Cougars return 94.4 percent of their yard earners from a year ago, a significant number to an offense that ranked No. 4 in passing yards versus No. 125 in rushing.
Back in action are quarterback Connor Halliday and his 4,597 passing yards along with his top eight targets from last season. Keep in mind that this is an attack that spread the wealth, with eight guys finishing the year with more than 300 receiving yards each.
The only downside for Washington State’s aerial attack in 2014 is the return of only two starting members to the offensive line from last season.
Pass Offense: Baylor
The Bears' passing attack is set to be lethal in 2014, putting pass defenses at each of their 12 opponents on red alert.
Back from last season’s No. 5-ranked passing offense is quarterback Bryce Petty, who not only threw for 4,200 yards last season (No. 4 in the FBS), but also earned a passer rating of 174.29, second only to Florida State’s Jameis Winston at 184.85.
Also returning are four of Petty’s top five targets, including Antwan Goodley, who caught 71 passes for 1,339 yards last season. What may slow things down is the task of replacing all but two members of the starting offensive line from 2013.
Pass Offense: East Carolina
Only six quarterbacks in the FBS threw for more yards last season than the 4,139 that East Carolina’s Shane Carden tossed up. Of those guys, only four finished the year with a better passer rating than Carden’s 150.02.
In 2014, Carden is back along with his top two receivers, Justin Hardy (1,284 yards on 114 catches) and Isaiah Jones (604 yards on 62 catches). Leading the way for this trio of skill players are three starters from the offensive line that anchored the No. 11 passing attack in the nation last season.
Rush Defense: Ohio State
Ohio State’s No. 28-ranked scoring defense from last season was fueled by its No. 9 rushing defense as opposed to its pass defense, which finished the year ranked an awful No. 112.
Back in action in 2014 for this group are a whopping six of the starting front seven, a number that does not include linebacker Ryan Shazier, who left for the draft after his junior campaign.
Though Shazier will obviously be missed, watch out for the Buckeyes' pair of talented young defensive ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, who combined for 27.5 tackles for a loss and 15 sacks last season.
As a note, Spence will sit out the first two games of the season, what’s left of a Big Ten sanction handed down late last year.
Rush Defense: Rutgers
Hidden beneath the layers of a 6-7 finish last season was Rutgers' No. 4 finish in rushing defense, giving up an average of only 100.7 yards per game.
The only units that performed better were Stanford (89.7), Michigan State (86.5) and Louisville (80.6).
Back on campus for Rutgers’ inaugural season in the Big Ten are four members of the front seven, including junior linebacker Steve Longa, who registered 123 tackles (No. 18 in the FBS), 7.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks and three forced fumbles last year.
Rush Defense: Memphis
The one nugget of goodness to pluck from Memphis’ three wins last season was a rushing defense that managed to finish ranked No. 12 in the FBS.
In 2014, the stingy Tigers return six starters from their front seven from a year ago, including defensive end Martin Ifedi, who racked up 14.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks as a junior last season. Ifedi is on the preseason watch list for the Hendricks Award.
Overall, Memphis brings back nine starters on defense and eight on offense, the sixth-most returning starters in the FBS.
Rush Defense: UCF
The individual unit with the best statistical finish in UCF’s 12-1 triumph last season was the rush defense, ranked No. 16 at the close of 2013.
Though the Knights return only six starters on offense this season, they bring back nine on defense, including six of the front seven. Back in action are six of UCF’s top seven tacklers from 2013, including middle linebacker Terrance Plummer, who led the team with 110 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Pass Defense: LSU
The most effective part of LSU’s defense last season was its secondary, finishing ranked No. 13 in the FBS and giving up an average of only 197.5 passing yards per game.
Returning in 2014 are starting cornerback Tre’Davious White, strong safety Ronald Martin and free safety Jalen Mills. Including the starters, the secondary returns six of its top eight members from a year ago.
Pass Defense: Notre Dame
With only 11 returning starters, Notre Dame will be one of the least experienced teams in the nation in 2014. The upside for the Irish is that their best statistical unit from last season—the secondary finished the year ranked No. 15 in the FBS—brings back three of its four starters this season.
Back on campus are cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safeties Austin Collinsworth (son of Cris Collinsworth) and Max Redfield. In all, seven of the top eight members of the secondary are back.
Also watch out for Florida transfer cornerback/safety Cody Riggs, who signed on to use his fifth year of eligibility (subscription required) in South Bend. Riggs racked up 51 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks for the Gators last season.
Pass Defense: Central Michigan
Though there weren’t a lot of highlights in Central Michigan’s 6-6 finish last season, it did manage a No. 20 ranking in pass defense.
Not only do the Chippewas return more starters than any other team in the FBS this season, they bring back three to their solid secondary. Included in the count are corners Jason Wilson and Brandon Greer along with strong safety Kevin King.
With 14 team interceptions, Central Michigan tied for the 10th-most picks in the nation last season.
Pass Defense: Middle Tennessee
The heart and soul of the Blue Raiders’ 8-5 finish a year ago was a solid rushing attack and a pass defense that ranked No. 19 in the land.
Back on campus for this effective unit are starting safeties Kevin Byard and Xavier Walker along with cornerback Jared Singletary. Byard scored five interceptions as a sophomore last season, racked up 159 return yards and scored two touchdowns. This tied him for the fourth-most interceptions in the FBS and the second-most scores. He also owned the No. 5 spot nationally in return yards.