Biggest Question Facing Each Top 25 Team Heading into the 2014 Season
Ahem: Football's back!
Technically, it was back last Saturday, when Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State faced off on the red field, but it's not real football unless the SEC is involved.
(That's only half joking.)
Digressing, Week 1 is upon us and each Associated Press Top 25 team has a silo of offseason questions just waiting to be answered. It's likely, if not guaranteed, that most of those questions won't be answered after one game.
But we can focus on the overriding storyline for each top-25 team as the season gets underway. What will Texas A&M look like in the post-Johnny Manziel era? Who will win Alabama's quarterback battle? Will Florida State win another national title?
Let's try to predict some answers. And not be horribly, horribly wrong in the process.
No. 25 Washington Huskies
Question: Can Jeff Lindquist keep the starting quarterback job for good?
Answer: Lindquist, a redshirt sophomore, will get his first start this weekend against Hawaii. First-year coach Chris Petersen expressed cautious optimism about Lindquist based on his offseason practices but fell short of naming him the starter from here on out.
"We'll go with him [Lindquist] and see how he does,"Petersen said via Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com. "He has done a great job in spring through now."
Cyler Miles was projected to be the starting quarterback for the Huskies, but his role in an offseason fight netted him a one-game suspension. Petersen is a no-nonsense coach, so there's no doubt Miles has to earn his way into the starting job.
That said, the competition will open up again after the Hawaii game. The good news for Lindquist is he has an opportunity to impress. Hawaii ranked as one of the worst defenses in the Mountain West a year ago and Paul Myerberg of USA Today doesn't seem optimistic that will change much.
Still, Lindquist is going to have to play well and re-earn the starting job going forward.
No. 24 Missouri Tigers
Question: Which newcomer will morph into a star?
Answer: Missouri has a lot of questions because, if nothing else, there are a lot of new players moving into full-time starter roles. That's not to be confused with a lack of talent or experience, but put another way, this team has that new-car smell without actually being on the lot for the first time.
With all due respect to South Dakota State, there won't be many things to pull away from this Week 1 game other than finding a star—or stars—to emerge. Wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is gone. So are quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey.
The defensive losses are just as tough. Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy were pivotal players for the Tigers.
Quarterback Maty Mauk looked good in limited play during the Cotton Bowl, so the prediction here is that he picks up where he left off against lesser competition. Mauk isn't the biggest quarterback out there at a listed 6'1" and 200 pounds, but he's excellent running and throwing the ball. Of the new crop of SEC quarterbacks, he should rank among the most exciting.
No. 23 North Carolina Tar Heels
Question: Can the Tar Heels take advantage of a wide-open division?
Answer: Even dating back to the Butch Davis days, North Carolina has had the talent to do big things in the ACC but has always fallen a little short. 2014 presents another opportunity to win a wide-open Coastal division.
Here's an oddity: Media members predicted Miami to win the division, with Duke finishing second and Virginia Tech third. Not a single one of those schools appears in the AP Top 25. North Carolina is, however, at No. 23 and had the second-most first-place votes in the preseason poll with 27.
Seeing as North Carolina gets Clemson, Notre Dame and arguably two of its toughest divisional opponents (Duke, Miami) on the road, the early guess is the Tar Heels won't make it to the ACC Championship Game.
No. 22 Nebraska
Question: Will Nebraska get to the Rose Bowl?
Answer: It's going to be a tough road to get to Pasadena, California, even though the Big Ten appears more up for grabs thanks in part to the season-ending shoulder injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
The Huskers have always been good, with added moments of disappointing, under head coach Bo Pelini. Though Pelini has been nothing if not consistent, winning at least nine games in every year he's been in Lincoln, he's never won a conference championship.
The life of Nebraska in this age of college football carries with it a degree of difficulty. Nebraska is not a hotbed for recruiting, and while the program still has national brand recognition, top-10 classes have been impossible to come by.
