The bad: North Carolina and Boston College are saddled with two FCS games apiece, a fact that did not go unnoticed Thursday. There is a simple explanation: previously scheduled games fell through and both schools were left scrambling. North Carolina had initially scheduled Ohio State for 2015. The game was moved, then subsequently canceled when the Big Ten voted to play nine conference games. Two more factors were at play: the ACC reversed course on a nine-game league schedule when it agreed to a partnership with Notre Dame. North Carolina wanted to wait on that schedule rotation to see how it would shake out. While having two FCS teams on the schedule is far from ideal, North Carolina does play two power-five teams with Illinois and South Carolina. As for Boston College, New Mexico State recently backed out of a 2015 game against the Eagles because it overscheduled. That left a hole the Boston College had to fill on very short notice. So Howard was added. Nobody is running around throwing a party over the FCS opponents. Sometimes these dilemmas happen. (Remember when Florida State had to replace West Virginia with Savannah State?)
The ugly: Poor Syracuse. Not only do the Orange get LSU in nonconference play, they also have the toughest three-game conference stretch of anybody in the ACC: at Florida State, at Louisville and Clemson on three straight weekends spanning the end of October into November. Nobody else in the Atlantic has to face the division's top three teams consecutively. Miami also faces a tough three-game stretch in October that could make or break Coastal Division hopes: at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson. Nope, the Canes got no favors when they traded Louisville from the Atlantic for the Tigers. But there might not be anything uglier than the NC State nonconference schedule: Troy, Eastern Kentucky and then road games (yes, road games) against Old Dominion and South Alabama.
The byes: A 13-week scheduling window wreaked some havoc with the way the schedules were created because there was only space for one open week. ACC senior associate commissioner of football operations Michael Strickland had some good insight into how that was handled. Some teams are going to suffer more than others. Boston College has 10 straight games before its open date. Opening with the two FCS games might not serve as any consolation. Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech each have to play nine straight games to open the season; Florida State, Miami, Pitt and Clemson have to play nine straight games to end the season. The bye week is placed at an odd time for Clemson. The Tigers play Louisville on Thursday, Sept. 17 then go 15 days until they play again, Oct. 3 against Notre Dame. That is the longest regular-season layoff in school history.
The different: Friday night is the new weekday favorite in the ACC, with more announced dates than Thursday night, the former go-to spot. David Teel of the Daily Press has a great explainer piece on the topic, but it all comes down to television. The ACC will feature its top four teams from 2014 on either Thursday or Friday night this upcoming season. Strategery is definitely involved there.
The impossible: Once again, Virginia has the toughest schedule in the ACC, facing 10 teams that made bowl games in 2014. The move to overschedule is an interesting one, especially when you look at the nonconference scheduling models that NC State and Duke have followed. Both those programs have the worst nonconference schedules in 2015, choosing an easier route toward bowl eligibility. Last season, for example, Virginia was vastly improved, but still finished 5-7 with a backbreaking nonconference schedule. NC State finished 8-5 with a bowl victory, thanks to a cupcake nonconference schedule. NC State has scheduled up in the future to meet the requirement that ACC teams play at least one Power 5 opponent. But for right now, this schedule is hugely beneficial in the wins column. In the case of Virginia, the Hoos would be pleased if they make it out of their first four games against UCLA, Notre Dame, William & Mary and Boise State 2-2.
As former Virginia offensive lineman Luke Bowanko tweeted Thursday after the schedule was released:
If @UVa_Football wins out next year, they may have legitimate argument to play in the Super Bowl.— Luke Bowanko (@Lbow70) January 29, 2015
Last but not least: Indiana Hoosiers
Problem position: The secondary
Why the secondary was a problem in 2014: Honestly, we could have picked the entire defense as a problem spot for the Hoosiers. Again. Despite the hiring of a new defensive coordinator (Brian Knorr) and an infusion of more athletes on that side of the ball, Indiana once again struggled to stop anybody in the Big Ten. Knorr's unit gave up more passing yards per game (250) than anybody else in the conference, and opposing Big Ten quarterbacks completed 63.9 percent against the Hoosiers. That's an indictment on the lack of a pass rush up front and linebackers who can cover in space as well, but we'll focus on the defensive backs for these purposes.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Safety Mark Murphy and cornerback Tim Bennett, two of the leaders of the defense, used up their eligibility. Meanwhile, the team's other starting cornerback, Michael Hunter, decided not to return for his final year. That leaves the Hoosiers thin on experience going into 2015. Safety Antonio Allen, who was an important recruit for the Hoosiers, needs to continue to improve as a junior, and Chase Dutra likely joins him as a starter. Cornerbacks Rashard Fant and Donovan Clark saw action last fall as freshmen, and Kenny Mullen returns from an injury.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Hoosiers have a pair of safeties -- Jonathan Crawford and Tyler Green -- ready to sign next week, as well as several athlete types who could play either linebacker or defensive back. They could still be in the market for a late addition at corner.
