Predicting Top College Football Week 1 Performers
Remember the last time you had college football stats for lunch?
Yeah, that would have been eight months ago in January, when bowl season wrapped up and you were left with the tail end of the NFL season and basketball to keep you warm at night.
All that changes this week with 85 college games over six days, providing you with box-score palooza, just the kind of thing to make you feel alive as summer makes its last stand.
Now we can get back to saying, “Did you see that kid run for 200 yards on Saturday or that other guy run two picks back for touchdowns?”
With a load of mismatches slated for Week 1, the possibilities for stellar individual performances are literally endless, so we’ll limit the discussion to five potential leaders for each major statistical category.
Rushing Yards: Aaron Jones, UTEP
UTEP’s Aaron Jones rushed for 811 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman last season, numbers he racked up on only 155 carries in nine games. This gave him 90.11 yards per game, the No. 42 spot in the FBS.
Proving his single-game prowess, Jones rushed for 100-plus yards in three games last year, hanging up a career-high 186 yards in a 45-7 loss to Rice.
UTEP opens up the 2014 season this Saturday at New Mexico, the team that finished last year ranked No. 122 against the run, allowing 256.7 yards per game. The Lobos return just three starting members to their front seven from last season and will battle with a Miners offensive line that welcomes back three of its five starters.
Rushing Yards: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
There are two reasons to believe that Alabama junior running back T.J. Yeldon might have a huge day in the opener against West Virginia in Atlanta.
First, Yeldon is the featured back for a team which is breaking in a new quarterback. This means he’ll get more touches by virtue of being relied on more heavily. To illustrate, think back to 2011 when AJ McCarron first took the starting quarterback job—Trent Richardson was the go-to rusher on that team, racking up 1,679 yards on the season and breaking the 100-yard mark in nine games.
Next, Yeldon, along with three starters from last season’s offensive line, will be squaring off with a West Virginia defense that finished 2013 ranked No. 91 against the run. The Mountaineers return four members to a front seven which allowed 191 yards per game last year.
Rushing Yards: Mike Davis, South Carolina
Junior tailback Mike Davis could be the offensive star of South Carolina’s first-ever clash with Texas A&M this Thursday night. As a sophomore, Davis posted 1,183 yards on 203 carries, finishing the season with an average of 98.58 yards per game.
Highlights included a 149-yard day in the loss to Georgia and a 167-yard game in the road win at UCF.
The Aggies finished last season ranked No. 111 against the run, giving up a generous 222 yards per game. Things look even better when you throw in that the Gamecocks return four starters to their offensive line from last season, a unit that Phil Steele rates as the 11th-most experienced in the nation.
As a note, despite speculation that Davis might miss the opener due to injury, Mike Huguenin of College Football 24/7 via NFL.com has reported that he is likely to play in Thursday night’s game with Texas A&M.
Rushing Yards: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
The No. 6 rusher in the FBS last season in yards per game, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah has a golden opportunity in Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic.
While the Owls weren’t horrible against the run last season—they finished No. 68 in the FBS—they bring back just three starters to the defensive front seven.
So it’s Abdullah and his 130-yard-per-game average squaring off with a young defense from a non-power five conference.
The only good news for FAU is that Nebraska’s offensive line returns only one starter, making it one of the least experienced units in the land.
Rushing Yards: Travis Greene, Bowling Green
Not only did Bowling Green finish last season 10-4 and win the MAC—it also laid claim to the No. 15 running back in college football in yards per game.
Travis Greene finished last season with 1,594 yards on 279 carries, earning him an average of 113.8 yards per game. Greene broke the 100-yard mark on nine occasions in 2013 and went over 140 yards three times.
Bowling Green opens up the 2014 season at Western Kentucky this Friday night, a game in which Greene might go off on the Hilltoppers' No. 60-ranked rushing defense from last season. While allowing 161 yards per game on the ground might not sound all the bad, Western Kentucky returns only two starters to its front seven and only three to its entire defense this season, making it one of the youngest units in the FBS.