Yet, the West Division is wide-open. Nebraska will have to be good on the road, though, as its three toughest conference games—Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa—will be played away from home. Even if Nebraska moves on to the Big Ten title game, the winner of the East Division could come down to either Ohio State or Michigan State.
That's a tough slate. It's hard to see Nebraska getting over that seemingly insurmountable hump.
No. 21 Texas A&M Aggies
Question: How does the defense hold up?
Answer: It's an important question, for sure, but an obvious one at that. Furthermore, there should be more confidence in head coach Kevin Sumlin's ability to breed big numbers on offense no matter who is under center.
Rather, the bigger unknown should be the defense after the summer of attrition, which is not to be confused with the Summer of George. Defensive end Gavin Stansbury, linebacker Darian Claiborne, defensive tackle Isaiah Golden—they're all gone. And off of a defense that was statistically horrid a year ago, no less.
While there are young players, like defensive end Myles Garrett, ready to become playmakers, it could take time for that group to come together.
No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats
Question: Is Kansas State a legitimate Big 12/playoff sleeper?
Answer: If it's possible to answer a question with another question, here it goes: Is K-State really a playoff sleeper if they're widely considered to be a playoff sleeper? There's a certain "tree falling in the forest" element here with pundits like Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports giving the Wildcats some of that sweet, sweet sleeper-pick love.
The Wildcats have key pieces returning with wide receiver Tyler Lockett, quarterback Jake Waters and defensive end Ryan Mueller. They have an experienced offensive line and were one of the hottest teams to end the 2013 season.
They also have three daunting games: a home game against Auburn on Sept. 18, a trip to Oklahoma in mid-October and a season-ending game at Baylor. Even winning one of those games would be a success, but K-State would have to do better than that if it's really going to be in the playoff conversation at year's end.
There's enough talent on roster and head coach Bill Snyder is a genius. So, yes, K-State can shake things up on the playoff front.
No. 19 Arizona State Sun Devils
Question: Will defense be able to overcome the turnover?
Answer: There's no question the Sun Devils will score points. For that, they are dearly loved because few things are more fun than watching two teams try to play catch up with one another.
But therein lies an important storyline for Arizona State: Will it be able to make enough stops to relieve the offense? The defense loses, well, just about everyone, including star defensive tackle Will Sutton.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly and Co. are good enough to win games, but they won't be able to win every game by themselves.
The good news is the Sun Devils will have a few weeks to iron out wrinkles, as they don't play UCLA until Sept. 25. After that, though, they'll get a regular dosage of the Pac-12's best.
Arizona State will remain an exciting team this year and may still win nine games—a drop-off of only one win from a year ago—but defensive turnover will rear its ugly head at least once this season.
No. 18 Ole Miss Rebels
Question: Will the Rebels make their move up the SEC West Standings?
Answer: Raw talent is not an issue for Ole Miss. The 2013 recruiting class, ranked eighth nationally by 247Sports.com and featuring blue-chip players like defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, could be the foundation for years to come in Oxford.
The question is whether the Rebels will chip away at SEC powerhouses Alabama, LSU and Auburn. Undoubtedly, Ole Miss's biggest victory under third-year coach Hugh Freeze was last year's 27-24 win over then No. 6 LSU, which showed, yes, this program is capable of upending the conference's premier programs.
Still, the Rebels are 2-7 against against Top 25 teams under Freeze. Building a program takes time and Freeze has won 15 games in two years. But if Freeze is going to recruit with the best, he eventually needs to start beating the best.
Otherwise, that's an indictment on him, not the athletes. There's no indication Ole Miss is anything but completely satisfied with Freeze's performance, but the program faces four teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 25—all from the SEC West.
Winning two of those games would count as major progress.
No. 17 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Question: Will Notre Dame overcome the four suspensions and make the playoff?