Early 2015 outlook: There is talent on hand here. Allen and Fant, for example, are two of the top-rated recruits Kevin Wilson has signed. The defensive backfield roles are actually more settled than wide receiver, which is a worrisome area on the offense. Again, the secondary was by no means the only weak link in the defense. But until Indiana can figure out a way to strengthen every aspect of the defense and become competitive on that side of the ball in the Big Ten, we could be talking about the same problematic positions for the Hoosiers in 2015.
Position to improve: Linebacker
Why it was a problem: The Red Raiders didn’t have a dominating force in the middle of their defense. Sam Eguavoen (73) and Micah Awe (69) finished second and third in tackles for Tech yet neither guy was a unquestioned playmaker for a defense that allowed 259.5 rushing yards per game and 5.19 yards per carry. Arkansas dominating win in Lubbock in mid-September featured 438 rushing yards and was a early sign that the Red Raiders defense just wasn’t well-equipped to handle a strong running game and a lack of playmaking linebackers was a main culprit.
How it can be fixed: Awe is the Red Raiders' leading returning tackler at the position but Tech needs to add talent and depth at the position, which is losing several departed seniors including Eguavoen. Three-star linebacker D'Vonta Hinton is the lone linebacker on Tech’s commitment list so the answer will largely have to come from the players on campus. Thus, all eyes will be on Ohio State transfer Mike Mitchell, who has the pedigree and talent to slide into the Red Raiders defense and start transforming the linebacker spot after spending the past season on Tech's scout team defense. A member of the ESPN300 in the Class of 2013, Mitchell can make plays from sideline-to-sideline and could develop into the dominant force Kliff Kingsbury's defense has been searching for during his first two seasons in charge.
Early 2015 outlook: Mitchell brings plenty of hope to the position as he provides an immediate talent upgrade. Tech is losing a lot at linebacker, which means they could be even worse in 2015 but Mitchell brings a combination of talent, upside and excitement to the position. He could become the face of the linebacker corps in Lubbock but he will need help from Awe and the rest of the Red Raiders' linebackers to make the overall unit a more productive group.
Position to improve: Linebacker.
Why it was a problem: Depth was perhaps the biggest reason for the struggles because the Aggies ran thin on linebackers with actual SEC playing experience. One preseason dismissal (Darian Claiborne) and two early-season injuries (to A.J. Hilliard, for the season, and Shaan Washington, for the first three games) cut into the team's depth. During the first half of the 2014 campaign, the Aggies found themselves being ineffective at the position as well. After a 59-0 loss to Alabama, Texas A&M injected some youth into the lineup, giving starts to true freshmen Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker, both of whom looked promising in their time as starters. Overall, the Aggies still need all the experience they can get at the position. Texas A&M was last in the SEC in rushing defense in 2014 and linebacker play is a part of that.
How it can be fixed: Recruiting is one quick way to fix it and fortunately for the Aggies, they already have two linebacker recruits on campus. Junior college linebacker Claude George, the nation's fourth-ranked junior college outside linebacker, enrolled for the spring semester as did Cedar Hill (Texas) High School outside linebacker Richard Moore. Getting Hilliard back healthy next season will be huge: the TCU transfer was vying for a starting spot and has the ability to play all three positions in the Aggies' 4-3 alignment. Washington, who had a solid season, also returns. The Aggies have three more linebacker recruits in their 2015 class: three-star prospects Landis Durham, Riley Garner and Dwaine Thomas.