Passing Yards: Bryce Petty, Baylor
Only Heisman winner Jameis Winston finished last season with a better passer rating than did Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty. Winston chalked up a 184.5, while Petty posted a 174.29.
Petty did have the edge in passing yards, with 4,200 to Winston’s 4,057, and should have a heyday this Sunday night against SMU’s No. 115-ranked pass defense from last season.
The Mustangs return just one starting defensive back and will be tasked with containing Petty and two of his top three targets from last season, including Antwan Goodley.
This one could get ugly.
Passing Yards: Connor Halliday, Washington State
Only two quarterbacks in the FBS threw for more yards than Washington State’s Connor Halliday did last season—Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. Halliday—who racked up 4,597 total yards or 353 yards per game last year— returns to the starting job in 2014 along with his top three targets from a year ago.
This sets up nicely for a Week 1 explosion when Rutgers comes to visit for a Thursday night showdown. Only three teams in the FBS were less effective against the pass last season than the Scarlet Knights, who gave up a generous 312 yards per game.
Lowlights for Rutgers included Cincinnati hanging up 507 yards of passing against it in last season’s 52-17 loss.
Passing Yards: Sean Mannion, Oregon State
Last season’s No. 2 quarterback in total yards, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion has two of his top three receivers from last season returning this year, plus three starters from the offensive line.
Mannion posted more than 400 passing yards in five games last season, the high point a 493-yard day in the 52-24 win at Washington State.
The other plus for Mannion in Week 1 is that the Beavers draw FCS Portland State, a team that gave up 485 and 457 yards of passing respectively in losses to Cal and Eastern Washington last season.
Passing Yards: Shane Carden, ECU
In what looks to be another mismatch involving a prolific passer from last season, Shane Carden and East Carolina’s No. 11- ranked passing offense are set to open up Saturday night against FCS NC Central.
NC Central went 5-7 in 2013, including a 45-0 loss to Duke in the season opener when the Blue Devils managed 488 yards of total offense.
Carden has three starters back on the Pirates offensive line and his top two targets from a year ago, including Justin Hardy, who caught 114 passes for 1,284 yards.
Passing Yards: Davis Webb, Texas Tech
Texas Tech’s Davis Webb finished last season ranked No. 20 in passing yards per game, an achievement that is more impressive when you remember he played in 10 games and started only six.
Webb and the Red Raiders open up Saturday night against FCS Central Arkansas, a team that went 7-5 last season but gave up 341 yards of passing in its 38-24 loss to Colorado. The Buffs finished last season ranked No. 87 in scoring offense.
Along with Webb, Tech welcomes back four starters from the offensive line and three of its top five receivers.
Receiving Yards: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
The other individual element in Baylor’s opening mismatch with SMU, wide receiver Antwan Goodley should have a heyday with SMU’s young, struggling defense this weekend.
Goodley finished last season ranked No. 13 in the FBS in receiving yards per game, hauling in an average of 103. Highlights included a 170-yard day in the 73-42 win over West Virginia and 182 yards in the 71-7 beatdown of Iowa State.
SMU returns just one starter to its No. 115-ranked pass defense from last season, a unit that gave up 413 passing yards to Texas Tech in last year’s opener.
Receiving Yards: Titus Davis, Central Michigan
Did you know that the No. 14-ranked receiver in the FBS last season hailed from 6-6 Central Michigan? The name to remember is Titus Davis, who averaged over 100 yards per game last year as a junior.
Back on campus along with Davis is starting quarterback Cooper Rush and all five starting members of the Chippewas offensive line from 2013.
All this bodes well for an explosion in the opener this Thursday with FCS Chattanooga. The Mocs did manage an 8-4 mark last season, but finished the campaign with a 49-0 loss to Alabama, giving up 435 yards of total offense to the Tide.
