2014 College Football Preview
By David F. Cline
It’s time once again to pull your college sweatshirt out of the drawer, fire up the charcoal grill, and sing your favorite team’s alma mater and fight song – the college football season is just weeks away. This season will be unlike any before it, primarily because there will be a true national champion crowned at season’s end. Gone is the Bowl Championship Series; in its place is the College Football Playoff. Four teams, chosen by a committee, will vie for the title.
Every season has its share of excitement, surprises, and upsets, but this is one of the more intriguing in a long time. First of all, you have new coaches at three of the bedrock schools in the sport – Charlie Strong at Texas, Steve Sarkisian at USC, and James Franklin at Penn State. Once again, you have a returning Heisman trophy winner in Florida State’s Jameis Winston, whose breath-taking abilities really are worthy of highlight films galore. Add to that the continuing conference shuffle, which finds Maryland and Rutgers in the Big 10 and Louisville in the ACC, the lack of a marquee team in the Big 12, an overabundance of talent in the Pac 12, the potential decline by the top teams of the SEC …
In a perfect world, conferences would be aligned geographically, and there would be room for outliers like Boise State, Brigham Young, Navy, and Central Florida. Unless and until that day comes, though, college football will continue to offer its own special kind of spectacle and tradition on fall Saturdays across the county – along with a few Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights.
In a nod to the gracious request by the Golf Blogger to post this preview, I have come up with a pre-season Top 18 – a front nine and a back nine, if you will. A brief look at each team is included, as well as an eagle opportunity and a hazard for each team. The eagle opportunity is a particular game, usually a road game, in which a win would give the team greater exposure and a higher national ranking. The hazard is just that – most often a home game that, if the team isn’t careful, could send their ranking into a pot bunker.
1 – Florida State – Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns; his presence alone warrants the top ranking for the Seminoles. Just like last year, Florida State is loaded on offense and defense, and while they have a target on their backs as defending champions, their schedule is favorable. Look for Winston to surpass his electrifying 2013 season and lead the Seminoles to another national championship.
2 – Ohio State – All Urban Meyer has done in Columbus is win 24 of 26 games, including a perfect 16-0 mark against Big 10 competition. Don’t expect much less this season. Senior quarterback Braxton Miller is now comfortable in Meyer’s system, giving Ohio State an unpredictable and multiple-look offense. Combined with a stout defense, look for the Buckeyes at or near the top of the Big 10 standings.
3 – Oregon – For at least five years, the Ducks have teased their fans with high rankings, jaw-dropping offensive output, and strong defense. However, a speed bump always pops up – sometimes in the middle of the season; once in the national title game. Will this year be different? Multi-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota hopes so, and his passing, not his running, will be the key to Oregon’s success.
4 – Oklahoma – The Sooners may be the class of the Big 12, but I’m not ready to anoint them the top team in the country. Take quarterback Trevor Knight – will he duplicate his success in last year’s Sugar Bowl where he carved up Alabama, or will he throw ducks and grounders as he did in the spring game? Coach Bob Stoops needs his defense to man up while Knight finds a winning rhythm.
5 – Auburn – the Tigers were last season’s feel-good story. Rising from a miserable 2012, they made it to the cusp of a national title, and electrified the south with a stunning Iron Bowl win over Alabama. Coach Gus Malzahn will be challenged to repeat last year’s success, and the legal issues of quarterback Nick Marshall don’t help.
6 – Michigan State – Say it again: Offense wins game, and defense wins championships. And when you have both … the Spartans could very well be the second-best team in the country, and an advantageous schedule, including Ohio State and Michigan at home, could give them the edge to make it all the way. If they make it past Oregon in early September, there may be no stopping them.
7 – Alabama – I know, I know – Alabama not in the top 2, or even top 5? Never discount the genius of Nick Saban, but he has some major holes to fill this year, most notably at quarterback and inside linebacker, two positions very key to past Tide success. Plus, losses in their final two games last year are tough to forget. If, however, they get rolling (pardon the pun), the SEC could be theirs once again.