Early 2015 outlook: With a healthy returning quartet of Alaka, Hilliard, Walker and Washington, the Aggies have a group of players who have seen the field and are talented. Alaka's late season stretch was solid, including a good performance in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl where he won defensive MVP. Jordan Mastrogiovanni, who started the season at middle linebacker but struggled, also provides some experience and depth. Sprinkle in the early-enrollees, George and Moore, and the Aggies have a group of talented playmakers. The biggest asset here though comes from the sideline, not on the field: new Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis. In his more than two decades as an SEC defensive coordinator, Chavis oversaw the linebackers at Tennessee and LSU. It stands to reason his presence can help upgrade linebacker play in Aggieland.
Position to improve: The marquee spot: quarterback.
Why it was a problem: Cyler Miles didn't turn the ball over much (well, except for when he fumbled), but Washington truly struggled to threaten with consistent explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball. Only Utah featured a less productive aerial attack than the Huskies, who managed only 200.1 passing yards per game. Washington rarely mustered over seven yards per pass attempt against decent defenses -- heck, the Huskies even finished at a measly 3.3 yards per attempt against the best defense on their schedule (Stanford) -- and this obviously became a major source of frustration in Seattle.
How it can be fixed: On the stat sheet, Miles generated some improvement over the numbers he posted in limited action as Keith Price's backup in 2013. His completion percentage rose from 60.7 to 66.6, and he averaged 7.3 yards per attempt in 2014 compared to 6.9 in 2013. But the big picture still suggested that the Huskies' offense lacked the vitality necessary to be a serious contender in the Pac-12 North. That's why there are rumblings that freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels, who redshirted this past season, has a shot to start in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: We'll diligently monitor the quarterback competition in Seattle this offseason. The Huskies return top rushing threat Dwayne Washington, so next year's starter should be able to operate with the benefit of a credible rushing attack. Outside of that, it's wait-and-see time for Chris Petersen's program as he enters his second year at the helm, and the quarterback position looks to be the most essential piece of the puzzle moving forward.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: The reactions came swift after Michael Brewer led the Hokies to a road upset of Ohio State that the transfer quarterback was going to solve the QB issues in Blacksburg. However, that game was probably the highlight of Brewer’s season as the newcomer was up and down over the final 10 games. Brewer ranked eighth in the conference and 88th nationally in passer rating. The biggest issue for Brewer was ball security, as he threw 15 interceptions, many of which came in close losses. He threw two in a seven-point loss to ECU and three (and no touchdowns) in a three-point loss to Georgia Tech. With so many injuries, especially at running back, the Hokies needed Brewer to protect the football, and he did not do that, especially early in the season.
How it can be fixed: Before moving on to any other part of his game, the Hokies need to drill into Brewer’s mind how important the football is to an offense built on the back of a strong defense. It wasn’t just that Brewer was throwing interceptions, it’s that they came in bad situations and on poor decisions. Seasoning with the Virginia Tech coaches this offseason could help that, especially now that there should be some pressure off Brewer this fall with the offense getting healthy. The Hokies need to work on Brewer’s accuracy, too. Twice he finished with a completion percentage below 50 percent, and seven times he fell below 60 percent.
Early 2015 outlook: Brewer played well in spots last year, and he made several big plays when asked. Against Virginia, despite struggling all game long, Brewer orchestrated a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. So it’s not as if Brewer cannot get the job done. He’ll have the rest of his backfield with him, too, so he won’t be asked to do as much in his second year as the starter. And of course, the Hokies should be very good on defense once again, which could give Brewer short fields to work with. Virginia Tech can win with Brewer as long as he grows from the mistakes of a season ago.
"Byron has committed to eight schools in his mind since this process begun," said Woodrow Grady, Cowart's mentor and 7-on-7 coach. "There was Auburn, Florida, FSU, Alabama, Oregon and so on. Byron finds the best in every school. That's what he looks for. He's not looking for the speed traps. That's why he's been all over the place in where he may go."
Auburn and Florida are in a unique situation that could certainly have an effect on both of their recruiting classes. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn, and several top recruits from the state of Florida grew up Gators fans but have a great relationship with Muschamp. Here’s a closer look at how these two teams could finish.