Receiving Yards: Deontay Greenberry, Houston
Houston’s Deontay Greenberry racked up 1,202 receiving yards as a sophomore last season, eclipsing the 140-yard mark on four separate occasions.
The high point came at Rutgers when he grabbed eight passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns.
This season, Greenberry will have the benefit of starting quarterback John O’Korn throwing him the ball, along with three starting members of the offensive line.
The Cougars open up the season on Friday night against UTSA, a team that finished last season ranked No. 71 against the pass and gave up 518 passing yards to Oklahoma State in a 56-35 loss.
Receiving Yards: Justin Hardy, East Carolina
The other part of the equation in East Carolina’s passing-game imbalance with FCS NC Central, wide receiver Justin Hardy should have a huge Saturday night in Week 1.
Hardy finished last season with 1,284 yards receiving and went over the 190-yard mark twice, posting 191 yards in the opener against Old Dominion and a whopping 230 yards in a wild 36-33 loss at Tulane.
Hardy is 84 catches away from surpassing Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles as the FBS record holder for career receptions.
Receiving Yards: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
In a twist that seems illogical, the No. 11 receiver in college football last season played for an offense that finished ranked No. 75 in passing.
Strange but true—Tyler Lockett averaged 105 receiving yards for a team that averaged only 224 yards per game last season. Adding to the intrigue are Lockett’s 237 yards of receiving against Texas and the 278 yards he hung up on Oklahoma.
What this all means is a scary situation for Kansas State’s opening opponent, FCS Stephen F. Austin, a team went 3-9 last season. Included in the loss column was a 61-13 beatdown at the hands of Texas Tech, which racked up 494 passing yards on the Lumberjacks.
Lockett will benefit from the return of starting quarterback Jake Waters and a couple of starters on the offensive line.
Sacks: Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
Another K-State standout from last season, defensive end Ryan Mueller was No. 2 in the Big 12 and No. 8 in the FBS last season with 11.5 sacks. Highlights included two sacks in the 35-25 loss to Baylor and three in the 49-26 win over Texas Tech.
Mueller will be the leader of an inexperienced front seven in 2014, but will have the advantage of getting things rolling against three-win FCS Stephen F. Austin this Saturday night.
The Lumberjacks offense will be led by new starting quarterback Zach Conque, who transferred in from Texas-San Antonio and has no stats as a passer at the college level. He is the son of SFA head coach Clint Conque.
Sacks: Martin Ifedi, Memphis
Standout defensive end Martin Ifedi will join five other members of Memphis’ starting front seven from last season in Saturday night’s opener vs. FCS Austin Peay.
Ifedi finished his junior season tied for No. 12 in the FBS with 10.5 sacks, registering two in a 28-14 loss to Duke and two-and-a-half in a 31-7 win over Arkansas State.
Ifedi’s senior season will begin with a game against a Governors squad that went 0-12 last season, including a 45-0 loss to Tennessee and a 38-3 loss to Vanderbilt.
Sacks: Andre Monroe, Maryland
Before defensive end Andre Monroe and Maryland start squaring off with Big Ten teams, they’ll open up against FCS James Madison this Saturday afternoon. The Dukes went 6-6 last season, including a 35-33 loss to Akron.
Monroe finished last year with nine-and-a-half sacks, which tied him for No. 19 in the FBS and No. 5 in the ACC. Season highs were two sacks against Old Dominion, three at Virginia Tech and two at North Carolina State.
Joining Monroe in 2014 will be five other members of the Terrapins' front seven from last season, a unit that registered 35 team sacks, tied for No. 19 in the FBS.
Sacks: Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington
A name you’ll likely hear more of in 2014, Washington defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha is set to have a stellar senior season.
Kikaha finished last year with 13 sacks, tied for No. 3 in the FBS and No. 2 in the Pac-12. In 2014, he’ll be one of five returning starters to the Huskies’ front seven, a unit that anchored the No. 29-ranked scoring defense.