Answer: The Fighting Irish are more of an uncertainty now than they were a month ago. That's due to the suspension of four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and linebacker Kendall Moore—because of an academic misconduct investigation.
As B/R's Keith Arnold explains, Russell would be the biggest loss:
If there's a dagger in the side of the Irish, it's the loss of Russell. A 26-game starter who manned a cornerback spot from the day he stepped onto the field, Russell is one of the top players on the team, and he's expected to be the Irish's lockdown cornerback, a potential star in the making.
The Irish's secondary will be tested most in the middle of its schedule, which features North Carolina, Florida State and Arizona State. Anything less than 11 wins would probably mean no playoff appearance for Notre Dame. That seems more likely now.
No. 16 Clemson Tigers
Question: How will the offense look without stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins?
Answer: If you can believe it, Clemson's defense is realistically ahead of the offense heading into Week 1 against Georgia. In fact, the Tigers are on the short list of best defensive lines in the country, highlighted by pass-rushing specialist Vic Beasley.
And, in asking you to once again believe things, this is an important year for offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Boyd and Sammy Watkins are off to the NFL, and leading returning running back Zac Brooks is out for the year with a foot injury.
That means Morris is tasked with keeping Clemson's offense running smoothly with a fairly new crop of skill players. There's talent on offense to get it done, so Clemson should be able to plug and play with generally positive results.
No. 15 USC Trojans
Question: Are the Trojans prepared to overcome depth to win the Pac-12 South?
Answer: Depth is a tricky monster that comes out to bite at the most inopportune times. USC's starting 22 is fine, evident by the fact that an interim coach, Ed Orgeron, can lead the Trojans to a 10-win season. But depth is most helpful as the season wears on and injuries pile up.
First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian thinks USC's problems lie more with experience. "It's not about the overall numbers [or] sheer depth," Sarkisian said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call (via B/R's Kyle Kensing). "We will be a little bit inexperienced [at cornerback]—perhaps a little bit more inexperienced than we'd like to be."
Still, USC has fewer than 70 scholarship players on the roster, per Kensing. That's a tough number no matter how you phrase it. Almost certainly, that's going to cost the Trojans at one point or another this season—enough that it will cost them the division.
No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers
Question: Can quarterback Tanner McEvoy take off?
Answer: I'll admit, I'm biased toward dual-threat quarterbacks. It's a personal preference, but if they're capable of running an offense, I'd much rather have someone who can make plays on his own when the regular play breaks down.
McEvoy can be that player for the Badgers. It's just a matter of whether he's mastered the offense. Though head coach Gary Andersen hasn't officially named McEvoy, a former safety, the starting quarterback for the opener against LSU, of the Journal Sentinel reported that the decision had been made last week.
The Tigers aren't an ideal opponent to start against, but McEvoy, all 6'6" and 222 pounds of him, is physically gifted enough to make plays against anyone. There could be some growing pains, but over time, Andersen will find that McEvoy has the higher ceiling than incumbent Joel Stave.
No. 13 LSU Tigers
Question: Will freshmen lead LSU to an SEC West title?
Answer: It's appropriate that LSU and Wisconsin not only face off in Week 1, but that they sit back-to-back in the preseason AP top 25 because both have a similar question at quarterback.
Either sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris will start in Week 1, though it's possible both see playing time. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette will make his highly anticipated debut as well.
The Tigers could be set up well for the long term, but how will they fare in 2014 against a deep SEC West? There may not be a divisional title for LSU this time around, but this next wave of playmakers for Les Miles' team is as good as any in the country.
No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs
Question: What are Todd Gurley's Heisman chances?
Answer: The short answer is that they're great. He's a high-profile name on a nationally relevant team working in an offense that caters to him touching the ball a lot.
The Heisman race is a game with a formula and Gurley's numbers add up. The only thing that would prevent Gurley from making a trip to New York, it seems, would be his health. Last year, Gurley was nicked up with various injuries, which cost him three full games.