8 – Baylor – In just a few years, Baylor has been transformed from also-ran to flavor of the month to a legitimate national title contender. Coach Art Briles’ frenetic offense gets the credit, and despite losing some weapons, the attack will not slow down this year. Quarterback Bryce Petty runs it expertly, and the Bear defense is proving to be stout enough to shut down potent Big 12 offenses.
9 – UCLA – It used to be foolhardy to think of UCLA on the same level as cross-town rival USC. Not any more – now it’s the Trojans looking up. Coach Jim Mora has all the pieces in place, and those pieces believe in his NFL-based style and efficient game planning. Quarterback Brett Hundley and his Bruins teammates have brought the luster back to UCLA.
10 – LSU – this ranking aside, I expect LSU to finish high by the end of the season. Les Miles has re-loaded and stocked his team with talent at the skill positions, and I think he is weary of losing SEC titles to Alabama and Auburn. Once a fixture in the ‘best team in the country’ conversation, LSU will find a way back into that elite company this fall.
11 – South Carolina – The Gamecocks were able to overcome the loss of running back Marcus Lattimore two years ago; can they similarly replace Jadaveon Clowney and still field a top SEC defense?
12 – Wisconsin – For years, the offensive mantra at Wisconsin was a beefy offensive line and a power running game. New coach Gary Andersen switched that up last year, and while 2014 should see a more balanced attack, the running game will still be a staple, with Melvin Gordon looking to build a spectacular sophomore campaign when he ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns.
13 – Stanford – Each year, college football experts wait for Stanford to drop from the top 25. It hasn’t happened for half a decade, and it’s not going to happen this year, either. Talent, pride, and a dogged determination will give Coach David Shaw the ammunition he needs to motivate his team, and given the rise of talent among his Pac 12 competitors, he’ll need every bit of it.
14 – Arizona State – At the end of last season, Arizona State had the devil kicked out of them in the Holiday Bowl. This year, the defense is younger but faster, and the offense has two years of Graham’s innovative teachings on their side. Can the Sun Devils leap past USC and UCLA and fend off up-and coming Arizona in the Pac 12 south?
15 – Georgia – If you can’t beat ‘em, hire the guy that did beat ‘em. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off guiding the Florida State defense in stopping Auburn, will give the Bulldogs some new teeth and hopefully new toughness. Running back Todd Gurley will shoulder the load on offense while QB-in-perpetual-waiting Hutson Mason finds his legs.
16 – USC – Now that the Lane Kiffin experiment is over and calm has settled over the USC campus, it’s time to get back to football the way Trojan fans remember. New coach Steve Sarkisian comes home (he is a former USC offensive coordinator), and while trips to the Rose Bowl could be a few years away, the good ship Trojan will be righted as Sarkisian rebuilds depth, skill, and USC pride.
17 – Washington – First-year Coach Chris Petersen made a living out of doing more with less at Boise State. Can he do more with more now that he is truly in the big leagues? Washington had solid talent coming back, and with Petersen’s penchant for innovative play-calling, the Huskies are certain to be one of the most intriguing teams to watch this season.
18 – North Carolina – You heard it here first: Looking for a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate? Remember the name Ryan Switzer. The receiver and return specialist gives the Tar Heels a different dimension, and has the capability to significantly impact the game. The heels won’t catch Florida State, but a top 3 conference finish is well within reach.
Editor’s Note: The GolfBlogger and David Cline have been the best of friends since their days together as undergraduates in the Journalism School at West Virginia University in Morgantown. They also interned together at WVU’s Sports Information Department. Known as Mr. Bowlfest for his encyclopedic knowledge of college football, Cline wrote this piece at The GolfBlogger’s request. The GolfBlogger is grateful to Mr. Bowlfest for his contribution.