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Position to improve: offensive line
Why it was a problem: It's not necessarily that the offensive line was a problem, but there were certainly growing pains up front. The group opened the season with two freshman starters (Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn) and started three in the final five games. To find the last time USC started a pair of freshmen on the offensive line in a season opener would require you look back to before World War II. With that much youth involved, it would have been unfair to expect much more than what USC got in 2014. That changes next year.
How it can be fixed: Get rid of the offensive line coach! Kidding, of course. With offensive line coach Tim Drevno off to Michigan to be Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator, USC remains without an offensive line coach. Whoever Steve Sarkisian hires as Drevno's replacement will be tasked with helping good players take the next step. It's a great situation as far as the talent the next O-line coach inherits, but the pressure will be high as the offensive line's development figures to play an important role in USC's ability to compete for a conference title and beyond.
Early 2015 outlook: With quarterback Cody Kessler and USC's usual stable of talented receivers returning, the offensive line is where there is the most room for improvement. Everyone that started a game will be back, including center Max Tuerk, who was voted the team's offensive lineman of the year. Left tackle Chad Wheeler, who started the first eight games before tearing his ACL, will be expected to regain his spot at left tackle, while right tackle Zach Banner will return after a strong sophomore year. However, with four freshmen that started games over the course of the season -- Lobendahn (13 starts), Viane Talamaivao (11 starts), Mama (four starts), Khaliel Rodgers (three starts) -- there is a strong potential for some shuffling.
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Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: Injuries and inexperience plagued the Hoos all season long. It started in the fall, when projected starting tackle Jay Whitmire injured his back, forcing him to miss all of 2014. Without Whitmire, Virginia had a combined 36 career starts entering the season, seventh-fewest among Power 5 schools. The injuries kept piling up: versatile Jackson Matteo was lost for the year against Kent State; tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju missed four games with injury; guard Ryan Doull started the first six games at left guard before missing five of the final six games. The Hoos ended up with five different starting offensive lines and struggled in the run game as a result, ranking No. 13 in the ACC in rushing offense. Backs averaged 3.7 yards per carry, fourth worst in the league. On the bright side, Virginia did well at pass protection despite the juggled lines, allowing just 16 sacks.
How it can be fixed: The hope, of course, is the Hoos stay healthy. The biggest hope of all is for Whitmire to return to form, but there are no guarantees that will happen at this point. But there should be a little more experience with this group in 2015. Six players with at least one start return. Virginia also has a new offensive line coach in Dave Borbely, in his second stint with the Hoos. His experience as run game coordinator in his last two stops should be a positive. The Hoos also have targeted offensive linemen on the recruiting trail, with four commitments so far.
Early 2015 outlook: Olanrewaju, Matteo and Doull are expected back and healthy. Virginia is keeping its fingers crossed on Whitmire. Starting guards Conner Davis and Cody Wallace are gone to graduation, but Burbank, tackles Michael Mooney, Jack English, Eric Smith and Sean Karl are back. Finding starters at guard, and backups, too, is paramount. Burbank, as one of the few seniors in the group, will also be expected to take the next step.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: Going into the 2013 season, Texas had the most experienced offensive line in the country. Just a few games into the 2014 season, Texas had perhaps the least experienced line in the country. Losing senior center Dominic Espinosa to a season-ending injury after one game was a devastating blow. The projected starting tackles, Desmond Harrison and Kennedy Estelle, were kicked off the team. What remained was a group that redefined the label "patchwork line."
Left tackle Marcus Hutchins had never started a game and was a reserve defensive tackle a year earlier. Five different players earned at least one start at right tackle. Taylor Doyle made his first-ever start at center in the Oklahoma game. Only one player -- left guard Sedrick Flowers -- held down the same job for the full season. In all, Texas tried six different offensive line combinations over 13 games and had the No. 94 rushing attack in FBS despite featuring two five-star running backs.
How it can be fixed: Addition and competition. Joe Wickline, hailed as one of the nation’s top offensive line coaches when he was hired away from Oklahoma State, must have been as frustrated as anyone by what he witnessed in 2014. He’s assembled a nice recruiting class which features several linemen who can help immediately. Juco transfer tackles Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson are on campus and will be given every opportunity to become starters. Two more freshmen have already enrolled, and ESPN 300 guard Patrick Vahe might be the best of the bunch. The newcomers must push the seven linemen with starting experience who are slated to return. Texas had no depth and few options last season. Every starting job is probably fair game.