Still, Gurley rushed for 900 yards, and with a new quarterback under center, those numbers could go way up this year. If Georgia manages to upend South Carolina to win the SEC East, Gurley will be showcased in the SEC title at the right time for Heisman voters to see.
No. 11 Stanford Cardinal
Question: How is the defense going to look?
Answer: Different, with the potential for a drop-off. It starts with the loss of defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who left to take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt.
Beyond Mason's departure, though, the Cardinal lose a lot of production and leadership. Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy were cornerstones of the linebacker unit, and defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro are gone as well.
Stanford has done as good a job as any program over the last few years of dealing with turnover, but there are noticeable losses here. Four Pac-12 offenses—Oregon, Arizona State, Washington and UCLA—finished with top-25 scoring offenses a year ago. Stanford gets all of them.
No. 10 Baylor Bears
Question: Can Baylor repeat as Big 12 champs?
Answer: Yes, but it depends on whether head coach Art Briles was truly correct about the state of the program last fall when he said the Bears finally had "Big 12 quality depth."
Depth plays an important role in getting through the season, but it also projects how good a program can be for the long haul. Baylor is replacing plenty of key players on both sides of the ball from a year ago, including Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin at running back and Ahmad Dixon at safety. If there's no real drop-off in production, then we'll know Briles was right on.
Baylor does have the best quarterback in the Big 12, Bryce Petty, and no shortage of young skill players ready to make their mark on the program. Oklahoma is the preseason favorite, so the conference title could come down to a Nov. 8 game in Norman.
No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks
Question: Is this the year South Carolina wins the SEC?
Answer: I'll begrudgingly say "no" in the name of actually making a decision, backed by the fact that, mathematically, the Gamecocks have a 1-in-14 chance of doing so.
However, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times aptly wrote earlier this month that head coach Steve Spurrier has unfinished business with South Carolina. Even though the team loses star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, even though it loses underrated quarterback Connor Shaw, it seems as though this program is well-equipped to make another run at a divisional and conference title.
"There may come a time when people say, all things considered, the coaching job Spurrier did at South Carolina was equal to — or better than — the job he did at Florida," Dufresne wrote.
No. 8 Michigan State Spartans
Question: Is Michigan State the Big Ten favorite now?
Answer: Now that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury, one could certainly make that point.
The Big Ten's East division is still the more top-heavy of the two with the Buckeyes and Spartans. For that matter, the Nov. 8 game between the two in East Lansing still looms as the game to mark in red on the schedule.
Michigan State has a ton of questions to answer on defense after the turnover of several key players, but head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point. Quarterback Connor Cook is emerging as one of the conference's best, so the offense should be in good hands.
Sparty should be in the Big Ten title conversation in November, that much is clear.
No. 7 UCLA Bruins
Question: Is Jim Mora's team ready to get over the hump and into the playoff?
Answer: The whole "if not now, then when?" question seems pertinent for UCLA in more years than not, but it is especially so in 2014. The Bruins return a quarterback, Brett Hundley, who is a legitimate Heisman candidate, a deep offensive line and a physical defense led by linebacker Myles Jack.
The schedule has its tough moments—against Texas and at Arizona State in September, Oregon in mid-October and USC and Stanford back-to-back to end the year—but nothing UCLA can't handle. If this team can get to the Pac-12 Championship Game, it could be one of the most highly anticipated de-facto "quarterfinals" of the season.
The talent is there in Westwood. The program is trending up under Mora. This is the year when the Bruins stand as one of the four teams left playing.
No. 6 Auburn Tigers
Question: Will Auburn recreate the magic of 2013?
Answer: Here's the thing about luck: You have to have some. To say Auburn was lucky in 2013 isn't an indictment on what the team accomplished. To play for a national championship, a few things have to break your way on top of everything else.