Up first for Washington this season is Hawaii, a team that finished last year ranked No. 121 in sacks allowed with 42. This, combined with the Warriors breaking in a new quarterback, bodes well for Kikaha to have a huge opener.
Sacks: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
Randy Gregory was a first-year starter last season, but that didn’t stop him from accumulating nine-and-a-half sacks, ranking No. 19 in the FBS and No. 1 in the Big Ten.
Nebraska is another team with lots of experience returning up front on defense, as five starters from the front seven are back this year, including the entire linebacker corps.
The Cornhuskers open the season this Saturday afternoon against Florida Atlantic, a team that gave up 25 sacks last season and returns one of the youngest offensive lines in the country.
Interceptions: D’Joun Smith, FAU
The flip side of the Nebraska-FAU equation this Saturday is the possibility of the Owls scoring multiple interceptions on the Huskers.
The defender to watch is cornerback D’Joun Smith, who finished 2013 with seven interceptions, the second most in the FBS. Smith’s best day came versus Tulane when he picked Green Wave quarterback Nick Montana three times in a 34-17 win.
FAU ranked No. 2 versus the pass last season and will face Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, who threw eight picks in only 131 attempts last season—that’s an interception every 16 throws.
Interceptions: Lorenzo Doss, Tulane
In another game that flies way under the radar, watch out for Tulane and Tulsa this Thursday night in a battle between the Green Wave’s top-shelf cornerback and the Hurricanes' inexperienced quarterback.
On one side, you’ve got Tulane cornerback Lorenzo Doss, a guy who registered seven interceptions last season (tied for No. 2 in the FBS) and returned two for touchdowns (also tied for No. 2 in the FBS). On the flip side, there is sophomore Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans, who threw 10 interceptions on only 195 attempts last year.
That’s one interception in every 19.5 tosses.
Interceptions: Jamerson Love, Mississippi State
Even though Mississippi State cornerback Jamerson Love registered only three interceptions last season, it was enough to earn him a tie for the fourth most in the SEC in 2013. Love’s best day came against Texas A&M, when he picked Johnny Manziel twice.
Love and the Bulldogs draw Southern Miss in the season opener this Saturday night. Not only have the Golden Eagles won just one football game in the last two seasons, but they are also led by a quarterback who threw 14 interceptions last season, tying him for the fourth most in the FBS.
Nick Mullens attempted 276 passes last season, throwing an interception once in every 19.7 throws.
This is a good sign for Love and the Mississippi State secondary, which returns three of its four starters from last season’s No. 22-ranked pass defense.
Interceptions: Brian Suite, Utah State
It’s unfortunate that Utah State returns only seven starters—the fewest in the FBS this season; otherwise it might have put Tennessee in jeopardy of breaking its 19-game winning streak in home openers this Sunday.
One matchup that should favor the Aggies is senior free safety Brian Suite taking on Volunteer quarterback Justin Worley.
It’s the battle between a guy who threw eight picks in only 196 attempts last season and a defender who hauled in five interceptions for the No. 7 scoring defense in the nation.
Suite is the guy who picked Fresno State’s Derek Carr twice in the Aggies’ 24-17 loss in the Mountain West title game.
Interceptions: Robenson Therezie, Auburn
Hidden beneath the heavy layers of an awful No. 102-ranked pass defense from last season is the performance of Auburn defensive back Robenson Therezie, who had four interceptions as a junior in 2013.
The highlight for Therezie came against Ole Miss, when he picked a Bo Wallace pass and returned it for a 78-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
This season Auburn opens up with a visit from Arkansas, led by quarterback Brandon Allen, who coughed up 10 interceptions last season in 258 attempts. Lowlights included throwing three picks in games against Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas A&M and two apiece to FCS Samford, Ole Miss and LSU.
This was not a tendency that got better as time went on.
As a note, it remains unclear if Therezie—who has eligibility issues—will be available to start in Week 1. If Therezie isn’t ready to go, keep an eye on senior safety Jermaine Whitehead, who had two interceptions last season.