Early 2015 outlook: Flowers, Doyle and guard/tackle Kent Perkins probably stand the best chance of retaining their spots this fall so long as they stay healthy. There will be pressure on Hodges and Nickelson this spring. They need to prove they can provide at least starter-caliber play. Then it’s all about finding out who raises their game. Can guys who were in and out of the lineup like Camrhon Hughes, Darius James and Jake Raulerson take a big step forward? Can Hutchins improve off 13 starts? There are a lot of question marks to be addressed over these next seven months.
So with all that talent, why did Tennessee finish No. 11 in the SEC in total offense? The easy answer is inexperience and more specifically, inexperience up front.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: Butch Jones knew the offensive line was going to be an issue in 2014. After all, he had to replace every starter from the year before, a group that featured first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James and three other players who made the NFL. The offensive line that Tennessee rolled out in the season opener against Utah State had zero combined starts between them. The inexperience showed. The Volunteers finished dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed (43) and tackles for loss allowed (101), and they struggled to create running room for Hurd, who averaged less than 4 yards per carry through the first eight games. The unit did improve as the season progressed, and finished on a strong note against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it will have to be even better in 2015 if this offense wants to take the next step.
How it can be fixed: More experience. It’s that simple. Tennessee allowed 20 sacks in the month of October, and just 10 in November. The players didn’t change. They just gained more experience and grew together as a unit. They were a different offensive line at the end of the season compared to where they were at the season opener. There also seemed to be a rise in production when Dobbs took over at quarterback. Maybe it’s easier to block for Dobbs because of his athleticism, or maybe there was extra motivation. Whatever it was, it should be there again next season when Dobbs is the full-time starter. This was never going to be an easy fix. It takes time. But a full year of experience, even if it wasn’t great, will help immensely in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: Unlike last season, Tennessee’s offensive line should look very familiar to fans next fall. Four starters return including All-SEC freshman Jashon Robertson, who started every game at right guard for the Vols last season. The only loss was senior right tackle Jacob Gilliam, but his backup, Coleman Thomas, played in 11 games and started five. Between Robertson, Coleman, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, and Kyler Kerbyson, Tennessee should have a pretty formidable line in 2015. It’s a group that not only has experience, but also has chemistry. However, after 23 true freshmen played last season, don’t rule out the possibility of a 2015 signee coming in and earning playing time. The most likely candidate is ESPN 300 offensive tackle Jack Jones, who will benefit from enrolling early.
Position to improve: Quarterback. Utah enjoyed a sack-happy defense and the Pac-12's third-most productive rushing attack behind Devontae Booker in 2014, but their passing attack languished in the conference cellar.
Why it was a problem: Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson, who both saw action under center for Utah, were far from impressive. Both completed about 60 percent of their passes, but Thompson really wasn't much of a threat to throw at all -- he averaged only 46 passing yards per game. Wilson threw much more frequently, but he also finished with a rather meager average (166.9 yards per game). Both quarterbacks did some damage with their legs, but they ultimately didn't pack the desired aerial punch necessary to make Utah's attack balanced. Despite Booker's massive 1,500-yard year, the Utes finished last in Pac-12 total offense. That simply shouldn't happen.
How it can be fixed: It looks like it'll be either Wilson or Thompson (coming off a leg injury) at quarterback next year, so Utah will have to see tangible improvement from either of those two when it comes to the downfield passing game. This will be tough, especially since top receiving target Kaelin Clay has exhausted his collegiate ability. The Utes would be best served to hire a new offensive coordinator with quarterback-developing experience soon. That position is still vacant following Dave Christensen's departure for Texas A&M, and it's likely a key toward boosting quarterback productivity next year.
Early 2015 outlook: At the very least, Utah fans can take solace in the fact that Wilson took solid care of the football in 2014: He threw 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions. But unless he develops into a more consistent aerial threat while throwing to new primary targets, the Utes will have to again rely heavily on that workhorse named Booker, who made his living after contact running against stacked boxes in 2014.