Mon, Aug 25, 2014
By Patrick Woo
The College Football Playoff is here, finally. Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon (or UCLA) have been the most-talked about contenders through talking-season.
Ohio State fell from the conversation when quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a shoulder injury that will put him out for the 2014 season -- a devastating blow for the Buckeyes. Miller will be replaced by redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
The team not talked about enough could be Michigan State. Its lone loss in 2013 was by four points to Notre Dame. The Spartans were on a tear in the second of half of the season and don't have any glowing weaknesses this year. And, it has a favorable Big 10 schedule that has its toughest challenge -- the Buckeyes -- visiting East Lansing.
Michigan State travels to Oregon on Sept. 6 for a huge showdown with playoff implications. Michigan State could go undefeated if it returns from Eugene with a victory.
The two mystery teams: Texas and Florida
Oklahoma is a strong favorite in the Big 12 and Texas beat them last season. The Longhorns were 30 minutes away from winning the Big 12 title before a second half collapse against Baylor. Now, Charlie Strong has taken over the program, cleaned house, raised the discipline bar, broke his team down and then quickly built them back up.
The defense is loaded with talent and Strong should help tremendously on that side of the ball as the Longhorns will be more physical and sharper on fundamentals. If quarterback David Ash stays healthy, Texas could surprise in 2014.
It could also go the other way if it takes time for Texas to adjust to Strong’s coaching style and the defense doesn’t rebound from being the worst-statistical defense in school history last season.
Last season, Florida lost 12 players who started at least one game to season-ending injuries. With all of those players back, Florida should be much better than 4-8 and needs to be to keep Will Muschamp in Gainesville.
Florida offensive lineman D.J. Humphries said that the skill position players on offense are the best he’s ever been around and with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (coming from Duke) and quarterback Jeff Driskel back, the Gators are going to be capable of putting up the points. The defense will be strong again after ranking eighth in the nation in total defense.
Alabama's Nick Saban may not have settled on a quarterback as on Monday, but several other teams have picked their starter.
Virginia Tech: Texas Tech-transfer Michael Brewer over Brendan Motley
Miami: true freshman Brad Kaaya over Kansas-transfer Jake Heaps
Wisconsin: Tanner McEvoy over Joel Stave
Tennessee: Justin Worley over Josh Dobbs
Texas A&M: Kenny Hill over Kyle Allen
Vanderbilt: Patton Robinette over Stephen Rivers and Johnny McCrary
The college football season kicks off Thursday night with Texas A&M visiting South Carolina in a battle of top-20 teams. The two schools combine for nine players on the Reese’s Senior Bowl watch list, but features two of the top NFL prospects at their respective positions: tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard A.J. Cann.
“Ogbuehi is making the familiar transition from right tackle to left tackle, just like Jake Matthews did in 2013,” Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage said. Ogbuehi will be protecting the blind side for new quarterback Kenny Hill, who will be making his first career start.
South Carolina is replacing all-time wins leader at quarterback, Connor Shaw, but boasts the best offensive line in the SEC, a strong running game and playmakers at receiver for Dylan Thompson. Among that offensive line is Cann at left guard.
“Cann anchors one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country,” Savage said as he notes the Gamecocks front has started a combined 113 career games, which is tied with Auburn for 111th most in the nation.
It will be the first ever meeting between these two schools featuring life without Johnny Manziel and a new-look South Carolina defense. Steve Spurrier is 7-0 in Thursday night openers at South Carolina.
Boise State finished 8-5 in 2013, its worst season since 1998. Coach Chris Petersen has since left for Washington and former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin returns home.
The Broncos are on the national stage to open season again and have some notable wins in the past over Virginia Tech and Georgia in neutral sites while being the underdog.
Ole Miss is adjusting to being the favorite in a high-profile game and returns 16 starters from a team that’s ready to make noise in the SEC West.
Part of the strong core Ole Miss returns is senior quarterback Bo Wallace, who is on the watch list for the Senior Bowl.
“Wallace cut his interceptions down from 17 to 10 last year,” Savage said. “He needs to continue on that track in 2014.”
There’s also a key defensive player to keep an eye on.
“I’m really interested to see safety Cody Prewitt in action,” Savage said. Prewitt has totaled 183 tackles, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and nine interceptions in his career.
“The Mountaineers have experience at quarterback with Clint Trickett and an array of talented skill athletes,” said Savage, who has studied film on West Virginia this week to prepare for his role as Alabama radio’s color analyst. “They can definitely pose some matchup problems on the perimeter for the Tide.”
Alabama's defense gave up 45 points to close the 2013 season against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the most in the Nick Saban era. Alabama's defensive secondary, which has produced a first round draft pick each of the last three years, is a question mark coming into the season. Junior cornerbacks Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones will start on the edges for the Tide on Saturday.
The bigger question is at quarterback. Saban has been in no hurry to name the starter between Florida State-transfer Jacob Coker and fifth-year senior Blake Sims.
Savage said, “we will definitely see both Sims and Coker vs. WVU. They have split reps throughout the summer and into training camp, and they may even do it for the next several games,” indicating that the Alabama quarterback battle could go into the game against Florida.
Clemson leads the Senior Bowl watch list with 12 players, has big game at Georgia to open
Clemson has to replace Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant but bring back a deep and experienced group that landed 12 players on the Senior Bowl watch list.
On the other side, Georgia has to replace quarterback Aaron Murray, who was in Mobile last January, and does so with a fifth-year senior surrounded by playmakers at the skill positions. The Bulldogs landed eight players on the Senior Bowl watch list, including three wide receivers.
Savage said he is most interested in seeing the two fifth-year quarterbacks, Clemson’s Cole Stoudt and Georgia’s Hutson Mason, make their season-opening debuts.
Both are underrated prospects for the 2015 Reese’s Senior Bowl, especially Stoudt who has giant shoes to fill but completed over 70 percent of his passes in his backup role.
“Stoudt stands 6-foot-5 and has a big arm,” said Savage, who saw the Tigers signal caller in-person visiting Clemson’s fall camp.
No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU
Wisconsin and LSU will both have new quarterbacks and strong running games. Can Wisconsin replace Chris Borland and other pieces on defense and find a go-to receiver? Can LSU’s young defense contain Melvin Gordon?
No. 1 Florida State vs. Oklahoma State
Florida State begins its run for a repeat national championship in Arlington.
Miami at Louisville
Will Gardner takes over at Louisville for Teddy Bridgewater, but the Cardinals lost star receiver DeVante Parker for six weeks with a foot injury. Charlie Strong didn’t leave the cupboard bare at Louisville though, and Miami will be starting true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya against Louisville’s fierce defense.
Penn State vs. UCF
The Croke Park Classic in Ireland will go on as planned despite rumblings of a volcano disrupting the action. UCF returns nine starters from a stingy defense and Penn State has to find a solution up front to protect Christian Hackenberg.
No. 7 UCLA at Virginia
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley begins his Heisman campaign against an improved Virginia defense and going across the country is never easy.