We may never see a season like that for one team again for years to come. In that sense, the 2013 Tigers were a special group, despite falling short in the BCS championship. But if Auburn is in the national championship picture again this year, you can bet some luck will have played a role in it again.
That's true for every team in that conversation.
No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes
Question: Is Ohio State a playoff team without quarterback Braxton Miller?
Answer: It could be, but the road just got a lot harder. As Travis Haney of ESPN tweeted, Miller's injury could have the greatest impact on the College Football Playoff field to date. That's not a hyperbolic statement, either; it simply highlights how important Miller was.
J.T. Barrett will get the start for the Buckeyes in Week 1 against Navy. Coaches have praised Barrett's leadership, but he isn't the physical playmaker Miller is. Ultimately, the question is about a number: What is Miller's value to Ohio State by himself? One win? Two?
In other words, what could his absence potentially cost Ohio State in terms of wins? Coaches will give you a speech about team, but you can't understate what a dual-threat player like Miller means for sustaining an important drive in a tight game.
That will be the story to watch with Ohio State.
No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners
Question: Does Trevor Knight become the quarterback we saw in the Sugar Bowl?
Answer: This tends to get a "yes" from me, but that's because the narrative about Knight's "only good game" is inaccurate.
The reality is Knight started to show improvement in the passing game in the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. However, it looked like he regressed in the Sooners' spring game with a 5-of-14 passing day and an interception.
So the question, really, is whether Knight can sustain that level of play. That also depends on his ability to stay healthy, which was a major problem last year.
The reason why there's so much hype around Knight is because there are few things more dangerous than a quarterback who can legitimately run and throw. If Knight does progress as a passer, he becomes the most dangerous offensive weapon in the Big 12.
No. 3 Oregon Ducks
Question: Will Quarterback Marcus Mariota win the Heisman?
Answer: He's one of the early favorites and may have had a better shot to win it last year had he not suffered a knee injury later in the season.
Underneath the Heisman race is another battle, one that's more unofficial and harder to measure: Who is the better quarterback—Mariota, or Florida State's Jameis Winston?
B/R's Matt Miller, for example, has Mariota going No. 1 overall in his early 2015 NFL mock draft (which, it should be noted, are always subject to change). Additionally, Mariota, not Winston, was the first-team selection in the USA Today preseason All-American team.
The early vibes like Mariota in the Heisman conversation. A healthy, stat-happy season could make him a wire-to-wire favorite in some voters' eyes.
No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide
Question: Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
Answer: This is tough. Real tough. It comes down to veteran and longtime backup Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jake Coker.
According to Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports.com, Sims is the favorite to take the field first this Saturday against West Virginia. But that certainly doesn't mean Coker won't play. Head coach Nick Saban implied as much in a recent interview with the media (h/t Andrew Gribble, al.com):
I think it's our responsibility to give both guys an opportunity. That's how we recruit players to come here, that they're all going to get a fair opportunity to play. We're going to choose the best players that give our team the best opportunity to be successful based on how they perform.
Having an experienced quarterback isn't a precursor to competing or winning national championships—at least for Alabama. Former Tide quarterbacks Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron won national titles in their first years as starters.
For the sake of choosing someone, let's say Sims ultimately gets the nod. But that's far from a confident pick.
No.1 Florida State Seminoles
Question: Will Florida State go undefeated, wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team?
Answer: On paper, Florida State shouldn't lose to anyone. The Seminoles' toughest games—Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida—are all at home.
This team is unbelievably talented and deep. It has the reigning Heisman winner, quarterback Jameis Winston, a big and deep offensive line and a stout defense. There's not much to dislike other than the potential for less explosiveness in the passing game.
And that's a minor complaint.
All that said, it's tough to go undefeated. It's even tougher to win every game for two years straight, especially with another two games added on for the playoff.
Will Florida State lose? If so, when? No idea, but let's end with this rule of thumb: Just when everyone thinks they have it all figured out, that a team is invincible, the unexpected happens.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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